Chasing the spirit with Erol Alkan

When the London party Trash closed its doors in 2007, it marked the end of an era for DJing and club culture. The eclecticism that founder Erol Alkan and guests like Soulwax (neé 2 many DJs) had brought to the DJ booth, born from the embers of electroclash, had fuelled a new kind of club culture built on a heady fusion of alternative music and fashion as embodied by Trash. The boundaries between music, born from Rock n Roll and it’s estranged electronic club cousin had been erased, and the Monday night party had been instrumental in the era with visceral selections that “joined the dots” between Bowie, Daft Punk, The Stooges, LCD Soundsystem and even Motörhead. 

By 2007 that style of club culture had reached fever pitch, with new DJs and producers adopting the sonic aesthetic, but without care for the detailed subtleties in knowledge their predecessors brought to their skill, it had also become something of cliché. “That kind of musical dilettantism,” Soulwax member and Trash regular David Dewewale told the Guardian in a reflective 2017 piece about Trash “became a terrible sport afterwards.” 

“A lot of people did that back then, but you could tell it wasn’t really in that spirit,” says Erol Alkan over a telephone call. “Not because we thought we should play a rock record, because we’ve got to play an electronic record after that,” but because of something that went “beyond taste.” 

A brief video transmission shows Erol in a room with a wall of records behind him as he settles into our conversation. It’s the first week in January, and he sounds relaxed considering he had played an extensive set at Bugged Out on new year’s day. A few years back he started cutting down on his DJ commitments, from “eight gigs a month,” to playing only every other weekend in order to spend more time with his family, but even in a career spanning thirty years, his ”love” for DJing and making music remains as strong as ever.

*Erol Alkan is at Jaeger this week for Frædag

Today he’s a sought-after DJ, regularly playing around the world, and an in-demand artist who although he releases music reticently, is constantly making music or working on other people’s music as a remixer and producer. When he’s not working on music he’s facilitating new and established artists through his Phantasy Sound label and while he might not play as often as he did perhaps five years ago, Erol Alkan continues to be a significant figure on the international DJ circuit.  

At the height of Trash, Erol would have been playing every week at the famed residency to a packed crowd, which for any Monday night anywhere remains a rare feat. It was a night that truly blurred the lines between genres and thrived in the eclecticism of tastemakers like Erol Alkan. When it disappeared from the scene, nothing quite like it would ever take its place again in London or anywhere else. 

Everything became “slightly segregated again” shortly after according to Deweale in the Guardian, with defined borders appearing between genres and microcosms like minimal Techno and Electro-House finding their own dedicated scenes. Trash was the “perfect celebration of eclectic taste” according to Deweale, and while there are DJs that still perpetuate this  spirit, there’s never been a night or a scene quite like the one that Erol Alkan and his guests cultivated during that time. 

What was it about the time that was so perfect for Trash to exist?

I think it was because of electroclash happening and having such a strong visual identity at that point. It embodied the fashion and the aesthetics of the early eighties where there was a brilliant fusion between electronics and avant garde pop music, like post-Bowie glam rock giving birth to the new wave. 

I suppose finding all these electronic records, inspired from that era, you would find their natural cousins from the rock or alternative scene that worked so well alongside each other. 

It was also a time when that scene was truly international. I think that was as important as the way the records sounded. I was in London and you had people like James Murphy and in New York; Soulwax in Belgium; Gonzales in Berlin; Tiga in Canada, and I suppose Daft Punk were a big part of that in Paris. In the UK I also saw the Chemical Brothers as the precursor to that spirit, and Optimo in Glasgow and Andrew Weatherall… All these people looked at the musical landscape with as much width as possible.

All these people you mention there are the DJs and artists that are very much at the forefront of that spirit today.

And because of that, you can’t really question their appetite for it. I don’t think we view records via genre. I certainly don’t.

It’s that broad view and what he established through his Trash nights that had set Erol Alkan apart from his more orthodox contemporaries at that time and still does today. Alongside DJs like Soulwax, Optimo and Andrew Weatherall, his reputation preceded him wherever he went after Trash. The event and Erol’s sets found audiences that were hungry to hear new music on nights that pushed the boundaries of club culture from the music to the fashion. 

“That gave me the confidence to take risks in everything,” Erol told the Quietus in an interview from 2013. “Break eggs to make omelettes, never be complacent or think ‘I’ve got a career here, I’ve got to keep it going.’” It continued to inform his sets and music even after Trash and cemented a reputation in the booth as a modern day archetype with a drive to explore the absolute limits of his iconoclastic musical tastes.

He had “always enjoyed DJs that brought in other influences in their sets” in an ethos that continues to inform his own DJ sets. That is still “one of the beauties of Djing”, he claims, which is in his view “as expressive as any other form of art… in the right hands.”

While what he and his guests pioneered at Trash may have become a trend shortly after, Erol has never felt the need to perpetuate that particular sound and has always favoured evolution over distinction. “As a DJ you can’t expect to be the same DJ as you were ten years before,” he explains. “What I have to offer people has changed over the last ten years and I’m completely comfortable with that. You have to evolve and change, and not let the past haunt your present.” 

Does that mean you have to give your audience something new in terms of your selections, all the time?

Sometimes I feel that I want to hear these things out as well and I want to stay true to what I’m excited by. I know it can be very easy to have one set and play everywhere, but that will be quite boring for me. 

Do you believe that audiences are open to new and different kinds of music than they were during the electroclash era?

In a nutshell, yes. I couldn’t measure it, but right now, some of the general excitement in the room is when I take a u-turn. Sometimes it can divide a few people, but generally it excites people. What people look for in DJs now is to turn them on to new things. I think the thirst for knowledge and the thirst to hear new sounds are greater than I can remember. 

There are a lot of DJs becoming successful in club culture, who started on the radio, where they are able to present an eclectic sense of what they did. That’s climatized a lot of people that go out to clubs now that want to hear a wider range of music.

It was Erol and his contemporaries that paved the way for these artists to explore that wide range of music. A fervent fan of music from an early age, Erol started DJing when he was still in school and if he wasn’t playing or listening to music it seems he was he was out somewhere experiencing it. “From 1991 through to 2000 I was probably out every night, seeing bands or going to club nights” he told fabric in an interview with their blog

DJing had been a natural outlet as a way of digesting all these early influences and sharing it with his peers, because for Erol; “you want to share music, that’s fundamentally what (DJing) is.” He utilized everything to his disposal to achieve this with an inquisitive drive, regardless of quotidian restrictions like budgetary constraints.   

“When I started Djing I started DJing off vinyl, CD, tape cassette and video cassette because that’s what I had my music on,” he recalls with a hint of excitement in his voice. 

Video cassette, really? 

Yes, because I couldn’t afford to buy music, so I recorded off the television. So no one will ever tell me that my hunger was any less than everybody else. 


You mentioned records there, but in the age of USB and CDJ’s where you can basically have your entire record collection at your fingertips, do you still prepare your sets  in the same way you did back then?

Yes, I basically have an idea of what I’m going to play, because I know the venue and I maybe want to stick with a certain sound. I will have a playlist of records, but the order that I play them in is always open to interpretation. 

I try to have an awareness of tempo and intensity of the music, so I don’t assume I’m going to start with a certain record and end with a certain record, but you have a vague map in your head. I try to keep it relatively fresh for myself as well. I don’t like to play the same set from the night before. 

50% of DJing is the records you choose to take out with you, and the other 50% is the records you play when you read the room.

If that’s the case Is there a common thread besides those records between your sets in different contexts?

It just goes back to that spirit I was talking about before. It’s music which hopefully has enough in it to get lost within. Escapism is a big thing that I get from what I do. It’s usually because of the records I feel have a personality that I can believe in, or lose myself in. But I think the real power is in how you thread the records together.

Do you think younger audiences crave a level of intensity from the DJ more than what they did perhaps ten years ago?

From the naughties to 2010, I always felt that I was inside some kind of zeitgeist. The scene that I inhabited was such a global movement in that way. It was always intense. That wasn’t because of youth, but when there is a scene like that it’s inviting to many generations. 

Now I think a lot of DJs who are far more considerate in their selections are getting the attention that they deserve, more so than maybe ten years ago. The inspiration for a lot of new DJs are from an area that is far truer to the spirit of DJing than the business of DJing. 

It’s in that very spirit he established the record label, Phantasy Sound shortly after the end of Trash. “Phantasy to me is an extension of Trash,” he proclaimed in that interview with the Quietus. The label was established at the end of 2007, harnessing that eclecticism of Trash with releases that went from the indie synth pop of Late of Pier; cut through to the immense dance floor constructions of Daniel Avery; and go completely left field with an artist like Babe Terror.

There’s not exactly a philosophy that underpins the label, but rather an extension of the spirit that imbibes everything Erol Alkan touches. “You kind of put out what you love at that point in time, and you just try and make it work,” says Erol about his approach to the artists and records that make it onto the label. While “it’s not easy if you look at it from a commercial point of view” in the era of streaming, Phantasy Sound continues to go from one end to the next, putting out successful dancefloor records like of Daniel Avery’s highly successful Drone Logic alongside more experimental works like Babe Terror’s Ancient M’Ocean. 

Bridging the gap between these two expressive sonic worlds is Erol Alkan, whose own reserved output as a solo artist and as Beyond the Wizard’s Sleeve dot the labels prolific output. His last record Spectrum / Silver Echoes came out in 2018, a record that although at times functional, it also tests the limits of the dance floor, with remixes from Matrixxman to Baris K showcasing the width of possibility in both tracks.

Spectrum immediately struck me as peculiar, because it has the accents on the off beats on the melodic parts and the live drums in the introduction. What was the intention with a record like that and what does it reflect about your own music?

Spectrum was designed for me as a linking record, where I could play disco or psych and then be able to move into Chicago or House and Techno. I’ve always liked fusion records. I felt like if I add a record to the big pile of music that’s made every week, I don’t want to make music that’s functional. I want to make something, and I hate using this word, but something that’s challenging. Whenever I come across a record that’s not basic, I appreciate it. As a DJ, I have a new colour to paint with. When making your own music, you want something unique about it.

Do you think you emphasise that more in music you make today, than when you started out releasing records?

No, and I can answer that question really easily. At a time when I was part of a really noisy scene, like the whole EddBanger, Boys Noize electro sound. I would do something like the Hot Chip, boy from school remix, which is completely the other side of that kind of thing for me. I always felt that even though I was part of something I always wanted to make something that was truthful to me, but also different. I always felt that need to not to do the obvious. 

As far as I understand it, you work on music constantly, but you’re quite reserved about releasing music. How do you know when something is good enough to put out without contributing to the that big pile of records you mentioned earlier?

If I’m not making music under a different name like Beyond the Wizard’s Sleeve or I’m not producing other people, and I get to a point where I want to put tracks out under a different name it kind of just tells me, ‘put me out’. 

I made spectrum in 2014. Black Crow by Beyond the Wizard’s Sleeve that came out in 2016, that was written in 2009. Diagram girl that was made in 2009. A track that if you feel it’s right and it’s you, that can come out whenever. The right music for me is always timeless. For instance, I just found out that they used Chilly Gonzales’ piano version of Waves as the countdown in the centre of Paris. If you can live on beyond yourself, that’s the ultimate. 

Whether he’s working on a record for British shoegaze legends, Ride or mixing down a record for one of the Phantasy Sound artists, there is always a concerted effort to produce something “timeless” in his music. Records like Waves then remain relevant and even though they might have been the product of that zeitgeist, the spirit of them lives on in everything Erol Alkan approaches, from the label, to his records, and most prominently through his work as DJ.

There is no need to be rigging up video cassette players any more and Trash is quite content, resigned to the past, where it’s made an indelible impact on an international music scene. But it’s the spirit of those endeavours that remain the impermeable foundation and the continued appeal of Erol Alkan as an artist, a producer and a DJ.