Published on February 17th, 2020 | by Chris Jones0
For The Love of Music: An Interview with Andrew Weatherall
There simply was no one quite like Andrew Weatherall. One of the most respected selectors, prolific producers and legendary gentlemen in the game, the announcement of his death at the age of 56 has ruptured the music world.
Capturing the very essence of the man – his abundant charm and unending devotion for music – we’re pleased (and yet, of course, sad) to share this previously unpublished interview with the man himself from 2015. In it, you can trace the makings of someone who, more than most, could always effortlessly transform a potentially great night into something positively unforgettable.
Words by Chris Jones
How are you?
Not bad, the flag’s at half-mast but we’re not down too much. Oh well, there we go. The public gets what the public wants.
You’re doing an all-night-long set at the Black Box, isn’t that right?
Yeah, I always enjoy an all-night set. I’d rather work for my money. I enjoy playing for that long. It’s a weird thing, the DJ set now is a standard hour-and-a-half or two hours, but that’s crept up over the last 20 or 25 years. The classic DJs, your Larry Levans and stuff, they had control of the whole evening, pretty much. With the advent of rave, and putting lots of names on the flyers for the rave, as many DJs’ names as possible, that’s what started it. The standard is an hour-and-a-half to two hours but I always try to get three if possible. If I could find three or four gigs a month where I played all night, that would be my ideal situation – four monthly residencies where I played all night, I would be a very happy bunny indeed.
What was the norm when you started out?
The norm was two or three hours, if you had a residency you did get longer sets. But all of a sudden everybody wanted to be a DJ and there were loads of DJs available. Up until then I remember people playing for longer and having control of their whole night. There wasn’t that much of a guest DJ thing, pre-acid house.
Were you a resident at [legendary London acid house club] Shoom?
No, I played there a couple of times but I wasn’t a resident. But I was a very, very keen punter, shall we say. I think Carl Cox played there, Steve Proctor. It was 30 years ago, I probably couldn’t have remembered the day after never mind 30 years later!
What’s the advantage for you of having all night to play with?
You can set the scene. You don’t think, ‘Oh no, I’m the main act, everyone’s expecting ‘this’ of me and I’ve got an hour-and-a-half or two hours’. I find it less pressure to play for eight hours than I do for an hour-and-a-half because you can set the scene and take it where you want, and there’s plenty of room for fuck-up. If you fuck up and you’ve got another six hours you think, ‘it’s alright, I can pull this back’ rather than having an hour [left]. It does happen!
There’s that, and I’m very, very greedy about inflicting my musical taste on the general public. [laughs] It was always me that would hog the decks when we got back after the club – I’ve never lost that mentality. When I was 11 or 12 years old I’d buy records and invite friends round to play them. I was never going to have the thrill of hearing them for the first time again, but I could live vicariously, looking into people’s eyes as they were listening to them.
It was a vicarious thrill by playing music that you believe in, and that’s never left me. 40-odd years of inflicting my musical taste on other people!
I’ve seen you play techno, disco, house, rockabilly – have you always shied away from specialising in one genre of music?
It’s not that I shied away from it, I just couldn’t physically do it because I liked so much different music. When I was growing up, music was an escape route for me. I didn’t have a shit upbringing or anything but it was a bit boring living in suburbia so music was an escape route. You don’t limit your escape routes, do you?
Sometimes I wish I did specialise. I secretly admire religious people – to have that much blind faith and be that single-minded in their belief in something. I probably believe in too much, that’s the thing. I loved punk rock but I loved disco at the same time, which was very frowned upon. Punk led me to dub… I’ve always been a voracious consumer of music.
There have been times when I’ve thought, ‘Yeah, this is what I want to listen to’, but then you’ll hear something else the next day and go, ‘ah, no I can’t’. [laughs] I admire that kind of blind faith. Part of me hates people that are blinkered but part of me loves the fact that everything else annoys them other than this one form of art. I find it quite fascinating. Not just in music, but in literature, film… People that are genre-specific.
Sometimes I feel like a jack-of-all-trades, master of none, and would I want to be the master of one particular trade? I don’t know. I’m quite happy to stay the enthusiastic amateur, I think.
Is it fair to say that in the 70s and 80s music was much more tribal?
I was thinking about this yesterday. I was on a train, looking at a girl and the way she was dressed and it was like, ‘I have no idea what music you’re into’. Whereas when I was growing up you’d just look at a person’s pair of shoes and go, ‘oh right, you’re into that’. But now you can’t, it’s really weird.
I looked at her and thought, ‘you could be into techno, psych-rock…’, there was no defining [thing], there was no t-shirt with a band name or record label on it. That’s obviously the big clue, if you can see some sort of promotional attire. But tribalism’s not always that good, as you can attest to coming from where you come from.
But then again, tribes are a part of the human condition. If you want to be part of a tribe because you want to be in on the secret and not because you want to be a bigot or whatever, then that’s fine. We all like to think we’re in on the secret of something, which is why religion works so well. That’s just human nature.
If you’re in a small tribe, it’s kind of reassuring – as long as that doesn’t spill out into other areas of your life. Tribalism is a double-edged sword.
You said earlier that you liked both punk and disco. Were you unusual among your peers in that you transcended those ‘tribes’?
To a certain extent. 50s rock and roll and glam rock were what started it for me when I was eight or nine years old. I went to a grammar school and people were into music, and because a lot of us listened to John Peel, we did have broad taste. I had friends who were very into soul but I played them punk records and they could see the benefit of them. Because I was an enthusiastic proselytiser, even if it was something they didn’t like they could see that it meant something to me, so I’d try and share it with them.
In my peer group I wasn’t that different, but that’s just the natural selection of your friends, isn’t it? To people outside my peer group I was just that weird kid that listened to that [strange music] – ‘fuck me, what colour’s his hair this week?’. To neighbours and people who didn’t really know me it was ‘what the fuck is he listening to?’. It was a bit strange.
And my early DJing forays, when I was in my late teens and early 20s would be at more funk and soul-orientated places, and I would play stuff that wasn’t called techno but was electronic. I was that weird kid with his weird record and get thrown off after playing two records. [laughs]
Did you ever encounter any aggro?
Yeah, people would get very upset! Especially during early acid house days, London and the north were very different. The north of England got house music, per se, before London but London was more eclectic – stuff that had been brought back from Ibiza, new beat, post-punk, so it was very different.
It became… not purist, but very single-tracked up north before it did down here. So you’d get gigs up north and you’d play records that weren’t house records – they’d have a house beat and be uptempo but just not house records – and you’d have problems. But that may not have just been down to the music, that might just have been a ‘who do you think you are, coming up here and playing records?’ kind of vibe. But it didn’t last very long.
It’s like anything, if you’re in a band your early gigs are pretty much memorable for how badly you went down. Then there comes a tipping point and it all starts to make sense. It’s all part of the joy.
I loved bands like Throbbing Gristle and Test Department who’d go out of their way to upset people. I didn’t necessarily go out of my way to upset people but whenever I’ve cleared dancefloors or had people shouting at me or complaining I’ve thought, ‘that’s a bit like Throbbing Gristle playing a gig where everyone wants to kill them’. [laughs]
You mentioned a tipping point, was there one moment or gig where everything clicked for you?
Yeah, Bobby Gillespie quotes it as well. I’d just done Loaded and I had an acetate of it. Primal Scream played a gig at Subterranea which was once called the Acklam Hall, where lots of punk bands played, funny enough, in the 70s.
I don’t know what year it was, ’89 or ’90, whenever Loaded came out, and most of the audience were indie kids but there was a smattering, about another half of the crowd were part of the nascent acid house scene, people that’d go to Shoom and Future and stuff like that, and I played Loaded and the place went absolutely… I’d never seen anything like it. And everyone started to do that Rolling Stones ‘woo woo!’ thing over the top of it.
So I thought, ‘okay, right…’ – there was something afoot. I got some test pressings of Loaded as well. I actually went for a job interview at a record company in London and I’d just picked up the test pressings. I’d just walked in and the guy – lovely guy – called Eugene Manzi who I think was head of A&R at London Records said, ‘What have you got there?’. I said, ‘It’s Loaded, that record I’ve done for Primal Scream’, and he said, ‘Well, why the fuck are you here for a job interview? You know that record’s going to be really big, don’t you?’. And I was like, ‘Well, no…’.
Because I did it, just me, in a little studio in Walthamstow on a wet Wednesday, on my first or second trip into the studio, very naively making this little record. I thought they’d be of limited interest in London clubs and wouldn’t translate anywhere else. But when he looked at me and said, ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’, coupled with the playing of it, I just thought, ‘Oh right, okay, there might be something in this’.
Can you remember the reaction of the band when you played it to them?
I did one mix first and I was a bit respectful – I basically just put a kick drum under their song and left the vocals in – and Andrew Innes, the guitarist said, [adopts Glasgow accent] ‘Aw no man – fucking destroy it’. So I just went, ‘Okay then, I will!’. [laughs] And they were fine.
They just they had nothing to lose, they may as well make an interesting record. And Bobby wasn’t precious, he didn’t mind that his vocals weren’t on it – he just thought it was a great bit of music. He wrote it, it’s still his band. They were fine, always were.
Same on Screamadelica, they pretty much left me to my own devices until the very last minute. They recorded and left me alone to put it together in the studio and add all the wobbly bits.
When is the last time you listened to Screamadelica?
In its entirety, fucking years! I don’t know. But I often hear the odd track on the telly or in a shop and you’re reminded that it is a good record. It still works. It’s weird, like any great record it’s very much of its time but it’s also timeless. That’s the definition of a great record – it sums up a moment but that resonates 20, 30, 40, 50 years afterwards.
Did have any sense at the time that people would still be talking about it 25 years later?
Well, no. We just thought we’d made this interesting record, and then you wait for the reviews. ‘Right, okay…’ You try not to get swept up by that but I just got the feeling that it did sum up that time for a lot of people.
I thought that if it was of the moment then there’s any chance that it could resonate and the ripples could spread outwards through future generations of drug-addled teenagers.
What do you think the connection was between acid house and Thatcher’s Britain? It was criticised for not being political and yet you could argue that one hand it was a reaction to Thatcher, or on the other that a lot of the promoters were inspired by her embrace of the free market.
Like every youth movement since the teddy boys, it was made political. The people in charge of the art – the music, the records – know that they can get capital out of shock and making the old folk disgusted. And on the other side, people in parliament can further their career by being disgruntled and being seen to be the standard bearers of morality. So it’s a very symbiotic relationship, pop culture, between ‘The Man’ and the art being produced.
The acid house scene was only a few hundred people to begin with, but as soon as the papers got onto it and could link drugs to it and get shock-horror, they could sell newspapers and rave promoters could sell tickets.
They set up this special acid house squad to investigate what was going on and a friend of mine interviewed the guy who was the head of that, and he said that what the government could understand was that there were people who had the power to mobilise thousands of young people really easily, and they thought that if you’re doing that there must be something political behind it. But it wasn’t, it was just a way of getting people into a field to sell them tickets and drugs and they have a good time. But the powers that be politicisedm, it because that’s how their mind works – obviously someone with power has got to be abusing it because that’s what they do.
It became political by default, as with youth cults before it. It’s been the same since the 50s with all the outrage over teddy boys, and then mods, then punks and along came acid house.
Some of the promoters lived the Thatcherite dream and got incredibly rich in a short space of time.
Yeah, yeah. It gets called the Thatcherite dream because she was in power at that time, but not any more than people in the 60s that made money – the Rolling Stones were living the Harold Wilson dream.
It just so happens that she was advocating… she wasn’t the heroine, they just happened to be making lots of money and because people were making loads of money in those years, people say they were Thatcherite. But they weren’t that interested in politics, believe me. [laughs]
There doesn’t seem to have been any comparable musical movement for quite some time.
Well, there’s so much available. Sometimes you’re forced into tribalism by your surroundings and what you had access to listen to. If you were a kid growing up in Birmingham on a council estate, there was a good chance you’d be into dub or northern soul or something, because that’s what the older kids listened to and you could get the odd specialist radio station. But now kids have got access to so much music really easily, and the attention span can be affected by that.
Again, it’s a double-edge sword. Tribalism can be a good thing because it leads to genres developing, but then again it’s good that there’s tribes of people who listen to loads of different music. Nothing is really given time to develop. Anything that comes out is instantly lauded and instead of gigs were there were very few people and that became a legendary gig, that legendary gig where no-one turned up is going to end up [online] because someone put it on their iPhone.
Things aren’t given time. The mystery has gone a little bit out of music. It’s great that art is easily accessible but the downside is that music and art isn’t quite so special now. It’s another form of data coming into your device.
Is it fair to say that the music industry these days is kind of blocked off to working class people? In terms of guitar music, anyway, it seems like they all went to public school.
I don’t know. A lot of the top bands at the moment appear to be well-educated but for fuck’s sake, Shane McGowan went to a public school. Joe Strummer went to a public school.
Yeah, it is annoying but a lot of the time it’s down to the music as well. The music is so flaccid and it doesn’t help that it’s made by a fucking private school person. It just adds ammunition. A lot of bands become scapegoats and because they went to public schools it doesn’t help their cause, let’s say that.
But I would never pull that one up. I’d just say I hate Mumford and Sons because they fucking suck, not because they’re God-botherers or they went to this or that school. In rock, maybe, but then rock always has been a middle class [thing]. Mick Jagger went to the London School of Economics. Let’s not kid ourselves.
With dance music there’s probably more chance for working class kids and there always has been. It’s them making the grime tracks and uploading them and doing their nights and making money. But rock music always has been in the control of the middle classes.
Even in the 50s, Brian Epstein and people like that – middle class, well-educated people were in control. I’m not saying that’s a good thing because it’s been going on for 60 years but that’s the way it is. I’ve never really thought about class when it comes to music, really.
With all the styles of music you’ve made and played, and all your different roles, is there a common thread that runs through everything?
Just the love of music and the desire to play it to other people, really. It’s arrested development – here I am at 52, still acting like a glorified 12-year-old, gathering friends round a record player with the singles stacked up like a jukebox, and I’d make my selection and we’d listen to it. It’s just a desire for music, and at this age I can’t do anything else! [laughs]
My options are somewhat limited, so thankfully I do still enjoy what I’m doing or else I’d be royally fucked.
Are you a family man?
I’ve got a fiancée but I haven’t got children. I don’t know how that would fit in – that would probably affect things! I can make sweeping statements and live my art and that because I haven’t got any other mouths to feed apart from mine and my girlfriend’s.
Is that a deliberate choice or just the way things have turned out?
Yeah, just the way that things have turned out. I’m not anti-children, but the life I lead or have to lead would preclude it to a certain extent. I suppose I could if I moved out of London or something, I could do less gigs, there would be ways round it. I say I can’t do anything else – I don’t feel like I’m on the rollercoaster and can’t get off. There are plans afoot.
Every year, I say I’m going to do less and less but the phone keeps ringing and the gigs are good and varied. If I was just going down one avenue, weekend in weekend out, I’d probably get fucked off, but when I look at my diary at the rest of the year, I know I’ve got some pretty interesting gigs coming up, right across the board.
Do you still go to clubs as a punter?
Good god, no! [laughs] Actually I went to see some bands this week but if I have a Friday or Saturday off… you work at a newspaper and have your weekend off, you don’t go into the office and rattle off a couple of articles, do you? Or do you, you may be keen!
No, I used to but I work in the studio every day for eight or 10 hours, music constantly, and it’s just nice to not listen to music for a day or two. It’s not a total blanket, now and then I might do, and there’s lots of good stuff going on around me.
Also, I like that isolation of just doing my thing. I don’t want to be too influenced by anyone else. That sounds like a bit of a cop-out – ‘you lazy bastard!’ – but no, it’s a combination of a few things.
I know what I’m like, I’m very easily led. I could hear something and it could change the way that I play, and I worry about that a little bit. It’s a combination of lots of things but mainly it’s that after five or six days a week of music it’s reading time, basically.