There's nothing ordinary about Seven Davis Jr. Unlike the balding DJs you sometimes read about in these pages (he doesn't even DJ), he's not only satisfied by making people dance. Born in Texas via San Fran via Cali, he's a self-confessed nomad currently living in London and his approach to music is like nobody else's.
“There is two different sides to what I do,” explains Sev over Skype.
“There is an uptempo side, which is probably the most popular, thankfully. Then there 's the down tempo side.”
Growing up singing in a gospel choir, it's this combined with an immersion in jazz and funk that makes Sev's version of house so distinctive. There's his experimental side too. A lover of rupturing off-beat rhythms, his drums share more in common with Theo Parrish or Miles Davis than your typically sequenced 4/4 fare. He's meticulous about them too. “I love drums,” he admits. “In my spare time I tend to listen to a lot of abstract music. I love drum & bass. I love drum players. I don't start with the drums, but when I'm working on the drums I want them to be the type of drums I would like.”
The rhythms might be jazzy, but the swing is hip-hop, he says. His musical influences aside, the magic of Seven Davis Jr is something that cannot easily be put into words.
Springing up on Classic with the 'Friends EP' a year ago, prior to that he was a name passed about in cool circles thanks to Kutmah, who picked 'Thanks' for Gilles Peterson's 'Worldwide Family Vol.2' compilation on Brownswood in 2012. However, it was the re-emergence of 'One' as a live edit last year that really sowed his seed further.
Featured on Deetron's Fabric mix and one of our favourite tracks of 2014, it helped shine a light on an enigma; a cosmic talent somewhere between Moodymann and Prince that previously only lived in esoteric shadow.
It was a rapid rise despite his musical path stretching back to his childhood. “It's been consistent, I don't know if it was the release of just that track — the whole experience has been pretty fast,” he says. “I've been making music for a while. I wasn't releasing any music and that's when I got approached by Kutmah.”
'One' — made as a homage to San Francisco while he lived there — appeared originally on Must Have Records in 2013. Following that was 'Lost Tapes Vol 1' on IZWID, his first LP and a solid collection of dense textured funk. However, it wasn't until 2014 that things properly kicked off for SDJ.
Following the re-release of 'One' on 'Friends EP' — which also included the Roy Davis Jr shuffle of 'Beautiful' and the anthemic jazz scat of 'Friends' — and a collaboration with Doc Daneeka for Ten Thousand Yen, all of a sudden the hype around him was palpable and soon it was clear SDJ had tapped into the zeitgeist.
But while this onslaught — “flooding the market,” some might say — is one way of catching our attention, it was the consistency of SDJ's sound that captured people's imagination. Here's a guy, dressed like a demure Bootsy Collins, with real star quality, and stylish tunes to match — hear an SDJ track, you immediately know who it is.
Combine that with the fact he's a live act, who also sings, and you've got an artist who stands out simply because he's different. There's a rawness to Sev's touch too — a muddiness to his production — which flies in the face of the over-saturated sound of EDM or the polished, sanitised house currently dominating the UK charts. As with his time roaming from city to city, Sev is difficult to place — a musical outcast — and that's exactly why he's worthy of our attention.
“I'm kind of moving all over the world but as a child, young teen, I was rebellious — I made music wherever I was at, for the most part in the States. I was in the Bay Area, around near San Francisco. I was constantly moving and travelling.
I've been living back and forth [from Texas] since I was a kid. I have been the whole time,” he explains. “Thing is, about the music I made, before I was even making music, I was always singing. Around the time I was working in the gospel industry, I ended up working in the mainstream [music] industry behind the scenes — so I knew from that model that the stuff I was going to make would be different.”
With gospel as its soul and jazz/funk as its body, there's something mutated about Sev's world. 'The Lost Tapes Vol. 1' sounds like Prince in league with Floating Points, Dam Funk and Funkineven (who remixed 'Celebrations' on Apron).
It's futuristic, experimental and vintage all at the same time. Recent years saw him releasing a back catalogue of built-up material — we've been playing catch-up — as if our world hasn't been quite ready for his out-of-the-box sound until now.
“I just didn't think the general public would like it, so I would make stuff and save it for myself,” he continues. “The stuff I make now I understand is a little bit left, but I think it's just about creativity and expression. I think my music makes sense now.
I don't think it made sense in the years I made it. The older stuff and what I'm making now is like the aftermath of it. It's the most mature I've ever been. I'm the most skilled. I'm at my best right now. I've released a lot of old music, so it's nice with the album to be moving forward...”
If anyone knows how to put out an album, it's Ninja Tune. Since signing to the label earlier this year, Sev has been given a chance to get back into the studio to lay down new material with a purpose. The result was a creative explosion.
First we had 'Wild Hearts', a jaunty slice of punk-funk with heady cosmic synths, heavy keys and just enough static over Sev's smooth and rich ebony pipes to keep it raw. Then came 'Sunday Morning', the first single from 'Universes' (out this month). A racy stomp with a heavy swing, it served as a precursor to a supernatural album spilling with ideas.
“Basically, there's a lot of concepts. I mean, it's like futuristic funk and soul — there's a story that comes in and out of the album, but it's futuristic and playful,” he tells us. “But at the same time it's about growth and evolution so it's showing my many different sides at once.
The first track was made in 2008. It's like the intro. And I made that around when I was in San Francisco. Everything else is new. So I was like showing you where I've been and where I am. It's a journey. But it's not all about me. It's about music. Different genres — I want people to listen to it and think about the different ways you can express yourself.”
'Universes', on first glance, is a larger-than-life intergalactic mission, but, amid the pantomime fantasy, Sev draws upon personal experiences to inform his songwriting on the album. 'Honestly' is a song about honesty — “what I want is for you to say what you have to say, even if it's harsh or not liked,” he reveals — while 'Everybody Too Cool' is a nod to clubbers in America not dancing.
“Sometimes I'd go to parties and everyone is just looking cool,” he says. “I travel a lot and go to parties and I like to see people have fun; to see people standing there and not focusing on the music. You don't really get to express that when you're an artist, do you? So that song is just like me looking at people standing there not moving. The song is done in a throwback way, so I wanted to say something while being playful...”
It's not the first time this issue has cropped up. Somewhat vaguely, a post appeared on his Facebook fan page in April explaining that, 'Unfortunately due to recent shady experiences I've decided not to play events in America till further notice. Thanks all the heads in the U.S who support what I do and look forward to playing for you in the future, the right way, in the right places'.
The reason behind it was that, without going into specifics — “I don't want to bash them,” he tells us — he'd found that certain dancefloors in the US were not as open as he'd like to his funk-heavy sound.
“My problem specifically is that I was being booked to be in places where my kind of music wasn't welcome. I have nothing against other kinds, but my music is very soulful and funky. Where I do not go down well is at EDM parties — so to book me at an EDM party doesn't make any sense,” he points out.
“In the States, there are lots of people that love the music. I've performed in the States and it has been great, but in a bigger club, I think it needs more time. A lot of people I think do not know the difference, the younger generation do not even know the difference between EDM and house.
And nothing against EDM, but EDM is really big in the States right now. So, I would rather do it when it's the right place and right time and not because someone wants to pay me money to be there. You know, I don't like gimmicks. I don't like to be bought off, I wanna go where people want to see me.”
Hence his more obvious connection with European dancefloors. Panorama Bar, Weather Festival and The Nest, London, are just some of the places he's played in recent months, with Detroit Swindle's The Great Escape at Egg LDN (25th July) and Dimensions Festival, Croatia, both on the schedule.
“A lot of people don't know that I am a vocalist. There is a market for dance music with vocals. House music that I grew up on has vocals all over the tracks, so that's where I am coming from on a house level and I'm a vocalist not a DJ — I am just very cautious — not just in America, wherever I go. For the crowd and for me, it's a two-way street.”
Breaking eggs while making an omelette is inevitable, of course, so it's unsurprising that, in his bid to break the creative mould, Sev has come across the odd bewildered face. He is a truly original artist after all — one that's surprisingly shy considering his rambunctious image — but he's intensely serious, earnest even, about his creative capacity.
He's not afraid of taking risks too. It's clear from the album. “I didn't just want to put out a dance album — a series of tracks that I thought would be popular,” he says. “I feel like that would be lazy. For me, I listen to more than just house music. There's a few house tracks on the album, but a good portion of the album is different.”
'Universes' is an album in the truest sense. “A walk up and a walk down,” as he puts it. Crossing the character of a Moodymann LP with the imagination of Funkadelic or Parliament, it belongs only to Seven Davis Jr at the same time. It's the meaty middle that sells it.
His partnership with Julio Bashmore on 'Good Vibes' is a slice of big-room disco house, 'Be A Man', feat Flako, is an edgy soul track and 'Fight' is a ballad for peace. He's clearly at the height of his creative powers.
But according to the man himself — who's now 35 — he wouldn't be where he is if he hadn't got shit out his system. “Part of my life, after gospel, in-between, I was on drugs, I was selling E, I was doing all kinds of crazy things, so I was also getting in trouble with the law when I was younger,” he reveals.
“Because with the randomness and the travelling, it's still the same. What's different now is it's stable. I'm an adult now. I am not crazy and doing all kinds of crazy things. I don't even like to get drunk anymore so I have grown up. That's the difference. Still moving around, just more stable.”
Shaking off the hedonistic lifestyle has allowed Sev the freedom to be the best artist he can possibly be. “If I was gonna die partying too much it would have been then, so I'm not gonna dance on that thin line and go back there. Especially as it would be disrespectful to me.
The music is doing well and I'm able to share it with so many people so I wanna give the best version of myself, not super drugged up, up for days — nothing wrong with people who do that — but I think it would be disrespectful.”
And for a man within the throes of so many ideas, we sense the journey is only just beginning.
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.