Owen: OK let's start at the beginning. What is your name and general disposition? What makes you tick?
Mel: My name is Mel Thompson, most people have no idea what my surname is, thanks to Heylady. Haha. What makes me tick?
Music, the company of kind and interesting humans, passionate drive and conversation, love, nature and being out in it, dancing, sunshine, road trips, adventures, dress-ups, creative projects and endeavours, anything shiny or sparkly (magpie right here).
Owen: Obviously you have been playing for a long time. You are part of NZ’s musical furniture. What were the beginnings of Heylady? What did you play on? Did you find it easy, or was it a slog?
Mel: Haha, that’s actually not the first time I’ve been called musical furniture! Heylady was an online moniker I used for years before I started playing, it just stuck. Initially I was a promoter, I ran gigs in Wellington that were dedicated to the hottest sound in the dopest environment. Over the years and alongside a few others we brought through Dixon, Nico Stojan, DJ T, Ralph Lawson, Anthony Pappa, Ame and more.
I started playing after being given a talking to from a very treasured human (Kava) who gave me the push and confidence I needed to get on the decks. I’d collected vinyl and music for years, I was just never going to be a DJ. I learned to play on two Technics 1200s with busted pitch controls (thanks to the amazing Coda, my sensei) and a mixer that had bass either on or off one one channel. All set up on my dining table. I would come home and play every night, the goal being the seamless, long mix. Not easy on those decks. However, I loved every minute of the learning process, and I still do. 6 months after I tried to mix that first record I warmed up for Ame at Studio Nine. I still pinch myself over that one. I ran and played at a club night, Back on Track in Wellington for 7 years, which I started with Hape and Empyre.
Eventually, that morphed into a mix series, the latest of which I’m putting together right now actually. I am absolutely at my happiest behind the decks and I’m constantly honing skills and lapping up knowledge where I can. I spend hours listening and hunting to find the sound that moves me, it’s the best job ever! Haha. It’s been an amazing journey so far that has taken me up and down NZ, given me a residency at Burning Man, slots at Revolver in Melbourne, I’ve played LA and now am lucky enough to play all my favourite festivals each summer as well as regularly playing for all our amazing promoters in Auckland.
Owen: What was the moment you realised you were actually a DJ with some skills?
Mel: I think probably playing B2B with my amazing friend Melt in the Ninebar, Coda booked us to play at Derrick May in maybe 2009? It was a magic vibe in there, it was so fricken hot, the place was rammed. It was one of those sets where everything just works, like something is being channeled through you. Derrick May was on our dance-floor, he thanked us for the awesome music, I almost cried. Haha.
Owen: How did you afford your musical addiction?
Mel: I had been collecting vinyl since my late teens, I had all sorts already. My daughter was young when I started playing though so vinyl was out of the question. And thus, Serato came into my life. Digital files are obviously so much more affordable. I mostly buy off Beatport, but I have loads of platforms I hunt music on. I am also lucky enough to be on a few really amazing promo lists.
Owen: I’m a firm believer in what your parents play, shapes you. What did your parents play?
Mel: I grew up listening to Bowie, Led Zep, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads, Curtis Mayfield, Paul Simon, Prince so many more... My mum loved classical music too so there would be that floating through the house as well.
Owen: Our scene was on fire before this recent life-changing event. Why do you think this was? Do you think it would’ve kept going or become stale and flooded with too many gigs?
Mel: Our scene is strong because we have a raft of young promoters bringing fresh energy in to sit alongside the old guard who are holding it down. Everyone is working together, everyone plays everyone else’s gigs and we all support each other. Years ago I wrote an article about a healthy scene, in it, I said that the only way we grow is to work together, not fight each other for slots. There seems to be a lot of that happening now. Auckland’s house and techno scene feels like a big family, it’s inspiring to see as a DJ, so imagine how the punters feel when that energy is brought to the floor. As for the trajectory, I think it would have settled a little into a nice rhythm and continued, it was already headed that way.
Owen: I agree with this. The days of another gig down the road ruining your night are gone but I do think promoters and punters need to keep pushing and not pat themselves on the back too much. We still have a long way to go to be at the level of somewhere like Melbourne.
Mel: Absolutely. The moment we get complacent is the moment things start to slip through our fingers. Promotion takes constant work and planning as well as an ability to have your finger constantly on the pulse. You know all about this!
Owen: Radio in NZ is ridiculously bad on a whole compared to around the world... why do you think this is?
Mel: I have to admit, I don’t listen to RNZ at all so I don’t feel qualified to comment..
Owen: And why is that?
Mel: Honestly, I just don’t listen to radio, I haven’t for years. I spend so much time hunting music and listening to amazing mixes, I play off Spotify or Soundcloud in my car, and everywhere else really.
Owen: (I rest my case your honour)!!!!
Owen: The harder darker side of techno is really making a resurgence in Auckland. Why do you think that is?
Mel: The harder techno has always been there, it’s just that more people are taking interest. It’s always ebbs and flows, swings and roundabouts, sounds constantly come and go. I’ve been playing a far more techno heavy sound over the last 5 years and now I’m moving back towards left footed, electro house jams.
Maybe I’m ahead of the curve?
I remember playing a Nicole Moudaber track in Ink maybe 6 years ago and I almost lost my floor, as soon as I pulled it back to house they were there. That would never happen now and it’s great. It means that for me personally I get to have way more range and diversity which carries to the dance-floor. Some of the harder stuff is too much for me, it still has to have groove and soul for it to catch my ear. But the kids are clearly into it right now!
Owen: So I guess the question is why are people taking notice? Promoters? A younger crowd finding it after EDM? Ease of access to overseas sounds?
Mel: Some of the big ‘it’ festivals, Coachella, Tomorrowland, Ultra, they all have had a part to play. That side of music to me has always felt a bit manufactured like it’s there for a show with not a lot of substance. When you reach just a bit below the top layers you hit the underground. That’s kind of what these festivals have done, they’ve brought mainstream and underground artists together so the kids are going for EDM and being exposed to the likes of Adam Beyer, Nina Kravitz and Carl Cox. It’s a gateway. It’s not hard to find in Auckland either, every weekend there are multiple club nights, internationals playing and most of these events are put on by the next generation of promoters, all in their 20s and 30s. It makes sense that their following will be a younger crowd.
Owen: NZ was known as being 2 years behind the rest of the world. Do you think this is the case still, in the age of the internet?
Mel: Absolutely not. In the last year alone, when I look back at all the gigs I’ve played or been at, aside from Nils Frahm, every single stand out set has been from one of the locals. There is so much talent in NZ, and so many DJs playing forward-thinking music. NZ is right up there with the rest of the world.
Owen: History proves that scenes and artists are born out of hardship and heartache. What will the results be do you think?
Mel: The results of our current situation? It’s already forcing us to think differently, to engage with music differently. Live stream parties, producers posting snapshots of the work they are immersed in, apps to connect parties in different locations, we are proving that being in a lockdown won’t stifle our love and passion for the dance. It will be interesting to see the other side, but I think we will come out of it stronger, with more passion and drive and the music scene will only benefit from that.
Owen: New Zealand is a micro climate for house and techno. This means it doesn’t work quite the same way as it does overseas where every DJ has an agent, paid after every gig and its a massive part of most cultures. Is this a good or bad thing?
Mel: New Zealand’s scene is microscopic compared to other scenes round the world. It’s sort of forced us to band together in a way. It isn’t big enough to thrive working solely as a DJ so the vast majority of us have day jobs, music being our passion. Because everyone knows everyone, it means that unless you’re internationally touring an agent isn’t really required
It makes it feel more like a family, and none of my family members want to do over any of the others
In my early days playing I had to fight some promoters to get paid, that’s not a good time for anyone. These days it’s easy and swift, invoice and paid. Because we know our scene and our scene knows us it removes the need for the middleman (agent), it means our communications are personal and we care about our acts and our promoters, we want everyone to do well.
Owen: Discuss.... will our sound ever be part of the New Zealand musical lexicon?
Mel: Honestly, I hope not, haha. There’s no doubt house and techno is hugely popular with the generation coming in behind ours and that’s amazing. If it hits mainstream then there’s the loss of that intimate dance-floor, which is always the best to play. I love playing big festivals, but there’s something to be said for that small space when you’re in the crowd. As a DJ that’s how we connect with our humans on the floor. I’d take that any day over a huge stage with 2000 people at it. Don’t get me wrong, that is a rush, it just doesn’t have that vibe you achieve when you can see your crowd and not just the masses. We need the mainstream, it keeps our underground scene vibrant and humming.
Owen: This is a very personal opinion you have given but let’s consider the bigger picture. Our scene will always have an underground but lets say New Zealand produced some house techno talent that draws crowds the same as Fat Freddies/Salmonella etc, basically our summer tentpole acts. That draws more money into our scene. It could actually become a proper paying job for some. A younger generation are drawn into our scene. Festivals and gigs are easier to throw. It becomes part of our tourism culture. I.E what happens in every other country. Would this not be a good thing??
Mel: Yes of course and in an ideal world how amazing would that be? But you have to look at population size, ours is tiny on the world scale meaning our scene is even smaller. We simply don’t have the population to carry off this type of party scene. Even the big, mainstream acts in NZ all have day jobs. There are very few NZ musicians who live solely off music. And of those that do, most live overseas in bigger cities with bigger scenes and more opportunities.
Owen: Let's agree to disagree on this. I see your point but I don’t see why electronic music can’t become sustainable a little more or a little bit more of everyday culture. It will be hard in smaller rural towns however we have so much tourism to most cities that we should start acting like we are not just little ol’ NZ. We get painted with the drugs brush a lot which makes throwing gigs hard at times. For me,if the general public could move past this, like in most other modern cities (except you Sydney!!!!) I would be happy.
Mel: It already is. Look at Splore for example, sold out for the past two years, 8000 people reveling in electronica. Aum pulled 5000, 121 Festival can’t have been far off that either. While it seems small on the world stage, it’s huge for NZ. House is used in commercials, scenes in TV shows, there are (admittedly not great) movies about ‘making it’ as a DJ. Mainstream culture is embracing it.
Owen: Let’s move on. What’s your go-to sound at the moment and why have you ended up here? What DJs/producers have influenced this?
If it sounds good and moves me, i'll play it
Mel: My sound is fairly varied. When people ask me what I play I usually say four four, fuck the sub genres of it all. If it sounds good and moves me, I play it. I’ll roll out of belting techno into wonky broken house then off into something else. I get bored on a dance-floor that is all one sound so I tend to mix it up a lot when I play.
Everyone has such varied sounds and distinct styles, and they always pull their sets off with such Aplomb. This summer has seen me play a lot of Chaim, Patrice Baumel, Adana Twins, Leyton Giordanni, Secret Cinema, Loco and Jam, Oliver Huntmann, Damian Lazarus, Adam Port, Tiefschwartz, DJ Tennis, Agoria, Paul Strive. It’s pretty varied and depending on where and when I’m playing and my mood, you can pretty much expect anything haha.
Craig Richards is one of my biggest influences, the master of what the fuck will he do next? Something I definitely prescribe to when I play. I’m hugely inspired by some of my insanely talented friends too, Flic, Jake Rattler, WIlly Styles, Mamadafunk, Takas, Hape, Kadyn Webster, Miss B, you! There’s so many more..
Owen: Where do you sit on the digital DJ/ controller/ CDJ issue?
Mel: Honestly, I don’t care what you play on as long as you are rocking the party. I adore playing turntables, but I would never judge someone for using Ableton or playing on a controller. I play on CDJs with Serato, it’s what I’m used to and it means all my music is at my fingertips. However, I can play vinyl, controllers and even make playlists on Spotify (clever huh). My only thing with DJs who can only play controllers is; what if your controller or your laptop fails? Can you play CDJs? I think it’s important to be able to play different formats because if something fails live but you can’t play on what’s provided then that’s your set over. I have USBs in my bag with music on them if my laptop fails, just in case. It never has but I feel it would be foolish to not be prepared for any eventuality.
Owen: This is a good point... so my next question would be. Should kids learn the old school way of beatmatching or push and find their own way of playing which is more live production? Take the product fail out of this equation to answer however.
Mel: I think everyone who calls themselves a DJ should absolutely be able to beatmatch using their ears, but it obviously isn’t completely necessary in this day and age. CDJs have BPM on them, it’s there to be used and get used it does. Technology is always evolving. If you had told me 15 years ago I’d be using my laptop to play music with vinyl I would have laughed at you.
Owen: This is a good point. I’m of the opinion that if you can do your job well on decks, controllers will take you to the next level. I’m also old enough to remember when CDJs came out there was a lot of negativity about the future of our craft. I do think really though just because of the cost issue, controllers are a good thing. It is a lot easier for the younger generation to access. But I hate the argument… “laptops disconnect me from the crowd man”. Well work harder, its your job to connect, show some personality. If you’re not connecting its not the laptop….
Mel: I agree with you 100% here!
Owen: Anyways rant over.. Next question if you will. I personally struggle when people say its harder for a female to be a DJ just because to me talent is talent. Male or female.... however it is a topic discussed heavily. Do you think this is an issue still, and if so how have you dealt with it?
Mel: When you see events like Homegrown with one female on the lineup, it’s a problem. I have had to battle to get to where I am. When I first stepped up to the decks so many doors shut in my face.
I was told I was just a girl
People I’d worked with for years accused me of riding in on their coat tails, people I’d given their first sets to said I was nothing but a hack, I was told I was just a girl, what was I doing trying to muscle in on the boys... so much more than that happened, and sadly, they were all men. It was such an old boys club. It was really hard and a few times I nearly gave up, I definitely cried a lot of tears. I had some amazing supports without whom I never would have got to where I am now and for that I am so blessed. But I shouldn’t have had to fight the way I did. I don’t ever want another woman to go through the bullshit I did and so I fight hard in the hopes of changing this attitude.
It is definitely better than it was, but we have a way to go yet. This summer I programmed the lineup for Taniwha’s Den with Coda. We had the same amount of men and women VJing and we had 5 amazing women on the decks. That’s almost to where we would have liked it! Wherever I can I push forward up and coming female DJs, my door is always open to talk music or just help with advise or an ear, because we need more ladies on the decks!
Owen: Are we a scene that is past this then... Has the hard work been done? From my point of view there is a lot of female talent out there and they seem to have no problem getting booked, or can I not see this because of my male privilege (or because I’m naive)?
Mel: No, we aren’t passed it, we are only just starting to stand up and call for more equality. The hard work is being done by those of us living it, and by those supporting us. Lately there has been a lot of talk about this topic, and that’s good because it means people (promoters, booking agents etc) are now being held accountable, which means they are paying attention and ensuring there are women on their lineups. There is plenty of amazing female talent out there, so much of it would have been overlooked even just a few years ago. So, we are getting there, but we still have to keep on top of ensuring our lineups are not just filled with white, middle class men. I’ve seen more than a few gigs over the last few months that have been nothing but that.
Owen: I agree but you still have to earn your place at the table, I wouldn’t put a lineup together and include a female DJ just to look diverse. Female DJs still have to do the hard yards and have the skills, although I am realising maybe more so than men. Luckily we are spoiled to have quality female acts in NZ.
Mel: We have so many talented ladies rocking the decks! Each and every one of them has earned their place through hard work and perseverance. If you are booking women based on their sex and not their talent, you aren’t looking hard enough.
Owen: What are your thoughts on the state of things in the house techno community, good or bad?
Mel: See above! Auckland’s community is humming. There are some incredible crews running amazing parties, it’s an honour to play for them all. Super lovely humans who just want our scene to thrive. When our scene works together, it becomes strong and filled with quality sound. That’s exactly what has been happening.
Owen: Ok tell us about this mix. Where was this recorded? Paint a picture for us:
Mel: This set was recorded live in the Portal at this year’s Splore. For the uninitiated, the Portal is one of Splore’s hidden gems, a rocking club space decorated, lit and run by an incredibly creative, passionate and insanely hard working crew. Tucked away at the back of the indomitable Lucky Star, it began life a few years ago as a tiny shipping container that could fit maybe eight people at a time. Each year it has morphed and grown, always holding onto its quirkiness and sparkle while delivering the absolute musical goods. As a punter, it is the most rocking dancefloor to be immersed in, no matter the time of day or night.
From a DJs perspective, it is the perfect creative space throw down and get as freaky as you want, no holds barred. This year I played ladies night on Friday night. It was hands down my favourite set to play all summer, it was ultimate musical freedom. Huge love and thanks need to go to Mels and Jonas and all the Lucky Star crew, without whom Splore would simply not be the same, to Fred for his incredible vision and endless hard work bringing the Portal to life year in and out, to Jake and Jonas for running that stage with such class, care and constant hilarity and to John, Shirley, Fred and everyone else on the Splore team for bringing it all together year in and out. there really is nothing else like it.
Owen: Finally what makes one the;
1) Perfect DJ booth
2) Perfect festival
3) The perfect sandwich
1) Monitors that allow me to hear exactly what it sounds like on the floor. Ideally an Allen and Heath and if I could I’d happily play on turntables, however as long as I have two CDJs I’m good to go.
2) The right ethos, that is to be doing it for the right reason. We all want to make money, but if you’re in it for the money and not the creation of something wonderful, you’re in it for the wrong reason. Meticulously planned infrastructure, overloaded portaloos are less than ideal. A well planned and programmed lineup that is diverse, well crafted environments with perfectly EQd sound - the Kanuka stage LO-FI did at Aum is a perfect example of that, location has a huge part to play, providing safety measures without it ever feeling overbearing (no one likes in your face security).
3) I don’t eat bread! Haha. But when I used to I was a massive fan of stuff on toast (on Vogels), cheese on top and under the grill. It’s like mini pizzas, how could you say no to that?
That’s not a sandwich Mel… See this is what happens when we let girls behind the decks!!!
Thanks Mel. Good Chats.