Interview: “We looked at each other as if to say ‘are we wasting our money on this project?'” Tricky Disco’s Michael Wells on the creation of a Warp Records classic…
When it comes to making an immediate impact, few record labels were as effective as Warp Records, which counted seminal rave cuts such as LFO – LFO, Sweet Exorcist’s Testone and Nightmares on Wax’s Dextrous amongst its early output.
On this day in 1990 (9 July), the Sheffield-based label released Tricky Disco – Tricky Disco, a record that like the aforementioned LFO and Testone, would helped define a techno movement that would come to be known as ‘bleep’.
Tricky Disco was the brainchild of Michael Wells and Lee Newman, who at the time of its release had enjoyed reasonable success as Greater Than One – later abbreviated to G.T.O – a group that was part art collective, part industrial electronica outfit.
Tricky Disco enabled the duo to explore their musical horizons, introducing a whole raft of pseudonyms (such as John & Julie and Church of Extacy), and working with various labels. As Newman (who sadly died in 1995) was quoted as saying, “if you give them a Tricky Disco one week and then a John and Julie two weeks later and GTO a month later they’ll write about all of it.”
As Tricky Disco marks its 30th anniversary, 909originals caught up with Michael Wells to discuss how the track came together.
Hi Michael, thanks for talking to us. What prompted you and Lee to develop the Tricky Disco pseudonym, rather than release the track as Greater Than One?
We were releasing music solely as Greater Than One at the time, on our own K= K label and with Wax Trax in Chicago. This was experimental, cut-up industrial based music, with references to EBM, but we started leaning towards more dance-based rhythms and structures of the techno scene.
Our music was played in clubs, but mostly indie and student clubs. Tricky Disco was a project we formed to develop music that would be heard in the new underground dance clubs.
We pressed 500 white labels of the track and sent them to all the various record shops around the UK. There was no information on it, just a single sheet of paper with a cartoon of ‘Tricky Disco’ – an alien who came to earth to make people dance – and a German telephone number, of a friend.
The telephone calls we received were numerous and the response took us by surprise, with shops saying they had sold out and ‘where could they order more?’, and labels wanting to sign the track. One of those labels happened to be Warp.
At that stage, Warp Records had just a couple of releases under its belt. How aware were you of what Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell were seeking to do with the label?
We were aware of Warp Records and the whole underground dance music scene largely through pirate radio in London. Lee and I were working together in an art studio in London and would listen to music all day long; also we would buy lots of the latest records, and had a DJ set up in our home studio.
Around the same time, we shortened Greater Than One to G.T.O. and had the track Pure signed to Go-Bang records in Holland. It’s funny, because after signing Tricky Disco to Warp, we visited Sheffield to see them and went to a club where the DJ played Pure and mixed in Tricky Disco. Not many people knew we had made both tracks!
We liked Steve and Rob (RIP); they were young and enthusiastic and had a nice dry sense of humour. We were happy to be part of the Warp history.
Do you remember what equipment you used to put the Tricky Disco together?
We had our own studio. At that time we worked as commercial artists, and I was also an illustrator, so with what money we earned we bought recording equipment.
We used an Atari 1040 computer running Creator, an Akai 900 sampler, a Tascam 8-track 1\2 inch reel to reel tape recorder, various digital delays and reverbs, and a Soundtracs mixing desk.
Why do you think Tricky Disco is remembered to this day as such an influential track?
I have no idea. At the time, I remember we were in the cutting room at Townhouse, before it was pressed, and Lee and I looked at each other as if to say ‘are we wasting our money on this project?’ But I guess you have to go with your gut instinct.
It’s like a lot of music we released – it was an idea born in the studio that you have to let out into the world. Some will like it, others not so much – but you have to share the ideas.
Tricky Disco made it as high as #14 in the pop charts – that must have been quite surreal? Were you approached to do Top of The Pops?
We always had a kinda punk ethic to everything, which meant keeping as much control as possible – from recording to artwork. Lee’s father was even sampled on the remix – the ‘Saxy Mix’ – playing saxophone.
With Tricky Disco, we made a video which was played on Top of the Pops. That was nice to see. It even included some animation we filmed in our garden. It only reached the charts thanks to the sales in records shops and club plays. At the time it got very little national radio support, so it was a big surprise that it charted.
You have resurrected the Tricky Disco name sporadically over the years. Does Tricky Disco have unfinished business?
Never say never. Ha!
Michael continues to record and release techno and experimental music as G.T.O., Technohead and other aliases. Check out the recent Let it Ride EP on Urban Kickz Recordings (UKR 188), as well as Back in Sound on Lenny Dee’s Hard Electronic label (HE68). 🙂
For more information, or to purchase Tricky Disco’s music, visit dataflow.bandcamp.com.