From Stiff Little Fingers, Therapy? and The Undertones to David Holmes, Phil Kieran and The Divine Comedy, Northern Ireland's musical output has, for decades, had a huge, if often unspoken, influence on a global scale. With scenes and communities being built against adversity and upon a backdrop of civil war and political turmoil, the determination and DIY spirit that has coursed through the musical landscape is something that is reflected in the ever-growing club scene, particularly in Belfast. Where iconic clubs and parties Shine, Twitch and Art College have served as inimitable foundations for the innovative, energised scene, promoters like Jika Jika!, festivals like Celtronic and AVA and DJs/producers such as Bicep, Or:la, Myler, Hammer, and more have served to catapult Northern Ireland's club music identity to the world stage.
Now, a month before AVA Festival and Conference (1st - 2nd June) finds peerless international names Larry Heard, Floorplan, Sassy J, Hunee, Midland, Helena Hauff and more joining the wealth of Irish talent – both Northern and from the south – we caught up with some of N.I's finest promoters, DJs and producers to find out just what makes it such a unique place to cut your teeth and discover the dancefloor.
"Growing up in Northern Ireland and then moving away at 18 has had a big effect, realising how lucky I was to have such a gritty club scene and enjoying it from such a young age. It especially made me appreciate good underground music, mainly techno, from the age of 14 or 15, and that has carried on through and been a reference for everything since. I mainly find it inspiring how many good producers, DJs and promoters have come from such a small place. And they keep coming. That alone definitely pushes you forward and keeps you interested.
It’s tiny and the people are slightly mental! It’s also very isolated and fairly rough around the edges, which makes for a good party, obviously."
"The scene has always been strong in Northern Ireland, I remember going to Stiff Kitten (RIP) for the first time, hanging over the railings sweating and dancing my heart out to Japanese Popstars thinking this was the best place on earth. Places like this opened a whole new world I wanted to be a part of.
It’s really the people in Northern Ireland that have influenced me the most. There is so much incredible talent from this tiny part of the world and I’m so proud of all my pals who are absolutely smashing it like Cromby, Brame & Hamo, Or:la, Bobby Analog, Swoose and Hammer - The list could go on and on. The endless talent motivates me and pushes me to keep up. What's so special about it? – One word - YEEOOOOO - literally one ‘yeo' in a crowd can make the whole dancefloor erupt. I fucking love the unity on the dance floors and the appreciation of good music in Ireland it’s so class. AVA festival is an absolute testament to this."
"Doing something different in a city that's not exactly supportive of young people socialising, never mind acknowledging us as a credible industry, has given a lot of people like me the get-up-and-go to do things ourselves. Finding myself immersed in the club scene from a young age in Belfast introduced me to a hugely diverse community of people of all ages and backgrounds, and as a teenager gave me a direction that ultimately ended up influencing my university choice, and here we are today!
I still spend most weekends in Belfast where we throw a weekly party, The Night Institute, which attracts a really diverse range of regulars and continues to excite me. We are trying to create an interesting landscape in the hope someday kids won't be leaving Belfast to live in other cities because of our backwards government policies (Actually, we don't even currently have a government). Labels like Extended Play, Computer Controlled and Body Fusion are flying the DIY Belfast flag to the rest of the world. There's a lot of work to be done to push things forward but we've never been scared of a challenge. Plus,we're really fucking loud and most people will lend you a cigarette and not ask for anything in return."
"Growing up in rural Armagh, I didn't quite have the same exposure as most other DJs in Northern Ireland did - the choices were either country music or trance/hard dance so it’s no surprise that I started off in the latter category. My initial introduction to electronic music came from my father, with later influences coming from local heroes like Gleave Dobbin, Fergie and Paul Hamill.
In my later years up until now, I have still been heavily influenced by the myriad of talented DJs/producers coming out of N.I, including artists like Bobby Analog, Swoose, Cromby and BICEP. Whilst my taste and sound has developed a lot over the past ten years, I think my trance background is still discernible at times. The energy is just second to none - ask any DJ and they will tell you it is their favourite place to play (perhaps with Scotland a close second). It's probably something to do with to the backward laws limiting our partying hours, or perhaps us Celts are all just a bit mental?"
"The collective energy of artists and club/festival-goers at events is a huge influence. Belfast is where it all started for me, and every time I've played there since has been majorly defining. To be returning there this year for a Boiler Room set is beyond special. Belfast based imprint Extended Play Recordings is a constant source of inspiration. Their roster and output is truly world-class, and I feel very honoured to have released music with them. The people, without question. The whole AVA crew in particular have something special going on – they’re basically one big happy family! I can't wait to see them all again in June."
"Northern Ireland is a great place to grow up musically; lots of great rock, punk and soul bands hailing from there. Bands like Stiff Little Fingers, Them, Undertones, Rudi etc. That was the stuff that was all over the radio when we were kids so subconsciously this definitely played a part. In terms of clubbing, Shine and its residents were a great influence, this is where we got our first real taste of house and techno. We don't live in Ireland anymore so it's quite hard to say we get an influence from there in quite the same way we used to, but the young scene is really vibrant at the moment which is great to see. It's a unique place, which is hard to describe to anyone who hasn't lived there. I think one thing common all over Northern Ireland is that people aren't afraid to let loose, which is why when we go home it's most special for us, especially when we play gigs there."
"The legacy of the Art College and seeing people like Timmy Stewart still leading the way is massive inspiration. From when we first started out until present, someone has always had our back. Community is a word you will see used over and over again, but it's valid. People support each other, whether it be fellow DJs or your friends on the dancefloor. The scene here has always been fresh and inspiring. Belfast is small enough to put on your own club night too, it's not London, you don't need a billion connections! Just spirit.
The crowds here may be small but energy levels are through the roof and if that doesn't enforce what you are doing then you are dead inside! Across every alternative scene in NI whether it be electronic music, punk, visual art or experimental scenes there has always been a sense of "can do" attitude. If it doesn't exist people create it and we are fiercely proud of that! We see amazing underground nights popping up all the time, acts being booked. It's ever moving forward."
"I think a lack of a scene is sometimes more inspiring in Belfast. It's a place where, if you don't want to roll over and play for Shine, you have to create your own parties and take risks to create your own opportunities. I think some of the more inspiring people that influenced what I play and listen to via their parties are Belfast Music Club, Twitch and Beat BBQ and they continue to challenge the status quo of dance music here. I think the continued work of collectives and the DIY culture here is really inspiring.
There are a few exciting labels like Touch Sensitive run by Mark Reid and Timmy Stewart, and Aaron Black's Black Bones vinyl series has been receiving plenty of fan mail. There are lots of new young promoters in the city who probably came up going to parties I ran and have now decided they can do a better job than me! That's exciting for me because I look forward to seeing what sort of events they are going to run and what direction they will take with guests and residents and decor etc. It's really hard to look past the people here who are second to none at a party. That Titanic exhibition is pretty awesome too though."
"The scene in Northern Ireland has ,obviously, inspired us massively. From learning about our 'Summer of Love' here and consequently attending club gigs over the years to listening to some of the best Irish DJs and producers. This spurred us on to DJ, run our own events and produce.
There's so much talent here it's unreal. AVA represents everything positive about the scene and how working together really benefits everyone. The standard of DJ and producer that the country has spawned is testament to the vibrant club scene we have here. The welcome the people give is amongst the best in the world and on a sunny day it has some of the best scenery you'll see."
"I was lucky to look old enough at 16 to get into the Art College events at the Conor Hall in Belfast. When I think about it now these parties were so ahead of the time, with some of the best residents, music policies, guest bookings, sound systems, visuals and art work that I’ve experienced to this day. For Belfast being so relatively small, I reckon we have one of the best scenes in the world. I got a first-class education in house, techno & electro and discovered artists like Jeff Mills and Basic Channel for the first time. It was through attending these nights that I realised I wanted to take my love for music and do something with it. Thankfully, I got to do some of my first gigs there, before the good thing came to an end. A bunch of us from this period decided to take what we had learned, move forward and help shape the next chapter.
The past 20 years has seen a constant development of nights, live acts, labels, DJs and bands. It's definitely at a real peak right now, with internationally renowned artists in nearly every field. I’ve also noticed in conversation it’s no longer a dodgy thing to say you come from Belfast these days! Honestly, it’s the people that make it so special! I’ve been able to get to play in a range of settings but the receptions at home are nearly always goosebump central. I also love the brutal honesty of the locals, if you don’t deliver they will probably let you know, so it keeps you on your toes."
"I started going out quite young and going to the likes of Shine with a fake ID and being blown away by it all. I was part of that generation where YouTube was becoming a thing and from then on, I’d watch YouTube videos of DJs like Villalobos etc. during the school week, while bursting for a taste of it again the next weekend. From then I knew I wanted to be a part of this and was lucky enough to become a resident at Shine a few years after and continue to play there regularly now. Belfast crowds are the best in the world, and it's hard not to be inspired by that. Friendly people, hands down. It's something I've noticed having moved from there to London and now Berlin, both of which are a little more, let’s say... frosty!"
"I think the general collectiveness is the thing that influences me most about the scene in Northern Ireland. Every producer/DJ and person in the industry, I believe, truly wants to help each other. Having my pre-pubescent mind blown each month at Shine also was a massive influence. It made me who I am today. I think when you see your mates doing well it naturally influences you. What Matt and Andy (Bicep) have done for electronic music is Belfast in remarkable and in turn, I think that has a knock-on effect with the likes of AVA Festival now in it’s fourth year.
Also, lisening to true selectors like Chris Frieze and Jamie Nelson as well as Producer, Brien, is something that is influencing me a lot at the minute. Where do I start? The accent, Sukie blackcurrant, getting chips with your battered sausage in the chippy (up your game London!). In all honesty, I think it’s the warmth of the people and their burning desire to have as much fun as possible whenever possible."
"From my first clubbing experiences in Belfast as a 16/17 year old, I knew straight away I wanted to be involved in it. Our aim with Twitch has always been to continue that stripped back, dark room with minimal lighting mood with a real focus on the music; the things that drew me to club culture in the first place. The nights that really stayed with me were seeing amazing international artists in tiny clubs like Vicos and The Menagerie.
The landscape of dance music has changed drastically over the time we’ve been running Twitch. Bigger promoters are a huge part of dance music now and what used to be underground is big business. I love that we’ve been able to find our place within dance music and still put some of the best DJ’s in the world on in smaller spaces, packed out with people who are all about the music and also having the DJ’s enjoying and supporting what we do. Belfast is deceptively small but dance music here has a hugely passionate following, having the support we have had to take risks and book interesting artists for the 12 years we’ve run the night has been amazing and we’re really grateful for it. What makes our nights really special is the atmosphere, the crowds here treat dance music parties like rock concerts and really go for it, every artist we bring over to Belfast is blown away by it."