How did you first discover dance music?
Dance music first kind of crept in when I started going to raves. Living in Weston, we used to drive all around the West Country if someone said there was something going on one weekend. I didn’t know what the music that I was dancing to was, but it blew my mind.
Then someone gave me a tape of mad acid tracks, which had a massive effect on me. I was already hearing dance music, but then I heard this other dance music which was very psychedelic and out there. I used to play that tape all the time, take it to parties. We went to this one party with all these yuppy, hoorah Bristol kids – some friend of a friend of a friend thing. We turned up in all our mad flowery dungarees and tie dye and stuff and they were listening to George Michael or something. I remember putting this cassette in and all these rich kids were like, “Turn it off! It’s horrible!”
The first dance floor you cleared…
Haha, yeah! But I’ve always had a massive kick out of discovering things that no one knows about and playing it to get a reaction, just to see what that reaction is. I think one of the most rewarding things is when you blow someone’s mind by playing them something. I’ve got a good group of friends where it’s like “Have you heard this? Have you read this? Have you seen this film?” I love that idea of turning people on to stuff.
It’s a common trait among DJs.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s not enough just to listen to music, you’ve got to play it to someone else. It’s still the greatest kick, to have someone go, “What the fuck is this?!”
I think the greatest, most inspiring thing right now is hearing people like Richard Barratt – DJ Parrot – from Sheffield. He’s making this stuff as Crooked Man. Obviously I’m a big fan of stuff like Sweet Exorcist from back in the Warp days and Cabaret Voltaire. Chris Duckenfield told me about it and when I heard it it was like, “Oh my god, this is gonna change things.”
As soon as I latch onto something like that I’ll champion it forever. I think it’s a really important thing to do. It’s like, “You’ve gotta hear this. It’s brilliant.” Other people hear it and think it’s brilliant too, then they pass it on. It sends this word of mouth thing out and I think it’s still one of the best ways of getting people to hear music that they wouldn’t normally hear.
What do you think of the rest of the house scene at the moment?
There’s a lot of retro going on at the moment, which bothers me quite a lot. There’s a lot of looking back and replicating the past instead of being inspired by the past.
What kind of thing in particular?
The whole new mid-90s garage revival that’s back around again. I like to hear someone like Eats Everything where he’s taking a sound or a rhythm or melodies from the 90s but it sounds quite modern because he’s doing something original with it, but there’s a lot of people just trying to copy exactly what’s happened already. OK, they weren’t there the first time round, but I was…
You look at someone like Motor City Drum Ensemble, you can argue in some respects that he’s very much retro, but there’s something that he does that makes it contemporary. There are people who do get it right. Take Rush Hour, it’s almost a retrospective label, but there’s an element of it that makes it exciting and they do it properly. Same with people like KiNK and Neville Watson. Someone in Chicago might disagree with me if they were there the first time round, but I do think that there’s a lot of retrospective retro which doesn’t do anything original.
Do you think it’s maybe inevitable as dance music grows into, what, its third decade?
Well, where can you go with any music now? It’s that whole Bill Drummond argument that every melody’s been played. I don’t think there’ll ever be any kind of music that’ll come along and have a revolutionary impact.
But I still hear music that excites me. I don’t get bored. I’m having a moment with R&B and hip hop again, which I didn’t think would happen. Things like the Frank Ocean album, which I think is fantastic, and the new J Dilla album. There was a time when I’d given up on hip hop. I guess it has to go through an evolution again and it feels like it’s happening again for the first time since Pharrell. It’s exciting because that had a really good effect on dance music, to the point where I couldn’t live with another Missy Elliot sample on a house record.
Going back to what you mentioned earlier about discovering dance music, how did you first make the transition from being a DJ to an artist?
I was working in a record shop round the corner with a guy called Ty Holden and we’d both become friends with Rob Mello. Ty suggest we go into Rob’s studio in West London so we went over with some ideas and worked on an EP which we released as The Leveller. That was me, Ty, Rob and Zaki.
Were you musical before that? Did you play any instruments?
No, not at all. I had a really disjointed upbringing and I was kind of passed around. My parents didn’t really have that kind of focus. I did a lot of art and went to art school so I was creative but eventually the art found its way into a different world. Eventually I met up with Justin and then we started buying bits of equipment. We started out with an Atari running Cubase and a lot of borrowed things: Jon Marsh of The Beloved‘s mixing desk, two S950s and a lot of samples.
Since then the whole approach to making music must have changed massively. What have you been working on recently?
I’ve finished an artist album which we’re going to put out next year. I take a long time to make records because I have to be completely right in my own head. If I can walk out of the studio and say, ‘This is how I wanted it. This is how it should be,’ then certain things have to take a creative process in order for it to work. The Difference Engine was me making a DJ set, effectively, using various musicians and live approaches to electronic music.
For this record I wanted to make a more Balearic album, which kind of covered my broader spectrum of music that I play as a DJ, very vocal-led with a lot of musicians on it. I recorded everything here then went and mixed it with Pete Hofmann on a couple of Neve desks, used lots of plate reverbs and things. I ended up with an album which Rekids didn’t feel was the right follow-up to The Difference Engine, probably because it fell out of the world of dance music quite heavily, but I’ve gone back to it and kind of remixed it with a slightly different approach. The plan is to release it as a full-length album on Classic.
As well as that I’ve also made a clubbier album as The Digital Kid. That’s more of a clubby… I always play things to people thinking they sound really clubby and they tell me it’s not. ‘Doesn’t this sound like something you’d play in clubs?’ ‘No, not really.’ ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake!’ So it’s one of those again.
I’m also just about to start recording with Roddy Radiation from the Specials for the next Mother Rose single. If you told me when I was 16 or 17 that I’d end up having Roddy Radiation coming to my house… Wow. Career highlight, for sure.