The Hessle Audio co-founder in discussion with Juno Plus on his addition to the Fabriclive canon.
It’s been seven years since Cosmin Nicolae inaugurated Hessle Audio under his TRG alias, and the label overseen by Ben Thomson, David Kennedy, and Kevin McAuley needs little in the way of introduction. A uniquely British outpost for club music that has steered its own path whilst others have become mired by trend and dilution, Hessle Audio channel their collective tastes through a few select outlets. A weekly slot on Rinse FM has become a communal event around which the world tunes in as the trio and a selection of well chosen guests help frame the Hessle Audio sonic direction, as has the label’s increasingly bold residency at London club Fabric.
This week sees McAuley join his Hessle Audio cohorts in gracing the Fabriclive mix series, delivering a selection of tracks that are every bit as much a statement of where his tastes lie now as the contributions from Pearson Sound and Ben UFO were in 2011 and 2013. The cover art for Fabriclive 73 depicts a bold cloud of purple smoke filling an abandoned warehouse space, and it’s an image quite indicative of what unfolds on the mix. Here Pangaea offers his interpretation of techno across 27 tracks, tracing the lines between the functional and cerebral across an array of artists and labels – some of which fall outside my personal tastes – and makes them work within the context of a mix.
It’s this that slams home Pangaea’s skill and talent as a DJ and selector, and makes the mix a fine addition to the Pangaea discography that’s every bit as impressive as his recent double pack excursions, re-emphasising the idea that within the Hessle Audio universe there is room for all three co-founders to have their own distinct voices. Ahead of Fabriclive 73 dropping, McAuley and myself took in an exchange of questions and answers over email, tracing his own history with the DJ mix format, how he took to approaching his first official mix, and what’s in store for Hessle Audio.
Congratulations on the Fabric mix Kevin; I wanted to start this discussion by talking about some of the mix CDs that played an important role in your formative musical education. Is there one that you played constantly, that piqued your initial interests in club music?
Thanks! Well I was never a big listener of mix CDs, but in terms of commercially released stuff I’ll always say The Best of Dance 92 I got that Christmas was the first thing I played a lot and got me hooked on dance music It was unmixed though, and I only started to understand and appreciate mixing and how sets were built a few years later when I’d listen to Pete Tong, Judge Jules and DJs like that on Radio 1. Now I think about it, the first mixed CD I owned was Essential Selection 98.
So radio was always your preferred method of consuming this style of music?
It was pretty much my only way of consuming it as I barely had any money at that age, and as soon as I got a Saturday job I started buying records. I put my money into those instead.
Radio has obviously become an important part of the Hessle identity; with the Sub FM show that David, Ben and yourself did in Leeds preceding the foundation of the label. How do you feel about this format in relation to club DJing?
It’s an interesting question because right now it seems radio is less relevant than ever to club DJing. Traditionally the pirate-style radio set of DJ with or without MC was really important in the distribution and progression of dance music. Radio 1 adopted this format on many specialist shows in the ’90s and as I mentioned before, listening to guys like Pete Tong was my only way of keeping in touch with what was going on. I’m sure if I had grown up in a larger city I would’ve been all over the pirates
Then the internet started playing a part as stations like Rinse were being recorded and shared on sites like Barefiles, which was vital in the way dubstep spread outside of London and the UK. It kept the sound moving in the process. It inspired us to take the DIY approach ourselves and start a radio show, which in turn enabled us to generate a small following of people in the community, some of whom sent us music, which helped us start Hessle, and so on.
Now in 2014 even Radio 1 is struggling to keep up with things like website podcasts, recorded sets from clubs, Boiler Room, YouTube, Soundcloud…it’s a very different environment with emphasis on brand association. A downloadable mix for an online magazine might give a DJ more of a promo boost than a guest slot on a national radio station, it’s mad. But I think there’ll always be a need for respected and trusted radio DJs who act as a filter for the massive amount of content out there, and hopefully radio stations will still act as hubs where people get together and exchange ideas.
You’ve spoken previously about your interest in music production beginning in primary school; did the idea of DJing feel like a natural extension of these early forays into production?
Yeah sort of… at that age I associated dance music with record players and touching the record, and I didn’t really know why people did it at first but I wanted to as well! It looked really cool. I was able to buy an old shit record player and ex-jukebox 7″s for a few pence at car boot sales. But as soon as I understood the concept of mixing I knew I needed ‘serious equipment’ and current dance records so I could do it all myself properly. I had to wait a few years for that. And the ultimate dream was to make music that would be on a record. It was a massive rush putting the needle on the test press of Coiled back in 2007.
Do you still have some of your earliest mixtapes?
All my old cassettes and minidiscs were chucked away or recorded over, but I did find one a few months ago when having a clear out at my parents’ house. It was an attempt at making my very own mix CD (pictured left) as a new family PC had come with a CD-RW drive installed. It was also our first computer that allowed me to run music software. They were big and exciting developments at the time.
There’s actually no real hard house on there, it’s mainly proggy stuff then it gets trancey and harder and faster. I can’t even remember what a lot of the tracks are called, but it’s interesting to listen back to where I was aged 16/17. Musical preferences and interest was shifting around quite a bit in the months following that. I felt like the 4/4 stuff I was following had come to a dead end, and I flirted with DnB but quickly got bored of what was coming out. So I stopped buying dance records altogether for a couple of years until dubstep came along.
What were you listening to in this pre-dubstep period?
Ambient and post-rock type stuff, overly-complex IDM, a bit of most things really. I had a brief few months trying to get into bands when I was first in Leeds, but found it all very dull.
You’ve stated that you are currently very happy with your music, so I guess this Fabric mix has come at the perfect time. How was the selection process for you?
Well I still have a way to go, but I’m on the right path for sure. The selection process was straightforward enough. I got more than enough tracks licenced so I had a decent pool to pick from for the final mix. There was plenty I couldn’t fit on though, some things I really tried to fit on but they just didn’t work in the context of the mix.
Are there any particular tracks you were very happy to get licensed?
The bits that were only released on vinyl at the time, so tracks like the MGUN, Tripeo, Bleaching Agent, Imaginary Softwoods, Alex Falk etc. Some of these may be available digitally now.
27 tracks is quite a lot for a mix CD, and there are a lot of swift transitions – did you have to compromise on your preferred method of mixing for it?
Perhaps there are some transitions that are a bit quicker than I would do live but it’s a pretty accurate representation.
I’ve always had trouble trying to capture the energy and momentum of a live DJ set when recording mixes, was this a particular worry for you?
Nah not really, I knew I wanted the CD to have energy and momentum so just picked the tracks and programmed it accordingly.
Ben and David have already featured on the Fabric mix series, so was there an element of friendly competition driving this mix?
I just did what I wanted to do! Obviously we’ve been associated with each other from the beginning but we’ve always gone about things in our own way, which works in our favour really. This CD was never going to sound like David or Ben because we have different tastes.
Across mixes you’ve done for FACT, Resident Advisor and now Fabric over the years it feels like you’ve moved ever closer to techno from the dubstep you started out producing and playing. Your club sets (especially a recent one at Corsica Studios at the PCB night) seem to be getting tougher, although there’s still some undeniable swing in what you play. At what point did techno first grab you and how did that come about?
The techno influence came into dubstep very quickly, and that was one of the things that kept it interesting and diverse. 2562 for example was one of the first to come through with tracks that were distinctly techno informed. I was really into T++’s records, Pinch and Pev were on it, some of Skream’s stuff even – I’m thinking in particular about his Marc Ashken remixes on Leftroom. My first EP had a 4/4 track on there (Deviant). All this was in 2007 when dubstep was probably at its most open. In 2008 the Sub:Stance night at Berghain started up and I travelled over for the first couple.
Probably the most significant thing to happen was UK funky breaking through that same year. It came at a time when dubstep was getting quite macho and midrangey, and a lot of people including myself weren’t interested in that side of things. So all of a sudden playing some of these new bassy and percussive UK house tracks felt like the natural thing to do, even though stylistically it was a big shift and a drop in tempo. For quite a while people were trying to bridge the two. The speed of new tracks started to drop so that things could be mixed together, and DJs had a whole world of 4/4 music open up to them.
Although the Fabric mix has tracks from the likes of Mumdance and MAO, Pearson Sound and Pev & Kowton, the vast majority is quite straight techno. Would you say you see yourself as a “techno DJ” these days, or still very much a cross genre selector?
Yeah I’d say I’m a techno DJ. That’s why I said I feel happy about where I am and going musically because it’s nice to know where I stand and what I’m trying to do. That doesn’t mean you have to play 128bpm rollers for hours, what I love about techno is being able to play about with rhythm and ideas whilst being rooted to the idea of driving, propulsive dance music. The tracks you mention sound like techno to me, although all music is suited to a certain time and place. I can play tracks at 115bpm or 136bpm but only in the right context!
The past few years have seen something of a shift generally in London from the kind of hybrid bass music forms to purer techno both in the type of music being made and the nights being programmed, and in that sense, your Fabric mix is about as succinct a snapshot of what’s going on in underground club music right now. Why do you think there’s so much enthusiasm for techno in London now?
Well there’s actually less enthusiasm for it here than I would’ve thought, London is saturated with house! I really thought techno would’ve taken hold a bit more in the last couple of years because the UK has a history of immersive and hedonistic dance music. This could be for a few reasons, like a lack of clubs and promoters dedicated to the genre, or crowds not being united in what they want to go out and rave to…there are so many mixed genre nights that try to cover a lot of bases, I don’t necessarily think this is a good thing.
I find the presence of 2 Bad Mice on the line-up for the launch party quite interesting, why did you select them?
Well I’m really into that hardcore period of the early ’90s, when breaks started making their way into 4/4 patterns. The music was very open and exciting and playful, like dubstep at its peak really. I wanted that represented and these guys were some of the first on it. It’s a great lineup across the whole club.
The Hessle Audio Fabric residency will be approaching it’s fifth year in 2014 – have there been any particular nights over this period that have really stood out?
It’s an obvious choice but programming all three rooms in December was very special. Having the whole club feel like our thing was a real buzz and it really felt like it represented all that we’re about as a collective.
You started your own label Hadal last year, and I don’t think you’ve ever really been asked about the prehistoric themes of this and your chosen artist name – where does this stem from?
Well Pangaea was just a name I chose back in 2006 because I needed something to DJ under if it wasn’t going to be ‘Kevin McAuley’. As well as just liking the word it conjured up ideas of something mystical and unity of some kind, I’m probably just a bit of a hippy to be honest!
I was also keen not to make the EP ‘Pangaea001’ and give it another name. Nothing came to mind for ages, and then I was searching the internet looking at sea creatures and came across a diagram of the different aquatic regions of the ocean. The Hadal zone is at the very bottom, and I really like the thought of a place so cut off with only a few odd creatures down there doing their own thing, undisturbed. It just resonates with me.
How did you find the experience of putting out your own tracks on Hadal, and do you have any plans to expand the label with tracks from other artists?
We’ve had a good relationship with our distributor over the years so it was just a matter of taking to them about wanting to do my own record. I don’t have any plans to release other people’s music. When planning it out I didn’t want it to appear as though I was breaking away from Hessle. I see it as a different branch of the same tree really, like how David’s self-released a few records of his own and how we’ve helped producers put out some white labels in the past. So I purposefully made the artwork quite stripped back and stuff like that.
Hessle Audio wasn’t exactly prolific last year, but what you did release was all killer; where do you see the label going?
I don’t know really, we’ve never known! It’ll be interesting to see what happens. Sometimes we have these slight pangs of uncertainly when we haven’t had a record out for a bit, thinking that we need to be putting out music regularly in order to justify ourselves. Then we quickly remember that putting out tracks we don’t fully believe in is unrewarding at best. Although there have been some fantastic records out in the last 12 months, there’s very little that I wish we’d signed. There’s a certain aesthetic to records that all three of us are into which is hard to pin down.
Do you think there scope for LP releases on Hessle? An artist like Joe could probably do something quite strange with the extended format.
Yeah definitely. No concrete plans at the moment, but yes.
What does the rest of the year hold for you personally? Do you have plans to release any more music yourself on Hessle Audio or Hadal?
Yes, my next release will be on Hadal if all goes to plan. I got caught up doing a bunch of remixes in the second half of last year and dumped quite a lot of original material in the process, so it feels great to re-focus and have music that I’m happy with again.
Interview by Tony Poland
Fabriclive 73 is out now on Fabric Records and there will be a launch party for the mix next month – more details here.