In anticipation of his upcoming show at Elektricity on Saturday, April 23 (win tickets here), I talked to LA-based DJ and producer Wolfgang Gartner, also known as Joey Youngman, about his past experiences, present projects and future goals in music. Joey took me on a journey through his younger, borderline-obsessive years to his current state of balance, talking about the incorporation of his house music roots into 2016’s musical landscape. He even touched on why Avicii has retired and how Deadmau5 is still going. Despite some connectivity issues reminiscent of that infamous Verizon commercial (“Can you hear me now? Good.”), I can only hope that our conversation was as pleasant for him as it was for me.
The bio on your website makes your work ethic sound pretty intense. Have you always been like that with music, or do you feel like that developed as you got more into it?
That one is from three or four years ago, I actually can’t remember what my bio says. I do feel like there’s a responsibility to advance the genre of dance music but honestly, a lot has changed since that stage of my career. That was a time when I was making a particular sound, the sound that was on Weekend in America. I was making more electro house and very complex electro house, some people put this tag called Complextro on it. Back then, a song from start to finish could take 4 or 5 weeks of work and editing, and that’s 60-70 hours a week, so I did used to be obsessive. I guess overall that bio is something that’s not the perfect indicator of where I am mentally or musically right now in my career because I’m kind of at a turning point, and it would be hard to even write a bio right now.
All these sub-genres are a little hard for me to keep track of… that “Complextro” term isn’t one that I entirely understand, but do you have a sense of where you’d like to go with your sound?
Before I started using the name Wolfgang Gartner, in 2008 I was making Chicago house, disco house, San Francisco house in the early 2000s, releasing records back then under a lot of different names. Taking inspiration from that and combining it with the sound that I’ve built as Wolfgang Gartner, combining that with my true foundational house roots is the next step. By nature, house tends to be more groovy and loop-based with less peaks and valleys, more of a straight line. I don’t wanna do that, and it also doesn’t fit my sets to play a straight line like that. I have to go up and down and have the dynamics and have the rollercoaster, that’s an integral part of who I am as a DJ. So, I’m trying to take parts from my disco house roots and make it playable on the sizes and stages of rooms that I’m playing. Like, take disco house elements from the late 90s and make it into bigger venue disco house for the 2016 era. I haven’t really thought about it like that before, but that is kind of what I’m trying to do: figure out how to make this old sound that I love, but make it relevant and make it playable in large venues.
Well if I wasn’t already pumped for your show I definitely am now. Speaking of, how goes the tour?
I don’t call it “on tour” because I just do weekends or one-offs. I used to do bus tours, long runs of two to three weeks where I wouldn’t come home. I’m accepting a limited number of gigs this year, probably in the range of 40 or 50. I don’t want to overextend myself and not have enough time to do music, so I’m carefully selecting shows and picking the ones that I’ve played before, generally– venues where I’ve played before and had a good time at and I know it’s gonna be a good show. But I don’t call it touring, even the word “touring” can bring on anxiety, thinking about being away from home for two to three weeks. It’s all about balance now.
When it comes to picking and choosing where you want to play, why did you choose Pontiac?
I’ve played Elektricity at least two times before, maybe three, and it’s been great every time. Most people would say “where?” And I tell them, it’s the slightly smaller cities that are close to major cities where crowds are the best. I very clearly remember that the crowd was amazing every time, and I immediately said OK. That’s basically my criteria for picking shows right now. Detroit is a city that I don’t play that often, but when I have on bus tours it’s always one of the best shows on the tour. I think it’s just the state of Michigan, and I’ve said that before, Michigan is a good one.
You’ve been doing this for a really respectable amount of time. Have you seen changes in the scene and in the music that you like or dislike?
That’s a question that I could write a book about, honestly. When I started producing dance music there wasn’t even the internet, so when I sent out music trying to get it signed to record labels, I was sending it on tapes, which was standard format at that time. CDs weren’t even viable yet. I remember tips in magazines were to wrap it in shiny, bright paper so that when it’s in a giant box of demo tapes at the record label it stands out from all the others. When digital download sites like Beatport started popping up, all the vinyl distributors went bankrupt. I was running a bunch of record labels at the time, I had a lot of money in these vinyl distributors that were all based in New York, and they all went bankrupt within a few weeks of each other. I feel like music in the digital format and how people absorb it and listen to it and ingest it is still trying to go through its awkward phase. It has been for the past 8 or 9 years, ever since it really switched over to digital music and not CDs or vinyl or anything else. The biggest development in last year or two is that streaming is the main way people listen to your music. They don’t download it. A lot of my songs are getting millions of streams, but if I get a million streams I make $220. There was a point in my career in the early 2000s when I was making a really good living selling vinyl records, not even touring that much. It’s no longer possible to make a living by producing music. I’m not gonna say that I think it’s a bad thing or a good thing, but it’s the most profound change that’s happened in the music industry. The music has become a lost leader that essentially enables you to make money from touring and all these other things.
Coming back to the present, your most recent album has a lot of cool collaborators on it. In light of that last question, does geography affect who you work with, or how do you decide?
That doesn’t factor into my choices for collaborations. All the collaborations on the album are vocalists except for A-Trak, but I don’t do a lot of collaborations with other producers these days. The thought process behind choosing somebody is the music always comes first. Literally, the instrumental part of the music is what I come up with first. Then I send it to my manager, and us and other people that work with him will just have a brainstorm focus group and think about “Who do we hear on this?” With the ears of a lot of other people who are more tuned into pop music and upcoming vocalists, I have a lot of resources on the management side. They’re just a lot more clued into music than I am because people in that line of work have to be. Most of the suggestions end up coming from my manager. That’s how I found out about Marc Griffin, J Hart, Negin Djafari. They’ll show me their Soundcloud page or a few song demos, and I’ll be like “That’s fucking amazing, I’ve never heard this name before!” Which is even more awesome, when people don’t know them.
Are there specific people in mind that you’d like to work with, or that you’ve wanted to and have worked with?
A lot of the rappers, like Jim Jones and Cam’ron from Dipset on the last album, were probably on my all-time want to work with list. So that was me saying, “Dude, can you get a Dipset feature?” That was a big one for me. Trina on this album, E-40, that’s a huge one for me. I’ve been listening to him for like 20 years. As far as people I’d want to collaborate with in the future, I haven’t started thinking about it, but I want to start collaborating with instrumentalists. I can play keyboards, but I want somebody who can play an authentic guitar part … not cheesy guitar, but I want to start incorporating instruments that aren’t possible to make on computers.
Do you have an interest in bringing live musicians into performances?
I don’t know! That’s something that’s definitely very possible, but once I have a song that’s able to be performed live. If it’s a festival show, or for example, artists go on Saturday Night Live or other late night shows and perform their songs. Even if it’s a fully electronic beat, they’ll bring in a band to replay it because it just looks better and sounds better and is more exciting. I’ve always in the back of my head kind of figured that if I ever do one of those moves, like a late night show or a special appearance at a festival, it would be cool to do. But there’s a lot of rehearsal involved in that, you’re basically creating a band and getting them to replace something that’s been made electronically. It’s a lot of work, but I would love to do something like that if I thought it could pay off and could be sustainable.
Do you have plans for a next album or set of shows?
I’m already thinking about the next album for sure. I’ve got one song done with a vocalist that I can’t talk about yet, but this would be my biggest … I guess I shouldn’t hype it up because I can’t talk about it … but this would be my biggest vocalist feature ever, and the thing I would be most excited about, ever. We’re trying to clear it right now, but I’ve already started making music and making what will be the next album. There’s a weird line you ride between focusing on individual songs and trying to look at a bigger picture, and trying to not get caught up in the bigger picture at the expense of the individual songs. Right now, there’s so much going on in dance music, there’s so many people doing so many different things, and so many sounds and sub-genres and everything. You really have to separate yourself more than ever, you have to do something unique to stand out because there’s almost always somebody else doing what you’re doing. I’m just trying to figure out how to do something really, really different to stand out.
Is there a timeline you’d like to follow for releasing the song or the album as a whole?
I have to be realistic. Probably by the end of 2017 would be my goal. There was a little over four years in between my last two albums. That’s also a result of touring. I was on the road so much that I went four years between albums, but that’s not something I’d ideally choose to do. But the way I was touring for those years, that’s the way it was, and I think the fact that I’m taking so many less shows now and spending a lot more time in the studio, I’ll probably be able to have an album out in a year and a half instead of waiting four years this time … I hope so!
You had some health issues that you also wanted to respect, right?
Yeah, I’m not just scaling back now. In 2015 I toured until Feb. 1 and then didn’t tour for over a year. Some shit happened and I needed to get off the road and I ended up turning it into a year touring break. That gave me a lot of time to think about change and all the stuff I want to do in the future, and that probably facilitated the change that’s happening right now with me stepping back and looking at it from the outside, saying “Where do I want to be involved in this, at what level do I want to be involved, how much am I willing to sacrifice, how much am I willing to compromise, how much do I want to do exactly what I feel like doing and not give a fuck about anything else?” And now I have almost all the answers. It was play 50 shows a year. I still get to do the things I love and not burn out. It was a pretty simple answer, but it took a long time for me to find that simple answer of balance. Avicii “retired” … I guess if you’ve got $40 or $50 million you can do that, and I wonder what he’ll do. But the reason he retired was because he was touring non-stop and he was going crazy. A lot of people have announced that they’re quitting touring permanently and not done it. I haven’t actually talked to any other prominent DJ personally who’s figured out the key, but I have a feeling that Deadmau5 might have figured it out. He seems like he just goes out and does little tours whenever he feels like it, and he’s at home most of the time. I don’t talk to him much anymore. I haven’t talk to him about his balance issue, but I feel like he’s one of the people who’s figured it out. If you wanna be the number one DJ in the world then, yeah, you have to be out there 300 days a year, but I don’t need to be the number one DJ in the world. I don’t need to be the number one anything in the world. That’s not my priority. My priority is to do what I feel like doing, have fun, support my family– all that.