MusicTurning Points / / 02.03.15

Turning Points: Erol Alkan

Whether he’s creating the biggest alternative weekly club night the UK has ever seen, or positioning himself as the antithesis to the superstar DJ while at the same time conquering the same mountain on completely his own terms, there’s something inherently uncompromising about Erol Alkan. His Phantasy label continues to push his typically rounded taste in unexpected directions with the likes of Connan Mockasin and Dan Avery exemplifying his diverse and adventurous character. With a career in music now stretching 20 years, Crack spoke with Erol about his most defining moments.

1984: Being bought a Spectrum

I always had an interest in technology, I wanted to take things apart and put them back together again to see how they worked. All we had was a record player and that was the thing that kept me engaged when I was young.

When I bought a Spectrum it opened up everything and not just with games. By having a computer for a short time I wanted to know how it all worked. I got really into programming and hacking into games. I was 10 at the time. I became so well versed at computers I helped the teachers at school get to grips with these BBC Acorn computers they had back then. It’s part of my personality to get really obsessed and deep with things and want to know exactly how they work inside out. That has had a knock on effect through life with the idea that if I’m going to do something I want to do it as well as possible rather than just dipping in and out of things. If I’m going to take something on I need to do it wholeheartedly rather than just skim around and experience it.

The whole computer programming side meant I wasn’t really out on the street playing football with the other kids, I was just really happy in my own world and pleased to be there. I’ve never really been that bothered in general with what other people are doing and the need to keep up with anybody. I think a lot of that came from spending time on my own and just being creative really. It just satisfied all my creative urges including making music as there is a really primitive way of making music on there where you had to programme the length of each note and the pitch and the rests. Pretty similar to how you programme a 303 actually. My uncle would be like ‘can you do theme from Knight Rider?’ So I’d spend an afternoon working it out. I didn’t initially draw too many parallels with this early experience and what I’ve gone on to do in later life, but I can see them now.

Circa 1991: Taking things into his own hands

The way I got my break was by going up to a local promoter and saying ‘me and my friends we go these clubs, but we wish you’d play slightly different music, everywhere we go everyone is playing the same records.’ I was 17 or just under at this point and was still at school.

I would make these tapes for my friends so I could guide their musical taste. I just steered them in a certain direction, they trusted my taste and I kind of knew what they liked. When I started going to clubs I realised that the guy who was on the turntables up there was pretty much pushing his taste on a whole room of people at one time, and I thought to myself, making tapes for people is such a long process. That’s what I should be doing! I’ve got the music, I know what I want to play and I know what I want to hear, so I should be up there. So I collared this promoter and said, ‘If you give me a gig, my friends will come because I know what music they like and want to hear, so maybe if I play at the beginning of the night that would be great. I don’t want any money or anything like that.’ My reasoning for playing was to play these records to my friends in one go. Back then the DJ in nightclubs was only one step above the glass collector on the social ladder. It was a functional job rather than anything to be celebrated and if you didn’t have a full floor or a vibe, you were out.

So basically I did a first gig and 10 of my mates came down but the good thing was it wasn’t just my friends dancing as I remember other people asking me what I was playing. It got to the point where it was really enjoyable to me and I got paid five drinks! But I was still in school or sixth form, so I didn’t stick around and went home early. He invited me come back next week and do it again, so I was like ‘great’! Even though I’d only played to about 20 people, I was like, I’ve got to find a different set of records. Then by the next week it was the same thing and it got to the point when people were coming to the club early to hear something different because I was that guy who was playing some kind of weird early Verve B-Side or a Smiths track that isn’t This Charming Man. Then I was getting asked to play other clubs. Within six months I was playing every single night of the week.

I think people in indie clubs were getting tired of hearing the same shit. You could have a check-sheet and you could tick off every song. The thing I’ve always said about alternative music is that indie kids dance with their heart rather than their feet and there was a lot of music that wasn’t getting any exposure because people got into a groove and stick to it. I learnt from an early point that it benefitted me to think differently.
So basically I did a first gig and 10 of my mates came down but the good thing was it wasn’t just my friends dancing as I remember other people asking me what I was playing. It got to the point where it was really enjoyable to me and I got paid five drinks! But I was still in school or sixth form, so I didn’t stick around and went home early. He invited me come back next week and do it again, so I was like ‘great’! Even though I’d only played to about 20 people, I was like, I’ve got to find a different set of records. Then by the next week it was the same thing and it got to the point when people were coming to the club early to hear something different because I was that guy who was playing some kind of weird early Verve B-Side or a Smiths track that isn’t <em>This Charming Man</em>. Then I was getting asked to play other clubs. Within six months I was playing every single night of the week.

I think people in indie clubs were getting tired of hearing the same shit. You could have a check-sheet and you could tick off every song. The thing I’ve always said about alternative music is that indie kids dance with their heart rather than their feet and there was a lot of music that wasn’t getting any exposure because people got into a groove and stick to it. I learnt from an early point that it benefitted me to think differently.

2000: Trash moving to The End

Starting Trash was an extension of everything we’ve spoken about. I definitely think Trash moving to The End turned a lot of heads and signalled the end of a certain kind of era as the foundations had always been mid-week nights in venues that weren’t real nightclubs. The real nightclubs were places where you’d go and hear records you didn’t know. I felt the culture that a lot of the nightclubs I attended and loved were as valid as those other nightclubs. I was always a bit annoyed the music press would write about dance clubs in a different way to alternative clubs. I thought that wasn’t very fair and what I experienced in alternative clubs was equally as valid. So Trash moving to The End was a chance for us to stake our claim and be prove that what we were doing was as good as what the clubs were doing.

I used to buy The NME every week and read the two-page electronic music section and they would never really talk about anything. By that point what I was trying to do with my DJing was as interesting if not more intricate than any dance DJ in the sense I was re-editing a lot of guitar music and using things like the Kaos pad to overlay effects and looping. Mixing guitar music one track after another to create something cohesive is quite a challenge. It’s not just the timing issues or the rhythmical issues, it’s the character and personality of the music, the different voices and all these things that need to come together to keep people on the floor without just playing ‘popular’ music. It’s a challenge and being able to do that in somewhere like The End where you have this incredible sound system which was maintained weekly, lighting engineers and all the production values that came with the club elevated the whole experience and made it so much greater. It meant when people came to Trash and paid their four-pounds, they were getting a full experience and it really put a value on what we were doing.

“It was the first time our kind of music was allowed into a real nightclub and it was great to see bands that could play through the system and on that stage instead of being on the toilet circuit”

My thoughts with Trash were that people don’t sit at home listening to one particular type of music. People aren’t at home listening to Plastikman at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon. Trash was about finding the music and the bands and the records that worked in harmony with each other and they could be electronic records or guitar records or disco records. When Trash was in its first incarnation at Plastic People I used to play an insane record called The Green Man by Shut Up And Dance, alongside Suede. It wasn’t really refined or focused, but it was a really raw appreciation of music. It also meant I could go home afterwards and be like I’m glad I fucked it up a little bit. It was the first time our kind of music was allowed into a real nightclub and it was great to see bands that could play through the system and on that stage instead of being on the toilet circuit.

2007: Life After Trash

After we closed Trash and I’d been awarded Best DJ in the World by Mixmag, what other people might have thought was a good career move would’ve been to take the award and run with it in the form of a business strategy to take me to another level. Instead of that, two-weeks later I produced the second Mystery Jets record, which isn’t what the best DJ in the world is supposed to do but it is what I always wanted to do.

They had a brilliant producer in mind already, but left him and asked me. I’d never produced an album before. I read All You Need Is Your Ears by George Martin and another one called Caught Behind The Glass where producers talk about their theories in production. That was enough to get me in the mindset to handle it. There are certain people who have a sound and that’s all they can do, but I’ve always wanted to explore and exploit an artist’s sound. I want them to make the best sound they can make and in that sense it’s not about me. It’s like, what is it you want to say? Let’s find the language that you speak in and let’s make it loud and clear. With the Mystery Jets that dawned on me really early on. I was like ‘you’re a folk band’. You sing about what you are going through, you sing from your heart and you are very much singing about people from your generation and that’s what folk music is. That’s what we need to build on and lets not do anything other than that.

One funny story I’ve not told anyone before is this track called Crosswords we did it in a really early session. At that point they were really into the producer Switch and said they wanted to make a track that was massively influenced by him. So they jammed for 15 minutes and I recorded it and re-edited it like crazy. I wanted it to sound mental, like Zongamin had re-edited the shit out of Blur’s 13 or something. It was all really weird textures and rhythms and Simian used it on a Mixmag cover mount CD and it got out there. Six months later I got a text from Switch saying “Sinden just played me Crosswords by Mystery Jets. That’s the most futuristic production I’ve heard in fucking years.” It was hilarious. You don’t have to rip an artist off, it’s the same message just in a different kind of language. That year finishing Trash and making that record with The Jets was a real education. I’m glad I didn’t milk anything at that point.

2013: Building The Phantasy Sound studio

We just wanted to make records for the right people for next to nothing. To be able to build that studio box and be in there whenever means we can put money into other things. What’s come out of there sounds good and I’m glad I did it as it was a big decision at the time and it took a lot to build it. It’s just been a huge blessing.

Everything we’ve put together on Phantasy has been done on instinct but with a sense of realism to it. In the case of Dan (Avery), we’ve been really proud of everything he’s done and building the studio was the key to signing Dan as we were like ‘whatever you need to make the best record possible? I’m here to help.’ One thing we spoke about a lot was the values that we wanted to see presented in this record and there were reasons why it wasn’t totally mastered or deafening loud and there were reasons why it was warm. For us it was defining values in culture and presenting them in the form of music and that’s part of its appeal because people are hearing something in an inviting and unimposing manner.

One of the things we’ve tried to do on the label is to find a purpose rather than just furthering people’s careers. I think we’ll be able to look back at these releases in years to come and they’ll still stand up. For me personally as we’ve achieved something and it’s had an effect on music, we almost need to think of the next way of getting the same hype, just differently.

Erol Alkan plays Snowbombing, Mayrhofen, Austria, 6-11 April

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