Lonely at the Top: one DJ’s struggle with a life of excess and the polarity of touring

Entertaining people for a living, whatever the medium, has its perils and they’re often the ones that go unspoken and undetected from the outside. For DJs the added risk is that they ply their trade in an environment when their audiences are experiencing extreme, often chemically induced highs. What happens when your inner feelings don’t reflect your surroundings? How do you balance your internal troubles with the outward persona that paying fans expect to see in you? How can you look after your body and mind when your workplace facilitates, even encourages decisions that often jeopardise both? How do you cope with this conflict when it recurs every weekend you have a gig? For business and morale reasons, this rather bleak picture is, on the whole, kept out of the clubbing narrative, but it’s an increasingly common by product of an industry fuelled by excess.

As one half of Soul Clap, Charles Levine has lived, partied and DJd through over a decade in the spotlight, centre of attention, custodians of ecstatic moments and celebrated in clubs and festival across the world. But at what cost? Through years of psychological and physical imbalances, he often struggled with the demands of touring life and was pushed to the limits. His debut solo album, Charles and Tribulations, under alias Lonely C, comes to terms with loss, love, excess and many other emotions that are often shrugged off to deal with life on the road. Throughout this time, he’s also been an avid photographer, chronicling his travels with a Polaroid camera; intimate, behind-the-scenes moments, depicting emotions he’s not always feeling on the other side of the lens. We lift the lid on a complex network of emotions, and explored the paradoxical life of a touring DJ.

Sunset Campout

How are you doing Charles?

I’m lovely thanks. Just got back from Australia. We were down there for two weeks and fuck man, the flight back was just so long! It’s such a beautiful place though, it really is. It was cool, and we had a fun time. Couple of really good gigs out there, especially, I don’t know if you’ve heard about Strawberry Fields Festival?

Yeah, heard really good things about it actually.

Just wow! It’s totally one of a kind and really well curated and interesting. Cool people and a great vibe. Sort of like Secret Garden Party used to be, in a way that it’s a little psychedelic and exciting. Obviously SGP had its own very strong identity, but…

So whereabouts are you now? Are you at home?

Yeah, I actually just moved to Miami. I moved in with my girlfriend who bought a house here last year. She’s been down here for a while so I packed up New York and moved on in. Before we even met, I had been coming down to Miami with Eli and the Wolf & Lamb guys and we were spending time here once New York got too cold and slushy, and we would hang and make music. It’s pretty common, they call us Snow Birds. Especially for Jewish people, it’s all about going to Miami. I feel like over the past decade, I’ve almost spent an equal amount of time in Miami as NYC, so although it’s a big transition, it feels pretty second nature, and now that I’m here, it’s like… I had forgotten what it’s like to live in a house. I was used to my Brooklyn studio apartment. But here I have my studio racks set up.

Shef

Talk me through the alias, Lonely C, what does it mean?

Well it’s really a bit of a joke, because Eli and I are Soul Clap and we’ve been working together for over 20 years and ‘I’m lonely, where’s my buddy?’. That’s the inside joke really. It’s ironic that the project is called that as I haven’t felt this un-lonely in a very long time. I’m in a really great relationship and she’s got an amazing dog, and I’m a dog lover. I’m in a lovely home in Miami with warm weather in November, and I’ve had great support from my peers about this project.

The project was however born from a period of transition and confusion. I don’t want to say that I was misguided because there’s no way that I could have gotten here if I didn’t go through it, but I feel like I really jumped in head first into all of the vices. I was unapologetically rock and roll.

Do you think that happens to a lot of people in your position?

If we’re talking about raving, which is at the core of traditional electronic music, it’s sort of in the name of the game. I’ve been a music lover my whole life, but when I look back to what I was searching for at 15 or 16, I was probably more tickled by getting high than knowing the music I was listening to.

Now I’m very dialled into the music and what that represents, but I can’t hate on the clubbers and the festival goers for being fucked up, because it’s a big reason that a lot of people are out there. To make friends, to get laid, to get high, to listen to music. The list of those priorities is always changing depending on the consumer. It’s also nothing new for art and music. That goes across platforms. Think about jazz music, and it’s now 2018, and the role that jazz plays in an academic sort of way, and then you rewind to look at what the scene was actually like in the 20s and 30s onwards –

It was far from academic!

… we’re very similar in that way.

Malik Allston

Where does the name of the album come from?

Well Charles and Tribulations is obviously a play on words on trials and tribulations, which goes back to me finding who I really am as a person between me as part of this Soul Clap thing and this other person who has to answer interviews and take photographs, and stand on stage and deal with fans or people asking questions, or giving you that sort of attention, whether it’s admiration or sexual desire, or wanting to party. What is celebrity and how do you digest that kind of attention and stay humble, and how do you stay connected to the person that you were before all of this.

The trials and tribulations were really me asking if I was still myself. I certainly still feel like myself, but have I changed? Have I lost my way, or have I actually found my way? I have success, and I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve, but now where do I go? All of those questions were thematic when I was writing this album – especially when it came to sex, drugs and rock & roll.

Do you think that the life of a touring DJ, whether you’re on your own or with Eli, lends itself to excess?

I think that life lends itself to excess, especially these days. I think that we are more medicated than ever and we are dealing with more vanity and comparison and envy than ever because of social media. I think that the human race is suffering from this homogenisation and social media, while it brings us together, also makes us quite lonely. Yes, touring DJs or musicians are guilty of excess, but I think it’s sort of indicative of something that is going on on a larger scale in the world.

What the touring DJs suffer from the most is lack of sleep. The partygoers have a big night out and get wasted and go to sleep, and then carry on with their lives and maybe pick it up the next weekend. Now maybe that’s not true in Berlin, and in London everybody likes to crack on, or some people during the summer in Ibiza. But with the DJs it’s all year round. There’s not the same standard idea of like a band where you put out an album, and tour the album, and then take time off and record the next thing. It’s encouraged to stay on the road.

There’s a lot of pressure, and it’s in the best interest of the agents and the management and the whole industry that’s popped up to keep the income flowing in, as that’s how they are profiting. There’s a lot of interest to keep going at it and eventually that lack of sleep catches up.

Do you feel this has changed as you’ve become a little older?

I think it’s easier when you’re younger for sure, but with Eli and I, our real career started at the end of our 20s, and now I’m 37, and I can still hold my own, but the lack of sleep is trickier.

I listen to a lot of podcasts on the road and someone was talking about the kind of behaviour that comes from lack of sleep, and it’s sort of like acting quite wild, and a heightened sex drive. You can observe this in bonobo monkeys that have sleep deprivation and are trying to fuck everything. It just made me laugh a little. I think it’s a real thing, and at some point we feel sort of invincible because we are propped up by the excitement of performance or the thrill of success or our own egos, the whole works, but people aren’t honest with the comedown.

UK festival toilet

How did you overcome difficult periods on the road? Did you have anyone to confide in, or techniques to help you though?

The tough periods are real, no bullshit there!  The road can be long, lots of late nights, never enough sleep, a stiff body from all the transport, shitty food because the good stuff can be hard to find or you eat though what you bring.  Then there’s the fact that we DJs are really at the heart of party, we are the music! So the party is right in front of you and people wanna share their high with you and it’s everyones big wild night out but you most likely gotta do it all over again the next night.  

Everybody’s different and I’m no angel but more than anything else what has lead to greater ease during difficult periods on the road is having more stability OFF the road.  I’ve been able to finally build a solid foundation as a result of a healthy relationship, positive and supporting friends, an amazing dog (who truly melts stress/anxiety with just one look and a tale wag), a good amount of exercise, eating well and fresh air, plenty of sunshine and the ocean near-by as i’ve just moved to Miami!  I’m in a real good place these days and my current situation is immensely important to me.

How does this all play out with Eli? Do you guys talk about these pressures?

Yes and no. More or less I think about these things on my own. Eli got married a while back and it’s not like he never went to an afterparty since or anything, but I was always the one leading the charge when it came to partying and women and drugs. He had more of a family-oriented view, getting ready to become a father, which actually happened in the past couple of weeks.

I was definitely a late bloomer when it came to just chilling out a bit. Then again, we have had very different roles in our partnership. He’s a monster of a DJ, but he’s also a great business guy, and he’s very organised that way. I’ve been much more contemplative and off getting stoned and thinking about all these things very profoundly and then turning that into music. That’s where I’ve been in our arrangement. Sometimes I will just stay up all night and go into these things, whether it’s songwriting or lyric writing.

Really early on in our career, I found that when I was having a difficult time in my personal life, or on a comedown, I could take that sadness and translate it into music that really resonated with others, and that made me realise that emotive music that comes from painful places is really impactful. I felt that if I could stay in this depressed mindset, then I could do really great things with music.

I’m not a very depressed person historically. I’m sort of a goofy comedic person, but I just really wanted to make great music and I don’t know if I have been successful in that. That’s obviously in the eye of the beholder, but I think that the process was through depression for me. Now it’s on the flip, because I really just don’t want to feel depressed. I went into it and I came out the other end and it’s not so good. Now I realise that there are other emotions to explore. I’m glad I have the Lonely C outlet, but can Lonely C also be about confidence and joy and celebration? Maybe. Yeah, I guess.

Tom Trago

Is your Lonely C mindset just because of changes that you have made? What do you feel led to you being depressed in the first place?

Well I had some family stuff go on in my late 20s. My parents got divorced in their late 60s, early 70s and I’m an only child. You think that it wouldn’t be as disruptive to someone of my age then, but I found it to be really disruptive. Combined with the way in which being a touring DJ with no real home-base is uprooting, also to have my childhood home sold and all those feelings sort of spread. I could see the way in which my parents’ characters were changing. It really fucked with my head.

I had some relationships fall apart around that time too and the whole works just sent me into this bitter, angry, jaded place. I was fucking tired and was not letting myself really deal with it and was just getting high instead. I wasn’t letting myself get help or therapy. My father’s a therapist, so I thought it was just in my blood, and I didn’t need that shit. Along the way I found a lot of different techniques like yoga, meditation, and Vipassana, but I came out of that and realised that I didn’t want to meditate, I wanted to party. That’s the conclusion I came up with from it all. It’s nuts!

In the past year or so, and in the process of completing the album, I’ve been moving into a new phase – with Soul Clap, as Eli and his wife begin a family, the solo career, leaving NYC and moving to Miami, success in my own relationship, which is immensely stabilising, a change in the industry and in America, with this fucking buffoon at the helm of our country, this orange motherfucker. It’s just a different time. I’ve also had some really close friends pass away. It’s all been very humbling and eye opening. These are all big shifts that have changed my priorities in a way and made me feel much more accountable for my own actions.

Do you think that all of this has changed your music?

Sonically and melodically, and in terms of composition, I don’t know if my music has really changed too much, but the method that I use has a little. Charles and Tribulations was all about going ‘what the fuck has been going on here?!’.

True is about relationship stuff – do I get into this serious relationship, do I continue to play the field? Should I be honest with myself and my partner, or do I just act like a dog? Can I have my cake and eat it too? That’s the question.

Hold Up, which isn’t my story, it’s Kendra Foster’s story is also about relationships. It’s a breakup song really.

Flash Away is about being mindful and asking if I can find the secrets of the universe through psychedelics. Is there knowledge at the bottom of the k-hole? Are we time-travelling or are we high?

Do you feel that drugs have given you answers to questions you were asking?

Yes, and no. They also confused things for sure. They’ve clouded things, but I think that the combination of drugs and sleeplessness has sort of wiped a lot of memories that I wish that I still had. At the same time, there has been so much stimulation happening. Even beyond the drugs. The travel, and the hundreds of shows and the music and the excitement. How could you possibly remember it all?

I get that with people who come up to me and they ask if I remember certain things that happened at a party once. Sometimes they get really offended when I don’t remember. It’s not like they weren’t interesting or memorable, but but probably what we were talking about wasn’t interesting or memorable.. I try to be as humble as possible. I guess in a way I’m the kind of person that wants sparkling water, and some lemon, but I don’t want to be treated too different.

Eli & Tony Humphries

You’ve sent over a selection of Polaroids from your time on the road. What have you tried to depict with these shots? Is there a common narrative running through them?  

Really what I’m after is simple: to nail some good portraits and capture peoples’ personalities through the expression on their faces.  I wanna know can you, as the viewer, look at these individuals and get a sense of what they might be like in real life? I’m given a particular access as a photographer because I’m also the DJ at the event where many of these Polaroids are taken. I think my subjects are able to be uniquely comfortable and honest in front of me.  Maybe if I was a hired event photographer or with the press it would be different because people would be more posed but I feel because of the situation or dynamic of the relationships, what I’m getting is much more true to life.

On the whole, they depict positive, elatory moments – people partying, friends hanging out. Were your feelings mirrored at the time of taking, or did you often struggle to relate to what you were depicting?

I tried to keep the images strictly about the subjects and the situations, but I will admit that often I was hiding behind the camera and the process.  In that way this project has offered an escape from some of the tougher feelings and moments. But the results are photographs that contain beauty which I think is most important at the core and supersedes both my emotion as well as the perceived emotion of the subjects.

Social media is a strange paradox. It’s the main tool for a DJ to build their identity, sell their skills and further their careers, yet because all fellow DJs are doing the same, it can breed a hidden competitiveness, self-doubt that you’re never doing enough and erode your self-esteem. What’s been your relationship with social media throughout your career? How has it helped and hindered you?

Well first i wanna say that competitiveness exists in the music industry with or without social media!  We’re dealing with “trends” and “cool” which is constantly shifting and changing landscape. One minute someone is in the next they’re out. Everyone’s fighting for the same slice of pie. Fortunately there seems like enough pie to go around these days, but then again we’re all sorta getting fat from the pie so maybe time to lose some weight!  Too many DJs on a whole and this market is just so damn saturated! To me it’s important, now more than ever, to look back to the founding DJs that wrote the history books on this culture to remember our roots.

A bit of a rant there, but back to your question… Do I think social media breeds insecurity, vanity and can erodes self-esteem through comparisonitis? Absolutely!  I also think social media is a GIGANTIC time suck that could be time much more productively spent being creative, being present and just experiencing the world first hand!  BUT that being said, you’re completely right that its a sort of necessary evil these days, sad but true. I’ve been very forunate because Eli (my partner in Soul Clap) has been a social media machine since forever.  We saw the whole thing get rolling when it was all about music chat forums then music blogs eventually Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Instagram and on and on… Eli ran all that for Soul Clap and I always had my personal accounts but really back then it was to keep in touch with friends and flirt a little.  I think I’m most active on Instagram these days. I have to admit for a little while there I hired someone to run my account and I do think he did a good job, but ultimately I’ve learned to truly capture your own voice you gotta do it yourself!

Heidi

Did your dependence on social media to communicate with fans make it harder to work through difficult periods on the road?   

I can’t say that being dependent on social media to communicate with fans made difficult periods worse on the road. I can say, however, is that during difficult periods on the road browsing through social media apps typically worsens the mood I’m in unless the content I’m receiving is art or comedy.  But I like interacting with fans through social media. I rarely get nasty trolly sorta ones and usually it’s an awesome way to show gratitude for the very people whose support is integral to ones’ success as an artist!

Can you elaborate a bit about balancing your own needs during and after gigs with what your fans need and expect from you? How difficult is it to balance the two, both internally/privately and externally/publicly?

Some fans need more than others but fundamentally everybody is there to receive your energy because we performers are there to GIVE our energy through our craft.  Sometimes that can leave you feeling spent so you gotta give your body and mind a chance to play catch up. I guess these days what I need more and more is to schedule in enough time for sleep.  Sometimes that means forefitting some of the fun like artist dinners and after partying, but then again those are the places where very important relationships are founded with new friends, promoters, other artists, fans, ect.  It can be tricky and yes, life is all about balance and balance itself is VERY tricky. But your needs change as you grow. Right now, like I said, I just moved to Miami, my needs are all about getting used to my new surroundings, getting my studio juices flowing (oh yeah I’m very much off to a good start!!) and watching very carefully to see exactly how this new body of music that I just officially shared with the world is received.  

Were there ever times when this balancing act got the better of you?

Absolutely!  I have definitely veered off the path of balance!!! If you really know me I’m sure you’ve seen it, but you know I’m human and I try to remain humble and continue to grow from the off-balance moments.  Remember that bumper sticker Nobody’s Nerfect?? I will probably continue to wobble as we all do because rarely in life do we really know what it is that we’re all doing, we sort of just make it all up as we go along.

The idea is that regardless of the high or the low, you have to keep a balanced perspective and not react, and so I think that the ebb and flow is the natural process of how you react to it. Sometimes when there’s a lot of excitement and joy, then the absence of it can leave you confused or lost. I remember that when my parents split up – I’m from Boston, and I left Boston a long time ago, and when I left, before the divorce, I left behind some stuff with a friend who had some mental health problems and it made going home a little difficult, as it was a reminder of unresolved issues.

After the split, when I went back to Boston, my roots were there, but they were no longer there really, and it all became much more real. I wasn’t in my childhood home, I was in a new place and it was always strange to have to split my time. That’s when the lows really sunk in. The high of the night before if I was doing a show in town became so confusing to try to answer that question of who I was and what I needed for myself versus this other identity, with our friends and fans reacting to us coming home as accomplished hometown heroes. The dynamic of that attention muddled up some interactions.

Laidback Studio

We read the sad news earlier this year of Sa’d ‘The Hourchild’ Ali passing. Obviously he features on the album in Folks Be Lying. What does it mean to out his work posthumously?

Well I think about Sa’d every fucking day to be honest. We’ve just did an amazing tribute to him with Louie Vega on the 29th November in New York as it would have been his birthday. I sort of feel bad as Crew Love lost Navid Izadi this year too and I feel like I’ve been so consumed with this loss that I haven’t even gotten around to properly missing Navid, which I feel terrible for saying. Even though I understand that he’s gone. That’s a real double whammy man! I would never have seen that coming. The two of them are such powerful creatures in my mind.

Sa’d was a brother, a Soul Clap hype man who was a visionary, way ahead of his

time who brought together funk and hip-hop and electronic music. He was George Clinton’s nephew and he worked with Fingers Inc. in the 80s, and was one of these guys who seemed to just know everybody. Everyone from Afrika Bambaataa to Tony Silverman and he claimed to have helped Puff Daddy with his Bad Boy logo. The stories that you would get out of this guy were unlike anything I’ve ever known.

He would come to New York a lot. He would sometimes just show up at my place. I’d go out of town and he would FaceTime me, and he’d be at my place and he had just got my keys somehow. Or he’d show up for the weekend and it would be a week later. He was around during the making of this album and he was one of the guys who helped us link up with Nona Hendryx when we worked with her. He was definitely a crucial player in helping me get to Kendra Foster, who was a vocalist with Parliament Funkadelic. He was there when we finalised ‘Hold Up’, and that was the first single that we wrapped.  He did the intro on the last Soul Clap album, so I wanted his voice on this album.

The track didn’t start off with the same identity, it was just something like ‘House 02’ on my USB and it had been there since 2010/2011. There was this story that Sa’d used to tell about George Clinton and Sly Stone, when George still had his farm in Detroit, and he was hanging out with Sly. The two of them were apparently a couple of knuckleheads in their early years. They were up for days this one time and they were really high and Sly out of the blue turns to George, as they were coming down and says “Folks be lying George”. It was something about people never having called the dealer when they said they had, but he was just high. So when we came to think about words of the song on the album, we wanted to use that little snippet and have people ask what he’s saying.

So the album was out last week right? How does it feel to have it released now?

The moment that I really felt accomplished is when I got the masters back, which was actually quite a while ago. That’s the moment where I felt like I’d climbed a real hurdle, to turn this stuff from the demos or the ideas into something that I could put on either a stereo or a sound system and be like ‘this really sounds awesome!’

It’s been a waiting game, and I know that it’s released to the world, but it feels like it’s been released in my heart for a while now. It’s been a really great experience, and at times a little bit nerve wracking. It’s empowering to be able to see the project through from start to finish, and it feels like a bit of a purge in a way. I really wanted to do this material from a creative and artistic standpoint, but I always had to put it on the side to make room for Soul Clap. The content, or the concept is also stuff that didn’t resonate as much with Eli, or it was just not quite right for Soul Clap. So I wondered what I could do with it, and it feels like a real growth period for me, as a person.

Seth Troxler

Talk us through the live setting. What are the plans for that?

We did a run in the States and it’s been great. I have so much to learn as a live performer and so much development. I’m still finding my singing voice and learning how to operate and sing and play and switch things off and on, let alone doing it at the same time. To pluck out some notes and sing simultaneously is fucking hard. Playing chords and a bassline. I’ve had this amazing piano teacher over the past year in New York called Sharp Radway – the coolest piano teacher ever. He’s a gospel jazz musician with the coolest name in town. He really helped me get my theory and my technique up a lot.

I always intended this period to be a learning period that I could then apply to Soul Clap, the live show, but along the way, I’ve found that collaborating with Morgan (Wiley) and Caito Sanchez, my other bandmates is really fulfilling. So I also have interest in doing more with this as well.

We have a show coming up in Miami on December 7th as part of the Crew Love showcase and then Soul Clap Records has a once a month Friday thing in a small venue in Bushwick Brooklyn, so there’s another show booked January 25th. It would be nice to bring some version of the band overseas to do some shows in London and Berlin perhaps. Lonely C is still an unknown act though and it’s a bit of a different game to getting DJ gigs.

It’s all new territory. DJs, we’ve got it fucking easy. You just show up, maybe you’re sleepy, maybe you’re rested, maybe you’re sober, maybe you’re high, and then you press play on some great sounding recorded tracks and everything sounds pumped up on Funktion Ones and it sounds amazing and then you’re along for the ride.

What’s next for you and Soul Clap?

Just finished up a couple of tracks that have been sitting around. Some of it is stuff that I wrote and then Eli came in and helped me finish, and then we’ve just hired Lee Curtiss to do the mixdowns. We’ve been close friends with Lee for many years, but this is the first time we’ve hired him to do the mix, and they sound amazing. I’m actually blown away.

We’re starting a new offshoot label called House of E-Funk which is in line with our touring E-Funk party brand. It’s a little more instrumental, or traditional club sort of tracks. I’ve been working on a new Soul Clap album, but it’s just sort of bits and pieces or unfinished projects, and a few jams with Eli. Now that the baby is here, he’s going to come down to Miami in February with the whole family and stay nearby and be around to just jam for a bit. We haven’t had a chance to just chill and think about music for a long time.

The business side of this industry can just suck the bun out of everything creatively. It takes up so much energy and it’s such a drain. We should be making music instead of all of that stuff. Even with great management, you’ve got to do a lot of work because nobody is going to do it as good as you, until you find that guy who does it a lot better than you and then you’re sailing.

And finally, what advice would you give to other DJs – of all sizes and travelling schedules – who struggle with the lifestyle and pressures of social media relating to their work?

This is not an easy job by any means.  It requires a great amount of tolerance and will deliver wear and tear both mentally and physically.  I guess the best advice I can give is to be as awesome as you can be and try to make/play some really dope jams. That is something you can always fall back on.  If what you’re doing is wack or ultimately corny because you’re trying to fit in and be something you’re not then you’re gonna feel empty inside. And yeah, do social media but FUCK social media!  Don’t worry about everyone else just do you and try to find your own voice. Once you’re vibrating at the frequency you’re meant to, the rest of it will fall into place. Oh and lastly get some damn sleep!

Charles and Tribulations is out now on Soul Clap Records through Lonely C’s website.

Return To Rio

Comments are closed.