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A Quietus Interview

Let Me Be Your Phantasy: Erol Alkan Interviewed
Luke Turner , December 12th, 2013 09:04

Erol Alkan has had a busy 2013, building a home studio and releasing great albums from Daniel Avery and Connan Mockasin via Phantasy, as well as his own debut EP. He speaks to Luke Turner about the legacy of his old nightclub Trash, his label, and what makes him tick. Photo by Todd Hart.

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I wouldn't be typing this were it not for Erol Alkan. Not for the obvious reason that an interview requires the presence of its subject, but because his dearly departed nightclub Trash was, for me, a place that demolished all sorts of musical barriers and preconceptions, where there was a sense of community you rarely found at most and beer 'n' Britpop indie nights. A place that was very much about being exactly who you wanted to be and doing exactly what you wanted to do in life, and hang the consequences - no matter how corny that might sound. Alkan himself nicely sums up the ethos: "Finally we can take this music and all our values and everything that we believe in, and take it into a club where you get a drink in a glass. Girls could really dress up, and boys too, without getting their heads kicked in." Going to Trash was, for me and I think many others, a place to meet people, build confidence, and transfer the energy of that dancefloor into my own endeavours.

Nearly a decade later, Erol Alkan still travels the world as a DJ, and replicates the joyful, no boundaries ethos of Trash with Phantasy, his new record label. In 2013, he's released the debut album by Daniel Avery (another former Trash regular), and the breadth of the label is nicely showcased by contrasting that chomper of a Perc remix with the charming, strange New Zealander Connan Mockasin, the smooth and bassy Ghost Culture, the meandering oddness of BTU and Nadia Ksaiba's classy and glassy disco pop.

Now based in Muswell Hill, North London, Alkan has poured sweat and cash into a home studio he's called "The Phantasy Sound". There, he's finally gotten round to producing some of his own material on the Illumination EP - typically off-kilter yet pop-drenched electro that you could imagine diving into the mainstream. In a cafe near to his North London home, I spoke to Erol Alkan about the thread that runs from Trash right through his DJ work to Phantasy and his new solo material.

First things first, why go to the effort of building a studio?

Erol Alkan: The ethos behind it, and my inspiration for a label, is the family, community, close-knitness of Motown, where everything was made in one room. I'm trying to create that thing where we all help each other. I think that's really special about the label, we're not islands in our own little thing.

We're obviously massive fans of Drone Logic here at tQHQ. How did you end up working with Daniel Avery?

EA: I've known Dan since 2006, he's an old Trash kid. I remember thinking he looked like such a Suede guy, he had his hair dyed dark and a zip-up leather jacket, one of those These Animal Men ones. I used to see him down the club, he was a regular, then at Durrr. That's what Trash was, there were lots of people doing really interesting things. At the time, you never think you're going to have to grow up. You just think that everyone's really good at what they're doing. I used to see him loads, and I said 'I really like what you're doing, do you want to come together and make some records? I can mix them and do some additional stuff to make it as good as possible'. That's been the great thing about having the studio - whatever needs to be done can be done. It's just been this thing of having fun, and let's make some good records. Then it became an album and he's smashed it... not smashed it, I hate that term... he's done a splendid job.

How about Connan?

EA: [Caramel] is an old school, great indie record. It's still lo-fi and it's still completely intriguing and strange. The whole post-2005 that happened where every indie band looked cool and confident? None of that. It's still completely mad, in the best way. His whole thing is he doesn't even know if he wants to do music. I love it. I love the fact that it's necessary for him to do it, not that it's an option. That's one thing I always found hard to stomach over the past few years is that being a DJ or musician is a career opportunity. What we love about stuff is expression, that's what we connect with, not with someone's ideal or what they think something should be. All the best bands have a language, and what they say within that language makes it is what it is. He went away, and I said 'I don't want to hear any of it, just make it, and come and play it to me', like he did with the first one. With that, by the time we got to the second track I was 'I'm in! I believe it'. That's the main thing for me. He made it on just two microphones and a cassette player into Cool Edit, for nothing.

Do you always try and have a hands off approach with Phantasy artists?

EA: Guidance is everything, you have to accept that somebody is their own person, an individual. People use the word mentor, which is flattering, but I feel like that takes credit from the artists, like I'm coming in, Simon Cowell-style. I like the notion of guiding, because I can offer advice through my own experiences, tastes and beliefs. But it's all in that individual's hands.

That's quite similar to what Trash was, that always felt like family.

EA: Phantasy to me is an extension of Trash. When people say 'oh you should do Trash again', well, I kind of am. In the way of the level of creativity, the level of community, the level of response, all of those things I got from Trash I'm getting from the label. It's just a completely different platform. That's why it's opened up all these different ways of doing things. You don't get the instant hit of a club night, but the things that have been able to happen over the last few years have been as exciting. Putting out the records, having Tom Rowlands from the Chemical Brothers say 'Hey I've got a couple of tracks, do you want to hear them?' It's like putting Suicide on at Trash, that moment is up there. The energy of what you're doing reaches a magical point and you feel it coming back. It's what you feel like when you make a good record or if you can create something positive. If I keep using the word energy it feels a bit new age, and I don't mean it to be.

It's creating a dialogue. There was always that at Trash, because of the community and the idea that you go to a club to discover new music.

EA: When we moved to The End, the whole point of Rory playing in the second room was to introduce people to new music before it moved to the main room. Before that, when you used to go to an indie club, do you remember, if anyone played something that people didn't know, everyone would walk off. It was really frustrating because you couldn't play new music. Once we got that synergy going right - that's another word, synergy - you actually had to play new music to keep people on the floor. It had completely flipped. That gave me the confidence to take risks in everything, always always take risks. Break eggs to make omlettes, never be complacent or think 'I've got a career here, I've got to keep it going'. If you can't frighten yourself, I don't think you can excite other people. And I like being frightened.

Was the label frightening yourself? Building a studio, putting money into that...

EA: Looking back on it, it was, far more than I thought it would be at the time. But to be honest with you, that's what it had to be. I'm sure that there are many situations in life that are going to offer the same risks and pitfalls that you have to get past. That's just life. To see through this vision I had to jump through a few hoops of fire, but post that, with everything that's happening at the moment? Fuck it. Even if I'd known it would fail, I'd have done it. You can't live life being afraid, because fear censors ambition.

What other inspirations are there behind Phantasy?

EA: Island in the early days. I really love what Chris Blackwell did, not just signing people but producing them. Those records sound incredible, from Bob Marley to the B52s to Grace Jones, they made all their best records then. I love the idea that the person that signs you makes the record, because you get that sense of guidance, of being there at that close point. I really respect what he's done.

And it's an obvious one, but Factory. Everyone goes 'oh New Order, Happy Mondays', but there are so many bonkers, weird records that were on that label that don't have the same legacy as those great bands but get totally unsung. There's so many off-kilter releases on that record label, and I love that they were challenging, in a really positive way, the people who were buying New Order records. I feel like that when we release stuff like BTU, it's bonkers, virtually backwards.

Going back to the musical language thing, they're all really powerful, different languages. There are a lot of DJs who have labels, and much of that is a vehicle for them to have music to DJ with, or for other DJs to DJ with. But 50% of the music that comes out on Phantasy isn't DJ-able. But Trash was an indie club, and I am an indie kid. I made no bones about the fact that I fell into DJing electronic music by accident, by a lucky break, but it doesn't make me any less of a fan of that music, I just never envisaged... not through a lack of confidence or belief, I just didn't think that I'd be sharing the bill with people that I was going out to see myself. It was so separate back then.

Looking back, Trash felt pre-internet in the way you could have all this different music, but the DJs and community acted as curators - something you don't have with the supposed community of the internet, a lot of the time.

EA: The way that we found all the music was by record shopping once or twice a week, and contacting bands directly. It was really honest, especially when we started playing electronic music, it was genuinely what was exciting at that point. I loved Suede as much as anyone, but when they stopped making the records that I was excited by and someone else starts making exciting records, you try to be as loyal as you can to things but the lure is too strong. It was too sexual! You have to follow your instinct, and that's what I've tried to do all my life, whether in music or anything. Instinct is the most powerful thing you have, and you have to trust it.

Trash was always about sexy music.

EA: It was music for girls. Even the most aggressive records were effeminate, even with the Stooges it was primal but still had something that made it go beyond gender. Also as you know we were trying to make sure there was no green light for laddy types to like anything we did. We wanted to keep it as female as possible. If there's a floor full of men and I'm not at a gay club there's a problem.

How does what you do as a DJ relate to the label?

EA: I think the two sides to me are the same as two sides to anybody. In relation to the link between doing the label and being a DJ, it goes back to the thing of necessity. It's the only way I feel I can do something creative that's going to satisfy me. I wish I could do something else, I wish I was an amazing painter or a brain surgeon or something, but it's just what it's been.

Is it a musical obsession that keeps you going?

EA: The musical obsession thing... I don't know if this is a good thing to say, but the musical obsession has almost shifted to a creative obsession now. I think I just want to make and be part of great records, because of what it brings to other people, what it gives back, is so incredible.

You have a relationship with an artist as a DJ, as an intermediary... are you doing similar with running a label?

EA: Obviously like many of us, I love music, and I hate music sometimes. But really I think it's the beauty of creating something, seeing it flourish and take on its own life. Someone like Connan, who I think is an incredibly talented musician and writer, owns no records, he hasn't got any music on his computer. But he has the gift to create something that can spellbind a lot of people. There's zero correlation between owning music and being a greater music lover or musician than the next person. It's obvious to say it in that sense, but when someone walks into my room and goes 'wow' at my record collection, at that moment I could actually hate music and just want to go sit in the garden.

Do you think there's more music than 15 years ago? I swear there is.

EA: I do feel that, and through the role of creating stuff you have this privilege of having that first and then you can introduce it back to the world. Running a label in 2013, you don't do it for any financial purpose, you do it for all the amazing creative aspects of what you can achieve.

Do you feel a responsibility to the artists? How do you deal with that?

EA: You are right, and it's all gravy when everything's great, but if there comes a point where there's a problem, as with any kind of relationship you need to fix it. There's always going to be something, and it could be the smallest detail you'd never have expected or it could be something substantial, but it's how you deal with things. Everyone is going to prang out at some point. I don't worry about that stuff too much because most things can be sorted out with a chat, a cup of tea and an arm wrestle.

Coming to your own music, why now?

EA: It's getting to the point where, to be honest with you, even though there is a lot of great music around, especially in clubland, certainly from my corner of something I just felt like I needed to get my hands dirty and DJ out. If it doesn't exist create it. There was certainly a space I felt for me, don't complain about it not being there, make it. Rather than complaining I'd rather do it. 'Stop fannying around and get on with it, Erol'.

I've got about 100 tracks, works in progress or whatevers, now. You'll do something and it isn't saying the right thing to you, so you take the riff from that, keep that going, build on that and do something with it. Sometimes something has a value, it has an instant quality to it, and that's all it needs to be. 'Hold On' is like that, just a keyboard riff, but weirdly enough it felt more like it has a Saint Etienne feel to it, the leftfield end of Saint Etienne. I always really liked when they did little clubby bits on their albums, the simplicity of that. I want to make music that on one hand is quite simple and instant, and other times, like 'Check Out Your Mind', just odd.

At first I was like 'what the fuck is this'? Sometimes it's too unpredictable, others it's quite monotonous... it works for me, but I don't know why. Sometimes you go 'that's done' and you don't know why, you don't know where it fits. The problem I would have is if I made something and I knew, it's got a great riff like so and so, because then you're making music to prescription. I just throw things at it and see what kind of effect it has on me. These are the kind of records that I want to play. It's that fine line of not being too far on either side, I want it to be interesting enough and I don't want it to be too clubby.

I don't know what genre I've fallen into, I don't know where it is, and that's really exciting. Not just in what I'm doing, but with my compatriots, on the label, whatever, it does feel as if, as a collective, we're on a new path. There's definitely a thing about trying to steer the ship away from all the shit that's happening in electronic music at the moment. I wanted to instil all the elements that we love about it. It's what the Chemical Brothers achieved, starting almost 20 years ago, making visceral and odd club music but selling out stadiums. That's so inspiring.

Erol Alkan's Illumination EP is out now via Phantasy Sound