(originally published September 2007)

Leo Van Ulden moved to Vancouver years ago taking a break from his job. Although he wasn’t into the club scene yet, he went to Seattle to see dj Shadow play with Cut Chemist. “Once I saw Shadow, I knew I wanted to be a dj. Really, I wanted to learn how to scratch, because scratch is percussion.”

Hitting some record shops, he started a collection he’d later use at his first gig courtesy of a nightclub bouncer four months later back home. After placing in the top three at a local competition, he started playing regularly – for almost five years now.

So how would you define your sound or your style now?

My chosen style is funky chill house, or dance, what a lot of people refer to as techno. But techno is actually a totally different sound. So, funky chill house in the early nights. Mid way through I’m going out a little more straight forward funky. Then towards the end of the night I go more towards an electro dirty sound. So funky dirty chill electo funk. You can pick out from that. (laughs)

If someone asked you what it took to dj, what would you tell them?

The most important thing is song selection. The way Mark Power put it to me at an early stage, if you like a track, then somebody else is going to like it. It’s more being able to choose tracks people are going to like before they even know they like them. You’re presenting new tracks through the weeks, they get used to them and then you play with ‘em all and it all goes up. So mixing is a pretty important part, and being able to mix well and mix the right parts of the tracks that you want to play. There’s lot of bedroom dj’s I know that play crazy music, it’s amazing and it’s good in its own right, but not necessarily something someone wants to go to a club and dance to.

So is djing skill that’s developed a knack, or both?

I think it’s a bit of both. Where I was a drummer I had a knack for beats and timing and a lot of it is that. But I seem to be able to pick good tracks and I don’t know why. So it’s a knack for that I guess and the skill you have to learn is mixing, which is something you never stop learning how to do. Once you start and get two tracks in time, beat match them, and put them together – there’s actually a thousand ways of keeping those tracks together in a way that makes people want to dance. Cutting breakdowns or only playing the loud parts or only two minutes that you think are good. Some people have no rhythm, if you have no rhythm then you have no knack for djing but you can still learn it.

What is beat matching, mixing…?

There’s a track playing live and I take a second track that I think will sound good, depending on what I’m trying to do, it could be a loud or chill track. Then you time it using pitch control on cd players or turntables, basically speed control so you can speed up or slow down the beat. You adjust it so the tracks are in time with one another. So, every time a beat hits in the headphones of the track that I’m cueing up, the one playing live has a beat sound as well. At the end of four beats in a song there’s usually a symbol, then a drum for eight bars, then you might get a guitar to come in for eight and then the bass comes in with the drums going louder. The songs are all composed that way so when you mix you get those things to happen on time with each other. One of the harder parts of learning at first is to get those things, playing in two different songs that are now going the same speed, to actually happen at the same time. It’s all about knowing your song selection.

The artistic side of djing versus the professional side, is there a difference?

The commercial side could be a radio dj playing whatever top 40 hits are there and that’s not very artistic. A lot of them are probably playing music that they don’t even like. If I could put it in terms of being a painter, we choose the tracks or the paint colours we like, that move us or make us feel a certain way. You don’t practise your set, then show up and play the same set; it’s totally organic. However I feel or whatever the room is doing to me basically comes out in my music. An artist paints however they feel that day or that moment when they’re painting and that’s exactly what a dj does.

What three djs do you look up to the most in any sense?

My favourite so far would be Deko-ze, the energy that he puts into his music and his track selection is second to none. I’ve never heard him play a bad set and he’s one of Canada’s top djs as well. Dayhota is right up there, she has a lot of energy in her track selection as well and she always looks really good. Mark Farina. I saw him at the Commodore in Vancouver this summer and his set was flawless.

Favourite and least favourite styles other than your own?

I dislike techno, I don’t like the feel. It’s horrible, it’s like it grinds on me and doesn’t feel good at all, it doesn’t have a warm feeling – it’s cold. Other than the house genre and the sub genres I won’t get into, I’d have to say Drum ‘n Bass. There are a few really good dj’s here in town, Mr. Low especially. I like the funkier laid back side. Everything DJ Spinz played when he was here made my jaw drop.

Best night ever…

When I played MarbleJam last winter, it was playing for a completely different audience in a different setting and I wasn’t sure if they were going to, kind of, get it – I was very nervous. You know what to play based on the people that are at the club. But here there was a bunch of rock bands at the start and I was totally unsure – there were 700 people there and by the time I played it had whittled down to 300 or so. Seein’ my friends out there and say afterwards you really know what you’re doing, it was the best night ever.

What are you listening to right now?

Hard-Fi – Stars of CCTV – it’s one of the best albums I’ve ever heard.

One thing people don’t know about you?

I guess that I own a business, well actually that I run a business. So djing is almost like an alter ego. I’m doing all this business stuff all week but on the weekend when it’s time to relax I go to the club and rock the place out!

What’s your favourite drink?

Well if people want to buy me a drink … (laughs) well I drink a lot of Vodka and Rockstar. The big thing and a darker part of the whole club scene is a lot of people are into drugs to stay up late and that’s something I’m not into, I’ve never done, I’ve never made a part of my life and I never will. But in order to stay up till 6:30am and play I have to drink energy drinks and more often than not rather than just a regular energy drink, why not throw some vodka in there.

Vinyl or CD, why?

CD is the way to go now; I love vinyl and still purchase it. The hard thing about it is once it’s scratched it’s gone, you can’t play it. It’s heavy. It’s sensitive to heat and can melt. So with vinyl it’s more like having that one track everyone loves and it’s kind of something dj’s pride themselves on, having that one track no one else has in their collection. CD’s are easier. I can hear or read about a track, go online and download, burn, and play it that night. They don’t have record shops here and they cost literally five times what an MP3 costs and when dj’s talk about a record there’s generally only one track on it. So CD’s are a lot more convenient and smaller.

So what’s next for Leo Van Ulden?

My sound keeps changing. I’m getting a little more electro later at night. I’m not sure what’s next. I do want to play more shows around Canada, I might be up in Toronto in November but I’m not sure. I love playing around town and house parties and I have a job besides. I take djing very seriously but it’s not what brings in the money so I’m not pushing myself to become an international star but I do pride myself on being a good dj.