Having spent the last few years honing in on his signature, pensive breaks — there is an unmistakable sharpness to Kessler’s sound right now. His story isn’t unlike many of those whose star was on the rise before clubs were shuttered in 2020: All prepped for a year full of big bookings and industry chatter, instead finding themselves adrift, finding solace in the studio in the absence of dancefloor asylum.
Hailing from Northern Ireland but now settled in Rotterdam, Kessler — real name Danny Kennedy — developed a deep love of music, and all of its facets, from an early age. “I used to listen to jazz, and neo-soul and my grandfather was a massive classical head,” He says, “he had a whole room of classical records and I'd go there after school every day and play on his piano. It was a melting pot of loads of different influences.” He describes "having a go" on his brother's turntables at a birthday party as his first real taste of mixing, with early clubbing experiences at local nights like Shine, Twitch and Crilli giving him a passion for DJing.
Spending the next few years developing his skill set, Kennedy was one of the two winners of the Mixmag and Coors DJ Competition — being chosen to travel to London to perform electrifying breaks and electro set in The LAB. Following a steady build-up in his hometown scene, with releases on Belfast's Born Sleepy, he chose to relocate to Rotterdam to continue pushing his forward-facing dynamic bass-driven sound. As the pandemic hit, Kennedy turned to the studio — creating his impactful 'Exhale' EP, a morose and serrated record that touches on an ambivalence to a locked-down world.
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The producer and DJ now boasts an impressive string of releases on Shall Not Fade, Club Glow, Left, Right & Centre and Yellow Island, alongside remixes for the likes of Dusky and Swoose. As the world has reopened and eager punters are filling up slots in their clubbing calendars, Kennedy has seen lusted after bookings at fabric, Motion, AVA, Dekmantel and Waterworks keeping him busy — he's still found time to kick off his parties in his newfound home of Rotterdam with club night's Footwork and Meraki, as well as his work with collective MALAFIDE.
Having just announced his own residency on Rinse FM for summer 2022, we caught up with Kessler to talk festival calendars, making "sad" music and how his hometown of Belfast is proud — but not too proud:
Yeah, this summer is going pretty incredible let's just say that I'm kicking things off in my hometown of Belfast which is always nice. This year I'm playing a closing set I think — on the Baltic Stage, I was really happy to do a Boiler Room last year of course, but then I was like: "You really should have got me on a bit later" [laughs]. I think they took my feedback into consideration, to be honest. Also, Waterworks super honoured to be on the line-up, to be honest. So much happening.
You were really on an upward trajectory before lockdown started, was it strange to hit lockdown and now be back on the rise again now?
Yeah, I think moving to Rotterdam as lockdown was first kicking off was a bit of a blessing in disguise, I won't lie it was a shit time I arrived here with no job as everything was closing. But then I just got stuck into the studio and people really started noticing, especially after my 'Exhale' EP. I did that EP and another one, and then obviously the Club Glow stuff which was nine tracks — I think without COVID I probably wouldn't have put that much effort into the studio. I forgot about DJing altogether, when stuff opened back up again I was like "... I've forgotten" [laughs]. Especially with music too, I'm pretty OCD with how I organise my music, so I was still buying records on Bandcamp and stuff but I wasn't organising anything, so when It came to prepping for gigs again I was kind of like: "aha I'm going to need a couple of days here." I'd compare it to spring cleaning really.
What is the underground music scene like in Rotterdam?
It's a cool little scene. There are a few more niche nights and it feels like a big family — you have a lot of the same faces coming down and supporting you at your shows, and people really make an effort in that sense. Since I moved here I've made a lot of really good friends, a lot are obviously DJs [laughs], everyone is super artistic. There's really an abundance of things going on here, even outside music and you can draw inspiration from it all. I feel like in Belfast you never really get that, it's just about DJing and some people are producers — whereas over here there are so many things you can go check out. Obviously here in Rotterdam, things have only just opened again, unlike in the UK, so it's very exciting right now. Rotterdam has a big electro scene alongside hardcore techno and breakcore too. I hear something new most nights I go out here, so it's very healthy.
Do you think coming from Belfast has had a big influence on your sound?
Definitely. I've still got that UK aspect with breaks and stuff, but I think my music right now is an amalgamation of the music I hear over here and the dance music I fell in love with in Belfast too.
What are some of your early musical experiences? what did you listen to when you were growing up?
I was a bit of a metalhead growing up — there's definitely a progression from metal to breakcore and drum 'n' bass and stuff, so maybe this was always the natural step. When I was younger I was super into hip hop and c from riding around in the car with my older brothers and playing stuff on the Walkman. My brother was actually the DJ in the family, he used to spin records, and at his birthday party I had a go on the decks and that is when I really discovered electronic records — house, deep house, tech house. I started going out in Belfast, techno came along and breakbeats — it was a slow progression but we got there. But yeah, It's always a bit confusing for me, none of that really comes through in my music — there's none of this acoustic guitar I grew up playing, before producing I mainly played the guitar actually. But I'm sure it's in there somewhere.
What does your brother think of you being a DJ now?
He's really supportive! I had a gig in Belfast on Saturday actually and he was there. I think initially he might have been a bit jealous [laughs], he is proud I think. Big shout out to Lu Lu.
How did you get into the club scene in Belfast?
We used to go to Thompsons Garage in Belfast every Friday, I was going since I was about 14 or something. You'd have these world-class DJs on all the time, like Green Velvet, every week there was something different and that was really my first taste. Then you had nights like Shine that had a whole bill stacked with headliners. As I got a bit older I started to go to Twitch which would get more obscure bookings in like Objekt or Midland, so a bit less commercially appealing but the proper selectors. I think that was a real education for me on what it means to be a DJ, not just playing that peak time stuff but developing your relationship through your set with a crowd. There were nights like Crilli, which really was the only drum 'n' bass and jungle nights, and that's really where I caught the bug for breakbeat... goodbye 4/4. The guitar was well and truly back in its case. Things have really changed now, there are all these garage and grime nights popping up, that weren't really around when I was just a young pup, it's so nice to see all this new variety.
How is it to return to Belfast now since you moved to Rotterdam, particularly as a DJ?
It is really weird, I like it though because it keeps you level headed. Everyone shows up to the set like: "You think you're a big time DJ now yeah." I would like to go back more than I do, I maybe go back three-four times a year and then AVA is the annual celebration of Belfast obviously. You can't beat Belfast people, they'll treat you like a little celebrity but they are also giving you stick — you even get that with Bicep. I was rigging Bicep at my first AVA, it keeps everyone level headed — everyone's proud but not too proud [laughs].
You've had releases on Shall Not Fade, Yellow Island and Born Sleepy. Do you think your productions have changed a lot in the last year? Is Rotterdam having an effect on that? has there been a bit of a transformation?
I think there are always some fundamentals in my music, but I think the quality is really what is getting better — as I become older and more experienced mix times are becoming easier. The main thing I've really been honing in on is the workflow, I used to take ages to finish tracks whereas now I can just hammer them out really quickly and get ideas down. I've always had this melancholic side to my music juxtaposed with this driving, dark sound — it really fluctuates between those two. If I want to make something that's a proper banger It'll end up being a bit dirtier, whereas when it's contemplative it's a bit more morose. I have tendencies to make music that's a bit deeper, but I'm not a particularly depressed person or anything [laughs]. I think with the 'Ambivalent' release because we were all going through a shit time in lockdown, it was justified to make music that wasn't very club-facing from start to finish. When things started to get better it started to get faster and then I really started to explore club music again, I think with my two upcoming EPs there's a bit more of a balance between the dancefloor and being deep. I'm excited to get them out — it's where I like to be around 50/50.
So you like to focus more on the melancholy side of club music?
I just can't make a happy track [laughs]. I have tried. I used to make housey/disco edits - early Denis Sulta sort of stuff and then the Kessler project happened and I just haven't been able to do anything in minor key since then. I'm a pretty happy guy, so it's pretty surprising I'm making this music you can cry to — but that's what comes out naturally so that's the way it's going to be.
How do you think your productions differ from your DJ style?
I think my music is really intended to be listened to off the dancefloor, but if you wanna play it in your sets I mean, that's cool as well. The majority of it isn't peak time stuff unless it's a jungle track. I never play my own music in my sets which I think is a bit of a bad habit, I should really be playing my own stuff. But I find it more exciting to find fresh music and play other people's tunes. Though I still stick to the melancholy/breakbeat stuff, so I guess there is a brand there.
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How important is it to you to have a really great crew around you?
Yeah, it starts with your circle first of all — these are the people who influence me and hear my music, I think it's super important to surround yourself with a good network of people. Raji Rags actually did a talk maybe last year I think, and I remember him mentioning how important it is to have your network being your friends and family first and you build up from there, it's all about having a solid foundation. I love my friends here in Rotterdam a lot, like I mentioned earlier they are mostly DJs [laughs], we've formed a collective as well called MALAFIDE, so we're putting on parties together and talking about starting a label, so it's great.
What's coming up for you this year?
I've got two new EPs coming up with Shall Not Fade, which are following up from my last release on the label. I was going to do it as a full-length record but decided to split it into two EPs which actually makes way more sense when you listen to it — plus I've got some pretty sick producers on remixes, including a good friend of mine from Belfast Optimist. I also jumped on some remixes for Dusky and Swoose on Bicep's label. I've just been announced as a Rinse FM resident which I'm really looking forward to, It's going to be a mixture of guest mixes and interviews with some producers, DJs and friends. I've never had a radio show before so it's going to be a new challenge, my brother always said I had the face for radio — so guess he's right [laughs]. I've just decided to start doing live shows, I did my first one last Thursday actually, I was booked two days before and I ended up in the studio for forty hours to prepare.
How did it go?
Yeah, really well. All the music I was playing was my own and some older stuff from past EPs that I know really well, so it was just about having a go in a live format. I think all those hours in the studio paid off, and also so many of my friends were there and they were saying I looked really calm. After that I think I realised this was the kick that I needed, I've wanted to create a live show for so long — so it was a nice incentive to just get up there and give it a try. Since then I've just been thinking about the set-up for it and stuff.
Can you tell us about this mix?
The mix pays homage to my first time playing in Berlin, where i really felt i could express myself in any way shape or form for the 3/4 hours at RSO, but condensed in to a shorter format. It covers a lot ground sonically, showing the technical & fun sides to my mixing style.
O-Wells - Nieuh
Sister Zo - Don’t Test Me
Adam Jay - Stolen Empathy
Flore - The Fiery People
Farr - Give Me Shelter
Delian Sound - Flute Swerve
Denham Audio - Fhloston Paradise
Yollks - dude
NYDS - Intensive
Amor Satyr - Wassup Now
S Ruston - Kermit’s Scream
Kuthi Jinani - Corals
Leese - Anäam
Tim Karbon - Fluid Til I Die
Glass - Skin Transfer (Live)
nickname - Ra-Ta-Ta
Harmony - When You Hold Me
Megan Townsend is Mixmag's Deputy Digital Editor, follow her on Twitter