Hot In Press / October 2017 | Fifteen Questions Interview with D’Julz

November 23, 2018

Part 1

Name: D’Julz / Julien Veniel
Occupation: DJ, Producer, Label Founder at Bass Culture

Website:If you enjoyed this interview with D’Julz, visit his Facebook profile for his current touring schedule and updates on fresh releases.

This interview is part of new series of in person conversations based more loosely on the 15 Questions concept, allowing for more personal and open questions.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? I believe you spoke about New York being your ‘university’.

[laughs] There was one club, which was like church on Sunday morning or going to school … It was called Sound Factory. At that time, Sound Factory basically started where Paradise Garage stopped. Everything, from the sound system to the room, where the DJ was located, to the crowd, it was very much a follow-up to Paradise Garage. You would see a very mixed crowd. It was very gay, a lot of old Garageheads, but also a new generation of clubbers. And you had the Vogueing thing starting there. That’s where Madonna would go to to find her dancers! Sound Factory is considered by many as one of the best clubs ever. It’s definitely the best sound system I ever heard in my life! It became Twilo a few years later, but at that time, it was Sound Factory.

Were the resident DJs a particular inspiration?

There was only one guy playing there, which was totally the old school New York approach. One DJ playing for ten to twelve hours. There was no room for other DJs! Of course, there was also Sound Factory bar, which was a smaller version. You had Frankie Knuckles playing there on Saturday, Lil’ Louie Vega on Wednesday. And in the Sound Factory, which was only open Saturday night, it was Junior Vasquez playing from Midnight to Mid-day. But it was a place you would want to go for the after hour, after five o clock in the morning. So I would play somewhere else, then go there and stay until maybe ten in the morning. And this is where I learned a lot of things, because I learned about the old school approach to DJing that comes from disco, that comes from Larry Levan. All those DJs – Junior Vasquez, Danny Tenaglia, David Morales, Francois K, they all came from that disco era. But they took that style of DJing and used it with new music. Because the music Junior was playing at Sound Factory was New York house – but he was the only one who would also play harder stuff. He would play Plastikman or Dave Clarke, everything pitched down. For me, coming from Paris, it was great. I loved  New York house, but sometimes, I felt there were too many vocals and when it was too soulful, it was missing something, you know? And what I liked about Sound Factory is that you would hear a lot of different styles of music. The stuff that I was playing myself, but also Wildpitch, a lot of DJ Pierre stuff, a lot of tribal stuff, and also some vocals: Masters at Work … It was more open minded than a lot of DJs in New York back then.

What was it about Junior Vasquez that made him so interesting for you?

The way he was playing was completely different than the way I knew from the DJs in Europe. He could play one record for twenty minutes. Or if he liked a track, he would play it three times in a row. His mixing was not amazing, he would not blend the records for two minutes, it would be really short. So, at first, when I got there, I was like: This guy doesn’t mix! I was really into long mixes, riding two records together for a few minutes, the idea of making a third track with two tracks … For me, that was the idea of what was fun about DJing. So it took me a while to get that aspect of DJing. So here it was less technical and more about the programming of the night. More about the long run. It’s not about mixing two records together, it’s more about how to get from one style to another style in four hours and how to build up a vibe, play with the sound system, create some drama … It took me a while to get used to this, but it was very, very interesting. It was a club residency DJ approach, as opposed to a festival or a rave approach to DJing. It was all new for me. And it totally opened my mind towards a lot of different things.

What kind of things?

The importance of how to build a set, to work with the crowd, how to use such a huge sound system and to play with the sound system, sometimes putting the volume a little bit down and then up again, playing with effects, because he was using some delay with tapes, looping things – which is crazy, because we’re talking about 93 and he was already doing what people do now with CD-Js or with Traktor. But he was doing it with a tape machine. Editing a track, remixing a track live, extending some parts, which, again, was very different from my idea of DJing. All this I learned going there almost every Sunday morning for a year.  The other important thing was how to ‘break’ – that’s the American expression – a track, how to make a track a hit. Which, at the time, Junior did with so many classics, which we know now, but he would sometimes play them six months or a year, before they actually came out. He was playing acetates or even playing the track directly from the DAT. So you would hear a classic, like Phuturescope’s “What is house music?”, or Underground Sound of Lisbon: „So Get Up“, or even older stuff, a lot of DJ Pierre, or Masters at Work. You would hear those tracks a year before they came out. And you would go there waiting to hear the track. Afterwards, you would go to a record store, asking: What is this track that Junior played? And you would have to wait six months to a year to actually get it (laughs). At the time it came out, it was already a hit! He had people coming from London, the Junior Boy’s Own crew, who would go there on the weekend to get inspired. This happened with so many producers. You had all the journalists going there. If you wanted to know what would be the next big track of the year, you would have to go there to listen to it. Today, you could maybe think of someone like Ben Klock at Panorama Bar or Berghain or Ricardo playing a residency at Cocoon, or Sven Väth. Guys where you ask yourself, what is he going to play? They’re going to make the big track of the Summer … So it was a little bit of this approach, but on another level. So when I came back from New York, my view of DJ culture expanded completely. I came back with a totally new experience, which still serves me today.

If I understood correctly, the Paris scene had changed completely by then, however.

Yes, when I came back, the rave scene in Paris was dead, because the government had decided to shut down all the parties. And the promoters, especially those that were more into house and the groovier side of the sound, moved to the clubs. And when I arrived back from New York, all of a sudden, the club scene in Paris became something else and the New York sound was very big at that time. So I came with a huge advantage, because I had all these records, I had this New York experience because I had been going to the best clubs in the world, and I arrived in Paris when there was a transition from the rave scene to the club scene. So it was perfect timing for me.

Considering you weren’t interested in becoming a DJ in the first place it’s interesting you stuck with it for such a long time. What made it interesting for you in the beginning?

It’s hard to say. I started to go out when I was 17, 18. It was the exact time, when techno and house started in France. So when I came into the club for the first time, I heard a kind of music I had basically never heard before. So it was a culture shock. Most of the night, I was spending time on the dancefloor, dancing. But quickly, I started to get very interested in what the DJ was doing. So I would be studying and watching him, spending more time in or in front of the booth, trying to understand what he was doing. I quickly started to buy my first 12inches of house and techno. And after buying a few, it was like: Ah, I want to listen to them, but it makes sense for me to mix them (laughs). For some reason, just listening to them and collecting them was not enough. Really, really quickly after buying my first 12inch of techno, I had to buy a second turntable.  Some people stick to collecting this music, but I liked the playfulness of trying to put two tracks together, so that’s what I was doing for fun, as a hobby, in my bedroom. But at the same time, the rave scene blew up and I was hanging with some DJs, who listened to my tapes and said: Why don’t you play with us, why don’t you come and play at this party? So I didn’t have the time to decide: Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life? All of a sudden, I ended up doing it in front of people. But I’m I’m talking 1992 and at the same time, I was finishing my studies and I started to work in advertising. So it took me another six years before I decided that this was going to be my life, this was going to be my full time job. It took me a long time, because I was playing every weekend, but I was also playing during the week, and I was missing out on some of the opportunities to play abroad, because I couldn’t travel too far. And I was also beginning to feel I wanted to produce. So I had to make choice in 1998. And I decided to go full time in the music. Since then, there’s no coming back, I’m really glad I made that choice. But it was a very slow process, because at that time, being a DJ wasn’t a career. It was guys in clubs …and I didn’t think I had it. But it just grew on me over the years and it became my passion and my passion became my work. And I must have been doing something right, because I got opportunities to play, so … I took my chances.

And what’s the enjoyment after all these years?

Exactly the same. It sounds like a really cliched kind of answer, but I don’t think I would be able to do it or do it right, if I was not still as excited about it as ever. I think you can’t lie, you know. If you’re not having fun and you fake it, people can tell. I mean, I can tell when a DJ is doing it for the wrong reasons or when he’s tired or when he’s in a bad place. We all have moments when we’re tired or have something else on our mind and it’s easy to see that and see when someone is not at his best and not 100% into what he does. Luckily, those times never happened – or at least not to the degree that I thought I’m not into the entire thing anymore. It was always only a very short phase, maybe because I was not so inspired by the music coming out at some point or maybe because I had other problems at a certain point in my life. But it never went to the point where I had to reconsider my career and my job completely. I really, really love what I’m doing.

You have a background in communication. I was wondering whether that’s what made DJing an obvious choice, in a way – that it’s also about communication?

Yes! There are definitely similarities. To that parallel even further … When I was working in communication, I was a copywriter. And I really see the parallel between playing with words to find a good slogan and to create a nice text and playing with records. In the end, I am not a writer, but a copywriter. And I’m not really a musician, I am a DJ. So you have this aspect of being creative, but another purpose. My purpose is to make people dance, and in advertising, the purpose is also to sell a product. It’s not like pure art, which has no meaning and no purpose, it’s just “art”. So in that sense, I’m more a creative than an artist. Are all DJs artists? Some definitely are, but it’s not for me to say if I am or not. But there is this creativity part, where you use art and you play with art and you transmit something, you communicate something, you share something.

So the turntables are your typewriter, the records your words and then you string them together into a story?

Yeah, yeah, totally. And also, there are a lot of DJs and producers, who come from being a graphic artist or art director. Also in advertising or just … I think you use the same part of your brain, basically. As in how to play with pictures, how to play with letters and when you’re producing. It all has a similar energy, I think.

Is one part of what makes this activity so enjoyable that you can play the same record on different nights and the effect will be totally different?

Totally, That’s the joy of it. It’s for me the most exciting aspect of being a DJ. Every night is different. Sometimes, you’re tempted … You know that last night, this record went really well. So you’re tempted to do the same mix. But just the fact that you’re now doing the same mix out of context is not going to work. The only purpose of this job is to really communicate and to have this link. In order to do that, you have to jump completely into the pool. Entirely. And go instinctively to the next track. And stop thinking: Oh, I like this mix I did yesterday. Because when you do, you switch from your left side of your brain to your right side of the brain. And that’s something else. You cut that magic link between yourself and the people. I noticed that so many times. And that’s why I’m saying you can’t lie. A DJ who plays the same set over and over, who’s prepared something that is maybe perfect at home … especially at festivals, they’re going to play the same set all the time. Same order, same tracks … I can understand that, when you’re playing at a big festival for one hour, one hour and a half, you have to prepare a bit more and know where you’re going. But I’m saying you can have the same tracks, but you’ll feel something different. Maybe my approach is more risky, but at the end of the day, it’s so much more enjoyable when it works!


Part 2

How much do you plan ahead when playing? Do you plan anything ahead?

First of all, it’s a lot about listening and preparing my record box or my USB key  or whatever I am going to play with. Let’s say that I have a lot of super deep stuff that I bought that I would only play in the after hour or in a warm up set, and I know I’m not going to take those records with me if I know I’m going to play peak time in a big club. So I’ll have a first selection of music that I know I would possibly play that night, according to the hours and the size of the club and whatever I know about that club. So that’s pre-selection. Then, I would put some of the new stuff, that I haven’t played yet and am really excited to play and of which I think: This would work, this I really what want to play. Sometimes you have things that you want to play, but you end up not playing them, because you don’t find the right moment to do so. Or maybe you don’t feel confident enough to play that new track at that time. So you keep it for later and another place. So that’s what I’ll have with me. And I guess the way I organise my box is to not have more than 100 records – or 100 tracks – and to have a progression in the order: So the housier or deeper things will be at the beginning of the box and the hard stuff or the end-of-the-night-classics are towards the end of the box. So there’s a progression, because I also like to have a progression in my sets. So again, I can start playing quite deep or house and when I feel it’s really working, I don’t feel the need to go so much harder. Or I feel people are really into that style, so I’ll last much longer. At other times, fifteen minutes into this, I feel people want more energy, so I am going to go somewhere else. And then, at some point, I may feel that is too much energy, I need to break and do something else or I would go down. And that part, I would say, is completely spontaneous. All I know is where is what. Where is this record, what does this record do, and what vibe it’s going to bring. And that’s the only preparation: Knowing exactly what I have with me, and what effects is has.

So once that is established, how do you build the set from there?

After that, it’s all about trying things out for a while and what fits that sound system best, because every room has a different sound, so some tracks will somehow sound way harder than I thought, whereas at other times, they’ll sound really deep. And that also affects your programming! It’s not only the crowd’s reaction, it can also be the size of the club, or the sound system. That’s why it’s good to have a lot more records than you would think, because you need to be able to improvise. At other times, I’ll have things I really want to play and I end up in this club and I realise only the really uplifting things or superfunky stuff are working. If it’s too druggy or too deep or too heavy, it’s not going to work. Maybe because the crowd is not on drugs or on a different kind of drug. There are all sorts of reasons. Then, I have to completely change what I had in mind and what I wanted to play. And that’s when I’ll go to this other USB key or record box, if I brought enough vinyls, and then I’ll improvise with stuff, maybe older things that I know I can rely on in any occasion. And that can save me when I can not play any of the new music that I wanted to play. So that’s also another aspect. And that’s also where digital is really helpful, because I can improvise a lot more. I can take 500 tracks with me if I want to.

So how’s the music organised in your mind? According to genre or energy level or something else?

Yes, something like this. Different kinds of moods. I really have this yin and yang approach to music, where I have a dark side and a bright side. I’ll have tracks which are really uplifting and happy and funky and another approach which is deeper and darker and more cerebral. And I love to go from one to the other. Like 15 to 20 minutes in one style and then go to deeper, darker things and then up again. Really seasonal (laughs). You know, Winter, Summer, … If I had to describe a typical two hour set of mine, I would say it is this. With also a progression in terms of the energy. Because I always like to start pretty deep and with a nice groove. Get people in the groove and take my time to build up.

Which is not a very fashionable thing to do, is it?

Sometimes, a lot of people will say: We were not too sure about the beginning of your set! Because maybe the energy dropped a little bit after the other DJs, but I really like to reset things. I like to warm people up at the same time that I warm myself up. Even if it’s not a warm up anymore [laughs]! I mean, I’m not going to drop the energy completely, but it’s very hard for me to start right away at peak time. I always need a few minutes. Kind of foreplay, if you want to find another [laughs] analogy with intercourse. It’s risky, because you will sometimes have people who do not have the patience and they’ll be like: Oh, I liked the DJ before better. This one completely killed it. That’s the risk I take. But then, if they come back an hour later, they will see it’s at a different level. But that’s the risk I prefer to take and at least I know that when things arrive, they arrive at the right time. And with the right vibe. Not because I have to or because I am afraid that I might lose the crowd and I have to play my big tracks right away.

And it frees you up for experimentation. You can play anything.

That also. And there’s different ways of resetting. Unless the guy that plays before me plays something completely different from what I play, or did something really wrong for the warm up. I’m glad it happens less and less, because now, people who book you know what you play and you have more and more really good warm up DJs who exactly know what to do before you. But it happened in the past, of course, that I had guys before me who’ll play all the big records of that moment one after another. Like they’re playing at a festival, except it’s one in the morning. So when that happens, I feel like I am going to need one hour of my set to do my own warm up again and really, really, really restart. Which is frustrating. But if the warm up is good, I don’t even need to reset. I just pick things up where the guy left me and build up from there. In the best case scenario, that’s how it is. And if not, I try to find a way to respect where the other DJ left me, but also do my thing.

I noticed that you will mainly play digital, but you will also spin a few vinyls as well. Why do you take them with you at all? Why is it interesting to switch the medium?

[Thinking] It’s strange this … To be honest, I had to stop playing vinyl for a little while and that was very difficult for me, because around 2005, all the good record stores in Paris had closed, all the promos that were being sent on vinyl before, were now being sent on CD or as links. Maybe it was different in Berlin, because you always had good record shops there. But I can tell you: At this time, in Paris, if you wanted to play new music, you had to choose  Traktor, CD-Js or something of that sort. There were two years, where it was really, really difficult to stick to vinyl. The transition to digital took me a long time. Just to play with CD-Js, technically, it was like I had to teach myself something completely new. I couldn’t find the same groove, I was very frustrated. It took me years, really, to do that! And when I was finally getting comfortable with CD-Js, all of the sudden, record shops opened up again [laughs]. So, on side of me is all excited, because vinyl’s back. But on the other, I’m like: Damn, no, now I’m comfortable with CD-Js and digital! And I  got lazy. Because when you’ve got used to digital, you also get used to traveling very light and not losing your records … there is a very positive aspect about this. But I’m also a vinyl lover first, and now, I go record shopping almost as much as I did ten or fifteen years ago. And it’s great to see you still have this vibe with record shops – unique places, where people give you advice for records you’d never thought of. So I love that part, but even though half of what I play is music that comes from a vinyl, it’s still very frustrating, because I would say 70% of the clubs where I play I know it’s going to sound shit. The turntable is going to jump, there is going to be rumble, and even if everything works right, the sound is not going to be as strong or clear as with the USB or digital. So I encode every new record that I buy.

Every single one?

Yes, I do that every week. So I have exactly the same music that I have in my record box as I have on my stick. Let’s say I’m going to bring a few vinyls with me. Let’s say 50, 60, just enough, so I can check them in with me when I go into the plane. And when I arrive at a place which is equipped for vinyl, I’ll play them. Whereas when I arrive there and the turntable is not even there or covered with dust [laughs], maybe I am going to first give it a try and play one just to see if it’ll work. Most of the time, it’s going to jump or it’s going to sound shit, so then I am going to do all my set with the USB. And it’s not going to change the music I play. But now, I am only going to take a lot of vinyl records, if I know where I am going to play. If I am playing fabric, Panorama Bar, the Rex club, Robert Johnson – all those places where I know I can bring 200 records no problem. But if I don’t know, if it’s a place where I’m going for the first time, I’m not going to take the chance. I am going to take 50 records and the rest is on USB.

Do you think, though, that the selection process is different for physical releases and downloads?

Not really. It’s hard to say, though. It’s not my selection which is different, but the taste of the people who decide to go vinyl only as opposed to the people who go digital only. There is definitely a difference. The more old-school sounding, maybe deeper, a little bit raw, that’s a vinyl thing. So you still find that thing in the music. With digital, you’ll get a slightly more formulaic kind of tech house, with lots of effects, very loud … Okay, these are cliches and generalities, but yeah, in principle, that’s it. There is definitely some music that I’ll hear on digital that I’m not going to buy, that I couldn’t even imagine on vinyl. But there’s also a lot of great music that you find on both formats. That’s what I do with my label Bass Culture, and that’s what I see with most of the great labels. I have no other choice! And most of the time, I do both: I will get the promo as digital and when it comes out on vinyl, I will get the record, because I want to save it. Or rather than encoding the vinyl myself, to save time, I will ask the label to send me the files, so I have th best possible quality.

I recently spoke to Hito [see te Hito interview]. She only plays vinyl, but she will sometimes press a digital only track to vinyl, so she can play it.

Mike Huckabee does the same. At times, he would be playing acetates of stuff he would find on digital, or do edits. Actually, the other good thing about digital is the editing thing. Especially with old records. There are a lot of old records, which I had to play really short, only three or four minutes, because I didn’t like what happened after the second break. I didn’t like the end of the track. There was something really cheesy going on … So you had to do really quick mixes. So having those edits on digital is great, so then I can take only the part that I like and extend it. Or I’ll have this really bad pressing of this track from Chicago from ’87. And now that I’ve recorded it, I can boost it, so I can play it as loud as any other digital track I have. Which is great, because it gives me the opportunity to play old vinyls that I wouldn’t play now, because there are elements in it which are not as modern in terms of production. I love the past, I know where I’m coming from, but I also need to look into the future. There is nothing more exciting than to receive or buy a new track and I can’t wait to play it for the first time. I need that excitement, I can not just play old stuff. [Laughs]

Do you think technology has really changed DJing fundamentally? Despite the changes you mentioned, playing with CD-Js is not that radically different than playing with turntables, is it?

It depends on the music you’re playing, to be honest. I am good friends with Dubfire and the way they play is completely different than the way I play, but also the music is completely different! So Richie Hawtin, Dubfire, all these guys who use two computers, effects, Maschine and Ableton and Traktor, all of that together on their controllers, it makes sense with the way they play. It is very much about looping things, creating … me, I like to play a track from beginning to end, pretty much. When I choose a track, I like it full-on, it’s more housey-based, it’s not the minimal techno that they’re playing. There’s no point for me to re-arrange the track [laughs]. I am not pretentious enough to say: I am going to do live in five minutes what this guy spent two weeks in the studio on and I am going to do it better than he did. So I use this looping thing very rarely. For me, it’s more a thing to make things a bit smoother, to extend some intro or outro, or if I want to extend a break. But that’s it. I am not going to use the Eqs and change the order of the parts of the record, because otherwise, I would do a live act. So technology did change things for people who play this kind of music.

What is a good transition from your point of view? What is the effect you’re looking for?

You know what? This aspect keeps evolving for me. When I started, it was all about playing the longest mix you could, playing two tracks alongside each other for as long as you could. And now, I guess, I don’t mind doing shorter mixes sometimes. I feel like I have a lot of different tools at my disposal. And depending on the music I’m playing and the effects I want to create at that moment, I can mix differently. If I have this really trippy, hypnotic track, I am going to put another trippy, hypnotic track on top of it and put the energy from both together and combine them for three minutes and it’s going to bring something else. But then I also have this track, which has a lot of things going on and I want to break into something else quite fast, so I’m just going to mix it into the last 30 seconds of the record. So I no longer have one way of mixing, because it’s going to depend on the music I’m playing, the energy and the effects I want to bring to the crowd. Sometimes, playing too smooth, when you don’t hear any transition, can be really good. But it can also create this kind of boredom, because you get the impression you have the same track playing for an hour. When this happens, it can be good to not even do a mix, but just a new start. It wakes people up and you’ll get a reaction on the dancefloor that you forgot, because you were so busy mixing too long and too smooth before. So it can be good to change the rhythm.