Doing It Proper: Gilles Peterson Talks
This Saturday 30th September, The Refuge restaurant and bar in Manchester marks its first birthday with a very special celebration. In the daytime there'll be a free daytime courtyard party helmed by The Unabombers, before nighttime sees the action move down to the basement, where the duo's legendary Electric Chair night (which originally ran 1995-2008) hosts Gilles Peterson alongside Manchester fixtures Ruf Dug and Martin Brew.
I caught up with Gilles over the phone, and enjoyed chatting with a man whose energy levels and enthusiasm for new sounds are that of a man 30 years his junior – none of this jaded music business nonsense for him. We spoke Manchester clubbing, record digging, and the first anniversary of Worldwide FM:
What are your memories of playing with The Unabombers?
The Electric Chair nights were legendary. God I did loads of them, cor blimey. The Unabombers always had the most punk, hedonistic, subversive parties. The sound was good, they’d play some surprising selections, and they’d always have a nutty crowd who got the music. I remember the first time I played with them – 100 people in the place, about 1 in the morning and they played ‘Love Is Everywhere’ by Pharoah Sanders and put a house track underneath it and it was just the most brilliant moment. I thought, great, these guys are really on it! So I’m happy to be back.
Do you find Manchester crowds have a particular character about them?
I’ve been going to Manchester since I was really young actually. I used to DJ with a friend of mine called Andrew, and then he went to uni in Manchester. So when I was 19 I’d come up and see him, buy loads of good records, and then end up going to a club called Berlin on a Tuesday to see Colin Curtis. He’d play really heavy stuff, like proper jazz and rare soul records, and mix it with a bit of disco and that… He’s one of the most significant DJs in the north of England – for me, anyway. So yeah, I was just going up to Manchester as a punter and catching the vibes. Later on I played at The Hacienda, funnily enough, and I always had a shit time, it was terrible! Tony Wilson asked me to play a few times, but it never quite worked there. I was getting much more work in London, Brighton and Bristol, and I had residencies in Paris, Cologne and Vienna… it wasn’t until Electric Chair that I had a Manchester crowd that got what I was about as a club DJ.
That’s strange, I always got the impression that Manchester crowds were very open-minded.
Well it’s all about that period of time… And also I was this quite arrogant Londoner coming up and saying, “Look, acid house started in London, I don’t know what the fuck you lot are talking about, you’ve only just discovered it!” So I definitely had the wrong attitude! Look, that whole Hacienda scene… by the time acid jazz and acid house was happening, Manchester had already sort of Britpop-ified it by mixing it with indie music, so suddenly it was more pop culture than club culture. They went and turned it into an NME thing, and we were always against that – the NME was the enemy! That whole white British sort of thing… we were into going to weekenders and being soul boys. I felt a long way away from New Order – even though they’re brilliant – or groups like The Stone Roses, I wasn’t into all that. And for many years Manchester was that, so it wasn’t until Electric Chair booked me that I thought, great, we’re all on the same page.
Is there anything coming out of Manchester now that you’re particularly interested in?
Manchester’s a brilliant place. There’s a good constant curation with The Warehouse Project, there’s a great jazz scene with Matthew Hallsall and all those people, Zed Bias is living there and making really good stuff, and there’s a load of great upcoming hip-hop and grime artists that I like. As a DJ, you’re always gonna have a really good night in Manchester. It’ll be interesting to see what the audience is on Saturday, because The Unabombers are a bit older… I’ve covered 30 years of club culture so I’ve got people who used to see me in the ‘80s [laughs] and then I’ve got a very young audience who like to hear me play at Dimensions or whatever. As opposed to a lot of the other ‘vintage’ DJs, I still play new music, so I haven’t retired into my legacy type act. I don’t go out there and play all the tracks that people expect me to play, so I still get disappointment when people are like, “Oh I was hoping he was gonna play ‘Brown Paper Bag’ or ‘Mas Que Nada’” or whatever [laughs]
Do you prefer playing to crowds where you know you’ve got a certain demographic, or crowds where you’ve got a good mix?
I always prefer playing to a younger audience ‘cos they’re far more open-minded. And they’re so up for it being leftfield these days. A lot of the top DJs in the country right now are all kind of weirdos musically – we’re talking about people like Dan Snaith or Four Tet or Ben UFO or Floating Points. Those guys are the UK’s modern equivalent of Judge Jules 20 years ago! If you’re a big festival or you wanna ram your club, you don’t book those middle of the road Radio 1 dance DJs, you book DJs who are playing fucked up shit! Which is great, it’s never been this good! I’m not interested in hearing house music by numbers – it’s done, anybody can be a DJ now. The greatest thing nowadays is that the youth are looking for people who are really doing their art.
It’s great to hear you so optimistic about UK clubbing, because there seems to be such a culture of pessimism at the moment – some of it well founded of course, but it’s good to have a positive outlook!
Yeah, it’s good. I do a residency at Phonox and I’m playing six hour sets and that’s what people want! They want to see it proper.
So, Worldwide FM has just reached its one year anniversary, congrats! Could you share a few of the highlights with us?
It’s been really amazing and inspiring even though it was a sort of ‘oh ok, let’s do it’ kind of thing. It was really good fun for the first month, and then you realise it’s a daily thing… it’s the pet you can’t get rid of, so you better get used to it! The people that have come through, the community that’s growing out of it, is all really exciting. I get a buzz out of seeing everyone come in and really enjoying it, whether it’s people who have been in the game for years like Channel One or IG Culture who love doing it and bring that energy, or whether it’s the new young up and coming artists I’ve discovered through the station! People like Jan Schulte. I’m not programming it, I’ve got a team of people, so I’m listening to Worldwide FM and hearing stuff and going, fucking hell that’s really good! And now I’m even bringing that energy with me to my BBC show. It’s just an extended version of what my dream is about radio. When I listen to someone like Francesco Tristano talk for half an hour about playing the piano when he was five and then doing sellout shows at the Royal Festival Hall and then mixing with Carl Craig and experimenting with electronic music… and then he goes on and does a 40 minute live performance mixing piano with electronics… that to me is brilliant. That’s what Worldwide FM is about, providing a platform for people I love to go further in their creativity, whether that’s two hours of Marshall Allen talking about the golden age of Sun Ra, or Tash LC who’s a really good young DJ interviewing Batida from Portugal and not even playing any music for 45 minutes! I was meant to be doing something but I had to stay sat in my car because it was like listening to my favourite talk radio! So yeah, it’s been really good.
What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a record?
I did spend a lot of money on a José Prates record called Tam…Tam…Tam…! which Floating Points had played me and I’d been on a quest to find it ever since. I ended up buying it for £1000 in Brazil. To be honest with you, I’m a little bit impatient when it comes to digging – I don’t spend a whole day going through the internet finding that one tune that no one else has played yet. I can’t be bothered any more, I’d rather listen to other shows. But god almighty I’m spending a lot on records on the moment! Discogs is so great and also so bad. I should say I never spent any money on anything other than records until the age of 32, so literally until I got married and had a child, every single penny that I had was spent on records. But now I get paid more money at my gigs and stuff I can spend it on records – my wife doesn’t like it but it’s all good!
What’s the best bargain you’ve ever found?
There’s a record which is worth quite a lot called ‘Pretty Bird’, by a singer called Terea. I was out in Florida with Rob Gallagher of Galliano, a band that’d signed to my label and just made their third album. We hired a car and ended up in some weird little town in the middle of nowhere, and I walked into this record shop and bought ‘Pretty Bird’ for under a dollar. I started playing it on Kiss FM when I got home and it became a bit of a classic, so yeah, that was a good one.
Electric Chair Presents – Gilles Peterson & Friends takes place at The Refuge, Manchester this Saturday 30th September. Tickets available here.