Name: Ryan Murgatroyd
Nationality: South African
Occupation: DJ, producer
Current Release: 'On My Mind’ featuring South African vocalist Sobantwana on Swoon Recordings
Recommendations: Okay I'm all about the books. You HAVE to read Plant Intelligence and Imaginal Realm by Stephen Buhner - it's a book about the intelligence within natural systems. I consider him to be one of the great thinkers of our time.
And then ... Search out the Nils Frahm opening concert for Boiler Room dimensions, skip to 19 mins, get tissues!
If you enjoyed this interview with Ryan Murgatroyd , check his facebook page and soundcloud profile for recent updates and more music.
When did you start DJing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started DJing in the late nineties. I was leaving school and already raving very hard on the weekends in the start up scene in South Africa. Initially it was all Trance and Progressive music actually, but I was young and confused hahaha.
So I started with some SL1200s, bought some records, learnt to mix, and then in the early 2000s the sound started to change. South Africa become a real deep house nation and I became really interested in funkier, deeper and more forward thinking cuts of electronic music
What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Well I realised very soon that DJing was not gonna cut it for me. I wanted complete control of every aspect and axis of the sound. I wanted to be able to sculpt the sounds I was hearing in my head but I knew literally nothing about anything - I had never played an instrument by 19 years old, no drumming, no exposure to any music theory, so I had a steep learning curve ahead.
I began a full nose dive into every aspect of study; learning strange programs like Buzz tracker by day, trying to understand signal flow and programming drums on terrible software drum machines. I was terrible. And the tools at that time, in terms of software, were terrible too. But slowly I learned a bit about music theory, synthesis, and through tens of thousand of hours, I’ve finally found the ability to get out what’s in my head and make it a tangible reality.
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?
Well for me the main thing was that I always felt I had to be musically skilled enough to make a genuine contribution to the art form. So many people out there use VSTS with no musical skill, and it all sounds awful, and generic. All of the artists I love had a distinct thread of musicality that runs through their productions. This has been a huge focus for me.
After I began learning and grasping how I could translate music theory into my electronic compositions, I became entirely fascinated by this - building almost a new framework for music theory inside the dance music context. I started to slowly teach a few students and then over the years built up what is now the biggest chain of audio colleges in Africa, specialising in electronic music and DJ education. I think being in that environment - teaching electronic music for 12 hours a day and then still pursuing my own work in the evenings - that was really what shaped me into the artist I am today.
I like to think I've kept that work ethic through the years. My students and my team need me to be excellent and focused at what I do - and I expect the same from them - so it really works well to keep me motivated through the years.
In terms of copying other artists you can’t help but be influenced - but I try to not listen to what any one else is doing. My influences are the tools I use, their natural tendencies and inclinations, and the mood I'm in that day.
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?
Well as I said, I moved quickly from a DJ focus into a deep focus on my own music, and more of a live artist role. And that has been insanely challenging on every level.
Firstly you have to make all your own music and it has to be perfect. You need to produce more music than ever right now to stay relevant, and on top of that you get bored of your productions and sets so you need to keep adapting and evolving for different moods. And then of course when you play these songs out live they need to be different from the studio versions, so there are often multiple arrangements for each songs, and they all need to be prepped, exported, mixed and mastered. It's a huge story - way more work than any one person can do alone in any relevant time frame .
Thank god I have a great team of students, interns and now employees, as our brand and label grows, to help with all of this.
How would you define the job and describe the influence of the DJ? How are the experience and the music transformed through your work?
Our job is fundamentally to make people feel something through music. We set the mood of the party - how does the room feel? Dark and ominous? Throbbing and intense? Sexy and feel good? I'm in charge of these moods when I play and I need to be versatile enough to meet the needs of the night while still representing myself and my sonic identity in every song and every transition. I think the mood of the DJ comes through in every set.
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?
Initially I was a vinyl kid - two SL1200s and a mixer - standard stuff. That escalated quickly. My live setup right now Is Ableton Live, 2 x MINIilogue XDs, a prophet rev 2, a few modular oscillators clocked to my mother 32, and a ton of other instruments being sequenced and played on the go. I've tried to bridge the gap between what I do in the studio and what I do live, so slowly the worlds are merging and the gear I use to make music is what I use to play it out.
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?
Well it's funny you put it like that because this is a deep philosophical question I've been grappling with lately, particularly since I got into modular. The thought had never occurred to me that when you start working with these types of instruments - a literal conversation starts to occur between man and machine. It's a bit freaky actually - how we interface with this technology and it starts to speak to us.
I always saw modular synths as cold and bleepy, but they have a real personality. I think our musical brains - the neurology, the chemistry and the hardwiring of the brain - is also a technology, interfacing with another technology to make music. It’s a clusterfuck.
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?
Phew well I do a lot of things so it's all over the place, but underlying the chaos is a lot of discipline. I eat very very good food, lots of organic raw foods, some very healthy wild meat, lots of greens. I don't use drugs to work, other than cannabis, which is a true ally plant for me in terms of creativity.
I've learnt over the years that when you are doing something at the highest levels - whether that’s making music or being an athlete or a high performer in any field of life - there are going to be parts of that process are are difficult, unenjoyable and actually painful. Anyone who has ever finished good music or art will tell you it's inherently a bit of a painful process. Everyone can start a song but how many can finish one ... When that initial burst of excitement is over and you’re sitting for 400 hours on a high hat loop, most people tap out. So over the years I've developed a lot of habits, processes and tools to help me through this. I use the sauna a lot, I do yoga, a do jiu jitsu and practice martial arts regularly, and I spend a lot of time alone. It all helps. But my studio is in my house and I feel like my entire life is spent waiting for, or trying to cultivate, a state of mind where I'm ready to go in there and make magic.
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'm constantly finding music that I cut up into loops to play with my own stuff. I hardly overplay full tracks from other artists, but I do cut up hundreds of loops for my sets. So it starts with that. I pair music from other artists in the same keys and energy ranges as my music and then I build a set that encapsulates the mood and energy level required for the show. I have a lot of templates I can call up, make some minor adjustments and then they are sort of customised for a given environment.
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?
This is also a deep question, hahaha. All 15 of these are pretty deep actually, we might be here for a while!
Well firstly we all have an ego, and most of us start DJing with at least a little bit of that ego in mind. In order to be empty and pure and play my heart out, I need to really get out of that ego head space and into a flow state. I find this is a lot easier sober. Alcohol might relax you but it doesn’t make you play better. I want to be focused enough to play complex solos, and open a connection to the crowd … so it’s about finding that balance.
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?
Well for me this is kinda easy - I only really play what I make. I often start a track on Monday to play it in my set for the weekend. So the next set is all about showcasing what got finished in the studio, or is being released or made my by my friends and artists on the label.
Would you say you see DJing as improvisation? As composition in the moment? Or as something entirely different from these terms?
I think if you’re doing it very well, then certainly DJing is a real art form, a real improv … But I can’t stress enough that there are only a small number of DJs that really take the time to learn how to do it really well. Of course when you see a REAL DJ, mixing harmonically, cutting in loops, changing the energy up and down, mashing things up - that absolutely qualifies for me as a musical performance.
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 think as you do it more the translation becomes more reliable - you learn to eliminate the fat from the performance and the song itself and make it as concise as possible.
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?
I think that changes when you start to move forward in your career and start to headline more shows. As a headliner I feel you have the right and responsibility to ‘pull out the big guns’ and play some music that is really going to create big moments. So I feel a lot more comfortable being my most authentic musical self when I'm headlining.
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?
Well certainly not for me, even if I work all day every day I will only ever have about 90 mins of music that is current, relevant to my sound and my current sonic attitude … So I'm lucky like that because my sets aren’t very long. I like to bring the energy down at the around the 75 percent mark, and end on a note of really beautiful closing music if the night allows and the mood is right,.
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?
Well I stay the hell away from politics because I like to be happy. I sometimes read CNN so I can laugh at the hysterical narrative they portray as reality, and that’s my engagement with mainstream media. That being said I feel having core values is vital to your personal identity and your identity as an artist.
I am deeply passionate about ecology, sustainability and about learning more balanced and happy ways of life by observing other cultures. I think it's the role of the creative to question every institution, every idea, and every system we have - just to test the integrity of those systems. I like to think that when you’re on my dance floor, you are free to be your true self, and that in itself is a powerful force in the universe.