For many DJs, a residency at one of the major clubs in Ibiza would be a sign that they'd made it and entered the major league. To maintain that residency for well over a decade would be their dream come true: job done. But for Steve Lawler, while he’s loved dining out at dance music’s top table for such a long stretch, last year saw him leave his long-running residency at Space.
“I’ll be completely honest with you because, God knows, there’s enough bullshit out there,” says Steve, who is disarmingly frank when DJ Mag calls him to find out the back story behind his switch to Sankeys. “I had some great gigs at Space, but what was going in my mind was, I was turning up there as a headline act, as a guest DJ and playing. I really enjoyed those gigs, don’t get me wrong, but it just didn’t fit with what I wanted to do.”
Having successfully run his VIVa MUSiC label since 2006 and nurtured a set of talented producers and DJs, more of which later, Steve wanted somewhere he could call home and could showcase his gifted protégés, while also taking things back to their slightly less commercial roots.
“I wanted to see myself surrounded by the people that I wanted to play with, but it was always a case of, ‘Where do you do this in Ibiza?’ I wanted to do something about us, so it had to be a lighter, more compact, dirtier, rawer underground space. When Sankeys came along, it was like, ‘OK’. And that’s why I went into it with so much confidence, because I was just waiting for it to happen.”
Having thrown a successful closing party at Sankeys Ibiza at the end of summer 2011, Birmingham-born Steve decided to make one of the boldest moves of his career. But not everybody was convinced.
“God knows how many people said to me, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You’re leaving Space to go to Sankeys?’” he explains. “Obviously with that many people questioning it, including my own agent and manager, it did start to raise a very small question mark in the back of my mind. But I had confidence that I’d been on the island long enough to get a fairly decent crowd and to make it about the VIVa MUSiC crew, not just the artists but the whole workforce.”
And so the VIVa Warriors were born. Taking their name and spirit from cult 1979 New York gang film, The Warriors, their weekly takeover of Sankeys Ibiza last summer proved hugely successful.
“It was an opportunity for me to go in there and just do what we wanted to do, break the rules a little bit and throw a fucking party,” says Steve. “It had its own identity and that’s why we chose to do it with the film The Warriors, because it’s got a lot of attitude and rebellion to it, and it’s kind of how we felt about doing this. Without sounding arrogant about it, it was like, 'Fuck what everyone thinks, we’re doing it'.”
With a strong identity in place, as well as Steve’s belief and many years of experience on the White Isle, the plan paid off. Although it wasn’t without a certain level of self-sacrifice.
“There’s no mystery or surprise behind the fact that obviously I have taken less money to go into a smaller club and to do my own thing,” says Steve. “Building my own artists and doing something that we believe in was not the best business move, but it was the best personal reward for me to go in there and throw a party where we could get down every week, get together and enjoy ourselves, and really let loose. From the word go, it just went off.”
Rather than lording it over his naysayers, Steve just took heart from the fact that he’d been right in his convictions. “Yeah, I proved some people wrong, but by the end of the season I just felt really rewarded that we did this our way and we can do it again,” says Steve. “And we’re going to keep going back to Sankeys because the VIVa Warriors have their own home in Ibiza now. We had an amazing crowd last year. The vibe in that room was incredible, and that is more of a reward for me than any amount of money any big promoter could throw at me. Every week the crowd would do a massive sit down, and the atmosphere was just incredible.”
Steve believes the Warriors’ success has stemmed in part from rekindling that genuine connection with the crowd, who often go all out to dress up and don face paint and feathers.
“I think for a long time the whole superstar DJ thing really got about the DJ turning up, playing his set and then wandering off,” he says. “Having your own thing, you can really get close to people, really understand what people want and make sure that everyone enjoys themselves.”
Last summer saw Steve sharing resident duties with rising star Darius Syrossian, whose productions have been released on VIVa MUSiC and Hot Creations, among other labels, and who has sparked interest across the board.
“Darius Syrossian really shone last year,” says Steve. “I was really happy because not only have I been helping him get his releases out and getting gigs for him, but also there were a lot of conversations, and trying to get Darius’ confidence to where it needed to be. Just to tell him, ‘Look, you are majorly talented Darius, and I want you to do this residency’.”
While other VIVa MUSiC label-mates guested at VIVa Warriors throughout last summer, this year will see many of them taking a far more prominent role by becoming residents, further increasing the intimate, family feel of the nights.
“This year is even more about cementing the crew,” Steve reveals. “The residents are myself, Darius Syrossian, Detlef and Julian Perez, which is basically three other VIVa MUSiC artists. We’re also using Anëk five or six times throughout the summer, who’s also a VIVa artist.”
The family solidarity, which is strengthened further by huge, pre-party team dinners, will run throughout Sankeys Ibiza, with Departure taking over upstairs with their own core of residents. “It’s really about a crew, that way you get a party. I learned this years ago when I did Harlem Nights. Every month we had the same crowd coming, and the same people, and it really created a party vibe. So when you have all the same people every week, it does become a bit of a knees-up.”
A high profile guest will also join the VIVa Warriors every week, with Guti, Robert Dietz, Livio & Roby, Butch, Lee Curtiss and Radio Slave all confirmed. Of his own charges, who he’s also been touring across Europe with under the Warriors banner, Steve singles out Detlef as a rising star to keep an eye on, both this summer in Ibiza and on the label.
“He’s been touring, doing a lot of the VIVa Warriors parties, doing his live performance, and he’s blowing everyone away,” says the VIVa boss. “Everywhere that he’s played so far, they’re all screaming for bookings and we’ve got quite a few labels wanting some releases from him. We want to just do it properly. There’s no rush. He’s going to be here for many years to come, and he’s got some amazing stuff.”
Work on Detlef’s album will begin after the summer and come out via VIVa MUSiC, according to Steve. In the meantime, the label has a landmark of its own to celebrate: its 100th release. With a name that maintains the Ibizan/Spanish theme of the label, as well as VIVa’s all-inclusive ethos, the ‘Familia EP’ will feature productions from Livio & Roby, Darius Syrossian, Detlef, Julian Perez, Leon, Anëk, David Pher and Steve himself, and should be out by the end of May.
Any potential delay of that release date may be down to Steve Lawler and an important release of his own: his newborn baby. “All the other artists have all finished their records and because I’ve had a baby, mine’s taking a little bit longer,” laughs Steve, who named his recent ‘Avaida’ EP after his daughter. “Playing the roles of daddy, stroke producer, stroke DJ, stroke company CEO, stroke brand manager is pretty difficult! I am well-practised in sleepless nights, and because of that, I’m getting through it.”
His craving for a challenge remains undampened, though. “If we’re going to do something, let’s at least try and do it a bit different,” he says of his overall attitude to his work. “A lot of the time that fucks me right up, because I lose a shitload of money. You stick your neck out and you get your head kicked in! I’ve been like this since I was at school and if a teacher said, ‘Don’t do that’, I’m going to go and do it.”
Steve is far from rash, however, and has ensured that the growth of VIVa MUSiC, and that of recently-revived sister label eViVE Records, which releases less club-oriented sounds, has been slow and sustainable.
“If I rush something, it doesn’t feel like it’s organic,” he says. “Hype is king in this business and it’s not something we’ve ever played the game of. We just do what we do, and we crack on. Over the years we’ve gradually built a team at VIVa MUSiC. Every penny we’ve ever earnt within the actual company we’ve put back into the company.
“I honestly feel that maybe VIVa MUSiC has not had the respect that it deserves because it’s just seen as a dancefloor label. Honestly, I don’t give a fuck, because I know what we put out, I know what we love and we’re here to stay. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ll be doing this for at least another 10. We’re doing it for the right reasons. It sometimes can sound a bit cheesy saying that, but it is really why we’re doing it.”
And with that passion, commitment and willingness to take risks, you can bet the next decade for Steve Lawler and VIVa will be just as exciting as what’s gone before.