One Man’s Trash: An Interview With Erol Alkan

Erol Alkan has been on the cutting edge of the independent and electronic scenes for more than a decade, manning the decks of the infamous Trash weekly club night until its final edition in January 2007, going on to be a celebrated DJ and producer/remixer worldwide. On the occasion of his new !K7 double-disc Bugged Out mix, Arno Raffeiner – an editor at Germany’s preeminent music and culture publication Spex – sits down with the man in demand, and procures some insightful party and DJ philosophy to boot. Listen to the audio version of this interview over at RBMA Radio.

As a humble 12-year-old maestro-in-the-making, Erol Alkan would sneak out the window of his parents’ flat to play gigs for a tenner. As a DJ, he has been touted as the inventor of the mash-up, but his studious interests across the sonic spectrum made it inevitable that at some point he would cross the boards and start to create music as well as play it.

His alchemical fusion of George Michael and Missy Elliott resulted in 24-carat party gold, and ‘bastard pop’ was born, with Erol as one of its founding figureheads alongside Soulwax and Richard X, reaching its apex with Kylie Minogue performing Erol’s infamous “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” fusion with New Order’s Blue Monday live at the 2002 Brit Awards. It wasn’t long before Erol was lending his magic touch to increasingly higher profile releases, with remixes for Mylo, Bloc Party, Death From Above 1979, The Chemical Brothers, Justice and more.

Do you remember anything musical that really impressed you when growing up and stuck in your head ever since?

My earliest memory of music may actually be my earliest memory in life, and it was sitting on the floor in my old home. I can’t really remember how old I was. My toy when I was younger was actually a Dansette record player. So, that’s what I amused myself with every day.

My uncle remains the person who seems to be the most enthusiastic about music, from my formative years. He was constantly bringing records to me to say, “Listen to this.” I remember him playing Imagination “Just An Illusion” and Jackson 5 “Can You Feel It?”. And “Blue Monday” was the other one, as well. When he first bought them, he came around and was like, “Listen to this record!” And we would listen to it over and over and over again.

And then the only thing that got as equal attention, or inspired me, was when I was bought my first computer, as a birthday present when I was something like nine or ten, maybe. I was quite young. And even when I first had that, my uncle would come to me and say, “Can you make it play the theme from Knight Rider?” Because at that point we would always be watching it on television but neither of us owned the record. So, I worked out all the notation in code. And I remember, you needed to type “beep”, and then it was a pitch, and then a comma and you then had to assign the length of the notes. And you would do that in order to create breaks in the notes. So, I painstakingly recreated the theme from Knight Rider at the age of, I wasn’t even a teenager then, I think. Music kind of inspired and informed everything around me.

It just feels really trivial, you know? DJing?

So, it was really only in the mid noughties when you figured DJing could be a career option for you – or had actually already turned into a very successful career? In 2006, you were elected as Mixmag’s number one DJ in the world.

It was a bit strange, really, to be told that you’re the best DJ in the world by someone like Mixmag, which was really nice, and I was really flattered. But maybe for me to be that in their eyes, the thing that accelerated to get me to that point was just my enthusiasm for music, my enthusiasm for club culture, the connection that you can have with people. And also, I’d admit there’s an element of the zeitgeist of the moment, and all those things kind of collide. And then you’re standing to the right of the equals symbol in their eyes, which is really nice, considering the DJs. I know this because I’ve read it on my own Wikipedia page, but I think it was Paul van Dyk and Armin van Buuren were the DJs before and after me in those years. And I don’t really know them, I don’t really know the music, but I don’t think I have much in common with them.

But, I mean, I want to be the best DJ that I can be. My only competition, I’ve always felt, is myself. If I fail at something, it’s because I haven’t done it right. And that’s not an arrogant way of looking at it, in that sense. But my goals, and what I want to do, really, those parameters aren’t set by what other people are achieving. I’m happy for people to achieve what they want to achieve – I don’t want to interfere in their business. But it’s not to say I’m not competitive in some form. It just feels really trivial, you know? DJing? It’s not like we’re all brain surgeons or something. I’m not debating it, I’m not undermining it. But we’ve gotta keep it all in check sometimes.

Erol Alkan Live at Trash, 2006

In 1997, you were about to start your infamous regular Trash nights. What were your ideas for Trash, and what was the whole vibe like?

Trash came about in such a lovely way, in the sense that I had been almost invited to put my own night on, because I had been DJing pretty much every indie disco on every night of the week in London for a while. And I was always DJing for other people, which was great, and I really enjoyed it. But on a couple of occasions, I had confrontations with promoters, who were telling me that I couldn’t play certain records, or I should abstain from playing certain artists. Which, for me, didn’t really sit that well. I kinda understood what they meant, because I was sometimes clearing the dance floor with my risks but, looking back, I’m happy about that. And even now, I do feel that every once in a while it’s good to do something that at least you kinda know that you’re sticking to what you’re believing, rather than not doing that.

So yeah, I kinda had a few altercations when I’d been told I wasn’t allowed to do things. So, when I had the opportunity to put on my own night, at a venue which I really liked – albeit on a Monday night, which wasn’t, back then, it wasn’t like a Friday or a Saturday night at all – I leapt at the chance. I thought, if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna have to set some rules. In the sense of how just to be different. And that’s more to do with the experience of people who come to the club, rather than trying to be difficult.

My advice has always been, to people who’ve tried to start their own nights, to serve your own community first. I don’t think you should start at clubs to simply fill dance floors.

So, what happened at Trash in the very beginning?

I remember the first night of Trash, only 60 people came. But I knew all of the 60 people. So, it felt like a club. And my advice has always been, to people who’ve tried to start their own nights, my advice would be to serve your own community first. I don’t think you should start at clubs to simply fill dance floors. I think great clubs serve a community, and I think you can attribute that to every great club in the history of time. From every great disco club to any club, you know? It served a purpose. And I’m really happy about Trash’s existence. The fact it ran for exactly ten years. And how it ran in that ten years, as well. I’m happy [about] every band that we put on, every artist that played, I’m happy with the crowd. There’s no regrets for it, as well. It’s kind of left behind a pretty good-looking corpse, I think, in that sense. And we never sold it on, when we could’ve sold it on. I was offered a lot of money to sell the brand, to sell the name, or to tour it. Or to do many things that would’ve monetised it – there’s another word that’s used a lot these days: ‘monetised’ – but never did it. And Trash didn’t make anybody rich. But with regards to the memories I hold of it, they’re pretty cool.

Trash was at the very forefront of a new attitude towards indie rock and dance music. It was called ‘indie disco’ or ‘punk funk’ and eventually turned into the whole electroclash movement. How did you experience that thing just taking off?

I think it’s fair to say that Trash very much began as an indie club. And we played records by a lot of alternative guitar bands, such as Suede and Manic Street Preachers and the bands of the day. But cut together with a lot of music that influenced that era, as well. So, artists like David Bowie and a lot of glam-rock music. Everyone liked to wear make-up and dress up. And it felt like the right music to play. It always sounded fantastic and, even now, when I think back on the original playlist of music at Trash, I can totally stand by it. It was solid.

Peaches - Fuck The Pain Away

So, what happened around 2000 was that we were playing a lot of new music, as well. And I would actually say that Peaches was one of the first artists that we started playing that felt like we were kind of coming into the beginning of something new. And I would credit a record like “Fuck the Pain Away” to be almost like a bit of, like, year zero at Trash, where a lot of people heard something really new inside of that. And we just started playing a whole bunch of different records, really. Yeah, there was the kind of punk/funk thing happening, as well. And that was also through hearing The Rapture, over in New York. So, we were playing more Gang Of Four records, or Wire, or more new wave music.

And I think the blockbuster really happened when I kind of came across “Silver Screen Shower Scene,” by Felix Da Housecat. And that cleared the floor, the first time I played it. I played it at Trash, and nobody got it. Which, looking back, is really weird to think. But I think it’s because the Felix record still had its DNA in house music. Peaches, or whatever, or even Fischerspooner, had a more new wave, kind of Mute Records-style appeal to it. Which people could really latch on to. But “Silver Screen Shower Scene”, it felt like a house record. And I think that scared people. But week by week, I kept playing it. Even on the second time I played it in the night – I remember playing it twice, cuz I was like, “No, you’re gonna need to hear this again. This is something else.” I knew about the Flirts’ “Passion” sample in there, so, to me, it wasn’t like we were playing progressive house or something like that, you know? It was a pop record. But I think, for some reason, for its design, of just being such a huge, bolshy statement of a record, it scared people. Also, playing it through The End’s sound system, which makes everything just twice as amazing as it sounds, it had a slightly different life.

Felix da Housecat - Silver Screen

I think around that point, the most electronic the music was kind of getting up until that point, was Discovery-era Daft Punk and Les Rythmes Digitales. And bit by bit, it just built with that record. And I remember about a month later, it was the biggest record in London. Everyone was just going crazy about it. And from there, no one kind of looked back, really. Records were just falling out of the sky. We’d walk into Rough Trade and walk out with two bags of records every week. Go to a record store like Kubla – which is now Phonica, it used to be on Berwick Street – and it was the same. Just all of the sudden, the kind of connection with what had been happening in dance culture fully immersed itself into alternative music. And it all made sense. You could go to Atlas and buy records, and go to Rough Trade in the same trip. Or Vinyl Addiction in Camden. I mean, I was always buying dance music right from the 90s through ’til then, but it didn’t feel like those records were going to work at somewhere like Trash. It wasn’t until that moment when, all of a sudden, it was like dance music’s taking an aesthetic from alternative music, almost. And whatever happened then is responsible for almost my existence now, perhaps.

What is the role of a DJ today? Or better: what’s your vision of what a good DJ should be able to get across?

I don’t really ever want to define what the role of a DJ should be. Because every DJ can be the DJ they want to be. It’s not my role to say. But for me, personally, I’ve been saying a lot recently that DJing has felt like an extension of when I used to make cassettes for my friends at school, to introduce them to music. And part of what I do now is carrying on from that.

Obviously, DJ gigs change. What I mean by that is every DJ gig has different attributes, as to what part of your persona you put out there. I mean, I’m a different DJ when I play in a small room to 300 people than I would be if I was to play to 3,000 people, in the same way that I’m a different DJ when I’m on the radio. Or I’d be a different DJ if you were with me in my music room and I was playing you music. It’s just about connecting with people.

But I think DJing is just such a broad vocation now. There’s just so many different types of DJ. People want different things from different DJs. If you’re DJing in a nightclub, and if you don’t get on the microphone, then people are disappointed. Not that I do, but maybe people want that. People want that party atmosphere. Some people just want to hear music they’ve never heard before; some people only want to hear music they’ve heard all their lives. It’s an ambiguous term now, DJing. You might need to actually find a few extra words to describe certain types of DJs, perhaps. Because there’s just so many variables involved with it now. It’s almost political.

You have such a broad taste in music as a listener and as a DJ. So, what is it that actually gets you in a record, no matter what genre it might be?

To pinpoint what it is that I like in a record, over another record, is similar for me to pinpoint what I like in people, from one person to the next. You either connect or you don’t. It can be a record sleeve that can draw you in. Or it can be the year it was made, or the producer, or the label, or none of the above. It’s too hard to kind of quantify.

I think it changes, for me personally, as well. The more I am aware of each of those variables, then the more responsive I am to if I pick up on something. And that’s just down to my own musical path, or my journey through discovering music. Which I don’t feel has ended, or is ending. As long as I’m kinda here, I find it hard to switch off. I am, sadly enough, obsessed with music.

By Arno Raffeiner on September 12, 2012

On a different note