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Moon Boots: How I Play Live

Long-time disco and house producer and DJ Moon Boots recently revamped his tour to incorporate a full live show. We go behind the scenes...

On the eve of his latest album 'Bimini Road' on Anjunadeep, Moon Boots was hard at work re-imagining his latest release into a seven-person live show with instrumentation replacing samples and sync. Featuring vocalists KONA, Nic Hanson, Eleanor Fletcher and Black Gatsby, bandmates from LA group St Lucia and a host of kit and instruments, it's an ambitious setup – we spoke to Moon Boots aka Pete Dougherty about how it came together, how it works, and the joys of playing live. 

What made you want to play live beyond just DJing?
“Before I started DJing and producing, my musical background was in playing keyboards. For years I felt like a DJ who was a secret piano player. I wanted to change that. Also I didn’t realise how much I missed playing in a band until I started doing it again.”

What were the biggest challenges in putting your live show together?
“Finding the time to program all the synthesizers for the new songs from my second album ‘Bimini Road’, retool them for the older songs, and conceive the show in general. Just when I was getting started on preparing for the tour, the building where I rented my studio in Brooklyn was evicted by the city – I had a deadbeat landlord. It’s been an uphill battle at times but I’m really proud of the show I put together.”

How did you decide what bits of kit to use? 
“I was determined from the outset to not use any VSTs or MIDI controllers in my setup. I reprogrammed all of the songs from scratch to make sure there were hardly any canned sounds coming from the computer. I’ve been fortunate to have two very gifted bandmates for the live shows in Ross Clark and Dustin Kaufman, who both also play in the band St Lucia. They’re both jazz nerds at heart — which I love — but also open to all kinds of things, and it’s allowed us to bring the best of both worlds in terms of musicianship and technology.”

"It’s been an uphill battle at times but I’m really proud of the show I put together"

What does your setup consist of now? 
“I started with a Korg SV1 piano. I’ve owned it for a long time and absolutely love it. I use a Roland VP-550 to vocode the backing vocal parts in certain songs. I also use the scat vocals and choir pads on the VP-550, both to play and as background textures. For synthesizers, I use a combination of the Prophet-6 and OB-6 to cover pads, leads and all of the various synth-y sounds. I also have an Akai MPD16 I use for triggering samples – vocal chops, etc – and playback. 

“On bass, I have a Moog Subsequent37, which is either played by Ross or sequenced, depending on the song. He also plays guitar and electric bass brilliantly. Dustin plays on a stripped-down acoustic kit along with a Roland SPD-SX with a snare trigger and electronic kick pedal. As the tour has gone on I’ve found myself liking the sound of the acoustic kit more and more; so now we’ll do a number of songs with him playing electronic kick with an otherwise acoustic kit. 

“My Ableton session controls patch changes to Ross’s Strymon FX pedals, along with Dustin’s SPD-SX, the SV-1, and the backing choirs on the VP-550. They’re also sending control changes continuously to the Subsequent37, OB-6 and Prophet-6. It’s a bit complicated but ultimately the set is very CPU-light since it relies so much on MIDI messages. That’s nice because my computers are getting a bit old. Last but not least my friend Grant Zubritsky helped us get things ready at rehearsals and set up a bulletproof playback rig using an iConnectivity PlayAUDIO12 and a MIDI 4+.”

What would you change about the setup if you could?
“Nothing. It’s been a process of trial and error getting where we are, and for now, I’m happy with it!”

"I think many artists want more interactivity than you get from sitting at a laptop"

What do you think is behind the current rise in live electronic music, in both more artists playing live and more tech companies creating kit specifically for live?
“Doing a live show isn’t for everyone, but it’s great for those who want to find new ways to express themselves and connect with their audience. I’m glad there’s a lot of great new gear coming out, and that a lot of it is really affordable. I think many artists want more interactivity than you get from sitting at a laptop. I’m really not a hardware purist when it comes to the studio — I’ll use VSTs if it suits the track — but for the live show there’s no substitute.”

What are the creative limitations of playing live? Would you recommend alternating between DJing and live to keep things fresh?
“Since I’m travelling as part of a seven-piece band, including four vocalists — KONA, Nic Hanson, Eleanor Fletcher and Black Gatsby, the live show is an enormous investment. I need to do a certain amount of DJing to stay above water. I don’t feel creatively limited because I know I will change up the show every time we go on tour. And that will keep it fresh for everyone.”

Is it a challenge to match the ‘produced’ sound of the record with a live band? Do you run certain ‘mastering’ plugins to beef it up? 
“It is but that’s why I make the live versions different from the studio versions. I have no problem changing the arrangements or writing totally new sections to change up the original songs. I want to give the audience a new experience, not a facsimile of something they’ve already heard.” 

“Put in the work, don’t hold back, and remember that you’re there to entertain people"

What would be your advice for a producer wanting to take their music live? 
“Put in the work, don’t hold back, and remember that you’re there to entertain people.”

As the lines between what ‘live’ is – running a drum machine alongside a DJ set, or a full-blown laptop-less hardware setup – what do you think is next for performance in the club or electronic music performance generally? 
“It’s really a bespoke thing at the end of the day. What I’m doing is really different from anyone else I’m aware of. We’re bringing a festival-level production to small clubs. We have a ‘curtain call;’ we joke that our show is like a musical revue. Anyone can call their set ‘Live’ if they want to these days, but if they want it to last and make a statement it should be something captivating and unique."