Tommie Sunshine doesn’t walk into a room so much as he floats. More than 6 feet tall and wearing a floral-print shirt, he looks like an extended member of the Lebowski family, with his signature long hair and permanent sunglasses. His look is as idiosyncratic now as it was when he first stepped out in the early 1980s Chicago house music scene, in corduroy bellbottoms and polyester shirts. First drawn to electronic music’s dance floors, 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 rode 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 and didn’t recognize 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 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 TV and all these things I’m doing now. None of that would’ve been in the cards. I would’ve been a guy who was a DJ who was 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 I either 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’ve been the first one to check out. I would’ve 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 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 go with what happens every day and you figure it out. 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. Or you punch a clock and know exactly what you’re going to do every day.
And you were smart, because EDM is a multibillion-dollar industry. DJs like Calvin Harris are pulling $75 million a year.
He’s a talented guy. 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 and 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, that’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 pretty confident 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 life. They think they can’t do something better, or they don’t deserve something better. And I’ve gotten over both of those.