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Features

20 Questions: Midland

Harry Agius talks favorite films, books, track selection, and his new 'Fabriclive 94' release.

Harry Agius (a.k.a Midland) began DJing in 2003 after a tape of Andy C at a Slammin Vinyl show kick-started an obsession with the craft. From there, he went on to attend Leeds University, dividing his time between his educational commitments and various drum & bass events taking place around town. Having purchased his first set of Technics from money saved working in a kitchen and living with his parents, he was then offered a graveyard Saturday morning show by DJ Shock of Radio Frequency. Over time the radio slots did get better and opportunities began to arise with gigs at SubDub, Exodus at the West Indian center, Momentum at Wire, a time as resident for Metropolis, and chances to warm up for Bukem, Grooverider, and Dillinja on the Valve Soundsystem. When he finished studying Harry’s interest in slower tempos was piqued and he began making music as Midland.

His first record was a classy garage 12” with Ramadanman on Aus Music, followed by a solo EP project Play The Game on Phonica. Further releases went through both these labels as well as on More Music and Sheworks (alongside Pariah). A white label release with Bicep preceded the launching of Midland’s own imprints Graded and ReGraded which have been the home of almost all of his music for the last few years. Side ventures have included two charity records for Autonomous Africa with Optimo, plus remixes for Darkstar on Warp, Mano Le Tough, and Flume amongst others.

Ahead of the release of his Fabriclive 94 mix, which lands on September 22, Agius stepped in to answer our 20 Questions.

1. Describe your surroundings right now.

I am lying in bed because I was really ill last night. I had some bizarre fever and I just started to burn up, and at the same time couldn't get warm. I had some crazy dreams and wasn't feeling so good so I kind of canceled everything today. I have been watching "RuPaul's Drag Race" in bed all day. It's been great.

2. What was the first record you ever purchased?

To my memory, the first record I ever purchased was Bart Simpson's "Do the Bartman." I think I was about four years old. I got it on tape, but the first CD single I bought was Jamiroquai's "Canned Heat." The first vinyl I ever had was Zig and Zag, two puppets from television who had a song called "Them Girls." It came on the front of the Frosties box. I found the vinyl the other day in my parents' house.

3. What’s the most fun thing you’ve done lately?

It's not super recent, but in March I went to Australia. Although it was attached to a gig, there was one part of the journey where I had to fly in a propellor plane across the Australian outback. I remember thinking that it was nuts, just four of us in a little plane. In fact, one of the other fun things I've done recently is seeing a friend I hadn't seen for 15 years. I grew up with him in Africa. He came to visit my family in Wales. We woke up at 8 am and went surfing with our brothers.

"I immerse myself in music a lot and I think this helps me to synthesize ideas. I think this allows me to feel a better connection with the crowd when I DJ."

4. Do you believe that success is down to hard work or innate talent?

I don't think I am innately talented. So...it's not down to that. I think I do work hard, and I am not ashamed to admit that. I immerse myself in music a lot and I think this helps me to synthesize ideas. I think this allows me to feel a better connection with the crowd when I DJ. I will always make an effort to go and dance, taking a weekend off, or I will go and stand in the club before I DJ. I feel that this really helps me to recharge my musical soul, as it were, and I think this helps me when I go to the studio or to buy records.

A lot of DJs can get stuck on the conveyor belt, playing gigs, and then traveling. It's important, I think, to spend a bit of time on the other side of the fence, enjoying the music like most of the people who are listening to the music. It reminds you of why you're doing the job. The best sets I've heard are when the DJs play what I wanna hear in that moment, and it's only by putting yourself in the position of the crowd that you can understand what they're really looking for.

5. How do you dig for records? Do you have a favorite place to dig for records at the moment, or do you use a lot of promos?

I am really not a promo guy if I am honest. I do get sent tracks by close friends and I take the time to listen to them, and I do keep an eye on promos. But I find that I so often get sent promos with these huge descriptive passages and press releases just forcing it down your throat, and I think I have a problem with this authority. As soon as I am told to like something then I just pull back.

I like to dig for records in a more traditional way. I find a record that I like and then I will dig into this artist's entire back catalog, and I will spend an entire day going through these records. If a label crops up a few times then I will open up a new tab and I will go through that entire label. It's quite meticulous but not so organized. You have to look in areas where you least expect these records to be. For example, someone played an amazing record at a gig recently, and it was taken from some 1994 Italian trance compilation.

6. How much time do you spend organizing your digital files before a gig? How do you organize them? 

I spend a huge amount of time refining my collection on my laptop, especially when I am traveling. I am constantly making playlists and going through playlists I made in 2010 and scrolling through my Rekordbox. There is so much you forget; your brain can't hold onto all of these memories so you have to keep on refreshing it.

I prepare playlists, too, before each gig. I'll have a folder, like a parent folder, and then under that I will have about 22 playlists broken down into every conceivable direction you want to go in your set, from "Weird" to "Bangers." The best sets are where I have a really detailed breakdown.

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7. How do you choose the first song of your DJ sets?

It's funny because often you'll feel like you have the first song nailed and then you get to the gig and it all goes out of the window. And actually, I've often found that the first song I thought was going to be good doesn't fit suddenly, so I think it's good to have options. I have a folder called "Playlist Ultima" which is 70 tracks all of which could be used in the intro context. It's just like having your tools in front of you.

That being said, I never try to repeat myself when I am open sets, so I try to start each of my sets differently. I do, however, have track combinations that I really like and try to remember. Often I'll write these down after a gig. For example, the other day I mixed Hodge's "No Single Thing" with an Âme track, and they fit perfectly together. I wrote it down and thought I'd do it again, although I very rarely remember or feel the need to do it.

"...although I am not into the secretive vibe of music I do think each artist should have tracks that are unique to them and their close friends."

8. Do you edit a lot of tracks to specifically fit your DJ sets? 

Yes, I do this a lot. I have a folder of reworks I've done this year and it's up to 40, I believe. Often it's just arranging, and sometimes it's just quantizing the first few beats. You can find an old track that needs a little EQing, and these become tracks that are unique to you. I come from drum & bass, and although I am not into the secretive vibe of music I do think each artist should have tracks that are unique to them and their close friends.

This brings another problem, however. I have no problem sharing a track ID but sometimes people will come and take a photo of my playlist and this frustrates me. Sometimes it's nice to just enjoy the set and remember why you're there.

9. Who or what do you miss most when you are on the road, and why?

I miss my husband when I am away, and just being at home. I am not really like a person who enjoys going traveling alone. It was fine when I was single because it was like being on holiday but when you're married, and you have a nice flat at home, it can be quite lonely. My husband comes to quite a few things with me, and I'm going to have to work out how to balance both sides of my life going forward. I might look at having some time off more regularly, instead of doing eight weeks of pure travel and then spending the week off catching up.

10. Looking back at the past year, is there one gig that stands out as the best one you’ve played?

I don't think I could pick a specific one but there have been some really great gigs. I could probably say a top five: playing at the first edition of Pitch Festival in Australia in the middle of the outback; closing Panorama Bar in March; a B2B with Ryan Elliot at Barbarella's during Love International; playing the NYC Downlow at Glastonbury again was cool, too, and I played an unexpected and amazing 12-hour back-to-back with Craig Richards and Jackmaster in May. I went for a roast in East London and I received a text telling me that they were playing at this pub, and so I went along and Jack asked me to play some tunes. I didn't even have some sticks so I was just playing from these guys' collections. Then, finally, was my first time at Jaeger in Oslo, another unexpected B2B with one of the best DJs I had never seen play before: Øyvind Morken!

11. You recently mixed Fabriclive94. How did you choose the tracks to include, and how long did you take choosing them?

It took me about six months from knowing I was going to do it until completion. I mean, I am obsessive when it comes to mixes and this had the added gravitas of being a Fabric CD, and also the added pressure of working out what makes it different to a podcast. I also had to pick the records that had been licensed so I gave them a bunch of tracks in January, and then they work on licensing them. Every week I received an updated spreadsheet, and then up until the week before I recorded it, I was still sending them tracks. I probably sent them 90 tracks in total, and out of that, I came back with 65 that I could use. The week I recorded it came after three consecutive four-gig weekends so I was a bit exhausted, but I think that worked in my favor. I then recorded it in my studio, but I did the programming in Corsica Studios. That gave me a different perspective on the music.

12. Did you record it all in one take?

I did it in a couple of takes, and my sort of view with it was that people know I can mix. There was one section that was complex and I did that on the day before I had to hand it in. I basically just spliced that in. I was more focused on presenting a special piece, like a composition more than just a mix. The first version of it I did record in one go but I realized that the last bit was too obtuse; I had included these tracks because I wanted to prove my credibility rather than actually wanting to have them in, so I redid it.

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13. Do you produce music on the road, while you're traveling?

No, I just cannot do it. I am very sensitive to my surroundings and I don't feel comfortable away from home. I don't spend all my time in the studio but I do prioritize it, so this Autumn will see a lot of studio time.

14. What is your favorite record of the past five years?

Unfortunately, this is an impossible question to answer, and I couldn't even try to do it.

15. What was the last thing that made you really laugh and why?

We recently went to see Daniel Kitson's amazing show at the Roundhouse, "Something Other Than Everything." It was so much more than a comedy show, but there were points where I was gasping for air. A true genius.

16. Do you have any pre or post-show rituals?

Pre-show, I will always eat a banana because I realize that blood sugar levels can really impair my mood and energies. At Houghton Festival, I ate a pizza, two bananas, and two cans of coconut water, so I was constantly fueling my body. I've also started burning incense to make the booth smell nice. And post: I have a tequila!

17. What was the last movie you saw in the cinema?

The last movie I saw was "Baby Driver." It's exactly what it says, and then the one I saw before that was "Moonlight." I haven't been to the cinema a lot, but I do go to the theater a lot. That's probably more applicable to me. I saw "Angels in America" at the National Theatre, which is a long one, and before that "Twelfth Night." Before that, I saw "The Father," which is one of the most incredible plays I've ever seen.

18. What books are you reading right now?

I actually just joined a book club. Currently, I have three books on the go: "Tales of the City" by Armistead Maupin; then I am reading "Fun Home" which is a graphic novel and autobiography, and then "The End of Eddy" by Édouard Louis. It's a French book. I just finished "Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration" by David Wojnarowicz. It's brilliant.

19. Tell me one thing that people don’t know about you.

I am a qualified ski instructor.

20. What will you do after answering these questions?

I will probably have a nap, and then I have to do a mix. I will probably start doing that. If there is ever a time to do an ambient mix it's after a fever.

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