It’s one minute till midnight on a Saturday in Hollywood when veteran EDM performer Wolfgang Gartner plugs a USB drive into Avalon’s DJ setup and begins scrolling through a list of tracks. When he finds his tune, it will be the first song he’s played for an audience since last winter, because of a medical hiatus that forced him to abandon his scheduled tour.
The club’s stage is tightly packed with a who’s who of Southern California’s dance-music industry. Record executives, club promoters and famous DJs pace back and forth, wearing everything from swanky suits to the purposefully crafted “I don’t give a shit” look. They’re all here to support Gartner's return and to celebrate the seven-year anniversary of Control, Avalon's Friday night event series.
Halfway into his set, Gartner's fingers dance across every corner of the DJ station as he feverishly taps buttons and twists knobs like a pianist revving up to a major crescendo. The dark, escalating chords of his signature track, “Space Junk,” rise up through the electro-house mix and an open-mouthed smile stretches from one side of his backwards Dodgers hat to the other.
“If there’s a club in L.A. that’s my spot, that is it,” Gartner says later. Control, he explains, was “an integral part in building my profile in the city of Los Angeles. So many historical things happened there. Skrillex opened for me there one time before he was Skrillex. He was this little, nervous kid trying to plug in [his laptop] … then a year later, boom, it was like, Skrillex!”
Back when Wolfgang was a little, nervous kid, he was simply Joey Youngman, an introverted '90s raver growing up in San Luis Obispo who wore “JNCOs with the 32-inch bottoms, kandi bracelets and bright T-shirts.” There were so few counterculture teens in his town that he got lumped into a group comprised of goths and “druggies,” and started on a long, tumultuous path into uncontrollable substance abuse.
“I got arrested for selling ecstasy at a rave to an undercover cop. I went to jail for a while. I got out of jail and went straight back into doing drugs. My parents kicked me out of their house and I got a couple jobs working in warehouses,” he recalls of his youth. “One day when I was 20, somebody had fronted me a bunch of ecstasy, and I couldn’t sell it. I ended up taking it all, and I literally hit rock bottom. I had to go to rehab.”
At 21, Youngman was living in an Orange County halfway house when he signed his first record deal. Sobriety inspired a turning point in his career. The perspective he gained after years of escaping through substance abuse became personified in his Wolfgang Gartner DJ/producer persona, which he says represents presence, clarity and visceral experience.
The way he describes the drug-induced escapism of his youth parallels his current frustrations with social media, which he feels distracts from an audience’s relationship with their environment in similar ways. He finds that both drugs and social media can prevent people from having real-life experiences, which in turn stunts their character growth. “It just drives me insane when people put their phones in front of themselves to capture a moment instead of choosing to experience that moment,” he says.
He expresses this notion in the artwork for his sophomore album, 10 Ways to Steal Home Plate, which he released on Jan. 29. The cover displays a boy standing over a laptop holding a hammer with his right hand. A companion EP, called More Ways, hits the shelves on March 11 and displays another boy who has already laid waste to the computer.
The new album represents a moment of musical clarity for its creator as well. He’s drawing inspiration from the retro sounds that dominated his teenage years and looking to recast them in a contemporary light for a new generation to enjoy on his upcoming tour dates, which includes a stop at New York City's Webster Hall on March 12.
“I’m going to be incorporating this disco house, funky house sound back in with what I’m known for playing and just see how much of it I can get away with. [Last night] they responded to it. So it was really promising, and it means I can continue to experiment.”