For the next in our series of interviews exploring the psychology of DJing and what life's really like for a touring artist, we speak to a seasoned vinyl DJ who learned his trade the hard way.
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Some DJs have the luxury of developing their craft in a bedroom or away from the limelight in a local bar or residency. For others it’s a case of learning on the job. French vinyl house star Brawther found himself thrown in the deep end in the early 2010s after his first records catapulted him onto the touring circuit.
Thanks to early releases on Chez Damier's Balance Recordings and the much hyped Parisian label My Love Is Underground as Brawther and Paris Underground Trax, his records caught the imagination of a new wave of house fans inspired by the New York house sound of the 1990s.
A roll call of gigs for some of the DJ circuit's most respected clubs soon followed and his first professional forays behind the turntables of clubs proved to be a high pressure experience. He survived this particular DJing trial by fire with aplomb and almost a decade on, he’s a highly respected DJ and digger on the international underground house scene and one that bucks the trend of the commonly held assumption that producers who find fame after big tracks, aren't necessarily good DJs.
Ibiza Voice: Where did you learn to DJ?
Brawther: I’ve learned most on the road. I didn't start as a DJ. I started as a producer. I had dabbled with DJing but I didn't get my start as a touring artist from just being a DJ. So I learned a lot by playing clubs and from lots of different set ups, and different crowds at different clubs, different cultures as well.
Part of who I am now is based on the hundreds of gigs that i've done. What you learn in the club is invaluable. You can't really learn that practicing at home. Even if you practice at home every day it doesn't teach you how to read a crowd or what to do when sometimes you play the wrong record in the heat of the moment and you've got ten seconds left and you play a track and realise it's the wrong track. What do you do then? You don't really learn that at home.
What do you think of the idea that producers don’t necessarily make good DJs?
Usually that idea comes from Internet trolls or people who envy something. Those like to talk up about their skills or brag that their friends are great bedroom DJs but just because you're a good bedroom DJ that has nothing to do with being a good DJ in a club. For me, having started as a producer with the experience that I have now I'm no less of a DJ than anyone else.
Have you learned from any other DJs in particular?
I learned a lot from playing with Jeremy or Tristan [Da Cunha]. Both are different kinds of DJs so I learned different things from each of them. Tristan for example has a certain way of playing records and when you play back to back with him, you notice the tricks up his sleeves. He was doing a lot of the things that I was always wanted to do. He has a good way of getting parties started so I've learned more from that. From playing with people. You observe and you learn from all the individual experiences and how to deal with them.
Do you have any tricks of the trade or habits that you deploy when digging for records?
It depends if I dig online or in stores. Any source of information is welcome. Usually on the internet that's going to involve Discogs. I always try and follow a link [from one record to another]. Maybe it could start with hearing a track that's in a mix that leads me to hearing another track by the same artist or on the same label.
I try to use all the avenues available to me to hear a record and only then if there is no way to hear a record, you have to make a decision to make a blind buy. Sometimes it’s because you know the artist and the label or the year is good and sometimes its something as simple as the title might sound cool but there is always the chances are that the record might end up in the bin.
What online shops do you use?
If it's a new release it has to be essential. I actually spend more time buying old music because it’s cheaper for me. If I buy ten new releases it’s going to cost me a hundred bucks and I can spend 15 pounds and get ten records if i really look carefully. But I do of course buy new records once in a while. I usually have a want list of stuff that I've heard over the last six months that I really like.
Every time I travel I always try to find record stores so I can unearth some music. So when I go to the States for example, a favourite store of mine is Gramaphone in Chicago. It’s got a really great selection. They also have a Discogs store but those records are not really available in the actual store.
Japan has some of the best shops in the world. Technique is a great one. The Disk Union chain stores a really old chain of shops that started in the 60s. They have a lot of shops and there are a few in Tokyo.
Has becoming a father made you more focused with your time?
Definitely also when I was renting a studio to work on my album, I had to make that time count also because I had to make sure when I came back home that I was able to help my wife and help with our son as much as I could. And it's hard because with the nature of our job, you have to multi task. There's always something to do, whether its running a label or speaking with an agent or a manager if you have one. So it's very difficult to shut yourself off when you’re trying to be a Dad.
Brawther’s latest album Transient States was released at the end of April.
How do you prepare for a gig?
Usually I leave things to a couple of days before the gig. Sometimes I write lists in advance or put records aside if I think something is going to work in a venue. I'll definitely buy some tunes the week before with the thinking that they'll be great to play at a particular gig, hopefully I'm getting those records in time. But usually I leave it until two days before. Sometimes it’s the day before, and I leave it way too long. I don't want to look at my records or I'm tired and unmotivated. It's crazy. I do other things just to keep dragging it out and then in the end I finish packing my bag at 3am before going to bed.
How do you pack your bag?
I rarely keep the same bag. I usually remove what I think isn’t going to work for the next gig and keep some trusted tools and find some new stuff and fine tune. There are definitely some tracks that's I’d never play anywhere else other than in a specific club. But also when I play the same places I try to never have the same records. I'm mindful of that and even if some stuff has been recorded in a set of mine that's online already, I’ll think I've played that already and try to come up with fresh selection.
Do you have a system for where you put certain records?
Sometimes I regroup them in small categories. If I recognise that I have a few things from one place, it might make it easier to put them next to each other. Knowing the tunes and remembering what they sound like is a big thing for me. Once I decide the next record to play, I should be able to visualize it and think ok that's probably going to be in key and things like that. And usually after a few seconds on the turntable, you know if it’s going to work or not. I don't really try like five records before deciding which one is the one. But if you play every week it becomes easier, everything flows more naturally.
Do you practice at home or in the club?
I do kind of practice in the club in the sense that a lot of the mixes I do I've never done before. Maybe some I have but it’s rare that I'll do the same one again because even if one worked somewhere, it doesn't mean it’s going to work in a different situation for a different crowd.
Brawther playing Kehakuma, Ibiza in 2013
Touring often involves a lot of behind the scenes challenges that fans are unaware of, like having to go straight to a gig after an international flight on no sleep. How do you get through these situations?
When I was in Australia recently I had the same bag for three gigs. When I started the first gig I was fresh off the plane from the UK and I was like “I can't make any sense of my record bag.” I wasn’t really finding my feet but then it ended up being great.
Afterwards I worried about repeating the situation at the other gigs because I only had that one bag of vinyl and I didn't have a USB to mix it up. But in the end every gig was different and I played completely different sets every time.
How do you cope with lack of sleep while travelling?
For me I have to have a big strategy because I'm tall so I need to think about where I'm going to be sitting, trying to check in early so I can get the exit rows, paying for a special seat sometimes so I can sleep especially on long haul flights. It's very important but once you've done those far away trips to Japan or Australia you know when you need to sleep. I know now its best to sleep when you feel tired instead of trying to fight to get to sleep when you’re not because of times zone differences.
One of Juno's best ever selling 12"s, 2012's Paris Underrgound Trax Vol.1.
Does the travelling bother you?
It can be really painful travelling sometimes. Most people fly once or twice a year when they're on holiday and they're happy. That's 90 percent of people who fly. For them flying is just a great experience but for us it’s important to make it as quick and painless as possible. That's when DJing becomes a job.
Have you ever lost a record bag?
Oh gosh. The only two times I've lost a bag is after a Back to Basics birthday and the first time I played Panorama Bar. I only realised three days later. I'm not sure if it was in a taxi or not, it’s still a dark spot in my memory!
When it happens, you need to figure out what you had and you have to make a list really quick before you forget. It sucks. Some records are more expensive when you try to buy them back and when you know its your own fault you really kick yourself.
How do you travel with records?
When I fly, I always try to have my most expensive records with me or the whole bag as carry on luggage. Otherwise I usually put my record bag inside another piece of luggage so it doesn't look like a record bag and check it in. Luckily I've never lost a bag flying. I've had them arrive the next day but never lost forever.
How you organise say your digital music?
I used to have Rekord Box and make playlists but I haven't used it in a couple of years because I changed computers and I haven't been buying that much digital music. I'm more focused on buying wax. So I just add tracks straight onto the USB. I don't really use iTunes. Everything lives in my downloads folder and in a way my [physical] record collection at home is my iTunes
How do you file your records?
I do it geographically. I have a section for New York, Detroit, Chigaco, West Coast, Miami, French stuff, UK stuff. And in those sections everything to to the left is older stuff and everything to the right is the new stuff. And of course there are labels with the different countries.
How do you approach your sets to ensure they have your sound?
What makes my sound when I DJ in a way is more the house backbone. I always listen for the swing or for something that jumps out and becomes my starting point. But it can be anything, I can play techno for example if it's got more of a house groove.
What do you look for in a track?
I guess there is a timeless vibe that runs throughout the tracks. I look for those tracks that have aged well and usually they have a really solid groove to them. A lot of the time I try to play tracks track that you wouldn't be able to tell when they were made.
Do you have any specific objectives you want to achieve with your sets?
My aim is always going to be to try to play music that most of the crowd don't know. When I go to a club, I want to be on a dance floor where I love the music and I have no clue what’s being played. As a DJ I want to know the tunes but when I go to a club, I'd rather not hear anything I know.
When I discovered dance music I didn't really know the names of what I liked. I always refer to those experiences I had listening to music in clubs when those same kind of experiences happen again when I'm playing and I can see it in the crowd.
How did you identify your sound?
The longer you’re into something, the deeper you go and you realize that a lot of the things that you liked then are still the things you like now and so those characteristics become a road map to help you find what you want to play.
But I can play very differently. People like to put you in boxes and they expect you to sound like a record you did but I really want to be able to play anything that I like.
You are quite selective in choosing the gigs you play and prefer quality over quantity, is that a difficult path to follow?
In the past I have ended up doing gigs that weren't very satisfying. Sometimes beggars can't be choosers. Sometimes when you need the gig and you have no gigs, you might just go for it. But that only happens in low points in your career. I have been turning down gigs but mainly because in the same city there were other things I'd rather play more even if the better gigs are paid less.
Is it tricky to stay loyal the your favourite clubs if they’re only booking you occasionally and you get interest from rival clubs more often?
Yes but at the same time you can't wait forever. Even if you have a good gig at a certain clubs that doesn’t mean you’ll get rebooked. Sometimes clubs need fresh faces, they also work a lot with hype and if you don't have any hype it might be hard for you to get on the bill again. Sometimes you just have to take the other gigs and pay the bills.
Brawther playing the Terrace for Circoloco's 15th birthday.
Do you leave it to your agent to find the gigs?
I would never ask for a gig but it’s tough to just make a living from just DJing. I would never recommend anybody to make a living from music. For me it was always a hobby that became my profession. To be able to live from it is very rare.
Is it hard work to adapt to the precarious nature of the industry?
I'm really fortunate but I don't know how long it’s going to last. There are a lot of people that ask me advice and obviously I don’t want to shatter their hopes but statistically speaking not many people can make a living from DJing. It's just not a lucrative profession. It's actually the opposite. It's really precarious. Sometimes it pays well but you're just a product of demand and supply and at any moment you could find yourself being thrown under a bus on social media for example.
Most artists don’t live from their art hence the phrase starving artist. It's rare to be able to live from it. it's kind of sad in a way. In the 90s before illegal downloads and all that stuff it was a bit more easy but now the only money is in performing.
How do you look back on the early days of your career blowing up?
Things were going increasingly well for me at a time where I wasn't really looking for that so I was always lucky to be getting gigs. I'm the opposite of what people should be doing. I don't put out many records for example.
It's been ten years since my first record and six seven years since I started living from it. When you’re no longer the new kid on the block there are always fresher DJs. In the end it's not about that for me, it's about continuing to try to perfect my music in my own way. And I guess stay current and have my records in the shelves and that's all I can do.
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Music? Yes we got some: