Artist To Artist: Nick Höppner & Desert Sound Colony
A couple of months back we were told that local London producer and disc jockey Desert Sound Colony had been spectacularly invited to release the first EP on a new label run by longstanding icon Nick Höppner, the Ostgut Ton and Berghain affiliate and friend. His invitation was somewhat of a surprise, not because he lacks skill or creative ability but in that it is always charming to hear of a 'big name' take note of someone lesser recognised from overseas. The pair seem to have formed a friendship from afar and the release looks set to be a resounding success with many heavy hitters already in full support. The new label is called Touch From A Distance and the first EP "Fast Life" is outstanding…
We invited the pair to shoot the breeze as they talk everything from black metal, organisation and social media. In conversation below…
I know you‘ve crossed something off your bucket list I‘m yet to do, which is going to Wacken Open Air in northern Germany, one of the biggest and best Metal festivals worldwide. I also know you were really into Black Metal when you were younger. Please tell me about your festival experience and your fascination with the genre!
I had a slightly odd teenage experience because on one hand I was very into football and basketball, but on the other I was into super geeky stuff like Magic The Gathering and very aggressive music. Death and Black Metal were my first loves when it came to music. It's a classic story but I really didn't feel like I belonged in the 'cool' gang at school and so I found myself with a couple of other friends going to a lot of local hardcore and screamo gigs. At the time, local bands like Your Demise, Gallows and Enter Shikari were starting to make a splash, and that hardcore and punk sound was my introduction to that scene. The kids at these gigs were very warm and inviting to an uncool guy like myself and so that, coupled with the possibility of moshing out all my teenage angst was were my love affair with music like that started.
I had been to Reading and Download Festival with my parents when I was 14 and 15 and then Wacken was the first festival that I went to with just my mates. It was 2006 and we were massively excited to see bands like Emperor, Opeth, Amon Amarth and Soulfly. The festival was amazing from what I remember of it…. We definitely made the most of the cheap beer haha. It was incredibly friendly and the music was dynamite. I would recommend it to anyone that has an interest in Metal for sure.
Throughout your years in Berlin working and playing at Berghain, as well as touring the world as a DJ, you must have made friends with many of best known producers in the game. It would have presumably been easy to ask some of them to do releases on your first solo label. How come you opted instead to sign a relative up and comer like myself for the first release?
The Streets said it best: Geezers need excitement! – But to answer your question more precisely: When I moved to Berlin in 2001 and went to Berghain’s predecessor, Ostgut, the first few times, I was really blown away by the club’s demographic: Not only was it the first gay, sex-positive club I ever went to, but it also attracted people across all ages, meaning there were many people older than 40. That really had a lasting impression on me and it added to the overwhelming feeling of total freedom in that place. Now I am well into the 40s myself, I still have this ideal of an inclusive dance floor where all sorts of people from all sorts of generations meet. My label is indebted to good music in the first place, but it is also an attempt to bridge the generational gap, hence my decision to work with (relative) newcomers. There are enough people cementing the status quo, let’s push things forward! (The Streets said it best!)
Your moniker Desert Sound Colony undertook a slight shift regarding its musical direction. Tell us where your coming from and where you’re going!
It certainly has… When the project started 6 years ago I was focussed on trying to create slow psychedelic club music mainly with live instrumentation and all the drums samples recorded live on a mic in my bedroom. It then became a live three-piece band for a couple of years, before that split and I started performing as a solo live club act.
Coincidentally at the same time that the band split, my previous management and I decided to part ways. It felt like a very positive step and I suddenly felt free for the first time in years to look into creating dance music again. Without anyone else involved in the process of creation or vetting the music I found myself writing club track after club track. It was totally natural and I was enjoying song writing much more than had done in the previous years. I guess it was a natural progression to return to writing the sort of music that I was into when I started clubbing in London and Leeds circa 2007-2012. I had a project not totally dissimilar to this back then but I was very new to production at the time and I never really felt capable of getting the sounds in my head onto the computer. Now with several years of experience writing in a band and dealing with lots of different personalities I am loving being able to just sit down by myself and write exactly what I want.
The Desert Sound Colony project started with me, a guitar and a mic writing music at 100bpm and now it's me and a small computer set up writing club thumpers at 130pm. I often felt dissatisfied with the lack of dancing from the crowd when I performed all those slow songs throughout the last few years. They always seemed to be enjoying themselves, but the music wasn't really designed to make people move in the same way that these straight up club tracks are. I have to be honest it is much more gratifying personally to see people really getting down to the music that I am writing currently.
I know there is a big discussion in the world of dance music at the moment in regards to wellbeing, fitness and health. The public perception of musicians and DJs is often one of partying for days on end and doing very little to look after oneself. What do you make of this and do you have and tips for people starting a budding touring career?
Extensive touring is really disruptive for a lot of things that usually keep people happy and sane. You don‘t get to see your friends and family when they‘re all off work, i.e. the weekend. You have to constantly deal with new places, situations and people as opposed to a quite soothing routines of the „same ol‘ same ol‘“ at home. Couple that with sleep deprivation and the negative side effects of drug (ab-)use, and you get an extremely stressful lifestyle. A lot of djs I know, including myself, who used to party a lot have come to the realisation, that the only way to deal with that is to clean up your act and to live a more healthy life in general. I think it would also help a lot of artists to play fewer shows. Yes, the money and the attention is hard to resist, but the risk to burn out or break down mentally is substantial. I really don‘t feel I‘m in a position to advise other people on drug use, though. Personally speaking, after having been „under the influence“ for three decades, right now I can say, I feel much better sober.
What are the aspects of electronic dance music and its context (i.e. nightlife) you find so appealing you decided to pursue a career in it?
I think two of the main reasons are the social side and the creative aspect of career. I fell in love with dance music as a teenager going out clubbing in London and then Leeds. I made most of my closest friends at clubs and after parties, I even met my wife in Corsica Studios. As I got a older and transitioned more into DJing at the clubs I loved being able to travel and meet wonderful new people on the road. It was so great to find that wherever I went in the world there seemed to be a similar group of mates experiencing a similar life to mine back in Leeds and London. I also vividly remember how much those big nights out meant to me when I was younger and so it's a joy to be able to share great music with another group of people having a similar experience in a club today.
As for the creative side, it just doesn't seem to get old writing new music. I find it immensely satisfying to be able to finish the work day and have a new piece of music sitting there. I guess the social side plays into my writing a lot as well. I do a lot of collaborations and also have a close group of friends who share music they are working on with each other for critique. There is no denying that this is a tough industry to make a living in but I think the positives far out way the negatives if you can make enough money to get by.
Speaking of careers in dance music, I see a lot of producers and DJs coming up in the scene, having a year or two of fame and then disappearing. As someone who has been in this tough game for as long you, what do you think the key to longevity is?
Well, I have been supporting my family and myself by djing (and a bit of production) only for the past 5,5 years. Before, I always held down a day job, which paid the most important bills. It actually allowed me a more independent position within my field of work, so didn‘t have to find myself in situations I didn‘t agree with too often. I only made the full transition after I felt established enough. So my first advise would be to take your time. The second might sound a bit corny, but be true to yourself! Also remember that success is relative. I never got rich or super popular, but my job has given me so much personal freedom which I cherish a lot. I consider being this independent with my time and art a big success and privilege. And don‘t ever take what you‘ve achieved for granted. This „industry“ moves incredibly fast these days and despite a huge amount of phony folks it is also full of genuine, super talented people who will keep you on your toes. You just have to really mean it!
Could you please describe, how you generally approach writing music? Do you have tried and tested methods or a certain set of tools you would always come back to?
There are several constants in my writing process for sure. The first is that I always try and have a pretty clear idea of what I want from the song. Do I want it to make people dance? Is it a peak time banger? A weird after party jam? I often will start by taking inspiration from some other tracks that have a similar vibe to what I want to achieve. I find that it is a great place to start and by the end of the track it is usually a 1000 miles away from that original inspiration. I don't want to make a copy obviously, but I find it usually gets me into the groove nicely before I veer away into something else.
The other main part of the process is the template that I have made on Ableton. I created different drum racks for each element, i.e. 'kick', 'snare', 'hi hat', 'FX' etc… Within each rack I might have 20-30 different samples ready to go. This negates almost all of the time wasted and getting out of the flow when you have to spent 10 minutes searching for a good kick drum or hi hat sample.
I tend to create a lot of small loops in the session view and then create a first draft arrangement in there. Then I record it in manually into the arrangement window and continue from there. That gives me a good first impression of what the track will sound like all the way through.
The final part of the process is that I bounce down the final arrangement into audio stems and then mix and do final arrangements in Logic. It really makes a big difference in my opinion to start the mix down with a fresh view. I pull the volume down on everything and then mix them together one by one to create the final mix. It may seem like a lot of extra effort but this final process has revolutionised my productions and it really isn't as much work as it seems.
With the rise of Shazam and Facebook groups like The Identification of Music Group, how do you think that is affecting the underground dance music industry and community? I was speaking to another producer friend recently who said that he thought that these Facebook groups are shortening the cycle of a release because everyone has such instant access to the music. What do you think about this?
I don’t use these kinds of Facebook groups, so I really can’t assess its effect on the lifespan of a record. I do Shazam stuff every once in a while and I like it. I’m all about sharing music, I’ll never be a snob when someone asks me for a tune, unless they’re asking constantly – that’s just taking the piss. I actually don’t think that instant access to music really is a problem, that’s rather a good thing 100%. Maybe the problem rather is that people take these groups too seriously instead of making up their own minds in terms of what music they like. Personally speaking, I think right now is a great time for finding and playing music. The internet has blown a more general consensus regarding club music to pieces, there aren’t many big hit records, everything is happening everywhere all the time. This means for me that I don’t have to keep up with what others like so much anymore. In fact, I’ve never felt more free to do what I really want and feel as a dj than today. My friend Evan Baggs recently told me there have been more vinyl releases in dance music from 1990 to 1999 than from 2000 til today. So no matter how many secret weapons are given away on Facebook, there will always be this bottomless treasure trove of stuff plus all the great new tracks being regularly released. It’s actually not that hard to stay ahead of the curve. You just have to do your work.
I know you’re also working as a „jobbing“ dj, as Jane Fitz recently put in in an RA feature – Can you tell me a bit about that experience and how it is shaping your „other“ djing and music production?
I couldn't agree more. You will never find me not giving an id to anyone that asks! I really don't understand the logic behind the people not sharing those tunes? As you said there are a billion hidden gems. If you are relying on one or two records so much then you really need to do a better job of finding some more tunes 😉
I have been working as a 'bar dj' for the past few years in London, mainly in Shoreditch, as an extra source of income. It definitely isn't something that I would recommend to everyone as I think you need to have a certain temperament to deal with busy drunk crowds for six hours at a time haha. That being said, if you can take the job seriously and also laugh at situations from time to time then it's a great way to earn some extra cash. Whenever I have a moment of doubt I always just remember that it allows me to not have to work a 9-5 job in the week and therefore write music all day instead.
As for how it shapes the Desert Sound Colony stuff. For one I am constantly making notes on my phone of bits of tracks to sample. Playing long varied bar sets are a perfect place to hunt them down. Apart from broadening my musical horizon a fair bit, I am also listening to thousands of tracks that I probably wouldn't ever listen to outside of that situation and that is a potential gold mine of samples.
The other thing is that the crowd is next level impatient. I am mixing in a new track every 1-2 mins to keep them interested. I came from a background of playing dubstep and a bit of DnB and so quick mixing was always a big part of that scene. That certainly has tuned my eye to see if a dance floor is engaging with the music that I am playing. Ultimately I see my job as a person making other people dance. Yes I want to express myself and play interesting music, but if no one in the venue is getting it then I will always er on the side of getting them moving rather than indulging my own taste entirely. I know some people would disagree with that idea and would say that they always will play exactly to their own taste. Fair enough, but that just isn't me. I want the floor to be rocking.
I know you still play a lot of records but you also have USBs on you too. Do you have any specific preparation tips for how you get your folders on the USB ready before a gig? There are a ton of different ways I have found to do this and I am still trying to find the exact right one for me. I used to have everything in different genre folders but recently I have been treating it more like a record bag and making one folder for each show. Having fewer options in the club has actually produced better sets from myself I think. I also tried giving everything a 1-5 star rating based on intensity of track so that I could sort them like this in the club, but ultimately I went back to sorting by BPM. I guess this is less of a question and more of a thought, but I would like to hear your technique if you have one.
I’m actually doing only a basic organisation of my music on the usb’s. I throw everything I’m buying, ripping or the promos I like into monthly rekordbox playlists – regardless of speed, tempo or genre. I like to keep it a bit messy, so I have to muddle through the playlists. I’ve always done the same with my vinyl record bags; I’ve always packed them with records I really wanted to play that night without thinking too much about how they fit together. I’m doing the figuring out right at the club. Like that it keeps it more spontaneous for me. You can really organise and prepare your music with Rekordbox down to the last detail. I think that’s a bit dangerous, actually. It can kill the fun and the vibe, easily. I usually think about the first few tracks of my set ahead of the show, but then it’s really open. The only other folder I really have got and use and update frequently is the „Slow“ one for anything below 115 bpm.
I know from myself and from asking dj friends that we have frequent djing nightmares – the actual ones in your sleep. Do you have any as well? If so, what are they like?
Oh mate that sounds terrible. I happily can honestly say I've never had a DJ nightmare. Now I think about it I can't remember ever really dreaming about DJing at all… Mainly I struggle to remember most of my dreams though and for years I think I was either not having any or just immediately forgetting them.
I have seen a couple of real live DJ nightmares over the years though. One that always sticks in my mind was about six years ago at a gig in Birmingham. The DJ playing after me had brought his own rotary mixer with him and had given it to the sound guy to switch over after my set. As I put on my last track I noticed that the sound guy was wobbling a little bit. I asked him if he was ok and whether he wanted me to switch over the mixers for him. He refused the help and seemed absolutely certain everything would be fine. Baring in mind all he had to do was unplug and plug in a few cables I thought it would be ok. Fast forward to five minutes of total silence as he stands in front of the decks looking blankly at the two mixers. Both me and the other DJ tried several times to take over the operation but he wasn't having any of it. The venue had about six rooms and by the time it was finally set up, our room which had previously been packed with about four hundred people was reduced to about three or four… Turns out afterwards that the sound guy had been spiked with MDMA in his drink by his "mate".
If you were speaking to an aspiring producer/DJ, what would you say is the number one key attribute to work on for having a successful self sustaining career? Also what advice would you have given to yourself when you first started out?
Haha, no worries! I think it’s really quite common for anyone to sometimes have nightmares about their jobs. Best one I’ve heard from a colleague was he dreamt he was playing a show and when he turned for his record bag and opened it to get a record, there was another bag in there, which contained another one and so on. Like those Russian Matroshka puppets. He couldn't get to the bottom of it and didn’t find any records, hence couldn’t play. I find that quite hilarious.
To answer your question, I don’t think there’s this one golden rule that will get you where you want to be. There are many roads to success, or better contentment with what you’re doing. In general, a certain level of humility will help a good deal when you’re really in it for the long run. If I had a chance to advise my younger self, I’d tell him to party less and work harder. I think I walked around with my head in the clouds too much as a 20 or even 30 something.
Buy the EP HERE.