There must be something in the water in European clubland these days that's turning otherwise straight-and-narrow DJs into twisted, devious party monsters. Ben Watt of the late pop act Everything but the Girl is known for his tuneful, deep-house DJing. But lately he's gone to the dark side, telling us how much he likes the new "druggy" European sound. Dubfire, one half of accessible house music duo Deep Dish, is spinning dubby, mischievous tunes for the 5 a.m. crowd in Ibiza and Berlin. Even Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, on a recent mixtape with DJ Felix da Housecat, is getting in on the Euro-madness, rapping about clubbing in Paris and his allegiance to "13-minute versions" of dance tracks.
Southern California has also lost an otherwise sane soul to the devilish sounds of Europe. Andy Caldwell was a poster boy for the smooth-house grooves that put other West Coast dance music and the likes of Miguel Migs, Kaskade and Jay-J on the map. The sound, often featuring calming female vocals, while accessible and tuneful, often feels like Kenny G is being remixed for a late-dinner crowd. Kaskade got a clue, and has since tranced up his sound for a whole new audience (he recently headlined for 4,000 at a capacity Hollywood Palladium). Jay-J moved to New York and embraced a tougher, more drum-heavy sound, too.
Longtime Bay Area resident Caldwell made his own move—to L.A. But he's also been spending time in Europe, and it shows. His new album, Obsession, is nothing like his smooth-house past. There's not a sax sample or sad vocal in sight. Instead, the DJ has infused his sound with alarm wails, rap (Mr. V sounds Diddy-like on "It's Guud") and dizzy, trancey elements that are more at home in a sweaty super-club than in a cocktail lounge. "Black Diamond Sky" seems to share some DNA with a Calvin Harris track. "Put Me in the Mix" has trippy echoes and twisted elements that give way to syrupy vocals and boastful rhymes. And on "Funk Nasty," contributing vocalist Gram'ma Funk asks, "Are you nasty baby?" For Caldwell, the answer is yes.
"I was stagnating creatively," Caldwell explains. "Then I lived in Barcelona for about six months in 2004, and I toured and traveled to Europe on and off. It definitely had an influence. People there just have a more intense kind of energy. There's a lot of really great music coming out of there, and I seem to be drawn to it."
Like Migs, Caldwell is a Santa Cruz native. He ended up at Sonoma State University, where he studied communications and minored in music. About the time he graduated, he started spinning.
"I realized early on that I had a knack for putting on a set that takes people on a journey," says Caldwell, now 36. "I always go someplace with it and tell a story."
In the mid-1990s Caldwell began recording for Bay Area label Om, which was also home to releases from Migs and Kaskade. At about the same time, Naked Music, a New York deep-house label, established a beachhead in S.F., and locals Jay-J and Chris Lum built an epicenter for California house music recording, Moulton Studios. It was a scene, man. Caldwell became a headlining DJ as the West Coast house phenomenon spread across the world. From 2003 to 2006, he even attracted the sponsorship of surf-wear maker Op, which was relaunching some of its old-school looks (corduroy walking shorts, striped polos). Both Caldwell's music and his breezy, clean-cut appearance were a perfect fit, and you couldn't pick up a music or surf magazine without seeing him modeling beach duds in Op ads.
As his board-short era faded, Caldwell moved to Los Angeles and opened a new chapter. No longer would he promote the image of a laid-back DJ living the beach lifestyle. "I think I had enough of San Francisco," he says. "I kept doing the same thing over and over, and I wanted change."
Don't take his tougher sound too literally, though. One thing Caldwell misses about the Bay was its sense of community among digital music-makers. He's trying to re-create that in L.A., asking other area dance producers, such as Morgan Page, over to his studio to exchange ideas and talk music.
"We're all kind of getting together, swapping remixes and collaborating in the studio," Caldwell says. "I'm trying to recreate what I was doing in San Francisco eight years ago. I think Southern California has the best electronic music scene and fan base in America if not the world right now."
So much for Europe.
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