An elder statesman of the house music community, Damian Lazarus is the fancy-dress clad production wizard who fronts Crosstown Rebels
As star-crossed lovers of comedy, costumes, cats and George Michael, it’s surprising Damian Lazarus and Crack have never met before. In what has been a banner year for the Crosstown Rebels label boss, Lazarus has been busier than ever, opening the floodgates to some of the most popular and in-demand artists in the world of music. Re-defining the airspace of house with a torrent of emotionally-charged artist albums from Art Department, Maceo Plex and Deniz Kurtel, the Rebel roster is a veritable temple of talent, attracting a massive crossover of names such as Jamie Jones, Seth Troxler, Clive Henry, Craig Richards and Soul Clap. Enjoying close ties with Hot Natured and Visionquest, Damian has even revealed he is in talks about forming an ass-whipping ‘Rebels Supergroup.’ You heard it here first.
London-born, Lazarus is steeped in the capital’s free rave era, all the way from Norman Jay’s feted sessions at Hoxton’s Bass Clef to Blue Note’s Metalheadz, through his roles as Music Editor, then Assistant Editor, at Dazed & Confused magazine and as A&R man of the City Rockers label back in 2001. Immersed in the twisted realm of music’s weird and wonderful history, embracing pop obscurities, electroclash, classic house and showtunes, two years later he founded Crosstown Rebels.
Reflecting on a whirlwind journey of Rebel rave ups and downs, Damian is colorfully robust. Following a brief insolvency where he was told it was a wise time to get out of the music industry, he re-launched the brand in 2008 seeking out a fresh storm of sounds and the new creatures of the night. Cranking out dark humour, spooky atmospherics and magical stories, a certain excitement becomes apparent when you’re clubbing in the company of Rebels’ ravers, and unraveling the riddle of his identity further, we’re reminded of Laz’s flair for spellbinding showmanship.
Memorable Crosstown moments include enjoying the company of Deniz Kurtel and her self-made LED light installation at Fabric, Seth Troxler on the mic for Art Department’s live show at WMC, and the boss himself crusading the stage at Sonar last year, clad in black cape like a dance-music-loving Count Dracula.
After years of directing projects from behind the scenes and having swapped London for a life in LA, this year Lazarus released his first-ever Crosstown EP, and come autumn he’ll be dropping his fourth installment on the Get Lost mix series. Constantly nurturing a new generation of names, he’s one artist not afraid to take risks. Here’s how Crack got on with Crosstown’s character of craft.
You recently dropped your debut EP Different Now on Crosstown Rebels. Tell us what the release signifies and how do you hope it will be received?
It’s the first record I’ve released since Smoke the Monster Out and it’s one of a number of tracks I made since moving from London to LA. There’s no major plan under way right now, I just wanted to release this track. I will get moving on a new album project in due course.
For someone who takes his music and career so seriously, the stress of these expectations doesn’t seem to wear you down. Quite the opposite, in fact. In what ways do you keep on surprising yourself?
I am continually inspired by music and by the great crew of people around me; my work is stressful at times but my ultimate goal is always to find/make/release the best possible music we can and to treat the world to a special ‘moment’. I think this is a positive role and it keeps me fresh and motivated.
In the past 6 months we’ve been graced by the debut artist albums of Art Department, Deniz Kurtel and Maceo Plex. Can you walk us through what has been an explosive year for the Crosstown Rebels?
I guess I hoped primarily that people would enjoy the music and appreciate the link between these artists and the sound we are creating as a label. I think we did a great job of slowly but surely establishing these new artists in the year leading up to their album releases. I’m not sure I really feared anything, except maybe how we were going to cope with such a heavy release schedule, but as it turned out I think we paced the releases well and are still working through that with new singles to come from all three artists in the next four months or so. My aspirations have more than been fulfilled; Maceo Plex, Art Department and Deniz Kurtel are currently three of the most popular and in-demand artists in our world of music, and I’m super proud of them all.
There was a time when you were close to packing Crosstown Rebels in altogether after three of your distributors folded withint a short space of time. What kind of pressures did you have to overcome during this difficult time?
There was a heavy financial responsibility to deal with as we were left owed so much money, which in turn we owed to our artists and other people we work with. After it happened I took some time out to really think about the future and I took counsel with my dearest and most learned friends, who pretty much all said the same thing: that it was a wise time to get out of the music business, but considering my passion for it and my belief in our music and artists, that I had to carry on. So I made a plan of action, I brought in one of my closest friends, Leon Oakey, to help me run the label, I approached everyone we owed money to personally to explain the state of the industry and to try and justify what had happened. Then I set about planning the next stages of Crosstown’s evolution together with some very dear friends who offered to help us achieve some financial stability.
Not long ago, we told our Crack readers to sign up to your podcast series, Lazpod. What are your desired goals for the series?
I love making Lazpod, it’s a real joy. I take my time preparing each show, I make sure the music selection is strong enough before I go in to do it, that’s why the shows are not always that regular. I think it’s better for me to wait until I’m totally satisfied that every moment of the show is perfect before releasing it. Finding the fun bits for each show is brilliant. There are times when I’ve had to censor myself or change my mind about some ideas as my sense of humor can be pretty dark and twisted and the intention is to make people laugh, not to totally weird them out! The shows reflect my personality well though, in fact just this weekend some friends and I were listening to Lazpod 21, and when Uri Geller pops in at the end of the show we found some spoons ourselves and tried to bend them with our minds.
Your latest footage of Rebel Rave TV in Peru is nothing short of brilliant with its llamas & Peruvian Torch Cactus. You get to frequently travel the world, meet different people and learn different cultures. What have been the biggest inspirations for your career?
It’s unbelievably rewarding to be in this position, to be able to travel and to get a real sense of people’s true belief, love and complete addiction and passion for our sound of music. To have people come up to me and thank me for inspiring them musically is completely humbling and incredible and to have people literally everywhere in the world approach me at parties and sometimes just on the street to just to say thank you is both bizarre and amazing. The Rebel Rave films are an attempt to give more insight into what we do and what’s behind the music and also to showcase some of the amazing places we travel to and document some of the party people we meet. My only regret nowadays is that due to my busy schedule, I don’t always get enough time to stay longer in these remarkable places. David Terranova and I just came up with some really exciting new ideas for future films which we are about to embark on.
What’s it like working with such talented musicians? Does everyone stick to their ideological guns so to speak, or are they agreeable to other producers’ musical ideas?
Everyone is open to each other and to the outside world. To give you an example, a while ago I discovered the Jamie Woon track Night Airand I simply had to play it to the whole crew, I literally went around the room at a party where we were all together and stuck my headphones in people’s ears. The crew all feed off each other musically really well and there is a great support network, especially between us, Hot Natured, Visionquest and our extended families. There is talk of a possible Rebels supergroup being formed which is very exciting.
Your encyclopedic knowledge of music can be a little intimidating. In what ways have you developed this skill since you started out?
It does help to be on the ball with what’s going on musically around you but it’s not essential. It’s brilliant to work your early musical influences into your music, like in the way people like Jamie Jones, Lee Foss and Soul Clap do. I started buying and collecting records when I was 12 years old, I guess it just turned out that this was a passion that would always be with me, and knowing what has come before definitely helps you make informed guesses about what could come next.
Can you tell us what your music philosophy is?
Music must come from the heart and represent the best of you, as it is better to love music than to simply enjoy it.
Can you describe the Get Lost mix series? What was your original vision for it when you started it back in 2006 with Matthew Styles?
In the middle of 2005 a strange phenomenon started drifting off the dancefloor: that people were happy for me to get even weirder with the music I was playing. At the end of that summer I recorded a mix that reflected the more wonky, stranger pieces of music I was playing. I passed a copy of the mix to a friend in Ibiza just after the closing of DC10 and we listened to it for the first time with a crew of mates. In the following months loads of people started asking me about the mix and telling me they’d heard it, it passed literally from one person to another, and by the opening of the club the following year it had spread really far. So I decided to turn it into a legit mix series for the label. It felt right that I should make the first one and I asked Matthew Styles, my very close friend and former label manager for Rebels, to make it with me. We produced 2 CDs together of crazy, deep, odd and very weird tracks and we called it Get Lost. Since then Jamie Jones and Dinky have recorded the mixes. After this new mix is released I’m planning some other Get Lost events, one in LA on August 27 and one in Miami on December 3, and of course some new mixes for next year plus some really exciting related plans for the summer.
We’re looking forward to your fourth installment of the series, which is out in September. It features a bunch of new talent, exclusive tracks & rides a snarling dancefloor rhythm. Talk us though the project & what’s exciting you most about the comeback release?
I spent a lot of time scouring the universe for some weird and wonderful music, specifically searching for completely fresh sounds, ideas and new developments. The album kicks off with an introduction to two new artists from Toronto: the first I have signed to the label, his name is Amirali and the second is my good friend Nitin who is also going to ‘come through’ real soon. Fosky is a new artist from Buenos Aires who was introduced to me by Guti, and Kashyyyk are 2 guys from Lithuania who Dixon put in touch with me. So I really wanted to take some risks with new names on this mix, and at the same time try and platform some of my favourite artists and introduce some others that may not already be “household” names. The Dana Ruh and Dinky tracks are absolute bombs, the Daphni track is my favourite record of the year and so it goes on … I’m super, super happy with this mix.
What artists do you perceive as being truly authentic, portraying themselves as musically honest as possible?
As artists I really respect people like Kieran Hebden, James Holden, Koze, Matias Aguayo … people who simply are the music they make.
We all know you love to dress up, from the inspirational Burning Man festival to WMC this year. Tell us about your fetish for fancy dress, and where does this outlandish stage presence come from?
I played Ali Baba in Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves at primary school when I was nine, and I played the Wizard in The Wizard of OZ the following year. I never performed in a play again, but I guess I just decided to make my life one big dress up and play party.
Back in May, Red Dot Relief hosted a decade of London clubbing exhibition to document the capital’s own musical story over the last 10 years. This got us thinking – what are some of your stand out memories from London’s underground scene over the years?
Norman Jay used to have a party at the Bass Clef in Hoxton Square which was in total darkness, sweat dripping from the ceiling. I went there a few times on my own when I was super young. Then a few years later when the same venue became the Blue Note, Metalheadz on the Sunday night was an awe-inspiring night out. I remember a place on Gray’s Inn Road I used to go to on a Sunday morning called The Can’t Club which was pretty special. I was a regular at That’s How It Is at Bar Rumba, Trade was always good fun at Turnmills, Bagleys was mental when I first got into house music … so many amazing parties in London over the years. I have to say though that for me, Stink at the T Bar was possibly the best party I ever experienced in London.
You recently tweeted how you would love to make a new album with George Michael. We’ve been dreaming of Club Tropicana parties ever since. Who else would you like to collaborate with, and have you considered a George Michael special for Lazpod?
I had a George Michael moment recently driving around downtown LA listening to the Faith album – such a fantastic record – and it got me thinking that he would be brilliant to work with now. We’ve never met but you never know, maybe one day.
You are a self-confessed cat lover. What else makes you purr?
My girlfriend is pretty special in the purring department.
We miss the days of your genre-bending sets for Bugged Out in Room Two at Fabric – how was it returning to the darkness of the main room for your last date back in June?
It was absolutely brilliant in there, the sound is so incredible it’s almost like hearing your music for the first time again, and arriving at 4 in the morning and have people come up and tell you how excited they are to hear you play is really something. I love playing there at that time in the morning, that hallowed last set in the main room is such a special place and feels like home these days. Most of my joy and respect for the club stems from the passion that Judy Griffith puts into it. She single handedly makes every DJ want to play the best set they can possibly play. I can’t wait to get back for the Crosstown Rebels night in October.
Tell us, what challenges are you looking forward to next?
I am currently working on a couple of really interesting new things that are super next level, I don’t want to discuss them now as I need to make sure these things are 100% going to happen but watch this space. The future looks crazy!
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Words: Anneka Buckle