John Debo Interview

John Debo has been a cornerstone of the American underground scene for as long as I can remember (which is a long time!) DJ, producer, businessman, promoter, avid music fan, John has worn many hats over his 20+ year career. His record label, Mindwarp was founded in 1993 in the South End district of Boston.

Initially the day to day running of the label was done from John’s flat on Columbus Avenue and then at his recording studio located directly beneath the US Post Office in Brookline Village, Massachusetts.  Inspired by the thriving dance scene in Orlando, Florida, the label moved in 1995, only to quickly do an about face and return to Boston due to the passing of the anti-rave law in 1996.  The last release on vinyl was a test pressing of Boston Bruins “I Will Be Free,” a release which ended up being licensing to DJ Micro’s Caffeine imprint in New York (around 1998) before Mindwarp went on a long hiatus. The initial relaunch came in 2008 when John was teaching at Full Sail University working in the same department as Neil Kolo (1/2 of the duo Fade).  They released a handful of digital releases over the following 18 months before taking another 4 year break.  The label restarted for a third time in the summer of 2012. All A&R, admin and marketing is now done in house from their downtown Orlando office with exclusive distribution handled by Beatport (via their new Base ware Distribution product).

Mindwarp have 48 single releases and 2 albums covering House, Techno, Progressive and Breaks. The earliest vinyl releases included music from Boston Bruins, Pendulum (an Australian ambient house band formed in 1994) and My Friend Sam feat. Viola Wills with remixes by the likes of DJ Micro, DJ Icey, Fade, Mindwarp, Deepsky, John Debo, Holmes Ives and DJ Stew. Current Releases include artists Maxi Degrassi, Roland Klinkenberg, Moonface, Lee Pennigton, Forest People and the man himself John Debo.

From pioneering stars like Chris Fortier, Roland Klinkenberg and Sean McClellan to new producers like One of Them and Mass Digital, the artist roster of Mindwarp reads like a who’s who of Dance Music. Many of the roster are personal friends of John who share his passion, drive and vision of underground music.

 

We caught up with the man himself to discuss his career, sofa surfing, his views on the trajectory of the American scene and the future of dance music globally.

 

Hi John, its a great pleasure to meet you. Whats a typical day like for You? 

Likewise sir.  Honoured to speak with you guys.  A typical day you say…  I’m up at 6am every morning.  On weekdays, I drop my boy at school and arrive at Mindwarp HQ by 8:30am.  The day is filled with all kinds of meetings, brainstorming sessions and administrative work for both Mindwarp Creative Group, a new company I launched in October of 2013, which oversees the operations, management and marketing of 4 bar concepts located in downtown Orlando, and Mindwarp Records, a label which I started back in ’92 which I recently relaunched after a 10+ year hiatus.  I typically leave the office anywhere between 5-7pm, depending on the course of the days events, have a quick bite with the fam at home, and then hit the studio, which very fortunately, is located in our home.  I turn in somewhere between 10pm and 3am, again depending on the events of the day.

Lets start at the beginning shall we. How did you get the dance music bug? Were your parents musical themselves? 

Neither of my parents played an instrument, but must have been avid music lovers as I have incredibly vivid memories from my childhood surrounded by music ranging from classical (the album cover of Tchaikovsky, 1812 Overture is ingrained in my brain) to classic rock (The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Hendrix (I can still see the album covers leaning up against the stereo shelf in my parents living room as if I were there yesterday) and everything in-between.  My mother always had the car radio tuned to classic rock stations as she carted me around while running the days errands.  My first introduction to dance music was undoubtedly the movie Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta.  After seeing the movie, I saved up enough money to buy an 8-track of the soundtrack from our local record store.  Yup, it was the The Bee Gees that infected me!

How long did it take to learn to DJ? Where was your first gig? 

Back to the beginning… I started collecting records (mainly classic rock) in middle school; bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, Yes, to name a few.  By the time I started high school, my tastes were evolving.  “New Wave” bands like Joy Division, New Order, Depeche Mode, PIL, Love & Rockets, The Cure, The Cult, The Smiths, The Police and then eventually industrial bands like Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly, Front 242 and KMFDM as my college years approached.  There was this Long Island based New Wave radio station called WLIR 92.7 that had a huge influence on my musical tastes and exposed me to music that was considered at the time to be on the fringe.

Regarding gigs, it was definitely high school.  A couple of friends and I pieced together a couple of belt driven turntables, a couple of cassette decks, a Radio Shack mixer, a stereo receiver and a pair of speakers.  Stellar rig I tell ya.  We would play music (mostly New Wave as this was 1984-86) at our wealthy friends weekend house parties.  As far as skills were concerned, and I use that term rather loosely, I wouldn’t call what I was doing mixing.  It was more like crossfading.  Beat mixing wasn’t quite on my radar just yet.  Ultimately it would be the resident at a club I used to frequent, who would teach me the art of the mix. A couple of high school friends and I used to frequent this New Wave club in the Manhattan suburbs called The Haven.  They had an awesome custom built disco style sound system powered by McIntosh amps.  Man it sounded great in there!  The DJ booth had a Bozak mixer and two Technics SL 5100 turntables.  I remember being fascinated by how flawlessly the DJ mixed the songs together.  Perfectly beat matched, perfectly phrased – nothing like my crossfades sounded!  His name was DJ Ralphie and I didn’t know it at the time, but he would eventually become my mentor.

At what point did you decide to start producing and what hardware/software did you use at that time? 

It was at The Haven that I met a few young gents that would have a sizable impact on my future both in the music industry and the world of music production; enter Greg Busch, Dave Dresden (Gabriel & Dresden) and Scott Marzullo.  Greg and I met at The Haven (he was the doorman there), became fast friends and launched an event production company called Mindwarp Productions.  Together we put on a weekly party, that by standards today would be considered a pop up club, on the walkway of an underground strip of stores located under the Stamford Shopping Mall in Stamford, Connecticut.  The owner of the shopping mall also owned and operated a bar on this underground street.  Every week Greg and I would close off both sides of the street with these massive walls we built, set up a DJ box on a riser, and a nice sound system we rented.  I was the DJ on the “street” and Dave (Dresden) played inside the bar.  Dave being from the area, introduced me to Scott, who had a full blown recording studio in a building adjacent to his house.  Scott and I hit it off.  I was fascinated by what he was doing in the studio and was anxious to help him with arrangements and learn about music production.

It was Scott who taught me a great deal about music production.  He showed me how the gear worked.  Equipment wise, we used an MPC60 for sequencing and a collection of synths which included, but not limited to a Prophet 5, Prophet 600 & Prophet VS, a Roland Juno 106, Jupiter 6, 808 & 909, and an Akai S950 for sampling.  Scott also had a 3M 24 track tape machine and a Tascam mixing desk, along with a bunch of Lexicon, DBX and Drawmer outboard gear.  It wasn’t long before I was starting to put together my first tracks.

You’ve lived and worked in Boston a long time before you made the move to Florida, but I understand you’re not a Boston native. Where did you grow up and what was your hometown like then? Do you still have family/friends there? 

While I spent 12 years in Boston, I grew up in the suburbs of Manhattan (Westchester County, New York) in a very small town called Harrison.  Harrison was a quaint little suburban town with a very Norman Rockwell postcard like Main Street, about an hour from New York City via Metro North Railroad.  It’s proximity to NYC made it my playground during my high school/collegiate years frequenting clubs like Mars and Red Zone.  Although I don’t get back as often as I’d like, the majority of my family and high school friends are still in and around the area where I grew up.  Of all the places I’ve lived (even though I will NEVER EVER like any of their sports teams) Boston will always be the place I call home.  Boston is where I cut my teeth as a DJ.  The Boston scene had a major influence on shaping and developing my tastes as a DJ, producer and music lover.  I can honestly say, if it wasn’t for a season called winter, there is an extremely high probability that I would still reside in Boston.

So you were on tour in the UK in 1992. The story goes you were sofa surfing at Dave Seamans place and you left him a cassette tape of your productions which got you signed. How did you guys meet and how come you were crashing at his place? 

Ah yes, the now nearly legendary couch tour of 1992.  And we pick up where we left off…  After many attempts to push the musical envelope in suburban New York, I finally came to the now obvious realization that this was hardly the place I could effectively share my forward thinking mindset and intense passion for underground music.  So in the dead of winter 1990 with $1500 in my pocket, I packed up my turntables, records and clothes, said goodbye to my friends and hitched a ride to Boston.  I had visited Boston before and was attracted to its international flair.  It boasted 500,000 college students from all over the world with 100,000 new freshman each year.  Universities aggressively recruited abroad.  While politically conservative, artistically it was a progressive, forward thinking city.  As I spent the majority of the $1500 securing a flat, I quickly organized a weekly Thursday night party at a venue on Lansdowne Street (directly behind Boston’s legendary Fenway Park) called Venus De Milo.  Our soundtrack was heavily influenced by the early UK rave scene and what was happening in the Los Angeles rave scene at the time.  My set list was comprised of music by 808 State, The KLF, Primal Scream, Happy Mondays, The Charlatans, The Farm, Blur, Saint Etienne and an assortment of other acid house goodies from here and abroad.  To find the most upfront music, I would travel to NYC every week via train to record shop at shops like Vinyl Mania and Rebel Rebel.  At the shops I was introduced to two NY DJs (Micro and Onionz) via a mutual friend who served up tunes at the Vinyl Mania “techno” store.  Micro and Onionz were DJs at a club in Long Island called Caffeine.  We would swap up gigs at each others club nights and played together at many of the same events on the growing Northeastern US rave circuit.  It was at an event hosted by Caffeine where I met a NYC based UK DJ called Guy DMC.  Guy DMC, or Guy Ornadel as he’s professionally known today, was the Director of the newly opened NYC office for the internationally recognized DMC.  Eventually I brought Guy to Boston to play Venus, and he was seemingly pleasantly surprised to see what we were doing in Boston musically wasn’t far different than what was happening in the UK (and Orlando).  It was Guy who arranged my first trip to the UK.  As it turns out, Guy and Dave were longtime friends (DMC owned Stress) and Dave was generous enough to let us crash at his one bedroom flat.  Guy took the couch, I slept on the couch cushions arranged into a bed on the floor.  Being a huge fan of both Brothers In Rhythm and Stress, you can only imagine the excitement I was feeling – I mean, my first trip to the UK and I was sleeping on the living room floor of Dave Seaman, one half of Brothers In Rhythm and A&R visionary at one of my favorite labels on planet earth!  Surreal!  The trip was amazing.  We tagged along with Dave to a bunch of his gigs, checked out Sasha at Soak in Leeds and Grahame Park at Renaissance in Derby.  Spent loads of money at all the legendary record shops (I came home with a limited pink vinyl copy of Underworld Rez).  The things I saw and experienced during that trip would change the direction of everything I was doing at the time.

Oh wow, thats sounds incredible. The early 90s was a magical time  and Stress Records pretty much defined the sound of Progressive House in the UK. With your successes there and then with John Digweed’s Bedrock label what was your motivation to start Mindwarp in 1993? 

I’ve been very blessed to be associated with pioneering labels like Stress, Bedrock and Shinichi (Yoshitoshi offshoot), having the opportunity to rub elbows with and learn from the minds who created those seminal brands.  Mindwarp, the label, was a natural progression in sharing the underground sound of Boston with the world.  Everyone around me was making music.  Micro had just launched his Caffeine imprint.  Wink was talking about launching a label called Ovum.  Chris Fortier was talking about Fade.  Armand had AV8.  Everybody was doing it.

Hahaha, you also founded 2 club nights in Boston called Chrome and Avaland. How did they come about and how long did they run for? Did Avaland become Avalon?

After Venus closed, we moved our Thursday night party (called Culture) next door to her sister club Axis.  Axis was edgy and underground.  It was dark and dirty.  The sound system was wicked.  Built for speed and nothing else.  It was the perfect vehicle to fully appreciate the music.  For years I had been bringing US DJs to play at Venus.  Once we relocated to Axis it only made sense to bring the DJs that were heavily influencing the musical direction of our club night.  We rebranded the night Chrome.  Sasha, John Digweed, Carl Cox, Dave Seaman, Nick Warren, Paul van Dyk, and Paul Oakenfold are on the short list of some of the early notable guests we hosted from across the pond.  As the music grew in popularity, so did the club night.  Axis had a somewhat limited capacity in comparison to the demand.  We were turning loads of people away each Thursday night.  My boss at the time had the idea to launch a similar concept on Friday next door at the 2000 capacity sister venue Avalon.  I was hesitant at first because nothing about Avalon was underground, quite the contrary really.  Admittedly I was getting excited about the opportunity to expose the masses to our underground sound.  Avaland became the name of the night, a play on Disneyland, meaning a magical place where anything could happen.  The two nights were polar opposites in that Chrome was the dirty, underground, all about the music night, and Avaland was the ultimate super club experience.  Eventually we would join both Axis and Avalon together on Friday, putting more commercial talent in Avalon, and underground DJs in Axis.

As Music Director and Resident DJ for the Avalon brand, you saw a lot of the country. Did this help with finding talent for Mindwarp? 

I can honestly say that Axis and Avalon were instrumental in creating the majority of the relationships that made everything in my professional career possible.  Without those relationships, I may have never had the opportunities or experiences I’ve been blessed with.

The label had a hiatus during the early nineties and has resurfaced recently (2012). You now have a great roster of artists and a string of releases. What re-invigorated you? 

Thanks for the kind words sir.  Enter Chris Fortier.  Besides being one of my longest friends, I consider Chris a musical soul mate, confidant and partner in crime.  He and his family moved back to Orlando from NYC a handful of years ago (and has since relocated to Denver), which lead to us picking up right where we left off.  Chris had a few tunes sitting around on his hard drive he was looking to shop, one chat lead to another and here we are, 33 new releases from some pretty cool, incredibly talented artists.  Music is, and has always been my motivation.  It never feels like work.  While the industry and label model has changed drastically from when I came up, my passion and desire to share quality underground music with the world has not wavered, and that’s what keeps me going.

I hear, you’re finding with the advent of technology and sites like Soundcloud that theres a lot of untapped potential. How does one contact you with a demo? 

Outside of a handful (and some), the majority of the last 33 releases on Mindwarp have come via submissions to our website or Soundlcoud page.  There is SO much great music being made at the moment in all corners of the planet.  The internet makes the world exponentially smaller than it really is.  I personally listen and respond to every submission.  If a submission is not a fit for Mindwarp, I pass it along to my associates at other labels.

Any terrible demos you can talk about? 

A gentleman never listens and tells, but every now and again we get a demo of something that is CLEARLY not a fit for our label.  NOT EVER.  We always wonder what it was that inspired them to send us the demo.

Hehe, any you wanted to sign on the very first listen? 

Chris Fortier linked me up with a young producer called Christ Burstein from Buenos Aries.  His initial demo submission included a track featuring vocalist Dominique Silva Cusido called Like Butterflies – it was love at first listen!  I am VERY happy to say that it is due out sometime this year on Mindwarp!

You now live in Orlando. I’ve read in other interviews it wasn’t a seamless transition from Boston first time with the Anti Rave laws forcing clubs to close early. But it was sometime later with Aahz resident Kimball Collins that you found your dream house. What made you come back? 

Orlando was an inspirational place for me.  Some of the best events I ever played happened here.  Some of my best friends live here.  The early Orlando dance music culture heavily influenced some of the early records I made.  There was a fondness for electronic music here that existed in few places here in the US.  I was so inspired by what I experienced here, I up and left Boston, only to arrive and have the anti-rave law passed shortly thereafter, prompting me to pack up the truck and move back to Boston after one short year (1995-96) in the sun.  Kimball and I did rent a bad ass home in an area called Windermere that year.  Our mates would pull up and call us from the driveway saying, we’re at the address and there’s no way that it’s your house.  Eventually the New England winters won and I relocated here for good in 2004.

Tell us all about your night at Sound Bar. Seems you and Chris Fortier make a great team… 

Chris and I are almost always on the same page.  He’s more of the dreamer, and I’m the voice of reality.  The contrast is what gets us to arrive at ideas that make sense.  Ultimately, Chris was the catalyst for the night what would eventually give birth to the Sound Bar concept.  During our many “brainstorming” sessions, the topic of a weekly club night often came up.  My issue with such was that while there are plenty of venues in Orlando, there are plenty more shit sound systems.  There was this one venue called Backroom that had an amazing little EAW Avalon Series sound system.  Problem was Backroom had a legal capacity of 100 (very small) and literally nowhere to dance as it was a VIP booth and bottle venue.  Regardless, Chris and I embarked on a weekly Saturday night party at Backroom which became the stimulus for the renovation.  After a 6 week renovation, Sound Bar Orlando opened summer of 2013.  VIP booths were replaced with a dance floor.  If you want a bottle, you’ll have to enjoy it at the bar.  Capacity is still 100.  Sound system is still the very well appointed EAW Avalon Series sound system (which is tuned weekly).  Did I mention that the EAW Avalon Series is named after Avalon in Boston?  Meant to be?  The room feels as if it was built by the DJ for the DJ (because it was).  Allen & Heath Xone 92, 2x Pioneer CDJ2000 Nexus, 2x Technics SL1200 mk5 – by the DJ for the DJ.  Given the intimacy of the room, power of the sound system and off the beaten path location, I don’t need to tell you that the vibe gets thick.  Chris has since moved away, but I’ve joined forces with like minded, Miami based Dub Creative Group to keep the party going.  Since opening in July of 2013, we have played host to Hector (Desolat), Bill Patrick, Julian Perez, Fur Coat, Nick Monaco, Jozif, Maher Daniel, Satoshi Tomiie, Dave Seaman, Thunderpony, Bella Sarris, Chris Fortier, Francesca Lombardo, Troncoso, Beat Bros and Amo, with plenty more surprises lined up for 2014.  Orlando natives Chad Andrew and Randall M hold a monthly residency with us when they’re not touring the world.  It is so fucking awesome to have a venue where you don’t have to pander to the crowd, not for one minute.  These people KNOW their music and want it underground.  They want to be challenged.  No confetti here, thanks.

Lets move on to producing music John. I understand your ‘Noah’s Ark’ of old has been downsized to a few choice pieces and a MacBook Pro. Which DAW’s do you use and why? 

Sadly, Noah’s Ark is gone, but with it goes my excessive power bill.  It is true, I had a fairly large collection of synths, samplers and outboard gear spanning 30 years of technology.  Always on the move, I yearned for the day I’d be able to make music whenever, wherever.  It goes without saying that my dream has been realized.  While still very well versed in Logic (I’ve used it since it was launched) and Pro Tools (I did a 3 year stint as a Pro Tools Certification Instructor at Full Sail University in Winter Park), I am partial to Ableton Live, and it is my current DAW of choice.  The way Live handles audio has introduced an element to my workflow that never existed in Logic or Pro Tools.  I find it more conducive to the way I want to work.

You’re well known for your remix work as for your originals. Do you have a different work flow when engaged in a remix project? Which were some of your favourite ones to work on? 

The difference for me is not workflow, but inspiration.  Original compositions may be inspired by a life event, an experience, a mood or feeling, a phone call – whatever really.  With remixes, inspiration comes more from how the original makes me feel.  I feel music.  Being slightly socially awkward, it has always been an outlet for me to express my feelings.  I try to create moods and moments which reflect how I feel in my compositions.  Regarding favorites, I really enjoyed remixing Terry Grant “I Kill You” for Bedrock – the original was so incredibly moody.  I also enjoyed the unofficial remix of Everything But The Girl “Five Fathoms” that Steve Porter and I did for WMC one year, and really enjoyed remixing Pako & Frederik for Tini Tun’s We Are Here imprint (due out this February) as I’ve been a longtime fan and supporter of their work.

Is there a remix you’ve heard over the years you wished you’d done yourself? 

I’d love to a chance to remix ANYTHING by Depeche Mode.  I’m a mega fan!

EDM, its an ugly term, but its put dance music firmly on the map Stateside. As someone who has witnessed the evolution of the dance scene in America, how do you see it evolving over the next 5 years? Will the commercial scene have any effect on the underground? 

What’s been happening for the last few years reminds me of what was happening in US rave scene in the early 90s. Looking back, the music was garbage, BUT eventually the rave kids grew up and their musical pallets became more sophisticated, giving way to the birth of a very strong club and dance music culture here in the US.  The good news:  history repeats and music constantly evolves, and with that so will electronic dance music culture.  Commercialization always leads to some sort of innovation, giving way to a new vision, a new generation of tastemakers, a new underground, if you will.  While I can’t predict the future, I can tell you this, regardless of what the media calls it, or how the online retailers categorize it this week, I still get as excited as I ever did when I hit up the online to shop or listen to my new promos – and after 25 years that’s gotta be a good sign that it’s moving in a positive direction.

Finally, hows 2014 so far? What’s the release schedule like? 

With the launch of Mindwarp Creative, 2014 is shaping up to be a busy one for us.  Label wise, we’ve literally had a release per week since December 2013 and will continue that pace until our first annual WMC 2014 compilation is released this March.  We are very focused on spreading Sound Bar Orlando globally and continuing our mission of brining the global sound of the underground here to Orlando and share our music with the world.