Ahead of his Ministry of Sound debut this Halloween, we caught up with the mysterious Mixmag columnist, best-selling author and secretive selector.
MoS: How have you enjoyed seeing the reactions to your book? Where they as expected? had any death threats?
The Secret DJ: Haha! not even a bad review so far, never mind any bricks through windows. Dream come true for me really. It’s been a great reaction. Really. Gobsmacked. Obviously I’ve never written a book before so I am massively a noob. It’s a debut. I’m a total first-timer. It’s funny ‘cos as a musician I am used to a lot more criticism. Everyone is a DJ and making music now, as a result, I think music has been devalued greatly. Both economically and figuratively. So I’m used to people coming into the booth thinking they know better, or music getting very little traction on social media unless the source is very hyped. Or trolls on Resident Advisor rounding on something savagely. It’s been the opposite with the book. All sunshine, unicorns and rainbows. It’s a bit of a shocker really. Not sure if I even know how to react to positivity anymore other than doff my hat and say a sincere thank you.
How did it come about? Was it your idea or did someone encourage you to do it, and what was your main motivation?
I’ve always written. There was an interesting crossover about 10 years ago where music lost its value but people started to pay for good writing again. Writers were the first against the wall when the internet came along. You may remember loads of specialist magazines all closed very fast just after the millennium. Muzik. Seven. DMC. M8. Jockey Slut etc? how can you compete with a free global specialist mag? People who relied on words were the first to be ‘disrupted’ by tech. Decades before taxi drivers.
Then after about 20 years of absolutely awful, awful writing everywhere, the value of a well-turned sentence came back. People who were good at it shone through ‘cos there was a lot of badly put together words out there. Long story short, I started to get paid as much to write as to make records and DJ. It was quite a slow process as one value went down and the other went up. You may know that if you write people will say regularly “you should write a book”. I’d always had boxes and boxes of notes, pages and notebooks as well as several computers full. Millions of words. Everything in the book was already written down somewhere.
Then one day about four years ago the smashing Duncan, who had just been given the big chair at Mixmag, said something along the lines of ‘if you have a book in there, we will print some of it and get behind you’. It got put together fast after that. A couple of months. Motivation? why does anyone do anything? try and pay the rent? Interestingly though, what happened with writing gives me hope for the other creative industries. If writing was the first casualty of the internet and has made a comeback, it can also happen with music. Or film. I believe people will pay for something if it is good enough. I never saw the internet as an apocalypse luckily, just an evolution.
Why do it anonymously? Why not name names if the book is couched in fact?
Not allowed to. I never had any say in the matter. Basically everyone is American now no matter where you live, and good Americans always sue if there is any chance at all of making money out of something. All of the anonymity thing came from the publisher (Faber & Faber) who had already had great success with ‘Secret Footballer’. It’s a long story that I will try to abridge, but for a year via my literary agent we went to every publisher in the world and every single one went “not only does no one buy music books anymore, no one buys books anymore full stop.” Just like the music and magazines, the internet has killed the old version of the book publishing biz. So we’d sort of given up. Then Andrew Weatherall and Justin Robertson were approached by Faber and Faber, ‘cos they were working with them on music stuff, and Faber asked “you don’t know a DJ who can write do you? we’ve been looking for one for years” and lucky for me Justin said; “as a matter of fact…”
Was funny in the Faber & Faber office with my agent, who had sworn blind the agency had been to every publisher, including Faber, and been refused. And Faber were like “we’ve been after someone like you for years!” and I turned to the agent and was like; “years he says!” Poor bloke was about 6 inches tall. Couldn’t resist it. Sorry, might be a bit boring. Industry stuff. Goes to show though. Never stop. Never give up. Bottom line is these days; if something is factual, you simply can’t name names. So I am told by some very expensive literary lawyers anyway.
What are the best and worst bits of the music industry in your experience? Which bits make you glad to be involved, which bits are more shameful.
Good question! The clue is in the name really. It is an industry and that hasn’t changed much since the bosses wore top hats and sent dirty-faced urchins down nasty holes. The entire machine is based on milking hope. Which is pretty awful when you stop to consider it. I can’t think of another business that has a 90% failure rate and only gives 0.004 cents to the creator of the thing they sell for a dollar. So the exploitative aspect is pretty terrible, which to people of a conservative bent is nothing but economics. Morally I find it repugnant how hypocritical it is. The biz will wring its hands and loudly cry crocodile tears over all sorts of issues that are topical, like inclusivity and diversity for example. They don’t care at all! they just want to be at the forefront of anything, as they are so distant from creativity. They will then take that information and use it to focus on a nicely diverse and inclusive new act that makes them loads of money while simultaneously driving that person into the ground and dumping the corpse when it is spent. The of the whole thing is harsh. Shameful even. Preys on the young heavily. Their hope is the industry’s meat and drink.
On the other side of the coin, modern society is so fucked up I’m very happy to be part of the relief process. I used to think the whole thing was a bit ‘opium of the masses’, a sort of plastic religion to keep us docile. I’ve since redressed that. Like when my Gran was in her 80s and a bit dotty and suddenly started smoking again. My old Dad, who’s own Dad died of emphysema due to smoking, was like “let her! whatever makes her happy, at that age it makes no odds.” I feel a bit like the world is so fucked now people should enjoy whatever they can, whenever they can. It’s a real shame people are so busy filming themselves they don’t participate. But lately, I just say, why not? “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. Society doesn’t deserve our sober support anymore. Being a good citizen has been made a mockery of by our ‘leaders’. Why pay tax when they don’t? Why be good when they are so bad? Why be a functioning member of society only to be preyed upon by the ultra-rich. Fuck all that noise. Go dancing. I’ll be there to help haha! "
Where do you get your music from and how long do you spend looking for it each week?
Most of it is in my head now. If you plonk me in front of the internet I can probably do you a half-decent set from memory. I’m sure I’m not unique in that. About ten, no! fifteen years ago I got rid of everything. Every record, CD, book and stick of furniture. I literally could not move for stuff. Stuff was dictating where I lived and how. It’s all in the cloud now. So is my head.
New music tends to arrive at you when you know a lot of people. I tend to get things straight from producers and friends. There was a point that I think most pro DJs go through that I call the saturation singularity. When promos become so numerous and so unremarkable that you HAVE to stop dealing with them. All of them. There is also great stuff but you have to stop everything. Throw the baby out with the bathwater and say to yourself ‘if other people can access it, it’s not for me’. Fear of missing out and trying to be cool can kill your creativity. You have to let it go, stop trying to be on top of everything and step back. Chasing all that only makes you sound like everyone else. Once you pass through the singularity onto the other side you become very zen about it all. I just know what I like and what is available to me. Takes time of course, you need to know a lot of producers. Freeing myself from objects helped. Music isn’t a thing, it is not an object it is an expression of ideas and emotions.
What else have you got coming up?
Possibly another book. The focus now is on DJ gigs. I’ve put a few Secret DJ events on that were super expensive and a lot of work so now I have to try and get out there and do some work to get the money together to do some more. They are gigs in the dark where you can’t see the DJs and using very high-end audio gear from Bozak and Clair Brothers. We always try to sound really good with Secret DJ live projects. Which is why it is so great to do Ministry. One of the best sounding rooms in the world. We will be bringing some amazing Bozak equipment along to go with it. Very exciting!
The Secret DJ appears in person for the first time at Ministry of Sound this Saturday for Halloween. You can buy the bestselling book here.