“I didn’t want to make a clichéd comeback record like ‘Eddie Chacon Sings the Hits of Motown’ or anything,” says the man himself, smiling ruefully at the thought. “I couldn’t bear the idea of that. I would prefer to just bow out gracefully and not do music anymore, if that was all that was to be available.”
Talking to us via Zoom, having just returned to his native California following a triumphant festival season in Europe, Chacon comes across as affable, sanguine and at peace; a man relaxed in his own skin. Which is exactly the mood that infuses his midlife masterpiece, the don’t-call-it-a-comeback album ‘Pleasure, Joy and Happiness’, released in 2020, a full 25 years since his last album, as one half of the 90s soul duo Charles & Eddie (with Charles Pettigrew), hit the shelves.
His subtle, nuanced, reflective collection of songs, delivered with all the savvy and self-awareness of a world-weary 50-something soul veteran, has gathered a slow burn, word-of-mouth success, with some high-profile cheerleaders (“Gilles Peterson has been really supportive,” Chacon enthuses).
With its pared-back production and nods to Shuggie Otis, Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone at their most circumspect, there is a knowing retro feel to his new work – but in a way that sounds completely relevant and now. It often feels reminiscent of the interludes on a Frank Ocean album spun out to their logical conclusion – which is hardly surprising, given that it was produced in collaboration with John Carroll Kirby, whose CV includes Ocean alongside other contemporary heavy hitters Solange and Blood Orange.
“I just thought his work was sublime and I jumped at the chance to work with him,” says Chacon. “I wasn’t sure if he would want to work with me, because I’m a guy in my mid-50s who hadn’t made music since the 90s… I mean certainly there were more obvious choices he could have made! But we really hit it off and thank goodness he thought it was a really interesting thing to work with someone my age, who wanted to make the kind of record I was interested in making.”
A significant part of that record’s appeal is a refreshing, seen-it-all-before realism that challenges and reverts the usual soul clichés (‘You never meant to hurt me, you were hurting yourself…’ – from ‘Hurt’). It’s an album that adds the perspective of age and experience to a youth-obsessed market.
“We live in a society that worships youth – and why not? Youth is incredible and it’s such a beautiful part of our life,” says Chacon. “But I wanted to do something that you would have to be my age to do. So rather than being intimidated by youth, I thought it would be wonderful to lean into my life experience. I thought, I’ve got nothing to lose – there’s a lot of things I want to talk about, and I’m going to allow myself to do that. I think the upside to where we’ve landed in the music industry is people now can go down the rabbit hole of Spotify or Apple Music and just find their own lane. And as it turns out, people are far more interested than just the narrow lane of pop music. And that’s good news!”
Of course, Chacon knows all about youthful appeal – Charles & Eddie’s 1992 debut album ‘Duophonic’ garnered no less than three Ivor Novello awards for songwriting – and spawned the international über-hit ‘Would I Lie to You?’
After a 1995 follow-up, ‘Chocolate Milk’, the duo disbanded – and one can’t help but wonder whether the weight of such a huge hit was a burden…
“You know, it’s such a high-class problem to have,” he laughs. “You’re so incredibly fortunate, in the difficult, competitive world of music, to have the annoyance of a huge hit that is so gigantic it will haunt you for the rest of your life! I was never one to ever find a shred of unhappiness from that extremely fortunate situation. It’s my nature, I’m an extremely optimistic person.”
Instead, he puts their eventual split down to the sheer exhaustion of promoting and performing that ensued. “We never really decided. I think that we always felt there was this safety net, where at any point we could call an attorney and say: ‘Hey, Charles and I want to make a record again – go get us a record deal.’ And there was a certain comfort in that, which probably made us lazy, as the years went by.”
In fact, Chacon reveals they had been talking about making a record again when, in 2001, he received a call from Chris Frantz of Tom Tom Club (for whom Pettigrew had become a full, signed-up singer-songwriter) to say that his former musical partner had passed away from cancer. “That was so incredibly sad,” he says. “And also it ripped that safety net away from me. And now I was confronted with myself – and frankly I have issues with my self-confidence. I didn’t really know how valid I was as an artist on my own, or if I had anything to offer as a solo artist. And I struggled with that.”
In the intervening years, Chacon had built a successful career as a creative director and photographer and had all but reconciled himself to never returning to music in any professional capacity. “I dabbled, but I didn’t dabble seriously. I didn’t want to put my name on anything, because I’m so proud of the work that I did with Charles in the 90s – I thought that they were very special records and I didn’t want to do anything that would spoil the beauty of that, or the memory of that.”
Which is why the new material comes as such a perfect riposte to that self-doubt. “Well, yeah. I’m certainly a late bloomer, I’ll give you that!” And despite a lifetime in music that began as a 12-year-old in a garage band with childhood friends Cliff Burton (later of Metallica) and Mike Bordin (Faith No More) – “I started out as a little rock’n’roller!” – he was never really intoxicated by the trappings of fame.
“Yeah. I’m more interested in creating work where I can look myself in the mirror and like what I see,” he explains. “But I think by the time you hit my age, hopefully I think we all come to that conclusion. It’s a brevity of life thing. We know that life is short, and by the time you’re my age, you want to do things that are authentic and that you can be proud of.”
So, is there a sense of redemption from this new flurry of activity? “I felt like it was a closure record at the time that I made it – I didn’t think that anyone would ever hear it! I wanted to create a record that fulfilled the culmination of a life’s work in music – create something that really for me was almost an investigation into what happens to a person’s talent as they become older? Does it become more refined like wine? Does it deplete as you get older? These were unanswered questions that I had. So, I was really curious to make a record at this age and see what happened. Where am I with my talent? I’ve been doing this my whole life, since I was 12-years-old, and I wanted to know where I am as a man in his mid-50s?”
Thankfully, he continues to answer those questions, with a new single, ‘Holy Hell’, preceding an album that he promises will expand on the ‘bedroom soul’ feel of his solo debut.
“I think it’s a nice addition to the sauce – ‘let’s have a little more of this spice’ –and you hope the sauce becomes a little more complex while retaining all those familiar elements that you love about it.”
Sónar Lisboa kicks off the electronic music festival’s 30-year celebrations at the end of this month. Combining faultless curation with amazing locations and industry panel discussions the festival is jam-packed with countless ‘do-not-miss’ moments. Here’s our pick of who to catch.
SHERELLE b2b Kode9
We didn’t make SHERELLE the first Disco Pogo cover star for nothing. The Londoner is one of the most thrilling DJs on the planet right now, with a heady blend of footwork, jungle and hardcore wowing crowds globally since she broke through with one of the most iconic Boiler Room sets ever in 2019. Paired here with Hyperdub founder and fellow footwork fanatic Kode9 for a one-off back-to-back, you know you’re in for something very special indeed.
7 - 9pm, April 1 @ SonarVillage
Skream b2b Mala
Talking of back-to-back pairings with a sprinkling of magic dust, it’s hard not to get excited about Skream and Mala rolling back the years in Lisbon. Skream’s spent most of the last decade building a reputation as one of the most dependable party starters in the world of house and techno, but we fully expect him to be rolling in the low-end when he teams up with Deep Medi boss and fellow dubstep OG Mala in Lisbon.
3 - 4.30am, March 31 @ SonarHall
Cinthie’s a stalwart of the Berlin house scene, really finding a following in the 2010’s as part of the Beste Modus collective (alongside the likes of Diego Krause) and later with her own 803 Crystalgrooves imprint. Her debut album ‘Skylines - Citylights’ is one of the most satisfying house music long players in years but fell through the cracks a little due to being released slap bang in the middle of a global pandemic in summer 2020. Don’t miss the chance to catch one of the most delectable selectors of groove-filled house music play her live show at Sónar on Sunday evening.
6.30 - 7.30pm, April 2 @ SonarVillage
More than two decades into his career, James Holden’s something of an elder statesman within electronic music but his live show is brimming with as much vitality, intensity and inventiveness as ever. His latest album, ‘Imagine This Is A High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities’ sees Holden balance his recent jazz-infused work with some of the rave punch of his earlier work and we cannot wait to find out how it transfers to the live arena.
11pm - midnight, March 31 @ SonarHall
Berlin-based Peruvian producer Sofia Kourtesis is one of the most interesting producers and DJs in house music right now, bringing her intrinsic musicality to remix work for everyone from Jungle to Jose González and Flume alongside her own convention-bending productions. Do not miss her peak-time Friday night set.
10.30pm - midnight, March 31 @ SonarClub
Sónar’s always keen to give homegrown talent a platform and they don’t come much more important to the Portuguese scene than Lisbon DJ and one-time resident at Lisbon’s premier nightspot Lux Frágil, Yen Sung. With three decades as a DJ behind her, Yen Sung is a font of house, techno and hip hop knowledge and something of a national treasure in Portugal. Don’t miss her Sunday afternoon set.
5 - 6.30pm, April 2 @ SonarVillage
There’s few more charismatic performers behind the decks than Folamour right now. With a heavy blend of house, disco, soul and funk, he’s bound to blow away the cobwebs of a heavy Friday night when he takes to the decks for his early evening slot on Saturday.
5 - 6.30pm, April 1 @ SonarClub
Astra club (DJ Tennis b2b Carlita)
Sónar Lisboa is coming through strong on the back-to-back sets this year and Turkish producer and selector Carlita with Life and Death founder DJ Tennis is a pairing we can’t wait to see. Carlita started out in classical music and she takes inspiration from everything from Turkish psychedelia to 80s synth music. If DJ Tennis and Carlita’s 2022 single ‘Cineceittá’ with Alex Metric is anything to go by, expect euphoria and etherealness in equal measure.
3 - 4.55am, April 1 @ SonarHall
A regular at Berghain, Timewarp and Dekmantel, VTSS has been steadily rising to techno’s top table over the last few years. However, there’s more to her than thundering 5am sets (although she’s pretty good at that too). Last year saw her release a series of EPs and singles on Ninja Tune, which saw her embrace a more experimental and personal sound, featuring her own vocals and saw her play back-to-back sets with everyone from Daniel Avery to Objekt. This is bound to be one of the highlights of day one.
1.30 - 3am, March 31 @ SonarHall
There are few spectacles in dance music as reliable as a KiNK live set. The Bulgarian producer brings a seat-of-your-pants spontaneity to proceedings, blending techno, house, acid and experimental sounds as he commands an array of analogue synths and controllers in real time. He usually looks like he’s having the time of his life doing it too. The perfect companion to take you into the early hours of Saturday morning.
4.30 - 6am, March 31 @ SonarHall
For more information about this year's Sónar Lisboa and to buy tickets head here
I. JORDAN finally knows who they are. A confident, exciting and thoughtful producer whose music reflects such an identity. After a string of acclaimed EPs, this proud Trans artist is ready to unleash their debut album next year – an album that will encapsulate the liberation they now feel. “It’s gonna be Trans as fuck,” they enthusiastically state…
“This is... really not me.”
I. JORDAN is laughing. The DJ and Ninja Tune producer is sitting in a café in Stoke Newington, north London, and, from a china teapot, they are pouring amber-coloured Earl Grey tea into dainty white cups and saucers. They’re jokily acknowledging how this particular set-up might feel in stark juxtaposition to their working class and Northern roots – which, they are quick to point out, incidentally mirror the origins of much of the UK’s best dance music.
A few years ago, Doncaster-born Jordan started releasing music under their birth name. In 2019, they released their first solo EP, ‘DNT STP MY LV’, the same year they came out as gender fluid, or non-binary – during this time, their star began rising, and they quickly became heralded as a need-to-know name with their sparkling, kinetic production and heavy, fun, eclectic DJ sets, both of which pull from a vast and deep breadth of musical knowledge. But, of course, this was all around the time the world went into the Covid-19 lockdowns.
It meant that a lot of Jordan’s acclaim came during a time when we could not actually go outside: 2020’s ‘For You’ EP was a breakthrough moment, and yet its audience was not listening in the intended club, but rather connecting with it on a different level, at home. For its creator, this all meant further time for introspection, coming closer to a better understanding of their gender identity – albeit, without the opportunity to be out and dancing among the Trans and Queer community during that time. Lockdown also meant they were able to reflect on what the scene needed to do in order to be more inclusive and safer.
And so, the past year feels like it must be a strange proposition for the now-32-year-old – emerging from lockdowns as someone who is now respected and revered across the dance music world, finally able to play in clubs again to those enraptured listeners; finally able to be out in the world as a version of themselves they feel comfortable with; but also, finally actually having the capacity to make good on their self-described “theorising” on safety issues in music spaces.
“All this stuff was happening, but I couldn’t do anything to put it into action,” they recount of the lockdowns. “People were connecting with my music, which was absolutely incredible… but now I’ve been on the road for a good year… and initially I was so grateful to be back in the clubs and just so fucking happy to be doing what I love and finally living the dream that I had been theorising might happen while I was in lockdown – but I was scared of it falling through, because it felt like too big a dream. So I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, I guess – I was like: ‘If I get misgendered on the road, it’s fine’, and it’s only really in the past two months that I’ve been like: ‘Actually, I’m fucking sick of this and I’m gonna do something about it.’ Sorry, is this a tangent?”
This is often how they talk – in long, enthusiastic, thoughtful answers that veer into self-conscious apologies. But, fundamentally, while Jordan is certainly conscientious, they are anything but apologetic as a person; it’s reflected in the boldness of their work, both as an artist, and also as someone pushing for better inclusivity and representation across the music industry.
Today, they are exuding a confident, content energy, dressed in a crisp white adidas T-shirt, adorned in delicate silver piercings and a thick silver chain loose around their neck; their aura feels bright like their newly blue-green hair. “I wanted to bring some more colour into my life,” they smile, though later they will explain that the colour feels most representative of how they see their gender.
Earlier this year, Jordan announced they would now be using the artist name I. JORDAN – and in their personal life, they are now simply known as Jordan: a name which is ambiguous in terms of its gender identity; the artist’s preferred space to occupy. “It felt like coming out all over again,” they say of the decision. “While I don’t agree with it, we operate under this compulsory binary system, and with that you get compulsory binary names. You don’t get men called India. And since I started asking my friends to call me Jordan and experimenting with that, people don’t know my gender – and I fucking love it!” For serious matters, they use the name Jordan Jordan currently; otherwise, they often get their post addressed to ‘Jordan Hee-hee’: “As in, I’m giggling at myself.”
So when they laugh while pouring out our tea, I. JORDAN is perhaps tacitly showcasing a degree of self-awareness: this is an artist who in some ways is constantly in flux, sure, darting off in various directions – conversationally, musically, personally – and revelling in the fact that nothing is fixed. But also – right now, at least – it feels like I. JORDAN is an artist who knows exactly who they are.
“At the time I didn’t realise what I was doing was the first of its kind in that area, now I look back and I’m like: ‘Oh, it makes sense that no one wanted to help me’ and ‘It makes sense that there were all these gatekeepers around me.’ I just thought they were being dicks at the time. Which… they were, but it was also part of a bigger picture.”
Up in Doncaster, Jordan was raised by their single mother. As a kid, they had a difficult time fitting in at school and in the area – they were bullied at school and have spoken before about the lack of Queer spaces in the town. And so, like many others who have felt adrift, adolescent Jordan found a home in music.
“Dance music is a big thing in the North, you just hear it everywhere,” they say, “I’ve always been around happy hardcore, hard house, donk, trance, bassline – and bassline especially, that originated around 20 miles south from where I used to live. I think a lot of those sounds have their roots in working class culture.” They pause and laugh: “All good music does, doesn’t it?”
On top of the more general local exposure to UK dance sounds, to be a teenage music nerd in the late-2000s was, of course, to be on MySpace. Jordan found the social media site to be indispensable: “Thank God for MySpace, because I don’t know if I would have found music in that way otherwise!”
Among the many other genres that sky-rocketed from the platform, screamo and emo were perhaps central to the MySpace era – and while Jordan doesn’t feel any particular affinity with Doncaster as a place, they are fondly enthusiastic when it comes to remembering the gigs from that scene that took place there. Local venues like the Leopard and the Doncaster Dome played host to early shows from bands like Bring Me The Horizon (“It must have been one of their first shows, and my friend got into a fight with the guitarist”), Funeral for a Friend, Taking Back Sunday and My Chemical Romance.
“I’m sure there is a Venn diagram between people who liked that kind of music and people who like drum’n’bass and heavier styles,” they say now. They had started playing guitar, but soon, just before they headed to university in Hull to study philosophy, the MySpace wormhole had drawn them to the intense electronics of Australia’s Pendulum.
“On MySpace when you could add music to your profile? For me, that revolutionised how you found music. I found Pendulum, and then I found Black Sun Empire, then London Elektricity, which was how I found Hospital Records.”
Jordan was immediately hooked and, during the university’s Freshers’ Fair, they came across a group of guys with some decks, playing drum’n’bass. Though Jordan “had no idea what DJing was” back then, they were excited to find people into the same music as they were, and quickly realised that Hull was a big drum’n’bass city. And so it was that they joined Crystal Clear, the university’s DJ society – and at that time, they were the only non-male member, honing their craft and putting on drum’n’bass parties in the city. Soon, Jordan would become the society’s first non-male president.
Their time in Crystal Clear feels emblematic of the dance music industry more generally, and Jordan’s place within it. They recall how very few of the males in the society were willing to help Jordan, and so they were largely self-taught – the exception being Finn McCorry, with whom Jordan became close friends, who taught them how to use CDJs (in turn, Jordan taught them how to DJ on vinyl – they laugh that they are “too lazy” to play records now, though note that they have a lot of respect for the likes of Eris Drew, Angel D’lite and Octo Octa, who all DJ on vinyl). They recount a story where, on their first night playing on CDJs, someone else in the society commented on Jordan not being very good on the CDJs.
“That was the context I came from, these people watching and judging me with that attitude – the drum’n’bass scene in Hull is quite chin-strokey and full of gatekeepers.”
Still, from Jordan’s presidency onwards, they say there have been markedly more non-males involved in the society. Even in just taking up that space, Jordan opened up things for the next generation. “At a lot of the gigs that I do now, there are kids that come from Crystal Clear, that are like ten years younger, who say that they know I used to be part of it,” they say. “At the time I didn’t realise what I was doing was the first of its kind in that area, now I look back and I’m like: ‘Oh, it makes sense that no one wanted to help me’ and ‘It makes sense that there were all these gatekeepers around me.’ I just thought they were being dicks at the time. Which… they were, but it was also part of a bigger picture.”
Their friendship with McCorry proved formative beyond the DJing skill share. It was McCorry who encouraged Jordan to start producing music, around the time they had moved to London in 2014. “I didn’t really know that I could make music,” Jordan says, “Because I did a degree in philosophy, I didn’t really have the time to invest into learning about frequencies and keys and musical theory and shit, and so it felt like something that was inaccessible to me. And then I went straight from uni to full-time work, plus I was DJing, I had a radio show – so I didn’t really have the time. It wasn’t until Finn was like: ‘Just open it up, have fun with it and see what happens.’”
Jordan – who seemingly always has multiple things on the go – had also started co-running an ambient record label and party by then: New Atlantis, with South London producer Al Wootton. “And I just thought: ‘I can’t not put out some of my music on here.’ It was just a really easy way. Having that direction and a deadline, almost, pushed me to open it up and play with it. But then I realised I didn’t really want to be making ambient.” As if to counter all their concerns and the issues they were coming up against in both DJing and producing, Jordan’s mission statement in their music is accessibility (“I’m not, like, serious and technical”) and making it fun.
2014 was also the year that Jordan first met Tom Lea of now-prolific independent record label, Local Action – again, via McCorry, who was already a key artist on the then relatively new label. Local Action has been home to releases from artists across the electronic music spectrum: they’ve put out records from the likes of Jersey Club’s finest UNiiQU3, Huddersfield bassline pioneer DJ Q and the more eclectic end of R&B futurist Dawn Richard’s output. Reflecting on his relationship with Jordan, Lea explains over email: “We became mates… and after realising what a good DJ they were that naturally progressed to booking them on shows and doing radio together, so they already felt like label family before they ever sent us any music. When they first started making music, we would naturally have conversations about it and they would sometimes work on it at our old studio in New Cross - again, just mate stuff, really! – but when it reached the point where that music was crystallising into an actual record, I think it was the obvious call for both Jordan and I to release it together. I don’t even think there was much of a: ‘Do you wanna do this on Local Action?’ conversation – it was just the natural, obvious home for it.”
In spite of the early acclaim for their music and DJing, though, it was only in January of this year that Jordan quit their day job working as an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Consultant at King’s College, London to focus full-time on the music. “I’ve got my partner, and they could maybe financially support me if something happened,” they say. “But like, I don’t have parents who can support me financially. I support my mum financially, she lives in a one-bed council flat in Doncaster – I don’t have a house to fall back on if things go bad. And I think that’s why it took me so long to take the plunge.”
Their background explains their relentless work ethic – Jordan admits they have been feeling pretty burnt out lately (“The only weekends I’ve taken off this year are if I’ve been ill and had to cancel”). Along with their team, they know now that they need to be more intentional about what they’re saying yes to moving forward and spend more time resting and playing Pokémon on their Nintendo Switch, or else engaging in hobbies like looking at possum accounts on Twitter or going birdwatching (they laugh telling explaining how sometimes fans will DM them with requests to help identify birds, which must make a pleasant change from calls for track IDs). But obviously it is difficult to get out of the scarcity mindset in an industry that often tries to make marginalised people feel grateful to be there.
“They’ve worked their ass off to get where they are,” says Lea, “I’ve seen first-hand the amount of hours they put into getting each release as good as it possibly can be, and they go through that same process every time. They don’t take shortcuts with their art, they think very seriously about what they want to put into the world and the example they want to set within it.”
Nearly a decade since they first met, Lea now works as Jordan’s manager. But still, Jordan views Local Action as more integral than simply being a facilitator of work: as when they were a kid in Doncaster, in adulthood music has helped them find their people. “The collective community element is the best part of a label,” they say. “A lot of people will message me on Instagram asking who they could send their demos to – but I don’t really think about what their sound is, I’m more just like: who do you align yourself with in terms of community? And who do you want to grow with? For me, that’s the best approach to music releases – there are lots of not very personable, transactional elements to putting out music, but it’s something I’ve been very lucky with, with Local Action. Family has always been a part of it.”
"I wanna be working with as many Trans people as possible. Every element: not just the artists, but sound engineers, the people making the artwork. For me, finding my identity and finding my community within that identity has been so ground-breaking for me, and that’s so integral to my music now – I can’t separate the two.”
Over the summer of 2022, Jordan and I cross paths a couple of times, bumping into each other among groups of mutual friends at events rooted in Queer joy and liberation: basking in the sun in Soho Square during Trans Pride and then, a few weeks later, dancing through the day and night at Body Movements festival out in Hackney Wick.
Dance music has always been rooted in Queer culture. House music, particularly, was pioneered by Black and Queer, often working class artists – and the scene provided a space for people who were typically marginalised to be free to be themselves. But, over the decades, it has become the case that the gatekeepers across the industry are largely not of these backgrounds anymore; and, very often, for both artist and attendee, the dancefloor does not always feel a safe space. But Jordan is working to change this. Working with fellow game-changing DJ, producer and friend, SHERELLE, the pair are planning on putting on some Queer parties next year, alongside their collaborative release on fabric’s new Originals label.
“I think the Queer parties I’m going to now are influencing me massively,” Jordan says as we reflect on these events, “I’m thinking about those parties I want to put on in the future – and my Transness is gonna be integral. The priority of people going to that party will be Trans and Queer. And maybe the music I’m making, the DJing, the events I’m running – I wanna be working with as many Trans people as possible. Every element: not just the artists, but sound engineers, the people making the artwork. For me, finding my identity and finding my community within that identity has been so ground-breaking for me, and that’s so integral to my music now – I can’t separate the two.”
It’s telling of where they’re at that, next year, amidst touring, their main priority is writing their debut album, and they say: “The intention with the album is that it’s gonna be Trans as fuck!”
Of course, it is not as easy to be so open in their identity as they might make it seem. Discussion turns to the artwork for ‘For You’, which depicts Jordan staring at themselves in the mirror of the bathrooms at London Queer clubbing staple, Dalston Superstore. It appears emblematic of a space where you can freely explore yourself – but for Jordan, even just a couple years after the release, it already feels out of sync with who they are.
“I love that cover – every time I go to Superstore I look in the mirror and I’m like: ‘Whey!’” they laugh. “But I kind of need to disconnect from that cover, too. I had only just come out as non-binary when that came out, and I’ve been on a big gender journey since then. I need to see that artwork as a place in my history, and honour that – but also I can’t look at myself.”
Since then, their artwork has often had them less recognisable in the shot, so that it’s easier for them to look back on. They are mindful, too, of the structural things at play when it comes to feeling comfortable in your identity. They have long been an advocate of inclusion riders (contracts that stipulate a minimum level of people from marginalised backgrounds also being involved in a given show or festival), and the importance of representative line-ups, but they’re aware, too, of the limits of these things without actual structural and societal change. Throughout our conversation, Jordan mentions countless instances of being misgendered, and the general lack of consideration for Trans people in the industry, as with the discomfort of many venues only having gendered toilets – and how they often have to internalise these things before playing a show. They say they’ve started taking note of every time they’re misgendered and plan on sharing it on social media, so that people start to see the gravity and frequency of it.
With their background of working within diversity and inclusion at King’s, they have a good understanding of the bureaucracy and frameworks needed to confront these issues – but even still, is it not a little frustrating that the burden of calling things out and trying to make things more inclusive so often befalls the person being marginalised?
“I feel like, I am here, and hopefully I’m not going away for a good while, and I just want to be able to [make] the change I want to see in the scene,” they say, slowly. “And actually, I’ve got a really great team of people behind me – they are mostly cis, but they’re extremely good allies, and I want to utilise that and be setting a precedent.”
In speaking up, Jordan has also helped other people come to terms with their own gender identity. Jex Wang, a DJ and writer who works as part of the Eastern Margins collective, explains: “They provide a lot of representation that is still lacking in the music scene, and they use their platform to speak about these issues which not many artists do – which I understand, because you can get a lot of backlash, whereas Jordan is just fiercely themselves. [It] definitely inspires a lot of other Queer and Trans people to be themselves and go and be free.”
DJ and producer Yewande Adeniran, who performs under the name Ifeoluwa, says their friendship with Jordan has been an essential part of their own journey. They were inspired by how Jordan was, “just being themselves in an unfiltered way,” they say. “So much of the way we consume people online is a very sanitised version of themselves, especially when it comes to being gender diverse and non-conforming, but seeing them exist as purely who they are, is really inspiring. If it wasn’t for the friends around me, especially Jordan, I probably would have never come out.”
"Donk is Queer because it’s fun, it’s colourful! It sounds vibrant to me. Big hardcore tracks, big synths too. I like deep melodic stuff, but I also like donk – it makes people laugh, it brings people’s spirits up, which I think is what we need right now."
Colour runs central to I. JORDAN’s work. Bending and shifting through a variety of sonic touchstones, their songs always gleam brightly over thumping, throbbing drums and bass that imbues a dense heat. “I organise my Ableton files through colour, so…” they point to their turquoise hair. “All my drums are this colour. The drums are the main focus point for how I create music, and this is my favourite colour.” They turn their head to show off the little braided rat’s tail that sits on the back of their head, also dyed that same blue-green. “I consider this colour my gender, this tail is my gender. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s the colour that I just connect with.”
They explain that every release that they’ve done has had a certain colour tied to it, and so the artwork often reflects that (recent single ‘Hey Baby’ was yellow, for example, while forthcoming tracks ‘Give it to Me’ and ‘Reclaimed’ are both purple). “Often the frequency spectrum is what informs the colours,” they explain. “Low ends are deeper colours, high ends are cooler colours.”
They talk about their creative process more generally – how elements that don’t quite fit in one song might birth another. For Jordan, their music encapsulates where they’re at during that moment in time, lending it something cathartic and freeing, like those club spaces. “I think that’s why I love [Queer techno party] Unfold,” they reflect. “Because in a scene that isn’t very Queer or diverse, there is a reclaiming happening of certain sounds – that’s why the new track is called ‘Reclaimed’.” Inevitably, we start talking about donk again. “It has its roots in working class and Northern culture – which is not very Queer or very diverse. But I want to make sure that I’ve got a donk track on my album, because it’s connected to my roots, I used to listen to it growing up – but also, it’s Queer now!” They start laughing. “For me, donk is Queer because it’s fun, it’s colourful! It sounds vibrant to me. Big hardcore tracks, big synths too. I like deep melodic stuff, but I also like donk – it makes people laugh, it brings people’s spirits up, which I think is what we need right now. For me, as a Northerner, I like to think I never take myself too seriously, and I want that to come across in my music.”
Right now, it feels like that bold sense of fun and joy is at the core of I. JORDAN’s work, and that comes alongside a new-found self-actualisation and growing confidence in being unapologetically themselves. “I think it’s all part of the journey of understanding myself, and using music to help me understand that. I think I make so many different genres, it kind of makes sense that it’s tied to my gender? I can’t just stick to one thing! I’m inspired by so many different things and I wanna make sure my music reflects that; and that kind of reflects my identity.”
They smile as they finish up their tea, their hair blazing bright in the sunlight. “My Transness is about ‘transience’ – I accept in myself that I’ll be forever changing.”
This article first appeared in issue 2 of Disco Pogo. Buy the I. JORDAN cover of issue 2 here.
No other music soundtracked the world’s dancefloors in such a sustained – and magical – fashion during the 1990s as techno. Beginning the decade as the preserve of a handful of innovative sonic scientists in localised scenes, ten years later it was heralded by many as a futuristic artform, and by all as a global phenomenon. With key contributions from techno’s significant players, Jonas Stone looks back on the end of the century party…
Despite heading into a new decade on the back of a global recession, as the 1980s turned into the 90s a more optimistic – perhaps naive – way of looking at the world was beginning to form. Buoyed by the fall of the Berlin Wall just two months before and the-then USSR premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s drive for perestroika and glasnost (reform and openness), a new era of peace and democracy had begun to melt the icy, iron-clad fist of a decades-long Cold War.
And while the road ahead was not without numerous political, social and economic potholes, this willingness to embrace new ideas and tear down a failing and largely irrelevant old guard was further reflected in the art, film, culture and musical ideas of a new emerging decade.
Acid house had already detonated a resurgence in dance music counterculture fuelled by affordable new technology, a breaking down of music tribalism and a dancefloor unity that was often driven by hedonism and new narcotics. In the formative years of the 1990s the anything-goes eclecticism of rave culture began to splinter into new dance structures as garage, jungle, house, breaks and techno began to find new spiritual homes and legions.
Techno’s sonics can be traced back to the 1950s and 60s via a myriad of influences. These include Juan Atkins’ mid-80s Model 500/Cybotron aliases and fellow Detroit DJ/producer evangelists Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Eddie Fowlkes. Going further back, it also incorporated early, raw Chicago house tracks, 808-driven electro, 70s disco and reggae sound system culture, plus Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Nitzer Ebb, The Human League, DAF, Throbbing Gristle, Silver Apples and the pioneering work of Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. However, it was the 90s that saw its galvanisation and proliferation from a word-of-mouth cottage industry into a global dancefloor phenomenon.
As the millennium approached techno had poured out of clubs and into festivals via a network of independent clubs, labels, promoters, distributors, producers, DJs and clubbers all searching for a new dancefloor truth through a shared euphoric experience. Its viral assimilation into the cultural mainstream saw it beam out of our TV screens, our radios, our magazines and ever deeper into our collective conscience. As Underground Resistance co-founder, ‘Mad’ Mike Banks declared to Jockey Slut magazine in the summer of 1994: “Techno to me is the one music that is truly a global music. It might not only be a global music – I think it’s a galactic music.”
Now, 30 years later - and with its own Instagram tribute page called, appropriately enough, 90s Techno - it’s time to assess the impact of techno and its growth into a worldwide musical force during the 90s. How did it go from a dystopian Detroit dreamscape to a pan-global music revolution that permeated into rock festivals, the pop charts and the pan-global lexicon? Some 30 years on, can it still re-invent itself and stay relevant? And in the end did techno really change anything?
"It wasn’t the music that you’d hear on Radio 1 or anything like that. It wasn’t something you could explain to people, or people would know about. I soaked up everything. And I wanted turn it around and start putting stuff out there. I suppose to some degree I was a messenger back then. And there was, I think, at the beginning of the 90s, a slow realisation of that all around the world.” Luke Slater
The beginning of the 90s found many of techno’s pioneering producers and DJs already engaged in various forms of dance culture. These had been running as an underground parallel alternative to what most music media were reporting. X-Tront and Planetary Assault Systems man, Luke Slater had established himself as a resident of the mixed gay night Troll at the Sound Shaft in London’s Charing Cross after handing the promoter a mixtape on his second visit to the club in 1988.
“By the time say, 1991 came around, I’d been really immersed in the whole world for a good few years,” he recalls today. “It wasn’t a new thing to me. But I did witness the sort of catching on of it, flung around the world. It was like this secret world where there’s all these different people dressed up, doing what they want to do. The whole thing was so different from everyday life. That kind of impounded the idea that the music went with that culture. It wasn’t the music that you’d hear on Radio 1 or anything like that. It wasn’t something you could explain to people, or people would know about. I soaked up everything. And I wanted turn it around and start putting stuff out there. I suppose to some degree I was a messenger back then. And there was, I think, at the beginning of the 90s, a slow realisation of that all around the world.”
The genesis of what we now know as techno in the previous decade should not be understated. White labels and rare imports were already causing a stir in Europe’s more discerning dance record shops, as early adopters, mainly DJs, tried to get their hands on these new sounds emanating from across the Atlantic. As Dave Clarke, who in a few short years would establish himself as one of techno’s prime ambassadors via his ‘Red’ series, saw it, the 80s were special because they were the formative years.
“(It was) Almost a dangerous form of the music, challenging with the likes of Adonis’ ‘No Way Back’ breaking the status quo and still nowhere near the general public’s taste. Then the 90s came and with the rise of better technology and an understanding of how to use it, the machine’s rules were being broken. (Joey) Beltram’s ‘Vortex’, (Dan) Bell and (Claude) Young’s ‘Planet Earth’, K-Hand’s ‘Ready for the Darkness’, Gary Martin... and then the English grabbed their own sound: B12, Black Dog, Surgeon to think of a few.
“It started to proliferate outwards at speed. The Dutch with Maurits Paardekooper and Speedy J, and the Germans with Mike Ink etcetera. There was a unity on the dancefloor, a comradery of counterculture pushing back against pop culture, against racism, pro-gay rights at a time when tolerance was very low… people singing Joe Smooth! Yes, it was fuelled by ecstasy but what a great catalyst for change. People were far more politically aware and active then, not by posting on social media, but living what they believed.”
Techno had begun to make inroads into the public’s conscience from the late-80s and early-90s with tracks like Humanoid’s ‘Stakker Humanoid’ (featuring a young Future Sound of London’s Brian Dougans) and Nexus 21-offshoot Altern 8 whose ‘Activ-8’ anthem had Mark Archer and Chris Peat hiding behind their trademark ‘A’ embossed dust masks and hooded, zipped up macs. There was also New York’s Toxic 2 duo (Damon Wild and Ray Love) with ‘Rave Generator’ and Gez Varley and Mark Bell’s ‘speak and spell’-voiced warehouse anthem ‘LFO’. All were beamed into the nation’s living rooms via UK TV chart institution ‘Top of the Pops’. Yet they were still predominantly considered acid house or rave, mainly relegated to the back of the stage and more often than not hidden behind an array of garishly-clothed ‘club’ dancers and someone’s interpretation of an alien that was little more than a mime artist on stilts, wrapped in Bacofoil.
Neil Rushton and Dave Barker’s 1988 Network Records compilation ‘Techno! (The New Dance Sound of Detroit)’ had brought the term to a wider audience by introducing the likes of Rhythim Is Rhythim (Derrick May), ‘Magic’ Juan Atkins, Blake Baxter, Kevin ‘Master Reece’ Saunderson and Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir to a ravenous music and style magazine culture, but few, bar the more adventurous house, rave and electro DJs of the time were aware of the labels behind the releases such as Metroplex, Transmat and KMS. Gradually the ‘virus’ began to spread and slowly the vinyl seeds began to germinate on new terrain as enthusiasts and fledgling producers saw the possibilities in the raw beats and abstract soundscapes as the basic means to make these new sounds came within financial reach.
"There was a unity on the dancefloor, a comradery of counterculture pushing back against pop culture, against racism, pro-gay rights at a time when tolerance was very low… people singing Joe Smooth! Yes, it was fuelled by ecstasy but what a great catalyst for change." Dave Clarke
When Queens native Joey Beltram first played an acetate of the brutally dry, TR-909-driven ‘Energy Flash’ at legendary Belgian new beat institution Boccaccio in 1990, it was notably a combination of Detroit’s Transmat and Belgium’s R&S that brought it to the world. The transatlantic sonic cross-pollination continued to bear fruit as a shadow coterie of emergent artists who were already exploring the field of electronic music began to pick up the clarion call.
Detroit’s so-called ‘second wave’ began to see the value of a label community and identity as the floodgates creaked open. Pioneering techno records subsequently established a label style and ethos, often based around high school friends and small clubbing cliques, such as Carl Craig’s Planet E to Octave One’s 430 West. And then there was the friendly rivalry between Underground Resistance (Mike Banks, Jeff Mills) and Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva’s Plus 8 Records which was situated across the river in Windsor, Canada. A slew of gauntlet-laying releases continued to redefine the limits of what a 909 and 303 drum machine could do. For every silver box pummelling ‘Substance Abuse’ and ‘F.U.’ from Hawtin’s F.U.S.E. moniker there was a UR dance-off in waiting from ‘Acid Rain’ or ‘Punisher’.
“When John and I started the label, we were like, let’s kind of put our lives, our schooling, on hold and just see,” recalls Richie Hawtin. “Maybe this house and techno thing lasts two or three years, let’s have fun. There was nothing to lose.” Having already been DJing for a couple of years in Detroit, most notably as warm-up at The Shelter in Saint Andrew’s Hall, Hawtin had already invited Mills, then locally known on Detroit airwaves as ‘The Wizard’, to come and play at his club in Windsor around 1987-88.
“Everybody knew each other,” he says. “It wasn’t that there wasn’t a little bit of friction here and there. I’m not gonna say it was all like, you know, roses, but on the whole, everybody had their camps. Derrick had his camp; Juan, Kevin, UR, and a lot of them had grown up together in high school and just started making records together. We were accepted as part of the techno family and community by most of the gang, but we were still latecomers. And we were still in our own little bubble.”
It’s localised moments like these that often caused skews in techno’s development around the world. The 90s are littered with many significant regionally contained outbursts in the evolution of techno’s sound structure. In Berlin, Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald’s immersion in Jamaican dub reggae culture was the catalyst for their landmark Basic Channel releases. There was Robert Hood’s Pavlovian reduction on the game-changing ‘Minimal Nation’ that emerged from his and Jeff Mills discussions and refinements amidst a backdrop of increasingly volcanic bpm rave eruptions in the outside club scene.
Additionally, there was Regis and Surgeon’s Brum-brutalism on their Downwards label, Plastikman’s embryonic TB-303 meltdowns at his own JAK parties in Detroit’s abandoned Packard plant and Aphex Twin’s unique, playful wizardry infused with mischievous Cornish myth-making. Elsewhere in Germany there was Frankfurt’s fusion of trance and techno where chief orchestrator of hedonism, Sven Väth held court at The Omen’s legendary endurance fests. And Wolfgang Voigt’s (aka Mike Ink) myriad voyages as Studio 1, Profan, Auftrieb, GAS, Wassermann and Freiland would set the tone for Cologne’s mighty Kompakt empire. While all can stake a claim to moulding techno’s malleable clay into something new and beautiful, bending the world to each’s own futuristic vision, crucially they were all allowed to grow roots within a localised cocoon, shielded from global scrutiny before finally emerging as an artistic fait accompli.
Another transformative moment arrived in 1992, when Jeff Mills relocated to New York to take up a residency at the Limelight. With an office provided in the back room of the Palladium as part of the deal, the premise was to continue to run Underground Resistance alongside Mike Banks but in reality, Mills was beginning to formulate a new label sound and vision.
“Essentially, these were the things that I probably wish we could have done while I was in Underground Resistance,” states Mills. “A type of music that was deeper, that was more spiritual, I suppose. And also what reinforced that was the opposite of what was happening on the night at the Limelight. It was a really hardcore, really heavy type of atmosphere. And I was thinking, what might people want to hear after that? What might they want to hear the other hours of the day? What type of electronic music could that be? And so in many conversations with Robert Hood because he was with me at the label at the time, we were having discussions of a certain type of music that was more ‘mental’. That wasn’t overbearing. Not just a bombastic spectacle type of you know, ‘Punisher’, ‘Seawolf’-type of thing but music that really approached the intricate details of the sound.”
Armed with a small studio set up of a 909 drum machine, Yamaha DX 100, a couple of small synths and a little pocket recorder bought in New York’s Chinatown, Mills set about his new sonic lab. While remarkably also recording definitive techno releases ‘Waveform Transmissions Vol.1’ for Tresor and parts of X-103 in the same period it was this new sound he kept coming back to.
“I would make samples of it and then take it to the club and test it at Limelight and then go back to my apartment and come up with something else. It was a constant system of creating things, testing things. So by the time I came up with the first release I was pretty much sure that the ‘Tranquillizer’ EP was what people needed at the time.”
Not only were his and Hood’s early releases on Axis set to pivot the shape of techno for years to come, the label’s artwork and gold, silver and black palette perfectly reflected the label’s visionary sonic direction while referencing as far back as Man Ray’s 1920’s ’solarization’ process and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 ‘Manifesto of Futurism’. This wasn’t a bastardized cartoon rave sample for the pilled-up ‘E’ hordes. This was techno redefined as art.
While we now live in an era of constant and instant connectivity, the early part of the 90s saw techno communities often growing in small hermetically sealed enclaves, where overseas information was often scant, with only new vinyl releases providing sonic clues and coded messages for others to seek out.
“Everything was very regional,” states Adam X who in the early 90s was running Brooklyn’s Sonic Groove Records shop alongside Heather Heart and his brother, Frankie Bones. “Especially before the internet and before the world became much more connected through it. Many people buying records were unaware of what was happening in other scenes outside of their own city and country. There was little connection outside of the music itself which defined the identity of different places.”
These local identities started to take hold. Techno outposts established further afield as labels, record shops, clubs and distributors built themselves around localised scenes. Damon Wild’s Synewave and Lenny Dee’s Industrial Strength added to the growing New York scene that also featured Frankie Bones’ ‘Bones Breaks’ releases and ‘Storm Rave’ parties. There was Woody McBride’s and Kurt Eckes’s Midwest Drop Bass Network, Sven Väth’s Frankfurt-based Eye Q and Harthouse, the embryonic Soma, spearheaded by Slam and Glasgow’s crosstown record shop/distribution network established by Rubadub, Eric Morand and Laurent Garnier’s Paris-based F Communications and Stefan Robbers’ Eindhoven-based Eevo Lute.
Everywhere you cared to look there was activity. Rotterdam had Bunker and Clone. Chicago’s Relief was under the guidance of Cajmere/Green Velvet’s Curtis Jones and the so-called Sound of Rome was spearheaded by Leo Anibaldi, Andrea Benedetti, Lory D, the D’Arcangelo brothers and Marco Passarani. There were other labels such as ACV, the sonic destruction of Regis, Female and Surgeon on Birmingham’s Downwards, and the network emerging from Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald’s Hard Wax Berlin record shop.
London’s nebulous scene, meanwhile, housed everything from Steve Bicknell and Sheree Rashit’s legendary nomadic LOST parties, Peter Ford and Mark Broom’s Ifach, Akin Fernandez’s Irdial~Discs, Infonet techno upstarts Bandulu, James Ruskin and Richard Polson’s Blueprint and Dave Cawley and Alex Knight’s Fat Cat Records shop. That’s alongside a raft of memorable parties like Andrew Weatherall’s Sabresonic and Bloodsugar, Mr. C’s Subterrain at The End and Carl Cox and Jim Masters’ midweek shebeen at the Velvet Rooms.
Even deepest Cornwall held a ‘Kernow’ seat at the table via Grant Wilson-Claridge and Richard James’ Rephlex. Other labels such as Berlin’s Tresor, Saskia Slegers’ Djax, the (then) St. Albans-based Peacefrog, Sheffield’s Warp, London’s Novamute, Ghent’s Music Man and R&S all cherry-picked and nurtured worldwide talent, making global stars of CJ Bolland, Aphex Twin, Luke Slater, Neil Landstrumm and Richie Hawtin to name a few.
Having bought his first synth in 1985, Downwards Records boss Karl O’Connor (Regis) had grown increasingly frustrated trying to emulate alternative and electronic bands like Coil, Swans and Depeche Mode. It was the rudimentary rawness of dance music that made him realise he could go back to basics with his old equipment and come back from an increasingly isolated electronic hinterland to face a primed audience who were ready to embrace a new brute force.
“Before 1988, electronic music meant something completely different,” he recalls. “Now when we talk about electronic music, people mean dance music, essentially. That’s not electronic music to me, but by the early-90s we were locked. Lots of people arrived at the same place from vastly different directions. A lot of people could have been into hip hop. Lots of people could have been into soul music or R’n’B. And then there was people like me whose idea of electronic music was completely different. But we arrived at this point.
"‘Positive Education’ was us trying to make a Detroit record. But obviously putting the influences we had from playing in Glasgow into that record.” Stuart McMillan
“It wasn’t that it was music without tradition but it was genuinely experimental music that for the first time ever could reach the masses. It broke the whole DNA of rock’n’roll because it was about repetition and reaffirming sound. It wasn’t verse, chorus, verse and for the most part even melody as well. And it used all these very experimental things that people like John Cage and Stockhausen were doing before. That’s what drew me towards it. It had real potential and it had the momentum of this youth kick.”
As with all new forms of music there was a fair amount of fumbling into the unknown, which often led to numerous misinterpretations and occasionally ‘heroic failures’ as Slam’s Stuart McMillan was about to discover.
“I guess your geographical position will always determine at that point, how your music sounded,” he says. “So, you know, something like ‘Positive Education’, for example, was us trying to make a Detroit record. But obviously putting the influences we had from playing in Glasgow into that record.”
Tony Child’s (aka Surgeon) first attempts at making electronic music were essentially deaf, based around the only point of reference he had, a Northampton school library book called ‘Making Music with Tape Recorders’. Having only read about but never heard nor experienced ‘music concrete’ he was subsequently told by a friend that his initial musical sketches sounded like Coil (a band who on further investigation opened up a path of discovery that eventually led to the release of the ‘Surgeon’ EP on Downwards in 1994).
Even with their iconic early Underground Resistance releases, Jeff Mills freely admits that both he and Mike Banks were, basically, feeling in the dark. “There was no real indication that gave me an idea of where this was going to go. I mean, I wasn’t really involved in rave because Mike and I, we were not really invited over. By the time we started I think the biggest, most famous events in Europe, in the UK, in Belgium and in Holland had already happened. We really had not experienced what a rave was to be honest. But we were trying to make music for it. Things like ‘The Punisher’ and ‘Riot’ and all these things, but we really did not know because we had never been to a rave.”
As the globe’s techno scenes grew, in what were essentially loosely connected localised scenes, they also began to split and fracture.
“Slowly as we got into the mid-90s it was full on,” recalls Blueprint’s James Ruskin. “You went to a techno club or you went to a house club. The lines were kind of drawn in the sand.”
Nowhere were these divisions more apparent than the canyon-like fissure that separated Dutch club culture at the time. What had started out as an open and free-moving spirit of acid house adventure was now starkly polarising between two diametrically opposed scenes. The housier-edged ‘mellow’ camp found champions in DJ Dimitri and DJ Remy whose sets at Amsterdam’s Roxy connected with a more cosmopolitan clubby crowd. An hour’s drive down the coast, however, and gabber (Dutch Hardcore) was erupting like a 160bpm jack hammer, spearheaded by the likes of Rotterdam Records’ Paul Elstak, whose first label release - De Euromasters ‘Amsterdam Waar Lech Dat Dan?’ (‘Amsterdam, Where Is That?’) - was a thinly-veiledpop at the Dutch media’s focus on the music emanating from its capital.
“Both scenes were so full of themselves, so to say,” remembers Delsin Records boss Marsel van der Wielen. “Locally, party-scene-wise it (techno) stayed pretty underground, as it was smashed between the mellow and gabber scenes. I was at the first Autechre performance in 1993, and when Underground Resistance performed in Utrecht there were only 30 people. It was always the same guys at these events like Stefan Robbers (Terrace/Eevo Lute) and Jochem Paap (Speedy J).”
And yet by the end of the decade, and against the odds, techno had not only formed a bridge between these two antipodal factions, it had usurped them as dancefloor’s heir apparent.
Key to the viral-like spread of techno in the Netherlands and across the world were the club nights that acted not only as a local hub for an ever-growing community of techno evangelists, but also key stopping points for techno’s winged couriers as an emerging international DJ circuit developed, turning underground mavericks into air mile shredding magazine cover stars. These cathedrals of sound drew people together from all walks of life under a communal euphoric experience, something that Andrew Weatherall often noted went back hundreds of years via the church’s use of smoke, coloured lights and music to coerce a populace under one united thought.
“When we started the club night Slam in 1988,” remembers Soma’s Dave Clarke, “it was people from all over the city (Glasgow). West End students, trendies, gangsters and East End hoodlums. They were willing to get together and not have an angry head on their shoulders. It was all about embracing the new. Embracing each other. There was an initial utopia, I guess.”
“Slowly as we got into the mid-90s it was full on. You went to a techno club or you went to a house club. The lines were kind of drawn in the sand.” James Ruskin
It was this coming together of different tribes that Surgeon recalls as a key part of Birmingham’s nascent techno evolution around 1992/93. Alternating fortnightly between Third Eye at Snobs and House of God at Digbeth’s Dance Factory, he honed his craft with elements of some of the records he had been introduced to through John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show.
“I remember at that time there were a lot of people who were kind of interested in dance music, but they really didn’t feel like they could go to a club. They didn’t feel welcomed or at home there, but House of God and Third Eye were these places where pretty much anyone could feel welcome. It was basically all the different kind of freaks, oddballs and outsiders. You had punks, heavy metal people, hippies, queer people, like just everyone. All of the different kind of outsiders all seemed to feel welcome at this place. And I think that was very special and very unique to that event. Anyone who walked in there was just like: ‘Holy Fuck, what is going on here?’”
LOST’s Sheree Rashit is another to recall the DIY, just-do-it ethic that prevailed at the time. “From a UK perspective, there was this sort of almost punk attitude,” she says. “And when I say that I think of Andrew Weatherall who totally embraced so much. This just get-up-and-do-it attitude. So I think it changed lots of lives because people were able to be involved. They may have previously appreciated music and the effect it had on them but now they were able to be part of that. They made that their careers.”
Such pioneering techno promoters were willing to take the risks based on zero expectations, sometimes taking months and multiple phone calls to finally trace the artists they wanted to work with. This was simply a case of giving this new music a platform and the right environment to a crowd who were also searching for something new.
As James Ruskin recounts: “There were very few businessmen involved at this stage. The nights were promoted by DJs and fans of the music. The labels that were cropping up were run by the artists, the distribution companies were run by the people that didn’t fall into either of these categories. So you have this little sphere of people holding this thing up.”
French techno royalty Laurent Garnier concurs, reflecting upon the importance of community in elevating this burgeoning scene.
“I think to create something strong, it’s vital to have a residency,” he says. “To have a rendezvous, a weekly place or a monthly place where your crew, your crowd, your community can get together, feel safe, or feel at home. I always liked labels that work like a family because I think they’re always more prolific music-wise, like we try to do with Fcom. Like the Rex or a residency or a group of people that work together, put their ideas together, you know, mix their ideas to be able to think in an inventive way to build something. I always believed what built my career was the fact that I kept my residency for all these years. And I’ve been faithful to a lot of places around the world, even though now I don’t have a residency anymore. I feel that I have some kind of connection to some places around the world where I go back often or often enough to make people feel that together we are part of something. I think this is very, very important.”
If one city, more than any other, can claim to have universally embraced techno into the very fabric of its society, then Berlin surely has techno blood pumping through its veins. The 90s were ushered in on a sea of hope as the Wall fell and the city reunited after nearly 40 years of division and suspicion. As the East re-engaged with the West, a multitude of new possibilities unravelled.
A somewhat fortuitous Westphalian, Dimitri Hegemann, found himself at the very epicentre of this seismic cultural shift. Having relocated to Berlin in 1978 (his musical curiosity had already led him to some of Can and Kraftwerk’s earliest live shows in his hometown district of Soest in 1970, at the tender age of 15), the 80s found him hanging out at all-night Berlin parties with Nick Cave and The Birthday Party, tour managing Henry Rollins, signing Sheffield’s Clock DVA to his Interfisch label, putting on small acid house parties for 150 people at UFO and co-founding Berlin’s avant-garde electronic music festival Atonal in 1982.
On a visit to the industrial based Wax Trax label in Chicago in 1989, a rummage through a bucket full of label boss Jim Nash’s unwanted demo cassettes led him to Detroit’s ‘Final Cut’, a new industrial outfit that as chance would have it included Jeff Mills. A life-long bond was formed. If anyone was to find themselves in the right place at the right time, then Hegemann was the right person. By 1990 the stars aligned.
“We had this incredible historic situation of the fall of the Wall, and this was the number one media subject everywhere,” he says. “When the Wall was open, there were a lot of opportunities. The first point was euphoria, incredible euphoria, East and West got together. Second, the police had no time to control anything, you know, they had to check the traffic between East and West and all the trains and all that stuff. So they had no time to stop a club or an illegal club.
“The third thing was we had no curfew in Berlin. Since 1949 we have no curfew. We could have been open all-night-long. That was a law that was a huge advantage. And the fourth point was a lot of empty spaces in East Berlin. And then everybody tried to do something. It was cultural energy, anarchy, you know, and you could do what you wanted to do.”
One such empty space at 126 Leipziger Strasse, an underground bank vault of the Wertheim Department Store, led Hegemann and Achim Kohlberger to establish Berlin’s iconic Tresor nightclub and subsequent label in 1991. Now 30 years later, and after 1000s of incendiary, sweat-soaked parties, 100s of genre-defining releases and a club closure and relocation and rebirth, the institution that was to play a major role in evolving and spreading the gospel according to techno throughout the ensuing decade still stands by its adopted logo: ‘Tresor Never Sleeps’.
If clubs were techno’s night-time home, then the record shops that supported the music became the daytime hubs, meeting points and sources of information for local communities and visiting DJs to forge new links. With hot new releases and white labels paraded on their walls, racks sub-divided into genres and label back catalogues, and the premises’ often strewn with party flyers, the record shop’s role as a connective node simply reinforced the emergent trans-global techno network.
From 1989 to 1997, Fat Cat Records, among a host of others, played a central role in bringing London’s local electronic dance music community together. As shop co-founder and DJ Alex Knight recalls, the connection with other cities’ stores and distribution outlets was integral to their mutual survival.
“There was Submerge in Detroit and before that you had Watts in New York and everyone else that were kind of shifting US imports across the UK,” Knight says. “You had Rubadub in Scotland, but our hook up with Hard Wax in Berlin was quite pivotal in terms of the introduction of new music and new labels. Basic Channel for one. And we had this kind of reciprocal relationship. We would create a box and fill it with music from the kids in London bringing in records – white labels, promos and decent stuff. We would take five of each and we put it in a box up to 100 records. When that box was full, we packaged it up and sent it to Berlin. And Hard Wax would do the same for us. So once a month, we’d get this big box and inside there’s all these German white labels and that’s how we learnt about those records.”
The information flowed. City-to-city, store-to-store, the predominantly lyric-free records spoke one universal and understandable body language.
Techno’s rise through the 90s owed a further debt to its prominence on specialist radio shows such as Colin Dale’s Abstrakt Dance and Colin Favor’s Kiss FM show, whose unsigned ‘Demo DAT’ section showcased a host of new talent including a first airing of Aphex Twin’s ‘Digeridoo’.
The sonic flames were further fanned by printed media, as magazines and fanzines grew, many forged from the same just-do-it attitude that reported first hand from punk’s 1970 front lines. Magazines such as the UK’s Jockey Slut, DJ, Mixmag, Generator, Update and Muzik; France’s Coda, Eden and TRAX; Germany’s Frontpage, Groove, De:Bug, Spex and Raveline; Holland’s Disco Dance, Bassic Groove and EP Connexion; America’s URB and XLR8R all hastened techno’s irrepressible trajectory. Technical magazines such as Future Music began to run features from DJ/producers’ bedroom studios and serious music magazines such as The Wire dissected Drexciyan Afrofuturism.
Elsewhere, the club culture-splattered musings in Leeds’ The Herb Garden owed just as much to the sardonic football terrace witticism of Liverpool’s The End and London’s acid house bible Boy’s Own, as they did to the preposterous silliness of comics like Viz. By the mid-90s, Nottingham’s staunchly techno-based Magic Feet fanzine emerged, dedicated solely to the genre. While primarily a celebration and platform for the music and scene, it critiqued and celebrated in equal measure, unafraid to voice opinion or prick perceived pomposity.
“I had got into techno through rave and I wanted to be involved,” states founder and editor, Tom Magic Feet. “I thought doing a fanzine would be a way to do this, to get lots of free records and to make a living without having to work too hard! At the time, techno was somewhat marginalised in the music press, such as it was, so I thought the music could do with its own dedicated magazine.”
After years of scraping the funds together to produce each issue, Magic Feet finally succumbed to financial inevitability in 1999. A somewhat prescient fate that awaited much of club culture’s printed propaganda in the years to come.
By the end of the 1990s, techno and electronic music had become synonymous. From Japan’s Ken Ishii and Fumiya Tanaka to Stockholm’s Adam Beyer and Cari Lekebusch, via Naples’ Marco Carola and Gaetano Parisio, DJ Hell’s Munich Gigolo invasion and Chilean ex-pats Ricardo Villalobos and Lucian Nicolet, a vast supporting network had globally connected this new sonic ‘revolution for change’.
And while a roll call of essential clubs, too numerous to mention, had created a global bedrock of like-minded communities, festivals such as Barcelona’s Sonar and Amsterdam’s ADE expanded techno’s reach into the wider music industry. Large techno events such as Mannheim’s Time Warp, Fraga’s Monegros and Amsterdam’s Awakenings simply served to reinforce the universal approximation of techno by an ever-growing global following. Techno tents at festivals such as Lowlands, Pukkelpop, Tribal Gathering, T in the Park, Creamfields and Glastonbury were pulling in tens of thousands of new recruits and Berlin’s iconic Love Parade party witnessed one million people uniting on the German capital’s streets every year.
From today’s vantage point, it’s clear techno has achieved some kind of universality. The downside is a rampant commercialisation and homogenisation of a genre that had often been seen as risk-taking, visceral and uncompromising. Techno has always tried to carry the torch of futurism, but is it possible for any genre to break the constraints of time? Can techno really say it is still the future some 30 years later, or has its moment in the sun withered and died? Is anything new and ground-breaking still achievable?
“I think what’s happened is that we’ve kind of arrived there,” ponders Luke Slater. “For better or worse I’m not sure the word techno should relate to the future anymore because everything I could have ever wished for involving techno has happened. Everything has adopted the concept of it. Lift music, restaurant music, every kind of music seems to be based around the original concept of putting electronic beats together. For me it’s everywhere now.”
“For me, there’s no golden age,” adds Laurent Garnier, a man whose lifelong dedication and passion for techno and electronic music now sees him stand alongside such musical greats as Quincy Jones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Miles Davis in receiving the Légion d’honneur (the highest French order for military and civil merit). “I think it was the naive time where we didn’t know where the hell we were going. And it was a time where not everything had been written yet. Not really knowing where the fuck we were going. But it was a bit freer of any conception, I guess. The big difference with now is we have 30 years’ of history of this music and whatever you’re listening to today, cannot any more be super-front forward.
“Even now, the sound is still forward-thinking music-wise, but I feel like all the music I’m listening to nowadays from not just techno but from house and electronic music, I kind of heard it before. It’s not a bad thing. It’s not a criticism. It’s normal. Because after 30 years’ of experimenting with minimalism, noise, hard music, soft music, deep music, whatever you want to quantify it, we’ve gone into all sorts of different kinds of directions. And unless we quit what we’re doing and completely change our way of producing music I don’t think there is much space nowadays to be able to be super inventive.”
It’s a construct that also sits uneasily with Dave Clarke, a man whose DJ and production prowess were to earn him the nickname ‘Red Baron’ from John Peel. “When I was making music from ‘87 onwards I had a ‘computer’. People had word processors, but no-one had a computer, so Juan Atkins’ lyrics would resonate, and we would really feel futuristic as people thought we were strange with our weird equipment. Techno, house and electro led the music production revolution. We all pushed things in ways that were not invented or formalised yet. So yes, we felt like the future, but technology caught up with everyone. Even a basic smartphone today has 100s times more grunt than the equipment we were using. That is not the future, that is the present surely?
“Techno is now mostly a pop music of our time. Of course there are still pioneers, young and old pushing through, but most people rely on PR to get the attention. Tracks themselves rarely have a long shelf life and people that go to the big commercial events are not interested, so long as they have a great time, this is fact. Some artists are feeling it too, to quote The Fatback Band: ‘Worked years perfecting my craft, now my boss is giving me the shaft. Is this the future?’ This is how they feel, but things change and so they should! The status quo has to change, and I am sure that for some, 2020-2030 will be the golden age.”
“There were no rules, there was no industry, there was no handbook on how to make techno, how to distribute techno, how to run a business, how to have a DJ career when we started,” declares Richie Hawtin, a man whose Plastikman alter ego not only helped to redefine the notion of minimalism, but whose subsequent live shows went on to raise the bar in the presentation of techno as a combined audio and visual experience. “We wrote those books over the last 30 years. That was an incredibly exciting time, but I think the ethos of always looking forward in electronic music and techno is still there. I think that electronic music is still based upon synthesised sounds and sounds that are coming or built, created from technology that is also continuing to evolve and move forward, which still allows there to be this life force of the future within the music.
“And I think that’s really the important distinction. I think that the futuristic life force is still there. If we’re looking at techno to be the sound of the future, perhaps it doesn’t sound so futuristic as it did 30 years ago because now we’ve just heard so much of it. And perhaps the sound hasn’t changed as drastically as you would expect because it has become its own artform with its own set of themes and frequencies. But I still think the intention of techno is to push for, explore and create an imaginary sonic universe. That is perhaps by definition, a vision of the future.”
“There were no rules, there was no industry, there was no handbook on how to make techno, how to distribute techno, how to run a business, how to have a DJ career when we started.” Richie Hawtin
As one of techno’s key visionaries, Jeff Mills’ groundbreaking releases on Underground Resistance, Axis and Tresor advanced the concept of techno through the 90s. His lightning, three-deck wizardry brought dancefloors to the edge of chaos, and his pummelling, brain-frying, off-the-cuff 909 workouts are just as likely to sit in the middle of orchestras, live bands, cinematic reinterpretations and A-list attended fashion shows. He remains cautiously optimistic.
“This type of thinking was there before techno,” says the man whose 1997 techno call-to-arms, ‘The Bells’ has now sold north of half-a-million copies. “The more recognisable elements of what people would say techno is all about, were already there long before Juan (Atkins) came around. When Kraftwerk came around, it was there. And so, if anything, techno was a reinforcement of a certain type of ideology that probably started and was more prevalent in the 1930s. This idea of thinking free with art and Surrealism and Dadaism, and in the Futurist Manifesto, and embracing technology, the electric light and all this stuff. It was a systematic reinforcement every 30 years; and then the 1960s. Humans seem to go through this self-reflective realisation and they react to it. So 1930s, 1960s, 1990s.” (A theme explored on 1994’s eighth Axis release, ‘Cycle 30’).
“You can begin to see signs of it now. I mean, we’re in the 2020s. It’s reflective of 100 years ago, in the early 1920s, after the plague, after the war, people were questioning the world and questioning themselves and it began to show up in art and began to show up in music and began to show up in our landscapes. You can kind of see the same thing happening now. Even all the negativity that you see, it was the same thing 100 years ago. And so I think techno music as an ideology, I don’t think it showed us anything new, it kind of reminded us of this need to be able to find yourself or find out what life could be about. Techno is pretty much a romantic way of thinking about the future.”
This article first appeared in issue 1 of Disco Pogo. Buy the magazine here.
Primal Scream, Creation and Factory Records PR and Heavenly Recordings owner.
Shoom co-founder & promoter.
DJ, producer and promoter of Spice/Most Excellent.
50% of Two Lone Swordsmen, Radioactive Man.
Jack The Tab, The Grid, producer, writer and DJ.
Boy’s Own editorial, DJ, producer.
It’s the mid-80s and Andrew goes out clubbing to a soundtrack that he’ll later collate on the ‘Nine O’Clock Drop’ compilation. He adopts the apt moniker The Outsider for the Boy’s Own fanzine.
Cymon Eckel: “Andrew was always the weird kid. He went to the grammar school and I went to the local comp. He did as much as he could to disrupt his school uniform like wearing a thin red tie. We met in the Adam & Eve pub in Windsor in 1983 – brought together by a chap called Phil Goss who was his right-hand man at Windsor Boys’ School. I already knew of Andrew, he was the clever, cocksure kid dressed to the nines, always walking up Windsor High Street with an album I’d never heard of tucked under his arm. It’s what we all did; the Victorians went promenading, we bought vinyl and walked up the High Street. We started hanging out, taking acid, going to clubs, gigs and anti-racism marches. The music on the ‘Nine O’Clock Drop’ album was about us three (a reference to the time they took acid on a Friday night). I had a Vauxhall Cavalier and Andrew got in one night with a newspaper cutting which he stuck to the dashboard, it was a newspaper headline about glue sniffing: I Don’t Care If I Live Or Die. It stayed there for 18 months. It was our boys to men journey; highly creative, highly exciting, highly intoxicating times. We talked about art, music, culture, clothes, records, soaking it all up.”
Terry Farley: “There was a really good clothes shop in Windsor called Cassidy’s which sold designer clothes for the upwardly mobile soul boy. Our little crew came from Slough, so we used to go over to Windsor a lot. We were in our early 20s and there was a crew of kids in a pub in Windsor who I’d termed Futurists. They were into electro pop with mad haircuts. Cymon Eckel was one of them and Andrew was one of the others. We all became mates and started going to clubs uptown and took coach parties to nights out in Bournemouth.
“Andrew used to wear workwear and Bundeswehr vests from Laurence Corner, an Army Surplus store a lot of pop stars shopped at. He was always well dressed. He was a couple of years younger than us, so when you’re 21 it’s unusual to hang around with kids who are 17 and 18. So he obviously cut the mustard to be on our firm. Cymon too, they were good lads, a little bit posher than us. We were into soul music, dressing up and dancing. The Windsor lot had music that we’d had no interest in but was really good. He’d read the NME and we’d read Blues & Soul. Going back to his and Cymon’s flat Andrew would play loads of records and he turned me on to a lot of stuff. He’d come over to Slough to the soul nights too and wear ‘way out’ clothes – God, I sound like someone’s nan – and no one would bat an eyelid. But at a normal club in Windsor he may have got some flak.”
Cymon: “Andrew initially moved in with my father in Windsor, then my dad moved on and I moved in around 1985. We were listening to Shriekback, Augustus Pablo, B.A.D and Sonic Youth. I was very lucky to live with him and witness the start of his incredible record collection. We hooked up with Terry Farley and Paul McKee who we’d met in the Adam & Eve. Terry had seen The End (an influential fanzine produced in Liverpool by Peter Hooton and The Farm) and said he wanted to do something like it that covered trainers, politics, books, fashion and music.”
Terry: “I’d bought a copy of The End and showed it to Andrew and everyone, and said: ‘We could do this, ordinary lads have made this’. Andrew was the educated person in the room that could make it good. If people had said, ‘That’s quite good’, that would’ve been enough. We didn’t plan for people to be talking about it 30 years later. Andrew wanted to do some interviews. He did Martin Stephenson and the Daintees so that went in the first issue. There was no design at all, it was me cutting out pictures from other magazines, sticking them on a bit of paper, and adding the cut out text. My mum would take the handwritten articles into work and get someone to type them up. Then we’d take it to my mate Johnny O’Neil to print it in his spare time. We paid him a few hundred quid in cash. Eventually we got a few people to advertise, like Johnny Rocker who worked down the King’s Road in Robot, and he helped get American Classics to advertise too for £50 a page. Andrew said he’d write the editorial as The Outsider which sounded great. He could be a pain in the arse though; Johnny O’Neil would give me a time slot and I’d be knocking on Andrew’s door to get his Outsider piece. He’d write it with a pen while I was there waiting with the rest of the stuff in the car. He was talented but exasperating.”
Cymon: “Andrew’s contribution to Boy’s Own was massive. He would get the Letraset, create the headings and art direct the whole thing. He’d find mad characters from old magazines and picture books. He wrote the manifesto in the first magazine as The Outsider. We’d all sit around and chat through everything usually over a cup of tea, a spliff and biscuits. Those were the major continuing factors in his life: puff, Bourbons, tea and music. The first Boy’s Own came out in 1986 and the first party was at the Cafe Des Artistes. Andrew did the artwork for that and we wrote on it: ‘An evening of punk, funk, dub and country’.”
Terry: “We did a Boy’s Own party in 1987 and Andrew was playing things like Lou Reed, Echo & The Bunnymen and electronic records and I’d play hip hop and go-go. About 200 people came to it. We did another gig at what became Queens in Slough and he started his set with the main theme from the film ‘663 Squadron’, stuck the smoke machine on full and completely fogged the gaff up. He got thrown off.”
Ed Simons: “The culture around Boy’s Own seemed really cool. It seemed like a novel idea to read about what flavour Marks & Spencer’s crisps DJs liked.”
James Baillie: “I used to read Boy’s Own and actually hired my first resident for Venus - Paul Wain, a student DJ at Rock City - who had sent them a top ten and they’d printed it. So I hired him as a result of that.”
Danny Rampling: “Boy’s Own was integral to the scene. Shoom and Boy’s Own were very connected. It was the journal for the core acid house scene and also in Manchester where Justin Robertson had a club. It reflected Andrew’s character.”
“Andrew was the clever, cocksure kid dressed to the nines, always walking up Windsor High Street with an album I’d never heard of tucked under his arm.” Cymon Eckel
Despite the threat of people holding hands and singing along to The Beatles, Andrew has a clubbing epiphany at Shoom and soon becomes their regular DJ.
Cymon: “Gary Haisman from our crew went to Shoom the second week, Terry went the third week, I went the fourth week and Andrew came with me on the fifth week. Shoom was absolute mayhem and eye opening. It debunked every former principle of music, art, relationships, how men and women interact, it broke every rule. Going clubbing with Andrew was funny as fuck, we danced all the time. There’s such a mystique about him, but to people close to him – before he became the person behind the decks – it was always fun, quickfire wit, ‘did you read that article, have you seen this…?’ He was like that from day one, but it was importantly about fun. Even when we were tripping and talking bollocks it was always so funny.”
Terry: “I got taken to Shoom by Gary Haisman and I explained it to Andrew and he said: ‘That sounds really shit’. I said they played The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’ as the last record and everyone was holding hands. I was holding hands with Gary Crowley and he was: ‘What?!’ Anyway, he came down the next week with Cymon. Me, Steve Mayes, Andrew and Cymon all hung out with different people. Andrew bought the NME lot and people with long hair and leather trousers. Mayes would bring the Happy Mondays, Cymon knew all the King’s Road people like Martin Fry and Bananarama.”
Danny: “He came down to Shoom with Terry Farley and I was briefly introduced. He really stood out. I remember him on the dancefloor, he looked very punky with a Seditionaries shirt on from Vivienne Westwood’s store on the King’s Road, and bondage trousers. He looked acid house with the long hair but was a cross between a biker and a punk. He was unique, an individualist. He inspired others to dress a certain way who adopted his look.”
Jenni Rampling: “I first met Andrew when he came to Shoom with mutual friends Cymon Eckel and Terry Farley. Obviously, as I was doing the door, I would have allowed him entrance because he was friends of friends via Boy’s Own. Once inside, I could barely see through all the smoke and dry ice but I do recall that he was dancing and smiling a lot! I don’t recall him being very stylish at all – in fact, I think he was anti-fashion. I recall baggy T-shirts and scruffy jeans. However, when I look at photos of him in later years, I can see that his ‘look’ was extremely well co-ordinated. Never predictable, always unique and a bit quirky.”
Richard Norris: “It was very difficult to get into Shoom, but we went down quite early and we brought free T-shirts for people and Jenni let us in. Me and Genesis P-Orridge walked down the stairs and Andrew was the first person we met. He instantly showed off his Psychic TV tattoo which he probably covered up years later. He was a kindred spirit as he knew his alternative music, he didn’t come from the soul scene.”
Anna Haigh: “I used to go to Shoom with a school friend, Nina Walsh, and I have a weird recollection of Andrew walking around with a long, fake nose on. He had a cheeky smile and a glint in his eye and we thought he was really funny. I was doing my A-levels so must have been 17.”
Danny: “We went to a party in Islington that Andrew was playing and we sat there for hours talking and really clicked. The party was in a cafe in Chapel Market that started on the Sunday night and went on into the day on Monday, with Andrew playing in the morning. All the core scene were there. There were probably 50 or 60 people there. He was very inspiring playing leftfield music that was off the beaten path, he turned me on to a lot of new music. He played Chris & Cosey’s ‘October Love Song’ as the sun was coming up. I have eternal memories of that morning.”
“When he played for us at Shoom he never wanted to talk about money. It wasn’t his priority, he just loved playing.” Jenni Rampling
Jenni: “There were many of us there and we basically partied for hours until the market traders set up their stalls. Danny got chatting to Andy who was playing an eclectic set, he never conformed to one genre of music and was totally immersed in his music. He never gave a second thought as to whether people liked his choice or not. Many DJs play to the crowd – Andy played for himself and he soon had a dedicated following of fans who totally respected his choices. He had a bit of an indie vibe, but then he would throw some obscure reggae track in and he would smile at people’s reactions. I can’t remember too much as we were all having such a laugh, but knowing Andy he was probably playing for hours. He simply loved music so much.”
Danny: “I found him so engaging and knowledgeable. And his sense of humour was infectious. We had a lot of laughs. You’d be in his company and be keeping up with his jovial nature, his cackling laughter, making up stories and role playing. It was all akin to Monty Python and I used to say: ‘You’re Eric Idle’s brother aren’t you?’ Everything was so free-spirited, new and revolutionary. We were young kids getting on and doing our own thing, which made it magical and special.”
Jenni: “Danny and Andy both connected over their mutual love for music and were often in their own world at various after parties. I think Andy made Danny laugh a lot and I could hear them acting out comedy scenes. From my point of view, I found him to be quite shy – even when discussing fees. When he played for us at Shoom he never wanted to talk about money. It wasn’t his priority, he just loved playing. In some respects, he reminded me a lot of Colin Faver. He had the same passion for music and was equally a genius and extremely humble.”
Terry: “He first played at Shoom On The Farm. It was a bizarre event, on a dairy farm in the middle of Surrey. We had to get coaches there and it had been raining all day and night. It was cold inside the barn, stunk of milk and they tried to recreate Ibiza by putting on a foam party. This foam and milk and cold… it was quite horrendous. I remember Andrew played Chris & Cosey’s ‘October Love Song’ and it sounded like the best record you’d ever heard at that right time. A lot of people would’ve asked: ‘Who is this playing?’ as he was coming from a different place – 90% of people came from the soul scene and so the records he played were revelations.”
Danny: “I’d met him around May in ‘88 so it would make sense that Shoom On The Farm was his first gig with us as it was a summer event. His style was chunky, full-on and well mixed. He was a natural with mixing, very precise. He played a very eclectic, broad mix of music including Simple Minds’ ‘Theme From Great Cities’, Throbbing Gristle… He was like the John Peel of the acid house scene.”
Jenni: “Shoom On The Farm was completely bonkers. Obviously, I was running around like a lunatic organising the foam. Danny gave him and Terry Farley a residency when we moved Shoom to the West End – kind of an alternative set. He was always left to do his own thing, not that he was going to listen or be told what to play.”
Cymon: “No matter where he played in that period everyone in the room would wait to hear what he was going to play. We didn’t print up the running orders back then but the constant chat was, ‘When’s Andrew on?’ The mystique and reverence didn’t just happen, it built up over his career. I did a party called Arcadia (in 1988) before the really massive Boy’s Own parties. We had about 1000 people in this film studio with the inflatable plane from Jonathan Ross’ Saturday Night Live and a bouncy castle in the other room. Andrew was playing 2-4am after Danny. We could sense it was going to be a moment. Everyone that acid house had touched in those initial months was there. Andrew let Danny’s last record play out and then after two beats he put on The Style Council’s ‘Shout To The Top’ and the place went fucking berserk. He had the room in the palm of his hand after that.”
Jeff Barrett: “Richard Norris was the first person to mention his name to me. I used to work at Creation from 1985, and Richard used to blag records from there. He said there’s this amazing thing going on called acid house and you should come with me to the parties. You’d really like the Boy’s Own parties, and especially a DJ called Andrew Weatherall. He said me and Andrew would get on really well. I used to go to Future mainly. When Andrew and I met and got chatting we were both sporting over shoulder length curly hair and we hit it off straight away. It led to something pretty deep and special for both of us. We became pretty inseparable for quite a long time. I thought he was really funny, he made me laugh immediately. He was cool as fuck and he had some brilliant tunes. He was firmly a face on the scene and I knew I wanted to hang out with him.”
Richard: “He played at Shoom when it moved to Busby’s and Future. We used to go out five or six nights a week. Most people lost their jobs but then found new jobs starting fanzines, making T-shirts or putting on nights. The likelihood of seeing Andrew DJ regularly in that period was pretty high.”
Jeff: “You’d listen to him play and you’d be wowed by his skills but you’d be really knocked out by his selection. It was always something fresher than the next man. There was a massive sense of risk and balls as to how he played records with a lot of mischief. I rarely saw him flop though.”
Andrew has a fateful meeting with Primal Scream which results in a purple patch of productions for them, The Grid, Saint Etienne, My Bloody Valentine and James.
Jeff: “I was working with the Happy Mondays when Andrew did his first remix with Paul Oakenfold. That’s what also got me into the scene and the clubs as I’d turn up to Future with the Mondays’ white labels. I had a lot of people coming to me and saying: ‘Are you managing Andrew?’ I wasn’t at the time but eventually I did. He was a major face on the scene and then I started Heavenly and he was a co-conspirator. So when Simon Lovechild gave me that track (‘The World’ According To…’) it was good, but I knew how it could be better. Andrew and I would get high and play it and I’d say: ‘You could make this a bit better?’ and he’d be: ‘Course I can.’ The first record was Sly & Lovechild remixed by Andrew Weatherall and then of course his brilliant Saint Etienne remix followed. I remember Pete Astor from Weather Prophets playing melodica on that.
“At Creation Alan McGee had embraced ecstasy if not house music fully - he loved the drugs more than the scene. Primal Scream’s second album was a rocky record and they’d grown their hair out, wearing lots more leather. They’d be looking at me taking my house mixtapes in to the office and Throb would be telling me to put the New York Dolls on. But the ‘House Sound of Chicago’ would replace Johnny Thunders. I was doing press on their album and Andrew came round to the office. I gave him a stack of records to take away including the album. I was struggling to get press and was on the cusp of being sacked by McGee, who would say: ‘Barrett you’re doing a shite job on this, you’ve got a week left’. Andrew called and said the ballads on the record were amazing. He loved ‘I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have.’ He put it in Boy’s Own in the uppers: ‘Primal Scream’s ballads’. I said to McGee: ‘There’s your press!’ He said: ‘It’s a shitey little fanzine’. But that was the most significant press you could get in the UK at the time.”
Bobby Gillespie: “I first heard of Andrew Weatherall back in the summer of 1989, when he wrote about his favourite tracks of the time in the Boy’s Own fanzine. To our surprise, he said that he loved all the ballads on our second album. No one cared about that record apart from diehard fans, but he really dug it.”
Jeff: “I was given another week to get something in a proper paper so I went to Helen Mead (NME’s live editor) and she wanted to save my job. She had the inspired idea to ask Andrew to review Primal Scream live in Exeter. He used the pseudonym Audrey Witherspoon. After the gig I remember him and the band all laughing. They all clicked.”
Andrew Innes: “We first met when he came to write the NME piece. Barrett couldn’t get us any press and no one liked the second album except this guy who wrote for Boy’s Own. We met him before we went on and he looked like he should be up on stage with us with his leather trousers and long hair. We did ‘Don’t Believe a Word’ by Thin Lizzy as an encore. He said he loved Thin Lizzy and had a signed copy of ‘Jailbreak’. So we thought if he likes the Lizzy then that’s good enough for us.”
Jeff: “The following week Innes came with me to see him play. Innes wanted to know if Andrew would remix them and so off they went and did it. So getting them into Boy’s Own did turn out to be a significant piece of press!”
Innes: “I thought it was Jeff Barrett’s idea to get the remix of ‘I’m Losing More…’ done but he said it was mine. Barrett took us to Land Of Oz on a Monday night and we heard him DJing. We took to the acid house clubs like ducks to water. We used to live in West London and go to clubs around there; the girls were incredible looking, the atmosphere was brilliant, there was no violence and the music was great. Better than some indie club playing the Wedding Present.
“We’d done ‘I’m Losing More…’ to a click track as the drummer was having trouble keeping it steady, so it was the only one on the album recorded like that. And there was the big outro to it which was the same thing on-and-on. I could see that the music being played in the clubs was repetitious and people just took one bit of a song. Andrew went in three times to do it I think. The first time he just seemed to turn up the bass drum and kept the song. The second time it was a bit different but it was still the full song. So I think out of frustration I told him to fucking destroy it. I think he’d been trying to make the song better in a conventional sense. So to be told he could do what he wanted and have more of a blank canvas, I think he was relieved. I was there each time he attempted it as I had to take down my video player with my VHS of the film ‘The Wild Ones’. I had the times written down for the counter on the machine for when the quotes came in the film (‘Just what is it you want to do…’) so I could find them. I was there at 6am when it was finished and thought it was brilliant, I couldn’t believe it.”
Richard: “We used the Peter Fonda quote on the ‘Jack The Tab’ album in 1987, but I think it was a case of great minds think alike. I never confirmed with him whether he nicked it from us. If you were into cult stuff and you’d seen that bit of the film – these Hells Angels go ape at a funeral – it’s a very evocative scene for young people looking for samples.”
“We met him before we went on and he looked like he should be up on stage with us with his leather trousers and long hair.” Andrew Innes
Bobby: “The thing about Andrew was that he was a non-musician. ‘Loaded’ was only his second time in a recording studio. Because he wasn’t aware of the rules, he broke them. He wasn’t trying to make hit records. That never entered his mind. He just wanted to make interesting tracks that worked on the dancefloor.”
Jeff: “I remember Innes’ face when he played ‘Loaded’ back to me. He was so buzzed. I’ve still got the original test pressing with Bob’s writing on it.”
Innes: “We had an acetate cut and he played it at Subterania and right away people started doing the ‘woo woos’ from ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ along with it. I knew then it could be a hit. It was a great feeling. He played it as his last record as well as it was slightly slower. People just went mental.”
Bobby: “Afterwards, Innes called me in the early hours and said: ‘Bobby, it was insane. Weatherall played ‘Loaded’ and the whole place went ballistic.’ He told me that Mick Jones and Kevin Rowland had come up to him afterwards and shook his hand. ‘Loaded’ just exploded on dancefloors across the country. Looking back, it definitely caught something of the time. That was down to Andrew. All I can say is that the experience of standing in a club and seeing people go wild to it was something else. Kids would come up and hug you afterwards.”
Richard: “I was there when it got played at Subterania. It totally worked. You could tell it would because people were playing things like Thrashing Doves who did a version of the Stones’ track with the ‘woo woos’ in it. That vibe, that feel was in the air.”
Cymon: “We did a Shoom party at a studio in Battersea, all our mates had heard ‘Loaded’ but no one had heard it played out. Bobby and Andrew (Innes) were there and Andrew gee-d everyone up that he was going to play the mix and it was one of those transcendent moments. It re-defined Balearic, rock’n’roll, it was the ultimate hybrid.”
Terry: “He brought an acetate of ‘Loaded’ to Future. I remember feeling quite blown away that someone I knew actually made a record like that. It was outstanding. The reaction was incredible. He started his set with it. There was a record seller from Zoom records in there who had a stall set up, he’d sell loads of Balearic and Future-type records. All the people over by him were asking him what it was and if they could buy it.”
Dave Beer: “I remember hearing ‘Loaded’ for the first time very well. Andrew dropped a test pressing at a club in King’s Cross. Paolo from Sign Of The Times was there and some guy appeared on stage dancing to it. It sounded so different that I automatically thought that the guy on stage was performing and it was a live PA. Only halfway through the security came on and escorted him off. This turned out to be Matthias, Paolo’s brother who managed to save him from being thrown out.”
Danny: “I think I heard Terry playing it off white label at a Boy’s Own night. It stood out; we were all given white labels. Andrew hadn’t been in the studio before so what they did with ‘Loaded’ was groundbreaking. It epitomises that time and the free-spirited nature we were experiencing.”
Andrew Curley: “I went to Queens on a Sunday afternoon, Phil and Fiona Perry’s Sunday session. I was with Marc Barclay at the bar. Andrew bowled in and stood with us, he told us about this record he was very excited about and then bought us all a drink. I asked him: ‘How will I know which record it is when you play it later’? He just said: ‘You’ll know’. Right at the end he played it as the last record. He played it twice because the place went mental.”
Bobby: “Then it really took off and suddenly we were on ‘Top of the Pops’. It was wild for us, because I think we’d been written off a bit, but not by Andrew Weatherall. He heard something in the songs. He was a rocker at heart and he initially connected with those songs on that level. Basically, he took a bluesy Primal Scream ballad and turned it into something ecstatic. The ecstatic blues.”
Justin Robertson: “It divided opinion in Manchester as it was very different to what was played at the Haçienda. Andrew showed me a reaction sheet from a Manchester DJ: ‘Typical Southern shandy drinking shite!’”
Ed: “I think I read about ‘Loaded’ in the NME. A lot of my friends at uni went to the Thursday at the Haçienda but that wasn’t for us. It got its main plays there.”
Graham Sherman: “’Loaded’ did shift things radically – it affected so many people. When the Scream blew up, NME would cover the band and not mention the dance producer twiddling knobs. You knew he was the man to watch because he was doing such different things. But the rest of the NME were too busy writing about Ned’s Atomic Dustbin.”
Bobby: “His remix of ‘Come Together’ was another track that was gigantic in the clubs. It became one of those songs that DJs ended their sets with as the sun was coming up. Liam Gallagher still goes on to me about hearing it at a massive rave in Scotland; thousands of kids going mental to it.”
Innes: “‘Screamadelica’ was never an album in our brains. We just wanted to make records that would be played in clubs. We did ‘Come Together’ and then ‘Slip Inside This House’ for an LP for Roky Erickson to pay for his medical bills. Then we did ‘Don’t Fight It, Feel It’. We just wanted to make cool 12-inch records. And then McGee said: ‘Oh you should finish your album’. And we were like: ‘Oh, album?’”
Bobby: “By autumn 1990, we had a little studio in Hackney near the Creation offices. For ‘Screamadelica’, we gave him tracks and tracks of melodies and songs, loads of stuff that he put together somehow. His skill at arranging was off the scale. No one else would have thought of constructing tracks like he did, arranging our melodies and music into abstract pop songs. I have to mention Hugo Nicholson here, too, because I think maybe his best work was done with Hugo. They were a team. Andrew had the vision and Hugo Nicholson had the studio skills needed to realise his ideas. They just killed it every time.”
Ed: “I do remember ‘Higher Than the Sun’. We had the 12-inch and three of us spent a whole afternoon doing what students do and listening to it on repeat for four hours. We were higher than the sun.”
James: “I remember where I was for ‘Don’t Fight It, Feel It (Scat mix)’. Weatherall was playing Dingwalls and when he played it I went to take a look at the record and it just said ‘SCAT’ on it. I went around telling everyone that this brilliant record was by an artist called SCAT.”
Sherman: “Dance music just wasn’t taken seriously at the NME. People there would mock me for liking bleepy music. I had journalists like Terry Staunton dancing around me in the office going: “Bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep”. They didn’t want to cover it so I was on a bit of a crusade and wanted it to get recognised. Around the time of his remix of James’ ‘Come Home’, James Brown said we should put Andy Weatherall on the cover but it never happened.”
Richard: “I remember telling the NME they were missing this generation’s punk and Steven Wells would just say: ‘Err, it sounds like Gary Numan’. ‘Screamadelica’ was everything you wanted it to be from my world of psychedelia, sampling and house music and everything coming together at once. It delivered on all fronts. The result of such enthusiasm and ideas.”
Andrew goes on a groundbreaking - and hedonistic - tour with the Scream with the band bookended by himself and The Orb’s Alex Paterson.
Bobby: “I remember Andrew came on the road with us soon afterwards, when we did a short British tour. The Orb would go on first, then we’d play a short set, and afterwards we’d do a few Es, and get on the dancefloor with the kids for Weatherall’s set. Great days. He loved the madness, the chaos of rock’n’roll, but he also saw the absurdity of it all, which is rare.”
Innes: “We just thought we’d try and take some of what we were enjoying out on tour with us rather than just seeing the band and it all stops at 11pm. There would normally be an after show where Andrew and Alex would DJ ‘til 5am. It was pretty good fun; we didn’t have to sleep much back then.”
Jeff: “The ‘Screamadelica’ tour was just a trip, meeting brilliant people around the country. We laughed a lot. Just seeing people dance: this is really happening.”
Justin: “We were on the Scream tour and had played in Belfast and then had a show in Dublin. We ended up getting a taxi, me and my girlfriend Karina with Andrew and Nina. At the border we got pulled over at an army checkpoint. There were two soldiers, one just a kid who looked terrified, and they asked us for I.D. The kid was shaking and had his gun stuck through the window looking at us with Andrew with his long hair and motorbike boots. He asked us for our names but when he got to Karina she just went blank because she was so scared. Andrew without missing a beat said: ‘Look in your jacket, it’s Dorothy Perkins.’ And it completely diffused the situation.”
Innes: “I think we both couldn’t go there and do something like ‘Screamadelica 2’. Career-wise we would have had lesser and lesser sales though it may have been bigger initially. But we’re not like that and he certainly wasn’t. I’ve done that, what can I do now? He did an amazing track with us on the ‘Evil Heat’ album called ‘Autobahn 66’, it encapsulates how he took our music and made it better.”
In demand after ‘Loaded’ Andrew forms a Balearic supergroup with various Boy’s Own members, which Terry Farley names Bocca Juniors.
Cymon: “London Records’ Paul McKee was A&R who rode shotgun with us on many of our nights out. They were trying to get music into places like Shoom. They wanted us to make and release records so we thought let’s form a band. Terry came up with the name and Andrew wrote the lyrics. The rest of us played percussion. ‘Raise’ was a zeitgeist moment bringing together Balearic and Italian piano house.”
Terry: “We had the label Boy’s Own with London Records and Pete Tong suggested we make a record. They put us in a posh studio with full catering, which attracted all the ne’er do wells from the outreaches of the Boy’s Own crew to see what they were serving up. Andrew had a couple of lines from an Aleister Crowley record and we got a guy in to re-play the piano riff from the Thrashing Doves’ ‘Jesus on the Payroll’. Anna Haigh was a friend of Nina Walsh, she was fantastic.”
Anna: “I used to be in a punk band at school called Internal Autonomy and Andrew and Terry were talking about putting a band together. They wanted to hear the record me and my school chums had made. I think Andrew wanted to get away from the usual trained voices you’d hear on a lot of dance records and have something more edgy. The lyrics were different too with the Aleister Crowley quotes, he was really well read. I was really nervous and had a shot of whisky beforehand. It was in a plush studio in Maida Vale. Andrew had laid down a guide vocal and I thought it sounded really good. I wondered what they needed me for.”
Danny: “It was like a coach party in the studio. There were a lot of people involved!”
Terry: “It was a great record but a bit too early. The vast majority of people playing dance music then were playing rave. A couple of years later we might have been as big as the Happy Mondays. I’d have been Bez.”
Justin: “It’s quite an odd record isn’t it? Channelling that post-punk sound and quoting Aleister Crowley.”
Dave: “‘Raise’ was a perfect record for me, as was the whole Boy’s Own attitude. The punk rock, piss-take attitude and self-assuredness was just where my head was at then. I found myself being drawn further south down to London and it was down to tracks like this.”
Richard: “There were a few bands like that that came out of clubs like Sean McLusky’s If. He used to put on dance nights and always put a band on. Bocca Juniors didn’t really have time to develop. The Happy Mondays had been going for years by the time they broke in 1989 with the ‘Madchester Rave On’ EP.”
Anna: “I wrote the lyrics to (follow up) ‘Substance’ with Andrew who wanted me to get more involved so we wrote that together. He wanted to move away from the house stuff that the Boy’s Own lot were into and wanted to be more experimental and edgy with it. So he went his own way. Thank God he did as he made such wonderful music. Terry went off and did amazing stuff too so it was a good thing everyone went their separate ways.”
Cymon: “After we did ‘Substance’ Andrew wanted to leave. Andrew was an artist and he had a certain amount of colours in his palette. Working with Terry and Pete and being fixed to a certain point and time didn’t suit him. He wanted to create different pictures with his own tones and colours and forge his own path. So doing Bocca Juniors was a bit of a compromise as it wasn’t everything he wanted to put into the record. He was very honest about it. He had an opportunity to paint his own pictures.”
Terry: “It wasn’t a band. We just made a record and a follow up but there wasn’t really any idea that we’d go beyond that. They didn’t sell either. There was one club in Manchester and one in Nottingham and that was it really. Shoom was 200 people, Future was 150 people. Boy’s Own got dropped by ffrr so we used the money to start Junior Boy’s Own.”
Justin: “I guess he moved on when he thought something wasn’t working for him, even though he was a brilliant collaborator and drew the best out of people.”
Richard: “You could see how quickly things moved back then when you heard things like his remix of Saint Etienne. I’d been talking to Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs about ‘Jack the Tab’ and they said they wanted to have a go at making a record so I suggested a studio and that they use a Roland 303 and they went in and had a go. The first bleepy thing they did didn’t really work. But then only six months later they had ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ out with this brilliant remix.”
Andrew moves on from Bocca Juniors and Scream producer Hugo Nicolson to work with Jagz Kooner and Gary Burns. He begins to DJ across the country at like-minded clubs: Venus in Nottingham, Slam in Glasgow, Most Excellent in Manchester and Flying in London which is termed The Balearic Network.
Dave: “I remember meeting Andrew for the first time well. It was at a party Love Ranch had thrown in King’s Cross. From the off it was right up my street. This was just before we started Back To Basics. I remember when I arrived there was a bedsheet doubling up as a banner with the words ‘This is where it’s fucking at’ scrawled on with spray paint. I knew I was in the right place. I’d gone down there to meet up with Charlie Chester and by this time I was getting tired of the baggy raver look. I’d dragged out my old Burberry tartan Seditionary Westwood bondage trousers. I thought I was going to walk through the door feeling pretty individual but within 10 minutes I spotted another long-haired, ponytailed individual, dressed almost identically to me. Our eyes met and immediately looked the other way. I recall thinking: ‘Fuck me, what are the chances of that?!’ After making a point of not looking at each other I proceeded to get into the spirit of things as we always did back then. I remember people such as Terry Farley, Rocky & Diesel and lots of the old faces from Full Circle being there. To be truthful I didn’t actually have a clue who was DJing, but the music was on point. Then I glanced over to the DJ booth unusually tucked away at the side of the stage as if it were a monitor desk. Who should be playing but this similarly clad person. Our eyes met again and I smiled, getting an appreciative nod back. I finally found out it was Weatherall from Boy’s Own. I had heard Saint Etienne’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ having loved the Weatherall dub mix.
“As fate would have it on our second meeting we were at Most Excellent in Manchester. Weatherall was playing with Justin Robertson. The pair of us couldn’t believe it as we looked at each other’s feet and we were both wearing brothel creepers. I didn’t know anybody else at that point that admired such footwear. At the after party we locked heads and talked punk, Elvis and acid house. That clinched the deal and we were mates after that. Andrew always managed to stay two steps further than any other fucker. One of the things I remember him saying was: ‘Fashion is something you buy until you find your own style’ and Andrew always epitomised style. One fond memory was him wearing full ‘Biggles’ attire: Flying jacket, long white scarf, jodhpurs and knee length boots complete with full wax moustache.”
Justin: “I first saw him with Jeff Barrett when they were in Manchester. They walked into Eastern Bloc, the record shop where I worked, and they looked like two of the Three Musketeers, really long tousled hair, waistcoats and silk shirts. I thought: ‘You took a risk walking down Oldham Street’. He came in and picked out records and I didn’t know any of them. Me and various other Balearic aficionados would re-order things he’d bought. He played at my Sunday night Spice. It was the night after he’d played the Haçienda on Saturday. I think I paid him £100 but he gave me some of the money back because he didn’t think he’d played very well. One of the skills he had was that he’d banged it out at the Haçienda and then played a spot-on Balearic chugging set for us on the Sunday. I didn’t know any of the records he played then either.”
David Holmes: “Back then he was Andy Weatherall. I’d heard he was an amazing DJ and I went to a club Charlie Hall from the Drum Club was running called Egg in North London in 1991. It was an amazing night and he played in that Balearic vein but evolving into acid house and Detroit stuff with his remixes mixed in. When I heard him the penny dropped, it was an epiphany. I sauntered up to him as I wanted him to play Sugar Sweet in Belfast. A lot of DJs were terrified of playing Belfast back then but he was really interested. He gave me his number and I called him a few days later - an 071 number - and he said: ‘‘Coronation Street’ has just started can you ring me back in half an hour.’”
Ed: “When Tom (Rowlands) was in Ariel we were a bit more connected with the scene and we went to a Boy’s Own party in a country house. There was a marquee in the garden and Andrew played around 5am. There were about 50 people stumbling around the dancefloor. He blew mine and Tom’s minds. He just had a real charisma and presence that other DJs didn’t have. The atmosphere of a club would change when he was getting ready to go on.”
James: “The first time I met him was at Venus (Nottingham) on a Friday. It was only the second time I’d asked a guest DJ to play. I travelled to London a lot; the venues were pretty shite so I’d invite club nights up to play Venus. It became known as the Balearic Network. We brought the North and South divide together. The Balearic sound really worked in Nottingham due to the student population and Weatherall nailed it. I found him very polite but full of tongue-in-cheek comments. He was proper switched on and I was kind of in awe of him. I’d always worry I may say the wrong thing in front of him. He stayed at mine after Venus once, my cat was sitting on his chest and Andrew was smoking a massive spliff. The cat puked up on his chest and he just laughed and said: ‘This kitten’s getting greedy.’”
“I remember him saying: ‘Fashion is something you buy until you find your own style.’ One fond memory was him wearing full ‘Biggles’ attire.” Dave Beer
Dave: “I went to every Flying and Venus event. I even used to travel down to a night called Skank, Andrew’s own party with reggae/dub overtones. Nobody ever had or ever will sound like Weatherall. Many DJs and producers come and go but there are certain people who have their own sound. Andrew definitely crafted his own. Often doing so with blind faith in himself and by his own admission a lot of times not knowing what the fuck he was doing.”
Cymon: “Some of us in London got a bit sniffy about the Balearic Network. Why give anything a name? We used to travel around the country when we followed New Order so were used to going to Manchester and other cities. But he was spreading the Weatherall vibes around the country.”
David: “He came to Belfast and I met him at the airport. He had his corkscrew spirally hair, the biker boots and leather trousers with the Breton cap. He looked amazing like no other DJ. I felt I could totally relate to him. Belfast - being the way it was - all the freaks would congregate in one place. You’d hear Gene Vincent, Public Image, The Smiths, The Clash. There was such an eclectic thing going on and the dancefloor would be occupied by all these different tribes. I connected with him on so many levels, growing up on the alternative scene. If you love music you can’t deny a Gene Vincent record even if you’re a mod. He was blown away by Sugar Sweet and I’m not surprised. He knew more about Irish history than a lot of people from Belfast. We spoke a lot about The Troubles and the books he’d read, so he wasn’t surprised that people were really warm and welcoming. He loved people who were genuinely enthusiastic, positive and had a brilliant attitude. He was so open and humble but ridiculously talented. He was also sharp as a knife - you didn’t want to get into a debate with him.”
Ed: “One of the times he’d played Most Excellent (Manchester) he came back to our house and his record box was out. He had a test pressing of his remix of Future Sound Of London‘s ‘Papua New Guinea’ – which was like the Holy Grail at the time as everyone loved them - and I took it out of the box to look at it and had moved it away from where the box was. He was playing records for people and there was a sudden panic when he couldn’t find the test pressing. I didn’t know what to do and became numbed into silence as there was an increasing anxiety in the room that someone had taken it. So I shoved it somewhere a bit more visible in the room and he eventually found it. It’s stressing me out just thinking about that now.”
Dave: “The friendships formed through the so-called Balearic Network are still strong to this day. I started Basics in November of 1991 and Weatherall played the second month and then continued to play for us ever since. When it came to Andrew I would always take a gamble, the most memorable being when we built a stage for him to perform as Sabres of Paradise, which was one of the first live acts we ever did at the club. It was total anarchy and chaotic. Also, we did his first Two Lone Swordsmen show. These performances always stood out from anything else that was going on.”
Andrew becomes more drawn to techno aided by the opening of Fat Cat records in 1991. He starts the Sabres of Paradise label with Nina Walsh and forms a band of the same name with Jagz & Burns.
Justin: “The Balearic scene was united and then started to split in different directions. There was a split in tastes, that Guerilla album ‘Dub House Disco’ channelling a ritualistic sound with techno, trance-like rhythms and the connection with dub. So techno became a natural direction for some of us to take. But he was never that easy to pigeonhole. I’d still hear him sometimes play full vocal garage records. He didn’t like people being able to predict what he was going to do. I remember a real statement of intent was the first Flying trip to Rimini. He played two hours of panel beating Belgian techno. People had never heard anything like it. It was brilliant because it was completely against the grain but so well put together with such confidence.”
Alex Knight: “I first met him the second week of Fat Cat being open on Monmouth Street in 1991. We’d been over to the U.S. to pick up some hard-to-find records from Chicago and New York and we displayed them on the racks at the back. Word soon got around that we had these records and the second week in Andrew climbed down the stairs into the basement and there he was on the other side of the counter. It was quite surreal. I was the embarrassed fan. I’d been to various parties he was the ringleader of and he was one of those guys we all looked up to. He was humble and open to new music. You assumed these guys had access to any records they wanted. He was instrumental in creating clubland and pushing boundaries, so you’d assume he had everything. He was very open about the gaps in his knowledge and he was really keen to fill those gaps. We were able to help him, he walked out with a big pile.”
Sherman: “There were a few key things at that time and one was Fat Cat opening. We had access to more techno-y things, it was a really exciting time. Andrew never cared what people thought, he just went with the music. He knew how to arrange records in a way other people couldn’t, so he could make things work and start a dancefloor off at either 90bpm or 138bpm. He was never distracted by what other people thought.”
Keith Tenniswood: “I used to go to free parties until the Criminal Justice Bill happened. Then I started going to the Drum Club (Thursdays at the Soundshaft) to see Weatherall play as I’d heard his show on Kiss FM. He was so different. He stood out as he was playing breakbeat stuff by Depth Charge and Aphex Twin. That really appealed to me. It was a magical time for techno and trance wasn’t a rude word. “
Jagz Kooner: “I was producing The Aloof and had remixed a band called This Ragged Jack. I heard that at a Boy’s Own weekender Weatherall played my remix and finished with a bootleg I’d done of a La Camoor track and everyone went mental. Me and Gary Burns went to Flying and were at the bar and Gary said: ‘You won’t believe who’s here, Weatherall and he’s walking straight up to us’. He introduced himself and he said he loved what I did. He said we should get in the studio one day. I didn’t think anything more of it and thought it was the beer talking, but he phoned a few days later and invited me and Gary to remix Jah Wobble’s ‘Visions Of You’. We were in a studio that belonged to Manfred Mann, I didn’t know what half the equipment did. Jah Wobble popped in and loved what we were doing. That was our first effort and everyone was happy with it. The remixes and production jobs then just started rolling in. My career started properly with Andrew. So there were three of us working on these Andrew Weatherall remixes and Andrew said we should start doing stuff together.
“We were asked to do something for Red Stripe, we never did things for anyone unless we were into it and Gary was a big Red Stripe fan. In one afternoon we wrote the foundations of ‘The Theme’ and ‘Wilmot’ that went on to become big Sabres tunes. We were asked to remix Psychic TV and did a few versions and Andrew said: ‘These should be Sabres of Paradise remixes.’ I didn’t know the name Sabres of Paradise came from a Haysi Fantayzee B-side I thought it was from a book about good-looking Russian Cossack dudes. We had been spending so much on studio fees we acquired a studio in Hounslow above a music shop which became Sabresonic. Keith Tenniswood was our apprentice there for a while. We became extremely prolific as we could work there for as long as we wanted without running up a huge bill.”
Keith: “After much pestering, Jagz invited me to come to the Sabresonic studio as they needed a tea boy basically, someone to go to the shops to get Rizlas. I had this image of the studio from his radio show, Andrew would say stuff like: ‘As I walk through the corridors of Sabresonic studios…’ so I imagined this huge complex. But when I got there it was above a corner shop on a council estate in Hounslow. I thought I’d come to the wrong place. I went on to help Jagz and Gary with The Aloof remixes. They said they were going to be away for a weekend and suggested I work with Andrew on engineering. I was shitting it. I didn’t know the Akai sampler very well and had a bit of a meltdown in the session, which Andrew could see, but he was fine with me. I guess as we were both from the same background he was accepting of my nerves. He was so good at arranging. He’d sit for ages trying different things.”
David: “I remember the first time he played Sabres’ ‘Smokebelch’. It was one of the greatest DJ sets I’ve ever heard. I was on the best ecstasy at a club in Brighton with so many people I loved like Ashley Beedle, Jagz and Gary, and Phil Perry. I was meeting lots of new people and they were all really cool. Andrew played ‘Smokebelch’, Secret Knowledge’s ‘Sugar Daddy’ and Capricorn’s ‘20Hz’. I felt like I was at a concert. I’d never heard anything like what was coming out of the speakers and his mixing was so creative. I learnt so much about DJing in that moment, the things you can do to set a dancefloor on fire. The icing on the cake was I’d just finished remixing ‘Smokebelch’ that night and I knew I’d done a really good remix for this guy who was blowing my mind into a thousand pieces. He went out of his way to make my ‘Smokebelch’ remix a beneficial thing for me. He put my name in big letters on the artwork and really pushed it. It was a really proud moment.”
Curley: “In January 1993, Andrew and Nina went to play in New Zealand for Full Monty. I bumped into Andrew in Soho just before then and he told me about Sabres of Paradise the label. I was looking for work and told him to give me a shout. He asked me to answer the phones in the office while they went to New Zealand. It was upstairs at Quaff records, Roy The Roach’s shop. I went for two weeks and was still there five years later.
“Secret Knowledge was out - ‘Sugar Daddy’ was the big tune. I did the DJ mail-out with Nina, put mailers together and posted them. It went from that to the production side, getting them manufactured. Andrew and Nina chose the music. Andrew was always in and out of the office, we’d pour over what he’d bought from downstairs. He was a joy to work for. The club Sabresonic was in full flow and we’d always end up at Full Circle on a Sunday night. Andrew was a bit more sympathetic than a regular boss after I’d been out all weekend. When ‘Smokebelch’ came out with David Holmes’ massive remix there was a bidding war from labels.”
“Andrew was always looking to the borders of a sound where the experimentation lay – he always wanted to know what was going on at the outer edges.” Alex Knight
Jagz: “We took the music seriously but didn’t take the band seriously. I couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. Our manager Robert Linney would be telling us about big interest from all the majors. The big four they were interested in were Underworld, The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers and Sabres of Paradise. There was a bidding war on all four. Robert was saying to us in a taxi after a meeting with BMG – we’d go to these lunch meetings for the free food as we knew we wanted to sign to Warp – BMG had a six-figure offer and Sony may have come back with twice that… I looked at Andrew and said: ‘I don’t know what all the fuss is about.’ Andrew shot back: ‘Neither do I!’ We didn’t think we’d hit on something or take it seriously.
“The live band of Sabres of Paradise came about because we were offered a tour. We were all mates getting together. Phil Mossman (who went on to join LCD Soundsystem) This Ragged Jack so he played guitar, Richard Thair was in The Aloof so he was the drummer, Nick Abnett was the bass player, he used to go out with Anna Haigh. It was all mates. I can’t play guitar or bass well enough to be on stage so Gary suggested I was in charge of mixing it live and fire off the drum machines and 303. Andrew was like me, so I asked him to join me at the desk. Andrew suggested the band was dropped into the middle of a DJ set. At the end of the set band members would walk off and it’d just be me left doing the drum machine. The 909 would run out of the last tune and Andrew would mix into it on the decks and begin a DJ set. Sabres never did an encore, Andrew DJing was the encore. An hour into his set, though, me, Gary and Richard Thair would walk back on and Richard would drum over Andrew’s set and Gary would play keys and I’d add some bits. I loved that.”
Sherman: “I went on the tour. I’d been writing Sonic Sheet and we were talking about doing a magazine called Sonic Head – a bit like Beastie Boys’ Grand Royale. I’m surprised Sabres weren’t picked up on more as they fused so many different things and they were a live band presented in a different way. All the exciting elements of music put into one thing: techno, rockabilly or electro.”
Curley: “Andrew was obsessed with gangs and months before the live shows Andrew had – in his head – dressed everybody. He knew how they were going to look.”
Keith: “I was a roadie for Sabres - I used to play guitar. So I used to set up the stage. Then I did front of house for the next Primal Scream tour. I was in my early 20s, seeing that rock’n’roll lifestyle I thought, This is for me!”
Richard: “I remember seeing Sabres live in what looked like long, leather Nazi coats. To even do something live rather than just putting out 12-inches was a brave move at the time.”
Jagz: “I don’t remember him ever calling time on Sabres. Typical blokes we didn’t talk about things. There wasn’t any nastiness or bad vibes or falling out, it just eventually ran its course. We probably split too soon on reflection. I think perhaps he wanted to sabotage it as he wanted to do stuff people wouldn’t expect of him. He never made ‘Screamadelica Part 2’. Me and Gary also got pulled in various directions. We were also in The Aloof, who got signed. Andrew started working more with Keith Tenniswood. We did what we had to do and we were happy with it.”
Keith: “I was shocked when Sabres split as they were on such a roll. I was unofficially part of the gigs and remixes. Lots of good artists re-invent themselves.”
Sherman: “I wasn’t shocked when they ended as he’d run as far as he could with Sabres. Would another album sound as radically different as it should? He didn’t want to be seen as dragging his heels in the same thing.”
By 1993, Andrew had his club ‘Sabresonic’ running weekly and was playing hard techno which he sonically termed ’panel beaters from Prague’. He suggests Junior Boy’s Own sign a young duo called The Dust Brothers…
Alex: “Things moved very quickly in those days. Things caught alight. Andrew was always looking to the borders of a sound where the experimentation lay – he always wanted to know what was going on at the outer edges. He loved music and always searched for a connection between one piece of music to another, one label to another, or the link between dub reggae and Basic Channel. He got that really quickly and was genuinely spirited and excited about techno and there was a real energy there at that time in the clubs, the records, the opening up of Europe in terms of labels and scenes. There was a real broadening of horizons that Andrew lapped up. There were great drugs around at that time and the music suited that energy. Clubs were open ‘til 6am, not 2am, so there was a different clubland evolving. A lot of people looked to Andrew to push the envelope and try something new. Then there was a huge movement into heavier, darker, faster music that he was pivotal in. There was Colin Dale and Steve Bicknell already playing that of course and the Detroit guys like Derrick May and Juan Atkins became big news. Andrew gravitated towards the excitement.”
James: “When he started playing techno I dropped off booking him. I didn’t want to stand on the other techno clubs’ shoes in Nottingham. That hard sound wasn’t the right vibe for Venus, it was better suited to the Marcus Garvey or people would travel up to the Orbit in Morley to see him.”
Cymon: “He did it on purpose, playing hard techno. He wanted to reinvent himself to test his creativity. He was there when things were embryonic.”
Jeff: “He lost me several times with remixes and club sets around that time. But he was never boring. Herbal Tea Party in Manchester, he lost me in there a couple of times. Sometimes he’d be trying things out – out of boredom. Sometimes, you’d think: ‘Fucking hell, Andrew, put a tune on!’”
“Even when he was full-on ‘panel beaters from Prague’ it was always really interesting. He was always ahead of the game.” David Holmes
Anna: “Because of his background in more alternative stuff techno felt more of an answer for him to house music. I used to go to Sabresonic and it was dark with a goth punk vibe."
David: “He got progressively harder, but it was always really interesting. Even when he was full-on ‘panel beaters from Prague’ it was always really interesting. He was always ahead of the game and re-inventing himself. He set his own trends and people generally followed. He would say the worst feeling is when someone says they don’t like something you didn’t put your heart and soul into. It was like an education for me.”
Ed: “He was one of the first people to play ‘Song To The Siren’. It was a difficult track to play as it was so much slower than everything else. Tom and I would drive in Tom’s Ford Granada to every club he was playing to hear it. I was summoned to the back of the room of the Boardwalk in Manchester and he said he loved the record, and he wanted to sign it to the label. I was a bit tongue tied. Probably muttered: ‘Oh would you do a remix?’”
Terry: “Andrew did bring in The Chemical Brothers to Junior Boy’s Own, a couple of young kids who had given him a tape to play and he thought we should put it out. So we did.”
With Weatherall leaving Junior Boy’s Own with a legendary discovery we shall conclude things. Jockey Slut was being hatched around the same time ‘Song To The Siren’ came out and Weatherall would grace our third cover in the spring of 1993.
Bobby Gillespie interview by Sean O’Hagan (first published in the Guardian February 2020)
This article is taken from 'Andrew Weatherall - A Jockey Slut Tribute' published by Disco Pogo in 2020.
The Lisbon edition of the festival kicks off Sónar’s 30-year celebrations and features Peggy Gou, Max Cooper, Folamour, Kode9, SHERELLE, Chet Faker and loads more...
Since kicking off in Barcelona in 1994 with sets from Sven Väth and Laurent Garnier, Sónar has become one of the most respected institutions in electronic music, and has grown to take place in cities around the globe including Hong Kong, Buenos Aires and Reykjavik in Iceland alongside its annual Barcelona edition.
The Barcelona event returns this June, but before that Sónar heads to Lisbon for its second outing in the Portuguese capital.
Held between March 31 - April 2, Sónar Lisboa takes place across four stages this year, all located within Parque Eduardo VII, one of the city’s biggest green spaces.
Split between Sónar by Day and Sónar by Night, names on the bill include Peggy Gou, Or:la, Amelie Lens, James Holden, and a rare back-to-back set from Skream and Mala, plus a not-to-be-missed collaboration between SHERELLE and Kode9. Other notable names on the bill include KiNK with a live set, Cinthie, Yen Sung, Chet Faker, DJ Tennis and Carlita back-to-back, alongside VTSS and Sofia Kourtesis.
Who is David Holmes? The hedonistic experimental DJ? The award-winning composer? The producer whose prolific work recalls the best music of the last 60 years? He is, of course, all these things and more. In a moving reflection upon his life, his work and his home, the Belfast artist tells Jim Butler that he’s just getting started…
Music. Clothes. Art. Literature. Films. Style. David Holmes has always been obsessive about his passions. Raised in Belfast during the Troubles these passions offered not only an alternative form of education but provided succour when his childhood was interrupted by the violent events happening just outside his front door.
“Growing up the way I did the only thing I had was an imagination, a record player and a VHS,” he recalls today from the studio inside his Belfast home. The comforting four walls of home have always provided emotional stability and physical safety. As a kid he spent a lot of time indoors, in what he calls lockdown – handy for what would come 40-odd years later.
“My mum would say: ‘You’re not going out tonight, there’s trouble on the streets.’ So I’d sit in and rent three or four videos for two quid. It wasn’t a rich man’s sport, but you were consuming all this information.”
On other occasions he would sit at the top of his house on the Ormeau Road and gaze out his window, not dreaming exactly (“You didn’t have a dream growing up in Belfast back then,” he remembers, “the whole thing was so absurd”), but pushing his mind and his imagination, concocting fantasies. Next door to his house was the Parador Hotel. Back then it had one of those red neon Hotel signs attached to its side (“Like you see in the movies”) and sometimes the light would falter and flicker evocatively.
“I would sit there with this trumpet that didn’t work,” he laughs. “I’d just pretend to be in a movie, listening to jazz in the background.”
Today, the obsessive nature is still apparent. Like other people his age, and certainly from his background, Holmes has had his own struggles with mental health, fixating and obsessing over things, some of which, he candidly admits, “didn’t exist”. He went to see a therapist – “which wasn’t really for me” – but during the course of his sessions he was diagnosed with Pure O.
“It’s basically pure obsession,” he explains. “I don’t have the compulsion in OCD, like my studio is a fucking mess and I’m quite happy with that. I’m just obsessed in my mind.”
During the second lockdown of his life – the Covid version – Holmes made a concerted effort to look after his mental health. He read more. Meditated.
“I really jumped into figuring that out,” he goes on. “Like I’ve been doing a lot of…”
Suddenly there’s silence. Holmes has been energetically holding court on all manner of subjects for the last 30 minutes – from Boris Johnson to the Troubles by way of The Clash and ageing, more of which later – but he’s abruptly fallen silent. He starts to laugh. There’s something he wants to divulge, but he’s not sure whether to unburden himself. And then remembering his freshly balanced mental equilibrium he chimes up once more.
“I’ve been doing mushroom therapy,” he says, at first hesitantly, before finding his voice. “But doing it properly. Not doing a big bag of magic mushrooms and sitting in a field with my mates and laughing our tits off for six hours - I never rule that out by the way. But in terms of dealing with my mental health. I’m a few years in and it’s been a complete gamechanger. Is it legal? No, and I don’t care. We live with a government who break the law on a daily basis and if they’re going to fuck up my mental health I will fix it by any means necessary.”
He goes on to extol the virtues of food science writer Michael Pollan. His bestseller, ‘How to Change Your Mind’ has been something of a revelatory guide for Holmes. Pollan, he explains, discovered psychedelics in his 60s and he made a conscious decision to go all in.
“And what he found, no pun intended, completely blew his mind. This was about transforming the way we think, the way we feel… and all for positive results.”
In turn, the mushroom therapy has taken Holmes’ creative obsessions to the next level. He starts to list the symbiotic relationship that has often existed between drugs and music. Mods and speed. Acid house and ecstasy.
“I think that’s always given creators an inspiration,” he notes. ”It’s always opened portals that perhaps weren’t really letting any light in. And since doing mushrooms… let’s just say if I thought that I’d already opened all the portals, I’ve discovered there was another portal to be opened. And as a 53-year-old man I will take all I can get. I want to die being obsessed with music. I never want to become shit. So the mushrooms have given me that real need for rhythm and hypnosis and transcendence.”
"I want to die being obsessed with music. I never want to become shit. So the mushrooms have given me that real need for rhythm and hypnosis and transcendence."
In 2022 and with a 30-year-plus career already behind him, David Holmes, producer, DJ, composer, filmmaker… – a multi-hyphenate in today’s language – believes he’s only just getting started. In the last year alone, he’s released two awe-inspiring singles, ‘Hope Is the Last Thing to Die’ and ‘It’s Over, If We Run Out Of Love’, under his own name, both featuring the emotive vocals of Raven Violet; written the stirring soundtrack for Michael Winterbottom’s gut-wrenching Covid drama, ‘This England’ and alongside his regular collaborators Jade Vincent and Keefus Ciancia, released the dramatic third Unloved longplayer, the sprawling, 22-track ‘The Pink Album’.
He’s also produced Sinead O’Connor’s first album in almost a decade, ‘No Veteran Dies Alone’, scored the music to ‘Lyra’, a powerful documentary about the life of murdered investigative journalist Lyra McKee, written the theme tune to the TV gangland drama, ‘Kin’, soundtracked the final series of ‘Killing Eve’ and delivered captivating remixes for Jarvis Cocker and Orbital (his fittingly spellbinding rework of the Hartnoll brothers’ ‘Belfast’).
He continues to take his itinerant God’s Waiting Room nights around the country – he was last seen spinning triumphant sets at The Social in London and playing two emotional nights at Convenanza, his old friend, the late Andrew Weatherall’s boutique festival in Carcassonne, France. Then there’s the monthly radio show of the same name, which he describes as a round-about selection of ‘the cinematic, library music, rock’n’roll, psych, experimental, unclassifiable and independent’.
And for anyone still requiring an additional Holmer fix, his Instagram account is a reliable resource of poetical, moral, cultural, spiritual and political guidance. Whatever his fear of becoming shit, using that as a motivational tool seems to be working – there’s no danger of that actuality existing any time soon.
“I’ve always had this strange fascination with why really great artists become stale at some point,” he considers, assembling another rollie in double-quick time. “Not all of them, but it’s very common. And it boils down to a few things. One of them is having too much money and being surrounded by yes people. People just telling them they’re great. Another is laziness. I understand that. As you get older there’s so many other things you’ve got to do: your family, tidying the house… you’re not young anymore. But I love technology for that reason. I haven’t got time to travel around record shops and spend hours trawling through different bundles trying to find the Holy Grail. And there’s so much gold online. Whether it be music – I’m on so many record shop mailing lists – photography, art, movies…”
Whatever the reasons for this recent prolific flourish and his joyous sense of urgency, one thing is for certain, he’s not resting on his laurels.
“I don’t,” he reflects. “I’ve seen crazy shit happen. When opportunities arose for me to actually do this for a living I just made a conscious decision not to take it for granted. Because it is the best job in the world. I feel extraordinarily grateful to still be able to do this. In fact there’s not enough hours in the day sometimes. I’ve kind of broken through to a point where I feel like a 20-year-old.”
Reflecting upon his life, his career and his good fortune it’s abundantly apparent the Troubles are never far from Holmes’ mind. When he was four his house was bombed while his sister was washing him in the bath. One of his brother’s best friends was shot dead on his street, an event which led to his brother moving to America because Holmes’ dad got word that his brother was “going to get shot next”.
By the time he’d reached his 20s, Holmes had unsurprisingly buried it all. In 1995, when Jockey Slut first featured him on the cover around the release of his debut album, ‘This Film’s Crap, Let’s Slash the Seats’, there was only one stipulation: he didn’t want to discuss the Irish Situation.
“When I discovered acid house, right, which was a gradual thing – the penny dropped in mid-89 – Belfast was still so dark,” he explains today. “People talk about the 70s in Northern Ireland, but the 80s were fucking crazy too. So when I discovered ecstasy and acid house the last thing I wanted to talk about was the Troubles. I’d been through that my whole life. This was getting buried.”
Belfast, he states matter-of-factly, was intense. And even though he and his mates were out partying and “every Saturday night was the best night of your life – and it was, you know?” they were still carrying this dread, both real and existential, around with them. It is, he suggests rationally, why so many people in Northern Ireland suffer from PTSD.
"I just made a conscious decision not to take it for granted. Because it is the best job in the world. I feel extraordinarily grateful to still be able to do this. In fact there’s not enough hours in the day sometimes. I’ve kind of broken through to a point where I feel like a 20-year-old."
However, if David Holmes aged 23 was an archetypal apolitical hedonist – with the substantial caveat that the nights that he put on at Belfast Art College, bringing over the likes of Orbital, Andrew Weatherall and Richie Hawtin changed people’s lives for the better – David Holmes aged 53 is anything but. In fact, right now, he’s never felt so politically engaged in his whole life.
“I’ve lived in a world that’s total chaos and wrong on so many different levels,” he sighs, barely bothering to conceal his disgust. “And to go through that again, but on a world level. I don’t want to bury it. I want these fuckers to be taken down. I want people to be on the streets.”
Part of his ire right now is attributable to his work on Michael Winterbottom’s ‘This England’, the celebrated director’s portrayal of Boris Johnson’s handling of Covid. Coming so soon after the actual events, and having to watch each sequence countless times, Holmes was understandably moved by reliving history. The emotion was still palpably raw. Tender. He admits there were a number of incidents in the production process that provoked such anger he had to leave the studio.
“We live in this world where we’re completely slammed with so much information,” he says. “It’s like what would have been a scandal if it had been just one thing that happened 20 years ago [and was discovered today] is forgotten because there are new things being uncovered every day. When you see them giving hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of contracts to Tory donors that knew nothing about PPE… these people should be in prison.”
His most recent songs – and they are unabashed pop songs with a capital P – are infused with this righteous anger. Both ‘Hope Is the Last Thing to Die’ and ‘It’s Over, If We Run Out Of Love’ are boisterous clarion calls and, as their titles suggest, optimistic statements of intent. ‘Hope…’ was the first to be released and from its opening synths, driving 60s soul beats and unapologetic lyrics (‘Make some changes/Changes we want to see’) it’s clear Holmes is an artist, if not reborn, then certainly driven by a new-found sense of purpose. “I’m not worried about what anyone thinks or what anyone says,” he states proudly. “This is from my heart. This is music that I feel.”
If ‘Hope..’ had the air of Hope Sandoval-fronting-Suicide about it, ‘It’s Over…’ is even more suggestive. A pointed and ecstatic celebration of youth culture, Holmes has chucked all his musical obsessions into the blender – soul, acid house, krautrock, psychedelia, punk, rock’n’roll, 60s girl groups – and come up with something close to New Order at their most rousing, backed by an elephantine, Spector-like Wall of Sound. The song’s origins lie in the work Holmes did on Noel Gallagher’s last album, ‘Who Built the Moon?’ Inexplicably, Gallagher didn’t get it. Thankfully, Holmes did.
“I said: ‘Can I do it? I’m gonna get Raven to sing it.’ When I sent it to him he nearly shat himself. ‘Fookin’ hell, why did I not think of that? Give us a number!’ he said. I replied: ‘No.’ I thought it should have been the first track on his album, but he wasn’t feeling it the same as I was. It’s got that original Oasis swagger from their first two albums. It’s not sentimental, but it has a feeling of freedom. We might be going down, but I’m going up.”
The two singles’ videos and the Situationist-inspired artwork push the notion of youth culture – turning revolt into style, to quote George Melly – and its importance to contemporary Britain further. The clips, ‘Hope…’ directed by graphic artist Jimmy Turrell and ‘It’s Over…’ by erstwhile The Jesus and Mary Chain bass player-turned-video director, Douglas Hart, are jam-packed with images of razor-sharp seditious youth and a host of cultural icons (among them Angela Davis, James Baldwin and Maya Angelou).
The great news is that these songs aren’t outliers – an album, tentatively titled ‘Only Love Can Save Us’, is on its way next year. And as per the opening songs – and their accompanying remixes courtesy of such acid house stalwarts as Daniel Avery, Sean Johnston and Darren Emerson – it’s going to be dancefloor friendly.
“I wanted to make something that was more high energy,” he confirms, “but I didn’t want to make a clichéd dance record. I wanted to do it differently – bring in other influences that weren’t necessarily what you’d hear in your everyday dance and disco world. I’m really enjoying myself even though I’m writing about things that aren’t so much fun. I’m trying to do it in a way that’s joyous. Like if you listen to those old Motown records, that driving beat, those amazing, huge orchestras… and the song is about pure heartbreak. It’s about getting the contrast of saying things that I feel are important but doing it in a way that is much more hopeful.”
A case in point is a new song, ‘Emotionally Clear’. Holmes refers to the track a few times during the interview. Initially he says he’s really proud of it. Later, he says he’s going to find it difficult to write another song as good. A few minutes after the interview the track lands in our inbox. Holmes isn’t lying. Buoyed by a swirling organ it’s a haunting blast of cosmic Baroque pop, and a perfect counterpoint to “Hope…’ and ‘It’s Over…’.
“There’s a few darker moments on there,” he admits. “But it’s all part of the same narrative. I’m really trying to tell a story.”
The only part of the story he’s deliberating is the title itself. Love, he says, a man born on Valentine’s Day, is such a big word. He fears it might be too corny.
“But if we did have a government that genuinely loved people and cared about them we wouldn’t be in the place we are right now,” he states. “So, it’s simple, but I’m just trying to be brutally honest.”
"Punk rockers, goths, Northern Soul, soul boys, mods, rockabillies, it’s all the same thing. It’s just different clothes. Different technology. Different music. But it’s all the same mindset of being part of something that felt esoteric and really exciting.”
David Holmes has always been a musical magpie. Growing up in the 70s with nine brothers and sisters (“and a really cool mum”) his education ran the gamut from Elvis to the Sex Pistols, and everything in between. He was the pre-teen punk with a sister at art college who would dress him in PVC trousers and a Seditionaries-style cheese-cloth top. Then in 1981 he had one of his countless VHS epiphanies when he watched ‘Quadrophenia’. Could the punk also be a mod?
“I remember this local punk, he was a bit older than me, one of those guys my mum told me I wasn’t allowed to hang around with. Which of course made me want to hang around with him even more,” he laughs. “He said: ‘No, you can’t do that. You’ll be a poser.’ And then you grow up through all these things and you realise that punk rockers, goths – I wasn’t a goth, nothing against them – Northern Soul, soul boys, mods, rockabillies, it’s all the same thing. It’s just different clothes. Different technology. Different music. But it’s all the same mindset of being part of something that felt esoteric and really exciting.”
When he embraced acid house his dance music loves came in many forms – Latin, reggae, pop, European, gay Italian house music (“Which I’ve always had a love for because of the feeling”). He mentions Balearic and what he calls: “An absolute freedom of music.”
He continues: “That’s why I feel really lucky that I was dancing to Alfredo in Amnesia in 1990 and experiencing the DJ playing The Clash next to Grace Jones next to some crazy Brazilian record next to Detroit techno. Acid house was like all this great music coming together.”
Subsequently, it’s hard to define his musical styles, essentially because he loves so much (“It was always music,” he explains. “Rhythm and blues, Southern and Northern soul, rock’n’roll, The Who, the Small Faces, Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk, The Cure… at the end of the day, it’s all great music”). Does that make him a poser? A dilettante? A thief? Maybe. But his love is genuine. He stands by Jim Jarmusch’s assertion that artists should celebrate their theft because he believes that what you do with this theft has the power to become original and authentic.
What’s certainly original is the home Holmes has found in the world of film and TV soundtracks. His first two solo albums, the magnificent ‘This Film’s Crap…’ and ‘Let’s Get Killed’ were described as soundtracks for imaginary films. His first foray into soundtracks was a pilot for Lynda La Plante’s ‘Supply & Demand’.
“Which of course fitted my world completely at that time,” he jokes. “It wasn’t great, but it got me experience working with the moving image and emotions.”
This eventually led, of course, to his work on Steven Soderbergh’s superb ‘Out of Sight’, and an ongoing relationship with the experimental filmmaker. Today, 25 years after first working together and the bond remains.
“He’s one of the most inspiring men I’ve ever met,” he reflects affectionately. “Steven and I have never been out for dinner or drinks or anything like that. We’ve never hung out. We just have a great working relationship. I regard him as a friend, but we have a very professional working relationship. And because he doesn’t fully know me it’s probably the reason why we’re still working together. If we hung out for a week or something he might turn around and go: ‘He’s fucking doing my head in.’”
Hollywood could have made him rich – he was offered lots of blockbusters after Soderbergh’s ‘Ocean’s’ trilogy – but he decided to stick with Soderbergh because it would be a more interesting and fantastic process.
“I just realised early on, how much money do you need?” he says. And of working in Tinseltown: “I felt like I was living in Robert Altman’s ‘The Player’.”
After a two-year sojourn in Los Angeles – during which time Unloved began to take shape – he returned to Belfast in 2012. The weather had got “a bit boring” and he “missed the winter”. Upon returning his production company finished its first film, ‘Good Vibrations’, he scored the music for ‘71’ and “hasn’t stopped working since.”
Today, his restless, obsessive, creative mind is sated by any number of projects. When he wants to DJ, there’s God’s Waiting Room.
“I stumbled upon this complete shit hole – most of my venues have been shit holes,” he laughs, referring to Maple Leaf Sports and Social Club which hosted the first few GWR nights in Belfast. “We brought Jarvis [Cocker] and Steve Mackey over to do Dancefloor Meditations and Jarvis walked in and went: ‘What time’s the Meat Raffle?’ It was proper sticky carpet, old guys sitting in the wee bar next door. Jarvis called the bingo that night. There’s some great footage of him going: ’24, show us your drawers’. That night is in my top five nights of all time.”
And this, essentially, is what music has given him, and so many others: friendships, memories, purpose, a home, a life.
“I’ve always been quick to try and make friends with people,” he reflects. “I’m very positive in that sense. And sometimes it’s been amazing and they’ve been lifelong friendships like Andrew [Weatherall] and Ashley Beedle (with whom Holmes did his first production job as The Disco Evangelists on 1993’s ‘De Niro’). And Darren Emerson.”
He signs off, smiling: “I’m all about leaving your ego at the door. And just remembering we’re all just fucking… we’ve all got one go at this. Let’s just live our lives and help each other get through this thing. Whatever it is, to quote Kurt Vonnegut. I just want to do it with joy and love and gratitude and kindness and not be a dick.”
For that, we are all truly thankful.
Who is Raven Violet?
“She’s so naturally multi-talented”
“I met Raven back in 2010, 2011, when I met Keefus and Jade [her parents] – she was about 16. I was trying to get her to come into the studio and sing backing vocals. I had a feeling she’d be really good. And after a lot of cajoling she agreed. I realised she had the voice of an angel.
“Over the years she’s done more singing – with me and Unloved. We did the cover of ‘Strange Effect’ by The Kinks and she killed it. It’s got well over four million streams on Spotify and is the title music for ‘Nine Perfect Strangers.’
“One day I was talking to Keefus about Raven. I said maybe I should get her involved in something. It was during lockdown. I did a track for the Golden Lion – for Golden Lion Sounds. I sent it to Raven and she completely killed it – that was ‘Love is a Mystery’.
After I wrote ‘Hope Is…’ I sent her my song with my melody. She sang it and it was amazing. It just evolved into the next track [‘It’s Over…’] and then I realised we should do the whole record. It was a very natural process. I realised if she’s singing these almost mature lyrics about real issues it seemed to carry a lot more weight.
“Although she likes doing music and she’s loving doing this album, it’s not what she wants to do. Raven is an incredible writer – an incredible scriptwriter. She wants to be a filmmaker, she makes a lot of videos for Unloved. She’s got an incredible eye. She’s just so naturally multi-talented. She wants filmmaking to be her real job.
“She’s written a feature film that we’re trying to develop. Jeff Bridges read it and wants to get involved. Keefus is a good friend of Jeff Bridges. He sent it to Jeff Bridges and he thought it was amazing. I feel so blessed to have her because she’s an incredible artist.”
This article first appeared in issue 2 of Disco Pogo.
As humanity reanimates after a pandemic pause, so too does the burgeoning trend for audiophile listening bars. Kitted out with fantasy hi-fi combos straight out of a Sound & Vision centrefold, these venues allow the music-obsessed the opportunity to appreciate the full-spectrum glory of a Norman Whitfield production without having to reach for the research chemicals.
Set against a landscape of over-compressed pop blasted at ever-increasing volume through limp Bluetooth audio, there’s little surprise the concept’s caught on, and the demand for superior sound has seen new spots like Brooklyn’s Eavesdrop joining the vanguard of Public Records (New York), In Sheep’s Clothing (Los Angeles) and Brilliant Corners (London).
The movement has its roots in the jazz kiss establishments of post-war Japan, intimate cafés with exceptional sound where patrons talked less and listened more to full vinyl sides from the likes of Horace Silver or Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers. Softly-lit and largely seated, these venues provided an affordable and elegant solution to a generation of salarymen obsessed with American jazz but unable to afford the hefty entrance fee of an import LP.
Considering the algorithm’s unlikely obsession with hen’s teeth gospel cuts and Afro-disco obscurities, the contemporary music fan is facing a similar predicament; at once enlightened to these rare masterpieces but only able to experience them in unworthy bit rates. Now though, most major cities provide the option to explore these gems through detailed systems from Danley, Tannoy and Bowers & Wilkins with listening bars cropping up everywhere from Highland Park (L.A.) to Hong Kong, London to Lisbon, each preserving the focus on fidelity while exploring new aesthetic ideas suited to their location.
Christos Eleftheriades, head of programming at Manchester’s NAM explains their particularly local approach. “In the lineage of audiophile listening bars, at least certainly in Japan, programming has traditionally leant heavily, if not exclusively, on jazz. But that’s just not very Manchester – the city’s best talent is all over the place and I think we’d be doing a disservice by putting ourselves in a box like that.”
Alongside this open-minded approach to genre, NAM pairs its impeccable musical programming with a vibrant Vietnamese menu, top-spec cocktails and a refined decor. By extending their high sonic standards to the other aspects of the business, this new wave of venues offers a fully epicurean experience, striking a chord with followers of the slow living movement and embodying the old fashioned maxim that if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.
“We wanted a space where intimacy and a focus on quality, both in terms of the sound and the music, were the key pillars,” explains Eleftheriades. “A small, free-and-easy spot where you could hear across-the-board selections that DJs couldn’t play anywhere else in the city, through an enveloping and beautiful Klipschorn setup, and for no door charge.”
Victor Sanchez, founder of Stockholm’s Hosoi, concurs, stating that the space is everything. “Everyone is affected by their surroundings,” he says. “So the feeling of the space, the mood and what is served play a very important role for the overall experience. For us music comes first and everything else is secondary, but that really only means we adapt the space to the music. Sometimes we pair food and drinks with it and other times closing the bar and not serving anyone for a while makes for the best experience.”
Though the preference for seated customers has allowed a lot of audiophile venues to emerge from the pandemic with minimal adjustments, there were of course casualties, including Hosoi.
“We were part of a big hotel in central Stockholm with a complicated relationship,” says Sanchez. “During the pandemic our differences and the different ideas on things for the future became very clear. This led to the agreement of closing the space and for me the quest to find a new home.”
That new home is a 120-year-old slaughterhouse in the old meatpacking district on the outskirts of the city, currently being renovated from the ground up to house the new and improved venue, which will include a 350-capacity listening room.
“Our ambition is only to improve what we did before and run the space with the same mindset,” he notes. “Only this time we can control the entire experience in a much better way. We have a strong community and crew that all want the same thing and this time we are free to adapt and do things completely our own way.”
While business seems to be booming it’s primarily the love of music, and in particular the community which comes with it, that unites this scene. Whether it’s soaring through the Living Voice speakers at London’s Spiritland, the Tannoy Westminster’s at Tokyo’s Ginza Music Bar or those stunning Klipschorns at Nam, love is still the message.
“At its core we regard NAM as a community,” says Eleftheriades proudly. “A home that welcomes guests to unwind, enjoy our hospitality and come together for a love of music.”
All hail the labels encouraging us to Be With music…
used cms The Big Reissue
The Big Reissue
All hail the labels encouraging us to Be With music…
“Brave move.” Words of scant encouragement from DJ Balearic Mike accompanied news of Be With Records' tenth reissue back in 2016. Kylie Minogue’s eponymous 1994 album was making its way to the presses under a freshly-minted Be With logo. Even the distributor was sceptical. Here was an upstart indie releasing a major label hit to an audience for whom rarity means more than popularity. If genres and scenes are lines in the sand, Be With crashed across them like a wave.
“A good, timely reissue can re-frame or re-contextualise a whole scene that people thought they knew everything about,” Be With's founder Rob Butler says. “It can act as a hand-raiser for that particular artist as a means of saying: ‘Hey, we were there too, and we made this amazing body of work that has actually been criminally overlooked for the past decades’.” What makes the Kylie record so compelling is that it flipped this relationship on its head.
An array of specialist and enthusiastic reissue labels are now chipping away at that grand canonical edifice of music history to reveal myriad chinks, angles and perspectives smoothed down by the passage of time. The result has been a thrilling, kaleidoscopic refraction of the musical landscape.
Launched in 2014, Be With has reached 100 releases (a milestone recently attained with the release of Kenny Dickenson’s beautiful score to French-Vietnamese artist Mai Hua’s documentary ‘Les Rivières’) off the back of a singular and undiluted approach. Schooled behind the counter at Manchester’s Piccadilly Records, Butler was determined for the label to reflect his broad tastes as a DJ and record collector. A cursory glance at his first ten releases speaks for the whole: classic soul, UK garage, West Coast AOR, melodic folk-rock, South African boogie, R’n’B royalty, Hawaiian funk, kosmische disco, and, of course, Kylie Minogue.
“Perhaps the discernible authorial voice resonates because it all emanates from one record lover’s deep passion for these artists and these records,” Butler suggests.
What also unites a Be With reissue is its attention to detail. If the audio isn’t spot on, the artwork not pristine, or, most importantly, if the artist doesn’t want it to go ahead, Be With won’t do it.
“Reissue labels must treat the artist and repertoire with the greatest of respect,” Butler continues. That he could take American singer-songwriter Ned Doheny on tour, 40 years after his debut, speaks to the depth of their working relationship. Ned is now affectionately known as the uncle of the label. “Every effort should be made to ensure that the artist is able to tell their own story, or get to set the record straight, if required.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Kay Suzuki, whose Time Capsule label has recently featured Angolan musicologist Mário Rui Silva, dance therapy pioneer Gabrielle Roth and electronic gwoka from Guadeloupe.
“I thought re-introducing this rare and beautiful music to a wider audience would be a perfect way to celebrate the original artists,” he explains. A focus on extensive liner notes and in-depth context play a crucial role in telling a record’s story and expressing his gratitude towards the music.
Being exposed to these stories can also have a transformative effect. For Coco Maria, the Amsterdam-based DJ and curator behind Bongo Joe compilation ‘Club Coco’, there were two titles that particularly captured her imagination when she was starting out: ‘Roots of Chicha’ (on Barbès Records) and Soundway’s ‘The Original Sound of Cumbia’.
“They influenced me because I could see through new eyes the music of Latin America I grew up with,” she explains. “They made possible a reinvention of my music in Europe.”
It’s something she now takes on in her own work, “opening doors for people who are curious about music and other worlds.” Those lines in the sand are nowhere to be seen.
It is 15 years since vinyl sales began rebounding, and you could say that labels like Be With have become victims of their own success. Majors are now more likely to reissue their own vast catalogues, and in doing so clog the pipes of the vinyl manufacturing industry like coffee grind. So much so that Butler believes they have a responsibility to build their own pressing plants.
While long lead times can become prohibitive for small labels with tight margins, the passion behind the work remains. “The recent past is no longer a foreign country,” Butler says. “I feel that great music, like all great art, has the ability to endure, regardless of whether it was important in the wider sense of being part of a crucial scene or capturing a certain Zeitgeist, or whether it's just a pretty piece of music, or rhythmical killer that will never fail to make people move or smile.” It is this approach that has helped Be With thrive.
And as for that Kylie reissue? The first run sold out in 24 hours and, perhaps just as importantly, Balearic Mike approved too. “I am a MASSIVE Kylie fan – as are all right-thinking people,” he enthused.
In life, as in reissues, some of the bravest moves are the most resonant.
Electribe 101 were one of the first – and foremost – groups to emerge from clubland’s late-80s acid house explosion. But after one brilliant album they disappeared. So what happened to enigmatic frontwoman Billie Ray Martin?
used cms Where Are They Now? Billy Ray Martin
Electribe 101 were one of the first – and foremost – groups to emerge from clubland’s late-80s acid house explosion. But after one brilliant album they disappeared. So what happened to enigmatic frontwoman Billie Ray Martin?
Billie Ray Martin, leading light in 1990s electro crossover act Electribe 101 and dancefloor-slaying solo artist of ‘Your Loving Arms’ fame, isn’t where you’d imagine a Top 10-selling hit maker would be at 9am on a 21st century Thursday morning.
“I’m sitting here buried under hundreds of CDs and vinyl and I have to pack them up and send them all out,” she sighs from her home in Berlin.
The LPs and CDs are Electribe 101’s ‘Electribal Soul’, the band’s fabled, long-lost second album, which is finally seeing the light of day via her own Electribal Soul imprint.
“I don’t think either myself or the other members of the group had any intention to ever think about those songs again,” she says of the 1991 recordings that were never released. Following some decent success with their debut, 1990’s ‘Electribal Memories’, their label declined to pick up the option on a second album.
“It was worse than that,” says Billie. “A very bad remark was made when they heard the album.”
Oh really? What did they say?
“They said,” she pauses to take a breath. “‘What’s with this soul shit?’. After a comment like that, and then getting dropped, and not getting signed by anyone else, we actually thought it was shit.”
It’s nothing of the kind. A sleek electronic soul offering, it’s stacked with sure-fire hits. How the label passed on it is unfathomable. They were supposed to know what they were doing, right?
“I know,” she exclaims. “Fuck ‘em.”
To the casual observer, Billie Ray Martin might seem like she was a flash in the pan – someone who rose with Electribe 101, peaked with ‘Your Loving Arms’ and probably lived off the spoils of a Top 10 hit, coining it whenever one of her songs got reworked. Indeed, ‘Your Loving Arms’ is currently destroying clubs again in the shape of Fred Again’s ‘Billie (Loving Arms)’.
The thing is, she’s hardly been idle in the three-decade gap between Electribe releases. Influence-wise she’s always cited two sides to her musical coin – heads it’s Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and The Human League, tails, Martha Reeves, Aretha Franklin and Motown. For every electro-tinged offering, there’s also a soul-fuelled belter. So you get 1996’s ‘Deadline For My Memories’ (featuring several retooled tracks from the lost Electribe album, just to prove a point) and 2001’s ‘18 Carat Garbage’, which she recorded in Memphis at the famous House Of Blues studio.
“I went there to record with Willie Mitchell and the Hi Records stable, because that’s my favourite sound in the world,” she says. “I soon discovered you can’t just go to Memphis and expect everyone to do as you say, they tick differently there. You need to spend time, get to know everyone and then you’re going to get a good result.
“One of the musicians didn’t show up, another one decided not to play secular music anymore… then the keyboard player, Marvell Thomas, the son of Rufus Thomas, said, ‘Listen, I’m just gonna get my guys in for tomorrow’… and Aretha Franklin’s backing group showed up! Which was great, but the sound I got was not the sound I wanted at all.”
An undiscovered gem in her locker is a collaboration with Norwegian producer, Aquavit label boss and DJ, Robert Solheim. The Opiates’ 2011 album ‘Hollywood Under The Knife’ shimmers with lush Kraftwerk-inspired pop hooks. There’s also some killer remixes, among them ‘Anatomy Of A Plastic Girl’, reworked by TG power couple, Chris & Cosey.
“I’d covered Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Persuasion’ in the early 90s and we’d stayed in contact over the years. It was a natural thing to say: ‘Hey, do you want to remix this? And they just said: ‘Yes’.”
She’s also collaborated with another of her heroes, Stephen Mallinder, on the 2010 Cabaret Voltaire homage, ‘The Crackdown Project’, a rework of tracks from the seminal release.
“Cabaret Voltaire never sold out,” enthuses Billie. “They just suddenly came out with ‘The Crackdown’, this incredible dancefloor record. I met Mal during the Electribe days, and I remember telling him just how influential they’ve been. I think he was quite pleased about the whole project. We worked with all these hip electro guys – Celebrity Murder Party, Dunproofin’, Phil Retrospector – who offered to do some remixes. I handed it all over and I was very happy with what came back.”
These days, Billie runs a tidy DIY operation, which is home to three record labels – Disco Activiso, Gezeitenraum and Electribal Soul. She is also working on four new long-players, including a collaboration with brooding alternative British rockers Tindersticks inspired by 1970s French film soundtracks.
“The releases are all very different,” she explains. “They have different themes and completely different production. When they’re ready, I’m going to put them out six months apart. Fuck it. My last album was ‘The Soul Tapes’ in 2016, oh my god, it’s such a long time ago. People have been waiting long enough, so these are coming out very quickly. I haven’t quite started on the fourth one, but the other three are two-thirds completed so...”
Things are clearly going well in Billie world.
“Yeah,” she beams. “I mean, I’m overwhelmed, but I love it. I can do whatever I like, whenever I like. I’m getting more and more support, there’s a lot of validation coming my way right now. I’m still flabbergasted that I’m working on four albums, and I can do that. Things have really turned around for me that sense.”
And about bloody time. Not so much a case of where is she now then. She’s never been away – you just had to know where to look.
From the most inauspicious of beginnings – a discarded remix project – came one of dance music’s most distinctive anthems: Altern 8’s ‘Infiltrate 202’. Not only did it light up 1991’s long hot summer of rave, but it still cuts the mustard today. One-half of Altern 8, Mark Archer, tells Harold Heath about the track’s inspirations, history and legacy…
used cms How we made...Altern 8 'Infiltrate 202'
From the most inauspicious of beginnings – a discarded remix project – came one of dance music’s most distinctive anthems: Altern 8’s ‘Infiltrate 202’. Not only did it light up 1991’s long hot summer of rave, but it still cuts the mustard today. One-half of Altern 8, Mark Archer, tells Harold Heath about the track’s inspirations, history and legacy…
Mark Archer has made well-respected Detroit-flavoured techno; tough, quality US garage-style house and hugely successful, full-on bonkers hardcore rave. He’s released music as part of Slo Moshun, Ramone ‘Latin Lover’ Ropiak and classic UK techno outfit Nexus 21, as well as recording under numerous pseudonyms including Ed ‘Chunk’ Rodriguez, Xen Mantra, Trackman and DJ Nex. But it’s as one-half of Altern 8 that he’s best known.
Altern 8 began as a side hustle while Archer and production partner Chris Peat were working on their pioneering techno project Nexus 21.
“We were doing Nexus 21 and Altern 8 started in 1990, because we’d recorded a bunch of tracks that the Network label thought Nexus 21 fans – Detroit techno purists – would turn their noses up at. That became the debut ‘Overload’ EP. Even though there were eight tracks on that EP we didn’t come up with the whole ‘8’ thing and even when we did ‘Infiltrate’ there wasn’t an ‘8’ because we really didn’t have a big game plan at the time.”
‘Infiltrate 202' is somewhere between a collage and a collision, a magpie-like collection of shiny audio parts gathered from other records via some judicious sampling and re-playing. Its ‘everything-including-the-kitchen-sink' production approach defined the UK rave template of summer 1991, a summer of 5k turbo sound system water-cooled mega-laser ultimo-raves as dance culture went overground. And Altern 8 were there to provide a Day-Glo musical soundtrack that distilled much of the previous two years of dance music into a single 12-inch release.
“Around that time, the term hardcore hadn’t been coined, but this was the year where it really started to peak above most of the other styles that were being played at raves. In 89 and 90 it was very much a mishmash of Belgian techno, Italian piano, housier stuff coming over from New York and Chicago, Strictly Rhythm house-type stuff, Detroit techno and breakbeats. There were just so many different kinds of styles going on and I wanted to record a tune that incorporated all the things that I wanted to hear in a track.”
“We recorded it in March 1991. Chris was the one who could play keyboards, and I went in with a pile of records and a load of discs that I'd compiled of different drum sounds, keyboard sounds, stab noises etc. The track that actually influenced 'Infiltrate' even though it sounds nothing like it was ‘Pure’ by GTO. It’s got this weird kind of choir bit at the beginning and then some chanting, so I thought it'd be great to have a crowd noise on it to make it sound similar to the GTO track.”
The breakbeat in ‘Infiltrate 202’ is a lift from ‘The Man with The Masterplan’ by Quadrophonia, which is itself made from Lyn Collins’ classic ‘Think (About It)’
“Using breakbeats wasn't a new thing at all. A lot of people had been using breakbeats for quite a while and there are tracks from 88/89 like KC Flightt that use them to beef up their drums. I also wanted some sub-bass in there like the Northern bleep techno thing that was big at the time.
“We got a specific organ noise off a Casio CZ101 synth which is in loads of Belgian techno tunes and a lot of New York stuff by Frankie Bones. The bassline was from a hip house tune ‘Electric Dance’ by Jungle Crew. We just replayed it on a synth.”
“I’d got the chord from 808 State’s ‘Pacific 202’ sampled on a disc and was like let’s use this pad sound in there. And, straightaway, I started playing the ‘Pacific 202’ chord progression and it just worked. We were like: ‘Do you reckon we'll get away with it?!’ It was only on that small label, so we didn’t really think much about using it.
“I had an a capella album on the record deck that I was listening to through my headphones while the track’s playing in the studio, spinning different a capellas over the top and Candi Staton’s one (‘I Know’) was kind of in key so we sampled that up. There was no: ‘We’ve gone in there to make this particular tune’, it was just while we’ve got studio time, let’s make something. It all came together quickly because I'd already got so many ideas in my head.”
“Watch Yer Bass Bins”
The tune had an air of serendipity to it. Aside from the way the audio parts all seemed to just fall into place, it also famously sampled Chris Duckenfield – then of pirate radio DJ duo Asterix and Space with Richard Benson – saying: “Watch yer bass bins I’m tellin’ ‘ya.” Weirdly, Archer, who’d never met the pair before, bumped into them both at Shelley’s nightclub in Stoke just a couple of days after sampling Duckenfield.
Furthermore, ‘Infiltrate 202’ might never have happened at
all if Network’s Neil Rushton hadn’t commissioned a remake of War’s memorable rock-cum-funk
cut ‘Low Rider’.
"I’m not sure why they wanted a Nexus 21 remix or what we could have even done with it. It was one of those ones where you just basically write them a new tune. We tried to do a Soul II Soul tempo remix but it never came out and I’ve not heard it since that session. But we had some studio time left so we made ‘Infiltrate 202’, took it to Network and said you can use this as the follow up to the ‘Overload’ EP.”
Hitting The Pop Charts
‘Infiltrate 202’ was released on promo in the spring of 1991, followed by a full release in July. With BBC radio support the duo found themselves in possession of an actual national hit.
In July they were booked for a PA at the Eclipse club in Coventry – where they’d previously played a few months earlier as Nexus 21 – and the pair first adopted their iconic chemical warfare suits and facemasks, carefully personalised with Tippex and highlighter pen.
“We didn’t want to look the same as Nexus to anyone. Because naively I thought, people in the crowd would be like: ‘Well, hold on a minute. I saw them the other month!’ Whereas most of the people wouldn't even know that there was anyone on stage!”
The PA was also where the now-necessary video for ‘Infiltrate 202’ was shot.
“The label knew that it was doing well because of pre-sales and projected chart positions. They said it looked like it could actually do something, so they asked us to record the Eclipse gig to make the video. It was all done on a budget of about £500.
“Going from starting making music in 1988 and then being in the charts in ‘91, it was a proper jump, totally unexpected and it wasn't an aim of ours at all. Suddenly, you've got to start doing gigs like this weird Wednesday night with BBC Radio 1 DJ Mark Goodier, Right Said Fred and the Cookie Crew. We went down well and the crowd were kind of into it, but they were more of a pop crowd – and it was just a completely different side to what we were used to doing at the Eclipse, Shelley’s and Amnesia House.”
The video was played on ITV’s ‘The Chart Show’ and children’s Saturday morning TV shows and ‘Infiltrate 202’ eventually reached number 28 in the UK national pop charts, taking Altern 8’s hardcore rave aesthetic directly to the masses.
‘Infiltrate 202’s Legacy
Along with other classics from Liquid, SL2, Bizarre Inc, Acen and Manix, Altern 8’s ‘Infiltrate 202’ consolidated the emerging UK hardcore rave sound of ‘91, bringing all the elements together: breaks, sub-bass, euphoric pads, disco vocal samples and a devil-may-care sampling attitude, and created a foundational UK rave track in the process.
“When we made the tune, we didn't know how long it was gonna last
for. We thought that if it lasted for another year we'd be happy. And 31 years later I can still play it out. I used to think that if in 1990, if you went back 30 years and plucked a tune out, you wouldn't be able to play it at a club or a rave, whereas to be able to play ‘Infiltrate' now and it still get the massive reaction that it does – it's way more than I could ever have imagined.”
Not All Superheroes Wear Capes: The Untold Story of Luke Una
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…
used cms Not All Superheroes Wear Capes: The Untold Story of Luke Una
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.’”
Overmono rail against the intellectualisation of dance music. Which probably explains their dynamic live show and bass-heavy techno sound. “We just sit down and make tunes,” they tell Manu Ekanayake. “We don’t tend to attach much meaning to them after that.”
used cms Live and Direct
Overmono rail against the intellectualisation of dance music. Which probably explains their dynamic live show and bass-heavy techno sound. “We just sit down and make tunes,” they tell Manu Ekanayake. “We don’t tend to attach much meaning to them after that.”
Sometimes the direct approach is best. That’s probably the best way to describe Overmono’s sound: live (increasingly so, as they much prefer playing live to DJing, but more on that later) and direct, bassy rave techno that lights a fire under any dancefloor it’s played on.
Their UK garage, drum’n’bass and dubstep-influenced sound is “techno as an adjective, not just a prescribed notion of what ‘techno’ should sound like,” Tom Russell of Overmono tells us on the eve of a recent live show at Brixton Electric. This seems pretty direct, or at least well-considered, considering both he and his Overmono bandmate – and younger brother – Ed are completely stumped when they’re asked how they would describe their own style of music.
This is rarely an easy question for artists and sometimes elicits responses that are somewhere between the esoteric and the just plain laughable. But this duo’s bemused reaction tells its own story: Overmono are simply two studio heads who prefer making music (and playing it) to talking about it. As dance music in the social media era has become more of a performance for many artists, and who feel at pains to pontificate on the issues of the day or graft a political theory onto their beats, Overmono are definitely more about action than words. But as Tom’s quote shows, that’s not to say they’re not thinking carefully about every move they make.
Ed explains their direct approach to production a bit further. “We both have a bit of an aversion to the intellectualisation of music, especially dance music,” he says. “Because a lot of the time it doesn’t need it. As boring as it sounds, we just sit down and make tunes. We don’t tend to attach much meaning to them after that.”
This comment comes in response to asking what the title of the duo’s latest EP, ‘Cash Romantic’, is about. This prompts a burst of laughter from Tom, the quieter of the duo, but who shares the more talkative Ed’s wry sense of humour, which is clearly important to their musical output. “Can I get back to you on what it means?” Tom says grinning. “Honestly, giving tracks titles is one of the hardest things about making music, I swear.”
Not that it’s stopped them so far. Overmono started back in 2016, with the ‘Arla’ EP on XL Recordings, who took a punt on the brothers from Monmouth, Wales - a punt that seems to have paid off. But neither of them were unknown quantities in dance music terms. Tom is better known to UK techno fans as Truss, one half of Blacknecks, alongside Bleaching Agent (aka Al Matthews), a frankly ridiculous 2010s techno project that had its tongue placed firmly in cheek throughout.
He’s been making music since 2007, on labels like Miniscule and Perc Trax, so he clearly has a fondness for the harder stuff. As witnessed by his MPIA3 alias, which was all about channelling the love of free party-style acid techno he’s enjoyed since his teens. Track titles like ‘Squatters Dog’ say it all. Ed is also known as Tessela, who created ‘Hackney Parrot’, one of post-dubstep’s biggest bangers, as well as a slew of other bass-driven techno tracks.
Since 2016, Overmono has progressed, in true UK techno fashion, via a series of much-loved EPs. Until 2021, there wasn’t anything resembling a longer release, until the much-celebrated ‘Fabric Presents Overmono’ mix compilation, which they anchored with their own work but also showcased some influences like Smith & Mighty (‘Film Score’), Ed Rush & Optical (‘Bacteria’) and, of course, Blawan (‘Fourth Dimensional’) amongst many others.
But it was also last year that they really broke through to a wider audience, with a DJ Mag Best Live Act award cementing their reputation for tearing up festival performances. Talk of those shows prompts a typically straightforward answer. “Before the pandemic we’d played a few festivals, you know, but we’d always be thinking we could have changed the show in some way,” Ed says. “But then when we played at Gala in Peckham Rye Park last year, it just went fucking mental. Everyone knew every tune, the set had fallen into place, our set-up was locked…”
“… and we were so nervous beforehand, so we were just throwing a few drinks back,” Tom interrupts. “I’ve never needed a piss more in my life! I mean it was all I could think about during the whole set, I only really saw how busy it got afterwards on the videos.”
Bladder control aside, it feels like they’ve got another festival banger on their hands with the new single from their sound system culture-referencing ‘Cash Romantic’ EP, namely ‘Gunk’. It features twisted-up vocals by Kindora, whose “music we found on Bandcamp – we don’t know much about her, but her hooks are unreal” Ed notes.
Plus it has just the kind of powerful bassline you’d expect from these two. It feels like techno and, yet simultaneously a bit of ravey UKG too, especially with that time-stretched vocal sample.
"I’ve never needed a piss more in my life! I mean it was all I could think about during the whole set, I only really saw how busy it got afterwards on the videos."
“We spend a lot of time looking for stunning vocals, but we’ve never really recorded any,” Ed explains. “We prefer samples because that way you’re limited with what you can do as there might only be certain sections you can use without interference, so that makes you get creative. How are you gonna get that 12-second bit of audio? So we start chopping and trying to make it fit, which can lead to loads of different ideas.”
The idea of limitations actually helping their work is one that Tom takes up when asked about ‘Bone Mics’, the rumbling El-B bass-rumbling second track on the new EP. “Every single sound on that track, bar the bit of vocal, was done on the MS-20. We do that quite a lot. Just set ourselves some limitations of writing a tune on one synth and you start getting some weird, interesting stuff out of it,” Tom explains.
This love of weird and interesting things they can create in the studio is present when talk turns to the EP’s title track, ‘Cash Romantic’. Is that live timpani in the background? No. Everything you hear is programmed by them.
This offers a more general insight into how Overmono like to work. Tom says: “We programmed our own breakbeat and then sampled it. Ran it through a bunch of kit and recorded it again. And for that tune especially, we did that a few times to get it sounding right. There are no live drums or sampled drums on the record. It’s all from our MS-20 and maybe a few other synths. We process everything so much that it almost doesn’t matter what we record from in the first place. They go through so many different stages of processing and re-sampling that it sounds so different to how it started. We never really use drum machines; we just record sounds of synths.”
As Tom says when asked about ‘Gfortune’ on the EP” “We really like working with de-tuned synths and the one we used here, the Vermona PERfourMUR, is almost impossible to get into tune anyway, so that’s just how it sounds. That’s what makes it sound like there’s timpani or whatever, it’s actually three or four oscillators playing but they’re all slightly out of tune.”
This seems like a pretty direct progression from the cobbled-together technical arrangements that defined UK sound system culture (and indeed its Jamaican antecedent). And when this is mentioned, how two guys who grew up on the Welsh borders feel that culture relates to them, the boys proffer a very telling answer.
“We were talking about this recently,” Ed says. “And we said that the feeling of being on the outside of something is good. You never feel like you’re included, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You have to do your own thing and I think that has stayed with us. We don’t feel like we’re part of anything now; we don’t sit within one genre. But we’re on the outside looking in which gives us more freedom. If there is a tune on here that’s a weird take on R’n’B and then a d’n’b tune, then that feels very natural to us as we’ve always been pulling little bits from scenes we see, but are never wrapped up in.”
So what are the differences between DJing and playing live? Now the most animated they’ve been all interview, Ed answers: “I think it’s like before you start playing out and you start DJing in your bedroom. You can practice as much as you like, but you really learn by playing out. And it’s the same with playing live, but times ten. So you’ve gotta do a show, then go back and re-work the show, change the set-up, then play another show. That cycle goes around and around. And it feels like by doing that over the last few years, we now feel like we both know exactly what we’re doing. It’s taken us years to feel like that – and there were certainly a few shonky live shows back in the day – but you have to do that to get to this next stage.”
Tom is more succinct. More direct you might say: “Playing live is about keeping so many plates spinning that people really react when you pull it off. DJing nowadays just doesn’t get that same reaction.”
First listen: Boards of Canada 'Music Has The Right To Children'
Boards of Canada: ‘Music Has The Right To Children’. Damian Harris finally gets round to listening...
used cms First listen: Boards of Canada 'Music Has The Right To Children'
Damian Harris finally gets round to listening...
In my defence 1998 was a bit of a blur… Skint, the label I had started in 1995, was going through its moment in the sun and controls were set for the heart of it. Sirens blaring, hurtling towards the hit parade, Fatboy Slim on the front of the tabloids and Bentley Rhythm Ace and the Lo-Fidelity Allstars on the front cover of the NME. We were the sound of the moment all fuelled by copious amounts of ‘let’s ‘ave it’. Not all of us wanted to be on the Big Beat fun bus but it was hard to get off. I’m handing that in as my excuse for missing this fine album.
Before Skint I worked in a record shop where you had the luxury of being able to listen to music all day – you’re on top of everything, from all genres. It’s your job to be.
When you are running a record label with eight to ten artists all sending you new music, as well as trying to keep on top of the ever-growing demo pile, well, your audio capacity to give new music the time it deserves is dramatically reduced. You’re permanently catching up. Hence why it’s taken me 24 years to listen to ‘Music Has The Right To Children’.
In fact, the most annoying thing about this oversight (to put it mildly) is that it really is very much ‘my type of record’. It comes from a place that was producing some of the most exciting and innovative music at the time. That no man’s land between genres where people with ideas and a sampler brought together their favourite bits of everything – hip hop, techno, electronics and many other things in between.
‘Telephasic Workshop’ is a great example of this fusion: crunchy breaks, layered rhythms and sounds, gates and scratches building the atmosphere. The way it meanders, but never seems lost, and those little stabs of speech are perfectly timed and curated. Another example is the deep distorted voice on ‘Pete Standing Alone’ – stunning.
Synths over hip hop beats has long been my Achilles’ heel and there are some absolutely divine moments of musicality. ‘Olson’ and ‘Kaini Industries’ are beautiful. The fact these melodies seem to emerge from the dirt fleetingly makes them all the more powerful.
I have to admit I had preconceptions about Boards of Canada. I imagined slick, serious electronic music – so I was slightly surprised that, well, it’s quite fun… apologies to the band for sounding like my Auntie Theresa there, but it is. And it manifests itself best in ‘Aquarius’, probably my favourite track at the moment, but like all the best LPs that may well change.
As I played the LP for the first time another reaction was Req! Req was Skint’s very own Brighton B-Boy who made fucked up, uncompromising lo-fi hip hop – some of my favourite music released on the label – and I desperately clung on to his underground credibility as we started having chart success with our other acts. We released his first EP in 1995, around the same time Boards of Canada got going, so it warms my heart immensely that there’s a kindred spirit running through both artists.
I do wonder what I would have said if A&R responsibilities had been mine. I’d have certainly asked them to make more of ‘Kaini Industries’ – a stunning 59 seconds of burbling melodic synth that I would love to hear more of. And at 71 minutes the album is a fair bit longer than my preferred 40-50 minutes optimum LP run time.
I would have probably trimmed a couple of tracks. But in the same way when I tried to A&R Req, I hope they would have politely told me to go fuck myself and just informed me that’s just the way it is. Quite right too.
As a DJ, producer and now label boss, SHERELLE is reconnecting Black Queer euphoria to dance music’s diverse and inclusive roots. Because if anyone understands the importance of representation at a time of upheaval, it’s this livewire Londoner. “I’m just adding to something that allows the next person to come through.”
used cms SHERELLE
Some of SHERELLE’s earliest memories are of the walls literally coming down. A child of demolition like so much of London at the mercy of social housing, she watched her estate fall to wrecking balls at a young age. It was an early lesson in understanding the precarity and importance of space to call your own.
By the time she, and her mum and sister, had moved to another council estate in Walthamstow, she had understood two things: one, was reverence for care, thanks to what she calls “a dynamic of support, where there was a massive need to help each other”.
The other, was the importance of making something for herself, which she quickly got to work with, finding her sanctuary in a “tiny box room which might have been for storage” and transforming it into something beautiful: filled with “Black Barbies, Blazin’ Squad posters and loads of Arsenal posters”, (she’s a child of the Invincibles era – when Arsenal went a whole league season without defeat in 2003/04, which might explain some of her youthful confidence).
Today, SHERELLE, the DJ, producer and label head has this same bop of optimism as she bounces down the capital’s Dalston High Street. She’s donning a big blue puffer jacket that conceals how small she really is, and her trademark smile. She rocks up at Escuado De Cuba, a Cuban restaurant that transforms from day to night. Today, it’s dark inside, but at night the surroundings are bathed in red light, with up-tempo music and after-hours dance, fitting for SHERELLE, whose body is also finely tuned for night-time transfigurations.
The location is sandwiched somewhere between her past and present. As she excitedly talks about the near future – an upcoming US tour, more summer bookings, radio slots, she also gestures with a frown towards the road behind her, where her early DJ sets took place including the infamous, but now defunct, Birthdays which closed in 2016. In fact, at only 28, many of the clubs where she trained her ear for mixing and selecting are now relegated to the archives.
SHERELLE is no stranger to change. While the soundtrack to those early years was her mum’s ear for dancehall and reggae which filled the house – a connection to her family’s roots in Clarendon, Jamaica – she was expressing her musical love through her bedroom walls. By the time she was a teenager she had grown out of boy bands (“It felt wrong… because I was gay” she laughs) and she cleared the way for Janelle Monáe pictures ripped out of fashion magazines and a limited edition Daft Punk 3D cover of Dazed & Confused, “which came with glasses”. It was in that space she spent many moments gazing at the electronic French duo coming alive in her tiny room as she listened to Mary Anne Hobbs and Annie Mac on the radio.
Outside the house, she was making space for her personal passions. Her first dream, of being a footballer, came crashing down after an early collision with structural barriers. “The girls training ground was in Hertfordshire, which was just too far, we couldn’t afford to travel to it,” she recalls. “Ironically, I lived so close to the men’s Arsenal training ground, so I remember I called them up and I was like: ‘Hello, do you have any space? Can the girls try out here as well?’ They said no.”
When that didn’t work out (though the practice hours allowed her to listen to “Kano, Roll Deep, Friendly Fires and a lot of drum’n’bass tunes on my iPod” so it wasn’t all bad), she got a job at River Island. This taught her how music can help you squeeze some joy from the tedium of life because she “hated it with a passion” not least, because of its soundtrack, which was a rolling cast of caustic pop hits.
Her ears filtered the songs she liked, “(Chicago DJ) Traxman, Azari & III”, between the indie-pop glut. Her saving grace, she remembers, was discovering, then listening religiously, to the SBTRKT album on the 275 bus journey from Woodford station to her job in Stratford and back again. “That saved me!” she grins.
Partly as a reaction to the River Island playlist, she was set free after learning that you could curate soundtracks on your own terms, for yourself, by downloading music from the internet. “I spent hours at the computer on LimeWire downloading everything and anything,” she says. “I would find a load of jungle records, all terrible quality, ripped from pirate radio but listen again and again anyway.”
It was when the frenetic bloom of Chicago house travelled through her laptop speakers one day in 2012 that she really fell in love, as Barbara Tucker’s vocal entered the auditory cortex of her brain, travelled through her body and dilated her pupils.
“I downloaded someone’s Strictly Rhythm compilation by accident,” she says. “It was where I discovered Chicago house. I was like, okay, fuck, this is the kind of sound I’m into.” Soon after, she came across a Machinedrum mix. “I didn’t know that I was listening to footwork at that time.”
It led her to footwork pioneers like DJ Spinn and RP Boo, the Teklife crew and others who make up the underground music phenomenon born out of 90s Chicago. The genre, generally at a high speed of 160 bpm, borrows from drum’n’bass with its double-time clave triplets, syncopated toms and huge sub-bass. It was born from the corners of Chicago, in tiny, wood-panelled homes and makeshift spaces where people jerked to juke, flailing limbs in all directions in reverent submission to the music.
It was around this time that she downloaded the DJ software VirtualDJ which allowed her practice hours to beatmatch, scratch, and create mixes. An enthusiast to the end and limited by nothing, SHERELLE tested her mixes in spaces which don’t exactly spring to mind when you think about UK future garage and R’n’B sets.
“I played for my friend’s 16th birthday party once,” she says with her characteristic liveliness between bites of cheese and jalapeño-topped tacos. “It was in this random warehouse somewhere in Walthamstow. I even did a jungle section where I went really fast and people were like: ‘Oh my gosh.’ Yeah… I really went in on that.”
The sets that followed retained this dual sense of energy and liberation. SHERELLE taking the Black Queer euphoria of house’s history, injecting it with UK jungle’s beating heart, with the aim of making those listening lose their minds.
She is careful, though, to make a crucial distinction between being a purist and a specialist – a specialist she explains, has passion, opens up the genre, and rejects the exclusionary nature of purist approaches. If SHERELLE wants anything, it’s to build the music scene up bigger, always allowing the bodies left outside, in. She understands that while it might make for a neat classification to call her a jungle and footwork DJ, she is, of course, a product of years of diverse iPod playlists.
“You can, like, represent other things as well,” she says.
It was discovering how the internet made it possible to build something from the ground up that inspired SHERELLE’s next era in music. She did what most fans did at the time and exploited the mid-2000s landscape of DIY music reporting that blogs afforded. Her contribution to the online ether was a blog called Influxxx. This gave her access to artists via reviewing gigs, interviews, attending clubs for free, crowbarring herself in to what had been for a long time largely gate-kept music spaces.
She reels off a list of people she was able to access at the time: Andy C, SBTKRT, Chase & Status. “I’d be standing in these crowds and be like, wow, they’ve managed to like produce this music,” she recalls. “They’re now DJing it. And then everyone’s going mental. It was a huge influence for me.”
If the internet gave SHERELLE an online musical home, then Reprezent gave her a physical one. She joined the now infamous south London community radio station when she was 20 and beams every time she talks about it.
“Reprezent is one of those like magical places,” she says. “It’s like, you don’t understand how much confidence you get from that. It almost like makes you wanna like, like scream and cry. Cause you’re just like, finally fuck! And the generations come in waves.”
“I lived so close to the men’s Arsenal training ground, so I remember I called them up and I was like: ‘Hello, do you have any space? Can the girls try out here as well?’ They said no.”
It’s an inspiring approach to think of it this way, waves that roll on, rather than bemoaning the glory days of a golden era long gone and it’s a useful reminder that excellence and support comes in waves, and tides continue to persist – if they’re allowed to.
The station, which gained its FM licence in 2011, but has been broadcasting since 2009 is beloved for being a place where young DJs, presenters and broadcasters play great music across the board and are as likely to chat about exclusive grime performances as station collaborations with The xx or the local Chicken Cottage’s Ramadan special between songs. The roster is diverse musically – everything from indie sleaze throwbacks, to trap specials, and journeys into Detroit house. SHERELLE was among the first Reprezent generation to move from the brick contours of Queens Road Peckham to the steel shipping containers of POP! Brixton in 2017 and used it to finesse her ear for jungle, footwork and a spectrum of dance sounds, namely thrilling ‘160 edits’ of lovers rock songs or Kaytranada reworks.
The talent from Reprezent has filled some of the gaping holes in the music industry, breaking comedians like Munya Chawawa, alongside A&Rs who went on to work with XL, producers poached by Beats and selectors who found homes at 6 Music, 1Xtra and beyond. It’s worth noting that Reprezent (107.3 on the FM dial, or a website away if you want to listen online) broadcasts with the same energy and continued to produce talent and jubilation throughout the lockdown in living rooms across the city (sometimes interrupted by mums passing through).
The permission to just exist in peace felt radical. “There’s a fuckload of people within the music scene at the moment that wouldn’t exist without it,” explains SHERELLE. “We were given time to just do whatever the fuck we wanted. We sat on a beanbag and did fuck all and chatted with a friend.”
In a climate where youth spaces have been almost completely decimated by 12-long years of Tory governance, sometimes all you need is a shipping container, some speakers, and some mates to change your life.
In 2015, the station, a social enterprise funded largely by local authorities, was under threat of closure thanks to cuts from central government which had a devastating effect on the station’s finances. The closeness of Reprezent’s precarious economy politicised the issue for those who used the station as a lifeline. For SHERELLE, it illustrated something razor sharp, and between sips of a beer she summarises what it felt like to consider that the walls might come down.
“We’ve got a government that couldn’t give a fuck about young people. And especially about young people of colour,” she sighs. And she should know – she’s a product of political governance which has sent this message for as long as she’s been DJing clubs. Over the decade between 2011-12 and 2021-22, over £36 million has been cut from annual youth service budgets in the capital: a fall of 44%.
Thankfully, the tidal wave of talent from SHERELLE’s era was more inspirational than the bleak political moment. “I used to play for a couple of groups, one called 160 feet deep (a reference to the general BPM of Chicago footwork). They used to put on loads of footwork nights, and a night called We Buy Gold in London. I was really influenced by it. It made me step my pussy game up to kind of, be like, okay, cool. I need to go do this myself.” So mighty was its impact she began taking DJing in clubs seriously, finding another place to just be, to find her footing, and turn crowds inside out.
In 2019, SHERELLE showed us exactly what she could do to a crowd. Boiler Room invited her to share in what she calls “a watershed moment in my DJ life”. The now legendary set is a frenetically-paced masterclass in joy, and a speed-through UK dance music history. There are plenty of electric moments that sent the crowd into raptures – from mixing 90s trance track ‘Toca’s Miracle’ by Fragma into deep jungle, or Teklife bounces that spring off the walls. The set went viral internationally, (currently at almost half a million views) and was the moment that cemented Sherelle Camille Thomas as a mighty mononym in the scene.
SHERELLE’s offering showed what many who have been cutting shapes in the corners of raves where womxn (a term to describe the intersectional inclusion of all femme identities ignored by the mainstream) are centred already know: a really good club connection can grant us transcendental moments. She talks about it with almost religious devotion.
“The day after I can’t quite quantify how I felt ‘cause of the fact that it felt so divinely… right. And the level of joy that I got, like, it’s this warm, very warm, rush.”
For SHERELLE, time is often compartmentalised in music – if in 2011, she was in her 275 bus-SBTRKT-era, by 2019, she was deep in her DJ Rashad one. This cemented her confidence in her own understanding of the genre and how to make people feel something. She says that Paul Johnson’s ‘Get Get Down’, helped her make a connection between her world in Walthamstow and the sounds coming out of Midwest America. “I used to hear that song at birthday parties!” she laughs.
In fact, her mixes take the history of how Chicago house and footwork have seeped into UK electronic music, as represented by UK labels like Hyperdub and Planet Mu. In 2010, Hyperdub teamed up with Rashad’s Teklife crew (formerly GhettoTeknitianz) to throw footwork parties in London and Bristol. These explosions of dubstep, grime, hip hop, and funky are all represented every time SHERELLE touches the decks. Her recent – and acclaimed – Fabric compilation is testament to this, breakbeat in breakneck speed designed to make you sweat.
“I downloaded someone’s Strictly Rhythm compilation by accident. It was where I discovered Chicago house. I was like, okay, fuck, this is the kind of sound I’m into.”
The Boiler Room set and opportunities that followed amplified SHERELLE’s profile. Even today, as she talks, she pulls her black beanie over her ears and she attracts a few looks from passers-by – of admiration, certainly, but also what are presumably various strands of recognition, perhaps from her Radio 1 residency slots and frequent 6 Music features, her viral Boiler Room sets, club nights, or beaming from the covers of numerous magazine profiles. Maybe you just bumped into her at one point in life and never forgot it. After all, as her sets attest, if there’s anything SHERELLE is definitely not in short supply of, it’s charisma.
The flurry of bookings, projects, tours following ‘The Set’ turned into ideas on how she might use her influence to disrupt the oppressive whiteness and lack of access in the scene. Then, of course, it all came to a grinding halt after the world went into lockdown. For someone used to a life of outlandish basslines, the world quietened down.
In 2020, at the height of some of the tightest of restrictive lockdown measures in Britain, and a historic reimagining of how to amplify the joy of Black life after tragedy, I interviewed SHERELLE over Zoom from her home, reflecting on how we reconnect in a future music world. In that moment of liminal space, it seemed impossible to imagine. How do you rebuild something that felt like it was demolished?
“It makes me sad” she said at the time, talking about some of the most vulnerable clubbers amongst us, “...to think that a lot of people usually in these crowds… are struggling from not seeing themselves, being stuck at home or with family members they’re not out to, in places where they can’t be their authentic selves.”
The brutality of the pandemic on an industry which had already felt the bite of austerity can’t be underestimated. In October 2020, SHERELLE appeared on ‘Newsnight’ on a programme following the winter economic plan of chancellor Rishi Sunak that failed to adequately support the culture sector, in the midst of crisis. Circumstances that make activists of us all.
“The whole industry, live music, is in complete dire straits” she said. “It’s very stressful for us all. I’ve got friends on Universal Credit and they’re unable to either choose between paying rent or paying for food and basic amenities.”
Two years on, and SHERELLE has imagined something better. I think about this quote by writer Audre Lorde in her 1988 ‘A Burst of Light: Essays’: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
For SHERELLE, this care takes place on the dancefloor, it is in the dancing, in the curating of a home for her peers, and it is an opportunity to care for each other.
“Some of us don’t have space” she explains. “Some of us don’t have ownership of certain things”.
At Goldsmiths, as a student SHERELLE was taught by feminist scholar and thinker Sara Ahmed. It’s where she first came across academic ideas of decolonialism, and the insidiousness of structural racism.
“I’d always leave her lessons being like: ‘Fucking hell, no wonder this has happened to me in the past.’ But her lessons gave me strength,” she recalls. Making environments welcoming to marginalised communities is now paramount, having spent much of her time in crowds that weren’t always friendly. She explains that once, her USB was stolen from her laptop mid set. The whole vibe shifted. “Suddenly the room didn’t feel like we were all in this moment together.”
Her point is these ecosystems are fragile and sometimes that’s all it takes to feel like the crowd outnumber you, that you’re not, all, children of Barbara Tucker’s Beautiful People.
“And that as a Black woman I’m not always afforded the luxury of anger,” she says, rubbing her beanie against her ear. “But I think back to Sara. Now, if someone’s being a dickhead, I’ll just call them a dickhead.”
SHERELLE’s new project, the aptly named BEAUTIFUL, builds on what she’s learned from seeing things rise from the ashes. It provides the very thing a generation of would-be artists are looking for – a place to metaphorically and figuratively, call their own. But alongside logistical offerings like free studio space (“because it’s fucking expensive!”), SHERELLE is clear about its existence being a reaction and disruption to a music scene in bondage to its own structural privileges.
She aims to curate and put on exhibitions, a record label centring Black artists (she has experience in this, having headed up label Hooversound recordings with Apple Music presenter, fellow DJ and Reprezent alumni NAINA since 2021) and also provide DJ and music business workshops as a way to demystify the process. One of the offerings she’s most excited about is a syllabus that teaches musical and political histories.
“I feel that the electronic music scene has been whitewashed,” she says, which she sees as an opportunity. “Festivals and others need to do better in order to book more people of colour. The platform’s gonna be basically something that addresses influence, space and ownership.”
It also insists on writing the joy of Black artists as curators, creators and practitioners into the past, present and future of the electronic music scene. To make a point about erasure she retells a recent story about arguing with someone on Twitter about Kraftwerk. She tells the story quickly which can be summarised in a single final sentence that makes her laugh so incredulously she splutters as she takes a long sip of her beer: “Kraftwerk were not dance music until Black people in Detroit were dancing to them!”
This point builds on the idea that ‘decolonising’ is an active word that lives in the world beyond academia. Put simply, it describes that most of our cultural, social and political lives have been whitewashed, centring whiteness and erasing the contribution of marginalised communities, particularly Black, Queer ones. This branch of thinking suggests that it is our collective responsibility to continue to add and rewrite these histories back in tenfold, bringing us closer to truth and a deeper understanding of the world we live in. In the context of dance music, it might just be asking questions of disco and house archive footage which show only white, affluent kids dancing in the Manhattan clubs. These speak little to the Queer Black or Latinx dancers taking up space in Harlem in a climate of hate, stretching their limbs in clubs and commanding the power of the music to help empower them in life.
“I feel that the electronic music scene has been whitewashed. Festivals and others need to do better in order to book more people of colour. The platform’s gonna be basically something that addresses influence, space and ownership.”
With this in mind, talk turns to the role of the dancer. Her answer is both logical and poetic: “The role of the dancer is important because they represent freedom.”
She continues. “Freedom of expression is something which we don’t have enough of in the world, and we’re not able to have enough of, so the dancers - especially the Queer gen - they could have it in the club, if they weren’t being beaten the fuck out of by police or being heckled in the street.”
She mentions learning how the club creates celestial moments from listening to 90s Detroit techno pioneers Underground Resistance: “It’s like a lot of gospel-led things where you can just feel like… the pain floating away.”
In 2021, Sherelle offered something that took from this idea of “a softer, emotive side to the world” with the release of her sensitive, thoughtful and thrilling two-track EP, ‘160 Down The A406’. She says the tracks are “supposed to be warm and forgiving”, and they are – airy vocals over gentle bass clips that give you a chance to catch your breath as she calls you to dance in your own way, at your own pace.
She takes this knowledge of the dancers and DJs who have come before her as the foundation for BEAUTIFUL. “I’ve noticed a lot more Queer people getting into footwork, juke, jungle, d’n’b,” she says. “People who might not always have been so open to kiss or to dance or be themselves fully.”
Her thinking is that post-pandemic, people want speed rather than a gentle way back in the club. If that’s true then she’s the person for the job. Talking about footwork, she muses that: “I think the music and how fast and crazy and sporadic it is has actually lent itself well to people being able to do whatever – whatever dances you wanna do, whatever you wanna wear, the tongue-in-cheek nature of it all. Sexual liberation and sexual openness is always really good, and I think the speed of the music enables one big clusterfuck of explosion and expression.”
It’s true that to call the music fun is an understatement – it is at times instructional: “Bounce that Booty’ (DJ Deeon) asks what some may say are urgent questions, ‘What’s the use of having that ass if you ain’t gonna throw it? (DJ Rashad) and sometimes, provides crucial advice for life: ‘DON’T JUST STAND THERE’ (DJ Spinn).
In the midst of a political and social moment where communal spaces are fighting for their lives (between 2005 and 2015 it was reported that over 1400 clubs were shut in the UK, many thanks to rising rents) SHERELLE sees herself as inspired by other DJ collectives and communities who have unearthed light in the midst of political darkness.
She namechecks Discwoman (A New York collective platforming women and non-binary electronic artists) BBZ (a London-based Black Queer art and DJ collective) Unorthodox (who put on a Queer drum’n’bass night), all the time making the point that there are people working to build something even as things fall down.
For those working class young people for whom studio space is the difference between making music or not, for those LGBTQIA+ communities of colour looking to find home, or those artists for whom seeing themselves as part of the past can empower their present. For anyone looking for a place to feel beautiful, SHERELLE aims to make it so.
Her education, learned from the confines of her tiny box room, to the training grounds just for boys, to sprawling inclusive online spaces, to being in command of crowds and airwaves, has taught her that making something for yourself is good but sharing it is even better.
Before she leaves – she needs to rest her body before a US tour in a few days’ time – she makes a final, enduring point as she begins to zip up her puffer jacket. “I’m part of an ecosystem that already exists. I’m just adding to something that allows the next person to come through, and then the next group, and then the next wave of people to come through, building something together. All while highlighting how beautiful and delightful the Black music scene is.”
Gilles Peterson is still living the dream. Now in his fifth decade in the music business – in which time he has helped reshape British music culture thanks to his tireless championing of new artists – he remains fully focussed on what comes next. Not even losing his laptop can derail him. “There’s just so much new stuff constantly coming that I don’t have to live off the old stuff,” he tells Emma Warren…
used cms Gilles Peterson - “I’ve Always Been Like This”
Gilles Peterson is still living the dream. Now in his fifth decade in the music business – in which time he has helped reshape British music culture thanks to his tireless championing of new artists – he remains fully focussed on what comes next. Not even losing his laptop can derail him. “There’s just so much new stuff constantly coming that I don’t have to live off the old stuff,” he tells Emma Warren…
Gilles Peterson has a lot of history. He is behind the decks in the Brownswood Basement, where he’s been variously living, recording and hosting musical royalty for nearly three decades. He’s broadcasting his weekly show for Worldwide FM, the station he founded in 2017, and his guest is another man who has been around the block a few times: Ashley Beedle of Black Science Orchestra and X-Press 2 fame.
They’re reminiscing about shared dancefloors, specifically the Monday night Bar Rumba days between 1993 and 2005 when Peterson ran That’s How It Is with James Lavelle. It was a place, says Peterson, where all the different scenes came together, and where seemingly disparate songs like Josh Wink’s ‘Higher States of Consciousness’ and Masters At Work’s ‘The Nervous Track’ could be big tunes. They laugh about the record shop round the corner which would open up early so that they could tumble out of one basement and into another one. Neither can remember what it was called.
The conversation moves on to an even earlier shared dancefloor, at a night Peterson ran with Chris Bangs at the Cock Tavern in Smithfield Market around 1988 and which moved to Lauderdale House in Highgate, playing acid house and free jazz, with one strobe. It’s where, says Peterson off-mic: “the jazz scene started doing Es”.
It’s not all olden days jibber jabber, though, as evidenced by a spin of the Black Science Orchestra mix of Emma-Jean Thackray’s ‘Venus’, which Ashley Beedle has transformed into a certified dancefloor banger, and a discussion about Peterson going to see new Brownswood signing Secret Night Gang later that evening at Ally Pally, where they’re supporting Khruangbin.
After the show, Peterson drops his wiry frame into a chair and exhales. I should say at this point that I also have a show on Worldwide FM, and therefore understand at least something about the concentration required to do radio. It uses up a lot of energy and he’s briefly in the Gilles Peterson version of a zoned-out micro-slump. But this being Gilles Peterson, a man who buzzes harder than a buzzing fly, it doesn’t last long.
It’s going to be a big year, he says, describing new Brownswood releases from South African vocalist Sibusile Xaba (“very International Anthem, like Irreversible Entanglements done electronically”), an as-yet-unannounced Yussef Dayes album, more music from Daymé Arocena, and Tom Skinner’s ‘Voices of Bishara’ album which will appear in the US via Chicago’s aforementioned International Anthem. In addition there’s an album with Herbie Hancock’s guitarist Lionel Loueke – unannounced, ‘til now – which began life as DJ edits that Peterson made with friend and producer Alex Patchwork. There are gigs lined up for STR4TA, his brit funk collaboration with Bluey, not to mention his connection to a limited edition, under-the-radar, post punk-styled release.
The unending workload and abundant enthusiasm explains, at least partly, why he’s such an authoritative person in UK music. In terms of broadcast influence, he’s the closest thing the 90s generation have to John Peel, especially since the departure of the differently Peel-ish Andrew Weatherall. Peterson might not yet have the National Treasure status that Peel rightly earned over his lifetime but he’s certainly in the same realms.
He’s probably the UK broadcaster with the longest-standing connections to American hip hop, particularly the soulful strands that developed out of rap’s margins. “Anderson .Paak, I brought him over for his first London trip for the Worldwide Awards where he did a legendary duet with Little Simz,” he tells me later, in a quick phone call while he’s walking to the train station. “People forget. Sa Ra Creative Partners and Jay Electronica coming to the UK. Robert Glasper’s first show in the UK and Kamasi Washington’s first in France… I gave FlyLo his first producer fee in a brown envelope in Old Street for his track on ‘Brownswood Bubblers Volume 1’. The Roots, we had them in and out of the office for the year when they lived in Kentish Town. Madlib. Dilla.”
The index to Dan Charnas’ brilliant new book ‘Dilla Time’ lists Gilles Peterson six times, in sections that describe his early support of the music and which draw from interviews he broadcast. Ross Allen appears too, hiring the artist then known as Jay Dee to remix Spacek’s ‘Eve’ and interviewing him on his NTS show in 2001. DJ and BBE label boss Peter Adarkwah is a more embedded part of the story, but then he’s the person that invested in Dilla as a solo artist, signing him back in 1999 and releasing ‘Welcome 2 Detroit’ two years later. Westwood appears once, in a somewhat disparaging footnote, the interview being ‘somewhat less revelatory on the music side and more about James (Dilla) and his crew’s porn film preferences’.
Peterson’s music-first connections with various generations of American artists have created strong relationships, he says. He pauses and grins. “Americans are super grateful, then they become massive and don’t answer your call,” he says, clarifying that he means hip hop performers, not the DJ world. “I’m there for the bit on the way up and the bit on the way down, although now I’ve got good numbers on social media they stay with me while they’re up too.” At the time of writing these ‘good numbers’ see him sitting at 197k on Instagram.
It is Gilles Peterson’s deep involvement in multiple aspects of UK music culture that cement his importance. Firstly, there’s the radio. His award-winning BBC shows (1998-2011 on Radio 1 and 2012 to the current day on 6 Music) have been among the broadcasters ‘most listened to’ specialist shows for years, according to his former producer Jesse Howard, who adds that more than half of 6 Music’s most listened to ‘on demand’ shows each year are regularly Gilles Peterson programmes, with the rest usually specials relating to gargantuan figures like Bowie.
“I’m there for the bit on the way up and the bit on the way down, although now I’ve got good numbers on social media they stay with me while they’re up too.”
Peterson’s Club Lockdown shows during the pandemic in 2021 broke previous records for listen again on the station. Further back, of course, there are myriad pirate radio histories, where he learned from the brilliant selectors, presenters and promoters he played alongside.
While he might not run clubs anymore (“I just run festivals now,” he deadpans, citing the annual We Out Here in Cambridge and Worldwide Festival at Sète, France), he has put in the hours over the years. There were the late-80s Cock Happy nights he was discussing with Ashley Beedle, and the aforementioned That’s How It Is, as well as Talking Loud and Saying Something, more generally known as Dingwalls, which he ran on Sundays with Patrick Forge between 1986 and 1991 – and which recently returned with regular and joyful-looking one-offs.
He also ran Tea-Time on monthly-ish Sundays in Paris for five or six years (“Body & Soul-style, 3pm to midnight”) at La Bellevilloise, a building which once hosted the French capital’s first workers’ co-operative. And of course there were, in the recent pre-pandemic times, regular slots in Japan, and the US.
Gilles Peterson’s background is well known to music lovers, especially those in the UK, France and in the US, but it is still worth recapping the label side of his musical life. First, there was Acid Jazz, which he set up in 1987 to release his long-time friend and co-conspirator Rob Gallagher’s first Galliano record. He left Acid Jazz to set up Talkin’ Loud in 1990, with Norman Jay coming onboard to run his own side imprint and to support with A&R, leaving four years later.
The label released heavily influential records by Young Disciples, Omar, Nicolette, 4Hero and Reprazent not to mention MAW’s Nuyorican Soul album and Carl Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra. Plenty of influential people passed through – DJ Paulette was the press officer for a while – and like all endeavours that might superficially appear like solo missions, it was the fruit of multiple labours, with hard-working music heads making all of it a reality behind the scenes.
In 2006, he started Brownswood Recordings with a new team, who help make Gilles’ current visions a reality. People forget about the ‘Brownswood Electric’ compilations, he says, which scooped up early releases from the likes of Joy Orbison and Koreless. The Brownswood Bubblers series ran from 2006 to 2018 and included early or first releases from a long list of high-flyers a handful of which include Flying Lotus, Bullion, The Invisible, Floating Points, Ghostpoet, Zara McFarlane, Hiatus Kyote, Dean Blunt, Emma-Jean Thackray and Wu-Lu.
The philosophy remains with recent signings including Manchester’s Secret Night Gang, south London keyboard player DoomCannon and the ongoing Future Bubblers artist mentoring programme. In short, there’s been a lot of bubbling.
Curation has become more difficult with so much music being released, he says. “It’s much more difficult to be precise, to really be on top of everything from Amapiano to some new thing coming out of Belgium.” There’s a difference, he says, between thinking something is good and having experienced it. “You can’t just throw things together from what people are telling you, you’ve got to experience it and live it. Even when I was DJing a lot, I would still find time to go clubbing.” On a personal note I recall bumping into him in various niche places where I didn’t see many music industry people (a DMZ in the mid-late 2000s or at one of Alabaster dePlume’s Peach events around 2017) and I won’t have been the only one having this experience. “I was DJing every weekend. I was super busy but I made sure, because [going out] is part of it.”
In order to keep going out, he had to make a few decisions. “You get to a point where you have to see how you’re going to navigate the next 20 years, so you can be a good parent and get your shit together. We can see the damage it’s done, the lifestyle. I didn’t want to be a victim of that. I probably am – I am certainly a victim of all that – but there was a moment when I was going to France a lot and there was a decision in my head: are you going to go down the Serge Gainsbourg route?”
He knew loads of what he describes as “out of shape chain-smoking savants”, which he admits had a certain charm. “I thought fuck it, I’ll keep being that bloke. Or, I’ll have to get my shit together. A lot of the people who were that person aren’t here anymore.”
“I think a lot of people who are addicts of some sort or another, we have to make sure we go for the more wholesome addictions in life. For me, certainly, since my late-30s, running was my saving grace.”
Having said that, he says, there are always exceptions. Like 95-year-old Marshall Allen, who played with Sun Ra and now leads the Arkestra, and who he brought to the Worldwide Awards that he’s been running as a live event since 2004. “After soundcheck he’s smoking away, looking for some Courvoisier. He’s 95. He was in the Second World War. It’s different strokes for different folks, isn’t it?”
Part of the way he manages things is by running between eight and thirteen miles weekly, as well as swimming regularly. He’s done marathons in London and New York, DJing after one in a fundraiser for the Steve Reid Foundation where he agreed to play for the same duration as his run (4hrs, 17mins) and where he was joined by Louis Vega and François Kevorkian.
More recently he got into bikes. “I became one of those wankers in lycra, joined a gang of blokes who’d ride to Essex from east London on a Sunday morning. They were quite good, going down blind hills, and I was like: ‘Mate, I’m too old to be falling off’.” Now he’s into “the trails thing” and is aiming to do the Trail du Mont Blanc, which involves running 160km over six days. Constant motion remains an important part of his life. “I think a lot of people who are addicts of some sort or another, we have to make sure we go for the more wholesome addictions in life,” he says. “For me, certainly, since my late-30s, running was my saving grace.”
Is it a counterbalance to the intensely social part of music culture? “Yes. I’m regarded as someone who’s very social.
I connect people, and I like it. A lot of DJs are socially inept, or they were insecure socially at one stage – I certainly was – so that’s probably why I enjoyed the DJ role, ‘cause you could be in it but not be in it.” Just before the pandemic he tried to get into meditation. “People were like: ‘Gilles…’ Maybe I was being more volatile mood-wise than I had been and people were saying this would be good for me.” He pauses. “I don’t think I suffer from ADHD,” he says, “but some people might say I do.”
It’s funny, loads of people are currently seeking an ADHD diagnosis, but not Gilles. “Evidently, people think I’m quite hyper, but I’ve always been like this. I think life’s interesting that way. I think you get to a stage where it’s dangerous to do things that aren’t good for you. We all want to sleep better, eat better, rest better, exercise. If then I’m still nuts… [trails off]. Before self-analysing myself I wanted to get myself in order.”
There’s an intergenerational aspect to Peterson which is an important part of his success, and his ability to remain interesting and relevant. Partly this is to do with the long view that comes with decades being immersed in a rich musical universe. His interviewees and the artists whose music he shares give him an extended perspective, into that of people born in the 1920s like Marshall Allen, and into the generation born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, like Londoners Muva of Earth or Jelly Cleaver, who recently featured on his shows.
He tells a story about Warp and Rephlex artist Leila Arab. “She’s a friend of mine but she’s maybe eight years younger than me,” he says. “I’d been doing Talkin’ Loud, I remember going to her house. I’m probably 29 at the time. She was saying to me: ‘You old cunt, you’re fucking out of touch, I don’t want to sign to you because you don’t know what’s going on in Sheffield or whatever, you’re just in your thing’. It really hit me hard. She really meant it. That’s how she is, super brutal and straight-forward, but it was good for me because it made me realise, even though I was under 30, that it’s a young person’s game, the music industry. It struck a chord with me deep down, to look at what was coming next. Fortunately for me, as a DJ, that’s a great way to maintain a connection with people.”
The intergenerational aspect might seem obvious now, but it wasn’t when he started. Until at least the early-2000s many aspects of British youth culture still revolved around sticking up two fingers at family, or at what had come before. Diaspora communities with a more respectful attitude to elders have changed this. Peterson was born in Normandy to a Swiss parent and a French parent and therefore came with a culturally specific perspective of his own.
“It’s true,” he says. “Someone like Leila I related to, she’s Iranian, it’s a strong family unit. I grew up around Lebanese and French. Family was important. I remember being a bit surprised by my friends and how little they visited their parents.”
His parents returned to continental Europe along with his older siblings when he was in his late teens. “The only reason I stayed was because I had two decks and I could just about make it work, so it was fine by me. Before I knew it, they’d gone.” Having parents abroad meant that he absorbed radio from elsewhere. “I’d go to France a lot. I was very inspired by Radio Libre. My main influences were Radio Nova in Paris, pirate radio, and the specialist shows you’d have in the UK. That helped me find my sound.”
Radio was there right at the start of Gilles Peterson’s musical excursions. He got his first decks aged 15 and within a few years teamed up with his next door neighbour, Ross. They gave themselves radio names, meaning that Ross Tinsely became Ross Travone and Gilles Moehrle (his first name pronounced the French way, to rhyme with ‘heel’) became Gilles Peterson. They’d record 45 minutes each onto cassette, and then Mr Moehrle Senior would drive the pair to the uplands of Epson Downs.
“I bought a transmitter from a local engineer bloke who did pirate rigs,” says Peterson, explaining that they’d put the aerial up a tree, connect it to the transmitter, connect that to a car battery and to the cassette player, and press play. They called it Civic Radio and the Civic Radio phone line led to the phone box by the nearest pub. “My dad would drive up, help us with all of that shenanigans, and we’d get a phone call in the phone box. One phone call. But that was enough, right?”
Civic acted as a calling card to get shows on established pirates including Solar and Horizon before joining pirate-era Kiss FM, making it the Year Zero of Peterson as an internationally-renowned champion of new music. It also gave him his first experience of being busted.
“Other pirate firms would want to know where the signal came from,” he says. “I was busted by Jeremy Vine of Radio 2. I bumped into him in the lift at the BBC a few years ago. He goes: ‘Gilles Peterson? I know you, I busted you in 1982 or whatever’.” It turns out that Jeremy Vine had a little pirate set-up himself. “It was a bit of fun,” he explains. “It’s what people did, back in the time of CB Radios. They’d track you and go: ‘hello! caught you!’. What you didn’t want was to get tracked down by the DTI.” He pauses. “We’re doing history here, aren’t we?”
It’s hard not to ‘do history’ with Peterson, because as we’ve already established, he has a lot of it. A more recent experience involved losing his laptop whilst interviewing legendary American drummer Norman Connors at the Southport Weekender. He’d found the hotel Connors was staying at and went to locate him and interview him before heading on site to DJ.
“It was like being 17, doing pirate radio. I’d got a bag of my Norman Connors albums, I went into reception, then I heard American voices down a corridor and he was there, finishing off a hamburger with Dexter Wansel (producer of the jazz funk classic ‘Life On Mars’). I put my records and laptop on the table and next thing I’m interviewing him. Then I’m like: ‘Fucking hell, I’m on in half-an-hour’.” His attempts to scarper up the road were foiled by the fact that his laptop had disappeared from the hotel table, along with the USB containing all his music.
“There’s 1,500 people and they’ve not been out for two years, because it’s a certain demographic,” he says. “They’re really excited. It’s Friday night. Rich Medina’s on, he finishes his set with ‘Southern Freez’ and he does the big introduction. I’m in pieces.” He played 90 minutes with Norman Connors records and a small pile of vinyl he happened to have with him. “I was so stressed out,” he says. “Then I saw Rainer Trüby, and I said: ‘Got a cigarette?’ I hadn’t smoked for two years. That’s how bad it was.”
In case you’re wondering, his laptop wasn’t backed up. “I hate the cloud. It sucks up your music then the quality of file is shit, so you end up with crap files. I switch all that off.” Lockdown meant he’d got out of the habit of regularly backing up his files, which meant he lost everything including “all the new albums I’ve been doing”. He’s breezy about it, though. “It’s a whole new start. Musically, there’s just so much new stuff constantly coming that I don’t have to live off the old stuff.”
His recent Boiler Room set at Sounds of the Universe as part of Technics’ 50th birthday is an example of not living off the old stuff, and is also a lens through which to see some of the complications that surround his work. His son had pointed out that the set had got a lot of views (at that point, 20,000; currently tripled) and that it had attracted some opinion. The vast majority of the 130-plus comments are various iterations of ‘we love you, Gilles’, but the first three were negative, including one which stated: ‘This guy is one horrid ego-maniac’ and this was the comment he saw.
He mimes deflation. “I’ve got such an amazingly blessed life. I wake up, I’m excited. [But] I’m aware that people have had a shit time of late. You read that comment and you think: ‘Fucking hell, I shouldn’t be doing Boiler Room’. I’m finding it difficult to navigate in some ways.”
Navigating music culture has changed since George Floyd’s murder. The global response to this particular incident necessitated an update of awareness and actions in relation to what academic Reebee Garofolo called ‘Black roots, white fruits’. The ‘Lockdown FM’ book that Gilles published last year reflects something of his individual response and that of his station, Worldwide FM.
A chapter begins with text on a black square in reference to the Blackout Tuesday online protest and features photographs by Dobie from the London BLM protests. Gilles contributes ‘songs of resistance, protest and freedom’ and there’s a piece by Talkin’ Loud co-pilot Paul Martin describing the unquantifiable benefits that Black music and culture brought to his ‘white, suburban’ beginnings.
There’s a transcript of breakfast DJ Erica McKoy’s powerful introduction to her show on June 10, 2020, and on the following page, a piece where she describes having removed herself temporarily from her role on the station: ‘in protest and to remove my presence as a Black person... I needed the station I love to recognise the voices of their Black presenters and DJs and to move even more mindfully than before through topics of Blackness, as music of Black origin is at the heart of the station.’
“I was busted by Jeremy Vine of Radio 2. I bumped into him in the lift at the BBC a few years ago. He goes: ‘Gilles Peterson, I busted you in 1982’... It was a bit of fun. It’s what people did, back in the time of CB Radios”
I ask him: How did you, individually, and with the entities you’ve got around you, navigate the Black Lives Matter question? “I went through it, in terms of myself, inside,” he says, before stopping and starting again. “George Floyd was murdered; I was on the radio that weekend and I did a thing then. I didn’t talk about it, I played relevant music. Then the following week, my friend, a Black friend from Brixton who I’ve known for years, called me up. She says: ‘Gilles, well done for doing what you did last weekend, but you need to do more’. I felt like I couldn’t just hide behind playing some tunes. That following Saturday I made a statement over the top of Bukem’s ‘Horizons’ during my opening link. It was explaining who I am, a white guy, we’ve got to make a difference. I was in a conversation.”
I pause and he carries on speaking, perhaps aware of the weight of his words and the sensitivities of the subject. “There are Black people who are basically beginning to question what my role is, so I had to respond to it. I was talking to a lot of people at the time, just to find my place. I was suddenly like: ‘Fucking hell, I’ve spent 30 years of my life playing Black music, I’d better give my whole record collection to SOAS [London’s School of Oriental and African Studies] or whatever’. Those were the sort of thoughts I was having. And spending a lot of time talking about it and getting criticised.”
Some of those conversations circled close to home, which is unsurprising given his proximity to many great British artists who experience racism first-hand. He’s known Cleveland Watkiss for decades, including releasing the ‘Kamikaze’ 12-inch on Talkin’ Loud in 1997. In spring last year, Gilles posted a question on social media, as presenters often do, to get listeners involved in the radio show. “I said: ‘I’ve spent the last 25-30 years trying to find a sentence to describe my show. I need a sentence’.
There was a massive response: ‘eclectic goodness’, loads of stuff. Then Cleveland wrote: ‘It’s Black Music!!!’ Then someone screenshot it and it became people questioning my role. It turned into a thing.” In response, Gilles invited Cleveland Watkiss onto his 6 Music show to extend the conversation outwards. “You can’t in any way avoid the subject,” he says. “You can’t hide or be quiet. It’s changed everything.” Like the rest of us who benefit from Black music without experiencing racism, he doesn’t have all the answers.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Peterson’s immersion in music. The Brownswood release of STR4TA’s first album ‘Aspects’ and a follow-up this autumn reunited him with someone who’s been intermittently present throughout the decades: Incognito’s Bluey. “He’s the first person who accepted an invite to be interviewed when I was running my imaginary pirate radio station in my garden shed,” says Peterson. “He came all the way down from Tottenham.” They connected again when Talkin’ Loud released Incognito albums in the early 1990s.
The idea for STR4TA, though, came from an unexpected source: Tyler, The Creator. Peterson read an interview with him, where he said that he ‘owed everything to brit funk’. I thought: ‘Fucking hell, I’d better do that brit funk record with Bluey’.” Sometime later, he asked the rapper about it. “I said: ‘Hey, man, I didn’t realise you were into Freez and Hi-Tension and all that stuff’. He then said: ‘No, I didn’t mean that. I meant Brand New Heavies, Galliano, Jamiroquai. He meant acid jazz; he didn’t mean brit funk – but by then I’d done the STR4TA record.”
We’re finishing up and we circle back to an earlier question about what he’s carried with him to this point, from these decades deep in music culture. “This is what I would be doing if I was 17,” he says. “I’m living the dream, still. Seeing Kokoroko at The Fridge where we used to do all our Talkin’ Loud parties back in the day, seeing them capture the essence of Aswad, King Sunny Adé, Soul II Soul, Galliano – in that room. They were really good. I was like: ‘This is it. This is the band that is so London, they are on another level.’ It was the most brilliant full circle.”