In basement of a north London Caribbean bar, Jacques Greene and Krystal Klear are smashing out disco and deep house bangers to a loose-limbed crowd, grinding on sticky walls and screaming along to every hook. Just before they took over, though, someone leans in: “Who was the DJ who was just on?” they bellow in my ear, “She was sick.” The head bobbing just above the booth was Nina Las Vegas, I tell him. “What’s her vibe?” he asks. I pause for a moment, and think about how to make a sincere, direct summary of her. “She’s kind of like the Benji B of Australia,” I return. He makes an approving nod and fires back onto the dancefloor – but not before hugging her and shaking her hand, for a rapid-fire mix of R&B Top 40, grime, house, and myriad machinations of club music in between.
Australian DJ, radio host and producer Nina Las Vegas may be less well known than Jacques Greene and Krystal Klear in that north London basement, but on the other side of the world, Nina is a household name. Having joined national radio station Triple J as a teenager, and collecting music from scenes dotted across the globe ever since, Nina Agzarian has become one of the key figures in national radio in her Sydney home; championing homegrown talent, hosting her own House Party and Unearthed shows, and now, touring the world as not just a figurehead of a local scene, but a happy champion of Australia’s reaching out into the commercial explosion of dance music, and what it means to absorb and understand the myriad sounds of the worldwide underground.
Sitting down with her a few days after her set, RBMA spoke to Nina La Vegas about the Australian scene, how it’s changing, and what her personal view of the rest of the musical world really looks like.
A subject I’ve been keen to ask you about for a while now is the Australian dance music scene. From an outside perspective, it looks like the younger sibling to EDM culture in North America: serious money being injected from companies like SFX and HARD into huge festivals. Where do you see this having come from?
Well, a bit of background. I started in the scene as a club promoter, and when the new rave scene was blowing up, and we were listening to Zoot Woman and the Klaxons, we were hosting parties every weekend – and they were always packed. I remember having conversations with people at the time, insisting, “We put on really good parties, but we don’t make any of music we’re playing.” We were booking big Australian bands like Cut Copy and Presets, yes, but it’s flipped now with dance music. Everyone is making music. You can’t deny the Flume effect, basically.
What is “the Flume effect”?
The way I see it, for Flume, it was all about timing. He was a young surfer guy, working at the Hard Rock Café and listening to Flying Lotus. He didn’t really have a music background – he plays saxophone, though, I think – but he was working on music on a home computer and, clearly, had this ear for something; a sound that even he wasn’t sure about, and that exploded.
What is the appeal of Flume for Australians?
Well, he gives the vibe that he could be his own fan’s best friend. He looks like a token, young, white, sporty Australian boy, and now he’s getting high-fived by Skrillex and selling out festivals. Every kid that looks and has lived like him is like, “Oh shit, I can do this too.”
It seems like being a part of the dance music scene in Australia is kind of – aspirational? Of these “everyday kids” becoming superstars overnight.
One thing that’s important about Australia is that in terms of geography, we’re a huge country, but in terms of population, we’re tiny. It means there’s a lot of ego in the cities from people who arguably aren’t “famous” by any stretch of the imagination, because the scenes are so concentrated.
Ego isn’t necessarily a negative trait, though.
That’s true, but it’s more that – and I’m speaking for Sydney here – we don’t have much of a homegrown celebrity culture. Right around the time that Flume was picking up, Triple J had just started the Unearthed profile when dance music was becoming more day-to-day on air. (Like the BBC, Triple J is a non-commercial station, but we do have quotas to fulfil and we do play a lot of Australian music, which I think became a big part of it.) Australian’s are very into Australians. They own it. Flume is ours. The thing that’s crazy, though, is that Australians only start to notice how big things are when other people notice them first.
That’s the idea of “cultural cringe” right?
Exactly. The moment someone from the outside high-fives it, everyone inside is like, “Wooow, cool.” Kylie will never be out-dated for us, because she has universal appeal, but the only celebrities we actually care about are Americans, frankly. There are so few of us that we look elsewhere, all the time, for everything – so to have a kid like Flume, it’s changing attitudes about “home-grown-ness.”
It seems that Australia is fertile ground for a scene like EDM (as a business as much as a music culture) to flourish: a strong economy that avoided the global recession, a huge youth population, and so on. Is this lack of homegrown celebrity culture part of the reason why these very young dance acts are becoming national pop stars?
Exactly. A festival launched while I’ve been away – which looks like the Australian version of Holy Ship – and I thought, “Oh my god, that’s all Australians on the bill.” There was a shift from around 2010, when the festivals were so big and artists could go on these amazing, round-the-world trips to Australia. I don’t blame them. The sun’s shining, the kids are enthusiastic – but then the market became saturated, and then a few festivals did half price tickets and ruined it for everyone else. You can’t put half price tickets out on the first day of sale! No one will ever buy tickets outright again! But now, the culture’s shifted again, because it’s local talent that are pulling in numbers now, not the international acts.
If the talent is more local now, is the money coming in from local companies, too? Or is it very much a North American influence in that respect?
Oh yeah, the US is seriously looking to Australia right now. I get agencies in the States hitting me up, asking me what I think of various acts. For a moment I would say they’re cool, and to pick them up, but now it’s like, “Dude, they’re so new. They’re good right now, but what are you gonna do next?” These kids don’t even know what they’re going to do next, because they’re waiting to see what Hudson Mohawke does first. They’ve never spent 24 hours partying in Berlin. They’ve never gone to Social Club, or to fabric.
You ask them to play 15 minutes more, and they can’t. They’re “performers.”
Do they need to, to do what they do on home turf?
It’s like this: when I see DJs like Éclair Fifi play, say, she never plays the same set twice. With this new generation in Australia, everyone plays on Abelton. You ask them to play 15 minutes more, and they can’t. They’re “performers.” There’s so much to learn about DJing for them. Having said that, the culture has bigger issues than just the new kids coming through. We’ve got a really conservative government, and a “lock out” because of it.
What is the lock out?
There has been a big crackdown in clubbing in Sydney. At the start of last year, a young kid got punched, went into a coma, and died. Just a young kid who didn’t do anything wrong, partying in the club district of Kings Cross. The government had to be seen to do something (and frankly, race comes into it, because if he had been a young indigenous kid instead of a white, middle class kid, I seriously doubt this government would have reacted at all), so now you cant go into a club after 1:30 AM, you can’t drink after 3 AM and the clubs are only open until 5 AM. It’s only in certain areas, too. The casinos are exempt from this - obviously.
I’ve got friends who own clubs who say it’s been coming for years, because it’s just an attempt to clean up the scene. The problem isn’t the clubs, though. We have a very aggressive, unhealthy drinking culture, and the government can see it. Like, why is some western Sydney kid doing steroids, going drinking and getting fucked up at 10 PM?
What about the bigger names who are already locked into the circuit? Do they see themselves as focusing on building a career in Australia, or reaching out to elsewhere?
Apart from the older guys like Cutter Records, in Melbourne, places like the UK are not a focus right now. It’s just too far away. Someone like Alison Wonderland, who is huge in Australia, knows she has no pull in the UK. It’s not that she’s trying not to. She just doesn’t know the scene. It takes 12 hours to go from Sydney to LA – and that’s close by for us, you know? I do think Australia is on par with the US right now, though. Our histories as nations are very similar.
It’s true that you’re both only a couple of hundred years old, but the US does have a long history of dance music, which you’re saying Australia doesn’t have.
That’s exactly it – that’s why there seems to be this strong, mutual interest right now. We had a gay club scene in the ’90s, surrounding Kylie, and earlier disco, but we didn’t have jungle and hardcore like the UK did, or house and techno like the US did. And I’m not exempt from this, of course. I research everything. I love grime acts like BBK, but I don’t have boxes of white labels and dubplates from back when, you know?
Do you think Australian acts get so big, so quickly, because there’s so much space to come up in, and a lack of quality control because you’re keen to see fellow Australians do well?
I think that happens, yes. We’re a privileged country and can watch it all happen in real time, so part of why shit’s going wild is that we’re telling you it is, you know? That “Sold out show!” you’re posting about? Well, it’s actually a 200 capacity venue so, chill out. In 2006/07, the Presets were selling more tickets and headlining more festivals all over the world than any of these young dance acts, but because there was much less of an internet presence for it there’s a lack of perspective and reference. Just because Twitter and Soundcloud weren’t part of their game doesn’t make it any less relevant.
All this talk of branding, of content, of “performers,” of cultural cringe – where do you see the dance music culture in Australia realistically going, in the next few years?
The bubble is bursting, but it’s going to take a community shift to save it. For agents to place their artists, for promoters to book Australians as well as international acts (which includes investing in travel, because we are so far removed from the rest of the world). It’s going to take a lot of people, and admittedly I am one of those people.
I tell the kids who come up now: if you make music, you need to go see DJ EZ when he’s in town. You need to step outside your comfort zone. You need to only send me tracks when you’re 100% finished with them. You need to chill, and not sign that publishing deal at 20 years old. Everyone freaks out in Australia because they see someone like Flume blow up, but it takes so much more than that to build a scene. Take a crew like Night Slugs. They’ve been around for years, doing parties, releases and radio, but now here’s this big, serious, potential crossover project in Kelela – and it feels natural. That’s inspiring.
Things have to get shit to get better for events, too. Big Day Out, for example, was an institution. It was the first thing I went to as a kid and when I saw that it was folding, when the bosses split and fell out very publicly, I just thought to myself, “I wish they had a better market.” We’ve lost a lot of the independent festivals because SFX have bought Stereosonic, which is the biggest. I think in order to compete everyone will have to go smaller again. We’ve got a mainstream – now we need an underground.
When I’m putting together a show, I always think about how we’re a national show.
We’ve talked a lot about Australia, but you’ve been making a concerted effort to tour the UK, Europe, the US – how have your tastes grown?
In Australia, we’re pretty fruity with our dance music. All these big dance hits are crazy melodic and cheesy. We’re not schooled in more industrial sounds and ideas. (There are definitely parties for it, again, in Melbourne, but they’re few and far between.) When I book international artists for my parties, or play, say grime music to a bunch of Australian kids, I just have to trust that it’ll work. Tracks by Skepta and Novelist will make the club go crazy in London, but I’ve got to be clever with it over here. Hell, I might play a Novelist vocal over a Wave Racer track, just to see what happens.
In the UK, we have names like Mary Anne Hobbs, Annie Mac, and Benji B: a variety of stalwarts. Triple J seems to stand very much on its own for dance music on the radio in Australia. What’s you’re thinking in representing a style to a nation?
The good thing about Triple J is that we have a direct mission. We’re about showcasing new music. My taste is a largely a mix of the Australian and US sound and because I feel that I’m more aware of both than most international radio DJs on my level, I have to be open and ready for criticism - and flexible. I have to take risks in Australia. If someone’s telling me, “This artist is killing it,” if I’m not feeling it then I have to react honestly.
When I’m putting together a show, I always think about how we’re a national show. Most of our audience live in country towns, and I’m from a country town. I’m okay with playing music that I don’t necessarily think is brain science, but I know that 17-year old girl from a village 6 hours from Sydney would love to hear this song. I always think about that girl.
She’s not going to know the intricacies of how UK Funky had a couple of hot summers, so instead of saying, “Hey, this is everything you don’t know,” I say, “Look, if you like this Skrillex track, you should hear this Inkke track, because it’s the same weird noises.” I think that’s how you get to people: levelling out what’s hot, and what’s freaky and cool. It does come with doing it for so long, too. My old show House Party was, well, all in the name: I used to put out three mixes per week. I can do an Ableton mix without headphones on now. [laughs]
The Unearthed format of your show has had some criticism in the past: of being a semi-X Factor style way of thrusting underdeveloped talent onto a national platform. Can you explain the thinking behind Unearthed, and how it works?
There’s always going to be arguments against a format like Unearthed because people in the industry like Triple J dominate everything. And we do dominate. But we work really hard at it. You have to get a “Triple J Okay” to do well regionally, because if your band is played on the show you’ve then got a whole new audience, and you don’t have to depend on so much else. The trucker audience, the kids that work in the mine audience, the serviceman audience: you need them to do well nationally.
I think Australia has a different perception of what is “mainstream.”
The way I feel, though? I’ve been with Triple J since I was 19 years old. I get those arguments, but I don’t focus on negatives. What else would you rather we do? Continually sign young bands through dodgy A&R companies, which charge kids thousands of dollars to take their music to labels? In the US they have pay-to-play culture, but we don’t have that. (There’s no money involved in Triple J in that respect, although we do pay publishing fees to the artists.)
What it comes down to is that I’d rather see the dance culture here have unity. When you see a collective of friends putting on parties and playing each other’s music, if they get big you know that’s why they’re big. And if they hit me up, that’s so much better than some LA agency, telling me their new act has got 1 million Soundcloud plays, you know? Who the fuck cares?
Also, I think Australia has a different perception of what is “mainstream.” Triple J is considered mainstream but conceptually, day-to-day, compared to other national radio stations around the world, it’s really not. These kids have grown up with little else, so that’s how they perceive it. Once you travel, you realise there’s little like Triple J in the US. I’m proud of that.
Earlier, you said “I’m not a tastemaker, I’m a hard worker” – which I love. What do you mean by that?
Well, it means a lot of things, but it does involve my ideas of representation and visibility in dance music culture. I’m not labelled a tastemaker because I got lucky. I’m a hard worker, and vocal about it, so I can talk to these huge artists like Skrillex on a weekly basis, and know we’re on a level together.
The solution to the “EDM women problem” is more women.
I see talented women not being vocal about how good they are, and that’s bullshit. Go up to those DJs and promoters and say, “This is me, this is what I do, you should fuck with it” – just like the dudes do. It works for them, so why not for us? I brought Éclair Fifi and Uniqu3 on my tour and, while I wouldn’t promote it as a “female bill” or anything whack like that, the truth is you had three women and two men on that tour. It was cool.
I read an article about sexism in EDM recently, and while I didn’t agree with some of it, the end was poignant: what would make girls want to be part of the scene? Well, the answer to any scene’s problem is to have more visibility. The solution to the “EDM women problem” is more women: writers, editors, promoters, DJs, producers, radio hosts, all doing positive things and using these space to push forward. There are answers to rhetorical questions.