Techno Tuesday: John Digweed shares his wisdom on running an iconic label for two decades
Techno Tuesday is a feature on Dancing Astronaut documenting the culture of underground dance music. We’ll bring you exclusive interviews, tracks, and narratives from artists within the techno, tech house, and deep house world in an effort to shed light on some of the best talent outside the world of mainstream dance music.
A great deal of celebrated DJs today point to John Digweed as a source of inspiration and continued admiration. When speaking with him or seeing him perform live, it’s easy to see why; the artist maintains a staunch sense of humility despite his profound knowledge of electronica and savant-level talent acquired through his long years in the scene. Not to mention, quite a bit of his own releases have gone down as some of the most notable in dance history. John’s sets are continually packed with adoring fans who come to hear flawless transitions and intelligent arrangement.
Beyond his personal merits, which would double the length of this feature if delineated in detail, John is is also the man behind the legendary Bedrock Records. Its first release, of course, is “Heaven Scent” — a track by its owner and Nick Muir under their eponymous Bedrock moniker that is considered a groundbreaking record in both progressive and trance genres. The label has also signed several other iconic talents early on in their careers, including Guy Gerber, Nic Fanciulli, and Henry Saiz. Guy J, a protégé of sorts, went on to form his own widely-acclaimed Lost&Found imprint under the Bedrock umbrella.
Bedrock has officially crossed into the two-decade threshold; this comes as little surprise to followers of the cutting-edge imprint, but is an impressive feat nonetheless. John Digweed has marked the occasion with an extra special edition of this year’s namesake compilation, Bedrock XX, carefully seeking out just over two dozen new and old colleagues that he considered most fit to represent where the label is at today and arranging their contributions into a breathtaking, well-planned mix. It’s groovy, melodic, and fierce, with recurring motifs and driving beats tying each record together throughout its dynamic development.
Dancing Astronaut wanted to know more about the process behind Bedrock XX‘s assembly, and were given the honor of discussing it with John just prior to its release. He also kindly unloaded some wisdom onto us around maintaining a successful imprint for two decades, artistic integrity, scouting out new talent, and his laser focus while performing.
Given dance music’s heavy saturation and thus, greater amount of producers copying popular sounds from others, what new sounds/genres rising up do you feel are moving dance music forward most at this time, and why?
This is such a hard question as this situation has always been here — it’s just there are even more genres and sounds out there now than ever before. You just just have to put the time and work in and listen to hundreds of records every week and sift out the really good stuff from the very average. I don’t think there has ever been a better time for great music as this moment in time, but having said that, there is also an awful load of mediocre stuff out there which I try to avoid.
How do you go about looking for and choosing tracks for your sets and compilations these days?
It’s the same as its always been. Running the label, I get sent loads of advance tracks from DJs and producers so I can road test them. I also get advance tracks and remixes from labels and producers who want my feedback and there are the promo pools that I am on, plus the stuff I buy as well. I love playing new music all the time so every week sometimes I have over 100 new tunes that I have added to my rekordbox. The process can take ages sometimes to go through so. So much music but having loads of exclusives when you show up at a gig is worth all the hours of selecting.
On that note, all of the tracks on Bedrock XX were produced specifically for this album; what was your process for picking the artists behind each record? What qualities/traits in artists do you feel best represent the Bedrock ethos?
I gently put some feelers out to artists that I really respected. Some had already been on the label before and for some this was the first time asking them for a track on the label. I was blown away by the response and everyone was so into it and delivered on time. I was a massive fan of the artists’ productions before I asked them so I was not worried about what I might be receiving from them. I asked 23 people and 2 could not deliver so the success rate was incredible.
What kind of listening experience can we expect for Bedrock XX? Did you advise the collaborating artists to keep anything in mind when creating tracks for the disc to help things fall into place?
I gave the artists a free reign to deliver what they wanted without any script from me, I wanted this album to reflect every individual artist’s vibe for the album. Once everything was in, I went about trying to work the 21 tracks into a mix that I was happy with. After a few rough attempts we ended up at the final version and I am really happy with the flow and the mix.
Where do you envision the Bedrock sound to be at in the next couple years?
I have no idea as its all down to the producers out there and the quality of the productions that are being made, Bedrock has always been open to releasing all styles of music. As long as it’s good we will support it, and that will never change.
You and Nick Muir have been at it in the studio it seems, based off the string of recent collaborations coming out by you guys. Can you put into words what has made you such a great team for the past two decades or so?
Firstly, Nick is an amazing musician, producer and engineer. Secondly, he loves the music and he loves the scene. Any good quality UK event he is there until the very last track. He has a great ear for building grooves and percussion, and he has a a way of playing melodies that sit right with us both. From the first time we worked together we hit it off, and it’s been the same ever since. It’s always a pleasure working with Nick.
You’re keen ear for good musicians has been proven countless times now – Guy J, Eagles & Butterflies, and many others have all become legends in their own right after working alongside you or becoming label regulars. Who are some budding new acts you’ve signed onto Bedrock in recent times that you feel are pushing the envelope musically and are looking toward a successful future?
At the start of the year we released a EP from Toronto’s Shelley Johannson which did really well with all 4 tracks going into the techno top 100 chart. You can tell she loved the music and the scene, just like Guy and Eagles. Bedrock has always been a great platform for new artists and I couldn’t be happier to see them succeed and do well on their own. As a label, we get sent so many demos every week it’s insane. We can only really release 18 – 22 singles a year maximum so that means those 18 – 22 tracks need to be stand out great tracks. No room for fillers. It’s a hard process .
What have been the biggest challenges and triumphs thus far of running Bedrock for two decades?
Obviously when the illegal downloads came in and our vinyl sales just seemed to tank overnight. Distribution companies going bust without paying you, record labels going bust owing you money and trying to work out how we would make selling music a viable business for the future. Luckily we figured it out so I would say our biggest triumph is still being here and maybe being even more relevant than ever, along with throwing some of our legendary Bedrock parties around the world over the last 20 years.
Given the new digital age where streaming and free music reign and independent labels are cropping up everywhere, do you ever see the role of a music label changing or diminishing sometime in the future with this trajectory? Ie, labels no longer serving as major platforms for artist exposure, music sales, etc. If so, do you feel Bedrock would be affected by this shift? What would plans for the label be if so?
Less and less, people want to pay for music — that’s a fact. They have so many avenues to access free music, or through subscription services that give them access to as much music as they want. As a small label you have to run a tight ship and keep the overheads low, but always keep the quality high.The streaming revenue is getting better so as download sales get less, hopefully the streaming money will balance it out. We still do physical CDs and our fanbase loves our design and packaging as we put a lot of effort into these products to make them stand out and be collectable. The fact that we have been around for 20 years and have a solid reputation does help us with people wanting to be on the label. For the time being it’s business as usual but a shift is coming for sure and it won’t really be a shock when it does so we will just have to adapt when we need to.
How do you maintain such a cool, unfettered focus behind the decks? It was particularly fascinating at Movement a couple weeks ago when you refused to let the sound issues get to you and continued to pummel us all with seamless transitions and great selections.
I have never been a dancing interactive DJ. It’s just not my style and my dancing is terrible so I don’t want to inflict that on the camera phone generation for the whole world to see. The fact every DJ is different is a good thing and gives the scene more colour, although sometimes you see the DJ is dancing harder than the crowd who are just standing there filming him which just seems odd to me. I have always been 100% focussed when I play as I am thinking sometimes 3/4 records ahead and my head is in the zone.
What pieces of hardware/gear are you really digging right now for in the studio and on the road?
I am creature of habit and still play out on the Allen and Heath DB4 mixer. I love it and its going to take a special mixer to get me off it.
It feels like progressive has sort of “taken its name back” as of late. Considering you were a pioneer of the genre, what are your thoughts on this development, and the cycles/history repeating itself in dance music as a whole?
Everyone wants to put music in a box yet I can listen through the genres on Beatport and be like, “that’s not deep house, techno or melodic house,” as it seems way off the genre they have labeled it. Myself — I don’t really want to be put in a box. I want to be know as a DJ that plays a broad spectrum of good electronic music. I think my ‘Live in Montreal’ album summed up an 11 + hour set from me going from ambient to deep house to tech and techno with splashes of classics and progressive tracks thrown in for good measure. It really did showcase the range of what I do and that’s not a sound you put in a box.