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DUSKY TILL DAWN

UK duo Dusky are this month's DJ Mag cover stars...

“There’s definitely a stigma attached to progressive house but someone like Sasha is one of the most influential DJs ever,” Nick states. “A lot of progressive house is good music and we’re not going to turn our noses up at something just because it’s not cool.”

With their molten alloys of deep house, garage bass and pirate radio flavour, Dusky are the UK's brightest DJ/producers. Scoring a succession of underground smashes on labels like Aus, Anjunadeep, Naked Naked and Dogmatik, they've rocked Fabric with their own takeover night, toured the US and got love from such diverse DJs as Pete Tong, Loefah, Boddika and even Calvin Harris. On the eve of their debut gig at underground dance temple Berghain, we join them in Berlin to talk about steering clear of the mainstream, rave and prog influences, and the way music moves in cycles...

As some of those slumping dejectedly away from this old power station on a frostbitten wasteland in Berlin will attest, Berghain is not the easiest club to get into. Indeed, what exactly the notorious door pickers are looking for before they decide whether to deign to let you enter has become almost as mysterious as the tales of what awaits those lucky enough to get through: all debauched fornication and imaginative uses for a ruler your maths teacher hopefully never contemplated during parties that stretch from Friday night well into the week after, soundtracked by techno as bleak and industrial as the city skyline outside.

And if you’re a DJ, the route to getting behind the decks is even harder. Berghain, after all, keep an even stricter grip on their booking policy than they do on the door, admitting only those deemed cutting-edge and underground enough. Getting the call to play the club has become both a seal of approval and a seminal moment in your career, something the Dusky duo of Nick Harriman and Alfie Granger-Howell are pondering in an apartment in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district a few hours before their Berghain debut.

“We’ve been holding out for this gig for a while and turned down offers for some other clubs in the hope that would encourage Berghain to book us,” Alfie reveals. “I think we’re extremely lucky that we are able to play places like this that are renowned for being quite selective about wanting it to be underground, because getting respect from our peers is really important. So we’re obviously very excited because I’ve heard a huge amount about it. You could say I’ve heard too much about it! We’ve heard so much conflicting advice from other DJs.”

“Some people say it’s their favourite gig and other people absolutely hate it so we just don’t know,” Nick chips in. “We’re just going to stick to our guns and play what we normally do and hopefully that will work.”

EPIPHANIES
In the end, when Dusky relinquish the decks at 10am after a three-hour set, it’s clear there was no reason to worry, their set of deep house and groovy techno perfectly suited to the upstairs Panorama Bar. Nor do the pair stand out amidst the crowd cheering when Dusky drop their anthemic ‘Careless’. Sure, there might be a fair few leather jockstraps and oily pectorals on the cavernous downstairs dancefloor — not to mention the odd suspicious noise emanating from the toilet cubicles — but up here the crowd seem as clean-cut as Nick and Alfie themselves: a mix of tourists, young clubbers and hipsters you could find anywhere from Berlin to Brixton to Brooklyn.

In fact, when the window shutters briefly flash open the most shocking thing is how healthy everyone looks given that it’s 9.30 on a Sunday morning — making you suspect most have wandered here straight after breakfast rather than raving solidly for the past 24 hours.

Yet you can’t deny the timing is perfect as the light suddenly flashes through the club, for not only does it seem like someone taking a snapshot of how far Nick and Alfie have come, the fact it happens just as they drop the shuddering bass of Zed Bias’ ‘Copper’ also captures the intersection between deep house and bass music where Dusky currently reside.

“I tried to have no preconceptions beforehand so I wouldn’t be disappointed,” Nick says afterwards. “But I really enjoyed it. It’s amazing to be able to play to a crowd like that at that time in the morning because it creates such a unique atmosphere.”

That’s another career milestone passed then, after scoring best-selling hits on Beatport with tunes like ‘Careless’ and ‘Nobody Else’, recording an Essential Mix in 2012 and playing other iconic venues such as the Space Terrace in Ibiza and Fabric in London.

Talking earlier in Kreuzberg, Alfie says that being asked to curate another Dusky Presents night at Fabric is probably a bigger deal than playing Berghain, as it was “the first place I ever went raving”. Nick is more reticent to say when he first started clubbing — “just in case my mum finds out!” he laughs — but recalls his epiphany at SeONe in London “when I first became aware of the power of dance music in a club”.

Before then the pair’s main exposure to dance music had come through listening to pirate radio in London, over which Nick and Alfie bonded when they first met at sixth form college. “It was inescapable,” Alfie recalls. “You’d just be in your parents' car moving through the dials on the radio and hearing hundreds of different stations playing garage, jungle and hardcore. Then because I lived in Camden you could also pick up old tape packs next to stalls selling bongs and incense. That was all a massive influence.”

Starting off producing rudimentary drum & bass together, their story sounds similar to that of other young Londoners like Joy O, whose records are also partly fuelled by the diet of two-step and acid house they feasted on from illegal frequencies during their formative years. “It’s that 10-year cycle where the stuff people grew up with comes back around as they get older,” Nick believes. “We’re definitely part of that but — like us — I see Joy O as more of a straight-up house and techno guy. It’s just a UK slant on house and techno.”

“There are so many techno and house tracks that were a huge influence on drum & bass,” Alfie points out. “It’s not until later on after we knew the old drum & bass tunes and were digging more into old house that you realise, ‘Oh — that’s what they sampled for that track!'’’

“Goldie raping the R&S back catalogue basically created darkside drum & bass,” Nick claims. “It feels like a continuation of that one narrative going through acid house to techno in UK dance stuff during the '90s,” follows Alfie.

PROG BEGINNINGS
For most producers that narrative doesn’t involve a diversion into trance and progressive house though — or if it does they won’t own up to it. However, Nick and Alfie are happy to admit that their first forays into producing house music after drum & bass resulted from hearing Eric Prydz’s remix of Paolo Mojo’s ‘1983’, which led to them forging progressive house and signing to trancemeisters Above & Beyond’s Anjunadeep label as Solarity.

“There’s definitely a stigma attached to progressive house but someone like Sasha is one of the most influential DJs ever,” Nick states. “A lot of progressive house is good music and we’re not going to turn our noses up at something just because it’s not cool.”

Still, as the pair were working on their debut album for Anjunadeep a wider range of influences — such as the string arrangements revealing Alfie’s classical training, the soulful vocals picked up from garage tunes like MJ Cole’s ‘Sincere’ and the deeper moods of earlier American house — began to creep in, resulting in a name change to Dusky by the time the ‘Stick By This’ LP was released in October 2011.

Meaning that — as they explored those styles further on subsequent singles like ‘Henry 85’ — most of the DJs who played them and punters that danced to them were unaware of Dusky’s former incarnation, instead seeing them as offspring from the fecund cross-pollination between deep house and bass music taking place in the UK at the time.

“What we were doing did have a certain retro '90s influence to it and it just so happens that other people were experimenting with similar sounds at the same time,” opines Alfie. “Everyone was working independently but it became a bit of a movement and we were just lucky that we were riding the crest of that wave. But I was really surprised that so many different people were picking it up.”

For it was a wide range of labels that were keen to get their hands on Dusky’s tunes — from long-time champion Will Saul’s Simple Records who issued ‘Henry 85’, dubstep stalwart Loefah’s School Records who released ‘Calling Me’ and Sheffield house label Dogmatik who put out Dusky’s first big breakout hit ‘Flo Jam’ in 2012.

“It hasn’t been a case of ‘We’re going to make this and send it to that label' — it’s just kind of happened organically,” says Nick. “We don’t think about where a tune’s going to go when we make it — we just work with people we have an affinity with.”

“It’s not like we’re covering every base within dance music but within house and techno I think there are quite eclectic sounds in our tracks,” Alfie elaborates. “So there’s not really one label that every track would work on. Some tracks are too dark and some are too deep but we just really enjoy working with different labels and getting slightly different audiences.”

CYCLES
Much as Dusky’s music has found a home on many different labels, so it’s found favour with many different DJs, from the determinedly underground likes of Boddika right through to the other end of the spectrum, with the world’s highest-earning DJ Calvin Harris caning ‘Flo Jam’. So do Dusky believe that there’s one unifying quality in their records that both cutting-edge tastemakers like Will Saul and EDM superstars like Calvin Harris are picking up on, or do all these different DJs identify with different things in their sound?

“I don’t know to be honest,” confesses Nick. “All those people listen to a lot of music so something must have sounded fresh to them. We could tell you about Will Saul because we know his taste but can’t really speak for Calvin Harris without knowing him. Although when you listen to some of the tribal house stuff he used to produce in his teens it’s clear that even though he’s this massive EDM celebrity now he still knows his shit.”

Having only really glimpsed it on whistle-stop tours of the USA, Dusky seem a little nonplussed of what to make about the whole Transatlantic EDM explosion in general.

“We first went in March 2013 and then were back six months later, but even in that time we noticed how much tastes had changed and how much bigger both the commercial and more underground scenes were,” says Alfie. “It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s great in one sense that dance music is doing so well and there are so many people listening to it.

Talking about our style of music things should trickle down as tastes develop and people find out about the history of dance music and start listening to more nuanced subtle music instead of obvious in-your-face stuff. But on the other hand it’s almost becoming a parody of itself. EDM has become tied up in this celebrity culture and I don’t think that is healthy for the dance scene as a whole.”

“I don’t think that’s healthy for the human race as a whole!” laughs Nick.

They’re somewhat more positive about the UK, where acts like Disclosure and Duke Dumont are bringing relatively credible house music back to the charts, even if Dusky aren’t entirely sure how long that current state of affairs will last. For although Alfie says that they’re now seeing teenagers “who are prepared to sit through a seven-minute techno epic” when they DJ at student nights for example, Nick counters that “they’re still the people old enough to go to clubs though. Most people consuming Disclosure or Duke Dumont are literally teenyboppers under 16. Their older brother probably used to listen to The Libertines or something so they’re reacting against that and house just seems fresh to them. Stuff goes in cycles and it’s only a matter of time before house drops straight off the face of a cliff back to the underground. Then bands and hip-hop will probably come back.”

Aren’t they tempted to make hay whilst the sun shines and pen themselves a big pop anthem though? After all, some of the vocal tunes on ‘Stick By This’ show they know how to write a decent song, and given Dusky’s current white-hot profile it surely wouldn’t be too difficult to persuade someone like Jessie Ware or Rita Ora to warble over their beats?

“A big hit is both a blessing and a curse though,” Nick argues. “I don’t really want to go and play the Isle of Wight Festival to people who’ve only heard one of your tracks on Capital FM. I’d rather play to people who actually enjoy being in clubs and know your music. If one of our tunes got to No.1 that’d be cool, but we’re definitely not trying to write one and I think if we did try to write one we probably wouldn’t be able to do it.”

CHALLENGES
If anything Dusky’s recent output like new single ‘9T8’ — where the sole vocal sample is sliced down into a wafer-thin snippet — have been using vocals even less and whilst they talk of including some vocals on their new album, they won’t be as prominent as on ‘Stick By This’.

“We’ve found it tricky recording vocals because sometimes they sound a bit too tacky,” Nick reveals. “We’re much more sample-based in the garage or drum & bass sense and it’s easier to work in a sample than it is make a vocal sound classy and not too obvious. There definitely won’t be any full-blown ‘songs’ on the album.”

Another difference this time around is that there will be big expectations for the album from their burgeoning fanbase, unlike with ‘Stick By This’, which only became something of a sleeper hit after Pete Tong began championing that album from a relatively then-unknown new act. “People don’t normally start an alias with an album — they do singles first,” Alfie admits. “That was really unique because there were no preconceptions at all but now there are lots of preconceptions. But that’s a fun challenge because we get to play with them.”

Having had one of their all-time heroes singing their praises, scooped DJ Mag’s Best of British award for Best Producers and been booked to play the world’s best clubs, it makes you wonder what Dusky have left to aspire to. “Well, your aspirations always change,” laughs Nick. “When I was 14 my biggest ambition was to play a set with MC Det MCing over it and now I can’t think of anything worse!”

If they’re certain about one thing though, it’s that they’re not tempted by the fame and fripperies of the DJ big league they seemed poised to enter. “I never wanted to be a superstar DJ,” Nick claims. “I think if you do think like that, then it’s definitely not going to happen. You need to be motivated by music rather than any form of status or popularity. What we really aspire to is longevity — to be someone like Kerri Chandler or the Chemical Brothers who’ve been around for ages but haven’t compromised their sound at all. It needs to be more than just doing something fun for a couple of years.”

Still, it’s a damn good start.

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