Giles Smith, co-founder of the esteemed secretsundaze has steered the brand from its inception in 2002 as weekly Sunday party to becoming a global phenomenon at festivals and clubs like Output, Rex, and Trouw, to branching out into both a record label and a booking agency. Ahead of his set here at Superstore we sat down with Giles for an in-depth chat about how house in London has changed, his relationship with Martin Dawson as part of the Two Armadillos and just why he loves records so much...
You’ve been doing secretsundaze for over a decade and DJing for longer- what’s the biggest change you’ve observed in how Londoners approach clubbing?
I don’t know. The scene has changed, but I don’t know how Londoners approach has changed.
Okay, well in what ways has the scene changed?
Well it’s changed hugely. Particularly in the way that house and techno have become hugely popular. When we started the party, most people weren’t really into deep house. It wasn’t fashionable, people were more into drum n bass, breaks or something else. In terms of booking DJs and artists we wanted to book, it was a lot more fun - we could be much more reactionary to new things that we heard. We could book artists one, or two, or three months maximum in advance. Now you have to plan so much more ahead as there are many more people doing the same thing. It’s taken some of the fun out of it to be honest, as you can’t be so reactionary or flexible anymore. If a new artist emerged that you liked, you wouldn’t be able to book them for six months because you’re already booked up to that point at the very least.
In terms of the party and the people when I first went out in around 1992, it was still very much a subculture.. Most of the 15-17 year olds in my school hadn’t been to a rave, they hadn’t taken ecstasy, and they didn’t really know what house music was. So that just meant that those who ended up at the parties were really into it. That creates a certain atmosphere. Now, it’s become overgrown and a huge business, you can hear house music at bars, cafes, hairdressers. Average Joe will go out to listen to house music now. In some ways it's great but I think that’s why you find lots of clubs with people just going through the motions, because that’s the popular music du jour. Those people don’t always help create the best atmosphere in a club. They’re not always as open-minded and educated. You just have to accept that though. Things change.
So with the secretsundaze compilations, how do you personally go about curating them- what’s your starting point?
I always approach them in the same way really, and that’s to straddle the balance between something that is representative of my style as a DJ, stuff you could hear at secretsundaze, combined with more atmospheric, introspective stuff. I think it's important to have an introduction and it for it to be something you could listen to at home, as well as if you were in a party. I don’t want to use that clichéd word “journey”… but to have a bit of a journey - a good flow on the mix. There are so many mixes these days which are pretty tracky and samey all the way through. I think it’s really important to show a range of emotions and feelings. That’s what I like to hear if I go out and hear a DJ play. It needs to tell a story.
When we released secretsundaze Volume 1 in 2007 the reviews were really positive and a lot of this positivity was centred around the fact that there were quite a a few older tracks on both James and my mixes nestling next to new music. I remember a journalist comparing it to a Jamie Jones mix that came out around a similar time. There weren’t many people playing older stuff on mixes at the time. As someone that owns a label I'd always receive emails from A&R people at labels who were helping a DJ gather tracks for a mix compilation and they’d request promos, it was all about “Have you got new unreleased stuff?” It was always “unreleased music” and that became very important. Unreleased doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. It is, of course, to make the product exclusive and puts the artists in a good light that they have this unreleased stuff, but I think that’s nonsense really. I’d rather put things I’ve tried and tested myself, that hopefully aren’t known by most people and that I really believe in. So we approached it a bit differently at the time to many others. I guess the overriding important factor for both James and myself was to make something timeless that would age well.
You’ve said previously that you like to make a statement when DJing and bookmark the start and end of a set with key records. Can you give us a recent or standout example of this?
I wouldn't want to give specific examples, as it really depends on the time and environment. I do like to try and take things down, dependant on where I’m playing. If I’m playing at a club, between 2-4am, and the guy’s banging it out before you, it usually doesn’t work that well if you drop things down too much, you have to respect the dancefloor, as it has a certain energy already. But there are certain clubs, like Panorama Bar where people are there for a long time, and they come at different times, and I specifically remember playing there after someone who was thumping it out and I was just like “I can’t come on like this, I can’t start like this, I’m not gonna do this” so I just let the record run out and started over again. I specifically remember that time playing the 2020 remix of Blaze - Lovely Dae and losing a lot of people on the floor initially, but over time winning people back on my own terms. It's more rewarding this way. It's also to bookmark the fact I’m coming on and the other person is finishing. It highlights their set so people can show appreciation for them and it doesn’t put pressure on me to continue [the way] they were playing.
It’s interesting you’re talking about this particular incident at Panorama Bar, because it does feel like there used to be a lot more freedom to have moments of silence within clubbing. If you do that now, it affects people so much more, they might come off the dancefloor just as you’re saying, because it’s dropped down so much. But you’re right, it does bookmark the end of the set... People just used to be so much more accepting of moments silence.
Absolutely. I mean everyone knows about Larry Levan and the Paradise Garage- he was known to just walk out of the booth- sometimes because he was high- letting a record run out or because he wanted to get up on a ladder and polish the disco ball. He’d regularly drop the sound out to create drama or tension in a set, or play sound effects of thunder and lightening, or rain. Not enough DJs create drama these days.
Do you think this sea change in house and techno’s popularity has made people more accepting of queerness in dance music… or less because it’s more dissociated from it?
Yes and no. There are definitely clubs where I’ve seen rude boys rubbing shoulders with gay people and everyone getting down together and being in harmony with no negative energy so at times it seems like progress is being made but I'd also say that the scene has become way more white and heterosexual, the fact that there are a large proportion of the dance floor in many clubs that don’t know the roots of the music and that has emanated from black, gay culture is a real shame.
If you could go back in time machine to any dancefloor anywhere/anywhen, where would you want to go dancing?
Oh for sure it would be Paradise Garage. I really like to discover about the history of our music, whether it’s through a documentary, or YouTube video or book. Time and time again, that name, The Paradise Garage / Larry Levan, gets brought up. It was, of course, existing at the same time as Studio 54, which some people thought was a very cool club but for me it seems that was just a club full of privileged rich people or celebrities. The Paradise Garage conversely was predominantly marginalised people - often black, hispanic, gay, and many were experimenting with drugs. This was all at a time when America was very racist, very homophobic, and very anti-drugs. It provided a sanctuary for those people to have fun and be themselves. You only have to look into the eyes of some of the people that were there that get interviewed in these documentaries, such as on the History Of House, and see the effect being at the club had on them and their lives. It was a social movement and it totally changed their lives. All of this coupled with the club and its incredible sound system- very powerful- driven by an amazing DJ who took risks in music, embraced new stuff, old stuff, just all those different elements make it a must go-to place.
Can we talk about Two Armadillos? What’s your defining memory from working with Martin Dawson?
I have many special memories. We had a lot of fun together. We knew each other vaguely before we started working together. He worked at Phonica and I was a customer. A very good customer haha. So we became friendly that way. Actually at first, I blew him out a few times. I wasn’t sure how it would work, I wasn’t confident in my own [production] abilities, but he was very warm and open and put me at ease to work with him. I always used to laugh as he wuold wear a cheesy T-Shirt that was written in the style of Nokia with their slogan 'Connecting People' but the word Vodka replaced Nokia! This was Martin to a T. He liked a drink and he loved people. I was just really into my music and DJing and he used to come and see me play so we connected that way. He was super easy to get on with. We wrote a lot of music together over a six year period and almost developed our own language in the studio. Things became second nature and we knew exactly what the other was thinking... Yeah, I miss him a lot.
We started a live set in the last months of his life and although we just performed two or three shows, that was really important to me. I wanted to share something outside the studio with him after years of working together, and a live set was the way we could do that. Our DJing styles were very different so that would not have worked. I had to learn how to use Ableton and we ran that and had a drum machine and live keys on top. We performed it at Watergate, Zoo Project in Ibiza and secretsundaze and were due to perform it at Panorama Bar the week after he passed. I guess I felt quite robbed at the time that we couldn't share that moment together, but putting things in perspective now I am just very grateful that we managed to perform together a few times and share those moments.
What is it you like about buying and playing records?
In terms of buying- it’s both a tactile and social thing. I like going to places and meeting people and exchanging ideas and information. Okay, you can meet people playing an mp3, but you don’t usually meet people when you’re sat at your computer downloading and buying an mp3. Going to shops, getting on your hands and knees and digging through dusty bins in different parts of the world is fun. There is always that air of excitement that something really interesting might end up in your hand. In terms of playing, well I just think I am so used to handling vinyl that of the idea of playing predominantly another format is very strange. I have a USB stick with a few things on but I'm playing 90% vinyl in all my sets and that even goes for when I'm on tour in The States or Japan.
Join Giles on Saturday 27th December for Bender's Christmas Comedown at Dalston Superstore from 9pm - 3am.