50 Years of “Being Himself” – elektro’s exclusive Q&A with Danny Tenaglia: “House is a feeling”
Room after room of floor-to-ceiling shelving units line almost every wall. They are crammed with an interminable collection of records that the NYC-legendary DJ has amassed over his three-decade career.
Gearing up to headline The BPM Festival in Playa del Carmen, Mexico for New Year’s Eve 2012, this slave to the old school (House music being Danny’s particular joie de vivre), invited me to sit down at his Queens haven in the mini-club room– complete with a stage, disco ball and serious speaker systems galore. There, we had an intimate tête à tête about his 30+ years spinning, the sacrifices he’s made in the name of music and how for DT, “it’s not about the money.”
elektro: What does one have to do to stay relevant for three decades in such a tenuous industry?
Danny Tenaglia: Sacrifice. Whatever your career might be, the more you put in the more you get back. If I was a family-man– the type to have a wife and children– then that would’ve been my world, and I wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as a DJ, remixer and producer type of person; because I gave the DJ’ing career everything I have.
Do you really look at the getting married and having kids as a huge sacrifice? That wasn’t in my cards. When I got into my forties, that’s when I really, really realized that this was my purpose. If by age 40-45, you have nothing else on your stove, or even on the back burner, and you can’t imagine doing anything else, you know. I love entertainment. I’m sure if I wasn’t a DJ, I’d still be doing something in entertainment, but there was, there still is, nothing else for me.
It wasn’t as big an industry when you were a teenager. Now, you have people that are 23-years-old and already making $10 million a year DJ’ing, how do you give them advice or can you? The ones already making 10 million . . . I want to strangle them. I don’t have advice for them. I resent a lot of how easy it is for people today to pick-up a laptop; and then, all of a sudden, bam, they want to DJ too. That said, I know there are really, really, incredibly talented people all over the world that will struggle; and, it will always be hard to make it because there are very few slots for DJs.
What was it like watching the digitization of vinyl? Do you still use records? I don’t use laptops in the booth. Never say never. In NY, lugging around records is tough. That’s what I mean in my humorous way about wanting to strangle the kids of today. We used to hustle. Not only around New York City where we lived, but then the planet. I can recall getting on airplanes, flying economy with three crates of records in the cargo; going from places like Ministry of Sound to Tokyo. That was physical. Now it’s just a click, copy, drag, and paste with a flash drive key; and, they’re on an airplane going to play somewhere. There are very few places that are still passionate about vinyl.
How do you choose what you’re going to remix? House is a feeling. I choose it by my taste in music. I’ve always loved deep house and tribal.
Tell me about your upcoming set at the BPM dance festival in Mexico. What can we expect? I’m going to give the people what I think they expect from me: something different, but still consistent. A professional DJ has to be prepared to go in different directions. Now with the technology, I don’t have to travel with three crates of records. You might see that they’re appreciating deep house. You might drop a club classic, see that the room is erupting, and pull out a couple more. Now, it’s pretty much proper tech-house that I ignite the crowd with; but, I’m always prepared to throw a few bones that other people might not have – maybe acapellas that I have from a recording session.
Does it differ from country to country? You have BPM Mexico, as well as Erick Morillo at Pacha on Thanksgiving eve. How do you skew it to your country? It isn’t so much the country. When I prepare, I listen to a song and use my imagination going back all these years, 35 countries later, and I think about, “What will all this sound like in a room for 500 people? What will it sound like in a massive room? What will it sound like in a tent? What will it sound like in daylight?”
Do you have a favorite festival, country, or club? Is that an impossible question? It’s really, really difficult, but I always tell people that if I had to narrow it down: New York, it’s home and I learned everything here initially; and then, the Winter Music Conference in Miami, which I’ve participated in for 25 years now and was a really big stepping-stone for me. New York and Miami are home.
I used to watch you spin for 12 hours straight at the “Be Yourself” parties at club Vinyl. Where did you get that stamina? I can still do it. I think they can feel my passion. Once I start talking about it, I get absorbed. I love it. I’m a fan too. There’s no concept of time. It’s that moment that you get to the booth, hit play, and you go. I’m done preparing. I’m done with packing, sleeping, eating, traveling, texting, showering. Once you get to the booth, you close off everything.
Do you DJ for that long anymore? Rarely. The only place that might get me to play more than 8-10 hours is (Club Stereo in Montreal). It’s a non-liquor alcohol venue. Those are the best ones. You know the pureness on the energy.
Over the years, have your goals in creating music and beats shifted a lot? Yes. I was first and foremost a DJ. Then, I got into the music business side of it as a remixer and producer from 1988 to about 2002. Being nominated for a Grammy for work on a Depeche Mode song, nothing came of it. It was a decline. Stores closed. Record stores closed their dance departments, and I was still an underground type of person that they were hiring to do underground mixes. So, my joy has always been the DJ thing. I get joy from remixing a song and playing it, but to go into the music business with sales and royalties, I never did well with that.
Would you say that the decline of the music business, almost destruction, did that help this root of electronic dance music becoming so popular right now? Without a doubt. Everyone was starting to trade, and download for free. Sales just declined, and remixed budgets went from ten to one. You could mix one song and use it for two or three weeks.
What are you listening to for fun right now? Cream. I’ve been going back to my roots; and, once a while I detach from techno and house music.
What do you think of Dubstep? Are you going to get involved? I’m happy to tell you that when it comes to dubstep, I know as much about it as I know about jungle, drum-and-bass (very little). I think it is somewhat an evolution of hip-hop and reggae; breaks and breakbeats. I don’t find it very relevant to what I do. I’m not saying it is a bad thing, but nobody has ever brought to my attention specific titles.
What if I brought something to your attention? Maybe for you it just isn’t about the money. If you were to team-up with Skrillex (I later play him Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” on his mega sound system and DT was shocked to find it had over 40 million views on YouTube) and do something, all the kids would come out and you would make double. Is that not a factor for you? It is not about the money. I would be willing to work with someone if I really appreciated their passion. If I really vibed with them, and sensed that they were in it for the same reason as me. Then, I would want to work with them.
How would you know? You can feel their energy. It’s in their personality. You can tell if they’re down-to-earth. You talk about influences, what inspired you – like a little interview when you’re conversing. My ears are open to hearing new things, seeing new things; but also, at this stage of the game, it is hard to get me into something new. You really have to get my attention. I go out a lot. When I’m in Ibiza, I’ll go to places on my nights off and I don’t hear them playing Dubstep.
What does Danny have planned for the future in life and in music? Or is it one? It’s hard to say, because the way things are changing so quickly, I would think that I would probably want to follow in the footsteps of guys who are my peers and colleagues like François and Danny Krivit. I love them, and I’ve known them for so many years, since back thirty years. They have their own parties at Body and Soul and 718, and I guess there’s a part of me that wants to do that too. To play music that’s similar to what they play when they have their events. When you play that kind of music you want people to come that remember, that it’s a classic to them. Not the “Oh that’s an old record. It’s a classic.” You want people that can sing along.