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“This is not rock and roll”

DJing and live performance have grown together since techno’s infancy, but how do the two disciplines relate to each other? A Guy Called Gerald is happy to confess that he’s not a DJ. DJs, he reckons, “could tell you more about football than their art” – he describes his own life, in contrast, as “100% electronic music and dance”. When it comes to the qualities needed to make a good live electronic musician, Gerald has a rather different perspective.

“I think you need a feel for the music, especially if you just jumped on the scene in the last 15 years,” he laughs. “You need to check out black dance history from the late 60s to the late 80s. Learn about our culture; ask questions – you won’t look stupid. Check Jamaican sound systems out, learn about how we danced and about our communities; it’s a million miles away from now but it’s important to find the connections. This is not rock and roll.”

Indeed, this is not rock and roll, but more pertinently, neither is it DJing. Though the best DJs respond to the moment, the crowd, the club, the context, there is still a certain formality and clearly defined limit to what’s possible with just two (or even three or four) decks. Gerald embraces the unpredictability: “When I started playing live over 25 years ago there was no memory and my machines were linked together with home-made wires, so stuff would happen outside of the groove. I would find ways of bringing it back in, and now it’s just in my DNA. Sometimes I throw a spanner in to fizz it up a bit.”

You need to check out black dance history from the late 60s to the late 80s. Learn about our culture; ask questions.

A Guy Called Gerald

A Guy Called Gerald live at Fabric

Skudge are a little more open to the art of DJing. “We also like DJing,” says Elias Landberg. “Quite a lot actually, but it’s a completely different thing to playing live. If you listen to our RA mix, you’ll see we think about the mix in a whole different way, yet with similar aesthetic tropes to a live set. When we DJ, we don’t know the tracklist beforehand: with the live show, we have way more focus on what to ‘do’ with the material, because it’s only about that. We have to think, ‘How are we gonna present our music to the audience tonight?’, which is a lot different to when you DJ.”

“Honestly, we like them both,” say Octave One when pressed as to where their loyalties lie. “But playing live just gives us so many more options of things to do spontaneously. We have literally 24 individual tracks plus four effects buses to play with compared to just a couple of songs we can work at a time. It’s almost endless the things that we can do compared to just DJing.”

“Always hit and miss”

Mathew Jonson, who uses Roland 303s, 101s, MFB’s 808-inspired 522 drum machine and a Machinedrum in his live shows, is effusive about the joys of making music in front of people’s very eyes.

“Live shows are always hit and miss, and that is the whole point of it… it’s exciting! You can feel the energy between musicians or if it’s a solo act you can really hear the energy from the artist if they’re making things up as they go along. It takes a lot of energy, though, so it’s always good to play a few things that are more prepared in addition to all the improvising. The balance between training and daily practice, pre-show preparation, and knowing the equipment you have with you, allows the artist to have the freedom and confidence they need to improvise once they hit the stage.”

There’s seemingly no consensus on where best to find that balance. Some degree of advance preparation may help ensure a smoother, more coherent set, but part of the joy of playing live for those that do is that things can wrong. It’s the genesis of the improvisational aspect that really sets true live show apart from those planned to death at home or in the studio.

Live shows are always hit and miss, and that is the whole point of it… it’s exciting!

Jonson’s Cobblestone Jazz jumped into the ‘fully live’ deep end years before many of their contemporaries. “It probably has something to do with a lot of the other acts not having the balls or the talent to take risks in front of people,” he explains. Citing peers such as Nicolas Jaar’s band, dOP and Minilogue as “great examples of live acts going much further than just mixing tracks off Ableton”.

Author Kristan Caryl. Photos: Phrank (Skudge), Nik Torrens (Gerald)
10th October, 2013

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