Interview: ORIGINALS…. Seb Fontaine
There was a time, around the mid 90s to early 2000s, when it seemed Seb Fontaine was everywhere. And with good reason.
Having kicked off his career in the haze of the acid house era, Seb is one of the most prolific DJs and producers in dance music – his resumé includes residencies at classic venues such as Cream, Ministry of Sound, Subterrania and his own Malibu Stacey (alongside Craig Richards); hosting a Saturday night show on BBC Radio 1; mixing an exclusive series of CDs for Global Underground… and a lot more besides.
He’s just completed a busy summer – “one of the busiest I’ve had for a long time,” he explains – in what marks his 30th year as a professional jock. And he continues to love every minute of it.
909originals caught up with him.
Q. Hi Seb, how has the year been treating you so far?
Very busy. I did 23 festivals this summer – some big ones and some small ones. I love festivals, I throw myself right into it, taking along a tent and going camping for a few days.
The other day I was saying to my mate that I was looking forward to taking it easy this year, but I haven’t got a Saturday night off until the end of November. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want it any other way – it’s great being busy.
Q. You’ve been in the game for some time now. Have you noticed anything different about clubbing these days?
There’s definitely been a resurgence in the original generation of club goers going out again. And that’s not just for ‘classics’ nights. There are plenty of people my age – the right side of 50 –that still want to hear new music, go out and have a great time.
I think we’ve reached that point where the people who had to give up clubbing all those years ago to ‘settle down’ and start a family, their kids are now 22 or 23 years of age. So there’s no need for babysitters any more… and to be honest, a lot of the time you end up getting in later than them!
Ok, the hangovers last a little bit longer, and recovery time is a little bit longer, so people plan these things more in advance. I know plenty of people that only go out on Friday night because they need the extra day to recover..!
Q. The ‘good old days’ haven’t come to an end, in other words?
We are the generation that took going out to clubs and turned into a way of life. It was everything for us; we lived and breathed music, and we lived and breathed the fashion that went with it.
Ever since I’ve been old enough to be able to get into a nightclub it’s been my world, it really has. So to be able to go out again with the same people that I’ve known for years is just brilliant.
That said, I don’t mind doing classics gigs, but I’m generally finding that everyone is open-minded again to all kinds of music. Music is moving forward and it’s great to see all the people that helped create the scene still involved.
Dance music is probably one of the longest-running music genres ever. The fact that people are still travelling to places all over the country to enjoy a night out is phenomenal.
Look at Clockwork Orange – they sold something like 7,000 tickets in a day and a half for their gig at Printworks. It’s just unbelievable; if you went on to their Facebook page just before the gig, everybody was looking for tickets.
At its height, you probably had 1,000 people going to their night in Ibiza, but you had something like 14,000 going to Chelmsford this past summer for Clockstock.
I played at one of their events in Amnesia during the summer, and during the day, you had the more casual clubbers, who wanted to sign along with the classics, and that was their clubbing experience. But certainly when the place got darker and the lasers came on, the place changed. The music was more forward-thinking, and there were a good few younger people too.
But by and large, the original clubbers, who were going out in the late 80s and early 90s were out in force, in Ibiza, doing it all again.
Q. Has Ibiza changed much from when you started playing there in the 90s?
Ibiza has changed. It’s definitely less UK-focused; it’s a more European thing now, which is good. But at the same time, the one thing that upsets me are those three letters: VIP.
That’s something that really frustrates me – these days, you can’t sit down in a club in Ibiza unless you have a minimum spend of about four or five grand. That’s just insane.
But for every VIP-focused club there’s also a little hidden secret;, like a club that nobody knows about that goes on till 6 in the morning. I guess you just have to look a bit deeper – but I’m sure that was also the case back in the day.
Q. What was your upbringing like – how did you first get into music?
I grew up in Ealing in London. The first record I was ever given was Tiger Feet by Mud. It’s still a cool record – I hope that someday, somebody will book me for a wedding so I can get to play it out..!
I was never really into mainstream music; when I got to the age of 10 or 11, I was into Madness, The Specials, The Selecter – all that ska stuff.
Then, when I was 13 or 14, It got into electro, and then hip hop, and then rare groove. I remember having a load of rare groove and funk 7-inches when I was a teenager.
Q. When did you start DJing?
When I was a teenager, I used to take cassettes and make these mixtapes with all these little cut up sounds taped off the radio, kind of influenced by Coldcut.
That’s sort of how it started. I saved up and bought one Technics, and my mate saved up and bought another Technics. Plus I had a sh*t mixer, from Tandy.
So one of us would have to go over to the other’s house, with the Technics in a plastic bag, if we wanted to do a mixtape. There was real dedication involved. If I think back to that period, that’s probably what made my love for music so strong – it was that dedication.
Back then radio stations weren’t playing the music we wanted to hear. Of course you had a few pirate stations, but if you wanted to hear real music you had to go out to a party. You had to make the effort. If you didn’t live in London or Manchester or one of the big cities and you wanted to buy tunes, I know people who used to drive down to London just to buy records. It was like a 400 mile round trip, just to go record shopping.
There was a real commitment to what we were doing back then, I don’t think we realised at the time just how much effort we were making.
Q. You started off by playing the backroom at warehouse raves?
Around 1988, I used to play in the backroom of big raves – they would have a room that played hip hop, funk and that sort of stuff. But I remember at one party, I went into the main room, and heard Voodoo Ray for the first time.
I could see these people swinging from the ceiling and climbing up the speakers, and my first through was ‘I’m in the wrong room, I should be in here!’. The soundsystem wasn’t one of those clever systems like you have now; it was just an old school wall of speakers.
I wasn’t one of those early adopters. It wasn’t until about 1989 that I started liking house music, and even then I was mixing it up with hip hop and funk, mainly at house parties.
Q. So walking into that room was a bit of an epiphany for you?
Absolutely, it was a massive epiphany… and also probably my first pill. The two events collided calamitously together and change my life’s direction. I never looked back from that moment on.
Things were so different; there was this embrace of togetherness that you had in the music, and it made me think ‘this is something special, this is something I want to be part of’.
Q. Did you realise the significance of what was happening at the time?
There was a programme on the BBC recently that looked at the political issues and the social issues behind the dance music scene, but for a lot of people, they didn’t really give a f**k about that – they just wanted to go out to party.
I don’t think we realised how important what we were doing was, and how scared the government was. Never before had a youth movement erupted so vehemently that they tried to create laws to ban it.
It took over the whole country; you suddenly had friends in London, in Manchester, in Glasgow and in Nottingham… the whole country was together for the first time ever. It was more than just music, it was a journey, and we were all going on it together.
Q. That was also around the time you got your first residency?
My first big residency would have been at Subterrania in Notting Hill, where the other two DJs were Norman Jay and Jeremy Healy. I was the warm-up act. That was probably my first big break, I was 20 years old at the time.
I had DJed in lots of clubs before that, but now I was working with two legends of the scene. Norman Jay will always be my favourite DJ in the world – I followed him when he played funk and rare groove, so when he started playing house, I journeyed with it.
Q. Did you think it was something that would lead to a career?
I don’t ever think I thought about it in terms of a career. Yes, Subterrania was one of the best clubs in the world, and I loved to DJ there, but it wasn’t a case that I felt I had ‘made it’. It was just about playing music. I remember thinking it was one of the biggest clubs I’d ever seen, but it only held around 600 people.
When I started DJing, my mum used to come in every day and say ‘when are you going to get a real job?‘ It’s funny actually; later on, when it was announced I was going to Radio One my mum was like ‘oh yes, I’ve always supported him, we’re such a musical family..!’.
Obviously I had jobs here and there, but I was trying to do everything but live the life that my parents wanted me to live. My generation wanted something different from life. Beforehand, work dominated people’s lives, and this was the generation that wanted to change that.
Let’s not forget, the 80s had some pretty bleak moments – the poll tax riots, and the miners strikes and things like that. It was a time when people were starting to stick up for themselves, and young people certainly found their voice… which happened to coincide with dance music.
At no point did I think that I still be doing this 30 years later. We were just on this really exciting rollercoaster, seeing where it was going to go and how much fun we could have while we were on it.
Q. You founded Spot On Records in the early 90s, and started making your own music. What was that like – going from DJing to production and running a record label?
It was one of those things – you’re young and excited and you have ideas. I started Spot On Records on my own, and then Vern from Stretch & Vern came in a few weeks after that. To all intents and purposes, it was our label.
I found out that Vern could play the keyboards, and I had a bit of equipment too, so before long we were also making tracks. And again, I was round his house working on a track just last week – nearly 30 years later.
Stretch & Vern had two top tens, which was great, because Vern moved down from Wolverhampton simply because he wanted to be on Top of the Pops. He probably thought he would get there in an 80s new romantic band, rather than as part of Stretch & Vern, but he made it in the end.
Q. Yourself and Vern formed a prolific remix outfit, Itchy & Scratchy, and were synonymous with the emergence of that ‘hardbag house’ sound in the mid 90s, alongside Tall Paul and Tony De Vit?
Yes, the three of us were playing that kind of tougher house sound. We put out a few albums together as well. That was a good time for clubbing, the mid 90s, probably the best, I think.
Tony de Vit was such a nice guy, and while he started off with house, what he played certainly got a lot harder, musically, and then you had the rise of Sundissential and all that.
It was certainly harder than I would play, but Tony would go on to be one of the building blocks of that whole sound.
Q. Somehow you also found the time to have a show on Kiss FM, and also run Malibu Stacey – it must have been a fun time?
Malibu Stacey was one of the busiest and best nights in London. We used to have queues round the block. The club that held about 800 people, and there were probably about 2,000 people in the queue some weeks. It became one of the hardest clubs to get in to.
I still have people complaining to me about times that they got turned away from Malibu Stacey – someone brought it up just a couple of weeks ago. Some people have held onto their anger for quite some time..!
But that’s one of the things that made the club so special. It lasted for four years in London which is a long time to retain that trendy crowd. It was a pretty special club.
Q. You’ve held some pretty significant residencies in your career: Ministry of Sound, Cream etc?
I’ve always loved having a residency. After Malibu Stacey, I went to The Cross which is still one of the best clubs in the world. I just adore that place, and I have such fun memories of Billy (Reilly), who gave me the job there.
I was at The Cross for three or four years, then I joined Ministry of Sound. I’d been playing Ministry of Sound for a long time at that stage, doing the occasional night in there, and then they took me on as resident. Cream came soon after that – I think I was the first DJ to be a resident at Cream and Ministry at the same time – and then Radio One.
At that stage in your life, you sometimes wonder if your journey is going in the right direction, I felt that yes, I was on the right path.
Q. At the time you took on the Cream residency, it was probably the biggest club in the UK. That must have been an incredible experience?
I was brought in to Cream to take over from Paul Oakenfold, which was always going to be a tough task because he was adored there. As it happens, he stayed on for one more year and we were both residents in different rooms; me in the Main Room and Oakey in the Courtyard.
There was a Cream birthday party recently, and you had Oakey fans there, and fans of my music, and they don’t always agree. I think Oakenfold’s trance was a bit floatier and more vocal, and my trance was a bit tougher.
The Cream residency was one of the biggest in the world. The fact that for three years, Paul Oakenfold, one of the most in-demand DJs on the planet, was playing in Liverpool every week, was just amazing. Oakey was very clever about carving a new niche for himself; while 99% of DJs were in a different club every week, he said ‘no, I want to be in Liverpool’.
Because Oakenfold stayed on a year, and I had made the Main Room my own, the owners felt it wouldn’t be right for me to then move to the Courtyard. If he had left earlier, I probably would have moved straight in there, but as it is I’m happy with the way things worked out.
Those were some of the happiest times my life, I was playing the best clubs I ever wanted to play, and then throw in Radio 1 and the Global Underground CDs, and what more could you want really?
Q. By the early 2000s, there was a bit of a pushback against the superclubs, which led to their eventual closure. How did you view that?
Obviously, there still are massive clubs around now, but very few do anything on the level that Cream and Gatecrasher and Godskitchen did on a weekly basis.
If you look at the big clubs now, like Fabric, it has quite a diverse lineup: drum n bass, techno, house – they mix it up. But back then, all of the superclubs had a specific sound. In time, there was a push back on that kind of stuff, but I guess things have to evolve.
Ministry is probably the only club that’s still going from the very beginning, but they do very different things now. It’s not like when it first opened; they’ve seen the way the market has developed, and planned accordingly.
Q. You also released several mixes for Global Underground – but rather than focusing on particular ‘cities’, you had your own series, Prototype. How did that come together?
I did four Prototype albums. The plan was to do one a year. There was an opportunity for DJs that didn’t want to do the ‘city’-based mixes to join Global Underground, through the Nubreed mixes, but that didn’t really suit what I was doing, so they came back to me and said ‘do you want your own series’?
That was an incredible opportunity, so I couldn’t pass it up.
Generally, with the Prototypes I used to do one kind of funky CD, almost like a tech house mix, and then one that was a bit more deeper and progressive.
Some people used to tell me that they preferred CD1, while others were more into CD 2 – I guess that’s why you need to do two CDs. I always used to love putting those mixes together.
Q. The BBC Radio 1 residency followed, before you went ‘back to your roots’ in a way by going to The Cross?
I had my own show on Saturday nights on BBC Radio 1 for about three years, and after that we were doing Type at the Cross.
I would describe The Cross as my first proper ‘underground’ residency; Subterrania had quite a fun, fashionable crowd, while The Cross was a proper underground house club.
I was there for about five years; we had guests like Erick Morillo, Fatboy Slim, Timo Maas, Sander Kleinenberg – we knocked it out of the park. It really went from strength to strength.
Q. What did you like so much about The Cross?
Tunnels. I always loved the underground feeling of tunnels. Actually, there’s a night I do now once a year in Liverpool, which is in the Williamson Tunnel.
There’s just something about raving in a tunnel; it takes you right back to the old warehouse parties and illegal raves, when some guys would find a cellar somewhere and stick a massive soundsystem in there.
Q. You were part of that first wave of ‘superstar DJs’ – when DJs almost considered pop stars. That’s grown even bigger now, obviously, but it must have been a bit strange at the time?
It was very odd. Ok, if you are in a nightclub and someone comes up to you and asks you for an autograph, or a selfie these days, that’s not that strange. But what was strange was the way that two worlds collided.
You would be on a train, and some kid would come up to you and say ‘can I have your autograph?’, and all these old ladies and people on the train would turn around and wonder who I was.
It happened to me at Stamford Bridge, actually. I’m a bid Chelsea fan, and I’m walking in one of the entrances, behind the famous player ‘Chopper’ Harris. I see all these people come up to Chopper asking for his autograph, and then one of the guys comes up to me, and says ‘Seb, can I have your autograph?’ And then I see Chopper turn to his mate beside him and mouth the words ‘Who the f**k’s that?’
But you’re right, at that time DJs were on TV, we were on the radio, we were in magazines and newspapers. I guess it’s different now, but at the time, we were trailblazing a little bit, because it hadn’t been done before.
People playing records had never been that famous, apart from the odd Radio 1 DJ turning up on Top of the Pops.
Q. What do you make of the dance music scene today?
With change comes both good and bad, and personally, I love the fact I’m not lugging record boxes around any more.
People will say to me occasionally ‘are you not playing vinyl any more?’ So I ask them what they do, and they might say ‘I’m a dentist‘. To which I say, ‘Would you do a root canal with the same equipment you were using 25 years ago?’
When I started, it was a case of whether you were playing vinyl or whatever, it was about playing music, and seeing the smiles on people’s faces. There used to be so much effort involved as well. People travelling to go record shopping in London – it was like a six-hour round trip.
I think that some of the art of DJing has been lost with digital, but I don’t think we should burn all our CDJs just yet. I think that the craft of DJing – and it is a craft – is still about picking the right music.
A lot of kids getting into DJing think they won’t get recognised unless they play the Beatport top ten… they are 100% wrong. If I walk into a club at 9pm in the evening, and I hear a DJ warming things up, getting the night going, I’ll be a lot more impressed than if they are just playing the obvious tunes that everyone else is playing.
Q. You’ve dabbled in many musical genres over the years – what is your favourite?
My favourite genre is house music… and will always be house music.
I have such fond memories – music is the most emotive trigger there is. When you hear a certain bassline, it takes you back to a particular moment in time, when you’re 25 years old and you have no worries or cares in the world; no mortgages or babysitters or things like that to worry about.
It’s almost like a time machine, with certain records representing a slice of your life at a particular time, when you were all on the dance floor together, with a big grin on your face.
Q. Looking back on on your career to date, would you have done anything differently?
I count myself so lucky. Without sounding like someone that says ‘thank God for every day’, I’m glad I managed to hit the right nail on the head at the right time. Like I said, it felt like being on a rollercoaster ride.
It’s been the most fun journey but you can never be on – I’ve DJed to tens of thousands of people, and I’ve DJed to ten people, and I love it the same. Sometimes those last ten people left on the dance floor when everyone else has gone home are the best people you’ll ever DJ to.
[Thanks again to Seb for the interview. Main picture taken from Facebook] 🙂