Illum Sphere interview: “Money just goes, right?”

15.04.13

Often referred to as a DJ and producer who nods to the unusual, Illum Sphere is known for creating unapologetically unique sounds with relentless energy. “I don’t do too many interviews,” he tells me, when we meet for a chat in a Carnaby Street cafe on a punishingly cold day. “Would you if you were asked the same shit?” I nod as we steer through tables, chatting about his upcoming album released later this year on Ninja Tune. Ryan Hunn’s music offers only so much insight into what makes him tick – when you meet him, you realize his basic ethos is blunt. This down to earth attitude is cemented later as he frowns, “I don’t want to be spraying champagne all over some girls in the front row being like, ‘I’m Illum Sphere, fuck you’. I want to play music that I really love to people, and make them dance to it.”

“I don’t want to be spraying champagne all over some girls in the front row being like, ‘I’m Illum Sphere, fuck you.’” – Illum Sphere

While I recover from that particular image, I ask Hunn what he thinks of being referred to as a DJ with a “disdain for convention.” He stares at me with brief confusion and tilts his head, glancing around the room. “I don’t really know what that means.” Grinning, he continues: “I guess it’s where the individual aligns. I play techno, but also disco, African or Brazilian records, hip hop and grime within an hour, whereas others start and finish with a similar tempo. Maybe that’s the reason?…When people say nice things about my sets but their general thread is: ‘wow, that’s crazy!’ I struggle with that idea as it doesn’t feel like I’m trying to do anything unique to be noticed. It’s more… I like hip hop so sometimes I’ll start with that, sometimes jazz, dub, whatever. I think people can be unaware of how much music actually works together, but that’s not a criticism.”

Could this be because people stick to what they know? “Not necessarily…” Hunn shakes his head, leaning back and visibly settling into a flow. “I’ve never really felt part of one scene. Not in a lonely way. I don’t sit at home crying ‘no one understands me man.’ I appreciate a lot of different musical movements. For me, it doesn’t matter if music is old or new, popular or not. Say I came to see you DJ [I raise an eyebrow and assure him that would never be allowed] I want to hear what you’re into, why you’re up there, not necessarily what the hottest new label has just released. People can fall into a pattern, I guess.”

“The goal at the end of each gig is to know that I gave an honest account of me… I did my thing. Otherwise, I shouldn’t be there.” – Illum Sphere

Illum Sphere has evolved steadily, releasing through Fat City records, Marytn’s label 3024 and Pinch’s Tectonic, before dropping his latest EP ‘Birthday/h808er’ with Young Turks late last year. Hunn speaks about his first album venture with a mixture of excitement and exasperation, elucidating a wish to only use worthy sounds. “If I played one amazing piece of techno in between a string of mediocre techno, then the one piece I give a shit about would be lost.”


Illum Sphere – h808er

“Is that why you think your music works?” I ask. “Has it got something to do with an element of surprise?” Looking down, he pauses before finally allowing, “maybe – people respond to different things, positively or negatively. There was a point when I was trying to throw too much stuff in and it was horrible. There needs to be a balance.”

The ‘Birthday/h808er’ EP offered an attack on complementary tones, creating something striking and attention seeking. “It’s kind of how I DJ too I guess. My favourite DJs play what they want, not what’s hot.” He breaks off and rubs his head in an almost exasperated manner. “It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like I’m ranting. That’s not my aim.”

“In my opinion, sometimes people forget how good they are.” This comment takes me by surprise and I tell him so. “Why come on after someone who’s been playing banger after banger and do the same? Hit the reset button. People may walk away, but I believe they will come back ready for what you have.” Describing this as a “palette cleanser,” he reaffirms “the goal at the end of each gig is to know that I gave an honest account of me… I did my thing. Otherwise, I shouldn’t be there.”


Illum Sphere’s AV set (with EMN) in Manchester, 2010.

Ryan co-runs Hoya:Hoya, a critically acclaimed club night, with a group of similar-minded DJs (the resident line-up boasts Lone, Eclair Fifi, Jon K, Jonny Dub, Chunky, Krystal Klear as well as visual genius EMN). The general concept is simple; people come to see the residents play, guests are secret and prices affordable. “For me, the key thing is not to get caught up in the bullshit. We have a limit to what we pay people and as artists, we know it’s fair. Some people won’t take part and that’s fine. You can get used to being paid certain amounts of money, which could turn in to: ‘I won’t leave the house unless I get paid this.’ But not all parties are 3000 capacity charging £30 a ticket… we’re a 300 capacity underground party and won’t pay those fees. We’ve been lucky with Hoya:Hoya, as the people who play do so for less money. They know that people…get it.”

“Hoya grew out of parties we went to, coupled with our own ideas of what a night should be. In the grand scheme of things, we’re just not that important. We’re part of a process.” – Illum Sphere

It could be easy to view what Illum Sphere is trying to say in a disbelieving manner. Another diva DJ who tries to seem “normal?” What’s obvious to me is that he really does just stick to his convictions and plays for the people who want to listen. Any doubts are disbanded as Hunn says, “the key thing for me is remembering how unimportant you are. If Hoya:Hoya stopped tomorrow, someone would just evolve it and create another party. That’s what we did… Hoya grew out of parties we went to, coupled with our own ideas of what a night should be. In the grand scheme of things, we’re just not that important. We’re part of a process.”

“There are a lot of regulars at Hoya. People have grown up, they’ve seen us grow up, getting grey…We all started as a bunch of nobodies, and we still are a bunch of nobodies really, that’s the point.” Ryan gestures excitedly as he says, “We may have grown as artists and as people, but those regulars help you to keep yourself in check.”


Illum Sphere – Fat Ballet

Does Illum Sphere think this “I’m doing it my way” attitude has hindered him? “Maybe, I don’t know. Money just goes, right?” He remembers a friend who told him: “_’When you’re gone, the only things you leave behind are those that you’ve created.’_ Do you leave behind a load of shit you did for money, or something you did because it was the best you could do?” He finishes off by staring straight at me and saying decisively: ”It hit a point when I was like, you know what, fuck this, I’m not going to do anything I don’t respect. It’s not to deliberately keep my integrity, it’s more: does it make sense in my musical evolution?”

Is this what we should all remember as we battle on: just keep doggedly going down our own road? “If someone was genuinely doing something because they wanted to do it, then good luck to them. It would be ignorant of me to say one way is right. The key thing is, do what you want to do.”

See the man in action: Hoya:Hoya will return to Fabric on May 3rd. In the meantime, check out Birthday/h808er EP and his Boiler Room mix before settling down to await the forthcoming album.