As the owner of the Idle Hands record shop and label, Chris Farrell sits at the centre of Bristol's dance music scene. Ryan Keeling stops by the shop to hear about the records that have shaped his tastes.
As for Farrell, the shop occupies plenty of his time, but some of his other projects have helped push the name Idle Hands beyond the borders of Bristol. In 2009, he started an Idle Hands label, which, through records by artists like Celeste, Kowton, Leif and Parris, has quietly amassed a killer catalogue. Along with Kiran Sande, the founder of Blackest Ever Black, he also runs Silent Street, which late last year released its first record, a reissue of the Bristol post-punk group Maximum Joy. Farrell also DJs when he can, playing plenty in Bristol but also occasionally in clubs around Europe. He's pretty adaptable behind the decks, seeming as comfortable warming up a techno party as he is playing reggae and dub. As you'll see from his selections below, reggae and dub form the backbone of his tastes, but for Farrell it's a bit more complicated than that—he's also the "indie kid who ended up in the rave."
I'll Be Around
Did you pick this up from that Studio One compilation on Soul Jazz?
No, I first heard this tune via my dad. I'm quite lucky to have grown up in an environment that was relatively quite musical. Not in a playing music sense, but just in that nerdy collecting kind of sense. My dad's a big fan of black music, as he used to call it, he's an old soul fan, kind of that Northern deep soul, modern soul, funk, all that stuff, and he used to like reggae as well.
Back then friends used to swap tapes and stuff. One of his mates had done him a tape and there was this track on it. Back then you might have a tape but you might not have a tracklist on it. So I had this tape that had this track going into another tune which I really love, "Baltimore" by The Tamlins, and a bunch of other stuff. So I used to listen to this as a teenager. It was also in the '90s, when it wasn't that easy to find out what these tunes were. I remember I heard it once when I was in France on the radio, and I didn't get to hear who it was by. And then later, I think, maybe it was through the Studio One comp, and I then was like, "Shit! Yeah! I've got it! Fucking hell, Otis Gayle, "I'll Be Around."
I prefer it to the original, you know, the chords in it are great. It holds a special place in my heart because growing up in the '90s, you'd hear things, you'd hear snippets, but you didn't necessarily have any connection to it, you didn't have all the wealth of information that you could find on Spotify, or find out who it was by. You literally just had the music. Now as I'm saying this, I probably could have just asked my dad who it was by, but I probably felt embarrassed, or probably the fact that I'd nicked this tape off him.
It's kind of sentimental because my dad always encouraged me with music. He would never try to force me into one thing, but when I started playing in bands and stuff as a teenager, I was always playing bass, and he's like, "Well, look, if you're playing bass you need to listen to reggae because the bass is at the front of the music, this is where the bassline is most important, you should listen to this kind of stuff." And I suppose I just got into it from there. Of all the genres it's been the one real constant throughout my life, and even though I buy in reggae, I collect reggae, I occasionally play it out, I still feel like a complete and utter novice with it. The wealth of music that's come out of Jamaica—or obviously now England and the rest of the world—it's so incredible. Literally there's people going into the studio every single day to record stuff, and it's endless. I still find tunes now from the '70s that I've never heard before, and I have some good friends who are into it as well, and we all say a similar thing.
What areas does your interest in Jamaican music cover?
I generally just say "Jamaican popular music." Because since independence, or even before, there was ska and stuff like that. I'm quite interested in 1950s R&B, the music that was originally played on soundsystems that influenced ska. And then ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub, dancehall, digital. Although I like modern productions and stuff like that, I have to admit that in the '90s when everything starts getting on one rhythm I find it quite hard to focus in on particular things. So yeah, rocksteady and earlyish reggae is what I really, really love.
Living in Bristol, does music from the Caribbean seep into your bloodstream a little bit? Or at least, living in this part of Bristol?
It's a massive fucking cliché, but yeah it does. There's a bit of a thing in Bristol when we talk about bass and the Jamaican community and stuff—Bristol is heavily influenced by Jamaican culture, you know? And then I think the UK as a whole is, really. I always say that I'm in no way patriotic but the country that I love was built by Indians, Irish, Polish and Jamaicans. It's not fucking Morris dancing, that's for sure. In Bristol you do just hear it round and about, and St Paul's is traditionally the West Indian part of town. Definitely when I opened the shop I wanted to make sure we represented that a little bit. Maybe just because I love the music as well—not trying to force it in there, but the influence of reggae on dance music is immense as well, right? The remix culture comes from Jamaica, all of that, that's so important.
Silent Street / Silent Dub
This is on the first release from you and Kiran Sande's label, a compilation of three of Maximum Joy's early EPs, from the early '80s. You also named the label after the song, so I was wondering why it was so significant for you?
A few different things, and again this goes back to my dad. My dad buys and sells records as well, and about 15 years ago he bought a collection which was like amazing post-punk and all this, and he bought it to sell, but he knew I'd have an interest in it. He was trying to keep me away from it, because he knew I'd do that thing of just taking them and probably not paying him for it. I was going through it and I saw this record and the cover just really jumped out at me. When I put it on the deck I couldn't fucking believe it. Some records just blow your mind, and again it goes back to this thing: I had no way of finding out about Maximum Joy, really. It looked cool, I could tell it was from Bristol. Everything about it is perfect, the bassline just sounds so dubby, the vocals, perfect post-punk kind of thing. There's a wailing fucking sax over the top of it. There's a lot of elements in there which are perfect.
Later when I met Kieran, we met in a record shop and just hit it off straight away, and we pretty much have the same relationship now. We just get on and vibe off music. But, I think it was after a few weeks of meeting each other I dragged him along to a gig I was playing where I was first on. There was no one there, just me and Kiran, probably a bit stoned. I put this record on, and he's like, "What the fuck is that?" And I was like, "It's Maximum Joy, 'Silent Street,'" and we've both been obsessed with it ever since.
We'd been talking about starting a label together, probably for the last five or six years, one of those ones where we've had a few beers—"Yeah we should do a label together." We'd had a few ideas, we were thinking about doing something kind of techno, but it all felt a little bit—it wouldn't have quite made sense for the two of us. What we do as separate labels is quite different, it wouldn't really feel right to do like a minimal techno label or something.
Kiran had a dream where we started a label and we called it Silent Street. So we had a name, and then we were drinking in Berlin, about three years ago. I nipped out to the toilet and I came back upstairs, and he's like, "You'll never guess who just fucking emailed me?" And I was like, "No?" And he's like, "Maximum Joy… They're looking to do something." And we were like, "Fuck, maybe this is the one."
He hit them back and said, "Well, I'm not quite sure about new stuff at the moment, but me and my friend Chris are sat here and we're massive fans of your old stuff, maybe we could do some kind of reissue?" We wanted to share that music with other people. There was a compilation about ten years ago on a German label, which covers some similar stuff, but I know there are people who are ten years younger than me who would not have heard of Maximum Joy, and so we just wanted to share this music with other people really. It took about two years to come together, but we finally got it out and it's had a really nice reception.
Do you hear St Paul's in this record? I read that it was made a couple blocks from here.
What I think I hear is the mythical St Paul's that I never got to see. I came to Bristol in 2001, and back then St Paul's was quite cracky. After the riots—this is what older people tell me—there was a period where the police had to just kind of just ease off the fucking pressure. Which meant it was a lot easier for soundsystems to set up. Although I think maybe the record is prior to the riots, but definitely back then there'd be a lot more music heard out in the soundsystems.
I mean, it's still a lively place, you still hear music all over, but it's that kind of mythical St Paul's that I got to hear about from the older generation, especially Tony [Wrafter] from the band chatting about it. It was apparently quite a free and liberating time.
Soundsystems on every corner is the scene I'm imagining.
You gotta remember this was young kids doing stuff, that's one of the ways they expressed themselves. I think people in this age... music's become a bit of a leisure option. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but back then it was very much a tribal thing, an identity thing. A lot of young people would make sense of their lives through music, or maybe being part of soundsystem. I think maybe that's been lost a little bit, everyone's a bedroom producer, everyone's online doing all this stuff. Not everyone's necessarily congregating together all the time to play records every night. It's not to say people don't, but things are more atomised these days, aren't they?
Did you forge your identity through music in the way you described?
Yeah definitely, 100%, through music and fucking youth culture and fashion and all the rest of it. I wouldn't know any other way to express myself. My parents, they're from that mod-soul generation, wearing nice clothes and buying records and reading decent books. And that's not to say I've always been like that, but definitely as a teenager, whether being into indie music, or later getting into raving, you know, there's not many ways of making sense of the world, and I sure as hell haven't been able to find that through watching fucking television. It's through music that I've made most of my relationships and friendships and it's how I make my living, and I'd struggle to think how I'd make sense of the world without it.
Domina (C. Craig's Mind Mix)
I actually thought this record came out quite a few years after it did, which stupidly makes me like it even more. Do you remember where you first heard it?
I think I first heard that one when I was working at Imperial Records, which was the first record shop I worked at, in Bristol. So I'd have been about 21. Prior to that I'd heard Maurizio's "M4," but again, I had a lack of accessibility to this music, and when I started working at Imperial, my friend Ralph who does stuff as Bass Clef these days, he was working there. He introduced me to the whole world of Basic Channel and Maurizio and Rhythm & Sound and everything like that.
Both sides of this record blow my mind. The original is great but the Carl Craig one, it's just perfect. I remember hearing it for the first time, it was almost quite exotic. You know, it's a guy from Detroit remixing someone from Berlin—like, wow. Even then Berlin felt so far away. I didn't have much money, it wasn't like I was part of that EasyJet generation who could go and just fly away. I was working in record shops for fuck all, I couldn't just fly over to Berlin, it seemed so far away. And like Carl Craig, "Oh wow, like fuck, Carl Craig!" These mythical figures.
Just this year I've been opening sets with it, and I find it quite a good reset. Especially if someone's been playing quite banging before you, it kind of bangs but it's got a subdued euphoria to it, which I really like.
There's an element of Carl Craig's productions that I think is exemplified by this. There's almost like a late-night-in-the-city vibe about his best tracks. I don't know if it's the synth strings he uses or…
One of the things that drew me to techno as well, around that time, is I have always been interested in older music, but with techno and jungle... it felt like the sound of now. It sounds like life in the modern city. That's definitely one of the things I like about it.
Did techno or dub come first for you?
Dub definitely. I really got into dance music through drum & bass. I've got a friend, Chris Yates, who does all the artwork for Idle Hands and is from Worcester, like I am, and when we were teenagers I used to take the piss out of him for liking techno. We'd be in the car and he'd try to put on techno and I'd be like, "Fucking put some jungle on mate, what you doing?" But then slowly but surely he introduced me to a lot of things, you know, the Richie Hawtin's Decks, EFX & 909, [Aphex Twin's] Selected Ambient Works and stuff like that, and it began to click.
There's A Love (RSD Remix)
I'm already sensing a dub undercurrent in your picks, and the bass in this…
I had to have some Rob Smith. In the same breath that outsiders will always talk about Bristol and Massive Attack, in Bristol itself more people will be like, "Smith & Mighty." I love them. Before I came down here I used to really like More Rockers, their drum & bass project, and within two weeks of being here in Bristol we went to see them and we were just like, "Ahhhh." I still love what Rob does, whether it's Smith & Mighty back in the day, or RSD, or his solo stuff as Rob Smith, he's done so much over the last 35 years. He's a thread running through the continuum of Bristol music, whether it's reggae and punk bands, he did that, whether it was trip-hop or whatever, he did that. And even before that, Smith & Mighty were some of the first house producers in the UK. They don't really get credited like that but they were. Pete Tong signed them to FFRR, all this kind of stuff.
This remix is probably six or seven years old, it's from around the time the shop opened. It's a slightly slower one for him, it's actually at house speed, and it's a remix of my friends Dubkasm. The original's great, the vocals are fantastic, a really evocative Rasta vocal, the lyrics are really beautiful. It's still loosely dubstep but it's 4/4, you can play it in a house set—you've gotta be careful where you'd play it in a house set, but it can really, really work. For me the best house music is really emotional, whereas maybe the best techno music is quite cold and austere. The best house music has to have that feeling of some kind of love or desperation; it's gotta have that yearning feeling, and this has got it in spades. It's a fucking love song to the universe and its ideas are based in Rasta ideas. It's just one of those records I think you could play to anyone and they'd love it.
I Have To Do This Thing
There was no audio for this online when I looked, but Discogs has it tagged as leftfield, house, abstract and deep house. Does that sound accurate?
Yeah kind of. I really like Paul's music, I've put out a couple of things by him, we've got another thing coming next year, he's a little bit unsung. I think one of the reasons he is unsung is he's done a breadth of stuff, whether it's slightly noise-informed rocky kind of stuff, through to house music, through to dub. He never sits still. I don't love all of his music, but there are certain things that really, really resonate with me, and this is one thing. I picked this tune because it's around the time that I first became a buyer at a record shop, and it came through a distributor called Baked Goods that had such a broad breadth of interesting electronica and stuff like this. They used to do a lot of importing—Trapez and Kompakt and [other] stuff as well—so they were like a one-stop shop to get some of that interesting minimal, and this one just stuck out.
It was around the time I was getting interested in disco. I'd always been interested in post-punk, and this track seemed to throw everything all into one pot. It had references from everything, whether it's Afrobeat, or post-punk, or almost Arthur Russell-type disco. But it also just works on the dance floor. It's another one of those records where I felt pretty confident giving it to people in the shop. It's maybe not that everyone's gonna play it to get a massive reaction, but both sides have a really nice feel for setting the scene. It's one that sounds cool in a little underground bar where you're playing to 200 people.
Is Paul a fan of dub also? I did hear the Idle Hands record, and I was thinking, "Oh, sounds like there's a connection with Chris's taste here."
Yeah, he's done some stuff on the ZamZam label as well, which for those that don't know is one of the more interesting modern dub labels, if not the most interesting. They've got a broad reach in terms of what they lay out. Brendon Moeller's done some stuff on there as well. Paul definitely comes from a similar musical place to me, that's why I think we have the relationship we have. We've got a record coming out next year, and I'm sure in another two years after that we'll do another record.
What do you like about running a label alongside the shop?
I think growing up, I never imagined that I'd be running a record label. I grew up in Worcester, nothing fucking happens there, it's not a cultural hotbed. I know I'm lucky and my parents are into music, and they'd take me to London and show me stuff. But it never felt like something I'd ever do, and it was only really moving to Bristol, and seeing people like Pinch and Peverelist run labels, before I started to get the idea that I might be able to do it. It was only really with the help of Pev that I got running in the first place.
I know Idle Hands isn't like a massive label, but it's got a pretty good reputation. I know I can approach certain people and I trust my ears enough to know we can put something together that will represent the artist and represent the label. Other labels maybe do one particular sound and draw in artists who have that particular sound. I'm less interested in that. I'm in a privileged position being a buyer in my own record shop, where I get to hear a broad range of shit.
Tech This Out
To me this felt like the kind of 12-inch that could sit in a record bag for years.
Yeah it has done. It was my friend Rich Carnes, who used to write for RA, who put me onto it. It was actually quite difficult to get hold of for a little while. I nearly prised it off Rich, like, "Go on, give us a copy." But then, as is often the way on Discogs, a few copies turned up and I bought one straight away, and it's sat in my record bag since then.
To me, it's just a perfect house tune. It's so nicely paced, but it has a forward propulsion to it as well. It's a nice one for getting things going, it fits with some of the more broken vibes. You know, when Karizma's good, he's fucking great, and it's one of those ones.
It actually reminds me of Basic Channel, with the chord banging off against the downbeat.
Yeah, and again it's quite minimal. A lot of the tunes that I really like aren't too flashy, they are probably based in some kind of minimalism. It's a really nice one to mix as well, you can layer it up for like three minutes, it's fine. There's nothing too hectic coming in. Definitely in years gone by I've smoked a lot of weed, and it has a bit of a stoned groove to it. It's just a recommended tune for the DJs.
This is on the restrained end of what Karizma does, right?
Definitely. He's done some amazing vocal house tunes. Like Shanti [Celeste] always plays "The Power," which is great and I like that as well, but this is more your kind of backroom or underground club, this is playing in Cosies at like midnight to just get things going.
Do you get to DJ much at the moment?
For years I've played quite a bit in Bristol, historically here and there doing different bits and bobs around the city, but this year I wanted to take a bit of a step back from that and focus more on actually my DJing. Actually be like, "No, if you book me I'm not just gonna come with a bag of records and play some stuff." Which is probably what I've always done. No, I'm gonna take some time, take some more care in the art. If you book me I'll have spent time thinking about it and planning for the occasion, and making sure it's right for your party, and getting back to enjoying it more, rather than it just being a thing that I do on a Friday night.
Fallen Masses (Mania Version)
This is a slightly older one from the Sex Tags axis. It's difficult to think of a group of artists who have been more inspired and consistent in recent years.
I'm quite cynical about a lot of things. There are certain bigger artists who come in the shop that I'm not really interested in, but if there's one thing I'm kind of obsessed with—I'm a Sex Tags fanboy. I basically have two copies of pretty much everything they've done. I mean, it helps that we're one of the main shops in the UK that stock Sex Tags, I know Stefan [DJ Sotofett] pretty well. I know Peter [DJ Fett Burger] as well a little bit. I'm always gonna stock their records, I really love them.
The first time I saw DJ Sotofett play, it's the best DJ set I've ever seen. It was round the corner at Take 5 Cafe. He played for six hours in the club, and then we took him back to the shop, our old shop, and had an afterparty there until whatever time in the morning, and it was just perfect. I've seen DJ Sotofett play "The Lambada" and make it sound like the most vital tune ever, because he's just perfect at reading the moment of where people are at and how you can push things as a DJ. I've seen him do that thing of seamlessly jumping between boogie tunes into drum & bass in two tracks.
Do your customers share your enthusiasm for Sex Tags?
I definitely over order on Sex Tags quite a lot, but that's OK… It's a real cornerstone of what we do, and probably like the reggae, it's not necessarily what people always want, but sometimes it's what they need.
(The Mike Huckaby S Y N T H Remix)
This is incredible. And it also evokes Basic Channel.
I know. As I've been doing this I've noticed how everything is actually just fucking dub, isn't it? But this is just a banger. I came across this around the time we opened the shop. There was a really great energy amongst people here. So I opened the shop, and it was me, Sean Kelly [of The Kelly Twins], Kowton and Shanti, and all of us—I mean, we still are, but especially at that time we were fucking obsessed with tunes and showing each other tunes and what we'd found.
I think this turned up on a YouTube trawl, and I think it'd probably been out for about two or three years by that point. I was kicking myself, like, "How the fuck have I not heard this?" I mean, it sounds perfect in itself, doesn't it? Vladislav Delay and Mike Huckaby. I'm like, well, it's as good as it sounds. But again, it's not an out-and-out banger, it's quite a slow-paced moderate kind of thing, but when it hits, you just know. It's that kind of tune. It's four o'clock in the morning, you're probably flagging a little bit, but that sound comes in, it's gonna keep you going, it keeps you on your feet. It's just sparse elements. Ah, it's so strong.
Does this exemplify the sort of techno that you gravitate towards?
Yeah, probably a little bit. Again, quite stripped back, a little bit of warmth there, but not too many bells and whistles. Solid quality fucking techno music.
Dark Soldier (Back In The Day Mix)
It's a bit of a masterclass, this one. You've got those two enormous basslines playing off each other, and then breaks are tantalisingly withheld.
It's so fucking good, isn't it? This is one of my all-time favourite tunes, and I had to have some jungle or drum & bass in this list. I in no way claim to be an authority on jungle and drum & bass. I've been into it for a long time, but it was more as a young raver. And I've got a lot of drum & bass records. I've got friends who could tell you the minutiae of all the different shit. I'm not really like that, I'm a casual fan, but this is one that's always stood out.
And yeah, you're right, it takes about three or four minutes for it to actually drop. I play it to people, and they're like, "Oh yeah, that's alright." I think that first bit is great, but they don't realise a complete and utter fucking raging break is coming in shortly and is gonna take your head off.
Years ago, it was the second or maybe third time that DJ Rashad had come to Bristol. The couple of times before when he'd played it was fully footwork, juke kinda stuff. But later you could tell he was adopting all these European influences, right? They came over and they heard drum & bass. And watching Rashad play this, and he didn't play the raging break bit either, but just this thing, like, "My God, he's playing fucking 'Dark Soldier'!" It felt like a real doffing of the cap to UK culture. I defy anyone to not wanna dance when they hear this. My friend Carly always jokes that when I dance to jungle, I dance with both feet off the ground. And this is one of those tunes where I definitely do it, in a zip-up cagoule and bruking out to it.
Ja Funmi (Remix)
I read that Island signed King Sunny Ade following Bob Marley's death in an attempt to find another star who had the same kind of cross-cultural appeal. But he apparently didn't sell particularly well. I imagine the mass markets in Europe and the States probably found what he did too far out.
Which is odd really, isn't it? Because a lot of his stuff is super melodic. I first became aware of him as a kid. My dad used to like Andy Kershaw on Radio 1, who was playing a lot of West African music. This tune I heard when I was about 20, 21. Now what's interesting about this is it was mixed in London by a guy who was interested in dub. It's one that just stands out for showing the possibilities of dub. It sounds like a tune François K would play when he's talking about how great dub is and the possibilities of it.
Initially this felt like an outlier in the list, until you told me about your background with indie. How big a part of your musical makeup is it?
I think if you chatted to Kiran—we're both really just indie kids at the heart of it. Indie kids who ended up in the rave. I mean, it's not like I'm there listening to the fucking Libertines, but there's a particular period in British indie which I think is particularly interesting and exciting. Coming out of post-punk and moving towards the C86 jangly stuff. I really like a lot of that. But Felt straddled a few different things; they're the great lost indie band, you know? Like these days, everyone likes The Smiths, even Orange Juice are well regarded, but still Felt, who are musically equal to both those bands, they're not really known, and it's actually tragic. Lawrence, the main guy, deserves more credit, he deserves more money, he should be a fucking celebrity. I mean, Morrissey is fucking embarrassing these days, it's embarrassing being a Smiths fan. Lawrence isn't embarrassing, he's still got plenty of interesting things to say, he's an interesting guy, he's just fallen on kind of hard times and it's sad to see.
But yeah this one, it stands out, it doesn't really sound like anything else. This is a really special band. I think maybe because I'm from the West Midlands as well, they were just down the road making that, so it sounds extra special. I heard this when I was a teenager, and it was on a compilation that NME did of Creation Records, and I think this was right at the end. And I was like "Who the fuck are these guys?" But famously Felt did ten singles and ten LPs in ten years and then called it a day.
Which must add to the cult status, right?
Like I said, I just don't think they should be a cult band. There's so much there to really enjoy. And I think probably when Lawrence dies people will be like, "Oh yeah, they were great." And it's like, he should be celebrated now, and the music he makes now should be really loved.
Do you still reach for this track often?
Yeah definitely. I listen to Felt all the time, and the thing is they did so many kinds of varying styles over those ten years. You meet people who'd be like, "I only like the early period," or "I only like the late period." This is one of the last ones they did. I was in Low Company, Kiran's shop, the other day, and Kenny, who works there, put it on. We'd all been chatting, chatting, chatting, and there was a moment of quiet reverence for "Space Blues." Like, "Yeah. That's a nice one."