Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Bill Brewster in conversation

Last Friday night, Red Bull Studio hosted Bill Brewster in conversation. He was interviewed by Nick D, who got him talking about growing up in Grimsby, discovering clubs, and ending up in New York in the early 90s. It was a fascinating evening.

Nick started by asking Bill, what took you so long to get here? Bill said he never got enough gigs down this way to make it worthwhile, only individual offers for one offs in Japan, Australia. "I was very keen to come here, I knew lots of Kiwis when I lived in New York". He just needed to line up enough gigs.

Nick "Bill  you were born in a sleepy town called Grimsby, can we call it that?"
Bill: "It's a shithole. The name gives it away...it didn't have any record shops, which confirmed its shitness." 

Bill says there were a few electrical shops that had a box of records for sale. They also got some bands through Grimsby, he mentioned seeing Queen early in their career, and the first gig he went to was Leo Sayer.

He had a few friends, who turned out to be gay, and they were into Northern Soul, and they got him into that, which was his first taste of the club scene, in 1976. He saw the Sex Pistols in 1976 on their tour following their legendary foul-mouthed TV appearance with Bill Grundy. A lot of their shows on that tour got cancelled, and they had been scheduled to play in Leeds. That show got canned, and was shifted to the Cleethorpes Winter Gardens at the last minute, where Bill saw them. He was hooked by punk.

Bill moved to London the following year, and got a job as a chef. He had trained in Grimsby, and thought he would have to spend ten years working his way up to get a decent gig, but his tutor told him to write to the top 5 hotels in the UK, and sure enough, one of them hired him. 

In 1980 he relocated to Switzerland for work, and stayed there for two years. He moved back and started a band. They did a demo at Cargo Studio, because Gang of Four and Joy Division had recorded there. Then they sent it off to the top 5 record labels, and got signed, to Kamera (The Fall, Marc Almond, Allez Allez, Palais Schaumburg).

Bill plays a tune - Shack up by A Certain Ratio, and talks about how this tune led him to discover the original by Banbarra [listen], which led him to other music.

He started hitchhiking to Nottingham to go to clubs like Garage, with Graham Park DJing, in 1981. He used to got to Manchester for the weekend, it was a few hours drive from Grimsby. He went to the Hacienda for the first time in 1983 - it had really bad sound. Bill says the mythology of the Hacienda really started with the arrival of ecstasy.

He rattled of a string of artists he heard played at that time, like Grandmaster Flash, Schoolly D, D Train, Gil Scott Heron, The Clash, Soft Cell, early Thompson Twins, Dr John, a bunch more. 

Bill started DJing in 1986. He moved back to London at the end of 86, squatting in Hackney, signing on the dole, and writing for a football mag called When Saturday Comes. 

Bill talked about the time he heard DJ Marc Moore play nothing but house - "It felt like an assault." It was not what he was used to hearing from a DJ. He hated it. He avoided House for the next year - "It was a right old racket." He stuck with rare groove instead.

He had ecstasy at a gay club called Troll, and an hour later he was like "F*cking hell, this is the best thing ever!" He says that he didn't go to any straight clubs for two or three years - "I was a fag hag." The London gay scene is quite closed, he says - not many DJs break out of that scene. 

Bill plays another tune, a House number called  No Smoke by Koro Koro, and while it's playing he throws his hands up and says "I'm f*ckin on one, matey!"

Nick asks if he went to any of those famous nights you hear about, like Danny Rampling?
Bill: "No, I was hanging out with a bunch of fags."

Bill says the first DJ who showed him that DJing was an art was seeing Danny Tenaglia, at Ministry of Sound. He saw how DJs could come on at 230am and play til 9 or 10, and they took you on a journey, thru disco, the classics, and so on. "I was like  'wow, that's what you can do...'. Watching how they mixed and used filters and eqs was a real eye opener."

He started writing for Mixmag, doing some football stuff for them and mentioned he was into music. He freelanced for them, and when he left When Saturday Comes in 93, Mixmag offered him a job. He moved to New York to run their office there a year later - he also ran the DMC competitions in the US for them - he traveled with Roc Raida to the 95 final in the UK, which Roc Raida won.

He discovered New York House music was different to what he'd heard in the UK - they used filters and effects more. Some "couldn't keep their hands off it, like Joe Claussell, working the crossovers constantly. Y'know get ya hands off it mate!"

And then Bill plays a Joe Claussell track. Naturally.

Bill went to the Sound Factory every week, to hear Junior Vasquez play. Vasquez was the resident DJ, and he would play from 2am til 1 - most clubs there had residents, unlike the UK where you had guest DJs playing a two hour set.

Watch: Junior Vasquez at the Sound Factory in 93, interview with him at 6.28

Bill moved back to the UK two and a half years later, with three and a half thousand records. When he arrived in NYC, he had 55 records.

Bill plays a record that was big in NYC, by a British new romantic band that no one in Britain had heard of. He says "I loved that people in New York had really eclectic tastes."

Bill met Frank Broughton a week after he moved to New York. Frank was working as a stringer, writing for various UK mags.

They found there were a lot of people in NYC who knew the history of records in clubs, like you'd talk about a record, and they'd go 'oh that was big in such and such a club, so and so broke it'. They originally wanted to write about New York, as all this knowledge had never been documented, so that was the genesis for the book Last Night A DJ Saved My Life.

They did a lot of research before they started interviewing for the book. Bill later mentions he has 25 years of the NME in his loft, and all of the issues of The Face.

They found they'd interview someone, and that person would say 'you know there was this person before me...' and they'd go off and interview that person. Which eventually led them to Francis Grasso.

Grasso was working in construction, and he'd had a hard life - his face had been rearranged by the Mafia at one point. Grasso didn't show up for interviews, so Frank doorstopped (showed up unannounced at his doorstep) him and they went to a bar down the road at 10am. Eighteen months later Grasso committed suicide.

Bill says that all too often, the people that make history don't make any money. That's what it's like for DJ, guys like Kool Herc. "The role of our book was to shine a light on them. So it was tinged with sadness."

Nick throws it over to the audience for questions. I ask Bill how they decided what stories to put in or leave out of their book. He says they chose to focus on the DJs who came first, not the most famous.

Someone asks him who his favourite interview subjects were for the book. He says Fabio, who is a great raconteur and storyteller, and David Mancuso - "he was completely incoherent, damaged by drugs, and half way through the interview, the waitress dropped a plate of spaghetti in his lap." Which Bill clarifies was an accident  -she didn't throw it at him.

Bill talked about how a kid from Grimsby, or Dunedin, can get online and listen to almost every record ever made now. When Bill was 16, he says it was much harder to find music. It made you value it much more - paying money for an import vinyl rather than a download on Beatport.

Someone asked for his current musical likes. He mentioned Toro Y Moi, and a few others, what he calls bedroom bands. "The thirst for technology in dance music makes it stand head and shoulders above indie music for me."

And how many records does he have? About 12,000, but he moved house a few years back, and his record room only holds 9,500 - the rest are out in storage in his garage. He asked us if we knew of the crazy cat lady? Apparently that was Bill, before he met his wife - living with stuff piled up everywhere. But now his wife has shown him there is a another way to live, as he put it. Hence his record room. His records are sorted by genre, and alphabetical.

Someone asked why he plays off CD? He said that a few years back, airlines in Europe and the UK started clamping down on baggage allowances, and he was getting stung with big fines, so switched to CD.

He rips to vinyl on his laptop.  He described his setup for this as pretty basic, a very good needle on a Technics 1200, thru a mixer, which he said is apparently a no-no. While it's not the flashest setup, he says it still sounds good.

There was a ton of other topics Bill covered, like who he missed out on interviewing for the book  - Shep Pettibone proved elusive, apparently he'd been burnt by his experiences with Madonna and the business. But Bill pointed out they did get some of the originals before they passed away, which he was glad, that they got their stories before it was too late.

The evening came to an end - Thank to Bill, and everyone involved in bringing him out here and putting on the talk. Cheers!

If you feel like you missed out (you totally did), here's Bill being interviewed by expat Kiwi Chris Tubbs. Three parts...

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