For this month’s feature interview we talked with Damian Lazarus, DJ, producer, label boss, A&R and farmer, who is just about to release his first solo album in a decade.
Damian Lazarus drops his new ‘Flourish’ album on 18th September, a glowing, shape-shifting ten-track collection that moves effortlessly between house, techno, breaks and more outré electronics. ‘Flourish’ is very much a lockdown album, entirely written and produced this spring. Speaking to us from his mountain top Italian farm, he gave us the details on the inspiration and process behind his second solo artist album. Lazarus is funny, frank and open, at times reflective and pensive, but always happy to delve into the details of how he goes about creating his music.
Attack Magzine: So first of all for our readers who might not be familiar with you, tell us who you are and what you do:
Damian Lazarus: I create a lot of my own music and other peoples music. I discover and release a lot of artists on my record labels Crosstown Rebels and Rebellion. I run a number of events including the Day Zero festival and Get Lost, a party which has been going for almost twenty years now, it was supposed to be the 20th anniversary of Get Lost this year in Miami in fact… Apart from that, I’m a father, a farmer and at times, a strange being.
You’re a farmer?
I live on a farm in the Italian countryside. We grow all our own vegetables and have a small vineyard, just enough to keep me in wine for the year. I’ve tried to make this place where I live sustainable in the event of the apocalypse – which is definitely on the horizon in the near future – I hope to be able to live off my land! Forgot to mention, I’m also a DJ – six months of not DJing that’s what it does to you!
And how has your lockdown been?
It started very creatively because I began work on this album. I had planned to start writing the album this year anyway as I’d had a very busy end to 2019 and January was flat out. I did 15 shows in 20 days in South America and I could see that it was going to be hectic, and I’d started to have ideas and feelings about wanting to write a new project. So I decided back then to take off all of February and most of March… I treated it like a full-time job: I was in the studio at seven every morning, working till around midnight, and just didn’t stop until I felt I’d got it finished.
So ‘Flourish’, it’s not just a collection of dance floor tracks; do you feel that lockdown has given artists like you a bit of freedom in what they can produce?
I’ve always been happy not to make music directly focused on the dance floor. I think with my Lazpod podcasts I‘ve tried to give myself a platform from which to not surprise people too much with what I make as a producer. Just the fact that I can do these radio shows and show people that I have this broad spectrum of musical loves and knowledge, it’s always allowed me to step outside the dance floor. When all this [pandemic] started to kick off, it enabled me to really just go with whatever I felt was necessary. And I actually think that this album was quite necessary: I was feeling pretty dislodged and displaced, starting to feel that there wasn’t much hope for the future really and this was starting to come out in the ideas I was creating. It wasn’t till a bit later in writing the project that it started to turn around and became a bit more optimistic.
The album’s accompanying text mentions your questioning of faith, religion and spirituality…
Yeah, I think I was starting to lose a bit of a grip on belief systems and trying to see where there was a positive future. There’s this one particular man that’s really disrupted most people’s lives around the world and he needs to be voted out in November. Then there’s so many people believing climate change is fake and yet we see it daily… It would be easy for me sitting up here on the top of my mountain with my tomatoes growing and just forget about it – but it’s impossible to do that. I just started to doubt the existence of God and spirituality. This was quite disturbing for me because for the past few years I’ve been feeing quite connected to the universe, feeling that there was a positive new day just around the corner and we’re all energy and we’d see these dark times though. But it started to dawn on me that maybe this was all bullshit and it could all implode and there’s no future – as the Sex Pistols said.
But then I started to write all these dark basslines and going back into my drum & bass roots, thinking about hoover sounds on the dance floor and Metalheadz and going to dark and dingy raves in East London – just thinking about the darker, more underground side of electronic music. I started to put a lot of breaks and darker basslines into the music, stranger, eerie sounds, but as I was doing this, it all started coming together and I just reminded myself that out of economic hardship and difficult times for people globally, that’s when the best art is made.
So how did you come out of this darker mood?
People have been through similar times in the past and we’re still here to tell those tales and I started to realise we’ll probably still be here this time next year and we’ll be looking back at this time in a positive way, in that this was something that needed to happen: we all needed to take a step back, take a breath, look around us, see where we’ve been fucking up and what we can do to better ourselves and each other. And that started to culminate in my creative space and then I came up with ‘Into The Sun’ and it suddenly felt like the sun was starting to shine in the studio again. So I’m feeling a bit more positive now, but for a moment there it was touch and go!
In the past few years I was seeing a lot of greed and corporate mentality coming through in the underground DJ world – and I’m not saying I’m not responsible for any of that because I do get paid to play at parties, so there is a financial element to what I do – but I started to feel that the music being played and made in this world was becoming a little bit too commercial – in the sense of in order to make money as opposed to cheesy crossover music – and I was getting a bit worried about that and needed some time to really take a breath and listen to some music that I’ve always really loved and to try and discover something new that might set my heart on fire.
What music did you return to?
Well, things started to turn around for me unfortunately when Bill Withers died. Humanity, we only tend to celebrate the best musicians and best artists after they’ve passed away and when he died I remembered that I’ve always loved him and he’s always been there. He’s mainly known for that one album that has ‘Lovely Day’ and ‘Use Me’ but I remember that Bill Withers put out some amazing music and I should have been a massive fan and known all his music but I didn’t. So I went back and bought everything of his and spent a lot of time with his voice, his amazing ideas and beautiful melodies. And I started to fall in love with him again and that opened the doors to hearing some great new music.
I loved that album from Sault [‘Untitled (Black Is)’] that came out his year, I thought that was a genius work of art. I’ve also been checking music that perhaps you wouldn’t associate with me, like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘WAP’ – that dirty-as-fuck record, it’s amazing, I love it!
So getting back to the album, how do you go about writing a new piece of music? Is it all planned, are there happy accidents…?
There are a lot of happy accidents but I prefer to go in with ideas, usually written down on paper. So I come up with an idea, start jotting it down, then might bring that to some other music that I’m thinking about – it might just be a sound or a word or an effect from another record. It can be as simple as, for example, an idea for a track that starts a particular way but then inverts itself and everything changes in the second half – that kind of idea, but also I generally have a theme base to it as well. Or it could be a spin-off from an idea I’ve been thinking about or a sound in everyday life. So I try to put this down on paper and when something is linking all these ideas together that’s when I start to realise there’s an album forming and I can kind of hear what I want to create.
And there’s other days when I’ll just go through my record collection; I just grab two huge bags of records and take them up to the studio and just spend the day listening through. Because there’s a lot of music that I’ve bought as a record collector over the years specifically for one track and then maybe put it on the shelf and not listened to the whole album ever! When making music, that’s a nice time to do that and that’s where you find nice surprises – like a piece of modal jazz from the late sixties, you might just find one solo that sounds really out there – and what would happen if I sampled that one sound and extended it, put some effects on it, replayed it through something else – that’s a nice way for ideas to form too.
So what do you feel about ‘Flourish’ now that it’s finished?
I’m surprised it happened so quickly – it’s the quickest album I’ve ever made – and I’m relieved that it sounds so good and I’m really happy that people who have heard it so far think that it’s one of my best works. I’m also aware you can’t please all the people all of the time; I’m just happy that those who’ve heard it like it and feel it was a few months well spent!
I hope like me, it will help people see that there is a better tomorrow and we can only hope for the best and do the best we can to make that happen.
‘Flourish’ by Damian Lazarus is released on Crosstown Rebels on the 18th September 2020.
Damian Lazarus is on Facebook and Twitter.
Photos by Alessandro Cinque