Name: Francesco Pagano
Occupation: DJ, producer
Current release: Pagano's Define The Light Remix EP is out via Kism. The original is taken from Pagano's recent full-length Infinite Regress and includes remixes by Siege, Dukat and Pagano himself. Pagano is also featured on the Rockets // Launch 12 EP on Tronic. His contribution "Panta Rhei" sees him dabbling his feet in hypnotic space techno with a healthy spritz classic Berlin school sequencer magic - one of the strongest production statements of his career so far.
Recommendations: I was recently introduced by a friend to Ryoji Ikeda’s art and it blew my mind. I loved the way this Japanese artist uses visual and sound. Very inspiring.
And obviously you should take a listen to my recent mixed album ‘Infinite Regress’. It’s a series of original tracks I produced during lock down that flow from one genre to another, taking you on a journey of emotions and high-octane electronic rhythms.
If you enjoyed this interview with Pagano and would like to know more, you can find him on Instagram, Facebook, and on Soundcloud.
When did you start DJing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was sixteen when I did my first paid gig in a club in my hometown in Sicily. Before that I had been mixing anything I could put my hands on, from hacked tape recorders to turntables with industrious self-made pitch benders.
For me it was always about music and the escapism it would provide. I was sent to a Catholic school and I absolutely didn’t fit in. I first started listening to New Wave, Italo Disco, Synth Pop and Alternative Rock when I was 8, believe it or not. When I heard House music in the late 80s I was hooked and wanted to become a DJ to push this new sound in my hometown Catania.
For most artists, originality is 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?
This is actually a very interesting question. I’ve always marched to the beat of a different drum. I’ve never been a purist. This means I never emulated one specific artist but instead have drawn inspiration from different ones.
I have produced and played different styles throughout my career, but I’d say the common denominator was always a certain high-energy quality. I usually tend to adapt what I like to the label I am aiming to be signed to or the clubs I am booked to play at. So, I guess the development of my sound was all very organic, regardless of trends or genres.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I don’t know if it does. Where I’m from or whom I fall in love with do not define who I am. They are just some of the many aspects of a complex individual.
I was born in Italy, but I always felt more of a connection with artists and music coming from the UK or the Scandinavian countries. I generally do not enjoy any music that is too happy or dramatic.
What were your main creative challenges when starting out as a DJ and how have they changed over time?
One of the main challenges has probably always been to adapt what I like or what I think defines me as an artist to the market around me.
A lot of young artists don’t want to compromise their vision. But growing up and with more doors slammed in my face, I realised that the key was to adapt my vision to each situation, whilst trying to stay true to myself.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I had no money and just a lot of passion. These days you only need a decent laptop and some software.
Back then studio equipment was very expensive. I started with a bunch of second-hand Roland hardwares and drum machines and an Atari computer. I practised my creativity a lot, but initially never released anything. I started as a DJ, and only years later I became a producer.
In Bologna I found a studio with a professional musician / sound engineer who believed in me and offered me the opportunity to turn my ideas and demos into professionally produced tracks. At this point the experience I gained through all those years spent playing around with ideas in my small home studio became very useful. It meant I had a basic knowledge of equipment and music programmes.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you perform?
Of course. I was very resistant to the mp3 revolution. I learnt to DJ with vinyl and it took me a while to embrace CD players. Now I would not go back. It is so much easier and you can be more creative.
I’m also not very keen on social media. It seems that social media platforms shift the attention from the product to the image and visibility. Is it possible to be a successful DJ without using social media? Sadly, I do not think it is at the moment …
DJing is a unique discipline a the border between presenting great music and creating something new with it, between composition and improvisation. How would you describe your approach to it? What do you start with, how do you develop a set, how does a form gradually manifest itself, what are good transitions between different tracks etc …
Fundamentally I try to find tracks that have a similar up-tempo energy. They can be of different styles but I usually lean towards Tech House, Techno and Melodic Techno. A deeper or jazzy track, or something in a minor key will work for me if the groove and baseline are driving. I then try to put together a cohesive story with a beginning, a middle and an end, creating waves of energy.
I noticed that in recent years a lot of new, young DJs just throw together a set using tracks that don’t necessarily flow. They focus on the idea behind each track rather than the journey …and this confuses me.
But I guess if this works on the dancefloor, that’s all that matters …
How would you describe the relationship between your choices and goals as a DJ and the expectations, desires and feedback of the audience? Is there a sense of collaboration between you and the dancers?
I actually do check the dance floor and feed on the energy from the crowd. I am quick to adjust and adapt my DJ sets to better connect with the punters. I’m not one of those DJs that just plays music they like to feed their ego and never end up looking at the floor.
In a song or classical composition, the building blocks are notes, but in a DJ set the building blocks are entire songs and their combinatory potential. Can you tell me a bit about how your work as a DJ has influenced your view of music, your way of listening and perhaps also, if applicable, your work as a producer?
Fundamentally both are about creating a vibe and transmitting emotions. What I learnt is that even when people do not know a certain style of music well, or do not understand the art of DJing, most of them will still perceive and connect with the energy and emotions you are trying to convey with your DJ set.
And you are right about tracks being building blocks for a DJ set. In fact, I often produce tunes with the dance floor in mind and knowing well if they are going to be a peak time track or a closing track.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I do not have a fixed schedule. It all depends on where my DJ gigs are taking me or what I have planned for the day.
For instance, this week I have my day off on Monday. On Tuesday and Thursday I am doing office work. Working from home I am replying to emails, implementing releases on my label KISM, sorting contracts out, planning my next OFF event at The Steel Yard etc. On Wednesday and Friday I’m booked to go into the recording studio to work on my next project. And on Saturday morning I have an early flight to go to DJ at a day party in Amsterdam.
Can you talk about a breakthrough DJ set or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
My debut DJ set at Trade at Turnmills was certainly one of my career breakthroughs.
Landing a residency at one of the most iconic After-Hours that has ever existed, not only was a goal and a dream of mine but also propelled my DJ career and gave credibility to my name. I simply pursued it and achieved it through hard work and cutting my teeth playing a lot of smaller gigs in London. It helped that Trade’s legends Alan Thompson and DJ Gonzalo were often supporting my productions during their DJ sets at the club.
I think that remixing BK’s anthem Revolution for Nukleuz Italy also helped put my name on the radar of Trade’s and EGG’s founder and legend Laurence Malice.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I actually used music throughout my teen years as a form of escapism to get my mind off of all the bullying. I was a fat and artistic kid at an all-male Catholic school. Not a good mix. Music definitely helped my mental health in those days and still does today.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
This is sensitive subject. I’d like to think that it all depends on the way a subject is used. If the intention is to make a tribute, and the subject / art is used as a way to elevate and push a certain culture to new audiences, crediting properly without ever making a mockery of it: then it can be respectfully done. But if the sole purpose is to make money or to use the subject for your own benefit, then it is disrespectful and absolutely inappropriate.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I absolutely agree with this statement. Growing up I saw multiple examples of music and fashion used to make a political or social statement: from Punk to Hip Hop. Unfortunately, from the turn of the millennium it seemed everything just became over commercialised and devalued of any engaging content. There were obviously a lot of niche and underground artists but no one seemed able to really push it in the mainstream.
In the past few years art and music have become increasingly political. During the pandemic I was so frustrated by the rise of extreme politics. The images coming from the US really struck a chord and so I put together a House music track paying tribute to the sound of Chicago and Detroit, using vocal samples chanting at “Peace & Unity” which became also the title of the track. It was my way to put my hopes into music.
The track ended up being signed to Mark Knight’s Toolroom and it was heavily championed on the UK’s KISS FM, especially by Majestic in his radio show.