In the summer of 2008, Distortion morphed from an underground dance music festival into a popular celebration of dance music and club culture. Tens of thousands of young people descended on the city for the free street parties, wearing neon clothes and cheap oversized sunglasses that they kept on indoors.
Before then, electronic music was still a niche phenomenon, performed in small and non-descript clubs around the city. I remember one night a year earlier in the basement bar Vertigo on Amagertorv in central Copenhagen. It was early but packed with club kids, groupies of the superstar producer Anders Trentemøller who, then in his early 30s, had begun to develop a cult following.
Standing beside him was a young man just fifteen years old. His father sat at the nearby bar, slowly drinking a pint for the duration of his son’s set.
The young man was Mike Sheridan, a Danish DJ and producer who signed his first record deal at age 14, released his first album at 15, and played his first major solo concert in the luxurious DR Koncerthuset at just 21.
“I was still living at home. I went home after playing in front of 1100 paying guests in the most beautiful concert hall to sleep in the cellar.”
Now 25, he owns an apartment in Nørrebro, where we meet again almost nine years after that night at Vertigo. He leans against the kitchen wall with his feet up on the counter top, and plays with his scruffy dark hair. Across the hallway is a home studio of sorts – a jumble of computers and synthesizers – and in the corner stands a special instrument made of glass, which produces an otherworldly space music that reverberates the soul.
But it’s not a studio, he explains. More like a writing room– a place to experiment and forge sounds that he’s dreamed up.
“As far back as I can remember, I would categorise sounds I heard in my head, as though I were building a vocabulary. When I went to sleep, I would imagine sounds, which I realised later on was rather normal for people who made make music,” says Sheridan.
He is now in the process of producing the score for Hamlet at this summer’s Shakespeare Festival, one of his most challenging and ambitious projects to date. The production, to be performed on HamletScenen outside Kronborg Castle in Helsingør, where Shakespeare set the play over 400 years ago, is the kind of challenge that Sheridan’s career has been building toward.
“I’ve been working my way towards something like this task. It’s not something you can do when you’re fifteen, because you don’t have a proper sense of your own musicality. It’s very demanding, because you have to use all the tools in your toolbox to tell a story. You can tell a story with images, or tell it with sound. And with a story that’s been told for hundreds of years, there are going to be elements that transcend history and that can be told through any musical language,” Sheridan explains.
A dream job
The way Sheridan talks about writing the score, it’s clear it’s a dream job for him. For despite his youth, he’s put in years of work to get here.
It started around age eight, when his dad gave him a trial subscription to ACID, a popular electronic music software. He spent a year toying with the built-in samples and songs, learning how to rearrange and remix, but it was when he and a friend figured out how to record their own sounds that things finally clicked, and he understood the potential the software held.
For while Sheridan is producer of electronic music, and largely relies on software and technology to create his music, he isn’t interested in the technology and gear for its own sake – it’s just a means to an end. His love was for music itself, sitting for hours listening to the radio and his parents records.
“When I first heard electronic music, pure electronic sounds, it blew my mind. It was 2004, and we were driving across Denmark on a family holiday. I was lying on the back seat with a golden retriever puppy, and on the radio, DR was broadcasting a live set from the Sónar festival in Barcelona. It was a completely perfect memory. I heard these amazing sounds that were new to me, and it just made sense. And from then on, I didn’t have a doubt about what I wanted to do,” he says.
“The feeling of completely falling in love with music has never left me.”
Sheridan started composing music on his father’s Dell stationary computer, running an early version of the Ableton music software. The specs were awful, and the computer slow. But he was hooked, and his musical ambitions soon started to overshadow his academic performance.
“School for me was a long hard stretch that I only learned to appreciate long afterward,” he says.
“I was completely taken with music, and sat at the back of the classroom and listened to music on my headphones. It was perfect. I wasn’t bad at school, but my math was terrible. I have no problem with logic, but as soon as I have to put it into numbers, I am illiterate. It’s annoying, because it makes it hard to make sense of musical notation.”
By age 14, after playing a few concerts and DJ gigs, he had saved enough money to buy a Macbook laptop, which gave him the processing power he needed to produce his first EP. It was released just before his ninth grade exams – the end of lower secondary school – and he was subsequently invited on a popular late night TV talk show alongside Else Marie Pade, a legendary Danish electronic music pioneer who was in her late 70s at the time.
The appearance caught the eye of the general public, and his MySpace music page exploded from a few thousand listens, to almost half a million. After the summer holiday he started high school, but dropped out after only six months to focus on producing his first album.
By the time he was 15, he was DJing professionally and soon became a fixture in the Danish nightlife. At his peak, he played 140 DJ gigs in a year, and by the time he was 21 – when he stopped counting – he had played over 700 DJ gigs and 200 live concerts.
“I’ve been to so many clubs and parties where things were just fun and fucked up. It was nice to observe these things and have beers with your friends and go to a concert, or to one party and then another. But I was always out for the music, not the party,” he says.
His break with DJing arrived slowly, as he became increasingly frustrated with the working conditions.
“I am vain and want to play places that show my abilities at their peak performance. I think what I create is valuable, and it’s not valuable to be in clubs that are poorly designed when you want to take it to the next level. I don’t want to be playing somewhere where the conditions for providing a proper level of quality is unrealistic. In the end it affects the experience of the audience, and then I’d rather pursue other dreams and experiences.”
Creating living music
Sheridan has been referred to as a precocious talent for years. In 2011, ahead of his show at Koncerthuset, state broadcaster DR wrote, “Mike Sheridan is a rare example of a true prodigy.”
And sure, Sheridan has demonstrated enormous musical talent from a very young age. But what sets him apart from his peers, what stopped him from falling into the self-aggrandising and self-satisfying nightclub world, is his discipline and approach to learning – the strategies, methodologies and processes that enabled him to produce his work.
For example, this is how he explains why he doesn’t want to be photographed in front of the electronic gear in his living room.
“I’ve never been an instrument fetishist. It’s never been a goal for me to own something because it’s a gimmick or because it’s expensive. I am investing time in exploring instruments for their sounds. But when you fetishise instruments, your mind focuses on technology, and that’s not really creating music, that’s indulgence,” he says.
Instead, he has instrumentalised his electronic tools as a way to make particular sounds that he can use to create music with soul.
“I remember listening to my favourite records that sounded live, but everything I made sounded dead. There was no performance. I was always stuck in front of the computer and started to think, what other sorts of sounds are out there, what sorts of machines exist in this world? I always had an appreciation of the passionate exploration of sound. It has been a natural progression for me working, from working exclusively with computers in the past to seek new acoustic and electronic tools that I can use to express my musicality.”
A beautiful process
Sheridan’s methodical and disciplined approach to his craft might explain how he managed to cope with the pressure of being an adolescent DJ and producer, heaped with praise and expectations. And how now, faced with the challenge of producing the score to one of Denmark’s most important theatrical events, he relishes the opportunity.
“I have my tools, I know my sound world, I still wake up and hear things in my head and want to try them out. In a story like Hamlet, I look at the different layers of storytelling, the interactions between the characters, and try and superimpose emotions onto the different parts of the story. I create sounds and atmospheres that return at different parts of the play that communicate specific emotional meaning addressed by the subconscious.”
He’s not the only young Danish talent to be drafted into this year’s run. 32-year-old Cyron Melville is playing Hamlet, while 29-year-old Natalie Madueño stars as Ophelia. With two months to go before it opens on August 1, Sheridan has plenty of time to test his ideas with the cast during rehearsals.
“It’s definitely a prime example of a situation in which I can use everything I am capable of. It is a real pleasure to build a sonic DNA already from the raw script together with the director. It’s just a very beautiful process.” M
Hamlet will be performed during the Shakespeare Festival from August 1 to 19. For tickets or more information, visit: hamletscenen.dk