TF Interview - Activa

Activa: Trancefix Interview

[Jul 26th, 2021]

Our latest interview with UK producer Activa, hope you enjoy guys!

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How has 2021 been for you so far, not just musically but on a personal level too?

2021 so far, has been ok, although it’s flown by a bit (as has the last 18 months). It’s been an 18 months of ups and downs with seeing different challenges to many that have only recently started to let up, brought on my the COVID pandemic

I had my daughter join a couple of weeks before the first lockdown, so it’s been a bit strange going through being a father for the first time, under the lockdown conditions (not that I would be able to compare to non-lockdown).

Musically I have come to the end of the Origins album project and finally completed everything to deliver that to Black Hole which was a great feeling.
Tri-Series started shipping at the start of the year and with the UK leaving the EU, caused a number of shipping problems but I have recently finished shipping all of the orders placed for the single EP versions.

I also decided to start a new business which is coming to fruition at the moment. Essentially 2021 has started off quite intense and hopefully will start to get a bit more ‘relaxing’ in the coming months.


Over the last 12 months you’ve been releasing your ‘Tri-State’ EPs. What was the idea behind this, how did you approach the tracks and what was the process like?

The initial idea was to make an EP, specifically for vinyl; two tracks that were produced in a slightly different way to ensure they sounded right on vinyl, mastered for vinyl and had that old school flavour of trance that has all but completely disappeared now. That idea grew out of all proportion, like many of my ideas, and turned into an album (pretty much) all made for vinyl and split into 3 parts.

As vinyl is quite expensive to manufacture, I needed a way to fund the manufacturing, hoping that by splitting into 3, the money made per part would hopefully roll over a little into the next part, therefore making the pre-order time less per part.

It kind of worked. I was able to fund all 3 parts and the outer sleeve but global shortages due to the high demand for vinyl as well as factories that were short staffed due to COVID, meant that there was some impact to the pre-order times. Thankfully these were only a couple of weeks.
I wanted to put some real effort into the whole project, not just do a white label with a white sleeve, so I got some artwork commissioned that I directed the style for and went as ‘all out’ as I could.

I’ve been really happy with the outcome so far despite the challenges; I have been learning a lot as I go. I think Part Two sounds the best, the cut on Part Two is amazing and I think when people have started to see the full triple pack with the outer sleeve, it has really come together for them and I have received a lot of good feedback about the impact the release has had.


What made you want to focus on vinyl format? Is there an appetite like for trance vinyl in the market right now?

I love vinyl, it is such a good medium from a sustainable income point of view, but also in terms of gratification. There is literally nothing better as an artist than holding a vinyl in your hand of your release. It’s an expensive process and one that can easily go wrong in many areas, so the feeling of satisfaction of getting the stock is awesome.

The vinyl release was the main focus and always was. At one point, I wasn’t going to release it digitally, but there was still quite a demand for that so I went digital too.

There seems to be an appetite for trance vinyl as far as I can tell. I’m selling a few hundred releases and I know Steve Helstrip is getting some good numbers. Vinyl across the board, genre wise, is seeing huge demand with more records sold in 2020 than in the peak of the 90’s.

There were a few problems with production, as there are global raw material shortages, making the prices for manufacture go up. That along with the ever present COVID means that demand is high (no matter the genre) which affects everyone's production costs and timescales. It's just something that needs an eye on it to make sure that you can get stock in a good timescale, especially if you're doing pre-orders.


The artwork for Tri-State was beautiful. I am right in thinking it was the same designers for the rebrand for John Doppings Research & Development label?

Thank you. The artwork was done by a UK company called ParaUK. I have worked with Russ at Para for many years - he designed the artwork for both my previous albums, This World and To the Point, as well as my upcoming album Origins.

The artwork direction was controlled by me as I had some quite specific ideas, but although I have some design ‘skills’ (if you can call them that), it needed a professional to get it right, especially considering it was artwork for print, which needs to be of a certain specification. The direction for the R&D label including that redesign was me. We had Para create a new logo which I then used to create the wider label look - John himself then brought in the video content to liven things up a little. John himself then brought in the video content to liven things up a little. John is a good friend and we have worked together a lot in the past so it’s always good to help out.


You also launched Tri-Series on your new label, Activa Music. What was the drive behind starting this label and what the plans for it in terms of release cycle and the types of artists/sounds you want to showcase

The drive behind that label was essentially a number of the recording contracts I signed when I first started releasing, running out. When that happens, you get the rights back to the sound recordings and I wanted a way to make everything available again without signing rights away to another label, where they could choose what happens. Having Activa Music as a label allows me to do whatever I want with my music.

The reason Tri-Series went on here was that it was primarily a vinyl release so I needed the control to be able to press the music etc. Activa Music just became the way to get those tracks into the main stores and portals.

At the moment I have no solid plans to push that label other than have it as a platform to make music available as and when. I don’t think I will be releasing music of anyone else’s. I have thought many times about bringing back Borderline, but as I work full time and often struggle to keep up with the work needed for Activa releases and the social media babble that goes with it, I know I would struggle with a label and therefore not give the releases the attention they deserve. I’m happy for the label to be an outlet for me just now.


What’s your opinion of the current distribution methods available for artists today, i.e streaming, youtube, digital/physical purchases. Have we moved into a better place since the disruption of the internet and piracy?

At the point that music moved to digital releases it was a matter of time before there started to be real issues. I actually think one of the biggest problems with the music industry is actually how music is perceived by, what seems to be, a large amount of the people.
They seem to have the attitude that it’s something to consume; The idea that you can get the choice of millions of songs instantly for a monthly fee has ripped the remaining worth from music as an art-form.

I have been watching online discussions about whether artists should or shouldn’t be helped by governments during the pandemic and I have been shocked at the amount of people who take the view that being a recording artist is some kind of easy, fluffy job that takes no work and that artists should feel lucky to be pouring creative effort into something that is just seen as a throw away commodity by many. Some even go as far as thinking that they have a human right to be provided with music, by someone else.

When there is that kind of attitude towards music and artists, it never bodes well. I’m not saying that the government should be paying anything out, over and above what they have offered for all self-employed people, but when it comes to the ability for artists to make music from gigging, the government in the UK has been extremely harsh. If you look at some of the discussions that floated under the radar in relation to Brexit (the UK blocking the ability for musicians to move freely between UK and the EU), it seems like the government has actively sought to destroy the culture of music in the UK and stop the ability for artists to support themselves.

I think the attitude to ‘throw away’ music has been driven somewhat by the way music distribution has changed, the ‘digital era’ and now by streaming. In my opinion, we haven't moved into a better place. We have just moved to a system whereby someone's work is seen as so meaningless, that they should be grateful to make the tiny amount of money that streaming provides and as such platforms and labels take advantage.


This year we saw Guisseppe Ottaviani announce that he would charge 10 Euros for people to submit demos to his GO Music label. We discussed the pros and cons of this in our forum, what would be you thoughts?

That’s interesting. I don’t really know much about this but found a web page that says what you get. I think it’s an interesting idea and depends on how you view it. It seems to me that it deals with two areas; one is potential quality submission to the label, but that really doesn’t work as the quality of a track has no bearing on what the artist thinks of their own music and how much drive they have to get signed. If you consider that part of this is the guaranteed response from Giuseppe with feedback, it’s well worth it if you're that driven and would rate his feedback highly.
The second is just that, the guaranteed response from Giuseppe with feedback. To be honest, if he is saying he will respond, taking his time, with information that will ultimately be of a benefit to the artist, why shouldn’t he charge.

Adding this to a demo submission is an ok idea, but it bet it could work against him. Firstly people potentially won’t see the charge for what it is (a charge to cover his time listening and responding to someone else’s music that ultimately benefits them) and I can imagine that it would get some knee jerk reactions from keyboard warriors, who think they shouldn't have to be charged to submit to Giuseppe and get his feedback. In which case they can surely go straight to another label to get their music signed, as they're clearly that good, they don't need it anyway.
The second way is dependent on how rigidly he applies this to people he knows, or knows of. For example, I assume he wouldn't charge someone who has established themselves as an artist who actually can go elsewhere if they wanted, or to someone he knows personally. If he’s too strict he could miss out on some great music.

I also know that part of the idea behind this label, having had a release on there myself, is that Giuseppe works on the material to rework and master the tracks to his specific needs, for the release. If the charge to submit also covers that work should he take the track on, it’s potentially money well spent as it could be argued, he has made it ‘better’. Obvious caveats there, that I’m not going to spell out.

Overall I think it’s a good idea, but personally, I maybe would have put it out there as an opportunity to get feedback from those that rate him, rather than get any misunderstandings by linking it to a demo submission.


We're excited about your next album, Origins, which will be coming out soon. What can you tell us about it?

Thanks, I'm pretty excited about it too. It's taken quite a while! It will be coming out on Black Hole in / around September 2021. It will be available on CD and digital initially with Black Hole being kind enough to allow me the right to press to vinyl. The exact format of the vinyl is TBC, but likely a triple vinyl as its 15 tracks and I don't want to force more than 2 tracks per side.

It has a pretty specific aim and that was to create an album that really brought my trance inspirations into the scene again. I have posted a couple of times on social media about how I view what is being called trance in the Beatport chart for example, and how far it is away from what I view as trance.

It’s all very subjective but I basically wanted to capture that oldschool style and sound. There is a track on there that was made specifically to have the old Max Graham / Hope Recordings vibe, which I spoke to Max about beforehand and he gave his blessing. There are breaks tracks and a couple of ambient / cinematic pieces which all come together to make a mix that is made to sound like a true progression of a set, as I see it.

Why now? I’m not really sure. It has been in progress for about 18 months and it has coincided with a time where I had a sudden and massive rush of inspiration which gave me the direction I needed to keep working on it. I'm quite happy that none of it was forced and that everything kind of fell into place with it.


You have an unmistakable clean and polished approach to producing. What do you like about this style of Trance and what’s your production set-up like when making music?

The thing I like is that when I listen to trance that is very clean and highly polished (for example anything Steve Helstrip makes), I can listen again and again and actually start to hear elements that I didn’t hear the first time round. I love the detail that’s available based on how intensely you listen and the delicacy of elements placed for specific effect.
In my opinion, there is a lot of music where that attention to detail isn’t considered and I think it shows. Sometimes you can get music that has that detail, but the mix or mastering hasn’t been executed in a way that really ensures the listener gets the benefit.
The problem with things like that is it’s so subjective and how deep you fall into listening to a piece of music, whether it’s electronic or otherwise, is deeply personal. I crave the detail and the subtlety that only a few (in my opinion) provide, therefore I strive for that in my own music.

I have a ‘problem’ whereby I am actively trying to counter the idea that every track has to be ‘big room’ and in your face, that tracks can be made for certain times in a set, certain situations or points where it fits with the vibe. They can be subtle and progressive despite being 100% trance.

Does my drive towards more subtle but detailed music, cleaner and more polished productions and drive away from too much of a ‘big room’ vibe, affect how some people view my music and see it as generic, boring or lacklustre? Probably, but as I said, it's subjective, so I don’t actually give a shit! :D

Setup wise, I like both. I love gadgets, so I have plenty of hardware and use it regularly. I think that certain things do certain jobs better than others, so have a decent range of synths, both hardware and software. Processing is all software, I don’t have any outboard processing; compressors, limiters or EQ etc but that is only down to space restrictions - if space wasn’t a factor I’d probably have a sizable analogue mixing desk with hardware effects, that records back into the DAW rather than exporting a bounce. I find the easier something is to do, the less of a challenge and therefore the less you experiment.


Apart from your album, what other releases do you have planned?

It’s mainly the album at this point. As I write this, the second single is coming up, called Polestar. That will be followed by a track called Fall In which is a vocal track with a singer called Shelley Segal and is the first of the tracks which is a little different to the faster uplifting stuff I am more known for.

The fourth single is called Into Pieces and jumps back to uplifting trance. Although the album is on Black Hole, as they are closely linked, Into Pieces will be on Pure Trance. I have some plans for a physical release of this one with a nice outer cover and printed card inner to be released along with an Apogee Remix which I absolutely love.

I am continuing to work on material though so have a collaboration with Mac & Monday finished, but that will be released after the album as well as a collab with Niko Zografos which will hopefully see a release along with an awesome remix of Another Day that he has recently completed. Looking forward to that.


The health and output of the scene is often discussed in places like forums, which are often notorious for being harsh or critical places. Some could say a 'stuck in the past' mentality is exists, however there is clearly some validity in what's being expressed. Do you share any of these sentiments, and should we be optimistic about Trance's future?

Everything is so polarised these days and it’s the same in music. Forums being critical places isnt a new thing and will likely continue for a long time. I would like to think that being stuck in the past isn't necessarily a reason for the negativity, as I probably prefer music that was made some time ago. However, I don’t think it’s taken into consideration, just what artists in the electronic music scene, regardless of genre, go up against and music is often compared (to that older music) and not necessarily seen on its own merits.

I think it is a problem so deep and broad that it has strong roots in things like social media, technology and past events and is probably impossible to fully prove. I can’t say that this is necessarily specific to the trance scene, but I think I can link elements from what I have experienced, to be able to explain my opinion...

Trance saw massive popularity in the 90’s as the scene was new. It caught the attention of most people of that time and as a result started to break into mainstream culture with no.1’s, films etc all seeing a healthy dose of trance. I think that this mainstream / commercial element has affected trance more than other genres for some reason.

If you take a look at the djs in the 90’s, at the top of their game at the time and what style of music they predominantly played, you can now easily pick out those that really stuck to their ethos and style, helping it develop, rather than being infected by the mainstream and commercial aspects that move something towards money and ego, instead of integrity. It seems that those djs have been less affected by that commercial element than those in trance, to the detriment of trance music itself.

When things become difficult (the move to digital over physical releases), the commercial / mainstream elements seem to dig themselves in more and cause a mutation in style that has eventually changed the sound out of all recognition (which is where I think the ‘stuck in the past’ idea comes from).

We have then seen resistance to this with people (for example) thinking that trance should only be at a high BPM, so you get trance music being fractured into specific boxes. It literally started to pigeon hole itself. This cycle seems to have happened a few times now in varying degrees.

I have felt disconnected from the trance genre for a long time, so I wouldn’t say I am optimistic, or otherwise about the genre. I can’t say I enjoy most of what it has to offer, but that’s just me and my opinion. There are probably many who think that I’m part of the problem and that the music I make, that is outside of their polarised view, is an example of what’s wrong with trance. It’s just different pieces of the same pie.

I am in a place where I am confident of my sound and my music. The confidence is around knowing that I cant have done any better, rather than confidence in whether people like it. I happen to be releasing into a genre that has a very complex relationship with both commercialism and the underground and has developed a bit of an identity crisis. I don’t have that identity crisis and don’t think I am caught up in any politics, commercial or otherwise, so I suppose the optimism I have is that I have found inspiration again and it’s as strong as it was many years ago and caused by the confidence I feel in my music.


What got you into music in the first place, how did your journey into Trance begin?

When I was listening to music as a very young child I was definitely drawn towards electronic music although I don’t really have any idea why. People like Jean Michelle Jarre and Freddy Mercury had particular impacts. I borrowed a tape from my primary school of Jean Michelle Jarre ‘Oxygene’, after hearing it in an assembly and seem to remember Living On My Own and I Want To Break Free being songs that got my attention due to their heavily electronic sound.

I got into Trance specifically, at school, in the early to mid 90’s. Where many were listening to Happy Hardcore tapes, I started listening to Trance and looking for more of that style. That eventually took me towards clubbing at places like Gatecrasher and Godskitchen and having a musical background anyway, just cemented that style as one that I wanted to try and make.

A lot of what makes it special is how I look back on things years ago. Probably very similar to other generations and how they remember their earlier years and the things that impacted their life.


What would be a dream collaboration of yours?

Definitely Mike Truman of Hybrid and probably BT. Their Breaks sounds from the early 00’s are definitely some of my favourite music. Easily as much as Trance and Progressive.

Otherwise there are loads of old Progressive and Trance names that have long since disappeared that I would love to work with, from Starecase to Christian West and Praha


Can we expect any upcoming live shows with you when the clubs fully reopen?

There are a few, here and there, but when I ‘returned’ after a hiatus, I knew I wouldn't be touring anywhere near as much.

I’m really looking forward to a gig in Birmingham for Lost Society on the 11th of September. I have known Naveed, the promoter, for quite a long time. He has a definite passion for more underground trance and progressive music and I’m looking forward to playing a lot of material there.

Other than that, there are shows pencilled but they keep getting moved so whether they will happen where they are currently scheduled is anyone's guess.


What is your favourite Trance compilation of all time?

Paul van Dyk - The Politics of Dancing


If you could only choose one...Armin, Ferry or Tiesto... and why?!

If I absolutely had to, as DJ’s, it’s between ‘oldschool’ Tiesto or Armin. I’m not really into what either of them do nowadays, but there were some amazing compilations released by both of them that were a bit darker and less ‘euro-dancy’. The Magik series on Black Hole and AVB on United Recordings were great. I’d probably go for Tiesto back then - Magik 7 is an awesome compilation.

Overall though I’d say none and opt for PvD. His music, his label, his dj sets; everything resonated far more with me than the others.


Tell us a strange or interesting fact about yourself

I think the most interesting things that happen to me are within the music industry. If I was asked this by anyone who didn't know my music, I'd probably tell them about my albums etc.

I suppose the nearest thing to being interesting (at least for me! haha) is that I was project manager for the Novation AFX Station, a ltd run of updated Bass Station II’s released by Novation last year. I have one of the engineering samples at home and a net of the box artwork as a memento. :)

I’ve managed a few new product projects now at Focusrite, but that was definitely the coolest one


And finally a hard question to end it, but if you were to put together a top 10 Trance tracks of all time what would that look like?

I’ve actually started a playlist on Spotify called Origins: Trance and Progressive, which has many many tracks in that all vie for position. (shameless plug!)

I don’t think this is in order, but here goes...

V-One - Dead Cities (Original Mix)
Three Drives - Greece 2000 (Original Mix)
BT - Godspeed (12” Extended Mix)
Sasha - Xpander (Original Mix)
Bedrock - Heaven Scent (Original Mix)
Transa - Behind The Sun (Original Mix)
Joker Jam - Innocence (Paul van Dyk Remix)
Art of Trance - Madasagar (Cygnus X Remix)
Natious - Flashpoint (Christian West Remixes) (both!)
John Askew - The Door (Original Mix)
Hydra - Affinity (Thrillseekers Mix)

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Thanks to Activa for doing this interview with us. A great producer and now veteran of the scene. His Tri-State series was excellent and we are excited to see what his album has for us when it drops in a few months. Hope you liked reading this, the next one is already in the pipeline.
 

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Gagi

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Great interview, love when a DJ/producer really takes his time to think and write long answers.
 
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Progrez

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Great interview, I got to say his replies were excellent and lot more interesting to read compared to other djs interviews of the superstars where it just the same old generic questions
 

TRANCEBLASTER

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I have just checked out his recent stuff at beatport.... with some more spice in his percussions he could be a good ghost producer for Paul Van Dyk
 
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Propeller

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I would love to work with, from Starecase to Christian West and Praha
V-One - Dead Cities (Original Mix)
Three Drives - Greece 2000 (Original Mix)
BT - Godspeed (12” Extended Mix)
Sasha - Xpander (Original Mix)
Bedrock - Heaven Scent (Original Mix)
Art of Trance - Madasagar (Cygnus X Remix)
Natious - Flashpoint (Christian West Remixes) (both!)
Haha, I don't always like him as a producer or find his music particularly inspiring, but looking at those listening choices the man has great taste!

Great interview btw.
 
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s3baman

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Fantastic read, it reminds me of the good ol' interview you would read in a mag or see back room recordings. As always, I share many of Activa's views about the scene and how music is seen and interpreted by the masses.

I'm also not at all surprised by his Ferry vs. Armin vs. Tiesto take, I'm convinced that was a trick question anyway to get the answer we all know is the real one: PvD is the best :p

The most interesting piece of info for me is his secret Mac & Monday collab. That means that there are 2 M&M tracks scheduled for release since the opening track from Rob's Lumi 2020 set is 100% a M&M original as well!
 
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Juna

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I finally read, thanks it was good. Activa is a bossman
 
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