We Spoke with Toolroom's Mark Knight on the Art of DJing and Lessons in Musical Integrity
Mark Knight has long been a leading figure in the global house scene.
As the captain of Toolroom Records, Mark Knight has steered the ship of one of underground music's most prolific labels. Coming up on 15 years next year, Toolroom Records has long maintained a close relationship with its fanbase as one of the most popular labels on Beatport. In recent years, Mark Knight has spearheaded Toolroom Academy, giving fans direct access to to professional courses taught by artists themselves in the art of production and mastering.
Right now, Mark Knight is wrapping up his All-Knight Long Tour, a 15-date tour offering fans the chance to see Mark take over the booth from open to close. Branded as 6+ hours a night, fans are given the opportunity to be guided through a musical journey that dives into deep cuts without genre restrictions.
We caught up with Mark to discuss the tour, why marathon sets are an important highlight in a DJs career, and the importance of maintaining artistry and integrity as a DJ.
EDM.com: You’re currently on your All-Knight long tour where you’re performing 6+ hours per show, what prompted this idea?
Mark Knight: What I wanted to do was pick the best DJ clubs that I like around the world, clubs that would really support the idea of playing all night long because you can’t do that everywhere. We chose 15 of my favorite clubs and it was just something I wanted to do because when you’re on tour headlining shows, there is an obligation to a certain degree to come in and play records that people want to hear – it's not necessary but there’s a certain level of expectation. Two-hour sets don't allow as much creativity perhaps as I like, because I’m only doing a small session. That was the notion, "I’d love to do so much more in this club," and has really done well so far. I think all of them have sold out and all the gigs have been great.
[W]hen you get the chance to program [the record] for the exact right time and you get the response from the people, the gratification from that is immense.
You helped produced a short film Odyssey discussing the art of DJing. In your eyes do you think club culture has suffered due to the shortened 1-2 hour sets that a lot of music festivals have started to dictate?
100%. Everything in life now is instant gratification, we have no time to take on anything that doesn’t last longer than a 30 second Instagram video. We’ve lost that little bit as a society. Right across the board, not just in clubs, so it’s nice to go back and do something that are a bit more drawn out, that are a bit more thought out. I definitely think club culture has suffered from it but I think the tides are turning. I think club owners are realizing that there’s certain DJs that can do it and make it work very well. It obviously probably saves them a lot of money not having to program lots of different acts on one night.
I think we’re seeing things change. In EDM as well because the sort of “demise” of EDM where those DJs only come to play for an hour or an hour and a half – that is fading away as tech-house and techno take front and center stage. And that [scene] has always been about much longer soundscapes.
Talking about the marathon DJ set – Why is that such a special experience for a DJ?
I think if you’re in the right environment, and if you’re a DJ for the right reasons, you want to play people records. Like, "I found all this music and I want to play it for you!" And that’s what it’s all about, the fact that you get paid for it as well is a bonus! If you truly love music and got into for that reason, and that reason alone, you have all this music and you’re just looking for the forum to actually be able to play it to people in the right way. To enjoy all different styles and all different types of music (within a certain parameter) and to be able to do that and have people enjoy what you’re playing. It’s such a highlight because you can get through so much music, because there’s records that you have that you sit on. Where you think, "I love this record," but in a two hour set it’s just not the right place in time for it to make sense. So when you get the chance to program [the record] for the exact right time and you get the response from the people, the gratification from that is immense. For me to be able to go do that for people all over the world at the right clubs is a really special thing.
After a while, I don’t know maybe because of sheer volume, you become this cocoon of sound and you lose track of time and everything. You’re just thinking of you’re you’re constantly gonna keep it flowing, looking at the dance floor thinking, "Okay, don’t push it too hard, or push it up a little bit more to get people’s attention."
What’s your personal record for a set?
14 hours in Miami once, that’s the longest I’ve ever played. You lose track of time, really. Before you know it you realize it’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon because you’re immersed in it. After a while, I don’t know maybe because of sheer volume, you become this cocoon of sound and you lose track of time and everything. You’re just thinking of you’re constantly gonna keep it flowing, looking at the dance floor thinking, "Okay, don’t push it too hard, or push it up a little bit more to get people’s attention."
I went back to my room after [the 14 hour set] and it took me 3 hours to wind down because I’ve been in this environment for such a long time. That’s definitely my record, I’ve done 10 hours but 14 is my longest. I don’t know how people do 24 hours, that’s beyond me. That’s definitely more than I can do, The Martinez Brother and Danny Tenaglia have done crazy long sets and that’s definitely more than I can do. Hats off to them.
Outside of New York and Miami, the US club scene largely stops at 2am. That often pushes late night music to illegal venues, where it begins to develop a bad reputation… Do you think that could be a contributing factor for why the US lacks the ‘appreciation’ of the artistry of DJing?
It definitely helps, in Europe there’s an enormous culture of after-hours – and there’s pluses and minuses to both. Because if it’s continually there it can lose the fact that it’s quite special. It drains people if they’re out until 9-10 in the morning. There’s something to be said about leaving people wanting a little bit more. But I think 2am which is generally the norm across the States is a little bit short of that. I think there could be something between the two where you get to enjoy a little bit of after-hours culture and that music that really works at that time as opposed to dragging it out. Like in London you can go out on Thursday and stay out until the following Thursday, but at the same time it knocks the steam out of people. But it is a shame that the laws are so stringent in the United States, 4-5 am would be much better. It allows people to experience a much different vibe post-2am.
Aside from DJing, you also founded Toolroom Records which has been a success with fans. With a lot of major labels owning the gross majority of music, how important is it for you to maintain your independence?
In the past we’ve had offers to sell, but I think that it’s about keeping control of the vision of the brand, really. When SFX went around buying everyone they wanted to buy Toolroom but we didn’t feel like we would have the right creative control. We very much felt like they were buying to just build a database instead of loving what we were doing. So I think it has been really important to us to maintain our vision of where we want to go with the brand. We have really big aspirations so it’d have to be some instant offer to even contemplate the notion of seeing. We’ve got so much more to do, not only on the recording element and maturing that into a more album based projects but also with Toolroom Academy that we’re now doing which is taking off really well. So creative control is really important to us right now.
To continually to have done so well on that is something that we’re happy with, that statistic is based on facts. Time is very intangible, one minute the label is very en vogue and the next minute they’re not.
What have been some of your proudest accomplishments with Toolroom?
I never really sit back and reflect on it because you’re always thinking about what you’re going to do next. We’re 15 next year which is quite a milestone for an independent label so I suppose that’s a rather big accomplishment; that we’ve been able to maintain in such a difficult time for financially in music and still be around 15 years later.
Obviously the [business] model was built around Beatport which has always been a barometer of our success. To continually to have done so well on that is something that we’re happy with, that statistic is based on facts. Time is very intangible, one minute the label is very en vogue and the next minute they’re not. And we’ve never really tried to worry too much about that, we just look at metrics. And we’ve probably been one of the biggest if not the biggest label on Beatport in the last 15 years and that’s something that I get great satisfaction from. To debut in a global marketplace and be on the top of our game 15 years later.
What is Toolroom currently working on? How about upcoming Mark Knight projects?
Well Toolroom Academy is currently a big focus, we’re seeing an incredible response to that and we’re really going to grow that. People are learning from actual artists, not a YouTube course that’s a really broad brushstroke in terms of how to make music. People are learning directly from artists that they aspire to be and who have had successful careers.
For me personally I’ve been working on a band project for the last 6 years which will hopefully see the light of day next year. We’re having some interesting conversations with people right now about how we project the album because we’re going to take a very different approach to how we put it out there. It’s very very different musically, I suppose it could be akin to The Chemical Brothers, it’s more on that spectrum. The idea initially was born out of working with Underworld and producing their album. It’s a project that I’ve been working on in tandem with everything else which is why it’s taken so long, but it’s finally finished so we’re just thinking about a really interesting way we can launch it.
Working on a different project can help tap into different creative facilities…
It’s been really great because I went back to how I made music initially, with no rules or restrictions. The thing with Beatport is that it does put things into a box, people like a formula and they like you to stick to it to a certain degree. There’s creative parameters within that, but you tend to do the things that works and change the ingredients a bit and evolve as the technology and sound evolves. But with this I can be like, ‘Alright, let’s do something that I would normally never ever do,’ and it’s been really inspiring. And I think that inspiration reflects when you go back and work on the more day-to-day projects because you’re reinvigorated and then you can draw on that and are interested to do it again. So it’s really helped keep me inspired on many levels, it’s been a really interesting project to work on and I really hope that it’s well-received. It’s by far the best thing I’ve ever done, I’m so happy with it I can’t tell ya!
The biggest piece advice I would give is to stick to something that you genuinely love. Don’t chase trends, don’t try to be the 'it thing' of the moment...You won’t always be the hottest act at any given time but you’ll always have the integrity to walk away knowing that you did what you love doing.
Talking about The Academy and teaching a new generation of students about DJ culture, are there any pieces of advice, or things that you wish you had known that you would like future generations to be aware of?
The biggest piece advice I would give is to stick to something that you genuinely love. Don’t chase trends, don’t try to be the 'it thing' of the moment. Everyone has their own individual take on music, that’s what is so great about it is that it’s so subjective. And everyone has their own opinion about what they like, and I think the idea is to focus on that and work with that. Don’t try to be someone else, the only way you make yourself different and unique in the marketplace is to stick with what you like musically and to ride it out through thick and thin. You won’t always be the hottest act at any given time but you’ll always have the integrity to walk away knowing that you did what you love doing.
Catch Mark Knight as he wraps up his All-Knight Long tour this summer:
06/17 – Zurich, Switzerland - Harterei
06/24 – London, UK - Basing House
07/07 – Manchester, UK - Gorilla
08/26 – Helsinki, Finland - Danceteria/ Club Capital
09/22 – Prague, Czech Republic - Roxy
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Born and bred with the Detroit techno scene, I pledge my allegiance to the underground.