Ahead of his epic 8 hour marathon set at A Night With...at Loft Studios on Saturday, R$N caught up with Mr Greg Wilson to talk the perils of Disco Jesus, the 3 Bardos, slowing down the bpms and his landmark performance on British TV.....
The simple concept behind the A Night With...series of parties, at which you’re playing in October, can be reduced to a sort of basic equation: 1 DJ/8 Hours. What’s the longest set you’ve ever played publicly, will this be it?
It’s the longest since I started again in 2003, but back in the 70’s I did a few marathon sessions, including, I vaguely recall, a 24 hour one for charity.
With such a long format, what kind of approach do you apply to your set? I’ve read a previous interview where you mention the David Mancuso idea of ‘re-entry’, calming everyone down after sending them bezerk for hours and also the old school method of creating a couple of tempo dips throughout the night to play the ‘slowies’ to give everyone a breather. What are you going for?
I’ll be approaching the session as 2x4 hour halves. The first half will be a selection of tunes I played during my original years as a DJ (1975-1984), the second being tracks I’ve played since my DJ return, covering a similar period of time (2003 to date) to give proceedings a certain symmetry.
Do you sense there’s a general trend developing for slowing down the bpms and bringing the groove back, with nights such as Weatherall’s A Love From Outer Space being a prime example of satisfying people’s hunger for a slower tempo?
Definitely. More people are beginning to realize that it doesn’t always have to be uptempo four-on-the-floor tracks, there’s far more to dance music than that – a whole history in fact. I think that, post-Rave the majority of DJ’s became nervous of dropping the tempo below 120bpm, which is madness when you think of the wealth of classic club tracks that are slower than that, some significantly slower. I’ll happily play stuff under 100bpm up to above 130 – why restrict yourself to one tempo / one vibe when there’s a spectrum of great music to choose from. That was the norm back in the 70’s and 80’s, but the dynamic changed once ecstasy made its appearance in the late 80’s and the dance scene became more formulaic, with fast, more often than not, being the order of the day. We’re still experiencing the fallout from that era, but things are gradually changing.
The Paradise Garage was known as church and early NY clubs such as The Loft were said to be intensely spiritual places. Some of the legendary pioneers of club culture - the likes of David Mancuso, Larry Levan, Ron Hardy - are now looked upon almost as deities. Do you yourself feel that the experiences afforded in nightclubs between the dj, the music and the dancers go towards filling some kind of spiritual void; a kind of quasi religious experience?
I think you’ve got to be careful with this analogy. I remember when the Rave scene kicked in during the late 80’s and a friend of mine, who went along to one of the big London clubs of the time, reported back to me, with some bemusement. that the crowd were ‘worshipping the DJ’, all turned towards him with their hands in the air. Pretty soon DJ’s were being compared to shaman, which I thought ridiculous – most DJ’s back in the day, and I include myself in this, had over-inflated egos, so to compare them to people of true spirituality, who’ve worked on themselves for many years in order to master the ego, was pushing things way too far in my book, especially when DJ’s began to posture with outstretched arms inviting the acclaim of their audience, like some sort of Disco Jesus addressing His congregation. For me, DJ and audience are on the same level, the whole thing is reciprocal, but, especially at the height of the ‘Superstar DJ’ era of the 90’s, there was a big imbalance in this respect, with DJ’s increasingly regarding themselves as above the audience, not on the level, posturing as ‘educators’ rather than entertainers, which is their primary role – the more deluded seeing themselves as some sort of high-priest looking down on us mere mortals from their pulpit. All that ‘God Is A DJ’ stuff turned me right off.
Dance has always been a part of spiritual ritual, not only before there were clubs, but before the wheel, enabling the participants to access the necessary state of consciousness in which they can connect to the higher realms – trance isn’t just a genre of music.
All this said, you have to look at something like what David Mancuso was generating at The Loft in the 70’s from a whole different angle. He was doing it for real, with, of course, the aid of psychedelics and the ‘3 bardos’, taking up the baton from acid guru Timothy Leary, who was very much in search of a new spirituality back in the 60’s, founding his ‘League for Spiritual Discovery’. I wrote a piece called ‘David Mancuso And The Art Of Deejaying Without Deejaying’ in 2003, where I explored this direct link to Leary and his LSD parties at Millbrook, his home in NYC – this was the first time this connection had been brought to the fore, and the piece received Mancuso’s own seal of approval. You can read it in full on The Loft website: http://www.loftparty.org/disco.html
What did you get up to in the intervening years between retiring from djing at the end of 1983 and coming out of retirement in 2003?
Always involved in the music business in one capacity or another, mainly record production and management. It was a rocky road however, the ups matched by the downs. By the mid-90’s I was all at sea – the muse had deserted me and I was struggling for meaning, let alone to make ends meet. So, I know what it’s like to live on the bones of my arse – extremely unpleasant at the time, but all good for the soul. The high point was my work with the Ruthless Rap Assassins (as producer / manager) – we released 2 albums for EMI in the early 90’s (too few sales, but bags of acclaim).
Was it a bit daunting coming back to djing after so long away?
No, because there was no big expectations, no fanfare – it was all very organic, which set the tone for everything that’s followed. I hadn’t concocted some great scheme – I started again at the bottom rung of the ladder, with maybe 90 people (albeit the right 90 people) turning out for my ‘comeback’ night in Manchester in Dec ’03. From there the momentum built, one step at a time, before things accelerated in 2005, when my first ‘Credit To The Edit’ compilation was released, then again, in 2009, when my Radio 1 ‘Essential Mix’ was so well received.
Do you think the art of djing has been improved upon with all the technological advancements that have come along in the last twenty years with CDJs, djing programmes etc or do you think there’s a danger software etc is sort of de-skilling djs?
DJ’s are of course more technically skilled nowadays, but I’d say that the DJ’s of the pre-Rave era had better programming skills, which, ultimately, I regard as the more important of the 2 (a technically adept DJ who’s similarly adept when it comes to programming is obviously a DJ to be reckoned with). As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter what format you use or what software / hardware you have, it’s all about the tunes that come out of the speakers.
You’re the only DJ I know of who incorporates reel to reel into their sets, how is it to DJ with - are they very fiddly and are they as stable as, say 1210s, in terms of pitch?
DJ Harvey has also been known to use a reel-to-reel, but we each have our own individual approach. I use it to peeper the music I play with recorded samples and sound effects, as well as feeding it back through itself to create dub effects. I use a Revox B77, which was designed as a portable editing unit, and standard in most European radio stations in the pre-digital days. Given its purpose, it’s a sturdy machine, in a similar way to how I’d regard SL-1210’s as sturdy. It’s easy to break a switch off here and there, but it can take a lot of bumps and bruises before it’d conk out on you.
In the early days of your career, did you ever envisage that the culture of djing would go on to become such an enormous global culture in itself?
No, I don’t think anyone back then could have imagined it would work out in the way it has, even Nostradamus himself couldn’t have forecast how it’s turned out. When I started, in ’75, I was paid £6 a night (for the whole night), and felt I was doing ok for myself – back then, if you seriously wanted to make a career for yourself as a DJ the aim was to get onto the radio, and even then you weren’t going to make a fortune out of it. The very idea that, less than 2 decades on, DJ’s would be paid thousands of pounds to travel to far flung lands to play for just a couple of hours would have seemed ludicrous.
One of my favourite clips on youtube is of your appearance on The Tube in 1983, hosted by a younger, edgier Jools Holland which was, I believe, historic in the sense that it was the first time a DJ had mixed live on British TV. You seemed pretty relaxed, Jools Holland maybe not so much! How was it as an experience?
Relaxed? I was terrified! Being asked to do it was a major coup, and every self-respecting British DJ would, as a consequence, come to know who I was. However, the flip side of that was, if it went wrong, every DJ in the country would regard me as the fool who went on TV and fucked it all up. The stakes were high, and it wasn’t until I was in the studio listening to the 10 second countdown, before we went live on air, that the fear hit me full-on. A cameraman with a hand-held kept moving perilously close to my decks, and I was scared stiff that he’d bang into them and the records would jump – that would have been a total disaster for me, and I was all too aware of it. He did actually bang into them, but the needles held firm (the perfect example of that Technics sturdiness I spoke of), Jools Holland mentioned it in the commentary. It’s interesting that you thought I looked relaxed, I can assure you that, although calm on the outside, I was in sheer panic mode internally!
If you were in charge of booking a fantasy A Night With...with any DJ - past or present, dead or alive - playing the entire eight hour duration of the night, who would it be?
Having recently read the new book about Roger Eagle, ‘Sit Down! Listen To This!’, I’d be fascinated to hear what he’d play over 8 hours. Eagle was, amongst other things, the DJ at The Twisted Wheel in Manchester during the early-mid-60’s, so we’re talking about one of the true originals. I’d implore everyone who’s either a DJ, or who’s interested in understanding the evolution of club culture in this country, from the roots outwards, to find out more about this great man of records – I blogged about the book here: http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2012/08/sit-down-listen-to-this/
Finally, could you list eight tracks for us, one to represent each hour of your set at A Night With...and give us a kind of overview of what to look forward to?
Although it’s only 8 tracks you’re asking me to name, I don’t like to set things in stone, especially ahead of such a unique occasion, so, apart from what I mentioned above, with regards to the 2 halves of the night reflecting both my DJ past and present, let’s wait until then to hear what transpires.
Greg plays Brighton tonight at the Loft and lays down his A Night With... this Saturday at Loft Studios. All advance tickets have sold out but there'll be very limited tickets on the door from 10pm.