Kirk Degiorgio is someone who really doesn't need much of an introduction - he has been making and DJ'ing music for the last couple of decades, and remains an important voice in contemporary techno music. He is also someone who is clearly reflective and thoughtful about his craft and the larger scene he operates in. So we are very happy that Kirk made time to answer a big pile of questions we sent his way. I must admit, I always kind of thought this press shot of Kirk Degiorgio made him look like a bad guy from a James Bond film, but as you will see in this in-depth interview he is a nice person who has no (announced) plans of taking over the world.
SSGS: You might be sick of talking about it, but do you want to comment at all on the vinyl – digital DJ’ing debate?
Kirk: Most of the talk is spent shooting down myths and ill-informed opinions of a few vinyl-devotees. My point of view can be summed up very simply. As a DJ – you’ve either got ‘it” or you ain’t. Whether you use decks, CDJ’s, Traktor, Ableton, Serato, etc.
I love hearing a great set, no matter how the person is delivering it.
Whether it’s Mancuso playing tracks one after the other, in their entirety just using a single deck or Surgeon layering multiple tracks in Ableton – if they are moving the crowd with the music, telling a story, taking them on a journey in a creative manner then I’m all for it.
My preferred method has been Ableton Live for modern music forms, such as techno & house – but if I’m booked to play soul, funk, disco, boogie, I’ll use CD-J’s.
My reasons for each are: I’ve been DJing since the age of fifteen: spinning electro at breakdance contests to lugging boxes of vinyl around the world. Around 2001 I was getting frustrated with CD-J’s. It was at that stage where burning your own edits/masters was financially viable – but sometimes CD-R’s would skip or refuse to load.
Then came Ableton – and it all sort of clicked. This went ‘beyond’ the segue-ing concept of traditional two-deck mixing and after trying it out at a few gigs I got over the weirdness of not having the reassuring feel of vinyl and the confusion of a few onlookers.
Recently I played Berghain with Samuli Kemppi and he mentioned that he was in the crowd in Helsinki when I played one of my earliest Ableton sets. He said there was much talk afterwards because I was not using vinyl or CDs or even using headphones for some of the time. I was a real pioneer in this case. This was before Sasha or Richie Hawtin began publicizing Ableton for DJing, but I persevered because what I was able to do went beyond what was physically possible with vinyl or CD’s.
Nowadays it’s commonplace for laptops to be used – mostly I would say using either Traktor or Serato – which I think is great, because it keeps the art of beat-matching alive which is a fun, musically useful skill to learn. Ableton is very much different – a lot more difficult in my opinion. It’s so customizable, powerful and open-ended. I liken it to something like a powerful compressor or EQ – if you have the skill, it will help you attain the highest quality results – but in the wrongs hands it can end up being a route to disaster.
SSGS: I’ve noticed on twitter you’ve started providing a production tip each week. What is the motivation behind this? How has your approach to production developed over the years?
Kirk: Whether as a collector of rare records, a DJ or a producer – I think it’s important to share information with others. It helps form a dialogue and that feedback can often be helpful to me also. I don’t exactly walk people through techniques, I just provide a general tip that has proved useful to me – and hopefully both young and experienced producers will gain some insight and in turn share it around.
I was lucky to have Derrick May, B12 and the guys from The Black Dog to introduce me to various production techniques when I started out. They provided a starting point and I set about self-learning – and still do.
Another reason is to support the various hardware and software manufacturers making great equipment. If I know of something interesting on the market I like to recommend it to others rather than keep it secret… sometimes.
SSGS: The ART label has been pretty active since you restarted it a few years ago. Are you happy with how it has been developing? What are you trying to achieve with the label? Where is ART heading?
Kirk: ART has had a strange, disjointed history. It’s been so tied to my personal and professional life that it’s never had a particularly stable or prolific period - and that in turn has meant its profile has never been as strong as it could have been. Especially considering the artists the label has worked with; The Black Dog, Plaid, Aphex Twin, B12, Carl Craig, Stasis, Photek, Gerd, etc.
The label was hitting a peak in 95 when my career pretty much took a turn towards major label production and work composing for TV commercials. Due to sheer workload the label ceased almost overnight.
I did manage to start a sub-label called ‘Op-ART’ which lasted a year or so – the name changed slightly to reflect the more diverse material which included drum n bass, downtempo breaks, etc. But once again, I had to put it to one side as I got signed by Universal and I didn’t trust either ART or Op-ART to any other A&R person.
My work with major labels continued up until New Religion ceased to operate as a subsidiary of EMI in 2006. The seeds for ART to start again were sown with the ART/New Religion collaboration: ‘The Electric Institute’. It was a great release, but suffered from poor promotion from EMI’s marketing team. But it garnered enough interest on the underground for me to approach Rubadub Distribution regarding a relaunch, and we started in earnest in 2009.
I do still have my mainstream pop project The Beauty Room to take care of, but now that is complete I’m determined for ART to have a long period of regular releases and a much higher profile than ever before. I still want it to be a label that identifies and works with great producers early in their careers – as I did with The Black Dog, Aphex, Carl Craig and Photek – and I think with The Third Man (Toby Leeming) and Deep Space Orchestra I have achieved that A&R goal again.
Rather than 8 releases in 4 years, it will be more like a release every 3-4 weeks from now on. The challenge is to keep the quality level of the releases to the levels expected from ART.
SSGS: Can you tell us a bit about the new Machine night you are starting with Ben Sims? What is the custom rig you are using? Why the emphasis solely on new and unreleased techno? What do you hope to achieve with the night?
Kirk: Machine is a quarterly club night based in London, which we also plan to bring to other cities around the world. The concept is to get all DJ’s to play upfront and forthcoming Techno exclusively.
All too often Techno nights can be a bit of an excursion into nostalgia – and although I do love many of the classic tracks, I personally have little interest in hearing Strings Of Life, Good Life, The Bells, I Feel Love, etc - for the millionth time.
The rig will be a combination of Funktion One and Turbosound. I think Function One has the smoothest, clearest top end of any system I’ve heard. It would be hard to choose between the setup at Cielo or Berghain for the best system I’ve played on recently – both Funktion One rigs.
I hope Machine becomes a regular feature of the Techno scene. A place where guest DJ’s do not have to feel obliged to play familiar tracks to get appreciation from the crowd. My favourite clubs over the years have always been ones supporting new music; like the early Techno clubs such as Rage, Lost, Speed for Drum’n’Bass, Co-Op for Broken Beat, FWD for dubstep, etc.
SSGS: What do you think the contemporary techno scene in London / UK is like?
Kirk: It’s difficult to tell being away myself most weekends, but if I do have a weekend at home I will usually check out Fabric. They consistently have interesting line-up’s – a mixture of familiar names and more underground. It’s a very European crowd too and perhaps less cynical/jaded than big London club crowds tend to be.
SSGS: What feelings / emotions / expressions / thoughts do you try to convey through the music you produce and play?
Kirk: Everything. I really like to go on a journey – as clichéd as that may be. From dark to uplifting, increasing and decreasing in tempo subtly over time, minimal locked grooves to melodic, etc.
When I DJ, I surprise a lot people hearing me for the first time, because I’ve always essentially been a true ‘party’ DJ. My style is always to make people dance. I’m not a DJ who aims to the chin-stroking obscurants.
This happened recently at Trouw, when I was invited by Erwin Van Moll – who I’ve known professionally for years as Max 404 and now TJ Kong – and Nuno Dos Santos, to play at their album launch. The crowd loved my set – which always happens – but Erwin and a few others were quite shocked.
Maybe they expected something more melodic, maybe less energetic/pounding – but that’s the way I’ve always played. The music I make has elements of soul, funk and jazz in it’s harmonic content – but these influences aren’t exclusive of intensity.
Funk is raw and hard-hitting, Disco can be relentless as well as uplifting. When I get booked to play a pure Disco set - at Melting Pot in Glasgow for example – I play with intensity; pure emotion and rhythm together, track after track. The same if I’m playing rare-groove, soul or funk.
Jazz can also be intense. I was fortunate to be able to go to clubs like The Goldmine and Flicks when I was very young – and later on Dingwalls. The jazz dance tracks they played have ridiculous energy – ‘Expansions’, ‘Sweet Power, Your Embrace’, ‘Mother Of The Future’, etc. Smooth it ain’t!
All these black music genres influence both my production style and my DJ style.
SSGS: What colour is your music?
SSGS: You’ve been making music for a long time now, what have been the biggest transformations for you (both in your own work, and in the work of others around you)?
Kirk: Producing and co-writing for my mainstream band The Beauty Room was the biggest transformation for me, without a doubt. I had always wanted to work with a ‘real’ band and write ‘real’ songs. Because of my background in black music, I thought it would be predictable and corny to go in a ‘faux or neo-soul’ direction. So, I went for something different, based around complex harmony, but with a more ambiguous soulful sound. Most fans say we sound like Steely Dan – which is incredibly flattering and humbling. Along with Joni Mitchell, they represent the pinnacle of musical achievement for me.
SSGS: How do you understand/define the music you make and play?
Kirk: I can only assume most of my music is defined by a combination of musical influences and non-musical inspiration – which can be anything, from reading fiction, watching movies or a new piece of music technology or recording equipment.
I also think the fact that I’m completely self-taught and cannot play any instruments, yet have a good understanding of harmony and rhythmic structure defines my music to a large extent.
SSGS: How open is ‘techno’/electronic music? Are its creative possibilities limited or still open? Are there any dimensions that you feel constrained by?
Kirk: I personally don’t feel constrained by anything when it comes to electronic music. Techno is a narrower definition and to me that signifies a certain ‘futuristic’ element. Which is ironic being that the classic instruments associated with ‘Techno’ are all 30 yrs old now.
SSGS: Is equipment important? What equipment is important (if any)?
Kirk: For techno, no. Categorically not. Personally I find equipment inspiring, but if you have talent – all you need are the very basics – such as a sampling workstation, or Garageband, Fruity Loops, whatever. Too much equipment can be a hindrance. There is virtually no EQ or compression on any of my early tracks – they are basically straight through a flat mixer onto a 2 track reel-to-reel and later DAT.
For a vocal or acoustic project, a decent mic and room is important perhaps.
SSGS: How do you think electronic music relates to larger social and political issues? Do you see them as being connected? If so, how? Does this shape the way you interact and present music?
Kirk: Some tracks relate to the social issue of drugs – more so in the late-eighties, early nineties; some in actual reference such as Joey Beltram’s ‘Ecstasy’, but perhaps more so in the general druggy feel of a lot of tracks. Bland ‘peace and love’ vomit-inducing house tracks aside, I don’t see much evidence of socio-political issues being explored in electronic music these days.
SSGS: What’s something that you’ve learnt (about music, your work and yourself) as the hard truth of bitter experience?
Kirk: That most people have shit taste. It’s a fact of life that the DJ’s at the top of all the Best DJ polls are always the worst because that’s what the majority of people like. My career has been possible because of a sizeable minority.
SSGS: What’s something you know now that you wish you’d been able to tell yourself ten, fifteen years ago?
Kirk: People take kindness for weakness.
SSGS: Who/what do you think your ‘sound’ is? How do you describe what you do to people who have no background/understanding in electronic music (like your grandmother)?
Kirk: Because my productions range from hard techno to acoustic balladry I usually change the subject very quickly when somebody asks me to describe what I do. My parents are still waiting for me to get ‘a proper job’.
SSGS: What excites you about electronic music at the moment? And what frustrates you?
Kirk: Both these questions can be addressed by Machine. New music excites me. Predictable, tired old classics in Techno sets frustrate me. It’s lazy, insulting and patronizing. Digital DJ technology also excites me greatly as it becomes more established and more DJ’s push the envelope and really get to grips with it, rather than it just becoming a tool of convenience or a short cut to perfectly synced sets.
SSGS: Who inspires you? What inspires you?
Kirk: Literature, movies, art, music, traveling, history, people, astronomy, astro and theoretical-physics. I’m a culture-head. I was recently inspired by the history of the Spartans (resulting in a forthcoming track ‘Sparta’), a trip to Pompeii (culminating in the track ‘Vesuvio’), my track ‘Asa Nisi Masa’ was inspired by Fellini’s 8 ½, many of track titles are about astronomy or physics.
I get inspired by fellow artists. Carl Craig and Mad Mike in particular are two guys you can’t help but get inspired by being around. My son influences me all the time. He is eight years old and is at the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum. He is like myself x1000 with his attention to detail and other abilities. The way he thinks and views the world from a completely different angle is a constant source of inspiration.
SSGS: After doing this for such a long time, what keeps you motivated/excited/interested?
Kirk: I love music. Simple, It’s all I’ve ever known since my aunt gave me her funk & soul 7” collection when I was eleven years old. Everyday I discover new music – whether old or new that excites me and keeps me interested. Also, music technology always keeps me motivated. Digital DJing and production is making huge strides on a weekly basis it seems. With the internet there is always something of interest to keep me motivated for many years to come.
SSGS: Do you feel you’ve made a contribution to electronic music? If so, what?
Kirk: I sometimes get delusions of grandeur that my work as an artist, label and DJ somehow is responsible for driving the whole scene, despite my name having less of a profile than others. Seriously. I like to think ART keeps everybody on their toes and sets a benchmark for other labels. My pioneering efforts in digital DJing changed the whole game and whilst others get the headlines – it’s my first fumblings that made it all possible. I believe everybody hangs on every word of my Twitter and Facebook posts. My charts influence sales on a huge level and can make or break a career.
Like I said ‘delusions of grandeur’. :-)
SSGS: What’s something that people often ask you about you and your music (that you find unexpected or strange)?
Kirk: “Do you take drugs in the studio?”
SSGS: What’s something that people never ask or notice about you and your work (that you wish they would)?
Kirk: That I sing lead vocals on one of the tracks on The Beauty Room album.
SSGS: What do you wish for the year ahead?
Kirk: To get out to even more countries where my style of DJing has not really been experienced and return to all the places where it has. For ART to maintain it’s current prolific release schedule and finally, to make my first audio-visual work.
Rather than re-score an existing movie as others have done, I plan to shoot my own movie. I do everything on my Techno productions – I don’t use a mix engineer – and it will be the same for this movie project. I will be filming, editing and scoring it.
SSGS: What kind of music would you make in a world without electricity?
Kirk: I would sing and play drums.
SSGS: What is important to you in life?
Kirk: Family, friends, health, knowledge and my hearing.