Talking shop with house maestro Niels Feijen

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There are a lot of house parties in Belgium – and one name that seems to stick out more and more is Niels Feijen. Despite his relatively young age of 26, this enthusiastic Antwerp-based fellow can be considered a veteran in the scene. With more than 10 years of experience, 3 active party concepts and a packed DJ schedule, Niels is not one to take things slowly. Having had an exceptional year with gigs like the Extrema Outdoor main stage, a handful of Elrow bookings and exclusive parties from Ibiza to Amsterdam, Niels is a lot more than what many consider to be ‘just a tech house DJ’. On a cold January afternoon, we arranged to meet him in a coffee house tucked away somewhere in Antwerp’s Noord district, where he happily enlightens us about his ambitions in production, his plan to reshuffle his promotion activities and his ideas about the shifting dynamics in our countries nightlife scene.

Tell us your story, Niels…

Well, I’ve lived in The Netherlands for a good part of my youth – born out of a family of proper ravers. My dad really showed me the way, taking me out with him as soon as I was able to. I even tagged along to Ibiza one time when he had to join DJ Tom De Neef as a roadie. That was all in the early 2000’s. Obviously, this is how I rolled into the DJ circuit. I played my first gigs as a resident DJ for the Hed Kandi parties at Stereo Sushi (an Antwerp club which is now long gone, red.) and I had my ultimate inauguration as a DJ when I played in front of a crowd of thousands at the City Parade. Keep in mind I was just 16 years old at this point. Around that time, I was also getting serious about my football career – I played for Royal Antwerp FC, but it’s clear which choice prevailed! Maybe I could have been a great football player, who knows. It’s funny how the roles have turned: now I take my dad out clubbing instead of the other way round.

Every kid discovering music has an idol. Who used to be yours?

That was Roger Sanchez. In hindsight his style may be a little commercial, but he was a big inspiration to me as far as mixing skills, the use of effects and reading a crowd goes.

You have played more than 100 gigs both inside and outside of Belgium this year (we counted). That’s not bad at all. Would you say 2017 was your best year yet?

I actually played less shows all-together, but I definitely had bigger bookings, resulting in a lot more genuine appreciation. This was definitely a conscious move. It could get a little crazy sometimes. I remember one week in which I played Ibiza on a Friday, Café d’Anvers and Fuse on Saturday – and then flew straight back to Ibiza. Those are the memories that stick.

Is not difficult to continue to find challenges if you play that much?

It’s only in the last 2 years that I really found out what I wanted to bring, what music I want to make and which kind of sets I wanted to DJ. People mostly see me as a tech house DJ, which I understand – but I feel I have a lot more to offer. By saying ‘no’ more often this year I have been able to focus on the things I like. When I have big shows I have more time to think about my selection or to prepare specific little DJ edits. It’s by doing this I learned to love producing beat too. So the first steps have been taken. There’s still a lot of years left in me, so there are still plenty of goals to reach and challenges to take on!

So does that mean you have changed your DJ-style over the last 2 years?

I don’t know, really. I usually play a lot with effects – without them your selection becomes even more crucial. Not too long ago I had to mix with a rotary mixer for the first time unexpectedly. I wasn’t familiar with its range and types of effect, so I had the focus was put entirely on my selection and transitions; and it turned out great. So now, I’m definitely more aware of that. I’ll spend more time now re-evaluating which tracks I’m going to play.

Lily (who goes by the artist name ‘Lya’) your girlfriend, is starting what seems to be a great DJ career too. Seems like you guys are a perfect match for each other…

Me and Lily have known each other for a long time, but she only started DJ-ing about 2 to 3 years ago – and she’s getting better results every day. She manages to get the right kind of attention, so I’m super happy for her.

Does that mean you are excellent B2B DJ-set partners?

We really understand each other, so I will always support her – sometimes it’s better to do that playing separate than in a B2B set. Many ask us to play together, just because we’re a couple. I want her to put her to prioritize her own career, as she has a distinct style; and you can’t always express that in a B2B set with another DJ. Obviously, it’s a lot of fun to play out together sometimes, but only in the right conditions.

You are excellent business partners too I’ve heard…

Together with Mathias Cooymans, me and Lily started a new booking office: Muted Agency, representing artists like Hermanez, Lunoize, Ode Maen, Lebawski, Thang, Memorial Home, Lya, etc. It’s still very early right now, so we’ll see where this adventure takes us later on.

You just released a collab with said Lunoize on Riva Starr’s record label. Not bad. Will you develop your production skills more in the future?

Most definitely. I did a SAE course once, having the idea that I would be releasing tunes right after – but that prediction couldn’t have been more wrong. I needed a lot more time to develop my own sonic identity, so – expect for the DJ edits – I only wanted to send out tracks when I had the feeling they were good enough. It took me a long time to be able to make a mature sound, as I rarely find the time to get myself into a creative flow in the studio. Things accelerated when I met Lunoize, an extremely talented friend from Ghent. We are very different from each other, but we learned so much from working together. We rented a small house in Zeeland (a province in The Netherlands, red.) next week to focus on producing more music together!

With 3 concepts: HMEWRK, UNDER and Tell No One, you host a fair share of different events. What’s the difference between each of them?

I started HMEWRK about 5 years ago together with DJ Licious and Flapjackers. We did Thursdays in a now long gone little club called ‘Baroque’ and it took us a long time to get this off the ground. Once Club Vaag opened its doors a little over 2 years ago, we moved over there, keeping the vibe accessible and open for the weekday crowd.

Secondly, me and Lily started UNDER together a few years ago. Our first edition was held in La Gare, but soon after we moved to Café d’Anvers and Magiq Spiegeltent (for the summer open air editions). This really felt right: we could do our own thing: going from UK house to Ibiza vibes, without the pressure of playing whatever is considered to be in fashion on that moment. We were able to book some really great artists who we admire too: Davide Squillace, Butch, Enzo Siragusa and Cuartero to give you some examples. This has opened up our contact network, which came in useful when I was looking for gigs outside of Belgium.

Lastly, Tell No One is the odd one out. As we regularly hosted Thursday nights at Club Vaag, we felt an itch to put something up on Saturdays too, giving local artists a chance next to play next to bigger names. So all in all, HMEWRK has a younger audience, UNDER is our accessible party frequented by a returning group of friends, family and fans – and Tell No One is our ‘underground’ concept with a little more adventure.

Taken together, the total amount of events each year must be crazy high…

Yeah it is – that’s why I want to concentrate less on promotion and more on DJ-ing and production. Obviously, I’ll still put on events, but maybe keep it a little more manageable, focussing on the biggest parties. There’s a huge oversaturation of parties in Antwerp at the moment and I don’t want to contribute to that.

So you believe there are too many parties here?

The older you are, the more critical you become (laughs). Everything goes round in circles, ups and downs. In a not so distant past, ‘the club’ used to be central in nightlife mentality. Now, the younger generation follows certain concepts or artists, instead of going to a particular club regularly because they have faith in the programming. That’s all very understandable to some degree, but the disadvantage of that is that it makes nightlife so dependent on volatile hypes. Although, I shouldn’t complain, because this has in fact resulted in a lot more events every week, leading to a lot of opportunities for me, helping my career. So for me it’s a double-edged sword. Maybe it used to be more simple and sexy – if something was good, it was good, so people came. Today’s crowd is just a little more pampered. That’s why I still love to look at The Netherlands often: the club circuit remains a little more original and direct compared to Belgium. The feedback from the people there will always be more honest. This can be harsh sometimes, but it leads to better quality.

So what are your favourite clubs over here?

Café d’Anvers will always have a special place in my heart, because it’s the club I grew up in – I discovered so much good music there. That said, Club Vaag is not directly comparable, but it’s such a decent new venue. It’s dark and cosy, the sound is banging and I can always play what I want there. I prefer its intimacy above a massive warehouse feeling. Maybe I’m a bit biased as I’ve been throwing parties there from the very beginning! But if we’re talking Belgium in general, there is no better club than Fuse. I think I played there 4 times now – whether it’s the warmup or the final slot: as soon as the people enter the club the party has started. Everything just fits perfectly there. It doesn’t matter which tracks you play, as long as you are confident in your selection the Fuse crowd will support you. I think that’s pretty unique.

Despite the fact you mentioned you were planning on playing less gigs this year, I have trouble believing you. What shows on the calendar are you looking forward to?

A few festival dates are already lined-up, so it will be a busy summer, no doubt. And yeah, like I said, after a few years of weekly gigs in and around Antwerp you can grow the feeling of running in circles. So I’ll try to break the habits and spur new challenges every day, all the while making sure I stay true to myself without pushing too hard. There’s more productions coming too, many of them collabs with Lunoize. So for me it’s just a matter of continuing the upward trend.

Follow Niels Feijen on Facebook and Soundcloud to stay up to date about his productions and where he plays next.