ART DEPARTMENT – HIGH TURNOVER AND SHORT ATTENTION

Canadian Jonny White, acting Head of No.19 Music, is now the lone force behind the influential project that began as a collaborative effort with long-time friend Kenny Glasgow in 2009. The prolific producer’s original production style landed Art Department at the forefront of a major underground music movement, transcending genre barriers and forever altering the landscape of dance music. Their game-changing contribution to electronic music has been undeniable, garnering accolades such as #1 track of the year at the Beatport Awards in 2011 and iTunes #2 “Best Electronic Album” of 2011. Notable mention in wide-spread press, including The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Vogue, I:D, Nylon and Vibe Magazine who ranked art department the #2 DJ/Producers in the world in 2013, second only to Daft Punk, firmly established Art Department as a rarity in the world of electronic music. Art Department’s debut release arrived in 2010 with the “Vampire Nightlcub/Without You” EP, a record so unique that it set the electronic music world ablaze placing the project firmly at the foundation of a new era in underground dance music. Since then the prolific producers honed their original and remix production skills for top international record labels, most notably on White’s own No.19 Music, with their crown jewel being the impressive debut album “The Drawing Board” released on the revered Crosstown Rebels label.

When did you start DJing – and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I started DJing in 1998 I think. Early influences were Mr.G, Green Velvet, Derrick Carter, DJ Sneak, Daft Punk and all that Crydamoure and Roulette stuff. Also Danny Tenaglia, Kevin Saunderson, Octave One and a lot of Detroit stuff. The music coming out of France, Chicago, NY and Detroit were the really big sounds in Toronto when I started collecting records and when I was getting deep into the whole thing. The thing that drew me to music, before “sound”, was what it made me feel. I couldn’t have described it back then but made me feel very connected to something that seemed much larger than life, and still does. I also remember the first time electronic music that really caught my ear. It was when I heard “Obsession” by Animotion. when I was small, like under 10, an instrumental version was the theme song that played between shows on a local Toronto television station. It had those huge dramatic chords that sound like major Italo disco to me.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?

I think you kind of nailed it. But there has to be a better way to explain this process or relationship to other artist’s music than to just tag it as “copying”. Best way I can explain it is to say that you’re taking cues and inspiration from everywhere and applying bits of this here, and that there, with your own twist on everything. In my mind, to say that you’re copying is disregarding the idea that no two people will really interpret the same piece of music exactly the same way, so the way that an artist will apply that idea or inspiration is still completely unique … Hopefully. For me personally, my development and evolution as an artist was hugely impacted by my relationship with Kenny and Art Department. I could say there have been four major evolutions for me. One would be everything I experienced and took in up until the time I started to produce music. The second would be the time during which I was learning how to use the tools and becoming able to execute my ideas fairly accurately. The time when my know-how was no longer inhibiting my ideas. Next would be producing music in a partnership dynamic. And then this period I’m in now, post the partnership with Kenny. Back to myself and exploring that more deeply than ever.

What were some of the main challenges and goals when starting out as a DJ and how have they changed over time? What is it about DJing, compared to, say, producing your own music, that makes it interesting for you?

When starting out as a DJ, aside from perfecting the craft technically and refining your skills in that way, it’s playing the game you know. Finding your way in to the industry. That whole thing has changed completely from when I was getting into this shit 20 years ago. Now it’s more to do with persona and profile, amplified tenfold by the social media aspect … and a lot of that can be manufactured I guess. I’m sure it’s harder in many ways because of the sheer number of people out there that your competing with as an upcoming DJ vs back when not everyone and their mother was interested or even able to dedicate the time, money and energy it took to become a DJ. But it’s easier in a lot of ways I would think as well. I think that a major challenge for upcoming DJs is the frustration a lot of really great DJs and producers will face in this climate where on one hand it isn’t enough to be a great DJ, you’ve got to produce records as well. And on the flip side of that, I think people’s attention spans are shorter and the days of writing important songs that could make a career have taken a back seat to the right kind of brand or hype creating a successful career. The thing that keeps me interested in DJ’ing is the music. I really like to play other people’s music and I enjoy everything that goes into the actual job of being a DJ. I’m a fan of music and by some miracle I’ve worked out a situation where it’s actually my job to search for music, and share what I find on a worldwide stage. I learn a lot about myself through music and watching my taste and interests change and evolve. That still gets me excited. That keeps me interested.

How would you define the job and describe the influence of the DJ? How are the experience and the music transformed through your work?

I guess I just answered that. But ya, I dedicate my life to cherry picking music and finding a way to hopefully have people relate to the music I’ve found in some way. I think that in our culture a key responsibility of a DJ is to influence people’s willingness to expand their musical world and just try to show them something they can’t get anywhere else. And hopefully every DJ is giving people something a bit different and unique. Otherwise we only need one, and a recorder.

How has life been treating you so far as a solo act?

Life has been good.. Not a lot has changed really. There’s been a bit of having to explain that Kenny and I do not hate each other and that we didn’t get into a fight or anything crazy which people assume was the reason for the split. There was a lot of commotion about it for the first week after the announcement but the truth is that the media just likes to latch on to whatever news might possibly become the most negative, which also seems to be what people get most excited about and when it isn’t as horrible or explosive as people assume, they forget quite quickly. Thankfully there are idiots like Ten Walls to appease everyones need for that shit. Watch how quickly even that will be forgotten. It’s a fast food mentality with high turnover and short attention spans. People just don’t care for long. The only people who truly matter are our real fans and our friends and all that concerns them is the music and the friendship between Kenny and I… both are intact.

How do you think the style / direction of Art Department will change as a solo act?

A little bit less showmanship during shows… ok a lot. As for the music I honestly couldn’t answer that. I can only say it’s pretty much a full boycott of anything that I don’t consider to be house or techno in its truest form. I want nothing to do with anything that isn’t representative of that when it comes to this project and I think thats an important idea right now. I feel like preserving the roots of this music is so important now with younger generations coming up, having not had what we had culturally and musically when we grew up on this music. I’m just looking at this as an opportunity to use a great brand we’ve created to expose people to the music I’m most interested in.

As Art Department, sometimes it seems like you have been around for much longer than 5 years. How did you personally react to the seemingly immediate rise to prominence within the industry? What did you find to be the most difficult aspect to handle?

Yeah I think that’s often the case where it looks as though an artist has become an overnight success but I’ve been at this for 18 years, even a few more as a promotor before I began DJing. I guess my reaction was really more excitement and maybe a kind of relief to have achieved some real success in terms of being able to make a good living off of music. I never really imagined reaching this level of success but it did feel quite natural and comfortable having been in the industry for so many years. The most difficult part is the travel and trying to stay somewhat healthy. The travel and distance from friends and my girlfriend at the time was a lot to handle and it effectively ended the relationship that I was in when it all began. Maintaining relationships requires a ton of effort and more time than I have available at times. And then the other part is really just trying to maintain my health. We were..or are party animals but we’re not so young anymore, you know? The late nights, the lack of sleep, the constant flying really beats the shit out of you. It’s not just a matter of feeling like hell when you’ve done 3 shows in 24 hours or something crazy like that, it effects your mind, your mood and everything else throughout the week even when you’re off the road. Being an insomniac I have a hard time catching up and recovering so for me that has always been my only real struggle with the job. It’s all well worth it though, I’m very blessed to be here..

Let’s say you have a gig coming up tonight. What does your approach look like – from selecting the material and preparing for, opening and then building a set?

It’s not what it used to be. I used to dig through the record collection and pick out what I can fit in a bag for the show. I would have an idea of what I wanted to do and that was what they’re going to get because that’s what I’ve got with me. Now I don’t really do much prep to be honest. I have an enormous collection with me between vinyl and my hard drive. We’re talking like 650 GB of music available to me to select from and it’s organized in several different ways that cater to how my brain works. Because of the way I’ve organized my files it’s pretty easy for me to navigate through this much music, so I just decide what I’m going to do in the moment from the minute before I get on until the last record. It’s more improvisational now than it used to be. I’ll do a bit of prep if I haven’t DJ’d in a week or two because it can take a minute to get back into that mode where finding the music on the fly is as familiar as breathing.

https://soundcloud.com/artdepartment/sets/art-department-normalizm

Can you describe your state of mind during a DJ set? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

My state of mind is present. That’s what it has to be and the most addictive and enjoyable part of DJing for me hands down. I’m so present when I’m playing a show, so totally in the moment … the way you are when you’re having sex for example … when it’s amazing. I don’t know about everybody else, but for me there are very few things in life that can make all the noise just fade away and bring you right here into the moment. Playing music for people is one of the things that support this, or amplify that state of mind. Can be anything from sharing that moment with someone, like a DJ partner, substances can also do that but that isn’t exactly the same because you’re not coming by it naturally. Distractions can be anything from the wrong people around you to just daily life and whatever happens to be going on with you. People don’t realize that while they were in the mood to go out and party that night and that’s why they’re in that room with you, you might be ill, going through some family shit, or split up with someone. A lot of times, any personal turmoil can disappear for that few hours while you’re performing which is a beautiful thing as well, but that’s not always the case. sometimes you’re just somewhere else. But I’ll tell you what the biggest and worst distraction is for a DJ that is almost impossible to ignore: Technical problems. If the rig or the sound is fucked, it’s really difficult to find your flow and playing your set can be a daunting situation.

How do you feel playing music at home and presenting it in the club compare and relate? What can be achieved through them, respectively, and what do you personally draw from both?

That’s an interesting question. I’ve never asked myself that. Personally, I tend not to listen to the same music that I would play in a club while at home. Environments and mood are hyper sensitive to music, so what makes sense in one especially for my taste doesn’t make sense in another. I’m considering what will be effective on a dance floor and more specifically the dance floor that I’m going to play when deciding what to play at a show. Likewise I’m considering what will be effective in creating the mood or complimenting the mood at home. There are songs I play in both contexts but there really isn’t much. I wouldn’t say that I draw something different from the two although the feeling and experience is different. The one thing I draw from them both is a certain kind of energy and narrative to my life.

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