It’s Tuesday night, and Vadim Peare — better known as the Soviet-born, London-bred, globally minded DJ Vadim — is in Philly to play a gig.
Or rather, he’s just across the river from Philly, in South Jersey, staying at the modest home of a man he’d never met before — a fan and long-time Facebook pal who offered to host Vadim for a couple of days on his current U.S. tour.
The evening before, after he arrived, Vadim and the man had a smoke, cracked open a few beers, and then the man picked up his bass, his 17-year-old son set up his drum kit, his 15-year-old daughter stepped up to a mic to sing, Vadim grabbed a tambourine, and the foursome spent the rest of the night kicking out some tunes.
Chances are good that at the same time a few thousand miles away in Vegas, some member of the latest Era of the Superstar DJ just touched down in his chartered private jet to be whisked away to his $10,000-a-night suite to rest up for a few hours’ work at a sprawling superclub that’ll net a six-figure paycheck.
Would Vadim rather be there than here?
“No, because I ain’t nobody’s bitch,” says Vadim.
“A family jam, that’s my favorite shit. That’s real life. Something spontaneous and real, where you just go with the flow. I don’t want to be part of that corporate thing. I don’t want some guy in a suit telling me, no, you can’t have a mohawk, you can’t have this, you can’t have that, do this, do that, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. If you’re making 12 million dollars, why do you have to be somebody’s bitch? I’m not anybody’s bitch.”
With that last “bitch,” Vadim starts laughing. In the background, his host is cracking up, too.
Vadim realizes he might sound bitter, or envious. But he insists it’s happiness he’s after, and for him, happiness has been making a nice-if-not-mogul-like living following his own path as a full-time musician for the better part of two decades, and being able to maintain a level of credibility and respect that allows him to weather the ever-shifting fortunes of electronic music makers in America.
“I’ve been DJing since ’89, ’90, and I can tell you I’ve seen a lot of things,” says Vadim. “I’ve been to a lot of shows, I’ve seen a lot of musicians, I’ve seen a lot of great things and I’ve seen a lot of whack things. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. I’ve seen people get huge overnight, and then five years later disappear.”
“I mean, look at Vanilla Ice — he was as huge as you can possibly be, and now I hear he’s refurbishing houses, is that right?”
When Ice was in his brief early ’90s heyday, Vadim — who was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia (then Leningrad) and emigrated to the London suburbs with his family at a young age — was just gaining his footing behind the decks and samplers, honing an experimental instrumental hip-hop sound that would get him signed to the U.K.’s venerable Ninja Tune a few years later and align him with other atmospheric breakbeat pioneers like DJs Shadow, Krush and Cam.
By 1995, Vadim, who was releasing singles, DJing in London clubs and dong club promotion, too, was still working his day job as a civil engineer — his last “proper” job — when he finally decided to take the leap into music full-time.
“The job was cool but I still remember getting to work and there was a clock right above my desk, and I’d be looking at that and thinking, I cannot wait for it to turn to five o’clock, when it turns to five o’clock I can go home and I can make music,” Vadim says. “I was living with my mother at the time so I didn’t have to pay rent. I was like, ‘OK, I’ll give myself a year to do the music thing, and if it doesn’t work out I’ll come back to this, being a draftsman.”
Things worked out.
“Yeah, it got a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger, and yeah, coming to play in NYC for the first time, Philly, Atlanta, that was exciting. Traveling around the world, doing what I’m passionate about, and getting paid to make music and put out records, it was good.”
He wishes he could remember more of the hectic ’90s and early ’00s. “I’m not no kind of guy high up to his eyeballs in some kind of drug cocktail, I really don’t do that much crazy shit,” says Vadim. “But you just forget, you experience shit and you forget about it and I’m like, damn I wish I remember that.”
Still, a batch of terrific albums — including 1999’s U.S.S.R.: Life from the Other Side and 2002’s U.S.S.R.: The Art of Listening — on which he wrapped minimalist funk, artful noise and midnight soul with the tightest of beats, and gradually incorporated more vocal tracks from a host of underground MCs stand as enduring sonic markers of that era.
But just like his compadre DJ Shadow refusing to repeat himself and latching onto the hyphy movement — to disastrous commercial and critical ends — Vadim distanced himself from his ambient/breakbeat past as the ’00s progressed, exploring ragga, dub, soul, blues and other textures (including dubstep, many years before the style got mega-popular in the U.S.).
The music remained interesting, accomplished, but some of the fans who still wanted that old sound seeped away. “A lot of people were like, ‘Why doesn’t he make another “Terrorist.” why doesn’t he go and make hip-hop,” but those times are over,” says Vadim.
“And even if I did manage to make a song now that was exactly the same as something I made 15 years ago, what’s the chance they’re gonna like it now? People were young, it was ’99, it was this, it was that. I know so many dope artists and producers who stayed true to their only vision and didn’t change and they disappeared. Creatively, if I stayed in that mindframe I would die.”
Meanwhile, in 2007, for a minute Vadim thought he might actually die. In the early part of that year, he went blind in his left eye, and was ultimately diagnosed with ocular melanoma — a fairly rare form of cancer that doctors warned would kill him if he didn’t have surgery soon. Vadim went under the knife in Liverpool and had the tumor removed, and, six years later, he says he’s in excellent health.
“My life changed after that, no doubt about that,” he says. “It was a huge wakeup call for my health, and now I eat extremely healthfully and I try to rest and sleep and as much as I can and I don’t party as much. In terms of the creative stuff, it gave me a new lease on life. Ever since I got over cancer, I’ve got creative diarrhea.”
Next month brings a soul/R&B/electronic album, Bespoke Future, from his new project Hartley and Wolfe — a collaboration with singer Greg Blackman, who appeared on Vadim’s excellent 2012 album Don’t Be Scared — which Vadim describes as “just a working man’s soul album, blue collar soul music, not fancy, not huge glitzy. Some social commentary, some love songs, some broken-heart stuff.”
And next spring there’ll be another proper DJ Vadim album, which he worked on most of this year, that’ll be primarily a reggae-soul expedition. “I’m just trying to do what I want to do, trying to enjoy life and enjoy music,” he says.
“It goes back to these huge EDM stars,” he continues. “I’d rather be happy than rich. There is someone I know, and someone you know – I won’t say their name but they’re a huge star on the EDM circuit — and everything about that person is completely corporate. That’s not where they came from. They came from doing Burning Man, they came from doing free shows in California at people’s houses, and now to get to the position that person’s in, he has fired every person who helped him start his career but now he’s just someone’s bitch.”
“If for some reason I become really popular in the States — and honestly it could happen, I saw Skrillex go from zero to hero in a year — if that did happen, the very people that supported me, I would bring them with me on my journey,” Vadim says. “Every motherfucker who’s ever let me stay at their house, sleep on their floor, cook me some chicken, driven me somewhere, you know, made me a cake — they’re the people who’ve made me, and if I make 12 million dollars, they’re each getting a bit of that. That’s a promise.”
DJ Vadim plays Brooklyn Bowl on Friday with The Polish Ambassador [11pm/$10].