LWE Podcast 159: James Priestley

Photo by Tom Vandeputte

When James Priestley and Giles Smith kicked off their secretsundaze party 11 years ago, they couldn’t possibly have foreseen the impact it would have on the city of London. Slowly building their brand, their daytime parties grew from the confines of 93 Feet East to spread to other clubs around the capital and further afield, to the rest of the UK and Europe. They have long championed their personal tastes, something that is reflected in their peerless lineups and more recently their record label as well. Previously known for his work with Dan Berkson, like Smith, Priestley has himself been contributing to the label. First appearing on their mix CDs and album samplers, he last year released two well received 12″s with MarcoAntonio Spaventi. LWE got in touch with Priestley to see how you keep a party popular after 11 years, what some of his personal highlights have been along the way, and how he collaborates in the studio. He also put together our 159th exclusive podcast, which — if you were in attendance at the secretsundaze summer opening party yesterday — will be a familiar reminder of Priestley’s expertise behind the decks.

LWE Podcast 159: James Preistley (54:55)

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01. Typesun, “Heart Maths” (Peverelist Remix) [Root Elevation]
02. Julian Neumann, “Unbearable” [Kann Records]
03. Lady E, “Seems To Me” [Thug Records]
04. Orpheus, “Waiting For Your Call” [Sequencias]
05. Steven Tang, “Verged” [Aesthetic Audio]
06. Mr. G, “Conscious Mindfood” [Phoenix G]
07. A Guy Called Gerald, “Groove Of The Ghetto” [Bosconi Records]
08. E.R.P., “Lunar Ruins” [Harbour City Sorrow]
09. BLM, “Sudden Death” [Secretsundaze]
10. Amir Alexander, “Don’t Go” [Secretsundaze*]
11. Ron Jason, “Cosmic Paradise” (Larry Heard Underground Remix)
[Thug Records]
12. Soul Capsule, “Lady Science” (NYC Sunrise) [Trelik]
* denotes tracks which, as of the time of publishing, are unreleased

LWE interviewed Giles in 2011 and he mentioned that you guys have known each other since about the age of 15. Did you both share a love of dance music back then?

James Priestley: Yeah, that’s right. I was around 14 when I first started to discover dance music. Before then I was quite heavily into jazz, both playing and performing and going to quite a few gigs and concerts with my Dad, but it was around that time that I got the bug and made a move over to dance or electronic music really. A lot of my discoveries came initially from a pretty rampant scene of swapping mixtapes with people at school, checking out some local radio stations and then making my first forays into going to clubs and raves. Some locally such as the Love of Life parties at Cambridge Corn Exchange (later at Kelsey Kerridge) and further a field to places like Club UK in Wandsworth, Labyrinth on Dalston Lane, Milwaukees and The Sanctuary in the Milton Keynes area. At the time I had absolutely no idea how this music was created which was all part of the charm and attraction really. I would avidly collect flyers for the parties, I have a dope collection somewhere probably in my dad’s attic. I spent any spare money I had on going to these parties and soaking it all up. It wasn’t until 2 or 3 years later that I actually bought turntables and started playing and collecting records.

Your secretsundaze parties have been running for over ten years now. When they started were you holding down a regular job? How long before you knew that doing the parties and music could be a career?

I’d considered studying some kind of music course at university but in those days, if you wanted to go to a decent university, which I did, you basically had to study classical music, which obviously wasn’t very appealing to me. So I studied Economics and Business at Nottingham University but within the first term, I began to get heavily involved in the music scene within the university and the city as a whole, and it was from that time that I knew somehow I would forge a career in music. I still graduated but all the way through university, music was my life really, and my studies were on the side. So I was putting on parties, DJing a lot, doing some production courses, I even set up a magazine/fanzine with my friend George, called Big Daddy. Keb Darge was our first major interview, it was mind-blowing speaking to him, such a dude. That was back in ‘99.

I worked at Selectadisc record store in Nottingham all through university and when I moved to London, I started working at their store on Berwick Street before getting a full time job at a record distribution company called Timewarp. That has been my only ever regular job since university. I started working there the same week we launched secretsundaze, which was every week at the time. It was pretty hardcore holding them both down. I would come in every Monday having lost my voice, like clockwork, around 8pm on the Sunday. My job was selling records over the phone to stores so, not having a voice, that didn’t go down too well with my dragon of a boss. I lasted there a year before deciding that I could support myself on my DJing and the little money that was coming in from secretsundaze then. Haven’t ever looked back since.

What have been some of your personal highlights of the party over the past decade?

Oh gosh, so many. I have to say in those early days, when secretsundaze was quite small and I was generally partying a lot, I knew or was hanging out with a ridiculously high percentage of the people coming to the party. Those days in Shoreditch were really something else in my mind; I’m talking around 2003-2004. I also lived in the area and it just seemed like a massive adult’s adventure playground — mad days. The feeling of playing records at your own party to so many people you know and rocking it with them, well, that was pretty special. I remember Johnno from Bugged Out came up to me one afternoon at The Poet when I was warming up playing loads of Lindstrom & Prins Thomas records, which I was heavily turned on to at the time, smiling saying, “I think you must have the best job in London, James.” It really felt like that. The days at The Poet were glorious in my eyes and the place and times will always hold a special place in my heart. Similarly some of the bigger parties we did on the roof of Canvas. For their scale and audacity, they were off the hook too.

Internationally, some of the first parties we held in Ibiza were incredible as well. They came a couple of years later but so many people traveled for them from London/UK; they still retained that intimacy despite the numbers. There was one special party where Ricardo Villalobos played for us in September 2005 at the Blue Marlin. Unsurprisingly the place was absolutely road blocked. We had 2500 come, all the roads around were literally blocked and I closed the party after him. That was definitely a highlight too. There was this massive street party we organized in Shoreditch for a few years, they were off the hook too and certainly the biggest crowd I’ve ever played to — more than 5000 people. It was pretty insane, that shit would never happen now. It’s easy to think of these early days but the party is still going so strong and there are still so many amazing moments. The 10th anniversary party we did in 2011 with Moodymann was in my mind, some of the craziest and strongest energy and warmth we’ve ever had in the last few years — testament to all the older heads and fresher faces that have embraced what we do.

Your first tracks were with Dan Berkson, who you had already done a few remixes with. Had you been producing on your own before these remixes?

Not really, no. During uni I used to go to on these courses at Hyson Green Boys Club, which was in the area I lived. I was the only white kid to go there and it was around the time that UK hip-hop was really exploding. Big up Courtney! I did two courses I think, one learning how to use an Akai sampler, and one basically learning how to use a big mixing desk. Through various means, mostly my DJing and promotions I managed to save up about £5k that I wanted to put towards a decent computer and studio equipment. At the time, things were moving quite quickly technology wise, particularly soundcards. I was not all that technologically savvy (and still not) and I found it hard to get my head around it to be honest. Stupidly, in fear of spending the cash on the wrong gear and it becoming quickly obsolete, I never got around to buying anything and sadly never really got the production bug myself. That again was in 1999 so quite a shame really. I’ve since done a few basic edits in Ableton, etc, but nothing of any note. So in terms of production, I’m totally reliant on working with people like Dan and Marco.

How did you and Dan meet?

We met in Shoreditch, I think at a secretsundaze party first. He had recently moved to UK and to London and our paths just crossed. We had a lot in common, musically as well as other interests; we got to know each other better and decided to start doing some music together.

More recently you’ve released a couple of 12¹s with Marco Spaventi. How do the two differ in their approach in the studio?

They have a lot of similarities but also a lot of differences. Both of them have a penchant for vintage synthesizers and gear which I find much more satisfying working with, not only for the process but for the results too. I think the main difference is the speed with which they work. Dan, like me, is quite a perfectionist and some of those early tracks we did, both “Chariots” and “The Source,” we both labored over. I definitely think you can hear that in some of the details and the final result, Dan does get a really quite polished high-end sound.

Marco is a bit more of a jammer — he just loves to jam! In fact, I have to really reign him in sometimes as otherwise we could just be in the studio for hours wigging out on tracks. That’s great fun but then going back through some of these super long takes and trying to find bits that work, and editing them, can be quite tedious. I think Marco is possibly more into the use of samples than Dan and is a bit free-er in his approach, whereas Dan is more into editing and sound design. So two quite different approaches. The other main thing is that Dan and I were working in Logic for our writing whereas Marco and I were using Ableton; that’s a totally different mindset and vibe.

I’m interested in the Speed release that you did with Marco for the secretsundaze label. I understand the release was homage to the club night Speed at Mars Bar. What are your memories of the club?

Actually I don’t think I ever went to any of the Speed parties at Mars Bar. I was more of a Swerve boy, which came slightly later and which I went to fairly religiously. The naming of that track was quite retrospective really. In the writing process the Maya Angelou sample popped into my head and seemed really fitting. Plus to me that track does have a lot of the same elements of the Speed/Swerve-esque music of that time, albeit with different drum patterns and tempos. But in a world that is so house, house and more fucking house, as the Faith crew and Dixon coined — which don’t get me wrong, is great — I just wanted to give a nod to a different era and world and one that was certainly very inspirational to me as an artist. I can’t underestimate what I gained from the likes of Fabio and LTJ Bukem at quite a crucial turning point in my life, and that is certainly one of the reasons I’m sat doing this interview and mix for you guys today.

Can you tell us a bit about the label? Do you and Giles curate the label exclusively? What are the criteria for the releases on the label?

The label first started back in 2007 as a platform for the compilation series that Giles and I did. But more recently we have started to release singles and yes, the two of us curate the label exclusively. There is no fixed criteria as such. Of course, both Giles and I have to be really into it. We don’t compromise on that; i.e. one of us might chose to A&R one release, the next the other etc. We want the music that we release to be a reflection of the scope of sounds that form what we do and that secretsundaze stands for musically. Whether that be the more classic deep house of Brawther, that was our first release, or the pairing of that material to the George Fitzgerald remix which has a definite more modern/UK slant. We’re definitely keen to move the music forward and certainly don’t want to release a sleight of deep house records for example. We’re definitely looking for something more edgy and contemporary but that will also hopefully have some kind of timeless appeal to it.

Up until now we’ve worked exclusively with artists signed to our sister booking agency, The Secret Agency. We see the label as a platform to further their development as artists, while strengthening the sense of family around what we do. We’re also keen to release music by UK artists. Over our history as a party we’ve always championed music from non-UK artists, booking many for their first performances in UK, whether from U.S. or Europe, but we feel there is a lot of home grown talent these days, right here in UK and we wanna support and nurture that as best as possible. You only have to look as far as Ethyl, Flori, BLM, and Youandewan, who have all released with us to wide acclaim on the label, to see that. That said, if we were to hear, be sent or pick-up something that didn’t fall within the above and we were both really into then we certainly wouldn’t be shy of releasing it.

As for the party, secretsundaze is held these days at different locations. How do you ensure that each party fulfills the same standards and meets everyone’s expectations?

Planning is key really. Developing close, strong and trustful working relationships with the venues themselves, as well as building on our experiences and learning from over the years. I have to say that despite semi-spearheading the off-location scene here in London, we’re actually turning our backs on this now. When we started we could get away with murder but these days we live in a very different society here in London. Although the process of Temporary Events Notices made using off-locations for small numbers of people easier for a while, doing events on a larger scale was difficult, and now the authorities are reining it in. It’s a real shame in many ways but hopefully it will mean we will get some more decent clubs opening in London again. Only this week Cable was the last in a long list of high profile club closures here.

If you’re organizing an outside party, pretty much anywhere in the Western world that I know of, of course you are going to sometimes have to compromise on the level of sound that you can run to compared to an inside venue with no windows etc. — that’s the deal right? Most people aren’t stupid and realize that, although you always get a few of course. We always strive for the best we can, but there has to be a certain level of responsibility if you’re ever going to get any longevity out of a space or spot. You could really push it the first time you do a party there, but cause such a fuss that you might fuck it up, not only for yourself as a promoter, but also for the venue too. As a venue owner in the past myself, I’m obviously sensitive to that.

I have to say that our good friend Kristophe who was one of the founding fathers of secretsundaze, still looks after all of our event production and does it damn well. Plus we have a great team with Jozef, Ali, and the guys helping run the events. This takes the pressure off Giles and I, allowing us to concentrate on spinning ourselves and hosting the party.

There are always new parties and crews coming through in London too. What does secretsundaze have planned for 2013 to make sure they stand out from the rest?

For the first time ever, we made an announcement earlier in the year detailing our whole summer season, in terms of the line-ups, dates and venues. We’ve always veered away from doing this as we wanted to keep the excitement levels up, not knowing when and where the next party is. But in the UK, and London especially, there is now a very strong culture of advanced ticket sales and people are announcing and selling their events far longer into the future. So we decided to go along that route this year and to have all that information out there at once. It looked and felt great; people can really see where we are at musically, in terms of our bookings and the way we get across the breadth of the music we love and want to push.

I think something that does set ourselves aside from other promoters is, especially over the last few years where we’ve been booking more than one or two guest artists, that we’ve developed a real curatorial aspect to our programming. We very rarely for example would have more than one artist from any particular crew or label perform at the same event for us. We think very hard about the programming of a party from the opening to closing sets, the flow is key to us. It’s not just about booking X, Y & Z DJs, throwing them together and hoping it will work. We select artists that both can contrast as well as compliment each other, often from different territories and even of different age. For example for our opening party (yesterday) we have Derrick May, Soundstream, then London based, relatively young guy, Midland playing during the day.

A lot of other London promoters are just booking label showcases perhaps, which while it can be cool, I feel doesn’t show much imagination and doesn’t always have that range of appeal. If you’re booking quite different artists the crowd you’re going to appeal to that will come will be quite varied too, and we all know that diversity within the crowd of a party is paramount.

What can you tell us about the mix you’ve put together for us?

I actually put the mix together, in terms of selecting the tracks and order of them, two or three months ago. But because of other commitments, I only got around to recording it yesterday. That part came pretty naturally and I really just selected from some favorite records I’ve been playing for the last year or so. I certainly wasn’t trying to be too upfront with it or anything like that. Artist-wise it’s mostly drawing on UK and U.S. artists, which is very much where I’m at the moment; some younger dudes and some more heritage guys still at the top of their game.
The third track is by Ben “Cozmo D” Cenac with his wife Yvette “Lady E” Cenac on vocals. It’s called “Seems To Me” and whether it related to their own relationship or not, I’m not sure, but it’s a tale of a man being a naughty boy, staying out, getting into trouble and basically getting kicked out the house. The record or song is amazing and it formed the basis of the inspiration for the rest of the mix. It’s not something I necessarily set out to do, but from that cue, I felt a real narrative in the mix, a back and forth between an imaginary couple. For example the next track is this fairly muscular yet emotive acid thing that I feel is his response to her words and which eventually drowns her out! There’s a lot of sensitivity in the records I’ve chosen, and once I got that idea in my head, I couldn’t get it out and so on that level, it totally works for me. There’s quite a few vocals in there, like “No More Mind Games,” “Don’t Go,” etc. Hopefully you’ll get the picture. If it was to finish on the penultimate track, this Larry Heard remix which is quite dark in it’s tone, I feel it would have been somewhat of a depressing ending but with “Lady Science” it definitely resolves things on a positive note. The mix was recorded at home using 2 x Technics SL-1200MK2s, Vestax PCV-275 mixer and 1 Pioneer CDJ-1000MK3 (used for the unreleased Amir Alexander track).

And what can we expect from James Priestley over the next year?

Maintaining my focus on everything secretsundaze, so the events, label and our booking agency, The Secret Agency. Quite a lot of touring is already booked in for the second half of the year with a number of shows in Ibiza already confirmed, including secretsundaze on the main terrace of Space on Tuesday May 28th with Efdemin, Portable live, and Tama Sumo. We’re also busy working on the next edition of Go Bang!, the mini-festival we launched last year which again will take place on Sunday August 25th here in London, day and night. Other than that, I hope to find some more time to head out to Amsterdam to continue my work with my production partner there, Marco Antonio as well as maybe forging some new partnerships here closer to home. And on a more personal level, I’m getting married towards the end of the year so I’m definitely gonna have my work cut out keeping my wife-to-be happy over the next few months.


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