Kristian Nairn isn’t down with celebrity DJs, the actors, musicians, and otherwise famous types who book choice gigs based more on TMZ appeal than actual skill. “It’s crass,” the 39-year-old DJ says by phone from London. “People see it as a way to earn money in between your acting gigs. That’s not the way it should be.” While it’s safe to say that Nairn is no Paris Hilton, a recent ironic turn in his career might lead some to place Nairn in the celebrity-selector camp.
These days, when the Belfast-based DJ hits stages across the globe, people cheer, “Hodor!” That’s the character Nairn plays on Game of Thrones. It’s also the only word his towering, kindly character utters. Sometimes the fans do this at inappropriate moments, like at a festival in France while other artists were playing. Nairn recalls the incident with a mix of bewilderment and embarrassment. “It’s a little bit disrespectful,” he says.
Nairn has been dropping jams at Belfast parties for close to twenty years, but it wasn’t until Game of Thrones hit that he started working the tour circuit. And while Nairn’s might not be a household name — he is, after all, part of a large ensemble cast in a fantasy series famous for killing off characters at will — the passion surrounding the show is such that it has catapulted him into cult stardom. Nairn is the kind of guy who can draw fans at pop-culture conventions, which he does attend, and his “Rave of Thrones” tour makes good use of that notoriety. Still, he says that when he first got in touch with an agency, the interest wasn’t automatic. “I proved myself as a DJ and they were shocked by the sort of skill level I have,” he notes.
When Nairn’s team booked his first tour of Australia, in 2014, it came with that name: “Rave of Thrones.” Nairn says he “balked” at the appellation. Others didn’t, and the tour title has stuck for dates in Europe and North America as well.
Not only do people show up to dance, they’re encouraged to attend in costume. Nairn enjoys seeing the crowd channeling their favorite characters from the HBO juggernaut. “When people dress up in clubs, I think it’s almost like an equalizer,” he says. “It’s like wearing a school uniform to school. People are behind a barrier, and they can sort of be themselves more.”
Sometimes the venues get in on the theme, too. A “Rave of Thrones” party in Los Angeles late last year incorporated projections, props, and costumed go-go dancers that all referenced the theme. Nairn, though, appeared as himself, and plays the same sort of house sets that he did before cable TV changed his life.
Nairn’s sets are house-driven, with a classic vibe: big vocals, handclaps, piano lines. “I still get excited when I hear a piano,” he says, adding that he’ll sometimes go into “air piano” mode when he’s playing. “Somebody asked me once, ‘Do you have a keyboard there?’ ” he recalls. “I’m like, ‘No, sorry.’ ”
He is ecstatic about the renewed interest in house music in the U.S. On his first stateside trek, he assessed that the crowd was more into “big, dubby” sounds, which isn’t his taste. “When I came back to the U.S. for the second tour, it had completely changed,” he adds.
For Nairn, music came before acting. He learned how to play piano and guitar when he was a child. Later, he went to school for music, which is where he learned how to DJ. Nairn was always an avid clubgoer, and possessed a healthy collection of music, so when a Belfast club needed a fill-in for a sick DJ, he volunteered to give the ones and twos a try. “I haven’t stopped DJ’ing since,” he says.
Nairn landed a residency at Kremlin, a popular, Soviet-themed gay club in Belfast. At one point he had an “all-nighter” at the venue as well, an underground-style party that ran from midnight until 6 a.m. where he played tunes and booked other DJs. “I was very lucky,” he says. “Really, there was no desire to play anywhere else in the country.”
He even kept up his gigs while working on Game of Thrones. “I would literally get off set, go straight to the club, DJ, go to bed for three hours, and be back on set,” he says. Nairn still plays at Kremlin when he’s in town, but now he has other dance-music goals.
In July, Nairn released his first single, “Up.” It’s a nod to the Nineties heyday of diva house, with singer Leanne Robinson belting out late-night mottoes like “Tear it up!” for people who won’t stop dancing until sunrise. He has a string of other singles to follow, the result of months spent working diligently on original productions.
“I’ve been working on stuff for years, but I’ve never got to the stage where I’m happy with them,” he says, adding that he had made a few remixes before this.
Nairn’s success in television did a wealth of good for his DJ career, but he still has some major ambitions. While he has played Las Vegas before, he would love to land a gig at one of the city’s mega-clubs. Then there’s Ibiza, the hard-partying island off the Spanish coast that’s the summertime home of the world’s top DJs, where he would love to play. “That’s the jewel in the crown,” he says.
Whether acting or DJ’ing, Nairn isn’t one to half-ass the gig. “When you’re acting, you have to do the character. There’s no two ways about it. People will know if you’re not in character,” he says. “It’s the same with DJ’ing….It’s easy to spot people who have really given their heart to it.”
Kristian Nairn plays Irving Plaza on August 13.