Barney Kato talks Boiler Room, being a curious DJ and the state of the Sydney scene

A wagging of chins with our Sunday resident and the DJ who puts the 'tune!' in choons.
Henry Johnstone
Barney Kato talks Boiler Room, being a curious DJ and the state of the Sydney scene

What can we say about Barney Kato? The man, the myth, the legend, the DJ who puts the T-U-N-E into delicious tuneage? Well, for over 20 years Mr. Kato has been whipping dance floors into a lather with cutting edge sounds and his encyclopedic knowledge of electronic music. Boasting a 4000+ record collection, he has busted out house, breakbeats, electro, techno and disco to crowds in Sydney to Berlin, from warehouse bashes to festival stages and beyond.

Require further credentials? He's hosted FBi's Sunset program for many a year, helped bring some of the world's best electronic talent to Sydney dance floors, and produced delightful house and techno cuts with Tunnel Signs as Barney In The Tunnel - which have been supported by Gerd Janson, Skatebård, Special Request and Lauer, no less.

Oh and back in February, he made his Boiler Room debut and destroyed the crowd with a storming set. That's where we begin our conversation, which also covers....fuck it, read on and find out!

You played your debut Boiler Room set earlier this year, which is a massive gig for any DJ. Do you recall how it felt to get the call up?

I was super excited. The Bizzaro guys were collaborating on it and they hit me up. It was pretty out of the blue actually but such a massive buzz.

How do you prepare for a set like that? Because it’s a different beast from a normal club set.

Well that’s a set I really did prepare for, rather than a set where I’d just play on the go, which is what I normally do. With something like Boiler Room where you’re representing yourself, you want to make sure it’s totally your sound and style. They initially wanted me to play on vinyl, so I prepared a full set on wax and a backup set on USB. On the day, we sound-checked the vinyl and discovered it absolutely was not going to work. Even with only ten people on the stage around me it was already skipping like crazy. So I was like, ok, that's cool, because I've got my other USB set, however that was one of the first times I'd ever put a USB stick into one of the new CDJ-3000s and it didn't work either! I basically had to make up the set off the top of my head on some old USB sticks that I hadn't used for quite a while. It ended up being pretty chaotic in the end, at least in my head. I really had to fly by the seat of my pants.

I was watching it on YouTube and I think it came off super well. It must’ve been tough to be so prepared and then have all that happen.

I don't know if you can see it when you watch the video but I was stressed out of my brain.

The first time you can tell something is up is when you start looking around for the tech guy.

That was because the monitor speaker wasn't working, which was another problem. They switched mixers before my set and the chord mustn't have been plugged in properly. But I like to think I’m experienced enough to be used to things going wrong. That's the thing about having played thousands of gigs - even though it was very stressful, I was like, ‘I've done this before, I've got through these problems before’. You just get to a point where you can make it work. It was definitely one of the biggest gigs I've ever played and it was still a very positive experience.

I think it showed that you’re not only experienced, but versatile, because you enjoy playing lots of different genres. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, totally. I've played so many different kinds of gigs, from family parties in the park to techno clubs in Berlin, so I really do love all kinds of music. I think it's good to be versatile, however I do admire DJs that can jam out really minimalist hypnotic techno for hours straight and still control the energy of a room. For me, DJing is about learning different things, so even if I don't like a certain type of music, I like to learn how it works and why people are into it. I can always find something that I can take from another style or genre and manipulate it into what I do. When I hear about a DJ that everyone's talking about, I’ll try and work out what it is that they do that really excites people.

I love going to see other DJs play. I'm generally not the biggest listener of DJ mixes or music at home, but I love being a club or going to a festival. I love the togetherness of raving with other people, when you have a great mixture of people and everyone come from different walks of life. I'm always looking for those experiences and I'm always looking to bring that vibe when I DJ.

Does that curiosity ever feel like a hindrance as well? Sometimes being into so much different stuff can be overwhelming for DJs, but maybe that's your superpower?

I think it helps that I’m also a critic. I know what I don't like and I don't like everything, but I can still find bits and pieces that I like in everything. I don't feel overwhelmed because I would never play something that I didn't feel was right for me. I'm not going to play something that's popular just because everyone likes it. I grew up as a snobby, nerdy, punk rock, indie, hip-hop kid who got into weird music because I thought it was cool. I liked the fact that no one else liked the music that I liked when I was a kid. There's probably a bit of ‘asshole music snob’ in me that will never die. (insert evil laugh)

I wonder if growing up feeling like you’re into music that no one else likes has become a thing of the past, given how huge dance music is now?

It’s definitely not as underground as it was when I started DJing in Newcastle back in the late 90s. Back then no one knew the music that I played, not even my friends. There was also way less of that ‘everyone is a DJ’ feeling that there is now. I definitely feel more under the microscope when I play now than I used to, because I know that I'm DJing to a lot of people that do it themselves.

Were you collecting records before you started DJing?

Yeah, I started buying a lot of CDs, but then I got to a point where I wanted to buy Chemical Brothers and DJ Shadow and hip-hop records. Those kinds of records were actually easier to get and cheaper to buy on vinyl compared to CD, which is real weird when you think about it. I loved buying records with really cool artwork. All those early Chemical Brothers 12-inches had amazing artwork and it looked way better in 12-inch than on a CD. I basically just wanted to own cool objects and was definitely a record collector for a long time before I was inspired to DJ. I got lessons a few years before I actually started to DJ. I remember my first gig…I hadn't practiced enough that I knew how to mix properly, so I was just playing records between a local hip hop act or metal band.

Who gave you lessons?

I actually saw this DJ at a careers expo in Newcastle, DJ Patsan. He and his brother owned a dance music store in Newcastle. I got a couple of lessons from him when I was in high school, but I didn't really do more with it until I was probably around 19 or 20. I then realised that I needed to learn how to mix just to shut up the critics. I basically re-taught myself based on what I'd learned and cobbled it together from a lot of internet research. This is before there were any videos, so it was just literally just reading a lot of forums. You couldn't even ask Google questions back then!

"Most DJs spend way too much time digging through crates of records trying to find gold when they probably have a pile of gold sitting at home."

Were you playing in Newcastle clubs before you came to Sydney?

Yeah, I lucky enough to be playing in clubs because myself and some friends were quite early on with it. I got asked to play in clubs or fill in for friends and stuff like that. Back then we had to take our own turntables, mixer and records which is pretty wild, but if you were one of the only ten people in Newcastle that had the gear, you were miles ahead. I was lucky to have sold all my Magic: The Gathering cards and bought some turntables. Which I now regret because those cards are worth way more than turntables.

When did you move to Sydney?

Around 2006, 2007. I actually started playing gigs in Sydney around 2005. I was lucky enough to play one of the Bang Gang parties at Moulin Rouge before I moved down here. And I played at clubs like Globe, which also doesn't exist anymore. Around this time some friends made me a resident at their night Bandits and that kicked off my career down in Sydney, so I closed my record store, which at the time was dying to the advent of CDJs and mp3s. Now how the tables have turned!

Did you ever play Funktrust at Globe?

No but I got booked to play there on other nights. I’m not funky, I like to rave.

Is working in a record store an advantage for a DJ?

It definitely helps in that I get to hear a lot of records, but it does wear you out a bit when you get to Friday and you're like, ‘Oh no, no more music!’ I think the advantage is more the knowledge I've built up over 20 years, which is partly from working in record stores. But you could work in a store and it'd be no advantage at all if you don’t have good taste. We have a strong policy [at The Record Store] not to take all of the good records to let the customers have a chance of buying them. But I don't think one or two good records matters in the grand scheme of things. I have in the past spent a bit of money on certain records, but I'm not the kind of person that gets onto Discogs and orders a record for $50, because I don't think one particular record is the make or break between being a good DJ or not. The best place for DJs to go record shopping is actually in their own collection. Most DJs spend way too much time digging through crates of records trying to find gold when they probably have a pile of gold sitting at home. The best thing you can do is learn with the records that you do have and practice a lot. It's fun to go and find new records and I also love that as well, but over the years I've come to learn there's a lot more to it than just buying the good records.

A question I’ve found myself asking DJs recently is if they think there is a prevailing ‘sound’ currently dominating the scene. That certainly used to be the case, though I feel things are more fractured nowadays with more little scenes co-existing. Perhaps the trend at the moment is just faster BPMs?

Yeah, I don't think there is one scene that particularly dominates everything right now. And I’ve definitely found myself playing a little bit faster too. I don't get up to 150bpm very often, unless I'm playing Detroit ghetto-tech-booty kind of stuff that was originally made at that speed. I don't mind going up there, it's fun. I think things changed a bit after Covid - people now are into really full sounding music, if that makes sense. Even with breakdowns - if the track breaks down too much into nothing or doesn't have a pulse in the breakdown, I feel like people in the current climate don't really get that. You can confuse or scare people off with that kind of stuff. I mean, I do like to challenge crowds as well, so I try to make things like that work when I can. But I find it's more of a once or twice a set thing. I like the puzzle of working out what a particular crowd are into and then serving that up in my music as well. So that they don't feel alienated, but involved.

"It's going to be great to have Subsonic back and there are some some new smaller festivals like Skydance starting up."

Why do you think dancers fear the breakdown now? Is it restlessness?

I don't think they fear it, they just don't like it. I just see it as a new challenge. It's also a new challenge to produce music like that. I still want to have some cool, interesting breakdowns in my sets. You can definitely still play those records, you just have to figure out the right time and context. People are way more clued in about music these days and a lot more opinionated rather than open-minded. We have so much music at our fingertips now that you can listen to literally anything you want on Spotify or YouTube. Which means we don't have as much of a common music experience anymore. We don't all listen to the same radio station anymore and everyone has a really specific taste in music now, which was very different to when I started DJing. It wasn’t so long ago that only the DJ would know the good dance records and the crowds would put themselves in the hands of the DJ. Again, it’s just a new challenge for me to work out.

How do you feel about the Sydney scene at the moment?

I think it's re-growing and feels pretty positive at the moment. There's some good clubs, and there's other new clubs opening up, which is cool. There's a lot of new people getting into the scene, whether it's the crowds or DJs, different party promoters. It would be cool if there was a bit more stuff that unified a lot of people, because we don't have a great festival culture in New South Wales anymore compared to somewhere like Victoria. It feels like the small scenes in Melbourne coalesce a lot better because they all come together at the larger events. Whereas I feel like Sydney lacks those bigger events that bring four or five different community dance communities together at one party. It's going to be great to have Subsonic back and there are some some new smaller festivals like Skydance starting up. I really hope that they have a lot of success and are able to keep going because I feel like that will make Sydney even stronger. Bringing lots of different people together is really important. And I feel like that’s probably one thing that Sydney lacks – the crossover of scenes in the inner-west, east and even over in Manly.

What’s happening for you on the production side of things? Are you still collaborating with Tunnel Signs?

We're still doing Barney In The Tunnel. Our progress stalled over Covid and we had a release come out when the whole world was in lockdown. It was kind of successful, but for one reason or another, we never built on the success of the first release. I think we just want to make music that we like and put it out whenever, rather than trying to stick to a schedule. We've got some really cool tracks in the bag and we're going to look at releasing them in the next 6 - 12 months. I'm not very good at doing things quickly and I'm not a hustler who sends stuff out to a million labels. Being a self-promoter is a little bit out of my wheelhouse. But sometimes you've got to make yourself uncomfortable and just go for it.

It’s a lazy afternoon at home. What record are you reaching for?

I’d probably listen to a podcast. I like one called Ghost Stories For The End of the World. It's about para-politics, spies and the sort of secret history of the world. Or maybe I’d put on something like Bjork or old trip-hop records.

What is a film you saw recently that blew you away?

I love sci-fi and horror movies. Last night I watched a Crash, which is a movie directed by David Cronenberg. It’s based on a book by J.G. Ballard and it's about people who are turned on by car accidents. It’s very weird and very disturbing and kinky. Cronenberg’s son also made a movie that I saw recently, called Infinity Pool. It’s almost as disturbing. The premise is, what if you could have a clone that could accept the consequences of your actions? And how the world would work if that was possible.

If you could have dinner with any three guests, alive or dead, who would they be?

I don't really fantasize about hanging out with famous people. If I get to meet them then that's fine but I'm not going out of my way. Perhaps Carrie Fisher and all three Beastie Boys. So that's four people and they're all famous and I'm a hypocrite.

A bit macabre, but what would your funeral song be?

Turbonegro – ‘The Age Of Pamparius’

What’s your favourite Italo Disco tune?

Easy Going's ‘To Simonetti’ is a tribute to Claudio Simonetti, one of the true Italo Disco geniuses. He was the man behind Easy Going, Kasso, Crazy Gang and most importantly Goblin, who sound tracked many amazing Italian horror films in the 70s and 80s.

Listen to Barney Kato

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