In this exclusive full-length interview, New York DJ duo AndrewAndrew tell Phil Morse about DJing with satellite radios, why they asked Mark Ronson to use a click track, and how they got thrown out of a club for only playing records with certain words in their titles...
I had just finished moderating a particularly closed-minded pile of replies to our recent Why Theo Parrish is Wrong About Laptop DJs post, and was browsing for something to cheer me up when I came across a New York Times article about AndrewAndrew: "The IPad DJs"....
Reading on, I was fascinated to find out that these two DJs use iPads wirelessly, spending much of their time out of the DJ booth and right there on the dancefloor, with their crowd. Curious, I got in touch with them for an interview. Turns out that they're not only DJing in an original way, but they have strong views on what DJing is and where it's going as well.
Who are AndrewAndrew?
Well known both as DJs and artists in New York, AndrewAndrew are performance artists, übergeeks, writers, designers... and strangely enough, they are also a two-man "collective"; they've dressed, worked and even eaten exactly alike for more than a decade.
Their names actually are both Andrew, and for the record, I haven't got a clue who said what...
A history of unconventional DJing...
Tell me about how you got into DJing, and your DJing history up to now. It seems from what I've read that you've always favoured the unconventional in your DJing...
Yes, that's true. We have been DJing for many years. We've been together as AndrewAndrew for 10 years, and we were DJs before that. We both come from DJing backgrounds - in fact, we're staring right at our record collection now - maybe 3,000 records. We're trying to get rid of the lot of them...
It's also true that we've always played with what it means to be DJs. We used to play at clubs where every song would have to have the same word in it. So we'd be playing all genres of music with "magic" in every song title. "Interventions", we called them. Some people would get the joke and love it, but sometimes we got kicked out of gigs! We used to run a weekly party like this and every week was a different word.
We used to DJ opening nights in art galleries where we'd have the entire playlist recorded! And nobody noticed, except sometimes other DJs who saw us take the needle off a record and the music carried on! We didn't do it because we couldn't DJ, more to make a statement about the state of DJing at that time.
Or we would open for ourselves. We'd dress up as rockabilly guys and play an hour of rockabilly, as goth guys or hip hop dudes and play that music, then we'd be saying "AndrewAndrew are nearly here!", "AndrewAndrew will be on soon!", then we'd put a particular long record on and go off behind a curtain to change, and come out as ourselves and start our gig proper. We were deliberately trying to invert it all - it was a response to the superstar DJing thing that was happening.
A little later on, we got into iPod DJing. The idea was that we'd have two iPods set up and anyone who wanted to could come and DJ with them. We were deliberately trying to invert it all - it was a response to the superstar DJing thing that was happening. Our iPod parties lasted 5 years, and were a hit in England too, after British DJ exported what we were doing over there.
We were talking about the link between geeks and DJing in a recent article. You guys come across as kind of geeky...
We're not geeks - we're übergeeks! We have a real tendency whenever new technology comes out to go right ahead and try and DJ with it! When XM radio and Sirius came out, we went off and bought the first prototypes we could find, one of each, just because we wanted to see which was best. And then we were like, hey we've got 2, let's try and DJ with them!
We DJed a Fischerspooner party with two radios and people didn't even notice! I'm trying to get something that makes sense on my radio while Andrew is playing something on his radio...
On DJing with iPads...
So you're now known as "the iPad DJs". Tell me exactly what your DJing set-up is, how you DJ nowadays...
At its simplest, we have the latest version of Ableton Live on a MacBook, and an Apogee Duet sound card patched into the club mixer or preferably straight into the PA. We then have our two iPads running TouchAble, allowing us to control Ableton Live from anywhere within WiFi range. We set up the MacBook and sound card in the booth, and we are then free to DJ from wherever we like.
Sometimes we back up with another laptop using Serato, because there can be strange interferences that stop the iPads working properly sometimes - in hotels, it strangely seems to be the worst. We use Mixed in Key to scan our tracks. Our entire set is organised vertically by tempo and laterally by key using the Camelot system in Ableton Live. We colour code all tracks with the exception of the beat loops and sound effects, which have their own coding system.
What's it like DJing like that?
It's very different to normal DJing. Especially early on, we spend a lot of time walking around the venue - later it can just get too busy to do that. The crowd have the opportunity to mess us up by touching our iPads without asking!
You know, 9 times out of 10 people think we're geeks and nerds at a party who have nothing better to do than play with their iPads! Our favourite trick when people say: "Are you really DJing with that?" is to turn the volume right down and reply: "What did you say?" Of course, we'll usually throw an echo or a flange on that so we don't totally kill the mood in the club...
To be able to be DJing right next to a speaker because there's no chance of feedback is great. DJs tend to feel restricted but to realise you can go anywhere and it will sound fantastic is liberating.
Having said that though, our residency is a small venue, and the sound system is fantastic. The other week the laptop was vibrating so much we felt we were in danger of skipping our hard disk! Just because it's a laptop it doesn't mean there isn't something round spinning at some consistent rate somewhere at the heart of it. We're more careful where we position the laptop in the booth now.
Do you find yourselves staring at your iPads a bit too much?
Yes, it can be a problem. There's something seductive about the iPad and you tend to get engrossed, so one of us is always aware of what's going on on the dancefloor as the other is DJing. There's this horrible tunnel vision you can get with the iPad - it's the biggest pitfall that we've come across. But then again, anything we lose by staring at our iPads a bit too much we definitely regain by being in the crowd.
It must feel strange not being in the DJ box...
We actually have found a new appreciation for architecture and for the way we view parties - because you realise that a venue always looks exactly the same way from a DJ box. If you're bored in the booth and it doesn't look like it's rocking, you can go and stand somewhere else. That way, you realise than from another viewpoint, the party can look totally pumping, that you can see more people dancing and having fun and so get a different perspective on things.
So your DJ set-up is two iPads connect wirelessly to a laptop running Ableton Live. What do you think of Ableton Live as a DJ program?
People were talking about how great a thing it would be for DJing, you know, like "you can do all the beatmatching first, then drink as much as you want"! Well it may have "Live" in the name, but I think to DJ properly on it on its own it's going to need some serious tweaks. Of course we use it totally differently because of interfacing with it using our iPads.
One thing that's really amazing about it is that using it is like digging for records in a record crate used to be, all over again. You're going back to a physical organisation of your music, as opposed to something popping into your head and you saying "oh, we should totally play Dolly Parton" and just typing it into a search box, because you've got all of your music right there at your fingertips.
With Ableton you organise your music like a giant spreadsheet, and in this way organising music is analogous to preparing a box of records - you know, when you'd pack 10 tunes for the beginning of the night, 10 wild cards, 10 floor fillers etc.
Selecting and laying out your tunes before a gig in Ableton is just like throwing records in a crate, and later on trying to find them again when you're doing your thing is that same maddening process of "where did I put that" as you're desperately searching!
It's funny though, because when you're searching for music on an iPad, it's in a way just like flicking through a crate of records: The finger movements are similar whether you're quickly rifling through a stack of vinyl or swiping your hand across this gorgeous multi-touchscreen in order to hunt down that elusive Whitney Houston record.
On DJing in a partnership...
You mentioned that while one of you is DJing, the other one is watching the floor. How else does your partnership work out for you when DJing?
We're definitely more approachable. It's not that DJs are necessarily awkward people, but some of them can be and a lot of them don't want to have anything to do with their public because they think they're going to have some horrible request...
We've always been unique in that because there's two of us, and that there's a theatrical element to the way we dress the same, there's always been a sort of a mandate for the crowd to approach us - you know, asking "What's up? Why do you DJ this way? Where are there two of you?" But even if someone's being drunken, boorish and horrible, one of us can fend them off while the other one does the job.
We're really riding that fine line between hosting and DJing at this point in what we do, though. Also because there's two of us, we always go back and forth - a series of one-upmanships, very obvious ping-ponging.
We used to have a rule of one tune each: This led to frantic, intense dance moments! Every DJ has their go-to songs, so we'd be racing to play the song we knew would incinerate the dancefloor, and it pushed us to find new songs, to rediscover older classics, or just to be the one that played something new that was really significant.
When you only have that one song to play, it is like every song really counts...
On what software adds to (and takes away from) DJing...
You mention that you mix in key. To me, being able to mix in key so easily is one of the big advantages of digital DJing. What are your views on it?
As a DJ, you naturally pick up on mixes and transitions that "just work" but it was so interesting to see that our best moves were actually harmonically matched all along. We have mixed feelings about it though - the way we DJ is something we wouldn't be able to do without there being certain programs.
You mean that the technology can take something away from the artistic side of it?
Well on the one hand there's a lot of homework in the way we DJ - quantising, setting beatmarkers, tempos, chopping up, determining key etc - but we do the scientific stuff so that we can be expressive later on. However, for all the technical perfection that we can achieve with all this software, this sort of systematic mixing of music can really suck all the life out of a mix and out of a party.
So often you can find yourself saying "oh well I can only mix this into this", you're not thinking about the party, you're thinking about the BPM. What the crowd wants is another great song that's perfect for right now. If there's a slight hiccough, who cares?
That's what should be driving you, that's what's going to get people to pay attention. If you're a slave to the BPM and the harmonics and the phrasing and, you know, everything else, yes that's what the body expects, but if you can break these rules, and do things incorrectly but still keep people interested, that's a complete skill.
Kind of like, you DJ best when you're taking risks, even when you mess up?
Exactly. The best parts can be the mistakes, when something goes wrong and you have to recover.
We actually had a wonderful moment last week where we accidentally hit the "stop" button. Packed club, weekend crowd, peak time. Everything went dead. In our hurry to put something on, we played Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares For Me". Remember, it was peak time in a New York night club, people were hanging from the rafters. We were like: "Now we've got your attention, here's Nina Simone!"
It's what happened next that made it, though. We played an old Technotronic record [80s Belgian pop/house] out of Nina Simone and discovered this awesome mash-up - the bass line is right in key and just bubbles along excellently under the Nina Simone track. The place exploded! Those two records are now inextricably linked in our collection, but it all came from a mistake.
Of course, it's because we've got eclecticism that Nina Simone was in our collection at all, but it shows that accidents can be where the fun is at!
One of the issues I have with always relying on beatgridding is that some songs sound better when slightly out of phase with each other, and you need your ears to work that out on a mix-by-mix basis, which is something that beatgridding can remove for the equation.
That's actually something very dangerous that we deal with a lot and I don't think people talk about it because it's a bit obscure. There's a real art to letting the swing of the original music performance come through. For instance, it can be difficult to quantise an old rock tune - you can't be quantising the life out of stuff. That's why we'll always advise DJs, at least do Serato first and learn how to beatmatch there so you know what you're doing when you quantise something in Ableton.
It's funny, because quantising music from the 80s, 90s and now is in each case totally different. It's easier to quantise an old Madonna tune because there's a lot less compression on it. Then again, Mark Ronson was in town recently and we said to him, "You know your music is so hard to play, since you don't use a click track."
He was quite amusing about it, and said, "OK, I'll start using a click track just so you can DJ with my music more easily!"
We said: "Don't do that! If we ever got written up as the people who got Mark Ronson to use a click track, our careers would be over..."
On the "vinyl vs digital" debate...
You've both DJed for a long time, but the way you DJ now is far removed from two-decks-and-a-mixer. What do you think about the vinyl vs digital debate?
Now we've got digital technology, why do we need the turntable metaphor at all? It's not as if the Technics turntable was originally designed for what we're using it for anyway - it's just a happy accident.
When Serato Scratch came along we were really excited by it, but it was Serato ITCH that really got us. We loved the way the ITCH controllers did away with the record decks entirely.
It's like reverse Darwinism - is the way we're evolving as DJs happening because of the turntable? Technology should evolve because of us. While there's something to be said for the Technics not changing at all in 30 years, that's just the point - things hadn't changed for 30 years.
Also, with controllers for Serato ITCH, and the Traktor Kontrol S4, it's interesting that people have realised that you don't actually need a 12" platter to scratch on. People are realising that you only need a little round disc with enough space to put two or three fingers on. This is cool.
Here on Digital DJ Tips we notice a lot of vinyl DJs putting down digital DJing, but it doesn't seem to happen the other way around...
Yes, that's our experience too. We were talking the other night to another DJ who uses laptops and ITCH. He was amazed about the backlash from old-school vinyl DJs who insist that what we're doing is not DJing, It's bitterness, and I don't think they realise what work goes into using Serato and ITCH and Ableton and stuff.
It's a bit like the conservative right vs the progressive left. I say we live in a world where all DJs can exist.
People say nothing sounds like vinyl, though...
If people really want that vinyl sound we have a vinyl emulation sound effect! In Ableton's studio effect rack there is a vinyl distortion patch that we can just toss on to the master output and you can hear some crackles and whirrs and nuanced noise being added to the mix.
But they also say that "traditional" DJing has the best sound quality that can't be beaten...
Well with us, we no longer require a DJ mixer - we can plug straight into the house PA. Just going through a DJ mixer introduces noise to the signal which we can now remove. There's definitely this argument to be made that laptop DJing is more sonically pure because of this kind of thing. Literally two nights ago we were having this exact conversation with a sound tech running the mixing board for a gig we did, that also featured a live performance. He was saying that the audio components in DJ mixers nowadays were often sub-par compared to the live equipment they're used to working with.
We said: "Isn't it wonderful that our signal path is just one? We're not playing back a record, a CD or an MP3 out of a box, into a box, through a bunch of effects, you know, we're not muddying the signal path - we're giving you a pure master signal straight out of Ableton."
Remember that the DJ mixer as we know it today had to be invented, then every year it is refined, it goes through a product cycle with new trends and improvements. For us to say "we don't need that" and do it all in software completely breaks us from that DJ paradigm, and can only be good for sound quality.
All those classic old mixers like the Urei rotary models had the cleanest signal path with nothing interfering with it - not even EQs on each channel, just simple EQ across the output - very different from today's mixers. But we actually trump that with our system!
To us it's great having it all done in software, yet we have experienced a certain amount of animosity from certain elements of the audiophile community. Plus, of course, there's always someone who sees a laptop in the DJ booth and says "you're not really doing it..."
People think it's just about clever software?
Yes - it's always interesting when people who are not DJs are very curious about how we're DJing, because the amount of time and effort and knowledge that we've had to bring to bear to make what we're doing now work properly and seamlessly is probably above and beyond what non-DJs can appreciate from the outside looking in.
So people ask us what the software is and think they can just go and buy it and do what we do, as if it's not going to take them any time at all to copy us.
Advice for DJs starting out...
So, what would your advice be to someone wanting to start DJing today?
It's really interesting how although things change, they actually stay the same. As much as we have an appreciation for the long view history of DJing - because we've been working DJs at every phase of the game - it's apparent now that any well-connected model can just become a DJ, get a bunch of tracks together. But that's not what it's about.
We're tempted to tell people to go down to the thrift store and buy a bunch of old records and get some Technics and an old Gemini mixer and just do it, get mixing, start playing out.
Then again, solutions like Serato ITCH with a controller contains everything DJing has been right up to this point - they're the essence of DJing with decks, in one package. So from a technical viewpoint, you should understand how something like Serato ITCH works, spend a year or two on it, before you look at other stuff.
Overall our advice would be to DJ with anything you can get your hands on! Experiment with stuff. It's such an ever-changing field, and you don't want to be hindered by one type of technology.
One of things that's great about New York is that - even though it's definitely the birthplace of certain styles and crafts of DJing - we have this permissive atmosphere where if you have good taste and an interesting group of friends that's going to show up and dance, that's almost more important than technical skill.
To be honest, the price point of some of these hardware / software pairings is stunning - they're so affordable! ITCH has within it the whole history of DJing - it's a good learning tool because it implicitly shows you where this whole thing came from, but the fact that it's on a computer and you can do advanced stuff hints at the next step - the future of DJing.
Is it as good to be a DJ now as it's ever been?
We're living in an amazing time for music and while it's important to have an appreciation and an awareness for how we got here, we definitely wouldn't trade being DJs today for anything. So yes, it's a great time to be a DJ right here, right now.
Have you seen AndrewAndrew perform? Do you wish you could liberate yourself from your DJ booth like they've done? Have you done it? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comments below...