INTERVIEW: Gok Wan discusses DJ career following roaring success of ‘Isolation Nation’ series
They say that challenges are what make life interesting, and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful. In the case of Gok Wan, a quote has never quite carried so much relevance. To add another branch to his ever-blossoming career tree during ‘normality’ is one thing, but to do so during a global pandemic, gives a real glimmer of insight into the psyche of a man who has swapped teaching people ‘How To Look Good Naked’ for a musical education on ‘How To FEEL good, clothed.’
Like many of us, the hugely popular fashionista and TV personality paired Spring’s UK lockdown with the ‘Baking Banana Bread’ and ‘Zoom Call’ phase, though of the plethora of DJs to embrace 2020’s holy musical grail of ‘the livestream’, few can boast the same mind-boggling figures as Gok, whose ‘Isolation Nation’ series became a staple part of British society, in the same heart-warming way we opened our arms to ‘Captain Tom’ and various other segments of COVID-culture. Recently appointed with an MBE by her majesty Queen Elizabeth in the 2020 New Year Honours List for his services to fashion and social awareness, we spoke to Gok about his new-found success behind the wheels of steel, and why – in his own words – “2020 has changed my career forever”.
This is what happened; When We Rave You met Gok Wan…
Gok! Tell us a bit about ‘Isolation Nation’ and your monumental success with the livestreams!
“Well I originally decided that I was going to put the DJing online and see how people reacted to it, because we’d all been told we couldn’t leave our houses or see our family, but to be honest… At the time, I didn’t know anything about OBS or streams, I’d never done a live-stream before. So I just put a set out, and then from the first one, we had 33,000 views and it was so amazing to see people saying how amazing it was, and that it was just what they needed. So we just carried on, and started to get hundreds of thousands of people locked in! We soon shot up to 1.2 million! By which point… I had started to work it all out a bit better, because, to be honest, it’s hard doing this online, as – unlike being a DJ in a club – you don’t know what people want musically!”
So how did you begin to read your crowd without actually being able to hear them?
“Well we noticed that in the comments, people started talking and behaving like they were in a club. So we looked into that because it was so fascinating, and you could even tell when people were dancing, they started sending images of themselves tuned in etc. I think we clocked up over 100 hours of DJing this year! So the response was just AMAZING, and in all honesty, I think people liked the fact we didn’t talk about COVID, they just wanted to enjoy the music. Because of my audience with my fashion shows, I found my demographic was probably like 35 to 55 year olds. So these people had listened to 90s vocal house and these people were then able to relive their youth through the music, and it gave them a chance to relive a life that was more carefree than they have now, and also a life more carefree than what they’ve got in 2020, that’s for sure! In addition to that, we’ve raised over £60,000 for charity as well, so an all-round success!”
What were your own musical influences growing up? At which point did house music ‘speak to you’ as such?
“Well I tried to get into pop music, but I couldn’t quite manage it, except for acts like the Pet Shop Boys who had that electronic tinge to them, and Jean Michel-Jarre, who really was in my opinion the first kind of ‘EDM’ act out there because he was producing this massive sound for big crowds. But I had a terrible time at school, I was heavily bullied, I got expelled at a young age, and when I was 15 I had a choice really on which path to go down at this crossroads in life. That’s when I found the illegal raves, 90s house music had just become slightly more commercial and was being played in these big warehouses and I remember being surrounded by people who have this love of music. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of community. It didn’t matter what I looked like. I remember just standing in the middle of this warehouse in Coventry and I just thought, “I love this.” Everything about it. That’s when my passion started. So I started to learn about it more, I started to understand it more. I’m 46 now, and I’m still learning about it. That’s the beauty of house music!”
So how does your own musical taste impact your DJ sets?
“It’s funny you ask, because I think I’ve just about played everywhere in my career… Techno and tech-house venues in Eastern Europe, and though I have a love for people like Nina Kraviz who play this beautifully minimalistic style, my heart is really in funky house and vocal house. I can zone out to the deeper music but when I DJ, I want something more performance led, more emotional. The beauty of house music is that it’s so incredibly inclusive, it’s a real community. It doesn’t matter what age you are, what size you are, how you look, that community just accepts you. I would say things in my live-streams like ‘who wants to go to church now?’ and then I’d play some gospel house and suddenly all these church emojis would pop up on the stream. I know people have not locked into my streams because I have the skillset of a Carl Cox, or Frankie Knuckles or Marshall Jefferson, but people want a communicative stream right now, they want something cheeky, and that’s what you get when you tune in! I’m there, talking to the crowd and bringing my personality across… In fact, my friends always tell me to stop talking actually, I talk too much!”
Do you think DJing is a way of empowering people? In the same way you do with your Gok Wan fashion/cooking career? But now you’re musically enhancing people’s lives instead of visually?
“I think so yeah! Sometimes I improvise, when I play track with heavy percussion I grab a salt shaker and imitate percussion. And the first time I did that, I walked away thinking ‘You’re a tw*t’, but then I started to enjoy it because I was able to communicate to the audience. For me, with fashion, it’s never been trend-led stuff, it’s more solution-based stuff, and the same with my cooking. I would never call myself a chef because I’ve not done the 90 hours of week training like real chefs have but for me, it’s the same with music. It’s about, what is the easiest way to find a solution for what I’m showing and how can I make people as good as they can? With fashion, it’s about saying, no matter what size you are, there’s a solution here because you deserve to look good! And the same with cooking, it’s about saying ‘you can make this tasty food at home, really easily’. And with music now, it’s about, I don’t care if you’re in your kitchen, or what you look like, I don’t even need to know your name… I just need to know you’re having as much of a good time as I am! These tracks are a work of art, so I just want to share them.”
How has the pandemic changed dance music as we know it?
“Well this year has changed my career landscape, that’s for sure. It is going to be so different DJing in a club now or when I’m playing festivals again! I will genuinely miss seeing all the comments come in on the comments section. We get 240,000 comments in 2 hours on Isolation Nation, so it’s a lot of conversation, and that’s become as important now as track selection. But isn’t it phenomenal that you can now read a crowd just by just an emoji use?!”
So how will you adapt to those changes in future, and what can we expect from 2021?
“Well I hope I don’t sound like I have some weird Messiah complex, but I understand the importance of Isolation Nation. Whether for fun, or escapism, or just a sense of community, it’s become a big thing now for hundreds of thousands of people around the world. So whatever the reason people log in, I will continue with it in the original form. But then long-term, I’ve got this challenge to move into music but to keep it alongside my TV career, and my fashion career. So hopefully one day, Isolation Nation will pop up at a festival and all these people who tune in, all these people who have never met, can finally meet each other for the first time!”
As richly personable via interview as he is when dazzling upon our screens with that infectious smile, Gok Wan is the physical embodiment of our industry’s core values. If house music is – as Gok rightly points out – all about that sense of community, and feeling like you belong, no matter your height, weight, age, race, or any other defining physical factor, then ‘Isolation Nation’ has proved a welcome respite for like-minded audiences through the toughest year of modern times. With the tail-end of 2020 now approaching, news regarding vaccine roll-outs and a shift in emphasis in 2021 continues to warm our souls daily, and if there’s one man who harnesses the positivity you’ll be hoping to stockpile on during the next 12 months, it’s Gok Wan (MBE) and his infectiously feel-good blend of bass-driven rhythms and classic funky-house sound.