Throughout the current EDM landscape, we’ve seen plenty of DJ/producers who quickly emerged onto the scene and never looked back. But few have ever hit the ground running quite like the pint-sized powerhouse that is Amber Giles, better known as Mija.
Back in 2014, Mija (pronounced mee-hah) took the blogosphere by storm with an unannounced, back-to-back set with Skrillex at Tennessee’s Bonnaroo festival. Tabbed to play the event by Walter Productions, the artists who run the Burning Man festival’s famous Kalliope Art Car, Mija’s sunrise set became a magical morning for performers and fans alike. After going viral throughout the electronic community, the performance has proven to be the seminal event in Mija’s DJ career.
But, what if we told you that, well before Skrillex broke big (prior to his 2011 breakout EP, “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”), Mija had booked him to play a party in Phoenix? Coincidence… as in right place, right time? Or was it more a case of luck being the residue of hard work and design?
The story of Mija begins out west in the arid lands of Phoenix, Ariz., where she had become a rave promoter at 17-years-old. From the U.K.’s happy hardcore standout DJ Hixxy to Australian drum-n-bass icons Pendulum, Giles found her finger on the pulse of the rave culture before deciding to take that next step and start DJing.
Like most up-and-coming DJs, she found herself playing every chance she could, spinning at malls, weddings and anywhere in between, hoping to get her name out there, in addition to simply paying the bills.
After earning her keep with a variety of DJ jobs, Giles would later begin landing gigs at club venues in downtown Phoenix. From there, she soon started throwing her own weekly parties and spinning Nu-disco and disco-house sets. Of course, being a promoter and a DJ required a certain amount of hustle and that put her in a position to meet all sorts of people…
So, it was during an impressive DJ set on her 22nd birthday that she was invited to play at Bonnaroo, which just happened to be 12 days later. Maybe her break wasn’t luck; maybe it really was the residue of design and hard work. Certainly, Mija’s hustle put her in a position to meet the right people – an Arizona-based collective which ultimately provided her the artistic opportunity of a lifetime. Most DJs could learn plenty from this story.
Post-Bonnaroo, Mija began to thrive. With all eyes on the then-green-haired DJ, she would take the electronic community by storm with her impeccable ability to read a crowd and cross genres. In short order, she made appearances at Nevada’s Burning Man and Atlanta’s TomorrowWorld on the Black Butter Records stage (after being the lucky winner of a mix contest).
With her DJ career picking up steam, Mija began to take on a more vigorous tour schedule. Additionally, with the help of some peers, she began learning music-production techniques. In 2015, the world would get its first taste of Mija music – a collaboration with Ghastly titled, “Crank It,” on Skrillex’s OWSLA imprint.
Continuing to bring the party to clubs and festivals across the globe, Mija would soon bring her signature musical stylings and overall aesthetic of “fk a genre” to life. In launching her 2016 “fk a genre” tour, she featured artists from a number of diverse genres all under one roof. Mija even launched her own fashion label, “Made By Mija,” for which she serves as the primary designer on each collection, plus her own imprint, never_b_alone.
Over time, Mija’s discography has reached impressive levels, as it includes a bevy of remixes for the likes of Major Lazer, Darren Styles, and DJ Snake, in addition to “Better,” a colorful collaboration with Vindata. However, it wasn’t until 2017 when Mija began to flex her solo production muscles with the release of an eclectic 8-bit- inspired, four-track EP, “Time Stops.”
The 25-year-old DJ/producer entered 2018 as an artist reborn with the release of her riveting seven-track EP, “How to Measure the Distance Between Lovers.” Her latest body of work unveils more a personal and revealing side, as she showcases her growing production prowess, but also her signature songwriting ability. As an artist, Mija has progressed naturally and it seems like she’s poised for even bigger things in the near future.
So, with a summer filled with high-profile gigs, including Detroit’s Movement festival and Denver’s Hard Red Rocks (with DJ Snake), we caught up with Mija to discuss past, present and future.
DJ Times: Tell us about your getting introduced to the world of electronic music?
Mija: I was 15-years-old when I first discovered electronic music. I had found the song “Raver’s Fantasy” [by DJ Manian from 2009] on YouTube and was entranced by the digital sounds and ethos behind the music.
DJ Times: What was it about happy hardcore, drum-n-bass and bass music as a whole that caught your attention early on?
Mija: What drew me to happy hardcore and drum-n-bass, specifically, was the energy. It transcended everything I thought I knew about music, and made me feel alive in a way that I had never experienced before.
DJ Times: Beyond the music, what made you fall in love with this whole scene?
Mija: I fell in love with the community. Like many kids that find the rave scene during adolescence, I was an outcast. I didn’t know where I belonged in the world, but I was looking for some place to call home. I was bored living a suburban teenage lifestyle, not being able to relate to my peers or express myself without feeling judged. But when I went to a rave, I was joined by “freaks” and music-lovers alike, who never judged, and would accept me for who I am.
DJ Times: What was the rave scene like out in Phoenix when you first started promoting events?
Mija: It was like the Wild West – anyone could throw a party. If you could find an abandoned building, or an empty plot of land in the middle of the desert, it was game-on. We used to use this website called Don’t Stay In, which was predominantly inhabited by the U.K. and Phoenix, to post our event pages, photos, threads, infolines, etc. It was like the reddit of rave in 2007. This is where I learned the true politics of promoting. The scene in Phoenix was huge at the time, too. I think, on average, we were pulling around 1,500-3,500 kids into the events… without headliners. It was usually local DJs that would play.
DJ Times: From weddings to warehouse raves to later playing extended sets at the Sheraton Hotel, how difficult was it for you to make the transition to playing in front of these very different crowds?
Mija: It wasn’t hard because I didn’t think about it or take it too seriously. I knew I had good taste and could work a crowd. The Sheraton was easy because I was older and going through a disco phase – which happens to work very well in lounge settings. The only gigs I truly detested were the weddings… seriously, fuck those gigs. It felt like a job and I’m not meant to be a “working” DJ. I just do this shit for fun.
DJ Times: While we’re taking a trip down memory lane, do you remember your first DJ set-up?
Mija: When I was learning, I was using my roommate’s DVJ unit – this was one of Pioneer’s experimental projects where you could sync your music with visuals using DVDs. I don’t think we ever used it for visuals, so it was just an extra-large version of Pioneer’s regular CDJs. We only used CDs at the time, because rekordbox wasn’t a thing yet. When I moved out of that house, I bought a couple CDJ-400s off Craigslist, and had a DJM-800 mixer. Those CDJs were kind of trash, though, so I immediately sold them off and instead got Technics 1200s instead… which I still have to this day.
DJ Times: You’ve made a name for yourself being able to adapt to any crowd that is put in front of you. How do you prepare for a set when no genre is off limits?
Mija: I prepare by putting a bunch of songs that I’m into at the moment in a playlist. Sometimes, I’ll mess around with specific transitions if I’m feeling worried about it or insecure about it, but usually it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, you can’t anticipate what’s going to happen… you just have to go with the flow.
DJ Times: Can you tell us a little bit about your track-selection process?
Mija: There’s honestly no rhyme or reason behind any of it. I just play whatever I’m most excited about at the time.
DJ Times: You’ve also mastered the art of reading a crowd. What are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to throwing together a proper DJ set?
Mija: Do: Own whatever it is you’re doing. Even if you fuck up, or don’t get the reaction you anticipated… just own it because if you get bummed, they will be able to tell and then that feeling will begin to reciprocate back and forth into a feedback loop.
DJ Times: And the don’ts?
Mija: Don’t play the same shit that everyone else is playing. It’s so boring. I know the crowd might get really turned up for, like, 30 seconds when you drop the biggest banger of the century for the millionth time… and that’s cool. Just don’t fall into the instant-gratification trap because it has no longevity. Give them what they want, and then give them what they need.
DJ Times: Which do you prefer these days – spinning intimate club settings or playing in front of a festival crowd?
Mija: I’ve always preferred intimate club settings – low lights, low ceilings, no big production or LED walls. Festivals are fun, but often I feel like I’m not utilizing enough space on the stage for the amount of people staring at me. But like… I’m a DJ, not a pop star. My job is to make people dance with each other and get lost in the moment… not stare at me like I’m doing something really impressive with my hands. In the clubs, I have the ability to keep it really dark, so that it’s not about me, but the music and people experiencing it.
DJ Times: Being a DJ first, you had to learn music production on the fly. When was it when you had the breakthrough moment when everything clicked for you when it came to producing music?
Mija: I’m not sure that moment exists. I have breakthrough moments all the time that have slowly accumulated to what I know today. The hardest part is knowing what you want, but not knowing the language to ask for the help you need. It definitely took me a couple years to even begin to understand that language.
DJ Times: Where do you find inspiration?
Mija: Everywhere. In my travels, in books, in other people’s music, in art, in language, in friendships, relationships, all those ’ships.
DJ Times: What’s current studio set up look like – gear and DAW?
Mija: I write and record in Ableton Live 10, and I use a few hardware synths, like [Pioneer’s] TORAIZ AS-1 and [Dave Smith Instruments’] Mopho, as well as an old Akai MPK25 [keyboard controller] for triggering MIDI. I use mostly use Dynaudio monitors, but also have some older M-Audio monitors that I’ll occasionally test stuff on. My favorite gear is at this studio that I rent sometimes, where they have an old-school Rhodes, as well as some basic necessities like guitars, basses, etc. I love the fusion of normal instruments in electronic music.
DJ Times: What are you using to record your vocals?
Mija: Whatever’s accessible at the time that I need to record. At home, I have a Sterling Audio professional mic, but I almost always prefer to use my Shure 520DX – aka my “ball mic” – because I feel more comfortable and love the lo-fi sound. If I’m recording something that needs to sound really clean, I’ll rent a studio that has a ribbon mic.
DJ Times: Walk us through a studio session with Mija.
Mija: It’s different every time. I guess my favorite way to make music is by making a simple 16-bar loop, using whatever drums, noises or samples I think are cool. Then, I will start to sing or play some scratch melodies on a piano. I’ll usually just record shit into my iPhone or my laptop or ball mic and then fuck around with the audio in Ableton until I have something that grooves. If I can get a groove going, I really enjoy recording live automation out of synths and feeling it in the moment, as opposed to going back and automating it by hand. Other times, if I have something that I really want to say, I’ll write the entire song around a poem I’ve written. This can lead to really strange places, sonically. This is how a lot of my EP came about.
DJ Times: Your debut EP, “How to Measure the Distance Between Lovers,” oozes raw emotion and showcases a side of Mija the electronic community hasn’t seen before. Were there nerves surrounding the release?
Mija: Yes, there were a lot of nerves, a lot of feels. It was the most excited and the most terrified I think I’ve ever been. But ultimately, it was the biggest weight off my shoulder. I needed that really badly.
DJ Times: With your debut EP, you’re already receiving comparisons to Björk, one of your favorite artists. That has to be a special feeling.
Mija: Björk is a goddess, and I would never compare myself to her. So, yeah, I feel very humbled, to say the least.
DJ Times: Your latest release is a prime example of an artist creating music that you actually want to make, rather than playing it safe and making music you think the audience wants to hear. As an artist, how important is it to step out of that comfort zone?
Mija: It’s more than stepping out of your comfort zone… it’s stepping into yourself. It’s discovering yourself, and your potential to make an impact on the world and other people’s lives. Music is meant to be shared and to remind each other that we’re not alone with our thoughts… whether that be through hardship, celebration or escapism.
DJ Times: With that being said, what are your thoughts on the current state of electronic dance music?
Mija: [laughs] The state of electronic dance music… just is, and it will always be. It will not deplete; it will continue to evolve… same as it ever was.
DJ Times: You’ve been a part of this scene since you were 17-year-old. What are some changes you’ve noticed over the years?
Mija: Mainstream popularity has erupted into the scene and there’s no turning back. We’ve revolutionized dance music and, in my opinion, I think that’s really fucking cool. The “underground” will continue to live on, as it has for decades before us. The real difference now is that there is this fading dissonance between “live” and “DJ” music, leaving a lot of room for creativity. We’re finally leveling up.
DJ Times: Now with a plethora of originals under your belt, your own label Never_B_Alone and clothing brand Made By Mija, what else does Mija have planned for 2018 and beyond?
Mija: I’ve never been much of a planner. I just do things until I don’t. However, I will say that I’ve written another EP, which should come out this fall. And I’m learning how to utilize more space on stage.