Darren Emerson interview: Forward momentum

Darren Emerson spoke to Marko Kutlesa about successes past and present, new projects and his love for playing smaller clubs.

Becca Frankland

Date published: 3rd Feb 2017

When Skiddle catch up with him, Darren Emerson is busy filling out a visa application for a trip to DJ in Russia, organised last minute. No biggie. Except they want to know all the countries he's visited in the last 10 years. As his three instalments for the Global Underground mix series – Uruguay, Singapore and Bogota – suggest, Darren is a truly globetrotting DJ and so is frantically looking through multiple old passports in order to compile the lists of countries where he's been asked to play.

Already well established as an in demand DJ and remixer of techno and house by the time he joined the band Underworld in 1991, his profile was raised to an international level during his time with the group. He brought his knowledge of contemporary house and techno to the band, who had existed since the late 80s and was instrumental in changing their sound.

He brokered a new record deal for them, with Junior Boys Own and early singles on the label like 'Rez', 'Cowgirl' and 'Mmm... Skyscraper I Love You' indicated the band were heading in an extremely exciting direction (they also briefly recorded as Lemon Interrupt for the label). Despite the label also then being home to other UK dance music titans such as X-Press 2, Farley & Heller and The Chemical Brothers (then The Dust Brothers), it was Underworld that lead the pack and 1994's 'Dubnobasswithmyheadman' album positioned them as unique contributors to the house and techno soundscape.

The band went on to tour globally, including playing the main stage at Glastonbury, have two of their tracks included on the soundtrack to the film Trainspotting (including the frequently misunderstood hit 'Born Slippy') and follow up their breakthrough album with two more studio albums during Darren's tenure with Underworld.

Emerson left Underworld in 2000 to concentrate on a DJ career that had been running in tandem with his efforts as part of the group. He had also founded the record label Underwater while being part of the successful band and, after taking a turn towards more house orientated sounds, the imprint had huge success with releases by Gus Gus and Tim Deluxe.

Since 2012 Darren Emerson has run new digital label Detone which has released efforts by the likes of Emerson, Saytek, John Tejada and Steve Rachmad. Along his way, Emerson has released countless DJ mixes, collaborated with Sasha, remixed Bjork, The Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack and Fatboy Slim and, in more recent years, started a new band project, an initially unknown duo known as The White Lamp.

How would you describe how the music you play has changed over the time you've been DJing?

I don't think it's changed that much. Right from when I was DJing on the early house scene Chicago was the main inspiration and it's always been the backbone of what I've done. Techno and house. Things go round a bit, sure. Techno's come back quite a bit recently, which is great because there's a lot of energy in there. But I'm still doing the same sort of thing. 

In 1999 Madison Avenue's 'Don't Call Me Baby' was a chart hit, in 2000 you had Spiller 'Groovejet' and in 2002 you had Tim Deluxe's 'It Just Won't Do' on your own Underwater label. Where have those great, cheeky dance anthem vocal tracks gone these days?

Good question. I don't know. I don't listen to the charts that much these days. 'Don't Call Me Baby' was Andy Van from Australia, I know Andy. Spiller was great too, I like some of them old funky tracks. Don't you still get tracks like that in the charts? I don't really know.

The one we put out was great timing for us because we were doing Ibiza, it worked really well in the main room at Pacha. That was one of our biggest sellers, whereas when we'd release a Christian Smith track that was always going to be more for the underground. Tim's stuff was always on a bigger scale, that and some of the Gus Gus stuff like 'David' really crossed over. I like music though, as you can tell from the different stuff I've done in my career. I'm never going to just be 'techno guy'. 

Where are you up to with Underwater? It's been a good half decade since the label released any product that wasn't in a digital only format.

I'm not doing it any more. I put that down quite a while ago. I've got a label now called Detone. It was originally going to be just for my own productions, but we've started putting out other people's productions now. We've got a Carlo Lio mix that should be coming out in January, I've got some bits coming out then too.

We've got a guy called Oleg Mass from Ukraine forthcoming who is a really cool techno guy. Steve Rachmad's done some mixes for me in the past, Tim Deluxe too. Cisco  from The Advent is doing some stuff under the name G Flame, which is his more funky stuff, so we have a nice selection of stuff coming out.

I wanted to move on, start something fresh, start back at the beginning again. I think it's good to change and to shake things up a little bit. 

What's the difference between Underwater and Detone?

The name, ha! With Underwater it was a proper little crew I had running it with me. We had a really good family. We're slowly getting other artists on board with Detone, but I'm looking for the new breed more as well as including some old mates. Music policy wise it's still the same backbone of house and techno.

We were doing some Detone nights in London, but we stopped that now because it was at the Global Village place, which went down. So now we've just started doing a bi monthly at the old Zap Club in Brighton, which is now called The Arch. We did the first one just after ADE, Alan Fitzpatrick opened up we me, so it was quite techno. The second one, on 17 December, we had James Zabiela.

I'm hoping we'll be doing some more across Europe, but I think Brighton's a good way to start. It makes a nice change from just doing London and there's always a cool little scene down there.

Does concentrating on a digital only format with Detone allow you to concentrate more on music rather than some aspects of running a record label?

Well actually we're talking about doing some vinyl on Detone this year. Luckily I've got a good label manager who can handle all that side of things. I don't think I could do it without Wez, who also works at Defected. I'm also starting up a new label, so his work load's going to be even more, but he's more of a house head so I think it will suit him more.

He kicks me up the arse when he needs something from me and enables me to spend more time in the studio, which is where I need to be, working on stuff like a new track for Eats Everything's label which should be out in the Spring. I've done a remix for Matador too which is coming out on Ruckus. Me and John Digweed did a collaboration for Bedrock too and I've started putting ideas down for a follow up. Dave Seaman wants to do one as well. 

What's your new label and what's the idea behind that?

I started a project that wasn't techno, it was more my 'whatever goes' side. It's a band called The White Lamp, which is me and vocalist Pete Josef. The first track came out on Futureboogie and I didn't put my name to it. We've hit nearly 2 million YouTube hits now, including the Ron Basejam remix.

Our second release was on Sonar Kollektiv and again nobody knew it was us. I just wanted to put some stuff out without my name and see how it went and it did really well. Our third release came out on Hotflush, Scuba's label. We put it out on some really cool labels to do the groundwork, get the name out there, but the fourth single, which is ready to go, is going to be on a White Lamp label. We have a release early in 2017, Ron Basejam's done a mix for it again and Maxxi Soundsystem.

The sound that Lemon Interrupt and Underworld emerged with after you'd started making music with Karl and Rick was very different to the music Underworld had released without you. What do you feel you brought to the group?

Groove. Dance beats and groove, that was my main thing. Those two guys are very talented musicians, but maybe it was a little bit of a dance music groove they were missing. When I DJ I like to wiggle my arse a little bit, especially with some of the Detroit stuff. Even though there's a lot of energy there, I still like to have a bit of a shuffle to it.

So, I think I just added to their excellent musicianship just a bit of something that's going to make your arse wiggle. Even if you listen to 'Dubnobasswithmyheadman' you can still hear that 80s style singing they used to do before me and the guitars, which I was really keen they kept, I loved all that. Them and me, it was just a fusion that really matched well.

Would I be right in saying it was down to you that the group(s) ended up being on Junior Boys Own?

Yeah, I knew all those boys. Rick and Karl didn't really know anyone like that. It's funny, I actually went to the office to talk to another guy, Jon Pop, who did promotions and I was actually talking to him about possibly managing us, but it was in the same office as the Junior Boys Own lot and one of them picked his ears up and jumped in and nabbed us off him. It was a bit sneaky, but it worked out well in the end. 

I used to go to the Junior Boys Own parties. Weatherall got me to stand in for him at the Bognor JBO party many years ago, a weekender. Andrew couldn't make it. I was doing some Djing for Nicky Holloway down the Milk Bar in the early 90s and I was pretty on it back then. I was DJ of the month in ID, DJ of the month in The Face, the same month, so it was all bumping for me. But it was a really big deal to get asked to cover for Andrew. That's when I started to properly get to know all the Junior Boys Own guys. 

It made sense to go with that lot. I liked the way they did things, that quirky fanzine, they had something to say. Terry was into a lot of garage and New York stuff, Andrew was into more of the indie dance stuff and I loved it all. 

How different is the feeling of being on stage performing live with Underworld compared to playing to a similar sized festival audience as a DJ?

I still get butterflies doing both! I did a live White Lamp set at Glastonbury two years ago and that was quite nerve-racking because it was such a new thing, nobody really knew who we were. Doing DJ sets I still get nervous, even if it's just a small club. The big ones, when you think you're going to be nervous, are sometimes not like that. Like doing Glastonbury, the Pyramid stage with Underworld. I was more nervous about doing a Radio 1 live DJ set with Carl Cox just before. 

I think it's a good thing to have. Keeps you on your toes. 

Underworld received a lot of exposure from having their music featured in the film Trainspotting. In your career you seem to be more about moving forward than looking back, so how do you feel about the follow up to that film?

Everyone's going mad about it, aren't they? I saw the trailer and it looks bloody good. Danny Boyle usually does a good job, so I don't think it's going to be a shit film.

I was pretty taken aback when we saw the first one at the premier. I'd seen it being made, being cut together in the editing suite, so to see it completed with 'Dark and Long' and 'Born Slippy' in there, it was pretty fucking cool.

I am one to move forward. Then again, I do sometimes play the odd classic in a set, so I do go back. But I tend to look more to the future. But it's all good. It's in demand. People want to see it. People still want to hear 'Born Slippy', they still go mad for it. It's a classic anthem and you can't knock it if people are going to enjoy it. 

If I mention the genre names progressive house and tech house to you, how do you feel hearing them? Are such sub-genre titles unnecessary creations of music journalists?

I think they are. When I was DJing what was known as progressive house in London it was Guerilla Records, all them years ago. When I put Gat Decor 'Passion' out on what was my first label, Effective Records, that was classed as progressive house. Listening back now it sounds nothing like what progressive house has moved into.

People do need to label things. I was in Barcelona last Wednesday doing the Macarena club, which is this small place, and doing four hours there you can move all over the place. I don't like to be blinkered and play just one style, it's all just quality dance music to me. I get a bit lost with genres names these days, especially when you go on something like Beatport where the genre often has nothing to do with what the sound actually is. Deep house tracks on there are not what I think of as deep house.

You mentioned you've started this new bi-monthly residency at The Arch in Brighton. I've seen you do some gigs where there must be 5000, 10,000 people in front of you, so what are these smaller club dates about then?

 It's really nice to switch it around. With small, intimate clubs it does give you the chance to go deeper and to play for longer. On the big stages you tend to bang it out more. You can explore more in a smaller venue, I love it. The Macarena only holds about 150 people and I've played there three or four times now. I really do enjoy it.

Darren plays at Detone at The Arch in Brighton alongside Art Department on Saturday 25th February. Tickets are available below.

 

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