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Life before Skrillex

Drum 'n bass star Dieselboy recalls a time when deejays worked for a living

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Dieselboy has played venues all over the world in the years since he introduced drum 'n bass to the American charts with his "Invid" single. So many venues, in fact, that he figures it'll take him about 10 minutes to figure out whether Rawkus — the local club whose opening night he'll be headlining next week — will be able to make a go of it.

And while he's never played Colorado Springs before, the Brooklyn-based artist known offstage as Damian Higgins does have ties to the area. He spent most of his formative years in Rye, and his mom now lives in the Springs. So if the club does get off the ground, it's likely that his first local gig won't be his last.

In the following interview, Dieselboy talks about his fledgling dubstep label, the pyromaniacal inclinations of DJ Swamp (who'll be appearing with him at Rawkus), and his overall distaste for artists who let the machines do all the work.

Indy: Richard Harrington at the Washington Post — who's written about you on a number of occasions — says that you were the first drum 'n bass artist to land on Billboard's dance chart back in 2000. But by that point, artists like Goldie had been doing drum 'n bass in England for almost a decade. Was it just not on the radar here in America?

Dieselboy: Well, drum 'n bass has always been underground. It's not a niche genre, but it definitely is challenging to people because it's so fast and just a little too intense for a lot of people.

And so it's kind of good and bad that dubstep has become so popular. Because dubstep, in a way, is just slowed-down drum 'n bass. It's kind of the same idea, the same ethos, but dubstep is just real minimal and it's easier for people to understand. So for me, when I hear dubstep, it just sounds like a dumbed-down version of drum 'n bass.

Indy: Your drum 'n bass label [Human Imprint] has been going for nearly a decade, and now you've got Subhuman, which during the two years you've been doing it, has been geared more toward dubstep and electro stuff. At this point, is Subhuman eclipsing your drum 'n bass label as far as sales go?

Dieselboy: Yes and no. Back when we launched Subhuman, my partner and I really wanted to give it a lot of energy and build it up really quickly. And at the time, I had a bunch of guys we were signing — it was almost an embarrassment of riches — and we had so much music that some of it took a year to come out, even though we were releasing music every couple of weeks. We just had too much music.

So it's kind of eclipsed the other label in the sense that I've been focusing all my energy into it and haven't really been scouting out for new talent for my drum 'n bass label. So in 2013, I'm gonna shift my focus back onto my drum 'n bass label.

Indy: Let's talk about those genre distinctions in dance music, which obviously can be very arbitrary to a degree. Burial was originally thought of as dubstep, and now Skrillex is, and it's hard to think of two kinds of music that are so opposite. And then drum 'n bass encompasses a pretty diverse spectrum. Are the beats per minute a big part of what defines those styles?

Dieselboy: Yeah, it's like guitar-based music, which can be everything from the blackest of black metal to, you know, a guy playing a lute, and then everything in between. So it's the same with dubstep, where you have Skrillex with his super bro-style, you know, in-your-face, noisy, chugging dance-floor stuff. And then you have Burial, which is kind of like scattershot beats and hypnotic vocal loops and this really kind of chill vibe.

Drum 'n bass is the same way. You can hear the most insane stuff or go for super minimal drum 'n bass. And really, because people have pushed the boundaries in so many different directions, what it comes down to is drum 'n bass is anything that's 175 beats per minute, and has sub-bass and some kind of percussion on top. And dubstep is typically 140 beats per minute.

Indy: And from there you can do anything you want.

Dieselboy: You can do anything you want. I mean, it didn't used to be like that, you know? When Burial came out — before it got all Skrillexy — dubstep was like dub music. And then, as people started experimenting within that 140 beats per minute range, it started pushing everything out in every direction.

Indy: Colorado, especially up in Denver, has a pretty significant dance market these days, both in terms of its fan-base and artists like Pretty Lights. Was it anything like that when you were living in Colorado?

Dieselboy: No. [Laughs.] I mean, I left Colorado in '86, which predates the rave scene by years. So no, actually when I was living in Colorado, there were a lot more cowboy hats. It definitely wasn't as modern-feeling as it is these days.

Indy: When you come to Colorado Springs, one of the other artists you'll be sharing the bill with here is DJ Swamp, who I understand played with Beck back in his "two turntables and a microphone" days. Do you guys know each other?

Dieselboy: I've played a couple of shows with him. He was a really crazy performer. You know, he used to set his records on fire when he was deejaying. So I'm curious what he's going to do in Colorado Springs. I don't know if he's toned his act down at all.

Indy: That kind of thing could get pretty expensive.

Dieselboy: Well, I heard a rumor that he played one show — and I don't know if it was part of his act or if he just got upset with the guy who owned the equipment — but I heard that he literally poured his whole drink onto the mixer and just shorted it out. So I'm hoping he's not playing before me, because that would be a big problem.

Indy: In terms of live performance, I've seen video of Skrillex where he's really not doing anything more than smoking a cigarette with one hand and occasionally turning a knob with the other. I'm guessing that you don't set records on fire, but when you're onstage, what are you typically doing?

Dieselboy: Well, I'm old-school in the sense that I got into the scene through actual deejaying, which was playing records with a mixer.

Indy: Actual turntables?

Dieselboy: Yeah, I mean, that's all there was. Now I play CDs, because vinyl is a pain in the ass to carry around, and you can burn the newest music onto CDs. So I'll play on three CD players, and I'm constantly working out there, constantly doing everything manually live and doing everything on the fly. And that's what I enjoy, because that's what I feel like I've built my skill set up to — so it's like, why make it easy on myself?

A lot of people don't do that. They let the computer mix live. And to them, deejaying is like picking a song to play, and then picking one section of that song, and then having the computer mix them for you, and then just kind of twiddling knobs, you know?

Indy: And smoking a cigarette.

Dieselboy: I'm the opposite, you know? I'm out there putting the work in. My friend Z-Trip, a fellow deejay, always says, the more your hands are up in the air, the less your hands are down on the decks, doing something.

bill@csindy.com

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