Dan Curtin: Inside The DJ Mind of a 30+ Year Career in Electronic Music

Ohio-born, now Berlin resident, DJ, and producer Dan Curtin has had a career in electronic music since the early 90s. He’s released 70 single and 9 albums, from house to techno, on acclaimed labels such as Mobilee Records and Metamorphic (Dan’s own imprint). In this interview, Dan shares insights on his music-making, and tell us more about how approaches DJing

Hi Dan, congrats on “Flight Lush” (above) — your new album on Steffi’s label. Swinging between breakbeats and spacey deep house is this wonderful 4-tracker mini-techno journey. Has your style changed with this release?

Thanks! But no, definitely not, if anything I’d say this just a development on what I did in the beginning because then I wasn’t doing many straight “4 to the floor” records and many of them were broken beat with loads of melody. So that’s kind of how I saw this EP.  I just wanted to play around with some broken beats again.

How did you encounter Steffi, the iconic Berghain/ Panorama Bar resident? What made your collaboration successful?

Steffi got in touch with me and asked me if I’d like to do a record for her label. And it was an easy choice to make because I had been buying her records and following her labels and agreed that I could be a nice addition to her catalog. It made sense to me and I was super excited to do it.

Your music is a blend of Detroit-infused sounds with your own vision of techno and composing style. Could you share with us your main influences or main inspirations today?

Detroit Techno is what I see as “techno”.

That’s true, it is definitely Detroit infused: that original inspiration was too strong to really get away from. Detroit Techno is what I see as “techno” so it’s always going to be part of the foundation. But as far as the influences you mentioned, it’s hard to pinpoint one because I’m really influenced and inspired by everything around me. Music, walking down the street, going to a different city, traveling, relationships, space… basically everything that I can sense in this universe ends up being the raw material for making music.

That’s why you’ll never see me walking around the city with headphones on, it would deprive me if the input that I need to create.

You’ve mentioned how much you were influenced by hip hop in the past. Are you still listening to hiphop today and so which artists?

Hip hop would be the other main musical and cultural influence of my music. And yes, I am absolutely listening to it today and in fact, if you look on my phone there is ONLY hip hop on there! It’s definitely my “favorite” type of music to listen to without a doubt.

I don’t listen to techno and house often because I spend so much time with it when preparing sets, radio shows, mixes, listening to promos and record shopping that I tend to listen to other stuff when I want to listen purely for enjoyment’s sake.

However, there are some like Legowelt who I can really sit back and just get into… At the moment my favorite hip-hop artists would be Madlib, Conway the Machine and all the Griselda stuff, Dabrye, Fly Anakin, Freddie Gibbs, One Be Lo, MF Doom, Pete Rock, 9th Wonder, and long time, lifetime favorites like DJ Premier and J Dilla to name just a few…

Can you dive us through your favorite DJ mixers and why you love them?

I actually like the Pioneer (any of the models in clubs over the past years and now) because it just suits my style of DJing.  It’s the effects, it’s the layout, I prefer a crossfader. I like to do quick mixing as well as long fades and rides and this mixer allows me to pay attention to the decks, the beat matching, as well as managing all of the faders and fx. It’s super easy and functional and it allows me to focus on the groove and the music. 

Apart from that, I don’t really care… I’m not a stickler for specific gear as long as the equipment is arrayed how I need and it and in excellent condition with an attentive sound person. I learned to DJ on the US rave circuit and it was going from one disastrous booth set up to another nightmare set up and the way I learned to deal with it was to change my attitude to accepting the challenge of being able to work with whatever was thrown at me. Those problems don’t exist anymore but I’m still less picky as a result of that formative experience. 

Have you ever had a DJ fear and how did you overcome it?

The biggest DJ fear is going into a gig and not knowing what to expect from the crowd. This ramps up the nervousness for sure.  It’s is a rare situation but occasionally I find myself wondering, “um… why am I playing here??”  and it’s unnerving trying to suss out the crowd and then realizing, shit, this is all wrong. But overcoming it is simple, “ain’t nothing to do but to do it!”

Dan Curtin playing at Rex Club (2012)
How do you prepare your sets? Do you know in advance which tracks will work? 

I know in advance which tracks I like and which tracks allow me to really feel what I am doing and to be able to project that to the crowd. I prefer to add new tracks into every set but to also keep ones that I know work and that I know I have fun playing. It’s all about the honesty, if I’m feeling it then the crowd believes it.

During the week I’ll DJ in my studio, try out new combinations, new mixes, and basically just do it for fun and whatever I’ve been messing around with during the week will end up in the weekend set.

It’s all about the honesty, if I’m feeling it then the crowd believes it

When you’re DJing, do you sometimes find it difficult to adapt to a crowd? Do you know which tracks would work best?

It definitely can be tough to adapt to a crowd especially when playing live because I only have a limited amount of material to choose from, but usually, it just takes a few records to get in synch with the crowd. And sure, sometimes that just doesn’t happen, but sometimes it happens from the first second.

And for which tracks work best, I mean, there are so many that do but I’ve found that it matters more how and when the track is played because even a totally hot track can be played out of context and at the wrong time. It’s all about programming and mixing, feeling the crowd and timing. null

Cleveland and Berlin
You now reside in Berlin but you were born and grew up in Ohio in the US – what inspirations have you found from living in these two places?

They are just two completely different places. Growing up in Ohio and living in Cleveland formed the foundation of who I am basically, and Berlin represents a different direction — it’s such a hard question to answer because the inspiration from each place is limitless and maybe even too personal to describe, not because I don’t want to but because the inspiration I get from a desolate Soviet Era landscape might not make sense to anybody else.

But for sure, at least musically, the greatest part of my creative influence came from Cleveland, the love of the night, the decrepit urban landscape, soul music, funk, hip hop, nature, and space.

Now in Berlin as far as influences, who knows? The jury is still out on that one, you can hear it in the music but it’s hard to describe in words. But I love Berlin because it’s a unique environment where all walks of life coexist without conflict. You have a generous social democracy that allows people to do as they please in peace. It’s a great place to raise a family and also for the top techno club in the world to stay open for 3 days straight each week, there are theatre and parks and a strong public recreation program available to all. Refugees have come here in the hundreds of thousands and they have integrated into the culture and become valuable members of our society. Gentrification is happening but in a measured and sensible way that allows the city to recover from the neglect of the Soviet Union as it has to do, but they do it in a way that doesn’t create ghettos or overpriced areas just for the rich. Lots of good going on here…

Musically, the greatest part of my creative influence came from Cleveland, the love of the night, the decrepit urban landscape, soul music, funk, hip hop, nature, and space.

Tell us about a studio experimentation you did recently: what was the process and what was the outcome? Do you somehow find it difficult to achieve some ideas?

The main change was to sort of step away from the computer a bit and compose more in a live fashion. I’ve always been using gear in the studio,  that’s how I started as well, but for a long time, the DAW has been the central hub of the entire studio with the outboard gear being integrated into the digital environment.

I’ve changed that up a bit in the past 2 years by first composing everything on the gear and outside of the box, getting the tracks to a nearly finished state, and then bringing the DAW into play as a means of finishing up the work. I think it helps to create a more spontaneous and live feeling to the tracks doing it this way. And I often find it difficult to achieve some ideas, and for others, they come easily. But the challenge is the really fun part, the problem solving as well, and if I can’t solve it then I need to learn how!

The live rig that Dan used in his 2018 tour
What hardware are you using in your studio, and what makes it essential in crafting your music?

At the moment working with synths like Juno a-1 and Korg Minilogue, some custom modified and created gear, the Electron Octatrack to name a few.

For me personally I like having my hand actually on the equipment that I am trying to make come alive, it’s just the way that I personally can express my inspiration with the least amount of barriers in-between. Even though I use DAW for every single track and like doing it, I still view it as a barrier.

In the above video, you explained you loved using a sequencer to emulate a live performance. What was special with this technique over relying on a computer solely?

I just want to go from brain to sound, not brain to mouse to computer screen to automation data, etc… it’s just faster and more intuitive which is why I’ll usually get the main idea and general arrangement done outside the box, then tighten it up inside the box…

For producing house, you enjoy samples, but for producing techno, you enjoy adding more synthesizers. What’s your thinking?

To me, house seems to lend itself to being sample-based in the same way that hip hop does. Of course, it isn’t needed, and both can be made purely with synths but I get that raw feeling that I’m looking for by using samples, and then techno lends itself to synths more to get that spacey sci-fi fi future feeling. But both can be done either way and I’ve done both, both ways. So have others – for instance, one of my top 10 records “69 – 4 Jazz Funk Classics” is about as future-forward thinking techno as you can get, and Carl made it all sample-based.

Tell us about your label Metamorphic Records — which direction and vision do you have for the label?

The label is about releasing music that is totally original that is techno-ish.  I’m less concerned with the format as long as the producer has a vision, and unique point of view. I get lots of music submissions for the label that are really good, and I’d play them, but to be released  the producer really has to show who they are by presenting their own point of view.

When you are not busy selecting cool records for your gigs or crafting your new music, what do you enjoy doing?

My personal obsession is lifting weights but other wise if I have free time I try to make that family time. I guess I’m lucky because everything music making related is still my number one passion, so just like with a hobby, I’d do it in my free time anyway, even if I wasn’t doing it for a job!

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