Genreless, limitless, fearless – Parrish Smith is not bound to any style or sound. His recent LP, Light Cruel & Vain, explores the struggle of emerging as one’s true self in an industry where there always seems to be an ideal self that one needs to be. In this interview, he discusses freedom in creativity, letting darkness be inspiring, and how to stay grounded in your identity.
You’ve been DJing for many years and you’ve said that the best thing about playing in clubs is “no elitism, no prejudices, no 4/4, no genre.” Why do you think it’s important to be unrestrained in your creativity?
This is the mantra I have held on to since the start of my music endeavour. It keeps me grounded and sane in a music industry that is constantly changing, that is not always made for artists who like to evolve in their authenticity. This mantra helped me build my own sustainable journey without making big concessions on how the world wants to see me. The only concessions I wanted to make are in the effort of being free in my creativity and for that you have to distance yourself. Creativity is also a process of growth and in order to be the person you want to be, it’s very important to create your world with your own set of rules that’s healthy for the years coming.
It’s the ultimate freedom being an artist in your own world but you need to destroy your own little world sometimes so it can grow back better and stronger. Rules don’t mean limitations, the rule you need to set is that there is no limitation.
And how does this freedom affect the way you approach your sets?
It gives me many possibilities to select tracks to build up a narrative on the dancefloor. All I can do is put my energy and heart into it with the right dedication and love of the selected music. People will feel the intention no matter the genre. Although I feel free, I take care in selecting my tracks. This freedom of choice makes me go very deep finding songs in opposite genres that aren’t considered club or techno music. I look for intensities in songs and I build my set with different intensities and emotions. My emotions and thoughts are always leaning into the dark side, and I love to go deep into that but when I’m down deep, I always look up to find that hint of light and that’s the hope I like to give in my sets. Of course, I also take time to select a coherent narrative in my DJ sets because it can get messy depending on your mood, so you need something you can fall back to. But on the back of my mind, I always have the mentality to destroy what I already have, to break everything that you’ve already planned out.
Also, my freedom doesn’t mean it always goes well. There is a lot of responsibility with playing a total new set with new tracks from different genres every week. I think I’m mostly on the edge of failing because I like to take risks. I think this edge gives me power and energy to constantly improve and be a better DJ. This way of thinking feels like an accomplishment to me and hopefully it’ll inspire other likeminded people.
Let’s talk about Never Break Faith. You’ve said that this song is a “story of struggling instead of the glamorous.” Why did you choose to tell this story?
Never Break Faith is a story about an artist struggling with his authentic persona in a world based on consumerism, fast data, image and status. He chose to be the perfect identity we always see on social media – it’s the artist people want you to be, the people’s artist. He finally realised that it eats him up because he has conflicting images and thoughts about his future being. Then, he decided that he needs to kill the perfect self in order to be his true self, the authentic self. This is the self that is full of scars walking on the path of suffering towards success. He realises that this is his most genuine way to be the artist he always wanted to be. It’s a copy of his true persona parallel to his artist image.
The reason why I’m telling this is because I feel we are losing our authenticity and our unique aesthetics because we are constantly projected with images based on a superior being that does not exist. For me it’s important to be the artist who tells his own personal and spiritual journey, that really has existed. It’s a true being packed in the form of an artist full with substance and context. There is real history inside of me with a story that I feel that I need to tell.
What I want to tell is that even though we are struggling and in pain, it’s okay to show it and talk about it. If you feel lost and have nowhere to latch onto, you need to trust yourself but in order to do that you need be accepting of your pain and suffering. We all have our unique stories but you must find the power to search for it and empower it, and to do that we need role models. I would like to take this opportunity to spread the knowledge I have and currently am learning. It came at the right time, when the majority of the electronic scene is becoming commercialised. And that’s for the better for the industry, but not always for those who want to show a unique and independent story. So where do you draw your lines or where do you break your rules to go your own way? I think this is a never-ending struggle of the artist you want to be. For me, it’s important to hold on to your own morals and never let them slip away. It will be a long road to your success but this long road of suffering will be worthwhile in the future.
How can one overcome these struggles? Or is it impossible?
You can overcome obstacles and struggles, but don’t be in a hurry for yourself. Sometimes we feel like the earth should stop for a little moment just for us to take a breath. I finally realised the world always spins around no matter how you feel. You always should take your time and don’t go faster than necessary on your personal journey finding yourself. Pick your moments when you want to accelerate in life. Making choices like this only strengthens yourself and you should stick with the things that only make you stronger.
The struggles you have to conquer and sacrifices you have to make are equally important as finding happiness, but both are connected. In order to find light or happiness you need to know who you deeply are, you need to search in the darkness to find that spark of light, may that mean hope or happiness.
How has darkness been a place of inspiration for you?
To be honest I have never thought darkness would be a place of inspiration and in my younger years I never realised what darkness actually meant. When you have always dwelled in darkness and never stepped out of that universe, it can become a road of discovery in things that can be bad to you and might harm others. I definitely can say I was someone who was rebellious to the extremes, and I decided not to follow this path anymore, to not do harm and break everything that’s in my way that shouldn’t be broken. After I made this choice I had an epiphany – darkness can be very attractive when you can find joy in the seedy things of the world. The longer I stayed in that world, the more I actually degraded myself as a person and realised how it was breaking me step by step. When I had this self-realisation, my story and history became the inspiration of the present and my future to come. I finally found acceptance of my insecurities and bad sides and that turned me into someone who wants to give this energy back to others who have been in the same dark places. I gave hope to that dark place and found the beauty of darkness itself. This depth is embraced by silence and a kind of peace.
Now let’s pivot to Light, Cruel & Vain. I’ve noticed many of the songs have a very gritty and raw feeling to them. Why have you chosen this vibe for your LP?
Because it is me. It’s very simple to say but in order to let your production talk and fit with the person you are, you need to make your own rules. My rules are that I translate my thoughts and feelings into the machines and let it be how it is intended to be. I don’t like the slick mixes – what I do like is something that feels like cars on the highway with no space to drive and touching each other’s bodies (of work). I find harmony in chaos. But you always need to be the driver and stay focused on what you want to present. The album itself came from a dark and gritty place in my heart but how others perceive it will always be different.
The original non-mixed recordings could work for the majority of music lovers but I wanted to reach people outside of my group. I did it in the way I mixed the songs and listened to what every song needed. Every song has a different approach and mix style in order to shine for the track itself. That’s why I worked with different mix engineers like Thomas van Opstal and Amir Shoat, so they could share their vision for each track with a set of different ears to elevate a song. Half of the LP I mixed myself because I felt I could add a different flavour for when you listen to the full LP. With having a song narrative and a narrative on the sound design, it gives the listening experience more layers and depth. Trust me, the LP needs multiple listening sessions so I’m aware of the fact that this body of work is a slow roller that will unfold with time.
Although you feature various genres – such as noise, punk, electronic – you choose to combine them instead of foregrounding one over the other. What is your process for coming up with these new sounds?
It’s a matter of letting go of what you know. Every time I hit the studio, I forget about the past and future and I stay focused in the present. I build up my walls and get infected in this vacuum of emotions. When I make music like this, I feel like I tap into this invisible world of knowledge where everything feels new and I can reach the source of every element that will be used. I must say I’m a music researcher by heart to the point where I will research the source of inspiration by every hero’s hero. The emotion and energy I get from this is stored somewhere in my subconscious so I can use it when I create.
Before you do this, there is a vision I would like to create, and that vision is to bring niche elements and topics together for a wide array of audiences. In order to do this, you need like-minded people to add up to your world. Working with Sofiane Brahmi and Javier Vivancos on the album was inspiring and they are madly talented. We don’t have any theoretical music education but we do know how to express our thoughts and feelings directly into music and each other. When you say the album features various genres, I would say it is genreless and it is up to the listeners to come up with something that will give it a name. We have the feeling that this hasn’t been done before in our new generation of electronic music and it keeps us renewing ourselves in order to exceed our own expectations.
Your LP has been described as “a compilation of imperfect music.” Would you say that this is accurate? How do you define perfection and why do you choose to stray from it?
You can take easily imperfect music out of context. It’s a matter of embracing your insecurities and your lesser talents and to convert it to the power of strength. Not knowing enough is also a strength in itself because you stay away from the semantics of music rules. Imperfectness that’s accepted is perfectness in my perspective. Sometimes I make choices in music production that are considered ugly or weird but damn I like to express the misfit in me. I can’t say it’s very accurate that the LP is a compilation of imperfect music ­– it’s just how I could describe it in two words. Underneath those two words there is a journey that needs to unfold and with this imperfect LP you need time to understand what’s underneath every layer of imperfect music.
You’ve said that your music is based on how art and identity interact. How does your music represent your identity?
How I live and interact with myself and how I communicate throughout music. I can only make the choices that are close to my heart and I stand by that. Being an honourable man is a tough thing to do in the music industry. There are many identities you can be and you choose who you want to be. I think art and craft always should be placed before persona – for example in the two-year Covid-19 period, I took a break from social media. Because I needed to grow as a person and artist, there was much to learn, and I didn’t want to push my craft when I was in a deep process of finding who I want to be in the coming time. I needed time to reflect and contemplate. All the images and visuals that came in this period are based on the story I want to tell. It’s the identity that came from the past and is moulded in the present. It’s my own personality that reflects my identity in art. But at the very moment I release my art, it is not mine anymore. It is open to the perspective of others and I like to let it work in those mysterious ways.
And how has your identity changed over the years?
My identity has progressed many times and it always will. Sometimes, it feels synchronised with who I really am. Sometimes you get pulled out of your synchronicity and you look for the reasons why. All those reasons create imbalance and that is when discomfort starts to emerge. Insecurities arise and self-doubt grows. It’s a natural process though. You need to find key aspects of yourself that are in synch with your true self and those could be anything. The moments you feel good make you forget about your insecurities but at that certain point, just before your mood changes, you need to recognise that. If you learn to do that, self-growth will be an organic process and you can decide what your path is going to be. Although I like to fall into the dark side of my own being, it is important to learn how to pull yourself out of it, to get back on your feet in the real world. And sometimes, when you do get back on your feet, you may not like what’s around, so you try to fix that. It’s a continuous cycle of synchronising your world but you always end and start your new beginning from within.
This LP was developed over the course of nearly 3 years. Surely you have grown a lot during this time. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt about yourself?
Self-acceptance – embracing the scars you have incurred and knowing that you shouldn’t be afraid to show them. Growth is a tough but natural process and sometimes you need to confront yourself and mentally kill the being you were in order to grow back stronger. The realisation that the earth keeps turning without me is fine because I can create my own journey that is equally as unstoppable. Slowly peeling the layers of self-doubt is confrontational, but behind all of this is freedom in a world that keeps tumbling. When you realise that freedom, there is balance.
Lastly, at this point of time, who is Parrish Smith?
I’m one of the voices that wants to inspire other people of colour or people from unprivileged backgrounds, to tell them that there is enough room to embrace the niches of life and convert it into art. I’m a story writer, producer, composer, and a visual creative with a Dutch-Surinamese-Indo-Chinese background. That’s as hybrid as you can get. We need to create more role models of diverse backgrounds because there are stories that need to be told in a different unique way. The music I make is my way of adding this to the universe and sometimes I scream and destroy. The reasons I use punk, metal and noise influences is because it resonates with the intensities of my mind.
I never wanted to be seen as the punk or metal DJ or artist. This restrains the name of mine because if you study my career up until now, you can see that I have worked on many great projects that are outside those genres and the club music stream.
I will continue to do so because I always make decisions for the long term so I can look back and be grateful to have touched multiple disciplines in art and leave something that people can discover again.
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