Darren Emerson has remained at the forefront of electronica, techno and house across the last three decades for good reason. Solidly consistent productions, inspiring DJ performances and an unquenchable thirst for the new and interesting everywhere it can be found is an irresistible and intoxicating brew. A true pioneer, Darren is one of the most influential figures in dance music, having collaborated with artists as diverse as Sasha, Depeche Mode, Bjork and The Chemical Brothers, from rocking Glastonbury with Underworld and the perenial classic “Born Slippy” to topping the UK charts with his own label Underwater. Indeed from the age of 18 he was already on his way to creating platinum million selling albums and singles with Underworld followed by some of the most successful DJ mix compilations of all time with Global Underground, Cream, Underwater and more. Twenty years since the release of the seminal “Dubnobasswithmyheadman”. Darren has lined up a series of productions and collaborations with some of his all time favourite producers and musicians and has another huge year ahead!
Hi Darren, it’s great to speak with you, have you been making much new music recently?
Hi. Good to speak to you too. Yeah I’ve been back in the studio quite a bit lately, and really enjoying it, got my mojo back. Been working over the last few years on a number of different projects, some of which I kept quiet, but all are going well.
Done some new EPs for various labels, and also finished off a few new remixes, so I’ve got loads of ammo to unleash! Music is often like buses, as you wait for ages without anything coming along, then they all come together, but I’m really happy how things are all shaping up.
How would you describe how the music you play has changed over the time you’ve been DJing?
I don’t think it’s changed that much. Right from when I was DJing on the early house scene Chicago was the main inspiration and it’s always been the backbone of what I’ve done. Techno and house. Things go round a bit, sure. Techno’s come back quite a bit recently, which is great because there’s a lot of energy in there. But I’m still doing the same sort of thing.
I checked out your new Birdcage EP on Carl Cox’s label Intec before this interview, could you tell me a bit about the release?
I wrote the tracks on the release Birdcage and Jupe quite a while ago. Birdcage has a cool jackin’ 303 bassline, a mad bell sound that reminded me of a bird tweeting, and I also added some jackin’ handclaps that I like to use.
Originally the tracks where gonna come out on a friends label, but after sitting on it for quite a while (nearly a year), then eventually their label manager said that they wanted to release it under a pseudonym. I knew the tracks would make a strong EP, and when Carl heard about it he said fuck that, you need to be pushing this under your real name, and it was agreed I’d released them on Intec.
How long have you known Carl Cox, as I see you have release on Intec previously?
I’ve known Carl since 1987. I was 16 the first time I met him, when I was knocking about with some of the older lot round my way, and they wanted to put a on warehouse party called Part Worn Tyres. Carl at the time had a soundsystem, and he drove up from Brighton to check out the warehouse one afternoon, while I was there with the guys.
I still remember the night in 1987 as it was a massive warehouse party in Rainham with Carl’s soundsystem and Paul Oakenfold on the decks. This was just before the acid house explosion kicked in, amazing times! I feel very lucky to have been there to see the whole house, techno and balearic scene blossom.
I’ve DJ’d all round the world with Carl when I got a bit older, as I was on his booking agency called Ultimate, and I often played at the Ultimate nights in London. Carl’s a very good friend and I feel very honoured to still be working with him on music and live shows around the world.
Following the Intec release, what other labels do you have tracks or remixes lined up on?
I have just had a new single called Brooklyn out on Dave Seaman’s label Selador, which is part of a project I’m doing with Dave Seaman and Danny Howells called 3D.
I also have a new EP coming out on my Detone imprint called the STOP IT EP, and that should be out in March. I’m working on putting some ideas together for a potential release on Matador’s Rukus label too, so I’m being kept very busy with various different projects.
Remix wise, due out soon are my reworks of DJ Hell – I Want You, Gus Gus – Lifetimes and Glenn Morrison – Tough Love. Under my White Lamp alias I’ve also got the next single ready to go, and just working on a couple of follow ups, as that project has been a bit too stop and start, so I want to get a few bits lined up for it.
So as you can see I’ve got quite a bit on at the moment but as I said earlier, I’m really enjoying it, and just need more hours in the day to get things finished.
Where are you up to with Underwater? It’s been a good half decade since the label released any product that wasn’t in a digital only format.
I’m not doing it any more. I put that down quite a while ago. I’ve got a label now called Detone. It was originally going to be just for my own productions, but we’ve started putting out other people’s productions now. We’ve got a Carlo Lio mix that should be coming out in January, I’ve got some bits coming out then too.
We’ve got a guy called Oleg Mass from Ukraine forthcoming who is a really cool techno guy. Steve Rachmad’s done some mixes for me in the past, Tim Deluxe too. Cisco from The Advent is doing some stuff under the name G Flame, which is his more funky stuff, so we have a nice selection of stuff coming out.
I wanted to move on, start something fresh, start back at the beginning again. I think it’s good to change and to shake things up a little bit.
What’s the difference between Underwater and Detone?
The name, ha! With Underwater it was a proper little crew I had running it with me. We had a really good family. We’re slowly getting other artists on board with Detone, but I’m looking for the new breed more as well as including some old mates. Music policy wise it’s still the same backbone of house and techno.
We were doing some Detone nights in London, but we stopped that now because it was at the Global Village place, which went down. So now we’ve just started doing a bi monthly at the old Zap Club in Brighton, which is now called The Arch. We did the first one just after ADE, Alan Fitzpatrick opened up we me, so it was quite techno. The second one, on 17 December, we had James Zabiela.
I’m hoping we’ll be doing some more across Europe, but I think Brighton’s a good way to start. It makes a nice change from just doing London and there’s always a cool little scene down there.
Does concentrating on a digital only format with Detone allow you to concentrate more on music rather than some aspects of running a record label?
Well actually we’re talking about doing some vinyl on Detone this year. Luckily I’ve got a good label manager who can handle all that side of things. I don’t think I could do it without Wez, who also works at Defected. I’m also starting up a new label, so his work load’s going to be even more, but he’s more of a house head so I think it will suit him more.
He kicks me up the arse when he needs something from me and enables me to spend more time in the studio, which is where I need to be, working on stuff like a new track for Eats Everything’s label which should be out in the Spring. I’ve done a remix for Matador too which is coming out on Ruckus. Me and John Digweed did a collaboration for Bedrock too and I’ve started putting ideas down for a follow up. Dave Seaman wants to do one as well.
What’s your new label and what’s the idea behind that?
I started a project that wasn’t techno, it was more my ‘whatever goes’ side. It’s a band called The White Lamp, which is me and vocalist Pete Josef. The first track came out on Futureboogie and I didn’t put my name to it. We’ve hit nearly 2 million YouTube hits now, including the Ron Basejam remix.
Our second release was on Sonar Kollektiv and again nobody knew it was us. I just wanted to put some stuff out without my name and see how it went and it did really well. Our third release came out on Hotflush, Scuba’s label. We put it out on some really cool labels to do the groundwork, get the name out there, but the fourth single, which is ready to go, is going to be on a White Lamp label. We have a release early in 2017, Ron Basejam’s done a mix for it again and Maxxi Soundsystem.
The sound that Lemon Interrupt and Underworld emerged with after you’d started making music with Karl and Rick was very different to the music Underworld had released without you. What do you feel you brought to the group?
Groove. Dance beats and groove, that was my main thing. Those two guys are very talented musicians, but maybe it was a little bit of a dance music groove they were missing. When I DJ I like to wiggle my arse a little bit, especially with some of the Detroit stuff. Even though there’s a lot of energy there, I still like to have a bit of a shuffle to it.
So, I think I just added to their excellent musicianship just a bit of something that’s going to make your arse wiggle. Even if you listen to ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’ you can still hear that 80s style singing they used to do before me and the guitars, which I was really keen they kept, I loved all that. Them and me, it was just a fusion that really matched well.
Would I be right in saying it was down to you that the group(s) ended up being on Junior Boys Own?
Yeah, I knew all those boys. Rick and Karl didn’t really know anyone like that. It’s funny, I actually went to the office to talk to another guy, Jon Pop, who did promotions and I was actually talking to him about possibly managing us, but it was in the same office as the Junior Boys Own lot and one of them picked his ears up and jumped in and nabbed us off him. It was a bit sneaky, but it worked out well in the end.
I used to go to the Junior Boys Own parties. Weatherall got me to stand in for him at the Bognor JBO party many years ago, a weekender. Andrew couldn’t make it. I was doing some Djing for Nicky Holloway down the Milk Bar in the early 90s and I was pretty on it back then. I was DJ of the month in ID, DJ of the month in The Face, the same month, so it was all bumping for me. But it was a really big deal to get asked to cover for Andrew. That’s when I started to properly get to know all the Junior Boys Own guys.
It made sense to go with that lot. I liked the way they did things, that quirky fanzine, they had something to say. Terry was into a lot of garage and New York stuff, Andrew was into more of the indie dance stuff and I loved it all.
How different is the feeling of being on stage performing live with Underworld compared to playing to a similar sized festival audience as a DJ?
I still get butterflies doing both! I did a live White Lamp set at Glastonbury two years ago and that was quite nerve-racking because it was such a new thing, nobody really knew who we were. Doing DJ sets I still get nervous, even if it’s just a small club. The big ones, when you think you’re going to be nervous, are sometimes not like that. Like doing Glastonbury, the Pyramid stage with Underworld. I was more nervous about doing a Radio 1 live DJ set with Carl Cox just before.
I think it’s a good thing to have. Keeps you on your toes.
Underworld received a lot of exposure from having their music featured in the film Trainspotting. In your career you seem to be more about moving forward than looking back, so how do you feel about the follow up to that film?
Everyone’s going mad about it, aren’t they? I saw the trailer and it looks bloody good. Danny Boyle usually does a good job, so I don’t think it’s going to be a shit film.
I was pretty taken aback when we saw the first one at the premier. I’d seen it being made, being cut together in the editing suite, so to see it completed with ‘Dark and Long’ and ‘Born Slippy’ in there, it was pretty fucking cool.
I am one to move forward. Then again, I do sometimes play the odd classic in a set, so I do go back. But I tend to look more to the future. But it’s all good. It’s in demand. People want to see it. People still want to hear ‘Born Slippy’, they still go mad for it. It’s a classic anthem and you can’t knock it if people are going to enjoy it.
If I mention the genre names progressive house and tech house to you, how do you feel hearing them? Are such sub-genre titles unnecessary creations of music journalists?
I think they are. When I was DJing what was known as progressive house in London it was Guerilla Records, all them years ago. When I put Gat Decor ‘Passion’ out on what was my first label, Effective Records, that was classed as progressive house. Listening back now it sounds nothing like what progressive house has moved into.
People do need to label things. I was in Barcelona last Wednesday doing the Macarena club, which is this small place, and doing four hours there you can move all over the place. I don’t like to be blinkered and play just one style, it’s all just quality dance music to me. I get a bit lost with genres names these days, especially when you go on something like Beatport where the genre often has nothing to do with what the sound actually is. Deep house tracks on there are not what I think of as deep house.