Interview / Sean Johnston / Hardway Bros / A Love From Outer Space

If 2020 was a disaster of pandemic, panic, and plain fuckery for everyone, well for Hardway Bros` Sean Johnston it was also a year of significant personal sadness and loss. He paused however for barely a blink, appearing to throw himself into music – perhaps realizing that the sense of community which a “scene” creates is more important now than ever. First there was that Phonox gig. Where lesser folks might have cancelled Sean gave his friend, Andrew Weatherall, an incredible, emotional send off. Then there were Sean`s marathon A Love From Outer Space Emergency Broadcast Service transmissions – which find him continuing to relentlessly champion the new music of others. As far as his own productions were / are concerned, there seems to be a fresh collaboration and / or remix almost every week – Afterlife, Coyote, Ess O Ess, IWDG, La Ruta, Rheinzand, Unloved…The latest of these is a rework of Hazy James` Need Somebody, for Our Starry Universe. The original is a gently rocking vocoder-ed lullaby. House full of hushed, loved-up, tones. Guided by a gospel snippet, and church piano. Suited to sunset and twilight. Sean transforms the track into a peak-time robo-disco anthem, which finds his italo and new beat influences updated. Its electronic skip given a hefty, “klarting”, kick. Loon birds doing “battle” with rogue bleeps. 

Somewhere in amongst all this activity, Sean found time for a chat.

Your hometown is Kingston Upon Hull. When did you move down to London?

I was actually born in Bridlington and grew up on a farm in East Riding. I moved to Hull in my late teens to study. To be honest though, most of my energies went into promoting shows and DJing – the high watermark of which was promoting the Hull leg of the DJ International World Tour. My first paid DJ gigs were upstairs at a party called The Welly Club. It was run by Ragna Gift, the sister of Fine Young Cannibals` Roland, and a guy called Phil Blonde. I was playing stuff like New Order, Depeche Mode, Age Of Chance, Colourbox, Big Audio Dynamite, some Def Jam. Downstairs the DJs were Dave “Pork” Brennan and Steve Cobby – who played brilliant sets of Motown and Northern Soul. After an “involuntary parting of the ways” with academia, I left for London in the spring of 1988 – to pursue a career in music.

Did you immediately fall into “acid house / balearic beat”? Did you go to all of the hallowed parties and clubs, like Spectrum, Shoom, Future, and the Boy`s Own bashes? 

I managed to get a job as a junior booking agent – I was responsible for organizing bands` touring activities – so I was out and about seeing a lot of gigs. One day, a dude calling himself Mingus Cain, who was vaguely associated with Psychic TV – or so he claimed – came to my office and tipped me off about an Acid House Party being hosted by the Mutoid Waste Company at Battlebridge Road, in  Kings Cross. It was quite an eye-opener, Mutoid Drum Pyramid in the main hall, lots of psyche-rock bands playing – Gaye Bykers On Acid, that kind of vibe. It was like something out of Mad Max.

Mutoid Waste Company Battlebridge Road

Mutoid Waste Company, Battlebridge Road.

Somewhere out the back were these old Nissen huts where an unknown DJ was smashing out all the early Chicago 303 numbers – which completely entranced me. I met a girl called Julie Barber at that party. Julie worked for the NME, and was consequently pretty clued-up. We hung out a lot that year, attending things like the Guy Fawkes Sunrise, and Pyramid at Heaven – with Mark Moore and Colin Faver. Also, late in 1988, I met a guy called Ben McKnight, at a bus stop – ravers were still a fairly underground tribe at that point and it was easy to spot one of your own. It transpired that Ben was one of the Shoom inner-circle and somehow, in the way that things often did back then, I ended up going to Slough Centre with him and his crew to see Danny Rampling play. I’m not entirely sure of the chronology on this, but I’m guessing it was late `88 or early `89. That was my first real introduction to balearic beat / acid house and launched my full-on immersion in the scene. 

In early ‘89, through the course of my work as a booking agent, I met a guy called Simon Harris – no, not that one – who worked for one of the management companies we booked tours for and who was organising parties with his pal Rich, in association with Paulo Sedazari at Clink Street, called Shine. I knew Paulo, an ex-punk, as he was also a booking agent. Paulo went on to promote the infamous Sign Of The Times do’s with Fiona Cartledge. As a result of helping out with these parties I met and fell into cahoots with the DJ, Steve Proctor, who took me under his wing, introduced me to all the good record shops, and gave me some warm-up gigs at his Promised Land night – which took over Saturdays at The Fitness Centre after Shoom had vacated – and then later at his Better Days parties. 

Simon, Rich, and I formed a fairly solid rave unit and we had quite a punishing weekly schedule. As Simon and I worked in music we attended a lot of gigs. A typical week in `89 would look like: Monday, Panic Station at Dingwalls, followed by Spectrum; Tuesday, Feet First at the Camden Palace – an indie night; Wednesday, various indie gigs followed by back to Rich’s yard for a smoke, rave tapes from Camden Market and competitive Scalextrics; Thursday, High On Hope with Norman Jay – again at Dingwalls, or alternatively The Future; Friday, MFI at Legends – when Judge Jules was actually good, and often Method Air in Vauxhall after; Saturday, I had a DJ gig between and after bands at the Rock Garden in Covent Garden. get paid and out of there sharpish and off to Southwark to the Fitness Centre for The Promised Land; Sunday, mostly fear and loathing, and then on to Queens – if we were capable and had any cash left. We went to a great outdoor thing early in that summer which was a Boys Own / Shoom / Yikes do in Upton Park in Slough, that Rampling played at. 

We’d often try to get into The Shoom, and sometimes get in, but more often than not get knocked back by Jenni. I definitely went to Shoom at the YMCA on Tottenham Court Road, and The Park in Kensginton, but not the Fitness Centre. We also went to Queens a lot, El Metros and Haven Stables. Also, I went to a great thing that Charlie Chester did somewhere on the M27 on the way to Brighton that the police tried and failed to stop – it was maybe called Expressions – which  Andrew and Danny played at. I first saw Andrew play at a house party in Clapham which had a profound effect on me as he played Prepare To Energise by Torch Song and Ravi Shankar by Dub Syndicate – both of which, in my youthful arrogance, I thought were MY secret tracks! Also, we went to a lot of the less trendy but equally vibrant South London balearic things like The Downham Tavern, and all-dayers in Bournemouth, with DJs like Andy Nicholls and Tony Wilson – the balearic under-class, if you like… 

Did you first meet Andrew around this time?

I guess I was aware of Andrew from about `89, but was introduced to him by Jeff Barrett of Heavenly Records in early 1990.

When we last spoke “formally” you told me that a couple of big influences on your own production work were / are Adrian Sherwood and William Orbit. I was wondering if you might be able to to give me say a top 5 productions from both of them – if possible explaining your selections? 

William Orbit

Torch Song – Prepare to Energise (The Fong Test 8-track version)

Made on an 8 track in 1983, it’s absolutely mind boggling how futuristic this record is, just listen to it. It was made in a squat in West London, when the Belleville Three were still in shorts.

Torch Song – Can’t Find My Way Home 

It’s a cover of the Steve Winwood / Blind Faith song. I think it’s from `86, again, listen to the space, the delays, the radical panning, the way the guitar bites. It’s just such a radical vision of what sound can be. Almost nothing else sounded like it at the time.

William Orbit – Fire & Mercy

I never tire of this record – the almost go-go drums, the modular chirps, that guitar again. I know it’s a bit of a balearic classic but again it’s such a radical record.

Torch Song – Toward The Unknown Region

The sub on this! The space! It’s just such a beautiful vision.

18 Wheeler – Stay (William Orbit Stereo Odyssey)

This one came out on Creation in 1997. It’s pretty much the blueprint for his Madonna productions. It’s hard to articulate why I like it so much, just a sonically perfect mix.

Adrian Sherwood

Creation Rebel & The New Age Steppers – Chemical Specialist

1981, oh my fucking god, this almost blew my mind when I first heard it. I could not believe what I was hearing. An ongoing testament to the genius of Adrian Maxwell Sherwood.

Lee Scratch Perry & Dub Syndicate – Scientific Dancehall

The clue is in the name, it is 100% dancehall science. I think this is one of the most played albums I own. It never fails to raise my spirits.

Dub Syndicate – Mafia

Just classic Sherwood – heavy as fuck, cinematic wide-screen, rolling beauty.

African Headcharge – Depth Charge

Again from 1983 – but like a transmission from another galaxy. a transmission from the future…

Mark Stewart – These Things Happen

In which Adrian mashes up Kraftwerk, I Believe in Miracles and the heaviest dub vibes. The absolute genesis of everything that Andrew and I bonded over. Mr Sherwood is the absolute boss, you can’t deny it!

Have you ever met or had the chance to work with either of these gentlemen? If not, is this something that might be possible in the future?

After my days as a booking agent came to an ignominious end, I got into the world of tour merchandising and t-shirt distribution, and I ended up working with Adrian – producing and distributing On-U Sound t-shirts. I could barely contain my excitement whenever he came to visit the office, as it always meant I got copies of what he`d been working on. By that time I had started – tentatively – trying to make music, which in retrospect was very poor, but Adrian always encouraged me to persevere. That, however, is the extent of any professional involvement. My friends Jake Davies, and Sean Speuler both worked with William on a raft of projects and introduced me to him. I occasionally correspond with William, and send him music, but I haven’t heard from him for ages. I believe he`s doing a lot of painting and not much music at the moment.

If you`re into On-U Sound, were reggae and dub also a big influence? If so do you have any favourite tracks, or LPs?

To be honest I got into On-U via the funkier things, like Tackhead and Fats Comet. Dub Syndicate were my gateway to dub – but I’m a big fan of anything by Lee Perry – Blackboard Jungle Dub, Super Ape, King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown. I’m also a huge fan of Bill Laswell / Material. 

To my ears, there`s a big Italo, and a little new beat, influence in what you do. Would you have any favourite italo and new beat tunes? 

T99 – Invisible Sensuality, The Maxx – Cocaine, Code 61 – Drop The Deal, The Weathermen – Poison,  The Warlords – Ultimate Warlord, Lama – Love Is On The Rocks, Massimo Barsotti – Whole Lotta Love, Gino Soccio – Dancer & I Remember (He’s Candanian actually, isn’t he…?), Lime – On The Grid (Possibly also Canadian?) Decadence – On & On, Kano – It’s A War, Klein & MBO – Dirty Talk……

Can you give me a brief history of Hardway Bros? It was originally a loose collective of you and fellow former members of Flash Faction – Jake Davis and Rich Johnstone. Are you still in touch with the other original brothers – Jake and Rico? Is any future collaboration with them on the cards? 

By the late `90s I’d reached a bit of a hiatus in my love affair with music, but had managed to transfer my obsessive tendencies into rock climbing and mountaineering. I was rooming with Jake Davies – formerly of the Flash Faction – who was working as a freelance engineer and I`d dragged him out climbing a few times. At that time he was being courted by Madonna to work on her live shows and he ended up moving to LA. I went out to visit him and we spent a bizarre week in Las Vegas climbing in the desert by day, and playing craps by night in the casinos. It was here – due to our love for long odds bets – that a wise- cracking croupier observed, “Here they are ladies and gentlemen, from Texas, the Hardway Brothers”, which stuck. I made a few tracks – Deutsche Trak, A Diabolical Liberty – with Rico – aka Rich from my old rave squad, but started working in earnest with Jake – by file transfer and regular trips to L.A. Together we did stuff like Acid Trak, and an unreleased remix of Andrew`s Walk Of Shame. Things went well until Jake ran into some fairly serious mental health issues and dropped off the radar completely. Rich turned his interests to software coding, so despite the misnomer, the Brothers became just me. Rico still dips in and out of music production so I wouldn’t rule out something happening in the future.

What kind of studio set up do you have? 

An extremely minimal one. Limited tools focus creativity.

Are you currently involved in any collaborations? 

Currently I’m working with Martyn Walsh – ex-Inspiral Carpets – as La Ruta!, Duncan Gray of Tici Taci – as Hardway Bros Meet Monkton Uptown – which is unsurprisingly a more Dub influenced project,  an ongoing but slow burning project with Andy Meecham of Chicken Lips, The Emperor Machine – which is unsurprisingly, heavily electronic, and also some loose collaborations with Dan Wainwright and Cal Gibson.

Duncan and I are working on an album of dubs. Martyn and I just spoke today about starting another E.P. I also just spoke to Andy, and we`re soon to be jump-started!

You seem to have thrown yourself into production over the last 12 months: Afterlife, Cold Beat, Coyote, Ess O Ess, Fjordfunk, IWDG, La Ruta, MD Hastings, Rheinzand, Ilya Santana, Unloved, and now Hazy James. Has a focus on music helped you to cope with the pandemic, and Andrew`s untimely passing?

That’s all still very raw, but in short yes. Making music has helped me immensely to cope with lockdown, at times it`s seemed like the only thing that I have had any control over. Also focusing my energy on relentless creation seems to me like a very good way of honouring my friend’s vision. 

Are the Cold Beat remixes going to be released? 

Coincidentally the Noch Einmal Krautrock version was self-released by the band on Bandcamp this week, and the dubs will see the light of day as part of that Hardway Bros Meet Monkton Uptown Dubs LP on Tici Taci.

I love that La Ruta E.P. – especially Omertà. How long did the E.P. take to put together?

It came together incredibly quickly – over a matter of weeks, in fact. I batted Martyn a rough idea, gave him a few influences for the type of bass I wanted – which you spotted impeccably – and he played it and I mixed it and then sent him the next one. The writing was very fast. I did rough mixes and Sam Berdah at Days Of Being Wild helped me with the final mix-downs and did the mastering. If it was more than 8 weeks from start to finish I’d be very surprised.

Would La Ruta “live” – pandemic permitting – be possible? 

Writing another La Ruta E.P. is very high on the agenda. Martyn and I are talking regularly after a significant gap. We are both keen to maintain our partnership. As for live, it’s not something we’ve discussed, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

I have to admit that while being a balearic obsessive, I knew nothing about La Ruta – and your record sent me searching for history and info. As someone who’s been there – done that – do you have any La Ruta stories that you can share? 

Martyn and I went to Baracca, in Valencia, in the summer of 89 with the Inspirals to play at a mini-festival. The Mondays, The Inspirals and the La’s all performed. Afterward the resident DJ played and I remember him being dynamite. There were a lot of parallels with the tougher end of the balearic records I knew, but there was also a harder more industrial vibe going on. Kids were rocking up from all over, car loads, tractor and trailer loads, even a donkey cart load. It was clear that something was going on but at the time I was oblivious to La Ruta really. Some, in fact many, years later Stuart Leath of Emotional Rescue mentioned DJ Fran Lenaers and La Ruta to me and it was a “fuck I went to that” moment. To be completely honest I also had to start researching it at that point.

How did you end up tour managing The Inspiral Carpets in the first place? How long did that job last and what did you do next?

It was as part of job as a booking agent. I had a very limited roster of artists, so was always on the lookout for new talent. I had contacts at labels and venues up and down the country and a lady called Paula Greenwood – who I think put out the Inspiral`s early records – tipped me off. I booked all of their early tours until I was eventually deposed by one of the more big time agencies when they became successful. After that I got into the tour merchandise – which I did for the rest of the nineties, apart from a short spell at EMI Music Publishing. All of this in parallel with my “career” as a mid-league acid house warm-up DJ and studio dabbler…

Can you tell me more about the ALFOS Emergency Broadcasting Service? When did it start? Where can people listen? When does it go out? How can people help?

I started the ALFOS EBS about this time last year – shortly after Andrew’s passing and the beginning of lockdown. The ALFOS community is diverse in terms of geography and personnel but very tightly knit. It felt important to do something that would honour Andrew and keep our community together. I only expected to do a handful and here we are with 19 under the belt. It goes out a couple of times a month on average – when I feel I have enough decent material. You can hear / see it live on Twitch. It’s not much of a visual spectacle, but the chatroom banter is brisk. The broadcasts are all archived on my friend Del Scott’s Mixcloud page. People can help out by spreading the word and buying me the odd coffee if they feel like!

There seems to have been a lot of new electronic music released that chugs slowly and darkly – it’s the reason I started doing those Funky Alternative round ups –  and I think that a lot of this has been made in tribute to Andrew and the sound that you both championed at ALFOS. Do you think that’s true?

I wouldn’t like to speculate on their motives, but ALFOS does seem to have opened a door to those wishing to explore the lower bpm statutes! I don’t know how much credit we can take, more of a zeitgeist thing, maybe?

From the last 12 months would you be able to put together an ALFOS EBS top 10 or 20?

I`m not sure that`s possible. I must have played getting on for 2000 tracks.

What new music can we expect from you in the coming months? Is the Field Of Dreams remix ready to go? Are you working with any labels in particular?

There`s a Hardway Bros track on a new Throne of Blood compilation, a Hardway Bros track coming on Ombra International, remixes for Hazy James, Cold Beat, James Bright, Margee, Psycho Derek, Deo Jorge, Grant Dell, Yasha F, a remix for Martyn Walsh’s solo project and Field of Dreams, off the top of my head!

With the world hopefully beginning to reopen, what are the plans for ALFOS? I’ve seen a gig at The Hare & Hounds advertised – with a great poster – do you have any other bookings? 

I have a lot of pencilling ins, but don’t want to jinx it by saying it just yet! But lots to be optimistic about. 

(Incredible poster by Simon Hale).

hare and hounds ALFOS

Clandestino ALFOS

(More info on the Clandestino ALFOS can be found here). 

I`m trying to talk to organizer Bernie Fabre at the moment, but do you know if there are any close to concrete  plans for Convenanza?

I think it’s too early to speculate and as there are so many variables I wouldn’t want to be too committal. But, I can say that we remain hopeful and are planning cautiously in the event that circumstances do permit the invocation to commence. Obviously it will have immense significance, so it needs to take place in completely optimal conditions.

You’ve just remixed Hazy James` Need Somebody. Have you met, do you know, the Our Starry Universe chaps?

There’s a weird Convenanza synchronicity to this… The Separate Reality release on OSU had been one of my favourite records of last year, but – initially – I had no idea who was behind it. Rewind to Convenanza 2018 and inadvertently it seems that I was the first person to play the Crooked Man Dub Of Amy Douglas` Never Saw It Coming – to spectacular response. Weatherall’s verdict – “What’s this? It’s balearic as fuck!” Somehow word got back to Amy, and we`ve remained in contact ever since. Then, when I mentioned to Amy in passing that I was excited about remixing this new OSU track, she said, “Oh, that`s Tim Wagner” – the brains behind OSU, who also just happens to be Amy’s writing partner. So while we haven’t met in person, they do feel like family!

Your take on the track builds into a “robo-disco” epic. What were you aiming for? For example your recent remixes of Afterlife’s Resistance were a tribute to Detroit and Transmat? Was the Hazy James remix – loon birds and all – a homage to anything in particular?

The original is super deep, so I wanted to make something more aimed at the dance-floor. Once I got going with the ARPs I started to get a Sueno Latino-ish vibe, so the introduction of the loon bird call suggested itself. I was just having fun to be honest, trying to make something that would sound good on a boat party in the sun on the Adriatic…

Hazy James bandcamp

That Hardway Bros remix of Hazy James` Need Somebody is available directly from Our Starry Universe. 

Keep checking your socials and Twitch TV for the next essential transmission from the ALFOS Emergency Broadcast Service. Please don’t forget to donate when you tune-in. 

Sean Johnston ALFOS

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