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Interview: Phil South (Golf Channel)

I met Phil South at the Williamsburg townhouse he shares with his wife and two young children shortly after he had dropped the boys off at school, which, one might gather, is his favorite part of the day. Soon afterwards he gets to work in his capacious basement home office. Despite being one of the masterminds behind NYC’s legendary underground party, No Ordinary Monkey, and the creator of Golf Channel Recordings, a label that’s put out original works, edits, and remixes by the likes of Justin Vandervolgen, Mark E and DJ Nature, South’s daytime is domestically stable and placid. (On this particular day, some workmen were over, finishing up the installation of a new irrigation system for the backyard garden; half of the basement was a neatly-organized kids playroom; and the living room had shelves stocked with books, immaculate photographs lined the walls, a large flat-screen TV sat in a corner, and cushy couches nestled up against the windows.) I sat down with South to get some insight into how the English expat manages to juggle it all and where his life of DJing, party promoting and record label running all originated.

Okay, let’s talk about way back before you even moved to New York. You’re from Manchester, right?

Not originally, but, yeah―I moved to New York from there. I went to college there and then just sort of stayed. I used to do parties and DJ a little bit up there, but it’s a small town. I like Manchester a lot, but it would get to this point for me where I’d go to a club and see the same faces. I’d see dudes, like, five or ten years older than me and think, ‘don’t want to be that guy’. My wife’s from Manchester―we weren’t married back then, but we’d been together for a while―and we got an offer to come over here and work. And it was like, yeah―fuck it. Why not? I didn’t really have anything going on in Manchester I couldn’t live without.

Do you have a musical background or is it just DJing?

Yeah, just DJing and throwing parties. Through compulsion, really, I’ve been buying records for forever. Growing up in England was quite a musical education DJ-wise. The acid house explosion and all that. That’s always been an inspiration for anything I’ve done party or label-wise.

So you were there in the early 90s?

Yeah, I guess that in ‘89, when I was 17 or 18, I started going out. I didn’t quite catch the first ‘87/’88 wave. You’d hear about that in the tabloids or whatever… [headlines like], “Drug Party” or something. I was like, OK! Gotta get me some of that business! [Laughs]

So this was right around the peak of all that. The Haçienda was still around.

Yeah, I mean, when I started going out, it was more down south. So it was Heaven, which was Spectrum at the time. And, I’d go once a week, on a Wednesday, to the one club. I didn’t really go and do any of the big raves. [I went to the] smaller parties, which were a bit more intimate and the music was a bit more spread out across genres. By the time I moved to Manchester, the Haçienda was past its big peak. There was the inflatable pool on the dance floor and [the whole place] had gotten a bit moody by then. Hoover noise techno – kind of like proto-hardcore. People were getting a bit grizzled in their raving ways. I mean, you know, there are a lot of roastings of the 90s in England, and though I guess a lot of people did like it, there really was a lot of shit around. And it was really divided as well―with the big clubs, anyway. You’d either be into the handbag, which was the vocal house and all that, or techno on the other side. One scene was all dolly birds and pretty girls, dressed up really nice; the other was a bunch of dudes. I guess it hasn’t changed all that much. [Laughs] Coming to New York was a nice breath of fresh air. I almost lost interest in a lot of dance music because of the way it was so regimented in the UK. Then you come over here and you hear the music the way it was meant to be heard – like, one guy playing all night, giving you a bit more of an education. I guess that happened a bit in the UK―like what Harv was doing―but I wasn’t plugged into all that stuff then.

So when you got here, how did you get back into the music stuff, with DJ’ing and throwing parties and whatnot?

I always wanted to DJ so I’d do shitty bar gigs and stuff like that. I met this guy, Nick [Griffiths], an English guy, and we were sort of kindred souls musically. His friends in London had done this thing called Record Club, where you’d go around to someone’s house and bring five records, a bottle of wine―stuff like that―and you’d just take turns playing your records. They were very serious about it―you’d have to write down the record and the label. Anyway, we did it a few times at my house back when I lived in Fort Green, and it was just so much fun. It quickly descended into a dance party in our house. I remember Nick was like, right now there’s not better place in New York. This is the best place. But, no one else would step up to host and it became a bit of a drag to have everyone around at my house. I mean, it was fun, but it’s just work.

“By the time I moved to Manchester, the Haçienda was past its big peak. It was hoover noise techno – kind of like proto-hardcore. People were getting a bit grizzled in their raving ways.”

Nick was a stylist and he’d done a shoot at the Puck Building [in SoHo]; a rooftop studio. We told the guy [in charge of the space] that we were looking for a place to do a party and he said we could do it there. He didn’t even charge us. So we decided to do Record Club there. We asked people to bring their own beer or whatever – it was real amateur. Crap soundsystem, no real flyer―Nick would just scribble something on a scrap of paper, scan it in, and send it to a few friends. But then fucking loads of people came! I guess because it was the Puck Building and a free party and there wasn’t much going on. And if you get something like that, it looks and sounds exciting, you know? We weren’t prepared at all, though. I remember having to run to the deli and carry back loads of six-packs. So that was kind of fun. I think we did it two or three more times there [but it got a little unmanageable] and eventually Nick moved back to London and it stopped being this multi-DJ thing. We did it in some pretty cool places, too. This old hotel in the West Village… total sleaze hotel, but it had a big ballroom. Anyway, it just became a drag, this whole multi-DJ shtick, and we really just wanted to hear Carlos [Arias, one of the residents] play. So I started sort of warming up and then Carlos would get on. And Anton [Esteban], he would come to the parties to do visuals. That was always his thing―and it still is since he does all the video editing and that stuff. He was really into the music as well and it somehow became the three of us DJing. Either me or Anton would warm up and then Carlos would finish the night off. He was such a fucking great DJ… just played amazing sounds. We had all these crazy venues, too, like the China Room in Chinatown, right by the Financial District. It was during that era when the clubs were just awful… but our soundsystem kept getting better and better and we had all the lights. We did everything right and really went the extra mile.

Tell me about some of the other venues.

We always got really lucky with them. After the Puck Building there was this really cool little place on Pell St in Chinatown. After about two or three, we got raided by the cops there. But the owner was like, I have these friends at this bar in the Financial District. We went in there, and it was these three Chinese guys who were friends from high school. Really sweet, nice, mellow dudes who had about ten regulars who would sit around the bar, smoking and gambling, smoking and gambling. This was after the smoking ban, so it was kind of a big deal to get a place where you could smoke. I don’t smoke, but, yeah… you could do whatever. People used to go pee in the kitchen, which was really quite gross [Laughs]. There crowd was, like, lunchtime Wall St―those were the only people who ate there ever. Serious violations going on there―but a good spot for a party for sure! The security guys were off-duty cops who must’ve had friends at the precinct! We were in the basement of this office building and there were no noise issues ever. Never had trouble. We’ve been searching for a spot as good ever since. We started keeping all the money we made from the parties and it was never a lot, but we managed to save up and we bought two Klipschorns and a Mark Levinson amp. And then two more Klipschorns, a sub and a Crown Studio reference amp and some JBL bullets. And we put it all in a bar called Tandem. Originally, the owner, Jane, was going to use the back space of that venue as her pottery studio space and [we’d use it once a month for our parties]. Nothing against Jane at all―she had to run a business and Tandem’s got a good spot and using the back space is a good way to make some money. She loves dance parties and stuff like that, too, so for her, it was a no-brainer. Anyway, it didn’t work out―the system’s in Anton’s office.

“It was during that era when the New York clubs were just awful… but our soundsystem kept getting better and better and we had all the lights. We did everything right and really went the extra mile.”

You used that big Chinese restaurant, 88 Palace, for a while…

Yeah, it was good for a while, but I got bored of going there. Usually I just dance at the parties and hang out with the DJs. That’s why I do it―because I love that, you know? But there was one time where it was a bit more of a mellow one with a social vibe, and I sat down and couldn’t find my friends. It’s really not that nice to actually sit anywhere there. That place is used by quite a few people, too… but we certainly had some good parties there. The good thing about being in the basement on Wall St was that there were no randoms; it was just people we knew coming for the party. Then, all of a sudden, we moved up [to 88 Palace] and I was like, who the fuck are all these people? There’d be three- to four-hundred people as opposed to between 50 and 200 or something.

It’s hard to find good places like that right now. I’m having the same problem with Let’s Play House venues.

Every fucking party in New York―same issue! Well, I think it’s the same all over the world, really. London’s the same: it feels like they’re going through a little bit of what we went through here, like, 10 years ago, with the Giuliani crackdowns and the no dancing in bars. I mean, it’s not quite that bad, but the original neighborhoods where people went to, where you could be noisy at night… there are families and whatnot there now.

Okay, let’s finish up with Golf Channel. How did that begin?

It was kind of a bit similar to [how the Monkey parties started]. Carlos had a label, Whatever We Want, and that was always inspiring to me. I was like, come on, Carlos―I’ll come and run the show for you and make it happen. He was always doing his own sort of thing, but I wanted to be involved. Anyway, in the end, I got sent that Mark E track, “R+B Drunkie,” by my friend, Rob Jay, a mutual friend of Mark and I’s. I burned it onto a disc and it came on in the car one time, and I was like, This is the jam! Fuck it, I’ll put it out. So I wrote to Rob [who asked Mark], who knew of us through our parties and Carlos’ label. Mark said alright, but I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Like, what should I call the label? What should the logo be? I really had not a clue. But yeah―I managed to get it out and it went from there. Anton was making a bit of music around the same time. I think the second [release] was his―the Ghost Note “Holy Jungle” record. Then Justin, who I knew from all the parties and stuff, left !!! and splintered with Out Hud or something like that. I was always pestering him for music all the time, and while he had all these great edits, he didn’t want to do anything with them because he wanted his first release [under his name] to be actual, proper music. But he gave me a few on a CD and I said he had to put them out. So he came up with the alias idea [Try To Find Me]. Then he started doing the TBD stuff with Doug and became more comfortable [using his own name]. Then Anton and Chris [Munoz] were working on edits together―they did the fourth release, [“Liza/Penny”]. The “Liza” side was Chris’ edit and the “Penny” side was the both of them working together. They were Galleon Trade. Then, Chris’ roommate, Mike, who’s a really great guitarist and bass player and a session musician by trade, was roped in to help out. Chris and Anton didn’t wind up working out really well―they [operated] at different paces―but their new song, “Winter Island Romance,” is finally coming out. The other side, “Neptune’s Last Stance,” is totally Chris and Mike. DJ Nature played a few of the really early Record Club things back in the day and got in touch about new tracks and asked me what I thought. I don’t think he even knew I was putting out music at the time, but I said I’d put them out. He was really happy – the records were really well received and we’re going to do an album with him soon.

“I got Mark E’s“R+B Drunkie” through a mutual friend. I burned it onto a disc and it came on in the car one time, and I was like, this is the jam! Fuck it, I’ll put it out.”

Have you ever put out a full-length?

No, not yet. I’ve got that and this other project I’ve been working on for about two, three years in the pipeline now. That one’s called Spike. He’s this guy from the early 80s in Holland. This guy, Abel [Nagengast], found his old records in the flea market. And somehow, he’d seen this ad in the paper for guitar lessons and he figured out it was the same dude. So he got in touch with him, said he really loved his records, and asked if he had any others. I guess he still had copies so Abel bought all four from him. He’s been trading them around with heads all around the world for a little bit. [A lot of the stuff is] this really dreamy, lo-fi, home-recorded 4- and 8-track music. He started off doing sound-on-sound recordings, so he wouldn’t even bounce, like, the drums down to one track. He’d record everything at the same time and bounce it all down to the one track. So, some of it was super, super lo-fi like that. Eventually, he got an 8-track. He’s got a great voice and is a really, really good guitar player. All sort of, like, lo-fi stoner pop. Originally, I bought the records off Abel because I was intrigued. I found one track that I wanted to do a re-edit of just to have… it’s all downtempo, but I wanted [the re-edit] to be  my secret downtempo weapon for playing on the radio or daytime jams or whatever. Then I thought, well, Abel knows him, so why don’t we get in touch? I found he was down for re-releasing everything. I mean, he only sold about 300 copies in the 80s and couldn’t believe that anyone was even interested. So I went out there to meet him, hang out for a little bit. And he gave me all the 2-track masters. Eventually, I managed to persuade him to part with the 8-tracks as well, so I have all the parts to all the songs. Now, all the label people are working on remixes for my reissue. And, actually, Thomas [Bullock] was around my house one time and I played [some of the Spike stuff] for him and he was like, holy fuck! I’d love to remix this! So he’s doing one, too. But I really want to keep it all within the label. I’ve had this thing with remixes where I don’t know how and why some labels do it. To me, either you have a good song or you don’t. Why is this fucking rent-a-remix dude here? I did not want that for me. But Thomas is a musical idol of mine. I think he’s just an amazing DJ and his production is just out there. Arresting music. So I was like, alright, alright―

…I’ll let an outsider in?

Yeah. And he’s done a really cool remix. The rest is gonna be, like, DJ Nature, Justin, Chris. And the idea is we’ll do a few 12″s and then I’ll do a proper LP―a sort of Best of Spike thing. Then a remix LP as well. So there’s a lot of product for this one!

Do you have any sort of release schedule?

I’d like to, but I just sort of do it as things come out. It just depends on how people work. When there’s stuff to put out, there’s stuff to put out. I’d never say to someone, yeah―I’ll put it out, but it has to be in a few months. The reality of it is, once you go through all the mastering and the artwork and the pressings and the promos, a long time has passed. Like, with Chris Munoz’s record, we did promos for that late last year, and the art and everything is now finally finished, so it’s ready to go.

Interview: Nik Mercer