Photo by Rebecca Thomas
London’s Andy Blake is seemingly as disinterested in doing things by half as he is by doing them the easy way. After maintaining a breathless pace of releases for three years with his label Dissident — averaging a brand new, vinyl-only, single-sided, limited-pressing 12″ record every three weeks or so — Blake pulled the plug at the end of 2009. This was just as the city’s disco revival was hitting its peak, aided in no small part by the label’s releases from Gatto Fritto, Discodromo and Neville Watson. In the following two years Blake has unveiled three separate new imprints, each with their own manifesto, and each a distinct departure from the ashes of Dissident. There’s World Unknown, the namesake label of the “anything goes” Brixton club night he runs with Joe Hart, Cave Paintings for his own one-take, machine-driven house and techno tinkerings, and In Plain Sight for the “really rough records that people really, really get down to.” 20-something years on from his first experience as a DJ, Blake can easily lay claim to “veteran” status, but with its connotations of nostalgia that term seems an ill fit. As LWE found chatting with Blake recently, he remains as resolutely idealistic, passionately opinionated and committed to the principles of DIY as ever. He also provided us with LWE Podcast 118, a blinding 75 minutes of vibing house music so good he preferred to keep its tracklist a secret. (Feel free to help us figure it out in the comments section, where Blake might pop in to drop hints.)
LWE Podcast 118: Andy Blake (74:55)
After listening to your mix I was kind of surprised it was so rooted in house music, even knowing that you’re a great advocate of house; every other mix of yours has been eclectic and quite wide-ranging musically.
Andy Blake: Yeah, that’s kind of the idea. I wanted to do a house mix because I very rarely do them. House is very easy to play in a club when there’s a room full of people, and more of my gigs than not tend to be essentially hung around house music; but when it comes to making mixes in my studio, it’s not usually the first choice because it works with an audience — or it’s not an audience, is it? It’s people participating. I think it doesn’t work in a vacuum. They do tend to
be the ones that surprise people, but sometimes I just like to stick a load of house records on, one after the other.
What do you make of its so-called revival?
Ultimately, it’s brilliant. It’s a fantastic thing. Like with most of these things, you get a couple of different sort of strains to the revival. I think there’s a version of it which I’m less of a fan of, which is a bunch of people kind of quantifying it and observing it and somehow trying to intellectualize it, perhaps. That wasn’t my favorite phase. What I like right now, though, is you’ve got a bunch of kids, like under 25, who are treating house as it’s meant to be treated, and they’re just going out and dancing all night, and they’re not pre-judging it in any way. They just know that it’s brilliant, functional music for dancing to, but it also can have — when it’s proper house — a massive emotional content. It’s amazing. It’s making my gigs so much more fun than they have been for years. I’ve always enjoyed DJing, always loved it, but in the last year or so I’ve gotten a massive boost of energy from the dance floors being incredibly atmospheric, incredibly vibe-y.
Speaking roughly of the last year or so, it feels like you are a lot more “present,” with your new labels, more interviews, podcasts. Has that been conscious?
That’s interesting. I think it’s probably because before I had Dissident, I was just getting on doing my own thing. I had various bursts of interest in what I did, but I’ve been doing this since the end of ’88, when I got my first set of decks. I had phases of being a bit bigger and phases of people being less interested in what I did, and I kind of made a conscious decision around 2000, I’d kind of had enough of the industry and was very happy doing fairly low-key gigs, that suited me fine. Then I started Dissident and there was a wave of interest in what I was doing, and towards the end 2009 when we started the World Unknown nights as well. But what I do, it’s in the now. If there’s not people participating in what I do, then it becomes somewhat invalid, I suppose. So I need — I hate the word “audience” because it sounds like people standing and watching — but you need people into what you’re doing. The more people into what you’re doing, I guess, the better it gets, to a certain extent.
So how do you feel about the kind of myth-making that gives something even greater gravitas once that moment is over? Do you feel that the influence about Dissident has increased since it ended?
That’s probably for someone else to say. It certainly built during its lifetime, and that was one of the reasons I shut it down: I just thought, you know, it’s kind of done anything I thought it might possibly do and miles more than I thought it was ever going to do. People say that thing about when you buy a boat, the two most fun days are the day you buy it and the day you sell it, and I feel somewhat similar. It was brilliant starting it, there were some brilliant moments in running, and almost the best thing with it was finishing it. It was great to be shot of it. Not in a way that I didn’t like having it, but it was just nice to move on. I find it quite hard to focus on more than one thing at a time, other than perhaps lots of different types of music. I just knew that World Unknown was where my heart was. And my heart wasn’t in running a record label anymore so I just let it go.
That’s interesting you say it’s difficult to focus on more than one things, as you’re running three other labels concurrently now.
Yeah, I’m a fairly contrary person. I think I did Cave Paintings first, and that was because I didn’t have to run a label; I had a lot more time to spend farting around in my studio, and I realized it was time to get some of that stuff out. Joe and I had been talking from about six months into having [the club night] World Unknown about having a label, and we’d been sent a couple of tracks by friends of ours, so we knew we wanted to do it. We took nearly a year to actually get around to it. That had its own aesthetic, and it was definitely going to be the opposite of Dissident. No ridiculous release schedule, no me verging on the edge of a nervous breakdown. But honestly, that label was driving me mental. It was the last thing I thought about every time I went to bed at night, and it was the thing that woke me up in the morning, me panicking about something I had to do to do the label. So World Unknown was never going to be that.
Then I had a bunch of other tracks people were sending me, I had this folder filling up on my hard drive of tracks that were brilliant, but weren’t World Unknown tracks. I knew that there was a label in it, and then the final part of the jigsaw puzzle was when Benji Roth, who makes the Semtek records, sent me some tracks. I knew he was going to be involved, and then I had Youngtee’s tracks, which is another friend of mine, Toby [Young]. Then Benji sent me some of Maarten Van Der Vleuten’s unreleased stuff. That was when it became obvious that the label aesthetic for In Plain Sight was going — it was always going to be a house label, but it made me realize it should be a really rootsy house label, all about the dance floor — not peak-time records, but about the really rough records that people really, really get down to. That’s running itself now. Again, I’m back in that position [of] having too many tracks to put out, a release schedule that I’m trying to keep up with — I don’t know how I’m going to, and so I’m falling back into the old ways of driving myself mad running record labels again.
Do you think there will be more? Or have you given giving yourself a limit as to how many projects you’re willing to run at the same time?
Well, three is plenty, isn’t it? What happens is things come along, and they pique my interest. I can’t leave stuff alone. I get interested and excited on a daily basis, I’m the kid with the school reports that say “quite bright, but easily distracted.” So yeah, God knows what’s going to happen. If I get something that I really like that doesn’t fit one of my labels, I’ll give it to a friend of mine. There’s a loose group that seems to be getting bigger all the time, and we can kind of pass things around amongst ourselves, and I think that’s the probably the sensible way to make this grow.
You mentioned in a recent interview that you were ready to start releasing music with other labels again, which is something that you haven’t done for many years. How’s that progressing?
That is kind of in process. There’s some stuff coming out on John Osborn and Elie Eidelman’s JackOff label. They’re good, brilliant lads. Then I’m going to do something with John for the TANSTAAFL label that he runs with October. I’m doing more remixes for other people, I’ve just done a remix for Timothy Fairplay for a track that he’s got coming out on Astro Lab. I’ve done a remix for a guy called James Welsh, and I’ve just done a remix of The Horrors for the box set of the album [Skying], and I’ve got to go get that mastered.
How did that Horrors remix come about?
I know Tom [Cowan] from The Horrors. One of the last things that came on Dissident was his remix of a Heartbreak track. We keep in touch, we DJ together occasionally, and when they released the album last summer he basically said, “Have a listen to the album, pick a track or two, and we’ll send you the parts.” It’s the latest I’ve ever delivered anything in my life. I can be quite slow at delivering things, but this was a whole next level of slow.
How slow are we talking?
Oh, months and months and months. I remember getting towards the end of last year, I sort of got in touch and said, “Do you still need this mix, or have I missed it?” And he said, “No, actually we’re doing this box-set thing now so it’s fine, you haven’t missed any deadlines at all. You’ve actually got a fair bit of time.” That’s a terrible thing for anyone to say to me because if they say I’ve got a fair bit of time, I can just take that and more. I do this all the time. I procrastinate and fret and worry about a remix for months, and then I do it really quickly. That’s exactly what I did in this case. So now what I’m trying to do is train myself just to do them really quickly and put out that period of it rolling around my head and taking up space. I’m getting a bit better at it, to be honest, which I think I need to because more people are asking me to do stuff for them.
I can identify with that kind of chronic procrastination, but on the flip side of that it feels like the things that I write at the very last minute of a deadline are almost subconscious, and the most honest. Is that the same for you?
Completely. Absolutely completely. I mean when it actually comes down to doing a remix, I’ll use Logic, I’ll lay out the original parts that I want use in Logic, then I take that into my studio, which is all on analog — not all old, but it’s all analog stuff — it’s all hardware. And I will basically use the parts of the original, connect it via MIDI clock to everything else in my studio, and then just just layer things up and work ideas out. But yeah, there’s something about that kind of leaving it to the point where for me, it’s about removing conscious thought, which is possibly the same kind of thing as staying up all night writing. There’s a point where it stops being you that’s doing it. You’re not really in control anymore; you’re just channeling something, and that’s where you access the good stuff. Most of my music kind of comes out the same way, I reckon.
You spoke at length in a video interview a couple of years back about your methods of production, or at least of the analog equipment that makes up your studio. Have all of these machines been acquired for the potential of production? Or is there also an element of appreciating them as artifacts, or collector’s items?
Definitely 99 percent of it is what I can do with them in terms of production. But then, of course, they’re pretty good things to look at. They’ve got something about them that’s above and beyond the purely functional. Like my Pro-One — it either belonged to Thomas Dolby or was used by Thomas Dolby in a session. That wasn’t why I bought it, but it is quite fun that I’ve got the instruction manual with one of the patches from a Joan Armatrading song that he worked on, where he’s put the marks on it to show where all the different parameters have to be set to. That’s kind of cool. I quite like that you’re tapping into something pretty interesting then, but ultimately it’s down to what I can do with it in the studio. I’m not a collector kind of person. I’m pretty sure if I didn’t DJ, I would pretty much stop buying records because, for me, they have a use. I funnel them through me and then I share them with other people. That’s what they’re for. It’s the same with the machines, I think. Having the machines or the records as a collection — you’ll never catch me having them in cases anywhere. That’s not me at all.
So if you weren’t a DJ, you wouldn’t have records at all?
I don’t think so because I think what they represent for me is something I can use to communicate with people with. I mean that’s why I DJ: because I love the sharing. I do listen to music around the house, but it’s not about that. For me, it has always been, and it will always be all about the club, a proper nightclub. They’re pretty heavy places that pretty heavy stuff happens in. People become the best version of themselves, all manner of bizarre connections and serendipity and crazy shit happens. And so for me, all of this stuff is all about having things that I can use in nightclubs to make crazy shit happen.
That’s a neat bridge because I want to ask a about the World Unknown night. One of your past event write-ups said that the night was about “drama and contrast.”
It’s about the music; it’s about the fact that many clubs are this kind of functional, smooth ride, aren’t they? That’s got its place, but my favorite DJs are people who have the potential to pick you up and shake you around by the scruff of your neck and make something mad happen. It’s down to that craziness, and, obviously, drama’s a big part of that. Where things can be going in one direction, and then all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, completely changes direction, and it makes perfect sense. And it’s not this sort of willful, scrappy eclecticism — that to me is as boring as the flatline, minimalist approach. It’s like a roller coaster, and it kind of lurches you around, but in a way it’s thrilling and frightening, but exciting as well.
But is that purely about the music, or does that speak to the entire experience?
The people who come to the club, I think, are the most important ingredient. Joe and I have always said that World Unknown would be nothing without the people who come to it. We’ve picked up a crowd that remind me of clubs back in the late 80s when there was quite a serious peak going on. To an extent, it’s been a law of diminishing returns since then, and those guys who come to our club, they’re a massive inspiration. It’s an age range I was used to when I was a kid, but they’re all in the hot, sweaty, smoky room that you can’t see anything in, all completely getting on really well, completely unified, completely connected. And they’re there with the ride that Joe and I are kind of making up on the spot, but we’re making that ride up because of the people who are there. it’s so much to do with them. It would be nothing without them.
Is World Unknown always at the same venue?
Yeah, we’re very lucky. We had one place we were going to use, and it fell through. There was a place that I’d been told about by some friends a little while ago, and we went and checked it out, and the idea was to use it temporarily until we could get our original place back. Then we went to see it, and it was like, “Well, we’re staying here.” We’ve actually said if we ever we lost our venue, we’d carry on running a club, but I think it would be time for World Unknown to stop being World Unknown. It’s where it’s meant to be. It’s a railway arch, it’s nothing special and it’s everything special. God knows if it would suit anyone else, but it certainly suits us.
Were you specifically looking to start the night in Brixton or South London?
No the original venue we were going to use was in East, towards the top of the Isle of Dogs. We wanted to be not in a ubiquitous neighborhood, and then it just ended up that this place we use is in Brixton. I’ve sort of always lived in southeast London, Joe lives in Camberwell. Lots of our core crowd that developed once we started doing it are from southeast and south. We have done and will continue to do one-off parties in other places, just to experiment really, but where we are now is where we’re meant to be.
The reason I ask is in relation to the industry around “TBA East London warehouse” scene. I’m curious if deliberately staying south of the river has kind of protected you from the volatility of that circuit, which can be incredibly inconsistent, and also extremely competitive.
I think that’s fairly true. I think it’s a really good filter. For want of a better term, we didn’t get sort of interest from hipster types until we’d been going for a while. And I think that allowed World Unknown to become what it is, or certainly what it was then, before it got overrun by a bunch of people who perhaps might have shaped it in a different way. Some came, didn’t like it, never came back again, and some came, got really into it, and have become part of the core crowd. So I think, yeah, definitely being south has helped us tremendously.
You bring in your own sound system, is that right?
No, no. There’s a whacking great reggae sound system in there. You know, big old mismatched scoops, what you’d have found at a warehouse party in the 80s or the 90s, which you don’t seem to get so much now. Most people have these brand new, efficient Funktion Ones and whatever, and technically they’re miles better than the sound system we’ve got, but — I’m going to sound really corny now — it’s got soul to it. It sounds like music coming out of those speakers, rather than sort of efficient, pounding soundtrack. I’m sure someone who’s really into sound systems would tell us how shit it is, but that doesn’t really matter because it does exactly what we need it to do, which is it sounds exciting.
When you’re kind of playing gigs away from World Unknown, especially nights with specific music policies. Do you feel like you have to distance yourself from that idealism?
No. I mean, World Unknown is a place where I can just do what the hell I want, and that’s brilliant. But it’s also very nice to come into a club where it’s house and techno and that’s what people expect there, because there’s loads of latitude within that. I’ve got 20-odd thousand records. By some people’s standards, that’s quite a lot, and I know an awful lot of people who’ve got loads more than I have. But if you think about even in a five-hour set, the most records you’re going to play is 100, probably. I’m never going to get to play very many of them at any of these gigs, so I think those borders can be very useful. And, obviously, disco’s not a million miles away from house, certainly in terms of tempo and rhythmic content. So you can slip a couple of disco records into a house set. You can make the right balls of it, but you can also get it very right.
I can’t play all the records I want to play at any gig, even World Unknown, as much as I say I can play anything I want there, there’s still certain borders, perhaps, to what goes on. I can imagine there being scenarios where it would be a little bit horrible and feel a bit limiting, but fortunately, I’m only really noticed by people who I think kind of get what it is I do. I’m not like a bums-on-seats kind of DJ so I don’t think I’m going to find myself in the position of being booked by people who perhaps ought not to have booked me. I tend to appeal to a certain kind of person so that works really well for me.
How do you organize your 20,000 records? What’s your system?
I don’t. I mean there’s no way, is there? I’ve got bits that are slightly organized. Like, I’ve got a whole chunk of house records all chucked into a bunch of shelves that are quite near each other, and I’ve got a whole load of records that I pick from for World Unknown that are all put a bit near each other. And then there’s a loose attempt to get the funk records all in the same kind of area, and then all 7″s are in one spot. So they’re all in one place, and the reggae records, they’re split up. But it’s a monster of a big record collection, and I think you just let it get on with being itself and dig around.
They’re in these kind of cubes, each cube has about a hundred records in it. So what I might do, if I’m feeling bored one day, I’ll just go and dig, pull the records out of one of the cubes and see what’s in there and find a load of records I’ve not seen for 20 or five years, or something. So it’s quite fun, it not being ordered. I think probably the only way you actually get a successful order into a record collection would be to alphabetize it, and then that would be really dull because you’d be able to find everything, but you wouldn’t be inspired. The fact that there’s a bunch of house records next to each other works really well, and that fact that in amongst those house records there’s some stuff that isn’t meant to be there works really well, as well. So the bottom line is: I don’t. There’s no point.
What can we expect next from you?
Some more records coming out. We’re going to do a Boiler Room session at some point. We’re going to do that as a Cave Paintings and In Plain Sight thing, that’ll be really good fun. Release-wise, there will be number three on In Plain Sight, which is the Semtek one, and there will be a new World Unknown that’s imminent. There will be a new Cave Paintings at some point soon, which might at least roughly coincide with the Boiler Room session. I’ve got a project with George [Levings] from Commix. I’ve known George for quite a long time. He was randomly turning up at my gigs, and then we became friends and we have a lot of fun in the studio. So yeah, so there’s a bunch of stuff coming up this year. I’m really enjoying playing at the moment. I’m really enjoying being in the studio, and the end results of both seem to be really good. I’m happy doing what I’m doing, and what I’m doing seems to make other people happy. Long may it continue, I guess.