Last year I found myself in an East London warehouse, not somewhere I generally frequent but when French synth-pop wonderkid Madeon is in town I’m willing to break habits. It was an unrelenting and remarkable show both visually and sonically complete with a lighting rig that eclipsed the stage on which it was placed. However, something didn’t quite connect for me. It was far from a bad concert but I essentially spent most of the gig thinking through what you’re about to read while Madeon graced the stage and I guess that says enough. When electronic artists and DJs, particularly producers who composed their pieces alone, often in their bedroom with no live intentions, suddenly find themselves touring artists under a ‘live’ billing they have to make a decision. Firstly on what ‘live’ means and secondly how they’re going to make their music translate. The first hurdle they face is how do you create something that feels like a raw one-off experience for an audience while simultaneously recreating sounds that were often created by one person via a midi controller?
Option 1: Fuck it, I’m a DJ
Pop DJs like David Guetta and Calvin Harris are famous for being paid a shed-load to show up with decks or a laptop and playing out their own tracks for an hour and a half. Fair play to them! It’s not my cup of tea and from what I can tell Harris spends half of his set with his hands in the air but there’s clearly an audience for it. Obviously in saying this I’m glazing over the thousands of pounds that they spend on lighting rigs to entertain the audience. However being a DJ and playing your own tracks can also be achieved in a more musical manner, particularly if you’re a scratch DJ like C2C or DJ Yoda, who, in my opinion, are unrivalled when it comes to the physical act of DJ-ing.
Option 2: I’ll be a band now
Many producers who decide they need to become a live outfit hire a backing band to reinterpret their music for a live domain with varying levels of success. Daniel Snaith aka Caribou is, as the start of this sentence implies, merely one man. However when he tours his music it’s as one quarter of a four piece group. He takes care of vocals and samples and is backed up by a bassist, guitarist, and drummer. The results of this transform the sound of his music notably. Take for example his 2010 track ‘Odessa’, the opening track on his third album as Caribou ‘Swim’. If you listen to the studio recording and compare it to the live version there’s a clear difference. The song is the same but there’s more emphasis on the bassline, and the fact that a live acoustic drum kit, as opposed to samples, is holding the tempo makes the live iteration of Caribou sound almost like an indie rock outfit.
An artist who has very successfully managed to convert his music for a live setting is James Blake. Opting for a minimal live three-piece setup to reflect his minimal sound has paid dividends. You could do much worse than watching it for yourself.
Option 3: I’m a DJ/producer but also something else
Madeon spent much of his set using a Novation Launchpad (It’s like a pad covered in buttons that launches samples… I think) alongside decks and a keyboard in a sort of hybrid one-man electro band setup. There’s no denying his Launchpad skills are impressive, he’s managed to rack up over 35 million views for his live Pop Culture mashup also check out his live version of ‘You’re On’ mixing piano and Launchpads to create a song that sounds almost identical to the original but different enough that it feels live. Disclosure also find themselves slappin’ da bass mon and Mount Kimbie have an incredible live setup mixing Kaoss Pads and live instruments to make a wall of sound.
Another way to make a live show more than one person, with decks, and an expensive but predictable lighting rig playing their own songs is to make the show something more theatrical. A perfect example of that is Flying Lotus, who appears to be touring with the actual grim reaper and a stage setup that would make Pink Floyd blush.
As someone who spent his teenage years listening to rock bands try their hardest to perforate my eardrums I often find a distance between the audience and the artist with electronic music. Many of the artists who, in my opinion, have successfully bucked the above trend are generally bands rather than producers (Friendly Fires, The Prodigy etc). As such their setup always contained a mix of live instruments and samples and the live show was an integral part of their existence from day one. That doesn’t mean a bedroom producer can’t make a live show that feels raw or legitimately ‘live’, they just have to work a bit harder to make either an interesting show that transcends a standard DJ performance or does more than simply rely on hiring awkward looking session musicians playing bass and drums.