In conversation with Dax J
British techno DJ and producer recently released his new studio album ’Utopian Surrealism’. It takes on the big issues of our time: the crumbling of universally valid truths in times of disinformation campaigns, the increasing radicalization in the networks, artificial intelligence – highly energetic poured into frontally marching techno grooves and arranged with a lot of drama and verve, as such a dystopian theme also requires.
We had the pleasure to talk about Dax J’s reflection on the now; he gave us insights into his studio, we talked about his favorite gear and his take on being a world-traveling DJ and producer.
Your new album Utopian Surrealism, inspired by the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is depicted as “ a transition into a new dystopian era”. How was the overall process for the making of the album and what interesting things can we encounter? What were elements, musically speaking, that you intertwine on what is described above?
The album is created out of a lot of different kinds of sounds and styles, there's a lot of influence from jungle, acid, and dub. There are some deep and darker tracks and even parts that are a little euphoric, it's like a big melting pot of sounds. It was made in lockdown. I just had a lot of time to make music and experiment with old and new machines, I just used influences from my past and combined it all together. There weren't any time restrictions, I didn’t need to go off traveling every weekend to gigs and also wasn't necessarily making music for clubs as well, it allowed me to approach it in a different way. I was a little bit freer in my art and in the way of expressing myself.
In terms of sound, how do you correlate it to what you want to represent in the visual side of your whole album and in the video Terafactory Al Electronics?
The album kind of represents the world we live in today, it's a little bit like a smokescreen. Happy on the outside, but when you peel back the layers it gets quite sinister, and so the music has that tonality to it. Some parts are almost relaxing and at the same time it has quite eerie tones resonating with it. In a lot of tracks I was micro tuning, playing elements, pads, and chords out of tune, almost like eastern harmonics. You sort of micro-tune them down to create different tones that you're not used to hearing, which helped create a lot of the tracks on there. It represents the darker dire side of the world, but still, whilst hiding reality. Everything is manipulated by design, made out to be perfect and that’s how the now is being represented, every company and brand and every person in the world. Nowadays, everybody, including me and you, manipulate the world to a certain degree just because we all live and move on social media. Everyone projects what they want the world to see and think about them, but it’s not the reality. It's the projection of their perfect world. It's surreal, it’s utopian surrealism.
So is that also a vision you want to spread out?
It’s not really something that I want to fix or anything, it was just me observing it. I like to observe what's going on in the world and I think that it is quite fascinating. I think during the lockdown people went even crazier. Everyone was watching the news, checking social media, watching interviews with an overload of information, often negative. You also had all the conspiracy theories that got really popular. It's a result of the culture we live in, the media, and the smartphone. Anyone can become a journalist these days, you basically can write anything on Twitter or Instagram and broadcast it and everyone can easily re- share it. For better and for worse, we have so many journalists nowadays, whereas 20 years ago, you would just have the news and the newspapers as a source of information. You have so many different factions of people doing their own research, or digging up dirt on each other. In the end, if you analyze it all, it's hard to understand what to believe. It's almost impossible, especially when everyone has their own agendas. I was reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harariaround the same time when all this stuff was going on and it just made me realize that everything made sense as it talks about the history of humanity, and how we've got to this point. If you trace back the timeline, everything makes sense. When I finished that book, I was a little bit less worried, I wasn't anxious about the whole situation, I was just able to take a step back, and observe what was going on.
What does your studio look like at the moment? Did you do the acoustic treatment yourself?
My studio is always a mess. I just got to the point where I realized that when I tidy up every month or two, it gets messy again within a week, and everything gets tangled up. I like to move stuff around, and what’s the point of tidying up if it’s going to get messy again anyway? I would rather make a new track than spend the day tidying. Yes, I did the acoustic treatment during lockdown actually. I had a lot of foam before, but then I thought I would use it for sound traps. All the wooden panels are diffusers. I’m always picking up a lot of gear, I’ve got a synth upstairs in a box, it literally just arrived, I’m always buying a lot of stuff. I'm a bit of a gearhead. I bought a Prophet 5 just before the start of lockdown. I've got a Jupiter Roland and some outboard gear, this is an EQ curve Bender, a compressor, and here a Roland 303. I’ve actually got five 303s laying around the studio.
What is one of the synths that you would never give away?
Probably the Jupiter, I could never give it away. I would also say all of my Roland gear in general. Roland is my favorite brand. I'm a Roland head, I didn't realize it until lockdown. I'm just trying to collect all the Roland synths, that's my goal. I've got a 101, a 106, a Jupiter 6, Jupiter 8, 303, and 808. I still haven't gotten the original 909, I got a TR8s but I sold 1, I had three of them for some reason, and I got a Korg Ms 20 and actually just bought an ARP 2600. What I found is that I'm selling all the new stuff. Sold all my new Dave Smith synths. I love all the old vintage synths, they're the best. I realized I'm more of a synth guy than a modular guy. I have some modular as well, but I prefer the sound of all the old vintage synths to the modular stuff. I find the modular stuff is a little bit cold for me and metallic sounding, maybe I just haven't got the right modules yet.
How's your actual creative process when laying down new music?
Usually, I decide on which keyboard that I'm going to use and then I will just start jamming around. This is also another reason why the studio is a mess because I like to have the keyboard that I'm working on in a particular spot. I don't like to have a rack on the side full of synths. If I want to change this keyboard I will just move it over and put it somewhere else. Then, I just record loads of noises and run them through pedals, etc. I do a lot of recording and chop up older recordings, I also sample and look for loops. I do a lot of stuff in my sampler and I like messing around with the pitches and chopping stuff. For example, I will record for half an hour, and then I just start chopping it all up and maybe create many patches with 128 sections per sampler. I'll just go through all the little chops I've done and then I find loops, and from there you can use all the new patches to write something. From there, you can create some sort of a melody, and then you can record that again, maybe change the pitch, record it again, and then do the same process. You could completely change the tone, the pitch, and the speed of everything, and you chop it up again and resample that again so that you're going down into another layer. You can go really deep when you start resampling. And that is where the magic happens. That is when you sometimes find some really crazy sounds. I’ve been working like this for 15 years now, so I got 15 years of recordings, chops, and samples, also samples from records, and live recordings. It really depends on my mood, I could just open up my sampler, go through all the drum sections, go through the drums that I’ve sampled a few years ago or I would find a pad I just sampled last week and I could make a new track very fast within an hour. But sometimes I just feel like playing and then I record, I prefer to record first because then I know its something brand new.
Coming from a Jungle, Drum & Bass, and Garage background, how did your style of music develop over the years, and what were the turning points of your career?
I was really into garage, jungle, and drum & bass at school. Back in the day that was what everyone was into. I stayed with jungle and drum & bass for a few years after that, but there were two main important moments. One was in 2009 when I went to visit my friend in Berlin, he was living there back then. I went to Berghain for the first time with him and was like” wow, okay this place is crazy!” The second moment was about two years before that, I just finished university where I did a sound engineering degree. After that, I said to my friends I wanted to go on holiday for the summer. I wanted to do one of those holidays where you go away for six months and just work doing whatever.
So I ended up staying in Ibiza for six months and then I went traveling around Thailand and Southeast Asia with one of my best friends. That year really changed everything. I was exposed to alot of Techno and I was like okay, Techno is kind of all right, because up until then, I wasn't so sure, but I was also at a point where I wasnt into drum & bass anymore. One day I thought to myself, I like this sound, I'm going to transition and do this techno thing. Those two experiences I guess were very influential.
What are some of the records that never leave your bag?
I like all the old 90s stuff so they never really leave the record box. All the classic stuff from, Thomas P. Heckman, Basic Channel, Advent, old Pounding Groove stuff, Reload records. I play a lot of new music and then replace it with next month’s new music and this process is constantly repeating, but all the classic stuff never gets replaced, so those never leave.
What are some of your favorite jungle/ drum & bass tracks?
Who are the people you look up to the most (not only music producers)?
I'm really inspired by athletes who are just at the top of their craft and the top of their game. Those legendary athletes like Michael Jordan, I remember watching videotapes of him when I was six/ seven years old and imagined becoming a basketball player for a very short while, but then realized it would never happen. I love great athletes, I really appreciate the talent, skill, discipline, hard work, and everything. I'm a huge MMA fan as well, when someone is on top and dominating their art at such a high level it's hard not to be inspired. People like Charles Do Bronx and Israel Adesanya, I love watching these guys perform!
What does balance mean to you? What are the things that help you gain balance in your everyday life?
I don't have balance in my life, I would like to have it but in this job, you can't have balance, it’s literally impossible for quite a few reasons. I know what balance is, it’s being healthy, having a balanced life, having a balanced diet, doing perhaps everything in moderation, but the life that I live is totally unbalanced and I don't really have an option. For example, I had three hours of sleep the other night and I've been traveling for like, 10 hours today, I did the same the night before that too. I go to bed at four or five in the morning every day. I know that I should exercise more but often I can't because I'm too tired and I'm recovering, sleeping a lot. Every gig you go to, everyone's shoving drinks in your face; I can’t complain, there are not really many jobs where you are encouraged to drink and party. I love music, I've always loved it and because my job is my passion, I'm working on it all the time. So in the end, you never stop working because you're either DJing or at home in the studio. Perhaps it's a rare thing to be able to work non-stop because you love it. My point is, it's very, very hard to keep a routine of exercising, resting, seeing the sunlight, and generally being healthy. I guess I'm just very lucky to be in this position, but at the same time, in terms of balance, there is none.
At what moment of the day are you most inspired?
What is crazy is that I'm most inspired on a Sunday night, when I'm coming home. Maybe I've just played two or three gigs, I'm super tired and cannot even think straight. But it’s always on the plane home when I go through some of my new tracks I played, I instantly come up with ideas, adjustments, and edits that need to be done on them. As soon as I get home, I just want to edit, fix and change them no matter how tired I am. So yeah, it’s always every Sunday night coming back from a gig when I feel the most inspired.
Joiah Luminosa & Magdalena Roe