Ben UFO makes the experimental accessible
Light floods the café at the back of Peckham’s South London Gallery, where Ben Thomson is sitting on an oddly pleasant autumnal afternoon. Thomson is 40 minutes late, and having lost his phone after a gig at Hamburg’s Golden Pudel, he’s visibly flustered and profusely apologetic. Once settled, we’re quickly reminded that the man sitting opposite us is one of dance music’s most astute, insightful and likeable characters. Slight framed and boy faced, he takes time to choose his words carefully, and approaches his subject with razor point precision.
“I read something recently that I identified with quite strongly,” he says. “That the most interesting music manages to collapse the distinctions between the accessible and the sophisticated, the populist and the experimental, music that manages to make those kinds of hierarchies irrelevant.”
This contradiction powers Thomson’s activities as DJ, radio host and as co-founder of Hessle Audio. Expertly navigating the lineage of UK underground culture and the influx of the worldwide house and techno diaspora, as Ben UFO, Thomson’s exceptional curatorial vision is expansive yet determinedly focused – a skill that has won over crowds to artists to critics alike. His technical prowess and exhaustive approach to selection has seen him steadily become one of the most persistently sought after and universally respected DJs. Why? Thomson is drawn to the thrill of exposing collective transcendence in indefinable sounds. With little to no regard for geographical or chronological borders, eschewing genre boundaries and biases, any given set is a simultaneously considered yet crowd- pleasing mixture of 4/4 grooves, forgotten classics and irresistible oddities.
“Hessle Audio have found records that manage to touch on something quite strange but still function in a dancefloor space. That’s universally appealing”
This devotion to dance music began around a decade ago, with the thrill of hearing alien sounds in transmission across London radio dials. An education steeped in UK pirate radio heritage, having fallen in love with drum’n’bass as a teenager it was the “transformative experiences” of early dubstep nights that offered his jumping-off point. Meeting David Kennedy, later Pearson Sound, around 2005 at Plastic People’s seminal, mythologised club night FWD>>, the pair became perfectly positioned to witness its notable transformation from a serious, eyes-down showcase; what had started off as a gathering of producers listening to each other’s music, smoking weed, with scant interaction, became the focal point of an accelerating scene. As FWD>>’s incubation of ideas hatched, propelling producers like Mala, Coki and Kode9 into the spotlight, it became the focus of a movement with increasing momentum. “That was the first time I’d really seen that happen. When I started going to drum’n’bass nights, despite my enthusiasm for the music the vibe I picked up from people was that things had been better – that the music had had its time. Dubstep felt very open by comparison, it seemed as though anything was achievable.”
Hearing these mutating styles on rib- shaking sound systems, Thomson began to understand music as something functional, music as a response to its immediate environment. “Producers would build tunes for the system, and I think that’s what FWD>> in particular, but also dubstep in general, illustrated to me; that music built for a very specific function could be extremely powerful. I had heard the music at home and hadn’t fully understood it, but as soon as I got to the club it made perfect sense.”
The Hessle Audio triumvirate soon became a source of solidarity in a rapidly unfurling dubstep scene. Via Leeds’s Sub FM, Thomson, Kennedy and Kevin ‘Pangaea’ McAuley set the groundwork for their sound palette of percussive, 140bpm sub-bass heavy music. A regular, and extremely passionate, community of listeners developed.
Championing these artists’ idiosyncratic sense of rhythm since 2007, Hessle Audio debuted some of the most accomplished producers of recent times, including Untold, Joe and Blawan, their series of unplaceable anthems providing a coherent focal point in an increasingly separating UK dance community. Preserving the essence of pirate radio-borne genres and slowly, subtly weaving between the spheres of house and techno, they had forged an unmistakably UK hybrid. “I’ve always found it really satisfying that we’ve found records that simultaneously manage to touch on something quite strange, which still function really well on dancefloors,” he explains. “That’s universally appealing. You hear something that works brilliantly on the dancefloor which doesn’t sound familiar, and it’s exciting.”
Back to the present day, and years after Hessle Audio began their upward trajectory, the inundation of electronic music into an increasingly saturated landscape becomes less and less classifiable. In this era, the role of the DJ as the filter, the selector, is more valuable than ever. And bearing in mind that he still doesn’t have a single production credit to his name – something which can affect a DJ’s career prospects considerably – it’s Thomson’s DJ skills alone which have made him one of the most prominent names among the UK dance community. The pressure he feels to justify this position is what drives his painstaking precision, plotting harmony where tribal differences used to exist. Definitive examples of Thomson’s mixing include the rapid-fire transition from European house, OG dubstep and grime on 2011’s epoch-defining Rinse:16, the decidedly darker but perhaps more succinct FabricLive67, and more recently his Essential Mix, a buoyant dart across the spectrum of classic techno, electro and unreleased material that adapted the shift in momentum to accommodate for non-club listening.
For Thomson, this seamless outlook comes naturally. “I think a lot of the time when people try to pin down what it is that they’re looking for musically, the easiest thing to do is to define their position in terms of what they dislike – house music purists writing off techno as soulless, and techno people writing off house music as naff, whereas the reality of those two positions is much more murky and confused; the distinctions between the two aren’t black and white enough to justify those kinds of generalisations. That’s why I approach DJing in the way that I do. I don’t see those distinctions as being absolute or necessary, I see things as being a bit more fluid.”
Earlier in our conversation, we’d discussed the idea of tribalism; the singular spirit of his education in jungle and the early years of FWD>>. In this era of unlimited information, the subsequent lack of clear boundaries is something he’s embraced. “At the moment, when everyone online has such easy access to anything they choose to investigate, it’s much harder to justify that kind of tribalism. It’s much easier to see the flaws in your own position now that you can go and explore everything all at once.”
Following our first meeting in Peckham, later that evening I meet Ben at a Chinese restaurant just off Brick Lane and then head to the Rinse FM studios, where the dark and thrilling sounds of the Swamp 81 show are drawing to a close. A flurry of Teklife t-shirts and Mancunian accents, a few of their crew eagerly hand over some 12”s to Thomson. At one point, a young guy from Shanghai points Ben out to me and does the sign of the cross from his forehead to his chest, to his shoulders. It’s a tongue-in-cheek gesture, of course, but there’s a palpable sense of admiration in the room.
Thomson is in his element here, and as tonight’s guest DJ October takes over the decks, he casually props himself in front of the mic to shout out the incoming stream of tweets informing us they’re locked. “In the last seven years or so there were maybe one or two months when we didn’t have a regular show, between leaving Sub FM and joining Rinse,” he mentions. Thomson’s appearances on Rinse FM are among the most celebrated of the former London pirate. “It’s almost like having a residency, it means I can really focus in on the constituent parts of what I do, and explore things in detail which I might not have the chance to in a club setting. If I feel like doing an entire two hour show at 108bpm, then I can because I still have the show next week to do something else, and the same audience to play to.”
An hour in and we’re joined by Four Tet, keen to show off the Hindu devotional records bought especially for this evening. Ben himself has been playing a characteristically diverse selection, uniting Swamp 81’s singular aesthetic and an altogether more universal approach, where 1988 field recordings from the Mountain Province of the Northern Philippines sit alongside reggae from The Wailers’ Aston Barrett and anonymous white labels from Hamburg’s Giegling imprint.
“I think a lot of music that’s around at the minute knows what its place is in the world,” he had told us earlier in the café. “Music that’s targeted very well at big spaces; music that’s attempting to cross over into the mainstream. And on the other hand there’s a huge amount of amazing, extremely specialist music around which targets a very particular niche. One of the ways in which I’m trying to keep things interesting for myself is to perhaps try and use the position that I’ve found myself in to try and take some of that music outside of its comfort zone a little bit.”
Fast-forward two and a half days and we’re in the subterranean depths of Manchester’s Store Street, the home to this year’s Warehouse Project. It’s only 8:30pm, the cavernous brickwork tunnel that forms the main room shimmers with sweat, and below a sizeable crowd have gathered for three hours of back-to-back from the Hessle Audio triumvirate. Thomson had admitted to initially having reservations about these larger gigs, revealing that performing in front of big crowds had been something he’s only recently taken in his stride. “The spaces I went out to when I was younger will always be more comfortable to me – small clubs, dark spaces that you can lose yourself in. But I’ll always want to play on those bigger stages as well, because when you get away with playing interesting music to a lot of people, it feels like nothing else.” Although it is certainly large, plenty are losing themselves in the trio’s effortless selection of locked, throbbing grooves that habitually veer off into unexpected directions. The trio finish at midnight, leaving around 1000 giddy students, veteran ravers and hardened sound system nerds bounding with enthusiasm.
“I’m trying to think of ways to maintain a level of consistency, because the industry is not really geared towards stability and the long term”
It’s a point we find ourselves coming back to, this straddling of the populist and the experimental, the tribal and the fluid, navigating these spheres in an unsteady electronic music landscape. Back at the café, when we’d touched on his careerism, or lack of, I’d asked him if he’s ever had any specific ambitions. He took the time to answer thoughtfully. “Underground dance music has become an industry in a way that it perhaps wasn’t always. It’s interesting that even for very niche performers, there are going to be people that surround them who are focused on how those performers can scale what they’re doing up, to appeal to more people and to bigger crowds.” he said. “If I were to continue trying to respond to those kinds of pressures, I would just have to stop playing the smaller gigs, but I don’t feel willing to do that. I guess at this point I’m trying to think of ways to just maintain a level of consistency and stability, because it’s not really what this industry is geared towards.” He racks his brain for a few who have managed to navigate this successfully, his peers in Andrew Weatherall and Craig Richards; “people who seem to exist outside of that music industry bubble.” He pauses. “So I guess that’s my aspiration – not to aspire towards too much.”
Ben UFO on back-to-back DJing as a formative learning experience
A lot of people talk about back-to-back as though it’s a dilution of what two or more people do; I don’t think that’s true if you do it well. If you’ve got two people working together and communicating, then it can produce something completely new that wouldn’t have otherwise come about. It forces you to be active and to improvise, it helps keep things from becoming stagnant.
JOY ORBISON ON BEN’S ADAPTABILITY
I think playing with a DJ of Ben’s calibre could be daunting, but he often has the opposite effect as you’re definitely in very good company. In my eyes a good DJ should be able to take interesting records and play them in a way that can make them accessible to any type of crowd. This can make the process of DJing as integral as the music being played and Ben is one of the few who I’ve witnessed doing this. I’m a massive fan, obviously.
Gerd Janson on Ben’s inspirational approach
Ben UFO is one of the genuine DJs. He puts the work, the time and the effort into finding new and old music which corresponds with his view of a dance floor or a radio show audience. What makes Ben probably the most interesting is his technical and his intellectual abilities to pour genres, tempos, eras and even antagonistic styles into one absorbing and fascinating maelstrom. I will always remember the first time that we played together at London’s Plastic People: I pitched his records down, he pitched my records up and I was so enamored with his manners, risk-taking and posture as a DJ that I told him afterwards that I’m ready to resign. Ben UFO, I salute you!
Jackmaster on Ben’s technical prowess
It’s an inspiration and that’s putting it lightly. For me, Ben Ooufo (as they call him in Italy) is just one of these guys who is born to DJ. He lives and breathes music and it’s an absolute delight to play with him. Playing all night for eight hours at a warehouse in London last year sticks out as a particularly special moment we shared. Every single set with Ben is a learning experience, both musically and just watching his technique as for me, at the moment, he’s technically the best DJ in the world.
Morphosis on their recent eight-hour back-to-back session at Corsica Studios
It was very intense, challenging, and creative to share the booth with Ben, I have a huge respect for him as a DJ and since we have a quite diverse way of playing it was interesting to see how the whole blend worked. It almost became a whole unorthodox mode of playing, I remember many of those ‘not really dance records’ in the classical definition, some more afro-jazz and free-jazz, world music and noise, all this stuff was mashed pretty well into solidly mixed techno and house.
Ben UFO plays back-to-back with joy Orbison on 6 December at Warehouse Project