Five years ago, not many people would have heard the name John Daly. Hailing from sleepy Ireland, Daly debuted in 2006 on his own Feel Music. Since then, he’s had what could genuinely be called a meteoric career, although perhaps career’s not the right word, as we found out. In ’07, his smart brand of deep house was picked up by François K for his Wave Music imprint, while in ’09 Daly signed records with both Mule Music and Drumpoet Community. The latter is set to release what the Irishman calls his first “proper” album, Sunburst, at the end of this month. It’s easy to understand this rapid rise. As a producer, Daly deftly avoids musical clichés. He’s a man who hasn’t just done his homework — he’s teaching the class. His genuine passion for early house and disco has enabled him to advance their contemporary forms, rather than just repeat history. When LWE got together to chat with Daly, we found just what you’d expect: a man with plenty of thought behind his work.
So how do you find living in Galway? Do you feel isolated?
John Daly: Yes, probably. But it’s not something I have a problem with, you know? There’s times when I feel like I should be maybe moving to a city or move somewhere where there’s a bit of a scene, but I don’t know, I’m happy here. Living by the sea is pretty essential for me. I grew up by the ocean; my parents, you know, we were a beach family. We were just always by the sea, always in the water for as long as I can remember. And I suppose it’s just become part of me, I guess. I mean like, even my music, a lot of people say they hear the ocean in it, and I think that would make a whole lot of sense. I can’t really explain it, but if it’s not there, I’m uncomfortable.
I think Galway’s great. In terms of this country — you probably heard about all the economic problems and all that — but Galway’s like a little bohemian oasis in the middle of Ireland where it’s full of artists, musicians, theater people, just lots of creative people, lots of hippies, lots of that going on, and it’s the closest thing to a kind of European-style city life that you can get in this country, you know? There’s a big recession on here at the moment so you’re kind of — there’s a lot of doom and gloom about the country, but it’s just not here, for some reason. You just don’t see it here as much. You don’t feel it as much.
How does how does Galway differ from say, Dublin? Is Dublin more commercial in comparison?
Well, it’s the capital city, so yeah, I mean it is commercial. And it’s just so big, that, like any big city, things are going to be spread around, and they’re going to kind of get lost in the mix. Whereas here, it’s just a very artistic city. It’s right up in your face, you know? We’re just getting into festival season, and it’s just going to be arts festival after arts festival for the next six months.
So you find Galway itself inspiring?
I suppose I do, yeah. I mean it’s just — I’m into nature and things. It’s great; you can jump in the car and you can be — I mean in any Irish city you can jump in the car and be in the country in five minutes, you know, obviously. But especially here. I was out on the islands last weekend, and shit, man, it’s like the Celtic Tiger never happened out there. It’s just, like, it’s so like Ireland in the 80s before the economy kind of boomed and everyone got all super-modern, and it’s just like a time capsule out there. So yeah, it is inspiring. I find it very hard to make a kind of direct link between the things that inspire me to say exactly what is, to pinpoint it. But you know, for me, just being happy with my kind of environment, is enough for me to be inspired.
So it’s more so about a positive frame of mind?
Yeah, exactly. And my inspiration really comes from being in the studio. I do a lot of messing around. I mean, that’s the thing for me with playing with synthesizers and effects and things like that — that’s what inspires me more than anything else. You’re kind of exploring different things, and you turn a button, you don’t know what’s going to happen, something jumps out, and that could be the trigger for a track or an album, or a concept, or whatever. So I mean I would say that yeah, a nice environment, happy with your kind of situation, and having somewhere nice to work — that’s kind of what inspires — or that’s kind of what sets the conditions for me to be inspired.
Is that how you compose? You just hit the studio and start exploring?
Yeah, I mean, every time I go in the studio I make something. Most of it doesn’t get used, but for me, this music is like a kind of sonic exploration. It’s kind of all around there, you’re just turning knobs, and that’s what I love about the random aspect. Like I’ll never sit down and — I mean occasionally I will — but I’ll never sit down and play a bass line or play a chord and let that be the starting point for a track. All of my starting points are the result of just fooling around, messing around, just seeing what I can get out of the machines, and I sample.
Sampling is kind of at the root of everything I do. So I might just set up all my machines, do a jam, record the jam, go through that jam, find something that might not be a good idea, but then I’ll sample myself. I sample myself a lot. You kind of jam and you’re forgetting about kind of making mistakes and whatever. Just jam and record, not with the mind that whatever I’m doing at that given time is going to be the finished product, that all I’m doing is basically generating a whole lot of raw material that I can then take in and process until I kind of hit that frequency that kind of resonates with myself, and then I’m like, “Oh yeah, now I’ve got something.” And then I’ll start playing keyboards and bass lines on top of that.
Yeah, I think Brendon Moeller does a similar kind of thing.
Yeah, he’s a very good friend of mine. We have had lengthy discussions on the merits of jamming. [laughs]
And what was the result?
It’s the only way to go, you know? I think you’ve got to — there has to be a balance between improvising and letting loose, because that’s where the magic comes from. It’s what’s so great about music technology today. You can have a hybrid setup of this kind of — you can have machines, you can have tape recorders and things, you can be jamming, and then you can import that all into a modern setup on a computer, and turn it into something new entirely.
So disregarding any argument about respective sound quality, hardware’s just the way to go for you because of that pure aspect of being able to jam more easily?
Not necessarily. I’ve been through multiple setups in my life. When I started there was no Ableton and there was no anything like that.
When was that?
That would have been, like, 1997, ’98 direction. So I was using Cubase on a Mac that couldn’t even handle audio in any way. So I was using all outboard stuff, and I was using two samplers with two outputs a pair; two stereo outputs. I was panning each of those left and right, and basically I had four mono channels, and that was my audio. I didn’t have any other capacity for audio. And it was like that for, I don’t know, five or six years?
I’m a big believer in kind of the benefits of limitations, as well. I think that when you have limits, you’re forced to think creatively to overcome them. So basically, my method for making electronic music, house music, whatever you want to call it, kind of came about from just basically being stuck with two samplers with, I guess, 30 seconds of audio. And that’s how my kind of work method evolved like that. So basically, then I moved to London, and I couldn’t bring all my shit with me so invested in a new computer and got Ableton, and for maybe three years, four years, I only worked on Ableton. Everything was in the computer.
And which years were they?
That would have been 2006 to about 2009, I suppose.
So right about the time that your first releases were coming out.
Yeah, I mean it’s funny because, just before Christmas there, I kind of decided it had been six or seven years of releasing music so I thought it might be a nice time to do a mix of some of my older stuff and just stick it on SoundCloud, blah, blah, blah. And, you know, I was listening to a lot of the older stuff, and a lot of what I consider to be some of my best stuff was just done on a computer. And that was quite an eye-opener for me, actually.
But then in 2009, a friend of mine bought a Korg Mono/Poly, and it wasn’t what he wanted it to be, and I had a look at it, and I kind of saw what was going on there, and I kind of went, “Hey, I’ll take it off your hands.” [laughs] And what happened with the Mono/Poly was, it just fired off a three-year equipment buying binge because I just kind of went, “Oh shit, this is what I’ve been needing.” Ableton is a phenomenal piece of music-making software. I mean, we don’t need to talk about that; enough people have talked about that. And I was getting on fine with it, but when I got the Mono/Poly it was like, “Oh shit, I need to get back on this train.” So yeah, I just went off and bought a shitload of gear. But what’s really worked out well now is I’ve recently moved my studio out of the house and into a space in town. So now I’ve got two setups. I’ve got all my hardware and all my jamming stuff down in the studio, and then I’ve got a very small, compact kind of computer MIDI controller setup here in the house.
So looking back, some of your best music was made on computer. Do you think that in a way — not necessarily for every producer, but for yourself — synths are a bit self-indulgent; more so about satisfying your own pleasures than actually getting a better result at the end?
To an extent, definitely. I mean yeah, I love synthesizers. The same way I loved He-Man, you know, when I was six years old. [laughs] I love them; I love playing with them. And yeah, there’s definitely an element of self-indulgence, but they do, at the same time, sound way better than software. Ultimately, when you come down to it, they sound a whole lot better, and they feel a whole lot better than software, but I don’t think they’re essential. That’s kind of what I’m saying, you know? I think that if you’re creative enough, you can still get what you need to get out. I mean, when I first got Ableton, I really honestly — it felt as though somebody had made a piece of software just for my needs, and that’s what’s so great about it.
I think a lot of people say that.
Yeah, but that’s what’s so — it’s so open, you know? You can configure it; you can set it up. I mean for me, it’s the best sampler ever made, you know? And that’s the thing, is, you know, even when I’m using Ableton, I’m still using all samples and all audio recordings. I’ll use maybe a plug-in synth to add a melody line, or something like that, but for me, there’s only one major kind of prerequisite, and that is the sound has to have existed in the real world at some point, you know? Be that something you’ve recorded from a synthesizer through a cable, or something that someone else has recorded through a cable and you’ve sampled, you know? So even when I was just working on the computer, it was all samples, and it was all kind of real-world recordings.
Why do you prefer things that have already been created before?
Well, not necessarily things that have been created before. To me, something that’s never existed in the real world as a sound — like a plug-in, say, for instance, like a soft synth — it’s just missing something. It’s missing some sort of depth or some sort of quality that I — I don’t know, for me to take a soft synth, run it through a tape recorder or run it through — even run it through a mixer and back in, does something to the sound. So it’s just like when it’s just ones and zeros coming out of your speakers, I can tell, you know? I’m just kind of like, “No, that is just not what I want.” I suppose you could say what I’m looking for is a bit of dirt. Or just a bit — yeah, a bit of dirt or a bit of grit or just something. And then when you have that little bit of dirt at the core of your track, then you can stick a soft synth on top of it.
You said earlier that about limitations and how they can unleash creativity. Do you think this applies to a lot of the original Chicago and Detroit guys?
Absolutely, yeah. I’m really glad you asked me that, actually. Those guys were obviously blazing a trail, but I think what really — you know, you take me, right? Or any producer my age, my generation. Right now we’ve got — fuck, what is it, like 25 years of house and techno to reference? These guys didn’t have that. They were making that shit up absolutely. I mean sometimes I try to get myself into their frame of mind. OK, these guys didn’t have a lot of Model 500 records to listen to or whatever, and they were just turning on the machines. And I reckon a lot of these guys weren’t even musicians. I mean don’t they say that some of those tracks are just the preset sequences from the 303 or whatever? And, you know, I think that there was — yeah, definitely they didn’t have it –- they didn’t have this history behind them, apart from disco.
Do you think this musical history is detrimental for contemporary producers?
I think that it’s not necessarily detrimental because you can take what’s been before and try to, you know, help it evolve, but I also think that part of what made that music exciting at the time was because it was new. I remember the first time I heard dance music. I was sitting in the car with my father, and it was 2 Unlimited, of all things. But, you know, I was like, “What the hell is this?” I hadn’t heard anything like that, ever. So these guys, I mean yeah, absolutely.
You’re also into metal, aren’t you?
Yes. Well, I used to be heavily into metal when I was a kid. I was a teenage heavy-metal fiend. I’m still into metal; I still like metal, but I don’t have the time to really, you know, investigate it and get deep into it. But I mean I still listen to all the old stuff like Metallica, Slayer; all these kind of things. I’m quite taken with this Electric Wizard, actually. I’ve been listening to them a lot recently. It’s this kind of stoner metal. It’s just a bunch of guys smoking weed and jamming the same riff for 20 minutes, but it’s awesome. [laughs] It’s really good. But I like — it’s deep, you know? That’s what I like about it.
I find these dualities quite interesting, actually. You meet a lot of people who are into highly aggressive music, but also totally gentle music. Why is your music so calm in comparison to Metallica? Why aren’t you making big-room banging techno tracks?
I wonder. I don’t know. I mean for me, it’s like an energy, you know? And it’s in all music. You know, I call it the “fire.” It’s in, say, Mr. Fingers as much as it’s in Bob Dylan or Metallica. There’s just a certain thing that I kind of gravitate towards in music. You know, maybe we all operate on different frequencies, and maybe we hear a frequency that appeals to us, and you could hear it anywhere, you know? I’m not sure. No.
That sounds like something you might say after an acid trip. [laughs]
[laughs] Maybe, maybe. You know, those days are over. I just kind of — I’m a feel merchant. I’m kind of an emotional guy, you know, in music, in everything. And if it makes me feel emotional, I’m into it, you know? That’s pretty much brass tacks if you want to get down to it, you know? And yeah, no, I agree. In airports, for instance, I listen to Metallica, constantly in airports. And then I go off and play a deep-house set. So I don’t know. I don’t know what that’s about. I really don’t. But it’s absorbing, you know? Metal is absorbing. I like music that kind of slaps you in the face and just kind of goes, “Listen to me. I’ve got something to say.”
I’m just thinking about some of the purists who might read this interview and be like, “John Daly’s into metal? Are you serious? That’s fucking terrible music.” What do you have to say to them?
Oh, what do I have to say them? Jesus, you know, just – I don’t know. Duke Ellington said there’s only two kinds of music: good and bad, and I totally agree. I think the more music you listen to and the more varied musical kind of palette you’re listening to, the more it can benefit you as an artist.
Is there some merit to happy hardcore then?
I don’t know about happy hardcore, but I think there’s an entry point into all music, you know? You just have to find it. I didn’t get Bob Dylan for so long. I just didn’t get it. And then I listened to Blood on the Tracks, and I was like, “Jesus Christ.” When you get it, then you understand it, and then you can appreciate it. You’ve just got to find your doorway. You’ve got to find your way in. But I couldn’t imagine only listening to house music every day, day in, day out. That’d be awful. [laughs]
Actually, I had a similar kind of thing with drum and bass. For years, I tried to get into it, and I just didn’t get it, but one day the lightbulb just flicked on.
Yeah, that’s it, isn’t it? And I bet then you went back and you were kind of listening to stuff that you didn’t get in the first place, and then you were getting it. You’re like, “Oh shit, yeah, it is good.” I was that way with techno for a very long time, you know? My background in dance music is disco, U.S. soulful house, that New York sound. That’s my background, and for many years — I mean in the 90s the house and techno camps were completely divided. You know, you had your techno fans and your house fans. And, you know, somewhere after the turn of the millennium, that kind of changed. There was a couple of key records, I suppose, that kind of helped it to change.
Well, I suppose, for me, the watershed is [Jerome Sydenham & Dennis Ferrer’s] “Sandcastles,” you know? It had to be. A lot of people would probably say it’s that Âme track, the one no one can pronounce properly. “Rej,” or “Ray,” or whatever it is. But there was “Sandcastles” before that. Because at the time, we were listening to Masters at Work, Ron Trent, all that stuff, all that soulful — Blaze — you know? All that stuff. And then “Sandcastles” came out. And, you know, I’m buying it, kind of going, “Yeah, this is kind of techno, but I like it.” And yeah, I think that was one. That was the record that kind of changed things in the scene. Big time. Then you had the tech stabs coming into the house music, and there was just that kind of — maybe not consciously on everyone’s part, but it had to change. I mean things can only go a certain way. You know, at that point, house had gone completely stale. It was just becoming sonic wallpaper. And at that point we needed something like that.
So how are you feeling about contemporary music?
I hear things I like. I don’t have a record store here in Galway, which is very difficult. I don’t shop online so I only get to buy records, go to record stores when I travel or when I go home to my folks in Cork. I spent four years working at a record store. So I go to that, and I definitely — no, it would be wrong to say that there’s no good music out there, because there certainly is. Obviously, it’s become very over saturated, hasn’t it? It’s harder to find the stuff these days, I think.
How do you feel that your music differs from most of the stuff out there? What do you think makes yours good?
[laughs] I like to think that it’s honest, you know? I aspire to make honest music. That’s what I want to do: I want to be honest with myself, with the people who are listening to it. That when you hear my music–
What does honesty actually mean, though?
What does honesty mean? I guess being true to yourself. Say, when you’re in your bedroom making tracks and you want to release a record — you know, you haven’t released any records and you’re kind of a young kid, and you want to release records — you’re just making the music you want to make. And then you start making records, you start getting gigs, you start doing all that, and then it gets harder to stay true to yourself, as an artist. So you’re kind of having to strike a balance between what you want to do and what you might think people expect of you, you know?
We were talking about limitations before. That’s a kind of negative limitation, right?
Absolutely. Yeah, exactly. I mean it’s like, we’re all human, you know? You start getting a couple of gigs, putting out a few records, you know, you kind of get into it, and then you want to prolong it. You want to sustain it. And sometimes that’s at the expense of your kind of artistic nature. But you’ve got to strike the balance, don’t you?
Tell me about your new album, Sunburst.
Well, I kind of realized it was time to do another album. I love working with Alex [Dallas] and Ron [Shiller] and Drumpoet [Community]. The first time I went to Zurich and played with those guys — before I had done a record with them I went to play in Alex’s club, Zukunft — the music they were playing and the attitude they had, I just felt like I was at home with my own friends. And I was like, “Shit, this is fucking fantastic. This is like my group of friends; a Swiss version of them.” I love working with the guys so they were my logical choice to do the album with them. For me, arrangement is the hardest part of a track. So those tracks were kind of worked out in my live set. Once I get a track together, I won’t take it any further than getting the basic elements together, and then I’ll dump it into my live set. And then I’ll work out the arrangement over the course of a couple of gigs.
So in the context of testing your material, is gigging quite important to you?
Oh, absolutely, yeah. I mean for the live sets. When I DJ, I don’t play any of my own music. Nothing. I start to hear its flaws compared to other peoples’ music. I’m like, “Oh no, I mixed one of my tracks into a Kerri Chandler record, and its beats will be so much better than mine.” [laughs] And I’ll be like, “Shit, I’m useless.” But playing live, for me, is a really, really handy way to work out the arrangements of tracks, absolutely. Absolutely.
Music’s actually not your full-time job is it?
I’m a cook, yeah. I work part time. Like 20 hours a week, 25 hours a week.I’m very fortunate to work for some really cool people. They’re like, “Where are you going this weekend? Wow!” So I mean, they’re really cool that way. They don’t mind. They give me all the time off I need. So it just works. It just really works, yeah. And it’s good, because I tried music full time, and I wasn’t doing anything, to be honest. I was just getting up and watching TV and wasn’t really productive. I think the job helps me to — you know, it gets me out of the house, gets me out of bed. It’s a complete break from music, gets me interacting with other humans. It’s a good thing. Plus, it kind of buys me an element of freedom from the less-savory aspects of the music business. So I don’t have to take everything I’m offered because I’m not necessarily relying on music to pay my bills. I think that’s a real advantage of having a little part-time job on the side. Pays your rent, pays your bills, so you’re not forced to kind of take every offer you get. You’re not forced to do some remix that you see no potential in, but you’re kind of, “Oh, but I’ve got a phone bill I need to pay, so I’d better do it.”
Are you as self-conscious about your cooking as you are about your music?
Yeah well, I’m not going to serve someone up rubbish food, you know? Definitely not.
But I meant before, you said, “I don’t want to mix my track into a Kerri Chandler track.” Do you find it kind of difficult to finish your tracks and appreciate them once they’re done, due to that?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I can’t finish tracks. I’ve kind of resigned myself to the fact that even when I put something out, it’s still not finished, really. You can spend your whole life working on a track. You could put on any track right now — not one of mine — you just put on any track right, and I could come up with a drum pattern for it or a keyboard for it that I might think was good, in the sense that you can always do something new. You can always improve on something. You can always work on something. And I think the key is to get it before you overwork it and kill it, because that can happen very easily as well.
And your best tracks have been composed really quickly, right?
Yeah, I would say so, yeah. Well, the core of them would’ve been composed very quickly, you know? The engine, or whatever is making them tick would’ve come together very quickly. But then they could’ve spent six months kind of refining that. But I’ve got to a point where I’ll stop working on a track and archive it and dig it out again in two months, three months with a fresh head. Because I think it’s very easy to lose your objectivity in the studio. The deeper you go, the easier it is to lose your objectivity, I think. I don’t know if you saw the Creation Records documentary, “Upside Down.” It’s really good. I’d highly recommend it, but they’re talking about — you’re familiar with Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, I guess?
OK. It’s a kind of seminal shoegaze record, one of the reasons the album took so long was because they were only working in two-, three-hour bursts. They weren’t sitting in the studio day and night working on this record. But that’s because this record is the densest, deepest shit you could — you know, I’ve been listening to this record for 20 years, and I’m still as in love with it as the first day I heard it.
It’s interesting you say that. Ray Bradbury did a similar thing with his science-fiction novel Fahrenheit 451. He wrote the whole thing at a library where you were only allowed to use the typewriters for 15 minutes at a time. Apparently it’s a really fantastic method for getting creative stuff done, having these intense bursts of activity.
Yeah, I believe it. And, you know, this is it. And this comes back to this guy had a limitation facing him, you know? So he had to adapt his work method, and that’s probably why it’s a good book. Because he forced himself, you know? Because he stretched himself.
But these things are pretty hard to establish in the studio, aren’t they? If you were sitting there — in the middle of putting down an awesome chord or something — you wouldn’t be like, “OK, 15 minutes are up; it’s time for me to take a break.”
Well, yeah. You’re not going to be doing that. When you’re on the buzz, you’re on the buzz, and that’s it. But I do think that it’s good to challenge yourself. Keep challenging yourself. You know, don’t always go the easy road, I guess you could say. Because I think all the greatest creative things in history have been a solution to a problem. And people have had to think on their feet and think creatively to get around a situation. Like, “I’ve got and 808 and a 303, and I want to make something people can dance to, so I’m going to push those two machines and get what I can get out.”
Yeah. Speaking of limitations, you’re keen to do music outside of electronic aren’t you?
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. When the right thing comes along. I guess I’m happy enough doing electronic stuff. I’m producing a band, as well, at the moment. They’re called February & Mars. We put out a record of theirs on Feel Music maybe a year and half ago. And then we started doing an album, and we got mad bogged down in that, but now we’ve finished that, and hopefully you’ll be seeing that at some point out there.
So you don’t have any plans to start a metal band or something?
No, no. You know, I had this crazy concept that I was going to try and fuse mad drone metal with a kind of Basic Channel-style sound palette.
I can see that working.
It might work well, so you can’t print that in case someone else steals my idea. [laughs] But, you know, I like just messing around, you know? I’m quite fortunate at the moment. I’ve got pretty much the whole year’s worth of release schedule in the can, and I’ve got a brand new studio setup so I’m kind of in a really nice position at the moment, as in my plate is entirely clear. I have nothing pressing, production-wise. So I’m really free for the next six months to just experiment. So you don’t know, there could be all sorts of things coming out in the next six months, or being made. I don’t know. I make a lot of music that will never be released. I get a genuine enjoyment from making music. A lot of the time I’ll make music, and I’ll just kind of spend an hour, two hours jamming or whatever, and not even kind of consciously thinking about making something that I’m going to release. Just enjoying it; just enjoying playing with my toys.