Nicole Moudaber's Dark, Percussive Techno Has Heads Turning
“[Some DJs] drive stick-shift cars, and [others] drive super-cars”
Amsterdam, Holland – Getting out of a taxi and striding through Amsterdam’s Westerpark neighborhood, you’re soon struck by the massive Gashouder building peeking through a dense set of trees.
Built in 1902, the cylindrical edifice once served as a gas factory and now it’s a main venue of the Westergasfabriek Culture Park, which includes a variety of entertainment and leisure facilities. And on this October night, the steady stream of partiers—many of them Amsterdam Dance Event attendees—heads to the Intec Digital event, part of the week’s series of Awakenings techno parties. On the bill: the legendary Carl Cox (Intec label co-founder) and Nicole Moudaber, one of the genre’s fastest rising talents.
The round room finds fans filling a vast dancefloor and jamming up to a DJ stage. Above and behind it, a huge video-screen backdrop displays a rotating set of mind-bending creations. After taking over the decks from Jon Rundell—he drops a punishing set of rolling grooves, accentuated by trippy loops—Moudaber changes the musical atmosphere and digs a little deeper. While occasionally calling up some kick-drum thunder, her set offers more percussive breakdowns and a darker, sexier vibe.
Unlike the set itself, the booth histrionics are minimal. You just see Moudaber in her zone, her thick mane of jet-black hair moving purposefully to the powerful groove she’s created, the occasional finger in the air. The 3,500 fans stuffed into the former refinery ride along with enthusiasm and, by the time Cox assumes the decks at 3:45, Moudaber is feeling an effusive outpouring of approval. Cox, then, revs up the buzzbombs that fly deep into the morning.
When we connect the next evening for the interview, Moudaber was rested, but still obviously on a natural high from the previous evening’s proceedings. Reflecting on the Intec/Awakenings gig, she still had a glow as she explained the triumph of the evening and the series of high points she’s experienced in the past two years.
In her husky voice, the London-based/Beirut-raised/Africa-born Moudaber details how she rose up from fan and promoter to music-maker and international DJ. After a series of EPs on Intec Digital and Kling Klong, plus remixes for artists like Cox, Mauro Picotto and Layo & Bushwacka!, Moudaber really broke out with Believe, her 2013 artist album. Released on Adam Beyer’s deeply respected Drumcode imprint, Believe topped Beatport charts and dropped a series of dancefloor bombs like the tribal, ethereal “Movin’ On,” the slinky-tough “Come and Lay” and dark-n-dirty “Fly With You.”
It’s put her front and center in the techno world, and she’s making the most of it by playing the globe’s top clubs and festivals. It’s her time. Here’s Ms. Moudaber:
DJ Times: So, how did you think last night went?
Moudaber: It went incredible, actually. It was my third or fourth time I’ve played Awakenings at Gashouder—Carl Cox’s night, the Intec Digital party there. It’s just incredible—thousands of people there waiting for amazing music and being with the Intec people and Carl Cox, obviously, it’s like a family reunion. We’re all just sharing the love of the music.
DJ Times: And it must be very encouraging to see so many dedicated techno fans filling such a large venue.
Moudaber: Yeah. Awakenings obviously are the biggest techno promoters in Europe, without a doubt. It was really magical last night. Amazing.
DJ Times: Let’s go back to the beginnings of your inspiration for this music. I’d read that it had to do with a late-’90s visit to The Tunnel in New York City.
Moudaber: Yes, it was 1999 and [Danny] Tenaglia was playing and it turned everything I knew about music completely to the other side because I’m very much influenced by anything that’s drum-based and rhythmic. And Danny, this is what he plays, and New York, this is that sound—percussive, tribally, drums. It really reached me at a deep level.
DJ Times: And you really caught him at a good time.
Moudaber: Yes. It was really a turning point in my life. I was supposed to get into a traditional job, given my education, and I completely turned to the other side.
DJ Times: What was your direction at that point?
Moudaber: I graduated in Combined Social Sciences, which is a combination of sociology, politics, anthropology—all those sciences. I was supposed to be—probably, I don’t know—in the House of Commons or Amnesty International, some job like that. So, on that night, the artistic side of me came out and the artist was discovered in me. That night in New York, listening to house and techno, turned my passion into music.
DJ Times: But that love for music was always there, right?
Moudaber: Yes, and to talk about my love for percussion… I was born in Nigeria and my parents are originally Lebanese, so all that music is very rhythmic, very percussive, very tribally. It was stamped in my head and this is what I feel. This is what attracts me to play or produce—it’s always there.
DJ Times: Tell me about how you began throwing parties in Beirut, a place that’s seen some pretty tough times.
Moudaber: Well, you know, after the [Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990], nobody was subjected to that kind of music at all. So I literally introduced that culture over there and pretty much all over the Middle East. So I brought DJs and dancers from London. I spoke to the city and they gave us this outdoor area in the middle of the city—I chose a mosque and a cathedral right next to each other and we threw the party there. And these were bombed-out, the mosque and the cathedral—after the war, they didn’t have time to do anything with them. We propped them up. We put lights, built the stage for the DJs…
DJ Times: Created an atmosphere…
Moudaber: Yes! And we drew 1,000 people—Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, all the kids, basically. And this is how we used to live, in the past. We never had issues before. So we all joined forces and we just danced all night under the stars, as you would say [laughs]. It sounds idealistic, but that’s exactly what happened. We were all united, ready for change. We wanted to have fun and return to normal.
DJ Times: You were a fan and a promoter, but at a certain point you wanted to make music yourself, right? How did that transition happen?
Moudaber: I took on a project in Ibiza. I bought a house, which required that I be there physically to oversee that project. That made me step out because I couldn’t promote monthly nights in London anymore. And during that time, I stepped out from the music scene, the promoting; I was involved with creating and design and architecture, which is still in the same family of art. When that was done, I wanted to come back to music, because that’s my passion. I always wanted to create, so I took a chance and locked myself in the studio, not knowing where that was going to take me. I just immersed all my feelings and things just spiraled from there.
DJ Times: So you were making music first, before you began to DJ?
Moudaber: Yes. I mean, I had decks and an amazing vinyl collection at home—I was just a bedroom DJ. I’d just play for friends, invite other DJs from my parties. It was afterparties—I remember I had DJs like Steve Lawler, Nick Warren coming back for these parties. The decks were always there, but I was a producer before actually becoming a DJ. I just wanted to create music.
DJ Times: Do you remember your first DJ setup?
Moudaber: Two Technics turntables, a Pioneer DJM-600 mixer and the first CDJs—the MK1s.
DJ Times: At what point did you feel proficient enough to play out?
Moudaber: I was never really confident enough, but I did throw myself out there. I took my time. I was very careful. I wasn’t used to it, like all the other guys and girls who have been doing it for 20 years already. I practiced a lot and I got coached after not wanting to play on CDs anymore. I contacted Native Instruments and got coached by one of their instructors to start using software, to update my setup and to start competing with all the big boys out there by learning Traktor and learning what’s out there, getting familiar with the technology that’s available. It opened my eyes to a whole different spectrum of how you can deliver your music. The possibilities are endless. As long as you know what to do with it, the creative side is just… infinity.
DJ Times: So many features, like four decks, if that’s what you want or need…
Moudaber: I mean, listen, there are people who still drive stick-shift cars and there are people who drive super-cars, which are controlled by your little fingers on the wheel. You can compare it to whatever you want, but we’re still driving the car [laughs].
DJ Times: How did your DJ career progress? Was there one moment that really pushed you forward?
Moudaber: I’d say signing my first EP [“The Reason Why” in 2010] with Intec Digital—that charted. After that, I remixed one of Carl Cox’s singles [“Chemistry” in 2011]. That stayed on the charts for about three months and it won [an International Dance Music Award] last year in Miami. Since then, things have blown up in a different level.
DJ Times: The past few summers have seen you really get busy in Ibiza.
Moudaber: Obviously, I wasn’t playing the mega-parties at first because I was an unknown DJ—but I knew everybody. The first breakthrough was when Carl invited me to play at Space, where he was playing on Tuesdays. I’d played smaller events, but that was it. And now I’m playing there every year.
DJ Times: How has Ibiza changed since you’ve been there?
Moudaber: It’s growing. There’s a lot of commercial influx. There are a lot of investors. Ibiza is not only about music—it’s the No. 1 tourist destination in Europe. And yes, it’s the hub for dance music in Europe, so promoters make money. But also property developers make money, but also restaurants, cabs, you name it. For three months, I think we have about 6 million people coming in and out of this tiny island. It’s changed in that everybody wants to be there, everybody wants a piece of it. Unfortunately, we have things like Hard Rock Café opening, Hard Rock Hotel opening…
DJ Times: You can’t hide forever!
Moudaber: [Laughs] I know! But we’re not happy about that! They’re trying to turn it into a mini-Vegas, and that’s not what Ibiza is. But the credible music is still there and there’s a little bit for everyone. If you want commercial, it’s there. If you want underground, it’s there, too.
DJ Times: With all the money that Vegas can spend on the top-drawing DJs, how has the rise of Vegas impacted the island?
Moudaber: It hasn’t impacted the island at all because we were doing fine without that for many years. It impacted the States, I think you could say, but not Ibiza. We pack up more the credible kind of music, more than the commercial, to be honest. We have nights, like, at Amnesia that is packed with Cocoon and Marco Carola’s night. We have nights like Richie Hawtin and Carl Cox at Space…
DJ Times: Let’s talk about your 2013 album, Believe. What studio gear did you rely on most?
Moudaber: There aren’t really any secret weapons. I use Ableton Live. I do everything on there and, obviously, I have a whole library of sounds. I have tons of plug-ins and it’s just a case of laying them together and creating. It’s a bit like sound design, basically. It’s just taking your time to get the sound right and that’s what I did with the album. I didn’t do it in one day—it took me eight months. And there’s the matter of selecting the right tracks for the album. It’s exactly what I do with all my tracks—it’s not rocket science in there.
DJ Times: Can you tell me how you get that big, rumbling percussion going?
Moudaber: I layer a lot of my drum sounds. I filter so many layers on top of so many other layers to get that low end going in my subs and my kicks. I just don’t choose one sound and lay it there and leave it, no. I have, like, five different ones—filtered on the filtered on the filtered [laughs]. I put them all on top of each other to get that chunkiness.
DJ Times: How do you know when it’s right for the club?
Moudaber: I test it out and I listen to it on various different speakers. So, when I’m out of the studio, I play it at home and then I play it through my headphones. I listen on different, other monitors, and I tweak as I go along like that.
DJ Times: There’s a very hypnotic element to that kind of percussion in a club and I don’t think producers or DJs can understand that unless they’ve been in the middle of the dancefloor themselves.
Moudaber: Yes, and, like I’ve said, it’s stamped in me. This is what I feel. If it doesn’t move me, I will not play it or put my name to it.
DJ Times: To my ears, you have a lot more percussive dynamics going on than some of the techno jocks who can sometimes really over-emphasize the basic kick. You play hard, but you seem to know when to drop things out and make things a little more sensitive and emotional. On the album, I think that’s best represented by “Fly With You.”
Moudaber: Totally. That song has got a lot of chords and I found that I’m attracted to melodies, chords and the epic kind of drops—it’s a bit orchestral, if you want to say. It’s just a case of making it work with a techno record, obviously. Some people might think it’s cheesy, but if it’s done the right way it’s so not.
DJ Times: What’s your current DJ setup?
Moudaber: I currently use the Traktor software to play and two Traktor X1 controllers. I’m just starting to use the [Traktor Kontrol] F1 controller in my setup. I always play four decks at a time and I loop a lot. As I said, using technologies is another form of blending different stuff together and sounding unique and this allows me to do that.
DJ Times: Is there something new for the DJ, technology-wise, that you’d like to see created?
Moudaber: Oh, like add another two channels, so we can play on six decks? That would be amazing! [Laughs]
DJ Times: OK, three DJs that you love?
Moudaber: Carl Cox for his techno. The first time I heard his F.A.C.T. CD , it turned me onto techno. Actually, I told him that last night. What he played the last hour-and-a-half was exactly what I knew him for. So, that was really a turning point in my life when I heard that. For house music, definitely Danny Tenaglia for his slow groove, chunkiness, vocals and depth—the way he plays them. Obviously, Adam Beyer for that European techno sound—and technically, he’s amazing. He inspires me a lot.
DJ Times: OK, producers or remixers?
Moudaber: Alan Fitzpatrick—I rate him a lot for in he does. He’s got that unique sound in his productions. I love Carlo Lio for his rolling, deep, techy sound. And I love Anja Schneider for her deep house and groove-ness. She’s fantastic. I have every single record that she’s done.
DJ Times: Favorite venues?
Moudaber: Stereo in Montreal has to be my No. 1—great sound. I just played an eight-hour set there. I can play forever in there because my ears don’t get hurt. On that system, I can hear every single sound and noise on the records I play. Also, Space in Ibiza—that’s where it all started for me. The sound system is incredible—the vibe, the room is just crazy. Output in New York—I love that place and the sound system. With DJs, obviously, the sound system is very important to enjoy what they’re doing.
DJ Times: Now that you’ve become an in-demand DJ/producer, someone who travels around the world and someone who’s developed a dedicated fanbase, what’s it like for you?
Moudaber: The love that I get from fans, obviously, is incredible because I’ve never had this before. But I don’t see it really in a fan kind of way, really. I just see it as someone giving me love and I want to give it back. I dig them on a personal level, each and every one of them, because it’s like they’ve become friends, I guess.
DJ Times: All those years of being a fan and a promoter haven’t left you, then? Not much difference between the performer and the fan, in your eyes?
Moudaber: Right, that’s exactly where I come from. I don’t put myself on a higher pedestal in any way. No, I want to be with them. I want to talk to them. I want to get to know them. That’s what I always do after my show. I just want to hug them [laughs], and say, “Hi, how are you doing? Did you have a good time?” Like we were all partying in a club. Back in the day, I used to talk to everybody. I used to work the room and be friends with everyone. I want to make thousands of friends every night.