Luke Una (nee Cowdrey) is the hero dance music never knew it needed. Lauded for his epic club nights, his genre-defying DJ sets and, naturally, his hilarious Instagram rants and skits, he’s also, as long-time friend Luke Bainbridge discovers, deeply sentimental, a committed activist and someone for whom searching for the perfect beat is a lifetime obsession.
naturally. It was Luke Una’s idea to do the big interview at 10am Saturday, but now the time has come it’s the morning after an unexpected night before, and he’s had a later start than his usual 5am, even if any transgressions nowadays are only minor ones.
With a pot of black coffee to sustain him, we’re ready for a couple of hours talking through his musical history. Back in 2020, as the reality of the first lockdown began to bite, Luke opened up on his radio show about getting cabin fever at home. “There’s talk of me being removed to my own studio with my records… let’s see what happens,” he said.
Two years later, he’s sat in his lovely new minimalist, high-end studio/rave cave in Ardwick, east Manchester, six miles from his house. Ageing DJs don’t retire, they just build ‘Grand Designs’ man caves. Serendipitously, an early Bugged Out! flyer featuring the words Disco Pogo, sits framed next to his decks: “I didn’t put that there ‘cause you were coming, honest!”
He’s surrounded by his huge record collection. “I’ve never sold a single record,” he shrugs. “I’ve still got every record I’ve ever bought. I’ve got 15,000 records, but I’m not like Yogi Haughton (fêted DJ and record collector) who has 80,000!”
The pandemic allowed Luke to rediscover his vinyl. “My cellar was full of records and I hadn’t been through them for so long. I’ve basically spent the past two years unearthing lost gems and holy grails.”
Like everyone, Luke had to readjust in lockdown, but he was given a focus when Gilles Peterson offered him a show on Worldwide FM. “Gilles just hit me up and said: ‘Luke, you’re mad!… but do you want to do a radio show?’ and it started in March 2020, just as Covid hit.”
It proved something of a lifesaver. “It made me refocus my ADHD mind at a time when I really needed it,” he explains. “Without the focus of the show and my records, I think I would have gone under during Covid, I really do.”
He talks a little about his ADHD. “I don’t talk about this much, but when I was 10, I was put in a special school for kids with behavioural problems. I can’t remember what I did that made them do that, probably threw something at a teacher in frustration or something. But that school was something else, the kids were flying off the walls. Nowadays they’d say they were ‘neuro diverse’ or something, but back then they just thought we were all mental.”
After a couple of years, he was back in mainstream education. “You weren’t diagnosed properly in the 70s, so I didn’t realise exactly what ADHD was until recently. It became more acute as I got older and I couldn’t concentrate at all, so I ended up going to see a CBT specialist, and it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.”
It’s the first of many tangents today, but he eventually circles back to the radio show. “Yeah, so at the same time I was rediscovering parts of my record collection, the show happened, and it became a mix of new music, old music, archive, b-sides, dark horses, and little unearthed nuggets I’d previously dismissed because I listened to the wrong track, on the wrong drug.”
He continues on his musical trip down memory lane: “A lot of my life in the 80s and 90s and 00s, was staying up for over-long weekends listening to oddball records. Cosmic jazz, machine soul, all sorts of mad records you’d stay up all night and day listening to in someone’s flat, on a cosmic high of E. I think it was Rob Bright (an original resident at Bugged Out!, a DJ’s DJ, nicknamed ‘The Guv’nor’) who originally came up with the phrase ‘E-Soul’. The old soul boys always found it funny that we were obsessed with these records. But that sound developed over time. The broken beauty of these oddball records you’d found on a market stall that somehow captured the mood of a bunch of people at 5am gazing out at the dawn from a high rise flat, searching the horizons for better days.”
Gilles Peterson originally suggested a two-hour show, but it quickly spiralled to three then eventually over five hours, and was a huge hit, lauded by everyone from fellow DJs to the Guardian as one of the things that kept us going through lockdown. Luke has long been a beacon of light in clubbing circles, but the radio show and his Instagram rants turned into something of a nocturnal alternative treasure. Mr Bongo were also listening, and the label asked Luke to put together an album which reflected the show. The result, ‘Luke Una presents É Soul Cultura’, is his first solo compilation.
“It’s a collection of all sorts of oddball records, like ‘Space Queen’ by King Errisson, a record I picked up on a digging trip to New York in the early 90s, looking for cosmic disco records. I was with my mate Raif Collis and it was our first time in New York which just had this incredible vibe back then. We went to Save The Robots and met these drag queens who took us back to their house in the Lower East Side, which was nothing like the gentrified place it is now. There were people injecting in the street and as we got to this drag queen’s house, someone was being carried out on a stretcher. It was mental. Wild.”
It’s a typical Una anecdote, spiralling off and ending with a tale of absurd nocturnal debauchery, but also reflects his approach to music. That record collections are hugely personal soundtracks to a life well lived, with each record triggering synapses and feelings of when and where you first heard it, the smell of the club or bar you were in, who you were at that moment in your life, who you were falling in love with or breaking up with at the time. That a record collection should not be like filling in the gaps in a Panini sticker album.
‘“I’ve never been a completist, and I’m not a purist,” he says firmly.
I first got to know Luke in the mid-90s, just as the Electric Chair was starting, part of a hedonistic Manchester underground scene that also gave birth to Jockey Slut, Bugged Out! and many others. Luke was the infectious attention seeker, always the life and soul of afterparties. Not least because they were often back at his flat. I’ve had numerous wild nights with him over the years, but then so has half of Manchester and Sheffield. Everyone knew Luke, though like most gregarious characters, the real Luke remained something of an enigma to many.
Born Luke Cowdrey in New Delhi in 1966 – “My mum and dad were very liberal. Dad was a civil servant in Whitechapel and was offered a transfer to India, so they jumped at it” – the family moved back to Essex when Luke was still a baby, and he and his brothers and adopted sister, who is Black, ended up at a school which was 99% white.
“I got on the bus one day with my sister when I was about 11, and the cock of the school just came up to me and said, ‘Why are you sat next to that n****r?’ and I said: ‘She’s my sister’. It’s not something I’ve ever talked about, but it really affected me. From then on, the political was personal for me, and as I got older, I got involved in all sorts of things like the Anti-Nazi League.”
In his early teens, the family moved to Sheffield, where Luke had his first musical awakenings.
“I used to work in the Hallamshire Hotel, where Pulp used to play upstairs, and Richard Hawley and everyone would come in.” One night, someone gave him some speed, “and that was it, the music just sounded totally different”.
He became a regular at Jive Turkey, the seminal Sheffield club where residents Winston and Parrot played everything from electro to proto-acid house records, which sowed the seed for much of what followed in Luke’s life. In 1986, he moved to Manchester to study and immediately immersed himself in the nascent house scene. So wide-eyed and evangelical was he about what he was discovering, he even wrote a letter to his nan, eulogising about the new sounds from Chicago: ‘You’d probably hate the clubs I go to! Small, seedy underground rooms, too dark to see and too filled with smoke to breath (sic). The music screams out – talking is impossible but the main objective is to dance!... the heat is like an inferno – walls wet in perspiration – I knew you would hate it! I really love it though. The music you would probably dislike even more – ‘Hard Funk’ ‘Go-Go’ and ‘House’ music from Chicago, USA – brilliant!!’
“A lot of my life in the 80s and 90s and 00s, was staying up for over-long weekends listening to oddball records. Cosmic jazz, machine soul, all sorts of mad records you’d stay up all night and day listening to in someone’s flat, on a cosmic high of E.”
Not long after arriving in Manchester, Luke met fellow Yorkshireman Justin Crawford, who would become his DJing and business partner for the next three decades.
“Meeting Justin had a profound effect on me, like Winston and Parrot did,” he recalls. “Justin was this good-looking lad from Bingley, who loved northern soul and all sorts of oddball weird off-piste music. We formed an amazing relationship, where music was the real key to everything. I’ve learned so much from him over the years and none of this would have really happened without him.”
Justin was bass player in post-punk funk band New Fast Automatic Daffodils, who brought Luke on tour as support DJ. After the New FADS disbanded, Justin and Luke decided to launch a club night, came up with the name Electric Chair and called themselves The Unabombers. In those early days, they were not just DJing but co-parenting records.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, so we pooled our money and shared records,” Luke laughs. “We’d put a pink sticker on them to show it was ‘ours’. I think he’s still got most of the pink sticker ones, the twat!”
The first couple of Electric Chairs were “rent-a-mob really, just mates and mates of mates”. But within a few months, they found their sound and a fiercely loyal crowd, creating a vibe which was the antithesis to the shiny house and super clubs of the mid-90s. “We were a natural reaction to a very dominant mainstream,” says Luke. The fact that the Chair was in a basement rock club [the Roadhouse] with sticky floors kept away the wrong crowds. “None of the shiny people or gangsters wanted to come in!”
As it outgrew the Roadhouse and moved to the Music Box, the Chair’s reputation spread nationally then internationally, often through guest DJs blown away by the atmosphere. It was a club where everyone partied as one. Straight and gay, strangers and soul mates, students and scallies. This rare alchemy had Joe Claussell returning to New York evangelical in his praise: “I rarely play in the UK, but I can’t explain in words how great that party was. To me it’s all about energy and that place had one of the greatest energies I’ve experienced as a DJ anywhere.” His compatriot and fellow DJ Maurice Fulton even met his wife Mu at the club, recording the track ‘Mu That Rocked the Electric Chair’ to celebrate. There were also some incredible Electric Souls word-of-mouth parties, including one with Harvey DJing in an old brothel.
“I’m genuinely enjoying DJing more than ever. I’ve not joined a Namaste death cult. I’m still out, loving it more than ever. I’ve been staying up late for nearly 40 years now, so my body knows how to do it.”
With the Chair established, Luke launched the sibling HomoElectric, a wonderfully debauched oddball riot for beautiful misfits, in the then no-man’s land between the Gay Village and Piccadilly station.
“I’ve always drank in gay places. Even as a teenager, we used to go to the Cossack in Sheffield, a gay pub. I don’t know why I always felt so comfortable and at home around a gay crowd. Possibly because they never judged me.”
The Unabombers unexpectedly called time on Electric Chair in 2008, explaining they always wanted to end on high, and move on to other things. As the last record on the final night played out, Sébastien Tellier’s ‘La Ritournelle’, Luke jumped on the mic and emotionally told the crowd: “Electric Chair, thank you so much… keep the faith, keep it dirty, keep it basement, fuck Tesco and Ikea… keep it real, see you soon, watch this space.” The Music Box sadly closed shortly after and became a Tesco bloody Metro. When it comes to gentrification, every little helps.
By his own admission, Luke hit a rough patch in the mid-00s, derailed emotionally by the sudden death of his father and suicide of his best friend. Single and hitting 40, he would spend too long on his own in his flat in the sky above the Northern Quarter. “I was self-medicating really, and I was in quite a dark place for a while.”
When the Unabombers launched Electric Elephant festival in Croatia later that year, the sun helped clear the clouds. “I’d never gone to Ibiza back in the day, I’d never seen the point. Sunset? No thanks, where’s the basement? But Croatia was amazing, it was a huge moment for everyone who was there.”
Luke and Justin’s second act, as bar and restaurant owners, began with Electrik in Chorlton, followed by Volta in West Didsbury, a wonderful neighbourhood small plates restaurant. In 2016, they were brought in to run the bar, restaurant and nightclub at the old Palace Hotel, after a multi-million renovation as the Refuge. A huge step up they somehow made look effortless.
“I thought… their signature is small, friendly, slightly batty – no way would that work in this cavernous space,” admitted the Guardian’s Marina O’Loughlin in a typically gushing review. “But I couldn’t have been more wrong: it’s a jaw-dropping, dazzling tour de force.”
Another huge step up for Luke came with Homobloc in 2019, a ridiculously ambitious 10,000 capacity one-day festival born out of HomoElectric. “We’d always had the idea about doing something bigger, and when Mayfield Depot came up, it just seemed the perfect place. The night before the tickets went on sale, I thought: ‘What have I done? 10,000 people??? As if!’ Even people that I know on the LGBTQ+ scene were saying: ‘You’re off your head, you’re never gonna get 10,000 people!’.”
Homobloc sold out within 24 hours. “Seconds before we opened, I felt like Eddie the Eagle going down the ski slope – you’re going into the unknown but it’s too late to go back. I had no idea if the crowd would work, or if we’d get some knobheads ruining it for everyone. But the first three people through the door were this amazing older dude who looked like Gandalf, his daughter and her friend who was trans. As soon as they walked in, I knew it was going to be great.”
In the years before the pandemic, Luke had been an intermittent figure on social media. There was the odd early viral moment like the ‘Hey Jude’ remix on YouTube, he was often banned from Facebook (usually by his partner Amy) and Twitter, but it was on Instagram where he found a natural home for his rants. Regular targets include chin-stroking completists, foragers, acid house grandads and namaste death cult or coki yogis. Those virtual signallers whose week of cleansing revolves around organic wheatgrass shots and hot yoga, before going out and boshing two grams of dirty cheap coke at the weekend.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, so we pooled our money and shared records. We’d put a pink sticker on them to show it was ‘ours’. I think he’s still got most of the pink sticker ones, the twat!”
It’s never personal, and he’s self-aware enough to know he’s guilty of half the charges he rails against. During the pandemic, his posts seemed to strike a nerve in a broken Britain where most people were trying their best to pick a decent path through ever rising inequality under a gaslighting government mired in sleaze. A unifying voice in a time of unprecedented division. The crack where the light came in. In his comments, you’d find everyone from Daniel Avery to the actor David Thewlis, who replied to one of Luke’s rants: ‘Best one yet! And that’s saying something. Always a fucking pleasure.’
“Who’s David Thewlis?” Luke asks, when it’s mentioned. “I don’t know who half the people are! Amy is always saying: ‘You know so-and-so is following you?’”
It’s funny to witness his new Instafame. A couple of nights previously, Luke was at Freight Island, watching Greg Wilson DJ, when a middle-aged woman frantically beckoned Luke over to the stage barrier. “I LOVE you on Instagram, you’re brilliant!!” she exclaimed excitedly. “Can we be friends? Will you follow me back on Instagram??!”
“I know, I know…” he says. “I’ve been out shopping in Lidl, and someone will stop and ask for a selfie.”
At the start of the pandemic, came the latest step up, when Luke and Justin joined forces with Gareth Cooper (Snowbombing, The Printworks, Festival No.6 and many others) and Jon Drape (Haçienda, Festival No.6, Parklife and many more) to open Escape To Freight Island, the old freight depot next to Piccadilly station, reimagined as a vast new ‘urban landscape’ of street food, bars and live entertainment, which proved a huge hit as Manchester emerged blinking from the darkness of lockdown.
Like the great, sadly-departed and much-missed Andrew Weatherall, Luke shares an appreciation that it’s not necessarily all about what happens on the dancefloor. “I love nightclubs and discos, but they’re not that important to me,” Weatherall once said. “It’s more about who you meet and where you go afterwards. It’s great when you’re in a big crowd of people, listening to the same music, on the same drugs, but what’s more important to me is what have you got in common with those people when you’re outside of that moment and that situation… What brings us all here? They’re hearing me play music, but I want to know about them, I want them to talk to me about books or art. That’s when you find out who your friends are.”
Luke Una has spent the last four decades spreading a similar sentiment, from early Electriks fanzines to his Vee Vee Right Vee Vee Wrong column in the original Jockey Slut to his current radio show.
When we next speak, he’s at the airport, waiting to fly to Helsinki. “I’m genuinely enjoying DJing more than ever,” he enthuses. “I’ve not joined a Namaste death cult. I’m still out, loving it more than ever. I’ve been staying up late for nearly 40 years now, so my body knows how to do it, it’s in my muscle memory, and it doesn’t bother me at all being around people who are leathered when I’m straight. I played at Salon zue Wilden Renate in Berlin at 7am, and I did it on Sudafed, coffee and Red Bull.”
Granted, he still has his moments, but no longer feels the need to set the controls for the heart of the sun, one of the ways he shows his age.
“I don’t want to be a 60-year-old acid grandad in the corner, staying up to Tuesday morning with a load of 20-year-olds, one foot in the rave... It’s like today, when I get to Helsinki, I’ll spend the day going round the record shops, find some great food, and maybe stop off in a bar for a whisky, before going on to DJ later. People have been saying to me for years: ‘When are you gonna grow up’,” he says in conclusion. “I’m like: ‘It’s a bit late for that. I’m 55 this year, I’m gonna be dead in 20 years.’”