In advance of his set at this year’s Eastern Electrics Festival, the dance music luminary talks Circo Loco, soundchecks and music & friendship. A few weekends ago in Berlin’s Watergate, Kerri Chandler did the most thorough soundcheck. He started out with the basics: needles, connections, monitors, etc. Then he noticed the firmware on the CD-Js wasn’t up to date. He looked around at the sound engineer: “You guys are still using 4.1? They’re up to 4.10 now!” Not that this was a problem—he had the update ready on a thumb drive. “Later on I’ll go downstairs and update the other pair too, if you want?” He set up Traktor, which he runs off a Windows ’98 equipped Toshiba (“I just find it’s the most stable”), and played a few tracks to feel out the sound system. Chandler then slowly wandered the dance floor, his face scrunched up in concentration, looking a bit like a psychic trying to channel a spirit.
At one point he approached one of the diagonal beams off to the side of the room and, eyes closed, slowly put his palms on it and held them there. No one asked what he was doing, we just watched with a kind of confused fascination. To finish off, he pulled out his iPhone and fired up a Spectral Analysis app. “I don’t know how the fuck they do it, but it’s accurate,” he said, walking around the room and watching the levels jump. Finally, he checked his keyboard, the only extra instrument in tonight’s relatively modest set-up (past props have included holograms, laser harps and modified arcade game tables). This might make him seem a bit high maintenance, but his only concern is the experience of the audience. “If I play and something’s fucked up, it’s not the club’s fault.” He patted his cosmos-speckled chest: “It’s my fault.”
Watching this routine, you start to get a sense of how Kerri Chandler has managed to stay in the game for so long. Part of it’s attention to detail—not many DJs spend an hour fiddling in the booth the evening before their set. The other part (the one you don’t see at soundcheck) is his incredible music education; Chandler grew up in a house that had “turntables in every room,” and thousands of disco records in the basement (hence the title of his ’92 LP, A Basement, A Red Light, and A Feelin’). Both of these things he owes to his family—the meticulous side to his grandfather, the scientist, and the musical side to his father, the DJ. And now, more than 20 years since his first record, he’s fallen into another family—Circo Loco—that’s given his career a third wind.
I thought it was kind of interesting that you’re doing a soundcheck a evenin before the actual gig.
Oh, I always do soundcheck.
In Berlin it’s normal for a DJ to show up five minutes before their set, or 20 minutes late and just throw a record on.
Well, what I’ve noticed is, if something happens with the equipment, the crowd doesn’t blame the equipment, they blame the DJ. They’re not gonna say, “Oh the system…” They don’t get into it that deep. They go, “The DJ fucked up.” And it could be anything, it could be the record is feeding back. That’s my fault, because I wasn’t there to make sure there was some isolation between the turntable and the vibration. I don’t wanna have to worry about one channel disappearing, I don’t wanna have to worry about the needle being fucked up, I don’t wanna have to worry about the pitch going up and down because somebody’s spinning the turntable, or the channel’s jacked up. Or there’s one channel you get halfway and it doesn’t close when it’s down at the bottom, or the crossfader doesn’t work, or the EQ is broken. All these weird little things I check thoroughly. You know even the way the sound is in the club, I don’t want anything screeching, I don’t want anything clipping. I’m an engineer at heart, and I want the best I can get out of any system.
I dunno, maybe I have some kind of autism or, you know, Rain Man-style thing. I can walk in to a club and tell when something’s changed, including the drivers. I’ll just look and I’m like, “Something’s wrong, something’s blown, something’s gotten changed.” And they look at me like “How did you know?” And I’m like “I can hear it. I know what this club sounds like.” And I’ll try to fix it. But if I’d have just walked in cold, it’d be like, “the system sounds like shit, I must’ve played like shit. It must be dirty records, bad mp3s,” you know, it’d have been my fault. And people are thinking, “This is Ministry of Sound,” or wherever, “this is the premier sound system.” Nobody would say to themselves, “Oh, the drivers are blown out of the speakers.”
Where do you think you get that from?
It’s being an engineer. It’s just I wanna hear a nice clean sound. The way I got started was at a recording studio at like 15, 16. I was just picking things up, I began hearing little subtleties and noticing things and how outboard gear works, and I took it all with me and started making productions because a lot of these people that would come in off the street would be like, “I wanna make a record,” and I’m like, “OK, great, I’m just the engineer, where’s your producer?” … “Oh we don’t have a producer, what do you mean? We just want some beats and things.” So I started making up records.
How did you end up making your own records?
Well, what happened was I had a residency every week at this place called Club America, and that was maybe 1989. I found myself making edits of songs to play in the club and put them to reel-to-reel just to test them out in the club. Then one day Tony Humphries got a hold of one of the edits I did for the song called “Drink on Me,” and then it was “Superlover,” so he started playing them on the radio. And that’s when it all kinda began. So different labels kept calling me up: “Oh we like this song. He’s playing it, we want it.” So immediately the first record label that signed me was Atlantic, which is really odd because you know my first venture out was a major label. And ironically enough, Jerome Sydenham was the assistant A&R for Atlantic Records, and to this day that’s why we’re so close.
How did that change your DJ career, having records out?
It changes it completely. People are suddenly really curious to know who you are, they want to see what you’re gonna play. And it just exposes you to the rest of the world honestly. It took me from being a local person to being international immediately. Where we were in New Jersey, my dad was the local guy, the local hero. He was a DJ, in fact he still is a DJ. Most of my family are DJs, so I kinda just grew into it. Best way to describe it, it’s just a family business honestly. And I didn’t really have a choice. I used to warm up for my dad at 13 years old, they used to stand me on a crate, and I didn’t know the records that well, but I could mix. So they would stand and just give me records, I’d mix them in, it was all disco, and then I’d take that one off, and give me the next one and give me the next one, and that would be my job from nine till 11 o’clock, every weekend. [laughs] So that’s where I kind of got my training.
It’s incredible how natural it all was for you.
It didn’t feel any different from just growing up. Hearing a lot records, and also playing with machinery, taking it apart, seeing how it worked. Sometimes I would just be looking at pictures of scientific equipment. That was the other thing: my grandfather was a scientist, so I used to go to the lab with him. It’s weird how it kind of evolved. Watching him do chemistry and electronics in his lab. I wanted to be like him, and I also wanted to be like my dad who was a DJ. So it kinda progressed that way.
Earlier you said having a record out gives you international appeal. I feel like being a Circo Loco DJ would have a similar effect. How did that whole thing come together?
That was a really interesting deal. They were trying to get me for a few years before I actually started playing there. And I really, really didn’t care about Ibiza honestly, just thought it wasn’t my scene. I was always thinking bottle service, you know… plastic people. So I just left it alone, and I went to Rome to play someplace. Circo Loco’s offices are in Rome, these guys are all Italian. I got invited to a meeting, and they told me that they’d had Tony Humphries there. And Tony Humphries is a really good friend of mine, so I figure he must’ve thought it was something spectacular to go and play for DC-10. And I said, “OK, I’m curious now, I’ll go have a meeting with them.”
Had you ever been there before?
Never, never. And what happened was, they sat me down and described the place to me. And they said—and this is what got me—they said, “Look, we’re not like a normal club. We’re opening back up, we were closed for a couple of years, and we wanna change our music policy. We really wanna have some underground, deep music…. We wanna have you really help us start it again properly.” And I said, “OK, I’m not really into the whole Ibiza scene and all this stuff.” And he says, “No, no, it’s not like that at all. We don’t have anyone commercial playing, that’s out. In fact we turn them away. We will never allow that. All we have is a big room with a sound system in it. That’s it, no lights, no anything, no frills, there’s no chairs to sit down, none of that stuff. There’s no VIP anything. It’s just playing the best deep afterparty you could think of.” So I said, “Alright, sounds fun, what the hell.” I met the guys, I met all the DJs, everyone was really friendly, really happy, and I was like, “Wow! It’s like a family here,” and I played that afternoon. It was the closing party. I started playing the most abstract, out there, bizarre shit I could think of.
You were testing the limits?
Yeah, that’s what it was. I was pushing as far as I could go, just to see how far I could get away with things. And the farther I went, the crazier they became. Just screaming, hands in the air. And then I played Mr. Fingers, you know Larry Heard, “The Sun Can’t Compare.” We were outside, and it was just a bit gray, the minute I put the song on, the vocal comes in, the sun came out and this plane flies over. And everyone’s got their hands up, people are like screaming and crying. And I’m like, “OK, I’m sold. That’s it, I’m sold.” And that was it. Ever since then it’s been a hell of a ride.