Bloc File: Rob Hall
In a rare interview, the Skam label associate, Gescom member and Autechre tour DJ gives us an insight into life on the road with the Warp act, tells us about life his role in Gescom and talks about his acclaimed ‘mix a month’ series…
Do you DJ full time?
“Yeah, I’m quite busy at the moment, but it comes in stops and starts. There wasn’t anything for about six weeks and then I was inundated with gigs, but yes, it’s my source of income.”
One of your DJing jobs is as Autechre’s official tour DJ - how did that happen?
“I hesitate to say I’m the official tour DJ, but every tour they’ve done in the past decade, I have done. They’re my mates, so sure, it’s jobs for the boys, but we’ve grown up together and shared so much that I don’t think that anyone else do as compatible a job musically. I still don’t take anything for granted though - they might decided to take another DJ with them out on tour and I’d be stuck at home reading about it on the internet, going green with envy!”
Do you get nervous having to warm up for Autechre? Is it an ordeal having to play in front of their fans who have really come to see them?
“I don’t suffer from nerves to be honest: it doesn’t bother me if it’s 100 or 1,000 people in the audience, my job is to pay attention to what is on before and after me, I’m trying to fit my selection to suit that situation - a lot of it is second guessing people. My set at the start of the night is usually about two hours long, so there is no point in playing 130bpm techno, but in between the support act (who was SND on the last tour) and until Autechre came on, I ramp it up a bit. You get some geeks who come to the shows who only want to hear Autechre: for them, everything apart from Autechre’s show is an annoyance or a distraction, but they don’t concern me. They are not there to party and I’m sure they hate everything that I play. I’m there for everyone else, people who have come with their friends to have a good night out.”
So you must have some wild stories about life on the road… I assume you’ve bitten heads off parrots and engaged in pre-show satanic rituals…
“Broadly speaking, what you are thinking is correct; the stories about bands on tour are true. The tour manager we always use also does tours for other bands that are much more ‘rock’n’roll’. We are quite modest really because we’re all mates and there aren’t any egos to speak of. We can hold our own when it comes to smoking, but you won’t see us getting our balls out! Touring with Autechre is stress-free really, it’s all very friendly . There are some stories, but I have to respect the ‘what goes on on tour, stays on tour’ law; who am I or a small band like Autechre to interfere with a law like that?!
“The other big difference is that a lot of bands go on tour and only play three gigs a week and the tour takes four months, whereas we do a gig pretty much every night. We get into a routine and stick to it and it’s not a problem. The problems start when bands get a few days off and they start to get bored! The last tour Autechre did was two months. We did Europe and then took a week off and did the US, took a week off again and then did Japan, but we still did 50 gigs in two months!”
"We can hold our own when it comes to smoking, but you won’t see us getting our balls out!"
Do you play a different set every night on tour - do you have to drag big boxes of vinyl with you or do you DJ digitally?
“I use Traktor Scratch now using just a laptop. I’m sick of using turntables to be honest and I’m not really attached to or sentimental about vinyl. There is nothing attractive to me about touching a piece of black plastic or putting a needle on it. I come from a collector background, but if I hear a piece of music I want to own, I don’t care if it’s on vinyl or digital. Format has never really been important to me and nowadays I won’t buy vinyl if I can get WAVs. In the beginning, it was about owning every B12 release, every Metroplex release, every Transmat release, even if the quality of each release wasn’t amazing. I’ve got older (I’m 35 now), but even when I was in the middle of my vinyl collecting, I’d still buy CDs. It’s like if you walked into someone’s house and there was great music playing, you wouldn’t ask them if it was playing on a cassette or a CD, you’d just think it was great music. That’s what’s important - not whether you get it on vinyl or in ones and zeros.”
Are Skam releases so valuable now because they were made available in such limited editions? Do you think people who are into techno/electronic music like being presented with barriers, either to find music or to find out who the artist behind the music is?
“I’d be a multimillionaire if I had the answer! I’ve seen it with older artists too: if the quality is very high and it’s in short supply, if you hold back and don’t give away much information, stay mysterious, you can get people’s attention, it makes them want to listen. It helped Underground Resistance and it made people curious about Maurizio from Basic Channel curious because he would only play behind a curtain where you could see the vaguest outline of his face. I’m also guilty: I love the Ancient Methods records and sometimes wonder if it’s a well-known techno producer, but the reality is probably that it’s two guys who no one has ever heard of. Then there are people like Redshape and DJ Stingray who play in masks - this must be a huge physical inconvenience, as anyone who has stood on a stage to perform knows how hot it is. Unfortunately being mysterious and anonymous is kind of self-defeating in the end because when everyone finds out who you really are, you have to keep wearing a mask. Everyone knows who Redshape is, but he still has to wear a mask. The internet has made it almosy impossible for anyone to stay anonymous anymore.”
So what is the situation with Skam - it seems to be under the radar at the moment…
“The label is still there, but we stripped it back. Unfortunately, most labels realise too late that they cost more than they are earning and that’s why they close. Because we are all mates, it was easier to cut back on the label’s activities. We were always really lucky that the quality of the demos we received were very high. But after a while, the music Skam was releasing became so defined as a genre so we scaled back the releases (and the costs) and Skam is now being run by one person from a small office – which is positive too because you can pick and choose the releases more selectively.”
What’s your role in Gescom - do you bring the DJ input or are you involved on a technical level?
“That question has been asked so many times, but it’s very difficult to answer because the set up is so informal. Sometimes it’s my turn to sit there and go ‘no, not like that’ or to source loops or samples. It’s a broad role and it really depends on who is in the room at the time. There are no egos and Gescom’s members don’t have a specific purpose until a new idea comes along. This happens quite a bit though because the other people involved have so many inspirations. Without sounding too obtuse, I think you’d struggle to get a straight answer from any of the other members because Gescom isn’t a formulated entity: it has an open-door policy for new members. Most collaborations are quite contrived and calculated - this one is more freeform.”
Why did you start the mix a month series – was there a concept behind it and was it hard to do every month?
“It started in May 2007 and ended in April 2008. It formed as a concept because I was at Skam every day, it was a full-time job, and I needed another outlet and this sounded like such a grand concept. It was always possible to miss a month (I didn’t), but I ended up putting a huge amount of work into it. Getting the website together took a while and so did formulating some of the thinking behind it, like only making each mix available for a month. I did all the mixes chronologically and there were a lot of thought processes put into the mixes. They were seasonal, so some of the mixes in the summer had a lazier, hip-hop feel to them and the winter ones were darker, more moody. When I create something I have the tendency to pick it apart, and I wouldn’t do it again - I got too obsessed with it!”
On the back of the success of the mix series were you tempted to put out a commercially available mix CD?
“I knew that quite a bit of file-sharing went on, but in the first month there were about 3,000 downloads, and as the series went on, it was broadly up. By the end, there were about 5,000 downloads per mix. It’s the power of free music! Was I tempted to do a mix? Not really - when I started to do the series, some people seemed to think it was fine to pay 15 quid for a mix CD, but I’m actually surprised people still buy them. It’s a bit cheeky to be honest. It’s not an artist album, you are a selector: you are much better off posting your mixes for free, you reach a far wider audience. “
Did you get a lot of gigs due to the series - was this also a reason to do it in the first place?
“Yes, the other motivation was that it was a way to get more gigs: there were two recordings of mine that were floating about that were about five years old and the series was a great way to my viewpoint across. I’m not dissing this interview because it’s an interesting chat, but I’d rather get publicity by people hearing me in a club or one of my mixes than by having my photo or opinions in a magazine. God knows we have enough people like that already in electronic music.”