Seth Troxler on growing up in Detroit and the art of DJing
5th Feb 2014 | 12:00
"If you're playing a good record from start to finish you don't need to add loads of tricks and effects to keep people interested"
Seth Troxler was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, yet grew up in Detroit suburbia, and it was his godfather that sparked his interest in the House music scene when he was aged just eight.
In the wake of techno's invention, Troxler got a job as a clerk at renowned record store Melodies and Memories at Eastpointe MI, where he rubbed shoulders with Techno/House DJ greats such as Theo Parish and Terence Parker.
Looking for his big break, Troxler relocated to Berlin with Detroit buddies Ryan Crosson and Shaun Reeves, the trio later creating Visionquest, which now has a reputation for being one of the most innovative and exciting labels to come out of Detroit city in a generation. Indeed, Visionquest parties at the Old Miami have become a highlight of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival since its conception in 2006.
Troxler, meanwhile, played an astonishing 158 gigs throughout 2012, and his eclectic sets continue to wow partygoers at residencies all around the globe.
Your parents were involved in house music. Is that where your interest stems from?
"Completely, my parents were really into house music and dance culture. My stepdad had a radio show and used to do these club nights focused on R'n'B, hip-hop and a bit of house.
"I started listening to that music so young, seven or eight, and then we moved to the suburbs of Detroit when I was 13 and I went to this rave party and heard the music in a context that I'd never really imagined. At that point I became a lifer."
"I often joke that DJing or electronic music culture is kind of like a country club, a boy's club."
The media often compares Detroit to a zombie apocalypse. How was it for you?
"Yeah, I mean it's a bit like that [laughs]. It's kind of cool that it's got some media attention and right now things are changing for the better.
"There's a lot of different people moving to the city and trying to create new projects and initiatives to better the city. A lot of abandoned buildings have now been turned into artist communes where painters are able to rent huge studios for $200 a month.
"It happened in Berlin and New York in the '80s. What creates an artistic hub is the idea of cheap rent and cool artists being able to go somewhere and create and not have to hustle as much.
"I think that, in many ways, that's why so much good music comes out of Detroit, because even if you make a meagre earning from doing music you can still survive - it was an amazing place to grow up."
What were your strongest influences?
"The biggest influence I had there was working at this really incredible record store called Melodies and Memories, and being able to be around all my Detroit classic heroes who would come in and tell me stories.
"Having their influence on me has been the hallmark of my career - the backbone of my musical education. Growing up in Detroit and being into electronic music or DJ culture is never like this idealised, fantasy version that kids have today. There's a history and lineage but it's really serious, everyone's so serious about the music. "
When did it become real for you?
"It wasn't until I was about 17 and came over to Europe to see Matt Dear play at Sonar. He went to the same high school as me and when I got into electronic music I'd go play at his night 'Goodnight Gracie' - a local bar for 150 people.
"When I came over to Sonar he was playing on the main stage in front of 10,000 people and it hit me, 'oh my god, this is real', whereas until that point it was just a hobby, my passion. It was never, 'this could be my career, my life', which I think in many ways was cool because it let me do it for the right reasons - for the love of the music rather than the idea of becoming some successful superstar DJ."
Is that why you moved to Berlin?
"We'd been going every summer so I already had loads of friends there, loads of Detroit ex-pats. I finished university and was like, 'what's next?'
"My mate Ryan was working for his dad and Lee was selling used cars, so we thought, 'fuck it, let's go over there and try to make a life out of this'.
"My aspirations then were just to be able to eat [laughs]. I loved playing records and was making loads of music and thought I'd be able to survive doing this. Although for a long time we couldn't - there was just the three of us sleeping on a futon, eating doner kebabs everyday and pooling our coins.
"There comes a point when you're cuddled up next to your friend a few too many mornings with his arm around you and his beard on your neck."
Did DJing come easy to you?
"Basically all I did during high school was smoke joints and play records - literally every single day for about eight or nine hours from the moment I got home from school to the moment I went to bed.
"I guess it comes down to that whole idea about '10,000 hours'. They say it takes 10,000 hours for you to reach a point where you become a professional at something. I think at some point I crossed that mark and it became natural to me.
"It wasn't until a friend of mine said, 'yo, just listen to the claps; if the claps match then the beat will match', and forever after that's been how I mix. A lot of people mix at the kick, but the kick is too hard to determine if it's perfect. Sonically, it's how the claps go through the mix that makes it easy to see if it's perfectly aligned, so that became my ethos in learning how to DJ."
You're one of the few DJs with a big personality. Do you think that's helped to set you apart?
"Yeah, it would be a lie to say that my personality hasn't been a huge help to me. Even in Visionquest, we're four friends who all play the same music, but I think what sets me apart is the fact that I'm a bit more outgoing, which is big in the music industry today.
"With success it's like 60% talent, maybe 20% luck and then 20% being at the right place at the right time. There are so many artists that have been passed by - even though, on paper, they're the most incredibly talented artists, they don't have the social skills to take it outside of the bedroom."
Is making connections a big part of it?
"I often joke that DJing or electronic music culture is kind of like a country club, a boy's club. You come in, start to do some stuff and then your name gets thrown around and everyone gives these people the up-down. 'Oh that guy's cool, let's get him in the club', whereas with other people it's like, 'This guy's a dick', they're really arrogant and their careers fold fast because no one wants to support that.
"The Martinez Brothers, for example, are the greatest example of everything that's right with electronic music. They're 21 and 25, great to be around, have an amazing story and are outgoing, nice, amazing people, so you want to do everything in your power to help them along the way.
"It's not even like you're trying to get somewhere by helping them. Some people feel entitled, and I think you should never feel entitled for anything you get in this life."
What's your biggest strength as a DJ?
"I think, surprise, that musically I'm quite an in-depth person. On the one side I'm fun and games, but the only thing I really take seriously is music; it's something that I'm obsessive about.
"Timing is everything, a mix or whatever is about being able to see the emotion in a crowd, connect, and then play the right thing at the right time."
I presume you grew up with vinyl; do you still hanker for those days?
"I still play vinyl, and CD - but mostly vinyl. I only actually learned how to use the CDs about four or five months ago. Before I was using vinyl on Traktor but was getting bored with it and went back, but vinyl wasn't working all the time.
"I had a really big No 1 last year and came out of the gigs and festivals this year, but changing over was very difficult because I couldn't wrap my head around how to work this digital machine like it was a turntable.
"Through some time and technique I finally got it, but for a few months I was playing at huge festivals looking like an idiot [laughs], trying to play off a CD and messing up mixes and stuff."
How frightening was that?
"Extremely frightening, because the one thing about this industry is that things are extremely fickle. When you're doing well everything is great but, like everything today, everyone is so quick to criticise the work that you're doing. So if you play a few bad shows in a row then next year's not going to be looking so good, and that's difficult having spent your life having this dream that you've ruined in a year.
"Now I love the CDJs, I'm so into it. Technically it's easier to play a CD than a record; how it sticks, I can mix longer and I've really connected to it now. I'm at this point where I'm feeling so comfortable with the music it's actually taken my DJing to another level.
"I think there's a difference between looking at a computer and mixing with CDs and turntables; your connection with the music and how you mix is a lot more fluid, a lot more intentional rather than relying on loops and effects to make your point. It's much more back to the traditional technique of what DJing is rather than the current trend."
In what way are things different now?
"They don't make records like they used to [laughs]. Now people are so quick to jump on a trend rather than make music that's honest, and I'm getting tired of that.
"Everyone plays the same shit - repetitive tech house stuff, and it just lacks the soul that music used to have. Also, when music is made on machines everything is so different - even the swing of the track, the whole vibe.
"I guess the times are different and the experiences the people were having were completely different, so it's nice to be able to collect ideas from the past. By collecting old records you are collecting experiences from the past and presenting those in today's times.
"There used to be proper hits. I was listening to this track the other day; we were playing it in the car, Kings of Tomorrow - Finally. Even though it's like a guilty pleasure, when that track came out it was like 'this is a hit!' A couple of years ago the track of the summer was Party Non Stop, which was a joke; there was no content and I want that content to come back."
As with most genres, the music initially has this honesty about it, then the money comes in...
"That's exactly the point, that's the biggest correlation. Even the earliest rock, Muddy Waters, all those people, it was the purest of art forms and then money, gentrification starts to come in, especially right now where there's big money, corporate interest comes in.
"Look what happened with hip-hop - they moved to Gangsta Rap for sales and it's like shit now. Hopefully the same thing doesn't happen to the new popularisation of electronic music.
"A lot of the really abstract underground stuff hasn't been touched and is protected in a way, but even that's starting to blend over. Warp still put out freak-out records; a small niche community.
"I remember when I was in Detroit, Milles Plateaux and the Kompakt Pop ambient stuff, Wolfgang Voigt - this was cool, minimalist and abstract. Micro sampling had just started to happen and it was culturally an art thing rather than a party thing.
"The band Adult - it's electro, but it's based on art, more concept-based, not just, 'let's makes something disposable, the new tune of today'.
"I mean I've read Future Music and it gave me so many of my own tools on how to be a producer. It's invaluable, but at the same time, some of the focus is on, 'this is the new hit song - this is how you can do it', which is amazing because you can use it in your own way. But so many people don't use it in their own way and just try to mimic music, which creates trends.
"People need to take time to get involved in the scene and the culture then make some music from that. Or just believe in yourself and make some music; figure out what comes out of you."
How many more tracks will you carry on a set than you initially plan to use?
"Well I normally carry three record bags and then five or six USB sticks, one is 64GB, a couple of 16s and some other stuff, so, generally a lot of music, because I'm playing so many gigs in so many different scenarios.
"Some people have everything pre-programmed and play the same set literally every single night, or people on the other side who are underground or genre-specific, like Richie Hawtin - if you go to see that you know exactly what you're going to get. Whereas with me, I play so many different shows and I'm quite a moody person, so you'll have no clue what I'm going to play that day - it might be some rave, might be disco or I might just sit around and play lounge house.
"The other day I was playing The Cure during London Fashion Week, and German post punk. I'm a music collector first and foremost, that's my real passion, collecting experiences.
"I remember when I was a kid I used to really get off on collecting old records and thinking of the people that had that record before me and the experience they'd had. Sometimes they had inscriptions, like 'To Julie', and I used to think 'why did Julie get this?' I'd look for these connections with people; I'd lie on my bed and look at the cover and create these absurd fantasies in my mind, smoking weed and listening with the headphones on.
"So with me, I carry a lot of music and never know what experience I'm going to get myself into. I try to pack for every occasion all the time, which ends up being a lot of weight and extra luggage, but I'm never in that moment of 'where the fuck is that record?'
"The worst is when you have 11,000 songs on your computer and the only thing you want to listen to is a record that's at your house in London."
So what do you use on the road - whatever's at the venue or your own CDJ?
"Everything's down to the venue, so I use two CDJs that the venue provides. I like the new Technics with the plus 16. My rider is very specific. I use Allen & Heath XO92, two Technics turntables and two CDJs.
"I was given this other new Xone:DB4 and it's cool but it's not the same for me; too much going on. I don't think you really need all these effects, it's really about the content of the song. If you're playing a good record from start to finish you don't need to add loads of tricks and effects to keep people interested."
How quickly into a set can you read a crowd?
"Pretty fast. It's one of my biggest talents, going into a room and figuring out what's going on. It's also one of the upsides of carrying so much music.
"Sometimes I look at the people and realise they're not so clued up so I play some really obvious club tracks, because at the end of the day it's also my job. It's not my job to educate people every night; people are paying to go out and have a good time.
"Especially in financially hard times, I think it's even more important to create an experience for those people. I want people to go home satisfied. My girlfriend says I have a tendency to please strangers, like I need a nod of approval. I never thought about that myself - it's quite a heavy thought."
Do you do a lot of live editing?
"I just stack records. If you programme records right and just count the bar structure of the music then, generally, they do the work for you.
"The real beauty of mixing is when the records create these new structures and rhythms. I'm trying to program and time the music so everything hits at the right places. I don't think you really need more than that, but we're moving into a different time where electronic music is becoming more commercial and things are very stage-focused, which I don't agree with so much.
"I don't like the idea that people are constantly staring at one focal point like a concert set-up rather than the classic club set-up where there's a DJ somewhere in the room that you don't really know. Just getting your vibe hearing stuff on the floor is what is cool to me, rather than going out watching some guy play, clapping and then a totally different type of music coming on.
"I think that experience is becoming the norm in our culture, which is somewhat off-putting, but we'll see where it can go."
How do you think the art of DJing is developing technologically? Could anything be invented to further help or inspire you?
"I think what is really inspiring to me now is the space in which music is experienced. Not just looking at the show, but if there's a completely immersive environment in which you experience music that is changing, then that's when you start to get into some really different territories and start experimenting with sound, rhythm and light where it becomes this hallucinogenic audio-visual experience.
"There's this huge thing in experiential theatre where you go to this warehouse and experience a play that you're a part of, and if you could have music events in a venue that's changing - like some dystopian city bloc night, that's next-level, almost like Cirque du Soleil raving. I mean god bless clubs like Fabric, which have been open 12 years, but it's always the same experience."
We read you played 158 gigs in 2012. How physically demanding is that?
"It's incredibly demanding. Last week I did five shows in five countries in four days and DJ'd for 19 hours. Some people can do it, some people can't. It's a psychological mind fuck.
"I mean last week I slept maybe ten hours from Thursday to Tuesday. I don't even really get tired that much, I just train my body; ten minutes sleep in a car, three hours on a flight. There's this electricity when you get in front of a group of people, but when it's not happening it's really gruelling.
"I remember one time we were in Torino, Italy, and my mum came to the show and could see that I was dying, you know. She said to the promoter, 'do not let him go to the after party'. So I went to the hotel, unplugged the phone and locked the door but somehow they broke into the room and forced me to get up to go play at this party.
"It ended up being amazing, I played for six hours - I suppose it's going back to this inherent nature of wanting to please people."