Rich Curtis: A True DJ’s Job Isn’t Just to Entertain, but Also to Educate and Inspire

Lauren Krieger

In collaboration with Kalen Bergado

Rich Curtis talks benefits of music, exceptional livesets, and creating a scene.

Creating and curating electronic music beyond the festivals and clubs, Rich Curtis has a greater purpose in mind. He builds music with deep meaning and layered emotions, designed to make the listener think beyond the beats and journey into the special place that music can take us.

That’s not to say that he can’t get the dance floor rocking too. With global tours and an affinity for the strong progressive house scene of Latin America, as well as hosting his own Ulterior nights in Brisbane, Australia, Rich Curtis translates his knowledge, experience, and deep love of electronic music to crowds who like it deep, dark, and driving.

While his introduction to electronic music might have started with some hesitation, it’s no doubt that Rich Curtis has gone all-in, and thankfully is not stopping any time soon. We caught up with him to learn more about his experiences, and walked away with great insights and inspiration. Read on and enjoy:

How were you introduced to electronic music? Can you give us a little background on what drew you in and your first encounters with it?

I’d always been a lover of bass and beats, having been a fan of heavy metal and prog-rock bands since I was young but I’d never gotten into electronic music until groups like Faithless and Massive Attack hit the “mainstream”. Even then I was still too proud to want to delve further into “doof doof” but I shared a house with a bedroom banging DJ back in 2002 and ended up being exposed to house music pretty much 7 nights a week via the constant thumping through the thin walls. Luckily, over about 12 months, this housemate generously imparted a wealth of knowledge onto me, giving me the headsup on the different genres and sub-genres, DJs, producers, labels, music websites and forums so by the end of 2003 I was hooked on progressive house.

I never really considered getting into DJing itself, I just loved searching for the darkest, nastiest tracks and putting them together onto mix CDs for myself and my friends. I guess, over time you naturally want to explore and expand your abilities and I went through a phase of mixing with different types of PC software but was always hampered by having to sit at a desk with a mouse and keyboard. It was a bit of a leap of faith for me due mainly to my age (I was already 30) but I eventually lashed out and bought a CDJ setup and in 2006 I put my mind to teaching myself and adapting to the physical setup. Not to sound cliché, but it was the best decision of my life as it renewed my passion for music like never before.

What role did knowing how to play several musical instruments (keyboard, trumpet, guitar, & drums) have in your how you structure your DJ sets?

There’s no end to the list of benefits a person enjoys from even just dabbling with musical instruments, theory, song-writing or even just hanging out with members of bands, orchestras, music-schools and so on. I imagine there are few people in the world whose lives aren’t touched in some way by music at some point during at least every week of their lives. For me the music theory I learned as a child and the exposure to rhythmic structure and how instruments and musicians all interact in either rehearsed or live situations really trained my brain in a new language.

A true DJ’s job isn’t just to entertain but also to educate and inspire people to experience new music and be exposed to the creators of that music as much as possible. Sure there are jobs out there for DJs who prefer to play the same popular music week after week so that crowds can get loose and enjoy themselves with alcohol and other substances, but for me it’s all about finding, curating, expressing and revealing the music that I know and love through sets that create a journey based on harmonics, energy builds and hypnotic rhythms and grooves. All of those elements are far easier to understand and manipulate if you’ve got at least some background in music.

Have there been any DJs that were your mentors when you first joined the scene, or did you figure out your own style and the craft of DJing on your own?

Definitely, but all from afar! Due to my late start in the scene I missed out on a lot of the history and the roots of dance music so I guess for me the DJing craft is more about the song selection rather than how well a DJ can beatmatch. When I’m on that dancefloor or behind the mixer, it’s all about how much my ears are loving the music and how they have been taken across the various landscapes and emotions that the different types of dance music can create. Sasha and John Digweed seem to have a knack for this kind of mixing that I’ve not really found in other DJs, at least, not as consistently – I can always tell if a liveset I’m listening to has been mixed by Sasha.

I have massive respect for John Digweed due to his commitment to the industry and his involvement with so many different facets of the scene day after day after day. For me, a week that goes by without listening to his Transitions radio show is an incomplete week and likewise if a liveset recording of a Sasha gig escapes me for over a week I lose the plot!

Has any specific place that you’ve traveled as a DJ shaped or reshaped your style?

I wasn’t officially DJing while I was there but in 2012 I spent a month visiting several music festivals across Europe for the first time and will never forget my experience at Exit Festival in Serbia just before heading back to Australia. Having had enough of the 4×4 techno/house sounds my friends and I decided to hang at the Drum ‘n’ Bass stage for a while as we’d recently seen Pendulum absolutely hammer the roof off at Amnesia in Ibiza.

I must admit if house/techno ever lost its appeal I would instantly take up liquid/progressive DnB as its replacement. I played a few DnB gigs in the years after that Exit Festival experience and even released the occasional DnB mix session on my soundcloud which were received very well but alas, it’s very difficult to focus and dedicate my time to more than one genre and the DnB crate-searching is back on hold, for now!

In my research I found that you are drawn to Latin America. What draws you there more than say places in Europe or North America?

2017 will be my 5th visit to Latin America, it’s difficult to explain but I definitely feel like I have a connection to the continent thanks to music, Argentina especially. I think the Latin Americans allow themselves to feel free with their love of underground music and specifically progressive house and melodic techno. So many of the great producers and DJs in the progressive house scene worldwide have always originated from places like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru as well as the Carribean and Mexico – the people have had progressive house in their lives for many decades now and they know it better than anywhere else in the world.

As a foreign DJ that plays their favourite style of music, it’s very easy for me to want to visit Latin America and experience a true two-way connection between the people and myself, at every gig. The Latin American gigs have also given me great understanding and experience in long DJ sets, increasing my confidence at the same time as my passion. So for me it’s definitely always a case of give and take when I visit Latin America, a very unique situation and something I will always be grateful for.

Do you see the clubbing scene growing in Latin America?

I believe the scene in Latin America is always difficult to predict and understand, simply because it is such a vast continent containing many different cultures and societies who enjoy underground music in their own unique ways. For example Argentina has had a rather rough 12 months due to the local laws changing after a tragedy at TimeWarp in 2016 – many people acknowledged the role that illegal drugs played in that incident and the need to make adjustments to the way the scene hosts parties and events, however Argentinian authorities handled the situation very differently to the way authorities in other Latin American countries would have.

The unpredictability of these types of situations in addition to the unstable economical state of most countries in the region places huge strain on venue managers, club promoters and even working DJs within Latin America so it’s a real tribute to their tenacity and passion that they have such a thriving and vibrant underground music scene that still draws so many of the “elite” artists and acts from the world over.

Did Ulterior come about naturally as a result of DJing around the country or was it something you had envisioned and been planning, waiting for the right moment to debut it?

At the time I saw the Ulterior club-night as the quick way for me to leap-frog a few of the steps required to get a profile as an upcoming DJ in my home town, being that I didn’t have too many connections with the key decision makers (booking agents) and wasn’t playing nor particularly interested in commercial music. Once the brand started getting a head of steam behind it however, Ulterior became more of a way for me to filter quality underground producers and DJs into Brisbane’s clubs and provide the relatively small audience that I’d started to attract, with a decent alternative to the mainstream acts choking up the clubs every weekend.

Can you walk us through what it’s like to organize and then run a club night? Is it any different in Australia than in Latin America or the US?

I’d say not so different to the USA but quite a lot more difficult than Latin America! For example, for several acts I had to create hype all by my lonesome versus relying on past experiences or events with those acts, or them having impressive discography back catalogues and so on. I was however often lucky when taking such risks, to have had the support of some seriously committed venues and booking agents but in the end I still found it necessary to be strictly realistic in my bookings, which is a shame. The clubbing scene is no different to any other industry in this regard though, it’s always difficult bringing a fresh, untested talent to an often-times close-minded audience!

Depending on whether you’re lucky enough to have an ongoing relationship with a venue that regularly hosts similar-themed and musically consistent events week after week, or if you’re trailblazing and hosting your events at different venues each time (some of which could be newly opened, or had a change of management or not even be designed for dance music at all!), the risks are many for underground promoters in smaller cities. It helps to have a steady dayjob and disposable income ready as well, just in case things don’t go to plan.

What has been your favorite act that you’ve been able to debut at Ulterior?

There has been a seriously talented lineup of acts come through Brisbane for Ulterior and of course you couldn’t go past Hernan Cattaneo as a standout with the crowds due mainly to his almost god-like status within the industry around the world… but in terms of who the crowd lapped up most? It would have to be Danny Bonnici – the man has a magnetic energy that gets delivered both through his DJing as much as his personality and attitude. The Ulterior Boat Parties always provided memorable experiences also, with Henry Saiz claiming his boat gig in 2012 was the highlight of his entire Australian tour.

Did starting a underground club night effect your other role as a DJ (and one who travels internationally at that)? How are you able to find balance between the different roles?

Yes it is a difficult balance, but deciding in recent years to concentrate more on my studio productions compared to promotion of club events has helped. The main thing I try to focus on even with so many different tasks and jobs to complete every day, is consistency. As long as whatever output I create – DJ mixes, live gigs, productions, remixes – are reliably accessible, enjoyable and worthwhile to the various audiences, I’ll be a happy camper!

Sound great Rich, keep it coming! 🙂

Listen to the latest episode of Resolutions right now:
Rich Curtis – Resolutions