John Selway Talks Musical Experimentation and His Eclectic Side Projects
NYC-based DJ, producer, label owner, and all-around renaissance man John Selway is easily the hardest-working dude in electronic dance music. Ground-breaking and career-making accolades like having co-produced the 1992 debut release by house superstars Deep Dish hardly begin to define Selway's talent and innovative vision. He's as likely to collaborate with commercial heavyweights like Deep Dish or Carl Cox as mad scientists like The Horrorist. And the result is a formidable body of work marked by wild stylistic variety.
These days Selway is best known for his signature techno and tech house sound, with acclaimed releases on esteemed international labels like Drumcode and his own CMS imprint. So it's no surprise that he'd get booked by LINK, who have been schooling Miami on the finest underground techno all year. You can catch Selway on Friday night along with Frankfurt-based guest DJ Franklin Decosta and LINK residents.
We caught up with Selway on the cusp of his performance at Electric Pickle to talk about his prolific career and what drives his frenetic pace as a producer.
New Times: What can you tell us about your musical beginnings?
John Selway: I grew up in a musical family. Both my parents are music teachers, and I studied violin and piano for 15 years. I got my first synthesizer and some basic recording equipment when I was about 14 years old and started to learn about composing electronic music, influenced very much by '80s synth-based new wave, industrial, and other alternative electronic music of the time. But I also was very much into ska and reggae as well -- I played keyboards for a ska band for 5 years in the late '80s. But around that same time I was also discovering techno and house, and getting interested in DJ, club, and rave culture which of course brought me to where I am today.
You're known for your stylistic versatility. How has your sound changed over the years and where would you like to take it in the new decade?
I love all kinds of music, and I've been inspired to try my hand at many of them. For sure this explains why my discography is all over the place stylistically. I continue to collaborate with others, which I will always enjoy doing, and I can continue to experiment with new sounds that way. For the near future, I'm getting more focused on my personal productions. I want to make big sounding, DJ-friendly, people-moving tracks which combine influences from the styles I'm into at the moment as a DJ. I want to make techno and house that is serious, fun, with great energy, ranging from dark and far-out to musical and grooving, and also very future-positive and forward-moving.
Having collaborated with a wide variety of producers, from Deep Dish and Carl Cox to Christian Smith and Oliver Chesler (The Horrorist), what have been some of your most memorable projects over the years?
It's all memorable for me. It's hard to choose. But obviously, the strongest and longest-running collaboration has been with Christian. He's a great friend, for one. And over the years, we've developed a solid system for production that really works for us, and that I also have drawn on for my own work. We can go to the studio and really enjoy creating tracks, trying new things, but always with our signature sound coming through.
Of course, early on, working with Deep Dish was a really formidable moment. Co-producing their first release "Moods -- A Feeling" back in my old bedroom at my parents' house in Virginia, of all places. I knew we were making something really good, even while we were just fooling around and ordering pizzas. A bit later, the collaboration between myself, Deep Dish, and BT on "Prana -- The Dream" was really amazing and a lot of fun. There was a lot of good energy in the room that day, and it's completely reflected in the music.
I think however my favorite and most memorable project was working with Abe Duque in the Rancho Relaxo Allstars. It was a totally obscure, strange and funny experimental ambient super-group with a rotating lineup of members. We used to get booked to play in chill-out rooms, back when clubs had chill-out rooms anyway. We would play entire nights, alternating from DJ to improvisational live performances. Sets would start deep, slow, and spacey and end up in mayhem by the end, covering a huge spectrum of musical styles. We would set up huge tables of gear to play with and I even used to bring my violin out, and also do vocals for some performances. Often at the end of the night, we'd devolve into drunken karaoke sing-alongs with the audience. Absolutely some of the best musical experiences I've had were with Rancho.
How did your CMS label come about and what's its status these days?
I had been working on some deeper techno and minimal tracks in the mid-'90s. At the same time, I was a partner in electro label Serotonin Records. I created CSM as a sub-division of Serotonin to release my deeper stuff, and also material from friends as well as some new artists I came across. The name of the label was an homage to the first electronic project I was ever a part of, a short-lived techno band called Chaotic Sound Matrix or CSM for short. The best track we ever made together, "The Way," was kind of a blueprint for what I wanted to do with the label in the beginning.
These days, CSM is based in Berlin and run by my friend and label manager Dave Turov. We're still releasing deep and forward-thinking stuff, trying out new ideas in the studio, experimenting a bit. The next release coming up is "Poplock," which is Dave's latest project. He's doing interesting things with a very musical blend of techno and jazz at the moment, and the release has a really awesome remix from our friend Pär Grindvik, who is definitely one of my favorite producers in techno nowadays.
How has releasing work on European labels like Drumcode benefited your career? Do you think Europe is the only real arena where EDM artists can hope to find lucrative success?
My career has always been stronger outside of the USA. It's just the way things have been since the beginning. For the most part, the music I'm into producing and DJing is far more successful and supported in Europe and around the rest of the world. Right now, my favorite place to DJ and my strongest market is South America. It's always been tougher to get over at home, even in my own city. But opportunities do come up for me to show what I've got. And there is obviously a lot more support for electronic music in the States as of late. Although, there are new styles and new artists in scenes I'm not so much a part of that are making the biggest waves over here. In general, I feel positive and I'm glad more people are listening and dancing to electronic music.
What have you been up to in 2010?
The same as always -- producing, collaborating, remixing, DJing. But also recently something new: I've started teaching Ableton Live classes at Dubspot, a DJ and music production school here in NYC. It's proving to be very rewarding. And I'm enjoying getting into a teaching role, sharing my experience with students, who are discovering how to get into doing what I do. It's kind of inspiring. I get a lot from their energy and enthusiasm.
You seem to be one of the hardest-working, most relentless, and prolific professionals in the EDM industry -- DJing, running a label, juggling numerous simultaneous projects in the studio, and now even teaching! What inspires you and motivates you to work so frenetically?
Music is my life, plain and simple.
What can Miami expect during your performance at Electric Pickle?
A DJ set with a blend of really upfront, fresh techno and tech house. At my best, I really try to take people on a trip, not play the same energy level or style for too long, but build energy up and down in waves, keeping things spontaneous and fun. But whatever I end up doing, as long as I keep people dancing and smiling, I'm satisfied.
John Selway. With Franklin Decosta, LINK residents. 10 p.m. Friday, October 8. Electric Pickle, 2826 N. Miami Ave., Miami. Ages 21 and up. 305-456-5613; electricpicklemiami.com.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.