Interview: Gareth Emery

It wasn’t overnight success for UK trance DJ-producer Gareth Emery when he scored the #9 spot on DJ Mag‘s Top 100 DJs Poll last year. Banging around in a rock band in the mid-90s, he fell in love with dance music after hitting up Ibiza in 1998. Nowadays, he spins at some of the most renowned international events such as Global Gathering, Dance Valley and Godskitchen, to name a few. At only 29, Gareth helms his own night and label called Garuda, and in September celebrated the release of his debut album Northern Lights. We catch up with the looker to talk about his whirlwind year.

How’s your year going so far and are you pleased to have the album finished?
It’s been an amazing year, but also a tough one. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life as I’ve toured more than ever before but also made my album from beginning to end in the 1st six months of the year. Between January and July I only had 2-3 days each week back home, so I really had to prioritise that time. That meant locking myself away in the studio for virtually every moment I had at home, with everything that I could do elsewhere being done on flights and in hotel rooms, whether it was downloading new music, answering emails, interviews, dealing with my bank or whatever. It didn’t help that I was also buying a house at the same time. Now that it’s all over, it actually feels quite bizarre. You know…the album’s finished, I’ve moved into my new place and all of a sudden I have free time again. I’m not used to it.

As an extremely in-demand remixer with many productions to your name, was it a conscious decision to get an album out at this point in your career?
I suppose it was mainly because I like to do something different each year. I get bored quite easily so if I find myself doing the same stuff 2 years in a row, I’ll lose interest. I just need new challenges, I guess. In 2009 we set up my new Garuda record label, which is now going great, and also did really well with our Garuda club nights at Sankeys where we sold out with every event we did, plus I remixed for the likes of Armin van Buren, Above & Beyond and more. At the start of 2010, I had a few weeks off in January to contemplate the year ahead and ask myself whether I wanted to carry on doing the same stuff or go and try something I hadn’t done before, and an artist album was the logical answer-although I wasn’t sure at the time if it was actually possible. The hardest thing was people thinking I was having a lazy year doing nothing, as I didn’t want to announce I was working on an album until I knew I’d definitely manage to deliver it. So in May or June a lot of people were saying, “What on earth has Emery been doing this year? Maybe he can’t handle DJing so much because he hasn’t made a track for 6 months.” Then on one glorious day in July I was able to say, “I’ve been working on my album; it’s finished and here’s a video of the 1st single,” and it was a massive weight off my shoulders.

You’re classically trained in the piano. What role did this have on the way you approached writing the album?
Classical training is both a curse and a blessing. On one level it’s incredibly useful to know about chords, notes, structures, etc, and it makes it a lot easier to get the ideas in your head onto the computer. But it also teaches you to do things by the book, so when you’re looking to get outside of your comfort zone and do something truly different, a classical training isn’t the best preparation. I found I had to actually un-learn some of the stuff I’d been taught and be a bit more random in order to stop relying on tried and tested ways of doing things, and quite a lot of other producers who’ve had that classical training have told me the same.

You’ve included many new talents on Northern Lights, which is a rather refreshing approach to featuring guest vocals. Was that a conscious decision?
I just wanted the album to be as fresh and unique as possible. Not just tracks people hadn’t heard, but vocalists they’d never heard of either. To be honest, if I hadn’t been lucky enough to find such good vocalists, I might’ve scrapped this idea and resorted to the tried and tested names. But we got such good results with Lucy, Roxanne and Mark that I’m really pleased we took this route. The reasons were 2-fold: firstly, I wanted to introduce new people and 2ndly, as much as I love some of the tried and tested names, I just don’t find them that exciting. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but it’s how I feel. I didn’t want to work on an album that sounded different to everyone else’s to only then go and fill it with the same vocal names we’ve heard countless times.

Is it fair to say that the “Gareth Emery sound” is more of a collection of genres and styles than one in particular?
That’s definitely true. I’m not quite sure what the “GE sound” is, but other people seem to be able to identify it quite well despite the fact it spans a lot of genres and styles. The nice thing now is that most people who come and see me play know that it’s going to be quite varied, so they don’t come expecting a straight-up set of one style only. I love meeting fans of mine who don’t really consider themselves trance fans. They like all sorts of music and might be seeing me one week, then Swedish House Mafia the next, then Loco Dice the week after. It’s proper open-mindedness, especially amongst the younger generation who’s ignored the old genre divides and stupid rules that you can only be into one style. They just go and see who they like and it’s great. So yeah, there are a lot of different styles on the album, but I don’t think this will surprise anyone who knows a bit about me.

Your DJ sets always blur the lines between electronic styles like trance, techno and house. Are there other genres that you personally love and would consider including as well?
In dance genres I also really like jungle-particularly Sub Focus, John B-type stuff-some good dubstep, and I also love downtempo electronic: Kruder & Dorfmeister, Thievery Corporation, Tosca…that sort of stuff. You won’t find these styles on the album though, because that’s not what I do well. I could try and make a jungle or dubstep track, but it’s not my area of expertise and it’d most likely end up sounding like a distantly poor man’s version of the real thing, so I haven’t tried. I hate it when electronic artists include tracks on their albums in genres they don’t know much about to try and be diverse for the sake of it, because it almost never works. House, progressive, trance and techno: that’s what I play, that’s what I know how to make so that’s what’s on my album. If I felt I could make a track in other styles that was as well made and current as the guys doing it properly, then I would, or more likely, I’d rope one of them in for a collaboration.

You were one of the youngest DJs to enter DJ Mag‘s Top 100 DJs Poll. How did you feel about being in the top 10?
2009 was the year it all happened, really. I played over 100 gigs, which was over twice as many as the year before, including a lot of big festivals. I also put in some high profile remixes and had some pretty big club tracks like ‘Exposure’ and ‘Metropolis’, which you’re still hearing in people’s sets over a year on. It seemed like everything just exploded in that year and all of a sudden, for a lot of people, I went from being someone whom they’d heard of but didn’t know a lot about to a serious contender whom they’d go out of their way to see. Entering DJ Mag‘s Top 100 at the age of 29 was still very unexpected though. I try not to take any poll too seriously-as they’re all popularity rather than talent contests-but it’s certainly nice when so many people vote for you.

Your Top100 DJs Poll placing is testament to your massive fan base. How important is it to engage your followers, and what roles do Facebook and Twitter play in your success as both a DJ and producer?
It’s important to be engaged and in touch with people, and both Twitter and Facebook are great for that so I’m fairly active on both. You have to be careful though as it’s quite easy to go too far, particularly on Twitter where frequent posting is encouraged and you end up posting every little bit of crap that pops into your head. You can come across as a real self-absorbed dick. So unless something exceptional is going on, I try and keep Twitter to a few tweets a day. I don’t need to tell 15,000 people I’m f*cked off because someone in a supermarket queue in front of me is going slow. I’ve got more friends on Facebook-about 125,000 I think-so we tend to keep it to vital updates and not barrage people too much.

And the definitive question: is it better to be a DJ or a producer?
They’re both great in different ways. DJing is more instantly enjoyable, more of an immediate buzz because playing to thousands of screaming people is obviously more fun than sitting in a dark studio listening to a hi-hat for the 100th time, trying to work out why it’s not sitting in your mix quite right. But once a gig’s over, that’s it-it’s quite short-lived. On the other hand, when you get it right as a producer and make something amazing, finishing it is only the beginning and the joy you get from that record lives on for years or even decades. You need both.

Your tours always include many exotic locations. Do you often collect ideas from your travels and translate them into a production or piece of music?
Generally I don’t collect ideas when on tour, but I’ll often write music knowing it’s going to work in a particular context. I was in Bratislava in April playing a huge arena as a guest on Armin’s 450th radio show and realised the night before I didn’t have anything good to start with. So on a moment of inspiration, I wrote a track in 2 hours purely to have something big and exclusive to start my set with. The track ended up going down really well with a lot of people asking for its name from YouTube, so I went back to it, gave it substantial polish, added some new elements and it ended up on the album as ‘Arrival’. It’s definitely one of my favourite tracks on there.

How do you see trance evolving and has it evolved since you started?
It’s changed a lot over the past 10 years-in some ways for the worse-but I prefer to focus on how it has changed for the better. Trance is a massively global scene and musically, it’s as diverse as it’s ever been. Of course, you’ve still got the dinosaurs who don’t want to hear anything but cheesy, 140BPM, super-synth stuff circa 2000 in the same way you’ve got closed-minded people throughout the scene who think anything labelled “trance” sounds like that. But fortunately, both kinds seem to be a dying breed.

For anyone that doesn’t know Gareth Emery, give us 3 words to sum you up.
Perfectionist, musical, nice (mostly).

The future for Gareth Emery is…
To keep doing this for a job as long as I can, and to stay happy and healthy.

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