I grew up in Hampstead, Golders Green, North Finchley; gradually heading further down the property ladder until ending up in punk squats in Kings Cross and Tufnell Park then a council flat in the Harrow Road. I had a stormy childhood, even having a brief spell in a children’s home in Potters Bar.
My first experience of London clubbing was going to Steve Strange’s first night ‘Billys’ at Gossips in Meard St, Soho. I was taken by a Bowie look-a-like called Bowie Teresa and we danced to Kraftwerk, Roxy Music, early Human League, Yellow Magic Orchestra, The Normal and of course David Bowie. Later on I started to frequent The Blitz club although I wasn’t really a Blitz Kid. I missed out on the opening and the early days but visited regularly around the time Bowie went there and got extras for his ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video. Everyone who had previously been so cool and poised, turned into 10 year old screaming girls and chased him up the stairs. Hilarious.
To be honest, I preferred Steve Strange’s other club ‘Hell’ in Covent Garden which felt less self conscious and was on around the same time. It was about then that I went to my first proper gay club Heaven which had just opened. I remember being equal parts terrified and exhilarated. At Blitz everyone tried to play it cool and although it was friendly in it’s own way it was also pretty pretentious and aloof as was the mood of the day. At Heaven everyone was super friendly. Isn’t it nice that everyone wanted to come and look after this 16 year old boy who went there on his own? What sweet people!
Theme From S’Express has been quoted by Muzik magazine as “the track that kick started the UK house scene.” How does that make you feel and what were your expectations or aspirations after finishing your album Original Soundtrack?
Muzik Magazine said that in hindsight a few years after the fact, once the dust had settled. At the time I knew I was pioneering a new sound but I didn’t want my music to be just a copy of the Chicago house or the Detroit techno sound, so it sounded like a mutant version of many things. Someone once told me S’Express was to house music what Talking Heads were to punk and I see what they mean. I knew that with the chart success of S’Express I was opening doors around the world, and especially in Europe, where most people had never heard of house or techno. I did the first house music night in Paris and got an up and coming DJ called Laurent Garnier, who used to come and hear me play, to do the warm up. He says it kick-started his DJ career.
They called me the Pope of House in Europe. People like Derrick May were really pleased S’Express were doing well. They knew it would make their music more accessible to a wider audience. The mainstream really didn’t understand it at first, it seemed so alien to them. I remember doing interviews in Germany and the journalists asking how they were meant to relate to this new music when they had nothing to compare it to. I told them they had Kraftwerk and could surely be able to see the connection. One reply was, “Oh but Kraftwerk is so old. That was years ago!” Eight months later I went back and all the journalists were saying, “This music came from Germany! We have Kraftwerk!” Everyone became a self-professed ‘expert’ on house music really quickly.
How long did the album take to conceive and as a first time producer did things come naturally to you?
Things came very naturally at first. Especially the tracks I did with Pascal Gabriel. We were just experimenting with no rules and not having to worry about the confines of genres or if something was commercial or not. We loved good pop music so some tracks had a pop edge while still remaining strange and experimental. Other tracks (b-sides) were just plain experimental where we were influenced by the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle.
Theme From S’Express was actually influenced by hip-hop just as much as disco and house music. Disco was still a very dirty word back then and I remember thinking a lot of my peers, and especially journos were going to be appalled that I had made a record that was disco influenced, but I really didn’t care. I was ready to take the flack. Luckily people liked it and as it turned out a lot of journalists hedged their bets on the reviews as they knew that something new and special was going on but weren’t quite sure yet if it was okay to give it the thumbs up. The disco really put them off. Disco was still the enemy for many serious music journalists.
The hip-hop influence was mainly about looping beats or bars from records to make a new backing track. But instead of Funky Drummer I looped Rose Royce. The Double Dee & Steinski’s records Lessons 1-3 were very much on my mind with their clips from many sources. I threw in bits from performance artist Karen Finley and many others along with original parts like the bassline and the “S’Express” chant. David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was another big influence. Love the pair of them.
When the white label of ‘Theme’ was doing really well in the clubs, my record label Rhythm King asked for us to do a version that could be played on the radio. Something less strange and crazy or else they might not play it. You have to remember at the time tracks just didn’t sound like that and ‘Theme’ stuck out like a sore thumb. We thought radio could take it or leave it as far as we were concerned. So Pascal and I purposely did the worst radio mix we could and handed it to the label. They said “Ok, you win. We’ll just leave it as it is and bin this mix.” I’m glad we stuck to our guns as Radio 1 were eventually forced to play the track after it looked like it was going to go to Number 1 just on club play… and they would have looked foolish if they weren’t playing it.
After we had a couple of hit singles things became more difficult. Lots more arguments to make things ‘normal’ commercial instead of the quirky, experimental-pop that I like. I got bored of the whole music biz hamster wheel quite quickly.
You also worked alongside William Orbit on the Batman soundtrack by Prince, how did that come about?
I tracked down William to remix my track Hey Music Lover. I loved his Torch Song stuff and his solo albums and he’s always been one of my favourite producers. He ended up sending me cassettes of all these amazing bits and loops he’d done of the track but he’d been up for days and needed help editing them all together in a way that made sense. We ended up editing the mix together down the phone!
With Prince, I knew he’d been listening to S’Express when I heard This Is Not Music, This Is A Trip on the b-side of Alphabet St. He called up and said he’d like to have me remix some of the tracks from his soundtrack for the Batman film. I immediately called up William and we carried on working together on more remixes after that, my fave being Malcolm McClaren’s Deep In Vogue. Malcolm introduced us to the New York voguing scene and we got to sample the movie Paris Is Burning long before it came out or anyone had seen it.
Malcolm got in contact because he remembered me hanging out in his shop Seditionaries on the Kings Road when I was 15. I was a bored punk rocker and would help (punk icon shop-assistant) Jordan fold tee-shirts. She took me under her wing and I’d help her shut up shop. Jordan and Vivienne Westwood once took me for dinner after shutting the shop and we were walking up the Kings Road when a bunch of punks on the other side of the road were shouting “Vivienne you sell out!” Vivienne gobbed at them in reply and turned to us with a smile saying, “I’m still a punk!”
What was the last album you listened to from start to finish?
After Dark 2. I’m amazed at how the Italians Do It Better label can continue putting out one sublime track after another with such ease and for such a long time! Wonderful. Do me a Glass Candy or Chromatics, S’Express remix please.
How would you describe your relationship with music?
Obsessive. It made me who I am and without wishing to sound clichéd, it really did save my life. From being a kid and being put in a kids home to actually finding something that made me think life was worth living. All my friends over the years I’ve met through music.
What are you passionate about?
Besides music, I’d say films and books. I’m particularly obsessed with films, from the classics to the incredibly strange. Alejandro Jodorowsky, Nicolas Roeg, Donald Cammell. Stuff you can’t find on Netflix.
Vinyl or Digital?
I actually like both now. Wendy Carlos was always a big supporter of digital sound and how it can feel as warm and rich as analogue. I think for certain types of music digital is just fine. If I’m playing punk stuff I prefer to put on the vinyl.
You’ve been DJing in London’s clubland for over 25 years now, what memories really stand out for you?
I don’t know where to start with individual memories but I can say I’m lucky enough to have lived through a few music and cultural revolutions. It’s always the most exciting at the beginning of those revolutions when it’s unchartered territory. Each new track will lay down a new gauntlet or a new signpost as to where one might go next on the musical map. I’m usually at my best during a revolution.
Is there a question that you wished you’d have been asked that no one has ever asked?
“Will you marry me?”
I’m curating these amazing remixes and cover versions of the old S’Express stuff, some which I shall be playing on the night. I’m just trying to sort out a deal with Sony over who owns my old tracks but that’s proving to be hard work. Hopefully it will all work out and it will get a release soon. I’ve got amazing mixes by Chris & Cosey and many others. Also if they finish it, a psychedelic sludge rock cover version of Mantra For A State Of Mind by Primal Scream with Jason Pierce from Spiritualized on guitar. It seems everyone’s terrified of remixing ‘Theme From S’Express’ though. Lots of big names have either passed on it and chosen another track or have just given up halfway through!
I’m also working on new tracks. Just put out Dreams Of Deja Vu, which I did with Roland Faber and a remix for I Am A Camera of their track The Legendary Children.
Join Mark Moore this Saturday 17th August at Dalston Superstore for Body Talk from 9pm – 3am.
Photo credit: Rokk
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Tags: Batman, Body Talk, Bomb The Bass, Dalston Superstore, Italians Do It Better, Johnny Jewel, London, Malcolm McLaren, Mark Moore, Paris Is Burning, Pascal Gabriel, Prince, S'Express, Steve Strange, Vivienne Westwood, William Orbit