Justin Robertson interview: Polymath Window

Ahead of a summer of festival appearances, Marko Kutlesa caught up with distinguished DJ and producer Justin Robertson to discuss the heady days of the Hacienda, his love for art and never getting a 'real job'...

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 17th Jul 2017

Image: Justin Robertson (photo credit)

Moving to Manchester to study, the city having appealed because of its music scene, Justin Robertson timed his arrival perfectly with the onset of acid house. The city educated him in philosophy at University, in raving at The Hacienda and in music at the record stores he would frequent, not least Eastern Bloc, where Robertson scored a part time job just as the Madchester scene kicked off.

He began DJing while in the city and played at Konspiracy, a peer venue of The Hacienda, before setting up his own residency in Spice, alongside Greg Fenton. Robertson would follow this with two more residencies that were highly influential to the Manchester music scene; the Balearic edged Most Excellent, one of the favoured clubs of Manchester University attendees The Chemical Brothers, and techno heavy monthly Sleuth, which was championed by Manchester based dance music magazine Jockey Slut.

The magazine also ran their own night where Robertson frequently played, a party which whose influence would continue over time with even greater success. Bugged Out initially started at Sankeys Soap before moving to Liverpool for a monthly residency at Nation, the sadly deaprted former home of Cream, another club brand with whom Robertson developed close ties.

It was through the Eastern Bloc record shop that Robertson got his first opportunity to produce music, providing a remix for a local indie band Mad Jacks. Before too long the requests for remixes and the development of his own sound would mean he left the shop to concentrate on DJing and music production.

He has since developed a series of production outfits or aliases including Lionrock, The Prankster, Gentleman Thief, Revtone and current concern The Deadstock 33s, (which sometimes collaborates with Daniel Avery). Robertson has also fronted his own band, Thee Earls, remixed the likes of Bjork, Stone Roses, New Order, The Charlatans and Fatboy Slim and released countless singles.

He has made several mix albums as a DJ and six albums of original music as an artist, including the most recent Deadstock 33s LP 'Everything is Turbulence' (2015). Robertson's current home Skint Records have just revisited for the remix album 'Everything Is Turbulence (remixed)' which features the likes of Slam, Dave Clarke and Andrew Weatherall

Not content with operating in the music production and DJing mediums, Robertson currently hosts his own Temple Of Wonders show on Soho Radio and has, over more recent years, developed a career as an artist simultaneous to his efforts in music. Prior to DJ appearances at various events over the summer, we sat down with Justin Robertson to talk about his radio show, recent remix album and his art.

Tell me about the idea behind your Temple Of Wonders radio show?

It's just a chance to explore the psychedelic netherworlds of my record collection. I wanted to create something that was fairly frenetic and disorientating. It takes quite a long time to do, quite a bit of trickery, so I can create a psychedelic swirl of music. So, that's the idea behind it, to make it a little bit off kilter. 

I really like it and knowing you a little bit I'm aware that you're into these kinds of sounds, but do you think the music you play on the show might come as a surprise to some existing Justin Robertson fans? 

Well, even within the show there's quite a wide variety of sounds from around the world, reggae, psychedelia, fuzz guitar, traditional music from around the world. I guess if anyone cared to deconstruct even some of the clanging, banging house records I've done in the past they might be able to draw out a few of those influences that might have been knocking about in the background, whether it be a nod to the MC5 or those reggae timbale rolls that I used to use to great excess in the early 90s.

So I think people might have already heard some of those influences even if they've only heard my dancefloor stuff. If someone's only ever heard me at a rave in a field, they might be surprised. But hopefully, people will get the connection. All music is ultimately about sharing sounds with people, so hopefully, people can find something they enjoy in it. If they don't enjoy it they can always turn it off. 

Some of the remixers who tackled your work on the recent 'Everything Is Turbulence (remixed)' album I know you to have had long associations with, people like Slam, Dave Clarke and Andrew Weatherall. How did you choose the rest, some of whom I'm not that familiar with?

As a fan, really. I listen to so much music, spend my days trying to find things, so it was quite nice to be able to get some of the people I admired to have a go at mine. They are people who I've either met in acid house or whose work I've admired for many years. I think it's a mixture of legends and future legends, I'd like to say.

I wanted to get people who were going to be quite fearless about it, who were really going to add their own touch. I didn't want someone who was just going to put a kick drum under it or add a hi-hat pattern, I wanted people who could take it apart if they wanted to. I didn't really care what I got back because I knew it would be good and I think they've all risen to the occasion. 

Did you record many things for the original of Everything Is Turbulence that didn't make it to the released version?

A little bit, yeah. Every album project you record more than you need. I like to go out on a limb on a couple of things, try a few things out that sometimes work and sometimes don't.

There were a few things that weren't bad, but they didn't quite make the grade at that stage. They needed a bit more work, more honing in on what they were really about. There were a few that hit the floor straight away and a few more which I tried to batter into submission, but they refused to succumb, so they also had to go. 

I ask because the original version of the album has, to my ears, a cohesion to it. Was there any concern that efforts towards repeating such would be impossible by handing the material over to a raft of so many different visions on the remix version?

There's always that risk. Especially as I gave everyone a free hand. So, I didn't know what people were going to come back with. Some of those producers are quite maverick in their approach and you never know what you're going to get back from them.

I did know that they all shared a disparate kind of aesthetic. I'm not entirely sure what it is, but I did figure that it would hang together somehow and it has. Because I chose them I think maybe I saw some kind of cohesion coming out of the other end, but I'm also happy with incoherence, to be honest. If it had been completely bonkers I would have been happy with that as well.

How did your production partnership with Daniel Avery come about? Is he a neighbour of yours?

He's not a neighbour other than the fact we live in the same city. I met Dan through Fabric and through the band Filthy Dukes. They had a night at Fabric called Kill Em All and at the time he was doing some stuff with them. We just decided to try and have a go at doing some music together and it's worked out pretty well so we've carried on.

We've actually got a piece that we've been trying to finish for the last three years, which we're determined to finish. At the moment it's an enormous, elongated, drumless piece. We're going to have to wrestle it to the floor to get some sense out of it. 

I listened to a few of your recent mixes in preparation for speaking with you, a 4 hour one from Fabric and one you did for John Digweed's show. I really liked them. 

Apart from the slower and mid-tempo paced stuff you start off with on the Fabric set, you seem to be playing a lot more of what I'd regard as house music rather than the techno I heard you play many times in clubs in the late 90s and early 2000s at places like Sleuth and Bugged Out. Did you reach a tipping point with techno? 

I still play bits and pieces of it. I think I go through phases, I'm kinda schizophrenic like that. It's quite hard to pin down what my sound is, it morphs and changes as my moods do. Even when I was panelling out the techno that I found interesting I always tried to throw in more house based stuff, things with a bit of swing and groove to them.

I was never really a purist techno DJ even back then. I like dynamics so the idea of locked grooves, relentless minimalism is not really me. Some people do it really well and I can enjoy hearing them do it well, but it's not something I enjoy doing. I certainly haven't stopped listening to it, if I can find something which has a dynamic which can fit into what I'm playing then I will, but I guess tempo wise I've slowed down considerably since those days. Maybe that's just the state of my knees? 

I wanted to ask you about one of your earlier mixes. In 1996 you did volume 11 in the Journeys By DJ compilation run. Just the year previous Coldcut had released their 70 Minutes Of Madness mix as part of the same series, which such an amazing mix and is even mentioned by people today - John Digweed did when speaking to us. Were you were aware of that mix at the time and did you feel any pressure in having to follow what they'd done?

Absolutely. When I play out in clubs now I still like that dynamic, changing records fast. Not Jeff Mills fast, but I like to keep things flowing, keep things coming in and keep things interesting. The Coldcut thing is quite disorientating because music is coming in from all over the place, which obviously fitted in a lot more with that style than how it would in a straight up house and techno thing.

But, yes, completely. I think it changed everything that Coldcut mix. It showed just what you could do, what was possible. And in terms of pressure, yes, absolutely I felt it. It was a completely different idiom, but it beared on what I was doing, no doubt. It still sounds quite crazy now that mix. 

You've maintained an interest in newly released music from many genres throughout your career. But some sections in the record store must naturally fall in and out of your peak levels of enthusiasm. Which sections of the record store have been exciting you most of late?

I get quite confused when I go into record shops. I've now started to be a bit more diligent and keep a list of things that I like. A lot of the time my mind takes me quite a while to hone in so I sometimes take just a geographical journey around the shop until something catches my eye. I haven't really answered your question because I don't really know, I just kind of drift about the place.

There's a lot of really interesting stuff being dug out and reissued from Africa. There have been all these scenes from around the world that have been hidden from our ears, apart from the real experts and aficionados, and some of that's being unearthed and issued here for the first time. There's some really dynamite stuff there and the amount of it is extraordinary. Add on top of that all the brilliant stuff that's being made daily and I think we're in a really fantastic time for music.

I don't buy into all that talk about there being too much. There's definitely a lot, you've just got to face facts, you're never going to be able to absorb everything. There's always going to be surprises - and I love that. I love that someone can throw you something from an area you think you know about and it makes you realise you're just a novice compared to some. I just find it really exciting at the moment.

Given your interest in newly released music, how do you approach putting together music when invited by a longstanding clubbing brand like The Hacienda which, in the fact that it no longer runs as a venue, seems inextricably linked to a period of music past?

Yeah. I always try and mix it up. There's a lot of new music being made which has the same flavour as that original, raw, analogue sound, so there's usually plenty of new material that you can slot in amongst older stuff. I have always played the odd classic or old record, some of them when they weren't that old! I've always liked chucking a few of those in. 

I did a Hacienda thing at the Warehouse Project a while ago and the crowd was really young, early 20s, and they were interested in hearing new and old things together. As fun as classics nights are, the whole point of electronic music was that it was always moving forward. I played a Hacienda night last week and it was probably 75% new records and people connected the dots and enjoyed themselves.

Does that process alter when you are similarly invited by other such longstanding club brands like Cream or Bugged Out, who are either more recent or ongoing, yet at which you have such long-lasting relationships that you have set a certain benchmark for yourself?

I guess I'm asking do you take into consideration what you've previously done at such nights or do you approach them afresh at each opportunity, as you would in a place you've never played before?

It depends on the occasion. Bugged Out not long ago did a birthday party where they had a lot of the longstanding DJs playing and there was an understanding that you'd chuck a few classics in and that was all good. Then I do other nights that require a newer palette, so I take each one as it comes. 

Even if you do records that are based in the past I still like to keep things fresh. There are still records that came out back then that many people haven't really heard, or haven't heard very much. And that's the weird thing about doing classics nights because my classics aren't necessarily someone else's classics.

I'm always one for refreshing things and I'm not really one for planning. I'm not very good at planning things. I pack a proverbial digital record box of things I think people might like and within that, I give myself a fair amount of room to move about.

How much time do you devote to painting and drawing compared to that which you spend on music?

I quite enjoy multitasking. If I run out of steam in one area I can usually switch my efforts to something else. Most of the new artwork is starting off as pencil drawings, so I can do that when I'm travelling or when I'm in a hotel room.

I find I have to be doing something, making something, even if it's just doodling or ideas so when I'm not making music I'm usually drawing or writing. Basically, I'm doing anything to avoid getting a real job. That's my basic intention. Ha!

So, you're a fidget? Meditation wouldn't be for you?

I find it hard to relax, let's put it that way.

What were the most difficult and the funniest interactions you had with members of the public while working at Eastern Bloc?

Haha! Occasionally people come up to me and say “I remember when you used to work in Eastern Bloc” and my first reaction is always to say I'm sorry for anything I may have said, just presuming. It was a fairly full on atmosphere working in that shop in the early 90s when the whole Madchester thing was kicking off. It was so crazy. We had a certain reputation in there. There are quite a few things I couldn't say.

I remember us all singing 'Happy Hour' when Norman Cook came in the shop once. We were threatened with firearms and got stuck in the middle of a football riot. Richard Hector Jones tells the best one about someone asking for ‘that tune they played at The Hacienda?’ ‘Which one?’, ‘They only play the one don’t they?’ came to bemused trainee ravers reply - that happened to Richard not me though! 

Have you had any similarly memorable encounters with people while DJing?

Plenty of full-scale riots. Someone asked me to look after their dog at a festival. I got pelted with cans for playing 'Whole Of The Moon' by The Waterboys. That sticks in my mind. I was asked to hand out sandwiches in a scout hut that someone had annexed for a rave, but had been less than honest with the Akela.

What have you got coming up on the horizon?

I've been concentrating on the latest art show which is called ‘The Explorer’s Chronicle’. In many ways I think I’m looking back to my childhood, where you instinctively knew that the imagination could be as much of a handy guide to reality as the pavement you inevitably fell over on. You can conjure up all manner of possible worlds just by imagining what they might be like – this is one of those possible worlds. 

The pieces are part of an imagined archive discovered on the dusty shelves of a long-dead explorer, representing sketches from a fantastical voyage of discovery. It’s about the mystery of science, the joy of exploration and the importance of the imagination

Studio work? I'm about 85% through making a new Deadstock 33s album, which includes Brix Smith from The Fall. I'm just waiting to finish a couple more vocals on that and it should be ready to roll at some stage, when the wheels of the music industry start to turn. I've always got new art on the go. I have a few pieces that need to be finished off. And I'm actually writing a novel at the moment. I don't know how long that's going to take. I'm a fair way into it, I guess.

What's it about?

It's about the price of happiness, broadly speaking. 

Which city is it set in? 

It's set in London but it's set in a different London. At one stage I probably would have described it as dystopian, but judging by the current state of the world I think it might actually be unduly optimistic. I wouldn't say it was set in the future, I'd say it was set in a parallel part of the multiverse.

Justin Robertson plays The Golden Lion in Todmorden on 26th August. Tickets are available below.

Tickets are no longer available for this event

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For ticket prices, please click here (Additional fees may apply)

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8:30pm til 1:00am (last entry 1:00am)

Minimum Age: 18

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Basin Rock presents Spencer Cullum, Bobby Lee & Tod Only Knows

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The Golden Lion, Todmorden

4th March

8:00pm til 11:00pm

Minimum Age: 18

For ticket prices, please click here (Additional fees may apply)

Basin Rock presents Spencer Cullum, Bobby Lee & Tod Only Knows DJs.

Harvey Bainbridge + Vince Corey + Sonic Trip Project

Harvey Bainbridge + Vince Corey + Sonic Trip Project

This event has been Cancelled

The Golden Lion, Todmorden

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7:00pm til 11:00pm

Minimum Age: 18

For ticket prices, please click here (Additional fees may apply)

Harvey Bainbridge, Hawkwind bass and keyboard player is joined by Vince Cory and Sonic Trip Project.