DJ, producer, label owner and businessman: Mark Knight has proven a rare and wonderful breed of musical heavyweight. The second highest-selling Beatport artist of all time (with no less than eight No.1’s) his career has spanned more than a decade, with releases on a diverse range of labels such as Suara, 1605, Stereo and of course his own Toolroom. Despite his success, the Grammy-nominated artist has never rested on the laurels of being one of the industry’s most respected and accomplished international players, and continues to push boundaries and set new standards with each year that passes.
When and how did you know you wanted to be a DJ / producer?
I was always, always, always as a kid passionate about buying music, and music was my whole life. Every penny I had as a kid was spent on buying records, but at that stage of the game, a deejay career wasn’t necessarily an option because obviously there wasn’t a scene to support that, so I never really thought at that young age, oh that’s what I wanted to do, but in the early 90s I was going out a lot going to clubs, raves, and things like that, and saw that there was a way of taking that passion, expanding it, and it becoming more serious, coupled with the fact that I always liked to make music and tinker around in studios, it all kind of made sense. What really pushed it along was that my brother learned to deejay before me; me and my brother have done everything together our whole lives, we still manage the direction of Toolroom, so we’ve done everything together, and he learned before me, I thought I had to learn to mix, and one thing led to another, the records I made became more successful, therefore giving me a bigger profile, so yeah it had that gradual ascent and in the early 90s it kind of clicked into place.
How would you classify your music style progression, where it started, where it’s headed, and where it’s been?
Everything for me has a very soulful background, pre-house music. In the early days I didn’t get House music. I didn’t get it, it was too white, for want of a better word, it was too straight, and then I discovered Garage, not UK Garage but soulful American garage, the house music coming around from NY, that kinda thing, and that was the real start of my love affair with dance music. I had obviously been out to raves and other gigs with rave music and all that and it was cool, I kinda got the experience but it didn’t grow outside of actually being at the event. Everything for me has always been very soulful, and even now, even when I’m doing things that are quite techno, I like to think there’s an underpinning of soul in there, for that’s really what I’m about. Given my own chance, and I will do, not next year, the year after, I am going to write a really soulful album, completely self-indulgent, everything from funk, disco, to house, really exposing my roots musically, but I like to think that the underlying factor of everything I do, whether it be a more techno record or tech-house, has always got that feel of soul or funk in there—or that’s what I try to do anyway.
Where’s it headed now?
What’s happened in the scene right now is that it’s become so polarized, and you’ve got real extremes in the musical spectrum: you’ve got either super-commercial or super-underground, and I’ve always existed in that kind of middle. I’ve never nailed my colours to either mast, there was always an opportunity to make credible commercial music for want of a better word: making a record that was credible and was underground per se but was commercial in the fact that it had a broad appeal, and that market has really narrowed we’ve seen the growth of extremes in music, so I think to follow suit, it shifted more and more underground, but I like to do things with a hook. Every record I make I like to look back and think I’ll be proud of this record in ten years or fifteen years, not a disposable throw, make a tech-house record for the sake of making one. I like to think that this is my legacy, so it has to be of a certain standard, but if I had to say, it’s definitely more underground.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
My favourite part of the job is watching the whole thing come together: that process of going into the studio, making a record, going out on tour, planning it, getting a reaction, watching it be a success, 99% on my own label, and to see all the facets of what I’m involved really chime, harmonize and come together, and the success—I get a real buzz from that. My career is very multi-faceted: I have a record company, I’m a producer, I write a lot, ghost produce for a lot of artists, I produce bands, I do lots of different things, I have the management company; I like when it all really comes together, I get a real buzz from that, more than just playing a festival to 50,000 people, which is a great experience, but when everything is chiming together, it gives me a real buzz.
What’s would be the most defining moment of your career?
MK: What’s been different in my career is that it’s always been a gradual ascent, never any big peaks or troughs that I can say that was why I’ve been successful because of that point in my career; it’s been a gradual progression, and all the things I do – in term of the label, what I do as producer—have all gradually grown, so hard to say that was the moment. There have been moments: the fist ever essential tune, the first record, the first gig in Ibiza, the first ever event, or Brixton Academy—all those different points, but nothing to say that was the one moment. It’s fair to say it was made of a bunch of moments.
How do you structure your sets?
I pretty much improvise; I know what I’m going to say, then obviously as a producer, primarily a producer, the main body of what you want to say and the musical message is your own repertoire, and I know when they punctuate my sets, and when I make a record I think very much about that, how that works in the live form and at what point would I play that in my set, so I know there’s certain points at which I need to get to in my set. I know where I’m going to start and I know where I’m going to finish, but I think DJing, the real art of DJing, is being able to say well I can push it so far down that way before I need to change track or rethink of what I’m doing. It’s about being experimental, being intuitive, being in the moment, and that’s what really makes a great set, I think.
So do you gauge it off the crowd?
100% when I DJ I never take my eyes off the crowd, ever, it’s a psychological thing. It’s engaging with the audience you’re with, and if they’re seeing you buzz on something you’re playing, especially when you’re playing lots of new music that people never heard before, and they see that you’re excited about it, they generally get really excited; if you’re not excited, it’s hard for them to expect for them to get excited about something they don’t know. So it’s a lot of psychology that goes on in there, a lot of interaction with the crowd. I’m not one who’s got my head down. I’m very much in the moment with the crowd all the time, seeing what moves the crowd and adjusting accordingly.
Your label, Toolroom Records and its subs (Toolroom Trax and Toolroom Radio) have been the driving force behind your new direction over the last two years, where next? Can we expect any radical movements from you?
Absolutely. In fact, I’ve been working on a new album for the last four or five years, an electronic band project, Chemical Brothers or The Prodigy kind of thing. It’s really exciting for me to branch out as an artist, sort of expand away from DJ-ing exclusively and really explore my musical depths. When we set out to create this thing, we really had a strict manifesto of what we wanted to achieve as a band, it’s radically different to anything I’ve done before.
Any release dates in mind?
There’s no definitive date yet, it’s taken us a while because there’s always been other projects and commitments along the way. I intend for this to be the culmination of my career so far, I’ve taken DJ-ing as far as I can; I’ve had massive success in that world and maintaining it is a real challenge so I need something new, something for me.
And finally, something about you, what do you like to do in your spare time?
MOoooh, I don’t know what that word means. When I’m not working my complete focus is my family and spending time with them. It’s the hardest part of what we do. Being a DJ is amazing, it’s great, there’s a lot of travelling, but the hardest part of it is to balance your family life if you have one time with your career because you need to be so focused, so every minute I’ve got is very much dedicated to those guys. You’re very much way at the bottom of the pecking order in terms of time available, but if I could do, I like to have a go at football or go to the gym but my main focus is my family.