MICAH Tick tick boom – end of an era

Anyone who knows dance music in Perth knows Micah. A regular on the club and festival circuit, and a resident at Ambar for the past 16 years, the breaks and bass DJ has defined an era in WA clubbing history. Recently he decided to move on from the Boomtick family and start a new chapter. ALFRED GORMAN caught up with him for a beer at The Rosemount and a conversation about his big decision, how it all began and to reflect on the evolution of the Perth scene.

Don’t fear, Micah’s not retiring, far from it. You’d have to prise his decks from his cold dead hands. Music is in his soul and his blood. He’ll still be playing around town, and producing his own beats, and he’ll still be on the radio every Monday on RTRFM’s Full Frequency program. He’ll probably even pop up at his beloved Breakfest – but he’s decided to leave his full-time role as music programmer and integral member of the Boomtick team.

Since starting to play gigs at Ambar as a young, eager DJ in 2001, he quickly moved up the ranks to become a regular fixture at the club, taking on more and more responsibilities, running the legendary Japan 4 nights, curating Breakfest and developing new talent. Micah’s deep love and passion for the music and scene comes through in the conversation as he waxes lyrical about the old days. Open, honest and revealing, his story is an inspiration as he tells tales and imparts wisdom gained from years at the forefront of the scene. Starting as an eager young kid, working hard at his craft, and rising to the top of the local scene to emerge as one of the best DJs our city has produced, he has played a massive part in the development of the scene in Perth, and is one of the nicest, most humble guys around. If there was a Perth DJ Hall Of Fame, he would be in it, alongside names like Greg Packer, Mr Whippy, Gully, Rok Riley, Echoic…

All of these achievements would have been pipe dreams for a young Micah – an unpopular kid in high school, who didn’t really fit in, he was drawn to the community and music of the underground dance scene. Around the turn of the millennium he was DJing warehouse parties and illegal raves, uncertain of what he wanted to do. That was a long time ago, and things were very different then. A lot has happened since in Micah’s world, and it’s fascinating to sit down to discuss his evolution and insights.

I’ve seen you perform and written about you many times (around 15 – I searched my archives – going back to when you supported General Midi at Ambar in 2002) but we’ve never done an interview. How did you first get involved with them?

I started in 2001, running Autophon Fridays with Choice and the Awarehouse crew. Yeah wow! That General Midi gig – that was an Autophon gig. That was the first one I’d been involved with featuring an international artist. I went on to become good friends with Paul Crossman/General Midi. He’s such a good dude.

As well as being a legendary Perth DJ that put on parties, Choice was one of our first Dance Music Editors at X-Press…

Yeah, that’s how it all started, I’d known Choice from Freo days. We were both rave promoters. I had my crew of friends and we did the Pines raves, and various warehouse parties, and Choice had his Awarehouse parties with Jayd. Then in 2000 I put on my last Pines party and it got shut down by the cops, I nearly got arrested and I lost a lot of money. Everything fell apart and I got really burnt by it all, it knocked my energy and confidence, so I kinda just went and hid in my bedroom and mixed for a year.

I used to drop in on Choice when he was working late in the X-Press office, and we’d talk and hang out. I have this really vivid memory of saying to him, “Man, I really need to get back in the game.” And he said, “Funny you should say that because I’ve just talked with a venue about running a new night. We’re having a meeting in a couple weeks if you want to come.” So we went to this meeting, and it was Ambar, and we met with Liam [Mazzucchelli – owner of Boomtick/Ambar].

I’d just started going to Ambar and really getting into breaks. I was really into the Plump DJs. I’d go on Friday, and the Saturday, when they’d play that music. The resident was Gully (RIP). I’d had a car accident and written my car off, and instead of buying a new car, I bought a pair of turntables. So when Choice said it was Ambar, I was like woah! But he said it had to be a tribal house night. So that kinda birthed Autophon – and that’s how I started at Ambar.

Breaks was a really big sound in Perth in the 00s, and Ambar played a huge part in that…

I think Perth has always been a breaks and bass town, and I think that’s largely in part because Ambar took off and gained momentum as this really special place. Ambar opened in 2000 and Breakfest started in 2001. I remember meeting Liam and saying, “You’re taking a big risk opening up a breakbeat club, ‘cause this is a really new sound.” And he was like, “Yep, but I really believe in it and think it’s gonna work.” So credit to Liam, he took the punt and it paid off in spades.

The dance scene was so different back then, really only in its infancy and breaking out of the underground in Perth. There were the first big outdoor dance festivals (legal ones, anyway) like Delirium, Gatecrasher, Vibes on a Summer’s Day, and there were the massive Psyence Fiction NYE gigs at Belmont Racecourse…

Yeah I think it was 2000 when raves kinda stopped and festivals began. I think the Delirium one was the first. I used to do the Pines raves in October. They were completely illegal raves out in the pine forest, so we did it before the fire ban, so we might be looked on kindly by any authorities that came upon us. I remember doing the one in 2000 and it got shut down, and it caused a huge headache for Jeremy (Junk, RIP) who ran Delirium because he copped a lot of grief from the Police because they saw his events as kinda the same thing, even though he was an entirely legitimate promoter.

How do you think the scene compares these days?

I think back then, less people took it for granted, because we didn’t have it our whole lives. We found it, we stumbled upon it. When I found rave culture in ’95 as I was leaving high school, I was captivated by it. Before that I had been going to rock gigs. I was a kinda weedy little kid. I wasn’t terribly confident. So I’d go to those gigs and I’d get roughed around and felt kinda unsafe.

Then I remember one time I went to this gig at the Old Boans Warehouse – it was kind of a skate comp with a rough crew there. It was cool, but people weren’t super friendly. Later on that night one of my friends took me to this warehouse party – it was the first rave I ever went to. I just remember walking in there and thinking woah, this music’s different. All the people were really nice, they were probably high as balls, but they were lovely. You’d bump into someone and they’d be like, “Sorry dude, how you doing?” whereas in the other clubs, they’d probably punch you in the face.

I think everyone knew it was quite underground and special, so they were protective of it. You needed to have a certain awareness and desire to search for the music, because there was no internet or social media. You had to spend time in record stores or get a mixtape off your favourite DJ.

Yeah things have changed a lot – it doesn’t seem to be about the music and the actual DJing skill as much anymore. It’s more just the cool, fashionable thing, and taking selfies. No one wanted to see a camera back then! That vibe is still there, but it’s harder to find…

I remember going to Vibes on a Summer’s Day at Freo Arts Centre with Bentley Rhythm Ace and Adam Freeland – there was a real sense of “We’re doing something different, so let’s take care of this and be really good to each other”. There was minimal dickhead factor. But now it’s just kinda what you do. It’s all very accessible, it’s pop, there’s a mass marketing machine.

The technical side of DJing has never been that hard (apart from scratching and turntablism), but I think the art of DJing has always been about putting together a piece of music that’s one, two, six hours long. There’s the performance aspect where I can fuck this up at any time, but the real skill for me has always been about programming music. Putting it together in a story with a start, middle and end, with moments of light and shade, happiness and sadness. You take people on a journey (as clichéd a term as that is now).

Whether you’re using CDJs, laptop or vinyl – the whole ‘Real DJing’ thing – sure, the formats changed, but fundamentally the game is still the same. You have to have the skill to start your set, bring people in, get them onboard, make them trust you and then start to show them things they never knew existed. There’s an energy exchange between the crowd and the DJ. It’s really important to be humble, because it’s not about you, it’s about them.

Exactly, it’s not about having a prepared set, maybe a little, but it’s about reading the crowd and changing your set, depending on the reactions you’re getting…

Totally. Seeing the response and thinking, I wanted to go there, but I can’t go there tonight. As part of my role at Boomtick, I had the honour to help a lot of young guys and girls with their careers and give them some of their first sets. I’ve listened to a lot of mixes and I’ve always tried to give feedback as honestly as I can. Not overly critical, more nice, positive and helpful. One of the biggest things I’ve always told young DJs is, “This is cool man, but tell me a story here. This is 60 minutes of heavy bangers, massive tune after massive tune. Where’s the story? Paint me a picture and show me your musical breadth.” Usually they come back and I’m like, “Dude! You got it!”

When I started programming Ambar, I always had a process. If you wanted to get into Japan 4 (and a lot of people did), there was two ways in – you could come in doing earlies or doing lates. You’d never come in doing the peak time slots, because they were the most important of the night – it’s easy to come in and play bangers, but the real skill is coming in and playing the openers, for like six months. That’s what I did when I started. I’d come in to do the late slot, and manage to keep the place full, keep the energy up. Not bang the crap out of it so that everyone walks out. It can be hard, and you might be playing to no one, but if you can do that well for six months, you deserve to move up. Many of the DJs that went on to become integral residents came through like that, and they learned a whole bunch of stuff about themselves, how to build a dancefloor, and keep a dancefloor, how to read the room.

It seems like the sort of people and DJs that Ambar hired were a big reason as to why the place has been so successful. It’s one of the oldest clubs in Perth and won many awards over the years, especially the long running Japan 4 nights that you were a huge part of, alongside Ben Mac and Wish…

Ben and Wish made Japan 4. The kind of men that they are. The generosity, the ease with which you could talk to them. There was no ego there, they’re my dearest, closest friends. They’re such giving guys, such sweet humans. We all came in to Ambar at the same time and it wasn’t easy to get in at that point. A lot of DJs back in those days were kinda ‘ivory tower-ish’, you didn’t just go up and talk to them. They were kinda revered and super cool, and we weren’t. We were just really keen and hungry to play. So when we found ourselves in this position where we were the residents at a nightclub that was really popular, and we’d had difficult experiences and had attitude from other DJs, we really didn’t want to be like that.

You could be the best DJ in the world, but if you were an arrogant dickhead, it just didn’t really work with us. In the halcyon days of Japan 4, there was this really welcoming vibe. There was no ego, no barrier between the DJ and the crowd. It still warms my heart to remember that period.

Let’s talk about your final gig at Ambar – playing for an epic six hours…

It’s been emotional man… just coming to the point of announcing the fact that I was leaving was a really hard thing. Ambar is the longest relationship, outside of my family or oldest friends, that I’ve ever had. Prepping all the music has been really emotional. I had a few cries along the way. Music is so visceral and connected to emotion, it’s really nostalgic and represents a time and place, and if you were there, you have those memories of what it was like… My wife has been phenomenal – she wasn’t privy to all that stuff, but she’s been letting me be emotional, even though she can’t connect with it. And yeah, I’m a bit nervous because I really want to capture those golden days in one night. I feel like we can. There’s gonna be a lot of people there who’ll remember those times as well. There’s gonna be people who’ve been there all along the way and know what Ambar is, and was, and I hope the music will help reinvigorate those memories and bring that energy.

So are you trying to pick a few tracks from each year? And not just necessarily breaks?

Oh no, there’s funky breaks, there’s heavier breaks, there’s gonna be house, bass, garage, drum ‘n’ bass and techno – it’s gonna span all of it. I’ve got about 12 hours of music that I’m gonna try and shoehorn in there. Last weekend I pulled out all my records and filtered them down to the absolute must plays. Now I’m trying to compartmentalise it into chunks, not necessarily years, more vibe and genre, and somehow put it into a cohesive set.

It would have been a hard decision to make, to leave. What was your motivation? There’s a new sound and generation coming through, breaks have evolved (for better or worse) and I know you’ve recently gotten married.  Do you have any plans for what’s next?

I can’t really reveal anything at the moment. There’s some things in the works, and if everything aligns it will be pretty phenomenal. I’m still gonna keep DJing. I’m still gonna keep tinkering away in my studio. There wasn’t any one thing. It just felt like it was time. I haven’t really been playing on Saturdays since Japan 4 ended.

Musically I’ve changed a bit in what I want to play, and what I wanted to play was not working at the venue. I don’t really play dubstep or trap, and those sounds are really what’s popular now. So I started to feel that maybe it’s my time to move on.

And yeah I got married as well – though that hasn’t changed anything about my music. My wife is a complete supporter of what I do. She works in the Arts, so she totally supports and understands what I do. If anything it’s made me more confident to step away, because I have a loving wife to support me through this transition – because it was always going to be a scary.

My whole kind of identity has been wrapped up in it – my personal rise in success and Ambar’s rise in success were on the same trajectory. So there’s been this fear there for me – like, if I step away from Ambar is everyone going to forget about me? When I made the announcement online, I looked at that post on Facebook for hours, and kinda crafted it. It was a hard thing, but then the response from the community was amazing.

Yeah, I remember seeing that post. It stayed in my newsfeed for weeks, it was being liked and commented on so much, like over 1000 times I think? I’ve never seen such a response to a post – it was such an outpouring of love and thanks for the memories. It must have been an amazing feeling to see how much of an impact you made on so many people’s lives…

Yeah… oh man… I cried a lot looking at that post. Part of me was like, what the fuck am I doing? You know, I was a really lonely kid. I struggled in high school a lot. I was really unpopular and heavily bullied. I suffered with depression right through high school into my late teenage years, and struggled with everything that comes with that. So to go from that… to a place where I see the response to a post like that… all this love and support. It just fucking blows my mind, and I’m so humbled and grateful.

I’m just so thankful to all those people who’ve supported me, and been so generous with their time to come to the gigs. To have this career and have this kind of support as just a local DJ. It means so much to that depressed teenager, who couldn’t get out of bed for a year. To that little kid who was so fucking lonely. I wish I could go back and say to that little kid, don’t worry, everything’s gonna be alright, keep going. I couldn’t have dreamed for anything greater than the support that the people in the Perth community have given me.

It’s well deserved, mate. You are obviously well loved, and what you have achieved is massive. There’s not many people in the local scene who wouldn’t know your name. You won Best Breaks DJ at the PDMAs 10 years running. You were part of some formative years for many people, and Friday night is going to be epic I’m sure! But you’re not retiring, you’re just leaving Boomtick – so you’ll still be hosting Full Frequency every Monday with Philly Blunt?

Full Frequency is not going anywhere. We’re still absolutely together, doing the show. It’s a format where I get to share music and hang out with one of my really good friends, and just have fun and revel in the joy of music. The show is a real reflection of us, it’s totally authentic. I think the sound of the show has changed, as we’ve changed.

You played together at Breakfest too. Production-wise, as Black & Blunt, have you been working on anything?

I’ve actually been working on some stuff on my own. In terms of Black & Blunt, we haven’t really done much together in a while. I don’t really know what’s going on with that project, but Phil and I, we’re really good friends. When we started Black & Blunt, we weren’t close friends really. We were two DJs in the scene that were on similar trajectories musically and we were about a similar level technically. Phil was a better producer than I was, and still probably is, but we found we really clicked in the studio together. Then Phil joined the show [Full Frequency] when Ben left, and we’ve become really good friends. We’ve shared some amazing times, we’ve done some phenomenal gigs and some crazy tours.

I know you’ve travelled a lot and seen/played many amazing gigs all over the world. Testament to your talent, but also the opportunities provided to you through the people you’ve met. You’ve played at Burning Man and KaZantip, Ukraine. Did you ever think when you started DJing it would take you to these kind of places?

No, not at all. I had zero preconceived notions. I never really planned for success, or to win awards. I thought it would be cool to play at some festivals, but I never set it up as my mission to do that. I just kinda seized opportunities as they came. It’s funny, I did a goal-setting thing with my parents about 17 years ago. I had left university, I didn’t finish my degree, because I wanted to devote my time to music. So I got a job as a graphic designer, and I dedicated all my side-time to DJing. My parents said, “Alright let’s sit down and write a goal.” And my goal was to be a well respected DJ in my community.

Well you’ve definitely achieved that goal! Your parents must be proud…

Yeah, my mum’s really proud. She gets little moments, like when she’s at the hairdresser, and she says something about ‘my son Micah’, and they’ve heard of me, and she’ll come home and rings me and she’s really stoked. I talk to some of my mates I started DJing with 20 years ago and they’re like, “Man, you’ve really turned this into a career.”

I took a few risks along the way – I quit my job to go and work for Boomtick. I did that when I was 28. I was working in satellite communications at the time. I’ve always been a bit of a techy. Liam had just bought Villa, and I was like, “You need to give me a job!” So I left this potential career as an electronic engineer to do music. I’ve been absolutely immersed in it for the last 11 years. Music’s always gonna be part of my soul, my heart and I don’t ever want to let go of that, but like every part of life, there’s segments of the journey and it’s time for this one to come to a close. I know for me it’s the right thing to do, but I just have fear around what’s next, and if it’s gonna be as amazing, because it’s been amazing.

You must have had so many incredible experiences working there, and met some heroes and icons. Are there any achievements or events that stand out you’re most proud of?

Yeah. I’m really proud of what we had with Japan 4 and Ambar through those years. I put everything of myself into that, and I’m really proud of the legacy. I’m really proud of the friendships and connections I made through that. I’ve made some of my best friends in the whole world in that period. And y’know, out of a nightclub, which sometimes can seem vapid and shallow sometimes – to meet the best possible people I know in this world out of that is such an achievement.

Like, Lee Rous of the Plump DJs has become a really good friend of mine. He is a person I think the world of. He’s such a wonderful man. I remember the first time I met him, I played after him and he came out after my set and said, “That was one of the best sets I’ve ever heard.” He gave me this really good feedback, and I was just totally starstruck.

I’ve met some really wonderful people… Elite Force/sHack, Paul Crossman/General Midi, Martin Horger, Meat Katie, Stickybuds, Nick Thayer, Bass Kleph, Poxy Music… Sameer from Poxy Music is one of my dearest friends. He, and his wife, are some of my best friends – they came to my wedding. I’d stay on his couch whenever I went to play in Sydney.

Getting a Beatport number one breakbeat tune with Nick Deekline was amazing. Playing KaZantip with Lady Waks, The Stanton Warriors and Martin Horger. I got to play at Fabric because of Lee Rous. That was a huge dream come true. sHack was such an integral part of my Burning Man experience. He really helped me and connected me with people which led to my first big gigs there. Meat Katie – I got signed to his label. The exposure he gave to Black & Blunt… he’s been a huge supporter. I owe all these people so much.

Probably one of my proudest achievements is Breakfest. I started out as a punter and loved it so much, so it’s amazing to have become part of Boomtick and been involved in programming the line ups. For the last five years I’ve designed the stage sets, even the balls and the flags, that was me. Stumpy, that was me. All those things that I hope made it more special and unique, that was me putting my heart into it.

Mate, thanks so much for your time, I’ve enjoyed talking with you so much – it’s been a real trip down memory lane.

Yeah, it’s been really good to talk with you too, as somebody who’s been there for all of it, and is still there in the thick of it, doing reviews.

And hopefully we will still both be for a bit longer! I’ve still got the love for it…

Yeah, I’ve still got the love for it too! I don’t think you ever have to stop, there’s just times to change and do something else. So for me, I just wanted to stay in control of that, and make those decisions and not have them made for me, and move on to other things, which are hopefully just as exciting. There’s lots more to come!

 

Click here to read the review of Micah’s last Ambar gig:

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