Jun 13, 2016
One on One with Don Diablo
A while back, we had a conversation with Don Diablo that spanned a variety of topics everywhere from the birth of his radio show to finding enjoyment in life. Our chat began with him “drowning in thousands of USB sticks.” Be sure to also check out his latest track "Drifter"!
What it’s like releasing music in today’s industry
If you want to become a bigger artist, in this traditional society, then you need to show the people you know how to sell records. It gives you a mature look. But, if you’re giving new artists a platform – you just want to introduce them to an audience and help them in that way. Unless it’s a mega chart hit, why are you trying to get people to buy songs? Nowadays we’re talking about a few hundred downloads. It’s not going to make anyone any money. I’ve never started a label to make money. I’m here to support new talent and push new music through. As long as you still approach it in a way where you’re still making the artwork, promoting it on social media, and doing all of the necessary little things – the only thing that’s missing is needing to pay for it.
It’s a rat race – such an old fashioned thing – trying to get money from an MP3. What people forget is that to them it’s only 3 or 4 minutes of music. For us producers, it’s something we’ve spent months crafting. You work on it and you’re always so excited when you put it out. Now, I’m finally in a position where people are excited with me. In the years before, it was like “okay, fast forward, where’s the good stuff, where’s the chorus, or where’s the drop?” People don’t want to sit back and get in the zone and close their eyes for a few minutes to listen to the whole song. I feel like now I’m in a place where people actually listen to my music and live with it. It takes so much [to get there]. I never thought it would actually happen; it’s kind of a utopia to be honest. I was just doing my thing where nobody cares, and then one record does okay, another does okay, then a big record, and then before you know it – your whole DJ set consists of mostly your own records and people are reacting to all of them. I had the first realization a couple of months ago where I was like “damn – that’s actually pretty fucking cool.” I’m playing my own music and people are dancing their asses off. I’m proud of every record that’s in this set, and I’m excited about playing them, excited to go on stage and play my own music. I get to see people coming out not to watch me play a complete playlist of the Beatport top 10 of the last 3 months or the same set as my predecessor on stage – that gets me excited for the future.
It’s funny – 1001tracklists plays a role in that, cause that’s where everything starts. For instance, right now I have a new single, but the title on 1001 is incorrect. It’s funny cause people are hitting up the wrong artist, and he doesn’t even know what’s going on. It’s funny how that plays a role – the perception of the record – and how people live with it. It’s weird that there was never a website like that until 1001.
Hexagon Radio – a sonic journey
Tiësto told me that he listens to Hexagon Radio to discover new music. You can see that from my show, some of the music then goes into other shows. It’s become bigger than I expected, so I had to hire someone I trust to be the first door to filter music. Now, I have hundreds of songs to go through rather than thousands, which was becoming an impossible task.
I spend about 15 hours per week, two hours daily on the radio show. I still go through a lot of music and blogs – I don’t want to miss anything. For me, the radio show takes a lot of my time. Every song is hand-picked by me personally. I put a lot of love into the show to find the best music and create the best running orders, so it flows perfectly. It’s something that I’m proud of. I approach every show almost as a one hour album. Every song needs to be strong. If there’s one song in there that’s weak, I can’t do it! People used to come to the shows with, “I love this song.” Now they’re like, “Are you gonna play that song from the 25th minute of Hexagon 21?” That level of engagement is amazing to me!
I waited a long time for everything…I was afraid nobody was going to listen to it. It’s cool to see how [the radio show] is growing on all of the platforms. I’m still pushing it through the socials; as if every new show is the first show I’ve ever done. I want people to be excited when they’re in the show. Every show needs to be better than the one before – you’re going on a sonic journey rather than it just being a collection of tracks.
Where does Hex come from?
There’s already so much out there, and my whole theme kind of revolves around futuristic stuff…am I just going to be talking to myself? Or do I have a co-host? I don’t really have time for that. So I came up with this idea. Some people find it cool, some find it annoying, but you can’t please everyone. I never want to be one of those guys who take themselves too seriously. I work my ass off, 7 days/week and 18 hours/day. I have no social life. I’ve literally sacrificed everything. But at the same time, I’m gonna go for the imaginary friend and that’s the way it’s gonna be.
I originally came up with the idea to cover for circumstances where it might be difficult to be near a microphone. If it were impossible for me to host a show, I could have Hex do it. That’s how I came up with the concept. People know that I’m Hex and Hex is my alter ego.
Wait…if I go 3 steps back – I created a visual show hosted by an imaginary friend. Instead of an MC saying certain things like “Here’s Don Diablo,” the robot would say, “It would be very kind if you would all be so polite to put your hands in the air.” It’s a robot based on a short film I wrote a couple of years ago about a boy and a computer that comes to life.
It’s a fantasy I had for years when I was a school boy. I didn’t have many friends, and my computer became my best friend when I found out there was a way for me to get something out of that friendship. More than just playing video games, we’d be able to travel the world together because we could create music together. My computer became my best friend because we spent so many hours together. People used to laugh at me and say, “You have no friends – your only friend is that computer.” And I’d say, “Yeah, well why can’t a computer be a friend? Why does a friend have to be an actual physical person? Why is it frowned upon if your friend is digital?” It just became bigger and bigger and it felt like he was talking back to me, so I created that alter ego. At first, Hexagon was just for me, and now it’s for everyone. He’s a boy, by the way. A small boy. He’s like my inner child, cause I feel like nobody should grow up and we should all just stay kids.
It feels like for a lot of people in the EDM world, music is just an empty vessel to make people dance. It doesn’t stop with the music for me. A lot of the lyrics were written or co-written by me and are about my life, whether it’s about losing my dad, or a state of mind like "Give it All" in which I thought this was my last chance to make it in the music industry.
Every song has to have its world around it, instead of people just raging out with fists in the air. You know how it is. I think a lot of people don’t. There are more and more people becoming interested about what’s behind it – it’s cool for me to see. Porter Robinson and Kygo are people that I appreciate for doing what they’re doing. I just don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to sustain it. Who knows?...Otto knows. [laughs] Sorry for that.
On his Musical Freedom mix and selecting John Mayer for one of the tracks
For me, music only has a true meaning when your state of mind is open to receiving music in a certain way. For instance, you can listen to a song on the radio, and it sounds like melodies and nothing much more besides that. But when something happens in your life, like when you lose a parent or get fired or don’t make it through school, or in my case – when your heart is broken, that’s when you really feel what a song is about and make a connection. That’s what I love about music. It’s about more than creating something to have fun on a Saturday night. Music is the soundtrack of your life. Music can make you feel, it can be your friend, sit next to you and silently speak to you. It can put its arm around you and say, “I know what you’re going through,” and just listen to you without judgement, without giving you a hard time. That’s what that song was for me when my girlfriend broke up with me. I felt like I was literally dreaming with a broken heart. I still had all these goals that I wanted to achieve. I wanted to travel the world and get my music career going, but what was it all worth if there was nobody to share it with? It felt like I was dreaming with a broken heart. But if you listen to that [Musical Freedom] mix from start to finish, the transitions tell a story – the last words of one song leading into another.
When I broke through with "Starlight" three years ago, I put [making mixes like this] on hold. People want to know what you stand for and want to characterize you. Tchami makes super dope future house tracks, Brillz makes trap, Armin makes trance. People want to know what you’re about. I had a streak right before the future house movement was coming out, and now people were saying, “Don Diablo is one of the founders of future house.” That’s cool, I respect that. There’s a lot more in the cookie jar of ideas where all of that came from.
Generally I’m a very inspired guy and I have a lot of ideas. The toughest thing is channeling those into something that makes sense. The hardest part has always been fitting into a box. When my dad passed away, he said, “You don’t have to prove anything. People know you can produce and make very interesting music. But why don’t you just make songs that people can sing along to, and not spend two years beating yourself up over them. Be more spontaneous with it.” And that was one of the last things he said to me and a big turning point for me. I took that to heart. Music should be more fun – you shouldn’t overthink everything and you should have a trademark sound.
Before that, I used to make mixtapes called Electronic Romance and they would be there when you were having dinner with your in laws, or having Christmas brunch. There’s music for every mood, whether you’re raging out at a club, or having dinner. I would be honored to be a part of all of the events in people’s lives and that’s how I came up with these mixtapes. But it’s been a long time, and that’s why I put a lot of time and effort into the [Musical Freedom] mix.
Now that you’ve established yourself, do you think you’re able to branch back out again?
I’ve always had alter egos and co-produced records for other people. Sometimes I’ll do soundtracks for documentaries, movies, or games. It’s not something you’ll find on my socials, but it’s still there and something I do for me. I don’t feel like I’m a prisoner anymore. Back in the day, I would get very offended when people hated on me. Now, I’ve had a streak of things that happened in my life that were the worst things that could happen to me. So it’s like, what could be worse than having that happen? I don’t really care about some snotty kid who’s frustrated and unable to create these beats himself. If you really know music, you know that the whole backbone of one track is completely different from the others. Yes, it has my trademark sound – you have to have a style. When you’re a track runner, you run track – you don’t suddenly enter the Tour de France.
There’s a ton of music on my hard drive, some of which I’m premiering in the flashback track of the week [on Hexagon Radio]. Some of these songs, I’ve put my heart and soul into. It’s very easy to get frustrated. I used to go on YouTube watching the Tomorrowland or Ultra stream and I’d see people playing my songs on the mainstage. I couldn’t believe it hearing them play "Starlight." And I was like, “What do I need to be doing?” You need to be realistic. Don’t do it for the money or the fame – do it for the creativity. A lot of artists are just looking at people like Martin Garrix thinking, “That could be me.” It doesn’t work like that, that’s the exception to the rule.
What was the process like working with Khrebto over email to create “Got the Love”?
I mostly do all of my collabs online. I feel like it’s pretty hard to go into the studio with someone for a limited time and expect to make something that’s gonna shock the world. You play it out and test it out and go back and forth with it. That’s the process that I prefer. In my opinion, the best songs are made this way. But there have been times where I’ve gone into the studio and made a song (more on a writing level than a production level). It’s a different process. A lot right now just goes back and forth over email. Even if you do the initial process in studio, you’ll fine-tune it over email afterwards.
What’s your favorite club?
After just playing Echostage, I can say that I love Echostage. I love places like that where there’s an actual stage. I enjoy performing more on stages than in a club where you’re in a dark corner in a DJ booth. For me, interaction with the crowd is very important to the way I DJ. The only thing about Echostage is there’s these high LEDs, so I was actually standing on boxes so that you can see me. I do a lot with the decks and work with a lot of separate samples and loops that I trigger and for me, it’s about doing things spontaneously on the spot, so I really want people to see what I’m doing. That’s why it’s important for me to be on a stage.
For me, October, ADE, even the Top 100 – that was kind of a landmark on the calendar. I decided I want to go there, and then I’m going to revisit everything I’ve done before. I also decided to do fewer shows. I’ve been flying around like a madman and it was insanely hectic. Now, I want to do more hard ticket shows, Don Diablo shows. I’m currently developing a live setup. Next year, I’ll take at least one week off per month to make sure I have some time to enjoy my life. I come home and I sit in the studio. It’s hard to see my loved ones. They came up to me and told me that they haven’t seen me and are just following me on social media. Parking tickets, insurance, all the human stuff – you don’t have time for that. Your fridge is empty, you have nothing to eat in your house – it’s intense. People think it’s all glamour, but it’s intense. I don’t know how to say this to the fans, who might be looking at my agenda where there’s some weeks off, but the simple answer is that I’m going to do fewer shows and be a bit picky. I don’t want to compromise much anymore. I want to go to a show where people are excited to see me. I’m going to work on an album, and I’ll have a body of work again. I’m going to do a compilation album and that’s how I’m going close off that period of the last 2-3 years. And then I’m going to work on an artist album. I just recorded the first song last week. It’s scary – you have to come up with something super fresh, but something that the fans can still relate to.
What was your question again? Oh – favorite club. This is a tough one. I’ve done so many shows. I’m just going to be honest, for me it’s not really about the venue – it’s about the crowd. Sometimes being a DJ can be the most magical feeling in the world, but it can also give you the most miserable feeling in the world – when you’re not connecting with the crowd and you feel like they’re there for something different – especially when they’re just there to hang out with friends and get drunk and spend a lot of money in VIP. It gives you a nauseous feeling in your stomach. Every now and then you have those shows. It doesn’t happen much, but still happens in Vegas or Miami. The show at Echostage was an amazing show cause I could just play whatever I wanted. That’s when it becomes fun for me.
Be sure to check out Don Diablo's latest track "Drifter," which hit #1 last week on the Newcomer Track Chart!
short link 1001.tl/vggg72