Tuesday, January 3, 2017

LICHFIELD INTERROGATES: Dave Haslam

Dave Haslam is a globally-renowned DJ, broadcaster and writer who performed at the Hacienda more than 450 times. His books include Life After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs & Music Venues, Adventures on the Wheels of Steel: The Rise of the Superstar DJs, Not Abba: The Real Story of the 1970s and Manchester, England: The Story of the Pop Cult City. I interviewed Dave recently to talk Manchester nightlife and music past and present, Djing, New Order and Factory, his fantastically-received Close Up interviews, Brexit, Labour and more. 





You DJ’d at the Hacienda over 450 times. What are your favourite and least favourite memories of the club? 

As you imagine, that era is a little bit of a blur and I really just have a prevailing memory of what it was like especially around 1989-90 when it was pretty much bedlam, very busy and exciting when everyone was writing about The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and New Order and it felt like we were at the centre of British music. At the same time, as a DJ you have to somehow take a step back. If you throw yourself into it all, things go very wrong, so it was that weird mixture of being part of something very exciting and chaotic whilst being almost an observer from the DJ box and watching it all unfold. 

The things I remember most about the Hacienda in terms of individual memories are the gigs, which tend to be recalled easier, so I think The Smiths in 1983 was one of my most abiding memories. I didn’t see Madonna, but New Order played there regularly so I saw them a lot. I guess one of the other nights I do remember is the night when someone pulled a gun on me, which isn’t what you normally expect when you go to work, especially as a DJ, so that was a very unexpected and frightening moment and a low point. 

If you plot those 450 DJ appearances, the majority of them were between 1986 and 1990 just before the club temporarily closed. I went back for a while in 1991 and 1992 then returned again for the last six months. I was aware in the early-to-mid nineties that there was a negative edge that wasn’t there previously. By the mid-nineties, a lot of other clubs had caught up and the idea that we were at the centre of the music scene had drained away, especially when you consider places like Cream in Liverpool, plus there were movements like the Camden and Britpop thing, so by the time it closed it could be argued that it was time for it to go. 

Can you think of any current venues in Manchester that rival the Hacienda? 

I do think in Manchester we have more good venues than in the late eighties. Albert Hall is one of the greatest venues we have ever had, and it’s a great place to see bands and DJs. The whole story of how the building was recycled is brilliant and it is perhaps a better venue than the Hacienda for gigs; if you went to see a band at the Hacienda, either the venue would be half-empty or if it was full, half the people wouldn’t be able to see the band because the sight lines and acoustics were quite poor. We also now have venues of all kinds, including clubs like Hidden and gig venues like Gorilla. The only thing I think we are missing is a flagship venue like the Hacienda but I think one of the reasons people have such fond memories of it is that there weren’t actually that many places to go out in town at the time. 

Compared to now, Manchester wasn’t renowned as a great place to go out in the mid-eighties; students weren’t coming here for the nightlife even though the music scene was well-known. Most of the clubs that would leave you feel very unwelcome if your music taste was slightly out of the mainstream or if your haircut was slightly out of the ordinary. There was quite a lot of violence around. 

The Hacienda could be seen as a bit of an accident of history in a way, with things happening in the right place at the right time. The associations with New Order and Factory meant it was instantly cool – even when it was empty, it was a cool place to be. We just happened to be working in a team determined to do different stuff of real value - with Factory and New Order subsidising what was occurring so we could afford to be a bit uncommercial, especially at the beginning. Although we have great venues in Manchester now, we can’t expect every generation to be making history as that just isn’t how it works. Everything came together for us, and also of course we also had Tony Wilson shaping, defining and talking about what we were doing. 

I think one of the other important points is that we weren’t seeking fame or money. It was a labour of love and an underground club that just happened to get very big. In a way, a lot of the origins of the club were small-scale, unambitious and organic, whereas now a lot of things that happen tend to be more over-hyped, marketed or under more commercial pressure than we were. A lot of clubs and people won’t have the luxury of someone like New Order subsidising what they do. 

I still think Manchester is a great place. I now have two kids that are now old enough to be enjoying the nightlife themselves, and they have, in many ways, better choices than I had in the 1980s as a customer before I became a DJ. 

How was your music taste formed? What first made an impression on you in your formative years? 

Way back, I think Motown had a massive influence. I am just about old enough to remember the very late sixties, and you heard Motown everywhere at the time, on the radio, at the football, at the fairground. That was when I realised that music was going to part of my life and a constant soundtrack. When you saw Motown groups on the TV, they just seemed so classy, switched-on and cool. I was really young, but even then it really resonated with me. 

As you become older, you change, and you become aware of other stuff. I think when you start to discover stuff outside of the charts is also a very influential moment. As a teenager, realising music that was more than just what was on Top of the Pops and daytime radio was life-changing. I discovered John Peel, Joy Division and more at this point. I still listen to a lot of new music and love hearing new stuff, but what really triggered my interest was a combination of Motown and Factory mainly. 

What are your favourite songs to play in DJ sets? Which have stood the test of time? Do you have any contemporary favourites? 

My list of favourite tracks can change a lot depending on mood and many other factors, but I think there’s one tune that’s definitely in my top three somewhere and that’s ‘Ain’t Nobody' by Chaka Khan, which I started playing when I began my DJ career over thirty years ago and I still play. If I play that record in a club and it doesn’t go down well, it either means I’ve played it at the wrong time or the audience aren’t the right one for me. It’s kind of a tester record. Possibly ‘Blue Monday’ too, although I did have a spell of getting bored of it at one point. However, I have started playing it again recently. 




Rufus and Chaka Khan, 'Ain't Nobody'

Speaking of New Order, what did you make of Music Complete? 

For me, New Order can’t do any wrong. I like the return to the synth-based sound. I like the combination of everything they bring together, but I particularly love the electro-pop side. I felt the new album was of that type, and I really liked ‘Stray Dog’, the Iggy Pop track, which was really unexpected. Being lucky enough to know Stephen and Bernard, I know they will never choose the default position of opting for the expected and obvious. They are always looking to challenge and redefine themselves, which is why they are still a great group. They are always evolving in the way they want to evolve. 




New Order, 'Stray Dog'

What do you think about the current Manchester music scene? Do you think new bands resent the Madchester association and the weight of the past? Have the city’s leading musical lights held new acts back? 

I don’t think it’s bad if bands in Manchester do resent that. I think having an older generation to rebel against is what you need as a rock ‘n’ roll band. I remember the bands that were around in the late seventies and eighties including Stone Roses, Smiths and Joy Division hating a lot of what other bands were doing. They wanted to do things their own way and express themselves. The Stone Roses didn’t even want support bands because they felt like they didn’t really have any allies. The Smiths also felt they stood alone and Joy Division ploughed a very idiosyncratic furrow in what they did, and I think that’s part of how things should be. 

Having said that, I don’t think the new generation of Manchester bands realise how lucky they are to be part of a city which such a great musical reputation, which gives bands from the city extra credibility. So, new bands can have the best of both worlds: an older generation to rebel against and being able to rely on the reputation. If you are a talked-about band in Manchester, you automatically become the coolest band in Britain. If you make it here, you can make it anywhere. 




Everything Everything, 'Distant Past'

One of things I like about the current scene is that the best young Manchester bands don’t sound anything like what came before. Everything Everything are a strong example. They’re obviously not a new band now but they do feel like a post Hacienda-generation band, who are doing something new. I loved Everything Everything from the moment I saw them at the Roadhouse in front of 12 people. I never expected them to do as well as they have because I thought they might be too “out-there”. I also really like PINS, and the fact they are a girl band – most of the Manchester music scene has been dominated by male groups. 




PINS, 'Girls Like Us'

When I did a fanzine in the 1980s, I used to get criticised for not writing enough about local bands and focussing on US acts like Sonic Youth a lot. I used to respond in two ways: firstly, I don’t think music should be judged by postcode. Just because a band live down the road shouldn’t mean they have a bigger chance of becoming my favourite band than someone from New York or Paris. Music is international. Secondly, I used to say I will champion any band I am into enough. What tends to happen now is that I will only name one new Manchester band a year when people ask me which local acts I am currently championing rather than reeling off several names. I see it my job as to just get behind one, rather than namedrop various acts just because they are from Manchester. 

What made you sell your record collection? 

It’s a year since I said goodbye to my record collection and sent my records down to Seth Troxler, and I have not come to regret it. Even when I walk into cellar and see the empty shelves, I don’t feel any regrets. I just found I wanted to play music that wasn’t available on vinyl. My view as a DJ has always been that I should play whatever I want – I would take my favourite 200 or so records to a club and play them in the best order I can to turn other people on and to fill the dancefloor. If there’s a track I want to play and it’s not available on vinyl whilst I’m stuck in a vinyl-only groove, I’m just going to get frustrated. I found myself not playing the vinyl and opting for digital recordings again. 

As well as that, I had a Zen-like moment where I thought I could resist the tyranny of physical stuff and just get rid of it all, whilst allowing it to live on; Seth said he loved the collection and would continue to play it. He is only 30 so has a long career ahead of him. He plays a lot of great gigs and is in Ibiza every summer. 

The idea that the records were better off in my cellar being unplayed rather than being carted off to Ibiza, Australia or the Far East and for DJ sets seemed like nonsense. They have a life of their own – it’s like kids leaving home, travelling the world and having great success. I had affection for all the records but the time was right for them to fly the nest and make their own lives. I do have to listen to WAV – I don’t play MP3s. The difference between the quality of 12” vinyl and MP3 is depressing. 

I’m looking for the best quality I can in a digital world. Nonetheless, the weird thing about the modern world is that YouTube is better than my own collection in many ways. I do regularly come across brilliant stuff from 1982 or 1983 that I would have played to death in my sets had I encountered it before. I’m still discovering stuff that I wish I had access to 35 years ago, so the internet is a great resource. 

How did the Close Up interviews begin and which have been the most memorable? 

I actually started out as a journalist doing my own fanzine, interviewing bands and writers, and did some work for the NME and other magazines. The interviews began because, around fifteen years ago, I was talking to a friend about how I loved researching and doing interviews. I loved meeting people but didn’t enjoy transcribing and editing so much. I thought I could find a way of doing interviews but only with the bits I really loved. It took a while to start the Close Up interviews, but the moment finally came when I was asked to take part in the Manchester International Festival seven years ago and I started with a Guy Garvey interview. 

I think the format is so pure, with one very enthusiastic, interested and switched-on interviewer talking to an inspiring, interesting, iconic and creative person with a view to going a bit deeper than an audience might expect. The audience can watch an unedited, unrehearsed interview unfold in front of their eyes. I’ve interviewed some of my favourite writers, actors, actresses and a whole load of my musical heroes such as Nile Rodgers, David Byrne, Neneh Cherry and John Lydon, who was possibly my favourite. John is one of the most important people in our culture, let alone music, and it was fantastic to see him there, in real life, just metres away from me in a slightly difficult but also helpful and playful mood. It felt like the cumulation of everything I’d ever wanted to do. 

The Nile Rodgers interview was also amazing – I could tell the audience were feeling everything very deeply and loving the moment. The appreciation of what was happening flowed over me and Nile. I’ve also interviewed Paddy Considine around five times. When I first started doing the interviews I thought I would be talking to each person just once, but Paddy seemed to come to the conclusion that each interview should be part of a series and we should meet up once or twice each year – we plan to do another one at a bigger venue than last time in Manchester when his new film Journeyman comes out. To be able to commit to a series of interviews means you continue from where you left off each time. Paddy is a funny but also honest and thoughtful guy. I feel inspired to be a little more vulnerable when I am with him because we are both so honest – the interviews are always funny but also very intense. We end up talking about things that are very intimate and close to us. Over the series, we have really begun to trust each other. 

What was your reaction to Brexit? 

I was gutted really. Gutted. I think, although I have various friends who had very complicated and well-meaning reasons to vote to leave, which were usually to do with democracy and who has ultimate control over the laws of the land, I didn’t agree with their rationale but understood that they had some intellectual argument for their decision. However, I felt they were hoodwinked into supporting something deeply reactionary, unprogressive, divisive and horrible. However well-meaning some of the Leave supporters were, the prevailing mood was nasty and it was about an insular England, not even about Britain, England. I’m not using the word “racist” and I never did, but I thought that symbolically Brexit said that the country had given up being progressive, international, modern, inclusive, open and had instead become a small-minded little island, blaming everyone else for its own demise. The real enemy was never the EU. The idea that the EU is our real enemy is ridiculous. 

I have interviewed more than one Jeremy Corbyn supporter recently, but your social media posts suggest that you see things differently. What are your thoughts about the current Labour leadership?

You’re trying to get me in trouble! Ultimately, politics is a negotiation between principle and practicality, and some compromise is always necessary, unless you are a totalitarian leader. I feel that Corbyn and his supporters are unable to understand that there are people with reasonably similar views to them but who have decided that the Corbyn way is not the best way. Corbyn and his fan club don’t seem to realise that those people have something to contribute to the argument and the movement and the idea that if you are not 100% pure, you’re against us is something I hate. I think the Labour party should be a broad church and the leadership should be strong enough to bring together and keep together a very big collaboration of people from all backgrounds with possibly differing views about some of the issues, but I feel that the Corbyn way has, in a way fed the mood of divisiveness. I found that his way is as much “us and them” as the Brexit way, in the same way the Leave campaign was. 

The Leave voters would say “if you’re not 100% with us, you’re against us and you’re a traitor”, whilst the Corbyn way seems to say “if you’re not 100% with us, you’re against us and you’re a Blairite”. I found his campaign and his leadership style to be divisive. 

I appreciate that the membership has grown, but the people who vote Labour and potentially would vote Labour are the people who matter. I’m interested in the millions of people who want an alternative to the Tories and it’s their wishes and their lives that need reflecting. The Labour party in some ways belongs to its members but in other ways, its founding principle was to seek power for the workers, who are more than the members. The millions of people who voted in the Labour MPs are the ones that matter, and their voices and concerns are multiple and various. 

It’s easy to call someone who isn’t 100% signed up to Corbyn a Blairite or accuse them of being on the right. I don’t think there is a single Labour MP who is a member of the party or who has sought to be elected as a Labour MP who is a closet Tory. There’s no point denigrating people who have been elected by Labour party supporters and voters. Those MPs are representing millions of people and shouldn’t be denigrated – the leadership needs to be canny enough to move beyond left and right and I think that Corbyn doesn’t understand that. 

What were your highlights of 2016? What are your plans for 2017? 

The highlight of 2016 was spending the day with and interviewing Roisin Murphy at Liverpool Sound City and coming over to Manchester for an event at Gorilla. I think Roisin is a superstar and is a very creative, energised, clever person. I am doing a few things for Manchester International Festival in 2017 and have begun work on book five – at the moment it’s a secret project but will be spreading the word on that when the time is right. Every year I look to have some good DJ dates in the diary. I know that if I have a good DJ night I know that all the shit about Brexit, Corbyn, Manchester this, Manchester that, old age, selling your records, mid-life crisis etc doesn’t matter, because I know if I am behind the decks, playing the music for an audience that loves it, I’m flying for weeks afterwards. As long as there’s one of them every month, I will survive.

Thanks, Dave!


I am also on Twitter again as 
@lichfieldinter1, reluctantly. 

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