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Greg Wilson Interview

As Freeze get ready for three summer gigs curated by Greg Wilson, Mike Boorman spoke with the legendary DJ to talk through his ideas on clubland.

Jimmy Coultas

Date published: 23rd May 2014

Image: Greg Wilson (Credit: Elspeth)

We love a new concept here at Skiddle, so we were delighted to find out that our old friends Freeze had come up with the novel idea of recruiting Greg Wilson to not just DJ for them, but to be their musical curator for three dates this summer. 

Having witnessed firsthand the magic he conjures up when he played at our Dance tent in the Wickerman festival (listen to his set below), we're aware of the pedigree he'll bring to the events, the first of which takes place on Saturday May 31st at the Williamson Tunnels.

 

Skiddle Mix 012 - Greg Wilson (LIVE from the Wickerman festival) by Skiddle on Mixcloud

 

We were even more chuffed when he sat down to talk to us about it, as well share some of his well-renowned insight on what made the scene what it is today - this is after all a man who did his first gig at the age of 15 in the mid 70s… he's seen it all.

So firstly Greg, and I know it's a blindingly obvious question, but how did this thing with Freeze come about?

Liverpool's my home city, but I guess oddly it wasn't as involved for me here until more recent times. I did something for Freeze early last year and that was a really successful night, and that seems to have galvanised it. 

The idea to do some special dates during the summer came up, and that just seemed like a no brainer really - to build on what we've already done.

And looking at your past at unique venues like Legend, you've always been a great advocate of the venue and production selling the night beyond just the DJs, so was that another thing in favour of Freeze?

Absolutely, yeah - it's really interesting to me to do venues like Williamson Tunnels, and a little bit later in the summer we're using other interesting spaces. I think definitely the idea of bringing these things into unconventional arenas, it's something that appeals… you obviously want to have a space that's conducive to what you're doing and they seem perfect.  

I haven't done Williamson Tunnels before but I've heard a lot about it and it's been one of those that I've been waiting to do. As opposed to traditional club spaces, there seem to be a lot of fantastic warehouse-type, off the beaten track, weird and wonderful spaces that are popping up here and there for parties; so yeah, it's nice to plug into that.

I guess one challenge with moving away from a traditional club space is that it's hard to execute a good sound system, but it must be reassuring for you to enter into something like this with promoters who are used to it.

Of course, yeah, they know the lay of the land with these spaces so I'm confident they'll set it up right.

You've booked Derek Kaye to appear on the line up for May 31st, a lot of people might not know about him. Tell me more about Derek. 

Maybe at one level people wouldn't know, but on Merseyside people will know because of his history here. He's my old friend from going way back - he started with his mobile disco before I became a DJ so he was very much a kind of influence in that respect.

We worked together more recently doing remixes… we've just done a whole run of mixes including one for the new Fatboy Slim album (released June 6th - teaser above) which is for the World Cup. It involves everyone remixing Brazilian artists, and that's been great to take an old Brazilian track and work on it. 

So Derek's been somebody who's been around forever but at the same time is doing some really interesting stuff at the moment like his own edits.  He understands the music, he's the kind of perfect person to work with especially as regards events on Merseyside.  

He's been doing events around the region for the last 40 years - he's seen it all come and go, watched the scenes emerge and fall. I don't think there could be many DJs in the country with that history, if any, who have remained current like that.

So he was a bit of an inspiration in your youth?

Well he was just my mate at school I guess. We got friendly because we were into records. He was always into electronics… he actually built his own mobile disco setup, so by the age of 14 he was going out taking bookings for weddings and 21st birthdays and stuff.

So when he came to get a new DJ console I bought his old one and briefly set up as a mobile disco with another mate, and before you know it, we had our first booking. My first ever gig was when I was 15.  

Derek certainly moved me towards DJing quicker than I would have done otherwise, although I think I was gravitating towards it already to a certain degree, because I lived above a pub with a function room. So I was hearing a lot of different music, and DJs were coming in and out all the time, so I was used to the culture.

I know you're not a fan of people being stuck in one tempo and one groove. As both DJ and curator of the whole night, I take it there will be a lot of different genres on show?

The basis of it on a musical level is that you'll hear a spectrum of stuff and it makes various reference points through time. We're drawing from the past on one level but at the same time by the whole re-edits culture, it's been spun in a contemporary sense, and something that is relevant to now. 

Just looking at myself for example, I play a lot across the spectrum, from down-tempo grooves to faster-speed stompers and everything in between. It's always been my way because I wasn't a DJ in the emerging house scene - I basically saw it as a bystander because it was during my long break from DJing (almost 20 years).  

Initially it was great - if you go back to the Hacienda in 87/88 just before it kind of exploded… house music was the main music that was being played but you'd still hear hip hop, street soul, all sorts of different vibes… and that was the glory of the night; that it hit highs and then dipped and then peaked again.  

So it wasn't like what it became, which was kind of starting up-tempo and then just going that bit faster through the night. Each to their own, but from a personal perspective, that wouldn't be enough for me - I don't want to narrow it down as one small thing, when there's so much great music about.  

So the nights we do will be in that context - there'll be variation - not that I'll be telling people what to play, but that's how it will turn out… that's why they've been booked in the first place. 

I grew up following this stuff when the monotony was arguably at its worst, with the scene splintering off into a lot of hard trance and hard techno without any form of melody.

So my favourite DJs are people like Danny Tenaglia and Harvey because of how much they mix it up, and I'm astonished that even with computers and automatic beat-matching now being an accepted part of DJing, there are still so few DJs that actually traverse genres and tempos… they must be so bored!

Yeah, I know! People fall into a category and maybe it's difficult to escape. I've seen people come from a more disco background that have fallen into it, and now you hear them and they seem to be stuck inside a single tempo range and it's hard to get back out of that once you're in it - once people are expecting things from you with bookings and stuff it's hard.

Fair point.

There's an expectation on you I guess, but I'm always trying to bring in contemporary stuff to go with the older stuff… new edits of older tracks etc.  

So you always try and pep things up and bring new things into play, but I couldn't just play in one tempo range. The idea that everything I play is just four to the floor and it ranges from 120 to 125 bpm… for me that's just too narrow a palette. I like to build something.

Agreed.

I always remember a few years ago I was at a party and heard someone talking and people were complaining about the music being too slow, and the track that was playing was a track from the eighties that I knew to be about 115 bpm which was how things were back then.

Most of the classic dance tunes were at that tempo and lower, and I'm thinking to myself: what they're saying that's too slow is going against the history of people dancing; like you wouldn't have any of James Brown's tracks if you went below that tempo. It's a crazy notion!

I think that what happened was that during that whole nineties rave era, people were just going for a faster and faster tempo… it got ridiculous, and it kind of wiped away a whole style of music that always worked for people to dance to and still works today… I think the drugs played a big part in that.

And really, 'tempo' is a relative thing. Not many people could accurately tell you the tempo of any track. People could sometimes dance more quickly to a track that's, say, 100bpm, than a track that's 130bpm, because you don't necessarily have to dance to just the kick drum… often it's the rest of the percussion that leads the way. 

Yeah, a perfect example of that was when drum & bass came through in the nineties… a lot of people on the rave side of things thought that it was too fast for even them.  

But what they didn't realise was that what with the original D&B scene coming from black clubs, the proper dancers were dancing at the half speed, within the groove if you like, counting 1 and 2, rather than 1234 which the ravers were doing, still latched onto the kick.

I think it's that difference between groove and beat - it's like being inside it or being on top of it so to speak… I think a lot of people during the rave era learnt how to dance, but they didn't learn how to groove. 

I guess that's always a challenge when you're to trying play grooves - some dance floors evolved from a different context.

Anyone who's been to the nights I do, they'd expect grooves, but when they don't it's different. I remember I did the Space Terrace a few years ago and I remember building up from down-tempo and I knew a lot of the audience weren't used to this.

It was interesting because there was that inquisitive look on their faces, but within 15 minutes it was gone and everyone settled in to what it was. And one of the guys who promoted We Love said to me that it was one of the best nights of the season.  

It's one of those - if you bring it to the people they will go for it - you've just got to get through the shock stage. I don't really worry about it now though - I used to - but now there are usually enough people who know what I'm doing to enthuse the other people anyway. 

I guess it all makes sense that you came out of an era where dancers ran dancefloors sometimes more than the DJs did. All those different cliques… the stylish dancers… they'd be responding to the clearly-defined different grooves and song structures.

Yep. Dancers were mini celebrities, sometimes more well known than the DJs. The regular guys in the clubs back then didn't really dance unless it was to move in on a girl, but the girls would always be dancing. A lot of people have said to me actually that what they find really interesting about my gigs is the amount of girls.  

With some DJs, their main following are beardy stroking blokes who maybe drag their girlfriends along, but this is more a kind of a mix of the sexes, and age groups too… there's a real range in age too. That works so well for me, that mix of age and fusion of people - this is the point of music after all, to bring us together.

Like this? Try Skiddle Mix 005: Greg Wilson (Wickerman Festival).

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