Photo credit: Jeremy Bispo at Dekmantel Selectors Stage, Amsterdam, NL.
Chris Zaldua: As your DJ profile has risen, I suspect many of your new fans are unaware of the Midwestern scene which you came up from. Could you give us a quick refresher on your DJ history, and how that has influenced you today?
Mike Servito: I’m a product of Detroit. I was born in Detroit and raised just outside the city. I grew up on Detroit radio which boasted a culturally diverse mix of music but generally R&B and Funk to proper Chicago house. And early techno and electro via The Electrifying Mojo and The Wizard, Jeff Mills. I was exposed to the first, second, and third wave of Detroit techno and early Chicago tracks.
Those are my direct influences. It was a natural progression, hearing mixes, and buying the music simply as an observer and a fan. I was buying acid house records before I even realized they had a purpose besides just being listened to. The DJ aspects came later as a teen and it felt very instinctual. I was never given any lessons.
DJ CZ: Similarly, I consider you a quintessentially “American” DJ. Much of that has to do with your history, but more so with the music you play out, and how you play it. I wonder if you’d agree with this and if you think DJing is, or can be, a reflection of your geographical roots.
MS: Of course. I always hear how “American” I am and how “American” I play and that’s fine. My sound is deeply rooted in American house and techno. Detroit and Chicago have always been my main influences. Music in the UK that was influenced by those early Detroit and Chicago sounds are still part of my repertoire. Detroit-inspired techno from Germany was part of my upbringing. New York house music dominated my bag in the 90s. I got an earful of New York style house in Detroit by way of Ken Collier. I’m from the school of Derrick Carter so that kind of mixing was instilled early. It was about having a good ear, technique, and some imagination on the spot.
All these factors are rooted in American dance music. I like certain sounds and I’m always searching for those sounds in new music whether its an acid line or a nice kick. And not in a nostalgic sort of way, but in a way that feels conducive to playing those old records now. It’s all relative if you want it to be. There is a certain unstructured feel to my technique that probably deviates from European counterparts and that’s fine. I think there is still a lot to gain from listening and dancing to other DJ’s in general, American or not.
I come from an era where the lines between house music and techno were blurred and genres didn’t matter. It was only about the groove and if the track was dope and you felt a connection to it. I play how I play. I really don’t give it too much thought. It’s flattering that people are excited and curious and want to know more about the “American” DJ’s currently shaking things up.
DJ CZ: The “digital vs. vinyl” debate is dead as a doornail, but I do think that each medium has its unique pros and cons. What do you love about playing primarily vinyl?
MS: I love the feel of digging through my records, holding them and queuing them. It’s a matter of conditioning. You don’t give a painter oils when they’ve been using watercolors their whole career and expect a masterpiece in return. It’s a matter of what is comfortable and what feels right. I never claimed to be a pro “vinyl only” person. Whatever suits you. I can’t speak for others. It is my chosen medium and it’s what I prefer. But, that’s not to say I rule out CDJ’s. I used them at Panorama Bar a few weeks ago, and it saved me from tracking/skipping issues on New Years day in Amsterdam. You have to make adjustments where need be. Because at the end of the day, I am not willing to not play at all.
DJ CZ: You were just featured in an interesting NPR article about back to back DJ sets, suggesting that they were one of 2015’s prominent trends. How do you feel about B2B DJ sets? How do they affect what you play, especially when you’re doing it with someone you already know, like Marea (The Black Madonna)? Do you think B2B sets tend to have any particular strengths or weaknesses that solo sets lack?
MS: I like a B2B from time to time. It’s about openness and flexibility and an understanding of the person you are playing with. There has to be chemistry. I never met Jackmaster but we had a strong set together in Barcelona last month. We barely know each other, but I think it’s ultimately about having fun with the music. We didn’t even discuss it. We just did it and it worked well.
What I have with Derek Plaslaiko is super special. We have similar sensibilities and we push each other and challenge each other to take it further each time. Marea and I were talking about the “B2B” last night at dinner. There is literally only a small handful that we would agree to do a B2B with in a second. That list of people overlaps, naturally. We can count it on one hand. I think people like us can play with anyone, but it really boils down to having a certain chemistry and an understanding and love for the person you are playing with.
I think the weakness is when people don’t seem to be working together. Maybe it’s about the ego? It can sound chaotic, like a game of tug of war. It’s not for everyone. On the plus side, I think the strengths of a B2B occur when that synergy happens and it feels unstoppable.
The Black Madonna and I have never tagged but we’re not worried about it. We just know it’s gonna go down! We are pretty excited!
DJ CZ: What does “deep house” mean to you, and how does Chicago relate to that?
MS: I think musically, any kind of “deep” expression came in the form of Rick Wade, Mike Huckaby, Moodymann, Theo Parrish, Rick Wilhite etc. In regards to Chicago, I was raised on early acid tracks and the school of Cajual and Classic. I honestly don’t know what deep house means to me right now. I really try not to think about those kinds of adjectives to define house or techno music. It’s more about the feeling for me.
By the way, I just had an inner chuckle to myself at the thought of Derrick Carter saying “derp house”. 😉
DJ CZ: What are some of your tips and tricks for surviving life on the road?
MS: Staying hydrated. Curbing the excesses a little bit. Eating light. Finding any moment of peace and quiet and taking advantage of it before and after the gig. You have to remain sane. I’m not sure people realize we are even human. We travel far. We’re tired. We have to perform and do it well and be friendly. It really is a matter of braving all the elements. The Black Madonna and I were joking this summer about how DJing is for free. We get paid to deal with all the other stuff we have to encounter! It’s true, though. A lot can be hurled our way all at once. You have to keep your optimism up if anything. I think it varies depending on the artist and the personality. I’ve witnessed the low end of others over the years and I choose not to take it there.
DJ CZ: How’s life as part of The Bunker family these days?
MS: I think it’s great. We talk on the regular. I love the evolution of it all and what it’s become. I am very proud of the affiliation and of Bryan. He works really hard at curating his events and finding the right music for the label. I think The Bunker New York feels right and attracts a smart, interesting, and interested audience.The Bunker put me on my feet. I’m out there not only representing myself but my colleagues and the label. It’s a special family to be a part of.
DJ CZ: Since you’ve been a part of the American dance music scene since the ’90s, do you think the scene in the U.S. is improving overall?
MS: I think it’s as strong as it’s ever been in the U.S. It feels good to be able to play decent American gigs. It’s a hard market here but it does exist and there are pockets of really great events throughout the U.S. The quality is getting better. Everything should be tight in regards to sound and feel of the space. I think that aspect has improved over the years in America. I think those finer details are important. Don’t overlook the importance of a proper set up and sound. I cannot state that enough. If people aren’t willing to invest in those finer details, then you shouldn’t be throwing events. It’s that simple.
DJ CZ: Do you have any particularly fiery records from 2015 in your bag that you might care to share?
MS: Currently, I am obsessed with this Photonz remix for Legowelt on Unknown To The Unknown.
DJ CZ: What were the highlights of Dekmantel for you — in terms of playing there or just being there?
MS: It was surreal. We got in a day early. We went to the Göttsching /Autechre show. Was almost too tired to fully enjoy it. I was a bit nervous day of the gig, but I got a warm up with NTS & Red Light Radio. I finished and then went to Carlos Souffront at the Selectors Stage. He was at his best. That was comforting to have him there, as we are Detroit pals. Techno security blanket! It happened so fast. I just remember feeling relieved when my set was over, but feeling slightly indifferent about how I played. But I felt good about it, mostly.
In terms of artists, Paranoid London Live, Steffi & Virginia Live, Carlos Souffront, Solar, I-F, Veronica Vasicka. Prosumer and Tama Sumo tagging. Helena Hauff is a beast, smoking and just beating tracks. The women really went off. Also, I had a moment hearing Zip/Ricardo play Music Xpress on Day 1. Those were the big standouts for me and meeting Ferenc ( I-F). It was a lot of catching bits and pieces of sets because I wanted to see everyone. The whole thing was exhausting, but a surreal and magical experience I hope to repeat in the coming years.
DJ CZ: What are you feeling about New York these days?
MS: I will always love/hate it. Depends on the day and moment. I know things are good for me here though overall. I have to embrace that. I worked too hard to make it happen here so I’m hoping I can make it work for a few more.
In terms of dance music and partying, all of it, New York, even 5 years ago, is not what we have now. There’s an influx of talented DJ’s and producers. There’s also an influx of bad ones too. Same goes for Promoters. I think everyone wants a piece of the pie. I think it has it’s pros and cons right now. I’ve been here before and have seen things escalate at a rapid rate and burn itself out.
I’m in a weird position because I fall somewhere right down the middle where I play the big clubs but also want to cater to a more underground scene. There’s certainly enough for everyone to go around. It just comes down to quality at this point for me. There is a weird dichotomy in New York night life: Do I wanna deal with amateur hour at the club to see the big shot DJ’s or do I wanna go to a smaller bar with a smaller sound system and hang with people and bartenders I like? There’s so many variations in New York. You can have it all and you can love and hate it all in the same. And I do, personally.
DJ CZ: And what’s your favorite thing to do when you come visit San Francisco?
MS: Honestly…eating, and hanging with my Honey Soundsystem fam!