Not many underground-minded DJs can boast of a career as extensive as Josh Wink's. Over 20 years of making and playing music, Philadelphia's prime purveyor of twisted techno and house has done it all. From releasing chart-topping global dance anthems and playing the world's biggest clubs and festivals, to dropping mind-scrambling beats at Ibiza's notorious DC-10, to holding down a humble monthly Wednesday residency in his hometown for a decade, Wink has earned himself legions of fans, all of them won over by his no-nonsense approach to DJing and his incredible knack for making huge records. He's known for his diversity and thoughtfulness in his selections, as evidenced by his recent Essential Mix for the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio1/essentialmix/tracklistingarchive.shtml?20090124), a typically genre-crossing set that featured tracks from DJ Sneak, Guillaume & the Coutu Dumonts, D'Julz, Thom Yorke, JPLS and many more.
Along the way, he's released three artist albums, with his latest "When a Banana Was Just a Banana" already causing a stir. Preparing to launch a new tour in support of the release, Wink took some time to explain his thinking behind the project, some of the standout moments from his long career, and whether or not he's still practicing the straight-edge lifestyle that has always set him apart from the party-hearty crowd. Wink's tour rolls into Sullivan Room on Saturday, February 7th, and with Wink's professed love of intimate spaces, we're all eager to hear what Josh has in store for the night.
Let's get to the most pressing issue at hand: "When a Banana Was Just a Banana." How did the album title come to you and what's that all about?
When I was thinking about a title for the album, I always try to think of something that's kind of light hearted and kind of clever. "Left Above the Clouds", my first album, came out in the 90s, and it was a play on the words "left above the clouds." Left meaning "left of the norm", and also if it's a cloudy day, and as soon as you're above the clouds, it's so beautiful because the sun is there – so you can be "left above the clouds" as well.
In 1999 I released "HereHear" which is a play on words, on two spellings of the word "hear" – "here" and "hear." "20 to 20" came out in 2002 and that was basically talking about the threshold of human hearing from 20khz to 20hz. And "When a Banana Was Just a Banana" is also a playful way just to make an analogy between when I was a kid and I saw a banana as just being a fruit, something that monkeys ate. And what its become now, which is, not only a banana, which is also my favorite fruit, but something that only adults can think of – which is a banana looks like a penis, something of a phallic symbol, or whatever we've grown accustomed to what it may look like for us. And it's basically saying that same thing about music, about how the innocence of music - when we were children - was so great, it was such a special time in my life. Whether it be pop, or reggae, or classic rock, or soul, or classical music, or jazz. New wave, acid house, hip-hop…it didn't really matter in my school or the people I was around. It was all music and it was cool.
Nowadays music has, you know, genres and people will only like that sort of music. And they won't do anything else. And it seems less innocent; there's more thought and opinions on it. And I think with this album, it was a way to tell people: be light-hearted. Be easygoing. It's not so tough in your life – just appreciate the music for what it is.
So based on your many years of making music, when was "a banana just a banana"? Why do you think things got away from that?
I'm not 100 percent when things change. There's an innocent time of our lives when we're younger. And we reach a certain age and everything changes. But there's still this feeling that I get, and I have lots of discussions with other friends and they feel the same way. That at a point in time, we lose some of our innocence, when things were as simple as they were. And that was the beauty of it. And we still have feelings and we yearn for it and we long for it but we just can't get there. It's kind of like the scene in Napoleon Dynamite when the brother wants to travel back to the 80s to relive his football experience. But this is a little bit more simple with just being nostalgic about a way we used to be. You know, like when we're a child and someone asked us what do we want to be when we grow up. And no kids have any problem saying what they want to be. I want to be a fireman, I want to be a model, I want to be a ballerina. I want to be the president. I want to be a rockstar. I want to be a football player. And then when you get older, and you get asked that question, and you feel awkward about it. You're like, "Well, I don't really know." There was this time when things were just easier, a time when music was just appreciated for what it was. And I think a lot of people are a little too sensitive and take things too seriously nowadays. And that's a lot of what the album is basically saying. Just be lighthearted and easy and just appreciate it for what it is.
You've always been known for pretty unique "artist albums" which you've released alongside your mix CDs. How did the music come together for this album, and how would you say it's different from your past work?
This album to me is more like a compilation of music that I've never released. I do a lot of music, I just happen to not release all of that music. I kind of keep them with me and I travel with them. Kind of like little secret weapons that I only have. And a lot of times, artists, friends, colleagues, fans will come up to me after I've played something. And they'll be like "What was that track you just played?" And I'll say "Well, it's something I did a couple of years ago." "Well, why don't you put it out?" "Uhh, just haven't had the time." So…now I have the time. I thought it was a good time to release a compilation of my older music, and present it in a way that's kind of like a mixed CD. We're releasing the album in three forms: a limited edition vinyl release; a digital release, which will be the individual tracks; and the CD, which is mixed very similar to how a DJ would present it.
I would say that the music on this album is different from my last albums because on "HereHear" and "Left Above the Clouds", I wanted to be very eclectic. And I wanted to have all different kinds of music on there, working with other artists, other musicians, other vocalists. And I kind of want to get myself out of thinking that albums should sound a certain way. So this album is basically just a compilation of older tracks that I need to release, and want to release, and perhaps the next album will be one where I actually work with more musicians and vocalists.
You were one of the early adapters of Final Scratch, and you make good use of the CDJ's loops and your loop grabber. What kind of things are you getting excited about now as a DJ, technology wise? Any plans to embark on any Ableton or other digital-type of performances?
Yeah, I was very fortunate to be one of the few beginning people that was given Final Scratch to try. It was around 7 years ago, I think at the time it was just John Acquaviva, Richie Hawtin and myself. It was very difficult at that time because it was such a new technology. I wasn't having any problems with it, but I would always show up to gigs and I would show up to a club or a venue or a festival, and come with my screwdriver and start unscrewing things and everyone would be like, "What the hell is that guy doing?" So now it's a lot easier to go into the digital realm with using programs like Torque, or Serato, or Final Scratch or Traktor Scratch Pro, because more people are actually utilizing these platforms.
I always get excited about the unique new technology that's coming out. At one time it was DJs starting to make the transition into a digital platform and using the set applications with vinyl. Now people are controlling digitally their files with CDs. And now people aren't even controlling it with CDs or vinyl, they're just going for some sort of external controller, and controlling their waveforms, their digital files via an external controller of some sorts.
It's funny because as of this week, I just got a laptop. My first laptop in six years. And I got Traktor Scratch Pro sent to me. So I'm just starting to kind of delve into that, and I'll see where my head is and see how much I really want to embrace and go this route again. I like my setups to be really simple. And I like to travel light and simple. And, you know, Traktor Scratch Pro is a unique way to combine DJ production styles with effects, mapping and programming with MIDI, to actually DJing. I'm not interested in DJing with Ableton right now, but in my studio that's pretty much the sole DAW workstation that I use.
Few artists are as closely associated with a hometown as you are with Philly. Have you ever had any temptation to pack up shop, head overseas for a little bit? Obviously you do a lot of work as a DJ in Europe these days, so why is it important for you to stay close to home?
There's something about living in Philadelphia that you can mention to any Philadelphia artist and they'll tell you the same exact thing. Or if you talk to anybody from Philadelphia who's ever moved away, that there's this feeling that you miss Philadelphia. Or you come back and there's something about it that you miss. I've often been tempted about moving overseas. I love European culture. I love being able to travel the world and become a global citizen, yet still be able to come back to Philadelphia and have my head on. The good thing about Philadelphia, most of the artists, we're just normal, regular people. We don't necessarily walk around expecting to people know who we are or what we're doing. Its just, we can just be who we are. That's a really cool thing I like about it.
I have a good quality of life here. I live 12 minutes from the airport and I live in downtown Philly. An hour and a half from New York, an hour and a half from Baltimore, two hours to DC. I'm pretty much located right here. A couple of years ago, I spent a summer season in Ibiza and I really enjoyed it and it made the international traveling, the trans-Atlantic traveling, so easier. Because about 90% of my traveling and working is outside the USA. So it's something I contemplate, especially with the tax situation because Philly is the second to New York with personal taxes. With the city business privilege tax, and the net business privilege tax, Philly is the second highest in the nation. So I don't know, right now, this is all I know: I love Philly, it's kind of like a small town mentality in the 5th largest city in the states. I can do everything I want, be in the airport in 12 minutes, and pretty much travel everywhere with a direct flight from Philadelphia and be real laid back and low-key. I still don't have a car, I ride my bicycle everywhere and it's a good city for that.
"Stay Out All Night" got a great reaction from a pretty wide range of DJs when you released it last year. Any thoughts on why that tune was such a big release for you, and do you care to make any predictions on what the next big Wink track will be?
We wanted to release something for the WMC, and this was a track that I'd been sitting on and playing. It seemed to arrive at a good time. There's been a whole new resurgence in house music, and US-styled house music in Europe, after a lot of the New York house labels had their whole catalog digitized. A lot of DJs went online and bought the whole catalog of all these releases that came out ion the late 80s, early 90s. So there was a whole resurgence of house music, and to me, house music never left. The scene needed something from the stagnant, I guess, fashion and backlash of the minimal scene. Minimal music, it was great that it came around because it really got the tempo of house back, and it really kind of opened up the eyes I thought of techno people that wanted to play more organic. And it also opened up the househeads, the deeper guys, to be able to play a little more on the techno side. So minimal music was a good thing to come about. and now its just gone off in so many directions once again.
"Stay Out all night" was released at a time when I guess it was just needed. For some reason, a lot of my tracks that I've released over the past 15 to 20 years have been tracks that have kind of crossed or blurred the lines in between electronic music, where I can release a track like "Superfreak" or "How's Your Evening So Far" or "Don't Laugh" or I dunno, "Stay Out All Night." It's really a neat situation where someone like an Erick Morillo or Roger Sanchez can play one song, and the same song, the same time, someone like Richie Hawtin or Jeff Mills or Laurent Garnier will play it. Its kind of cool how that just happened, I found myself blessed to be in a position where my music kind of blurs the boundaries in between genres and stigmas.
I'm very fortunate too to be getting a lot of great press with this new album, most of the journalists I'm talking to overseas, they're all picking a unique track that for them is their favorite. So far every journalist has picked at least one track on the album and mentioning why they like it for reason or another. So I don't know what the next big track is. A lot of people like "Dolphin Smack", a lot of people like "Just Right." A lot of people like "Hypno Slave" or "Everybody to the Sun." Can't really tell. We're just releasing as a precursor the album "Counterclock 319" and we're getting – it's not really a hit single but its something that we feel happy just to release because it's different.
Some of your big tracks over the years – notably "Higher States of Consciousness" and "Don't Laugh" – have had a pretty remarkably long shelf-life with seemingly endless re-releases and new remixes coming out practically every year. Does it bother you to see this happening? Would you prefer not to have your classics keep turning up like this?
I feel very blessed and very fortunate to be able to have made songs that transcend time and that also mark people for a period of life and what they were doing and when they heard it. Its really an incredible feeling that I could be playing some place in some obscure city in Eastern Europe and some kid who can barely speak English can come up to me and say they got into electronic music because they heard "higher states of consciousness." Or you know, couples come up to me and say "Oh you know we had our baby and we named him Josh because we met when 'Higher States' was big." These situations are so cool, I would never dream about them in my lifetime and yet it happens. So I'm happy that I'm able to have made songs with good shelf, whether it be "higher states" or "don't laugh" or "I am ready" or "superfreak" or "are you there" or "hows your evening." So I'm happy to be able to continue to make songs that transcend time.
The remixing thing, yeah. You know, all the music that I control now, that I have the rights for now, we control what remixes come out….if we even do remixes, which we tend not to. You know, one thing I've learned from releasing music, was to make sure you sign it to a good contract and have a good attorney. Because most of the remixes of – actually all the higher states remixes that came out, I never had approval over them, or know about them. Videos or music. And it's a really frustrating situation. But in the end I think people know that the original is what it is, and that's that.
Ovum Recordings is still going strong and still very much a personal project for you. Has it been hard to keep things going with the label, considering how many indie imprints have disappeared? Why is it important for you to keep running your own label?
We're very fortunate to have Ovum Recordings still be a prominent figure in electronic, independent dance music. We've been running the label for 15 years, since 1994. It definitely is a labor of love. A lot of artists and DJs similar to what I do, and in my same position, we travel and we travel to work as a DJ so we can afford having a record label, releasing digital files, vinyl. It's definitely a labor of love as there's not really much money in it. Especially because distributors are closing down and they owe us a lot of money and then they go bankrupt and then they owe us $15k and we cant do anything about it. And this happens more so than ever and its really a shame. But what really keeps us going is our passion for the music, we just love what we do. We love releasing music, if its not my own, its other peoples. I love the fact that artists that we don't know, or artists that we're fans of, are sending us tracks just to be involved in our label. And they enjoy our integrity, the fact that we don't really necessarily have to follow trends, but we do our music and the trends seem to follow us. We have great releases coming up in '09, and we're still very happy to have such high regards in the industry from fans, from DJs, pretty much all around the board. We're a diverse independent label and we put out a deep record, or we put out a techno record. And the cool thing is that both of these kind of DJs play it, both of these kinds of fans buy it. And even if its not for them, they'll give a listen to it because they know Ovum has become a brand name just with integrity and diversity. Very happy to have Matt Brookman running the company when Im on the road working, and we're still very happy being able to release such important music for us over the years and I really hope it continues.
Back in the day when you were first coming up, people seemed to make a big deal that you didn't drink or do drugs. Are you still pretty straight-laced when it comes to partying, or do you indulge a little here and there?
It's actually still a big question in interviews usually, like yourself you're asking about it. A lot of interviews, the two questions all the time I get are, "ok, why'd you cut your dreadlocks? And you do drug music, but you don't do drugs?" I find it kind of funny (laughs). Everyone says "you're kind of a-typical for the typical person that's in the nightclub scene, being that you're healthy, you're conscious of what you're doing, putting in your body." And it's true. I mean, the DJing lifestyle is a very hectic, working lifestyle where we don't get much sleep, we don't get much rest and relaxation because we're always running and we have to deal with anxiety and airports and security checks and immigration and taxis and missed planes and cancellations in hotel rooms and getting out of the club at 7 in the morning and having a flight out at 10 in the morning. It's very difficult. So for me it was always very important and still is very important to balance what I do and how I feel, and that's what really makes me feel like a better person, is how I treat myself. You know…I drink alcohol, I just don't get drunk. I like the taste of certain things. I actually had my first case of alcohol poisoning, the first time in my whole life, last year at the Winter Music Conference and it hasn't happened since. I've had maybe, 10 big alcoholic drinks since the WMC last year. I don't really feel like there's pressure for me to drink or to do drugs. People respect what I do. It just works with me and that's why I continue with doing it. For me, my passion, my life, my drug is music, just waking up, going to sleep, just eating, drinking music.
2009 is the 20th anniversary of your first-ever production. Is there any one particular moment or DJ set that stands out from all those years, something that still really resonates with you to this day?
It's pretty remarkable. When I started doing the press for this album, that's one thing I really began to understand was the fact that I've been making music for 20 years, and I've been DJing for longer than that. For me its really quite profound that I'm still doing what I love. When I was doing interviews for "higher states" in the mid 90s, journalists would say "so, what do you see yourself doing in 5 years?" and I said "well, I hope I'm traveling the world and DJing and running a record label and making music." And 5 years later I was being asked the same question and I would reply with the same comment. IT seems like 15 years later I'm still answering that question and I'm very happy to still be doing the same thing. And still getting such enjoyment and having such passion for it. But really what stands out most for me in all these years is just that I'm still doing it. And that it's a very fickle institution and the longevity of certain artists and acts or labels is compromised, because of just the changing times. And I feel very fortunate to still be doing what I'm doing and having the passion to continue to make music and perform for people and travel all over the place. Traveling over 300,000 miles for 15 years is very difficult on a body. But I think the most memorable gigs for me were the first. The first time I played outside of the country was a New Year's Eve party in Rome in 1991. And right after that, a party in Amsterdam on the first of January. So that time was very memorable for me, and I'm still blessed with having great memories and visions of trips all over the world. It becomes a blur and I forget a lot, but I'm still so happy doing what I do.
Finally, what can we expect from your return to the Sullivan Room? Any special treats in store for the album release party?
One of the beautiful things is just the spontaneity of it all. I never have a set planned. I may have a certain feeling of what I want to play, but that all changes when I go into a room and get a feeling, the vibe from the crowd, the vibe from the DJ before and how they set up a night. I really don't know but I continue to try and strive to be able to blur the lines in between electronic music and get to play a little bit of everything and not have to feel pigeonholed into playing a certain kind of song. I had a great time when I was there last, sleepy & boo do great promotion, and you know, with this album release its nice to be able to tour in conjunction with a piece of music like a band would. I don't know, who knows in a week if I'll be using Traktor Scratch Pro and what I'll be able to perform with. But I really look forward to it, I get to play up in New York maybe once or twice a year, and I like doing the smaller more intimate things that's definitely what this is going to be. I just hope the weather is nice and I look forward to meeting you in person there!
BASIC NYC PRESENTS JOSH WINK @ SULLIVAN ROOM SAT. FEB 7
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Sleep/Boo Interview Josh Wink (NYC: 2/7/09)
Posted by Infernal Techno