As dance music continues to gain popularity with the mainstream and audience sizes increase, electronic acts are under increasing pressure to turn their sets into performance art and put on a show that is both visually entertaining and keeps the crowds dancing.
Acts are searching for more creative ways to engage with their audiences. For some this might involve mesmerising light shows and elaborate stage set ups; some might try their hand at masks and costumes; others might decide to throw food at their audience. Whatever they try, it’s important to be memorable.
But some of the most exciting gigs we’ve seen recently have simply gone back to the old school and put their childhood music lessons to good use. Combining technology with traditional musical instruments, these acts are putting on shows that are a perfect combination of DJ sets as we know them and concerts as our grandparents know them.
Here is a (non-comprehensive) list of our favourite electronic acts that are getting busy with their instruments on stage and proving Deadmau5 wrong that “we all hit play.”
South London superstars Guy and Howard Lawrence began making music at a young age, learning their instruments to the music their parents listened to – ‘70s and ‘80s pop, rock, funk and soul. But it was their foray into dance music that really put the siblings on the map.
“We put out a single on MySpace, and then people would ask us to come play a show at their club,” says Howard. \
“We just assumed that they meant to come and play a live show because we didn’t know how to DJ. We were like, ‘OK, well we’ll just have to learn our songs on conventional instruments and play those.’”
The pair play a variety of instruments as part of their live show including guitars, keyboards and drums. They are mainstays in the charts and frequently headline some of the biggest events all over the globe, but admit to feeling more comfortable on a band heavy lineup than club shows that are ill equipped to handle their immense set up.
Gramatik’s blues infused hip-hop beats were a wild success on Beatport and built the native Slovenian a strong following among U.S. and European audiences.
After landing himself an agent in 2009, Gramatik began to get booked for his first shows. However, this presented a problem for the producer, who had no experience as a DJ.
“I was like ‘What the fuck am I going to do? Am I just going to be out there playing my beats on a computer? It's going to be boring,’ he recounts.
“So, I was like, I should get my homie to play the guitar with me on stage so we can bring a live element so it's not just me pressing buttons. It was going to be boring for me to play my own tracks every night with nothing substantial changing in them. If we add a guitar, we'd improv every night.”
Squarepusher’s path was slightly different to many other musicians: he developed an interest for recording technology before even discovering musical instruments.
“When I was eight or nine, I developed an interest in radios and electronics, and discovered, for example, that by putting capacitors in series with parts of a circuit, I could filter the sound,” he remembers.
“At age 10, I bought an acoustic guitar, strummed some chords and had a couple of lessons, but a year later I decided that I wanted to play the bass guitar. That was such a cool instrument; it had a mystique about it. I couldn't quite work out what it did, but it seemed very important.”
Squarepusher practised his bass obsessively while still experimenting with his electronic gear. He brings an exciting improvisational element to his live shows and his distinctive set up and unusual methods have led to Squarepusher becoming one of the UK’s most noteworthy electronic musicians and bass players.
4. Joachim Garraud
After training in percussion and guitar at the conservatory for seven years, Joachim Garraud made the move to electronic music in 1989, landing a regular spot alongside Laurent Garnier at Parisian club The Boy.
Garraud’s instrument of choice for his sets is the keytar, a delightful portmanteau that incorporates the best of a keyboard while allowing for greater range of movement due to being supported with a strap like a guitar.
The keytar is the biggest part of Garraud’s setup and he owns several of the instruments, one of which was actually used on the Pink Floyd world tour.
New Zealand native Opiuo plays piano and guitar, but it is his experience playing drums that he believes helps him add a heavy rhythm element to his music, as well as an exciting component to his shows. Performing with his solo set up or his live show as The Opiuo Band, Opiuo incorporates drum machine, synths, triggers, sounds and loops.
While not technically a ‘traditional’ instrument, Opiuo’s skill with the drum machine shows evidence of his training as a percussionist and he likens the use of the external equipment to ‘free falling’.
Future funk master Griz wasn’t born into a particularly musical family; in fact he first developed his taste for classical instruments as a young child watching Disney’s Fantasia. After dabbling in piano and later oboe, Griz finally picked up the saxophone so that he could sit closer to the girl that he liked in the school band.
The Detroit native started incorporating the saxophone into his DJ sets while playing parties in college and went on to support acts such as Bassnectar, Pretty Lights, Gramatik and Big Gigantic, before landing his own headline tour as well as enviable spots on many major festival lineups.
Griz’s fourth album, Say it Loud, was released earlier this year and is available for free download on his website.
7. Big Gigantic
Big Gigantic’s Dominic Lalli and Jeremy Salken both come from a classical jazz background – Lalli plays the saxophone and Salken is a drummer. The duo found each other in the local band scene in Boulder, Colorado and went on to play small gigs like weddings and even a
Target store opening before finding their way to electronic music. They credit the diversity and open-mindedness of the music scene in Boulder for their ability to create Big Gigantic’s unique sound at a time when electronic music wasn’t so wide spread in the area. Big Gigantic shows feature a diverse setup of instrumentation onstage, bringing the different instruments together to fuse with the electronic beats.
One-man band Emancipator is another classically trained musician. The Portland based producer is proficient in a slew of instruments including guitar, mandolin, banjo, viola, violin and drums. The turning point into electronic music came after he got hold of a copy of Acid
Pro (professional digital audio software) and started composing songs in his now signature sound. After playing a few coffeehouse shows, Emancipator landed a gig opening for Bonobo in the US and now tours with his live show incorporating his guitar and his buddy Ilya Goldberg on violin.
Sydney producer Anatole is fairly new to the scene but has been making waves with his ethereal electronic sound. He completed a performance degree in classical trumpet at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and grew up playing in various orchestras and jazz bands.
Anatole tries to perform as much of his shows live as possible and will incorporate drums, keys, percussion and trumpet into his sets. In May this year Anatole was invited to play a residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Sculpture Terrace, an exceptional venue for him to show off his artistic musical stylings. Check out his EP Westbrook on Soundcloud, definitely one to watch.