What So Not is a busy man: simultaneously on the cusp of releasing his debut album, Not All The Beautiful Things, and also embarking on a world tour that covers India, China, South America, Europe, Australia and the USA. GIGsoup were able to catch up with him just ahead of all this, at Ninja Tune’s offices, to discuss the new album, the changing Australian music scene, and his unwavering passion for DJing.
How does London compare to other cities you’ve played?
I love it, I spend a lot of time here. My very good friend James Rushent (from Does It Offend You Yeah) lives in Reading with his family. Often when I do my UK and Europe tours there is a lot of layover time between dates so I go out and stay with his family, just live in the Wind in the Willows kind of vibe and just jam out on music and come up with ideas.
I actually wrote a lot of records when I was here. Divide and Conquer, which was the lead single of my last EP, was written after going to an Alix Perez and EPROM show. It was 300 people, no vocals the whole night, just all modulating bass and kick drums and snare drums, which was really cool.
My very good friend, Jono from Jagwar Ma, has lived here for many years and I wrote a lot of ‘Stuck In Orbit’, a song from new album Not All The Beautiful Things, with him. It can be quite gritty, rough and brutal with the weather, which I think adds a lot of character into whatever comes out of here.
What would you say your biggest influences are, both for Not All The Beautiful Things and over your career?
I was really into rock music as a kid. I actually hated dance music and thought it was really lame. I stopped playing in bands when I was in my late teens and got into DJing through going out clubbing and realised this is interesting, there’s a lot more to it than I thought on the surface. So my influences then were At The Drive In, Rage Against The Machine and Tool. Those were all the songs I would be playing in my band and I absolutely carried the ethos of that across to this project.
When it came to making the album I actually stopped listening to all current music and I asked myself: ‘What are the most prolific albums of all time?’, ‘What has been part of cultural, social and political movements?’, ‘What has stood the test of time?’
So I was going back and listening to Moby, Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Gorillaz. There are a few exceptions, I was listening to [Kendrick Lamar’s] DAMN and a few other things. But it was pretty much all these classic records with incredible artwork, music videos, storylines behind everything and I was just hoping to emulate that approach to some degree. I didn’t worry about what’s working on streaming services right now, I wanted to create something that will probably outlive streaming services.
There are a mixture of dance and rock albums listed there. What was the balance when you making your own album?
It was just looking at things that I thought were really exciting. Plus, dance music hasn’t been around for that long. It’s only the last 30 years so it is hard to tell. The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers are legends in that world, and, the world in general. Not a whole lot of acts that compare to that that I can think of.
And dance music is even more recent within Australia?
There was a giant music scene in Australia but a new wave had certainly come through with Modular Recordings and Ed Banger and early A-Trak and Diplo, Klaxons, playing baile funk, baltimore, thrash electro french stuff, this crazy hybrid of all these sounds. Australia was a big melting pot for all these different genres and everyone was excited about this cool new thing.
When I started, nobody was a DJ. People didn’t DJ or produce in Australia and now it is quite common. I think what changed that was all these young kids being excited by all these acts that were coming over and realising that they can try and do this and see where it takes us. And then we are started doing that, going on tours, travelling internationally.
Do you think things like Triple J have had a role in that, too?
Definitely! I’ll compare it to America, where you have 220 independent radio stations around the country. In Australia, you have one that plays new indie, up-and-coming music that broadcasts to the whole country and it isn’t top 40 at all. It is just really cool music from overseas and Australia. You’ll start when a late night DJ plays one of your songs in the dance segment. What So Not didn’t have a song on rotation for the first few years, it was just the last night hosts playing in the dance segments. Then ‘Tell Me’, with RL Grime, got put on main rotation, which is kind of cool because it has barely any vocals and has gone on rotation on a national broadcaster.
How do you separate What So Not the producer and What So Not the DJ?
If I am being really honest, I liked DJing a lot more when I didn’t have my own project because you can play whatever you want, just records you’ve found that week that you think are dope.
Now that I have a project, there is a sort of expectation of the sound because of what I have produced and released. I kind of missing going into Kings Cross in Sydney and just jumping on and playing whatever.
I feel like in a lot of places around the world, the art of DJing is kind of lost because of so many people doing it and not many people have grown up with a very healthy DJ culture. I see a lot of warm up DJs in America haven’t grown up with club culture and don’t know the courtesy and are playing RL Grime and the heaviest records.
In the UK, and places like Berlin, you’re well across the courtesies and you’ve been to a lot of shows growing up.
As a DJ, my favourite slot was the warm up slot. When I was a resident DJ in a bunch of venues in Sydney because I could play the most left-field stuff I had and no one was going anywhere, they were all staying there and they were actually going to listen.
Do you feel a lot of pressure on this tour to play lots from the album and give people a What So Not show?
Yes, definitely. DJing for me is very different to what I am doing now. Now it is about the video, lights, how that works in sequence with the music, developing edits and live versions of songs, sampling theme songs exclusively for the show (like Stranger Things). That is very exciting and takes a lot of time and energy, which I am always glad to be putting in because the show is so important, probably more so than DJing. DJing, as it was for me, was a whole lot of fun. This is more serious.
It does look like you’re having a lot of fun whenever I see you DJ.
I can’t imagine just getting up there and hitting play on iTunes. That is a pretty disgraceful representation and I can’t believe people get away with it!
Pioneer have made it very easy to become a DJ. Please put in a bit of effort more than just playing the songs from iTunes.
I still turn off all the features on CDJs. Those quantised features just don’t work half the time. If you are playing an acapella it guesses the wrong tempo or you do a loop and it is totally wrong.
How do you go about planning what music you are going to play in a set?
Well, I do a show every day and that is kind of my practice. The performance for one show is the practice for the next show. I’ll try 3 or 4 new things every show and if something works I’ll make a note. It is really exciting at this very point now because I finally have a pretty big catalogue that has been released so I can pretty much freestyle anything from the catalogue and exclusive edits I have just for the show because there are enough keys and tempos. I did that for the first time at the end of last year at this festival, just kind of rocked up. It was in Fiji, so was a little bit more relaxed than Coachella. So I rocked up, plugged in my stick and just played whatever I feel like and it was dope. Except then my VJ and LD hate me because they are trying to keep up. It can become quite a mess unless your crew are great, which luckily mine are.
Would you ever do something like 2ManyDJs, where they DJ using DVDs for visuals?
I’ve been looking into that for my next tour. I want to integrate my Mac, have 3 CDJs, DJM900 into another DJM900, MIDI mapping with the video and lights so certain songs have this whole program planned out. We have this already, but it would be at a more micro level and it could be incredible. And then doing things like plugging in an MS20 or OPI1 and running that through the MIDI patches of the chords and doing arpeggiated builds. I’m really looking forward to that.
A lot of people, Mr Carmack, Mura Masa, are leaning towards live performances. Would you ever go down that route?
Totally. I’m not calling it a live tour but am planning some live elements for this tour that I have coming up. Almost as training wheels ahead of a proper live tour next year so I am really excited to dive into that.
Back to your secret edits, what is your favourite edit that you own / play?
I pretty much only play my own music now. I used to make a lot of DJ friendly edits, which were the tune of the moment into this old rap song into a hybrid of the two and that was always fun.
The first edit I ever made, years and years and years back, was a bootleg of Deadmau5 – ‘Hi Friend’ and ‘Be Faithful’ by Fatman Scoop. I still hear people playing that! It’s under a name that I used 4 names ago. It went to number 1 on Hype Machine and I thought: ‘This is crazy, I should start producing.’
Final question! Best and worst DJing experiences of all time?
It’s the same festival, three years apart.
I used to crowdsurf all the time, and I stopped doing it because I took a dive at Field Day [in Australia]. It was me, Chet Faker, Skrillex, and someone else doing a B2B for the last 10 minutes to close the festival. I jumped from stage and the gap was huge. There was a photo of me that people started turning into a Free Willy meme. You just see me in the air, this giant gap, a high stage and a low crowd. I landed and the people luckily caught me, but sunk like a metre. I belted my ankle, couldn’t walk and had to go to Holy Ship 3 days later. I could have really hurt someone so decided to stop doing it.
One of the greatest was Field Day last New Year’s Day. I hadn’t played New Year’s Day in Australia for 3 years, and it is a big deal in Australia because it is our summer. People stop working just before Christmas and usually don’t go back to work until mid-January and just spend the whole of that period at the beach, pub, friends’ BBQs, clubs. It is this insane vibe, everyone is looking to start the new year fresh. It was one of the biggest shows I have ever had in my life on the main stage. I’ve never seen a crowd like that. The crowd were singing ever riff, let along the lyrics, it was such an amazing experience. To have that happen back home, a festival you wouldn’t even dream about playing, you would dream about going to Field Day. So yeah, that was incredible.
Amazing, thank you. Absolute pleasure chatting to you.
What So Not’s debut album, Not All The Beautiful Things, is out now on Counter Records.