Over the last four years, Mark E has established himself as a producer with a distinctive, almost instantly recognisable style. And his consistently strong releases for the likes of Running Back, Jiscomusic and Golf Channel have put Birmingham firmly on the house music map. As a DJ, he's no slouch, either. He has a burgeoning club calendar and, listening back to his RA podcast from last year, it's not difficult to discern why: Cole Medina's Bee Gees-sampling "Love You Inside Out," Mark's own epic extension of Grace Jones' "La Vie En Rose" and a bunch of his—at the time unreleased—productions were expertly welded together to provide the perfect summer soundtrack.
Although now inextricably linked with Birmingham, Mark has only lived in the city since 1995, when he moved there to study. He was born and raised up the road in Wolverhampton. And, in time honoured fashion, introduced to dance music via an older sibling: "My brother was going out a lot during the time rave really hit the UK, so, as a younger brother, it was exciting to see all that going on." But, save for the odd occasion when a friend's older brother—who worked as a bouncer—snuck him in for an illicit early taste of club culture, he had to make do with mix tapes and bedroom DJing until he hit 18.
Mark cites the '97/'98 period—when he finished university—as the most pivotal in terms of shaping his tastes: "There was a good club scene in Birmingham at the time: Leftfoot and Procreation at the Medicine Bar and the Floatation nights with people like Charles Webster and Simon DK playing till the early hours." And in terms of specific producers, it's a mix of Midlands' mainstays—the aforementioned Webster as well as Brooks, Atjazz and the DiY collective—and US house heroes—Glenn Underground, Rasoul and Miguel Migs—who had the most significant impact on him.
Fast-forward a few years though and it's disco, rather than house, that was responsible for Mark's big break. In summer 2005 he reshaped Womack & Womack's "Baby I'm Scared of You" in his now trademark style: slowly but surely layers of the original were looped together in a highly hypnotic fashion until, eventually, the full song was unleashed. Mark recognised the potential immediately: "I thought the track was good, but that it might take a while to get going and get released." But the intervention of a certain Gilles Peterson sped up the process. Spurred on by the feedback the edit had received on several music forums, Mark sent a copy to Peterson and it quickly became a staple of both his radio shows and club sets: "Gilles took it and got it out there fast. And all thanks to him for that."
My favourite gigs of 2009
I Feel This (Hamburg)
I recall arriving in Hamburg on a wet, cold Saturday afternoon and feeling tired and not particularly up for the gig that night, mainly due to a heavy one out in Birmingham the night before. But it turned out to be one of the best gigs I've ever done. The 3 DJs / promoters—Heiko, Constantine and Lars—all made me very welcome and by the time I'd arrived at the club, I was starting to feel that nervous energy. The main event was proper basement-style energy. I first heard the new Tensnake track "Holding Back Your Love" here—what a tune—and also met Marco (Tensnake) himself. And by the time I came on, the floor was full. Great night.
I was a little apprehensive about playing this, as I felt I had a lot to live up to. Cutloose had hosted some great guests previously, including Mark Seven and Theo Parrish; so these guys know their stuff. Plus Manchester's musical herirtage is second to none, so you know the punters are going to be pretty clued-up. Having Trus'me perched on the speaker next to me checking out what I had to offer didn't help matters either! Haha. But what a night it was: the crowd really went for it, and I really enjoyed playing. And when you get your pay packet with "Mick McCarthy" on it (Wolves manager; I'm a Wolves fan), you know you're in good company. I also learnt some tap steps, too. Thanks Cutloose.
150-capacity room above a pub about one mile from my front door. What more could you want? Dropoutboogie is a night I run with my friend, Rob J. We are into our second year and its going so, so well right now. Our first birthday party was in March this year and we all truly killed it. It's great to play all over the world, but nothing beats playing music to your mates: it's more like a house party atmosphere than a club. The venue is small, but perfectly formed and there's also a great outdoor terrace which is ideal for the summer.
Worldwide Awards (London)
Ashley Beedle started doing the "we're not worthy" wave before I came on at this gig. That freaked me out: This is a guy I've been worshipping since I was 16, and here he is biggin' me up. Unreal. So there I am at the WW awards—invited by Gilles Peterson to play before him—I've got Beedle, Reinboth, Ruetten and Peterson in the tiny booth with me and the place is going off. One of the best moments for me so far.
This was the Running Back records party with Gerd Janson and Move D, and, boy, was this a party. Gerd and I went back-to-back on warm-up duties, then witnessed a master class in deep house by Move D. It was my first time playing at Plastic People and I can understand why it has such a great reputation: small, dark, moody, dirty club and the system, my-oh-my-oh-my! Was great to start the night off playing some slow soul, then building it up with some downbeat bangers. Great night all round.
"R+B Drunkie" is a case in point. Under his M.E. alias, Mark took a hitherto under-appreciated Janet Jackson album track, and transformed it from a three-minute pop track into an utterly infectious club banger. Despite its low tempo, it united the normally disparate house and disco dance floors, and became one of 2007's biggest underground dance records in the process.
Latterly, Mark's focus has been on original productions. But he's keen to stress that the enjoyment he derives from his own tracks and his edits is the same: "If people like what I've done—whether it's categorized as an edit or original production—I'll welcome it equally." Nor is there much distinction between the two in terms of approach: Mark's original productions sound like his edits—and vice versa; samples are the starting point for both, although in the case of his original productions they're used sparingly and often tweaked and freq-ed beyond recognition. Both tend to hover around the 115/116 BPM border. He draws on his experiences of the Midlands' house scene by way of explanation: "I've never really tried to dissect why it appears to be that way, but I guess I'm not one for the instant hit. I remember hearing music in clubs that would just go on forever and that repetition just takes over and suddenly the monotony of that blows you away."
Balancing family life and a full-time job with music production is also a factor: "It's usually late nights and early mornings when things come together for me." This approach is also a barrier to working with other producers: "I like the idea of collaborating, but the way I make music just isn't ideally suited to it. Perhaps swapping samples and parts could work. That way I can just get on with things in my own time. But having someone sat next to me giving me pointers isn't what I'm after. I've tried to work with people in the past, but I have a very definite idea of how my music should be." Working with vocalists and musicians therefore appears more likely—"I'd love to"—but only if/when he is able to concentrate on music full-time.
Mark's other commitments also mean that he can't DJ every weekend: "I'm finding that having a concentrated period of gigs over a month and then having a month off is working well at the moment." But if you do get the opportunity to hear him, don't pass it up. His sets are similar to his productions in terms of the split between house and disco—but much broader in terms of tempo. They also provide the perfect testing ground for his new edits and unreleased tracks. And even if it's peak-time in a capacity club, you can still expect to hear a few of his trademark "slowies": "There's always room for changing things around, even when headlining. That's not to say I do this all the time: I've played gigs where it is just house all the way, and I love that."
Drop Out Boogie, the bi-monthly party Mark co-promotes in his hometown, has just celebrated its first birthday. Despite not being very lucrative—"I think we lose money each time"—it's clearly close to his heart: "Our friends come down and we have a party every other month. It's just a nice little vibe. I mean it's fantastic to get offered gigs all over the world, but there's something special about building something at home." Mark's also about to risk further financial loss by starting his own label, MERC: "I'm just getting things finalized at the moment. I just want to have a bit more control over how my music is released, how it looks, and do things when I want to rather than having to wait, or having labels clash over release schedules." As well as the additional control, MERC will also enable Mark to switch things up in terms of musical style: "The music is going to carry on in the same vein to start with, and, depending how well the first few releases do, I'll perhaps go more experimental with the output."
Despite the launch of MERC, though, Mark will continue to record for other labels. Although Jiscomusic is now defunct, it will soon return as Under The Shade, which Mark will contribute to. And a third 12-inch for Running Back should see the light of the day before the year is out. But, beyond that, it's going to continue to be a case of one step at a time: "Like I said: no strategy, no big scheme, let's just see how it goes."