Dave Clarke has been at the forefront of electronic music for three decades. Widely renowned as something of a pioneer in the underground dance scene, Clarke's love of punk, industrial, and noise has also made him a pivotal figure when it comes to remixing other artists' work.
Although perhaps best known as a DJ on the club and festival circuit, Clarke has also been recording music in his own right since 1990. With a string of releases to his name culminating in 2003's first long player Devil's Advocate, Clarke returned last month with the long-awaited follow-up The Desecration Of Desire. Recorded chronologically and featuring a host of guest collaborators, it's the result of two and a half years hard work and a more than worthy successor to his debut.
DiS caught up with the Amsterdam-based Clarke to discuss difficult second albums, the impact of Brexit, the evolution of the DJ, and influence of radio among a host of other topics.
You've been based in Amsterdam for a number of years now. What persuaded you to relocate and ultimately stay there?
I first came here to DJ in 1990. I had a couple of releases out at the time on XL so they gave me a gig and I just fell in love with the place. I've always had a real thing for Amsterdam ever since. Then my life changed in the UK so I started to come over here more often and eventually thought I could live here. I've been enjoying it ever since.
Would you ever consider returning to the UK, particularly in light of the current political situation and Brexit?
I'd only ever come back to the UK if I was forced to. I don't mean that in a horrible way towards people that live there, but I've been away from the UK for so long now I can't imagine myself ever living there again at all. And I don't want to set myself up for living in the UK after Brexit, in a country that's withdrawn itself from many cultural exchanges. I just don't want to be part of that country so it's really not in my mind to ever come back and live there.
Has the political and cultural state in the Netherlands been a major factor in you choosing to remain in Amsterdam?
The cultural state in Amsterdam definitely because it's separate from the rest of the Netherlands in the same way London is from the rest of the UK. The cultural influence in Amsterdam has changed who I am. I don't know that much about the political state because I don't really involve myself in it. I'm sure it has its own issues as much as any country in Western Europe - some of which I do know about - yet for some strange reason, I still follow UK politics quite closely. Whereas I've never had a desire to follow Dutch politics in the same way.
You've been part of the electronic music scene for the best part of three decades and seen it move from the underground into the mainstream during that period. Do you think the electronic scene has changed for the better, both in terms of creativity and also from the way its perceived by the public in general?
I think most changes are usually 50/50. It depends on how those changes affect you in terms of your slant on the overall thing. If the changes have a negative effect on yourself it's difficult to see them as being anything but bad. I try to be a little bit more pragmatic and see good and bad. One of the bad things is social media and how that has affected the alleged popularity of some artists and how people buy advertising. Some people now concentrate more on marketing than substance and ability. While that's always been true in all factions of artistic life, the magnifying glass that it brings now just seems to concentrate more on that than it does talent and ability. Maybe that will blow over one day. For me, EDM and Tech House are similar in their approach. Their music is different but they're very similar in approach; they're just pretending to be something that they're not under the banner of those genres. They're not representing it, but if they say it enough times people will believe it. That's the negative side.
The positive side is that same technology that's gone into social media has also been powerful enough to build computers capable of making great, great music a lot easier than we'd ever imagined possible before. DJing is changing, always evolving, and always exciting in a way that goes beyond just playing records. While there's a purity in that and also a skill which I earned my stripes on it makes things much more interesting to DJ in other ways now. Especially those people doing techno. We might not believe in aliens and planets and stuff but we definitely believe in the future so why would we limit ourselves to a technology from the past? I miss the record shop itself and the central gravitational pull of the scene it represented, but I love the flexibility of being able to get the music sent straight to me. I miss the effect record labels would have but then I love the fact we can manufacture our own songs. There are many pros and cons. You have to look at things with a balanced view otherwise it's easy to be sucked into the negative. Consequently, if you go fully into the positive you end up in a completely different zone which I think is away from the artist. You have to be balanced.
What would you say to purists that hold a lesser view of DJs who use laptops or CDs rather than vinyl?
I would say those people have aged themselves out of the market.
Many current DJs are also producers in their own right. Do you think that evolution was always going to happen even as far back as the early 1990s when the whole "Superstar DJ" ethos first came to fruition?
There was definitely more of a hybrid possibility whereas before the role of the DJ was to be nothing more than just a great record selector who had great connections at their local record shop in order to get the best records before anybody else did. Now there's more of a need to go in the studio and learn how to record so it's come to the fore much more as a hybrid. I still prefer to play music that stands on its own as a stereo file because if you're manipulating music massively you should really have the guts to stand up and make your own. It kind of defeats the object to turn the bass up here or the vocal down there. You might as well make your own music and play it live; that makes a lot more sense.
Your new album The Desecration Of Desire came out last month. It's your first collection of new material since 2003's Devil's Advocate. What influenced the songs on the record?
I'm not that prepared to talk about the influences because although those songs mean a certain thing to me, they could mean something completely different to someone else and I'd rather have that than explain each track and what it means to me. I don't feel very comfortable doing that.
How different was it making The Desecration Of Desire to its predecessor? For example, did you approach the songwriting differently?
The technology was more suitable now for what I wanted to do. There was less battling with machines which made it easier to translate my imagination into a piece of music. Which of course goes back to that 50/50 argument I talked about earlier. For me, it gave me the impetus to try harder to create something more solid because of it. I just enjoyed being in the studio. It's a much more pleasurable experience. It was a different time for me then as it is now; I had to deal with a lot of stressful family stuff at that point that wasn't very nice. I was doing my best trying to provide for my family and at the same time certain members of that family were doing their best to hold me back. So it wasn't the greatest period to be making an album with all of that going on. But I did and while I'm not saying I'm not proud of it, for me this is my first album because I constructed it from scratch without releasing any singles beforehand. It was also written in chronological order so this definitely feels like my first album.
When did the writing process start?
About two and a half years ago.
Did everything you worked on over that two and a half year period make it onto the album? Are there any songs that didn't which might be revisited in the future?
Everything I finished made it onto the album. Anything I didn't has gone. I've been very brutal. I'm not a musician or classical composer that comes up with an idea of notes in order or anything like that. I was doing a panel at A.D.E. this year talking to other artists and that made me realise I'm not alone in how I approach making a record. We all go into the studio playing around until we find something that we like and then whichever direction that record will take develops from there. We don't go in there thinking about diminishing this or adding that in major. Starting off from D or whatever. None of us in techno really think like that. We just tend to go into the studio and muck around until something works then build on it. Even then you can still build on three or four ideas but none of them really excite you so eventually they end up being skipped. That's why it was so important making the album in the order people get to hear it because the track afterwards makes sense to the track that was before. If it didn't do that then it was scrapped and I'd start working on something else.
There's a number of interesting collaborators on The Dececration Of Desire such as Mark Lanegan, Anika, Keith Tenniswood, Matt Sims, and Gazelle Twin. How did they become involved?
I had this idea of collaborating with a number of people for a very long time, and even before I started making the album I was cataloging the music I liked and started to have these possibilities in my head. As the album started developing I thought now might be a good juncture to bring a particular artist in. So, for example, I first approached Keith Tenniswood to play bass on a track around 2009.
Did they have any input into writing the lyrics or music to any of the songs on the album?
I wrote the lyrics for one of the songs Mark Lanegan sings on and he wrote the other ('Charcoal Eyes (Glass Tears)'). With 'Frisson' me and Matt Sims wrote the lyrics together although he did most of them. Everything else was written by me apart from the Department S cover. Once that was done I'd put everything together as a rough demo and send it over to them to see if they had anything else they wanted to add. The demos were basically three-minute instrumentals which I'd then loop and get them to record vocals over the top. Whilst they were around I'd then finish the songs just in case there was anything else I needed to add such as ad-libs or noises. For 'I'm Not Afraid' I asked Keith Tenniswood if he could do the bass line and he sent me about five or six different ones. So I took the one I liked the most, started to work on it and eventually re-adapted it quite heavily into what you can hear on the record. He also did a bit of drum programming as well but that's the only musical input I had on the whole album aside from vocalists.
Were there any other people you wanted to collaborate with on this record that couldn't do it for whatever reason?
There was one other person that I really really wanted to work with. But that person couldn't do it so their management sent a polite and professional letter of apology saying their artist was on tour so didn't have the time to commit to this project. I'm not going to name that artist because I still hope to work with them on another album in the future.
Are there any plans in place for a follow-up to The Desecration Of Desire?
I'm not thinking about that yet but I would like to do another album in the future. At the moment I'm just concentrating on this one so let's see how everything goes.
You've also reworked the early 1980s new wave classic 'Is Vic There?' for this record. How did that come about? Were you a big fan of Department S back in the day?
What happened was I'd completely forgotten about that track which is really rare for me because most of my favourite songs are on my phone or in my collection somewhere. So sometimes when I was feeling the need to be inspired I'd watch YouTube videos in the studio. I didn't allow myself to have Facebook or Twitter on my computer. I'm always in the studio anyway even if its just dusting or upgrading software and things happen at times when you least expect them to. So I was in the studio watching YouTube videos, listening to Radio 6 and looking at Punk podcasts on Soundcloud and I can't remember how it happened but between the three of them I found 'Is Vic There?' I don't know how I could forget about that track as it meant so much to me at the time yet for some I reason I had. So I just kept on watching it and decided I wanted to do something with it. I had two ideas for this album and talked to LOUISAHHH about it. The vocal delivery was in a similar style sometimes and the lyrics are the same but that's it. The rest of the music is completely different but it just felt right. The tempo is completely different. There are no guitars or anything. Every track on this album has a double or even triple meaning and this was the same. It wasn't intentional but looking back at the timing of it that definitely came out. Then I looked up what happened to the band and it's quite a tragic story.
Have any of the surviving members from Department S heard your version?
I don't know. I don't think so. The only time that ever happened to me was when MySpace was around. I did a remix of 'I'm In Love With A German Film Star' by The Passions and they got in touch with me through MySpace to say they liked it. Only that was about 10 years later! That's the only time I've had any feedback regarding that kind of thing.
If you had the benefit of hindsight is there anything you'd do differently with the album?
No. I feel totally satisfied with the way it looks - the presentation and the package. The in-house designers and Marilyn (Clark) worked very hard on it. Same with the sound quality, which was done in my studio. So I have no issue with anything where I wish I'd done it differently. The other thing I like to do with my music is leave 10-15% of random mistakes on purpose so it doesn't sound too clinical. That's what I've tried to do with this. So there's nothing on the album I want to change or redo. It's a complete item and it's the first time I've felt like that about anything I've done.
You've remixed bands like A Place To Bury Strangers and Placebo in the past who are as far removed from the techno scene as its possible to be. What attracted you to their music and are there any more bands of a similar ilk you'd like to work with in the future?
Because I'm a person not a genre. Right now I'm looking at the Slowdive album. I'm going to see The National play live on Thursday. I'm hoping to see Peter Hook too. I'm looking at my Father John Misty album. I'm looking at the two issues of the Twin Peaks albums. Bon Iver. Queens Of The Stone Age. I listen to lots of different types of music. I was in a bar with a friend the other day and this track came on I'd never heard before which turned out to be Funkadelic. I'm always trying to expand and take in new music. Always.
You've also played Idles on your White Noise radio show recently and have regularly championed punk rock and industrial music. Are there any new bands you're particularly fond of at this moment in time?
Bands like Idles are the only positives I can see about Brexit. That it's going to be internalized by people who are great at writing lyrics and presenting music in an angry format. That's how I felt about Idles when I first heard 'Well Done'. It's a fantastic track. I played it on Nemone's 'Electric Ladyland' show. It's also a little bit cynical mentioning so many BBC people. Of course it's going to get played! But it's brilliant. There's so much energy there. I also like the new Metz record which is pretty good too. I can see so many young and angry people putting their energies into art off the back of Brexit then hopefully re-establishing the UK as being a notable place for vociferous social inequity. It's going to be beautiful if that happens. These people are going to find it difficult to travel through to Europe. The paperwork for transporting their guitars and mixing desks will be immense. It's going to be very difficult for a lot of people.
It's going to be difficult for European artists coming over here too.
It is. It's bilateral. The trouble with trade wars - and this is what could happen - is it works both ways, so if artists from the UK aren't allowed to travel due to sanctions imposed through Brexit it will be the reverse effect for EU acts wanting to come to the UK. There have been some inequalities within the whole scene anyway. For example, many artists don't have to pay artist tax then claim it back at the end of the year when they come to the Netherlands. They abolished it over here. Whereas in the UK, Dutch artists will still get 20% taken off their income and some promoters in the UK have seen that as a 20% discount where they tell the artist we're taking 20% off their fee for tax reasons then end up not paying it. But there's nothing the artist can do about that so there's already some inequality across what's meant to be a unified European trading environment.
After Brexit, I don't know what's going to happen? It could mean they do get a Norway Plus but if they do that it potentially sets a bad example for other European countries to also pull away. So part of me feels the UK is going to be made an example of. Which I find mildly ironic because the UK has some of the worst and archaic divorce laws within western Europe so if they get butt fucked on a divorce from Europe it will be interesting to see how they like being on the worst end of a divorce. That's possibly going to happen. Then you have to ask the question why would artists come from Europe to the UK if they're going to get 20-25% tax taken off them? For such a small marketplace? They might just skip it. I don't know what effect the internet would have. Maybe they could start imposing some sort of tariff across the whole web from Europe? I don't know. I think it's unlikely and unpoliceable but that's one of the things that could happen. The pound's going to devalue and because the UK doesn't really manufacture anything anymore, the 10% of the GDP it does produce will only get smaller because most of these companies will move to EU countries like France or Germany. This is only the tip of the iceberg. A lot of people think that the balance sheet of currency devaluation has already happened but I really don't think that. There's another possible 18-25% devaluation to come over the next 3-5 years.
Going back to your White Noise show, do you find as many people are listening to radio nowadays as there were 10 years ago?
It depends on what the radio is. Or how available it is. I was having some work done on my house recently and the decorators brought their big Dewalt and listened to the radio all the time they were working. I get 50gb of data to use on my phone for about 20 euros and all the time I'm cycling I listen to radio. I listen to it in the airport, mostly when I'm travelling, in the studio, pretty much everywhere. Whereas before it wasn't as available so you'd just bring an iPod or Cd player before that. Now I'm listening to radio more than ever before. And podcasts too. My show goes out to over 110 FM stations every week. So yes, I do think people still listen to radio. I think radio stations themselves probably get less attention than before unless it's a specialist station.
It's probably fair to say both television and radio have become more marginalised as mediums for promoting new music.
I don't watch television at all. A few times a month at the very most. It has no interest to me and anything I do. The days of watching linear programmes on TV are long gone for me. It's not really engaging any more or important. I take my news from the internet now. With radio, I do listen to a few stations. Ones I choose to listen to so radio is still important to me. But music is the most important thing in my life so I'm always looking to learn and take in new things. I've never listened to Beats radio though and don't particularly want to. Even I like something they're doing or one of their presenters I tend to avoid it as I'd rather find my music through less corporate structures.
You've built up relationships with festivals such as Tomorrowland and Mysteryland and regularly host stages there. How important is it for an artist to play the festival circuit now as opposed to doing their own shows?
They're both very different. I don't like to travel too much these days so I tend to spend the winter within Europe playing in clubs which is really enjoyable most of the time. So I've honed my set over the winter, then I go out to the festivals in the summer and play to thousands of people in one go which feels like a reward in some ways. I think if you're someone that just does the festival circuit all the time you're only about money and nothing else. Also if you're just doing festivals all the time you lose your skills and become a different kind of act. But then if you just do clubs all the time. you're missing out on the opportunity of playing larger events so it's important to have a balance of both. So I usually play European festivals for three or four months a year and the rest of the time I'm doing clubs with an occasional festival here and there in another part of the world.
John Peel once labelled you "The baron of techno." How did that come about?
He used to phone up and fax us back in those days when communications were more personable. Then he started leaving messages on the answering machine. I used to have this little cassette with the answering machine and would be excited when I came back in if someone had left a message so when John Peel kept leaving them I was like, "Wow!" I've still got some of them on file. I was doing a radio station in Brighton called Festival Radio and I had a little show on there which only ran for a month and needed some jingles for voice drops. So I asked John if he had some time to do one of the voice drops on my answering machine and that's what he did. He left a message that said "You're listening to the baron of techno!" so I thought wow, ok, I'm having that! And it's stuck ever since then.
You're a big fan of John Foxx's music. Was his 'No One Driving' a big influence on your single from 1996 'No One's Driving'?
The title was. Him, Devo and The Damned were probably the Holy Trinity of music to me when I was growing up. Metamatic by John Foxx, Machine Gun Etiquette by The Damned and Freedom Of Choice by Devo in particular. So I adapted the phrase 'No One's Driving' into the context of running a government i.e. there's no one taking charge.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out as a DJ or recording artist?
Just be yourself. Because if you're forever trying to be someone else, you'll fail.
If you could choose one of piece of work as being the most definitive of Dave Clarke as an artist what would it be and why?
It's not for me to pick!
The Desecration Of Desire is out now on Skint Records. For more information about Dave Clarke, please visit his official website.