Luke Solomon Interview: The Lost Art of Getting Down

Luke Solomon spoke with Manu Ekanayake about his new Powerdance project, the pressures of the industry, going sober and the spirit of acid house.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 11th Jul 2017.
Originally published: 29th Jun 2017

When Luke Solomon says he wants to talk, you drop what you’re doing and listen. Because he’s done everything when it comes to UK house music: run a seminal mid-week club (Space at Bar Rhumba in Soho, 1995 – 2002) with his old friend and fellow UK house hero, the much-missed Kenny Hawkes; been a pirate radio mainstay on Girls FM; gone from 90s record shop worker to working at a label (Freetown).

He became a producer and international DJ before that journey became a dance music cliché; had chart success with his band project, Freaks, in the early 2000s and formed the seminal Classic Records as part of his other infamous partnership, the one with Chicago’s Derrick Carter

That, though, is just the backstory – and Solomon is not someone who likes to rest on his laurels, though well he might, with a Discogs entry that reads more like a book. To bring us up to date, when Classic faced hard times due to the digital era and a changing music economy, he found himself going back to his label roots, this time at Defected in an A&R role. 

He’s worked there for the past seven years whilst still DJing and producing, in the process re-starting Classic for a whole new era and working on all the other Defected sub-labels, plus helping re-issue classic labels like Sub-Urban, Slip ‘N’ Slide, Movin’. Most recently he’s helped Defected acquire the rights to the Nu Groove back catalogue.

So that brings us up to what he’s doing now and indeed the reason for this sit-down, which is to talk about none of the above. Instead we’re here to talk about his new musical collective, Powerdance, the self-confessed ‘Legion of Boogie Down’ who have no less an aim than to save dance music from bland, black-clad ‘serious’ dancefloors, full of people worried about looking cool and too afraid to get down.

Powerdance is doing that by bringing the funk and disco back to dance music, with an album that sounds like classics from yesteryear but with vibes so hard you know these tracks will bang in 2017. And though Powerdance is a group effort (starring Hot Chip’s Al Doyle plus Twirl’s Alinka and Shaun J. Wright, alongside Moodymanc and a handful of others), Solomon is the driving force.

Recently this UK house shot-caller became a monthly resident DJ at Savage, Sink The Pink’s weekly LGBT+ Saturday night freak-fest at Metropolis in Hackney, proving that he’s still got his finger on the pulse of the best parties in town. He spoke to Skiddle exclusively about why that party – and London’s queer scene in general – has got him feeling inspired again and looking to bring back the same feeling of abandon and inclusivity that made acid house so vital to him in the first place.     

First off Luke, how did Powerdance go from just a duo to something that involves a whole collective of people?

Well, Nick Maurer and I have been working together for 20 years; he was part of Greenskeepers on Classic originally. We started making music together and we gel – even though we've done it all remotely. The first thing we did was 'Luke Solomon and Nick Maurer present Powerdance' for Optimo Trax [released June, 2016].

I was starting to get disconcerted with the state of dance music. I've been in that place before: it's not that I wasn't inspired, not that I wasn't hearing music I loved, but the general state of straight, white dance music concerned me. What I noticed in the way people dressed and the music itself was the life was being sucked out of it. And coming from acid house, which was about enjoyment and inclusivity and flamboyance, plus spending a lot of time going to a lot of London queer clubs from a young age, I really noticed a change.

I've always had a sixth sense for when I'm either bored of a scene or I'm looking elsewhere for inspiration. And what has been very noticeable over the last four or five years has been the gay scene again becoming the place to go for escape, for movement and flamboyance, which it kind of lost for a while. That's where I heard the music that appealed to me again.

Just being around people that I felt were doing something different and new: people like Dan Beaumont have been very inspirational for lots of different reasons. The music he was making was a smaller part of it, because he's not very prolific, but more the fact that he co-owns Dalston Superstore and he'd book me and we'd do parties there. And obviously Horse Meat Disco has always been a huge inspiration.

I know what you mean and I see the difference personally. I do find I generally go out to gay venues, HMD, Dan's clubs – there's a special vibe there.

Yeah and I'm trying very hard not to be a cynical old man and say "Oh, it's not like it used to be!" I've always been one to say, "Well, let’s try and make it like that again." If I'm not happy I'm not going to go and moan about it.

I've got to a point in my career where if I don't feel comfortable in places then I just don't play them and I think that’s happened more in recent years, when I’ve gone to places and felt let down. I never signed up to be on stage under the scrutiny of a camera and watched and complained at if I don’t smile. That's not what my job is!

For me to be somewhere that people don't care where the DJ is became less and less of a regular thing. That’s why my residency at Savage is something I requested: I played there and I thought, "This is what I need!" No one gives a shit where the DJ is, there's just dancing and watching someone fall up and down a pole and there's people dressing up, there’s weirdos and there's people who shouldn't be there as well as people who should be here. It’s just amazing.

Savage and places like it lead directly to us making a record called 'A Safe And Happy Place'. It’s about a place you can let go and not care what people think. That's half the problem now, everyone's under constant scrutiny. I think that's half of the problem with DJs and performers: they're so terrified of someone observing them and posting a video on YouTube or Facebook. The minute you make a mistake there’s a million people ready to tear you apart. That doesn’t help with the mental and physical pressures of being in this industry, which I’ve seen a lot of over the years I’ve been doing this.

Losing Kenny [Hawkes] was a perfect example, Heiko MSO recently, Trevino the other day, DJ Ali a month ago... Playhouse was part a Classic so Heiko and I were very close. I know you hear stories that people go off the rails then sort themselves out, but you always know that underneath this lifestyle and all the choices we make there is a price that we pay.

I have been very close on a number of occasions of going over the line, whether it be near death experiences, whether it be severe depression, or seeing Kenny die from liver disease brought on by his alcoholism, I've witnessed so many of those things personally. A lot over a long period of time, so many times - hence I stopped drinking four and a half years ago, so I could do something with my life to make sure I was not one of those people. People always say 'I can't believe this is happening in our scene' but I'm sure it's no different on the rock circuit. The pressures are the same.

Something I realised after I gave up everything was that I had all those things in me anyway. I realised that I probably suffered from depression from a very young age. A bit of my backstory is that I lost my mum at a very young age, at one and a half. And I think even though I was too young to remember her, it was always a part of my life because of my dad. My mum was 24, my dad was 23 and my grandparents looked after me and it had a huge impact on everyone because she was so loved.

So that meant that mortality was always a part of my life. So I was terrified of planes, terrified of any kind of death. I think I managed to blank a lot of that out as I was part of the rave generation and I filled my life with drugs and drinking and it wasn't until I stopped all those things that I realised I had all that stuff anyway and it was a crutch or an escape.

I mean I've been in NA when I was 17, 18 when I fell really badly into drugs when a lot of my friends when to university when I lived in Weston Super Mare and I did a lot of things I'm not proud of. My wife really changed a lot of things in my life...

I presume the NA came after you got into heroin, which you’ve spoken about before?

Yeah that was at 17 and 18 when I was still in Weston. But I was never a full-fledged junkie, I think I was just very lost and I needed some help and it was a cry for help by needing to be in a gang of people. In retrospect, was it something I needed to do? Probably not. Have I got an addictive personality? Yes! Could I have ever been a proper junkie? Probably, yeah.

But now in hindsight, after four and a half years of being sober and not because I had to be, but it was just as I was bored of feeling anxious, feeling hungover, being the old guy at the party, which just doesn't look good [laughs]! I need to take my job seriously, I have kids, I have a wife who has put up with me for a long time and is very tolerant. And I lost a very close friend in Kenny so I thought 'You know what, fuck this. I'm done.' Everyone looks at me and says 'Are you really done?' and I am. I have no desire to feel like that anymore.

But inadvertently I have in this period been the most creative and the most able that I have ever been in my life. From DJing to everything else. It's almost like this whole time was like a learning period of being a drunken idiot that managed to DJ and sustain a career to thinking that this is actually a job that I can do. I don't know how to do anything else.

I've had my ups and massive downs for sure, when you think it's going to last forever and it doesn't and the gigs start to dry up - that's why I started at Defected, it was needs must - but now I'm so happy I did it. But I couldn't sustain my career through DJing as I wasn't making enough money. Fortunately my wife has helped a lot as she has a very good job, but I have been lucky to hang in there. Sorry we were talking about Savage...

It’s no problem at all, what you’ve said is fascinating. But I wanted to ask you about Savage because of your regular involvement as a monthly resident. Is that where you shot the video for ‘ A Safe & Happy Place’, the album opener?

Yeah, it is. We shot it at Metropolis, Savage's venue in Hackney. The idea was to have something that was mad, hedonistic and partially androgynous – all the things that we were about. It's flattering that I, being a straight white man, have been accepted into this world with open arms. And I think that would go for any straight, white, male or female, going to a club like Savage and feeling safe and happy to be yourself. Not feeling that there were so many eyes on you.

As a DJ I felt the same way; I wasn’t under the spotlight anymore. It felt like I could pour out my heart and soul behind the decks with no one staring at me, everyone is dancing and that's EXACTLY why I got into this in the first place.

So can we just go through all the members of Powerdance?

Well, I’ll read from the list on the back of the album as there’s so many. First there's myself and Nick, of course. Then there’s Lance Desardi, whom I've known a long time, a producer from Dallas who used to make records for Classic back in the day and then moved to the UK. He's an incredible mixer so he's done a lot of the post-production work, mastering, mixing, all those things. His involvement has been intrinsic to the whole thing really.

There's Al Doyle from Hot Chip, which came from Joe Godard saying "Oh, Al will play bass for you." and I was like, "Really?" as I knew of his work with LCD Soundsystem too and he was an absolute gem. I sent him some music, he loved it and that exchange fuelled a great new working relationship.

Next up is James Duncan, a horn player who's a producer in his own right and who's Canadian, but lives in New York. People will know of him - and this is amazing for me as it was a huge turning point in dance music – he played horns on the Morgan Geist remix of 'The Rapture', which was a landmark record as this was when things started changing into that LCD, rock....

That punk-funk thing?

Yeah, exactly. Martin Radford’s on strings, whom I've made records with for years. He's been on all my solo albums, pretty much. He's a really accomplished string player so we do a lot of composing together and Jonny Rock from Freaks played guitar. He's part of the family which just goes without saying.

Shaun J. Wright and Alinka Ratner from Twirl – Alinka had never really done vocals but she does a lot of the spoken word and she's got that kind of 'Wordy Rappinghood' Tom Tom Cub thing going on. There’s Terry Grant, whom I worked with on my last album, who's a singer and ridiculously accomplished musician from Nashville. He's got a kind of Bowie-esque voice, very low and husky and features quite a lot. Plus Danny Ward aka Moodymanc on drums, percussion, everything. We have a great relationship.

Danny's a jazz drummer, right? 

Yeah, he’s a fantastically talented musician.  Sam Lynam, who was in a band called Gramme, she sang with me on 'Stop The Riot' and she features on the album. I have Amy Douglas, who sang with Juan Maclean and she recently did something with a guy called Michael The Lion and she's actually doing a lot of co-writing with me on the Horse Meat Disco album I'm currently co-producing with Lance.

Mikey V is part of the old school Chicago scene and features on many classic Chicago records. Fi McClauskey works with Josh Caffe; she's actually in the video for 'Safe And Happy Place' and she did a lot of the backing vocals there. I think that's everyone.  The fact there’s so many people plays into the reason for starting Powerdance, which was I felt the sense of community in dance music had diminished completely and everyone was just looking out for themselves.

The whole idea of Powerdance is to bring everything back to a collective with everyone trying to help the scene, instead of just saying "I'm famous now, I'm starting a record label. Bye." A lot of that was happening all the time and I just felt like it wasn’t right.

You’ve complained about that lack of loyalty in other interviews over the years. Did you feel like dance music was going from ‘this thing of ours’ to ‘this thing of mine’ in a lot of cases?

Absolutely, I did. The acid house community and hugging people in a field and becoming lifelong friends and all that, turned into this. It's got worse; it's got to a point where it's so fucking serious, from the outfits to the videos to the people preparing sushi online before their gigs. ‘This is the aeroplane I'm travelling in, this is the dinner I paid £200 for, this is the black t-shirt that cost £800, these are my hands in the air, these are all the people looking at me’.

I look at them, ‘heart hands’ and all that stuff and I just fucking hate it. But the last thing I wanted to do was become bitter about it and the only way not to was to flip everything and do the opposite. Dance music now is almost looking to its elders, to its elder statesman, who are the people who have been living this life for years and can use all the information that they've gathered to make everything ok again. That's just how it goes – sometimes you have to look back to look forward, I think that's what Powerdance is all about. 

I get the idea that you're going for a classic feel with a modern take: the use of vocals, the lush productions, the disco feel. I can see it and I think other people will too.

I'm trying to make the tracks feel a bit more of 'now' but that's more sonically – they're heavy, there's a lot of bass going on, which was missing on a lot of early disco productions. There are elements of new instrumentation, like machines that didn't exist back then, which add that acid house thing to it.

It kind of feels infectious and like the kind of party anyone would want to attend. That's always the point, right?

Yeah, that’s kind of the whole point. 

I think recently there’s been a feeling that we're looking back to look forward to the foundations of house to build on it...

And disco as well. I think we're in a Rare Groove scenario at the moment, like in the 80s when, before acid house exploded, I was going to a lot of clubs that were playing old records but then they're throw in something new and it was would be a real 'Oh shit!' moment and that was always the one for me.

I mean I see this disco movement that's going on and I play a lot of old records and I'm very conscious of that, but it's always about pushing music forward. That was the thing with Powerdance, 'If I can get these records played in some of those situations by people that generally play old records, then that's a goal.' And that's a lot of what's been happening with the record. I'm not saying that we are that light, but I think we're part of that which will change dance music and move it forward.

The Powerdance album The Lost Art of Getting Down is available now.

You can catch Luke Solomon at Defected Croatia which runs from Thursday 10th - Tuesday 15th August 2017 in Tisno.

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