While the term “DJ’s DJ” is thrown around a lot, Danny Tenaglia is the DJ all the others aspire to be. I’ve lost track of the number of other spinners that reference him. So if this is the first you’re hearing about the legend, get outta the EDM bubble and dig into Balance 025: Danny Tenaglia. Seriously. It reinvigorated my love (and hope) for electronic music. Plus Tenaglia has been on my DJ interview bucket list for almost a decade. In this latest installment of the House Music History series, Tenaglia recreates the vibe at his infamous Twilo parties, why Balance was the right fit, and how the heck he ended up in a speed-skating outfit in Miami.
Over the years with all the DJs that I’ve interviewed, they often make a reference that they want a vibe like “Danny Tenaglia at Twilo.” Can you describe the legendary atmosphere for those of us that weren’t there?
I think Twilo was one of the last, best venues that New York ever had in a sense that of its size—it was overwhelming in size—but there was nothing glamorous about it. It was clean. They kept the place immaculate but the concept was, you know, “nightclub.” Great sound, minimal lighting, nothing too outrageous. No digital screens, monitors, nothing of that sort. It was built as Sound Factory, then it became Twilo and it was one of the very few clubs in the world that have ever attempted to achieve what the Paradise Garage original concept was: opening up this big massive venue to bring people together for dancing.
I guess today in order to do that you really have to have the right reason for wanting to do it. A DJ wants to play records? Well, a club owner has to have that same passion in order to open a room. I guess at the end of the day it wasn’t about big dollar signs because this was long before bottle sales and many of these clubs like Paradise Garage, Shelter, Stereo Montreal, there’s no liquor so how much money could you even really make? So Sound Factory then went on the become Twilo. … But now we were entering a newer era with sound becoming more global. And I guess just by saying the word “global” there was a period, an era, where Global Underground came out with their series and had DJs John Digweed, Sasha, Tony De Vit, Paul Oakenfold and eventually Nick Warren. So many of these DJs started to come over, even if they weren’t on Global Underground. … So now we were just embracing changes and a newer generation coming through. Fridays at Twilo was predominantly straight, Saturdays were predominantly gay; which is exactly how the Paradise Garage was. They built this atmosphere and, you know, people started raving about it and promoting it.
It’s been six years since your last mix album, Futurism. What about the Balance series particularly peaked your interest?
Balance, to me, is a respectable label. I get offers to do a lot of stuff, a lot of CD compilations, and there’s always that desire for me to want to do it. I’m far from perfect, but I just try to give the best product that I can. I find compilations to be not the easiest thing to make because I have like a theatrical mind I think, coming from the early days of DJing. The whole journey, introduction, the main, the finale. I just can’t put out just anything that sounds like it could have been done [by] anybody. I want people to feel signature moments. It’s hard to capture that on a CD compilation. I do my best. That’s why it’s been taking me so long. So with Balance, the reason why I did say yes to them is not only because I felt like it was long overdue, but it was because I like what they were about.
CD 1 [is] reflective of a deeper, techier feeling that has some borderline soulfulness to it, even though it’s more electronic. … When I started playing at Panorama Bar in Berlin and then the next day playing at Berghain, it was amazing, all under one roof. I could play the deepest house upstairs at Panorama Bar and then go downstairs and do full-on techno. So CD 1 is a reflection of what I do as a New Yorker, what I do with my gigs at Output, Stereo, anywhere that I can play long sets. Just might miss the classics—I didn’t play any classics on the CD.
CD 2 was a little bit more moodier, a little bit more aggressive, a little more 16 note. More of a journey, a little bit faster, but I still tend to pitch so many songs down just to keep them in a groove of like 126, not usually above 128. Especially for a CD.
I know I’m pretty OCD when making just like a mix CD for a friend, from song order to a theme. How painstaking is it for you, narrowing it down and putting together the whole vibe and journey of it?
It’s not as easy as people think because if I get asked to do a compilation, then I have to come up with a whole list of songs that I’m feeling at the moment or would like to get on the compilation. And then there’s that end result of what could be used, licensing territories and then whatever you’re left with, it becomes a puzzle. And you have to take all these pieces of this puzzle and try to make it into art. The end result for me is the work that I do in the studio, enhancing some of the songs by adding loops and sounds and taking a song and editing it to a point where you would have never been able to do that live as a DJ. So it’s like as if I’m creating versions of many of these songs that you’ll only be able to hear on this CD compilation. … When I do a compilation, I really do my best to take into consideration, “What will this sound like five, 10, 15 years from now, or even more? And I like to think that some of the CDs I’ve done in the past still have a good relevance today and it just doesn’t sound like dated hit records that you find in a 99 cent bin.
When you think you’ve finally got it, do you dance around to it, lay on the floor with headphones on, do you get in the car and drive around?
I actually do all that. I probably have even danced around a bit. … There are times where I can’t help but move; that’s just my nature. You want to hear those different levels… [a] different atmosphere can bring out a different feeling. And it’s really important to even listen to it on computer speakers because we’re living in a modern day and age and if they don’t have speakers set up they’re going to listen to it right out of the computer.
Over the years you’ve been able to adapt and meld through various sounds, but it’s still possible to recognize something distinctly Tenaglia in the mix. Is it something to do with edits you make? Is it just a certain plan that you go in with? How do you retain a distinctive Danny Tenaglia sound where so many other mixes could have been done by anyone?
I really, really appreciate this question. It just makes me so feel so humble that people are getting it and they’re feeling [how I take these] puzzle pieces and turn it into art and basically at the end of the day make people feel my journey as a mailman, if you will, delivering these songs back but in a different way. … What is the biggest compliment to me is when people make me feel like they can feel what I’m feeling; which is what I always describe as what I feel like I learned from Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage. It wasn’t like I learned technically much from him, his mixing skills were very raw, because back then it was just vinyl and one little wheel for pitch control, but what he was doing was nothing short of amazing. More than anything it was the feeling of what was being delivered and how articulate he might have been with bass and treble and knowing when to bring it up and when to bring it down or when to get the crowd to sing so that’s what I would take as my version of saying—you know the song “House is a Feeling”? That’s what I guess I’m trying to apply here. That’s my feeling, that’s my expression of house music and making it more groovier. My final point is to say I like to bring house music that’s techy and techno and just make it as soulful as I can, if that’s possible at all. And I think people feel that, they feel my soul.
Really quick, I have this image of you in a speed-skating outfit. Was that just a weird dream, or was that an actual flyer?
I have three! I went to Winter Music Conference a few years ago and we were playing off the Olympic theme so one was me speed skating, one was me on the rings and one was me on a diving board.