Ivan Smagghe spoke candidly with Martin Guttridge-Hewitt about what's caught his attention at the moment, musical snobbery and new releases.
Last updated: 6th Oct 2017. Originally published: 26th Sep 2017
As a DJ and producer, Ivan Smagghe ranks amongst the most enigmatic the electronic world has ever spawned. The fact that much of what he makes, not to mention what he plays, avoids the usual traditions of club music, yet he remains one of the finest players to see in a club, kind of summarises the point. A guy who’d sooner unleash curveballs on a crowd than obvious bangers, unless he’s up for dropping bangers.
From time spent as part of Black Strobe, probably the only act to ever reference their own sound as ‘frozen Balearic gay biker house’, and A&Ring for the wildly diverse Kill The DJ imprint, to partnerships with Andrew Weatherall, Tim Paris (as It’s A Fine Line), and more recently alongside composer Rupert Cross, under the Smagghe and Cross guise. The full list of his projects is far longer than that, and consistently distinguished, resulting in an oeuvre that’s impossible to pigeonhole, or even loosely define.
With this in mind, we gave him a call without much of a planned line of questioning, more interested to find out what he’d like to discuss than any cliched agenda. And it couldn’t have ended up being a more fitting conversation.
Hi Ivan, hope you’re well? How was your weekend?
I was working. Nice work though.
Where were you?
I was in Portugal. It’s quite nice out there actually at the moment.
You mean the weather, or the scene?
Yeah, the parties. I mean it’s been going on for a long time, almost 20 years now. I’m not sure, apart from a very few examples, that there are ‘scenes’, but good parties and bad parties. Things come and go, you know.
In terms of scenes, Paris has a lot of attention at the moment. Obviously you haven’t been based there for years, but what do you make of that?
Well, you’re right, I’ve not been there for about 12 or 13 years now. To be honest, Paris seems to be cyclical. It gets really, really good, then nothing happens, people get fed up, then it starts again. Which is the same as everywhere I suppose.
I mean, there’s been a massive generational shift in Paris, perhaps even a bit stronger than in a lot of places. Like a lot of people that went out don’t go out anymore. That’s a general rule but it sees to be more defined there. So there’s a lot of a younger crowd, and there’s a lot of different options as a result. Some very underground things, some very mainstream things… …I mean, I’ve never really understood what a good party is from the outside. If you get my drift?
What do you mean?
You go where you like. I always hear people complaining about this and that, but the people who go there actually enjoy it. ‘Oh, it was better before’. Well, no, it was better before to you because you were doing it. So what, the kids who go out today shouldn’t go out? It’s hard to judge. There are parties that I like, but are the parties that I like important? They won’t mean jack shit to a younger kid. Or maybe they will. It’s hard. I think you need to keep your distance a bit. Or just not be judgemental.
I mean, I’ll be judgemental if it’s a party that I thought I would have liked and I didn’t like it and I know why. But then, well, I don’t want to be DJing just for people my age. I don’t want that. It doesn’t interest me. It’s always, well, it’s not that it doesn’t interest me- I’m exaggerating. But it’s a young person’s game apart from the DJ. So it’s fairly normal that it’s a young crowd. And young people they know a lot about music. I mean a lot. A lot more than probably I used to and maybe most of the young people did when I was 20. Obviously there’s a lot more access to it, we all know that.”
Do you think musical snobbery is becoming worse then?
Is it worse? Probably not worse, just different. There’s a lot more of it. Or is there? It’s hard to know if there’s more now or if it’s more visible because of the internet. I’m really wary about making generalisations. I mean, there’s no study on music snobbery. And it’s really easy to be snobby when everything is accessible. But, does that make it bad? Err, I don’t know. What do you mean by snobbery?
Snobbery wouldn’t be the thing that worries me. People just work in cliques. Some like this, some like that, this one, that one. For me it’s more like ‘why are you just sticking to that?’ Why can’t people see the joy in something else too? I mean, I like house music, sometimes, sometimes I don’t. I also like really weird things. I dunno. For a while there was not enough house music. But then some younger kids have only been raised in electronic music. I haven’t, but that doesn’t make me judge them.
Musical snobbery. What even is that? Weird records, or is it like vinyl only? I don’t know what you mean. If it’s a vinyl only thing I’ve said it 1,000 times, I have no interest in music format in a club. A good DJ is a good DJ whatever they play.
More in terms of this obsession with what’s underground, what’s mainstream, when the word underground doesn’t really mean anything.
Yeah, it’s very relative. Something I would think is underground to someone else is completely mainstream. It depends, why do you like a record? Do you like it because it’s rare, or do you like it because it’s good?
It’s the same again- ‘Oh, things have changed’. Well yeah, things have changed, I know things have changed. But it’s really hard to dis the people who are into music today by referring to how things were before. They weren’t there- they weren’t there. So how should they know? I don’t want to be the old guy who complains. I do complain and I do have my opinions, but there’s no point in dissing others with that.
I mean, maybe because I’m older or just the way I am, DJing and music has never been my whole life. There are a lot of interesting books, interesting movies, things to see and do. I mean I admire people that totally focus and that’s all they do, I was probably like that at some point, but not anymore. And I think it all feeds of each other.
DJing might be a bit different, you’re playing music to make people dance. You can stretch that a bit maybe. But if you’re making music then you’re only limited by yourself really. I understand why some people only make club music. But for me there’s a lot more than clubs.
So what’s got your attention at the moment?
Well, I read all the time, but I’m pretty wary about giving recommendations… I’d have to write them down for you, over the phone it just comes across as really weird. No, but it’s like maybe I’m reading this because it was mentioned by something else. If you recommend something then you recommend it to someone.
I always find it a bit vein if you start recommending things to people you’ve never met. Or it’s just ‘my favourite books’, and then there are thousands. I could do that, but it might be a bit weird.
Agreed. You have no idea what someone’s interests are or who they are when speaking to a journalist.
Exactly. Who am I talking to? Because it’s an interview, then what, music books? Which I don’t like very much. So then novels. But then it’s just another playlist really.
The interview process from an artist’s perspective must be quite odd; people are asking you questions that require personal answers. But the nature of a personal answer is a two way thing- you need to know who you are answering, but you have no context.
Well, yeah. I obviously see why people ask things, it’s fair enough, they want to know what you are into and what you like. But then it’s getting into just a load of recommendations or whatever. And it starts to get weird.
Asking me what has my interest at the moment, my mind is just going to melt. Well, what do you mean- things that happen, or what? At the same time it’s personal and impersonal. If I try to give a personal answer it won’t make any sense to anyone but me. I don’t want to come across as someone who doesn’t want to answer things, though.
Not at all. Responses that make you really think about the response are not that common. If that makes sense.
Yeah, it does. I mean there are plenty of things I could say. Like I’ve been reading James Lee Burke, an American crime writer, so let’s say that, but then it doesn’t make sense- why am I doing that? I’m not saying everyone should do that, this is what I’m doing, and it might be bollocks actually. It might just be because it’s something I want to do now.
In terms of your own work, then, what are you working on personally?
Err, I’m writing, or making, a new record for Offen Music. The Smagghe and Cross thing we’ve had one released today as well, but working on this one for Offen, which we have already put another out on.
And is there a release date in mind?
For the next one? Well there’s one that just came out on another label today, so we’re talking about Spring time, probably. I don’t really know what it’s going to sound like at the moment. It’s fairly experimental music. Well, experimental I don’t like but how else do you put it? Ambient doesn’t work either.
It’s not classical club music. I tend to shy away from making that sort of thing. It’s got a lot of rules. But then, you know, it has to make people dance. Or that’s the aim. But then I’d rather people dance to things that weren’t necessarily made for that. It can be really easy to play, I don’t know…
Yeah, well, sometimes, but then sometimes it’s nice to do that. But then it’s the same thing, if I’m playing a set of bangers does it mean the same thing as a guy who always plays a set of bangers? You’re your first public as a DJ, and sometimes it doesn’t match what the audience thinks.
I’ve had nights where people really didn’t like it and I did. Then some when the audience did and I didn’t. It’s not necessarily in the result- people getting really into it. Maybe it is for other DJs. It was good because people raised their arms in the air. Yeah, maybe. For me it’s first and foremost good if I’m into it. Sometimes it doesn’t translate. It’s good when both parties are happy though, obviously.
Surely the DJ enjoying playing is pretty vital, as this translates to the crowd?
Yeah. But then sometimes it works for you and doesn't for the crowd. Sometimes it is both ways. Then other times it’s no ways- nobody enjoys it. It’s not fool proof. It could be fool proof, but then what are you- like a robot? What makes one night good and others bad?
It’s like when I see people on social media saying every week that it was the best night of their life. So what happens when it really is the best night of your life? It’s just like everything is good and well. I don’t even think they think it, it’s just what they say. But let’s not get into that branch of commentary.
Are you saying context is really the key?
Yeah… well, I’m not sure it’s that, it’s just that’s the way it is. It’s a game. You don’t have to play, it’s up to you. It’s a lot harder if you don’t play, but it’s fairly harmless. The same thing as ever- to each his own.
It’s refreshing to hear someone being so candid.
You probably called at the right moment. I mean, you can put yourself in a character, if that’s what you’re selling. For a lot of people this job is entertainment. You’re selling, don’t forget that. All the ‘underground’ people, you’re not underground. You’re on a level that you want to be part of, but you are part of something. And you’re selling your services.
So, there are different ways, and I’m not judgemental. Or maybe I am, but I’m not going to tell you, because you need to make up your own mind. You need to make up your own mind. As with many things. Sadly they don’t, they often just read and follow.
Or they don’t even read. It’s not my job to say this was there before, this is really wrong. I know some really wrong things that are there, but, you know, there’s not much for me to do about it. I can just only try and do the best I can and do what I know. And also what I enjoy doing. I’m not forcing anything on anybody.
Sounds like a good attitude to have. I think.
It is, and it’s not. It’s the only one I know. If I try and sell myself in a different way, or try and be too extrovert, then I feel about it in a different way. Ask my agent, she’d probably like it way more if I did 50,000 podcasts all the time and interviews. But, you know, it’s like being a public character but how public do you want to be? That’s exactly how it is.
I suppose I’ve managed to make a public character out of myself by not being too public, or far too public at some points. I suppose this year there has just been so much this and that talk about music, I mean, do you really give a shit? You know. Really, is that what you all want to talk about? It’s so shallow and uninteresting. I’d be perfectly happy to debate this with someone, but it doesn’t say anything about anything.