Laidback Luke on the Moment He Knew He Had to Stop Drinking

Laidback Luke
Laidback Luke
Courtesy of Listen Up Music Promotion

Laidback Luke is wearing a black flattop Nike hat. His bedroom, or at least the part of it visible on Skype, is decorated in all black and white. It makes sense this guy likes South Beach. He basically sleeps in a room that looks like the Cadillac Hotel. He's with his three kids and wife, so we have only 20 minutes to talk, he says. "I've been DJ'ing for two decades now, which, when I think about it, is a really long time."

In those two decades, Luke has been a chameleon, adapting to EDM trends and consistently transcending them. But it took a while to perfect the formula. "You know, my first couple of years DJ'ing, it was terrifying," the 39-year-old says. "I'd get the sensation that someone was going to kill me during a weekend. I'd walk up to the decks, and my hands would be shaking, and at that time, I DJ'ed on vinyl, and to actually put the needle at the beginning of a track was impossible. I'd just drop the needle somewhere and rewind the track until I had the beginning."

Luke, in many ways, has been around EDM since its infancy. It was the truest of underground revelations back then, a movement where music geeks like Luke would get together to listen to their favorite tracks stitched together by endless drum loops. "When EDM was beginning, it was real people doing it out of love and passion for music." Luke's transition from raver to DJ began in the techno realm.

He speaks about the genre with reverence. He's not a house DJ, he says. He's a techno DJ who plays house. His influences include Jeff Mills, Frankie Bonez, and Carl Cox. But the strict confines of techno eventually forced Luke to look elsewhere. "I needed to break away from techno because at a point, all I could program was drum loops, and I couldn't add any vocals or chords or melodies because that wasn't techno. So I really got tired of that. With house, electro house, and EDM, I have the freedom to add more musicality to my tracks."

But there's also a downside to producing and DJ'ing house. "It's different," he admits. "You have all these bandwagoners — these DJs pretending to be something else. You have people who don't produce music coming out as if they are producing music. It's a tricky environment. All I can do with that is keep going, just stay positive. This is what I love to do. I love this music, and I love the scene."

Luke looks at EDM as a concerned parent would. "There's a kind of arrogance in DJs today, and the way I try to DJ is to see myself as part of the audience. I'm just another raver." He smiles widely, as if remembering the days when he really was just another raver.

He wants his music to feel organic and honest while also making people jump and shout. It's a fascinating artistic process to watch. The last song on his album Focus is exemplary of that inner struggle. It's titled "Don't Hesitate" and stands out from the rest of the tracks in the sense that it isn't party music or anything close to it. You can feel Luke trying to evoke nostalgia and pain. He's taking house, perhaps the most pleasure-driven style of music out there, and trying to make it something more insular and vulnerable. "'Don't Hesitate' is my favorite song on the album," he admits. "It's something that I can listen to forever in my car. When I listen to it, the emotion is so much more than just a climax and a drop. It's music that can touch you emotionally in a lasting way. That's the real power of music."

Luke has always strived to be more than a producer. He wants to be an artist, and in an industry where the top brass are accused of selling out with every new single, that's not an easy thing to do. "There needs to be a balance. I play 50 percent for the crowd, 50 percent for me, and I'll only play stuff that I really like on both counts. There's a bunch of pop stars that I just won't play in an EDM set — doesn't matter how big a hit it is."

The compromise between art and fame has been a slippery slope for as long as art and fame have existed. At first glance, it appears Luke has found a healthy compromise of both, but he explains it's a lot more complicated. "A lot of the DJs in the scene — we accept them to be alcoholics. I look at a lot of them, thinking, Wow, they have no personal life. The only thing they do is get drunk. If you were to interact with this type of person throughout the week or on, like, you know, a regular basis, you'd think they totally screwed their life up. But in my scene, as a DJ, this is totally allowed. And I used to be like that too.

"I'm going to get very honest and personal with you, because I think this is important. I had two burnouts in my life: one when I was 20 and one when I was 30 years old. I couldn't deal with any sort of stress; I would watch TV and get panic attacks; I couldn't move or get out of bed for two weeks. It was quite severe. When I was 30, it had to do with drinking. I was at the point where I was drinking at every show, was getting drunk way too often, and there's no recovery time when you're on a heavy DJ schedule, and I was out of control. But the one thing that made me really want to quit drinking was when I realized I was being a bad dad. There was this incident where I came toward my youngest son and actually... it was that bad. I got physical with him — not too physical, but I did get physical, and that opened my eyes. And I was like, Oh my God, I have turned into a monster, and do you want that? No, I want to be an amazing dad. I don't want to be the bad guy that my kids are afraid of. I needed to stop. And I did — cold turkey. Haven't looked back ever since."

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Luke's past struggles and vulnerability seep into his live sets. These days, he plays for both the audience and himself. "I try to DJ according to that feeling of letting go... A set isn't a playlist. I try to seek what the crowd feels, and it builds up to a level where I have everyone connected to the music. And when that happens, it's a spiritual environment." So the party animal became the Kung Fu Panda. He's spreading the message that DJ'ing is the ultimate responsibility. Music, for Luke, is about empathy. "When I play, I hope the audience connects with it too — that way we all connect, and in this world, where we often feel alone, maybe we aren't anymore."

Ultra Music Festival with Laidback Luke, Afrojack, Armin van Buuren, Avicii, Carl Cox, David Guetta, Dubfire, Eric Prydz, Hardwell, Jamie Jones, Kaskade, and others. Noon Friday, March 18, through Sunday, March 20, at Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets cost $324.95 to $1,249.95 plus fees via

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301 Biscayne Blvd.
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