“I’Ve Always Been A Futurist”: Hifi Sean Talks
Hifi Sean’s ’FT’ album follows a tried and tested formula. The release sees him collaborate with artists whom on the whole you wouldn’t expect to feature within an electronically created environment.
Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, Fred Schneider from The B-52s, Yoko Ono, David McAlmont and the recently departed Alan Vega (whose last ever recording is the emotive ten minute closing track of the album), all feature on a record that plays out as a love letter from an artist to his collective influences.
Before becoming a well respected electronic DJ, Hifi Sean, otherwise known as Sean Dickson was the lead singer in both The Soup Dragons and The High Fidelity. He achieved success on both sides of the Atlantic with the former and critical acclaim with the latter. With a thirty year career in music under his belt we decided it was time to see the man behind the Hifi.
For those who might have been aware of you before the recent release of your new album it might seem like you had perhaps been absent for a while. The record comes following what was a fifteen year quiet period: in fact it was so quiet that I hadn't in fact pieced together that you had been involved with Soup Dragons previously. Can you fill in the gaps between when The High Fidelity ended and becoming Hifi Sean? How did this lead to the album?
"I’ve been djing on and off for many years, even as far back as The Soup Dragons. Back in 90's I had a little night in a cool bar in Glasgow called Bar 10 where I just played my collection of disco 12"s and people would dance on the bar, the owners would occasionally have a lock-in and we would just go crazy to some great records. Then I started a party at the Glasgow School of Art. It was every Thursday night called 'Record Playerz' with Dj Hush. We ran that for about six years and we packed it out every week, we still do the odd reunion party at Dalston Superstore these days, a place I love to DJ. I then moved to London and even though I never really planned to be a full time DJ it just kinda happened as more and more people would ask me to play sets at their parties."
"The last record The High Fidelity made was the 'Omnichord Album' in 2001. It was a kind of experimental project, to write a whole album with my favourite instrument which was a huge part of the band . John Peel was actually the catalyst who came up with the idea as he said to me I really do not think anyone has done this before so go ahead and make one, to which I replied if you write a track on it I will, so he wrote the track 'Pig Might Fly' with me about his wife who he called 'The Pig' “
I know the album well, so what did you think when you heard that riff used on Gorillaz' global hit 'Clint Eastwood'..it’s a total rip off…
“Yeah Damon Albarn – every idea he has is ‘so original'"
"In fact the engineer of The High Fidelity 'John Smith, was recording with Blur when they saw me making a big noise about omnichords and a few weeks later Damon was on Channel 4 playing one. Not that I can stop anyone playing an omnichord, but next thing I know he uses the same preset on the instrument on a track after our album was out. Of course to this day I still get told ‘you copied the Gorillaz’, story of my life that. But I’m very proud of those two albums by The High Fidelity, first one ‘Demonstration’ was partly recorded in India with a Bollywood film orchestra."
Parts of Demonstration such as the track "Odyssey of a Psychonaut” seem to come from the same place as the likes of Flaming Lips, Olivia Tremor Control or Mercury Rev. Would I be right in thinking these bands were influences at the time, psychedelic, but really lush and cinematic?
“I don't really think so although I do like those bands. I was listening to Bollywood film soundtracks and trying to work out how to meld the sound the bands had naturally in a live room, and produce it like it was a soundtrack to one of those movies. The High Fidelity were years ahead of their time and literally would floor people when we played live, every single gig we played added a few hundred fans each night. I’m incredibly proud of those years and those two albums."
"I used to give myself too many guidelines in the past but the one thing I did learn about The High Fidelity and making those two albums is that when you think outside the box and throw the rule book away you can make music that transcends even your own personal thought processes."
So there’s a gap from when The High Fidelity ended to when you took up DJing full time, what happened during that time?
"After the band split I became very depressed and ill, this was the lowest point of my life and at that point I knew the only way was upwards and started to invest myself into music again, mostly as a DJ at the club night I mentioned before at the Glasgow School of Art. It was a way to keep involved and share music with people without the full emotional attachment as I lost all my confidence in myself; it took many years to find that again. 'Ft.' only took about two years to make out of those 15 years and most of that was the travelling about to actually make it."
There was a piece in the Guardian a few months back about the psychological issues brought on by life on the road, and being in a band in general.
The late nights, the various excesses, living a life which can’t really be classed as ‘the norm’…
When the highs subside, or you come off the road and are hit with the reality of normal life it takes its toll on a lot of artists pretty hard. Is that the same experience you’re talking about?
“I really sent myself over the edge with the whole thought process and artistic input I put into those two High Fidelity albums that I literally sent myself over the edge and completely burnt myself out emotionally and physically, I couldn't even think where to go next and really just closed down within myself."
"I think most artists deal with depression and believe me I have been there, as someone who gives out in any art form you question your abilities more and more to the point of undermining yourself and this was my big problem for many years. I kinda wrote myself off and lost the respect in myself and all self confidence. Depression does that, it plays with your self- belief, it plays with your view on yourself and where you want to go, you have to give yourself a really big slap and reality check sometimes."
So it sounds like a triumph in the face of adversity, it’s been a struggle to get to this point artistically, I guess in times of trouble we head back to those records that we’ve known and loved which have made us feel good in the past, is that why the album seems to be a nod to the artists that have influenced you?
“Yes, I wanted a piece of work which said a lot about me. I hadn't made an album in such a long time due to my complete disinterest in the music industry and the attitude towards my previous works and the misrepresentation of me as an artist. I had to make something so unique and unlike anyone else that I could never get myself into that circus of all that crap again. I have achieved that, and through this I think people are starting to respect that maybe they were wrong about past situations."
"This album is me curating my life through myself and other voices who are added to add the colour to what I am and what they are all about, all unique individuals creating their own paths in what they do artistically."
The inclusion of Norman Blake starts to make more sense now!
"Yeah well I grew up in Bellshill, a small suburb of Glasgow where we had a right little music scene with myself and rest of The Soup Dragons, Duglas from BMX Bandits and Norman from Teenage Fanclub. As teenagers we used to go to the local disco called 'The Charleston' with a bunch of 45's to get the DJ to play them around the cheese he played on Saturday nights. One night we got him to play 'Upside Down' by Jesus and Mary Chain, the floor would clear and we would proudly dance about like the local outcasts and freaks that we were to the disgust of the local rough boys and girls who just found us hilarious. It was the first time we started to connect slowly to other people with music who would slowly join our circle of indie freaks."
Ahh, that three second intro to ‘Upside Down’ is literally the most thrilling intro to a track ever, right? (Quickly followed by "Only Shallow" by My Bloody Valentine) …
What's your fave Mary Chain album and 3 words why?
"‘Psychocandy’ – futuristic – classic – emotional…"
“That 7" was a record that changed things for a 16 year old me in many ways. It was my wake up call, and it was my education, the song, the production by Joe Foster, everything. ‘Psychocandy’ came and it was just everything you wanted and hoped for, I was really lucky to see them in those early Glasgow days, and The Soups and The High Fidelity both played a few times with them. The Reid brothers are fucking geniuses in my book. This new album will be a game changer and will make you realise what a pile of shit the opportunist indie music scene has become."
I used to do the same with tunes. I always made sure I bought records before anyone else at school so I had Adamski's ‘Killer’ weeks before it got in the charts, was the first one to have ‘Technique’ by New Order, or ’Nowhere’ by Ride and used to play them to my friends at school who mostly hated them and thought it was freak music, then six weeks later they'd be (annoyingly) going around telling people they loved them, must be a DJ thing.
“Yeah, I get records months before they are released these days, some amazing ones never see the light of day actually. We live in a world oversaturated by digital noise these days, unless it’s very special or you got $$$ to spend on promotion it's getting harder and harder to get heard.
Why do you think so many bands are reforming and touring as it’s all about brands these days, that band name is a brand like a perfume you smell that reminds you of your first shag as a teenager, it’s all very retro and living in the past, I have always been a futurist. There was no social media then, you had to prove yourself what you were into with others physically and emotionally."
Why did you collaborate with the people you did? From a listeners point of view my favourite thing about the album is that the people you work with apart from Paris Grey, Crystal Waters and Billie Ray Martin are voices you don’t expect to hear on club music.
"Everyone on the album is a unique individual who walks their own path and always have. I like to think I have too, although many pieces of uneducated journalism in the past has created a few hills to climb, but do you know something, it has made me a stronger artist. Why do you think I had such a big breakdown for those years , I lost the plot as an artist and was completely lost and honestly did not know if I had it inside me to make music again, but once I started working with these artists on 'Ft.' it gave me the confidence in myself to keep going. There were a lot of personal achievement issues for me with this album and when I sit back and look at the vinyl copy in my hands it gives me a huge sense of relief that I got there in the end”.
I was too young for C86 but was a prime customer for the indie dance (let's not say baggy!) crossover as I was about 13 at the time and I loved Humanoid, Future Sound of London, Orbital as much as I loved bands like Pixies, Teenage Fanclub or My Bloody Valentine, so when bands shifted their musical sound to incorporate dance music into their rock sound I lapped it up. The Mondays, The Scream, Paris Angels, The Beloved, World of Twist etc, I remember buying the weekly music mags and reading those bands getting a hard time because of the shift in musical styles.
It seemed like The Soup Dragons in particular had to strive harder for credibility because of getting into the charts. It didn't help with bands saying they had dance elements to our music when their previous albums were rock but I don’t recall many other bands being as called out as the Soup Dragons for commercial success.
“We were branded with a scene which to be honest our records didn’t really stand up to. I mean ‘Lovegod’ and ‘Hotwired’ sound nothing like any Mondays’ or The Roses tracks which is something that to this day still annoys me as were doing our own thing. Yes ‘I'm Free’ was a massive worldwide hit and with hits come the hurt, but looking in retrospect we did do a lot of things first which we have never been credited for."
For me, those bands were like a little insight into what was going on in a club scene I was still too young to experience. The very first time I heard the Vince Clarke remix of ‘Wrote For Luck’ was on the shonky late night clubbing TV show The Hitman & Her and it was literally the most exciting thing I’d ever heard..
“The attitude was the same; we were going to acid house parties in Glasgow and being attracted to the energy of the punk attitude of that scene. A year before ‘I’m Free’ came out in '89 we had a 12" called ‘Mother Universe’ which had a dub which was getting played at acid house parties and was a big record for Terry Farley at Boys Own, we even played the track at an acid party live on stage. We were paid in ecstasy which of course we took before we went on like 90% of others at the time! It was a very loving and powerful period of music where scenes, sexuality and musicality all came together, it did not matter anymore that you were an indie band, what did matter was your attitude to life and we all shared the same with many others from those parties."
So what was it that triggered the change in the acceptance of this musical fluidity?
“It wasn’t til summer of 1990 that most of the generic indie rock scene really started jumping on the whole remix thing, this was something that no one would have even remotely done for their indie credibility a year before. So yeah for once I am going to stand up for myself and say that myself and the band need to be credited for some of the productions which I may add were our own, and be credited for not being such a bandwagon thing as magazines at the time accused us of. In fact we were told we jumped on a bandwagon that a particular magazine invented, they put us on it, and then said we jumped on it, yes it is as ludicrous at it sounds really!"
"Basically we were in Glasgow and did not ass lick with a lot of these London journos like so many were doing to get their lines in the press, no one knew us as people and yes it did look like we kinda changed a bit , but we decided in 1988 to start sampling and experimenting more with sound."
I guess with hindsight we can now see a clear lineage, the electronic sounds of The Soups and The High Fidelity to the DJ work which is mainly 4/4 based, to your album.
”Only now in context with all the work I have done over the years, including the recent album does it make sense that it was my intention all along and I wasn’t being an opportunist. Twenty five years later I still make music and DJ all over the World and live my life in clubs, yeah that is someone being opportunist for a scene they know nothing about, give me a break! What bandwagon? Indie Dance a term which we were one of the first bands ever called as a criticism by press and now it's actually a category on most download sites and a whole genre of music sitting alongside 'Nu-Disco' and very respected by many."
It’s like shoegaze, that was literally a swear word back in 1993, now it’s a highly respected musical form.
“Exactly, so if we were slagged us off for being indie and dance – are we not the originators of a scene that has lasted well over 25 years? We bought a sampler in 1988 as we lost our drummer Ross who went back to art school and decided to make an album with a drum machine and a sampler, no one was sampling Iggy back then, yeah REALLY like The Stone Roses ?"
It sounds like you had to work harder than other bands to become accepted, unlike the Roses or The Mondays despite them using producers such as John Leckie and Paul Oakenfold, and you producing The Soup Dragons yourself.
"I just laugh now at those uneducated attempts to brand my past with bands from the same year, do your work and actually listen to the fucking albums before making judging remarks. ‘Lovegod’ is a ground breaking and unique album in many ways and many others think the same too, it just didn't have the PR sheep behind it to tell everyone, they had to find it out for themselves and when it became massive in the States we were always told how it was an album that sounded unlike anyone else at the time."
"I recently pulled up the said music paper about the discrepancy in their facts to trying to make me look stupid and many others backed me up via their comments, people uniting to say 'fuck off, you’re wrong'."
"It was THAT quote: 'There’s always been a dance element to our records'”
"OUR RECORD COLLECTIONS – not our own fucking records."
"Why would I say that about our own records when there wasn’t? I wanted to kill the guy who wrote that as he knows damn well what we were talking about. It was about how records we collected had influenced what we were doing at that time, he purposely left one word off, so here is the actual quote 'THERE HAS ALWAYS BEEN A DANCE ELEMENT TO OUR RECORD 'COLLECTIONS'… Make sense now ?? Of course it does…"
Photography courtesy of Paul Grace. Buy the release HERE.