We got the chance to interview one of the UK/Ibiza greats & ‘King of The Terrace’ (Space) Steve Lawler and asked him some questions.
Mike Mannix: Before we touch on your career organising the infamous M42 motorway raves in the 90s can you give some background on your early influences socially and musically before your interest in dance music took over and changed your life?
Steve Lawler: When I was at school, aged 12/13, I used to skate and right next to the skateboard shop I used to go to in town, there was a record store. There used to be all these picture discs on the wall that I used to like the look of. I noticed you could actually buy a picture disc as single, or a Japanese import of the same record and it fascinated me – that’s how I started my record collection. This was way before I even started thinking about being DJ or even owning a record player,
I was just really drawn to the way vinyl looked.
Then when I was 16 the people I was hanging around with were 18 and would always go to Acid House raves. They invited me along but I always afraid to go because I was one of the boys who looked a lot younger than he was. I did try to go to a nightclub on a couple occasions with some friends and they would get in. I’d get up to the bouncer and he’d be like ‘no sorry mate, you’re too young’. But
those rejections introduced me to the illegal rave scene – I didn’t need to worry about looking old enough there. This was the first time I realised how locked into the music people get like it’s their life feed and it mesmerized me.
MM: How did you get involved in organising those massive illegal raves, describe that era to our younger readers, and for us older ravers who love the nostalgia!
SL: I had this fascination with vinyl from the age of 14, but as soon as I found about Acid House, I had to find out where I could buy this stuff. I was told of a shop called Don Christie that mainly sold Reggae, Hip Hop, Soul, RnB, Funk; it was Black music. To this day, it was the best record shop I’ve been to in my life. The guys in there were so cool. They really loved music and welcomed you with open arms. In the basement, they were selling world imports from German techno to American garage and house. All the British records were white labels. Where I was spending so much time in the shop, I eventually ended up practicing on their decks and getting into contact with people who loaned sound and DJ equipment. There was a tunnel in the middle of the countryside where I lived in Solihull and I was there one night with my friends and
I said, “You know what, we should throw a party here,” and that was how the party was born.
MM: Wicked, you held a residency at one of the UK’s biggest super clubs ‘Cream’ in the 1990’s, can you tell us about the highlights and the madness of that most hedonistic of eras?
SL: Mike, it was amazing. It came at a time in my life where I’d been DJ’ing for six years in bars, illegal raves and sending out shit loads of tapes. I was so skint. I had the idea of selling records I had to get some money and get away to India to go traveling. I’d been out to Cafe Mambo to do a residency for a few years from 1995. During that time I was partying hard and caught pneumonia so I had to go back to the UK for hospital treatment. Whilst I was recovering Darren Hughes was looking for me and wanted to contact me about playing at Cream. When the phone call first came in, I thought someone was taking the piss, so I called him back to make sure it was him. It was the number one brand with the biggest, reputable clubs in the UK, with credible DJs Sasha, Sanchez and The Chemical Brothers playing at the venue. They had no new acts and they asked for me. Unbeknown to me he’d been listening to me for a couple of years and decided that he wanted to bring me in as a resident.
When I started, I gave it my everything. Every week I would spend days going through my vinyl and spend about three days preparing for one two hour set because it meant so much to me. I wanted to impress and I did. They made me a resident of Liverpool, Ibiza, and Majorca and they sent me around the world every week. I was on the cover of magazines labeled as ‘the new Sasha’. I had just turned 21 so I partied hard. I was the hot boy at Cream playing with the biggest acts in the world and went from earning £20 a gig to £1,500 (which was a big wage back then). It all happened in the space of six months!
MM: Steve, what were and are the DJ’s / Artists / Producers that are behind your ever driving passion for the scene?
SL: I always say it but my biggest inspiration is Tenaglia. When I was touring around America and had some spare time, I would go into record stores and start picking up loads of the deeper “druggier“ side of US House. I was one of the only DJs playing it in the UK. The only other DJ was Craig Richards and we both had residencies in London, myself at Home on the Friday and Craig at Fabric Saturdays.
I would go so far as to say we invented/created Tech House. It was labeled this after me and Craig both championing it. I remember seeing it on the cover of a magazine, ‘the new breed of Tech House’ and it was me, & Craig Richards. Before Tenaglia, Sasha was my biggest inspiration.
I’ve always thought that I’m a good combination of the energy and feeling that Sasha delivers, with the standard and vibe of Tenaglia.
MM: When you’re in the studio what software and hardware do you use whats key in your production process?
SL: Well, there isn’t a rule to be honest or a set standard method. A routine will totally kill creativity. Sometimes I will go in the studio and I’ll have a new piece of kit, for example, that would push me to use it. I can’t wait to play with it. When I first bought a piece of kit called the Access Virus, it was through buying that piece of kit that I made the track ‘Femme Fatale’. It was based around this one synth that I modulated. I then built the drums around it and voila, that track was born. I never planned to make that record or had an idea in my head, it came from playing with a new piece of kit.
I once went back to one I threw away. A track called Avaida after my daughter who had just been born and it took me nine months to make. I wrote this piece of music and it sounded incredible, it really touched me and moved me, as my wife was pregnant and I was having my first baby. I was emotional and that’s a really good time to write music. I couldn’t get the mix to sound right, so I sent it to a guy that produces Pop music, he sent it back and it sounded incredible. It took me nine months to make and it was my worst selling record I’ve ever had, but it’s still to this day the best piece of music I’ve ever written. And then ‘House Record’ which was signed by Jamie Jones, that took me about six hours to make and turned out to be my largest selling record to date and what took me nine months didn’t sell.
There are no rules.
MM: Congratulations of the 10th anniversary of your label VIVa MUSiC! Tell us about the journey how it came into being and what’s happened along the way?
SL: I had a label before called Harlem Records which Plastic Fantastic Record shop were partners. A lot of the music I wanted to sign got squashed because they thought it wouldn’t sell units. We bumped heads and it didn’t work out but I really enjoyed having a record label. I’m an A&R at heart and it’s a real passion of mine. I was the first person to announce a digital-only label, I made a big statement and everybody slagged it off. Ten years on and everyone’s digital. I started it because I wanted to run it myself. It was born out of a passion and it still is a passion.
A&R is second nature to a DJ. I like getting behind new music. I get excited about it.
MM: DJs and producers really had to put in some seriously long hours, dedication, patience and money to learning the beautiful art and skills of mixing vinyl and producing original tracks. Now with the advent of sync buttons, constructions kits and templates are today’s electronic DJ’s / Producers at a disadvantage or advantage?
SL: They’re at an advantage because it’s easier. Creating music is way easier than it used to be. If you wanted to write a record 15 years ago you had to have a studio and equipment and it costs money. You had to learn the skills of working with instruments. Now technology makes it so it’s all done for you.
As long as you can work a computer and learn how to use a piece of software and a sample kit with everything pre-made for you, it’s easier. To write music and DJ is easier. Before you had to carry and collect vinyl, play and mix and if you couldn’t mix, promoters wouldn’t book you again. BUT.. Did technology drive the scene forward, or did it hold it back?
The reality is, technology drove the scene forward. So I am in favour, I’m all about the future and I like things moving forward. I use the past as armour to my bow, I’m all about what’s coming.
MM: Nice one, so any advice would you give the aspiring DJ today / Producer on how to be creatively original in an already saturated market?
SL: My advice to people is do something different because people are now wanting something different. The Tech House world has become so complacent. It lacks a lot of creativity and people are getting bored of it. I think it’s important that people push it back a little bit. That’s why I recently signed a guy called “Wax Worx”, he’s doing something completely different at the moment.
When the tracks fall into the right hands, I believe their careers will be more substantial.
MM: Steve, what’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced and overcome?
SL: Around 2004, I’d become massive in Ibiza and all of a sudden I was being flown in a private jet all around the world and the gigs were getting bigger. As a result, I was playing bigger and more obvious records, which is OK for some people and there’s nothing wrong with that, but for me personally, I felt like I lost my integrity and I wasn’t playing music that I loved. I’d never built my career on that before. My career was built on playing music I loved, period. and all of a sudden, I became a commercial act playing commercial music.
The biggest challenge was to start turning down these gigs with ridiculous offers. My agent was having kittens and I didn’t have the support of anybody. No one supported it, not my manager, agent, the press; everyone thought I was crazy. Turning down big shows with big money and ultimately becoming a much bigger act. I had to tell myself that I was right. I would question whether I was doing the right thing or not. Looking back, I absolutely did the right thing because my integrity wasn’t for sale. It looked like I just dropped off the radar to people. I had to do it as I was really unhappy. It didn’t matter how much money was coming in. Then again I started playing these Underground parties but I wasn’t getting paid much, but I loved it. I’d come out of there buzzing and Happy.
MM: You held a residency at one of world’s most famous Balearic clubs ‘Space’ as ‘King of The Terrace’, tell us about that 9-year reign on the white isle!
SL: It had its ups and downs. People wouldn’t believe it had its downs but there were. You would show people your music and play and nothing else and then all of a sudden you’re really famous. At that time there were DJ’s getting booed off before me! Armand Van Helden got booed off the stage at Space and people were chanting my name and then I’d go up and play.
I wouldn’t even be able to pick up the needle because I’d be so nervous.
It wasn’t normal for a normal guy to have that kind of pressure, that kind of fame. I would go up and play and get my head down or get really high, that was how I dealt with it. It was an amazing time.
I would play for five hours and have people in the palm of my hand, it was incredible. To this day, that and Harlem Nights are two of the most incredible residency’s of my life, but it got to the point, near the end that I could feel the pressure and I didn’t like it.
I didn’t like the fact that I was getting so famous and people were expecting big record after big record.
MM: How is the UK underground scene today progressing and where do you see it evolving since your days at Home and the End, how’s it all changed?
SL: There isn’t an underground scene anymore I don’t think, it doesn’t really exist in today’s breakdown of music. The Electronic sector has become so big within the music industry with all the different sub-genres that there really isn’t an underground scene anymore. It’s not segregated, which I think is a good thing because segregation is never good in anything; race, age, gender or music. The world we live in now, we are a part of the Electronic sector and it’s very popular and everyone has a nice career out of it.
MM: If you ended up trapped on a godforsaken island with only your decks, a crate of spirits and your vinyl fly case to your name, what would be the top 10 essential cuts that you must have to survive and why?
- Coldcut – Autumn Leaves
- Orbital – Belfast
- Black Sabbath – Planet Caravan (DJ Steef Edit)
- Groove Armada – Oooh Baby
- Ollano – Latitude (Air Remix)
- Gary Clarke Jnr – When my Train Pulls in
- Chaka Khan – Aint Nobody
- Snow Patrol – chasing cars
- David Bowie – Heroes
- The Doors – The End
Why these, because they invoke all my emotions, make me feel alive and would bring some beautiful memories.
MM: What drives and motivates you?
SL: When you play to a packed room/club/stadium and you have the ability to turn the energy levels of that room and control an audience like that, it feels incredible. This is what drives me is to be successful. I’m not driven by the financial side of it because I do OK and I’m happy, but
if I wasn’t a successful DJ, then I wouldn’t have full clubs in front of me and that would break my heart because it’s what I love. I love performing at a packed club, that is a thing that will never ever go away. It’s what’s driven me for the past 25 years.
MM: What pisses you off the most about the scene/what do you love most about the scene?
SL: I don’t want to get too negative because there’s a lot of shit in the industry and if I point it out then I’m acknowledging it. I choose to ignore it, I don’t like to dwell on it. The things that I love about the music industry is that we attract like-minded people. I’ve met some incredible, interesting people in the business, I’ve traveled the world and had the ability to become a successful person by doing something I absolutely love. What’s better than that.
MM: What are your biggest stand-out festival/gig moments where you thought ‘ fuck this is real this is amazing….’?
SL: I’ve had many of those. I played in Argentina years ago, at a venue called Moon Park, it’s where Time Warp was last year. I played that place on my own ten years ago. To a packed room of over 10,000 people. Argentina’s a really good market for me. The promoter took a risk as before this I’d only been playing in clubs and he asked me if I’m up for doing it.
It sold out and I remember stepping onto the stage and seeing all these people clapping. It was like a concert. I was almost brought to tears by it. How did this happen? How the fuck did I get to a point like this where I could draw a crowd of this size anywhere in the world? That was one of the biggest pinch-me moments that I’ve had to this day.
There has been many like this now, but this was the first of its kind.
MM: What did you hope to achieve with the documentary of your life ‘The Art Of The DJ’ that’s directed by Piers Sanderson?
SL: I’m a big fan of documentaries. I watch more documentaries than feature films and I’ve seen a lot based on music. 90% off those based on the Electronic sector started to really bore me. DJ’s were always talking about how amazing it was how amazing they are, etc and it’s bullshit.
For me, the idea of a documentary is it’s supposed to be about the truth. When I watch documentaries about The Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, for example, they’re incredible, why? Because they tell the truth, grit and all. whether it’s good or bad. I wanted to do a Dance music documentary that did that; say it how it is and not just cover the good parts.
That was the goal and I think we achieved that. When I first watched it, all the hairs on my arm came up; it was amazing. I was also worried about how frank it was and whether people would get me incorrectly. In all honesty, there wasn’t one negative comment about it. It was a huge relief and I was happy at how it turned out.
MM: Whats coming up next Steve any big planned events and projects?
SL: I’m going to focus on an album this year. I’m going to release that album as Lawler. It feels as though it’s a new era for me and I want to put myself into an album. I’ve been talking about doing an album for the best part of 15 years but never felt it was the right time. I’m now at a place where I’m comfortable to take less work and I want to slow the calendar down. I’ve been slowing it down each year, little by little, so I can have more head space to write my album. That will be my only album.