In the UK Justin Robertson is a name synonymous with “Balearic”. In the late `80s while Manchester’s Hacienda blew its whistle to house music all night long – together with fellow DJ Greg Fenton – Justin provided a musical alternative in the shape of Spice – a select, members only, Sunday night session that has become the stuff of legend. A bit like the Sex Pistols gig at the city’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, everyone who is anyone claims to have been there (but they weren`t).
Becoming part of the country-wide club network that included parties such as Back To Basics in Leeds, Cream in Liverpool, Flying in London, Slam in Glasgow, Venus in Nottingham, and Wobble in Birmingham, Justin quickly moved into production. Releasing records and remixes informed by his love of dub, psychedelia, and techno. Employing an array of aliases and monikers, for the last few years he’s settled on The Deadstock 33s.
Justin and I have bounced questions back forth for maybe 6 months. Get ready, this is another long one…..
(Cover art: Drop In The Ocean by Justin Robertson)
Where are you from?
I was born in Walton upon Thames, then moved to Chalfont St. Peter in Buckinghamshire at a very early age. I went to school in Amersham and then moved to Manchester to study philosophy at university.
Where are you currently based?
Kensal Green, north west London.
When did you move to Manchester? What degree course did you take?
I arrived in Manchester in 1986 to study Philosophy.
Were you going to things like Temperance, Nude and Hot at The Hacienda?
When I arrived in Manchester, I’d say my musical tastes were in flux. I’d morphed from a long-haired hippy type in the mid 1980s listening to Hawkwind and Tangerine Dream into a furrow browed, long mac wearing indie kid, with a penchant for an angst and writing painful poetry. The one constant was reggae. I was no expert, but had been well served by ‘Scorpion Records’ a secondhand record shop in High Wycombe. There was a large West Indian community in High Wycombe and so a lot of top-notch dub and reggae used to find its way into Scorpion. I just randomly picked them up, not really knowing the first thing about it really, beyond a couple of labels I knew and a handful of artists my older brother had mentioned to me. But it really chimed with me, the kind of ‘outer space’ production and open-ended arrangements, that was particularly evident in the dub cuts. A lot of those records would make their way into the Spice playlists a few years later, and the production techniques were really influential on me when I stumbled into the studio. In 1986 I think I was starting to change my listening habits. I was quite attracted to the heavy drum machine sounds of Mantronix and early digital dancehall stuff like Shinehead. Weed Seed Seed by Flashy B was an anthem for me. I was also listening to more New Order than Joy Division and was keen to understand where they were drawing their influences from. I guess I was keen to broaden my horizons but weirdly South Bucks wasn’t the best place to do it, so Manchester was the only destination I seriously entertained.
On my first day in Manchester, I met a guy called Eddy Leviten – he was from Leeds and had already done a year at Nottingham University. He instantly connected the dots for me! We bonded over New Order, but Eddy was just that little bit older… he had been to nightclubs! For me, night clubs were places where people went to listen to chart music, get smashed, have a fight, cop off and what not. I had sort of been aware there might be more to it than that, I knew about the Hacienda, for example, and I longed for some sophistication. There was a documentary about The Fall, Michael Clarke and Leigh Bowery that I was quite obsessed with – my great uncle had taught Michael Clarke at The Royal Ballet and I was devoted to The Fall. The doc had it all, weird angular music, weird angular people, weird angular art. There were some scenes shot inside the club, Taboo, and I thought ‘that looks wild’. At that time I really wanted to join some kind of café society, reading existentialist authors, sipping wine and wearing ‘out there’ clobber. But I was completely skint, my clothes were a fucking disaster – sort half indie kid half early skateboarder – I was obsessed with the Bones Brigade – full of holes, and I didn’t really know how to go about becoming more interesting!
Eddy kind of showed me how. He was a Face and ID reader, frequenter of the Warehouse in Leeds and the Garage in Nottingham, and a big fan of Graeme Park – who was yet to play in Manchester. The Hacienda would be a perfect place to begin my re-education. Initially I went to the Temperance Club with Dave Haslam DJing, but weirdly, I found that as soon as I walked into that building all the records that I was more familiar with – The Smiths, The Fall, etc. – weren’t as interesting as the heavy electronic tunes Dave was spinning: Who The Cap Fits by Shinehead, Kiss by the Age of Chance, and most significantly the hip hop and go-go. These records really grabbed me. I fell for it almost instantly. I blew my grant money – remember them! – on a MA1 flight jacket and a pair of doc marten shoes. So it wasn’t long before I completely lost interest in most things indie, apart from The Fall, ACR and New Order, who were at the peak of their powers around that time. New Order at the Hacienda remains in my top 5 gigs of all time. I guess it all started to slot together for me, that connection between the clubs of Detroit, Chicago and New York, and another run down urban centres like 1980s Manchester. It made sense. The funk and disco influences, the stark and brittle industrial beat, all these were very urban America and very Manchester too. The city suited that blend of machine and funk.
I began to seek out the clubs that were playing that type of music more or less exclusively. Big nights for me were the Fizz club at the Man Alive, Trash parties with Andy Holmes, the PSV in Hulme, and the Gallery. They were all playing a mixture of hip hop, street soul and jacking house, which was amazing. Pump That Bass by Original Concept, The Word / Sardines by the Junkyard band, Coast To Coast by Word Of Mouth, Strong Island by JVC Force, Rebel Without A Pause by Public Enemy, Schooly D, LL Cool J, Have A Nice Day by Roxanne Shante, Triple M Bass by Worse Em, tonnes of Trouble Funk.
By this time, I was a terrible fashion victim, covered in soviet badges and kilt pins, reading the Face and ID like they were manuals for living. I was so caught up in the world of clubbing that it was pretty much all I was into. Looking back now, I cringe at how seriously I took it. I was a bit of knob at times, thinking I was the bee’s knees in my floppy baker boy hat!
Nude was the ultimate night out for me at this time. I was reading all this stuff about London clubs and what they were playing, which was great, I’d sometimes go to Delirium with Noel and Maurice Watson, if I was back home. But no one really mentioned house music in the ‘fashion’ or music press at that time. House was the backbone of the Manchester club sound. Nude was a distillation of that, with Mike Pickering and Martin Prendergast DJing as MP2. They played house, but with a kind of Latin swagger – tunes like Mike’s T-Coy stuff summed up that sound. Sensual music, multi racial, energetic, loud as fuck with whistles blowing, and effortlessly cool. You’d get guys dressed in spats with amazing suits on, just going crazy to Adonis records. Really amazing dancers and easily as sweaty as later acid house clubs. It was heaven for me, Japanese lager and Chicago house, perfect.
It’s worth adding, that it was the structure of the building that was quite instrumental in what records were most effective. Despite people’s fond recollections of the place, I always thought that the sound was pretty bad in there! So, when I first starting going, it was the heavier, minimal records that cut through. Detroit Techno and Chicago house were perfect in that cavernous warehouse space. Lots of concrete pinging the frequencies about. My ‘road to Damascus’ moment may or may not have happened, and the tune I always quote, might not have been the actual tune either! I always say it was The Dance by Rhythim Is Rhythim, but it could have been any of those stripped back house records from that period. They just sounded magnificent in there – urban, industrial but joyous too. The spaciousness of the dance-floor made it perfect for dance troupes like Foot Patrol to really go wild, we’d just stand back and blow our whistles.
Can you remember the first time you heard a house record?
I can’t remember too specifically, I think I was aware of some of those early records. Some had been ‘hits’ like Love Can’t Turn Around. But once I’d started to frequent Manchester’s clubs, house became something of an obsession. Again, Eddy was ahead of the curve, he had a lot of early Chicago stuff, which he played me. We were devotees of Stu Allan, his ‘Bus Dis’ hip-hop show and his house based show, the name of which escapes me just now. He was playing all these amazing records that were coming from the States. They sounded so otherworldly and weird, kind of warped disco, but more than that they sounded like the voice of the city, the voice of machines, or at least the expression of human’s relationship with technology. These records were wonky and faulty, as producers tried to make sense of these new machines, they carved out new sounds often by accident. I was particularly interested in their open-ended nature. Like dub, house didn’t have a recognizable structure, it was hypnotic and ritualistic, weirdly functional like a sacrament. It was designed to create a state of trance like euphoria, and it was a collective energy. Very different from the introspective nature of ‘Indie’ music or traditional song writing, house came from an ancient tradition of sacred ritual music, collective energy, and it sounded great on drugs.
The records that stick out at this time would be anything that had hypnotic mantras in them, Raze Jack The Groove, White Knight White Knight Jacks, Chip E Time To Jack, Denise Motto IMNXTC, House People Jack Me Frankie, and of course Housemaster Boyz House Nation… Eddy and I would go to Spin Inn in Manchester, that was where Stu Allan got his records, and pick up whatever imports we could lay our hands on. I remember when Acid Tracks came out, Eddy and I played it to death. This was something really new and unbelievable, odd, proper cosmic music and more genuinely weird that the most ‘out there’ freak beat record. This was still ages before the acid house scene kicked off. London was still very much about `70s funk, which was great too, but Manchester was far more forward looking musically. Clubs in Manchester at that time were authentically psychedelic, not in a smiley face and E way – though there were the beginnings of an ecstasy scene on the peripheries – but in a pure energy expressive way, like a congregation losing it in a Baptist church, but with cans of Breaker lager.
Were you also going to places like The Kitchen, The Thunderdome, and Stuffed Olives?
Pre-acid house, there was something on most nights of the week – Furry Fred at The International, The Venue, Hewan Clarke at The Gallery, The PSV in Hulme, John Tracy doing a Latin thing, the Trash parties – I handed out flyers for them – Fizz Club on a Friday, Communion at Stuffed Olives with the excellent Dominic Montague and Andy Holmes…That night was particularly good, and is often forgotten. Musically it was funk, street soul, house, rare groove – they were heavy collectors and could give anyone a run for their money – and especially disco, which was pretty unfashionable then. I warmed up there once with my little collection of funk records. I was terrified, but they were pretty gracious. The atmosphere was electric, really sweaty and hot. Some pretty heavy characters down there at times, but the vibe was always, or at least mainly, positive. They were really open to letting young promoters do their thing down there, Eddy and I ran a couple of nights at the Stuffed Olives – Jeopardy, and Compulsion. We played funk, disco and house, very much learning the ropes. We were particularly happy to see a member of Blancmange at the bar.
Acid house was a strange occurrence in some ways. I remember reading about Shoom in ID, and it seemed very different from the scene in Manchester at that time. We were into getting dressed-up and wearing oversized suits, jacking, dancing, not plimsolls and dungarees, not at that time. But the music seemed to be the same or similar. It was odd for me to see all these old house records appearing in London DJ club playlists, as if it was something new and undiscovered. All those records had been rinsed for years in Manchester. We`d had sold out shows by Ten City, the Chicago House Review, etc. But what was very different was two things; the look, or vibe, and the balearic beat element. Now that was very different from Manchester. I thought it was really interesting. I remember when it all changed for me. I went to an I-D party at the Hacienda. Mark Moore was DJing. He was certainly one of the London DJs playing a lot of house stuff. He was great that night too. I was dancing away with my big suit jacket done up with some preposterous kilt pin, when a long curly haired youth came up to me wearing a cheesecloth shirt and converse pumps, and he gave me a hug and a teddy bear. I thought that’s odd. Cut to two hours later, jacket long forgotten, and I was waving my arms like Windy Miller. From then on it exploded…
But not always in a good way, a lot of the dance crews seemed to stop going as everyone took to podiums. There was less of that expression going on, more of the familiar trance dance, at the Hacienda at least. I thought that was a shame. In a way I preferred the atmosphere at those pre-acid Nude nights. People really got into the records, and not just as an accompaniment to ecstasy. There was a bit of snobbery too. The fashion crowd didn’t like all these scally oiks coming in their baggy clothes, but they were soon won over. Then it went completely deranged.
As a student how safe were these places for you? I come from Croydon but studied in Leeds and my accent often got me in trouble.
The first week in Manchester I was randomly punched in the face whilst buying chips, and again in the Cornerhouse for wearing a hat. To this day I’ve never known a city as hostile to fine millinery as Manchester. I regularly get abused to this day. But generally, I have to say I had no real problems, and I could be quite annoying – banging on the DJ booth door asking about records, trying to blag gigs, etc. – but I always found people to be lovely on the whole. We got robbed constantly but it was always the kids across the road. I remember sitting outside our house in Moss Side, when one of the lads bowled over and was like ‘eerr you want to buy this Walkman?’ ‘I’m good thanks man, that’s mine in any case, you robbed of us last week’ ‘Oh yeah right, what about this ..’
By the time acid house came along I was in my final year at university I was going to the Thunderdome and the Hacienda. The Hac was fine, no bother at all. The Thunderdome was cool too, but slightly terrifying for a Home Counties boy. When I started working at Eastern Bloc, I used to go down with Steve Williams who was DJing, so I was cool with him. Plus I never went to the toilet, that’s where you were likely to come a cropper.
(Justin being arrested at a rave near Leeds)
How did you meet Chris and Tomlin – the Jam MCs?
After I finished my studies, I started working at Eastern Bloc records – I’d made that my main record shop pretty much as soon as it opened in Affleck’s palace. They had such a great variety of music and that was what I loved about it. For a few months I was so immersed in acid house, that was all I listened to, but the more I studied the sound, the more I could see it connecting back to electronic stuff like Tangerine Dream and dub reggae too, in its sparseness, the stuff I’d listened to as a teenager. I became interested in the lineage of house too, disco, Kraftwerk, European industrial stuff, and the balearic scene I was reading about – but that had still made no impression on Manchester. I was looking for records that I could add to the mix of house stuff, but for me it was still largely guess work. So Eastern Bloc was the shop for me; all the latest imports plus a huge dub section and various forms of independent music to explore. I would sit at the end of the counter listening to the new tunes as John Berry played them, buying what I could afford. I was working at Manchester Royal Infirmary in the summer holidays filing medical records, and at lunch times I’d jump on the bus up to Oldham street and go to Eastern Bloc. One day my friend, Andy McQueen, who was working there at the time walked out of the job and I walked into it! In fact, Andy walked back in a few days later so all was good. By that time, I’d finished my studies and was in the shop full time. I met everyone in there and I’m pretty sure that’s where I met Chris and Tomlin properly, though I knew them from around town. I was selling them records and generally chatting away with all and sundry.
How did you meet Greg Fenton and end up DJing together?
To be honest I’m not 100% sure how we first met. I’m going to guess it was in Eastern Bloc, but I do remember Greg calling and seeing if I wanted to meet up and have a drink, and then onto the Hacienda. Greg had recently moved over from Belfast. We shared an interest in exploring the boundaries of what you could play in a club. We both loved house music, don’t get me wrong, we really did, but felt that the soundtrack to a lot of the nights we were going to in Manchester had become a little too same-y and safe. We were studying the magazines and reading the Boy`s Own fanzine, but it all seemed distant and mysterious somehow. We found that we shared a similar desire to break up, what we saw as, the monotony of house, the strangle hold it had over most of the clubs in Manchester. There was a massive soul scene in Manchester at that time too, and a lot of people really got involved in that as a reaction to acid house. We loved acid house, we just felt there were more possibilities open to DJs that weren’t being explored.
There was also a feeling, that somehow, the massive increase in popularity of house music and the influx of new faces into clubs like the Hacienda had diluted the scene. In retrospect this was nonsense. But I can see the temptation to see something that you thought was ‘yours’, something that was weird and revolutionary, being spoiled by mass popularity. Remember this was only maybe a year into ‘acid house’, so there was no way of seeing how the scene would later develop, or to imagine the wonder that was yet to come. Some people felt defensive, and I think a lot of people had failed to see the social revolution that was going on. The big raves and warehouse parties, the Blackburn raves, etc., that was where the really interesting stuff was happening socially and politically, not the clubs, which were just as hard to get into for a lot of people and just as snobby and elitist, as they had always been, even if we were wearing beads.
Musically, though, a lot of us felt like things were getting stale, that the lowest common denominator was taking hold and that the magic had been lost. There was a bit of snobbery for sure, but also, we saw ourselves as insurgents, unconcerned about popularity, just keen to break the mould. We were doing this blind to some extent. I knew a couple of people who had been to Shoom and Boy’s Own parties, but I certainly hadn’t at that time, so it was largely guess work. I remember Danny Rampling coming up to Hot, at the Hacienda, and he brought a gang of Shoomers with him. I thought it was amazing. He opened with Barry White, and played Code 61`s Drop the Deal, Belo y Sambar all the classic balearic numbers. But the Manchester crowd hated it. For me it was a real epiphany, to finally hear those records we’d only really read about.
One pivotal incident, or set of happenings, occurred in Birmingham. Some of my mates were studying there and had a big old Victorian house with a cellar. One night we all jumped into Moonboot’s mini metro and went down for a party – Greg, me, Tom Wainright, Moon, Andy, Baz and George – the Wigan Scream Team as they were known – Merrily, Jo, Annette and Rex. It was fabulous. A sound system in the basement, walls adorned with psychedelic paintings. We all bought some records down to play. There were some kids from London there, Shoom types who were absorbed in that sound. I remember this guy Max playing, and we were just blown away. He was dropping all these big balearic numbers like Stop Bajon, but for us it was such a different sound. Those basement parties brought together all these little tribes of balearic enthusiasts at a time when traveling to other cities to go to clubs was relatively rare. I think it was at that moment that we thought about trying to do something in that vein in Manchester.
(Part of the Wigan Scream Team in Birmingham)
Can you tell me more about your Compulsion parties? Where and when were they? Who was DJing? What kind of music was being played?
Eddy and I used to do these parties called Jeopardy at Stuffed OliveS. It was a mixture of funk, disco, hip hop and house and Compulsion was a kind of continuation of that but with an acid house slant, a bit of New beat mixed with Depeche mode and Madonna – Eddy is a massive Depeche Mode fan. ABC`s How To Be A Millionaire and Kraftwerk`s Tour de France were favourites, because we could mix the intros a bit! I guess it was accidentally balearic, actually maybe even consciously Balearic, though I’m not sure we knew what it meant.
I was blagging DJ gigs where I could, but I’m not sure I really knew what I was doing! I’d just got my first pair of decks and was practicing like crazy. I used to go round to Jon Da Silva’s house and just watch him mix! I’m not sure why he put up with it to be honest! I was really in awe of people like Jon and Andy ‘Madhatter’ Holmes who could mix so effortlessly. I think in those early days the key for me was to put on your own parties, mainly for mates to begin with. It gave you a chance to understand what you were doing and to hone your sound.
How did you get the gig at Konspiracy? Were you already working at Eastern Bloc by then?
Yes, I’d been there for a while, and had learnt to mix by then! There were some great technical DJs coming though the shop – The Spinmasters, Darren and Andy – who were beginning to get the 808 State project together with Graham and Martin – Jon Da Silva, who as I say was inspirational, and perhaps the best Manchester DJ of all, Steve Williams. Steve was just phenomenal. I used to travel to Blackpool with him to go to Frenzy and leant him a couple of tunes which I picked up in the shop. I still have his bpm stickers on a couple of numbers. He was so talented, heavy heavy DJ. He was fearless. I remember him entering the DMC mixing championship at the Hacienda and he mixed up house records – a brave thing to do at that event! I still wonder what would have happened if he’d stuck with it? Undoubtedly one of the best. There was also a young restaurant manager by the name of Laurent Garnier, who was working at Dry Bar. I remember him having this cassette of a mix he’d done – it was incredible, eclectic and inventive. He gave it to Paul Cons who gave him a gig at the Hacienda, the rest as they say is history. All these great DJs were fueled by pure enthusiasm, there was no money in it, or very little anyway. You’d spend most of what you did earn on records anyway. I can’t remember the exact circumstances behind getting the gig at Konspiracy, but Chris, Tomlin, Pricey and Tim, were the guys behind it, and they were in the shop a lot. A splendid group of chaps. They got hold of this space that had once been a club called Pips – which had its own legendary back story – and for 9 insane months turned it into this Aladdin’s cave of musical variety. It was cavernous and disorientating, with lots of underground rooms. The walls were covered with bizarre fluorescent paintings. It was easy to get lost, like acid potholing. I started off playing upstairs, spinning house and new beat. They liked it tough so numbers like Stabbed`s You’re Mine, Ghentlon`s Technodream, Abfahrt`s Alone, Force Legato`s M-System, Cold Sensation`s Liquid Empire, Liason D`s Future FJP – anything by Frank Dewulf, who was a hero in our shop – he came in once, nice bloke, looked like an accountant – Ny Housing Authority’s High Bridge House, Centerfield Assignment’s Mi Casa. But I was already of a more balearic mind, so I would try and sneak in numbers that had that vibe, you could play the Mondays or Fool’s Gold without any problem, the Waterboys however… That was a bridge too far, perhaps with some justification I was pelted with cans. At the time I thought it was great but it was clear my heart wasn’t into banging it out at the time. So Nick Grayson took over upstairs and Greg and I were given a Spice room to indulge our Balearic urges. I think we moved about down in the basement, but I remember the back bar being our main base of operations. Good vibes and varied sounds.
What kind of impact did all the partying and DJing have on your studies? Did you graduate?
Luckily not much. I was out a lot but didn’t really take up the extracurricular with much gusto until I graduated.
I went to Konspiracy, and despite my accent, I had a great time there. I had taken a couple of purple ohms mind. The place had a scary reputation, but at the end of the night, while we were dancing to Promised Land`s Something In The Air, someone came over and pressed an eighth of draw into my hand. You tell that “beer can” story about The Whole Of The Moon so I guess it could be a bit hairy.
The club had that reputation certainly, but I always had a great time down there. It was in many ways the real underground vibe of Manchester. House, soul, funk and balearic beat all in one big maze. It was hot very hot and certainly edgy. Most weekends would be a villains convention and I think the takings were stolen every other week, so I rarely got paid. So yes, perfectly Manc at the time, very saucy. But the crowd were so up for it. I never got any bother, cans pelting not withstanding. Musically as I say I think it was the most interesting club in the city at the time.
(Spice room at Konspiracy)
Did you start Spice while still DJing at Konspiracy?
Yes it was in parallel. We did Spice in the back room of Konspiracy and also did a few stand-alone parties down there.
Was Spice influenced by Boy`s Own? How did you learn about Boy`s Own?
Yes, I think so, in as much as Greg and I were interested in the possibilities of playing a wider spectrum of music. Greg had his own sound and really pushed the disco angle too – very varied and unexpected. I really loved how he’d switch it up from the kind of Balearic chug into New York disco or pumping house. He was really out on his own and not really trying to copy any Boy’s Own playlist. I was maybe more influenced by it. There was a guy called Karl Simmonds who was a great source of tunes for me, he put me onto tonnes of stuff that I hammered at Spice. He came to play for us a lot too. Karl was a relentless train spotter. He’d call me up at the shop and, much to John Berry’s annoyance, stay on the phone for hours looking for tunes. I’d put him onto the stuff we were getting in the shop, a lot of Italian imports, new beat etc. He’d feed me the weird under the radar stuff getting played in London’s balearic underground – Bang a Gong`s Ring Of Fire, Funk Xpress, Keyboard Affair, Xtended`s version of You’re Gonna Get It. We shared a love of reggae too. I’d start every Spice with Dillinger`s Five Man Army, which was a big fave of Karl’s. So, I owe him a massive debt for some of those early tunes. I’ve not seen him for years; I know he got into gabber in a big way at one point.
I think I first heard about Boy’s Own through ID and the Face, but also through a guy called Gary McLarnan – who now manages Mr Scruff. He was a photographer who hung out with the Boy’s Own crew. He’d wear the t-shirt and it always fascinated me! Greg’s girlfriend Celina was also connecting to that London scene and told us a lot about what was happening down there. It`s very strange to think about how mysterious other cities and towns were at the time. I think what was interesting for me was the variety of music and the vibe of a collective of merry pranksters. That’s what we had too, a group of mates who’d hang out and dig all these weird records. We did do a couple of fanzines, which were quite funny. My contribution to those makes me cringe a bit now, as I said before, we were way too snobby for a couple of months and missed the magic of what was happening in the country, the energy of rave. But by the time Most Excellent and Glitter Baby were born, I think we’d shed our false sense of superiority and were back in the sweat pit. Manchester luckily doesn’t hold with elitism too much, so any attempts we might been tempted to adopt in that direction were quickly blown out of the water. We were a member club by law, as you couldn’t open on a Sunday at that time without a memberships scheme. But it wasn’t very well enforced! Especially after Spike Island, which was nuts.
In what way was it nuts?
Spice was beset by a series of unfortunate calendar clashes. We thought a Sunday would be free of most interruptions, but we had the world cup on at the time. This was cool if you wanted to sport your ‘no alla violenza’ T shirt and neo Mod levis but when every England game fell on a Sunday it was a nightmare. We showed the games in the club to entice people in, which was great when England won. But when they inevitably lost, no amount of indie dance could brighten the evening. Spice was more legendary than successful. We really struggled to get the numbers and maintain the enthusiasm of weary ravers. The raised dancefloor didn’t help – you had to be a brave exhibitionist to get up there early doors. The Spike Island weekend was case in point. The club was dead. Really really dead. I can’t remember if we had a guest on or not, but it was a bit soul destroying. Greg and I knew most people would be a Spike Island – I kind of wished I was as the Roses were very balearic! Then just as we considering shutting up early, it seemed like the entire after-show landed at Spice. It was a proper who’s who of the Madchester scene, captive in our balearic dungeon. It was a miracle.
(Karl Simmonds DJing at Spice)
What guest DJs did you have at Spice?
Dominic Moir, Andrew Weatherall, Karl Simmonds, Steve Proctor, Diesel, as far as I can remember. There might have been more. It was the early days of the Balearic network!
Moonboots did the lights at Spice. How did you meet Moonboots?
I met Richard through the shop, Eastern Bloc, and going out relentlessly. He used to drive me to gigs in his little mini metro. Those Birmingham cellar parties were where we really got to know each other. Richard and the Wigan Scream Team – Andy, George, Baz – they were the backbone of Spice. Space cadets and visionaries. I remember we were driving to Nottingham late one night and we were laughing about our little scene could do with some more nicknames. We were always seeing these folk in Boy’s Own with odd monikers, like Barry Mooncult, so Moonboots was born. Richard lived opposite me in Chorlton for a while with his Ryan Speed and a cat called Spectrum.
How long did Spice run for?
I think for about a year. It was certainly more legendary than successful, but it did give us a really good launch pad for further projects, and most importantly cemented some lasting friendships.
Can you tell me more about your early remix work – Yargo, Ariel, Mad Jacks? How did it come about? What studio did you use and who else was there?
I was in the shop and remix fever was taking hold. Obviously, it was nothing new, but the range of people wanting to tap into the world of dance music had definitely grown. So Eastern Bloc had a record label with a band called The Mad Jacks signed to it. They wanted a remix doing but didn’t have the funds to do it, so I stuck my hand up and said I’d have a go. I’d never been in a studio before and had no idea how one went about using the gear. But I did have an idea of how I wanted it to turn out. Out Of The Blue was the studio and Mark Stagg was the engineer. Mark was brilliant he helped me realize the sound without ever trying to tell me what to do. He was patient and could play the keys better than me! We had a lot of fun…I think. A lot of those early mixes were live button jobs. So, we’d mentally lay out the arrangement then jam the desk by buttoning on and off each channel. The sequencing software the time was very clunky, more like a mathematical grid. Hybrid Arts I think was what was used. Terrible. So, we just jammed it out. From the Mad Jacks things grew organically and quickly. Yargo were friends of the shop so they got me to do one – named in honour of the Wigan Scream Team. Ariel came about through Tom and Ed and the excellent 237 Turbo Nutters, who would come to Spice and Most Excellent every week. We just got chatting and became friends. I think I first spoke to Tom when I was skateboarding at Whitworth Park. He had this band Ariel who were a perfect combo of indie and dance. They signed up to Ebloc records and I did a mix of Sea Of Beats – their first single and then did a couple more for them after they signed to Deconstruction. I was listening to The Chunk today, which I think still sounds pretty trippy. I remember saying to Tom, you know all those weird squiggly noises in the background of Ariel songs, you should make tracks out of those.
When did you start Most Excellent? Was it on a Thursday?
It started at The State on a Thursday, run by a guy called Ross McKenzie. Our opening night was mayhem. We decided in our wisdom to host the Happy Mondays after-show party – which resulted in a police helicopter over head and someone walking out with the cigarette machine. Luckily the management had seen it all before and we kept going. We had a short break then moved to Mondays at the Brickhouse, which despite the day of the week went quite well. Then back to Thursdays at the Millionaires Club – unfortunately renamed the Wiggly worm. Why I do not know.
When you moved from The State to The Brickhouse to The Wiggly Worm were these moves just to bigger venues – to accommodate more people?
I think we tried to keep moving so as to avoid trouble. If you stayed in one place too long and became successful, the gangsters would follow on swiftly behind. Actually we had generally good relations with the underworld – with one or two notable exceptions they left us alone, or were respectful when they did pop in. But it was a very very hairy time in Manchester and the cops couldn’t care less, they thought we were all criminals. It was the time of James Anderton ‘God’s cop’. The last night at the Wiggly worm was horrible, we got invaded by a gang of ruffians out to get revenge on the club, not us specifically, it just so happened that we were the first night it was open after the weekend. It was mayhem. Really nasty stuff. The police turned up, they knew all the troublemakers by name, shook hands asked them to leave, then threatened to arrest me when I refused to stop playing. You could never really on the cops at that time. To be honest that was generally cool because everyone was as high as a kite, but awful when people got badly hurt.
Who else DJed at Most Excellent?
Gosh everyone! We were really into the whole balearic network vibe. Getting mates to come and share the sound of their city or scene. It was unusual at the time to get guests in, very rare indeed – but we wanted to share some of the different approaches of the DJs we admired. So Ross and I would approach anyone who we thought would get it. Off the top of my head… Andrew Weatherall, Mike Pickering, Paul Oakenfold, Steve Bicknell, Pete Heller, Steve Proctor, Cirillo, Slam, Darren Emerson, Greg Fenton, Fabi Paras, Phil Perry, Jon Da Silva, Fini Tribe. We also had the residential skills of Dave Barber, Moonboots and Adrian Luvedup. There probably more but I can’t remember!
Greg was doing Glitterbaby on a Saturday. Was he also involved in Most Excellent? Were you also involved in Glitterbaby? Didn’t Glitterbaby kind of morph into Space Funk?
No these were separate projects, though we both played at each other’s clubs. The common denominator was Ross McKenzie who ran both in his own inimitable style. And of course, the gorgeous Elton Jackson who did the door. I used to go to Greg’s nights when I had the night off or after I’d got back. They were off the hook, completely crazed, beautiful atmosphere. We did a club together called HP`S – The Club With Sauce (laughs) – which is often forgotten but was such a laugh. It was at the Number 1 Club, one of my favourite spots in town.
When and why did Most Excellent close?
We sort of petered out. I was getting quite busy in the studio and traveling about playing and what not, so I began to lose focus on the club a bit. After the big fight at the Wiggly Worm I became very disheartened. In Manchester it was becoming impossible to do anything; the level of violence was awful. We did try a reboot at Precinct 13 – the old Stuffed Olives – with a more back to balearic vibe, and called it Splash Down. That ended hilariously badly. The first night was great, really like the early days of Most Excellent, but the second night… I was playing away all alone with a confused face, literally no one came. I was puzzled to say the least as everyone had seemed to enjoy the opening night. It turned out that Ross had got so refreshed on personality enhancer that he’d turned the whole crowd away saying, ‘Not tonight thank you’. That was the end of that.
How did the music differ between Spice and Most Excellent?
Tempo and tambourines. As I said before we had got a bit too precious and had forgotten how to have fun. – sweat, dance, hug, and lose it, happily. Luckily, I think Most Excellent and Glitterbaby really kicked that into touch. It was mayhem. We had been heading in that direction. Before Most Excellent and Glitterbaby we did a night called The Happy Medium which was put together by the late great Dave Booth. Nipper was in one room playing a fabulous selection of bleepy techno, while Greg and I went more balearic in the other room. But we were picking up the pace by then. The music was faster. Most Excellent was initially a mixture of Italian piano house and weird techno with smatterings of old acid house numbers. Traditionally it would end with a good 30 mins of slow chugging anthems, maybe a touch of a balearic finale – Fleetwood Mac`s Big Love or Captain Sensible`s Glad It’s All Over, One Dove`s Fallen… It was like the last days of Rome – poppers, bongos the lot. Later Most Excellent went in a tougher more prog house direction, with tracky New York house chucked in for good measure, but even then, I still ended with a slow sing along.
Did you have a lot of interaction with the “balearic network” – Flying, Back To Basics, Venus?
Yes, very much so – James Baillie, Charlie Chester, Dave Beer, Better Days, Dave Clarke and the Slam boys, we all became close friends and shared many adventures together. They all played such an enormous part in forming the scene. As I said earlier this was all pretty new, to us at least. I know there was a soul weekender scene and of course Northern soul’s tradition of traveling to hear tunes, but for us it was very new. I suppose it was an extension of that vibe, but really it was about like-minded people getting together and sharing a feeling. I count those people as my friends to this day so it was a privilege to be part of it.
Did you go on the Flying Ibiza 90, or Rimini 92, trips?
Yes… hazy is the best way to describe it. So, I’ll make a quick list… acid, met Satan in a restaurant, Weatherall’s insanely good Belgium techno set, cannot recall playing at the first one in 1990 but I am assured I did. In 92 I was only there a couple of days, I had to get back for a recording commitment.
Is Ibiza somewhere that you have visited regularly? Have you DJed out there?
Actually, not initially. I went there with Cream in the `90s. I’ve been back a few times since of course and now play regularly at Pikes – when clubs were open that is. In fact, Pikes is maybe the first time I’ve felt at home musically in Ibiza. In the `90s the music I was playing wasn’t really the balearic vibe. A lot of the clubs were quite commercial and people, understandably, were on holiday and wanted to have a good time, not listen to my miserable instrumental techno.
Would you agree that by 1992 – for most people – balearic had shifted into progressive or US house?
Sort of. I mean I played a bit of both, but avoided the full-on vocal stuff. For me it was an extension of that dub vibe. Psychedelic and spacious, trippy and weird. The music was euphoric and dynamic. A night would go through the tempos and would usually end up with a slow-motion anthem crescendo, so it’s not true to say it was all one thing or the other, at least from my perspective. There was a definite schism though, ‘play some vocals you ****’ was often yelled into my ear. Still is to be honest. I guess this paved the way for the horribly titled ‘handbag wars’, what an awful episode that was. A false dilemma between playing techno or vocal house music. Tastes change and scenes splinter, because the music developed and morphed. People found a sound, or variety of sounds that suited their vibe and that’s cool. But for some it had to be cast as a conflict, a war about who were the true bearers of the flame. The answer was both and neither. I wasn’t innocent in that fight, though I loved a lot of Garage records and played the odd vocal, but I did have some harsh words to say about that ‘Doop’ record. In retrospect I needed to calm down, it wasn’t important. But this goes back to the earlier point about the balearic scene in the early `90s, there was a feeling that ‘the scene’ was being highjacked by opportunists and greedy charlatans. That somehow the purity was being lost. But, hey, that’s capitalism. No musical scene that has become a mass youth movement stays free of the lure of sponsors and advertising for long. There is a debate to be had about the effect of super club culture and the rise of the DJ as a ‘star’. I think that’s what killed the ideal and made it just another musical product for a while, when people started to talk about ‘the dance music industry’. But we were all complicit in that to some extent and we had a lot of fun along the way as we sold our souls for baubles and trinkets. The same debate rages now doesn’t it? Business techno and what not, but the weird underground and the sweaty rave still endure or did and will do again apocalypse allowing. The tension between perceived integrity and financial reward is an area of constant controversy, but I’m too old to get involved in all that now. You can see a million ‘handbag wars’ popping up over the years, ‘Minimal’, ‘Tech house’ whatever, it’s the same argument with a different kick drum.
In the early `90s I think Nottingham was the coolest spot in the UK. The point where all the circuits of the balearic network met. Venus – run by James Baillie, Sam Bowery and Steve Kirk – was my first encounter with Nottingham clubbing, but I’d heard a lot about the town’s scene from my mate Eddy and was a big fan of Graeme Park. It had an extraordinary energy – very cool, perhaps the coolest spot I’d been to, but really unhinged too. Musically it had some of the best DJs – Tim and Laurie, Paul Wain, Christian Woodyatt – all at the top of their game and fearless in their selection. Nottingham was a real magnet; I think I was playing there at least a couple of times a month. Most Excellent, Steve Proctor’s Better Days and Flying, as well as various mad one offs and projects like Skank with Andrew at Venus, but also tonnes of one-off rave ups and parties in weird places. I remember one night going to play a Flying party and at the end of the night, feeling somewhat refreshed, I waved goodbye to my friends who were going back to Manchester, saying that I’d see them later. I think I was tripping or at least operating in some other dimension at the time, because I came round and found myself DJing in a field somewhere outside. I have no idea how I got there or how I managed to DJ as I had forgotten most of the basics of reality. I then played a game of football with no ball and no goal, an act laden with heavy metaphor. I found a lift home with my friend Russell who lived in Liverpool, we stopped and watched the purple haze settle over the Snake Pass.
The ‘Eat The Pig’ parties were another great meeting of the clans type event. As I recall they were the type of parties where you could stretch your balearic legs and really play some bananas records. I still don’t think I had any idea what balearic beat was or that it corresponded with the soundtrack of a sun-drenched terrace in Ibiza. I had never been, in fact hardly anyone I know had. So, we had this weird urban post-industrial city take on it, which was part experimentation, part snobby train spotting and part situationist prankster behaviour. Liberties were taken with taste and tempo, but it was fun. I never DJed on drugs, so I can’t even blame them.
Nottingham remained a favourite spot throughout the years, proper techno raves at the Marcus Garvey, The Bomb, Renaissance and a lot of mad spots in between. Love it.
Did you continue to throw parties in Manchester, after Most Excellent, given the level of violence? Didn’t you do something called Sleuth? Or did you find yourself instead guesting at clubs around the UK? Superclubs like Cream?
I started to get very busy in the studio during the week and began to travel most weekends to DJ, so I stopped trying to put on parties. I really needed someone to work with as I was useless at the promotion side, and as for trying to make any money out of it, forget it! I have absolutely no business acumen. Going back to the rise of the super clubs that I touched on earlier, it’s funny how that emergence of the club brand and the super commercialization of clubbing is seen as sudden shift of emphasis that changed clubbing – for better or worse. But I remember it being a quite gradual process. When Cream started it was an extension of the network that had been building from Most Excellent, Basics, Slam, etc., etc. Darren Hughes was a regular at Most Excellent – he was a fanatic about the music and a friend who would party with us all over the country. James Barton and Andy Carroll I knew as enthusiasts and pathfinders in the Liverpool scene. Andy was the first guest DJ we had at Konspiracy – on the opening night I think? He was like Mike Pickering or Jon Da Silva for me. He knew his music and he knew his clubbing history and like Mike he’s studied the New York clubbing scene. So when they started Cream, it wasn’t a brand or an attempt to create an empire, it was modeled on the Hacienda or the Warehouse in Chicago. It was a space to get down to quality sounds. They were just good parties that morphed into clubbing behemoths. I know that Darren, James and Andy started Cream because they loved it and wanted a spot in Liverpool where they could create the vibe they dug, with the DJs they were into. So I started playing Cream from the very beginning. I saw it change into the mega club it became, and certainly there were some negatives that went along with that. I couldn’t stand the superstar DJ thing, it was absurd. That’s not to say that I couldn’t swagger about like an idiot from time to time, but I always felt that point of clubbing was the music and the collective vibe a DJ could create, the records that were shared and the connections that were made, not whether they had a designer record box or a crib in Ibiza, that was all a distraction. But you know, who cares? Some people like that glamour, fair enough. There was always an alternative if you sort it out. In Cream there was the annex. At its core, the crowd loved music, the promoters loved music and the atmosphere was second to none. I look back at the time very fondly and again it led to some lifelong friendships that I cherish.
That friendship with Darren was cemented in the afterhours where we would play each other the records we were into at that time. So while he was running Cream, he was very much into Laurent Garnier, Jeff Mills, Ritchie Hawtin, Andrew and the Chems both live and as DJs – they were still The Dust Brothers at that time. So, when Richard Hector Jones and I decided to do a Sherlock Holmes themed techno party, he was the obvious choice to promote it! Sleuth was an amazing experience. We had all the techno titans through the door, playing on the Paradise Factory’s broken mixer – every week some new fault would emerge. Richie Hawtin managed to manipulate the sound with no eq and broken cross fader. Richard was playing a mixture of weird electronic stuff and breaks upstairs that was very psychedelic, while I banged living hades out of it downstairs. It was crackers. Tom and Ed on a tiny rickety stage, every DJ under the techno sun all in a club decked out like a Victorian living room. We weren’t free of violence sadly. Someone was stabbed when Laurent was playing, but thankfully they were OK and the situation was dealt with, but the spectre was always there.
Did you do many gigs abroad?
To start with it was quite odd. UK clubs generally shut at 2AM and I just wasn’t used to playing in the early hours. I remember the first time I went to Berlin, I asked the promoter what time I was on and he said 9AM. I was like ‘eh? That’s tomorrow’. The first gig I can remember doing abroad was in Portugal at some university graduation do. I have no idea how it came about, who booked it or what tall stories were told to make it happen, but a group of us went over. I think Dub Federation played live. There were lots of kids in gowns and mitres dancing to dub house disco. It was far out.
How did Lionrock come about? How did you meet Shorn / MC Buzz B? Were you still working at Out Of The Blue?
Lionrock, like most things in my life was totally unplanned and accidental. What the psychologist James Hillman might put down to the intervention of my daemon. Mike Pickering had been talking to Pete Hadfield – the head of deconstruction records – about me. I’d done quite a few remixes by now which were quite popular in some discos, but I hand neither the vision nor the confidence to do my own stuff. Mike and I went into the studio with Andy Robinson to try out making a tune together. Somewhere there is a DAT with our tribal house masterpiece on it! It features Mike and I chanting over some congas. There was a deal in principle but no music!
When Ross McKenzie and Jonathan Richardson, my manager at the time, decided to launch Most Excellent Recordings it seemed obvious that I should release stuff on it. But again I had nothing to release. At that moment, I had some studio time booked at Out Of The Blue to do a remix, but for some reason that I can’t remember the mix never happened, so I used the time to knock up this track Roots And Culture – which ploughed that dub influenced furrow I was digging at the time. Looking back with post-millennial eyes the references were pretty ham-fisted and make me cringe a bit, but it came from a place of obsession with dub techniques and the sound of those records. Not just roots reggae or On-U, but I heard that same spacious weirdness in acid house and in the dub club mixes of post-punk and New York disco. So, I tried to merge that with this slightly incorrect UK take on house. It sounds nothing like dub really, because I was really into John Barry, so for some reason I thought I’d stick strings on everything! Now I had a track but no name. Johnathan called me up in the studio and said we need a name for this pronto as I’ve played it Pete Tong and he wants to play it on his show. So I grabbed a record from my bag which was Lion Rock by Culture and that was that. Again, it makes me wince slightly and I actually hated the name, but we could have been called Pre-marital Yodelling – after the Sofa Head tune – so there is that.
We put it out on Most Excellent Recordings, and it did quite well, so now Deconstruction were confident enough that I knew what I was doing to sign me. The second single was Packet Of Peace. I was a massive fan of Shorn, MC Buzz B, I still am. His style, his lyricism were just sublime. But not just that, he is a lovely man, totally together and in his own world, unpretentious, humble and profoundly insightful. I got this number from somewhere; I think either Johnathan had worked with him or perhaps Mark Stagg? Shorn’s manager Charles had a second-hand car business on Deansgate, so I called him up and he came into the studio. I played him the backing track of Packet of Peace, and he sat on the Out Of The Blue couch and wrote the lyrics in one sitting. I still have them, no alterations or crossings out, just pure flow. One take and that was that. He’s a genius.
Did you travel to Scotland and Finiflex to work on those Finitribe remixes?
Yes indeed, that was a beautiful thing. John Vick had come down from Edinburgh with half their studio to recreate Ace Love Deuce and we became very good friends instantly. I love them so much! I remember going to New York with them in the early `90s. They were booked to play this night at the Limelight and I was taken along to DJ. We were all into acid house and the clubbing vibe of the UK at the time. I was soooo excited to play in such a famous spot and in New York! Fuck! I bought all these mad disco bootlegs and NYC house tracks to play along with my usual prog mash up…. But in New York the Fini Tribe were seen as an industrial band, so the crowd were just bemused by my selection. Obviously pre-internet there was no chance to research the club. I was so naïve, I just thought everywhere was François Kevorkian mixes and Peech Boys edits. The resident DJ was lovely though, he let me play for a while, but then he took over. It was incredible, he was doing all these crazy mixes on a rotary mixer – cutting up Bauhaus and what not. That trip also started my life long aversion to rotary mixers.
I started to work with John Vick as an engineer quite a bit too. He worked on the Happy Mondays remix and we did the Peter Perfect project together up at Finiflex. When I first went up there it was a quite cold warehouse space with the Fini offices upstairs. They were a busy collective cottage industry with good ideas and a passion for doing things right. John went about building that studio with his own hands, living in dust and rubble to create a beautiful space, which turned the warehouse into a home. I spent a lot of time up there, often sleeping under the mixing desk or the vocal booth. In the early 2000s I did the Revtone album up there and remixes for Chicken Lips and Felix Da Housecat. I loved it and found I could get much more done traveling up there rather than getting distracted in Manchester. I remember going up there to produce their album An Unexpected Groovy Treat at Fish from Marillion’s studio, The Funny Farm. He had all those Jester pictures up all over the gaff. I still see Davy and John a fair bit and we speak quite often. Very dear friends.
What was the connection with Jockey Slut? Did you ever write for them? How did you meet Richard Hector-Jones?
Richard Hector Jones is my oldest and closest friend. I have known him since I was 3 years old… So that’s close to 50 years give or take. We met in a sand pit. I love him very much. We have shared an extraordinary number of adventures over the years, and he’s introduced me to more music and culture than I can remember. In brief, he got me into the MC5 and guided me into psychedelia. Richard’s love of the Headcoats suggested a taste for Sherlock Holmes with whom I then became obsessed. We both loved Hawkwind and The Fall. I was slightly more long mac and misery, while Richard was garage rock and blue suede shoes. We both love space rock. Our tastes are always on similar tracks but are never identical so there is always a lot to learn. When we were at Eastern Bloc working together, Richard would put me onto those off kilter rock electronic crossover records that went a bit under the radar and out and out weirdness that would get played upstairs at Sleuth or at Rebellious Jukebox – Nurse with Wound, Dub Narcotic, Swell, Coil, Tortoise, Greater Than One, 99 records stuff. Then there is the infamous 500 Club with Rob Bright, where we played some nuts music and got quietly smashed. Sleuth was the combination of all those things – psych Sherlock knee trembling rave! A few big numbers from that time that Richard played would include Larceny’s Who Are You, The Stooges` Down On The Street, Supersuckers` Dead Homiez, ‘Sonic Youth`s Youth Against Fascism, Erin Koray`s Cemalin, and The Gories covering There But For The Grace Of God.
Richard is an incredible writer. I remember he produced a great fanzine with Mike Noon called Moral Sense, which covered a wide range of underground cultural subjects from art to garage rock n roll. It was sharp, witty and exciting. He was a perfect fit for Jockey Slut, who shared a similar aesthetic but with an electronic music slant. Richard was responsible for the legendary ‘Slut Smalls’ 7” record label where his keen ear for a catchy tune with maximum wonk led to a series of memorable releases from the great and the good.
The Jockey Slut collective were regulars at Most Excellent so I knew them from their student days. They were contemporaries of Tom and Ed and we all hung out a good deal. Especially the late night / early morning hours – when most good ideas germinate. I think Jockey Slut was one of the main reasons why dance culture in the UK didn’t fully succumb to lowest common denominator mediocrity, or indeed, to navel gazing obscurantism. It gave a critical voice to artists who were making the sort of music no other publication would cover in any depth. They were out on their own in that respect and a lot of people owe them a great debt in getting their music out there.
Were you a resident at Bugged Out? What sort of music were you spinning at this time? Techno? One of my hairiest / scariest nights out was at Sankey Soap. I haven’t been back to Manchester since.
I was one of the residents when they started their run at Nation in Liverpool and a regular guest before that. I’ve played a lot for them over the years right up to the present day. They are like family to me, proper enthusiasts who know how to make serious music fun. That’s what I love about them. Then and now, it was never too furrow browed or earnest, it was pure energy and collective joy. James Holroyd and Rob Bright are the musical heroes of this story, the anchor of the sound from day one with impeccable taste and skills to set the tone or to bring it on home. I was playing various shades of banging techno at this point, though not exclusively. I tried to keep a house edge to my selection, or at least a ‘funky’ element here and there. But still, it could often be relentless, in fact it was usually relentless. A lot of Djax, Plus 8, Underground Resistance, etc. Plenty of riffs too, I was never totally sold on the loopy stuff, I enjoy a tune of some sort. I like the Chi Town shuffle of Relief and the funkier end of Dance Mania – so infectious and wiggly. Carl Craig and most of the Planet E catalogue, Plastikman of course. Stacy Pullen and Peacefrog records were faves. I was chucking in bits of Dutch stuff too – Outland/ Spiritual records in the early days, Steve Rachmand / Tons of Tones tackle. The sound changed over the years as Bugged Out led the way in pioneering new approaches and new DJs. That’s what has kept them fresh while still staying true to the ‘underground’. Sankeys certainly had its moments of trouble, but on the whole I found it to be a good vibe, one of the sweatiest spots I’ve been in when it was going full throttle.
What other regular gigs did you have at the time? Did you play at Hard Times?
I was more a “Basics” DJ than Hard Times. I was lucky to get to play quite a variety of clubs from Cream and Renaissance to the Orbit and Checkpoint Charley. I also kept my eclectic hand in with the Rebellious Jukebox and the odd reggae set here and there.
You mentioned that you started to focus on music production? Were you working with specific engineers, like Mark, and Roger Lyons? At what point were you able to do stuff solo? Did you, in the end, have your own studio?
I had a fairly quick learning curve. When I first started, I was working with Mark Stagg. He was a great guide and showed me around the studio. I struggled with those early sequencing programs like Hybrid Arts but took to Cu-Base, and later Logic, quite readily. So, after a while I would do all of the arranging and most of the programming, but the engineer would do the patching and balancing the desk with my direction. Mark and Roger just had way more experience on how to get a particular sound out of the gear than I did at that point. So, I would describe or hum my thoughts then we’d go through the possibilities and make it happen. The same with creating an overall mix. Remember in those early days I’d never even seen a mixing desk in the real world, so it was a mystery! But I did know how I wanted the music to sound, so I would kind of supervise the eq. After a short time, I got to know my way around a desk and would jump on too but would still bow to greater experience when it was appropriate.
Working with Roger was amazing. He was partner and head engineer at Planet 4 studios with Chris Joyce from Simply Red. Planet 4 was state of the art, downstairs from Tony Wilson’s office and across the way from Red Alert promotions. I can’t remember why I swapped over to Planet 4? Maybe Out Of The Blue had burnt down? It was quite often doing that! But I know Mark was off doing his own thing, so I moved operations there. Roger is a technological guru and was forever acquiring new machines, not only mega vintage gear, but also these bizarre synths made by enthusiasts. Roger became part of Lionrock as that project morphed into a band and we became musical partners. When Planet 4 closed we got a space together in Sankey’s which we called Moriarty’s Cavern. By this point I was pretty much hands on in all areas and very comfortable in the studio, but really, we shared the studio duties in terms of mixing and programming. Roger was and still is a pathfinder of sound and an explorer into the techniques of creating weird noises, so he would be the one coming in with these crackers new devices and saying ‘listen to this thing’, then we’d go at it! Rog also devised ways of taking the gear out live and we had a generally brilliant time!
When I moved to London I shed a lot of my studio gear, really stripped it back. I worked with Mark Ralph quite a bit and would still travel to Finiflex from time to time, but budgets just weren’t there for hiring studios for any length of time, so I decided to move everything into my spare room in about 2006 / 2007. That is what I now call ‘Solitary Cyclist’ studios. From that moment I pretty much worked on my own, which is cool. I’m comfortable being on my own, I can get lost down odd rabbit holes and try stuff out without worrying about it looking ridiculous. It’s great fun. I think in recent years I’ve finally got the hang of it! I feel focussed and confident in the approach and the sound I’m making and have stopped worrying about trying to second guess anyone. I’ve also learnt not to be concerned with fashion or with any crazy notions of trying to be ‘relevant’. No one really knows what that means. I hate being pigeonholed or hemmed in by people’s expectations and I fear being seen as a brand. That’s why I rarely record using my name. I do sometimes miss having someone to bounce ideas off. I guess that’s why I started doing Formerlover with my wife, and stuff with Dan Avery, because it’s nice to collaborate. I also have very little interest in technology! I use what I have and quite enjoy the restrictions sometimes. You see some producers with stacks of gear, but sometimes I think all that choice limits you, if that makes sense? I’m not fussed about having racks of vintage synths or the latest modular set up, plus I can’t afford it.
Over the last few years you seem to have settled on Deadstock 33s, and released roughly an E.P. per year. Is this because you’re now concentrating on painting? How and when did the painting start? Is there a concept to your artwork or a particular inspiration behind it? What media do you work in?
The actual genesis of my art projects was again down to daemonic intervention. My computer suffered a catastrophic failure that meant I was without it for maybe 3 or 4 weeks. During that time, I couldn’t record anything at all, so I used the time to work on some paintings I’d been fiddling about with. For the first time they started to make sense as a collection. I think I felt quite focussed, so I was happier with them. But in terms of actually exhibiting them, that too was a lucky coincidence. Sean McCluskey and Martin Tickner had opened a gallery on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch and I mentioned that I’d done a collection of pictures while waiting for my computer to get fixed. They asked to see them, so I pinged them a couple over on email and they kindly offered me a show.
(Justin Robertson – Eye In The Photon)
Since then, I’ve exhibited regularly and have split my time between painting, writing and recording. I’m pretty restless and find it impossible to switch off at times, mainly because its so much fun to make things. It’s a real privilege to be able to make some sort of living from doing what you love. I feel very lucky, though it is a struggle at times, especially during the pandemic. But I find that working across various disciplines means that when you run out of steam in one area you can often re direct your energies into another. So, they kind of feed off each other.
(Justin Robertson – Splinter)
In terms of my approach, I try to have an overall theme to each collection that reflects an issue or a subject that I want to explore. Each image is connected to that theme however tangentially. So, for example, ‘Everything is Turbulence’ was about the Occult power of the imagination and the intrinsic uncertainty and chaos at large in the universe, which led onto ’The Explorer’s Chronicle’ which again looked at the importance of the imagination and mythological constructs in scientific discovery. ‘It’s Alive’ was largely about secular animism and a splash of panpsychism, which are basically ways of thinking about how we interact with the objects around us and how those objects might direct us. ‘Alone’, which is my latest collection was really me finding a way to respond to the death of my Father and the fact that I found myself without any parents. But it broadened out into a discussion about the pros and cons of isolation. I concluded that no matter how brilliant or profound a piece of art or music or idea might be when you formulate it, it only truly has meaning when it’s shared.
(Justin Robertson – Into The Storm)
Last March, just before the lockdown I put on an exhibition called ‘When the Dark Is Light Enough’ which examined the structure of the unseen fragments that hide in the things around us and discussed how, due to our faulty human perspective, we are often mistaken as to their nature. Even the things we create, like paintings, can have layers of meaning that escape us, once created they take on a life of their own, becoming infinitely mysterious, even to their creator. I like to use various mediums, paint, pencil, photography and a mixture of canvases from paper to metal sheets.
(Justin Robertson – Fracture)
Musically what projects are you involved in at the moment? Can you tell me more about Formerlover?
Quite early on my wife and I decided that the best way to avoid divorce was to do something creative. We are stuck in the house together so why not try and make something happen that wasn’t going to result in zoom calls with a therapist? Sofia is not only a very good singer, but she is also an accomplished lyric writer. I’ve often admired her skills and wanted to put them to music, but on my own terms it never quite worked out. It was always sounding a little ‘stuck on’ rather than fully harmonious. So, we decided the best approach was to be completely collaborative from start to finish. We sit in the studio and build up the track together, in fact I take Sofia’s lead on the vibe most of the time. We have a shared love of dub disco and that ‘Compass Point’ sound, so we used that as our launch pad. Sofia is very instinctive. She hates to dwell on lyrics or over work them, so we move fast, capture the moment and move on. We have built up a good library of tunes which we are finishing off for future release. Watch this space as they say.
Have the lockdowns proved to be productive – creatively – for you?
Yes generally. I was quite busy at the start of the apocalypse with remixes for Field Of Dreams, Dino Lenny and Francesco Farfa and D.Ream, and recently I’ve completed a couple of reworks for Suddi and Perry Granville. The two radio shows for Soho Radio keep me quite busy and I’ve also finished new collection of paintings to go with my debut novel. I actually started it quite a while before the lockdown, but with all the extra time I could really concentrate on getting it finished and edited. Hone it into something sharp and bright. So not bad in terms of productivity, but I really miss seeing people, gigging and generally sharing music with people. Online streams are good attempts at maintaining the community, but you can’t really recreate that ritual energy online.
Can you tell me more about your radio show – The Temple Of Wonders?
I do two shows for Soho Radio that alternate each month. The Temple of Wonders is a hypnotic blend of broadly psychedelic music from `60s freakbeat to modern electro, through dub and onto various lysergic sounds from around the world. The Rotating Institute is the dancefloor orientated sister show. Again, it`s quite broad based musically but focusses on tracks you might hear in an acid basement or weird warehouse happening. Both have a continuous blend feel to them and I try to keep chat to a minimum. Monty and Harry my dog friends often put in an appearance.
Can you tell me anything about the book you’ve been working on?
It’s a novel, it’s called ‘The Tangle’ and I’m very excited about it. It will be published around Halloween this year by White Rabbit Books. In a nutshell The Tangle is a meditation on estrangement and metamorphosis. A trans-dimensional trip into the mysterious knot of nature; a journey into the ‘brilliant darkness’ where the timeless divine spirit of the ‘Tangle’ weaves its spell and all mankind’s hubris is rendered insignificant by the radically non-human force of phantom ecology. It’s a supernatural fable with a psychedelic twist, Hammer meets J.G. Ballard at the acid test.
Given the strange uncertain days we are living through, what are your goals for the coming year? Is there anything folks can do to assist you?
Make more art to the best of my abilities. And other folk can make more art too so that we can at least try and enjoy the absurdity of it all.
(Justin at his 50th birthday.)
You can learn more about all of Justin’s artist endeavours – music, paint and prose – here, and pick up that fab Formerlover release here.