With well over 10,000 live performance hours and his productions topping charts worldwide, it is no wonder that Sean Ray is one of the most recognized DJs in North America. A long time fixture of the Los Angeles club Sean has many accolades to his credit including the Los Angeles Music Awards’ Unanimous Choice for DJ of the Year in 2007 and the Hollywood Music in Media Awards’ Best Techno/Electronica Song in 2009. Sean has produced with and for Paul Oakenfold, Jondi & Spesh, Chuck Love, Owl City, Matt Darey, FORD, Carol Jiani, Murk, and more. His music has received support from heavy hitters like Richie Hawtin, Roger Sanchez, Nick Warren, Danny Tenaglia, Sharam, Sander Kleinenberg, Paul Van Dyk, Paul Oakenfold, Above and Beyond, Markus Schulz, Seamus Haji, and Gareth Emery just to name a few. Sean’s got a new single out this week on his second home System Recordings; it comes with remixes from German techno legend Oliver Lieb and fellow US producer Delshad. We had a chance to chat with Sean just prior to the release, a transcription of the interview is below and we hope you enjoy it.
Hi Sean, thanks very much for joining us here!
Sean: Thank you for having me!
1. How old are you and how long have you been producing / DJing?
Sean: I’m 38, I’ve been DJing for nearly 20 years and producing seriously for the last 4 or 5.
2. What are your earliest memories of music, what did you listen to growing up? How did you get involved in electronic music? Were there any clubs or events that you went to when you first discovered electronic music?
Sean: Music has always had an important role in my life, like for most people I imagine. It was a way to feel connected, to feel understood and like things would always turn out ok. Even as a young kid I would record mix tapes of my favourite songs from the radio on my boombox. Painstakingly adjusting them by hand to record the whole song and edit out any commercials or jocks from ruining the flow. I listened to a lot of different genres; classic rock, heavy metal, disco, classical, just about everything except country. When I first heard techno/dance music in the late 80’s early 90’s I couldn’t stand it, I described it as “soulless repetitive crap”. Eventually I learned to listen past the repetition and I was hooked. I saw how much emotion could be conveyed from those digital machines and I started collecting as much music as I could (which was infinitely more difficult and expensive to do than it is today) and going to events as often as possible. By the time I was stationed in Colorado during my stint in the Army, I moved behind the decks because I wasn’t hearing what I wanted to dance to. From there I was playing seven-hour sets four nights a week. Oddly enough I never thought I was pursuing it seriously, even though the majority of my life was focused around music. It wasn’t until much later in life when I won the Los Angeles Music Awards DJ of the Year and Hollywood Music in Media Awards Best Techno/Electronica Song that I consciously thought, “Yeah… this is what I want to do.”
3. There was a huge electronic music boom in the US 10-12 years ago. How is electronic music in the US now in comparison?
Sean: It’s a little bittersweet to have watched everything unfold the way it has. A decade ago that boom was the result of many of us fighting for the music, showing the world that it was a legitimate art. That it had just as much value as any other being played. There was a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and arrests that went into getting it to where it is today. But now it is an out of control monster and most of the people that take part don’t know the history. I recently had a friend tell me he was asked if he had heard that new band Daft Punk. It’s great to see so many people partaking in the music and events, but honestly these we’ve lost a lot of the human aspect of the music, not like it used to be anyway. Each event is aimed to be bigger and more elaborate than the next, the DJ becomes a tiny spec in between a massive light display and a sea of people that are generally more concerned with spectacle than music and art. Little do the masses realized that this music used to have an intimate quality. I think things were better when the people could get to know the DJ that was playing and vice-versa. It made it a communal experience instead of this aggressive fame and money driven showcase. As fun as these massive events can be, they don’t create sustainability for the music. They don’t teach people to understand, connect with, or explore the music. Especially when everyone on stage is playing the same top-40 sound because ‘that is what sells’. There needs to be people that take the time to search and teach, not just cater to the masses, the masses are fickle.
4. There are elements of funky house, progressive and tech house in so many of your productions. It’s such a broad and accessible sound you have, where do you get your studio inspiration from?
Sean: There isn’t just one genre that I enjoy listening to or playing out so naturally that plays a role when it’s production time. Every time I start to create a new song I am in a new moment How I am feeling at that moment dictates what is being shaped. I know it sounds a bit cliché, but its true. Above all I just want an honest sound out of myself. I’m not looking to create the next massive sound or track, there are enough people aiming for that, I just want to create my own sounds that I identify with and hopefully resonate with people that want something more from the music like I do. The inspiration itself comes from everywhere in the moment. Sometimes I hear a sound, sometimes I’m feeling a certain way, sometimes I just work on refining a sound or groove and things start falling into place. Continuously working and trying to improve is always the best inspiration.
5. You’ve played some really massive gigs in the past, playing for 300000 people in Vietnam must have been absolutely crazy, what other gigs stand out thus far in your career?
Sean: It was one of the top moments in my life. To see that many people connecting to what you are doing is an amazing feeling, a little scary too because how does one top that? Where do you go from there? I’ve been blessed with some amazing gigs, each one spectacular in its own unique way. Playing for the radio for several years was amazing; knowing that your work is out in the universe for as long as it exists is a great feeling, gives you a sense of immortality. Playing at Disneyland for ElecTRONica was incredible too; being in a Tron costume and playing music for all walks of people was a huge win for my inner geek on so many levels. Playing the sophisticated Grammy Style Studio was a blast too, playing for such talented people is very humbling. Really, I’ve enjoyed just about every gig I’ve played, big and small. As long as the people get it and are having a good time, it’s a great gig.
6. What is ‘Not Your Jukebox’?
Sean: Not Your Jukebox started out as another artistic avenue for me in the form of a blog and then became a focal point for my distaste of certain things that I have been seeing in the industry lately. Clearly many people agree, or more importantly find value in the discussion, as it has blown up and circulated the globe garnering attention from all kinds. I have a strong history studying and writing philosophy and being able to apply that to the world of music has been very satisfying. Notyourjukebox.com has become a small movement, quoted and referenced by like minded people that want to see a return of values and humanity to the dance world. It’s really for people that want to see less of people pressing ‘start’ in the face of so much push button tech and want to see more people creating art.
7. So your brand new single ‘Synthoma’ has just come out on System Recordings. It’s got two incredible remixes as well from Oliver Lieb and Delshad. What can you tell us about the writing process of the track, is there anything special you can tell us about it?
Sean: I am very excited about this one. Those who know me know I say that about all my tracks, and it’s true. Aside from the normal excitement of releasing a little piece of myself into the world, I was very lucky to have a legend like Oliver spend the time to re-imagine my work. I’ve been a huge fan of his for a long time so this was a huge honor. Delshad did a great job as well, I really enjoyed the elements he brought to the piece, it rounds out the release as a whole. The piece itself is a follow up to another successful track I did on System Recordings, “Infected.” It is a series that expresses the ups and downs of following your dreams. Everyone talks about how important and how the only way to truly be happy is to follow your dreams, but no one really speaks of the dark side of doing so. The sacrifices you make, the hardships you go through, how hope is a double edge sword and can drive you forward with an obsession like demeanor. There can be a lot of pain that you cause yourself and others in the pursuit of happiness. It can all feel like a disease sometimes.
8. We noticed on your twitter that you’re also an actor, what acting work have you done? anything notable you could tell us about?
Sean: Ever since doing some plays as a kid I’ve always kept that door open. I don’t really pursue it but rather take the opportunities that come my way. It can be fun and present different mindsets that translate back to music. I’ve been in a couple of commercials, did a lot of background work for the show Bones, had a couple season run as one of the regular lab techs and was even featured a couple of times. I had some cameos in 24, NCIS:LA, and a few other shows, even played a DJ once (for a pilot that never aired). It’s fun, but I wouldn’t expect to see me walking the red carpet of the Oscars anytime soon.
9. When the writing or production process gets tough, what gets you through it?
Sean: A break. It’s easy to get caught up and try to force a result that just doesn’t really work. Taking a break or working on another project is always a good way to get out of your head so you can come back to a stuck project with fresh ears. I always have plenty to work on so usually the frustration doesn’t last long, which is good because my OCD doesn’t like to leave tracks unfinished.
10. What have you been working on lately, what’s happening in the Sean Ray studio at the moment? anything you can tell us about?
Sean: Lot’s of good stuff in the works, some good deep house/deep tech remixes, some groovy house, collaborations, a new progressive piece, something is always in the works these days. Even looking to release some vinyl by Spring. It has been a busy year for me and I am grateful.
11. What producers consistently impress you? and who are some of the best undiscovered talents in your eyes?
Sean: Small Town Zeros. They are my secret weapon for remix work. They probably most closely fall under the dubstep category, which isn’t really my thing, but I am totally a fan of their work. They always respect the original pieces and add their own wonderful tortured filth to the vibe, making a very emotional and edgy piece out of whatever I give them. I’m dreading the day everyone catches on to them and they won’t have time for me.
12. What was the first and last record you purchased?
Sean: The very first piece of music I ever bought with my own money was a cassette of “Invisible Touch” by Genesis. The first CD I ever bought was “Aqualung” by Jethro Tull. The first piece of vinyl I ever bought was a recording of Chet Baker live in Milan. I can’t remember the last full length that I bought… I can’t remember the last full length that I liked. I don’t even want to think about the amount of money I have spent on music in my lifetime. I have to keep playing and making it just so I can afford the obsession.
13. What artist or track would you love to remix?
Sean: I did a bootleg remix of “Say, Say, Say” by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson that was pretty popular and I would love to get the actual parts for it so I could do a proper version.
14. Sean Ray Current Favourites (you can list more than one per category if you like)
TV Show: Breaking Bad
Video Game: The Cave
Album: Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin
Track / Song: Welcome to the Machine – Pink Floyd
Producer / Band: Pink Floyd
Record Label: All the ones I’m on of course!
Nightclub: The Church in Denver, circa 1995
DJ: John Digweed, Norman Cook, Chuck Love, Frankie Knuckles, Louie Vega, Tony Humphries
15. If the final DJ/live set of your career was next week what would your last track be?
Sean: It would be a toss up between ‘Careless Whisper’ by Wham! or ‘True’ by Spandau Ballet. I’ve finished many a set with those two and it seems fitting. Not only that but they both convey a sense of longing and nostalgia that I would surely be feeling during my last set.
Release Promo would like to send a huge thanks to Sean’s for taking the time to do this interview.
Sean’s ‘Synthoma’ is out now on System Recordings, you can purchase the release: here