Name: Jonny White
Occupation: DJ, Producer
Recommendations: I’m going to recommend a wonderful music documentary on the life and work of Tommy Dowd called “The language of music”. He was a nuclear physicist turned music engineer who’s responsible for inventing multitrack recording and worked with everyone from Ray Charles to Clapton, the Beatles, the stones and the Alman Brothers.
Book: “This is Your Brain on Music” by Daniel Levitin. It’s a book written by a musician who is also a neuroscientist and explains in layman's terms exactly how music works in your brain. really interesting for anybody.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Jonny White aka Art Department, you can find out more about his work and music on his Facebook page and soundcloud profile.
When did you start DJing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started DJing in 1998 I think. Early influences were Mr.G, Green Velvet, Derrick Carter, DJ Sneak, Daft Punk and all that Crydamoure and Roulette stuff. Also Danny Tenaglia, Kevin Saunderson, Octave One and a lot of Detroit stuff. The music coming out of France, Chicago, NY and Detroit were the really big sounds in Toronto when I started collecting records and when I was getting deep into the whole thing. The thing that drew me to music, before “sound”, was what it made me feel. I couldn’t have described it back then but made me feel very connected to something that seemed much larger than life, and still does. I also remember the first time electronic music that really caught my ear. It was when I heard "Obsession" by Animotion. when I was small, like under 10, an instrumental version was the theme song that played between shows on a local Toronto television station. It had those huge dramatic chords that sound like major Italo disco to me.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I think you kind of nailed it. But there has to be a better way to explain this process or relationship to other artist’s music than to just tag it as “copying”. Best way I can explain it is to say that you’re taking cues and inspiration from everywhere and applying bits of this here, and that there, with your own twist on everything. In my mind, to say that you’re copying is disregarding the idea that no two people will really interpret the same piece of music exactly the same way, so the way that an artist will apply that idea or inspiration is still completely unique … Hopefully.
For me personally, my development and evolution as an artist was hugely impacted by my relationship with Kenny and Art Department. I could say there have been four major evolutions for me. One would be everything I experienced and took in up until the time I started to produce music. The second would be the time during which I was learning how to use the tools and becoming able to execute my ideas fairly accurately. The time when my know-how was no longer inhibiting my ideas. Next would be producing music in a partnership dynamic. And then this period I’m in now, post the partnership with Kenny. Back to myself and exploring that more deeply than ever.
What were some of the main challenges and goals when starting out as a DJ and how have they changed over time? What is it about DJing, compared to, say, producing your own music, that makes it interesting for you?
When starting out as a DJ, aside from perfecting the craft technically and refining your skills in that way, it's playing the game you know. Finding your way in to the industry. That whole thing has changed completely from when I was getting into this shit 20 years ago. Now it’s more to do with persona and profile, amplified tenfold by the social media aspect … and a lot of that can be manufactured I guess. I’m sure it’s harder in many ways because of the sheer number of people out there that your competing with as an upcoming DJ vs back when not everyone and their mother was interested or even able to dedicate the time, money and energy it took to become a DJ. But it’s easier in a lot of ways I would think as well. I think that a major challenge for upcoming DJs is the frustration a lot of really great DJs and producers will face in this climate where on one hand it isn’t enough to be a great DJ, you’ve got to produce records as well. And on the flip side of that, I think people’s attention spans are shorter and the days of writing important songs that could make a career have taken a back seat to the right kind of brand or hype creating a successful career.
The thing that keeps me interested in DJ’ing is the music. I really like to play other people’s music and I enjoy everything that goes into the actual job of being a DJ. I’m a fan of music and by some miracle I’ve worked out a situation where it’s actually my job to search for music, and share what I find on a worldwide stage. I learn a lot about myself through music and watching my taste and interests change and evolve. That still gets me excited. That keeps me interested.
How would you define the job and describe the influence of the DJ? How are the experience and the music transformed through your work?
I guess I just answered that. But ya, I dedicate my life to cherry picking music and finding a way to hopefully have people relate to the music I’ve found in some way. I think that in our culture a key responsibility of a DJ is to influence people’s willingness to expand their musical world and just try to show them something they can’t get anywhere else. And hopefully every DJ is giving people something a bit different and unique. Otherwise we only need one, and a recorder.
What was your first set-up as DJ like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first set up was a pair of Numark belt drive tables and a radio shack mixer that I took off my friend’s hands because his parents wouldn’t allow the stuff in his house. I quickly replaced that garbage with two Technics and a Numark mixer when I realized his stuff was a joke. That was 20 years ago and it hasn’t changed a whole lot. On the road and at home my set up is two 1200’s, three CDJs and an Allen & Heath zone 92. I just use the CDJs the same way I use the tables so not much has changed in terms of my approach technically.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Humans excel at ideas. machines should excel at providing a platform for creating those ideas, making them come to life without limiting the original idea. I would have to say in 2017, if you can think of something that you can’t find a way to do with a machine or software, you should be working for NASA.