With barely a hair on his chin, the Michigan kid had already booked Magda, and played his first set at Panorama Bar at the tender age of 19, (naturally) rising to turntable stardom at 22. Hailed as number 1 DJ in Resident Advisor’s annual poll of 2012, who described him as a ‘class clown’, the American expat confesses that he let himself go a bit in the booth before questioning himself and getting back on the right track. His attitude, however, has stayed firmly irreverent. Troxler won’t hesitate to swing at his peers and their inflated egos, to clash with them (Nina Kraviz and Steve Aoki both got it in the neck, and of course we remember his Twitter beef with DJ Sneak), nor to put himself out there, like when he posed for photos in the bath just after the ‘bathgate’ of the Russian DJ, or eating a banana butt naked. An attitude that alone makes him an original artist in a sphere that is sometimes overly stereotyped. A guy so exuberant that sometimes we forget about the music.
Unrivalled as a DJ, Seth Troxler has also given us great moments as a producer. After releases on Wagon Repair, Wolf+Lamb and Circus Company (each one during the golden days of the label) and one stroke of genius (his collaboration with Phil Moffa on the song Blue Rawls and its freaky music video), Troxler (like everyone else) left minimal alone to lean towards the acid sound, which he still produces, as his most recent tracks from the spring, CZ and Evangelion, prove.
Intelligent, inquisitive, extremely knowledgeable, funny, insolent, Seth really seems to hold the winning hand. And what’s more, he’s the perfect man for the press, as we talked all things new in the electronic world while he ordered a dish in a London restaurant. Nina Kraviz, Ten Walls, EDM, his leaving Visionquest, his new labels, we take this opportunity to grill the three-time Amsterdam Dance Event barbecue champion. And what fun it was.
A meeting with Seth Troxler
After a few years in Berlin, you’ve been based in London for the last three. What do you think of the clubbing culture in England?
It’s really good here, there are loads of underground parties. It’s one of the cities with the most clubs in the world. Berlin was cool but after a while it began to annoy me. It wasn’t my vibe anymore.
Do you still have the time to go out when you’re not playing?
Not really. When I’m here I stay at home, I go out quite rarely apart from the cinema or nights that I’m playing. I really like spending time with my friends, I rarely go out alone. Except here we do ‘ordinary’ things. A huge part of my life is spent in clubs, so I try to devote the rest of my time to something else. And the DJs who inspire me are my friends, be that the Martinez Brothers or the Circoloco family. When they’re not on, frankly, I don’t want to go and see amateur DJs (he laughs). I’ve spent too much time in crappy clubs, so now, when I have a few hours to myself, I prefer to spend them with normal people.
Do you still keep up with the boys from Visionquest (Ryan Crosson, Lee Curtiss and Shaun Reeves), the label you left last year?
Yes, but not often, to tell you the truth.
How did they react when you launched your three new labels last year, Tuskegee, Soft Touch and Play It, Say It?
It wasn’t great… The decision to leave Visionquest was a semi-mutual one. They weren’t happy with the situation and nor was I. They found me a bit too controlling. So we decided to leave it off as good friends, that way it wasn’t too messy.
Ryan Crosson explained that your departure saved the friendship between the two of you. Was it really so bad as that at the end?
Ryan is right. At the end of the day, when you’re in a group, and the others want to take it in a different direction, it’s really difficult. I had ideas and I wanted to push them to their conclusion. But when the other three don’t have the same ideas… It’s not a big problem, these things happen. In a collective, if you want things to work, you have to have the same mentality. In Tuskegee, with the Martinez Brothers, we’re all thinking along the same lines. We know exactly what we want, in terms of our careers, our ideas and the way we present them to our fans. If you don’t have the same ideology, it’s difficult to move forward.
In an interview with The Independent last December, you said something interesting about the jokes you made with the Martinez Brothers about the fact that electronic music has stopped you from becoming a ‘future stereotype’.
If you watch the news today, and the way black culture is treated in the USA, it’s depressing. In America, to be black is to be a minority. You don’t have the same opportunities as others. The Martinez Brothers come from the Bronx, I come from Detroit, I could very easily have become a statistic, a number on a police records or just another dead black guy. Thanks to electronic music, I was lucky enough to discover the other cultures of the world and become the person that I am today. Without it, I’m not sure I would have had those opportunities.
You’re European by adoption. If you had been born here, do you think that you wouldn’t have had to fight so hard as in the USA?
Perhaps. I would without doubt have had more access to culture but music broadened my horizons. In Europe there’s a bit more equality. Racial segregation is a lot worse in the US, in terms of culture and identity. In Europe people have it easier.
We were talking to a promoter recently, she said that techno is by far the most open of all kinds of music, in terms of racism or sexism, compared to rock or rap especially. Would you agree with that?
Yes, completely. It’s a culture based on openness of mind.
On the other hand, you declared that your label Tuskegee would be reserved for artists from ethnic minorities. Doesn’t that go against this spirit of openness somewhat?
It’s not the only idea but it’s the main concept: to release music composed by people from minority backgrounds. We want to create a platform to show them they have a chance.
Do you think you will include women on the label? They are a minority too in club and festival line-ups.
Yes, it’s a good idea, I hadn’t really thought about it, but we can find women. The thing is finding women who are at the same level. That’s the problem, for women and for the ethnic minorities, seen as there are fewer opportunities, there aren’t so many of them around. So statistically it’s more difficult to find quality artists.
Do you think that women have less of a need for help than artists who aren’t white?
I think the two need help. Honestly, I think there are more women coming up in the world of electronic music than non-white artists. If you look closely, there are rarely more than 5 or 6 black artists on line-ups. All those who are persecuted must try to help. I would love to find artists from the Middle East too. But I am sure that we will have women on the label, that would be great.
« Electronic music is the only scene in the world where an individual can do whatever he wants and say whatever he wants. And nobody really takes that opportunity. »
You have an original image in the world of electronic music. You are completely within it but at the same time have a fairly distant view of the community.
I try to get as much perspective as possible. I analyse things a lot. Many people see electronic music like a solid world with stable values. I see it more as a culture and I think that there’s a lot to be improved. So I see it as a whole. I try to see not just the situations as they appear but to look beyond that, otherwise it’s boring and a bit of a lazy attitude. I’m 29 and I think that releasing music without any concept behind it is boring. You can do so much more… Electronic music is the only scene in the world where an individual can do everything they want to. He can say whatever he wants, bring out music on any platform in the way he wishes, with the artwork and message he chooses. And nobody really takes this opportunity or uses this power. In pop, rock or hip hop, there are so many things you can’t say, because in popular culture you’ve always got people saying you can’t do this or that. In hip hop, if you say something stupid, it’s over, you’re not cool. In electronic music, because it’s so open-minded, you can really say and do what you want, to change things.
You do that in your own way, having fun.
Yes, because you’d be boring if you didn’t chat rubbish every once in a while. Everybody needs to chill!
You can say anything in electronic music but it doesn’t always work out. Take Ten Walls for example…
Ten Walls really abused it. A huge part of electronic music finds its roots in gay culture and some of the things he wrote, frankly… It wasn’t just ‘I don’t like gays.’ He went a lot further, said they were a different kind of human being. That’s the kind of prejudice that our culture has always stood against. I’m quite happy with what happened to him, he was asking for it, and in any case his music was awful… It killed two birds with one stone, it’s perfect.
Do you still think that the DJing world is too serious? At the Amsterdam Dance Event, you compared certain of your colleagues to a board of old managing directors who play records.
It’s still too serious. They’re all there trying to get attention for their image, saying ‘I need to do this or that’ just to be considered cool, that kind of shit. But dude, you’re just a damn/fucking DJ, give it a rest! It’s not that important playing parties. If you must be so serious, do so over something important for the world and use your voice to try to make a difference.
For you, is Seth Troxler a brand that you have to manage and maintain?
I do it in a light-hearted way. The only thing that matters to me when it comes to managing my image, is making sure that I’m represented by my true personality, not some dancing monkey or puppet. I’m not like the others but I am a big DJ too. I have a manager and all that… Sometimes I work with brands and they want me to do things a certain way. And sometimes the only answer is: ‘go fuck yourselves! I’m not doing that!’
Does your behaviour and the criticisms you make sometimes cause problems between you and the other DJs?
Not really. Most of the big DJs are close friends, I’d say 80%. The other 20%, like Nina Kraviz, we don’t get along, that’s all. I don’t care about not getting not getting along with people who take themselves too seriously. It’s a question of personality.
What’s the issue with her?
She’s a good DJ but not such a good person. That’s only my opinion, obviously, but a fair few others think so too.
Don’t you think there are too many fundamentalists in techno, among the DJs but also the public, which sometimes makes it really rigid?
That’s clear, we really need to be open-minded. It’s like those vinyl purists who come and bug you for playing CDs. Stop it! I collect records, for the most part I play on vinyl, but sometimes I use a USB stick. And that’s not such a bad thing. Having said that, personally I find DJs who play from their laptops a bit shitty. But I think people are far too militant over audio and the underground. Nothing is truly underground, it’s supposed to be fun, it’s just a party guys.
Two years ago, you stated you only wanted to play in little dark clubs. Have you succeeded?
I did that last year and started playing big clubs again. I try to keep it balanced. And that’s working quite well at the moment.
But you’re still playing the big festivals.
(He says like a rapper) That’s how I make money, man! I’ve got to pay my mortgage.
You played at Ultra Music Festival in Miami this year? Last month Diplo told us that it was over and that EDM was going to die.
This year, I played on Carl Cox’s stage. It’s true that it was dead but it was still cool to play with Carl Cox. He books more underground artists, and it’s great to give six or seven thousand kids the chance to hear good music. Perhaps some of them came from the EDM stages and said to themselves ‘Look, the music’s better here.’ I think that loads of people at Ultra realised that EDM was dead and are starting to look towards our stuff. I think it’s great to be a bridge for some kids. I don’t think that makes me a sell-out. It’s a starting point, as DJs we should be there to accompany the kids and magazines like Trax have their job to do too in bringing them to more edgy stuff. When you’re 17 or 18 and looking for knowledge, you go to the media and the big events to learn. And there needs to be someone there to defend ‘the truth’. That’s their way out of EDM.
So there’s hope.
Do you think EDM is a danger to more authentic techno or house?
No, it’s not a danger, it’s just something else. For a while, the only danger was that EDM DJs were acting like representatives of our culture. Today, we reach a point where certain artists are stepping up. John Digweed for example, when he said that you’ve got to distinguish between art and entertainment (editor’s note: on MTV at the end of March)
Do you think that DJs should be more politically or environmentally engaged?
Everyone who has a voice that counts should lobby for their beliefs. These are turbulent times, socially and environmentally. It could get very complicated in the near future, with growing inequality between the rich and the poor, global warming, a world war could break out… We could resolve these problems if enough people took notice.
Can you be a committed DJ and a funny guy as you are on social networks at the same time?
I have fun on social networks because I like to. But I try to be more and more thoughtful. Because if you make jokes the whole time, it’s harder to be taken seriously when you want to talk about issues that really matter. Even when it comes to music it causes me the occasional problem. I play very deep, edgy and underground records, but people take me for someone like Solomun just because I’m popular. But it’s not the same world. Solomun is a great guy but we don’t do the same thing. With age I’m learning to protect myself more, so I can take my ideas further. Soon I’ll be 30 and when I was younger I liked to act a fool. Now I’ve learnt that I can’t say absolutely everything I want and that I have to be a bit more careful to bring my ideas off to best effect.
Your step-dad was a radio host. Did that help you to build a different perception of the world of DJing? Is that the reason that you are something of a veteran in the community?
Yes but not only that. When I went on nights out, man, I said to myself: ‘But I know this tune!’ I just hadn’t experienced it in that context. Being exposed to dance music at the age of 7 or 8 really brought me along.
What kind of music did he play?
My step-dad played Trax records, Chicago house, hip-hop and R&B. My mum was into deep house, she loved Little Louie Vega. Until the age of 13 I lived in Kalamazoo, a town in Michigan exactly half way between Detroit and Chicago. Then I moved to the north suburbs of Detroit. That’s where I started to DJ. After that I lived in Detroit itself for two years when I was at university.
You started to mix with the Ghostly International crew (editor’s note: the label of Mattew Dear and Tadd Mullinix, notably).
Yes, I was still a boy. I was 15 when I started to play at their nights at Ann Arbor. I was selling records for them, so they invited me. I played Wednesday nights, my mum gave me a lift in the car to Ann Arbor, 150km away. It was crazy.
Did you also play raves back in the day?
Yes and I still do. My first rave was in 2003 with Magda, it was my first headline slot. After that, Ryan Crosson and I began to put on our own events and in May we celebrated the tenth anniversary of our night Need I Say More, at the Old Miami, a Detroit club, during the Movement festival.
Last year, Jimmy Edgar told us about the time at the start of the 00s. He said that neither you nor him really knew what you were doing.
Jimmy Edgar went to the school just across from ours. In that time, there were perhaps 100 or 150 people, most of them DJs, who put on little parties in bars. It’s staggering to see Jimmy and the others at this level today, so many years afterwards.
Do you have strong memories of that time?
Of course, it was the period that shaped me. The Perlon boys came from time to time, Ghostly International was putting on its night Untitled, there was Todd Osborn, the Playhouse and Kompakt DJs… We were just kids going to really cool club nights. At that time, minimal was just getting started, with the whole Cologne trend. In 2005, I did my first European tours, thanks to the guys from M_nus and Circus Company in France. For me, that was an enormous change.
At that time, there weren’t so many of the old Detroit guard in town.
Yes, Detroit was dancing to Richie Hawtin and M_nus and Ghostly International, a lot of European techno. In fact, the heritage of the city was a bit annoying for us. Everyone was there like Detroit Detroit Detroit, but we already knew all of those records! For us, the cool stuff was coming from Europe and Germany. It was our way of dreaming of something else. The Detroit classics, it’s great and all, but we were hearing them every weekend on the radio.
In fact, after very few years DJing in Detroit, you already felt restrained.
Yes, that’s why we had raves: Detroit’s club scene has always been small, there wasn’t a big crowd who went out. With a few exceptions, like the Richie Hawtin parties, the nights would have been something like 150-300 people. I came to Europe at 18 and in 2005 I played Panorama Bar for the first time. It blew up for me and I left for Europe two years afterwards, in 2007.
Playing the Panorama Bar at 19, talk about diving in at the deep end!
Seriously. It was incredible, I didn’t even understand what was happening, it was a bit too much, very sexual. To see gay people doing things like that, when you’re 19 and you come from Detroit, it was bizarre. ‘Ha alright, it’s okay to do that?!’ It opened my eyes.
Just your eyes?
Haha, yes, just my eyes.
Talk to us a bit about the Acid Future Party you’re organising in London at the Tobacco Dock on the 8th August. The line-up is pretty mad, with DJ Harvey, Jackmaster, Marshall Jefferson, Skream, Craig Richards…
It’s something we’d been thinking about for a long time with the Martinez Brothers, to put on a big cool party with quality music. We’re going to make a name for some of the artists on our label and others we really like. Tuskegee is a showcase for a new acid sound, that’s the direction I’m leaning in at the moment. Acid 2.0, with the same elements, but based on modern production techniques. It should be cool. Everybody loves a bit of nostalgia.
Will you be handing acid out to everyone?
I know that I’ll be taking some, everyone else can do what they like!
Be careful, acid with a barbecue could be a bit much.
I love eating meat while tripping…
You brought home the DJ Cook Off title three times from the Amsterdam Dance Event. Do you have good barbecue recipes?
Yes, but I’m not going to give them away. I’m going to open a food truck in a few months’ time at DC10 in Ibiza. That’ll be in September if everything goes well.
What’s your secret ingredient?
The secret ingredient, it’s my family’s barbecue sauce. It was my grandfather who invented it, it’s delicious.
Actually what happened last year at Burning Man? You were going to play, Diplo and Skrillex replaced you, and some said they got booed for having played Turn Down For What.
Okay, so I turned up to the party (editor’s note: Robot Heart) and the organisers weren’t particularly nice with us. Like horrible, really rude. So I told myself that I didn’t need to do it. They talked really rudely to Craig Richards and me and we left. That’s not the spirit of Burning Man, we don’t want to play for the bosses. So we got on our bikes, went back to the camp, found a party and asked to play there. It was much more underground.
Do you think the spirit of Burning Man is fading a little?
Yes, it’s getting more and more commercial. It’s supposed to be underground, with cool parties. Now we’re doing runaway nights. We turn up, we find a night where they’ll let us play, we DJ and leave, like ghosts in the shadows.
You were number 4 in the Resident Advisor Top 100. Is that less pressure than being number 1?
It’s true that there was a lot of pressure at number 1. After that I went down to third place, fourth this year. I think I’m playing better than ever this year. It’s just a competition, it’s great to be in the top 5 alone.
Did being number 1 influence your style of DJing?
Yes. The problem when I was number 1 was that for a while I thought I had to play things for the crowd instead of playing what I really liked. I was using Traktor… Now, I’ve returned to the path of the straight and narrow to become a respected DJ. My sets are more refined, more intelligent, I play better music.