From his home in LA to the global scene, John Tejada is a planet-navigating techno ambassador and one of our favorite electronic musicians. He’s one of a handful of artists successful today who has managed to cross eras, whose experience isn’t just of this moment but who has touched the evolution of that scene. We turn to guest writer Alex Brandmeyer, who interviews Mr. Tejada about his own work as well as where the music scene is headed. What I like about Alex’s interview is that he asks some really fundamental questions about the evolution of the international audience for this music and tools – and Mr. Tejada is just the sort of person whose answers are worth reading. -PK
John Tejada’s music has been raising the bar for more than fifteen years. Alongside an intense schedule of performances all across the world, he’s managed a steady stream of high-quality releases on dozens of labels, including his own baby (now fully-grown), Palette Recordings. Add to this some high-profile DJ mixes for outlets like Fabric, along with strong support for his music from top international DJs, and what you’ve got is one of the highest-calibre electronic artists around. Despite this success, he remains a very friendly, down-to-earth guy who’s instantly approachable, and whose love and enthusiasm for electronic music and performance immediately comes across. I caught up with him following one of his recent live shows at Studio 80 in Amsterdam.
One thing that interests me most about dance music, and about house and techno music in particular, is the fact that its appeal traverses national and geographic boundaries. What do you think the common thread is? Psychology? Biology? Culture? And what is it about four-on-the-floor electronic beats and sounds between 120-130 BPM that allows dance music to tap into these things?
I feel these days it has become such a global movement, with everyone around the world linked together through social media and other sources on the net. My experience in the early 90s, however, was much different. These avenues didn’t exist yet, and you had to grab magazines to find out about what was going on abroad and order new releases with your local shop. These days it is so instant. Most of my friends and I still can’t wrap our heads around it. Back then, it was such a treat to find the thing you were looking for or hear an artist you loved live, because you couldn’t just do an MP3 search and have it instantly or watch clips on YouTube from last night’s concert half way around the world. I see all these new developments as mostly a positive.
The sound seems to spread to all cultures at this point. Everyone likes to dance all over the world and many want that moment of hearing a new sound for the first time and wondering what it is. For these reasons, I don’t think it is all that unique that the music is loved the world over now. Many genres of music exist worldwide because people love music and keep all these scenes going.
Of course there are differences, too. As someone coming from California with strong connections to Europe, how do you feel about moving between these places, between the different audiences and cities? Does it matter in the sense that it pulls music and music communities in different directions over time? Or does the music itself make this type of question less important?
I still have a tie to Vienna with my father still being there, and being able to travel to Europe on a regular basis, so I feel connected to both places. I feel when it comes to audiences being different, it’s usually a case of a venue or the people you meet that can have a big impact on your opinion of that place. You may have a good or bad experience in a certain city and your whole experience might rely just on that one club night, when down the street at another club could have been potentially a completely different good or bad experience. It took me repeat visits to cities to realize this and to try not to make up my mind about a place just because of one night. I think the music will keep evolving, as it always does.
Every year, there are new pieces of gear, new bits of software, new labels, new clubs, and new ways of spreading music. Apart from the internet and social media culture you mentioned before, what have been the most important evolutions in your own music making over the years? Have there been specific ideas or techniques which really opened up new creative possibilities for you?
I feel while technology comes along and makes many things easier and options pretty much limitless, it also turns the same solutions into problems. Music has become more of a “paint by numbers” type of process for many people, which has made lots of new music less interesting for myself. The difference between imposing limitations on one’s creative process and actually having limitations is a different thing. When we were all starting out, the creative process was different than it is now. We now basically have limitless options, which can keep you second-guessing your work. At the same time, sure, it’s great to have new tools working more the way they were intended, and the resurgence of analog has made quite an impact in my workflow and sound. Generally, computer programs have developed mostly in positive ways, making music creation a lot more straightforward.
Again on the subject of evolution… an interesting question is always where this is all headed. People predicted a lot of different outcomes of the digital revolution, but underground clubs, labels, and to some extent, vinyl, all still seem to be doing pretty well, hand-in-hand with the ‘new era’ of Beatport, laptop DJs ,and commercial dubstep. What are your feelings about where the underground dance music scene is headed? Do you have any hopes or fears for the music? Does history repeat itself?
Things do seem to go in circles. I think we’re at the beginning of the next phase in the way music is being distributed. I have a strong belief that physical media will in some form make a comeback, wether it will be records or something else. I just can’t imagine a future where one’s music and book collection are only digital. It sort of misses the point of having a collection. Part of the fun of collecting is finding these physical objects that are tangible. While watching the new Comic-Con documentary, I had this thought that no one values PDFs of classic comic books, or JPEGs of hard-to-find baseball cards. The real physical item has great importance. This is why we love to collect records. I think people will start to miss that the more it disappears.
The past year I’ve been lucky enough to catch a couple of your live shows, and have enjoyed seeing you perform some of the tracks which I’ve come to love over the years. I’ve also really enjoyed listening to some of your DJ mixes. What for you is the difference between playing out as a DJ and playing using your live setup? Do you have a preference for one or the other? What are the challenges in each type of performance?
DJing can be stressful in the way that I’m looking to make a playlist with the goal of being an entertainer. Sometimes I don’t want to bother with that, and just concentrate on my own art and being creative that way. Playing live limits me to my own ideas which is a little easier for me, but can also be stressful, because if the set isn’t going down well I’ve got nowhere to go, really. I may have the ability to change my set list and arrangements live, but for the most part, it’s just me. At the moment, I’ve been enjoying the live sets quite a bit more. I’d love to bring more gear, but I’m usually shoved in a DJ booth, so for now, it’s a small synth and computer mixer set up.
I think distinguishing between a DJ as entertainer and a live performer as artist taps into something interesting about the way in which electronic music is performed and consumed these days. How important is your connection to the audience when you perform? Do you notice a difference in this connection when you perform live as compared to when you DJ?
When DJing, I have a stronger connection to the audience, because I’m choosing songs based on what I perceive to be their reactions. When playing live, I am really involved making sure I am doing all the right things and controlling the right parameters; I hardly have time to take a look around. That can also be a good thing, as I’m less influenced by people’s reactions. I’m limited to my own compositions, so my main goal is to perform those pieces that as best as I can.
Do you notice differences in the types of crowds that will come to see a live PA as opposed to those who come out for a DJ set?
The crowds can be different, more in the US I think. In the States you’ll have more “concert” shows, and that’s where people are more open to what a live performer will do. If I’m just shoved into a DJ booth in Europe and asked to make it work somehow, and the crowd is just a party crowd, then there is no difference there. I find in those spaces a DJ set is more appropriate.
You’ve been involved with electronic music for quite a while now. Do you have any particular achievements or peak moments that really pop out from the rest?
I’ve had some really unique opportunities including doing some shows here in LA at the Disney Hall which were really special. Checking out most of the planet has been quite great as well.
Could you tell me a bit more about the shows you did at the Disney Hall? How different is performing in a proper concert hall from performing in a club?
I got to play there twice. Once opening for The Orb at an all night event, where I played a hardware set and covered a table full of synths. The other time was when I got to play my piece “The End Of It All” with a 100 piece male chorus. The piece was reinterpreted by myself as well as adding all the vocal harmonies.
What was it like performing with a choir?
It was quite an experience to be able to do that, especially in that space.
Did the acoustics kick ass?
The acoustics are really tailored for acoustic performances. It was designed for the LA Philharmonic. While they have a really high-end PA, it is not really geared towards electronic shows. However, the space below the hall, The Red Cat Theater, hosts a big variety of very cool synth shows and avant garde programs. I’ve seen tons of shows at both recently. Definitely LA’s best venue.
Can you amuse us with any anecdotes about bizzare/amusing/plain weird things that have happened to you so far during your career as an electronic musician? No need to name any names.
There’s just so much and of course nothing comes to mind immediately. It’s usually disasters that end up being a little bit funny later on, but at the time they are not amusing, unless someone just says something completely ridiculous at dinner like the Italian promoter who was repeatedly asking Arian (Leviste) and I “don’t you think my wife is beautiful?” I remember in Tokyo, a good friend from Germany was playing and asked if I could start immediately. I said “sure,” and he went off to a corner of the stage and huddled on the ground in fetal position and just stayed there, apparently a bit food poisoned. He was soon OK.
For the coming years, what are the things that keep you motivated to make new music? Do you have any projects or ideas that you’re really excited about? Are you still looking for the perfect beat?
I’m always striving for something, tweaking my technique, my mixdowns, quality of sounds, stripping things away, the list goes on and on. I’ve just completed work on a new full length. Hopefully details on that will be announced soon.