A Philosophy: The Tao Of Luke

Art & Culture

Whether it’s as a DJ, restauranteur or music promoter, Luke Cowdrey and his self-confessed “ADHD mind” have a lot going on. For the uninitiated, outside of his status as half of Manchester’s beloved Electric Chair organisers and DJs, The Unabombers, Luke’s also one of the funniest and most astute users of Instagram (@lukeunabomber). Against the platform’s endless airbrushed photos of people doing topless yoga while drinking charcoal lattes, his “Day One” videos detail his attempts to get fit and stay healthy as a 52 year old crisp lover and jazz enthusiast.

The “Day One” posts are a humane counterpoint to the impossible expectations of the health and wellness factory. They show how it’s possible to have aspirations to do better but still live in the real world. It just so happens that they had to come from someone who’s more interested in test pressings than press-ups; a member of that diminishing tradition of smart working-class boys who grew up knowing that they could get away with a quip and a snarl. He’s a pilled-up punk in chambray and pastel; the Yacht-Rock Johnny Rotten.

We met up and I started with some questions which I stole from an interview with the fitness industry’s perma-tanned pet Brillo pad, Joe Wicks:

What are your top tips for beginning a fitness journey?

It depends where you’re at and why you’re doing it, but it’s all about your mind. In the last ten or fifteen years I’ve had so many aborted attempts to be fit that it’s become a mental thing. Until your mind clicks in and you can decide exactly what you want to achieve then it’s a very hard thing to accomplish. For me walking is the one, the Forest Gump daily mad walk, it sweats out the poison. There’s a calming of the mind. It’s definitely not about following the rigidity of some diet.

You post quite a lot about food, what’s good for healing body and mind?

Without a shadow of a doubt; broth, pho, noodles. The food of the gods for me. If I was to run a diet club I’d tell people to walk every day and eat big bowls of bone broth, pho with fish or chicken and just loads of garlic and herbs. When you stop feeding the wolf and you actually put some goodness into your soul there’s nothing better. Number two would be a slow-cooked ragu because I think there’s a definite cathartic process of coming home, having a glass of wine, starting cooking a really beautiful old-school ragu with chicken livers, everything in it. Cooking it slowly all day, almost getting pissed as you cook it, and cooking for a group of people, family or friends.

Putting good food in you 100% changes the way you feel. I take the piss out of this diet thing but there’s some truth in it. I’d definitely have a drink. I don’t drink every day now, I choose my battles and these big, hearty, one-pot killers would be right.

So you’re ok with having an off-day?

Having an off-day is 100% part of who I am. I’ll always have it in me to have addictions towards booze and food and beyond. I think anyone who grew up and was going out in the 80’s and 90’s is likely going to have huge cognitive dissonance between doing things which you know are bad for you but make you feel better at the time. I’ll always have that in me. Falling off the wagon is always there. I’m not an addict but it’s always there.

The Day One posts feel like your attempt to reconcile how difficult and absurd it can be to manage real life against expectations. Why did you start them?

Really the Day One thing started when I was 40, it was about life after grief. My dad and one of my best mates passed away in really bad circumstances and it was like just a classic dysfunctional moment where I was on self-destruct for quite a while. I ended up making friendships and I’d be back in my flat and there were all these people with half-ears from Ancoats. Somehow I’d met them in the pub and then there were big groups of people having parties in the house. I just opened myself up to the elements and it was really quite sad. You’d sit there and it’d be Monday morning and you’d think “What the fuck are these people doing in my house?”

So I was deep in grief and then I was comfort eating and getting high and drinking. You know, you feed the wolf. And I did. I fed the wolf, a lot.
Looking back it was like drugs, drink, food were three things I filled the void with. And weird things like I’d go on shopping trips and buy loads of Japanese fucking robots and dolls, almost like a slight addiction.

That mixture of hedonism and self-destruction can mean you end up eating fried chicken at four in the morning in your boxer shorts, watching MTV, slowly dying down the backs of sofas. I used to do a lot of it by myself, which is really sad. It was from that that Day One started, finding alternative ways to fill the void.

Photograph courtesy of Vincent Elgey

How do you think things have changed culturally since you began that journey? We seem to have become much more focused on wellbeing.

It’s a very brutal, toxic world out there and so mental health is seen as much more real now. People write it off as the millennial over-sensitivity, but I don’t agree with that. I think there’s always been mental health issues but it’s much more spoken about now, but then the world is much more bullying and toxic now too.

I think wellbeing in a very Californian happy clappy way doesn’t necessarily solve that issue. But at the same time it would be very trite of me to negate the importance of wellbeing, because look at me I’d be dead now if it wasn’t for wellbeing.

People respond to a very toxic world with very specific things, some of which may make you feel better, like being a vegan or eating in a certain way or being mindful, but then that becomes an industry and becomes very faux and empty as well.

How do you think it’s interacted with the dance music world?

Culturally, I remember some of the bigger clubs in Manchester started to change maybe fifteen years ago or longer. There was less of the evangelism, less of the idealism of acid house. I look back and although it can come across as a bit pretentious, it’s still true that music meant something, it wasn’t just the stupidity of taking pills and dribbling.

But I began to notice at the beginning of the 90’s, lads, big lads, ripped, muscles, coming through. And they were changing body language too. People were less friendly. That’s not to say that there weren’t pockets where there was still that level of togetherness but it did change. There came this moment where the Alpha, burger, ket, 100 gram protein box lads turned up and gradually the dance floor changed.

But I actually think that the tide has become to turn again. The idea that things can’t ever be like they used to be is kind of bollocks. Right now, there’s a feeling that music is important again, it’s not just something you take on the treadmill or something that accompanies your 100 gram diet plan.

What’s the simplest piece of advice for a healthier lifestyle?

Don’t feed the wolf. But if you do feed the wolf then don’t do it for too long. For me, having fed the wolf for ten years on and off, it makes you feel slow and lethargic. Serendipity and change only happen when you get off the sofa, otherwise you end up just falling down the backs and cracks into some abyss and that’s where you’ll stay. Eat good food and get good sleep. And I do truly believe in daily exercise. You should do something you love. If you can go to the gym then fine, but everyone’s different. For me there’s nothing better than walking, and I mean fast walking as well. Come off-piste, don’t have a road, go off-road!

And don’t take it all too seriously, don’t believe the hype, you don’t have to become some faux Californian happy clapping health guru. There is humour in it, we are human and we’re full of contradictions, things don’t always work out.

And don’t try and be too clever. Whilst I take the piss out of this whole new vegan culture of clean living, which actually can be a form of eating disorder, I also think we shouldn’t be too smartarse about it. You need some empathy and warmth and love for things that aren’t quite perfect. I mean, are you going to be so sanctimonious that you can’t go with your heart? As my dad once said, being right all the time is overrated.

And I think he might be right about that…