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Theo Kottis Interview: 'The Music Speaks For Itself'

Theo Kottis talks to John Thorp about his years as a promoter in the Edinburgh club scene, why he views genres as unimportant and the realities of life as a DJ and producer ahead of FLY Open Air Festival in September.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 25th Aug 2016

Photo: Theo Kottis

Already counting the likes of Pete Tong, Solomun and Simian Mobile Disco as fans, Theo Kottis has emerged from a bubbling Edinburgh dance scene as a focused and prodigal talent.

Cutting his teeth as a promoter, his enthusiasm and talent behind the decks eventually lead him to production, and releases on Jaymo & Andy George’s Moda Black label, as well as Sasha’s scene defining Last Night On Earth imprint. His sound is melodic and emotional, but owing to his residency at Sub Club his taste when DJing runs in a number of distinct directions.

Ahead of a gracious homecoming gig at Edinburgh’s FLY Open Air festival, alongside the likes of Motor City Drum Ensemble, Mr. G, Booka Shade and Detroit Swindle, John Thorp caught up with Kottis to discuss maintaining his recent wave of success, making the switch from promoter to producer, and the new school of Scottish DJ talent. Listen to his We Are FSTVL mix below.

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We hear a lot about the Glasgow club scene, but not so much about what’s happening in your home city, Edinburgh.

I feel like Edinburgh is underdeveloped but it has a lot of potential as a city. There’s a good group of guys producing now, and really good DJs. I think because Glasgow has been such a strong city for so many years, we’re often overlooked. But venue wise, I mean there are loads of amazing choices.

Sneaky Pete’s is an intimate club with great bookings. Liquid Rooms, which is a big venue that’s just opened a downstairs venue called The Basement, which I think is awesome, with a really good sound system.  

You ran raves in Edinburgh for a number of years. Was that a challenge? And how did it lead you on to producing as you are now?

I started when I was 18, so my music taste was quite different back then. But I think I learned a lot about it, being a promoter, working with clubs, and that’s how I learned to DJ myself. I never had equipment myself, so I used to just put parties on and go down to the club a few hours before and just basically teach myself. It just happened naturally.

Even at house parties I wanted to do the tunes, I was always so up for it and enthusiastic. I didn’t necessarily want to be a DJ straight away. A lot of the time I was just booking DJs that I looked up to, and I saw we had the same interests and tastes, so I started. I was only 19 when I first booked Pete Tong, and now he supports me. I’ve not actually told him, I don’t think he remembers or realises it was me.

It’s pretty amazing to book Pete Tong at nineteen years old, who’s essentially still one of the biggest figures in dance music. I’m guessing you were a good promoter? You had the hustle?

I guess so! It was in a massive shopping centre. We rented it, got a license, and had 2000 people there. I feel like I had a really good career promoting, but a lot of the music wasn’t what I'm into now. And that’s just natural. I always say, it’s like wine. The older you get, you mature with it.

I’m comfortable with it, I’m not one of these chin scratchers trying to hide their past and be something they're not. At the end of the day, there’s only good music and bad music. I don’t really care about genres.

Do you look back on that period and feel inspired by almost your naivety of doing something that impressive at a young age?

Well, it was a foot in the door, in meeting artists, and meeting agents. That’s how I met mine. It was a good thing, it was very positive. 

What was the experience like in terms of getting your music to Pete Tong, and gaining his support? I know that the volume of music he stills listens to, or his team listen to, is vast. How did you go about getting it to him?

I’m very fortunate in that the labels I’m working with have a good relationship with Radio 1. And I’m also very fortunate that Pete has played, I think, every EP I’ve made so far. I guess he’s a fan, which is amazing, and it’s always good to have a stamp of approval. A lot of time, I don’t music thinking, “I need this on Radio 1”, or whatever, I just make what I feel on the day. And he’s always backed it. It wasn’t necessarily a massive struggle to get on the radio, it’s been very natural.

In wanting to make music for yourself, but also keep up that momentum, are you trying to keep your creative processes pure? Or is it difficult to not be influenced by whatever someone like Pete or anybody else might want to hear?

Yeah, it can be difficult, but I guess the main thing I want is, if you make a tune, and if DJs you look up to are going to play it out, it’s obviously a stamp of approval. At the same time, you can sit in the studio and over think, and definitely get carried away. I make a lot of tracks, and I delete a lot of them. And it’s just a repeat of that process, everyday, until you’re finally happy with something.

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a pressure, to get something on Radio 1, but it’s definitely in the back of your head. You want approval, but also, you don’t. You want to do what you feel comfortable with. There’s too much over thinking for me in the studio.

It can be difficult, when you work in isolation for much of the time.

Exactly! And I’m planning to live in London, Berlin or Barcelona, but if I don’t do that, I still have my studio in my house, so I want to build a studio away from home. I want to wake up, cycle to the studio, and treat it more like a job. Like you said, it’s very isolating, and you don’t always want to be stuck in your house writing music.

For people who don’t work in this industry, they don’t necessarily understand, they think it’s an amazing career, where you’re a superstar DJ, just travelling and partying. But you need to be very committed. Or at least, I am anyway. I wake up early and I write tunes, non stop. I think people reckon you sit at home in the week, and make money playing parties at the weekend, but it’s not like that.

Also, from a DJ’s perspective, you need to make the time and create the atmosphere to simply listen to music, which can be time consuming.

That’s a very good point for me. The amount of hours good DJs just spend digging and collecting, you can spend whole days and weeks on that alone. But it’s also listening to it, knowing your tunes, knowing your music.

Do you ever worry your musical habits as a DJ affect your production techniques? I know some DJs don’t listen to music while in the studio, as they don’t wish to dilute their own ideas.

I actually feel, just now, that my stronger side is DJing, not producing. With production, I’ve just still got so much to learn, synths I can invest in, hardware I haven’t used. It’s a massive learning curve, whereas with DJing, I’m much more experienced having done it for a while. Having had a residency at the Sub Club, I’ve learned to be versatile. I feel more confident DJing. But I’m improving every year.

You’ve also had a record out on Sasha’s ‘Last Night on Earth’ (listen to 'If I Ever Feel Better). You’ve been championed by these genuine icons of British dance music. What do you think has given the likes of Sasha and Tong that longevity in what’s often a fickle industry?

I really appreciate the position I’m in. I mean, last week I was having a really bad day, and I got an email from Sasha just saying hello, with a new track in it. For me, that’s absolutely mental. He’s gone out the way to think of me and send that. All these guys have been at it for so long, so it’s total respect from me. They’ve stayed true to their sound, and they’ve never changed for anyone or changed for a scene.

Sasha’s always been this sort of melodic, progressive, euphoric DJ. And he still is like that now, as he was thirty years ago. So I think just staying true to yourself. And if you really like something, and you really work at it, I truly believe it’ll happen to you if you put enough work in. But it’s a bandwagon people jump on for no reason. Just play music for yourself.

Do you think that’s to do with the idea or criticism now of DJs being more about their Instagram feeds than their record collection?

Totally, it’s all about social media. There are so many videos and Instagram, and everyone sees that and gets into DJing for all the wrong reasons. It’s not to do with a passion for music. 

Surely Sasha or another ‘legendary’ figure like Andrew Weatherall have benefitted from a little bit of mystique and ambiguity?

Totally, and their fans, obviously they’re older but they’re still fans, as they’re still the same DJ. They’re not jumping from scene to scene every five years depending on what’s popular. 

There’s a good quote from Michael Mayer, which I frustratingly can’t find to attribute nowadays, that’s something along the lines of “the dancefloor is not just an outlet for euphoria.” I presume he means there’s room for a broader palette of emotions. You are quite a melodic DJ in a similar sense. What else are you aiming for, aside from that fist pumping euphoria. What else are you trying to achieve?

It sounds cheesy, but I do like the idea of a DJ taking you on a journey. You’ll turn up to a club from the start, and it’s already thumping, really heavy. I wish I could always play longer sets. I wish I could have minimum three hours. You can really showcase that you’re a music collector, rather than just playing a couple of big tunes to get the room banging.

At the end of the day, people are going to clubs and they could have issues at home, or issues at work, and they want to relax and forget. And as long as I can do that for them, then that’s cool. So I’d say it’s more of a musical journey. My favourite part of DJing is warming up.

You’ve had bigger gigs recently, though, off the back of your records, playing festival stages and so on, where the expectations are different. Do you ever sometimes get locked into the mindset of a warm up DJ, when you’re expected to go somehow bigger?

I have had to sit down recently and focus on playlists that will satisfy a bigger room. I’m used to playing intimate venues, and then suddenly I’m playing open-air venues abroad and I wouldn’t say I find it’s difficult, it’s just a challenge. And I love being a versatile DJ, and that’s what I’d love to be known as, rather than this melodic euphoria people are talking about. I don’t want to be attached to that. 

There’s a recent Mixmag piece that describes your music as ‘expansive tunes for the biggest rooms’...

I don’t actually necessarily agree with that. My favourite club in the world is the Sub Club in Glasgow, and I’m lucky enough to be a resident there. And I’ve warmed up for people like David August, Nicolas Jaar and Jamie Jones. Having that there has really taught me to be patient. But I do like playing in big rooms, I like both. 

Somebody like Dixon is the master of managing both ends of that spectrum, I think.

He’s the master. He’s been around for years, and again, has always stayed true to his sound. I do still love him, but I think he was even better a few years back. I saw him on the DC-10 terrace in 2012, I think, and that was when I hadn’t started producing, I was just getting into it. He could play anything he wanted, and I hadn’t seen him before. It was an inspiration. I came back from that holiday and started writing.

At the end of the day, there’s always going to be a market out there that’s not necessarily for you, but there’s people out there who like other things, and as long as they’re having a good time, then that’s cool with me. I’m not going to get involved and start hating on people. Focus on your own career and what you like and just have a good time.

It’s good when you get to a festival liked Gottwood, where there’s a broad spectrum of dance music on, but everyone tends to have the same attitude, whatever the scene.

Definitely, and that’s what I’ve found over the years of getting booked, you can’t be this sort of snobby DJ. Even if you’re playing with DJs whom you don’t play their tracks or necessarily like their sets, everybody is in this industry together, and everyone has a mutual respect for each other. You only work that out after you’ve done a bit of touring.

I used to sit at home, just freaking out over what label would release my music. But at the end of the day, it’s just a label, and the music speaks for itself. Just get it out there if you can.

I know that you were involved with fashion, and seem like a pretty well dressed chap. Does fashion lend an influence on your end of the music scene?

I wouldn’t say it influences my music at all. I just like looking smart and wearing nice shirts!

You’ve got these relationships with bigger DJs, but I’m guessing it’s important for you to forge relationships with your peers too? I was wondering, who are your personal allies on the scene?

Well, like I said earlier, I do feel Edinburgh is underdeveloped, but I’ve got a group of five friends who are making great music, but they’re not signed yet. And if there’s anything I can do to help them, then I always will, if I can send their music out there or give them feedback.

My mate Izzy Demsky, we make music together and I think he’s amazing. He works so hard and he makes so many great tunes, and now he’s in Berlin, I think it’ll happen for him. A lot of the time, you get booked with DJs, and you might not play their records, but you become good mates, because it’s not just about the music.

I played Secret Garden Party on the stage Waze & Odyssey organise last month, and we’re musically very different, but they’re very nice people. It’s great to see Denis Sulta doing really well, as I see him all the time. Jasper James and Jackmaster too, obviously.

Get FLY Open Air Festival tickets here.

More like this? Read Sasha Interview: Old School Manners, New School Techniques.

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Minimum Age: 18

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