Ever wondered who the masked music maestro is who cranks out the tunes from the DJ booth atop the podium platform at Formula E races? Ross Ringham grabs EJ for a chat.
Sorry. If we’ve lured you this far thinking we’re going to reveal the identity of Formula E’s resident DJ right here, right now, we’re going to have disappoint you. The EJ guards his – or her? – identity very carefully and I’m sworn to secrecy. At least, until a book on the subject is released (looking at you, Stig).
I’ve travelled the world with the masked musician for the past two years and listened to countless EJ sets, both at trackside and at some of the rather exclusive afterparties thrown after the races. I’ve even shared flights home with the secretive character. (Tip: don’t ask about whether his helmet counts as a hat or as hand luggage. Just don’t ask. DO ask whether he’d like another drink – to ease the jetlag, naturally.)
So, two years later (blame the jet lag-curing drink), I thought it was about time we grabbed EJ himself to have a chat about music, racing and what exactly goes on under that flashing helmet.
I’m stood in Marrakesh, Morocco. It’s a day before Formula E hits the streets of the African city for the first time. The sun is low in the sky, creating dancing oranges, pinks and purples, shooting in streaks across the horizon. EJ is stood on the track. Spacesuit Media snapper Marta Rovatti Studihrad is posing him, as best she can a slightly hyperactive musician without a face.
“What does an EJ actually do all weekend?” I venture, envisaging an answer delivered in sounds similar to an old dial-up modem. Actually, it turns out EJ speaks in comprehensible English.
“The weekends are pretty crazy,” he says. “Aside from all the press activities going on, I play all over the place. The main set is an intro to the race itself. I DJ from the EJ booth in the eVillage, where all the fans are gathered. I help control the build up to the race. At 4pm, just before the cars scream off the grid, I go live on the TV broadcast. That’s pretty daunting when you know there are something like 20 million people worldwide watching and listening!”
At least with that helmet, blushes can be spared in the event of a horrendous clanger, I muse. Still, the EJ’s work is not done when the TV coverage starts.
“As the cars move into position on the grid and do their burn outs, the tension builds,” he goes on. “We build into an increasing rumble that booms out around the track. Then the lights go out, the cars get stuck in and we get into the mix, which goes on right until just before podium ceremony and then resumes afterwards. Then I head out to the afterparties and entertain the guests, drivers and staffers who make the whole thing work.”
It’s fair to say that finding the balance of EJ’s contribution has taken a little while to get right. I remember sitting in the media centre in Beijing, in 2014 for the first ever Formula E race, and all you could hear was pounding basslines – great for a club but not quite so helpful when you’re trying to report on a race. Still, things have come a long way since then and the music actually works pretty well now. Volume-wise, it’s kept reasonable at trackside and it does add to the spectacle of the event without demanding too much attention from those sat in the grandstands.
“What type of music exactly is it that you play?” I ask with my professional face on, prepared to understand precisely not a single word of what comes next. Good job, really.
“Strictly speaking I play and produce progressive house and trance,” says EJ, stretching luxuriously in his tight white trunks for the photoshoot. (That last bit may be made up.) “These are the styles of music that I really feel compliment the race itself, as well as when I am playing in venues for my own gigs. Outside of that, I play house music at the Formula E pre-parties and afterparties. On race day itself I create more commercial playlists.”
A new feature for season three is that drivers can put in requests of their own for music. This hasn’t gone entirely as planned. “I have had some strange and difficult requests,” EJ says in slight exasperation. I can’t see his brow but I imagine it to be furrowed. “ABT wanted Bavarian folk music and Ma Qing Hua sent over his requests in Chinese – I haven’t found those yet!”
The idea of combining music and racing is not new and it works pretty well at Formula E races now. The DJ for the VIP eMotion club is a blonde Australian called Izy. Why the need for anonymity for Formula E’s public DJ, then?
“I knew music was going to play a big part in the Formula E brand and I wanted to create a brand ambassador for the championship that could grow with the series,” says the music man. “I started working with Formula E at the start of 2014, having spent years working and DJing in dance. Once I had established the concept, the EJ persona followed naturally.”
So it is a little like the Stig then, a flexible character which could appeal globally to the diverse audiences that Formula E is reaching and which could outlast the original musician.
Which brings us on nicely to the helmet. In season one, this was a comically oversized unit which must have required the neck muscles of a Russian shotputter to hold up all day. In season three, it’s slimmed down considerably.
“Yep, it’s new and improved for season three: this is actually version four,” says EJ. “We started with a much simpler design but over the course of the seasons I wanted to get to a much slicker model to fit with what I am doing musically. I’m really happy with the way it looks now and I finally have a voice!”
The new helmet comes complete with in ear headphones and a Go Pro camera.
The light is fast disappearing now in Morocco and EJ is clearly itching to head off to his natural habitat: the club. Still, I grab him for a couple of last questions.
What’s his favourite race to date? “That has to be Punta del Este in season one,” he says. “Aside from still being very fresh into the races, I got to play alongside one of my all-time heroes, Eric Morillo. He played trackside with me in the day and then later that evening at a beachfront villa to 400 people on a mini festival stage. It was insane!”
It’s not all race days and late nights, however. Life between races is busy and getting busier for the record spinner. “Currently I am producing a lot of music,” EJ explains. “We are on our third release, which has just been remixed by some fantastic artists and also picked up by the likes of Tiesto. Over the summer I was living and Djing in Ibiza which was a lot of fun, and I also performed at Ultra Europe Festival in Croatia. The Ibiza and Formula E seasons work hand in hand: when one finishes the other starts and vice versa. Perfect!! Going into season three, I will be Djing at clubs in race countries to help promote the championship.”
There’s a whole bunch of music available to listen to for free at EJ’s Soundcloud page (https://soundcloud.com/formulaej) and lots of new tracks coming up. It’s a high-energy ride that’s well worth a listen even if that type of music isn’t your usual thing. (I’ve asked for a mix tape as it’s the perfect soundtrack for the gym.)
As for the identity of the man behind the mask, that remains a paddock secret. Sorry.