The Sherp met up with Tommie Sunshine to hang out after his Main Stage set on the final day of Ultra Music Festival 2016. The self-described “devoted husband, rebel with a cause, raver, activist, and protester” was accompanied by his long-time love Daniela, as we all shared an enlightening and organic conversation that was a true pleasure! Tommie Sunshine gets real with us about his take on how to “make it” in the music industry, updates us on his record label, Brooklyn Fire, and gives us hope for the bright and ever-changing future of electronic music!
Words: Jacqueline Gottlob
Photos: Greg Bowser
Tommie, we are so excited to be here with you after that awesome set! First things first, we have to know, have you ever travelled to India?
No, unfortunately, but I want to go badly! I met the owner of Sunburn Festival when he was on a panel of mine at ADE [Amsterdam Dance Event], and we’ve been talking. I think this year is going to be the year. So, we’re excited, Daniela and I really want to go!
How would you describe your sound to the people of India?
Oh boy…well, I feel like the world is in a bit of turmoil at the moment, and what I try to do as a DJ is play music that reflects the chaos and the craziness of the world. So, my music right now is a bit on the hard side, because things are a little nuts. They’re nuts over here in the US, and they’re nuts everywhere. So, what I play is a reflection of political situations and the environment; everything is in a state of flux right now. I try to make that come out of the speakers.
Get us caught up with your label, Brooklyn Fire; any exciting news to share with us?
We are actually about to enter a new chapter; we’re coming up on our 150th release, which is outrageous. I mean, I would’ve never thought that I’d have a record label with that many records! Part of this new portal is that we’re working alongside Armada, so it’s really going to go to the next level, because it’s in the hands of professionals now. We were running a ‘cool’ record label for a while, but now it’s going to be taken care of by the Dutch. If you want a record label done right, you let the Dutch do it! Plus, the talent that has been sent my way has just been blinding. I can’t believe it, and it’s remarkable to me because you would think that we had hit the loop. You would think that every [musical] possibility would be exhausted, and it isn’t. I mean, every time I think, ‘Well, we’ve heard it all,’ some kid from Mexico City or Toledo sends me a demo, and it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard! It’s referencing nothing, the kid’s not even in the scene, just experimenting with electronic music, and it’s awesome.
Brooklyn Fire’s mantra is Great Music, Zero Boundaries; did you come up with that? Can you explain more about it?
Yes, and sure! I mean, it’s an addendum to how I DJ; my taste is eclectic, so the label is eclectic. Most record labels release tracks that all sound similar and, in a sense, you know what you’re going to get. I wanted the label to be the absolute opposite of that. I wanted to be able to put out a G-House record, and then release a 150 BPM crazy Eastern European I-don’t-even-know-what-the-hell-it-is type of track! I found these kids called Donald Bucks and I can’t describe their sound; it’s like jungle terror but upside down. Anyway, that’s what I wanted to do. I want the label to be like that. The biggest compliment that I always seem to get from people is no matter what genre the record is, if it’s a Brooklyn Fire record, then it’s always going to be good. Even if DJ’s can’t play it in their sets, it’s still going to be interesting and well done. I would much rather release unique records, instead of 150 that all sound similar. No disrespect, because everybody’s got their own ‘thing’, but my ‘thing’ is to try different things. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and nobody cares, but I’m okay with that. That’s how you learn and grow. As an artist, there’s nothing to achieve if you play it safe. Nothing. At that point, it’s not art, it’s a job, and I didn’t ever want this to feel like a job. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and never once has it ever felt like work. Ever. Again, there are a thousand other things that I could’ve done as a career that we would’ve been much more financially secure and it would’ve been steady money, but at the cost of what?
You played an awesome set earlier on the Ultra Main Stage! It was definitely not the norm for most Main Stage sets. How do you maintain your originality?
I played about three records in an hour that have been released, and everything else from my set was unreleased music. Of course, if I had played by rules by playing the hits, my set time would be later in the day, and I would probably make a lot more money than I do, but I would f***ing hate it. You pretty much know what most of these sets are going to sound like. For example, you can take the lineup, and for each person playing the Main Stage, you can probably use three words to describe each set, and you’re going to be 100 percent correct, because most DJs are not going to take chances. That, to me, is not where it’s at! I have to be true to myself; I’ve always been ahead of the curve by pushing new sounds and I think I’ve gotten better at it.
You know, years ago I’d be two years ahead of the curve, and it freaked everybody out! I remember going on tour for my rock remix album, Ultra.Rock Remixed on Ultra Records, and by that point I was completely over all of those remixes, so I was playing a combination of the early head-banger stuff, like Justice, Busy P, the early Dutch House stuff, and the Fidget Records like Switch, Jessie Rose, all of that. Promoters wanted to kill me, because they hated this music that they didn’t understand. Well, cut to two or three years later, and they were booking every single person whose music I was playing, they just didn’t know what it was yet. So, I have reeled it in a little better; now I am playing new music, but it’s at least in the parenthesis of what people are used to hearing, so it’s not like pushing them too far out of the realm. I think DJs now are a bit lazy; it’s easy to play the hits to get a positive reaction from the crowd, but it’s much more gratifying when you actually try to play new sounds and experiment with your sets. Maybe it’s not going to work out every time, but the danger and risk is why I do this.
If I wanted safety or normalcy, I would work at a desk job somewhere, and I’d be happy with that….but I can’t do that, look at me, I can’t do that! That’s not what I’m cut out to do. I’m cut out for the art life, so it’s a different world, and I have to continue to push it, and I almost feel a responsibility to do that, because I feel that there are so few people now who do.
Do you feel that there is an intense commercialization of dance music today?
I hear many people saying that ‘EDM is over’, and I’m thinking, ‘No! It’s just evolving.’ The past few years have heard the ‘crazy festival banger party’ sounds, and now, it’s moving towards different sounds and styles. I mean…turn around and look at how many planes are flying over the beach with banners! [Tommie stops to point out the numerous airplanes flying over the beach with advertisements for nightclubs in Las Vegas]. It’s insane, and that costs a lot of money, so somebody’s making money off of this! Those are not advertising empty clubs, that’s not what’s happening. It’s just evolving, and we’re getting the point where the commercial music is going to get much more commercial. You have Skrillex and Diplo working with [Justin] Bieber, and you have them working with the biggest pop stars in the world. That’s going to get more commercial, and as a result, there is going to be a retaliation from the kids in the underground. I would run right for those underground sounds, because that’s what is pushing the buttons, and that aggression matches the kind of confusion and the indecision that’s going on in the millennial world right now. That music is literally the living embodiment of that confusion, and that’s why I love playing it.
How do you make this happen? How do you make this your life and your livelihood?
The best advice that I can give first of all, is don’t listen to anybody, including me. YOU have to do what you want to do, and you have to feel it. If you’re not sure that this calling is for you, then don’t do it. You literally have to be prepared to sacrifice everything. You’re going to sacrifice financial security, you’re probably going to go through an endless amount of relationships, because no one in their right mind wants to be with somebody in music (thank God I found one, after many failed attempts). It was always music that messed everything up. You have to be ready to give up just about everything to do this, and it does not come quickly.
How often have you been to Miami for Miami Music Week?
This is my 20th Miami…I’ve been coming here for 20 years, and I remember the first 10 that I came here didn’t go so well. Promoters would tell me, ‘Oh yeah, show up with your records to this party, you’ll play at this time,’ and I’d show up with my 100-pound record crate that I would carry for 40 blocks down Collins Avenue to a club (because I couldn’t afford a cab)…it’s a long walk with a record case like that! So I’d show up, and my set time would get moved, and then all of a sudden the club would close and I wouldn’t play at all, and this happened for about a decade. I was getting shut down and shut out; promises were made and few of them were delivered, but I never gave up, and I think that the biggest asset to being in any creative field is endurance and resilience.
You really have to be able to see the value in weathering the storm. I’m in the middle of working on an album right now that is not club music. It’s going to be comprised of all fully written songs that I’ve written with many of my friends who are songwriters. There were times that were very rough, even since we have [Daniela and Tommie] been together, and we’ve been together for 10 years. But there was a point right after the economy tanked in 2009 and things were tough; this was pre-EDM, right before the boom, and it was rough. I wasn’t touring or putting out any music, and I said to Daniela, ‘I think I might have to quit and go get a job, because I don’t see anything to do in this any more.’ She forbade me to quit, and thankfully I didn’t quit. If that hadn’t gone down, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at Ultra after playing the Main Stage with an album about to drop.
And I’m also grateful that I have a fanbase that is tolerant enough to listen to whatever direction I go in music; they’ll listen to me rant about politics and the environment and any other piece of activism that I get involved in, from Black Lives Matter to the presidential campaign. Almost everybody will tell you not to talk about politics or religion, because you may offend somebody, but I say, ‘tough sh*t!’ I feel strongly enough about the things that I will go on record in saying, and if that upsets someone, I’ll just send them a link to my Soundcloud page, because they’ll only find music there. My creative process is my activism and my love for my wife, and that’s all wrapped up into what I do; I would feel weird if I approached music in a different way. Somebody’s listening, and that was always my number one perspective of this…if I go and DJ, and every single other person in the room is bored, but there’s just one person that’s dancing with their eyes closed in the corner, I’ll still do it, because that’s who I’m doing it for…that is my crowd. I’m one of those weirdos who dances in the corner with my eyes closed. That is exactly who I’m trying to entertain, and that’s always what it’s been about.