12 Oct In:Focus / Erol Alkan
Within club circles Erol Alkan is as close to a national treasure as we have, a stalwart of alternative UK music culture alongside the likes of Andrew Weatherall, Optimo or The Chemical Brothers. He defined the mid-00s with his iconic club night Trash which became a blueprint for London’s then new wave of electronic music. LCD Soundsystem, Bloc Party and Peaches all played some of their first London shows at Trash and Amy Winehouse made it her local haunt.
Since then, through his record label Phantasy and his refusal to be categorised as a simple ‘dance music producer’, Erol has taken up the role of mentor. Daniel Avery, Connan Mockasin, Ghost Culture and Gabe Gurnsey are just some of the names to have gained their biggest breaks through Phantasy, a label that is now nearing 100 releases.
Before Erol takes over the In:Motion floor for one of his famed To The Rhythm all-nighters this weekend we delve into the life and times of the Phantasy boss, who after over 15-plus years as a DJ remains dedicated to keeping kids dancing.
How have you settled into your life as a mentor over the years? Did you find it was a steep learning curve, and were there teething problems you had to go through?
It’s strange being referred to as a ‘mentor’. I’ve never thought of myself as one to be perfectly honest.
As you’ve seen names like Daniel Avery, Ghost Culture and Connan Mockasin find huge success in their respective fields do you see yourself and your early years in them in a way?
I simply believe in what they are doing and I can hear some truth in their music, whatever that music is. Much of the time I recognise some part of myself in others and feel that I can help in some way, but never with the pressure of taking somebody’s career in your hands. I feel that many of the people I work with are already capable and independent in their own right.
Are you learning from your mistakes when you’re passing down knowledge?
Yes. But that also applies to friends, children, and to myself in some way. I try not to repeat mistakes, but fully appreciate they are a major part of life.
How do you see your role at Phantasy now that it’s evolved so much over the years? Obviously, ‘label owner’ defines it, but it must have become some far more now.
It changes for each artist, and what they need from me. As a label, which is almost at 100 releases, it has changed dramatically in some ways but stayed the same in others. My role has remained constant but I need to also let the other good people at Phantasy do their thing as well. My number one role currently lies in the studio.
How do you look back on your early years as a DJ and producer? I imagine your time at Trash must have been a great but surreal experience given how influential it became.
I look back at it with fondness, I’m very proud of what we all achieved especially with the little options that were on offer back then. I don’t feel there will ever be a club like Trash again and there doesn’t need to as the times have changed. I hope that one day the full story of the club is told, as there are so many levels to it.
You’re obviously still headlining shows across the world and producing records for huge acts, but compared to when Justice were first coming through or around the release of ‘Lemonade’ that same level of fandom has settled. Not just for you but your peers also. Is that a relief in some ways, that it’s become more manageable?
A few hours before ‘Lemonade’ was first played at The Coronet Theatre when I played B2B with Xavier from Justice, before the track went viral the next day, when Alex [Boys Noize] and I listened back to the final mix of ‘Lemonade’ in my studio I was slightly apprehensive to release it under our own names. I knew it was going to be a hit but wasn’t aware of how big a hit it would become. That record literally had my phone ringing for the next 2 years, which was on one hand amazing, but on the other, quite strange, considering everything else I was doing at the time was out of step with a track like ‘Lemonade’.
I’ve never planned a long career in anything, I just try to keep myself inspired and engaged with my creativity, no matter what form that takes. There’s been personal peak points in 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012 and (I can see a pattern here) 2018, so for me it’s felt quite constant. I was quite oblivious to some of the times which many would view as ‘successful’, they didn’t matter that much to be. I’ve never been driven by the need to be liked.
You’ve managed to keep that success without wavering to trends or being tempted to take opportunities that I imagine could be very lucrative, but ultimately aren’t what you’re about. Why is that? And how has that helped guide and define your career so far?
I’ve never been driven by money but I know my worth. That’s enough really.
You’ve always been partial to an all night long set, what do these sets bring that a festival show or a two-hour slot simply can’t? You’re going to be controlling the light show when you take over In:Motion too, what can we expect from that?
Engagement on a whole other level. Ideally the audience would be there for the set’s entirety, and without subscribing to the cliche, it is a journey. There’s no pressure to bring the ‘hits’ but when you do, you feel the duty to present them in a far more inspired way. With the lights, I feel they play a major part in the development of the night, plus I know all the cue points in the tracks so can act accordingly. I used to do this back when I first started DJing, as the lighting controls were always in the DJ booth, so it’s almost like revisiting the 17 year old me at the Gass Club or the original Plastic People.
How have you mastered the all night long set? Or, have you not mastered it, and that’s where some of the appeal derives from?
I don’t believe anything is ‘mastered’ in the creative realm, it’s a constant development. Maybe I feel I can say enough I what I wish to say in an extended set, and I also see it as something way different to a 2 hour set. If anything, I want people to discover new music or artists they wouldn’t have had a chance of hearing before, I don’t care it it’s Shazam-ed or if they ask me.
One final question that I know you’ve heard countless times…what the hell does ‘Make Greece Acid Jamaica’ mean?
There is an explanation to this that I promise to reveal…