A Conversation With John 00 Fleming, A Trance Legend
John 00 Fleming is a trance DJ who has been around the block once or twice. He’s been in the scene for over two decades, writing, producing, and DJing some truly groundbreaking music. He also releases music on his record label J00F Recordings. Today marks the release of his four-hour, 42-track mix compilation, J00F Editions.
He is currently on tour, and his stage setup features a DJ booth tucked away with the emphasis on music rather than on the man behind the decks. His sets during the tour are much longer than the traditional 1-2 hour sets common in today’s electronic music world. We had the chance recently to have a chat with Fleming about this mix compilation as well as his tour and the current state of electronic dance music.
(S = Sam Wangsness of EDM.com ; J = John 00 Fleming)
S: What was the motivation behind creating the compilation?
J: For this one, it was to embrace technology. I’m just a gadget freak, and that’s why I’m one of Pioneer’s developers, and I’ve done various other projects. I’m always looking for the next move forward, and get excited developing new things. I’ve done so many CD compilations in my past; I actually don’t know how many I’ve done. It must be something like 25 or something like that, and I just feel restricted with a CD—it’s 80 minutes—and it kind of breaks a mix up, so you have to stop and put it on a second CD. I was debating what to do—should I just knock CDs on the head and not do another one?—and I said well, I’m going to embrace technology, and did a nonstop, seamless mix, because that’s what I’m known for when I’m playing in clubs, doing long sets. If I release it digitally like this, it allows me to embrace a long journey, which is not stop-starting on a CD, and in today’s world, who buys CDs? It’s a novel thing which fans want and it’s something to hold, but in the real world, everyone’s walking around staring into a PDA or into their hand or their laptop. I think in the real world that’s how people want to listen to music.
S: What do you hope to achieve with it? Are there any other goals aside from just sales?
J: It’s never been about sales for me. Not once has it crossed my mind. People think that to be honest, so it’s a good point to make. It’s something that comes up quite often with fans. To me, it’s the calling card of your sound. People know me; I’m lucky that I’m established. But at some point people are going to want something different than the superstars, and those people could find me via the mix compilation. Someone could recommend it saying, “Look, you were dancing away and you said you really love that beat, but you don’t like it when it kind of does the commercial thing. You should go and check out John Fleming’s latest mix compilation.” So from there, I could get a new fan. That’s why it’s such an important tool, to help people discover me.
S: Are you trying to tell a story with this mix?
J: Not really. I think the job of a DJ has been a little bit forgotten over the last few years because producers have taken front stage. Guys make tracks, they perform on the big stages at festivals and clubs these days, and they’re just pretty much playing their own tracks. Me being a traditional DJ, people enjoy our sets because we’re unfolding a story; we’re DJs , we’re music lovers, we spend hours finding tracks, we don’t play our own productions really, we have musical tools to be able to adapt and play to a dance floor and keep a musical story very interesting, we are the rare breed that can play long sets and keep people locked into this journey, whereas the other guys, the producer-DJs, they’re only good for an hour or an hour-and-a-half set, and that’s it. Where can they go after that? They haven’t got the musical tools. I see them constantly when I’m touring. They can be playing to a crowd and they’re not getting it musically, but they haven’t got any other musical tools to change or adapt, and I don’t think they see it to be honest. I don’t think they really understand, whereas me, I look at it and think, “They’re not going for that. You’re playing too hard,” or, “You’re playing too many big hits all in a row. You need to calm down and get them into a groove.” That’s what a proper DJ can do, and that’s what I’m basically doing with this mix compilation, using the technology and giving people the musical story, as a DJ can do.
S: Do you think the crowd is moving along with those producer-DJs, or—from this huge tour you’re doing— do you think people are still open to the idea of four-hour sets and getting lost in the music?
J: Big time. I think it’s been a big gap missing from a lot of people’s lives. This “EDM” storm came in, but with it there’s good and bad, and I think the bad side is people are missing real DJs, proper DJs, doing what I just spoke about. They’re now seeing that those nights are becoming rarer and rarer, but when they come on, when we do these events—not just mine, but my colleagues’—people come in droves because it’s a rare evening these days. When I’m in town, and when I do my “J00F Editions” events, people make sure they’re not going to miss it, because it’s rare that you get DJ sets like this. I think there’s becoming more and more of a call for it.
S: The press release for this compilation mentioned that you were disgruntled with the “intrusion of commercial music into the scene.” Would you give us a brief description of what you mean?
J: It happened so quickly; I think that’s what took a lot of us by surprise, is this commercial storm kind of came in and it happened very quickly. One minute I’m in this lovely scene that I love and enjoy, next minute I’m just swamped with people that want to be superstars, people that are playing big drops and big hits, and it’s like, “Wow, I’m starting to run out of places to play.” I’m seeing all the great clubs where I used to play embrace this “EDM” thing, all the festivals where I used to play not playing the more specialist music. I’m just like, “What is going on?” All the places that I could play were slowly dying away, but it’s the complete opposite today, because people have tried the “EDM” thing. Yes, it worked for a moment, but like I said earlier, it’s starting to come back, and I’ve never seen such a big underground movement in my whole career that I’m seeing at the moment.
S: Do you think it really affects the trance scene that much?
J: It has. I think trance was the biggest genre that got affected by this, because when the storm came in, everyone jumped on trance, and trance got really abused in a big way, and then it went onto progressive house and electro wherever-else it’s gone. Trance took a real bashing, and I think only now, trance is really starting to come back. There’s a lot of superstars that were born after that, and those superstars are commercial DJs. I’ve got nothing against commercial, because that’s the gateway into the more underground world—there’s always been a process of how these cycles in the scene have worked. The commercial scene plays a very important role in the organic way that the scene works, because you get kids coming to a commercial show and they love it, and two or three years later, their musical pallet matures, and that stimulates them on the dance floor. Somewhere along the line, they’re going to come along and discover me, which I find constantly. Historically, you always had a commercial scene, then you had an underground scene that ran parallel with it. The two worlds lately were in the middle, and sat uncomfortably in the middle, and it really didn’t work. Now, they’re starting to spread again. The underground trance scene is very healthy, there’s some very good music coming around from the trance scene, and in my eyes it’s proper trance music.
S: You mentioned in a previous question that a lot of the clubs you were playing at were kind of “dying out;” they weren’t really looking for the deeper music, but they were embracing “EDM.” How did you find clubs and venues to do this huge tour?
J: Naturally, if you own a club, you need to pay bills...you have to pay your mortgage, you have to pay your lease, you have to pay staff. There’s a lot of overhead to keep a club open. As a club owner or a promoter, you’re always looking for the next thing to keep your club busy, and when you see a musical fad come along, you think, “Ah! That’s going to be good. That’s going to work. I’m going to book it into my club.” That’s what a lot of clubs did. The downfall with that is the whole marketplace got saturated with the same kind of thing. A lot of greedy agents and a lot of greedy acts started charging a lot of money, so then it became a risk. All it takes is once bad night, two bad nights, and you could lose your business completely. That’s what was happening. They were absolutely getting ripped off, left-right-and-center, and these club owners were coming to me and saying, “We’re losing a hell of a lot of money, we don’t know if we’re going to survive, we’ve backed the wrong horse. Some of the guys pull in people, but not all of them are.” They were looking at the business model they had prior to that, and saying, “Actually, when we got these guys in, they had proper, real fans, not fans generated on the internet. These are real people that these guys have built over a long time, and when we book this guy, the club is busy and we’re actually making more money because the act wasn’t ridiculously expensive like the other guys.” That’s what’s happening at the moment. All these club owners and promoters are looking back and saying, “Okay, we made a bit of a mistake here,” and they’re going back to the people that have actually got true fanbases—real fanbases I’m talking about, not where they’ve got millions of people on Facebook, because we all know you can go a buy a million fans next week if you want, but you can’t buy real fans—and that’s what club owners are doing now. That’s how we found those clubs. It was just a simple process of reaching out and saying, “Guys, look at the history we’ve had together. I’ve always filled your club. Let’s do this. Trust me, I’m a DJ, my gut feeling says what is going to be next and what is going to work. Get rid of the LED walls, get rid of the pyrotechnics. Let’s just get a bigger sound system for that night. Make it dark. We’ll hide the DJ booth out of the way, and I’ll promise you people will come.” That’s exactly what happened. It’s been very successful. That’s the roots really. Music lovers just want to hear music on a good-quality sound system; they don’t want to get distracted with all this stuff going on and people pointing cameras at a superstar. They just want to go in there and hear new music, and be entertained by a DJ proper. There’s such an easy recipe for success, and it’s working.
S: What were some of your best memories from the tour so far?
J: They’re ongoing, really. I’ve created this environment to show myself that I can do the job as a DJ that I really want to do and play the music that I want to do, because I hate going to these shows where you’ve got a bunch of people on the dance floor that don’t really get what you’re doing, so you end up having to adapt to keep them happy. I get into an uncomfortable place when I start doing that. I just want to get my head down and just get lost in my zone of playing all that wonderful music that I spent the last few weeks finding. To me, it’s made me such a happier person. I’m in a really good place. It’s continuing now; I’m in Toronto at the moment, we’ve got an event this Friday, I just had one in Boston, the weekend’s just gone, and they’re all amazing. Every weekend, I’m just such a happy guy 1) looking forward to the gig, excited like a kid; and 2) big smile on my face after the weekend saying, “That’s so good; I’m just so happy.”
S: Does it remind you of when you first started DJing?
J: It does—I’ve been playing about 25 years now and I’ve still got that feeling. When I get a new track, like a kid, it’s like, “I can’t wait to play this out,” and I get that buzz, not only when I find it, but when I play it. I always say, when that moment ends, that’s when I hang up my headphones. I really feel that if I didn’t create this tour concept, I would have got close to feeling like that, because I’m in a world that doesn’t suit me, and I’m just unhappy. I was getting like that for a little while when the “EDM” thing exploded, because every weekend there weren’t great gigs. There wasn’t a crowd that understood me and I didn’t get them. It was horrible for a while. I was like, “This is frustrating. What’s the point of me spending this time, finding this music, practicing my sets, practicing mixing? It’s pointless because I end up playing something I don’t want to play.” I didn’t do it for that purpose, but I had to find a happier place.
S: What do you think the future holds then, considering the response you’ve seen for this tour and the response you’ve seen for this coming mix compilation?
J: I think generally the scene is going to be in a brilliant place, and it’s coming, and it’s going to come soon. It’s part of the natural cycles of the scene, and I’ve seen quite a few of them in my career. This is not the first time this kind of thing has exploded; I’ve seen these commercial things come in, and all it does is fuel an underground scene. People invest a lot of money like they are into EDM; you’ve got these big corporate companies playing millions into the scene thinking they can own it, and I’ve seen it before. They don’t, because people are smart. They know what’s going on. They know what’s happening. You end up in a scenario where you’re in a scene you don’t like. You don’t want to spend a massive amount of money going to a club where it’s VIP tables, you’re surrounded by people that aren’t there for the music, they’re just there for the status thing. You want to go into a club and just dance your ass off and go mad and get lost and just have fun with likewise people. That’s what happens. Eventually people start making note those events that suit them, and they go to them; it’s just a natural process. That’s happening a lot at the moment. We’re getting requests left-right-and-center. I’m seeing new nights start up. My fellow colleagues are in good places at the moment because these new nights are starting. Good times are ahead.
S: You just want to wake up four hours later, drenched in sweat.
J: Completely! One of those nights where you walk out, there’s sunlight, you put your sunglasses on, and you’re just smiling driving home, thinking, “That was a brilliant night. I had so much fun.”
S: Did you have any inspiration for this mix that you did? Any songs or mixes you heard before? Just life events, other than your personal feelings on the subject?
J: No; the great thing with doing things like this aimed at the more specialist world is that you have completely musical freedom to put what you want on there. I have a history of being signed to the Ministry of Sound and big compilations—Virgin, EMI. When you do a compilation for those guys, you’re restricted. It’s their money, it’s their mass-marketing. To a degree you can put what you want on there, but to a degree you’ve got to give in and abide to what they want as well. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. With this one, it really reflects what I’ve been playing over the last few months. That’s what I’m proud of. It’s on my label, I’ve got full control of it, it’s a long set, and it definitely relates to where I’m at musically, so that’s why I’m really proud of this one.
S: When you go looking for this music, when you spend hours, days and weeks on it, when you come across a jewel, does that play into getting releases on your label then?
J: Yeah, that’s how I started my label, to be honest. Years ago, I was getting all these white labels. They weren’t signed to a label, and I was playing them and hammering them, and I was watching and thinking, “Why has no one signed that? I don’t understand. It’s such a good track.” Then you eventually reach out to the producer and say, “What happened?” and they’re really upset and say, “Well it’s such a good track. I just don’t understand why no one signed it.” So I thought, I’m going to start my own label, for that reason. If we wind forward 18 years, I’ve still got that ethos behind it. That’s how I still treat the label. I don’t want it to be a big, massive, commercial success. I don’t want to sell it out to a corporation. It’s just literally to discover new talent that isn’t getting the love that they should. I hear a good track and think, “That needs to get out. That needs to get into the public. People need to hear that track.” I help them as well, which a lot of labels don’t do these days; with digital labels, people just take a track and release it and that’s it. I hear a track and I go back and forth to them and go look, “It’s a good track, but it needs changing. Can you change this? Can you do that? Move the melody. Get rid of that melody. Try something like this.“ Then I help them engineer it, and we get it mastered properly, so there is a big process in the background to get the tracks on J00F Recordings to where they are. It’s that love and care and attention that we put into it.
S: Would you say you help develop the artist in terms of their art?
J: Yeah, I do, because I’m in a unique position where I’m playing out every week, and they’re not, or they’re not in a lucky position to hear their track played out. They’ll make it, and with my ears and my road-testing—with my team as well—we can say to the guy, “Look, you’ve done this breakdown. It’s far too long.” We educate them and say, “This breakdown just sucks the energy out of the dancefloor, and that’s going to determine whether a DJ plays it or doesn’t play it. If the break’s too long, it could stop them playing it, let’s do this version.” I’ll play it, and that thing will happen or the arrangement’s not quite right, and I’ll go, “We need to change this, we need to change that.” It could take a month process to get it right, and then the producer will learn from that, so as we keep doing more releases, they’ll start adapting what they learn. Eventually they’ll send a track, and they’ve got it bang on and we don’t have to do anything to it. It’s perfect. They’ve listened and learned and got it right. It’s a really nice rewarding process, to see them get in a good place from it.
S: What advice would you have for new DJs who have seen this new dance music thing and want to get into it, but they don’t want to “sell out,” so to speak, they just want to be there for the music?
J: That’s the schoolboy era that everyone does in the scene today. They know what they truly love, musically, but then they think, “I need to do a fast-track thing here, and I need to make something that’s popular. If I get a popular DJ playing it, it will suddenly be to the masses, and then I’ll keep doing that for a little while, earn some money, and then I’ll start making what I want to make.” That’s just a wrong way to do it because you’re just copying millions of other people that are doing the same thing. The way to stand out, in my eyes, is to just listen to your heart and make the music that you really believe in, that you really like, because that will be your unique sound, and that one track is a thing that will stand out. Also get a good label, get a good team behind your that know what to do with a release, because there’s so many digital labels out there that have no experience with running labels and they’re just churning stuff out like a factory. You have a good team behind it, a good established label, and they’ll know what to do and how to get your music in the right place and how to get it heard.
S: How would you look for the “right” label? What are some signs to look for?
J: I think you should know where you’re at musically. I think people have got a good idea of what they really like, or have their favorite artists and know what labels that they’re signed to and belong to. If they’re buying tracks themselves, or listening to tracks, they’ll have a pretty good idea and think, “I like the sound from that label, not so much the sound from that one.” Again, it’s doing research and getting to know what’s right for you. That’s the important thing. We—and other labels—see people are just sending tracks out to every single label possible. I think they must spend a couple weeks just grabbing email addresses from labels, and they send this mass email out saying, “Here’s my new track.” Those tracks generally don’t get listened to because—for example—why are you sending a trance track to a house label? You’re just going to upset the house label. We get enough promos as it is, instead of someone specifically targeting your label and mentioning, “I’m a big fan of your label. I like this, I like that, bla bla, I really think this would suit you.” Then you think, “Hang on a minute, this guy knows my label, he knows my artists, let’s give this guy a listen.”
Just talking about that, actually...I should add this in. I’m one of the team behind starting the UK’s first-ever music conference, and that’s in Brighton this year. It’s been two years in the making, and it’s packed full seminars and tutorials of all areas of the music industry. We’ve got talks and seminars with established artists and established DJs, companies...it’s massive, and it’s everything you need to do about all aspects of the music industry over two doors. That’s April 11th and 12th. All of us put our heads together and thought of every single angle in the music industry, whether you need press or you need social media. All the tools that you’ll ever need, we’ve covered all angles, and there’s tutorials and seminars on them.
S: How does one stand out as a DJ, with all the competition?
J: What people are forgetting is that they’re looking at the current marketplace and what happens in the current marketplace—you get a romantic story once every couple of years, some guy makes a track, he suddenly becomes big, famous, and he’s suddenly on the road touring. It’s almost like the “X-Factor” way of thinking. People are impatient. They’re looking and thinking, “We’re seeing this guy, he was working and filling shelves in a grocery store, and now three months later, he’s on the stage and he’s a pop star.” [People today] have got a short attention span. They want everything quick. When you look back at the actual names that have been around for a long time, there’s many DJs that have been established, and they’ve survived all these musical fads that have come and gone. Listen to their real stories, and then you understand how they made it as a DJ, why they made it as a DJ—we’re covering this at the conference as well, funnily enough. For example, I’ve been around for years. I didn’t get this magic ticket to success by making a track and suddenly my career took off. We put our own nights on. We looked around and thought, “I can’t get a gig. There’s no gigs for me. I’m going to make the gigs myself.” That’s what people need to do now. When I look at all my colleagues around me, they played a massive part in building the scene that we’re all enjoying today. That’s what we did, on a local level. We started our own nights, and they grew, and they got bigger and bigger and bigger, then we moved it to the next big city, and we moved it to another city, and other people grew around us. That’s the only way to get your gigs: start putting on your own events, but on a small scale that you can handle. Don’t be stupid and take a big hall for a thousand people, because you’re not going to fill it. Do something you can handle for fifty people, and keep that fifty-person thing going for months, even a year, and from that you’ll learn how to DJ, because you’ll be playing out every weekend and you’ll be playing to a crowd. Then you’ll start to learn the art of DJing. Do it the proper way. That’s my advice to people.
S: How do you start your own nights? How do you find the right venue for it? How do you find the people for it?
J: You’ve just got to use common sense. It’s about using your mates. That’s what I did. I found a pub. It wasn’t a proper club, it was just a pub, and I used this pub. You could probably get fifty people in there. I used to take a sound system and my decks in there, and I used to just say to all my mates, “You’ve got to really support me on this. I support you with other things. I really need your help in this. I just need you to come out, and come and support me.” There could be three DJs in the lineup playing, and if all three say, “Please guys, support me,” even if they bring ten people each, that’s 30 people, so you’ve almost got a full venue. But then you’re going to get the regulars that go there anyway. If you can just keep people supporting you the next few weeks, before you know it, you’ve got a rocking little night going on. I think you know the point of when you’ve outgrown that venue and move to the next size, which could be 100. It is literally relying on mates to come and support you, and then trying to think how to build it, but word of mouth is the way that the best nights in the world and the best clubs spread. That’s the way the word gets around. People talk and say, “That’s a really good trance night that happens every Monday,” or something, and you suddenly hear about it. With the internet and forums and Facebook, word can spread pretty quickly.
S: Would you say you would rather release a compilation than an artist album?
J: I think you do the two. In my eyes, those two very things are different. An artist album is showing what I make in the studio. A mix compilation is what I actually play in the clubs. That’s where there’s a bit of a grey area with the EDM thing, because the producers are DJs these days, so their artist album is pretty much what they’ll play in a club as well, where I, being a traditional DJ, see the two things very differently.
S: Do you find there’s a lot of room to experiment on your own albums, since you’re not tied to playing them in clubs?
J: Yeah, completely. Like my last artist album, I just showed what I love musically. There was some ambient stuff on it, some chillout stuff, some breaks, there was techno, there was all sorts.