'I FELT UNINSPIRED INSTEAD OF THOSE TWO BITS OF SUCESS MAKING ME FEEL CONFIDENT AND VALIDATING ME. I FELT LIKE A TOTAL FRAUD'
It’s 11am, to the second, when Skype pings with a message from Midland. Few DJs even remember scheduled interviews, let alone arrive exactly on time. But you would expect nothing less of Harry Agius. He’s a breed of artist who treats everything he does with real professionalism. Whether that’s making time each week to check his demo email address, organise his records into “20-plus” detailed playlists for every weekend gig, or putting together one of his famously accomplished mixes.
We’re speaking on the eve of the release of the latest: his entry in the ‘FabricLive’ series. It comes after one of his most successful years since first breaking though off the back of 2010’s ‘Your Words Matter’, a cheeky garage tune with then-housemate Ramadanman aka Pearson Sound. But the start of this year has also been one of his most difficult periods. The reason for this is self-doubt and “thinking way too much about everything,” he says.
Back in 2016, the 30-year-old, London-based producer released ‘Final Credits’, a huge house and disco edit on his own ReGraded label that topped year-end lists, sold thousands of copies on vinyl and was heard in clubs and at festivals around the world. Add into that his painstakingly constructed ‘Essential Mix’ — which took him “three mental months” but was rewarded with Essential Mix of the Year — and Midland was left in a panic at the start of 2017.
“I felt uninspired,” he says from the London home he owns with friends. Hanging behind him is a colourful oil painting of three Maasai warriors shimmering in a heat haze as they walk over the horizon. It’s actually a copy of an original his parents had promised to him when he bought his first house, but they reneged on the deal and instead commissioned a street artist back in Africa to replicate it. It’s a piece that reminds him of growing up in East Africa where the family — Harry is one of five siblings — were stationed as his father was an engineer.
“Instead of those two bits of success making me feel confident and validating me, I felt like a total fraud,” he says of ‘Final Credits’ and the ‘Essential Mix’ with an RP lilt. “And then, with the Fabric CD looming, I worried how I was going to top them. My manager Chris [who, after seven years together, Harry credits as being a vital part of his career] said you don’t always need to view it as going upwards. Are you happy and comfortable where you are?”
He decided to go away for six days to detox with no internet and some close friends. When he returned to London, “everything sounded more vivid and I was hearing new details” in the 70-odd tracks he had sent off to be licensed for use in the mix. As much as that helped, it was an impromptu Sunday DJ set that further brought into focus what he would do with the mix.
It found him heading down to the Lamb & Lion pub, where Craig Richards was playing back-to- back with Jackmaster. Despite not having his own music, Harry got involved, playing tunes “by nose” off Jackmaster’s USB. When the Scot eventually had to leave for a train, Midland carried on with Craig. “He’s someone I really like and always thought we had something in common musically. After I’d had lunch at 2pm, we just played for 12-hours straight, me using Craig’s records, subsiding off Snickers bars and pints of Guinness. Eventually I said, ‘I have to stop or I’m actually going to die’.”
By then, though, something had happened: Harry had a renewed confidence and the courage to play outside his usual self. “Hearing records differently really inspired me,” he says. “I realised there was so many ways to make a mix and play.”
The mix he eventually put together is unexpected: it’s a deft and emotive selection that tracks the arc of a typical ecstasy rush. The pressure slowly builds, drums grow ever more tense and physical and then you come up, things smooth out and a sense of serenity takes over. It’s thrilling and effortless, and is exactly why he is known as such a versatile circuit DJ who can serve up broad, all-night-long sets in Berlin, or smash it out at a festival.
“Every mix or podcast I do, I really put my heart into it,” he explains. “Some DJs just knock out two hours of what they’re playing at that time with an odd edit, but for me it was like, this is so important in terms of what it represents in the history of music in the UK. I just want to look back and be happy with what I did. But you should do that in every aspect of life. I just like to do things properly, whether it’s cookin g or whatever, it’s nice to be reliable.”
That dedication coupled with the fact Midland hasn’t made a career off the odd hit, but a reputation for his fierce DJ skills, means he is in the lucky position to be able to pick his gigs. He plays parties that make him happy, whether that’s gay parties like Glasto’s NYC Downlow and Horse Meat Disco, or Dekmantel and Manchester’s Zutekh!. And that’s important, because for a while after moving to London, he was broke, lonely and suffering from anxiety. He also struggled with “a weird shame” at being gay. He’d known since a young age, but only came out in his early twenties.
“The thought of going on dates or meeting guys or being around lots of gay people intimidated me because I hadn’t really dealt with a lot of my stuff,” he explains. “I didn’t have gay friends until five years ago. My friends were straight and were great, so I didn’t think I needed them, but now I have a group and they’re amazing.”
At the same time, he also started to do more exercise, and then met his now husband, Mike. Initially, Harry didn’t reveal he was a DJ and the pair didn’t become Facebook friends until a few months in. “His friends thought that was weird, like I was hiding something, but I just wanted uso get to know each other for each other.”
The long-term plan now is to sell the house, buy one with Mike, go travelling for six months and then start the process of adoption. “I’m so looking forward to having kids,” he beams. “My husband is from a really big family, and I’m from a big family. All along, when I was a teenager, something that made me sad was being raised thinking that if you’re gay you can’t have kids, so it’s nice to have met someone who is very much on the same page.”
'POSTING SEXISM IS BAD OR WHATEVER ON TWITTER IS DOING NOTHING.DOING THINGA FIRST HAND IS MORE IMPORTANT.I DON'T HAVE ANY RESEVATIONS ABOUT CALLING PEOPLE OUT.IT ONLY TAKES SOMEONE DOING THIS ONCE TO MAKE PEOPLE THINK DIFFERENTLY'.
Though he is an opinionated presence on Twitter, Harry says there is a fine line “between being perceived as self-important and just expressing an opinion”. Whether it’s politics or homophobia, he doesn’t often shy away from having a view, especially so in the real world where it really matters.
“People who say off-key things now need to own it and learn from the backlash,” he says when we discuss some recent sexist and homophobic comments from Conforce, Konstantin and Ten Walls. “In the same respect, this lynch mob mentality — people seem desperate to prove they’re not sexist, racists, homophobic. It’s almost self-righteous. You shouldn’t need to shout about those things just when they happen. The hardest things to call out are your friends. They’re the difficult conversations. Posting ‘sexism is bad’ or whatever on Twitter is doing nothing. Doing things firsthand is more important. I don’t have any reservations about calling people out any more. It only takes someone doing this once to make people think differently.”
Official mixes and an enviable DJ diary have kept Harry busy for the last six months plus. But once the summer is over, he plans to get back in the studio (though he also has a tour of eight or nine UK clubs planned where he has handpicked lesser-known “but amazing DJs” to play with him in places they might not otherwise). He says he isn’t someone to sit producing all day every day, but rather starves himself of music making time so that when it comes he is brimming with “subconscious ideas” that have amassed in him over the preceding period. The results could come on either of his labels, Graded or ReGraded, or he jokes he might even start another.
“The next year is about working on music, even music that has no real purpose. Just writing for the sake of it. The tracks that flow are the pay off, the treats, like in a DJ set where I’m not thinking three tracks ahead and the music is almost picking itself. But the ones that go less well are the ones that you learn more from.”