HOW JOHN DIGWEED MADE AN EIGHT-HOUR MIX COMPILATION AND LEFT FANS WANTING MORE
There are some things you’re definitely not going to see at a John Digweed set. These missing elements include, but are not limited to, excessive fireworks, Jesus poses, a distracting contingent of hangers-on high-fiving in the DJ booth, Grey Goose swigging, a video screen displaying the lyrics to songs, lazy mixes, and calls on the mic to “fucking jump.”
What you will see is an understated figure intently trained to his CDJs and mixer, glancing out occasionally to gauge the temperature of the room. This has long been John Digweed’s demeanor in the booth, from his formative years as a resident DJ in his hometown of Hastings, UK, through to his current status as a dance music lifer.
While he’s also a producer and the boss of long-running label Bedrock Records, Digweed is known first and foremost for his exceptional skill as a DJ. Different genre tags have followed him, from the halcyon days of progressive house to the broader church of house and techno, but his steely focus hasn’t faltered. That ability to build a set, to take a crowd from eyes closed to hands in the air, is the John Digweed brand of pyrotechnics.
Over his three decades as a DJ, the best place to experience Digweed at work has been in a club with a generous set length. Since 2012, however, he has channeled some of those hazy nights into the Live In… compilation series. Each instalment has captured a different vibe inspired by its location, from the peak hour drive of Live In Slovenia to the chunky house grooves of Live In Argentina, but the careful construction remains consistent. The last entry in the series, Live In South Beach, was released in June 2015, stretching a set from Treehouse during Miami Music Week across three discs.
After releasing his Re:Structured compilation last December, Digweed was in no hurry to lock down another live mix. Then, on a whim just before Christmas, he listened back to a recording of a set he’d played at Montreal club Stereo in October 2015. At 11 hours long, it wasn’t exactly compilation friendly, but Digweed couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a magical set from a night when everything went right. He decided then that the set—or most of it, at least—needed to become Live In Montreal.
Digweed records every single set he plays. It’s a habit that started when he was a beginner DJ, listening back to Digital Audio Tape recordings so that he could make improvements. “I have this vault of DATs from the 90s,” Digweed tells me in his downtime between Coachella weekends. “I used to do a gig and would listen back. I’m a perfectionist and my biggest critic. I want it all to be right.”
In conversation, Digweed comes across as the methodical and temperate guy you’d expect from watching him DJ. He speaks softly and deliberately, with a very English wariness of self-aggrandizing. If a set falls short of his best, he says, no one’s going to convince him it was amazing.
The night in Montreal was just another set recorded for future reference—releasing it was never on the DJ’s mind when he stepped into the Stereo booth. “If I went in thinking, ‘This is a live recording that I’m going to put out,’ it’d do my head in,” he says. “We didn’t even have a camera man there taking pictures, so there’s no visual document. It was just another gig.”
Once he resolved to release the recording as a compilation, Digweed and his team started the daunting task of clearing all the tracks he’d played with their respective labels. The call was made to release eight of the 11 hours—surely, Digweed wagered, that would be more than enough for fans. Previous Live In… mixes haven’t exceeded four parts, so the decision to release a six-CD box-set (in 2016, no less) was an audacious one. The first 1,000 signed volumes sold out on presale. More copies were swiftly pressed and signed, and only 40 of those now remain.
Following the first wave of enthusiasm from fans when Live in Montreal was shipped in late February, Digweed is now releasing the set’s final hours in an additional three-CD ‘Finale’ sleeveyou can slot inside the box-set. “The feedback we got was, yes, it’s so much music, but it’s still not the complete set,” he says with an incredulous laugh.
It’s not every weekend that Digweed is able to play 11 hours. So how exactly does one of the masters of the game take on a task that epic?
When Digweed cued up his first track at Stereo on that night in October, the club’s doors had just opened and the dancefloor was empty. It was 2am. Stereo is renowned both in Montreal and further afield for its after-hours license, a distinction that draws a clued-in, endurance-ready crowd. Its philosophy most weekends is simple: choose a DJ who’s adept at going long, and give them the open-ended opportunity to do so.
When asked to describe what makes Stereo the perfect setting for an extended set, Digweed’s voice becomes reverential. “They have a hand-built sound system that sounds unbelievable. It’s the closest thing to [legendary New York club] Twilo, I’d say. It’s got a beautiful warmth to it, and there’s this sprung wooden dancefloor that allows people to dance for a long time without fatigue on their feet.”
Digweed was tentatively booked to play through to 10am, so he started with ambient and downtempo selections, something he rarely gets to do. “I played the very first record through to the last that night,” he says. “There was no rush to get people on the dancefloor, because I knew they were going to be in it for the long haul.”
At Stereo, the acceleration phase of Digweed’s set was paced across several hours. On any given weekend, he’s likely to play at least one festival slot, and that’s not the arena for a steady build. With the Montreal after-hours crowd locked in, he could “gradually notch up the BPMs, going to 110, 114, 118, 120, and on. Every time I nudged up the energy just a fraction, there was this reaction from the crowd.”
Like other selectors of his stature, Digweed seems bemused by DJs who go for instant gratification in a set. “It always amazes me when a DJ comes on and starts with the biggest track of the moment,” he says. “Three records in, the set has peaked, and no one’s putting their hands up any more.”
The middle section of the Stereo session, captured on the CDs four through six, saw the DJ calmly quickening the pulse with tracks from the likes of Guy J, Noir, Clarian, Lee Van Dowski, and Tigerskin. Then as the BPMs ratcheted up, he dropped the propulsive big-room weapon “Murder Was The Bass” by Bedrock recruit Eagles & Butterflies, and watched all the tension in the club “explode.” It’s just after this peak moment that the compilation comes to a close—or at least that was the plan.
A couple of days after we talk about Live In Montreal, Digweed calls back to say that he’s got some news: he’s adding those three extra discs to the compilation. His fans have made it known they want to hear the set’s closing phase.
As soon as Digweed saw the initial reaction, his team went back to clearing tracks for the last three hours. It turned out to be a lengthy process, as Digweed had played a few records signed to major labels. After waiting and wrangling, the final 29 tracks were secured at last, bar just one song by Depeche Mode, who routinely turn down compilations. That track aside, the full 11 hours are intact and unedited.
Discs seven and eight keep up the intensity of their predecessor, while nine showcases the set’s soft landing—that warm, enveloping stretch at the end of the night when only the true believers are left on the dancefloor. “There’s a more atmospheric mood at that point,” Digweed says. “When I got to about midday, I thought, I have to started winding this down.” He pauses and laughs. “Then it took me 45 minutes from there to find the record I wanted to end with.” That send-off track, which now closes the compilation, is the tingly Boys Own mix of Sunscreem’s early 90s classic “Perfect Motion.”
Digweed credits the one-of-a-kind night captured on the mix to all the elements coming together perfectly at Stereo. “The club is a DJ’s dream,” he says. “That’s really the only way I could describe it.” He’d be too humble to admit it, but if the rapid sellout of the set is any indication, Live In Montreal is a Digweed fan’s dream compilation too.