Music is Truth: An interview with Erol Alkan


The last set of Sónar by Day is in safe hands this year, as London legend Erol Alkan brings the curtain down on the daytime events. Over the last 20 years, Alkan has shaped the direction of club music, starting with his club night Trash, that erased the lines between genres, all the way through to his current label Phantasy, which champions British underground techno from the likes of Daniel Avery, while also serving as a home for his own, dancefloor centered productions. In between Alkan has remixed everyone from New Order to Justice, and as a producer has shaped the sound of epoch defining bands such as Ride and Late of The Pier. With great knowledge comes great responsibility, and there's no-one we'd trust more to put the finishing touches on our 26th edition.

Hi Erol, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Your relationship with Sónar goes back a long way. Do you remember the first time you attended or played?

Well the first time I played was actually the first time I was able to go to Sónar, simply because at the beginning I was very much immersed in my kind of London bubble of alternative music, so even though I was a very big fan of electronic music and dance music and I was going to nightclubs like Fabric and The End before Trash was at The End, or any of those clubs, going abroad, going to a club to see a DJ, wasn't what I was familiar with. I was made aware of Sónar shortly after playing other UK festivals, and it was a few years after that where I was invited to play for the first time. My experience was amazing because I was used to a lot of big events, but I suppose with Sónar it was so much more.. the programming and the artist selection felt far more diverse, deeper, wider, and it really… I think the first year I played was when Grace Jones played and I will never forget looking backstage and seeing a horse there*. I thought "this is pretty special".

What year was that, can you remember?

I think it might have been 2008, and I was asked to play a disco set. It was quite interesting because obviously I was very much a part of a scene and a sound, which I love, which is very noisy and very kind of aggressive. I was quite aware of the sound and I was very conscious of the good records that were coming from there and also the kind of contributions of what is a new sound or a new ideal and what it would influence going forward, good and bad. And ultimately anything that has that kind of impact will have that legacy, it'll be used in a very positive and interesting way, also it'll get ripped off. I found that immersing myself in disco at that point allowed me to be able to still kind of work with what was a part of that theme, certain kind of sounds and certain things from disco but with a far more wider range of records and ability to do more with it. So I was really enjoying just going out and playing disco rather than being tied to going out and playing a certain sound that was everywhere at that time

Did you feel that the crowd at Sónar got that? That they responded well to you doing something that you weren't necessarily known for doing?

I think so, I mean, yeah. There was a lot of people and people we moving and dancing, but obviously you're playing… If you're used to seeing people stage diving one night, and obviously then you're playing a kind of completely different set of records, they're not gonna be stage diving for that, really. But it's important to remember, that when you are popular and you've got that 10% front going at it, crazy, not to forget that its 90% of people who are there who want to be turned on to something, who want to be entertained, want to dance. Not to get caught in that trap of just making everyone go crazy. It is great when that happens but sometimes you have to find a new way to connect the people. So it's interesting that that's what Sonar had asked me to do, especially when I was playing those sets  I was deliberately playing to rooms no bigger than 500 - 600 people cos I wanted it to be intimate, so this was a challenge to play for 8 - 10 thousand, in a big room.

But that was interesting, it felt like i was being taken out of my comfort zone, which was good, I like being out of my comfort zone. I get something positive out of that.

One of the things we always think at Sónar is that people actually really like to be challenged. I think the same way that we pigeonhole artist we also pigeonhole fans, we put them in to groups and i think  people like being challenged, that's what they look for, they're looking for something different.

Yes, I agree, I agree on the whole 8 out of 10 people who come to events and stuff are open minded and that's not conclusive statistically but i do think the majority are. And because of that you can inspire (us as dJs) to kind of think in that way. You're not just playing your set for your fans, you're not even just playing for the festival audience as such. And there are some institutions like Sónar which really do demand that you take a good deep look at what you can do and try to do something that, again, you might even surprise yourself with what you're able to do.  

So one of the things I've been talking about with a few other DJs in this series is about how as DJ tools have advanced in recent year, djing has become a much more creative pursuit, like its almost a live hybrid. So I was wondering what your take on that was, given someone who's obviously a big record collector and in certain ways a purist of sound or vibe and someone who's also interested in producing and djing, where abouts do you sit on that? In recent years djing has become much more creative, in terms of what you can do with live edits, ableton, or even using the CDJs. Where do you stand on that?

Let's put it this way. When I was doing trash from '99 onwards, I was djing on 2 vinyl 2cd players but also on a chaos pad - sort of like dubbing out the track, delays, reverbs distortions, stuff which you can do now on the desk. So I do think the ability to those, what are I suppose minor things, because there available to everybody. I think it's how they're done which is the most important thing. Track into huge reverb, cutting the bass, the white noise track... in the hands of some people it's really inspiring and inventive. In the hands of others it sounds a mess. I try to be on the side that (I hope) that makes sense, that uses it tastefully and not distructively on records. I think because we can manipulate records far more now, in the digital realm, you can heighten tension far more. Its something I find myself doing more and more. I always have to think 3 records ahead as to where I'm going. And then I use the next record as a way of bridging to that.

How about when it comes to having access to so much music. Do you think that's a problem of quantity over quality.

Yeah having all those records at your disposal I think is 50% positive but also 50% negative because it's also about hiding a lot of records that you might not see because maybe you only need 10 tracks in a certain folder or playlist, that certain kind of music. 10 records that you completely believe rather than 100 and 90 of them being half liked when you did a round of promo download. I think there such a kind of creative process in what you choose to take out with you as well how you respond to that on the night. Cos I tend to play long sets I find that how I put my playlist together and how i order those records is very important to how I'm going to experience on the night. If I'm looking for something; what am I going to find and  how am I going to find it? It makes all the difference if you've got a certain record that when you play it on a night in a way of how you envisage it working and it takes people by surprise, it excites them, then that's brilliant. You need to find that record that puts a spin on things.

Do you still think it depends on the record though? There's something elemental about a really really good track.

I kind of had it a lot from that period at Trash. Like when Seven Nation Army broke I was the first person to have that, and to play it out. So I played it on a Monday and it just went crazy. As a producer, how to create those records, whether it's an electronic record or a record with a band, how to have these records stand out in their own right, is important. But you have to do what's right for the song or for the artist, making it stand out in it's own right. It's not like you can just stick an 808 beat on an indie record and it'll work in the club.

That said, I've got a soft spot for those 12"club remixes of 80's pop tunes, which were pretty much exactly that!

Those records are actually the biggest influence on me as a remixer! And Francois Kevorkian is the don of that style.

In many ways, Trash was a precursor of this present moment - this idea that you can take influences from every genre, and if it works it works. How do you feel about its shift into the mainstream?

For me it's natural. I've always felt like that. It just feels right. It's like when people say "how can you like the Wedding Present and Warp records at the same time", I'm like "how can you not!". I like people from all different parts of the world without discriminating, why would I discriminate against a piece of music? Personally I don't think it matters what you listen to as long as you believe that the artist is truthful. I think it's healthier creatively, that we can try all these different things. It might not always work, but failure isn't a bad thing either.

A big question that I wanted to ask you, as a producer and as a DJ: what is it that makes a record great?

Ok, what makes a great record? So for me, if it has a groove, and it grooves right for me then I'm locked in. If it has a lyric, and I believe the lyric, then it's good for me. If it has a melody in there and I find it enchanting, then it's good for me. The thing is records don't just do one thing, they do many many different things - like stories do. It's no different to picking up a book - if you believe what it's setting out to do, then it's valid. Music is truth, it's always been truth. Even when it's almost like a parody, or psychedelic or distorted, you can sense if it's coming from the right place.

So finally, you'll be closing SonarVillage on Saturday, which is the last big show of the Day events. What are you looking forward to being able to do during that set?

Obviously that stage and Sónar by Day has a completely different feel to Sónar by Night. But I really loved the feel of it, and I do like playing those sets when the night is drawing in a bit. You have something to work with, in that the sky and the sun is your production. That in itself is something I'd consider, musically. And that's how I look at DJing; how to soundtrack an experience.

*For the record, Grace Jones didn't bring a horse to Sónar in 2008, but it was too good a memory to take out.