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Recognise: Air Max '97

Recognise is DJ Mag's monthly mix series, introducing artists we love that are bursting onto the global electronic music circuit. This month, we catch up with London's purveyor of "nightmare dance music" and mutated club sounds, Air Max '97, to discuss his renewed dancefloor focus, solidarity in the capital's club scene, and drum & bass in a cave by the sea...

 

A couple of weeks ago, Oliver van der Lugt, aka producer, DJ, designer and label head Air Max ‘97, was at a family reunion in the Netherlands, catching up with distant relatives he hadn’t seen for ten years. Inevitably, as you’d expect from a decade-overdue catch up, ‘So what do you do?’ cropped up again, and again. “Nightmare dance music,” he says, and then, with an additional caveat that perhaps his family didn’t hear, “I want to fuck people up on the dancefloor.” 

Since his first release via London-based label Liminal Sounds in 2014, Air Max ‘97 has positioned himself amongst the finest, weirdest and most dynamic experimental club producers. His unique brand of “nightmare dance music”, also coined, in his own words, as “oblique club trax”, has found favour with the likes of Ben UFO, Total Freedom and Ziúr, and has seen him release music on NLV Records, Trax Couture and Teki Latex’s Sound Pellegrino. Van der Lugt launched his own label, Decisions, in 2015, through which he released his impressive debut full-length, 2018’s ‘Nacre’. 

Growing up on “bait… no, good” indie as a teenager, van der Lugt got into noise, before delving into experimental music. Growing up in New Zealand with limited exposure to dance music, what exposure he did get was from raves on the outskirts of his hometown. “There were these raves in a cave on the beach!” he recalls. “It was all just drum & bass, so that’s deep in my musical DNA somewhere.” It was only in his mid-20s that Air Max ‘97 really started to deep dive into dance music, informing himself chronologically. As comfortable remixing an R&B classic as he is shelling a dancefloor with manic percussion, it makes sense that both Night Slugs and Fade to Mind have played seminal roles in van der Lugt’s club music trajectory. “It’s such an amazing onslaught of emotion and texture,” he says about the sound of Fade to Mind’s Total Freedom, and then of both labels: “I love the immersive, challenging and provocative experience of seeing those people play.” Another early influence he names is Becoming Real, whose 2010 FACT mix he still plays now. “It’s come full circle,” he goes on to say, “five years later, after speaking with Toby [Becoming Real], I’ve done a remix for his new EP and I’m playing the release party.” 

A year on from his debut album, and a year after moving from Australia to London, the latest Air Max ‘97 project has landed, the four-track ‘Falling Not Walking’ EP. The release features two collaborations with artists also impressing with their own distinctive shades of club music — Italian producer TSVI on ‘Paroxysm’, and Manchester’s LOFT on ‘Xhrinicibles’. Though he’s spent increasingly more time in Europe over the last few years, making a permanent move to London has allowed van der Lugt to turn long-established online friendships into tangible relationships, and has inspired him to invest time into collaborating with other artists. “It’s renewed my focus” he explains, “I’m getting to know these people properly and it’s an amazing direction, getting outside input, I’m learning a lot.” 

The EP’s artwork, by Melbourne-based artist and friend of van der Lugt’s André Piguet, marries together ideas of loneliness, skeletal drums and the UK’s tense political climate, as well as offering a bright palette in contrast to the dark 3D artwork you might associate with Air Max ‘97’s sphere of club music. “It was nice to do something very gestural and hands on, and quite bright in the end,” he says. “I’m interested in stepping away from some of the tropes that exist in the visual accompaniment to certain genres.” Piguet refers to this style of his work as “puddle drawings” and, for van der Lugt, the defined splash rings are also representative of his new life in London. Like any big life overhaul, the move has presented challenges, not least the cost of living for an artist creating work in a niche within a niche.  

But for those inevitable gripes about ridiculous rent and overzealous security, van der Lugt sees a unique energy in London that’s inspired by clubland solidarity. “People understand how tough it is, what a grind it is” he says, “people here work hard and they play hard.” Mentioning Corsica Studios and Rye Wax specifically, it’s small parties filled with passionate people that Air Max ‘97 appreciates the most. He finds inspiration in small pockets of creativity too, lifted by the ability for burgeoning scenes to find a platform early on, with ease of access to the distribution of music. “I love seeing these communities percolating and sharing their stuff. I’m always looking for music that’s authentic, and doing something unique.”  

Decisions is a label founded on the basis of releasing idiosyncratic “music to move people”. With past releases from the likes of DJ Plead and Oroboro, van der Lugt is excited about the label’s upcoming projects. The first, from Avbvrn, due later this month, and later Isamov, a producer from New York City whose tracks feature in recent Air Max ‘97 sets (including his Recognise mix). On other artists doing something special in the scene at the moment, van der Lugt mentions ‘Falling Not Walking’ collaborator LOFT, ASJ, Laughing Ears, Atro, Slikback, Lafawndah and Amazondotcom, as well as ‘Svbkvlt Cache 01’, a compilation from the Shanghai label that he describes as “back to front incredible.” 

The release of ‘Nacre’ last year, besides being a pivotal achievement, felt freeing for van der Lugt. “I felt like I’d got something out of my system,” he says, “like I’d purged a bunch of stuff.” The record gave him the opportunity to craft a cohesive body of work, focusing on mix downs and adding “that extra level of attention”. With an appreciation for 12” and EP releases, van der Lugt explains that he’ll apply that full-length release toolkit to singles moving forward. “I still love that form,” he says of singles, “there’s something really wonderful about trying to distil your ideas, making them succinct and impactful.” 

With upcoming shows in London, New York, Glasgow and Madrid, Air Max ‘97 also recently played a show in Hangzhou, China, in a venue called Loopy, behind the food court on the third floor of a mall. “It’s a concrete cube with a huge Funktion-One soundsystem,” he says. “I was so gassed to finally go there, the crowd was amazing, creative, young and free.” Travelling the world is an “indescribable privilege” for van der Lugt, who will never miss an opportunity to meet local people, eat in their favourite restaurants, and explore local scenes. He’ll seek out a park, a mountain or a hot spring on the road when he needs a restorative moment, and will not complain no matter how fed up he gets of airports. He also finds great fulfilment in hearing people play his music out. “That’s something I will never get tired of,” he says, before going on to stress how running a label, and being able to commit full time to honing his craft, is an immense privilege. 

Prior to moving to London, Air Max ‘97 was spending the majority of his time in Europe in Berlin. “I’d always sort of thought Berlin was my musical home,” he says. But since moving to London, realising how many friends he had waiting for him in the city, and with his music fitting as seamlessly into London’s club landscape as it does, van der Lugt is starting to reconsider. It’s another serendipitous circle, as the first couple of Air Max ‘97 records came out via London labels. “It feels nice” he says, “I’m wondering if actually this has been my musical home all along.” 

Tracklist:

Metrist 'OL Face You Got' [Timedance]
LSDXOXO 'HATESHOPPING' [PDA]
Amazondotcom 'Priestess' [Subreal]
Yre Den 'Gaseous Cryst'
Air Max ’97 'Paroxym ft. TSVI' [DECISIONS]
Atro 'Hafta'
Cop Envy x DJ Plead ????
Tzusing & TSVI 'System Alarm'
Isomov 'Hoping Mechanism'
Air Max ’97 'Ice Bridge'
onleash 'fast isolate (h-u mix)'
Cher 'Believe (AM97 Feel Something remix)'
blackhairpaleskingirlfacepalmemoji 'run and run and never stop'
Ava 'Wet'
Air Max ’97 'Xhrinicibles ft. LOFT' [DECISIONS]
Laughing Ears ????
Photek 'Knitevision'
Air Max ’97 'Use Factor 1.1'
Lurka 'Heat Mover' [Timedance]
Moslem Priest 'Source Filter'

Want more? Check out our recent Recognise features with Basic Rhythm and Ciel...

Katie Thomas is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @katietweets26 

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