Following the release of his ‘Listen Up’ Vol 1 compilation, we chat with Matthew B, JustBe, Bushwacka!, the one and only Matthew Benjamin about the highs and lows of over 30 years in the business.
“Why should I be headlining Ultra with Adam Beyer and Sven Vath? Why should I be fixated on the fact that I was ten years ago? Once I got my head around the fact that it’s ok to be where I am now today, suddenly I wanted to listen to my records again for the music and not put a record on and think ‘Oh I remember I used to play this there’ and go into a hole of thinking ‘why am I not there anymore…’ I feel really proud that I can be comfortable with where I am now.”
Matthew-Bushwacka!-JustBe-Benjamin certainly looks comfortable, content even, as he happily chats with Attack mid-lockdown via Zoom from his Hampstead home. For a man who’s been soldiering at the front lines of the underground for over 30 years, he appears remarkably well-preserved. He’s dressed soberly, his full head of hair neatly combed, his broad beaming smile shining back through the laptop screen.
“It’s social media: you have to play the game. If you want to be in this in a professional context then it is important to play the social media game to a certain degree… It’s a bit of an Achilles heel for me, sometimes I just totally don’t care and then sometimes I’ll be like ‘Oh, only two people liked that post I’m gonna delete it, it must be shit’. And I don’t like that I do that sometimes. But then again I’m the guy who took a year off Facebook! It’s all just a game…”
If it’s all just a game then Benjamin has surely by now attained a respectable high score. He’s been a consistent presence in club culture since the late 80s as a DJ and producer. Member of rave outfit Rat Pack, DJ resident at seminal London club The End, key player in the birth of UK tech house in the early 90s and a pioneer producer who melded house, techno, electro and breaks. He produced four well-regarded artist albums with longtime collaborator Layo including 2002’s ‘Night Works’ which was home to national-treasure-level club anthem ‘Love Story’. He’s remixed Depeche Mode, Sueño Latino, Carl Cox and UNKLE and his re-rub of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ is a bona fide dance floor destroyer.
Benjamin launched his Just Be project in 2013 with releases on Get Physical, Crosstown Rebels and Superfreq and then continued to put out pure underground tech house in his Bushwacka! guise, from the moody, precise deep tech of 2018’s ‘The Awakening’ EP on Vitalik to the 2019’s ‘Get Up’ on Ultra in which he approximates the sound of a laser array having a nervous breakdown in 4/4 time.
Benjamin has also been gradually making his Oblong and Plank label catalogue available digitally. Oblong was home to a clutch of late 90s / early 2000s tech house classics and now has plenty of new material ready to go from Danny Howells, Darius Syrossian, Doc Martin and wAFF remixes of Bushwacka! too. He also recently dropped a brand new breaks and electro EP on Plank, ’All Night In Heaven’, featuring four tunes ranging from the self-consciously old school title track to futuristic sci-fi electro breaks.
Regardless of tempo or style, Bushwacka productions are created with dance floors, often very specific dance floors in mind. To this end, throughout his career his music has been characterised by layers of intricate percussion and flawlessly programmed drums. Musically, he has a gift for chords and melodies that perfectly meet the needs of a 3 am strobe-drenched warehouse. Obtuse sample choices and contrasting sounds often meet and somehow become friends in his records. Each musical decision and every element is rooted in the underground club experience as his recent ‘Listen Up’ compilation clearly demonstrates.
“Twenty years ago making that music, my influences were from thirty or thirty-five years ago. Electro to Depeche Mode to acid house, which at the beginning was everything from downtempo tracks like Izit ‘Stories’ or crazy banging Joey Beltram stuff… and for me it was always, ‘What’s the reaction that I have to the music that I’m playing in the club and the feeling that I’ve taken away from those people jumping up and down and going apeshit? How have I translated that into what I’m doing in the studio?’ And it was less about being cool and more about… ummm… complete… just like…” A frown briefly wanders across his generally genial face as he searches for words to adequately sum up that ineffable something that makes a truly great club record:
“It was just about completely destroying the dance floor. It was just this rawness and this fusion of moments, a rhythm or a groove or a drumbeat that I would connect with that space, that warehouse, that field or whatever. And I suppose this is harsh but a lot of new stuff is either very nice to listen to or sounds like it’s supposed to sound like the old stuff. It’s a bit like people who work in art that can spot the difference between a copy and the original of a painting.”
Benjamin is talking about the period that the tracks on ‘Listen Up’ are drawn from, the mid to late 90s, when UK tech house was forged on the dance floors of a few underground parties, defined more by the tastes of a few DJs rather than a set of specific genre conventions. Simultaneously open-minded whilst resolutely underground, what became known as tech house began life in the early/mid 90s on the dance floors of parties like Wiggle and Heart & Soul and of course in clubs like The End. With a playlist made up of sped-up US dubs, pitched down Detroit techno, techy-breaks and all manner of quality, bass-heavy underground house, the raw elements of house and techno were carefully distilled, the diva tropes popular in the handbag house of the time were expunged and a genre was created that eventually grew way beyond its roots.
“It was just such fun music to make… it was like let’s get a bassline like this, then throw some kettle drums in there and a sample from a Hong Kong Phooey cartoon and chuck that on top.. and halfway through let’s turn it into a breakbeat track instead of a house track – you know, there was just freedom, real freedom.”
Twenty years on and tech house had conquered Ibiza and indeed the world, gradually mutating into a cliche-ridden creative dead-end that eventually became the butt of many jokes. A genre that came into being because of open-minded DJ selections had ironically morphed intro a set of predictable 125 BPM tropes. Even so, there’s no doubt that for a while, tech house ruled the club world. Does Benjamin think that he and his co-creators are acknowledged for their role?
“I don’t know if that’s recognised now or not. Tech house, the scene can be quite fickle: what we call tech house now and what was tech house then… and a couple of years ago it became a dirty word because the Beatport tech house charts were full of painting-by-numbers tech house tracks… and then it got worse! Because it was the same generic tracks but with really cheesy well-known acapellas and stuff in them and we were like, ‘This isn’t that: this isn’t what we made at all’. And also 20 years on with a new generation of people making music and putting it out, their influences are more likely to be last month’s Beatport chart rather than music from ten years ago or twenty years ago. Tech house – it’s the genre that ate itself.”
Benjamin is equally happy to chat about music from the past or his very latest productions and he possesses a decent recall of events from a couple of decades ago for someone who used to like to party. The last few years have seen him deal with his substance addiction issues: “I’m an addict – it’s fairly widely known and I’m quite open about it. I’ve struggled with staying clean for many years. I first went to some 12 Step meetings around 2006 I think, maybe a bit before then, and I’m almost five years with no drink and drugs.”
There’s something about the room he’s speaking to us from, something you can’t quite put your finger on; the tasteful, restrained decor, the comfortable seating, potted plants, muted, relaxed atmosphere all give the room a purposeful air. It turns out that Benjamin is now bringing his experiences of addiction to bear on a masters in psychotherapy, with a view to seeing clients professionally when he’s qualified – from his therapy room, which he’s speaking to us from.
“I was living in Ibiza from 2013 until 2018 when I moved back to the UK and I had some life experience which took me into a very isolated dark place. I finally did something permanent about it and I took myself out of the loop for six weeks in 2015 and got some help. Part of that help was counselling, part of that counselling was Cognitive Behavioural Theory and group counselling as well as one-to-one. Something started to resonate with me at that point where I started to recognise I could challenge my core beliefs about myself and by challenging them I could move through them and move on. What started off as registering for an Open University online course in psychology turned into a masters degree in Transactional Analysis Psychotherapy.”
It’s been quite the journey for Benjamin, from the raves of London in ’88 to his psychotherapy treatment room today; thirty years is a long time in electronic music. Many producers and DJs barely make it to five, the pressures of the business, the unreliable wages and the unholy hours too testing for all but the hardiest of disco warriors. Yet Benjamin has remained creative and relevant through three decades. He began his career in 1988 as DJ Matthew B, then rebranded to Bushwacka! in 1993 (Attack covered the origin of Benjamin’s ‘Bushwacka!’ name last month). When he and Layo finally stopped working together he relaunched as Just Be in 2012, then in 2015 “I kind of put the brakes on, took six weeks out to reevaluate and came back as Bushwacka again.” By any measure his has been a successful career – think of what happened to the dance floor last time you heard ‘Love Story’ or ‘Deep South’ in a club – but as is often the case, his own perception of his success is a little different to what you might expect.
“This is quite personal but in some ways…” – and at this point he takes the longest pause of the interview, seemingly running through a few different versions in his head of what he wants to say – “I feel like I’ve destroyed what I could have done. I did have some struggles with addiction and it did affect my work and my output, my diary and my work relationships. Sometimes I have ‘would’ve could’ve should’ve’ moments, and I think ‘Why am I not playing there, how come they don’t book me any more’. And I know all I need is a good sound system and a room full of people and it will all be amazing but I have moments of self-doubt… but my real success is internal. It’s about my relationships with myself, accepting myself for where I am instead of comparing myself to where I was twenty years ago or thinking about where I should be now.”
Aside from finding peace in his new career direction, Benjamin remains focused on his musical life. In addition to the various production projects, prior to the covid lockdown he maintained a busy DJing schedule. As a jobbing DJ currently out of work due to the pandemic, he mentions his weekly live stream fondly several times in our conversation, clearly getting a lot out of sharing his record collection with his virtual audience.
In addition to the new material on Oblong and Plank and his retrospectives (‘Listen Up’ Part 2 is on its way too), he apparently has a pair of downtempo and ambient albums in the pipeline, is collaborating with Moscow, Moss Co. and Arkityp label boss Archie Hamilton, has music forthcoming on Dubfire’s label and is about to release a Loopmasters sample pack. Not someone to sit back and live off past successes, Benjamin continues to make quality, relevant underground dance music.
“I want people to enjoy the music, to enjoy the musical experience. I’ve put a lot of love, sweat and passion into my music… it has been created specially from a place of love – and hopefully people will get to experience and feel some of that.”
‘Listen Up’ Vol. 1 by Bushwacka! is available on Bandcamp.