Andy Smith, the Portishead DJ – Yes. But not just ‘The Portishead DJ’, also a DJ in his own right who’s been around forever, wether putting on funk nights with Keb Darge, releasing The Document mix series which delved into sampling culture or, more recently, putting on his Jam Up Twist nights and putting out mix comps of the same name celebrating the wondrous music of the 1950s. R$N caught up with him for a chinwag to talk Djing, feedback, tedious mash ups and, yes, Portishead….
How did you get involved with Portishead and what years were you involved for?
I met Geoff Barrow (the main man in Portishead, the band) after I DJ'd in the youth club in Portishead (the place) in, i think the late 80's. He had a sampler (leant from the Massive Attack boys) but no records to sample so i used to take crates of tunes round to play him for sampling opportunities. So I knew Geoff for a while before the first Portishead album came out in 1994. i went on their two world tours of 95 and 98 and then kind of fell in to becoming the official Portishead DJ with their blessing.
What were the responsibilities/scope of your role?
Sample finder for pre-production and became the official Portishead DJ – did the BBC Radio 1 'Essential Mix' and other Portishead radio shows worldwide. On tour I was the warm-up DJ (playing soundtracks & original samples/breaks) plus a 10 minute scratch mix-in. I also did some cuts with the band though they were mainly done by Geoff.
How did you get paid? Was there a contract involved?
I didn't get paid for pre-production or Portishead promo. I got paid for tours and personal DJ appearances. Yes there were contracts for that.
What makes a great support DJ?
Complementing the band – I was playing the stuff that influenced Geoff to make the beats.
Part of your role was sample finder. How did you work out what samples to use for tracks? How did the process work?
I would take crates round to Geoff's of stuff I thought he would be into. i would play him certain parts and he would also keep them for a while to cherry-pick certain parts.
What was it like scratching alongside the band? Was there much rehearsing involved?
I didn't do that much so only a small amount of rehearsals for me – I did spin back the 'dulcimer tones' on Sour Times on the New York live show – I had to rehearse for that a fair bit.
Which was the most enjoyable venue you played on tour?
Probably Brixton Acadamy, maybe because there were lots of friends there.
Best experience of touring?
Being able to buy records all over the world (and get them shipped home for free with the rest of the bands equipment!)
Anything ever go drastically wrong?
I would have certain nights where the decks would skip during my scratch set (often due to hollow stages & feedback issues). Milan with chronic toothache was pretty bad too!
A lot of djs who scratch enjoy the freedom of a digital system (ie Tractor/Serato) – do you prefer digital or vinyl? Why?
There was no alternative when i did it. It had to be vinyl. I no longer do anything like that – if i did i would probably have to use Serato (the soundman wouldn't want to be battling with feedback im sure!)
It seemed like there was a bit of frustration about forever being labelled "the Portishead DJ"? Looking back do you feel it was good or bad for your career?
It was great in that it lead me on to do other things (and is the reason why I am still able to support my family through DJing now). However, everyone has to move on. There is nothing worse for me when I see the reaction to "I haven't actually worked with Portishead since 1998" or "I loved your scratching on……..!!"
Did your experiences influence or improve your Djing or productions?
They would have improved DJing I guess. Production is an area i'm not really in anymore.
What advice would you give to a young DJ going off to tour with a band?
Take it easy and enjoy it.
The Document mixtape album was a massive success – did you expect it to do so well and what do you think makes a great mixtape?
No I didn't expect it to do so well but was glad that it did! Obviously I realise that it was the Portishead link that made the first one sell well, but at the end of the day apart from the first track (an unreleased Portishead instrumental essentially) it was all 'what i did in a club after that'. And it enabled me to do all the other CDs that I've done since.
Who is your favourite DJ and why?
I really enjoy DJing with the guy that i do every saturday with at Madame Jo Jo's in London (Dave Crozier) and the guy I did it with for six years before (Keb Darge) – I am much more into 50's & 60's tunes these days so somebody playing a good 60's Northern Soul selection is good for me (especially if you can hear them talk!). Froggy for disco & boogie back in the day. In the world of Hip-Hop it still has to be Jazzy Jeff.
Your sets these days seem to focus on older music? What do you think of the current quality of modern music?
The current new music that I like isn't stuff you could play in a club. Modern music that is for clubs is just to too formulaic for me. Hip Hop is just pop now. House/D&B/Dubstep doesn't really interest me and "mash-ups" I find tedious. There is so much 50's and 60's stuff to find I'm happy with that.
What are you working on these days?
Trying to build my 'Jam Up Twist' nights and the associated compilations ('Jam Up Twist' CD/2x LP out on BGP now). I can't help but think there is nothing new that's interesting and people seem confused as to what they want to hear. I think the whole Funk/Hip Hop thing has been done to death (if I had to play 'Superstition' again I think I would go mad!!). The 50's thing is like going back to the beginning when it was all exciting! I have a 'Jam Up Twist' compilation out soon in the UK (Vol 2 on BGP compiled by myself and Martin Freeman) and a US 'Jam Up Twist' CD & 45 box-set as well.