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Horse Meat Disco interview: “I think it would have been released posthumously if we produced it ourselves”

We meet the mighty, meaty Horse Meat Disco crew

“We find disco everywhere. It’s a feeling. Is it sexy, is it groovy? Then it’s disco, for me.” James Hillard brims with enthusiasm when the conversation turns to the many facets of the disco sound he and the rest of his Horse Meat Disco crewmates so proudly purvey. “Once you’ve exhausted your passion for classics you can geek out over all the different areas on the spectrum. There are so many subgenres within disco. It’s such an all-encompassing term.”

The co-founder of the perennially popular club night and DJ quartet has just returned home from his weekly badminton session and sits, dressed in a fitted Adidas sports tee, in front of a stacked wall of vinyl. Alongside Jim Stanton, Hillard launched the “queer party for all” back in 2004 as a disco-fuelled antidote to the hard house velocity that dominated London’s gay clubs at the time. Vibrant, eclectic, and bursting with an unfettered sense of fun, HMD has grown from its humble beginnings in a Chinatown basement to become a globally recognised – and roundly adored – musical brand.

Resident DJs Luke Howard and Severino joined the party shortly after the event’s inception, and over the past two decades, the foursome have become a staple of the international festival circuit, headlined events at some of the world’s most revered clubs, and continue to operate residencies in London, New York City, and Berlin. The loveable four-piece DJ troupe are the latest invitees to curate a chapter of the venerated ‘Back To Mine’ compilation series, with their well-crafted and delicately nuanced volume primed for release on Friday, May 20th.

Having previously released a series of kaleidoscopic compilations on Strut and, more recently, on Z Records, ‘Back To Mine: Horse Meat Disco’ is their first DJ mix album to arrive since 2017. After a relatively long interval between compilations, Hillard appears content with the end product. “Everyone involved is really into it and we’re really happy with the tracklisting,” he says with a grin. The often arduous process of piecing the album together began in the midsts of the pandemic, with each of the members digging deep to assemble a watertight track selection – an exercise they’ve become increasingly adept at over time. “It’s the same way we’ve always approached it,” says James. “It’s just like, pick out a massive list of tracks you like and see what comes back, then choose the best ones and then try and do a mix with a very mixed bag. Which is usually the case, but we always manage to come up with something.”

Marking a subtle departure from the floor-focused sound for which they’re best known, the album’s home-listening theme lent itself particularly well to the socially stifled environment that shrouded its construction. “The concept of ‘back to mine’ is easy to get into when you’re at yours all the time. So, I used that as the inspiration to do the compilation. For me personally, [the tune selection] was very much stuff I was listening to over lockdown.” The soul-flecked collection weaves in a variety of sonic threads: effortlessly journeying through the low-slung disco of Gwen McCrae’s ‘Move Me Baby’; the yearning UK/Italo sleaze of Escape From New York’s ‘Fire In My Heart’; the string-heavy sheen of William Stuckey’s ‘Just Around The Corner’; the sumptuous deep house strut of Larry Heard & Ona King’s ‘Premonition Of Lost Love’ and plenty more glorious pearls besides.

The licensing process doesn’t always run smoothly, however, and James reveals that one track in particular almost didn’t make the cut. “With one of the tracks, four of the band died during lockdown, but that was one I really wanted on there.” The tune in question, Kasav’s zouk classic ‘Aveou Doudou’ had become a staple of Hillard’s lockdown sets and is one of many highlights included on the album. “One of the things I was doing during lockdown was trying to theme each week of the radio show,” says James. “I did a Caribbean disco show one week. That one came up when I was researching the show and I’ve been playing it ever since.”

Elsewhere, a sprinkling of Horse Meat Disco productions enliven the mix, with ‘Jump Into The Light’ and ‘Self Control’ – lifted from 2020’s debut album of original compositions, ‘Love And Dancing’ – as well as Severino and Nico de Ceglia’s mesmerising rework of Roisin Murphy’s ‘Ancora’. Despite the quality of these productions, Hillard suggests that, for the quartet, producing music will always play second fiddle to the noble art of DJing. “We’re not obsessed with being in the studio, and in fact, after a few hours, all of us struggle to maintain a certain involvement. We’re of a certain age – I mean, I’m the youngest, which says something,” he laughs.

“We’ve been really lucky so far to not have to put music out to get gigs and to work as DJs. The album was the first time we really did that. But, you know, none of us are really studio people – we need engineers to make it happen.” The ‘Love And Dancing’ album was a long time in the making, with HMD working with a carefully chosen selection of production talents, including Darren Morris and Luke Solomon, to carve out the music. Hillard jokes that it may have taken a good deal longer without outside help. “That album took 10 years producing it with other people. I think it would have been released posthumously if we produced it ourselves.” Acknowledging that maintaining a packed touring schedule for DJs who aren’t regularly releasing, James suggests that what the group have achieved is indeed rare in today’s club landscape. “We’re quite unique in that we’re not producers. We’re solely about what makes people dance at a party. Our thing has always been about DJing, that’s our art. That’s what we’re good at and that’s what we do.”

This reluctance to hunker down in the studio hasn’t entirely stopped Horse Meat Disco titles from hitting the shelves, and James shares the tantalising news that a remix for cinematic maestro David Holmes has just been signed off. Pop royalty has felt the tender HMD remix touch, too, with their revision of Dua Lipa’s ‘Love Again’ proving to be particularly popular. “That was fun to do and went down really well. It bought us a load of new fans and new listeners.” The UK pop diva has exploded internationally with a sound that’s firmly rooted in commercial disco. Although there appears to have been a resurgence of mainstream interest in the sound, Hillard doesn’t feel that the added attention disco is receiving from the masses has impacted their work. The grassroots of the scene burning brightly regardless of what happens above ground. “Ever since we’ve been doing Horse Meat Disco – even in the beginning – it was like ‘disco’s coming back’, but it’s always been there,” he says. “Especially in dance music, You just can’t get away from it.”

For James, an overriding feature of disco’s longevity lies in the manner in which the music was produced. “These are records that are 40 years old and still sound as fresh on the dancefloor as anything else.” With huge budgets, state of the art recording studios, and –often – full orchestras at their disposal, producers of golden age disco records certainly had a sonic advantage over today’s bedroom-based technicians. “It’s a way of producing music that will never come back in a way. It’s the last great time when that was really a thing.” Add to this the newfound accessibility that the internet age has ushered in for collectors young and old, he feels that the sound will continue to endure. “Being able to look things up online – on YouTube, Spotify etc – the access to this music is so much more than it was when I was younger. It would take me months to find the records I wanted by looking around record shops and sometimes getting lucky.”

Hillard’s years spent diligently hunting for records is evidenced by the tightly-packed shelves of wax that proudly stand behind him, but – his sizeable collection notwithstanding – he suggests that his vinyl DJing days are all but behind him. “It’s just a faff, you know, everything DJ wise is digital these days. I’m not gonna be lugging around loads of records anymore, I feel like I did my time. I’m more about packing as light as possible these days. You know, turn up with a ziplock bag, pair of underwear, toothbrush and a passport. That’s the aim.”

With the worst of the pandemic seemingly behind us, the resumption of a hectic touring schedule is in full swing. “Since March things have been back on, and over the summer it’s really crazy. But having had the best part of two years not working, it’s good to finally get back to it.” Gigs are scheduled across the globe, with dates lined up in Birmingham, Manchester, Ibiza, Chicago, Toronto, Tel Aviv, Oslo and more. One downside to such a relentless itinerary is that Horse Meat Disco are seldom able to perform as a quartet these days. “Gala this year is gonna be one of the only times we’re all playing together. We used to play together maybe three or four times a year. We don’t now, but it’s just because we’re all doing other things.”

Looking ahead to the tour calendar, the newly resurrected residencies in Berlin and New York are some of the dates James is relishing the most. “Our Berlin residency started up again recently. I was there a few weeks ago and that was a life-affirming ‘yeah, this is why we do this’ kind of thing, so definitely looking forward to more of those. Then, our New York residency as well. Those have been getting bigger and bigger, it’s one of the biggest parties in New York City now.” Other highlights include Croatia’s Love International, a special show at The Roundhouse in Camden to celebrate 50 years of Pride, and, importantly, a return to the west country for the jewel in the UK festival crown. “I’m always excited about Glastonbury because it’s where I grew up, so it’s like a homecoming for me.

Raised in Somerset by an Italian mother and a local DJ father, it isn’t difficult to understand where James’s love for music stems from. “I enjoyed watching my dad DJ, you know. He’d get on the mic, it was all quite old school,” he reminisces fondly. With the Hillard home kitted out with turntables, speakers and an ever-growing collection of disco records, the starry-eyed youngster quickly found an affinity with the musical form that’s gone some way to shaping his adult life. “I’d go and hide in the attic with a little portable record player and prance around to Donna Summer and things,” says James. “I think that was something that always stayed with me musically. That was the music that was accessible in my home. A real foundation, you know.”

However, having such a cultured musical home-schooling doesn’t necessarily translate to a precociously refined taste, as evidenced by the first records James purchased himself. “My dad was always buying records and was always really current, so the first record I actually bought was ‘Do The Bart Man’ by Bart Simpson. Then the first album was Alice Cooper’s ‘Trash’. I went through a bit of a heavy metal phase. We all try different things I suppose. I can’t put my hand up and say my first record was [Manuel Göttsching] ‘E2-E4’ or something like that. But, to be honest, I think it’s always good to admit that.”

While the nature of the music has unquestionably become more nuanced than that of his first dalliance with record shopping, clearly this willingness to veer into new musical territory has made its presence felt throughout Hillard’s career behind the turntables. “After 20 years of DJing, it can’t not evolve. It can’t be the same,” says James. “I think I’ve got better at mixing and been turned on to more records as well. My musical knowledge has grown a lot more, doing the radio show has helped that a lot, you know, to branch out.” This audio evolution has contributed greatly to the lasting appeal of the Horse Meat Disco brand.

Running for two decades in the notoriously fickle and cutthroat club universe is no mean feat, and Hillard feels that each of the protagonists brings their own unique audio magic to the equation. “I think the reason it’s lasted so long and hasn’t got boring is that it’s four different people with different musical tastes and different styles. For us, disco has never been about one thing. You’ve got danceable rock music, you’ve got cosmic tunes, more electronic things, you’ve got gospel. House music as well, there’s so much there. We’ve never been about classics or just being purists.”

Finally, discussing the title of the compilation, I enquired as to the likelihood of James indulging in post-club antics after so many years working in the field. “Hell no! I mean, never say never, but I think things like sleep and breakfast are more important than drinking and carrying on.” Though he suggests that “all rules are off” for Glastonbury, Hillard strongly suggests that endless hours of ‘Back To Mine’ style pushing on are behind him. “These days, if you’ve done a good job, it’s like: go to bed, get up, and catch a flight without a hangover. That’s the most important thing. So rock and roll!”
Patrizio Cavaliere