During January, Radio 1’s eternal Essential Mix dedicated four weeks of programming to their designated ‘future stars’ of 2014. While host Pete Tong made his own selection early on, he also handed duties over to several of the station’s resident DJs for their own pick of who was going to break through big in the next 12 months. With Annie Mac, Skream and Benga given their say, one of the station’s new resident DJs Steve Angello was also drafted in. He selected Dutch duo Sunnery James & Ryan Marciano. In many ways it was a safe bet for Angello.
Performing together as DJs for close to a decade, and releasing their first record in 2008, the past few years have seen them gracing the main stage of iconic festivals like Tomorrowland and Ultra Music Festival across Europe and the US respectively. They pack enough of a punch in their hometown of Amsterdam to have hosted their Amazone Project events at the stadium-sized Heineken Music Hall for the past three years running, while Stateside, their burgeoning profile has been enough to secure them a partnership with Vegas flagship club Hakkasan.
“We’re doing a residency actually for the next year and they gave us the option for another one,” James told DJ Mag. “So every month from now on we’re going to be playing Hakkasan, and also in the summer we’re going to be playing some of the Wet Republic pool parties.
“This club is amazing, it’s one of the best in the world,” he continues. “Everything is just as it should be; every club should be like that. The soundsystem, the layout, the energy of the crowd, it’s just amazing to play there as a DJ. It’s built from the ground up for the DJs, and it’s amazing.”
In terms of a DJ act that balances capable technicality with the ability to entertain huge crowds, James and Marciano represent the perfect storm; together delivering a vibrant onstage energy, a polished approach behind the decks, a sexy image that’s a no-brainer to market, as well as a sound that’s a perfectly stirred fusion of house and techno, Latin and tribal percussion, and a natural affinity with EDM bombast that’s still always tethered to a proper groove. And increasingly last year, a studio presence that’s winning them even more fans.
When DJ Mag catches up with James and Marciano, they’re holed up in a hotel in Los Angeles, reflective of the increasing amount of time they’re now spending in the States. While the pair say they’ll always identify with their hometown, the dance capital of Amsterdam where they first made their names, they now live a lifestyle that sees them sharing time equally between Europe and the US.
“In December and January we’re in Holland,” says James, “and then from February until the end of May we’re in the United States. Then it’ll be the summer again in Europe, and then we go back to the United States, back and forth. So that’s how it goes.”
During February, James and Marciano made the unprecedented choice of blocking out the entire month for studio time; definitely representing a shift for the pair. Over the years they’ve had a consistent presence in the studio, with a handful of singles and EPs supported by a more consistent stream of remixes. The shift began in late 2011, though, with their remake of Tiësto’s classic 'Lethal Industry'; a larger-than-life effort destined for the big crowds, it held equal appeal for trance dons like Armin van Buuren and pop dance heavies like David Guetta.
Last year, things were kicked into the next gear by a collaboration with fellow Dutchman Nicky Romero called 'Sound of the Underground'; a tune that had its genesis on a shared plane flight two years prior, before it was eventually brought to completion and released in 2013.
“Music-wise? Yes,” James agrees when asked whether 2013 felt like a step up. “We’d been playing around the world for nine years already, though most of the time in Amsterdam, the UK, Spain, and more in Europe. Four years ago we started travelling to the US and South America. But last year we had 'Sound of the Underground', and it got a lot of attention.”
The record was a percussion-filled stormer that arrived right on time for the festival season, and James says things starting blowing up even more for the duo immediately afterwards.
“We never released a lot of records,” James says. “We always did it on the back of our profile as DJs, and we did quite well with that just by itself. But then we started producing more, and doing some nice collabs. And that works a lot. The younger kids, they notice you more, and you see it with the new followers when you release a track. So you need that sometimes, a good record.”
When DJ Mag books some face time with the pair in early February, James is the one who takes the lead in much of the conversation. Married to Dutch supermodel Doutzen Kroes, with whom he’s expecting a second child this year, he’s extremely outgoing and charismatic. But while Marciano might be slightly less outspoken, he carries a similar easygoing sense of humour.
“Sunnery is working with me, that’s pretty cool right?” Marciano replies when asked if the pair had been working with anyone cool in the studio; a statement greeted by a roar of laughter from the both of them. The natural rapport between the pair is visceral, and it’s a big part of the vibrant energy that allows them a proper sense of showmanship behind the decks.
Though they’ve got a remix coming up for Gareth Emery, looking forward their focus will be on their own tracks. The end of February will see the release of their Ariyan collaboration 'Circus', on Tiësto’s Musical Freedom label, with another two releases set for Spinnin’ and Doorn Records before the middle of the year. Expect a tougher focus.
“We’ve always produced a little more groovy, and then played the harder tracks from different producers in our sets; but now we wanna play our own tracks,” says Marciano. “We’re always trying to produce tracks that we’ll need in our sets. So when a certain sound is really working for us in our sets, we try something like that in the studio. But still danceable,” he says, clicking his fingers. “We wanna move in the DJ booth. We can’t do the fist-pump for two hours.”
This observation touches on one of the defining elements of the Sunnery James & Ryan Marciano sound; while it works a treat on the festival main stages, there’s a heavier groove element than the drop-heavy excess heard from a lot of the other top names at the moment.
“I think so,” James agrees. “Of course, hands in the air are great, but we try to create those hands in the air moments with our grooves. Nowadays we think sometimes that all the DJs, their perspective is every minute there’s hands in the air… but that’s not our perspective.”
Once James and Marciano emerge from the studio in March, it’ll be nearly time to head to Miami for the Winter Music Conference, where in addition to playing the mainstage of Ultra Music Festival on Sunday, they’ll also be exploring the deeper grooves at a party for DJ Mag at the Surfcomber.
Before that though, they’ll be popping back home to Amsterdam for their annual show at the Heineken Music Hall, where they’ll be swapping their Amazone Project parties for the brand-new Sexy By Nature, the start of a new project for James and Marciano that will eventually see them playing parties around the world under the banner and launching a new radio show.
“We were looking for a name, and on our Facebook we kept seeing ‘sexy’ all the time,” says James. “The ‘sexy sound of Sunnery James & Ryan Marciano’… and the name stuck for us.
“It’ll start in Amsterdam, where we first got big as DJs and everything started for us, so it’ll be a good place to do the kick-off for this. It’s a new era, so it’s time for new things.”
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