The tables have turned: Interview with snooker star DJ Steve Davis

There’s a long tradition of sports stars dabbling in music but it generally lands on the novelty scale — from John Barnes’ rapping on World In Motion to Gazza’s tone deaf Casio pop hit Fog on the Tyne.

Snooker legend Steve Davis has his own novelty legacy with Snooker Loopy — the 1986 top 10 hit with Chas & Dave and fellow players as the Matchroom Mob. With Snooker Loopy’s dodgy punchlines and sampled cue thwacks still a YouTube guilty pleasure, the news that Davis was to DJ at the UK’s top techno festival Bloc last March was music press gold. Surely the robotic 80s winning machine ‘Interesting’ Steve couldn’t reel in the ravers alongside eminent electronic artists like Jeff Mills and Autechre?

But the Bloc booking wasn’t an ironic in-joke or drunk selfie op — when it comes to leftfield experimental music, Steve has previous. He’s been collecting out-there records since his teens as a Zappa and Beefheart fanatic, and has hosted his Interesting Alternative radio show on community station Phoenix FM for 10 years, playing everything from his main love prog rock, to industrial techno, modular synth music and modern composition. The show, with his co-host and DJ other half Kavus Torabi of the prog band Knifeworld, is a brilliant odd couple partnership in the vein of Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s ‘Wittertainment’ movie podcast, with added synth drones, drum solos and 10-minute krautrock jams.

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He’s also in Dublin this Sunday to play a four-hour set at the Out To Lunch Weekender at Yamamori Tengu, a three-day showcase of leftfield experimental techno and electronica. Still, he admits there’s an element of novelty — especially when the pair were booked for Glastonbury, and more recently Castlepalooza festival in Tullamore.

Speaking on the phone from his London home, Steve (58) says: “Obviously there’s a novelty aspect. I’m going on the crest of that. Hopefully once we’ve carried that people will think it wasn’t just hype. It’s nice if people are excited about hearing new music. At one of the last festivals a guy came up and said, ‘I’ve never Shazammed so many tracks in my life!’

“It’s the same with the radio show… obviously I was inspired by John Peel, if it wasn’t for him a lot of people’s music knowledge wouldn’t have been so rich. Nowadays our radio show slightly mimics Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone on 6 Music, maybe we’re a bit more out-there. Ours is slightly different because it’s the two of us just having a rant in the background as if we’re in somebody’s living room. The premise is, hopefully it’s artists you’ve never heard before and by the end of it you’ll complain that your bank balance has been busted from buying music.

“I had been doing a specialist soul music show but I asked for a really unfashionable time, Mondays 10pm til 12, which doesn’t cause anybody any harm because no one’s listening!”

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Steve with ‘co-pilot’ Kavos Torabi

Six-times World champ Davis could well be the most famous snooker player ever — ruling in the 80s during the game’s peak, at a time when 18.5 million tuned in to watch his 1985 World Championship final with Dennis Taylor. He says there was a different set of nerves walking into a room at Bloc or a mucky Glasto tent playing avant-garde electronica, krautrock and prog to drunk fans dressed in tuxedos and Steve Davis cardboard masks.

“Bloc was a journey into the unknown,” he says. “People who go there are not just into ‘boof-boof’ techno, they really know their music. You’ve got all these people staring at you when you come on wondering what you’re going to do. You can’t just stand there, but it’s not my way to be that demonstrative. Fortunately my co-pilot Kavus is a showman, I was feeding off him. What we’ve been doing recently is playing banging records, not necessarily electronic, but they would appeal to people who like electronic music. We got a load of positive vibes, we were sort of a foil complementing the other artists, not trying to beat match, not trying to do anything too clever, just playing music we love.

“At Glastonbury they hadn’t a clue at the start, they probably thought Snooker Loopy was coming, I got a few requests! I needed a few beers to get over the line for the first couple of shows but now I’m starting to enjoy it enough to just get carried away with the music.

“Fortunately the masks have gone, but at Bloc, here’s a funny one, it’s in an out-take in the BBC iPlayer documentary – someone at Bloc told me they were using the masks to eat their dinner off. They’d ran out of plates and couldn’t be bothered doing the washing up, so they were eating off my face, pretty surreal.”

Davis had been playing the odd set at a brewery in Bethnal Green, but a turning point came when he invited UK techno pioneer Surgeon on to Interesting Alternative. This opened the door to Bloc then Glastonbury and a load of other festivals over the summer.

“Bloc changed the whole equation,” he says. “We were happy with our little residency in Bethnal Green, a few records in the background as people were ordering their beers, they didn’t even see us.

“We could’ve said no, it was way, way out of our comfort zone. But if you say no to things nothing happens, when you say yes you never know… in a very short space of time we’ve done things we didn’t believe would be on the agenda.”

The most charming and infectious aspect of Interesting Alternative – besides the impeccable curation – is the pair’s unwavering curiosity and enthusiasm for putting new music on their radar – whether it’s electronic artist Max Tundra playing Swans and Voivod, or the editors of The Quietus playing Finnish black metal and industrial noise. He says it’s an “incredible thrill to meet these people with a knowledge of weird and wonderful music. I get to listen to stuff I never knew existed. When we have guests on, I end up buying loads of stuff that night, I’m on discogs snapping up stuff”.

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Surgeon also opened up a few electronic music doors for Davis – who invited the techno producer on to the show after being recommended his EP Breaking the Frame (boom!). Davis says Bloc was the first time he’d got to see techno and experimental electronica in a proper live setting, saying: “To watch Surgeon do his set live was just incredible, and see a few of the other artists, I saw Appleblim as well with Second Storey and they were just fantastic. I thought, there are so many clever people out there and it was the right environment to listen to it. It was amazing to see Surgeon after having him on the show playing all this music.

“I actually think we’re going to be doing one in Belfast later in the year, I don’t know it’s been announced, but it’s on the cards – that’d be an absolute joy to get up and support Surgeon before he gets up with his modular synth and creates that music. God knows how he does it.”

After picking Surgeon’s brain about his composition methods, Davis says he’s got a modular synth “in the pipeline”, but he sniggers at the idea that he’ll be creating industrial techno masterpieces anytime soon, saying: “There are so many talented people that it would be laughable to go down that road properly.

“Whether it’s someone making music on a modular synth or on a DAW on a laptop or musicians playing classic normal instruments, these people have got massive talent and the desire to spend ages doing it, to the nth degree. I did that with snooker, but I’m not so sure that’s where my motivation is musically. I love doing the radio show, we’ve had so much fun playing music out, but to actually start trying to create stuff, that’s another jump. Let’s see what happens with the synth, but I think I’d probably leave it to the likes of Autechre and Oneohtrix Point Never and James Holden and Surgeon – I’ll get nothing out of it like they can.”

Davis recently played at Tramlines festival in Sheffield – his second home city after years dominating at the World Championship at the Crucible and in more recent years as a BBC commentator. In his 80s prime he said out-there music went slightly to the wayside, so he stuck to collecting soul records. He says he had “absolutely no idea” of the acid house and techno emerging at the time, and through the early 90s used to walk past the Warp Records offices on the way to another Sheffield record shop. Even now with a head full of a billion records, he rues over what might have been.

“I used to walk past Warp and I’d never acknowledge what it was,” he recalls. “Perhaps music was coming out but I was all about soul. Even if I had poked my nose in I probably would’ve come straight back out again. To think that all these years later I’ve realised what was there, not so much the acid house or the obvious things, but the fact that Autechre were on the label back then, even the higher end of techno, to think I missed out.

“I would have gone back and done it a different way, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so side-tracked with soul music, even though I love soul music. Maybe if I’d had my time again I’d have embraced the electronic music thing much more because there are so many good composers within it.

“Playing Tramlines was mad, it was a stone’s throw from the Crucible, and to see Sheffield in party mode with music everywhere was great. The people who run the venue said what a good idea it would be do do it during the World Snooker Championships, have a load of snooker fans turn up and I’ll play some crazy music and see how long they’ll last for!”

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Even in snooker’s golden era of eccentrics, Davis still gets a buzz knowing he was one of the oddballs all along, despite the monotone Spitting Image persona. He says none his peers were “nutty record collectors”, but he does recall trying to force the 70s French prog band Magma on Terry Griffiths: “I was on a plane in the mid-to-late 80s, listening to Magma. I was sitting next to Terry Griffiths, and he said, ‘What are you listening to?’ I said he wouldn’t like it, but he said, ‘Try me’. So I gave him my Walkman, I had Terry Griffiths listening to Magma. You know what, I think he nearly liked it!”

Steve has cleared his diary for even more DJ bookings after retiring from professional snooker in April this year — announcing it while commentating for the BBC at the World Championship.

He then paraded around the Crucible holding the trophy for the last time to a standing ovation — his first victory lap since his 1989 win. Davis says it was “quite an emotional day”, but he’s approached retirement with pragmatism and humility. “It was quite surreal… I was with John Parrot in the studio 10 minutes before I had to run down to get the trophy. John said, ‘I’ll give you evens if you don’t cry’. I think the jury’s out, I think I half blubbed, I half shed a tear,” he says.

He says he’s satisfied it “was the right time”, adding: “I wasn’t particularly effective as a player, it’s difficult to enjoy when you don’t win many matches. I don’t miss it at all. I played long enough that I didn’t have a problem of retiring early thinking I had something left in the tank.

“It’s similar to the golf world or the darts world – the standard improves so much decade after decade. You can’t really judge what players are like now compared with then, the game has moved on. From my perspective all I can hold on to is I was the best in my era, so that’s about as good as I could have got.”

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In recent years, Steve’s got his snooker kicks at the BBC, saying “it’s good to be around the circuit, we meet up as commentators, Dennis Taylor, Willie Thorne, John Parrott, Stephen Hendry, Ken Doherty… if it wasn’t for that we’d drop off”.

He says in a 40-year career “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with” was his loss to Dennis Taylor in the 1985 World Championships final — when the Tyrone man came back from being 8-0 down to beating Davis 18-17 in the most famous black ball fight in snooker history. He says after 31 years it’s turned into a daft running joke between the pair.

“We keep it going for the laugh of it, we keep on ribbing Dennis that he’s always bringing it up,” Davis says. “Of course Dennis is going, ‘I’m not bringing it up, people keep asking me!’ We just keep saying, ‘Nah Dennis, you’re always bringing it up… you have to let it rest Dennis, it was ’85, don’t keep banging on about it’. There’s always a few little digs.”

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Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor before the iconic 1985 final

Even with the DJ gigs racking up, Davis laughs at the idea that music is a second career, saying: “You’ve gotta realise where your bread’s buttered… potting a ball in a hole is my game, the rest is just a hobby. At 58 I’m running out of time, I don’t even have time to listen to all my records. It’s the 10,000 hours to master something, isn’t it?

“I don’t think we can put it down as a career, not just yet. It’s an interesting concept, would we be able to do it full time? Could we do what Craig Charles does with his funk and soul thing? The difference is I’m not sure the type of music we’re playing is as broad a church. With funk and soul, everybody just goes along and you can’t argue with it, it’s tried and tested, everybody loves it.

“But we’re taking it as it comes, it’s been an incredible journey. It’s so nice when the phone rings and someone is asking us to do a gig. For now we’re enjoying the moment and there’s nothing better than that.”