Patric Fallon finds out how butchery, Slipknot and Dance Mania all played a role in the rise of this unique UK producer.
"I've had my nose broken twice in a club," Read said when I asked why he doesn't like going out anymore. "First time, some bloke who looked like Goldberg—you know, the wrestler—he just punched me about seven times. My mate was like dancing and grinding on him, and he turned around and wanted to fight him. But I stepped in between them. The second time, I asked someone if they had a spare fag, and he just head-butted me and broke my nose. That was in my hometown."
Read's anecdotes tended to reflect the shambolic dance music he makes. He's been putting out records since 2011, releasing on respected labels like Fourth Wave, Aus Music and Clone, but in both his tracks and his presence in the scene, he's always felt like an intriguing outsider. He mostly works with house and techno, but he renders these genres in distinctively twisted forms. His tracks hit a delicious sweet spot between functionality and experimentation—in other words, he's an expert in creating WTF?! moments.
Read grew up in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, where he got serious about football in his early teens. "My dad's like a qualified FA coach," he said. "Me and my older brother played football since we were like 13, professionally. So we were on our way to being footballers, basically, but I dropped out." Read quit because of his interest in music, which at first was focused on metal but he soon turned to jungle and other electronic sounds. "Slipknot have got a DJ," he explained. "You know that sort of nu metal scene? Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park—they all had DJs. Slipknot's DJ is like a jungle producer as well, and he samples jungle in some of their songs. So that was how I got into jungle. Then I just went from there really, and found Squarepusher, Aphex Twin and then found Warp. I just kept clicking."
He made the first Gerry Read record, a garagey two-tracker for the Dark Arx label, after him and his family had moved to Perth, Australia. Patterns / Last Time followed loads of experimentation, primarily with jungle. It seems possible that, had things gone differently, Read could have become a jungle producer. "I made about 400 old school jungle tunes and then my computer crashed," he said. "I lost all my jungle and then I just never made jungle ever again. It just pissed me off so much, I couldn't be bothered to try to make jungle again." He moved onto making IDM and, like countless upstart electronic artists, he tried (and failed) to copy Aphex Twin.
As Read explained his music background, it didn't make sense to me. There's been no discernible trace of jungle, metal or IDM in the music he's known for, not even his earliest records. So how did he reach the lo-fi house sound that launched Gerry Read? "I don't really know, to be honest," he said. "I just slowed down the BPM. I was always trying to make stuff really fast, but then I was slowly getting into dubstep, like DMZ stuff." Read never meant to make tracks for the dance floor. As an 18-year-old ex-footballer who would have mentioned Mogwai and Metallica among his favorite bands, DJing and club culture were never at the front of his mind. Yet it wasn't long before they would come to define his music and, in turn, his day-to-day life. Unknowingly, in 2010 Read predated the idea of "outsider house," and he's been trying to dodge dance music's expectations ever since.
Roomland, the second Gerry Read 12-inch, was released by 2nd Drop in late 2011, after he had moved back to England with his family. But it was another couple of records from that year that set the tone for his budding career. "That was when I met Tom [Kerridge] from RAMP, who does Fourth Wave as well. He actually lived sort of around the corner from me." The two met at a neighborhood pub after Kerridge messaged Read online, and they proceeded to get "really pissed." "We ended up becoming really good mates, basically. Around that time, I was making so much music, like ten tunes a week, and I was just sending all of them to him. He basically started Fourth Wave to release my stuff." The first Fourth Wave 12-inch was by Presk (an old alias of Will & Ink's Pieter Willems), but Read isn't exaggerating: in its first year alone, the label released four of his records.
"Tom was the only person who wanted to release my music at the time. I was sending so many demos out—to Untold, Ben UFO, Martyn—and no one wanted to release them," he said. "A lot of people would approach me for music as well, and I'd send them stuff and they weren't into it. That's what annoys me, though. Because I'd release something on Fourth Wave and they'd all fucking love it. But if I were to send it to them before it was out on Fourth Wave, they wouldn't have been into it."
After dropping some bona fide dance floor bombs and his first album, 2012's Jummy, Read was gaining traction. He played everywhere from Panorama Bar to Rinse FM, he did a live Boiler Room set, and it was all happening on his own terms. "For those two years that's all I was doing. That was my job." Even with the success, though, he felt a pressure and uncertainty about the lifestyle that never quite worked for him. "When you start getting lots of interest and gigs and money, it's difficult to know which direction to take. Whether to go all popular or to stay true to what you're doing."
He stuck to making dance music for adventurous DJs, and soon terms like "Parrish-worshipping" were thrown around. (Read says he hadn't listened to the Detroit legend before someone pointed out their similarities, but he does have a good story about Theo pushing him out of a DJ booth.) Comparisons aside, tunes like "We Are," "Demolition Man," "All By Myself," and "90's Prostitution Racket" haven't lost their skewed, soulful edge half a decade later. But it wasn't until 2013's Saucepan Jams Part 1, a self-released, limited-edition mixtape on CD, that he fully unleashed the avant-garde tendencies that had always underpinned his tracks. After over six years of releasing music, the second Gerry Read album, last year's Chubby Cheeks, was his most challenging record yet, and it seems to have reinvigorated him.
"I want to be seen as an artist, not like a techno DJ, clubber person. I mean, I had two years of non-stop gigs, and then they just sort of fizzled out." Read can't fully explain why he stopped playing out as much, though it's at least partially because he didn't find new representation after leaving his agency. "I find it all a bit weird, trying to get on an agency," he said. "It's a bit like going to a job interview. They're like weighing you up. And then it turned out that apparently one of them didn't want to take me on because he met me in a club once and I was really fucked." But the freedom from constant touring has turned out to be a boon for Read, as he's now working a day job that's allowed him to explore his creative outlet even more freely. "I've been doing it for years, and I'm good. I work at a really posh butchers in London now, so I'm actually well into that at the moment.
"I stopped getting gigs and I was looking for a job. My mom found it: trainee butcher. So I thought, 'Fuck it. I'll just go for it.' I went there first day, 7 AM, it was like winter and minus-four degrees. This lorry turned up with like 20 dead pigs hanging upside down, and the butcher just gave me a knife and goes, 'Take their heads off.' Just: 'Take their heads off.' And I had to cut all these pig's heads off and just throw them in a bin, at like seven in the morning. I was covered in blood. I was like, 'Oh, where are my gigs now? [laughs]'"
As he was transitioning from the DJ circuit to his day job, Read threw himself into music with renewed purpose. He started writing his next album, inspired by the underground hip-hop and ghetto house he'd been listening to for years. "Tom [Kerridge] has been into house for like 20 years, and he's shown me so much music. Just loads of Dance Mania and Traxman, all the ghetto house stuff. I wanted to do my own sort of take on it, not just play a 909 and have a 'pussy' sample on it." Chubby Cheeks is his take on it, made clear by the loud, offensive sample that starts the album. It's a clip from Harmony Korine's 1997 film Gummo, a child ferociously screaming profanities. "I think that sort of shouty atmosphere, that's the mode I get in when I make music," Read explained.
When I asked him about issues of cultural appropriation, he almost seemed confused that I'd bring up the topic. For Read, the themes of the African-American music he admires are secondary to the eccentricities he hopes to bring to them. "I love all that culture, and I wanted to explore it. Do like a tongue-in-cheek version of it. I find it really interesting, but no, I'm not trying to be black." Read's not one to stay in a place for too long, and apparently '90s post-rock has been in his sights lately. "I just feel like sometimes I need to get something out of my system, which means to make an album. I won't release anything that sounds like Chubby Cheeks again, I don't think, because I've already done it."
Whatever does come next from Read—including records planned for the newly revived RAMP and his own label, Big Head Records—it will enter a new phase. After years spent trying to find his place in the dance music industry, he's returned to the fringes where he began, allowing him to keep doing whatever he pleases. It's already resulted in some of his most distinctive work to date, which is fitting for an artist who's now lifted his shroud of anonymity. But that doesn't mean he's about to start using Jonathan Read, his real name.
"It doesn't sound as good as Gerry, does it?" There's something about the way he describes his grandfather, from whom the name Gerry is taken, that makes it a perfect fit for his music. "He was just like a funny cockney, like proper London. He's basically like Bricktop in Snatch, and he just always swears." The real Gerry Read has since passed away, but not without knowing about the work his grandson used his name for. He seemed to approve.
"I don't think I ever personally showed him my music," Read said. "I think he just listened online, and he read interviews about me mentioning him. When I started getting loads of gigs, he used to say to me, "You'll be a millionaire! You'll be a fucking millionaire next year!' And I was like, 'Let's fucking hope so, Gerry.' I'm still waiting. I'm a butcher at the moment [laughs]."