How Do DJs Survive a Pandemic? We Asked House Legend John Digweed.

The iconic British producer is finding new ways to express himself in lockdown

February 1, 2021 8:36 am
John Digweed
Courtesy of Bedrock Records / Get In PR

“This is such a strange period.”

John Digweed is a legend in dance music, but he’s also part of a scene that was hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The last year: No concerts, no clubs, no dance floors and what seemed initially like very little in the way of connecting with an audience (or even making a living).

So he adapted. The British DJ, record producer and radio host recently released a four-disc mega LP called Quattro on his label Bedrock Recordings (featuring a collaboration with Nick Muir, Booka Shade and Tom Mangan) and launched a weekly quarantine mix called the Bunker Sessions. Plus, he hosts an ongoing radio show called Transitions and is about to release a follow-up album called Quattro II on February 26. 

Digweed rose to prominence in the 1990s as a key player in the trance music/progressive house scenes. He made his breakthrough with the 1994 mixtape (with Sasha) Renaissance: The Mix Collection — the first commercial nightclub compilation ever — which promoted London’s Renaissance nightclub. He’s also remixed songs for New Order, Quincy Jones and Underworld, and one of his tracks landed on the soundtrack for Trainspotting.

So he’s seen some proverbial shit. Rode out the electronic music scene’s many ups and downs. And right now, Digweed is keeping busy while looking ahead.

“The nightlife industry is usually quite resilient to global events, just as a lot of people try to escape day to day life with a night out,” he tells InsideHook. “[But] it looks like we have a long, slow wait until we can all get back on the dance floor again.

The iconic musician speaks to us from his home in England about his new album, celebrating 20+ years on the radio and how he and his colleagues are coping with an extended period away from the stage. 

InsideHook: How have you been holding up in quarantine?

John Digweed: All good. The key is to keep yourself busy and try and make sure you’re exercising every day to get your body moving, at least I find. Keep in regular contact with family and friends and make sure people are coping okay. During the first lockdown last year, I released a compilation album called Quattro, which I had spent nine months working on, not knowing how it would be received during a pandemic. The reaction was incredible. And with more time on my hands, I started working on a follow up which is coming out at the end of February.

What’s happening to the DJ/clubbing scene at large during quarantine?

It’s at a complete standstill in most of the world, except for a few countries that are still allowing events to still happen. No one in our generation has ever lived through a pandemic of this caliber, so it’s like we’re all learning how to deal and cope with it. It’s been great to see the clubbing community come together with streams and charity events and even studio courses to keep the fans entertained during this period.

Sasha and John Digweed
DJs Sasha and John Digweed perform at the Electric Zoo Music Festival on Sept. 1, 2017 in NYC
Brian Killian/Getty Images

How are you and your friends and colleagues passing time and making money?

Everyone I speak to is dealing with this situation differently. Some are enjoying the body reset and doing nothing, while others are keeping busy and working on future projects. For touring musicians, this period has exposed the fact that artists are not fairly rewarded for their music by streaming platforms if they’re not touring. The change from physical sales to streams highlights a massive revenue difference. If you really like an artist, then you can try to support them through their Bandcamp pages by buying an album or track, rather than just streaming their tracks. It will make a big difference and allow them to continue making great music.

What do you think about the return of illegal raves, which is really odd (and bad) during COVID-19? That said, even before the pandemic they seemed to be making a comeback.

I totally understand that young people want to get out and let off steam, but with hospitals and authorities overstretched at the moment, it’s important that we try and all work together and stop the spread of the virus. The sooner we get the numbers right down, the sooner we can get events and clubs open again.

You recently celebrated 20 years on the radio, how have you seen it change?

I can’t believe I have been on the air for over 20 years. I love the fact I can be on over 80 stations around the world every week and share the music I love with worldwide fans.

What’s special about your ongoing Bunker Sessions, will it continue post-pandemic?

I think people like the relaxed vibe of the setup, which makes it feel like you have joined a house party with a fun feel to it. Musically, I try to mix it up every week and never repeat tracks, so each show has a unique aspect to it. I also make the music the main feature by focusing the camera on my DJ equipment and hands. I am not a dancing DJ, so having this camera angle allows me and my viewers to focus on what I play. The fans have really supported and enjoyed the sessions, so I am sure they will continue in some shape or form.

What can you say about long-distance collabs as part of the making of Quattro and Quattro II?

The first Quattro album took nine months to complete, but with so many artists stuck at home, the second album, Quattro II, took me about 10 weeks to complete, as everyone was more flexible. It was much easier and faster to get the material needed. I am so happy with the result — it’s the perfect complement to the first album. I am sure the fans are going to enjoy it as much as the first one.

If you had to choose, what nightclub do you miss the most performing at?

Fabric in London and Stereo in Montreal come to mind, but there are so many clubs and festivals around the world that I love playing at. Hopefully, they will all be able to open when the world gets on top of the current situation.

What do you miss most about performing live or being on tour?

I miss the intense atmosphere of peak-time clubbing, alongside the social aspect of meeting new people or catching up with old friends while touring.

Looking ahead: What is the key, magic element to a great party?

Everything from the door staff to the bar staff, sound and lights. The DJ may supply the music, but it’s sort of like a cake. All the ingredients need to work together to get the best result.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.