Interview: ORIGINALS…. Seb Fontaine, part two

Picking up where we left off yesterday with part one, we continue our interview with Seb Fontaine, discussing his time as resident of Cream, how he got involved with Global Underground, and his thoughts on the evolution of the dance scene.

Over to you, Seb.

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?

Atlantis – Fiji, a track long associated with Seb’s Cream residency

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.

Prototype, by Global Underground – “an incredible opportunity”

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.

Seb in the mix at Cream Liverpool, c. 2000

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] 🙂

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