With his Lights Out parties and releases, British super-DJ Steve Lawler ruled dance floors with a sound that lived up to that name. It was thumping, dark, and almost fiercely inward-looking -- it was no surprise, really, that Lawler cited Depeche Mode and the Doors as influences. But just as things were getting to their heaviest in the real world, Lawler seems to have lightened up, channeling a sunnier, perhaps more South American influence. Certain scribes have dubbed it "carnival house," which is a frankly horrifying term; but it does begin to get at the more celebratory, festive mood of Lawler's recent mixes.
Perhaps the change came was thanks to the world of possibilities opened up with the launch of his new record label/DJ agency/production company/everything-but-the-kitchen-sink music juggernaut, Viva Music. Or maybe it was just, you know, musical boredom. Whatever the reason, in the last couple years, Lawler has done a 180 that's stymied those who would put him in a little "dark progressive house" box. Check out the changes for yourself tonight, when Lawler's Viva Music tour lands at Gryphon, in the Seminole Hard Rock complex. New Times caught up with him last month to chat about his latest developments. Check out what he had to say, after the jump.
New Times: Your gig in South Floridais part of your official "Viva Music" tour, but not all the gigs listed on your web site are tagged as part of that. What's different about an appearance on your Viva Music tour, as opposed to a regular gig?
Steve Lawler: They're all Viva music gigs on this tour. (Laughs) Actually, apart from one, which is the Monster Massive. It's a big festival in L.A., and that's the only gig that's not a Viva Music gig. But I'll be honest with you, these kinds of things are arranged by a team, I'm just the artist.
But this tour is me and one of the other Viva artists, Jimmy Hill. What I'm trying to do with Viva Music gigs is, when it's a Viva Music party, we design the artwork for the event, we have visuals that are displayed around the club, and we have another Viva artist on the bill. These other gigs on my web site you see listed in Europe are just me. The Viva Music tour is to really push the Viva Music artists. The label is really important to me, and I really want to push the artists on the label.
What does Jimmy Hill sound like?
He plays very deep, very sort of percussive; it comes from a sort of techno world. He's got releases on a lot of German labels, but it's really deep, it's good for opening up before I go on.
How did you choose him to accompany you through the States this time?
Well, we only do a big Viva Music tour once a year in America like this, and I've got eight or nine artists on the actual Viva Music DJ agency that I need to look after. But I can only look after one person at a time. So we just share the artists between gigs, and this time, it's Jimmy's turn to come to the States.
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So you've got an agency as part of Viva, too, it's not just a label....
And we have a publishing company and an events company. The whole Viva Music label is now four years old, and the only way a label can really become a strong contender is if you support your artists and get behind them and push them. We have the Viva music web site, the MySpace, the booking agency, the publishing company, the events company. We did three festivals this year, we'll do six next year.
In this day and age, records only sell so many copies, they don't feed the company. You have to have all these different avenues to keep the company profitable. I don't beleive in just signing tracks and putting them out. I want to back the Viva Music family and support the artists.
What was the biggest lesson you learned running your old label, Harlem, that you're getting to apply now?
Well, when I ran Harlem I had two other partners in the label. When we did the label together, we said we would always agree on signing a track. I would put tracks forward to sign to the label, and they weren't really happy, they thought they were too underground or deep. They wanted to put something out that was more obvious. I just didn't have full control. As a result, I think it suffered.
And we were underneath a sort of dictatorship of the distributors most of the time. I'd have a record I really believed in, and the distributors wouldn't want to print it. So when I started Viva, I just wanted to make it really, really simple: a digital-only label, just sign the music I love, and not care about it making money. The weird thing is when I started Harlem Records, it was more like a business venture, and it lost a fortune, it lost money. I started Viva as a complete labor of love, and it's blossomed and made a lot of money -- but we've put all that back into the company.
I was just looking at your page on Beatport, and there was a clip from your slot at one of the Beatport pool parties at WMC here in Miami earlier this year. It described the sound you were playing as "carnival house!" Do you have any idea where that term came from?
I have no idea. I was known many many years ago for playing tracks with a lot of drums, tribal sort of music. Of course that whole sound still got really diluted and sounded shit, and it wasn't exciting me. So I moved away from it. But I'm always focusing on what's fresh and what's new. The whole drum thing stared again for me a couple years ago, but it was more carnival drums than tribal drums. It's more like a South American influence than an African influence, I guess.
Was there a specific point at which you decided you were sick of the old stuff, and decided to change your sound?
Honestly, the funny thing is, I don't change. I don't think of it as change. It's just that my mind, my brain naturally works in a way where I'm always excited by new things. I can't stay with any one thing for too long because it just bores me. I need to be constantly excited. My brain just constantly evolves in music. I don't know how to explain it. I don't really see it as not playing dark any more. Maybe recently I've been playing more party-based tracks, but maybe next week I will play the darkest thing at the moment.
Besides your own releases on Viva, are there any other labels you really like right now whose material you're playing out?
I'm really liking what Souvenir is putting out right now.... To be honest with you, my sets at the moment are probably 70 to 80 percent Viva Music and my own productions. It's not really been on purpose, but I like going to a club and playing tracks that I know nobody else is smashing every week. I don't want to go there and just sound like every other DJ. I want to be playing tracks that I kind of know people haven't heard before, and bringing something new to the room. If I'm playing a lot of Viva Music stuff, i'm playing it months before it gets released. I get something from that; what excites me is something new.
Do you have a hard time using that approach with American audiences? A lot of times here, especially in the very big clubs, most DJs seem to be trying to specifically play tracks the crowd recognizes.
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I don't know, I don't really feel that pressure, to be honest with you. I'm really happy with where I'm at in my career. I think most people who come see me know to expect something different.
Are you working on anything new currently?
No, I'm not working on anything at the moment. I was so busy in the studio the summer before with touring. The remixes that I did then are now being released. I have a new single which has been signed to Hot House Recordings, a German techno label that's been running about 15 years now. So I was really happy about that, because I was playing tracks from that label at the start of my career.
I had been working on something previously, like at the start of the summer, which is a new single I'm doing with a Roland Clark vocal. I sent him a backing track, he did a vocal to it, and he sent me the vocal and I liked it. I've yet to get back to the studio to complete that; I need to get back and build the track around that more. So in the winter, expect a vocal track from me.