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Mark Knight speaks of Toolroom, international travel and Ibiza

The hit-maker and label boss goes deep on the philosophy and personalities behind his empire.

With 15 award-winning years in the bank, independent record label Toolroom continues on an upward trajectory. Its founder, Mark Knight remains at the helm and is as passionate as ever about developing new talent. With the label's big anniversary the focus of conversation, we had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with the boss.

We talk travelling between time zones, the Toolroom Academy and what it means to have one of your records immortalised by Pete Tong's orchestra. In a World Cup year, he teases us with a forthcoming football-inspired track. Plus, we discuss Mark's plans for Ibiza this summer and his role at International Music Summit (IMS).

Having held residencies all over the island and with a track record of churning out feel-good summer anthems, Mark Knight look ahead to Ibiza 2018 with us.

I suppose we'd better talk first about your Asia tour. You're currently in Bali. Where are you playing next and where have you already been?

Yeah, it's been pretty bonkers. I've played eight gigs in ten days. It started last Wednesday in Osaka, Thursday in Fukuoka, Japan and Friday Womb in Tokyo. Saturday I did a festival in Bangkok, then today I'm in Bali. Tomorrow I fly to Kuala Lumpur, Friday - Jakarta, Saturday - Macau and Sunday – home.

How many time zones is that you're flying between?

A lot! I fly to the States all the time and I don't get jetlag. I'm quite used to flying west. But it's really weird when you fly this direction because you leave in the day around 12 o'clock flying into Hong Kong – like a 12-hour flight – so it takes half a day. You arrive the next morning, but don't really get any sleep. So it kind of throws you off a little bit.

I was all over the shop on day one! Then you get used to it after that. It's been pretty full on, to say the least. But if you travel all this way, you might as well work as much as you can. It's all about getting on with it. All the shows have been wicked, so it's been worthwhile.

And how receptive are the Asian audiences to electronic music? It's clearly an emerging market.

The scene in Japan is very much established. I did one more regional city this time, which was Fukuoka. But Osaka is massive – it's about the same size as London. It's enormous. And Tokyo's obviously about three-times as big. They've had electronic music for years. I hadn't played Fukuoka before, and they don't get that many international DJs.

What's quite incredible is the passion for music out here. It's just nuts, especially in Japan. Their enthusiasm is really quite inspiring. There are no drugs out here. It's just pure energy for the music. That's really refreshing to come to places like this, where they're so keen on listening to new music and having a good time. It's been brilliant. Places I'm heading to in week two – Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta – they've had a scene for decades. It's not a particularly new thing there.

Congratulations on reaching 15 Years of Toolroom Records – what an achievement! You've spoken about how it was important to showcase new material for the anniversary album, instead of compiling a retrospective. What do the next 6-12 months hold in terms of new artists releasing on the label?

That's exactly what we're trying to do with this campaign: put our energy into creating our new roster. A collective that represents Toolroom. We got a guy called Wheats, he's only 19 from Portsmouth. He came up through our academy system. He's just grown and grown as a producer. He's got some brilliant new music coming out. There's also a guy called Siege, somebody we found from Brussels. They really represent the sound of Toolroom.

Weiss has been around for a little while but is still very much at the forefront of our roster. Illyus and Barrientos too. They've been around for about for a while. We've signed them to our management company. Their single So Serious has already been massive this year and they've got another one called Chicago about to drop this summer. It's exciting times. We've got a squad of guys who are equally as cool as they are great producers. They're nice to work with.

Now seems an appropriate juncture to mention Weiss' new track on the label. A classic slab of piano-driven house with some 303 squelch thrown in. It's surely going to be a huge track this summer. Can you tell us more about it how it got signed?

What Weiss is great at is finding brilliant hooks. Although we've had the lyric re-sung, originally is just a couple of words from a verse from a Toni Braxton record. Like I say, it's just part of a verse – not even the bridge or the chorus. He cut it up and made a new hook. He's really got a knack for finding and creating them, knows what works and has his own formula. He's put these chords together, and suddenly he's made another one.

One just seems to pop up soon after the last. That's one of the best things about Weiss – he's very quick. He'll send three or four ideas, and ask what we think is the best one. We'll go back and tell him which one he should focus on. But it's so instant, so full credit to him. He's a proper grafter and deserves another big track.

Let's move on to talk about your own music. At the end of last year, Pete Tong picked Man With A Red Face for his recent Ibiza Classics Orchestral album/tour. Did you know he was going to cover it?

Yeah, I did as it happens. I'd spoken to him in the past about saying how good it would be to reinterpret it. So, yeah, that's cool. I haven't actually been to see it yet. I must take time out to go. I mean, I don't live too far from the O2 in fairness. Next time he does it, I'll make sure to get myself along. That's super cool. It's incredible, really. An orchestral interpretation of something you've done.

Absolutely. How much does it mean to you that that track is ranks as an all-time Ibiza anthem?

Yes, it's cool. I don't tend to dwell too much on what's gone before. As a producer, you're more concerned with writing another one. What's going to be the next Ibiza anthem, you know? Can you do number two? Number three? I've always been focused more progressively, in that respect. What I can do as opposed to what I have done. The focus is always forwards, not backwards. We won loads of awards for it and whatnot. But what's coming next is more important to me.

That leads us quite well into our next question. You're always a producer who seems to drop a summer house number – in the past we've had Alright, Your Love, Yebisah. The question is, do you have anything lined-up for this summer?

Oooh, there might be something in the bag. Yeah, there is actually. It hasn't got a finished name. It's working titled is Ronaldino. But I've been working on it in the background. It should be dropping at the end of June. I think there's strategy in how you release records. Of course, there is. You need use certain punctuation points throughout the calendar. In terms of music, there are big forums during the year.

It's a shame, but one that's gone now is Miami. We all used to write music for it. That was its sole purpose. When you went back in the day, take a record to Miami and break it. You put a lot of energy into that. That would become the precursor to what would be big in the summer. But that's gone now. Everything is online. We just send music to each other. It's a real shame that we've lost that focus in some ways.

But I still try to write records with Ibiza in mind. Having a track that takes off in Ibiza can give you a real lift for the rest of the year.

Your last few releases have featured some pretty big vocalists – The Ragga Twins & Mr. V – are there particular criteria for choosing featured artists?

Just artists I respect really. Artists where I thought, wow I'd love to do something with them. I'll write something with them in mind and then approach them, and it tends to work out well. But I like the idea of original material instead of always using samples. To get in the studio and vibe with people. That's when the magic happens. I might come up with the initial groove or whatever.

Something really interesting for example, when we did the Ronaldino record I mentioned earlier, it's all percussion, flute-y – it's a very organic sounding record. I miss those days. Getting in the studio with three or four musicians, and just jam something out as opposed to finding some hooks off a sample pack. It's a much more inspired process. I put lots more energy into that. It's worth it. That's when you make records that stand the test of time. They've got music in them, soul. It's magical really.

You touched on the Toolroom Academy briefly earlier. We watched the A&R live stream with you and Pete last Friday with great interest. You and Matt will be doing the same again at IMS. Is there a genuine possibility that any of these submissions could end up on the label?

100%. They're not just words. We're not just saying it. We always wanted to be known as a very approachable, down-to-earth label. We're just lads putting out music that we love, having a good time. No hierarchy, no bullshit. None of that. You know that you can pick up the phone to any of us, at any time. That's just how we are.

We're not one of those brands whose superstar DJs at the top are untouchable. That's not what we're about. We're the popular opposite of that, and this was a great way of extending that sentiment. Giving artists the experience and knowledge we've acquired through these past 15 years.

For example, we did a seminar at Brighton Music Conference (BMC) and we played some demos at the end of the session. Some were brilliant, and we wanted to sign them straight away. This is a great way of growing our family, simply through the medium of being the people we are. It works on every level. We can give producers direct advice on the specifics of how to make music that fits within our remit. If they're receptive to that, that's great. It is a genuine way of getting music signed to the label.

If you receive a demo and you think it has potential, but perhaps it doesn't fit Toolroom, would you go back to the producer and say ‘have you tried approaching this label or that label?'

As part of the portfolio of our business, we manage lots of other labels. We do Sola, ABODE, Kaluki- lots of other labels. And if something's not quite right for us, then we push it into the system. And it works the other way around too. It works within the eco-system of the business.

We have Zerothree, which is a more progressive label. Think Eric Prydz-y. Right the way through to Love & Others which is more disco. So we've got all different labels we can push tracks into. Unless we're talking about an amazing rap record, we would, of course, pass that onto somebody else. We'd do the right thing and hand it over to somebody who could do it justice.

Has the accessibility of music production software made the A&R role more thankless in recent years?

There is more content, definitely. With the advancement of technology, it's opened it up – made it more universally accessible, which in turns creates more product. There's a lot more of it. But I think A&R with your own label is about setting a standard.

What works for you? What is your quality threshold? What do you want to put out? Even with some of the most respected producers we receive music from, there's still an A&R process within that. We might go back to them and say ‘this is 8-bars too long here' or ‘how about if you try changing this vocal'.

All that behind-the-scenes stuff is thankless if you want to call it that. But ultimately, it is reflected in the sound of your label. That applies to any great label throughout history - whether it's Motown or whether it be Toolroom. We all have own parameters. The hardest reality is we couldn't possibly listen to every demo we receive. I think one day we received over 500 demos. That's the record. Even if you were listening to demos 24/7, you couldn't possibly do it.

But it's about making yourself known as an individual character. As I say, we're very down-to-earth, approachable blokes, and if you can find an angle to get in, then we're all ears.

It's interesting, we've spoken about IMS and you've also mentioned BMC and Miami. How important is it as a label that you have a presence at these conferences?

It's very important. That is how you connect with people. It comes back to what Toolroom is about: being down-to-earth and approachable. If there's the opportunity to be face-to-face with people and create business opportunities, then we're not going to pass up on that. It's a big part of our business. The same with ADE – we're there with the full crew. Usually, we have our own set-up at these things. We do demo drops, meetings, parties. We're always on that.

Okay. So let's talk Ibiza. You've been announced as part of the roster for Sunnery James and Ryan Marciano's club room takeovers on Wednesdays at Hï. How many dates are you playing?

I'm just doing the one and it's actually going to be the week around my birthday in June. I haven't done that in a few years. As it worked out, I'm going to be playing a special disco set. The stars just aligned this year. I haven't actually played at yet. Obviously, I played at Space about a million times. But I'm looking forward to doing it. All my mates are coming over for it, so it should be a fantastic night.

And will we be seeing you play elsewhere?

I'm going to be doing a couple of shows for ABODE at Amnesia. I'm also doing some shows at Blue Marlin and something special for IMS at the Underworld tribute night at HEART. About five or six shows in total.

That's enough for me at the moment. I only work two weekends a month. Previous years I've done 22 dates in the season. Now it's about picking the right dates and gigs that work for me. I think I've got some really good ones in the bag. I'm looking forward to it this summer more than previous years. It's a nice measured summer, as opposed to a mad nutty one, which is cool.

You've held residencies all over the island down the years. Thinking about the current venues, is there a favourite to play which stands-out?

You know, I really like Blue Marlin. On Sundays it's amazing. It kind of embodies what Ibiza is all about. I've been going since 1988 and it was all about partying outside, dancing under the stars, you know. That whole spirit of it. It's very reminiscent of the old days but in a new school way.

As much as the clubs are great, a club is a club. It could be anywhere in the world. But the fact that you're outside partying – that's Ibiza for me. It's a shame that the clubs have not had the opportunity to do more outdoor things.

Head here for all of Mark Knight. The next one is with Armin van Buuren at Hï Ibiza on 20 June.

See below for tickets and further info.

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