I first meet Chez Damier when he’s holding court outside the NTS studios in Gilet Square. A friendly bear of a guy with more than a little of the philosopher about him, the man his passport calls ‘Anthony Pearson’ is chatting to some of the NTS talent. Not seeing anyone else I know nearby who isn’t DJing, I go up and shake his hand, explaining I’m about to interview him. Gregarious by nature, he happily says hello but still winds up his earlier conversation before giving me his attention. The young DJ he’s talking to says that it’s been an honour meeting him, ‘…and thanks for the life-coaching too…’ This perks my interest – life coaching from Chez Damier, whose mid-90s productions like The Morning Factory, Forever Monna, The Choice and Be My are still considered some of the best examples of the genre? ‘No, this guy’s gotta be exaggerating, Chez’s not some kind of self-help guru…’ I thought to myself. Well, I was half-right; he’s not a self-help guru, though he does radiate the positivity the house scene has always espoused. Instead, as well as being as a fantastic, heads-down DJ – he will later blow the doors off R$N-affliated night Thunder, never playing his own productions because he doesn’t get down like that – in the words of Sub Club’s Subculture resident Domenic Cappello, ‘Chez is the teacher.’ It's why Electric Elephant are so hyped to have him playing their 2014 festival, and why Secretsundaze pursuaded him to come out of retirement in the first place. He does it with his productions, he does it with his gracious manner, he does it with his dope DJing and he does it by still believing in house, after 30-odd years. Chez sets the standard of what house music should be about – I’ll let him explain further…
I know you don’t like being called a legend, do you? Because legends are generally...
I referred to you earlier on Twitter as a ‘living legend’ – and I made a point of saying living!
You know, that’s happy to me, it’s really happy to me. I don’t think I deserve it, to be quite honest with you. I think everybody who does what they think is right and people start giving you those titles; that’s one of those things I’ve had a hard time abiding with - people lifting me up. I’m very thankful for the praises, but I don’t want to be exulted – because when you put me in that area, I’m doomed to fall. And I don’t want to fall! You see what I’m saying? Too many people in this business believe the hype, it goes to their head. Derrick May for instance, here’s a guy who when I met him he was excited, he was humble. A thousand years later he’s a superstar.
That’s interesting, I’ve met Derrick but I haven’t interviewed him. I spoke to Kevin [Saunderson] and he was great, absolutely fantastic. As we’re on the subject of giving props if I could take you back to Chicago/Detroit in the early days. Who should get props that doesn’t?
You mean in terms of players?
Yeah, DJs, Producers, people you know...
Both of which aren’t particular names to me or my readers so please...
They both were very typical in really inspiring a whole generation of people, but I think because most of us decided to go into the production realm of it which gave us a prouder respect and a prouder name. They didn’t, they stuck with what they knew and everyone else was just gone. That’s my opinion.
Also travelling as well, with people like Shake who’s now getting props. He didn’t travel...
He became sick at one point and so... I’ve always liked Anthony [‘Shake’ Shakir); he comes from a hip-hop background. I loved talking to him when he would come down to KMS because he had such a disconnected point of view. He would say it like it is and I loved that about him. He definitely had his own level of love for me, just being around him it would be like ‘Shake, what do you think of this?’ and he’d just tell it like it is. I appreciate that so much and I miss him a great deal. I just reached out to him on Facebook, actually. He’s definitely one who I think was an underdog but I think due to circumstances he wasn’t able to go to the heights that some of us have.
I think now with the re-focusing on the roots of house and techno, people who didn’t get the props first time round, people like Shake, are getting talked about and getting gigs, they should be able to eat because they’ve worked like everyone else.
It’s really funny that you should say that actually, I wanted to figure out how to create a foundation for artists and DJs who would fall on hard times because we don’t have a union. I see the downfall and it’s so sad because we have so much talent that once their time is gone, then no-one gives them anything and we’re losing critical people who are behind and really motivating and inspiring people and I’m so ashamed that we don’t have such a thing in place.
That’s very interesting, people who had been very pivotal in their scene but as moods and fashions change it can be a very different story. You’re clearly a very humble person and honesty is very important to you and I think from that level of humbleness comes...
I think a lot of that has to do from your upbringing; my belief is that I can’t give you what I got. I always tell people who like dance music never to trust a DJ who doesn’t dance. [much agreement from everyone present]. I also say that I don’t need a validation for my dance music because I’m only producing this thing that I’ve got from the beginning and now I’ve found a way to put it into something else.
Shaun Ryder from the Happy Mondays says about his music that a lot of what they made is him trying to recreate the music that he’d hear in his head when he and Bez were young, took acid and wandered the streets. He said he hears this music in his head and with dance music as well, that’s what it is. He’s also plowing a furrow that’s deep within him; it’s just about getting it out. As we’re talking about this and about artists, I’d like to ask you about Back To Basics with Alton Miller, was that Friday night?
It was Saturday.
Saturday night at The Music Institute then, I wanted to ask about that in general because you said in an interview when you first came over to the UK that it was the first time you saw clubbers on Ecstasy and you were saying just how...
…how did you know that? I was just saying that… [to Miles Simpson and Rick Hopkins of Thunder, who helped broker this interview and who accompany us as we chat in Dalston Superstore’s rave basement.]
You said it in an interview.
Oh, did I? I didn’t remember that!
Basically when I do an interview I stalk someone online for about a day or two to know what I’m dealing with – please don’t be alarmed [much laughter from the gallery]. So you said in an interview you’d never seen it before, this is from a guy that ran a pivotal Detroit club, so what was kind of the dance floor fuel of the Music Institute?
[No hesitation] Cocaine, weed and alcohol.
I’ve asked MK this as he’s known as a house guy, but he’s a Detroit guy, and he went to The Music Institute. I asked about, and I’ll ask you as well, a lot of the seminal house clubs obviously there was a massive gay presence or they were gay clubs. What was that like in The Music Institute? Was it more of a straight club?
We were straight and had gays in it and the gays always stuck out so we enjoyed the whole combination. Getting back to MK, it’s so funny because MK didn’t do any drugs BUT one night... well, one night... I was in the studio working on a KMS record and Mark [Mark Kinchen] came by the studio and I said ‘Hey dude, let’s do a mix’ and he said OK and set the board. I had a joint on me and just said ‘Smoke it!’ and that joint, that moment created him a sound that he had never ever heard before. ‘Can You Feel It’ is the foundation of every mix that Mark’s ever done after that. That joint changed the game and next thing we knew we were in the studio like ‘This is hot!’ I don’t like promoting the idea of joints or whatever, but this particular time, I just knew, because I’m very philosophical, it’s time that we need something different. That was it. It’s always an entertaining story to tell because my proof is the record he released directly before it.
It’s very different!
Right, he didn’t have the sound. ‘Can You Feel It’ was the foundation of every dub that he did afterwards. Isn’t that amazing?
It’s absolutely amazing! When I interviewed him and I was looking at his early stuff I was thinking ‘Why did this change? That was lucky’ but clearly it wasn’t just luck!
It wasn’t luck at all! [laughing] Whatever consciousness opened up that night it opened WIDE, mind you it was all in the matter of an hour but we were stuck for about 3 hours because weed makes you get ‘stuck’ and we listened to it for hours and hours. It’s going nowhere but it’s just hot!
After your experiences running the Music Institute, would you ever run a club again?
Ok... If you were going to, where would it be? London? Berlin? Chicago?
I wouldn’t actually because that’s a special job. I could do it but I don’t have the capacity for structure. We were just young guys who wanted to create something from nothing and make it happen and that’s a big difference from someone who understands profit and loss. It’s all give and take because on the business side, it’s still a business and so I think to run a club you’d have to have a vision, whoever opened the clubs that I’ve been to; they had vision. They knew what they wanted it to look like and they knew what the end result was and I think that when you’re creating any business you need to see what the end result looks like. We call it, in the States, ‘writing your story’. Before I got hired to do a job for a company, this billionaire real estate guy brought me in and says ‘Ok, you want to be Director Of Operations. This is what I want you to do; go pick up a book called Next by the guy who own Southwest Airlines and go write on what is an entrepreneur’. Then he had me start writing these stories about what the vision is and what the end looks like and it taught me so much because when you can see the end result; that’s what you’re working towards. So you don’t get the end result at the beginning, that’s what you’re working towards. Your story is saying ‘This is how I see it’.
When was that?
Well I quit music…[Chez left in the music industry around 2000, doing some production in 2004 but only returning properly in 2009, when he hooked up with the newly-formed Secret Agency, the booking wing of secretsundaze, who still represent him.]
I assumed so….
But this was a great lesson for me, it taught me how to look at life differently because he also reminded me that he was paying me – because I’m a hands-on person and I was training my staff – and he said he was paying me to think. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard someone say that. I didn’t understand the concept until he explained it to me. I’m head of a production line; it’s the assembly line who works. You think. You’ve been taught to harbour the vision. I thought that was amazing.
Since you’ve been back, you’re a traveling DJ now, how do you find playing in different countries? Have you done much in Berlin?
Oh a lot.
I guess you’ve done all the big clubs like the Berghain…
…I broke the rules! I did them all in one week. People said I was crazy! My thing is I deal with the rich and deal with the poor, you can’t define who I associate with so I made an alliance with everyone in the city to play with them, and it was almost terrible, but I did it to show them that you don’t control me. In the end, they all still booked me, so it was ok! That’s the politics; the politics of the game is that you don’t play there without 6 months apart. I did it. I’m proud.
The whole Berlin scene, that was quite new to you, I suppose?
But I’ve been touring in Berlin since before the [Berlin] Wall came down so I was there when it came down! I was visiting a friend of mine who I’d stay with for weeks at a time, it was an amazing experience I had and it looked amazing.
I was going to say, I thought it was just David Hasselhoff who was there at the time! [Actually amazed…]
I was there! I didn’t sing but I bore witness to the change to the ‘New Berlin’. This is where your creativity comes in because, at the end of the day, you’re going to have to take what we talk about now and you’ll have to paint a picture. Your reward comes in how you paint the picture.
Well, with someone like you who has so much to say about everything involved in the game, even on the way over here, it’s clear you’re a philosophical cat. I was kind of expecting that from other interviews with you, like that Red Bull interview in Australia, where I have to say you didn’t look particularly comfortable at first.
Well what happened was my friend Gerd [Janson, of the Running Back label] , whom I knew, and Yannick, we spent years doing tours together in Germany, everyone thought that he should have interviewed me so what happened was when the other guy interviewed me, I was a little caught off guard. Although he was very respectful, I felt Gerd would have done a better job - he had some depth. I wasn’t uncomfortable, at some point you just get…it’s just because you have a platform, a bunch of young aspiring artists and so homework is a necessity when you interview people. I thought it was blinkered, very generalised. I think that’s what it was. Here’s the big mistake, he was trying to exult me and I kept slapping him down.
I realise you don’t like that!
I think it’s dangerous because if I keep telling you something, you’ll start to believe it. If you start to believe it, it changes you. I just don’t want to be changed like that. I’m thankful but don’t hold me up. That’s what the camera guy said ‘He kept lifting you up and you kept slapping him down’. I don’t want to be exulted because then you become a celebrity and I don’t want that kind of status, I want to be reachable, touchable, because to me that’s my gold. That’s what I rely on when I go places and that’s why I love playing small joints because it allows me to shake everyone’s hand as if it was my party and I hug them and it’s so approachable.
If you do that later, people are going to go crazy.
That’s what I do! I have been on the dancefloor with them.
That’s a great thing to see.
Yeah, it shows them that I’m just one of you guys. I’m just from a different school and I’m a student turned teacher. No more!
It’s great to hear that from someone who’s been in the game a long time because I find that as well. In our scene, artists aren’t supposed to be on a big pedestal, they’re people who came from the dancefloor as well…
Some of us, a lot of us haven’t though.
Do you feel that now?
Oh I know a lot of us haven’t. A lot of us were inspired by the dancefloor.
Do you want to name names?
Hey, I had to ask… do you feel that with the old school era it was more people inspired by the dancefloor but now it’s less so?
I’ll share with you the same thing I share with them. I believe with all my heart that every DJ will come across this road where he has to make a decision and the decision is that will he survive doing his art or will he stick to his gun and be unemployed? So when a movement is moving, like the whole Ibiza thing which I use as an example because it’s probably changed more DJs than anything, when you get across that road - if I start playing like this I can be a Carl Cox or all these other guys, I can earn the money and everything else, but, what they don’t realise is, they can never come back down. Even Dave Morales tried and I love him, he’s one of my favourites. Sometimes when you cross that road, it’s never the same. Why do I understand I? I’ve come to that road, just last year that was my road. I was in Ibiza and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m at this road’ and I felt sad. I felt sad because I knew that I had to make a choice. Was I going to go for that or was I going to stay with my belief and just evolve? I decided to stay with my belief and evolve it so maybe it’ll pay off, maybe it won’t, but that’s what I have to give because I don’t want it any other way. I model myself like Gucci - I think Gucci will always be in style, simplistic, quality. Prada, all these other guys who come in the place, it’s never a threat to them because they have consistency in their quality and I believe that if you have that consistency in your quality you may get me in another time zone, but I want the same ingredients. I want you to leave there not feeling cheated. A lot of people don’t understand that when I do shows back to back, I was in Newcastle for New Year’s Eve, that New Year’s Eve I left the club at 6:30am and had to catch a train at about 12:30pm. No sleep. When I arrived in London to do a party, people don’t fucking care where I’ve been, they just want to see you at your best. So I had to pull 100%. One thing I really, really loved about playing in London on New Year’s Day is that I felt a new method; the new method was a way to recycle the energy. I took it from them [the dancers] and gave it back, which was amazing. I sucked them like a vampire and then spit it back out to them because physically I was just worn out. Do you understand that?
Yeah, I do…. I tend to think that when DJs have to do this regularly, they must have to do something like that.
But it depends on what can you have [to give]. If I’m just going to play records, then it doesn’t really matter but if I’m going to make an impact then, yeah, it matters. Everything matters. I can never do a show and say ‘I gave it 50% last night’, it HAS to be 100%. Even if I’m worn completely out, I can find my back-up battery, that extra power pack, I have to. People come to see you, they waited to see you; they want to see the fullness of you. There are times where I’m just so worn out but somehow it comes through because it takes me back to my reason before. It’s the whole Robin Hood effect. I love it because it’s in energy form. It works for me. My friend called me and said ‘You are an energy predator’. He might be right because I have a tolerance, I give give give but I require authentic power back. You can’t feed me DJ gossip, I’m not interested in that, but if you come with some knowledge or politics I can use then I’m in. I need to be ‘fed’ a certain way. Does that make any sense?
It makes loads of sense!
My wife always says that I preach out to people. I realise that you’re going to be valuable to me, I don’t have enough time for this otherwise - I don’t even have time for me! So I have to be very precise about how I do it. If nothing else you’re getting to know me and to me that’s more important than the interview because there ought to always be a great exchange when you meet people you’ve never met before. It’s easy for you to read things about me or see me and shake my hand. It’s easy for you to like my music but you don’t know me. When you know me, then you KNOW me and it’s a whole different ball game.
We were talking earlier about my life and you asked me ‘Are you living your dream?’ and I said I am, just finding it harder and harder to pay for it, but I still know that being able to sit here and talk to you is a privilege that a lot of people won’t have and I try to translate that in the interview. As I was saying before, I try and make it like a conversation; I’ll offer prompts to the conversation but I don’t want it to be just I give a question, you give an answer because it must be so boring.
Let’s put it this way, my life is my one and only. You couldn’t get in my presence if it wasn’t by appointment so to be quite honest with you, it probably has nothing to do with the interview, you had an appointment with me. There’s something that exchanges in the appointment, everything else is open. Carry on... [smiles, as he does constantly, to show that he can be both serious and funny at the same time]
I’ll try and take it back now... we’ve spoken about clubs already, big venues or small venues or outdoors? How different is it to play a festival? You’re due to play Electric Elephant in Croatia this summer. Is it different?
It’s different in terms of meaning of the partying, because obviously there are more people and more minds working. You have to win these people to be more cohesive than you could in a smaller setting. For me, it’s a challenge because I have to still find a way for me to be me and deal with what you’re used to feeling. I like passion, I like meaning, so that’ll always be my ingredients, like pepper, it’ll always be a part of my dishes. My thing is that some people with the big audience aren’t used to this; there’s the minimal movement. I call it empty music, no-brainers. That’s not what I do. I want you to remember something in the course of the night. That’s important to me.
It’s interesting that you should bring up minimal, actually, I wasn’t going to but as you have, what are your feelings about that? The modern European minimal school that came in while you were away…
Well if you ask me, Morning Factory was minimal before they called it minimal. By the time it was translated again, the minimal became something else but it had been minimal music.
That’s very interesting, I see what you mean; it was very sparse.
The elements were so few.
It’s a simple recipe; very few people could put it together like you.
Do you see what I’m saying? When you ask me about minimal, I have to say I’m a part of it. That’s what we were doing.
Where are you at now musically? What have you got coming out and what are you enjoying listening to and playing?
I’m still discovering me. Now I’m into sound dynamics, someone told me that each song I play I own and that’s what I’m learning now; how to own the songs that I play. In other words, the way I express them; I actually play them. I’m using frequencies to tell the stories between the song and I’m using dynamics. I using a Rotary crossover or isolator; an isolator has some interesting dynamics that can help me stress certain points and really make the song speak to you personally. I’m still discovering.
Who are your favourite DJs?
I have none because I respect everybody. I’m just from a different school, I’m a half-breed.
When you say half-breed, what do you mean?
I’m not one foundation. I was blessed enough not to be a Chicago player or Detroit or UK player. I was blessed to be a combination of them all.
And you’ve said in interviews that you came up in a time when the scenes were very segregated, with gay/straight/black/white clubs but you and your friends moved between the scenes. I think it’s interesting that you say you have no favourites given that you must have seen a lot of people play.
I don’t have favourites because I try to understand their language. Most Chicago people were actually raised on a lot of Kung-Fu movies and, to me, I love a good fight and a good challenge and [the idea of] ‘masters’. That’s where we learned what a master is, when you have a style. When finding the whole ideas that would be a style wins, the whole idea is that the styles combat each other. That’s how I think; my whole life is thinking in terms of this as a language. When I see other DJs, I can respect your language. There is no right or wrong, it’s just that’s your training, your school, your weapon.
Talking about different DJs, what’s your view on EDM? Irrelevance, insult or none of the above?
I think it’s just a reincarnation of hi-NRG; it’s the grandchild of progressive. One music births another and it’s always been that way since the beginning of time. When disco was coming to a head, Georgio Moroder came in and changed the game completely by using synthesizers. Then other kids changed the game by making drum machines and so the game is changed again and THEN Chicago kids get their hands on drum machines and Detroit gets it all... Now we have all these children of children of children. I think EDM is nothing more than a descendant of what’s already been.
House is the music of working-class black, Latino and gay kids but the house scene now is overwhelmingly white & middle class - as someone who was there at the foundation – and contributed to them – how does that make you feel?
It makes me feel good to know something can evolve and cross the lines. I’m not an advocate for keeping things; I think they should be released. The whole idea of house is based on feeling and that’s what we should be promoting. We’re glad the whites have the feeling and now what they do with it is next level, but I do think that I sometimes get upset with the idea that our founding fathers could not see the change of time. That’s a little frustrating sometimes because although they were pivotal, even if I created it, there has to be an evolving point. What happened is they created it and it’s like someone else took the recipe and evolved it and they had nothing to do with it. That’s a little weird to me.
The idea behind that questions is that you might have something to say about the fact that house music is seen by a lot of young black kids as white music now...
That’s because they’re getting an interpretation of the interpretation, therefore it’s easy to believe that it’s coming from them. Do you see? In other words, it’s coming back to them in the new language. It’s also made by the language it’s giving it to. And by the way, a lot of black gays have gone to hip-hop which is really freaked out! In the US first, what you’re experiencing here is that the reason the scene isn’t so big in the States, it’s that the gays don’t support it anymore. What happens is that because the black and the Latino gays now embrace this, the whites embrace EDM. So what you have now is the hi-NRG here and the thug here. People just try to fill in the gaps between the other audiences.
Does house music have a message in your opinion and should it?
I think all music has a message and it should do.
Does the music you played have a message?
Always, yes. I try to encourage the spirit of love, the spirit of inspiration. That’s what I try to provoke. How do you bring people together? They’re all different from each other but the same at the core. That’s always seemed like my challenge and when it happens it’s magical. Sometimes it has not happened but it’s magical when it does and it happens like 90% of the time.
You ‘preach love’, in your own words, is that your style of music?
That’s my thing, preaching love and togetherness. I believe that this music has done something to me and because of that I believe it has the capability of doing something to other people.
You come across a philosophical person, even before the tape rolled, do you have any particular religious beliefs? You speak in almost religious terms a lot of the time.
Philosophy is very different to religious. I have faith; I’m a Christian, that’s my belief. But again, my philosophies are based on my comprehension and experience. Really, that’s a big difference. My belief is what it is to believe and my philosophy is a combination of things that I’ve learnt and seen.
Do you think a lot of that philosophy has come from house music?
I think some things are just born that way.