Tea With… Bill Brewster


Bill Brewster is many things. First and foremost he is a lover of many different forms of music. He is also a most excellent writer and journalist as witnessed by his seminal (a word not to be used lightly) book with Frank Broughton 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life' plus the manual that is 'How To DJ Properly' and his Record Players compendium with Frank from a few years back of tales told through the eyes of the players of black plastic. 

Originally a chef and football pundit – a staunch Grimsby Town FC supporter – Mr Brewster cut his teeth as a DJ playing Low Life warehouse
parties in Harlem and the East Village. He's also a dab hand at putting together compilations and has just compiled his second Late Night Tales entitled ‘After Dark: Nightshift’. "An obscure and timeless DJ­led journey which begins somewhere out in the near ocean, the waves are rolling
and lolling gently into the shore, while a full moon shines on the surface. It’s only faint, but somewhere nearby is the sound of bass, pulsing slowly, almost in time to the waves."

We thought it about time we sat down on the roof in mid summer for a cup of something and a chat with the cult figure. 

I guess we should first talk about Late Night Tales, you did one last year as well didn’t you?

Yeah I did, that was a spin-off – the set I did for Boiler Room was on a Friday afternoon where I did a warm up for the guys from Friendly Fires in the office. I don’t know why but I deliberately played really slow, electronic records. When Paul (from Late Night Tales) listened to the recording after he said ‘I think this might work as a compilation idea’ so that’s why we did the first one. That did well enough for him to want to do a second one and the reaction to this one has been fantastic. It’s been overwhelming really. He’s already planning a third one which we’re going to be working on towards the end of the year.

I’m amazed that compilations do well at all these days, it’s surprising!

I know! I think everyone just assumes that literally no-one buys music any more but they do and I think the thing is, if you’re serious about it as a label, you’ve got to market it in a way that is attractive to people who have iPods and stuff like that. That means if you buy vinyl, getting a free download code so that you can get mp3s of the tracks. On the mix CD I think the first 5000 or something like that come with a download so you can get the individual tracks as well. I think you’ve got to do stuff like that otherwise people won’t buy it.

People don’t buy CDs any more, no-one has CD players on their computers any more. I worked on some of the early Late Night Tales and they used to have 7”, do they still do them?

I don’t know whether they do them… They did a 7” of the cover version with the talking on the other side.

You did a track for it didn’t you? Gary sent me over the track you did with Ray, that was especially…

We did that specifically for the album, yeah.

So what’s the theory behind this one?

I guess what he wanted to do was bring some of the ethos of what they do at Late Night Tales, so having something original on there that wouldn’t be anywhere else, the same as they have the exclusive cover version. I’ve made sure there’s at least one track and on this edition of it we had 6 unreleased tracks. Either old ones from the vault like The Grid and the Fernando remix of The Detachments or brand new stuff that hadn’t yet come out that was lying in the vaults or whatever. The idea of it is to produce something that’s got a late night atmosphere but is slow. So it’s kind of moody, electronic music for the dancefloor but not above 115bpm. That’s the remit when I’m looking for stuff, nothing faster than that. Which sounds a bit fascist but, you know, the house music market and uptempo music is so well served, I just wanted to do something slightly different.

Sean (Johnston) and Andrew (Weatherall) are doing stuff as well, in a different vein but it’s the same sort of…

It’s absolutely the same feel that they’re mining, definitely, and when I mentioned a few tracks to Sean he said ‘that one’s really big’ which is great. It’s not like I was looking at their playlist but it’s kind of validation I suppose, stuff that you like and choose and they’re really into it as well.

You hear that sound that is just conducive to… it’s either dark rooms in a shitty London place or it’s out at Electric Elephant.

Yeah, definitely. I suppose it’s the antithesis of Ibiza and that’s kind of one of the things I’d like to evoke really, something that isn’t Ibiza. It’s a bit of a tragedy really because it is a big inspiration but it just feels like some horrible commercialised hell to me now. Every time I’ve been in the last few years it has just been awful.

It’s not fun any more.

Now that Croatia has developed a little bit it feels very much like there’s a yin and yang.

Especially when you’ve got Barbarellas which is pretty much how I imagine Amnesia, I missed Amnesia by five years but I imagine that’s how Amnesia was at the start in some sort of way.

Absolutely, open-air, free.

I think it’s an interesting time for festivals abroad again. There’s no denying that the age range for Elephant is significantly developed, let’s say, I’m 37 but I feel like I was the youngest person there which is great. It’s nice to go to a festival where people are still… It’s controlled raving, people who know how to get shit-faced.

I suppose so but what I really noticed is that there were a lot more younger girls than there had been and a lot of the ones that I spoke to had never been before. A couple of them had literally chosen that because they’d already booked flights out to Croatia and didn’t know what they were going to do once they got there and that happened to be on. There were a few sort of random reasons why people ended up there but they were all incredibly enthusiastic about it. I would say the age range is 25-45, there’s definitely the older crowd there as well.

Garden this year I thought had a wicked crowd. It’s a whole week long choice now and Mark is planning all of August out there now so I guess they’re looking to extend it further. It’s going to be the last Garden next year isn’t it?

Apparently, I did hear rumours when I was out there last week that next year is going to be the last one but I imagine they’ll replace it with something else.

I guess that kind of covers Late Night Tales but I was interested in Last Night A DJ Saved My life – will you be reviving it in light of ahem certain revelations? 

Funnily enough the edition that we re-did in 2007 to co-incide with the centenary of the DJ, which only came out in the UK, was never published in America and they’re now putting it out in September. We now, in the light of what happened with Jimmy Saville, have re-written it for the American market. The thing is, now his intentions are much more murky, that’s something you can never really know because he’s dead. We wrote it in a way that didn’t fundamentally alter his place in the story but obviously contextualised it in the light of his death and subsequent revelations. 

It’s a very difficult argument, well, not too difficult because he was a fucking weirdo…. But in terms of that time, it’s a very difficult conversation to have. Dave Lee-Travis and all those people, it must be quite difficult to write about that now?

I think you still have to say that he was fundamentally an important part of DJing in the UK. It might be for all the wrong reasons, now who knows what his motivation was. When we wrote that, we never really believed that his true motivation was DJing because in part of it we mention that he’s never owned his own records. He’s not really a music person, he’s a kind of weird celebrity. Even when we wrote it, I never felt his reasons for being such a pioneering DJ were altruistic in any way. Obviously, now it seems much more murky. You kind of think ‘was it simply to get access to young girls?’ and it may well be the case that that’s true but I don’t think we’ll ever know.

One could argue that to a certain extent there are people in this day and age that are, I’m not saying…

That we’re breeding a new generation of Jimmy Savilles?

Well… I’m not saying within these sort of circles. But when the age of the superstar DJ isn’t really a DJ any more and more of a lifestyle choice. One could argue.

Well yeah you could, there have always been different strands of DJing and that personality/entertainer type DJ, it wouldn’t surprise me. But then I’ve heard loads of horrible stories about quite well known, underground DJs shagging women left right and centre so I don’t think anyone is completely immune from it.

Let’s leave it at that…

Without naming any names! You’ve only got to look at a line of DJs and how good looking they are and a line up of their partners to see how good looking they are to see the disconnect between a DJ, his job and his looks.

That’s a good point to leave that on! So obviously Wildlife was another success this year, Joe Europe absolutely loved it, there’s quite a few of these 500 capacity events , obviously that’s ten related, going on with things like FIeld Maneuvers as well. It’s a nice number isn’t it?

Yeah, you’re right – it’s very related to TEN's (Temporary Event Notices). With the TEN's you give them free reign to experiment really and actually it gives you a great amount of freedom without a huge amount of commitment and organisational problems. For us it was a bit of a god-send because we did it on a whim and then thought ‘shit, what the hell do we do?’ and then kind of made it up. It worked well enough the first year for us to persevere this year and it went unbelievably well this year so we do really want to develop it, not into a big chill or anything like that but make it slightly bigger and keep the intimacy and atmosphere.

It’s a very difficult one isn’t it because I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved with Farr in one form or other since it started and it’s very difficult to grow like that. It still had that intimacy this year but when you go from 1000 to 1500 to 3000 it kind of starts to creep in. It’s nowhere near Glastonbury but it’s a very difficult thing to control that energy, for want of a better word.

I think in terms of the economies of scale, it’s really hard to make money from it when you’re doing it very very small. The first year we lost money and this year we made money but not very much, probably only just enough to offset what we lost last year. Having done it for two years and sold it out we’ve basically not made any money at all. But I don’t mind that, but there is a point when you’re putting in 4/5 months solid work between you, you do expect to get something out of it. It would give us a bit more freedom to do some things we want if more people came, I think we’re at the limit of how much we can offer for a crowd of 500, any more than that and we would lose money again. If we could double the capacity it would allow us to be a bit more adventurous with the things we want to do and the things we want to book. You’re balancing losing that special intimacy that you’ve created against having so little money that you can’t so the things you want to do. Having said that, I remember going to The Big Chill when it was as little as 4,500/5,000 and it was a very special place still.

I think that’s the top end isn’t it really. It’s a whole different ball game with agents as well. You know a lot of the people and, as you’re saying, it’s a 500 capacity but then things start to creep up and then they want a full fee. Rather than being a favour it has suddenly become you stretching yourself to quite extreme levels. It just feels like we’re back at that late 90s era of the absurd DJ fee again, the subliminal quadruple packs and that kind of crap. It feels like that’s watering down into the smaller festivals and it’s quite difficult for the smaller festivals to launch themselves. You’ve got great connections but for a smaller festival I think we’re in quite a difficult time.

It is difficult, I think that sometimes it’s really hard because I have it from both ends, I have an agent who negotiates fees for me and then I have to go to an agent to negotiate fees with. At one end I’m like ‘I’m not doing it for less than £X’ and there’s all kinds of reasons why you don’t want to do it – maybe you want to go out for dinner with your wife and you think ‘well if I’m not going to do that I want decent pay to not do it’. There’s a whole range of reasons why you want this money or that money. But equally I know what it’s like as a festival where the money just drains away very quickly. I’ve got high hopes for it, I think we can do something good with it, and the new location for 2016 is really amazing. I think we’ve got something that can take it up a notch and make it really special. Farr, for me, is a benchmark really of what we want to do with our festival.

I didn’t go to Glastonbury this year for the first time in a long time but having had Elephant, which is 1200 maybe, and Farr, they have a different energy to them. Glastonbury is amazing and, don’t get me wrong, from what Joe said about Lowlife there is something special about smaller amounts of people. Less dickheads I guess.

That is it. It is feeling like people losing things on a Saturday night in a tent and then someone handing it to them on the Sunday morning which happened to a few people. That’s the difference. Even in a festival of 2,500/3,000 I suspect you won’t get that as much and that’s inevitable because with 500 you feel like you’re in a field with a load of friends. I still think you can have something really special and amazing with that amount of people.

Our tent on Saturday was probably about 700 capacity and it was absolutely incredible and I think you can have it on a more compartmentalised level around a larger festival but it’s a difficult thing growing. It’s similar with DJ History, you obviously had to monetise it at some point with the downloads. You carry on doing something as long as you can because you fucking love it but you realise you’ve got to somehow make some money.

It is difficult. Let’s face it, people are still trying to work out how to monetise websites and I don’t think anyone has got the answer yet. We’re 20 years down the road from having the internet in a modern form and I still don’t think we’ve really solved that issue. You can build really amazing websites that are incredibly popular and you still don’t make any money from them. When we set up DJ History that was never the intention but it just happened and it kind of mushroomed and took off. I’m married, I’ve got kids and so there’s only a certain amount of time you can keep doing something just for the love. You’re in the same boat. 

You don’t want to ever look like a sell-out but you also need to be able to pay the bills somehow. How is DJ History doing?

At the moment it has taken a backseat really. I’ve been DJing a lot and Frank’s got a proper job temporarily and also the festival just took up the first six months of this year really but we’re going to rebuild it in the not too distant future. Not relaunch it exactly but start putting more content on again. DJ History was a victim of Facebook’s success really in that everyone goes on Facebook to talk about records instead. It’s not the only forum, all the forums I go on have suffered because of Facebook but I do think it is temporary and people will leave Facebook at some point and go back to specialist areas. I really want to keep it going and eventually I think those people, or a new crowd, will come back and start using it.

The back catalogue that you can archive in a way…

That’s the other thing. We’ve still got so many interviews to put up – we’ve only put up about 40 but we’ve got about 350 interviews. I’m still doing interviews now, I interviewed Boris Blank a few weeks ago. I’m still gathering interviews because I’ve got a vague idea for another book to write of which Boris would be part of. There is a lot of content to put up there still but it is getting the time to do it. I spend a fair bit of time every week doing things that don’t earn any money, just because it’s pleasurable for me to do them. I would always do that because basically I have always been a fan of music and record collecting and all that kind of stuff, it’s what I’ve done since I was 10. Just because I started earning money from it 25 years ago or whatever doesn’t alter that fact. To me, I’m still a record collector but I happen to get paid for some of the ancillary things that have grown out of me collecting records but fundamentally I’m still a record collector.

Do you still write for The Guardian?

Occasionally I do. I wrote Frankie Knuckles obituary, that was the last thing I did for them. Like all other newspapers and magazines, they’re trying to get all of their in-house employed writers to write everything these days so there’s not as much work for freelancers any more and I don’t really want to work full time for a magazine or newspaper, I’m happy doing what I’m doing.

So you still freelance a bit?

Yeah, freelance writing. During the week my main things are freelance writing, doing consultancy for record labels to put together compilations (I’m working on 2 or 3 different compilation ideas at the moment for big labels and smaller labels) and doing all kinds of things from press biographies and features for different magazines. Between that I look after my two kids because my wife has a desk job in London and she’s out early in the morning so I get the kids up and take them to school, take them to brownies and all that. And at the weekends I DJ and my wife looks after the kids.

And Lowlife as well?

Lowlife is 20 years old in March next year so we’re going to do a big party for that. We’ve always tried to avoid branding it really and making it into a brand.

It’s sat under the radar in one sense.

If you know about it, you really know about it but loads of people that go out quite a lot in London don’t know about it. We have always avoided getting people to write about it and having publicity, we’ve physically asked people not to write about it and when people have asked for press passes we’ve said you can come but don’t write about it. We’ve done the opposite of what you’re supposed to do but it has really worked for us because people feel it is a secret and they want to keep it that way so they only tell their special friends about it. It’s quite funny actually when you talk to them and they’re like ‘I didn’t want to tell them because I didn’t think they’d get it’.

The same with the festival, it wasn’t really on the radar.

We did want it to be but it sold out in 3 hours so we didn’t really have a chance. We had a press thing set up and we were going to get it onto websites like RA and stuff like that but it sold out so quickly and no-one wants to write about it. If it’s sold out and you can’t get tickets, who wants to write about that? It’s a victim of its own success really.

If you want to do 2,000 tickets then unfortunately you have to start courting that press element.

Yeah, you do. It’s a tough marketplace and you have to compete with all the other people that are putting on festivals and events. I think that we’ve got really strong word of mouth and I think we could probably do 1,000 capacity without doing any, or very little, promotion because our promotion is a self-fulfilling thing really. That’s one thing I really like about it. Our ethos about Lowlife has always been that the party comes first rather than the DJs which, given the fact we’ve written a book about DJs, seems a bit counter-intuitive. In other words, what we want to do is promote a party where people think ‘this party is great’ and the want to come anyway and they trust us to book really great DJs but they don’t care who those DJs are. We’ve never gone down that route of having to fill the space with well known names. We’re able to bring over someone like Strangefruit from Norway who is a great DJ but wouldn’t fill a room in the UK and he was amazing and blew everyone away. I love the fact that we can book semi-obscure DJs. I DJed with some guys in Warsawm, they really impressed my with their attitudes and the records they were playing so we brought them over to play as well. It’s just really nice to be able to bring really high quality DJs over and not worry about the fact that they’re not going to attract people.

It’s a really nice position to be in.

I love the position we’re in from that perspective of just thinking ‘this guy/girl is a great DJ, lets book them because they’ll really fit what we want to do’.

It’s almost the complete antithesis of Glastonbury for the last few years, they don’t announce the line-up but when they do announce it it is generally shit.

Exactly, but nobody goes to Glastonbury for the line-up do they?

Maybe one doesn’t but you look at the people watching Ed Sheeran…

OK, some people go for the line-up. You’re probably right, I just don’t hang around with Ed Sheeran fans.

So you’re writing another book?

Well I’ve got an idea for another book, yeah, but I don’t want to talk about it until…

Especially not on the internet!

It is a strong idea and I don’t want to jinx it by talking about it before we’ve done it.

And then Late Night Tales 3…

That’ll be out the same time next year, June 2015, and we’ll start working on it towards the end of the year.

Bill Brewster's Late Night Tales Part 2 is out now. 


Follow Bill on Twitter here.

And soundcloud below…