Name: Damian Lazarus
Occupation: Producer, DJ
Current Release: Flourish on Crosstown Rebels
Recommendations: There is a new artist I really like called Jonathan Cooke. His paintings are abstract and super beautiful and I love the jewellery designs from Liase, really next level art to be worn.
If you enjoyed this interview with Damian Lazarus, there are plenty of places to find out more about him and his work: His website, facebook account, soundcloud profile and Instagram page.
When did you start DJing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was 12 when I started buying records and 14 when I had my own Technics and mixer. So I was very young. I was fully immersed in music, every day I would listen to pirate radio stations in London like LWR and Solar and also to Pete Tong and Robbie Vincent on Radio London and Capital. I read magazines like Blues and Soul and would go to shows and watch DJs and try to understand this new culture. I had always loved collecting things (marbles, smelly erasers, smurfs and Star Wars figures), records was the next thing for me. I would work at the weekends to earn enough money to buy a couple of records and then I would play them over and over and slowly watch my collection grow.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I was inspired greatly by my older cousin who was a regular at parties like Goldmine and Do at the Zoo. He introduced me to bands like Maze and also helped me get into Hip Hop. My first experiences in the studio were at Plink Plonk studios in Kings Cross where Matthew B (Bushwacka) and Mr C worked. I made my first music with 2 engineers there called Jono Podmore (Kumo) and Laggy Pantelli (Hijacker/Megalon), these guys were incredible producers and they taught me so much.
At that time I was trying very hard to put all my inspirations and influences into the music, it was too much, and after a while I started to understand that less is more and that I needed to really focus in the studio, experiment and keep working things out until I found what I liked and didn’t want in my music.
In 2010 I made my first album, Smoke the Monster Out, working with Arthur Jeffes who is the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and with Luke Solomon. These guys helped me deliver the musical forms and ideas that I wanted to explore and execute. Through all of this process you learn and understand more and more about what kind of artist you are and aspire to be.
What were some of the main challenges and goals when starting out as a DJ and how have they changed over time? What is it about DJing, compared to, say, producing your own music, that makes it interesting for you?
Making music is quite a solitary process whereas djing is all about the connection with people, often thousands of people all at once. I thrive on gathering with people, experiencing human emotions, touching souls with music and so djing is a perfect job for that.
It’s funny to say the word “job" because often it doesn’t feel like one, apart from the travel and stuff involved. It was a long, tough journey to become a “professional” DJ, I had to trust my instincts and make a lot of mistakes along the way but it was all worth it.
How would you define the job and describe the influence of the DJ? How are the experience and the music transformed through your work?
You hope that each show will be a rewarding one. The ultimate goal is to connect with people musically and to second guess the next moment and the moment after that. To bring people around to your musical way of thinking. To lift peoples’ spirits and play with their emotions. The best moments are when you feel transcended yourself in the music and the whole room is totally in the same zone.
What was your first set-up as DJ like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I like to keep it pretty basic but from a young age I knew I needed to have a few extra things to play around with when djing. I have a lot of nervous energy and can’t stand still too long.
My first mixer was a Numark 1775A which had the sampler function, these days I like to use various outboard fx and delay units to add textures to my mixing. However I don't like to mess too much with the tracks as I feel that if I've decided to play a particular track, it must be good enough to listen and dance to as it is, without too much interference.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I often wonder how long it will be before we can imagine a sound in our heads and then transmit that thought to a machine that can create it for us. We then continue to direct the machine to perfect it using nothing but our imagination. Elon Musk has started to experiment with this brain chip technology and given his current run of good form, maybe this idea is closer than we think.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do life and creativity feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Firstly I have a 4 year old and a 2 year old at home. So as you can imagine they take priority and consequently it can be difficult to stick to a routine.
However when I was making this album we had help at home so that afforded me the ability to treat the studio like a 9-5 job. I generally get up early most days, around 6:30/7am (I usually sleep between 5-6 hours a night). If the weather is good I'll have an early swim, drink coffee and make sure the world hasn’t ended overnight by reading or watching the news.
Whilst the kids are at nursery/school I will work on the label and make various calls and meetings and then later I’ll find time to do more creative things, either in the studio or outside in the nature around me. We grow a lot of vegetables here and make wine plus I have a bunch of animals to hang out with and make sure they’re ok. At night I'll relax with my girlfriend and try to switch off but of course with the time difference, people I work with in the US might need my attention so I may have to do a couple more hours work at night. I might watch some tv or a movie if I'm in the mood. Recently I've loved Watchmen, Succession and It May Destroy You.
Let's say you have a gig coming up tonight. What does your approach look like – from selecting the material and preparing for, opening and then building a set?
I had a few shows in the last weeks and at first I was a bit lost trying to prepare, having not played for months.
My method generally is to create monthly folders of new music and select from them from memory when playing out. There are no genre splits or anything like that, simply JAN 2016 or SEP 2019, etc. But due to not playing out because of the Virus, I had to try and assemble the best music from the last 6 months into understandable folders. Fortunately I have continued to make the monthly folders (which entails whittling down around 500 tracks a week to the 20 or 30 that I would consider playing out). So for these recent shows I listened back to all the music from each month and then created genre folders (2020 TRIBAL, 2020 DEEP) for example.
I am playing a show this weekend so I will add some new tracks to these folders and continue like this until we get back to a normal state of being.
Can you describe your state of mind during a DJ set? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I like to meet with the promoters for dinner or at least drinks before the event, this way I can get a little bit inside the mind of the people creating the party, understanding what are there intentions and what are their ideas of a perfect night.
I generally arrive at the party an hour before I play so that I have time to check out the vibe and say hi to friends or meet new people. I’ll have a drink or two and try to relax, no one wants to see an uptight dj arriving in the booth. I generally play 2-3 hour sets but for the longer ones I might find a way to get more into the zone and properly connect with the people.
What are some of the considerations that go into deciding which track to play next? What makes two tracks a good fit? How far do you tend to plan ahead during a set?
Firstly I never plan any set, with the exception of planning special moments, like the 20 minute period of the sun coming up at Day Zero or Burning Man. Or I may even produce an intro or ending for special sets in the week before the party in the studio.
Some nights when I'm mixing, I might find that 2 tracks work really well together and I might repeat those patterns for a few shows over the next weeks (bearing in mind that each show is in a different country) but I tend to refresh my music constantly so no 2 sets are ever the same. I tend to play music at parties as if I were playing chess or snooker … always thinking 3-4 shots or moves ahead.
Would you say you see DJing as improvisation? As composition in the moment? Or as something entirely different from these terms?
A little of both, the best moments are when you build up a section to a place where you’ve managed to get everyone around you aligned together, everyone feeling the same vibes and enjoying the collective consciousness, not quite knowing which way its going to turn but having faith that it will be right.
For me this is art, the ability to create something that for that one moment will take the audience into your musical mind and keep them there for as long as is necessary, opening up their senses to a truly magical and possibly spiritual awakening.
How do playing music at home and presenting it in the club compare and relate? What can be achieved through them, respectively, and what do you personally draw from both?
I tend not to play long dj sets at home unless I'm creating a mix or a live stream. My Lazpod podcasts are more of a reflection of the kind of music I listen to at home.
I have a system rigged to most areas and rooms around my place. Some days I like to have every system turned on so that I can move freely around the house and the gardens and never lose a moment of what I'm playing. When I'm checking music to dj with, I tend to listen in the studio so that I can blast it through the main system if necessary to get a feeling for how it might sound on the dancefloor. But in the house I like to have private moments with albums from artists that I admire so that I can really absorb what it is they’ve made. I listen to a lot of podcasts these days also, particularly WTF, the Daily, The New Yorker, Conan and of course, the new Crosstown Mix Show.
How would you describe the relationship between your choices and goals as a DJ and the expectations, desires and feedback of the audience? How does this relationship manifest itself during a performance and how do you concretely tap into it?
My goal is simply to help people have a great time, interact with their friends and create special moments that will live with them for a long time after the doors have closed. I'm not afraid to say that I love a little dance when im playing, and sometimes I feel that just by moving around myself I can assist the party mood and lift peoples' spirits, I guess I like “performing’ and its a natural thing that happens as opposed to something that I do for ‘effect'.
As far as feedback is concerned, I think the ultimate form of expression is when an audience sits down and collectively waits for the next drop to explode so the crowd comes back up to the dancefloor as one. I've been very fortunate to experience a number of these, the best ones at Burning Man and at DC10. But overall my favorite moment when playing is in that quiet moment when suddenly a communal vibe grows from the crowd, people start whistling, screaming or clapping, at a moment that you wouldn’t expect it, you know that at that moment the crowd is being really appreciative of the set as a whole as opposed to one moment in a track.
It's these little things that make the experience of djing so incredible. I can get quite emotional at times when I’m playing.
Especially thanks to the storage facilities of digital media, DJ sets could potentially go on forever. Other than closing time, what marks the end of a DJ performance for you? What are the most satisfying conclusions to a set?
I like to hang out a little with friends and the promoter for a while backstage after the set. It's nice to calm down a little before leaving the party, I'm often full of energy at this time and its good to just chill for a moment before heading out into the light.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I grapple with this topic often. I believe that to be a “true” artist, your days and nights are filled only with creation. My days and nights are also filled with a lot of work for the labels, Crosstown Rebels and Rebellion and for the events, Day Zero and Get Lost, I am also working on many sustainability projects under the banner of Crosstown Consciousness. So there are times when I don't feel like a true “artist’ but when I'm behind the decks or in the studio creating, its a totally different thing. Then, I feel I can justify my artistic existence. On saying this I think I have a good balance in life; father, partner, son, artist, businessman. It's a happy balance.