With an appearance at Blackpool Festival on the horizon, we catch up with the NYC house originator
In 1990, New York house label Outer Limits released Dreamworld, a track made by a young architecture student and DJ who called himself Ego Trip, after the club night he was promoting at the time.
It didn't do a lot, in sales terms, but it got him noticed enough that his next track - a deep, dubbed-out rework of Loose Joints' disco classic Is It All Over My Face? called Luv Dancin, and credited to Underground Solution - got signed to the much bigger New York house label Strictly Rhythm. And that one was HUGE. So much so that the student decided to pack in studying architecture and give the music thing his best shot for a little while.
Fast forward 28 years, and there he is again, sitting just below Faithless atop the bill for the decidely retro-flavoured Blackpool Festival (6-8 July), where you can also find the likes of Erick Morillo, Todd Terry, Paul Oakenfold, Altern-8 and Graeme Park, not to mention the northwest's own rave-era hero, Stu Allan. It's fair to say the music thing worked out pretty well for him.
We can skip fairly quickly over his many achievements in the intervening years - his 18 successive years of Ibiza residencies, his Release Yourself radio show and podcast that attract some 15 million listeners each week, his 2003 Grammy, his remixes for the likes of Diana Ross, Madonna, Daft Punk and The Police, his numerous record labels (One Records, Narcotic, Stealth, R-Senal and most recently UNDR THE RADR)... you know about those. But we should probably mention his 2001 UK No 1 single with Another Chance, because it was the success of that record that led to him appearing on the cover of iDJ.
That was the first time this writer spoke to Roger Sanchez; the last was about 12 years ago. So a catch-up was definitely overdue...
Your career goes back nearly 30 years now; we first spoke 17 years ago. So we'll talk today about Blackpool Festival, and all the other stuff you've got going on, but I thought it would be good to talk, as well, about just how you keep going - after all, neither of us is getting any younger!
"Well, the first thing about that is, the transition in the actual industry itself, and how that affects me career-wise. I started out as a kid, selling mixtapes out on the street and really being 100% immersed in the music and the records and the clubs. In that era, it was much more of a cult thing, based on the lifestyle. Now, it's become much more developed in terms of the business that surrounds it.
"It envelops your life, because obviously travel has become a very big part of it, and not only has the sound of the music changed, but so has the way it's connected with people around the world and been amplified from a business perspective. It's so much bigger now than it used to be, and that's really changed the way you have to approach it. It used to be about selling tapes, going to the record shop to get the hot new releases... now it's about being on multiple platforms and connecting to people that way."
Blackpool is a bit of a nostalgia fest, and the last time I saw you play was at Dance Tunnel a couple of years ago, when you did a classics set for Defected. But do you have to be careful to balance those gigs with more upfront sets, so as not to get stuck on the retro merry-go-round?
"Yeah, I try and only do very focused classics-type events. I limit the amount of them, and I try to make them special. I always sprinkle my current upfront sets with a few classics anyway, as almost anyone does who's been in the game for a minute, and even some of the younger DJs now are scouring the 90s house classics and playing them like they're brand new, which is very cool.
"But I also don't play classics the way most DJs play classics. It's really about me remixing them on the spot. I play across four Pioneers so I'm constantly remixing pretty much everything: layering beats, acapellas, and so on. But I take special care with the classics: to keep the original flavour of it, but present it in a modern way. So they all feel remixed, and I think that keeps it fresh, because you're not just playing that original record and having a nostalgic moment, you're adding other elements that make it feel current at the same time."
You were working HARD at that Dance Tunnel gig - hunched over the decks with your game face on, sweating, when you're at a stage where you could just be going through the motions...
"That's never been me, mate. I have a passion for what I do, and for me every single gig - no matter how big or how small - is as important as every other one. Because ultimately, if I got paid fucking loads of money or I got paid bugger all, I would still do it, because I love it. And if there's one thing I've learned, it's that if you love something, you give it the proper respect it's due.
"I think that's something that some people either forgot, or didn't come into this with - maybe for some people DJing is a means to an end. But for me the actual joy is in the moment, so it IS about giving 100% each and every time. There's no, 'Aah, today I can relax' - there's no such thing. Not for me, anyway."
But we all have off days... how do you stay motivated, and keep that kind of focus even if you might not feel like it one night?
"I think it goes back to the time in my life when I did military training. I was a marines cadet in New York when I was a kid, and the thing I learned was, you just have to keep going. Pushing through and pushing past is where the growth is.
"No one's life is 100% joy all the time, but I liked something I saw on Sex And The City, of all places - the character said, "I'm not happy all the time, but I'm happy every day". It's like, you have to focus on the joy. So when I have a crappy day, I go to the gig and that stays where it was. Because those people that are coming to see me, they don't need to know what kind of day I'm having. I focus on the moment, and that's the only way to push through.
"Sure, there are days where it's harder to do, but the challenge is to push past that and get to a place where you're focused in the moment, where you can say, 'Okay, I'll deal with that later, right now this is what I'm doing so let me focus 100% on this'. That's how I do it, anyway."
As you said, though - there's a lot of travelling and late nights involved, and that can't be getting any easier! How do you ensure your body can cope?
"Well, I train as often as I can, and you've also got to have good habits - as in, don't cane it! I personally have never taken a drug in my life - I know that's hard to believe in this industry, and I'm not trying to be holier than thou, it's just not something I've ever been into. But it's enabled me to keep some level of balance, physically and mentally.
"You have to maintain a balance if you want to last in this industry - look at what happened to Avicii. That comes down to pressure, but it also comes down to the lifestyle: the partying, the drinking and so on. And those intents bouts of loneliness when you're on the road by yourself! People underestimate how lonely this position is. They just see the end bit, the bit where everybody's in the club. They don't see the amount of time DJs spend on their own, which is quite a lot!
"In order to push through that, you need balance. You have to watch what you eat, watch your consumption of cigarettes or alcohol or whatever it is. Like I said, I'm not being holier than thou or saying don't do your thing - do your thing, but you need to have a balance, and you need to have personal time. As driven as I am, I've realised over the years that you have to personal time, you have to make time for that, because it's about balance."
I read an interview with a guy from a boyband who'd worked with Robbie Williams, and Robbie had been almost mentoring him in 'life as a pop star' - asking him all these questions about was he eating properly, was he taking drugs and so on. Do older DJs have a similar duty of care to the younger generation?
"I do tend to do that a bit when I get to know some of the younger DJs, especially artists that I've signed to my label. For me, it's passing on the knowledge that I've accumulated over the years. Funnily enough, when I first came into the game, I did my first UK tour with Todd Terry. In that era, Todd was The Man, and he just sat me down and said, 'Listen, I'm gonna tell you a few things that you need to know'. That was a very important conversation for me, because I learned so much that I applied to my life from that moment on.
"So yes, I think it is kind of a duty for people that have been in the game for a long time to help younger artists along, based on the experiences we've had. Doesn't mean they're gonna listen, but at least they've had the opportunity to hear it from someone. And they may listen, so it's something that I do do."
What was the most useful thing Todd told you all those years ago, then?
"Todd in those days was all about the business hustle, so the most useful thing he told me at that time was, 'Okay Roger, you need to go in the studio, get these records done, showcase it to these people here'. It was a different business model back then, but Todd basically showed me how to get my music into people's hands and then how to translate that into gigs. Because he'd already done all that, but at that point it was very valuable information to me.
"The game has changed over the years: we have different technology, we have different business models, we don't sell as much, it's a different way to promote. So now some of the advice would be a little bit different, but younger artists still need that kind of guidance."
That brings us back to Blackpool Festival, because Todd's playing there too. You said you try and be selective about those type of gigs, so what made you say yes to this one in particular?
"I liked the line-up and the approach they had. As I said, I get offered these gigs all the time, especially now when the 90s house thing is so en vogue. I've always been one of those who, I respect and love my legacy in terms of where I've been but I also don't allow that to completely define where I'm at. So it's interesting for me because I like to revisit that vibe, but then balance that with everything I'm doing that's current. So gigs have to reflect a certain level of quality, and the line-up is important."
Moving on to some other stuff you've got going on - I'm told there's an S-Men release coming up?
"Well, the interesting thing about the S-Men release is it keys into what we've just been talking about, which is updating or reintroducing the past to a current audience. This gig in Blackpool: this is in essence what that's doing, because you're not going to see a sea of over 40s in the crowd. You'll see some of that, but what's interesting is the amount of younger people that are really getting into that sound, and I see that across the board. So that's what the S-Men release is tapping into.
"The S-Men was myself, Junior Sanchez and DJ Sneak, and we first released a record in 1993/94. And now we've just signed our first single in 24 years to Defected. It's called Who We Are, and we'll be doing our first S-Men gigs since 1994 as well, starting on 9 June at the Southport Weekender in London. This single's just the start: we're already working on more new material and hopefully the project will ultimately culminate in an album and a proper tour."
How will that work in the booth: will it just be straight back-to-back or...?
"We have a set-up with six CDJs and a DJS-1000 sampler, so you can have the three of us playing at the same time, layering stuff and jamming. It's kind of back-to-back-to-back!"
Does that necessitate quite a lot of rehearsing?
"Yeah, we've done some rehearsing and we'll definitely do some more."
And I've also been told there are some UNDR THE RADR events coming up?
"I started UNDR THE RADR events every Sunday at 1-800-Lucky in Miami, which is a restaurant inside with a courtyard outside with a Funktion-One soundsystem. It's a really cool spot. I've been mostly living in Miami lately so I've been developing events here. We do that every Sunday, it's a free event and we're getting guys like myself, Jessie Perez, we've got a local tech-house guy, and a lot of UNDR THE RADR artists. And once a month we do an all-female line-up called Eve, that's the last Friday of every month.
"And then I'm setting up UNDR THE RADR events on Thursdays, starting June 28, at La Suite in Marbella. It's an intimate venue."
Eve sounds like a good idea - tell us a bit more about that?
"My girlfriend is a DJ called Kristen Knight, and she also plays on four decks - she's extremely technically skilled, and one of the things she's done was a few years ago she used to put on all-female line-ups for Miami Music Week. So this year we did the first one that we branded as Eve, really to focus on giving women more visibility, because they don't get enough in the dance music industry. It's not as many women who really get the same attention: in the underground, in house music across the board, compared to the men.
"So I wanted to help her develop that brand, and we'll be setting up Eves around the world. Next month we're bringing in a headliner from New York, Miss Jennifer. We're focusing on credible female talent, we had DJ Rae, we'll probably have Sam Divine and other women we respect. It's about giving the women the opportunity to have their own light."
You mentioned changes in the industry earlier, and current efforts to address gender inequality are one positive example. But what would you say are the best and the worst changes that you've seen?
"The best would be, the ability for artists to take control and find a way to communicate with fans and potential fans across the planet, via social media and the way music is electronically transmitted. That's the best thing - that the world has opened up.
"But the double edge to that sword is that, with the proliferation of technology, it's become so easy to create something that the very act of creation has become devalued, because of the sheer volume of people who are creating music that don't really put their heart into it. They either have someone else creating it for them - and that is what it is - or there's just a glut of substandard product, because they think all they have to do is put three loops together and they've got a record.
"So that's the negative side of it, the over-saturation of the market and the extra pressures that piles on, but the positive side is it's become a lot more viable as a career choice to become a DJ-slash-electronic music artist, because there's actual revenue behind it. So there's dark and light on every side, and I think the individual needs to make the choice as to how to proceed, and do so with as much information and care as possible."
So what would be your single best bit of advice for young DJs who are just starting out?
"Do this out of love. Whether you're being paid millions or being paid nothing, put the music first, and put the time and effort in to perfect your craft. That's before and above all else, because that's what's going to make you successful, and make you last.
"Treat every track you make, every mix you do, like Rembrandt or Picasso making their masterpiece. It wasn't a masterpiece when they were making it, it was just an act of expression made of love. Make sure that each and every action you do is made like that, with love and respect."
Words: Russell Deeks
Roger Sanchez plays Blackpool Festival on 6 July - tickets here. For more on his UNDR THE RADR parties, see the links below
Tags: Roger Sanchez, UNDR THE RADR, Todd Terry, Strictly Rhythm, Blackpool Festival, Defected, Eve, Kristen Knight, Dance Tunnel, DJ Sneak, Junior Sanchez, S-Man, The S-Men, Southport Weekender, 1-800-Lucky, Avicii