From his fledgling days of break-dancing in Hampshire, to smuggling in a renegade sound system to Glastonbury, to his own Tracky Bottoms label and strong run of releases, Toby Tobias has quintessentially always been about the music. Though he got his first proper break contributing a remix for the Bear Funk label in 2004, it was his 2006 release, A Close Shave, on the newly minted Rekids label that really helped launch him into wider recognition. Since then the purveyor of disco-tinged house has notched up nearly 20 releases, a stunning full-length album and over three dozen remixes with no sign of slowing down. It would also appear that Mr Tobias may have a larger discography than we’re aware of, for over the course of our conversation at a local café he tells me about an anonymous label he’s recently set up; and when friend and Late Night Audio head Danny Clark wanders past later on, it emerges that the two of them were behind the Mankind release on 3rd Strike records last year. Tobias also talked to LWE about the benefits of his new studio being outside of his house, his next album for Rekids, and why he’s not happy with the people who released his re-edit of Adonis’ classic “Rockin’ Down the House.” He also mixed our 137th exclusive podcast, a late night selection of inspirations and influences that highlights Tobias’ impeccable taste and his ability to rock a dance floor.
LWE Podcast 137: Toby Tobias (74:09)
01. Serge Blenner, “Phase IV” [Sky Records]
02. Tuff Little Unit, “Join The Future” [Warp Records]
03. Point Blank, “Rog” [Phono]
04. Metro, “Straphanger” [Republic Records]
05. Juju & Jordash, “Clubsex” [Golf Channel Recordings]
06. Toby Tobias, “Over Here” [More Music*]
07. Frank De Wulf, “Imagination” [Music Man Records]
08. Point Blank, “A Game Of Two Halves” [Phono]
09. JM, Change Clothes” [white]
10. Lost, “The Gonzo” [Perfecto]
11. Liberty City, “If You Really Love Somebody” (MURK Strikes Again Mix)
12. Arnold Jarvis, “Take Some Time Out” (Club) [Fourth Floor Records]
13. Kraftwerk, “Numbers” [EMI]
14. Actress, “Señorita” [Honest Jon's Records]
15. Funk D’Void, “Wide Open” [Soma Quality Recordings]
16. Mampo, “Village – Descending Of The Supernatural” [Sacred Rhythm Music]
17. Alphonse, “Survival (Part 1)”
18. GANG, “KKK.” (Club Mix)
* denotes tracks which, as of the time of publishing, are unreleased
So when did you first start buying records?
Toby Tobias: First time buying records — I mean I started buying 7″s when I was really young, because I was into break-dancing when I was 11. My mum bought me a cassette, Crucial Electro 1. Remember those compilations?
Yeah. Street Sounds.
Yeah, Street Sounds Crucial Electro 1 was, I think it was a compilation. Well anyway, Crucial 1 was the best, it still is. And I remember at the time just being blown away. I was dancing with some guys who were a lot older than me. They actually had decks, as well. But at that point I wasn’t bothered by the decks. I was more bothered by the actual music. And I wanted the music to recreate the vibes. And two of the albums I got then was Crucial Electro 1 and Cybotron’s Clear.
OK, so from there, you’re 11 years old.
So yeah, I had Crucial 1, and there was Cybotron in there and “Planet Rock,” and Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.” Warp 9, both the Warp 9 records too, all of these I still play today. They still sound the best, the freshest, which is unbelievable. But at the time I didn’t know anything about actually DJing. More recently I’ve discovered that a lot of these artists previously were more disco producers, and they were experimenting with electronic equipment. And that’s why the music sort of stands up so long. They’ve got a real musical, sort of classic vibe, do you know what I mean? So that was one album. And then the other one was Paul Hardcastle, and he did an album called Zero One, which is him and Universal Funk. It’s got brilliant graffiti on the front, which is one of the reasons I really remember the album. The music on it is pretty good; there’s probably about three really good tunes on it. “Forest Fire” is the most well known one. It’s kind of a really nice Balearic sort of piece of house. It was 1985 so well ahead of his time. I think it was pretty much about the same time he did that “19.”
That was a number-one hit in a lot of countries.
Yeah, that was an amazing. That really enforced the sound. What you listened to was validated, because you were dancing to it, but then it was on TV too, so it just confirmed that it was cool.
Did you have any siblings who were introducing this music to you?
No, no. Basically all I had was an older mate, and mates who we sort of hung around with. I was in a crew, you know, break-dancing, and the same guys who I was dancing with I grew up with, and started going to raves with, and then started buying decks.
And where was this? Did you grow up in London?
No, this was actually in Hampshire, Fleet, which is kind of on the Surrey border, 30 miles south-west of London, just past Kingston. I guess we influenced each other. We were watching films like “Beat Street,” “Breakin’,” and watching “The History of Hip-Hop.” There were a lot of guys who were older, like a guy who lived down my road, Mouse, his name was. He gave me some fat laces and things like that. [laughs] And he showed me “The History of Hip-Hop.” It’s quite interesting talking about it, actually, because it’s coming back, there definitely were older guys who were influencing us because we weren’t in London. We weren’t surrounded by it.
My mate Steve, I started making music with him. He was kind of in our break-dancing group. He was the resident head-spin guy. He was crazy enough to do the head-spins on concrete. And everyone would be like, “Wow OK, he’s doing a head-spin on concrete with nothing on his head.” He’s bald now. [laughs] But yeah, we were pretty close, and he was more into hip-hop. I guess, being into electro, you can go either of two ways. You know, hip-hop, logically because there’s a lot of hip-hop in electro, and obviously there was more stuff like Cybotron. And I followed the beat route. But Cybotron touched me there [puts hand on heart], and I was like, “Wow, what’s this deep sort of music that sort of gets you in the soul, but it’s made by machines?” Literally. That’s how I remember feeling when I was 11, which is quite an amazing feeling.
But Steve got into more of the hip-hop, and he was hanging around with hip-hop guys, and he ended up buying a Roland S-50 sampler, this big, chunky keyboard thing. And so I was just hanging around with him and just started by watching. I was getting into hip-hop, he was getting into hip-hop, but I was still going to raves and things, and I ended up saying, “Let’s try making some of this break-beat stuff, speed it up,” and we were also listening to Kiss FM, which was Colin Dale and Colin Faver. It was quite a legendary show, and Colin Faver had this segment, “Demo DAT Pressure”; people would send in demos, and if he liked them, he’d play them. So we actually got around to making a few tunes and sending them off, and he played it. At the time we were like, “Oh, wow, we’ve made it.”
And how old were you at this stage?
We were 16, yeah.
And you were primarily making everything on the sampler?
On the sampler, yeah. Pure, simple. Yeah, kind of sample-based techno. I remember it had some Star Wars samples in it, which is kind of a bit cheap, a bit cheeky, but I think at that time, not that cheesy. We honestly thought we’d made it. And then nothing obviously happened really after that because we didn’t really know anyone else who was making music, really. We didn’t know what to do next. And I guess the next thing that came was just DJing because we’d fiddled around with making tunes for ages after that, but the DJing thing became more prevalent.
Did you guys have a name for what you were making?
I can’t remember. We had a name for our group, we had a little graffiti group, and that was Fresh Bombers Incorporated or FBI. We must have had a name, but I can’t remember what it was, when we sent it off to Colin Faver. It was only one tune. So yeah, the DJing thing. My mate Mike, he bought some decks; he had a little bit of money somehow, don’t know how he made that. [laughs] We weren’t asking questions, but he and another guy Alex started buying all the decks. I basically couldn’t afford it, but I was listening to the two Colins’ show regularly. And I was making my little mix tapes and pressing pause and basically writing down the tunes or memorizing. I wasn’t even writing them down. I literally was memorizing, I had really good memory when I was that young. And then we’d get to the record shops, and I would just basically choose all these records for my mates. “This is good; this is real good.” You know, we’d go to Reading, Record Basement and Our Price — in those days, Our Price was, like –
Like a big chain.
A big chain store, yeah. Much smaller than HMV though. And even Boots.
They had records?
Yeah, they’d sell records, yeah. Our Price, Boots, and Woolworth’s. But mainly Our Price, we’d come up with some really good stuff. And obviously, the good ones, the proper dance-music shops like Record Basement in Reading. We never even went to London, really. I think a couple of times, but mainly we just went to Reading.
You guys basically just had your own little, like, self-contained little scene.
Yeah, exactly. It was totally like that because not only that, but we had this group of DJs, and then my mate Alex was part of a sound system. His older brother had a sound system called POD, Power of Dance. And they were quite hippie sort of guys. They were quite well connected with the scene, people like Spiral Tribe and Sweat Sound System. And who’s the other big one? Bedlam and DIY. And so we ended up, Alex especially, but later on I started to play records too. Instead of just choosing them, I started thinking, “Well, you know, I’m choosing all these good records, and I’m not getting the glory of playing them.” So I bought a couple of Soundlab crappy decks and started mixing myself.
And I started getting a few gigs playing with these guys, and one of the best ones was– one year, 1993, they smuggled in a whole sound system to Glastonbury. They had a truck, and they put false number plates on it. So they drove the truck in, came out, put the same number plates on another truck, and you would never get away with it today. I mean we actually carried decks through a hole in the fence. And we helped them set up, because one of the bands, they had about 24 TV screens; they put a video sort of display on. This was all on the outskirts of Glastonbury. And I remember playing records from one in the morning, seven in the morning, and five the next afternoon. And that was like, “Yes, this is what it’s all about.” And I actually got my first talent-spot. Someone came up and said they wanted me to play at their club, Promise in Kent. So they wanted us to come, they invited us, me and my mates, all down to check it out. I was like, “Yes, this is a big break; I’ve made it.” And then I think the owner just disappeared abroad, and it never happened. But that was another false start. But yeah that was basically how the DJ’ing sort of started to take control.
And so things picked up when you moved to London?
It was almost like I started in production and DJing kind of took over. I was always messing around with sampling and samplers in the background, but I was never quite finishing stuff.
Were you ever classically trained in any instruments?
At school I learned trumpet, cornet, tenor horn. That was when I was in junior school, but I never carried that on. And then I started playing guitar. I bought an electric guitar and started to teach myself that, but then again, I didn’t quite pursue it. I passed it on to my younger brother, who’s about three years younger, he proceeded to lock himself in his room for three years and came out an actual genius on the guitar. So he’s actually an unbelievable guitarist now. He plays sort of blues and jazz and rock, that’s his thing. So yeah, about two years ago, I was learning jazz guitar, actually. I had quite a few lessons and I was getting really good until I had to move from where I was and I lost contact with the teacher. So I’ve dipped in and out constantly. It’s getting about the time where I’m probably going to have some more lessons in something. I think piano, some more lessons there.
Yeah, you get to a point don’t you? I guess with making music you want to be more of a musician.
Yeah, totally, yeah. You just want to. You sometimes listen to the old pieces of music you love; like, I was listening the other day, and you hear some really complex chord sequence. I mean, I’ve come up with some really complex chord sequences, but it’s probably taken a little bit of time. And sometimes it’s nice just to know exactly what comes next, what should come next, you know what I mean? Without having to struggle so long on it.
Yeah, like being able to improvise.
Yeah. I mean sometimes improvising and not knowing what you’re doing is actually better. Sometimes I argue that is the case. Sometimes you’re just doing what sounds good but not what is the actual theory. You’re just doing what you think. And sometimes that’s great, but I think it’s always good to have that theory.
Yeah. So when you moved to London, I understand you started doing your Late Night Audio thing. How did that come about?
Yeah, I mean I guess I’d been in London quite a few years anyway, but that just came about because I was with Danny Clark, another young lad, and he’s quite a sort of business-y-minded guy. I guess at the end of the day, we both wanted somewhere regular where we could play records. That’s basically all it was. And we just came across Club 54, and it was just a right time right place thing, really. It was a really cool club at the time. It was really a bit undiscovered, and it was a very late-night, had a very late-night license. It had a brilliant sound system, and it was in the sort of really dodgy part of East London, which kind of added to the sort of edginess of it.
We just started doing that, it was just one of those things that worked out, you know? We were there just once a month for two or three years. We had all kinds of guests, people like Radio Slave and Audiofly and loads of people who were pretty much mostly people we knew and we could get a little deal for them, you know? But yeah, some pretty unforgettable scene’s down there in East London. You’d walk down the stairs, and some of the scenes you’d see are packed out, and I think we created some special, memorable nights, you know? And then from there I guess that’s when the label started, during the end of that. I guess when we knew it was coming to an end, we set up the label to do new things.
So you mentioned that you had Radio Slave down there so I guess that’s how you formed a relationship with Rekids?
Oh no, that was actually before that. The reason I got him down there was because we already knew him.
Because you’d already released on the label?
Yeah, yeah. But no, I released on Rekids because, this is a funny little story. When I was at college, which was in about 1994, that’s when I pretty much started DJing, doing my first gig. And one of the other resident DJs at the college was Spencer Parker. I didn’t really know him. I only knew him as the other guy who’d turn up and play records, and I always remember him having a good little collection and always quite hyper. Then we bumped into each other various times across London, just in record shops or whatever, and I remember he was always doing quite well. I think he started working with Dave Lambert as an A&R. He was out of college and he started working in the music business straight away. I seem to remember I bumped into him on the tube. I think I had a CD on me, I don’t know why, but it was a CD of some stuff I’d just done, and maybe I was listening to it, I don’t know. And I just remember he might have mentioned working with a new label, so I gave him the CD. The next thing I know I had an email from James Masters from Rekids, and he just said him and Matt [Edwards] were setting up a new label, and they’d heard this tune “A Close Shave” and they wanted it to be their number three release. So that was basically how it happened, and I went and met them, and then that’s basically how the relationship started. So it was really by chance.
What were you producing on?
At that point it was really not much at all, just, like, a laptop, just Ableton. It was really lo-fi. You know, a couple of bits of software, and yeah, that was it.
So what was that? 2006?
But you’d already done some remixes, hadn’t you, before then?
Yeah, I’d done some stuff for Bear Funk, Akwaaba. So I did that for Steve Kotey, and that was on the B-side of Todd Terje’s remix as well, which was the first Todd Terje record ever. So we kind of both had our debuts together.
Yeah, that’s really cool. Definitely a good way to start off. Can you tell us a bit about Late Night Audio the label.
I mean, I haven’t been working on that label. I mean I guess I still am affiliated with it, but it’s Danny’s thing. It’s had a bit of a hiatus because Danny’s been off doing stuff, and he’s kind of relaunching it now. I’m still going to be working with him, maybe putting some tunes out, but he’s kind of managing it himself. I know he’s got some really good stuff coming out. But yeah, there were three releases, was it three?
There was the Das Volt one, then there was my “Macasu,” and then there was the Jovonn one, yeah. I think Danny’s continuing in the vibe of Jovonn’s. I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about who he’s been working with, but he’s been working with some pretty legendary Chicago artists. So I think he’s continuing in that form.
Excellent. I was going to ask you about “Macasu.” Where’s the sample taken from?
I don’t know if I can tell you that. [laughs] Danilo [Plessow] added his own sample to his remix. He added a sample of Dionne Warwick, I think it is. Or Melba Moore.
Oh, really? That’s an incredible remix.
It’s either Dionne Warwick or Melba Moore. One of the two. Yeah, it’s a really good remix. I mean it totally blew us away at the time. And I think we still owe Danilo a little favor for that. It was a big favor.
And Tracky Bottoms, is that your label?
Yeah, that’s one label I’ve had, but at the moment, I have a bit of a secret project that is taking precedence. But I’m sure something will come soon on that, but it’s just a matter of having the time. I’m trying to finish an album for Rekids and trying to do some remixes. I’ve got a new studio, too, so I’m trying to get that up and running, and just finish lots of music.
So you mentioned you’re working on a new album. Going back to Space Shuffle, were all those tracks sort of written expressly with the idea of an album?
No. I would say not. I just sat down and wrote a load of tracks, and then the fun part is putting them all into kind of cohesive idea. I had about 25 to 30 tracks, and then with the label you just went through them and worked out how to make an album from them. That’s pretty much how it worked then, and that’s how it’s going to work for the next one. I’ve just given them a whole load of tracks, and slowly we’re whittling through them, getting rid of some, and then new tracks are coming up. At the end of the day, I just want to come up with something that I’m really happy with, you know? I want to be totally happy and it has to be something the label will be happy with as well. So it’s not just me; it’s them as well.
Do you play live?
Do I do live sets? Not at the moment. I’ve done it once at Late Night Audio, just as an experiment to see if I could. Because it was my night, and I thought I’d give it a go. And it was alright, it actually went down quite well. It’s definitely something that I said I would do once I’ve done the second album. When I’ve done that I want to definitely because then I think I’ll have a lot more material to sort of take on the road. I think I’ve got a nice back catalogue and at the end of the day, you’ve got to have a nice selection that people actually recognize when you do them live. Otherwise, it gets a bit boring, you know? You’ve also got to have some recognizable tunes just so it competes with a DJ set.
And I guess the difference is with playing live is that, if you’ve got a certain style of music as a DJ, if you want to take things a bit harder or darker into some techno and then come back to some disco, you can do that.
Yeah, I think that’s what I enjoy mostly about live is actually taking my own tracks and doing something else with them live. Making them more tracky or, I think that’s what’s really enjoyable, dubbing them out. I’m going to try to do it in a proper — not a laptop way. With a mixing desk with live effects and things like that. Kind of like Mr G, have you seen him live?
No. I’ve just been listening to his new album, though, which is sounding really good.
Is it? Well, when he does live, he just does it with an MPC and a mixing desk, and that’s it. And I’ve seen him play at Panorama bar, and it just sounds solid.
So he’s really using the mixing desk?
Yeah, he’s using it for effects, and he’s not using just a laptop, you know what I mean? I think that’s quite a good way, an old-fashioned, good way of working.
Because I guess these days playing live, you really want to have the entertainment factor for people as well.
Totally, yeah. I mean I’m not guaranteeing that I’ll be a good dancer or anything.
Well, you know, you got to have a bit of a novelty. Maybe get that trumpet out?
Yeah, I think some novelty is good. Like an extra drum, like a live drum, or just something like that you can hit, do you know what I mean? I think that’s a good idea. I saw James Pants do a live set on two decks and he had a drum. It was just really huge; what he was doing with the drum really added to it.
Yeah, definitely. Now in terms of recording do you sample yourself playing instruments in the studio?
Yeah, I mean I’ll do anything really. I’ve got a bass guitar. I’ve got loads of different ways of working. One day I’ll just be working with samples and that’s it, just strictly working with samples, and then one day I can just not even be on the computer and just be working with my old drum machine and a couple synths, and then just record the live jam. So yeah, it depends where you are as well. Sometimes you’re at home, and I’ll just be working with what I can on my laptop, sometimes in the studio where I’ve got the whole thing set up.
So having a studio outside of your house, do you find that really helps, in terms of really concentrating on what you’re doing?
Yeah, it’s really good, actually. It’s only been in the last three months that I’ve got the studio, but it’s mainly the sound, it’s just really proper, acoustically proper. And that’s the main thing I love. I can play my music in there and you can hear exactly how it is, and I can really get an idea straight away of what it’s going to sound like in the club. So that’s the main thing. It’s just great to get it all to yourself. There’s a coffee shop upstairs so you can give yourself a break, go and get a cup of tea or whatever. But it’s dark in the studio. No windows, so you can totally get in the zone. You just let loose and turn on the machine and just not worry about any disturbances, you know what I mean?
I think my girlfriend appreciates it a lot as well. I can leave that all, I don’t come back and have to turn on everything at home. That’s it. Once I get back, no more music. Which is a far cry from when I first started making music, and I’d just be up until three in the morning or four in the morning and then go to work. But that was the life, you know? You’d just go to work, come home, make music till three or four in the morning, go to bed. And now it’s not like that. That was kind of my mindset, and I’d have to change that. But now I actually love making music in the day. I love getting up, 11 o’clock in the morning is my prime time, you know? That’s the peak-time creative moment, when the brain’s sort of tuned in. I actually am a morning person compared to a lot of people who can’t function or make music in the day or at least until after four o’clock.
Now the stuff that you’ve done with Felix Dickinson as Mythical Beasts, are we likely to see any more releases from you guys?
Well, definitely never say never. I don’t see him as much as I’d like to. I used to live next door to him, which is how that came about, but now I live here. It’s just a case of logistics. Also it’s a case of him being busy trying to finish an album as well.
Oh, I see. Yeah, he’s got a lot of different projects, doesn’t he?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know he’s mainly trying to finish his own artist album. I know he’s been working on it for a long time. But I mean I think we both really would love to do something, and I get so many requests asking for any more Mythical Beasts or asking about it that I think we would be rude not to do it.
You were asked to do an edit of Adonis’ “We’re Rocking Down The House.” How did that come about?
That’s really annoying, I’ve got to say. I’d like to put it on record, but I’m slightly annoyed [with] the result, because what actually came out on the record is not the actual finished piece.
Oh, really? So what happened?
Well, it was just a case of they put the wrong version on. I was so annoyed, Sean [Johnston] and me, because that was the first version we did. It’s decent enough, and a lot of people liked it, but we had a rethink after we did that, and I was like, “I want to do something that’s more true to the Trax sound.” And we basically did another version, which was more kind of a banging Chicago acid sort of vibe. And that was definitely better. That one was one that we tested out a lot on the dance floor, and we were like, “Yes, this is the one.” We sent it off and god knows what happened, but somewhere along the line, they chose the wrong one, and I didn’t find out until it was on the record. It was in the shop, and I was like, “Oh, god.” So we’ve still got the version we wanted to put out and me and Sean have been talking about doing something with it. I guess if we don’t do something with it, we’ll give it away, you know what I mean? Because it’s there, and you’ve reminded me about it, actually. These things happen in music every now and again. It’s just one of those things. Often there’s different sorts of people involved in the communication process, and sometimes things get broken down, but it just makes you sort of more aware to these things. You always try to double check as much as possible.
What can you tell us about the mix that you put together for us?
Basically it’s quite a mix of influences and inspirations. That’s pretty much the theme, a big theme of it throughout. There’s definitely a few records that have been really important to me throughout my years of dancing, a few real surprises hidden in there that maybe you wouldn’t expect. And then, obviously, I’ve got my next track “Over Here” from More Music [part of a compilation out September 24th -ed] is on there. It’s kind of full-on dance floor.
Cool. And is that fairly indicative of a typical set you’d play?
Pretty much. It’s indicative of a set I’d play in a bigger room, a bigger sound system but it has a dark, basement-type vibe.
Cool. And so you mentioned this new project you’ve got going and working on the album. Are there any other releases we can account for?
Yes. I’m working with a label called Burek from Croatia. Have you ever heard of that?
Yeah, I have. That’s the label with a cow on the label?
Yeah, that’s right. That’s a label I’ve been working really closely with. I’ve been talking with them for ages, and I’ve done an EP, two tracks. I’ve been working with a vocalist called Bea, and I’ve done quite a lot of tracks with him.
What’s his name?
Bea Atwell, yeah. I’ve done quite a lot of tracks with him; most of them are going to go on my new album, but the first track of his that’s going to find release is this one for Burek. So it’s me and Bea Atwell on one side, and then there’s another track by me, and then there’s a remix by John Heckle and one from Homeboy, who’s kind of the resident producer for the label. So I guess that’ll be released in about a month. And Burek are actually setting up a DJ agency. And I’ll be on the agency as well.
Nice. So a lot more gigs in Croatia.
Yeah. Well, I don’t know. I think they’re just going to be spreading out, but I’m sure there’ll be a few in Zagreb because that’s where they’re based. But that’ll be a good little agency. It’s going to have Chris Duckenfield, Brennan Green, me, Chicago Damn. That’s it for now, I think. It’s going to be starting in October. But apart from that, I’ve done a remix for Marc Romboy so I’m working on that at the minute. I’m obviously trying to finish the album for Rekids. There will probably be something from Rekids pretty soon. There will probably be something else on Quintessential as well.