Mark Dale caught up with Luke Unabomber to talk about Electric Chair's history in Manchester, his relationship with the city itself and the club scene ahead of this year's End Of Year Riot.
Last updated: 4th Dec 2015. Originally published: 3rd Dec 2015
Image: Luke Unabomber (left) and Justin Unabomber (right)
Luke Unabomber and DJ partner Justin Unabomber founded the Electric Chair club night in Manchester some time after the middle half of the 1990s. The night was, in part, a reaction to the strict house music sound that had dominated Manchester's clubs since the late 1980s, but had veered off course musically since the spirited days of acid house and was burdened with associations to gang violence.
Electric Chair ripped up the rule book. It wasn't the first club night to offer an eclectic soundtrack, but alongside Manchester contributors like Mr Scruff, the Fat City connected nights and others, Electric Chair helped establish a fresh, new Manchester club sound that was at the time unique within the UK.
As resident DJs, The Unabombers had their own special way of building a night's soundtrack with this multi music format. It took in hip hop and other breakbeat music and generally built in tempo to cover funk, soul, disco and house music.
With such a free music policy they were able to invite incredibly varied guest DJs to join them, some known as specialists in reggae or hip hop, others for techno, house or disco. They, in turn, could sometimes offer at Electric Chair a wildly different set from their usual shows, let loose on the furthest reaches of their record collections thanks to the club's anything (good) goes music policy.
An incredibly social and, it has to be said, hedonistic affair, Electric Chair began it's life, like so many great Manchester club nights, in the basement of Newton Street's The Roadhouse venue before its popularity forced it to seek much larger environs and it settled in The Music Box on Oxford Road.
The energy and enthusiasm of its audiences were often beyond compare in both venue settings, more akin to an ecstatic football terrace or tops off techno event than any refined nightclub experience. Clubbing elsewhere could often look sedate in comparison. Its monthly editions were often referred to as riots.
From Electric Chair the duo expanded their portfolio. They took on international DJ dates and founded a clandestine, sporadic and nomadic sister party the Electric Soul events. Luke joined Justin, who had long been associated with music making as a bass player (most notably in New Fast Automatic Daffodils) and later as solo artist Only Child, in the studio.
The fruits of their studio efforts were a series of re-edits on their own label, several well received mix compilations and original music produced under the Elektrons guise, the latter being released by Wall Of Sound (below).
Luke went on to co-found the poly-sexual themed Homoelectric club night which, again, broke the clubbing rules with its defiant ignorance of the entrenched gay club etiquette and music policies of the time. The night continues successfully to this day.
Electric Chair ended in 2008 and since that time The Unabombers have been silent too on the music production front. They ran an Electric Chair inspired annual music festival in Croatia, Electric Elephant, but concentrated most of their energies on their popular cafe bar Electrik in Chorlton and their restaurant bar Volta in West Didsbury.
However the duo reconvene the Electric Chair faithful once a year at the New Year debunking End Of Year Riot party which traditionally occurs on 27 December. We caught up with Luke Unabomber before this year's event, which marks the 20 anniversary of Electric Chair, to talk about the good old days and the then and the now of Manchester.
What does your average day entail these days?
Well, the first thing I do is listen to music and the last thing I do is listen to music so, in that sense, absolutely nothing's changed. There are less gigs these days and we're both more focussed on Electrick and Volta, the hospitality, food and the booze end of things.
DJing, production and festivals are less important than what they were to us, but music is still 100% in the life. I probably buy more records now than I did five years ago.
Your DJ, business and music production partner Justin did his solo project Only Child at the same time you were producing as The Unabombers and Elektrons.
He also has a long history in Manchester music making before that, with New Fast Automatic Daffodils and others, so I imagined him being the least likely of the two of you to drop out of music production. Does he have plans to make any more music solo or with you?
Well, in a sense we haven't dropped out. We still DJ. But the production side has been put on the back burner, short term. When that returns is just dependent on the direction of the ocean.
There's nothing set in stone, we're not sure. But it's in the blood. It's bizarre at the moment, (because) one of the Elektrons tunes, Get Up, is all over the TV, it's a Google advert. I was watching X Factor the other night and it came on.
Electric Chair used to be once a month and now you do the Riot just once a year, so obviously you put the line up of guests together in a different way. What informs your decision on who to invite to play such an event?
Nothing's really changed in that Moggsy, Justin and myself will haggle which guests to have on. We now have the addition of Chris Massey who is also part of that process.
I guess this year is slightly different because it's the 20th anniversary, so we've probably focussed more on some of the heroes that have played in the club in the past. This year it's more retrospective, whereas previously we would've had people like Move D on so it wasn't just a celebration of the past, it was new music as well.
20 years is a long time in the life of a club night...
Yeah. It's a funny one. I remember me and Justin saying when we ended it, we'll know when it's done. We were always aware of that. Eddy from Garden Festival came up with this wonderful phrase, velvet handcuffs.
When something becomes like velvet handcuffs, it's comfortable, you're doing well, but it's limiting you from moving forward, you know it's time to move on. When we went out to Croatia that year, 2008 or whenever it was, me and Justin just took the decision that was the end. It was perfect timing because we took the spirit, the vibe and the music to Croatia and did Electric Elephant.
So, from Electric Chair you moved on to Electric Elephant. Now you've moved on from Electric Elephant. To what?
What next? It's a good question. I don't know. If you'd have asked me 10 years ago I wouldn't have said we'd be doing an annual festival for over 1,500 people in Croatia or that we'd be serving monkfish on small plates in West Didsbury. So, I don't know where we're going to be.
Mine and Justin's relationship has been there 20 years and I think it's highly unusual to have one that goes on that long, through music and that goes on to invent itself in other areas. But where next? You'd have to ask me in another 5 years. I really don't know.
As long as we're being creative, that's the heart of it and hopefully that'll keep us moving forward. I'm 49 now and Justin's 50, although he looks 20 years younger than me. But, then again, I deserve this face with what I've done. You just want to keep moving.
A new generation's come through now in clubbing and in music, it's not a game for 50 year old men. You've got to move on. It's not Tweed jacket and slippers, but I've got a dog, I've got a garage and I like walking. Music's still a big part of my life, so hopefully that'll still be there in whatever plans we make.
You mentioned expectations there. Did you ever expect to still be in Manchester this long when you initially moved over from Sheffield?
No. I think it was very different then, when you went to college. You moved to a city, fell in love with it and you stayed. They're only 40 minutes apart so I still see a lot of Sheffield. I've been in Manchester just under 30 years, it's my home.
I love Sheffield, but this is home. They are very similar, same culture, same music, same sense of humour, so it always felt like home. Before you know it, it's 2015, wow. 30 years later all of a sudden. So, no.
Are the things that made you fall in love with Manchester still present in the city? Do you still appreciate those things?
Yeah, 100%. A certain amount of conservatism happens to people in their forties, the world can become very Northern soul. You end up with your own set of rules, your own music, your own confines and you never go beyond that. But if you look beyond those confines, those things are still there.
I was in Hidden the other week and it's absolutely remarkable. It's almost the best space I've seen in Manchester. Young, up and coming lads who are running it, totally underground in the way they wanna do stuff. Musically it's fantastic.
I was in the Carlton Club in Chorlton the other week too. And that was full of people around 45 years of age, but it was fantastic. It had a real neighbourhood vibe, Steve Cobby from Fila Brazilia was on. Two very different things. I think in Manchester you've really got to make an effort and seek it out.
I think the underground was more definable 20 years ago, it was in one place and everyone knew each other. Now I think you've maybe got to look a little bit harder. You change too, of course. Like your taste buds change. I still go out, but not as often as I used to. Manchester goes through cycles, but I think that dynamic will always be there.
I went to Hidden a couple of weeks back too. It's the best place I've been to in Manchester in a long time. I really appreciated that you had to go out of the city centre to get to it. It's a real destination venue, so you don't really get any of that passing trade element.
Yeah. You know, I think the world is maybe more cynical now. Things quickly become assimilated into the mainstream and so for them to have done what they've done, in such an environment is even more remarkable.
It's beneath the tower of Strangeways, down some bizarre backstreet and yet they're still keeping the whole thing moving forward. That's tough. They're not gonna make a lot of money, it's extremely hard for them. But it's the exciting bit of Manchester, for me.
Do you think Hidden's appearance might signify the end of the Northern Quarter as the underground clubbing area du jour?
Well, I've been in the city 30 years and I've seen lots of different areas change, the gay village, the Cornerhouse area, the Northern Quarter, where I lived for 23 years. Inevitably things change. Rather than badmouth it, I think it's just the inevitable process.
I think Salford, Cheetham Hill, Lower Broughton, all around there, there's a lot of stuff happening, a lot of the bars there, some clubs, breweries, recording studios. It's inevitable that some areas will have success and, before you know it, there are gangs of lads on stag dos, with 100g protein tupperware boxes and big eyebrows all shaped and it's gone.
You have to go with it. I think where Hidden is, Lower Broughton, where Islington Mill is, it's an old seed that's now been replanted.
Even though I really enjoyed Hidden, I remember going to Electric Chair and places like Bugged Out when it was at Sankeys and the crowd was absolutely raging with energy, in a way that I never saw in London clubs at that time or in a way that I rarely see in any clubs these days. Do you think that energy is still around and if not, why not?
Well, it's a good question. It's such a subjective thing, because when you feel that whole effervescence and energy of a moment in time, when you're part of it, I don't think you're as aware of it going on in other places because you're not part of it.
It's a hard one. A tough question. Have I seen it since? Less so. I have seen it in other places. I think it was acid house. There are certain moments that unite clans which just happen by synchronicity. The big commercialisation that's been happening in the last 10 years, there is a reaction against that.
It's the antithesis of what's happened to dance culture going in such a mainstream way, people naturally react against that. There are cycles, again, where that kind of naivety, that wild idealism will come back.
I think it happens, it just maybe happens sporadically, in much smaller clubs and little scenes. At what point that becomes unified into a much larger movement again? Who knows. It probably will happen, it's just a war of attrition at the moment, just waiting to rear its head.
What tracks have you got in your head that you're looking forward to playing at the End Of Year Riot?
Well, it's a bit different this one. Because it's 20 years there's a lot of retrospective stuff. We play a lot of classics anyway, so there'll be a lot of things that built the club. Going through the record collection, stripping it down, rediscovering tunes.
I've just been listening to Space Disco by Only Child having not played it for 10 years. So there'll be a lot of tunes like that, plus some b sides maybe, the ones that have got away. Of course pulling in the likes of Greg Wilson, Prosumer, Jazzanova, Kabal, I think there'll be a real balance of music, new and old.
Is there anything new in terms of records, producers you've been finding exciting that you hope you'll have time to fit in?
House music still excites me. Prosumer's remix of Purdie (above) is still a big track for me. I've been enjoying new stuff by Tornado Wallace, Roman Flugel, Hunee, Max Graef, Rahaan, Mark E DJ Nature, Gene Hunt, Ruf Dug, Andres, Floating Points and Daphni recently, so I hope there'll be time for some of that, although I anticipate two thirds of our set will be older stuff.
The crowd that will make up the End Of Year Riot audience, you'll have old heads, who've been many times before, coming for a social evening, then you'll also have some who've heard about Electric Chair but who were too young to go at the time. Is it possible to cater for, satisfy both those crowds?
Definitely. That Henrik Schwarz track 'Chicago', that we always used to play at the club, I played it in a club the other month where nobody was over the age of 23 and everyone went mad to it. I think great records, trite as it sounds, still sound timeless, wonderful.
Is there anything you particularly miss from living in the city centre?
Well yeah, it was an amazing time. There was a big community of people, DJs, producers, all sorts of crazy characters all dragged together and lived together. But, for me, it all got a bit Truman Show and it was time to get a dog and get out.
But I miss it totally, yes. And I miss the Chair for that as well, it was a great social event, even outside the music. It was a great time to meet up with people, stay out drinking until Monday and I miss that as well.
You say Truman Show. Manchester's actually a really small place, Chorlton's even smaller. It must have got a bit wearing sometimes, not to have been able to walk around the city centre, where you lived or Chorlton, without being stopped and being expected to be the life and soul?
It was full on, 30 years of effervescence, it was definitely time to go off piste. I do miss it, but I also don't miss it. There's only so much energy you can have. Sometimes it's good to change your flow.
A lot of people who feel that they are living in a bit of a goldfish bowl in Manchester, they go to London. It's a great city in which you can feel anonymous. Yet neither you or Justin did that, even at the height of Electric Chair or your production careers.
No. I've always been comfortable here. I love London, but I also find it too big, too anonymous. I like my friendships, my roots, all my family's in the north.
Manchester, like Sheffield or any northern town, it's easy to get down on it, because life can be tough and people can move on to the bigger, brighter lights of Berlin, London or wherever and I totally get that. To master staying somewhere like this you have to keep your head straight, keep healthy and move on.
Of course one time you did end up regularly going to London, and you still do, is with Homoelectric, which is still a going concern in both London and Manchester.
Yeah. I think it's 18 years old itself now. It's come and gone and had lots of different moments, lots of cycles, different clubs and lots of different energies running through it. Now at Antwerp Mansion and Hidden the average age is 24/25. The old crowd from 1997 have pretty much all gone.
We've always done it when we've found the right space. Antwerp Mansion's not everyone's cup of tea, but I love it because it's still got that energy from Legends, it's got a rough and ready, old school squat vibe to it. That's what we always wanted, to have somewhere where we could concentrate on the music and hide away from the world for the night.
Antwerp Mansion's done that for us and we'll be having a flirtation with Hidden in January to see how that goes. We do a few events a year in London, there's no formula to it, it just happens. Jamie Bull and Will Tramp are the two strong residents there now, some of the crowd are so young they could never have come to legends, the conveyor belt moves on.