By Ruben Gzirian
Pete Dougherty (stage name Moon Boots) has the distinct honor of being the answer to a question I never thought I’d ask: “Who is the ideal DJ to do a set at the National Air & Space Museum?” Over the course of his on-the-cusp-of-being-great career, Dougherty has released a litany of songs that are impossible to sit still to; songs like “Sugar (Original Mix)” and “Keep the Faith” off his debut album First Landing set off an inert Pavlovian reaction you’d be foolish to fight. And while most artists, especially those with a career built upon tailored 5-minute experiences, would dither at the necessity of a full LP, Dougherty sees it as a necessary progression.
“I think [releasing a full album] allows you to cast a wider net creatively; you can embrace more style and diversities in your own sound. I love doing remixes and singles, but I also grew up listening to albums and wanted to explore that format. I think it was the right time for me, and I wanted to make something for people who listen to full albums. It really challenged me creatively.”
To hear Dougherty describe his ascension as a musician, you’d be hard pressed to believe his career is anything but ordained. As an undergrad at Princeton University, Dougherty tried studying electrical engineering, economics, and religion before diving headlong into a early music career that eventually saw him move back to his native Chicago and join a pop-synth trio that had a stint touring alongside Lupe Fiasco. And while none of this is lost on Dougherty, it is refreshing that he exudes exactly zero of the all too common “I was made for this shit” attitude.
Coming off a recent live performance for KCRW, where he and close friend Nick Trikakis played instruments with accompanying vocals—a setting he described as having no “CD changer in sight”—Dougherty is ready to elevate his standing as a live performer in much the same way he has blended jazz, house, funk, and soul to become an artist on the rise: through humble experimentation and an uncanny feel for his greater audience.
Brightest Young Things: Your backstory is very interesting. I read that while you were growing up in Chicago, you had a high school teacher who gave you a Yamaha DX7. When you’re performing live or doing sets, how are you able to tell your story as a developing artist?
Pete Dougherty: It’s funny because I’m actually working on a live, proper live set for KCRW, where I’ll be performing songs from First Landing live. I’m working on the arrangements and performing everything at my friend’s Nick Trikakis’ house in LA, who actually did a remix of my song “Tear My Heart.” That’s kind of going back to my roots as a keyboardist where for years I really just played in bands and on my own without any intention of writing a track. I was really into jazz in college, but after college I started to really learn how to produce and write. Performing live like this is a return to that which I’ve been doing for most of my life, which is just playing keys. I’ve always been one to differentiate between what I do as a DJ and what what I do during live acts. As a DJ, I want to incorporate different styles along with the music I love and the music that gets me doing when I watch other DJs perform. I’ve never been one to just get booked for an hour long set and only play my tracks; it’s boring to me. I don’t want my audience to ever get bored of my sets and I really try to give every audience something unique.
BYT: Chicago House is a big influence on you, and I was wondering who influences you right now? How are you able to incorporate the sounds you’ve grown up with, and also your current influences, into a coherent set?
P.D.: Trial and error [laughs]. I’ve found that since I joined the Anjunadeep [record label] family I’ve been been exposed to a lot of European/progressive sounds. To bring disco into that environment and then switch it to some kind of old school disco house mixed with someone like Konstantin Sibold, you’d think it wouldn’t work but there is always a way to make tracks fold into each other if you try them in different combinations. I like having sets that vary between those two sounds and I think people are up for it; they don’t want to listen to the same beat for an hour; it gets boring [laughs].
BYT: Do you use your live sets to experiment and to evolve? Can the audience expect to see you try new things or refine how you perform?
P.D.: [Laughs] I really hope so. For the past few months I’ve been bringing a keyboard on the road to most of my sets; so I’ve been DJing and playing keys. For this KCRW show, I’ll only be playing keyboard and Nick will also be playing keyboards and triggering samples. There won’t a CD changer in sight [laughs].
BYT: I read something about you in a previous interview and I have to ask you about it. How did you connect writing music with writing manuscripts writing? I read that a few times over and couldn’t make sense of how you did it.
P.D.: [Laughs] I studied classical composition, topics like voice leading, theory, and the typical the stuff you’ll learn. So around the time I was learning to do that stuff, I was also learning how to use music software. Now, when I’m writing in MIDI sequences, I still see it in my head—depending on the song—as sheet music. You’re writing notes on a page in a way, just in a different style compared to classical. I know I’m making dance music and I want to entertain without making some stuffy crap, but I do keep those experiences in my mind.
BYT: What can we expect from your BYT performance?
P.D.: I’m so stoked to perform at the Air and Space Museum. I went there with Perseus (fellow DJ on the now-defunct French Express label) three years ago before a gig at U Street [Music] Hall; I hadn’t been since I was a little kid and it was awesome. I will definitely be bringing a keyboard and playing some new music, I’m going to fully embrace the cosmic atmosphere of the place.