Move over, Edge, DJs are taking centre stage.
“Two or three years ago, turntables started outselling guitars in music shops across the world,” said DJ Nick Thayer. “Which kind of indicates that the DJ thing is what the kids are growing up and getting into.”
Thayer has been messing around with turntables for 10 years, after having played in several bands growing up. The 29-year-old Melbourne, Australia, native writes music that falls loosely under the genre “mash-ups,” because it scrambles together a variety of songs.
“If I like something, I find a way to play it, whether it’s the Ronettes or the latest underground jam from some 17-year-old kid in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
But Thayer is part of a new generation of DJs that can’t survive solely from playing other people’s music for clubgoers.
“The way it is now is that you have to produce music as well as DJ,” said Thayer. “There’s so few people these days that are just DJs and who can get by just like that.”
There are more DJs than ever, he said, and they have more weapons in their arsenal than ever before.
“When there are more DJs and there are roughly the same amount of nightclubs you can go to to dance, the competition to get into those nightclubs is going to be ramping up,” said Thayer. “Which means if you’ve been around for a while, or if you’re just starting up, you’ve got to bring your A-game every time.”
The revolution in communications technology let club DJs move beyond hip-hop inspired beats to sample almost everything.
“With all these programs now, and everything going digital, you can have an instant record collection by just going down to your mate’s house, who’s already a DJ, and copying his hard drive,” said Thayer. “Whereas when I started out you had to buy the records one by one at a cost of $20 each.”
And today, tapping obscure musical trends from the past has never been easier.
“When I first started going out, we would go out and we used to got to the same club every week and the DJ use to play this tune and all it said on the record was Daft Punk,” said Thayer.
Daft Punk wasn’t a household name in Melbourne, Australia.
“None of us knew if that was the name of the record, or the name of the band or the name of the record label, and it wasn’t until a year later that somebody figured out that Daft Punk was the band.”
The newfound freedom to rehash old tunes has a price—it’s making DJing more competitive, said Thayer.
But that competitiveness has inspired innovation, taking the art in unusual directions.
“The way DJing has gone now is that it’s so open and so easy to make a tune,” said Thayer. “Anyone can download a shareware version of music-production software, like the Garage Band program on a Mac, and anybody can throw in this bit from that tune and this bit from that tune.”
When he first started dabbling in it, DJing was a different culture, he said.
“It was very much you had to stick to this style and to do anything different was kind of frowned upon,” said Thayer.
“Now it’s a free for all,” he said. “It’s a ‘Go ahead and do whatever you like out of it’ approach, which I find really refreshing.”
It also means looking in strange places for new sounds.
“The most successful one to do that would be M.I.A. who has taken her culture and where she comes from and incorporated that into where she now is, and the sound clash that happens there is fairly amazing,” said Thayer.
But Thayer remains uncertain that DJing is a universal art.
“It’s certainly not an Anglo-Saxon thing, but I think it is a Western thing in that the places I’ve played in Asian cities, they do feel like you’re in a club in America,” he said.
“I’ve spoken to other people who have done gigs in the slums of Brazil and they say it is a universal medium.”
Unlike traditional instruments, turntables aren’t as restricted to a culturally identifiable style.
“DJing is more about the beat than the lyrics,” said Thayer. “In a sense, everybody understands a beat—every culture has a history of dancing, whether it’s a tribe in the middle of the desert or something, they still have a culture built around dance and celebration using dance, and obviously the beat is the central part of it.”
“In that sense, it’s easier to translate DJing to a universal culture than it is to translate pop music.”
DJing also lends itself easily to local tastes.
“They’ve had a couple of very big drum and bass acts come from Perth, Australia,” said Thayer. “In that sense, the music scene in Perth is slightly more oriented towards that.”
“So when I play there, I will play a little bit more drum and base because it’s a sound that goes down well over there and people know it.”
In Adelaide, Australia, Thayer pumps more hip-hop into the mix because it’s popular there.
“That’s the sound that gets a lot of currency there and so you relate to that a bit more.”
Of course, the Western world’s extensive recording history offers itself much more easily to turntable mixing.
On Thayer’s 10-minute-long Mix Radio Funktrust, The Rolling Stones, Julie Andrews, Martha and the Vandellas and Kermit the Frog become an unlikely aural sculpture thanks to Thayer’s smooth transitions and multi-layered song segments.
“In a word, the sort of easy way to describe (my music) would be a sort of party mash-up stuff,” said Thayer. “But that’s received a bit of a bad name recently because mash-up is a term that people just go, ‘Oh yeah, he’s just taken a Britney Spears a cappella and he’s put it over the top of a Police tune; wow.’
“Where that’s miles away from the sort of stuff that I do.”
It takes more than mixing songs to blow crowds away these days, he said.
“My idea is that we sort of play a lot of different music, but I like to think that I have a degree of quality control,” he said. “You’re not going to hear a huge amount of Top 40 in the stuff that I do. There’s going to be a lot of bits that you would recognize and bits that you can latch onto, but there’s not going to be a lot of Top 40 type of stuff.”
In the last two weeks, Thayer has played in Melbourne, Australia, Washington, D.C., Calgary and a spattering of other clubs in Western Canada.
“It’s beginning to feel like I’m making inroads (in Canada,)” said Thayer. “The first time you co me here, no one has any idea who you are and you come back and you have the same spot and a couple of people from last time,” he said.
“You just keep building and building.”
He plays Whitehorse on Friday at Coasters, extending his fourth Canadian tour further North than ever before.
“I love coming to Canada,” he said. “Everybody seems ready to go out and shake it, which makes for a good country.”
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