When asked to comment on being billed the hottest DJ on the planet by Jockey Slut Magazine, Ivan Smagghe demonstrated a consummate ability to avoid the subject. 'I wish Andrew Weatherall was here to answer that question, with him being the hottest DJ on the planet,' he quipped. Talent and modesty are a fragile balancing act, but Ivan has no shortage of either. Hailing from the French dance music scene, where he has a residency at Paris hotspot Kill the DJ, Ivan has also been described as France's most wanted radio host and selector. His work with Arnaud Robotini as one half of Black Strobe has drawn critical acclaim from highbrow artists like James Holden, and to see why he's been long hailed as charting an unorthodox course through the electro/acid house landscape, eschewing any shackles of mainstream, look at the tracklisting on his latest offering, Fabric 23.
Last month Ivan teemed up for a tour with a man who runs three giant record labels, has been firmly established as a preeminent producer/DJ since 1986, founded The Delirium, the leading German record store for electronic music in the mid-90s, and runs a club in Frankfurt named after a famous blues musician. Little wonder Ivan Smagghe has called Atanasios Christos Macias an 'emperor' in the music scene. And also little wonder, with a name as long as that, he goes by the moniker Ata. In the true spirit of cultivating music and fostering talent, for which he is predominantly recognized, Ata has been nothing short of a mentor to a generation of DJs, Pascal and Ricardo Villalobos among them. We Had a chat with Ata and Ivan at Unit before their set.
> Interview & Introduction : Matt Cotterill _ Photo : Mark Oxley (HigherFrequency)
HigherFrequency (HRFQ) : Well first of all gentlemen, thank you for doing this interview.
Ivan : No no, the pleasure is ours.
HRFQ : Let's start with Ivan, because the people don't know whether it is your first time in Japan...?
Ivan : Yes yes, it is my first time in Japan. And I am very impressed, I must say. Well I knew I was going to be impressed.
HRFQ : How's your feeling so far ?
Ivan : Overwhelming, it's quite strange because it's quite close but miles apart, it's not like going to Africa or India or something like that, it has a very modern, contemporary feeling but it has such different ways... you know, from 'umbrella locks' to... you know, it is just the land of detail. We were talking about it; they do everything right. There is something for everything and everyone. Europe compared to here is chaos. It is like a land of confusion and it is almost medieval. France is medieval compared to Japan!
HRFQ : You have been here before Ata, haven't you ?
Ata : Just the once...
Ivan: But he knows everything already. He is like the GUY, you know.
Ata : Well, you know once you are here, you get such an impression that you learn so much immediately about how things work and so on, so it was really easy, I think.
Ivan : And you know if you want something the place where you go is....
Ata : ...Tokyu Hands...!!
Ivan : And you think, what is that thing that I have always wanted in my life and never could get ? And they should have it in ten different colors and ten different sizes. We are staying here ten days, It would take a lifetime for me to get used to it!
HRFQ : I'd like to talk about the labels that you both run, we have got Ata's Ongaku label, which is like the umbrella, with Klang and Playhouse. Can you tell us a bit about how they formed, from one to the other?
Ata : Well first there was Ongaku music and not everyone knew that Ongaku means 'Music', so we started this. And for a long time I loved Japanese things and bought in Europe all those small plastic things and stuff for years and years, and maybe that's why it became the name of the label, being Japanese and all that.
Ivan : And the art of detail, you know, Ongaku does everything from the pins to the t-shirts, which is not very European now, not many labels have got the whole thing these days, that's very Japanese.
Ata : So it started with Ongaku, and then we got more and more music from our friends to us, and the thing was to think about whether to put that music on the same label. Now 15 years later I would say it was not the right way. You know one label, one music. And that could be any kind of music. But at that time I was thinking, and you know there comes a tape with a 'house' song, so you say, 'OK, we can't put that on Ongaku Music, we have to make another label, another direction'. But that is also a very German thing, to open another drawer, you know we will make house with Playhouse, make an electronic label for electronic music, and make another label for dancefloor techno stuff, and in the end, today, it is all the same.
HRFQ : But Playhouse is so big that DJ's across the board, house and progressive house and techno DJ's, in Japan are really into this label, I think they would like to know what criteria you have for choosing the releases.
Ata : Good music. If it is well done has proper protection, of course we will have to love it and to play it.
Ivan : But there was a Playhouse t-shirt, 'Good Music I Dance,Bad Music I Not Dance'. You know that's what it's all about. You know it's pretty simple for any record you release.
HRFQ : Can you tell us about any upcoming releases form Set ?
Ivan : I don't know, I don't take care of it anymore, I'm a bit lazy!.. well, I'm not lazy- I'm not German, so [to Ata] I am not as well organized as you! Well, Set was never just me, there are two other guys who really take care of it who also do other things, but that was the main difference between his universe [Ata's] and our universe- we tend to do different things at the same time. One of the guys who runs Set also runs the biggest promotion company in France and the other guy is also a promoter, and I have another label from Kill the DJ which I run with my partner, and I am also trying to have a life, ha ha!
HRFQ : About the Djing, you may be aware that 'Jockey Slut' magazine labeled you as the 'Hottest DJ on the planet'. This is a big accolade, how do you feel about this ?
Ivan : I wish Andrew Weatherall was here to answer that question, with him being the hottest DJ on the planet, but you know you don't think about definitions. I don't want to think about it. You know when you hear that you just want to stop.
Ata : But it is true he is one of the best DJ's.
Ivan : But me, you know I can't comment on that. But that's why [myself and Ata] play together, because we both consider each other very good DJ's. For me there are three people who I would do a tour with. And we play back to back, and playing back to back is something I hate. But with Ata and a few others we won't name I can do it.
Because it's not only about DJing, it's about all the rest, it's about what you can talk about when you are not DJing, it's about books, about life, about attitude, about the whole thing. The more I go into the DJ world, the most important thing for DJ's as people as far as I'm concerned is the attitude, you know, the way of seeing things. The record box of someone is interesting, sure, but it's not everything. And if you want to push the logic, I think the book you have read the day before, I think you are going to hear it in the set. And a fucking DJ who has never read a book or who hasn't seen an interesting movie, well...err... [ironic tone] nice. Not interesting.
HRFQ : What was the last book you read ?
Ivan : I am reading four at the same time. That's why I could do with some more life! The books I am reading at the moment, I always read a hard German philosophy book, and then anything, anything. I am reading at the moment a book by Judith Grey, who is a hardcore lesbian feminist. A night I run under 'Kill the DJ' is in a lesbian club I work at, and I am the only boy. I have a new company with the partners from the club and with Chloe the other DJ, three girls and me, and the company is called 'Three Dogs and a Half'. Yeah, and I am the half, so I have to keep in touch with hardcore feminism!
But that's the thing, that's what it is all about, music interviews should not be about music. I mean, what do you want to know? I mean, are you going to ask me about the last fucking record I bought?
HRFQ : Well I asked you about the book.
Ivan : Yeah, well that is more interesting.
HRFQ : Ata, being in Japan, a lot of people would like to know about Ricardo Villalobos and Pascal F.E.O.S, because you spotted these guys a long time before they were on the world scene, and now you are saying that Ivan here is a massive DJ, you obviously have a sense for this. Tell us how you were brought to their music ?
Ata : We have been going for fifteen years...
Ivan:and they are both Latin. In Germany the Latin guys, Luciano, Ricardo, you, [Ata] are not really Germans.
Ata : The heart is somewhere else, different rhythms.
Ivan : Yeah, Ricardo has got too many bongos, though. You know what I mean.
Ata : I used to play a lot at Ricardo's illegal parties you know, and then he used to DJ with me and I taught him everything. And he used to always come to a club I used to do years ago, and he was sitting there listening to the music and he got more involved, he is a percussionist, so he started to make music. And our relationship is really like family.
Ivan :And once again he is one of the people with an attitude.
Ata : Totally.
HRFQ:What do you mean, attitude ?
Ivan : If you ever meet him he is just a legend. Ricardo is just an unstoppable machine. Nicest unstoppable machine you will ever meet. he is so intense and so committed to his thing. And even if you don't like his records, he is so committed that you cannot not be impressed. He is like full commitment to music and to clubs to partying, that is what he is, impressive.
Ata : And he listens all the time to music. Non stop. Listening to music. I mean, it is crazy. For me I have to have other things in my life, for him, it is his girlfriend, his friends, and his music.
HRFQ : Well I wanted to ask both of you how much time you spend listening to new music coming through ? I mean, are you wearing an anorak all the time listening to everything you can get your hands on, or do you try and involve a lot of other things in what you do ?
Ivan : I think over the years, I worked in a record shop for seven years, I have developed an ability to know quickly whether I like a record or I don't. I still listen to loads now, in the record shop, and a lot of DJ's don't. I mean religiously in the record shop listening to billions of shit records, but I can do it very quickly. But that is age and years and years working and listening, so now it is like second nature. There are two types of DJ's in relation to buying records. There are those DJ's who just buy records only to play. That is what their life is about. They are clubbers, you know. And then there are DJ's who buy records for buying records, because they like the music. You know, I have bought records I am never going to play, and I know 90% of DJ's would not buy the record because they are not going to play it. If I were to stop being a DJ tomorrow, fuck yeah, I would still buy records, of course. Because I have been buying records since I was twelve. If I stopped buying records, I would die.
So for some DJ's it is the music, for some it is the party and the club, and for some it is both. For me, I could still be a DJ and not go out in clubs, or play only for my friends or only for myself. Because ultimately I play for myself, and if it works with the people, then very good. But what I play, I play for me. I was talking to Andrew Weatherall about it and he said playing records, it is always you who plays the record, so ultimately you always play for yourself. We can't believe we are called crowd pleasers, I mean we are if it works. But it also works because you are sincere. And if you are sincere about what you play then it is going to work. I think being sincere is the key thing.
HRFQ : How about you Ata, did you spend along time doing that or...?
Ata : I used to spend a lot of time, but over the last 3 years the record label has taken up a lot of time, and I also have a club I run in Germany...
Ivan : He has got an empire, an empire !! He is an emperor !
HRFQ:We wanted to talk to you about your club, 'The Robert Johnson', because he was a blues singer, is there any connection, is it a tribute to him?
Ata : Yes, the best. The best one. Yes, a tribute to a man who did the same as we did. To go from house to house to play house parties- and this was in the twenties- to play his songs for hours. And we are doing the same.
HRFQ : And that was sincere, from the heart. That was pure.
Ata : Yes, and at 27, adieu. [he died]
Ivan: Shit, I am too old. I knew I had made a mistake somewhere at some point!
Ata : So I was very impressed with him. And then I read a book, and decided to give the name of my club to this man.
Ivan: No 'Deepbeat' or 'Rhythm Box'.
HRFQ : Yeah, we thought it was a really cool name for a club. Now we have a music question, your compilations, [to Ivan] you did Fabric 23, could you tell us a little bit about that one?
Ivan : Yeah, when you do CD's I think you have got to do something different every time. If you do the same CD, that's boring. It is a little bit of a 'goodbye' to the electro-house thing because obviously I had been put in this really comfy box of being the 'hottest electro-house thing'- rubbish! So this is you know 'put me in a box' I am not going to like it. And Fabric for that is perfect, because they gave me total freedom. I wanted to put 'The Kills' on the CD and they said 'great, go for it!' So, yeah they gave me total freedom, and I have this childish thing about being different. So if they say this is going to be an electro-house compilation, then of course I am going to do it the other way.
HRFQ : I-tunes is spreading everywhere and we have big downloading sites, and I read somewhere that the CD has got five years left. Your take on the current downloading scene ?
Ata : I have no problem downloading things, I mean, we will have both of them. 15 years ago people talked about the death of vinyl, and it is not dead. There are a lot of people who like to have the object.
Ivan : Who is going to tell me that CD's and vinyl are dead in Japan, where the object is everything !
Ata : Downloads help, sure, for the future. It helps bring more music to more people around the world. The problem is we can't sell in each country we have distribution problems, but the internet can erase those problems. And I think our customers wouldn't change, we are selling more records now than 3 years ago, but we are also selling a lot on the internet.
Ivan : I don't see it as a revolution. Well, it is a revolution in the sense that, if I want a record and I know the name of it and who made it, then I am able to get it whatever it is in three days. Unless it is absolutely rare, but if it is new, if it is out, then three days. You know, before, if the shop didn't have it then you have a bit of a problem, you know you have to travel to find it, and then maybe come across it three months later. But now, three days. Or just call the record company and ask them to send you an MP3. But you know, if you like the song- the MP3- I think you will go out and buy the record, I mean what are you going to do, have 2000 hard disks ?!
Ata : Mmm, I don't know about that, especially in ten years time. It's the kids who will buy MP3s. We are thinking like old men already!
HRFQ : On that note, thank you gentlemen. It has been a pleasure talking to you. All the best!
Ivan : No no, it was good. If you have good questions, then it is a pleasure doing interviews.
End of the interview