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Denis Sulta: "I only believe in two genres of music: good and bad"

We spoke to the Sulta Selects boss about his debut Printworks show, duality, and looking for the magic in everything

  • In association with Printworks London | Interview: Patrick Hinton | Photo: Haris Nukem
  • 4 November 2019

Denis Sulta is a livewire of exultant energy. From Berlin’s Panorama Bar to Ibiza’s Pikes via Manchester’s gargantuan Warehouse Project to Glasgow’s intimate Sub Club, his presence on the DJ circuit ignites dancefloors with music tailor-made for a fun time.

His mission statement is to spread positivity throughout the world, and that outlook runs through his work and life in music - even while he’s been battling his own demons.

Ahead of his debut show at Printworks London this Saturday - a hand-curated Sulta Selects spectacular - we caught up with the Scottish DJ, producer, promoter and label boss to discuss his sense of dual identity, debut BBC Radio 1 residency, why there’s no such thing as a ‘guilty’ pleasure, his new EP on Ninja Tune, ghost producers, and more.

Get tickets for Sulta Selects at Printworks on November 9 here, pre-order his new EP ''Aye Spoake Te Sumwuhn & They Listenhd' here, and check out the Q+A below.

The Sulta Selects show at Printworks on November 9 is your first show at the club. How excited are you to finally check out the space?

It's one of those venues where you're like, 'fuck, I want to play there.' When I first had a whiff of the opportunity to curate a Sulta Selects party at Printworks, I was just like 'wow, that is huge.' Printworks is cool as fuck. The amount of work that goes into these things logistically is huge. This show is going to be amazing. Funnily enough, the record I'm releasing on Ninja Tune comes out the day just before. Having a debut eight-track EP on Ninja Tune and the next day having a curated show at Printworks - it's huge. I've been thinking how to articulate it in words, but it's unquantifiable.

What inspired your choices for the line-up programming?

The whole concept of Sulta Selects as a party and label is mainly based upon the people I'm extremely excited to go and see DJ, or excited about as artists. I love the whole aspect of art being a transferable skill, because if you're a creative person, then not only will you be able to understand why a piece of sonic art is provocative, but you'll also be able to understand why a piece of visual art is. That said, it's really nice to be able to work with people that are enthusiastic to play the party, because that removes the whole chin-stroking aspect of it.

People that I'm really excited about for this show are Tijana T, who I played back-to-back with in Panorama Bar with Solomun the other weekend. Skatebård is an absolutely boss. He's constantly smiling, that's the sort of person I want at a party. Ryan Elliott is one of my ultimate rolling techno favourites. Jennifer Cardini, who I saw at the Circoloco show I played at ADE. I was so unbelievably starstruck; she was so amazing I couldn't even say hello. Leo Pol is the next big thing in European dance music; his live show is so exciting. Then we've got Virginia who I'm going to go back-to-back with. Virginia is someone I look up to a lot, I cannot wait to communicate and work together. A lot of back-to-backs can end up as an elbows out - excuse the phrase - pissing contest. It's something I've experienced a couple of times and I don't think that the atmosphere created by one individual trying to one up the other is particularly friendly on the dancefloor. I can't wait to learn from from her and see what we can do together.

Read this next: Denis Sulta escaped depression to live out his DJ dreams

You spoke in your Mixmag cover feature about how the music you release is your legacy in the world, including the output you curate for the Silver Service imprint. What draws you to the music and artists you release on that label?

As far as the word legacy goes, that is extremely flattering that it could be described as that. The way that Sulta Selects became Silver Service is that the Sulta Selects concept was based on a triptych by Francis Bacon. He's my all-time biggest inspiration. His inner turmoil between who he wanted to be and how he felt about himself is something that he depicted in such a visceral and incredibly expressive way, and that rhymed true with the way that I see myself and who it is that I want to be. His triptych of three individual canvasses forming one piece of work on the pope is my favourite piece. I basically decided Sulta Selects was going to be a triptych and finish after the third record. Then after I made my artistic statement, I wanted to focus on boosting other artists. The Cromby, Hammer and Dan Shake records are all fucking sick.

The ‘sense of self’ is a really significant theme in your work. Your cover feature was fronted with dual Francis Bacon-inspired portraits, and you spoke about Hector and Denis as different identities, and moulding those identities. How do you view your Hector and Denis sides currently? How intertwined are they?

It's an interesting concept, because right now in my life I feel quite chirpy. I feel good about things. Every once in a while I go through a real cycle of: this is what depression feels like, and I just disappear. I don't speak to anybody and it's horrible. I feel like I don't want to burden anybody else, and at the same time, everybody wants to know that I'm OK or alive. I'm lucky enough to have come out of the other side of an experience that has given me the tools to think about things in a certain way. For a long time, I was cross-eyed and Denis was always at the end of the seat and following me. I couldn't prove it but I had in my head that he was bad news. He always used to knock on the door, and I'd never answer. Eventually I opened the door and we had a chat, and I realised the bad news I was expecting wasn't a valid thing to believe. It takes a long time to be OK with who it is you think you want to be. Now that I feel OK about who we are together, that feels fucking great. It took a long time and a lot of work. Everybody is - and deserves to feel like - a superstar. I hate the idea of anybody ever thinking they can't be who it is they want to be, or who they are. Go for it! Whenever it is that you fall back, that's when you prop each other up.

The new images you’ve taken with Haris Nukem for the release of 'Aye Spoake Te Sumwuhn & They Listenhd' are very striking, Seems like there are some Bowie-esque tones to it. What inspired that aesthetic look you’ve gone for?

It was a split personality thing. Denis, the ego or the person that you want to be, and the person that you feel like you are. That's something I've always been struggling with as an individual and mentally. I've had a voice in the back of my head for a long time, and it's not something that I was really able to express. I've come to realise that Hector and Denis are both exactly the same person. I used to think that he was after me, but actually we're after the same thing: and that's just being happy.

The way that Haris works is so interesting. I admire the effort he's put into creating his artistic vision. He'll be shooting then all of a sudden has an Evian bottle in front of the lens, and the next thing you know it looks ridiculous. I definitely wanted to do something that was red, which was based on [Kanye West's] 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy'. Red is a very provocative colour. I wanted it to look androgynously beautiful. He captured that perfectly.

You recently started a BBC Radio 1 residency which is a major step. How did it feel to be selected to take that up and how are you approaching it? What side of yourself do you want to show?

It's a dream come true. I have always wanted to be the voice behind the dials. You know, walking or getting a lift to school and hearing "Hi, my name is so-and-so and welcome to BBC Radio 1". Half of the reason why I don't remember that name is because every time I heard that, I wished I could say my own. I'm learning a lot, being able to present music in a way that I don't normally get to do. The direction I'm going to go down is playing music that's not only associated with Denis Sulta as a DJ, but also music that wouldn't be heard in clubs that I also love. I only believe in two genres of music, and that's good and bad. I only ever want to play music that is emotionally provocative and stuff that has stories attached to it. I think that the power of association is one of the most important things about how I find music, so everything has a bit of a back story.

On the topic of there only being "good and bad music", you’ve been vocal against the strain of criticism that has been levelled at DJs for playing what some could consider "cheesy trance records" and so on. You've said “there are no 'guilty' pleasures. Only pleasures, and shit you don't like.” How important do you think it is to stick to your guns and play with your heart as a DJ?

For so much of my musical upbringing, I was into music that people would slag me for. There's only so much pretentious, narrow-minded, tunnel vision, 'this is the only shit you need to listen to' takes you can hear. If you were to allow people's opinions to define the way you approach your job, then what you're doing is putting your own self-validation is somebody else's hands. At the same time, you should also realise that this whole thing about being an entertainer and DJ is that it's not about you. Someone very close to me once said: "Remember that this isn't about you. Imagine if you had saved all year to get a babysitter and got the weekend off to come see your favourite DJ play." That's how you have to look at these things. A tune like 'Meet Her At The Love Parade' - tell me anybody who's not going to have fun to that at 3.30am? No one ever takes a video of the Gesloten Cirkel shit that I play!

Read this next: The Cover Mix: Denis Sulta

Back in August you joked about having a ghost producer on Twitter but then posted some more earnest comments about ghost producers, saying you don’t disapprove but also advising people to “never ever lose your sense of self, you deserve to feel proud.” Could you explain a bit further the point you were making in these comments?

I basically wanted to say that you can either be negative and give people a hard time for having a ghost producer, or you can view the person more positively as a creative director. I've been listening to the Kanye West ['Jesus Is King'] album on loop. That genius cannot be achieved alone. If you think that it can be, you're a self-indulgent artist who will get to the point where you think that you do everything. You can make a kick drum sound absolutely amazing, but if your hi-hats sound like shit, why not get somebody to help you with your hi-hats? Why would you want to do everything alone? That sounds like a lonely existence.

People that love complaining about things will always complain about stuff. I only ever want to spread joy in this world. There's magic in anything as long as you're prepared to look for it.

Your new EP 'Aye Spoake Te Sumwuhn & They Listenhd' is described as “the story of how Denis became who he is to this day.” What other experiences have informed it?

'Aye Spoake Te Sumwuhn & They Listenhd' is essentially me going through a long period of realising who I am, and talking to professionals about mental health, having a problem with occupational hazards, pitfalls and trust issues. From the start of this record, which is 'In~Narito' - my concept of hope - all the way to 'Welcome, To The Rest Of My Life', which is the moment that I realised the voice I had inside of me is actually not a monster. 'Welcome, To The Rest Of My Life' is the moment I found myself standing a couple of inches taller. Those eight tracks are dedicated to either a memory or a person who made me realise how much trouble I was in, who actually cares for me, what it feels like to be alone, and the realisation that people actually love me.

There’s a track on the EP called ‘Matthew Keeps Me Pirrie’ which you’ve said is about a young man who helped you one day because "were feeling frustrated with myself, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t be like the people I admired” and “He kept me Hector that day, he welcomed Denis.” Could you explain how that experience impacted you?

Matthew is a close family friend. One morning I was sitting there trying to make a record that sounded like Karenn, because that whole techno aesthetic like Surgeon, British Murder Boys and AnD was all I cared about growing up. The darkest, banging, punk UK techno. I used to make that when I was an angry young man. I was sitting there, wondering why I couldn't make a record that sounds like a hit. I was getting really frustrated and in a bad place mentally. Matthew came round with a bottle of Buckfast and said "Just do you. The reason why you are you, and what you do is what you do, is because you are you. The ratio of having two ears and one mouth means that you listen twice as much as you speak." I was like, 'you have no idea how profound that actually is!' That day he made me feel like it was ok to be me. Next thing you know, I'm making an anthemic banger.

Final release tickets for Sulta Selects at Printworks on November 9 are on sale here

Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Features Editor, follow him on Twitter

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