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The real life of an underground DJ

From back-to-back travel and navigating unknown places, to the thrill of peak time raving and the low of the next day, touring DJs lead lives that can feel extraordinary and mundane. Away from the glamour of social media, what does a touring DJ really think of their hectic lifestyle? Below, Posthuman, Spencer Parker, and Noncompliant share their stories about life on the road

Between 2001 and 2004, we ran parties in London’s Aldwych tube station. It’s a beautiful station on the Strand with ’40s decor — wooden ticket booths, green tiles, handpainted signs — but it’s closed to the public. They use it for photoshoots. The Prodigy filmed the Firestarter’ video in one of the tunnels. We had no booze or music licenses. It was pre-7/7 in London — you could get away with a lot more. They would definitely not let us use a tube station now. 

The station was looked after by a retired tube driver. We’d read up on the history of the station, the lost city of London and the rivers underneath, so he realised that we cared. He said we could run a party there as long as he was in his little office to oversee it. We’d buy him a bottle of whisky, he’d get drunk and fall asleep, and we’d hold a rave and clean the place up the next day.

We did a couple of parties: artists like Aphex Twin, Goldfrapp, and Plaid, labels like Warp, Nova Mute, and Rephlex. We weren’t allowed to use the downstairs area but, obviously, once the guy was asleep, we would anyway. One of the rooms had a bunch of power switches behind the decks, which we hung coats and cables on. We found out that, if we’d pulled one of those switches, it would have turned off the power to the Piccadilly line. 

At our second birthday, in 2002 or 2003, we’d set up a double night of parties and hired someone to do fly-posting for us. (This is pre-internet days, so physical flyers were dropped off in bars and clubs, and posted on walls.) A friend was fly-posting around Shoreditch: some flyers had been posted over a piece of graffiti, by an up-and-coming artist who’s rather famous now. I was handing out flyers, too — in the Foundry, an old bar run by the KLF — and I got accosted by a bunch of angry guys. They grabbed all the flyers, and said, “You went over our art!” I lied and told them that and didn’t know anything about it. After they were done threatening me, shaking me up a bit, I basically forgot about it. 

On the night, we were in full swing. Funkstörung were playing, and there were maybe 400 or 500 people there. At 1AM, suddenly, all of the fire alarms went off — the kind you can smash the glass and trip — and the next thing we know, buckets of paint are being thrown! Across the decks, across the dance floor, all over the walls, across the entrance — everywhere. There was a mad scurry and everything fell apart. We shut down the night, lost a load of money, and we had to get all of our mates in with turpentine to scrub the walls until sunrise.

I didn’t see who it was, but someone later told me they’d recognized Banksy [at the party]. This came through a mate of a mate, though, so we’ll never really know if it was him. That was the weirdest way to have a club night shut down. We lost thousands of pounds in the end, because we were doing it all off our own backs, but believe it or not, that wasn’t our last party there.

I’ve been traveling as a DJ for about 20 years. In 2003, I didn’t have an agent or anything like that — I used to work in a record shop, that’s how I got gigs. A Russian guy who used to come in to the shop had connections to different clubs in Russia. I gave him a tape, got invited to Russia once, and kept getting invited back. You need a visa to go to Russia, and I’d always had that taken care of through an agency, Real Russia.

At 5AM on New Year’s Eve, I started travelling, once again, to Moscow. At Heathrow airport, you’re not allowed to begin your journey unless you have the right documentation. I gave them my passport, they check the visa — all good, off I go. I made my connection in Zurich, and they check my visa again — again, all good. I get to Moscow and, as I’m queuing up, about to fill out the entrance card, I’m like, “Fuck — the date is wrong.”

Russia’s a hard country to get into. You have to fight for everything and be out for yourself. Going through customs is bedlam, but I finally get to the agent and hand him my visa. He half hands it back to me — then looks at it again. I could see him thinking, “Hang on,” and he says to me, “It’s the wrong date.” Fuck. It’s 7PM, I’ve barely eaten, and he says, “You can’t come into Russia.” 

I frantically try to call the promoter. He’s ex-Russian army, so I think he’ll be able to help. Customs agents are telling me, “The plane you just got off? You have to get back on it, now!” The plane was going back to Zurich. “Either you get back on the plane, or you go in the holding cell. Is that what you want?” My little Nokia 9510 couldn’t work out what network it was on. Finally, I get through to him. Fucking beautiful. I tell the agent, “I’ve got this guy on the phone, will you talk to him?” He looks me dead in the eyes and shakes his head.  

But I’d come this far. It’s New Year’s Eve, and it’s good money. I tell the promoter: “I will go to the holding cell, but you gotta be confident that you can bounce me out in an hour.” Which, in hindsight, was mental. I was waiting in the gangway. Speaking to the promoter, he was like, “Errrrr...”, and they’re shouting at me: “The door’s closing!” Finally, I get back on the plane.

I land in Zurich at 11PM, and the next plane to London is at 6AM. What am I going to do now? I wind up in an airport hotel. I’d lost all the money from the gig and I have to be back at the airport at 4AM, so I can’t sleep. I haven’t eaten all day and the restaurant is closed. “Is there a vending machine where I can just buy some crisps?” I ask. “No, but there are snacks on the bar,” they say. 

I’m at the bar, mainlining cheese and onion crisps out of a bowl, having a few drinks, and I look around. There are eight or nine people around me. The bar has a widescreen TV, and the local station is broadcasting live from Zurich’s main square. People come round with party poppers and the countdown start: “Ten! Nine! Eight!... Happy New Year!” I pull the popper string — and it doesn’t go off. 

It was only my second tour, in March of 2018, and I’m playing in Glasgow, Scotland. My former agent messages me and tells me that there’s a snowstorm coming. She’s from Glasgow, so she knows that this is going to be a clusterfuck. “I’m gonna get you a train ticket to Glasgow,” she says, “since trains are usually the best bet in shitty weather.” It’s freezing when I land in London. I’m eating breakfast in my coat, at the train station, when I find out that the train isn’t going to Glasgow. It’s going about three quarters of the way, to a city called Carlisle. I call the promoters and tell them what’s going on. “Okay, that’s an hour away from us,” they say, “but one of our guy’s mums is a taxi driver. She’s going to meet you in Carlisle.” Okay, I’m sorted.

Everything is delayed. I have to constantly tell the promoters a different meeting time. The train station’s screen often goes blank, which panics me. Finally, the board updates — we’re ready to go. I’d flown in from my home state of Indiana, with a layover in New York City, so I’ve been awake and travelling for almost 20 hours by now. I don’t sleep well on planes, so I think, “It’s a four hour train ride, I’m going to get me a sweet ass nap before the gig.” 

I’m starting to nod off, when — an announcement! A tree has fallen on the tracks, between where we are now and Carlisle! We’re stopping in a city called Preston and we’ll just have to deal with it there. I’m asking people around me — are they going to get us a bus? What does that mean?” “We don’t know either,” they say, “just talk to the people at the station.” This is not reassuring. 

I had two motivations that night. One is practical: if I don’t make it to Glasgow, I won’t make it to Hamburg for my next gig. The second one is: I don’t fucking miss gigs. One time, while driving to a gig in St. Louis, Indiana, our defroster stopped working. The windshield fluid had frozen, and the wipers were smearing sludge all over the windshield. “Do we have any liquid in the car?” A voice in the backseat said, “I’ve got a Hi-C,” a carton of fruit juice. I’m driving on the highway and my very tall friend is hanging out the window. I’ve got his legs in my right arm, my friend in the front seat is holding his torso, and he’s hanging out the window, pouring juice through a little plastic straw onto the windshield. I had pink fruit sludge all over the window, but I didn’t miss that gig!

So, we get to the station in Preston. We figured that there would be people there waving us down, telling us what to do — nothing. The people who are there are dismissive. It’s so cold. I haven’t slept, I’m dragging all my shit around, and there’s only one indoor room in this old-ass stone station. It's standing room only and has no heat. Do British people not believe in heat? I'm calling the promoters: “I’m stuck in Preston, man, they’re not telling me shit,” and I’m thinking, “What if I don't make it? What the hell am I gonna do? I don’t know where I am!” Thankfully, I had just enough in the bank to get a hotel, but not a lot. Eventually, guys are like, “Okay, we’re gonna get you a taxi from Preston to Carlisle, and you'll meet up with our driver who'll drive you the rest of the way.” 

It’s started snowing. I was nearly in an accident once, where we spun out on the highway, and ever since then I get panic attacks in situations where it's snowing and I’m not driving. I get in the taxi. It’s snowing and windy, and we’re going through a hilly part of the countryside with giant dips in the road. The driver was terrible and it’s so windy that I can feel the wind buffeting the car sideways. 

We finally make it to the meeting point. A Scottish lady gets out of the car, and she’s holding a meat pie, soda, water, crisps, and chocolate in her arms. “Oh my god,” I think, “this is exactly what I need.” She’s lovely. I make it to the gig at La Cheetah: “We can’t believe you’ve made it!” I was the only artist that night who did. 

I love Glasgow — the people are so nice, they’re like Midwesterners with better accents. They all know what I’ve been through in the last 24 hours and they're all so appreciative of what I went through to make it to their party. I play a three hour set and have a great fucking time. It was hellish to get there, but people appreciate the effort. And I’ve learned that, sometimes, it really is out of your control. 

Want to know more? Read our interview with Noncompliant and listen to her DJ Mag Podcast 100 here

Chandler Shortlidge is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter here

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