Bill Brewster: The Archivist
My computer screen blinks into live with; “Mischa are you from Oslo?” I confirm, thinking it’s a question of residency before I get the reply: “wasn’t sure who was contacting me and I often get weird porno people trying to add me!” In a few characters and an emoticon, Bill Brewster instantly lights the mood for one of the most immense and quite intimidating interviews I’ve had in awhile. “Hello”, says a disembodied voice over a clear connection when I call him up moments later – a voice I instantly recognise from the interviews and DJ history podcasts featuring the DJ, music historian, journalist and record collector. It’s a reedy tenor, with an English accent slightly neutralised by the years spent in the States, with an amicable and approachable timbre distilled down from a working class upbringing and refined in experiences of an amenable personality. The pretext for our conversation? An upcoming trip to Oslo, where Bill Brewster will play at the upcoming Hubba Bubba Klubb at Jæger, and an unmissable opportunity to ask one of the foremost thinkers and critics of dance music culture some questions. It’s not his first visit to Oslo either.
Bill Brewster: I’ve been there a few times. I’ve played at five different clubs over the years.
And you know quite a few people here too.
I know quite a lot of people in Oslo and Norway, from people coming over to London, me going over to Oslo and conversing over the Internet.
Was it mostly through djhistory.com forum that you met these people?
It was, yes. It was pretty instrumental in getting to know, Prins Thomas and Strangefruit and through them I got to know other people. They also introduced a lot of people to the forum, like Todd Terje when he was just a teenager.
That forum really played into the hands of the nerdy culture that exists around buying records, especially here in Norway.
It’s a very very nerdy culture and that’s why we get on so well.
… says Bill with a wry chuckle, knowing full well the extent the djhistory.com site played exactly into that nerdy DJ culture. Topics like “ is Phil Collins balearic”; “what’s your favourite Italo Disco record to play at the wrong speed”; and “Cliff Richard’s funky B-sides” were common threads on the djhistory.com forum, which came to it’s conclusion in 2015 after years of bringing various communities together over a shared love of records. A self-stylised “record nerd”, Bill was also an avid contributor to the site forging countless significant friendships in his perpetual quest to explore music’s unlimited dimensions. Djhistory.com would ultimately acquire a life of its own, but it its roots took form in the first ever concise documentations of the history of the DJ: “last night a DJ saved my life”.
Co-authored with Frank Broughton, “Last night a DJ saved my Life” is Bill’s legacy to the world as the first thorough history of the DJ and the various cultures that existed around the DJ through different eras – an Encyclopedia Brittanica of dance music and its culture that not a single other book has been able to surpass. It’s a constant point of reference for this writer, and possibly any DJ. I recently spotted a copy sitting on Prins Thomas’ shelf and am not surprised to hear that Øyvind Morken often picks it up to re-read a chapter from its archives. It’s a history of DJing and in extentionsion, of club culture as told from the voices of those that were present and accounted for during each seminal era of DJ history. “ It’s had an amazing impact on people”, says Bill “much more than what we had expected.”
It’s seventeen years old, and it’s crazy to think it’s still so relevant, but I can’t help feel a sequel should perhaps exist.
We don’t really plan to do anymore, because everything that’s happening now and everything that’s happening post House music, has not made any difference to the culture of DJing or where DJing has come from, or how DJing was presented. All of that was really solidified in the late sixties, early seventies. If you think of Disco and Hip-Hop and in particular Disco, all of that stuff that we come to think as DJ culture was established in 1974 – 75 In New York. There isn’t really more to add, except new names.
Don’t you think there might be something to the post-Internet DJ culture, that took shape around things like djhistory.com?
I think what the internet has been important for, is uniting disparate communities around the world into one solidified whole. For example that kind of Balearic sound that a lot of the Norwegian DJs are connected with, and I suppose I am as well, really came together through djhistory.com pulling different parts together. It definitely has had an influence, and an impact on how dance music has developed over the last fifteen years.
But not enough for another book?
I don’t think you could justify writing a book about it. Then again, you’d be surprised what people come up with for book ideas, so who knows. When we were putting together the idea for a book about the DJ there were still publishers more interested in publishing books about Grunge. I remember my friend Matthew Cohen who wrote the first book on Acid House said he had no end of trouble getting a publishing deal, from publishers who were still more interested in writing about Grunge.
So really, the more you write about the subject, the more it becomes embedded in the culture, but although it felt like an important book to do for us personally, it didn’t feel like anyone was waiting for it to be written.
It feels to me that there is still very little in the way of books about dance music and its culture, when you compare it to something like Punk rock, for instance.
There are a lot more than what there used to be, because there didn’t used to be any. But yeah you’re right. You look at how many books had been written about the Beatles – there are probably a hundred times as many books written about the Beatles than the history of dance music. It does lack respect amongst a lot of professional music writers, and I think that’s partially because with rock standards from the likes of Leonard Cohen, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, there are a lot of lyrics to deconstruct. You don’t really have that in dance music, dance music is much more about physicality and often the music is instrumental, so I think for that reason it’s not really an attractive thing for a lot of journalists.
And also given the fact that most journalists are white middle class men, who are not necessarily known for their dance moves, it doesn’t necessarily attract a lot people to want to write about this, which is sad, but that’s how it is. And on the plus side, people like me and Frank have had more of a free range to write about what we want, without much competition.
“Last night a DJ saved my life” came at a time when nobody before them had quite approached the subject as comprehensively as Bill and Frank. Kismet had brought Bill and Frank (who grew up in Grimsby, UK not far from each other) together at legendary New York club, the Sound Factory, a regular haunt for the two music journalists who were both living in the city in the early to mid nineties. It’s there they encountered the first stories that would form the basis for “Last night a DJ”, stories from people that lived through the gay nightlife culture of New York in the seventies, and still participated in club culture in the nineties. It led to hundreds of interviews with the leading lights of DJ culture, from Disco to Hip-Hop, culminating in what has become to go-to reference guide for DJ culture since. Bill and Frank captured a story that spans decades in an approachable narrative that just jumped off the pages at you and speaking to Bill over the phone that narrative voice is just as strong and engaging and you can’t help but hang onto his every word. He’s a natural raconteur and a cultivated conversationalist on the subject of music.
As we talk about music Djing and club culture we naturally fall on subjects like he and Frank’s Low Life events (which also came to their conclusion in 2015), and club-culture’s future in the gentrification of London. Intriguing subjects all to their own, especially coming from such an experienced and enlightened voice on the subject, it’s actually when we touch on Bill Brewster’s own biography that it intrigues the most. It’s through his story, we find an unbreakable thread through the writing the music and the records, starting with an inquisitive younger Bill Brewster, enraptured in the sonic grumblings and DIY culture of punk.
From there Bill fell into club culture by pure necessity. “I got interested when I was a chef”, he recalls, “I would finish work at midnight and the only places that were open were nightclubs”. It opened up to a world of post-punk, black music and electronic music. Artists like “a certain ratio and 23-skidoo” would lead to black american music from the likes of “Funkadelic and a certain ratio”, while the “odd-ball Disco” label, Z sounds and UK synth-wave act The Human League piqued and interest in electronic music that would encourage a more unorthodox approach to listening music for Bill.
It seems that you have a very varied and eclectic musical taste, even from a young age.
Yes, I did. I didn’t have an older sibling that would say; “have you listened to this or have you heard that”, but I had John Peel. John Peel was really important in informing the kind of music that I would listen to, because he would play a Punk band, then he would play Little Richard, and then he would play a Krautrock record. He just played such a huge variety of music, particularly in the 1970’s and early ‘80’s. I was a devotee of John Peel. I would tape his shows and edit the down to his greatest hits.
If you could put that taste into words, especially from a personal perspective, what were the underlying factors that would put all these disparate genres together for you?
Just good music really. What I learnt or took away from John Peel, is that it didn’t matter what clothes people wore, what they looked like, which country they were from or how trendy they were. If he liked them he would play them. The only time he really rejected songs were when they became really successful. It was really about introducing you to new music you haven’t heard before, so what would be the point of playing an ABC record or a Simple Minds record before it was in the charts.
Was it about finding something that you can claim as your own?
That was appealing, but I always enjoyed going out and discovering new stuff. It might not be new to everybody else, but it would be new to me. Before I was Djing, I would make tapes for friends of interesting music, but for me it was always about introducing people to music that they might not already necessarily know, and really that’s what Djing is. It’s you spending two hours, telling people what’s good.
Bill had fallen on a rudimentary form of DJing before House music, which took him from Punk to House, back to Disco and to Balearic with the two fundamental eras in Bill’s development being Punk rock and Acid House. Already 28 at the point House had made an appearance Bill had left many of his friends behind “who were still listening to the Stranglers”, in favour of this new black dance music emerging out Chicago. ”For me Acid House was like a black Punk rock and that really appealed to me. It was anti-establishment; it was non-musicians trying to make music on rudimentary equipment.” By that time he had already unknowingly been buying House records, but it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. “I hated it”, says Bill of his first experience of House music.
I just moved back to London. A friend of mine used to be a warm-up DJ at the Fridge and I used to get in for free. I remember it was September 1987 and Mark Moore (S’express) was playing and Adrian (my friend) played the usual stuff, a bit of go-go, some Hip-Hop, maybe some House and Electro, lots of stuff mixed together. Then Mark Moore came on and just played House records for two hours, and I was like: “What the fuck is this!” It really was confrontational, because nobody was doing E; it was way before that. It really put me off House music for a year and then an ex-girlfriend of mine took me to a gay Acid House club called troll and then that was it.
And When exactly did the DJ bug first bite and you found the urge to play records to a bigger audience?
Well I started going out seriously to clubs 1981. I used to go to a couple of places in Nottingham. One was Rock City and another club called the Garage. The Garage was amazing because they used to play everything from psychedelic sixties records in one room to Graham Park in another room. Graham Park was an early champion of Electro and then House music. That’s when I really caught the bug. I didn’t really start thinking about Djing until House started. I accumulated enough records and had started being asked to play at people’s house parties, and then it developed from there kind of organically.
When you started getting records together, and started playing them, what were your intentions for buying music; DJing or just listening?
I think from ‘87 to ‘93 I was mainly buying records with DJing in mind and then after that I reverted back to buying music that was just interesting. I still buy as much music not for DJing as for Djing. I still buy music just because I find it pleasurable.
Are you still finding old music that is is new to you?
I doubt whether there is a week that goes by without buying records that are completely new to me that are 30/40 years old. There’s just so much music out there and what’s incredible, because of the Internet, is that suddenly we know now that they were making Disco records in Indonesia and Funk records in Turkey. Prior to the Internet, I had no idea these little scenes existed around the world. You just arrogantly assumed that the people making music were in Britain, America and a couple of other countries. I’m always on the lookout for stuff I don’t know.
Which is kind of a continuation of your archiving of music, and extension of your writing work?
Yeah, even though I don’t have a purpose for the interviews I do now, I interview people because I find them interesting, not because I think i can sell it to a magazine. I’ve done interviews with people that have never been published, simply because I find them interesting. I’m fortunate enough to do that and still earn a living.
So we were talking about music there, and suddenly we’re talking about writing. Those two spheres seem like one and the same for you.
Actually at the centre of what I do is collecting records. All of the things that I do, are offshoots of collecting records. A lot of the ideas I get from compilations are from collecting records; a lot of the motivations for interviewing different people are from collecting records; and DJing is a by-product from collecting records. So I’ve somehow made a living from collecting records. That’s what I love doing, and all the other things I do are spinoffs from that.
At fifty seven, Bill “still really love’s finding new music” and feels there is “still a lot of new interesting music coming out”, enough to keep a severe musical appetite at bay and allow him continue pursuing his first love, collecting records. It ties a thread from his writing to his DJing to the many compilations he’s brought out on the likes of “Late night Tales”. He might not be such an avid clubbing enthusiasts as he was during the nineties in New York, but whenever he plays out he still finds that fundamentally club culture remains unchanged since David Mancuso’s Loft. “The ingredients are still nice people, good music and a strobe light in a basement.” Djing might be a bit more ”trendy than it was in the 1980’s”, and you might get a more populous interpretation of it in EDM, but for Bill club culture is still very much about “people doing interesting things off the beaten track.”
Bill has always been one of these individuals, and approaches this idea from various perspectives. As a DJ he leaves few roads unexplored; as a music enthusiast he immerses himself in every aspect of music (even for the sake of just learning more); and as a writer… well let’s just say he and Frank Broughton wrote the book on it.
As we start delving into Bill’s love for late 80’s Hip-Hop from the likes of Schooly D and De la Soul, we’re an hour into our conversation and there’s no sense of letting up. Bill’s extensive knowledge coming to the fore again and again through each sentence he utters. It was once opined that what Bill Brewster didn’t know about music was not worth knowing, and what was left unsaid when we have to end our conversation is just the entire history of the DJ. Although, if there ever were a chapter in “Late Night a DJ saved my Life” that desperately needed to be added, it would be the story of Bill and Frank’s superb efforts in tying the entire story of DJ together, and how,through djhistory.com, Low Life and DJing, they have made a remarkable contribution to DJ culture and in Bill Brewster it shows no signs of letting up soon.