Damian Lazarus has positioned himself as one of the foremost proponents of the alternative side of house and techno. Though much of the music found on his labels Crosstown Rebels and Rebellion is certified dance floor material, there is always a weirdness that pervades in the sounds that emanate from the music he chooses to release. There’s mysterious melody, cosmic frequencies, deep tribal rhythms, enchanting vocals… We don’t really need to explain his long-standing love of music or his history, but what we must acknowledge is his uncanny ability to discover, nurture and present amazing new talents to the world of music.
This is no more evident than in his latest project – Damian Lazarus And The Ancient Moons, a band comprised musicians from all over the world. A carefully curated motley crew of creatives who were brought together by the Crosstown wizard to record an album and tour the world. At IMS this year we were introduced to the people who run things behind-the-scenes for Damian via a brilliant panel presentation. We grabbed two of the team members, Fredi Bockhahn (Manager DJ/Crosstown Rebels General Manager) and Ed Cartwright (Band Manager), for a chat about the big man and the superb project…
So, first of all, tell us about the working relationship between you both..?
Fredi: From my perspective, I was happy that Damian added Ed as the manager for the band because I was already managing the labels and Damian as a DJ. I don’t think I would have been able to dedicate enough time to that and deliver on the band as well as Ed has. He was always one that I would see eye-to-eye with, we disagree on very little, maybe 10%. The rest of the time we’re fully in agreement.
Ed: It’s interesting because, on the panel at IMS, it was the first time all five of us on the team had sat down together. Fredi lives all around the world, Damian is in Italy, David Levy, Leon and myself all live in London, but it’s rare that labels and agents really meet. So it was great to have us all sat down and talking like that. As far as Fredi and I, on a day-to-day basis, Fredi handles the events – they’re a key part of what the label does and what Damian does. The band kind of exists outside of everything, even though Ancient Moons are signed to Crosstown Rebels. Damian has become so synonymous with the label it’s great for him to have something else that he’s connected to. Crosstown is 12 years young, has a fantastic history and where Damian needs to go now is to do stuff himself. His involvement in Crosstown is essential but he can focus on other things now, the label is established.
Tell us about the transition from working with Damian as a solo artist to working with a band, which obviously has a lot more logistical challenges.
Fredi: We keep it very separate, I’m the one handling the DJing with my team and Ed handles the band with his. The band project has priority at the moment. Sometimes we have a little bit of friction, where I have one agenda for the DJing and there is another for the band, but I have come to terms with the band taking priority and the extra challenges this represents.
Ed: When you have a band and you have seven people on the road then you can imagine how much more difficult that is to run as an entity. What we’ve done since the band existed is to formalise Damian’s structure a lot more. He alluded to the sudden explosion of accountants when we were on the IMS panel, but that’s a fairly traditional touring company structure. We have a specific team that advances the band and Damian has his own separate team, headed up by Fredi, that looks after the DJing. It’s a question of those two bodies working together – Damian’s summer had around 20 live shows added to it with the band bookings, and some of those were mid-week. So, instead of finishing at Circoloco (at DC10, Ibiza) on a Monday night or Tuesday morning and being like, ‘Ok, I’ve got four days off’, we’ve now got festivals on Tuesdays, or Thursdays in Russia, we’ve had a Wednesday in France, and we’ve got stuff happening on Sundays too and then we have to get back to Circoloco from any one of several far-flung locations and combine playing at the after-party with playing live earlier on. It’s gone from a three-gig weekend scenario to six shows per week, logistically it’s a lot more complicated.
We can imagine, how do you make sure Damian’s in a healthy state when he’s playing a sunrise set somewhere and then playing a live show that same day, with a flight from one gig to the other thrown into the mix?
Ed: We had him play Ibiza, then he went off to New York, Detroit and back to Ibiza. The following week it was Italy, Ireland, Portugal and back to Ibiza again for Circoloco, that’s in the space of eight days. The coming together of the live and the DJing only happened a couple of months ago and it has lasted all through the summer. I think we have managed to get a handle on it.
Fredi: The agenda now is to keep him healthy and make sure he’s getting enough sleep. Having too many gigs is what I would consider a first world problem, and we are of course having to turn down a lot of requests even if the logistics make sense, simply to keep a realistic and healthy schedule.
Ed: The challenge is, when you take a DJ and put him on a stage, the parameters for something going wrong are tiny; there’s a USB stick, it goes in the CD deck, that’s it… there’s some risk in change overs, with equipment maybe not working, but things don’t usually go wrong. With a live act there’s stuff that can happen out of anyone’s control, no matter who your work with. For any DJ to suddenly find themselves on stage with three other people, at a festival, it’s a steep learning curve. It’s difficult for some DJs to understand and deal with the loss of control they usually have. For Damian, these are not live gigs with no profile; at Day Zero, which was the debut shot, we had 4,000 people, at London’s Rebel Rave it was 2,500, Glastonbury – all these places. We’re not gigging at the Frog & Firkin or whatever it’s called, we’re going straight on to big stages so the pressure for Damian and all of us involved is pretty high.
With all that said, beyond the difficulties, what’s exciting you most about the Ancient Moons project?
Fredi: For me, hearing the band play, seeing Damian play his own music and the excitement it brings him, makes me excited. Also being able to integrate his own songs into his DJ sets excites me, those songs have become the key moments in his sets lately. To see him having the avenues to express himself through his music again, it’s been a long while since his first album. He’s been pushing all his artists through Crosstown Rebels for a long time now, and now he can push himself, which is, I find, very fulfilling.
Ed: Damian’s profile has really come through being a great DJ and through his label. This is the real deal now, for Annie Mac to play the songs mid-week, and for Damian to go on the Gilles Peterson show and talk about it, or Rinse FM, you realise what a unique character Damian is. His genius is his ability to take disparate things and put them together, obviously with Fredi’s help – he’s applied that same skillset to putting together the band. It shouldn’t make any sense. There shouldn’t be Qawwali folk singers and African soul singers from LA, but they all come together on this fresh record. To be frank, it’s a record that we need. A lot of what’s unique and exciting about Crosstown Rebels comes from the fact that it has released 29 albums, with another four in the pipeline, in this age where it’s apparently all about track culture and ‘Oh, people don’t want to listen to albums anymore’. What Damian’s done is show that albums do have a place in dance music, especially with this project.
It pains me when DJs get a certain profile and they don’t go back in the studio again, this has been happening since the early nineties, where people have got that profile from making fantastic music, get loads of DJ gigs and never make any music again. Damian has turned this on its heads and is achieving as a DJ, but also pushing on.
Fredi: Damian is one of the greatest curators of our time in my opinion. The way he has been putting people together on his label over the years, curating their music and those artists. The same curating takes place in his events where he has managed to combine art and performances alongside the music. For me the Ancient Moons project is another great example of him bringing together artists from all over the world on this one very diverse album.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Damian?
Ed: Damian is fearless, he’s absolutely fearless. On the album, he’s pushed himself to his limits. You go back to the beginnings of his career, Damian was pushing and pushing and pushing to start his DJ career. It started late but he didn’t give up. If there’s one thing I admire about Damian, above others, it’s his ability to carry on and not give up and his ability to look at something in a completely unique way.
Fredi: It’s profound to work with such a creative person, you are never going to run out of ideas; there’s nothing that’s too silly or stupid. I find it refreshing that you can put any idea on the table and it is taken on board. It is also great to be in a working environment where you are real friends. Damian and Ed are each other’s oldest friends and I’ve been friends with both of them for a long while now and I have definitely learned that I will only work with friends no matter what the future brings me!
Ed: There’s a real strong thread of friendship that binds us all together on the team behind-the-scenes. A sincere deep friendship, which is lovely.