Ivan Smagghe is a free spirit. A Parisian DJ and a producer now settled in London whose artistic independence has led him to chart a singular musical path at the crossroads of new-wave, disco, rockabilly and techno. Some might call him the dark prince of underground electro, but he couldn’t care less. What’s underground anyway? By Antoine Remise.
How did you start being a DJ?
It was an accident. I never really wanted to become a DJ. I always bought a lot of records. One day, I was asked to play records and then I just kept on doing it. I’m not even sure that I still want to be a DJ. Playing records in a nightclub is not something that particularly fascinates me.
What is your approach of DJing?
What I’m interested in is music and discs, not the whole clubbing thing. I’m not miming hearts with my hands and I don’t have a thousand machines. I could do DJ sets where everything explodes at one point, I know the tracks to do that and it’s not complicated, but it’s not what I’m after. It’s another approach to DJing. Some think first about the discs they play and some think about the effects they produce on people. There should be a compromise between the two. As for me, I’d rather play a disk that less people would really like than an easy track that I know everyone would love.
When you play, we feel that you wish to disorient and surprise the people in a club. You impose your universe and it’s “take it or leave it” in a way.
It’s not true because when you’re a DJ, you don’t try to impose something – it doesn’t work. You have to make concessions to the moment, to the people, the sound system, yourself. I have never entirely played the set I would have liked to, and that’s fortunate because I doubt the crowd would be very pleased.
You are known for always finding and playing unknown but incredible gems. Can you explain why a song would attract your attention?
No. It’s totally intuitive. I listen to a lot of music and I quickly know if a disc will suit me or not. I don’t have access to impossible things, you just need to dig and not be lazy. First of all, I listen to the music I like. I’m not obsessed with finding a disc to play. There are discs I play that I don’t find especially interesting because there is this basic functionality in DJing, which is to make people dance.
Are you still frequently surprised by what you are listening to?
Yes. I never understood the people who say that music is not that good anymore. There are always good discs. Very surprising discs are rare but that has always been the case. Then there are trends that I don’t like, but I just don’t listen to those. It would get on my nerves for nothing, it’s pointless.
You are often mentioned as one of the main influences in underground electronic music. How does that strike you?
I don’t know what underground means. Where does it start? I don’t know where the limits are between underground and overground. Luciano was underground but he’s not anymore. Ricardo (Villalobos) is still underground. It’s so subjective and it’s not a distinction that is important for me. On the other hand, I think there is a lot of conformism with people who claim to be underground. I would prefer a commercial artist who is sincere than someone supposedly underground but who is only copying.
In a cross interview you had with Chloé and Thomas More, you asked them an interesting question that I also wanted to ask you. What do you do when being different has become a new conformism?
Be sincere. You don’t have to worry so much about what’s being done around you and what people think of you. I’m not saying that I manage to do it all the time though.
When describing your musical universe, it is often said is that it is deviant, nagging and quite dark. Do you agree?
Not at all. Nagging and deviant maybe but I don’t have the feeling of being very dark. I don’t know what being dark means anyway. It’s not my job to label my own work and include it in some boxes of musical description. It would be the end of me.
There is a proximity between Andrew Weatherhall’s work and yours, and you have collaborated several times. How does it work between you two?
We play a lot together and he’s someone who was important when I was younger, musically speaking. I met him quite late, when I arrived in London. We share the same ideas on what is an original and sincere disc. Andrew and I are not necessarily obsessed by the right disc to play, but then thinking like this influences the music you end up playing.
You have a duo with Tim Paris called It’s a Fine Line. An album is on its way. Can you tell us more about it?
With Tim, we are only trying to do stuff we like without setting ourselves any barriers. Of course you try to come up with something that makes sense but it won’t be an album with by-the mile house music for sure. We don’t care if people will end up playing our tracks in clubs. It’s not our ambition. The album is almost finished and will come out this summer.
You two are not real musicians. How did the recording process go?
It would have served us badly if we were real good musicians. I never had this complex of not being a musician in electronic music. I think it was invented and made by non-musicians.
Ivan Smagghe plays at Wake Up Call on Apr 5.