Interview by Marc Kets
Kirk Degiorgio is one of the most sought-after mixers/producers/Dj in today's eclectic dance music scene. Steering away from musical cliches and sticking to his soul-boy roots, he has managed to maintain his musical integrity over the years. Having recorded under numerous aliases including As One, Elegy, Esoterik, Critical Phase, Family Values, Super-A-Loof, The Off World Ensemble and his current most expansive project, The Beauty Room with the vocalist Jinadu. Having run the ART label (Applied Rythmic Technology) and the Op-ART label in the early 90s he released seminal early material by artists such as Carl Craig, Aphex Twin, Stasis, and The Black Dog. Degiorgio cemented his reputation with his As One albums "Reflections" and "Celestial Soul", which both made the Muzik Top 30 albums for 1994/5. Further albums for Clear and Shield secured his reputation as a producer with a unique, individual sound that often incorporated jazz, soul, and funk elements into his beautiful electronic soundscapes. Degiorgio's sound is a true reflection of his main musical influences: P-Funk, Motown, early hip hop, Detroit techno, and mid-60's Blue Note. With his Beauty Room project making huge waves over the course of the past few months you can be sure that Kirk will continue to offer us the highest quality, most sublime enriching tapestry of sounds in no matter what form they undertake for years to come, and for that our record collections will that much the better.
Radio had a huge influence on you when you were making your initial forays into discovering music, would you say that radio has changed since then for the better or worse? Are there any particular shows that you make a point of listening to now?
When I first got into dance music I was too young to build up a large record collection or get into nightclubs - so taping radio shows was the only way I could regularly listen to the kind of music my aunt had gotten me into. Fortunately I lived within range of the Essex and London stations - national radio played very little underground black music apart from the odd disco hit and it was rare to see anything in that style on Top Of The Pops etc. Nowadays anybody in the world can listen to underground dance music from around the globe on the net - either by web stations or podcasts. However, the "noise level" has increased and its particularly hard to find a regular high quality "essential listening" show. I think I would be better suited living on a campus in the US with one of those amazing radio stations that do ridiculous and wonderful things like play Miles Davis for an entire week around his birthday. That would be my kind of station. I've just secured a monthly radio show for RBMA called "Sound Obsession" with this kind of concept in mind - except I've got 2 hours not a whole week! I was reading recently that the inspiration behind Donald Fagen's "The Nightfly" album was how he romanticized the NY DJs he would tune-in to from his suburban life in New Jersey. For me it was the same - living in a suburban town listening to these urbane DJs such as Greg Edwards and Robbie Vincent - I had that same romantic vision of these guys.
Would you say that with the advent of social circumstances such as hip hop culture, MTV and the like has pulled what could've been a huge listening base away from more progressive forms of music? If so, how do you we get them back?
Certainly in the US - most of the black community are into R&B and Hip-Hop and the majority don't particularly know or care about techno, jazz, broken beat, etc. In the UK and Europe more people than ever are into these musical genres.
You were influenced by DJ Froggy, now for those of us who may be unaware of who he was could you fill us in on who he was and what it was about him that caught your ears?
DJs like Gary Dennis and Dr Bob Jones could probably tell you a whole lot more about Froggy, but my knowledge of him comes from his appearances on Robbie Vincent's Saturday morning shows on Radio London around 1980-81. Froggy was an Essex based DJ who came on as guest a couple of times and played what he called his "Mono Monster Mixes" which were 20 minute mix-sets basically. The selections he played and the way he mixed them was years ahead of what anybody else was doing in the UK. It was more like the style of DJs such as Shep Pettibone in NY. I recently sold some records to CJ Mackintosh and I mentioned these mixes to him whilst chatting about our musical backgrounds. He was pretty impressed that I could actually remember the order of some of the mixes - Joe Thomas "Make Your Move" into Eddie Russ "Zauis" was one that stuck in my memory - despite not having heard them for 25 odd years. That's how much impact they had on me. CJ actually has some of these mixes on cassette.
You were amongst a group of friends that included Andy Turner and Ed Handley of Black Dog and Plaid fame, how influential do you think that those early years were on the records that you ultimately went on to make? Were there any records that were particularly influential?
When I first met Ed and Andy we were all heavily into electro and early hip-hop. Stuff like Cold Crush Brothers, Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash, etc. Some of those records - like the Jonzun Crew album "Lost In Space", Warp 9 "Light Years Away", Man Parrish "Hip Hop Be-Bop", Grandmaster Flash "Scorpio", Soulsonic Force "Looking For the Perfect Beat", etc were very influential on my early productions. Double Dee & Steinski's "Lesson One" was hugely influential on me as a mixer and taught me a lot about editing. I think the influence of electro and early hip-hop is even stronger with Plaids subsequent productions.
Growing up in Ipswich were you ever tempted to deliver your records personally to Jon Peel?
Not really. It would have been quite easy actually, but I wasn't a huge fan of his shows. I know he played some electro and later techno - but his eclecticism was a little too much for my tastes. What I really admired him for was his supporting of acts like Tyrannosaurus Rex back in the late 60s.
Tell us about your night "Sweat"?
20 years on and people of a certain age group still come up to me in the street in Ipswich and mention Sweat. Its unbelievable. There had been nothing like that in Ipswich before - 700 people, all ages, predominantly black but also a white student contingent all dancing to funk, soul, rare groove, house, electro, etc. The first event was the best as it just took everybody by surprise. Unfortunately there was some trouble outside afterwards and the police came in large numbers after a few shop windows were smashed. It turned into a mini-riot and was on the local news the next morning. Madness. I had to walk home with two large boxes of records and all I could hear were sirens. The second was too rammed. That club could only hold around 500 without being crowded and there were almost double that trying to get in. It was still a rocking night but the vibe wasn't as friendly. Somebody threatened to knife me if I didn't play any reggae - luckily my DJ partner Floyd calmed the situation pretty quickly. Floyd was a great DJ - he is the elder brother of the ex-professional footballer Louis Donowa. Louis was the only person we knew who could afford Technics 1200s and he had them setup at home, so Floyd was a really good mixer as he got loads of practice. The third and final Sweat was insane also. It was the height of the rare groove boom and we made it a 70s fashion night. You couldn't get in unless you dressed up. The local charity stores were totally cleaned out of old clothes that month. Sadly we had problems with security after that night and that was the end of Sweat. I'd moved to London by that time anyway. Big Sweat tunes were: Eric B & Rakim: Paid In Full, Public Enemy: Bring the Noise, /Rebel Without A Pause, Maceo & the Macks: "Across the Tracks", The JBs: "The Grunt", The Jackson 5 "I Want You Back", Jackson Sisters "I Believe In Miracles", Original Concept "Can You Feel It", various early house tunes: "House Nation", "Jack Your Body", "Love Can't Turn Around", etc.
What sort of an influence did Patrick Forge have on your career once you moved to London?
I had Patrick to thank for giving me a much sought-after job working part-time at Reckless Records in 1987. On any given Saturday you could have Norman Jay, Frankie Foncett, Dave Piccioni, Ashley Beedle, Jeremy Newell, Justin Berkman, Roy The Roach, Kirsten the Funky Fly, Judge Jules, Coldcut, Frankie Valentine all come and pay a visit. Later in the early 90s Tim and Laetitia from Stereolab, AFX and Grant from Rephlex, Mike Golding from B12, Pete Hutchison founder of Peacefrog, Steve Stasis, Ed & Andy from Black Dog, etc would all pay regular visits. I might not have met many of these people - or heard such a vast variety of dance music if Patrick hadn't given me that job. Incidentally, before I knew him Patrick was at the last Sweat event as he was visiting his folks back in Ipswich that night. I couldn't believe it when I recognized him behind the counter of my favourite second hand record store in London!
You sold your entire record collection after returning from a trip to the Midwest where you were inspired by the studio setups of seminal labels such as Transmat,Metroplex and KMS. Do you think you would've started to make records if you have had not made the trip?
Most probably - although the trip to Detroit was the inspiration for me to buy my own equipment. Just prior to the trip I had been invited to Black Dog Towers by Ed and Andy. At that time it was located just north of Oxford Street in Ken Downie's workplace - a caretakers room I believe so it was just 10 minutes from Reckless. I visited 5 or 6 times and collaborated on 2 or 3 tunes that I took to Detroit. I've never heard those tracks since - I don't have them anywhere in the vaults either. Maybe Ken has them.
What do you think it was about people like Juan Atkins that made them put out music that was so groundbreaking? What do you owe the longevity of so many records produced during that era to?
Apart from the obvious talent these guys had, I think the city of Detroit - its unique environment and its rich musical heritage - has a lot to do with the longevity and groundbreaking nature of those early techno records. You've got an almost exclusively black urban metropolis that for many years was governed by hardliners determined to do things their way - not Washington's - after most of the inner-city was burnt-out during the riots of the late 60s. Couple that maverick isolationist attitude with the paradox of the worst urban decay and poverty in the US existing alongside the hi-tech machinery of the billion dollar car industry and you're going to get a unique set of environmental influences on creativity. Detroit was also home to the unique sounds of P. Funk and Motown - to both of which you can apply the words "longevity" and "groundbreaking". MC5 and the Tribe jazz label Detroit has always been a hotbed of musical invention - much of which seems to have been communicated via radio DJs such as Electrifying Mojo.
How did As One come into being? You've released records under this moniker for labels such as B12, Ubiquity, Versatile and Mo'wax, have there been any particular records that you feel best describe the aims of the project, and what is it that makes a record a As One record as opposed to a Esoterik or a Family Values record for example? Do you have any specific aims for each project?
I've always been fairly honest about my use of pseudonyms - really they purely came about as a way of working for different labels without any legal problems. Techno producers really paved the way for artists to work non-exclusively in this way. Sometimes they have a loose "association" with a particular side of my work - Future/Past is almost always hard techno and Super-A-Loof is used for various collaborations. But the musical style of As One, Esoterik, Elegy and my own name could be interchangeable.
Some of my favorite work that you've done has been under Critical Phase with Dan Keeling for New Religion where you've found yourself on the same label as Juan Atkins, what do you think it is about the records being put out by the label that has made such a huge impact in recent years?
New Religion was in a privileged position in that it was a subsidiary of a major label. So there are always benefits of having a larger budget to work with. Dan Keeling and Alex Bond are also very good A&R guys and know techno history inside-out.
What makes for a good collaboration?
Acceptance and accomodation of the different working methods of the person you're collaborating with.
Mo'wax and James Lavelle gets a lot of flak from the press and various scabs on certain message boards, what was it like working with him and what do you think it was about the label that made it so seminal before it's assassination by the press?
My experience of James Lavelle was of a passionate, visionary A&R guy who fought to get his artists complete artistic freedom on their projects. He was under immense pressure from A&M for some hits when I was working on Planetary Folklore. So what did he let me do? A 6 track album of modal jazz meets techno meets drum n bass. I'll always have respect for James and his label no matter how bad his hairstyle gets.
You've said in the past that you wish you lived in the 60s. What was it about this era that draws you to it so much?
It was the last era when it really felt possible for young people to change the way we live on a truly massive level. But typically human nature made a mess of it - but some very good music got made in that process.
Rudy van Gelder changed the way how jazz records were engineered, what is it about the music that he produced and how much do you think that it owed to being in the same room as people like Coltrane and Monk? What do you think it is about something like Coltrane's "Love Supreme" album that has made it stand out?
His recording techniques differed for the various labels he recorded for: Prestige, Impulse! And Blue Note all have a very different sonic signature. I think there are many who would like to know the inner secret workings of Van Gelder. Obviously, working with musicians of the caliber of those you mentioned is a hugely significant factor. As for A Love Supreme - I think it stands out as a monumental work created in the very midst of the optimism and "anything is possible" vibe of the mid-sixites that I mention above. I believe Coltrane hid himself away for 4 or 5 days after the birth of a child and wrote the album. It's a prayer in the form of jazz. Listening to that album is like going to church.
You were credited with being the first DJ to professionally use Ableton Live. What made you decide to use the program, and what do you see as being the advantages to using it? Where do you see Djing going?
Within 5 minutes of messing with the demo version of Live 2 I knew it was the ultimate tool to take Djing to a level of performance not possible with traditional methods of decks or CD-Js. It was like a lightning bolt in my brain and I've never looked back. The fact that its quite controversial and misunderstood has clouded the sheer genius of it, but its not such a big deal now - 4 yrs after I first used it on a tour of Japan. I could go on for pages and pages about the various benefits of Live, but essentially - you can mix any number of full tracks of any key or tempo - on the fly, re-editing differently every night, adding a wide range of effects, adding your own loops or looping sections of other tracks, record live jamming and add instantly to the set, slow down/speed up, create custom racks of effects, play as simple as you like or as complex as you like, prepare and plan your set or go completely blind - pulling out files from your browser without even cueing them and trying random mash-ups, etc, etc, etc. It's insanely difficult - or mind-numbingly easy - depends how deep you're prepared to go and how much you want to push it. The easy approach is a waste of time - might as well go the vinyl route as its more suited to simple linear sets. DJ technology should be about making things more insane - not about making things easier.
Tell us about The Beauty Room project. What was it like working with someone like Ian O'Brien?
Jinadu and I first collaborated on the AS ONE album "21st Century Soul" on Ubiquity Recordings in 2001. Both of us have worked mainly in the electronic dance genre - recording for a wide range of labels from Mo'Wax to Bitches Brew. The Beauty Room came about through continued collaboration, with myself sending Jinadu sketches of songs with increasingly unusual progressions. Jinadu worked his magic and returned them enhanced with catchy melodies, hooks galore and layers of rich harmonies. The Beauty Room marks a notable stylistic shift for both of us.
You're on Peacefrog now, which has set it's stall as being one of the more progressive labels around at the moment releasing records by Jose Gonzalez, Recloose, Moodymann and now your project. Why do you think your music is suited to the label, and what is it about the label that seems to attract artists of such unquestionable genius?
Simple. Pete Hutchison knows his music. He used to come into Reckless and buy loads of rare jazz. But he's not a purist (except for his love of analog gear) or music snob and is really into rock, techno and other forms of music. Hence his label's diversity.
You mentioned in an interview that you appreciate seeing cultures at first-hand. Do you think that a lot of areas are marginalized by the media to suit a higher political purpose?
Yes, especially in the US and I've seen it in Southern Europe too.
What do you learn from seeing the way how different people live, and do you incorporate any of these traits into your own work?
I've learnt that while politicians live the high life and play dangerous power games its ordinary people who suffer and pay the price - when all anybody really wants is a decent standard of living for their family in relative security. Who knows if some of this impacts my creativity at some level? I can't answer.
What was it like working on the ArRange project for the Redbull Music Academy in Seattle last year?
Best week of my musical life. Deodato, UR, Clare Fisher, David Matthews, Bob Power... nuff said.
Marc Kets, Jul 2006