Buying his first turntables around the turn of the millennium, Joel West—DJ, actor, teacher, and sometime producer—was soon spinning records for money. Booking regular shows in Guelph and scoring residencies in Toronto, the performer quickly made a name for himself in Ontario’s underground scene. A B.C. native, however, West eventually returned to his hometown of Nelson, where the artist—born Joel Cottingham—found his calling.
While working in a coffee shop in the mountain town, the house and techno DJ witnessed a fire that burned the low-income-housing building across the street to the ground, causing 80 people to lose their homes. West decided he had to do something to help. Rallying the community, he threw a musical fundraiser that featured 13 acts. Everybody agreed to play, and nobody took a paycheque. Having raised a considerable sum for the displaced individuals, the DJ credits the event for opening his eyes to the power of networking and collaboration.
Now settled on the West Coast, West has brought that ethos to Vancouver since launching Groundwerk in 2015 as a monthly meet-up group for electronic-music enthusiasts, West has grown the project into a vibrant community, helping to build the careers of DJs and producers in the local scene by exchanging techniques and ideas. Establishing a number of ventures to advance Vancouver’s budding artists, West and his fellow organizers recently launched the Groundwerk label, offering the opportunity for the city’s best tracks to have a formal release.
A dedicated performer who once drove for two days after a serious surgery to make his set time at FozzyFest in the East Kootenays, West has, as he puts it, an “unreasonable drive” to play music.
Best gig ever
“I played at Gorg-O-Mish over my birthday weekend. It was about 5 in the morning, so it was getting to that time where you really have to tap into your energy reserves. I was looking down at the mixer, and suddenly I saw something flit into the booth. Then something else floated in—and I realized it was money. Somebody was making it rain $5 bills onto the decks. I gathered it all up when I was done a few hours later, and there was about $100 there. I offered it to the guy who had been running lights in the club all night, but he told me to keep it, so I took my DJ partner out for lunch.”
Top track right now
“The GOAT—Chris Marcinkiewicz—has got a three-track EP that’s going to drop on Groundwerk Recordings between now and summer. One is a really smoky, lo-fi house track, which we’ve both played out on numerous occasions. The other was a Groundwerk submission. He’s just become the father of twins, and in the breakdown of this techno track he’s sampled the ultrasound of the heartbeat of his kids before they were born. Both of those tracks are great, but when we listened to them together, we decided that they needed a lead single—so he wrote an absolute banger. It doesn’t have a title yet, but look out for it when the label releases the EP.”
Song that cleared the dance floor
“I don’t remember one, to be honest. The last time that I felt like I was dealing with a crowd that should have been bigger, it was snow that cleared the floor. There was a really big dump of powder right around Christmas in Nelson. It’s a ski town, so everyone saves their energy because they know they’re going to be out early the next morning to make fresh tracks. Nobody’s going out the night before.”
Favourite Vancouver producer
“There’s so much incredible talent here. You don’t need to look far to find music that’s as good as or better than international releases. Just off the top of my head, I’d say Iain Howie, the GOAT, Kloves, Diana Boss, Kalibo, Rennie Foster, Nathan Motts, Queensyze, Dark Arps, Joel Armstrong/Moosefly, Dronus, Black Vise, Moxsa, Handsome Tiger, Lumiere, Illic, and Sabota.”
What’s up with founding Groundwerk
“I think that if you’re producing electronic music, it’s very easy to be solitary. Most of us are working on our computers, so often people become isolated. I was feeling that myself, especially when I moved to a new city and didn’t have any networks or communities. Groundwerk’s meet-ups are a place to create together, to forge support networks, and to facilitate peer-to-peer mentorships. Then on top of that we do showcases at events like Vancouver Mural Festival, Car Free Day, and talks at TEDx and Bass Coast festival.”
Oddest request you’ve ever received
“I’ll be playing underground techno with no vocals, and every gig there’s always one person who comes up to me and requests Drake. And not to diss mainstream artists like that, but the people who make those suggestions have no sense of where they are at that time. They’re unwilling to step outside of the familiar and embrace what they might not have heard before, and instead want to assert their own will over the night.”
Joel West plays with the GOAT at Gorg-O-Mish on April 28.