It’s an onerous task, summing up Ivan Smagghe’s career in the space of an introduction. The DJ/producer’s career spans the breadth of electronic music history over three decades and it’s not by sheer luck he’s in that position. He’s amassed a cult following in all his musical endeavours. From Black Strobe and Kill the DJ to his infamously evocative DJ sets, Ivan Smagghe has something of a Midas touch when it comes to music. His ear for music is astounding and he completely embodies the idea of the eclectic DJ, while his penchant for esoteric digging always ensures a surprise is never too far off in his sets.
With all that in mind, where does a biographer even begin to tell the story? Smagghe today is just as relevant as Smagghe in Black Strobe, but neither could exist if it wasn’t for Smagghe in Paris, slaving away at Rough Trade to pay off his growing debt to the record store. Actually that’s a good place to start, not Rough Trade, but the records. Ivan once lost 25 000 odd records when his storage unit went up in flames in 1999. The Parisian had been a music collector long before he’d been a DJ, an aspect of his musical personality that was handed down to him by his parents. You can still catch him playing Jaenette’s Porqué te Vas, a favourite from his youth, passed on to him by his mother. It was as a result of his collection that he started DJing when friends persuaded the latent DJ to share some of his music and something seemed to click with Ivan as his eclectic musical tastes fused disparate musical styles into singular musical narratives, all tied together with Ivan’s unique ear for music. A set could go from anything 80’s synth pop to acid house at his regular Kill the DJ events. It’s a style of mixing records that would soon become known as electroclash, a style of mixing most DJs base their sets on today, even though many of them don’t know it.
It was within this scene, Smagghe first rose to prominence as a DJ, but it was also that temperament, which would lay the foundation for Black Strobe. Alongside Arnaud Rebotin, Ivan captured the sprit of electroclash in the recorded format with tracks like Me and Madonna. The tracks were raw and punkish, but with a serious investment in catchy melodies and entrancing vocals that have stood the test of time, even outside the electroclash movement. All the while Smagghe continued to cultivate his DJ personality, perhaps not as the ardent collector he was before the infamous fire, but rather more like a connoisseur of good music he’d like to share for the purpose of a good time. He would go on to leave Black Strobe, but continue his production pursuits in various other projects including It’s a fine line, a group he shares with Marketing Music boss, Tim Paris. This group is still active today, but if there’s any one thing that Iavn Smagghe is best known for, it’s being a DJ and his sets for the likes of Bugged Out’s Suck my Deck series has garnered a legendary status amongst punters and DJs alike. And, we suppose the rest is history? Well far from it, we’ve only really picked at the thin layer of the thin veneer of the surface of what is Ivan Smagghe. There’s still so much left to uncover, and the only way we’ll be able to dig a little deeper is through some questions. Where do we start? Why not Oslo…
Ivan, I’ve seen your name on a few bills in Oslo in the past. Is there any special connection to the city that keeps bringing you back?
Not more than a few friends really: Oyvind, Thomas etc… I suppose I was into the “Bergen” sound in the very early days where I met Pal Strangefruit, Erot, Bjorn and all of them when I used to radio (in the 90’s). That spaced-out disco wavething (and it’s many off-shoots) is my kind of thing though I am not a purist. Good record, bad record is all that matter.
You must know Oslo well enough now, to know that it’s not still all about disco here, but what always goes down well here from your perspective in the DJ booth?
I am not sure I know Oslo very well. Anyway, I play what I play. I am not gonna change my style. I could not even if I wanted to. Last time I was there in the summer was during that festival, there was a lot of people, may be not people who would be my core audience, all went fine.
You’ve mentioned a few times that your musical education started with collecting records. Do you still remember the first record and what exactly drew you to it?
The first I bought myself was probably Soft Cell’s Tainted Love. But my dad was a record collector too. Tangerine Dream and The Velvet Underground were on constant rotation at home.
How did you go from collecting records to realising you want to mix them into each other?
Someone just asked me to play at a party. I had nver wanted to consciously be a DJ. I was working in a record shop to pay off all the records I wanted.
You started working for Rough Trade because you owed them Money, I believe. Did working in the store provide any particular inspiration or was it just about paying your debt to them?
If you collect records, or are into music, working in a shop is great. At least the day when you open the boxes of new stuff. Rough Trade was cool because it was two shops in one, a dance one (where I mainly work) and a rock-indie one (where I come from musically). And of course, you meet people.
You also worked for Rough Trade’s Radio station Nova at the time too. Paris must have been a very interesting place for music around that time with the likes of Daft Punk and that French house sound cropping up.
It was more on a personal level (meeting a lot of people am still friends with) than on a musical level for me. I was not really into the French disco sound.
From playing records you eventually started making them. How did you make that transition?
I started making music with some friends. Then Blackstrobe because Arnaud and myself came from the same musical background.
You never had a formal music education and you still don’t play any instruments (I think), but you clearly have a musical ear. How these elements come together when you’re in the creation process?
I don’t feel the need to play any instruments. I mean it would be great if I could but making the type of music I like is so much more than that. And I can work with people, I like it. Programming a beat or a sequence is not that hard, and I’ve got enough references in my head to try and be inspired.
Electroclash was an obvious big part of your career back in the early 2000’s. Did you ever envision a whole genre springing up around the style of music you were making at the time and how did it affect you?
“Electroclash” as I don’t like to call it was just the idea that there was other types of music than house that you could play in a club. Obviously, coming from a cold-wave, rock, punk background, I ended up right in the midle of it. That idea (that “no house music all night long”, putting punk bands in clubs) was the whole thing behind Kill The Dj. Then, as all good things, it became diluted…
The production side of your career has always been something I imagine was a day job for you, and you’d consider yourself a DJ first and foremost. Would this be an accurate assumption?
I don’t know. Do I need to be “something first”? I am back to writing a bit, I am working on some TV/film projects… Djing is my job more than production, that’s for sure.
One last question. You are playing for the opening of the Munch/Vigeland exhibition. I’m not sure how much you know about the event, but I’ve heard you’ve got an art school background. Do you ever find the visual arts stimulate your musical pursuits and what do you think it will bring to your DJ set this Friday, (if anything)?
ahahaha. I haven’t got an art school background. I studied Politcal philosophy and litterature. But I more and more think that visual excitation in a club can make it happen as much as the music. I am gonna have to dig deep into 19th century screaming disco for tonight.;)