The word ‘legend’ is thrown around quite often these days, but Justin Robertson has proved over the past 30 or so years that he is a man befitting of that title.
Reared on a diet of acid house at Manchester clubs The Hacienda and Konspiracy in the late 80s, Robertson carved out a flourishing production career in the 90s and 2000s under the banner of Lionrock, Revtone and the Deadstock33s, as well as remixing the likes of Björk, Erasure and the Happy Mondays.
These days, you are as likely to find him behind an easel as you are spinning the ones and twos, with the Surrey native fast becoming an established name in the art world.
As part of our ORIGINALS series, 909originals chats to him about the people, places and more importantly, the tunes that defined his early career. Part two can be found here.
Q. Justin, thanks for talking to us. Growing up, how did you first get into music?
My early years, up until the point I turned 18, were pretty tedious, to be honest. I was born in Surrey but we moved when I was really young, and I was brought up in a place called Chalfont St. Peter in Buckinghamshire, outside London.
It was suburbia, really, and it was not very exciting when it came to music. Once I was old enough, I used to go into London quite a lot for gigs. I can’t say that I was very streetwise or an urban kid.
I was an ‘autumn crocus’, in that my parents were quite old. They weren’t really into music – my dad always told me he was a drummer, but I never saw any evidence to back up that claim.
When my elder brother, John, came to visit, he always brought quite interesting music with him. He got me into a lot of stuff.
Q. Was that when you started collecting records?
I probably started collecting records from about the age of 11 are 12. I would go to the local newsagents and buy fairly random things I might have heard on the radio, or were being talked about his school.
I was never quite bothered about what was contemporary; in fact I was probably staying away from things that seemed too popular. A lot of people at school would really get into something, but I would stay away.
I found random, weird things more interesting, like ‘space rock’ – bands like Hawkwind, Gong and Tangerine Dream, which I got into when I was about 15 – and then quite cosmic things like the Grateful Dead.
That was really down to the influence of my older brother. I had really long hair at the time and used to walk around barefoot sometimes, as if I was part of the counterculture.
Q. But that changed, didn’t it?
With music, you have these dramatic changes when you’re young. It’s like it’s the year zero. So there I was, with my space rock and long hair, and then my brother came to visit, and he had cut his hair and had Talking Heads’ Remain in Light with him, and a David Hockney art book.
I remember thinking, ‘what’s going on here’? He would tell me about bands like The Fall, and overnight, I became a mac-wearing post punk kid.
I suppose you could draw a line between some of the more hypnotic post-punk numbers and space rock, but in general, it was definitely a case of ‘cut the hair, bring the trousers in, get the winklepickers’. A completely different scene.
At the same time though, I was also buying a lot of reggae. I lived very near a town called High Wycombe, and there was this second hand record shop that sold a lot of reggae. I didn’t know much about it, I was just randomly picking up stuff. But that’s how I first heard the roots reggae kind of sound. I was so enamoured with it, especially the dub stuff – it really grabbed me.
That was something that still does continues in a way for me. I go back to these things; they haven’t left me. I feel comfortable with my musical past, even the bad bits. It was all part of the jigsaw, as it were.
Q. After school, you went to Manchester, in 1986, to study philosophy. Was that with a future career in mind?
Why should I do philosophy? Because it was part of the furrow-browed, mac-wearing, coffeeshop-attending, Gitanes-smoking lifestyle i was aspiring to.
So I went to Manchester, and actually the philosophy department out there was quite dry, there was a lot of analytical philosophy. It was not the most exciting department in retrospect.
But the city on the other hand, and the music of the city, that was the clincher for me.
I was a massive Fall fan, and I loved A Certain Ratio, and the whole Factory Records thing. Plus, I was a long way from home, I wanted to up sticks and ‘find myself’.
Q. So your musical influences changed again?
It added an extra layer to my musical tastes, which then started to take a completely different tack. It was 1986, and for people of my age the most obvious way to get into alternative music was John Peel. On his show, as well as the guitar stuff, there was hip hop, and things involving machines: Mantronix and groups like that.
I liked it, but it sounded quite alien to me. I hadn’t experienced it in a nightclub at that stage; nightclubs for me were places where people played chart music and had fights.
I didn’t know anything about club culture, or urban history – it was a complete mystery to me.
Q. Is then when you caught the clubbing bug?
On my very first night I was in Manchester I met a guy called Eddy Leviten, who had gone to Nottingham the year before, and used to go out to hear Graeme Park at the Garage, as well as going to the Warehouse in Leeds.
We were sitting there, listening to records, and I’m playing New Order and things like that, and he starts putting on some house records. It was great – it sounded so strange, unlike anything I was familiar with.
In a way it took me back to Tangerine Dream; it was open ended and didn’t have a ‘verse chorus verse’ format.
We started going out to clubs; initially I would go to Dave Haslam’s night at Temperance Club, a mixture of guitar music, and hip hop and reggae and go go. I was quite into that.
Then we went to a place called the Fizz Club which was run by a guy called Mark Fizz, in a place called the Man Alive on a Friday night. It was for the MA-1 flight jacket and Doc Martens kind of crowd, lots of LL Cool J, Run DMC and Beastie Boys.
Q. You were a regular at the Hacienda back then, before acid house hit. What was that like?
There were a lot of varied styles, with a bit of Joyce Sims and Gwen McCrae thrown in.
When you went to Nude, on a Friday, the energy level was bonkers – remember that this was pre acid house, pre ecstasy, there was none of that ‘trance dancing’.
People were quite dressed up, actually, they were wearing quite jazzy clothes, but there was just proper dancing going on. I wasn’t a great dancer so I stayed largely in the background.
There was a dance troupe in the Hacienda called Foot Patrol, who would take to the floor when they felt like it, and did this incredible jazz dancing, to tracks by Adonis and artists like that. It was completely alien to what I had grown up with as a teenager – my hands in my pockets, looking morose.
It was really joyful and energetic, and really sort of communal. People were getting together and the energy level was just fabulous. I was hooked by then and another complete change of look materialised: I became a ‘The Face-reading, fashion victim’ type.
Q. That was around the time you got into DJing?
Yes, but when I say DJing, it was a case of me just playing records to people. I had two music centres set up, and was turning the volume up and down on them. I was even playing off cassettes! No cueing up, no mixer or anything like that. I saw that people mixed records together, and I just assumed they used two music centres.
I would play a few student centres, and Christmas parties and things like that. I think I only got the gigs because I had lots of records; I spent more money on records than I did on food. When it came time to throw a party, it was a case of ‘who can we ask to play some records… oh, Justin will do it’.
Alongside Eddie, we started putting on our own parties, hiring out venues and putting on student parties. Some of them were quite successful and others were total failures. I was completely into the nightlife scene and the club world, and I somehow managed to finish my degree with a reasonable result, so I managed to keep both balls in the air.
Then acid house happened, and everything went completely bananas.
Q. You threw yourself headlong into it, then?
We all went smiley face and all that, but we were still playing the same music – funk, disco, hip hop, that was the mainstay of things, with a bit of reggae. It was interesting; around that time, I lost interest in guitar music, even bands that I loved, like The Fall.
Things were different back then, the only way you could find stuff out at that time was through magazines and word-of-mouth, and maybe the occasional youth TV programme.
It was hard to get information. I used to buy ID and The Face and fanzines and things like that, and you get would hear the gossip behind the counter in record shops.
Q. Did you notice any big changes in the Manchester way of life?
Acid house was a strange thing in Manchester in some ways, because musically it didn’t change at all.
Just before 88, we had this thing called the Northern House Revue and Graeme Park would play at it, and was incredible the way he put records together. I had heard nothing quite like it. He was playing acid house records, Chicago records, long before there was the scene attached.
When acid house happened it was more like a cultural change than a musical one. The music didn’t change a great deal, it was now 98% house instead of, say 85% house. But there was definitely a cultural change. The crowds in the clubs changed, the drugs changed obviously with ecstasy coming in. It was like a huge wave of euphoria.
Q. The epicentre of which was The Hacienda, right?
Right. On a typical night, I was there from the moment the club opened to the moment it closed.
I didn’t really get into taking ecstasy for a while because I was still studying, I did try to remain sensible at least for a few weeks.
I remember there was an ID party that Mark Moore was DJing at and people were dressing up for it, so I was wearing my best fashion outfit. I remember going in there was a big contingent up from London and a gang of Manchester people who used to go to Ibiza, and they were hanging out with the Boys Own crew.
This was the real early days of acid house. These people became more prominent as time went on; you suddenly noticed them a lot more. They seemed very happy all the time; they were dancing a lot and wide-eyed and full of enthusiasm for life.
I was dressed quite smartly, and I remember this kid came up to me – he had quite long hair in a bob and a really long t-shirt on with beads and these knackered converse and ripped up jeans. He handed me a teddy bear and said ‘here man, this is for you’. I said to myself, ‘ok, this is different’.
By the end of the night, everybody had thrown their posh designer clothes by the wayside… we were embracing sweat and waving our arms with abandon.
Q. Did the atmosphere change very quickly in there?
The aesthetics changed overnight – it became a sort of frantic, sweat pit love-in. One week, acid house hadn’t happened, and the next week it had, it wasn’t a gradual thing.
As I mentioned, the music hadn’t changed that much, but everyone felt a bit looser, you didn’t worry about how you looked or what you said. Everyone was really friendly, from the scaly kids to the posh fashion people. It really felt clandestine.
Q. What was the warehouse party scene like at the time?
The warehouse scene in Manchester was tough – they were dealing with a very strict police force that really stamped down on absolutely everything. The head of police thought he was on a mission from God to clear the city of ne’er do wells.
There wasn’t a big warehouse seen because the police were so hot on it; plus Manchester isn’t as big as London, so the cops found out where you were pretty quickly. But people still tried!
One of the first parties warehouse parties I was involved with, which again was pretty acid house, was called Night Train, and I helped in a small way to put it on with Pete Heller. I think I DJed first at that event, ham-fistedly sticking on some records.
Q. What DJs were you mainly listening to back then?
Some of the DJs I was really into at the time included Mike Pickering and Martin Prendergast, when they use to DJ under the name MP2.
Then John Da Silva appeared on the scene and he was an amazing selector and mixer, so I was really into what he was doing. Steve Williams, too, was a brilliant and slightly unsung DJ hero.
And then of course, Laurent Garnier was lurking in the shadows. He was a chef, and he had a mix tape which he wanted to give to Paul Conns, the manager of the Hacienda. So I said to him ‘yes, you’re quite good at it, you should have a go!’ We all know what happened next.
[Thanks to Justin for the interview. Picture by Jake Davis. Part two can be found here]