I’m on the phone to Andrew Weatherall, and we’re talking about beginnings. For the semi-legendary DJ-remixer-songwriter from Windsor, it all began at a party in Chapel Market, Islington, on the roof of a cafe, some time in the late eighties. The cafe belonged to the mother of a friend of Weatherall’s, a skater in Starlight Express, and he’d been booked to play at six am, Monday morning. “I played Chris and Cosey, Big Youth – all manner of things,” he tells me. “And Danny Rampling was sitting listening and he just came up to me and said, that was amazing, you’ve got to come and play at my club. And that was for Shoom. So that was the start of it.”
It had been maybe a year earlier, in 1987, that Rampling and his wife had been holidaying in Ibiza and got turned on to the new house sound of DJ Alfredo. Shoom was Britain’s first attempt to replicate the Balearic sound back in Blighty. Weatherall had become a regular DJ both there, and at fellow Ibiza proselyte, Nicky Holloway’s The Trip, up the road at the Astoria. “But I just thought it would be a stopgap,” he insists. “You know, six months or a year kind of job. Just to tide me over.”
A quarter of a century later and he’s one of the most recognisable names in dance music, a man with what he refers to several times as “heritage”, inextricably linked to the early days of Warp Records as part of Sabres of Paradise and Two Lone Swordsmen, and the collision of indie rock and acid house that took off with records like Primal Scream’s ‘Loaded’ which Weatherall remixed from the band’s I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have. If, today, artists meld genres and reconcile seeming opposites as a matter of course, back in the late eighties ‘indie-dance’ was a far from obvious strategy. For Weatherall, however, it seemed inevitable. “It was two underground scenes coming together,” he shrugs. “It was bound to kick off.”
This year he released a three-CD mix album, part of the Ministry of Sound’s Masterpiece series for “legends… have one unique story to tell”. It’s a compilation, featuring everything from The Horrors to Toddla T, that Weatherall refers to as “the total sum of my parts”, an equation he elaborates as “postpunk, disco, krautrock, electro, techno, and house”. It’s also a compilation – for all the label’s talk of “legends” implying some sort of nostalgia boom tribute piece – notable for how much new music it contains. “I bring heritage,” he accepts “but I don’t do that nostalgic greatest hits set. I play new music which is a nod to my past, which I think is what people like.”
Weatherall caught the vinyl buzz at age eleven after hearing Terry Jacks singing ‘Seasons in the Sun’. That was “the earliest record that I can remember that sent shivers up the spine,” he says. “And it had these kind of twangy guitars and it was ghostly and otherworldly and it kinda took me to a parallel dimension.” He’s been searching for that ghostly, otherworldly sound ever since – one need only think of the titles of some of the records he’s been involved in: Sabres of Paradise’s Haunted Dancehall, The Ghosts of Dragstrip Hollow by Two Lone Swordsmen, The Sci-Fi Lo-Fi compilation he put together for Soma five years ago; even his own recent club night, A Love Letter From Outer Space. “It doesn’t have to be blatant though,” he insists. “You can make otherworldly music with an acoustic guitar and a voice.”
Terry Jacks aside, it was mostly glam rock that got his burgeoning collection started, realising quickly that glam was “just rock ‘n’ roll with fuzzy guitars and sparkly trousers.” But it was the guitar sound that caught his attention, recognising that “same twangy guitar sound” that had so bewitched him on ‘Seasons in the Sun’. From there, it was on to punk, post-punk, and so on, drawn inextricably into ever murkier waters “until you end up watching Throbbing Gristle live and having your guts churned by a sine wave generator”. “I could’ve taken the pop route,” he reflects; but as it happened, “I just took the weird route.”
It’s a curious experience, interviewing Andrew Weatherall. “That was reasonably painless,” he tells me, as we finish up, but it’s not an experience he seems to enjoy particularly. I detect a certain wariness towards journalists, possibly a hangover from a notorious mid-90s NME interview, conducted shortly after splitting up with his girlfriend and giving up coke, in which he let it all hang out and almost immediately regretted it. Several times he tells me he’s “gone on record as saying” this or that, as if he were speaking in the House and expected me to check him against the Hansard. Which is not to say he is entirely guarded. Indeed, when prompted he can become quite forthright.
Asked about his views on the effect of the Internet on music, he talks about our thirst for “shiny new toys” sending the thrust of technological progress “down the wrong alley”. Art, he tells me, has become no more than a “collectible file” without any meaning, stripped of its “totalistic element”.
“We’ve reached the end of total originality,” he says in apocalyptic tones, comparing the instant gratification of MP3 downloads to “numbering the back of your jigsaw puzzle. It’s made life a lot easier for people but it’s taken a bit of mystery out of things. ” (Though he reserves high praise for newcomers like TOY, Thee Oh Sees, Forest Fire, Savages, and The Caretaker – the latter, in particular, evidently suiting the ghostly, otherworldly mood he has always cherished).
When I push him on the subject of the recent brouhaha over superstar DJs admitting they just press play on pre-prepared mixes, he may be hesitant to get drawn into the fight, claiming “Other people’s morals – especially in the world of discos – are of no concern to me.” Yet there seems a distinct – if implicit – moral judgement in his rejoinder that “it’s down to them, if they can live with it. If they can accept probably thousands of pounds for doing that, far be it from me to comment. Personally,” he concludes, “I couldn’t charge five quid and press play on a mix CD. But that’s my choice.”
Finally, I ask him, as someone who has achieved so much, what ambitions do you still have? ”My ambition,” he replies, “is just to carry on what I’m doing involving all forms of art for as long as possible.” All forms of art? I query, are we likely, then, to see an Andrew Weatherall opera sometime in the near future? But his mind, in this instance, is not on music. Six months ago, Weatherall gave a talk as part of the ICA’s Culture Now programme, and produced – as a “Live Edition” – a limited edition of thirty of his own lino prints. This was not the first outing for Andrew Weatherall: Visual Artist. In the past, his pop art prints have been given away to competition winners, and he tells me about several offers for gallery shows that he has had to pass on, “I’ve learnt to wait for next year to do something properly, rather than do something half-arsed.” And it is his print work that he looks forward to combining with his other talents in some future gesamtkunstwerk. “Without giving the game away and mentioning names,” he says, “I’ll be moving in the next year, maybe the year after, into combining writing and printing.” Beyond that he remains tight-lipped about this new venture, afraid of “jinxing” it. So watch, as they say, this space.