July 25, 2014

Will Sparks: 'It was as if I had some kind of drug problem--with music'

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Just a couple of years ago he was a guitarist in a local Melbourne rock band. Then, the discovery of an unguarded back entrance to a local club playing techno so inspired a teenaged Will Sparks that he started pestering mates to teach him Ableton Live.

Obviously, he learned well because his 2012 track “Ah Yeah!” blew up and, before too long, Sparks became one of Australia’s fastest rising EDM stars. Along with fellow DJ/producers Joel Fletcher and TJR, he began to gain notice as a prime practitioner of the Melbourne Sound—think dub- and trance-tinged electro with thick synths, whopping kicks and fat drops.

This past year, Sparks sets his sights internationally with an official remix of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which reached No. 2 on the Beatport charts, and a four-month European tour. And now in early ’14, he’s serving as the support act on Avicii’s current tour Down Under.

DJ Times caught up with the 20-year-old Aussie shortly before he played to an utterly packed (and noticeably female-heavy) Pacha London.

DJ Times: Tonight is the end of your four-month tour. How has it gone?
Sparks: It’s been incredible. It’s been both very quick and yet it still feels like ages since I’ve been home and seen everyone. It’s a funny one—it does feel like you’re living the dream, yet it also very tiring. But,  I still can’t think of anything better.

DJ Times: You’ve had quite a year, touring internationally, your remix made it to No. 2 on Beatport. Your thoughts on it all?
Sparks: It all began just over two years ago. I’d been a guitarist for as long as I could remember. Then one night I snuck into the back of a club. I was still underage at the time, and I was so amazed by what I heard [Melbourne’s underground sound] that I ended up sneaking in this side door two or three school nights a week, for three months straight, by myself, just to watch this same resident play. From then, all I wanted to do was make electronic music.

DJ Times: How did that progress?
Sparks: Then, by coincidence, a friend came over one day with this Ableton program and, well, that was it. I started skipping school. I started pulling all-nighters, just so I could learn how to make beats. It was as if I had some kind of drug problem—with music! That obsession just drove me. When I started blowing up around Melbourne, I’d do eight gigs in two nights, back-to-back with a total of two hours sleep, with nothing to keep me up except music.

DJ Times: So how did you go from production to DJing?
Sparks: DJing happened in tandem. The same time I was sneaking into that club, I started playing on mates’ CDJs. Then in 2011, I played one house party—I was so nervous—and I played a bootleg I’d made of Charlie Sheen’s then-recent meltdown over the top of a known tech-house track, and off the back of that I got asked to play a club, then a residency and things got serious.

DJ Times: Between DJing and production, is there one you prefer?
Sparks: DJing these days is not really a live performance. I mean, sure, I use three CDJs, and sure, there’s mixing it properly. Yes, I play with some live samples, but other than that, these things are usually thought-out. Production-wise, when you make something and you can’t stop listening to it, it’s just… you just can’t explain it. Then, when you go out and play that track live, well, that’s good in a different way, too! So, the end feeling of either is the same.

DJ Times: Some of those who learned DJing at the same time as production tend to veer toward using Ableton or at least mixing software to play out.
Sparks: I couldn’t think of anything worse! I love jumping around the stage. I love the feeling of tapping CDJs, bringing stuff into the mix, rather than turning a plastic effects knob on a pre-made mix.

DJ Times: Tell me about your remix of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
Sparks: The boys at Interscope got in touch. They’d been following me, they liked my sound and, well, they just offered me the remix, straight out. It was surreal, really. The Melbourne sound was all about a cappella bootlegs playing over driving house and techno, which, I guess, is what inspired my Charlie Sheen bootleg, and why it was successful. At any rate, as soon as I heard the rap-like vocals to “Blurred Lines,” I knew I had a big opportunity here. I just remember making it—this licensed remix of an incredibly famous song—in a hotel room in Sydney, and just thinking, “This is all so bizarre.”

DJ Times: Speaking of which, you’ve put photos up joking about how your studio is always a hotel room. How does your workflow go when you’re travelling?
Sparks: I think it’s better. I get more creative when I’m travelling on a plane and bopping about on a seat. It is all to do with what your ears are used to. If I went home now to my old studio I put together, I couldn’t make good music because I’m so used to using my headphones. My advice to anyone producing now is get used to your headphones because that’s all you can use when you’re touring.

DJ Times: Tell us about the Australian scene.
Sparks: The Australian dance scene, commercially speaking, a few years ago was just radio tracks playing in main-room clubs for teeny boppers and rich kids. But there was this ongoing side project of underground stuff mostly out of Melbourne that’s evolved a lot. It’s become a lot more big-room friendly, lot more accessible. A number of local and national names started playing more progressive stuff, rather than straight-up techno, and that got interest from a wider group of people. Now it’s reversed—commercial is in the small room, and electronic music is in the big room.

DJ Times: Why’s that?
Sparks: It’s taken a while to grow because of the distance. Australia is one country almost the size of Europe, so going from city to city as an Australian DJ is a huge undertaking. Which is why we love Europe: It’s the strangest place for us, you fly for 45 minutes and you’re in a different country, where they eat different food, speak a different language, have a different culture. There’s so much history, there’s castles made in the 1300s. I look at stuff like that and my mind blows!

DJ Times: Will you leave Australia?
Sparks: I could never leave Australia. But I’m going to [laughs]. You have to! Look at Tommy Trash, Dirty South—they’re now in L.A. Australia’s funny. Even though it’s really blowing up, there definitely is a stronger tall-poppy culture here, people are very quick to hate on artists who rise quickly. Each to their own and I know it happens everywhere, but it’s hard. Plus, America is booming…

DJ Times: What are your plans for the future?
Sparks: I can see me going fully into live performances rather than straight DJing. It’s the logical next step. In addition to that, I’ve got a label I’m creating. I’ve got an album signed to Ultra that’s almost done, and I’m in Australia, America, Europe and Asia next year. The album’s been an experience, it’s so structured. Even six months ago, it was a case of make a track, put a track on Soundcloud, boom, done. Now there’s serious process. I love it, though—it’s all very different and new.

DJ Times: What advice would you give aspiring DJs?
Sparks: Keep your passion. The times you find hardest, the times you can’t get a sound right, or it’s just not coming together, are actually the best times because that’s when you learn the most. Watch motivational videos! Just keep going—you will make it if you do not stop.

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