Sean Johnston interview: A Love From Outer Space

One half of A Love From Outer Space, Sean Johnston, catches up with Marko Kutlesa to discuss his collaborative project, his early career and his musical style.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 24th Nov 2017.
Originally published: 22nd Nov 2017

Image: Sean Johnston (Credit: No Strings Attached)

Born in 2009, A Love From Outer Space is the combined talents of veteran DJs Sean Johnston and Andrew Weatherall. Originally a Thursday night London residency for less than 200 people, thanks to spectacular shows at festivals like Electric Elephant it has become a touring partnership much in demand on the European club circuit.

The night was founded on the DJs shared love of slower, chuggy and druggy dancefloor grooves and to this day they stick to their ethos of never playing above 122 bpm. At the commencement of a night they often start even slower, taking in ambient and dub, sounds not unfamiliar to fans of groundbreaking UK producer Weatherall who has played a key part in contributing to the UK's unique dance music sounds through his work with Primal Scream, Junior Boys Own, Two Lone Swordsmen, Sabres Of Paradise and others.

His DJing partner, Sean Johnston has travelled a musical path that, while less high profile, is no shorter in length. Having started to DJ in his native Hull in the mid 80s, Johnston moved to London at the end of that decade aiming to take a place in the music industry.

Since that time he has, bar a few years off to indulge a fascination with mountains, DJ'd continuously. He has had a varied production career, which took in stints recording as part of Flash Faction (who released on Weatherall's Sabres Of Paradise imprint in the mid 90s), before founding his own production unit, Hardway Brothers, in 2009, a name which he now uses as a solo artist.

Prior to A Love From Outer Space's date at The Warehouse Project, Marko Kutlesa caught up with Sean to ask him about his history, Hardway Brothers and the legendary pairing of A Love From Outer Space.

Hi Sean! Where are you?

I'm at home, in the people's republic of Hackney.

Is that the area of London you've always lived in since you moved there?

No, I've lived all over the lace. When I first moved here I lived in west London, then Camden for quite a while, then Highbury, then the Isle Of Dogs, Wapping, back to the Isle Of Dogs, an excursion to Maida Vale, then Hammersmith. Since about 2000 I've been in Hackney.

Have any of those places affected what you've been doing musically, or even the music you've been buying, because of the people or the place you were around?

To a degree. Being a northerner I've gravitated to places that are a bit more... I mean, there are places in London that are distinctly unreal. Hackney I've felt very at home in, there's corner shops, people talk to you and you get to know your neighbours. I don't know if that impacted on music. When I moved here in 2000 there was a small community of musicians, DJs and creative people. It was a bit like living in a village of freaks and that definitely had an impact.

Any of those DJs and musicians that I would have heard of?

Andrew (Weatherall) lived in the area, my friend Logan Fisher lived in the area. At one point it seemed like everyone lived in the area. There was a lace called the Watermark which Sean McLuskey ran and I remember going in there one night and there was every single rotter that I've ever known, from every different scene, all in there at the same time. I thought, my goodness, it's going to be heavy going living here. 

What made you move to London in the first place?

Well, I was from Hull and in the late 80s there wasn't a lot going on in Hull. Now it's the city of culture, but back then it was really feeling the rough end of the Thatcher years. I knew that I wanted to be involved in music and there wasn't much opportunity for that in Hull. 

OK. So, aspiring Dick Whittington moves to London where the musical streets are paved with gold. How did that work out?

Well, it worked out pretty well because the year that I moved was 1988. To describe what was going on then in London is pretty difficult. The rave scene was still pretty underground. When you walked out of the tube station at Camden people would hand you flyers and, at the time, I was working as a junior booking agent, so I was leading a double life. On the weekdays I got to go to all these great little indie band gigs, then at the weekend I would go raving.

My first big rave was by Mutoid Waste Company that was held in a gas works and that really was an eye opener. They'd taken over the whole place, built a drum pyramid out of 40 five gallon drums and they'd flooded half the place so this drum pyramid was in the middle of a lake. It was fucking unbelievable. For a lad that had been used to the Welly Club in Hull it was like, woah, hang on a minute. 

You mentioned you were a booking agent. What kind of jobs have you done in London since then?

When I was in Hull I was the social secretary of the university so I got to know quite a lot of booking agents. I was quite friendly with Ben Winchester who went on to be Oasis' agent but at the time he was working for Worldwide and he encouraged me to come down, get a job doing whatever and said he was sure it wouldn't be long before I got a job as an agent.

So, I worked for a sofa bed company at first, for a little old Jewish fella who had a shop in Marylebone High Street. I was initially a salesperson, but he didn't like the cut of my jib, so he put me on the vans with this guy Richard, who I was meant to be helping, but Richard turned out to be a raging alky. He'd turn up at the van with a six pack of Tennants Super, so I ended up being the driver.

Now I work for a recruitment company who specialise in recruitment for the music and entertainment industry. I run their digital and technology division. Our clients are largely international broadcast companies or record companies.

In the 90s and I guess the early 2000s you were known more for playing house and techno stuff. What kind of things were you playing?

In the very early days I was very much taken by the Balearic thing. I was shopping predominantly in Trax Records, which was in Greek Street. That was, by and large, a gay record shop that was geared towards servicing a clientele of gay DJs who went in. Dickie, who passed away recently and who ran the shop, he was connected with all the different Italian distributors.

At the time I started shopping there I was going in for Italo piano house stuff, things like 'Ride On Time', but Richard would turn me on to other stuff. In hindsight I now realise that much of that other stuff is what we now know as Cosmic records, Baldelli records, things like the Unknown Cases, those slo mo, really druggy kind of records. I guess that's really the genesis of A Love From Outer Space, for me.

After the Balearic phase, Murk Records had a very big impact on me, then later I got really into Detroit techno. Lots of Underground Resistance, Jeff Mills, some European stuff, Hardkiss. Beyond that there was a hiatus. Towards the end of the 90s I got madly into climbing so I had six or seven years of just going to the Alps climbing mountains. 

That sounds like it could be an expensive hobby...

No, not at all. After the initial buying of the kit, it amounted to getting a tent and going camping in a field in Chamonix, living like a bum all summer and climbing mountains. It was very inexpensive actually. Much less expensive than buying records. 

Before you took that time off what kind of gigs were you getting? Although you did Flash Faction, you didn't have as widely known a production alias as your more recent Hardway Bros one or a hip residency, so how did you get the gigs?

In the early days there was a DJ called Steve Proctor who was pretty big on the early acid house scene. He played at Shoom with Danny Rampling. He had a night that was initially called The Promised Land, later as Better Days and I used to DJ there a lot. After those I used to play at Club UK, which was a Sean McLusky place.

He had another place called The Complex, which is where they used to do Final Frontier. They had a house night there called Kingsize, which I played at regularly and Final Frontier was a big techno night and I would play quite regularly there too. 

There were lots of other smaller places, one offs, parties run by friends, 200 capacity things. There was also a night called Quirky at The Vox in Brixton which, in retrospect, turned out to be quite an influential club. I think they called it intelligent techno at the time, more Aphex Twin, Mike Paradinas, Rephlex Records, that kind of stuff. They had a completely ambient room where Robin from Scanner used to play and one which was more Detroit techno, which is where I played. 

You started DJing in the mid 80s and when you started going in the studio to work on productions you had a few false starts. It wasn't until 2009 when you founded Hardway Brothers that your production career started to run more steadily. Similarly it wasn't until you founded ALFOS that your DJ career started to get to the level where you'd hoped it would go. What were the worst points during the lean years? Did you ever think of just fucking it all off completely?

Well, this wasn't the worst point in the lean years, it was actually pretty enjoyable, but in the big beat years, the years of Heavenly Social, Wall Of Sound Records and all of that appalling music, I had a friend called Ivor Wilkins, who I knew from the acid house years, and he became the manager of one of these bars with a big soundsystem in Kilburn. It was called the Z Bar.

Ivor employed me to play house classics and so I started there playing Masters At Work and all that, but the youth of Kilburn turned out to be much more interested in UK garage. They always used to come u and say “Play some garage! Play some garage!” So I went out and bought quite a few two step records so I could lay them to little herberts in Kilburn. In retrospect, that was probably the low point of my DJing career. 

Did I think of fucking it off completely? I didn't just think about it, I did it. I think between 97 and 2003 I didn't do anything apart from climb like a lunatic. 

When you started out doing ALFOS your strict adherence to that 120 bpm and lower tempos was pretty new. Quite liberating, I would imagine. When ALFOS are booked to play long sets, do you ever find it restrictive sticking to that ethos?

No, not at all. When I started DJing in Hull and when I was into Balearic in London, that kind of bpm restriction just wasn't a thing. It wasn't until I got into playing techno that you could only lay from 125 up to 140 bpm. How I learned was that you started off with slower stuff and there'd be a progression. That, to my mind, was what DJing was all about, rather than just turning up for 2 hours and dishing it out.

That thing of starting from nothing and building something is my idea of what DJing is really about and it's not restrictive because you can do whatever you want with it, anything from ambient and dub to weird old Cosmic records, disco records, up to house, if you can plot the course properly. 

You're coming up to play Manchester pretty soon. Do you have any particularly strong or fond memories of previous visits to the city?

I have a lot of fond memories of Manchester. When I was a booking agent one of the acts I was a booking agent for was Inspiral Carpets, so I used to come up quite a lot between 89 and 91/92. That was a time when there was lots of mad things happening in Manchester.

There was that place The Kitchens, which I have particularly good memories of. Going to some of the things that Justin Robertson did too. I can't remember the name of the venue but there was one place he used to do that was great, it had loads and loads of different rooms. It was pretty lively. Loads of Balearic lunatics but then loads of little scallies as well. It was proper naughty.

I then had a long hiatus from visiting. I hadn't visited Manchester in a very long time, but in recent years we've been back to do A Love From Outer Space and when I came back I honestly didn't recognise the centre. 

Where are you up to with Hardway Brothers? Anything new on the horizon?

Yeah. I've done a few remixes recently, one for Marius Circus's new label called In The Garden, which is Norwegian. I think that's out now. I've recently done a remix for Duncan Gray and his Stinky Tacky label. I'm working currently on a new Hardway Brothers EP for Throne Of Blood.

I've also recently been working on a project with an American girl called Sarah Krebs, who sang on my last Throne Of Blood EP. Over the course of the last year I've helped her make an album which is written and recorded but not mixed yet. She's about to start doing some live gigs. That's been an interesting project. More of a pop thing, but not middle of the road, it's more in the Roisin Murphy or Goldfrapp kinda territory. 

Would you ever go back to doing a residency with A Love From Outer Space?

Well, we are doing one in that we're laying at the Arts School in Glasgow, what looks like quarterly this year, although it started out as bi monthly. 

When you go out to DJ on your own these days, do you still stick to that strict nothing above 122 bpm ethos of A Love From Outer Space or do you maybe exercise the freedom to sometimes lay a bit faster?

It depends on where and when. I did a gig in Belgium and it was a lot more classics and disco and stuff. Some other people book me because they want the A Love From Outer Space thing but they don't want to pay for the both of us, ha! So then I pretty much stick to it.

But sometimes I do like the opportunity to lay some more uptempo stuff. It's always still more towards the leftfield though. I don't think you're going to be hearing me busting out any tech house sets in the near future. 

Andrew has always been known for doing different things, moving around different scenes and working with different people. His longest collaboration is probably Two Lone Swordsmen which lasted about a decade. Do you think ALFOS will also have a limited lifespan?

I honestly don't know. Neither of us is getting any younger and that's a fact. Andrew has had longlasting partnerships and short lasting ones. 

Sometimes there'll be a gap of a few weeks or even months between gigs and if we do that, we've both been collecting music in the intervening period and so it's always evolving. It's interesting. I think we'll both continue to do it for as long as we enjoy it. And I can safely assure you that we're both enjoying it. 

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