THERE'S NOT A DJ in House Music that's had more success with commercial mix CDs than Mark Farina. And despite the worldwide slump in record sales and the wide assortment of mixes online, a new Mark Farina CD is still an "event" - for the fans who line up to buy them, and for the artists who have told me over the years how exposure in one of Mark's mixes can blow up a good tune. Few take the art of the recorded mix as seriously - and even fewer have the ear and the turntable chops to capture the magic experienced in the clubs on tape, and to do it so consistently.
It's now been eleven years since the release of Mark's first commercial mix, Mushroom Jazz, which served as a landmark in compilation CDs and may have been the most successful crossover electronic music record of all time. Having just finished up the usual exhausting tour in support of his Live in Tokyo mix on OM Records (more than six months!), Mark is gearing up for another roadshow in support of Fabric 40, the latest installment of the rapid-fire mix series released by the London club of the same name. In keeping with Mark's style, the track listing is packed with twenty-one blazing tracks ranging from Brazilian act Prztz, Chuck Love, Giom and J.T. Donaldson to hometown faves DJ Sneak ("Mumbler" on Blu Funk), James Curd and Johnny Fiasco ("Last Word" on Dae Recordings).
So now seems like as good a time as any to catch up with Mark for a quick chat and try to figure out - without betraying any tricks of the trade, of course - how he manages to reach so deep and touch such a wide audience.
It's been eleven years now since Mushroom Jazz came out. That CD is kind of like the Sgt Pepper's or Appetite for Destruction of mix CDs - everyone, and I mean everyone, has a copy of it somewhere. How have things changed?
Obviously, music's changed a lot since Mushroom Jazz. There's not much of an acid jazz scene anymore, I would say. There's maybe a little bit left in the UK or here but they either call it something else or it's "loungey" music. You can call it downtempo, chill music - they've changed the name so many times and there are so many different genres of it now...
Why do you think the Mushroom Jazz series took off they way it did?
I think it filled niche that doesn't seem to exist much anymore. There was a larger audience tuned in with that sound when Mushroom Jazz Vol. 1 was released. When volumes 2 and 3 were released, things had changed a bit - that was when drum'n'bass came into the scene. And hip-hop changed at the same time from that early 1990s sound that I like so much. There isn't so much acid jazz anymore - like the Talking Loud stuff, some of the stuff that was coming out of the UK at the time. It had a good vibe and I've always felt that an instrumental hip-hop beat is good for so many occasions.
I also feel that Mushroom Jazz was a good branch for non-electronica people who suddenly find themselves listening to so-called "electronic music" and thought, "Hey, I kind of like that." So it reached people that knew me but also people that probably wouldn't have picked up a House compilation.
Do you ever feel that your remixes and original productions are overshadowed by the fact that you're so well known for doing mixed CDs?
No, I don't mind that at all. It's not a bad thing to be known for different things by different people.
I've talked to producers who can tell me how many more records they'll sell and other opportunities that will come up when you put their music on one of your mixed CDs. I'm sure you get people constantly throwing music at you like any DJ, but do you ever feel pressure to include certain tracks?
Not really. It's unfortunate that you can never include everything you'd like to. I have a lot of friends who make music that I do like, which is always a good thing, but I would never put something on a mix just as a favor for someone. I don't even do that with my own tunes! I'm more critical.
When you make a mixed CD, you have a final list of tracks that you'd like to use. One or two might not make it just for various licensing issues. Sometimes there may be time constraints and you can't quite fit everything on to CD. You feel bad of course - it's a bummer to tell someone, "Hey, we're going to use your tune!" and then, "No, we're not going to use it!" It has nothing to do with the music - just the format. There's no way around it, either. It's pretty hard to go back and get permission after you've already recorded a mix, though, so it has to be this way.
Do you have a certain ritual for putting together a playlist? Maybe you can walk us through the process you follow...
Coming from a mixtape background, or at least as a home mixer, I used to run through a few practice sets before recording and then, you know, give the tapes to friends to listen to in their car or whatever. It's a little different when you're doing a mixed CD for commercial release, since you have to keep in mind that you need to get permission. You have to think within that box a little bit - sometimes it can even be a friend's tune but you won't be able to use it. There was something I actually wanted to use for the Tokyo CD by DJ Sneak, but we couldn't get permission. There's always red tape and paperwork you have to cut through.
You also have a timeframe, which is really important. Fabric has such a rigorous schedule that as soon as the project was a go, there's a whole schedule that gets put into place. You need to have your tracklist ready to go by this date, they'll get back to you with the licensed tracks by this date, send them the mix by this date, the mastering will be done by this date and on and on. OM does it that way as well. So sometimes that can be helpful, but I know home mixers who will record the mix over and over again and say "It's not ready yet! Let me do it again!"
In the meantime, the timeframe can work against you. The mastering for this CD was done in February for a CD that wouldn't be released until June, so you want to get material that's as fresh as possible and isn't dated by the time it comes out.
You don't want to pick just a bunch of huge hits either - it's different from putting together a set at a club because this is going to be heard over and over again. So you don't want songs that might have a very limited shelf-life. I personally try to pick tunes that might be overlooked and hopefully not on any other mixed CDs. I'll even take a peek at some of the other mixed CDs out there, maybe things put out by Heather or Sneak or Diz, just to make sure we're not doubling up and mixing the same records.
When you know a new mix project is in the works, you can start mentally putting the tracks together and send out feelers to producers to see who has some good tracks coming out.
Fabric 40 is due out in the United States in June. What else are you working on?
I'm going to England to have the Fabric release party this Saturday. I'm also getting to work on Mushroom Jazz Vol. 6 which will hopefully be put out by the Fall. I'm looking at turning Great Lakes Audio, the House label I had going, into a digital label. Vinyl's slowing down so I'm going to be transitioning Great Lakes into the digital format. It'll be both new music as well as the back catalog.
We did a big story with Gene Farris in April after he moved back to Chicago from overseas. Any chance we'll see you back here?
Yeah, I've considered coming back. My parents still live there and I do get back a lot. So yeah, I've thought about it.
Out of the Gramaphone fraternity - Derrick Carter, Colette, Bear Who?, Justin Long, down to people who work there now like Mike Serafini and Andy Moy and Oscar - is there any talk about doing a project or a tour together? There's really so much talent united by the common thread of having worked in that one store.
Yeah we have, but nobody's organized it. Josh has put some things together, but I don't know... It's a good question. I've always wondered why we haven't. In particular, at one point people were talking about marketing the name "Gramaphone" as a label. But I'm surprised nobody's brought it together by now.