How many top 40 hits does a producer need before they can consider themselves a success? Ask Duke Dumont, and he’ll tell you none of that matters.
The U.K. star has been a figurehead of the ’90s house revival since storming his home country’s mainstream with “Need U (100 %) in 2013, but he was a master of the club scene years before that. He worked his way up from $100 gigs to the biggest festivals in the world, and though he’s had loads of chart success, he’s far from satisfied.
Duke wants quality and quantity, a real “body of work,” and he takes his first big step towards the big leagues with debut album Duality. Released today (April 17) via Universal Music, the LP attempts to capture every facet of the Blasé Boys Club label boss’ varied tastes. It’s clubby, dreamy, poppy and even a little rowdy — and as he tells Billboard in our Q&A below, it’s only the beginning.
Congrats on the debut. You were talking about an album as far back as 2014.
I’m happy I didn’t release an album in 2014. It would have been made under a different mindset. The music would have been a little more disposable, (aiming) for Spotify charts and “oh, let’s get a top 10 again.” In hindsight, it gave me an opportunity to make an album and a body of music that has an emotional impact. [That] in my opinion is the meaning of art. Whether you watch film or listen to music, it’s got some to have some kind of emotional impact. I’m in a lot better space now to start building upon a catalog of music.
You’ve always embraced a ’90s sound, and now everyone’s on that vibe. Is that reflective of how you were exposed to dance music?
People might not believe this, but EDM was bigger than hip-hop for a long time. It was a massive business, and there was a wave of European acts that came to America and pretty much said, “Hey, guys, we got this thing called dance music. Here it is. We invented it.” No you f–king didn’t. There seemed to be more integrity and honesty to a lot of the house records that were made in the ’90s. To me personally, those records had a lot more emotion, freedom and groove. The impact of EDM, I felt it was a bit Emperor’s New Clothes. No one invents anything to be honest, very rarely, and people that do never get any recognition.
What essential lessons did you take away between that first run at an album and Duality?
I’ve played in what are considered the coolest clubs, and I’ve DJ’ed for $100 a night. I despise the use of “overground” and “underground.” It’s just labels the listener puts on things. To be considered a proper artist, you need a body of work. You can get a song in the top 10, do that once, and no one ever sees you again. That doesn’t define you. I have a huge amount of respect for any act regardless of their genre, or if they’re great or bad. If you can perform 90-minutes of your own music, that shows commitment. You’ve put all that time behind the scenes, making that music.
There’s a very direct relationship between performer and maker with electronic music, which I always liked. I made a pact with myself and other entities that if I ever made a living from this, I would commit to it. “Ocean Drive” made me realize I may make records that sound good years down the line. Don’t be hell bent on jumping on genres and fads. Make songs with emotion through ’em and musicality. This is the first album, and I will continue to make music whether I’m signed to a major label or putting stuff out myself.
I look at people like Brian Eno, and I aspire to be in this for 20, 30, 40 years. I can’t think of anything better than just puttering down to my studio, making a coffee and playing around with some synths and making music. Best job in the world, doing that.
“Ocean Drive” is fantastic. I’m glad to see it on the album, and it seems you gave it a different intro?
On the business side, the record label is telling me, “If you put this on the album, it’s going to go gold or platinum straight away because it’s got half a billion streams on YouTube and millions on Spotify.” That doesn’t define a good or bad record, but to people in business, it does. I wanted [“Ocean Drive’] on the album as the longer version, which is on the vinyl, and the label wanted the one that’s on Spotify, otherwise it would lose the plays. I conceded to them on that. It is a few years old, but still it still sounds good. Everything else is brand new.
I want to talk about the new stuff. How did you push yourself on this?
I wake up at 9:00 in the morning, make a coffee in the studio, mid-day I have my lunch, and about 5 or 6 o’clock, I have my dinner and play video games like every other person. I have to treat it like a job. When I started, I did not work like that. I worked under the consciousness of, “When I’m inspired, I will work in the studio,” like some French poet living in Paris — but like, put the hours in. If you’re not making music, learn how to make music. If you’re not doing something, experiment.
For a couple months, I switched off everything and just churned out ideas. I might get three ideas one day. I might get nothing the next day. By the end of the month, I’ll have 20-25 sketches down. Within six to eight weeks, I listen back and say “that’s got potential.” The next step is where producers fall by the wayside, and I suffer from this; The inability to finish a record. That’s the tough bit that stops people from having careers. That’s when the anxiety starts to kick in. “What are people gonna think of this? This is now going to be cemented.” There is nothing worse to kill creativity than fear. When you learn to let that go, you develop. If I’m 80 percent happy with it, let it go.
There’s records I’ve done which stood the test of time that I really wasn’t happy with. “Ocean Drive” was one of them. It was tweaked to the point of destruction. There were discussions about The Weeknd being on it, and that didn’t happen. James, who wrote the lyrics, he sounds good. Let’s just release it. That went on for months. With “The Giver,” my manager for about a year was like “it doesn’t sound finished.” I really needed to release it. I was making like, $8,000 a year. Whatever I did had to be really good to make a living.
Now, if I don’t make something good, I’m still making a living. It just means people are looking at someone else on Instagram. I don’t give a s–t. That’s not pressure. Pressure is not being able to pay your bills. Pressure is losing your job in this climate. I don’t feel pressure other than on myself to make bodies of music like artists I look up to.
Who are some of those artists?
You’ve got to hold Chemical Brothers up there – and I don’t mean the sound of it, because that sound is them. You got to find your fingerprint. Everybody says Daft Punk, but you’ve got to. They nailed it with the branding, but take away the branding and listen to records like “Something About Us” on Discovery, the lesser-known music beyond “One More Time” and it’s incredible. Underworld. These names go on. We can speak about modern acts; Bicep. They have the same consciousness, “Let’s just churn this out.” They have a passion for music.
I pride myself on being an artist and making music, but to the outside world, I think it’s “That guy’s a DJ.” This album was to demonstrate that. There’s a reason there’s strings on a lot of the tracks. That’s to give it a sense of longevity. There’s a reason why the songs have chords and not just beats and synth lines. You’ve got to aspire to that long game. I’ve got six or seven top 40 U.K. records, and I’m saying, it does not make you a success. It really does help, but that’s not the big one. Make a body of music. Be smart, be passionate about what you do and just be disciplined. Just nail it. Anyway, that’s just my talk to anybody that makes electronic music.
This genre is a strange commodity.
But that’s the world we live in. The most successful restaurant in the world is McDonald’s. I enjoy McDonald’s, but given the choice, I prefer to dine at a finer restaurant.
Are there moments on the album that you’re especially proud of?
My goal with the album was to make a journey. It wasn’t a 50-minute ambient piece. However, I really worked to get a flow. You interpret it how you want. I’ve done my work. It’s not mine anymore. The goal was to do the dance-y stuff, then it goes electro pop with “Ocean Drive,” nu disco, drone guitars and synth bass. Then it goes proggy on “Let Me Go” or “Love Song.” I made “Together” to be the best possible festival record, sunset at Coachella; loads of color and all that jazz – like if I was to make a record for Flaming Lips.
I really enjoyed writing “Let Me Go” as well. It’s a tougher record to listen to. It takes three or four minutes to get it to the actual beat, but who cares? It’s me playing with synths, listening to Sebastien Tellier and Moroder, trying to find my voice between those, just arranging it to have an emotional impact. I’ve got soft spot for “Obey” as well. I don’t think anyone at the label really liked it, but it’s very tongue-in-cheek, and I like that. I’m proud of those drums.
What is the Duality at play here for you?
It’s not just picking a name. The Duality applies to the nature of the album in the sense that you could have a record like “Ocean Drive” alongside “Let Me Go.” “Ocean Drive” is a pop record and “Let Me Go” is a transcendent synth arp. The other thing, and I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a bit more depth to Duality. All I’m saying is, look at the artwork. I’m into cryptology and things on slightly more esoteric level. There’s an underbelly to the album. We’ll see if anyone works it out.