The live house and techno master talks to iDJ about the making of 'Machine Jams' and why he has no interest in DJing
For lovers of house, tech-house and techno, Saytek should need little introduction. The man known in real life as Joseph Keevill has been peddling his live take on such sounds for well over a decade now, plying his craft at some of the world's finest clubs including Fabric in London, Zoo Project and Space in Ibiza, Tresor in Berlin and many more.
He's also released a string of live albums, both under the Zoo Project umbrella and on Cubism, the label he co-owns with DJ/producer Mark Gwinnett (AKA Lunacy Sound Division) - not to mention countless EPs and singles for respected labels such as My Favourite Freaks, Kevin Saunderson's KMS, Soma, Bedrock and Wiggle. Along the way, he's picked up a string of industry awards for his trouble, too.
By Joseph's own admission, in the earlier days of his career his partying antics threatened to overtake his music-making. But he's been clean and sober for many years now - and, in the form of Machine Jams, out this week on Cubism, he's very possibly just released his finest long-player to date.
We got him on the phone to find out more...
This is your sixth album in a dozen or so years. How does it differ from the others, would you say?
"Well, the other albums gave you a live set, basically, whereas this one is still live tracks but they're live tracks as opposed to a continuous mix. So they're DJ-friendly. That's the big difference."
And is that 'live' live, or 'live in the studio' live?
"They're live in the studio, basically - they were all jammed out and put together live."
The press release for the album has quite an impressive kit list, but you use Ableton Live as well. Is that at the heart of everything?
"No, Ableton's definitely a major part of what I do, but everything's hooked up by MIDI and all the machines are running their own sequencers. So what comes out of Ableton comes out of Ableton, but lots of stuff is coming out of individual boxes as well. They're all programmed internally."
When you go to do a live set, then, what's the minimum number of boxes you need to take with you?
"Let me have a little count! So it's one... two... three, four... I'd say six... no, eight is the minimum. And then there's two or three more that I sometimes take as well, counting all the little FX units and stuff like that."
And if - heaven forbid - your studio caught fire tomorrow and you could grab just one piece of kit, what would it be?
"Oh God, that's impossible to answer because the way my live show works, every bit of kit has its place. Everything's important. So I guess the answer would just have to be the most expensive one! Or my laptop, I suppose, because that's got a lot of cool sounds on it... but then there's the Elektron stuff as well which is really, really nice.
"So yeah, that's a tough question, because the way the show works... okay, if one bit of kit failed I could probably struggle on through, but basically every piece of kit I take out is an important part of the show."
You recently posted on Facebook that "now even my three-year-old son is calling me a DJ!". We get that you're not a DJ, you're a performing artist - but have you ever been a DJ?
"No. I actually really, really respect DJs, because for me being a good DJ is... I mean, everyone's a DJ but the good DJs are few and far between. The ones who know how to structure a set nicely, who know how to play a set at any time of the night and work the crowd, the ones who constantly turn up beautiful music I've never heard before. So I really respect DJs, but I guess what I'm trying to achieve is what a good DJ achieves playing records, but producing the music myself.
"Playing other people's records has never really appealed to me: I've always been a studio geek, I've always liked playing with little boxes and creating my own sounds. I kind of skipped the DJ phase, I think!"
And it's not something you've ever been tempted to explore?
"Not really, no. I'm just 100 per cent committed to doing live sets: I've been doing it for 15, 16 years, and I'm happy doing what I'm doing. I'm used to it and it's what I love."
And what you do actually is live, isn't' it? Versus a lot of live performances in dance music which are really just a glorified PA…
"Yeah, some of them are. Some people don't really play live but it's hard for me to judge, because it's like DJs using the Sync button: if people are enjoying it then who am I to argue? For many years it did annoy me because it almost gave 'live' a bad name: people thought that anyone in electronic music playing 'live' was faking it. But I think nowawdays there's a lot more genuine live acts out there, a lot more people using actual hardware.
"And because of social media and online video, it's much harder to fake it - you need to be seen on YouTube doing what you do. So I think people now are more aware of what a live electronic music act does, whereas five or ten years ago they weren't really aware of it."
So you think there's a trend towards actual live performance?
"I think there is, yeah, I think in the last few years the whole thing's become a lot more fashionable, and there's a lot more people starting to perform live. When I first started, it was… there were people out there doing live stuff, it was more prevalent in the mid-90s, but when a lot of people started just using Ableton, it kind of got a bad name.
"But it's the same as with vinyl coming back, there's a lot of new hardware and analogue synths around. People are making new analogue synths, which they didn't really do for years, so that aspect is definitely making a comeback. And there's a lot of people out there wanting to perform live with hardware and get into using analogue equipment, so yeah, I think live electronic music is back in fashion, in a sense. And it's also regaining some of credibility it maybe lost during the Ableton-only era."
STUDIO VS LIVE
Coming back to the album... how important are record releases to you? Does the majority of your income come from live shows or is selling records important too?
"To be honest, with the album - with all the PR and promo costs and stuff - if I'm very lucky I might break even, but more likely I'll lose a little bit of money. But it's a way of getting my work out there to people and making people aware of it, and hopefully people will like it and become fans of my music and come and see the live show.
"So yeah, it's really about the live show, but it's nice to have your music out there for people to listen to at home or wherever. The live show is a moment, so recording that music is a way of giving people something they can listen to again, once that moment doesn't exist any more."
What live shows have you got coming up?
"I'm actually taking a little bit of a break from touring after the album release, because it's been a mental last few months! So I'm taking a couple of weeks off, just to get some new material together, but after that I'm playing at a new party called Apt starting at Basing House in London on 27 August, and then I've got shows in the Czech Republic and Berlin.
"But there's stuff being added all the time and there's lots of stuff already lined up that I can't really mention till the contracts are signed and everything, so if people want to know about upcoming gigs it's best to keep an eye on my website and social media."
If people go to see you play in the coming months, will they be hearing tracks from Machine Jams or will it be all new material?
"No, they'll hear stuff from Machine Jams. I'll be trying to play as much of it as possible at every gig, because obviously if people have been buying the album they're likely to want to hear it! There'll be a lot of new live material in there as well, so it's a mixture of new and old, but they'll definitely hear stuff off the album."
How many of your live tracks 'survive' and end up on records, and how many are just 100 per cent improvised and one-off?
"Not that many... I'd say most of the live stuff never gets released. A lot of it is just made up on the spot, jammed out for one night only and never repeated. So there's a lot of stuff out there on live recordings that's basically never been played again, or maybe got played two or three times."
Do you ever come off the back of a set, think 'that bit was brilliant' but then struggle to recreate it?
"Well, the problem that I've always had - up until now, and I don't know why this is, it's kind of like a lightbulb that's clicked on - was that I struggled to recreate the live show in the studio. I was trying to arrange tracks in the traditional way but get that live feeling, but it always somehow lacked the energy and the rawness of the live show. So with this album, it's actually quite a new thing for me to actually go in there and just make tracks live, just perform them live, record what comes out and release it. That's a new thing, and it makes for a rawer-sounding album, but the upside of that is that it actually has that live energy."
Are you happier with Machine Jams than with previous albums, then?
"I'd say it's just very different. I'm happier with the response I've had from it! But yeah, live performance is what I do, and I think this album captures that better. I actually recorded 25 tracks but that's a bit too much for people to take in, so it's kind of missing some of the stories, if you like. But the fact that DJs are playing it, where they couldn't play my music before, that's definitely a good thing, and I've had lots of DJs tell me they've been playing the tracks out and they've been going down well. It's really interesting to hear people playing bits of my live show as part of their DJ set!"
Finally, what else is going on with Cubism at the moment - any other forthcoming releases that iDJ readers need to know about?
"Well, with Cubism we've tried to keep it to just putting out music that we really like, from artists we believe in. So there's a steady flow of house and tech-house and it's just doing what it always does, really. It's Mark who does the majority of the A&R, because he's a DJ himself and I'm not, but people send me tracks all the time and if I like them I'll pass them over to Mark and if we both like them then we'll release them.
"So coming up, Mark's done a collaboration with Barber, who's a good friend of ours and who's released on the label quite a few times before, we've got stuff from Copy Paste Soul coming up, so we've got some nice bits on their way... and I'm going to be releasing a few EPs over the next few months as well."
Words: Russell Deeks
Machine Jams is out now on Cubism - and below you can hear one of the tracks from the album, Hood Jam