Erol Alkan is an electronic music outsider. He’s produced artists as diverse as Mystery Jets, Long Blondes and Franz Ferdinand, and remixed The Chemical Brothers, Bloc Party, Daft Punk and Tame Impala. He ran the irreverent weekly Monday night Trash for a decade, and started label Phantasy Sound in 2007 shortly after its farewell. Since then, this renegade label has released music from Daniel Avery, Boize Noize and Connan Mockasin to In Flagranti and Late Of The Pier, while a regular fixture at Bugged Out!, and gigs as far afield as Toronto, Berlin, New York and Helsinki, though the end of 2013 marks Alkan's first solo release. Pulse caught up with him to talk about his life in music, and why he’s happy on the fringes, looking in.
While it might surprise a few people, this autumn has your first solo EP see the light of day on Phantasy. So, I guess the question is: why not before, and why now? The reason it’s taken this long is because I wasn’t really driven to release music under my name, as I wasn’t really sure what kind of music I wanted to make. Not just club tracks that would make sense for a couple of months then disappear, I wanted to make the kind of music I felt was missing from my DJ sets, and it was a marriage of the kind of psychedelic elements and the weirder elements of club culture that I really like. It’s only recently I’ve had the real time to concentrate on it as well. I’ve been DJing far less so I can concentrate more on music. When you’re collaborating with other people, you can sort of hide behind what they’re doing.
For a DJ like you that’s always played right across the board, is it a case of thinking ‘where is that niche,’ something you can put out that’s ‘mine’ but that doesn’t sound like it’s following a trend or a ‘sound?’ Yeah, definitely. And also, the label [Phantasy Sound] has been quite varied in the releases, and not just really ‘clubby,’ which forces me to be more varied for the next release. It’s like a game that you kind of play with yourself, and once you get your first one out there, then that’s when it gets quite interesting.
Having seen you DJ over the years, part of what I really enjoyed about the nights you ran and the clubs you played at is that they've kind of never fitted the ‘dance music’ mould, so it’s not defined what you do. I’ve always felt really surprised, and I don’t want to sound condescending, but there’s a lot of other DJs that I wouldn’t exactly say don’t take risks, but they don’t maybe embrace their own tastes, and put more variety in what they do. For me, DJing is just an extension of sharing music that I love, so it makes sense that to be so different.
I read a story about you that as a kid, you inherited the record collection from a guy that used to live upstairs. Does that kind of introduction to such a wide range of stuff as a kid stay with you? I think that from an early age I was around a wide variety of music and I never really made a choice as to what I’d listen to or what I was really going to focus on musically. I never saw that as ‘alternative.’ I don’t really feel I had it that different to many other people [in the industry]. When people ask you ‘what sort of music do you like?' I always find it a really difficult question to answer because to me, the idea that you wouldn't like most of any type of music is really strange. Also, people say ‘who’s your favourite band or favourite artist?’ Really, there’s very few bands or artists that I’ve liked all through their career or my life. Most of the time I’m just a great fan of moments in music. It’s really hard to just say you like something just because the rules you’re supposed to follow.
I think people just kind of try to pigeonhole a lot of things maybe for fear of not being seen as cool, or there’s something ‘wrong’ about liking artists at both ends of the spectrum. I feel that a little bit with my label, Phantasy, where people have been a bit surprised that we’ve had Connan Mockasin, and then Babe, Terror, and just thinking that all I’d want to release would only be played in clubs. I just don’t really get that at all personally [laughs], but I can understand a little bit of why people might think that, but you just narrow yourself, sometimes it’s all too much about strict definitions.
And as a DJ, and as a label owner, you’re allowing yourself that creative freedom to do what you want without having to feel you’re compromising. All my favourite labels have been that way. Whether it’s Factory, or Creation, or the early days of Island Records: they’re all varied. One thing was that they were all great records, and that’s the only line to follow.
Dance music is often very tribal, and not always in really beneficial ways, and when I used to go to nights like Trash, I always felt that you seemed to support music and a crowd that wasn’t necessarily found anywhere else, and made it your own. Yeah, absolutely. And talking about Trash in that sense, it was like a place that just existed for like-minded people, and we wanted to push that as far as possible. All the best clubs we did just felt like fostering that feeling of belonging for people and that was most important to me, where people felt it was their club, the music was the soundtrack to that shared experience.
And you never saw that crowd anywhere else together. It was just a lot disparate groups of people that could go somewhere they liked, and it happened to be this Monday night in the West End, this sort of ‘community.’ It might sound weird saying it, but actually the music that I felt most got the feeling behind Trash was the music to [the sitcom] Cheers, that sort of whole place that wasn’t work, wasn’t home, but it was somewhere else, somewhere that you felt comfortable. For me, I always said that it was my second home. If you do it that way then you’re always going to want to make it as hospitable to everyone, so they can be themselves.
The fact you did a weekly night in London for ten years, it just seems so alien now, as there’s so few weeklies around these days. I heard you only missed a single night in ten years? Yeah, I only missed one. It was my honeymoon [laughs].
I think that’s excusable! You know who stood in for me that night? Paul Epworth! [laughs]
That’s a pretty reasonable stand-in! Did you call him up the next Monday and say ‘what did you do to my club last week?’ [laughs] No, he was really great. I’ve known Paul for a while, and I knew he would look after it like it was his own.
In contrast to Trash, so much dance music seems to exist in the mainstream. It’s permeated into the charts, be it Guetta, or Kanye West making really electronic-sounding records that are no.1. Despite all this do you think the ‘underground’ is still there bubbling under, almost protected by the mainstream’s, operating in happy isolation? Completely. I haven’t ever claimed to be a spokesperson for ‘underground,’ but I do always feel there’s fantastic nights and music out there: you’ve just got to search for it. I don’t really feel any link to the mainstream at all, but what I do know is that there is bundles of amazing records and great DJs and places to go and I’m happy to be able to experience those things.
The enablement of people being able to make music, and getting music out there, has really changed the face of things. Do you think that accessibility has diluted music as producers maybe don’t have to put the effort in that you once had to, or is it that, despite this torrent of music, creative people still succeed, but have to fight harder to get to the top? I think there’s some truth in there, but for me, there is really something to be said about artists being A&R’d, having a creative person with you, and getting the best out of you. It’s what I’ve always tried to do with the label. A lot of people, if they’re making music on their own and they perhaps self-release, they may not get that benefit of at least enrolling people that you trust to help make those decisions. And also, when there’s a physical product to be made, like vinyl, that focus really allows you to present something in a far more fully-fledged way, rather than just digital only labels, may just be a link and text. It feels slightly empty. I’ve always relished looking at artwork and that’s all part of the package for me, and that brings all these other dimensions into it. My fear has always been that music released digitally is so easily discarded, so getting physical product out there, even if it ends up in a bargain bin, it’s something to be picked up, to be owned.
Is that the backbone of Phantasy, that you will always want to release physically, to get that tangible product out there? Yeah, completely. I feel the same way about books as well. I tried digital books, but I just feel it’s not really the same to me. I don’t know if it’s really old fashioned, I don’t think I am, but I just forget about it if it’s digital.
You were known at Trash for bringing over bands that were largely unknown in the UK. Is it really important to you to keep discovering and supporting artists for everyone to discover? Completely. It’s really strange that you use the words ‘support’ and ‘people.’ I’ve never really looked at it in that way. It’s always been that I’ve heard something I love, and I just want to hear more. I think it’s my curiosity really. My surprise and excitement in music. And it’s something I’m happy not to have lost yet. When I heard those artists the very first time, they’ve resonated as much as any of the bands that I’ve known for a long time. I suppose it’s quite an uncool thing to say, but I’ve always felt like a fan, first and foremost. And that’s still the case. If I wasn’t involved in the label it like I am, I’d still want to be around music. I personally never felt like a promoter, and the clubs were never about making money or ‘building a profile,’ it was about playing music and trying to get as many people as possible to hear it.
It must feel pretty cool to be able to do it as a job. You’re getting to do what you love on a daily basis. I didn’t have this feeling that music or DJing was as proper job. It was always just like a means to an end for me, like running a club was. All these things had a knock-on effect to one each other, but I just wanted to be able to absorb as much music as as I could and discover all this music that I love.
You still come from that era when being a DJ was just a DJ, a job in itself. Now it’s labels, DJing, likes on Facebook, putting out endless records - it’s almost a false pressure created by the machinery of music. For me, when i first started DJing a long time ago, the actual thing that made me go up to the guy who ran the club and ask him if I could get a slot, was because me and my friends wanted to hear different records in there. It just so happened that I a) owned all the records we wanted to hear, and b) I knew how to use a pair of record decks. My friend had a pair and I used to go round his house after school, so I knew my way around it, but that was the only reason. It wasn’t a burning ambition to be a DJ at all. Even ten, fifteen years in, that has always been with me, more so than to be a ‘personality.’
You turn forty next year - sorry that I had to mention that - but you seem at the peak of your powers, and it’s a career where longevity is possible. Do you feel that way, with a long career ahead of you? I don’t really know what a 39-year old should feel like [laughs]. I’m very fortunate to have the capacity to do this. I think we’re involved in a medium that’s got an endless history and it’s full of so many possibilities. And as long as you’re true to what you believe in, and you present and share the music that you’re excited by, there’ll always be - hopefully - people that will get something from it. So ironically enough, DJing has become something that you can get better at as you get older. You just have to look at people like the John Peels and Andrew Weatherall to see that you can’t really draw a line as to when they were valid or interesting, or successful. It’ll go up and down continuously. That’s because I don’t really want to be part of that DJing ‘circus’ where you are pushed to trying to get as much as you can out of a small window of time. I mean, that seems to me like you’re just taking something from people and not giving anything back. I don’t know how long I’ll want to DJ for, but like things in general, I’ll just play it by ear and see what happens.
Erol Alkan’s 'Illuminations' EP is out on Phantasy Sound on December 2nd. Head to www.erolalkan.co.uk and www.phantasysound.co.uk for more information. He will return to London on NYE with Bugged Out! and The Hydra at Studio Spaces. Tickets & Info here.