Some people are so on top of their game that they make everyone else look like 6-year-olds on a jungle gym. Maybe it's not exactly accurate to compare Ali “Dubfire” Shirazinia and Sharam Tayebi to Forbes-list business masterminds, but the two aren't running off to recess, either.
Like other high-profile DJs, the two — better known as Deep Dish — have landed plenty of high-profile DJ gigs and remix projects. The partners have won two DanceStar Awards, as well as a Grammy for Best Remixed Recording for Dido's “Thank You.” They've done remixes for Madonna, the Rolling Stones, Justin Timberlake, Dido, Beth Orton, Sven Väth, Depeche Mode, Janet Jackson and more. And they have played clubs and festivals from Ibiza, Miami, Tokyo and London to Lebanon, Macedonia, Istanbul, Singapore and Milan. And don't forget Deep Dish's slew of mix CDs and artist album, Junk Science (Deconstruction, 1998), which featured Everything but the Girl's Tracey Thorn.
But what's unusual about the Washington, D.C.-based duo is how business-savvy Shirazinia and Tayebi are. They run three record labels — Yoshitoshi, Shinichi and Yo! — as well as a DJ agency, Bullittt Bookings. And these companies are no vanity offerings. The three labels have produced well over 150 12-inches and CDs by artists such as Junior Sanchez, Behrouz, Miguel Migs, Morel, Deepsky, Danny Howells, Louie Vega and dozens more.
Shirazinia and Tayebi met in 1991 when they were accidentally double-booked at a club. Soon after, they formed Deep Dish Records, and their work captured the attention of Danny Tenaglia and Tribal America Records, which put out the duo's first progressive-house compilation, Penetrate Deeper, in 1995. After the release of Junk Science, Deep Dish unleashed a slew of mix CDs, including Yoshiesque (Yoshitoshi, 1999); Renaissance Ibiza (Renaissance, 2000); Global Underground 021: Moscow (Global Underground, 2001); and Global Underground 025: Toronto (Global Underground, 2003), which made its debut at No. 1 on Billboard magazine's “Electronic Album” chart.
During the past year-and-a-half, Shirazinia and Tayebi have been working on their second artist album, George Is On (Thrive, 2005). The first single, “Flashdance” (featuring singer Anhousheh), made its impact in June 2004 and was the top-selling dance track on Apple's iTunes. Pounding kicks and fuzzy snare hits make for the typical dance fare, but a bluesy guitar riff reminiscent of Depeche Mode's “Personal Jesus” serves as an atypical and infectious hook.
Still working on the album during the success of “Flashdance,” Deep Dish was careful to not make other album tracks clones of the first hit. “The minute we feel like we're stylistically going in the same direction as before or are using certain sounds or effects, we immediately take notice before anyone else does and try to change it,” Shirazinia says. “So we're conscious of not wanting to repeat ourselves. Obviously, it would be really fun to try to do ‘Flashdance Part 2,’ but why do it?”
To this, Tayebi plays devil's advocate: “At the same time, if we come across something we feel that is so fun, and we feel right about it, then we don't really care if it's ‘Flashdance Part 2.’ If we feel that something is right, then that's it. And it might be the third track that sounds the same.”
Because the duo is in such constant demand, Shirazinia and Tayebi had no solid block of time just to work on the album. But because songs came about in pieces, they were able to gestate during a longer period of time. “Some of the tracks started out as really atmospheric, ambient things,” Shirazinia says. “And then later on, they morphed into full-on rock-dance numbers. So it was an interesting process to constantly go back with fresh ears and listen to it and change it.”
Although Deep Dish used to start tracks together from ground zero, the pair didn't have the time to collaborate the same way with George Is On. “When one is in the studio, then the other is doing something else or working on a different track,” Tayebi explains. “We let one person do what he has to do, and the other guy comes in and either builds on it or changes it or decides that this is great or this is not great. And if one person doesn't have time to do it, then the other guy sort of takes over.”
But if both have long been preoccupied with other business and haven't produced in a while, they need a jolt to get them back in the thick of things. “If we haven't been in the studio in a long time, we would buy new software synths or plug-ins or a new keyboard or new gadgets to inspire us because we are starting with a blank slate,” Shirazinia says.
NO SAFETY NET
Sometimes, though, Deep Dish is given parts to use as a springboard. With the duo's 1997 remix of the Rolling Stones' “Saint of Me,” Shirazinia and Tayebi didn't get the normal pop palette. “We immediately knew that we were going to have really great things to work with,” Shirazinia says. “And we could also maybe redefine our sound and help usher in a new style by fusing the mix with a lot of guitars and running certain effects on the guitars to make them not sound like guitars.”
But working on George Is On was a different ball game altogether. “With doing your own original tracks, you don't have that safety net,” Shirazinia says. “And not having it can be exhilarating.” Stepping away from remixing means not having to stick with a narrow tempo range or answer to another artist's A&R person. In fact, the guys don't even have to think about laying down a beat. “Some of the tracks on the album started with guitar loops that we laid down or atmospheric keyboard parts,” Shirazinia says. “And, eventually, we added the rhythms later. As long as you have a tempo that you're working with, it's a lot of fun to just leave it open-ended and bring in the rhythm slowly on top of all the musical elements.”
When the beats do come into play, Shirazinia and Tayebi are careful to balance the timing so that it's not off, but not robotic. “Having things sit too perfectly, sometimes, you lose that human element,” Shirazinia continues. “It becomes a bit too structured and cold and precise. If you listen to a lot of hip-hop tracks, either the vocal delivery or the musical loops or even the snares, they're a bit lazy. That gives it a sort of funky, live feeling.”
MIDI SWITCH, SAMPLE ITCH
But lateness has also been a major problem for the duo. “For many, many years, we were strictly MIDI,” Shirazinia says. “But when we were working on the 'NSync [“Pop”] remix, we had some issues with timing. BT, who's a good friend of ours, had been trying for a long time to get me to move everything into the audio realm, working with everything in the computer and mixing down in the computer. I was against that for a long time, but we had so many problems with the timing slips in that remix that I was forced to make the leap, and I haven't looked back since.”
Samplingwise, Shirazinia and Tayebi cull from their collection of industrial, new wave and rock, or they'll play parts themselves (Shirazinia plays guitar, and Tayebi plays keyboards). For “Say Hello,” featuring Anhousheh, they looked elsewhere. “Toward the end, the drum programming changes,” Tayebi says. “And I thought it needed something. I was like, ‘I wish I could put a car crash in it.’ So we just Googled it. We looked for car-crash sounds online, and there were all these sites with samples you could download. I was like, ‘Wow, what is this world coming to?’ Before, we'd have to buy a sample CD or go out and record a car crashing. Now, everything is readily available everywhere for free.”
But the two don't wear their creativity on their sleeves. “Some people go out into the woods, and they record chirping birds, and they put it to the music,” Tayebi says. “It's a good accent, but it doesn't make the music, and, honestly, we don't have time to do that kind of stuff. We always try to be as conventional with the way we program things, especially drums. We sample all sorts of crazy stuff, but we don't put the ingredients to each song, like when you buy a cereal that tells you what it's made of. We don't say, ‘Well, this song is made out of birds chirping and woodpeckers.’”
A TRIP TO SACRAMENTO
Some Deep Dish songs have mutated throughout the years. “Sacramento,” for example, began in 1997. “We were working on a different project, and we got off on a tangent that didn't have anything to do with that project,” Tayebi admits. Former Deep Dish engineer Richard Morel became one of the group's vocalists. Morel, whose voice brings back memories of the Soup Dragons, came up with lyrics based on conversations with Shirazinia and Tayebi. “At the time, we were talking about a trip that I took to Sacramento, and I really like that area,” Tayebi says. “We were also talking about life in general and all the ups and downs, relationships. It was an all-encompassing conversation. So he turned around and made the song called ‘Sacramento’ talking about how life gives you a different hand every time and how things change depending on how you react to them and so on and so forth.”
The track didn't make it to Junk Science, but it didn't fade away, either. “It stayed in the vaults, and when we decided to do another album, that was one of the songs we brought back,” Tayebi says. “We made a new version using the same vocal, and then we did two or three different variations of it. But we still have the demo version, which we might release as a B-side.”
But whether it's a good thing to hold on to an idea that just won't go away isn't always clear. “That could be a good sign because there's something in there that's attracting you to that song; maybe there's a message in there that you want to get out,” Tayebi says. “There are songs that we've done over the years that are still in the vault that we never really went back to. We didn't see any point. But ‘Sacramento’ was one of those where we were like, ‘We're on to something good here; we just have to do it right, update it.’”
WHAT MAKES THE DJ?
Deep Dish wants to take George Is On out on the road as a full band. But whether it will pan out remains to be seen, depending on the singers' schedules and how rehearsals go. In the meantime, Shirazinia and Tayebi continue to make an impact with their DJ sets. And they're not so tied to dance music that they can't see outside of it. Spinning live, they've dropped a White Stripes guitar riff into a dance beat; they've been influenced by the likes of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Ministry and Interpol; and Shirazinia has even gotten into some bluegrass as of late. They filter all of this into their DJ style, which is ready-made for the dancefloor yet full of surprises.
“Some people can select great tracks to play, and others can't,” Shirazinia says. “And some people have the great selection but don't know how to play it. If I played somebody else's records, I'd probably play it differently than they would. So it's paying attention. It's having one step on the dancefloor and one step in the DJ booth.”
To do that, the guys keep the monitors up in the DJ booth the entire time. “There are a lot of DJs who will turn them up during a mix and then turn them back down and chat with their friends or whatever,” Shirazinia says. “We like to have it up because we like to feel like we're sort of one with the crowd, and we're part of the party, and we're right on the dancefloor along with them. You end up going deaf in the process, but it's an occupational hazard, I guess. [Both now wear earplugs while DJing.] It's an instant vibe kill when you cut the monitors.”
In addition to producing, Deep Dish has its three record labels and DJ agency — “a boutique agency to nurture these up-and-coming DJs,” Tayebi says — to contend with on a daily basis. And Shirazinia and Tayebi refuse to be the least bit lazy about it. “You can't go 80 percent and then expect the rest to work itself out,” Shirazinia says. “You have to be very persistent about what you want.” Fortunately, they have found some trustworthy people to work with to make sure the ship stays afloat.
“One of the most important lessons that we've learned all these years is how important it is to have the right team with you,” Shirazinia adds. “Because if you have this trust in each other's abilities — if you have loyalty — you can literally conquer anything.”
Aside from having the team in order, Shirazinia and Tayebi also stress that having a good business plan is essential. One realization the guys made was that their eclectic taste in music didn't always gel with the people buying their records. “Very few people appreciated the fact that we release everything,” Tayebi admits. “We'd release two or three house releases, and all of a sudden, we've got a techno release. They didn't understand why we would re-lease something like that. The only way we thought we could overcome it is if we continued releasing diversified music. And over the years, people sort of accepted it.”
The duo also discovered that getting caught up in releasing cutting-edge music can be a pitfall. “The audiences of dance music are traditionally DJs,” Tayebi says. “And they rate a label's success based on how cool their music is. Unfortunately, cool music doesn't always sell. You have to mix-and-match it. Once in a while, you have to step outside of the ‘cooldom’ and release a record that's going to actually generate some money and is popular. Especially now with all the digital downloads and piracy, you have to be able to have commercial hits, or there's no way you're going to be able to sustain a business.”
So what would happen if a friend were to confide in the Deep Dish guys that he or she wanted to start a label? “I would discourage them immediately!” Tayebi says with a laugh. “A lot of producers think, ‘I gotta have my own label.’ But they don't really know what it takes to run a successful label. What a lot of people don't understand is that if they want to make [their label] successful, they'll have to put a lot of time into it, and for that time, they need to be compensated. At the end of the year, the label has to make you some money. And there are expenses — there are lawyers, staff, manufacturers, licensing and all that stuff. If you're not careful, you find yourself in the negative. People have to be realistic about it, just like opening up a coffee shop or a restaurant or a software company.”
DEEP DISH'S D.C. STUDIO
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:
Apple Logic Pro 7 software, Mac G4 computer
Digidesign Pro Tools LE DAW
Sony PCM-R500 DAT recorder
Tascam CD-RW2000 CD recorder
Consoles, mixers, interfaces:
Digidesign Digi 002R interface
Emagic Unitor-8 MIDI interface
Mackie 32•8 32-channel, 8-bus console
MOTU 2408mkII audio interfaces (2)
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:
Kurzweil K2500RS samplers (2)
Technics SL-1210M5G turntables (2)
Pioneer CDJ-1000 (2), CMX-5000 CD turntables; DJM-600 DJ mixer
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Ableton Live 4 software
Access Virus Indigo synth
BIAS Peak 4 software
Fender Jazz Bass, Telecaster Deluxe guitar
Gibson Les Paul Studio guitar
Korg Triton-Rack synth
M-Audio Radium 49 USB MIDI controller
Native Instruments Absynth 2, Battery, FM7, Pro-53 soft synths
Ohm Force Ohmboyz Delay, Frohmage, Quad Frohmage Filterbank, Predatohm Disto plug-ins
Propellerhead ReCycle 2.1 software
Roland Juno-106, V-Synth synths
Spectrasonics Atmosphere, Trilogy, Stylus soft synths
Steinberg Cubase VST 5.1 software
Studio Electronics SE-1x synth
Universal Audio UAD-1 Powered Plug-ins
Waldorf Q synth
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
Aphex Thermionics Model 1100 preamp
Line 6 Pod Pro effects unit
Lexicon MPX500 effects processor
M-Audio Solaris mic
Roland SDE-330 effects processor
Shure SM57 mic
TC Electronic D•Two Multitap Rhythm Delay, Finalizer mastering effects processor
Genelec 1031A, 1092A
M-Audio SBX, Studiophile BX8
Yamaha MSP5, NS10
CRAPTASTIC MIXING REFERENCES
Some producers assume that they must have the best monitors, car stereos and home theater systems to reference their mixes on. In many cases, however, the opposite is true. Shirazinia and Tayebi mix in the computer, running a L/R out of two channels on their Mackie mixer and monitoring with Yamaha NS10s. “Those monitors are an industry standard because they're really clean, so if you can make your stuff sound good on that, it's ultimately going to sound good in a club or anywhere else,” Shirazinia says.
The guys also test tracks in the car, at clubs and on a crappy boom box. “The boom box will somewhat simulate what it might sound like on the radio, because with radio, they use heavy com-pressors,” Shirazinia says. “And because the bottom ends of your tracks aren't necessarily audible in the studio, the entire midrange of a track — vocals and everything — may just get sucked into the mix, and all you hear is the bottom-end stuff. So it's good to test stuff out in a club, as well.”
In addition, because Deep Dish is constantly playing gigs, the pair's hearing is not always right on, so Shirazinia and Tayebi get second opinions by e-mailing MP3s to friends. “Your high end tends to go first when you're losing your hearing, so you overcompensate, and, sometimes, you'll play something in a club, and it'll be twice as bright as what you just played,” Shirazinia laments.