Zaltan: The Digger’s Digger
“When I wake up in the middle of the night to have a piss, I’ll check Discogs,” says Quentin Vandewalle, sipping a mug of black Costa coffee on a damp and dismal Friday evening in Hackney. “I don’t find the time to look for records. I don’t take time, either – I just do it.”
Anyone who’s ever sunk their teeth into one of Vandewalle’s absurdly eclectic NTS shows, seen him rearrange a club, or delved headfirst into the bulging back catalogue of the Antinote imprint he runs out of Paris’ 10th arrondissement won’t be surprised to discover that the Frenchman’s passion for music borders on the obsessive.
Better known as Zaltan, Vandewalle’s ear for the weird and the wonderful has seen him edge himself into the consciousness of more discerning dancers out there, and in an age where everyone and their pet axolotl is desperate to be seen as a genre-defying selector, coming across a DJ as genuinely fearless as Vandewalle is more important than ever.
That ability to avoid the obvious is the direct result of a laborious process. “I used to be a kind of guerilla digger, hanging out with friends in Paris record shops every day,” he says. “We’d spend two or three hours a day in dusty basements.” The result was stiff joints and a formidable record collection.
In a Zaltan set, tropically-infused balearic chuggers run into weather-worn digi-dub deep cuts; avant-hard soundscapes drift in and out of bargain basement 80s boogie-not-boogie; dreamy acid house barges into clatteringly lo-fi minimal wave material that sounds like it’s been beamed straight out of a Soviet numbers station. Songs that shouldn’t, and in the hands of lesser DJs couldn’t, work together become perfect bedfellows.
In the last two or so years Zaltan’s made the transition from Parisian bar DJ – he’s been playing regularly for just over a decade – to the kind of selector who has shows on Red Light Radio and plays at Dekmantel. But it is the French capital, and its abundance of decent second hand record shops, where his distinct sound germinated.
“When you're in a club it's really boring to have your super clever friend lecturing you about rave in the late 80s. Shut up, we're having a party”
If you believe Zaltan, and frankly why wouldn’t you trust a DJ as louchely charming as he is in the flesh, Paris is undergoing something of a club culture renaissance. DJs like Raphaël Top-Secret (“The sickest digger I’ve met”) and Low Jack (“A great, great DJ, and someone who must go to the barbers at least once a week”) are finally finding spaces, in both city-centre clubs and dingier venues on the outskirts of the city’s central belt, to ply their wares properly.
“Paris is a bit posh,” Zaltan explains. “So it’s new to have a good soundsystem in a venue and to see people actually dancing. And not hear them talking over the music. For a long time we had beautiful old clubs but the sound was shit and no one cared about the music.”
That shift in attitude is perfect for the Antinote boss. “I don’t like to just play for straight, white people in their 20s. That’s super boring,” he says when we discuss the social openness of Paris’ contemporary warehouse party scene. “It doesn’t make sense either because what I’m playing is super mixed. It’s mostly gay music.”
For all the depth of knowledge stuffed into every single groove of every record in every set he plays, Vandewalle refuses to see clubs as environments for history lessons. While he acknowledges that any half-decent DJ should be attempting to find a balance between knowing where they came from and where they are now, a night in a club should be, first and foremost, actually, you know, fun. “When you’re having fun in a club it’s really boring to have your super clever, super cultured friend lecturing you about rave in the late 80s. Shut up, we’re having a party,” he says, laughing into his coffee.
“Even if I’m extremely hungover, I want to meet new people, do some sightseeing,” he says when I ask if his new life as a label-running, globe-trotting DJ is taking its toll on him. The one thing that has changed, as it does for so many selectors, is that his experience of clubs as a punter has been reshaped, remoulded. “Because I tend to know a lot of people in clubs I’m chit-chatting all night,” he says. There’s a note of sadness to the statement, as if he can’t quite believe that he’s had to adapt to a new reality. And then he smiles again.
“If I’m in Paris, well, I’m fucked. You’ll find me at the bar, fucked, smoking cigarettes and talking shit to my friends.”
Crack Magazine hosts Zaltan all night long at Garage Noord, Amsterdam, 23 March