When you listen to the music of Smalltown DJs it’s not hard to imagine the scene Pete Emes and Mike Grimes grew up in.
Emes was born and raised in Calgary’s southwest, and while he and Grimes spend a lot of time on the road, they both still call Calgary home.
The range of Emes’ music taste began at a young age when he would sneak into clubs and halls with his friends to see punk rock shows.
“I was 15 or 16,” he said. “We’d go see bands until we were kicked out for being under age.”
As a kid, Emes found himself listening to Twisted Sister and more metal and hard rock but as the hip hop and acid jazz/funk/disco/soul scene emerged in Calgary, he found himself expanding his interests.
“It was always a tight scene and you knew everyone in it,” he said. “Calgary has always had a really strong underground music world. I loved it. I loved going out to check out new bands and some of my friends had bands, so for me it was always a big thing.”
Even though Emes’ friends had picked up sticks, guitars and microphones and formed bands, he said he can’t play any instruments “at all.”
But before he had turntables, he was DJing hall parties and events with his friends.
“I was really young, like 15 or 16 and I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I knew I wanted to be selecting the music for the party. That was kind of what I was into at from the start.”
It wasn’t through the acid house and electronic music scene that Emes was exposed to the music, it was through him hop acts like Tribe Called Quest and Deee-Lite that he gained an interest in the music.
In the early ’90s, Emes and Grimes were both DJing around Calgary. After living in Korea for several years Grimes returned to Calgary and one night was at a party where Emes was DJing.
“He came up to me and said he had all the same records as me and we were playing the same stuff,” said Emes. “That was kind of rare because I was playing all different sounds and genres together. Not it seems silly to say, it was different to be playing different genres in one set.”
Together they started a weekly night called Hai Karate at the Night Gallery Cabaret in August, 1999.
In 2005 they moved the night to the newly opened Hifi Club – where it continues to run.
“We had good support in Calgary right away and that is one of the reasons why we ended up staying there,” said Emes. “We love the people there and it’s a great scene for us.”
Smalltown DJs have expanded from their hometown to play major events like Burning Man, Shambhala Music Festival, SXSW and Lollapalooza.
“ That’s one of the greatest parts about it is we can be based in Calgary but still get to travel around and see other countries and scenes,” said Emes.
He credits the internet largely for sharing their music with different countries and opening up opportunities for them to travel.
“We were pushing through various channels to get our music out there and it wasn’t immediate but in the mid 2000s the internet really became key to getting your music out there,” he said.
One of the highlights of his career came in 2008 when Smalltown DJs played the electronic stage at Chicago’s Lollapalooza music festival.
“We played the main event and were then asked to play the after party with DJ AM – who has since passed away – but he was one of the biggest guys in the scene,” said Emes. “We were really honoured and he was really cool.”
Smalltown DJs have become regulars not only at Shambhala but at Spiritbar, routinely playing for sold out shows.
Even though they have played stages from Mexico to Las Vegas, Emes said Nelson is one of their favourite places in the world to play.
“There are some of the friendliest people musically to deal with,” he said. “You can always guarantee at the beginning fo the set there are going to be people there listening to what we are doing and at the end the same people are going to be right down on the dance floor. You don’t get that every where you go. We don’t take that for granted. When you play for a great audience like that, you never forget it.”
Smalltown DJs play Spiritbar on Saturday night.