I distinctly remember hearing Chris Moyles, at that time the presenter of Radio 1's flagship show on weekday mornings, announce that "the winner of the 'Superstar DJ' competition is... Danny", as I was eating my breakfast before setting off for for school.
I also remember being quite cynical even as teenager, far less jaded than I am now, about whether this competition would actually lead to any prolonged success for its winner (beyond the initial prize of playing in Ibiza alongside the likes of Pete Tong and Calvin Harris).
But seven years on, Danny Howard is one of the faces of Radio 1's dance music programming, as well as being an established DJ, producer and label boss in his own right. Attributing all this success to that competition win would, of course, be unfair on a man who has clearly worked hard to get where he is, both before and since that day back in 2011.
So with a UK tour coming to an end, and a year that has seen him release more music than ever before, we thought it was a perfect time to talk to Danny about how it all got to here, what he's up to now, and what is still to come from him.
Hi Danny, how’s it going?
Good thanks mate.
What are you up to?
I’m actually in the middle of moving house – just trying to get everything sorted so that I can set my studio up because I’ve not had a studio for about two weeks so I’m keen to get cracking again.
Have you managed alright fitting all that in around the tour?
Oh yeah it’s been fine, I’ve got used to a fairly fast-paced lifestyle and juggling my work with my personal life so I manage to get it all done, it’s all good.
And how has the tour been?
Yeah it’s been really good. Last year we did a tour where the premise was to visit towns and cities that didn’t necessarily have much going on, on a regular basis. So we visited places like Haverfordwest, some smaller towns. But this year was the opposite really, I just wanted to play some of my favourite cities and towns that I’ve enjoyed playing over the years, and just picking out the best venues.
So London, we played ABODE In The Park and had our own tent there which was amazing. Plymouth we sold out. Tank in Sheffield, always wicked vibe in there. So yeah it’s a busy time, nice little run into the festive period.
Do you find the crowds are different when you go to different cities?
I guess so, I think because people know what they’re getting with me – they’re obviously into their house, or tech-house – it’s never just a random crowd. But it’s definitely true what they say that the further north you go the crazier the crowds are.
Taking things back a few years, the first time I became aware of you – which I guess is probably the case for a lot of people – was the ‘Superstar DJ’ competition on Radio 1. How big a role do you think that played in where you are now? Because I was looking back at the old clips, and the losing finalist was Madam X who has also done pretty well since...
It was definitely a significant opportunity in my career. No matter what sort of work you do, or whatever goals you set, you’ve always got to work hard and make the most of an opportunity when it presents itself.
I do believe that everyone gets an opportunity: some smaller than others, some bigger than others. I spent years before that at university and in my hometown of Blackpool doing my own events, and DJing as much as a I could. And I think that sort of set me up to be able to deliver when that competition came about.
I didn't realise what it would lead to because there was never a promise of a radio show at the end of it. The prize at the time was to play for Radio 1 in Ibiza, which in itself is a pretty amazing prize. So I did that, and then it was just a case of timing really because Radio 1 were looking for a new DJ to front a new dance show and I guess I just fitted the bill for what they were looking for at the time.
It was a good mix of hard work, opportunity, and a little bit of luck which I think everyone needs along the way; it all aligned perfectly for me.
I always look back at that as definitely being a big and significant moment, but you know I’ve had to work even harder over the last seven years to maintain it and keep progressing, keep growing, keep setting new goals and targets.
From pretty early on it was clear you were going to explore the production side of things as well rather than being 'just a DJ', for want of a better phrase. Was that a deliberate statement of intent on your part?
I’d always wanted to do it. Basically I DJed a lot at university and got like 30 or 40 quid per gig or whatever. And then when I left uni I wasn’t really ready to get a ‘normal job’, I wanted to try to make DJing my actual job. So I started playing a lot in the North West of England – Manchester and Liverpool – and I guess just kept on with that fun mentality, just thinking it was amazing that I could go around DJing and earning a living.
Then when I won the Radio 1 competition I sort of thought “shit, this is for real now. This could actually be more than a bit of fun and earning a little bit of cash for it, this could develop into a full-on career”. So when the radio show came along after winning the competition I decided I really needed to take it seriously, and that felt like the time to also pursue my dream of becoming a producer.
So yeah that meant I pretty much jumped on that side of things straight away, and I’m still learning but it’s going pretty well at the moment.
Yeah it's been a busy year for you by the looks of it, the releases on Toolroom and the like. 2018 probably more than any other year looks like it’s been a big push from your side of things. Is that fair to say?
100%. For me 2018 has been the year when I’ve released the music that I really, really wanted to release and that I’m most passionate about.
Because of what I was playing on the radio with the boom of that EDM sound that was so dominant in the charts with people like David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Swedish House Mafia, Martin Garrix all basically having pop hits, when I first started producing I sort of fell into that area, which wasn’t really what I truly love.
For me it’s always been house music. My biggest influences are the old American house producers and DJs like Dennis Ferrer, Erick Morillo, Roger Sanchez, Masters at Work; they are my inspirations and influences.
So I had a break from it in about 2016, and then in 2017 released two or three EPs on Shadow Child’s label Food and on Glasgow Underground, and then it was all sort of building up to this year and really going for it, like you say.
So there were those Toolroom releases, and I released on Subliminal which was a dream come true for me. It’s one of the most legendary house labels of all time and Erick Morillo has been my biggest hero and biggest influence as a DJ. It was an absolute honour, and completely surreal to be releasing music on his label.
So yeah there have been some big moments, but I still feel like I'm building because I want people to really know what it is that I do in the studio, and that takes time. I'm just gonna keep putting out tunes that I love and hopefully people love them as well.
I heard you say previously that you had the idea of doing a kind of collaborative project where you work with various different people to put out a longer form release. Is that still something you're working on or that you want to do?
Yeah it really is actually. I started the project and then got to a point where I had about seven or eight tracks. And I was happy with all of them, but there were about four that were so strong that I thought wouldn’t get the recognition they deserve if I put the whole lot out at once.
They felt like big club singles, so I decided to put that project on hold and release those four collaborations separately. The first one was the Mark Knight EP that has just come out on Toolroom. 'You Can Do It Baby' was the one that was made for the album, but when I decided to release them individually Mark asked if I wanted to put it out on Toolroom so we’ve done that. And then we were in the studio and created this other thing which became the B-side 'Playing With My Heart'.
So those collaborations have sort of moulded into something else for now. But I’m really excited because it means I can have four strong releases which take me from now into the middle of next year, and I think they’ll have more impact that way. So keep an eye out for them.
Taking things back to radio for a bit, do you feel that you have a sense of power or responsibility now because of the exposure and the audience that you have?
I wouldn’t say power is something that I feel like I have, but definitely responsibility. Because I was that person 15 years ago listening to Pete Tong, writing down all the tracks, recording the tracks, and he was one of the main sources for new music.
Fast-forward to now and you’ve obviously got a lot of the online platforms, but Radio 1 still feels like the only major radio station that offers specialist programming. I don’t feel like there’s anyone who does what we do. And because of that I feel like we, as presenters, have a responsibility to make sure we are aware of everything, as much as we physically can be, and only play what we believe is the best.
So every single week I make sure I’m listening to as much music as possible, making sure I'm across who is emerging as the hottest artists, and then on a Friday I'll go on the radio and I'll play them for you and tell you about them, and why I think you need to know them.
So I definitely feel responsibility, and in turn if that converts into giving artists a help in their campaigns or helps them to grow, then to me that’s job done. Because when I made the transition from Dance Anthems on Saturday to Friday nights, the reason for that was because I showed a passion to the Radio 1 bosses that I didn’t want to just be playing the biggest tunes back to back. I obviously wanted to be playing big tunes, but I also wanted to be breaking the artists, breaking new music, and leaving a legacy in my radio shows that people will remember in years to come.
I was gonna say, the move to Friday nights did seem to change things in that regard.
100%. I did that Saturday show for five and half years and it was so much fun to do because the people listening at that time are just so pumped up and full of energy, and usually in a good mood because it’s Saturday night and people are going out or getting ready. So playing those big tunes is exactly what people want, and so people respond to that. It was just great to be the one making that happen, and making people happy.
Friday nights are similar, people are still getting ready for a night out but it’s also honing in on the more passionate or fanatical dance music fan, more than the audience that just wanted to hear the biggest tunes. So yeah I’m really enjoying it.
And you broadcast some stuff in America as well right with Sirius XM?
Yeah that’s every Saturday night.
Is there a different approach for that show and that audience?
With that, what they asked me to do is a one-hour snapshot of what is big in the underground dance scene here in the UK. So it’s pretty much a taste of what you’d get on my Radio 1 show, mixed with the stuff that I’m also playing in the clubs. So people listen to that to see what’s big this side of the pond.
That also really gets a good reaction because over the last year or two the housier sound has started to connect to a wider audience [in the US]. Up to now it’s been more dominated by the big poppy/EDM sound and I think now the people that were into that stuff four or five years ago are starting to dig a bit deeper and look for different DJs and new sounds, so for me that’s great.
Yeah I can definitely see that shift when it comes to the festival side of things, looking at lineups and seeing more minimal techno or more underground house stuff climbing higher and higher up the lineups.
Yeah at Tomorrowland you’ve got people like Kölsch playing the main stage this year which is great for the underground community because it means we’re getting that spotlight as well as the more household commercial names.
In terms of discovering new music and keeping across that side of things for radio, how do you balance that with the label business. If you hear something you like, is your initial thought playing it on radio or considering it as something to sign and put out?
Most of the stuff I get for radio play tends to already be signed because a lot of the stuff coming into my inbox is from labels, promotion companies and pluggers, as well as from the artists directly. People tend to be fairly strict with their campaigns now so there’s not that much opportunity in that regard to sign new things to Nothing Else Matters.
I can think of an example of how they have both combined though. I do a feature on my show called 'Weekend Weapons' which is when a DJ comes on the show live, on their way to a gig that weekend, and basically plays a tune that you could only hear in their set. We recommend it being a bootleg, or an edit, basically something that hasn’t been released and probably won’t be.
It's easy for an artist to come on and say ‘hey guys this is my latest release’, but we tell them to play something that would get a reaction in the club that’s like their secret weapon. Back in April, Lee Foss brought in this edit of ‘Nice & Slow’ by Usher and I saw him dancing away in the studio, and I could imagine it really working in a club so I asked him if I could get a copy of it.
So I played it out in a club myself that week and just thought ‘shit, this is really big’, and in the end we cleared the samples – which was not as easy as me just saying that makes it, there were a lot of forms to fill in and arms to twist – but eventually we signed it to Nothing Else Matters and it was released in October; Lee Foss & Eli Brown - ‘Freak You Right’.
What other stuff have we got coming up in terms of releases?
From me personally, I've got a track with Harry Romero coming out in January which is called ‘The Game’. When I was making it, basically the way it worked doing it remotely with Harry was that he sent me over this bare-bones idea, which I knew I could work with so I started developing it.
'The Solution' by CamelPhat has got a similar sort of vocal to the one we’ve got, and I was arranging it in a similar way. So I remember thinking that this new track would go off, because ‘The Solution’ always goes for me in clubs and it was a similar template. So I sent it over to Harry, he did a bit more work on it and it was ready. And every time I’ve played it out it has got that same reaction as the CamelPhat tune, and those guys are absolutely flying at the moment so if it even gets close to how popular ‘The Solution’ was I’ll be happy.
That’s coming in January, then I’ve got something coming with Ilyus & Barrientos, which is not quite finished yet but that will be out soon, and that one features a vocal from Alex Mills. Beyond that I couldn’t possibly tell you right now… But that takes us up to about March or April anyway.
It seems like the next year is already pretty planned out and busy for you – looking at festivals alone there’s already Hideout, Defected and ABODE On The Rock confirmed. How quickly does summer fill up for you?
It normally fills up quickly, but never this early. Usually we’d have had a few conversations before Christmas and then it tends to be around January or February when stuff gets locked in. But this is the first time I’ve had stuff confirmed before Christmas, and announced as well.
I don’t know if that’s a reflection of promoters being more organised, or if it’s any sort of progression on my part, but it’s a nice feeling. Especially coming into Christmas knowing how the year ahead is going to be mapped out, because there are other festivals confirmed that haven’t been announced yet as well, and we've got some Ibiza offers already – it’s a really nice feeling.
It’s like anything you do in life, you’re always looking for that security and once you know you’ve got that you can focus on other things, which for me is things like producing music or getting my label ready because I know I’ve got those gigs already locked in.
Well it definitely sounds like you're going to be busy
'You Can Do It Baby' is out now on Toolroom records. See which upcoming festivals Danny Howard is playing here