Interview: Charles Webster, House Music Legend

Photos: David Parry
Interview: Scott Oliver
Sunday 06 October 2013
reading time: min, words

He’s got thirty-odd aliases and done umpteen squared remixes and cubed productions. After 25 years making electronic soul, Charles Webster is a bona fide legend of the deep house music for which Nottingham was once world-famous. We dropped in on him to chat about where he’s at, how he got there, and where he’s heading.

It wasn’t called that, but that’s what it was. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming I invented house music! But there were pockets of people around making what would eventually become house music. When I started to make electronic music my love was for the creation of sounds rather than the notes and understanding the theory. All that stuff came later. I think that’s what’s so fascinating about the Kraftwerk Man-Machine and Computer World albums, for example. They’re just so perfect for a child’s ear to listen to because they seem so simple and fun yet they are full of complex harmony, melody, and full of emotion. People say it’s cold sounding music, but they’re not listening to it properly. It’s beautiful. They were pivotal records for me and my musical development.
So, along came the summer of love in 1988. Did that shift the perception of what you were doing, from being in bands to a bona fide house producer?

No, not really. It was all pretty much the same. I just continued doing what I was already doing. We did some crazy gigs in those days. We even supported Hüsker Dü once; just us two guys with synths plus a singer. It was a little bit scary. The gig was at the Electronic Ballroom in Camden. I remember pressing play on the sequencer and it was so unbelievably loud. The whole stage was just shaking. Luckily we didn’t get anything thrown at us by what was essentially a rock/punk audience. By 1988 I was working in a recording studio called Square Dance in Derby. The label Network Records – who distributed all the early Detroit house / techno stuff – used to use that studio for mixing.

So I ended up engineering for Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins. They were coming in there, week on week back then, especially Juan Atkins. It was incredible how ‘hands-on’ they were. It was all done live, with a hardware sequencer, no computers at all, drum machine, loads of synths. They’d work on the drums, programme a bass line, et cetera, press ‘Play’ and that would be it. Just tweaking things as they went along: filters, drum sounds, muting things on the drum machine, manipulating everything live. So quick! There was no affordable digital recording back then; everything would be recorded straight to a two-track tape machine. And then maybe make edits on the tape and that was it, a finished record or remix, very quick and simple. And this was when you could sell a lot of records – easily 50,000 copies of a really simple track.

So, it was more a case of just a change in context into which you were making essentially the same music.
Yeah. Once it had a name – ‘house’ or ‘techno’ or whatever – it was like: this is it, I’ve found what I want to do. That’s what I do. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. It was all just a series of happy accidents, I suppose.

And you were DJing back then, too.
Yeah, I’d play funk, soul, disco and stuff like that before house music came along. Me and a friend, Stuart – who was later in Tindersticks – used to put on a club night together. It just kinda happened that he’d book the bands and I’d play the records.

Do you still like DJing after all these years?
Yeah, I do. What’s not to like? You get paid to travel and play records for people.
What do you put that enthusiasm and longevity down to?
I think it’s important to stick to your guns as a DJ, not follow trends or just chase after the big money gigs, because you can get pulled in every direction and eventually you can lose all credibility. Of course, as DJ or as a producer, there’s a lot of room for manoeuvring, atmosphere-wise and tempo-wise, within your style, but if I suddenly went and made a trance record and then a reggae record or something, people would be like, "What’s going on in his head?" I’m very serious about the authenticity and integrity of what I do.
When the superstar DJ thing took off in the mid-to-late-nineties, did bigger fees start getting wafted your way?
Well, yeah, when I did my first album, as Presence [All Systems Gone], that was massively successful in certain countries and I was offered good money to do some crazy events. But the fees are much bigger these days. I was in Dubai not long ago, playing at a good underground night, and heard that somewhere in the city that same night Avicii was paid $152,000 for a set. That’s crazy, rock-star money – silly money really for what amounts to basically just playing other people’s records! And those stadium gigs are terrible – you’re up there and people are looking at you, and it’s just weird. There’s nothing to look at! Turn round, look at each other, and dance. I remember when we used to go to Venus, one of Nottingham’s iconic clubs in the early-nineties: the DJ booth was on the same level as the dance floor, behind this old school sort of glass screen so people can’t spill their drinks, and pretty much every week someone great like Andy Weatherall or Tony Humphries would play there and I don’t remember anyone ever spending the night just looking at the DJ.
You mentioned earlier having lived in the States. One of your many aliases was Love From San Francisco (LFSF). How did that compare with New York?
I much, much preferred San Francisco. New York was too gritty, too aggressive for me. People are really in your face, whereas in San Francisco people are pretty laid back. It really suited my personality much better to live and make music there.

How did it come about?
When Square Dance Studio relocated to Nottingham in 1990 there was office space in the new building, and DiY Discs and Time Recordings moved into the building. It was a pretty intense time, ‘91, ’92 – you’d go out clubbing, then come back to the studio at 3am and roll out of there at 10am having made a record. That’s how I made a lot of my early releases. A short while later a couple of the guys from DiY – Damian O’Grady and Steve Grey – said, "Why don’t we do what we’re doing here but go to San Francisco and do it?" They got some money together, rented a house, and asked me to go with them and make music out there. I got a phone call: "Do you want to come with us?" "Yeah, alright then". I literally gave up everything here, over the period of about a month, and just moved to America. I made a few records to earn my flight fee to San Francisco and that was it, I was out there. I was there for a couple of years and used to just survive by making records.
Back to Nottingham – the scene was strong here in the late-nineties and early-noughties, with several well respected artists connected to it in some way. Why was that?
Because Nottingham’s a relatively small city, people all knew each other. At the time, most of the scene was coming through the Square Centre. If you could transfer that energy that was there in the late-nineties to now, Nottingham would be a major capital of the electronic music world. Not quite the new Berlin, but…
Why is the broader Nottingham public not aware of that scene, of the fact that you could have gone into any club in the world, said you were from Nottingham and they’d have nodded appreciatively?
I think electronic music’s always suffered with that stigma – that it’s not ‘real music’. Folks just didn’t take it seriously or treat it the same way as ‘real bands’.
It had the producers, but were the club spaces all that good?
Yeah. I’ve been to a lot of clubs and still think Venus is one of the best I’ve ever been to. This isn’t rose-tinted spectacles. Some clubs really work: the space, the flow. The bar wasn’t in the middle of the dancefloor. The place just worked. All James Baillie’s clubs were good but that was the one. Some club spaces are just fragmented – fifty people here, twenty there – and that’s very frustrating as a DJ when you’re trying to get an atmosphere going. 

How would you quantify the importance of DiY for the Nottingham scene?
Their main importance for me was just good music. They were playing really good music. And they ran for a quite a long time before it all started dissipating. It’s important to educate your crowd and they did that really well. If you go somewhere and they were educated by – insert cheesie DJ name – that’s going to influence the next generation of kids and subsequently DJs and producers. But kids would go to a DiY night – they might not even really be into house music but they’d go, "Ooh, I like that". Resident DJs are so important to a great club night, and at DiY’s club nights you’d always know that all the rooms were well curated. Even the back room and the warm-up DJs would be playing quality music. 

It seems that with DiY having lain low for a while, no-one has really picked up the house music baton, that the creative energy has dissipated. Why do you think that is? Is it the vinyl to mp3 switch? The loss of shared space and interaction in record stores…?I think that’s a small part of it, but it’s mainly the internet. And the atmosphere in clubs has changed a bit. Kids today seem to be always on their smartphones in clubs. The whole universe is at their fingertips, so they seem not to be ‘in the moment’ as much. I really think phones should be banned from clubs. I’m not sure how they even enjoy themselves now.

You talked about an “underground club” in Dubai before. What does that mean these days? ‘Underground’ cannot be an aesthetic, a musical style, when very leftfield records are being used to sell Toyotas.
And this that’s playing in the background [Boards of Canada, Music has the Right to Children] is a good example of that. One of the top ten electronic albums of all time, yet increasingly popular. But they’re making music for the right reasons and are still underground in my opinion because they are working on their own terms it seems. Wouldn’t it be good if eighty percent of people were listening to stuff as classy as Boards of Canada. A lot of it is down to the fact that record companies don’t really exist as they used to any more; they’re multinational companies owned by shareholders who are more conservative and are primarily interested in profits, not music.

When I did the Presence album I signed it to a small label [Pagan] which was subsequently bought out by Universal, which was then sucked in by Seagram’s, which is a Canadian whisky company. Nothing to do with music at all; just about making money. Obviously there’s lots of good music coming out, but the stuff that’s getting promoted, getting money shoved at it, is because these old middle-class guys want to see a return on their investment so they are very conservative in making their choices. And that’s the sad thing. If you had a board of directors at Seagram’s listening to Boards of Canada – which would be ironic – they’d say, "No, we want something easy to sell and to get on the radio. Not this..."

So, is Ibiza the ultimate expression of the commodification of dance culture? 
Yeah. The reality of it is that everything’s just ludicrously overpriced. It is still a beautiful island, of course, and there are small events there that are really good and people have a fantastic time, but generally it’s £60 to get in and £20 for a tiny bottle of warm beer – not really what clubbing or music is about in my opinion.

Why are there no young producers in Nottingham making deep house? And what do you think of more recent styles of electronic music – dubstep and UK funky, say?
I’m sure some are making deep house. It’s funny, because we’ve got fantastic music technology educational facilities in Nottingham with Confetti. But where are the people who are coming through that? Nobody helped you to make music like that back in the day. Now there are colleges doing music production and composition courses. I think the reality of it is that kids dabble with it, then find out they can’t make any money and just give in. Maybe their heart’s not really in it. It’s a hard slog, the music industry.

You’ve got to be either very stubborn or really tough and determined to stick at it. There are no guarantees you’ll ever sell any records or get any gigs at all. Of course, every ten years there’ll be a changing of the guard, you know – a new generation. People want to hear dubstep or whatever, new types of music – that’s always going to happen. It happened with UK garage, filter disco, drum and bass. All these things come and go. But I think house is the perfect form of music and will continue to develop and bring in new generations of listeners and producers.
I think they can often seem quite edgy and brutal, sometimes undanceable, sometimes like boys thrilling other boys with weird noises. All pretty soulless. Is that an evolution connected to the predominant drugs in the scene? 
Drugs definitely change the way club music evolves. In the late nineties, cocaine became fashionable again and it totally changed what producers were making and what DJs were playing. You got that sort of menace feeling in a club, which is the polar opposite of where house had come from.
By comparison, there seemed to be a gentleness or generosity of spirit about that free party scene…
Yeah, and the music that the free party guys were playing was a little more inviting and involving, and had seductive qualities to it. Not nihilistic or menacing or anything like that.
If someone asked you to define or describe your music – not necessarily for a journalistic pigeonhole – what would be the answer?
I’d call it electronic soul.
Has your attitude to production changed over time – does it feel more like work or do you still get the creative rush?
Oh yeah, very much so. I’ve just done this compilation for Defected. I had to do six weeks of proper, proper work, long days in the studio, really intense, to get it finished on time. I was really daunted to start with – can I do this? – but I really loved it. I was buzzing. It’s a House Masters compilation. They’re kinda like a ‘Best of…’ I’ve done four compilations of my stuff now and I wanted to make it so that I wasn’t flogging the same old stuff: 20 tracks, shove ‘em on a CD, ‘Give me some money’ type thing.
What’s your favourite part of the creative process?
I don’t think I can pin it down, so I suppose the answer is all of it. When I’m making music I fiddle around, not going in any particular direction, just experimenting really, then all of a sudden it clicks. It is that subtle. You can just tweak something and it just brings everything together. The hard part of making a record is structuring it. It’s really easy to get a loop going and throw some sounds around it. You could do that in ten minutes. But to make that into a seven-minute track that people are going to spend money on or dance to, that’s a different thing entirely. 
Do you road test new tracks in clubs?
Sometimes. But no, not as a rule, really. That’s a bit of a risk because you’re relying on other people’s reaction to it, which is a gamble if the sound in the club is bad or the atmosphere is not so great. Making things by committee is not my way at all. 
And do you get a second opinion – not off a dancefloor but off a mate?
No, not really.
Does the drift toward electronic music ‘democratise’ the process, inasmuch as anyone with a computer can make music nowadays?
I think it’s a double-edge sword. If people want to make music and they can’t afford to, then it’s a pretty horrible situation to be in. But I don’t think everyone should therefore make records. I don’t mean to sound judgemental but there is obviously such a thing as ability in music. If you put the Beatles next to Buck’s Fizz then one’s clearly better than the other. Well, there is a difference to me, for sure. I get sent a fair bit of music from labels and artists which a few years ago would not have made it to people’s ears because you had to physically invest money in A&R and manufacturing, et cetera.
So, do you give constructive feedback to people who send mediocre stuff or would people take it the wrong way? Or do you just not have time to do it…?
All the above, really. I do a lot of gigs in Africa. I was involved in a conference in Cape Town earlier this year and we started this new initiative teaching kids about production – really poor kids from townships, informal settlements. So we raised money and did this conference. We got a bit of sponsorship. And that was really fascinating, to see what these kids came up with. And for that I did give some constructive criticism, because I initiated the production of the music in the first place. But otherwise no, I don’t do it. Who am I to tell someone how good their music is? They would probably hate my music in the same way.
Are there any favourite productions from your back catalogue?
Yeah. I really like the Born on the 24th of July album. It was the first record I released under my own name. The label I was making the album for [Peacefrog] phoned me and said, "Why don’t you just put your name on it?" I’m like, "No, no, no, no". They persuaded me to do it and when it was done it sort of took on a whole new dimension. All the records I’d made before were very personal but when it’s actually your name on it, it becomes more intense and exposed rather than hiding behind a pseudonym. In the end I was pleased I did it under my name. I think dance music as an art form doesn’t always lend itself to albums; often they sound like compilations, so I was conscious of trying to make the record sound coherent.

You’ve only made two full-length albums – the Charles Webster one and Presence, All Systems Gone – with the Webster Wraight Ensemble jazz one due out soon. Any particular reason?
Oddly enough, I’ve got three other albums half-finished ready for release next year. It’s strange because people say "Oh, you didn’t make a record for a couple of years". You kind of work on different things simultaneously and all of a sudden you’ve got ten records ready to release at the same time.

The album with Pete Wraight – that is a slight musical departure but completely mappable with the general feel of your stuff. Is this a sign of things to come?
Well, I have made loads of downtempo and other stuff over the years but sometimes people say "Oh, he just does deep house". So, it’s not a massive departure, really, because the songs are basically the same type of songs that I write anyway.
I had a look at your Discogs page and there’s a lot of stuff on there.
And there’s a lot missing too. Loads of remixes and different aliases that aren’t there. But no, I like the anonymity of it all. It allows me to be professionally schizophrenic.

The covers for the 24th July and the remix album it spawned were Jon Burgerman-designed, and the jazz album is local graphic designers Makermet. Do you keep an eye on what’s happening creatively in the city and try to support their efforts?
Totally. That’s the whole reason I chose those guys. I liked what they’d done for the Nottingham Contemporary posters. Alex and Neil have been brilliant, really open-minded and helpful in kicking ideas around. 

Do you read LeftLion?
Yeah, I’ll always grab it in Fopp. It keeps me abreast of what’s happening, although there are times when I’m hardly here. But yeah, it’s always a good read. Even though I’m a vegetarian, I love Beane’s kebab shop pieces. That’s dedication for you.
So, what’s your favourite track from your vast back catalogue?
Soothe by Furry Phreaks, I think. I still play it often at gigs and oddly that song is one of my biggest sellers as well. It’s been released about six times as a single and been on so many compilations, when compilations used to sell a lot – Ministry of Sound-type things, back in the late nineties, early noughties, which would sell five, six hundred thousand copies. We still licence it all the time. It’s one of those things where sometimes you get things right straight away, and that record was one of those times. I had the singer in front of me and it took literally twenty minutes to write and record. 
Favourite remix? And which is the most famous artist you’ve turned down?
There’s loads. There’s quite a few on the House Masters compilation that I like. There’s one for an obscure French ambient band called A Reminiscent Drive on there. I suppose the oddest remix offer I had to turn down was…wait for it…Blue.
What about your favourite countries to DJ?
Japan and South Africa. I’ve been going there for quite a long time. They liked my music really early on in South Africa, when it wasn’t such a big scene. It’s massive now. Probably the biggest scene in the world. It’s really emotional to be playing house music there and that they like my take on it. 

What would be your advice to someone who wanted to be an electronic music producer, or who wanted a career in music?
Just be yourself. Try to think outside the box. Don’t try and follow. I think a lot of people look at someone like David Bowie – I’m certainly not drawing parallels with myself here – and see that he was a leader, not a follower. He was always trying to come up with something new. From 1969 to about 1983, I don’t think anyone has ever had, or ever will have, a catalogue as amazing as that run of albums: fifteen truly great albums. He did that by not repeating himself, by working hard and trying to stay fresh, not trying to be like whatever’s trendy this month. He was always groping around in the dark, experimenting and searching.

I think he’s really underrated as a songwriter and lyricist as well. People just see him as this chameleon that you can’t pin down but his catalogue of songs is truly remarkable. Plus, he was tossing hits out for his mates. Mott the Hoople, Iggy Pop. He was fearless. People say he was taking huge gambles but pretty much all of them came off. You now, he made a white soul album, Young Americans, and people were like, "What the fuck is this?" As I say, I’m not drawing parallels between him and myself but certainly his attitude towards moving forwards and being yourself was inspiring. If you don’t succeed, okay, but at least try.
The Webster Wraight Ensemble, No Lucky Days was released on Miso on September 2. Charles’ House Masters compilation was released on Defected on August 26. 


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