From Lionrock to Revtone to the Deadstock33s, not to mention countless productions and remixes under his own name, Justin Robertson has packed a lot into a three-decade career.
Following on from part one of our interview with the great man, in part two of our Origins interview, we chat about his time behind the counter at one of the UK’s most influential record shops, forging a DJ career, and how he caught the production bug.
Over to you, Justin.
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]