Erol Alkan remains one of the most vital figures in clubland. His legendary 'alternative' night 'Trash' ran for ten years and, with no exaggeration intended, changed the way me and my friends danced to music in clubs. It was the single reason I began DJing. I would visit the website, scouring the charts and podcasts every single day - a full year or two before I had even visited The End. Under different monikers, he has turned kids onto psychedelia, disco, proto-house, big beat, post-punk, bootlegs and, of course, huge club music; his two singles with Boys Noize have worked the blog world into a lather this past year. Now, his Phantasy Record Label and BBC 6Music residency have given people even more insight into his tastes. I met Erol in a bar playing an odd mixture of Notorious BIG and The Velvet Underground.
Phantasy really looks to be taking shape, representing a lot of different styles within your world.
"The key for me is to make sure it's not all one type of music - not just to represent what I do as a club DJ. It's one way of being able to draw people in who might be interested in one side of what I do. I don't have this aspiration to set the label up as a brand - we don't even have a logo and I'm really happy about that. The deals that we do with artists are suicidal for a label. The concept of vinyl has depleted in certain circles and we just want to create an artefact that people want to own."
I went home to my parents' house the other week and was flicking through a lot of the records I bought as a teenager. All the Output stuff and DFA releases - these records literally changed my life back then. I'm really glad I actually own these things and they're not just MP3s on my computer...
"Yeah absolutely. I mean, for us, there hasn't really been any sort of game plan. We've just put out records we've really liked. The difference between 'Bangkok' and Babe Terror is huge - they are almost exact opposites of the musical spectrum but there is something which runs between them all and hopefully makes sense."
That's you, right? Erol Alkan and your musical taste…
"Yeah but…I like it when people don't like something else I do. I've always liked the fact that people can be into Beyond The Wizard's Sleeve but hate what I do as a club DJ. Or that there are people who were really into 'Trash' but would never go to 'Bugged Ou't. I think that's a weirdly positive thing. I've never really wanted these things to cross over - I feel that they have more strength being separate."
You have reached a stage where a lot of people look to you. I remember once reading something you'd posted before a festival: "please don't come expecting a Trash set, I'll be playing techno." Now, I may be way off here, but have you ever felt restricted by people's expectations of you?
"My staunch belief was that whatever I did at 'Trash' remained within those walls because the success of the club wasn't just down to what I did - is was everyone else from the other DJs to the sound man to the manager and the door staff. It was something we achieved as a collective and I didn't want to tour it. It probably was a good idea because it allowed me to create this other 'persona' which, I'd like to add, was [leans right into the mic] all completely accidental [laughs]. I never wanted to be a big club DJ, I was just playing records I liked and doing it in a way which I found exciting. If I had just gone around the world playing Trash sets, would I still be doing it now? The answer is no. I could still play sets like that if I felt alternative music was still in the same place but it isn't. What Trash helped create kind of destroyed what alternative music was back then. Trash was electronic club music and guitar bands played together - now bands want to be both things."
And nowadays, do you ever feel a certain responsibility as to what you should play as a club DJ?
"It all depends how well you can read a situation. For example, a few years ago, I would play a club set and throw in what people called 'curveballs' such as Rage Against The Machine or The White Stripes. Thinking about it, what would today's equivalent of a curveball be for me? Where a track is completely from another place. 7 Nation Army was probably the last great one. The curveball now is not to a have a curveball. I started playing Killing In The Name in 2006 and it was great but the electronic music it aligned with… all got a bit pumped at that point. Which I'm really sorry about!! [laughs]. It all got a bit over the top."
Were you constrained by that noisy sound for a period? I think the last club mix on your podcast was from Global Gathering a few years ago and almost seemed like it was you seeing how far you could push it. It's like you were saying "that is as far as I will go."
"You know what? I deliberately stopped putting club music up. There was no point after that. If people are going to subscribe to your podcast then try and give them something which they may not be aware of. If you are eighteen years old and you haven't been exposed to disco music or psychedelia or the stuff I play on my 6Music show and it's right in front of you then I think that's a good thing. If you can plant these seeds then hopefully it can expand your horizons as to what you can do as a DJ."
What's your current take on the state of club music within our world? I've seen you play a lot of times and recently you seem the most comfortable you've been in the past few years. You're definitely enjoying it a lot and there are loads of different styles coming together.
"Oh yeah definitely. The last six months have probably been the best time in the past two and a half years. It always happens this way. Going back to Trash - that ran for ten years. There was always this sort of rule that you'd spend two years working towards something and trying to pull bits together, finding the things you really like and set it up in a way where the next year and a half would just unfold in front of you. It happens culturally too. Just look at the few years after Britpop ended - they were some murky times and all the 'big' records were terrible. The same happens with DJing, you can't expect it to always be high - you're playing other peoples records and you're only in control of a part of it. But you can't complain and say there aren't enough good records out there, you need to be making the good records as well. For instance, the records with Boys Noize have often been the biggest tracks in our DJ sets."
And you mentioned the other day that your two releases so far have both been split into two halves…
"Yeah, I just feel that something which satisfies me is to have one side as a banger and then there's another track which has a different quality and depth to it. I like that polarising thing. The worst thing in the world would be for it to all be a linear streak of averageness. I like things to be high or low, up or down… because that's how I am all of the time."
Throughout the years, you've always seemed to be a fan of, for want of a much better phrase, 'bombastic records.' Things with an out there drum break in the middle, or tracks which stop dead with a spoken word bit or the tempo goes nuts. So, I'm guessing this plays a big part when you're making music?
"Totally. I just like oddness really. I like things which are unpredictable and strange. Music that wakes people up. I guess there's another strain of 'bombastic' overly banging music, which I'm not a fan of. But I do like records which twist and turn and the first time people hear it they remember it. I do definitely look for those records."
I always associate that 'Coughing Is Good' record with you. It just cuts into two people having a conversation. The crowd must have thought "what the hell is going on?"
"Yeah I used to love that!"
I've recently been fascinated by a lot of DJ history stories, particularly early New York club land. That idea of the DJ turning off all the lights and playing a sound effect record of an approaching train and slamming the strobe on with a beat and the place going crazy. For me personally, there are too many DJs obsessed with making a perfectly mixed two hour set of 4/4 beats. You're obviously someone who isn't like that because you don't originally come from that house world…
"Nah, it's all about keeping myself interested. I'm a firm believer that the lighting guy is as important as the DJ if he's locked in with you. If they're on your side then the night has been twice as good because there's that other sensory level to everything. I just wish I could control the lights more whilst I was DJing [laughs]. Actually, all the indie clubs used to have the smoke machine and strobe next to you in the booth, and I used to control all those elements whilst I DJed, so I come from that world anyway."
There was so much buzz around your 7 hour set. How important a role has Bugged Out played in your career?
"The most, the most!!. Johnno [Burgess, the man behind it all] took a punt on me. One night I ended up 'round his house and he had some decks set up. Being so young I jumped on them and pulled records out of his collection and DJed for what seemed like hours. He probably saw enough proof that I could mix two records so he called me up and asked if I wanted to fill in for David Holmes at Fabric. I was going to go anyway. After an hour into my set he asked if I wanted to be a resident. They set me up with Decked Out who went on to be my agents and I've DJed every weekend since and that was nine years ago. It has all felt really natural. I didn't have the confidence to think I would ever infiltrate 'real' clubland. Back then I never thought I'd ever get to play on CD players that worked or record players that didn't jump."
Tune into Erol's next BBC 6Music show on Sunday 25th April and watch out for the massive 'Bugged Out Planet Turbo' night at The Coronet, London SE1 on Saturday May 1st with Tiga, Boys Noize, Erol Alkan, Thomas Von Party, Trevor Jackson, DMX Krew and Matt Walsh.
Words Dan Avery