Interview with ERIC POWELL – Part 1
Eric Powell first started his long career in Manchester playing at church discos and after-hours at Man Alive where the older generation would play dominos and worked his way up quickly through the ranks to become one of UK’s most sought-after DJs.
Karen Lowe spoke to Eric about Carl Cox and their Mobile Disco, Bush Records, Georgio Armani and some of his most memorable gigs. This is part 1 of a 2 part interview. Part 2 will follow next week.
You are about to tour with Carl Cox and a band called Incognito with your Mobile Disco. How did that come about? And what is the idea behind the mobile disco?
We’ve been doing the mobile disco for about 12 years now, 11 years actually. We had our tenth anniversary last year. So Carl and myself have similar backgrounds. His family are from Barbados in the West Indies and my dad is from Saint Kitts in the West Indies so we had similar musical upbringing, listening to reggae and soul, Motown and Stax and all that stuff as we were growing up.
I didn’t know Carl until I was probably in my twenties and we started to do the raves in the UK. We were playing techno at that stage. This was in the UK and there was a kind of mutual appreciation society so I would wait and see what Carl was doing and what he was playing, he’d wait and see what I was playing.
Fast forward to coming to Australia, Carl used to manage me as a DJ as well and then when we had the opportunity, myself and my wife, to go to a couple of different commonwealth countries and Australia was one of those – in Melbourne and Sydney. This is a bit of a story.
What had happened was, this was in 1998, and we got a couple of offers. One was in Tamworth and then the other one was in Mount Eliza (that’s in Mornington) and I had never been to Australia at that stage. Carl had been a few times, so I dashed around and said ‘where’s Tamworth?’ and someone told me it was Sydney, and it’s not really, we found out since that it’s about four hours from Sydney and they said Mornington was Melbourne. This was before the internet. Well, the internet was around but it was in its infancy, so there was nothing on the internet.
Carl was the one that said that he thought that Melbourne was closest musically and fashion-wise to what I was in to so he got me over to Mornington and it was only gonna be for a year. That was 18 years ago. Carl used to pop over, just for a break and he wouldn’t tell anyone. He would tell us he was coming but he wouldn’t tell anyone where he was so they’d think he was somewhere in South America or in Europe but he’d be in little old Mornington hanging out.
We used to go to the wineries and go have dinner with his girlfriend and my wife. We ended up at a winery called Stillwater, in Dromana and Zac, the head chef and the owner at Stillwater, he came out and he used to go to the different raves and clubs that Carl and I used to play, so he knew who we were.
We started to have a chat and then he said “oh it’d be great to just do an old party for just friends and play all the stuff that has influenced us over the years and their friends can bring their kids. The first time we did this for two hundred people…at that stage raves or festivals had turned into these huge, huge events and you would have Ferris Wheels and fairground rides and all sorts. It stopped being about the music and was more about the overall experience.
So we decided to do this little party with two hundred people. We decided to make it as much not an event as possible so we didn’t want to do up a stage and the restaurant’s got a balcony so we did it on the balcony. We didn’t charge – just got our friends to turn up. That first year was 200 people and then we did it the next year and it was 400 people; then we did it the year after and it was 800 and it just grew exponentially.
At this stage we still weren’t charging anybody but the infrastructure was growing, still no stage on the balcony but it went from people dancing on the balcony to us DJ’ing off the balcony and then were dancing on the green because Stillwater is an unbelievable place.
That was it. It was all about the music. We just played everything that influenced us. Stuff that our parents used to play; stuff that we kind of started to play in the early days and then anything up to whatever was released but as long as it fit in within those perimeters of being kind of funky really.
That was the third year. Then I think the fourth year, we decided that it had kind of outgrown….oh and the fires had been through the Yarra Valley so we thought we’d do it in the Yarra Valley, get the fire service involved and make a donation to help them regenerate. We did it again the next year and we had De La Soul play. We sold two thousand tickets and that was incredible, it was absolutely unbelievable. This was in the Yarra Valley, a place called Immerse.
Carl and myself had a debrief and we said “it’s growing too fast, let’s go back to Stillwater and reduce it back to 600 people”. That’s what we did and then it’s grown and grown again but it’s grown from people – not from marketing and advertising.
Now we’ve ended up 11 years later with two thousand like-minded people all in the same place at the same time and just up for it. You can see when people come to the gig for the first time, cause they wander in and they’re like “it’s a nice place, where’s this? Where’s that?” Then they slowly but surely get into it because we play jazz, funk and soul. We’re very, very chilled for the first three hours and then by the time we’re finished (it finishes early – about 9pm) with classic house.
We started to do it because we just wanted to play stuff that we didn’t get the opportunity to play and it was a little bit left of centre. I think in the 11 years, other people are doing similar stuff. I mean, you’ve got Glitterbox and that type of stuff, still not quite where we’re at but you can see what other people are doing. We’ve got our niche and we are really, really happy and it turned into a tour because we were getting requests.
It wasn’t because we suddenly decided we were gonna take on the world. It was – ok, we’ve had a request. We only did a couple in Sydney in the first two years and then decided we didn’t want to as it was just us going out and playing to our friends. As soon as it turned into something that was more serious we would pull it back. From the amount of people that have come to the Dromana event from Adelaide or outside of Melbourne, we got requests. So we decided to go to Adelaide and it sold out in a day. It was like wow! This is incredible.
So we decided to put a tour together with the same ethos of what Dromana is all about. Last year was the first time we did Adelaide. We did Melbourne, Adelaide and then we took over Return to Rio. That’s in NSW and that’s an incredible event. They asked us if we would play and we said “Can we take over the main stage?” We didn’t expect them to say yes but they did. So we did that last year and we’re gonna do it this year for the last time.
We did it with De La Soul last year, we had some issues with De La Soul, which is a shame because we thought they were, you know not friends but they turned up in a bad mood and it just all turned to shit really. They did a great show, they were unbelievable…they just…I won’t go into it but anyway it was difficult.
We moved it from Dromana to Riva last year as well and that sold out. It was fantastic. This year we decided to do Incognito. We get bands that we can relate to and it’s people that have influenced us and fit within our boundaries…Carl and I are pretty selfish. We’re not in general but for this show, we’re like right! This is the band we’re gonna book because they fit. What we did last year is we got Alison Limerick as well. She did Where Love Lives.
We don’t announce all the artists because it’s not about coming for the artist so we announced Alison last year after we’d sold out and she did an unbelievable performance. So we had De La Soul, myself, Carl and Alison Limerick. I think last year we didn’t even announce De La Sol for the first two weeks because we wanted it to be about the mobile disco.
This year Incognito, you know, Carl and I have known them – not personally but known about them. They used to be a band called Light the World so when I was 16, I used to go and watch this band before they morphed into Incognito. Unbelievable.
We decided to book them. There’s gonna be 12 people on stage, they’ve got a great back catalogue, they really understand. They’ve got some fantastic cover versions of Stevie Wonder and The Jones Girls and it fits in exactly with what we do.
This year it’s Adelaide again which is sold out; Return to Rio which is sold out and Mornington Racecourse for the first time for us which is gorgeous. It’s on the lawn – just next to the racecourse itself and Brisbane Botanical Gardens. So as much as it’s about the music, it’s also finding the right venue. We try and find unique venues – even if it’s a venue that hasn’t done the stuff that we do.
This year it’s grown and it looks like it’s gonna sell out and we’re just really excited. We’re about to announce a couple of the vocalists, so it’s a girl called Melanie Williams who did Ain’t No Love and a guy called Joe Roberts and a band called St Mercy. That’s a bit selfish again.
I’m from Manchester originally and I know those guys. I’ve produced those guys and we’ve had a couple of minor hits so I know they still can perform well. We’re bringing them over and the way we do it is more like a sound system so the band will be on and they do their set but then with the singers, they’ll just come and join us every now and again.
You started off your career in Manchester. How has the industry changed since then and has it been for the better or worse?
I think it has changed but when I started; I didn’t start wanting to be a DJ. I just loved music and it was vinyl at the time. It was a physical product and I’d spend my last five pounds on an album and I’d go to the record shop which was in the city and I’d have to walk home.
At the time, I wasn’t thinking I’m doing this because I have this big master plan. I just absolutely loved music and I loved the new approaches to music so I got into soul and reggae from the influences of my sister, my mum and my dad and then my friends at school. Then electro, not electro, the electro was a pre-cursor to hip-hop and I love new ways of making music and new approaches of making music.
I was just a music lover that bought vinyl and when my mates had parties they would ask me to bring my records with me (I mean it’s such a different landscape now where you just plug in your iPod) so they’d ask me to bring my records with me and I’d play them.
Then someone asked me to do the church disco so then I did the church disco. The thing with the church disco is that you were in a room and you had to open the door to see the dance floor and then go back in because it was just a hotchpotch. You weren’t doing it because you wanted to be front and centre – you just wanted to play music.
Then I started to DJ in Manchester. It was not because I was a DJ but because I had the records. I learned how to use the SL 1200. I come from a working class background and we couldn’t afford one so I learned how to DJ by DJ’ing live and using turntables and stuff. I ended up being a resident at the Hacienda and my career moved forward. One of the things that changed about being a DJ is that people step into it and they have a vision of where they want to be career-wise and I think that’s the difference.
I think in the past, I’m not saying one is better than the other but in the past, I think it was the passion for the music. Now I think there’s an element…the passion is there but, with that passion, there’s also a desire to be the front and centre and to entertain and to be the guy whereas I’d quite happily DJ behind a curtain.
Access to music – things have changed there. When it’s a physical product once it’s sold out, it’s sold out. You can’t get a copy so you would be much more determined that you got that record and you bought it and you kept hold of it, whereas now, I mean, I’m as guilty as anyone, I’ve got a folder full of thousands and thousands of tracks and when that happens the tangibility isn’t the same.
So, I think sometimes there isn’t the same link between holding a record and playing something from a folder. Again, I’m not saying one is better, that’s good because you have access to anything and everything. For me it’s no good to sit back to say it’s not as good because it is just as good but in a different way.
When it comes to sharing, as much as you’ve got folders full of music, thousands of files and when it’s something as tangible as vinyl or CDs and you said to somebody “this is a great album, I’m gonna lend you the CD to listen to.” You’d lend it to them and because you would ask for it back, there’s an obligation for the person to listen to the CD and it became part of a conversation. “Did you listen to it?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Can I have that CD back?”
Then they might say they haven’t listened to it yet so they listen to it and the conversation would be about the music.
Now I think when you share a folder you’ll say you’ll love this track and you send it and it just goes into a folder, you never have to ask for it back so there’s never a conversation that moves forward and that’s an unintended consequence. I think there’s less talk about, with groups of people talking about and sharing a different way. In the past, you shared and you would expect to get it back. Now you share and the person keeps it and you may never, ever talk about it after sending it to them.
So there’s an unintended consequence which results in now how passionate you are. You buy a CD and you spend whatever it is and you lend it to somebody, you want it back, you know, “give it back!”
There’s no mixtapes going around any more either
And mixtapes, yes! That’s another, definitely because you listen to stuff, when it’s physical, you’d get a mixtape and you’d ID those tracks and try to find them and now you’ve got Spotify and your playlists. Good and bad on both sides.
I love the convenience of having a file and as technology improves, those files are going to be the equivalent of holding a piece of vinyl, sonically. I remember running through and trying to catch a train and carrying a record box that weighed 30 kilos and as your career improves, then you’re running to catch a plane. I’ve still got a dodgy shoulder now because of record boxes. I love the USB, shove the USB in your pocket and any time, anywhere, you’re ready to go.
What are your thoughts on the current state of music – the EDM scene etc? And how do you feel about social media?
There’s loads of great music around. It’s much easier to make music because of technology, but it’s just as hard to make great music. The unintended consequence of it being really, really easy to make music is that there’s lots and lots of stuff out there. No one goes out to make rubbish music but, because it doesn’t cost you anything financially.
When you were making music up until 2005, you had to hire a studio and that would cost you x and when you wanted to release it, you went through the whole process of mastering and pressing the vinyl so it would cost anything between ten thousand and twenty thousand pounds to release a single.
If that’s happening, you’ve got to be willing or believe in that track to be able to spend ten thousand pounds on it so by default, the tracks that people aren’t sure about? They won’t invest that.
What happens now is that it doesn’t cost anything really to go into a studio. You can make your stuff at home and you can upload it to SoundCloud as soon as you’ve finished it so there’s no financial cost and because there’s not a financial cost, there’s just loads of stuff out there.
There’s lots of great stuff out there but there’s more average stuff than ever. It’s being able to sort through all the average stuff. SoundCloud’s got fantastic music and it’s great but you do have to scroll through a whole heap of pretty average stuff to get to the good stuff sometimes.
Social media – I have my friends and then you have your social media friends. Some real friends are also social media friends and some social media friends are not real friends. As long as you can separate the two and you don’t get carried away, I quite like social media. I don’t like social media when it takes over your life; again it’s the convenience of being able to speak to people.
I don’t share my life, I don’t put photos up or anything, other people do and that’s up to them. I use social media to suit me but you can’t close Pandora’s Box and there’s a reason why social media is popular. If you’re of a certain age, you can sit back and say I hate this and I hate that but there’s some great bits of social media and it’s a fantastic thing. There’s some terrible parts of social media – keyboard warriors for example.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this example, somebody gave me an example, social media makes pressure groups for example, of whatever level that is. You give them more power than they should have. If you had somebody in Australia that loves blue tomatoes and there’s three people in Australia that love blue tomatoes well, without social media no one’s gonna find out about that.
Then you may have somebody in Italy that loves blue tomatoes and it’s unlikely that the people in Australia and the people in Italy are gonna get together without social media. With social media, all of a sudden, you’ve got six people online pretending that there’s this big movement for blue tomatoes. It’s all bollocks. That’s the thing with social media, I think we give it more importance than it should have. I hope that makes sense.
END OF PART 1 – PART 2 OUT NEXT MONDAY