The last few years have seen seismic shifts in dance music culture. Large swathes of the scene seem to have abandoned their heady underground ideals and have grown more concerned with being featured in The Sun’s Clubz section and scoring mainstream hits.
Take former counter-cultural icon Richie Hawtin: DJ Mag remembers a time when he was lambasted for having his own t-shirt range, but nowadays no one blinks an eye when he teams up with Deadmau5 and continues to push sake sales as much as techno treats.
The mainstream has moved away from favouring landfill indie ‘The’ bands and towards hyper-produced, polished as you like dance-pop acts like Rudimental, Disclosure and Gorgon City.
It means that for the first time since the '90s, when major labels like Atlantic were snapping up acts like Masters At Work and Ten City, there is some serious money to be made if you make it right to the top.
Of course, the knock-on effect is that more and more young producers are falling over themselves to conjure up some huge hooky hit, be it Ben Pearce or Hot Natured, Duke Dumont or Route 94, and as a result we already seem to be in a race to the bottom; a race to find the most widely appealing and ultimately bland dance hit possible.
In a moment of disarming frankness, UK star Huxley admits to DJ Mag that even he was — for a brief moment — considering going all out populist.
“Before I had even started writing the album we had some offers, and were looking at offers, from some pretty big labels,” says the Tring-born DJ and producer. “I won’t say what labels, but I eventually decided that’s not what I wanted to do. I felt I would be forced into making an album I didn’t want to make. In the end we went with [Will Saul’s] Aus and it was the perfect choice, really.”
MADE FOR DANCING
The reason such major labels were even sniffing around is because some keen A&Rs will have noticed that, despite him being an ostensibly underground producer, Michael Dodman’s music has always been of the sort that brings girls, as well as guys, to the dancefloor. It’s happy, accessible, charismatic garage/house/bass stuff that jumps from the speakers and forces you to dance, rather than being reticent, pseudo intelligent stuff that prises chin-stroking over ass-shaking. And he agrees.
“There is no denying that, as much as I would love to say I'm a proper underground head that only listens to things that no one has ever heard of, it would be a lie,” he explains. “My music, if you listen to it, has certain tinges of pop music. ‘Girl friendly’ is a good way of putting it actually. Lots of vocals, things to sing along to and big hooks and riffs. That’s always been important for me; the music I listen to and play is all that kind of stuff — lots of big bass and with a distinct riff.”
And that’s certainly the case when it comes to his debut album, 'Blurred'. Although less squarely focused on the dancefloor than 2013 breakout hit 'Bellywedge' or the earlier 'Let It Go' on Hypercolour, it is riddled with hummable melodies, sing-along choruses and tappable bass. The production, too, is seriously slick and accomplished, and purely on those terms sounds somewhat like a UK house antecedent to the crisp, faultless and frictionless techno of Berlin favourite, Shed.
That should come as no surprise, because unlike many modern sensations, Huxley is no overnight star. He has been producing on awkward bits of software since he was just 14 years of age (he’s now 29), when garage was his major preoccupation. “I’ve been doing it so long now that actually, throughout this LP, I’ve been writing just for myself and trying to get out of my usual mode. Last year, I will be the first to admit that I was guilty of getting a bit comfortable with knowing what would work with people. Maybe my output suffered a bit, so for the album I’ve gone back and tried to do things differently.”
Throughout his career, Huxley — whether solo or with a glut of friends including Ethyl, Jonny Cade and Sam Russo — has always released a fairly diverse array of music. At first he emerged with a loopy tech house sound perfectly befitting the period, and comfortably at home on niche-defining labels like Cécille Numbers.
Then, going back to his garage roots, he infused his deep house with skipping percussion and rude-boy bass and became a poster boy of the UK garage revival alongside peers like Mosca. As such, that 'Blurred', like its title suggests, is such a fine fusion of sounds and scenes makes perfect sense. What’s more, it’s been made mindful of the fact that however massive a 12” you release, it will likely be forgotten in five or six months, whereas an album is a much more lasting statement.
Kicking off with the deep and vulnerable house of 'I Want You' with its heartfelt female vocal and swelling synths, you’re immediately won over by Huxley’s production charm. Notably, the whole thing has been made from the bottom up with not a sample in sight.
“It was a bit more of a challenge going back to how I used to write music, “ he muses. “Not being able to use samples has made me a better producer again, because you have to put more thought in. I think I’ll stick to this approach in future!”
Following the lush opener, playful wobblers like 'Barne Dance' with its filthy down-low LFO and down-pitched vocal again encourage you to get loose, 'Give 2 U feat FEMME' (a vocalist in Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich's band, Ultraísta) marks the album’s first real crossover hit in the making, and then 'MXR' is a lively jump-up d&b roller than harks back to the days when underage Huxley first started going out, and could only get into d&b raves.
Littered with original vocal contributions from Yasmin (no stranger to chart success thanks to her work with Gorgon City), Thomas Gandey and fast-rising star Obenewa, there are moments of cuddly deep introspection next to elastic bass-house bangers, and even idyllic electronic pop songs.
It’s a celebratory and feel-good album without being overly saccharine, basically, and one such track already doing the rounds is 'Callin'': indicative of the album overall, it’s a collaboration with the legendary Roger Sanchez under his S-Man guise that was actually instigated by the famous cap-wearing, beard-sporting house star himself.
He’s not the only high profile Huxley fan, though, because DJs as diverse as cerebral techno outfit The Black Dog, Radio 1 champ Pete Tong and New York deepsmith Fred P have reached for Huxley’s records in the past, which is testament to their pure dancefloor appeal. “I was quite surprised. [Roger] came to us and said he was interested in working with me, and it just so happened I was working on the album.
I sent him over something, he ripped it apart and added stuff, then after some back and forth we came out with 'Callin''. I think it’s one of the strongest things I’ve done in ages and he is such a nice guy. He’s really good fun.”
Bold and bombastic, like much of Huxley’s recent production work, 'Blurred' has been influenced by the fact that he is now a staple headliner at massive events and festivals all over the UK, Europe, Australia and Asia. Last night, he even headlined Amnesia in Ibiza. “I was actually playing back-to-back with T.Williams and after us Breach and Booka Shade played, so we fit in quite well. I play to lots of young people now but that’s fine. I don’t want to play to people who over-analyse and stand about and don’t dance. I like that young people are so excited and into it.”
Amazingly for someone who speaks thoughtfully, is happily forthcoming, laughs throughout our interview and makes gregarious and outgoing beats — as well as playing in front of thousands of people every weekend, sometimes at four or five separate venues — Huxley lacks the self-assurance of many of his self-hyping peers.
He maintains a fairly amusing and tongue-in-cheek online persona and though he gets nervous before certain gigs (“Every DJ wants to impress every other DJ, don’t they?”) he is so worried about the reception to his album, or “my baby” as he puts it, he hasn’t road-tested most of the cuts, nor has he even allowed his long time girlfriend to hear it.
“I need to start playing it! I’ve kept it close to my chest because I’m nervous about the reaction. I’ve never done such a big project so I'm not ready for people to tell me it’s shit. Once I wrote it, I had a few weeks away from it and haven’t even listened to it myself. I want to come back and listen to it in full as an album, not just single tracks, so I’m gunna put it on my iPhone and listen to it on my way to Singapore and hopefully enjoy it again.”
All this attention and travelling has had two effects on Huxley in recent times. Firstly, he has learnt some important lessons. “I’ve learnt to not get too comfortable. I don’t expect to be flavour of the month forever and don’t expect everyone to love everything I do.”
Secondly, he has decided he needs time away from the hustle and bustle of central London in order to strike a sustainable life-work balance, find some occasional peace and relax with old school friends who are not involved in the music industry.
As such, now “loving life” back in Tring where he grew up, he’s already talking about more albums, conceptual projects and a first remix on his own label Saints & Sonnets, as well as keeping up his regular radio show on Rinse.FM. Far from selling out or searching for the big time, then, Huxley is busy doing what comes most naturally to him: making and playing honest music that keeps both DJs and dancers happy.
HUXLEY’S TOP THREE STUDIO DISTRACTIONS
1. Social media
“I think if Facebook and Twitter didn't exist I'd be a lot more prolific. Finding out what random people are doing seems to take up most of my day. And I've just got Instagram.”
2. The fridge
“Sometimes I just stand there looking in it for 10 minutes before shutting it again. It's very rare the fridge fairy fills it up.”
“My dog has a new trick of running into my leg when he wants to play, and he wants to play all the time. I just can't say no.”