While his name may not have resonated in Paris’ hallowed scene, Norman Doray’s steady overhaul of the stateside dance circuit has more than compensated in terms of his undeniable relevance to European house music and its reign over America’s reawakening club culture. But for all the instrumental integrity that has earned him such allies as Steve Angello, David Guetta, and Avicii along the way, Doray opened his eyes to the full potential of vocal dance music in 2012, uniting with sisterly Australian duo Nervo for the aptly titled “Something To Believe In.”
For an artist who once feared radio-friendly vocals, Doray now looks ready to level the playing fields between the mainstream and the underground for good. Beatport News sat down with him during a brief headline stop in London for Nightowl’s latest party at Ministry of Sound to talk cracking America, vocal enlightenment, and why the life and times of a modern DJ should be treated like a sport.
Your American tours and residencies seem to have gained a lot of momentum throughout the past couple of years, which seems crazy given the cultural mismatch found over there some four years ago. How have you seen the stateside club scene develop since you first started doing the rounds, and did you ever doubt that they could make room for your sound?
Everything has changed so fast over there, and to have watched it happen is just crazy. As you say, three or four years ago, it was a very different scenario. I remember the first time I played in Las Vegas, people had no idea about the style of music I was playing. For them it was either trance or hip-hop and nothing else. There was no concept of house music, and I guess it was just the wrong time. Fast-forward to the present, and the enthusiasm and understanding has hit the roof. I believe it is one of the best places to play now. The States just needed time to digest what was going on, I guess.
Alongside your stateside presence, you seem to have really lapped up the thriving global festival circuit. Did this transition from clubs to such huge crowds take you by surprise at all?
Definitely! I had never anticipated that one day I would be playing festivals across the globe as a DJ. The club has always been a very sacred place to me, both professionally and personally, so I always love playing for the smaller and more intimate crowds where you can create a real atmospheric trip from big-room house music through to upfront progressive. Those huge crowds that we now see at festivals once seemed strange and unfeasible, but the more I have experienced them the more I have grown to love it.
In that respect, do you feel that the festival crowds offer something that those more intimate club events lack?
It is just a completely different scenario to that of a club show, so you almost have to treat them as two different entities but with similar energy and enthusiasm. For me personally, clubs are the more expressive place for a DJ, as you can go in more underground directions and experiment with sounds and newer material, as I feel like people go to these places to hear something new and fresh. Festivals are more like a show reel for you as an artist—you go there and show the highlights of your career and play your main hits, maybe throwing in some special bootlegs to sweeten the deal. At the end of the day, your main purpose is entertaining the big crowds in front of you and keeping that energy going consistently with the huge production values that they offer. They are definitely very relevant to modern dance music, but the club is still where it is at for me.
You were born and raised in Paris, a city once synonymous with European club culture. Outside of the obvious landmark artists, do you hold much pride in your Parisian roots?
Paris is of course legendary for its heyday contributions to the industry, but to be honest I am not much of a big name over there. The way that whole scene has gone is weird. At one point it was the epitome of European club culture and the home of electro, but now it feels like it has hit a down period and is not quite attracting the same enthusiasm. I have no doubt that it will one day resurrect itself somehow; this industry works in circles and places come in and out of fashion overnight. It sounds stupid, but that is just the way it has always been.
The air miles are clocking up considerably and the shows keep getting bigger, but has the DJ lifestyle ever proven a tough factor to balance within your career?
Sometimes this lifestyle can feel a little excessive. I am grateful to play across the globe every day, and those moments I experience are the reason for doing what I do—this opportunity to share my music in so many countries is incredible. On the flip side, you can go five to six days without proper sleep. Even touring around the States can be hard work sometimes, so the most important thing to do is to treat it like any real job; maybe even like a sport. My approach is to drink less, get to the gym whenever possible, and make sure I never fully cut myself off from my friends and family, because their support and guidance is crucial. All I will say is thank god we have iPhones now, because 10 years ago this lifestyle would have been even more testing.
It seems fair to say that your sound became a little more open to mainstream influences in 2012. Were you at all skeptical in experimenting with big vocal tracks given your spotless record for instrumental big-room anthems?
There was definitely a resistance on my behalf towards music with vocals in it. Having been so closely associated with the sound of big-room house music, I was keen to stay with instrumental tracks that focused on the melodies and beats. I wouldn’t say I was stupid, but just a little stubborn, as, to my mind, sticking a vocal on a track immediately made it commercial. Somewhere down the line I came to realize that you could find memorable lyrics and beautiful vocals for dance music without compromising on the quality and integrity of that track. I have seen some beautiful stuff done over the years with such tracks and the true potential has finally sunk in.
On the subject of vocal tracks, “Something to Believe In,” alongside Nervo and Cookie, seemed to be a quality compromise on your behalf. Talk us through how this initial vocal anthem came to be, and how you found working with the Australian sisters?
I met the Nervo girls through David Guetta, who had told me on several occasions that they were really talented and wrote on his track “When Love Takes Over.” We finally met and there was an instant buzz. Both of them are very funny and very personable, but hard workers through and through. Being with people who give off that infectious sort of energy and work hard but with passion are the easiest to work alongside. We traveled to London for some studio time and decided we wanted to find a balance between old-school big room and modern vocal club. We made it more progressive and managed to work a catchy vocal into the equation, and I think it worked really well.
A key word I picked up on there was “quality.” Is that something that you believe has lacked sufficiently at times given that the mainstream charts now seem to be using dance music as a template for pop?
There are so many people who have done it so well, so I have no intention of generalizing. However, it is important that these considerations are made, whichever fence you stand on. A good instrumental with a famous rapper or singer stuck over the top isn’t necessarily a quality track. There needs to be that element of quality control for us to really benefit from this universal exposure. Now that all avenues of music think that they can slap a vocal line on a house track and make it successful, artists need to act responsibly and take creative pride in the sound they are putting out, as a song that hits the charts which doesn’t represent you personally is going to be a hard mistake to shake off.
What do you consider to have been the most challenging aspects of your time within the industry to date?
Every day is a challenge, as far as I am concerned. I am never really satisfied with where I find myself; there is always a hunger to achieve more, work harder, and reach more people across the globe. The road so far has been good, but there is still a lot more ground to cover, and given the audiences now available, my main mission is to share this music with every corner of the world. The balance between mainstream and underground music is another element that I would love to be able to say I mastered. It is a huge task as it encompasses so many different elements and types of people, but that aspiration is one I continue to work towards within my career.
Given the momentum gained last year, can we expect this open-minded epiphany to translate into your studio work and touring throughout the year?
Definitely! My eyes are open and 2013 will see me working on a lot more vocal tracks throughout, simply because I believe they give the fans and crowds a further musical element to connect with. There will still be a steady output of festival tracks and big instrumentals and of course a lot of shows across the globe. The key for me this year is balance, and I just hope that in balancing all these factors I can make it fun not only for the fans and people that follow my career, but of course myself—music should always be a labor of love.
photo via Remix Nation