Perfect Sound Forever

John Acquaviva

Photo © 2001,

Interview by I. Khider
(January 2002)

"My philosophy is that music is not linear, there's different moods for different times and I try to stretch it as far as I can. That's what makes life interesting for me otherwise I'd be on some linear drug where I want the same thing forever." -John Acquaviva

 World renown DJ John Acquaviva has manned the decks well before it became the highly glamorized and popular vocation it is now. Acquaviva got his start during the disco-era in the late '70's, dropping the needle in the dance lounge of hotels where he worked as a teenager. Since then, he has amassed a massive record collection; developed strong relationships with countless producers and record labels; became the key catalyst in bringing rave culture to North America; co-founded +8 records; headlines massive events and has put out three mixed CD compilations this year alone. I spoke to Acquaviva over the phone while he was on a promotional circuit for Mainhatten Sound a mixed CD compiled through traditional decks and a new DJ technology known as "Final Scratch". One of the things I discussed with Acquaviva was that on his latest releases, rather then select mainstream material he played solid underground tracks that some of the best cutting edge DJ's have in their crates.

John Acquaviva: "If I travel the world why shouldn't I help the world see my view of the whole international culture that we have? I like buying different sounds, that's what motivates me. DJ's are supposed to buy records and if they're good they should play them because every record has its place. That's why I like to do so many compilations; there's so many producers and I try to showcase them. I play records from all over but this CD (Mainhatten Sound) is the focus on the catalogue from Force Inc.. The Germans have made great house productions for the last ten years."

As someone who has seen trends come and go, and as a certified globe trotter who haunts record shops throughout the world, hence privy to the latest sounds, he must have developed an intuitive sense of where the next hotbed of sound would come from. To this, Acquaviva responded diplomatically, rather then embracing a trend-following mentality he instead reflected on the changing nature of music production, that locales were no longer as important as they once were.

J.A.: "I think technology is really accessible, there's more music coming out of more places then ever and I think each place is developing strong regional scenes, the Spanish scene, the British scene, every city is getting its group. It's kind of paradoxical, the globalism is part of the sum of the regional parts and instead of hotbeds I'd rather call them 'schools of thought' the sound from Cologne, the Kompact guys, you've got the sound from Berlin-Richie Hawtin has a school of thought from Minus. Instead of hot beds, conveying cities with trendy thought, the school is more innovative when people stick to their tastes and beliefs and keep evolving. They come and go out of favor but they're consistent in trying to be unique and true to their thoughts. It's the sum of those visions that melt into the global melting pot."

Diversity is a signature styling since John Acquaviva's sets reflect a broader, more global mindset. Over the course of an evening he'll drop techno, house, Latin-house, Afro-Cuban rhythms and straight-up pounding techno-taking clubbers on a world tour from the crates. On the other hand, most DJ's, tend to spin a specific sound such as minimal techno or Drum n' Bass or have regional affiliations where a DJ will only spin Chicago house or Detroit Techno.

J.A. : "There's different levels and you need to mix things up. If anything, my perspective has always been broad. I personally disagree with some DJ's who are international who just play one sound. I think being linear tends to be boring. I personally couldn't be linear but for some people it's important that they are. Recording one sound is one thing, but DJing you have to try and convey stuff just because a night starts, has a middle part and has an end. That's not a linear thing. I have an ebb and flow, I like to play in waves. Some people go, 'Wow, you got records from all over the place.' Isn't that the way music should be? Shouldn't I play a record from France, one from Germany and one from England and one from America? I thought that's what our scene's about. But some DJ's play records only from New York or only from England. For me, I don't only eat just one kind of food when I have dinner."

This year's releases included three mixed CD sessions, each showing different facets of Acquaviva's DJing such as Connected (Yuul Records) which is more global in sound but conveys an intense, rave-like feel. From Saturday to Sunday Vol. 2 (Clubstar Records) is a two CD set that had Acquaviva spinning house and techno on disc one and digging into his filtered disco crates for disc two. Mainhatten Sound (Shadow Records), as Acquaviva mentioned, showcases the sounds of Force Inc. label, blending the foremost in techno by artists like Sutekh and Porter Ricks.

The fact that he beat-matches like breathing, and runs his records through e.q. adjustments and filters to promote active listening-teasing out the audience's attention, are further testaments to his skill. That being said, as someone who is exposed to so many different sounds, it was interesting to learn that Acquaviva has never felt the drive to record his own music.

J.A.: "I've never done my own e.p., wholly me. I've done 80 or 90 records but very quietly, very subversively. The more our success was the more I stuck to being a DJ. Our scenes are so big that its back to specialization. Very few people can be excellent producers and excellent DJ's. My first and foremost love is DJing and that's what I like to zero in on. The records I do are low-key, I like doing records as a team. I don't have some kind some of urge to release my innermost feelings. I can hide behind the mask of other people's productions. (Laughs) I can play their moods and feelings without expressing my own."

This led me into my next question, was DJ'ing an artform? Unlike hip-hop turntablists like Kid Koala or Q-Burn, the artistry in mixing records in house and techno may not be as immediately evident for the uninitiated. After all Acquaviva admits he's playing other people's music, moreover he was expressing other people's "moods and feelings," not necessarily his own.

J.A.: "If you draw an analogy, DJ is an art because every records is a texture, a color a mood and I create with my records a collage over the course of the night, mixed well. If you believe that collage is art then you can't disagree that DJ'ing is not art because it's the way you mix it and take bits and pieces of these records, whole or partial, that you create a new texture. That's why we overlap and manipulate records. It's art if you know what you're doing. What makes art good is all subjective."

An artform indeed since DJ's beat-match records, manipulate timbre, pitch, bass and decide the best track selections to motivate a crowd away from the sidelines and onto the dance floor. Not anyone can pull it off and not nearly as well as John Acquaviva. Part of the reason Acquaviva is such a good DJ is because of the huge musical palette that he has to work from. At last count, he has amassed a collection somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 records. I asked him how on earth did he store all his records?

J.A.: "I've got two houses full of music. That's why I live in Canada in a small city so that I can afford lots of space. I don't throw away anything, I'm a packrat. I have big house, trust me. I moved out of my parent's house when I got married, bought a bigger house, quickly filled up my house. I didn't really move the records from my parent's house and now my house is full of records that I bought. I'm going to have to buy another house just to give my parents a piece of mind. I'm a total junkie. After I discover one group I'm always looking for the next group of producers and the reason why I play music from all over the place is that I'm always looking for that new label or that new producer. I buy hundreds and hundred of records."

So who were some of his favorite producers, the records that he kept coming back to on his own accord regardless of what he was spinning at a club?

J.A.: "My favorite producer for the last three or four years is Airto Moreira who's a Brazilian Jazz musician, the underground version of Sergio Mendez, he's amazing. He's got nothing to do with house and techno other than he's been sampled in a few records. I love Brazilian music. The things that keep me going are not the trendy club music. Club music now is more narrow than it was. Now that the scene is so big, people only play trance, house, or deep techno. I wish the crowd would want the full experience. I can play them some great jazz, some great Brazilian percussion, African chants-but that's almost too crazy nowadays if anything our scene is too limited. I used to play everything from Motorhead to Vince Geraldi and Cocteau Twins in the 80's."

That had me starting, Acquaviva playing Motorhead?

J.A.: "'Ace of Spades,' man. The Smiths, whatever. Every good song has its place, some are campy some are profound."

Acquaviva is also a dad; I asked him if his children were old enough to appreciate the fact that he is a world renowned DJ. Essentially they are still too young to appreciate their dad's vocation but he has imparted a love of music to his kids, which they reciprocate.

J.A.: "My kids are six and three, they're boys. They appreciate music, they like sneaking down to the studio. My oldest son has already made two mixed compilation CD's from Brazilian music to disco music from Sly Stone to Paul Simon to Airto Murera, Sergio Mendez kind of stuff or Astrud Gilberto. I just let him start-stop the CD or the turntable and made two compilation CD's of our favorite tracks. I put on my son's second CD, 'Loves Me Like a Rock' by Paul Simon".

Next, I asked Acquaviva to tell me about Final Scratch, which he credited on Mainhatten Sound. To this, he became quite animated, enthusing over his gear.

J.A.: "Final Scratch is an amazing technology that I stumbled upon a few years ago and became their biggest fan. Richie Hawtin joined up as well. These inventors had this idea; they talked to a bunch of DJ's and saw that DJ's just wouldn't let go of vinyl and turntables. 'Why is that?' Because the turntable is the best way to play music. 'But music's digital why don't you play it off computer?' Why mix with a mouse or CD player? That's totally second rate. 'Why don't we invent something that allows the turntable to control digital files?' And they did. It's heavy technology that only now can work. You need a powerful computer. The computer becomes your record box, you can play Wave files, MP3's-whatever. You put on these special vinyl records with information not music on them that literally sync up with the hardware and software on the computer. You got left and right visual displays of your turntable but you're using the turntables to mix along with the pitch control, the eq on the mixer-everything works. Basically the turntable becomes the controller and the computer is a slave to the turntable, you can lift up and cue like a record. It's unbelievable, you see your grooves on-screen. Anyone who touches it just melts. It blows all those CD mixers away. It's totally true to turntable and DJ culture. It doesn't ask you to throw away everything, it just takes everything you have and ads a digital dimension to it."

Asking John where he thought music might go in the future brought out the philosopher in him. Namely that electronic music will dominate the scene

J.A.: "People who were into electronic music in some places were pariahs in North America because it was always that Rock and Roll guitar world. The few of us who started then said the future's going to be electronic music. We always held to that belief and we were freaks to some people and futurists to others. When you were listening to "Computer World" by Kraftwerk, they were singing about this stuff in the '70's, about home computers and programming computers and that really was freaky. Now we can say more than ever, 'look around you technology is everywhere.' The future is now."

Where did John see himself in this developing scheme of things?

Acquaviva: "I'm same old, I was there before anyone can remember and I'll probably be there when everyone forgets. (laughs) I'm that old. I'm just not part of the loop-I'm out of sync. I don't know whether I'm cool or not, I think I'm just there. If you think about it, I'm kind of constant, I've been trendy and been maybe not trendy. Whether it's cool or not I'm still in demand."

Also see our Richie Hawtin interview

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER