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Khruangbin: Flip Your Wig
June 4, 2024
Khruangbin: Flip Your Wig
used cms Khruangbin: Flip Your Wig

Khruangbin make music for the soul. Deep, trippy, playful, immersive music for the soul. At any point this head-spinning, globe-traversing, beguiling mix can take in Thai funk, Hawaiian folk, African desert blues and Persian pop before intriguingly segueing into covers of early-90s Eurodisco standards – not bad for a trio that primarily deal in instrumental soundscapes. Unsurprisingly, their contemplative sounds are the perfect balm for the morning after the long night before. As they tell Craig McLean: “We’re the ultimate comedown music.”

Somerset, June 2022. On Glastonbury’s Park Stage the weekend starts here as Khruangbin get their groove on. Towards the end of their hour-long sunset slot, the psychedelic dreamweaving Texan trio have slid into what will later be categorised by die-hard fans and pleasantly surprised drive-by ravers, not inaccurately, as an eight-minute-plus medley of TUNES. 

They begin with their own 2016 single ‘People Everywhere (Still Alive)’, that parenthetical element pretty much the sum total of the polyrhythmic country-funk track’s lyrics. Heading towards the three-minute mark they shift into something naggingly but incongruously familiar. That’s right, it’s ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ by Snap!, everyone’s favourite early-90s German Eurodisco outfit. The crowd on the stage’s gentle slope lean in, matching virtuoso guitarist Mark Speer “speaking” the vocal hook on his instrument by chanting along. Friday night city-centre nitespot vibes in the area!

Two minutes later, a seamless transition and a flight to Washington DC for another 30-year-old dance monster: Crystal Waters’ ‘Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)’. Now Speer’s six-strings are evoking one of house music’s all-time great vocal hooks. Altogether now: ‘la da dee la dee da, la da dee la dee da…’

The briefest of breath-catching pauses leads to another imperceptible shift, another slip in time and place. We’re in Detroit in 1988 for an arm-waving, Brothers Cider-spilling cover of proto-house classic ‘Big Fun’ by Inner City. Then, to round things off, it’s back to a souped-up rerub of ‘People Everywhere (Still Alive)’, bass player and (very) occasional singer Laura Lee Ochoa and drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson locked in with Speer and racing to the finish. 

Up at the top of the Glastonbury site, night has fallen. Now, thanks to party-starting, wig-wearing, cape-favouring wizards Khruangbin, the festivities can truly begin.

New England, December 1970. At posho, WASPy Barton Academy, a student is forced to stay at the boarding school over the Christmas holidays. His companions: a strict-ass classics teacher and the head dinner lady, a single mum grieving for her son, recently graduated from the school and already dead in Vietnam. 

This is the premise of ‘The Holdovers’, the moody, melancholic, at times bitingly funny 2024 awards-season darling directed by Alexander Payne (‘Election’, ‘Sideways’) and starring newcomer Dominic Sessa as the kid, Paul Giamatti as the teacher and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as mother Mary. Nominated for five Oscars, it took home one, Randolph winning Best Supporting Actress.

Another of those nominations was for Best Original Score. It’s a period-specific wonder composed by Mark Orton. He and Payne took cues from the film ‘Harold and Maude’ and Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’, both masterpieces that were released in 1971. The film’s needle-drops are also carefully, precisely of-the-moment: ‘Venus’ by Shocking Blue (1969), ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ by The Allman Brothers (1970), Cat Stevens’ ‘The Wind’ (1971), ‘Knock Three Times’ by Tony Orlando & Dawn (1971), ‘Crying Laughing Loving Lying’ by Labi Siffre (1972) and ‘A Calf Born in Winter’ by… Khruangbin (2014) – the debut single by a band whose members weren’t even born in the year when ‘The Holdovers’ is set.

Welcome to the marvellous multiverse of kaleidoscopic Khruangbin: a time-travelling, world-skipping, costume-wearing, head-spinning band who can as readily fire the feet as soothe the soul as confuse the ears with their vintage-yet-progressive sounds. Now, four years after the release of breakthrough “party record” ‘Mordechai’ and in the wake of several collaborative projects, they’re back with their fourth album ‘A La Sala’: a glorious, gorgeous, transporting, 12-song set that, they say, evokes “the measured morning after”. 

Or: you say tomato, I say Balearic.

They are, in the loosest sense of the term, a guitar trio who abhor a genre – and, generally, lyrics – like nature abhors a vacuum. A Houston-formed triumvirate named after the Thai word for aeroplane, picked, they said very early on, because “it symbolises the international set of influences that shaped our music”. Who generally record in a no-mod-cons “hill country” cow shed (The Barn) 90 minutes outside Houston but have roots in UK club culture. 

Championed early on by Bonobo (long before the song’s Hollywood co-sign, and even before the track had been officially released, he picked ‘A Calf Born In Winter’ for his 2013 ‘Late Night Tales’ comp), they’ve collaborated with London jazz saxophonist Nubya Garcia, recorded two EPs with Texan soulman Leon Bridges, and helped celebrate Malian legend Ali Farka Touré with his son Vieux on the album ‘Ali’. Border-free and imagination-rich voyagers now based in three different corners of the US, they’re as at home in contemporary British festival fields as they are in a fuzzy Massachusetts 50 years gone.

Explaining that dance music medley that was a standout of their last global jaunt, in support of ‘Mordechai’, Johnson says that it’s simple: it’s “something that happens over the course of touring. We’re always trying to keep things fresh – for the audience, first and foremost. We play sometimes multiple shows in the same city, and we have special people who come out to multiple shows. You don’t want to give them the same thing both nights, or sometimes all three nights. So, how can we make this show different from the last? What can we do that no one else is doing?” 

That, in part, means those wigs, a permanent fixture for two-thirds of Khruangbin (Johnson prefers a custom-made hat, either a flat brim or cowboy shape, by Texan milliner Kennimer). And nightly costume changes for Ochoa, two per show, with no outfit ever repeated. It also means digging in their personal crates. 

“What are we listening to backstage that we love?” continues 40-year-old Johnson from his home studio in Houston, the man who suggested the band cover Kool & The Gang’s ‘Summer Madness’ for their own ‘Late Night Tales’ (2020). “Those songs were a reflection of that.”

Specifically, ‘Gypsy Woman’ came into the mix in Austin, Texas, “organically,” according to Ochoa. “Mark will be playing on guitar, and sometimes he’ll hear something in his mind and he’ll play a riff. Then we all start to follow him. 

“‘Big Fun’ happened I believe in Detroit. In Chicago and Detroit, we tend to lean into the legacy in those cities. Snap!, I don’t know where that started!” Ochoa says with a laugh. “But I will tell you that it is crazy how it does not go off in America and it really goes off in Europe. It’s night and day.”

So, Khruangbin changed up the medley for their US shows, swapping out ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ for Haddaway’s ‘What Is Love’. It’s another early-90s juggernaut that was German in origin, “but Americans actually know it because it was used in a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit,” says the bassist, 37, who’s now mother to a nine-month-old baby. “So, it worked. It had the same feel generally we [wanted to] create. It had that lift – that feeling when you’re around people and you’re like: ‘Wait, wait, I know this song, you know this song!’”

In terms of the movie sync, too, Ochoa couldn’t be happier. It’s proof of concept of everything she, Johnson and Speer (44 and now based in California) set out to do over a decade ago.

“We had, especially at that time, because we were so young in our existence as the band, a real dream to be timeless,” the band’s nominal frontwoman says from the new apartment she’s busy moving into in Brooklyn. “So, to know that a song that was intended to be that way, actually was, is great.

“I didn’t know anything about ‘The Holdovers’ until I watched it,” she continues, barefoot, cross-legged on a polished wooden floor and – as she and Speer always are onstage – bewigged. “And before the song comes in, I was like, well, all of the other songs are era-specific. Then ours came on. It really warmed my heart that they made room for it. I’ve heard from a writer friend of mine, who knows the director, that he felt very strongly about needing to include it.”

Indeed, he did. “There’s something about ‘A Calf Born In Winter’ that goes with many different natural rhythms of life,” Alexander Payne tells me. “You can listen to it when you’re sad or when you’re giddy, when alone or with others, or when – as happens in the montage in ‘The Holdovers’ that it accompanies – two people are falling in love.”

The filmmaker’s love for the band, like it often does with this trio with a particularly ardent fanbase, goes deep.

“I’ve been listening to Khruangbin ever since I first heard a tune of theirs used as theme music on a haunting podcast about Robert Kennedy. Their vibe is infinitely groovy and listenable – eternal in a way. It’s as though their music is the same temperature as your body. And like with Jimi Hendrix’s Experience, one can’t believe they make all that beautiful sound as just a trio.”


Ochoa, Speer and Johnson met on the vibrant Houston music scene, coming together as Khruangbin in 2013. But just as they were forming, Ochoa moved to London, “initially for romance”. She stayed for four years.

“When I knew I was moving, we went into The Barn and recorded as much as we could on the very low budget we had. And we took one picture of ourselves. So, I came to London with one picture and 14 songs. And somehow it worked during that time.

“Being in London made me feel more confident about putting our music out,” she continues, “and that there was an audience for it – in a way that maybe felt alien to us in Houston. Especially being instrumental and downtempo. It’s like: how are you going to compete with everything else? But [being in the UK], I felt like it was more achievable somehow.”

Living in Hackney, Ochoa dived into east London club culture. During one Halloween night out, at The Pickle Factory in Bethnal Green, the American got talking in the toilets to a woman named Megan Boyes. She was a stylist who’d worked on ‘The X Factor’ and at ‘Tatler’. A friendship, and a working collaboration, was forged. When I speak to Ochoa, Boyes is due to fly in from the UK, so the pair can start plotting the musician’s multiple looks for the upcoming world tour (Latitude, here they come).

“I’m still plugged in to [what I listened to] when I lived in London – I’m a Gilles Peterson flag-wearing [fan],” says Ochoa of another element of Khruangbin’s deep-seated, global-roaming influences that also include Thai funk, Hawaiian folk and soul from pre-Revolutionary Iran. “There’s this scene in London that appreciates live music, instrumental music and jazz music… It’s championed in this way in London that it’s somehow cool. And current. Sometimes that doesn’t happen in America. 

“Also, I remember when I lived there, Chic would be playing in a restaurant. That just doesn’t happen in America! You can tell because, at festivals in the UK, if Nile Rodgers is playing, he’s one of the headliners. If he’s playing Coachella or some other American festival, it’s much smaller. 

“So, whatever that is, I really appreciate London’s championing of artists like that. I assume that’s where I found out about Nubya,” she says of the jazz musician who supported Khruangbin on the ‘Mordechai’ tour and with whom they worked on ‘Live At Radio City Music Hall’, one of the concert albums this ceaselessly busy band released last year.

“They mentioned that they had checked out my music – they listen to so much music,” Garcia says, an artist who also plays (in every sense) in multiple genres. “We had lots of conversations about it.” On tour, she had a support artist’s eye’s view of Khruangbin’s typical audience response: crowds dancing “every… single… night!” she says with feeling. “And I saw lots of the same people come to lots of different shows. They have an incredible fanbase, including all kinds of ages, that was really beautiful to witness.”

She also expresses appreciative amazement for the Americans’ holistic approach to band aesthetics. “I always think about these things as an artist that’s up-and-coming in comparison to where they are. The music is connected to the poster is connected to the styling is connected to the lighting is connected to who they are. Their audience is absolutely supportive of all that. They had spaceships on stage! It was just incredible to witness.”

Ultimately, those formative UK experiences, and the dance music Ochoa heard in London, were distilled into ‘Mordechai’. But that album came out during the pandemic, a period in which the three bandmates had been away from each other for the longest they’d ever been apart. Then, back on tour, from one extreme to the other: Khruangbin were playing the biggest stages they’d ever played, and for longer. 

“Things felt a little more out of our grasp than they ever had,” reflects Ochoa of a giddy but draining time in which they played some 160 shows and landed prestige gigs like their second-from-headline Glastonbury slot and remixing Paul McCartney’s ‘Pretty Boys’, from his own lockdown album, ‘McCartney III’. “So, there was a desire to return to a simpler time in our band career.”

Cue the album that became ‘A La Sala’: exquisitely textured, laidback in the extreme, the barest of vocal elements, a transporting psych-blues songscape that’s destined for even more of the chill-based playlists into which the algorithms crush Khruangbin. A record you will be hearing a lot of – and giving thanks for – this coming summer, most likely at sunset and sunrise. This is music to slow your heart down. Who doesn’t need that right now?

“We were longing to get back to what we were doing when we first released ‘A Calf…’ and the simplicity of [that],” says Johnson, echoing Ochoa’s sentiment. “As you grow as a band, sonically and personally, things evolve and change. You add some things. Things get layered and layered, one after another. Then you take a step back and you realise, wow, this has really turned into something else from what it started from. 

“When you get to that point, you go: ‘Ok, let’s bring it back to the basics and see where we go.’ That’s what ‘A La Sala’ represents: a sonic return to where we started.”

True to the quasi-mysterious, cult-like aura around the band, Mark Speer was initially available to talk to Disco Pogo for this feature, and then he wasn’t. What do readers need to know about him? 

“Mark is kind of our vocalist,” says Johnson. “The guitar is playing the melodic content, especially in a lot of our earlier material… He’s a musical encyclopaedia, so knowledgeable about so many things.”

“Mark is infinitely searching for the gem,” says Ochoa. “He’s constantly trying to find the sound that hasn’t been heard. He’s on an infinite quest… On this record especially, we really wanted Mark to sing on his guitar. The last record, he’d been a little stifled because there was so much other stuff going on that... we didn’t talk about it. It was unspoken. But I think DJ and I both knew that we wanted to play supportive roles on this record, to Mark’s guitar, whether Mark knows it or not.”

It is, though, the magical interplay between the three members of Khruangbin that matters. Ochoa, better than most, understands that alchemical geometry: she was a maths teacher for six years. Trigonometry is her favourite “math”, which she’s previously described as “essentially advanced geometry”. (We knew that, right?) “Triangles,” she adds. “There’s a lot about triangular relationships.”

This might not add up, but one assumes she was speaking about her band there as well. So, what is it about the triangular relationship of a three-piece, Khruangbin’s three-piece, that makes it such a creative hotbed? Mercifully, she doesn’t send us to the back of the class.

“It’s just diverse enough for something,” she answers. “When you’re playing a game with your best friend, you know each other so well, you’re going back and forth, you know each other’s tricks. But with a third, it throws everything off! In the right way. 

“It’s also great because there’s always a tiebreaker,” she adds. “We have a rule: the best idea wins. We ultimately don’t need a tiebreaker because we all usually know what the best idea is. But in the event that there needs to be one, there is one!”

So Khruangbin can’t get bogged down in the stalemate of a duo or a four-piece because they’re an odd number. Some decision has to result. She nods. “It’s slightly complicated. And triangles are complicated. A bit wonky.”

Almost as wonky, some pointy-headed dancefloor refuseniks might say: Khruangbin on the cover of this magazine. Why are they worthy of that slot?

“That’s a really good question! Humbly, I’m surprised that we’re even in the magazine to begin with!” replies Donald “DJ” Johnson, gamely and gratefully. “But: we do listen to and draw influences from the genre that is electronic dance. We spend a lot of time listening to and studying that music. It’s not just a genre to us. People live this music. It really can become a lifestyle. It’s the music that we live our lives to. We’re happy to be a part of the lineage.”

“We’re the ultimate comedown music,” acknowledges Laura Lee Ochoa. “We played this festival back in the day, Love International, on the sea, on the rocks, in Croatia,” she says of their 2018 set. “It was 6am, after the club let out. Anybody who was there talks about that morning like it was one of the most magical mornings that they ever had.

“Mark had a very stripped-down kit. We were all sitting on rocks playing and everyone was, like, spannered, and spread out, coming down. It’s the equivalent of having chicken soup or something. How am I supposed to come down from this night? You either keep going. Or you go down. And somehow it was healing. I kind of think that maybe nobody does that better than us.”

This article first appeared in issue 5 of Disco Pogo magazine. Which you can buy here.

Bicep: Chroma Dreams
June 4, 2024
Bicep: Chroma Dreams
used cms Bicep: Chroma Dreams

Despite – or perhaps because of – being one of dance music’s biggest acts, Bicep have never taken the easy route to success. In fact, you could say that Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson subscribe to David Bowie’s adage about artists producing their best work when they go out of their depth. With that in mind, the duo have recently returned with their hybrid audio-visual DJ/live Chroma project. Explaining the ambitious concept to Felicity Martin, the pair reveal: “It’s closer to how we began…”

Bicep’s “rave cave”, as they affectionately call their Shoreditch basement studio, is bathed in a purple LED glow. To get to it, you walk past a “synth graveyard”: a hallway containing stacked shelves of broken equipment, plus a giant version of their muscular trefoil logo from their XOYO residency. Inside, every inch of space is taken up by vintage synths, cables and keyboards.

This is the way Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson like it. A dark, windowless room means zero distractions. Their previous workspace, Fortress Studios, was around the corner – but gentrification took over and it became “a kind of luxury WeWork,” says Ferguson. “If you could imagine a bashed-up shadow of the 80s… it was so run-down,” McBriar says of Fortress’ previous pre-gentrified condition. “There were posters in the loos, like, ‘Please don’t smoke crack in these toilets.’” Tom Jones used to record in there and was apparently doing so when the pair recorded their first album, 2017’s ‘Bicep’.

“We were thinking about moving somewhere, like, nice, but the good thing about here is that you’re in a prison cell. It’s not even nice out there,” McBriar continues, gesturing above ground to the Old Street area now populated by suits and table tennis bars. The pair no doubt could get a fancier, spacious studio: over the past few years they’ve cemented themselves as one of dance music’s biggest names, their widespread appeal meaning they’ve appeared on everything from car adverts to NHS vaccine promos to ‘Love Island’. Their elephantine track ‘Glue’ is, at the time of writing, fast approaching almost 250 million Spotify streams.

The numbers don’t lie: Bicep’s formula is a winning one: weightless arpeggios and colourful strokes of euphoria that pulls off that tough thing of uniting underground sensibility with commercial success. But the duo now, post-second album (2021’s ‘Isles’), are taking something of a left turn. Chroma is their new project, a combination of performance concept and record label comprising only their music. First single ‘Helium’ brought a gruffer, grittier edge to their sound, with a garage-like shuffle and swing cut into by a chopped-up vocal – a Loopmasters sample.

“Stagnation was always round the corner,” McBriar says candidly of their decision to make this sonic swerve. “If you’re always trying to live by a set of rules that you’ve been creating... like, even when we put up ‘Helium’, someone went: ‘This isn’t a classic Bicep vocal!’ And I was like: ‘There you go – already, people have an idea of what they expect.’ If ever there was a reason to have a new label that experiments, that’s it.”

But in a way, Chroma is a return to the old Bicep. “It’s closer to how we began, like sampling and chopping up, very much playing around and experimenting, trying different vocals,” says McBriar. “Our releases, pre-Ninja Tune, moved around a lot – it was just a more varied palette.” After meeting aged eight at rugby practice in Belfast, the pair have been friends ever since, and exhibit the finishing-each-others’-sentences camaraderie of old mates.

Aged 15 they started going out to techno club Shine, “putting tennis balls in our boots to give us an extra two inches,” says McBriar. “I remember opening the doors and hearing 145bpm, ripping techno, with black and white strobes hammering. That was my heavy metal or punk – music conveying emotion through its actual delivery. That was a theme for that era in Northern Ireland. People loved intense music.”

So much so, that Cajmere and what we might consider peak-time house was reserved for Belfast’s chillout rooms, and trance such as Chicane’s ‘Saltwater’ was thought of as pop. “A conservative environment definitely breeds a kind of club culture – [clubs] were places where people really let go,” says Ferguson of the city’s nightlife. Touring DJs would be shocked at how quickly things kicked off there. “They’d open and immediately, there was no mixing and mingling, having drinks and warming up. People were straight up the front, going bananas. They’d crush the next five hours at 100 miles-an-hour,” says McBriar.

Before heading out to Shine, Ferguson, McBriar and their friends would do a three-hour meet-up at one of their garages, which they nicknamed The Garage. They’d all bring burned CDs of eclectic Italo disco and weird B-sides they’d found and argue furiously over their selections. “It’d be like Aphex Twin tunes from ‘Analogue Bubblebath Vol 3’. Like, you couldn’t go for ‘Windowlicker’,” McBriar says. “You’d only get one go, if it was a stinker, everyone was like ‘Nah, nah, off!’” Ferguson adds.

They’re still friends with that crew of “super music nerds” from The Garage, and their group chat continues to critique DJ sets today. “Underground music and digging culture in Northern Ireland was a big thing,” says McBriar. “It’s so isolated that naturally you have to dig for anything – nothing’s on your doorstep, unlike London.” 

“There’s queues round the block for the new Pret,” Ferguson laughs. In their teens, blog culture was bubbling away and mp3s were scraped from Napster via dial-up internet. At school, Tim Sweeney’s ‘Beats In Space’ mixes would get passed around, and people would record from MiniDiscs in class. “I like that you had to work for the music,” says Ferguson.

A continuation of that love of sharing rarities and unearthed gems, they started their FeelMyBicep blog in 2008. For the first two years, they didn’t bother promoting it – it was them reporting back from an Optimo night, or Ricardo Villalobos at fabric, finding out what tunes they’d played (by either asking the DJs or snapping photos of the decks). Even though the pair went their separate ways for university, it was their love of dance music that eventually brought them back together. 

When they both moved to London, they relished how accessible music was there. The dominant sounds felt comparatively restrained, though. “Northern Ireland was much more maximal – it was synths with no filter. The Irish thing was like: ‘I need to feel something!’ There’s lots to do with kind of what Ireland’s like as a place to live, that you craved that turned-up feeling.”

“I don’t even remember how they managed to persuade me to let them in,” says DJ and club promoter Neil Macey, who sold Bicep some records back in 2010. At that time, he was flogging records on Discogs from a warehouse on Hackney Road. Macey had a strict ‘online-only’ policy of not allowing anyone to come in and browse – they were in a strict numbered order, “and crate-digger types always messed up my system. Somehow [Bicep] managed to persuade me to bend my own rules for them. I remember being surprised at the time that they had knowledge and awareness of records and labels, particularly 90s US house and techno, that were obscure and hard to find, and were completely disregarded and out of fashion at the time.”

Macey says the pair bought a huge stack of records, at a time when interest in vinyl was at an all-time low (before the surge of interest arrived later). The selection they bought was cheap as “nobody knew what they were or their significance”. A couple of years later, Macey bumped into Bicep backstage at Space in Ibiza, where they were playing a headline slot on the terrace. “It was heartening to me that they’d taken inspiration from the underground music I’d been involved in from times gone by, reinventing it in their own style to create something new and relevant to what was happening on the dancefloors of superclubs,” he says.

Following the success of the blog, and the same-named club night, came their signing to Ninja Tune and the self-titled ‘Bicep’ in 2017, launching them into the charts and sending them on a tour run. Four years later, ‘Isles’ should’ve been the record to recharge the dancefloor, and introduce a new generation to the club, but it came out in January 2021 amid lockdowns and an uncertain feeling for the future of dance music. 

But the euphoric, hopeful quality of the inadvertent home listening record – which soundtracked bubble get-togethers and socially distanced park meets – means that they now want to pull things in a different direction. “After the second album, we were like, this feels like everything is lovely and stuff, but there’s no bit where it’s just, darkness,” says Ferguson. “It’s like all sugar and you have no sour,” McBriar adds. “We were talking about the pH scale, and you kind of think of Bicep sitting in neutral, it’s a bit underground, a bit radio friendly, it’s fun, it’s a bit dark at times, but it doesn’t really go too much in one direction.”

That realisation came at one of their shows in Dublin. When they played one of their Benjamin Damage collaborations (as BDB), ‘Boss Rhythm’, the energy in the room took a turn, becoming electric, and more pounding. “I always think music and food are similar in terms of balance and your palate and how opposing elements on a plate can heighten, or accentuate each other,” continues McBriar. “Sometimes when you go dark, a moment of light feels so much brighter.” When they played ‘Glue’ straight after their screaming techno production, it solidified that idea in their minds. “It’s only now that we actually have the ability to go really, really high and bright in one direction and then just drop off a cliff and take people with us.”

Spending five days a week in the studio, post tour, they were increasingly having days where they’d go off in obscure directions – spanning hard techno to ambient but grew frustrated at the lack of outlet for it. “We increasingly felt that some of those more esoteric bits of music wouldn’t fit being released as Bicep – it’d almost be detrimental to put them out and jackhammer them in,” says McBriar. “We all know about an artist that gets to the third album, suddenly decides to go super hard left and go really, really weird. You can gain a few new fans, but you can alienate a lot of people.” They flirted with the idea of coming up with a few aliases, “and getting it out of our system. But then as we develop as artists, we’d really like the opportunity to bring our fans along with us. We don’t want to just release stuff quietly on a white label that a few people on Discogs mutter about.”

That said, they don’t mean for the new music to be “selfish or isolating” – it’s about creating “some tracks that just hold tension the whole time” rather than resolving, as they’d been keen to do in the past. The overarching theme for Chroma, they explain, is “prettiness mixed with absolute darkness”, something they’re also relaying in the visual side of their accompanying A/V show. “We’ve ideas of the most stunning, serene visuals, and the most calming lighting, along with some of the hardest music, to create that: ‘Whoa... what?’ feeling,” McBriar says. 

To create this “jarring”, head-spinning effect, they’ve been working with their go-to show designer Zak Norman, plus cult designer David Rudnick on the Chroma aesthetic. There’s also, Bicep say, a desire to do something “anti-AI” and bring a human quality to the art direction. To do this they’ve been going to the Barbican and Kew Gardens with their cameras to shoot interesting textures and lighting, “these bits of beauty that you would never normally see”.

The pair play me some old versions of ‘Helium’, which originally started out on the Basic Channel-esque, dub techno spectrum. (Their new studio monitors, it turns out, are very good). They go down a hole of playing various works in progress, cheerfully debating the merits of each and fist pumping vigorously on discovering old basslines. 

“That’s something we’ve really gotten into – almost never working on a piece of music and finishing it the way you started it, like it has to change,” says McBriar. Some of the forthcoming Chroma music is under their alias Dove (which they released ambient and trance-indebted single ‘000’ under in 2021). “I want there to be people that say: ‘You know what, I’ve never been a fan of Bicep, but I actually really enjoy the stuff they do as Dove’,” he adds.

Chroma is an opportunity for them to not have to play with the music industry’s dictated rules, too. “With things like Spotify, when you stream online, you’re encouraged to make music shorter, shorter and shorter – whereas we can really experiment with that longform storytelling approach, like a lot of tracks we grew up listening to,” says Ferguson about Chroma’s single-led approach to releasing. “A lot of that gets sunk by the algorithm. But hopefully with this label, it’ll make sense – if you’re putting a 15-minute ambient tune in the middle of an album, you’re losing everyone.”

Strangely, as soon as they had the green light to veer off in more esoteric directions, Bicep started writing the poppiest material they’d ever made. “The brain works in a funny way,” says Ferguson. “We were having all these days on a Monday where I was like: ‘I don’t wanna write a radio tune, I just wanna jam out.’ And then as soon as we’ve got an outlet, we’d come in and be like: ‘Ooh, this sounds nice and poppy!’ You always sort of crave what you can’t have.”

While is very much still in operation – recently publishing mixes by Daisy Moon and 1-800 GIRLS – it’d be naive to think that the blog is getting the same readership as it did in its hundreds of thousands of views per month heyday. The pair recently started a Discord as a way of returning to that more exclusive, early internet feel. “Instagram’s not a place to communicate, it’s a shop window,” says McBriar. “With anything like that, fans come last, advertisers and money and all that comes first. It’s not a form of communication with your followers, it’s just a flagpole to say: ‘This is happening’.”

They’re excited to start the new channel – you can currently join the waiting list – “although probably only 0.1% of Bicep fans will use it,” they say. “We’ve always wanted to have a forum where we share tips, help people out, or give them certain tracks,” says Ferguson. There are demos, unreleased music and edits that they feel they couldn’t give away on their public channels, “because then it’s like you’re positioning it as something new”.

It’s also a chance for them to reconnect with their fans after the disconnect that comes with an intense tour run. “You’re like a satellite floating in space around music, rather than actually being in the industry,” McBriar says of their time spent on the road. “There’s just so much to do every day with the show, like you don’t go out for dinner, you don’t see any cities, you don’t have time. It’s just a rinse and repeat.” Recently, over Christmas, they performed seven times over nine days. “There’s a reason why bands don’t do it constantly,” adds Ferguson. These sold-out shows are a far cry from one night a decade ago that they reminisce about; a four-hour set in Denver where, two hours in, there were three people in the audience. “There were literally more people in the toilet than on the dancefloor,” Ferguson laughs.

Following all the success they’ve had in recent years – BRIT nominations, a number two UK album, being booked for Printworks’ headline closing set – Bicep’s decision to evolve is refreshing in an industry where there’s a focus on achieving big streaming numbers. Admittedly, the saying ‘if it ain’t broke…’ comes to mind. But the pair very much have an ethos of shape-shifting, experimentation and never standing still. “We may lose some people, we may gain some others, but hopefully by the end of this, we’ve more widely informed our audience of what we’re like, with the hope that maybe when we come to album three, we’ll have the confidence to push it properly,” says McBriar.

“I always love DJs that challenge and push the genres,” adds McBriar, “that’s why we were drawn so much to Optimo, and how they fused techno with, like, Dolly Parton. Then you’d have Jeff Mills, ‘The Bells’ coming in the end, and you’d be: ‘What the...!’” 

In that same sense of challenging their audience, Bicep are rejecting the allure of a winning formula. “If we wanna make safe music all the time, we can do like 20 different versions of ‘Glue’, and just keep releasing them,” Ferguson laughs.  

This article first appeared in issue 5 of Disco Pogo magazine. Which you can buy here.

Elkka: The Pleasure Principle
June 4, 2024
Elkka: The Pleasure Principle
used cms Elkka: The Pleasure Principle

It’s taken Elkka a little longer to arrive here than her pop-loving younger self might have liked. But as she prepares to release her debut album, the stunning multi-coloured, ‘Prism of Pleasure’, it’s apparent that taking the time to find her voice has paid dividends. How did she do it? asks Anna Cafolla. By making connections between music and euphoria, and most importantly, following pleasure. “With women, with music, the things that really inspire me most,” she reveals…

The last gasp of summer envelops London’s All Points East festival, where onstage, Elkka commands the crowd: ‘Make me love you, make me love you, make me love you’. Her body contorts to meet the shimmering crescendo, her dress the colours of an oil spill. The pulsating lights pick up the blissed-out smiles of the dancers in front of her, who galvanise with the building synths and hypnotic lyrics: ‘All night long’.

Then Elkka gets cut off. British summer’s swansong has delivered us torrential rain that halts the festival. The artist and producer refracted her sprawling, club-indebted pop, those silky electronic beats and resplendent vocals, into a neat, compact 20-minute missive. Lightning or not though, it was electric. She’s magnetic to experience. Unbeknown to this crowd too – and the others over the last six months of festivals and club spaces from New York to Lisbon, San Francisco to Oslo – this is a stolen glimpse at the first tracks from Elkka’s forthcoming debut album, ‘Prism of Pleasure’. 

“That show was insane,” Elkka, real name Emma Kirby, recalls when we catch up months later. It’s a brisk, bright January day and we’ve bundled into a cafe in Tooting. We’ve swapped east for south London, and the tart hard seltzers of summer for peppermint teas. “I’ve never felt so empowered by my own ability to connect with people,” she says.

“I know how much I can do this now. The music is all there, so I can just give myself to the audience. The crowds are so responsive. When I’m DJing and playing clubby music, I’m moving with people. It’s amazing. But when you step to the mic, it’s just a whole different relationship,” she says emphatically, bringing her hands to cup her chin. “I can look them in the eye and sing. I feel so in control of what I want people to feel – pleasure!”

‘Prism of Pleasure’ is Elkka’s proclamation of the artistry she’s diligently crafted over a decade. “I want it to be a statement of intent, reflective of who I am and what’s important to me,” she explains. Written over 18 months, it’s a 10-track record conceptualised around Queer female intimacy – as a ritual and shared experience, a personal epiphany, creative practice, an ever-shapeshifting appendage of identity.

It opens with ragged panting: ‘I’d give you the last breath that sits in my lungs,’ she sings on album opener ‘Break Down All My Walls’. ‘Your Skin’ is a sonic mille-feuille, a sugary rush to ravish a lover that builds layers of beckoning percussion and bass, with another supple vocal: ‘I want to taste every inch of your skin’. These tracks can caress a Glastonbury crowd, sweep a limb-lithe group of friends front left on the sticky dancefloor into hug after sweaty hug, and soundtrack a contemplative solo journey to meet a lover.

“I’ve always made connections between how music releases euphoria and connectedness,” Elkka says. “I guess, connecting those dots brought me to ‘pleasure’. With women, with music, the things that really inspire me most.”

Roots laid by her previous releases show: shimmering electronic arrangements, diaphanous synths, ravenous hooks to propel any dancefloor into shared ecstasy. 2019 EP ‘Every Body Is Welcome’ weaved breathy, billowing club music into earthy sounds, music made as she found deeper connection with Queer club settings. Her ‘I Miss Raving’ EP on grassroots London label Local Action was a sonic vignette, a sprightly ode to clubbing in the confines of lockdown. 2021’s ‘Euphoric Melodies’, Elkka’s first Ninja Tune via Technicolour release, showcased her instincts toward richly textured soundscapes. Anthemic radio fave ‘Burnt Orange’, evocatively named after the curtains in her late grandparents’ house, features the alluring wisp of her vocals. 

Elkka’s innate ability to worldbuild plays out in the mixes and sets of her peers and the industry – Floating Points, SHERELLE, Caribou and more. Her own curative skills shine in riotous DJ sets, in radio slots on RINSE FM and 2022’s Radio 1 residency. “When I was a kid, I’d pretend I was doing a radio show on my mum’s tape recorder – Radio 1 was a dream come true,” she says. Weaving together her own music with diaphanous blends of old school house, atmospheric techno, and recontextualised pop – LCY to Floorplan and Prince, Donato Dozzy and Britney Spears – she bagged Essential Mix of the Year 2021.

“I think stuff I’ve gravitated to, and that I’ve made before has always been warm and tangible. I’ve never made cold music,” she explains. “But there is a new depth to it. That’s how I feel as a woman too – in my age, in my life,” she adds. “In my 20s, I was figuring that out. I came out quite late. And then musically – it all flourished at the same time.”

Elkka was born and raised in Cardiff, where no visible Queer community existed for her. She found herself at university in Bath, going through the motions of a “classic safety plan route”, absconding to London when she could and gigging as a singer-songwriter. “I hadn’t found my people yet,” she says. Like many of her peers, she grew up in the club and forged her tastes and identity on east London dancefloors – all the haunts of Dalston’s Kingsland Road. She dropped out of university and made the move to London, where she came out age 23 and found the crews, collaborators, and friends she craved. It was also her first chance to take producing seriously, ploughing into DJing and the electronic scene. She founded Femme Culture in 2016, a label that champions inclusivity and forward-thinking electronic music from women, non-binary and Queer artists. That’s evolved into several instalments of the HeForShe compilation, a series that’s featured artists like Octo Octa and I. JORDAN.

“Now I’m super content with who I am, where I am,” Elkka says. “I’ve never felt sexier as a woman and more in control of my sexuality – I’m proud to show that in this work.”

Raving and romance have intertwined deliciously for Elkka. Her second date with Alex Lambert, her now-wife and frequent collaborator who has crafted Elkka’s visual identity, also marked her first ever DJ gig. “It was at Dalston Superstore,” Elkka remembers, “where I pretended I knew how to DJ. I bought this Ableton set up and made a mix and thought… that’s it, I can DJ.” It was a weekly lesbian night – but she didn’t realise it was strictly for hip hop and R&B. “Within 20 minutes this woman came up to me, shouting ‘NO HOUSE MUSIC!’ and I got chucked off. Alex witnessed it all – she’s a real day one.”

‘Prism of Pleasure’ is a record that reorients Emma’s earliest desires as a musician – namely, using her own voice. A singer-songwriter who grew up on a pop diet of Britney and Missy Elliott, she felt stalled and stifled, writing mostly behind-the-scenes and for male producers. Turning into producing and dance music gave her control of her narrative. Her debut album, based in deep connection and vulnerability, brings her back to that raw, real first love of singing, with this modal shift.

“When I started producing, I pulled back from singing completely,” she shares. “But I couldn’t stop it creeping back in. Now I feel like I’m ready to stand up front again.” The tracks where Elkka’s voice takes centre stage feel rich and intimate. “I hid that part of me away for so long. Now I can connect with people on another level, in the way I always emotionally connected to pop stars.” She worked with a vocal producer for the first time, as she says, to “squeeze everything out of me and feel like I gave it all”.

Pleasure and connectedness cannot exist without the echo of pain or the arch of catharsis. “There’s variability, vulnerability. There’s moments of loss and hurt in this album. It’s not about a perfect world – because that doesn’t exist. I’ve reflected and channelled some of my hardest moments.”

‘Right Here’ was written in 40 minutes on the day of Elkka’s father’s funeral. “Writing an album about pleasure might seem at odds with that moment I was in,” she says. “But it was a way to take control of my emotions. I had a clarity of thought.” Her father had been ill and passed away in October. She had finished her demos and was laying down vocals, and her team urged her to delay the record amid her loss. 

“I remember sitting at a table with headphones on and laptop open. I had the opportunity to really go inwards and tune everything else out. In exploring being creative in those extremely fundamental life moments, you get something that is really special.” Her parents got to see her live show in full form at Hackney’s Colour Factory last year. “They got to see me at one of my best moments – 500 people were there dancing, my parents were on the balcony, I was there with people who love me and being the artist I wanted to be.” She performed what became the album’s first track, ‘Break Down Your Walls’, a song about love “in its truest form”. It’s the record’s hardest track with invigorating bass, but with glowing warmth. 

“Because of my dad, I really pushed myself to be present – and that really helped me write,” Elkka says. “I’m proud of it. He would be proud of it. My mum always cries at the opening track.”

While some artists might hole up and hermit to write their album, Elkka was keen to live life through the writing process. “To keep it authentic, living,” she explains. “I can’t do an album about my own pleasure without partying and connecting with people. Life is intrinsic to the album. It gave me permission to experience more, to feel everything and fuel the music.” Elkka and Alex also got married in May last year.

The album was made in a makeshift studio in the back room of their house, and when Elkka felt claustrophobic, she ventured out. Her collaborator Rupert Clervaux – who helped mix and master the album – switched her onto a set of Audeze MM-500 headphones. It was a liberating piece of equipment. She could tour, head to her mum’s house, walk on the Ibizan beachfront, wake up anywhere in the world and produce when inspiration struck. To get to wander and live, has resulted in a vibrant record with a pulse.

With a clear emphasis on storytelling, Elkka would instinctively filter and create as she went. “I was constantly distilling down what I wanted it to sound like – I’m not a ‘write 200 tracks and refine it down’ person. I’m always challenging what makes sense and connects. But it wasn’t until I had the whole thing mastered, that I had artwork, put it in iTunes, laid it out like an album, that I really saw it.” 

The concise 10-track curation and album order supports the story. “I think of it like a great pop album – they have chapters and pace changes.” It’s how she approaches DJing too – linearity has never been her style. “Predictable is something I’ll never be – I want to twist and turn you; I want to be memorable for you in everything.” The lyrics too are taut and deceptively simple but go for the gut. ‘Crushhh’ is about expressing feelings for someone that felt impossible to articulate. “I’m really exposing myself, but there’s so much richness to gain from that.”

Collaborators are intrinsic for a record about connectedness and shared vulnerability. “Emma and I would come to the studio and talk about life, relationships, family… for a good bit before we started jamming,” says John Carroll Kirby, the multi-instrumentalist who’s worked with Frank Ocean and Solange, and who teamed up with Elkka on ‘Passionfruit’ and ‘Crushhh’. “I felt like we became fast friends and quickly gained an emotional perspective of the other. With that as our foundation the music just seemed to write itself.” Elkka approached Kirby and from two sessions, produced two tracks. She imagined she’d go away with their studio improvisations and rearrange them, but decided they were perfect as was. 

She also enlisted Dot Major of London Grammar (a band Elkka says “make songs with such heart in them, entire emotional universes”), Pearson Sound, Metronomy and Christine & The Queens producer Ash Workman. It was a rewarding new way of working. “I came into producing because I was so frustrated with working with other producers, and the bad experiences I had there. I wanted to go into those sessions with people that I really believed in. You want to feel like people can elevate it. I’m a producer, I can play piano, I can get all my ideas down. But I wanted to work with people who are real instrumentalists.” 

“This album was about exploring every avenue – how I use my voice, songwriting, working with different people to see what they can bring out with me,” she says. “This was never going to just be a dance album for me, I wanted more than that.” 

Her peers certainly approve. Fellow Ninja artist Sofia Kourtesis has no hesitation in revealing that: “Elkka is one of my favourite producers.” The Peruvian producer has played with Elkka in cavernous, genre-cracking B2Bs, and makes similarly spirit-expanding music. “She understands how to make music for people to dream, and how to make the most amazing bangers to play out loud at festivals. She’s a beautiful soul, with outstanding talent. Every new song is a treat.”

In a time of algorithmic playlists and endless scroll-inflected attention spans, one might worry about a nine-minute album track. But Elkka dropped ‘Passionfruit’ to a gratifying response. “I don’t think I’ve ever had such a reaction to my music!” she says. “I think it’s beautiful. I’m so proud. But I didn’t know if people would have the time for it. They’ve leaned into it so deeply.” 

Talk turns to the merits of resisting the current – and not altogether tenable – formulas for music streaming success. “Like, look,” she starts. “I was listening to Kim Petras’ album and it’s seven songs, 15 minutes long! It’s amazing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s instant gratification. When I’m going out and want to feel cunty with friends – that’s perfect.”

She continues: “There’s still a need for people to dedicate time to something you’ve made and feel it deeply. [‘Passionfruit’] is about exploring my relationship to women and taking sweet, sweet time in doing that. The pleasure of music or sex isn’t linear or goal-oriented. We’re so preconditioned for instant gratification, and it’s nice to see that there’s still a desire for something else.”

Our ideas of pleasure have gone through titanic shifts. We have more freedom in love, but the landscape is chaotic and uncertain. We are generations reorientating our identities, wants and needs around tumultuous social, political, and personal schisms. And pleasure, as Elkka lays out, is a nebulous concept. “Pleasure is a process. A very personal one – my pleasure is very different to your pleasure. That’s something I really had to learn as a woman. You don’t need to like and love everything the same as everyone else, and your experiences really inform that – mine definitely have. Connecting with that side of myself has been really crucial to it, to how I see myself as a woman. Finding the good and bad side of things, and confronting them with equal tenacity, has been really liberating for me.”

As such, she worked with Oli Lipski, a creative consultant and sensuality coach, to expand on the album’s core ideas. “Knowledge is power, knowledge is pleasure,” says Lipski. To artistically draw out and embody the concepts, they worked together to find connections between sensual intimacy and musical expression. Like, how music is found to reduce stress levels which is essential for experiencing arousal, as well as how the “combination of movement and music during dance results in a distinct state characterised by acutely heightened pleasure”. 

The whole experience was a process of “following the pleasure”, which Lipski explains is a concept by Somatic sex educator Betty Martin. “[Elkka’s] music responds exactly to this concept, taking people on an experiential journey that follows the pleasure. Music and art are methods of human expression that might be otherwise difficult to express with our limited vocabulary, such as describing sexual intimacy or pleasure experiences. The other is that music and art can be used as sensual tools for facilitating deeper connection, through activating our senses.”

The Orgasm Library, a collection of real-life pleasure sounds founded by the Spanish pleasure brand Bijoux Indiscrets, was a research reference. “These sounds are authentic, erotic, and beautiful,” says Lipski. “I immediately thought of this resource as a source of inspiration for Elkka. It offers insight into people’s private pleasure experiences, through our aural sense which can be a great tool for strengthening the imagination. It also displays the sounds alongside a visual data representation which look quite stunning – harking back to the old iTunes days where we would watch visual patterns dance in time to our music. What a cool concept, to challenge taboo and shame by recording our personal pleasure, prioritising the importance of authentic eroticism, and sharing that with the world.”

Fittingly, ‘Prism of Pleasure’’s intricate world comes to life in stunning visual identity by Alex Lambert. “The imagery is so important to the storytelling, and Alex achieved it so beautifully.”

“Growing up, I’d think: ‘What’s my album going to look like some day?’” The record is marble pink – “intrinsically Queer”. “I don’t always feel I get seen as Queer, as I’m quite feminine,” she says. “I want that to change.” The sleeve reads in hot pink capital letters: ‘Pleasure is a dance, a ritualistic celebration, of life, of love, of our existence’. The sensual artwork features Elkka sitting on the edge of a bath in a pale latex dress, steam in the air and candles lit, hints of other bodies in the backdrop.

The weekend after we speak, Elkka heads to Bristol mainstay Lakota and back to London for Feel It, the self-styled ‘Queer super party’. With a steady tour schedule through 2024, she’s keen to play more Queer parties – “that is my people,” she says, “I’m really myself in these spaces, and being there evolves me as a DJ, that sonic storytelling and the music I reach for.” Even with her mounting live show, she’ll never stop DJing. “I don’t think you should sit still as a DJ,” she says. “I’ll always be a cross genre DJ, responding to the crowd’s feelings.”

The lens of ‘Prism of Pleasure’ is clear, buffed and bright. “I’ve always wanted to do this, it’s always been in me – now it’s even more special,” she says. “It took me more than 10 years to get here. I didn’t think I was going to be in my 30s before I got here! I imagined singing around the world by 22. That it just happens for people – and it didn’t. When I’m on stage now I’m so grateful for it. It’s my heaven.” 

This article first appeared in issue 5 of Disco Pogo magazine. Which you can buy here.

Romy: Confidence Woman
June 4, 2024
Romy: Confidence Woman
used cms Romy: Confidence Woman

Romy’s debut album is about the big things – life and death. And the small things that become the big things – finding joy on the dancefloor and falling in love. It’s about friendships, acceptance and community. And it’s the shot of dance-pop adrenalin that we perhaps didn’t know we needed but are pleased to receive. The some-time The xx guitarist and vocalist confides in Tara Joshi how she’s “drawn to the excitement” of removing herself from her comfort zone…

On a night out recently, a stranger came up to Romy Madley-Croft in the club to thank her for her song, ‘Strong’. Though you might not pick it up from the exuberantly glossy, bouncy production, the track is actually about processing grief. The lyrics nudge the listener to open up, share their pain and be held, with a refrain of ‘you don’t have to be so strong’. 

“I’ve never really been that good at talking about how I feel,” the artist – who performs under her first name – says now. “Especially about that. But now, because I have songs about it, it’s creating conversations in a way that I’d avoided. Suddenly this person I don’t know is in the club telling me about their friend passing away. And although it’s not always easy, I must have subconsciously been needing it.”

In spite of it being the singular guaranteed universal experience, grief often has the potential to be an isolating thing that we don’t really talk about. In the UK especially, few people seem to have the language or ritual to appropriately deal with how the feelings might ebb and flow without warning, and how for some, grief can render them inert, bereft, hopeless. But bereavement can also guide us to somewhere more intentional and communal in our existence. Certainly, that feels like the place Romy is moving towards on her long-awaited debut album, ‘Mid Air’. 

Dressed all in black, bar the vibrant tequila sunrise-coloured Nikes on her feet, Romy sits on a sofa in a neat mezzanine room in the offices of her record label, Young. Grey light is pouring in from outside, illuminating the dark strands of her bob, while the rain is beating down viciously on the windows in a grim indictment of London this past summertime. Still, Romy seems pretty cheerful. She is visiting from her home in Brighton for the day, and is softly spoken throughout our time together, but even then she emanates a palpably relaxed but excited energy about life and the new record. ‘Mid Air’ is a blissed-out set of dance music which finds the artist making a pulsing, heady sonic canvas to move in the club and celebrate her love for her wife, photographer Vic Lentaigne, while simultaneously being a collection of songs that is undeniably influenced by Romy’s experiences of bereavement. 

“I know what it’s like to have people not want to talk about [the people you’ve lost] out of sadness and awkwardness, but I’m like: ‘Let’s talk about it!’” she explains. Both of Romy’s parents had passed away by the time she was 21, her mother back when she was 11 years old. She continues: “I wanted to learn about my mum, and with my aunties, they were like: ‘We don’t want to upset you’ – but I’m like: ‘Please tell me about her, I was a child, I don’t have that many memories.’ Even though I find it really hard to talk about sometimes, there’s also a part of me that’s really craving it.”

If this all feels raw and vulnerable, you get the sense that it’s something she’s quite okay with. “There isn’t a veil between what’s on the album and what’s in my personal life,” she shrugs. 

Of course, this has not always been the case. As one-third of The xx, teenage Romy rose to fame as part of the minimalist south-west London band whose unique musical alchemy of rueful, spacious, yearning sounds still holds a significant spot in the hearts of many, in spite of their most recent album being all the way back in 2017. (Incidentally, she mentions that the three of them are back in the studio, and she’s excited to see what they create following their diverging solo paths – Oliver Sim with his gorgeous album ‘Hideous Bastard’ last year, and Jamie xx being, well, Jamie xx). With The xx, the lyrics – while always poetic – were always purposefully vague, and Romy herself seemed a quiet presence, her vocals striking in their wispiness. Songs were directed to ‘you’ and ‘we’, so people assumed that she and Sim were singing to each other; but now, in their solo work, they are comfortable being fully themselves, and being open about their sexualities. 

In Romy’s case, that means she’s finally singing freely about loving a woman. The most obvious case in point is ‘Loveher’, the lead single which she used to announce the album; it’s a sparkly romantic ode to being proud and happy in love, with tender lyrics like: ‘Lover, you know when they ask me, I’ll tell them/Won’t be ashamed, no, I can’t wait to tell them/Lover, I love her’. So much Queer representation in media and culture – perhaps in film particularly – ends up being a story of trauma, so it’s particularly welcome to have a record that is largely about Romy’s open joy in being a lesbian (a word she recognises is falling out of fashion, so she wants to reframe it in a positive light). “So often, a classic Queer storyline is about the really painful coming out,” she says. “But what happens next? I wanna know about the journey. So, for me, I just wanted to share the experiences, thinking about myself as a teenager when I was looking for that kind of representation.”

She recalls being excited even if she spotted tiny bits of Queer joy or referencing back then, particularly in the mainstream, and wants to give other people that feeling. 

Though she does consider herself to be a political person, Romy did not intend the album to be some kind of political statement. It’s perhaps more a result of her personal life, where as well as her own story, she notes the beauty in seeing friends and loved ones around her feeling more comfortable embracing themselves, including their sexualities and gender identities. 

“I’m mindful of an imbalance in representation,” she says. “And I feel the desire for there to be progress and change and acceptance. So that has been the driver. I’m hoping that in sharing more and being open, people can enjoy that and get a bit more positivity. I don’t know what it will actually do,” she laughs, a little abashed. “But hopefully it can move things on a bit.” She points to her song ‘The Sea’, musically inspired by Ibiza house, but in terms of subject matter, extremely Queer. “So, putting those two things together, a story about a woman loving a woman can exist in a more mainstream space. And that’s another step towards normalising it.”

These solo songs were not entirely inevitable in Romy’s career, though. Actually, she was interested in writing pop songs for other people, something she was drawn to during the period between The xx’s second and third albums. “I’d only ever worked with Oliver and Jamie,” she explains, “So I was kind of curious to learn how mainstream pop music is made as a way to just keep being curious and bring those ideas back to the band.” She was not entirely comfortable with some of the more “sterile” experiences she had when writing for others, particularly when it entailed sitting in rooms with strangers, given the often-abstract task of being asked to write a song about anything in any genre that could be sung by anyone. But she says she learned a lot, too. “In doing this, I ended up drawing on my imagination and my experiences, and I started writing quite a lot of songs that were very personal to me. And people who were close to me said: ‘Oh, are you sure you wanna give this song away?’ But at that time, there was a sort of block there – I thought: ‘I can’t sing them.’”

The conversation keeps coming back to confidence. Romy was a shy child, and when The xx started out, playing live was not something she did for the love of it, but rather, out of acknowledgement of the scene at the time. She recalls how, in the 2000s and 2010s, putting your music on MySpace then playing gigs in pubs and tiny venues was still an essential part of bands building a following and garnering attention. “I was very happy to be in the background as a kid,” she says, mentioning how most of her favourite childhood activities were solitary things like reading and drawing. “I think the fact that I’ve ended up doing this is quite a surprise to my family. But I think getting more comfortable on stage and relaxing into performing – which is something I really love now and find really special – is just a result of doing it again and again.” It was a gradual growth, she says, that eventually meant she was more comfortable playing stages at the likes of Glastonbury and Coachella. “Sometimes it’s getting over the initial hurdle of getting on stage, and a few minutes in I’m losing myself in the flow of it – and that’s now my favourite feeling.”

Much like learning to love playing live, Romy’s desire to write songs for herself was a gradual process of repetition to let her confidence grow, seeing how well-received her tracks for other people were (notably, she was a co-writer on Dua Lipa and Silk City’s ‘Electricity’). Partly, her burgeoning desire to work on a solo project was rooted in the fact that she has always been intrigued by pushing herself. She notes how a lot of her favourite musicians are lyrical singer-songwriters like Amy Winehouse and Fiona Apple, but she felt that making her first foray into solo music with her guitar would have felt quite safe: “It didn’t feel challenging enough,” she says.
“I find it really scary to go out of my comfort zone, but I realise I’ve been drawn to the excitement of that too.” 

The other reason she felt compelled to pursue her solo project was to do with the people in her life. We talk about love, and how good relationships can often imbue us with new confidence and help us feel like fuller versions of ourselves; and how, in turn, these feelings might have nudged her to step up and write an album about the positives of love rather than heartache (a staple of much of The xx’s output). 

“I think being in the relationship I’m in now and feeling in a good place... I was inspired to write about that stage of a relationship,” she says, noting how difficult it is to tread the line of happiness and overly-saccharine. “It was exciting to have all these feelings and try and get them out and like, try to do the feelings justice with words. And it felt new, and it felt like a new energy to put into a project.” 

Her relationship with Lentaigne has also meant Romy is becoming more comfortable in front of the camera and enjoying the collaborative process of making ‘Mid Air’’s music videos. While she was always interested in graphic design when working with The xx, Romy says she has enjoyed the opportunity to get more playful and colourful in her solo output’s visual identity, and this has been bolstered by working with her wife on the creative direction of the project. Though the couple had never planned to work together, when the label asked for photographs to go out with first single ‘Lifetime’ during the lockdowns, it made sense for Lentaigne to be behind the camera. “We were talking about everything all the time anyway,” Romy notes, “so especially with the music videos, she understood the meaning behind the music and could help convey that in a very personal way.” It was Lentaigne who made the intimate video for ‘Enjoy Your Life’, which splices fly-on-the-wall imagery of Romy with old footage of her late mother. And with the video for ‘Strong’, when Romy described the song as being “a hug in the club”, it was Lentaigne who suggested she reach out to her cousin Luis, who also lost his mum as a kid. “We both kind of put on a brave face and said: ‘I’m fine, I don’t want to talk about it’,” Romy explains. “And so, when Vic suggested I should be hugging Luis in the video, I was like: ‘Wow, I hadn’t thought of that.’” Luis agreed, and so the video captures the beauty of Romy holding her younger cousin as she sings the lines to him. “I was grateful that Vic had that idea that was so personal, I don’t know if anyone else would have. It added to the very personal nature of the music.” 

As well as her romantic partnership, another new element for this album was working with her friend, Fred Gibson – known best as producer and DJ behemoth, Fred again.. The pair met through those aforementioned writing sessions and immediately hit it off, quickly beginning to write lots of songs together. And when she wrote ‘Loveher’ and he asked who it was for, Romy was finally able to reply: “I think this one is for me.” She explains now that she felt the song had sparked something. “I embraced that it was very personal, I was singing in the way I would talk about my relationship. I knew this was a song for me, outside of The xx, outside of songs for other people.” 

That was five years ago. But following the lockdowns – and with the help of producer Stuart Price – Romy and Fred again.. had put together a work of saturated, vivid tunes. It sounds rooted in club music – most specifically Eurodance and trance-pop – from the past 30 years; it’s bright and sticky like an alcopop on a humid dancefloor. For Romy, it’s a nod to her formative clubbing experiences at the Queer nights she and Sim would go to as teenagers, particularly one called Ghetto which she first went to when she was 16. “It was just so different to how I felt at school and looking around and seeing a really amazing group of different people in one space, just being themselves. I felt safe to explore my sexuality and myself,” she says, before starting to laugh. “Much as I was, like, a wallflower, I was still taking it all in, observing, feeling connected just by being there. I recognise that’s the power of that space, where you can go and just be yourself; there are all the difficult things people go through in a day to be themselves, but there’s power in this space where you can let your guard down a bit. It’s something I don’t underestimate at all.” 

The music in these spaces played a big part in the experience. “I remember just feeling a sensory overload of big bold pop music that was listened to with joy without irony,” she says. The “without irony” comment is pointed. Making an album of this bold, poppy music is also a push back to the reaction Romy sometimes got when she was DJing while playing with The xx. In a tone that’s somewhere between bemusement and annoyance, she recalls: “I had the experience where someone came up to me and asked: ‘Do you actually like this music? Are you taking the piss?’ They had come to see The xx, so they couldn’t understand why I was standing there playing Lady Gaga.” 

Now, though, there’s no question of Romy’s experiments in Queer pop joy not being taken seriously. A standout moment on the album comes in ‘Enjoy Your Life’, which samples pioneering Black Trans musician Beverly Glenn-Copeland, with the line ‘My mother says to me enjoy your life’. Romy talks about how the lyric can feel grounding when, even in good times, our minds might be filled with worry and anxiety about things that haven’t happened yet. “I think through experiencing loss, it really made me feel how life is short,” Romy explains. “It made me think about how I really wanted to try and make the most of things, in a positive way. I’m not ever trying to be like: ‘Cheer up, enjoy your life!’, it’s more nuanced than that – but it’s more acknowledging an intention to try to let yourself see the good things, and enjoy them.” 

Her debut album is an invitation to do the same. In going out alone and stripping away any veil between herself and the listener, Romy has made a record that disintegrates the lines between us, welcoming us all to her joyful dancefloor to shake off the grief and shyness, and in turn find communion with each other.

The rain has stopped outside, and it looks like the yellow-gold sun might start peeking through. As we get ready to part ways, Romy mentions that she can’t wait to start touring the album and making her solo shows like a club experience. It’s a stark contrast in confidence to the shy girl with her head turned to the floor at The xx’s early shows; but still, through this bold and bright new era, Romy retains the charming softness that drew listeners to her in the first place. “I’m really excited to have it be an opportunity to be in a room full of people…” She pauses, then smiles. “To just be there with the music and feel the community and connect.” 

This article first appeared in issue 4 of Disco Pogo magazine. Which you can buy here.

The Chemical Brothers: More Than A Feeling
June 4, 2024
The Chemical Brothers: More Than A Feeling
used cms The Chemical Brothers: More Than A Feeling

After 30 years exploring the outer reaches of what electronic music can be, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons – The Chemical Brothers – have returned to Planet Dust once more. Their new album – their tenth – the aptly-titled ‘For That Beautiful Feeling’, fizzes with the excitement a band half their age would do well to produce. “Enjoy yourself,” Tom’n’Ed tell Craig McLean. “Enjoy it while it’s there…”

Fairy lights and soapy bubbles. Breakbeat stetsons and acid shell suits. Bunny ears and deely boppers. Neon bananas and dayglo brollies. Big beat balloons and neon handclaps. Alien nation and alienation. Crazy lasers and death ray robots. Fractal funk and psychedelic bleep. Disco dads and ravin’ mums. Bottomless bass and wilderness womp. The light fantastic and the running man. Chemical children and festival brothers.

Sometime after sunset on Cornbury Park estate in Oxfordshire, Friday night fever is in full flow. The headline act are in their element, using all the elements. The duo are in the slot they’ve been occupying, refining and making their own, pretty much annually, since a near-mythical Glastonbury appearance in 2000 (aka The Year The Fence Came Down). The music is loud, the lights are louder, the screens are loudest of all. Although the fancy dress of the glad-ragged festival-goers – the themes seem to be “Playboy bunny” and “bring your kids” – is hardly quiet either. Everyone is up for it, and then up for it a bit more.

As early as the sixth song, it already feels like Encore O’Clock. A single from the last century wallops out of the PA, its haiku-pogo refrain – ‘Hey girl, hey boy, superstar DJs, here we go!’ – sounding 24 years young. We are barely 20 minutes in and the glitter-faced, spangle-brained, retina-frazzled party crowd have lost what little abandon they still have left. And that is just the tots in ear-defenders.

Capping off the opening night of Wilderness 2023, The Chemical Brothers are doing their thing, bigger and better than anyone else, and they are taking neither chances nor prisoners. Standing onstage in their traditional position – side-by-side, in blinding silhouette, behind banks of stuff, no microphones required – Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons start, instructionally, with ‘Go’. They end, 23 songs later, with the nominative determinism of ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, their in-at-Number-One 1997 Grammy winner (Best, ahem, Rock Instrumental). Even in 5,000 beautiful bucolic Cotswolds acres, no block remains unrocked. 

“I sometimes think about why we’re still doing it, summer after summer…” Simons, aka the silhouette stage-right, will later muse of their all-out approach to performance. It’s in pursuit of something “elusive… the air of surrender, of transcendence…”  

Rowlands, silhouette stage-left, echoes that. “It’s in us, the desire for something to overtake you, and to remove you out of the moment, into an instinctual thing. That’s how we got into music. That’s not a new phenomenon. People always want a release.”

No lie. At this most boujie of festivals, Generation Chems have come out to play, and they aren’t going home until the last throb has abated, the last screen winked out. Or, at least, until they can see and hear again, and find their way to the glampsite.

Forty-five minutes in, just before the set’s halfway mark, our techno-wizards play ‘Live Again’, a track from their – then – as-yet-unreleased new album, ‘For That Beautiful Feeling’. It was released as a single only five weeks previously, but it’s greeted like an old faithful on a par with hardy perennials ‘Chemical Beats’ and ‘Do It Again’. The wildness at Wilderness goes off, the audience’s enthusiastic response undoubtedly abetted by what is written next to the song on the band and crew’s set-list – the instruction, or reminder, or warning: ‘Lasers’. 

Five minutes after that, at the front-of-house tower halfway up the field, roadies – many of whom have been with The Chemical Brothers for most of their quarter-century touring existence – are unfurling decorators’ plastic dust sheets over the mixing desk and Jodrell Bank-scale panels controlling the lighting and video rigs. They also gently corral the many Chemical children, the offspring of band and associates, who are gathered on the viewing platform. 

Game over, already? Or rain, as per? 

No. The pair of humanoid shapes onstage kick into the pneumatic gospel-funk of 2019’s ‘Got To Keep On’, and, again, the set-list notes do not lie: ‘Confetti cannon’. A boom from front-of-house and a mass ooooooh from the crowd as twin volleys of twisting chaff arc into the air, then drift down, prettily, over audience and now-covered gear. Rain wouldn’t stop play, but a rogue bit of paper in a mixing desk slider might.   

‘Got To Keep On’ kept on, thunderously. The other set-list cue written next to this most-streamed track from 2019’s ‘No Geography’ also turned out to be accurate. ‘Shatter balls’ it says and, yes, it does.

Backstage afterwards, in the shadow of Portakabin dressing-rooms, there is gentle toasting to a job well done. They began the evening with their pre-show ritual, a private dance around to The Specials’ skanking ode to joy, ‘Enjoy Yourself’. Now, here they are, cooling off.

“It was good... wasn’t it?” Rowlands says in his customary, not-quite-rhetorical manner. For a man in masterful charge of the giddy array of recording tech – guitars, keys, synths; vintage, brand-new, jerry-built – that he keeps in the countryside Chemical HQ known as Rowlands Audio Research near his home in Lewes, East Sussex, he often seems unsure of what he’s saying. Or, at least, loath to sound self-satisfied. “The crowd was quite different. There was a nice warmth in that people seemed to be wanting to have a good time. Which is always a good position to start from.”

That, Simons adds, equally mildly, is never a given. “Even though we’ve played for so many years in a row, this was a new festival for us to play, so we had no idea what to expect. You only really get a sense of it once you walk on stage. Lots of kids there, that seemed to be quite a big part of it. Which is always nice. You’ve got a new generation getting into it. Yeah,” a man even less effusive than his partner would eventually decide, “it seemed good.”

Nice, good, nice, good… There was, as ever, no crowd engagement. Rowlands: “What’s worse than someone telling you to have a good time? It’s so easy to shout: ‘Put your hands in the air!’ It doesn’t feel like it’s in us to do that. But we’ll do everything we can to create the environment to make that happen.”

But there had been, nonetheless, a deep concern, a rigorous care, for the job at hand: giving the people the night of their lives – and reminding said people that they had a part to play, too. Simons: “There are times in a gig where you would like to turn the music down, when [the vibe’s] really not happening, which does happen. And you’d say: ‘Look, come on, we could end now. Or we could just keep going. But we’re going to need a bit of something.’ So, we just have to do that musically, or through the power of mime, and [our own] hands in the air.”

No fears of that tonight. Job emphatically done, Rowlands, 52, and Simons, 53, nursing sensible drinks, mingle with time-served members of a tight-knit circle bonded by a professional lifetime spent girdling the globe. Nick Dewey, one of The Chemical Brothers’ two managers and also a booker for Glastonbury, is here with his wife, Emily Eavis. Their courtship in part catalysed by Tom’n’Ed’s status as Worthy Farm’s favourite eat-sleep-rave-repeat return guests (pace Fatboy Slim, they’ve headlined in 2000, 2004, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019), the couple are happy to be enjoying music, for once, in a field not of their own.

Also present in the midnight, arc-lit shadows: Robin Turner, longstanding Heavenly mainstay. He cut his PR teeth working in the London label/management firm’s press office, and first met the duo of Medieval History graduates then known as The Dust Brothers in January 1994. This was eight months after Junior Boys Own had re-issued the Manchester University graduates’ self-released, one-sided, green label 12-inch first single, ‘Song to the Siren’, and Heavenly had just started managing them. Coming up, fast: Rowlands and Simons’ needle-shifting London pub DJ residency, The Heavenly Social – nuff said – and earthquaking, million-plus-selling 1995 debut album ‘Exit Planet Dust’.

They’d already had their first magazine feature, in March 1993, in the second issue of a magazine started by a pair of peers on the Manchester underground club scene. In October/November 1994, that magazine would give them their first front cover (‘Dust Brothers Just Say Yo!’). Sadly, the lifespan of Jockey Slut would pale into insignificance next to that of The Chemical Brothers who, in 2023, are three decades, 10 studio albums, and assorted compilations, soundtracks and remix collections into their existence. That said: there’s nothing, really, in top-tier electronic music to rival that longevity, nor that can match their consistent, dip-free, top-of-the bill status. Even their portmanteau “Tom’n’Ed” does heavy lifting on their behalf: shorthand for psychonautical sampledelic entertainment excellence. Something like that. Still, wonder what happened to those Jockey Slut guys?

Having also seen their first ever live gig – 18 March 1994: Andrew Weatherall’s club night Sabresonic, held at Happy Jaxx on Crucifix Lane, London SE1 – Turner was the best person to write the definitive, coffee table-esque tome on The Chemical Brothers. Enter planet dust: ‘Paused In Cosmic Reflection’, to be published seven weeks after the release of ‘For That Beautiful Feeling’, is a block rockin’ book featuring myriad memorabilia and memories, with contributions from admirers, collaborators and fellow travellers galore.

“The Chemical Brothers have got great taste. It’s that simple. Whether it’s the sounds they use, or the arrangements, or the people they’ve worked with over the years, it’s just cool as fuck and it’s remained that way” 

Noel Gallagher, singer/co-writer, #1 smash ‘Setting Sun’, 1996

“I had the sense that Tom was asking me to sing the words because he knew the chaos of my life back then, how acutely those words spoke to my experience. I wasn’t sure if we were friends exactly – I always felt shy around him cos he’s so intelligent and I felt like trash at the time – but I felt that in these songs he was reaching out to me to speak for him as much as for myself” 

Beth Orton, singer, ‘Alive Alone’, 1995  

“Tom and Ed are definitely kindred spirits… For years and years, Joy Division and New Order were very closed shops. We were self-taught musicians who stopped using producers for a while, so we only had each other to bounce off… Working with them, it felt like they were… on the same wavelength. And that makes for a great creative environment”

Bernard Sumner, singer/co-writer,
‘Out Of Control’, 1999

“The Chemical Brothers have a great predilection for exploration. Their records always seem to take you to different places. They kind of sit in an unusual place between different eras of electronic music and DJ culture. It’s like they have one foot in multiple decades at the same time in a way that is utterly unique among their peers. They are rare in that they are always making stuff year in year out and amassing such a rich and impressive body of work” 

Beck, singer/co-writer ‘Wide Open’, 2015 and ‘Skipping Like a Stone’, 2023

All of which is to say: The Chemical Brothers’ shows, and The Chemical Brothers’ pals, speak more loudly, brightly and eloquently about The Chemical Brothers than the band themselves. Brothers gonna work it out? Only if you hold a gun to their heads. Or, four days after Wilderness, pin them in a snug in a Notting Hill private members’ club on a sodden day in west London. Even then, analysis comes slowly, reluctantly. Which is especially funny given that Ed Simons is now a qualified, working psychotherapist who’ll be shooting off in an hour or so because he has patients.

“Tom and I haven’t really had any conversations about what we’re doing, ever,” says a south Londoner who, at the time of our interview, is one week shy of becoming a dad for the first time. “Or about finishing or keeping going. We’ve probably done more looking back with the book than we’ve ever done. I guess it does strike you, looking back, that with the first three albums, it was one every two years. And they were pretty much perfect expressions of where we were in that time, the evolution from ‘Exit Planet Dust’ to ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ to’ Surrender.’”

They were capped by that epochal Glastonbury 2000 Pyramid Stage headline slot, “and we supposedly had the biggest crowd they’d ever had [at that point],” continues Simons. “I don’t remember much about it, but I remember it was pretty apocalyptic and huge. We were both 30 and you could say that would have been a good place to stop. I’m glad we didn’t. But I guess that first five years, between ‘95 and 2000, were a pretty perfect upwards [trajectory]. Then we never did say [stop]. We’ve kept making records and found different places to be within that.” 

Ask Henley-on-Thames native Rowlands – who met and clicked with the like-minded Simons in Manchester within weeks, if not days, of starting on the same university course – what those hip hop- and acid house-loving students would have made of a career now cresting into its fourth decade, and his ready, rat-a-tat laugh bursts out.

“I don’t think we’d have been so... what’s the word... not presumptuous...” This father of three kids aged 16 to 22 (his wife Vanessa also a veteran of those early Manc days) stops, then starts again. “Some bands have a plan: ‘In five years, we gotta be doing this and be on ‘The Late, Late Show…’’ [Or] be like: ‘If we’re not on ‘Top of the Pops’ in a year’s time, fuck it, this isn’t worth doing.’

“Our goals were never those things. It was try and make the record you want to make. Try and play the concert. Then just move on to the next thing, then the next thing. Which meant, I suppose, that we were never not hitting any target-based [goals], whatever that is!” Rowlands exclaims, rat-a-tatting. “I suppose it’s quite a luxury, really, to be able to have done it like that.”

Well, it’s a luxury born of the freedom bought by pretty much out-of-the-box and definitely consistent success – which, in turn, came from an innate, impassioned, genre-blind, fans’-eye understanding of the magic of the dancefloor.

“Tom and Ed got what The Haçienda was all about and managed to transpose that feeling into a DJ set in a pub on Great Portland Street,” says Tim Burgess, fellow graduate of Manc-land and ground-zero Chems collaborator (on ‘Exit Planet Dust’ track ‘Life Is Sweet’). The man from The Charlatans (the band also the recipients of key, early Chemicals remixes) is speaking about The Albany, the first London home of The Heavenly Social. “They were playing Bomb The Bass, Meat Beat Manifesto, Beastie Boys and Barry White – just great things that might not have worked in other DJs’ hands. But Tom and Ed brought together indie and big beat and classic soul and hip hop and messed with it.”

And now? Now, ‘Live Again’, Chemicals Brothers’ most recent single, was banged out over the half-time Tannoy at Wembley during the Arsenal-Manchester City Community Shield match 48 hours before our interview. It’s that same Heavenly Social vibe, metabolised and supersized into tunes embedded in the nation’s sporting and cultural firmament.

“It’s always exciting to hear your music in a totally different context like that,” acknowledges Rowlands, long limbs sliding diagonally off the sofa.

“The thing with the [2012] Olympics, when Team GB team came out to ‘Galvanize’…” begins Simons, perched, legs-crossed, of their 2004 track featuring Q-Tip; six-time Grammy-winners, the Chems are, still, massive in the US, so we’ll forgive them the track’s American spelling. “We had been told that was going to happen. But we didn’t know how amazing that whole [Opening Ceremony] night would be. There have been quite a lot of those moments.”

“In that same Olympics,” continues Rowlands, “I’m a cycling fan, and I was hearing about Chris Hoy using our music. You could see him in the middle of the Velodrome with his big cans on. Then you hear he’s listening to ‘Elektrobank’ or ‘Escape Velocity.’” The former: video by Spike Jonze, gymnastic on-screen performance by Sofia Coppola. The latter: one of eight tracks on 2010’s ‘Further’, each accompanied by a short film, those led by actor Romola Garai. “You’re like, yeah!” he beams. “It’s such a world away from where the music is made.”

“Q-Tip’s very happy that both the songs we did with him are being heard in those worlds,” notes Simons. He’s also referring to ‘Go’, the 2015 track that, like many a Chems banger, can also be heard in multiple films (‘Baywatch’), ads (Vodafone) and video games (‘Need For Speed’). “He’s a big sports fan. That’s what he likes about the tracks.” And/or Q-Tip likes the MCPS and PRS payments. The Chemical Brothers couldn’t possibly comment.

But really, as evidenced by those earlier testimonials from Turner’s book, the guest vocalists come to the Chems for the experience, not the royalties. ‘For That Beautiful Feeling’ features the returning Beck, on the aforesaid ‘Skipping Like a Stone’, and rising Heavenly star Halo Maud. She bookends the album, on ‘Live Again’ and the climactic (in every sense) title track. What quality were they looking for the young French psych-pop singer to bring?

“On this record, a lot of the songs started with me singing,” replies Rowlands, tentatively, seemingly as reluctant to talk about his singing as he is to actually do the singing. “Then it didn’t feel right that it would be me singing it. So, we wanted to find someone who... because the words and the melodies and everything were all there... but we wanted to hear someone else sing it. And we just heard her record, heard her voice, then got talking to her on email.

“Sometimes people are protective about what they do. But she was very open to suggestion, because I was quite clear how we wanted it to be. And she took the words and the melodies and then just sung them in such a brilliant way. Making more of it than [I could have].”

There’s also an uncredited vocal from Wolf Alice singer Ellie Rowsell on ‘Feels Like I’m Dreaming’. It’s another limb-rattling newie that, when played at Wilderness, had the trees fearing autumn had come early. Its genesis tells us something about The Chemical Brothers’ working methods: an endless loop of creativity, both methodical and spur-of-the-moment.

Around the time of ‘No Geography’, working in east London’s The Strongroom, a satellite studio long favoured by the duo, “we did a lot of sessions with Ellie,” says Rowlands. “I always hate saying this because people go: ‘Oh, God, why didn’t you use it?’ But there was a more fully-formed song kind of thing. There was a lot of back and forth, trying to get it right. But she’s brilliant, and she was really open to trying lots of different things.” The album would win the Grammy for Best Electronic/Dance Album, but without any contribution from Rowsell.

Then, playing out one night, Rowlands and Simons were searching for le momente juste to mix into their DJ set. They remembered those sessions, and how “there were so many cool bits in that vocal, and songs that hadn’t really ever got finished. And [we thought]: let’s just loop up that bit of ‘feel like I’m dreaming’. And it was like that’s wicked. It was a part of the more song-y song that was written previously, but we never finished it. Then, DJing and wanting something fresh to play and remembering that wicked bit in the song, we basically sampled it for the set.”

In the moment, a new track was born, one they later felt would fit on ‘For That Beautiful Feeling’. “I think Ellie was still a bit unsure,” acknowledges Rowlands. “[But] I sent her a video of us playing it in a club somewhere and it being absolutely wild. And she was like: ‘Oh, yeah, that’s cool, just treat it like a sample kind of thing…’” 

For her part, Rowsell, no fan of interviews even about her own band, says of the collaboration: “The Chemical Brothers are often referenced by us when we’re in the studio. All of Wolf Alice are fans of their work. We all saw them play on my birthday one year which was an 11/10 night. I feel lucky to have spent some time in the studio with Tom, we messed around with a bunch of ideas that I’d like to return to one day but for now I’m just excited to play a small part in ‘Feels Like I’m Dreaming’. I love what they have done!”

Brothers, as ever, gonna work it out. Still, though, what keeps them going, at this level, qualitatively and quantitatively? ‘For The Beautiful Feeling’ is another blast of soulful futurism, deeply felt and deeply impactful, as great on headphones as in a field. They’ve been headlining international festivals, on and off, all summer, and have a UK arena tour this autumn.

Partly, they say, it’s because it’s what they’re used to. Simons remembers the heady days of ’96, when it feels like they DJ’d “pretty much every Saturday” at Turnmills, The Heavenly Social’s scaled-up east London berth. “But we also would constantly be on tour in America, and we made ‘Dig Your Own Hole’. It felt like we went from studying Chaucer to suddenly playing these gigs all round the world.”

And it’s partly because they were already firmly simpatico, their friendship forged in lecture halls, student flats and Manc pubs, not the tour bus. Simons again: “We really enjoyed doing our history degrees together. I almost think of that as being the more bonding thing. We didn’t actually learn the language, but we did [understand] the secret language of literary criticism and historical context of Chaucer way before we sat down and tried to make music together.”

Rowlands’ eyebrows rise at this outing of their academic credentials, but Simons is standing firm. “That might sound a little bit [odd], but it’s definitely true. We had a total experience way outside the world of electronic dance music.”

The only apparent blips? Around 2009/10, during the making of seventh album ‘Further’, Ed Simons suffered a major depressive episode. Then, in 2015, he stepped away from touring their eighth, ‘Born In The Echoes’. The two, though, Simons clarifies today, were not related. 

“That was my personal life,” he says of his illness. “Bad, difficult relationships after each other, and I just crashed. Tom looked after me really well. But the 2015 thing: I studied to be a psychotherapist, coming out of that period of depression. I was just in a very intense period of wanting to finish it…. So, I said to Tom: ‘I just cannot tour right now.’”

It was, he admits, “difficult”, with Rowlands keen to crack on, enlisting long-time visuals collaborator Adam Smith to be Silhouette Stage Right. But that, too, proved to be a blessing. “You did get into a routine – album, tour – and to step out a bit and know that it could happen without me,” says Simons, “[then] to come back, that feels like a real choice.”

More broadly, as well, “we’re more likely to have fallouts about what order of records we play when we DJ rather than anything big. We always talk through things. But in that period when I was depressed, it was just like a normal midlife crisis, lonely... But,” he concludes, brightening just slightly, “all good now.”

How concerning was that time for Rowlands, first of all for his friend, but also for this project that they’d worked so hard to create and maintain – then having to carry the ship on his own for a while?

“It was hard. To have your best friend going through something like that. It was daunting as well, from a personal thing of: right, how is this gonna happen? But it was generous of him to say: ‘Yeah, you can do it, you can go out there.’ Then as Ed said, to make the choice to come back and see that it’s a good thing to do...

“It’s so exciting, when you get to play music, this thing you’ve created over all this time,” Tom Rowlands adds, now looking – as ever – upwards and forwards. “Like on Friday night at Wilderness. To be playing songs that we made together 30 years ago, something like ‘Chemical Beats’. That’s a long time. And to see the madness and joy and intensity of it!”

That rat-a-tat laugh again, that hard-wired, indefatigable joy and excitement. Then, a nod to that pre-show ritual. “As Terry Hall says: it won’t be there forever. So, enjoy yourself. And enjoy it while it’s there.”

Donna Summer: 'I Do Know How I Survive'
September 26, 2023
Donna Summer: 'I Do Know How I Survive'
used cms Donna Summer: 'I Do Know How I Survive'

With a helping hand from Quincy Jones, Jon and Vangelis, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Dionne Warwick, David Geffen and more, Donna Summer created the archetypal Balearic beat banger in 1982. Balearic Mike explores the origins of ‘State of Independence’ and examines its enduring appeal…

In October 1982, the second single from Donna Summer’s eponymous LP was released. Initial reaction was mixed to say the least. Forty years on it’s considered a groundbreaking and genre-defying electronic music masterpiece, a song that Brian Eno has described as “one of the high points of 20th century art.”

Originally written and recorded by Jon Anderson and Vangelis, it appeared on their 1981 LP ‘Friends of Mr Cairo’. Although the original is a brilliant slice of futuristic electronic pop, it’s an odd choice of a track to cover, crawling along at about 80 bpm and sounding like a reggae tune performed by The Clangers, with no discernible chorus or real vocal hook to speak of. ‘Hot Stuff’, Summer’s 1979 raunchy disco rock slam dunk it certainly is not.

The early-80s were a troubling time for Summer and her career. Following the ‘Disco Sucks’ backlash of 1979, she had jumped ship from Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records to join David Geffen at his new eponymous label. Still working with her production team of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, her debut album for Geffen, 1980’s ‘The Wanderer’, was a commercial and artistic failure, with both the singles and the LP failing to break the top 40 in the UK.

It’s a confused album, with what seems like a conscious attempt to move away from disco – by then a dirty word – but no clear idea on where to go, although the track ‘Grand Illusion’ is a wonderful, druggy, slo-mo slice of electronica. Alarmingly for Geffen, most of his new label’s debut records – with John Lennon’s ‘Double Fantasy’ the sole exception – were also commercial flops, so something drastic had to happen… and drastic it was.

David Geffen allegedly canned Donna’s next LP, ‘I’m a Rainbow’, demanding a hit. In order to perform this miracle, he insisted she switch producers and record with Quincy Jones instead. Jones had just produced a run of hit albums, including Michael Jackson’s ‘Off the Wall’, George Benson’s ‘Give Me the Night’, and The Brothers Johnson’s ‘Light Up the Night’, so he seemed like a pretty good bet.

The new LP took six months to record at Westlake Audio in Los Angeles and featured a host of collaborators and co-writers (17 in total). The recording process wasn’t a great experience. Summer didn’t really hit it off with Jones, and soon after the album’s release she tellingly told the NME’s Barney Hoskins: “… it’s really more his album.”

The sound was highly polished, as was Donna’s new image, presenting her in a far more conservative style. Out was the sexy disco diva in a backless figure-hugging dress who sang ‘Bad Girls’, and in was power dressing, shoulder pads and a look fit for this new era of Reaganomics.

Subsequently, the album didn’t achieve its stated objective. Despite opening track and lead single ‘Love is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)’, being a sizable hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the LP itself actually did worse than the previous album.

However, tucked away in the middle of the LP, at the end of side one, is the epic cover of ‘State of Independence’. Jones builds a bed of electronic elements, starting with the Linn LM1 drum machine, then a Roland MicroComposer and a pair of Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizers. He tightens the rhythms from the Jon & Vangelis version by adding a fabulous Mini-Moog bassline to the original pulsating, repetitive bass part. Later he would claim that Michael Jackson stole the bassline for ‘Billie Jean’, but quickly backtracked on his remarks.

Over this futuristic, electronic backing, Donna does what she does so well, bringing humanity to the machine-made landscape that’s been created for her. Adding a soaring, soulful vocal, which is truly one of her best. Giving real substance to the sometimes trite, quasi-religious/spiritual lyrics. Then the cherry on the top arrives in the form of the huge all-star chorus that Quincy assembled, consisting of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Loggins, James Ingram, Brenda Russell, Christopher Cross, and a host of others. The effect is overwhelming, bringing to mind African vocal choirs like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and lifting the song to stratospheric heights. Incidentally, the elephantine chorus is said to have been the inspiration for the single ‘USA For Africa’, so perhaps every silver lining does have a cloud.

Issued as the second single, ‘State of Independence’ was a big hit in the UK, despite the mixed reviews: ‘… grand, laughable … a typically overblown affair about religion’ scathed Paolo Hewitt in Melody Maker, while Smash Hits’ David Hepworth claimed: ‘The final chorus … is truly awesome’. It was a big hit in parts of Europe as well, going to number one in Holland, but failed to break the top 40 in America. A fate it shares with a similar single from earlier in the year, with a similarly huge Balearic/dancefloor legacy.

Earlier that summer, Carly Simon had released the Chic-penned ‘Why?’ on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK it went top 10, and after a Balearic revival in the summer of 1989 which saw the track reissued again, it went on to become a club classic. In the US however, it stalled at number 74 and disappeared. Perhaps America just wasn’t ready for those reggae-influenced grooves yet?

In Italy, ‘State of Independence’ found favour on the Cosmic-Afro club scene, with Italian Ibiza/Amnesia veteran Leo Mas telling me: “In the Afro scene in Italy I think everyone has played ‘State of Independence’, with those African-style choirs…”.

It’s quite likely, though, that since it was first played from the LP, that Cosmic Club DJ Danielle Baldelli may have pitched it up to 45 rpm, as he did with tracks like Allez Allez’s ‘African Queen’ and Yellowman’s ‘Zungguzungguguzungguzeng’.

Manchester DJ Kath McDermott, resident at Queer clubbing institutions such as Flesh at The Hacienda and Homoelectric recalls when she first heard the song, and its long-lasting impact on her as a music-mad kid and a budding DJ.

“1982 was a magic musical year for me as a pop obsessive growing up in a house where my clone Dad would play tracks he had heard on the dancefloors of seedy Mancunian gay clubs,” she says. “’State of Independence’ arrived… post ‘Bad Girls’ and ‘On the Radio’ and before Donna’s Christian/AIDS-related rant and temporary fall from grace in 1983.

“I loved it as soon as I heard it on the massive kitchen boom box. Uplifting, epic, innovative, soulful, and unusually chuggy. It sounded so fresh with its futuristic electro production. I’ve never felt the urge to play ‘I Feel Love’ in a club. When I used to play Flesh, in the Gay Traitor, this would be my Donna choice. An anthem of a different nature, but to me equally as uplifting when you want to pull a Balearic trigger. Especially in a hot mess of an ecstatic crowd in a wet basement on a Wednesday night.”

In the UK, as 1988’s acid house-fuelled second summer of love turned into 1989’s Soul II Soul and Italo-house-fuelled summer of rave, the bpms began to lower once again, and McDermott wasn’t alone in searching for slower, more chugging sounds. Tracks like ‘Why?’ and ‘State of Independence’ began to find a place on the dancefloor, as DJs once again looked for the Balearic beat. After the impact of Primal Scream’s ‘Loaded’ a whole flood of 98 bpm beauties emerged.

Indeed ‘State of Independence’ took on a new lease of life in 1990 under the guise of The Moodswings track ‘Spiritual High’, a gorgeous, psychedelic version with a beat borrowed from Jazzie B and co, and a few lines from The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. It was a Rocky & Diesel end-of-nighter at the Boy’s Own-affiliated cockney shindig, Yellow Book, and the track that Danny Rampling closed his Saturday night Kiss FM show with. The remake was such a staple on the UK Balearic Network that it hung around for a couple of years, eventually becoming a minor chart hit in 1992 when re-recorded with The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde reinstating the original lyric/vocal.

But the song wasn’t finished then. As the 20th century made way for the 21st, the arrival of the internet gave musical archaeologists and record diggers the world over a new lease of life. Hitherto unknown musical scenes, movements and genres were constantly being unearthed, and rediscovered by hungry DJs and dancers alike. In recent years some wonderful cover versions of “State of Independence” from all around the world have come to light.

Danny McLewin of Psychemagik released a stunning re-edit of a little known Brazilian take, by an artist called Dayana, on his Undercover Lovers label a few years back, while last year the new imprint Naya Beat Records – focusing on uncovering rarities and oddities from the subcontinent and South Asian diaspora – included a version on their debut compilation LP. This cover, by Canadian–Pakistani singer Musarrat Nazir is called ‘Hosh Nahin Hai Ji Mujhe’ and breathes further life into Summer, Jones and Jon and Vangelis’ enduring track.

In 2022, the song made a memorable appearance on the small screen in Nicole Lecky’s funny, moving and incredibly dark BBC3 mini-series, ‘Mood’, adapted from her own one-woman-show Superhoe. Lecky performs the song a cappella in a startling scene which flits from harsh reality to surreal dream sequence, casting a brilliant ray of sunshine just as the storyline is about to take its darkest turn. The Moodswings remake also appears on Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley’s recent superb compilation, ‘Fell From the Sun: Downtempo and After Hours 1990-91’, a collection of music which seems remarkably relevant again.

So, it seems like Brian Eno may have been right. In the BBC Arena documentary ‘Another Green World’ when asked for his favourite productions he singles the track out once more, while working on a version of it with the singer Andrea Corr for her 2011 solo LP.

“I’d have to say: ‘State of Independence’ by Donna Summer,” he answers. “Putting the crudely mechanical… this kind of Germanic robot thing… against the incredibly sexy, emotional, organic, gospel singing. It sounded so far ahead of people who thought they were making modern music.”

But then Eno has always been a bit of an admirer of Summer it seems. At least according to David Bowie, who was quoted outlining Eno’s love for her in the Eno biography ‘On Some Faraway Beach’ by David Sheppard.

“Eno came running in and said: ‘I have heard the sound of the future.’ He puts on ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer. He said: ‘This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years.’ Which was more or less right.”

So, happy birthday to Donna Summer’s ‘State of Independence’. Not bad for your second-best track.  

Malcolm McLaren/Duck Rock: Malcolm Was A Duck Rocker
September 26, 2023
Malcolm McLaren/Duck Rock: Malcolm Was A Duck Rocker
used cms Malcolm McLaren/Duck Rock: Malcolm Was A Duck Rocker

In the early-80s, one album – and in particular its mesmerising sleeve – helped bring hip hop to the UK masses. Featuring visions of a punk country and western band, dreams of David Bowie marrying Dolly Parton, mixing square dancing with rap and a little help from Keith Haring, this is the story of how cultural provocateur Malcolm McLaren, assisted by a bunch of innovative former art school students from Watford, took a beatbox and boom! shook the room. Richard Norris reveals all…

“That’s a duck rocker! You can take it for a walk, you can take it anywhere. It’s got wheels on it, it’s got wing mirrors on it, it can receive radio stations from all over the world!”

Malcolm McLaren in conversation with Molly Meldrum, ‘Countdown’ TV show, Australia 1983


In December 2020 British designer and technician Ron West went into his loft and took a picture of an ancient beatbox. It had clearly seen better days – it was shorn of its cattle horns and graffiti lettering – but it was still instantly recognisable. It was the boom box from the cover of Malcolm McLaren’s ground-breaking ‘Duck Rock’ album, which had been hiding in his attic for nearly 40 years.

West posted a picture on the internet, posing the knowing question: ‘What’s this lurking in the corner of the attic?’ Suddenly, all hell broke loose. “It went mad,” says West today. “People told their friends, then a bidding war started.” Was this the original ‘Duck Rocker’? And how come it was languishing in a dusty attic in suburban England?

“It wasn’t the original,” says West, still bemused by the piqued interest. “The original was lost by Malcolm in New York. He got me to make an exact replica, which he used for promotion. One day I liberated it from his office in Denmark Street, and it ended up in the attic for years. All the recent interest got me thinking I should make a couple more.”

Cut to the present day. I’m looking at my own Duck Rocker. It’s also an exact copy of the original, using the same Sanyo boom box. The mirrors, leopard skin fake fur, graffiti and lights that made it so distinctive are all there, as well as details like a teddy boy flick-knife comb and a miniature spirit level. The one new update is Bluetooth, which, when connected to the 40-year-old speakers, packs one hell of a punch. And if you want one yourself, he’s thinking of making a few more.

The story of one of British street culture’s pivotal moments, however, begins almost a decade before the emergence of hip hop, graffiti, turntablism and breakdancing these shores. After a foundation course in Winchester, West went to Watford Art College in the mid-70s, specialising in graphic design. He took up bass guitar and found plenty of people interested in combining art with music. Wire formed at the college, and West started playing with original Wire member George Gill in the Bears, alongside Martin ‘Cally’ Calloman.

Bears drummer Cally was in the same Watford Art School intake as graphic designers Pete Barrett and Nick Egan. These fledgling design students would go on to create hundreds of classic album covers between them, for everyone from Dexys to Tricky to Bob Dylan. They currently have nearly 800 sleeve design credits between them on Discogs.

Art school life was highly inspirational, recalls Cally, thanks to staff including poet, printer and publisher Hansjörg Mayer and artist Peter Schmidt, and visiting lecturers including Brian Eno, Mark Boyle, Gavin Bryars and Eduardo Paolozzi. “There was an absence of closed doors, which came with a great deal of challenge,” says Cally. “We were confronted with different ways of seeing things. Hopefully our own. The removal of assumption, of approval, of limits, really worked at Watford.”

The students flew fast and high, taking opportunities wherever they could. “We had a fanzine called Confidential, and we’d go to labels to get records to review,” explains Nick Egan. “One day at Phonogram, they said: ‘Sit here and wait, we’ll send someone to meet you.’ We thought we were going to be kicked out. Cally was trying to nick the gold records off the wall. These guys came out, introduced us to Seymour Stein from Sire Records, and said: ‘You guys are punks, aren’t you? We’ve got a group called the Ramones, who have a single coming out called ‘Sheena Is a Punk Rocker’. We want to do a T-shirt to go with it, and we want you to individually paint splash each one of them.’ So we took the T-shirts, and painted them on the train, ripping up bits of newspapers and sticking them on the shirts with paper and tape. It was terrible, we didn’t know how to present design work yet. We did most of the T-shirts and dumped the rest in the Thames. One of them recently fetched $18,000 at auction as it’s so rare.”

More design work started coming in. “Nobody commissioned us, we’d get it by association,” says Egan. “We were in our first year at college, with absolutely no track record. We’d go up to people and ask: ‘Why don’t you let us do your record cover?’ One day we were fans, going to see The Clash at Barbarella’s in Birmingham, next thing (Clash manager) Bernie Rhodes is giving us a lift back to London. We thought he was going to tell us to stop following the group around. Instead he told us his manifesto for The Clash, and said he’d like us to design the single cover for ‘White Man In Hammersmith Palais’!”

Eventually, West, Cally, and Egan formed a new band, the Tea Set. West had finished his course but opted to stay on at Watford. “I got loads of job offers as a designer,” he says, “but I wanted to be a pop star! I carried on at college, working as a technician, playing in the band. I’d sometimes go missing for two or three weeks to go on tour.”

The Tea Set recorded a Peel Session and put out a few singles. They toured with The Stranglers and the Skids and supported Iggy Pop and The Clash. Unfortunately, things started to fall apart. Their album was shelved, and singer Egan was soon missing in action, as he was beginning to work closely with a new collaborator – one Malcolm McLaren.

“Malcolm said to Nick he wanted a kind of punk country and western group,” remembers West. “So we got a band together featuring me and (Tea Set guitarist) Nick Haeffner and began to rehearse.”

“Malcolm had this idea that he wanted to persuade Dolly Parton and David Bowie to get married,” recollects Nick Haeffner. “He thought it made perfect sense, as they were on the same record label! He then decided that if that couldn’t happen, he’d put a band together in that spirit.”

The band started rehearsing with a singer called Jane, inspired by cassettes Malcolm gave them. “He was a diligent researcher,” explains Haeffner. “He gave us tapes with tracks like Johnny Burnette’s ‘Cincinnati Fireball’ on them, alongside country tunes you might have known if you were from an older, Irish, 50s generation. Things like Skeeter Davis, or this beautiful creaky Appalachian fiddle song that Malcolm wrote words for. Malcom had been listening to these folk archive recordings and was inspired by them.”

McLaren was particularly enamoured with a Folkways records series he’d found in a Paris library called ‘Dances of the World’s Peoples’, which featured a global selection of dance music alongside an illustrated history of the dance. Its woodcut illustrations were later used by Egan for a Westwood/McLaren show. The idea of ‘Duck Rock’ was taking shape.

Unfortunately, the new band’s rehearsals weren’t going so well. “Malcolm turned up after six weeks and was appalled,” says Haeffner. “He fired the singer on the spot.” The band, now called She Sheriff, got a new vocalist called Pip and worked towards their debut gig, at London’s Barracuda club at 1 Baker Street in April 1982. On the night, the band were decked out in full Westwood/McLaren regalia from the new Nostalgia of Mud collection, including the famed Buffalo hat recently sported by Pharrell Williams. Their songs included a track called ‘I Want To Be A Buffalo Girl’. It didn’t go down too well. The NME’s Mark Cordery didn’t mince his words, writing: ‘Their harmless hoedowns may make a hit single or two, but I’d say Malcolm has lost his touch, if not his marbles.’

“Malcolm rang me up and said: ‘Look, you can stay, the rest can go’,” says West. “We did a couple of demos, with me and Tymon Dogg (The Clash associate) on violin.” One single came out, but the reaction was lukewarm. “He was so pissed off with the She Sheriff thing, he said he was going to get the best people around him and do it property.”

“I was there when he met Trevor Horn”, says Egan. “Trevor asked if him if there was a demo? Malcolm pulled out a 78rpm record of Honduran dance music and said: ‘Here you go, there’s the demo.’ To give Trevor credit, he went: ‘Alright, I’ll go with that.’ Malcolm wanted to mix square dancing and rap, and I couldn’t see how they worked together. He said square dance is an instruction: ‘Take your partners by the hand’, and so is rap. ‘Everybody put your hands in the air’. That was genius. ’Buffalo Gals’ wasn’t like any song you’d heard before. It was totally random, there’s no verse/chorus, no structure with it.’

The ‘Buffalo Gals’ video and the ‘Duck Rock’ album were, particularly in Europe, the first time people had seen graffiti, breaking and hip hop on record and TV.

When it came to the album artwork, frequent New York trips were proving inspirational for Egan, who commissioned Keith Haring to add his distinctive style for the album’s backdrop and master graffiti writer Dondi White to create the ‘Duck Rock’ lettering.

“We were sitting in [old school New York restaurant] Howard Johnson’s in Times Square, me, Malcolm and a guy called Terry Doktor, throwing round ideas,” says Egan. “Malcolm had been to South Africa and saw these Zulus who were using spoons as jewellery, he’d been in central America and seen customised cars, and New York had the boom box, so that’s where the ideas came from.”

Egan tracked down Haring and White in a haphazard manner, racking up a $20,000 hotel bill as he searched the city for them. “There were no cell phones, no internet, you just had to keep going to the clubs to find these people”, he says. “I started to get the vibe much more. I went out with Dondi one night, to do writing on the subway car sidings. We went over this fence with dogs barking. I watched him tag a train. It was the scariest thing I had ever done.”

The sleeve was coming together, however Egan needed something special for the inner sleeve. “I asked Ron West to customise the boom box. Ron was the guy that could fix anything. It was his idea to put the lights and antennas on, he came up with the colours, and Malcolm wanted the horns on it. I could have done it, and stuck it down with glue, but it would have fallen to pieces! Ron was the right person to make it practical, solid and creative. He did a great job.”

“I went completely over the top with it, covering it with anything I could lay my hands on”, says West, smiling. “The aerials came as a job lot from a junk shop, the mirrors and bars came from a motorbike shop. I painted Dondi’s lettering onto Perspex, sprayed it, and cut it out at college. When Nick saw the finished thing, he was amazed. He showed it to Malcolm, who said it should be the front cover.”

West didn’t stop at the one boom box. “I did probably three or four, that were given away as prizes,” he says. “I did one for Gary Crowley, among others.” Aged 19, Crowley had just been hired by Capital Radio and started hosting shows including Tuesday Club and Magic Box and took his beatbox on the first Wham! tour.

“Malcolm came on the show and did me these most amazing jingles’” says Crowley. “He also appeared at our last Tuesday Club show at the Lyceum, with the Bluebells, Bananarama, and Nick Heyward. He gave me a Buffalo hat to wear and tried to teach the audience the dances. They looked at him quizzically… they were waiting for Nick Heyward to come on. There was a little bit of booing. But bless him, he gave as good as he got.”

Audience confusion was to be expected in 1982. Cut up and collage had a long history within the avant-garde, one that these art schooled designers and provocateurs would have been well aware of, but in a wider context, and certainly within popular music, these mix and match layers of ideas were new and radical.

“The album cover reflected that,” says Egan. “If you put a poster on the wall, someone comes and writes on it, then someone sticks another flyer on it. It didn’t matter if Malcolm’s name went off the side, as he told me, this was just one square from a much bigger painting.”

This kind of creative, collaborative blend would become standard in dance and electronic music, thanks to incoming technology like the Akai sampler and the MPC, however ‘Duck Rock’ was years ahead of that curve. Its musical travelogue predated the marketing-led rise of ‘world music’. Its use of 105.9FM’s World Famous Supreme Team radio show as a linking device was truly inspirational, and in ‘Buffalo Gals’, Duck Rock had a worldwide hit single and video that is continually referenced and sampled to this day.

Forty years later, the Duck Rocker is back. Nick Egan commissioned West to customize one for the recent Style In Revolt show in Beijing, the first street style exhibition in China. There’s talk of a London show at Saatchi Gallery.

“I’m glad to see that Malcolm is getting credited as being at the forefront of street culture,” says Egan. “It’s one of those things that is so iconic and has hung around for so long. It’s been put in the album cover hall of fame and is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was so impactful.”

Trash: An Oral History
September 26, 2023
Trash: An Oral History
used cms Trash: An Oral History

Cast A-Z:

Christopher Kane (fashion designer)

David and Stephen Dewaele (2manydjs/Soulwax)

Erol Alkan (resident DJ, promoter)

James Murphy (DFA/LCD Soundsystem)

Jonjo Jury (resident DJ 2005-2007)

Kele Okereke (Bloc Party)

Liam O’Hare (general manager of The End)

Peaches (artist)

Rory Phillips (resident DJ 1999-2007)

Stacey Tang (City Rockers records)

Tiga (DJ, artist)

Two decades ago the London club scene received an overdue shot in the arm. Falling from favour were prog house DJs in nice jumpers playing long and listless sets in mega clubs. On the rise were punky techno sounds, sartorial peacockery and a surfeit of charisma; a new breed of DJs and artists were suddenly in sync from New York to Berlin, Glasgow to Melbourne. In London Trash, an alternative night on a Monday in the West End, was at the apex. At Trash The Strokes, Grace Jones and Pet Shop Boys would come to party, Peaches would blow minds armed with just a MiniDisc and a sex shop nurse’s outfit and strange bedfellows romped as George Michael’s vocals found themselves topping a Missy Elliott and Timbaland production.

By 2002, the capital was alive with similarly spirited, salacious sounding nights: Return To New York, Nag Nag Nag, The Cock, 21st Century Body Rockers and Electric Stew. But Trash was the Daddy of them all attracting the best-dressed crowd and the most anticipated acts. In 2002 LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture and Scissor Sisters all graced the stage sounding immense on The End’s Thunder Ridge system. At the club’s helm – and its heart – was Erol Alkan who had also been making waves in techno clubs looking like Joey Ramone in a Batman T-shirt. He poured so much passion into the night that he never took a Monday off in ten years other than for his honeymoon. Before doors he’d polish the mirrorball so it shone more brightly than on Saturday night and with his A-team created – and maintained – a safe place for boys to wear makeup and girls to dress up and feel free from lewd looks. It was also only £4 to gain entry to this weekly wonderland.

Tiga: “Trash was about breaking the rules that had been built up. It was at the centre of it. And it was London.”

The warm-up set.

Erol: “Trash started in 1997 when I was 22. I hadn’t promoted a club night before, it was like you were putting on a party to get all your friends together to play music you all liked. Monday had a hole in it and I had the opportunity to take over that night at Plastic People [in Soho]. Because I was in charge I didn’t have to limit what I wanted to play. Alternative clubs had a particular style of playlist and some clubs didn’t want you to veer too far from it. There were a lot of clubs offering the laddish end of things and I wanted a place for the more gentle souls. On a Saturday night you’d get the fey, shy cool kids waiting in the corners for the records to come on they liked but it was overrun by other tribes. ‘Trash’ was a big single by Suede for these outcasts, though it’s also a Roxy Music single and New York Dolls track. So we started off at Plastic People and 80 people came which was OK. When it grew to fill the 250 capacity we moved around the corner to the Annexe that held 380 people. The Flying Dewaele Brothers (Soulwax/2manydjs) first played at the Annexe in 1999. That style of DJing led to what eventually came to fruition in 2002.”

Rory: I moved to London in 1999 and read about Trash and its music policy in Time Out. I’d been DJing at university and it seemed in the same spirit – indie rock, dance music and pop. I used to go on my own.”

Liam: “Being someone who’s been in hospitality all my life Fridays and Saturdays were when you worked and Sunday and Mondays were when you went out to play, so I was a Monday-night clubber. Trash at the Annexe was on my radar and the owner Eric Yu told me he was losing the lease so I went to a few of the nights. A few months before the Annexe closed Erol approached us. I’d wanted to do a night like this for some time. In the late-80s I moved to Camden so was immersed in indie culture as well as dance. Erol and I had both been attending a club in Camden on Tuesdays called Feet First and there was an inkling all this may fuse well. Having been to Trash you couldn’t fail to see what was going on and I wanted to get it.” 

Erol: “I used to go to the Wall Of Sound nights at The End, I used to love seeing Jacques Lu Cont play. It felt so different to the indie clubs I used to go to. When I was told the Annexe was closing for good, I called them up and they put me through to Liam. Liam said he’d been to the night and knew about us. As soon as I walked into the empty club for a meeting it made sense to me. It felt right. I knew we were good for about 400 people but the club was bigger. But Liam suggested putting a curtain across one of the arches, he got it.”

Liam: “Erol is very good about how rooms work and he didn’t like gaps. We had used The End main room before with the curtain pulled across one of the vaults for Fabio’s Swerve on Wednesdays. So it was modular and would feel busy. You could pull the curtain back for when we had a live band on. We were a slick machine, our sound engineer was ex-Astoria and our lighting guy was from a band background. Whatever Erol wanted to do we were ready to do it.”

Erol: “Before The End, I felt like I had researched about every venue in the area. My feeling was that if I couldn’t find somewhere good enough to take the night I’d stop it. No point going sideways. We had created an energy that deserved a bigger, better space. We owed it to our audience." 

Rory: “It was a gamble, a big jump. A lot of indie clubs were in the West End but we didn’t have passing trade, The End was tucked away (on West Central Street).”

David: “We saw each other frequently by 1999, and spoke on the phone every other day, usually about a record we’d found that was exciting. On the day where he walked passed the End - when the move there came about - he rang us.”  

Erol: “It wasn’t a smooth transition. There was a bit of division between people who came over from the Annexe and newcomers to The End.”

Rory: “The word was Erol is playing techno.”

Erol: “It wasn’t techno but some of the electroclash tunes like ‘Silver Screen (Shower Scene)’ by Felix da Housecat.”

Tiga: “There were people like me who came from techno and then people who came from indie rock. I wasn’t even interested in anything guitar related, that died for me in ‘92. It seemed inconceivable to me in the 90s that you could be into anything other than acid and rave. I was an asshole about it, a real snob.”

Rory: “I joined in 1999 with the move to The End. Trash didn’t have a second room until then so Erol asked me to play whatever I wanted for the first few hours, mainly new stuff. The best songs would graduate to the main room. Music moved so much more slowly.  Songs took months to break. Records took on a whole other life in that club. They sounded enormous.”

Kele: “The End was a proper techno club. Rory used to play the more leftfield music and Erol the bangers.”

Liam: “We had the sound system and many of those bands and DJs hadn’t heard themselves on two sound systems that were so on point. Not many indie DJs had played in that room over a hundred times like Erol had by 2002. He knew the sweet spots and watched people dancing, you could see his exploration with his DJing as his ability improved.”

Tiga: “I knew The End was Mr C’s club and it had a famous sound system. To get out of a grimy backroom rock environment was important. It was a proper marriage of club with a real system and all that eclectic music. It was the first time they let the freaks into the techno world. People forget how conservative techno and house had become at that point. Erol and the way he looked, playing those records in that environment was a big statement.”

James: “Trash was a very big club in a very nice venue. London’s greater integration of dance music meant Trash made sense in a big club. I thought as it was called Trash it was going to be in a little dump.”

Jonjo: “I used to go to DTPM at The End and was aware of the club already. I was amazed they had a water fountain so you didn’t have to pay for anything. It felt like we had our own New York club, like our own Tunnel. Were the toilets mixed or was I just always in the girls toilets? I met Amy Winehouse in there.”

Liam: “Erol would polish the mirrorball and our lighting guy Woody loved that Erol noticed when things weren’t on or he’d go to him and say: ‘That thing you pressed when I was playing this… what was it?’ It doesn’t surprise me that Erol does his own lights at some of his gigs now.”  

Bootlegs – or mashups – involved splicing together two very different artists for the duration of a track. In Ghent, Belgium, The Flying Dewaele Brothers – later to be known as 2manydjs – were juxtaposing Dolly Parton with Röyksopp or The Clash with Basement Jaxx. In London, Erol, using Gary Barlow’s teenage stage name Kurtis Rush, had success with ‘George Gets His Freak On’ – his George Michael/Missy Elliott nexus. He also once made Fischerspooner’s ‘Invisible’ and The Smiths’ ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ work together as a peak-time dance track. It felt audacious, odd and fresh.

Erol: “I’d made the bootlegs at home to play at Trash. I made a Sugababes and Dr. Dre one for the Annexe. I went into Woolworths and picked up ‘Overloaded’  on the day of release and the CD single had an instrumental as the third track so I looked for an a cappella and found the Dr. Dre one (‘Forget About Dre’). I recorded it directly from the decks to MiniDisc and played it at Trash that night and it went down really well. The next day a girl who worked at Xfm called and enquired after it and asked me to bring it in. It was played at 6pm that night and it ended up being played on the station’s A-List for six weeks. People were ringing in asking after it. It ended up being bootlegged and without me even knowing and selling out at Rough Trade.”

Erol: “Someone at PIAS called me and said there were these guys called Soulwax from Belgium who were also mashing records together. They were going to play live in London and then DJ afterwards as the Flying Dewaele Brothers. They sent me this CD titled ‘Hank The DJ’ which pushed all my buttons. I went to see them at Dingwalls as we had them booked at Trash the following week. David asked me to take over the decks as they had to go and do something backstage, they had eight crates of vinyl – and they were over from Belgium – and I went through the records and it felt like I was going through my own collection. They were soulmates immediately.” 

David: “The reason Erol approached us is we had done a series of radio shows which culminated in the compilation (‘As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2’). He’d heard a bunch of them and had singled out what we called bootlegs. We connected over them and the juxtaposition of putting records together. He’d been doing them as Kurtis Rush. He pressed ours up too and put them out.”

Stephen: “I vividly remember playing at Trash for the first time and it was like an indie wonderland. At some point we played  Motörhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’ and all of a sudden Lemmy was standing in front of us.”

David: “He gave us the nod of approval and the devil sign. Maybe he was looking for a place that played rock music.”

Tiga: “I was good friends with David and Stephen through DJ Hell. The bootlegs they did and Erol did were the secret ingredient. It was so fresh at the time. There was a lack of fun happening so that was the perfect antidote, we’re going to throw bits of these massive records you love together to make party records. It goes from non-existent to the best idea in the world in 30 seconds.”

Rory: “The bootlegs had their place. They were very much in the spirit of what Trash was, that blending of styles.”

Tiga: “I remember ‘Seven Nation Army’ came out and six hours later Jori (Hulkkonen) had done a bootleg using the big hook. I played it that night and it was a monster record, the perfect cocktail.”

Jonjo: “The Kraftwerk and Whitney Houston one (Girls On Top’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Numbers’) was such a moment and I was obsessed with getting it.”

Peaches:  “I loved the Girls On Top one. You’d get the mashup and then a pop group would recreate it, what was that band? Sugababes! 2manydjs did my ‘Fuck the Pain Away’ with (Lou Reed’s) ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’.” 

James: “I liked mashups. I remember being told I couldn’t play ‘I Feel Love’, I couldn’t play ‘Planet Rock’ and I couldn’t play ‘Around the World’ because they were all too big, so I used to do a mix with all three of them going at the same time. It was in the air to be throwing all stuff together.”

Kele: “I remember Christina Aguilera mixed with The Strokes. You’d hear Destiny’s Child, Joy Division, Madonna and Aphex Twin. It felt so radical to hear all that music played under the same roof. There was no high or low art, everything was valid.”

Tiga: “Erol and 2manydjs listened to music in a much more even perspective like kids listening to tracks on a radio. Less like some old acid head at 9am who would comment on the snare being fucked or whatever. It’s also drugs. If you had spent the 90s on drugs at great parties you had a different sensitivity. What would cross a record off a list for me would be how it might affect a trip. Whereas 2manydjs were zero drugs so their sensitivity was different. I’m way more likely to have less happening in a track, or mixes go on longer, all things that come from the drug tradition. Different levels of patience.” 

Erol: “I remember ending up at a party and Sara Cox was there and (‘George Gets His Freak On’) got played about 15 times at this party and then she played it on Radio 1 for weeks.  Sara played the second bootleg I did to Missy Elliott (which used the backing track to The Cure’s ‘The Love Cats’) on the show who thought it was ‘hot’.” 

Stacey: “I remember Erol’s Kylie and ‘Blue Monday’ mashup. Kylie in general, I also heard ‘Confide in Me’ a lot at Trash.” 

Liam: “Initially I thought they were great like everyone else and then I started seeing it everywhere and on people’s MySpace, but by that stage Erol had left it. That was another great skill of Erol’s, when everyone else started doing something he had moved on to other things.”  

Stephen Dewaele (Soulwax/2manydjs)

Electroclash became the term for the collection of kindred spirits, mainly from the techno scene, who were revisiting the synth pop of their youth and electronic body music for inspiration. Felix da Housecat, Miss Kittin & The Hacker, Tiga and most acts associated with DJ Hell’s International Deejay Gigolo Records were at the forefront.

Tiga: “I fell in love with techno and rave in 1992, so I had a solid ten years where that was all I cared about. But there was a growing boredom around the late-90s. A lot of my older 80s pop dreams started to bubble up through techno. That happened for a lot of people at the same time. It blossomed in 2000 with Gigolo records, Miss Kittin & The Hacker and Fischerspooner. It was a perfect storm.”

James: “It was the end of the 90s and things were coming out of micro-genres where a hi-hat would make something slightly different which was all very boring. It was wonderful to suddenly have an open door policy for sounds.” 

Peaches: “The difference between Berlin and London – and there’s no diss – Berlin does its thing and London makes it a thing. In London now this is a thing, we dress this way, we brand it this way, we’re going to make it a SCENE. It’s an observation.”

Tiga: “There was the European vibe like Gigolo that had come from techno. A colder look. I was part of that. Then you had the typical American Electroclash with a capital E that was the cartoon, hyped version. Then DFA and the rocky side. Then there was the British side which was Erol and Trash.” 

Stephen: “The difference between Tiga and us was there would not be a Motörhead or Undertones record in his collection. Whereas with Erol we had that kinship.”

Erol: “There was a shift when we started hearing records that embodied the spirit of the club that weren’t being made on guitars, they were being made in bedrooms on synths. It felt like the new references were more Human League and the electronic new wave. It felt more exciting than guitar music at that point. The Strokes and The White Stripes felt like they were in a bubble but most guitar music fell flat for me. Even that Felix da Housecat record [‘Silver Screen (Shower Scene)’] – which was the arrow head of it all – had more in common with the DIY electronic scene. It felt like the energy coming from that area of music was perfect for Trash. It caused some friction as some people were expecting us to stick to the playlist we had until that point. But you need to make bold moves. Both myself and Rory embraced that sound and it grew. Music that reflected what the club was about was being made.”

Rory: “What electroclash did for us was the production wasn’t as good as a 90s house record so it made it easier to bridge the gap from a DIY punk record into a four-track electroclash record. It also had that glam element like Bowie and Roxy so a lot of former purists got on board.”

James: “We (DFA) loved electroclash, all the smarty pants in New York wanted there to be a divide; electroclash is dumb, DFA is smart. I was like: ‘You’re out of your mind, kids dressed up is the best.’ Trash had a better merging of those things: indie kids and dressed-up kids.”

David: “Electroclash was the one thing we all connected on.”

Christopher: “The artists were total renegades, mavericks of the music world. So fearless then and now in their approach to music and art.”

Tiga: “My ‘Mixed Emotions’ compilation in 2000 was a mission statement. It was me living my dreams, how I wanted to look and sound. All my teenage fantasies. DJ Hell loved it which prepped me in that 80s style. ‘Sunglasses at Night’ was made on New Year’s Day 2001.”

Erol: “Tiga’s singles worked at Bugged Out! but also were raw enough to work at Trash. Tok Tok Vs Soffy O’s ‘Missy Queen’s Gonna Die’, the whole of the first Peaches album, ‘Frank Sinatra’ by Miss Kittin & The Hacker. Ladytron’s first album – they were doing everything a guitar band would do but on Casio keyboards. ‘How We Do’ by Mount Sims. LCD Soundsystem perfectly embraced all the worlds that were there and tied it all together with a knowing sensibility of all the great music that had come before. It made sense at that moment.”

Kele: “I remember everyone was excited about this aggressive electronic music and in particular ‘Emerge’ (Fischerspooner). Perhaps history hasn’t been so kind to electroclash, looking back it feels a bit like a fad.”

Liam: “I loved Chicks on Speed, Stereo Total and what Peaches was bringing as well. Peaches turned up with a badly recorded MiniDisc, she didn’t think it mattered as she was going out on stage to smash it. Nobody in the crowd noticed the MiniDisc as she brought the energy.”

Peaches: “Erol made fun of me for using a MiniDisc for my backing track: ‘It doesn’t sound good, I can’t get it to go loud enough.’ I had to be louder than everyone else but with a quiet MiniDisc. I had to tame the wild animals while being a wild animal.” 

Erol: “Peaches sent a shock through a lot of people. She was so exciting, she left her mark on everybody that night.”

Peaches: “Erol was amazing and welcoming and super into it. It made the scene for me as I used to walk into places with a bit of a fright because I was on my own and didn’t have a manager and people may throw things at me or grab me. I went into Trash and Erol gave me a Divine 12-inch, ‘You Think You’re a Man’. I remember Lady Miss Kier (from Deee-Lite) being in the audience and that was a big deal for me as she was somebody who had so much style and character and she’d come out of nowhere and made her own path. People saw me as I saw Miss Kier. Pam Hogg was there and we became good friends. Bella Freud and Jarvis Cocker were there too – he was very still so I thought he hated it but that’s just the way he is.”

Erol: “Peaches stayed with me for a couple of days in my Tufnell Park flat. A whole bunch of the club came back to mine and I was talking to this lady from New York and she introduced herself as Lady Miss Kier and I nearly fell off my chair.”

Electroclash brought creative, colourful sartorial styles back to London for the first time since the Blitz club in the early-80s.

Erol: “People were always dressed up even in the early period at Plastic People. People are far happier when they are putting the best version of themselves out there. It gave it a sense of occasion.”

Kele: “Dressing up allows people to go that extra mile. It was a destination for a lot of art and fashion students.”

Christopher: “I was studying fashion at Central Saint Martins when the club was at its peak. I remember interning at designer Russell Sage’s and me and my sister stealing tonnes of Swarovski hotfix crystals and completely covering most of my wardrobe in these crystals. I basically would sparkle and light up on the dancefloor. All my vintage tees started to fall apart from the weight of all the stones. I eventually told Russell about me stealing the stones and it really made him laugh.”

Peaches: “London takes it to the next level. Berlin is like: ‘I’ll shave the side of my head and go out.’ London is like: ‘I’ll shave the side of my head and get an autograph of John Lydon shaved into it too and wear tape on my nipples.’” 

Stacey: “I saw someone with a disco ball on their head. It was DIY with a punk ethos and vintage shop finds. Friends would come over from New York with brightly coloured Converse that cost $15. Now you can just get them from Schuh or Office.”

Peaches: “Erol I never saw dress up, he just relied on the long piece of hair over one eye and a black T-shirt.” 

Erol: “I only had three T-shirts.”

Christopher: “Everyone made the effort. All my peers had their own style and club veterans really made you want to dress up more to impress them.”

Stacey: “Everybody seemed to wear make up at Trash. I would think: ‘God, I should’ve put more on.’”

Peaches: “My fashion evolved from what was happening onstage for me like the cheap pink bathing suit to divert from the fact I was so aggressive. What did I wear when I played live? I wore a nurse’s outfit from a cheap slutty stripper store.”

Despite being held on a Monday, Trash ran a strict door policy that some snubbed customers likened to Studio 54. A club night Turned Away From Trash even sprang up in its wake. But the safe space engendered a warm family spirit with an active message board on their website furthering the community through the week. 

David: “We’d play something like Bugged Out! on the Saturday and then stay for the Monday to go to Trash.” 

Stephen: “This is a Monday night. This is crazy. There was nothing like it.”

Liam: “Sunday and Monday clubs are always special as you have the hospitality workers and students ready to let go, the musicians, loafers and scoundrels. With it being a short night – only running until 3am – it compounded into something amazing.”

Christopher: “It made it even cooler because it was on a school night. It sort of threw the idea of establishment up in the air and really propelled this notion of: ‘I’ll do what I want, when I want’, even if you had work or college the next morning you nearly never missed the night.” 

Kele: “Because it was on a Monday there was always a sense of occasion about it.” 

Stacey: “Monday was for the weekend warriors, only the ravers left.”

James: “It being on a Monday was great. It meant you could play the best show you could play in London and you could play Friday and Saturday someplace else less adventurous.”

Erol: “It was £4 on the door or £5 if a band played. Trash could have toured up and down the country and made a load of money.  But I had no interest in making money out of it. It was never considered despite offers.” 

James: “It wasn’t expensive. An extra pound if there was a band. I loved that it was like going to punk shows. It felt egalitarian everybody paid their £4.”

Liam: “For the crowd it was like Christmas every Monday. We just had to keep it safe and let them go crazy.”

Erol: “We had Phil Maynell on the door collecting emails and speaking to people, greeting them.”

Kele: “Phil The Mod was on the door. I never had any issues but I’d see people turned away. I get why clubs need to have a door policy though. If you want to create a vibe you want people to feel part of that.”

Stephen: “Spiky Phil looked like he was in the Small Faces. He was so London.”

Erol: “When The Face and Sleazenation started writing about us what came with press came curiosity and voyeurs. They were all printing pictures of beautiful girls. I still wanted them to feel safe in there. It wasn’t about judging people on their clothes, Phil would speak to the people in the queue and if it was six guys who were half cut he wouldn’t let them in.”  

Christopher: “I totally understood the door policy to be a way to keep out the wrong crowd, the people who mocked fashion, art and music at the time. It kept out the people who didn’t take it seriously enough. It also reminded me of the strict Studio 54 door policy and that added to the adrenaline of the whole experience.” 

Liam: “I stood on the door a lot. Two or three of the wrong person stood in a corner of a room permeates a bad vibe outwards. I trusted Erol and his team to get it right.”  

Jonjo: “I felt comfortable being with like-minded people as a gay Londoner feeling non judgement and welcomeness. There were no labels. It was clear any arsehole-ism wouldn’t be tolerated. It wasn’t I’m the gay DJ or I’m the gay punter.”

Erol: “It created a safe space for people for all sexualities as long as they were there for the music and togetherness. Girls felt comfortable to dress up and not get hassled, some guys wore make up, everyone was encouraged to express themselves. It felt progressive for an alternative club. We took the brunt of it when people couldn’t get in, even death threats being sent to the venue for my attention. I’d go into meetings with Liam midweek to discuss the shit that was going down, the bad reactions. I got sent a death threat that I ended up turning into the advert for the Trash companion (compilation).”

Jonjo: “I went on to be the door picker before I DJed there. I hated it. Sometimes we were turning away lads wearing the band T-shirts who were into the music and letting in people with the full looks who may not have been there for the music, so I struggled with that.”

Erol: “Nobody can get it right all the time. Sometimes we would have 1,000 amazingly dressed people out front but we also wanted to get the regulars in.”

Stacey: “You had to walk downstairs to enter and there is something more salacious about descending into a basement. There was space for everybody to flex and lots of different crews in there, different magazines, clubs and bands. You’d pick up new friends every week.” 

Liam: “The mixture of people… you’d see the kids, the musicians, the hairdressers, the hospitality workers and then you’d see the promoters from other club nights coming who were watching it all.”

Rory: “I built the website and message board so I was incredibly active on it. There was a level of community online but you would then meet people for real on Monday night.”

Erol: “The website felt revolutionary for us as it connected people who went to the club but also people from around the world who were planning to come and had made friends online. People felt like they had a home even before they’d been to the club. Being able to communicate with like-minded people. People would know so-and-so was coming from Berlin that week and they’d meet up beforehand.”

Rory: “There was a lot of discussion about music, Bowie records, The Rapture and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. People asked me for track IDs on there. You couldn’t post links then but there was Napster so you could find the music.” 

Erol: “I used to put up charts of what I was playing and you’d get instant feedback. People were printing the charts off and taking them to record shops. I think the drummer from Bloc Party posted on there all the time.”

Kele: “I wasn’t part of it but I know my friends were on it who made friends on it. Our drummer was on it and he talked about its community.”

Jonjo: “I didn’t go on the message board. I was too busy getting high and having fun.”

Erol Alkan

Peaches and Yeah Yeah Yeahs played in 2001. LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture, Electric 6, Scissor Sisters, Suicide all played in 2002.

Liam: “The bands would have to come through 600 people with their instruments to get to the stage but that felt good and exciting.”

Rory: “What I remember about The Strokes coming to the club is I think Muse were at the bar and they were surrounded by girls, then when The Strokes walked in the whole room shifted.”

Stacey: “I met Kings of Leon there one night. You never knew who you’d see down there.”

James: “I remember there was an embrace of indie which we didn’t have in New York, I’d already lived that in the 90s, been in the bands. I first came to Trash with The Rapture to run their sound, mixing front of house. It was definitely a dance system which we always wanted for The Rapture. In New York it was quite shocking to have a band like that in a dance club. There was a reason DFA did well in England first.” 

Peaches: “I remember hearing The Rapture’s ‘House of Jealous Lovers’ at Trash. I was like: ‘What is this?’ I remember loving it so much.” 

Kele: “I saw The Rapture who I was really excited about, so it was a real big deal to see them.”

Jonjo: “The Rapture I was obsessed with. That merging of 4/4 with indie and the clothes, that New York scene. Hearing Peaches for the first time, I was like: ‘What is this noise?’ Seeing a breakthrough Queer act like the Scissor Sisters too.”

Rory: “Suicide asked us if they could play!”

Liam: “Personally seeing Suicide in the club still gives me goose bumps and I got to speak to Alan Vega and Martin Rev who were really sweet. We had the ability and Erol had the imagination. Chilly Gonzales played a piano set with candles everywhere.”

Rory: “When we announced LCD Soundsystem on the message board people were saying: ‘Who is that?’ By the time the show came around there was a queue round the block and we had to move them into the main room. Paul Epworth (who went onto produce Bloc Party and Adele) was doing their sound.”

Erol: “When I played ‘Losing My Edge’ for the first time the whole room was ignited. Tom Vek once told me about the first time I played it and said: ‘That record inspired me to make music and the guy dancing next to me had started to make videos and he went on to make a video for LCD.’ There were so many interconnecting things.”

David: “We were there for LCD as we’d played Return to New York on the Saturday night.”

Erol: “With LCD people were really curious as to how they would work as a band. We only knew ‘Losing My Edge’ and ‘Beat Connection’ by then and the attention was all around James (Murphy) so people weren’t sure if it may be a guy with a mic and a laptop. But they were a five-piece band on stage. Everything was played, nothing was on a backing track. It really inspired a lot of people including artists who came to see them play that night. Looking at where they are now 20 years later that night would be carved into their hearts. I went to see them at Ally Pally a few years ago and James dedicated ‘Losing My Edge’ to me and played it the same way they played it at Trash with this big noisy intro.”

James: “I was very, very, very drunk. I’d asked for Jameson’s and rather than a 750ml size they gave me these two small bottles that were the size of a beer bottle so I drank them both. It was terrifying to play because it was only the second show and we were pretty shit-faced and I think we played about five songs. I hadn’t been a singer in a band since I was 18.”

Jonjo: “Erol remembered I used to pogo and jump really high to watch the bands. Then when Erol met me he could see how small I was.” 

Erol: “Kele used to come and see bands there and then he formed a band and we heard them and they were brilliant so we’d play their records. Then we’d ask them to play live and they were brilliant. It felt like we were influencing and being influenced simultaneously. Those minds and souls were out there and it kept folding in on itself over and over.” 

Tiga: “I met Pet Shop Boys there. I couldn’t believe it. I had almost no experience that any of those people were real or that you could meet them. I’m pretty sure they asked me if I wanted to go to Morocco with them. It sounds like something you’d make up. It’s the best feeling in the world when you feel you’re at the centre of everything and you wouldn’t swap it with anything else as it feels so perfect. You’re playing music you love, everyone’s your age or younger and the Pet Shop Boys are there." 

Erol: “The Pet Shop Boys came down quite often. Neil signed my original copy of ‘West End Girls’. They almost played live at our sixth birthday in 2003. They were going to play in the left arch and it was going to be streamed but something didn’t fall into place logistically. I was walking down Tottenham Court Road one Monday and someone called my name and it was Neil Tennant. He asked if he could come down that night and if I could also put Yoko Ono’s name down. 

Stephen: “Neil Tennant was always very quiet in the corner. Observing the youth culture. That should be a Pet Shop Boys song: ‘Observing the Youth Culture’.” 

Rory: “I remember trying to chat to a very drunk Neil Tennant, I talked at him while he tried to stay upright. Then there was the night Grace Jones came in, I have photographic evidence, when I went back to look at it I noticed Billy Zane is photobombing the shot. I think they had arrived together.” 

Christopher: “I was way too scared to approach famous faces. I saw people like Alexander McQueen, lots of models and I’m sure John Waters one night. To be honest the place was filled with so many gorgeous people that everyone looked like rock stars.”

Twenty years on from its zenith, Erol’s Trash legacy still holds firm. The period in London influenced clubbers to DJ, form bands, become fashion designers, start record labels, it was arguably the most creative and lasting explosion in London’s clubland since acid house.

David: “Erol was one of the first people who showed us you can be successful – in our eyes he was successful at what he was doing – without being an asshole. He cared about us as DJs but he also cared about everyone. Those kids lived for the Monday and he was like an older brother who they looked up to.” 

Liam: “Erol was very driven. If you love something it doesn’t feel like work so he didn’t miss a gig apart from his honeymoon. He would have been unbearable not knowing what was going on in his house.”

Stacey: “We were really lucky which is testament to Erol and the work he put in.” 

Erol: “I used to grade the nights in a journal as to what needed to be changed or done to improve the night. I took every aspect of the club seriously and wanted to do my best.” 

David: “You’ll see the legacy it’s permeated in a big way in popular culture, the kids are big fashion designers or magazine editors or heads of labels. In reading this the danger would be in making it sound just like a club. What made it special was the human aspect, it was a family, a community. One of the parts of that era is also the ascent of Erol as a DJ, producer and remixer.” 

James: “That period felt like you were finding your team in the world.” 

Christopher: “It was such a golden era of so many free spirits in fashion, art and music. London was on fire. There was so much creative chaos and it really inspired my college work. Moving from a small town in Scotland to London and having clubs like Trash, when you tried to tell friends back home about the club, no one believed you. It was mythical.” 

Kele: “It was a real education for me. The band would all go on a Monday, it was an event. It did inform how we appreciate music, still to this day.”

Tiga: “If you could track the influence of Trash it’s got to be one of the biggest ever. The amount of people who came through there and got an idea for something or the artists and what they were exposed to. It has got to be up there with all the legendary clubs.”

James: “It’s part of a long tradition of amazing places you can learn things. You’re 22 and you feel cool that you’re there and it matters. You left your shitty town and you’ve found your tribe.”

Jonjo: “It was a golden era and there have been so many links from it, people who went on to become artists or music industry A&Rs. If I hadn’t had Trash I would’ve been on the gay scene more heavily, but I’ve loved having more mixed friends.” 

Stacey: “It was a home from home. To go somewhere where you could be yourself and feed off the energy. I used to get into trouble on Tuesdays. My boss told Erol not to let me in as I never turned up on time for work.”

Christopher: “I always waited in anticipation for Erol to play and then end his set with ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes. He would extend the beginning of the track, playing the famous beats for at least a couple of minutes before the vocal broke in. Everyone would go mad and totally act out some electro-style ‘Dirty Dancing’ film scene.” 

James: “At the time you just see it as a great place to go to. Now we’re older and we’ve read about all these scenes that were perfect in the past – like all the bands who saw the Sex Pistols or went to the Roxy and went on to form other bands. Trash is one of those things. It was underground, not money concerned, not fame concerned, optimistic not cynical. It was also generous, a big club.” 

Erol: “I wanted it to have that ‘Cheers’-like quality where you walked in and people knew you and it felt like home. Everything was geared around making Monday night as good as it could be. I could see how much time and energy people invested in it. I was lucky and so I wasn’t going to waste it. Make it as brilliant as you can do. I never wanted to be a club promoter but I’m happy with how it turned out. I’d like to think it was a credit to the London club scene.” 

Tiga: “Erol was such an important person for all of us because he was such a music lover and a digger. All of our careers were helped by him. You would send tracks to him first and he’d test them at Trash. It can’t be underestimated what that means to a producer having someone like that in your corner, getting that email back on a Tuesday: ‘Oh Tiga, it absolutely killed!’ You can’t put a value on that. He was like our John Peel.” 

Erol: “It was a moment in time. When Trash finished I thought: ‘That’s it, I can’t do any better than that.’” 



Hifi Sean: Don't Be Afraid Of Your Freedom
September 26, 2023
Hifi Sean: Don't Be Afraid Of Your Freedom
used cms Hifi Sean: Don't Be Afraid Of Your Freedom

Hifi Sean – Sean Dickson – has a lot to get off his chest. From being relentlessly criticised by the music press for having the temerity to experiment musically with his first band, to his life falling apart and his eventual return as a DJ and producer, he has stories for days. Jim Butler hears about his mercurial existence and is urged not to call his second life a rebirth. “That makes me sound like Gary Numan,” he jokes…

It’s late-summer 1989 and four guys in their mid-20s are floundering across the shingle of Dungeness Beach. Sitting at the southernmost point of the Kent coastline, this wild and desolate outpost is never the easiest of beaches to navigate. Factor in industrial-strength ecstasy consumed in industrial-strength numbers and for the young men trying to film a video for their band’s forthcoming single, it becomes nigh-on impossible.

“We partied on the way down here. Very, very strong ecstasy,” Sean Dickson, one of the bandmembers, alongside his companions in The Soup Dragons, recalls today. “One of our managers suggested the location. He knew Derek Jarman, who lived here. We met him. He wished us luck as we stumbled about the place.”

Unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan. Whether it was the hedonistic spirit of the time or dubious late-80s camera technology that nixed things (“We can’t have been that bad?” he asks, somewhat rhetorically) the footage was deemed unusable, and the band were summoned to a studio in London the next day. The only film from Dungeness that did make the final cut is of seagulls flying overhead.

The video was for the band’s breakthrough hit, their reimagining of the Rolling Stones’ – then – little-known B-side ‘I’m Free’. The incident on Dungeness Beach was the first time that song would seamlessly mix moments of euphoria and anguish. It wouldn’t be the last.

Just over 30 years later and in the autumn of 2021, Dickson, now operating musically under the name Hifi Sean, would again experience a range of conflicting emotions on this surreal stretch of pebbles – sometimes, erroneously, referred to as Britain’s only desert – and weird vegetation. Armed with just a camera and a headful of ideas, he was here to shoot the cover for his latest album, the recently released ‘Happy Endings’, an unbelievable collection of modern electronic psychedelic soul, made with singer David McAlmont.

One moment he was seemingly alone, taking pictures of the speaker stack that adorns the album’s sleeve, and the next the beach was awash with frightened and bewildered refugees clambering out of a boat before being confronted by a less-than-friendly welcoming committee in the form of UK Border Patrol.

“A woman landed in the water with what looked like a few-weeks-old baby in her arms,” he remembers, visibly upset at recalling the scene. “I screamed at the officials that the woman needed help and asked: ‘Where are the medics?’”

Dickson, not a man given to hyperbole, as will soon become painfully clear, describes what happened next as the most disturbing few minutes he’s ever experienced.

“I was told to get in my car and leave the area immediately - or else. Five minutes later I drove by, and they had them all lined up on their knees. It was brutal and harrowing to witness. I could see the whites of their eyes, the tears and the sheer look of fear, desperation and confusion.” He pauses slowly, his eyes welling up. “Something I’ll never unsee.”

A year-and-a-half on from that second Dungeness experience and Dickson is sat comfortably in the Britannia Inn, 50 metres or so away from that very beach. He’s picking over the remnants of his cold fish and chips (“I’m talking too much aren’t I? I always do when I’m nervous, like now”), and recalling these two moments that are marked by such contrasting fortunes. Dungeness has changed incredibly in the years between the aborted video shoot of 1989 and today – the dilapidated wooden shacks that litter the beach are now joined by ‘Grand Designs’-approved feats of modern architecture – but for Dickson much is the same. He waxes lyrical about the nuclear power station, the abandoned Experimental Sound Stations that now abut stylish Airbnbs, the two lighthouses and the railway line that takes tourists across Romney Marsh to nearby Hythe 13 miles away.

“I absolutely adore this place,” he says. “It’s equal parts beautiful and the end of the world. I suppose using that image on the cover sums up to me what this place is all about. There’s also something slightly futuristic about it because of the power station. You have that futuristic technology, a world that’s never changed, people experimenting with science and sound… it just fascinates me.”

Although recorded in the city – in his flat on the 18th floor of an east London tower block – he mixed ‘Happy Endings’ up the road in Camber. Dickson spends an increasing amount of time on the border of East Sussex and Kent, staying at a friend’s place, where he’s working on his second album with McAlmont and more dancefloor-oriented tracks.

“I’m really into safe spaces,” he explains. “It’s about protecting my feelings. If I’m having a shit time, I’ll turn everything off and come down to Dungeness and look at nothing.”

Protecting his feelings is something Dickson has had to work on after an adult life spent being bruised by the music industry and battered by the double-edged sword of fame. His first brush with celebrity came as the lead singer and songwriter with The Soup Dragons, that archetypal C86 indie band who on a wide-eyed, creative journey fell under the spell of acid house’s alluring musical freedom and were subsequently castigated for daring to veer off the course of orthodox indiedom. A quarter of a century later and he re-emerged – don’t call it a rebirth (“That makes me sound like Gary Numan,” he jokes, “I’m not big enough to have had a rebirth”) – as Hifi Sean, a joyously unapologetic dance producer and DJ, who now collaborates with the likes of Yoko Ono, Crystal Waters, The Blessed Madonna and Bootsy Collins.

Between then and now, though, is a tale of hurt, suffering, excess, guilt, regret, abandonment, love, survival and redemption. An abridged version reads something like this: his band split up (he was ousted, finding out en route to the Reading Festival to watch his pal Bootsy); he decamped to New York to live a wild few years clubbing and indulging heavily (“I partied everywhere. I used to go to the Limelight, Michael Alig’s parties. Club USA was insane. Ecstasy in America was insanely amazing”); formed a new band, The High Fidelity; was groomed online by a man; came out to his then-pregnant wife; lost everything; attempted suicide; was sectioned – “put away for my own safety” – for six days; before eventually meeting his now husband and moving to London in 2006, starting again as a DJ playing afterhours parties on the gay scene.

It’s an incredible story and one that if it was rewritten as fiction by a Hollywood scriptwriter, would be instantly dismissed as too far-fetched.

Sean Dickson always knew he was different. Growing up in the working class Scottish town of Belshill, ten miles outside Glasgow, he was surrounded by old school notions of masculinity. His dad was a football manager, while his uncles were boxers. Whenever there was a football match on TV, everyone would cram into the front room of his parents’ council house. “I found all that stuff abhorrent – it was all very aggressive,” he remembers. “I’d be upstairs playing my Depeche Mode records really loud. I didn’t have any inclination of being gay back then, but I did know there was something different about me.”

Back then, in the 70s, there was little attempt at understanding Dickson’s personality. He was often taken to his uncles’ boxing matches, where he was regaled with lines such as: ‘Come on, wee man, give us a punch.’

“Music was my safe place,” he explains. “It still is my safe place.”

His parents were supportive of his earliest forays into music. They bought him a guitar when he was nine and he went for classical guitar lessons on the same street where Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub) lived. The pair eventually got speaking (“He used to walk about with tartan trousers on – I thought you’re obviously into the same kind of shit as me”) and through Blake he met Duglas Stewart (who would go onto form BMX Bandits).

The trio became best mates, their own self-affirming weirdo tribe. They’d swap records and rehearse at Blake’s parents’ house, which was part of a newsagents. “There was no-one in the house. We used to rehearse with keyboards, guitars, everything and yeah, free packets of crisps.” Aged 14, Dickson was seduced by the synth-pop sounds pioneered by the likes of the Human League, Depeche Mode and Soft Cell. Ironic then that the quote used by a bullying music press to beat the Soup Dragons with was Dickson’s claim that there had ‘always been a dance element to our records’. What he actually said was ‘… dance element to our record collections’.

Persuading his parents to buy him a Roland SH-101 synth – he traded his guitar in to help with the cost – he immersed himself in the world of electronic pop. “I could air drum every beat on Human League’s ‘Dare’,” he laughs. He even made an album using the SH-101 and a drum machine borrowed from the music shop where Blake now worked, painstakingly assembling it on a double tape recorder. The album – which he recorded under the suitably austere Factory/Mute title Silent Industry – is being released by a small Greek label who contacted Dickson after he posted on Facebook about finding the original cassette.

“Silent Industry,” he smiles. “That was my band! My fake bedroom band. It’s not bad actually, but it’s very of its time. The drum programming is shit hot. The basslines are not bad either. Some things I’d sample and turn into a dance record. There was something called ‘Dance Craze’ – I’d use that.”

Upon leaving school, Dickson and his pals coalesced around Glasgow’s psychedelic punk rock Splash One club – Bobby Gillespie was one of the eight-strong organising committee – which put on early shows by Primal Scream, The Pastels and gave The Soup Dragons their first gig.

“We were gravitating towards Glasgow, where we were hanging out with The Pastels and The Shop Assistants – we’re still friends to this day. But we also put on parties in Belshill at the Hattonrigg Hotel. We had members of The Jesus and Mary Chain coming over.”

Formed in 1985, The Soup Dragons’ first single, ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World’, was recorded for the bass player Sushil K. Dade’s fanzine, Pure Popcorn, and released as a flexi disc. It was made Single of the Week in the NME and John Peel played it on his radio show, going on to become one of the band’s most vocal early champions, even lending Dickson £150 to ensure the band could get down to London to record their first Peel Session. “I tried paying him back several times, even leaving the money in his car one time. He wouldn’t take it.”

After recording their debut album, ‘This Is Our Art’, the band’s original drummer, Ross Sinclair, went back to art school, which meant Dickson reverted to his 14-year-old self, using synthesisers and drum machines. This coincided with the emergence of acid house in Glasgow, in particular the club UFO where Dickson would hang out, falling under the spell of “all this complete psychedelic looseness”. Having signed to the dance label Big Life, the band began to capture the energy unleashed in UFO.

“We were just a guitar band that messed about with psychedelia and machines,” he explains. “Speak to Bobby [Gillespie] and he’ll tell you how having samplers was like having a psychedelic experience. That’s how I felt. I could now make records that sounded like what I was hearing in my head.”

The release of ‘I’m Free’ – it was originally called ‘Don’t Be Afraid of Your Freedom’ but the Stones’ lawyers insisted it was presented as a cover version – should have been the band’s crowning glory. The music press, once so supportive, thought otherwise and pivoted to a point of belligerent disdain. Dickson, in particular, became the punchline to a rather vicious joke.

“We were bludgeoned to death,” he sighs. “As I’ve got older, I’ve realised there’s no point pretending it didn’t happen. It did happen and it was fucking horrible. It sent me over the edge.”

There were highs though. Some not chemically assisted, and most of them in America, where the audiences weren’t concerned with the gripes of the inkies. From touring with Deee-Lite and INXS, playing David Letterman “umpteen times”, and Alice Cooper visiting them backstage, to Mick Jagger waving to them at the 1992 MTV Music Awards, where their ‘Divine Thing’ single was nominated for Best Alternative Video (Nirvana won with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’) and hanging out with Neneh Cherry at the afterparty.

“Watching 45,000 connect with a song [‘I’m Free’] that was my idea, I get tingles thinking about it. But to then go to the point where you have your shoelaces and your belt removed as you’re being sectioned because you’re a threat to yourself, that’s as low as you can go.”

He can also claim to have duetted with Prince. The Soup Dragons twice played Prince’s club, Glam Slam, in Minneapolis, at the behest of the man himself. The second time, Prince sang along “at the top of his voice” to ‘Divine Thing’ at the soundcheck.

“Nobody fucking told me,” he recollects, still beaming at the memory. “The guitar tech said: ‘Prince was singing your song with you.’ But he left. I never met him, but I was in the same room as him while he sang my song.”


As a child Dickson used to fantasise about the year 2001. He was obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and he’d daydream about what his life would be like in the future. Little did he realise that it would end up being the worst year of his life; the year that changed everything.

His second act as The High Fidelity saw him create “the album of my dreams”, ‘Demonstration’, but the press still beat him with The Soup Dragons stick. John Peel persuaded him to make another record – ‘The Omnichord Album’ to which Peel contributed ‘Pig Might Fly’ – but in 2001, in the week of the album’s release, he had something to tell his wife.

“I came out, over a toaster of all places. She knew there was something going on. I don’t know why I just blurted it out. ‘I think I’m gay.’ I stared at the toaster for half-an-hour afterwards. ‘Cause you can’t go back on that.”

He’d been groomed online by someone posing – catfishing – as a married man who coaxed him “to have a bit of fun”. After his toaster bombshell, everything fell apart.

“I lost all my friends. I lost all my family. I lost everything,” his voice quivers. “I left the family home, which was all I ever had after years of making records. I became homeless. The council gave me a flat that was fire damaged. They said if I did it up they would give it to me. I never did do it up. For a year I lived in a burned-out flat and spiralled ever downwards.”

At his lowest point, he tried to kill himself and was briefly sectioned. He sang Yazz & The Plastic Population’s ‘The Only Way is Up’ as “a kind of joke to keep me up”. The joke being Yazz was a friend, as she was married to The Soup Dragons manager Jazz Summers.

Thankfully, the only way was up. Having begun dipping his toes in London’s gay clubbing scene in 2002, he moved down to the capital after he met his now husband in 2006. He began DJing at afterhours parties, where he’d DJ from 5am to 9am. Thanks to his background in producing and manipulating sound, his DJing style – particularly his use of edits – suited this otherworldly slot. On one memorable occasion he took a deep house track and put bits of Hot Chocolate’s ‘Heaven Is in the Back Seat of My Cadillac’ over the top. “I thought it would be fun to play that at 8am when everyone was spangled.”

No-one knew about his past and he was content. But in 2015, he realised it had been 14 years since he’d last made an album. He knew that if he didn’t make a record soon, he never would. The result was 2016’s ‘Ft.’, a stunning concept album that featured collaborations with Fred Schneider, Billie Ray Martin, Norman Blake and Alan Vega and saw him gain a number one hit on the Billboard Dance Chart with ‘Testify’ alongside Crystal Waters.

“I think that’s when I started enjoying life again,” he reflects. “That album really helped me big time.”

The album also led to Dickson working with David McAlmont for the first time. The pair immediately hit it off. “He’s an incredibly mind-blowing person to work with because he always brings something to the table that excites me,” he says.

Which brings us to ‘Happy Endings’ - an irrepressible collection of literate electronic pop and widescreen orchestral soul, buttressed by house, disco and even some breezy dub. It’s the best collaboration of its kind since Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr joined forces in Electronic, and sees Dickson recast as a kind of Charles Stepney for the 21st Century, his production savvy – honed over the last 40 years, since he was that imaginative teenager in his bedroom – shining joyously.

But that’s not the end of Dickson’s redemption – his happy ending. Later this year the original line-up of The Soup Dragons will head back out on tour again. Over time fractured friendships have healed. Last year, a compilation of the group’s early years was released. Putting it together – Dickson remastered the songs – was cathartic.

“That’s what I’m looking for,” he reveals. “Things that heal me for all the time that I’ve been hurting. It scares the living shit out of me [going onstage], but it also excites me because if you don’t face your demons you can’t move forward.”

He recognises that satisfying so many creative endeavours, while a balm for his soul, makes him a nightmare for marketing people. “I’m not a straightforward DJ. I’m not a straightforward artist. I confuse people. I’m so used to being fragmented that I actually love it.”

A case in point: in-between writing a new Soup Dragons song for the forthcoming tour, he’s created an absolute Italo disco stomper remix for S’Express. Meanwhile the writing of the second Hifi Sean and David McAlmont album continues (“We want to showcase this party-in-my-head album”).

And then, suddenly, after an afternoon in one of his favourite safe spaces, he says something so instructive it immediately explains why his zest for music remains unbridled. Around the time he collaborated with John Peel on ‘The Omnichord Album’ he was sat in the presenter’s kitchen when he noticed a pile of promos on the table. He asked him why he still checked out so much music.

“His reply has always stayed with me. It didn’t feel rehearsed. He looked up and said: ‘The next record I hear may be the best record I’ve ever heard.’”

And that’s why Sean Dickson is still searching for the perfect beat.

FC Kahuna: How We Made...
September 25, 2023
FC Kahuna: How We Made...
used cms FC Kahuna: How We Made...

FC Kahuna: ‘Hayling’

‘Hayling’ was FC Kahuna’s attempt at a bleepy ballad. Sounding like an experimental audio transmission beamed back from space it could – should? – have been a hit. It wasn’t. But that was just the start of its story…


FC Kahuna – childhood buddies from Leeds, Daniel Ormondroyd and Jon Nowell – first sprang to prominence in 1994 when they established the notorious shrine to debauchery, Big Kahuna Burger. Taking its inspirational cues from the Heavenly Sunday Social, Big Kahuna Burger was none more mid-90s: messy, energetic and imbued with the endless possibilities that acid house’s original spirit unleashed. Alongside touring America with The Charlatans, the club gave Daniel and Jon their production name and some early remixes. And then came the comedown…

Daniel: “I remember playing this Mary Anne Hobbs thing at Sankeys in Manchester – it was a Tuesday or Wednesday night and I had one of those records [big beat by numbers] in my bag. It was a choice between two records. I remember spending ages looking at this record thinking: ‘I know this is going to be massive and I know it’s going to go down really well, but I can’t bring myself to play it.’ The next morning we were like: ‘We can’t do this anymore.’ So we went really low key for a year and a half. Got into the studio and made this track which became ‘Mindset to Cycle’.”

The studio was The Depot in London’s pre-gentrified King’s Cross. It was here that FC Kahuna 2.0 was born.

Jon: “It was us being put in a room together. Previously we’d done our remixes with an engineer. This was us learning our trade. It wasn’t us messing around, but us learning what to do on our own with a load of records, a sampler, a couple of synths and without a studio engineer.”

Daniel: “The Super Furry Animals were always in there. We had a studio next to James from EMF. Then there was an Elastica studio where we never saw any of the girls, just the bloke. Bez would come in. And Joe Strummer. They’d get out of their minds all the time. I think Steve Mackey had one a bit further down…”

Daniel: “’Mindset to Cycle’ became one techno thing we had. So the next bit was let’s do the opposite end of the spectrum – the bleepy ballad. I was just learning how to use the sampler. I kept putting loads of stuff in: the bass loop that runs all through the track, and kept on adding. Synth sounds, the live drum loop – which came from a Steve White (Style Council/Oasis) sample CD – organ sounds… JC, our engineer, came in and I thought he can give me his assessment. He’s gonna tell me it’s a pile of shit. He was like, no, it’s great. And that was about 85% of the finished article. He put that bit of guitar on it, juggled the structure around a little bit, and that was that. He really liked it, which gave me some faith that it was OK.”

Inspirations and recording

Daniel: “People, even JC, were like: ‘Well, clearly Air are an inspiration.’ I can see why people thought that, but it would have been more a band that dance people wouldn’t have so obviously have liked. It sounds stupid now because most dance people like them, but it would have been The Beta Band or Super Furries. There’s a track by the Super Furries that we loved, ‘Some Things Come From Nothing’ from ‘Guerrilla’. It had this blossoming electronic soundscape and then just one vocal across the top which seemed to mean a lot but meant nothing.”

Hafdís Huld, formerly of Icelandic collective Gus Gus, was drafted in to do the vocal. By now, the duo had moved to a studio in Streatham, owned by Segs, the bassist with The Ruts.

Daniel: “We were upstairs in this flat on a crack estate. There were people getting knifed outside, in the Post Office, totally insane. But we had no hassle at all from the neighbours. People would knock on and go: ‘Sounds good, man.’ That sort of vibe. So we got Hafdís, this tiny, blonde-haired, Icelandic singer, totally wide-eyed and innocent, to turn up at this crack estate. There was this separate little room. We put her in there. We did ‘Machine Says Yes’, which she was also doing the vocals for, first. The first take for ‘Hayling’, she starts singing, we’re recording and she sang the line and I just went: ‘Alright, stop.’ JC looked at me as if I was insane and I just said we don’t need anymore. It was the perfect first line.”

Hafdís: “I heard a demo of the song before I met Dan and Jon so it wasn’t a traditional writing session in that sense, but that is quite common with this style of music. Words and lyrics are important to me and I like to work on that part on my own and with ‘Hayling’ the melody came to me quickly so when we met up I knew what I wanted to sing. There are many ways to collaborate on music and this worked well for us.”

Daniel: “As soon as it got to the end of that first line I was like: ‘Stop!’ And that was it. I don’t even know what else she had written. She’d nailed it. It was what I’d heard in the Super Furries thing that I liked. It was something easy to remember, something meaningful and that we could repeat over and over. Like a Beta Band-type of thing which they used on ‘Push It Out’. And you just build up everything else around it which anchors the track.”

Hafdís: “I remember having more lyrics written for the song, but sometimes less is more. That line says it all, and captures that feeling, so it made sense. It leaves the listener some space to think, make their own connections to the song.”

The line culled from Hafdís’ lyrics was plaintive, yet poignant: ‘Don’t think about all those things you fear, just be glad to be here.’

Hafdís: “At the time I was finding my feet after leaving my old band and moving alone to London. I was reminding myself to enjoy the journey and not let anxiety take over. It’s like a little mindfulness mantra about enjoying the little things in life.”

Jon: “I didn’t recognise it at the time, but the nub of it is quite deep. I see comments online about how the lyrics touched people. You see it on Instagram all the time – it touches people really deeply. People find real meaning in it. Which is mad. It wasn’t meant to be a grandiose statement – more just get on with it.”

The title came from a colourful weekend on Hayling Island, off the south coast of England.

Jon: “Carl Clarke, the promoter of Headstart [the night Dan and Jon DJed at after Big Kahuna Burger and another catalyst for the rebirth of FC Kahuna] was in this band Urban DK. His partner in the band’s parents had a house there – a real nice gaff. It’s a posh little enclave.”

Daniel: “We went down for a weekend to work on something for them. We took a boat out, played table tennis, did some handclaps, did some samples and it was all beautiful by the sea, going out in the speedboat and coming back. We were like you can do the return thing and help us out on a track. So when we were doing it, I was thinking we should get them involved so I called it ‘Hayling’ as a reminder. But by the time we’d finished it, it was done – it didn’t need anymore. The name just stayed.”

Chris Davison

The release

By now signed to City Rockers, the early-00s label du jour funded by Ministry, and with an album recorded, FC Kahuna were on a roll. The album, ‘Machine Says Yes’, was causing a buzz, but it was ‘Hayling’ that excited the radio heads.

Daniel: “There was a meeting with the head of the playlist at Radio 1 and they said: ‘If you release this record at exactly the right time you’ll have a top ten hit, you do know that don’t you?’ And we were like: ‘Oh right! Oh, shit.’”

Jon: “We’d decided that the title track was going to be the first single and ‘Hayling’ would come out after. Our radio plugger came to us and said if you switch it around they will A List ‘Hayling’. Obviously being the stupid young twats we were, we were like: ‘No, this is our art. And it will be presented like this.’ Stupid bastards.”

Daniel: “We released ‘Machine Says Yes’ and that got on the B List, but didn’t do as well as it needed to do. Then there was the whole breakdown – dance music died. Overnight it was dead. Ministry reacted and pulled the plug on the dance labels they were funding, so City Rockers had no power to release our music. We had to find a new home. And that dragged on. It was basically a year later when it finally got released properly (on Skint) and by then we’d missed the boat.”

Finally released in 2003, ‘Hayling’ fell just short of the Top 40, reaching number 49. By then it had become something of a chillout anthem and a permanent fixture on the glut of downtempo compilations that flooded the market in the early-00s.

Daniel: “I guess maybe that’s why JC brought Air up because they were playing with stuff against the grain. They were such an innovative band. We didn’t want it to sound like jazzy, floaty records. We wanted to go against the grain. Be a bit more interesting. But that’s as someone who’s written the music. If you’re listening to it you probably don’t pay attention to that. It has something that hits. So something slow and evocative obviously worked. I was probably overthinking it [it not being chillout].”

Jon: “We had no interest in that world - apart from The KLF. You wouldn’t find me and Dan in the chillout room at a club nodding our heads. It was a complete accident. But if you take it in isolation it does fit in. I guess it sticks out on our album to a degree as well. But there was no inspiration being taken from Zero 7, or Massive Attack.”

The afterlife

Either way, this bleepy ballad went on to have an inordinately successful afterlife, finding a home on all manner of TV shows, films, video games and ads…

Jon: “Yeah, it was amazing. I remember it appearing on ‘Six Feet Under’, which I genuinely loved, it was one of my favourite shows at the time. Being on a show that you loved and respected was great. There wasn’t much money in it. There’s not a huge amount of money for things appearing on TV, but it was a genuine buzz to see it on-screen.”

Daniel: “At the time it was largely the case that the record label sign you up to exploit you for whatever they can. I remember The Beta Band turning down lots of ads… if it had been something really awful, there would have been a discussion. It was never part of a Republican campaign or anything. I don’t know. It was all like ‘CSI Miami’, ‘Need For Speed’… none of it particularly terrible and it was getting the song out and about.”

Jon: “Being used in the opening of ‘Layer Cake’ (the 2004 film starring Daniel Craig and Sienna Miller) was a great marriage of sound and vision. It’s funny, Matthew Vaughn, the director, was on 6 Music talking about film and music. I was really excited to listen and hear him talk about our song. The story was they couldn’t get the song they wanted so ‘Hayling’ was the reserve. I assume they couldn’t afford the one they wanted. We were the super sub!”

Hafdís: “I think we captured some magic that day in the studio and I loved the finished track.”

Daniel: “I like what Woolly (Paul Woolford) did to it. He did a Special Request remix and he took it close to that ‘Testone’ bleep sound. I thought those vocals sound good and those bleeps sound good. And so I listened to the original and I remember thinking: ‘How’s he made it sound better than ours?!’ It reappraised my relationship with the song. Because it became something else over time. And he put it back in context. He’d taken it closer to that Warp bleepy sound.”

Daniel: “I think the reason for its appeal over time is Hafdís’ lyric. It’s a massive part of it. It’s like a wellbeing mantra. It’s almost before mindfulness was a thing - it almost encapsulates this thing that modern living endorses. A peaceful escape route from modern living. Without having a conversation about it, without giving her any instruction of what I wanted her to do she came in with something that I wanted to hear without knowing that’s what I wanted. And it’s a mantra that works maybe more now than it did then.”

DJ Paulette: Have Your Ever Ridden A Horse?
September 25, 2023
DJ Paulette: Have Your Ever Ridden A Horse?
used cms DJ Paulette: Have Your Ever Ridden A Horse?

The sequinned-sporting, Grace Jones-idolising, history-loving, dancing DJ on why she wouldn’t ban anything…

When you used to do PR in the 90s I believe you used to pitch clients to us for this very feature?

“I tried to get in Roni Size, 4hero, Nuyorican Soul… I was press for Mercury Records for five years from 1994. I also looked after David Morales, Todd Terry and Manifesto Records. I found it a battle doing press, though I did get some good things. Roni got the Mercury Prize and he hadn’t had any mainstream radio, only press.”

I have your book ‘Welcome to the Club’ pre-ordered – what can I expect?

“Some people were surprised I was doing a book, but before I was a DJ I was a copywriter and had a degree in English, I was supposed to teach. At the moment I was going to do my MA I started DJing. What to expect? I didn’t want to write a chronological then-I-did-this, then-I-did-that book, and I don’t have the Fat Tony, ‘stars, bars and gutters’ life story. I’m a history student and because the publisher is Manchester University Press it had to have a cultural, sociological point. We are only ever given one history; we’re taught Henry 8th was a good king even though he chopped his wives’ heads off. My thing has always been that there isn’t always history happening to everybody in parallel. There isn’t just one story. So, in dance music it’s always Ibiza blah blah. But so many other things were happening, and I was part of some of them. We need to have more of a 360 view of our electronic dance music history. When you start to miss out people different groups get disgruntled and the scene breaks up. I discuss my history and then bring in the people I was working with at the time like Gilles Peterson, Peter Hook, Paul Cons, Kath McDermott to get the back story for the things I was involved in. Like Flesh which came off the back of Queer Nation and what was happening in New York. It also looks at women’s place in the history which is changing. That chapter is called FAQ’s - female asked questions. Certain questions get asked of women that they don’t ask men. It also looks at the cycles of success. A lot of famous people have a 3–10-year moment, so I write about what happens when the moment stops…”

Do you feel like you’re having a moment again now?

“I’m in another cycle, yes. I couldn’t get arrested for a while. But having X amount of years of experience I knew how to fix it. I could see where it was going wrong and I put all the pieces back together again.”

Before Flesh you were a go-go dancer at Manchester’s Number 1 club. How did the hours of dancing help your DJing?

“I was absorbing what Tim Lennox played from my podium – Inner City, Todd Terry, the early house records. He was instrumental in the house I played – vocal, uplifting, very gay. All my family are dancers and music collectors. I cherry picked from my brother and sisters’ record collections. I’ve been clubbing since I was 15 so I know what moves me on a dancefloor – I came at it from a punter’s point of view. If it doesn’t make me dance I won’t play it.”

Do you own any bits of the Haçienda when they had the auction?

“No, I couldn’t get to it, I was in London. But I’ve got my sequinned knickers from the Flesh first birthday. In 1992 we didn’t have Primark so if you wanted anything with sequins you’d make it yourself. They are framed on my office wall.” 

How do the gay clubs of today compare to Flesh?

“They’ve benefitted from those days along with what Trade and Queer Nation did, all the barriers and boundaries we crossed. Before Flesh we didn’t get the men and women partying in the same place for one thing. Gay wasn’t a cool thing, there wasn’t cool clubs to go to, we were pariahs after the AIDS crisis and Section 28. You got spat on for holding hands in public. We did Flesh at the biggest club in Manchester. It was ground breaking. We were out and proud. Being gay wasn’t just for old queens or dodgy old backstreet pubs, it could be young and aspirational and in everyone’s face. Then straight people wanted to go to a gay club which hadn’t happened before. People wanted to experience what was happening in this gay world. I think that’s how the gay clubs now have benefitted as it became part of the culture.”

If you could add to your 2018 art exhibition HOMEBIRD what would it be?

“I’d put the hashtag Black Lives Matter as I didn’t have that, but it was exactly what I was talking about. Michael Simpson the director said I talked about all these themes before it all broke out again. It would put an umbrella term over it.” 

You sit on the Musicians’ Union? They tried to ban synths in 1982 – what would you try and ban?

“I sit on the regional north union. I wouldn’t ban anything, there’s a place for everything. It’s dangerous when you start to ban things. That’s how you erode the rights of the individual.” 

Who are you all-time favourite Sheroes?

“My mum, she’s a bad ass. She was a singer and put out her own album in the 70s, was Branch Secretary for Equity and had her own club called The Ebony Club. She’s everything, the reason I do things the way I do them. She went to Oxford in the 60s – probably the only black woman there. Her name is Blanche Finlay. Grace Jones was the first artist I modelled myself on. She showed you didn’t have to have the big hair, the big wig. She had another idea of beauty. I’ve never been a girly girl and Grace was: ‘I’m not going to be like everybody else. I’m going to wear men’s suits and high heels and have a flat top.’ She’s my number one idol. I copied her as much as I could on a budget when I was younger. She holds her own against the men. She’s 75 now and she’s still kicking it.” 

What’s your fave musical and who would you play?

“I have many, I was brought up on them: ‘West Side Story’, ‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Chicago’, ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’. ‘Annie’ just popped into my head. I was that girl that wanted to be in the big house.”

Do you have a fave hat and is there a story behind it?

“I suppose the mirrored hat that Brett Dearden made for my 50th birthday. I used one for a photoshoot and he then made me one. Over lockdown I’d been doing streams for the Haçienda and others. The first one I did for La Discotheque there was this moment, we started off my set and I had that hat on my turntable spinning round and the lighting guy hit the hat with a light and it had a mirrorball effect that lit the stage up which then bounced off my sequinned jacket. I looked like a vision in a ball of light. Lockdown was difficult for many and it gave everyone a moment of lift. I still get people who stop me to mention it.”

Which three words would you choose to describe yourself?

“Resilient, funny and decent.”

Have you ever ridden a horse?

“I have an affinity with horses, they always come up to me. One took a chunk out of my thumb when it was eating an apple from my hand though. In cowboy films they ride them easily - you think it will be the same. My friend Jill worked at a horse-riding centre, and she took me round and it was the hardest thing to do. It was a good experience, but I’ll need a dozen lessons. You need to be in sync with the horse. I’d like to learn so my arse doesn’t hurt as much as it has done before.”

This article first appeared in issue 4 of Disco Pogo magazine which you can buy here.

DJ Paulette is playing Bugged Out! & Disco Pogo @ Drumsheds on 21 October.

Get your tickets here.

Hot Chip: Flamin' Groovies
September 25, 2023
Hot Chip: Flamin' Groovies
used cms Hot Chip: Flamin' Groovies

Not many bands get better with the release of every record, to the point that their eighth album can be declared their best yet. But, then again, not many bands are Hot Chip. Their playful theatre of the absurd, combined with a rare heartfelt sincerity and an uncanny knack of crafting dance bangers, has made them one of the UK’s most cherished outfits. Not bad for a band who’ve played the music wrong in every town Manu Ekanayake discovers…

Hot Chip are a fantastic live band. They’re great on record too, of course, but if you don’t take the chance to see them live you’re really robbing yourself of seeing a five-piece live engine at their peak, as Disco Pogo found out when we caught them on the penultimate gig of their September five-night-takeover of Brixton Academy.

“It’s Friday night in Brixton!” frontman and co-founder Alexis Taylor exhorts the crowd, tongue ever-so-slightly in cheek as you’d expect from a band who know perfectly well how absurd the world is and for whom reflecting that truth is central to their art . Taylor’s just come onstage in a shocking pink boiler suit. Hot Chip fans will know that he likes rocking these on stage, but even for him this one is bright – when the lights go down for the absurdly funky ‘Night & Day’ he looks positively radioactive, which is fitting given how much energy is on display here. 

The rest of the band look fairly subdued in shades of cream and white, which only makes Taylor stand out more. His freshly bleached and cropped hair doesn’t hurt either. Al Doyle on lead guitar is rocking his signature straw boater and a Sports Banger ‘NHS: Just Do It’ logo tee under his shirt for a touch of flair with a conscious message. Multi-instrumentalists Owen Clarke and Felix Martin keep it pretty low-key, as does Hot Chip’s long-time live member and studio collaborator Rob Smoughton on percussion and guitar. Only Taylor’s Hot Chip co-founder Joe Goddard allows himself a splash of colour, rocking an urban camo top behind his keyboards.

Earlier in the week he told us: “We’re rehearsing extra hard at the moment because during the year we spent writing the new album Covid happened so we’ve never had to play those songs as a live band. We’ve got a ton of stuff to learn.”

And while his usually cheery and garrulous demeanour betrays just a touch of worry when we caught up over Zoom days before the performance, it looks like everyone’s done their homework by gig time. They start off strong with two belters from that new album, ‘Freakout / Release’, which has been out barely a month on Domino: their fourth for the label and home for the last decade.

Opening with the album’s title track, which is a synth-heavy banger that is pure Hot Chip, they then progress onto ‘Eleanor’, which will delight those fans who love their ability to make classic pop songs which have a dark undercurrent. In this case, the song takes the POV of someone still not over their ex. One-part synth pop, one-part mental breakdown could actually be a good summation of a lot of the Hot Chip canon, but it seems especially appropriate here: ‘If you choose to remember me, hold me gently as you fall asleep. Even if you believe that there’s nothing more, I feel heaven knocking at our door’ trills Taylor, with just the right note of jadedness for the subject matter.

That signature Hot Chip mixture of occasionally dark topics, self-deprecating humour and great melodies is at play throughout their set – ‘Flutes’ from their ‘In Our Heads’ album, even gets a little dance routine, which sees Doyle, Clarke and Smoughton join Taylor as they come closer to the crowd to flex a short routine of turns and shimmies like a soul combo of yesteryear. And later on ‘Melody of Love’, from 2019’s ‘A Bath Full of Ecstasy’, Doyle and Smoughton come forward, guitars aloft in ironic homage to the hands-in-the-air nature of the track. It’s a bit of fun that the crowd is definitely in on, just like after their storming cover of ‘Hung Up’ when Taylor deadpans: “That was a song by a popular singer called Madonna.”

Everyone laughs, the one-line crystallising Hot Chip’s appeal as a gang of music obsessives who wear their influences on their sleeves and who knowingly recognise they’re five middle class white guys who love funk, soul, hip hop and house music.

Such bonhomie is clearly drawn from the fact that they are such good friends: Goddard and Taylor formed the band in the former’s teenage bedroom in Fulham in 1997; they met Clarke at the age of 12 at the Elliott School in Putney (a musically-inclined comprehensive that also produced Kieran Hebden aka Four Tet, Burial and The xx) and he joined the band formally when the band were gigging their first album, ‘Comin on Strong’ for Moshi Moshi back in 2001. Taylor met Doyle and Martin at Cambridge University, where he studied English Literature. Goddard did History at Oxford – so they’re admittedly more ‘smart gang’ than street gang. But they still feel like people you might know: middle-aged music heads with perhaps a fondness for worker jackets and selvedge denim, no longer out every weekend but still partying when they can get a babysitter.

Taylor is the more serious of Hot Chip’s co-founders and one-half of the band’s main songwriting partnership. Whereas the more garrulous Goddard spoke to Disco Pogo lying on a couch, eagerly recounting tales of dancefloor derring-do (“I once got thrown out of The End for handing out magic mushrooms to my friends – I was just handing out dried liberty caps and felt this tap, tap, tapping on my shoulder. So eventually I turned around and said: ‘Excuse me, I’m trying to pass my friends some magic mushrooms!’ At which point I was very kindly escorted out…”) Taylor is more strictly business. Though he’s unfailingly polite about a scheduling mishap and full of great detail about the band’s back-catalogue.

For example, he tells us that ‘Melody of Love’, the great E-pop song from ‘A Bath Full of Ecstasy’ – the same track that saw Clarke and Smoughton raise their guitars aloft like returning axe heroes at Brixton – was actually about ten minutes long before they worked with Rodaidh McDonald on it.

“It was more of an instrumental club track,” he says. “Plus it didn’t have half of the lyrics it does now. Rodaidh told me: ‘This could be a big pop song for you but it needs more writing and to be edited down.’ No one’s ever challenged me like that but it was what I needed. The others were sat around, I think feeling a bit worried about me, but they encouraged me to keep trying too. There was a moment where it was a bit of a breakthrough and the new chorus idea worked. That led to Al making a great melodic part on synths that lifted the chorus and then Felix thought of another synth bit and it all came together, but it was quite hard work. That’s how it is, we all work together as a band so well like that, though it was good having Rodaidh there as a taskmaster for that track, absolutely.”

‘A Bath Full of Ecstasy’ was the first time Hot Chip worked with outside producers, with McDonald, who’s worked with everyone from The xx to Adele, also re-working tracks like Glastonbury favourite ‘Hungry Child’ and the title-track itself. That album’s other co-producer was the late Philippe Zdar of Cassius. “Philippe was just so different,” Taylor explains. “His studio sessions in Paris were more like ‘all of you play everything at once and I’ll record you and we can add good vibey things to what you’ve already got.’ So everyone is having a great time and he’s recording it so well while dancing and clapping along. Then he tells us to go away for an hour so we get a drink or some food and when we get back he’s started putting some of those things into a mix already. It was a very enjoyable way of making music.”

Sadly that collaboration was not to last after Zdar died suddenly following a fall in June 2019. He remains a lasting influence though. “Philippe left a startling impression on us and we made the new album in Al’s new studio Relax And Enjoy, which he built with some inspiration from how Philippe had set up his own studio,” Taylor recalls, clearly moved at the loss of a friend. “In terms of the atmosphere, how easy it is to relax and create good music. You can play any instrument in there; they’re all plugged in and ready to go. You don’t need to take half an hour to set up the drums. Everything is ready for you to be creative and then much like Philippe, Al will want to make cocktails for everybody so that it feels fun and you can relax and enjoy yourself.”

The upheavals of the past couple of years have also had a serious effect, as Taylor mentions when we ask how rehearsals are going. “The more we rehearse the more I realise that so many of the new songs are about people with problems in their lives that are to do with getting stuck in a loop of behaviour, feeling unsatisfied with where they are in their life. And maybe relying on drugs to help them or maybe feeling unable to express what they’re going through,” explains Taylor, who is at pains to say it’s not all autobiographical. “I’m not just studying people for content – it’s just the things seeping into me over the year of making the record.”

As ever with Hot Chip, there’s a lot going on below the surface and, at times, on it: ‘Broken’ is clearly about depression and the difficulty of asking for help, with its dark final lines, ‘Sometimes I think I’m broken, And there is nothing left to bust…’. While ‘Not Alone’ is about reaching out to someone to offer that kind of aid. Tellingly, it features a bit of classic Hot Chip self-mockery: ‘We’ve played the music wrong in every town, but somehow people heard our special sound.’

Goddard laughs when we ask about this. “Yeah I think on that particular line Alexis is reminiscing on our career and the times when we’ve been pretty shambolic on stage occasionally, but people still get something out of it. But I know he used to worry about other bands looking slicker than us on stage. But they all sounded the same and we always sounded different. I think that’s why we’ve managed to have some longevity, because even though our path is pretty weird, at least it’s pretty different.”

One of the things that has always made them so distinctive has been their humour. It’s been a factor since their earliest releases, “mainly, I think, because what I’d done before as a teenage singer-songwriter with a guitar was so po-faced and serious,” Taylor tells us, acknowledging “the slightly juvenile humour” of tracks from their debut like ‘Playboy’. That had the memorable refrain of ‘Driving in my Peugeot hey, hey, 20-inch rims with the chrome now, hey, hey, blazing out Yo La Tengo, hey, hey, Driving round poppin’ with the top down, hey, hey.’

He sounds slightly annoyed that “… people [journalists] just kept asking about humour and irony and whether we were genuine about anything. But there’s a lot of other things going on: I mean I’m quoting T.S. Eliot about April being the cruellest month on that track, but then bringing myself down by saying: ‘This March hasn’t been great either’. We knew we weren’t from New York and we weren’t rappers, it was very self-aware in that we were mocking ourselves, not the things we loved, like hip hop in this case.”

He puts the humour that the band have always employed down to the early influence of acts like Smog, Will Oldham and Jim O’Rourke. “Those people on Drag City and Domino Records and all those records that they put out around 1999 and onwards. Their lyrics were either very obviously funny with a dark sense of humour or in Will Oldham [now Bonnie Prince Billy] and Bill Callahan/Smog’s case they were a mixture of very emotional and sad songs with certain one-liners that were darkly funny or something. So we were just influenced by that from our teens onward, even if we we’re doing something different.”

Of course, today, with eight albums under their belts the idea that Hot Chip don’t really mean it seems laughable. Their live show takes in everything from the pure pop moments of ‘Over and Over’, with its ever-memorable monkey with his miniature cymbal, ‘Ready for the Floor’ and ‘Made in the Dark’ – which saw EMI bringing them to a deservedly bigger audience – to more emotional later works like ‘One Life Stand’, which has made them beloved regulars on the festival circuit.

Goddard shares a great Glastonbury tale about performing Wiley’s ‘Wearing my Rolex’ alongside the rapper at Worthy Farm. “This was when ‘Wearing my Rolex’ was the biggest pop track around. Now obviously this was before his recent antisemitism and my feelings about him have changed. But he is a genius artist, who’s said some awful things. This was at the time when he would bring out a string of amazing singles, but you never knew if he’d turn up and he was just smoking constantly. But he made it and when we were doing rehearsals a week or so prior to the festival he’d say: ‘We need to make space for the Oggies’. We didn’t know what he meant. It turns out he wanted us to add in 16 bars to the track so he could chant ‘Oggy Oggy Oggy!’ to get the crowd to reply ‘Oi Oi Oi.’ We were like: ‘We can do that if you want to.’ And it happened on the day. Turns out a Glastonbury crowd love doing the Oggies.”

Something else Hot Chip’s fans love is the band’s evolution with each album. They’ve never stood still. This is clear on 2009’s ‘One Life Stand’, probably their most affecting release at that point. “I think that album felt a bit more serious and that wasn’t really a deliberate thing, but it’s where we were at,” Taylor agrees. “Maybe audiences started to respond well to the emotion and passion of tracks like we did on ‘One Life Stand’? That title track wasn’t written immediately after I got married but some of my lyrics are about celebrating that. The strength of a relationship and even if there are any difficulties, it’s trying to say that this is a very beautiful thing to be doing.”

Up to this point Goddard describes their approach to recording as: “So here’s a track: now let’s make it a banger.” However, by 2012’s ‘In Our Heads’, their first release on Domino, they were thinking: “Let’s have songs on this album that are neither ballads nor house tracks, but some strange orchestral pop song with marimbas,” which is how Taylor rather succinctly sums up ‘Now There is Nothing’ on that album, which he also describes as “one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written”.

The mournfulness that had been lurking around since ‘Boy From School’ got full vent on what remains a wonderful piece of pop. Taylor says: “It’s a bit like a Paul McCartney song on ‘Band on the Run’ – not that I’m saying it’s of that quality. But those songs would be like three songs all jammed together. I was quite ambitious on the production of that one: I wanted to have marimba and xylophone playing on it. We had Emma Smith and Vince Sipprell on strings so we were stretching what the arrangement could be on a Hot Chip album.”

Their next album, 2015’s ‘Why Make Sense?’, gave us big Hot Chip bangers like ‘Huarache Nights’ (who else could name a track after a trainer and get away with it? Run DMC notwithstanding) and ‘Need You Now’. But their more singer-songwriter-traits are also at play on the wryly optimistic ‘White Wine and Fried Chicken’. The band has been known to change it to ‘White Wine and Fried Seitan’ when they play live, to reflect Taylor’s veganism.

“But chicken sounds better, it scans better!” laughs Taylor. “To me it’s an optimistic love song but there’s something very miserable about it too.” Again that contrast between extreme emotion and humour is ever-present for Hot Chip. It’s certainly there when they perform ‘Hard to be Funky’ from ‘Freakout/Release’, at Brixton. Taylor’s vocals take a throaty turn as Lou Hayter, formerly of New Young Pony Club, another band from the indie-electro era of the 2000s, joins them onstage for a sonic tale of struggling to function through depression. It features vocoder vocals from Hayter and references to Sun Ra’s ‘Live At Praxis ’84’ alongside Taylor’s self-aware paean to not feeling the funk.

Hayter is on top form and as an album artist nowadays, as well as a DJ, Goddard is full of praise. “We’ve known Lou since her days with NYPC but I DJed with her at Night Tales a couple of years back and her selection was just impeccable. Alexis wanted a female voice for this track and she obviously knows about yacht rock and Balearic so she knew just what we needed here. I’ve been working on a hip-house record with her and maybe her next record will come out on my label, Greco Roman, so there are a lot of great connections now.”

This telling comment might as well be uttered about Hot Chip in general. After eight albums their maze of collaborators and the stories behind them make the band seem more like a family business. Never more so than when Goddard welcomes his brother Jazz onstage for the backing vocals to ‘Miss the Bliss’. As he dances and plays tambourine while singing, the whole band look like nothing more than a family you’d really like to know. And that, in essence, is why nearly 30 years on from their beginnings in Joe Goddard’s teenage bedroom, we’re all still listening.

Hot Chip are playing Bugged Out! & Disco Pogo @ Drumsheds on 21 October. Get your tickets here

Orbital: Brothers In Arms
September 25, 2023
Orbital: Brothers In Arms
used cms Orbital: Brothers In Arms

No other band are quite like Orbital. In the early-90s, at a time when much of dance music was dismissed as ‘faceless bollocks’, the Hartnoll brothers helped legitimise it thanks to a raft of critically-acclaimed albums and live performances. Today, 30-plus years on from their formation, Andrew Harrison finds Paul and Phil in reflective mood, but always with an eye on the future. “The two of us have created something a bit special,” they admit…


Have you got BritBox? It’s not exactly the edgiest of streaming TV services, heavy on vintage 9pm-on-ITV rural murder shows and other comfort viewing for nerve-racked Middle Britain. But down in the depths of their EPG is at least one diamond for the Disco Pogo audience. Here, a little fuzzy round the ages but alive with the electric thrill of a moment that can never be repeated, is the infamous ‘A Trip Round Acid House’ edition of ‘World In Action’ from 1988.

 It’s incredibly exciting – and impossible to watch without yearning for a Tardis to take you straight back there. “Saturday night in South London,” says a breathless, plummy-sounding woman over clips of baggied-up youngsters teasing their hair and piling into coaches. “Hundreds of young people are gathering for the latest craze: an ‘acid house’ party in a disused warehouse…”

We meet confused coppers, irate pensioners, old lags of rave in their impudent youth, and the Sunday People’s laughable, grizzled ‘Acid House Correspondent’ Ted Hines. It’s like a lost episode of ‘BrassEye'.

And there, as a police raid of shocking brutality on a house party in Sevenoaks is laid out in alarming detail, is another familiar face. Looking both impossibly young and also mightily affronted that he and his mates have just been battered by the Met for the crime of having a party, is Paul Hartnoll of Orbital.

“Something like that could never happen now, the police would never have got away with it,” Paul recalls today, laughing ruefully over a Zoom from his wood-panelled studio somewhere near Brighton. “Everyone would have been filming on their phones, wouldn’t they, and it’d be all over YouTube. Not back then though…”

More than 30 years on, these life-changing original days of raving are fresh in Orbital’s minds again. They’re about to release a three-decade anniversary compilation entitled ‘30 Something’, a reinvention of the ‘best of’ concept featuring Orbital classics updated for 2022, plus new tunes, rarities and remixes by admirers including Jon Hopkins, Floex, ANNA, Jon Tejada and David Holmes.

“I’m a big fan of time and change and decay, all that kind of thing,” says Paul. “So instead of doing another best of, it was like: ‘OK, what can we do that’s different?’ For me, the interesting thing of 30 years of improvisational dance music is, I wonder how different they are now?”

So ‘Chime’, ‘Satan’, ‘Impact’ and other Orbital favourites appear in newly-recorded versions based on how they’ve evolved over years in Orbital’s live show. “All those mistakes and improvisations, all those little new little bits that happened, they’re all in there.”

To open the album they built a new track around Paul’s glitchy old VHS of his appearance on ‘World In Action’. It’s called ‘Smiley’ and while it’s full of period details (acid swirls, clattering ‘Amen’ breaks) there’s an affecting emotional cadence to it – and it culminates in a passage where, in vocal samples and burgeoning electronics, ‘Smiley’ does with that formative Sevenoaks police raid what a classical piece or a movie soundtrack would. It represents action and emotion and reversals of fortune as pure sonics, so that an act of repression is drowned and defeated by a swell of beauty and good feeling, a euphoria that’s stronger than cruelty.

In its own small way ‘Smiley’ encapsulates what always set Orbital apart from dance music’s more functional providers of bangers-by-the-yard. It’s the factor that took Paul and Phil Hartnoll everywhere from multiple Glastonburies to movie soundtracks to the Paralympics Opening Ceremony with Stephen Hawking, the one that gave Orbital’s albums – from the palette-expanding ‘brown album’ through epics like ‘Snivilisation’ and ‘In Sides’ to 2020’s ‘Monsters Exist’ – a personal meaning to generations of ravers old and new: the emotional heft to make you see the world anew.

“I thought going right back to the beginning would be a lovely way to start,” Paul says about ‘Smiley’. “Because all that was about a year before Orbital started. So, let’s show what it was like. Let’s do a track that’s sonically where our heads are at now but wearing the clothes of the 80s.”

“And let’s illustrate the point,” interjects brother Phil, “about how, you know, in civil rights terms… we all got beaten up by the police for having a party.”


Suburban Britain is where everything comes together, the true melting pot, and in hindsight you can see Orbital’s future musical world assembling itself even when they were kids.

Phil and Paul got the disco bug early. Their mum’s cousins Mick and Ray, who lived on the same estate as
the Hartnolls in Dartford, were DJs who hammered the Tamla Motown and reggae at Christmas parties and birthdays. “We were brought up on that,” says Phil. “Proper mobile disco. I remember going around the house and just being completely amazed about the amount of records that they had.”

He can remember pestering for a Jackson Five record for his eighth birthday – he got ‘Ben’. “I learned how to deal with disappointment from a very early age…”

Into the mix went their father’s movie soundtrack albums and third brother Gary’s collection of prog rock. “I used to be able to go up the stairs at home and choose which way I wanted to go with the two brothers on either side,” says Paul. “I could go one way for Trojan, reggae and David Bowie or the other way for Queen, Led Zeppelin and Godley and Creme. A complete education.”

Then came punk. The first thing Paul noticed when he started at secondary school, a place with a rough reputation and the unbeatable name the Wildernesse School, were two symbols painted on either side of the 1960s central building. He thought it was the Captain Scarlet logo. Instead, it was indomitable vegan punk collective Crass, whose fuck-the-system attitude would shape Orbital’s in years to come. Paul had wanted to get into music since he’d heard The Beat’s version of ‘Tears of a Clown’, but then his mate introduced him to ‘Bloody Revolutions’ by Crass – “and I never looked back. Went full anarcho-punk.”

For Phil the trigger was the Rock Against Racism movement of the late 70s. At school he admits he “wasn’t an angel… I was always joking about, doing moonies and that. Out of control. I mean, dyslexia wasn’t even a word then.” When he was maybe 14, he sneaked into Rock Against Racism’s famous gig in Hackney’s Victoria Park with The Clash and Steel Pulse.

“Punk really did make a difference in my life,” he says. “That day fucking blew my mind. I’d been brought up on Black music, I didn’t understand racism at all, and the anti-Nazi thing made a huge impression on me. It was like, this makes sense.”

By the time he was 16, Paul had left school, was working with his father on his building site subjecting his workmates to Laser FM, the Cocteau Twins, industrial rock and 80s electro, and desperate to get hold of a drum machine.

“I just wanted to know what the fuck made that sound,” he admits. “We got this little Rhythm Box with Latin patterns, terrible mistake really, but we’d shove it through a guitar pedal and sound like Test Department. We loved it.” The big discovery, though, was getting a 4-track. “Now it’s like you’ve got four synthesisers even if you’ve only got one. It’s like: ‘Oh shit, this is fucking power.’ Suddenly you can layer stuff and it sounds fucking immense.”

In a nod to the job that paid for the kit, Paul released his first electronic music under the name D.S. Building Contractors, a brace of acid-era tracks that appeared on an FFRR compilation with the none-more-1988 title ‘The House Sound Of London Vol. IV: The Jackin’ Zone’, put together by LWR house DJ Jazzy M. Phil was now in America, sending back “the most amazing tapes of WBLS and all these hip hop stations”. And years of tinkering were about to pay off for Paul.

“I did ‘Chime’ as just a ridiculous meaningless thing, using six inputs on my 4-track to see if I could do six things at once,” he says. It was a Wednesday night, and his mates were shouting at him to finish up and come to the pub. Paul rushed through the recording and as he pressed STOP he could see one guy sitting on the sofa, nodding appreciatively, telegraphing a simple message: that’s not bad. Maybe it isn’t, he thought.

“And then we played it to Jazzy M,” says Phil. “And Jazzy M went mental.”

Credit: Photomatic

 ‘Chime’ remains one of the true game-changers of British dance music. It’s a bridge between the glacial futurism of Detroit techno and the more rumbunctious DIY ethic of the British free party scene, it’s UK electro pop reconnecting with the Chicago house it inspired… and yet somehow completely different from any of those things. Famously they mastered it straight from the cassette that Paul used to make it.

“That tape got lost forever in Jazzy M’s car boot, never to be seen again,” says Paul. “Good job he’d put it on a DAT so Pete Tong would think we were more professional.” ‘Chime’ became the archetypal hot white label hit, golden DJ currency, a mystery must-have. “Jazzy M was pressing up another thousand before we’d done the first lot,” says Phil, “It was like he was feeding the famine up north.” It would go on to become the climax to countless festivals. For Christmas 2013 Paul replaced the descending melody with festive bells and released it as ‘Christmas Chime’. There’s still nothing that sounds like it.

‘Chime’ also led to one of the most uncooperative yet memorable performances in the history of ‘Top of the Pops’. “We’d been playing live for months so we wanted to do this live as well,” says Paul, “but they only let you do that if you’re New Order.”

So it was that on 22 March 1990, the Hartnolls appeared onstage on the nation’s favourite chart show alongside a baffled and out-of-place BBC-mandated ‘rave’ dancer, both brothers studiously ignoring the camera in T-shirts that said NO and POLL TAX. “We used squiggly writing so the BBC couldn’t spot it,” says Phil. “We were so awkward. We even put the extension cords on top of the keyboards so people would see they weren’t plugged in.”

“This was our anti-establishment training from Crass coming true,” says Paul triumphantly. “No, we’re not going to mime! You can’t make us! We refuse! We were being pig-headed young men. Still,” he says, “You’re not going to turn down Top of the Pops, are you…?”

Playing live, then a heresy for post-house electronic bands, was becoming more of a focus for Orbital. “We’d always thought of it like Cabaret Voltaire or Adrian Sherwood and Tackhead, a proper electronic band with instruments,” says Paul. “But the one we really modelled it on was Tangerine Dream. I just loved the idea that we were nothing to watch. Just two blokes standing there jamming, but here’s some giant mad psychedelic video show behind us.”

The dance music circuit then was based on the PA – get up, mime to a DAT, get off – but Orbital built a bona fide set where everything was to be played live. It stood them in good stead when they were invited over to Northern Ireland by a young DJ called David Holmes.

“We were coming out of a really crazy, super-bleak time back then,” says David Holmes of Belfast in the early-90s. “There was a lot of a subliminal anxiety, fear, paranoia, and stress. There was police checks, your car being ripped apart, shootings… it was part of everyday life so you just got on with it. But that doesn’t mean you’re not carrying it about with you.”

So, Holmes (then a hairdresser) and his equally music-obsessed mate Iain McCready launched an underground night at Conor Hall in Belfast Art College where they played house, acid and techno. Supercharged by the pills then filtering into the city and a legendarily top of the line sound system, Sugar Sweet became a packed-out escape for Belfast youth from both sides of the Troubles. “It wasn’t a normal way to live,” says Holmes, “so when you went out for a night, the roof came off.”

‘Chime’ was the anthem of the time (“if you were lucky enough, you got a copy”) and there was a number on Holmes’ white label. So, he rang it, got Paul Hartnoll, explained about Sugar Sweet and asked if Orbital fancied the trip over? “A lot of people were just frightened to come because it was still quite hardcore,” says Holmes, “but they were just up for it, like Weatherall was. And they had such an amazing time. They were so blown away by their experience.”

On the night the crowd were in raptures and screaming for an encore. Orbital had run out of tunes, so they played ‘Chime’ a second time. “There were people literally crying,” says Holmes, “People from complete opposite ends of the political spectrum having a transformative experience that completely changed their lives. I’ll never forget it until the day God calls me.”

On the way home they left Holmes with a tape of Orbital demos. Weeks later Holmes told them that he and his mates could not stop playing it over and over as they drove around Belfast on acid at night, the music transforming the city. Thus, Orbital’s most beautiful recording, a glowing, optimistic sunrise of a tune which transcends simple notions of comedown/chillout to enter the realm of true emotion, got its name: ‘Belfast’.

“It’s because of the beauty of it,” explains Phil. “People don’t expect a track called ‘Belfast’ to sound beautiful, but it was so fitting. For us to have that wonderful experience of Belfast after being indoctrinated by the TV about the Troubles like most English people were… to meet beautiful, beautiful people there…” He starts to run out of words. “It was one of the best experiences we’ve ever had.”

Credit: Photomatic

 It’s 25 June 1994, a balmy Saturday evening in the middle of one of the hottest Glastonbury festivals of the 90s, and Paul Hartnoll is terrified. He’s watching the look of absolute fear on the faces of the acts going onto the NME Stage before Orbital. There’s M-People’s percussionist Shovel, usually a happy-go-lucky type, his face grey before he goes on. An hour later, looking mortally afraid before curtain up, it’s Björk. “I peeked around the curtain and saw this sea of people, like ‘Lord Of The Rings’,” he says, “and I’m like: ‘Oh my god, what the fuck have we got ourselves into…?’”

Glastonbury 1994 is the major turning point in Orbital’s story, the moment where they don’t just announce themselves to a wider world beyond the raving committed, but they change the very festival itself. Glastonbury had never truly got to grips with the dance music that had transformed Britain. Orbital was a bit of a gamble. So, for this major, make-or-break moment the Hartnolls naturally decide to play mostly tracks from ‘Snivilisation’, their all-encompassing concept album about the spiritual and material disintegration of society – a new record which isn’t out yet, which nobody has heard, and which they’ve barely worked out how to play yet.

“We didn’t understand that a festival set is supposed to be your best of,” admits Paul. “And to be fair, there probably wasn’t even 100 people in all those thousands who knew who we were anyway…” (This is very debatable).

He describes playing a nerve-racking show that felt like a scene in a war movie where they’re desperately trying to keep the submarine afloat: “We’d only played these fucking songs twice before!”

As pre-programmed sections of the tracks rolled on unstoppably the Hartnolls would make panicked changes on the fly. “And then I realized: ‘Oh, fuck’,” says Paul: “’I’ve left everything turned up to maximum.’”

So, on ‘Are We Here?’ – ‘SnivilIsation’’s epic centrepiece where man, God and existential dread come together in an unreal space – some 40,000 Glastonbury people listening to a track they’ve never heard by a band they don’t know are suddenly assaulted by clattering breakbeats and snares all turned up beyond 11.

“And the crowd just went… ‘brilliant!’” says Phil. “It just totally worked. They went mad. There was so much ‘I’m gagging for the electronic sound’ in the air that year and it was fucking magical. Even we didn’t expect it.”

Paul and Phil came offstage capering about like children. Phil: “We did the tish-kaboom dance like we did on bath night when we were little kids, banging our bums together and going ‘tish-kaboom’….” Paul recalls the same deep satisfaction you feel after a really good day’s work. “I was just floating through Glastonbury, up to the King’s Field and drinking real ale at 6am… absolutely brilliant.”

Orbital 1994 was the beginning of Glastonbury as a rave event with rock bands, not a rock festival with a few DJs. The next year they opened the Dance Tent, within five years a Dance Village. And it cemented in the minds of the new, festival-addicted public an image of Orbital that’s defined them ever since. Two shadowy figures onstage, torch-glasses making their heads look slightly too wide, alien even, controlling not just explosively compulsive beats but a spiral of electronic beauty unlike any other. The one thing you absolutely, definitely have to see.


Orbital tend to split up. They’re brothers. Brothers get on one another’s nerves – brothers fight. They first parted ways in 2004, only to reconcile for a tour in 2009 that turned into 2012’s comeback album ‘Wonky’, a built-for-live affair including robust contributions from Brummie MC Lady Leshurr. This particular reunion produced possibly the strangest and yet fitting guest vocalist in Orbital’s cosmically-inclined career when they appeared at the London Paralympics opening ceremony with Professor Stephen Hawking.

They’d been asked to provide music for a segue into Hawking discussing the Large Hadron Collider and thought that the ‘Wonky’ track ‘Where Is It Going?’ seemed to fit the theme of spinning particles. “A really euphoric track would be perfect for that moment,” says Paul, “And then we thought, what if we make Stephen Hawking sing? Pitch his voice up and down, and tune it?” They met Hawking and gave him a copy of the ‘Wonky’ album, expecting not much feedback. But he liked it. To their amazement, the Director of Research at the Cambridge Centre for Theoretical Cosmology agreed to step into the shoes of Alison Goldfrapp, David Gray and Zola Jesus, and lend his voice to Orbital.

“It was the most bonkers event,” says Paul. “I’m backstage drinking champagne with Ian McKellan, fucking Gandalf himself. Here’s Stephen Hawking wearing our torch glasses. And we’re getting ready to play to 11 million people viewing it around the world.” He got lost on the way back from the toilet, Spinal Tap-style, and almost missed his performance.

“And the thing about Stephen Hawking,” says Phil, “is he was so funny. His character was fantastic – he agreed to wear the torch glasses, which he really didn’t have to do. We weren’t even supposed to talk to him on the night…” After the show they sent Hawking an edit of the track. “He emailed me back right away saying: ‘This is fantastic, when are we going to release it?’ He was really enthusiastic.” The Hawking mix of ‘Where Is It Going?’ did not see the light of day at the time but it’s on ‘30 Something’.

“It’s sad that he’s not here to see it,” says Phil, “but we got there in the end. It’s just so brilliant to have this mad moment of history preserved.”

When Orbital split again in 2014 it was supposedly forever. Phil DJ’d across the Far East. Paul went deeper into his dream of working on soundtracks with ‘Peaky Blinders’ and ‘American Ultra’ and made solo records including ‘8:58’ – featuring spoken word from Cillian Murphy and very much the lost Orbital record to investigate – and an entertaining collaboration of electro rave with Vince Clarke of Erasure called ‘2Square’. But they always come back together.

“I personally have realised that this is probably what I’m meant to do,” says Paul. “I love doing soundtracks, I love working away on lots of different things, but when it’s Orbital it just announces itself as something big, something that means a lot to a huge number of people. After a few years of not doing Orbital we realised that the two of us have created something a bit special here, and we should remember that.”

“OK, this is cheesy,” says Phil, “But I can’t get over the love and affection we get from our fans. I’ve lost count of the times we’ve split up and yet they’re so forgiving. We’ve got people bringing their kids to our shows now. I mean,” he winces a little, “You don’t want to say we couldn’t have done it without them – but it’s true.”

Meanwhile something new and possibly bigger than ever now appears in Orbital’s world. Always the most cinematic of the British electronic acts, they’ve just released their biggest soundtrack yet – the score for ‘The Pentaverate’, a Netflix conspiracy comedy in the vein of ‘The Prisoner’. Creator Mike Myers of ‘Austin Powers’ fame plays five different characters in the story of a secretive cabal who’ve influenced world events and protected the human race since the 1300s. Ironically, Orbital got the job because of their own homage to the Lalo Schifrin-style tension and drama of 60s and 70s TV shows, ‘The Box’ from 1997.

“The directors were sitting around in Mike Myers’ place in New York going through loads of different tracks that might fit the mood,” says Paul, “and one of the writers suggested ‘The Box’. Apparently, Mike Myers jumped on it and said, That’s the track we want, that’s it.” When director Tim Kirby came to see Orbital in Brighton, Paul thought he just wanted rights to ‘The Box’ and was ready to make a tentative pitch for the whole score – only for the director to offer it to them anyway.

“As soon as I read the script, it was like: ‘Right, OK, this is so us,’” says Paul. “It’s ‘Logan’s Run’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘The Persuaders’… right up our street.” Orbital have filled the soundtrack with ominous analogue sounds, grand Wendy Carlos strings, bits of 70s adverts and the sounds of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. “I was spitting tea out of my mouth that some of the cultural references that young people might not get, but why not use them?”

The pandemic gave them a head start to write music before filming instead of afterwards as usual. Myers took finished pieces of music and played them loud onset to get the actors in the right headspace. “That is really rare and really exciting,” says Paul. “He’s a brilliant collaborator, he’s into all the same stuff as us, the old tropes and nostalgia. He knows what he wants but if you disagree, he’ll listen to you and try it your way.”

The irony, he thinks, is stupendous. He wrote ‘The Box’ on a Sunday afternoon in the mid-90s as an affectionate spoof of 60s-70s TV, looking for the sound of ‘The Avengers’ or ‘UFO’, rediscovering the things he loved as a kid.

“Now 25 years later, it’s found exactly its place with Mike Myers, in a programme that pays homage to the very same thing as me. It’s just not believable, is it?”

Or perhaps it is. With Orbital, with music, with certain notions of spacetime itself, there is the idea that past and future are part of the same thing. There is the theory of the Möbius. Where time becomes a loop.

P&P Music Factory

Selected highlights from 30-plus years of Orbital

Dec 1989

‘Chime’ comes out on Jazzy M’s Oh’Zone Records. An “already eagerly sought modest twittery shuffling acidic instrumental” according to James Hamilton’s Disco Page in Record Mirror.

7 Jan 1991

‘Belfast’ is released on the ‘III’ EP. In heavy contrast the lead track is the grinding techno-metal track ‘Satan’. “It was our supportive message after Judas Priest got sued for backwards satanic messages,” says Paul. “Why can’t you have forwards satanic messages?” As a result, Orbital are picketed by Catholic mothers in Poland. Phil: “That was a proud moment.”


Orbital tour the USA with Meat Beat Manifesto. At a New York shop called Star Magic Space Age Gifts on Broadway they spot a set of head-mounted torches for handymen. “We thought that’s good, you can check your record box when you DJ,” explains Phil. “So, we gave it a go and next thing, we’re the band with the torches on their heads.”

25 June 1994

Orbital headline Glastonbury’s NME Stage for the first time, winning over a crowd of 40,000 and pleasurably traumatising the psychologically vulnerable with new track ‘Are We Here?’’s deafening voice sample: “What Does God Say?”

“I got all those samples about Jesus from a weird religious record I found in a charity shop,” says Paul. “The picture on the front is a split screen with a bunch of nuclear weapons on one side and a stained glass window on the other. I thought, I’ve got to own that record…”


Orbital realise a long-cherished ambition with a film soundtrack, Paul W.S. Anderson’s space horror picture ‘Event Horizon’. They co-create it with composer Michael Kamen. “He did the score to ‘Brazil’, my all-time favourite film,” says Paul. “I said to him, I can’t read music, is that going to be a problem? And he goes: ‘Well I don’t do electronic so we’re gonna get on just fine…’”

31 Dec 1999

At Cream’s massive event at Liverpool’s Pier Head, Orbital see in the 21st Century with a special version of ‘Chime’ – with extra bongs. 


Orbital split for the first time. Phil concentrates on his DJing and Paul releases a solo album, ‘The Ideal Condition’, with guest vocals from Robert Smith.


The Hartnolls reform to headline The Big Chill and record the ‘Wonky’ album.

27 June 2010

Eleventh Doctor Who Matt Smith joins Orbital onstage to close the 40th Glastonbury with the ‘Who’ theme. Smith of course wears the obligatory torch glasses.

29 August 2012

The Paralympics Opening Ceremony – Orbital perform a medley of ‘Where Is It Going?’ and Ian Dury’s ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ with Prof Stephen Hawking and the Graeae Theatre Company. Some 11 million people are watching.


Orbital split again, after 25 years together, saying: “Nothing lasts forever and it’s time to stop.” Paul scores Season 2 of ‘Peaky Blinders’ after collaborating with Cillian Murphy on his solo album ‘8:58’. 


Orbital reunite again, to play live and release the album ‘Monsters Exist’ featuring Brian Cox. “The real joy for me,” Phil tells the website Music Radar, “is I’ve got my brother back.”

Orbital are playing Bugged Out! & Disco Pogo @ Drumsheds on 21 October. Get your tickets here

Twisted Nerve: Once More Around The Block
July 12, 2023
Twisted Nerve: Once More Around The Block
used cms Twisted Nerve: Once More Around The Block

Andy Votel and Badly Drawn Boy’s Twisted Nerve label might have been accidentally conceived, but it went on to birth not only a different, more compelling, side of mid-to-late-90s Manchester, but a range of artists who produced musical gold. Speaking to both Votel and Damon ‘BDB’ Gough, Luke Bainbridge revisits the label’s origins, its halcyon days and its legacy. And in doing so discovers that maybe the label’s story has another chapter still to be written…


It’s 25 years since Twisted Nerve first put Badly Drawn Boy and Andy Votel in the spotlight. It was only a short period of their multi-faceted creative careers – they’ve both led fascinating musical lives before and after – but it was the “short-lived dysfunctional family” (Votel’s description) of Twisted Nerve that first launched them into the national psyche.

I meet Andy Votel in Manchester Piccadilly Station, near where he and Gough were once photographed for an early Twisted Nerve photoshoot, outside the long-gone subterranean barbers in the stinky underground public toilets. Gough picks us up and drives us back to his adopted home of Chorlton, where he’s lived since shortly before the birth of Twisted Nerve in 1997. It was Damon moving to Chorlton that sparked the fortuitous chain of events which led to him meeting Votel and the formation of the label, more of which later.

I’ve known Votel and Gough since those halcyon days in the 90s, when they were first kicking around ideas that would mutate into Twisted Nerve. Manchester is a very different city now, and we’re all slightly different people, having lost hair (some of us more than others) and acquired children along the way. ‘As the fire smoulders, I never will get older’, Gough sang back then, ‘because I drink from waterfalls’. Maybe some of us didn’t drink from enough waterfalls. Does it feel like 25 years, or does it feel like yesterday?

“It definitely feels a while ago,” says Votel. “Once you have kids, you tend to judge time against their lives. My daughter is 19 now, and Twisted Nerve feels like several lifetimes before her.”

“It does freak me out a bit when you put it like that,” says Gough. “1997 was 25 years ago, so 25 years before that was the early-70s and The Beatles had just broken up.”

Votel was only 21 when they launched Twisted Nerve, but he’d already been once around the block. He was a very early starter, going to leftfield clubs before he’d had his first sip of beer. His dad took him to club nights at Parkers Hotel and Precinct 13 (at Votel’s behest) from the age of 15 (“I already had facial hair at that age”). Originally a whippersnapper battle rapper – his real surname is Shallcross, the adopted moniker comes from his early hip hop outfit Violators of the English Language – when the teenage Votel mentioned to his dad one night that he was worried about missing Gang Starr on Leaky Fresh’s Out to Distress Rap Show on Sunset, his dad drove him down to the pirate radio station and knocked on the door. Leaky Fresh said: “No problem, come upstairs.” And the 15-year-old Votel rapped his own lyrics for Guru and DJ Premier. Guru put him on the guest list for their gig the following night at International 2, met him outside and took him inside. As Votel watched Gang Starr perform from the side of the stage, he thought to himself: ‘You know what? I’m never going to get a real job. This is me from now on.’

The young Votel started DJing around Manchester, helped and inspired by people he’d met at Parkers Hotel. Unsung underground heroes like Caroline Maloney (“the most important DJ from Manchester in the last 30 years, in my opinion”) and Barney Wynters (aka Barney Doodlebug). Originally from Bristol, Barney and his doodlebug flyers and posters were everywhere around Manchester at the time, instantly recognisable. As was Barney himself, more likely to be seen in a dapper tweed suit only he could pull off, than the staple Mancunian mid-90s cagoule and baggy jeans. While most of the city looked like they were off to the match, Barney looked like he was sneaking off to the coolest late-night speakeasy you’d never heard of. “That Bristolian contingent were pretty important to Manchester,” says Votel. “People like Barney, Matt Triggs and Steve Smith, from Weston-Super-Mare, added another flavour.”

This was the time Votel and Gough first met, shortly after Gough moved to Manchester. Originally from Bolton, Gough spent his early 20s working at his family’s printing press, while messing around making music with his then partner Janine in their spare time.

“For six years we were kind of a couple,” he recalls. “But we were more like mates. We nearly formed a band, or tried to.”

After they split up, Janine moved to Berlin, and fell in with a new crowd including Peaches, and a few years later became the acclaimed electronic artist Planningtorock. Gough moved to Manchester but didn’t really know anyone either. Fortuitously, one of the first friends he met took him to an exhibition launch in a bar one night, where the young Votel happened to be DJing. The two got talking after an intrigued Gough plucked up courage to ask Votel about the records he was playing. “I was really down on my luck at that point,” says Gough, “and if I hadn’t moved to Chorlton and met those people I wouldn’t have gone that night and met Andy. The serendipity is amazing, but you still gotta make something of it. It’s not a given that something is going to happen…”

“I said this on stage when we did the Twisted Nerve reunion in December,” he continues. “Andy was the person who made it all seem possible to me. Everyone needs a mate like that in their life.”

Votel got a job with Grand Central and quickly transitioned from playing hip hop to the obscure 60s and 70s records and film soundtracks that would prove the bedrock for what became Twisted Nerve (that’s a very truncated précis, Votel paints a fuller picture later). He was also producing most of the artwork for Grand Central, Fat City and Ear To The Ground, and like the sponge that young enthusiastic kids are, soaking up everything about how to make a record, from the actual recordings to how to send a record to manufacture, design and print artwork, get it into shops, and then promote it.

“Andy was already a bit of a star,” says Gough, “I remember one of the first big nights we all went out with Doves. We bought a copy of The Face on the way home and there was a review of Andy’s ‘Spooky Driver’, and I was really impressed. So, I was kind of in awe of him, initially.”

“Initially!” laughs Votel, at Gough’s unintended caveat.

Through 1996, Gough and Votel grew closer. Gough started to play Votel his nascent solo recordings, although he was still self-conscious about his voice. He would play his demos in the car, but fast forward them when it came to the vocals. One day Gough stopped to get petrol, and as he went in to pay, Votel pressed play and was impressed by what he heard and suggested he put it out as it was. “The psychology of that first record is important,” says Votel. “You didn’t think it was ready, but I was like ‘Nothing is ever ready, nothing is ever really finished!’”

“I loved the lo-fi idea, I didn’t need to be persuaded about that,” replies Gough, “I was just probably nervous about putting my ideas out there and needed you to persuade me it would work. Andy’s artwork made it all seem more real, and all a sudden it was like: ‘We’re doing it…’”

A friend of Votel’s, Gerald at Jazzman Records, told him about a place in Nashville that pressed cheap 7-inches. “They were 26p each, which was cheaper than cassettes,” remembers Votel. “Then if you wanted an extra colour on the label it went up to 38p.”

Even then, there was no plan further than releasing the first couple of EPs. “I can’t remember us sitting down and having a specific conversation saying: ‘Shall we start a record label?’” Gough says to Votel. “Did we?”

Haven’t you called it an ‘accidental label’ before?

“That’s exactly what it was.” says Votel.

The name Twisted Nerve came from a Hayley Mills horror film and Votel came up with the accompanying rabbit logo for the artwork. It was around this time I first met Gough, when I was working at Manchester’s City Life magazine. Badly Drawn Boy was still just a rough sketch when he called me out of the blue one afternoon. “Is that Luke?” said the faltering voice. “My name’s Damon and I’ve started a record label with a friend of mine and we’re putting out my first EP and our friend Rick Myers said you might be able to help us…”

We met in Atlas bar. Gough gave me a copy of ‘EP1’ and explained the name Badly Drawn Boy came from a cartoon his nephew had drawn. He talked about the sort of music he wanted to make, and influences from Broadcast to Beck to The Beatles. He played his first solo gig, a ramshackle affair to 30 people at the Britons Protection pub. It was obvious he was a singular talent, if still rough around the edges. But despite that undoubted raw talent, I don’t think anyone at the BP that night thought he would go on to produce a debut album, ‘The Hour of Bewilderbeast’, of such timeless magnificence and win the Mercury only three years later. As Votel later said: “What none of us knew at that time, was that Damon was an absolutely brilliant songwriter.”

The name ‘Badly Drawn Boy’ was another incident of accidental brilliance at the accidental label. Neither Votel or Gough realised at first just how apt ‘Badly Drawn Boy’ was. “It’s like: ‘This is broke before you get it, we’re making that clear’,” explains Votel now. “Don’t bring it back and say it’s not quite finished! It’s ‘sold as seen’.”

As ‘EP1’ caused a buzz around Manchester and got them national recognition, Badly Drawn Boy and Twisted Nerve quickly became slightly mythical figures. Gough recalls going to the toilets in Dry Bar and two blokes next to him discussing who this ‘Badly Drawn Boy’ was, with no idea he was stood next to them, “because no-one had any idea what we looked like…”

The aesthetic was key to Twisted Nerve. Drawing on influences as varied as his teacher at Stockport college, the designs of Abram Ganes, library records, local peers like Barney Doodlebug, and the DIY aesthetic passed down from his dad, the lo-fi, cut’n’paste, less-is-more approach of Votel’s design reflected the music within. It couldn’t have been further in look, budget and ideals from the excess-all-areas mainstream music industry approach of the time, which saw Oasis sleeve designers Microdot rent a country mansion and sink a Rolls Royce into the swimming pool for the cover shoot for their bloated opus ‘Be Here Now’.

The accidental label became more of a real label once other artists and people in their orbit began to bring them music. Both Votel and Gough cite Dave Tyack joining the label as bit of a turning point. Suddenly, they had a responsibility to other artists. Twisted Nerve reflected that while the outside view might have been that the Manchester music scene in the mid-90s was struggling to emerge from the long shadows of Oasis and The Haçienda, underneath the surface much more interesting things were happening. Quite literally underneath the surface a lot of the time, as a lot of these things were happening in basement clubs. Under the paving stones, Manchester had everything but a beach. From Luke and Justin Unabomber launching Electric Chair, to Sankeys Soap and Jockey Slut, to Grand Central, Fat City and beyond, the musical landscape of Manchester was being redrawn, the hangover of the Madchester years subsiding. Twisted Nerve, Gough and Votel cut across the Venn diagram of the Manchester underground, attracting people from different tribes. They were feted by the music and style press, every issue of The Face at the time seemed to feature Badly, Votel or an associated Twisted Nerve act. They signed more acts including Mum and Dad, Alfie, Misty Dixon (featuring Jane Weaver, who went on to carve a brilliant solo career for herself after Twisted Nerve, and also married Votel) and Aidan Smith.

Gough and Votel were, for a short while, the bearded lo-fi answer to Damon Dash and Jay-Z. If most of the label’s acts were in little danger of troubling the charts, that wasn’t the point. Most of their ‘bands’ (apart from Mum and Dad, Misty Dixon and Alfie) were one-man acts and didn’t really exist outside the bedroom. “People thought we were making the bands up,” says Votel, “which we were in a way. They were like: ‘Where are they signing them from? Where was the bidding war?’ because that’s how the major labels thought.”

Although they did their best to avoid any comparisons with other record labels, if they were Factory, Badly Drawn Boy was Joy Division, the act the label initially coalesced around and surprised everyone by producing such an utterly timeless debut album, while Votel was Martin Hannett, Peter Saville and Rob Gretton in one, setting the sonic palette and design aesthetic for the label, and convincing others it was possible to do it on their terms. Neither of them wanted to be Tony Wilson, they’re just not made that way. Not the type to shout from the rooftops. Although after Twisted Nerve launched, they were invited to an audience with the late, great Wilson. “I remember going to meet him, and he just spent about an hour and a half talking at us, and drawing diagrams on this board, showing the links from Motown to Factory to Twisted Nerve,” recalls Gough. “I just kept looking at Andy, and he was sat on this little stool, spinning round. Tony was talking and talking, and Andy was just spinning round, getting a glimpse of Tony every time he turned.”

“I don’t remember that!” laughs Votel, “but I like the sound of it, I’m having it!”

“We went to so many meetings around that time,” says Gough, “where Andy and I just turned to each other and were like: ‘Why are we here?’”

It seems the recent Twisted Nerve 25th anniversary gig at the Golden Lion in Todmorden has them thinking again, addressing the Twisted Nerve elephant in their room. What was the feeling like when the dysfunctional family came together for the first time in decades?

“Euphoric,” says Votel with conviction, then reaffirms it when he sees me wondering how serious he is. “No, I genuinely mean it. Euphoric. It really is, now. There was a cooling off period, initially, of about five years, and then there was a slightly apologetic feeling from some people who realised they had unrealistic expectations of the label.”

Not every Twisted Nerve act was going to win the Mercury Music Prize, but a couple of them naively made the mistake of thinking they were set to follow in Gough’s footsteps simply by signing to the label.

“It was a revelation,” says Gough, of the reunion. “I felt tearful. It just took me back to the good days.”

“There was a fracture that we’ve not really talked about,” says Votel. “In the same way that Dave Tyack made Twisted Nerve a label when he joined, when he went missing and died, we lost a lot of focus, and that can’t be understated. The biggest fan of the label was Dave Tyack. After Tyack died, I didn’t know who I was trying to impress, and I didn’t know who our audience was. He was the barometer.”

“The thing is,” Votel sums up. “We all built each other. We all made each other, and we didn’t realise what a family it was at the time. No matter what happens, you’re never going to meet people as important as that again. We share the same memories.”

“When you see old friends again who are important to you, it’s like a piece of you coming back to you,” says Gough. “Even if you didn’t appreciate at the time how important they were.” 

In the nearly two decades since Twisted Nerve, Andy has concentrated on his Finders Keepers label with Doug Shipton and Dom Thomas. “Basically, I always had over ambitious dreams of having my own outernational psychedelic label… so I set up an imaginary one with Twisted Nerve. Eight years later I set up a real one in Finders Keepers, working with our heroes on a daily basis. We had won the Eurovision Wrong Contest!!”.

He’s also a hugely underrated DJ (not by everyone, he’s fully appreciated by many, but maybe not enough). One of my favourite DJ sets of the last decade was his brilliant psyche space rock set at Bluedot festival in 2017. I was stood with Jimi Goodwin from Doves. Both of us had seen Votel DJ many times but were both blown away by his set that night.

In lockdown, Andy started rapping and rambling. He went back to his first love of hip hop and put out a new record as Violators of the English Language. He also started going out walking with a group of old heads, all appreciating the benefits of blowing away the mental cobwebs of lockdown and middle age. ‘Trek Your Head’, Votel hashtags it on Instagram. He now goes out most Thursdays, with a group that includes old Twisted Nerve heads and associates like Paul Vella and Stan Chow, and comedian Justin Moorhouse, and is hoping to tick off all the Ethels (peaks in the Peak District) by the end of the year.

Gough seems happier, calmer, and more positive than he has been for a few years, if still a little bewildered, in the best possible way, about how he got here. How we all got here. He’s seven years sober (since Votel’s 40th birthday party in Marple), after a difficult period when there were a few high-profile on-stage meltdowns. A lot of his focus is on his second young family with new partner Leanne, and after his ninth studio album ‘Banana Skin Shoes’ came out at the start of the pandemic, he’s now currently on his own Badly Drawn Boy 25th anniversary tour. There’s clearly, thankfully, a lot of music still to come from Gough. He’s still searching for another pearl.

After a few hours discussing Twisted Nerve’s long and winding road, Gough drives us to the home of Mum and Dad’s Ian Rainford, who has custody of the Twisted Nerve scrapbooks, and has kindly agreed to lend them to me. We leaf through the pages of press cuttings, memories and synapses triggered. “It’s unbelievable the amount of press coverage we got, really,” says Rainford.

It’s a been a long day, and we’re tired and hungry, so Votel persuades Gough to drive us to Stockport, so he can show us how his hometown has changed in the last few years. Stockport, as Luke Una has proclaimed several times on Instagram, is apparently the new Berlin. Votel gives us a whistlestop tour of the new independent bars and record shops on the steep cobbled streets. There’s a definite vibe, albeit more early Northern Quarter than early Berlin. “There’s nothing like this in Bolton,” says Gough, impressed. We pop into SK1 the record shop, and bump into a few old faces, including Jason Boardman of Aficionado. Then we part ways, Andy off to meet his son Herbie to watch Stockport v Gillingham, which ends up a drab 0-0, and Gough off home, to get ready for his imminent dates, Something to Tour About: 25 Years of Badly Drawn Boy, and possibly, to ponder something Votel suggested earlier that day.

As we talked through and around Twisted Nerve’s legacy, the highs and lows, the years seemed to drop away. Votel was about to say something when Gough got up to go to the toilet and said, “carry on without me”, but Votel changed the subject and waited until Gough was back before he continued, wanting him to hear what he had to say.

“Twisted Nerve was like this imaginary label, which was unachievable, so we made this fake label with names like Bimbo Quick and Gabriel Greenburg and all these fantastic names,” he sums up, “and its gestation allowed me to go and make the real label, which is Finders Keepers. So, I’ve been doing the real label for 18 years, but what I failed to realise is it’s actually the pantomime version that… that excites the most, because it’s creation. All this great stuff on Finders Keepers, we found all these amazing things ‘cause I’m a great archivist, it’s what I do, but I didn’t make that music. Twisted Nerve made this music. We created it from nothing… the most exciting thing that could possibly, possibly happen now, is for us to relaunch Twisted Nerve, and carry on where we left off. Nothing has happened since that has put Twisted Nerve out of context, because there was no context for Twisted Nerve. It’s an alternative universe that can exist anywhere and anytime. I remember a DJ reaction sheet from Norman Cook to a Dakota Oak record that said: ‘This doesn’t work on the dancefloor, but you also can’t chill out to it’. What? So, dancing and chilling out are the only two emotions music allows you to have? We spent all our time trying to fill in all the gaps in between, and in 20 years of being a record detective and travelling the world, I’ve found nothing quite like it…”

The return of Twisted Nerve? Well, that’s the conversation old friends Andy Votel and Damon Gough need to have. As Andy said to Damon, 25 years ago: “Nothing’s ever really finished, Damon…”

Watch this space.



“Unlike many Mancunian record labels, that were born out of successful club nights, Twisted Nerve was really born out of failed club nights. Myself, Stan Chow, Rick Myers, John Walsh and Dom Thomas ran a string of club nights such as Wandy’s World and Teen Tonic which were promoted under the Doodlebug/Hocus Pocus/Hoochie Coochie umbrella thanks to the confidence boost of Barney Wynters. You can’t overestimate the influence of Barney on Manchester in the mid-90s. I first met Barney at Parkers Hotel, and he definitely instigated/authenticated or framed the early careers of myself, and other people like Dan ‘Black Lodge’ Dwayre and Mr Scruff.

“Twisted Nerve’s aesthetic was born solely out of the records played at these events. My earlier tactic of playing hip hop records next to their original samples had won me favour with Fat City, but within a year in Grand Central’s company playing alongside other turntable-type DJs I had stopped playing hip hop altogether in favour of obscure 60s and 70s records.

“The labels that were undeniably the blueprint for Twisted Nerve were all from the 1970s. Cadet Concept from Chicago was a definite hymn sheet for me, they released Rotary Connection, Dorothy Ashby, Terry Callier, Electric Mud, Archie Whitewater, John Klemmer’s ‘Blowin’ Gold’ and many more records that never left my DJ bag. Cadet Concept was a subsidiary of Chess Records, ran by Marshall Chess, the son of the Chess founder Leonard Chess, and the cast of totally unknown bands that adorned all the inner sleeves represented another unexplored universe. It was almost as if these bands were imaginary, because it wasn’t easy to find the records and you never knew what they were going to sound like, but thanks to Charles Stepney and Richard Rudolf (who married Minnie Riperton) they were all good.

“This idea of a group of fantasy bands that didn’t really exist was hugely inspiring. It also helped everyone with their stage fright. Electronic pop records by Jean-Jacques Perrey, Pierre Henry, Dick Hyman, John Murtaugh, The Hellers and Walter Sear were 100% the EXACT sound I wanted for Twisted Nerve, and WE ALL bonded over these records and agreed that a label that made this kind of lost music would be amazing but also achievable. The label that united a lot of these artists in the late-60s was called Command and without question I wanted Twisted Nerve to be just like Command. The artwork was great too, very uniformed.

“When I first heard tracks like ‘Bimbo Quick’ (Sirconical) ‘Riding with Gabriel Greenberg’ (BDB) and ‘The Man With No Name’ (Dakota Oak) they all ticked all these boxes, so it was absolutely plausible that we could make it happen as a multi-artist label… and this realisation was the most exciting moment.

“Other artists that we were all into at the time included the American psych bands Silver Apples, The United States of America, Fifty Foot Hose and Elephant’s Memory, who all pioneered the use of electronics. When Broadcast emerged around the same time as Twisted Nerve, they sounded like The United States of America so I decided that Mum & Dad (called Christmas at the time) should sound like 50 Foot Hose. This was how I justified things in my head, a bizarre gameplan. Broadcast records came out on a label called Wurlitzer Jukebox alongside Pram, Plone and the first Mogwai record, among others. If Twisted Nerve had anything at all that resembled a contemporary it was Wurlitzer Jukebox. The artwork for the first Broadcast and Plone 7-inches inspired me how to achieve great minimal artwork with no money.

“Unbeknown to me, there had been a label called Absurd Records in Manchester 15 years earlier, who totally achieved, via imaginary bands, the small M.O. of what I wanted to do with the label. If I had known Absurd Records back then, I might have never started Twisted Nerve. I never intended it to exist outside of ten records, a lot like the aforementioned imprints.

“The Twisted Nerve artwork was the result of lessons taught at Stockport College by the very influential Ian Parkin who demonstrated to us how to communicate in just two colours, economically in every sense. The mantra of famous designer Abram Ganes was ‘Maximum Message, Minimum Means’ which was also the label’s unpublished manifesto. Two other musical inspirations I should mention – the list of fake band names in the record shop in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (Rick Myers and I were obsessed) and library records, in a big way. Stockport College, where I studied graphics, had hundreds of deWolfe Library records, so I was a very early adopter of this vinyl phenomena. A vast majority of the music on DeWolfe (and others) was based on fake bands (often more famous bands in disguise to evade contractual obligations). I was fascinated by this, and fake bands that appeared on 60s and 70s film soundtracks were a direct extension of this very phenomena.

“This all might sound niche and geeky, but this was the absolute unshakable blueprint of what the extended Twisted Nerve family were listening to. Nobody really asked us or explored this side of Twisted Nerve back then, but for me it’s the most exciting part of the story.”

Roisin Murphy: "That Ol' Magic's Back"
July 12, 2023
Roisin Murphy: "That Ol' Magic's Back"
used cms Roisin Murphy: "That Ol' Magic's Back"

And in the nick of time, Róisín Murphy returns. After conquering global dancefloors with ‘Róisín Machine’, the electronic wizard has her eyes on the glitterballs of the cosmos with the release of her new album. Felicity Martin hears how the album touches upon all of her past recordings to produce, once again, something new. “If you narrow down your options, you arrive somewhere,” Murphy proclaims…

Growing up in Arklow on the east coast of Ireland, Róisín Murphy never wanted to be on stage. She wanted to be a photographer or an artist, or even an interior designer – she didn’t know what exactly, but she knew it would be something creative.

“The only thing I ever did as a kid that was performative, that I felt I was good at was poetry. There was a festival in town where all the kids would say poems, and it was a competition. I used to win that quite regularly, once a year. And then I sang a song for them all, ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’, when I was about 10. They all realised I could sing and it was the worst thing that ever happened because they wouldn’t leave me alone! Every time they had a couple of drinks, they were like: ‘Sing it!’ I used to run for the hills.”

When we meet, Róisín Murphy is dodging bright lights. She’s shielding her eyes in one of the DJ’s green rooms at Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace, a newly-unveiled roller disco in west London (an apt place to meet an artist whose music feels like it should be listened to while flying around on four tiny wheels). “Seriously, let’s go, ‘cause it’s so medical in here!” We swap the hospital-style lighting for a lounge area overlooking the vast rink, but as soon as she takes a seat, a spotlight switches on and shines directly into her face.

Across a near 30-year stint in the music industry, Murphy has rarely stopped for much of a breather. The singer-songwriter, 49, has continually reinvented herself, compounding her stellar back catalogue as Moloko in the 90s with what is coming up to six solo studio albums. 2020’s ‘Róisín Machine’, joined the dots between sultry pop and the most hedonistic corners of the disco at a time when the dancefloor was firmly locked off, and somehow seeing her achieve the most critical and commercial acclaim yet.

Although it’s something she’s well familiar with now, releasing new music is still “frightening, every time – no matter what you say,” Murphy admits. “I’ve been going around for a year or two just knowing I’ve got this record in me back pocket, and it’s been a lovely feeling to know I have this to come, because it’s been bubbling for a long time. But that lovely feeling’s going a little bit,” she laughs, “as I get closer to putting it out, because some of the more paranoid thoughts come into your head.”

Her new album, the title of which leaked online earlier this year, but we’ve been asked by her new label Ninja Tune not to reveal, comes with a production partner in Stefan Kozalla aka DJ Koze, who she worked with on his ‘Knock Knock’ album, where he sliced up and warped her vocals, gently weaving them through wistful layers. She gave the German producer the green light from
the get-go – he’d first sent her the single ‘Pick Up’, which she recorded and sent back to him. Overnight, it came back as ‘Scratch That’, a completely different track.

“I thought: ‘Wow! He’s mental him, this guy, he’s mad for it!’,” she says. ‘CooCool’, her new album’s first single, is a romantic ode to uncomplicated love, with sweeping, groove-laden production that evokes Koze’s hip hop background. ‘That ol’ magic’s back,’ Murphy sings, both a nod to the addictive feeling of attraction and the idea that the Róisín machine is whirring back into gear.

That easy-breezy, feelgood factor is at play in the production, with another album track – most song titles are, as-yet, unannounced – finding Murphy faking an American accent and breaking into something not dissimilar to an interpolation of ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’. Another cut, an Amen break-filled trip through golden-era nostalgia, is another instance of Koze’s DMC origins coming to the fore, given the Róisín touch with chipmunk soul vocals. Elsewhere, cosmic funk sets the tone for a perfect, hug-all-your-friends set closing track or, on ‘Can’t Replicate’, which soundtracked Chanel models stomping down the runway at Paris Fashion Week AW23, there’s a defiant kick with an undeniable nod to Lil Louis’ orgasmic 1989 track ‘French Kiss’.

Working with previous collaborators Mark Brydon (in Moloko), Matthew Herbert (‘Ruby Blue’) and DJ Parrot (‘Róisín Machine’) meant being physically present in the studio with them, but the process was different with Koze. This is the record that’s caused her to embrace Ableton, after he encouraged her to get on the same software so the pair could send ideas back and forth. She started recording vocals in-between doing the hoovering and putting her kids to bed. “I write a lot before they even go to school, or they get up for school, sometimes, depending on how intense I am.” As well as making her more productive, it’s been great for capturing melodies. “Which are very, very fleeting, they’re more fleeting than words coming in and out of your head, and hard to hold on to,” she says. “The way you sing a melody can really sell it, you know, and oftentimes the very first time it comes out your gob is the best time!”

Koze has deliberately included some of these sketchy, incomplete ideas that left her lips: “He’s left things in that aren’t quite formed – they’re there because of the intimate way I worked with myself vocally – but they have a vibe, you know?” This record had him starting out with what she calls “very much just a piece of stone, and then he has to chip away at it to find the sculpture inside.” Throughout the album, Koze’s tinkered and fiddled with her voice so there’s a warm, analogue feel to things, her voice whizzing and whirling like vinyl gently being slowed down, or a CD stuttering and skipping.

Along with joyful romantic love, Murphy tackles themes like the large, unknowable cosmos lyrically – the physical one as much as the dance universe she’s created for herself. “My father was a very philosophical man,” she says about her fascination with outer space. “It mirrors the music, it mirrors the fact that the music’s almost like – it really tells the story, I think, orally without even words or any singing on it. But the capturing of little essences from all over the place perfectly, like they drift past yer ear, like they’re floating in space, these voices.”

To take a technological advancement and fling yourself into it is very Róisín, and this extends to the artwork, which she’s typically hands-on with. Where many artists are deriding the AI boom – and for good reason, per recent news of David Guetta creating a fake Eminem edit using a deepfake of the rapper’s voice – Róisín is intrigued by its possibilities. For the album’s artwork, she’s placing herself inside a machine-generated world.

“I mean, I don’t know what I think about the explosion of AI art yet,” she says, pre-empting the question, “but I do feel like, in the beginning, things are always very exciting, and there are mistakes, and it’s all a bit wobbly. It’s not quite there yet. It’s a very exciting place to look at and observe.” To her, the millions of “outrageous” images that are being generated are “the sort of processing of our consciousness in a way. Like I’m jumping into somebody else’s dream in these images.”

Not a nightmare, though? “It’s a bit of both – there’s all sorts going on. They’re not idealised pop star images, they’re like going into a fucking mad dream, down the rabbit hole.”

Even if she hated singing in front of an audience as a kid, Murphy has always been an exhibitionist, as shown by her various wild stage antics that can involve stalking about, crowd surfing, and even Irish dancing. She’s been bringing that theatricality onto the screen, recently making her acting debut in Netflix’s ‘Half Bad’, where she played a powerful, blood-collecting witch named Mercury. Her next role? She’d love to play Lady Macbeth, or nab a spot in cop drama ‘Happy Valley’. But another project she’s keen to dig her teeth into is a screen adaptation of the Ireland she knew while growing up, amid war and religious and political clashes.

“It was a magical time – it was fooked as well, like – a terrible recession in the 80s but through me early childhood it felt like everything was on the up and up,” she says.

Her father, Mickey Murphy, was a businessman and her mother an antiques dealer. Together they were wheeler-dealer types who did everything from pub fittings to laying roads. They once sold two paintings by Dutch masters at Christie’s, and the next day would be hawking a lorry load of scrap metal.

“Everybody was big personalities and it was loads of singing, strong women and mad, fucked-up men,” she recalls. “It was quite glamorous in a way but in a scruffy sort of way. People really knew how to have fun, they knew how to party. It was such a mix of people and class, from Irish travellers to lords and ladies.”

Aged 12, Murphy moved over to Manchester, becoming instantly enamoured with the strong Black culture there, with reggae and dub creating a cross pollination of sounds. She wasn’t so mad on The Haçienda – she was more into the clubs that played psychedelic, grungy stuff like Dinosaur Jr and The Stooges. At 14, she was in a noise/punk band, the confusingly-named And Turquoise Car Crash The in Stockport, who only played one gig, in which she screamed throughout. Her parents returned to Ireland after divorcing but she stayed in Manchester alone, moving to Sheffield aged 19.

It was there that she discovered a “cosy little music” scene that also felt futuristic to her, populated by people like Warp Records’ Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell who were some of the first people she met there. “I was so thoroughly satiated by a handful of DJs,” she says of her days partying there, “we were like a team – it was a gang.”

Moloko formed in 1994, after a chance meeting in Sheffield with bassist Mark Brydon. Famously, Murphy asked him: “Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my body,” which would become their debut album’s title. On the first night they met, they went to the studio and recorded together, with Murphy saying words, not yet singing – and this setup earned them a six-album deal.

“It was all talking and putting on stupid voices – a bit like on this [forthcoming] record!” she laughs. “After we got signed, this American A&R man was really pushy, and he heard a tiny bit of singing on the record, and sat us down. He was like…” – she affects a bolshy US accent – “‘She can fuckin’ sing, man!’ He shouted at Mark: ‘Get her to sing, that shit sounds like Nina Simone!’” That was good, Murphy admits, “because if it hadn’t been somebody full-on… one of the English guys would never have said it to us, they would’ve never shouted at Mark. After that it was just finding out about my voice all the way through.”

The duo had immense success, and one of many high points, she says, was shooting the ‘Sing It Back’ video with her then-flatmate in Sheffield, Dawn Shadforth (who recently directed the excellent second series of the Billie Piper-featuring ‘I Hate Suzie’). They shot it “for fuck all money” but “it was just having a really fantastic clear idea, and [Dawn] executed it so beautifully.” Murphy recalls the satisfaction of transforming the music into a live show – “it was amazing we achieved anything live considering where we’d come from as a duo in Sheffield, with no band. It became absolutely fookin’ phenomenal, and you have a better laugh on tour when you’re off stage when you know the gig’s solid.”

When she and Brydon split up, both musically and romantically, Róisín moved to London, and kicked off her solo career. Writing her 2005 debut ‘Ruby Blue’ with Matthew Herbert was like “doing therapy,” she says. “I was speaking to him the other day, and said it took a good few weeks to write, but he said: ‘No, it took ten days to write.’ We just came in every day, wrote every day.” Previously, she’d had little A&R intervention, but now she did – and was dropped by her major label following 2007’s ‘Overpowered’ after saying a remix they’d commissioned was “shit”. She was never afraid to voice her opinions – in Moloko, “if I didn’t think [the label] were listening to me and hearing what I was saying... I’d cry and pound the table, go in hyperventilating.” It’s this, she thinks, that has enabled her to go through the industry pretty much doing what she wants.

She took some time out – even though she doesn’t see it as a hiatus – to raise her children: Clodagh, now 13, and Tadhg, 10 (who she insists “don’t care” about her as an artist whatsoever). The suburban life she entered into around that time would come to feature aesthetically on the Mercury-nominated ‘Hairless Toys’ with its moody void of grey and unpredictable energy. 2016’s ‘Take Her Up to Monto’ portrayed Róisín in a steely worker look, the antithesis of her “Timotei ads” look in ‘The Time Is Now’ video. Then came her crowning glory to date, ‘Róisín Machine’, with its warm disco-funk seamlessly blending into countless dance genres.

With a strong shock of blonde hair and a glint in her eye, Murphy has a magnetic, no-nonsense personality. She’s the kind of person you can imagine having the best night of your life with, but also someone you wouldn’t want to piss off. “I am a born gaffer, Mark Brydon used to say,” she explains. “And I think it’s true because nobody on either side of the family worked for anyone – they was either musicians or they had their own businesses.”

On the cusp of hitting 50, Murphy seems unphased by the milestone, insisting that she doesn’t have any plans as she’s expecting to have a pretty packed summer with the record’s release, and has to be “impromptu”. In May, she’s set to bring the party to what is undoubtedly London’s grandest music venue. “Oh this is going to be so posh!” she wrote, promoting the event. “Imagine me, Mickey Murphy’s daughter at the Royal Albert Hall!”

Murphy is now based in Ibiza with her partner, the Italian producer Sebastiano Properzi, and frequently climbs mountains, breaking a sweat that way rather than staying out all night – although “in the summer we do go around a little bit here and there, to the nightclubs and that. We have a good laugh, but not too much.” Crucially, they also have a banging sound system at home.

Murphy has never been one to pay much mind to fads or fashionable sounds that are picked up and dropped by the electronic music landscape. “I try to avoid current trends,” she nods. “I am a bit reactionary that way – I started out that way: Moloko was a reaction to dance music going really main room and losing us, at that point, in the early-90s. Ever since, I’ve always said: ‘I’m not doing this and I’m not doing that and I’m not doing the other.’ It does help – if you narrow down your options, you arrive somewhere.”

As such, her forthcoming album filters in elements from all her past records, taking influence from her own canon rather than any outside sources. “It has a bit of that joy that’s in the very first (Moloko) record, ‘Do You Like My Tight Sweater?’, and of playing with characters and being extremely funky, and also having a really lovely sound. Then there’s a little bit of the ‘Ruby Blue’ record in there, in that my voice is very – although it’s much more fucked with than it is on ‘Ruby Blue’ – it’s still very sensual, when it’s there. And very in-your-face and sounds really good, you know? Then there’s the experimentation for me in playing with hooks, parts, things that I did in ‘Hairless Toys’ and ‘Take Her Up to Monto’.” There is also, she ventures intriguingly, a “convincing modernity that strikes, that feels like to me is the right time.”

The defiance with which she approaches her music is there in how she presents herself – the anti-normcore and fashion-forward Murphy chose to style herself for her Disco Pogo cover shoot (although she refused to put on roller skates, saying her partner wouldn’t be too happy). She remains one of music’s leading style stars – a sort of proto-Lady Gaga, since being clad in a disco ball-meets knight of the realm outfit in the ‘Sing It Back’ video, and her penchant for avant-garde headgear has seen her in everything from utilitarian hard hats to a sequined, long-nosed mask à la 17th century plague doctor. Her long love of cutting-edge chic drew her into the orbit of Vivienne Westwood, with whom she shared red carpet space and even the runway. When we chat, Murphy is getting ready to attend the late dame’s memorial service, and talks about the “weird, strange shock” of her passing, as “she just seemed like somebody who wouldn’t ever be gone.”

“The clothes – ah!” she glows. “They were a big thing for us in the club scene, after punk and the new romantic [era], there was this other wave where people were wearing it in clubs. You just knew Vivienne Westwood – I think I might have known about it as a label before I knew any label.” When Murphy was in Sheffield, she’d pop over to Vivienne’s shop in Leeds to “buy the odd bit, you know, when you had some money.”

“There was people who just rocked in that scene. It was very desirable for me as a teenager ‘cause it just always spoke so many things. It said: ‘I’m really somebody, I’m really an individual. I’m brave.’”

Since the early days of Moloko, the industry has shape-shifted considerably – back then, “you made your record, your pop video, and you went on tour” – but Murphy’s prolificacy and resilience has allowed her to continually adapt and make things that sound “really fucking different from the last thing”. She’s now signed to Ninja Tune, the label that houses top shelf electronic acts such as Bicep, DJ Seinfeld and VTSS, and is always willing to roll with the industry’s developments, which she says is notably different three years on from her last album.

“What’s lucky is that this record really suits that, suits snippets of music that draw you in, that have a story, and sound really modern, you know?” she says of the emphasis on platforms like TikTok. But she doesn’t have any problems in that department: her 2005 track ‘Ramalama (Bang Bang)’ recently took off and found a new audience there, gripped by its wonky weirdness.

“There’s a lot for me to be able to feed into this machine,” she continues, that glint in her eye returning. “And it’s fine as long as the content is content. If there becomes a point where I haven’t got anything to say, I will stop saying it. But right now there’s plenty of stories to tell without me having to show you eating me porridge in the morning.” Murphy’s account is very much not breakfast food, though. It’s her delivering her “Hiya, y’alright?” catchphrase, showcasing the outfits of your strangest and best dreams, and stints behind the decks at Pikes in Ibiza.

It’s a testament to her staying power that her gigs have always been intergenerational. “You meet a lot of parents with kids [at them], but actually once I met a grandparent with a kid and child, so three generations!” What’s great about her shows, she says, is that mix. “There’s an expectation of almost, like, the participatory nature of the audience. So everybody dresses up – it’s a party, you know, before they even get in there!”

Network! The New Dance Sound Of Birmingham
July 12, 2023
Network! The New Dance Sound Of Birmingham
used cms Network! The New Dance Sound Of Birmingham

Network Records: An oral history

Cast A-Z:

John McCready: PR

Mark Archer: Nexus 21/Altern 8

MC Crazy Clair: 3-year-old Altern 8 MC

Neil Macey: Club promotions

Neil Rushton: Managing director

Trevor Jackson: Designer


This is the story of a northern soul DJ and newspaper reporter who helped popularise the term techno in the UK and released some of the most seminal records in the genre. Network Records not only licensed some of the first Detroit releases, but it was also at the vanguard of bleep techno and then, with Altern 8, it stumbled upon the biggest rave act in the UK. However, after scoring a number one hit in 1993, with a cover version of a poppy piano house track, things went sour.

Neil Rushton was a promoter, DJ and journalist and had been a cornerstone of the northern soul scene putting on huge all-dayers in Manchester. This gave him the opportunity to license breaking soul tracks. With his label Inferno he brought the UK ‘Band of Gold’ by Freda Payne and Chairman of the Board’s ‘Give Me Just a Little More Time’. A lot of soul heads found parallels with house music – including the connection with pills and dancing – so Rushton set up Kool Kat in 1987, one of the first UK labels dedicated to the genre. Hearing what sounded like a European take on house music but coming from Detroit – a place which always had a strong connection for collectors of northern soul – Rushton decided to concentrate his efforts on the city.

“I could not believe how amazing Rhythim Is Rhythim’s ‘The Dance’ sounded,” he remembers today. “It just blew me away. I decided to ring the phone number on the Transmat label and Derrick May answered himself. We instantly clicked. I licensed Derrick’s side project R-Tyme to Chrysalis and on Kool Kat we released 12-inches by Reese & Santonio (Kevin Saunderson) and Model 500 (Juan Atkins) and then put various Detroit tracks on a compilation for Virgin called ‘Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit’.”


Neil Rushton: “I had a connection with Detroit because of my love of soul music, also Pete Tong had the Chicago house scene sewn up with the ‘House Sound of Chicago’ compilations. I suggested to Virgin it could do an equivalent but with these techno artists. I was wondering what to call it, ‘The House Sound of Detroit’ would’ve been naff. I was with Chez Damier in Detroit, and he was the one who said we should call it techno. I think it was the first time the word techno was used in the UK around that time, though there had been a track called ‘Techno City’ by Juan Atkins (as Cybotron in 1984).”

Neil Macey: “Neil had the relationship with the Detroit artists, he’d spent so much time there looking for tracks, he had a double garage absolutely rammed full of 7-inch records. He didn’t have that music executive vibe, so I think the artists liked that.” 

John McCready: “He was there first, he was generous in his payments to the Detroit artists, and they sensed his lifelong devotion to the sound of Detroit from soul and Motown on. On that, he saw techno as no less than a continuation of those roots, and though they rejected that as absurd initially, they came to terms with the definite parallels and, eventually becoming media savvy, learned to talk about it.”

NR: “I’d got all the tracks together for the Virgin compilation, but we needed a couple more. One of them became Rhythim Is Rhythim’s ‘It Is What It Is’. I was there when that was made and it’s one of the best techno tracks ever. But we still needed one more. Kev said he had more tracks, but he didn’t really like them. He gave me this tape that had Inner City ‘Big Fun’ written on it. It was a vocal record and he didn’t know what to do with it. I just said: ‘That’s a worldwide smash. It’s going to change your life. I know you’re at college, but you won’t be in six months’ time.’ He looked nonplussed.”

NR: “We moved into John Mostyn’s office – Stafford House – and bought the building with him. I stumbled into management with Inner City. John was instrumental in Inner City getting a proper album deal. Virgin had said no to an album initially. I think their album ’Paradise’ went on to sell about half a million copies.”

Neil Rushton

In 1988, acid house started to take hold across the UK, though Ritzy clubs hadn’t caught on so DJs and early ravers had to put on parties wherever they could. In small towns near Birmingham wine bars often had to do.

NM: “Neil Rushton lived in Burnwood in Staffordshire, a little town down the road from the little town that I lived in. Pat Ward, an old northern soul friend of Neil’s, had a record shop in Burnwood and a DJ residency in the wine bar across the road: No. 7s. I met Pat through buying records in his shop, I was 17 and wanted to buy all the new dance music, early house, hip hop and soul. Pat invited me to his wine bar on a Thursday night to play the stuff I’d been buying. It was a success and so Pat gave me every Thursday.”

Mark Archer: “These wine bars weren’t set up for raves. Behind the bars it was all mirrors with flimsy glass shelves so when Neil dropped ‘LFO’ glasses were dropping off these shelves.” 

NM: “People started coming from all over the Midlands to my Thursday. Mark Archer and his crew came from Stoke. We were going to other peoples’ little nights and they were coming to ours.” 

NR: “I met Neil Macey at my local wine bar. I’d take white labels and acetates into him.”

NM: “Neil comes down to my Thursday - packed, sweaty, loads of smoke. We got chatting and he had brought a bag of records: Inner City, Eddie Fowlkes, Rhythim is Rhythim, Blake Baxter.”

Mark: “If I went to a new club I’d take the promo of Nexus 21’s ‘Still Life’ with me. Neil flicked through his record box and pulled a copy up. ‘Oh my God, someone’s bought my record!’ So, I got talking to him each time I went down. One week he said: ‘You’ve heard of Kool Kat? They’re starting a new label. The bloke who runs it is over at the bar. Go and have a word.’ I stood there for ages waiting for a pause as Rushton and Pat Ward were chatting and then I butted in and said I was Nexus 21. They said: ‘We’ve got your music at the office we’ve been trying to get in contact with you.’”

NR: “With Kool Kat we’d put some good records out but some of the artwork had been appalling. We needed to make a statement and start again. We had Neal Howard’s ‘Indulge’ and MK ‘Somebody New’ lined up as the first two releases which meant we would start with a bang.”

NM: “Neil had this vision for the new label and had commissioned Trevor Jackson to do the artwork. He offered me a job which was mainly in charge of club promotions. It wasn’t a challenge working with the records; ‘Indulge’ and ‘Somebody New’ are both very serious records.”

Trevor Jackson: “My sleeves for Champion Music were fun and cartoony (Raze ‘Break 4 Love’, Royal House ‘Can You Party’). Network I purposely tried to make more austere and (Peter) Saville-esque. Neil sent me music, so I would’ve been inspired by that. It was electronic future music. The whole thing to me was about sound frequencies. That was my take on it when I did the artwork.”  

John: “Trevor’s artwork was amazing, he totally got it. Created an identity that was big enough to explore over multiple releases.”

Trevor: “Everything was pre-digital, so I’d start with a piece of card and build up layers. I’d use Rotring pens and inks and a photocopier. Cutting film out with scalpels. All the artwork would be black and white in layers with notes for repro. ‘I want this bit to be orange, I want this bit to be this colour,’ marked up on tracing paper. The repro guys were like magicians turning what I did into artwork.”

NM: “Someone doing that now would just boot up their computer. Trevor did it completely manually. I was amazed by it.”

NM: “Our office was at Stratford House in Birmingham which was built in the early 17th century, a Tudor stone and timber building. It was the most unsuitable place for a techno label. In the building there was us on the ground floor, John Mostyn on the first floor who managed The Beat, Fine Young Cannibals and Ocean Colour Scene and on the top floor a bloke called Francois who made violins. It was so old the floor had big flag stones – the techno mob didn’t fit at all.”

John: “The office was a menagerie. There was a massive fuck off Hi-Fi and that would be on full tilt if Neil Rushton was in. He always had records or DATs he wanted to share and enthuse about. Steve Craddock from Ocean Colour Scene used to hear the music booming from downstairs and come down: ‘This is amazing, what the fuck is it?’ Always leaving with new releases and promos. I believed he was listening to them all, but who knows, he could have been trading them for cash or scooter parts."

Mark: “You went in and there were loads of records on shelves and I’d walk along and help myself to anything I didn’t have. People like Renaat (Vandepapeliere) from R&S would pop in to visit. Unreal.”

Nexus 21: Mark Archer (left) and Chris Peat

As well as having an improbable office the new team included journalist John McCready who had been covering techno for The Face (famously taking Depeche Mode to meet the main players in Detroit in 1989). McCready wrote press releases that were full of bizarre untruths and musical make believe – very funny to read if you were a journalist listening to yet another faceless techno record.

NM: “As a former journalist Neil knew the importance of PR so he targeted McCready who he’d always respected from his writing in The Face.”

John: “I wanted to try something else – not do it the usual way – feed and entertain journalists, no pressure, just a flow of written content with the records. I thought about the simple minded mithering I’d had to deal with as a writer – in terms of press officers trying to bully you sometimes into covering their charges and how annoying it was. So, when things actually started to break, we already had them on side. I have to say I had no idea it would work, a total punt, but Neil was playful and creative in how he did things, and he gave me the space to piss about.” 

NR: “I viewed press as important, and we didn’t have much money
to spend on advertising, so I knew from my old job that getting stories was effective. John was such an amazing writer.”

John: “There are only so many ways descriptively to talk about the drums going bash and the hi-hats going tish. I just wanted to entertain in the way I wished I could have as a journalist. I’d been good at making stuff up, since childhood. Neil would read the press releases and shake his head but laughing also and always signing them off. Some of the people who made the records were very one-dimensional. You might speak to them initially and put the phone down thinking: ‘I’ve got nothing, this is someone who hasn’t left his bedroom for four years and lives on Pot Noodles while poring over an 808 drum machine manual.’ So, you had to invent stuff. Mark and Chris (Nexus 21) got it and ran with it, egged me on and enacted some of the nonsense with impressive enthusiasm. Conversely, we did something with Richard Kirk and word came back he wasn’t impressed I’d referred to him as ‘Captain’ Kirk throughout a press release…”

Mark: “John made up a tale of raves in launderettes – because of the track ‘Washing Machine’ – a rave with DJ Kid Persil and kids sitting on washing machines to get the vibrations to ‘take them away’. Every track had a mad little story around it.”

Trevor: “John gave it a personality and charm. Warp was almost faceless and cold. I was a massive Factory and ZTT fan, so his angle added to it. He was the Paul Morley of Network for me.”

NM: “His press releases were just ridiculous, absolute nonsense. A lot of them weren’t even about the records. If he did mention the record or the artist, it was complete made-up fiction.”

NR: “We had this great music from Detroit, incredible artwork and John doing the press, so we were very active compared to other labels.”

One of John McCready's unforgettable press releases

Though Network’s early releases picked up where Kool Kat left off – with licensed tracks from Detroit – the label really cemented its name and reputation releasing homegrown talent.

NR: “The first bleep record I heard was Unique 3 ‘The Theme’. Then the Warp thing was happening in Sheffield. I knew Mark Gamble who’d made ‘House Arrest’ as part of Krush so we asked him to make one.”

NM: “Neil was probably a bit bitter that Warp was getting more attention in the press. ‘LFO’ had been a massive chart hit. So, he got Mark Gamble and Leroy Crawford in and played them lots of these records. The front door of the office had this unique bleep sound so when they left the door went bleep, bleep, bleep and they thought: ‘That’ll do.’ They replayed the bleeps from the doorbell.”

NM: “As Rhythmatic (Gamble and Crawford) was an attempt to capitalise on the Sheffield bleep sound the first promo was on a label called 0742 records which was the dialling code for Sheffield. They got that into the Warp shop and everyone was like: ‘Who the fuck is this? Who in Sheffield has made this record?’ Eventually it came out it wasn’t from Sheffield, and they (Warp) thought it was funny. Because Neil’s a journalist he tried to make a story about every record.”

NR: “We didn’t take ourselves seriously, but we took the music very seriously. Brummie’s are self-effacing.” 

Trevor: “It felt like being part of a proper new scene. My roots are in Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode and experimental electronic music, so I loved the bleep stuff. 

NM: “The UK thing started to get big – Rhythmatic and Nexus 21 – and that changed people’s perception of the label. They sold a lot more than the credible Detroit records.”

Mark: “Neil put a mix on in his car that Kevin Saunderson had done, and it had our ‘Still Life’ on with an acapella from Paris Grey over the top, I was like” ‘Oh My God!’ Then Neil told us we were going to work with Kevin in Detroit. We worked in Kevin’s studio with Marc Kinchin and Anthony Shakir, all my musical heroes. We took some Atari discs with skeletal things worked out on them. What we didn’t know was how to do the programming so it sounded like Detroit. So, Anthony Shakir was there to help and MK to help with the percussion. We learnt so much.”

NR: “The bleep thing faded away and the rave thing started to come in. But I was into serious techno. So, we took Nexus 21 out to Detroit. I remember coming back on the plane thinking how well it had gone.”

NM: “Nexus 21 made a great record, and we were convinced it was going to do really well but then it sold averagely. We were a bit disheartened apart from Mark who continued to go out to relevant places like Entropy and Shelley’s and heard this new ravey, breakbeat sound and had seen the reaction to them. So, he went into the studio and made about six tracks. I personally didn’t like it; it wasn’t cool to my ears." 

NM: “Before Altern 8 there was a period of two years of massively overspending on sales, promotion, marketing, licensing of records that only sold about 2,000 copies each, like Factory Records where you’d end up losing about 30p on every copy sold. I was being paid late as the money wasn’t there. So that’s when I left, just as the white label of Altern 8 arrived. All their fortunes turned around in the following months.”

Mark: “Network had asked if we had any more material. We had nine tracks that sounded like Nexus 21 but had breakbeats and Belgian-style noises. We couldn’t put it out as Nexus because all the purists would say it didn’t sound Detroit – so we came up with a different name.”

Altern 8

NR: “I said Altern 8 as it was supposed to be alternate to Nexus 21. It just took off.”

Trevor: “I’d stopped working for them by then. I wasn’t a big fan of Altern 8 or that whole scene.”

Mark: “Because of the success of the Altern 8 EP ‘Infiltrate’ our workload changed from Nexus to that. We got booked at the Eclipse for Altern 8 to do a live gig. Earlier in 1991 we’d performed as Nexus 21 at the same venue so we covered ourselves up so people would think it’s a different group. My brother was in the RAF and he had the chemical warfare suits, we painted the masks day glow and added an A on for Altern 8. All very DIY.”

NR: “The rave thing got so over the top and surreal. We thought there was an opportunity here and we used our imagination to build something up. We’d make up stories like they had picked up Elton John on the motorway on the way to a rave. Anything we said was being used. We had a competition to see who could come up with the most ridiculous story to be picked up by the tabloids.”

Mark: “John McCready was like a clockwork mouse with Altern 8; just wind him up and off he went, making up so much stuff.”

John: “Altern 8 were a kind of Home Bargains KLF, but way funnier at their most stupid.”

Mark: “MC Crazy Clair was three when she was on ‘Top of the Pops’ saying: ‘Top one, nice one, get sorted.’ In other words, ‘go and find some gear’. I had a pot of Vicks on my keyboard which everyone was using to enhance ecstasy. The track stops dead and Chris (Peat) shouts: ‘Rushin’.’ But the BBC just didn’t get on to it.”

NR: “Clair is my daughter.”

Clair: “The filming of the ‘Activ-8’ video at Trentham Gardens sticks in my head – the old building, robot and the guys miming playing violin. There was a trip to Stafford, with a photoshoot and hanging around with the robot, he was going around scaring people on the streets. I remember going to the ‘Top of the Pops’ studio and hanging round, but it was decided I wasn’t going to perform. They just used footage of me from the ‘Activ-8’ video.”

Mark: “Chris stood as a Member of Parliament. The whole scene was anti-establishment, we had a manifesto to put sound systems on the corner of every high street, police were to wear bandanas. He didn’t come last; the Natural Law Party got less votes. We were going to give out Christmas puddings from a hot air balloon. Labelled ‘Brand-E Christmas Pudding: The poor know the score’. Someone pointed out that if we launched Christmas puddings from a hot air balloon, we could potentially kill someone. We went around Stafford trying to give them away on foot, the chemical warfare suits worried a few people.” 

Mark: “Inner City came to Stafford to record. Kevin said he’d tried to make hardcore, but he couldn’t get it right and he asked how we did it? ‘Kev, it’s easy, hear that bit? Rob that bit. Find a breakbeat, rob that bit, Bosh!’”

NR: “The Altern 8 album sold 60,000 and then we thought we’d move back on to Nexus 21. But Mark and Chris fell out. Incredible shame.”

Mark: “It got to a point where the music wasn’t cool anymore. We thought we’d call it quits and return to Nexus 21 but my relationship with Chris disintegrated.”

NM: “I went back after three years. I bumped into Rushton at some party in Birmingham and he told me he’d been doing some distribution and I said I can help with that.”

Energize (Dave Lee)

Network was on a roll but then went down a direction out of sync with its output. Gunning for a pop dance track it did well short-term, but it ultimately led to the label’s demise. 

NR: “I’d come back from New York on a Friday night and I was upset because I couldn’t sign a Todd Terry record. I went to a club and Lee Fisher was DJing. My then wife Jane was with me and when Lee played ‘Please Don’t Go’ she said: ‘I don’t know why you’re upset about this Todd Terry record, this is the one.’”

NM: “The original was by an Italian band called Double You. Big piano tunes went down well and there was a huge reaction from the crowd. Rushton came running over asking: ‘What’s this?’ Lee had designs on licensing it himself so didn’t tell him. Neil refused to be put off by this so tracked the record down.”

NR: “We found out it was on an Italian label. We got in quickly and sent an offer in and got the heads of agreement back all signed. Then we found out days later the Italians had licensed it for the whole of Europe to ZYX. We realised the record was going to be huge and we were told there were about four others making cover versions. We did our cover which Mark Gamble produced. ZYX didn’t seem to have their shit together, so we went for it.”

NM: “Neil went to the press with the promos saying this is the hottest thing going – these two record labels were competing to get their version out first. It was tabloid-level hype. It went to number one in about eight countries.”

John: “I hated the KWS record, and it was actually the reason why I left. I was adamant that we didn’t have anything to do with it, but I now see it was none of my business and was in fact good business at the time.” 

Trevor: “I’ve never heard this record. I vividly remember when it got cheesy, I got out of 4/4 and house completely. I found it moronic.”

NR: “The guy behind ZYX was very wealthy and he just went after us in the courts. We had paid the publishing in the UK and done a cover and the music world was full of cover versions. Before the court case we went to see a musicologist with a barrister who said we had a problem because we’d done a cover of someone’s own arrangement. In England that wouldn’t matter but there was a peculiar law in Germany regarding a new arrangement. We went to court and lost. It was two and half years of being mentally drained.” 

NM: “Things had been going well with the distribution side but because of the legal problems with KWS it started to fall apart again and I felt they were using the money being made by the distribution - which was all going into the same bank account - to pay off the debts.”

John: “My understanding, being gone by then, was that almost everything it generated was lost following the judgement.”


“It had reputation enough for Aphex Twin to send a demo cassette to just Warp and Network. It contained more or less what ended up on 'Selected Ambient Works 85-92'. It had a handwritten letter with a phone number. I called the landline number every day for weeks. It was never answered. Rob and Steve at Warp somehow got hold of him.”

NR: “We released some great records in a stylish way. We tried to look after the artists. We were very irreverent but reverential to the music. It was great to not be part of the London music establishment or the Manchester scene.”

Mark: “At the start it got compared to Warp when it was very bleep and klonk based. Network’s output was more varied with the Detroit stuff, Italian stuff. The legend that started round Network, all the stories, it got this image. For various reasons it’s looked upon very fondly.”

Clair: “I get royalties which is pretty awesome, but it’s never been enough to pay the bills. I make tattoos for a living now.”

John: “Fun and business can co-exist, at least for a short time. There were some records which changed the course of music, without doubt, but also some worker bee bedroom techno.”

NM: “Me and John would moan about Rushton foisting inappropriate records on the catalogue. There were a few that just didn’t fit and weren’t very good. So, it wasn’t immaculately manicured. But it had reputation enough for Aphex Twin to send a demo cassette to just Warp and Network. It contained more or less what ended up on ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’. It had a handwritten letter with a phone number. I called the landline number every day for weeks. It was never answered. Rob (Mitchell) and Steve (Beckett) at Warp somehow got hold of him. They both said to me that was the turning point of their record label, that cassette. It would have been the turning point for Network if he’d picked up the phone.” 

Leftfield: Songs Of Life
July 12, 2023
Leftfield: Songs Of Life
used cms Leftfield: Songs Of Life

Leftfield were one of dance music’s Fab Four in the 90s. And while their output might have been less prolific than some of their contemporaries, when they did release a record, or play live, it would usually change everything. Neil Barnes, now ably assisted by Adam Wren, looks back on the band’s career, and following a brush with mortality, what it all means. “I’m taking people on a journey emotionally with the sound,” he tells Craig McLean


Leftfield’s ‘Leftism’ (1995): the greatest dance album ever – discuss.

“I’m not keen on ‘greatest’ and ‘best’ type of words. It’s not a top-of-the-table game of football. It’s a bit of art that had a window of time. And there was a period when neither of us wanted anything much to do with it, especially when we were writing ‘Rhythm and Stealth’. But I appreciate that ‘Leftism’ means a lot to people. And I enjoy playing bits of it live now – ‘Melt’ sounds like a modern bit of music still. A lot of it does. That’s because we put so much of ourselves into it. That’s how it came: hard work and a bit of talent.”

Neil Barnes, London, March 2023


It’s the balmy, barmy summer of 1996. Today, Saturday 15 June, England are playing Scotland at Wembley in Euro 96. Coachloads of Tartan Army foot soldiers are swarming into the stadium car park in north-west London. Fans, who’ve already had considerably more than their Weetabix, are hanging out of the bus windows and even, somehow, the orangey skylights. For the visitors, the party atmosphere continues inside the stadium – until, you know, the football gets going.

Full-time: England 2 Scotland 0.

Self-medicating their raging sense of injustice (as per…), remnants of the Scottish fans press onwards to south London. There, at Brixton Academy, Leftfield are finishing their UK tour with an all-nighter. Standing on the mock-baroque hall’s inclined floor, a bewildered Tartan Army irregular wobbles slightly. It’s that slope’s fault. The infernal heat isn’t helping. Nor is the fact that the sole stomach ballast in today’s liquid-only diet has been a disco biscuit for tea.

Also, not to be discounted: the electronic boom blasting from Leftfield’s sound system. At the time, the sonically buffeted gig-goer doesn’t have the power of speech, far less the words, to convey the game-changing nature of this moment: dance music turned into an album that delivers as a body-of-work, turned into a stage experience that feels like a revolution in live music. The gig as rave, the rave as gig.

Then the roof caves in. As Leftfield play, plaster tumbles down, dislodged by volumes reaching 137 decibels. According to the website of one university science faculty, that’s more than the 130 dB generated by “military jet aircraft take-off from aircraft carrier with afterburner at 50 ft”. Or the 108-114 dB of “live rock music”. In a very real sense: banging.

Reader, I was that kilted, wilted, stilted fan. Saturday 15 June 1996 was one of the greatest days of my life. What a time to be a fan, even if the score was shit and the ceiling falls on your head.

“The big difference between dance music then and now is that everybody took so many more drugs,” Barnes is saying as our pre-interview small talk about That Brixton Show (about which he has little memory) moves into the lengthy, recorded portion of our conversation. “I mean, I don’t know, because I’m not young and I don’t do drugs anymore for health reasons,” adds this fit-looking 62-year-old. “I never was an enormous [user]. But so much of what we did was fuelled and supported by the emergence of E culture.”

Still, Barnes does have some memories of Leftfield’s epochal 1996 tour, when he and Paul Daley, then the other half of the electronic duo, first “played out” in a whole new way.

“I do remember doing gigs to straight audiences. On that ‘96 tour, we did a gig in Belfast, in the Ulster Hall. This was still during the Troubles, and all the security were massive [guys]. It was no alcohol – and it was really dead!” he says, laughing. “Everyone’s like: ‘Well, I’m not sure about that bit, and that’s a bit of a strange track to be playing...’ You could see the analytical minds working, rather than: “‘Hey, let your hair down!’”

Leftfield have been helping – nay, encouraging, you might even say forcing – us to let our hair down for 33 years, on and off. Although to be honest, it’s been more “off” than “on”.

Once they’d released first single ‘Not Forgotten’ in 1990, it would be the best part of five years before a debut album appeared. After ‘Leftism’ in January 1995, it was four-and-half years until the release of ‘Rhythm and Stealth’. There was an even longer, er, longueur between albums two and three, with ‘Alternative Light Source’ appearing 16 years later. Then, almost seven years before we were gifted, late last year, the thunderous, defiantly uplifting ‘This Is What We Do’. The news that there’s already a fifth(ish) album due, albeit “just” a Record Store Day-hooked dub version of ‘This Is What We Do’, might cause your own metaphorical sky to fall in.

The reasons for those lengthy delays include but are not limited to: success, excess, drugs, perfectionism, soundtracks (‘Shallow Grave’, ‘Trainspotting’, ‘The Beach’ – a Danny Boyle trifecta), David Bowie, Guinness, musical divorce, actual divorce, cancer, therapy (both the receiving and the studying thereof), Covid obvs and did we mention perfectionism?

Leftfield are one of The Big Four 90s dance outfits – alongside Orbital, The Chemical Brothers and Underworld, latterly duos all – with the catalogue and kudos to match. As intimated above, though, they’ve weathered more storms than any of their peers. But with a spring 2023 tour and a summer festival run, Leftfield – which now comprises Barnes and long-standing engineer/wingman Adam Wren – are very much back and buoyant. And so is Barnes, after a terrifying brush with mortality in 2021, when a bowel cancer diagnosis meant the removal of a five-inch tumour.

He is, then, in the mood for a decades’ long overview of the left and right, right and wrong, of Leftfield. Well, he is once he’s comfy, relaxed on a sofa in a gear-crowded side-room at Leftfield’s studio on a grungy industrial estate in Acton, west London (turn right at the Triumph sports car pound).

Initially, though, with shoe off (just the one) and Marks & Spencer’s custard creams to hand, Barnes tarries at the mouth of memory lane.

“I have had those conversations with my kids, and I can’t help but be shocked,” he says, continuing our earlier theme. “My son will say something like: ‘Oh, yeah, I had a heavy weekend, I was up all night,’ and I know he’s been doing something,” he says of one of his two children with his ex-wife. The other is electronic artist Georgia, whose 2020 album ‘Seeking Thrills’ was, like ‘Leftism’, nominated for the Mercury Prize. “And of course, when I was his age,” continues Barnes, “I was doing magic mushrooms and God knows what. Terrible things.

“You can put that in. I don’t care what you put in,” he adds – although for reasons professional and respectful, that will turn out to not be the case.

“The big difference between dance music then and now is that everybody took so many more drugs. I mean, I don’t know, because I’m not young and I don’t do drugs anymore for health reasons. I never was an enormous [user]. But so much of what we did was fuelled and supported by the emergence of E culture.” 

Neil Barnes grew up in suburban north London, the son of Marxist parents. Both, remarkably, fought at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when the East End rose up against Oswald Mosley’s fascists. “My dad threw marbles to bring police horses down,” he says, proudly.

Born in 1960, he was a “late baby”. His dad was a self-made man with an “absolute shithole of a childhood [but] he ended up running Islington Adult Education Institute”, a career his youngest would end up pursuing: across his 20s and into his early 30s, Neil Barnes had a proper job, as a teacher.

Musically, a brief stint playing violin was usurped when Barnes became “a record-buying fanatic from the age of 13”. This was 1973, so it’s Glam O’Clock: “T Rex. David Bowie… and Electric Light Orchestra! And some real terrible prog stuff, like Yes.”

But he was also the perfect age to be a punk, with Barnes getting his teenage kicks at gigs by Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and The Clash. As a wannabe musician, though, post-punk was his time. Elephant Stampede were “a bit like PiL”, formed with mates from a school-based friendship circle that also included the future Spandau Ballet, with whom he’s pals to this day.

Elephant Stampede weren’t a gigging group, but Barnes and one of his bandmates started DJing at house parties, playing “early-80s stuff like D Train and (London R&B outfit) Central Line. I’ve got hundreds of 12-inches from the 80s. Wonderful records.”

A DJ gig at peak early-80s London nightspot The Wag followed. “But they didn’t like us, because we weren’t playing rare groove. So, we didn’t last long.”

In 1982, though, an epiphany: he saw Afrika Bambaataa play in London, one of the UK’s earliest hip hop shows. Barnes’ revelation? That he should quit making music. “Because I couldn’t afford it.” Bambaataa used a Linn drum machine, which would have been a huge asset for Elephant Stampede. But at some £2,000, it was beyond the band’s reach. So, Barnes went back to concentrating on the day job. 

Another, parallel musical love, however, continued. After landing a cleaning job as a youngster at west London record shop institution Honest Jon’s, Barnes had been inducted into the church of jazz and Latin by owner Jon Clare. “Amazing bloke. He had 300 records, each one fantastic. From Jon’s inspiration I’ve about five or six records which sum up salsa.”

The result was a passion that would colour everything he did thereafter.

“I fell in love with the congas, Ray Barretto and people like that. And as you did in those days, I started to learn. But I realised that as a white guy, there’s only so far I can go – it’s not in my soul. If I forget my white frigid self, I can really play congas,” he clarifies. And, indeed, Barnes must have been some cop: he was a member of the London School of Samba in the late-80s. “I [do have] really good Latin technique. And I put that into Leftfield. It appears in all the tracks. It’s always there.”

It literally is: Barnes’ congas are sitting behind me in the studio. To this day, he still sees himself as a conga player.

“Paul was the same. He was a percussionist. We weren’t musicians. We weren’t keyboard players. That’s why Leftfield is what it is: we play instruments like they’re percussion. My sister says I was always sitting around, as a child, making mad noises and tapping.”

In a Melody Maker interview in 1992, journalist Push writes how, in 1989: “(Barnes’) congas and cowbells were… traded in for a grand’s worth of technological wizardry.” Barnes thinks now that might have been something to do with the fact that he was staring down the barrel of 30. “I was bored shitless as a teacher. No disrespect to teachers, but it wasn’t me. I felt like my life was drifting away. And I wanted to do something else.”

After a bank loan, he bought an Akai S950 sampler “for about a grand”. He hooked it up to an Alesis MMT-8 sequencer and drum machine. “And I nicked my brother’s Juno-106 – which I’ve given to Georgia! I hope it’s on her new record,” he says of ‘Euphoric’, to be released this July. He had, too, a primitive mixer, the whole set-up: “Great fun! It was like magic! Fuck me!”

And as if by that magic: ‘Not Forgotten’, inspired by New York house label Strictly Rhythm, featuring a Willem Dafoe sample from Alan Parker’s ‘Mississippi Burning’, the first single credited to Leftfield, then comprising Barnes only. Progressive house’s ground zero? Probably. Barnes’ first go at writing a tune? Pretty much – he had written one other demo as he learned how to use the gear. Congas? Definitely.

Around the same time, he met Paul Daley in a club, the percussive pair quickly bonding. As a then-member of A Man Called Adam (“an amazing band live”), Barnes credits Daley as “far more advanced than me... a really good musician.” For the B-side of Leftfield’s second single, 1991’s ‘More Than I Know’, Daley did a do-over of ‘Not Forgotten’. It was known as the Hard Hands Remix, its title taken from the 1968 Ray Barretto album. Now Leftfield were two, launching their own label – “no one would sign us because we were too alternative” – with the name Hard Hands.

From the off, the pair were simpatico. It was the old Björk maths: two plus two equals five, something extra arising from their combination. They gave each other confidence and belief – and energy. “Paul was really driven. I was as well – I didn’t think I was, but I fucking was. We worked ridiculous hours.”

In the early years, many of those hours were taken up as remixers for hire. They said yes to David Bowie, for 1993s ‘Jump They Say’, no to U2 (Barnes can’t remember the tune but it was likely something from 1993’s ‘Zooropa’). Eventually, though, by late-1994 and now signed to Columbia, Leftfield had completed an album.

‘Leftism’ included older tracks like the Balearic-goes-dub-goes-trance anthem ‘Song of Life’, a tribute to a friend of Daley’s who had died in Ibiza, and ‘Release the Pressure’, featuring veteran Jamaican reggae singer Earl Daley. And then there was ‘Original’ and ‘Open Up’ with, respectively, Toni Halliday and John Lydon on vocals – pioneering examples of the “faceless dance blokes hire guest vocalist” trick, albeit (ahem) left-field, non-dance music choices. And with the latter track, Leftfield almost became chart-topping pop stars.

“‘Open Up’ was a nailed-on Number One! It was killing everybody else in the charts!” exclaims Barnes of a song with a chorus that featured Lydon demanding ‘burn, Hollywood, burn!’ Unfortunately, wildfires were raging in southern California, resulting in the video being yanked from MTV and ‘The Chart Show’. “The song was about him not getting a part in a film. He’s not talking about burning down [the neighbourhood of] Hollywood at all!” Barnes shrugs. “But that’s typical Leftfield: things like that used to happen all the time. It’s yin and yang.”

One incident that could also be filed into that good/bad category: the last instalment in the duo’s three-film relationship with Danny Boyle. That had begun when either the director or his producer Andrew Macdonald asked them to write the title tune to 1994’s ‘Shallow Grave’. Barnes isn’t sure which, nor whether the thrilling, high-speed opening titles were edited to the bpm of the track. (“Danny was the Leftfield fan,” Macdonald tells me. “We added the music to the opening late on, maybe even in the mix.”)

But things got sticky for Leftfield when they wrote ‘Snake Blood’ for ‘The Beach’ soundtrack: Barnes forgot to remove (or replicate) an OMD sample. This meant “we had to pay them everything we earnt off the record… I wasn’t very popular,” he says wryly. “Paul was a bit disgruntled about it.”

Another such incident: the first anyone heard of the long-awaited ‘Rhythm and Stealth’ was the song ‘Phat Planet’ – not as a single, but as a 60-second snippet on Jonathan Glazer’s now-iconic Guinness advert, ‘Surfer’, released a full six months before the actual first single, ‘Afrika Shox’, which featured cornerstone Barnes inspiration Bambaataa on vocals.

“I can’t even remember how that process happened,” Barnes says, frowning. “Because it was about money – it was a lot of money for us,” he adds, then swearily lays into certain external parties involved in the commercial for “rip[ping] us off… by claiming all the [credit]”.

The whole album, though: hard work, wasn’t it? Barnes, otherwise easy-going and forthcoming, now grunts and slumps.

“Yeah. We both went mad. That’s one of the sad things. I just disappeared… My dad died… So it’s mainly a Paul Daley album... I do contribute, I definitely did. But I felt I wasn’t there.”

The way he describes it, his musical other half was struggling in a different way. “Paul found it difficult to finish. Probably he never felt it was good enough… I’ll give you an example: we finished a version of ‘Afrika Shox’ a year before. And it was probably wicked. We even made a video to it. I was involved in that as well, listening to it, going: ‘Oh fuck, it’s not quite right…’ So we shelved the whole project, including the video.”

In the end, he stepped up. “The album would never have happened if I hadn’t pushed it through radically at the end. That might be why Paul…” He stops. “I just threw my toys out the pram and got really stroppy about [the fact] that we had to finish it.”

Thirty months after ‘Rhythm and Stealth’ was, finally, released, they split. “After 12 years of sonic experimentation, Paul Daley and Neil Barnes have decided to pull the plug on Leftfield,” said a statement on 4 March 2002. “Both parties will be pursuing solo projects so Leftfield fans should not be downhearted. This should be seen as a new beginning in an ongoing process.”

Barnes is wary of talking in detail on-the-record of what went down with him and Daley. This is partly out of respect – this is only his side of events. But in his memory, their manager Lisa Horan called: “Paul’s decided he doesn’t want to do Leftfield anymore.”

And that, he says now, was it. “There was no discussion. No communication. I remember saying to Lisa: ‘Don’t you think we should talk about this?’ My memory might be wrong but it’s that the message came back that things had gone too far, and Paul didn’t want to talk about it. I remember him saying: ‘Leftfield is a 90s thing.’ Something like that. And I never saw him again.”

To cut a long story short, Barnes now operates under the name Leftfield, with Adam Wren – who’d been an engineer on ‘Leftism’ – stepping up as his partner, starting with the 2010 comeback tour.

Five years later, the new duo released ‘Alternative Light Source’. The process was, again, “difficult, just because it was coming after so long. I wasn’t sure what record to make…. Also, we were never in our own space. It suffered from being shunted to different studios.”

Relatively quickly (for them), Leftfield started on a fourth album. What would become ‘This Is What We Do’ began life in 2019. “A lot of the demos were there, but it was rough.”

Then, Covid. Then, in early summer 2021, Barnes’ diagnosis. “But the news of the cancer galvanised me, actually. It pulled things together. I don’t know why, but I got a real burst of creative energy.”

The day before his operation, he called an A&R meeting with new label Virgin in this studio. “I cobbled together all the demos, worked on them in a rough way, because I’m not a mixer or an engineer… I knew there was something good in this record, but it was way off being finished. So I played it really loud!” The ceiling didn’t cave, but “the guys from Virgin loved it.”

Barnes needed that. He also needed ‘This Is What We Do’ to speak to another trauma. Leftfield’s fourth album explores attachment theory and healing, part of a psychotherapeutic journey that the musician undertook at The Minster Centre in north-west London, which is where The Chemical Brothers’ Ed Simons also studied. Simons is now a qualified therapist, as is another figure from the electronic music world, Groove Armada’s Tom Findlay. “Tom’s my inspiration,” acknowledges Barnes of his own studies. “He interviewed me for his dissertation!” (“This is true,” Findlay tells me. “I was doing my Dissertation for my Psychology Masters on ‘Mental Health in the Music Industry’… and Neil very kindly gave me a few hours of his time.”)

Barnes’ interest derives from long-buried trauma: aged seven or eight, he suffered “an instance of child abuse”. The experience is the beginning of his psychological journey in life. “It underpins who I am, unfortunately. It pops up every now and again when I lose confidence… Some of the stuff to do with the album is about healing that. And [about] my belief in the power of music. I’m taking people on a journey emotionally with the sound, rather than actually pinpointing it with lyrics.”

He says that desire is most directly incarnated in the last track on ‘This Is What We Do’, ‘Power of Listening’. Its whole point “is the importance of being able to hear what other people say and really listen. I’m playing around with that. You’ve got to listen to this track really carefully because it goes in this prog direction. But give it a chance to breathe and you’ll see something that maybe you didn’t initially hear in it.”

This is what he does, and that is what he’s done: over 33 years, Neil Barnes – aided by Paul Daley, and then Adam Wren – has taken electronic music in myriad interesting directions. And with Leftfield’s fourth album, he’s gone the furthest yet, all the way back to a terrible, inciting incident. But against the odds – professional, mental, mortal – he’s come out on top.

Does he have a fifth Leftfield album in him? He doesn’t know. He jokes (I think) about a folk album (“Is it time to give up electronic music?”), then muses about returning to the source. “I thought I should go back to where it began, releasing quick tracks.”

Get yer congas out, mate…

“Yeah, they’re there, behind you! They’re coming on tour with us! They’re on (‘This Is What We Do’ track) ‘Accumulator’. That’s me playing congas... out of time, ha ha!”

Art Of Noise: Bring The Noise
July 12, 2023
Art Of Noise: Bring The Noise
used cms Art Of Noise: Bring The Noise

In the early-80s an enigmatic outfit comprised of studio boffins, one real musician and a gobby cultural agitator combined mysterious philosophical meaningfulness with a lush, avant-garde and utterly artificial sound that predicted the future. Who’s afraid of the Art of Noise? Madonna and Sean Penn, possibly. But not Andrew Harrison


The drums sounded like cannons. It’s late-1982/early-1983 and one of the least likely collaborations in musical history – resurrected prog rock behemoths Yes plus Ballardian bubblegum pop act The Buggles – is about to bear strange fruit. Producer and former Buggle Trevor Horn and his team are trying to get the drums right for an electronically-inspired album that will relocate Yes from the muddy, organic 1970s to the fluorescent 1980s. They are about to create the signature sound of the new decade, a crunching, stomping, boom-boom-tak that will rival ‘Funky Drummer’ and ‘When the Levee Breaks’ as the engine room of hip hop and more. But they don’t know it yet.

“We were on like month eleven of this thing and we’d been in every studio across London,” recalls Gary Langan, then Horn’s engineer. “We’d got Alan White’s drums up on a riser in the middle of Air Studio One and they sounded just fantastic, biggest drum sound I’d ever done. And then we got to the end of this incredible session and they said: ‘Yeah, we’re going to scrap it’.”

Langan, agog, sneaked the drum tapes back to Horn’s Sarm Studios and his mate JJ Jeczalik, a non-musician who had become custodian of the studio’s latest, most expensive toy. The £18,000 Fairlight “computer music instrument” could ingest any sound and play it back across the complete scale. Horn’s team had already used it to reconstruct every note that ABC played into the machined perfection of their ‘Lexicon of Love’ album. But they’d often wondered what would happen if, instead of trying to emulate real instruments, they used it to warp, layer and abuse sounds – any sounds – in a modern spin on musique concrète, mid-century French composer Pierre Schaefer’s technique of building music from found noises.

They threw White’s bass and snare into the Fairlight and stretched it as far as they could, looping it by ear. The beats became distorted and crushed. Without noticing they’d sampled it on the wrong beat, boom-boom-tak becoming tak-boom-boom. “But it sounded spot on,” says Jeczalik. “I’ve redone it ‘properly’ since and it just doesn’t work.” Hours of modification and additions produced an unreal soundscape of beats, electronics… and the sound of a tennis match.

This was ‘Beat Box’ and the beginning of the Art of Noise, in which Langan, Jeczalik, Horn’s keyboard player and string arranger Anne Dudley, plus the NME journalist Paul Morley, would form a group without a face – and make music for the future from pieces of the past. Represented only by images of theatre masks or spanners, the Art of Noise were usefully anonymous: when ‘Beat Box’ made No.1 on the US Dance Charts, the (all-white) band won one American magazine’s award for Best Black Act of 1984. Another early track, the languorous 10-minute ‘Moments in Love’, would become a Balearic staple, a prototype for several chillout booms, and the soundtrack for Madonna’s wedding to Sean Penn.

Their real legacy is in the successive waves of dance music prefigured in their early sampladelic experiments. You can hear echoes of the Art Of Noise in The Chemical Brothers’ own block rocking beatbox, in Coldcut and The Avalanches’ cut-and-paste jamborees, in Aphex and Autechre’s breezeblock collisions, in all the lineages of big beat and ambient house – Boards Of Canada’s woozy beauty is pure ‘Moments in Love’. And dance music knows this. The ‘Hey!’ that’s sampled on The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ comes from ‘Close (To the Edit)’ by the Art of Noise, ‘Beat Box’’s nimbler cousin. All five Art Of Noisers get a writing credit on this multimillion seller. Surely it makes them more money than the originals did? “But I can tell you,” says Anne Dudley, “it is divided up into really tiny portions…”

Some 40 years after Gary Langan and JJ Jeczalik created what is reputedly the first-ever looped break on a sampler, they’re talking (and, separately, to Anne Dudley) via another emergent technology with horribly low bit rate and potential for abuse: Zoom. Today the pair are basking in the satisfaction of finally playing two VJ-augmented Art Of Noise shows at London’s Jazz Café which were postponed – twice – during the pandemic. Because it was just the two of them, they had to go under the name Art Of Noise/Revision. The two rhapsodise over the quality of bass available to the modern live show.

“We could never have done this back in the 80s,” says Langan. “The Fairlight’s bandwidth was about the size of a KitKat – long, long and skinny. No bottom end and no top end either. Now you can really wallop it.”

Langan is geezerish and energetic, a Londoner from Wimbledon who started as a junior engineer at Sarm Studios in east London more or less straight from technical college. His father had been a musician who played on the BBC Light Programme at lunchtimes. “It was from hanging out with my dad that I knew what I wanted to be,” he says. “I wanted to be on the other side of the glass, in these things called recording studios.”

JJ Jeczalik has the dry wit and laid-back demeanour you might associate with, say, an I.T. teacher at a progressive private school. That’s because he used to be an I.T. teacher at a progressive private school, after leaving music in the 2010s. Back in the early-80s, he had fallen into Trevor Horn’s orbit almost by accident. When Horn’s fellow Buggle Geoff Downes bought a Fairlight with the royalties from ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, it fell to Jeczalik to work out what to do with it. “I just looked at this thing,” he says, “And thought, wow, this is it. This is the future.”

The real genesis of the Art of Noise was the string of gleaming, perfect pop albums that the Horn team – Gary, JJ, Anne Dudley, engineer-producer Steve Lipson and a select few others – created in and around Sarm Studios. For ABC’s ‘Lexicon of Love’ in 1982 they’d taken the then-radical step of using the Fairlight and drum machines to precision-engineer the tightest dance record then possible. But ‘Duck Rock’, the album they made with former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, took things even further.

McLaren had the notion of assembling a travelogue of ‘folk dances of the world’ and enlisted Horn and the team to realise it. What could have been a dry exercise in anthropology turned into an ecstatic celebration which introduced British daytime radio to Sowetan township music, African-American competitive rope-skipping (‘Double Dutch’ was an actual hit)… and the hip hop universe of pirate radio and scratching.

“Malcolm, for all that he was a scoundrel and completely hopeless musically, he just had an attitude of mind that anything goes,” says Anne Dudley. “He broadened all of our minds. Malcolm’s brain worked at about twice the speed of sound. You couldn’t keep up with him.”

Making it, however, was a nightmare. After days of structureless paralysis in New York, Jeczalik stumbled on a late-night radio show where DJs the World’s Famous Supreme Team would scratch, rap and throw out shouts over nascent hip hop records. “These guys were amazing,” he says, “and they paid for their slot by going pickpocketing on Times Square… I thought if we could approach Malcolm’s album like their radio show then it might make sense.”

Jeczalik recorded Se’Devine The Mastermind and Just Allah The Superstar straight off the speaker into his Walkman. They are the shouts that set ‘Duck Rock’ alight: ‘all that scratchin’ is makin’ me itch… too much of that snow white.’ Later in London, Horn and his team cut all the world music they’d collected – Tennessee hillbilly fiddling, Dominican merengue, South African chants – onto acetates for the World’s Famous Supreme Team to scratch, then fed the results into the Fairlight. Dressed in Keith Haring illustrations, ‘Duck Rock’ became many a young B-Boy and B-Girl’s introduction to hip hop – even if it was crossbred with square-dance.

But there were offcuts, bits of mangled sound that didn’t have a home. “Trevor would go: ‘Ah, yeah, that’s an interesting racket, sort it out eh Gary?’” Jeczalik recalls. “And eventually we get the opportunity to pull out all these bits and do our
own thing.”

Dudley describes hours of free-range exploration. “Gary’s an absolute studio animal,” she says, “Whatever we did, Gary would do something to it and it would sound better. And JJ would be the first to admit that he’s not a musician. So, they’d play about all night with these rhythm sounds, and they didn’t really have anything to put on top – and I was happy to be the musical element of it.”

One instance was an early obsession with an iconic sound of the 1980s, the Orchestra Stab. They had four stabs, repeated Philip Glass-style, but no clear direction. Then Paul Morley – who had joined Horn’s ZTT label as a sort of in-house PR man and provocateur – asked: “Why don’t you just call it ‘Moments in Love’?” That was what the four notes appeared to be saying.

“We thought: ‘Oh, that’s perfect,” says Dudley, “and it immediately inspired us to get back to it and develop it into this huge ten-minute thing.”

As well as selecting the fabulously pretentious quotes from Nietzsche, Baudrillard and Kierkegaard which adorned ZTT releases, Morley was also responsible for the band’s name, borrowed from a manifesto by the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo: The Art of Noises (Jeczalik suggested dropping the ‘s’)

“We thought this name is so good, we have to be good to live up to it,” says Dudley. “All our tracks used to have really, really boring titles, like ‘Ruler’ (from the noise made by a twanged school ruler) and other dreadful things. We needed Morley to give it this sheen of mysterious philosophical meaningfulness.”

Morley was also the one behind the tactic of anonymity, which the band loved. “I was doing a lot with Frankie Goes To Hollywood at the time and I saw their taxi bills,” says Jeczalik. “They were getting mobbed and we certainly didn’t want to be in the public eye. Then Morley goes: ‘Well, what about using this spanner for your photos instead?’ And that’s it. Perfect.”

“I was doing a lot with Frankie Goes To Hollywood at the time and I saw their taxi bills. They were getting mobbed and we certainly didn’t want to be in the public eye. Then Morley goes: ‘Well, what about using this spanner for your photos instead?’ And that’s it. Perfect.”

After their relationship with ZTT fell apart – “the deal was crap,” says Langan succinctly – the Art of Noise moved on to China Records where they had hits including the ‘Beat Box’-a-like ‘Legs’, and were among the first to spot the potential in resurrecting the careers of neglected pop institutions. First came the prince of rock’n’roll guitar twang Duane Eddy. “He was very nervous,” says Jeczalik. “He thought we were going to sample him and make him sound horrible. But then he saw our piles of old analogue gear and relaxed somewhat.”

Next came Tom Jones, then in the doldrums of Vegas cabaret, for whom they turned Prince’s stripped-down ‘Kiss’ into a booming worldwide hit. “We were in awe of him,” says Dudley, “but he was actually extraordinarily open to anything we wanted to do. He’d done a lot of country rock but his heart is in rock’n’roll, and he could see that ‘Kiss’ was just a great rock’n’roll song. And he just went for it.”

Bands are not designed to last forever. By the early-90s The Art of Noise had wound down. “There’s only so many instrumental tracks that you want to do, really,” says Dudley. “We just sort of ran out of steam.” Would she rejoin Langan and Jeczalik for this latest iteration of the Art of Noise? “Well, never say never,” she replies.

Langan and Jeczalik, on the other hand, are preparing for three 80s Rewind festivals over the summer with the Revision/VJ set and toying with releasing one of the medleys from the show as a download. “But the thing is,” says Jeczalik, “Gary and I were so bowled over by the dynamics and the depth of the live sound. Do we really want to compress that down for the interwebs?”

“I like the idea that it’s there and gone,” says Langan. “You have to be there the next time.”

So, there you go. The most dedicatedly artificial band in pop are now concentrating on the sanctity of the live experience. Where will it end? You can even see their faces these days.

Luke Solomon: The House That Luke Built
July 12, 2023
Luke Solomon: The House That Luke Built
used cms Luke Solomon: The House That Luke Built

His contributions to Beyoncé’s Grammy-winning ‘Renaissance’ album may have finally given Luke Solomon the recognition he believes he’s always deserved, but among the global house nation he’s long been cherished. Jacob Munday hears about the highs and lows of a 30-year-plus career chasing that Classic groove. “It hasn’t all been roses,” says Solomon. “It’s been tough…”


Luke Solomon has been a pioneer of underground dance music for four decades and counting. As a DJ, producer, remixer, club promoter, record label founder and A&R, he has played a part in so many seminal moments in club culture that Andrew Weatherall, no less, once dubbed him house music’s “unsung hero”.

Solomon co-founded one of 90s’ London’s legendary club nights, Space, and two of the UK’s leading deep house labels, Music for Freaks and Classic – the latter of which is still going strong releasing records by Honey Dijon, Sophie Lloyd, Crazy P and Horse Meat Disco. He has DJed in clubs all around the world and been involved in making more than 600 records – at least according to Discogs; Solomon himself lost count years ago. And this year he reached a very different sort of milestone: his first Grammy Awards.

On 6 February at the Arena in downtown Los Angeles, he sat at a VIP table and watched Beyoncé Knowles win the gong for best dance/electronic music album for her disco and house-centric LP, ‘Renaissance’ – for which Solomon had co-produced two songs with his regular collaborators superstar DJ Honey Dijon and the multi-instrumentalist Chris Penny. Beyoncé subsequently won three more awards and ended the evening the most garlanded artist in Grammy history, with 32 wins.

“The whole thing felt so surreal, almost out of body,” he reflects a month later at home in north-west London, still looking equal parts open-mouthed and overjoyed. “It was almost like I was watching myself celebrate. It took me three or four days to just come down off it all [Not like that – he’s been sober for 11 years]. That moment was just… holy shit. What. The. Fuck. Just. Happened? Even now it doesn’t feel real.”

So how do you celebrate a Grammy win? If you are Honey Dijon, you go for dinner afterwards with Madonna and Sam Smith: “She did the whole celebrity thing.” Meanwhile, Solomon was jetlagged after flying from London for two DJ gigs in consecutive days in New York and San Francisco, and then on to LA with hardly any sleep. “So me, Chris and Sam (Holt, their manager) went to the In-N-Out Burger in Hollywood and just hung out. It was exactly what we wanted to do.”

Beyoncé had been gracious in her acceptance speech, thanking the Queer community ‘for your love, and for inventing the genre [of dance music]’ – but some felt the award should have gone to a dance or electronic music act. “I tried to stay away from any drama,” he says, although he alludes to “weird conversations” in house music circles that “have kind of taken me by surprise. I mean, we’ve grown up with amazing vocalists – Martha Wash, Whitney… and there aren’t many people like that left who have come from church. So, the idea of making house records with Beyoncé… it’s like Loleatta Holloway still being alive. But we’re having these conversations and it’s, like: ‘I’m not really a Beyoncé fan.’ And I’m, like: ‘How can you not be a fan?’ That shit really threw me.”

He’s just started: “The brief we were given was that she wanted to take Black dance music back to its roots, where it was coming from disco, or soul, or funk, or house. So it wasn’t definitively: ‘I’m making a house album.’ The first thing we did was build them a playlist – and then we presented a whole world of samples, ideas and concepts to people who had never experienced a lot of those records. And she properly did her homework. That’s the reality of what happened – she went all the way in. If you listen to the album, that’s very much our DNA in those songs.”

The unlikely collaboration was first mooted in March 2021 with the UK still in lockdown, when Holt received an email out of the blue from a company whose name he couldn’t quite place: Parkwood. He had to Google it before realising that it was Beyoncé’s label. Almost immediately there was a Zoom call then non-disclosure agreements three days later. “We were all just freaking out at home – but we couldn’t tell anyone else.”

There was no direct contact with Queen Bee herself. “It was very cloak and dagger, like, she’s the producer but she works closely with her engineer, Stuart White, and the producer Mike Dean.” But there was a lot of “back and forth” with her A&R and her creative director. Over the course of 2021, Team Dijon submitted more than 20 tracks to Team Knowles. “It was sort of like the ‘X Factor’,” he says, laughing. “Ok, this track has got through to the next round… But interestingly the two she eventually chose were the very first thing we sent and the very last thing.”

These tracks became the musical framework for the songs ‘Alien Superstar’ and ‘Cozy’. “We knew they needed to work in stadiums in front of huge audiences, so we had to slow them down to allow things more space. But really, it was like making house records and then just bringing the tempo down – and the final productions are not that far away from our versions, which is actually amazing.”

So, what’s the significance of a Grammy win? His answer might surprise some. “On a personal level, I’ve spent a lot of my life being in the shadows and trying to prove myself while I’ve watched a lot of my peers go past me. For a long time I definitely didn’t get the recognition I felt I deserved.”

From the outside it looks as though he’s had an incredible career. “Ah, but I’ve always lived my life in smoke and mirrors. People don’t really get to look at what my life is really like. I’ve been very closed and guarded about that. It hasn’t all been roses. It’s been tough.”

Originally from the West Country, Luke spent part of his childhood and early teens in Cyprus – his Greek-Cypriot father moved the family there for a few years to escape the UK recession in the 80s; Luke’s mum had died when he was a baby, which, he has said, “disrupted me for a long time... I just rebelled against everything”. His career in dance music began in 1993 when he dropped out of a degree at Middlesex University – in Psychology, Spanish and Third World Studies – for a job at a record shop in nearby Barnet called Stop on By. Even though Barnet is in Zone Five – the sticks to Londoners – the shop’s reputation for stocking hard-to-find records reeled in DJs from across the capital. Among them was a young DJ from Brighton, Kenny Hawkes. “We just hit it off,” says Luke. “And after a few months Kenny said: ‘Look, I’ve been approached to run this pirate radio station that’s moving from Brighton to London called Girls FM – would you be interested in a show?’”

Launching in the capital that same year, Girls FM’s impact was huge. At the time it was competing directly with the former pirate station turned legal broadcaster, Kiss FM, which, although grappling with the programming constraints of being a commercial station that would eventually render it unrecognisable from its former self, was still championing a lot of underground dance music. But Girls was pushing sounds rarely heard on Kiss, from textured, rolling deep house grooves to bolshy, skittery, proto UK garage. And for Luke and Kenny, it gave them a platform to showcase the music that excited them the most – in particular the wildly experimental, wigged-out disco-dub records made by an emerging ‘second generation’ of Chicago house producers including Ron Trent, Chez Damier, Iz & Diz, Glenn Underground, DJ Sneak and Gemini on labels such as Prescription, Guidance, Cajual and Relief. 

Soon, he would get to meet his heroes in person after he began working in promotions for the UK house label Freetown, which began licensing tracks from Chicago. In 1994 he flew out to the Windy City to DJ and distribute vinyl promos, and during an “epic night out” befriended another of its rising stars, Derrick Carter. “He’s a freak. He’s a weirdo. We’re peas in a pod in that way. We were just immediately on the same wavelength,” he says. The following year, Carter relocated to London because he was getting so many bookings in Europe and moved into a room at Solomon’s house, setting up a home studio for them to get creative in. “It was never a case of ‘Oh, let’s work together,’ we were just kids in our 20s who decided we wanted to have this record label, and it was going to be the best shit you’d ever heard – so we called it Classic.”  

Things were moving fast. In 1995 he and Hawkes launched their club night, Space, in a West End basement club called Bar Rumba. And even though Space was on Wednesday nights, it was soon pulling in hundreds of people every week.

Part of its appeal was a starry roster of guest DJs that included Ron Trent and Chez Damier making their UK debuts, as well as sparkling sets by Derrick Carter, Gemini, John Acquaviva, François Kevorkian, Andrew Weatherall, Harvey and many more. Space was also the only London club of its time dedicated entirely to deep house. You could hear the music at other clubs, but rarely all night and never the way Solomon and Hawkes played it, throwing in Detroit techno records pitched down to a house tempo, UK and European productions by the likes of Matthew Herbert, Rob Mello, Isolée and the Idjut Boys, a smattering of New York vocals, even straight-up party records such as Pet Shop Boys’ ‘West End Girls’ or Hamilton Bohannon’s ‘Let’s Start the Dance’.

One of his treasured memories is the night Derrick Carter got so vexed that there was an instrumental version of ‘Let’s Start the Dance’ playing instead of the vocal mix, he grabbed a microphone and sung the missing lyrics himself. It sums Space up: the music was revered but the atmosphere was irreverent; equal parts dance music industry hub and messy house party where nobody took themselves too seriously. Many of the records that filled the dancefloor back then still stand up today too – as proven by the deftly curated new two-part Space compilation on the Above Board label.

By the turn of the millennium Space was still packing them in; Classic had lived up to its name, becoming one of the world’s premier labels; and he had formed another fruitful creative partnership with a mate from university, Justin Harris, recording as Freaks and launching the Music for Freaks label. Derrick was a superstar DJ; Luke and Kenny were gigging around the world too. Living the deep house dream. And then it all began to unravel.

For the acid house generation who came of age in the 80s and 90s, the decade that followed often felt like the worst possible hangover after the mother of all parties. The musical landscape began to change with the rise of minimal and electro house, and by 2002 Space had come to an end. But even more devastating was the collapse of vinyl culture as the digital age took over. The surge in downloading led that same year to the liquidation of Ideal, the company that distributed both Classic and Music for Freaks, leaving the labels with a combined debt of £250,000. And as Luke was coming to terms with all of this, there came an unexpected plot twist: Freaks had a Top Ten hit.

“It was a complete accident. We’d made a track called ‘The Creeps’ that got signed by Azuli, and unbeknown to us they’d got this electro-house remix done and put it on DJ Download, which was the first big digital website before Beatport. And it just blew up, the most downloaded track they’d ever had. So me and Justin were in a bit of a quandary because we hadn’t even approved the remix but then Ministry stepped in to sign it, so we just went: ‘OK, let’s go with it but we want to put a new vocal on it,’ and that’s the version that went Top Ten. And it was such a weird time for it to happen because we’d lost Classic, we’d lost Space, we were in a lot of debt, trying to figure out where we all belonged… and then I became a dad (he has two sons, both now in their teens, with his wife, Kris), so you’re not going out as much, and then all of a sudden the gigs aren’t there anymore. I was playing catch-up for a long, long time after that.”

In 2011 came the nadir. Hawkes died at the age of just 42 from liver failure as a result of alcohol abuse. “It was a reflection of everything a lot of us were going through in different ways,” he says. “It could have been me. So many times, it could have been me. Whether it was rooted in addiction or just being a fucking idiot. Those moments when I could have crashed that car or fallen off that roof, all the stupid things I’ve done because I was high. There were parties where I would fall over when I was DJing, and the promoters were talking to my agent the next day and saying: ‘Is Luke OK? What’s going on?’”

He continues: “The whole culture revolved around enabling people. The drinks are on your rider. You drink on the plane, going out for dinner. ‘Are you sure you don’t want a quick livener?’ That whole thing of looking at you when you say no and they go: ‘What? Really?’ That stuff. I think kids today are more educated about being able to say yes or no; but I grew up at a time when if you weren’t hanging out with the promoter at the after-afterparty, you probably weren’t going to get booked again. By the end of it I was getting travel anxiety and I couldn’t get on a plane without drinking; I couldn’t DJ without drinking.

“My moment of epiphany came after going to BPM in Mexico and being up for three or four days and having a panic attack on the plane home. And I got off the plane and I thought: ‘That’s it. I don’t want to be the embarrassing old drunk or high man at the party anymore.’”

He has been sober ever since: “I’m an all or nothing guy.” With sobriety has come renewed focus, regained confidence and an exciting new chapter in his career, which began in the dark days of 2011 when he was thrown a lifeline in the form of an A&R job at Defected by its CEO, Simon Dunmore. Defected had bought Classic and planned to relaunch the label. Who better to helm that operation than one of its founders?

“I was at a point where it was either throw in the towel and do something completely different, which I don’t know how to do, or take the job and work my way up from the bottom all over again – which is what I did. And it was the best thing I could have done, because as an A&R (across all Defected’s labels including DFTD, Classic, Strictly Rhythm, Faith, Nu Groove and Glitterbox), I have to go out and meet all these new kids and understand new culture. We’re in a young person’s world, so it’s important to embrace change. The minute you become bitter and resentful, it’s game over.”

At the same time, his experience has helped Defected to maintain a level of authenticity and connection with underground music, even as it has grown into a megabrand. “Every time we’ve picked up a [heritage] label like Nu Groove, we’ve gone: ‘OK, what should this feel like now?’ The originators still help in the background, whether it’s Rheji and Ronnie Burrell with Nu Groove or Stu (Patterson) and Terry (Farley) with Faith. I think early on a lot of my peers were saying: ‘Oh, you’ve sold out,’ – but I’m great at having something to prove and now I think people understand it’s still about the music, not about exploiting it.”

Before relaunching Classic, there was an “emotional” conversation with Derrick Carter – who ultimately decided not to re-join the label. “I think he just wanted to go off and be a wandering minstrel on his own terms with no one to worry or think about. It was sad, but he kind of passed the baton and entrusted me with it, and I think he’s happy with the way it’s panned out.”

Solomon’s creative output has blossomed again too, a highlight coming in 2017 with Powerdance, a collective he assembled with the German producer Nick Maurer featuring musicians from LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip and Metro Area. Their debut album, ‘The Lost Art of Getting Down’, an homage to 1970s New York disco and post-punk, won a five-star review from The Guardian, who deemed it “an object lesson in how to take inspiration from the past and apply it to the present”.

There is another Powerdance album in the works. But “the problem now, post-Beyoncé, is suddenly all these crazy opportunities are happening and I’ve got to put it to one side because so-and-so’s just called…”

Who’s that, then? A Cheshire Cat grin. “Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to say anything…”

Tantalising, but whatever lies in store this much is already abundantly clear: Luke Solomon has nothing left to prove.

Yacht’s Going On? 
July 12, 2023
Yacht’s Going On? 
used cms Yacht’s Going On? 

The cyclical nature of pop time means music is never out of style for long. But when it comes to the provocative sound of yacht rock, maybe the music never went away. As a new breed of dancefloor producers fall under its super-warm, slo-mo spell, Jim Butler traces the music’s origins, discusses its dubious name and highlights its enduring and timely appeal…

For James Alexander Bright, one-half of Bright & Findlay, it’s like a warm embrace: “An audio hug.” JIM, the new alter ego of Crazy P’s Jim Baron, describes it as “a joyful noise”. DJ Supermarkt says the sounds have repeatedly soothed him in times of trouble. “Every crisis I had, I survived with that music.” Benny Sings, the Dutch musician, calls it an identity thing. “It’s like saying this is who I am. I want sunshine, I want bright colours. I do live in a concrete, rainy environment but this is who I am.” Lou Hayter, meanwhile, spies its presence everywhere. “It’s in so many great records.”

As for Ned Doheny, that classic Californian troubadour who was best friends with Jackson Browne, ran with The Eagles and Joni Mitchell, and whose music has arguably been best-served by the sound’s persistent resurgence, well, he can’t abide the term. “It sounds kind of dismissive,” he laments. “As if it’s a bunch of rich people disporting themselves. A lot of the music that was made was the by-product of lifetimes’ devotion and deserves a bit better call than that.”

Welcome to the contentious world of yacht rock. A music which for the first 30-odd years of its existence was, if not the genre with no name, then certainly known by other descriptions: AOR (Adult-oriented rock), smooth soul, soft rock, jazz pop… The name yacht rock only came into being on the back of a YouTube video series that began in 2005. An affectionate lampooning of the super-airbrushed, joyously self-indulgent and stylised studio sounds proffered by the likes of Steely Dan, Toto, Kenny Loggins, The Doobie Brothers, Bobby Caldwell, Christopher Cross, Hall & Oates and co, the ‘Yacht Rock’ show retrospectively gave a name to, and subsequently reawakened interest in, a music that had previously been scorned for its supposedly non-rebellious – square – properties.

Although the creators of ‘Yacht Rock’ loosely defined the music’s time in the hot, hot Californian sun as between 1976 and 1984 – heralded by Michael McDonald and Loggins co-writing ‘What a Fool Believes’ – those musicians, DJs and producers that fell under its spell in the 00s stretched the timespan to incorporate the likes of Fleetwood Mac, America, Carly Simon, the Eagles, even Carole King, the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills and Nash. They also went the other way too, bringing modern acts like Phoenix and Zoot Woman to the party.

Crucially, however, the cratediggers – as is their wont – went deeper. DJ Supermarkt discovered less-heralded – in some cases almost obscure – musicians such as the aforementioned Doheny, Browning Bryant (whose 1974 self-titled album was produced by the imperious Allen Toussaint) and Matthew Larkin Cassell.

“I thought I’m not the only one that needs to know about Ned Doheny,” DJ Supermarkt (Marcus Liesenfeld) reflects today. “I’m not a musician, but I am pretty good at sharing things I find because I don’t keep them for myself. There were a few songs that really started the decision to make it a label (Too Slow To Disco) and Doheny’s ‘Get It Up For Love’ was one of them.”

DJ Supermarkt

If yacht rock today has a creative linchpin, it is the Berlin-based DJ Supermarkt. His ‘Too Slow To Disco’ compilations – to date he’s released 10 albums (including the ‘Neo’, ‘The Ladies Of Too Slow To Disco’, ‘Brasil’ and ‘Yacht Soul’ off-shoots) – have helped legitimise and crystallise the sound. Significantly, it’s also highlighted a correlation between the music and the dancefloor – a sonic signpost that’s not lost on several modern artists as we shall soon see.

Back in the 90s, Liesenfeld was one of Berlin’s biggest electronic artists. Alongside Holger Beier he was one half of Le Hammond Inferno and the pair founded the Bungalow label. They would DJ on the main floor in clubs across the world. And while the highs of such a lifestyle were stratospheric, the lows were conversely deep. It was listening to the music broadly described as yacht rock that enabled him to reach some sort of equilibrium while stuck in another “shitty hotel or shitty airport”. He began noticing a pattern among other globe-trotting DJs.

“Whenever I played it to someone, they either thought I was crazy, or they asked who it was,” he recalls. “But a lot of people admitted that they did the same. I met 2manydjs at that time, Peaches, Erol… those kinds of people, and it’s funny, they all did the same. All of them.”

After his discovery of Doheny (“I’d never heard of him. Even in the 70s nobody had heard of him”) and other music released on major labels (Doheny’s eponymous 1973 debut album came out on David Geffen’s Asylum, his follow-up, ‘Hard Candy’, on Columbia), Liesenfeld put together a mix of music from that period. He assembled it like a radio show from the 70s, replete with weather forecasts and adverts from the time. He uploaded it to a house blog he was involved in, and it just exploded.

“It was the most downloaded thing we ever put on there. I ended up doing two more mixes and we sold them in Rough Trade. The second mix was called Too Slow To Disco.” And then came the compilations. Tellingly, he didn’t use the term yacht rock.

“I always thought yacht rock was the wrong word,” he explains. “There is no rock. It’s almost like an anti-rock movement. I think it was a good name for the ironic show, but it doesn’t really capture what I love about that music. It’s more pop. Actually, it’s more soul music. They have so much soul.”

On the cover of the first TSTD compilation a sticker was attached which read: Late-70s, Early-80s West Coast Yacht Pop You Can Almost Dance To. The description, while cumbersome, was perfect. Here was a music that was slow – sometimes really slow – but you could dance to it.

Benny Sings

Benny Sings is another who finds the insertion of rock problematic. “The least-listened-to genre on my Spotify is rock,” he explains. “I’m not a big fan of the distorted guitar so I wish there was another term. But I love yacht rock [the sound], so let’s go.”

Across eight albums – his latest, ‘Young Hearts’, came out this spring on Stones Throw – he’s indulged his love of this music, but his entry point wasn’t that original coterie of musicians, but the hip hop producers who sampled them.

“I was a fan of Jay Dee (J Dilla), and he used Bobby Caldwell samples,” he says. “In those rap songs I always loved the choruses the most – which was generally the sample. So, my first idea was I want to make music that just consists of the choruses of the rap songs and then the verses I’ll sing as well. What I didn’t know I was doing was essentially recreating yacht rock.”

After his first album, 2003’s ‘Champagne People’, journalists kept asking him if he was a fan of artists like Donald Fagen, Toto et al. He wasn’t aware of them, so he did some digging and he soon realised he’d found his calling. With one exception. “The production is hip hop, but yes, it’s from the school of yacht rock.”

Lou Hayter

Self-proclaimed Steely Dan aficionado Lou Hayter believes that hip hop is key to the music’s sustained popularity. She points to Fagen and Walter Becker’s band being sampled by hip hop royalty including De La Soul, MF Doom, Ice Cube and Kanye West.

“I grew up with De La Soul, so when I heard ‘Peg’ for the first time, I already knew it,” she says. “The more I listened to Steely Dan the more I was hearing things I already knew from hip hop. Then you’ve got Warren G’s ‘Regulate’ [featuring its Michael McDonald signature sample]. That sound is in so many great records. It’s very much woven into the fabric of popular music through hip hop and then people just tune into it.”

This criss-crossing of music and the dialogue and exchange that’s embedded in popular culture also makes itself apparent in the fact that Toto – whose ‘Africa’ hit is either the apogee of this self-congratulatory, cheery sound or its nadir, depending on how many Guilty Pleasures-themed nights you’ve experienced – were not only vital studio musicians for the likes of Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs, but wrote ‘Human Nature’ for Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ album.

“So, it’s been there all along,” says Hayter, whose superb 2021 debut album ‘Private Sunshine’ unapologetically paid homage to the breezy world of yacht rock.

But it’s not just Hayter from the dance/electronic world who has gleefully embraced it. JIM, the infectious new project from Crazy P’s Jim Baron (aka Ron Basejam), wonderfully evokes wide-open Californian vistas and nautical (mis)adventures.

“It’s an attachment I feel fits the music,” he happily concedes of his ‘Love Makes Magic’ album. “And it’s not because I’ve got any experience of being on huge yachts taking heavy amounts of cocaine. For me, it’s very uplifting. The production is so tight. The orchestration. The harmonic content. It’s a very specific sound built around those elements.”

Baron is providing his take on yacht rock, but he could easily be talking about ‘Love Makes Magic’. Indeed, it’s one of those albums that effortlessly accrues instant classic status. Tracks like ‘Oxygen’ – which employs a fluid groove Doheny would applaud – ‘Still River Flow’ and the irresistible ‘Then We Do It Again’ merge Baron’s dancefloor savvy with classic songwriting licks. So why are so many electronic producers taking a holiday among yacht rock’s dusty boulevards? Baron has some thoughts.

JIM (photo: Magda Kuczmik)

“If you’re looking back to disco there’s a direct comparison musically with what’s going on,” he suggests. “Maybe not stylistically, but in terms of what’s going on with the harmonies and how the songs are moving around. I’d probably say that if you’re into disco it’s a very short jump over to the yacht rock sound.”

And when Steely Dan were supposedly employing 50 musicians and engineers to bring their ‘Gaucho’ album into existence, the sleek sophistication of that production mirrors disco’s ostentatious flamboyance.

“Exactly right,” says Baron. “They spent a lot of money on string sections, on orchestration, making it sound as big as possible. And disco was the same. It was a cast of thousands on most of those records. There’s a link there definitely.”

“Musicians today can’t believe how good those songs sound,” says DJ Supermarkt. “There’s no budget in the world nowadays. You can’t do it.”

Although one could argue Daft Punk gave it a good go when employing their ‘cast of thousands’ on their final opus, ‘Random Access Memories’, another album on speaking terms with the sunshine-soaked possibilities of yacht rock, and, not coincidentally, also recorded in Los Angeles.


Bright & Findlay (photo: Simon Griggs)

Another explanation of yacht rock’s influence on contemporary dance music takes in the term slo-mo disco. Like ‘Too Slow To Disco’’s ‘pop you can almost dance to’ narrative, slo-mo disco couches the music in that familiar chuggy, almost-Balearic, dancefloor sound. It’s a description Bright & Findlay (James Alexander Bright and one-half of Groove Armada Tom Findlay) subscribe to on their excellent, and fittingly titled, debut album, ‘Everything is Slow’.

‘Slo-mo disco sounds like a nice space for us to be in,” admits Findlay. “I can lean into those grooves and it subsequently brings in a lot of crossover that you hear in dance music. So, if we get led down a New York Morgan Geist road for a day, that’s OK. It makes you realise how fluid that sound is.”

Bright points to modern artists such as Bibio and Dâm-Funk as carrying on that “soulful, almost Balearic early hours-of-the-morning vibe”.

He explains: “A lot of artists, whether it’s with plug ins or not, they like to create that hazy, almost like a snapshot – a Polaroid – which I guess we do with tape decks and old reel-to-reel recording, to regenerate a warmth and a yesteryear sound with modern production. It’s comforting and instantly puts a smile on my face.”

Comforting aural hugs are something we could all do with right now. So maybe it’s no accident that the music seems to be in the spotlight once more.

“When the music came to prominence in the 70s,” says Findlay, “I think it was to do with an existential unease in America at the time – Vietnam and things like that. I don’t want to get too meta about the whole thing, but I wonder, we’re going through difficult and challenging times right now and having something that feels like a big audio hug is something we need in our lives.”

That today’s take on yacht rock is also ever-evolving and amorphous – much like its Balearic cousin – also speaks to modern dancefloors. As Baron says of his JIM alter ego: “If you’re DJing by the pool on a Sunday afternoon at Pikes it’s perfect tackle for that.”

And if you’re looking for a closing – for now – chapter, DJ Supermarkt suggests finding it in the booming sphere of re-edits. He points to edits by the likes of Luxxury, Late Nite Tuff Guy, Duff Disco and Flight Facilities helping keep the music relevant today. “I like stuff that is alive,” he states.

Today, he doesn’t play the older artists he first discovered back at the fag end of the 00s. It’s all about musicians like Poolside, Kraak and Smaak, Roosevelt, L’Impératice, and Bertrand Burglat (the latter two both appearing on his TSTD ‘Neo – En France’ collection). “It’s important to find a new angle so I don’t become a jukebox.”

In the UK, meanwhile, the re-edit duo Flying Mojito Brothers have given their own sun-baked take on “yacht-adjacent” sounds such as country rock, classic rock and swamp rock, arriving at a simpatico cosmic Americana disco. They’ve also collaborated with James Alexander Bright reworking – or what they term “refrito”-ing – some of his !K7 recordings.

Of course, the pulsing heartbeat of the disco – the groove – is the link that ties this oftentimes unwieldy story together. J.D. Ryznar, one of the people behind the notorious ‘Yacht Rock’ series once described the base of the music as R&B. “There [are] jazz elements,” he told the Beyond Yacht Rock podcast. “There can be complex, challenging melodies; the solos are all cutting-edge and really interesting. There’s always something interesting about a true yacht rock song. It goes left when you expect it to go right.”

Ned Doheny on tour in the UK and Europe, 2015

Ned Doheny believes one of the reasons he might not have succeeded in the 70s and why he has been discovered at this later stage could have been because of this very cocktail in his songs.

“There was a teeny bit of jazz there, there was some R&B, it was all rhythm-based, even the slow tunes, so I was kind of, I wouldn’t say uncategorisable, but a little more difficult to pinpoint in terms of style. And maybe that’s what this late date interest in my tunes stems from.”

He continues: “A long time ago, Jackson (Browne) claims to have given me a compilation of ‘Motown’s Greatest Hits’. I dispute that. But let’s just say I’ve always loved rhythm. It seems if you engage someone’s body their mind is sure to follow.”

Ned Doheny ahead of his performance at the Greenwich Yacht Club, 2015

Back in 2015, DJ Supermarkt promoted a Ned Doheny show in Berlin as part of a European tour. That tour saw DJ support come from the likes of Balearic stalwarts Paul (Claremont 56) Murphy, Jason Boardman and Moonboots. For Liesenfeld that Berlin show was both a revelation and vindication. “I’ve never seen so many people crying. I was one of them,” he happily admits.

Since the mid-70s then, yacht rock has always been with us, you could say it’s just been hiding in plain sight. And if the name is troublesome, the sound is anything but.


Bugging Out To Smooth Yacht Rock!

In 2008 I deviated from my public image - promoting Bugged Out! - to become better known for playing yacht rock. I had an unlikely hit DJ mix on my hands for Resident Advisor. I’d been running a Bugged Out! New Year’s Day party for years where I often dipped into smooth yacht tunes by the likes of Toto and Hall & Oates. I was approached by Richard Chinn from RA who commissioned their weekly mixes. He wanted me to do one, “a bit like your New Year’s Day parties.” They had recently featured Derrick Carter and Laurent Garnier which worried me as I couldn’t mix, so I decided to focus on selection and “creative segues”. My excuse?: “You can’t really mix the tracks unless you want Michael McDonald to sing in an even higher falsetto by pitching him up.”

With a nod towards dance music, I included an Idjut Boys edit of Phil Collins and a Balearic version of Toto’s ‘Africa’; the French have always loved yacht so Phoenix’s ‘Too Young’ featured alongside The Paradise’s ’In Love With You’. The centre of any yacht Venn diagram – Michael McDonald – appeared across tracks by The Doobie Brothers, Christopher Cross and Steely Dan. After several attempts I sent it to Chinn. The following day I had second thoughts and called him to pull it. “What are you talking about? The office loves it.”

So, on 1 December 2008 RA No. 131 loaded into subscribers’ inboxes with the opening ‘Hill St Blues (theme)’ turning heads who were expecting some boompty boomp. From there it took off with a few techno obsessives citing it “a joke” but countless supporters who were pleased with the change from deep house or triggered with happy FM radio memories. Even Time Out reported on it, saying I “was responsible for bringing yacht rock to the dance music masses.”

It became a staple of afterparties and I started getting bookings. I played the bar of Ibiza’s Space and at Glastonbury and Bestival. I heard that DJ Sasha was a fan and when I ran club night, Sail On Sailor, he turned up to shake a leg to the Doobies. It’s had a pretty decent afterlife on Soundcloud with recent comments from Berlin, London and Los Angeles citing it their favourite RA mix. Except it’s not a mix, it’s a creatively segued selection.

John Burgess



Sonar So Good
April 6, 2023
Sonar So Good
used cms Sonar So Good

Whoever’s responsible for booking in Sonar festivals certainly has great taste in city break destinations. The Barcelona-based event has already branched out to host events everywhere from Buenos Aires to Hong Kong to Reykjavik over the last decade, alongside its annual event in the Catalan capital. And while Lisbon might be a little closer to home for the Sonar crew, it’s no less an appealing place in which to spend a couple of days partying. The second edition of Sonar Lisboa takes place in multiple spaces in the Parque Eduardo VII, a delectable city centre park near downtown Lisbon and features the kind of diverse and thought provoking line-up we’ve come to expect from the Sonar stable.

First up on Friday is James Holden in the Sonar Hall, the slightly smaller of the two main venues. Holden’s clearly enjoying playing live as much as ever since the release of this year’s ‘Imagine This is a High Dimensional Space of All Possibilities’ and he has the early evening crowd entranced with a set of modular excursions. Walking the line between the ethereal and the ecstatic, Holden proves why he’s still one of electronic music’s intriguing figures. 

James Holden

Over in Sonar Club, an almost arena-sized space housed inside the palatial Pavilhão Carlos Lopes building, Sofia Kourtesis [main picture] shows why her star is in the ascendant with a set of enveloping house and techno before Italian DJ Anifsa Letaygo plays a not for the faint-hearted set of slamming techno. 

The main draw of the night is over in the Sonar Hall where Skream and Mala are closing out proceedings. After spending the majority of the last decade building his reputation as a DJ and producer playing mostly house, techno and disco, Skream seems to be getting very excited about playing at 140 bpm again and spends most of the weekend around the Sonar show excitedly tweeting about potentially going back out on tour with the likes of Benga, Plastician, Coki and Mala. And it’s a pleasure to see two of the sonic architects of dubstep rattling through classics like ‘Anti War Dub’ and ‘Midnight Request Line’, and clearly having the time of their lives while doing it. Indeed, Skream and Mala’s enthusiasm is shared by a crowd who delighted in rolling back the years just as much as them. 

Skream B2B Mala

After spending the Saturday afternoon eating our body weight in Pasteis Del Nata, Portugal’s take on the custard tart, we make it on site for the tail-end of Folamour’s joyous AV show and the start of SHERELLE's back-to-back with Hyperdub boss Kode 9 on the outdoor Sonar Village stage. There might not be a more fitting pairing in dance music right now and the twosome are clearly enjoying themselves, in a playful and attention arresting set that leans heavily on jungle and footwork with everything from DJ Rashad classic ‘Brighter Dayz’ to DJ Tre’s ‘DnB Spaceout’ thrown into the mix, alongside the likes of Playboy Cartai and ‘Never Gonna Let You Go’ by Tina Moore. Sherelle, a natural on the mic, builds a great rapport with the crowd with interjections throughout and they pry plenty of people away from Peggy Gou’s packed out set of slick big room house and techno in Sonar Club. 


Saturday evening sees Sonar Hall oversubscribed for WhoMadeWho’s live set but things get back on track with DJ Tennis and Carlita’s buoyant and emotive back-to-back in Sonar Hall.

With the sun finally breaking through for the Sunday after a cloud-filled Saturday, there’s a real feelgood factor on site as local hero Yen Sung packs out the Sonar Village stage to show just why she’s got such a great reputation in Lisbon and beyond. The Lux Fragil resident packs out the outdoor Sonar Village stage and works the crowd in the way only years as a resident can teach you, dropping classics like ‘So Let the Wind Come’ by Kerri Chandler in a set of delectably selected house. 

Quick vibe changes can often bedevil festival line-ups, but Cinthie taking over from Yen Sung is a seamless switchover as the Berlin DJ lifts the crowd even higher with an up-tempo live set, demonstrating why she’s one of the most reliably brilliant producers working in house music today. 

Things come to a close in Sonar Hall with an acid-laced techno set from Amelie Lens, leaning heavily on the effects box, before locals Violet and Photonz close things out with a back-to-back. 

Plenty of festivals are influenced by Sonar’s almost peerless staging of these city events; in Lisbon, this weekend they prove once again, that few do it better. 

Andrew Weatherall: The Club Nights
April 5, 2023
Andrew Weatherall: The Club Nights
used cms Andrew Weatherall: The Club Nights

Weatherall captained many ships over the years from the banging Sabresonic, through the rock’n’roll Sunday night Double Gone Chapel to the low bpm count of A Love From Outer Space. He also helmed his own French festival Convenanza which, along with ALFOS, will continue his legacy.



Happy Jaxx, 1993-1994

Sabresonic II

EC1 1995

“Tom (Rowlands) and I used to love it and would go most weeks. The music was very hard and seemed very connected to Fat Cat records - Alex Knight used to DJ - good techno music. There would be interesting warm ups like Bob Jones, or there might be dub reggae. Given how heavy the music was it was a very sociable club, there was a real sense of community including a strange combination of things like Bastard Bunny and the whole Lord Sabre thing (he’d also personally handwrite the broadsheets to say which upcoming DJs were playing). We’d get there early and prop up the bar. It was like a grimy box, greasy walls, exposed brick and iron along these series of archways. That part of London in the early-90s was pretty run down. It was quite misty as steam was coming off people. I always remember Terry Farley being there even though it wasn’t really his music. He’d say it was ‘hard but fair’.

“We met Adam Smith and Noah Clark there too (who went on to create the visuals for the Chemical Brothers). I remember seeing Richie Hawtin play who was amazing. But the main event was always Weatherall. Andrew would create incredibly intense moments when he DJed that could stay with the listener for ages. Hearing Koenig Cylinders’ ‘Carousel’ on the sound system at Sabresonic, as the sweat rose from the crowd… I believe there’s a few people dotted around London still trying to take it in. It felt very new and very different to progressive and Italian house and attracted a variety of Fat Cat techno heads, Japanese girls and squat culture clubbers.

“He asked us (The Chemical Brothers, then known as The Dust Brothers) to play live and we didn’t want to be on the stage, so we found a cubby hole above the cloakroom. It was the first live gig we did and Weatherall was very encouraging. I’m sure the sound and light people were annoyed we were at the other end of the room to the DJ but it kind of worked, though not everyone was aware of what was going on. We played the remixes we’d done like the Leftfield and Lionrock ones, ‘Chemical Beats’ and ‘Song To The Siren’. The track that became ‘3 Little Birdies Down Beats’ was recorded at that show. We played for about 25 minutes. That was long enough for The Jesus and Mary Chain, so we felt it was long enough for us.”

Ed Simons

“I first met Andrew at Raphael in Windsor, a clothes shop where a young football casual like me would go to buy their Armani jumpers. Andrew would have the desire to dress you, he was fanatical about clothing. I used to follow Gilles Peterson around and was into the jazz scene, but my mates would go out and take E and would bang on about the scene and this DJ Andy Weatherall. I said I knew an Andrew Weatherall that used to sell clothes but didn’t think it could be the same guy. They begged me to go to a Boy’s Own party and I bumped into him straight away and we reconnected. He gave me his number and that was the beginning of a ten-year relationship, which included running the clubs for around five of those years.

"Later, Nina (Walsh) lived in the same house as my girlfriend on Landor Road in Clapham in the early-90s. Andrew had a place in Battersea but we all regularly ended up there. Andrew seemed to store his records in the hallway, it was just full of his records. He joked that he got tired of buying the takeaways and somebody else needed to help pay their way so if we started a club night maybe they could pitch in. He also didn’t have the time or inclination to find a venue, for example, so that’s how I got involved as the promoter. When we stumbled upon Happy Jaxx it had a really brutal, full-on sound system and it suited the purpose we were aiming for. We foolishly started a weekly club which was hard work and we ran Sabresonic for a year. It was very eclectic, whether it was Adrian Sherwood, Leftfield, Richie Hawtin or the Dust Brothers playing live above the toilets. It attracted a crowd of people wide open to these musical possibilities. Everyone left there pretty dishevelled, it was not for the faint-hearted.

"How did it end? The end of everything we ever did was always Andrew who would run out of steam and want to wrap things up. He was always moving forwards. I can’t remember the genesis of Sabresonic 2 at the EC1 but we did that monthly and we continued with guests like Global Communication. The final night had LTJ Bukem, so it was still eclectic but the music was more pointed. Techno had changed and the atmosphere was different and the environment was different, it was one big room, one sound system and it went longer – until 6am. There’s so much I owe to Andrew, he helped me get my first job in the music industry and running Sabresonic at Happy Jaxx helped me raise the deposit for my first home.”

Dean O’Connor

“I built up a genuine rapport with Weatherall in the store (Fat Cat). I was a raver and he liked my energy. I’d play a set on a Saturday morning to all the kids who had been up all night in the clubs and you’d clear the cash out of their pockets pretty quickly. He just asked me one day if I’d be interested in playing a set at this new night. I thought I’d be on with five other DJs but it was just me and him on the opening night and I ended up playing for three hours. He’d never heard me DJ, it was a leap of faith just based on buying records off me. I became a regular punter at Happy Jaxx, great parties. When that club closed he asked me to be the resident at Sabresonic 2.”

Alex Knight


Terrace - Bassi(n)c 

Plastikman - Spastik

Ron Trent - Altered States

Koenig Cylinders - Carousel

Vapourspace - Gravitational Arch of I0

Killing Joke - Requiem (A Floating Leaf Always Reaches the Sea Dub)

Vainqueur - Lyot (Maurizio Mix)

The Dust Brothers - Song To The Siren

Bandulu - Prescence

Paul Weller - Kosmos (Lynch Mob Bonus Beats - Full Version)


The Blue Note, 1996-1997

“I went to Sabresonic as a punter and it would be exciting to see him in the club, he’d even sometimes be on the door. I approached him after giving him a knowing glance, ‘Alright mate’. As the club went on I became a regular and so we’d talk more often. With Sabresonic 2 I’d give him tapes to listen to. I became friends with the journalist Ben Turner who had asked me for a mixtape. He put me in a section of Muzik magazine called Bedroom Bedlam and I mentioned I went to Sabresonic. Andrew was really chuffed I’d mentioned his night and I gave him a tape to check out.

“There was a night I couldn’t go to and Andrew told my mates that he liked the tape. He told me at the last Sabresonic 2 that when he came back with a new night I’d be a resident with him and Alex. I got an invite to the office on Dean Street when they were above a strip place. They told me about Bloodsugar then and that it was going to be at the Blue Note in Shoreditch, an area which was dead at the time. I’d drive up from the suburbs and leave my car somewhere all weekend. It was a family environment and a lot of similar people from Sabresonic came down. It was a lot smaller than EC1 with a small bar upstairs and basement downstairs. You could go on your own but you’d bump into people and see where the night would take you, throw your chips into the air and see where they’d land.

“David Holmes played, Bob Jones, Grand Central boys, Rub A Dub shop boys… the guests always played in the bar which was a respite from the techno. I came out of hip hop really and could hear that Andrew was using the beats on things like his remix of James’ ‘Come Home’ or the early stuff he did with Hugo Nicholson. So at Bloodsugar we’d play things like Mobb Deep and a lot of instrumental hip hop records. I usually warmed up, though it was busy from the get-go and rammed by 11pm. And there was always an after party.”

Rick Hopkins

“Bloodsugar was a refining of the original Sabresonic. Andrew realised you build a residency and audience through the residents and how they play. EC1 was one big dark room and not the best environment for all the records we’d play there. So at Bloodsugar we had the two floors of the Blue Note and in the bar area we could move between the floors to play hip hop, dub and jazz funk. Downstairs was the killer, hot sweaty room which was phenomenal. There was an energy in that club that didn’t exist in the previous two venues because of the continuity of the DJs and sound. We all fed off each other. If Rick had a good night I had to up my game and then Andrew would come on and have to raise the roof. We had a steady clientele who came to all the gigs. The clubs he put his name to were about what he was into at that particular time and those DJs that excited him, rather than the wider scene, which was really refreshing.”

Alex Knight

“Sav Remzi was keen to have us at the Blue Note and we took the last Friday night. Bloodsugar was a more groove orientated night after Sabresonic’s more metallic edge. The music started to slow down a bit and Andrew got more into deep house which he’d play downstairs with Alex. It was a hugely enjoyable night, it felt like we knew what we were doing by then and the place was run more professionally. I didn’t have to put any drapes up thankfully. Andrew loved to DJ so would probably have rather DJed all night long, but he embraced booking guests as there was so much exciting talent at the time. We never needed to cram a bill with guests though, he’d much rather programme an overarching mood to the evening. He was so versatile he could adjust to whoever played before him. It ran for a year - or maybe 13 nights - and it got to the point where we felt it was enough and we were always keen to end on a high.”

Dean O’Connor

“I recall being on the dancefloor of the Blue Note for Bloodsugar having fun with friends. Then out of nowhere I was locked in, he was working these tripped-out percussion sounds for ages bringing them in and out of the mix, the room was screaming during this. I asked him what the record was, and he showed me a one-sided orange vinyl dub-plate of Reel Houze’s ‘The Chance’ (DJD’s Dubplate Re-Dub). I tracked it down and Tom and I played this record pretty much every night of The Social at Turnmills for a few years. Just one of so many records and experiences that only he could create.”

Ed Simons


Primal Scream - Stuka (Two Lone Swordsmen remix)

Underground Resistance - Electronic Warfare (The Machines)

Aaron Carl - Crucified

Deanne Day - The Long First Friday

Global Communications - The Way/The Deep

Nimbus Quartet - Hep Cat Speaketh

Pub - Lick

Carl Craig - The Climax (Basic Channel Reshape)

Robotic Movement - Find Yourself (instrumental dub)

Kenlou - The Bounce

Haywire Sessions

Various venues, 1995-2007

“Haywire was a product of the rhubarb triangle; electro, techno and bass. Quality electronics were guaranteed. The name Haywire came from transmitting, connecting, disrupting. Before the club nights, Haywire began in the early-90s. We built websites for creatives and record labels, building communities, selling records, putting out our own records and booking out DJs. Throwing the odd shindig was a natural progression. 

“It was held in various vice dens over the decade. We were seemingly partial to the odd basement, which had to be run by people who felt the love of music. From humble beginnings in a small Leeds basement we swung by Coventry, took in some off-grid locations and our Shoreditch highlights were at the Fortress (that was one hell of crazy time!) then Bridge & Tunnel, T Bar, 93 Feet East and Corsica Studios. We also had a residency at Fabric and The Loft in Barcelona.

“Our regulars were Daz Quayle, Keith Tenniswood, Richard Fearless, Matt Carter, Rick Hopkins, Bass Junkie, Dexorcist, Sherman and we attracted a discerning crowd. There were so many great clubs around at that time, it was a blast for sure. While the music may have been at the edgier end of the spectrum it was a diverse crowd and proved that girls loved machine funk too. Andrew often commented on that. Can I remember any memorable incidents? Blimey, too many, and to quote Mr W: ‘Jah willing, will never be told.’

“But here’s a few: John Peel brought his son along to one of the early ones in Leeds, I think it was after the Peel/Wedding Present interview he did. There was a dustbin full of ‘rockstar soup’ on the dancefloor and let’s just say everyone was in high spirits. Ectomorph blew up their gear before their live show, they still pulled it off though. Another time was when Silicon Scally was playing live at the Fortress, and the place is pumping. Then - in the middle of his set - a girl clambers on stage, crawls over his kit, starts tapping at the touchscreen on his synth, and asks him if she can check her emails. 

“Whenever Tokyo Windbag, Radioactive Man, and Andrew were on the same bill was always eventful. For instance, September 2001, Haywire at 93 Feet East, we held a Rotters Golf Club tournament which involved building a putting green outside on the terrace. Suitable attire was donned by all attendees for an early tee off. The judging panel scored on style, swagger and delivery. A raucous affair, but two hours later the winner was presented with the RGC cup and then off into the ‘clubhouse’ with Andrew DJing and Radioactive Man live. And then there was the time we had the full Haywire Coastal Assault Squad loaded on to the bus at Scrutton Street HQ heading for the Dedbeat Weekender. To say things had got out of hand by Commercial Street would be an understatement.

“It was always colourful. We were all set for a cracking Bank Holiday weekend at Jaxx on Crucifix Lane. The venue was a dry hire and we’d pulled out all the stops, no expense spared, with a full-on day loading in sound and tech. The Two Lone Swordsman soundcheck rocked and everyone was hyped. There were queues around the block and the drinks were flowing. Rick Hopkins and Big Vern Burns DJed and Battant played live. Two Lone Swordsmen were due on stage, standing by at 11.30pm. Then there was a power outage throughout London Bridge, taking out the station and all the arches. SE1 plunged into darkness. Despite efforts from the nearby pub to run a genny over the road we had no choice but to wrap it up. Gutted. The crowd were as incredible as ever.

“Why did Haywire come to an end? Like all good things have to. And we all got to go home with a full bag of marbles. Just.”

Amanda Burton

“Haywire’s main venue in London was the Fortress in Shoreditch but they moved venues quite a lot. The golden years were at Fortress 2. It was like being at a free party. It was pretty lawless, magical, easy vibes, a bit like Berlin. The music was still quite banging but there was a lot more electro and breakbeat. Andrew used to say electro was techno’s older brother. They booked quite a diverse line up, him and Amanda (Burton). It would always end up banging though with people like Cristian Vogel. Andrew was aware it could become a sausage fest so they would try and book women often like Ellen Allien or Battant.

“The crowd was really up for it, whatever Andrew did he had an amazing following. The crew back from the Sabresonic days onwards would come down. He’d have Aphex Twin phoning up for a guest list. We used to all carry-on afterwards, though Andrew would usually go home at the end of the night. We were all a good 10 years younger than him so would carry on ‘til Monday morning. Shoreditch was going nuts back then, we used to go to The Foundry run by Gimpo, the KLF associate, which kind of became the Haywire after party venue for a good few years. We were also offered a regular monthly at Fabric in room two which had a good vibe too with amazing sound so it carried on there for a while.”

Keith Tenniswood


Essit Musique - Essit Musique

I-f - Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass

Sloop Dee J - Culture Cruncher [Beach Boys Bootleg]

Jackal & Hyde - Beyond

Basic Units - Explode

TLS - Brootle [Simulant mix]

Decal - Superscum

Keith Tucker - Brace Yourself

The Parallax Corporation - Cocodisco

Anthony Rother - Little Computer People


Anthony Rother - Don’t Stop the Beat 

Egyptian Lover - I Need a Freak

Semblance Factor - Autofreak (Selway remix) 

Electronome - Een Drumcomputer & Een Synthesizer

Simulant - Access Future Audio 

Vitalic - Le Rock 01 

Dexter - Intruder 

Drexcyia - Wavejumper 

Sons of Slough - Toxic Friend 

Two Lone Swordsmen - Brootle 

Double Gone Chapel

The Griffin, 2004-2007

“Myself, my brother (Richard Fearless) and Andrew had been out somewhere and we ended up coming back to my house. I began playing records and Andrew must have liked what I played. Not long after he called me up to say he was starting a new monthly club and would I like to play? I was flattered and surprised. The Chapel was on a Sunday afternoon once a month at The Griffin pub in Shoreditch. The Griffin was an old Victorian pub with sticky carpets. I was basically the warm-up and would play country, bluegrass and honky tonk. I was technically rubbish. More than once Andrew raised an eyebrow when I turned the music down when a friend came over to chat. Or I’d regularly play the records at the wrong speed as I got more inebriated.

“It’s funny because when I first heard of Andrew in the 90s I lived in a housing co-op in Islington and I never got into electronic music. Everyone in the house went raving to Sabresonic and I was into country music and playing Billy Joe Spears. I felt like a bit of an oddball. So the irony to be asked to play country records with Weatherall 10 years later… I had friends who would’ve given their right arm to do it. Our paths crossed occasionally - my brother is a DJ and has a band Death In Vegas - so I’d bump into Andrew at gigs and clubs. 

“The Chapel was such a brilliant night. It was like being on an old fashioned carousel. I’d get there when it was light and things were turning slowly and by the end it just got faster, more raucous and finally you’d spin off into the night. Andrew would arrive at the Griffin looking immaculate having already played at clubs over the weekend in Berlin, or somewhere in Europe. His hair was short, slicked back and he was always impeccably dressed. We’d have a polite chat when he arrived - about books, films, but often about the music as I’d be pulling out records. No matter how obscure the records I played he usually knew them, his knowledge was astounding on all music.

“But I had this cover of ‘It’s All Over Baby Blue’ by Leroy Van Dyke and he’d not heard  it. He had people from London to Glasgow looking for it. I got him an original 45 from Beano’s in Croydon, this amazing record shop that was four floors of vinyl with listening booths and a room dedicated to 45s. He’d always turn the volume up when he started playing after me and it would go completely nuts. There wasn’t so much dancing but a lot of staggering about and swaying. There’d be people there who had been up all weekend. He’d usually end playing the Rhythm Of Life by Sammy Davis Jr. and it was like being in a crazy musical, everyone glassy-eyed, grinning and singing along. I used to book the day off work following the Double Gone Chapel.” 

Fiona Maguire

“I first met Andrew on a staircase at a house party in Maidenhead in 1988, where we chatted about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. By then, Andrew was already well established as a DJ. Having befriended me, he took me under his wing. He gave me his phone number and encouraged me to ring him whenever I wanted to be where he was playing. This proved to be the gateway to a euphoric, inspiring cavalcade of unforgettable nights. By the end of 1993, I’d started taking Keith Tenniswood along with me, which led to Andrew employing him as an engineer at Sabresonic.

“After Andrew moved operations from Sabresonic to Keith’s flat on Chiswick High Road, and Sabres of Paradise evolved into Two Lone Swordsman, he relocated to Scrutton Street in Shoreditch and established the Rotters Golf Club studio. By now, I was DJing the backrooms at a lot of Andrew’s events. He clearly saw something in me and gave me the keys to the studio, which I looked after at weekends for him and Keith. His faith meant a lot to me.

“I’d got my hands on a half-decent car and wound up driving Andrew and Keith to shows in Manchester, Leeds and all over. On one memorable occasion, he despatched me to stand in for him in Sheffield, where he’d arranged for a board to be displayed outside exhorting punters to share his faith in me. One Sunday, Amanda Burton told me that he was playing a country and western set at the Double Gone Chapel. I reacted with a mixture of incredulity and curiosity, but showed up in all my hip hop gear to find Fiona Maguire playing this amazing bluegrass music. I got into it straight away and started going monthly. Andrew would play all sorts: rockabilly, garage rock, rock’n’roll, punk, jump blues, a bewildering selection box of delights. The crowd looked so cool too. Within weeks I’d ditched the hip hop gear and grown a quiff and sideburns and was wearing high quality trousers and brogues. 

“Andrew played a significant part in dubbing me ‘Big Vern’, so I took to using it whenever he asked me to DJ. I was then asked to play Two Lone Swordsmen’s ‘Double Gone Chapel’ album launch, downstairs at Bagleys. I finally got to share the decks with Andrew, which was a genuinely special experience. When I dropped the Cramps’ ‘Human Fly’ he validated my selection with a hearty growl. After that, I began playing the Griffin regularly where history repeated itself as he charged me with the responsibility of being on standby in case he couldn’t make it back from whichever far flung scene he’d been bombing and was unable to fulfil his sonic obligations.”

Big Vern Burns


Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - Nashville Blues

Leroy Van Dyke - It’s All Over Baby Blue

Bobbie Gentry - Fancy

Old & In the Way - Wild Horses

Johnny Cash - South Wind

Dolly Parton - Jolene

Gram Parsons - A Song For You

Hank Williams - Ramblin’ Man

Buck Owens - Rhythm & Booze

Conway Twitty - Make Me Know Your Mine


Sammy Davis Jr. - Rhythm of Life

Drimble Wedge and the Vegetation - Bedazzled

The Pussycats - I Want Your love

Wynonie Harris - Bloodshot Eyes

Warren Smith - Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache

The Buff Medways - Sally Sensation

Hipbone Slim and the Kneetremblers - Snake Pit

Central School Cafeteria Band - First Rhapsody For Knives, Forks and Spoons

Link Wray and The Raymen - Deuces Wild

Larry and the Bluenotes - Night of the Sadist

Wrong Meeting

The T Bar, 2006-2008

“The name came from a Bill Hicks sketch, but Andrew used to use it as a joke a lot. Someone turning up at the wrong place playing the wrong music: ‘You’re in the wrong meeting.’ Andrew had a lot of one liners: ‘If you’re not on the edge you’re taking up too much space’ was another.

“I’d just moved to London around 2005 and knew Andrew already, both as a hero and because he’d played at my night Kill The DJ at Le Pulp in Paris. At the time Andrew had this rock’n’roll and rockabilly thing going on (Double Gone Chapel) and I was into that too and that’s what he wanted to play as a solid part of the night. The beginning was ‘no dance music.’ It was full-on rockabilly or country or a hybrid. When he came to play at Kill The DJ he said it was so nice not to play for bald males (it was a mixed lesbian club).

“He was a bit bored with where he was at the time, but that’s very Andrew, he was constantly shifting his musical identity without losing any integrity. Andrew rang me up and said he’d loved Le Pulp and that Wrong Meeting was what he wanted to do now. I introduced him to Caroline (Hayes) my agent so there was another change for him in this year. The Haywire punters came to Wrong Meeting as they were following Andrew but I never felt that people were unhappy with the music policy. We didn’t get requests for nosebleed techno.

“It was free to get in at T Bar - it was also promoter and venue booker Derren Smart’s idea to do this night - and it was a Thursday, which started at 7pm, so it was not a super late night. We played together all night with four or five records each which was always the system when I played with Andrew subsequently. It was the tail end of the good era of Shoreditch. There were no Essex city boys. We were playing Link Wray, The Fall, The Cramps early on so city boys wouldn’t hang around anyway. The artwork was fully Andrew’s. I’ve no idea how he had the time to do it, apart from his really strong work ethic. He never faffed about. I’ve still got a print of the artwork. It came to an end when the T Bar closed as there was no more reasons to come into Shoreditch and there was never any question of doing it somewhere else.”

Ivan Smagghe


Gene Vincent - Crazy Beat

Link Wray - Switchblade

Shockheaded Peters - I, Blood Brother Be

The Fall - Big New Prinz

Dondolo - Dragon (Shit Robot remix)

Zeus B. Held - Cowboys On The Beach

Two Lone Swordsmen - Wrong Meeting (T-Bar remix)

The Cramps - New Kind Of Kick

Implog - Holland Tunnel Dive

Hello - New York Groove

A Love From Outer Space

2010 -

“I’d known Andrew since 1989. I’d moved to London to be a booking agent and one of the bands I looked after was the Inspiral Carpets. Jeff Barrett’s office was doing the press so I was in and out of his office and I went in one day and Jeff invited me for lunch with Andrew. In 1993, I started making music and took a tape into his office on Dean Street and he put out one of my records as Flash Faction on Sabres of Paradise. So our relationship went way back.

“Moving on to Shoreditch in the 2000s, I lived on a house on Waterson Street and a lady called Lizzie Walker moved in with us. We had a party, which Andrew came to, and he and Lizzie ended up becoming an item. One day he came round and told me his driver had let him down and could I do him a favour and drive him to Brighton the next night? He got in the car and asked: ‘What are we going to listen to?’ I said I had some mix CDs of music I liked that I’d made for the car. I’d been spending a lot of time on Bill Brewster’s DJ History forum learning about Danielle Baldelli, the cosmic scene and the afro scene. Subsequently I’d been digging out a lot of slower records. A lot of things were things I’d first heard on John Peel that Andrew had been playing in the Balearic days. There was the beginning of a movement of slower music and Andrew had been following it too. So we listened to the CD and Andrew said: ‘We should do something with this, Sean.’

“Nathan Gregory Wilkins became the booker at The Drop, a small room under a pub in Stoke Newington. He offered me a monthly Thursday, so that’s what became A Love From Outer Space, which we did there for a year or so. Our main residency has been in Glasgow at the Berkeley Suite - perverse to be a London DJ and have a residency in Glasgow. We have had lengthy spells in London though at Corsica Studios, Bloc and now Phonox. The manifesto is that we never knowingly exceed 122 bpm and the name came from an AR Kane track, a band we were both fans of. We had a similar musical background which is why it worked.

“In 2011, we did Electric Elephant and that was the catalyst for us becoming more of a touring thing. I always thought he may call to say it’d run its course, but conversely he did enjoy it very much. I think he felt that with his regular gigs he’d been painted into a corner to provide what he called an ‘umpty bumpty’ experience so ALFOS gave him a freedom he relished. We also had a right laugh, the touring world is a lonely one but we could chat shit, read books and so it was less monotonous. The pace of the night also lent itself well to sunnier climes and an older audience so it was serendipitous. When we DJed together we tried one-on, one-off but that’s quite stressful so we settled on four or five tracks each. We never planned anything and often I’d be cueing something up and Andrew would be cueing up the same record. We had a strange synchronicity - the Hinge and Bracket of acid house. 

“We had a similar A&R approach. The only thing I remember he didn’t like me playing was a Mark Barrott remix of Tears for Fears’ ‘Heads Over Heels’. We also found loads of pre-meditated ‘wrong speeders’: tech-house records which we played on 33rpm plus 8. The blindfold man on the artwork he found in a book on Charing Cross Road and our friend Logan Fisher spliced it with a Fritz Lang Metropolis logo.

“The week he passed away we had ALFOS in the diary at Phonox. I was so conflicted about whether it was the right thing to still do it but various people close to him suggested I should. In retrospect I found it more cathartic than the funeral as it felt like I had some closure already. But I wanted to do it for people who also wanted some closure. It was a very memorable night, I cried through most of it, but it was a beautiful experience. The community that has grown up around ALFOS is quite a thing. Even if I’d wanted to stop I don’t think people would’ve let me. The number of people who’ve said to me: ‘Sorry for your loss but don’t stop doing this.’

“It would’ve been 10 years this year.”

Sean Johnston


Fantastic Twins - You’ve Got A Twin In The Attic (You Lunatic)

Coyote - Minamoto

Woolfy - Junior’s Throwing Craze (Dr Duncs Remix)

Kevin McKay - Propaganda

Mama - Unmask Me (Ashley Beedle Remix)

Marcus Marr - Pleasure Moon

Amy Douglas - Never Saw It Coming (Crooked Man Remix)

Tricksi - Pill Collins

Tyson - Out Of My Mind (The Swiss Dance Mix)

Pachanga Boys - Leg


2013 -

“I moved back to France from London in 2009. The town where I live – Carcassonne – has this incredible medieval castle and when I came back here I started promoting some gigs there. I invited Andrew to play the castle a few times, alongside him playing at some festivals in the south of France.

“He fell in love with the castle – he just couldn’t believe this spectacular monument existed. And obviously, Andrew being Andrew, he was very curious about its history. By the second time he came to play he’d read lots of books about the castle, its history and its links to the Cathars, a Gnostic religious group who were very prevalent in the region in medieval times.

“He’d done all this research and when I used to drive him around to festivals we got talking about music and how we envisaged it. It turned out we shared a hero – Billy Childish, for his pure DIY, no compromise approach. Andrew was always mentioning how he wanted gigs to be this transcendent ritual. When he saw the castle he knew it was the perfect place to host a festival that could allow him to create that kind of experience.

“We had to pitch the project to the French government and the local authorities. Thankfully, they were very receptive – probably because Andrew had done exhibitions at the ICA and had an association with Faber & Faber. He had this intellectual image, not just some techno DJ. They recognised we were respectful of the castle’s history.

“The first year – 2013 – it was called the Andrew Weatherall Weekender. We held it in a private bar in the castle, with a 700-800 capacity. It was a great success and the following year we moved to the courtyard which can hold 1,500. Before the second year, Andrew had been doing some more reading and he discovered the Cathar ritual of convenanza (it means you agree with the Cathar faith). He wanted to change the name to Convenanza. He felt connected to the history of the Cathars. He was generous, helpful, benevolent – qualities they imbued. There was an echo there of something transcendent. I think that’s why it worked so well. It was like a puzzle. Lots of things he was enthusiastic about came together. It captured so many of his interests beyond music.

“Eventually, the city council offered us another venue which would have enabled us to increase the capacity – they were thinking about more visitors to the town obviously. But Andrew wasn’t bothered. He didn’t see the point. He was happy with 1,500. He didn’t want sponsors or any commercial involvement. That’s what Andrew enjoyed. We were pure and true to the cause. We didn’t taint it with sponsors. We did exactly what we wanted with the line-up every year – without consideration to what was the popular thing at that time.

“His last set last year was a highlight for obvious reasons. I think he was very pleased with it. He wasn’t someone who dwelled on his performance, but last year it was very emotional and spiritual for some reason.

“We obviously had to cancel this year’s festival, but all things being well, we’ll be back next year – over the weekend of 24-25 September. It should be the same line-up, as signed off by the boss. We’ll see how it goes from there. The only thing is we won’t be able to replace Andrew. He’s irreplaceable. He was such a strong character. Such a strong personality. There is no equivalent.”

Bernie Fabre

Bernie’s Convenanza Inspirational Quote!

“Being an amateur means you’re doing it because that’s what you love, whereas the professional may well be doing it just to pay his mortgage. Amateur doesn’t mean that the results aren’t as good. The amateur should be able to make it better than the professional because it’s a much lighter touch. Generally speaking there are ulterior motives for the professional. For us, the amateurs, it’s nice and clean and clear. It’s important for me to be totally independent: independent means choosing when, what, how you play, and who you play with.”

Billy Childish 

All interviews by John Burgess, except Convenanza by Jim Butler

Eddie Chacon: Once More With Feeling
March 31, 2023
Eddie Chacon: Once More With Feeling
used cms Eddie Chacon: Once More With Feeling

Remember Eddie Chacon? You will do…

“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.”

This article was first published in Disco Pogo issue 2 (October 2022)

Eddie Chacon's new album 'Sundown' is out now. Check it out here

Sónar Lisbon: 10 Acts To Catch
March 14, 2023
Sónar Lisbon: 10 Acts To Catch
used cms Sónar Lisbon: 10 Acts To Catch

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

James Holden 

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

Sofia Kourtesis 

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

Yen Sung 

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

KiNK (Live)

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: Forever Changes
February 28, 2023
I. JORDAN: Forever Changes
used cms I. JORDAN: Forever Changes

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.

Techno! Techno! Techno! Techno!
February 28, 2023
Techno! Techno! Techno! Techno!
used cms Techno! Techno! Techno! Techno!

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
John Acquuaviva, Richie Hawtin, Speedy J

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.

Slam in their studio in Hidden Lane, Glasgow, 1995

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.”

Andrew Weatherall, 1990

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.”

Jeff Mills, Dimitri Hegemann, Laurent Garnier at Tresor

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.

Magic Feet magazine, 1997

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

Jeff Mills

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.

Andrew Weatherall: From Boy's Own To Panel Beaters From Prague
February 17, 2023
Andrew Weatherall: From Boy's Own To Panel Beaters From Prague
used cms Andrew Weatherall: From Boy's Own To Panel Beaters From Prague

An oral history of Weatherall’s early years tracing his path from Balearic to techno via Shoom, ‘Screamadelica’ and Sabresonic…


The Cast

Alex Knight

Fat Cat records alumni and resident DJ at Sabresonic and Bloodsugar.

Andrew Curley

Sabres of Paradise/Sabrettes label manager.

Andrew Innes

Primal Scream rhythm guitarist.

Anna Haigh

Bocca Juniors singer and songwriter.

Bobby Gillespie

Primal Scream singer.

Danny Rampling

Shoom DJ, founder & promoter.

Dave Beer

Promoter of Back to Basics in Leeds.

David Holmes

DJ, producer, Sugar Sweet promoter.

Ed Simons

Chemical Brother.

Graham Sherman

Sherman at the Controls, NME writer.

Cymon Eckel

Boy’s Own editorial & promoter.

Jagz Kooner

Producer and member of Sabres of Paradise.

James Baillie

Promoter of Venus in Nottingham.

Jeff Barrett

Primal Scream, Creation and Factory Records PR and Heavenly Recordings owner.

Jenni Rampling

Shoom co-founder & promoter.

Justin Robertson

DJ, producer and promoter of Spice/Most Excellent.

Keith Tenniswood

50% of Two Lone Swordsmen, Radioactive Man.

Richard Norris

Jack The Tab, The Grid, producer, writer and DJ.

Terry Farley

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.”

1987, Rockley Sands. Andrew Weatherall and Paul McKee. Photo: Dave Swindells

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.”

1988, Rockley Sands. Andrew Weatherall and Plug. Photo: Dave Swindells

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.”

1988, Rockley Sands. Nick Tann, Cymon Eckel & Andrew Weatherall. Photo: Dave Swindells

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.

Sónar Returns To Lisbon
February 16, 2023
Sónar Returns To Lisbon
used cms Sónar Returns To Lisbon

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. 

Head over to the Sónar Lisboa website for full details and to buy tickets.

David Holmes: Holmer's Odyssey
December 5, 2022
David Holmes: Holmer's Odyssey
used cms David Holmes: Holmer's Odyssey

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.”

Unloved: (left to right) Keefus Ciancia, Jade Vincent and David Holmes
"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.

Buy the magazine here.

Listening Without Prejudice
September 21, 2022
Listening Without Prejudice
Sometimes it’s just about soaking up the music…
used cms Listening Without Prejudice

Listening Without Prejudice

Sometimes it’s just about soaking up the music…

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.”

Patrick Ryder

Be With Records: The Big Reissue
September 21, 2022
Be With Records: The Big Reissue
All hail the labels encouraging us to Be With music…
used cms Be With Records: 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.

Anton Spice

Where Are They Now? Billy Ray Martin
September 21, 2022
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?
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.

Neil Mason

How we made...Altern 8 'Infiltrate 202'
September 21, 2022
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…
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.

Photo: Peter Walsh

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
September 14, 2022
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!!’

Afters! Roísín Murphy and Winston Hazel at Luke’s old flat on Tib St, Manchester
“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.”
Jen Amelia Veitch

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.

Lauren Jo Kelly
“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: Live and Direct
August 26, 2022
Overmono: 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.”
used cms Overmono: 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'
August 26, 2022
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.

August 26, 2022
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, “ 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.”

Buy the SHERELLE cover of Disco Pogo issue 1 now.

Gilles Peterson - “I’ve Always Been Like This”
August 26, 2022
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…
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.”

Don’t Call It A Comeback