At times our creative selves get trapped in doubt and hesitation. Although we are all humans and all want same things, our everyday reality differs in what challenges we embrace and what emotions we experience.
We talk to Danilo Plessow aka Motor City Drum Ensemble about how personal struggles are integral to the music production and a DJ career. We also discuss the importance of being sane in order not to go completely insane in the shadowy world of the electronic music that can take one on a journey through powerful energies and bittersweet temptations.
Mariana: Playing music in different corners of the world offers many chances for self-discovery. Have you noticed a change in your personal identity throughout frequent change of cities and sceneries in the past years?
Danilo: I travel a lot and move to different cities. I never really identified myself with where I grew up. I come from the rural south of Germany that is unlike the rest of Germany and the rest of the world. I outgrew my city at some point and moved to Berlin and then eventually I outgrew Berlin too. The older I got, the more European I felt. I don't have any specific identity. Just human. A beautiful thing that I learned during travelling is that we are all human and all want same things.
How do you feel about some cultural values, like traditions and languages, merging or getting lost due to the pace that modern society is taking?
English makes it easy to understand people all over the world. What I don't like about globalization though, is that important parts of the culture, which brought humanity to where it is now, get lost because they are not commercially feasible anymore. Fast food restaurants are an example of this. In Holland, this is pretty radical. When one successful restaurant appears, they open another branch and turn it into a franchise. If you only want to make money when you open a restaurant, you can't make good food. It is the same with music because if your only aim is to make a fortune, then you cannot actually love something. You can make good average stuff for money but it will not be artful and fulfilling.
Was there a moment in your career when you had to think of separation of its artistic and business parts?
There was such moment in the late 90's and the beginning of 2000 when I was making more jazzy and less club-oriented music. There was this whole scene in West London and it was possible to make a small living out of it. And then from one day to another it completely died down and I was standing there with nothing left. I was 22 and started to seriously consider studying or doing something else. I began the MCDE project and I was fortunate enough because the stuff started selling. I would have never imagined that I would get to the point where I am today. It was pure luck.
I think that if you're honest with yourself, you will be happy with what you do. I did music all my life and would also continue making music even if I had to work in a supermarket. For me it's a way to channel my feelings.
I did music all my life and would also continue making music even if I had to work in a supermarket.
More and more money is put into the so-called underground electronic music scene. Suddenly people already have gained management after releasing one record. They post super fancy pictures on Facebook with a new synthesizer that they got for free. There is a lot of industry behind everything. But, honestly, you can't force things like that. You can get some exposure but it's not going to be a lasting thing.
I am still not under management because I don't think I, personally, need it. If you really love what you do and believe in it, you can work for some time to save money, press a record, and if it sells then it sells, and if not - then at least you have a physical product that you are proud of. But you can't just say: 'I am here, I am ready, let's go!' This is not how things work with real music. You cannot construct artists on the billboard.
So is it luck or rather persistent work that unlocks possibilities for an artist?
We can talk about luck, but there is a golden rule that I always remember: you need ten thousand hours of practice to master your craft. It does not matter whether; you are a painter, you build cars, or make music. You need to have this kind of practice. When you are devoted to your craft, you will travel in a small circle and meet the same kind of people. It also helps if you're not a complete asshole. It all adds up. If you come off as honest and true about what you do, it will reflect and people will see it.
And what about those DJs and producers who make amazing music and can connect with the crowd but at some point come across as arrogant and rude towards their colleagues and audience?
If you don't have a very strong identity many things can take you away. There are all sorts of addictions and temptations. If you think that one line of coke will help you play better, you get in that loop - and good luck getting out of it. Even if you don't drink or take drugs, the energy levels you experience every show are very powerful. The downs are very extreme too.
If you think that one line of coke will help you play better, you get in that loop - and good luck getting out of it.
For me, it is important to be open, nice and not to act up. But even some of my biggest heroes are not like this. It is hard to cope with the reality where you don't have a private life anymore and still want to make meaningful music. So this reserved or somewhat unfriendly behavior can be just a form of escapism. Sometimes you are simply stressed, moody or tired and don't want to high five every person. And then, all of a sudden, everybody says that you're one of those arrogant DJs.
Do you think arrogance is an inability to cope with success in a way?
I like to be grounded in the spirit that I started DJing with. I can play for a few people, share dinner with promoters, I don't need the the fanciest hotel. This is how I started and this is how I still do my work. Yes, I do ask more money than before. However, when I hear someone asking for a stretch limousine to pick them up and drive 400 km to play at a small festival in Croatia - I feel disgusted. And it's not just about DJs; it refers to every person of every profession.
The energy you experience at clubs and festivals as well as the rapid change of scenery must be a lot to handle. How do you know when it is still manageable and when it is time for a break?
I did this feature on Residence Advisor a couple of years ago where I wanted to talk about what had been affecting me rather than just show how I travel as a DJ. I wanted to talk about anxiety that had become a taboo in the DJ circle. After this report there were so many people, including high profile DJs, writing to me about being in the same situation and sharing the same problems.
Even if you don't abuse anything, the hours of endless waiting in lonely hotel rooms can drive you crazy. In the beginning even talking to a person next to you on a plane is exciting, but eventually you start freaking out before flights and all the waiting becomes really tiring.
I am not the strongest character. I am a melancholic guy, easily carried away by feelings. I hope it is reflected in what I do. I prefer being this over functioning like a machine. This also means that I might struggle more than others. For example, I can't do what Dixon does. If I had to play 200 shows a year, I would jump off a roof. So I have a lot of respect for this but I know that I couldn't do it.
I believe that this anxiety is a disease of the modern society because we work too much and put our bodies into extreme situations and end up taking medication or a break. But there are not too many options. I don't want to complain because it is a luxurious life and you get to know amazing people and see the world.
I believe that this anxiety is a disease of the modern society because we work too much and put our bodies into extreme situations.
My point is that a DJ's life is not always fun, it is not about partying every weekend, drinking with fans and having sex all the time. Of course, it is a part of the clubbing reality but if you do this all the time, you will end up completely wasted.
We are also just humans and we are exposed to such an amount of craziness that you have to be really sane not to go insane. After my burnout I decided that money is not worth it. I don't want to play fourteen shows a month and look like a dead person after four years. I prefer to play only at shows that I really like, take it easy, and retain love for what I do.
Some people, however, are not able to take a break to see what comes next, because they are afraid to lose everything if they stop for a while.
The further you go, the harder it gets to surprise yourself and switch off that little person in your head who says: 'Oh, the older records were better!' But at some point you just have to let it go. I did not release a lot in the past time because I want to believe in music. I don't want to release records for the monetary side or for more gigs.
Photography by Maximilian Becker
Big thanks to Revolt // Expedition Festival (Rotterdam)