It’s an unseasonably hot day in London when DJ Mag sets off to meet Theo Kottis. A Scottish producer with a story to tell, Kottis is based in Edinburgh, a mere four-hour train ride from London's Kings Cross. Green fields and country homes whip past our window as we snake our way up to the Scottish border, the temperature dropping steadily in the approach to Kottis’ historic hometown.
Despite growing up between Scotland and Greece, Kottis is a Scotsman through and through. Since bursting onto the scene five years ago, he’s racked up a long list of high-profile fans, including house legend Kerri Chandler, Dutch hero Joris Voorn and Last Night On Earth boss Sasha. He’s also released a raft of well-received records and toured extensively in the US, alongside holding down a residency at Edinburgh ‘it club’ Cabaret Voltaire.
But it’s Theo’s next chapter that’s set to slingshot him from local sensation to international star. His debut album ‘Beautiful Strangers’ is due to land in June, signalling the start of a trilogy of LPs tipped to be released in the coming years. Inspired by Tom Ford’s film 'Nocturnal Animals', the record is a patchwork of sounds and styles, from scatty, frenetic jazz loops and choppy vocals to tribal-style drums paired with deep, dreamy pads.
When we meet, Theo is also keen to discuss his new mix as part of Global Underground’s ‘NuBreed’ series, a project that he is honoured to be part of. What fills him with the most pride, however, is his hometown. Theo is visibly excited to show DJ Mag around Edinburgh on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late May, to help pull back the curtain on a place that’s inspired him personally and creatively for most of his adult life.
Best known for its looming hilltop castle, Edinburgh has often played second string to its sister city Glasgow when it comes to dance music.
“I think there’s always been a bit of a rivalry,” says Theo as we stroll over a small bridge with DJ Mag’s hotel at our backs. “But luckily I’m good mates with the Glasgow crew, so it’s not a big deal. They have so many talented DJs in Glasgow, and obviously they’ve got Sub Club.” Sub Club is unquestionably Scotland’s most famous clubbing institution, which has seen acts such as Harri & Domenic, Jackmaster and Jasper James all earn their DJ stripes within its hallowed walls. The city is also home to iconic record shop Rubadub, and has fostered seminal labels Numbers, Dixon Avenue Basement Jams, Soma and many more.
Theo is the first to admit that Edinburgh lacks a clubbing hub: a singular venue where DJs/producers can go to meet, share tunes and grow up as a contingent. Instead, Edinburgh’s clubs spread out across a stretch of narrow road near the city’s centre, and include venues Sneaky Pete’s and Cabaret Voltaire. As we round the corner and spy the former, Theo comments, “Sneaky Pete’s is probably the most credible line-up wise [of all the Edinburgh clubs], it’s also super small, probably max about 80-100 people in there at any one time. They’ve booked some pretty special acts — the last person I saw there was Gerd Janson.”
As we pass Sneaky Pete’s, Cabaret Voltaire is on our left, perched slanted on an unassuming cobblestone street. Its neon red logo flickers gaudily above the club’s entrance: DJ Mag senses this is a place where we could get up to no good.
“I think Edinburgh in the next few years is going to explode,” Theo muses as we scale a hill and Edinburgh’s castle pops back into view. “All of my mates are now making music, and I think it’s building to something really big. It’s also amazing to have other [music] people that you can surround yourself with and travel the world with.”
We stop at a beer garden to lap up the afternoon sun as thick Scottish accents punch the air over an indie band playlist. Theo’s a bit of a celebrity around these parts, stopping to shake hands and chat with groups of twenty-somethings out enjoying the sunshine.
“I think there’s been a general city buzz around Edinburgh over the last few years, and my current manager heard about me that way, through DJs talking about playing in the city and about the great residents we have out here,” Theo says, waving happily to a passing pal. “I honestly just think Scotland is so strong musically, and all the DJs here are just really, really good. There’re DJs in Scotland that are technically better than me, with insane, amazing selections of music, there’s amazing disco DJs, real diggers, of all different styles. I think growing up here and also being able to go through to Glasgow, it was really an education in dance music. It’s not like you get taught this stuff, but if you live in the right city, you can learn from just going clubbing every week!”
FLY ME TO THE MOON
Scotland’s famous Fly Club has been particularly influential in Theo Kottis’s steady rise to recognition. The brand gave Kottis his first official residency over four years ago, allowing him to regularly flex his musical muscles in front of a hometown crowd. Denis Sulta and Jasper James are also residents for the brand, proving the brains behind Fly have a superior eye for young talent. Now, Kottis has been put in charge of curating a full day at FLY Open Air — the festival the club brand runs annually in Edinburgh city centre. “So Denis Sulta is doing one day and I’m doing the other,” Theo explains. “For my day I’ve got Henrik Schwarz playing live as the headliner alongside Kerri Chandler, Move D and Hammer — and myself, of course.
“I don’t think you can beat this location for a festival,” Theo adds, as we stroll past people sunning themselves on the grass at the base of the castle. “It was a difficult line-up to organise, but we work super hard on it — I think it’s a brilliant idea to let the residents curate their own line-up,” he continues.
Theo’s connection to Fly Club is not by chance: one of his close mates Tom Ketley has been instrumental to the brand as well.
“I actually started out promoting parties with Tom when we were younger. He’s one of my oldest friends. We actually booked Pete Tong when I was 18,” Theo says.
DJ Mag raises an eyebrow. “Really, I did. I know, it was quite a young start. It’s kind of funny when I play with him [Tong] now, and he also supports me a lot on the radio, which I really appreciate. It’s gone full circle. When dubstep was big, we booked Skream and Benga. Actually, we even booked Skepta once. It wasn’t just house music we booked to be honest, it was just whatever we liked at the time. So after we stopped promoting, Tom started Fly and asked me to be a part of it.”
Thanks to his partnership with Tom, Theo’s connection with dance music began long before his 18th birthday. He’d been communicating with, and even befriending, DJs far older than him thanks to his talent as a graphic designer. “I started a clothing line, well, we called it that but it was really just a T-shirt line,” he laughs. “Oh, and I also used to be a photographer. Plus I’m really into graphic design, so it made sense to start this T-shirt line when I was 17 as a creative outlet.
“Loads of DJs started wearing our clothes and I remember I wasn’t even old enough to go to the clubs to give them the shirts. To be honest, I was frustrated because I wanted to see them wearing it. As soon as I turned 18 I started partying more, and I already knew loads of DJs. And I just thought: why don’t we promote parties to kind of promote the clothes at the same time?"
Talk turns to Kottis’s new album as we amble lazily down a warren of tiny laneways in the city’s north. DJ Mag has already listened to the record intently on the long train ride up from London, and we’re keen to dissect the influences in Theo’s music. A dreamy seven-part mini-LP landing on Theo’s own imprint, it’s an impressive first outing from the young Scot at a time when the idea of an album in dance music feels increasingly obsolete. In a climate where Beatport downloads reign supreme and tech-house three-trackers flood the market, we ask Theo what his motivation was to release an LP rather than a series of EPs or 12s.
“The album is coming out as part of a trilogy, and I really want it to represent my DJ style,” he says. “Doing EPs and being tied to a label and expected to make a certain sound wasn’t really for me, and now I feel I have the platform to release my stuff. It’s coming out through my label Beautiful Strangers At the moment I think I’ll be the only one releasing on it, maybe a few collaborations,” Theo muses. “I just want the chance to be experimental and have more creative freedom. I’ve found it personally frustrating when you send stuff to labels and they might like one track but they don’t like the other.”
The sense of light-heartedness on the LP is what makes it so endearing. It’s a joyous record full of fun-loving disco and rib-rattling house. There’s also a touch of acid and deft use of deep-dug samples, making Theo’s music feel warm and familiar while remaining original.
“I’m not going to sugar-coat it. I’m not trying to make some kind of masterpiece, it is basically a mixture of seven club tracks,” explains Theo, matter-of-factly. “There’s a housey one, a disco one and a lot of sample stuff. I never used to sample before. I love it so much, I literally just go sampling for hours and hours.”
It’s not tough to see that Theo approaches production with a singular sense of drive and purpose. He seems to be constantly seeking to master new styles, techniques and tricks to push his sound to the next level. “It’s also just about me becoming a better producer. I bought loads of hardware to make the record, and you end up spending loads of time just learning the kit. That was an experience, but I’ve learnt it now, and when I listen back to the songs, I think to myself, ‘Wow, that’s why I bought that piece of equipment’. That’s a great feeling!” he chuckles.
One of Theo’s secret weapons has been his carefully honed production set-up, something he’s been steadily expanding since settling on the 'Beautiful Strangers' project. “My favourite stuff at the moment hardware-wise is the Roland Boutique range. It’s so affordable and it really does the job. It’s an entry level into hardware, and it’s epic. You just end up jamming with it, not even really making music, just experimenting and creating new sounds. That’s what I love about it.”
‘Beautiful Strangers’ isn’t the only thing Theo has to be excited about. He’s also been hit up to front the latest mix for Global Underground’s ‘NuBreed’ series: a mix project that sees the recently revamped music brand shine a light on up-and-coming talent. Kottis joins a few on-the-rise selectors like Habischman and Oliver Schories in the ‘NuBreed’ clique, with the release due to land in both physical and digital formats.
“The Global Underground mix is great because even if I flop tomorrow, I’ll have something to show my kids [laughs]. I feel like I’ve put something in history for myself and I’ve got a physical product. Sometimes I think you have to take a step back and think about how far you’ve come. That said, there’s still loads of work to do.
“It was a really cool process, making the mix. I literally sent the GU guys about 200 tracks [laughs], so I had to cut it down quite significantly from there. It’s two full mixes anyway, and the second one is more chilled out. That’s my favourite of the two,” Theo explains. The mix is particularly special to Kottis because the tunes he’s selected are all deeply personal. Each track on both the CDs represents a certain moment in time for the Scotsman, so much so that he can remember the first time he played each and every tune.
“CD One is more for the club, but instead of going out and finding new tunes, I worked backwards. Every track on the mix, I can pinpoint a moment in time when I’ve played it. The club I played in, or whatever kind of reaction I’d got when I played. I feel like it’s really personal,” he says. “I know that predominantly Global Underground has a more proggy house fanbase, so I didn’t want to release a massive disco mix — I wanted it to be on-brand but keep it true to myself as well.”
MAKING THE LEAP
With so many exciting projects due to land very soon, Theo Kottis seems well and truly set for the big time. He’s been consistently tipped by DJ legends around the globe and has been pushing his own productions forward like never before. He seems most excited about his ‘Beautiful Strangers’ project, something he’s creatively in charge of from start to finish, including the music style, production, artwork and logistical details. DJ Mag asks if, despite it all, Kottis has ever experienced a crisis of confidence.
“Trust me, there’s days where I think it’s not happening,” Theo nods, emphatically. “I’m not doing this because suddenly DJing is cool or whatever. I’m doing this because I genuinely love what I’m doing, simply I just love music, that’s what it’s all about. You can always work harder."
The final stop on our Edinburgh tour is a hole- in-the-wall Mexican restaurant which is packed to the brim as we arrive. We’re squeezed into a table in a shadowy corner and immediately order a round of the house’s signature cocktail. As we tuck into a seemingly never-ending plate of mouth-watering tacos and a mountain of guacamole, we ask what Kottis’s plan is long term?
“My dream is really to play the clubs that mean the most to me,” Kottis says, misty-eyed over a frozen mojito. “The places where I grew up on the dancefloor. Places like DC-10 and Panorama Bar, that’s really important to me, because that’s where I’ve seen my heroes. If I can swap the dancefloor for the booth for one night, then that’s the dream. I’d also like to collaborate with people and get into producing different types of music as well, I’d love to work with bands. The possibilities are endless — and that’s why it’s so exciting.”
*Listen to DJ Mag's premiere of Theo Kottis' 'Ciro' below.
Theo Kottis’ Global Underground ‘Nubreed 11’ mix lands on 29th June.
Theo Kottis’s debut artist album ‘Beautiful Strangers’ is out now on digital and vinyl.
Watch the trailer for Theo's takeover at FLY Open Air in Edinburgh here
THEO'S TOP EDINBURGH EATS
Growing up between Greece and Scotland, Theo knows a good plate of food when he sees one. Here, he rounds up his top five places to dine in his hometown, Edinburgh, with an eclectic selection of Italian, Mexican and, of course, Scottish fare on offer...
Address: George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EE
Good for: City centre dining with a laid-back edge.
“A great one for big groups with an eclectic menu for all tastes, that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find on one of the most historic streets of Edinburgh. Make sure to book a table with the castle view.”
EL CARTEL MEXICANA
Address: 64 Thistle St, Edinburgh EH2 1EN
Good for: Tasty Mexican food and frozen margaritas.
“A hidden gem of a place, no bigger than your actual kitchen. The best place for Mexican tapas, start off with the guacamole, pomegranate and feta starter.”
Address: 5 Hunter Square, Edinburgh, Midlothian EH1 1QW
Good for: Pizza.
“Putting Edinburgh on the map for pizza. Perfect before catching me play at my residency at Fly Club at Cabaret Voltaire.”
SCRAN & SCALLIE
Address: 1 Comely Bank Rd, Stockbridge, Edinburgh EH4 1DT
Good for: Scottish delights.
“Laidback, proper Scottish scran from a Michelin-starred chef. Definitely the place to take your family on a Sunday.”
Address: Advocate’s Cl, Edinburgh EH1 1ND
Good for: Cocktails and company.
“Tucked up one of Edinburgh’s cobbled alleys is the perfect date night cocktail bar. One of my classier locals.”