theartsdesk Q&A: DJ Mary Anne Hobbs | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: DJ Mary Anne Hobbs
theartsdesk Q&A: DJ Mary Anne Hobbs
Radio 1's queen of the small hours on life, the universe and bootleg Maltesers
Immediately following the death of radio DJ John Peel in 2004, it became clear very rapidly that there was no obvious heir apparent. With so many specialist shows on the station, nobody ran the full gamut of leftfield and underground music in the same way that Peel had. But if anyone comes close, it is Mary Anne Hobbs. Schooled in rock and indie journalism in the last great era of the weekly music press, the mid-1980s to early 1990s, and presenter on XFM and then Radio 1 of everything from extreme heavy metal to deep electronica, she certainly approaches Peel's eclecticism and dedication to the obscure and cultish.
Hobbs, 45, has her own very distinct identity as a broadcaster and presence in the music industry, though. A long-time supporter of exploratory electronic music, in 2005, she had a Damascene conversion to the then tiny and deep underground dubstep scene, and has been known since as an evangelist for and catalyst for development within that scene and the music that surrounds it. Through her Radio 1 show – now popular globally via the internet – and through promoting artists at international festivals like Barcelona's annual SÓNAR, she has been one of the main contributors to British electronic music's current rude state of health and invasion of the mainstream. Her curated compilations on the Planet Mu label, including the recent Wild Angels and Evangeline, have been seen as key documents of the scene.
The first time I interviewed Hobbs, it was on the theme of the romance of night-time broadcasting, and she told of being inspired first by John Peel, then by discovering pirate radio in London. So it was fitting that we met for this interview just before midnight in a tiny room in Radio 1 more often used by napping security guards, before she began her 2am show – for which she commutes once a week from her home in Sheffield. And as late-night conversations will, the interview went around the houses, taking in internet etiquette, bus mechanics, rebellion, the links between Paxman, arch-satirist Chris Morris and the Sex Pistols, and why snubbing REM was the right thing to do.
An unabridged version of this interview will appear at Joe Muggs's own site, veryverymuch.com, which launches this week.
JOE MUGGS: When I've spoken to you before, you described being addicted to radio as a kid as a contact with the outside world...
MARY ANNE HOBBS: Yep, I grew up in a tiny, tiny village in an age before the internet, so the outside world was an absolutely enormous place to me. It's almost impossible to quantify how different it was then. And the two things that connected me to the world outside, a kind of like a utopia to me, were John Peel and Sounds music paper.
As a young kid, I was way into punk rock, but my dad, who was an extremely violent alcoholic, had completely banned all music from the house. So if you wanted to buy a record, you would have to go to Mears Toyshop and place an order, and then one seven inch single would take nine weeks to reach the shop. At 12, 13, I was really really into punk, it was massively appealing to me. I cannot tell you how thrilling it was to sit in a class at school and be told in very grave and serious tones about how the Sex Pistols were literally on the brink of destroying civilised society as we knew it. You cannot imagine anything more provocative, anything more thrilling, anything more exciting and stimulating than that as pre-teens.
And I guess, then, that given your family circumstances rebellion seemed doubly attractive?
Absolutely. I mean, I would do my best to hide the singles I bought, but my dad would find them and take great pleasure in smashing them up in front of me. But I had a little tiny transistor radio, about as big as a sardine tin, and he never found it. I used to lie in bed with the blankets over my head like this [hunches, hands over head] in the dead of night, and I had no idea how to find Peel, I would just scroll along the dial and scroll back, forwards and back, 'til I could find him. But Peel really stood at the gateway, I felt, to a completely different world, to my idea of utopia. Hearing John Peel broadcast, and hearing him play all this incredible punk and speaking about the scene that was happening in London at the time, and reading Sounds... It was weird, actually, given that I ended up at NME but back in the day, Sounds was the punk and rock paper: NME wrote quite a bit about punk but was much more concerned with Marxist politics, it felt like. So, I would really count the days until Sounds would arrive at the newsagents and it was evidence along with Peel that this other world existed. It was like a glittering bauble that existed somewhere far away, hanging in the ether, and it's what I knew I had to head for.
Eventually, I was kicked out of home at 15 and a half, I was working in an egg-packing factory - but my dream was to write for Sounds, I thought that would be the threshold to this other world. It's kind of funny, in those days you had no concept of what London even looked like except maybe from a couple of pictures of Big Ben that you'd seen. There was one bus a week, I think, that left Garstang for Blackpool – as a side issue, that's where my love of motorbikes came from, that's why I was so desperate to ride a moped at sixteen, because it was literally the only way out...
It's the ultimate childhood dream, isn't it – the other world, the Narnia or whatever, that the child can escape from oppressive reality into? But for you that other world really existed...
Yes. I knew I had to get to London, but I had no idea how. In my dream of writing for Sounds, I had no idea of what the editor of Sounds would want to see. It never occurred to me to simply go to a gig at Preston Guildhall, review it, and just send the review in to the editor. Nothing so simple occurred to me. I thought I would somehow need to demonstrate to him that I was part of that world of rock. So there was a working men's club in Garstang, and about twice a year they used to have a live band on, an actual rock band, and I remember one day on the chalk board outside this message appearing saying “HERETIC – FROM LONDON” and a date for the gig, and I thought “This is it, this is my moment, I am going to get a job with this band and move to London!” And to cut a long story short, that is exactly what happened: I ran away to London right then with this band.
We lived on a coach park in Hayes in Middlesex, in a bus for over a year. It's something I look back on now and just think all these moments are like scenes from a Mike Leigh movie. We lived on this absolutely knackered old bus that we called “The Blue Goose Hotel” and the band were a hard rock band, kind of along the lines of Thin Lizzy; I thought they were amazing. I did all sorts: principally I was their lighting designer, but I designed and made all their costumes, painted their backdrops, I designed their record sleeves and I was the bus mechanic as well. In those days you had to pay to play; you weren't paid for any gigs, and if you got half a lager and five straws it was an absolute miracle. So we all worked the shittiest day jobs: two of the band were gravediggers, two of them worked in a factory where they were sticking stickers with the manufacturer's name on the bottom of dog dishes on a conveyor belt – and me and the singer worked in a sweet factory where they would every day ship in these enormous barrels of Maltesers that were supposedly seconds, but they obviously had some sort of racket going on where we picked out anything that looked like it could be repackaged and they repackaged them as legitimate Maltesers. And that's what we did all day, sifted through Maltesers.
So we saved every every single penny; we lived on a bag of chips a day, literally, and once we'd got enough money to fix this knackered old bus and we had backline equipment – we had a whole PA system, Marshall amps, a lighting rig, all of which was built out of ricketty bits of wooden boxes and stuff but it could be repaired and it did work from time to time – we'd get an issue of Sounds, go through the adverts, ring up every venue in there, book a tour and off we'd go round all these places. I could tell you a billion adventures from those days, most of which have some excruciating climax, but the upshot is it's just a really really rough way to live.
Well, if nothing else, that shows a pretty impressive degree of dedication to rock'n'roll.
I just didn't see there was any other way. Coming from a tiny village with no communications whatsoever – and we used to have a lock on the phone too when I was little – the only way to achieve anything was to just go and do it. With no real information either. So I also thought the editor of Sounds would probably want to see would be that I can publish my own magazine. This was very much the era of fanzines so I published a couple of issues of this fanzine which I called 'Krush', with a “k”. Then I sent the most demented CV off to him.
But in a strange, and perhaps a little fateful, way, maybe that was what stood out, [chokes back a laugh] looking at this CV and it had all the duties that I'd performed in the last year for the band while living on a bus and a tour diary of everything we'd done and stuff. Something must have captured his imagination, because at 19 he wrote to me, and I still have the letter: it was sent to a friend of the band's house, I remember him bringing it, with the Sounds logo on the outside of the envelope and I just... I nearly... Oh God, it was just one of the most glorious days of my entire life, I couldn't believe it. It was proper old-fashioned typewritten and it said, “Would you like to come and see us?” And that is how it all started, really...
And the band that you were with, did they have particular ambitions too, or was it simply about living the life of a rock band for the sake of it?
Well, they were playing the old Marquee, which really was quite a prestige gig in London, it very definitely was The One. And they had a great fanbase, but the demise of the band was down to the fact that we lived so rough on that bus. You can't conceive of how freezing fucking cold it was in January: we used to sleep in all our clothes with every scrap of fabric that we could piled on top because it was so bitterly cold, and we just had one paraffin heater that would billow out black smoke.
It was a miracle that we didn't completely asphyxiate ourselves, but the singer ended up in intensive care eventually and was in there for the best part of four months – at that point the first EP had just come out and we had this huge tour planned and all the rest of it, but he became really just desperately ill, so we had to cancel everything. You know what it's like when you're eighteen, four months just feels like the whole rest of time, you feel like you've completely lost momentum and everything's ruined, you've lost the kudos you had with the promoters because you've let them all down, the label's going berserk because you've cancelled the tour and they won't release anything else and blah blah blah... It was just a desperate moment because they'd just worked so hard to build up that momentum – but it was a very very different time.
You were only visible when you were there in front of people, there was minimal media and of course no internet, you couldn't communicate that somebody was ill to people, there was no way of doing that bar trying and trying to persuade the NME or Sounds to mention it, and they wouldn't be interested. This was before the media became obsessed with everybody's state of mind and state of health and every last scrap of personal information – on the contrary, they were really only interested in records and gigs, and if for whatever reason you'd blown out all the gigs and the record company were saying, “We're not going to release anything else,” then it was almost curtains anyway. You couldn't get a MySpace or web page where you could say, “Our singer is critically ill, he's in intensive care in hospital, he's really at death's door as a consequence of the way that we've lived on this bus, we hope that he's going to pull through so we can reschedule everything.” In those times you had to be there, the momentum was all about building on real physical presence and physical releases, and if you couldn't do that you were pretty much fucked really. It seems really harsh, but it's just how it was in those days, it was a different time.
Well, musicians still have to work today to keep their presence felt out there, but then it was more absolute, more do-or-die?
We might as well have sent smoke signals off the roof of the bus. I try to explain to younger people I work with what the world was like before the internet, how even in the Eighties Chuck D was just so, so important to me because he was saying what life was like in black America. There was just no way of getting that information, and he was the only voice that you had to refer to. It's almost impossible for people to conceive of what life was like before the internet if they don't know, and how difficult it was for even the most committed and diligent ordinary person to get hold of any meaningful information outside of the limited agenda the news media chose to represent. What did you have – encyclopaedias? That was about it. As a young person without the access to or opportunity to interrogate your sources of information you were so reliant on a lot of the artists you aligned yourself with, you were completely reliant on their voice and their message and their opinions to find out what was actually going on.
So in your journalistic career, who were the artists you aligned yourself with?
Well, Chuck D above all else, Bowie, but also the [Sex] Pistols, who I later met, were hugely, hugely influential on me as people. The Pistols were just so important to me growing up: my father and them for completely separate reasons gave me the drive to just charge at my dreams and away from that empty village. I met Lydon years later, when the Pistols first reformed at the age of 40, and we went to interview all four of the original members for a Radio 1 documentary. And, God, it was fascinating. I remember them doing the press conference in the 100 Club, and him just sitting there mocking every journalist in the room for their inability to question them properly. So I listened to the footage of that and thought, right, I know my stuff – I'm going to ask him the questions everyone wants to know about why the u-turn, why he's turned on his heel at the age of 40 and gone against everything he stands for to reform the band.
I knew, really, it was unfinished business and because he probably needs the money too, but this really was the most amazingly confrontational interview. There was this electrifying moment where he stood up and was screaming [she leaps up and shrieks, in a shockingly close approximation of Lydon's camp, declamatory banshee voice], “Don't you DARE quote my book back at me, little girl!!” and it was just brilliant. We did it in the Chateau Marmont in LA, one of the big suites just kind of at the back of the hotel like little houses with a little lawn out at the back and everything. We did two hours with each member and I remember he stalked in looking every inch Rotten, with green hair gelled into absolutely perfectly sculpted shape, and he was furious because Nora [his wife] had been knocked off her pushbike on Venice beach – and in the interview he was just absolutely devastating, it was everything I could dream of, he was everything I could ever imagine Rotten to be.
The producer Rhys was sitting there with the sweat literally dripping off his chin because this interview was so confrontational, looking at me wide-eyed as if to say, “Oh my God, are you certain you know what you're doing here?” - but I thought, I have loved this man for so long that I know he is not here to fuck around, he wants to have it out. And after we finished he went stalking off into the garden and he went [again, a perfect impression], “Right, Steve, it's your turn, go on, Jonesy... what she'll say to you is, 'All you're fit for these days is Guns'n'Roses encores, I guarantee it!'” and he went stalking off into this garden. And then after all these interviews we'd done – Paul Cook was awesome, Matlock was just exactly as you'd imagine him to be, you could totally understand why the rest of the band had fallen out with him – after all these interviews were finished, he decided he was going to come drinking with us.
And from the minute we stepped outside the Chateau Marmont he was Lydon again, he just switched off Rotten and was Lydon again. And because he'd been in LA for so long he just wanted to know all about British football, what was going on in England, political issues, musical, cultural issues. So we sat on the roof of the Four Seasons hotel and talked and he just drank more than I have ever seen anybody drink in my life before; for every drink anyone ordered he would order four. Our group gradually dissipated, but my colleagues saw him literally throw his dinner at fellow diners, and by the time the party got to the Viper Room they had to disown him; as he got more and more pissed he reverted to Rotten again: even before I left them you could see the beginnings of the re-emergence of this phenomenal and very real alter-ego of Rotten.
But when the interview went out, the Pistols heard it and said, “Right, that's it, we're not doing any more interviews – if you want the story, listen to that programme, that's the one,” and they bought the rights to syndicate it which I was really proud of because as I say they were my childhood idols, this was such a big, big deal for me.
Well, there is that dichotomy at the heart of punk, isn't there? The nihilistic Rotten and the cultured, engaged, creative Lydon...
I guess I've always responded to those people who are enormously creative and pioneering in everything they do, but defiant, even to the point of perversity, in the face of all mediocrity around them. I definitely saw Peel as that kind of broadcaster, actually, much as he as a character is almost entirely different certainly to Rotten. And I've always responded to that spirit of defiance, whether it be someone like Chris Morris who I consider a high artist as a broadcaster, or in someone like Paxman as a newscaster: I love his defiance in the face of what is acceptable news broadcasting, that he will ask the same question so many times, what, 24 times, because he wants the answer and it's a perfectly simple question, it's a yes or no, what's the answer?
And I guess to a degree I was defiant in the face of my dad, it was the same things, it was a defiance like, “You think I'm nothing, you think all I'm worth is battery and constant character assassination but I will show you what I can do,” and obviously he thought I would fail and amount to nothing. I became a really good journalist, not that he would have known because he would never have read any of the articles I'd written, but I hadn't actually made it to the BBC before he died – he committed suicide in the end. [There's no emotion beyond a grim setting of the jaw.] But I identified with those people, all my heroes have been those people who were extremely defiant but went on to do something enormously culturally significant, they're not just destructive for the sake of it but they're defiant in the face of... of people squandering the precious moments that God has given them on this earth. There is just this awful, insidious way that the mainstream just consumes you, and I love the people who push against the tide of that – because it's a huge undertaking to do that. I mean, I've never been arrested, I've never chucked a TV out of a hotel room, I've never slashed my wrists with broken glass, probably the most illegal thing I've ever done is hotwired a car as a kid. I'm not an evil person, but I am defiant in the face of mediocrity and cultural inertia.
So your idea of rock'n'roll, or underground culture, is not about being an outlaw for the sake of it?
No, that's it, that's exactly what I'm trying to say. I used to be pretty wild - I would concede that - and I will still make a decision [clicks fingers] in a moment, I'll just do it. If I feel instinctively that it's right I'll charge at it and I'll never look back, and I don't really have many regrets, in fact I don't have any regrets, because even the shit that's gone really tits-up, you learn a lot of life's great lessons from that. It's a funny thing, isn't it? When I think about Peel now, I often think about his last moments in Peru and I know in my heart of hearts that if he did have a moment of seeing his achievements and his life, having that classic moment where they flash before you, in Peru, that he will have been able to, I think, feel fully satisfied before he passed. And for me, it's really significant to feel that I'm doing the right thing, that's all that matters to me, the rest is insignificant.
But that conception of “the right thing” is something you've had to construct for yourself presumably? Or it's certainly not something you got from your upbringing or authority figures.
Heh, no. Well, aside from Peel. Peel (pictured left) taught me a lot of great lessons about life. [wistful, distant for a second, then laughs] I remember at his 65th birthday party, we had a really in-depth conversation. And then he said to me, “Right, my brother's coming over now and I'm going to introduce you to him... for God's sake, don't witter on about what a wonderful man I am because I've never sold out anything I believe in and I've stood by all my principles,” he said, “don't witter on about any of that crap. Tell him how much I've taught you about BBC politics – that will really make me happy.” But I did learn so much from John about how to live this life, really. It wasn't just about what he gave to the world of underground music in terms of that incredible validation, that incredible pedestal – and it is almost impossible to conceive of how the cultural landscape would lie without his influence. But it's what he was as a man, it's the principles that he constructed, that were the foundation stones of his life and everything he stood for as a man.
I remember this brilliant incident when I had just begun at the BBC. I'd come from the NME and from five years broadcasting on XFM where my interviews were notorious for being incredibly confrontational... and that's how I got the job at Radio 1. Do you know this story?
OK: when I was at XFM we did trial broadcasts for five years, in Camden for one month a year. There was no alternative radio in the UK whatsoever and we felt it was the revolution. For instance we'd do this thing called Bushell & Bragg, obviously Garry Bushell in one corner and Billy Bragg in the other and they'd pick the topic of the week, we'd open the phone lines and they'd just go at each other like rottweilers, just one of the most fantastic pieces of broadcasting.
Now, I remember being incredibly excited because we'd got Mudhoney [contemporaries of Nirvana and rock connoisseurs' favourites] confirmed for this particular day to come in and do an interview and do a live session and I was over the moon. Then the controller of XFM came into me, Sammy Jacob, and saying “Ermm... yeah, actually tomorrow on your show, you're going to have Trevor Dann on the programme, he's head of production at Radio 1 and he's coming in to play an hour of his favourite records” - and I went absolutely ballistic. I went, “I've got Mudhoney on the show, there's no fucking way – and who the fuck is this guy? Tell him to find a window of opportunity on his own fucking station!” To be fair, on Trevor's part it was a really shrewd move – I had no idea who he was, but unbeknown to me, he and Matthew Bannister had just come to Radio 1 to begin the process, the...
The big pogrom! [Bannister famously wiped out the “Smashy & Nicey” school of Simon Bates, Dave Lee Travis, Gary Davies and Steve Wright that had dominated throughout the 1980s]
Yeah, basically, they were swinging the guillotine over all the old school DJs. But yes, I had to concede that it was [Jacob's] network and Mudhoney got shifted to the next show – OOF! [she looks as if she is genuinely still peeved by this fact] – and I got Trevor. So I said, “At least you've got to allow me to interview him first, that's my condition of agreeing to this.” So me being this jumped-up little upstart from NME, I dragged him by the hair over hot coals in this interview, I mean I was ferocious because I was still seething about this Mudhoney thing. I put together the most hostile and confrontational interview you could possibly imagine.
Again, unbeknown to me, everybody at Radio 1 were really interested to know what would go on. From [Dann's] perspective, also, it was a smart way to reach the audience that he wanted to bring in to Radio 1. But I didn't know that he was a ferociously intelligent and extraordinarily powerful man at the BBC; but I was just mortified about Mudhoney and smarting about this. So what happened was, somebody at Radio 1 taped this interview, and people thought it was so funny that this jumped-up little child was giving hell to the grim reaper basically, that this tape ended up being bootlegged and circulated around Radio 1 and eventually ended up on Matthew Bannister's desk – the new controller. He thought he was going to be listening to demos for new shows, and inadvertently popped this tape in his tape recorder, pressed play, and was like “Fucking hell, who's this girl?” and he rang Trevor and said, “We've got to give this girl a job.” They rang me the very next day and offered me a job, and of course I just couldn't believe it – but these were the days in which Matthew Bannister had very much a more journalistic agenda and speech-based agenda for Radio 1. But he must have just laughed and thought, “Who has got the balls to do this kind of interview?”
It's hard to imagine an NME journalist nowadays not being so briefed in brand relationships and who they should kowtow to at Radio 1 that they would do that, let alone be allowed to.
Well, maybe, but also there are more programmes that overlap [between Radio 1 and NME/XFM demographic] now. Back then it was Peel at Radio 1 who was on my radar and literally nobody else, nothing else there had any relevance to me.
So, yeah, that's the story. Anyway, I'd come out of that culture, so I was very feisty when I first came to Radio 1, also because I'd come from this very male-dominated culture at the NME where everyone was so well-educated and I had left school at 16 and gone to work at an egg-packing factory with no A-levels or qualifications of any sort. This was the era of Stuart Maconie, David Quantick, Danny Kelly, James Brown, Andrew Collins, Steve Lamacque, the list goes on: a tough environment for women to operate in without a doubt. And it was that era where everything was just that much more confrontational – so when I came to Radio 1 that was the culture I'd come out of.
So anyway, this one time [giggles] with Peel... [again, drifts off for a second] I remember this one time that John Birt was having this dinner for all the really top, high-ranking presenters in the BBC, and Zoe Ball was meant to be going to it as she was the breakfast show presenter of the day, and Peel was too. But then Zoe got really ill, so Matthew Bannister said, “Oh, let's send Mary Anne instead, that'll be a really good idea” - I couldn't fucking believe it, to be honest. I was sat between Peter Sissons and Jeremy Paxman – who is my total idol, and I spent the whole lunch speaking to him about angling and stuff like that [she confesses after the interview that she had spent ages reading up on angling, knowing that it was Paxman's main leisure activity]. But all the big guns were there – Jeremy Clarkson, Anne Robinson, Nick Ross, Terry Wogan was there, Peter Sissons, Paxman, John Birt, all the biggest BBC guns.
And I remember as we walked up to this dinner Peel fixed me with a look, and said, “Mary Anne.” He said, “I know you have some incredibly interesting opinions about things and you love to express them at high volume on a frequent basis.” [laughs] He said to me, “If you never again listen to a single thing that I say to you once in your entire life, will you just please listen to me today.” He said, “Whatever you do, please just don't open your mouth at this dinner. Your job will be to smile sweetly.” And he said, “When the cheese course comes around, I will be about to fall asleep and drop off into my plate. You will see me nod and begin to fall forward. Your job will be to kick me sharply under the table until I wake up again.” And he said, "And THAT. IS. IT.” and gave me that look [she mimics a Paddington-like, brook-no-argument stare]. And he was, of course, absolutely right, because I was just this grimy little rookie at Radio 1, I didn't know anything, I was just some jumped-up little NME upstart at that point. And I was like a little Rotten incarnate, because that's what you had to be – and his advice couldn't have been more absolute, because you have to give the floor to the likes of Paxman and Clarkson and Wogan and you have to allow the big guns to just do their thing, you know the public schoolboys and all that, to just roll it out, and it was fascinating to just watch it play out. But I remember sure as shot, Peel was drinking some really fabulous red wine, and sure as shot I could see his eyes starting to become really heavy as dessert came, and sure as shot just as the cheese came I could see a little tilt of the body and see his head nod and so I was just booting him under the table to keep him awake, and, yeah, it was completely brilliant.
Actually I made really good friends with Jeremy Paxman for a while after that. I became extremely good friends with him, and we had quite a lot of banter about life, the universe and everything. I made him a mixtape actually: he told me the last record he'd bought was a James album so I said, “Oh God, I think we can do a little better than that,” and so I put a mixtape together and sent it over to his office at TV Centre or wherever – this is about 10 years ago now, I suppose. It had everything from classic Motown to avant-garde Warp tracks, Autechre and suchlike through to truly eccentric electronics from Ochre records, and he really liked it all. But when we would see each other in the BBC we would have a lot of extremely entertaining banter where he would tell me what was going on in current affairs and philosophy and I would tell him what was going on in the world of heavy metal – because I was doing the rock show at the time – and motorbike racing. But yeah, he was the most fun, I mean, God, just an extremely inspirational character, and I feel very lucky that I had that dialogue with him for a couple of years after that lunch because it's just a really really fascinating insight into the world of politics and current affairs from someone who's just at the peak of his game...
He's someone that never gives anything away in interviews himself, almost the opposite of Peel in that regard, who was very open.
Yeah. His emails were almost like Twitter before Twitter – they were always very short and very succinct, and his use of language was just awesome. I used to look at his language and think he doesn't waste a single word, and in any message he'd send you couldn't remove a single word because the sentence wouldn't actually make sense. He's just fantastically astute and I really was grateful for an opportunity to have a bit of dialogue with him, an absolutely incredible man.
But I'm still thinking of absolutely tons of Peel stories. Peel was defiant, definitely, but for all the right reasons. I remember we did this show years ago, we were together at Glastonbury, we used to do double-headers together at Glastonbury which were some of my favourite shows I ever did in my entire life. It was the year REM were headlining, and Michael Stipe was being helicoptered in. But earlier on Peel had been wandering around the fields and had bumped into Stuart from Mogwai. Now Mogwai had just had their first EP out and it was their very first festival appearance if I recall. Me and Peel were both big fans, but Mogwai were that big [holds fingers infinitesimally close together] – they were a fascinating young band and quite revolutionary in their outlook but they had the stature of mosquitoes. But yes, Peel said to him, “Oh, pop in on the show, we're going to be doing the show a bit later on together.”
Later, we were on air and there was this huge kerfuffle: Michael Stipe's helicopter had landed some short time ago and all this kerfuffle was going on. So in comes Stipe's PA, and said to Anita, Peel's producer at the time [strident voice], “Michael isn't giving any interviews on site but he's requested that he's interviewed by John Peel on this programme.” So Anita communicated this to us, and she looked at Peel, and he said, “Er... can you just give us a couple of minutes, Anita, I'm just going to discuss this with Mary Anne.” She said, “Sure, sure” and closed the door, and he said, “What do you think about REM? Do you want to do this? Should we?” And I said, “I couldn't give a toss about REM to be honest with you – why do you say that?” So he said [sighs wearily], “Ahh, I really don't want to do this; the last time I interviewed Michael Stipe he made me look like an absolute wanker!” I said, “Why's that?” He said, “Well when the microphone was down he chatted away to me perfectly naturally and happily and we spoke about all kinds of things – but as soon as the mic was on he gave me one-word answers and made me look like an absolute cunt.” He said, “You know me, I hate doing interviews at the best of times” - which he did, in spite of the fact that he was amazingly good at them.
So he said, “You promise me you're not bothered?” and I said, “No, no, I couldn't give a shit what Michael Stipe has to say, I'm just not interested.” So he summoned Anita back in the room and said [mock imperious], “Yeeess... well, can you tell Michael Stipe's PA that we're dreadfully sorry but we can't possibly fit him in this afternoon because we have Stuart from Mogwai passing by.” And it was just completely the most fabulous moment, you can't imagine the difference of stature – Michael Stipe the biggest global superstar of that era, and Stuart from Mogwai who's literally just put his first EP out... but that was just so typically Peel, so defiant but for all the right reasons, because Mogwai really were just about the most exciting band on the planet at that point and Michael Stipe wouldn't have given us anything. So we got a wonderful interview with Stuart and Mogwai then went on to become a really awesomely influential band, so it was defiant but for exactly the right reasons.
All the characters you're mentioning – Peel, Lydon, Paxman, Chris Morris, Bowie – they are all people who use humour and a sense of the ridiculous as a vital part of what they do.
Oh, totally. What's really interesting about Chris Morris – actually I've met him only once in person... at this party I'd had a few drinks and I did literally pin him to a wall the entire night. But what was really interesting about it was, like Paxman, you'd imagine that with one lash of the tongue Morris could reduce you to rubble. But actually quite the opposite is true: he's very, very funny but very modest and actually genuinely really interested to know what your reaction is. I remember just laughing absolutely hysterically with him like two kids about his sketch where Noel Edmonds has gone insane and shot all the guests at a dinner party...
And Chris Morris knew that I was just this ultra-committed fan, but he was genuinely fascinated by what my response to things was and whether or not I thought each aspect of what he'd done was funny in the same way he did. And I was completely disarmed by what a charming and modest and fantastically funny he was – just like Paxman: Paxman is enormously intelligent but so warm and giving when you get to know him a little bit, wonderfully modest about what he does and wonderfully self-effacing and really interested to hear the perspective of someone who is a fan, not for the flattery but for the insight into the mechanics of his craft. I love those kind of men, they're awesome, just awesome.
These are all also individualists, as, it seems, are you – but how does that fit with your relationships to collective scenes, whether it be punk, metal or more recently dubstep?
Well – one of the most exciting things about the advent of MySpace and the globalisation of the underground as we know it is that now individual artists can and have become the masters of their own destiny completely. And that's been a really amazing thing to watch for me, because I always felt that so many artists previously, even in the kind of more credible independent networks, have been so often compromised in terms of what's expected of them creatively and in terms of sales returns, hit singles, press coverage – a lot of control is taken away from them with other agencies deciding what artwork, what edits, what singles, what remixes, how the album will be structured, making all kinds of creative decisions for and on behalf of artists.
Now, though, dubstep is a fantastic, sustainable model for how an entire scene can operate without patronage from the wider industry at large: that is a miraculous and revolutionary thing for me to see. It is a brand-new model – I think, Jesus Christ, look at what in the space of three years has become from a tiny micro-scene with sometimes literally 10 people at a rave, has become this enormous global international concern, and yet still absolutely retain 100 per cent control of what they are doing. And those empires that began as the most unbelievably tiny concerns, be it [south London club/label] DMZ or [Bristolian label] Tectonic recordings or [Kode 9's label] Hyperdub, are expanding literally month-by-month on a global basis.
Few people predicted that, though. In 2006 when I first interviewed Kode 9, he said with certainty, “None of us are going to be giving up our day jobs.”
Yeah, and look how it is in 2009, it's absolutely incredible. And at this point, I enjoy belonging to that kind of community that are able to now define themselves globally. It's almost a miracle to me, the internet really is the great leveller, isn't it, because it reduces the degrees of separation between people to nothing, literally nothing. You can reach out to anybody you want, anywhere in the world, at any time of day – as long as you've got an internet connection. And I feel a sort of a sense of belonging to this community of people who do have completely separate and highly individual identities that they are completely in charge of.
If you think back a few years ago, as a creative individual, the way you are portrayed to the world is 100 per cent reliant on a third party, that being a journalist's representation. And when for whatever reason people get a particular impression of you, that is then replicated over and over and over again, because obviously journalists will go back and read a prior piece to do their research, and then an idea becomes almost a clichéd idea of what you are as a character. And even a few years ago artists had no way to redress that themselves – there weren't blogs, there wasn't anything like MySpace, or like Twitter. You could do it through your art, but otherwise you didn't have any way to do it yourself, did you?
Except for those very few characters like, say, Bowie, who is hyper-articulate and makes people want to listen to his every utterance.
But even Bowie's been through periods where he's been portrayed terribly, say in the Tin Machine period, where he was really misrepresented and portrayed as just really really conceited and difficult and egocentric and all the rest of it – whereas all he was really doing was just trying out a new idea that didn't run particularly smoothly.
It's true – he copped a lot of the flak for the Eighties rockstar ego thing, the Sting, Bono thing, when actually he was doing something more interesting with it.
That's right. But with this belonging thing, it's really strange, it's [sighs]... when I was a kid there wasn't a punk scene in Garstang, it was remote, it was happening elsewhere, but it was the ideology with which you identified really strongly. The rock scene I was involved with much more seriously, the electronic scene similarly – although the electronic scene is strange because I interact with far more people in a virtual sense. I spend most of my life effectively existing in a virtual environment – the real environment is far removed from me, which is why I like to do the specials [her one-off Radio 1 shows introducing local scenes] because you get to actually go to Bristol, go to LA, and once you centre yourself in a place even for a few days, it's amazing what will gravitate towards you, it's just incredible. But most of my life I live in a virtual environment, which is quite strange when I really think about it – I think, I wonder if I'll end up like the guy from the film Pi, and just go completely mad, trying to solve the riddle of the underground.
Or, funnily enough, Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, surrounded by screens.
Yeah... yeah... [thoughtful, slightly troubled look, then hit by a sudden thought] Bowie's another of those men who's very inquisitive, very self-critical, disarming, absolutely fascinating man, fully prepared to admit where his pitfalls are... But yes, I spend 10 hours plus a day listening to music and online in my tiny office in Sheffield which is about half the size of this room [the room we are in is not large by any means] with a desk and the walls are stuck with Post-It notes and ideas and maps and drawings and sketches and all sorts of stuff that appeals to me and I just stick it all over the walls. But I do spend all my time online, it's interesting that I rarely actually have a telephone conversation – even now, sitting here having spoken to you for two hours my voice is hoarse because I don't speak to anyone [for so long] normally, I'm not used to it. It's weird!
I know that I'm addicted to my Mac. I force myself to go to Starbucks every day, in the middle of the day – half an hour walk there and back – because otherwise I can and do just sit at my Mac for eight, 10 hours straight, I just love it. And when I'm not on it, I'm tormented by it, and I've got my iPhone so I'm still connected. There is no question whatsoever that I have compulsive, addictive problems with computers, but also that my whole life is inside my Mac - I get a fraction of the physical mail I did. Physical things are... they don't exist any more.
I interviewed the DJ Armand Van Helden a while ago, and he's got it so his life's on a memory stick. The quote was, “Throw the clothes in the bag, throw the hard drive in the bag and you're good to go.”
On a related note, I was thinking the other day, isn't it amazing how we all depend so completely on this highly complex technology but we have absolutely no idea how any of it works? None. We are relinquishing our entire lives to systems that we have no understanding of whatsoever, we have not the faintest idea how any of these things work but we are 100 per cent dependent on them in terms of having removed so many physical things from our lives. For me now, more than ever, everything exists online in a virtual environment – I spend more time in a virtual environment than in the real world. The real world is where I sit – my chair is there, but my head is not in that world. It's bizarre because I don't know how any of this works or how I would function if it didn't for any reason.
You're a practical person though – you fixed up buses, you ride bikes.
Yeah, well, that's exactly it – you would know if the sparkplugs needed cleaning or if the fanbelt was broken or the distributor cap was loose. But now, I look at my iPhone and think, when I touch the screen how does it know what to do? When I get a new piece of technology I ask these questions all the time and nobody knows the answer at all! And we're in this space as a species now where there's a tiny handful of people – tiny – who actually know how this stuff works, yet most of the world rely on it every single day. It feels strange.
Going back to this sense of belonging, you are now a vital part of the scene around dubstep – but you came to that through your radio work ...
Yes. This is something again that Peel taught me: that you have to be incredibly consistent over a considerable period of time, really, and you have got to earn people's trust – and that's on both sides: it's the trust of the artists that you're representing and it's the trust of the listeners that if they give their precious time to you – which as we've just discussed is more and more precious every moment. You have to give them something that will blow them away or interest them week after week or they will fall way, but if you do I think after time, people do begin to really trust you – and it's a fantastically rewarding feeling for me.
Just recently I did the West Coast Rocks special off my own back: there was no budget to do it from the BBC so I did it off my own back – I bought the video camera to go and make the film, I did everything, I went out to LA and San Francisco completely under my own steam because I could feel that there was an incredible momentum building out there and I wanted to capture some of the energy of that in a similar sort of way to Dubstep Wars [Hobbs's early 2006 showcase programme which is generally accepted to be the key moment that broke dubstep internationally], I could feel a flashpoint approach, you could feel that sense of community and momentum building and I felt like I had to see this, I had to go and see what is happening out there and experience it first-hand.
And it was a massive undertaking for me to do it all myself, to make the film and to make and edit the show all within a week of getting back - with all the new compliance issues as well [post Ross/Brand scandal], because we'd recorded all these live sets out in the states and they needed to be complied, the films needed to be complied etc etc. There was 10 hours of live sets from the clubs, and of course I had mountains of CDs to go through when I got back and links to tunes, even more, as you can imagine, interviews and just acres and acres of raw material to get through and pull together to make the specials – but I was just delighted, I'm always delighted in the aftermath because the response was just phenomenal, right across the world.
Flying Lotus [aka Steven Ellison, the lynchpin of the Los Angeles and global off-beam hip hop scene] hit me up on AIM [instant messenger] and said the following week at Low End Theory [the club at the heart of the scene] every single person was talking about how much they loved the show. He said, people are so excited, and even more so with what's happening and the connections that are being made in the aftermath of that, and it's just so rewarding for me to see that.
It's funny that these scenes are increasingly bonded together by constant interaction on AIM and Twitter, it's almost like the club itself extends onto the internet.
Well, absolutely, my life is about dialogue and it's about making that the most effective it can be, I suppose. And so you moderate the way you communicate to all these media, to MySpace, to Twitter, to instant messengers. But at the same time we've become more and more removed from one another... Which maybe is why clubbing, especially on the underground level, has become more and more significant these days and why the clubs are still so well-attended – because it's one of the few places you can still go and see everyone you know there in the flesh, because everyone is so locked into their own little relationships with their Mac, their PC, their iPhone otherwise. You really truly think, “Oh, wicked, it's DMZ, I will actually see 20 people I know and we'll actually chat at length, fanastic, I'd better get on a train and go!” I mean, otherwise, if you are a busy person, you might not see anyone for weeks – obviously I DJ a lot but often then I'm in a completely alien territory where I don't know anyone there, not even the promoter or anything so it's different. You're among people but you don't know them, that's another kind of alienation in its own right.
And do you think the need to make these events special, to bond people, drives the musical innovation?
Totally, totally. That goes for a lot of the best of the artists I work with right now, whether it's Ras G or Kode 9 or Rustie or Ben Frost, who is this incredible Australian guy who makes these vast sheets of noise that are somehow totally gripping and totally musical – they are all willing to fail and willing to go wrong in the pursuit of having a creative experience that nobody in the universe has ever had and then completely blowing away their audience by sharing that new thing with them and letting them in on that shared experience.
And do you feel the need to chase that innovation? I mean, most of those artists you just mentioned, and the Californian scene you were discussing earlier, are already kind of a step on again from dubstep.
Well, yes, absolutely, it goes with the territory that I have my ears open every second of every minute of every day looking for something that's going to make my jaw drop, is going to make me want to drop everything and go and find out who made that. But that doesn't mean abandoning what's past necessarily – all the figures we've mentioned today are more or less examples of people who don't stagnate, who themselves keep innovating and innovating, or enquiring and enquiring. It's not like every time I find something new I love, it invalidates what's come before.
Things do change, though, and this is something I always say to younger artists I spend time with: enjoy what you've got, because if you are successful it is going to change, and you are inevitably going to leave behind the things you most love about what you are doing. If you're smart and care enough, you can go on to create new adventures and things to believe in beyond your wildest dreams, you'll see the world and meet wonderful and incredible people, but you will never again have that first flush of excitement of sharing with your friends the thrill of making your own music and your own scene.
I would say that to people at FWD>> [the weekly London club started in 2001 and generally accepted as being the first ever dubstep night] and DMZ when I first started going – because immediately I could see, even if they couldn't, that this was music that was going to have a global reach – I would say, “What you have here now, where you all see one another every week or every month, the same faces sharing the experience of hearing each mindblowing new dubplate together: this is incredibly precious, appreciate this.” And of course now, the main players are all tear-arseing across the world, and their paths only cross when they are DJing together, and I share a little of that with them too. There is still a sense of a massive effort for everyone to go to DMZ every two months, and those friendships all continue, but it will never again be the same as when they were all building the scene together in the same room every week.
Of course, in a sense they didn't need telling – these are smart and creative people and even if they didn't want to admit it to themselves for fear of sending their egos out of control, they had a natural sense of what they had and what its potential was. And these are people who... well, take Loefah and Pokes [DJ/co-promoter and MC respectively at DMZ]: when I met them, they were working in this yard, warehouse type thing, putting decals on the side of commercial vehicles – you know, the lettering on the sides of vans. They were working insane hours every day, in the absolute freezing fucking cold quite often, working until their hands were numb, dizzy half the time from the chemicals in these transfers they were putting on, and then going home and making music or planning the club – and this was the focus and the dedication they had to what they were doing, and so when the weekend of DMZ would come and they would see the crowd and the passion and dedication to the music that those people had, then of course they appreciated what they had.
And yes, there is a sadness in it for me, I guess. I'm telling the guys at Low End Theory in LA these same things now – appreciate what you have right now while you still have the opportunity to be together on this regular basis, and celebrate what you have achieved. You will achieve so, so much more, but by then you will be all going in your own directions as artists and as people, travelling the world and doing your own thing. So appreciate it now. And as I say that to them, I know that I will be moving on too, I will be finding other sounds and other scenes as the music itself moves on. That was something else Peel told me: there's a lot of saying goodbye in this job, because if you do it right, you are dealing with the people and artists who will move on and change. And as they do, and as the scenes change, even if they are people and places and memories that are very precious to you, you have to say goodbye to very, very many of them.
That's quite a bittersweet feeling, then?
It is, but it is also how life is. And there is always the pride that you feel in what those people have achieved, and there is always something new to discover.
Read an extended version of this interview on VeryVeryMuch
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