“I definitely restarted from scratch…” Jon Carter on his return to dance music
Around the turn of the Millennium, no club or festival lineup was complete without the name of Jon Carter, the big beat virtuoso turned DJ celebrity, whose releases on labels such as Wall of Sound, Saville Row and Bugged Out! (holding a residency at the club of the same name) helped establish him as one of tech house’s most sought-after producers.
And that’s to say nothing of his work with Monkey Mafia, the dub- and dancehall-influenced group whose only album, Shoot the Boss, turns 25 years old this year. On a personal level, we at 909originals have fond memories of Monkey Mafia’s headlining show in the Influx Ballroom at Homelands Ireland 1999.
If you’re thinking – ‘wow, Jon Carter, that’s a name I haven’t heard for a while’ – you’re not the only one. In 1998, Carter entered the pub business with the purchase of The Lock Tavern pub in Camden, to which he added The Defector’s Weld, Shepherd’s Bush; The John Salt, Islington; The Fellow, King’s Cross and The Owl & Pussycat in Shoreditch over the coming years.
Selling the pubs to brewer Young’s & Co in 2014, he then set about his next project, developing New House Farm Country Retreat in Etchingham, East Sussex – an enterprise that by his own admission took him further away from the music industry that his career was founded on.
Now, Carter is back in the music game, following up the recent Mighty Horses (with Betty Steeles on vocals) with new single Brother and Sister, released earlier this month on Jack Said What, which features vocals from house legend Curtis McClain. You can download it here.
909originals caught up with him.
Jon, it’s great to see you making music again. Are you glad to be back?
Yes. I did take a lot of time out – I’ve not been doing interviews or making music for about 10 years. During that time, I’ve done some pretty mad projects and was kind of pushing myself in different ways.
The music has kind of done the talking. You know, it’s fortunate I had a past, but it’s not a heritage thing. And now that I have returned to music, I hope it speaks for itself. It’s certainly got the history in it.
It’s about coming back to music for personal reasons. It’s just very nice to be doing it again, and how quickly it went from me coming up with a new idea to it suddenly being released.
During that extended period away from music, were you still tinkering around in the studio? Or did it not feature in your life at all?
We’ve all got to reinvent ourselves. The music business was changing, and we all had to adapt, whether we were going to keep producing and DJing, or trying something different.
The pub company, which started with The Lock Tavern, was still very music related, but it sort of changed, and got to a point where music became further and further away from what I was doing.
I couldn’t help feel it in the later years of not doing it – this sounds weird – it was like I had betrayed music in some way. I was so into it, and then I was so far away from it.
But also, I was doing such intense projects that there just wasn’t time. It seemed like all the time and the mad energy I used to put into music was being put into something else. So yeah, in 2016, I moved out of London, had twins, bought a farm, and started to turn all the outbuildings – which were falling down and dirty – into a retreat centre.
In other words, taking the energy you used to have from making music and putting it into something else?
Exactly – it’s still creative. Absolutely. And having twins – it was just like, ‘Jesus, one day I have to take the foot off the pedal!’
Coming back to music, it was very much a case of not expecting much. I had listened to tracks and over that I produced in the past, and I was like, ‘how did I do that’?
That’s interesting, because obviously you have artists that have been making music pretty much non-stop for 20 or 30 years, and others that have given it up entirely. But for you, it was a hard stop and then a re-start. Did it feel like you were starting from scratch to a certain degree?
I definitely restarted from scratch. I would set equipment up from time to time – I would set decks up, and play at festivals and things like that, I played at Glastonbury in 2019. But that’s not production obviously.
And then I had a bit of a semi-spiritual moment. I guess define our spiritual moments in different ways. I had the decks set up at this place I was staying on the south coast and I put the soundtrack from Countryman on – the reggae soundtrack – and this percussion loop just hit me. I’m walking across the room and it just stopped me dead in my tracks. I was like ‘hang on…’
I could suddenly hear music all around the sample, which hadn’t happened for ten years. And when something hasn’t happened for ten years, you think it’s gone.
I happened to have a TB-303 in the cupboard, so I plugged it in, and started looping the track, not to any timer, no software – just cut it into an audio thing – and then use the pitch control on the 303 with the programme that was already in there. It looped exactly with the syncopation of the track, and then I brought up a Derrick Carter beat, and threw that over the top, and suddenly it’s like ‘Jesus Christ, I’m making music again’! Just from hearing this loop.
I spoke to a friend of mine, Ian Snowball, an author and musician, and he said ‘come down to the studio’, which actually turned out to be two roads down from where I lived for 30 years back in London. At that session, there was a track that they had been making with Marshall Jefferson and Curtis McClain, who did Move your Body. In one of the outtakes, there was a tune in there.
Then I took it away and worked on it, I just did my thing. I played it to Steve Mac from Jack Said What, and it just snowballed from there. It just started flowing out.
So it all came from hearing a loop on a reggae record. That’s interesting – we were recently talking to Dave Angel, and he was talking about something similar, that when he listens to music, he sort of deconstructs it into various parts, as opposed to just listening to the music all combined. That sounds like what happened to you with your epiphany moment…
It was a bit like that. Your mind just attaches to it, but you don’t know what it is yet, or what it could be. I hadn’t had that sort of ‘calling’ – or energy – to do something like that for a long time.
Like Dave says, when you first start making music, you hear tunes differently. It’s not after you start producing, that you’re taking it all apart, you’re hearing interesting things within it. Of course, you need to remember to enjoy it for what it is as well.
But this experience was kind of like a rebirth. I don’t want to sound like a wanker, but it was like I was being reborn to the whole thing.
So it’s like an acorn that’s going to grow into a tree, in a way. This is one of many singles from you, right?
Yeah, there was one called Mighty Horses with Betty Steeles on vocals, which came out in October. Then there’s this, and there’s going to be another one called The Stroke. The more I’m reversing out of what I was doing with the retreat centre, I’m going back into music. I have to take my foot off the pedal, I’ve been going 200 miles an hour in a 20 zone for 30 years.
Now, the music business has changed so much – it’s not the same business that I got in to. I just want to explore music, now, having been away from it for so long.
It’s interesting to hear that even when you left London, you were still going at 1,000 miles an hour. Usually, when people move to the countryside they start to slow down.
Oh, it was far madder than anything I had done before. It was insane, 100-hour weeks, trying to reconstruct this derelict farm. And there were some objections from households in the area – they knew about my background as a DJ, and were like ‘you can’t possibly do that sort of thing here’, thinking there were going to be raves all the time.
But it wasn’t like that at all – it was more to do with people doing meditation, birds chirping, that sort of thing.
I did it, and it worked. But now, where my head is at the moment, I’m gonna step back from that, and pass the baton on to someone else. And, at the same time, find music again.
I’m in a place where I don’t need to make anything from music to enjoy it – I can’t state that phrase strongly enough. I don’t think the two can be mutually exclusive, but I just want to get making stuff again. As soon as you re-pop your cherry, you just want more.
I’ve rewired lots of old analogue studio gear – I’m trying new things, making a lot of crazy sounds, and I’m probably going into more depth within these old analogue machines than I did before, when, essentially, I didn’t have the time.
And what kind of sounds are you making?
I’m not just making dance bangers. I’m also making music that might be called ambient – or might not – but it’s very pure. Certain frequencies can do certain things to your mind – peaceful, meditative kinds of sounds that can transport you away.
Also, with it, I’m doing it in 20-minute sections – it’s about an hour long now – and once I open it up, it’s going to never end. I’m just going to keep adding segments, and then maybe get to a place where there will be a website for it on Bandcamp, and other people can take it and bring it in other directions.
So you sort of have this tree, rooting out in all directions.
I’m sort of getting this Manuel Göttsching vibe from what you’re saying – you know the way that his E2-E4 just sort of arpeggiates the same sounds over a whole album, like a vibration?
There’s a whole world to explore with that, if you let it. Music has a way of rooting itself into your mind, and that’s one of the most important things about it. Of all the art forms, it’s the most abstract.
If you’ve got a video, a film, or a painting, once it’s there everyone can see it the same way. But how you experience music, though, is deeply personal.
So, when you start experimenting with certain tones or frequencies, they can resonate in different ways – encourage people to be more active, or promote very deep meditation, for example. A lot of people are doing that.
I like the idea of making it an inclusive thing, where people can start joining to it, and in an ideal world it would still be going after I leave that world. I just think there’s scope for so many new ideas with music.
And you’re doing it on your own terms. When you had Monkey Mafia, and your own productions, it was more like a business for you, I guess? You were churning it out. Now, however, it’s not the case that ‘we need to get this out next week’ or anything like that?
Yeah – a little quirk of the music industry, which I think a lot of creative industries have, is this idea of ‘OK, well we need that yesterday’. Now, there’s no such expectations around what I’m going to do.
It’s very much a case of doing it for the love of it; plus I can take more time over it and learn more about those analogue machines which lay in storage during those ten years off.
I don’t doubt it for a second. You can still boot up Technics 1210s from 40 years ago and they play just fine. And a lot of synthesisers too.
Yeah, 909s and 808s – they were built to last in those days. With those knobs and faders, you just twist them for 10 minutes, blow some air into them, run the faders up and down, and they get good as new again. The circuitry stays as long as you treat them with love and respect.
So you didn’t decide to invest in computers and VSTs and things like that – you wanted to keep it more organic?
Oh yeah, completely. I mean, computers have their use and there are times where it’s very hard to do it without them. But there’s no mistaking when there’s analogue input – every synth, every effect, every drum machine, everything in a laptop doesn’t sound the same.
I sound like an old fart, but I sound like an old fart with ears, that’s the thing – you can tell the difference.
I want to move on to Monkey Mafia – this year marks the 25th anniversary of Shoot The Boss, which came out in 1998. I think that was the only album, right?
It was definitely the only one.
Did you ever feel the need to get back together with Monkey Mafia and get back on the road? It was a great project, I loved the music of that period – big beat and all that.
Well, we weren’t specifically part of that big beat scene, but there’s nothing wrong with people attaching labels to things. At the time, there were restrictions, not from our label, Heavenly, but from the label above it, BMG. I didn’t like their politics. I gave them a clear message about how I felt, but I won’t go into more details.
It was about the way they treated what was emerging at the time – there was a certain behaviour about it that wasn’t honourable. With those kind of restrictions and limitations in place, I decided to make a different move and focus more on making music in the dirty house genre.
When I did go back to Monkey Mafia, it was natural to do so, but so much had changed by then.
It sounds like dealing with the labels – and with circumstances beyond your control – sort of left a bad taste in your mouth with the Monkey Mafia project?
Yes, but I’m not talking about the likes of Heavenly or Deconstruction. I’m talking about the major labels of the time, particularly BMG.
Yeah, but as a group, though, did that ruin your creative vibe?
We were a gang, and we absolutely loved what we did. It was fantastic, but when you go and put that much time, life, passion and money into things, it was sad to see things go sour. BMG weren’t on the ground level where we were.
To be honest, I remember I gave them a C-15 computer cassette from WH Smith, like what you used to have with ZX Spectrums. I said to them, ‘next time, I’m going to give you an album in that format’. They were like, ‘so, you want to leave then?’.
But at the same time I’ve got the greatest respect for Deconstruction, for James Barton, and especially for Heavenly. But that was in a completely different orbit of the record industry.
Monkey Mafia was a fantastic example of it working, and a fantastic example of it not. I loved doing the band, I loved the crew. But I got walked around the block once, and it was time to move on to the next block.
Yeah, fair enough. So it was a positive experience, but you also knew when to walk away?
It had some brilliant moments. We supported Massive Attack on their Mezzanine tour, which was probably one of the first big stadium tours for a dance act. And they chose us. We supported Roni Size just after he won the Mercury Music Prize. Amazing experiences, and I’m proud of all of them.
Before we wrap up, I want to touch upon Bugged Out! in Liverpool. We used to get the ferry over from Dublin every month – the last Friday of the month – and it was a special time. For you, you had done Heavenly Social, you had done Manumission, you were playing all over the UK, but I think Bugged Out! was still special for you, right?
That was such a well-loved club, wasn’t it? What I remember most about it – I used to do all three rooms – was the Annexe.
I used to set rules for myself, even if I was playing two or three gigs in a weekend, I always tried to avoid playing the same tunes at different gigs. You might drop a couple of big ones, but you would build a whole different set around them. Doing something like that keeps your mind really alive, and keeps your energy levels up.
The thing I remember most about the Annexe was that people would come to see that – you could feel it back from the crowd. So I would make sure I would have all new stuff, completely weird things, different styles. I would get in there, and the crowd in the Annexe would be ready for it. So that you feed off that energy.
There was an expectation that you had to play something that would tear the tops of their heads off, but they would have no idea what it is. They would have no idea what’s coming, but they know it’s going to work. It was a devoted, loyal crowd, in a legendary room.
You used to have the bigger names in the Main Room and Courtyard, right? The techno superstars. Whereas the Annexe was more underground.
I played the Main Room, and loved it, but I felt I genuinely fitted better in the Annexe. It was a room where people came in to hear something new. It was a microcosm, of what I was trying to do on the road – to not repeat myself, and to challenge myself, both for my own sake and for the sake of the people who came to see me.
You would go into that room and just push it. That’s what it was all about.
I can understand the difference between that and how music moved on afterwards. I remember playing at Sankeys and Deadmau5 was on after me, before he was famous. I could see that it had started to become more anodyne and formulaic; more polished.
The crowd that had grown up with me were moving on as well. It wasn’t gone – you still had people like Carl Cox or Andrew Weatherall, where you never knew what you were going to get.
But I think it was the start of when the dollar signs and the formula became more important than the artist and the club owner, or club promoter. There were signs that people wanted more of a product and less eclectic music.
It wasn’t across the board, but I think anyone that had been there since the start could see that it had become a product.
I guess it was the start of that ‘business techno’ thing in a way – for those that were involved in the scene for so long, I guess you couldn’t have imagined the level to which that commercialism came into the scene?
For someone that’s born now, they’re going to think it’s been like this all the time. That it’s always been this way. But how are they going to feel when they start going out?
Also, don’t forget that when we were doing it, it was going from territory to territory to territory – it didn’t hit the world all at once. So once the whole world had it, of course you were going to have people who would be looking how to monetise it. Then it becomes a lowest common denominator business. But we couldn’t have known that at the time.
You have to have some faith in the next generation, though, they’re going to seek out authenticity, I think. They will want the real thing.
There are scenes out there, especially in the illegal rave scene, despite however morally incorrect that might have been during COVID. I don’t think that’s changed, if you go to the bottom – the ground level – of the scene. The commercialisation aspect is no different from what happened in ‘hair metal’, or when Simon Cowell dominates the charts. Things like Tomorrowland, that’s not it. That’s the product.
That’s not where you’re going to find it. You’re going to find it in the sweaty basements… a red light, a low roof, a soundsystem and a feeling.
Wrapping up then, what other projects are on the horizon?
After Brother and Sister, there another track coming out soon, The Strobe, which sort of has the vibe of the NYC Downlow at Glastonbury and the classic club Body & Soul in New York in mind. Proper club business, messing with your head a bit but very driving at the same time.
There’s going to be more house stuff, I’ve gone through old computers and found bits and pieces and thought ‘yes, this will be perfect’.
And then there’s the side project, which I was talking about earlier, which is called Due South. That project actually started from listening to the sea on the south coast – for me it’s an opportunity to spread out what I’m doing.
There’s a lot of music there – songs for going out to, songs for staying in to, songs for tripping out to, songs for tripping inside to.
Jon Carter feat. Curtis McClain – Brother and Sister is available now and can be downloaded here.