For: The Parklife Weekender/The Independent Online
Having been a fixture on the drum ‘n’ bass scene since the late 1990s DJ Fresh’s reputation has grown immeasurably in recent years, with the release of his third album ‘Nextlevelism’ last year spawning five chart-topping singles, including ‘Louder’ with Sian Evans and the Rita Ora-featuring ‘Hot Right Now’. Developing a huge live band to accommodate his biggest bookings to date, Fresh’s stage show has become one of the biggest and best in live dance music. Fresh returns to the festival circuit this summer, stopping off at Sunday of Parklife 2013 to headine The Ape Parklife Beatdown arena.
Whereabouts are you now, back in the UK?
Yeah, I’m just at home. Got home this morning.
You’ve just returned from doing DJ dates in America, right? How was that, considering you’ve mostly been doing live shows recently?
Yeah, I was doing two festivals in New York as a DJ show. It was great, I’ve really missed it to be honest. We just decided to get back in the studio and not to do any gigs really, and just sit in the studio and make some new music so that’s been really great. It’s also really good with the sun coming out, the idea of going back out and playing some festivals and getting in front of some crowds again. I’ve missed that.
So while you’re working on new material, you’re focusing mostly on DJ appearances than full band shows?
Yeah, pretty much. The band now involves twelve or thirteen people and it’s a massive production to move around. It’s not something that makes sense for every stage or every gig and obviously being from a DJ background, it being part of what I do, I’m always going to be DJing as well. It’s good to mix and match both really, depending on what suitable for what kind of show and what kind of stage, really.
What was your experience like of touring the album? Nextlevelism was a big turning point for your public profile, it must have been a big step up in terms of the audiences and the sizes of the shows.
Yeah, big time. I’ve been playing for a really different audience compared to what I was playing to years ago when I used to play pretty much 90% drum ‘n’ bass, up until about five years ago. I suppose that phenomenon of playing quite different audiences has really changed my relation as a performer, in terms of what I play, what styles of music I play. It’s given me the opportunity to play stuff that before I never really felt comfortable playing, because at that point I appealed to a pretty hardcore audience.
Even though I’d been experimenting with making a few breaks things, and house tracks, bits and bobs, I’d never done enough of that to justify playing much more than just drum ‘n’ bass and dubstep. Whereas now, people turn up at my shows and they know me for the tracks that I’ve played and they don’t really necessarily expect me to play anything apart from those tracks, which allows me to play whatever I want, which is amazing as a DJ. Especially at the moment, when people are quite open-minded and like a bit of everything. When I was growing up, you were either into one thing or another and you’d be quite guarded about the sort of music you were into. That’s changed a lot and it’s great being able to play within that new world of open-mindedness.
Do you think it’s the case then that there wouldn’t have been the open-minded crowd to accept you changing from one style to another?
Yeah, I think so. Drum ‘n’ Bass is always particularly… it takes itself quite seriously and was always quite guarded about its producers not doing anything apart from drum ‘n’ bass. I remember when DJ Zinc made ‘138 Trek’, which is a massive breaks track that had a massive impact on the breaks scene, and he got really gunned by a lot of the drum ‘n’ bass people at the time for doing something that wasn’t drum ‘n’ bass. Now it’s so different – you’ve got people like Spor, who’s become Feed Me…
Zinc’s the perfect example of the drum ‘n’ bass act who’s developed his sound into something completely different.
Yeah, exactly. That sort of stereotype has changed a lot and I think people now expect you to do more than one thing. It’s seen as a sign of someone’s talent to be able to apply their sound and talent to more than one genre and to be respected and credible in lots of different genres. That’s seen as being impressive now, which it is because it’s very different making a house track to a drum ‘n’ bass track particularly. As an artist, it’s much more interesting to go into the studio when you’re feeling creative and just make what you want to make, as opposed to feeling limited to just doing one thing all the time.
Tell me a little bit about your relationship with different labels. You’ve released material most recently with Ministry Of Sound, but also with RAM and also through your own label Breakbeat Kaos. Are you still working on new acts with Breakbeat?
I’ve kind of taken a bit of a step back with Breakbeat Kaos, both because it’s much more difficult now to sell records than it was when we first started. We wee generally a lot more fussy about what we released – really memorable, massive tracks – and even before when I had my label with the Bad Company guys, we wouldn’t just throw anything out. It had to be a memorable tune at least to us, for us to release it.
With Breakbeat Kaos, the big change is that we started to put a lot more behind the tracks in terms of spending a lot more money doing videos, doing radio promotion. We wanted to be part of breaking drum ‘n’ bass out of this poorly-promoted way that most records were released. There were a few labels like Moving Shadow and Metalheadz, and later RAM and Hospital that started promoting records more seriously and that was very much what we were wanting to do. When record sales really started to slow down, it was becoming a bit more of a nightmare. Nobody wanted to sign a long-term deal to one of the crossover labels because they wanted to be free to do what Chase and Status, Sub Focus and Pendulum have done and sign for a major if they got the opportunity. On top of that, a lot of people were starting a lot of money in terms of the overheads of a label putting your record out so we were all, as labels, trying to sign people to album deals and with them wanting to keep their options open, it started to become a really difficult world for an underground label.
And then around the same time, things started really taking off for me with [early single] ‘Gold Dust’ and other things I was doing myself and I figured it was maybe time for me to focus on my music instead of trying to do lots of things at the same time.
Do you think it’s something you’ll pick up again in the future?
Yeah, I’d like to. I always bump into amazing new talent, in terms of producers and singers and writers, all kinds of people, and it always has been a really fulfilling and great thing to be able to take someone who no-one else has heard of and be part of creating a career for them, helping them flourish. It’s still something I’d definitely love to do but at the moment I’m so busy with doing my stuff and producing for other people and touring, it’s just difficult really to find the time to be a sounding board for lots of other artists.
How are things going in the studio at the moment?
It’s been really good, man. I’ve done tons and tons of stuff and I’ve got maybe fifteen or sixteen different ideas that potentially could be singles. I’ve been working with lots of different people on lots of different ideas and it’s been really great, I’ve been really enjoying it. It’s always like a duality of being a DJ and being a producer – if I do too much of one without doing the other, I start to really miss the other one. So recently, I’ve started to really miss being out performing, but then towards the end of last year when I was performing shitloads and had no time to go in the studio, I was starting to go a bit mad for wanting to go in the studio a lot more. I always used to see people like Roni Size do half the year DJing and half the year in the studio, and I always used to think at the time, ‘How can you handle spending six months without DJing?’. But I think it’s really the only way you can do it – you have to plan your time and set aside time specifically to be in one mindset or the other.
I always notice when you go on Last.FM, for example, and you go on my artist page, it always has a bit at the bottom when it says whether the artist is on tour and what their tour dates are. For the drum ‘n’ bass guys particularly, including myself, it just always says ‘On Tour’ because we’re always doing shows. I think that really emphasizes how unusual it is because the fact that there’s an option on Last.FM for a person to be ‘On Tour’ or not suggests that it’s largely the case for the people that they’re either on tour or not. Whereas the electronic guys are perpetually on tour, all through the year. It can be difficult if you’re busy, if you’re lucky enough to be really busy, to find time to go in the studio to create the thing that creates the demand for you to be out there on tour in the first place!
You’ve got festival season coming up, which obviously includes a live set at Parklife. How are you feeling about coming back to Manchester and headlining an arena at Parklife with a live set?
I’m really looking forward to it. We decided at the end of last year that we were only going to do the full live show for big gigs on big stages where we could really make the most out of what we were doing with the band. We’re only doing a few shows as the live band this year and Parklife is one of the ones we’re really excited about doing live after last year. We’ve always had a really good following since we started the band up in Manchester, so it’s always been a great place to go and play. I’ve got a lot of friends who came up when we played Parklife last year, too. We’re really looking forward to it!