When we talked in April of this year, he seemed reticent to do so. A naturally private and modest person, he never voiced his concerns, but you could tell he wondered why we were eager to talk to him. The questions probably running through his mind: Would there be enough talk of the past to give his career context? Would there be mentions of his art, to ensure that people understood that he took DJing seriously...but that it wasn't the defining feature of his artistic career? And what about the future? This shouldn't be a memorial either, a career overview that leaves aside the fact that he's busier than ever.
Richards' career has been typified, in a way, by misunderstanding. When every other DJ seems content to travel the world, seeing a new city every weekend, he mostly opts to stay in London. When every other DJ feels the pressure to enter into the world of production, his music-making has often been low-key and strikingly varied—rarely aimed directly for the dance floor. It's a career that has consistently defied the tyranny of expectations. And, to be honest, he seems to be doing quite well for himself.
You spent time in art school in the '80s. Do you go back to your early artwork in the same way that you might go back to your fabric mixes or DJ sets?
Yeah, I'm into old things. I collect old clothes, I drive an old car, my house is full of old furniture. I also buy a lot of old records, I'm really into blues, jazz, ska and reggae. I have always bought music across the board, and I'm constantly referring to old things. It's the lifeblood of what I do. Right now I've had to move my records into another space. And I've found a lot of old records. Those old records, if they're good records, can make a lot of sense currently. I like the idea of new and old, mixing [them] up.
I think it's important as you progress as an artist, to see the common thread which is running through what you do, as you get used to yourself, the areas you're working in, the things you're interested in. You can only see that if you look back at what you're doing. Musically, I don't understand this constant need to go forward all the time. Especially now, with the way that music is accessed, and the way people share and generate music, the obsession with the new has never been stronger. Just because things are new doesn't mean they're any good. Tracks that you've road tested, and you know are good, still have a relevance. I think it's important to be aware of that when you're playing new music.
When you first heard dance music in the late '80s in London, wasn't the shock of the new one of the things that drew you to it?
Not really. One of my good friends lived in New York, and in 1984 I lived in Hollywood for a year before I went to art school. I spent a lot of time in New York. (My father used to work for British Airways, so I used to get cheap flights which was a big deal in those days. Flying was still relatively expensive.) I'd seen the way things were changing. When I first DJed I was playing funk and soul, and some disco and stuff. Moving into Bowie, Talking Heads, that sort of sound. Then also the more electronic sounds, most of which were coming from England. It was a mixture of all of that. Having been to the Paradise Garage a lot, I could kind of see where things were going.
Was Larry Levan quite an influence on your DJing style?
Certainly in attitude perhaps. I'd never heard people play a record three or four times, and some of the mad things he used to do. I really loved it in there. We were really annoyed that they didn't sell drink in there, because we were British. I loved the mixture of people. Racially, it was very exciting to be around a lot of black and Hispanic people in the same room. It was a pretty wild place. You hear mixed reports about it. But for the most part, most of the stories you hear about it were true. And the sound system, while it probably wouldn't stand up to what we are now used to today, at the time I'd never heard anything like that before.
to see the common thread that
runs through what you do."
Tell me about what happened when you got back to London. What were you playing back then, was it mainly funk and soul?
In St Martins [the art school I attended] we used to throw parties in the coffee bar, which was an exciting thing because it was in central London. The coffee bar was the first place The Sex Pistols ever performed, so we were all really excited about throwing parties there, mainly because of that fact.
[My sets were] pretty haphazard, a messy combination of funk and soul and house and electro. Probably quite randomly put together in a way I suppose. At that point I was still very much a record collector and a music person, but predominantly an artist. My plan was to be a painter, or to be working in art in some way. So the DJing was a hobby. I tried to carry on that feeling in spirit. I tried to carry on the concept of being a record collector and an amateur DJ, a hobbyist if you like.
In the beginning, there wasn't necessarily any skill in DJing because with funk and soul records you're not going to mix them anyway. It was more about being a selector, and if you had lots of records, you were the guy that DJed. There was never anything to aspire to professionally as such. Professional DJs were radio DJs that talked on the mic and played commercial music. That wasn't something we aspired to, we were just really into music. It was a chance to wear an old suit and look good. And get drunk I suppose!
Where did you end up meeting Lee [Burridge] and Sasha [with whom you eventually formed Tyrant]?
Sasha, I'd known from going to parties. I used to do a party called Georgie, and I did one at Shepherds Bush Empire which he played at. I used to spend a lot of money on the decor, they were pretty good looking parties. I had some good people around me from after I left art school. I got to know him then, we became good friends. I guess we'd both been to Hong Kong a few times to play, and Lee was the foremost DJ in Hong Kong. He always played at the parties. In '97 when Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese, Lee was planning to leave and come back home. We all got on well, and decided we'd do some parties together.
What was it about their musical taste that struck you, that bonded you together?
We were into beats and stuff. I was always the warm-up DJ, they were always the more accomplished DJs. I was playing some electro, tech house, some Chicago-y things. Even then I hadn't found my feet in terms of how I wanted to piece it together. I was into a lot of different things. I always did the flyers and made the party look good. Iwas happy with a backstage role. Musically, Lee and I were listening to a lot of American stuff. We were all into the San Francisco sound, Garth's label Grayhound, The Mirror Boys, E.T.I. It was a combination of breakbeat and very tripped out slow house. That would be one spot we did meet in. We were all into that tripped out, still bouncy, but kind of deep house.
Were you among only a few DJs who were bringing that sort of sound to the UK, or was that a much larger trend?
I don't think it ever was a large trend, because I don't remember everyone liking it actually at the time. It wasn't that popular, a lot of people thought it was really slow and boring. I think there is a common thread running through what I've played in terms of it being deepish, out there, trippy sounds. I'm hesitant to use the word minimal, but let's say simple, basic sounds.
Playing Basic Channel, Maurizio, some German stuff, in with some San Francisco stuff, in with some Chicago things. Just simple music, in with a lot of the British stuff that was going on. Like Terry [Francis]'s label, southeast London tech house sound, that was skippy, Chicago-y drums. Very simple, sparse. In the early days of Fabric, mixing up those styles... I either played a warm-up set or I played last. It was a deeper, spun-out sound, which is what I became known for. If I'm known for anything, it would be a combination of those sounds, which are coming from different parts of the world but have some sort of resonance and similarity.
Tell me about the residency at The Bomb. That seems to be the place where things took off Tyrant-wise.
Sasha started to get really busy, and we didn't really play that much together. His schedule was taking off, he was remixing lots of people. Lee and I were playing a lot together, and Tyrant became that I suppose. We started doing this back-to-back thing which not that many people were doing at the time. Not one record at a time at least.
When we were good, we were really good. We had an atmosphere to what we were doing, it was like a push-and-pull thing. The Bomb was a phenomenal little club, which was perfect for the sound as well, because it [had] a low ceiling. It's not a sound that's going to fill a large room. It's sound that's got an intensity in a smaller room. Then it's convincing and believable.
While you were doing that you also started doing the Freaky Disco thing with Terry, right? Do you think it was the sound specifically that appealed to the fabric owners when they came to see you?
I think so. We really hit on something that was a new combination. It's hard to tell really, but I think it was quite a British interpretation of what was happening. American DJs have always been part of what was going on here. I remember being very inspired by Derrick Carter, another of my favourites was Gemini. People like that that used to come over. When you heard a Chicago DJ, that DJ bought Chicago music. And again it's quite hard to imagine that really, with all the sharing and access to music we have now. When it was just records, you kind of had to be in Chicago to have that sound. Same with San Francisco and London.
we were being offered residencies."
When fabric said "we'd like you two to be residents," maybe it felt like a continuation of what you were [already] doing in a different space...
Yes, in a way. Although we didn't know what it was going to be like. I'd never had a residency in a club, so for me it was recognition of what I was doing. Despite having been DJing for a long time, it was the beginning of feeling like I was a DJ in a way. That I had something that was my own. The muddled up sounds, the way I used to play, it was kind of random and unpredictable. That seemed to have evolved into something a little bit more palatable for the listener I suppose, and actually had something going on for it. Terry was someone I always had a lot of respect for, and to be asked to be resident was a big deal. I was playing a lot at The End, I had a residency there for a bit, and I guess things were just starting to happen. People were taking notice of what I was doing.
Was there a bit of fear? Here's this club, you've seen the inside but it's not really done...
I don't think there was any fear. It was really exciting. I remember going in there, and one of the things I really like about it, one of the secrets to its success is that there is no big room. Although it holds lots of people, it doesn't have any main, vast room. I do believe that that has been one of the keys to its success, apart from the music. I remember being excited by that. The main room wasn't vast.
And also the fact that we were given complete carte blanche over who we would invite, and what we would play and how we would do it. The night would be built around us, the guests would be there as guests. And they would be our guests, rather than us having supporting roles. I don't think I would have been into being a resident, warming up every week.
Was that how it was presented to you at the start?
Yeah, that was how it was presented to Terry and I, that the night was going to be built around us. And that we would invite who we wanted, and we would play when we wanted. That was going to be the strength of the night, that it was going to be built around our residencies. We weren't being asked to be residents, we were being offered residencies. And that, to me, was and is the key. I couldn't have been there for all this time if I was just warming up every week. On that level, I'd like to think it's been a success. They're long-running residencies now, and the success of our residencies has had an enormous part in what goes on there. What Terry and I play is the soundtrack of the club.
Speaking of that, in the fabric oral history we did last year, you said "I tend to be proud of very little, but I'm proud of what I did with that" [about your fabric mix CD]. Did you feel like it was a culmination of what you'd been working towards sound-wise?
Yeah, I think what's on that CD was what I was playing at that time, and I think it's an honest interpretation of what I was playing. There aren't any big tracks on there, it's just a flowing sort of thing, it takes a few ups and downs. I'm not really into the idea of mix CDs being a calling card, or trying to get more gigs out of a mix CD. Sometimes when I hear people's mix CDs I think that's where they've fallen down, in terms of trying to say a bigger thing about themselves rather than saying the real thing about what goes on when they play. I am a fairly modest character, and I try to focus on the music.
Did it take quite a while for people to catch up to that sound? In that same oral history, Judy [Griffith, fabric Promotions Manager] said that there were some moments in which Ricardo [Villalobos] would come over, and no one was really getting what he was doing at the beginning.
I knew what was going to happen. I'd started playing a lot of that music, and I kind of had some idea of what the popularity would be, because I was already playing it. It was me playing it that gave it a possibility. I invited a lot of those people over for the first time, [people that] have now become fairly standard names, who had never played in England before. Be it Ricardo, or Steve Bug, or lots of different people.
I don't remember people being really into it. Things have changed obviously now. These were new names, and more importantly it was a different kind of music. Again, I'm hesitant to use the word minimal, but it was very simple and sparse. I think the fact that I was playing it every week, and the fact that the sound system made it convincing and gave it the room that it needed... slowly, slowly people went for it. But there certainly was a period where it wasn't easy.
Those times still happen, we still take risks and put things on and people don't necessarily always go for it. I have a night which I'm doing at the weekend called Nothing Special, and the idea is that I'm the only DJ and I just have live acts around me. We've put on some quite spacy, sparse stuff. [And] it's quite a big deal to put that sort of thing on in the middle of the night in a club which, when it gets going, is pretty pumping. We never really see it as a risk, but there are some doubts as to how some things will work. I think it's important that we keep taking those risks.
Outside of the club, it seems that your gigs have ebbed and flowed, in terms of international bookings.
I'm not a big fan of travelling. I play in Italy quite a lot, and I go to America and South America as often as I can. With fabric, I never want to leave because it's so good. I found that if I did leave and I went abroad and played, quite often the gigs weren't as good as if I'd stayed in London. I've always been really into London, I love London, my friends live in London, I like to be around London. I'm always working on different projects anyway, so the touring DJ thing doesn't really appeal to me. As I've grown older, I've found disappointment harder to absorb. And the concept of going on tour and it not being a great success...I've got too many other things I'd rather do. Starting with playing at my residency, which is always, consistently brilliant.
I'm DJing, as absurd as that sounds."
It seems like you've found some international promoters that you work with on a regular basis.
Yeah, I've always liked playing for the same people, I've always liked that idea of trying to form some sort of relationship with promoters, being loyal to them. When things started to take off [with Tyrant], I got booked for things, and while we were getting paid well, it felt like the relationship between the money and the size of the gig wasn't always there. I'm a relatively shy person. I'm not a DJ who's going to be jumping around with my hands in the air, I'm relatively private even when I'm DJing, as absurd as that sounds. Smaller gigs suit me, and I really felt like I didn't enjoy some of those big gigs. I didn't feel like the music was right, or that I was right.
Is this why you don't do many festivals?
Yeah, I don't really like them. I don't come away having enjoyed them very much. I've played between bands and things, I quite like that. I played with Autechre one time. I've done different things, I quite like warming up for bands. But in general, playing in a big tent, banging the hell out of it... It's not really me. It's not really my thing. I guess as time goes on, you tick off things. And I've always been someone who looks at what they've done. I think, "Did I enjoy that, do I want to do it again?"
I'm not really driven by money, I'm not driven by fame in any way. So I'm not really bothered about getting my name out there as such. I'm just bothered about doing a good job that's right for me, and hopefully the audience, and feeling OK about the whole thing. I'd rather go and play in a small club in Copenhagen for 200 people and keep it right in my head, than be playing at some grotty old festival and not really feeling right about it.
I've started painting again in the last year, I'm spending a lot of time painting, and I'm hoping to have a show, which will involve a book. So I guess there's always been other things going on in my sphere. Being a DJ is not the be-all and end-all of my life. I'm really serious about it, I'm really serious about music, and I'm very serious about collecting music. I love the idea of playing records, and people liking them as much as I do. That's one of the fundamental reasons for my DJing. But I never really wanted to be a DJ, it's just an extension of my love of it all. I couldn't imagine it being everything, because that would be too much.
Also, the last three years I've been working in the studio which I've never really done before, I've been working with Howie B. He's a friend of mine, we've talked about doing things for a long time. We've amassed a number of things. We worked very hard for the first year-and-a-half, like daily, and we've got an album ready, and lots of singles. We did some music for an animation, and a lot of what we've been doing is beatless, spacy kind of sounds. We're trying to work out what to do with it. We haven't released any of it yet, because every time we think about doing it the record business seems to take a jolt to the left.
and end-all of my life."
I feel like that book you and Howie did is [a good] way to go about it...
Yeah, we did a little box set thing with Howie's poems, and my drawings, and that's sort of where we're going to take it. My dream is to be doing the artwork for records where I've made the music. I'm quite happy to do it in quite a modest way. I'm not really into doing big tunes and selling loads of records, that doesn't really appeal to me. The idea of doing something small and beautiful and limited and personal is a much more appealing thing.
I think if I can get those things to fit together, it will make sense of all of my art school training, and clubs and DJing. If you'd have asked me when I was at college, that would have been my dream: To be making music and doing the covers of the records. That's kind of enough for me, that would make me really happy.
Are there certain visual artists that you find yourself taking after?
Not necessarily. There are a lot of painters that I really like. The painters I tend to like are very painterly, [and there's] more figurative people like Sidney Nolan. I really like Joseph Beuys, he's a massive influence on my drawing. I like a lot of photography as well. Like the Bechers. They're a husband and wife, they take photographs of gas towers and water towers. They're very dry photographs, but they've been doing it for years, going around the world and photographing these things. Colin Self is another person I like.
Do you find that there's a through-line to those influences?
Definitely. I like a lot of very simple, minimal stuff. There's that word again! It used to be a really good word, now I seem to splutter when I say it. It's bastardized I suppose. Donald Judd is someone who I love, I really love the simplicity of his work. [But] I'm interested in various things, I feel different things on different days, and I try to accommodate that. It's like wearing a suit one day and jeans the next.
What's on the horizon?
I have a publisher for my book of drawings. It will be published next year along with a show of my paintings. It also seems that my album with Howie B will take a limited edition book format, my drawings and his crazy poems. That will be released on our label, Blunder.
I have another label coming up as well with London-based producer jozif called Fist or Finger. The first release should be ready in September. His dance floor smashes will be reinterpreted by me in an ambient manner...fist or finger. We're also going to expand The Nothing Special. It had its initial growth period, and we want to take the idea to other clubs.
Life's much the same [though]. I tend to mind my own business. I do what's right for me, I think the most important thing regarding my career is that I continue my levels of enjoyment. If I do too much DJing, then I don't enjoy it as much. And I'm constantly seeking my own happiness. And one of the beauties of having this life, making my living from being a DJ, is I can please myself. If that involves spending time on my own, or doing exactly what I want to do, I want to make full use of that. I don't want to be a touring DJ going all around the world, and not exploring all of the other avenues I'm interested in.
A lot of people say to me, you had the chance to be really big. But I'm really happy with the way it is. I'm really happy just pottering around, listening to music, making music, painting. DJing a bit, getting drunk, buying clothes, listening to old records. I'm kind of happy in a way. I live a fairly lean lifestyle. With money, it's like how much do you need? The people that are the happiest are the ones that seem to know themselves, and are certain of what they need. Not the ones that are clamouring for more, desperate to be heralded in some way. That's just not necessary for me.