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 Robertson about the people, places and more importantly, the tunes that defined his early career.
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.
Q. In the past you have said that one of the most influential periods of your life was spent behind the counter at Manchester’s legendary Eastern Bloc record shop. How did that come about?
I have always felt my life consisted of several accidents stitched together. When Eastern Bloc opened, I used to go there pretty regularly. It had quite an interesting variety: a lot of dub and reggae, and plenty of Balearic records and tougher stuff from Belgium and Germany. I became almost a permanent fixture at the end of the counter.
One day, a guy working there got unceremoniously sacked while I was stood there, and then John Berry [Eastern Bloc owner] turns to me and says ‘do you want a job?’. I was working in a medical records office at the time, and I was skint, so I said ‘yes, absolutely!’ I started a couple of days later.
It was pretty frantic in there. We didn’t really realise it at the time, but this big scene was happening before our eyes. Martin Price, who worked in the shop, was in 808 State, for example, so it was a really good hub for meeting people.You had the Happy Mondays in there quite regularly, and The Stone Roses.
John just had a boundless enthusiasm for getting tunes – he was on the phone constantly hounding the record labels for imports. He was really keen on providing DJs with the best records he could lay his hands on.
Q. Was John a big influence on your career?
He was a real mentor for me and he gave me a lot of opportunities, not just in terms of listening to great music and meeting great people, but he also gave me my first break in a studio.
As time went on, and 1988 became 1989 and 1990, and the scene was evolving into what would be called ‘Madchester’, we were right at the epicentre of it in Eastern Bloc. You had film crews coming in, and queues outside, and boxes and boxes of records. If there was a big release out from one of the big Manchester bands, you would just be handing records out to people. They were buying them before they even listened to them.
You would be exhausted by the end of the day, the energy was just frantic. But you were young, and you loved it.
Q. Around that time, you started getting more regular DJ bookings. Where were you playing?
I started playing Sunday nights at a night called Communion, It was pretty much disco, but it also had an acid house feel to it – kind of like Dingwalls with acid jazz, if you can imagine it.
I started getting more gigs after that, I was very enthusiastic so I was putting myself out there saying ‘I’ll do this or do that’.
I remember one night I was warming up for Mike Pickering, and I saw a pair of Technics for the first time. I didn’t know what to do. I said to him ‘here, how does this work?’ I had an idea of how it worked but it was still a steep learning curve.
Towards the end of the summer of 1989, I used to go to see Steve Williams at Thunderdome, which had a harder sound, more Belgian beat.
Q. You also started DJing at legendary Manchester club Konspiracy around that time?
Konspiracy opened around the time Thunderdome closed. It had lots of different rooms, sort of like caves. The main room was pretty tough house; the sort of stuff that was getting played at the Blackburn raves, which unfortunately I never had the chance to go to. As well as that, you would have four different rooms, playing all sorts of stuff: funk, hip hop, Balearic.
Myself and Greg Fenton, who had moved over from Belfast, started running Spice there, which was a real mashup of different sounds. In some ways, Konspiracy was probably one of the most interesting musical spots in the city at the time, because you could hear a real variety of stuff.
It wasn’t just one floor and one sound, there was a variety of different things going on.
I don’t think I got paid for two months because someone kept on robbing the takings at the end of the night; there were a few incidents like that. But the vibe of the club was great – it was less trendy than the Hacienda, but there was such a positive crowd.
Q. How did you get into remixing and production?
It was one of those seat of the pants sort of scenarios. There were a lot of club versions of tracks coming out, of Primal Scream, The Farm and the Mondays. Eastern Bloc wanted to ride the Zeitgeist wave, but unfortunately they didn’t have very much money.
There was a band called the Mad Jacks, and they were looking for a remixer, and I said I could do it. We hired a studio, and I went in there with an engineer called Mark Stagg.
I had never been in a studio in my life. I have no idea what anything did, but I did know what I wanted it to sound like. So with a fair amount of pointing and direction and sampling, we put together a club remix, the ‘Spice Remix’, of Feel The Hit by the Mad Jacks.
It sounded pretty good actually, it was pretty coherent, in that Primal Scream Loaded kind of style. Boys Own championed it in their fanzine and it took off quite nicely.
Then, suddenly, I found myself called in to remix Erasure and The Sugarcubes and groups like that. It went really fast and I was a bit taken aback by what was going on. It was fairly full throttle, but everything was so new, you could sort of get away with it.
The worlds of rock and dance were colliding, and there was something very non-purist about it, very relaxed. I suppose that came from the Balearic attitude – Alfredo’s mixture of styles.
Q. Were you trying to recreate that Balearic sound, or were you trying to put your own spin on it?
Manchester was a house music bastion, but there was less Balearic than there was in London, so there was an experimental feel to the music. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but it gave me plenty of ideas.
Suddenly I would think ‘I have this great 60s psych record that would sound great here’, or ‘let’s sample this Dusty Springfield record’.
I remember Ashley Beedle coining the phrase ‘dub house disco’ and that was exactly the kind of vibe that we were coming up with, with a dash of psychedelia here or there. It was a real open-ended production sound.
People don’t bat an eyelid about it now, but the idea of combining technology with live instruments and live performance was really new at the time. It was the golden age of remixing, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Q. A lot of those early remixes capture a particular moment in time. Were you trying to tap into the energy of the period?
When everything was happening I don’t think any of us were sure it was going to last more than another couple of months. A lot of things came and went in those days. People were into one scene and then that would die out, and they would go on to other things.
But then again, this wasn’t some rarefied trendy thing that was only happening in fashion magazines; it was happening all over the country. In every town, village and hamlet, there seemed to be an acid house party happening.
I mean, we’re chatting here in 2019 about something that happened thirty years ago. But at the time, you didn’t think people were going to be bothered about what you were doing next week.
Q. The Lionrock project emerged in 1992, and all of a sudden, you were the custodian of a new, progressive style of dance music. What are the origins of Lionrock?
The name Lionrock came about when I was working on a track that had this dub reggae type feel to it. The studio engineer was like, ‘we need a name for this project, right now’, so I looked over at my record bag, and there was Lion Rock by Culture sticking out. So I said, ‘call it Lionrock’, and that was that.
Just like with the remixing, there was a feeling of ‘let’s continue that DIY ethos’. It was quite an exciting time – I was 22 or 23, making music, DJing, and doing what 22 and 23 year olds do, which is having a good time. There was certainly no business plan or career considerations.
Q. Was that ‘do it yourself’ mentality reflective of your acid house experiences, in a way?
When acid house started, it was sort of like the anti rock and roll. When you went to a nightclub there was no focal point. It was like a Dionysian ritual, everyone was coming together and enjoying themselves to this hypnotic music.
The DJ was providing the music, but there wasn’t this adulation of the DJ, people weren’t looking at the DJ at all. In the Hacienda or Konspiracy you couldn’t see the DJ at all, and in the Thunderdome the DJ was off to the side. You were there on the dancefloor, and you were just as important as anyone else.
When I got into it, DJing wasn’t something that was considered to be a career choice; only slightly weird people became DJs. When I would go to visit my parents, they would ask what I was doing, and I told them I was a DJ, and they would be like, ‘no really, what are you doing?’. To be honest, the whole thing seemed a bit weird to me too.
It was the same with setting up labels. There was no idea of branding, but then as the 90s progressed, capitalism reared its head and it all went funny.
Q. You turned 50 last year, which is a good time to take stock of your achievements to date. Is there anything from your early career that you would have done differently?
Generally speaking, I’m happy with the decisions I made. Maybe I wish I could have thought about the Lionrock live thing a bit earlier, and how we could turn it into a live band – I could have planned that a bit better, in retrospect.
Sometimes you get a bit overloaded with work, and you don’t realise what you are creating. People would come up to me and say, ‘I love such and such mix’, and I would go ‘really? I wasn’t sure about that one, I think I just about got away with it!’ I’ve rarely left something and said ‘that’s perfect’, there’s always something I would have liked to have changed.
But life has to be lived forwards, it’s no good looking back and saying I could have done this or that. It’s a question of we are where we are.
What I’m very grateful for is that I still feel as enthusiastic as I did when I was working as a shop assistant in Eastern Bloc. I think the music that’s out today is fantastic.
A lot of things are different about the scene, but at a basic level, people still come together and dance and have a good time, and that’s the ‘great ideal’ if you ask me.
[Thanks again to Justin Robertson for the interview. Picture by Jake Davis. For more information on upcoming projects, visit www.justinrobertson.co.uk]