Filed under: Interview
“I started up my own club on a Sunday night playing quite different music from anybody else, not for any particular reason but just because me and my mates liked Balearic music at the time and wanted to listen to it so we started up Spice. And people went to it. I think it’s still like that now; you do your own thing and people either like it or they don’t. There’s no magic wand.”
Sitting in a Portobello Road pub on a grim winter’s afternoon, acid house pioneer Justin Robertson has come a long way in the 19 years since he launched Spice, a Northern indie dance night that would rapidly attract an open minded student clientele that included fellow future stars the Chemical Brothers.
“Tom and Ed were a couple of years younger than me; I met them through Spice and also Eastern Bloc, the record shop,” Justin continues.
“At the time, Manchester was very much a Chicago/ Detroit house city, whereas we were trying to play different things and people into different things gravitated towards us, people more on the Balearic tip. Tom and Ed always wanted to hear other things as well, so they’d come down. Though sometimes they were the only people in the club,” he chuckles.
Two decades both Justin and the Chemicals remain hugely popular enduring figures on the club scene, with Justin currently riding high in the thriving post-house electro scene and preparing for a raft of new releases of typically eclectic styles. Chatty and down to Earth, he’s adamant that he’ just fell into’ his music career, ironically through being a ‘spotty student’ trainspotter.
“When I arrived in Manchester in the mid 80s, there wasn’t really a DJ scene, not like there is now and though I always wanted to be a DJ it was more because I had a lot of records and I enjoyed inflicting my taste on people,” he recalls.
“I used to spend all my lunchtimes at Eastern Bloc spending all my grant money on records and hanging out there all day, being some spotty student annoying them, then I ended up working there when somebody left. Then one day they said ‘we’re starting a club do you fancy spinning’ and I was like ‘sure, alright’. I got my very first remix commission like that too; the shop decided to start a label, they had a band signed that they wanted a dance mix of but didn’t know anyone or afford anyone either, so I said ‘I’ll do it’. I’d never been in a studio in my life before. It all happened by accident though I suppose you could say I made my own luck.”
Interview by Jonty Skrufff (Skrufff.com)
Skrufff: (Jonty Skrufff) Where are you at musically right now, what’s going on?
Justin Robertson: I’ve spent the last year writing music and songs and putting a body of work together and this year it’s time to start releasing it. I’ve got three main projects on the go; one is a label I’ve set up called Never Work, which is mainly for my own stuff initially- the first track being a 3 track EP of very visceral, primitive house music. It’s for dance floor music. The second release I’m working on is called Yes It Is, with Tim Burgess (Charlatans singer) which is West Coasty guitar music, but programmed. That’s in more of a, I hate to describe this way, home listening style; it’s certainly not club music. I’ve also still got the Revtone project which I did for Nuphonic a few years ago which never really came out because they folded. I’m working on that with Mark Ralph, who does stuff with Brand New Heavies and the Soul Mekanik stuff with Kelvin Andrews. We’ve got six or seven tracks finished on that project and we’re looking to do an album. The final thing is a project with a guy called Jez Dewar called The Earls which is a band in which I’m singing. He did all the music, I wrote all the lyrics and sang them. We’ve got quite a lot of interest in that project from various labels. That’s in an Eno, Talking Heads kind of style, we’re high on pretention (chuckling). I’m also doing a track for Underwater and after having had a couple of years of tinkering around it’s now really busy. feels like I’m getting back on a creative roll again.
Skrufff : How easy do you find it writing lyrics, what kind of topics are you discussing?
Justin Robertson: I’m not saying I find it easy but I’ve been writing lyrics for quite a while and it’s something I enjoy doing. Before I was into acid house I was really into The Fall, and Joy Division and The Smiths, bands which always had a high value attached to their lyrics so I was always into listening to words of songs and phrases. Obviously I’m trying not to plagiarise but those kind of lyrics are inspirational and sometimes you can pick things out. Some of the lyrics are just free association, in the way that David Byrne wrote a lot of his Talking Head stuff. It has a narrative but is not necessarily about anything.
Skrufff: Do you feel any sense of exposing yourself through lyrics?
Justin Robertson: Yeah, 70% of them are autobiographical. But then a lot of good Fall songs are about going to the supermarket. Quite mundane subjects can be quite interesting, even if it’s just going and getting pissed (drunk) with my friends. They’re all in that urban story vein as opposed to being great conceptual pieces about space travel or being overtly political, though some do have an edge.
Skrufff : You’re making music, travelling the world DJing, on the surface, almost living a life of leisure, how much business stuff is involved in reality and how hard is it to sustain all these projects simultaneously?
Justin Robertson: Now with the way that music making has become quite portable, it’s possible to do more things. For example, I was DJing in South America for a month recently and took my laptop there with my entire sample library on it, so I could write tracks and songs whilst I was away. So whenever I’d have downtime, being on planes or sitting round hotels, I could sit there writing. If I go somewhere seriously far away, such as Japan I’ll always take a laptop and note pad and write as much as possible. Sometimes it’s good to be at home, it varies. Going away is no longer a hindrance to doing all the other stuff, it’s often a good time to concentrate.
Skrufff : How easy is it to maintain the same buzz of travelling year after year?
Justin Robertson: Sometimes the actual process of travelling all the time can wear you out but, God, I’d rather be doing that than working on a building site or in a factory putting pears in cans. DJing is a good job. Sure, certain days it can grind but to be honest I still find it exciting. The thing that really drives you is being able to maintain your enthusiasm for the music and there being enough good music around to maintain that. Apart from a few fallow periods, there’s always been a progression since acid house of good new music coming out so it keeps your appetite there. The electronic music scene is a scene that’s constantly reinventing itself and developing, even if its core remains the same basic principle, of going out to nightclubs listening to music, the music keeps developing and splintering all the time so it keeps you interested. In rock music in comparison, it seems to move in waves, in scenes, which wear themselves out at which point a whole new set of bands come along. Look at something like the Goth scene: you don’t see any progression at all, it’s had its time, to my mind anyway. Also, that whole thing you still see in the press about dance music’s demise has become such a hackneyed cliche?, it’s so not true. I haven’t played in an empty club for at least 18 months, the last couple of years has seen a real resurgence, probably because it’s not seen as being in the limelight any more, that superclub/ superstar DJ thing is more in the past. Younger people feel like they can become part of it again because it’s no longer this naff thing that’s used to sell Bacardi breezers, though it is still that as well.
Skrufff : You started your DJing career while you were at Manchester University, what were you studying there?
Justin Robertson: Philosophy.
Skrufff : What were you’re parents expecting you to be?
Justin Robertson: I don’t know, I’ve always been a disappointment to them (chuckling again). Not really, my mum’s passed on now whereas my Dad has always been totally baffled by what I do. But his attitude is ‘he seems reasonably, healthy, he’s happy enough, does interesting stuff, it’s OK’. The reason I moved to Manchester was because I was obsessed by the Fall and New Order and Manchester music in general. I was basically an indie kid and I chose Manchester University because I wanted to go to the Hacienda, basically. I started going there and that’s what introduced me to acid house, in its formative years, being quite old, as I am.
Skrufff : At what point did it switch from you being a spotty faced teenager working at Eastern Bloc Records to Justin Robertson- big name DJ?
Justin Robertson: I don’t know. I think when I stopped working at the record shop.
Skrufff : Did you graduate from University?
Justin Robertson: Yeah, I have an MBA, a 2:1. Luckily for me I managed to get my degree out of the way before the real mayhem started. I actually graduated in 1988, it was just in time, that summer was when everything took off.
Skrufff : Tom and Ed from The Chemical Brothers are friends of yours and often cite you as an inspiration, was there anything about those two that made then stand out then?
Justin Robertson:Yes, their knowledge and thirst for music and single-mindedness about what they liked. They knew what was good and what wasn’t. I often used them, especially Ed, as a real sounding board for music. With Balearic one or two risks would be taken, some of which worked, some which didn’t and we’d always look for his reaction. I did some remix and production work for Tom’s previous band Ariel, then when they played me their first twelve inch: Songs For The Siren that was it. The song still sounds bonkers now, I don’t hear many contemporary producers making music as energetic as that.
Skrufff : What do you make of Pete Doherty and his hat, has he cramped your style at all?
Justin Robertson: He wears it at the back of my head and I wear mine on the front; and he’s blessed with hair. I go for the more mysterious look over the eyes, whereas he favours the more louche look.
Skrufff : Do you know him and people from his scene personally?
Justin Robertson: I don’t know him and I don’t want to start sounding like I’m name-dropping. I know Tim Burgess from Manchester, he knows some of these people, but that’s not really my circuit.
Skrufff : Do you have kids?
Justin Robertson: No.
Skrufff : Are they on the horizon?
Justin Robertson: Maybe but not on the immediate horizon. I’d like to think at some stage I would have children. A lot of DJs do now and balance it out. I’ve also noticed when you used to go away there’d be a lot more partying going on, you’d stay for the weekend whereas now I pretty much book the first flight out. For my longer trips I stay a bit longer but not so much on the short ones. All bets are off when you have a family.
End of the interview
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