“When it was played on radio that was a huge moment – as good as being picked to play rugby for England.” An Interview with James Haskell

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After retiring as a professional rugby player in 2019, James Haskell swapped the floodlights of Twickenham stadium for the flashing lights of nightclubs as a DJ and released his debut single ‘Make You Feel’ (2021). The track has hit just over 115,000 streams on Spotify so far, with big-name producers such as Carl Cox placing it in high regard. I was able to chat with James in connection with Student Music Network to discuss the ins and outs of his latest release, and how his new career path compares to that of professional rugby.

We are here to talk about your new single ‘Make You Feel’ – how did you come about producing the single?

I have been involved in DJing for the past 9 years, which started from using music as a tool pre-game to help motivate myself. We all know the power of music, and how emotive it is, which is why I got into it. I used to go to Vegas and Ibiza a lot, and saw the DJ standing at the front with the attention on them – they were controlling everybody’s vibe, and everything was centred around them. I am a massive show off and love music, so thought why not learn [how to DJ].

I did a course and did my first gig at Ministry of Sound, which I thought was brilliant, but a lot of people told me that I would never be taken seriously when DJing because I was always going to be a ‘celebrity DJ’, all be it a Z-list celebrity. To progress, it was suggested that I create a radio show, so I started Backrow Radio, and then progressed to producing music following a 12-week touring course. My good friend Alex Grover helped start the process of learning a technical skill that I just did not have in comparison to his 20 years of experience, and now we have 6 tracks ready to be released, with ‘Make You Feel’ being the first. People in lockdown are not experiencing these ‘put your hands in the air kind of moments, which is what I wanted to create with this first single. I am blown away by the support of both listeners and professional DJs alike.

Where did you get your inspiration from in terms of production?

Back in the day, DJs were there as selectors to put on other peoples’ records and put a night on. Today, as we have seen with Calvin Harris and Tiesto, everyone is producing their own music. The ease of production and the fact that people can now make stuff from laptops – as seen in the Avicii documentary and by Daniel Bedingfield who made a number one from his bedroom – makes it more accessible to others. I have such an eclectic mix of musical interests, and so the production help from Alex to bring it all together into something tangible was invaluable to my DJ progression. One of my next tracks has a real 80s feel to it in a house kind of way – being able to create such a combination of genres is really important to me.

You have had the guidance of Alex to guide you through your production journey, but for anyone that is starting out in music production, what do you advise them to learn?

With production, it is like any other skill in life – you can be learning for 30 years, and there will always be someone better than you. You should just start by doing it, rather than just talking about it. There are some really good resources available now, such as courses created by DJs who have not been able to get out because of the pandemic, and there are some fantastic basic modules out there. It is all about laying the foundations – there are some great tutorials on YouTube, but I think you need to put the framework in first with guidance before adding any fancier bits – you do not buy the book before you’ve got the bookshelf. Understanding how to do it first with what you have got, before going out and buying all the gear, is another thing I would suggest.

What are the main similarities between playing rugby at an international level and DJing? What have you taken from your rugby career and applied to Djing?

There are a lot of similarities. Firstly, preparation – training and understanding your craft, so that you are technically proficient is important. Going into a performance on the field, I knew I had done the practice, and I knew that I had learnt the skill and was executing it – DJing is exactly the same thing. Yes, you are fundamentally playing music and the ‘opposition’ as such is different, between another team and the crowd you are facing, but the excitement and nerves [of being a DJ]and the overall reaction to the big moments create the same feeling I had when playing. For me that is why I did it, it is a perfect replacement.

If you could remix any song, what song would it be and how would you put your own spin on it?

A lot of songs always go down really well like ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’ and ‘Show Me Love’ so that could be good, but they have already been done. Actually, I think I would love to create a house mix of a Craig David song such as ‘Seven Days’. Something that as soon as you play it everyone knows the words to, and everyone is going to sing along. I am not sure if I have the skills needed for that yet, but I would love to give it a go. That would be brilliant.

If playing at Twickenham or being selected for The Lions squad is the peak of rugby, what is the dream gig for you in DJing?

There are a few places I am desperate to play. Tomorrowland in Belgium, as I have been there a few times [in the crowd]and it is next level, so playing there would be unbelievable – preferably on the main stage, but let’s go steady. I have also had some of the best nights out in Wild Corner in Hi Ibiza [a restroom fitted with a DJ booth]. Normally most people have terrible nights when they spend all night on the toilet, but I have had some incredible nights there! All are very different but are on my bucket list regardless.

Who would you bring out if you could have someone feature on a track live?

If I had to DJ back-to-back with someone, it would be Carl Cox at Tomorrowland. He and I for four hours would be next level. I would start off simple and then go into some very dark techno tunes by the end of it. If we are talking in terms of mates, however, I would love to be Djing at a venue like Blue Marlin, where I am able to watch my friends and partner having a good time from the DJ booth as the sun is setting.

If you could have a theme song for every time you walked into a room, what would it be and why?

I thought about this the other day actually. The song I would choose is called ‘You Don’t Mess Around with Jim’ by Jim Croce, which was played in Stranger Things. It is a great country song, and its nice beat makes it perfect to walk into. You should definitely give it a listen.

Your new single is called ‘Make You Feel’ and the track itself made me feel a sense of nostalgia for the 90s and 00s club classics. What songs make you feel nostalgic when you are listening to them, and how does making and producing music make you feel?

That is exactly what we wanted to achieve with the track [Make You Feel]. I was sitting in the studio and played it to my wife and she said “I love that, it’s so 90s!”. Music from the 80s and 90s is a genre that is insurmountable in terms of the figures, it really is incredible. As mentioned before, ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’ and ‘Show Me Love’ are the kind of songs that help remind you of those times where you have gone out and partied, and so I would say that these kinds of songs make me feel nostalgic.

Since retiring from rugby, you have kept yourself busy as a podcaster; author; TV personality; MMA fighter and now DJ. What would you most like to be known for, and what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind for yourself?

It is very difficult to be known for something for 35 years of your life and then start again, but I would like to think that I have more life left to go, than the amount I have lived so far. My wanting to become an MMA fighter came about in trying to fill the hole created from retiring as a professional rugby player. I wanted to become part of a team and train again. I prepared for 6 months, and then it got cancelled the month before [due to the COVID-19 pandemic], which was horrible because all that effort had gone to waste. I am aware that other people have had it way worse through loss of life and business, but it has been hard to come to terms with, as it is such a nutritional sport, which you cannot just dip in and out of.

Everything that I do is centred around performance, and so I would like to be known as somebody that gave life the absolute maximum, by trying new things and generally enjoying life by having fun and doing things that I love to do. After you graduate and enter the real world, you have to make decisions to do things you do not want to do because you have to pay the bills, but if you are lucky enough to create a situation where you are able to do what you love, you will be much more successful. It is kind of a male trait to capitalise on pursuing something where you can make the most money, but if you do not have the passion then you are going to fall short. My philosophy is about fulfilling a passion, which in turn fulfils my desire to be a huge show-off. If I could hold motivational talks three days a week about topics like motivation and mental health, and then DJ three days a week, that would be my dream. I am also about to start writing my sixth book which is really important to me, and again comes down to performance. I am a storyteller and that’s what I want to do – as long as I stay in those kinds of lanes I am sure I will be happy.

What were your goals when you first released ‘Make You Feel’ and what did you want to convey to people as an artist, to show that this is who you are and what you like to make?

The strange thing is that I did not really have any expectations, because it was such an unknown world to me at the time. That is perhaps partly due to the lockdown situation at the time. Usually, regular DJs sample and test music in their sets to see how it works in front of a crowd, and then it is tweaked in the studio until it gets a positive response. I have played this track to no audiences other than my friends, so luckily the record label liked it and released it. When it was played on [Kiss] Radio that was a huge moment – as good as being picked to play rugby for England. When I was a player, I never celebrated the little things because you are constantly moving into the next game, but with music production, I am able to do that. I want to be known as somebody that made good music that made you want to party. For me, straddling the line between underground and commercial is important, because there is no point in making purely techno music as it is such a niche market. I want to play in front of crowds where there is a reaction, and where the track can go somewhere with those build-up moments within it. Ultimately, I want to improve and get better at production, which will take a lot of time and hard work.

Listen to James’ new track ‘Make You Feel’ here.

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