Irvine Welsh has been a cultural figurehead for more than three decades – having surged into the public consciousness with his debut novel, Trainspotting, in 1993, so began a literary career that has encompassed eleven novels, various collections of short stories, plays, screenplays, directorial roles, and a number of musical endeavours, including singles with Primal Scream and Arthur Baker.
Trainspotting alone is something of a cultural phenomenon. It has spawned four novels – a prequel, Skagboys, and two sequels, Porno and Dead Men’s Trousers (its characters have also appeared in The Acid House, Marabou Stork Nightmares, Ecstasy and Filth), a stage play, an acclaimed movie directed by Danny Boyle, and as of early next year, a musical, which is currently in pre-production.
According to Welsh, the musical will feature a slight re-telling of the original story – “I would get bored of it if I just told the same story,” he says – while exploring more of the Trainspotting universe in which Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy, Spud and their contemporaries exist.
“It has its own world,” he says. “The book has a slightly different world to the film, and the play has a slightly different world again. So we want to do the same with the musical.”
Those of an electronic music persuasion will also be aware that Welsh recently launched a new record label – Jack Said What – alongside pals Steve Mac (house producer and former Rhythm Master) and Carl Loben (DJ Mag editor), which to date has released music from Serge Santiago, Jon Carter, Robert Owens and many more, as well as Steve Mac’s recent rave-tinged album, Bless This Acid House.
“We hit it off straight away,” Welsh says of the Jack Said What partnership.
Allied to this, Welsh has also reignited his DJ career, making a host of festival performances this summer, including at the recent Beyond The Pale festival in County Wicklow.
Hi Irvine, thanks for talking to us. I thought it was amusing that in your most recent Trainspotting book – Dead Men’s Trousers – Renton is working as a cynical DJ manager… and then within a year you end up running a record label yourself…
It’s weird the way these things work out. In Trainspotting, I had them going to Amsterdam, and then I went to Amsterdam straight afterwards. So sometimes life imitates art, yeah.
How did the conversation start when it came to Jack Said What? Have you run a label before, or is this the first time?
It’s a new thing for me. We made a lot of tracks, and talked about bringing them out, and then we thought ‘well, let’s just set up a label, so we can bring them out ourselves’. And it it just took off from there. Basically, the three of us came together to say we would ‘give it a go’, and it’s working out.
We’ve got a decent sized catalogue already, so now we’re really getting started with it. It’s been great.
What’s your day-to-day role with the label?
Well, at the start we were very relaxed about it, now we’re getting more structure. We’re trying to keep it local to Brighton, because there’s still a scene there. You can actually promote people, you can put on events, and you’re close to London for radio and promotional stuff.
I mean, I’ve got a lot of mates in Edinburgh and Glasgow and all that, and they’re saying ‘oh, you’ve got a record label, bring my stuff out’. But you don’t want to just bring somebody’s stuff out and then hope for the best. You want to have some kind of strategy, you want to be able to try and promote and market it.
Right now, we’re just doing downloads, but we’re gonna move on to physical product next year, I think.
That’s interesting. So at the moment, there’s enough of a groundswell of artists and scenes in Brighton to further the label?
Yeah, well, people still go out there – they’re still into house music and techno. Plus you’ve got a lot of guys that are really established, that have a kind of ‘name’, like Jon Carter and Serge Santiago, and then you’e got young guys, like Cousn and Scott Booth – these guys have got huge WhatsApp groups and a big Instagram following. They’ve got an infrastructure.
So, if you start combining all these elements, then you’ve got a bit of a buzz that you can create around the label locally, and that spills over into the national and global picture.
But you need to make sure there’s there’s a physical ‘home’ for the the label, so that people associated with that kind of town, that kind of attitude.
On the back of that, your DJ career is kicking off again. You sort of go through phases of being a DJ, don’t you?
It was really through living in Miami that I got back into it. When the writing took off in the 90s, I sort of stopped, DJing, because DJs and writers are just the polar opposite.
As a writer, you want to get up early, when your mind is quite fresh. As a DJ, you’re getting into bed when a writer gets up.
Being in Miami, and doing these afternoon pool parties, I found that I could write in the morning, do a pool party in the afternoon, and then I could just go home and have some dinner, sit and watch telly at night with my feet up. So that was how I kind of caught the bug again.
Also to be able to have everything on a USB, instead of lugging around flight cases, is brilliant.
Right, so you’re more of an ‘early in the night’ DJ than someone going on at 3am...
I prefer to do it early in the night. If I get maybe one or two gigs a month, that’s enough for me to keep involved in the buzz of clubs and raves and events and things like that. And also to hook up with my buddies in that scene.
Basically, it’s great fun, but I have to try and get the balance right between my personal life and music life.
Obviously one of the things we try to do with 909originals is to uncover how people ‘caught the bug’ when it came to electronic music – that moment where it all just clicked. You used to be into punk, right? When did you get into dance music? Was it during the first ‘acid house wave’?
Pretty much, yeah. I was always obsessed with with the bass as an instrument and the bass sounds. I was never a great bassist, but I always liked to play bass, and I always liked to turn the bass up. And then when you have that kind of thing going on, it sort of gives you a propensity towards dance music.
I mean, even when I was a punk, I always loved disco – and a lot of punks hated that. I would love getting togged up and heading to the disco. You had to sneak out and make sure none of your punk mates saw you, being all togged up in a white linen suit.
I mean, I love all genres of music really, but there’s something about going to a club – it’s just sexier. There’s women, and a good vibe, and all that stuff.
I always thought that disco was a kind of working class music – if you think about Saturday Night Fever, that was very much a working class film. It’s a different side, it was more aspirational working class than punk. I always loved the vibe in a good club.
Musically, for me, Bowie offered so much to my generation – around the Low era – and he turned me on to Kraftwerk. That got me into German electronic music. And a lot of it came from there.
There’s this sense that all of a sudden, acid house just happened, like a lightning bolt. But for a lot of people living through the 80s, it was more of a gradual progression, from disco, to Hi-NRG, to New Beat etc. Was that something you experienced?
There were always these tracks – that kind of New York disco stuff. The way it evolved, with artists like Divine and all that, they were doing acid beats, basically. And then everything coalesced. You had the sound of Chicago, and then obviously you had the whole Ibiza thing and everything kicking off there, and coming back to Britain.
Then you had that interface between the music and the drugs – it just took Britain by storm. Everything just kind of changed.
Where were you living at the time that all kicked off? You were in London, right?
Yeah, I was, and I remember the vibe of those places. It felt like punk, because it was this clandestine, underground thing that nobody else knew about. You just felt so pleased with yourself that you were into it.
Did you get actively involved? Were you putting on parties and things like that?
I did. I was obsessed with it. I mean, for the first few years, I was like a hedonistic raver and club goer, I would go all over the country to raves and to get involved. Then, just before I started to get into writing, I was involved in this club called Invisible Insurrection.
Kevin Williamson [publisher, one of the first to publish Welsh’s work] wanted to do a literary club, but I thought ‘let’s give it a kind of acidy vibe as well‘, you know? So, instead of just booking writers or performance poets, we booked DJs as well.
That got me into writing, as well as DJing, and thinking about music, basically. Thinking about that whole idea, that ‘you have to go where the culture is’, you know? Also, thinking that everything that fed into acid house could spawn its own literature, could spawn its own art, and all that. And obviously it did.
I remember reading somewhere that when you were working on Trainspotting, and your early short stories, you were almost writing them to a 4/4 beat – that the rhythm of the text echoed the beats from the club?
Definitely. That’s why I used the the Scottish vernacular, because it was beatier, it was funkier, it was like a ‘weights and measures’ language, like standard English. It’s an oral tradition – the Celtic oral tradition. It’s meant to be spoken and performed. So it has beats in it.
Also, I wanted to do all these typographical experiments on the page, you know? That would be my FX on top of the beats, basically.
Were you a regular at any specific clubs – were there places you went to all the time?
I went to clubs in Glasgow a lot, while in Edinburgh it was always Pure. Twitch and Brainstorm were the DJs there, and they were brilliant. I also liked nights at the Sub Club and The Arches, with the Slam guys, Stuart and Orde. They were just fabulous nights.
I started going down to Back to Basics, and The Hacienda, and in London, Danny Rampling’s club Shoom, and Nicky Holloway’s Milk Bar. It was really about trying to get to as many places as I could, really. And then everything started to cascade out from there.
You lived in Dublin for a while as well. When did you first come here, or more specifically, when did you first fall in love with the place?
I had been going to visit relatives in Donegal when I was very young, and then inevitably would go down to Dublin. Dublin was quite grim in the 80s – in the 70s and 80s, it was really kind of rough. People were leaving, heading across to America and Australia in their droves, and it seemed sort of depressed. But there was also this great vibe. It was always great fun – the bars were always great.
Later, when I got together with my ex-wife – she was American and she didn’t want to live in the UK or America – we gave Dublin a shot. We were there for five years and we loved it. We were there from about 2004 to 2009.
Ok, so that was the height of the Celtic Tiger, then?
Yeah. Everything was just opening right up, and people were coming back. I had been living in San Francisco, and I met a lot of young Irish kids that were involved in the rave scene around San Francisco. They were running so many different events and things like that.
Then, when I moved to Dublin, a lot of them moved back, so I had an infrastructure of pals basically, through that rave scene.
That period in the early 2000s was a world away from the 70s and 80s, or even the 90s. Things were changing, there was almost a degree of snobbery about some places – in a way, we lost sight of what made Dublin so spontaneous and naturally energised. We never really had money before, and then when we had money, we didn’t know what to do with it.
Dublin in the 2000s did feel a bit like London in the 80s, during the kind of Thatcherite, ‘loadsamoney’ era. People had all this money, and they had it at home – they had it without having to leave the country.
There was a madness about it, because in Ireland there was always a 50/50 split between people that go and people that stay. There was a tendency among people who left to look down on the people who stayed.
Then, all of a sudden, the people who stayed have got all this money, and there are all these tech jobs, and the island became this big kind of European centre, taking advantage of EU money and the Common Agricultural Policy and all that stuff.
Suddenly, there was this new cognoscenti – a whole ‘media society’ developed, and there was a whole load of cocaine, and you had all these style bars emerging. It was happening right before your eyes.
In general, though, any bands or DJs or performers that come over to Dublin always cite the special energy of the place. As someone who has travelled the world, is that accurate?
I think there’s definitely a a thing about Ireland – I think Scotland has it as well, maybe some parts of the north of England. There’s a sort of mentality there. These are places where historically you might not have had a lot of money, and when you go out, you think to yourself, ‘I’m f**king having it, it’s my night out’, you know?
You don’t get all snotty and squiffy and chin-stroking about the band or the DJ, and what they’re playing. If you can afford to go out every single night, like in London, you can be that standoffish, laid back, kind of person – ‘oh I don’t really like this’ or ‘I don’t really like that’, in a picky way.
In Ireland, it’s like, ‘I don’t really give a f**k’, I’m having it, it’s my night out’. You’re going to have a good time, whatever happens.
If you go in with that mentality, you realise that it’s what you bring to the night out that makes it. The artist isn’t completely irrelevant – if you see a great band or a great DJ, you’re going to really appreciate it – but you’re going to have a f**king great night out anyway.
I read a recent interview with you where you were talking about the ‘cultural vandalism’ taking place in various cities, that venues and clubs are closing. That’s happening in Dublin, in Glasgow, in Edinburgh – so many places.
Edinburgh has lost so many venues recently. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. Every city now is prey to developers – they are somehow sacrosanct – and they offer absolutely nothing for the communities. It’s just more student flats, or second homes or third homes for absentee people. It’s pretty horrific.
I would be an optimist to a certain degree, that the young generation are going to come through and say ‘hang on, f**k this’, and get a scene going again. If they can put down their iPhones, of course.
Yeah, well, that’s the Instagram culture and all that kind of stuff. It’s not a street culture anymore, it’s all online and social media.
You’re hoping that people get fed up with that, and get fed up with the sheer boring, intrusiveness of it all – and start taking sound systems out to places, having their own club nights and making their own fun.
During COVID, I used to ask various DJs and producers what they thought the scene would be like after the pandemic, and they would tell me that they expected to see a ‘reset’ of things, to a certain degree, as it was going in such a corporate direction. But then we came out of the pandemic, and ‘business techno’ is probably even more corporate than than ever before?
Yeah, they reasserted their control big time. But yeah, I’m hopeful that this kind of thing will come to an end, because it’s so dull and tedious. It’s giving people nothing. I’m hoping that people go off their screens and go off the internet.
It just seems a strange place. We’ve dug ourselves into a strange hole, and I’m hopeful we’re going to dig ourselves out of it.
Interview by Stephen Wynne-Jones. Keep up to date with all the latest releases and events from Jack Said What at www.jacksaidwhat.co.uk. Read more about the forthcoming Trainspotting musical in our interview with Steve Mac. Huge congrats to Steve as well on his recent wedding. 🙂