Carlos Hawthorn explains why this UK artist is having a golden moment.
Dickinson is 44 and has been a stalwart of the UK dance scene since the early '90s, but 2015 was his most successful year to date. According to RA's event listings, he played more shows last year than in 2013 and 2014 combined. He played fabric in London, DC-10 in Ibiza, The Warehouse Project in Manchester and Barcelona's Sónar festival, all for the first time. He's a DJ enjoying a golden moment.
During this period Dickinson didn't have a home. In September 2014 he'd decided to move from London, where he'd lived for 15 years, to Bristol. His reasons for the switch were fairly typical—he'd recently married and wanted a bigger house, and neither he nor Dan Tyler and Conrad McDonnell, AKA Idjut Boys, were in town enough to justify paying the high rent on their shared studio. Rather than take on DJ gigs or production work that he wasn't into, Dickinson opted to sell up and head west.
Bristol felt like the obvious choice. It was cheaper and he could still surround himself with creative people, many of whom were his close friends. Among these was Dave Harvey, who runs Futureboogie Recordings and Team Love, the events company that's responsible for Love International, Love Saves The Day and Glastonbury's Wow! stage. Harvey and Dickinson have a strong personal and working relationship that goes back to 2010, when Harvey first booked him to play The Garden Festival. Dickinson played every year after that until Garden ended last summer, and he's down for the festival's 2016 reincarnation, Love International, in July. He's also released three EPs on Futureboogie, and his wife, Jen, works for Team Love.
In person, Dickinson is warm and inquisitive, with a humble outlook on life. We spoke at his new place, a cosy modern house with a spiral staircase and a long white sofa. All his records were in storage back in London, so he made the switch to USB and ripped anything new that he bought on vinyl. "It was quite stressful, quite hectic, but also quite liberating, not having all my shit with me and just having to travel light and realise what I need," he said. "Simplifying my life for a while was quite a nice little zen exercise."
Dickinson chalks up his recent spike in popularity to two things: a track on DFA and a DJ set at Glastonbury Festival. "I Ain't Gonna Tell You," which came out on the New York label in 2014, is by Dedication, a loose collective of Japanese and Western musicians led by Dickinson and artistic director Mikey Yamada that featured vocalists, a bassist and a guitarist. "I Ain't Gonna Tell You" is DFA at its most poppy—funky bassline loop, cowbells, Michael Jackson-inspired vocal—and it racked up roughly 80,000 plays on SoundCloud (Dickinson told me that he was more used to getting 2,000). Shortly after, he got picked up by the artist agent Alberto Mombelli, who looked after DFA-affiliated acts like Shit Robot and Wolfram at the now-defunct Elastic. In Dickinson's own words, Mombelli started "knocking on people's doors" and the gig offers rolled in. When Elastic folded in late 2015, Mombelli took Dickinson with him to his new agency, Orchid.
Despite its positive impact on his career, Dickinson is ambivalent about "I Ain't Gonna Tell You." He says it doesn't fit with his DJ style, so he's never played it out. At first the record's relative success even made him feel uneasy: if people knew him for a certain track, then they were probably going to expect more of the same when they saw him play. These are natural concerns for many young producers, but it's rare to hear someone with more than 25 years of experience express these kinds of insecurities. Similar worries came up every now and then during our conversation. It was clear Dickinson has been experiencing certain aspects of the industry for the first time.
One example of this is playing to much bigger crowds. At Sónar he was billed before Hot Chip in SónarVillage, the main stage at Sónar By Day. The floor was packed. Many in his position would have played it safe, leaning on a mix of classics and big room house to see them through. But Dickinson apparently did the opposite, moving between disco, acid house, Balearic and more. "When you've got a crowd of 4,000 people, the chances are they're gonna be into a more diverse array of music, so if anything, I like playing all over the place," he said. "Trying different genres of music and mish-mashing them all together. When you've got a big crowd you've got more scope to do that, because you can play the weirdest shit ever and there's bound to be a couple hundred people who are into it."
I've seen Dickinson play twice and his sets conveyed a similar self-belief. The first, at Glastonbury in 2014, happened to be the set that he believes was instrumental in raising his profile. He's been a fixture at the festival since 2007, when he helped his old rave buddy Gideon Berger and Berger's partner, Stephen Gallagher, install the first version of NYC Downlow, a wonderfully debauched '80s LGBT club that today stands as one of Glastonbury's best-loved attractions. Dickinson played the Downlow every year until in 2014 Berger moved him next door to Genosys, an open-air stage that was the latest addition to the team's expanded electronic field, Block9. There, engulfed by clouds of dry ice from the post-apocalyptic tower looming above, Dickinson saw in the dawn with 90 minutes of cosmic techno, classic house and disco. I remember thinking how brilliantly his selections matched the mood.
The second time I saw him the setting couldn't have been more different. In December 2015 Andy Butler booked him for one of his Mr. Intl parties at Dalston Superstore. He played in the basement, where sweaty punters rest their drinks on the exposed brickwork. It was peak-time on a Saturday night, so Dickinson kept the vibe colourful and upbeat with a mix of chugging house, darkish disco and the odd wailing diva. His mixing was fluid and fast, and he was nearly always looking at the crowd, feeding off their reactions. Just before the end of his set, a towering drag-queen came tottering to the front of the room. Dickinson looked up from the CDJs and a huge smile spread across his face. He leaned over the booth and kissed her, shouting, "I love you!" When he finished DJing, I went over and introduced myself. He gave me a big, wet hug and offered me a beer. "Did you enjoy that? I enjoyed that!"
Dickinson had a glint in his eye that night. He was emanating a boyish energy, clambering all over his mates and spilling drinks. You can tell from the way he DJs that he's a party person as much as a music lover. Over the course of his career he's always sought the company of others to bring the best out of himself, whether that's as a promoter, a producer or a DJ. In the studio, Dickinson's partnerships with Kyle "Sly" Chandler (as Foolish & Sly), Mikey Yamada and the Dedication crew, or Jaime Read (as L.H.A.S. Inc. and Felix Dickinson & Jaime Read) have allowed him to express the full range of his tastes. Dedication's "Let Me Rock You," which is due out soon on a Golf Channel Recordings compilation, is a wicked slice of slow piano house, while 2015's "Warehouse Days" with Jamie Read is ashen, funky techno. (The Neville Watson remix is also well worth checking out.)
It's only recently that Dickinson has started playing his own productions. He's not exactly sure why, but to me it shows a greater confidence within himself. The EP he played the most last year was A Day's Reality, a collaboration with iconic house vocalist Robert Owens on Futureboogie. The pair met at The Garden Festival in 2011 and hit it off (it turned out that some of Dickinson's friends attended the same Buddhist temple as Owens). Back in the UK, Dickinson got hold of Owens' email and sent him some of the Dedication material, hoping he'd want to come in on the project. Instead, he picked out one track he liked, swung by the studio and recorded some vocals.
"It was brilliant," Dickinson told me. "But as I was working on it I was just really frustrated that I was making this track with Robert Owens and it wasn't a raw house track, it was this kind of more disco-y thing. After a couple of years of no one signing it, I thought to myself, 'Look I've got to reinvent this and make it what I would want my session with Robert to be,' and also, you know, I think that house complements his vocals better. So I went and did what is now the 'Classic Mix.' That's when people started getting interested. In the end, the 'Dedication Remix' on the EP is actually the original."
Listening to both versions, Dickinson made the right call. The "Dedication Remix" is pleasant enough, but Owens' vocals are overpowered by the flagrant instrumentation. On the "Classic Mix," however, he's the centerpiece, thanks to the clean drums and a plump, propulsive bassline. It's tough enough for the club but with enough musicality for beach or boat parties, which suggests why Dickinson drew for it so often last year.
As you'll notice from Dickinson's myriad Discogs pages, most of the music he's made has been collaborative. But my favourite release of his is a compilation he put together called Originals Volume Five, which came out on Claremont 56 in 2011. The series encouraged artists to dig deep, presenting a limited-edition CD of rare or exclusive gems from any genre or era. In the booklet that accompanies Volume Five there's a foreword by the British DJ and vinyl collector Nick The Record, describing the first night he met Dickinson, at a Tonka Soundsystem party in Brighton. Dickinson was 18 and had broken his nose in the van on the way there. "He then spent the rest of the night meeting lots of people for the first time while dripping blood and gurning, asking for a hug," he writes.
Dickinson's 12-track selection is as good a window into his tastes as you'll come across, running the gamut from German guitar music to camp synth pop, by way of Fingers. Inc. The common thread is a kind of honeyed funk—music that's sexy and loud and proud of it. The closing track, and the CD's standout, is 2-Lips's "Got To Get Away," a German disco track as bright and catchy as they come. Dickinson loves it so much that he and his wife chose it for the first dance at their wedding.
He left his mark on the CD with a pumping edit of Cryptic's "Moving On" under his D.Bastedos alias. Dickinson told me that of all the pseudonyms he's had over the years that's possibly the only one he'll keep using. He wants to declutter and refine who he is as a producer, returning to making music simply as Felix Dickinson ("except for the odd illegal edit"). He's just released an EP with Jaime Read on Let's Play House, and he should have a couple of remixes dropping soon. He'd also like to revive his Cynic label, following a dormant couple of years. In terms of gigs, there's a solid string of club and festival dates on the horizon, and hopefully a US and Mexico tour, if the logistics come off.
Other than that, Dickinson's simply keen to keep the momentum of the past 15 months going. I sensed he was a little nervous about this. He was receiving more press requests than he was used to and it was stressing him out, having to think about the kind of mixes people wanted, or whether his answers might be misconstrued. More often than not, journalists want to discuss his past, but it's his present that excites him most. From our conversation it was clear that he doesn't feel entirely comfortable with talking about his artistry. But when it comes to music—DJing especially—it's a different story. He's confident that with 25 years of experience behind him, he can just let his records do the talking.