John 00 Fleming on the dichotomy of modern trance [Interview]
John 00 Fleming, or J00F as he’s affectionately called by fans, exists as a crusader of sorts in the outer fringes of dance music, using his quiet leadership to communicate what he values most musically and to help revive these ideas in the music industry at large. Having DJ’ed since his teenage years in the ‘80s, John not only stands out as one of the community’s wisest members, but also one of its most passionate.
One might wonder, what is the driving force behind his three decade-long career? The answer rests in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when an intriguing and melodic form of techno began circulating. “I’m always looking for something new, something fresh,” he explained when discussing his life as what he calls “a traditional DJ.”
He continued on, praising techno and its powerful 4/4 beat for becoming a revolutionary escape to “cheesy breakbeat stuff” dominating the scene at the time. Then, he as he recalled. “people started putting trippy, melodic moments into a techno beat…It was completely trancing the dancefloor out! We would just look at all of these people acting like waddling penguins, just nodding their heads down.”
That music he so fondly described came to be known as “trance.”
In its early days, trance was credible. It was cutting edge and hypnotic to its core, taking only minutes to enrapture anyone coming across it for their first time. Having branched off from techno, tracks produced under the genre were consistent and enduring in their build and minimal in nature. They rarely stopped for a breakdown and lacked in a distinctive “drop,” maintaining the utmost trance-inducing effects instead.
Goa trance arose around the same time, introducing psychedelic melodic structures and helping shape trance’s development throughout its nascent years. J00F described the combination of sounds as: “this lush, progressive stuff from the trance world that we knew, going into psychedelic sounds which went harder and were really driving, dark, and deep.”
One of John’s all-time favorite trance records
His words echo into the present, where these same tastes are palpably alive in the music he plays.
“Even Sasha & Digweed, Way Out West, all the big names used to tap into it,” Fleming noted when listing his early observations of the genre. Indeed, they did; “Heaven Scent,” by John Digweed & Nick Muir under their Bedrock alias for example, is lauded as an anthem for the genre and carries just a hint of acid-tinged psychedelia in its confines.
Like Fleming, the DJs named above were –and still are — keen innovators who realized the potential of this sound. This essence is exactly what J00F fought so hard to keep afloat in the ’90s, where he remembers, “…doing it for nothing and losing loads of money, just putting a lot of loss into creating trance.”
It’s also something he and others are speaking out about today, in order “to protect and preserve it for a future generation.”
Electronic music had been well into its eruption onto the mainstream by the early ‘2000s, taking trance along with it. At first, the music retained its class when crossing over. “There was a lot of instrumental stuff going in the charts, and it was pretty credible…Art Of Trance, people like that made crossover tracks, but they weren’t cheesy,” advised Fleming.
Photo Credit: Juan Rios
But, he admitted, “The thing with trance music, is it can easily cross over into the commercial world because it’s emotional, it’s musical, it’s got melodies, it can have vocals. It ticks all the boxes where it can go into the mainstream.”
New types of commercial music with elements based loosely on trance began crossing over into the pop world, birthing what’s infamously labeled as “EDM” roughly a decade ago.
“With trance, you have to kind of protect it, and be very careful.”
J00F believes that it was during this time that a major disconnect between trance’s original ethos and what most people know it as now began forming. “There was nowhere for EDM to go,” he asserted when it came to categorizing it in outlets like Beatport.
The media and those new to the scene began catching onto this new definition until “trance became the place for this big room commercial stuff,” he went on.
Fueling the flames, he quipped, are certain DJs considered as “leaders” in the trance scene who helped push the genre forward in its early days and still carry its banner despite evolving more into the commercial realm after reaching superstardom. He understands why they do so, however — it all comes down to credibility in the end.
The problem is, “When you look at all these brands, which are branded with the trance name in them and it’s blatantly not trance, it just causes more confusion,” explained Fleming. It’s frustrating and disappointing to watch people’s perception of the genre he’s spent so much time developing change toward a negative direction as a result of such confusion.
He’s not alone in this sentiment: “many say this behind the scenes but never speak out loud.”
This of course makes it easy to understand why so many artists refuse to call their music “trance” as well, the veteran sympathetically pointed out. “People rebelling and going back underground had no choice but to put their music into techno and progressive house. And that’s where trance goes when it’s rebelling.”
“It’s uncomfortable because I know the top tier of these trance people, and I suppose it’s like the really embarrassing family member at your party – you’re related to it, but you’re watching them make a complete idiot of themselves. They’re tarnishing the family’s name and you’re watching this go on. So at the end of the day, you try and distance yourself from it.”
J00F further posits that artists who can arguably be defined as trance in his eyes such as Eric Prydz, deadmau5, and even Stephan Bodzin or Tale Of Us, “are just protecting what they’re doing because it’s credible and they don’t want to associate themselves with this commercial stuff.”
Even Fleming has done so with his own work recently: “I’m putting a lot of my stuff in those categories as well because I don’t want it to get lost in the trance section.” He worries sometimes that “My shouting ‘this is trance!’ is falling on deaf ears these days,” leaving him with no choice but to re-label his music.
Regardless, he realizes that now more than ever, it’s important to stand up for what he believes in, and work against the media and DJs who are diluting the ethos of trance to re-educate the public on the genre’s full breadth, and the potential it can achieve.
“I know the essence of trance and the ethos of trance. I know what trance should be about, and it frustrates me others look at me (I play trance in my eyes) and says “Oh, you’re a techno DJ,” or “You play progressive house.” I say, ‘No, I play trance!'”
He backtracks to a time when he almost left trance himself after he lost gigs due to promoters who “assumed that I’d be playing all that fluffy, commercial stuff because I’d stuck to my roots and still called [my music] trance.”
Then, he thought, “What am I doing? I’ve dedicated my whole career to trance music. I can’t just walk away!”
The John 00 Fleming we know today remains as steadfast and enthusiastic about trance music from when he’d first discovered it so long ago. In fact, it’s almost as though history is repeating himself. When he first started out in the genre, he referred to himself and his peers as “rebel punks” of their day, fighting commercialism with their revolutionary music to establish credibility in the mainstream.
Now, he finds himself in the same position of fighting against commercialism and making sacrifices in the process while proudly defining himself as a trance artist, this time to take his music’s credibility back after having it warped by mainstream.
Photo Credit: Michael Tullberg
Fleming emphasizes that there are positive signs in dance music’s direction as fans mature and crave more nuanced music: “This progressive theme is starting to grow, and it’s what I call progressive trance. I’m finding so much cool music now with those melodies that I was talking about. It embodies the soul and the spirit of trance!”
Fleming continued his adoration for progressive: “Before you know it, half an hour goes by, then four hours go by and you look at your watch and think ‘where did the time go?! I’ve just been taken into the future and dropped back here again.’”
This kind of immersive DJ experience has become a staple of trance and progressive — a carefully crafted art which Fleming feels is under threat due to the current industry climate: “The way to start DJing is putting your own events on, playing to empty rooms with only 50 people, work bloody hard to get those 50 people moving.”
He agreed that possessing strong DJ skills is an invaluable asset to one’s career, and is the main reason why he’s been around so long. He and his fans have a symbiotic relationship: they give him the freedom to take them wherever they go, and in return, he provides them with a journey that opens an artistic window into his persona.
“You play all those gigs in those dark, dingy places and then you learn how to perform as a DJ. You learn how to open a club, to get people from standing behind the bar to the middle of the dancefloor, and how to keep them on the dancefloor. “
Fleming enjoys treating listeners to gems he spent a painstaking amount of time finding as well. “To me, the best kinds of tracks are the ones you can’t find inside Beatport; they’re dug in there deep. Or the ones you discover on YouTube with only a few hundred plays.” He and his peers invest a good deal of time in cratedigging, and still come up with eight or more hours of music to play if they get the chance. Fans entering this corner of electronic music appreciate it too.
Will trance ever enjoy the credibility it once had as a serious genre? Can history come full circle?
A bittersweet shadow invaded John’s voice as he mapped out his view. He knows what could catalyze a swift recovery of trance, arguing, “If these people [the top tier DJs] drop their trance branding and started something new, then that would be the start of helping to clear things up in the trance world.” However, he doubts much will change until that happens.
“I am very open-minded when it comes to music – there are a lot of commercial acts I like, and I like pop. It just frustrates me; it feels like there’s this baby in trance that lost its way, and I don’t want to see it disappear forever.”
That said, he remains dedicated to using his voice in the scene to remind others of the brilliance he’s observed in trance in both its fledgling days and also the blooming underground scene bubbling up in the present. His music speaks to its consumers on an intimate and forward-thinking level with its combination of edgy progressive and goa with traditional overtones.
Ultimately, Fleming’s efforts will most certainly not go to waste either — over the years, he’s successfully passed down enough tools and wisdom to those who’ve encountered him to carry the deeper meaning of trance onward, no matter how obscured the genre becomes in the present.
Feature Photo Credit: Andy Rapkins