Welcome to ORIGINALS, 909originals’ series of interviews with leading DJs and producers, examining their early careers, the tracks and clubs that influenced their sound, and the individuals that helped them on their journey.
From his early years spinning hip hop and disco to Brighton locals, to the recent release of his latest album, The Desecration of Desire, it’s fair to say that techno legend Dave Clarke’s career has been anything but boring.
As he approaches his 50th birthday next month, 909originals had the chance to sit down with the ‘Baron of Techno’ on a recent visit to Dublin’s District 8, to chat about his early career, the tracks and the clubs that influenced his sound, and the path that has led him to become one of the most-respected DJs and producers on the international circuit.
There’s even a guest appearance (albeit brief) by Milli Vanilli. No, seriously 🙂
Ladies and gentlemen, Dave Clarke…
Q. What was the clubbing scene like in Brighton as you were growing up?
Brighton was one of this places where people came from all over; and ended up there because it was the end of the train line. The clubbing scene basically involved people that were coming down from London for the weekend.
I first started DJing in a roller disco when I was 16 or 17. I was playing hip hop, and a bit of disco, and then mixing that with acid house. I actually got fired from the roller disco for playing acid house.
I also used to go to a disco called Coasters. They had an under-18s night during the week. I used to hang out in the lighting booth, and the DJs would make me cassettes of their sets.
I actually saw my first live PA there, by Divine. It was a bit scary, but really eye-opening.
Then there were places like The Zap Club, where I had the chance to play alongside artists like the Jungle Brothers.
Q. Was there a defined ‘scene’ in Brighton at the time?
People were trying to start movements, but it was very cliquey. There was no real scene; there were a lot of illegal house parties, and I would play at some of them without realising they were illegal.
One time, I was arrested and all my gear was taken to the police station, but they were kind to me.
Soul II Soul were quite big at the time – that downtempo type stuff – so it was a good time to learn to DJ: how to warm up at the start of the set, and then how to build that into a middle and then a finale. There were so many different types of music around, you learned how to make a story out of it.
Q. Where were you getting your records?
There was a good record shop called Rounder Records in Brighton; that closed down around five years ago. I used to go to London as well, to a place called Bluebird’s on Edgware Road.
I was also getting lots of promos from Belgium – New Beat stuff – from artists like A Split Second and Lords of Acid.
Q. Where did your interest in music come from? School?
I actually got my first mixer from my chemistry teacher at school. I wasn’t teachable, because I got bored easily. Then, one day, my teacher realised I was really into music and he loaned me the mixer over the summer holidays.
I bumped into some old school friends last November in Brighton, and one of them told me, ‘you know, you were always single-minded when it came to music’. I never thought of it that way, but it’s true.
Q. Did you get involved in the early rave scene at all?
I was too far away; that was up around the M25. I felt a bit left out, but at the same time, it was getting too commercial for me. There were things like bouncy castles and fireworks.
Even if I really tried, I wasn’t able to convince myself that ‘that’s where I want to be’. It just didn’t feel right, , so I started making music.
Q. Your first release was on XL Recordings, as Hardcore. Is that when it all kicked off for you as a producer?
Yes. In 1990, I got signed to XL Recordings, and then R&S Records started getting interested, and invited me over to work in their studios in Holland. That was probably the second or third time I had been abroad in my life. I remember thinking at the time that the food over there was unlike anything I’d ever tasted before – in retrospect, though, it was probably quite normal.
I had quite a few records at that stage, and I brought them to Amsterdam and said to Richters [a longstanding Amsterdam club that closed in 1996 – Ed] that I felt they should get me as a DJ, and they gave me a chance.
It was a really empty night, on a Thursday I think. It got me used to the whole ‘touring DJ’ thing as well; the day after I played in Richters, I was back in Brighton playing my residency.
Q. Was Amsterdam, or the Netherlands in general, more ‘tuned in’ to dance music at the time?
For me, it felt really behind. I’d been playing acid house for ages, and they were just sort of getting into it.
At the time, there was some really good stuff coming out on labels like Stealth Records, with Speedy J and artists like that, but there was no real club scene. It wasn’t on a par with what was going on in London, for example.
Actually, one of the nights I played, Milli Vanilli showed up. I don’t know why they were there, they just turned up.
Things were changing right across Europe at that time. I remember being in the R&S offices when they first heard one of Joey Beltram’s records, coming out of New York. Second Phase – Mentasm I think it was.
I was one of the first people to hear it, and I was like ‘f****** hell!’ But I remember the conversation in the office, they weren’t sure what to do with it.
Q. By this stage you had a few releases under your belt – did you start to think ‘right, I need to get out there and start marketing myself’?
For me, it was never about marketing or selling myself. I leave those marketing sort of things to people like Richie Hawtin. It’s not my thing to do marketing; it’s my thing to do music.
I had so many releases under so many different names, like Graphite, Directional Force, Fly By Wire – but then Red 1 and Red 2 came out, and I felt I had developed a sound that I would feel comfortable putting my name to. I’d done the hard work at that stage, and I was already DJing under the name Dave Clarke, so it made sense.
Q. Once you got established, you had a lot of people starting to emulate that sort of ‘Dave Clarke’ sound, particularly towards the end of the 90s and early 2000s. Did that frustrate you at all?
To be honest, I’ve only ever been interested in doing my own thing. To change what you do is to kind of betray yourself as well, you can only ever do your thing.
I remember saying things to journalists, and then seeing the same quote somewhere else, from some other DJ or producer.
I was one of the first to dress in black – one reason for that isn’t public, but the other is that it’s just common sense, you travel a lot and you don’t want to get ketchup all over your trousers. But then you read about other people dressing all in black, and you go ‘oh, ok…’
Q. You also developed a reputation for being a bit guarded, a bit grumpy?
I’m still guarded. I always sit with my back to the wall, to observe.
I can be grumpy when I’m tired. I travel a lot, I generally catch the last fight out, and first flight back. I prefer to wake up in my own bed. But also I’m not one of those geezers that ‘hangs around’ after the night is finished, you know. I don’t do drugs, and I’m not overtly chatty. I just let people be.
There are some people in the industry I have a close connection with, but there are others where I’m just happy to take a back seat.
Q. On the back of the Red series, and Archive One, it took a long time for the next album to come out – Devil’s Advocate, in 2003. Why was there such a delay?
I was essentially on strike. I was DJing a lot, but was a bit at war with the record label – I’m not going to say what one – who expected me to do an album, but they weren’t even showing me my accounts.
My manager at the time got me into the studio to do a lot of remixes; that’s when I was remixing things like Fischerspooner, DJ Hell, Leftfield’s Phat Planet. The last one I actually asked to do, because I saw the advert on television and it blew me away. Actually, I enjoyed that period, because it gave me plenty of time in the studio.
Eventually, I got out of my contract and signed to Skint, and I was ready to make an album, which turned out to be Devil’s Advocate.
Q. To me, the latest album, The Desecration of Desire, is a more ‘complete’ work than Devil’s Advocate – a more mature sound. Do you think that you could have recorded an album like that back then?
No, I don’t think so. The Desecration of Desire is much more personal. It’s not a ‘dance’ album as such – not that I have any problem with dance, but the album for me is more about emotion, intellect, and the ability to work technically with some amazing artists.
The reason it took so long to record the new album was that there was so much going on – I got divorced, moved country [to the Netherlands] and the whole recording industry was changing. I thought I’d take a back seat for a while, and just see what happens.
It took me a while to get back into it, as well, because technologically, the hardware was more digital. Then I got a second computer, and it all started to fall into place. I spent six years trying to perfect this digital sound and get comfortable enough with it to record an album.
Q. Amsterdam has been your home for the past few years – why do you feel so at home there?
Amsterdam changed me. I’m not living out in the countryside, miles away from the people I want to be near. I’m close to my friends, I’m working, I have a social life, I don’t need a car – everything is just here. It’s a city I fell in love with back in 1990.
It’s probably the place that I can call ‘home’ for the first time in my life, actually. In England, I never really felt at home, to he honest.
[Kudos to Xx – Oldschool-Techno – xX, Andrew Lucas, baldesalg, R&S Records and Dave Clarke for the YouTube uploads. Main photo by Marilyn Clark. Thanks also to the Subject team at District 8 for facilitating the interview]