The modern-day electronic music industry is fast-paced with trends, genres, and styles sweeping in and out of fashion and favor every few years. To stay relevant and on the top of your game for extended periods of time is extremely tough considering the cut-throat competition that exists between DJs and artists for gigs around the world.
That being said, there are few who could argue that British electronic music icon Danny Howells was at the absolute pinnacle for a number of years during the mid-1990’s through to the first decade of the new millennium and perhaps even beyond. From being John Digweed’s protege during his formative years with Bedrock, landing mix-tapes on the revered Global Underground compilations and remixes for the likes of Robbie Williams, Danny’s sound has managed to stay every-green and prominent despite the changes in technological advancements and of course the internet.
Picture credits: Oldskull photography & mute
Beatworx Studio had the esteemed privilege of talking to Danny Howells during his recent tour of India to celebrate 1 year of Bleep. As I waited for him at the reception of his hotel, my usual interviewer poker face was replaced by one that was confused between excitement and nervousness. As he approached one could almost sense the aura of a DJ who has been at the top of the pile for the same number of years as my current age – 28.
Read on as we spoke to him about his beginnings, his career, and his experiences and also tried to squeeze the secret of his longevity out of him!
Welcome to India Danny. Is this your first time here?
Yes, it’s my first time. I’ve been here for a short while and hope to have a good time at my gigs in other cities and form an opinion. I can’t believe it’s taken me 27 years to get here actually!
Tell us about the kind of music you listened to while you were young?
Pretty much all my life has been spent listening to all kinds of music really. I grew up with a lot of Motown and classic rock that used to be played in the 70’s. Stuff from James Brown, The Beatles, David Bowie, Rolling Stones. As I got older I also obviously got into electronic music as well.
How did you make the switch to electronic music?
Um, I was really into Indie music like Prince and the Cure. In the late 80’s, Indie music got a bit more dancy and I used to follow bands like the Stone Roses, Primal scream and a lot of music like that. I used to live in Hastings which was a very small town on the South coast so I used to get to hear everything.
After the house music broke out in the UK in the late 80’s, I started getting really into it in 1990. A lot of clubs I went to were local clubs really and one of these clubs had John Digweed as an artist and a promoter.
When was it that you decided that you actually you wanted to become a DJ?
Well, the first time I DJ’d was in 1991 and It was at an all Prince party that we threw to celebrate his birthday. So we hired turn-tables and played his music all night long. But I was really addicted to it and thought to myself ” Wow, I really enjoy doing this”. So I went down to the local audio store the next day where they sold these turntables and the guy over there let buy a pair If I paid him 10 pounds a week. I started to mix at home at it was a big-big BIG hobby. I had a lot of records and started to collect a lot of electronic music and eventually started making a lot of mixtapes in 1991.
How did your Mixtape reach the ears of John Digweed, what are the odds?!
I really have no idea actually! ( laughs )
To be honest, around 1992, I started giving my mixtapes out to a couple of friends, about 4 or 5 and one of them managed to give it to Digweed!
He heard the mixtape and I got a chance to open for him at a pier in Hastings.
How was it to warm-up for John Digweed back then, when he was also breaking into the scene so to speak?
The first time I opened for him was probably the beginning of ’93 when he was still breaking through and hadn’t become a “superstar” DJ back then. “Superstar” DJ culture didn’t really exist, but for us, he was a really influential person. He was bringing in guys like Andy Weatherhall, Orbital, Carl Cox and other big names at that time. He was a really big DJ but wasn’t a superstar.
I can say that it was really really scary. I used to think I messed it up every time by either going to slow or too hard, but I kept getting calls to come back so I guess it went well too!
Can you tell us how you prepared for those opening-sets back then?
Well, I kinda knew how to do it in a way, because I’d been to a lot of John’s parties and also noticed how the parties started with the sound system on low volume and the lights on dim. I saw how the night would develop and build and was a picture to me in my head. I knew how to go about it and I was also downloading a lot of eclectic deep American house music and garage, Italo-house, disco etc. I focussed on a lot of the houser American sounds for my opening sets playing music from guys like masters at work and that sorta stuff.
Why are warm-up sets so important for a night out at a club according to you?
For me, as I belong to a different generation of DJs where warm-up sets were really important. If I go to a club myself and I go early, I like having a few drinks and talking to a few people, relaxing and then slowly getting sucked into the night, so to speak. There’s nothing more embarrassing if you go to a festival or a club and there are five people there and the DJ is hammering out techno or something high-tempo music.
Also If I was playing before someone personally, I’d like for the DJ to be comfortable. If you’re inviting a DJ from another country or something like that, it’s good to know what and how they play because the music you play before him and the music that comes after him needs to fit so that the whole night pays sense to the DJ and the crowd who pay money to fill up the place.
I always think warm-up sets are a great time to play music you don’t really have a chance to play otherwise. There’s so much music out there, like really deep and dubby techno, house or downtempo. It’s the best time to get creative and have fun!
How does Danny Howells go about curating music for a DJ set at a club against a set for a Mix-tape?
It’s very different. A live set like tonight, for me, has to be as different as it can. I play some old tunes and sometimes some which are more recent. You try and make each experience different. You are hearing the music in the same way the club is hearing it so, at a DJ set, it’s mostly what the situation demands really.
For a set that’s on a compilation, it’s something that people will have on their shelves at home for 10 – 15 years. As a DJ, you need to make sure that the songs you select will be timeless. I don’t do compilation mixes anymore, but when I did I used to go through all of my music ( doesn’t matter how old they are ) and picked out tracks I never get bored off. If I don’t get bored of a track then maybe my listeners wouldn’t as well.
Could you tell us a bit about your days as a Vinyl DJ and your experiences?
I still play vinyl privately, but not on tour anymore. I think I used to stop traveling with records in 2008. I would go on a long tour to like America or Australia or Asia and I’d take two boxes of vinyl that could hold about 200 records. I also carried a little record player too so that I could listen to music in my hotel room.
You really needed to know your music and your records back then.
I remember this one-time I was playing at Twilo in NewYork and I had to play a 10-hour set. My records were stuck in London and didn’t make it down. I had only about 30 records on my carry on baggage at the time and my friend Bill brought down a few and I really thought the night turned out to be a mess. But the crowd said it was one of their favorite sets ( because they didn’t know)!
I miss playing vinyl because it’s so much fun and I still buy vinyl, but after all these years I’m happy to switch to digital.
Picture credit: BNP party open Air / La Fabrica
Is it safe to say Danny Howells is a DJ first and then a producer? Tell us a bit about your dabbles in production?
I did a few tracks with Squelch and then worked with another producer on the Robbie Williams remix. I then started working with Dick Trevor a couple of years later and we did that Science department track ‘Kinky fun’. All of this kinda leads up to my label and night Dig Deeper and what followed after. I made a lot of music in 2007 and 2008 for the label as well.
In what way is your label ‘Dig Deeper’ a reflection of your own personality as a DJ?
I took my own influences as a DJ and tried to put it on there. We had downtempo, minimal, drum and bass with some different styles of music on there. What I tried to do was to try and make the sound that I wanted to play out but couldn’t it find online or in my promos or folders.
I wanted this kinda sound which was housey, a little proggy but also melodic. Stuff that one could play at a warm-up. It’s basically just the kind of music I like playing out.
We have to ask you as someone who has played on every-conceivable turn-table, deck or platform, what’s your take on the evergreen CDJ/Vinyl and Traktor debate?
I’ve never really thought about it even though I’m still stuck on CDJs, if I see people playing on a laptop I really have no clue what they are playing on. I have seen some people learning how to play by pressing a button and playing a track, but in my opinion, if that’s all you are doing then you should probably get out of the DJ booth really.
I love mixing personally. I love the little key-clashes and the whole randomness of spontaneous mixing which I think is important. Sometimes DJs just play music off a playlist which is basically just a collection of songs that you can get off Beatport probably and have a computer play them out for you.
For me programming your music and selecting tunes is the most important part to DJing.
From playing opening sets in 1993 to now playing in Bangalore in 2018, you really have a long and storied career. What’s the secret to your longevity in the electronic music industry?
Everything’s changed a lot and I’ve changed a lot as well. DJing is always one part of me and who I am but I’ve always had ‘another life’ and passions so to speak. Right now I’m an animal activist and I have a lot of time to devote to the things I really care about apart from music. I’m not quite popular right now as I was back then but it suits me fine as I have a lot more time on my hands!
I have two lives really and because I have two lives and they are so separate, it helps keep me focussed and motivated.
What does Danny Howells do when he isn’t DJing?
Well, I do a lot of animal rights activism and really don’t like having time on my hands to relax!