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Extending From The Expected

28 February 2013 | 9:22 am | Cyclone Wehner

“There’s been so many through my life that have frustrated me – I mean, why a band like [New York post-hardcore rockers] Quicksand were never bigger just drives me mad at night."

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Zane Lowe has a dual identity. On his award-winning evening program The Zane Lowe Show, he mixes up the latest rock, urban and dance (Lowe reputedly helped to break Gnarls Barkley's Crazy). But, when playing an event such as Future Music Festival, as he will be for the third time in 2013 (“The Prodigy, man, you just don't say no to them!”), Lowe keeps it club. The DJ, an 'anything goes' specialist like Peel, concedes that summarising what he does is “complicated”. “When I first started out DJing, there was definitely that sense of, 'Huh?'” he admits. However, Lowe believes that today's audiences have ever more diverse tastes.

In Australia, after successive tours there's “familiarity”. “It used to feel a lot more dual – now it feels slightly more schizophrenic in the complimentary way.” Even on air, Lowe DJs in a quick mix style. He calls it “rap DJing”. At last year's FMF he dropped Fatman Scoop's R&B club staple Be Faithful. In 2013, aside from DJing “heavier” electro and “deeper dubstep”, Lowe is digging trap, expressing an affinity with DJs Baauer and RL Grimes. More surprisingly, Lowe has found a way to “transition” into deep house, “because that kind of 808 or 909 sound that's going through the hip hop stuff is far more sparse.” He's realised that sets don't have to be wholly frenetic with the DJ pumping up crowds. “I've no problem with everybody sinking down and grooving now, if that's what they wanna do – and that probably just comes from confidence,” Lowe explains. “Reactions come in different ways.”

Lowe began his media career in music TV in Auckland. It was “a hobby”. He also cut records with the hip hop outfit Urban Disturbance and later (the still extant) electronica vehicle Breaks Co-Op. Migrating to England, he'd broadcast on London's Xfm, switching to Radio One in 2003. Additionally, he's gigged as an MTV Rocks VJ, presenting Gonzo, pre-Alexa Chung. Coming from the progressive-yet-isolated NZ proved an advantage. “As much as I've lived in London for almost as long as I lived in NZ, I do feel, and will always feel, just 100 per cent Kiwi,” the 39-year-old says. “That's just who I am – that's just what motivates me.” (Ironically, his kids have English accents.)

Industry pundits are proclaiming that rock is back. “I know,” Lowe blurts out. “It's hilarious – like it ever went away! It's so funny.” So where does he predict music is going? “Well, you know, wherever the musicians wanna take it,” Lowe replies with a laugh. “I think not enough credit is given to the musicians – which sounds funny. [But] people still believe that there's some kind of focus group of audience members or whatever who decide where things are going. It just doesn't work that way. The most exciting records will get people's attention. Then people go, Okay, I like the sound of that – what else is out there of that nature?” Lowe acknowledges that the last 18 months have brought “some exceptionally exciting and different, interesting rock'n'roll records” and (younger) listeners are moving on from “four-on-the-floor Pro-Tools-style pop music.” Regardless, Lowe himself relishes a bit of hype. “It's a cool catchphrase for people to say right now, 'rock is back'. It's great. I've been guilty of saying it here and there when the odd record comes through on radio that I wanna get people excited about, because it's just fun to say stuff like that. But, really, it's not like it ever went away.”

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The UK has a micro industry dedicated to launching 'the next big thing' (cue: the BBC Sound Of... polls), yet acts do slip under the radar. Others don't garner sustained support – musos like folkie Johnny Flynn, whose Kentucky Pill Lowe picked as a 2010 'Hottest Record In The World'. Admittedly, Flynn doesn't appear to be blindingly ambitious. “I don't know if it's ambition or whether or not he's just very comfortable in his art and appreciates that wherever it goes is almost out of his hands. There are ways to try to manipulate the exposure and distribution of music – and we're starting to understand new ways to do that. There are people who are absolutely phenomenally brilliant at that and they tend to be more in the pop world – and that tends to be a part of their make-up. That's an artistic expression within itself. You know – the way I present my music, how I use online media and stuff, that's all part of the 'art'. Then you've got these songwriters who are just like, 'Look, I write songs and it's my way of communicating' – and they'll find their audience one way or the other. I think that sometimes you get [an act] who is able to do both – like a Mumford & Sons, who, while they're not the most online-savvy band in the world, certainly didn't bumble their way to the top of the charts. They know what they're doing. Then you've got an artist like Johnny Flynn. He seems very confident in the records he makes and doesn't seem to be remotely fazed by the fact that he hasn't had one billion YouTube hits. It's all a bit smoke and mirrors, that – you can have a billion YouTube hits and sell a thousand albums, or you can sell 60,000 albums and have 14,000 Twitter followers. It's a very strange, lopsided grey area right now, all that stuff.”

In the end, we should “trust the music”, though – “that sounds awfully corny,” he admits. “The numbers will do what the numbers do.” As for the acts Lane considers slept-on? “There's been so many through my life that have frustrated me – I mean, why a band like [New York post-hardcore rockers] Quicksand were never bigger just drives me mad at night. I think Sway as a UK rapper is consistently overlooked – that is a frustrating scenario for me. I think Willy Mason is a phenomenal singer/songwriter. He's very comfortable with where he is in his career, but I would love for him to be doing better...” Lowe reckons that Flynn's Transgressive labelmates Foals were “one of the most underrated bands in the world” until this year's Holy Fire. It's relative. Exposure is one thing, sales another. “Everyone's underrated as far as record sales go with the exception of about six bands and six artists, because record sales are just decimated. It's just horrific.” Artists are successful if they play shows, earn a living, control their music, and “enjoy the journey”. 

Lowe, who creates his own re-edits for DJing, is easing back into music-making. “I feel that I need to give some of my life to that again. I never had dreams of being a radio DJ first and foremost. I always wanted to produce and write music.” Not that he'll ditch radio. “I think I'll always broadcast in some respect.” Lowe is producing beats for rappers and attending writing camps in the US. Mysteriously, he's actually had a session with “one of the UK's most established and successful pop and country writers.” But more importantly, Lowe is happy. “It's been one of the best years creatively of my life.”

Zane Lowe will be playing the following dates:

Wednesday 6 March - Hordern Pavilion, Sydney NSW
Thursday 7 March - Festival Hall, Melbourne VIC
Saturday 9 March - Future Music Festival, Sydney NSW
Sunday 10 March - Future Music Festival, Melbourne VIC
Monday 11 March - Future Music Festival, Adelaide SA