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SPIN Essentials

John Talabot’s Extraordinary ‘DJ-Kicks’ Entry Is a Love Letter to the Warm-Up Set

John Talabot / Photo by Tasya Menaker
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: November 19, 2013
Label: !K7

As nightclubs go, Barcelona’s Loft isn’t an enormous venue, but with room for perhaps 800 people on the floor, it’s big enough that the boxy concrete expanse feels positively cavernous when empty. That presents a challenge for DJs taking the warm-up slot there — particularly since Spanish clubs open at midnight but don’t begin filling up until 2 a.m. or later. What do you play that won’t echo absurdly through the void? Diving straight into bangers will make you look ridiculous; the trick is to reel ’em in and keep ’em rooted to the spot.

The Loft was where John Talabot (a.k.a. Oriol Riverola, formerly known as DJ D.A.R.Y.L.) honed his skills as both a selector and a seducer, an expert setter of moods. Those qualities shine on his contribution to K7’s long-running DJ-Kicks series, one of the most immersive, engaging journeys-by-DJ to come along this year. It is, in essence, a love letter to the dying art of the warm-up DJ, and the possibilities that open up once you step away from the rote functionalism of the peak-time floor.

The mix proceeds with a logic you could almost call narrative, right down to the titles of the songs that bookend it: North Lake’s “Journey to the Center of the Sun” and Pional’s “It’s All Over.” Beginning with gauzy ambient drones and machine rhythms that churn away at a sluggish 95 beats per minute — deep in Boards of Canada’s foggy territory — the set gradually builds up steam over the course of its hour-and-a-quarter run. By the final third, it hits a cruising speed of around 120 BPM, a standard deep-house tempo. What’s remarkable is how he gets there, imperceptibly dialing up the energy without any breaks or shifts in the rhythm, and expertly sequencing his selections to replicate the feel of a dance floor gathering force. (It’s a little like that apocryphal frog in a crock pot, but with a happier ending, given that Talabot never pushes the temperature past Jacuzzi levels.)

Along the way, the mix wanders far and wide. Early on, Pye Corner Audio’s “Underneath the Dancefloor” transmits woozy circus vibes, as what sounds like a whirly tube huffs away over a slow-motion disco stomp. Andy Stott’s remix of Maps’ “I Heard Them Say” sneaks in an echoing refrain of indie-fied Arvo Pärt, and Pye Corner Audio boost the energy with hypnotic, acid-Italo arpeggios. Talabot veers through watery-pulse minimalism (via Alex Burkat), classicist soulful house (via Mara TK), and hazy hip-house (via Madteo); you might file Michael Ozone’s “Hetrotopia (Young Marco Remix)” under “rainforest goth,” given the way it pairs skeletal percussion with Forest Swords clang.

Much of the mix has a humid, tropical vibe, in fact. Harmonious Thelonious’ “The Grasshopper Was the Witness (Elmore Judd & Rowan Park Remix)” brims with ethno percussion and drifting vocals poised midway between Jon Hassell and 10cc; Tempel Rytmik (Talabot partnering with Genius of Time’s Alexnder Berg) take up the Knife’s Caribbean synths and turn looped vocal samples into distant seagull cries; and late in the mix, Genius of Time’s “Juno Jam” is a Balearic hothouse of woodblocks and jazzy, flute-like riffs.

At least, I think those descriptions belong to those tracks. Given Talabot’s penchant for long, seamless blends, it’s often difficult to tell. More often than not, it feels like two songs are playing at once, but the result is never busy or cluttered — just fluid, like a succession of colliding tides. Consider one exceptional three-song stretch: Talabot’s own “Without You,” exclusive to the mix, strips everything back to skeletal drumbeats, synthesizer, and a melancholic vocal loop. Axel Boman’s “Klinsmann” sneaks in under cover of the same pedal tone and then, as a gorgeous falsetto vocal comes sailing in, suddenly pivots into a major key — it’s as though the sun had darted out from behind clouds, and for a while, everything is flooded with yellow. But with the somber first chord of Joaquin “Joe” Claussell’s “Eno (Melodic Dub),” the light shifts again, slowly, as Talabot works the mix for a full minute or more.

A similarly spine-tingling moment occurs as the mix enters its final third. Moving on from Samo DJ’s Italo-inspired “Tai Po Kau,” Talabot leaves us balanced on a woozy strip of percussion and then pulls the rug out, dropping Motor City Drum Ensemble’s “Escape to Nowhere” on the offbeat. It’s virtually the only point in the mix where you may feel thrown off balance; it also feels deliberate, given the way that MCDE’s track changes course, moving into heavier, more Detroit-oriented techno sounds. As the song’s wheezy chords subside, the strings of “Innermind,” by an obscure artist named Paradise’s Deep Groove, come on like a freight train’s whistle. It’s the mix’s only real key clash, and again, it feels deliberate, especially given the way that he draws out the dissonance of the outgoing track, filtering and teasing and milking the hell out of it — a reminder that if a note sounds “wrong,” sometimes you just need to keep playing it.

Talabot is the very opposite of a flash-bang DJ, but the effect here functions a little like a smoke grenade: an appropriately dramatic way to usher in one of the mix’s standout tracks. “Innermind,” from 1992, is a gorgeous example of New York house at its most ethereal, with organs bobbing moodily over silvery string patches; it’s easy to see why Talabot picked it, given the way that it mirrors the porous textures and abstracted longing of his own productions.

“Innermind” is the oldest and most obscure cut here; nearly everything else was released in the past year or so, save a few choice records from deep in the crate, like the pop-ambient gem “Silikron (Jürgen Paape Remix)” by Kron (Kompakt’s Reinhard Voigt), and Max Mohr’s rather appropriately titled “Old Song,” a woozy deep-house anthem from 2004. But the whole mix brims with trainspotter delights; by my count, at least 12 of its selections were previously vinyl-only, and a half-dozen tracks were previously unreleased. One of those, “Sideral,” is a collaboration between Talabot and Sweden’s Axel Boman (as Talaboman); its title pays tribute to a legendary Barcelona DJ who died in 2006, and whom both producers held in high regard. As it turns out, both artists overlapped for a time in Barcelona and attended the same Sideral sessions without ever meeting; Talabot told FACT that “Sideral” is about the nights “when we crossed but never knew that we crossed.”

That kind of synchronicity is a hallmark of this mix. It’s notable, I think, that its geographic reach is vast, taking in music from Spain, the U.K., the U.S., Sweden, Germany, Scotland, and Australia — a host of scenes, some overlapping and some totally unrelated. Layering disparate sounds that in his hands seem like the most natural pairings in the world, Talabot seems to be pulling signals from the ether and weaving an entirely new frequency from them, one no other DJ could produce. If you want an argument for the way DJs can express something new and unique just by “playing other people’s records,” this is it. It isn’t just a celebration of the warm-up DJ; it’s a self-portrait of an artist who wouldn’t be who he is today without once having had all those empty rooms to fill.