In the bag
Sundays have never been the same since Giles Smith and James Priestley got their hands on them. Secretsundaze began over ten years ago in the UK has become a global institution of uncompromising taste and influence, spawning an agency, a label and a compilation series. Today, Giles Smith holds fast to his ideals of keeping things simple and from the heart, his unswerving faith in music building him an empire of loyal fans and followers. Always keen to champion the efforts others, Smith has been responsible for the rise of many emerging talents. Famous for his uncanny ability to uncover and sometimes remind listeners of sonic treasures both new and old, the London-based DJ is coveted for his instinct and passion for timeless, organic mixing.
When did you start DJing and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started DJing at about 22 but I was actually buying and collecting house records from the age of 15. I just loved the music and didn't have a burning desire to DJ at the beginning. It was only post University that I started to think "hmm... I could actually try and do this."
My first contact with house music was sitting in my friend's mum's car at the age of 13 listening to a D-side of a Now That's What I Call Music compilation and it was The Jackmasters, Krush, Lil Louis, MARRS, the kind of stuff that crossed over into the charts; but I would say I properly got in touch with the music at my first rave two years later in 1992. They were playing hardcore in the main room with the usual names like Randall, SS, Slipmatt, Fabio and Grooverider but I accidentally stumbled upon a small second room where they were playing US house and garage mixed with UK sounds. It was stuff like Terence Parker, Mood II Swing, X-press 2, Junior Boys Own. It was a very exciting time and still very much a subculture back then. I just found house and garage more sexy and hypnotic and less frenetic than the sounds coming from the main room which soon got darker with the arrival of jungle. Tony Humphries, I guess, captured that sound very much with the MOS Sessions 1st compilation. I was also very impressed and inspired by Danny Rampling's DJ sets back then. He had a lot of charisma as a DJ too and was very into that US sound.
What are your currently your main challenges as a DJ? What is it about DJing, compared to say, producing your own music, that makes it interesting for you?
I often get pigeon-holed as a deep house DJ which is where my roots are for sure, but I play a lot of techno and some more bassy stuff. One challenge can be expressing yourself or getting across the range of styles you are into in a short set of 90 minutes. When I get the luxury of a longer set, this is much more pleasurable because there is no rush to get to the peak time records and you can actually make things so much more rewarding and have time coax people in different directions.
Another challenge I find is playing peak time sets these days. I miss playing the beginning of the night as a warm up DJ and sometimes there is pressure to play high energy all the time during the peak time. Sometimes it's fun, but other times I get bored so it's a challenge to keep myself interested and find ways to keep the dancers into it but also push myself. That's a delicate balance. You also never know exactly what to expect with DJing, from the venue, to the crowd, to the sound system, there are so many variables that can affect what happens on the night and that keeps things interesting.
What do you usually start with, when preparing a set?
I don't really prepare my sets at all. Honestly, unless I am playing a very long set like Tel Aviv recently where I played from beginning to end all night, I just throw a good range of stuff into two bags and then just 30 minutes before I play in the club, I go to my bag and start to make some kind of rough order. I think it’s important to make some kind of statement and I am very much into a beginning and end, so I look for key records to book mark my sets. Other than that it’s very much off-the-cuff and depends on how I feel and of course also a bit of what works with the crowd. For the very long sets over say, 4 hours, I might make sections in my bag to go through different energies and moods.
How important is it building a relationship with the music your playing for your own approach? In how far, with regards to the overwhelming quantity of music available is it actually possible to build a meaningful long-term relationship with a particular track or album at all? What, other than subjectivity is your criteria for selecting what to play at a gig?
I think it’s very possible to build meaning relationships with records. I mean of course with the easier access to music now and the digital age its harder to make your sets stand out but of course you have to try with your digging and the way you present the music i.e. the programming. Most people that have seen me play a lot, know there are records that I have in my bag that I play a lot and are almost signatures. Some of these records such as Johnick Planet that I used on secretsundaze Volume 1, I have been playing forever. Of course it's important to push yourself and to play different sets and vibes but when I really love a record, I really get behind it and I'm not afraid to play a record a lot in my sets. It's like you are shouting "you need to hear this record" to the people! Of course I always bring a range with me and a big room often requires a big room sound, so if I'm playing to 1000 people in a big room it's gonna sound different to what I might play in a small more intimate crowd of 200.
When there's more music than one can possibly take in, it is becoming increasingly hard to know what constitutes an original and a remake anymore. What's your opinion on the importance of roots, traditions, respecting originals and sources?
Define 'original'? For example, the very nature of house music is simply an extension of disco. Sampling is widespread in house and indeed techno, borrowing from jazz, hip hop and of course disco. It's great when people push things further and/or make something truly original. Nearly everything has been done before and you need some reference point, to look to the past in order to move things forward. We all have a history and a memory - so past experiences are bound to shape our future output. This is evident in so much art and fashion of course. There's a big difference between being influenced by something and blatantly copying something. As much as I love 90's house I'm pretty tired of hearing people trying to weakly copy mid 90's house.
One of the particularities of DJing is that takes people outside their own little box for a few hours, without the option of switching channels, changing the song according to their own taste or remaining within their virtual circle. How do you, as a DJ, make use of this freedom? How important are not just the entertainment- but also the curatorial functions of DJs today - compared to other media like radio or print- and online-journalism?
I don't want to over analyse or break down what I do too hard or be too pretentious in my answer. I play records I like and I hope people like them! I balance playing music that people like, with things I think they need to hear and that's it. Anyone that has listened to any of my secretsundaze mix CDs or podcasts for Resident Advisor and LWE, will know that I dig deep with my selections and am not necessarily, primarily looking to please the crowd, but to share music that I deeply love. This can sometimes be obscure or a hidden gem, or it could be the latest techno bomb from Shed that everyone else is playing. I am really fortunate in that I regularly play clubs for people that really trust me and want to hear me doing things from the heart, so I don't need to over-think this too much. I do agree though that the DJ has a very important role to play, just as a good record store does, to act as a filter for good music.