ITM’s Honour Roll #1: Simon Caldwell

ITM’s Honour Roll is a new feature series on inthemix that lets us delve a little deeper into some of the most respected names in dance music. Instead of the standard 15-minute interview block, we’ll be spending a bit more time on the phone or face-to-face with our Honour Rollers. The series will feature a mix of luminaries from home and abroad, all linked by their hard-earned esteem.

We’re starting local, with the man many regard Australia’s finest DJ. For me, Simon Caldwell’s sets always affirm that essential thrill of dance music; its history, its unifying potential, its warmth. It’s a special thing when someone of Simon’s calibre plays so regularly in your own city. In the last six months alone I’ve seen him do festivals, bars, warm-ups, four-am slots, day clubs and of course Mad Racket, where his sense for the dancefloor is most at home.

Simon has been spinning around Sydney since the early ‘90s, and it seems as if his convictions have changed little since then. You need only download his recent podcast for FBi Radio – a deep, enveloping mix of Detroit-tinged house – to know it’s all about ‘feel’. After so many great nights consumed by his sets, it was something of an honour to interview Simon Caldwell.

What led you into DJing?

I guess I rediscovered music in the late ‘80s when I went over to live in London for a couple of years. That was in the middle of all the acid house, hip hop and funk being mixed in together. It was a good time for music I think. Acid house was really big in London. There were lots of pirate radio stations playing acid electro 24 hours a day. All the early hip-house records were big at the time. The music was really fun and crossing over into becoming commercial as well.

Do the records from those days still sound current to your ears?

Well, listening to a lot of the new music coming out, I have to say the old stuff sounds fresh. The new stuff is often really mimicking now, there’s a lot of deep house-influenced music. There are always acid house releases that sound like they could’ve been released 20 years ago, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a way it proves that the music from then is still relevant. I think that’s the way dance music has developed over time. It has become very self-referential. It’s a good and a bad thing in dance music. There is always that drive for something new though. I like to play old and new, and see how they work together.

That’s something I definitely take from your sets – the fluidity between old and new.

Absolutely. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there are a lot of DJs who will buy the top ten tunes that week for whatever genre it is. That becomes the basis of their set, which will then change a lot over a month. But you could say that’s quite linear, though, and that those tracks become throwaway. If you think about your record collection not in terms of when something was made but what it is, you can play anything. It opens it up, and makes it more exciting I think.

Do you think being predominantly a vinyl DJ has influenced that?

Sort of yes and no. Part of it is justifying keeping all these records [laughs]. You’ve kind of got to play them as well. But no, I don’t think so these days. It’s easier to download a thousand MP3s than buy a thousand records. The MP3 dudes probably have vastly more tracks than I do, so they can dig deeper. At the same time, I’m not sure if you have 50,000 songs on your hard drive, can you know them all? I know all of my records, because they’re my records.

CALDWELL CLASSIC: Mr Fingers – Can You Feel It. “From 1986 on Trax Records, this is a timeless piece of sublime deep house. Simple and beautiful, it’s a blueprint.”

Does the physicality of records make for a greater attachment to your music?

I think it does actually. I don’t have a moral issue with MP3s and think vinyl is pure and everything else is inferior. But I do feel that most record collectors value their collection more than an Mp3 that’s been downloaded for a dollar, or quite often for free. With older records, you have the aspect of the beautiful artwork and gatefold covers. Even the CD format killed a lot of that design aspect. I don’t think it’s something to get hung up on, but maybe vinyl helps you know your records a bit better.

Is the sound quality of records something you’d find hard to go back from?

There is a difference, definitely. Someone told me this quote from Moodymann, so it’s second hand, but he said, ‘You want to pay me to play music, so I’m a professional and you expect a professional to use the highest-quality format available’. And that’s still vinyl. It is still a quality issue. I’ve heard sets where people are obviously playing low quality MP3s and it does sound shit, in my ears. If you pay for something, you expect to have the best, I suppose.

Saying that, there are plenty of record players around Sydney that aren’t set up well. Tech people don’t pay us much attention to them as they used to, so that’s a real issue. So you end up playing CDs. I have to carry a few CD wallets.

CALDWELL CLASSIC: Neal Howard – Indulge. “Early melodic techno record on the great Network label, with great sounds and a deep, warm vibe.”

Going back to those London days and right up to now, what is it about house music that resonates with you? Is it the feel of it?

Well, I think it’s just one of the kinds of music I like. I first got into it through jazz and funk. From there, the natural things to get into were hip hop and house music. I do like the deeper side of house; it’s like trying to create a nice warm bed for people to lie in. It’s about creating a sonic environment that isn’t smashing you over the head. Making you want to dance while being relaxing, if that’s possible.

Is there a certain quality you’ve always looked for in music, whether house or otherwise?

I guess I just started going out and hearing things I liked, whether house or some of the early techno stuff on Network Records. Also the early Detroit techno. I was really into digging for jazz and funk and it just seemed like a logical progression. A lot of that early house was very jazz-influenced and you could feel that same kind of feeling. I’ve never been into banging, Euro techno, because for me it doesn’t have that resonance.

It was great to hear that real booty sound from you at the last Mad Racket.

Yeah, I played a lot of booty that night. I ended up playing half the night. That’s the thing with Racket. I try not to be completely selfish, but I sit at home and go, “What do I really want to play tonight?” It depends on my mood. The booty records were calling my name. I can take two records that come flying out of my collection and then gear things around them.

There do seem to be certain tracks that are like staples for you, and different types of sets hinge around them.

Yeah, it depends on how much freedom you’re going to have in the set. It’s a bit hard to plan too much, but yeah, definitely, whether it’s something new or old that I’m really in love with at the time.

CALDWELL CLASSIC: Dubtribe Sound System – We Used To Dance (Remix). “Deep and trippy San Francisco vibes with an excellent spoken word dialogue about clubbing back in the day.”

At the moment, there seems like a lot of parties in Sydney on the house and techno tip. Is that heartening to see?

Things are always coming and going. I think it’s a pretty good time in Sydney; there is quite a lot on. But there are still great nights that don’t get people to them, so it’s patchy. There is a good handful of crews doing little parties.

How have things changed from, say, ten years ago? Has the scene become more regulated?

I think with the advent of festivals, the whole dynamic of the scene has changed. It eats up a lot of the money and changes the focus a little. And it also makes things quite corporate; less music-based and more event-based. That’s had some effect on the smaller club scene. But a lot of the good things that are happening are sort of in reaction to that – people wanting to go smaller and not feel like you’re going to, I hate to use this word, but a ‘supermarket’ of music. There are some great festival line-ups, but the crowds can be slightly oblivious.

Is a long set the best thing about DJing?

It does give you more freedom, but you have to have a receptive crowd [laughs]. Sometimes it is good to just punch out an hour of appropriate tunage. With longer sets, if you’ve got a nice crowd willing to go a few different places with you, it’s probably the more satisfying set.

I wanted to ask about your interstate travels; is there a particular city you feel a close affinity with?

It would have to be Adelaide that I’ve travelled to the most. I’ve been going there since I think 1994, which was with like a funk DJ crew. It’s a good small scene of music people there. HMC’s influence is not to be underestimated. There’s Sugar, Dragonfly, Cuckoo and Rocket Bar, and probably more that I don’t know.

CALDWELL CLASSIC: Moody – It’s 2 Late 4 U And Me. “One of many amazing Moodymann tracks I could list, this just happens to be the latest rocking my world.”

Is production still something on your radar?

It is, it is, but it’s kind of something I’d prefer not to talk about and just fucking do it [laughs].

Mixed Business was your last mix-CD; is the idea of following it up appealing to you?

Apart from the fact that no one buys CDs, ah, yeah it’s a great idea! Podcasts are where it’s at now. It’s hard to compete with that. I was lucky to be asked to do the Resident Advisor podcast and I also did a recent one for FBi. I treat it like a mix-CD, but it’s just less of a process.

Have you always felt confident that the special feel of Mad Racket will be upheld?

I reckon. It hasn’t changed much in terms of what we do. I don’t think we’d be able to change at this point! I think we’ll do it until it doesn’t feel logical to do it any more. We all still really enjoy it.

The people must change, but you keep the atmosphere, which is a rare thing.

The people do change, but there’s a core. People know each other so it’s a friendly sort of vibe. When people come for the first time, they sense that atmosphere. The ones who it suits see that pretty quickly.

With guests, has it always been about who you personally admire?

Yeah, absolutely. We’ve always been pretty picky. We’ve got Dan Bell coming up for the twelfth birthday, who we’ve talked about getting for years.

CALDWELL CLASSIC: Marcus Nikolai – Bushes. “An early Perlon Records release which was picked up by Derrick Carter’s Classic label, this tune is quirky and fun, with rather witty lyrics. A good example of ‘minimal’ before it started to take itself very seriously.”

Back to DJing, are there always new discoveries for you?

Yeah, for sure. I still go record shopping. That’s what it’s about. As much as you have a lot of records, you want more. There are still great records being produced, and you can only get a small fraction for yourself. They’re out there to be had. I love it.

What’s an ideal set for you? Is it under the copper ceiling at Mad Racket?

I think for a dancefloor, Mad Racket has to be my favourite. I can get away with stuff. Ideal set is hard. Playing a nice chilled set on a beach somewhere would be good…

Does the idea of playing overseas still interest you?

Yeah, the idea’s good, but we’re in a situation now where you at least have to pay your own air-fare over there. It’s not necessarily financially viable; it’s more a matter of relocating. I’m fairly confident I could get gigs but you can’t just keep calling on favours. People have to want you to play for them. You have to release hit tunes. There never has been much of an export culture out of Australia. You have to move, as we’re just too isolated. Different scenes have different budgets [laughs].

What’s next for you, then?

Lots for Mad Racket, and trying to get my head around doing my own music. Then of course lots of DJing over the summer.

In October, Simon Caldwell plays:

Fri 1 Oct – We Are International @ The Civic, Sydney

Sat 2 Oct – HaHa pres. Deetron @ Marrickville Bowling Club, Sydney

Sat 23 Oct – Mad Racket 12th Birthday @ Marrickville Bowling Club, Sydney