If Teneil Throssell’s talents as a DJ are fairly well established — in just three years of DJing, the Australian, who performs as HAAi [pronounced ‘Hi’], has kicked more goals than many who’ve been at it a hell of a lot longer — her warmth as a person become evident moments after we meet in a swish little restaurant in Paris.
Throssell — sporting grungy shoulder-length platinum hair and looks comfy and Shoreditch-cool in a silky tracksuit — is supporting Jon Hopkins at a nearby venue that night, but agreed to chat with Music Junkee a couple of hours before her set.
Her honesty and soothingly familiar Aussie accent feel particularly refreshing in a place like Paris, and she wins us over as soon as she says, “I’m going to have a fucking glass of wine, by the way,” followed by “I think I’m going to get a little snacko.” Snacko!
We bungle the ordering of some sardines — “Sar-dan!” barks the waitress, snatching back our menus — but over a couple of disappointing Aperol Spritzes (flat, warm, poorly mixed) and some better wine, we settle into a good chat about how a girl from a remote Western Australian mining town has turned into one of the hottest DJs on the planet.
HAAi, Nice To Meet You
Throssell was born in Karratha, in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, and this week marks her first return to Australian shores in over three years. She’s been quite busy in the meantime of course, with what might be the most effortless ascent the DJing world has ever seen.
“I’m in a good place now and people would know there’s a little bit going on,” she says, munching on some mozzarella with figs [the kitchen was out of sar-dan].
“There’s a bit going on” is a massive understatement: in the last few years HAAi has released a string of well-received singles and an EP, started her own record label, and gallivanted around Europe playing with the likes of Daniel Avery (her best friend), The Black Madonna, Midland and Kittin. She also just wrapped up a two-year residency at London’s Phonox, which was one of the city’s most talked slots in recent years.
Playing at Si Paradiso in Perth this Friday will be the closest Throssell gets to a homecoming show. There, she’ll have just 17 hours to try and catch up with family and friends before heading to Tocumwal, on the Murray River, to play at Strawberry Fields.
Throssell attended school in Bunbury before heading 175 km north to Perth at 17. She relocated to Sydney at 19, and eventually to London seven years ago. “It was a gradual move from a tiny town to the big stink,” she says.
She used to play around with her sister’s guitar in Bunbury, and was “writing shitty little folk songs and the type of stuff you do when you’re a teenager” in Perth, but it wasn’t until she moved to Sydney that Throssell began to take music more seriously. She participated in open-mic ‘Sing For Your Supper’ nights at a pub in Bondi. “I used to do it once a month or something, that was my first taste of like, ‘Alright, I think I’m enjoying this.'”
She ended up playing guitar and singing in various punk, psych rock and “Spaghetti Western -type” bands. “They were all pretty bad, they probably had one song each, a ‘hit'”, she laughs.
“It was so funny though, no matter what it was, we were all so invested in it, and that was the thing, it was like your whole life.”
Throssell was particularly invested in the last band she joined, a psych-rock outfit called Dark Bells. Bassist Ash Moss had been in respected Aussie indie rock outfit Mercy Arms (with Kirin J. Callinan), and Throssell was in awe of Moss in the early days.
When a big-time London management company told the band they were on their radar, it was enough to prompt Dark Bells to move to the British capital.
“Ben Klock was playing and I just went and danced in the main room by myself for hours. Something happened that day.”
“We kind of came over here pretty blindly. We were still pretty underground, which meant that no one cared,” Throssell laughs.
Still, in London, Dark Bells found a much bigger pool of appreciation for their music, and while it was very much a DIY operation, they were able to embark on “shitty little tours” in the UK and build a bit of a following. “I mean, we all had jobs as well, I think the touring cost more than we earned,” says Throssell.
They were good enough to nab a coveted slot at Glastonbury on the Williams Green stage in 2014, but unfortunately, it was not the debut they’d hoped for.
“Two pedalboards didn’t arrive, which was essentially all of my sound, one third of a three-piece,” says Throssell. “I had this really mechanical way of playing and knowing which pedals to play at which time and if they’re not there and you replace them with other stuff it’s like, ugh.”
To make things worse, relations between band members were already frayed. The pedalboards debacle and subsequent “disastrous” gig turned out to be the death knell for Dark Bells. They exchanged some final bitter words and quietly disbanded.
We wonder if the gig was really that bad, or if it perhaps just felt awful? “I think it felt bad, I mean, sonically it definitely wasn’t amazing, but it probably wasn’t as bad as I thought it was,” Throssell concedes.
“But I think the spirit of the whole thing, I was pretty broken by that. There’s so many emotions and things involved and you spend so much time together. It’s really sad, when something like that happens you really feel like you’ve failed no matter how big or small it is I think, so it was a really hard time for both of us.”
Soon afterwards, Throssell and her mates took a friend with an expiring UK visa to notorious Berlin nightclub Berghain for a last hurrah. Throssell wasn’t thrilled at the prospect; she was hoping they wouldn’t get in.
But they did, and it literally changed her life. “I just ditched everyone and Ben Klock was playing and I just went and danced in the main room by myself for hours. Something kind of happened that day, which I’m so grateful for.”
From Dark Bells To The Decks
Throssell’s music tastes had always been pretty broad, but they’d never extended to electronic music — not until she realised that club music could be psychedelic, too.
“When I was buying records before, all of it was super percussive and the flip side might have been edits and locked into the grid or all housey or something, and I was like, ugh, gross,” she laughs. “But after Berghain it made me pay more attention to music that wasn’t organic, that wasn’t hand-made, I guess. It definitely opened me up to this bottomless pit of music to listen to forever.”
By this point, Throssell had already been playing records for a few years on weekends at a small tiki bar in Dalston. “It was such an anomaly, 120 people, this tropical bar that had a dance floor and the shittest sound system in the world, which was perfect,” she says. “I think the better the sound system, the more people expect but people were just happy to dance to great tunes.”
While still learning to mix, Throssell made a point of forgoing the usual cheesy club fare and turning the crowds onto more exotic sounds. “I had a decent amount of African and Turkish records that I really loved,” says Throssell. “And I knew there was a market for them, that they’d make people dance. I just felt like something was missing, it was ‘90s R&B and it was just constant, and I was like, ‘You know there are other tunes out there that will also make people dance?'”
Post-Berghain, she started introducing techno and electronic sounds into her sets too. But it was a rare original pressing of Escape from New York’s ‘Fire In My Heart’ that caught the ear of Joe Shabadoo (Joe Coghill), manager of Canadian DJ and producer Jacques Greene, when he visited the club a few years back, on Valentine’s Day. “It was a pure case of playing the right record at the right time,” says Throssell.
Coghill had Throssell support Greene at a couple of London gigs –“It was the first time I’d played with subs [subwoofers]. I was messaging my friend, like, ‘This is awful’, but then they asked me back” — and also introduced Throssell to Andy Peyton, the manager of Phonox, a club in Brixton. Throssell learned to use CDJs just one week before her first set in the club. But at Phonox, everything clicked.
The Phonox Connection
“Even before the residency, there was some cosmic connection between me and the place, I just felt so comfortable there, which is so weird because I didn’t feel it anywhere else,” Throssell says. “The first time I played there I was like, ‘This is sick!’ and everyone else was like, ‘This is wicked!'”
Early on in her residency at Phonox, Throssell ended up sitting next to The Black Madonna [Marea Stamper] at a dinner Peyton invited her to in Shoreditch.
She felt intimidated by her accomplished tablemates, but Stamper quickly put her at ease.
Word quickly spread about the vibe Throssell was cultivating at the club with her own left-of-centre, party-rocking sets.
“She could tell how out of my comfort zone I was, I think she liked the honesty,” Throssell says. “She kind of pulled me in and gave me some really good advice. We were talking about agents and stuff, and she was like, ‘Here’s my advice, don’t rush anything’, and I literally waited over a year after that. And things worked out, I ended up working with her management who have been my management for over two years. They’re called Nerve. They look after Dan [Avery] and Tiga and Mall Grab, they’re just like an extension of the family, I’m so close to them.”
A couple of years ago, the night before Throssell was going to Glastonbury as a punter (with new mates Daniel Avery and Jon Hopkins), she played her first back-to-back set with The Black Madonna when Stamper was doing a residency at London’s XOYO. “I was shitting it, and she was like ‘It’s ok, you’ve got this.’ She’s totally fine with what she’s doing so she can play around whatever you’re doing,” Throssell says.
Throssell would go on to host her own superstar guests at Phonox, including The Black Madonna, and word quickly spread about the vibe Throssell was cultivating at the club with her own left-of-centre, party-rocking sets. Her Coconut Beats party series at Phonox this summer explored sounds from around the globe, including Israel represented by Red Axes and Japan by DJ Nobu.
Phonox punters sadly but gratefully bid Throssell farewell in September, when she closed out her beloved residency with an all-night-long set. Throssell was especially excited about supporting Jon Hopkins at Brixton Academy the week after her Paris shows, a mere 100 metres away from Phonox and on the same night of her former residency.
The Rapid Ascent
By now Throssell had released her singles and EP, after teaching herself to produce using Logic (she’s recently switched to Ableton). She spent the past two summers touring Europe to increasingly more exotic and feted locations, including popping her Ibiza cherry (with an impromptu b2b set with Midland at Pike’s, no less) and playing DGTL Festival in Amsterdam in April, which she describes as a career highlight.
She scored a residency on Gilles Peterson’s esteemed Worldwide FM radio station in March, and her final gig at Phonox was made even more celebratory when an Essential Mix she’d recorded for Pete Tong’s show on BBC Radio 1 aired on the same night. It’s the most listened-to mix program in the world.
There’s a photo on Throssell’s Instagram that captures the moment she got the email inviting her to do the Essential Mix. Her hand, still clutching her phone, is raised above her head in a victory fist and she’s smiling up to the heavens.
“You know those things where it’s like, someone else from the outside saying, ‘You’re doing a good job?'” She says. “I think it’s really important to recognise when you’re having a win, and you can get excited by it and other people might see it and go, yeah, maybe I can do it too.”
Her Essential Mix is a wide-ranging treasure trove that goes some way in explaining why so many fell in love with HAAi at Phonox. Classic house jams such as Steve Lawler’s ‘House Record’ jostle with HAAi’s own oddball psychedelic cuts, tracks by Daniel Avery and The Black Madonna and classic guilty pleasures such at Da Hool’s ‘Meet Her At the Love Parade’.
A big part of Throssell’s popularity, though, clearly comes from the woman herself. Relaxed, cheery and disarmingly open and warm, her personality seems to ooze into her sets, and the love has been directed back to her. To use Throssell’s own language, she comes across as a “dead set ledge”.
“I think it’s really important to recognise when you’re having a win, and you can get excited by it and other people might see it and go, yeah, maybe I can do it too.”
Daniel Avery approached Throssell early on in her career, prior to the Phonox residency, and they clicked instantly in a platonic, matey way, Throssell says. During our chat, Avery texts Throssell to congratulate her on a recent Mixmag feature.
“Awww,” she grins at her phone. “He’s such a supportive little dog. My emotional support dog.” She laughs.
Throssell arrives in Australia this week fresh from making her debut at Glasgow’s infamous Sub Club, playing a back-to-back with Avery. She’s learned quickly that the life of a popular touring DJ can be gruelling. “I’ve kind of realised that I just need to strap on for the journey,” she says.
“It’s pretty fun, but sometimes it’s hard adjusting. I think I’ve realised now, I’ve wanted to do this for so long, now I’ve just got to go for it.”
Annabel Ross is an Australian freelance writer, recently returned to Melbourne from Paris. Follow her on Twitter.
HAAi’s Australian tour kicks off this week. For all dates and ticket details, head here.
Lead Photo Credit: Alec Donnell Luna. All other photos supplied.