Gay Times Magazine
The London-based DJ has finally made the album he’s always wanted to.
The London-based DJ and producer has finally made the dance-pop album he’s always wanted to, with help from Chester Lockhart, Little Boots and LIZ.
With the kind of production we’d expect to hear on a Charli XCX mixtape, and collaborations with many artists in that same musical sphere (HANA, LIZ, SOPHIE), SONIKKU is ditching the Sega sound chip and 16-bit house he once heralded and is establishing himself as a fully-fledged pop artist, delivering the big bangers your weekend needs.
As he prepares to release his first album Joyful Death, with features ranging from Little Boots to Chester Lockhart and Douglas Dare, we spoke to SONIKKU about his musical transformation, how he came to work with critical darling SOPHIE, and the queer community’s decades-spanning connection to dance music.
How did you first get into music?
I remember playing around with a really shitty cheap laptop when I was a teenager, I was trying to copy Lady Gaga songs, trying to recreate the instrumentals. And then I came to London and I didn't really think I was any good at music, I started DJing, and I eventually combined DJing with my love of pop music and it came to where I am now, I guess.
You used to use the Sega to create music, right?
Yeah, I did on my previous releases, but I don't really like them anymore. A lot of my earlier work was really inspired by video games, but this album, not so much. The essence is still there, but I've gone through a bit of a transformation in the sense that I used to make underground music, and now I'm bridging the gap between pop and electronic music. Joyful Death is a proper dance-pop record. Is this something you always wanted to make?
That's something I've always wanted to do, and I got really frustrated with the previous label I was on, because the main audience of that label was straight guys, they had a 'uni bro' focus. I was sending all these demos to the guy who ran the label and it was through that filter. He had control over what my album art was, I didn't really have a lot of artistic freedom, so it took a while, but this album now is what I've always wanted to make since I was a kid – although I am really grateful to them for giving me a head-start in music when I was so young. All the features on your new album are either queer or queeradjacent. Is that intentional?
It's not something that I consciously do, I'm not thinking, 'I only want to do that', because I don't want it to just be a queer interest record, but because of who I've worked with they're probably the people it's gonna resonate with the most. But yeah, I guess it is important to work with likeminded people and support the community. Also, I grew up listening to Little Boots, so it's kinda crazy to be able to write with her and have a feature on the album. Sweat is very reminiscent of Britney and Kylie – what is it about female pop stars that resonates with queer people?
I guess we can live vicariously through them. I don't know, I'm sure there's some deep psychological meaning behind it, but I try not to think too deep about it to be honest. I just think they're able to talk about things we as men don't really get to say. That song got a SOPHIE remix as well, which is a really big deal. How did that come about?
Obviously I love SOPHIE, she's one of my favourite artists, and that came about because we had a mutual friend called Ciaran, and he showed her Sweat before it had been released, he was like, 'She's gonna really like this, I can just tell', and she did like it, and as soon as she heard it she asked if she could remix it. So then she did the remix and we hung out one time and played each other our favourite disco music. We had a cool time. It's a huge honour to get her stamp of approval.
What was your goal when making this album?
My goal was just to write a really good pop record, I guess. But also to meld all my influences into one thing – so I was really inspired by disco, 80s garage vibes, and new wave like New Order and Depeche Mode – and turn it into something new. I'm actually kind of annoyed that Dua Lipa is releasing Future Nostalgia, because that's exactly what I was going for. There weren't many openly queer artists to look up to for previous generations, but over the last five or so years there's been a wave of out-and-proud artists emerging. Are you excited to see that?
Yeah, I think it's really cool, and I think it's cool that people don't have to say who they are. Because I really hate the idea of having to come out of the closet or revealing, like it's something that needs to be shared. People are just being themselves without having to scream about it. People already know or they don't care. It's about the music at the end of the day. And I think that's great. Because yeah, 10 years ago if you were quite successful and you were queer, you'd have all the newspapers speculating about it, but it feels like no one really cares about it now. At the same time, when you look to the mainstream DJs who are getting chart hits, the majority of them are straight, white and male. What do you think can be done to break those barriers so that DJs from marginalised communities can break through?
Well I DJ at Adonis, which is a queer rave in Tottenham, and we just did a livestream with Mixmag which was really cool. I think it does need to come from the gatekeepers in the dance community, like Resident Advisor and Boiler Room – and they are trying, they do hold queer-focused events and they do pioneer some queer artists. Radio One especially, their dance playlists are all made up of the 'highly demonised' straight white male. Dance music is so gay, so it's kind of hard to scrub that out of it. We're always gonna be here raving and going to parties and stuff. Do you think that straight 'uni bro' audience that you mentioned earlier are ready to listen to queer artists and not be ashamed of that?
Yeah, I think they're ready. They'll be shocked when they first see it, but slowly when they do their research, it's cool. I think they're ready. It's not our job to educate people, it lies on the shoulders of the gatekeepers of the community, the record labels and people like that. I think when people are faced with something so much they won't care. As long as the music is good. People don't want to be forced to listen to crap. They need to like it. Do you think that streaming platforms have empowered queer artists to make the music they want to make without toning themselves down, and also helped them find an audience?
Yeah, I think now you can really curate the whole album imagery that you want and loads of people are doing it without record labels. So I think streaming has had a really positive impact on lots of different communities. It's just so accessible now, and you don't have to just put it on Soundcloud, which a lot of people used to do. Finally, why do you think dance music has always had such a strong connection with the LGBTQ community?
Well I guess it's historical, right? Again, to bring it back to the album and where the inspiration came from, those clubs in New York in the 80s where people would gather at the time of the AIDS crisis, and people would really resonate with the empowering lyrics, often from black female vocalists, like I Will Survive and songs like those. It sounds corny now, but they were the only safe spaces for queer people to congregate and feel free back then. Loads of people like to dance, not just queer people, but during that time it was hedonism and escapism and I guess it's evolved now to a point where that historical moment is still ingrained in the music people make now, whether they know it or not. So dance music and pop served that purpose, I think.