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Seth Troxler on Berlin, Blowjobs & Black Roots: Interview

House | Wednesday 16th September 2015 | Osh

So I’m very happy to be here with the mum and creepy uncle of house music. The man needs no introduction, having gone straight from High School to playing Spectral Sound; booking Magda at 15, to playing Panorama Bar on his first European Tour, it would be an understatement to say he has gone from strength to strength. Now, having held residencies at the most important clubs in the world and charted at the top of all the world’s best DJ lists, he kicks back to speak with Guestlist about everything from synchronicity to Swiss Cottage.

How are you? Are you well?

Yeah I’m cool. It’s amazing, chilling back in London. I got my girlfriend in town (smiles).

You’ve lived in Detroit and Berlin and now here, are you excited about coming here? Are you still feeling London?

Yeah yeah, I love it. Every time I come back it’s just... cool. Something about it is fast... but slow paced... and just how the neighbourhoods are really neighbourhood-y. It’s something that you don’t really find in such a metropolitan city. It’s really the centre of the world I think.

So how are you dealing with the temptation of girls trying to give you blowjobs in front of your girlfriend?

[laughs] I guess I just have to look at her. That's a funny one considering she's in the room next door.

And how’s Smokey Tails?

It’s ok, we’re in a point of transition. We just did Glastonbury and food at the Acid Future... and now we’re just trying to come up with a viable business plan that we can really make real. We’ve tried a couple things that haven’t really worked so far... creating a stand-alone restaurant, like our hub. 

I’m not a businessman, but I’m trying to become one, or at least tryna fake it till I make it I guess... you just figure out things. Right now, we’re at a point where we need to find a really professional team to deliver things that we want and to create the experience that we want - without cutting corners. That’s where it’s going. Getting the right team and making sure we move to the future.


 

               


You were born in ’86 is that right?

’85, ’85.

’85. So you were three or four years old when your parents were listening to ‘Voodoo Ray’... It must have been mad interesting to grow up in Detriot. Perlon was a huge influence for you right?

Yeah they started coming over with Ritchie Hawtin in like 2000. Guys from Perlon, Ricardo Villalobos and the German dudes. It was all about Detroit radio when I was a kid. It was incredible to hear songs like ‘Shari Vari’ or ‘Strings of Life’ on all the time, which are now classics. It was just normal music there. Also, Motown music and loads of other great stuff, it was such an incredible experience to be born into a time of such musical heritage.

Your first CD was He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper right?

Most definitely. I got it from my dad... that and Kriss Kross. It was a tape, before it was a CD.

I got a mad story about that because I had that too. I told Jazzy Jeff “yo I had this tape” and he’s like, “that was made in Swiss Cottage”. Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff laid that down in Swiss Cottage!

In a cottage in Switzerland?

Nah, Swiss Cottage in London, just by Camden.

That’s crazy! I thought you meant an actual Swiss cottage [laughs].

So your third track you made was a tribute to your grandma right?

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

The other songs you’ve made, do they always have massive meaning behind them?

Not as much as that one. I think most things that I create, they have some meaning. They have an idea, but as much as an emotional meaning... I don’t really think so. I think a lot of things come from my subconscious and it’s just an abstract, free form expression... but one that I was thinking specifically.

Sometimes I like to put myself in different character roles, to figure out headspaces, almost like an actor would. I start to think of a song or a sound or anything, and think of a character, or how this situation would be in the real world, and then produce (music) from that emotional perspective.

So you move in and out of those people, no one knows what they’re gonna get?

Yeah, I just try to come up with ideas.

You say you weren’t the biggest fan of rap. I thought it was really interesting that you were fighting the image of the culture. 

When I was growing up, I felt like there were a lot of things that I had to overcome... prejudices just for being a teenage man of colour due to the negative stereotypes portrayed in urban music.

Just the other night I was watching Friday the movie... now I love Friday, but now that I’m a bit older and more conscious, it was at times a bit unsettling. Some of the language used in this movie... language that became catchphrases and were adopted by our culture. That ultimately creates this very ignorant, uneducated stereotype.

Through urban music and other things, some of the language used is in a way storytelling but systematically oppressing people in a way.  I don’t want to become the stereotype that I was surrounded by, so I made a real effort not to listen or identify with it, because it wasn’t identifying with the life I was living. It’s big in areas where it’s real life and it’s big in areas like the suburbs where white suburban kids are like “this shit’s so gangsta”... but they have no real view or idea of the reality of those words.

I knew the reality of these words. It’s not just some make-believe story. This is some real shit... and I don’t wanna associate with that shit. So I was just gonna do me... I’m gonna listen to this other shit... like techno. That was a big decision for me. It’s kind of why I’m here today in many ways, because I wouldn’t allow myself to be part of that.

That’s interesting, as I was about to ask if you still encounter racism now, being a top DJ?

I have. One time at this one festival I encountered it. Day to day I don’t really think so much in our industry per se but I think in society, there are things that are out there. I’ll be travelling and something happens, maybe it’s how I look, or how me and my tour manager look, he's Cuban. Like, everybody else in here is being served other than us. We’re in jeans and sneakers... but is it how we look? I have quite a successful business and all the same shit, even though you don’t need that stuff to get into places... but like why the fuck is this guy in a suit getting preferential service? I don’t know if that’s classism or racism or just age, but sometimes that’s just how the world is.

I know you talk about diversity... I was speaking to Carl Cox once and he said that he’s really happy that when he goes out, he brings people together. He might be in South Africa and because of him there might be more black people out there. Do you know how important you are for people of colour, just being that diversity in the club, let alone being the DJ?

Yeah, yeah it’s a crazy thing. I guess I don’t really think about it so much but I do realise and see that more and more of my fans are younger people of colour and it’s really cool. It makes it seem possible. 

That’s the thing - when we started Tuskegee with the Martinez Brothers, it was just creating a situation where it seems possible. Often, let’s say you’re in the ghetto, you just need to be able to start to dream because so many times if you’re poor, any colour, and so many generations before you are poor, you don’t see an escape from the situation you can't believe in anything anymore. That’s part of the system and it’s really hard for those people to escape the system.

You know, you hear conservatives say “why don’t you just get out and work?”... it’s because they can’t get a fucking job! It’s not like poor people like being poor and aren’t trying every way not to be poor, it’s like that’s how the system works. Every now and then some person gets out, gets education... but it’s becoming a system now where unless you have money, you can’t be educated, so then it keeps the poor in this other level of education which then creates more poverty. People I don’t think understand that.

You mentioned Tuskegee, big up for the name. Going back from my education we know about the syphilis experiment, why exactly did you choose the name?

I grew up aware of all this stuff and I’ve always liked the name. A long time ago I was like “that would be a sick house label name”, it sounds roots-y and African. Then the Martinez Brothers and I were having this conversation about how it was really kind of weird that there was music that started predominantly from Latinos and black people in America, but there were no more Latinos or blacks making house music.

It wasn't like we were mad, it was just an observation on how much this music’s been able to change our lives, and give us these incredible lives of travelling the world when we came from very lower middle class families who were just getting by. We wanted to create a platform for other people of our kind of backgrounds to look at and see it’s achievable - these guys are cool, they’re doing it, we’re really positive, we’re trying to make change and spread that light and that idea. We were like “yeah let’s create a label where we focus on finding artists who are unknown or starting to get known with our same backgrounds, and promoting them”, not in a racist way, just like why not? There’s a label from Germany with only German people, by chance, but nobody’s talking about that.

                           

So do you feel a bit of responsibility as an artist to push forward the black roots in house?
 

Yeah I guess. I kinda feel a responsibility as an artist to push for the roots of house music and fundamentally, deeper music, old music - but I don’t think that’s a focus... I think more of a focus is being a good role model for people of colour and creating a cool thing.

I’m not sure if you witnessed it but we watched the transition of hardcore to drum and bass to jungle... there was a really interesting time in London where that music got crazy diverse and it was a 50/50 black and white thing.


That’s what it’s all about, like you said that Carl Cox thing... By no means are we trying to separate people. It’s more about bringing people together and showing that we have a lot of similarities, and that we all contribute to the arts, to music and to society. Ultimately the more people that come together the better, that’s the point, that’s when it’s the best. A dancefloor, mixed crowd, gay, straight, all different colours of people, it’s sick.

Where do you find that the most?

At Fabric there’s a mix, sometimes Panorama Bar. Detroit Music Festival... it’s a good mix.

So I saw you had a deep chat with Chuck D for three hours backstage, how was that?

Yeah oh man it was crazy. I can write a book on how not to live your life based on decisions I’ve made... mistakes, the long endless list of mistakes. So the night before, I had the Chuck D thing, I had a big night out, maybe more than night... not allowing myself much time to sleep or prepare to interview Chuck D. Not in the top positions of my life by any means. I got to the place hungover like “what have I done?” My dad’s here, loves Chuck D, I feel like I’m gonna throw up, and he was already there, so ok let’s do the becoming friends thing and it was really cool. He was really nice, really smart, turned on guy and he made me feel really comfortable, it was amazing.

How about the respect he gave you and the DJs of the scene?

Yeah it was really cool. I think at many times he didn’t understand what I did in the more commercial realm but it was cool, I got to meet Chuck D.

                       

I just want to go back a bit. You went to Sonar at 17, so a big partying legacy, and you’ve been doing big parties lately, immersive environment events like Acid Future, these crazy disco balls everywhere.

Yeah there was like 250 disco balls in the room, it was crazy.

Were they yours?

We rented them but I wish. I’m trying to get one actually right now for the house.

So we were at the Dolphin Flight Big Tittie Surprise last year in Amsterdam...

Did you go inside the vagina? At some point there was a fortune teller inside the vagina and she was like “look into my magic balls, look into my magic balls” and it was this tit....

You’re launching DJ Kicks later this year right? Is it going to be crazy?

I don’t even know the venue, people tell me where to go, I show up, yeah.

You’re like a 30-40k a night kinda guy. This is a long way from three of you sleeping on a futon in Berlin, so what’s the best part of that journey?

I think the craziest thing is, as to the fact that I come from really nothing... is being able to take care of my family and also knowing what it’s like being totally skint. Like skint, skint, skint. So if you know what it’s like being skint, when you start to get money you don’t really waste it. It feels good. I just helped build a well for a tribe in the Amazon, I’m trying to build them a school, that stuff’s cool, it makes you feel kinda good.

Also it's not like your taught money management... all these kids with their trust funds and their whole life has been constructed... so for someone like me it's like, muufucka I got caaaaaash! I got socks everyday mufuckerrrrrr!! You just kinda figure it out. It's crazy some people pay DJ's the amount they do. But I guess clubs make their money so DJ's get their fair share. I just had a meeting today with a financial planner telling me to plan. A lot of people make money, like rappers, and then they lose it all. When your skint it’s not like we’re taught money management because nobody’s got money.

You’ve always said you have to put in 110% to make it, are you still putting in that 110%?

Yeah maybe even more these days. It’s nice to make it but it’s pretty bad to lose it, so it’s quite a lot of pressure I would say, you gotta stay on. And also for yourself, you wanna grow, you wanna become better, we should all want these things.

I think you dealt with being number one DJ in the world really well. Do you think you’re gonna cope with coming back from that spot as well?

Yeah I’ve stayed in the top five which is cool. I think the year I became number one I played music in a way that I wasn’t really happy... and I was playing kinda bullshit stuff, using Traktor, and a lot of effects, and it was cool but now I’m playing music I really love. I’m going to the record store a lot, I’m playing feeling like I’m becoming a better DJ, like a real eclectic DJ, rather than a *psssh* lights and show DJ, so it’s cool, I’m comfortable. I don’t really care anymore.

So awards don’t mean much, when you’re a big DJ you have fans whose lives you change, important shit, so for you what are you most proud of that you’ve achieved?

I’m never really satisfied but as you said with the fans, sometimes I meet people and they’re so happy, telling me these stories and stuff, that’s inspiring. I don’t know how to describe the feeling... like wow, I inspired someone... You guys are here asking me questions... and I’m just a guy hanging out in his living room. All this stuff I’m saying, I'm making it up as I go (laughs).

Your parents, are they proud?

Yeah my mum is crazy proud. My parents are like the happiest people in the world right now. My mum cries all the time when I do stuff. She's all "I can't beliieeeve you..."


(At this point Guestlist feels it's ample time for a spliff)

You said your biggest dream could be your worst nightmare... when you get success, you’ve achieved the goals and things you’ve dreamt of... and then you’re there so you have to have new goals. So what are your new goals now?

It’s true. I talk to a lot of other friends in dance music... (gets sidetracked after being passed a broken lighter)
(laughs) I smoke often, but this is the first time I've smoked in an interview... sick. Anyway, I think next year I’m going to take less gigs and focus on the things I’ve already got with the labels and trying to make those bigger and better, and work on the restaurant. It's not there yet, but it will be. Those are the big things.

                 

You had a restaurant, you’ve been number one DJ, is there anything that you actually want to achieve?

The restaurant’s not there yet, it can always be better.

I know you’re gonna achieve this, this is a given, you are going to have a very successful restaurant. I do not want to count that as one of the things you want to achieve.

I guess the thing after that is a family. Family’s big for me. I got this whole plan, I’m gonna do this for ten more years and then become like ghost dad. Yeah I think family is a big thing, it’s something that I’ve always wanted, something I want to experience. I think love is one of the biggest experiences. You gotta experience love.

You’re in a relationship now, and I’m glad because I hear that sometimes when you’re not your sets are all fucked up.

Yeah it’s true, I got too much to worry about, thinking about getting it. My girlfriend’s here, been together almost a year now, and it’s really cool. She works in finance, kinda like a city girl and I do this, we’re so different but so alike in our goals and what we want in life.

You did say that sometimes it’s hard having relationships on the road but I put to you that sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder, blah, blah, blah, but also if you have a girlfriend out on the road, sometimes you meet other girls and are like “hey I know she’s right”, you know you’re not interested.

That is one thing that the road does show you is women you don’t want to be with [laughs] especially in clubs, you're like fuck... It does, it’s amazing, every time we’re together it becomes like this event, we have this countdown period... and this whole thing. Everytime she's back, it's like ahhhh... so chill.

You say in a post-apocalyptic world you’re glad you can cook but what else can you do in this post-apocalyptic world?

Right now I’m trying to make sure we don’t reach the apocalypse, presenting people with ideas and being a vessel for people to expand is my thing right now. I’m really becoming more and more aware, I hate this "i'll do it tomorrow" or “it doesn’t matter anyway, what I do isn’t going to affect anything” attitude... It’s one of the biggest lies ever told on the planet.

You can change your life tomorrow if you take the effort to do it. If you want to start running, get your ass up off the couch and go for a fucking run, you know. If you have the idea, this is my big thing right now, everything was an idea, someone’s idea, then they took that idea and were like “I’m going to spend the day and I’m going to do it”. If you want to change the world, change the political system because these people really don’t give a fuck about any of us, then we have to start doing it.

If I can make people aware they can do these things and the things that we can change then maybe things will start to change. It’s our generation that’s going to make the change because these old bastards right now, they don’t care. As far climate change, wealth inequality... we know who they’re working for and it’s not for us, it’s not for the greater population.

I think we’re reaching a place where people are mad as hell. I think we’re getting fucked now more than ever... but it’s become this general acceptance that that’s just how the way things are. If we don’t fix that, then in the future everyone’s going to be even more fucked by the system and then it’s going to be “this is actually how things are”. Right now, I think we can change it. The immigration crisis, all these things happening in the world, is making us wake up and realise who we’re not and what we shouldn’t be.

Some people are using that shit for fear, to keep themselves in control, immigration reform, it’s bullshit. It’s not that many people and more so, these people are in great humanitarian crisis and they need shelter and relief. As a good moral society we open our arms. Yeah have checks, make sure people aren’t criminals but these people aren’t coming over here to take your jobs.

In America, I’m not sure how it is over here, their all “those Mexicans….”, Mexicans come to America and they work hard and they make businesses and they do jobs that lazy Americans don’t want to do. So you start talking about immigrants and taking jobs, you look at the jobs immigrants do and how many people in England and America want to do those jobs, then we can have a real conversation but up until that point don’t use this as fear that their coming to ruin your lives because they’re not.

These people are just looking for better lives, just like everyone else. What’s wrong with that idea? As long as you can make it and you’re smart enough to work, then they should be allowed into society. If they contribute and you can put a number on 'em or a tax ID on them... what’s the problem?

It’s funny because I was about to move on to your serious side, being a DJ, owning a restaurant, I know you want to be seen as serious. I know you think you’re normal but let’s admit it, you’re known for being a bit mad. My question is what can you do, because you have power and can do huge things that would be taken extremely seriously, have you got any ideas?

I’m trying to formulate some stuff. I read this book about the KLF that really, really grabbed me. It kinda fucked up my life for a second because I started getting way too into this conspiracy stuff. I’m trying to figure that out. I think my greatest power at the moment is influence, my voice. I like the idea of helping individuals directly, I don’t like creating big charities or other things like that. I think if you’re going to help someone or help a cause it's like boom - like I focused on this tribe in the Amazon - boom - helping them specifically, you see direct change.

 

One thing I’m really interested in right now is climate change, it’s huge.

Have you read This Changes Everything ? It's about how we're past the point of little action - it needs to be massive action...

Yeah there has to be massive action from the top sector. There needs to be change in government, the big sweeping action that we do need comes in policy, they need to break some stuff down, fuels and pollution, they need to put caps on these people. There are certain industries that are really creating a problem...

                                  

But they fund Politics... Naomi Klein is saying that it’s not going to change unless the change comes from below, and it’s happening out there in places where there are protests, Blockadia, Tar Sands, the Keystone Project, there needs to be more people such as yourself with a voice making more noise.

The thing is if you stir up enough people then the people in power, it’s like the French situation, they’ll cut off your head. So instead of losing all power they go with the people, at least for a little bit. Also there’s the human story, people we have this thing of fucking it, up, fucking it up, fucking it up, the very last second saving our ass, so hopefully that’s where we’re gonna go.

Have you ever taken that stuff ayahuasca?

No, but I’m planning on it though. This tribe I’m helping in the Amazon, there’s a shaman who gives ayahuasca ceremonies, he’s a really big shaman, so I’m waiting to go with him specifically. He’s invited me, so I’m going to go to the Amazon, it takes five days once you’re in Brazil to get his remote tribe... and I’m going to do it there alone with him. I don’t really think tourist use of ayahuasca or sacred medicines is cool, if you’re gonna go do it you need to do it like it’s a treatment with a shaman in a sacred way. You're altering something that hasn't changed for thousands of years - it’s not a game.

If you do it you need to be consciously aware of what you’re doing and also respectful of what it is. It changes people’s lives, my dad recently did it, he had some stuff he had to go through and I suggested it to him. He was in a place where the shaman was and he did it, and it changed his life.

t worked, completely realigned his life, he had a lot of old emotional baggage, three days with this shaman and it was like twenty years of therapy. I think that is another thing that is activating the change, a lot of people are getting turned on to this better living through psychedelia. We can access that change from within, it’s just about getting out of the spectacle, all this external material needs, break that code.

Speaking of change in your life, I don’t know if you’ve seen that Harvard thing where Steve Jobs is telling these guys to join the dots backwards in life, you never know what things happen that change your life. You talk about similar stuff in your life, you can always meet that person who will change your life. When was the last time, apart from now of course, you had that moment where you met someone and that fate changed your life?

The last time fate changed my life? What was the last great synchronicity I had? I’m trying to think of a really good one because I’ve had a lot. A great one, this isn’t the last time but it’s a good one, the guy who just walked in this room, my roommate Jason. We met four years ago in Australia. I was looking for a place to stay and randomly this guy at this party was like “oh I’ve got a place”, didn’t know each other at all, he was like “I can help you out”, I was like “oh sick”, I thought I was gonna rent the place. I came back to Sydney like “hey can I get that place?’, he was like “I’ll come and pick you up from the airport”, we were going and he was like “you’re staying with me, it’s a really big house, it’s totally cool”.

So he posted me up at his house and then he had to leave, he was like “me and my girlfriend are actually on vacation but you can move to her house, take her house for a couple of days while you’re still here”, I didn’t know these people at all. Then we became really good friends, he was working in finance and was like “I don’t want to do this anymore, I want to do cooking”, he wanted to go to Le Cordon Bleu, and I was like “how about you move to my house in London?” and now we’re roommates. There’s not a better example of fate. He introduced me to some of my other best friends, my girlfriend also, how we met only a possible sequence of events could have put us in the same room in the same social situation. 

We talk about the universe going in our favour... you need to realise you're in.

Like right now i'm gonna get really crazy - if I look at my phone, it's the same numbers every time I check... 12:12... 01:01... maybe it's like cracking the Matrix.. (laughs)

 

Do you know Fabio? He asked if you'd play Swerve for £200 with a little laugh... 

Only if I can play his records! I used to play jungle years ago as a kid...


So we gotta wrap up... Finally, a quick game... I know you say you're an expert raver... I've got a quick game for you. You're at a club, and you took an E 30 mins ago, and you're favourite DJ is about to come on but you can't feel anything. Would you a) Take another one b) Wait 10 minutes or c) Take a half?


Take a half (laughs). The DJ would have to be Craig Richards, he's my favourite DJ. But it depends on the situation.... It's more about who I'm with though. If I was with my friends, I'd take a half with one of them.
 

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