[Interview] Don Diablo Talks Anarchy, Family, The First Song He Ever Made
At the end of the day the annual DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJs list is just that: a list. Granted, it's a fairly good indication of the DJs and producers that are probably worthy of your eardrums as well as your dollars, but like every facet of the music business, lists like this also get muddied up with the DJs du jour that vanish from the scene maybe a year after the list is published. We’re currently in a bit of a crisis in music where the overall sentiment is that we aren’t going to have any “career musicians” to replace the ones who we will eventually lose. Who will be our next Radiohead, Beck, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Bjork, Led Zepplin, etc.? At the current rate that we’re going, it feels like we’re all going to have to accept that these flavors of the week who are fighting for their 15 minutes are as much a standard part of the new music business model as our fairly newly crowned singles dominated sales model, or the reluctant acceptance of streaming for that matter.
When it comes to Dutch producer/DJ Don Diablo, this is not the case. He’s nothing remotely close to a fad. He is an artist that has put in the time to hone his craft, extend his family to include his ever growing fanbase, and gain the respect of the music community breaking all the rules every step of the way. Amidst the never ending swarm of momentary musicians that will come and go, we’ll at the very least have one powerhouse of a DJ that we will all happily grow old with.
Of course when he’s at the age (which is 90, for you kids at home) that he portrays in his music video for, “Back To Life”, who knows what Diablo will be doing? As we chatted backstage early November at Pier of Fear in New York City moments before his set, he confessed that music wasn’t his first love, but that filmmaking was. “[It’s] weird, right?” he chuckled, “We’re here at a huge rave tonight and this wasn’t even my dream!” His musical beginnings stemmed from the need to find the perfect song for a film that he had been working on with his friends. Since his search left him empty handed, instead of settling for second best, he took matters into his own hands and made music of his own. Although the song would eventually be what got him signed and releasing records at the ripe age of 14, he'll be the first to admit that the song was far from a masterpiece. “It was horrible!” he noted, “It sounded really bad. The production was horrible. I guess there were some ideas in there. A lot of it was based on samples.”
Now at age 34, Diablo has been creating music for 20 years. Things have certainly changed in the way music, especially electronic music, was made since then. “[Back then] it was a time where you really had to invest in making music,” he noted, “You had to buy equipment, learn how to work the machines. It’s different than nowadays.” Despite overcoming the technological hurdles, being a seasoned electronic music veteran who’s not exactly an old timer can have its disadvantages. “Some people think I’m really old.” he chuckled, “They think I’m an old fat German guy because they know records from me from like 15 years ago.”
Having a professional career that began in his early teenage years has made what he considers to be the status quo is pretty mind blowing. “My reality is pretty distorted.” he explained, “I have a pretty weird life in that sense. […] I just grew up living in hotels and planes and doing whatever the hell I want. Sleeping in. Not sleeping. I don’t have a weekend. I don’t have a week. I just do what I feel and I have no boss to account to.”
This unruly upbringing would have a profound impact on his approach to his creative process, which he is constantly hinting at very subtly by utilizing the anarchy symbol in his logo. This intentional little detail is his statement to both his fans and musical colleagues alike. “Anarchy means no rules so you don’t have to obey existing expectations or rules,” he explained, “For me, it means that you don’t have to make music in one genre. You don’t just have to be a DJ. [...] I try to break free of the rules and just come up with a different idea and in that sense to me it’s like anarchy.”
This credo of his is seen throughout his work everywhere you look. Most DJs aren't known for directing their own music videos, contributing lyrics or vocals for their songs, genre hopping, or designing their own clothes in addition to a handful of other things. They also most likely wouldn't choose to enlist their mother and grandmother for a photoshoot to encourage fans to vote for them in the Top 100 DJs list over hiring a publicist for a huge press blitz, but again, Diablo dances to the beat of his own machinedrum and no one elses. “I’ve literally been trying to destroy my musical career for years,” he said, “But every time I get more inspired and I get more ideas.” He never allows himself to get burnt out on making music or any of his other disciplines. “[...]When I’m not inspired with making music I get into other stuff,” he elaborated, “I start editing a video or coming up with concepts with videos. [...] You can do other things that are still creative and a part of you being an artist. So that’s how I found a nice little balance for myself so I can be creative 100% of the time.”
Since he’s always working on something, when the time comes for a song to come together, it can happen faster than you'd imagine. “I think the best songs I’ve done, I’ve done in one day,” he divulged, “Like let’s say, 'Anytime'. I finished it in 3 hours. It’s just boom boom boom. Obviously I already had the idea there for a long time. I created all the separate elements and had them in a folder. [...] The actual production only took a few hours.”
However unconventional his methods seem to be, they’re most definitely working in his favor. This past October for the first time ever he made his debut entry on the Top 100 DJs list at number 82. While it comes as no surprise to longtime fans like myself, as usual artists are their biggest critics, "I’ll be very honest," he confessed, "Most of my life I’ve been feeling pretty disappointed in myself. Like, I’ve never really been proud of anything that I’ve done. I felt like my life was a big failure, you know?" Those of us on the outside looking in can see his gradual climb, but Diablo hadn't noticed until it was blatantly obvious, "Yesterday I played in a club and I played like 90% of my own records and people went APESHIT," he gushed, "They weren’t just singing along to the lyrics of my songs, they were chanting along to the melodies. Like during 'Knight Time' they were like, 'dun dun dun, dun dun dun dunn' but in a choir. It really made me feel like for the first time in the last couple of months that everything is coming together. I’m proud of what I’m achieving now."
Every artist has a tipping point in their career. Unfortunately for Diablo, it all started shortly after his father passed away after a battle with cancer 2 years ago. “When my dad passed away I let go of every inch of fear that I had in my body and I also tried not to overthink things." It reinforced his creative process. "I do everything on feeling and out of my heart [now]," he said, "Sometimes it’s a song that’s very personal, sometimes it’s just a cool tune. I don’t like to linger around too much. I just want to release music.”
Once he freed himself from fear, songs like "Starlight" would find their way out into the world. "Once I had that record," he explained, "I just realized, 'Wow. It’s really connecting with people on a worldwide scale.' Something just snapped in my head and everything I did before in all those years I basically set aside and I started over like I was a new artist." Songs like "Knight Time", "AnyTime", "Back In Time", and "Back To Life" would further propel him forward. As the play counts on Soundcloud and Spotify continue to soar and the dance floor becomes more tightly packed, his inspiration proportionately increases as well. "Right now I’m just insanely inspired," he gushed, "It goes up and down, but for the past 2 years I’ve been on an incredible high. I just had ideas that just go into the studio and music just comes by itself."
Up until recently he was prepping for a proper full length debut, which was tentatively titled, Respect Doesn't Pay The Bills. After an unfortunate series of hard drive failures earlier in the year, however, he took a step back to see what he could learn from the whole experience. "It opened my senses," he explained, "I lost all my music. I lost my whole album. But the album would have kept me on the same path." Throughout the majority of his career, Diablo has been an internet darling of sorts, getting so much love from music blogs that for a few years he was often Hype Machine's Most Blogged Artist, which he obviously is grateful for, but as his scrapped album was appropriately named, respect doesn't pay the bills in this industry. "[...] It’s cool getting good criticism and people on the blogs really loving you," he admitted, "[...] but I wasn’t getting any bookings. I really kind of saw it as a sign." After a month of soul searching he came to the conclusion that he would hold off on a full length for the time being. "I thought, 'Maybe this wasn’t meant to happen. I need to change my direction.' That’s when everything kind of happened for me. I broke through. All the things I’ve always dreamed about have happened straight after that. It really was an eye opener for me."
Instead, he chose to refocus on rebuilding his entire technical system so he could create more easily on the go as well as making the decision to take a singles based approach for the time being. “I have the songs," he said. "I could release them tomorrow, but my record label and the people I’ve been working with have been saying, ‘Keep building this momentum’[...] I still really have a long way to go." While he estimates that we probably won’t see a proper full length until after summer of 2015, he did jokingly offer to put out one before then, "Maybe I should just start a poll," he chuckled. "[...]I’m gonna go on my Facebook and if I get 10,000 likes from people wanting me to do an album I’ll do an album before the summer of 2015."
That's the nice thing about Diablo, since he's been working on his art for such a long time it's easy for him to adapt to whatever his current situation may be. For example, if his musical career were to end today he thinks he could fairly easily transition back to his first love, filmmaking. “I’ve actually been writing on a couple of scripts," he admitted, "They’re all based around family life." For him, it's important for his art to have an impact on people, whichever discipline it may be. "[...]I’ve always wanted to touch people. Not just in their feet but also in their heart." Just like with his music, he hopes the movies he would make to impact people's lives. "My favorite movies have always been dramas," he noted, "You know, those movies that take you on that emotional journey and really make you walk out of the cinema with that feeling of, 'Wow I need to call my mother or my brother or my friend from back in the day.' It makes you think about life. It’s like art transforming life. It takes you one step further." He went on to detail how his ideal first documentary film would probably be at least partially about his family, who were immigrants from Indonesia. "There’s like a whole dramatic life story with my mother and her brother." he said.
Family is something incredibly important to Diablo, moreso than anything else in his life. “The most important thing is that you leave [behind] a legacy. I always thought that the legacy would be music,” he admitted, “but at the end of the day there’s only one thing that’s important and it’s family.” I was heartbroken to hear that just two days prior to our interview that Diablo’s adorable grandmother that helped him campaign for the DJ mag list had passed away. He even admitted to the audience during his set that he almost didn’t perform that night because he was still very shaken from it. As seen in his latest video for “Back To Life”, you can see that mortality of man is something that has been impacting his art for awhile now, “[...] If you look at the time series I did (Anytime, KnightTime, Back In Time) they all kind of revolve around the concept of time,” he explained, ”I’ve lost a lot of people in my life in the last 2 years so it really made me realize like how precious and valuable time is.
For Diablo, his family extends past his bloodline to both his fans and his inner circle of friends. It’s seen in the way he interacts with his fans on social media and how hard he’s working to help his friends make their dreams come true as well. “I’m really working my ass off so hard right now and I’m making a lot of money right now, I’ll be honest,” he confessed, “I’m saving that money because I want to create good things for other people, you know? For my inner circle, so I can do things for them. I can help them achieve their dreams and they don’t have to wait as long as I had.” He revealed exclusively to Some Kind of Awesome that he will be starting his own label, which will be officially launching early next year. “It’s the first step to helping other people achieving their dreams.” he said.