In Conversation: Jon Gurd
As successful as Jon Gurd has been throughout his career, touring the world and performing to thousands, he has remained relatively unknown. Not for lack of talent - his music has been championed by some of dance music’s biggest DJs - but in part because of his life outside of music. "My career has two halves. There was some major stuff happening in my life around 2010 that completely changed my motives for making music, and made me wonder if I should carry on doing it at all."
Ten years later, Jon has a clarity and wisdom that has seen his music evolve from "jet-black techno" (Resident Advisor) into something more like the man himself - more thoughtful, mellow and in touch with his emotions. His new album 'Lion', out August 14, is a healing look back on the past decade. "It came together as a list of memories that I was dealing with. Everything just flowed, and it came to be the story of this phase of my life."
In the lead-up to Jon’s new album, he got on a call with Anjunadeep Label Manager Dom Donnelly to talk all things life, lockdown and 'Lion'…
DD:How’s lockdown been for you Jon?
JG:It’s been quite stressful actually. I’ve got my home studio so I’ve been able to get a load of music done, but it’s been tough for my son Jamie. He has epilepsy and his school hasn't been able to accommodate him and most of the other kids. It’s great spending so much time with him of course, but it comes with challenges. But I’ve been busy in the studio and excited to have the album coming out!
DD:That sounds tough, but we’re excited about it too! Let’s kick off - when did you first get into dance music?
JG:It would have been in the early 90’s, when I was really young; about 10. It was all to do with my brother, who my new album ‘Lion’ is about. He used to go to Fantazia all the time, and Sterns in Worthing.
DD:Fantazia was still an illegal rave then, right?
JG:Yeah it started off as an illegal rave, and then they started doing it at Portsmouth Guildhall. The police started to realise they couldn’t control it, so legislation was passed to allow them to put on proper events. They used to pack 6,000 people in there every few weeks, and my brother Danny used to come home with these boxsets of cassette tapes that the DJs had made, you could buy them at the merchandise stalls.
I was hooked on those, I loved the fresh sounds and the escapism of them. Danny then got decks, and as I wasn’t allowed on them, I waited until he was out and then snuck on them. And I was fascinated from there on really.
DD:How old were you at that time?
DD:You got started young! Do you remember the names of the DJs whose cassette tapes you were listening to?
JG:Yeah… Kenny Ken was a big one, Hixxy, Slipmatt. That kind of hardcore scene, at the time. Although if you listen back, a lot of it isn’t hardcore, its more what you’d call drum & bass or breaks now.
DD:I assume DJing came before making music for you then?
JG:Oh yeah, way before, 7 or 8 years before. I had decks since I was 13 but didn’t start producing until I was around 21.
DD:What sort of stuff were you playing and making back then?
JG:When I was in my early teens, I went through every genre basically, drum & bass, UK garage, trance, hard house, everything, just to see what would stick. By the time I was about 17, I was into this kind of Eastern European sound in techno - a really funky, percussion based sound. Artists like Umek and Joris Voorn, who I know is from Holland but back then was making this kind of stuff.
The sound seemed to originate in Slovenia, and the countries around there. A label called Recycled Loops, offshoots of that label and all the friends affiliated with that, I was just really into that sound. It then crossed over into Carl Cox and his label at the time, Intec, they were doing something a bit more UK.
I just really loved that fast, percussive, groovy stuff, and I pretty much took that into my residency at Slinky, one of the original UK superclubs, when I was 19.
DD:How did you get the residency at Slinky so young?
JG:It was through a competition on their website, they were looking for a new resident. You had to send in a 30 minute tape and then I got through to the final, where you had to go to the club, and yeah, I won it!
DD:When you went in for the final, was that to a crowd during a night, or when the place was empty?
JG:It was Wednesday afternoon, it was so weird!
DD:Just DJing to one guy on the dance floor with a pen and a clipboard, judging you?
JG:Yeah it was Dave Lea, the guy who ran it. There were chairs, and people brought their mates down to support them. So I had about ten mates down with me, who couldn’t believe it. It was a good day, I’d been clubbing at Slinky since I was 17 so it was a total dream come true. From then I was their resident, playing to 2000 clubbers every Friday. I warmed up for Paul Van Dyk, X-Press 2, Dave Clarke, Armin Van Buuren, basically all the big names back then. So I had to learn pretty quickly!
DD:Did you play any instruments, or do anything non-electronic back then?
JG:No, purely electronic. I mean, the records used to just baffle me. I’d sit there in my room, thinking… how the hell are they making this stuff? I spent about five years like that, without making anything. To be honest I’m into bands a lot more these days, but back then it was just all electronic. All my mates were into Oasis and Blur, and I was obsessed with all this dance music.
DD:So how did you first learn to produce?
JG:It was my best friend, Dave Robertson, aka Reset Robot. He engineered a couple of tracks for me and then I basically learnt from him, and started engineering myself.
DD:Your early releases, were they similar to the speedy techno stuff you’d been into?
JG:No they weren’t, it was just as the electro house thing was kicking off, and I got into that big time. I just got hooked on electro and early electro house mainly, although I listen back to that stuff now and it sounds kinda ridiculous.
DD:I must have missed the underground side of electro house, because I was into pretty commercial stuff like early David Guetta and Fedde Le Grand.
JG:Well yeah there was an underground layer beneath that, especially Paul Woolford, and Nic Fanciulli. They were doing something really cool in that electro house scene, it still had that electro synthy sound, but it had housey percussion, and I was really into that.
DD:Were you DJing on the same kind of circuit as Paul Woolfoord and Nic Fanciulli then?
JG:Yeah, I had one track, I forget the name of it, that I made back in 2004, and Paul Woolfoord played it on the Essential Mix on Radio 1, and then he played it again on a live mix in Ibiza, and it blew up a little bit. And from that, I was taken on to the Club Class DJ Agency, by Serge and Jeff. So I was on the same roster as Paul and Nic, and that was fun. I had about three years of touring around the world, and I warmed up for those guys a few times.
DD:What are the stand out memories from those years touring?
JG:Warming up at Ministry of Sound was good, and I did a few tours down in Brazil, because my tracks seemed to blow up there for some reason. There was an event I played called Tribe, in São Paolo, and there were 15,000 people on one stage. I didn’t know that before the gig, nobody told me! So I just walked on stage and saw this silhouette of thousands of heads, like… woah! So yeah that was amazing.
DD:How long were you touring for? Am I right in thinking you were touring for a few years and stepped back from it when your son Jamie was born?
JG:Well it fizzled out. If you’re only making EPs, not albums, you need to release consistently to get gigs, and I basically stopped producing music. I was releasing stuff sporadically, but not in the way I was before, and the gigs just kind of fizzled out by around 2013. And then life became a bit crazy for a few years.
DD:If we jump back to the present and your new album, it sounds like this one has been a very long time in the making, and you can trace its roots back to that part of your life.
JG:Absolutely. It feels like the story of the last decade of my life. It wasn’t intentional to be like that, it just happened. I was listening back to what I was doing as I was writing it, and it just came together as a chronological list of memories that I was dealing with. One song just led into the next song, and the next, and everything just flowed. And it came to tell the story of this phase of my life.
DD:When you were writing it, did you mean to draw on those experiences, or were you just making music and it was spontaneously coming together like that?
JG:Yeah it wasn’t intentional. It became apparent after about five tracks, I think. I’d made these five tracks, and I think ‘Together’ was the fifth one, and I listened to that, and listened back to what I’d done, and it all kind of appeared from there, in that moment. The rest from then on was intentional, I was more aware that I was drawing on those memories for the music.
DD:So the track 'Together' was the spark that made you realise what was behind these tracks?
JG:Yeah there was a moment when it clicked, and I could see what I was trying to do.
DD:You’ve mentioned also that the album is a tribute to your older brother, Danny, what is the connection between him and the record?
JG:Well Danny died in 2010, he took his own life. I never meant to write anything about him, but as I was writing the music I could just feel it coming out. ‘Lion’ is the main track that is really about Danny, and I feel that the rest of the album is about everything else that has happened since, to me and my family.
For me the album talks about Danny up until the track 'Lion', at track 4, and then the rest moves onto other moments in my life, until the closing track ‘The Dream’, which again is about Danny, and is the conclusion of all of it. That track (‘The Dream’) wasn’t written until a long time after all the others. It actually wasn’t meant to be on the album, I was making it for one of the Explorations EPs, and then I was speaking with Dan Curpen (Anjunadeep’s A&R manager), and we both realised it had to go on the album, it really made sense.
DD:Yeah it works so well as a bookend to the album.
JG:The only thing I didn’t like about the album initially was the way it ended, because it felt abrupt, which I guess fit with how I was feeling. But now as you say it bookends it well, I love it.
DD:Why did you choose the name 'Lion'?
JG:There were a few things that pointed to 'Lion'. Danny’s courage and bravery inspired me when writing the track Lion, and it felt right to make that the title track as he is such a big part of the album. He was also a Leo and was known for his fiery Leo personality.
DD:How long did it take you to write the album?
JG:The first nine tracks were written in three months, around this time last year. It all happened really quickly, I could tell as I was working on it that I really needed to finish it, because if I’d left it any longer, I’d start forgetting what the point of it was.
DD:Is that generally the way you write music? If you feel like the inspiration is there you have to just lock yourself away in the studio to capture it?
JG:Definitely, I find that when you’re starting a track and getting the sounds together, and it’s feeling intense, you’ve got to record something, some kind of draft, that day. Otherwise you’ll forget how you felt. I do that so often, start a little idea and it feels really intense and exciting, and then when I come back I think it sounds crap. So you have to lay it out into some kind of arrangement, to try and properly capture that feeling, so you can come back to it. You have to get as much done as possible whilst the feeling is there. Because your brain just changes so quickly, you have to capture how you feel in the moment, because tomorrow that feeling might just be gone.
DD:The album feels like a bit of a departure from the other stuff you’ve been releasing in the past ten years. There’s been darker techno stuff, and then you self-released an album and put out an EP on Sasha’s label. Why do you think you moved away from the darker stuff into slower and more melodic music?
JG:Again, it wasn’t intentional. I think when I was making techno, I was basically trying to fit into a scene that I liked. Whereas this new stuff, I’ve just made for myself. When you look back on the album I made in 2017, it’s got so many different styles of music on it, which was just pure experimentation. And it’s led me to where I am now. Rather than thinking about where the tracks are going to fit, I just haven’t thought about that at all for three years. I just wanted to make something for myself, and be as truthful as possible to the process.
DD:It feels like a trap that a lot of people fall into, where before they’ve finished writing the music, they are already thinking about what label it might fit on, or which DJ might play it, rather than just being creative in the moment for themselves.
JG:The minute you start thinking about something external, in that sense, you might as well just stop, because it’s not true. It starts becoming something else. That’s quite a damning thing to say, and some people can work like that and be really good at it. For some people that is a great way to work, if you love a certain sound or label and you make music specifically for them. But if, like me, you try making music for a specific label or scene and it’s making you anxious, then it’s not a good path.
DD:I assume it is a more authentic process if you are just focused on yourself, and your own feelings, rather than being hung up wondering if a specific person is going to like it.
JG:And also I’m not thinking about money or touring. These days I’m not really DJing much, so I’m not worried about churning out music to keep my gig diary full. I can just focus on making an album that I love and that I’m proud to send out. I actually didn’t know who to send it to once I’d finished it. It found its way to you guys through Lane 8, because I made the album, and then listened to some other artists because I didn’t really know what it sounded like, or where it could fit. So that felt like the best way to do it, send it to artists who I admired.
DD:I actually didn’t know it had come over via Lane 8 until a couple of weeks ago when Dan (Curpen) mentioned it.
JG:Yeah, I sent it to a few friends and collaborators, and some producers I liked, and Lane 8 was one of them. He got back to me saying that he was only releasing club tracks at the moment on This Never Happened, but that Anjunadeep might be a good place for it. But I didn’t realise he was actually going to send it to you, and then a couple days later I got an email from Dan saying how much you guys liked it.
DD:Had Anjuna been on your radar much at all before that?
JG:To be honest, no, but just because I really don’t pay attention to labels. At that time I was barely listening to any electronic music, I was listening to stuff like Tame Impala, and Slowthai who had just put out an amazing album. So that’s where I was at. I’d completely disconnected from the dance music scene. But since finishing the album I’ve been digging back in, and there are loads of artists on Anjunadeep who I’ve discovered and got really into. And obviously the last Jon Hopkins album blew my head to pieces.
DD:Do you think not DJing is what caused you to lose that connection to new dance music?
JG:It felt like freedom in a way! I had spent my whole life chasing new tunes, looking at the Beatport Top 1000 or whatever it is, listening to every promo. I haven’t been on Beatport for years now, I’m getting my music mainly on Bandcamp these days, rather than checking to see what is new on Beatport. I’ll stream stuff on Spotify as well but I really like finding random stuff on Bandcamp.
DD:I still spend a lot of time on Beatport, but I think the key is avoiding the Top 10. There’s obviously loads of great music to discover but unfortunately there’s often a lot of pretty uninspiring stuff in the Top 10, a lot of samples that have been done to death.
JG:Yeah if you want to find anything good you have to dig for it, it takes time. Back when I got into DJing I’d go record shopping, and the guy knew me, and would always suggest new records for me, which was brilliant. And there were always these weird white labels from Germany that he’d have. Genres were more fluid back then I think too, when things went online it was all more categorised, and suddenly techno didn’t sound like what I thought techno sounded like.
DD:What have you been listening to this year?
JG:I’ve just got into Justin Martin, I really like his recent stuff.
DD:Have you heard that recent track of his, 'Needs', with the LTJ Bukem sample?
JG:Yeah that one’s brilliant. I like him, and I like the new Disclosure stuff, which is amazing. Tourist’s new track with The Range is brilliant.
DD:You mentioned just then about record shopping and digging for new music, I was watching your crate-digging session on the Anjuna Twitch the other week and really enjoyed it. Was that your first live-streaming experience?
JG:Yeah it was good! I wasn’t sure about live-streaming to be honest, at the beginning of the pandemic, I wasn’t into it. I missed real live stuff too much. I wasn’t planning to do one, but then you guys suggested the crate digging mix, and it was amazing. I was keeping up with people in the chat, and then playing a record, and then chatting to people about what it was. It was a real buzz.
DD:We’ve heard a lot of people say that, Jody Wisternoff was the same, a bit hesitant about DJing on their own at home in front of a webcam, and then afterwards they say it was a rush, like playing a real gig to a crowd.
JG:It was like a real gig. I kept looking over my shoulder at the camera in my studio and thinking how mad it was that a few thousand people were watching me through it. I’m normally always alone in my studio so that was kinda weird, but a lot of fun.
DD:Can you tell me about the album artwork, by Yan Cook, what was it about his work that caught your attention?
JG:Yan is a techno producer as well, and released on Delsin a few times, which used to be one of my favorite labels. I started following him on Instagram and realised he was an artist as well, he does this amazing macro stuff, which I felt matched up with ‘Lion’. On the album I wanted to get close to the bone, with my feelings, really get deep into it, and I felt his artwork did the same thing. It resonated on the same vibration. And it just looks wicked.
JG:My son Jamie has been to their play schemes in the area before, they do a lot of great work with disabled children. We’re also going to be donating to LUPS as well. I remember when I came up to London for a meeting with you guys, we spoke about some different ideas on this, and I was considering working with MIND, but whilst I think they are an amazing organisation, it felt like something from my past, and I want to focus on the future right now, and KIDS does that, from my own personal perspective anyway.
It makes the album even more special for me, and gives it even more purpose, to be doing something positive. It feels good.