Tommie Sunshine doesn’t walk into a room so much as float. More than 6ft tall and wearing a floral-print shirt, his perma-sunglasses and long hair make him look like a member of the Lebowski family. His look is as idiosyncratic now as it was when he first stepped out in the early 1980s Chicago house music scene, in corduroy bell-bottoms and polyester shirts. First drawn to electronic music’s dancefloors, he later commanded them as a DJ and producer known as much for his prodigious drug and alcohol intake as his work on the decks. Since getting sober, he’s enjoying riding the wave of electronic music’s popularity and hosts the show After the Raves on Red Bull TV.
THE RED BULLETIN: You say that you woke up one morning in Peru, didn’t recognise the person in the mirror and decided to quit your addictions cold turkey. Was that hard to maintain?
TOMMIE SUNSHINE: You know what, it was a lot easier than you’d think, because I was so resolute about it and I knew what I had to do. And I knew that none of what I’m doing now could have happened if I had continued down that road. I would have never had a successful production career, I would have never been a successful DJ, I would have never been involved in television and all these things I’m doing now. None of that would have been in the cards. I would have been a guy who was a DJ and who was also a drug pig.
Why were you so resolute?
I saw that electronic music was coming. I could see the tidal wave and I knew that either I was going to be a sacrifice or I was going to be riding the wave. I would have never made it through that 2009 EDM rock-star moment; I would have been the first one to check out. I would have outpartied everybody.
Did you know what to do next?
I’ve never known what I was going to do. Ever. I wake up every morning and I still don’t know what I’ve got to do. When you can remain untethered and just surf the universe, some cool shit happens. You have to be a very particular kind of person to understand that some days it’s going to suck and some days it’s going to be great, and you have to deal with both possibilities. It’s that or you punch a clock and know exactly what you’re going to do every day.
And you were smart, because EDM is now a multibillion-dollar industry. DJs like Calvin Harris are earning $75 million a year.
He’s a talented guy and he’s made a lot of songs that people will sing for the rest of their lives. Someone deserves that. I’d rather him have it than some promoter have it. Why not? I think we’ve seen such a monumental growth in the amount of money it makes, the attention it gets. All that really matters to me is that when I play a gig, I look out at the crowd and see one person dancing with their eyes closed and alone. That presses the reset button and I’m good for another 10 years. And I always see it. There’s always someone in any room, in any festival, who’s having that same transcendental experience that I had when I first heard electronic music.
But your industry has its fair share of cynicism, too. How do you overcome that?
You don’t play ball. If I walk into a room and I acknowledge it’s a hostile environment, I withdraw. It’s like, “I’ll come back when you calm down.” I’ve had to fire managers and walk away from record deals and booking agents, and that totally affected me.
Did you ever have moments of doubt on those occasions?
You have to be a pretty confident person to make those decisions, otherwise you’re just reckless. You have to have faith in yourself that there’s a better situation for you out there. I think that stops most people from changing anything in their lives. They think that they can’t do something better, or they don’t deserve something better. And I’ve gotten over both of those.