A few weeks ago I received one of the best emails I have had for awhile. I had been given the opportunity to interview and artist and performer I have respected for quite some time – David August. He was set to play an intimate show in London – Koko – and I was offered guestlist if I could make it down and take the opportunity to personally interview him the following day. Unfortunately, due to Murphey’s law, I wasn’t able to make the show, but David’s management kindly managed to arrange a press pass for Pitch festival the following day in Amsterdam where I could catch his performance.
My journey to England occurred a week following Brexit and to be honest, I wasn’t that excited to go ‘home’. It didn’t feel like a place I would want to ever live again. As a lad from Bath, London is always a loud, fast and utter beguiling burst of energy. Nothing ever appears to be different and yet there was a sense of change in the air.
I made my way from Liverpool Street station over to Mornington Crescent and texted my contact at Ninja Tune to say I was nearby. At the side entrance of Koko I was met initially by a bubbly German guy Jonathan, and after a brief conversation it turned out he was David’s manager. He was joined by one of the studio engineers for a mid-session smoke break and it wasn’t hard to tell they both looked pretty tired. Tour life!
I was escorted into the depths of the theatre by Tom, a public relations rep at Ninja Tune; someone I’ve been in email correspondence with for many months and it was refreshing to put a friendly smile behind those countless game of ‘ping pong’ emails to and frow. I glance over and like an enigma, I catch David on stage with the band recording his latest two tracks for Red Bull Music Academy and I was sharply reminded as to why I was here.
Positioned to the side of the stage, I watch the film crew glide around David and his mixing desk. It is a wholly surreal experience given that I have was to see him play those same tracks live the next day in another country, complete polar opposites, yet connected. He takes a break from filming and we collectively head across the road for lunch. In idle conversation, David is a quiet, considered man, there are no grandiose displays of behaviour, he seems to relish in the simplicity of a quiet cafe, a far-reaching change from the screaming hordes the evening before.
Refreshed, we head back to his tour bus and begin the interview. I’m keen to make this an upbeat conversation, no-one likes to sit through a tedious interview. I find it refreshing that David is forthright in his answers, honest and well thought out before answering, even so, the interview takes an interesting twist on a number of occasions.
Let’s start with that epic Boiler Room live set. How did the opportunity arise, how do you go about preparing, and did you ever think it would become such a sensational hit?
Umm, not really no. I knew that it was going to be a great opportunity but I didn’t have any preconception. To be honest, I was pretty nervous about it because I had only been playing with the live set up a short time and I was scared to make mistakes. I think I played safely and I used a few tracks I never really released but I wanted people to hear.
Can you talk us through your current live setup and tell us why you prefer to play only live sets?
Yeah, I used to have just one controller, but with the band set up, I now have three controllers, plus Juno 60 Prophet 6, Nord and everything is running through Ableton. I trigger all the effects via the laptop and the controllers are partly drum sequencer, bass controller another has a synth section and FX. In the future, I want to touch the computer less and less so I can interact with the crowd more, but for that, I think I will need a custom built controller.
So you’re here in London today after your sold out show, what’s happening for the rest of the day?
Well, I’ve just done a live session with Red Bull Music Academy for my new single which will be aired in a few weeks, then a bunch of interviews and on to NTS radio for a one hour DJ set. We leave in the evening for Pitch Festival in Amsterdam and Roskilde Festival in Denmark on Saturday.
How about the rest of the tour?
Yes, later on, I have Calvi On The Rocks, Peacock Society, Dour Festival, Dockville and Appletree Garden! After that, I want to go on holiday sometime in August, as I haven’t been away for over 5 years now. So I’m really looking forward to taking a break. When I come back, its back into the studio and we will begin work on my new album. My next tour will then be sometime in the Spring next year.
Looking forward to working on the new music?
Totally. I want the studio time to be a real creative process, so I haven’t got all the tracks ready yet.
Tell us more about the DJing
Until around 2013 I was a DJ playing clubs with CDJs. What I found was that with the band set up I feel more free to express myself, but it was difficult to set up the band in a club, so now for my DJ sets I still play 80% of my own tracks on Ableton but slot in music from others I like.
I don’t like to call it ‘live’ because I’m just playing my own music and not performing it, but I can kind of remix things by using parts of one track with the bass line of something else to make the experience totally unique each time.
Do you get the same buzz from performing compared to DJing?
No, I mean I’m totally digging the band vibe now. It feels more right and it’s so much more satisfying. And DJing makes you feel so tired. Like I was on the road with DJ gigs for 2 months solid and by the end, I was tired of everything because of the working hours.
I mean, you play from 3am to 5am which is disgusting! It just takes you out of every natural rhythm and it didn’t work for me. I know some guys that can do it for years, but it just made me miserable. What I’ve found with the band set up is the hours allow me to be more creative and musical, and of course, I have my two best friends with me playing on stage so the whole thing is much better for me.
Let’s talk about your latest release on Ninja Tunes’ sister label Counter Records. The two track EP, comprised of ‘J.B.Y.’ and ‘Ouvert’. Can you tell us a little about the tracks and how you created them in your studio? And you sing on these, don’t you?
Yeah, I sing on JBY and I sampled my voice on Ouvert, like my voice is mimicking the melody. I wasn’t sure about singing, but I think I will do this more now. I didn’t think I had the balls to sing live, I thought it was next level stuff and then we were rehearsing with the band and talking about a few tracks we could do. And I said well, why don’t I sing that because I didn’t want to use a male voice from a recording because, well, it’s a guy’s voice and I’m a guy here on stage, why not me?!
I remember on the first rehearsal, I was super uncomfortable and nervous, but then once we got into it the confidence came. I don’t feel totally comfortable yet, but it’s definitely something I want to do more. I used to sing when I was a kid in the Boys corps, but what I need to improve is controlling the pitch and key, but you know what I don’t care if I sing out of key a little because its so much fun to sing and to really perform in a more intimate way.
Both the tracks were produced last year, Ouvert is named after a play wise of a german card game I used to play with friends and it means playing with open cards. For me, it’s probably the most diverse track I’ve done so far. JBY stands for ‘Just Be Yourself’. It was made around the same time and it was really just a statement to myself to stay true to my own sound because I was struggling with people’s expectations. So when I made it I just pulled up every synth I had and tried to make something really exciting from something really simple.
You recently collaborated with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. Can you tell us a little about how the collaboration came about and your thoughts on the outcome?
The collaboration started with an email early last year saying did I want to play with an Orchestra, and I said of course, but I need a few for details. The guys name was Frieder Nagel and he had already done a few smaller collaborations and wanted to incorporate some electronic artists so suggested me. So we both composed a piece that we performed with the orchestra over 3 nights which were all sold out. it was incredible. I mean they were smaller venues, but it was amazing to see how many people were interested to see something.
I think I started to write the music pretty late maybe autumn last year because I was on tour, so the whole thing stressed me out a little. So I had to write it in a relatively short time, then rehearsals and transcription was really complicated. Everything was kind of edgy for me energy wise, and at the end, I wasn’t super happy with it because I realised I didn’t really want a big symphonic character, it wasn’t what I was looking for, but umm, you can’t change notes that easily.
So with every gig, I tried to get more into but it’s hard to improvise with 50 musicians, it’s not possible. Now on reflection, it was a pretty great experience and the result was OK, but if I do it again though I would probably work with a smaller setting, like a string quartet and a couple of woodwinds and have a more control over the sound.
As if your punishing tour schedule wasn’t enough, we understand you’re working through a university course for music. Can you tell us a little about the course and when you are due to graduate?
Yeah, I’m studying a diploma which is, I think comparable to a PhD which I’m finishing in January next year. It’s been pretty difficult to balance my time between the studying, touring and everything else and there are more tough times ahead with final exams which I will need to invest time in to prepare for. So I’ll take time off from touring.
When I was maybe 19 or 20 I knew I wanted to study a Sound Engineering course because I wanted to be a producer. That was my goal then, but now my heart beats for my own music rather than making tracks for others.
As an artist that travels extensively with your job, have you had a chance to explore how Brexit will affect you and the shows you’re able to do?
I don’t think it will be that much of a big deal because you need VISA for lots of countries, but what I really found frustrating was how selfish the older voters have been. They will have like 15 or 20 years, but it will be the younger voters who will have to deal with the consequences.
Another thing is I don’t think the voters knew exactly what those consequences would be, they just had this idea of what independence would be. I don’t care about my own consequences as an artist, it’s more important to think of the bigger picture. I’m getting good money for what I do, and I won’t complain just because I have to get a VISA to tour.
Time was getting short and Jonathan was signalling on his watch for me to wrap things up. They had to get across London for the NTS show and David also needs time to prepare his set. I had one last question in mind, I wanted to know what changes David would make for his festival appearance the next day.
“At Koko last night we could play for up to 2 hours which means we can extend sections of the tracks and play with the energy more, but festival sets are only one hour, so you are forced a little to keep things short and you can’t explore the quieter moments. Festivals are loud and fun, people are with their friends having a beer so the moments of actions have to be quicker.”
And boy was he right! Pitch festival, located at the Westerparkgasfabriek, a disused factory complex on the edge of Westerpark Amsterdam (think the former yards of Kings Cross where Bagley’s was located) was unlike any electronic music event I’d ever been to. More a case of Glastonbury but indoors. The lineup for the various stages was staggered to give time for the artists roadies to wheel in new equipment for each act, plug everything in and test it quickly.
I arrived around 5pm. Amsterdam had been subject to a torrential downpour all day and it wasn’t looking too cheerful now. Between the occasional light showers, revellers danced to Disco and Funk at the only real DJ stage or in the relative calm of the silent disco at the other end of the field. The other stages were themed for different bands, I headed off to catch Floating Points in the Gashouder.
There’s something incredibly impressive about the size of this refurbished Gas storage building, you can not help but walk in aghast and the sonics, well, they can only be believed once heard. Of all the structures at the Westerparkgasfabiek complex, Gashouder holds the most acclaim. It is simply one of the best venues in Europe. In the same area was David’s front of house engineer giving us all a lesson in modular synthesis with what can only be described as a gargantuan synth spewing out hundreds of connected cables.
I head back to Gashouder around 6 to see what was happening with David’s set. I bump into his manager Jonathan and we pass by the Thump stage where avant-garde funk band the Jameszoo Quartet are playing. It’s a pretty wild mix of space aged beats and resonating organs; I promise myself I’ll investigate it properly a bit later.
David’s set starts around 6.45pm. I’m anxious to get a few personal pictures to remind myself of the whirlwind 24 hours, as I place my beer cup in my mouth to steady it as I take a shot of the stage, two cute Dutch girls giggle beside me, and as I eagerly glance across to see them, I spill my beer down my front and it splashes all over them. Dismayed (and slightly embarrassed), I apologise and awkwardly walk away covered in ‘Desperado’, yeah; the irony hadn’t escaped me…
The opening bars of David’s first track were a sonic call to arms. Such power and grace. JBY followed and as an enamoured fan, its tones filled me with a melancholy sense of rage and excitement. A powerfully emotive piece, David’s vocals added a wonderful Thom Yorke-esque quality. I’m really looking forward to hearing more. As the hour rolled on, each track added to the energy in the room and soon the front ten rows were bouncing along to the signature David August groove. I loved the dub reggae undertones in many of his tracks and naturally, I found I was comparing him to Leftfield or Henry Saiz but with a little more stage presence.
What David August has done in crafting his own unique sound is to bring electronic music almost full circle, back to the days of pre-rave in so much as his band experience feels like a proper band, not a DJ fruitlessly playing musical instruments. And this is merely the beginning, David is an engaging, fiercely focused and highly intelligent man with a seemingly effortless ability to personify talent. Big things are already happening for him and I don’t see fame becoming a barrier to him realising all he can be.
Dance music has a new star in the wings. David August, your time is now.
On behalf of Decoded Magazine, may I take this opportunity to thank Tom and James at Ninja Tune for arranging everything and David August and his team for allowing me access to the inner workings of his tour for a day.