Ever since California DJ/producer Joey Youngman adopted the name Wolfgang Gartner five years ago (he took the moniker from an "old German dude" who coached soccer) and moved into electro house territory, he's become one of the world's biggest EDM artists.
The "complextro" DJ's thoughts on EDM culture are as intricately constructed as his music, as Gartner touched on a variety of topics, from corporate money's influence on EDM to DJs who act like punk rockers to his new material-heavy set for Identity Fest (which, incidentally, he's touring with right now).
EDM has really blown up in the U.S. over the last few years. Why now?
There have been so many different causes for it over the last few years. Originally when it started breaking into the mainstream, I think it was because of pop acts like the Black Eyed Peas incorporating dance elements and bringing it into the mainstream. That was the first taste. I'm starting to develop this theory that dubstep is actually helping to bring dance music to the masses, because it's not traditional dance music: It's got a more aggressive, hardcore punk rock aesthetic that the general population can appreciate a little bit more. Younger kids with more angst can appreciate it a lot more, and that's a huge demographic. That's when people are developing their musical tastes and figuring out what they're going to be listening to the rest of their lives.
So it's that and it's also just the natural roller coaster of up and downs that dance music goes through over the years. I've been doing this since 1993. It was alright in 1993 and in '95, '96 it starting blowing up. In the late nineties it was huge, almost like it is now, only on a smaller scale. It's been going on so long a lot of people don't realize. But in the early 2000s it completely died down again, there was the Rave Act which actually had a huge impact on things. It's also just the natural cycles that all music goes through. It's not going to stay like this forever, dance music will have another trough again, but the fact that it has come this far and Joel [Zimmerman, deadmau5] has been on the cover of Rolling Stone and they had Skrillex, A-Trak and Diplo on the cover of Billboard.... Once it hits that peak, the next trough that happens is not going to be that low. Now it's like hip hop. Hip hop might be a little bit slow right now, but it's still one of the most popular forms of music in the world. Dance music has cemented itself permanently in the last few years as one of the top five forms of popular music.
How is EDM different now from the late 1990s rave scene?
It was a lot more organic back then. The music was obviously a lot different; it was Chicago house and disco house headlining back then. The vibe of that music is very different from big room progressive electro today. It wasn't as much of a commercial market back then as it is now, where hotel owners in Vegas are investing and giving residencies to DJs and paying ridiculous amounts of money. It's become a multi-billion dollar a year industry, whereas before it was little more organic. And the kids who go to the parties these days still get that vibe. I don't know if the underbelly trickles down and affects the vibe of what kids are feeling when they're at the party. It's a very commercial industry now as opposed to the 1990s when it was just exciting and new.
Does that commercialization detract from the artistry?
Actually, I think if anything, it improves the artistry and the overall availability of good music. It increases the incentive for people to make this music. I look back on what was big in 1998 and it was disco samples on 909 drum loops and people making songs in two hours and putting them out and selling 50,000 records. And now there is so much money in it and so much incentive and fame. A lot of people are obviously in it for the wrong reasons, but it brings more to this genre. The more people that are trying to produce this music, the more quality music that is going to come out. I think it's a good thing. I think the commercialization of dance music is overall a good thing because it means more of everything for everybody.
Do you think dance music is still bigger overseas?
Not at all. America is absolutely, hands-down the biggest place for dance music. The only reason people would think it's bigger overseas is it gets more FM radio play overseas than it does in the U.S., and that will probably be changing pretty soon. But in terms of the overall net worth of dance music in each region of the world, America is by far number one right now. And that's evidenced by the fact that half of Dutch DJs live in the U.S. and half of the Australian DJs moved to L.A. in the last year. The Swedish guys, everybody moved to L.A. Because this is where the money is: This is the biggest place for dance music in the world.
When do you see EDM hitting the Top 10 on the radio?
That's a really good question and I don't know if I have a prediction for that. Obviously right now the only way that happens is if there's a vocal on it. Or, I guess, if Flo Rida takes it and turns "Levels" into a rap track. The next step would be somebody big doing a dance track with an acceptable vocal. Calvin Harris and Rihanna's "We Found Love," to me that's a dope track, I love that. That's the first step of real dance music coming back into pop, but Rihanna is still attached to it and that's over half the reason it made it there. The sound is capable of being in the Top 10, but the question is, when is the world ready to accept it without a major name like Rihanna or Chris Brown attached to it? I don’t know. It needs a name, that's what it is. It's all about the name.
deadmau5 recently took some flack for comments he made to Rolling Stone about how some DJs are just "button-pushers" in concert. Do you think there's some truth to that?
[Laughs] Joel [Zimmerman] accidentally forgets to leave off ends of sentences and then he does interviews and gets quoted directly. I know what he meant by that. He doesn't mean all DJs are button-pressers, which is the quote that got used. There are some DJs out there–very popular ones–who basically just press a button and run out and act like they're the lead singer of a punk band and crowd surf and drink champagne, and then come back and press another button real quick. That has nothing to do with the art of DJing whatsoever. It's just about a stage act, and there are quite a few of those types of people out there. That's who he was referring to. But people like to misquote him, and I don’t know, maybe he even intentionally does it to get the press, because there's no such thing as bad press.
In this day and age, over the past year, crowds have started eating up the gimmick where the DJ stands atop the table, takes the mic and hypes up the crowd and basically acts like a rock star instead of a DJ. And to me that's, well... my instinct says it's unfortunate because I come from the school of learning on turntables and the school of thinking of it as an art, but I'm also one of the people who will adapt to any change that happens in the market because this is what I do for a living. The music constantly changes; you have to adapt.
How complicated is one of your sets?
It's an equal balance between doing a lot of complicated technical stuff and also putting on a show physically and stage presence-wise for the crowd. I jump around and do the hand movements and stuff, but I don't leave the turntable and go crowd surf or spray champagne. I don't have time to step away from the turntables for more than 20 seconds. It's very technically involved. It's hard to find that balance between doing something technical and challenging yourself and also engaging the crowd and not just standing there, staring at turntables.
What can we expect from you on Identity Fest?
I can say I'm sitting on a ton of my own unreleased music that hasn't come out yet. Right now, 70% of my set is my own music and half of that is unreleased. And the other 30% is songs from friends, unreleased stuff. I won't play anything that's in the Top 10 on Beatport or anything really big on the charts or the obvious crowd-pleasers that everybody else plays, but ideally, I'll play a set that makes people go crazy without ever having heard the music before. That's the challenge.
Are American audiences more receptive to unreleased stuff?
Absolutely. I play it overseas but they don't react to it as well if they haven't heard it before. Obviously one of the biggest responses I'll get of the night is "Illmerica,"but there's a new track I've made that is probably going to be the biggest single of the year for me. Nobody knows what it is, nobody knows the name, but I play it [in America] and it's the biggest response of the night. And America is the only place where that could happen because America is the only place that is able to respond to music they don't recognize in such an extreme way.
Does that material have a release date yet?
Not technically. In September or October, I'm going to put out a five-song EP, though.
How is a traveling festival like ID Fest different than just flying around to do solo DJ gigs?
I've done traveling festivals before in Australia like Fusion Music Festival and they literally travel with the entire festival. It's like a five-stage lineup of 50 acts and everybody is on buses. Everybody is in the same motel, and it's madness. This one I'm just flying between the dates. The production people are on a tour bus but for me, it's not going to be any different than playing standard weekend gigs. Actually, I don't like [the buses]. To be clear, I would prefer to be by myself, because all these other DJs are f**king crazy most of the time. So I'm glad to be on my own while approaching the separate shows.
You're from California. What made you decide to choose such a Germanic name?
My parents and I used to go to the soccer games and the soccer coach's name was Wolfgang Gartner. When I was ten years old and in pee-wee soccer, he taught the soccer team how to juggle a soccer ball. He was this old German dude with long curly gray hair and he drove this gray Beetle, and I just remember him. He was Coach Wolfgang Gartner. It was really random—there was no meaning behind it.
Do people still assume you'll have a German accent even though you're famous now?
Mm-hmm. It used to happen a lot more when I was lesser known, now most people know the back story. But I still meet promoters who are like, "Wow, your American accent is really good," and I'm like, "Yeah it is, isn't it?"
It was actually a really organic process. I met him in the club in Hollywood randomly, and I was like, "Whoa, it's will.i.am!" I was looking at him across the room and he randomly came up to me and asked, "Are you Wolfgang Gartner? Man, I've been writing Black Eyed Peas songs to your instrumentals for a while, I just wrote a song to 'Flashback.'" I was like "Whoa! We should do something sometime." He was like, "Yeah man, I'm down." At the time he was just starting up his DJ career, which I think was the whole impetus. He was trying to get into that vibe to apply it to his Black Eyed Peas stuff, which is cool.
So I wrote an instrumental song and sent it to my manager and he was like, "It's really dope. It's got a lot of room in it and it needs a vocal. I think I can get will.i.am on this." I was like, "Really?!" Literally the next day we got back "Forever" with full will.i.am vocals on it and he didn't even ask about contracts or anything. He just sent us the track with full vocal on it via email. That was it, it was easy. Obviously terms were worked out later, but it was organic–he was a fan of my music and I was a fan of him and I still love that track.
Sometimes he gets a bad rap in the dance music world, I guess he sampled a deadmau5 hi-hat one time and there was a bunch of drama over that, but he's always been really nice to me. In my opinion he is a musical genius. I've worked with him on Black eyed Peas stuff. None of them came to light, but I've been in the studio with him many times. The way this guy's mind works is a constant flow of creative ideas. I've never seen anything like it.
You can catch Wolfgang Gartner touring with ID Fest now through August 19.