Ethan Leo: DJ routines to blow your mind
When decks become instruments
Newcomer, Italian DJ Ethan Leo has just raised the bar for live DJ remixing. Playing hot cues like the piano, fusing styles from entirely different decades in time, often while holding his cat, his style is frenetic, dizzying and mindbogglingly dextrous. Don’t take our word for it, though…
Squeezing his Denon DJ SC5000 Prime’s for every possible creative opportunity he can, Ethan makes it looks effortless and has also uploaded a series of videos of tricks to show he does it. What makes this even more mind-boggling is that he’s been mixing for less than two years! Previously in a touring band The Stonecutters, and prior to that a pianist since the age of three, Ethan has a rich scope of musical skills and references… Yet he believes that modern DJ technology such as the SC5000s are by far his favourite instruments as they allow for complete flexibility, improvisation and you don’t have to rely on other band members. With less than two years practice and even less time playing to the public, Ethan’s at the start of an exciting new musical chapter as a DJ. His cat’s profile is on the rise, too. Get acquainted…
Hi Ethan, how are you and your cat?
We’re fine. She is sleeping on my turntable right now. Fame has gone to her head.
I know you’ve been a musician for a very long time but how long have you been DJing for?
I discovered the aptitude for music when I was 3 years old thanks to an old keyboard that was in the house where I grew up. I continued to play the piano self-taught, reproducing by ear the great classical music, from Bach to Beethoven. Then, one day, I watched Back To The Future and I had an immediate love for the guitar. At the age of 13 I was already in a professional band and from there it was an escalation; I played in different musical projects, rock, experimental music, progressive metal, jazz up to my beloved band, with whom we have achieved important goals. Being always on tour is not that easy and for several reasons we decided to stop.
It was not easy for me to accept that the dream was over. So, after a break from the music of about four years, here I am. I found in DJing a new way of experimenting and making music. It is something that I can do alone, whenever I want, and this is priceless. I started in the middle of 2016 and just for fun. I had no plans in my mind, I just wanted to play with music.
You have some unreal routines. This is all about using and embracing DJ technology as a musical instrument isn’t it?
Thank you. Yes exactly – my idea of DJing basically coming from the need of playing an instrument. Sometime’s it’s boring for me to play my guitar or my piano alone, so I developed that style since the first day. For me each track is like an instrument to use for making things live. Of course, I can always add a synthesizer or a guitar during a mix, but I like the challenge of using musical tracks instead of playing a standard instrument.
What was your first routine of this style?
Somewhere on the internet you can find ‘My Mix Routine Explained’. It’s something like a routine and a classic mix. From that moment I really understood what I wanted to do.
Watching your routines, it feels like you’ve been waiting for technology to catch up….
Although I started recently, I had the chance to try every type of technology available, because I am a curious person. But it was always so complex. Sometimes you lose more time getting the machines working than using your time to play music. So, I decided to get rid of everything and play with turntables and vinyl. But one day I saw Laidback Luke playing on a magic machine and it was exactly what I was looking for.
What have been the most important machines for you so far?
Thanks to Laidback Luke I discovered the Denon DJ SC5000, which basically had everything I needed to play the way I like. Finally, something I can switch on and immediately use to create things.
The SC5000 Prime has opened up even more possibilities hasn’t it? How long did it take you to become so fluent on it?
With the SC5000 I feel free to do really anything on the fly. This aspect is really important to me because I do not have so much time to prepare things or editing. So, having a unit like the SC5000 means that I can play anytime, anywhere, without preparation and I’m able to invent things while playing. The great thing is that I became fluent on the machine after just two days of using it, because everything is so intuitive and ergonomic. It’s really my new musical instrument.
How long does each routine take to devise, program and rehearse?
Basically a routine starts from ideas I have while mixing live. It could just be an arrangement or a song I like. Then I try to play the idea again by adding more details straight on the SC5000. I look for interesting parts inside a track, an acapella or instrumental parts. Finally, I add all the cue points and loops I need to perform the routine.
Do you produce as well?
Unfortunately not – I don’t have so much time at the moment to produce. I am planning to do something in the future however.
You have a very wide musical vocabulary. I think this is really important for proper DJing; you can join dots and tell musical stories. Would you agree?
Of course. Anybody can mix two tracks, but telling a story is a big plus. I like for example when a DJ talks about himself by using tracks and song from his memories. This is also what I try to do. Having a wide musical vocabulary allows you to have more words to tell your story.
Do you have a preferred style that you get the biggest kick from?
I like the styles where I can be free to be creative, so something like big room and dubstep, because I can drop in rock songs, 80s soundtracks or anything I like without sounding weird. But I also like drum and bass, classic house and some techno. These genres, however, require special attention to be so creative.
You also teach so please run us through what you do as a teacher. It must be inspiring to pass the knowledge on to the next generation?
I have the honour of teaching at the Nova System Academy, where I am surrounded by special people. I teach advanced techniques and I try to bring out the students’ creativity. It’s a wonderful feeling when I teach them some tricks, I feel like a wizard at a birthday party. I can say that working with the new generation is a great thing because, most of the time, it’s the students that inspire me.
Finally please give us some tips on how to utilise DJ technology in the way you have and how to think about creating our own routines.
Remember the technology is only a way to unleash your creativity. Think like you are remixing a track, so look for all the elements you need (vocals, a good beat, stuff you like, and something playable). A good start can be to set cue points over a melody of an existing track, play with it and try to do something different. Settings cue points is almost like sampling, then you can play the melody over a new track and let your imagination work. *Editor’s note: For free expression of hot cue playing on the SC5000, turn of ‘quantize’ temporarily.
Remember that you have four decks if you are using two SC5000 9with the dual-layer feature), so use them. Try to have a keyboardist approach and set your hot cues like on a musical keyboard, from the lowest to highest sound. Also, avoid repetition of the same notes over different pads, otherwise the buttons will never be enough. Also remember that you have a pitch fader that lets you change the pitch of what you are performing. If you want a legato effect, remember to use the ‘play’ setting. And if you want a staccato effect just play the cue points on ‘momentary’ setting over the stopped track.