interview: DJ Tom Baker
There are a number of extremely competent DJs around London and your own town that you've probably never heard of. They play good stuff in good rooms and because they haven't yet been pestered to death by the press they actually still like to talk.
Here we talk to Tom Baker, who has played Ministry, Fabric, and various places around the World and has just had a single out on Wiggle Recordings and has another out next month on Wrong Recordings. Tom also reviews records and is an occasional M Station correspondent. And, yup, Tom is a tech house, techno person ...
Mstation: Tell us a little about how you made the transition from listening to and liking music to actually being a DJ. What were your first influences?
Tom Baker: Well, I began buying records at around the age of 12, mostly electro and early hip hop like Cybotron and Grand Master Flash. As I moved through the mid eighties I got into soul as well. Electro, to my great disappointment, got sucked up into the ever-growing world of hip-hop and disappeared.
I got into acid house around 1988/89 from listening to pirate radio stations like Centreforce FM and was exposed to the music that I heard in the clubs and raves that I could record to tape. There were no mix CDs back then, so the only way to hear the music (other than buying the records) was on pirate radio and in the clubs, hence the popularity of the pirates in those days. Musically, the scene was incredibly diverse back then. You had all these weird Spanish/balearic/new beat records sitting alongside old rock records like "She Sells Sanctuary" by The Cult, minimal acid like "Acid Thunder" by Fast Eddie and old electronic classics like "The Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats.
So I was buying all these records and watching the man in the clubs play them - often quite badly. It wasn't long before I had acquired a belt driven turntable, one friend sourced another deck and another mate got one of those old Phonic mixers and we'd meet up, wire them all together and spend entire evenings playing records over and over, teaching ourselves to mix.
MStation What were your first gigs like?
TomBaker The first time I ever played in a venue with a proper sound system was at a party in a friends garage. We hired a rig and some lights and it gave me a huge buzz. It wasn't until 1992 that I got my first proper club booking. It was in a small club on Carnaby Street, Soho. My friend promoted it and it was a complete flop, there were about 30 people there, almost all of them close friends of mine!
By '93 I was spinning regularly in a place on Nine Elms Lane, Vauxhall, which I believe is now called The Coliseum. But it wasn't until later in the year when I played at Bagleys, alongside Darren Emerson and Billy Nasty that I did the full-on main room thing. 2,000 people going mad. I was so full of adrenaline as I waited to play that I ended up drinking loads to steady myself and ended up so nutted I got caught up in the wires of my headphones and fell over.
Mstation: You've not mentioned Ministry. How did you come to play there? That was a bit later I think.
Tom Baker: I won a DJ competition in Mixmag magazine back in 1994, it was the first time a Dance DJ Competition was run in the music press (or anywhere else I think) and I won first prize from around 1,000 entries. The prize was to play in the Ministry's main room which followed around March '95. I had a Journalist and photographer from Mixmag, plus a couple of the organisers from MOS all sitting in the booth with me while I was playing. That was the first time I stated to take notice of things from a business perspective (I was only 22 years old at the time). Before then it had just been about fun, getting nutted and playing music but I felt I had to get a bit more serious that night. It opened a door to a different side of the industry, made me aware of how to deal with people etc. I had a bit of a nightmare playing because they were prototyping these new needles which kept loosing sound. Each time I got a new record out I had to unscrew the head and lick the two points to get it to work. It wasn't the time or the place to get all upset so I also learned to stay calm and make the most of a situation when things don't go your way. I lesson I've never forgotten.
It was a great night though and I loved playing on that rig, lording it up in the VIP area and meeting X-Press II and Phil Perry etc. My set went well all things considered and I got a nice write up from Mixmag Magazine so it was all good.
Mstation: What are the main differences between the techno and tech house crowds?
Tom BAaker: Well, I would argue that a few years ago it was pretty much the same crowd, but as the acid house generation got older they started to seek out more relaxed vibes, in the form of underground house, (or so-called "tech house"), instead of the fast-paced intensity of club techno. These days club techno that's produced by the likes of Mark Broom and Jeff Mills etc is increasingly attracting a fresher, younger crowd, which is no bad thing. There's a lot of cross over in the actual terms of genres too. For example there's the minimal techno from artists like Ricardo Villalobos and John Tejada that's really laid back, clean and palatable for clubbers in their late 20's and over. A lot of "Tech House" punters enjoying throwing shapes to this sort of stuff down at their local disco. In fact, as most people into the "techier" stuff are a bit older they're also very open minded about music. Most of my friends and DJs I know listen to other music at home, rather than sit around listening to mix CDs day in day out!
Mstation: Playing around Europe must be interesting. How did that happen? Tell us a little about playing in different countries. Are there marked differences between crowds in the different places you've played?
Tom Baker: I started a residency in Holland by accident really. My cousin, who lives in Rotterdam and produces Detroit techno had some friends promoting their own events. I planned a visit just to see him and check out the annual Fast Forward Festival (Rotterdam's club music equivalent of the Notting Hill Carnival). A few days before leaving I got a message telling me to bring my records cos his mate wanted me to play whilst I was there. When I arrived I discover not only am I headlining at the after party - a six roomed music festival, but its been arranged for me to play on their truck during the day. They loved what I did, their organisation has grown steadily and I've been going back there 3 or 4 times a year since August 99. From there I realised how big the underground house and techno net had spread, and started looking for more gigs abroad.
Pinning down vibes on certain countries is like saying all clubs in London are great. Its just not that simple. However, the fresher the country is to the scene, the greater the chances of having a great night. For example I've been going to Bulgaria a lot this year and it's always 'aving it, really good. They've only really had a scene for about 4 years. Where as places like Prague and Croatia were really strong around '98/99 and now there's a feeling of them being over the honeymoon period. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't mean their clubs aren't great (otherwise London would be fucked by now!) but generally the crowds are getting a bit more choosy and demanding big name DJs. In some ways that's a positive thing, and for example we're now getting a lot of records coming out of Zagreb and Istanbul etc. But my point is, is that when you have a certain naivety, people accept you with open arms. Its a great feeling when your in a country and people are saying "Thank you for coming, please tell all your friends to come and visit us!" They want more tourism and they love the music the UK DJs bring. Its a shame that not many UK DJs are prepared to lower their fees to play in places like that and respect is due to those that do. I really want to go to places like Latvia, Ukraine and Kazakstahn next, but Belgium and of course Ibiza are always solid, as is Asia generally speaking.
Mstation: One of the problems of being a DJ is having an endless supply of records. Do you have any shops looking out for you?
Tom Baker: Problems? (laughs) I can't get enough vinyl and sourcing it is a true pleasure. I work for a record distributor so I get to see a lot of stuff in my working day. I'm also lucky enough to have some really good labels sending me all their releases, labels like Poker Flat, Classic and 2020 Vision amongst others so I usually acquire more Vinyl than I know what to do with. This doesn't stop me from frequenting record shops though - I regularly pop in to Eukatech in Covent Garden and Black Market in Soho to see what Ive missed out on and look for the odd bit on-line that's been recommended to me.
Mstation: Some DJ's just spin disks while others do so much mixing and FX adding that they're really making their own stuff. Do you have any thoughts on that? Are you heavy on the mixers?
Tom Baker: It depends were I'm playing. For example when I'm playing at a big club or outdoor arena its more of a hands in the air, hitting 'em with banging tracks and working the vibe with EQ/mixer/CDJ. If its a small sweaty basement it more likely that I'll want to lock them into the groove and keep them there. Its about energy levels and what's appropriate. I'm enjoying experimenting with the FX and loop facilities on the Pioneer CDJs and mixers. Looping a vocal over a track and EQ'ing the bass out is a nice touch. Its good to have an opportunity to learn new techniques when new pieces of equipment come out that give you scope for advancement. Its not too often that new equipment can revolutionise the way you play so I make the most of those opportunities. Having said that its easy to over-do the use of FX and I'm not going to be going "all CD" for a while yet, if ever.
I guess I could still add FX when playing deep, but I'm very picky about the records I play and I'm a believer of letting the records tell their story. So other than subtle changes the crowd probably wouldn't even notice I don't really want to change the records unless its to add energy.
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