Still brimming with the enthusiasm of a teenager who witnessed acid house's explosion, Justin Robertson's second album as Deadstock 33s is a dark, psychedelic voyage through the mind of a man who's continually been at the forefront of electronic music's most revolutionary moments.
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There are now two sides to London's Soho. Justin Robertson's member's club — the first he's joined, and is visiting for the first time when we agree to meet there — is part of its changing face. Bright and airy, with large windows looking out onto Brewer Street, when we pop our heads in the door it's already filled with open MacBooks and professional-looking meetings. Instead, we pop around the corner to The French House on Dean Street. An old school boozer in a Grade II listed building, its walls are lined with black and white photos.
Here, the drinkers at the bar feel as much part of the décor. It's a piece of London that's soaked in creative history. Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Malcolm Lowry are amongst those who drank here. Dylan Thomas, it's claimed, once left the manuscript of Under Milk Wood under one of the chairs. In short, it feels like the perfect setting to meet an artist with Robertson's history.
His past productions aliases and groups include The Prankster, Revtone, Lionrock and Three Earls, and he's put out celebrated mix albums for Journeys By DJ, Bugged Out and Distinctive amongst others, while remixing everyone from Bjork to The Stone Roses. But it's his latest solo album, 'Everything Is Turbulence' (out September 25th on Skint), under the moniker Deadstock 33s, that's the distillation of a musical career that's left an indelible mark.
From acid house convert to superclub DJ, Balearic upstart to Top Of The Pops star, Robertson has been at the ignition points of dance music's most exciting, revolutionary developments.
These days his restless creative drive extends to painting, too, further crowding the spare room in his North-West London home which is named — with a knowing sense of humour at its gravitas — Solitary Cyclist Studios. He even looks the part of a modern-day dandy, arriving in trademark tilted hat and snappy gentleman's attire, tattoos poking out from under his shirt sleeve.
When we last heard Robertson DJ it was playing between Daniel Avery and Andrew Weatherall, a shorthand way of locating 'Everything Is Turbulence'. Dark, stripped-down and trippy, it's filled with club-friendly tracks ready to freak out spangled ravers. But listen closely and there are pointers to Robertson's wider musical tastes.
'Spirit Of The Age' is a dubby cover of acid-fried space rockers Hawkwind, 'The Magnificent Hand' all swirling beatless psychedelia. Elsewhere shoe-gaze, dub and post-punk permeate the mix. “All those sorts of music have a common thread,” sums up Robertson, who talks throughout with an undimmed enthusiasm for discovering new sounds. “I mean, there's something about a '60s garage punk record and a King Tubby dub that have a certain similarity in their approach.”
The album's collaborators shine further light on the various strands of Robertson's musical heritage. 'Metal Taste' welcomes Lisa Elle, guitarist and vocalist from goth rockers Dark Horses.
“Anyone who's got a full-time chain player in the band is a winner in my book,” he grins on the dedicated role of Tommy Chains, explaining he was originally introduced to the group by Richard Fearless. Setting Elle's hypnotic vocals against a skanking, tape-delayed backing which he compares to Grace Jones' 'The Compass Point Sessions', its perfect haunting pop.
This also applies to the ghostly 'For One Touch', one of two tracks featuring his wife Sofia Robertson. “When we first met we did a lot of drunken acoustic guitar song-writing together,” he says, praising her ability to sing “gutsy Southern Blues stuff too”.
Then there's 'I Am Automatic', a thumping, bleeping acid house tune recorded with Daniel Avery. “We have very similar tastes in common,” Robertson says on their affinity. “Obviously the club stuff we play is similar, but not the same,” he goes on, mentioning Barnt as a common favourite, before reeling off a shared listening list of less dancefloor-centric electronics that extends from influential European bands like Tangerine Dream and Kluster to newer acts such as Eat Lights Become Lights and Listening Center.
This has resulted in an ambient project that the pair are working on, a sizeable departure from their more well-known output. “There are no drums in it for starters,” says Robertson with another flash of his smile.
The album's title, alongside its cover (a photo taken in Kensal Green Cemetery by friend Nick Bull) showing a shining, illuminated figure — from a gravestone — reaching for the sky, skeletal trees doing the same in the background, point to some of Robertson's current interests.
Inspired by books such as Turn Off Your Mind and Keepers Of The Cosmos by Gary Latchman, who was the bassist in Blondie, which delve into the occult side of the '60s and the nature of human consciousness respectively, Robertson's interest in the psychedelic isn't purely a matter of musical aesthetics.
“Contemporary science talks about dark matter and things like that. It sounds like the occult to me, it sounds like mystery. There's a lot of chaotic, unexplained things going on. I find that quite interesting. At the same time, people are trying to tell us that we're determined by our genes which — even if it's true — I refuse to believe! I don't like any deterministic views, so 'Everything Is Turbulence' is touching on that.”
This leads to talk about Paul Feyerabend, a twentieth century philosopher of science who was critical of the prescribed methodology of science. He argued that it would benefit from theoretical anarchy instead, using examples such as the trial of Galileo to highlight some of the problems in our current rationale and ideas of certainty. “That's where the psychedelic thing comes in, the unknown,” explains Robertson. “The possibilities that we don't know everything and we're not limited by what we think we know.”
It's this nose for the novel and the unlikely that's been Robertson's constant ally. Spending his early teens in what he calls “one of the uncoolest places to grow up”, Buckinghamshire, his early tastes were shaped by two Johns — one his half-brother, who introduced him to bands like Velvet Underground, Talking Heads and The Fall, and the other BBC Radio 1's John Peel.
With a West Indian community in nearby High Wycombe, he began buying dub and reggae records from the likes of Jah Stitch at a shop called Scorpion Records. “I picked up some stuff quite cheap that would cost me a fortune now, I was just buying things totally by accident.”
It was his move to Manchester at 18-years-old, however, to study philosophy, which forged him as a DJ. Arriving in 1986, house was already huge there, records from Adonis, Raze or Farley Jackmaster Funk, mixed between early hip-hop at clubs like The Hacienda, PSV Club and Man Alive.
“The Trash parties this guy Andy Mad Hatter used to do were a mix between house, funk and hip-hop, and he was an amazing DJ. It was the first time you heard the possibilities of what you could do with records and how expressive you could be playing them.”
His inquisitive and acquisitive record-buying made playing them an obvious step forward, and acid house's summer of love cemented a life-long obsession. “The music didn't change that much,” he remarks on what he calls the 'heady days' that followed, “it was just someone had gone somewhere and come back with these pills. That's what changed it all.”
From here it snowballed. Graduating in 1989, he got a job in Manchester's Eastern Bloc records, working alongside Martin Price from the then flourishing 808 State. The same year he started Spice, with Greg Fenton, a party he calls “more legendary than successful”.
Excited by the sound of strange, exotic non-house records listed in Junior Boys Own fanzines brought up from London, Spice plugged into what became known as the Balearic Network, welcoming DJs such as Andy Weatherall and Rocky & Diesel. He also toured with Weatherall supporting Primal Scream, and rubbed shoulders with a young guitar tech called Noel Gallagher while on the road with the Inspiral Carpets.
Next venture, Most Excellent, welcomed in the '90s by capturing the nascent sound of burgeoning UK house labels such as Guerrilla Records, its crowd of regulars including The Chemical Brothers and Johnno Burgess, creative force behind now defunct music magazine Jockey Slut and Bugged Out. Robertson helped spearhead Bugged Out as his sound hardened, unleashing tracks like Plastikman's rattling 'Spastik' on the giant dancefloors of Cream in Liverpool.
“With the advent of the superclub, people went one way or the other,” he says. “It went glam piano, what became known disparagingly as handbag house, or you started wearing combat trousers and listening to 140bpm Djax-Up-Beats records. I kind of fell somewhere between the two. Jolly techno, as I call it now.”
“It was serious music but not taken seriously,” he adds, later looking back on the long-running ethos this gang of friends forged, an attitude which still radiates from his positive demeanour.
Hacienda resident Mike Pickering helped Robertson get signed to DeConstruction Records before he'd even made a record. By 1998 his subsequent Lionrock project, which started as a solo project before expanding into a live band, was on Top Of The Pops thanks to 'Rude Boy Rock', a beefed-up version of The Skatalites' 'Nimrod'.
“Madonna did it on a video link,” he remembers with disappointment, hoping that he'd get to meet the US star, rather than the cast of Casualty, who also appeared. “But we did have a very drunken evening with Shed 7, they were very nice chaps, and we got shown around the EastEnders set by Nigel.”
Despite having lived through such seismic times, Robertson has the unjaded enthusiasm of someone releasing their first record. “In terms of output of creativity and music, I think it's the best it's ever been,” he declares on dance culture's current state of play. “You can play records you got that week for four hours every week. I think it's fantastic. Things you think you had a handle on, music from the past, suddenly here's a gospel compilation of music from the '50s.”
Driven by what he calls a “need to do something and make things and desperately avoid having to have a real job”, he returned to painting — something he'd previously dabbled in — at the end of last year after a temporary computer meltdown left him unable to record music. The resulting pictures, being exhibited as a show under the same name as the album, may form part of the album launch, after having just been shown in Sweden.
Sitting amongst the ghosts of other restless creative souls who didn't get a 'proper job', Robertson seems keen to downplay all that he's achieved and inspired. For him, it sounds, the adventure still feels like it's just starting. “It's all part of a continuation,” he tells us as he reflects on the cosmic glimmer of time that seems to have passed since he first set out. “I went out for a pint of milk, I went to the Hacienda, and here we are sitting in the French House in 2015.”
'Everything Is Turbulence' is out 25th September on Skint Records.
1. Telesto Enchantment
2. If You Want To Get Into It
3. Metal Taste Ft. Lisa Elle
4. Soft Geometry
5. Bajo La Luna Ft. DJs Pareja
6. Sacred Bone
7. The Magnificent Hand
8. Joseph's Kiss
9. I Am Automatic Ft. Daniel Avery
10. For One Touch Ft. Sofia Robertson
11. Spirit of the Age
12. There's No More Time
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