Mixmag: Farewell, Trash

Originally published in Mixmag
Erol Alkan
Everyone’s huddling against the walls to avoid the spitting rain. It’s not just any Monday night, it is Trash’s 10th birthday – and their farewell party. After a decade of trendsetting, musical innovation and eye-popping fashion Erol Alkan and friends are bowing out. These days Trash’s giddy mix of sex, dance and rock ‘n’ roll is standard practice, but it wasn’t always. “What everyone’s doing now, in terms of live music in clubs, Trash did years ago,” observes Liam O’Hare, The End’s general manager. From its earliest days at Plastic People, to its stint in Soho’s Annexe, to its triumphant years at The End, Trash has become a byword for what’s fresh and adventurous in clubland. So much so no one is surprised at the volume of bodies crowding the pavement. “It’s the Blitz spirit,” 28-year-old Sam observes, looking over his shoulder at the throng flowing seamlessly around the building till it comes face to face with itself. Everyone’s smiling, talking to strangers. Sam passes around a bottle of Strongbow. A blue-haired girl called Charleigh and her bandmates are discussing the video they’ve just shot. Like Bloc Party, Klaxons and New Young Pony Club before them the budding pop stars are regulars. “I can’t remember most of it,” she confesses.

Charleigh’s not the only regular with amnesia. Graham, a 24-year-old roadie who has been coming for five years says, “You don’t remember the really good nights.” He does remember, though, how Trash changed his life. “Where I grew up in Essex even wearing a white belt was asking for a fucking smack. Trash was the first place I fit in. I used to come on my own and just dance. Then I’d wait till 6am to get a train home. Without it, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” he says. Inches away a girl is swinging from the ceiling, knickers flashing. No one pays any attention. If you want a fashion eyeful just look around: there’s the bearded bloke in an apron, the pint-sized brunette wearing Superwoman-style pants and suspenders, the trio sporting multi-coloured rave gear.

Trash style

Trash style

“Trash is a one off. It’s the people that make it,” Rory Philips says. A resident DJ for nearly seven years, Rory’s seen a lot happen on the dancefloor. “One of my friends married a girl he met at Trash. No surprise really, it’s been ten years of drunken fumbling,” he chuckles. As if to make his point a couple reel past, joined at the lips. There’s an air of barely controlled chaos as The Lovely Jonjo whips up the crowd. “I was getting quite tearful,” he says later, but it doesn’t show. Jonjo is typical of the parade of clubbers who’ve reinvented themselves at Trash. He started out as a door picker but “hated it.” So when Erol invited him to DJ instead he jumped at the chance. “I get all soppy when I talk about him. He’s been a mentor to me.”

As the newest member of the Trash crew Jonjo reacted like many fans did to the news it was ending. “I was upset, devastated really.” For a lot of people it was a question of: why cut off a night in its prime? “There’s a lot I want to do I couldn’t do with Trash every week,” says Erol, who missed one night in a decade – for his honeymoon.

“A lot of people talk about going out on a high, but carry on. We didn’t want to outstay our welcome,” Rory adds.

Jonjo’s come around to the idea. “My first thought was, ‘this is over’. My second reaction was, ‘if I don’t grab it by the balls someone else will.’” By “it” he means Durrr, the new Erol-endorsed Monday night at The End where Jonjo and Rory will preside over a rotating cast of DJ talent and new bands. “We’re going to get a breath of fresh air. You need to embrace change.”

Justice @ Trash

Justice @ Trash

Change is on everyone’s mind tonight. Trash will be missed. Joost is over from Amsterdam, resplendent in a handlebar ‘tache and a tee-shirt reading Kids Want Techno. “There’s nothing like it in Europe,” he shouts over the music. There’s nothing like it in London either. George, another half-decade veteran, is sweating his glittery green eye shadow off as he waits in the crush by the bar. It took him two and a half hours to get in, and it’ll take him another forty minutes to get a drink, but he’s happy to be here. Where else can you get beaten up by Selfish Cunt? “He just grabbed me by the throat for no reason!” he shrugs, smiling brilliantly.

Celebrities, violent and otherwise, are part of the fabric of Trash life. Everyone has their favourite. Rory plumps for Suicide, Erol for Gonzales, Jonjo remembers Kelly Osbourne and Simon Amstell queuing (separately). “Grace Jones came once. She doesn’t queue!” he laughs. Liam O’Hare fondly remembers the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He saves his highest praise for Erol though. “I had faith in him and he’s never let me down. He’s always pioneered.”

It’s a compliment Erol would be pleased with. Stepping up to the decks, wearing his trademark specs and an inside out D.A.R.E. tee, he is an unlikely focal point for frenzied adulation, but there’s hysteria in the air. Outside riot police have arrived to calm a crush of disgruntled clubbers. “We can make this a funeral or a celebration,” he says. Then he drops LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’ and the crowd erupts. They get the joke. Later, when the dust has settled, he says softly, but very emphatically, “The only thing I’m frightened of is resting on my laurels. I relish the future.” For now, Trash’s loyal following is relishing the present, and the string of favourites ricocheting around the room. ‘Take Me Out’, ‘Danger! High Voltage’, ‘Lust For Life’ and, finally, at 4AM, long after reality has melted away, ‘Dancing Queen.’ Manager Liam should be on holiday, but he’s here instead, beaming. “It’s like the last party on earth!” Surrounded by the blurred grins and flailing limbs one thing is certain: if this were the last party on earth no one here would mind.

Ibiza Now: Exit Festival vs Ibiza – a lesson in club economics

Originally published in Ibiza Now

Partying at Petrovaradin

Partying at Petrovaradin

In the course of three days the only reaction I’ve received from Serbs when I told them where I’m from is sheer incredulity.

“You’re from Ibiza? What are you doing here?” one lad asks me, peering at me over his sunglasses as if I were a rare zoological specimen.

Errr, I’m here for the Exit Festival. It’s great, I mumble, a little taken aback.

I could easily reel off a list of reasons why clubbers swilling around the streets of Ibiza would consider Exit a far better thing. It’s blazing hot. Tins of beer sell for about a euro on the street and even at the “expensive” festival booze stands a beer is €2, a glass of wine €1.50. The dance arena is a huge, impressive open air space with plenty of room for 20,000 ravers to dance beneath the stars in the milk-warm night. As for licensing hours – the last DJ doesn’t begin his set till 6.30AM, half an hour after Ibiza clubs are legally required to shut off their sound systems. By the time the final DJ is wrapping up at eight or nine in the morning it’s getting too hot to dance anyway, making it the perfect time to hit the nearby beach to cool off with a few more tins of beer.

Hands up for Exit

Hands up for Exit

It sounds like paradise on earth, right? No wonder the clubbing cognascenti and A-list DJs won’t stop banging on about how much they love Eastern Europe. About the cheap booze, the total freedom, the hordes of beautiful women. Don’t you realise, I want to ask my inquisitors, you’re living the dream? Don’t you know Ibiza is over-priced, over-commercialised, over-regulated and, according to some hardened sceptics, just over?

Wandering between impromptu stands selling beers, kebabs, key-rings and pirate CDs it hits me. What makes Exit, or any party in Eastern Europe, so great for us spoiled Westerners is precisely what is bad for the locals. Though from what I see the British invasion is both well-behaved and well-received the fact remains that Exit works because of massive economic inequality. What is a cheap weekend away for Brits or Spaniards is a huge cash infusion into the strapped Serbian economy (a middle manager for a multi-national company I meet clears just 300€ a month, a university student considers fees of €1200 a year prohibitively expensive). The apparently superior “party spirit” of Eastern Europe is simply a willingness to tolerate more because they have less.

Festival brews

Festival brews

Ibiza was once the same. When the first waves of mass tourism hit they put up with a gross invasion because the marauders were paying cash. Gradually, as demand and supply evened out and Ibiza attained a higher general standard of living the island has became more powerful, more decisive about what they will and won’t accept. The new licensing laws and increased stringencies are not an indication the island has lost its sense of fun, but that it has reached a certain level of economic power. The clout is no longer entirely on the side of the beer-swilling Brit staggering through the West End, or the coked-up City boy lording it in the VIP. Ibiza has gained the stability and confidence to start making rules on its own terms again.

Whether or not you agree with the extent of some of Ibiza’s new regulations friends of the island should be proud and happy it has reached a point where it can once again set standards, that it is the captain of its fate. People who simply want to raise hell will always find a poorer nation prepared to look the other way as they behave disgracefully but we should be pleased Ibiza has outgrown that phase.

Judging by their reactions the locals can’t wait for the day that Serbia gains a measure of economic swagger. Not because they are looking forward to shutting down the great parties and putting a lid on Exit’s open-air rave (hopefully they won’t!) but because it will mean they are finally as free to party in London or Ibiza as we are to go dancing in Serbia. Even if it does meaning a little of the current liberal attitude, who are we to complain? It is mere selfishness to wish our pleasure to take precedence over someone else’s livelihood. In the long run, equality benefits everyone.

I-DJ: Ministry of Sound’s 15th Birthday

Originally published in I-DJ

The worlds most famous club logo

The world's most famous club logo

Ministry of Sound celebrates its fifteenth birthday this year. Not as a survivor, but as a global icon; an instantly recognisable symbol of a revolutionary youth movement. The UK club is still attracting crowds of visitors every week, from around the world. While across the world, from Egypt to Australia, to China, to Finland, its DJs, club franchises and never-ending stream of compilations and hit singles surely make it one of the UK’s biggest cultural exports. Clubbers are divided as to whether or not the relentlessly expanding international brand still represents the values of the illicit club culture from which it was born. But the very fact it still inspires love, hate and debate is a testimony to its unique status in clubland.

To understand the enduring Ministry mystique you have to go back to the beginning, to the meeting of hard-nosed businessmen and hard cash with youthful hedonism and hippie idealism. To a disused bus shelter in a virtual slum which became a Mecca.

In 1991, when Ministry of Sound first opened on Gaunt Street, London, SE1 the superclub concept had yet to be invented. There was no Cream, no Gatecrasher, no Godskitchen. Anyway, it was madness to think people would pay good money to spend their nights in the ugly heart of perpetually depressed Elephant & Castle. Or was it? Ministry managing director Lohan Presencer blithely insists geography was part of a grand plan. “The location was part of it. It was something you had to discover.”

Mark Rodol – an entrepreneur who, along with Old Etonian bond trader James Palumbo, founded the club – has a more pragmatic explanation: Elephant & Castle had the only council in London desperate enough to allow them a 24-hour music license.

Whatever the reason, they took the freedom granted by the shady location and ran with it – creating, on the way, the defining feature of both the club and, by extension, their clubbing empire: the sound. They say attraction is about great chemistry. But when it comes to the love-in between clubbers, DJs and Ministry it’s a matter of physics. In 1992 they hired world-renowned sound designer Gary Stewart (he’s done the Roxy, Discotheque, Sound Factory and Love Club in New York, among many others) to create a truly staggering custom sound system, taking into account the unique shape and acoustics of every corner of the club. Rodol estimates they spent around $500,000 (£280,000 at 1992 exchange rates) on the resulting bespoke system.

Ministry main room - photo James McNeil

Ministry main room - photo James McNeil

It is still arguably the finest club system in the world. The main room speakers are reportedly capable of 160 decibels (a jet taking off only musters 140), and are rumoured to only ever operate around 20% of their capacity. When asked what the best thing is about Ministry, Club Class promoter and resident Nic Fanciulli doesn’t miss a fraction of a beat: “the sound system.” Resident Marc Hughes doesn’t hesitate much longer when asked what the best perk of his residency is: “Getting to play on that sound system!” The refrain from clubbers, DJs and promoters singing its praises would be tedious if it weren’t true, but as anyone who’s ever lost themselves in the booming, crystal clear sound can tell you, it rocks.

Where ever Ministry goes, they take their passion for sound with them. Their clubs in Singapore and Teipei both boast incredible custom systems. As does their latest venture, the Minibar, in Harrowgate. The first of a chain of planned Minibars, the Harrowgate club is at once everything and nothing like the original Ministry concept. Instead of being underground and cutting edge it is plush, dressy, upmarket, and avowedly high street oriented. Yet taking the Ministry brand and hand-built, ear-bleed sound system to a small Northern commuter town is, in its own way, as risky as opening a club in Elephant & Castle. It’s the sort of contradiction that Ministry seems to thrive on.

On the one hand, Ministry promote and produce some of the finest dance music in the world. After a rigorous examination of the company high-power business research and analysis firm AMR (who surveyed MoS on behalf of potential investor 3i) came to a conclusion any dance music fan could have told you in an instant: “MoS [is] simply better at releasing successful dance singles and compilations than any of the major labels or other independents.” (The venture capital firm then bought a 15% stake for £24M.)

On the other, some would argue that the constant brand expansions (tee-shirts, workout gear, car stereos, and mobile content, for starters) and brand partnerships with a host of corporate giants including Pepsi, MTV, Marlboro, Sony and HarperCollins are cynical exploitation of the club’s history and heritage.

Despite being a regular speaker at conferences on branding and marketing, Presencer is reluctant to talk business with iDJ. He first cancels an interview because he fears it will be too “corporate”, before eventually agreeing to discuss other aspects of the business. “[Ministry] wasn’t planned like [a business], the original idea was to recreate the Paradise Garage. The club experience blew everyone away, and then it was word of mouth,” he says. Surely the advertising and strategic marketing campaigns have helped? “It’s about a certain standard of excellence. If you buy a record or go to a night you know it’s been put together with passion and knowledge. We have the best DJs, the best sound system, and the best design and marketing.”

Even their rivals would agree. London promoter and club owner Will Paterson is happy to concede they set the standard. “It’s the most famous club in the world, the shining light of dance music. They went from being a cool, underground club in the 90s to being the biggest brand in the world.”

Does being the biggest dance brand in the world get in the way of credibility? Marc Hughes doesn’t think so. “What Mark (Knight) and Steve (Angello) and I represent is Saturday Sessions, which has an amazing history. Past residents are CJ Mackintosh, Harvey… you’re talking about the biggest and best names in house music. We represent great music. They’ve never asked us to do anything we didn’t want to do.”

Fellow resident Mark Knight, who also runs Toolroom records, agrees. Rather than seeing Mark’s independent label as competition the club has helped them produce two EPs. “It works for both of us. They get the association with a cool underground label, and it’s good for us because we make a lot more money,” he says with a chuckle. “To be honest I’m not mad about their work out videos. But I recognise sometimes you need to do things to pay the bills. I’d rather they did that and subsidise the cooler stuff.”

Some people will always see the workout videos, et al. as selling out. But those closest to Ministry see things from a different perspective. “[MoS] is always true to their identity, to what got them there in the first place. Their bread and butter is dance music. The club is not the biggest money maker, but it’s an integral part because it was what the original name was built from and it’s taken very seriously,” says a former Ministry employee.

Or, as Mark Knight puts it, “Everything grew from the club. If you lost the club you’d lose the soul, it would be a totally commercial brand that would sell music like you do washing machines. I think the management realise that without the club the other things don’t work.”

Ultimately, some will always quibble with aspects of the Ministry empire, just because its there. But its 1.5 million-plus visitors, the 30-odd million fans who’ve bought their CDs probably won’t care. For Marc Hughes, who’s been globe-trotting on behalf of MoS for seven years the satisfaction is in making clubbers happy. “When you go abroad you see Ministry means so much to people, they get so excited. Everyone from Iceland to South Africa, and everywhere in between. People have heard so much about it, and when we arrive it means so much. It’s something tangible they can come and see and hold on. I’ve had people go crazy. They stand in the club till 7 or 8 in the morning, or get you to sign any limb going, they will queue up for ages. They want to ask you about the club, what it’s like… what it’s about.”

So, for the audience, how would the club’s nearest and dearest sum it up its unprecedented appeal. “Ministry in five words? Ummm, aaaah. Credible. Wicked. Amazing. Hot. Sexual,” says Marc Hughes.

Lohan Presencer thinks for a while, and finally calls on his office mates for help. “Exciting. Sexy. Hedonistic. Ubiquitous. And ‘fun’!”

Top ten:

1. The Ministry of Sound Annual is the world’s biggest selling dance compilation. It sells an average of 450,000 per year.
2. Ministry is opening two new clubs in Dheli, India and Moscow, Russia.
3. Approximately 40% of Ministry compilations reach Number 1.
4. In 2006 Ministry of Sound won the “best independent albums company” award from Music Week.
5. Approximately 300,000 people have visited the London club each year since it opened.
6. The club’s annual turnover is between £3-4M. The brand’s annual turnover is in over £100M.
7. Ministry of Sound in Singapore is the country’s biggest night club.
8. Jazzy M, who mixes one of the three CDs on the 15th anniversary compilation, played at the club’s opening night in 1991.
9. Club co-founder Mark Rodol was expelled from school at 15, then made his fortune in property before helping found Ministry.
10. Ministry of Sound posters have been spotted on walls in Albert Square, in EastEnders.

Dummy: Dan Sartain

Originally published in Dummy

Dan Sartain

Dan Sartain

Dan Sartain plays rock’n’roll. Real rock’n’roll. Like young Elvis did, like his hero Chuck Berry did. Onstage at the Astoria he first looks small and very alone; almost obscured by stacks of equipment for the next band. Then he smashes out an opening chord and his sole accompanist beats furiously at the drums and the sound blasts through the smoke and the chattering crowd like a jet taking off. Suddenly he’s channelling Chuck’s knock-kneed shuffle, spitting out raw three-minute sagas of love and death with sweat-soaked fervour.

Off-stage he smokes fast and talks slow in an unexpected West Coast accent. His gaunt face and mischievous eyes hint deliciously at a picaresque past. But the Birmingham, Alabama born and raised singer claims he had a typical childhood, playing with Transformers, eating Vienna sausages from the tin. Birmingham, for all its sordid racist history, is, he says, just like anywhere in America. And like many grown-up American kids he loves big glossy cars, sport, hip hop, and getting stoned.

Still, at not-quite 25, Dan seems old for his years. A little roughed up by life, already. Maybe that’s how you get, living with as-yet unrequited dreams.

When did you first get into music?
My dad was a musician so he had a guitar around, always. He taught me how to play my chords when I was about eleven, and that’s when I got interested. And I’ve got a cool big brother. He’s probably my biggest musical influence, as far as getting me good records and shit. Sonic Youth, Pixies, Rocket From The Crypt. What else do you need?

What was the first record you bought?
It was either Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits or AC/DC Who Made Who. I still have both those tapes and listen to ‘em all the time.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
An athlete. American football or boxing. I had the heart to do it but I didn’t have the body.
But I come to every practice and tried as hard as I could.

Were you popular at school?
Yeah, probably for the wrong reasons. I was either making fun of people or getting made fun of myself. The biggest class clown there was.

Is that part of why you got into music? To show off?
There is a certain buzz you get; it’s like a high, playing onstage. It kicks in the same endorphins as being an athlete. Except you get to be drunk and do it, so that’s cool.

How did your debut album, Dan Sartain vs. The Serpientes, come about?
When I was about 19 I made a record myself called the Crimson Guard, and I gave it to [California-based label] Swami Records, the one record company I ever tried to get on. They liked it and wanted to put it out so I rerecorded some old stuff and did a bunch of new stuff. It felt good. I felt validated as a musician.
I don’t know what would have happened if I’d gotten knocked back. Luckily I didn’t have to worry about it.

Who or what are the ‘serpientes’ of your album title?
It’s just, uh, snakes. Dan Sartain versus the snakes. All the snakes of the world. It’s cooler to say ‘serpientes’ than snakes.

You’ve been compared to Johnny Cash and Elvis – is that exciting or intimidating?
It’s nice, ‘cause I like Elvis, and Johnny Cash. But Chuck Berry’s better than both of them.

So who are your musical heroes?
Ol’ Dirty Bastard. [Jazz/blues musician] John Reece. Chuck Berry. And the people that I get to work with.

Is there any music you don’t like?
Most music. You gotta dig for treasure, you know what I mean. You gotta dig through all the stuff to find one jewel.

How important is your image to your music?
Not that important. But I like to look nice. I try to wear something with a collar.

What would be your dream gig?
Oh geez. I wish I’d seen the Ramones.

And to play?
There’s so many gigs that you play that you think were the perfect gig. My 21st birthday was good. You get to drink when you’re 21 in America, so it was like a big milestone. Was I drunk onstage? Oh yeah. Well, we were the first band so I wasn’t too tossed

What’s on your rider?
Towels, water, fruit. Nothing too exciting. I’d like to get lobster and pistachios but that ain’t gonna happen.

One reviewer wrote that you were probably destined for ‘cultdom not stardom’ – what do you think?
I agree with ‘em. I’d like to do enough to get some money though ‘cause I don’t have any money. When people say they don’t have any money they got something. They got some Christmas money put aside or something but I ain’t got no money. I ain’t got no money.

How does it feel to be working these last few years, putting out records, and still be broke?
Well, I can’t do anything else. And I can say that in all honesty, ‘cause I tried. I’ve been a pizza maker, done manual labour stuff, everything but office jobs.

What’s the worst job you’ve had?
The worst job I ever had was cleaning out the showers at the YMCA. They were obviously full naked men walking around. I’m not homophobic but then again, they weren’t homos. They were just naked dudes and it made me uncomfortable.

On MySpace you list your influences as Mike Tyson and THC – can you elaborate?
I just like to get stoned and watch Mike Tyson knock people the fuck out. Yeah! He’s the greatest champion of our life time.

Doesn’t the ear biting count against him?
One time he bit that guy’s ear, I guess. But Holyfield shouldn’t have been head butting him. You don’t head butt Tyson and expect him to take it lightly, you know.

Do you take any shit off people?
Never. I’ve been in fights, yeah. I’m not proud of ‘em. I usually win though. Hit someone in the nose and they get all bloody and they don’t want to fight anymore.

Who would play you in a biopic?
Sal Mineo, maybe. [Rebel Without A Cause co-star, murdered in West Hollywood thirty years ago.] I’d like to choose James Dean, you know, but you can’t choose somebody that’s more handsome than you.

Would you rather be famous now or well-remembered in the future?
What has more money? Famous now? Then famous now.
I’ll tell you this much, people that are rich and try to play it off – do everything very moderate – those are born rich people. But poor people, when they get rich, they’re like all these rappers. They’re like Elvis. Elvis was a poor person who became rich. He was like, I’m eating whatever I want, anytime. I’ve got three Cadillacs, got all these jewels in my belt.
I’d do all that. I’d do the lobsters, I’d do the rings, I’d do all that shit.

Dan Sartain vs. The Serpientes is out now on One Little Indian. His new album, Join Dan Sartain, is scheduled for release in Sept 2006