Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
"Hi, you've got my voicemail which I never check, so please send me a text. Bye." Erol Alkan’s answerphone message is as no-nonsense as you’d expect from someone whose entire career, be it as a DJ, producer, clubnight promoter, or record label boss, has seen him guided by no one’s hand but his own. His latest venture is an entry into the long-running Fabriclive mix series, turning in a selection made up of druggy and droney acid house and techno with an independent spirit. "At least for the last four years, there’s been the most interesting electronic music around," he says down the phone when I do manage to get through to him, "There are a lot of interesting small labels popping up, so it feels like there’s the scope to be different."
Although he’s still DJing about a hundred gigs a year (he used to do more, but he makes sure to take one weekend off every month), Erol is also keeping himself busy with his record label, Phantasy Sound, who are gearing up to release the (Erol co-produced) debut full-length from Ghost Culture. Alongside this, he’s also just remixed the entirety of Temples’ debut album 'Sun Structures' with Richard Norris for their psychedelic project, Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve, and is readying more solo tracks for release in the future following last year’s 'Illuminations' EP.
With all of this in mind, now seems as good a time as any to find out where Erol’s head is at.
What made you decide to do a Fabriclive mix now?
Erol Alkan: "They’d asked me in the past a few times, but it was just timing. I wasn’t able to give it the kind of attention that I wanted to. I tend to change things around quite a lot, so I needed to give myself time to try things, then change it, then live with it, then change it again – that’s the time consuming part of it."
How did you approach this differently to other mix CDs you've done?
Erol Alkan: "As it’s quite specific to a club, I had to be quite specific about what I wanted to do with it. It had to be something that I thought would work really well within the confines of Fabric, and also within my favourite room in Fabric, which is Room 1. The great thing about that room is that it always feels like people come in to dance, and then stay on the dancefloor. You have that ability to go whichever way you want it to go, and you can be patient with it – you wouldn’t have to constantly be throwing in hooks or something to keep people engaged. It really harks back to that environment where you feel in control – obviously the polar opposite of playing a festival. I thought it was important to represent and to celebrate that."
You played Fabric last week for the Fabriclive mix launch – you haven’t played there for a while, right?
Erol Alkan: "I played last year, I think? [laughs] The thing is, in London the last few years, I’ve concentrated on the long sets I was doing at Fire – the last one was 10 hours long. And I just kept it down to playing in London about three times a year, and for them all to be different. So, doing one Fabric gig rather than three Fabric gigs, and the other two would be something like a 10-hour set, or some kind of small venue somewhere – just to keep it different and interesting for myself. If you do something too much, it loses its power a little."
You’ve been working with Ghost Culture on his album recently…
Erol Alkan: "I came across him a couple of years ago now and signed him immediately off the back of one track. He’d been writing [his album] and recording in his bedroom, and he’d bring it up to the studio where we’d work on it. I ended up co-producing and mixing his record, recording vocals up here – whatever it took to make the best record possible.
"I’ve always said that my role as a producer, or co-producer, or whatever, constantly changes from artist to artist. It’s down to what the artist requires or needs from you, rather than being like, 'This is who I am, this is what I do, and my opinion is greater than yours.' Good producers are good foils to good artists: you both create some kind of catalyst to get the best out of one another.
"That’s why all the records that I’ve been involved with sound different. They don’t sound like me, but that’s why some of my favourite producers do. Like Chris Blackwell – he’d produced Bob Marley, or The B-52s, or Grace Jones, and it always sounded like the best version of themselves. That’s what I aim to do with other artists."
"I’ve always said that my role as a producer changes from artist to artist. It’s down to what the artist requires or needs from you. Good producers are good foils to good artists: you both create some kind of catalyst to get the best out of one another." – Erol Alkan
Is his album finished?
Erol Alkan: "Yep, it’s done. All to be announced very soon. I can’t discuss it right now, but it’s very soon, and it’s very good."
I interviewed him a while ago, and he was talking about some of the ideas you’d had together, like using a microphone from a tank.
Erol Alkan: "Well, that particular instance was that we were trying to get a vocal for the last song on the album, called The Fog. I put a microphone up and was like, 'Okay, let’s do some takes.' But it wasn’t happening. Sometimes you’ll have a song that you think would be really easy to sing, something straightforward, but through that straightforwardness you lose the magic of how you hear it in your head.
"So we had a talk, and I said, 'Tell me how you want to project this vocal. It sounds to me like you’re addressing people with it.' And he said, 'Yeah, I think that could be it.' So I had this microphone that was pulled out of this old tank from the ‘40s or something. It’s this old tannoy – huge. I had the cap on the inside upgraded, so it sounds like a much better microphone than it was originally. I plugged it in and said, 'Okay, every time you sing, you’ve got to push this button in. You’re not gonna be leaning into a microphone, you’re gonna be pushing this up against your mouth.' And I think it just created a sense of intimacy. All of a sudden, it just happened. I could hear it, he could hear it.
"Sometimes these things in production are like problem solving. You’re just trying to capture the emotion that the artist wants to put forward. And sometimes people don’t know what it is – even though it’s their words or melody, it can feel really alien. All you’re trying to do is reunite the artist with the emotion, or that feeling, or that message, or whatever is that they want to put forward."
It’s also cool that you co-produced the whole thing, as you aren’t getting as many producers doing full albums with people now, but lots of shorter sessions with different producers here and there.
Erol Alkan: "I think many people are undermining the power of an album right now. The focus of a record is to get the three or four singles together, and then six or seven other tracks, and then just get it out there. I’m not saying that anyone thinks like that – but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did, looking at how music is consumed these days. I’m sure there is an element of that. But I’m all for the album. This album, the fourth we’re putting out [on Phantasy], is great. All the records that we’ve released album-wise are. That’s what we want to continue doing."
"Sometimes things in production are like problem solving. You’re trying to capture the emotion that the artist wants to put forward. Sometimes people don’t know what it is – even though it’s their words or melody, it can feel really alien. All you’re trying to do is reunite the artist with the emotion." – Erol Alkan
The label’s been focusing on projects like Daniel Avery and Ghost Culture a lot recently. Have you made any new signings?
Erol Alkan: "Yep, yep. There’s someone new who I’ve just signed who I think is gonna make an amazing album."
You’ve just remixed a whole Temples album with Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve. How did that come about?
Erol Alkan: "Well, we’d remixed Move With The Season at the beginning of the year. I really loved that, it seemed that the band loved it, and people seemed to really dig it. We had a call from Jeff Barrett from Heavenly Records a few months later saying, 'Listen, would you guys be interested in remixing the entire album?' I really like Temples, but I was thinking that it could take about a month, or six weeks. We were a little bit like, 'I don’t think we’ll have the time to do it justice.' But Jeff was like, 'I think you’ll do a really good job, please consider it.' So we just thought, you know what, we actually really enjoyed doing Move With The Season. It felt really spontaneous and natural. And we thought: why not?
"We did the whole thing in 10 days in the end, which is not bad. It came so fast; we were enjoying it so much. Some parts sound like The Orb meets Walt Disney. It’s great. I really, genuinely love it. I’d always said I’d never remix a whole album – I’d been asked before."
You’ve got your own track Sub Conscious on the new Fabriclive mix. Do you feel you’re getting better at releasing your own music since you put out that EP last year?
Erol Alkan: "I think so. I definitely think that releasing the first thing under my name made a big difference. It certainly woke me up to a few things – stuff that I should’ve done a long time ago. I think I’ve done things back to front in a sense, you know? But I’m kind of okay with that. There’s a lot of music that’s sitting there, waiting to be finished or worked on. I’m working through it. I’m getting excited about it now."
Fabric release 'Fabriclive 77' on September 22nd 2014 (pre-order).