New Beginnings with James Priestley of Secretsundaze
It’s the start of a new chapter for one of London’s longstanding club ventures.
Secretsundaze has been synonymous with the party spirit of London for many, many years. More than twenty to be accurate. It has been powered by James Priestley and Giles Smith who helped breathe life into a number of venues and parties in the capital – bringing with them a fresh wave of musicians, DJ’s and artists who helped champion UK club culture at a time when it was much needed.
A lot has changed since it began, more recently came the announcement that Giles would be taking a step back from Secretsundaze to focus on other projects, a decision which is more than fair considering the pair have toured the globe relentlessly running parties and releasing records to boot.
However, many have since been asking what comes next for Secretsundaze. What’s the next step in the chapter? Sharon Andrews caught up with James to reflect on a time of change…
Secretsundaze has been a London clubbing institution for twenty years. In the beginning, did you dream it might become what it is today? Did you have big ambitions or was it just about having fun?
“No, we didn’t start out with any grand ambitions, it was simply the case of wanting to share music we loved to at first friends, and then anyone else who wanted to join, in an environment that we thought was welcoming and to a degree refreshing.”
Does your taste in music bare any resemblance to what it was 20 years ago or is it fundamentally the same? What constitutes a groove to you now versus 20 years ago?
“Yes on the one hand, there’s plenty of music that I liked or played back in 2002 when we started that I still love to this day and play. The early noughties were, on reflection, a bit of a golden era for deeper and more electronic house sounds. I’m not so into the broken beat side of things these days as I just feel it hasn’t progressed so much as a genre and whilst other influences have seeped in, it feels quite old school and dated to me. But a lot of the more progressive, electro and Italo leaning records that were big with me then are still sounding great and it’s great sharing them with younger audiences who maybe didn’t know them from first time round.”
You are known for playing all night sets. What is special to you about being on the decks from doors opening through to the end?
“It’s just a chance to express yourself more widely, to help create a mood and atmosphere that you can’t do so much if you’re playing a shorter often peak time set. It also gives you the opportunity to pace yourself a bit more, to pursue a bit more of a vision about moving in different directions, taking more risks, twists, and turns all of which I love doing as it keeps you on your toes.”
You’ve taken the Secretsundaze party, and your marathon sets across the globe from Glastonbury to Gottwood, from Tokyo to Berlin’s Panorama Bar and Frankfurt’s Robert Johnson. How does the vibe compare at your international gigs to the Pickle Factory or Colour Factory? Do you think the crowds get Secretsundaze in the same way?
“It varies but often we’ve managed to translate it well. When you tour as a DJ you’re bringing your music to these different places and seeing what works and lands well with different people, but you’re also bringing your vibe and message and I think with the positive music that we play, that helps to recreate that vibe and atmosphere. Sometimes the vibe is more electric when we play abroad as there’s more a sense of expectation and occasion than when we play in London, which is obviously a more common occurrence. For example, I played a 6-hour set at Pickle this Saturday just gone, and it was beautiful, the crowd really followed my flow, but the vibe was kinda deeper and heads down rather than really rocking, which you might create on shorter / headline sets when travelling.”
You’ve always had a loyal and dedicated following in London. Are there some people at the parties that have been there since the beginning?
“Oh yeah for sure, they don’t come to every party still but there’s a good contingent that still represents. That said, we did find that the pandemic played a big part in changing people’s lifestyles and the reset that we had was enough for quite a few people from the early days, to change their habits and going out to parties was something that many people dropped, which is a shame.. But we’re all about diversity and for us it’s just as important that younger people are turned on to what we do as the balance of those, and the older heads makes for a genuinely mixed crowd which is quite rare to see on London dancefloors these days.”
New party faces are crucial to an events life span. Secretsundaze have managed to stay relevant and keep one of London’s longest running parties fresh. Why do you think that is so? How have you managed to keep it evolving?
“I think by having the balance of a strong musical backbone but also moving with the times. First and foremost, we’re music lovers and fans and that itch to share the music we love is what makes us tick. So as long as our tastes twist and mutate it keeps things interesting for us and the people coming to our parties. Plus, I think as dance music can move so fast especially these days, and things can come and go so quickly, that sometimes people search out something that’s a little more solid, and I see why. I think that curiosity in the right people leads them to our door and then they often seem to like what and how we do, and so on..”
Secretsundaze next evolution of the global clubbing institution has been the Spirit of Sundaze Ensemble. When was this idea conceived what was the vision?
“Well, it was originally conceived about 13 years ago, as a way to help mark our 10th anniversary then, the idea of bringing together a group of musicians to reimagine, record and perform music that has been foundational at Secretsundaze across the years. That didn’t happen then but fast forward 10 or so years later, the idea re-emerged during lockdown and with the help and support of Southbank Centre and Arts Council, we set about bringing the idea to life, by first of all bringing on board an MD (Musical Director) that alongside myself, brought together the various band members etc. At the same time, I began the curational aspect of the music too, choosing tracks which had some importance to Secretsundaze but also that I could hear had some potential in terms of reimagining them. And then I went in on each track, taking cues from other styles and genres with a view to how we could rework them in a way that was interesting as well as respectful.”
Who are the core members and what parts do they play? Who are the main collaborators and who is in the pipeline?
“Lewis Moody is MD, keys player and co-producer alongside myself. Myele Manzanza is on drums – I first saw him play in 2014 as part of Theo Parrish’s live show at the Barbican, he’s sick! Oli Savill – an amazing Portuguese percussionist who was a part of Patrick Forge’s Da Lata project as well as a recording and touring member of Basement Jaxx no less. Johnny Brierley – a dope bass player who’s also one of my besties and who met his wife on the dancefloor of Secretsundaze. Johnny’s the insider who can truly channel that Spirit of Sundaze. Nikos Ziarkas – a killing Greek guitarist who also tours with Theon Cross and Chelsea Carmichael, two of London’s most notable musicians on the jazz scene here. Shivum Sharma – male vocalist who also DJs and produces his own music, making waves on the queer scene. Sahra Gure – an ace singer whose voice lends really well to the project. Myself (James Priestley) – live on keys, MPC, dub sirens & vocal dubbing as well as co-producer and Ensemble leader I guess. The most important thing to say about all the musicians is not only how they are jazz trained and schooled, and therefore the level of musicianship is very high, they all get and love dance music and so can translate their ability to create something that works in that sense too – that’s key to this project. There’s also quite a few exciting collaborators / guest feature artists / vocalists on the recordings too, so keen an eye out for those.”
Your 2022 debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall celebrated music that had been important to the Secretsundaze movement over the last 20 years, reimagined by the ensemble. Is this set to be an ongoing format, what are your plans to develop the sounds?
“Yes for now we’re concentrating on curating and reimagining music in this way. There’s lots of ideas of how we can develop this, but the project is still very much in its infancy so one step at a time.”
Spirt of Sundaze Ensemble performed at the brilliant Kala Festival in Albania recently. Was the full crew playing, what were your plans for this set?
“Yes all 8 of us went out there and we honed-in on more of a punchy and direct festival set, but also performing 3 new pieces for the first time. It was a pretty dreamy scenario, playing on the Empire stage where I’ve DJ’d a few times before, under the moonlight, looking out over the audience and the sea behind them. Certainly not an experience I’ll forget any time soon.”
Where else can we catch the Spirit of Sundaze in full effect and when?
“These dates are yet to be announced and we’re only just locking them this morning, but another headline London show at Earth Theatre in Dalston on Sep 21st and then at Las Dalias, the old hippy market in Ibiza as part of Beat Hotel festival on Sep 30th.”
Are there plans to commit the SOSE to vinyl?
“Yes, we’re hoping EP 1 will drop in September with LP 1 dropping early 2024.”
The Secretsundaze label has hosted acts well ahead of the curve like DJ Qu & Shanti Celeste, Zeitgeist Freedom Energy Exchange. What’s next for the Secretsundaze record imprint?
“We have a great new record from J. Caesar that’s gonna drop soon so keep an eye out for that, plus other bits, and projects we can’t mention yet.”
You have recently announced that you and Giles are going through some changes. Can you give us a little insight into this decision and the way forward?
“Yes that’s right, after 21 years of working together we both wanted a bit more freedom creatively and professionally, so we decided to go our separate ways. I’ll continue producing and DJing as Secretsundaze, steering the label and events forward as well as the Ensemble of course, and Giles will continue his own solo music career as well as exploring other projects. Much love and respect to Giles for everything he’s contributed to Secretsundaze over all the years!”
Secretsundaze will be taking over the stage at the Wild Wood Disco Festival in your hometown of Cambridge on Sunday 18th June. Tell us about the friends you have invited to play with you on that day.
“So, we have Cosmo Sofi playing, one of our new residents who recently rocked our stage at Kala Festival, Ruby Savage who we love and has played for us several times before. Dr Banana makes a long overdue debut; someone I’ve wanted to involve for yonks but just hasn’t happened and then Bradley Zero who’s been a friend of us and the party for some time also plays. In that order actually, and then I’m looking forward to playing the closing set after Bradley.”
London has a lot to thank Smith & Priestley for. Some say that Secretsundaze changed the face of London clubbing.How do you feel about that statement and how does it feel to have changed the way we dance?
“Well, it’s something that Time Out came out with, thinking back it was quite possibly Dave Swindells who wrote it and who are we to argue with him, he’s an authority on London night life if ever there was one. There certainly wasn’t the Sunday, daytime, outdoor / natural light parties back then so I guess we did offer something different, and it feels good to have given people an alternative.”
*Photography courtesy of Fabrice Bourgelle