Magda Bytnerowicz on her formative days, destroying Berghain and being a DJ mum

We get deep with the Sydney DJ ahead of her supporting set for Chicago house icon Ron Trent.
Henry Johnstone
Magda Bytnerowicz on her formative days, destroying Berghain and being a DJ mum

As one of Sydney's most trusted go-to DJs, Magda Bytnerowicz has graced the decks at some of our city's finest parties over the last decade, from underground clubbing institution Mad Racket all the way to the main stage of the Mardi Gras parade. Renowned for her deep musical knowledge and love of dance music's historical lineage, Magda's esteem has even taken her across the pond to play at the likes of Tokyo's Cabaret and Berlin's infamous Panorama Bar.

In recent years, the frequency of gigs have taken a back seat in favour of a busy career and family life. In fact, when we jump on the blower, we discover Magda has just wrapped up a completely different kind of party - her son's 7th birthday. Though as she informs us, she's still more than keen to don the headphones for gigs close to her heart - hence her supporting Chicago house icon Ron Trent at 77 this weekend.

We also discuss Magda's path to becoming a DJ, high profile dance floor moments and how her approach to the craft of DJing has evolved.

Hi Magda, how was your son's birthday?

Madness, chaos, but good fun. I can recommend outsourcing entertainment when kids get to a certain age. I hired a guy called Mr. Mack who runs the kids ragged and certainly earns his fee.

Is he like an entertainer?

No, he's a PE teacher by day and does like five parties over a weekend. He was sweating like a mofo and then got the super soakers out. It was like Lord Of The Flies out there with all the kids running around.

I see you have a family rave coming up at The Factory Theatre. Will that be your son's first rave?

He's been to an event at The Factory before that was sort of similar, but I think this is the first that he'll be cognisant of. I'm going to be rustling up quite the parent posse. Everyone's like, ‘Wait, it’s during the day? I can walk there? I can drink? There’ll be food? Sweet!’ All anyone needs to bring is Panadol. I'm playing 5pm to 6pm, which means I don't have to get up at 1am. Fantastic.

How do you juggle being a parent, working full time and managing to find time to DJ?

It's tricky, but it's certainly easier now that my son’s a bit older and isn't waking up at 4:30 in the morning every day, which was a challenge for the first couple of years when work was full on. I work a pretty demanding job, so I've been really careful with where I spend my energy and make sure that the DJ gigs are ones that I really align with and I really want to do. Because it’s hard to get up at 1am and then also be up at 6am to take my son to swimming the next day. I try and be careful with choosing the kinds of bookings that really fill my cup so that I don't feel like I'm doing a gig for the sake of it. I play less frequently now and I'm fine with that. It just makes the ones that I do play really count.

"In Year 10 I was given a copy of Roni Size & Reprazent’s New Forms, which blew my mind."

I imagine the New Year's Day party at 77 with Trinity and Dave Stuart was a given, then?

Yeah, it was lovely. I have a real affinity with 77. I love playing there, I love everyone that works there and the way they run their bookings and stuff. It really resonates with me. I think it's my most frequently played venue these days. And then obviously I've known Renae and Dave for over a decade. And also New Year’s Day is Dave’s birthday, so it's all very much a family affair. We ended up having a bunch of mates come down - people that don't go out that much anymore but make an effort when the three of us get together. So yeah, that was a pretty easy one to say yes to. Although I was regretting my choices at 6am on NYD, having gone out to a house party the night before.

What was your first entry point into music as a kid? What's the first thing you remember catching your attention?

Look, I'm not one of those people that grew up in a musical family and their grandfather played guitar in a band. That's not me. We weren't a particularly musical household, though I would sometimes pull out my parents' old Beatles records and get into that for a while. But my entry was really through the commercial radio I was listening to as a tween. I was obsessed with East 17 and I'm not ashamed to admit that! That was my boy band crush. I guess they were like the One Direction of the 90s, but probably not quite the same. Not quite analogous, but similar. In high school I was introduced to grunge music through a friend’s older brother. This was when Nirvana and Pearl Jam were at their peak. There was a few good few years of that; listening to Triple J and stuff in the alternative realm. Then in Year 10, I was given a copy of Roni Size & Reprazent’s New Forms, which blew my mind. That was such a definitive record, so amazingly put together. I haven't looked back since.

I think that album won a Grammy, right?

It won the Mercury Prize that year. That was ‘97 I think. I don’t know if it won a Grammy, but it definitely deserved to.

1997 had so many amazing albums. When you think back on your early clubbing days, which parties and clubs spring to mind?

I first started going out to Beat Fix, which was a breaks night on Thursdays. I think it was at Sublime on Pitt Street - the first version of Sublime before they moved to Home Nightclub. Thursday nights was Beat Fix, Friday nights was a house music night and maybe Sundays was the Voodoo party, if I recall correctly. Anyway, I managed to get into that amazingly put together venue. I remember the sound in there being so good. I did that for a little while and then my friends and I started getting more into house music. I think the catalyst was seeing Underworld in the Boiler Room at the Big Day Out in the summer of ‘99 or 2000. I came out of that sweat soaked and euphoric. Naturally euphoric, I might add! It was such a powerful gig. And then we went to Gatecrasher Summer Sound System at Olympic Park and I was watching one of the Masters At Work guys play - I think it was Kenny Dope. And I thought, ‘I want to do that, I want to be that person.’ And that was the start of my long and torturous path into DJing.

Were you much of a record collector prior to learning how to mix?

I was listening to and collecting a lot of CDs, but not vinyl to DJ with. When I started DJing there came a turning point of having to make a choice between buying a CD or one-and-a-half 12-inches. I was a student at the time, so it was a lot of money.

Where did you go record shopping?

Central Station. And Reachin Records once I mustered the courage to descend those stairs and hang out with the cool people. There was also a shop run by a DJ called Junior B, which I've forgotten the name of, but it was in that laneway behind Reachin and was more focused on house music. I think it was Biz E who taught me how to open a plastic sealed record on the seam of my jeans. And I think either Virgin or Sanity on Pitt Street Mall also had an excellent selection back in the day. This was the early 2000s when actual dance twelves were almost everywhere, even in commercial stores. I remember going to the store upstairs at Fox Studios, which was a Sanity Dance Arena, where I got the Freaky Chakra 12-inch. It was a white label and I had no idea what it was at the time, but what a magical record.

Did you have a mentor who taught you how to mix, or were you self-taught?

I don't exactly remember how it came about, but one of the girls I was at uni with, her boyfriend's older brother was an architect and also a DJ. He was like, you can come around to my architecture studio and have a go at mixing my records. It was incredibly generous. Like here’s this strange little girl and I'll just keep working away while she uses my records. He would every now and then give me a little pointer - but he didn't really teach me, he just let me just learn. I would go there maybe once a fortnight. Sometimes I went to his parents' house too.

What a legend.

Yeah, absolutely. He had a residency at a bar in Balmain and he asked me to come down and play records one time. We ended up putting on a party together for a little while. We had Annabelle Gaspar play one time and Ben Drayton another. It was very short lived, but we all had the time of our lives.

Do you think your approach to DJing has changed over the years?

Absolutely. I reckon it takes a decade to actually get good at DJing because the hours on the ground really do matter. I think to be really good at it, you also really need to know your records. You need to know how they work and in what order different things happen. And you can only really gain that knowledge through experience. In terms of my approach…I have fairly broad ranging tastes and there was a moment about eight years ago - I was playing out a fair bit at this point in time – where I found myself trying to sometimes play all of the things in a two-hour set. I was walking away thinking, ‘Ugh, that was just really disjointed and I don't like the way I told the story.’ So, I sat down and really thought about how I could best present a fairly eclectic, not monotonous, selection of music, but still make it feel cohesive. And have some sort of through-line, or at least relationships between sections of records, so that it feels more glued together.

I remember at the time there was this Avalon Emerson film that came out where she was talking about how she was really into deeply categorising and tagging tunes in Rekordbox so she can search for particular attributes within a huge catalogue of music. And I remember thinking how that really aligned with the way I was thinking about organising my own music. I used to pack my records in a certain way – like here are all my new house records, here's all my new techno records, and here's all my old ones. Instead of that, I started thinking of them in mood sections. Genre doesn't matter, but instead what moods do I want to try and cover in this set? Be it 2am, 11pm, 5am, whatever. Obviously the time you get put on and the context of the party all inform your music selection, so I started thinking about it a little bit more deeply and I found that really effective in terms of refining my taste and the way in which I present it.

This is something I find really interesting, I think because I also have pretty broad taste. I like hearing how DJs who are into lots of different genres try to stay true to their own ‘sound’ while still connecting the dots between different genres, eras, or as you say, moods.

Thinking more deeply about the context of a party you’re playing really helps as well. Like if I’m on at 11, I'm not going to play Marcel Dettmann type techno, right? It's just not appropriate. If it's 4am I might play a little bit more deeper and harder than I would at the 11pm time slot. I struggle a bit when someone hasn't thought about the context of the party as a whole, and instead just through their own slot lens. That's also why I like to generally play at least two hours, because I find if I try and do more than two or three types of things in 90-minutes, then it starts to feel off. Whereas if I get two, three, or four hours, I can cover all the ground and have options for where I want to take things. That's why I generally prefer longer sets because they’re suited to, dare I say it, that ‘journeyman’ type of selector approach, which suits the way I play and think about music. It's not always possible and it’s not always appropriate, but when I get that chance, I jump at it.

2019 was a big year; you played at Boiler Room in Sydney. What's your lasting memory of that gig?

I really wanted to play almost exclusively vinyl for that set. And it was really hard. I hope I hid it well, but geez, I was working hard through that one. The monitors were on the floor, people were crowding the decks, I was like, ‘get away!’ I had no idea that the woman behind me had disrobed! I was so in the zone. I guess the payoff was that I did what I set out to achieve. Whether I'm super happy with it is another conversation. I really wanted to show that that's still possible and important to consider the roots of house and subcultures. I'm not by any means a purist, but I really wanted to present that. I don't know how I feel about that set to be honest. It's the sort of thing that if you get the chance to do it, you take it because you’d be mad not to. It was so stressful, but I’m really proud that I got to do it. I like that I made people wait too. I was like, ‘I'm not going to give you all bangers for an hour. You're going to wait 30 minutes!’ I got to play some slightly unexpected records, too. At least for most of the people in that crowd. Ultimately, I was happy with what I set out to do.

"If you can’t play the way you truly want to at Panorama Bar, where can you? I've never played that well in my life and I don't know that I ever will again."

Another huge gig for you that year was at Berghain/Panorama Bar in Berlin. Was that the first time you played at the club?

It was the second. 2018 was my first gig there.

What was the difference between the first and the second time? Were you able to process the experience of that first gig in real time?

I was actually able to enjoy it in the moment the first time around because I was really prepared for it. I had the 1pm slot on Sunday afternoon, which is a gift I will happily take any time it were to ever come my way again. Because generally by that time, a lot of the regulars are starting to trickle in and there's sort of a reset in the dance floor, which suits me perfectly in terms of being able to just maintain a certain energy and flow without going up again. It’s mad in there - I walked in with Italo Johnson absolutely killing it and decided I must have a plan. I can't just walk in here blind the first time.

I wanted to reset the floor, so I did, even though I was nervous about it. But in that moment, I managed to literally transcend myself and just feel incredibly clear about what I was going to do: stick to my guns and play like myself. Because the thing is, if you can’t play the way you truly want to at Panorama Bar, where can you? And you have to trust that you can deliver in that sort of moment. Thankfully I did, which was wonderful. I've never played that well in my life and I don't know that I ever will again. The first one was exceptional. The second time was very close - it was nice to feel more comfortable in the space in the venue. But that first one I really knocked out of the park. It’s something I'll cherish forever.

I guess it goes back to what you were saying before about having the necessary experience. During those lifetime gig moments, you’re able to get into the zone because everything comes together; all the practice, past gigs and musical knowledge.

Yes and that’s the thing - I thankfully I did have all that supporting me going into those gigs. I don't know how you do that if you've just been DJing for two years. It's almost like I wasn't there - I was a vessel between the dancers and the records. And that’s what it's all about really. It happens rarely, but when it does, gosh, it's so special.

Are there any labels or producers exciting you at the moment?

Honestly, I'm not hugely active in terms of digging at the moment. I'm spending a fair bit of time with the catalogue I already have. I’ve been pulling out some records for the Ron Trent gig and wondering what the heck I’m going to do. It's like, how do you play before Ron Trent?

Is he an important figure for you?

Yes absolutely. I mean, it’s Ron Trent, Jesus! I've been lucky enough to play before and after some pretty big names and every time it's a thrill. I’ve got a bunch of New York house I might play, like Masters At Work and Strictly Rhythm kind of vibes. And I’ve got a bunch of disco, soul and a lot of edits from the nu-disco era of the mid-to-late 00s. And some proto housey stuff too that might be appropriate for an opening set. I'm playing quite a few hours of right from when the club opens, so I’m thinking about how to tease into what he's [Ron Trent] likely to do without showing my hand too much.

Then also it's Mardi Gras night and people want to party. So it’s treading that fine line. You want someone like Ron to be able to walk in and take it up a notch and have people respond straight away. That's what you want to do as a warmup DJ, in my opinion. I've found a bunch of cute old tracks too. Like I'm thinking, can I get away with C&C Music Factory’s ‘Gonna Make You Sweat’? Probably.

I’d like to think so.

I reckon I can because it's slower. It’s quite mid-tempo. Somewhere between 110 and 120. You can sort of get that vibe without pushing the tempo up. That's a nice way of getting people juicy and eager for more.

What's coming up for you this year?

I've got obviously this Ron Trent show for Clubby Bears Cubby House and then I’m also playing another party called Lesbiana Gala for Control in a week's time. Other than that, nothing on the horizon, other than I'm still chipping away at trying to write my own music. That 10,000 hours thing is certainly ringing true. I only really get to spend maybe a couple of hours a week chipping away at it.

Do you have a studio at home?

Actually, I share a studio space with Barney Kato and another fellow that's just moved in. It's great to have a dedicated space that is mentally is separate from home. I was trying to switch my work desk to a studio desk at home for a while and it was fine, but it's really refreshing to have a dedicated place to go. It's slow going for me. I'm not as lucky as some of those lucky devils that have moved to Berlin and can spend six to nine hours a day hammering away. Still, I find it intensely fulfilling and really fun.

A quick final question and I'll let you go. In your experience, what’s been the best party in Sydney past or present?

I can't give you just one. Mad Racket is really where I came of age. And then in terms of folks of my own generation putting on something similar, I’d probably say HAHA Industries. They put on so many amazing parties and I made a lot of friends there. Dave Fernandes and I are kind of besties these days. I think that party was such a window into that DIY ethos of just, fuck yeah, we're going to put on a party and it's going to be great. So yeah, I’d say HAHA and Mad Racket hold a special place in my heart for all-time Sydney institutions.

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