Whether it be through the wonderful ‘Last Night a DJ Saved My Life’, the superb DJHistory.com, one of the many outstanding compilations he’s compiled, engrossing sets he’s played or any of the other myriad of delights he’s involved in, you will most probably have come across the name Bill Brewster. We caught up with him recently to talk about his time living in New York, the new Easy Street Records Anthology, why 7” are the crack cocaine of record collecting and a whole load more.
How much of a shock was the punk rock scene of 70s London to a young lad from Grimsby?
It wasn’t a shock at all, it was everything I hoped it would be. I specifically moved to London because of punk. It was amazing and eye-opening, but perhaps no more than the experience of moving from a small town to London at 17 would have been to anyone else.
You’ve said that you, “got asked to DJ at parties because I had a good record collection initially and then it kind of grew from there.” When did you feel like you made the transition from selector to DJ? Or would you still class yourself as a selector first, DJ second?
I still think of myself as a record collector, really. Everything that I do now has really grown from a passion for collecting music. Compiling albums for record companies is the ideal job for me, because it means shining a light into dark corners of, say, a record label’s history and – while doing that – hopefully discovering music I didn’t previously know about. Same with DJing. The fun bit of DJing is on a weekend when you’re playing the music you’ve found, but during the week I’m always on the hunt for things I don’t know about. I like discovering stuff that’s new to me, whether it’s on a promo from this week or made in 1970.
How old were you when you realised that vinyl was your passion?
I started collecting when I was ten, but it was much more unconscious then. I think once I moved to London and had a small amount of money to spend every week, it mainly went on records or gigs. So from the age of 17, I’ve regarded it as a ‘thing’ that I did.
Do you still trawl the record stores of a weekend like you used to?
No, I don’t, not so much. I’ve got two small children and Saturdays are frequently spent ferrying them about in Dad’s Taxis. However, if I DJ out of town, I try and visit the local stores or I have occasional digging jaunts with my friend Hayden, where we’ll drive out to a town or city and look for stuff. Last one was Watford.
You’ve said, “I do still collect Disco, but most of the ones I want I can’t afford.” What’s the most expensive record you’d like to own, but have been priced out of buying?
Oh God, there are loads, but I suppose the one I’d really like to have that I currently don’t is Cerrone’s ‘Hooked On You’, which came out on a Canadian 12-inch.
Have you ever given up food for funk?
I wish I had, I might be a bit less portly.
When you lived in New York, you and Frank Broughton hung out with Adam Goldstone, Bruce Tantum, Rob Di Stefano, Peter Rauhofer and Danny Tenaglia. This sounds like a DJ version of a Renaissance salon to me. Would that be a fair description?
Ha ha. I’m not sure whether it was that or not, it was certainly a lot of fun. Adam and I were very close when I lived there and even though Frank and I grew in Lincolnshire, we met in New York. I was lucky because I worked in an office on Broadway very close to King Street Sounds, Power Music, Liquid Grooves, Tribal America, Northcott Productions so you would get a lot of DJs doing the rounds on a Friday looking for new promos and TPs for their weekend gigs, so it wasn’t unusually for anyone from Danny T to Biz Markie to swing by the office.
You’ve said of Adam Goldstone that he, “was a fantastic DJ and he was always really brave in what he played, to the point of stupidity sometimes…” Do you think too many DJs these days play it safe and stick to what they know, or what they know will work, rather than taking a chance? Who for you best embodies that risk-taking spirit these days?
It’s always been the case that too many DJs play it safe, but equally there have always been DJs who will push the boat out and try new things. The problem with today’s culture is that it mainly revolves around guest DJs and it makes you more conservative because you don’t know the crowd as well as a resident does. I know I can play more unusual stuff at Low Life than I probably could elsewhere because I know that crowd really well. There are still plenty of DJs that are risk takers: Trevor Jackson and Leo Elstob, for two.
You’ve said of Low Life that, “We have always tried to maintain that slightly amateurish atmosphere in our parties and we still regard ourselves as professional house party hosts rather than club promoters.” Do you think that appeals to those who are more into the music rather than a scene, as it prioritises substance over style?
I don’t know. You’d have to ask the people that come. Personally, I think they probably come because they know it’s a great party, and as much as we take the music seriously, our priority is to make it as fun as possible. I think you can be too preachy with musical idealism sometimes and we try to avoid that. No-one wants finger wagging about sound system specs or a night out, do they? First priority for us is that it’s a laugh, so we’re not afraid of doing slightly stupid things that make the party better.
You said that after you went to Troll in 1989 you didn’t go to a straight club again for another two years. Why do you think it took so long for the straight clubs to cotton on to, and get on board with, what was happening in the gay scene, musically? When did all that start to change?
To be honest, I don’t think that’s true. I’d say, if anything, the gay scene might even have lagged behind the straight scene when it came to house. I didn’t go to another straight club because I discovered what I thought was a brilliant club and a new set of clubbing pals and just wasn’t interested in going anywhere else.
You’ve said that you’d “never play a record unless it’s got really good drums.” If you had to pick out three drummers to exemplify the art, who would they be?
Steve Gadd is my favourite. But then Kenny Martin, who played with Defunkt and Art Blakey. I feel guilty naming three because there are another 15 I could reel off quite easily.
You’ve said about compiling a compilation that “it’s really more about finding a concept that works rather than necessarily having super obscure stuff on there.” What are the sort of concepts that you find work best in allowing you to display that musical breadth and knowledge you’re well known for whilst still tying it all together as something that works as a whole?
It’s the same as a non-fiction book really, you need a good theme to tie all the stories together you want to tell. For instance: Metal Dance, Trevor Jackson’s compilation series on Strut. Title says it all. Every track fits into the title, too. Or the Fac Dance one I did for Strut is another example. Thing is, it’s not about me showing off how much I know about music, it’s really using an idea to put some brilliant music in some sort of context. Maybe the best example of this is the one I did of Bob Blank: Blank Tapes. There was a huge variety of music on that compilation, but I felt it all worked well in telling a story about Blank Tapes Studio, but also a wider story about New York in the 1970s and early 1980s. I’ve got some other good ones, too, but I’ve not sold the ideas yet so I’m keeping schtum about them for now.
How difficult is it to licence the more obscure tracks you’d like to include? Do you meet with much resistance, or are people keen to have their music reach a wider audience?
Generally the problem is not people not wanting to license to you, although that does occasionally happen, the greater problem is tracking down the person who actually holds the master rights to a title. Maybe the songwriter is dead, the label is defunct and hasn’t been subsumed by a larger label. Or the label was bought by a large company like Universal but they say they no longer own the rights. I tried to license Black Mamba’s ‘Vicious’ recently for a Larry Levan compilation I’m working on. I thought that would be easy. It was on Garage Records, the Paradise Garage label run through Island, and now owned by UMG. But no-one seems to know who owns it. UMG say they don’t. So you get stuck in blind alleys like this all the time.
The Easy Street Records Anthology, which you compiled, has just been released. Can you tell us a little more about that? Are there any more of these to come?
I was approached by Ian Dewhirst at Harmless to ask if I was interested in getting involved in a new series he was planning for 2015 called The Anthology. The idea is to take a series of classic labels from the past and do three-CD compilations that are, as near as possible, definitive. Obviously, I said yes. This is the first from the series and is coming out later in March, I think. I’ve almost finished working on Sleeping Bag and Fresh and just about to start work on Streetwise, Arthur Baker’s old label, and P&P, which released a lot of Patrick Adams’ independent material. I think there are at least another three or four in the series.
The latest ‘Late Night Tales presents…’ is due out imminently. Can you tell us more about that please? Are there any tracks featured there that you’re particularly pleased to be able to include?
This seems to be fast becoming an annual event, so once one has been released I’m instantly looking for ideas for the next release. Each one takes around six or seven months to do from start to release date and I generally try and get a mixture of unreleased stuff, rare and hard-to-find releases as well as some newer big floorfillers. The one I’m most pleased about for this edition is probably the Lindstrøm mix of Charli XCX, which has had thousands of play on Soundcloud but never got a release.
You’ve said that you really enjoy playing Manchester and Glasgow because the crowds are really musically knowledgeable. Does this therefore allow you more freedom in what you choose to play?
Yes it does. It simply down to the fact there are loads of really good DJs in those cities and they’ve trained the crowds well. You just get a more sophisticated music culture in cities like that. I’m not suggesting there aren’t really knowledgeable crowds elsewhere because there obviously are, but I think cities like Glasgow and Manchester stand out because of the longstanding quality of DJs there.
If you could only continue to do one, and had to give the other up, which would it be: charity shops or carboot sales?
Out of the two I’d give up carbon sales, because they only happen on a weekend, whereas you walk past charities every day, pretty much.
What’s the longest period of time it’s taken you to track down a record you’ve wanted? Are there any ongoing searches that are proving elusive?
Before the internet, it could take you years to just even find the name of a tune. I remember John Peel playing a Fats Comet tune on his show that I’ve still never worked out and that was about 30 years ago. It’s not the same now. You can find out about stuff pretty easily and then find it straight away, too, unless it’s preposterously expensive, in which case it gets added to the ever-lengthening Wants List on Evernote.
You’ve said that you “quite like shit artwork”. What’s the shittest sleeve you own then?
I used to collect them and have them on my record room room wall, so that’s a hard one. This one is currently framed on my wall:
You’ve been referred to as the “go-slo dj that gets people dancing at tempos they had previously been afraid of.” Is that a fair assessment?
Fuck knows. Ask the dancers!
You’ve commented before that the internet, whilst making the musical past easily accessible for all, has at the same time stifled the musical future, resulting in a dearth of any fresh music. Do you still think this to be the case?
Yes I do, but I don’t think it will always be like this. I think we’re in a period where, for the first time in history, everything is suddenly available and it’s made everyone go a bit bonkers. I think once it settles down, things will start moving forward again.
You’ve said that “ultimately, I’m an old school music fan, so if I hear something I love, it’s not enough for me to be able to listen to it on Spotify or You Tube, as my wife does, I need to own it.” Do you think there’s a slow shift occurring back towards owning physical copies of music again, even if it’s not on the scale it once was?
Maybe. I think it would be very sad if there were no record shops left, I love going into them and hanging out and looking for records, even though I don’t play vinyl anymore. But it will never be the same as it was in the glory years of vinyl. Those days are gone.
You’ve talked about taking people “into interesting diversions and obtuse avenues” in your sets. How easy is it to gauge how open-minded a crowd is? Can you give us a few examples of these “interesting diversions and obtuse avenues”?
I play this once in Room 1 in Fabric, just to see what would happen.
It was the year the movie came out (O Brother Where Art Thou). I thought and hoped people might recognise it and accept it as a moment of beauty, though I’m not sure whether they did or not. But, you know what, nobody died, nobody got hurt, and I got to hear a piece of incredible music on an amazing soundsystem.
When searching for records, you’ve talked about “employing all kinds of bizarre Google search permutations to see what turns up…” Can you give us some examples of these? What’s the most interesting record you’ve discovered this way?
It doesn’t work so well now, because Google is so good, but you used to be able to deliberately misspell records and it would show up misspellings of stuff on eBay etc. I’ve used all kinds of weird permutations, usually involving ‘drums’, ‘Africa’, ‘funky’, ‘tribal’, ‘dance’ etc etc. The variations are endless.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you were “dabbling with the darkside at home.” How goes the digital Djing?
I experimented with Traktor for ages, which I liked. But I’ve really fallen in love with Rekordbox. I think it’s fantastic and it’s really enthused me again about some of the more technical possibilities of DJing. Yeah I love it. I don’t see any contradiction between collecting records and DJing with a USB stick.
You’ve said, “7” are the crack cocaine of record collecting. 12” are the kind of entry level drug.” What is it about those 45s that tip you over the edge?
There’s just so many. Pretty much anyone with a shit band or a half-decent song could afford to go into a studio and cut one 45 at least. They were within financial reach of just about everyone. 45s are pretty much infinite. That’s why they’re the crack cocaine.
What’s the strangest band or artist name you’ve come across?
Bingo Reg and the Four And A Half Heart Attacks. They used to play regularly in Chesterfield. I used to note their name in the NME each week with a sense of wonder.
One of the other loves in your life is Grimsby Town, so, if Grimsby Town were a genre of music, what would it be?
The Blues. Scratchy, under-appreciated and heartbreaking.