Kris Nilsson Talks Opening Sets and Headliner Aspirations

Step into the booth with the XS and Drai’s resident

Photo by Danny Mahoney

Photo by Danny Mahoney

He’s been playing house music in Las Vegas since before you knew you liked it, and now does so in front of approximately 60,000 people per month. Illinois-born, Colorado-bred Kris Nilsson found his predilection for electronic music while touring as a sound engineer in Europe and a friend brought him to see Judge Jules. From there he bought his first set of turntables. Moving to Las Vegas for work, he ended up parlaying his spinning (with a little help from local DJ KC Ray) right into a residency. We dig deeper with DJ Nilsson before his next double-duty residency gigs at XS and Drai’s on January 31 and February 7, respectively.

What’s the key to setting the scene at XS?

Opening sets are hard. You have to get the first 10 people excited so that when the next group of people comes in, it just builds and builds. I try to keep my sets fluctuating, very bouncy. I try to bring in a lot of classic tracks because they are new to a lot of people. I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years, and those classic tracks helped build my success, so I’m emotionally tied to them. I like to bring that experience that I’ve had with them to everybody else. One of my favorite things is to take a classic track and layer a new tech-house beat on top of it.

What’s an all-time favorite in your arsenal?

If I had to pick one, it’d be Brad Carter’s [remix of Red Carpet’s] “Alright.” It’s the piano riff.

What were some of the first records you bought when learning how to spin?

I started buying every dance record or CD I could find. A lot of Ministry of Sound stuff. A friend of mine was like, “Hold on a second. Don’t be listening to that Zombie Nation or ‘Sandstorm’ stuff, try this,” and he handed me Sasha’s Global Underground album, and I was like “Oh. My. God.” At first I thought Sasha wrote everything on there, and when I learned only one of the tracks was his track and he mixes those [others] together, I was like, “Wow, I really need to learn how to do that.” That’s really when I actually learned how to put tracks together.

Where did you get your start DJing?

I ended up getting what turned into a residency at Curve [the space later occupied by Privé and Gallery]. After Curve, I got a residency at Tangerine and from Tangerine, I actually got hired at Drai’s. After eight years I’m still at Drai’s. Because of my success at Drai’s, when Jesse [Waits] and Victor [Drai] opened up XS—where they were pushing a newer, more energetic house format—I started playing there.

How have audiences changed since you got started in the scene?

The house fans are always die-hard fans. There wasn’t a lot of that; it was kind of the unknown thing. Of course being at Drai’s was amazing because it was one of the only places—I supposed before that Utopia was very big, but that whole scene slowed down a bit. People used to come into Drai’s and be like, “Thank God there’s a place that plays real house music.” Over the years it’s built its popularity.

Didn’t playing at Tangerine pose an interesting challenge?

There were two kinds of rooms: There was the balcony outside that overlooked the water by the show and the main room with hip-hop inside. People would go outside because it was busy and the DJ booth—you didn’t even know there was a DJ. It was kind of funny: They’d play the Sirens show and flash the lights, I’d have to quickly shut the music off, jump down, and then I’d come back and there’d be pyro dust all over the CD players. But we used to stay open later than the inside. The hardcore house followers, the locals or the ones from L.A., you’d see them at Drai’s afterward.

Have you gotten any feedback from some of the headliners that you’ve played with?

I opened for Wolfgang Gartner a few weeks ago, and he told me, “I was so excited to hear tech-house music before my set because I’ve had hip-hop played before me, and it was so nice to have an actual structured night that worked really well.”

Do you work on productions at all?

I produce a little bit. I’m hesitant and everybody says, “You need to produce more.” But I’ve always been a DJ, and to me, DJing was it. I never really needed to produce because, for example, if you go to Beatport every week there are 2,000 new house tracks. Every week there are 2,000 new tech-house tracks. That’s 16,000 tracks a month. I’d rather spend my time looking for music than have some OK tracks and one really good track. The reason I do produce some is because tracks are like tools: You need tracks at different points in the night to make it happen, and the tracks that I’ll produce would be something that I feel is missing during my set.

Do you ever have time to play out of town?

I do a little bit. That’s my next step, what I want to do is branch out from Las Vegas and start headlining a bit more. Now that I’ve been playing for several years with all these big names—Kaskade, Avicii, Steve Angello—it’s given me confidence and the knowledge of what else is out there.

What would be your ultimate career goal?

I want the recognition like Carl Cox gets. He’s very technical; he’s very full of energy and loves what he does. Who do I look up to? Out of everybody, he would be the one.