By Jacob Katel
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You'd be forgiven for assuming Steve Lawler is a bit of a drama king. The pioneer of a dance music subgenre known as twisted house, Lawler has developed a sound that is shifty and mercurial morphing from the make-no-apologies swagger of disco to wiry knots of tech-house before settling into electro's greasy grooves. It is a dark, hedonistic aesthetic complemented by the multimedia spectacle Lawler assembles around his DJ sets. With matrixes of darkness, light, flesh, and fantasy, his shows are part Antonin Artaud, a bit of Vegas schlock, and all Lawler.
The Britain-based DJ/producer has transplanted this dark carnival from his vaunted residency at Ibiza's Space to gigs in Italy, Brazil, Argentina, and the U.S. At a recent Miami show, Lawler reconfigured South Beach's crobar using large drapes of cloth that hung from the club's ceilings.
"I wasn't fond of the shape of the room, so we went in and created false walls," Lawler remembers. "You have the bar area ... and then you'd go through these big, black curtains and onto the dance floor. We had words flashing on the walls and hanging props."
The crobar installation is but one example of Lawler's obsessive creativity, and attention to detail and willingness to experiment have made him one of the most celebrated DJs of this decade. His live sets are among the most coveted in all of dance music, and though it is difficult to convey aurally the sheer spectacle of his shows, his Lights Outmixtapes have captured the spirit if not necessarily the pageantry of his performances.
What culminated on the stages of the world's largest clubs began in secret. Acid house's summer of love ended on an unhappy Monday note. The British government cracked down on this frightening new youth movement, and the scene's denizens were driven further underground. A sixteen-year-old Steve Lawler had just finished school and began DJing at various underground parties around Birmingham. "The only way I could play the music in front of an audience was to do illegal parties," recalls Lawler, who is now in his early thirties.
From 1990 to 1994, Lawler did the DJ drudge work: pressing mixtapes to give to unresponsive promoters, playing parties for free, and spending more time on the decks than off. "A couple of times I wanted to sell my records and fly off to India," Lawler quips.
But in 1994 he received a call that would change his life. "I had no money, and I was struggling to live. The owner of Cream [James Barton] got my number from someone else. He called me and said, 'I want to make you a resident,'" Lawler remembers. "This was when [Cream] first started, and it was the biggest, most popular night in the whole of the UK."
After establishing himself at that club, Lawler moved on to Ibiza. He played daily marathon sets at Café Mambo as well as helming Pacha's decks three nights a week. And as he continued to scale dance music's global hierarchy, he was also cementing the aesthetic that would become known as twisted house. An early influence of Lawler's was Danny Tenaglia. The legendary New York DJ/producer's epic scope, cinematic flourishes, and conceptual approach intrigued Lawler and provided a template for him when he began producing his own tracks.
"My vision comes from Danny Tenaglia and Junior Vasquez back in the Nineties, when it was all about drama for them," Lawler comments.
Lawler's breakout production, 2000's "Rise In," made it onto twenty different compilations, including notables such as Pete Tong's Essential Mix, Bedrock Records' Foundations, and United DJs of America Volume 17. Though "Rise In" paved the way for a lucrative career in production work including his latest concoction, "The Conjure," a house remix sanctioned by the makers of the movie and its soundtrack The Skeleton Key Lawler's Lights Out franchise endeared him to audiences worldwide.
An outgrowth of Lawler's by-then legendary live sets, 2002's CD Lights Out 1explores the experimental, dark side of house music, while 2003's Lights Out 2has a more uplifting, resplendent vibe the sort of mix you would hear at clubs after hours. "[Lights Out 2] went for more of a funky, chunky house direction kind of like the sets you would get going up on the Terrace in Space at Ibiza or Miami," Lawler says.
Although they might differ stylistically, both discs portray Lawler as an unremitting experimentalist the sort who dares to take the edgier route, incorporating elements of hard tribal house and dark, progressive UK house.
This month marks the release of Lights Out 3, the two-CD finale of this massively successful series. On the new discs, Lawler eschews full songs for forward-thinking tracks with beefy bass lines, intricate drum patterns, and euphoric female vocal samples. Featured cuts come from tech-house remixer of the moment Trentemller as well as progressive house stalwarts Swain & Snell and Drax & Gooding.
Together all three Lights Outcompilations constitute a good eight-hour DJ set. "People know you can put the three albums next to each other and they'd make sense as if they were an eight-hour set," he says. "The Lights Outalbum is supposed to reflect the dance floor of a Lights Out party.
"We're having a huge red-velvet curtain lining hung in front of the DJ booth. They're going to be closed until I come on," Lawler explains. "When the curtains open, there's going to be fire and performers in a black room."
For anyone still having second thoughts about making it out to the show, Lawler reveals, "This is the final Lights Outtour, and nothing like this has been done in clubland. It's been done in concerts and theaters, but not by a DJ in a club."