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Credit: Dean Podmore

Dom Dolla: designing the dream

When Dominic Matheson started throwing parties for fun with his friends in Melbourne, he never imagined he’d become the house sensation that he is today. DJ Mag sits down with the artist better known as Dom Dolla ahead of his headlining appearance at DJ Mag’s Miami Music Week party to learn more about his songwriting aspirations and the moments on the road that inspire his dancefloor-filling repertoire

Every kid thinks they know what they want to be when they grow up. A young Dominic Matheson planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and study architecture. Upon completing Year 12, his old man offered simple advice: “Make sure you want to do it before you do it.” A decade and change later, it’s clear the mustachioed producer took those words to heart. Today, Matheson is an architect of sorts — but not the kind who records punch lists or designs luxury high rises. Dom Dolla records body-moving vocal lines. He designs soulful melodies. He’s an artist who enlists a DIY mindset to construct enduring earworms from start to finish. And some days he still has to pinch himself to make sure the towering life he’s erected for himself is actually real.

“I never saw my career getting this far,” he tells DJ Mag in a tone of genuine disbelief. “I’ve sort of smashed the goals that I’ve set for myself over the years, and I know that if I wasn’t working with the people that I loved, I probably wouldn’t have made it this far, because I wouldn’t love doing it so much. That isn’t lost on me — I’m just so grateful.” 

And Matheson has plenty to be thankful for. On top of assembling a team made up of his best friends on the planet, the globetrotting producer is riding high off his most propulsive year yet — one that’s seen him sell out monolithic venues, share stages with pop stars, and drop one of the year’s most buzzed-about tracks.

We’re referring, of course, to the nostalgia-tinged ‘Miracle Maker’, which has amassed a stunning 25 million streams and counting. Months later, its ’90s-inspired textures and dazzling R&B toplines continue to slam speakers across continents. When Dom met Tiësto at Tomorrowland last August (or “God”, as he’s coined his luminary on social media) the Dutch artist revealed that the only reason he didn’t slip the chart-topping tune into his headlining set was “because every other DJ had already played it,” so yeah, it’s safe to say things are moving along quite nicely for the always-smiling Aussie, who approaches any limitation as an opportunity for innovation. 

When we catch up with Matheson via video call we’re still sipping our morning coffee, but it’s approaching dusk in the Southern Hemisphere, where our cover star is enjoying a rare break from the road. He started 2023 off with a bang — on stage at Beyond The Valley Festival in his home state of Victoria, with Canadian vocalist Nelly Furtado in tow. Now that the holiday madness has passed, Dom’s recharging near his old stomping grounds, among the people and places he knows best.

“I’m at my mum and dad’s in Melbourne at the moment. This is the family house I grew up in,” he shares, warmly gesturing around the room. It’s an incredible estate to kick back in from the looks of it, with lofty ceilings and sprawling windows, designed by his father in the period following his retirement. “All of this is Filipino furniture, these are called Paminggalans, I believe.” Matheson points to the standing cabinetry in the background, that indicates lesser-known aspects of his history.

Dom Dolla

“I found over the years I didn’t really fit in anywhere because I’ve always written stuff that I like for my set, and I don’t think it has paid dividends until recently, where the Dom Dolla thing has taken on a life of its own.” 

Until the mid-’90s, his father oversaw building projects in the bustling city of Manila. His mother served as a nurse, taking time off when their two children were born. Dom came first, and his sister a few years later. “I wish I could remember it, but they spent the better part of a decade there. I really should take them back one day,” he says, looking off as though a light bulb’s gone off in his head. The family of four returned to Australia when Dom was two, eventually settling in the small town of Darwiin in the Northern Territory. Dad was a huge jazz fan, while the matriarch was partial to Spanish flamenco’s rapid strums. So, when Matheson discovered electronic music at a young age, it was purely by chance.

Bali — one of his mum’s frequent holiday destinations — was only a short flight away. “In Indonesia, you could buy these burned movies and CDs for $1. She’d ask, ‘Oh, what songs do you want?’ and I’d say, ‘Just pick ones with the cool album covers,’” Dom recalls, acting out the youthful eagerness that accompanied seeing her off on trips. On one such excursion, she came home with a particularly slammin’ souvenir for her baby boy — a bootleg copy of Basement Jaxx’s 2001 album, ‘Rooty'.

“It has this albino gorilla on the front and this big, pink text, and she thought, ‘Dom would like that,’” he continues. “It was the first time I’d ever really listened to dance music that I was aware of, and I became obsessed. I must have listened to that album something like 1,000 times.”

At eight years old, electro-house bangers like ‘Where’s Your Head At’ and ‘Get Me Off’ rocked Matheson’s world, and he had the chance to express its personal importance during a discofied Glitterbox party in Ibiza last summer. “I was backstage chatting to this guy and I asked, ‘So, what do you do?’ and he was like, ‘I’m part of Basement Jaxx,’ and my brain could have EXPLODED,” Matheson exclaims, his blue eyes wide open. “I started verbal diarrheaing, like, ‘You got me into dance music, my mom bought me your album, where did you get that photo of the white gorilla…’” he rolls off in a frenzied pace. “That was the most surreal conversation.” 

But between rinsing the duo’s seminal LP as a tween, and sharing laughs with his childhood hero just months ago on the Spanish isle, there were periods of self-exploration and moments of crippling fear that made Matheson question whether he was cut out for the music industry at all. 

During his early teens, Matheson’s family relocated to Melbourne. He began DJing around age 15, but after Year 12, Matheson continued his studies to focus on finding his place in the professional design world. He trialed a few industrial design courses and quickly realised that pops’ inclinations were spot on — architecture didn’t quite light the fire. Meanwhile he uncovered a knack for Adobe Illustrator — a skill that went hand-in-hand with weekend endeavours.

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"I am a very slow writer traditionally and I was able to speed up my process off the back of just being super-inspired by getting my hearing back and moving past this tinnitus adventure"

“Me and some friends had started running parties locally here in Melbourne for all of our newly [turned] 18 and 19-year-old mates, and we just wanted somewhere we could go and play the records that we liked, which at the time was everything from Ed Banger stuff to Defected Records to electro house,” Matheson shares. They couldn’t afford to hire anyone to produce event posters, so he pumped them out himself, repurposing class projects into promo to draw new fans to their doors. 

Graphic design became the prime passion. Dom honed in on 2D poster development and typography, and eventually scored a job at Mushroom Records through a friend who ran junior A&R there. “At one point, I was also designing merch for rappers, like Xzibit would come out and tour Australia and I had to sit down and design the T-shirts,” Matheson shares of his early days in the workforce. “All of the clubs around Melbourne started seeing these designs and people were asking, ‘Who’s doing those?’”

Freelance gigs came fast and easy, and eventually Dom left Mushroom to start his own business, which he ran out of a bungalow behind his parents’ house. Now his own boss, he had free time to tinker with music production, his entry-point being a copy of Ableton Live 6 gifted to him by his dear friend Harry (a logistics and supply chain specialist turned travel agent who’s now Dom’s tour manager.) His buddy handed the software over after becoming stumped by its complexity.

“He wasn’t as nerdy as I was in terms of using computers. Harry said, ‘You’ll be able to figure it out, and you love house music, so give it a go.’ I became addicted almost immediately, and I started writing and producing dance records — and they were TERRIBLE,” Matheson admits with a chuckle. With practice, though, he earned a reputation for his local DJ sets and remixing talents, and one day he received a phone call from an unknown number that recalibrated his trajectory — on the other end was the late dance legend, DJ Ajax. 

“He was Australia’s most famous DJ. He was so talented and had such an incredible taste. He was an idol for me,” Matheson shares with an air of lasting respect. During their talk, DJ Ajax gauged Dom’s interest in crafting remixes for Sweat It Out — obviously, he accepted. The imprint would eventually become home to original Dom Dolla cuts like the deep and groovy ‘Be Randy’ alongside fellow Aussie producer, Torren Foot, and ‘Take It’, a tripped-out bubbler that tore through the States in 2018. But long before those tracks made Dom Dolla one of the genre’s rising stars, there were difficult decisions to make.

Around 2013, Matheson brought on a manager — his trusted friend, James — who presented an ultimatum on day one. “He goes, ‘Okay, first order of business: Which one is it, design or music?’” Matheson recalls of their fateful chat. “I thought, ‘Fuck, do I really have to choose?’ But he was right. I started dedicating every day that I wouldn’t spend designing posters on writing music, and then I got better and better. And then next thing I knew, I was no longer playing in Melbourne. I was playing in Sydney, and I was playing in Adelaide, and I was playing in Brisbane, and I started touring around Australia, and then the records started blowing up overseas, and within a couple of years I started touring the United States, which blew my head off.”

During a North American run in 2017, Matheson woke up in terror — he’d fallen deaf in his right ear. “I hadn’t had any recent exposure to loud music and I was like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ And after a few hours of pacing back and forth, I started to genuinely freak out,” he explains, reliving the mental spiral. His mother, the medical professional, advised him to visit an emergency room immediately. “They couldn’t figure out what was going on. So I went back, and I went back again, and I kept pushing for a result.”

Dom Dolla

“I learned quite quickly that if a song needs to be loud in the studio to be exciting, then it probably just sucks. That’s actually become one of my favourite writing techniques — if I can write something really, really quietly and it sounds awesome, then I know it’s an awesome record.”

The doctors finally prescribed steroids for a suspected infection, and though his hearing returned some days later, Matheson was left with sustained ringing in both ears. “The thing with tinnitus is, it’s due to brain wiring rather than a physical manifestation of damage, so it started off in one ear and evened itself out to the two, but it’s still pretty loud,” he describes of the sensation that persists today. 

He began to seriously reconsider his livelihood. “I remember calling up James in a borderline panic attack saying, ‘I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to be in loud environments anymore. I’m gonna quit,’ and this was right when things were peaking.” At his manager’s discretion, Matheson took time away from the stage, and dove back into design during recovery. “And then I started to habituate to my tinnitus and started to learn about how to safely be exposed to loud sounds with hearing protection, and being in nightclubs. But, I was just terrified of being in the studio,” he offers up candidly. Dom credits the experience with transforming his approach to music-making.

“I learned quite quickly that if a song needs to be loud in the studio to be exciting, then it probably just sucks. That’s actually become one of my favourite writing techniques — if I can write something really, really quietly and it sounds awesome, then I know it’s an awesome record.” 

Now, Matheson takes pride in being the “annoying friend” with earplugs at the ready. “I’ve always got hundreds in my luggage because I don’t want anyone to go through that. It’s the worst,” he says, holding a handful of foam nodules up to the webcam to prove the point. On the other side of the obstacle, Dom found motivation. “I think I wrote a record or a remix every two weeks for a year. I am a very slow writer traditionally and I was able to speed up my process off the back of just being super-inspired by getting my hearing back and moving past this tinnitus adventure,” he says, making the best of a less than ideal circumstance.

That might be one reason why — unless he’s collaborating with a vocalist — Matheson prefers to operate with a stripped down, roving setup. “Even when I was here in Australia, I didn't have a studio because I was so used to writing on planes and in hotel rooms,” he shares, before revealing the real reason he builds the majority of his beats on the go — he lives out of a suitcase. “Through no fault of my own, I’ve been limited to working within the box, and it’s been incredibly empowering,” he continues. “When I need to reference a song that I’ve written from a mixing perspective, I’ve got two sets of headphones and airpods, and then I’ll listen through my laptop speakers, and that’s all I need. I don’t need to listen to it in a club or through a big system to know that it’s mixed well.”

This scrappy process paved the way for a slew of Dom Dolla’s most recognisable hits. The aforementioned ‘Take It,’ for example, features Matheson’s own vocals, the demo for which he recorded rather unconventionally. “My friend had just come back from a run, and I was like, ‘I’ve got this vocal idea and I’m getting feedback from my mic on the laptop, can I borrow your headphones?’ They were the ones with the built-in mic, and they were covered in sweat,” he regales, telling the origin story of the track that essentially put him on the American map. “The intention was to bring in a rapper or a session vocalist to replace it, and I don’t know, I guess I liked how crap it sounded, so I messed with it, pitched it up a few semitones, and that became the sort of weird, creepy, Dom Dolla sound that I was known for, for a little while.”

His ARIA Award-winning 2020 single 'San Frandisco' — which is inspired by the Mission District nightspot, Audio, falls into that category, too. “I was trying to imitate a sort of whiney college kid: ‘San Francisco, where’s your disco?’” he says, recreating the nasally narration that precedes the drop. “But that’s actually Justin Martin talking in the breakdown.”

Dom Dolla

Matheson stumbled across an interview conducted by The Recording Academy in which the Dirtybird mainstay described his love for the titular city. Dom approached Martin for permission to sample his voice, fully expecting to be shot down. However, JMart was happy to help out an emerging artist. “The record, obviously, since then, became quite successful, and he and I built a relationship. I’ve realised how well we get along, and we share a lot of the same values,” he tells of his friendship with Martin, who along with others from the Dirtybird Records label were deeply influential to his breakthrough singles, which feature the sorts of chugging tech-house basslines and repitched vocal effects that the flock popularised throughout the 2010s.

Those two productions share similar flavours, but Dom Dolla’s wider catalog represents an artist who refuses to pigeon-hole himself into a specific style or sub-genre — he takes inspiration from his environment and what moves him at the time. “When you’re writing music for yourself, there’s just so many things to consider — especially in the dance music world. It’s very much divided up into scenes and cultures, and people are compared to different artists, and line-ups for stages are arranged [to reflect that],” he thinks out loud. “I found over the years I didn’t really fit in anywhere, because I’ve always written stuff that I like for my set, and I don’t think it has paid dividends until recently, where the Dom Dolla thing has taken on a life of its own.”

Ask him about the legacy he wants to build, and Matheson’s answer is this: “I just love writing music that people get addicted to.” Check out the streaming numbers and he’s achieved that mission, with more than 600 million plays to date, and a weaving discography with its single throughline being a tendency toward deviation

His dreamy 2021 melter ‘Strangers’, alongside the Australian indie electronic trio Mansionaire, for example, puts a spotlight on more melodic proclivities. It’s got a smooth pop edge that plays as well in a sunset time slot as it does in a coffee shop. ‘Pump The Brakes’, a bumping heater Matheson penned about his first car (which he still has), boasts playful sampling, with squealing tires, wailing sirens, and beeping locks rounding out an invigorating soundscape. Wind it back to deeper cuts like 2016’s ‘You’, and hear emotional, deep house-leaning progressions that simply beg to be played through a Funktion-One. While the three couldn’t be more divergent, together they demonstrate Dom’s attention not just to creative production, but full-fledged songwriting.

“I set myself a challenge a few years ago that I wanted to be able to do everything myself,” Matheson attests confidently. “I wanted to become a great lyricist, and I knew I had a strong ear for melody and for hooks. I wanted to be able to prove that I could do everything from beginning to end on my own.” He puts in the effort to make it happen. “I practice poetry all the time,” Matheson divulges of his process. “I love object writing, reading books about songwriting, and developing my skills a lot, because I feel like the more you go in armed with that knowledge and that experience, the better you are equipped to come out with exactly what you want.”

Dom Dolla

“I practice poetry all the time. I love object writing, reading books about songwriting, and developing my skills a lot, because I feel like the more you go in armed with that knowledge and that experience, the better you are equipped to come out with exactly what you want.”

Lately, he’s been getting exactly that — ‘Miracle Maker’ being a sterling example. He began crafting the cut in lockdown, while home for the first extended period in ages. “The dance scene was in a pause and everyone became nostalgic,” he shares of what powered the original instrumental. “Everything was about comfort because everyone was so mentally frazzled from the whole experience of not being able to leave their houses. I think the dance music scene turned to ’90s nostalgia and a lot of the records that were coming out, which unfortunately couldn’t be performed in front of an audience, were ’90s-rave inspired.”

He hit Coachella’s Sahara Tent on weekend one and unleashed his pandemic brainchild on the masses, for the first time unveiling the arresting vocal that would transform it into one of 2022’s most championed releases.“There was such a visceral reaction. I remember looking over at James and thinking, ‘this is it,’” Dom relays about playing the cutting intro to a blissed-out, Indio Valley crowd. He'd road tested the instrumental for months before that, but applauds the song's co-songwriters, Clementine Douglasand Caitlin Stubbs, for helping make the mammoth tune what it is today."

Soon after, he linked up with co-songwriters, Clementine Douglas and Caitlin Stubbs, to lay down some magic. “Clementine’s voice was such a perfect fit for that ’90s, old-school, R&B sample,” Matheson says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is something really special — this is actually gonna be pretty mental.’”

A huge grin crosses his face, presumably flashing back to the instant he heard her resonant tones layered on top of his. “It was received really well, but I think for me knowing that the instrumental was strong enough on its own two feet and then adding that vocal as an elevation... It was amazing.” ‘Miracle Maker’ saw it's official release on July 15th via Three Six Zero Records and Sweat It Out, and it’s yet to lose luster (given its timeless aura, it probably never will — one of those forever bangers, we’d wager.)

At the time of our chat, his newest stunner ‘Rhyme Dust’ with MK is still unreleased, fueling the frustration of rabid internet fans.“It’s a real lesson to me on how the minute you put anything online it no longer belongs to you,” Matheson explains of the new ID that he’s played out at festivals since last year, but which really took off after his Selection Sessions stream, filmed atop a Serbian rooftop, went viral back in December. “I’d be worried about my personal safety if it didn’t come out, honestly.” (There’s some pretty intense discourse about the track’s pending status across his TikTok and YouTube feeds, so he’s perhaps only half-joking.)

The Q-Tip-Sampling gem sees the two house heads enter seriously funky territory, and in this case Matheson’s exploratory disposition may have rubbed off on his counterpart. “MK’s drums really shine through on the collaboration,” Matheson explains. “He’s known for his piano and really strong melodies, but I was like, ‘No, we’ve just got to take it back to the club and really slap people over the head with this thing.’ I feel like we made the perfect fusion of our sounds."

There are no swirling keys in this killer — just pure, peak-time filth. The thumping low-end, racing hi-hats, and hair-raising chops could be enough to drive a person crazy. If one must threaten an artist in the comment section, let ‘Rhyme Dust’ be the catalyst to their mania.

Assuming Dom’s survived the restless mob, he’s got plenty to look forward to in 2023 and beyond. A headlining slot at DJ Mag’s Miami Week Pool Party and an April 1st return to Red Rocks are imminent, continuing what’s sure to be another prolific and inventive year on the road. “People on social media are like, ‘Why do you wear the same thing all the time?’, and I’m like, ‘It’s not because I think I’m Steve Jobs, it’s because I literally don’t have any other options,’” Matheson cracks up, hearing himself reveal the less glamorous aspects of his life as a touring DJ. It’s just another testament to Matheson’s embrace of limitation. He’s built a career on the wings of resourcefulness, spinning imperfect recordings into chart-topping gold, presumably in the same black T-shirt. Dom Dolla didn’t expect to be living the dream of his own ingenious design, but it’s one he’s 100 percent sure of. 

Get your tickets to the annual DJ Mag Pool Party, taking place on Wednesday 22nd March at the Sagamore Beach Hotel as part of the Epic Pool Party series, here

Megan Venzin is DJ Mag North America's Contributing Editor. You can follow her on Twitter @Meggerzv

Photographer: Dean Podmore @dpodmore
Production: Briony Wright  @brionywright @theartline__
Producer: Justin Erougian @airwolfparadise
Creative Director: Charlie Twaddle @twadddle
Stylist: Sarah Starkey @_sarahstarkey_
Stylist Assistant: Matisse Tugendhaft @thatgirlmatisse
Hair & Make Up: Nisal Atapattu @nisal.mua
Photographer Assistant: Bridget Mac @b_r_i_d_g_e_t_m_a_c
Photographer Assistant: Mathew Stott @notabadphoto