Greg Churchill - One night out spinning

DJ Greg Churchill is arguably the Kiwi no 1 in the nightclub record-spinning business. AIDAN RASMUSSEN follows him on the late shift.

A lone mirrorball hangs from the ceiling of Calibre. Its reflective edges dance along the walls of the underground nightclub in K'Rd as an attractive blond woman, dressed in baggy jeans and a black hooded top grooves away. Her eyes are closed but her mouth is smiling. The dance floor, virtually empty only minutes before, is now alive and gyrating to the DJ's mix of house, hip-hop and techno.

It's 12:30 am, Friday morning. The expression on Auckland DJ, Greg Churchill's face is bordering on boredom as he spins his twin turntables - the "wheels of steel" - and scans the dance floor. Is he looking for someone? No, he's probably wondering if he's connecting with his audience. Satisfied he lowers his head and slides another piece of vinyl onto his decks.

Despite the full floor and enchanted dancers , the most you're going to get out of the headphoned DJ tonight is the occasional nonchalant nod of his head.

It's not a case of boredom, it's a case of being intensely focused on the job at hand, giving his all for the dance floor. But it is unusual to see the resident Box DJ out on a school night. He normally plays Fridays and Saturdays or Saturdays and Sundays, depending on how you set your body clock.

But hardly ever on a Thursday and at Calibre. But the occasion is the launch of his new mix CD, bpm Mix 01, a collection of 15 tracks that have become staples of his sets over the past 12 years.

Along with Bevan Keys, Roger Perry and the now New York-based Rob Salmon, Churchill is one of the original trailblazers of New Zealand dance music. The former schoolboy track and field athlete - who is still a mad armchair sports fan today - learned his turntable skills in his home town of Christchurch.

And after much deliberation and a lot of persuasion from owner, Simon Grigg, he finally took up the Box residency four years ago, replacing Salmon. Although he earns somewhere between $100-150 an hour for each gig, it's the sheer thrill of doing something he's passionate about that means the most to him.

"I think the biggest reward is just the fact that I'm so grateful I'm doing something I love. There is nothing like the buzz and exhilaration from doing something you're passionate about and seeing that reflected in the faces of people on the dance floor."

You can also hear Churchill's laidback tones on bfm every Thursday or you might spot the 1998 b-Net DJ of the year whiling away his daytime hours behind the till at bpm records in High St. If not there he'll be at home creating or touching up his own tunes.

Once an anomaly in the land of the short sharp chord change, Churchill is now at the forefront of a burgeoning scene that is rapidly sweeping rock music aside. Dance music, once laughed off as alternative "poofta music" in this country, is the mainstream. And every weekend you'll find a whole host of DJs spinning their records in nightclubs up and down the country to a growing audience.

Churchill estimates that out of the hundreds of DJs playing in and around the various clubs in New Zealand, there are probably only about a dozen who could be accorded a modicum of respect.

Unlike many DJs who are content to just coast along on a soundwave of mediocrity, they prefer to push the boundaries of their art, an essential ingredient to DJ success and respectability, says Churchill.

Anyone can beat mix - where the DJ mixes tracks together from each of his turntables - not everyone has the the courage to step outside genres and create their own sound. That's why any decent DJ needs to possess an almost unwavering faith in their abilities.

But when the lights go down and the decibels go up, ultimately it's a DJ's job to bring the club to life. As seamless as their mixes are, so too must be the fine line they tread between innovation and audience connection. A DJ must never forget, they're nothing without a full dance floor.

"Any DJ with any self-respect is the sort of person that goes I want to create 'my sound', to do this you need to be a good beat-mixer, you've got to have impeccable and wide music tastes, you're here to play house, hip-hop and techno all in one night. And you've got to keep that damn floor happy and those people smiling. You can't have just two of these three elements, you have to have the lot."

When it all comes together, like it did for Churchill at this year's Big Day Out in the Boiler Room, all those late nights, all those years of grafting and working away at your own sound - become worth it.

"I was almost choking with tears, I couldn't stop thinking 'oh my god.' It was absolutely incredible playing in front of 8-9000 people. You just can't go out and buy that. I don't think you can get that in a normal job."

With the heavy youth focus of dance culture, it's perhaps ironic that DJ-ing isn't necessarily a young person's game. Churchill is 37 and it seems, it helps if you're over 30.

"I was reading DJ magazine the other day and having a look at their list of top hundred DJs out of curiosity and probably vanity. The average age was about 33. What it says to me is that you do get better, more confident, trends don't influence you and you just get on with it."

Whether it's middle age or just plain old common sense, there's one thing Churchill is adamant he can't do without before he goes onstage. In keeping with his unique, drug-free, almost teetotal character, the nationally renowned nice-guy always makes sure he's had a bit of a kip before he makes his way to whatever dark and smoky enclave he's playing at.

"The best preparation that I can have is to make sure that I have a bit of a sleep beforehand and that I'm not feeling tired. I find that a 20-minute catnap can really do the job. That's the ultimate preparation I can do."

A little bit of shut-eye is always recommended when you live a life like a vampire.

As those wee small hours tick on and Churchill heads towards the end of his Calibre set, if you look really hard through the nicotine smoke, the dry ice and sweaty condensation, you might see him smiling. He whacks on a hard edged DJ Cue track and signs off, vacating the decks for the next turntablist. It's 2 am.

* Greg Churchill DJs at the Box tonight and is appearing at the Sound 2000 Expo during the weekend. The album bpm Mix 01 is out now.

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