Six years after releasing his first single, Wolfgang Gartner is at once a house-music veteran, one of its freshest innovators and one of its most outspoken critics. The Grammy-nominated American producer with eight Beatport Top 10s now shuns the chart’s redundancy. The DJ commonly credited with helping to create the “complextro” genre now rejects the pigeonholing of genres. The prolific festival headliner also denounces the prevailing monotony in his peers’ festival sets. Good thing Gartner, who returns to town January 4 to spin at XS, is a change catalyst who leads the industry by example.
In October 2012, you told Vegas Seven how your sets have adapted from the underground Godskitchen days at Body English to a mainstream Strip-friendly sound. How is Las Vegas’ palate one year later?
There’s a new situation. It’s not like it was years ago when Vegas was starting up [as a nightclub destination], when it was a little more naïve, not tuned in with what the scene was really about—and DJs really had to appease them. It happened really fast. But these clubs now, people know what to expect. That takes a lot of weight off our shoulders as DJs, takes off the pressure to cater to a certain type of crowd.
As a leading American producer, how do you describe the American house sound?
The American house sound is whatever is going on in the world, because America is a mecca for it, especially right now. If I had to say America has a sound, it’s house—like straight-up house. That’s where it was born and bred, that’s where it will continue to be. This is where everything comes to blow up; Dutch house comes here to blow up.
You had collaborations with Deadmau5, Skrillex and Tiësto before collaborations were trendy. Your thoughts on the explosion?
It’s interesting because it’s crossing the border even more so out of dance music in rap—every single song on [a rap] album, whether its Lil Wayne or Jay Z or The Game or whomever, has at least one [collaboration]. Some have four dudes featured. And if you look at a rap album from 10 years ago, it was not like that at all. It’s the same thing with dance music: The more names on a song, generally, the more it’s gonna sell. Because each of those [artists] has their own fan base and their own marketing reach. But ultimately the best music comes from when you collaborate with someone you really respect, look up to or can learn from.
How does hip-hop fit into the EDM-dominated nightlife landscape these days?
I don’t think it really fits in at all. Occasionally there’s a rapper featured on a dance track, but generally the two worlds are very separate. Where it shows the most is really just the culture. Look at rap/urban culture versus dance and EDM culture. The style, clothing, the way people talk and the music—it’s so completely polar opposite.
I’m a big fan of hip-hop; I’ve listened to hip-hop all my life. It’s like my other love aside from dance music. So I always play at least two hip-hop drops in all of my sets. I started doing it as a selfish thing. But it turned into a situation where it got the biggest response of the night.
You did the Hounds of Hell tour with Tommy Trash. Any funny stories come from that?
It was the last show of the tour in Mexico City, and I think Tommy was drinking backstage. He comes out toward the end of my set and stands up at the front of the stage. The crowd is going crazy, and he takes off his shoes and holds them up—they’re these really nice Nikes, brand new—and he throws them both into the crowd. I finish my set, and we get into the car. He literally just dropped his only pair of shoes into the crowd, and he had to fly to Australia with no shoes. I love telling stories of Tommy’s drunken shenanigans.
You mentioned being on the same page as Tommy and Deadmau5, “bitching about the same parts of the industry.” What parts?
The stuff that is popular right now is so simple to make, it requires basically no talent. Success basically comes down to marketing yourself, image, profile, how you look, your logo, how you present yourself, social networking numbers, your personality on social networking. There’s an article about it in Forbes that I’ll paraphrase: When you take something that is essentially creative—music and festivals—and you put a price tag on it, and you put it in the stock market so that investors are controlling it, that’s where creativity goes to die. The music is becoming less and less of a thing, and the pretty lights and the names and the haircuts and the faces and the pictures and all these aesthetic things become the focus. It’s just like what happens to any style of music that becomes super popular, and it becomes all about the money. And the creativity and the music generally suffer.
How do you personally push the envelope, and how do you want the industry overall to move forward?
It’s not enough for me to make my own unique music and not do what everybody else is doing. Nothing is going to change unless a lot of people make it change, and a few very important talented people execute it flawlessly. If you look at Avicii’ s album True, I see that as somebody trying to make a change. Whether you like it or you don’t, that dude just went completely like, “I’m not gonna make anything that anyone else is making right now.” And it worked, and it charted; it’s huge in the U.S.
If a bunch of us did that we’d have the potential to change dance music. … The only way to move away from what’s happening is for a number of people to do something really big and really different. I’m trying to direct dance music in a different direction, or at least do my part.