Interview: Dave Clarke and the art of never selling out


Near the end of my half-hour chat with Dave Clarke, he says he’s most proud of not selling out at any point, even if he “didn’t have a personal life for 30 years”.

He’s talking about a life reevaluation after a serious car crash in Serbia in 2016, in a cab driving to the airport from Exit Festival. He brought up the death bed scenario of the guy realising he’d worked too hard, but selling out will never be an option. “Other people have made that decision and they had to live with it,” he says.

Principles matter to Clarke, a singular visionary who’s been elbows deep in techno and electro since his teens, and rocks the SST ‘Don’t Suck Corporate Cock’ T-shirt as good as any hardcore punk lifer.

Over the last 25 years Clarke has been producing visceral fist-up techno with all the wires showing, and DJ sets hammered into shape with frantic cuts, scratches and left turns. Records like the Red series and Southside, and mix albums such as World Service and Electro Boogie are part of the electronic music curriculum at this stage, but he’s a pioneer who doesn’t look back, still pile-driving forward with his DJ sets and notably White Noise – the world’s longest-running techno and electro show that’s broadcast weekly on RTE 2fm.

When I interviewed him in 2015 for the 500th edition of White Noise (it’s now up to 655), he said: “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.”

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Clarke’s 2017 LP The Desecration of Desire – his first since 2003 – further removes the need for nostalgia. It still kicks like an 18-hole DM boot, but with a post-punk tech-noir overcoat, and guest vocalists including Gazelle Twin, Mt Sims and Mark Lanegan.

He says it felt like an album from the first synth he played, and adds: “I definitely didn’t have within me the feeling of just making singles… I just wanted to make an album because it’s a dying format and it’s a format that meant a lot to me when I was growing up, shaping me musically.”

Clarke says the collaborative aspect of Desecration was pragmatic as well as a way to pull away from his years of solitary recording.

“I’m an only child,” he says. “I’ve made music pretty much by myself, aside from _Unsubscribe_ with Mr Jones and a few collaborations, I’ve done music by myself from a very early age, putting together programs on the BBC Micro computer and hoping for the best. When you can then work with people who are musically or intellectually inspirational, sometimes both, you don’t feel so isolated. I’m at an age now where I feel like I know my strengths, and I know one of my strengths is definitely not singing for example, so it made sense to collaborate with some very cool people.

“I wanted to make an album that was an album for the first time in my career, really. Because Archive One was really just putting cushions around the rest of the singles I’d already made. And it sounded good at the time, and that’s cool. Devil’s Advocate was approached much more as an album but this was the first time that I actually thought I want to make an album and then we’ll take the singles off afterwards.”

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Clarke has been going to bat for techno for years, against fads such as EDM, minimal and – his biggest irritation – tech-house. But he’s a lot more measured than expected in the wake of the biggest EDM viral storm of recent times – Salvatore Ganacci’s set at the Tomorrowland festival in Belgium last weekend.

While Clarke was hosting the Cathedral Stage along with Belgian techno club Fuse, Bosnian DJ Ganacci spent an hour dry-humping the Main Stage, doing handstands, twerking, belly-dancing, air-swimming and blowing his long blond hair in the wind machine, and at one point playing a twinkly lullaby and pretending to sleep. There’s been a visceral reaction in dance music circles, from Carl Craig simply posting a meme, “I quit”, to Daniel Avery saying: “There’s no question, Salvatore Ganacci makes the world a better place.”

Clarke is the first to admit: “OK, obviously it’s shite, there’s only one word for it and that’s shite. But maybe I should try to give this an intellectual perspective that no one else is giving. I think that it’s a pisstake, in a Celeste Barber way. She’s very funny on Instagram, where there’ll be a picture of a model in a stupid pose and she’ll do her version of it.

“There’s a lot of DJs that do this bullshit dancing, shoving their hair in fans, and just because the music is cooler then it’s seen to be OK. But you know what, is all this really OK? Does it really make any sense? I think this might be bringing to everyone’s attention that even if the music is shit, which obviously in this case it was, that this actual behaviour has been creeping up even on apparently good musical line-ups, and this detracts from the whole art of DJing.”

Clarke reckons “the peak of EDM has really passed”, but its main fuel, social media has years of poison left. He says he’s not being nostalgic, and there’s always been a level of smoke and mirrors in music, but adds: “It was just more hidden, but now it’s so blatant that talent isn’t the main thing anymore. We’re living in an extremely bizarre world with talent coming way behind marketing, we have billionaires at the age of 22, and social media, which has already caused massive disruptions within politics, has also caused a destabilising effect on many other things, which includes music.”

Clarke isn’t some resistant old man shouting at clouds – he was one of the first DJs to migrate to CDs then digital as soon as the platforms were good enough, without any reverence to formats. But he’s also been a reluctant social media figure, dipping in and out over the last few years. He’s turned to Instagram relatively recently, though, to indulge his growing photography hobby while sidestepping the usual heart-hand best-night-ever traps many DJs get caught in.

“I came to facebook in about 2012 kicking and screaming not really liking it and not feeling that natural with it,” he says. “I was still lamenting the loss of MySpace actually, because it was a great way for people who had a passion for music to get together.

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“But by then I’d already lost the battle on Facebook because so many of the soon to be tech-house people had already bought hundreds of thousands of likes through click farms.

“I came to Facebook late and I think I went to instagram a little bit wiser. I do have a sort of passion for photography, it’s very amateur but I do enjoy it. And Instagram is about pictures, right? So I would really would like to try out some of my photography. I wanted to keep it at a low rate, which I think is much more relaxing and much more enjoyable. Then again, some people want a crowd shot and they’re still the ones that will get more likes than perhaps my arty black and white things [laughs].

“I said this about three or four years ago about this arms war on Facebook – there’s always the pressure to have a shot where the club looks incredibly good, and then you’re becoming the same victim as people in clubs taking photos of everything, you’re not paying attention.

“I’ve recently gone through my phone to clear up some memory, and the photos I get rid of are the non-personal photos, like photos of clubs. This doesn’t mean I don’t like the fact that I’m lucky enough to have a job where people cheer at me, but when it comes to life events they don’t mean anything, just as much as your sushi shot doesn’t mean anything. What means something is either an incredibly special location or an artistically great photo.

“But mostly it’s shots with your friends that mean the most. And if we’re all taking pictures at the end of our sets to put up on Facebook to show how amazing the night was, I think that’s a bit sad.”

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He admits social media has a lot more to answer for than viral EDM, and says he’s still reeling over the “absolute fucking catastrophe” of Brexit.

A proud adopted Amsterdam native for years, he says he doesn’t miss the UK “at all”, adding: “For the record, I have seen myself as European for 20-30 years, I’m extremely sad.

“I think the best thing possible would be to have another referendum and hope that people realise that aside from getting a more expensive phone bill when they go to Malaga, it fucks everything up, because the whole of the economies are so inextricably linked that to actually unthread them is gonna cause 20 years of severe pain for the UK, and the rest of Europe.”

As an Englishman in mainland Europe, Clarke has become more acutely aware of other countries “laughing at the stupidity of the politics and the politicians” of the UK, and also says he didn’t buy any of the recent Three Lions 2.0 World Cup nonsense.

“I don’t support football, I don’t give a shit about football in the slightest,” he says. “The only time I enjoyed it was when the Dutch were doing quite well about eight years ago and that was nice because there wasn’t any nationalism being thrown forward in the streets when the Dutch were celebrating.

“And then when the English fans were getting tattoos of ‘It’s Coming Home’ and stuff like that, people over in Europe were actually really vociferous and really against the UK in a way that didn’t make any sense to me until I realised they’re just really pissed off about Brexit. I know 48 per cent didn’t vote for it, but everyone in Europe is really pissed off with it – everyone has just had enough of the UK now.”

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Clarke has basically been playing every year in Ireland since the mid-90s, an unflinching figure banging out techno out north and south, whatever the flavour of the month. His late 90s residency in Shine in Belfast and regular gigs in Dublin’s Red Box, The Kitchen and the Temple helped rewire both cities’ nightlife for good, along with a select group of promoters, local DJs and international guests.

He recalls the “unfriendly place” that was the border before the Good Friday Agreement, when passing north and south “wasn’t so clean”. He adds: “David Holmes was the first person to invite me to Belfast and put me in the Europa, and most people know its history [Europe’s most bombed hotel]. I remember being in Dublin when the bomb went off in Omagh. But you know what, peace is a good thing, how could you not want peace?

“I’ve seen how Northern Ireland has economically grown and that’s bound to be because of being part of Europe as well. And I honestly think that without the European Union then things would have been a lot worse for both parts of Ireland.

“Of course I’ve been following [the Brexit border row] wincing, I’m just embarrassed. It’s fucking disgusting, I feel worried for the whole island of Ireland. I just think it’s just a fucking tragedy. The only people who benefit from these sorts of situations are the politicians. The general public does not benefit from this in the slightest.

“You’ve only got to remember that England is actually still joined to the mainland of Europe and they still get elephant tusks from the bottom of the English channel when they dredge fish because it used to be a migration route. There’s a little piece of water that might have saved the UK in the Second World War but it’s still part of Europe – and Ireland knew this all along and has benefited from it.”

Dublin is due another bonding session with Clarke, and it’s happening tomorrow at District 8 as part of the Circles weekender, a showcase of the highest grade Irish and international techno and electro, featuring Helena Hauff, DJ Stingray, DeFeKT, Sunil Sharpe and plenty more.

“Dublin has been an important part of my career since the mid 90s, since the Temple, with Ken Kane and the Point and Redbox and the Kitchen,” he says. “Dublin is still there and is still recognising quality underground music and giving it a forefront in a way that sadly the English neglected after about 15 years of Pete Tong.

“Dublin still carries on and still does its thing and still raises its fingers to the establishment and that’s why it still feels so special to be there.”

  • Dave Clarke plays District 8 tomorrow, July 28, as part of the Circles weekender, also featuring Moodymann tonight and Michael Mayer at Pygmalion on Sunday. Tickets at eventbrite.ie.

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