Max Essa is a UK born DJ and producer based in Tokyo, whose sound blends deep disco and sun-kissed Balearic house. His releases on Bear Funk, Need-Want, Feel Music, and various other labels have garnered worldwide recognition and been staples in DJ crates from Berlin to Buenos Aires.
How long have you lived in Japan? When did you first arrive (was it your first time)? What was your motivation for moving to Japan?
I have lived in Japan for four years, since early 2008. My wife is Japanese, we married in London about eleven years ago. Before we moved here we would come over for about a month once every year, so I had been here about six or seven times before actually deciding to come and live here. I had always wanted to experience living abroad at some time in my life and Japan seemed liked the obvious choice.
How have Japanese audiences responded to your performances? Have you had any surprises?
The Japanese audiences are very receptive. If they think you’re giving your all to the party and what you’re doing they get right behind you and I love that. Despite being an enormous city that has pretty much every top DJ from every niche genre of music coming to play here every week there doesn’t seem to be the cynicism you can find in other parts of the world. What I still can’t get over is just how many little DJ bars\\micro clubs there are in Tokyo. There must be thousands!
What are the main differences between DJing in Japan and the UK?
Generally the quality of the sound systems / mixers. While in London bigger clubs like Fabric have decent systems and one or two smaller venues like Plastic People are very well set up, often it’s not the case. Also, as someone who plays vinyl, I’ve been to places and they just don’t have things set up right for records. In Japan that just doesn’t happen. There are venues, probably mainly those catering to a predominantly ‘gaijin’ clientel, that have pretty awful sounds, but the proper music places are all well kitted out.
Can you tell us a little about your label Jansen Jardin?
I started Jansen Jardin in 2010. Initially there was no grand scheme behind it, I just felt I wanted to have something that was 100% under my control as far as releasing music goes. The first four records were all written and produced by me. Two of those were done with a Japanese singer called Yuki Suzuki, one was done under a pseudomym (Minus Yogis) and one as ‘Max Essa’. The last release was the first by a producer other than myself – ‘BEAT’ by SOMEONE. He’s a DJ and producer from Portugal called Pedro Henrique and he sent me these beautifully crafted, very chilled out spacious tracks and I jumped at the chance to put one out. Moving forwards there will be a track called ‘GALATTICA’ from Mushrooms Project with a Chicago Damn remix out in about 3 weeks. Then a little later in the year a project I’m producing with Yuki Suzuki and D.C Mathias who I did the Needwant record with alst summer. I’m also signing a couple of tracks from two different Japanese producers for next year.
Who are some of your favorite Japanese artists? Can you recommend any current Japanese musicians that you have seen or performed with?
A few months ago I saw a gig by an afro-funk band called Kingdom Afrocks and they absolutely blew the roof off the place. I think they are doing Deep Space with FK at Eleven very soon. They need to get on the European festival circuit in the summer, they would smash it! 9dw are a very good band I’ve worked with a few times, they do different live sets, sometimes a full band other times a ‘machine’ set with just synths and the two main guys. They’re excellent live and very popular in Tokyo. I was also recently given a CD by a DJ I know here of a new project of his called ‘The Dubless’ and it’s brilliant! I don’t think it’s available outside of Japan but if you see the name check it out.
What is special about living in Tokyo?
I’m not sure where to begin! Although it’s a very crowded, intense city all the small things are done right so it makes existing here a very smooth experience! (most of the time) I suppose my favourite things here are the food and the social life. It’s truly a 24 hour city in a way that London just isn’t. If I want to go out and eat at 4.30 am I can. If I want a beer at 8 ‘o’ clock in the morning I can buy one. Also everything works. If I need to be somewhere at a certain time I can find out exactly which train or bus will get me there at exactly what time, you can’t do that in the U.K. It’s also a fantastic city to explore on foot. I would encourage any tourist coming here to go out and get lost in one of the neighbourhoods. Unilke a lot of cities in the world it is very safe here so there is very little danger of wandering into a ‘bad part of town’.
What is you favorite venue to play in Tokyo? Outside of Tokyo?
In Toyko it would have to be Bar Bonobo which is a tiny, tiny bar near Harajuku with a custom built (for David Mancuso on his first visit to Japan) rotary mixer, Altec speakers and a very lively crowd of music lovers. We also do BBQs on the roof in the summer. Outside of Tokyo I’ve played twice at a venue called Ragslow in Okazaki City in Aichi. Great crowd of people, very good times! Mondo Cafe down in Fukuyama in Hiroshima is also a brilliant party spot.
As a DJ with a deep record collection, how did you manage to move all of your vinyl over to Japan?
I sold quite a bit of stuff before I left the UK. Put some in storage, and brought about 2000 records over in the shipping container along with everything else we brought over. It was actually not that expensive.
What projects are you currently working on (I remember you once told me that you were commissioned to make soundtracks for a local city arts council)? What new releases should we look for in the near future?
Thats right, I do some work for small theatre companies here and also some commercial music for corporate clients. Coming up release wise is…a new 12″ for Is It Balearic? Recordings called ‘DOVODAH!’ / ‘BURNING PALMS’ which should be out in June. An EP for Stevie Kotey’s new Valley Sounds label called ‘POW WOW’/M.O.D.F.D.M.V’ and a new project called AFRICAN MAN JAPANESE WOMAN on Jansen Jardin. Also remixes of Virgo Four, Candi Staton, Windsurf and many many more!