Interview: A non-techno conversation with Dave Clarke

There are few artists as synonymous with hard-edged electronica as Dave Clarke, but the self-styled ‘baron of techno’ has long shown that he isn’t afraid to broaden his musical horizons.

In the past few months, for example, Clarke has unveiled a new radio show, the Saga Series, to echo his long-running White Noise, as well as teaming up with violinist Mathilde Marsal on a very special reworking of composer Gustav Holst‘s legendary Planets Suite, as part of the Variations series for France.TV.

In addition, he has rediscovered his longstanding love of photography, using social media platforms such as Instagram to showcase his artistic side.

With this in mind, 909originals recently caught up with Clarke for a non-techno related conversation (possibly a first?) – part one of which can be found below.

Dave, great to chat to you. You’ve really got into photography over the past few years, but your love for photography goes back a lot further. How did that develop?

It seems that, retrospectively, a lot of the good stuff came from my father. He passed away about 12 years ago. I never had a close relationship with him – I saw him from time to time, and he got remarried, but we weren’t close. It was only after he passed away, sadly, that I realised that he had a big influence on me.

It took me a while to realise that, and there was a bit of anger, which was misdirected. But in many ways, my love of music and technology came from him. Also, he was madly into photography, and I used to resent that a little bit.

It wasn’t just a case of ‘going on holiday and taking a few snaps’ – everything had to be staged. He had a Minolta camera, and would bring his lens case around with him everywhere. I used to have to carry it, and it was f**king heavy.

We never really had any proper family holidays, and when we came back, he would do slideshows, with the same script again and again. It was a case of ‘great, here’s that joke again…’

When I was younger, he gave me a couple of his old camera lenses – a Minolta 58mm Rokkor and a Vivitar Series lens, and I would go around taking photos, except I couldn’t really afford to.

There was a lot of expense involved. You had to buy a certain type of film, and then if you didn’t choose the right ISO, then you’d end up wasting it. I was going round Brighton train station, thinking I was taking the shots of my life, but then they wouldn’t work out how I wanted.

In the end, I had to make a choice – I wasn’t making much money, so I had to sell my camera. To be honest, at the time, I wasn’t that sad about it. This is when I was 19, just when I was starting to make music, and £150 was a lot of money in those days.

So it was a case of going headlong into music, and leaving the past behind to a certain extent?

It was a case of having to do what was necessary. I was really trying to conserve money at the time. I was going in to hotels and nicking the toilet rolls so I could afford to buy tea bags, things like that.

I’m sad about it now, of course, because one of the lenses was a true classic, and it was given to me by my father, so it had sentimental value.

What caused you to rediscover photography, many years later?

Later, around 2003, I started to delve a little bit more into ‘who I was’, and realised that the love of photography was still with me. I started to buy photography books, and learn more about how people like [legendary photographer] Terry O’Neill worked.

Plus, I was lucky enough to have my photo taken over the years by some incredibly photographers, like Rankin, Marilyn Clark, Gered Mankowitz – he photographed everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Kate Bush. Without realising it, I was analysing how they worked, looking at what type of flash they were using, how they were getting things in focus.

It became a little bit instinctive; even though I was the subject, I was also taking note of what was going on around me.

Also, I remember an ex-girlfriend showed me all the possibilities of what you can do with the photo settings on the iPhone, and I got lost in this little wormhole for a while. That was about six years ago now. It was about then that I realised, ‘I’m getting really into this’.

I get really excited, almost childlike, when I’m taking photos, in the same way as I do when I’m in the studio. So I said to myself, ‘ok, I’m going to buy a proper camera’.

So when the time came to buy your own camera, you wanted to get something serious, like a Hasselblad?

I was thinking about buying a Hasselblad. I remember when Rankin took pictures of me on his Hasselblad, he had this instamatic, Polaroid-type setup on the back, which would give you an instant indication of what the light was like and all that. But while the Hasselblad is really cool, it’s also really big.

So I decided to buy a Leica. There is a Leica shop in Lisse [southwest of Amsterdam] , so I went there and did probably the most ridiculous thing possible. I bought the camera that was the prettiest.

There was camera with all this red rubber on it, and the shop assistant was saying ‘have you considered this?’, but I wasn’t listening – I was adamant. I wanted that one. Then, once I started taking pictures, all my shots were overexposed.

I kept that Leica for two years, thinking I could get through it, but I couldn’t. In the end I relented and part-exchanged it for a Leica Q2, which was really where things got started for me.

It’s 48 megapixel, so even if you’re taking pictures at 28mm, 50mm or 75mm, you still get a good resolution.

I take a lot of shots with aperture priority, because I can’t really be bothered with shutter speed and things like that. I feel like I’m more in control of the front end as a result. I suppose it’s the photographic equivalent of becoming a ‘sync DJ’..!

I fell in love with the Leica Q2. It became my go-to camera for travelling, I bring it everywhere.

But you didn’t stop there, right?

That was my ‘gateway’. As I learned more about it, I started to understand the technicalities within photography, so I went out to get a Leica SL.

I was like, ‘holy shit, this is next level’ – it’s amazing what you can do with portraits, plus you can use any number of lenses with it.

Unfortunately, it’s only 25 megapixel; ideally I want everything in my armoury to be at least 48 megapixel, or else I don’t have consistency.

At the same time, though, your investment is always going to be in the glassware. Camera bodies come and go, but the glassware, particularly at a Leica level, is going to be good for many many years.

I have this image of a big wardrobe full of lenses back at your place in Amsterdam – you’ve built up quite a collection?

I think I’ve got enough now; I have a 50mm standard, a 28mm, a 75mm, a pancake lens, which is really good for street photography, and a 90mm Thambar. That’s a really good one – you can create really beautiful, soft focus shots.

Actually, the only thing I don’t have, and if I need it, I will borrow it, is a zoom. I don’t really like them though, to be honest. It would be useful for gigs, but I don’t want to actually own one.

Would you say that moving to Amsterdam re-awakened your appreciation of art?

I’ve been living in Amsterdam for 12 years now. When I was last living in the UK, it was great for my studio set up, but maybe not for my hay fever. Plus, living out in the countryside, I was excluded from everything – my fashion sense, my artistic sense. I couldn’t develop.

When I came to Amsterdam, I remember I was walking along the streets in my Vivienne Westwood t-shirt that said ‘F**K Art’, but what I realised more and more was that I actually really like art.

I just don’t like the people that sell it, because they look down on you.

Imagine that with every person that bought my album, I turned up on their doorstep and explained to them how they should interpret certain tracks?

That’s my problem with the art world, it takes away the enjoyment. The whole point of art is that it’s down to your interpretation.

Your Instagram page is unlike that of almost any other techno DJ – artistic photos and portraits mixed in with gig shots. It’s interesting that the rise of Instagram coincided with your rediscovery of photography?

I know, it’s strange, right?

In a way, on Instagram, I’m sabotaging myself as a techno artist. I try to include black and white photos, artistic shots, and I might get 300 likes or something.

Then, for every four of those, there’s one of me at a gig, that gets 1,700 likes.

It’s quite funny, maybe I’m doing career sabotage, I don’t know. But that’s the kind of person that I am. I also take photos professionally.

There are some great shots of non-techno artists, like Captain Sensible of The Damned, or Patti Smith. When you go to gigs now, do you apply for a press pass like other photographers?

The picture of Captain Sensible (see below) was taken from the mosh pit, would you believe. At Patti Smith, I had a press pass.

Also, at a Sisters of Mercy gig, the smoke machine broke down – which never happens at a Sisters of Mercy gig – so I was able to take some great pictures, again from the mosh pit. My camera is waterproof, so I wasn’t even worried about the beer or anything like that.

I really enjoy taking photos of people that I know, other artists, musicians. A lot of photographers, bless them, don’t make music, or know that much about making music, so they would say to you, ‘crouch over those synthesisers and pretend you’re doing something’.

I understand there are discussions about an exhibition of your work, in Amsterdam?

There is a plan for an exhibition, but I’d rather talk about it nearer the time because I don’t want to jinx myself. I was offered the chance to do an exhibition in France last March but it was too soon for me.

Would you look to combine that with your DJing? Performing in the exhibition hall or something like that?

I’ll probably keep DJing and the exhibition side of things separate. Although I’ll certainly use photography to inspire my music – I think for my next recording, I’ll try to take photos to accompany the music.

How did you come to work with Mathilde Marsal on the Variations gig?

Normally with a project like this, the give you a choice of four or five people to work with, and they are all super-talented, amazing people.

But I need to have a symbiotic relationship with whoever I’m going to be working with. Everybody else can just meet someone a few days before and just start working together, but I’m not like that.

They were offering these incredible Russian violinists, who were like 65 years old, but I didn’t think we would be able to gel. I always felt with them there was going to be this distance, that they would be thinking ‘I’m an artist, and you’re not’.

So, for the Holst performance, I sort of put my foot down, and said that I wanted to work with Mathilde. We hadn’t worked together at that stage, but I had a good feeling about it. I met her in Belgium, and I knew she listened to techno, so I felt it would be a really interesting project.

Plus, she is a ridiculous talent – she studied at the Sorbonne, and she plays at La Scala, for example.

Why did you decide on Gustav Holst as the basis for the performance?

Gustav Holst was the first music that brought me into techno. I got into Holst through the Tomita version, actually, which was one of my father’s records.

In those days, the whole ‘space’ thing was really taking off – you had disco versions of the Star Wars theme, and things like that, with cheeky pictures of women in spacesuits on the front.

Holst’s Planets suite is a brilliant piece of music, and the Tomita version was, and still is, mind-blowing.

I remember there being some controversy about the Thaxted intro that Tomita had included in his version of Jupiter; that Gustav Holst’s family had never liked it. But for me, it was always part of it, because I’ve listened to it so many times.

I previously worked in a classical music shop, for two years, so I really got a taste for Janáček, Debussy, Sibelius, mainly early 20th century composers.

I don’t like chamber music, though, it annoys me. To me, it always sounds like the background music for a public toilet.

Had you had the opportunity to work with classical artists, or an orchestra before?

I was offered the chance to work with a 70- or 80-piece orchestra in Holland about 12 or 13 years ago, but it didn’t feel right at the time. For me, the whole beauty of an orchestra is that you have that human element to it, and things are so metronomic with electronic music, it would miss the point of having humans there at all.

It was different working with Mathilde; if you notice with her playing, she goes from 4/4 to 5/4 at times – she follows me, and I follow her. She was very brave to allow me to put effects on her violin as well.

What kit did you use for the performance?

I used Serato Studio. I remember I said ‘yes’ to the project and then Serato Studio came out something like three days later, which was brilliant, because I didn’t want to use a CDJ or something like that.

It wasn’t too complicated to master, either, so I could focus on the spirit of what was going on, rather than the technicalities.

Do you see yourself working with Mathilde again?

I think we’re going to work together more often in the future. She wants to move to Amsterdam and if that happens then will definitely be working together.

Tell me about the Saga Series radio show, which was reportedly conceived over a lengthy sushi dinner?

I’ve had this stabbing at me for a while now. In the beginning, with White Noise, I’d have part of the show called ‘Punk Out’, where I would play some punk tracks at the very end.

So, I was sitting with [2fm DJ] Mr Spring in a sushi restaurant, and both of us had the same idea at the same time. He said to me, ‘what do you think about doing a radio show that’s not techno?’, and I was like ‘This has been on my mind for the past two years, maybe three!’.

We devised the concept there and then, on the back of the bill.

I called it the Saga Series, because it’s inspired by my time driving around Iceland, and the idea behind the show is that it doesn’t include any techno at all.

As Spring said, ‘we’ll do it for as long as you feel comfortable with it’, so there’s no pressure. But I’m really enjoying it.

[Click here for the latest episode of the Saga Series]

As you have mentioned before during the show, some of the tracks are inspired by nights out in the bars of Amsterdam, others are discovered while waiting for an early morning flight somewhere in Europe. How are you selecting the tracks for each episode?

A lot of the tracks I’ve been aware of for many years, long before I’d even thought of doing something like this.

But yes, actually, four in the morning in an airport is a really good time to listen to music, because you’re sort of in a transitory situation. You are on the way home, you’re tired, and you’re quite receptive to new sounds.

I used to be really bored going through airports, but not I kind of enjoy it, because I have time to listen to new music.

White Noise is a reflection of who I am, and Saga is as well. With Saga, I sometimes tell a couple of stories, but I’m not trying to take away from the music – that comes first.

I don’t think you would hear the combination of tracks on any other radio show; it’s quite a broad mixture.

Do you get sent tracks by friends or other artists you admire?

No one ever says to me ‘you have to put this on the show’, but a lot of friends do send me music from time to time, and I always think it’s better to get music from people than from algorithms.

When you’re on Spotify, for example, it’s all machine-based – they say your playlist knows you better than your closest lover, or something like that. Real people aren’t like that.

I love going into record shops in Amsterdam, and listening to what they’re playing in the store, talking to them about it. Sometimes I don’t even buy anything, I’m just there to listen.

To me, that’s why radio is more interesting than Spotify, because it’s something that has bene chosen by an individual, rather than an algorithm.

I do have a dig at my friends sometimes – they might send you a track, and it’s great, and then they send you another five tracks, and you can see that these other tracks have just been spat out by Spotify. You can see the lineage – they might tick the boxes in the beginning, but they don’t tick the emotional boxes.

Finally, what non-techno artists are rocking your headphones at the moment?

I really like Fontaines DC, but I worry about them because they have the ‘Steve Lamacq seal of approval’ now.

I loved Idles when they first came out, but then I got really bored of them because I felt they were making music for Steve Lamacq, and Steve Lamacq felt they were making music for him, so he played it.

With a band like Fontaines DC, I love who they are, and what they represent, but I worry that it’s happening too quickly for them.

[Thanks again to Dave for the interview. Main photo by Marilyn Clark]

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