Stephen Harrington doesn’t like to talk about his music.
Not because he’s insecure – after over a decade rising up the ranks of academia, he can hold his own.
It’s just that he’s not accustomed to doing so: a mere 18 months ago, making music was a distant, faded dream of his. Today, however, he’s a faint but rapidly-brightening star in the world of Australian electronic music, and is now known as the DJ and producer pH-Zero.
He also just doesn’t want to seem like one of those guys. You know the type: The self-aggrandizing dick-wig DJ who wears bright plastic sunglasses everywhere and wants Shots by LMFAO & Lil Jon played at his funeral. Stephen isn’t like that at all.
He’s the gentle, techy dude whose life has been punctuated by time spent tinkering with melodies and rhythms, and piecing together wonderful slices of sound.
Stephen should talk about his work, though. After a long hiatus from the scene, he’s emerging with something special.
When did you first get interested in making music?
I did a lot of musical things growing up. Throughout primary school and high school I played the dorkiest instrument in the world – the trombone. In music class, composing was a strength, and something I enjoyed. I once borrowed my dad’s Star Wars piano sheet music so I could create a dance version of the Cantina Band song, just for fun. My first attempt to get into uni was to study music, but I was never good enough with the theory side of things.
When I was in my early teens my eldest brother used to listen to early days techno, the vast majority of which was utterly crap. I used to say, “I could sit down for five minutes and come up with something better than that.”
And then one day I got a really early version of a digital audio workstation. I started just playing around with it – if only, at first, to demonstrate my theory to said brother – and I began making stuff and enjoying it. It was good to be able to make stuff that I liked.
This was 1998-1999, it was still pre-internet really, so what you could do with anything you created back then was extremely limited. I made a couple of albums and gave them to friends, but I honestly haven’t heard anything I produced back then for years, I don’t even own copies any more. I think that’s just as well, because if I listened back to some of that early stuff now, I would probably cringe for days.
I never got into DJing at that point because it seemed to be a bit more interesting to be making the music rather than just playing it or mixing it. Also, DJing was such a prohibitively expensive undertaking at the time. I didn’t even have a part time job at that stage – I was scrounging off my parents – so I didn’t have the money to buy turntables and a mixer let alone the records to play. I had a computer, though, and that was enough for me to be getting on with producing.
You were clearly passionate, why didn’t you go on to pursue a music career in your twenties?
I started getting more studious once I hit uni – where I was studying media – so I began putting everything else aside. I later went on to do a PhD and become an academic.
The hard truth, though, is that a big factor was that my then-girlfriend (eventually to become ex-wife) just had a lowly view of it, and saw it as something that got in the way of me being with her. I am (or was) a chronic people-pleaser, so I prioritised her happiness and just stopped making music.
I spent a lot of years thinking of music as just something I gave away, and occasionally I would wonder what would have happened if I’d stuck to it. I wasn’t glum about it, in fact I think I had made peace with the decision, but always wondered what might have been.
There are two pivotal moments.
The first was when my current partner decided to buy me tickets to Earth Frequency Festival as a present for Christmas in 2017. I had never been to a doof before, whereas she’d been to bunch in the past – going back even to early days of Rainbow Serpent. She still thought I was a bit of a square, so she was apprehensive and had no idea whether I would like it.
I went in to that event with an open mind and absolutely no expectations whatsoever, and I absolutely loved it.
I’d never really liked nightclubs that much: I find them cramped, the floor is sticky, you can’t have a decent conversation with people, you’ve gotta wear proper clothes, and there’s nowhere you can go to chill out. Earth Frequency was the complete opposite of that. Not only was there this beautiful, friendly atmosphere of unpretentious people completely letting loose and just being themselves, but that open, isolated setting perfectly matches the music. I was like, “Where has this been all my life?” I was blown away by the diversity of the music, too: it wasn’t wall-to-wall psytrance. Seeing Opiuo play live was incredible, and really highlighted to me how the landscape of electronic music had expanded and shifted in the years since I had disengaged from it.
The moment that really changed everything for me, though, came last year at Rabbits Eat Lettuce. I was already having an amazing time, but then on the Sunday night I was hanging out by the open fire near the main stage when Willaris. K opened his set with the track “Catch Phrase”. It starts with this powerful arpeggio followed up by a deep bass line and a wild breakbeat that totally caught my ear. I said to my partner, “I have to go now”, and just drifted into the crowd. It was the Bassic Records takeover of the main stage, and I was there for hours, completely transfixed.
At some point that night I remember thinking to myself, “I have to get back into this.” I didn’t care if being thirty-five was ‘too old’ to be starting out for a second time, or if my efforts might prove to be futile: in that moment I just knew I just wanted to make music for that crowd. I wanted to make music that would create an experience for others like the one I was having.
How did you go about getting back into it once you’d had that epiphany?
As soon as I got back to Brisbane I began researching what DJ technology even looks like these days. When I was doing it in my late teens, it was the early days of the transition from vinyl to digital – CDJs were very new.
Within a week I’d bought a new laptop and controller to start doing it and I haven’t been able to stop since.
Then late last year I thought, “OK now that I’ve learned how to DJ, I can start producing again.” So, I bought a copy of Ableton Live and away I went.
Why is making music so important to you?
It wasn’t until after I’d become an academic – I work in a Creative Industries Faculty – that I came across research on the link between happiness and creativity. Basically, studies show that one of the keys to happiness is having meaningful connections with other people. Having a creative outlet almost inevitably leads to sharing your work with others, and that helps to develop new connections and build a sense of community, and thus leads to greater life satisfaction.
I feel like a living embodiment of that idea now that I’m coming back after mostly bottling up my creativity for 17 years. I just love making music and sharing it with people. I don’t want to be some kind of superstar, but I would prefer to share it with lots of people.
Do you have any tips or tricks for up-and-coming producers or DJs?
I’m up-and-coming myself, so I can hardly offer “hot tips”. But, I have to say – contrary to the stereotype of people in music being ‘too cool for school’ – I am just amazed by how friendly nearly everyone in this industry is. I’ve gone up to well-known DJs and producers at festivals, or sent them messages, and just said, “Hey, good stuff! I like what you do!” and they’ve been so overwhelmingly positive in return.
I have to give a special shout-out here to my man Shane – a.k.a. Eeemus – who I struck up a conversation with at Elements festival last year. We’ve stayed in touch, and he’s been unfailingly encouraging and supportive of everything I’ve done since. He almost certainly doesn’t know it, but his support, and everyone else’s, means so much to me.
Maybe one word of advice, then, would be don’t be afraid to reach out and connect with others.
For me, though, the thing that makes it all possible is now having a partner who understands why this matters. She gives me the space to be myself, and understands that music is something that has to occupy some part of my life. She just gets it. And I will also be forever grateful to her for buying those tickets to Earth Frequency: best present ever.
What’s your biggest obstacle right now?
Time. I’ve got four kids and a full time job, so making space in life for a hobby is always going to be hard. We’re a blended family, though, and there are some periods when I have zero kids, or just two, so that helps, though it’s still a challenge. I love my sleep, but let’s just say that I don’t get nearly as much of it these days.
I can’t imagine letting anything really stand in my way, though. I previously let 17 years slip by, so it feels like I can’t possibly waste another minute.