Steve Lawler interview: My Way

Ahead of his elrow Town appearance, we caught up with Steve Lawler to chat the downside of b2bs, building a house and going for the jugular

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 12th Jun 2018.
Originally published: 4th Jun 2018

Image: Steve Lawler 

Steve Lawler is in a good place right now. When Skiddle catch up with him he's putting the finishing touches to a new Groove Armada remix that he will debut during his packed summer schedule. It's just the latest release from a four year period that has seen Lawler at his most prolific as a producer. In his over two decade long career it's a role he's at times been reluctant to either undertake or discuss.

He's always described himself as a DJ first and foremost. But having found a new enthusiasm and confidence in making music, Steve Lawler may well be on his way to carving as much of a name for himself with his tracks as he currently holds as one of the best ever exports from the sphere of DJing.

Used to travelling the world to DJ, Lawler is about to embark on a full summer of dates in Ibiza. He also plays at Butterfly Effect Festival and elrow Town London at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on Saturday 18th August. But prior to those dates, Marko Kutlesa sat down with him to discuss Lawler's current production spurt, a little history and the sounds of the summer.

Hi Steve! Where are you?

Hi! I've just got home after my weekend of gigs. I was in Ibiza on Saturday and then flew back to the UK for Mutiny Festival, but it was cancelled.

You're again playing quite a few Ibiza dates this year. How will this year be different for you?

What I'm doing this year is something I've never done before. I'm not sure anyone else has either. I'm playing there every week for 22 weeks. So it's like having a residency, only it's not in one club or for one night. I'm spread between DC10, Paradise, Labyrinth, Pacha, Elrow, Warriors Do Not Sleep, Abode, Music On, Ushuaia and Amnesia. So, I have an incredible summer of gigs lined up, playing all the best places on the island really, both the big places and the cool, underground spots.

I feel very fortunate. It was insane, even back in November last year, the offers I was getting for this summer. So, we decided to do it like this for 2018, until we discover where our new home is going to be.

I'm surprised you've come back at all! I don't know why you don't stay out there the whole summer.

I've been doing that forever, but I'm building a house back in England. When you're doing that and paying people to do it, you'd think you'd be able to sit back and switch off. Think again. My attention is needed on it almost every day and if I didn't give it that attention, I wouldn't get the house that I've asked for. Also, it gets me back in the studio too. That's generally how I'll be spending my time this summer.

I'll come to your studio work in a moment, but just to stick with Ibiza for now. How has the island and its scene changed over the years you've been going?

I love this question. I've been asked it so many times. I know the answer because I travel the world, I see the world changing. When people say “Ibiza is changing, what do you think?” it's exactly the same as the rest of the world. The world is changing. London, Tokyo, Barcelona are more expensive than they've ever been. A lot of places that used to be more rustic, spiritual, they're gone. They're being replaced by money moguls, brands, investment. That's happened in Ibiza. But it's also happened in parts of London, Barcelona, Tokyo. It's happening everywhere. When I started going to Ibiza it was a lot more rustic; people like Nicky Holloway, Paul Oakenfold, Boys Own were coming over and doing parties. I was 17 when I first got the chance to go to one. If that party happened in the modern day, everyone would moan about it, saying it wasn't busy.

The island has exponentially grown and people take it for granted just how good the parties are now. The parties on Ibiza are amazing at the moment. Yes, they were good back in the day, but they were never as busy and never as crazy as they are now. No way! I know. I went. The only thing that's got worse is the restrictions; not being able to do beach parties, not being able to play outside. But you used to be able to do that in Berlin and Barcelona and now each of these places also has restrictions. So, the long and the short of it is, yes, Ibiza has changed, but so has the world. Ibiza can't stay in the past and I, for one, am glad it hasn't.

I always remember you saying that when you first went out there to play, one of your first residencies, it felt like a gay club. Is that crowd and vibe still visible in the places you play?

No. That was Space. Space started out as a predominantly gay club. The first time I went was one Sunday, maybe in 1995 and it opened at 7am. So, it was predominantly an after hours gay club. I had played at gay clubs in the UK before then, so I wasn't fazed by it, although others might have been. The world was less openminded back then. But, it was the most incredible experience, just because of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, you just don't see that much anymore. There must still be gay nights in Ibiza. Back then, it was mixed. It was so popular just because it was a gay party. It was that atmosphere which originally made Space so popular, back before the terrace blew up. Back then the terrace was a few Coca Cola seats around a few shitty tables, just a place to relax.

In what direction do you think the sound of this summer's season will be progressing in comparison to previous years?

I say this thankfully, I think you're going to hear more musical chords, pianos, stabs. More musical elements, vocals, disco. So, all those elements thrown into an underground sound. It won't be Glitterbox type disco, that's their own thing. But, because of people like Robert Hood and his Floorplan releases, you're getting this really cool, disco-infused techno and house. Cozzy D is another one whose done something along those lines. With people like Peggy Gou, who are writing really nice, old school, musical-sounding house, it's blowing up.

That Four Tet remix of the Bicep single is a beautiful, melodic, almost trance, house record too. I'm quite well known for playing deep and dubby, but tech house has been rinsed... and then some. For a while it was almost as if every new producer on the planet bought the same sample CD. I was losing the will to live having to listen to any more tech house. I'm so glad that musical element has become popular. It's perfect for Ibiza, perfect for dancing outside, perfect for dancing in the sunshine. I've got no doubt in my mind that musically it's going to be an amazing summer.

Have you been working on any of your own special edits that you're looking forward to playing this summer?

Yeah. I'm editing all the time. I tend to get a lot of music sent to me and some of the time there'll be a part of a track I'm fond of and others that I'm not so fond of. And, to make my set unique to me, I often take part of a record, loop it, put some new drums over it and use it basically like a DJ tool. When I do that, people often ask what the track is and I have to tell them it doesn't really exist. In a way it's like making new music, but basically it's just cutting and sampling. They're not things I'd ever want releasing or that I could even give away. Being able to play a set that's unique is more challenging these days.

It's a challenge I don't take lightly. I've always wanted to make sure I'm playing my sound, my thing, I don't want to sound like somebody else. Ever. Years ago it was easier to do that, you'd cut a track on acetate and nobody else would have it. These days it's more difficult. A way round it and a way to refine your sets is editing stuff. I've just done an edit of 'But I Do' by Denis Sulta. Parts of it are incredible, others don't make sense to me, so I've pretty much made my own track out of it. Everyone keeps asking me what it is, which is great, but it doesn't really exist.

 You've recently been working on a remix for Groove Armada too. Will that be ready to play this summer?

It will be ready to play out next week, I think. What I tend to do at the moment, because of time constraints I have over the summer, is that I take all my samples and the parts and start building in Ableton while I'm in airports, hotels or on the plane. It's an easy way to sketch an idea. I've kind of over built this one. That's what you tend to do, you put more stuff in than it needs. The next stage is to get it in the studio and start stripping it back, make more sense out of it with an arrangement.

Then I'll get an engineer in to do the mix for me, because my ears are a little bit shot after 20 odd years of loud music. When your hearing gets affected, it affects the top end. So, I tend to over compensate and everyone will be screeching because the top end is so high. Whenever I think I've got the levels perfect, I play it in a club and it sounds like shit. So, I get an engineer in. It's a skill in itself doing mixdowns.

Talking about this remix and earlier the edits, it sounds like you are in a really good place at the moment when it comes to producing. That wasn't always the case with you. Many producers still regard the album format at the ultimate artistic statement. Yet considering this happy place you're in and the fact you've been more prolific over the last 4 or 5 years as a producer than ever before, you've still not grappled with the album format yet. Can you see that changing in the short term future?

It's a good question. But, I'll tell you now I have attempted to do an album. I don't speak about it so openly. You're right, it is the ultimate artistic expression for a music producer, because you have the scope to write music whose sole purpose is to express you. You don't have to write music just for the dancefloor. A lot of the time I write music it's because I'm looking for something to play but I can't find it, it doesn't exist. That's what I did with 'House Record', I wanted to play something old school that you just couldn't find unless you were actually playing old music. So, there's always a reason for me.

In the times I've said previously that I'm going to make an album, I've put an enormous amount of pressure on myself. I've probably thrown away 50 pieces of music, wasting a lot of time, putting myself in a place where I'm withdrawn inspirationally. I can't even write a simple record. So, right now, I'm in a really creative place and I don't want to ruin it by saying I want to write an album.

Some DJs, such as yourself, who feel they are very much a DJ first and a producer second, can often follow the path of collaboration as a means to releasing music. You've done a few collabs, but I wouldn't say you're known as a guy who jumps into a studio session with someone else at every opportunity. Why is that?

It's very similar to doing a back to back set. Everyone wants us to do back to back sets these days, I get asked all the time. I'm not a big fan. I can't tell my story as a DJ. I quite often play tracks whose main purpose is to set up the next track that I'm going to play. Obviously when you're playing back to back, you can't do that. It's the same in the studio. You might be jamming with someone, putting some drums together, adding some keys and then he or she will add something that sends the track in a direction you really don't want to go. That can be a very awkward moment. Some back to back sets can be amazing. Some can be a disaster.

It's the same with collaborations. Some can be an amazing project, others a massive headache. My latest collaboration was with Arthur Baker and that was such an organic process. He introduced himself to me at BPM Festival two years ago. For me, he's a legend. I was surprised he looked so young! I was playing his records when I was 17 years old. But he explained he'd made them when he was really young. He gave me a USB of unfinished tracks that he wanted me to hear and said that he'd like to work with me. I started playing with one and something interesting came up. I let him know, sent it back to him, he did some work on it, then back to me and then it went to mastering and we were both really happy with it. It was a nice thing to do. I did it out of respect for him.

You're playing for elrow in London and on Ibiza this year. It's a fantastic event, really great production and such a spectacle. How do you tailor your sets when you're approaching something with as dramatic a visual impact as that?

It is. But, I don't really tailor my sets, to be honest. I will play to the room, but within my choice of music. I have crates of tracks. If I play in a club with a low ceiling and an intimate environment, I will definitely play deeper, more intricate sounds. If I'm playing on a big stage, with thousands of people, like Elrow at Amnesia or at Ushuaia, I go in with the mindset that I'm just going to smash it, I'm going to deliver the party.

But I do it within the remits of the music I have, I'm still happy with the music. In a big theatrical environment there's less toying around with grooves, less experimenting. In 90 minutes you don't get to take people down some trippy journey for half an hour, like I would in a 5 hour club set. If you put me on a stage at a festival or somewhere like Elrow, I'm just going to go for the jugular.

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