Steve Lawler made his name championing a seedy concoction of house and tribal progressive on compilations with ominous names like 'Dark Drums' and 'Lights Out', but mention the 'T' (tribal) or the 'D' word (drums) to the man these days and he's quick to point out that he's left all that behind. The sinister voices, creepy synths and bongo bonanza that once characterised a Lawler set have been turfed, and like many of progressive's former henchmen, Lawler has turned to a blend of European electrohouse, deeper tech house and even the odd dash of minimal.
Lawler is also moving away from just DJing to new successes in A&R, something he never quite got a handle on with his previous stable. Harlem stuck to a strict menu of tribal prog, and inevitably folded. But these days his digital electrohouse and tech house imprint Viva Music, home to the likes of Italy's Presslaboys and hot Brit Simon Baker, has been getting plays and praise from DJs as varied as Ivan Smagghe, Konrad Black and Miss Kittin. Lawler has proved himself very good at spotting up-and-coming talents ahead of the pack too: he was the first big name to champion British producers like Audiofly and Simon Baker back in 2005.
Lawler is turning over another new leaf, too. Never one for sitting in the studio when he could be out on the road, he has just completed new singles for Renaissance, Tsuba and Boxer Sport. He even has an album in the works. What's more, these are records that dispense with the dark and dirty tribal template and look towards clean new European sounds for inspiration. Lawler's forthcoming 12" 'Courses for Horses' could almost have been forged in Bremen by Bodzin and Huntemann.
There is one thing that hasn't changed though. Lawler, one of dance music's true cowboys, still tells it like he sees it. He might not have graduated charm school, but he's pretty charming anyway. And even a bit worried about how he was going to come across, bless him. "I hope I haven't offended anyone I know, " Lawler says before he hangs up the phone. "It's really difficult in interviews to be honest and true to yourself. I've been nailed so many times by saying what I think." No worries, Steve. We took out all the really offensive bits. Tell your mum she can read this one.
I tried to reach you the other month when you were on your way to Glasto. What happened?
Sorry about that. We took a 30-foot RV and within five minutes of getting there we got stuck because the thing was so heavy and it'd been raining. I don't think any of us realised that you don't take something that big to Glastonbury. Live and learn. (laughs)
How was the festival anyway?
I love music and bands so it was great to be on the other side of the fence in the thick of it rather than backstage, which is where I spend my whole life at gigs. When the Killers were on, we were in the middle of a hundred thousand people getting squashed. It was great. It's unusual for me to get a chance to go and see other music.
What kind of other music do you like?
Generally everything. I've got an expensive collection of jazz which I always listen to around the house, if I'm cooking or whatever. I think that every single style of music has its place, in my life anyway. I listen to a lot of rock bands, a lot of song-based music. I've got a big collection of drum'n'bass, the more jazzed out ambient stuff, that's really nice and chilled. I like easy listening, too. My life tends to have music on in the background all the time.
How does that connect to what you play in the clubs?
I've always thought music has to have a purpose. I don't just view it as a listening pleasure, but as an experience. I can make any experience in my life better like driving the car down to the country or cooking in the kitchen just by having music on. For me, house music is the soundtrack to the more deviant, exciting, rebellious side of my life. When I go out to a club, I want to get lost in the music. I don't just want to hear it. I want it do something. That's how I've always viewed house music and I think that comes over in the 'Lights Out' albums. So I think that's where the similarity is.
What's exciting you now in dance music?
There's always something exciting me. It's got to excite me because I need to enjoy what I do. I can't stand on stage and just play music. It bores me. I think music should be an exciting thing that feeds you. But to answer your question, a few years ago, this kind of minimal sound became a bit trendy. I didn't like that particular style of music. There was nothing there for me. It was thin and emotionless. But then that kind of gave people the licence to write deep music again, music that wasn't all about extra production. Instead of more, more, more, it started to be about less, less, less, which was a fucking good thing because that was exactly what dance music needed. Dance music in the last few years has been phenomenal because people have gone bollocks to the big drum rolls, bollocks to overcooking everything, the breakdowns and crowd reaction.
Yes, maybe that's one reason why progressive has slipped off a lot of people's radars.
Yeah, obviously when the DJ became popular, then everybody wanted to be a DJ, which means you had DJs standing on a stage taking all the glory for other people's music. Then all of a sudden every record had a big break or a big drumroll and it just became about glory and over a period of years, the music started to lose its groove. House music is about a groove. It's about jacking out on one simple loop for four minutes. But progressive lost that. It became the pop of electronic music.
You're playing a lot differently these days.
It's very difficult for me to see the change because it just doesn't happen with one record or with a bunch of records. I always see myself as hunting out new sounds because that's what excites me. I've always played a deeper sound but obviously depending on the gig, I play harder or more kind of crowd control records. But I think people don't really understand what I play or don't know how to tag me. I've been called a house DJ, an electro DJ, a progressive DJ, a tribal DJ. They'll talk about me in the same breath as Nick Warren or Dave Seaman but we play miles apart.
So why the change?
When my first 'Dark Drums' album was released, I really honed in on a particular rhythm, a particular style of song, and then all of a sudden over the course of two or three years, the tribal sound became massive, and you had people making that style of music for the wrong reasons. Then of course diluted versions of that style came through and people got bored of it. That's the way it worked for me. Everybody was playing tribal and there were less and less good records to play. Sometimes I get fans saying to me on chatboards, "Bring back the drums". They don't like that the percussion is more intricate, more electronic sounding and not made out of real bongos. These people don't know what they're talking about. I don't mean to be rude but it's pathetic. If I were still playing that heavy tribal percussive sound, I wouldn't be DJing now. I'd be bored shitless. I'd be doing something else.
Didn't Danny Tenaglia release a track subtitled 'Bring Back The Drums' last year?
Yeah, he did. (laughs) There's a lot of stuff like that still coming out on labels like Stereo, that kind of Iberican sound. Some amazing music comes out of those labels but as a DJ to just focus on that I think is slightly narrow minded when there's so much other good stuff out there. I heard Tenaglia play in Ibiza last year at Space and he played some amazing music which actually reminded me more of the Danny Tenaglia I fell in love with back in the early nineties. He dropped stripped back sounds and mixed it up with deep sexy vocal stuff. To me, that's Tenaglia. The whole big drum thing isn't really what I would associate him with although I guess that is what he's often associated with.
Your old label Harlem released a lot of tribal stuff but the new one Viva seems to have a different agenda. What are you trying to do with that?
I think Viva is a lot better than Harlem. I don't want to offend anyone, but some of the stuff on Harlem wasn't good. Some tracks weren't strong enough. They weren't ready. I was really happy with the stuff we put out at the start, but then we put a couple of tracks out that kind of went off the beaten track a little a bit, and we had to segregate the labels and from then on it became hard work.
But with Viva, because it's a digital label, I'm just signing music that I love. Music that has a deeper element to it, which is what I play. I'm lucky that as a DJ I can run a label because I don't have to have it as an income for living. I can support the industry and give others a chance to break through onto different labels. At least, that's the way I view it. Someone like Simon Baker has come out of nowhere but within the space of a few months, he's got records on Tsuba, Playhouse and my label. His career is going to go somewhere now.
I noticed there are some new tracks on your MySpace page. Does producing come naturally to you?
Producing is a real love/hate relationship for me. It's a really emotionally heavy thing for me. If I have a great day in the studio I'm like a jack-in-the-box, jumping around and really happy. If I have a bad day, it absolutely sucks. I kind of just try and make what I want to hear or what I want to play. Like the new track 'Courses for Horses' is obviously a reference to ketamine. I wanted to write something darker, put some "drums" back in there but take a more modern approach. There's probably about fifteen drum tracks going on in that song. Fifteen channels of hats and snares. My biggest inspiration for that song came from some moments I've had on the dancefloor at DC-10. I don't work on Monday so I often go there to hang out, get stuck in, have a laugh. So that's what I've been thinking about when I go into the studio.
Which producers are inspiring you now?
Someone who's shit hot, right now is Ali from Deep Dish. The music he's making is unbelievable.
That's interesting as a lot of people were disappointed with the direction Sharam went after Deep Dish.
I was too but I guess he made a decision. But I've still got an awful amount of respect for Deep Dish even though their last album was definitely more on a commercial route. But each to their own. It's funny as a lot of my friends who live back in Surry Hill, girls working as secretaries who don't go clubbing, even they know who Sharam is because he broke into the charts. So in that way he's succeeded. He's made it. 'P.A.T.T' is a great song if you like commercial/pop dance music, but personally for me, what Ali is doing is bang on it.
I guess fans don't like it when artists change. Finally, what's your take on people who don't like the fact you're not playing tribal anymore?
Well personally, I think people should stop moaning and taking things so seriously. At the end of the day if a punter goes to see a DJ and he's thinking, "Oh. He's not playing that anymore". Then don't go see him again. Go see someone else who is playing that sound. I've got a base of fans that understand what I do musically, and they move with me. They understand my music is about the feeling, the atmosphere. It's more about the sounds as opposed to the styles. The fans that are disappointed with me because I'm not playing tribal drums anymore, I just don't get them. Go and see Chus & Ceballos. They're playing tribal drums, you know?