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Behind The Beats: DJ James Tobin

What do you do when you catch up with a leading DJ? maybe crank up the recorder, and press record... so thats what we did when we held court with the scrummy DJ and promoter of ARQ Sydney, Mr James Tobin... 

When did you start DJing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
On record I've just celebrated 7yrs as a Sydney-based DJ, but it technically started about 11yrs ago when I started practising on different decks. I used to work in a clothing shop and would make mixtapes cause the music they gave us was crap, and this guy walked in one afternoon and said "who's promo mix is this?", booked me for that night, and the rest is fate. Influences - sheesh, that's endless! It depends on which aspect of DJing it relates to, also. In terms of big producers at the time I was earning my stripes, I took a lot from Freemasons, Chris Lake, WaWa, Stonebridge, Rauhofer, Seamus Haji... all those guys who were smashing the commercial remixes through the big clubs. But in terms of local inspiration, people that I could be with, watch and learn from weekly and who took the time to mentor me - Luke Leal, Murray Hood, Alex Taylor, Greg Boladian, Jake Kilby, Fiesty, just to name a few...there are SO many people I would secretly study and then amongst their styles, I found a style that was comfortable for me. And also my mates who would rock up to every gig, no matter how dodgy the venue.

What do you personally consider to be the defining moments in your artistic career?
I don't want my trumpet blown by ones self here, but my "artistic" career extends beyond DJing and producing, so the defining moment could be anywhere along the timeling. I've studied music since I was 9 in all genres, but mainly classical. As for my DJ career, there are so many defining moments, from my first ever Sydney set at The Oxford Hotel, my first residency in Sydney at The Midnight Shift, my first gig in the Arena at ARQ, writing and releasing a track that had what I consider to be success, having my name in big writing on a big poster in a big city, and then this strange and sudden obsession with RnB/HipHop that opened the door to a whole new scene. I go with this shit, I don't challenge it, if I find myself loving something and I don't know why, I don't question it. Just embrace it and see what happens. At one point I was trying to mix piano symphony stuff. How weird is that?! There's been many things that have lead me to where I am now, which I consider to be the most comfortable place I've ever been. I have seen enough to believe that every little step you take is going to define you, somehow. Remember "Sliding Doors?" - We're all Gwenyth.

Currently, what are your main challenges as a DJ? What is it about DJing compared to, say, producing your own music, that makes it interesting for you?
That's a really good question. There's a lot that challenges us for a live gig. Performing, week in, week out...not getting a BPM match wrong, being 100% switched on for your set time...myself and almost every DJ I know is their own worst critic, it's rare we'll claim to have "killed it", we always want to improve. I guess for me though, the biggest challenge is fighting stylistic complacency and exploring new sounds, while still remaining relevant and appealing to the community. It's so easy to fall into a rhythmic routine and you get a bit lazy as a DJ. Once I find myself no longer planning a set too much and knowing exactly where my set is going to go, I try and change my style. Sometimes even just in my bedroom for a week or so to get the hard work back into playing live. If you said to me 7yrs ago that I'd be offered an RnB/Dub DJ residency by an underground promoter, I would have recommended psychiatric care. I didn't take the gig, so I guess you would have been right.

The process of building a set is unique to every DJ - how do you approach the task?
You're so right in that it's unique, and it's an incredibly difficult thing to really master. I would say it wasn't until about 4 or 5yrs into my career that I felt confident enough to say I could genuinely progress a set, and because each set is so different, each process is therefore different. My rule depends on the length of the set also, but I try and break it up into thirds, and an up/down/up format. It's so hard as a DJ to actually slow the dancefloor down, but if you have the discipline to know that soon, you're going to take them back up again, then you can build some of the most cliche but phenomenal "journey" sets ever. There's a reason the good DJ's talk about "the journey" - it's a pretty epic moment for us when we nail it.

What makes you decide to play a particular record during one of your sets? Do you pre-plan - or select on the fly?
I go into every single set that I play with a selection of music that is about 3times longer than the set itself. So a 3hr set gets a 9hr collection, etc. I guess you could say I have a plan and a sound ready, but never a set. Going back to the last question, you have to know your tracks and their style and how they can create the journey the crowd responds to. I think most of us stay two or three songs ahead of the crowd with where we want to be, but leave ourselves a gap just incase we need to take a hard right all of a sudden. That's all part of the fun!

Is there a criteria other than pure subjectivity, for selecting what to play at a gig?
Yes and No. I'll always play a song if I love it, if it suits, and if I have had a good response to it previously, even if nobody else knows what it is. That's pretty cool, when you can show the crowd something new. I'll also always try and find that mix of a commercial song that we hear every 5 minutes that injects a bit of fresh energy into it and compliments my style. So, yes I guess there is definitely a subjectivity involved in that I won't ever play something that's completely crap, and I'll only play what's relevant to where I'm at...I won't be playing any Tiesto downstairs at The Beresford at 3pm, for example... but I also want to make sure people hear good music in general, not just good music they've heard a few times already.

What has been the weirdest thing that has happened to you at a gig?
Oh goodness. Where do I start! Dan Murphy created a blog for this once and I don't think there was a single DJ who DIDN'T contribute. We see some of the funniest shit ever. I've had people urinate in DJ booths, people try and order drinks off me for an hour, lifelong supplies of all forms of substances in return for playing a request, and the good old "oh you don't have it? I'll plug my phone in" doesn't make sense to me. There might even be some things that happen in DJ booths that are...normally saved for hotel rooms! I think the weirdest thing to happen recently though (because my memory doesn't extend too far), is this lad who kept coming up to me and complaining that the music was really crap...he actually got slightly physical at one stage...but every time, he'd go to the bar, get a round of drinks for his mates, then go to the dancefloor and shimmy to within an inch of his life. He didn't leave! I said to him "I'm playing all the crap music, because that's what's keeping you here! It's your taste, not my music!" I couldn't work out if he was joking or genuinely deluded. Bizarre! Ending up with a hangover at McDonalds with Luciana trying to convince her to get a McChicken instead of a Quarter Pounder was a real weird moment too.

You have played all over the world, what are the key differences in the gay scenes you have experienced?
Geez, you thought my last few answers were detailed...this one could go on forever! I haven't traveled enough to experience everything every scene has to offer, but from what I've seen I would say that the biggest difference is social tolerance and acceptance amongst each population. I think the "gay" and "straight" scene in Sydney are blending, and I don't know what that is going to bring and whether it will be a good or a bad thing. We love our own venues, but so do some heterosexuals, and they have every right to come and dance...but in other countries I've been to, I find that not only is homosexuality more accepted amongst the people, but the individuality is also respected. We're all the same, but sometimes, crowds aren't meant to blend - so let each clique party in their own way. Then there's places along the Mediterranean  where sexuality is less defined superficially, and everybody is everywhere and you don't have any idea what to touch or who to bite the lip for...I dunno, I think our gay scene in Sydney is amazing and I think it's about to go through a VERY exciting change, but I think society as a whole has a lot of catching up to do to the rest of the world. I fear that a race to equality may bring an end to our unique nightlife, and I want to have my own pick-up joint for a while yet cause I don't get Grindr. We should protect it fiercely, as a community.

What are your current 5 favourite tracks?

Edony - Martin Solvieg (few months old now but EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. I love it)

How Deep Is Your Love - Calvin. Seriously, that's an amazing track. His ability to make something so simple so amazing

Love Don't Take Over - Frankie Knuckles & Eric Kupper

So High - Soulful Session

Frequency - Bielfield, with remixes by JimJam and Alex Taylor. Pretty cool.

AND! The rest of them you can find over on my mixcloud page, I try and put a podcast together of my favourites fairly regularly :-)

Rob Manser is the leading travel, news and social network for the LGBTQI community.  Join us on social media.

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