The last time I met Dan Stein, better known as DJ Fresh, he had short tidy hair and a smart sweater. We had a nice, not particularly memorable chat about his rise from underground drum and bass DJ to pop hitmaker of the moment. Four years on, he’s a rock star made flesh: peroxide locks down to his shoulders, unshaven, leather jacket, boots on the table, polluting the atmosphere of his favourite cosy French restaurant with a phone that goes off at regular intervals with the theme from Eighties TV helicopter drama Airwolf.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it,” he laughs. For we’re meeting to discuss his decision to walk away from life as a top touring DJ and lofty status as the producer behind seven top 10 hits, including Hot Right Now, the UK number one that introduced the world to Rita Ora. This is his first interview since a worrying Facebook post in May last year, in which the 39-year-old revealed that he had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and described the music business, his place of work for 20 years, as “brutal and relentless and unforgiving… as much of a corrupt corporate structure as any we read about in the news.”
He’s now got the all clear and is making big changes to his life. He’s living in a village in Oxfordshire, getting married in May, and has just played what he says are his last ever DJ shows. There was no great farewell party, just a couple of club nights in Tokyo, booked because he wanted to take his fiancee on holiday to Japan. He has also been teetotal for two years now.
“I had to make peace with the idea of dying,” he says. “I decided that, if I’m gonna die, I want to die with music behind me that I’m proud of, not just trying to reach high up the charts.”
He stresses that he hasn’t fallen out of love with music itself. It’s just that commercial success left him short of time to make any that he really loved. He began work on his new single, Bang Bang, two years ago, and it’s only seeing the light of day now. “What would have happened before things went crazy is I would have made a whole bunch of stuff and only some of it would have been released. Now it has to be dragged out of me.” Nevertheless, Bang Bang is a towering effort, recalling the ragga breakbeat sound of the Nineties and including contributions from a resurgent Craig David and persistent chart botherer Diplo. “I feel like there’s a mutual respect there between me and Wes,” he says. (He’ll remind you how deeply he is embedded in the dance world by calling Diplo “Wes”, Calvin Harris “Adam” and so on.) “We’ve kind of mirrored each other in the UK and the States, representing underground music but fusing it with what’s happening in the pop world.”
After that, it’s unclear when you’ll next hear a DJ Fresh tune on the radio under his own name. He’s songwriting and producing for other people as part of a new team he calls Fallen Angels, seeking new talent to launch – “retreating into the background”, as he puts it. Last September he put out a call for unknowns to send music to him at DJFreshdemos@gmail.com. He now has thousands to get through. “I never really wanted to be famous. I’ve always hated being recognised,” he tells me. “Since I started making music I’ve almost been afraid of being at the front.”
In the past, he got over that stress with drink and drugs. It’s really the life of the touring musician that he’s finally realised is his problem. “When you’re on the road, there is so much temptation. I used to hit it pretty hard back in the day.” Mainly alcohol? I ask. “Everything, pretty much. There were lots of instances of waking up, remembering that I was with one of my idols the night before, not remembering what I said but knowing I made a twat out of myself. One night I was with Dizzee Rascal, so wasted, and don’t know what I said to him, but basically he didn’t speak to me for six months afterwards.”
For the DJ, the party orchestrator, of course there was an expectation that he would partake in whatever was on offer. “We’d come out of the airport and people would say, ‘Here’s a bag of weed. Can we get you anything else?’ They want you to party, they want their city to be the place where you have this amazing time. It sounds quite spiritual, but part of our job is to try and absorb everyone else’s energy and project it out there. So you get amongst it, sometimes too much, and certainly for me, way too much.”
Not just in his case, he feels that this is an unhealthy way of life. We talk about Swedish DJ Avicii, who announced his retirement from touring last year at just 26, citing health concerns. Then there’s Kanye West, who cancelled his current tour due to stress and exhaustion, and dubstep musician Benga, who quit DJing in 2014 and blamed his bipolar disorder and schizophrenia on drug use and excessive touring. “The whole idea of the DJ as a one man touring entity is actually quite new, at least on the scale we’ve seen recently. So the stories that are coming to light – drugs, alcohol, mental health – it’s a very unhealthy, high pressure lifestyle on a lot of fronts. It’s not all fun and games,” says Stein. “It’s amazing being on stage, of course. That’s what we all live for. But it’s all the rest of it.”
He gives another example, of a local taxi driver, originally from Albania, who he befriended and offered a job helping to manage his tours. “In one weekend we went to Kavos, Belarus and somewhere else. We had two three-hour sleep windows across three days and he just couldn’t hack it. He couldn’t live like that.”
Now, nor can Stein. It’s partly the arrival of middle age, he admits. The big 4-0 is looming and it does make you take stock. “It’s normal for people to draw closer to 40 and think, ‘Where am I going? What am I doing? Am I where I wanna be?’ I always said I didn’t want to DJ after I was 40. It’s a young man’s game. But the cancer was really the thing.”
He has to abandon our lunch because he’s off to London for another scan. It hangs over you, even when you’re officially doing well. He had his thyroid gland removed last year and says that it made him clinically depressed for a while. “My body chemistry was really up and down. I was feeling incredibly low for no reason. Our lives are so governed by the chemicals circulating through our body. But for the most part I’m back to normal now.”
Back to normal and feeling excited about the new music to come. It may not have his name on it, and you won’t see him perform it, but as long as it’s good, he’ll be far happier than he’s been in some time.
Bang Bang is out now on Ministry of Sound.