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John Digweed: "I want clubs to open but I want them to restart properly without rushing"

John Digweed discusses lockdown DJ life and his new mix project, 'Quattro'

  • Image: Dan Reid
  • 16 June 2020

John Digweed has just released his latest mix epic 'Quattro', which spans 45 tracks and four moods including 'Soundscape', 'Tempo', 'Redux' and 'Juxtaposition'. His dedicated fanbase have lapped it up – the vinyl and CD editions are onto their second pressing have only released several weeks ago.

Digweed should be touring 'Quattro' right now but the pandemic has put paid to that. We caught up with the Bedrock main man to talk life in DJ lockdown as well as his commitment to commercial mixes, graphic design and his predictions for dance music post COVID-19...

Tell us about 'Quattro' - it's been in the works for the last nine months.

Initially, the project was going to be a double CD release, with the first disc featuring exclusive new tracks and the second including remixes of some standout releases from the Bedrock catalog. However, as the album progressed and I sifted through more and more music that came in, I realised I had enough material to compile a downtempo, cinematic CD and add it to the project.

At around the same time, Nick Muir and I were putting the finishing touches on a side project we had been working on. The concept was very similar to 'The Traveler', the album we released a few years ago, which features a more electronic, tripped-out style as opposed to tracks made for the dance-floor. We decided to add our side project to the release to create a 4 x CD box-set. The final product showcased a downtempo, chilled-out, cinematic CD; a CD full of exclusive, unreleased material; a CD full of brand-new remixes; and a new album project from Nick and I titled 'Juxtaposition'. And thus, 'Quattro' was born.

Everything came together rather organically and there was no pressure as there was no set deadline for the project. I had the freedom to release it when I was completely satisfied with how the finished product sounded and, overall, I’m very happy with the outcome.

How do you put together such a marathon mix session?

To be honest, it wasn’t intentional at all. As I mentioned previously, the release evolved and shaped up as more and more great music was sent to me. The initial idea was to release it as an unmixed compilation of tracks – I had no plan on mixing them.

By the end of last year, I had consolidated almost all of the music and the project was nearly completed. I was bored on an 8-hour long flight somewhere and I decided to play around with the order of the tracks – they seemed to flow quite nicely. I mixed the 'Tempo' and 'Redux' CDs just to see – hypothetically – how the tracks would fit together, and was amazed at how well they flowed into one another. The entire vibe of the music changed once mixed.

Once I finished those two discs, I did the same with 'Soundscape' and 'Juxtaposition', and it completely changed the effect of the whole album. All the tracks working well together and leading into the next one gave 'Quattro' a completely different feel to what I’d initially expected.

What's your process for finding and cataloguing new music?

Finding new music has been the same for me since day one. I receive tracks from artists or producers for consideration for the label, or I reach out to people saying I am putting a new album together and ask them if they’ve got any new music they’d like to put forward. Then it comes down to listening a couple of times over to decide if I like the track, and if I’m going to like it in 5 plays, 10 plays, 100 plays, and more. This is key because I want our albums to withstand the test of time and I don’t want to be bored of the music after a few listens. Once I nail down the vibe of an album, everything seems to flow and fall into place. As I’ve put together over 60 compilation albums and mix albums throughout my career, I think I’ve garnered a pretty good idea of how to put one together.

Your mix CDs are still hugely popular. Why do you stick with the format?

The CD format is on its last legs to be fair. At this point, most people have moved to a more streaming/downloading based format of how they consume and listen to music. I consider myself to be very fortunate, as I have a loyal fan base that has been collecting my albums for decades and want to continue doing so. I think this is a massive contributing factor in my decision to continue releasing physical copies but sadly, due to the evolution of widespread technology formats, most people simply don’t have CD players anymore. There have been a couple of occasions where I’ve given a copy of one of my albums to a promoter at a gig who then thanks me, but then says, “I don’t have anything to play it on!” I think the CD market is now very similar to the vinyl market where it’s become quite niche and mostly sustained by purist music collectors. Obviously nothing lasts forever, and I’m very proud of the contribution I’ve made to the mix CD compilation market. It’s a bit of a shame because having a physical product of a project shows that a lot of thought and attention has been put into it, and it has a higher value than just a stream or a download. I understand that things have moved on, and people listen to/consume music in different ways now. I’m sure that it won’t be long until the mix CD is a thing of the past.

Can you tell us about the sleeve design of the CD and vinyl?

The sleeve design, along with all of the Bedrock artwork since its inception, was put together by David Malone (from Malone Design). We’ve been working together for over 22 years, and I just love the work that David produces for all of the albums, merchandise, and vinyl sleeves. He’s got an amazing eye for detail and the design is never cluttered, it always looks clean, and it always gets people talking about how great the design is. Sometimes, simplicity is best in design. We all pour so much care and attention into these albums – like I said, nowadays we try to make them as special as possible for dedicated fans and collectors – so we try to make the releases as best as can be to make people take notice. That’s what makes them so collectible.

The 'Quattro' 5x12”vinyl pack we put together was designed stunningly and the packaging looked amazing, which is part of the reason why I’d like to think it sold out so quickly. It was actually one of our fastest selling releases in our store. Many people even asked us to repress more copies! In order to make them collectible, we pressed a limited run of 500 signed and numbered copies. People who collect them know they are getting something that won’t be sold in shops, which is what true collectors and fans of the label wanted. There’s an awful lot of extra work that goes on behind the scenes to make this happen, but it’s all worth it when you see people posting pictures and commenting on how proud they are of their collections.

You have also been really active with your Bunker streams. Tell us about them!

The Bunker sessions took off organically on the first weekend that my gigs had been canceled. There was nowhere to go, I was stuck at home and all of my fans were too, so I figured I’d give it a go to see how it would unfold. My set-up consisted of my mobile phone stuck on a stand and audio came from the mic picking up sound from the speakers in the room. Nonetheless, the reaction was fantastic. As the weeks progressed, it got bigger and bigger. Naturally, now it’s become a very crowded market with so many streams taking place all week, day and night, with marathon sets and festivals jumping in as well.

I’ve managed to build a real community and vibe with all my fans that tune in every Saturday at 9 pm BST across the glove. They continue to support each and every one of my Bunker Sessions without fail. Being stuck at home, we’re all in the same position but I still love the music as well as the social aspect of clubbing, so it’s nice to bring people together through a stream. You can also see and read through the comments that people leave and how they interact with each other during the mixes. It’s created a great little community of like-minded, passionate music-lovers.

For some of the streams, it still isn’t 100 per cent perfect because I think on certain platforms the copyright of music causes dropouts or results in streams being stopped. I've also started using Mixcloud Live for my streams, as they’ve spent many years working on getting licenses that allows them to broadcast drop-out free streams that pay royalties to content rights holders of registered tracks featured on their streaming services. This is so important, now more than ever, because music makers need to see some return when their content is played, just like when music is used for movies or TV shows. Social media platforms need to do the right thing to make things are fairer for everyone. It’s a fast-moving landscape and people are coming up with fresh ideas on how to keep people entertained while clubs and festivals are closed. I’m sure there will continue to be many changes to how people watch acts/bands/DJs/comedians/etc. through their computers via the comfort of their own home.

How's life in lockdown been? Have you had any personal epiphanies?

Life in lockdown hasn’t been too different for me, minus the weekends. I’m usually at home during the week and reserve going away for the weekends, unless I’m on a long tour. So, really, I was already very used to just being around Sunday through Thursday. I’ve enjoyed the simple things in isolation, like being able to get a regular amount of sleep every night, maintaining a consistent exercise routine, and being able to eat at the same time every day. These things are typically out of the question when you’re out on the road and traveling consistently to maintain the nightclub lifestyle.

It's also given me the chance to go through loads of old paperwork, flyers, and CDs, and do all of the stuff that I never had the time to do (and didn’t really want to) because there was always something else going on. It’s been nice and cathartic not having touring as a distraction because I’ve been able to take my foot off the accelerator with work and recalibrate my body. I’ve liked having the time away from being on the road, as it’s given me time to stop, take a breather, and smell the roses. However, I do miss playing to people and the buzz I get from being at a great party.

Do you have an idea of when you'll be able to gig again?

Currently, I don’t think anyone has any idea as to when clubs and festivals will resume. The most important thing is to ensure that it’ll be a safe environment for people. There’s no point trying to start prematurely with the risk of a second wave when we could go into club lockdown again, but for an even longer period. We need to be patient and try our best to get it right the first time so that we, hopefully, don’t have to go through this again. This is uncharted territory for most, and the impact on nightlife, bars, restaurants, clubs, and hotels is immeasurable. It’s so sad that so many good people have lost their jobs or their businesses have been badly affected by this horrible virus. Just like everyone else, I want clubs to open up, but I want them to restart properly without rushing it.

The pandemic is going to change the music industry – what are your predictions for its impact?

Unless there is a vaccine, the impact on the music industry is going to be massive, as social distancing related restrictions at venues, clubs, and festivals will strip away the atmosphere that makes these events so special. The whole idea of clubbing revolves around social interaction and sharing moments with friends, or meeting new friends and experiencing special moments together. I’m also sure that we’ll see new promoters, brands, and DJs emerge with different perspectives, fresh ideas, and solutions that will be beneficial for the scene. I can’t predict what’s going to happen; it’s sadly going to be a few months, or longer, before we get back on that dancefloor. It’ll take a long time to rebuild – club owners, artists, and promoters are going to have to be creative to generate income during this time.

How can independent labels like Bedrock and underground DJs survive in the current climate?

Bedrock, like many other independent record labels, relies on its fans for support. I was so worried to release 'Quattro' because it coincided with the beginning of lockdown, and I had no idea how people would react, or if the album would still sell considering what was going on. We figured the physical album wouldn’t be considered as an essential item for most and we’d be left with a big sum of stock but, as music has been a huge comfort for many people during the lockdown, fans supported the album despite everything. The CDs and vinyl sold-out shortly after release day, which was incredible to see. We did a small repress due to the demand, which has nearly sold out as well. This, alongside all of the amazing and positive comments the release received, makes all of the work that went into it worthwhile.

People have also had a lot more time to listen to music during quarantine. Most labels have had to survive off music and merchandise sales, as well as one-off events. These are tough times for everyone and thus it’s very important that labels make every release great to maintain their fans’ attention. We also started pushing our Bedrock Bandcamp page more, as the label/artist gets a greater share of the of the sale percentage. This is particularly important during all of this, especially since streaming revenue from Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music is nowhere near what it should be. Especially considering that artists’ content is key to these platforms’ businesses.

John Digweed's 'Quattro' is out now, get it via Bandcamp

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