Damian Lazarus Discusses his New Album and Finding Optimism in the Darkness
For the better part of two decades, Damian Lazarus has worked himself to the bone. But when we catch up with him, he’s lounging in the sun on his farm in Italy, where he’s spent most of the coronavirus lockdown with his family.
Before he was a globally renowned DJ, the UK native’s working life led him through jobs as a car washer, record store clerk, crime reporter for UK newspaper The Sun, assistant editor and music editor at Dazed & Confused magazine, and running the independent music label City Rockers. In 2002, he played his first gig at DC10 Ibiza, which led to a residency that lasted almost ten years. The following year, he started Crosstown Rebels, which boasts hundreds of releases and some of the underground’s most timeless tracks. He’s also responsible for legendary parties like Get Lost Miami, Rebel Rave, and the spellbinding Day Zero event in Tulum, Mexico — massive open-air productions that always leave audiences reeling from their ineffable atmospheres.
His latest album, Flourish, is a ten-tracks of deep and varied tunes that touch on drum & bass, house, jazz, electro, and beyond. A step removed from the instrumental complexity of his Ancient Moons project, but more robust than the arrangements found on his 2010 debut Smoke The Monster Out, the album is a bright odyssey that reaches for the fringes of the dance floor. It’s a beautifully dark yet optimistic soundtrack for our strange 2020.
Ahead of the album release, we caught up with Lazarus, who tells us more about being isolated with his family, how his album evolved after entering a mountain retreat in Austria, his relationship with Diplo, and finding optimism and light out of uncertainty and darkness.
Where you’ve been spending most of your lockdown?
I’m here in Central Italy, in the middle of the countryside. I have a farm on the top of a mountain. It’s very peaceful, and it’s very beautiful. I’m sitting in my treehouse, overlooking some lush forestry ahead of me. The sun is beating through the windows into my eyes. I’ve been very much aware and feeling blessed and lucky that I decided to go to get this place and be with my family. It’s a very fortunate thing to wake up to this peaceful nature every day and away from the city’s hustle and bustle.
You’ve gone from running your Crosstown Rebels imprint, organizing your globally revered parties such as Day Zero, and playing over 150 shows a year, to having this plethora of free time that you haven’t experienced in over 20 years. What has that transition been like, and what are some of your biggest takeaways?
Truth be told, if I hadn’t known about this call and wasn’t preparing to receive my parents here from London today, I’d probably have no idea what day it is. My life’s generally, as you rightly said, been very busy.
I’m always working on a schedule. To have the opportunity to dislodge all of the day to day trappings of work, life, getting to the airport on time, and just getting a little bit of time in between landing and going to a dinner or going to play in a club or a festival has been blissful.
Having said that, I really miss playing shows. Like… I’ve massively missed playing. I think this has been an excellent opportunity to reevaluate who I am as an artist, as a DJ, and how I want to go about DJing in the future. Also, and the kind of shows I want to do and, more importantly, maybe the ones I don’t want to do again.
Being an artist traveling and playing shows worldwide, sometimes you agree to do certain shows that just fit in-between two other shows. Then, before you know it, you’re doing four or five shows a week, and you’re not getting any sleep. I think my body and thought process has been used to that for so long, I’ve been on autopilot, and able to handle most situations. But now, the mindset is changing dramatically, and I’m starting to appreciate more time at home, more time with the family.
How did you land on the decision to create a new album?
I had a hectic end to last year and start to 2020. I was working so much. I didn’t even have a minute to breathe. I usually take some time off in January or February, but I knew I would need some extended time after looking at my schedule.
I also felt the rumblings of wanting to start making a new album. So, I prepared myself by basically taking off all of February and most of March. After 15 back-to-back shows in South America in January, I checked into a medical center in Austria to have a bit of detox for a week, and then go back to the studio and start writing some music. That was my plan, but of course, I got a much larger period to do that.
It seems like there’s a fascinating conception story behind the overall vibe and feel of the album. What was your mindset going into the studio and how it translated into this new sound?
Over the past couple of years, things have just been building up to a crescendo of awfulness. With the global political situation, the lack of any real positive global leadership, the issues with certain people dismissing climate change, the inherent systemic racism still abounding — we’ve been leading to something really dramatic, and here it is. I was starting to feel that doom and gloom heavily last year, and I wasn’t the happiest I’ve ever been.
I was busy, on autopilot, and just going through the motions. Of course, I enjoy what I do, but in my quiet moments, I start thinking, “what’s going on here?” Life doesn’t feel particularly optimistic. And I remembered that in times of economic hardship and political evils is usually the time when really creative underground music tends to come to the forefront. I started to have my own ideas about what I wanted to do, musically. Sitting in my studio, I wanted to strip it back and try and come up with something that was solely me — where am I at right now? So I’d had these ideas brewing, and I like to write notes when I’m thinking about making music before actually sitting in the studio and creating from scratch.
At the medical center in Austria, my room overlooked the Alps. One night I saw this flame in the center of the mountain. I guess it was just a light flickering, it must have been a café or something, but I had this idea that this light had ignited the belly of the mountain, and it’s going to explode. That’s where the album’s first track, “Mountain,” came to me.
I just started scribbling down ideas and track titles that popped into my head but keeping it all calm, simple, and basic. I didn’t want this new music to be too over-polluted with too many musicians. And then I came back, started working in the studio. Everything came together really quickly, and I’d say about halfway through, I noticed this dark energy working through. As I started on each new track, I felt like a tiny bit more optimism coming in, a little bit more positivity, and then I reached the point of thinking maybe I should write one vocal tune and got to work on “Into The Sun.” At that point, I was coming out the other side of this gloomy, mind residue that I was trying to rub off on myself.
Suddenly, things started to feel a bit brighter. I began to realize that just outside the studio, these amazing kids I have, and this amazing family that I have and how lucky I am to have put myself in this place where I’m currently making this music and to wake up and hang out with goats and ducks.
What are some of the records and artists you were listening to in-between sessions that helped inform this album’s sound?
I come from a jazz background, but I didn’t want to throw too many jazz motifs into this record. I wanted it to be quite sparse and electronic. I think I associate great beats generally with a dark mood, and yeah, I’ve been going back into a lot of my drum & bass this year. I’ve signed DJ Krust to Crosstown Rebels, and he’s a drum & bass legend. He’s one of my favorite producers, and I’ve been listening to a lot of his music, thinking about how to incorporate some of the things I’ve heard him do in tracks like “Soul In Motion” and “Going Nowhere” and “Warhead” into my remit. I’ve been listening to so much of his music that I contacted him to see what’s up. He sent me his new album, and I signed it.
I was also listening to quite a lot of modal jazz and psychedelic music. It’s interesting when you’re producing. I find it necessary to really dig into my collection and rediscover music that’s been sitting there for a while and hunt around. It’s just the little things that create those moments of clarity and creativity. It’s not so much like a specific track or artist that will inspire me. It’s more like a small occurrence, a tiny little smidgen of an idea will jump out at you from listening to something, and then it’s just a question of recreating or reimagining that idea in your music.
What made Higher Ground the right label for this record? We’d love to know more about your relationship with Diplo.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, one of the first people I met was Diplo back in 2008. Someone took me to his house and studio, and we just hung out one night. We didn’t really hang out much in LA when I was there, but a few years ago, he just started to become more interested in what was happening in the underground electronic scene.
I started to see him pop up in a few places, and I think I’d been playing a Tulum party when I noticed he’d come to see me play. I think he hit me up the following day to say how much he enjoyed it, and then we started a newfound relationship. He’s a massive player in this industry, and when someone like Diplo decides that’s the sound he wants to get involved in, it’s a conversation worth having. I knew that a lot of people would be a bit skeptical of someone of his stature dipping into another scene, but I think I’ve always felt that he’s very genuine when it comes to music, and he clearly has significant knowledge of most styles of music.
I got him to come and play at the last Get Lost party in Miami, and the crowd reacted really well to his set, which, surprisingly, I think he was quite nervous about. We’ve been talking a lot since then, and when I was finishing the album, I sent it to him with no reason other than I wanted him to hear it, and, the following morning, the label emailed my team and me and asked if they could release it.
I wasn’t expecting that, but Diplo told me that they’d never released an album on Mad Decent’s Higher Ground sub-label, and Flourish seemed to be a perfect fit. So, yeah, everything fell into place. I was comfortable just releasing it on Crosstown Rebels, of course, but I like where Diplo and his team are going with the Higher Ground label, and it just felt that it was a good marriage. Diplo and I also have some other exciting things in the works that I can’t discuss at the moment.
Tell us about your Crosstown Rebels imprint. What’s coming down the pike, and how you’ve adjusted your label’s overall strategy in 2020?
Over the past couple of years, we’ve stepped up our game, releasing more music regularly. Our sister label, Rebellion, has helped to do that because I’ve always loved to champion new people that I’ve discovered. It’s often challenging in this flick-through culture where people have such short attention spans and listen to a new piece of music for 30 seconds before forgetting about it.
I think that’s very worrying for our culture, and I couldn’t decide what to do to combat that. The problem is that I believe that, ultimately, the best way to do this would be releasing one or two records a year so you can put all your energies into just those one or two artists. Still, when I get excited about a new piece of music or a new artist, I want to work with them and see what I can do to help introduce them to the world. So many new people in the scene have distinct ideas and unique sensibility. So, I’ve always prided myself in the labels to be the first place to look if you’re seeking outstanding artists who will hopefully become the big stars of tomorrow.
This year I’ve decided to release some music that’s a little bit less dance floor focused and left that to the back end of this year, but essentially it’s been business as usual. I think we’ve had a terrific year as a result of that, and a lot of our artists are really starting to shine. In particular, artists like Tibi Dabo, Audiojack, Salomé Le Chat, Yulia Niko, and Dennis Cruz. As I mentioned earlier, we also have DJ Krust’s first album in 14 years coming in November, and the fourth Spirit compilation, Spirits IV, dropping in December.
I’ve had moments when I’ve thought I couldn’t be bothered to do this work with the label anymore, but I really thrive on it. I’m passionate about new music and discovering a unique sound, artist, and vibe that I can bring into my parties. I think this world of underground electronic music is a very close-knit family, but there’s always room for new people and new personalities. I’ve always felt that Crosstown Rebels should play an important role in nurturing and building this scene. It’s part of that family, you know?