Interview with Devon James

8 months ago
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interview devon james

Born in Boston to a family deeply rooted in music that flouts the mainstream, it is no surprise that Devon is now one of the most influential and recognized names in the underground dance music industry. His undeniable style and his increasingly impressive DJ skills and unique track selection have landed him spots playing in support of legendary artists including Kerri Chandler, Moodymann, Derrick Carter, Kevin Saunderson, as well as modern icons like Chris Lake, Sonny Fodera, Mija, Walker & Royce, Skream, and Dennis Ferrer, to name a few.

Currently based in Boston, James is still expanding his influence in the arts, particularly in underground dance music. For over 10 years, his RVDIOVCTIVE artist collective and event series brings that intention to life with parties that blend social and political movements with dynamic lineups reflecting both the foundation and future of electronic music culture.

Hey Devon, thanks for chatting with us today!

The pleasure is all mine! Always happy when people care enough to listen to my ramblings, haha.

How has the summer been for you?

Summer is probably the busiest time of the year for most DJs and I’m grateful that was definitely the case for me this year. It was great to be back in Detroit this year for Movement over Memorial Day weekend. That’s a really special festival for me and something I make sure I attend whether I am playing or not. This year I was very fortunate to have 3 gigs over that weekend, including our own RVDIOVCTIVE party with local crew City Air that featured Charlie from Soul Clap, DJ Hyperactive, Justin James, Daizy, and a bunch of homegrown Detroit talent such as Henry Brooks and Andrea Ghita.  That one was really fun for me because I ended up playing b2b with Charlie to close the party. Soul Clap has been a huge inspiration to me over the years and they are also from Boston like myself so it was just really special getting to share the decks with him. A great way to kick off the summer! Since then I’ve played in Nashville, Boston, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit again for Charivari in August, and NYC for some really fun shows that included our summer Boat Trippin’ series and then I just recently played Electric Zoo over Labor day weekend.

Tell us about your journey into electronic music, when did you first fall in love with it?

Well I’ve always loved all sorts of music, growing up my parents introduced me to  a wide variety of stuff from Pink Floyd, the Talking Heads, and the Rolling Stones to The Temptations, Michael Jackson, and many amazing artists of Motown Records. My dad plays keyboards professionally in a band called the Skatalites, who originally started in Jamaica in 1962 and are credited as the originators of ska music. My dad joined the band just before I was born so I was brought up listening to ska, rocksteady, reggae and dub. I started playing guitar when I was young and then later became interested in recording my bands and personal projects. I have a sister who is almost 4 years older than me and she’s really the first one who introduced me to early electronic stuff like Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, the Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk. I remember buying the Does it Offend You, Yeah? album in high school which really blew my mind and piqued my interest but I was hooked shortly after that when I heard Justice’s Cross album the summer before I went off for college. That was 2007 when I first started DJing too. I’ve been pretty full on ever since.

How tough was it to sustain RVDIOVCTIVE during the pandemic? Are things back on their feet now?

At the beginning of the pandemic I worked on a big virtual festival that didn’t end up going so well and the backlash and bullying that was going on over the internet from that really pushed me away from trying to do any sort of streaming or virtual shows. We stayed pretty quiet for most of the pandemic from a public standpoint but as a team we spent a lot of time talking to each other and strategizing new ideas and visions for the brand. Pierce, James and I did a cross country road trip together, spent a month in Joshua tree, then went back across the country again. We camped at different National Parks along the way and it was a really awesome bonding experience for us. Even though we didn’t do any events for nearly 16 months – we spent a lot of time strengthening our friendships and business relationships. Once things did open up we hit the ground running and have really been riding high on that momentum.

Why did you decide the time was right to launch a label?

It’s something we have thought about and discussed several times over the years. We really just focused on producing live events and working on different group projects but just didn’t have much interest in a label at that time. I’ve managed other labels and it really takes a lot of work and resources so you really have to be committed to it. Our friend Ben Inada reached out one day and asked us if we were interested in starting a label and if we’d like him to help out. With our 10 year anniversary approaching we revisited the idea and all felt like it was the time to give it a go.

What’s the ethos behind the label?

Our ethos behind the label is very similar to our philosophy when we approach events. We seek to highlight diverse and unique sounds, sometimes new or unknown. We want to elevate all the different scenes and communities in the different markets we work in so we reached out to a lot of the artists who have played events for us over the years. We also reached out to a few artists who never played for us but whose career we’ve been keeping an eye on. We aren’t looking necessarily for big names trying to milk the most trendy sound or style. We want music that pushes the envelope and takes risks. We want artists to think more about standing out rather than trying to fit in.

Can you pick out a few personal highlights from the new compilation?

Well a few weeks ago I was perusing 1001tracklists and decided to look up the label when I found that Sasha and Pete Tong have been supporting Ian Allen’s track “Hey Mr.” from the very first compilation. We managed to find some video of Sasha playing the track live in NYC so it was just really special to see such a massive legend supporting our records in the city we were born out of. We’ve also seen some nice success on Beatport which is always reassuring. We’ve charted with every release but Vol. 2 broke into the top 10 of every category we released in so that was definitely awesome. Overall the biggest highlight is being able to put out records from my friends and see other people support and love those records.

Your track, Sunkissed, has a really chilled vibe, super atmospheric – were there any specific inspirations or reference tracks with this one?

Earlier I mentioned Soul Clap and Movement, well their after party – EFunk, is one of the parties I look forward to the most during that weekend in Detroit. It holds such a special place in my heart. They start at 10pm and go until about 2pm the next day. They always play 2 sets but the most exciting one is the sunrise on the patio. They start just before the sun comes up and usually play til closing with lots of secret guests stopping in. So after my yearly excursion to Detroit and attending their party this year I left knowing that I had to make something with that atmosphere in mind. I wanted to make a record for the moment the sun kisses the night sky, revealing the first ray of light onto the new day. Some of the other records I referenced for this include the Liem remix of “If Only I Could” by the Fusion Groove Orchestra, Sandy Rivera’s “Fall For You”, and “Down To Love” by Hot Toddy.

How do you work in the studio, do you have an idea in your head you work towards or do you just experiment and jam and see what happens?

Honesty, it’s different every time. Sometimes I go in with a vocal idea I want to build around, other times I end up making a new track after learning how to make a new sound or learn a new technique. I also mentioned earlier that my dad is a professional keyboard player so sometimes I’ll bring him into the studio and will play with different ideas I’m working on and will let him jam over it. I am sure to record the MIDI in those sessions so I can apply those recordings to different sounds and edit things to make them fit in the way I want. I try to keep each session fresh so I don’t fall into a pattern or formula and things become paint by number.

What are some of the key bits of music-making gear in your current setup?

Well right now my living situation has me totally in the box. For my DAW I use Ableton. For my synths I use a lot of the Arturia stuff. I use their Prophet and Mini(moog) plugins on almost every track. I also use the Arp2600 and Buchla fairly often too. I’ve also got a soft spot in my heart for Rob Papen’s Predator synth. For my drums, I have one of the most legendary folder’s from Phil Moffa, a legendary NYC engineer and producer. He put together a folder called “Every Drum Machine Ever” that was passed on to me from a friend and has some of the best, most high quality recordings of classic drum machines. For processing and mixing I use Waves, Soundtoys, and D16. I also use loads of Ableton’s stock synth and effects too.

What else should we be looking out for from you and RVDIOVCTIVE for the rest of 2022?

We have one more compilation coming later this year before we shift to releasing singles and EPs next year. The first release is going to be the first single off my album which will be released on the RVDIOVCTIVE label later next year in April. It’s my debut album which I am super excited about and probably the biggest project I’ve taken on. I plan to do a whole remix package and big film project that will accompany the album. Definitely stay tuned for all of that!

RVDIOVCTIVE Vol.3 is out 23 September:

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