Photos by: Eugene Onegin, Raul Torrero.
For the first in our new series of interviews where artists talk about what it’s really like to be a DJ, we speak to vinyl house star, Julian Perez about how he selects records, what happens when the crowd aren't happy and the challenges of staying mentally strong.
Julian Perez knows a thing or two about keeping your head. The Ibiza based Spanish DJ ran one of the hottest vinyl labels, Fathers & Sons Productions, in the early 2010s but right at the peak of the label's success, he decided to end on a high and made his debut album, 'Solemnity' the twelfth and final release. As a DJ, he's a renowned vinyl aficionado and a highly in demand touring act and is well versed in the trials and tribulations that the intense world of DJing can throw at you.
Ibiza Voice: Where do you get your music from?
Julian Perez: I'd say I get more than 70% of the stuff on Discogs. It’s more expensive this way but it’s hard to find the stuff I'm looking for by checking only new records at online stores. Plus, to seek and find un-hyped gems, Discogs is the place.
Spending hours digging and getting lost in local stores around the globe is way more fun than digging on a computer. The list is endless but some of my favourites are: Technique in Tokyo, Gramaphone Records in Chicago, Subwax BCN in Barcelona, GOSU in Frankfurt, Disk Union Shibuya in Tokyo, Rush Hour Records in Amsterdam, Palma39 in Madrid, The Thing in Brooklyn, A-1 Record Shop in New York and The Ghost in Berlin.
You said in an interview you don't prepare your sets, but what else are you doing in the lead up to a gig?
I find it stressful to prepare a set when you are never sure how the party/crowd is going to be. When I'm playing gigs very often and having short periods of time between tours, I make a pile with the latest purchases I'm looking forward to playing. Then, I go through my collection and find some records I haven't played lately but I know I haven't heard them around for a while, and I put them to one side.
Next, I open my bag with the music from the last gig and I go through all the records in there, at the same time thinking about the parties I'm playing next and visualizing what their vibe will be. After that, I just need to leave out the ones I feel I've been playing too much lately, and leave space for the other two little piles I left on the side to join the bag for the next weekend. Sorted!
How do you organise your music in preparation for the gig?
Digitally, I actually have to start over again organizing files as soon as possible. I have loads of folders with demos, promos, unfinished tracks of mine and friend's, new and old tracks of different genres here and there. It’s a completely mess at this time to have all that on a memory stick.
Every few years I make new folders, move tracks from one to another and rename them differently, trying to classify them in a way they are easy to be found. But, they inevitably always ends up lost on the screen of the CDJ when there's too much music.
What I'm doing now is going through my digital collection track by track and organising the folders once again and making a selection of what I want to play these days. Then trying to set a limit of a number of files for the gig so I don’t have too much music in there and I can find the tracks quickly.
Do you ever mix at home? Or are you practicing in the club all of the time?
I'm not really mixing at home these days. I do have a setup and I can record some podcast from time to time but it's mostly for friends or at after parties.
There's a turntable in the studio where I listen to my records but I leave the mixing for the gigs. I’ve never practiced combinations to play them in a club in the same order. Would DJing be exciting if I did so?
Is there a cut off point for when you take on more tunes or are you still waiting for your package of vinyl the day before leaving for the gig?
The packages arrive the day before the gig, then I make the selection last minute to have those records fresh in my mind. When I arrive at the gig, I know what's in there.
What important lessons have you learned over time that have made you a better DJ?
An important lesson is to overcome your ego. Satisfying yourself or certain people you want to impress [is indulging your ego.]
These days DJs experience a lot of criticism when performing in front of others. There's a lot of judging going on that can easily make you pay less attention to the public in front of you. The people who came to listen to you and are whom this is all about.
They are open to what you have chosen in that moment, so it's important to play in a way that lets you take them along on the story you're telling.
Going out a little when you have some time off or staying at the party after your set when you feel it, is good for inspiration. By listening to other DJs performing, their mixing or music selection, can be inspiring and make you improve as a DJ.
Do you prepare your music differently for different times of night or crowds? If you were booked for a techno festival, would you play harder techno than normal? Or would you pass on the gig?
How I'm feeling the dancefloor is more important than what slot I'm in. My mood will also play an important role in how I develop my set. I'm not a fan of a steady, fixed sound in sets. I keep driving them up and down to keep the vibe and having enough versatility to avoid being predictable.
If I need to play a harder set for a bigger event, it’ll still be my sound, but just harder than usual. I’ve had to do this before and it’s always exciting and challenging. The key is to keep the flow with your signature style either for a small club with 100 people or for an open air with 3,000 people.
Obsessing over what is and isn’t your sound is quite a common issue for DJs and can lead to all sorts of anxiety. How do you deal with this problem?
My sound is a combination of my roots and all the influences I'm discovering along this journey. It keeps building, developing and refining. I truly never think about it as an issue, it's just the way it works and I'm happy to not get stuck thinking about it.
If you were to ask me to describe it in words, I wouldn’t be able to. It's a combination of different styles that gives personality to my sound.
Would you describe yourself as quite a confident DJ who plays in the moment, or are you in the 'over thinkers' department, often scrutinising/perfectionising every detail of a set and rarely happy?
I know what you mean with those over thinkers! Over the years I’ve become confident enough and I'm rarely letting the little imperfections in my DJ sets get me. Come on, we are not synchronized machines!
I always take DJing very seriously and give my best, trying to improve, challenge and surpass myself without being too critical.
These days you see artists playing a victim role by being very hard on themselves day in day out. Sharing that kind of stuff in social media works well to get some hype, followers love that, they feel close to the artist when recognizing and accepting their flaws and the fact of being sincere and human.
Well, I'm from the side of the fence that would rather work hard on improving my flaws than moaning the day after the gig.
If you find yourself booked to play the wrong kind of crowd, are you happy to go down in flames playing music you believe in or are you open to the idea of compromise to keep a crowd happy?
If you get booked for a party with the wrong crowd, no matter if it's the promoter's or your agent's fault, your task is to make that crowd have a great experience without compromising your sound. That’s when your experience and ability as a DJ comes to the fore and you must do the magic. That's what you are there for.
You go and work your ass off to get take them on a music trip. It's not the set you had in mind, it's a difficult crowd but you have the skills to go through your music and build a set for them by reading their faces but also showing them your identity. There's no the time for excuses.
It's like, when there aren’t many people at your gig, but there are some people there for you, they deserve to hear you give your best. You have to show respect to those people and play like you have a full house.
How do you handle things when something goes wrong in the middle of a set?
Problems with sound systems and setups still bother me most these days. Bad quality monitoring, incorrectly set up DJ booths on top of the subs or tables that aren’t stable enough for spinning records are the most common problems.
When a needle skips several times in the same set, it could mentally destabilize you. It's not your fault, but you're losing the vibe.
It's hard but you need to get over it right away, breath deeply, recompose yourself and at the same time try to solve the problem and overcome the stress.
Good gigs are easy, but not every gig is a good one. How do you handle the bad ones? Do they get to you?
I take the bad ones as a lesson and I only accept my part of the responsibility. I try to not overthink because that's just going to take you down psychologically and see this job in a way I don't want to see it: as just business.
The selection of gigs is a very important factor. Quality over quantity is important. One good gig beats the last bad ones and keeps me in the mood, believing in this job and in myself.
I'm glad that in the last years I'm having a big average of good gigs, that keeps me pushing forward and reminds me why I started DJing.
Have you had any incidents where people have felt the need to share a negative opinion of your set with you and did this faze you?
Luckily I haven't experienced that but I believe that when they've paid for a ticket to hear you and they think you are not delivering as you should, they have the right to tell you, no question.
It sometimes happens that in the middle of a set when people are having fun, I’m enjoying myself, but there's that one guy/girl in the first row trying to get your attention all the time by telling you to play "harder", or even asking you to play certain tracks. I'm always trying to avoid confrontation as it can affect my mood and my set but I can’t be expected to be nice to that person when I'm trying to do my thing.
In our [musical] world, some people still don't understand that a DJ is someone who's there to show his/her personal view of music and to give you that experience. We're booked by the promoter to do exactly that task. A DJ’s duty is to determine how they should be delivering, improvising by feeling the crowd and developing a full set without being interrupted with requests.
The fans assume every DJ is always away eternally playing three nights a week to big crowds and earning tons of money. What's the reality of touring life like and how do you handle the ups and downs?
The stereotype of a big DJ these days is those who make tons of money for playing a couple of hours and living that perfect life on their social media, flying on private jets and stuff.
I respect that but it's just not every DJ’s goal.
The reality of my touring life is doing what I love in between the road and the studio, the way I've chosen to. It’s more intense than when I started, but it’s a workflow I can happily handle.
There's always ups and downs in creativity, energy and touring. I've learned how to have a balance in between all that by taking my breaks, having some time off and spend more time for myself and with my family, leaving work on the side a little.
If things go quiet with touring I look at the positives. It's the perfect time to get in the studio and work full time, without having to think about leaving home anytime soon. It makes me feel great to have new music finished and these breaks help to get back down to earth before hitting the road again with energy and gratification.
How do you deal with the psychological challenges of DJing?
When touring gets too intense, it isn’t good for your health. You get used to waking up every day in a different country, barely resting and you lose sense of reality. A routine during the week is essential to help me to see things clearly, look after myself and then to look forward to being back on tour.
On the other hand, if you are not playing as regularly as you would like to, it isn't good for your self esteem either.
It's great to be able to refuse work when you are overloaded but it's not always a choice, especially at the beginning, when you are starting to play internationally and you are in that point where this is your only income source and you are struggling to make a living.
It's challenging to have to control your emotions and moods. What helps me, is setting myself short goals in order to be able to meet them and always keep pushing in the way I believe.
I think the artist hype is always fluctuating, it's going back and forth and you cannot be focusing in that by forcing things in order to survive in this business at any price. Nonetheless, it’s up to you to work hard to do what you believe in.
How do you deal with loneliness on tour?
I enjoy travelling by myself more than I expected to. Visiting new countries and meeting new people gives you great experiences. You have all your senses concentrated on what's surrounding you. There are no distractions and you’re open to learning from everything on the way. It's exciting.
Over the years I got booked regularly by promoters who became friends after years of working together. That makes travelling alone way easier. Knowing the drivers, staff, or the people who travel from other cities to see you and exchange some words at the event on the other side of the world. Some moments are just priceless on tour when you take a second to think of them.
Touring alone gives you plenty of time for yourself and it's something we all need daily. However, it's always important to find the balance as I always say.
Loneliness on tour happens at certain moments but [when it does], I just need to look at myself for a minute and think about how my life is and remind myself it's the way I wanted it to be. I feel very supported and loved by my people and that beats any moment of loneliness I may have.
Julian Perez’s next EP, Raw Belief is out soon on his new label Girada Unlimited.