The venue was some hipster pad tucked away in the old canal district. A former warehouse, stripped and remodelled, the usual call-signs of generic bohemia. It was a long, thin space – part artist’s studio, part desirable residence – and defined by its exposed brickwork, its high ceilings, the structures and intricacies of minimalism at its most chic. A few busy canvases dripped along the back wall, more still were stacked behind one of the strategically placed sofas (leather, obviously), whilst the wall facing was dominated by retro-industrial windows, framing both balcony and – in the hazy beyond – another of the big, bad city’s electric dusks.
The decks had been set up in the corner of the room, next to a high, faux-granite surface
that had arrived to the party dressed as the bar. Such was the configuration that, from the DJ’s perspective, it encouraged a casual fluidity of movement. He could effortlessly clock the party freaks as they filtered in from the outside world, reach across for another bottle of whatever, and cue up the next slab of vinyl, all in one, lazy action. Clock, drink, cue. Clock, drink, cue.
This, unfortunately, wasn’t without its problems. The party’s host – a guy from Baltimore who’d recently graduated from St Martin’s College of Art & Design, and who was now gliding through some iconoclastic, anti-art aesthetic funded by his rich parents – collated his acquaintances from a very specific strata of population, and thus a steady stream of preening, shrieking popinjays thronged about. Guys in dumb hats, gesticulating wildly. Air stewardesses just in from a garish, Pan-Am, future. People called Tarquin or Quentin; others who if named differently still resembled Tarquins or Quentins. Out on the balcony, people were discussing this project or that project in waves of easy, privileged earnestness, whilst on the other side of the bar, a married guitarist from a then-trendy indie band had his tongue wedged down the throat of a nymphette nearly half his age.
In short, these were not the type of people that the DJ felt comfortable around. Which led into the second problem; the ease of reflex-action drinking amidst the music. The plan had called for a subtle approach to the sound; sophisticated, tasteful records that nuzzled up against the ambient, background noise in a playful fashion, only intruding into conversation at the correct moments, before slipping back with a knowing smile.
What hadn’t been factored in was that this access to a steady and generous supply of free liquor would in turn feed the DJ’s increasingly foul mood. Within minutes of the first few tracks – a slick Barry Adamson number that segued into Françoise Hardy that segued into (then very hip) early Portishead – his mindset began to trigger a darker approach to the soirée. Profanity, lurching, a copy of Blue Lines smashed dramatically across a raised knee, further profanity, a greedy tug at the bottle of Absolut…
Which is the story of how I spent an entire drunken evening playing the most abrasive records I had in my box; Add N to (X), early NIN, Throbbing Gristle, the Third Eye Foundation – many of them at the wrong speed – to a bunch of self-obsessed hipsters confused as to whether I was a genuine DJ or performance art. Until it was decided – and not by me – that it was time I vacated the building.
Is that story true? Well, certain elements, perhaps. It’s easy to regard a first-person, “my life as DJ” narrative as an exercise in self-promotion, when in fact it’s a pastime deserving of little genuine kudos. Playing records to a bunch a strangers requires no talent whatsoever, merely a feel or even a base familiarity with the material to ensure that your beats match, and a vague idea of when to return should you sneak outside for a cigarette or a spliff or a blow-job (and you don’t even need that if you’re going to use a laptop instead of decks and mixers).
If there’s any genuine skill, which I doubt, then it’s in the divination of the tracks themselves. The right records in the right order. The ability to first match the ambient tempo, then guide it towards your desired aural mindset. Being able to venture off-piste should the mood lunge or trip in an unexpected direction.
Of this I was truly awful, understanding but never really subscribing to the concept that I was there (and sometimes being paid) to entertain the punters rather than myself. People like dancing to the familiar; a fact particularly important if you’re attempting to cultivate something of a communal experience. In the small provincial bars and clubs where I use to turn up, record boxes in hand – venues frequented by indie kids and the like – this implies a veering towards the commercial end of the remit, or sparking some weird frenzy by shoehorning a well-remembered TV theme from a few decades back into the play list (always works, that. Sad, but very, very true).
And yet instead of convention, there’d be me, building to the moment when a Blur track or a Dandy Warhols record would make optimum sense, and I’d elect to play something only I wanted to hear, and totally clear not only the dancefloor, but usually the club, too.
So, just like shite 80’s cartoon He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, I’ve always favoured ending any story with a moral. In this case: Don’t invite me to DJ at your next party, hootenanny or executive gathering; I’ll only play “Hangar 18” by Megadeth forty-seven times in succession, get terribly drunk on cheap booze, and leave you declaring “The DJ’s crap, let’s start a fire.”
Add N to (X) / Monster Bobby