Former NFL Lineman Set to DJ Third Major Summer Music Fest at Friday at North Coast
It was a vision inspired by a mouse. Or rather, a mau5.
One hot July evening a little over three years ago, Joel Zimmerman (better known as Deadmau5) brought his classically-inspired melodies and thumping bass to the grounds of Chicago’s hallowed Soldier Field. Maybe it was a lack of water, or the heat, or the pulsing energy of a packed summer crowd dancing together at 128 beats per minute. Whatever it was, something happened that would change Jeff Roehl’s life forever.
“I had a vision, something like a message. Hard to explain,” Roehl pauses. “The simplest way to say it is like this: My purpose in life was revealed to me, and it was to travel the world playing this style of music for this kind of people.”
Having recently secured an international DJ residency at Lemon Club in Mexico City, one might argue that the mau5-inspired vision is fast becoming reality for Roehl (also known by his stage name, Xonic). So what exactly was his life like before music?
Roehl laughs. “Which chapter do you want to know about first?”
CHI-TOWN SCHOLAR-ATHLETE EXTRAORDINAIRE
Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, Roehl dreamed of playing at Soldier Field – just not as a musical performer. His early love was football; his teams of choice, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (“I was Catholic in Chicago,” Roehl explains) and the Chicago Bears.
“My parents inspired me to believe that I could be whatever I wanted to be, or do whatever I set my mind to, at an early age. It sounds cliche, but I was lucky to have such good influences growing up. I was encouraged to dream,” Roehl reminisces.
Among those dreams was to play college football. A straight-A GPA and an all-state football career at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park paved the path for that dream to come to life at Northwestern University.
Fast forward four years: Roehl finishes his football career at Northwestern with All-Big 10 Conference honors as an offensive lineman. The NFL came calling.
“You know,” Roehl says, “I remember one particular interview question from a reporter that stands out.
“She asked me, ‘What would my dream be if it wasn’t to play in the NFL?’
“I told her I’d want to be a rock star.”
FROM NFL TO S&P TO EDM
The average career of an NFL player is three years. Roehl lasted four.
“I was a ‘journeyman’ lineman. Three teams in four years. I wasn’t that good,” Roehl laughs.
“Kidding. Kind of. I was a bit small for an NFL lineman.”
At over 6 feet 4 inches tall, this seems hard to believe. But Roehl contends that 300-pounders (his former playing weight with the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, and New England Patriots) were a dime a dozen.
“It became obvious to me that I wasn’t meant to play football forever. I had no idea what I was gonna do next.”
The path from the end zone to the club scene wasn’t a direct one. Roehl spent time trying his hand in the corporate rat race (commercial real estate agent) and financial sector (trader at Chicago Board of Trade).
“Damn, I hate wearing a tie so much. What a stupid idea! Tie fabric around our necks so we look more professional?” Roehl jokes.
“I’m definitely not a 9 to 5 guy. I’m a night owl.”
So how exactly did he end up in music? Roehl smiles. “Freestyle rap.”
On long road trips with teammates back in his playing days, Roehl recalls watching and listening to groups of his teammates engaged in lengthy impromptu rap sessions over hip-hop beats. One day, he decided to join in.
“I think I shocked a few people. I’d been watching for a while and practicing in my head.”
Roehl credits hundreds of hours and thousands of rhymes with instilling a fundamental knowledge of musical patterns and structures. After leaving his job as a trader (“I wasn’t happy chasing money for money’s sake”), he was at a crossroads in life.
“When I was younger, my dad told me, ‘pick a job you love and you’ll never have to work.’
“I knew what I loved most, and that was music. I made a decision that I was going to take a chance and find happiness in music somehow.
“Maybe produce hip-hop beats, or manage a rapper.”
ROOKIE DJ TURNED CHI-TOWN FAVORITE
Back to the beginning of this story: Deadmau5, Soldier Field, 2010. The vision of being the man behind the decks burned into his brain, Roehl quickly began exploring ways to bring the DJ dream into reality. He enrolled in audio engineering school at Miller Street Studios in Chicago (“top of the line studio experience – the head engineer Dante is a genius,” Roehl remembers). Networking within his Windy City social and nightclub contacts, he accepted a job as the tour manager for hometown hip-hop hero Na Palm in 2011.
“Craig (Na Palm) has always been a huge inspiration to me. Being on the road with him, I learned a ton about stage presence and performance, about how to win over a crowd.
“I felt in my heart that while the back stage life was nice, there was nothing like being the center of the musical energy in a room yourself.”
In an effort to learn the tricks of the trade, Roehl approached some of his Chicago DJ contacts about taking lessons.
“I asked about five or six DJs if they could show me how to spin.
“Two said no. Four said yes. Only one actually came through.”
Brian Rosin, aka D2A, had been a fixture on the Chicago nightlife scene for the better part of a decade. That didn’t stop him from believing in the passionate newcomer enough to extend himself as a mentor.
“One night at a club, I approached the DJ booth to request a favorite song of mine, Roehl recalls. (The song? The Reward is Cheese by -surprise- Deadmau5.)
“Right before I could make my request, the DJ (Rosin) played that exact track. A definite connection, a vibe moment.”
Over hours of lessons spanning everything from dance music history to fundamental skills like mixing on vinyl, Rosin taught Roehl the basics and beyond.
“I’ll forever be grateful to D2A, he was like Obi-Won to me. He taught me how to DJ, gave me my first equipment, and booked me for my first gig.”
That first job was in the basement of Fedora Lounge in October of 2011. The next day, Roehl set an ambitious goal with barely any time to achieve it.
“I wanted to DJ at the MID before the end of the year, which meant I had about 3 months to do it,” he remembers, almost incredulously.
The Mid is arguably Chicago’s top EDM venue, recently ranking #40 worldwide by DJ Mag.
“I guess I impressed some of the right people,” recalled Roehl. “I ended up opening the main floor on New Year’s Eve that year.”
As his career began to grow, Roehl faced the question that every young DJ or producer one day must answer, the question of the DJ name.
“I went through a few ideas. Some bad ones,” Roehl laughs, not divulging the earlier failed monikers.
“I wanted something unique, so it was easy to find on google. Something brandable or symbolic. And something that had a level of meaning to it.
“I decided on Xonic (pronounced “ek-SAH-nik”) because I liked the letter X and how it merged with the word ‘sonic’, and nobody else was using it.”
THE HOUSE OF CHI MEETS XONIC: FROM FACEBOOK TO CLUB LIFE
The life of a new DJ in a crowded market can be a rough one. Nowadays, clubs expect their DJs not only to play appropriate music for the time slot and venue, but also to act as promoters, bringing friends and fans into the club. The newly-christened Xonic knew he had to win over some fans, and quickly.
“A friend of mine told me about a secret facebook group made up of 20-something Chicago dance music fans called the House of Chi. I asked to join, and began sharing music with them and inviting them to my DJ sets.
“The leaders of the group, Marco Sgalbazzini and Elwin Reid, were very welcoming right from the start. I knew from a few weeks of interacting with them that we got along well.
“In April some of the members of the group suggested a house party for us all to meet up. I volunteered to DJ the party, which ended up being a ton of fun.”
Shortly thereafter, group members Todd & Elena were moving out of an apartment and suggested a “last day rager.” Xonic quickly jumped at a chance to spin for them again. The party that resulted was “epic, chaos, awesome,” Roehl said. “The cops were called by the neighbors at 9PM.”
“They arrived to find fifty people dancing with glowsticks and flashing lights in the dark to loud music. They asked what we were doing and appeared shocked when we said ‘pre-partying.’”
The House of Chi knew it had found a favorite DJ. Roehl credits their support as integral to his early success in the Chicago club scene.
“They always showed up to my gigs and danced their asses off. It’s amazing what a handful of passionate fans and friends can contribute to the energy of your set.
As the career of Xonic grew, the House of Chi moved from secret facebook group into one of the most respected events and promotions companies in Chicago.
“Very grateful to them,” Roehl expressed. “I’ll rep them til the end.”
THE PRODUCER’S PATH PREFERRED
The next two years brought in a flurry of memorable night club, concert, private event, house party, and boat sets for the fast-rising Xonic. Having played at pretty much every major venue in the city, Roehl lists the MID, Vertigo Sky Lounge, and Spybar as his favorite places to play. His upstart respected name in the dance music community led him to opportunities to share bills with headlining names such as Zedd, Afrojack, Hardwell, and Porter Robinson, among many others. Other cities and countries have even taken notice (Xonic has several out-of-state and international DJ sets already under his belt).
Eventually, his talent was recognized with a huge honor: a slot to play on the main stage at Spring Awakening Music Festival earlier this year.
“Playing on Soldier Field for Spring Awakening was incredible for me, as I’d always wantred to play there as a football player but never got to do so. Who’d have thought I’d get there as a DJ? So grateful to React (the concert’s promoters) for the opportunity.”
“Sometimes it sounds unreal even to me.”
Roehl followed up that performance with an energetic closing set on the SolarBeatz stage at Wavefront Music Festival on Montrose Beach less than a month later. He’s slated to play North Coast festival this Friday at 6PM (the Tent stage), fully completing his “hat trick” of major Chicago dance festivals this year.
Never one to hog the spotlight, Roehl takes pride in his “PLUR” crew, his team of DJs that he’s either taught, developed, or partnered with in his career. The team includes some rising names in the Chicago EDM scene, like J. Worra (Jamie Sitter), co-winner of both the Spring Awakening and Wavefront DJ competitions and current top 3 finalist for the Groove Cruise DJ battle.
“I always tell Jamie that she’s probably going to be the biggest name out of all of us. She’s a true star and an awesome person. Lucky to have her as a partner in all this.”
For Roehl, every new accomplishment transforms into a new goal. In order to achieve his dreams on the highest level, Xonic knew that he had to further develop his professional skills.
“Being a DJ isn’t the end game for me,” Roehl explains. “I’ve always wanted to compose and produce my own music since I started doing this.”
Without an extensive background in musical theory, Xonic became an avid student of Ableton and other production programs. Still, it hasn’t been an easy road.
“A lot of times I have ideas for melodies and sounds in my head, but had a hard time translating those sounds from my head to the software. One of the best solutions I’ve found is collaboration on tracks with classically trained and synth-savvy producers like TreH (with whom Xonic produced “Carnival Afterlife,” his first original work.) We really work symbiotically together.”
“I usually start my songs around the drumbeat; percussion is the heartbeat and the pace of the track so that’s where I find it easiest to begin.
“I sometimes look to other songs for inspiration on sound or melody, then begin to modify and re-create those elements in a way that makes them my own. The process is different for everyone.
“I’m just grateful to be finding mine.”
You can catch Xonic’s next major performance this Friday night on the Tent Stage at 6 PM at North Coast Music Festival (Union Park, Chicago). Like Spring Awakening, Roehl will enlist local drumming legend “Mo” Kabre on live percussion for an added dose of organic performance.
“Special set and vibe planned for this one – you’ll have to be there to find out, ” Roehl teased.
If you can’t make that one, you can check him out at the Mid on Sept. 14, where he will provide main floor support to international star 3LAU.
Be sure to check out Xonic\’s new mix with J. Worra, \”Groove to the Bounce\” below. An awesome competition tech house mix tailored to impress TJR and Chris Lake for an opening spot at their show at Webster Hall in New York City.
written by: Sydney, Alan Ashley and Jeff Roehl for EDMChicago.com