Willie Graff has the sand of Ibiza coursing through his veins. Born and raised on the island, he grew up deeply ingrained in the music culture and party atmosphere of the white island. He’s a been a resident DJ here every summer since he was 15 years old, perfectly honing his skills as the consummate DJ, selector and educator. Crucial to his perspective and development though, Willie has spent each of the last ten winters in New York where he has been resident for Cielo and Output. Moving between the two destinations and performing for the distinctly different crowds has helped nurture Willie into the well rounded and infinitely informed DJ that he is today.
I Voice caught up with him whilst in Ibiza to discuss how he manages his two homes and the impact his unique set-up has had on his career.
I loved how DJ Pippi, Cesar De Melero and Jose De Divina played; they gave me my musical education in those years. I was always drawn to the nights when it was just residents playing...
You were born in Ibiza whilst you father was based here as a radio programmer on the island? Who did he work for, what kind of music did he play? Did his approach to music have a major influence on you growing up?
My father is a big music lover, he worked as a programmer for a radio show he and a friend started in Amsterdam called "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands" before making his way over to Ibiza in the early 70's. I have a few set lists of what they played somewhere but can remember exactly. Mostly blues, folk and rock n roll... He influenced me greatly while we were growing up. Hearing all this music, discovering what it can make you feel... Where it can take you... I was hooked instantly and my love for music has been growing ever since. So after my father saw I had an interest in music he brought me to my first party...The rest is history.
What were the first clubs you went to in Ibiza? What were your early impressions of them like?
I was going to kiddie discos since I was like 10. I loved to dance... But my first real party experience was when I went to beach parties or things that were happening during the day on the island. There used to be a lot more stuff going on in the daytime. My father took me, I was around 13, so it was 1995. We would go to Cala Jondal, Sol De'n Serra... Playa D'en Bossa when it was just a beach with some bars... Sometimes Agualandia, an old waterpark they used to do parties at.
The people were the party really! They weren't expecting to see a light show, fireworks or a DJ with his hands in the air... I remember the feeling of something important happening at the clubs....I remember the first time I saw a DJ playing records and people vibing off the music, I was so happy to be in a place with music that loud and a crowd just going nuts... I said right then and there to my parents,"this is what I want to do." Since that moment I started saving up for records and my birthday presents were turntables and a mixer.
After that I started venturing out more, making up excuses about staying at a friends house and then sneaking off alone to the clubs. I would go to Pacha, Ku and Space mostly. I loved how DJ Pippi, Cesar De Melero and Jose De Divina played; they gave me my musical education in those years. I was always drawn to the nights when it was just residents playing.
When I was 15 I was going out quite often, and luckily got in to the clubs without any trouble. I hung out by the booth, checking what records they'd play. I'd watch the crowd... The people in the clubs were so exciting, there was no aggressive energy, and people were there to dance, have a good time and see what the next record was going to be...
The people were the party really! They weren't expecting to see a light show, fireworks or a DJ with his hands in the air... I remember the feeling of something important happening at the clubs. People coming together and listening to this music as one and going on a journey together... It was always about that for me. I used to feel that instantly when I went out. Today it’s more about how many wristbands you have... (In most places)
How did you get your first residency on the island? What did the experience of your first residency teach you?
My first residency was at a beach bar in Santa Eulalia, it was my first job too... I was 15. I was there two summers and over that time got to know Vaughan and Joan Ribas from the Funky Room in Pacha. They asked me to play one night and since then I've been one of the residents at Pacha. That's 15 years ago now... Joan Ribas was my mentor for the early years in the Funky Room at Pacha. He taught me so many things, little details that really matter when you add them all up... Volume control, how to build a night, tempo, when to bring it up and bring it down. To read a crowd, not to necessarily play what they want, but play what you think they need in that moment. See their reaction to certain sounds and play off that. I was working 6 nights a week at Pacha for the first 8 years or so... I learnt all the ins and outs of how a night passes by and what soundtrack it needs.
How has Ibiza changed since then?
Ibiza is still beautiful, great parties are going on all the time. You just have to look a bit harder these days...There are a few big changes that have happened over the last 5 years. The biggest difference is that now, everything that happens in the big clubs is done for money. VIP areas are popping up everywhere and it seems this is all that needs to be full for it to be a good night. Yes, I know everyone needs to make a living, but it’s been taken to a whole new level.
Another big thing is the shift in music. You've heard it before... EDM. Lots of the clubs have lost their personality because they just bring the same big name DJ's you can hear all over the world at any big club or festival. Things are programmed months ahead, tickets are bought; the spontaneity has gone in most places. People pay VIP prices but don't get VIP service either... Camera phones... pre-recorded sets; cake throwing... it’s just a big joke really. That’s not what clubbing is supposed to be in my mind. Go to a circus if you expect to see fireworks and clowns... So I tend to stick to smaller places on the island where money isn't the only goal.
Lots of the clubs have lost their personality because they just bring the same big name DJ's you can hear all over the world at any big club or festival. Things are programmed months ahead, tickets are bought; the spontaneity has gone in most places.
People pay VIP prices but don't get VIP service either...Camera phones... pre-recorded sets; cake throwing... it’s just a big joke really...Where are you favourite places to hang out away from music on the island?
I love the north of the island. I usually find some rocks near the sea and hang out there...
Can you share a couple of your secret or unknown favourite places?
Moon Beach is a beautiful place… maybe you'll find 3 people there in August. Les Portes Del Cel is another special spot...
What benefits, musically, does spending the summer in Ibiza and the winter in New York every year offer you?
The main thing is that I get to play to completely different crowds. I learn things from both cultures. That’s what I'm interested in... Ibiza gives me the party and NY gives me the music.
What about personally? It sounds like a pretty amazing lifestyle to be able to have these two bases.
I am very lucky, privileged and grateful to get the chance to live in both places. It’s been over 10 years now that I'm going back and forth and I never tire of it. Ibiza is my home, I'm always exited to be here, I get to spend time with my friends and family. I’m out hearing music all the time. The island offers a quality of life I haven't found anywhere else.
NY is just another story completely though. That city, the people, makes me grow as a person and a DJ, I learn so much from it. There are lots of DJ's there that have an amazing musical knowledge and know how to use it! Every year I'm there it’s a new experience. There is so much going on all the time, from concerts to parties, cultural events... There's an incredible scene, great clubs and most of all a dance community that feels music so deep inside their body... I say community because it really feels like that there, I've seen some of the same people out for the past 12 years and I know they have been going out 20 before that, and their not stopping. They feel music deep inside. They are out for the music, always interested in hearing new things.
This is something I feel has gone wrong in Ibiza. People are just doing the same old thing over and over... why not take a risk, try something new that the people might not know but could really like. Show them what’s going on instead of giving them what they want... But with social media dictating what people "like" or don't like, and club owners only doing what they know ($) will work, I can see how it’s a hard situation to be in. But that's another story... Obviously there are exceptions on the island, but not that many.
Do you feel re-invigorated every time you switch from one to the other, does the move give you fresh impotence and energy?
100%, yes! Each place gives me strength to be inspired and happy for different reasons. When things wind down in Ibiza, after about 6 months of being on the island, I need to leave to refresh my mind. See some new faces, sceneries, talk about different things... Then, when I get back to NY I'm super exited to be there, and I feel the need to share all the good times I had during the summer in Ibiza via my music. And that works the other way around too...
When April comes and it starts getting hot in the city, I get the "Ibiza bug" in me and I'm itching to get back. Coming back to Ibiza is always the best feeling. When I land here I feel at home. It’s a feeling I get from no other place. So the circle of feeling good just starts again... Life is good.
In NY I play at two clubs mostly, Cielo & Output. They give me complete musical freedom & I'm allowed to play what I want, and the crowd is very open-minded. So this gives me the perfect chance to try out new things...What opportunities does your Cielo residency offer you that your Pacha residency doesn’t and vice versa?
In NY I play at two clubs mostly, Cielo & Output. They give me complete musical freedom and I'm allowed to play what I want, and the crowd is very open-minded. So this gives me the perfect chance to try out new things. I usually play the whole night and can play all kinds of different genres...
In Ibiza, at Pacha, I'm usually in the Funky Room. This room used to have a more soulful identity to it, but it’s been a few years now that things have changed up there. The thing about that room is that it’s not so big; it has a nice sound system and a wooden dance floor for dancing, so people feel very cozy in there. It’s an escape from what’s going on in the main room. But you have to really be on top of the people in that room to not loose them, if you play one track they might not like that much one group will leave, then another and another and you have to start all over again... So I would say that the Funky Room keeps me on my toes and on top of the crowd making sure they have a good night. I meet interesting and fun people in both places though, and that’s very important.
You’re also a regular at Circo Loco. What is so special about that party for you?
I started going to Circo Loco as a clubber around 2000, and I haven't missed many Mondays since then, let’s put it that way (laughs.) For me it’s the most fun place on the island to party and dance. The energy is raw, the line-ups are always interesting and people are flipping with the music. That’s all I need. I recommend going and experiencing it! I get to play there a few times over the season and it’s always my highlight of the summer. The crowd there fills you up with an energy that will last all winter!
Do your residency commitments affect your ability to work on new music at all?
That's one of the main issues in my life right now. Since I'm never in one place that long, I can't really set up a studio the way I would like or work with someone the way I would like. That is a project I'll be working on in the very near future though... I’m always making edits and special pieces to play in my sets, but new music, I don't have anything prepared yet.
So there’s no new music that you are working on at the minute?
No honestly... I've just been concentrating on being the best DJ I can. Finding the craziest records possible to play to the crowd at the right moment.