The DMC Interview
Spencer Hickson (aka Desyfer) is a multitasking music producer, DJ and label owner, who has been involved in the music industry for over 25 years. As an early pioneer of the underground scene in the UK his depth of knowledge and unbounded creativity have seen him continually develop and evolve as an artist over the years. With numerous releases spanning the late 90’s and 00’s, the launch of his own label was a natural progression and 2010 saw the birth of Tactal Hots Music – a fitting tribute anagramming the name of his friend & mentor, Scott Latham, who partnered him as Phoenix. From the first signing of French producer Eric Franchet and continued collaborations with FOTN & Hipnosys, the thriving North West (UK) underground label has steadily built its reputation as a go to source for quality underground tunes. By joining the dots between the likes of Desyfer’s massive anthem ‘831’ (Global Beat, 1999); ‘Tula’ (featured on the ‘City Rats’ movie soundtrack, 2009); ‘Then Again’ feat. Jesse (Tactal Hots, 2011); and his more recent productions, such as ‘Ritorno’ and ‘Neuro’ (both Tactal Hots, 2017); a picture emerges of an artist dedicated to carefully producing music that embeds itself into the listener’s heart and soul – quality over quantity, every time. Spencer has also produced under numerous other guises over the years, including Phoenix (whose classic ‘Rise Up’ on Solid Silver Recordings was featured by Sasha in his landmark 1995 BBC Radio 1 ‘Essential Mix’, and has now recently been remixed for its 20th anniversary). Then there’s the Sundogs project (with fellow producer FOTN) and a collaborative pairing with Hipnosys – all bearing the mark of a creative mind constantly exploring new ideas. Here at DMC we’re always up for digging deeper and bringing some truly underground talent to your attention, so here we go…
Spencer, a huge welcome to DMCWORLD and congratulations on the release of your new Desyfer single ‘Porrima’ / ‘Radhika’ on your Tactal Hots label. Two different sides to your creative palette are on display here – talk us through the creative process?
For me when I start making a track, it’s always been about creating a melody or a hook that’s going to be the core of the track – even if other elements get taken out, the first element that kind of drives the idea, always stays in. This is, I guess, a process – not always planned or deeply thought out, but just something that comes from jamming some sounds with some FX that I’m playing with in that moment.
I like this part much more than finishing a track, as you have complete freedom and at this stage of writing and it can go anywhere. And I think that’s what you hear in these two tracks. I’ve never been a big planner in terms of writing a track – I just go with the feeling that’s been created first off. Then comes the planning, how it fits with the elements and how it works in terms of transitions, as I build it and put some of my usual identity to the track.
For anyone not already familiar the music you’ve been creating, how would you describe your style? Can you put your finger on the elements of your music that makes it so engaging and distinctive?
I never find this question easy to answer… Is my music so engaging or distinctive to me after hours/days or weeks creating it? I’ve always felt, as writers, we lose that wonderful experience you get when you first hear a track. It’s an amazing experience to hear a new track in it’s finished form – you really get to enjoy it without the attachment, because it’s not yours. That’s the double-edged sword of being creative – we never experience our own music like we do others’. My music always has a deep melodic feel to it, that’s how I see and hear music – it takes you on a journey, so I guess that would be my signature in my music.
Where do you stand on the analogue vs. digital debate? Where do you see things developing next?
I wouldn’t see it as versus each other, I think they sit alongside each other and work extremely well together. I love working with both for different parts of a track, obviously with analogue you get that “hands on” feel and the sound is amazing – there’s real texture and depth to analogue gear. It makes you work a little harder, as you need to get it down, whereas with a VST you can keep coming back to it, which when you’re in the flow, maybe gets in the way of committing to a sound? There is some awesome kit coming out from Novation and Behringer currently – the deepmind stuff is really amazing, blending analogue and digital in one polysynth, and that’s where I can see lots more synth manufacturers following suit. Exciting times for sure!
Do you find it easy to express your emotions in your music, or is this something that finds an outlet only in certain, special tracks?
Yes, very much so! I’ve probably produced my best tracks when I’ve been low or emotional. ‘Neuro’ (a track I wrote last year) came about following the completion of my counselling degree – it was a emotional time coming to the end of the course, juggling the work and counselling young people at a local high school, and I recall feeling really low one night and decided to start a new track. On reflection, it came together very quickly and it was almost finished in one session. I can’t really remember making it either – I guess I was just in the zone and got on with it? Being emotional when writing allows me to discover something about myself.
Tell us something about the psychological effects of music that totally blows your mind?
Hearing electronic music in a club, really LOUD, is mind altering for sure! That’s where the music completely comes alive – it fills the whole space, and you can really hear those frequencies that may not appear at a lower level, so the intensity is mind-blowing and it takes you on a journey.
Let’s rewind for a moment, what are your earliest musical memories?
I distinctly remember hearing a disco track on the radio… I was probably about 5 years old, and maybe it was that 4/4 beat that jumped out at me? Other memories would have been hearing my father play various Beatles songs on an old organ he had. I got a drum kit for Christmas one year – the idea was I was going to form a band. We lived out in the sticks and I only new one other person who was learning to play the guitar, but he lived miles away! I clearly hadn’t thought it through and, well I was only 9 at the time, but I guess music was part of my destiny in someway even then.
How did your musical tastes develop? When did dance music come into your life?
I first heard dance music in 1988 on tapes we would pass around from Key 103 from the Sunday show – I’d never heard anything quite like it (Stu Allan had a legendary show on this Manchester station that was essential listening for all northern ravers). My best friend had moved to Tarporley from Manchester – Tarporley is a very small village, with nothing at all going on – and his friends would visit from Manchester, and started to bring DJ tapes. Once we started driving, that completely changed everything! We then had the ability to go to gigs, raves and, eventually, clubs. I recall it being grey and drab before, then hearing dance music and, all of a sudden, it changed to bright colours, loud music with big sound systems driving the beat and vibe… Wow! What a change! Dance music had totally arrived in my world! Me and my friends were on it, every week, dancing in soaked clothes until the early hours! It was a really great time to be involved in the scene – it was new, it was pure and it was real!
At what point did you get into producing and DJing?
I said to a friend, in 1991, that we needed to be involved in this scene in some way… I wasn’t sure how, but I knew this was what I was totally into. Starting to DJ happened in 1993, when a friend of mine didn’t have anywhere to live, so I offered to let him stay on my couch – all he had was a bag and a pair of 1210’s and a mixer! I started playing then, but soon his situation became worse, so I bought the decks off him. I loved the hunting part of buying vinyl – back then it was about getting tracks you’d heard played out or on a mixtape, and it was so hard to get track ID’s, so it was a case of spending hours in shops listening to tracks, but you’d always discover a gem or two, so it was never wasted hours. A record shop had opened in the town I was living in 1994 and my father had bought a local nightclub, so I put on a night on a Thursday with some local DJs I knew. I also got friendly with the owner of the shop (Simon Kennedy) whilst still building my own vinyl collection. He mentioned a producer who came into the shop and that we should meet as he was also a DJ. Soon, I was introduced to Scott Latham – what a top guy! We were the same age and we hit it off straight away. He started to DJ at my club night and we started to spend a lot of time together, he was a House/Garage producer/DJ and I was in to the more Trancey stuff at the time, which is now (of course) Progressive House. Scott had been asked to write a track for a new label called Solid Silver Recordings by the owner, Solomun, who was friends with Sasha and said he could get him to play it. Scott hadn’t seen Sasha play at this point, only heard tracks and mixes, but I had been out to see the man like a week before and was seeing him in Leeds the week after. Scott asked me to help him write the track (‘Rise Up’), and the rest is history, really. Sasha picked up on it and that started this journey I’m still on.
As a music producer, DJ and label owner, who has been involved in the music industry for over 25 years, and as an early pioneer of the underground scene here in the UK, in what ways do you think your particular journey through life has influenced the electronic music you make now?
It’s all entwined and linked and the past makes you who you are. The very sad days when we lost Scott and my father in 1996, as much as that really hurt, it was also a pivotal moment that would stay with me and define my journey, especially in music. Writing or DJing music is a powerful way to overcome parts of our lives. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no quick fix, it took me a long time to accept life and understand who I am, but with that understanding and acceptance, came great insight for myself. Music has always been there and I sometimes leave it for a while, but then come back to it, it’s a great thing to do, it’s a beautiful way to express your self and work things out.
Having witnessed the evolution of the underground scene in the UK since the 90’s, what parallels do you see in today’s scene?
So much has changed – we’ve evolved, the scene has changed, technology is at the forefront and the way we engage is dramatically different. But, what stays the same is a gathering of people within a space, celebrating the DJ or band they’ve come to see, and that moment when it goes off in a gig or club, it’s magical! That’s still there and I guess it will always be. Proof of this recently was seeing Sasha’s first ‘Refracted: Live’ gig at the Barbican in London last year – when they dropped ‘Xpander’, the place went off! The energy had been building and building, no one was quite expecting it and when it came, it totally rocked the place!
Tactal Hots is going from strength to strength now, what’s the story? And, which key tracks would you like people to check out if they are just discovering the label?
In the past couple of years we’ve gone back to basics with it – for a couple of years I was just releasing and releasing music, and I wasn’t enjoying it either, it was too much content with not enough focus on each project. It also led me to take a break whilst finishing my counselling degree. David Fletcher (aka FOTN), a long-term friend and writing partner, was also on a break and when we got back in touch with each other it was the just before the 20th Anniversary of Scott’s passing. So, we decided to release a series of remixes of ‘Rise Up’ to respectfully mark the occasion and celebrate and remember Scott’s musical genius. David did an excellent job (as always), and I wanted some of Scott’s friends also involved in the release, so I went to Mick and Nic from TILT, who I had worked with in the past and had met through Scott. They totally delivered and it was a great experience, which led to us working with them on a further 3 projects throughout 2017. I teamed up with Hipnosys for another remix, and new production partnership Cool Gold (Chris Fortier & Stephen Wilson) rounded things off nicely. Anyone new coming across the label, please check out Eric Franchet, a French producer who has released some great music with us. Then, FOTN for sure – top guy and a total legend! And, of course, my own stuff, along with the Desyfer & Hipnosys projects – again, Rich Wheatley aka Hipnosys, another legend!
If you could remix any track by any artist (ever) what would be at the top of your wish list?
So many to pick here… I think it would have to be Sunscreem ‘Perfect Motion’. I would love to get the parts to that, the vocal especially. I did try a while back to get the parts for ‘Love U More’, which is another Sunscreem track I’d love to do. There have been so many good tracks over the years, it’s a hard one, which also comes with a weight of expectation – you’ve got to do these classic tracks justice if your going to remix them.
Best piece of advice you have ever been given?
“Less is more” – from my dear friend Scott Latham in 1994, which is about space in music. If you have the right elements you don’t need lots and lots of tracks, if less works then it works, that’s when music doesn’t need to be complicated. The other is a more recent one, when I was working with Dennis White on some mixdowns in his studio in London. He has taught me to let go of the attachment we have with our own music. Fresh ears are needed in the mixdown and mastering stage – yes, it may sound different when you get it back, but our ears are trained in our own studio rooms. He’s taught me to trust in the judgement of others, which has definitely helped in making better sounding music.
What plans have you got for the rest of 2018?
After a busy couple of years, it’s about “less is more” again… We have a great project with TILT coming before the summer, and more Desyfer and FOTN releases later in the year. We also have some exciting news, which we can’t talk about currently, but the deal is being finalised at the moment, so we’ll be talking about that very soon.
Thanks for your time here Spencer – much appreciated! ☺
OUT NOW: Desyfer – Porrima / Radhika (Tactal Hots) THM073