Gareth Emery is a producer that doesn\’t need much introduction. Since his explosion into the world of trance, Emery has left a lasting impression on trance fans and received support in his early career from legends such as Paul van Dyk, Tiesto, Armin van Buuren and Ferry Corsten. His productions and energetic sets have led the producer from England on a demanding international touring schedule, the success of which has earned him various awards, including peaking at #7 on the DJ Mag Top 100 list. His weekly program, \’Gareth Emery Podcast\’ has won the best podcast award by the Winter Music Conference\’s International Dance Music Awards three times. In addition to his own production and performances, Gareth owns his own record label, Garuda, which features artists such as Tritonal and Ben Gold. As the album release tour Drive, named after his studio album released in April of this year, brings him back to Chicago, I took the opportunity to sit down with Gareth to discuss his role in music and what the future holds for his fans.
John C: Your introduction to music production came from non-dance orientated music. You are a classically trained pianist and have a history with both Jazz and Punk. What caused the transition towards Trance?
Gareth Emery: I guess it had to do with what an exciting time it was for electronic music in the UK. It was like the way things are now in the US, it kind of exploded and it attracted people who were not into the music before, and I guess I was part of that wave. Guys like Corsten, Tiesto, Van Dyk and Armin were starting to gain mainstream recognition for the first time. I was now hearing a side of dance music I haven’t heard before. Prior to that electronic music was either super underground, which I wasn’t aware of at the time, or music that you would just listen to if you were trying to hook up with girls, but you would never listen to on your own. I think it was the trance of that period that got me started.
John C: Many artists mention the role prior music projects held when they transitioned to a new genre or style. How do you think your background shaped your music as you made the transition?
Gareth Emery: Yeah I definitely had an appreciation for all sorts of music. Having a classical background improves some areas of electronic music production, but it doesn’t improve them all. You can be overtrained. Classical music training isn’t about learning to write stuff, it’s about learning to re-play things that exist well. So you have to unlearn a little bit when approaching making music, because the best dance music tracks are not rehashes of what you had heard before, they are ones that do things you have not heard before. So it is a little challenge to get over that, but it makes it much easier to get the sounds you have in your head onto a computer screen.
John C: As the scene’s growth has lead to many newcomers, which young artists do you think are worth keeping an eye out or do see as inspiring?
Gareth Emery: I think it is just amazing how quickly the new comers can arrive on the scene, and it is testament to how dynamic this scene can be. There are people that like 3 years ago were considered hot new comers, but now are looked at as old school. You look at guys like Robinson and Zedd appearing on the scene and now they are considered fully established because it seems like they have been around forever, and it is because you have so many new guys that exploded out of the gates since then. We have a guy called BL3R, from Seattle, and he won a remix competition for a record I did, and it was a bit dubstep like a Seven Lions type of thing. They are fucking amazing, I had never heard them before. So definitely going to do some kind of collaboration with them. It is an exciting time for our scene, and there is no sign of it slowing, which is amazing. I think as long as kids keep making amazing fucking music, that is what is keeping the standard high. I don’t think it has ever been such a large amount of hunger, especially amongst the like 19 and 20 year olds who are breaking through, and that keeps the guys like us on our toes because we need to keep on top of shit. We have all seen the guys who make it and then fall out of it, which can be hard especially when it happens to friends, but you know, it is good for the music.
John C: Drive was released on April 1st and now your related tour brings you back to Chicago. You have mentioned that this album has been in the works for over two years. What was the inspiration behind releasing a follow up full-length album?
Gareth Emery: I have always wanted to do one after my first album, which was in 2010 and called Northern Lights. What kind of happened with that one, I released it as a new artist, I mean I was pretty much an opening act. What had happened was, the album had a lot of success, and one track in particular, Sanctuary, became a rather big track, especially out here. So I basically went from being the opening act to a headlining act. So I went from 4 gigs a month to 12 or 13, and it became very difficult to find studio time, so in the four years since then it has become a real challenge to learn how to balance a demanding global touring schedule and making music. So I guess I have to master making music on planes, trains, and on the road a bit. I needed to discover how to use any downtime to get on my laptop and make music, and I think only once I embraced that, that Drive came to be. The album is influenced by Route 66, my wife and I took a drive from New York to LA, as part of our honeymoon, and dealing with ghost towns, deserts, and things like that. The trip sort of gave the imagery for the album, and I wanted the album to be almost the ultimate road trip type of album: The album I would have liked to have on that trip, but didn’t
John C: You mentioned in your album announcement that Drive was a “step away from EDM Festival drops” and that you “represent a variety of styles but every track is still absolutely Gareth Emery”. Do you think it is critical, now more than ever, for an artist to diversify themselves and is that a result of the increased competition we spoke of?
Gareth Emery: I don’t know if it is necessarily ‘critical,’ I think it is just whatever is artistically true. There are many very successful EDM artists that don’t really diversify at all, they essentially make the same album over and over again, but do it very well and effectively. In particularly, say, the Dutch producers, and this is nothing against the Dutch, but they are very good at what they do. The approach there is the find a successful formula, and they repeat with a new track every 3-4 months, and why the fuck not? It works, it’s popular, it makes money, and if that is what they want to do all respect to them. It is a personal choice. For me, I was playing a lot of these festival bangers and it occurred to me this was not the music I wanted to make, it’s not music we will be listening to a year from now, especially 10 years from now. These tracks are very transitory, they are big for like 6 months, you hear them at all the festivals, but it is not changing anyone’s lives. It won’t be played at anyone’s wedding, it won’t be played at anyone’s funeral. Then I looked at my old records, and people were still fucking listening to these records 5 years up. I want to make music that touches people’s lives and has an impact on them, something that will stick with them long term. It was just a decision on what I wanted to do musically, and it went from there.
John C: The album has included various guest appearances and collaborations, from Chicago based Krewella, to British vocalist and DJ Christina Novelli. Over your years in production, has one artist in particular stood out to you as inspiring to work with or maybe presenting the most synergy for your approach to music?
Gareth Emery: Anybody on the album was super fun to work with; I have never worked with anybody who didn’t get through to me. Krewella was super talented and they are very particular, as you would expect of someone of their musical talent. We kicked that record backwards and forwards to each other for probably a better part of a year, making tiny changes, both of us playing the song in our set, finding where it was solid, where it was weak, and getting feedback that way. It was an easy record to start, certainly not an easy record to finish. You never know which record will blow up and which will not, so you always have to give it the best. There is no reason not to give every record your best.
John C: Beyond these artists, if you could collaborate with any artist that you have not had the opportunity to work with yet, who would that be?
Gareth Emery: There are guys I grew up listening to, that play in bands and shit, guys like Noel Gallagher from Oasis or David Albarn from Blur, you know people that do very different stuff. The people I really want to work with though are the people that none of us have heard yet, I really like discovering new artists and vocalist, especially that haven’t done dance music before, especially if they don’t even know what it is, but have incredible voices. This is kind of how Christina Novelli was before I found her to work with. That gives me more pleasure than people we have all heard and know already, to bring someone new into this world.
John C: Earlier this year, in collaboration with Complex magazine, you took on a project titled “Going off the Grid” in which you were brought to, as you describe it, “absolute middle of fucking nowhere, with no cell phone service or internet, armed with just my laptop and headphones” and asked to write a track. How was this creative process for you as an artist? It seems similar to the inspiration you mentioned for Drive, do you see yourself taking a similar approach in the future?
Gareth Emery: It was pretty good actually, it was a good experience. It is hard work. I expected it to be more relaxing, you know me sitting in a fucking cabin or something, but instead we were spending two hours to hike up a mountain and things like that in 100 degree heat, but it was super fun. I actually went off the grid, as they call it, later than that too, in the UK. Two days, no email, no cell phone; I had an emergency cell phone in case family had to contact me in emergency, but it didn’t have any data on it or anything. I actually since then have been examining how much I am connected with Facebook and Twitter and all this stuff that comes and goes. I am not sure that stuff is a good thing, so I am trying to spend time getting back to being an artist rather than being an online socialite and shit. So I think it is kind of important as an artist, so I do think it was an enjoyable experience.
John C: Musical performance has changed significantly from the days of two turntables and a mixer, to extravagant performances including lights, CO2 blasts, and more. Some of this has lead to criticism as some claim it distracts from the actual music and others that think the DJ is an entertainer and it is part of the role. As an artist, what do you think of this? Is it part of the performance or a distraction?
Gareth Emery: I mean, I would fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t tend to engage heavily into those sorts of debates; I just do what I do and leave that for the YouTube comments section. I think, regardless of what I think or what anybody else thinks, these performances are going to happen; people will do what they want. When I hear some fucking ‘holier than thou’ techno DJ criticizing, let’s say Steve Aoki, for instance, I think ‘what right does that one guy have to criticize what Steve Aoki does’. In that same right, I would feel the exact same way if Steve Aoki were to say ‘look at that miserable fucking bore with his head in his laptop, who wants to see that;’ but it is usually the kind of guys into the deeper genres that criticize Steve Aoki, and you don’t see much of it the other way. The way I see it is, even if that is not me, I don’t ride the crowd in a fucking little rubber boat, instead I am more focused on production, I am more focused on my visuals being super in sync with the music; In fact I am heavily invested and spend a lot on the visual aspect of my performances. You know what I would say? I think the bar has definitely been raised in terms of performance, and that is one thing I think the performer DJs have done. However you do it, whether that is in great production, amazing technical ability, or a different performance aspect, there is a higher example we have to aspire to.
John C: Let’s move away from that and towards the visual side. During the performance, I noticed you had a VJ working with you? How long has that relationship been established and do you use the same person regularly?
Gareth Emery: It’s been about two years. He was originally my tour manager and never VJ’d. As it turns out, he was a bit of a technical genius and just didn’t realize it. So we kind of begun with getting videos made for us and we would play with DVD players and that is how we did it. Then we kind of took it from there and now we have a pretty comprehensive set up. The biggest challenge when integrating this sort of thing, is, well…it’s very easy to have perfectly in sync visuals if your show is not live, you just press play on the visuals and it is all done in advanced. The challenge for us, I don’t want to play a show that isn’t live. What I love about being a DJ is being able to decide what to play next, because occasionally you think “Ok, the crowd isn’t feeling this, let’s go to something else.” So, it took a while to work out systems where we could run time codes from my Traktor laptop to his laptop to keep the visuals in sync, but I still retain the ability to fuck around with stuff however I want. That was basically the challenge, and we just about got there.
John C: I did take notice of that during your set as I am familiar with performance and production methods. I also noticed that your VJ had a projection of your Traktor screen on his laptop as well. I assume that was so he could note the waveform?
Gareth Emery: Exactly. So we have an internal network with a screen share. So what that basically means is, he can see exactly what I am doing at any time, and he can see what track comes up next. He generally has some sort of visual prepared for each track. In addition, if I am about to play a track he isn’t familiar with, when I throw something new in, he can pay attention to the moving wave form, he can see where those drop outs are and he can see where those build ups are. It can make such a difference to the show. So it is part live VJ, obviously he is doing the VJ portions live along with me, and part video playback so he can transition into videos where we have lyrics and he can manage keeping those in sync. I don’t usually explain all this, but I know you produce so you would actually understand what I am saying. Essentially, my Traktor has two extra tracks playing exactly in sync with the main tracks, and we utilize those tracks to share time code to his laptop so he can keep in sync. This works fantastically, because if I, say, enter a loop for example, my track is now looping, but so is the time code, which in turn keeps the visuals looping at that point. I can fucking jump around the track, change the speed, anything, it’s pretty fucking cool.
John C: Out of all the venues you have had the pleasures of playing at, both clubs and festivals alike, has one in particular stuck out to you as your favorite place to perform?
Gareth Emery: There are so many places, especially here in the US. Yes, I always enjoy the nights where my friends are there; I mean I love my friends and family always being there and those shows are always fun. It always surprises me what my favorite night was at the end of the year. Sometimes it is a small club with like 30 people that I didn’t expect to be anything and it turned out to be fantastic. You know it is not always the case that the biggest ones are always the best ones, and that is why the answer isn’t automatically one of the festivals. In fact, often times at the big festivals, there is so much pressure, so many eyes on you, and you don’t necessarily enjoy it as much and you almost feel a relief when you get it done and nothing went wrong because of that pressure. Yeah, I am pretty lucky to do this shit man and have such a variety, and go from 300 person venues to fucking venues of 50-60 thousand. It’s perfect.
John C: I can only imagine. Being in Chicago, I always try to bring in a Chicago focused question. Since this isn’t your first time in our city, what is your favorite part about visiting Chicago?
Gareth Emery: Honestly, it is a beautiful downtown. It is an amazing city with a ton of amazing restaurants. It is much more compact than Los Angeles which I am currently based in, and it is not nearly as hard to get to places. I just struggle with the weather when I come here in the winter. This time of year is nice because I can walk around and do stuff for a little bit while I am here. I will be honest, if I am here in the winter there are times I don’t leave the hotel room too much.
John C: I understand, but don’t fall into the mistake of following Chicago seasons, they don’t exist here, and one day it can be really nice and the next absolutely freezing.
Gareth Emery: (Laughs) I have actually had that here in the summer. One day it is really hot, and then the next day, not so much….
John C: So you are currently on the Drive tour, but what comes next for the Gareth Emery fans?
Gareth Emery: Well I am re-launching my record label, Garuda, with some new partners so it will be a bit of a re-brand, which I am excited about. I think I was so focused on Drive over the last year, which means I kind of didn’t spend as much time with the label, and it can use a little love. I am excited to give that label a bit of a kick in the ass and get it back to where it needs to be. I am already starting on the next album; I have probably written most of the music, I just haven’t taken the time to produce it. There will be a few singles to sit in between it with Drive, one of them I actually played tonight, which I believe will be the next one released. So I am getting right back into it.
John C: Sounds great. Last subject for the night: You have mentioned getting back into the label and also getting back into the studio for yourself. Is there one you are more particularly excited to focus on?
Gareth Emery: I am excited about the other artists and new music. I was so focused on Drive, I don’t think I have given other guys the time I think I wanted to. I am looking forward to getting more involved with it and hearing what they are making, giving some artistic direction and assisting with the \’work on this,\’ \’work on that\’ part of owning a label to have a more dynamic role to shaping the music. I am also excited to be getting back into the studio a bit though as well. I am going to take a lot of time off this next year so I can get more music written and maybe only do a few bigger shows, such as Vegas. This might be the first time in my life I feel like I am fortunate enough to have made enough money to be able to take some time off from the road, and be able to have the luxury and freedom to get back in the studio and focus on new music and hopefully work on album 3, whatever the fuck it is going to be called. It will be the best album I have ever done, and I can say that because I always push myself to get better and better.
John C: Do you think having the pressure of touring off of you will make it easier as you are back in the studio to put your ideas together?
Gareth Emery: Well it will certainly be easier to have the time, I can say that. The time is certainly great. It does put a new pressure on you though, because it takes away any excuse. If you are somebody who is out playing 150+ shows a year, you have this excuse if your music isn’t perfect, but if you have 5-6 weeks off or if you are only doing shows in Vegas, which is 3 hours away, you don’t have any excuse. You have all the time; you should spend every fucking day in the studio, so it is definitely a different pressure and challenge, because when you have that freedom there is no excuse.
I would like to thank Gareth Emery for the interview and The Mid for hosting it.