Dancing Astronaut declares John Summit Breakout Artist of 2021 in an exclusive interview feature that recounts the year’s career-shaping moments, from his perspective.
“I used to run long-distance, almost marathon-length running, and I just took that talent and switched it over to DJing,” John Summit said on a Zoom call with Dancing Astronaut. “It literally feels like long-distance running when you play for six to eight hours straight, it’s crazy.”
This reflection comes in response to our half-joke, half-question: how in the hell did he manage to play seven sets from October 21 – 25 during EDC Las Vegas week/weekend while accommodating a touchdown in Austin, Texas on October 23, followed by six more sets on Halloweekend? The answer, of course, is stamina. And this year, although Summit’s needed a lot of it, he’s amassed even more of it.
Likening his approach to DJing to long-distance running explains how the Chicago homegrown talent so tirelessly handled that septuplet of sets. It’s also a useful metaphor for how he’s conducted his career throughout 2021: with endurance, focus, a push to keep pace, and a seemingly omnipresent runner’s high.
In 2021, the name “John Summit” was inescapable. It could be found plastered on festival lineups such as Defected London and Croatia, Electric Zoo, and EDC Las Vegas, the latter of which Summit interestingly attended for the very first time this year, as an artist. It was also unavoidable on the Beatport charts, with Summit becoming the highest-selling artist across all genres on Beatport over the past 12 months. Add his ascension to 4 million-plus listeners on Spotify alone and hundreds of shows to boot, and Dancing Astronaut would find the makings of its next Breakout Artist of the Year in John Summit.
Summit earned a spot on our list of the 25 Artists to Watch in 2021 in December of 2020, thanks to the astute recommendation of Partnerships Manager, Natalie Pereira. “If his name isn’t familiar to you yet, don’t expect this to be the case for much longer, Pereira wrote, a Spotify embed to his record “Deep End” suspended below.
“Deep End” was the tipping point; the Defected Records release, issued in June 2020, became the longest Beatport No. 1 of the year and was named Pete Tong’s Essential New Tune before it nestled in on BBC Radio 1’s main playlist. All this was just icing on the cake for Summit, who pithily articulated the personal significance of signing “Deep End” to Defected in just three words on social media: “lifetime goal achieved.”
Summit acknowledges 2020 as a “huge breakout music-wise,” but notes that its results weren’t immediately visible due to the coronavirus pandemic. “I was touring for a few years before 2020, and obviously gained a ton of fans in the past couple of years, but the gigs were taking place in 200-person capped rooms. I wasn’t selling out shows or anything. Then my music blew up over the pandemic, which was sweet, but I didn’t immediately see the benefits of the success due to the shutdown of clubs and venues worldwide,” he said.
That would change months later, when national and international venues and events promoters reactivated live music programming. And for Summit, it’d change quite dramatically:
“I went from 200-person rooms to playing for crowds of 30,000. I think that what’s been so insane this year is that it felt like I almost kind of skipped the whole growing from a 200-person room to 1,000-person room stuff and went just to the main stage. So I think that’s been the craziest part of this year, adapting to that and changing my DJ style a little bit; it’s been awesome.”
It’s worth noting that he’s realized this “success” in settings other than scuffed dance floors and scrubby festival grounds of late. Summit recounted a recent trip to Target, where he happened to hear the notes of his SOFI TUKKER team up, “Sun Came Up,” filtering through the store’s speakers. “I was like, ‘what the heck?’ And then I heard it playing at the gym,” he said.
He calls “Sun Came Up” one of the 2021 accomplishments of which he’s most proud, explaining that he’s always seen himself making the “club-ready tech-house tracks” for which he’s become known, but also wants to “make records that can be heard outside of clubs, in places like the grocery store.” He’s already done it, and it’s clear from our conversation that once isn’t enough for Summit; he wants to do it again, and assuredly, he will. He attributes this aspiration to his desire to be “more than just a tech-house act.”
“Sun Came Up” and “Human,” released September 2 and November 24, respectively, represent Summit’s steps toward being perceived this way: as an artist with expanded creative capacity. Chief among these steps, he explains, is strengthening the songwriting component of his craft.
“My new single ‘Human’ is the track I think I’m most proud of because it works in a club, but there’s actually good songwriting to it,” he said. It’s more than just a banger you hear in the club, so this has probably been my biggest accomplishment of the year as a producer, the branching out a little bit.”
That “club-ready tech-house” approach has paid dividends, so it’s natural that this “branching out” isn’t without the occasional reservation. Although the Echoes feature was of immediate appeal to the crowd at his August Club Space set, where he premiered the then-unreleased tune, Summit wasn’t confident that “Human” would resonate with his following.
“I really didn’t think anyone was going to like it, especially at Club Space which is such an underground club. I was like, there’s so much singing in this track, is this going to be too moody? Are people going to be like, ‘what the heck is he playing?,’” he reflected.
He admits that it’s “probably not mentally healthy” to read the Internet’s commentary on the songs that he road tests, but he “always reads the comments.” “I can’t help it, anytime I share a new track of mine, I always read all the comments,” he confesses, somewhat sheepishly. “When people are like, ‘ID ID ID,’ that’s when I’m like ‘okay, now I know this one’s good.’”
In the end, the comments beneath the YouTube video of the Club Space set would assuage his worries about “Human”:
“Human,” which marks his debut single on FFRR, is the product of approximately four months of development time in Ableton, threaded by countless computer crashes. “I think I need to get a new laptop,” he jokes.
Now, after “probably over 30 different versions,” Summit’s following has in its queue what is inarguably one of his biggest records of the year. Although it “took the longest out of any track [he’s] ever made because it had so many different elements,” he knows that music emblematic of one’s own artistic growth and maturity is well worth the wait and plans to make more “complete songs” akin to “Human” and “Sun Came Up” moving forward.
“I’ve written club tracks for years and they’ve been supported, and I know music theory, but I never spent too much time on writing complete songs where there’s a theme” Summit said. The wheels of change would begin turning for him in more ways than one during the pandemic: “So that’s what I really spent my time on learning during the pandemic. When I was by myself, I was hearing these songs that made me really feel something. I was realizing that my music at the time didn’t really invoke emotion like you can hear in some records by Bicep, or CamelPhat, or whoever.”
Summit specifies “Sun Came Up” as another one of his biggest accomplishments of 2021, precisely because he considers it a “complete song” that expands on his customary sound. That the cut stands as US Dance Radio’s No. 1 song at the time of this writing adds to this achievement. It’s a clear signal to Summit that his streamers are embracing the deviation from his characteristically club-ready brand of sound, that they will endure as he continues to sonically spread his wings.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, due to the industry’s COVID-19-sensitive shift to digital communication and Summit’s can’t-miss presence on social channels, the SOFI TUKKER collaboration was born out of a DM exchange:
“They found me on Instagram, it was hilarious. They would shout me out all the time because they did a livestream every day during the pandemic for like 500 days straight, and they’d always play my music and they’d be like, ‘we’re playing bender boy, blah, blah, blah,’ because they think the whole thing’s funny. I go to all these clubs, but I’d never even met them in person. We did everything over the Internet.”
How the joint project with SOFI TUKKER, who Summit calls “so incredibly talented with the guitar and singing,” came to be can be traced to his casual and approachable online presence. It’s easy to forget that Summit, who can often be found comically hating on fan clackers, trolling fellow artists in good-natured fun, using his signature phrase, “my life is a bender,” complaining of hangovers, and engaging with fans on social media, is a famous DJ and not the funny boy next door or guy from class. On Twitter and Instagram, he’s unabashedly himself and it’s clear that the content is all his own, and not the doing of a content manager or someone else on a management team. He’s opinionated, he’s himself, and in his own words, he’s “had the same exact Twitter personality since [he] had 300 followers.”
“You can go back to my tweets from 2016, I’ve been making the same jokes and saying the same stuff. It’s kind of funny that just because you know, now I’m getting to be so big, everything’s going so viral all the time,” he said.
These characteristics act as their own blue check mark for Summit. “I feel like that’s really how you make a name and personality for yourself because you seem like someone who’s easy to reach out to versus some artists who you don’t even know if they have the password to their Twitter account. You don’t know if it’s actually them or just their manager,” he added.
Consistency, whether of online voice or another aspect of his career, is a motif for Summit. Online, he’s the same person he was five years ago, no matter that he’s now got 4 million-plus monthly Spotify listeners. He observes that he “hasn’t changed what [he’s] been doing, it’s just gotten bigger,” and this applies not only to his social channels but also to tech-house. And as tech-house continues to surge in popularity among commercial audiences, Summit is adamant that a special aspect of his music and identity as an artist is that he hasn’t adapted to fit the times, but rather, that his consistency has positioned him for his current success:
“I’ve been doing tech-house for like years and years. You go down my SoundCloud, and it feels like I’ve been doing it as long as anyone. I was never into EDM. During the EDM years, I was always just into house and tech-house, and it’s kind of crazy that the whole [tech-house] genre has gotten so big, but I haven’t changed what I’ve been doing. The only thing that’s changed is just me becoming a more well-rounded producer, working with better vocalists, and making better toplines so these tracks can be heard outside of the underground. It’s been cool that I never really had to change what I’ve been doing but instead just expand on it.”
Fans can expect this concurrent growth—of Summit’s career and tech-house’s commercial swell—to continue in 2022, a year that, in an extension of the metaphor, will see Dancing Astronaut‘s Breakout Artist of 2021 continue to run laps around the electronic circuit. He’s not married to a blueprint, but as he plans for what is on pace to be another momentous year given the seeds sown in 2021, he can say that the year ahead will encompass “some big collaborations” and the revelation of his own branded event series; “I do plan on throwing my own parties,” he notes.
Of course, the next year will also be soundtracked by the John Summit sound that listeners have come to know and love, and more of the John Summit sound with which they’re now getting acquainted. “I do want to keep writing club tracks ’cause I love going to the club and hearing a banger, but I’m going to keep expanding on the songwriting kind of tracks, so ‘Human’ should be a good introduction to how I want to make my sound in 2022,” he muses, adding that he’s “even starting to write some like techno kind of tracks to expand [his] artistry.”
As part of this initiative, he intends to take a couple of weeks, perhaps more, off from touring in 2022 to focus on writing new music. Although 2021 has, in many ways, looked like something of a race for Summit, racing from one venue to the next, racing to the No. 1 chart position, and more broadly, racing from one career benchmark to another, he knows that this is all more of a marathon than a 100-yard dash, and although he admits he doesn’t “have too much of plan” for next year just yet, one thing is certain: whatever it entails, he’ll go the distance.
Featured image: Ivan Meneses
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