Dubai's dance-music pioneer, Dion Mavath, talks about his latest album and the trials of life as a globe-trotting DJ.
Dion Mavath: Welcome to my house
There are, in the end, just two kinds of DJ: the ones who explore alien frontiers of sound, hide from the sun and look like deep-sea fish, and the party starters. Dion Mavath is the latter. Tanned, shaven-headed, rippling with muscles and enveloped in tribal tattoos, he's the DJ as globe-trotting world citizen, the sort of guy who is obviously having too good a time to worry about authenticity or progress or any of that brow-furrowing stuff. Mavath specialises in house, the ritziest form of dance music yet devised. He lives in Dubai, plays records all over Europe and Asia, and has recently released his first album, Warrior, a collection of house tracks that run the gamut from banging to politely knocking. Something, he says, for all occasions. The album went to number 10 on the Virgin Middle East top 20 chart and is being reprinted, so he must be doing something right.
"I'm a big believer that I get paid to entertain. I'm not there to educate the masses or anything like that," he explains when we meet at the Al-Qasr hotel in Jumeirah. "People pay to come and see me, to be entertained and have a good night." That's what they get at his crowd-pleasing sets at Shochu and Neo in Dubai, and during his weekend excursions to those lesser-known party capitals a few hours' flight from home. "I did Siberia a couple of weeks ago," he says. "I was only there for eight, nine hours before flying back." And what are Siberian crowds like? "Very, very tall," he says. His ultimate goal is to spend half the year working the European summer and the other half in the southern hemisphere. "But I still want Dubai to be my base," he says. "It's great place to earn euros and pounds and come back tax-free."
Attractive as it sounds, the life of an international DJ seems, at least as far as Mavath knows it, an oddly detached and precarious thing. His new record, for instance, is designed purely as an advertisement for his turntable services. "You don't make money in music any more," he says. "It's about exposure, getting my name out there." It seems to be working. One of the tracks on the album, Keep on Loving Me, has been licensed for international release by the prestigious house label Defected. "I got an e-mail from them saying, hey we like the track so much we want to release it on an EP," he recalls. "So I'm like: awesome, please do. Here, take." Other tracks have been picked up by other labels, so with any luck Mavath's work will soon filter out into the house-music mainstream. And at 34 years old, this disc jockey could use the career boost of a breakout track.
"I would say you can't DJ past the age of 40 if you haven't been successful or had a big hit yet," he says. "The reason you can after 40 is that your name's still there. People will still book you for your name. And even better if you're like Fatboy Slim and you're still creating big hits." For his own record, Mavath wasn't taking any chances. "Every song has a vocal," he says. "I like the singalongs. I like that, in the nightclub, once you've got the girls on the dance floor, you've pretty much made the night, because then the boys follow."
Despite their humanising effect on Mavath's music, those vocals typify the disembodied nature of modern house-music production. Mavath says he has never met his singers. He and his co-writer Alexander Perls, a Los Angeles songwriter for hire, commissioned them remotely and paid the ones who came up with the best recording. "With vocalists now, if they're a very big name they want money upfront, which I usually don't agree with because if they come back and the quality's not there, I've just paid for nothing," he says. "With a lot of the singers, they were the ones who were like, yeah, give us a shot." A few of them were based in Canada, a few in France. One was from the UK and two were from America. "So, all over the place," Mavath says. "I've always wanted to do something with someone out of Dubai but I just haven't found that right person yet."
Exacting though he is about collaborators, Mavath is self-effacing about his songwriting abilities. "House music isn't that difficult to write lyrics for. It's very formulaic. You maybe have one chorus and two verses," he says. Nonetheless, he says Perls helped him develop his style. "Working with Alexander did make it a lot easier. I came to him with a lot of ideas already and he kind of helped me develop them. When I first started it was very corny... Everything had to rhyme." Perls also had a disconcerting technique for powering through creative blocks. "An open-door-shower policy, so he could yell out lyrics while he was in the shower, was a little bit interesting for me," Mavath deadpans. "He had some really weird ways of getting inspiration." A look at his back catalogue, which includes such melodramatic oddities as David Guetta's Joan of Arc and Circ's Destroy She Said, and you can believe it.
Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the enforced nomadism of the DJ's life appeals to Mavath. Malaysian-Indian by extraction, he grew up between Malaysia and Perth in Western Australia. The latter may explain why he now prizes a good night out so highly. "Perth's what I would say, for teenagers or 20-year-olds or 30-year-olds, isn't a very exciting place," he explains. "It's a great place to bring up children or retire. Amazingly beautiful, but there's not much really happening." What little there was, Mavath threw himself into with impressive precocity. He got his first DJing gig when he was 14. "I ended up working in this incredibly rough bikey bar, playing Sixties, Seventies and Eighties music to bikers," he remembers. "I had to have a letter from my mum to say it was all right." The bikers asked him back, and over the next 20 years he refined his chops, taking his record bag around the world and switching styles from oldies to hip-hop and R&B, then finally to house. Well, that's part of the story.
"I was at university for eight years," he says casually, "so I've got quite a few degrees. Law, commerce, management... I never really had to get a real job as my dad called it, because I was earning quite a good income from DJing." Even so, parental influence prevailed and he surrendered to a real job anyway. "I actually used my finance degree and became a stockbroker," he says. "Did that for a few years. And then on September 9, 2001, I sold everything and decided I wasn't going to be a stockbroker any more. I wanted to be a DJ." A couple of days later it must have seemed like an auspicious moment to get out of finance. But Mavath was already on his way to Dubai.
"When I first got out here, every club was just playing R&B, hip-hop and Arabic music," he says. "There was no house music whatsoever." That changed when he and his associates started Peppermint at the Fairmont in 2004. "We went from a venue that had six people to one that had 300 in one night, just playing commercial house music." The numbers kept rising. Soon, Mavath said, you started hearing house on the radio. Clubs competed to bring the biggest international DJs. "It kind of blew Dubai up into this global clubbing icon," he says. "Even now, nowhere else in the world other than maybe London, New York, Ibiza and Paris gets as many big DJs every weekend as the UAE." It couldn't last. Venues were forced to pay over the odds. "As soon as any DJ heard Dubai," Mavath says, "add an extra 30 per cent onto the fee." So house music fell from favour among Dubai promoters.
"I think that was actually a good thing for the market," Mavath says, "because now you don't have these big super-clubs. It's all about going to smaller niche clubs which takes the scene to different areas, with different styles of music." And despite his reluctance to educate the masses, he's been able to take advantage of the Dubaians' expanded palate. "There used to be two very different styles of music I'd play," he says. "I used to have two different record bags, a Dubai record bag and an international record bag. But now it's really crossing over a lot more. There are songs that DJs are playing internationally that I have and I don't expect anyone in Dubai to hear them, and I'll get up and get requests for them." As the borders between territories become more permeable, perhaps Mavath can ride the currents that flow between them. The album should come in handy there. "If I'm sitting here with you in Dubai, someone in South America can be listening to my music and then when I go over there to play, they immediately have that recognition of the style of music that I play. They might even want to come down," he says, obviously delighted by the thought. "I'm trying to think of a time when I haven't had fun DJing. It's something that I absolutely love to do. I really do enjoy it."