Phil Smart: The Art of the Marathon Set
There is an art to playing records in a club all night long. It’s the kind of set usually reserved for DJs of a certain pedigree, ones who have spent decades honing their craft. DJs like Australian fixture Phil Smart, who’s been spinning forward-thinking electronic music in clubs, bars, warehouses, fields, deserts and carparks since the rave era.
Back in 2014, Phil was invited to play an extended 8-hour set for Sydney crew Picnic. It was a landmark gig for the veteran DJ that spawned a succession of marathon sets, culminating in ’30 Years Of Dance’ – a huge 7-hour jaunt celebrating Phil’s three decades in the game, hosted by fellow promoters Motorik.
Continuing in this tradition of a singular DJ manning the decks all night long, we’ve invited Phil to play a huge 10-hour set at Club 77 in January. We couldn’t think of a better way to kick off 2023, and in anticipation of what is gearing up to be one hell of a gig, we sat down with Mr Smart to chat about the art of playing records from open to close.
I guess back in the ‘80s, when house music was in its formative years, the term ‘extended’ or ‘marathon’ wasn’t even in the lexicon. Playing all night long was the norm - it’s what DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan did all the time. Then things changed. I found a quote from Michael Mayer of Kompakt, who said; “The concept of having several DJs on the bill started with rave culture in the early nineties. Back then, the equation was the more names on the flyer, the bigger the crowd.” What are your memories of marathon sets in Sydney back in the day? Were they even a thing?
They were for DJs who were a little bit older than me. Like I remember in the ‘80s we used to go dancing at places like The Exchange and see people like Steven Allkins and Paul Goodyear play all night. So I think in the gay scene it was a thing. I also know it was heavily entrenched in Chicago from talking to people like Derrick Carter and Mark Farina - those guys came up in their scene playing all night too.
But for me personally, not so much, because I only had a couple of years of DJing and then I was into the rave scene. The only sets I’d get where you could play all night would be, for example, at a bar in Wollongong during the weeknights. Actually, I do remember playing longer sets at The Front in Sydney - that was my first residency at a properly cool, inner-city Sydney club with a 24-hour licence. I can’t recall how long the sets were…maybe four or five hours?
But yeah in the Sydney rave scene there was definitely pressure on the promoters to get as many DJs on the bill as possible. And that’s when you started to see one hour sets become more common, which we as DJs were definitely not into! But a lot of us were back in the clubs by the time it got to that stage in the rave scene, so it didn’t really affect us so much.
But for me, club wise, I didn’t really get the opportunity to play extended sets until much later.
I played a few long-ish sets there. But really the first time I remember playing like an eight-hour set was for Picnic at The Imperial Hotel in Erskineville. Carly had started doing her One Night Stand series and was inviting DJs to play all night long. That was actually the first opportunity I had to play slower, more downtempo music, like 100 -108 bpm. I'd been collecting that kind of stuff for years, and I'd been playing it out a bit, but being able to start that gig with slower music was a real factor that led to the Slow Dance Experiment and then onto Tempo Comodo. The One Night Stand series also kind of kicked off a movement towards longer sets in Sydney. And I've been lucky to have done a few now.
What are your memories of the marathon set you played for Motorik as part of your 30th anniversary of DJing?
That was amazing, incomparably amazing. I mean, for starters, just to get the opportunity to play a gig like that is pretty incredible. But to have it happen in a warehouse in Marrickville, with all my friends on the dance floor and so many people who have supported me over the years…yeah, it was super special.
You’ve got another massive 10-hour set coming up at Club 77 in January. That’s a hell of a long time to DJ. How do you prepare for a gig like that?
Well compared to those other gigs, this one at 77 is a little bit different. They were club mode for the whole set, but this one I’ll be starting at 6pm with some chilled-out bar vibes. I mean it depends on what happens on the night, so you’ve got to be ready. But I know the space at 77 and I know how the flow goes, at least on Thursdays at Tempo Comodo. So it’s most likely going to be a slower start to get people into it. I can take more time to ease them onto the floor. But I'll be prepared with everything from 100bpm tunes - or slower - through to 120 and beyond.
I notice with a lot with your mixes - and perhaps this is a question about your DJing style in general - that you’ll program a section of tracks that will build into a peak moment, and then you'll reset again. Do you organise your music that way? In chunks or sections that you can access when you’re DJing?
[Laughs] Now you're getting into a whole other thing! A playlist wormhole. In terms of track organisation, no not really. I do organise my music in a few different ways so that I can access it in different ways, if that makes sense, but I don’t really group into sections like that. I do tend to build custom playlists for gigs a lot of the time. So for the 77 gig I'll probably draw on a few different playlists of gigs that I've done. I guess the whole tension and release aspect and hitting a peak is how I tend to play a set overall. And then a longer set is an opportunity to play in a different way, where those peak moments become even more important.
“In the best moments, the dance floor and I are writing the set together as we go.”
Do you have link records? Tracks that allow you to traverse the spectrum and connect to different genres easily?
The only tracks I use like that are ones that allow me to transition between breakbeat and 4/4. Stylistically, the way I play, it just tends to morph and change organically. I don’t plan things in a way where I need to get from here to there, it just kind of happens in the moment. I don't plan beforehand. The best sets are when I'm going off instinct. I have a tendency to try and make tracks work in the moment that shouldn’t work. It’s a lot more improvised.
Is there a push and pull between the crowd’s response and taking them where you want them to go?
A hundred percent. Which is why I never plan my sets even though I experimented with that early on in the piece. I know some DJs really like to plan it out, but that doesn’t work for me at all because I’d have the tendency to get stuck on rails that I really shouldn't be on. I've just learned to prepare as best I can. The way I like to describe it is, in the best moments, the dance floor and I are writing the set together as we go. It comes from the response to what's happening on the dance floor and the energy in the room at that time.
“I used to say, back when I played vinyl, that the best sets were when the records would jump out of their sleeves. It might sound hippie-ish, but it’s kind of like channeling the universe.”
I've noticed you're always watching the crowd when you play. Obviously you're looking for peoples’ reaction to the music, but is it more than that?
I'm connecting with people. I'm looking at subtle body language and feeling the room. I’ll often peg certain people in the room, especially if I know them. There are often people there when I play who are regulars - if that person's dancing, I'm doing well. And if they're not grooving, then I know something needs to change. I don't want to just be a head-down DJ. I'm not much of a hands-in-the-air, dancing kind of DJ, but I like to connect and make eye contact. I like looking and observing what's going on and the way people are moving, the flux of the dance floor. I love a good dancer, that really inspires me and keeps me connected. It allows me to understand energetically what's happening in the room.
When playing these all night long sets, is there a moment where the feeling changes and you’re just in the zone? Where things become second nature and you don’t have to think about what you’re doing anymore?
I used to say, back when I played vinyl all the time, that the best sets were when the records would jump out of their sleeves. When everything just flows and you’re in sync with something. It might sound hippie-ish, but it’s kind of like channeling the universe. If I can get in that flow and get in sync, then the right tune to play next just comes naturally, you know. And there have definitely been moments like that - especially during extended sets, which I've been really lucky to be able to play more and more of in the past few years.
Do you have tracks in your collection that you’ve never found the right moment to play, but you might have the opportunity to play in a longer set?
Yeah, a hundred percent. The ones where you’ve been waiting for just the right moment to play them. One of the great things about playing longer sets is it gives you the freedom to experiment and try things out. And if you make a mistake, or it doesn't work, you've got room to recover. As opposed to a one hour set where you've just got to smash it out because there's no room for exploration. This is why extended sets are better not just for the DJ, but for the dance floor too. Or at least a dance floor that wants to experience something different and not just a bunch of big tunes. They’re an opportunity for the dance floor to have a totally different experience and maybe be challenged a bit more. As a DJ, you can take more risks.
I guess we don't want to give too much away and take the fun out of it, but when would you take those risks? Do you find that in a long set, by the time you reach the last hour or so, you’ve earned the right to go carte blanche?
No, I think it’d be more in the middle. I’ve learned a lot about how to play long sets from listening to Sven Väth and Danny Tenaglia in particular, by being on the dance floor and dancing to them. What I learned from them is to reward the dance floor with some big tunes, but more importantly some nice surprises. Something that will give the floor a nice boost of energy, be it a classic or a tune I think the crowd will really like. And not necessarily at the end of a set. If you take a risk towards the end, then you haven't got time to recover.
“Danny Tenaglia would play all night long at clubs in New York, sometimes three nights a week or more. That's how you get to be the kind of DJ that he is.”
I’ve read articles where DJs talk about Danny Tenaglia playing these super long sets, where he'd have the crowd in the palm of his hand and he'd just build and build the tension, then drop a curve ball. And everyone would go bananas.
Exactly. But it’s a curve ball that’s uplifting, or a burst of sunshine. Something that lifts the crowd and everyone goes, “holy shit!” Unexpected but amazing. And it doesn't even necessarily have to be something that you’re totally into musically, as he goes all over the place. But as a whole piece, as a journey, it just works. I've danced to him in a couple of times in Miami – at the Winter Music Conference – and a couple of times in Sydney, and he’s just blown my mind. The guy is an absolute master of the long set.
I remember seeing him play in Sydney at ivy and he dropped a track that I knew, but I’d never heard it in that context. I’d never thought about the track that way before.
And you know, if you wanna talk about DJs who came up through the ranks playing long sets, those are the guys. Like Danny Tenaglia would play all night long at clubs in New York, sometimes three nights a week or more. That's how you get to be the kind of DJ that he is.
And then Sven Väth, on the other hand, it's a somewhat different approach, in the way he puts a spin on the last hour and a half of his set and really gives it some. I heard him play a couple of times over Love Parade weekend in the park outside of the old Tresor, where he’d play for eight hours. And it would just be phenomenal, crowd in the palm of his hand stuff. Really inspirational. I learned a lot from those guys on how to approach the long set.
What about toilet break tracks? I imagine you’d need a few of those playing mammoth sets.
[Laughs] I've actually got a little playlist where the title of the folder is simply titled, ‘Looooong’. The first time I played One Night Stand, I had a few tracks that were seven or eight minutes long to give myself a little break. I remember I played one so I could go to the toilet, and then I could hear from the bathroom the track being EQ’d! I came back to the decks and it was my mate Jimi Polar doing it, the cheeky bugger! He’s probably the only person who could get away with doing that, so I was okay with it and was laughing about it. You can hear it on the recording of that set.
Lucky it was a DJ who knew what they were doing.
It was funny. He was like, “I took the piss while you were taking a piss!”
I also remember with the 30th Anniversary set, I got to the end and someone said, you didn't even go to the toilet! I hadn’t even thought about it. I don't know how I made it through, I guess I was just so in it.
I usually ask security or someone at the bar to keep an eye on the decks if I go to the bathroom while playing. There's been a few times where people for some reason try to fuck with the decks while you’re gone, which is a bit weird.
The other thing you need to consider is food. The first time I played a really long set, I forgot all about eating anything. Which really sucked because all I could do was ask my friends to get me some chips and chocolate bars from the servo. And that's not ideal food to keep you going. So the next time I was prepared - I actually packed a lunch.
I love that. Having a little DJ picnic while you're playing. Because it's a long time to play without eating.
Man, it's a long time to be on your feet just standing in the one spot. Stretching your legs and having a little walk is important, or doing some exercises.
Phil Smart plays an extended 10 hour set on Saturday 21st January at Club 77. For more info Click HERE