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feature
Holmer's Odyssey
December 5, 2022
Holmer's Odyssey
used cms 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.

feature
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

feature
The Big Reissue
September 21, 2022
The Big Reissue
All hail the labels encouraging us to Be With music…
used cms The Big Reissue

The Big Reissue

All hail the labels encouraging us to Be With music…

“Brave move.” Words of scant encouragement from DJ Balearic Mike accompanied news of Be With Records' tenth reissue back in 2016. Kylie Minogue’s eponymous 1994 album was making its way to the presses under a freshly-minted Be With logo. Even the distributor was sceptical. Here was an upstart indie releasing a major label hit to an audience for whom rarity means more than popularity. If genres and scenes are lines in the sand, Be With crashed across them like a wave.

“A good, timely reissue can re-frame or re-contextualise a whole scene that people thought they knew everything about,” Be With's founder Rob Butler says. “It can act as a hand-raiser for that particular artist as a means of saying: ‘Hey, we were there too, and we made this amazing body of work that has actually been criminally overlooked for the past decades’.” What makes the Kylie record so compelling is that it flipped this relationship on its head.

An array of specialist and enthusiastic reissue labels are now chipping away at that grand canonical edifice of music history to reveal myriad chinks, angles and perspectives smoothed down by the passage of time. The result has been a thrilling, kaleidoscopic refraction of the musical landscape.

Launched in 2014, Be With has reached 100 releases (a milestone recently attained with the release of Kenny Dickenson’s beautiful score to French-Vietnamese artist Mai Hua’s documentary ‘Les Rivières’) off the back of a singular and undiluted approach. Schooled behind the counter at Manchester’s Piccadilly Records, Butler was determined for the label to reflect his broad tastes as a DJ and record collector. A cursory glance at his first ten releases speaks for the whole: classic soul, UK garage, West Coast AOR, melodic folk-rock, South African boogie, R’n’B royalty, Hawaiian funk, kosmische disco, and, of course, Kylie Minogue.

“Perhaps the discernible authorial voice resonates because it all emanates from one record lover’s deep passion for these artists and these records,” Butler suggests.

What also unites a Be With reissue is its attention to detail. If the audio isn’t spot on, the artwork not pristine, or, most importantly, if the artist doesn’t want it to go ahead, Be With won’t do it.

“Reissue labels must treat the artist and repertoire with the greatest of respect,” Butler continues. That he could take American singer-songwriter Ned Doheny on tour, 40 years after his debut, speaks to the depth of their working relationship. Ned is now affectionately known as the uncle of the label. “Every effort should be made to ensure that the artist is able to tell their own story, or get to set the record straight, if required.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Kay Suzuki, whose Time Capsule label has recently featured Angolan musicologist Mário Rui Silva, dance therapy pioneer Gabrielle Roth and electronic gwoka from Guadeloupe.

“I thought re-introducing this rare and beautiful music to a wider audience would be a perfect way to celebrate the original artists,” he explains. A focus on extensive liner notes and in-depth context play a crucial role in telling a record’s story and expressing his gratitude towards the music.

Being exposed to these stories can also have a transformative effect. For Coco Maria, the Amsterdam-based DJ and curator behind Bongo Joe compilation ‘Club Coco’, there were two titles that particularly captured her imagination when she was starting out: ‘Roots of Chicha’ (on Barbès Records) and Soundway’s ‘The Original Sound of Cumbia’.

“They influenced me because I could see through new eyes the music of Latin America I grew up with,” she explains. “They made possible a reinvention of my music in Europe.”

It’s something she now takes on in her own work, “opening doors for people who are curious about music and other worlds.” Those lines in the sand are nowhere to be seen.

It is 15 years since vinyl sales began rebounding, and you could say that labels like Be With have become victims of their own success. Majors are now more likely to reissue their own vast catalogues, and in doing so clog the pipes of the vinyl manufacturing industry like coffee grind. So much so that Butler believes they have a responsibility to build their own pressing plants.

While long lead times can become prohibitive for small labels with tight margins, the passion behind the work remains. “The recent past is no longer a foreign country,” Butler says. “I feel that great music, like all great art, has the ability to endure, regardless of whether it was important in the wider sense of being part of a crucial scene or capturing a certain Zeitgeist, or whether it's just a pretty piece of music, or rhythmical killer that will never fail to make people move or smile.” It is this approach that has helped Be With thrive.

And as for that Kylie reissue? The first run sold out in 24 hours and, perhaps just as importantly, Balearic Mike approved too. “I am a MASSIVE Kylie fan – as are all right-thinking people,” he enthused.

In life, as in reissues, some of the bravest moves are the most resonant.

Anton Spice

feature
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

feature
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.

Beginnings

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.”

Influences

‘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.”

Recording

“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.”

feature
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.

DAY ONE,

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.’”


feature
Live and Direct
August 26, 2022
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 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.”

feature
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.

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SHERELLE
August 26, 2022
SHERELLE
As a DJ, producer and now label boss, SHERELLE is reconnecting Black Queer euphoria to dance music’s diverse and inclusive roots. Because if anyone understands the importance of representation at a time of upheaval, it’s this livewire Londoner. “I’m just adding to something that allows the next person to come through.”
used cms SHERELLE

Some of SHERELLE’s earliest memories are of the walls literally coming down. A child of demolition like so much of London at the mercy of social housing, she watched her estate fall to wrecking balls at a young age. It was an early lesson in understanding the precarity and importance of space to call your own.

By the time she, and her mum and sister, had moved to another council estate in Walthamstow, she had understood two things: one, was reverence for care, thanks to what she calls “a dynamic of support, where there was a massive need to help each other”.

The other, was the importance of making something for herself, which she quickly got to work with, finding her sanctuary in a “tiny box room which might have been for storage” and transforming it into something beautiful: filled with “Black Barbies, Blazin’ Squad posters and loads of Arsenal posters”, (she’s a child of the Invincibles era – when Arsenal went a whole league season without defeat in 2003/04, which might explain some of her youthful confidence).

Today, SHERELLE, the DJ, producer and label head has this same bop of optimism as she bounces down the capital’s Dalston High Street. She’s donning a big blue puffer jacket that conceals how small she really is, and her trademark smile. She rocks up at Escuado De Cuba, a Cuban restaurant that transforms from day to night. Today, it’s dark inside, but at night the surroundings are bathed in red light, with up-tempo music and after-hours dance, fitting for SHERELLE, whose body is also finely tuned for night-time transfigurations.

The location is sandwiched somewhere between her past and present. As she excitedly talks about the near future – an upcoming US tour, more summer bookings, radio slots, she also gestures with a frown towards the road behind her, where her early DJ sets took place including the infamous, but now defunct, Birthdays which closed in 2016. In fact, at only 28, many of the clubs where she trained her ear for mixing and selecting are now relegated to the archives.

SHERELLE is no stranger to change. While the soundtrack to those early years was her mum’s ear for dancehall and reggae which filled the house – a connection to her family’s roots in Clarendon, Jamaica – she was expressing her musical love through her bedroom walls. By the time she was a teenager she had grown out of boy bands (“It felt wrong… because I was gay” she laughs) and she cleared the way for Janelle Monáe pictures ripped out of fashion magazines and a limited edition Daft Punk 3D cover of Dazed & Confused, “which came with glasses”. It was in that space she spent many moments gazing at the electronic French duo coming alive in her tiny room as she listened to Mary Anne Hobbs and Annie Mac on the radio.

Outside the house, she was making space for her personal passions. Her first dream, of being a footballer, came crashing down after an early collision with structural barriers. “The girls training ground was in Hertfordshire, which was just too far, we couldn’t afford to travel to it,” she recalls. “Ironically, I lived so close to the men’s Arsenal training ground, so I remember I called them up and I was like: ‘Hello, do you have any space? Can the girls try out here as well?’ They said no.”

When that didn’t work out (though the practice hours allowed her to listen to “Kano, Roll Deep, Friendly Fires and a lot of drum’n’bass tunes on my iPod” so it wasn’t all bad), she got a job at River Island. This taught her how music can help you squeeze some joy from the tedium of life because she “hated it with a passion” not least, because of its soundtrack, which was a rolling cast of caustic pop hits.

Her ears filtered the songs she liked, “(Chicago DJ) Traxman, Azari & III”, between the indie-pop glut. Her saving grace, she remembers, was discovering, then listening religiously, to the SBTRKT album on the 275 bus journey from Woodford station to her job in Stratford and back again. “That saved me!” she grins.

Partly as a reaction to the River Island playlist, she was set free after learning that you could curate soundtracks on your own terms, for yourself, by downloading music from the internet. “I spent hours at the computer on LimeWire downloading everything and anything,” she says. “I would find a load of jungle records, all terrible quality, ripped from pirate radio but listen again and again anyway.”

It was when the frenetic bloom of Chicago house travelled through her laptop speakers one day in 2012 that she really fell in love, as Barbara Tucker’s vocal entered the auditory cortex of her brain, travelled through her body and dilated her pupils.

“I downloaded someone’s Strictly Rhythm compilation by accident,” she says. “It was where I discovered Chicago house. I was like, okay, fuck, this is the kind of sound I’m into.” Soon after, she came across a Machinedrum mix. “I didn’t know that I was listening to footwork at that time.”

It led her to footwork pioneers like DJ Spinn and RP Boo, the Teklife crew and others who make up the underground music phenomenon born out of 90s Chicago. The genre, generally at a high speed of 160 bpm, borrows from drum’n’bass with its double-time clave triplets, syncopated toms and huge sub-bass. It was born from the corners of Chicago, in tiny, wood-panelled homes and makeshift spaces where people jerked to juke, flailing limbs in all directions in reverent submission to the music.

It was around this time that she downloaded the DJ software VirtualDJ which allowed her practice hours to beatmatch, scratch, and create mixes. An enthusiast to the end and limited by nothing, SHERELLE tested her mixes in spaces which don’t exactly spring to mind when you think about UK future garage and R’n’B sets.

“I played for my friend’s 16th birthday party once,” she says with her characteristic liveliness between bites of cheese and jalapeño-topped tacos. “It was in this random warehouse somewhere in Walthamstow. I even did a jungle section where I went really fast and people were like: ‘Oh my gosh.’ Yeah… I really went in on that.”

The sets that followed retained this dual sense of energy and liberation. SHERELLE taking the Black Queer euphoria of house’s history, injecting it with UK jungle’s beating heart, with the aim of making those listening lose their minds.

She is careful, though, to make a crucial distinction between being a purist and a specialist – a specialist she explains, has passion, opens up the genre, and rejects the exclusionary nature of purist approaches. If SHERELLE wants anything, it’s to build the music scene up bigger, always allowing the bodies left outside, in. She understands that while it might make for a neat classification to call her a jungle and footwork DJ, she is, of course, a product of years of diverse iPod playlists.

“You can, like, represent other things as well,” she says.

It was discovering how the internet made it possible to build something from the ground up that inspired SHERELLE’s next era in music. She did what most fans did at the time and exploited the mid-2000s landscape of DIY music reporting that blogs afforded. Her contribution to the online ether was a blog called Influxxx. This gave her access to artists via reviewing gigs, interviews, attending clubs for free, crowbarring herself in to what had been for a long time largely gate-kept music spaces.

She reels off a list of people she was able to access at the time: Andy C, SBTKRT, Chase & Status. “I’d be standing in these crowds and be like, wow, they’ve managed to like produce this music,” she recalls. “They’re now DJing it. And then everyone’s going mental. It was a huge influence for me.”

If the internet gave SHERELLE an online musical home, then Reprezent gave her a physical one. She joined the now infamous south London community radio station when she was 20 and beams every time she talks about it.

“Reprezent is one of those like magical places,” she says. “It’s like, you don’t understand how much confidence you get from that. It almost like makes you wanna like, like scream and cry. Cause you’re just like, finally fuck! And the generations come in waves.”

“I lived so close to the men’s Arsenal training ground, so I remember I called them up and I was like: ‘Hello, do you have any space? Can the girls try out here as well?’ They said no.”

It’s an inspiring approach to think of it this way, waves that roll on, rather than bemoaning the glory days of a golden era long gone and it’s a useful reminder that excellence and support comes in waves, and tides continue to persist – if they’re allowed to.

The station, which gained its FM licence in 2011, but has been broadcasting since 2009 is beloved for being a place where young DJs, presenters and broadcasters play great music across the board and are as likely to chat about exclusive grime performances as station collaborations with The xx or the local Chicken Cottage’s Ramadan special between songs. The roster is diverse musically – everything from indie sleaze throwbacks, to trap specials, and journeys into Detroit house. SHERELLE was among the first Reprezent generation to move from the brick contours of Queens Road Peckham to the steel shipping containers of POP! Brixton in 2017 and used it to finesse her ear for jungle, footwork and a spectrum of dance sounds, namely thrilling ‘160 edits’ of lovers rock songs or Kaytranada reworks.

The talent from Reprezent has filled some of the gaping holes in the music industry, breaking comedians like Munya Chawawa, alongside A&Rs who went on to work with XL, producers poached by Beats and selectors who found homes at 6 Music, 1Xtra and beyond. It’s worth noting that Reprezent (107.3 on the FM dial, or a website away if you want to listen online) broadcasts with the same energy and continued to produce talent and jubilation throughout the lockdown in living rooms across the city (sometimes interrupted by mums passing through).

The permission to just exist in peace felt radical. “There’s a fuckload of people within the music scene at the moment that wouldn’t exist without it,” explains SHERELLE. “We were given time to just do whatever the fuck we wanted. We sat on a beanbag and did fuck all and chatted with a friend.”

In a climate where youth spaces have been almost completely decimated by 12-long years of Tory governance, sometimes all you need is a shipping container, some speakers, and some mates to change your life.

In 2015, the station, a social enterprise funded largely by local authorities, was under threat of closure thanks to cuts from central government which had a devastating effect on the station’s finances. The closeness of Reprezent’s precarious economy politicised the issue for those who used the station as a lifeline. For SHERELLE, it illustrated something razor sharp, and between sips of a beer she summarises what it felt like to consider that the walls might come down.

“We’ve got a government that couldn’t give a fuck about young people. And especially about young people of colour,” she sighs. And she should know – she’s a product of political governance which has sent this message for as long as she’s been DJing clubs. Over the decade between 2011-12 and 2021-22, over £36 million has been cut from annual youth service budgets in the capital: a fall of 44%.

Thankfully, the tidal wave of talent from SHERELLE’s era was more inspirational than the bleak political moment. “I used to play for a couple of groups, one called 160 feet deep (a reference to the general BPM of Chicago footwork). They used to put on loads of footwork nights, and a night called We Buy Gold in London. I was really influenced by it. It made me step my pussy game up to kind of, be like, okay, cool. I need to go do this myself.” So mighty was its impact she began taking DJing in clubs seriously, finding another place to just be, to find her footing, and turn crowds inside out.

In 2019, SHERELLE showed us exactly what she could do to a crowd. Boiler Room invited her to share in what she calls “a watershed moment in my DJ life”. The now legendary set is a frenetically-paced masterclass in joy, and a speed-through UK dance music history. There are plenty of electric moments that sent the crowd into raptures – from mixing 90s trance track ‘Toca’s Miracle’ by Fragma into deep jungle, or Teklife bounces that spring off the walls. The set went viral internationally, (currently at almost half a million views) and was the moment that cemented Sherelle Camille Thomas as a mighty mononym in the scene.

SHERELLE’s offering showed what many who have been cutting shapes in the corners of raves where womxn (a term to describe the intersectional inclusion of all femme identities ignored by the mainstream) are centred already know: a really good club connection can grant us transcendental moments. She talks about it with almost religious devotion.

“The day after I can’t quite quantify how I felt ‘cause of the fact that it felt so divinely… right. And the level of joy that I got, like, it’s this warm, very warm, rush.”

For SHERELLE, time is often compartmentalised in music – if in 2011, she was in her 275 bus-SBTRKT-era, by 2019, she was deep in her DJ Rashad one. This cemented her confidence in her own understanding of the genre and how to make people feel something. She says that Paul Johnson’s ‘Get Get Down’, helped her make a connection between her world in Walthamstow and the sounds coming out of Midwest America. “I used to hear that song at birthday parties!” she laughs.

In fact, her mixes take the history of how Chicago house and footwork have seeped into UK electronic music, as represented by UK labels like Hyperdub and Planet Mu. In 2010, Hyperdub teamed up with Rashad’s Teklife crew (formerly GhettoTeknitianz) to throw footwork parties in London and Bristol. These explosions of dubstep, grime, hip hop, and funky are all represented every time SHERELLE touches the decks. Her recent – and acclaimed – Fabric compilation is testament to this, breakbeat in breakneck speed designed to make you sweat.

“I downloaded someone’s Strictly Rhythm compilation by accident. It was where I discovered Chicago house. I was like, okay, fuck, this is the kind of sound I’m into.”

The Boiler Room set and opportunities that followed amplified SHERELLE’s profile. Even today, as she talks, she pulls her black beanie over her ears and she attracts a few looks from passers-by – of admiration, certainly, but also what are presumably various strands of recognition, perhaps from her Radio 1 residency slots and frequent 6 Music features, her viral Boiler Room sets, club nights, or beaming from the covers of numerous magazine profiles. Maybe you just bumped into her at one point in life and never forgot it. After all, as her sets attest, if there’s anything SHERELLE is definitely not in short supply of, it’s charisma.

The flurry of bookings, projects, tours following ‘The Set’ turned into ideas on how she might use her influence to disrupt the oppressive whiteness and lack of access in the scene. Then, of course, it all came to a grinding halt after the world went into lockdown. For someone used to a life of outlandish basslines, the world quietened down.

In 2020, at the height of some of the tightest of restrictive lockdown measures in Britain, and a historic reimagining of how to amplify the joy of Black life after tragedy, I interviewed SHERELLE over Zoom from her home, reflecting on how we reconnect in a future music world. In that moment of liminal space, it seemed impossible to imagine. How do you rebuild something that felt like it was demolished?

“It makes me sad” she said at the time, talking about some of the most vulnerable clubbers amongst us, “...to think that a lot of people usually in these crowds… are struggling from not seeing themselves, being stuck at home or with family members they’re not out to, in places where they can’t be their authentic selves.”

The brutality of the pandemic on an industry which had already felt the bite of austerity can’t be underestimated. In October 2020, SHERELLE appeared on ‘Newsnight’ on a programme following the winter economic plan of chancellor Rishi Sunak that failed to adequately support the culture sector, in the midst of crisis. Circumstances that make activists of us all.

“The whole industry, live music, is in complete dire straits” she said. “It’s very stressful for us all. I’ve got friends on Universal Credit and they’re unable to either choose between paying rent or paying for food and basic amenities.”

Two years on, and SHERELLE has imagined something better. I think about this quote by writer Audre Lorde in her 1988 ‘A Burst of Light: Essays’: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

For SHERELLE, this care takes place on the dancefloor, it is in the dancing, in the curating of a home for her peers, and it is an opportunity to care for each other.

“Some of us don’t have space” she explains. “Some of us don’t have ownership of certain things”.

At Goldsmiths, as a student SHERELLE was taught by feminist scholar and thinker Sara Ahmed. It’s where she first came across academic ideas of decolonialism, and the insidiousness of structural racism.

“I’d always leave her lessons being like: ‘Fucking hell, no wonder this has happened to me in the past.’ But her lessons gave me strength,” she recalls. Making environments welcoming to marginalised communities is now paramount, having spent much of her time in crowds that weren’t always friendly. She explains that once, her USB was stolen from her laptop mid set. The whole vibe shifted. “Suddenly the room didn’t feel like we were all in this moment together.”

Her point is these ecosystems are fragile and sometimes that’s all it takes to feel like the crowd outnumber you, that you’re not, all, children of Barbara Tucker’s Beautiful People.

“And that as a Black woman I’m not always afforded the luxury of anger,” she says, rubbing her beanie against her ear. “But I think back to Sara. Now, if someone’s being a dickhead, I’ll just call them a dickhead.”

SHERELLE’s new project, the aptly named BEAUTIFUL, builds on what she’s learned from seeing things rise from the ashes. It provides the very thing a generation of would-be artists are looking for – a place to metaphorically and figuratively, call their own. But alongside logistical offerings like free studio space (“because it’s fucking expensive!”), SHERELLE is clear about its existence being a reaction and disruption to a music scene in bondage to its own structural privileges.

She aims to curate and put on exhibitions, a record label centring Black artists (she has experience in this, having headed up label Hooversound recordings with Apple Music presenter, fellow DJ and Reprezent alumni NAINA since 2021) and also provide DJ and music business workshops as a way to demystify the process. One of the offerings she’s most excited about is a syllabus that teaches musical and political histories.

“I feel that the electronic music scene has been whitewashed,” she says, which she sees as an opportunity. “Festivals and others need to do better in order to book more people of colour. The platform’s gonna be basically something that addresses influence, space and ownership.”

It also insists on writing the joy of Black artists as curators, creators and practitioners into the past, present and future of the electronic music scene. To make a point about erasure she retells a recent story about arguing with someone on Twitter about Kraftwerk. She tells the story quickly which can be summarised in a single final sentence that makes her laugh so incredulously she splutters as she takes a long sip of her beer: “Kraftwerk were not dance music until Black people in Detroit were dancing to them!”

This point builds on the idea that ‘decolonising’ is an active word that lives in the world beyond academia. Put simply, it describes that most of our cultural, social and political lives have been whitewashed, centring whiteness and erasing the contribution of marginalised communities, particularly Black, Queer ones. This branch of thinking suggests that it is our collective responsibility to continue to add and rewrite these histories back in tenfold, bringing us closer to truth and a deeper understanding of the world we live in. In the context of dance music, it might just be asking questions of disco and house archive footage which show only white, affluent kids dancing in the Manhattan clubs. These speak little to the Queer Black or Latinx dancers taking up space in Harlem in a climate of hate, stretching their limbs in clubs and commanding the power of the music to help empower them in life.

“I feel that the electronic music scene has been whitewashed. Festivals and others need to do better in order to book more people of colour. The platform’s gonna be basically something that addresses influence, space and ownership.”

With this in mind, talk turns to the role of the dancer. Her answer is both logical and poetic: “The role of the dancer is important because they represent freedom.”

She continues. “Freedom of expression is something which we don’t have enough of in the world, and we’re not able to have enough of, so the dancers - especially the Queer gen - they could have it in the club, if they weren’t being beaten the fuck out of by police or being heckled in the street.”

She mentions learning how the club creates celestial moments from listening to 90s Detroit techno pioneers Underground Resistance: “It’s like a lot of gospel-led things where you can just feel like… the pain floating away.”

In 2021, Sherelle offered something that took from this idea of “a softer, emotive side to the world” with the release of her sensitive, thoughtful and thrilling two-track EP, ‘160 Down The A406’. She says the tracks are “supposed to be warm and forgiving”, and they are – airy vocals over gentle bass clips that give you a chance to catch your breath as she calls you to dance in your own way, at your own pace.

She takes this knowledge of the dancers and DJs who have come before her as the foundation for BEAUTIFUL. “I’ve noticed a lot more Queer people getting into footwork, juke, jungle, d’n’b,” she says. “People who might not always have been so open to kiss or to dance or be themselves fully.”

Her thinking is that post-pandemic, people want speed rather than a gentle way back in the club. If that’s true then she’s the person for the job. Talking about footwork, she muses that: “I think the music and how fast and crazy and sporadic it is has actually lent itself well to people being able to do whatever – whatever dances you wanna do, whatever you wanna wear, the tongue-in-cheek nature of it all. Sexual liberation and sexual openness is always really good, and I think the speed of the music enables one big clusterfuck of explosion and expression.”

It’s true that to call the music fun is an understatement – it is at times instructional: “Bounce that Booty’ (DJ Deeon) asks what some may say are urgent questions, ‘What’s the use of having that ass if you ain’t gonna throw it? (DJ Rashad) and sometimes, provides crucial advice for life: ‘DON’T JUST STAND THERE’ (DJ Spinn).

In the midst of a political and social moment where communal spaces are fighting for their lives (between 2005 and 2015 it was reported that over 1400 clubs were shut in the UK, many thanks to rising rents) SHERELLE sees herself as inspired by other DJ collectives and communities who have unearthed light in the midst of political darkness.

She namechecks Discwoman (A New York collective platforming women and non-binary electronic artists) BBZ (a London-based Black Queer art and DJ collective) Unorthodox (who put on a Queer drum’n’bass night), all the time making the point that there are people working to build something even as things fall down.

For those working class young people for whom studio space is the difference between making music or not, for those LGBTQIA+ communities of colour looking to find home, or those artists for whom seeing themselves as part of the past can empower their present. For anyone looking for a place to feel beautiful, SHERELLE aims to make it so.

Her education, learned from the confines of her tiny box room, to the training grounds just for boys, to sprawling inclusive online spaces, to being in command of crowds and airwaves, has taught her that making something for yourself is good but sharing it is even better.

Before she leaves – she needs to rest her body before a US tour in a few days’ time – she makes a final, enduring point as she begins to zip up her puffer jacket. “I’m part of an ecosystem that already exists. I’m just adding to something that allows the next person to come through, and then the next group, and then the next wave of people to come through, building something together. All while highlighting how beautiful and delightful the Black music scene is.”

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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.”

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Don’t Call It A Comeback