This week we’re getting to know another of our musical heroes, Justin Robertson. Get down to the nitty-gritty of it all with this incredibly interesting conversation between him and Brother Mark. Just joins us this Sunday in Freddies to help us celebrate the 50th Birthdays of Mark and Sarah. Read on and come down!
BROTHER MARK: I first came across you in the early 90’s in Manchester where you hosted what was probably one of the cooler gatherings that that city has witnessed over the years, Most Excellent. Your not actually a native of Manchester so tell us what you were doing there and how that night came about.
JUSTIN ROBERTSON: I went to Manchester as a furrow-browed, long mac wearing cafe bar botherer, with pretentious hopes of becoming an absinthe drenched philosopher. My musical pallet was a mixture of serious space rock, reggae and a lot of angular guitar music, but my main love was the music coming out of Manchester. The Fall were my favourite band bar none, but i was also into the whole Factory thing, especially ACR. So though the University course I chose was well thought of academically, it was really the city’s musical prospectus that drew me there.
I studied Philosophy for three years and was reasonably diligent despite the distractions! That was 1986- 1989, so anyone with a modicum of knowledge of musical history can work out what those distractions were! Acid house did for me! Well actually i was hooked way before that; clubs like the Fizz Club, Trash, the PSV alongside the Hacienda of course, these places were where i really studied and where i grew up and broadened my pallet. House was the pulse of the city from the start, it was modern northern soul in a way, so acid house was really about different drugs, different clothes and a different dance, but in Manchester the musical shift wasn’t so pronounced as in London.
Long story short, I graduated and went onto to work in Eastern Bloc records in Manchester, I met Greg Fenton who had recently moved over from Belfast. We were really interested in the ‘Balearic’ scene that was happening over here and in London at the Boy’s Own parties etc. That breadth of music wasn’t really a feature of Manchester clubbing, it was much more straight up house and techno, all be it with some significant caveats! But that’s how we saw it. So we started a Sunday night session called Spice. It was more legendary than successful, but we did break the mould to some extent, and we started to make friends around the country, the Balearic network if you will. Most Excellent grew out of Spice, we wanted to re- inject the energy of ’88 into the slightly nosed up vibe of ’91, Greg started the high octane job of Glitter Baby on a Saturday and I did Most Excellent on a Thursday. It started off as a piano laden romp with tambourines and whistles and ended up, well the same with slightly less pianos. Musically it went all over the shop.
BM: With such a broad taste in music you are an obvious choice for radio and indeed you do host a fabulous show on Soho Radio, This Is The Temple Of Wonders. Listening to it on a monthly basis has become a Brothers Grim ritual and reminds us of amazing radio shows we’ve enjoyed past and present. Is there a particular radio show that you think of when recording your own, what were your influences when starting out on radio basically?
JR: Thank you kindly I’m so glad you like it! Yes a lot of time and love go into it, not to mention a colossal vinyl bill. I wanted to create a show with energy that was a slightly disorientating, like a trip through a universe of different sounds, but that all shared a psychedelic quality, it’s a Discordian party basically. So it’s eclectic but still focussed, I’m guessing ‘On the Wire’ might be a touch stone in that respect, but also the weird cut up interludes you get on albums like Spirit’s ‘Potatoe Land’ album. I want people to get lost inside the Temple. I try to play stuff people might not know, or stuff they’ve forgotten, but i like to think the music is odd and interesting rather than wilfully weird or deliberately difficult, though i do have my moments. Chat is relatively sparse but my dog friends do like to get involved at times and there are no requests.
BM: Musically I do tend to lean more towards ‘home listening’ nowadays and when in a nightclub I’m often left wondering what i’m doing there if i’m not there on a professional level. Do you still go to nightclubs for enjoyment and if so what would get you off the sofa and on to the dance floor?
JR: Yeah man, I still do from time to time, though I favour the afternoon/evening soiree these days. A good jacking number will do it, and i’m partial to an eastern tinged swayer. I think i’m doomed to train spot for music until i’m just dust in space.
BM: Which do you prefer. A night in front of the stereo with the dogs or a night behind the decks?
JR: That entirely depends, I have to say i’m quite bad at relaxing though. When I’m at home of an evening I’m forever fidgeting in the racks or puling books off the shelf. I’m a fairly voracious reader and I like to sketch ideas for new art collections, so multi-tasking has laid waste to my chances of spending too much time on the sofa. I love spending time with the dogs, we are like a little team scuttling about the park, they are my family really. But they aren’t fond of house music it has to be said, so i sneak out at night to satisfy that urge.
BM: Do you still own most of the physical music that you’ve bought over the years or have you had a massive clear out in recent times and roughly how many records do you currently own?
JR: I sold well over half my records when I moved from Manchester in 2003, then promptly bought most of them back again! But I think its more of a collection of records I love now, rather than a complete library, I just got rid of those ‘warm up filler for one week’ records or the complete discography of a label instead of just the zingers, a few got sold in error, but i think i’ve corrected that mistake now. It’s good to rationalise what you love into a tight collection from time to time, but i’m certainly not brutal about it, my tastes change too quickly to be certain i’m not going to fall in love with something i once felt lukewarm about. I have no idea how many records I have? Plenty maybe?
BM: Do you have a box of valuable records close at hand in case the house catches fire at night and you have to leave quickly? if not which records out of your collection would you risk a scorching for?
JR: Don’t even mention it! I would simple walk into the flames like Daenerys Targaryen and gather them up one by one. My collection is in a mysterious order that very few can decipher a bit like the Voynich manuscript, So it would require patient selection even as the flames consumed the building.
BM: I’m still being surprised by Dj sets and last year was no exception when I witnessed one of (if not thee) best Dj sets i’ve ever heard/seen in over 30 years of being in nightclubs. I watched as Andy C played a four/five hour set to the gathered masses and I simply could not work out how he was doing what he was doing. A master class in mixing and programming. Whats the best Dj set that you’ve ever seen, and if thats too difficult who is it that consistently amazes you with their skills?
JR: Hard to say and even harder to remember. These are some of the highlights my wizened brain can recall from my early days, nights that got me excited and pushed me to try stuff out and a couple of recent encounters…
1. Andy Madhatter at Trash Manchester in 1986/87- he was playing a mixture of rare soul and funk and early house and man could he mix! He got one the mic once and slagged off all the other djs in town, saying they couldn’t play house properly, then proceeded to smash the living heck out of two Adonis records- astonishing.
2. Steve Williams at Frenzy Blackpool and the Thunderdome Manchester – undisputed king of New Beat, Steve was just streets ahead of everyone in ’88, ’89, effortless mixing and peak crowd manipulator. He didn’t care for bullshit so packed it in when he was at the top of his game. Loved him.
3. Mike Pickering and Martin Prendergast (MP2)- Nude night at the Hacienda Manchester 86, 87- what can you say? Pure jacking energy, with the foot patrol ruling the floor and the deafening sound of whistles. Pure energy.
4. Jon Da Silva at Hot Manchester 88, – Jon did things we records i didn’t understand, just brilliant and he wasn’t afraid too chuck in a Dub Syndicate record from time to time, Balearic pioneer, though he’d hate name saying it! I used to pester him constantly, watching him mix in the booth etc. I even used to go round his house sometimes. He was quite polite about it too. Jon fearlessly launched disco into the mix too, he understands the history of it all.
5. Andrew Weatherall at some Boys Own do in a barn- Andrew went on in the early hours, I was high as a kite and, charmingly, i’d been sick down my shirt, I was quite a sight. Andrew dropped out of an accapella of Rozalla ‘Everybody’s free’, a song i hated, but at the moment it was the greatest thing i had ever heard. Then this slow drifting ambiance bubbled up underneath and ‘We Came in peace’ by Tranquilty Bass emerged from the haze. My fucking mind exploded! Andrew has been doing similar things to me on a regular basis since then.
6. Jaye Ward at my mates pub in London, and wherever she plays- I was embarrassed after the fifth or sixth enquiry as to what she was playing, i just took to hovering about the decks with binoculars and a note pad. The tunes were immense! She has a selection skill like no other, playing stuff you’ve never heard of, stuff you’ve overlooked and stuff you thought you’d never play, but when you’ve heard her play them, you go rooting about for them again. A truly inspiring selector.
7. Channel One at the Mason’s arms London- A well appointed boozer and a well to do pub manager, keen not to disturb his neighbours. Channel One sound in the house. The manager turns to me and says, ’This is quite relaxed, I think it will be fine’, ‘They haven’t started yet’ I replied, ’That was just the warm up selector’. The manger flashed me a sudden look of panic crossed with a dreadful realisation that something was about to happen. Mikey Dread steps to the deck, puts on his first tune. He flicks a switch. The whole fucking pub explodes as the bass threatens to blow out the windows, i mean the place is vibrating. The crowd goes wild… the managers phone starts to ring…
BM: It seems to me that your incredibly busy with your DJing out and on the radio and recently I’ve been seeing a lot of talk online regarding your various art shows that are happening about the place and in fact you will be returning to Pikes hotel later this summer to host an art exhibition with us there. Can you tell us a little bit more about ‘The Art’ we’ll be seeing and you divide your time between all your projects?
JR: It’s really something that has grown quite organically over the past few years. I was encouraged to show my work by my friend Shaun McCluskey, he had a gallery on Redchurch Street in London with Martin Tickner. I was starting to get some paintings together that i’d been working on during an enforced studio meltdown, and was beginning to feel they were maybe coherent enough as an idea to show. Shaun and Martin offered me that chance and i took it. Since then I have been keeping up the momentum, producing work that represents a particular theme or an idea i’d like to explore. So the first show was called ‘Everything is Turbulence’ and dealt with the occult power of uncertainty through the medium of monsters! ’The Explorer’s Chronicle’ was a mixture of pencil drawings and digital collages that dealt with the importance of the imagination in scientific discovery. ‘Its Alive’ was about secular animism and our connection the objects around us and my most recent collection ‘Alone’,started as a response to the death of my Father, but became a study in isolation, both voluntary and enforced. The life of a dj and artist can be weirdly hermit like despite the crowds, you spend a lot of time alone, whether travelling or in hotels and this can be a blessing and a curse. I concluded that however bold your ideas are in private, they only make sense, or have meaning, once you share them. That is the common thread between art and music, the communication of ideas and meaning.
Thanks very much to both Justin and Mark for a really really interesting read! Come on down this Sunday to have a listen to both of them play and to wish Mark a Happy Birthday!