|Horse Meat Disco: The queer party for everyone
Disco is big yet again in London town, and Horse Meat Disco are largely responsible. RA talks to Jim Stanton and James Hillard, two of the DJs behind the party, to find out more.
Since its inception six years ago in a Soho basement, Horse Meat Disco has billed itself as "the queer party for everyone." You have to go back as far as Trade for another example of a London gay club having such a significant impact on the city's nightlife. But HMD's reach and appeal now extends far beyond the capital.
The club's promoters—and two of the four resident DJs—James Hillard and Jim Stanton recently returned from a grueling tour of Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and the USA. They were there in support of the club's first compilation; a Strut-released, two-CD set (one mixed, the other not) that sees obscure electronic disco merge with the more classic, soulful end of the spectrum. The club also has an eponymous record label; an outlet for the special re-edits that, typically, make up part of the soundtrack of a night at HMD.
But there was never a master plan involving global tours, record labels and compilations. The original aims were much more modest: a weekly party with music as its focal point that would serve as an antidote to the cookie-cutter nature of image-obsessed gay clubbing in London in the early stages of this decade. To that end, James and Jim installed their friends Severino and Luke Howard (AKA Filthy Luka)—already established DJs on the gay club circuit—as residents and switched from monthly Thursdays in Soho to weekly Sunday soirees at The Eagle (formerly South Central) in Vauxhall.
It proved an enticing prospect, not just for London's alternative gay scene but straight clubbers eager to sample disco in an authentic setting, as well as to check out the stellar line-up of guest DJs, including Daniele Baldelli, Derrick Carter, Rub-N-Tug, Daniel Wang, Prins Thomas and I-f. And it wasn't long before the HMD residents were established on the guest DJ circuit themselves. They hold residencies at London's Fabric and Tape Club in Berlin and, last year, took on their most ambitious project to date: the NYC Downlow; "the world's first travelling gay disco" which saw a detailed reconstruction of a seedy, '70s-style club at the Glastonbury and Lovebox festivals.
RA caught up with James and Jim ahead of this weekend's Milk in the Park festival in London.
You've just spent five weeks touring. What were the highs and lows?
The winner of the Horse Meat Vogue Ball at Glastonbury
James: The only real lows were due to lots of flying and a lot of travelling. But we didn't argue once. The highs were Melbourne...
Jim: ...just Australia in general.
You sound a little surprised by that.
James: I admit I can be a bit snobby about Australia, but I get it now. And the gigs were all consistently good and attracted a really mixed, interesting group of people, even in places like Brisbane and Perth.
Jim: It's funny because I'd been led to believe, by London crowds—not so much now as we've been going for six years—that when we play anywhere other than Horse Meat Disco [at The Eagle] if the crowd tends to be younger, they tend to be into techno or something that's a bit more banging. But I think that's really changing.
For some reason I had that perception of Australia, perhaps because our tour was Modular-controlled and Modular are an exponent of that particular sound, that electro-tech-French sound. And I always associate that music with quite a young crowd. But what I've been noticing lately is the young kids are just really into it and they'll go with anything. And that was the big surprise in Australia: any which way you decided to go with music, they went with it.
James: Even to the point of being more open-minded than you get in London.
Jim: Or at Horse Meat Disco.
James: Exactly. [laughs]
Were you playing at established gay nights?
Jim: We played at two gay nights in Australia: the first one was in Perth and the second was in Sydney.
James: Well the guys in Perth used a gay club for the party, but they were straight promoters. But we've always been lucky wherever we go. We predominantly play in straight clubs, apart from when we're playing at The Eagle, but we always manage to bring out a cool gay crowd as well and I think that's why promoters like having us so much: because we get the gays out.
Five weeks away is rock band territory. I'm guessing you didn't sit down six years ago and plan all this?
Jim: Never. We were just doing it because we loved it and there was nothing [similar at the time]. I know everyone always says that, so it's a bit of a stock answer: "We weren't represented." Or, "We didn't like what we heard around us on the scene." But it's kinda true. At the time [before Horse Meat Disco started] the gay scene was very much about tribal or tech house, or funky house, and cruising for sex, which there will always be on the gay scene.
And all those things are fine. But we felt there was a musical unity—a together-ness—[that was] missing. Those [typical gay] clubs are kinda mechanical and machine-like. And we had come to expect so much more from London because it has such a rich club history—going back to Kinky Gerlinky, Taboo, The Hippodrome, Busby's when it was beneath the Astoria—all those amazing scenes that had all the big stars there. I guess we both came to London being quite enraptured with New York...
James: ...and London club history.
Jim: And it kinda wasn't happening. So that was it, we were just a bit disenfranchised. And it was in tandem with everything that happened at the end of the '90s when gayness became commoditized, you know, the "pink pound." And, at the same time, Gay Pride was being squeezed to the hilt; it was corrupt. And everyone was rushing in and taking advantage of it. And that really filtered down through the nightclub scene, which was a shame as it resulted in a hollowness and an emptiness. And we're about playing crazy, whacked-out records from the '70s through to the modern day and we would do our best to get rich and colourful and interesting and diverse people—which that sort of music naturally attracts—to come and listen.
James: What we didn't think of at the time was the consequence of booking all these DJs: that they would go home and talk it up.
Jim: The only thing we've argued about over the years is whether we should book [certain] DJs. There's always that question: What does that DJ bring? Apart from a crowd, when your core crowd always want a certain [style of music]. And we've tried to break that down as much as we can without pissing anyone off. Some guest DJs can really reflect what you're trying to say, when the stars align or whatever. And a few people have done it really well. Some have failed, but it's never been a fully negative experience.
James: You have to stand by that. I can go somewhere and play a really shit set. It's happened. Or I've not quite clicked with the crowd. But that's just what comes with being DJ. You can't just expect everything to [always] go really smoothly. It's kinda hard when you're a promoter; you can get a bit worked up about it.
Jim: 90% of the people we have had play have been amazing. And like you've said, all those DJs have gone away and talked [about the night]: Rub N Tug, Todd [Terje]...
There was a huge buzz around Metro Area shortly before you launched Horse Meat Disco; was that any sort of inspiration?
Horse Meat Disco's top five disco records perfect for tranny lip synching
Leonore O'Malley - First Be a Woman
Just when you thought you heard the campest record ever, you find this one. Leonore's self-help anthem on how to use your femininity to win the perfect man. TEACH! Any track that is a call to arms for the sisterhood is always gonna be a winner (Chaka's "I'm Every Woman" is a case in point). I'm genuinely surprised that this was never a big hit.
Candi Staton - Victim
This is drama told to perfection with the vocal prowess of Miss Staton. Shows shouldn't really be longer than four minutes—at least in our experience—unless you can work an audience like Barbara Streisand (see below) so, although this belter comes in at over nine minutes, an edit would be required... a disco edit with all the breaks taken out? There's a concept!
Barbara Streisand and Donna Summer - No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)
Two big divas fighting it out on the stage. YES!!!
Love Unlimited - I'm So Glad That I'm a Woman
Do I need to explain? The exquisite vocals of Love Unlimited combine with Barry's heavy production in a celebration of all things girly. Definitely a song to get the props out to.
Barbara Acklin - I'll Bake Me a Man
A perky proto disco record that could almost be a showtune. Released on the legendary Chess label from all the way back in 1972. Totally ahead of its time. I can see this one being done in a kitchen...and therefore quite a messy show.
James: Not from my point of view. I'd always been a disco fan since I was kid; my dad used to collect disco. So I knew if I was ever going to do a party, that it would be that kind of thing. And I ended up working for Nuphonic because I could get their references, and musical cues, and stuff like that.
Jim: I was much more influenced by that scene. I haven't always been into disco; I was kind of a rock kid [growing up]. I think that's why I got Severino involved because he's always been a big inspiration for me. Seve was one of the first guys to be mixing up LCD, The Rapture and all that stuff. And it was important to me to have that element of newer music and contrast it.
Six years on and you can't move for disco parties in London. Do you think that's a direct result of HMD?
James: It's difficult to say.
Jim: We did talk about it at the time, "Why is nobody else [doing a night like this]?"
James: If you think about when you were doing The Cock [a club Jim started when electroclash was at its peak], it wasn't long before copycat clubs happened because it was in vogue.
Jim: But the music in that scene was...
James: ...readily available...
Jim: Yeah. And quite restricted in terms of references and how much was on offer. It got tired quite quickly [though]. It was fun for a very short space of time and then very quickly got [boring].
James: Normally it doesn't take long for copycat clubs to spring up. But I was really surprised and [remember thinking], "This club's busy, everyone really likes it and no one is doing anything similar." For a long time we had a good run of not having any competition—not that it's competition—but no-one kind of imitating or taking anything from us. It's difficult to say when you're quite a modest person, but I guess we have inspired a lot of people.
Jim: That's the great thing about this music: it can endure. It's so rich. There are so many threads and styles and genres. It can last. It happened the first time around: there were millions of these clubs in New York and they were all full. And they all had their own particular take or brand. That's the beauty really.
James: They are classic records for a reason and that's because they always sound contemporary. You can listen to records made in '76 and still think, "Wow, that just sounds so modern," or really fresh in comparison to modern pop music.
How rigid are you when it comes to record buying: is it strictly disco?
Jim: I buy loads of different stuff. I always have. I've always been really into rock, that's been my thing. So I'm trying to feed that in where I can, along with newer stuff. I'm pretty across the broad. Whereas you are super specialist...
James: ...I wouldn't say I'm super specialist.
Jim: You are though. You have less than a decade range! [both laugh]
James: Well, generally. But that's kinda like the best period! I don't tend to buy a lot of new stuff. I go out and I listen to it, or I listen to it online and, generally, it doesn't touch me in the same way as old records. I'm not that rigid but I would generally say that the best music comes from between '76 and '84.
"I'm not that rigid but I
would generally say that
the best music comes from
between '76 and '84."
You also play a lot of vocals, and that was a pretty decent period for singers.
James: Exactly. I like a bit of drama and a song structure, whereas a lot of the nu-disco thing I find quite tracky and a whole night of it wouldn't really do anything for me. I don't think it's close enough to the sound that I like.
Jim: We would rather play house all night.
James: Yes. But saying that there are some really amazing producers that make records that sit really well with a set of older disco.
Jim: Which is why we work together quite well [when we DJ together]. I can take over and play deep house, Robert Owens records, Santana records and whatever and just see what works best. That's quite natural.
James: Exactly, but I'm like Luke: Much more song-based.
Jim: It's kinda like that, isn't it? You and Luke. And me and Seve: us two are the modern kids. But I think it's important to support all of that lot because they've been slogging it. You know, Pete Herbert, Felix Dickinson, Faze Action. I mean it's all great stuff that they're coming up with and it's only getting better. So I fully support it. And I genuinely like it: I don't think it sounds [too] repetitive. Obviously classic disco is so hard to recreate now.
James: You can't. Which is why I love that period: there's something about the warmth and depth and the production techniques that just overshadows everything else; everything else just pales into insignificance; which means that I become a bit blind to really great [new] stuff. Then Jim will play it and I'll be like, "Ooh [that's actually really good]." I need to be a bit more open-minded, I think. But at the same time it's what we've based the club on.
But, as Jim says, you have two of you from the more classic end of the disco spectrum and two from the more contemporary end. So there's a balance.
Jim: That's the beauty of it.
James: I think it could get a bit boring—for a weekly club—if it was always the same records. Although I can never get bored of Jean Carn's "Was That All It Was."
Jim: You can't get bored of that record.
Is that on the compilation?
James: No. We deliberately didn't put it on. If you get any Philadelphia comp ever, that's on there. That was the tricky thing: [some of] the hits that the club is known for have been on a million and one compilations so it was about trying to find stuff that was a bit different.
You're about to start doing Horse Meat Disco remixes. Have either of you done much production before?
Both: No. [both laugh]
So how's it going to work? Is it going to work?!
Jim: Felix [Dickinson].
James: Yeah, Felix is our engineer; he's the one that makes it work. At the moment we're just giving it a go. It's amazing to be asked to do remixes, I'm a bit like, "Really? Really?! We don't know what we're doing, do they really want us to do remixes?" I've done a few edits with Felix already—one of them is on the current 12-inch release—so I've got a bit more of a feel for structure and things like that. But Felix does most of it and we sit around saying, "We want it to sound like this." Or, "Change that instrument to something nicer." But I've really enjoyed it so, hopefully...
Jim: ...more of the same. Get a bit more understanding of it and move on.
Could it potentially lead into original production?
James: That's definitely something we think about. Or are thinking of. Definitely. I think it's a natural progression. It's weird, I think about this a lot: most DJs are DJs off the back of some production career or something while we're based on the reputation of a party that happens once a week.
Jim: And there's this kind of struggle, isn't there? To continue as a DJ, or to be a bigger DJ, you have to have more reach, you have to have production. And that's not been our thing. For us everything feeds back into every week at the club, you know, that's the real joy. It's all really a sideline at the moment but that doesn't mean we're not ambitious about it. But we don't want to run blindly into remixing and come up with a whole load of shit tracks.
James: Just because people want to use the [Horse Meat Disco] name.
Let's talk about the Milk in the Park festival, which is happening this weekend. How did it come about?
Jim: [The guy behind] Milk in the Park is Mark Oakley, who runs The Eagle. He's always been interested in the Harvey Milk story.
James: He's from that generation for whom it really meant something.
Jim: And this is his way of taking what's happened, in terms of the film, the story coming back to life, and the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. And he's been actively involved with the police in the community, as a spokesman at the business forum for all the surrounding gay businesses in Vauxhall and south London to sort of say, "We're not just faceless clubbers who don't care about the community." And I'm not entirely sure how it happened. I think he had a meeting with the police as there have been so many hate crimes in London in recent years.
I think hate crimes have been rising in London despite the overall crime rate falling. Correct?
James: That's true. It's what you expect in a recession though.
Jim: So Milk in the Park is a way of raising awareness and giving something back to the community and trying to fight hate crime.
"We saw it being a bit like
Wigstock, in New York. A
good old bash in the park
with loads of trannies."
What's your involvement?
Jim: We have a Horse Meat Disco tent.
With Candi Staton performing?
Jim: Yes, which is amazing! She's opening the event because she's also playing at Colours in Edinburgh. So it's amazing, but we've got to make sure...
James: ...that people come. Actually I don't care, she can just sing for me. I'm gonna take all my Gloria Gaynor records and ask her to sign them and then go, "Oh sorry, are you not Gloria? I've bought them now, you might as well sign them."
Jim: Then we've just booked some people that work in the club: Prins Thomas, Trevor Jackson, Faze Action and Crazy P. All the other events are things that go on at The Eagle: there's a night called Deep Inside, which is early house and early '90s...
James: ...vocally, New Yorky stuff.
The Vasquez/Sound Factory era?
Jim: Yeah, all of that stuff. Chicago as well. Then there's the bear area. And the Carpet Burn area...
James: ...which is an '80s, trashy kind of sound.
Jim: And there's a cinema, and a tranny netball tournament. Nothing like this has really happened [on the gay scene before]. Nothing since Summer Rites [anyway], which I guess was 2000? Or 1999? That was the last gay, alternative park event. It was in Brixton, wasn't it?
Jim: So I think people are ready for it. We saw it being a bit like Wigstock, in New York. A good old bash in the park with loads of trannies.
"The great thing about disco [is that it can] endure. It's so rich. There are so many threads and styles and genres. There were millions of these clubs in New York and they were all full. And they all had their own particular take or brand. That's the beauty really."
"I'd always been a disco fan since I was kid; my dad used to collect disco. I don't tend to buy a lot of new stuff. I go out and I listen to it, or I listen to it online and, generally, it doesn't touch me in the same way as old records."
Published / Wednesday, 12 August 2009
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Photo credits / Dressed up at Glasto and shadow dancer - Peter Podworski
Furry hat dancer - Darrell Berry