Damian Lazarus at Day Zero Tulum 2019
Photo: Juliana Bernstein
Damian Lazarus Discusses Day Zero 2020, Spiritual Awakenings, Meeting Tiesto & '90s London Raves
British DJ/producer/mystical event wizard Damian Lazarus' well-loved sound is much more of a mood than genre. The music he favors is ethereal, emotive and takes the listener on a journey. His parties often take place in awe-inspiring locations, from the expansive dustiness of Burning Man to the jungles of Tulum, Mexico. His DJ sets tend to last for hours, often until the wee hours of the morning.
With his iconic house and techno label Crosstown Rebels, which he founded in 2003, Lazarus has helped catapult the careers of fellow underground game-changing DJ/producers, including Maceo Plex, Jamie Jones and Francesca Lombardo, to name a few.
In addition to throwing down at major electronic music events (Amsterdam Dance Event, Desert Hearts Fest, Lightning In A Bottle, Art Basel Miami) and legendary clubs around the world (Miami's Club Space, Ibiza's DC10, Berlin's Watergate), Lazarus has been carefully curating his own beloved events, namely the Day Zero and Get Lost series.
The Recording Academy caught up with the globetrotting wizard, who called in during a rare moment of downtime in Mexico City, in between debuting a new party to close out ADE and bringing the spooky vibes to Los Angeles' HARD Day of the Dead. He dove deep into the surreal beachside origin story of Day Zero (which returns to Tulum on Jan. 10, 2020), what makes a great DJ set and more. We also revisited his teen and young adult years in London, where he got a healthy dose of club life during the then-burgeoning rave scene.
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About last night... what a night!!! The inaugural “LAZARUS” party at @demarktkantine closing out ADE. This was around 7am this morning at the end of a 6 hour session, I think my face sums it all up. Thank you everyone in Amsterdam that came and helped us make this a night to remember and special thanks to @shishibabylon and all the guys at the club for helping us make something so special
You were just at ADE not long ago. How was that experience for you?
It was really good, actually. Funnily enough, I was just at lunch here in Mexico City and saw Tiësto. I had to tell him about what I did at ADE because it was because of him that I started something new there this year. Many years ago, I was in Chicago about to play a show and the promoters said, "Oh, do you want to come see Tiësto play? He's doing an early evening thing." I'd never seen him play before, so I was really intrigued.
So we went and they took me to the green room. When Tiësto arrived, he made a beeline directly to me and was like, "You're Damian Lazarus, right?" I had no idea that I'd be anywhere on his radar. And he said, "I've got to tell you that your name is the best name in dance music. You know what it means, Lazarus, in Dutch?" And I was like, "No, I have no idea." And he says, "Well, when we go out on the weekend and then your friends call you in the week and they're like, 'What did you get up to in the weekend,' you're like, 'I got really lazarus.' It means to get really wasted."
So this year, I decided to create my own event in ADE; of course I just called it "Lazarus." Because people in Amsterdam would totally get it, but anywhere in the rest of the world, it's just my second name. That was on Sunday, so it was an ADE closing party. It started at midnight and I played all night until 7:00 a.m. That was really special. I also played Circoloco as well, which was on a Saturday.
I tend to just go in for a couple of days. I don't really go for the business meetings and stuff. I know it's very worthwhile for promoters and management but I find if I need to talk to someone or have a meeting about something, I can just pick up a phone. I don't need someone to tell me where to go and have a meeting.
I was always curious about that; is it really like the electronic music mecca that it's made out to be, or is it just a cool space to be when everyone's there?
It really is. I mean, first of all, Amsterdam is a really cool city on so many levels. They have more clubs per capita than anywhere else—throughout the year, not just during ADE. While I was there, I was polling quite a few of my friends and people in the industry about how useful it's been for them that week at ADE and everyone loves it as a business opportunity and also as a good chance to go out. It's one of the best places to go and do business but have fun at the same time.
Recently, you shared some details for your Day Zero 2020 event, which I think is the seventh iteration of it.
This will be the seventh, yeah, we took one year off.
What are you most looking forward to, especially as we plummet into this new decade?
That's a good point. I just look at it as 2020, I haven't really thought about making a big statement with the new decade. Well, Day Zero began at the end of the Mayan calendar, which I saw as the beginning of a new opportunity as opposed to the end of the world. This time in the world is very difficult, there's a lot of unrest. I think for people in our world to gather together as a community, to celebrate with a backdrop of this beautiful jungle and incredible music—Tulum is a really an incredible place to create a joyful experience for people.
Every year, my mission that I set before my team is to make the next event even more impressive than the last. So we're in the planning stages at the moment and we have a lot of fresh ideas. After every event, we're fine-tuning the minutia of the experience. There's so many things that we plan out at this event. Everywhere you look, everything you smell, everything you touch, everything you do, every place that you go has been well considered by us before you get there, because we want this event to be a full sensory overload. We take pride in it and work very hard on it. So, I'm looking forward to this year.
I would love to hear a little bit more about the origin story of Day Zero and what throwing the party each year means to you, to be able to share it with people.
I had a very spiritual awakening back in 2012 on the beach in Tulum. A medicine man I'd seen earlier that day suggested I stand beneath the moon and stars and raise my arms up towards the moon at a certain hour that night. He wouldn't give me any more information about what I should expect to happen. Fortunately, I remembered to do it later that night and I had the most incredible energy—force field—connection with the universe. It was like a physical being.
You know that feeling when you're young and you try poppers for the first time? Not saying that that's a good thing to do, but imagine that feeling for like 20 minutes; nonstop connecting to the universe. So I had this incredible experience and I took that as a signal to create something that I had rolling around in my head. I'd been going to Tulum for many years; I've been going there for well over 15 years now.
I was playing in Playa del Carmen two years before the BPM festival began there. I'm very connected to that area. But I'd always refrained from DJing in Tulum because it felt like a very beautiful, pristine, secret place that maybe shouldn't open its doors to parties. I knew that the first time I would play music there and bring electronic music to the natural beauty of the area, I wouldn't be able to stop. So I prevented myself from doing it.
And then a couple of people started to come see the area and ask me to play it. But then I had this experience and I could see that I was really fighting against the winds of change. More and more people were discovering Tulum and the hotels, the restaurants and bars were building up. I could feel there was something coming. So, the Armageddon was supposed to be coming on the 21st of Dec., 2012, so I started to plan Day Zero then as a way to reset and recharge, and, like I said, gather people to create a very special experience.
Sharing the experience means the world to me. This has been by far the most thrilling ride that I've been on in my career creating parties and stuff. And now we just started to open it up outside of Tulum for the first time this year. We just created Day Zero Masada at the Holy Mountain in the Dead Sea area. We had 15,000 people there for an incredible first show, I was very happy with how that went.
So now we're looking up where to go in the future. The idea of Day Zero is to get the best electronic music, forward-thinking, future music with ancient civilization. So we like that juxtaposition of the two things going hand in hand. For seven years now, we've been connecting with the Mayans in the ancient area of the Mayan jungle, complete with the
Cenotes underground. We delve into the Popol Vuh, which is the creation story of the Mayans, and work out performances around these ancient Mayan stories and connect with Mayan spiritual leaders from that come and join us.
We really try to show the new young generation the differences in historical background to how people used to live and the stories and the influence that these people have had on the world. But the thing is to not do too many because each event takes about a year in advance to plan. So yeah, so we have two running now, Masada and Tulum, and we'll see where we go in the future. And the Get Lost events which are really big as well. So yeah, it's a little bit busy.
Damian Lazarus at Day Zero Masada | Photo: Karim Tabar
Your sets are known for having a journey element to them. When you're DJing, say at Day Zero or in other special places, do you feel like you're connecting to something?
Oh yeah, 100 percent. Well, at my events, when I start playing there's an extra buzz around the place because it's like, "What's he going to do? What's he going to bring?"
You've set the bar high for yourself.
Yeah, I do. Every year I try to make it better and I spend a lot of time trying to find some music that is really going to make people go bananas. Of course, over seven years, it's difficult to continue to find those records every time, but I work very hard at that. I never plan a set, I never know what I'm doing from one track to the next, whether it be at Day Zero or anywhere else. When I'm DJing, I kind of tell myself I'm playing Sudoku or chess, so I'm always thinking two, three or four moves in advance.
So, I'm telling a story but I'm thinking about them throughout the whole experience. Of course there's some records that work really well together and you want to throw them together a few times. I like to think that I save my best work live at Day Zero or Get Lost. Of course I love to play at sunsets or sunrises. And the beauty of throwing your own event is you get to choose when you play and work everybody else around you. [Laughs.]
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What has been one of the most powerful moments from your Day Zero events?
Oh my god. There's so many. But you've got to remember that I'm the kind of person that can't just rock up an hour before my set. I've got these events that I run from beginning to end every year and I generally am playing at the end. So I'm spending 16 hours running around the festival site showing my friends around, having fun, experiencing it for myself and making sure everything's working properly. And then I have to start playing.
It all kind of blurs into one. I could tell you that the magical moments are many. But I actually take more pride and enjoyment in reading other people's comments and what people react after these events, especially after Day Zero events. People do find them quite life changing. I've had people meet on the dance floor there and they're married within 12 months. There's people that write to me and tell me that they literally had their life changed. They were going through some trauma, and the energy that they felt at Day Zero helped them kind of rearrange and reorganize their life and their thoughts.
You never know how much of this is actually true. But if someone's going to take the time to write to me and tell me a story like that, then I want to believe it. So I think that's really the best thing that comes out of it for me, the fact that I get to make so many other people happy and that's the main focus.
I love that. What do you think is essential to a great DJ set?
Well, obviously the ability to read the energy in the crowd. Many times I've walked into a room and I feel that there's no vibe, no energy. And I think to myself, it's not that difficult to change this, you just need to be aware of it. Really focus on what music is going to lift people's spirits in time. I think it's important to be innovative but not too overly technical. Of course, it's important to mix and blend your music perfectly, because no one likes to hear dodgy mixing.
And I think there's a very fine line between showboating and really being into what you're doing. I like to think sometimes I'm a performer, but only realize that afterwards, when I let myself go, because I was really feeling the music in the booth.
Last year, you released Heart of Sky with your Damian Lazarus & The Ancient Moons project. Can you talk a little bit about that album and creative group?
Basically what happened was when I first made the first Ancient Moons album back in 2015, Message From The Other Side, I worked with so many different musicians from all over the world. I'd been touring and finding amazing musicians from Egypt, Pakistan, New York. I somehow managed to record all of these amazing people and I was making the new Damian Lazarus album. But once I realized that I had all these incredible other voices and musicians on this record, and it felt very cinematic and it also felt like I could perform this live, I realized that I should create this fake band name, which was The Ancient Moons.
Once I decided to take the project live, I actually had to put The Ancient Moons together. So when it came around to making the second album, I started to work with the band that I found from the first time. So we actually then did become a band making music together. Whereas the first album, I made it with a producer and some guest musicians.
I think that The Ancient Moons project's some of the best creative work I've ever done. But it's not something that I could just knockout every time I'm in the studio. Right now, I'm not working on any new Ancient Moons material but I'm focusing on doing a little bit more kind of straight ahead Damian Lazarus club music right now.
In fact, I've just made this track with Diplo and the band Jungle, which we're still trying to decide what to do with. I've just done a couple of remixes. I just worked on a remix with Teddy Pendergrass. And I did a remix for Art Department. I just did this really killer remix of this Rosalía track. I'm just waiting for her to listen to it and see what she thinks.
But yeah, so that's where we're at. I mean, maybe next year I'm thinking about some Ancient Moons material probably towards the end of the year. I'm already kind of pretty hectic for 2020. I'm already a bit busy for the first half of the year. And I have family at home as well. I need to prioritize my kids right now. So yeah, quite a lot going on.
And then with Heart Of Sky—
Heart Of Sky is actually from the Popol Vuh story. Did you see the film that we made? It's called "Heart Of Sky," by Jessy Moussallem, an amazing film director from Beirut. It's a 15-minute film that we made in the fields of Lebanon where they make Lebanese hash. So it's all the families of the community of people that are making hash. They've never allowed themselves to be filmed before. Obviously, the soundtrack is music from the album.
That's super cool. Zooming out, when did you first start getting into music?
Music was always kind of around in the house. My mother, in the '60s was involved in the the [Rolling] Stones scene, and hanging out in Carnaby Street and stuff like that. And my dad was more kind of into Motown and soul, Isaac Hayes, James Brown. So I had a really good combination there, but my grandfather really was the most influential person for me because he was proper East Londoner, really into the show tunes and musicals. He and I used to have a lot of fun with music together.
But it wasn't really until I was about 11, 12, that I started to buy music and be obsessed with listening to the radio and finding new music that I liked. By the time I was 14, I'd persuaded my parents to let me buy some turntables and a mixer. And I got myself a Saturday job in a very cool record store called Groove Records in SoHo, Central London and then just went on from there.
I did a gig for Pirate Radio, and then went to college and started making parties there. It wasn't really until around 2001 when I had the City Rocker record label that people really started to take notice of me. I always knew I wanted to be a DJ but I wasn't very good at it. It took me ages to work out how to mix properly, but maybe that was because there were so many different styles of music that I was into. So by 2001, I managed to really hone in on and focus on it.
When we were running City Rockers, we started this party called 21st Century Body Rockers in London. We did it for 10 weeks, every month during 2001 or '02. We had DJs like Soulwax and I was the warmup DJ. It was there that my friends said to me, "You're actually getting quite good at this. You should think about it as a career." It wasn't until I got friends and loved ones telling me that that I really thought I could make a go of it. And within a couple of years, I was playing at Circoloco [at DC10 in Ibiza] for the first time, and the Sónar festival [in Barcelona]. I guess the rest is history. [Chuckles.]
I started Crosstown Rebels in 2003 and it was pretty much seen at the forefront of underground electronic music since then. So that always kept me at the front of people's minds, I think, because I was always working with a lot of cool people and discovering new talent and putting on great parties. I guess my DJing skills improved. Things started to get better and better.
Do you have any photos from these 2001 parties? That would be amazing.
I'm not sure they're really for GRAMMY.com. [Laughs.]
Did you have a favorite club or place that you went to when you were younger in London?
There was one club that was really influential for me and helped shape my wide range of appreciation for music. It was called That's How It Is. It was every Monday night at Bar Rumba in London and was run by James Lavelle and Giles Peterson. They were playing anything from all the early Mo Wax stuff to rare groove or funk to jazz to techno. And then they kind of started to discover the jazziest end of the drum and bass sound. It was just this melting pot of all these amazing new, fresh sounds, like Massive Attack, all that stuff coming out at that time. I was on the dancefloor every Monday for a good few years.
But then, you know, I also went to Rage, which was the primary kind of early jungle party in the U.K. There was a couple of things I went to New York as well when I was young. But yeah, so many places have influenced and inspired me. And they still do. I sometimes think back to various places I've been to and I think how I can create something like that.
"One positive thing is that in times of economic hardship, you tend to find that's a really good time for underground music to really come out of the cracks."
What is your biggest dream that you hope will come true in 2020?
A few. I don't know. The world's f**ked right now really. It's starting to really get people down. But one positive thing is that in times of economic hardship, you tend to find that's a really good time for underground music to really come out of the cracks. I think it's been getting a little stale, a little safe. I think we've lost that kind of punk and DIY attitude in electronic music right now.
As a label owner, I'm finding it really hard to find really unique, new voices in electronic music. I mean, I do have a few people that I've discovered recently that I'm really excited about, but I think that something needs to happen.
I think that maybe the current state of the world and the climate crisis and everything else hopefully will take music more underground because people are struggling, I think, mentally with figuring out how to deal with all the issues that we face. When keeping your eyes open and not walking around with your eyes closed, you can't escape the fact that the world is f**ked. So I'm looking forward to some exciting new musical trends to come through.