Not long ago, DJ Fresh was ready to give up on music – and he thought he was dying. Two number ones, an incredible live show and a new album bursting with hits later, Dan Stein is exactly where he wants to be.
Words: Dave Jenkins
Photos: Carsten Windhorst
"Boardmasters: you are officially the hottest festival in the UK right now!” Not Mixmag’s words, but those of rapper Sway. Standing stage-side we witness the fitness and wholeheartedly concur: bikini-clad babes and their biceptual boyfriends, skinny tattooed dudes, rock chicks, surprised-looking surfers who’ve unwittingly stumbled on a rave of a lifetime and a healthy ratio of giggling, shoulder-straddled honeys. An easy eight thousand, there’s not a dull candidate among them.
“Who’s ready for the headliner?” Sway continues. The consummate entertainer, he’s not taking his warm-up duties lightly. “Who’s ready for the one and only DJ Fresh?”
Bang: the crowd go bonkers. A million fists punch the air, a roar drowning out Sway’s chatter. Many of the masses had barely started school when Fresh first surfaced as part of Bad Company, but they know exactly who he is, what he’s capable of and why they can’t wait to see him. The MC winds them up even further... “I don’t think I can hear you!”
Their deafening cheer echoes long enough for a crack team of roadies to activate the Fresh Live system. Red lights strobe madly. With a puff of dry ice each member is in place. Ex-Pendulum drummer Paul Kodish tickles his cymbals. Richard da Rose holds a stone-cold pose, brandishing his guitar like Japanese steel. Hosts Fleur and Messy MC stalk the stage with deadly intent.
Slap-bang in the centre stands Dan Stein, aka Fresh. He gives a nod and they all dive head-first into ‘Gold Dust’. The crowd leap in wild waves rippling from front to back. The well-known opener segues smoothly into ‘Talkbox’. A synth-screaming instrumental, it’s a reminder of Dan’s drum ’n’ bass roots, and how he’s made the musical leap from respected underground don to the hitmaker of choice for generation bass.
Setting the agenda with just two tracks, they have the crowd in the palm of their collective hands. All pyramid fingers and pogos, Fresh is more animated than we’ve seen him all day. This is where he’s most comfortable: the band. The technicolour bass. The set-up coordinated by the same tour manager who helped both Faithless and Pendulum develop into true stadium blasters. Dan Stein is genuinely living the dream he’s had for over a decade.
But madly, all this – two No. 1s, Dizzee, Ms Dynamite and Rizzle Kicks collaborations, a lucrative Lucozade tie-in and a forthcoming album he knows is his best yet – might not have happened. None of it. A few years ago he was going to pack it all in and start a new life studying classical arrangement for film. There was also a very real fear he was going to die. No, really...
It’s funny that I’ve ended up here. I wasn’t expecting to,” he tells us a few hours earlier on his meticulously clean and organised tour bus. Quiet, reserved, composed and immaculately presented in black with pristine white trainers, he stares out over the twinkling Cornish coast. He’s not talking about our picture-perfect location...
“‘Kryptonite’ was going to be my last album,” he says. “I felt like I was making tunes that were getting respect from peers but the fanbase only cared about the coolest thing that didn’t have any melody and just the best-sounding snare. It was getting further and further from what I loved.”
He was disillusioned and depressed: the free-spirited fusion of funk and grime that he’d originally fallen for had been replaced by the drone of dedicated online cynics. The internet had granted every genre’s beard strokers a pulpit, but none seemed as preachy as the drum ’n’ bass critics.
“I’ve always been on my own path. I don’t like people telling me what to do,” he states. “There are many amazing things about the scene, so many talented people and so much creativity. But that contingent was getting louder and louder. It put me off making music.”
‘Kryptonite’ was out there, bulging with killer singles like ‘Gold Dust’, ‘Hypercaine’, ‘Lassitude’ and ‘Heavyweight’, but Dan was retreating, closing down companies he’d set up over the years. He handed over Breakbeat Kaos label duties to Adam F and shut down Darkstar, an anti-piracy company he’d set up with infamous hacker Chris McNab. He turned his back on Dogsonacid, a hugely successful web forum that he’d established, and he barely set foot inside his studio. Fingers withdrawn from all industry pies, he planned a new life of study and classical composition. Until he spoke to his mum.
She gave him a book called The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It follows a shepherd as he journeys to Egypt, after having a recurring dream of finding treasure there. The main theme is about following your dreams and finding your true destiny. Inspired, Dan shelved his plans and within a month Ministry had signed ‘Gold Dust’. Not much later ‘Louder’ was licensed to Lucozade for a TV advert and the exposure propelled it to No. 1 in the charts; ironically, he’d been guzzling the energy drink to stay alive.
During Dan’s disillusionment a much scarier drama was happening. For several years Dan’s pancreas was home to a benign tumour. After its removal Lucozade was prescribed to boost his blood sugar levels.
“I was suffering the effects for several years,” he tells us. “I didn’t know what was happening to me. I’d had various misdiagnoses. It was really fucking scary! When you’ve got something physical like that going on it makes you feel out of control of your life.”
Crazy, right? For years he toured the world, tearing up dancefloors as one of drum ’n’ bass’s A-list DJs, and not only was he unhappy about the scene, there was a genuine fear he could be dying. The ‘Louder’/Lucozade partnership was the trigger for the Fresh you see today: now in rude health, he’s inspired to write the songs he wants, and not what’s expected of him. No more business ventures, either; for the first time in years, music is his sole priority.
“Andy C always used to say he couldn’t understand why I was always so tied up in so many projects,” he tells us. “He’d say, ‘why not focus all your energy on music? You’d have a much bigger platform’. And when ‘Louder’ kicked off I felt more excited about the music than I had ever done. I made a conscious decision to focus on just that.”
There was just one more problem: When ‘Louder’ became the world’s first dubstep number one and put Fresh on the mainstream map, he had to follow it up. From tune tailor to hit maker, expectations were high...
“Everyone wanted to know what the follow-up was. I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know… I haven’t made it!’” he laughs. “I had to get in the studio. I rise to challenges. I never want to say no. It felt like an impossible mission, but I knew it was my moment to do what I wanted to do. So I went in the studio and went nuts. I eventually came up with a whole album: following up ‘Louder’ with ‘Hot Right Now’ and following that up with ‘The Power’ and following that up with ‘The Feeling’. It kinda came together...”
In among the singles you already know, the album, ‘Nextlevelism’, features more future faves: the rock-tinted shock-out ‘Skyhighatrist’, with Rizzle Kicks, the insanity-stomp of ‘Turn It Up’ featuring Fleur and the poignant emotive finale ‘Forever More’ with Professor Green. Each one penned both for dancefloor and daytime radio, they carry all the weight and experience of his underground past, but roll with a much more embracing, accessible flavour.
“I’m really proud of it,” he beams. “I listened to it for the first time the other day. I’m not big-headed but I was blown away. It represents a time in my career where I feel free to explore what I want to do. I can hear that in it. It’s very fulfilling.”
Fulfilling indeed. At points he never thought he’d be able to do this. You can actually hear the frustrated songwriter in him on ‘Hypercaine’, ‘Lassitude’ and, further back, ‘Submarines’ and ‘The Living Daylights’. Cuts like ‘Louder’, ‘Hot Right Now’, ‘Power’ and everything else you’ll hear on ‘Nextlevelism’ have been waiting to happen for a long, long time.
“I was too scared to write songs before,” he admits. “So I always told a story through the melody or the lead synth sounds. To be able to have the ability to do that and tell a story with lyrics? It’s a whole new world for me. And to be able to realise that with a full live band, too! I had a similar idea with Bad Company Live years ago, but I couldn’t see how it would work, [because of] where d’n’b was at and where underground and mainstream music was at. It wasn’t until Pendulum, then Chase & Status, that the whole transition opened up and allowed me to do what I always wanted to do.”
So what do we call him now, a pop star or a DJ? “You can call me whatever you want!” he chuckles. “I don’t know. A lot more people know who I am now, but to me a pop star is someone who doesn’t necessarily have control over what they’re doing. Somebody who makes music for the masses rather than the music they want to make. Does that really apply to me?”
Watching Dan on stage the answer is an unequivocal no. Conducting his band through thugged-out bass bullets like his and Adam F’s cover of Dead Prez’s ‘It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop’ or his own remix of Coldplay’s ‘Paradise’, Fresh has never been in control as much, or as confidently, as he is now. The past’s worries safely behind him, he’s attacking the new chapter in his career with the same enthusiasm as the crowds he’s playing to. As we draw to a close the set finishes with ‘Hot Right Now’ and ‘Louder’. The latter rolls out with a sun-kissed guitar ballad intro and a throbbing extended drum ’n’ bass finale. In just one tune he sums up his skills as a songwriter, a producer and the head of one of the most hottest bands in electronic music right now.
And those aren’t Sway’s words. They’re Mixmag’s.