The heart and soul of Charles Webster
While in London back in ‘98 doing a bit of work for Kiss 90 FM, I used to find myself at The Gallery (Turnmills – the home of Trade) every Friday night without fail. Charging ‘round the nooks and crannies one night, I came across a TV crew and got chattin’ to the team. Five minutes later I’m introducing the next track for the show. “Next up it’s Presence with their Sense of Danger”. Having not really thought about it for a while, I began my research on deep house dj / producer, Charles Webster. “Well bugger me,” I thought when I realised that Charles is in actual fact, Presence. Ooohh, trippy:)Anyway, back to a proper introduction.
Born in Matlock, England (nothing to do with old detective guy from TV), deep house maharishi Charles Webster spent a large portion of his early years in Sheffield, (the scene of that movie where all those unemployed guys take their clothes off). Charles Webster popped into the world during the mid-sixties, with his creativity became apparent during his teenage years, playing in a variety of electronic outfits, and completing a degree in photography at art school. While also the home of Clock DVA, Warp Records, and Cabaret Voltaire, Sheffield could no longer contain this time bomb of talent. At the age of 19 it was time to move on. Arriving in Nottingham, (favourite hangout of Robin Hood), Charles got stuck into the production side of things, writing for budding hip-hop unit The Rock City Crew and house/techno outfit T Cut F. Don’t sound familiar? How about Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, three more of Charlie’s earlier associates? It was around this time that pioneering rapper and turntablist Grandmaster Flash was in the area, and with young Charles holding one of the few 808s in the vicinity, off he went to assist with the tour.
Then came the DJ gigs and regular production work. Nottingham venues Eden, Venus, Barracuda, and Garage played host to our guru in the making, while Square Dance Studios became his place of employment as in-house engineer.
It was during this time at SDS that he began to record his own material under the first of his now-many aliases, Sine. Three tracks in succession received top marks from the rapidly increasing UK dance scene, earned him the respect of his peers, and no doubt gave him increased confidence to continue his upward spiral. And how does the current productions compare to those way back when? “The music I make seems to be the same as it was back then, maybe a little more sophisticated but in spirit, the same, I think music comes from your soul and I still have the same soul inside that comes out when I make music”.
It was around this time that Danny Rampling and his band of merry men were busy “discovering” Ibiza. Definitely on the underground tip Charlie states “I think there are many different areas in the dance world and the Ibiza style commercial area is so different to mine, I kind of ignore it, I’m sure lot’s of people love it but it is too commercial and shallow for my tastes”.
Ignoring the mainstream, the upward spiral continued with the club smash Belgium under the pseudonym Megatonk, which resulted in a phone call from across the Atlantic. “One phone call was enough and I was out there…six twelve inches later I’m still out there, in between regular visits to Europe to record, DJ, and do some remixes oh, and feed the cat!” The man with the cat, (with the remarkable metabolism / record-breaking tin of Whiskas), then launched his first label, Love From San Francisco Records.
By 1995 our boy had decided that while although he loved the cat, the cost of the trans-Atlantic feeding excursions were proving too much, and he moved back to the UK. Upon his return he immediately set up the REMOTE label which further advanced his super deep / super funky direction.
After numerous gigs in the US and Europe, and further production work through his numerous aliases, his album All Systems Gone under the aforementioned nom de plume Presence, went off like a frog in a sock. A top 10 Billboard club single in the States, 3 top 75 singles in the UK, 11/10 for the album in “DJ” magazine, and just like pills to a bickie monster, the accolades just kept coming.
These aliases are indeed numerous. I counted 24, but I’d had a couple of drinks and the words were starting to blend into each other. “My aliases differ in very subtle ways, it is a very personal thing, I like the freedom to take on different personalities, when I go into the studio to make a DJ Profile / Furry Phreaks / Presence etc track, I take on a different character, it makes it more fun that way. I use them to echo my differing moods, I don’t really have a favourite”.
While living in San Francisco he was often found “commuting” back and forth to the UK and Europe. While an acknowledged fan of Capetown, well South Africa as a whole, as well as Paris, there has to be somewhere a globetrotting DJ still yearns to play. “At the moment I am living in the UK, I don’t know why as I get really moody in the cold dark winter months. My dream gig would be in Japan, it is the only major place I have never visited, I am fascinated by the futuristic blended with the ancient that I think is unique to Japan”.
His music is often described as soulful, which is also the word he uses to describe house music. “Soulful is the key word 4 me in all aspects of music, it doesn’t have 2 have a soul vocal or jazzy chords 2 be soulful, it is a feeling that comes from music that is made with soul, my set at HTs (Honkytonks) will be super deep and soulful, just like house music should be”.
Not to be confused as the soundtrack to the 1989 movie by Oliver Stone, his latest foray into the world of production has produced Born on the 24th July under the unusual name of Charles Webster. His most personal album, BOTTFOJ (looks funny when you swap the O’s for U’s), gains it’s influences from acts such as Marvin Gaye (a considerable influence on his career as a whole), Natalie Merchant and Rickie Lee Jones. “The reaction in the US of A has been amazing, by far the best I have ever had over there, it is getting lots of media coverage and radio play, mainly on the west coast at the moment. The title is inspired by the Tom Cruise movie but most importantly it IS my birthday. I wanted to use my birthday as the title so to be as simple as possible, just a name and number, nothing to mislead the listener.”
The tracks on the album Ready and Sweet Butterfly appear to have a soul / R & B kind of feel to them, as does a large portion of his productions. “I get inspiration from everywhere, mainly from real life, just observing and listening to people around me, I don’t really take a direct inspiration from any one style of music, I try 2 mix everything up to create my own style.”
Putting beats together for around twenty years, and with plenty more due in the years to come, Charles sums up the most positive thing to happen to house music in the last few years as “it’s expansion into a global network of like minded people.” On the flipside, he’s not that enamoured by “it’s expansion and subsequent hi-jack by the corporate world, and its dumming down to fit their own narrow vision of what is commercially acceptable.” ‘nuff said.
For an artist of this calibre to pick a high point in their career could be a bit tricky, but I popped the question anyway. “Every little step in my career is of equal importance, I see it as a journey and as long as I am going in the right direction that’s good enough for me. The success of the Presence album changed things for me in terms of profile (I never made any money from it but that’s a different story) and my new album is getting great reviews all over the place, so I would have to say at the moment my 2 albums are the most satisfying points, hopefully my first trip 2 Australia will be a high point, I’m really looking forward to it.”
While on the subject of things satisfying, I asked Charles what it was like collaborating with the likes of Kevin Brown (Beautiful South), Steve Edwards (Cassius / Basement Jaxx), and Sara Jay (Massive Attack), and if there could be a preferred colleague. The response of “much too hard to pick a favourite, they are all wonderful people,” just goes to show the depth of talent lining up to work with man from San Fran. Sorry, …….. it just sounds so much better than Sheffield J
Having recently launched his new label Miso, and with other projects in the pipeline with Presence and Lo-Rise, you could be mistaken for thinking that was enough for one person. But like a mongoose on angel dust, Charles Webster just keeps on keeping on. He’s got remixes coming up for Boombastic, Silver Network, Missive, BMG, Distance (Afro) and others. There’s the EPs on Dance Tracks (NY), Seasons, and Tweekin’. Compilation tracks for Diy and Connections, and a new Presence album. A retrospective compilation of Charlie Webster’s rare bits and pieces out on Statra (USA) is also on its way, as is a long overdue release of his first album, which was in fact made 2 years before the original Presence exercise. Oh, and of course there’ll be plenty of stuff out on Miso. But stay awake ‘cause the list’ll probably be twice the size next month!
I could go like the aforementioned mongoose, and keep on keeping on, but like a 5 day bender, all good things must come to an end, and this interview is no exception. I leave the last word to the man himself.
“Always keep an open mind, thanks for the support. Charles. xxxx”
Charles Webster sexes up Honkytonks in Melbourne on Thursday 14th February (Valentines Day) and Mad Racket in Sydney on March 2nd