Laidback Luke interview: Wax on, wax off

Ahead of his Liverpool Underground show, Marko Kutlesa chatted with the iconic DJ to discuss his Mixmash Family album, theories about DJing and who he would leave control of his social media to.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 22nd Dec 2017.
Originally published: 5th Dec 2017

Image: Laidback Luke (source)

Dutch DJ Laidback Luke is on a mission. He is one of the few DJs to have successfully transitioned from the 1990s progressive house and techno scenes to topping the bills at today's biggest EDM festivals. Although initially known for his productions he has brought an uncommon DJ's skill into the realms he now inhabits and is intent on spreading this knowledge. He does this via his channels on social media, including his vlogs which are viewed in their hundreds of thousands.

There he passes on his wisdom and an experience that has seen him collaborate with some of the biggest names in EDM like Swedish House Mafia, Steve Aoki and David Guetta. He has released three albums, several chart-topping singles, runs his own Mixmash record label (which has just released an album of collaborations from some of its freshest signings) and tours internationally.

Laidback Luke continues to cross the globe throughout winter, including many dates in the US plus France and at Underground Liverpool on Tuesday 26 December. Prior to those dates, Marko Kutlesa sat down with the longstanding DJ and kung fu enthusiast to discuss his recent Mixmash Family album, his theories about DJing and who he would leave control of his social media to.

How did you do at the World Kung Fu Championships?

It was at the start of this year. This year has been pretty elaborate, I must say. It went really well. I won three gold medals this time. It was in Hong Kong. It's the biggest kung fu tournament in the world, so it's like the Olympics of kung fu. I prepared for six months in order to compete at this. So, I was very happy with the outcome. 

Are you going back next year?

No, I don't think so. It's been a busy year. I recently passed my black sash exam. It's different in our system than in other schools. My kung fu teacher tells me this is about the third black belt if you compare it to Taekwondo, so it was a huge exam. I needed to prepare for about four months. So my year in kung fu has already been pretty busy.

You're now 41 years old. How long do you think you can continue at this level within this discipline?

I think until a very old age. If I look at our grandmasters, they are over 90 years old and still teaching. So Kung fu, unlike DJing, I can probably do until I'm super old. 

Do you have your own secret move, like the crane kick in Karate Kid, that baffles opponents?

Hahaha. No. Well, in our system we have kickboxing as well, so I've been training that as well and apparently my jab and front kick are good weapons.

You've just released the MixMash Family album. Of all the artists you release on the label, why was it these guys that you chose to be involved?

Well, whenever we sign someone to Mixmash it's an exclusive thing. Of course, they're allowed to release on other labels, but it's up to us to use our platform and to try and make them as famous as possible. So, to be signed means we really see potential in you. They were all at Amsterdam Dance Event so it was the perfect opportunity for us all to sit in the studio.

You're playing in Liverpool on 26th December. You're a fan of music from all over the world. How much do you know about the music of Liverpool? 

Are you from Liverpool?

I'm from Manchester which is quite close, only about half an hour down the road.

There you go. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that's the north? So, there'll be the influence of northern soul there. In Manchester, you had The Hacienda, so in that area, the knowledge of house music goes way back, right to the very first developments of house music in Europe. Fun fact: whenever I'm playing in front of a Liverpool crowd they often tell me to not play anything trap or dubstep. So I know to keep it proggy and housey for that crowd. 

Or maybe play The Beatles or one of Cream's anthems, as they're both from Liverpool.

Yes!

You're soon doing a Q&A at Harvard University. Do you feel as comfortable before audiences like that as you do in front of a large festival crowd?

Well, I was never much of a speaker. It was only when I started getting training for radio, for my podcast, the MixMash radio show, that I started to develop as a speaker. Then, after I did some dance music seminars and some workshops at ADE, I started to feel more comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. Usually when I get up on stage nowadays the only thing that matters to me is that I share my knowledge.

You come from a background of being a real DJ. You now share the stage with some of the biggest names in the business at festivals. Who else is the real deal in treal of actually DJing when they perform?

Well, that's a tricky one. I hate it when the DJs stand on top of the DJ booth and they constantly have a mic in their hands. I could name a couple of people right now, people standing on top of the DJ booth, taking a selfie with the crowd. I don't know. It's weird times. Guys like A-Trak and DJ Craze are fantastic turntablists. Although sometimes even they grab the mic. It's probably an American thing. It's weird. But I can't hate on it because even Carl Cox sometimes grabs the mic and most certainly he's a real DJ.

So, it's a different thing and it's an open discussion as to what is a real DJ. Should we not make use of the technology and read the BPMs? Should we not use sync? I do feel like I'm an old twat if I say how pure it was back in the day and if I'm not open to change. But the art I grew up with has most certainly changed.

When I started going and watching amazing DJs in the 90s it was people like Derrick May who would amaze me (still does!). Back then, most of my DJ heroes were from Chicago, Detroit or New York and most of them were black, because that's where house and techno came from. I struggle to see much of that demographic represented now on some of the  line ups at the major festivals you play at.

I think Green Velvet is still doing a really good job. I think it was very smart for him to team up with the Dirtybird people and doing the back to backs with Claude VonStroke but, yeah, I hear you. It's most definitely changed. I know exactly the era you're talking about. For me, for instance, I was a huge fan of Jeff Mills. I used to adore watching him go crazy on the decks. That sort of thing kinda faded into the underground. There also used to be a very big gay scene in New York that was central to house music. Even in Amsterdam, house music used to be associated with the gay scene. That all changed when dance music crossed over, for sure. 

Which of your own tracks do you like the most?

Well, I think I made a classic with 'We're Forever', which I made with Marc Benjamin. I do love playing 'Leave The World Behind' and 'Turbulence' will still wreck any festival. I'm really proud of the new track I made with Mark Villa, 'Rise', which is from the MixMash Family album. It's perfect for this moment in time, it has some of my progressive roots and it mixes them with future house. It's a nice track to grab in any circumstance. 

You said in an interview earlier this year that “I’m one of the last DJs standing that was inspired by the golden days of Dance Music DJing in the States” When was that era and why were they the golden days?

They were the golden days because people didn't think about becoming rich, famous, a superstar. These were people who were fighting to get an audience for their music. These were people who had a vision. They knew about pop music, but they didn't want to sound like pop music. These were people exploring the possibilities of drum machines, samplers and synthesizers. So, this was coming from an artistic place, not the multi million Euro scene that it is today. I hope the underground scene that's out there now has this same purity, that passion to innovate and inspire. It's something that's lacking in mainstream dance music right now.

When you're playing in a medium sized club for 6 hours and people have paid £15 to get in, it's maybe ok to fuck up a mix, maybe a couple of beats are out or the mixing's not in key. I quite enjoy hearing it because it let's me know the DJ is real, human, actually there. But when you're playing only for an hour at a monster festival for tens of thousands of people who've paid £100 to be there it's less acceptable to have an off moment. Would you agree and is that right?

I don't know. I love where you're coming from. For me, at the speed I mix and how I go unprepared into even the big festivals... one of the things I loved to hear from the DJs who inspired me was also that I heard they were human. As an up and coming DJ, when I would hear that, I felt as though I was there, in the mix, with them. I could hear them catch the beat or go off for a few seconds and I'd be thinking it's deck b that you need to give a swing.

It really helped me with my DJing skills. I don't care if my mixes are a couple of milliseconds off and I would challenge anyone to mix as fast as I do and still have it sound as seamless. Sometimes there is a mistake but, yes, that's the human part. That's when you know a DJ is not playing a pre recorded set. Nowadays people are perhaps paying to come and see a show, but for me, if I'm a fan of a DJ, that's what I want to hear them do. 

I've seen quite a few of your sets from major events. What I think sets you apart from a lot of DJs on the EDM circuit is that you can sometimes drop into playing house or techno. Although at some events we might see you playing only EDM. For some of the younger audiences, EDM is maybe all they know. How do you know when you can get away with branching out a little?

Good question. And that's exactly the subject of my latest vlog, the mystical art of reading a crowd. It's something that's been forgotten nowadays. I have several theories about reading a crowd and yes, you can get away with changing genres. For instance, if the crowd are fatigued, tired, if they've listened to banging festival music for half an afternoon already, then it might be good too give them a little breather. But you can also trick them into it, you can lower the energy and bpms slowly to the point where they're ready for a techno track. The good thing about doing that is that you can come back really hard. There are lots of things you can do.

Which sets do you prefer? More eclectic or single genre?

Well, I've been doing strictly techno sets as well and mostly they're two hours long. Sometimes I get asked to play for longer but, usually, at the speed I'm mixing, two hours is enough. But I love doing both. I love the commercial sets and I love the strictly techno sets. I'm just an all round music lover.

If you could drop one of the tracks you regularly used to play, back in the day, at an EDM event in the hopes that it would blow the kids away, which track would it be?

Oh boy. It might be the track which was my international breakthrough, the remix I did for Green Velvet's 'The Stalker'. I always have a remastered version with me and I'd probably do a little edit to make it sound less outdated. It still gets played by some other DJs.

To be a headliner at one of the major events you play at, you need to have tracks out there. But making good tracks is not the skills you need once you are on stage. If you've spent time enough in the studio to be able to make great tracks, you can't get paid your worth unless you appear on stage as a DJ. Those are such different skills which seem totally reliant on each other. The industry you're in is kind of fucked up in that way, no? Where did it go wrong and what can be done about it?

Ha! That's actually going to be the subject of my next vlog. I'm going to try and explain the difference between being a DJ and a producer because, as you say, they are so different. I would love to see more DJs on stage and less producers. Most of the time, producers are very basic DJs and DJs are very basic producers.

I was one of the first to be booked for their productions, because I'm a producer at heart, I started producing before I started DJing. Where it started going wrong, I think, is when the world became such a smaller place and through releases, your name was suddenly everywhere. If they heard you could mix, they were ready to book you.

What I would love to see would be, if you're a really great producer, why not go and play live? There are all sorts of things like Native Instruments, Ableton Push and the new decks with all the pads on there that you could use to help you be a producer on stage. That would be really cool. Nobody could accuse you of being a bad DJ because you're not actually DJing. I wish it was more like that. People would still come and see these names.

Who will you be collaborating with on your new album coming in 2018?

I can't give you any specific names yet but I'm quite excited as a few really big DJ names have already committed to doing it. But there will also be some new talent too, in a similar way to how we've just done it on the MixMash Family album.

You run your own Twitter and Instagram accounts. If you were asked to hand over control of your accounts anonymously to another well known DJ you are friends with, who would you choose and who would you definitely not choose?

Haha! I'd probably choose Diplo. I think he's on the right edge of being funny and serious and entertaining. I wouldn't hand it over to Dillon Francis because he would absolutely mess it up.

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