A Conversation With Erol Alkan
By Derek Staples
Photo by Tom Hart
Over two decades ago, Erol Alkan accidentally stumbled into the world of club music. This fortunate encounter has guided the now 40-year-old every day since. Voted “Best Breakthrough DJ” by Muzik magazine in 2003, receiving Mixmag‘s “DJ of the Year” award three years later, and claiming the UK’s Datatransmissions “DJ of the Year” in both 2008 and 2009, Alkan has been influential in techno and electro circles. He often brings that skillset into the world of indie rock, too. As the founder and talent buyer of London’s legendary — and now closed — Trash nightclub, Alkan played a pivotal role in the success of Peaches, LCD Soundsystem, Klaxons, Bloc Party, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. When not constructing his next genre-bending mix, he has produced official remixes for the likes of Death from Above 1979, Hot Chip, Chilly Gonzales, MGMT, and Tame Impala.
While so many of the club scene’s biggest stars stay relevant through Twitter beefs and PR-driven collaborations, Alkan is too busy listening to new music, from Americana to hardstyle, to get caught up in all the digital drama. He has showcased his extensive knowledge of contemporary music with his Bugged Out/Bugged In mixes, organically bringing club culture into the living room, and his ear for psychedelia of all stripes has been the backbone for his Phantasy label.
I’m sitting here looking at the album art for your new FabricLive 77 mix. What’s the story behind this mangled pomegranate?
I don’t actually know who designed the artwork. Fabric usually sends a few designs to look at prior to packaging, and I really felt drawn to this image of the castrated pomegranate. It is not really the macabre; I am not drawn to that sort of aspect at all, but I just felt that it fit quite nicely. A lot of the tracks on that mix bleed a little bit, if that makes sense.
I am still delving into the new one, but I have always appreciated how your tracks and mixes have much more raw emotional sensibilities about them. To this day, your Bugged Out/Bugged In mixes remain high on my list of favorites.
Well, thanks. Yeah, Bugged Out was really instrumental in introducing me to the world as a producer.
To go back to those early days, I find one line quite interesting on your official online bio: “I made no bones about the fact that I fell into DJing electronic music by accident, via a lucky break, but it doesn’t make me any less of a fan of the music.” I was hoping you could clarify that statement for us and how that moment has shaped your career, now 20 years removed from those first weeklies.
When I started DJing, the role of the DJ wasn’t something that was celebrated like it is now. My reasons for DJing were just that I wanted to play the music I loved to as many people as possible. I was always making tapes for people at school, so I thought, “If I can be in control of the sound system, I can play all this music to everyone in one go!” That was my real reason for wanting to play music to people. Also, I was just always fascinated by the culture that surrounded the music that I loved and why people were drawn to certain [styles of] music or how music worked and what it did.
Even now, I try not to think about it too much because I will spoil it for myself. I really cannot explain why, like why I have decided to do this and kept carrying on with digital music. It was just something that I enjoyed, and it just kept developing. I need to keep finding the enjoyment within it to keep doing it myself. You need to keep finding new music or finding new ways of doing what you do. You don’t want to turn into a parody of what it is you do. It’s strange, 20 years or so after playing records in nightclubs, when I was still at school as well, then to go through my 20s and still to be as excited as ever about this … if not more, even. I am more excited about DJing now, because the longer you do it the more you know your duty. People will really invest time in you when you realize that. It makes you feel as if you need to deliver.
Tommie Sunshine has shared similar stories recently about the evolution of the DJ. When the scene started, DJs spent all their time in the record shop: If you couldn’t find the track, you couldn’t buy the track, and thus couldn’t spin the track. And after the hunt, you would just end up spinning in the shadows anyway. These days, DJs have truly taken on superstar personas. Do you feel there are different expectations now than when you started?
I think so, but fundamentally I just want to stick to the foundations as to why I do it. I feel I fall into this, I suppose, but DJs have actually become a brand. I don’t have a huge problem with that, and I really don’t think about it too much, but I certainly don’t want to exploit that. I don’t want my decisions to be guided by that.
It took you about 15 years to release your first original EP, but you have been prolific remixing artists across genre boundaries and curating mixes. Do you find more joy in working with other artists and sharing music as a DJ as opposed to sitting behind a production desk and working out original material?
I have made a lot of records, but with original material, I just didn’t feel that I really had the right thing that I wanted to put out under my name, I suppose. I sometimes think what you don’t say or don’t do is as important as what you do [laughs]. Maybe not releasing original music for that long could have been one of the most important decisions I made.
When you go into a remix effort, how are those relationships normally established? Are these friends, is it music you like, or are they pitched from the artists?
When I first started remixing, it was only people that I knew because they would ask me personally, and I would usually say yes. There were a few offers to remix people that I didn’t know, or would just have been due to a considerable monetary offer, and I didn’t tend to do those. There just wasn’t anything tangible to it; I didn’t want to be someone you could just ring up and get a remix from. I just stuck to what I thought felt right, and it has been that way ever since.
The first time I ever saw you perform live was alongside Boys Noize during Ultra of 2010, and it was just a mess of arms and flying CDs. You each went off to work with several other artists, but do you still get to catch up from time to time?
Well, Alex [Boys Noize] spends a lot of time in the States now, so we don’t see each other too often, unfortunately. Plus, I am quite terrible with staying in contact with people. I did see him recently, and it was a really good catch up. When I see people, it is always great to see them, but there is just too much going on that it is really tough to play catchup. It will often feel that I saw someone just yesterday, and they will remind me that it was a year ago.
Are there any new collaborations that you are working on?
Not at the moment. I did just co-produce the Ghost Culture album, which is coming out in January. There is the Beyond the Wizard Sleeve stuff that I also work on. And I just remixed/reanimated the entire [Sun Structures] album from Temples.
I am actually seeing Temples in just a few days.
They are great, and I really love what we have done. I don’t usually say this, because you don’t want to feel like there is ego involved, but I am really satisfied with what we have done with it. And that is a really good feeling: when you can present something back to an artist that you really love. I think it’s good; I think that it is really good.
That is about it at the moment … we are about to remix an album from a band that I cannot actually reveal, but they are a band that I know you will really like. A lot of people are actually losing their minds about that album right now. There is a lot going on, really.
You mentioned earlier that you are spending most of today just listening to new music. Where do you prefer to scour for new music? Any advice for finding gems that aren’t going to be on Top 40?
Record shops! I go to record shops every week.
I am fortunate that my office building actually incudes an independent record shop. It is nice to peruse weekly, chat with the clerks who are surrounded by music all day, and just thumb through the new collections.
Pressing a record is so different than just placing tracks online. In order to make a record, people have to invest not just time and money but a lot of other assets to make it happen. And that is the benchmark of great music.
Obviously, we can hear a lot of great music on SoundCloud, demos and stuff, but there is nothing like going to a record shop and seeing people who know you and know what you are about. They know the music that you like, and they will hand you a load of stuff, feed you, you know? I love it. I do it every week, and it is probably the most important thing that I do to find new music.
You were really quite seminal in bridging the indie/alt rock worlds and dance music during your time at Trash, helping break bands like LCD Soundsystem, Bloc Party, and Peaches. Do you feel when you go out and play a festival that a lot of other electronic artists have become too engrained in a certain niche or sound?
I don’t really take too much notice of those things, to be honest with you. But that might be one way of putting it. I am just so involved with the music that I am working on, the artists involved, and what is close to me that noticing where other people are going wrong is just not something that I concentrate on. That would make me feel like I am wasting my time, just telling people where they go wrong or being negative about things when there is so much positivity close by.
You would rather put all that positive energy into Phantasy, I’m sure.
Yeah, rather than telling people where they are going wrong, I would just rather stay focused on what I am doing and keep that right.
What is the driving philosophy with Phantasy? It’s quite eclectic. I think you have stated that 50 percent of the releases really aren’t meant for DJs.
There is no real kind of philosophy behind it as such. I think it is completely an extension of the music that I love. For me, it has to feel real. I have to believe it. There is usually some kind of psychedelic element to it. It is certainly not straight down the line or music made to be liked by as many people as possible.
I have never told anybody to make music that is going to be liked by more people. If anything, I am more interested in pushing people deeper into their own sound, their own musical philosophy, or their own musical language to see what happens then.
In my opinion, one of the more interesting things currently happening in dance music is the evolution of former vibes, be that Disclosure’s take on garage or current trends in tech and minimal house. So often we hear a genre is “dead” … ska is dead, dubstep is dead, hip-hop is dead … only for a new generation to find a sense of nostalgia in it and bring it to a new forefront.
I never take notice of that, when people say a certain genre is dead. I remember when people were telling us guitar music was dead in 2000, and then The Strokes released their first album. Then dance music was dead at a certain point. You never really hear that from music fans.
No, just from people like me, journalists who want to have good headlines. [shared laugh]
No, I wouldn’t say journalists or fans by any stretch. Sometimes people just want to shift the spotlight from one thing to another in order to keep things exciting and indexed clearly. That is fine. I don’t have a problem with it at all. I don’t take much notice of it, but I am sure that some people have to. It just doesn’t mean anything to me, because nothing really dies, does it?
You are right. There is always a continuance of the energy. Since you de-emphasize creating music for the masses, how do you define success for yourself and the label? Is it just all about delving deeper into your own artistic well?
I just think that it is encouraging for people to find their own unique musical language. I am a great believer that good music will live on. Good music always does live on! We are just encouraging people to make the best record that they can. That is what I always try to do.
I have been around so many situations where someone goes off to make the next big record or to make the big American record, and it perplexes me a little bit. I think that so many people have made amazing records, records that have defined eras, in their bedroom without even knowing what they were doing. They were just focused on what they were doing. It doesn’t work when you sit down and try to be an architect for success.
So many friends of mine have recorded albums in low-rent, really basic studios, producing it all themselves, and they have just been incredible and turned so many heads. And then they go into a big studio with a big-budget producer and then what everyone liked disappears. When I say real and believable, I mean the ingredient that connects with people.
I feel that visceral connection is what enhances a record’s longevity. Even after years of not listening to an album, you will pop it in just to go back to those moments and feelings.
I am a big believer in the element of performance over over-production — the whole experience just connects with people. You must be the ingredient that keeps people coming back to something.
To hop from that performance element, if Erol Alkan/Phantasy were to curate a festival stage, who are the artists you would want revelers to experience?
These artists can be active or inactive? Contemporary?
Yep, just have fun with it!
Well, if that is the case, I would like [1960s American baroque pop band] The Left Banke to play. I’d invite [Detroit soul singer] Little Anne … Man, that is a good question.
I imagine with as much music as you listen to in a year, it is difficult to narrow it down.
Let’s add Wimple Winch. I’ll have to keep thinking about others.
Well, you definitely gave me plenty of music to check out this week. Do you have any plans to hit the States soon?
Yeah, I might be coming over early next year, I think.
As long as you hit somewhere near the Midwest, I will be sure to make the trek!
Great, yeah! It would be good to meet you, man.
Thanks for the chat, and I will be sure to check out these artists as well as the new Fabric mix.
Read ahead for live reviews of up-and-coming Frenchman Anoraak and desert bass specialist Phutureprimitive.