“There’s no one representing young, intellectual, ethnic people, you know? There’s no one bringing out that cultural point within dance music, so we were kind of like, ‘Lets make a label that’s about us and how we grew up.'”
At 30, Seth Troxler has managed to craft an authentic entry point into the dance music scene, one that speaks to his own sensibility and the things he sees as missing from music culture at large. “What’s cool to a kid from Detroit is completely different from what’s cool to someone from London or Berlin. How you’re raised and how you feel about music, style and clothing is just from a different perspective.”
Troxler, born in a small suburb near Detroit, Michigan called Kalamazoo, got into dance music through his stepfather who DJed at a local radio station. It wasn’t until his family relocated to Detroit proper that Troxler first dipped his toes into the electronic music scene. “I was thirteen and I had met some kids and they took me to a rave during my homecoming my freshman year of high school and I knew the music already… It was the big epiphany. It was in some crazy abandoned building…I felt everything.” Soon after, he and some friends decided to embrace a spontaneous exploration of their emerging interest in music by moving to Berlin just to see what would come of it. “For a while, it was just us sleeping on my friend’s futon together trying to figure out a place to live and to get money and it slowly kind of evolved.”
That “evolution” has resulted in a highly prolific career, with over 150 gigs in 2012 alone, not to mention his fourth summer residency at DC10 in Ibiza, his own record label, an upcoming clothing line, his London-based restaurant Smokey Tails, and a cross-cultural music platform with Bronx-born DJs the Martinez Brothers. His record label, Visionquest, is his most beloved venture, though his success seems to be relative to Troxler’s own hustle. Whatever you do, don’t call his sound EDM. “It was created by a bunch of publicists and people working on this side of the Atlantic and in America and it doesn’t really have anything to do with our culture,” he insists. “EDM is a bit soulless and a kind of American-defined term for mass media. I strive to do so much more than that and there’s an art to the music that we curate and the culture that we have.”
Making a name for himself has required a general confidence in getting from Point A to Point B and, for Troxler, that’s exactly what being a legend requires. “To be a legend, you have to be an iconic figure of a time…Legendary is longevity.” He recently released a new EP “Evangelion” on Guy Gerber’s RUMORS label in April of 2015.
Indira Cesarine: So where are you from?
Seth Troxler: I’m from Kalamazoo, but I kind of grew up in the suburbs of Detroit.
IC: You’re currently living in London?
ST: Yeah, I’m currently living in London and about to move from Islington to Dalston. We had a pop-up restaurant called Smokey Tails. It was really great, it was on the river. It’s closed because it’s a pop-up outside, it can’t really open in the wintertime. It’s going to open up in May. Right now we’re working on doing a sort of American blues bar thing in Haggerston. We wanted to call it Buddies, but it’s taken. Now things are just moving forward, and we’re trying to make American experiences in London, which are really lacking. Like a family BBQ sauce, and delivering a classic, American experience in Europe.
IC: How did you go from growing up in Kalamazoo to becoming one of the top global DJs?
ST: It’s kind of funny. Kalamazoo produced Derek Jeter too. My stepfather was a DJ when I was growing up. He had a radio station with all his friends. I kind of got into electronic music through that, but it really didn’t take on until we moved to Detroit when I was 13: I had met some kids and they took me to a rave during homecoming of my freshman year of high school. I knew the music already, and it was kind of like what’s up with the music? It was the big epiphany. I was in some crazy abandoned building, it was a total experience— I felt everything. When you’re 13, everything is really fun, and crazy, and exciting. It was great. That was 2000, and ever since then, I’ve gone to a party every weekend since. I went to art school after high school, and kind of did that for a while. As soon as that was done, I was with three of my friends, one of them was working with their father selling machinery, and the other was a salesman, and we were kind of just like ‘fuck it, let’s move to Europe and see where it goes!’ So, yeah, it’s crazy. It’s all been really organic, it was never something that I was like, ‘I’m going to be this top DJ.’ It was something that I just really loved, and went out and did it. Like anything in life, you just gotta have the idea and then do it. I’m really big on that: point A to point B, there’s no kind of in-betweens in life. There are no ‘ifs.’
IC: That’s a good attitude to have. A lot of people say that they’re going to do things and they don’t follow through.
ST: It’s like, they have ’ifs’ or backup plans and they don’t go for their actual concept, maybe they don’t go for their dreams. You don’t go for your dreams if you have all these ‘ifs’ or ‘buts.’ Just be like ‘no, that’s what I’m going to do.’ Then it’s like, boom, you do it. It’s good.
IC: I heard that you moved to Berlin after that?
ST: We finished university, and we kind of just got up and moved. For a while, it was just us sleeping on my friend’s futon together, trying to figure out a place to live, and to get money and it slowly kind of evolved. I guess the biggest breaking point was four years ago, three years after I had been living there, and I had been playing in Italy quite a lot and was making records and traveling around from that. I met these Italian promoters who run this big club, so they saw me play in Rome and it was during the period that the club was closed, and they were looking for a new resident DJ and they saw me play. I had played for a couple friends of theirs and they were like ‘Next year you’ll be our new main resident.’ I was like, okay. I’d never been to Ibiza at all. I had a couple of friends play there, who had these life-changing experiences. The group of friends that they hang out with, like Jamie Jones, all met at DC10 when they were in college. I’m American, and I’m more into the underground stuff. It was that point where things really started to take off and I got really introduced to the world in some way.
IC: Tell me why you don’t like the term EDM?
ST: It’s created by a bunch of publicists, and people working on this side of the Atlantic and in America. It doesn’t really have anything to do with our culture. More so it’s an acronym for a term that combines all genres of dance music together, and has been focused on more commercial pop music. So when people say ‘Oh you’re like an EDM artist,’ a normal person thinks that they kind of associate me with David Guetta or Swedish House Mafia, and everything I do is like the complete polar opposite of that. I strive to do so much more than that and there’s an art to the music that we curate and the culture that we have, where EDM is a bit soulless and kind of an American-defined term for mass media and big business.
IC: When you think of festivals in the states like Electric Zoo, do you kind of find it very soulless?
ST: Yeah, it’s very soulless. Maybe there’s a few artists from the culture that I’m in that are there, and like raising our flag, but even the biggest artist in our culture like Richie Hawtin or these other guys, that’s not really so underground. It’s crazy because I’m a big record collector and music enthusiast, and my whole thing is a search for unknown, undefined, genre-defying music that’s really weird, and out there, and spacey, and experimental in a way where EDM is the idolization of the commercial possibilities of dance music. It’s also funny because it’s a term created by people who had no interest in our culture for 25 years.
IC: And all of a sudden they’re trying to commercialize it.
ST: Exactly. And that’s almost offensive in a way. It’s like you’re not even into this, but now you’re representing all of us? Like a ‘go fuck yourself’ type of moment.
IC: So tell me what do you have going on now. You’re gigging and performing, and doing 128 sets a year apparently?
ST: Right now I’ve created three new record labels with my three good friends from Detroit. I have a lot of ideas, and at some point you have to go your own way to do everything that you wanted to do. Like I said earlier about point A to point B. I have an idea and I want to do it. We were getting a lot of music that wasn’t fitting the brand identity of Visionquest that I really liked: some rock music, some folk music, also some kind of like big-room rave records and stuff, and so I wanted to find an outlet for this music. Over the past few years, I had met the Martinez brothers and we became really good friends and made a lot of connections, so this year I decided to create these three new projects that I’ve had in my mind for a while. One is a record label called Soft Touch that’s going to be focused on releasing soft music, kind of like indie rock, some folk, things that are good to listen to. Being a DJ and being someone that buys and listens to records, it’s far more than club records—this is music for life. I really wanted that.
IC: Are these more compilations?
ST: No, they’re all different ideas. On Soft Touch, I’m running all the artwork, signing all the acts, just putting out music that I like to listen to. The second, most ambitious project is this project that I’m doing with the Martinez Brothers called Tuskegee, which is a platform for us to release music, and make clothing based on an idea of cultural heritage, as well as our unique, American perspective. In many ways, dance music has become homogenized, and purely for the European, German perspective. In early house music or dance music, it was more of an American ethnic perspective—like Blacks and Latinos making music. Now it’s these Caucasian, German people who have taken over dance music. Even though it’s amazing (not that I’m thinking about race or anything) it’s just a different perspective on what this music is, and what the ideas are. What’s cool to a couple of kids from the Bronx like the Martinez Brothers? What’s cool to a kid from Detroit is completely different from what’s cool to someone from London or Berlin. How you’re raised and how you feel about style and clothing is just a different perspective. We saw there’s a missing point, like a block in the market – there’s no one representing young, intellectual, ethnic people, you know? There’s no one bringing out that culture point within dance music so we were kind of like “Let’s make a label that’s about us, and how we grew up, and cool and hood-house records.” And we’re also going to be making clothing. We have all these clothing ideas and we’re getting into fashion. We’re just spreading our wings and kind of running with it.
IC: What’s the clothing’s aesthetic direction?
ST: Kind of how I dress, mixed with how they dress. It’s kind of in between Ivy League prep and neo-high fashion street wear. Between Ivy League and Givenchy. I’m Ivy League-y and they’re kind of high fashion. Within our cultures, fashion trends are moving more in that way, so we want to have an outlet for people of color so they can really look at a place and define themselves. Like they’re educated, they have a degree, they’re not associated with the atypical social stereotype of urban society. If you look at rap music, it’s like this glorification of this negative stereotype. We’re just trying to give a new place for people who don’t fit into that stereotype, but are still coming from the same culture. Why just be complacent about life and ideas? Push. Work for things.
IC: It sounds like a movement.
ST: Maybe! Maybe it could turn into that. Right now it’s just us hanging out and coming up with the ideas and we’re like, let’s make them, let’s go for it. So there’s that and then there’s this other label that’s all this other music that I’ve collected from friends— kind of older, bigger artists. The first record is going to be this tune from Sharam, who was one half of Deep Dish. He made this record last year and was like “I don’t know what to do with this, Seth. It’s not really me and I don’t want it to be really weird.” And I’m like “That’s a hit, man!” I’ve got all these records from other bigger artists. They’re old pros who are making these tunes, and they don’t know where to put them out. It’s kind of a new label idea, for people who are into hot trends, so the label is called Play It, Say It. Basically, in the eighties, there were these stickers (I used to work in a record store for like six years in Detroit) they used to have these stickers on records that said, ‘When you play it, say it’ to encourage DJs when they played the record, to say what record it was on the radio so people would go out and buy it and play it.
IC: Some radio stations didn’t?
ST: It’s a pay-to-play situation in America. I’ve got a good friend who works on a major station here in New York, and was telling me how you have to pay all these fees. Basically if you want to get a song on the radio, you have to pay like sixty to one hundred grand to get to point A of mechanical stuff. It really is pay-to-play. In England, you don’t have to have that. An unknown can get radio play and can make it to #1, you know? It’s kind of like NPR, they just give the public a wide range and they’re also not part of the system where radio DJs can choose the records that they want to play. Unless you’re on college radio, DJs get a list of records every month that they have to play, and those are the only ones that they can play. With this hit record label, I just want to put out records without crazy promo just ‘Play it, Say it’ — if you like it, tell people about it.
IC: Have you thought about doing your own radio station?
ST: No, it’s just too much work! One of the people who work at our office used to be the main producer for the Pete Tong Show. Becky Avett, she was one of the main producers at BBC, and it’s funny because she’s one of the managers with my management team and she’s like ‘We could really help you out, and help you produce this show to do it every week.’ It’s just a lot of work. I have so much other stuff going on and as determined for it as I am, I’m also kind of lazy. I have a good girlfriend. I try to have a life in some ways, you know? Which is impossible sometimes, which I’m sure you know. People who are working constantly and trying to maintain a work/life balance. The more work I add, the less life I can have, which is like, where does that leave you? Because you can become this person who has all these successes in life, but at the end of your life, you’re sitting in a chair alone with all your riches and you’re alone. I’ve seen that happen with many other successful artists, and other successful DJs where they kind of lost track—then they grouped around “yes” people, it’s fucked up. I don’t want to be that guy at 45 who is some guy who’s successful but all my friends who I grew up with think I’m a dick. That would suck.
IC: What do you feel makes somebody a legendary artist?
ST: I would define ‘legendary’ as the longevity, it’s the biggest point, like being involved for so long. A great artist who has recently gotten a lot of media publicity is Nile Rodgers. I know Nile, he’s an amazing guy and is an absolute legend. He wrote “Let’s Dance” for Bowie and all the Chic songs. You can’t even start to define in your mind how many hits, or how much of a legend that guy is. The stories that are involved from decades, it’s like ‘wow.’ Maybe if I keep it up I could be a future legend, but unless you can define a time or a period in life that’s above Bowie or Iggy Pop—maybe I’m going back on myself a bit. To be a legend, you have to be an iconic figure of a time, that’s what defines being legendary. Or maybe you’re a legend because of some great act you’ve committed, good or bad. It’s super funny, my manager and I, we were watching TV and this whole thing came up about how George Zimmerman, the guy from Florida who killed that kid or whatever, was fighting this guy, DMX, for this celebrity boxing match. ‘Celebrity’ is a term that sometimes is used as ‘legend’, and he couldn’t understand what makes this guy a celebrity. Celebrity, infamous, legend, all the same. He’s like ‘what did he do? I don’t understand why he’s a legend.’ And we’re like, ‘he’s a legendary murderer.’ So to be a legend, or to create a legend, or who you are, I guess it could be many defining experiences that create that idea or people’s perceived idea of who you are. Because who a lot of these people are, how they’re perceived is much more legendary than they actually are. People think I’m this really crazy, out-there guy, and I am pretty crazy and I have a unique perspective on life. I was with my girlfriend and a bunch of friends of ours, and they’re making fun of me. They’re like, ‘You got kind of rose- colored glasses.’ I can’t see without my glasses, so I do have a different perspective from that point alone. People may say or think I’m this really crazy, wild, party-guy but I’m sitting here and you can see I’m just this normal dude who comes off kind of preppy.
IC: The Ivy League look is definitely a unique one for DJs.
ST: Yeah, it’s different. How people perceive you on a day-to-day basis. I like to look like a conservative. I don’t like Republicans, but if you saw me on the street you’d think ‘Oh, that’s a smart young whippersnapper, huh?’ People judge you, and I hate that preconceived judgment. I guess part of it is growing up a young, African American, you know? Also of being light-skinned and being educated. At some points of my life, I wasn’t Black enough to hang out with the Black kids, so I was this token Black guy hanging out with all of my Caucasian friends. I always hated having to overcome some type of preconceived idea of who I was, instead of just being Seth. In your teenage years, people have these ideas, and even you as a child have these ideas of who you have to be to fit in and be accepted by people, and I always hated that. I hated that idea so much. That’s sort of the point of us creating Tuskegee. You don’t have to be into a certain type of music, you just have to be yourself and be individual and, you too, yourself could become a legend by being an individual-ass dude, or a really individual-ass lady.
IC: So you already told me what you don’t want to be at 45, what do you want to be doing at 45?
ST: I want to be a dad who is embarrassing to my kids. That’s the dream right there. DJing less and doing more projects, having a restaurant and just being an old, cool dude. Not old but in that middle part of life, investing in projects and just making ideas happen for people, that’s the ultimate dream. I’m young now, I’m traveling, and everything is great but I don’t want to do that forever.
IC: Where do you see things evolving? Do you see yourself continuing to DJ and doing more project-based stuff?
ST: I think that’s where things are going to go for me. Just continuing to dream up bigger projects, and just trying to execute those. Whether it is with bars and restaurants, doing fashion or music. I have to leave today to go to the studio. I’m making a lot of music again and just being kind of like a culturist. A culturist and preservationist in a way: preserving what I grew up in and what’s dying out with the dance culture, and trying to preserve my ideas of things that are interesting for people to experience. That’s where I get the most pleasure— just seeing people live their ideas. Whether it’s cooking a meal or playing a party or just kind of setting some event up where everyone is together and enjoying themselves. I’ve always played my own parties, so I can sit back and kind of look at everyone having a good time, like my best friends are here, enjoying themselves at my party. At that point I’m truly happy. I guess I’m more happy seeing other people’s enjoyment than my own, which is a bit twisted, but it is what it is.
For more from our interview with Seth, pick up a copy of The Untitled Magazine‘s “Legendary” Issue 7 here!
Interview by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine
Photography by Louise Roberts for The Untitled Magazine
Styling by Sabina Emrit
Grooming by Nina Robinson