IT’S hard to single out anyone in the last 20 years who’s done more for underground techno’s onward march than Dave Clarke. While some veteran DJs coast along, dining out on their classics and releasing retrospectives, Clarke is still in thrall to techno’s inherent futurism.
Even in the 80s as house music was firing off in mutant electronic strains, its origin story was still rooted in disco and soul. But techno, and electro in parallel, have always been a bit allergic to the past, with pioneers like Kraftwerk, Model 500, Underground Resistance and Drexciya developing prophetic man-machine manifestos, militant year-zero productions and alternate universe myths.
Jeff Mills’ conceptual works may have taken techno out of the clubs and into the Louvre and classical concert halls, but if there’s still a raw techno ‘movement’, Dave Clarke is its kingpin. There’s a reason that John Peel’s nickname The Baron of Techno has stuck to him for years. He also gets a shout-out on Daft Punk’s Teachers amid some vinyl chop-ups — a nod to his brash and frantic mixing style.
Since the early 90s, Clarke has been DJing and producing visceral, relentless techno with a genuine punk snarl – it’s no accident that he turns the ‘A’ in his name into the anarchy symbol.
Chatting to me from his adopted home of Amsterdam, Clarke lives up to his pull-no-punches persona, veering between the state of techno, the spiralling mediocrity of EDM, his self-imposed US exile, and Marks & Spencer sausages — he’s still an Englishman at heart.
And in a rare sidestep by one of dance music’s outspoken greats, he even bangs on about the weather. Baking in the Amsterdam heatwave after a weekend in Belgrade, he says: “It’s really fucking serious, hotter than Dubai. I managed to get heat exhaustion. It’s different from years playing in clubs — that’s like being in a big stinking sauna, but you’ve got plenty of liquids beside you.”
But never mind the sunshine, the big issue here is the 500th edition of White Noise – the world’s longest-running techno and electro show that’s broadcast weekly on 2fm. He’s in Dublin tonight to record White Noise 500 at RTE, and he’s marking it with a show at the Academy along with Berghain resident Marcel Fengler and local hero Sunil Sharpe.
Even with this milestone and 20-odd years of game-changing records like the Red trilogy and Devil’s Advocate, through his pivotal mix CDs and reworks of everyone from Leftfield to Depeche Mode to Green Velvet, Clarke isn’t one for nostalgia. He says: “My nostalgia definitely got stuck in the past, it’s probably around the years 1986 to 1997 when I thought all the music around me was for me. I think I read something about rock stars spending a lot of time on the road doing the one thing… you end up in this cocoon, which doesn’t cocoon your body from ageing but seems to cocoon your mind from reminding you how old you are, and how much time has passed.
“You just don’t have the time to be nostalgic anymore. I have to put together 10 of the most influential techno tracks [for Beatport], and I’m scared about just naming stuff from such a long time ago. For anyone that doesn’t understand techno, they’re gonna think, ‘Oh well, time stood still in 1996’, and it’s not true.”
Clarke released Fabric 60 in 2011, but he reckons the mix CD has finally been suffocated under zeroes and ones as thousands of full sets get uploaded weekly, by virtually every DJ on the planet. His mid-90s mix CDs Electro Boogie 1 & 2 showcased the dark robotic heart of Detroit, and World Service 1 & 2 was the industrial strength alternative to the electroclash mixes doing the rounds at the turn of the millennium. In an interview last year Dublin artist Matador told me that he was led up the techno path the minute he heard World Service on headphones at a party.
Even if he’s flattered by the reverence, Clarke says history’s landfill sites are welcome to CDs in general. He says: “A mix CD was like a bookend, in the same way that you had to go and find cassettes 20 years ago and then pay for them. To do a mix CD makes no sense anymore. CD is a horrible format and no one really enjoyed it anyway. A lot of my older fans will say, ‘When’s Electro Boogie 3 coming out?’ I’ll tell them, ‘Here’s my latest White Noise electro mix, you can burn it to CD and write Electro Boogie 3 on it.”
Even as he’s perpetually drawing a line under things with fresh radio mixes and revolving gigs and festivals, he admits the 500 milestone was too big to pass when it crept up on him. He says: “I suppose what brought it forward was that Mr Spring wanted to do a big thing for 400 and I never really thought about 400 as a big thing, but now we’re up to 500 it makes sense to do it in Ireland. It’s cool for me that 2fm is the main heart of White Noise in some ways. It feels a little bit like I’m on a pirate radio station in a weird way, I love playing in Ireland, it feels like a rebel area. And the support I’ve had from 2FM is really great.”
Clarke says he started White Noise as a way of “paying back the scene”, sifting through ever-expanding hard drives for a weekly mix with a full turnover and a quality control reputation to uphold. In a recent interview with Boiler Room, Laurent Garnier said he listens to seven hours of music a day to hone in on tracks for his sets, and this chimes with Clarke, who says: “Laurent is one of the good guys… he could’ve sold out, he chose to stay true to his sound. I honestly believe he’s the type of guy who will sit down and listen, and get massive pleasure out of finding something from all this music.
“I have to do that as a DJ or my sets will get stagnant – I may as well be playing purely on vinyl from 10 years ago. Sometimes I think I’m a smart Alec by doing three or four shows in advance before going on the road, but you come back and there’s four-and-a-half gigabytes waiting, and you think, ‘Jesus Christ, I have to sit in this seat for three days’.
“Some DJs get other people to do it for them but I feel like I need to do it myself. People are sending me their music personally, they’re struggling to get it heard, you have to go through it. Then again, you can always tell if they’re not sending me their music personally. If they’re going, ‘Yay! This is the biggest hit on Pete Tong’s radio show and it’s smashing it in Ibiza’, you know there’s a 98.5 per cent chance of you not enjoying that track.”
For someone whose home gig is Awakenings in Amsterdam (“the best techno festival in the world”) and the annual Dave Clarke Presents showcase at the Amsterdam Dance Event, Clarke audibly sneers when Ibiza is mentioned, but he admits there may be a truce in the future: “I’ve always put down Ibiza but three years ago We Love asked me to come and I actually really enjoyed it, it completely surprised me.”
America’s a different story though – he wants no part of the “EDM arms race, about who can be the most pyro-tastic”. He adds: “The thing that upsets me the most about America is that there’s no understanding of the original legacy of the music. None. Consequently, you get this Eurotrash shite EDM over there, with ass-monkeys like Deadmau5 basically going, ‘You need to spend 200 grand on a show’. No, you need to fucking play some music that’s worth listening to, you complete fucking cock-womble. It’s about the fucking music, man, I just don’t feel like I want to go there that much because even the techno is very commercial, it’s this tech-house. Of course certain clubs and some promoters try their best but it’s a minority.
“Maybe I’m wrong on that, maybe it could be perceived as arrogant, but I just don’t wanna go to the US and end up in a really bad show. I’ve played in America and I’ve had some really bad vibes from promoters, not picking me up from the airport after travelling for nine hours. They don’t give a shit.”
Clarke does point out that he’s not some blinkered techno bigot, sitting in his lair in a perpetual 4/4 loop. He thrives on a bit of conflict, saying he’d “go fucking mad” if he listened to techno all week. He’s just been interviewed on Belgian radio station Klara about his favourite composers (Debussy, Dvorak, Janacek, Vaughn Williams), and he’s always referencing rock acts, from Nick Cave to Ministry, and admits to “finally getting around to semi-enjoying the Pixies’ last album”. He’s nodded back to his Goth roots by teaming up with Chicks On Speed to cover Bauhaus’s She’s In Parties, and his trademark chopping and scratching DJ technique stems from a lifelong love of hip-hop.
More recently, he’s remixed I Am Kloot and A Place To Bury Strangers, and he’s been hit up by “one of the guys from Placebo”. He even turns into an unlikely fan-boy when we ask him about remixing the Bucky-stained Glasgow filth-punks The Amazing Snakeheads.
He recalls: “I went back to someone’s house in Scotland after a gig waiting for a flight. Normally in Edinburgh I’d stock up on bacon and sausages on the way home. Marks & Spencer hadn’t opened in Amsterdam, so there was no bacon and sausages worth having over here. The other option is to go back to someone’s house, and this time Marks & spencer had opened up and I thought, ‘Right, there’s no bacon and sausages emergency going down here’, so I could chill out a little.
“So in this house they were just playing YouTube on the TV and the guy said, ‘We know you like punk, have you heard this?’ He played it and I thought, ‘Fuck me, that’s incredible. The whole vibe is so menacing. So I looked it up and I found out that I’d just missed them by four days. I could’ve actually seen them on the Thursday in Amsterdam and I missed it. Anyway, I went straight to the record shop and bought it on vinyl and listened to it again and again and again. Then I ended up doing that remix and the fuckers split up! I didn’t get to see them live, that’s really annoying, they had the most amazing potential. I could’ve met them, or maybe that wouldn’t have been a great thing, I hear they drink a little bit. Maybe they would’ve thought, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ And then maybe the remix wouldn’t have happened.”
Clarke admits there’s no conflict with his production partnership _Unsubscribe_ with Dutch producer Jonas Uittenbosch aka Mr Jones. Until 2013, Clarke had worked as a lone wolf, the Man In Black. After a seven-year production break while he built his studio on a houseboat, Clarke knocked heads with Jones at a Demolition panel at Amsterdam Dance Event and invited him over. Jones had already been sending his tracks for a long time, getting support on White Noise, but now it’s a “very democratic” partnership. They’ve dropped belter remixes for Gesaffelstein, Octave One, Psycatron & Detroit Grand Pubahs, Boys Noize, Black Asteroid and new wave electronic pioneer John Foxx. Their first original production ‘Spek Hondje’ is a paranoid industrial stomp with Chicago’s Bear Who? breathing down your neck. Even though they recently played b2b at Awakenings and they’re playing at Fabric in London next month, Clarke doesn’t really see _Unsubscribe_ as an album project.
“I have this old fashioned idea about albums,” Clarke says. “I think albums should be dynamically different and I think _Unsubscribe_ is more about 12-inch and club projects. He’s got a new album coming out with Public Stand, and I can’t imagine us spending nine months solid working on an album because in a way there isn’t enough contrast. There has to be some argument — me and Jones are always going to be going in a very similar direction.”
Now that he’s reconnected with his production side, we can be assured that Clarke won’t be chasing any filthy lucre or courting any scenes. Besides the ‘EDM shite’, Clarke has no real love for minimal, electro-house, the ill-fated electroclash or any other fads that come along and nick electro as a handy prefix for Soundcloud tags. In one of his many pisstake Facebook posts, he’s in a flowing blonde wig, with the caption: “This should help me translate into an Ibiza tech-house star.”
He says all you can do is shrug, conceding: “You can’t stop it. A lot of these people pretending to play electro, they’re not even pretending. They believe that they are, because they believe it’s a whole new genre to what it was. It’s kinda weird.
“It’s the same with techno, all of a sudden there was minimal techno, when it’s not that at all. It’s just ketamine house, there’s no techno in there, there’s no energy. There are some good tracks, I remember Âme doing an incredible track, but generally it was enough to bore the shit off an elephant. It made the step of tech-house to be called techno very easy, because these people thought they were already playing techno. But it’s not, it’s not techno at all.
“It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day because the number of journalists left who write and care about these things is very small. And even if they do write about it I’m not sure if their editors will allow it.
“Ah fuck it, Motörhead are still around, at least that’s something.”
- Dave Clarke’s White Noise 500 gig is at Dublin’s Academy tonight, with tickets €15 here. Footage and audio will be available on YouTube and RTE next weekend.
Original version in Irish Star