Steve Lawler is the Ozzy Osbourne of dance music – a big-room prince of darkness to be sure. The British spinner has been a longtime champion of the more macabre, bacchanalian sounds of the underground, from tribal to twisted techno. Now that the druggy grooves of Europe are back in style – minimal be damned — Lawler is once again the devil on the shoulder of club-land.
The Liverpudlian has been spinning since the dawn of the '90s but he didn't really catch fire until the turn of the millennium, when he allied himself with the more-brooding elements of house and progressive, took on a residency at New York club Twilo, and released a resonant single, “Rise In,” released by John Digweed's Bedrock Records.
Soon Lawler became a mix-CD star via a series of releases titled Lights Out. He established his own label, Harlem Nights. And he later refined the entire concept of a dance label, launching one of the genre's earliest digital-only imprints, Viva Music, in 2006. Lawler has taken his reputation as “the British Danny Tenaglia” as a compliment. He's in that league: For a night-train journey into the nocturnal catacombs – especially on Halloween – you want a DJ like Lawler behind the decks. He'll be at Monster Massive at the Shrine Auditorium Saturday. We recently asked him a few questions.
LA Weekly: What inspired you to give out a free compilation ('We Love … Viva Music') over summer? Did it pay off in any way?
Steve Lawler: I was taking a year off recording the third installment of my Viva mix-compilation series, so effectively it wouldn't interfere with the contract in hand with the label. My management was looking at options that were presented to us for a cover-mount CD for a magazine, when the idea came to me to do it ourselves. I mean, why not? It's a way of saying thank you to the dance floor of my residency [at Space Ibiza] I have had now for nearly a decade, and it's a great way to promote some of the new artists on my label. We gave out 10,000 copies to people that came to Space this summer.
Is it hard to make money from mix-CDs these days?
I would imagine it's harder than what it was 10 years ago. I don't really know the business of selling mix-CDs, as my own label hasn't gotten into this. I know that the Lights Out series on Global Underground did very well, and the Viva series is now doing very well and the labels [including Ultra Records in the United States] are happy. I think you have to bring something extra to the table with mix-CDs now, like making it a series, including a third disc or DVD — something we have been doing with all the series. If magazines give out one-disc mix-CDs for free, then it seems like the obvious thing to do.
You went all digital with the launch of Viva in 2006 — fairly early on. I'm guessing you don't regret it. The idea of a hardcopy label, especially in dance music, seems antiquated only four years later.
I was embracing the future when I did this, rather than ignoring it. It was always obvious which way it was going to go with the decline of vinyl sales and all the new DJ technology that was being created. I just got in there early, I think. Saying that, now we have demand to actually put some releases on vinyl, and we may only print 1,500 copies as a limited run. But we had to meet the demand from two big vinyl markets: Germany and Italy. Our main targets are digital sales, and we're always trying to think of new ideas to constantly push this format.
It seems like every other DJ we interview these days is excited about a dark, dubby, druggy sound (Dubfire, Radio Slave, et. al.) being played in Europe these days, a sound you've been on for a while. What's your feeling about the DJ world turning once again toward your musical direction?
Music always goes full circle. I have been around long enough to see this happen several times now. For me, I just simply do what I love and what excites and turns me on musically, and sometimes that will be the current trend, and sometimes it won't be. I think that is generally how it works. I'm always looking for new sounds and ways of developing a sound. But I think your style as a DJ stays with you forever.
Is that sound something that translates in America?
I have always seem to have done okay in the U.S. and Canada. It's a market I enjoy and a market that I think understands my musical taste
Who are some of the more-exciting artists in your record box (or on your hard drive) these days?
Wighomny Brothers, Darius Syrossian & Nyra, Leon, Michel Cleis, Drum Complex, Hermanez, David Pher, DJ Wild, Dragosh. Luckily for me, most artists that are currently exciting me, I am signing [to] my label Viva Music.
Are there any American artists who are bringing it these days?
A lot of the old-school U.S. artists are having a much deserved revival, and there seems to be a massive influx of new talent coming out of America these days, which is very exiting. The Americans have always been very good at making true house and Detroit-style techno, which is why I think there is a lot of great music coming from the U.S. and Canada at the moment.
What are your feelings about the Los Angeles scene — both the vibe and the level of acceptance for your sound? Is it on the global clubbing map?
Yes, definitely. L.A. has always had a good scene on and off over the years, and L.A. is one of the hottest places in the world right now, especially for the underground — for the discerning music lovers — thanks to the likes of the Droogs who constantly push quality for no reason but that they love and live it.
What's next for Viva and for you in terms of releases? Can we look forward to a new mix-CD from you?
Yes, there will be another installment of the Viva series, either Viva Moscow or Viva Ibiza. The whole idea of the series is to focus on the cities where I have Viva residencies. We are currently thinking of giving this next episode something extra, something special, maybe a tour DVD or a disc of original tracks that have been made exclusively for this album. Like I said before, it's important to give back and to try and give more to people. Mix-CDs are something that really is for your fan base and for the people that support your music, so we want to try and give more for the people's hard-earned money rather than just another mix-CD. We are currently in talks with different organizations to develop something new for this concept.
Lawler headlines alongside Armin Van Buuren, Sasha, Pete Tong, Felix Da Housecat, James Zabiela and more Saturday at Monster Massive at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, 3939 S. Figueroa St., Exposition Park. 18+. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $50 advance. Info: monstermassive.com.
Lawler's management uploaded this peak-time mix, recorded live at London's Ministry of Sound in late summer, for West Coast Sound's readers.