Features I by I 15.02.14

Underground means nothing: Andy Blake looks back on 25 years of London club culture

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andy blake feature -- 2.17.2014

If you ever feel jaded with what clubs and club music are about, a conversation with Andy Blake is what you need.

As you’ll see, everything he says is infused with absolute, unswerving passion for what’s best about the raving experience, and complete dismissal of anything that might stop people getting right to the heart of that experience. It all comes out in a torrent of razor-sharp analysis and blunt-instrument put-downs, wry observation, self-reflection, extreme trainspotting and a healthy seasoning of broad South London profanity. Or, as he puts it, “when my tap’s open there’s a lot that comes out of it”.

He doesn’t require any more introduction than that, really. When it comes to the music he’s put out and the parties he’s thrown, it’s a classic case of “if you know, you know, and if you don’t know, get to know.” And if you want to get to know about a huge swathe of London club culture from acid house to the present day, then you could do a lot worse than start here…

So every time I check what you’re up to, it seems to be in a state of transition in some way – new things launching and so on – but can you pin down where you’re at going into 2014?

Well for a while, I’ve been all about what this city has to offer. I was tiring of flying around the place DJing, and I worked out that really with my own parties and a few gigs for my friends, actually I really didn’t need to go further afield. This wasn’t a big decision, it just happened very naturally. Then last year I got to the point that this wasn’t going to be cutting it after all, and for the very first time ever I had a sit down and a good look at things, weighed up if I still wanted to be doing this and how I should be doing it if I do want to be doing it – and came to the conclusion that there’s still life in the old dog, I do want it, and I can see a place for me.

“Now every fucker’s got a boutique label.”

So now, I’m contemplating setting up what might be described as a proper record label; I’ve had these boutique things before, and now every fucker’s got a boutique label and I don’t really find I’m particularly enthused about doing what every other fucker does, so if I do a label it’ll be proper. There’s a few wheels in motion for that, I’ve got the music ready, got half an idea of a name. So there’s that, then I’ve started doing a bit more international stuff again, going to Basel this weekend, Milan next weekend and a few others – but I’m going to be really picky with that sort of stuff – and having done World Unknown every month for four years I’m gonna break it down and do it occasionally because I’ve got these other parties I do with friends of mine that are incredibly good fun and have broadly the same kind of crowd: it’s just become a bit bigger than just one party now.

Really what I’ve been doing is getting slightly more organised, slightly less chaotic, slightly less of having my nose against the windscreen like it has been for a few years. I don’t need to drive myself out of my mind with stress and excitement to get things done, I can just enjoy it and pedal a little bit slower [this is a reference back to discussion before the tape started rolling about the fact that he arrived on a bike with broken brakes].

So what triggered this introspection and organisation?

Well, I’m 43! It just kind of has to happen at some point. And I got married. It seems ridiculous saying it, I never thought it’d happen, the marriage laws aren’t anything I’m interested in, the state’s rubbish – but Amy and I were sitting around last year, thinking, and we thought well we’ve got loads of amazing friends… now that’s a good place to get married – for them, with them. So we did it ourselves, on the bank of the Thames at Greenwich at low tide, bunch of mates, fantastic. We’d been together 17 years and were plainly going to be together forever, that much was obvious from the beginning, but doing something like getting married – well, everyone says it’s a monumental thing to do and evidently it is… and I dunno, all of this led to looking at things from a slightly different perspective. I came to thinking that I’ve done a bunch of things, where other people have done something slightly similar, and those people have made so much of it.

Look at what I’ve done, take Dissident for example: it was just this funny little idea, did it, smashed it, had a load of fun with it, but fast forward a few years to what the L.I.E.S. guys have done compared to me. It’s a pretty similar thing but they’ve carved out international DJ careers for themselves plus X, Y and Z ancillary benefits that I never gave a moment’s thought to – because I like doing the thing for the thing’s sake, and it’s really good fun. But sometimes… well, I guess it’s just that balance of not wanting to be pre-calculating and wondering if that’s not a nice thing to do, but on the other hand wanting to be able to realise things on the grander scale which requires planning. As with everything, the truth always lies somewhere between those ideals, a good route between the extremes, that doesn’t become a routine in itself.

Dynamic equilibrium!

Yeah equilibrium. It’s all about balance and flow isn’t it? I’ve often been pretty good with the flow – when my tap’s open there’s a lot that comes out of it – but the balance thing, well I’ve always been fairly shit at that.

You mention L.I.E.S. as doing something comparable to your projects now – but what about back in the day? Who were your contemporaries starting out?

I’m not sure I’ve ever had any contemporaries! I’ve never felt the need or desire to align with anything. Look, now I feel that Dissident is a ridiculously stupid name, I find it really embarrassing and it kind of hurts even to say it. But the reason it was called that is that what, five, six years ago, I was in my late 30s, in this position where my contemporaries, my peers, the older lot, they all seemed to have dropped the ball a bit, and at that point you’re supposed to look to the kids I guess – but the kids weren’t doing it either, so I was stuck in the middle and the label got called that because I just thought [weary] “ah here I am, as usual, dissatisfied, don’t really like what everyone else is doing so I’ll have to do something that suits me.” So yeah I don’t really feel aligned with anyone.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever had any contemporaries!”

The bigger thing, though – the absolutely sacred nature of a proper party – that is fucking holy that stuff. It’s a really important thing. When it’s good, people really do go there and get rid of so much bad energy and create so much good energy for themselves, and genuinely go back into the world different. You can come out of those situations in a massively enlightened state, enlightened in every sense and certainly in terms of having shaken off your burden – and that affects how you then interact with the world. So that’s always been a driving force for me, but that’s a thing that as far as I could see over the last few years had all but disappeared.

Are you specifically talking about people who are operating in the house/techno/disco sphere here? Because I’d suggest that people did come along elsewhere in that timeframe who represent what you’re talking about. DMZ springs to mind above all.

[tentatively] Yeah… mmm… true, I’ve never been aware enough or involved enough with that to comment with any authority at all. But you’re right, there’s something about what they were doing that had some essence of the importance of the gathering about it – but not having been to the parties it wouldn’t be fair of me to comment about whether they fit what would be my fantasy or ideal version of the party.

OK, well, here’s one key thing about them: at their dances at Mass, class A drugs were not particularly in evidence, it was weed and Red Stripe all the way, yet people were still 100% focused on the sound and dancing like nutters come 6am – and the buzz you’d feel in conversations about the night before in person or online showed they carried that feeling out with them.

That sounds pretty good! And of course it’s never about the drug first. All of the drugs can have dramatically different effects on people depending on what the context is and what they want them to do, and I’m pretty sure having experimented pretty heavily with most of them over the years that the general idea is that they loosen you from the day-to-day grind. Whether they’re loosening you from left-brain dominance into having your creative side blossom a little bit more or whatever I don’t know, but all of them – including Red Stripe and weed – or virtually all of them anyway, will allow that state to occur for a while, they’ll open that door for a while. But when people rely on just one, or keep revisiting it hoping for the same effect, that door will lock.

I remember seeing it with E: think of those first Balearic parties where anything that made sense, even if it made sense in a non-sense quite way, could be part of it: whether it’s the pieces of music or the completely diverse members of the crowd, it all made perfect sense, it was a real door-opening thing. Then within a couple of years, this drug experience that had opened people up to all these different kind of musical experiences was streamlined: “well this stuff sounds best,” or at least this stuff has the most immediate and prolonged impact, so then you end up with it, say, just being house, or later just being jungle. And it’s a shame because you think back to that honeymoon period, where you’ve had a bunch of people coming together for the first time with their minds blown wide open, and you can get some pretty crazy shit happen…

Of course that “crazy shit” is pretty difficult to bottle and sell though, right? Financial and organisational demands of putting on parties make predictability desirable…?

Yeah of course, there are good solid reasons for this being the standard trajectory!

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So how did you get exposed to all this in the first place?

Standard route really, I’m a classic fuckin’ ’88 kid aren’t I? I’ve never really been into the idea of the same music all night, but I’d already got into house in, what, ’86 – because it’s pop music! You know, when all these revisionists tell you about who invented house and who brought it over here first, they always seem to miss out the fact that house was on Top Of The Pops before it was anywhere else.

Yeah Darryl Pandy throwing himself around on Top Of The Pops was quite a pivotal moment for a lot of people!

Exactly. It’s always very convenient for people to make out that them and their mates were doing something unique and amazing but the fact is it was on telly and that’s what was great about it. So got into it for a little bit, then there’s these murmurings of something else going on, things in subterranean bunkers in Southwark – well it’s quite an interesting idea, isn’t it? But what really did if for me was this idea that anything with the right kind of pulse was playable. I’d done going to discos, but they were kind of a different thing in suburban south London to what they were in New York – I had no idea that disco might actually be a good thing, because I was exposed to it at 13th birthday parties and naff discos in Streatham and what have you.

So this idea of having special music for dancing to struck me as a bit silly – I’d always had the sense that all kinds of records sounded amazing loud, and you put them together with a lot of other records that sound great and you’re away. And it turned out that was the idea with this original Balearic beat thing – there’ve been a million different stories and words to describe it but that was my way in, and it was great. It was wild. It was fucking wild. Hurtling through space at a million miles an hour with Fad Gadget records playing, Nitzer Ebb records playing, really raw Chicago tracks playing, and Woodentops, and all these things that are the stuff of cliché now, but right there and then it was mindblowing, absolutely mindblowing.

It was totally liberating, the idea that everything belongs to all of us, then once again you fast forward a couple of years and it seems everyone was shutting everything down, this or that is “our” music, you look at the jungle guys with their “committee”, for a long time I couldn’t even believe that even existed, it seemed such an antithesis of the whole thing. The idea of a bunch of geezers sitting around deciding what records might or might not be allowed to be played at parties or who might or might not be acceptable was just…

“It was totally liberating, the idea that everything belongs to all of us.”

Well that was bitterly ironic in a way, because one big factor in the birth of jungle in the first place was the black artists and ravers and DJs getting shut out by the cadre of white acid house geezers…

I suppose, yeah. It just seems such a shame that this faster, breakbeat-oriented strain of rave had to float off as this separate satellite – a shame for everybody. It’s to do with people being excluded yes, and that’s never a good thing. How much better would things have been if we’d adhered to our utopian ideal – and of course I know any utopian ideal is always unachievable – of the whole thing sticking together?

The minute it goes off into one formula – and I’m not just talking jungle here, I mean the whole house thing got really boring by about, what, 1991 after which it was prog house all the way – and the minute people lose that awareness that everything belongs to them then… [grimaces] I mean all the excuses come in for why people want to say “I only like this thing” but what it seems to come down to is they feel safe in it, all these other things seem unattainable so you pretend you don’t really want it.

But go back to that original Balearic crowd and what is it? A bunch of kids from a Croydon housing estate dancing to Yellow Magic Orchestra and Jean-Luc Ponty – on the one hand it’s totally naff sort of pseudo-music, but it’s sort of cool at the same time. And the open-mindedness you need to accept it is what just allows people to become a bit bigger – for a while, until you get this one version where it all shuts down again. Like the drugs being the key that opens the lock for a while, but then they slam the door shut and trap you in a whole new routine. That’s why I like to shake things up – what you said about always being in a state of transition, I think that’s what that is: every couple of years I can feel the groove becoming a rut again and it’s time to step away and work out what might need changing to stop that happening.

On my more Polyanna-ish days, I have a sneaking feeling that this split that happened when jungle hived off might actually be healable – jungle’s children, as it were, which include dubstep and grime, have now more or less been incorporated back into the general mass of club sounds…

Yeah definitely I’d say people like Joy Orbison and Floating Points seem to complete the circle a bit.

Well Joy Orbison is Ray Keith’s nephew, right? He’s deep into drum’n’bass and without doubt that informs his sound… But I’m thinking of things like what Shy FX does with Digital Soundboy, where he can bring dubstep, grime, electrohouse, reggae and whatever else under the same umbrella, or even Hyperdub or Hessle. The party comes first, scene purity way down the line.

Yeah, we are coming back to a place where people are understanding and appreciating that that is simply the natural state.

“‘Underground’ means nothing, never did.”

My theory is that dubstep provide the hub for this. Because it was, in Skream’s phrase, “mongrel music” – not only musical but in terms of personnel, it was only ever one degree of separation from jungle, house, techno, UK garage, roots & dub and so on, and as a result of that, it provided a route through which the scenes that had splintered apart post-1991 could begin interacting again.

Again, I guess it’s not something I know first hand, but that sounds plausible. But I do think things are very healthy right now. There are wrinkles to be ironed out, sure, but it’s good now. It really is. I think I’d have been disappointed being a kid coming of age with this music any time in the last ten years or so, but now, I’m seeing a load of teenagers at our parties who’ve managed to sidestep the nonsense and are just coming to this mad party where when their mates ask “what sort of music do they play?” they’ll answer “doesn’t really matter, it’s just a great party and it makes sense. Go on, get this down yer neck and have a great time!”

You can see people who are free of the shackles of whether they’re meant to like stuff. You know that dreadful hipster thing in East London of when someone drops a record and it doesn’t “fit”, and people are looking round the room going “Am I supposed to like this? What is this? Can I categorise it?” That’s a bit sad isn’t it? Dance to it if you like it, don’t dance to it if you don’t. Sometimes things really are that simple.

This blurring of scene boundaries is part and parcel with dance music as a whole pushing back into the mainstream more – but I’ve seen your attitude and parties referred to repeatedly as “underground”. Is that right? Are you apart from the mainstream?

Ha, “last of the underground parties” like we’re some kind of dinosaur, right? No, fuck that. “Underground” means nothing, never did. “Independent” is an important word, “underground” don’t mean shit. There’s no such thing as underground now – I always remember a friend of mine saying ages ago, “there’s no such thing as underground, just undiscovered.” The impression I get is that everyone wants in on the mainstream in some manner, and it’s part of their plan from the beginning, whether they admit it to themselves or not. I’ve never really been a fan of the word underground: whether it’s obscure or mainstream, if nobody knows about it or everyone knows about it, if you’re doing what you want to do it doesn’t really matter does it?

If you’re doing what you want to do, and the people doing it with you appreciate it, and that energy flow thing that’s so important whereby it’s not about an artist performing to an audience… Actually that’s one of the wrinkles that could do with being ironed out now: everyone’s an “artist” nowadays. It’s a stupid term, I mean it’s fucking silly isn’t it? I get all my club spam, everyone says “these artists are playing”, and I’m like “fuck that, what DJs are playing?” Fuck the artists, who are the DJs? The “art” can be elsewhere, the party’s the thing.

Test Pressing 065 / Andy Blake / That’s The Night by Test Pressing on Mixcloud

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I did a talk a while back where I said that if there is any kind of artistic creation going on in club culture, the only artwork is not the record, or the DJ set, or the dance move, it’s the night itself – and it’s an emergent artwork, there’s no one artist making it.

Yep, totally, the whole thing is a very interesting process to look at. When it’s fruitful, the way it works, the crescendo that it can create, the palpable manifest energy in a room is fucking nuts. Anyone who says magic doesn’t exist needs to spend their time round that process and take on board that that’s what magic actually is. That’s why I do this, that’s why I didn’t stop, because I’m so, so passionate about that. It’s everything that anyone needs… apart from food, clothes and shelter I suppose [laughs].

OK, going back to your timeline… I think we got as far as about 1991! What did you do as that acid house haze died away and scenes started splintering off?

Oh I carried on for a long time, and didn’t notice [laughs heartily]. I was kind of around the proggy thing for a while, then everyone started doing heroin and that got very boring so I bailed out on that. I carried on doing my own things, and there was that brilliant little phase – which actually later would form the basis of the sound at World Unknown right at the beginning too – where there was something a bit prog and house, bits of breakbeat in there, hip hop elements, but with a murky, heavy, dubby take on world music, with ethnic percussion and drone and stuff, a lot of the stuff on Nation Records, Aki Nawaz’s label, the Fun-Da-Mental instrumentals and stuff – and more mainstream take like early trance on Harthouse which had a more streamlined, fluid version of that same thing too.

But there was the beginning of the squat techno thing too, lots of parties around here [Peckham] in fact, where I’d do the first few hours or the last few hours and in the middle people like the Liberator boys would really thump it out. Or I’d be in the smaller room or something – it was in all manner of weird warehouses and spaces, and I’ve still got no clue to this day where half of them were. But then there was gay clubs, which for me have always been miles better than their straight counterparts and I’ve always gone to them – I remember going to Trade the first time around ’91 and being dumbfounded that people would carry on partying into the middle of the afternoon. We’d just got used to 6 and 7am finishes, but this was just mental – it was a restaurant with the chairs and tables pushed aside at that time, remember, and not very busy, just a few semi-naked chaps dancing like nutters.

“I just had this moment doing a gig in eastern Europe and just looked around and went ‘fuck, I’m BORED.'”

So yeah – this period, mid 90s, there was my own thing, there was the squat raves, and there was gay things like Trade and DTPM… then I met the tech house guys, Nathan and Terry and all the Croydon lot. Funnily enough they were in the same position, around 1998, being called the last true rave, which is what I believe WU is being called by people – and they were as disappointed by that then as I am now [laughs]. So did that for a bit, then I just had this moment doing a gig in eastern Europe and just looked around and went “fuck, I’m BORED.”

Well tech house became a bit of a creative cul-de-sac didn’t it?

[pulls up] I’m not sure it did, actually! It can be, it’s one way to read it, but on another level there’s a thing were because there was no art in it, there was something quite pure about it. It’s for people to dance to, and that’s it. There was a point around 2000, early 2001, and it wasn’t the fault of the music at all but the kind of gigs I was getting – because with the best will in the world DJ gigs can get a bit monotonous, sometimes a DJ gig is just a room full of people on drugs with loud music, which is utterly fucking depressing, and other times it’s a magical, insane, beyond reason lunatic asylum of amazing possibility, and I’m all about that, but when it’s just people on drugs going through the motions, well forget that – I just got bored with it and bailed out of all that stuff, and went to doing smaller gigs instead which was a load of fun.

But when it came to turfing out all my tech house records from then – which was a broad sweep from the Croydon records, the San Fran records, the Mood II Swing dubs, the whole thing, the whole gamut… if you define all of what tech house was it was actually quite a broad sweep, compared to the Beatport definition of what tech house was which is just horrible, I mean imagine being only into that! …But yeah when it came to turfing out my records from then, I actually just stored them away, thought I’ll come back to these in a few years and inevitably have a massive cull. So that few years took quite a while and it was only a couple of years ago – and I started pulling out these cubes of 100 records, assuming I’d be binning 90 and only keeping 10, and I was stunned – stunned – to find I was keeping more than 50% of them! Now of course I’d always tried to not buy the lowest common denominator stuff, the stuff played to death by everyone else, but even so I was pleased that this era turned out to sound better in retrospect than I’d feared!

“It’s for people to dance to, and that’s it.”

And now, of course, turn of the century underground tech house is the sound of the pop charts – Duke Dumont, Hot Creations, all that…

Well yeah, but that form of it is exactly the kind of stuff I wasn’t playing then [laughs]. The stuff I had was always a little bit rougher, a little bit rootsier, a little bit wilder – and there was the big American thing with a label called Worship Records, the Rocket guys, Greyhound records, with a massive, massive dub influence. So they are pure function records, but you go back to that point and the actual making of them was something: it was drum machines, samplers and desks, and collaboration – three or four people in the studio making the record.

I remember when I used to do stuff at Strange Weather Studios, which loads of the Croydon stuff was going through, you’d have four or five guys making the record together which is interesting because instead of loads of automation and programming you’d have all these synthesisers and mixers and people riding the levels and sounds. It’s interesting when you get those interactions because it’s hardware and desks and massive speakers – whereas now everyone’s got a laptop and a couple of very nice, very well-defined Genelec speakers so they make it on their own, and it can sound quite thin and a bit pointless. So I think what sounded good about this older stuff, is that it has character and unexpected things going on, and finding that out in looking back was quite a nice surprise.

It’s nice when you get vindication of your own taste!

Yeah something like that, probably more luck than judgement, but nice.

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OK, so into the 2000s what was happening?

DJing in bars completely anonymously and fucking loving it. That was fun. I thought I’m gonna stop DJing and be in the studio, do it entirely that way for a while, and within about three weeks I started getting the jitters about not DJing, and there was a pub over the road from the studio in Forest Hill, so I started playing there for a laugh – literally just for fun – but then over a period of time I found myself, instead of doing three or four bigger gigs every month, I was doing three or four smaller gigs every week, playing all night, playing what the hell I wanted, totally back to my roots of playing anything and everything.

Obviously you play the right records, there’s no point winding people up once you’re past about 15… and I did that for quite a while, happy as a pig in shit, playing really, really wild sets of disco and stuff in places that were quite naff if I’m honest – then I started getting asked to play in some of the trendy places, and being wildly disappointed with what I could get away with in those gigs, and being expected to stick to a clearly defined canon of what’s acceptable in the current version of disco.

Whereas of course disco, like the beginnings of acid house or whatever was eclectic by definition – it was David Mancuso playing African records and Beethoven and whatever else he felt like…

Totally. It was rebel music. Then of course there was becomes a defined version – and in that huge area between the wild version and the defined version there’s some brilliant stuff happens, then once more there’s that moment where it’s just “why are we here?” again, the tail starts wagging the dog, the cart’s in front of the horse or whatever…

“With a record label you’re one step away from it, whereas with a party it’s there, it’s real.”

So you didn’t feel the inclination to lock into another scene, then?

Heh, well we’re back to being in flux. I dunno why, it’s just what I’ve always done, I’ve very very rarely found myself drawn to someone else’s thing. I can appreciate it and enjoy it, and I certainly don’t find myself in any antagonistic relationship to it – I just don’t often find myself with massive amounts of enthusiasm for stuff that’s going on elsewhere. There’s so much fun to be had and fulfilment from doing stuff that I’m into. Maybe I’ve never had that lack, that hole in my life, that I need to fill up with someone else’s ideas, membership of someone else’s gang…

But you do want people to participate in what you do!

Yeah it’s nice to have connections, it’s a part of human nature to want to be part of something. I dunno, I’ve just always tried to do something to the best of my ability and by luck or design I’ve very rarely felt unappreciated. I don’t need an audience as such, but you do need to be in an energy flow – isolation is pretty tragic, not much good comes from isolation. It’s nice when people like what you do! When Dissident got rolling, there was no plan with that, half an idea was to do it as a proper record label, then it turned out it was fun to just chuck all these records out and have them sell out on the first day and never repress – but quickly it felt a step removed; with a record label you’re one step away from it, whereas with a party it’s there, it’s real.

And I remember talking to Dan Beaumont, saying both of us would give our right arm to be where each other were at that point, because he loved what I had with the label but I loved what he had with Disco Bloodbath. And I suppose that’s when World Unknown started, just “fucking hell I want a party!” Record labels are just shit compared to having a party. Parties are fucking amazing, when you’ve got a proper one and it’s got real people at it having a brilliant time, and it’s something… fuck me, when they’re good they’re fucking amazing and I highly recommend it to everyone.

“I’m sure there are people who’ve never been who think they actually have.”

Do you ever get any sense of the public profile of your projects, beyond simply how many people are coming through the doors or buying the records?

I dunno really – it goes in flows doesn’t it? There was a real sense this time last year, maybe for a year before that, that WU had reached this bursting point – we couldn’t get any more people in the building, we were turning away 2-300 people every time – and that kind of chaos is brilliant, it’s incredibly intoxicating, it’s loads and loads of fun. But it’s weird, because things exist on such completely separate strata from each other: there’s the actual reality of the thing that’s taking place, then I can remember what felt like a few hundred of my mates from East London telling me how wonderful World Unknown is, and I knew damn well none of them had ever been…

The fact that this thing exists, you can have an opinion about it, you know the guy who runs the party a little bit – part of you, even though you’ve never been, you can kind of feel like you have been, because you’ve been to some parties before, you know the ropes at a party, we’re all reasonably intelligent people so we can build up these assumptions and suppositions and pictures. I’m sure there are people who’ve never been who think they actually have. So it’s odd. They’re odd times and very fractured, I think they are getting a little more un-fractured now, but there’s been this thing with World Unknown where we started getting asked to do things at other people’s things. We did a couple and they went alright, but they weren’t that good. Because if a party’s relevant, it’s not who’s sticking the records on, it’s a couple of hundred loonies who make it the thing.

Joe [Hart] and I have never been a travelling DJ team unlike, say, Optimo who had a party and have also done very very well at turning that into the pair of them having something they can take to other people’s things. That works brilliantly for them, and there are other people who can do that and that’s great, but it’s not me and never has been. I don’t know which bits of this are important – I’ll come and DJ at your party and that’s fine; it’d be nice if you had half an idea who I was and what I did before you booked me, we’ve all done this, any DJ at any level, where you’ve turned up and nobody’s got a fucking clue what’s going on, and they’ve just booked you because they feel they “ought” to.

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The worst story I heard about this was Paul Woolford, after ‘Erotic Discourse’ blew up in the house mainstream – he had this long history as a deep Chicago / Detroit guy, but he’d find himself stepping off a plane in Argentina or Russia to find they were expecting someone playing the latest electro-house hits.

Fucking mental isn’t it? A very strange thing. I mean I get it, it’s a funny little dance you do as a DJ with promoters and audiences – but it’s altogether weirder when they want to buy into an abstract thing, into a brand, like somehow if you book Joe and I, and you write World Unknown on a flyer, then something mystical happens to your party. It doesn’t – it’s just two guys turning up with some records. So very quickly the answer became “no” to just about everything, last year we got offered loads of festival stuff, way down the bill, with lots of weird, funny, bizarre, promoter upon sub-promoter structures, and it’s really not a world I’m interested in. And we said no to everything.

Joe ended up taking a bunch of them as Joe, and that’s fine because there’s a level of honesty about what’s actually taking place, which you need – or we need anyway. So we spent all last year saying no to everything and probably pissed loads of people off, burned loads of bridges, because you’re supposed to join in and I’m just “uhh, can’t be bothered”. But I’ve still got people who seem to be into what I do, the parties we put on are bigger and bigger, near enough a thousand people on new year’s eve, which is not something that I thought was going to happen. And we’ve got another thing going on, me and Amy, and some friends of ours Ollie and Will, who DJ as Bahamian Moor, we do a party called Dance Café, which is every bit as mental as WU ever was – with a load of the WU crowd plus a load of mad kids, fucking potty little cunts, and that’s wicked, that’s fucking thrilling, really exciting.

“I like the idea of people finding out about stuff… eventually.”

With World Unknown, Joe had his history with Body Hammer and I had Dissident, so the industry, or whatever you’d call it, it knew about us, we’d interfaced with it in some sense – so when we set up WU, however much we were not part of that industry and however much we don’t want to be, we’re still part of it because we’re still connected to it slightly, there’s still an invisible thread. But Dance Café and some of these other parties I’ve been doing with mates, it’s been brilliant, because WU’s in the way, so the industry can’t see them, so they’re properly separate and there’s a purity to it.

Until this article comes out!

Heh, doesn’t matter, does it? I like the idea of people finding out about stuff… eventually. I don’t like the idea of these parties being the same old faces all the time. You’ve got to have the same old faces, but you’ve got to have new people coming otherwise it’s rubbish. Anything that potty kids aren’t into can’t be that good, surely? I love new people coming, and it doesn’t matter how they find out about it – but when you’ve got something, it can go wrong. I had a weird moment last year when I was DJing, I’d just finished my set, and this guy limply called out “WORLD UNKNOooownnnn.” It was weird, it felt like something very small died, it was just weird and very silly, these syllables – which is what all this branding stuff is about, right – it’s just become a little tag that doesn’t mean anything and that you can remember easily, and it’s like babies forming their first words, “nur nur nurrrr”…

Well crowds love to have something to chant, that’s unavoidable, but maybe you have to own that silliness and have your own “tags” – like the funny clapping you’d get at Balearic things or Optimo’s crowd chanting ‘Pump up the Jam’!

Yeah, yeah, its interesting how crowds develop things like that. With Optimo it’s because Keith and Jonnie are both proper, real people, and what they do, all the way, they do it because they love it. They work hard, they make it work, Keith is tenacious in the way he plays the game in a really good way. There’s no sense at all of him caving in or doing anything silly or shit, yet his energy levels are insane – he’s older than I am, but he’s like a kid. And that’s absolutely superb, what they do is fucking amazing in how it works for them and how they create not a brand name, but a clarion call.

I remember talking to Keith and him saying it is a bit of a pain in the arse sometimes when they get to a gig and everyone expects them to play fucking everything ever, like every record that’s ever been made – when they might want to just tonk out some techno records. But they seem to be able to do that too if they want: Optimo seems to mean a degree of quality and attention to detail rather than a packaged sound. It’s hard to think of anyone else who’s managed to do that to that degree.

Weatherall seems to carry off something similar…

Yeah but Andrew does it in a different way – he has a very particular thing that he’ll do for a few years then change. Optimo’s core is that they’ll pump the party and it’ll fucking go off, but Andrew does all these different things, he’s done these goth things, he’ll have a techno phase, he’ll play all-dub sets… I’ve been up in the studio with Tim and Scott and all of them quite a bit, watching Andrew go about his thing, and it’s great. He works his balls off too, I mean he’s 50, but he still goes to the record shops every week, then sits down in the studio smoking doobies – he’s going to hate me saying “doobies” isn’t he… [laughs] smoking joints – listening closely to the music, transferring it from vinyl to CD, getting very involved. He’s got this thing that he does in the clubs if you’re booking him for his big DJ thing, then he’s madly into reggae and rockabilly and all these things that he can do on the side…

“I’m not sure I’ve actually grown up that much.”

I guess Keith and Jonnie are similar in that Optimo’ll smash it up in the main room then you can book each of them to do various weird things, but I guess difference is that the Optimo is wider and undefined, whereas for whatever reason it works very very well for for Andrew to have a defined thing, it’ll amuse him to have a pecadillo for a while, then he’ll reinvent, the music’ll change again, he likes to play around with clothes too. I reckon that’s a pretty good way to avoid insanity, probably more like what I’m like – Keith and Jonnie are a relentless juggernaut non-stop party machine, whereas I’ll do things for a bit then flit around somewhere else, just not get bogged down. From time to time I’ll sit down and have a word with myself and change things up again.

Which brings us down to your current state, 40-something, married, not settling down exactly-

Definitely not settling down – me and her are still fucking wild!

Consolidation, then. The question is, are you actually planning ahead now? Are you aiming at something?

Pfffffff… I’m not sure I’ve actually grown up that much. I suppose… it would be nice… I dunno, it sounds weird saying it, but if my profile went up a little… hmmmm… The thing is, there’s a large part of the industry, a bunch of people that – although I’ve done a large proportion of the bigger clubs, the ones you’re meant to do, and it’s always gone well – probably think I’m a little more chaotic and unreliable than I am. Because when it comes to doing the job I’m very, very non-chaotic and very reliable. I take it very… well, I don’t take it seriously because it’s fun – but I’m very conscientious about it.

I think this dates back to the tech house days, I was not getting offered certain gigs because there was this nagging doubt in the back of certain people’s minds that I might just turn up and want to play ragga records. But I’m like “errrr, no, I do have a fucking brain in my head, I do know how this works.” That’s followed me around, though, and I don’t know how it’s going to happen, because I’m not going to pay someone to run a PR campaign for me, but it’d be nice to shake that off. [checks self] I don’t care that much though, it’s not like I’m short of gigs now, I’m always getting offered interesting stuff, I’ve got my own parties that smash it, so it don’t really matter… I dunno, it’d be quite nice to do those other gigs, but I’m not that bothered.

It sounds like you’d quite like people to respect the craft of what you do though…

Naaaaaah, I don’t give a fuck about respect, that’s just a nonsense isn’t it? An abstract conceit. You know what? I’m probably as happy as I’ve ever been. I can put on a party or play at someone else’s party and 200 people who know me plus a bunch of other people will turn up and have a brilliant time, and everyone leaves really happy including me – and that’s fine isn’t it? I guess that’s probably the thing, going back to your question about consolidation: it would be nice not to lose that now I’ve got that.

It’s a really lovely feeling, and it’s not about bums on seats or notions of respect or hopefully about any kind of ego-pumping stuff. But that moment when I’m in the booth at a party and I look out and see a bunch of people that I know, some of them close friends, some of them just acquaintances or party regulars, and some that I don’t know, and they’re all mingling and getting on well – it’s niceness happening, hopefully a few times each night some magic happens. That… that’s fucking ace. That’ll do me. 25 years in it and I’ve got that – seems like a fair exchange if you ask me.

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