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Mark Knight interview: Substance over style

Toolroom leader Mark Knight spoke to Mark Dale about the launch of his career, the lack of anthems in the scene and assisting artists through his label.

Becca Frankland

Date published: 11th May 2016

For a DJ who operates truly within the top ranks of the profession, Mark Knight is neither the most diplomatic nor the most self-regarding of guys. He is honest and sometimes outspoken in his views and honest about the learning process that has shaped the direction of his main concern, the decade old, hugely respected Toolroom Rec.s label.

Talking to Mark Knight you get a sense of why this unwavering frankness is so clearly and wilfully expressed. Mark Knight really cares about what he does. He cares about music, about the scene he's involved in, critical of its shortcomings and ever aspiring to do better and contribute more himself. You can hear this care in his extremely well produced music and in the choice of material he releases, the attention to detail and quality control positioning Toolroom as a consistent and much loved provider of premier league underground house music.

Beginning his house music production career operating with the vocal house arena, Mark got his big break as a DJ earning a residency at London's Ministry Of Sound club. Progressing from his earliest productions his music evolved into a deeper, more tech-inspired and more club-orientated sound that began to become favoured just over a decade ago. Founded in 2004, Toolroom Records, along with Mark's own productions, were at the vanguard of this movement. 

Since that time Toolroom has had over 100 releases, championed many new artists and is one of the best selling labels on digital download sites like Beatport. Mark himself has made many club classics including his remake of Laurent Garnier's 'Man With The Red Face', worked alongside high profile names like Faithless and Underworld and remixed the likes of Basement Jaxx, Louie Vega and Lil Louis.

Mark DJs across the globe, not least at his label's own Toolroom Knights and Toolroom Live parties (watch above) which hold residencies in some of the world's most impressive club spaces. He also runs a Toolroom sublabel Toolroom Trax and has in recent years added a management company, Engine Room, to his businesses in order to further develop Toolroom artists.

In this frank, forthright and at times self depreciating interview, prior to his appearance at Manchester's Gorilla, we discuss with Mark Knight the scene as it stands, Toolroom Records and his career to date. 

Hi Mark! How you doing? I'm just going to turn my camera off because it sometimes makes the call quality a bit better.

Hi! We've got our camera turned off here because we're all naked. We're good thanks.

If that's what goes on at Toolroom Rec.s board meetings the less I know the better.

It helps with morale.

Would it be fair to say that when you started off you were leaning more towards a disco influenced, funky style of house music than in later years? 

Without a shadow of a doubt. I very much come from a soulful background. If you go right back to the beginning I was never really into house music. I didn't get house in the early 90s, before 1994/1995. For want of a better word it was too 'white' sounding for me, too straight.

I was coming from a funk and hip hop background and I didn't understand it. Then I discovered soulful house (and drugs) and the combination of the two changed my perspective on house music and I fell in love with it. But I was definitely coming from that angle and I think it very much underpins everything I do.

Even if I'm making more of a techno record I'd like to think it still has soulful influences. One thing with making music is that it must come from the heart. Hopefully that does translate in my music. My earliest releases were on soulful labels like Z Records so, yeah, that would be very true to say.

Can you explain how the transition to a more techier sound occurred? 

Good question. Even when I liked the more soulful house I always preferred the dubbier, dynamic records, things that had a bit more energy. That was the thing that kind of connected with me more and I suppose, as with anything, you kind of evolve as you become more engrossed in a genre of music. You decipher what part of it you really like. I always liked the fusion.

Going back to soulful music, the 80s for me were absolutely stand out, when soul collided with electronics. When people like Jam & Lewis were using drum machines, sequencers and synths, combining that with soul that, for me, pushed all the right buttons. I suppose that was its earliest incarnation and what I try to do now is, I suppose, a version of that. That edgey, electronic thing with soulful roots.

I suppose it was just a natural progression in my own tastes, I wouldn't say there was one defining moment that changed things, it was just that I evolved as an artist. 

Thinking back to that era of soulful dance music, when you'd get, say, a vocal on the A side of a Masters At Work or Mood II Swing record and then a fierce electronic dub on the other side, do you think that's an era that's passed?

Do you know what? I think it's going to come back. It's so cyclical, the whole scene. Trends come and go in cycles and I think that's really missing now. That's my kind of manifesto for the rest of the year, to go back to writing vocals, soulful vocal records with enough attitude and dynamic in the production. Not lowest common denominator, enough sophistication that they stand out.

This scene is lacking in anthems. When was the last time you heard a really big vocal anthem? What has been the big anthem of the last few years? I couldn't think of one. Off the top of my head I genuinely couldn't and I think we're missing that. I think we're going to go back to that and I'm definitely going to champion that because you can never beat a song. That's if you do it right way. That's the trick, doing it in the right way.

In many elements of dance music we've dumbed it down ridiculously. If you look at so called deep house and some of the techier stuff, especially stuff from the UK, it's so under produced, under cooked, I struggle with it. It sounds half finished. So, I think there's a way of moving the scene on and going back to something like that. Hopefully that's the way it's going to go. 

Let me read you part of a biography someone wrote about you. “Pushing new boundaries and blending the lines between DJ and producer, Mark’s consistent stream of stellar tracks set a precedent that meant DJ dinosaurs had to shape up – DJs who don’t produce their own music have become extinct!” How do you feel about that statement? Would you agree that DJs who don't produce have become extinct?

I don't think they have actually. It's a shame, in this day and age, in all types of music, hype, that whole intangible element, has superseded product. You've got a lot of DJs now who are not making any records, not putting anything back into the scene, but who have a whole load of hype and are just turning up and earning a shitload of money.

In this day and age you should be an artist and your set should be reflecting, representative of what you can do as an artist. I like to think we've moved on from those days of turning up and just playing other people's records but I think that we've regressed in some ways, in that some people at the top of the tree aren't putting anything back. Some of the bigger DJs aren't doing anything musically to support the scene.

There are a lot of producers making the big guys look good and getting little or no credit. So, I think there needs to be more of an amalgamation of being a great producer and a good DJ. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great producers who are shit DJs. Just because you can do one it doesn't mean you naturally inherit the skills to do the other. But there's not enough people doing both and it's a shame because that would make a more accomplished scene, I think.

I'm not sure whether I 100% agree with that. If I think back to the history of dance music, Motown, some of the disco labels like Salsoul, Masters At Work and Mood II Swing, who we mentioned, these people who produced the great vocal anthems that are now missing would employ musicians, songwriters, arrangers, all these people with different talents contributing to the creation of a song.

But with the way the industry has gone, where we expect a DJ to also be a producer (not to mention manage all his social media platforms!) it is, like you say, a dumbing down. Perhaps that's the reason, that without a collaborative effort, we're not getting these songs any more. What do you think?

I think what we've lost is the definition of the word producer. Like you say, when Quincey Jones goes in the studio he doesn't say, "Right, I'll just do my social media posts, then fire up the computer, start recording the vocals." Of course he wouldn't. He would be a producer in his own right. He would source all the right people to create a product. That is the art of production.

What's happened is that's become dissolved. A producer now is supposed to be able to engineer, mix down, do vocal arrangements, when before they were all different people's jobs. When there was enough money in music to support that you could do that, because financially there was a way to make it work. But as money in music has scaled down to a point where we're at 0.004p a stream, the lowest ever, that has had to turn into one job. 

But there's nothing wrong in knowing your limitations as a producer, to be able to say, I know where I want to get to and I need this person, this person and this person to do that. I play keyboards very badly, but if I want complex chords on a record I'll get a keyboard player in. I know the chord structure I'm after, so I'll sing it and I'll get him to play it. That doesn't make me less of a producer, it just means I understand my limitations.

But there's not enough people doing that. They're just sitting back and touring and I think that's a shame because it's created a divide. People who are producing this music for the scene are not being able to break through into the top tier of DJing in order to reap the rewards for doing so. There are not enough people who straddle both worlds than I think there should be.

I agree with that, but I also think that they're two independent skills, producing records and being a DJ. I just wish there was a way that media and the wider scene could recognise them as such rather than forever wanting to lump the two jobs together.

You're right that they're two completely different skill sets and just by doing one doesn't qualify you to be good at the other. I think what niggles me is that there's so much hype. It's all hype. What's going to be their legacy, apart from great PR?

That's why we're missing all these things like anthems. That element, the PR and social media, has superseded the product. What does that do for the scene? You can go back in most years in dance music and pick out an anthem from the year. Could we say that of the last couple of years? 

Speaking of anthems, what was it about the 'Man With The Red Face' track that made you want to remake it?

I jut thought it had all the right ingredients in the wrong order. All the parts were fantastic, but it was never produced as a club record when it had so much potential to be a club record. 

It was fairly straight forward, really. We banged it out in one night, the night before the Winter Music Conference one year. Adam was getting an earlier flight, so I stayed up all night finishing it off and sent it to him because he had a gig before me. He got back to me and said, "Shit, this really, really works." I got there the next day and played it at the Beatport party and the rest was history. It had all the right ingredients, it just looked like you'd baked a cake in the toaster. It was just screaming to be done.

Did you personally get any feedback from Laurent about your version?

Yeah, he loved it. Initially it was just done as a bootleg to play out, to play at the conference. And it just grew legs. Before we even got into clearances and publishing we asked Laurent if he was cool with it and he said, "I love it! Do it!" If he would've said no then it would have stopped there and then. It was only done because he loved it and he still plays it to this day. So something about it must've been right.

Of all the artists Toolroom has given exposure to, which ones are you most proud of assisting in their careers?

There's lots. There's lots that have come and gone through. As a business, probably one of the places we went wrong although, again, the landscape in music has changed, was that we were more interested in just being the record label. In hindsight we should have done something different.

For example, Dave Spoon, we found him through a demo in the post. I thought, what a brilliant name, Dave Spoon. But the music was brilliant too and the rest is history. I think Si's story has such an incredible fairytale story to it, literally just from a demo, I think that's pretty inspiring.

Look at people like Richard Dinsdale, who went through one successful incarnation as an act, as Richard Dinsdale, went away and we relaunched him as Weiss and now he's having a second bite of the cherry being as successful, if not more successful than before. 

There are other people like Adrian Hour, who again we found in a very organic way, through records on a very low level label and we thought, "Yes, this kid's got it." Now we've got a management company and we're really embracing all the different facets of what we can do for the careers of people like that, honing it into a strategy.

Right now he's probably who I'm most excited, because, going back to our earlier conversation, I think he ticks all the boxes. He has that X factor. He's a great DJ, he's a brilliant producer, he does everything himself, he understands the social element of it, he's good looking lad. So, I think he's going to be a future superstar. I'm probably most excited about him in terms of his long term potential. 

If he's young and good looking I imagine he's really going to brighten up the naked boardroom meetings at Toolroom. 

Absolutely. And that's one of the reasons we're backing him, because he looks good in the nude ahahahaha.

Ha! Going back a bit further, how did you get your big break, the residency at Ministry Of Sound? 

It just came through years of chipping away, really. The Old Trafford gig for me was always playing Ministry. The first time I played there it went really well and they said, "We should talk." They could see where my career and the label was going and around that time they were looking to find new residents and it ended up being me and Steve Angello.

Steve obviously left to do other things and I stayed there for many years and I absolutely loved it. It put me on a platform playing alongside all those world class artists. I learned loads, how to work a room, how to start off, how to finish it. It was invaluable. I suppose it was right place, right time, but I'd always been nibbling at it, asking if they could give me a break, if I could come and play.

Can you describe the difference in the way you felt before a gig in your early appearances there compared to how you feel when you return to play there these days?

Less tired! [Laughs] No, I still love it. I've never had nerves, I've never really suffered from that at all, so it's not like a case of I've got more used to it. I've always been quite confident in what I've wanted to do and I think a lot of that is in the preparation. I think if you're prepared you're never nervous. I'm still excited by it as ever.

You have collaborated with a lot of people. If time and scheduling were not a concern, which of your former collaborators would you like to go immediately back in the studio with?

Well, I'm working with D Ramirez on an album. We have been for the last four or five years, so this year we're really ramping up our focus on that. The same guys who manage The Prodigy are now managing us. It'll be a very different theme. I've always wanted to do something that I could perform in a live context, more like a band and it's a bit more left of centre. So, I love working with him.

But I think the person I had the most synergy with was Martijn Ten Velden. I would say those were the years I enjoyed most making music, just because the synergy we had in the studio.

We were always one step ahead of each other, we would always we saying, "Oh, I was just going to do that!" And we come from exactly the same musical background, we were exactly the same age and we had no legacy previously, so nothing to maintain. So, there were no rules, we could just think, "Fuck it, let's make this record, let's do it."

It's a lot easier to make records in that kind of scenario, when you're not thinking will it be a Beatport Top 10, will so-and-so play it? Having that attitude is so nice and I think it's reflected in the end product, so I think if I could ever go back and revisit a partnership I think it would be that, the most amazing three or four years ever.

Every day I'd be tingling, I couldn't wait to get in the studio. It was pretty intense, I think one year we did 23 or 24 remixes in a year, which burned us out, but we did it because we were so skint. We didn't have anything left for our own productions because we gave it to everyone else, but we had to because we were so broke. But it was a brilliant time and I'd love to go back and work with him again.

How will Toolroom Live Ibiza differ from what else is happening on Ibiza this summer?

I suppose musically we're quite niche with what we do, our positioning in the scene. That is the main difference between us and any other night. We stand for a very specific thing within the musical spectrum. There's not enough of those sorts of nights on the island, it's very polarised. You've got either EDM or techno and fuck all in the middle. So I think that's where we'll stand out. We are the bit that's credible but still fun. 

Has the cost of clubbing in Ibiza priced some kids out of the party who should have a place there?

Absolutely. By a long way. It's ridiculous. I was playing somewhere a year before last and I got there early, I was playing the first set and I was waiting for the drinks tokens to turn up and I thought, "Fuck it, I'll buy 4 beers." 40 Euros! I couldn't believe it! I'm in quite a fortunate position with what I do, but 40 Euros for four beers is just insane. And totally wrong. It's totally against the idea of what Ibiza was about.

The first time I ever went was in 1988 and, apart from a bit of a gap, I've been every year since. That kind of utopian approach of what it was has been long lost and a lot of people have been priced out, which is inherently wrong. 

You've been playing some really impressive looking clubs recently. Is it inevitable that in a successful DJ's upward trajectory the dark, dirty, intimate basement club venues get left behind?

Hopefully not. Unfortunately it does to a degree. It's a case of balancing everything in terms of your lifestyle and what your aspirations are. As much as we do it because we love it there is a business element to it as well. It's about maintaining enough to satisfy your soul but balancing that out to validate being away from your family three weekends every month.

Unfortunately, to a degree, it does boil down to that. Can you afford to do those, because they are small and they don't pay a lot of money? If you're going to be away from your family for a period of time and fly across the world to do it, does it stack up? I wish I could give you a more artistically minded answer, but quite often it does come down to how many of those sorts of gig per month can I afford to do based on the structure I have in my business.

But I would never just shut the door and take bookings just for financial gain because you have to satisfy your soul continually, that's what you got into it for.

Mark Knight plays at Gorilla on Saturday 14th May. Tickets are available from the box below.

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