Groove Terminator talks 30 years of Australian dance music

This year sees Simon Lewicki celebrating three decades of mischief as Groove Terminator.

Starting out in 1987 as a hip-hop DJ in his hometown of Adelaide, Lewicki made his way to Sydney’s growing club scene in the mid-’90s. From there he swerved into making a couple of artist albums with Virgin/EMI – 2000’s Road Kill and 2002’s Electrifying Mojo – that cemented the GT name and made him a local festival circuit fixture.

Both Groove Terminator LPs arrived at a formative time for Australian dance music. While Road Kill nodded to Fatboy Slim with a sample-driven big beat sound, its follow-up featured electronic maestro Andy Page as a studio collaborator. The mid-2000s saw Lewicki team up with Sam Littlemore for the electro project Tonite Only, but there was always room for standalone GT on the club circuit.

Now, 30 years on from that Adelaide awakening, Lewicki and his alter ego are veterans of the Australian scene. In his current life, the DJ-producer reps house music on the weekends and spends his 9-5 as A&R Manager for Publishing and Recordings for TMRW Music Group (previously Ministry of Sound Australia.)

After seeing the sold-out success of the MOS Reunion Tour, Lewicki is also on board as the Creative Director of Orchestrated. The shows in Melbourne and Sydney will reimagine dance classics with a live symphony orchestra, with GT also joined onstage by vocalists Daniel Merriweather and Owl Eyes. The hardest part is deciding which anthems make the cut.

“We have a working set-list that’s true to what Australian classics are,” Lewicki tells inthemix. “You whittle it down from there to what’s going to sound great with an orchestra behind it. I could’ve easily done a four-hour show with this much material.”

Jumping into Orchestrated’s spirit of celebrating the past, inthemix asked Lewicki to walk us through 30 whirlwind years of Groove Terminator.

What was life like as a DJ before you made your first album, Road Kill?

It’ll sound so weird to people now, but I did the first mix-CD there ever was in Adelaide. It was completely illegal but I sold thousands and thousands of copies. I still get people hitting me up for it on my socials. It was a very exciting time in a tight community of a few thousand people. Everyone was really into it and super-critical of the standard of mixing.

I moved to Sydney in the mid-90s, so I caught the tail-end of the expat parties – that was great as well. Then with guys like Phil [Smart] and [Sugar] Ray doing Tweekin’ on a Friday night, there was an incredible party vibe. I don’t know if the drugs had something to do with it, but the music in Adelaide was a lot faster than Sydney, so it took me a while to slow it down! That’s when I started getting more into that first wave of filter house, which happened along with the arrival of Daft Punk.

I signed with EMI about two years after moving. I was the first DJ to sign to a major here and they had no idea what to do with me.

Was it a surprise to you as well that you were suddenly an artist with an album deal?

Paul Mac, Josh Abrahams and I all got picked up around the same time. And then a new wave of executives came in and everyone got dropped except me. Obviously Josh then went on to make ‘Addicted To Bass’ and Paul had the biggest record of his career [3000 Feet High] two years after that.

Kathy McCabe, who’s now at the Tele, and Naomi Dinnen were A&Ring then, and I thought it was incredible vision on their behalf to take a chance. I can’t even begin to imagine the sort of conversations they were having with EMI at the time, who had just activated their local A&R having not done anything for most of the ‘90s. They went on to have an amazing run.

Was there a particular release out there at the time that turned EMI onto you?

I had a record out on Dance Pool [‘It’s On’] and I’d done a remix for [UK dance-pop group] Dead Or Alive that had gone gold in a bunch of countries. I was given an advance, so I did what you’d normally do if you’re given a whack of money in your mid-20s: get on a plane and go to Europe. I ended up with most of an album after that, thank god, but it still took me a year and a half to finish it.

“I don’t know if the drugs had something to do with it, but the music in Adelaide was a lot faster than Sydney”

It was very cost-intensive to make an album back then — I delivered it pretty cheaply in the end, but even to buy a sampler was $8000 back then. I started off as a hip-hop DJ and I approached things with that cut-and-paste magpie sensibility. I was lucky they coughed up for a few sample clearances, which was a big deal for me.

Were the advances then unlike anything an artist would see today?

Well, here’s an example. I was signed to Virgin with a pretty decent advance to make a record. Most people would’ve gone off and bought a house and then still worked out a way to make the record. I decided to use it all to make the record. You’d still get to a point where you’re running out of money.

“I don’t think people take a chance on records as much these days.”

Luckily my friend Tim [McGee] was working at Central [Station Records]. I told him I had a record that wasn’t really working for the album, so I flicked that off to him on the side and he went and sold it to Ministry in the UK. We got about a $50,000 advance for it. That was the sort of money that was floating around back then. I thought, ‘Oh, this is pretty easy, I could definitely keep doing this!’

And those sorts of numbers dried up quite a while ago. I don’t think people take a chance on records as much these days. If you’ve got a record that’s smashing Spotify, every label in the world is going to be knocking down your door to throw money at you. But no one’s going to take a chance on records that might do OK.

Did Road Kill take its cues from what was happening globally with electronic music at the time?

You can definitely hear the influence of ol’ Norman Cook on that record. I was a massive fan. To me it was really important to take everything I was into – house music, hip-hop, breakbeats, punk, and the pop I grew up on – and mash it all together in my own way.

‘Here Comes Another One’ was basically based on an MC5 riff. Then [The Fifth Dimension’s] ‘Let The Sunshine In’ [sampled on GT’s ‘One More Time (The Sunshine Song)’] is such a ‘60s anthem of its time. I had been hanging out with Fatboy Slim a bit, and I really wanted to make a record that he would play in his set. That was my only intention for that one. When the label heard it, they were like, ‘No, that’s your single.’

I was looking back at some old Big Day Out line-ups, and I first saw your name in 1996.

I did like ten Big Day Outs in a row, and I think the last four or five I was in the touring party. It was often me and Bexta and Paul Mac – it was a very small community back then, with the same people on the line-ups everywhere. I’m still friends with all those people today.

I remember playing [the Chemical Brothers’] ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’ in the Boiler Room when that record was huge, and the reaction was just over the top. In 1997, The Prodigy was the first electronic act to play the main stage, and I remember thinking then, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve arrived, we’re taking over now.’ It was a great moment.

“The 2006 era had The Presets, Cut Copy, Sneaky Sound System; I think that time stood up anywhere in the world and always will.”

The line-ups used to be crazy, because you’d have Aphex Twin and then OMC [of ‘How Bizarre’ fame]. It wouldn’t be just techno all day. I think the diversity was super-important and educational. There was a lot of tribalism going on with genres back then: ‘I just like techno’ or ‘I just like happy hardcore’. You’d see it at Central Station Records with all the tribes dressed in their particular way. But then everyone comes together in the Boiler Room.

In the early 2000s, when Road Kill came out, there was a groundswell of other Australian electronic groups: you had Pnau, Sonic Animation, Resin Dogs, The Avalanches…

Yeah, you really noticed it when it came time to put together a tour for an album. I toured with Sonic Animation and I toured with Grinspoon, you know? It was like, ‘They both play Big Day Out, they can go together!’

I know that the music the Pnau boys were making before they discovered nightclubs was full-on psytrance. And then they went stateside, discovered Derrick Carter and DJ Sneak, and had that light-bulb moment. Then obviously the Avalanches album is one of the greatest to ever come out of this country, full stop. I remember that being the soundtrack of summer hanging out with…oh, I’m not even going to name-drop, but a couple of touring DJs! That album was being played non-stop.

In that 2005-2008 period when you started Tonite Only, the music coming out of Australia felt very connected to an international phenomenon.

In the early 2000s everyone was in their own lane putting out their albums. Then I think the advent of being able to record in-the-box and not go into studios brought the cost of production right down.

That 2006 era had The Presets, Cut Copy, Sneaky [Sound System]; I think that time stood up anywhere in the world and always will. Those records had a massive impact overseas. I remember going to LA and seeing DJ AM do an open format hip-hop/rock/party set, and then playing [the Tonite Only remix of Sneaky Sound System’s] ‘Pictures’ in the middle of it. That wave of electro – with a kick, a snare and a big, clean sawtooth wave – just sounds great loud. You can’t beat it.

As a young DJ, you were Australian runner-up in the DMC DJ competition. The tools of the trade have changed a lot since then…

When I started DJing, I didn’t even see [Technics] 1200s for two years. It was this mythical idea that there’s a turntable you can beatmix on! It was like, what? Those were the sorts of conversations.

You can learn to DJ in about 90 minutes now, so the bar has lowered significantly. The thing that’s never going to change is that the art of DJing is knowing what song to play next. That can be any genre, any time period, ever. That’s how you rock a party: know what song to play after the one that’s playing now.

Orchestrated with the Ministry Of Sound Orchestra hits Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on Friday August 11 and Sydney’s State Theatre on Friday August 18. Tickets are now on sale.

Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in New York. He is on Twitter.