FAREWELL TO LOW LIFE - BILL BREWSTER TALKS

Low Life is coming to an end after a 20 year journey. Bill Brewster tells us all about how him and Frank Broughton built an institution...

FAREWELL TO LOW LIFE - BILL BREWSTER TALKS

Low Life is coming to an end after a 20 year journey. Bill Brewster tells us all about how him and Frank Broughton built an institution...

Low Life is a very special party indeed. For the past 20 years, best friends Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton have been at the helm of this institution and now it’s coming to an end. Their two decade journey started with a small house party in Frank’s apartment in Harlem, NYC, back in the early '90s. Just good friends, a sound system and some good records. With this ethos always central, Bill and Frank have kept the parties coming - bringing it across the Atlantic in '97 and, via a number of different venues, to it’s current home at Corsica Studios. Along the way they’ve built up a hugely loyal community of friends and party-goers.

Alongside this, the pair have collaborated on the hugely influential book “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” and also run the excellent DJ History website, aptly described as dance music’s potting shed, which will also be brought to an end.

As a regular attendee of their parties, and someone who owes at least half of their friendship group to Low Life, hearing that it was all being wrapped up instantly brought emotions of shock, disappointment and then gratitude for all of the amazing moments that have been shared with beautiful people on their dancefloor. So, on a rainy Thursday afternoon, I Skyped with Bill to talk about their 20 year journey that led to Low Life becoming one of the cornerstones of the London clubbing scene. 

After 20 years of parties that seem to be getting better and better, and starting a new festival which everyone loves, why are you now knocking it on the head. Where’s the sense in that?

(Laughs) Because we’ve been doing it for so long and the parties are still really good. We wanted to finish it while it was really good rather than go on longer and then regret not doing it earlier. When you’ve been doing it so long it’s really hard to keep reinventing it and changing it all the time and we’ve done that several times over the years and that has really re-invigorated it. The last party we did was probably one of the best ones we’ve ever done, it was a brilliant party. And that makes it a really good time, from our point of view, to think about stopping.

One thing that has always struck me is that the community around Low Life is such an important part of the night. How did you build that?

Initially it was probably more of an accident than any kind of intention but when we first started doing the parties it was just us telling our mates that we were doing a party and hoping that people came. And for about the first 5 parties, certainly until we came back to the UK, we didn’t even have a name for it. Everyone just knew that it was me and Frank doing these parties and people would come. And then it just seemed like we weren’t going to stop doing them because we enjoyed doing them and they were really good and sort of successful so we semi-formalised them by giving them a name. There never was a plan or a master plan about it. Because it grew fairly organically through our own network of friends, we tried to keep it that way and we always had the idea that it was more of a professional house party than a proper club. We never really did any promotion. We tried to actually discourage people from writing about it in a lot of instances because there’s been a few occasions over the past 20 years where it’s become slightly trendy from a press point of view.

We’ve actually asked people in the past not to write about it because it was doing really well on its own, it didn’t need press coverage. We’ve never made it particularly easy for people to find out about it, I mean since the internet has arrived that’s changed a little bit. I would say prior to the introduction of the forum on DJ History it really was still very much a word of mouth party and the forum changed that a little bit and widened it out. But even before the forum started, which was 2003, we were already getting between five and six hundred at parties even then. So it wasn’t like we had a hundred people and then once DJ History really got going it suddenly changed. It definitely changed how people found out about it but essentially it is still is just a group of friends, and their friends.

It always struck me from when I first started coming that when I say to people 'I’m going to Low Life' they’d either never heard of it or they go every time without fail and I really like that.

Yeah I think that’s a product of the way we developed it really, that we deliberately avoided publicising it too widely and we didn’t even mention who was DJing; it was just like “we’re having a party, come.” I'm pretty sure that even when guys like Greg Wilson played, I think it was his third gig after coming out of retirement, we didn’t even advertise the names of people playing and it seemed to work. Because it worked there was no need to think about changing it.

Going back right to the beginning, you and Frank actually grew up very near to each other but you didn’t meet until you both ended up in New York in the early 90s.

Yeah, Frank went to school in Market Rasen, which is about 16 miles from Grimsby. He grew up in Lincoln, which is a bit further away, but yes he went to school just down the road from where I grew up. When we met in New York we did have a few mutual friends as well. There’s a guy called Tim Bradford who I used to work with years ago who’s also a mate of Frank’s extended gang of mates in Lincoln, so we did have a few mutual friends already. It was pretty weird that we hadn’t met already though because we were writing for similar magazines when we first met. But I knew about him because of his byline in magazines that I was writing for and he came and introduced himself the first week I was in New York and then that was it really. We just really got on well and we started talking about writing a book together within a fortnight of meeting each other, but we didn’t actually do anything about it until four or five years later.

A youthful Brewster playing records in Frank's appartment in New York at one of their first parties

So did you both have the idea individually already percolating away or did the book come out of your first meeting?

No, I think the idea of writing a book together crystalised when we met each other really because we were both blown away and excited by the aural history tradition in New York that had gone on for decades. You had guys that had been going out clubbing for years and knew who had broken a particular record, and you could mention a particular record to a lot of DJs or club fans in New York and they often would be able to say exactly who the first person was to play it and I just used to think “how do you know that information?” It’s incredible all these people who were into disco and house and hip-hop had all of this amazing knowledge in their heads about what had happened in New York in the 70s and what had happened in New York in the 80s and yet none of it had ever been documented and it just seemed obvious to write about it. Maybe it seemed obvious to me and Frank because we were British and we were outsiders because it’s kind of strange that no-one American had ever thought to write a lot of that stuff. I mean, you know there were some Americans who had written about it but not in any detail so it just seemed really obvious to us.

When I first read the book I was really struck by the chapters on Northern Soul and, again, it’s another thing about that aural tradition about the records that people were getting and no-one in London knew anything was going on. So when you first get into acid house and parties you don’t realise that all of this has been happening for decades but just with different records.

Yeah, I think the nerdy trainspotter element is not exactly peculiar to the UK because there was the popcorn scene in Belgium which was also similarly trainspotter-ish but there definitely did seem to be something about British kids and their obsession with black America that stretches back to the first time Big Bill Broonzy came over to London not long after the war had ended and loads of young white kids came down to see him play then. So it was really already happening in the late 40s and early 50s and that carried on through to rock n roll, soul, R&B, funk and all of these different things and I think that’s been a constant story - the relationship between working class white Britain and African Americans. There just seems to be some sort of respect or fascination or interest. I don’t know how to describe it really. When I first started to discover black music it was the same for me. I remember just being endlessly fascinated by the culture and the way that they would use language and the lyrics were all so different to the way that we spoke.

Party survivors on the steps of Frank's apartment in NYC 

I guess our British history and culture can seem very fusty and quite boring really and then you get this stuff coming from America and it seems like the coolest thing ever. Going back to the parties, you moved it back over to the UK in the late 90s right?

I think I moved back in the summer of '96 and then Frank came back about 3 months later and we started doing the parties again in March '97. We did one in Frank’s mate Skelly’s loft on Kingsland Road. In fact, out of the first four parties I think three of them were at Skelly’s, quite near to where the rail bridge is now where you have Basing House and stuff like that.

For as long as I’ve been in London your home has been at Corsica Studios in Elephant and Castle. Tell me how you ended up there.

I think it was 2002 and I’m fairly sure we were the first people to do a party there. We’d wanted to do a party with Adrian before that because prior to Corsica he had a venue in Kings Cross which he lost due to a compulsory purchase order for the redevelopment of the Kings Cross area for the Channel Tunnel and all that. So, before we got a chance to do a party in Kings Cross, he moved to Corsica and we kept in touch and ended up doing a party there not long after he moved in. It was quite basic then. There were only two toilets in the whole venue and I remember there were queues down the dancefloor because obviously with four or five hundred people in there and only two loos you’re going to get a bit of a queue. So yeah, it was much more basic and it wasn’t fully licensed. It was very warehouse basically.

One of the things I’ve always found quite fun about Low Life is the fancy dress themes. Have you always done that since year dot?

I think it happened from fairly early on but possibly not from the very first parties. We’ve always thought of it more as a sort of theme than just fancy dress and it’s a really hard thing to get the balance right because what you’re looking for is not people just going to a fancy dress shop and getting stupid costumes but actually using their imaginations to try to look good or elegant or amazing or different. So we’ve always tried to think of themes that meant you couldn’t just go to a fancy dress shop and cheat. For us it was always about trying to find something in your wardrobe or in a charity shop that you can make fit and that’s part of the fun of it and when it works it’s brilliant because we’ve had some costumes that have been really brilliant. We did a religion one at Corsica and the way that people used it was fantastic.

And I think also when you do dress up like that it kind of breaks down inhibitions a little bit which was partly the motivation for doing it. Just to increase that friendliness between people, which our parties have become known for, I suppose. With that idea of people being really friendly, and everyone being welcoming, if you look slightly bizarre or daft or amazing in a costume it helps with that process.

The dancefloor in Skelly's loft

Are there any specific memories spanning the whole of your time running Low Life that really sum the party up for you?

Oh god there’s loads! I mean it’s been such an amazing privilege to be able to play. I’m the only person who’s actually played at every party and it’s been so great to have a crowd that are so responsive. But having said that, there are certain moments that you remember. Before we had Corsica we used to do parties in a place called Fortress Studios, near Old Street roundabout. When we first started doing things there was nothing around there but unfortunately they built nurses accommodation across the road and then the problems with noise pollution put the kibosh on that. Some of the parties we did there were just incredible and I remember a few times where you finished the night and it felt like I hadn’t been playing the records myself. It felt like someone had just been handing me them after each time I played a record. It really did feel like it was a partnership between me and the dancefloor. It felt like they were telling me what to play and I was just the transmitter of this music and I’ve never really felt that in many other places. It does happen occasionally but it’s so rare, and yet that feeling happens frequently at Low Life.

There was another party recently where we brought over Strange Fruit from Norway to Corsica, maybe two or three years ago, and Bruce Tantum came over from New York and it was just, I don’t know... Occasionally there’s just an incredible atmosphere in the place and that was one of them. The set that Bruce played was amazing. He was completely trolleyed, the mixing was horrific but there was just something about the records he played that was just perfect for the moment and both him and Strange Fruit were just brilliant that night. I remember not long after that I was decorating and I just played their mixes over and over so it also reminds me of decorating my house.

In terms of music, you guys have never seemed to worry too much about playing the new thing all the time. Over the time of running Low Life how do you think you’re musical outlook has changed?

Well I think the early parties were a little bit more house based but even then we were still paying disco and sort of oddball music. I remember the rolling stones getting played at some of the early parties so we did always mix it up. But I think it was definitely a bit more house oriented. But then as it developed it became a lot more varied I think. Just because I think we were able to do that a way that we weren’t necessarily able to do it in the early years. There was a period in the UK that if you played in a club is was hard not to play house because it just felt like some sort of unstoppable force. But as the 90s rolled on it felt like it was easier to start varying things a bit more and changing the tempo and disrupting the night a little bit with changes in atmosphere and those sort of things have become part of what people think of as Low Life now.

I’ve always loved the way you have the split over the two rooms, with the more heads down house stuff in the small room and then in the main room everyone’s singing along to disco.

Yeah, it’s funny because originally when we were doing two room things it was primarily more house-orientated stuff in the main room and more disco and Balearic stuff in the little room. And then it just changed over somehow, I can’t remember how or when; it was since we moved to Corsica, I think. But I mean there’s always been other stuff played in both of those rooms. I’ve always played house in the main room as well as playing other things and equally I’ve always play other bits in the back room as well. But I know what you mean, one is definitely more electronic and probably a bits heads down.

Now that you guys are gracefully bowing out what do you see as the most like-minded and exciting parties that are going on now?

Well there are a few people who have started doing parties that were inspired by Low Life which is amazing really - that people could be arsed to go and try to do a version of what we do! Out of all of them the most fun one is Cut the Rug that our friends Michael and Ola do which has definitely got the same vibe. It’s smaller than Low Life and they tend to do them in 150-300 capacity venues and I think they’re really carrying on that tradition.

My favourite venue is the Lift in Bethnal Green because it’s sleazy and not entirely legal.

Is that not getting closed down?

Well yes, it is getting closed down but I think it’s had a reprieve till the end of the year. But I just love going to places like that because that feels to me like the real London, the old London. There used to be illegal drinking dens in the 1970s that were very similar to that that used to be full of prostitutes and gangsters and god knows what else and it’s got a bit of that vibe about it. I don’t know why but I’ve always been attracted, not necessarily to the dark side of life but more the sleazier side of London and there’s so much of it in London as well. Or, well, there should be.

So to talk about DJ History a little bit – you started this just after the book was published right?

Yeah the book was published at the end of October '99 and we set the site up in January 2000.

Then a few years later came the infamous forum which a lot of my mates are huge fans of but I’ve always been struck by the fact that it’s such an amazing resource with all of the interviews that you’ve got on there. Are you going to be leaving that up or is that coming down?

We’re going to take it down. We’re going to take everything down. I know it sounds a bit Maoist to suddenly dispense with everything but we’ve been doing it for a long time, it’s been amazing doing it and we’ve had fun. But, to Frank and me, it feels like we spend so much of our time faffing around doing bits and bobs for LowLife and the festival and DJ History which we’ve never earned much money from, I mean any money we make we put straight back in, that we actually don’t have time to do other things that we might like to do. Even though we may not know what those things are yet. I think the reason that we want to just trash everything and burn it to the ground, even though we are still best mates and we’ll still do stuff, but it will allow us to do other things and the other stuff is stopping us from doing that.

It feels like when we’ve finished doing all of the stuff associated with Low Life and Wild Life and the website that we don’t have any time to do anything else together and that’s a slightly frustrating thing really and this is partially the motivation from my point of view for why I wanted to stop. And I think Frank feels the same, you should speak to Frank and I’m sure he’ll give his own reasons. For me and him it’s been in the air for the last couple of years not because anything was wrong in particularly but it just felt like we’d done everything we could do with it and maybe it’s the time to knock it on the head so we can think of new things to do that are interesting as well.

This brings to mind a quote of yours I read in an interview with you where you said when DJing you liked to build things up and then just suddenly stop everything and play something weird and then start building up again from there. Is this just the DJ set of your life continuing?

(Laughs) Well maybe. I’ve been really fortunate to have been involved in a lot of things in my life both in the music industry and outside of it and what I’m doing now is not the career I started doing when I left school. And so I’ve had a lot of different experiences and I suppose the more experiences you have fills you with the thirst for doing yet more things. The reason we did the festival was like “wouldn’t it be fun to do a festival?” and we’ve done that. The thing is, once you do something a few times then there’s a certain amount of repetition involved. You learn how to do it and then it becomes about repeating the steps that you’ve done before in order to achieve the same aim and maybe what we’re trying to do is to find new things to do that require us to learn new skills.

Low Life comes to Dorset - summer of 2014 (image copyright Heather Shuker Photography)

Speaking about the festival, you’re doing it at a new site this year. What’s this new place like?

Well we sort of got turfed off the old site because we had a lot of issues with the sound, as I’m sure you probably know. There were a lot of stressful arguments about how loud the sound could be and it was difficult. That’s not to say that we didn’t sympathise with them. There was unfortunately a neighbour about 300 meters away who was complaining and there’s not very much you can do about that so we just had to move. We found a new site in Wiltshire, it’s quite near to Avebury, and the nearest house is 1.2 miles away so it’s much further away. It’s on a fairly big farm in a valley and it’s an incredible location. If you walk to the top of the hill you get a great view of the countryside for miles around. There’s a chalk white horse down the road, which you can walk along this hill to get to it. It’s just a really idyllic setting. I think people will be blown away when they see it.

What struck me about the festival last year was that it felt just like the free parties I grew up with in Shropshire but just with less psychedelic trance. Was that the idea? Were you just trying to transplant the party from a club to a field?

Yeah I guess so. You don’t really know when you do these things if they’re going to succeed. When I first suggested it I thought “would people really come all the way from London to go to one of our parties in the countryside for a whole weekend?” It just seemed slightly improbable but they did and last year, as you say, the atmosphere was absolutely amazing. It was also helped by the fact that we had incredible weather, which really made it. It was great the year before but the weather was not so good. Even then it was really good fun but last year it was just t-shirt weather the whole weekend and people were in shorts and bikinis and it was just fantastic. Hopefully we can have the weather that we had last year again this year!

(image copyright Heather Shuker Photography)

Going back to DJ History briefly; you’ve been involved in music journalism for a long time now and it seems that the landscape of that has changed quite a bit recently. How do you see things at the moment and how is the landscape lying at the moment?

Well this is not just particular to dance music but it’s become very difficult to earn a living writing about anything because of the rise of the internet. And we’re still in flux at the moment. We’re still in a place where we don’t know whether people will be paid for writing in 20 years time. At the moment, to me it feels like maybe it will actually be impossible to earn a living from writing in 20 years time. It’s certainly much more difficult now. When I started writing professionally in the late '80s the word rate was higher than it is now, 27 years later, and that’s not even including inflation. If you include inflation it’s a lot lower know than it was nearly 30 years ago and that’s pretty shocking really. A lot of writers are living on well below minimum wage so it’s actually a really difficult thing to pull off now. Unless you’re on staff, the idea of making a living purely on writing about anything is pretty hard. There really just can’t be many people doing it and I’m in a very fortunate position in that I have enough work in the various things that I do that I can earn a living from it. I really sympathise with guys who are just leaving college now. I just think what are these young women and men going to do for a living and it feels to me that it’s sort of crumbling away and I don’t know whether in 20 years it’s even going to exist and I find that pretty depressing.

On the plus side, writing has been opened up which means that there’s a lot of people who are really shit at writing but equally there’s loads of really talented bloggers and kids coming in. Also, I think what is good about writing about dance music now is there is actually a bit of history around it. And a bit of reasonably well documented history as well. When I first started it was hard to find out details about things. You were guessing about what happened when, unless you happened to have lived in New York or you happened to have lived through clubs in London in the '60s or you’d happened to have been a northern soul boy in Manchester in the '60s and '70s. It was really hard to find out information. Now there’s a whole wealth of books about techno, about house, about disco and all of that kind of thing. There’s actually a body of work there for people to work from that I think is helpful because 20 years ago it really wasn’t like that.

I wanted to round things off by asking if you had any parting message to the Low Life community who have been there over the years?

Wow. What has been the greatest experience of Low Life has not just been the fact that I’ve been able to play music and people have enjoyed that music but for me DJing is all about the dancefloor. I’ve never liked being stood up on a stage, I’ve always liked being tucked away in a corner because, for me, the dancefloor is the star. You can really see that at Low Life with the way that people take over the stage and make it their own with people in fabulous costumes dancing.

That’s what I love, this amazing, almost secret community that we’ve helped create and nurture. And those people, many of whom have become good friends of mine and Franks. There’s plenty of people who are our good friends now who really were just dancers on the dancefloor of Low Life. So it’s been a hugely important part of our lives and obviously we will miss it but we just feel that it’s the right time to do it. We are going to have one last blow out at the end of October so hopefully people won’t be too tearful at the end of that. But yeah, it’s just been an enormous privilege to be able to play to all these amazing people.

The top image and the images from Wildlife are taken by and copyrighted by the lovely amazing Heather Shuker. Please check out her website 

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