Lives In Music: Andy Blake
In this series we shine a light on the people that make the wheels turn behind the scenes in London’s music underground. From venue owners and agents, to record label managers and bouncers, we chat to these individuals about their tastes and motivations.
It’s early evening in Dalston. Early March 2020, seems like a million years ago. I meet Andy, the man behind long-running South London party World Unknown, at his studio, people are milling about and chatting in the café there. We both eat some soup and have a chat about upcoming parties. Amy (Alsop) joins us and we talk about said soup. It’s a great atmosphere and clearly one that Andy enjoys. We walk into the studio space and after trying to figure out how he can find a few particular records to play at World Unknown a few days later, we kick things off…
Who are you and what do you do?
I’ve still no real idea and I’ve spent a long time trying to work it out. I was born in the South London suburbs and didn’t really fit in round there. The year or so before I left primary school I really got into Madness, The Specials and the whole 2 Tone thing. I was a bit too young for punk and the mod thing that came just after but the 2 Tone movement really grabbed me. I thought everything about it was cool and of course it was multi-racial which wasn’t that common then, especially where I grew up. It also had lots of girls involved which was obviously a good thing. And it was all about dressing well and dancing together which it would seem had a fairly huge effect on how the rest of my life was going to pan out, everything set in motion before I got to secondary school. I was kind of bored and detached for a lot of my teens but I just about managed to get through school and was 17 when acid house arrived and saved me from myself.
I was the shy little nerd in the corner playing records at house parties and I thought maybe I could stick with that and start DJing to avoid a career. At some point in ‘88 a few of us round my way thought we could do it so I got some old Citronic belt drive decks and a Phonic MRT60 mixer, learnt some of the basics and kept on going until I’d cracked it. As so often happens, most of the group started dropping off but I stuck with it and got more involved, started travelling further afield, got to meet other djs and people involved in the game. It was all new and exciting and I loved the whirlwind and the pace of change, I’d finally found something I was really into for the first time in years.
Most Iconic London Venue?
Heaven in the late 80s, early ‘90s was pretty special. Heaven and the Soundshaft next door joined together, when that was going it was wild. Things like Megatripolis across both the venues could be really fun, a genuine indoor festval vibe. Not the coolest of nights to namedrop but it had loads of different aspects that made it interesting, different kinds of music across all the rooms and then you’d walk through a door and there’s Terrence Mckenna holding fort chatting to a room about his magic mushroom experiences. Or Turnmills maybe? Turnmills at full pelt was pretty fucking nuts!
Of course The End was a really big deal, a brand new thing custom built by our lot for our lot. Then Fabric came through on a similar tip, They were really smart with their resident djs and the promoters they worked with and picked up from what The End started and took it really big time.
The Bass Clef in Hoxton was an excellent dive kind of place that I loved. That’s when hardly anything was in Hoxton at all, it was rough as arseholes before it gentrified. I wasn’t living in the best area of South London at the time so I knew how to get by in a rough neighbourhood but that still put the wind up me a bit in comparison and seemed pretty exciting.
And if any old school WU heads sre reading this they’d probably be disappointed if I didn’t mention the original World Unknown venue, Arch 269 on Coldharbour Lane. We all had a lot of fun there. It was a dump but had a lot of character, even if a lot of that character was a bar area full of broken photocopiers and partially working motor scooters and a toilet with a curtain instead of a door and a big hole full of water in the middle of the floor. What hardly anyone knows about that place is that there was another much bigger arch next door that we were going to get up to scratch and start using for WU. I often wonder how differently things would have turned out if that had happened.
Last live act that really impressed you?
have a bit of a magpie nature, taking little bits from all over the place and compiling them into something that makes some kind of sense to me. A useful trait when it comes to Dj stuff, way less useful when it comes to staying still for any length of time. I’m not especially into checking out one thing for 30 mins or an hour. I used to see bands a lot when I was younger but acid house sort of saved me from that. I can remember seeing the Rolling Stones at Glastonbury a few years back but even that was just a few minutes from miles away and then I was off to find the next bit of madness to get involved in. I think at the same Glastonbury I saw George Clinton, really good from what I remember but I get so distracted so quickly.
It’s not a very fashionable opinion to hold but the concept of the artist as the centre of a spectacle doesn’t really appeal to me, I’m far more taken with the idea of the enormous wealth of music that exists and how we can dip into that pot and create soundtracks for situations with music from across 40-50 years or more. It’s like some kind of time travel. I know that’s kind of contradictory because the music didn’t just turn up all on it’s own, it needed the artists to make it or channel it or whatever so I’m very aware that I’m on slightly strange ground thinking of it all like that.
Is the lifetime of an artist affected by narcotics and mental health issues that come with that?
In terms of career length I think the accelerated cycle of boom and bust is more of a factor. You have these DJ/producers that get a bit of a buzz around them and come up really quick now and very often the agents burn them out. Probably because it’s easier to find and break a new artist rather than create and maintain a long term career in most cases. But mental health and music have always had a fairly wobbly relationship. Creative people have a slightly different set up in their mind that helps them see how things can be rather than as they are. That coupled with being either idolized or ignored, all the late nights, spending a lot of time around other strange and interesting people, access to all kinds of weird and wonderful pills and potions and often a lot of free time can put people at risk of things getting strange from time to time. It’s pretty naive to think that there is no risk. And in situations where drugs are available and part of the process there’s so little useful guidance about for most people, maybe more now but pretty much zero back in the late 80s and 90s. Most of us didn’t have much guidance and were taking very strong head-bending gear. Over the years I’ve seen loads of people that have blown a hole in their head from overdoing it and on occasion I’ve been one of them.
And I guess part of being an artist means that people are accepting of those who are being weird or aloof as it’s part of the lifestyle of being creative even when they are falling apart. Often people can’t tell that someone needs help and even if they can they might not know how to. A lot of performing and touring artists are clearly suffering a lot of the time but can’t give up the gigs as they need to pay the rent and sometimes the people who are meant to be looking out for them are also putting money first because they’ve got their own bills to pay, it’s a tricky cycle to break. Babylon is a very expensive place to live, in all kinds of ways. Anyone who truly wants to do anything good in the industry should consider looking to get behind the scenes in a position of influence to make a difference.
What’s more important Music or Memes?
I guess it really depends upon your interest. If you are looking to develop the money and career side of it then the memes and all that stuff are important. Sometimes I quite enjoy that daft promo side of things, It can be fun. Some days it’s great and others it can be a real chore.
Everyone needs to do it. We aren’t in a phase at the moment where it’s easy to make something happen without any social media action. Some parties, artists and djs would argue that they don’t use it that much but I think we’re all at least a bit guilty of allowing it to be more important than it ought to be. I think it’s important if you’re going to use these things to not get too caught up in it. We’ve talked about mental health and drugs etc but of course people also need to be careful with how much they use the various social media. Sometimes people can kid themselves that they need to do it for work and that’s why they’re always on it but it can feed into negative personality traits. The tail can wag the dog.
Last DJ set that really impressed you?
Jane Fitz and Jaye Ward are always good. I saw Jane play at Creatures in the woods as the sun came up last year. I was going through a phase of always being quite busy when I was djing, going through lots of different tracks quite quickly and always something going on with things layered up together and eqs and effects. And Jane was letting things play out more and really enjoying the moment in a very chilled way. She was brilliant as she always is and that was very inspiring, instructional moment for me, it reminded me that I really enjoy putting sets together in lots of different ways and it snapped me out of a very functional groove that had been working very well for me but was probably just about to turn into a rut. It’s often those inspiring moments and little lightbulbs that go on in my head that stick with me as much as the music itself.
What the best thing about the music scene in London?
The diversity. That has to be paramount. The number of people interacting and creating kooky little hybrids is amazing.
What’s the worst part of the London scene at the moment?
I don’t think this is just a London thing but there’s a lot of emphasis on the DJ as performer and artist, them as the centre of attention with people coming together to witness the performance. That for me isn’t what the dance scene is for. I prefer it when everyone is working in service of the people at the party. I always want that to be going on as much as possible. It should be all about the people on the dancefloor and hanging out. Boiler Room and the other video things have led to this place where it has made the visual performance as important as the music even if it’s just someone moving faders and pushing buttons. I prefer the light off the DJ and them somewhere in a corner, especially when it’s me DJing. I’m sure it’s supposed to be the polar opposite of a live gig.
Who is an inspiration to you?
As I mentioned earlier I’ve always had this kind of magpie thing going on, taking little slivers of inspiration from all over and incorporating them into whatever I’m doing. But if its one person in relation to my DJ life then like so many others it would have to be the sadly departed Mr Weatherall, specifically in 90 and 91. Andrew was pretty great all the way through of course but what he was doing then with his remixes and how he was playing was something else for me, actual musical voodoo that opened up portals to other dimensions and gave a very wet behind the ears me a glimpse of a lot of the things that were possible. it was like am immersive crash course in all kinds of useful and important things all at the same time. One of the biggest things I got from what he was doing back then is that you don’t need heroes and you don’t need to follow rules or conventions, you can do it yourself and come up with your own way of doing things. The tributes to him on Facebook recently were amazing, so universally positive and so many referencing how full of encouragement he was for the people he met over the years, a real testament to the kind of person he was. I’m going to miss him a lot, it’s gutting that he’s gone.
Anything exciting coming up?
The answers to the above question have been rendered null and void by billions of microscopic entities putting a huge spanner in the works just after this interview took place.
Any advice for anyone who is looking to start working in music?
Just keep it real and authentically you, which is a naff old thing to say of course, but still true. Do things you believe in. Inevitably you will do things other people have done before even if you’re not aware, but do them your way. Take inspiration from all over the place. That age-old quote of ‘talent borrows, genius steals’ sums up what will happen most of the time even when you think you’ve just invented the wheel for the first time but don’t worry about that too much, just make sure it’s your own take on things. Make a pretty Frankenstein’s monster, a functioning Frankenstein.
A good friend of mine, the Glasgow DJ Dave Barbarossa says ‘Do your thing, enjoy your thing’ and I wholeheartedly agree with that, make sure enjoying yourself is always somewhere near the top of the priority list all of the time. Sometimes all of us end up playing at or putting on a party that we aren’t enjoying, everyone gets snagged on the rocks sometimes. Don’t worry too much about it, pick yourself up and keep going. And be inspired by others but don’t worship them. You’ll be needing the power that gets given away when you worship others for yourself if you’re in it for the long haul.
Follow World Unknown’s Bandcamp.