Dom Phillips knew all the secrets

Interviewed by Bill in London, 25.5.99

Murdered for his devoted reporting from the Amazon, Dom Phillips was a truth-seeker who wrote with both his head and his heart. Before he fell in love with Brazil, Birkenhead-born Dom had been editor of Mixmag through the rollercoaster years when dance music exploded in the UK and house music became big business. He originally went to Sao Paulo to finish writing his book, Superstar DJs Here We Go, which skewered the whole idea of superstar DJs and traced the rise and fall of several. At Mixmag he nurtured a generation of writers and photographers, and created a magazine that challenged as well as celebrated its subject. In 1999 Dom was one of the last people we interviewed for the original edition of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, and his deep industry insight and behind-the-scenes perspective gave us plenty of glue to bring things together. His passion for the dancefloor, his sharp intelligence and his wry turn of phrase made him an important voice throughout. An amazing guy, we miss him.

When you started writing about dance music did you ever think it would become a global pop thing?
No. When I first heard it I was living abroad and I came home because… it was on MTV and in little gay clubs. I heard it in a gay club in Australia, and I heard it on MTV in Denmark and I came home to find out more. This was in about ‘88. I moved to Bristol, and it was in blues clubs and there was one club called the Moon Club, which was in the dodgy part of town, St Paul‘s and you’d get a mixture of hip hop and house. I knew it was going to get bigger because I would play friends things like Soul II Soul and they’d hate it at first, then they’d finally get it. But I think there was a big gulf between growing up on rock and melody to these grooves. I didn’t grow up on soul. I grew up on indie. It took a long time to get it. I thought it’d be like punk; where you’d get a big band like the Clash…

A fad?
Not a fad. Maybe as big as reggae.

Do you think it was inevitable?
I think it was inevitable after the critical mass of the summers of love and the rave years. And the massive free advertising campaign on behalf of The Sun, which was very generous of them. Once the tabloids had written that 5,000 kids were dancing all night on drugs and having sex, 500,000 kids were asking, ‘Where’s the party?’ [laughter]. It was just so obvious. And after that it suddenly went BANG! I remember hearing ‘The Theme’ by Sabres of Paradise on the Chart Show. I think it was Bruno Brooks had to play the full length version and it was eight minutes; twice as long as everything else in the Radio One top forty. I thought that was pivotal moment. I thought, ‘Fucking hell’.

Is the DJ an outlaw?
I think the thing with the DJ is that the DJ is a cultural outlaw, not necessarily a political outlaw. People get confused with dance music and how to categorise it; and where it fits. And the reason is that it doesn’t fit anywhere, because it never existed before. It’s a totally new thing since DJs came out in the ’60s with reggae. So the DJ is not an artist, but he is an artist. He’s not a promoter, but he is a promoter. He’s not a record company man, but he is. And he’s also part of the crowd. He’s an instigator who brings all these things together. Politically, I think they tend to be very very safe. They’re quite content to stay in with the record companies. They’re quite content to stay in the with the clubs, because it’s their business. It’s an interesting point that throughout dance music’s history it has always been ruthlessly opportunistic, entrepreneurial and capitalist. It’s always been about making money. In a way that was quite rebellious compared to the Red Wedge, PC thing you had before. In terms of the power a good DJ can bring. Turning a crowd into a throng. It is quite a powerful, weird role to play. So I guess they can be an outlaw in that sense. But more cultural, because they’re bringing all these things together into a new kind of creative expression. The idea of creating hotch-potches and putting them together. That’s what DJs do. And that’s quite radical. So, in that sense, yes!

Why do you think the DJ became such a superstar?
Pressure. The incident that everyone refers to at Mixmag was when David Davies, who was editor at the time, put Sasha on the cover with the phrase: First DJ Pin Up. We were accused at the time of creating the idea of a DJ superstar. Firstly the idea that a magazine can create something is wrong anyway, because it can’t. It can push things that are already going. But the reason that was happening was because were were getting reports from Sasha at Shelley’s where people were queuing up to shake his hand and guys were getting him to kiss their girlfriends and things like this. Because emotionally he was connecting with people in a way on ecstasy. The way he was putting record together. The Whitney Houston acappella. He really was making people quite emotional. It was at that point that we had a star develop. And again it’s about the money. People saw how much Sasha could get paid, and how much a personality could help, I think some DJs went to push a personality and develop a distinctive thing of their own. Some DJs had a bit of personality that the magazines and media would push. I think in the case of Wall of Sound or Jon Carter I think they fairly blatantly played up the ‘We are the mad bastards’ Loaded mad fuckers to gain attention. I think a magazine like Mixmag was happy to play along at that point because needed stars. In the case of Sasha I don’t think he really wanted it and that was what was quite intriguing about it. But at the same time, once it was offered, he was quite intrigued and flattered and excited by the prospect. And ever since he’s constantly sat on that knife-edge. He loves it .He hates it. He’s a tortured artist. But there’s people cheering. Whatever.

The impression I got at the time was that he wasn’t happy about it.
Oh, he always said he wasn’t happy about it. I think the reason he wasn’t comfortable about it was that all his mates used to phone him up and take the piss out of him. He’s quite a lad. When we did the Son Of God? cover, he really hated that. We actually had a wrestling match about it outside the Ministry of Sound.

Halo boys!

A wrestling match?
Yeah, me and Sasha wrestled. We had this protracted argument for about an hour that people were trying to break up. It didn’t become a fight, but it became this magical wrestling match. ‘You shouldn’t have said that!’ ‘You should have co-operated with the photos!’ [laughter]

Was that the one with the halo?
Yeah, the reason was he’d been a nightmare all day and wouldn’t do anything. I had to go down. At the end of the day, the photographer, exasperated, just said, ‘Go like that’ [clasps hands]. The pictures came in and Pembo [Andrew Pemberton] said, ‘Son of God’. So we did. It was more a case of necessity than we set out to do it.

How much did DJs becoming big have to do with record companies looking for new stars?
It didn’t have very much to do with record companies. There aren’t very many of them that have made it successfully as artists are there? Some of them have gone and formed bands, but they tend to be the less successful ones. Mike Pickering with M People. He wasn’t really A-list. The big DJs – Carl Cox, Jeremy Healy, John Digweed, Sasha, Pete Tong – how many of them have made great records?

Well some of them have made commercially successful records. Jeremy Healy’s had a couple of top twenty hits.
Yeah. Sells 6,000 in the first week [laughter]. Their big hits are compilation albums, which are all done on Pro-Tools anyway. They don’t even go near them.

That’s a terrible thing to say Dom!
It’s absolutely true.

I know it is.
And I hope you put it in your book! Sorry, to try and answer your question. I think one of the reasons DJs became stars was confusion in the audience. And one of the ways to give a night a badge of credibility was to put a name on it. I was involved in the first ever Mixmag night in Bristol. It was the first time Andrew Weatherall had come to town. Nobody had any idea who Andrew Weatherall was. Or what he played. Or what he stood for. But they did know that he was a DJ and he’d never been to town before so the whole city went out. It was rammed. It’s like a badge isn’t it? But then there are some DJs who are capable of magic, aren’t there? When it all connects, I don’t think there’s anywhere where you can have more fun on a Saturday night. If you’ve had one of those experiences with a great DJ, that’s been brilliant. You’ve seen Carl Cox, and you’re off your head, you’ve made loads of friends, you’re always gonna remember it. And you’re always gonna remember it was Carl Cox.

It might not even have been Carl Cox. He might have come at half ten and left! I’ve come out of a club convinced I’ve seen a great set by so-and-so and discovered years later it was by someone else. Frank Tope is a classic. I remember seeing Frank out one night at Debbie Does Dallas. Suitably refreshed. He was dancing wildly to a bootleg of ‘Stayin’ Alive’ that John Kelly was playing. An hour later, Jeremy Healy played the same record. And the same Frank walked off the floor in disgust. It’s so subjective. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m taking the piss out of DJs… I don’t mean to.

(L-R) Photographer and Time Out Clubs Editor Dave Swindells, Time Out Clubs reporter Sam Pow, Dom Phillips, unknown

What were the most dramatic changes you saw in dance culture when you were at Mixmag?
The first one was the rave scene blowing up and burning out in 1991. There was a big rave called Vision. It had 40,000 people. It was massive. And it was an utter disaster. It was deep in mud. It was when the complaints came in and the violence got really out of hand. Then you had all the cartoon records which seemed to be musically and creatively bankrupt. We were wrong. What was happening was the beginnings of jungle were being sown, and perhaps the tension of what was happening at those events contributed to that. I think around 1991 people started going to clubs to avoid ravers. Venus and those kind of places. Dress codes. Leather trousers. The music was slower, the whole thing was cooler.

I noticed when I came back in ’96, that it had really exploded and permeated the whole of our culture
I think the biggest change – and people always say ’88 – was 1994 and ’95. A club called Vague had been described as handbag. You had that mixed-gay glamour thing. I remember when Renaissance opened that was quite pivotal moment. We went to the opening of Renaissance in Mansfield. In the middle of nowhere. Like the secrecy of trying to find a rave. Finding the club, and it was full of pillars, and girls dressed in satin. Chris Howe had done the decor. I remember going to Venus and the opening of Renaissance in the same night and thinking things are really changing. But that whole thing, handbag, glam, just went BANG! I guess you wanna trace it back to the Criminal Justice Act. Was that ’94? Suddenly you’d got Cream, Renaissance, Ministry, loads of others start popping up. The little Balearic network becomes this massive thing. At that point it was so accessible. It was easier than raving. It got to the point where everybody got greedy. Talk to any promoter about 1995 and they’ll tell you, ‘We made so much money’.

Damon Rochefort of Nomad, Dom and Frank Tope, backstage at the DMC mixing competition

I was looking through Mixmag last night, and in them, the promoters were whinging about how much money DJs were earning.
It’s a supply and demand, free-market economy. You’ve got the Americans starting charging four or five grand and first class flights. So they priced themselves out of the market. They disappeared. It was the first time, I think, where DJs thought they could really make serious amounts of money. Some of them were going from making £500 a night, Sasha might have been getting share deals on the door that were taking him up to £1,800. And in 1994, for one gig that was a lot of money. And it just started to go from there. I think people, if you were top, were getting around £1,000 to £1,500 a gig. If you’re doing six gigs a week… And there were so many clubs coming up that you could do that.

I remember Dave Seaman telling me he was getting offered £1,500 to play a Tuesday and that was in ’95.
I think we really started kicking off in ’96 with the backlash. I think in ’95 we were more enthusiastic. But, as with everything we did at Mixmag, we were really responding to the letters we were getting. A lot of feature ideas came from readers’ letters. It was like the ’80s before Black Friday. It was ridiculous. I’ve got very vague memories of that year to be honest. Its a bit if blur.

Did house finish off punk’s DIY aesthetic?
I suppose, politically, it was because anyone could make a record and have a huge hit. The early bleep stuff, LFO and the like all crashing into the charts. No big deals, just pirate radio and stuff. And a lot of the jungle stuff now. So it is possible to make a living and you almost live completely outside the music business. I don’t think musically it had anything to do with punk because it’s always been quite musical and funky and that’s one thing punk wasn’t. There’s also a lot of hippie dreams in house music. A lot of people in the early days of acid house were hippies. I think it’s easier putting that on it.

But I don’t think it was conscious.
The imagery they use; the smiley faces; the flowers, the day-glo colours. And also disco. Disco fantasies. That’s another set of dreams. It seems to me the disco fantasy, the gay utopia, the ghetto we live and everyone will be free before tonight. Dance music has a lot of different ideals and dreams compressed into it. I also think it’s a music that everyone puts their own agenda on. Everyone’s got their own agenda.

Is that DIY aspect still intact today?
I think in the good clubs, the individual is as important as anyone else contributing to the club. If you go to a club, you are a star, as much as the DJ is. If you want to be. But there’s still so many records that seem to come out nowhere. This ‘Sweet Like Chocolate’. It’s gonna be a hit. I sent Stan over to get a copy, and he had to go to this fucking tower block in Old Street. What a great record. Record companies can’t keep up with it.

Do you think this is why they’ve forced groups like Prodigy into their rock template?
Yeah, it’s for students isn’t it? Students would listen to Steel Pulse, but they wouldn’t listen to Jamaican reggae. The Bee Gees but not proper disco.

This is when the NME got involved wasn’t it?
No I think Midi Circus, when they started doing this live thing. The Megadog.

But they were never cover artist…
They put Orbital on the cover in ’94. Allan Lewis, who was then the publisher, told me at In The City, that they would put someone like Orbital on the cover and take a hit in sales, because it was good for credibility. We used to have similar philosophy in Mixmag.

You mean like putting Method Man on the cover?

But they love Fatboy Slim!
Fatboy Slim is a pop star. And there’s Zoe Ball. I do like his records, but I do agree that it’s student music.

But it’s like the Prodigy. It’s an illusion. They’re not really playing live.
‘But it’s not a cabaret, okay?’ (He’s paraphrasing Liam.) Because they get out there, and they just express themselves.

Are they the new rock and roll? Are they the Big Audio Dynamite of the ‘90s, mixing guitars and samplers?
I always hated Big Audio Dynamite! I think bands like Prodigy, the Chemicals, Underworld very cleverly, have large elements of rock and roll in a way that rock audiences can understand them. Lots of clever stuff on top. The Prodigy have all this theatre stuff going on. It’s more akin to a heavy metal band. It’s almost like Kiss. It is a cabaret. They change costumes. They blow fire. You watch them and it’s a total performance where they act out certain roles. I don’t know whether they’re the new rock and roll or something else. What they do is more interesting. As far as I can work out rock and roll hasn’t changed for thirty years. It’s been exactly the same.

Except with bigger amplifiers.
Yeah, with bigger amplifiers. There’s still good records though. I think a lot of rock people were really alienated by the glamour of it all. I remember Pembo really had a thing about it in 1994 and ’95. We are anti-rock! Rock kids are saddoes. Rock journalists are saddoes. They don’t know how to enjoy themselves.

Is this the same Pembo who is now editor of Q?
Yeah, absolutely [lots of laughter]. Let me put it this way. There was a feeling at Mixmag that we were out to convert the world. Pitting ourselves against people from the rock magazines who we despised. We were flasher. We had a better time. We travelled five star. That kind of thing.

How much is club culture an essential defining part of young people’s identity?
I don’t think so much now. If you’re 18 now, you might go see Daft Punk, you might go see the Chemicals, you might go see the New Radicals. It doesn’t really matter. That’s my perception. Up until a couple of years ago, though, I’d say it was a key defining point.

Has a decade of E culture left us more open, sharing like the evangelists said it would?
Has it left us more sharing and more open? I think it has actually.

Do you think what it did was to show possibilities, because Terry Farley told us about his friends going from being plasterers to designers and A&R men and DJs and producers…
I totally agree with that. I think for a lot of men, particularly from places like the north, where I’m from. There was a great article Damon Rochefort wrote on Donna Summer once. And he described this scene where he used to go to his local club in Cardiff. And there was an edge of carpet and only the girls were on the floor and the boys would gather around the edge. What dance music did was take those boys from the edge and integrate them on the dancefloor. They learned to enjoy themselves. And be a bit more like women. Feminise them a bit. I think what you said about Terry Farley’s friends changing jobs is very true as well. I don’t think I could have become a journalist if it wasn’t for dance music. I don’t have a degree. I think a lot of people were like that. A lot of people who make records, might have been in prison or whatever. Yet they’re able to produce incredible sounds from inside their heads. I don’t think Sasha would’ve been a pop star. Sasha would’ve worked in a clothes shop or something.

How much is dance music controlled by consumerism?
No I think people are far too clever for that. I think people know what brands are and consume dance music the same as if they walk to Selfridges and buy Hugo Boss or Maharishi. They may choose to have a Cream logo etched into their hair, but it’s not because they’re brainwashed by Cream it’s because they’ve made a choice. And they’re happy to associate with that. I think it’s quite playful the way that’s done.

Have we reached the House Sucks stage?
I think we were there just before Stardust. Stardust and ‘Needin‘ U‘ were quite important, because they were two classic house records. And had they only ever been released on independent labels by unknowns, would still be massive trainspotter records. That’s the point when it all got quite classy again. You know that Lucid trance stuff? Now that really sucks. I think last year was a bit of a pivotal year, because it brought us back from the brink of Cheese Hell.

Is it really a victory for dance music that dance acts can now play in American stadiums?
It’s a really difficult question. It’s certainly a financial victory. It‘s probably a victory in terms of artists coming through, because it would help them. It‘s a shame it‘s had to fit into that template. It‘s not a perfect scenario, but again, I‘d rather it was the Chemical Brothers than Aerosmith.

Do you think it’s become so fragmented now that we will never get anything like punk or house again?
I think the only thing you can be sure of is more surprises. Other than that I really don’t know.

What is the most lasting legacy of club culture?
I think the thing we were talking about earlier, where boys can get on the dancefloor. Express themselves in a different way. The very uptight, guys, aren’t they? You‘re my best friend, but I can‘t tell you! It’s been really helpful in allowing men, in particular, to relax and relate to each other and women in many different ways. And also learning to appreciate women in non-sexual ways. I think it challenged rock’s dominance. It allowed a lot of people to listen to jazz, disco. It helped give people a better perspective on gay people. Racism, perhaps. I think it may even have made us better dressed.

How ridiculous did the DJs fees get?
Utterly, utterly, utterly ridiculous. God knows where these people got the idea that they were worth anywhere near that much money. At least some of them had the grace to admit the whole thing was a fucking scam. Unfortunately, some of them took themselves seriously. The only way it was justified was in terms of them bringing in more money. A DJ would get paid four grand because the promoter was going to get 12 grand. But it was just greed. DJs get paid ludicrous amounts of money. I don’t think any of them are worth it [laughter].

Why not? Personally I think the guest DJ culture we have here has taken us two steps back in terms of DJing as an artform.
I’d agree. I’d totally totally agree. A DJ should want to play four hours. How much better are the really big DJs than a bedroom DJ like Stan? How much better are they, really? Some of them are. Carl Cox is. He radiates enjoyment. He’s got presence. He can pump people up. He’s probably worth his money. And then there are one or two other ones, particularly the younger ones, who turn up, play a load of bog-standard hard-house records and bugger off again, having hoovered up half of Bolivia and groped the promoter’s girlfriend. These same people have the nerve to kick off, if anyone dared criticise them because they’re losing touch with all reality because they’d taken so much cocaine. I mean, that’s more than doctors get. If you’re getting more than quarter of a million pounds a year, you’re getting more than a surgeon.

It’s the skinny models argument, Dom.
The really funny thing is how many of them never paid the taxman and got caught. How could they be so stupid? Switch it off for a second [he then tells a story of a massive ’90s DJ going on the front cover of Mixmag and asking Dom’s advice about whether to pay his tax bill].

The thing with Healy is he really did live that life. Definitely. Rock and roll, models, glamour. He hung out with Galliano. We did a feature in Mixmag about him playing at a fashion show in Paris and all the girls hanging round. Some people move in that fashiony world. They know stars. He certainly did.

How do you feel about someone taking someone else’s records, and yet still being considered an artist?
I totally accept it.

There’s a Q this month in Muzik from Steven Wells saying DJs are wankers and they do nothing. Do you think there’s still a lot of misconceptions about what DJs actually do?
I do. Give Steven Wells a big bag of tunes in the main room of Cream and say there you go mate. Show us how easy it is. It’s not easy. Of course it’s not. It’s difficult to understand what the art of DJing is because some of it is quite mystical. It’s about picking up on what the mood might be, and might possibly become. And trying to get it there, in the context of where you are and what you’re doing. There’s a great amount of sensitivity involved. And a really great DJ is totally capable of doing that. They’re totally capable of making a bad record sound okay, a good record sound great, and a great record sound fantastic. They can improve records by the context they put them in. And what they put around them. How they steer them. They can do all kinds of tricks. They can make people spontaneously cheer just for a little squelchy noise. Which is quite insane really. A little noise like wha-wha-wha and people go, ‘Yeeeaaah!’ You can have people clapping along to a cymbal, just by the way they’re bringing it in. When it’s done well it’s fantastic. If it’s done really well it can be quite transcendental. It’s very difficult to explain what the difference between a bad one and a good one is. When the DJ gets it right, it’s definitely artistry, I think. You obviously do. You’re writing a book! You’re a DJ aren’t you? What’s the difference between you and Louie Vega?

Er, dunno. He’s shorter.
I think good DJs are not just chucking them on. They’re very thoughtful about it. What Frankie Knuckles tries to do is get inside the hearts and the minds of the people at the centre of the dancefloor. Try to hear things as if for the first time. How would I feel if I was hearing this for the first time? I think if you talk to the great DJs, they’re probably all quite thoughtful.

Is the DJ a filter?
I think one of the bit mistakes of dance music was that album artists were going to be the saviour of it. And then what happened was you got the excellent mix series coming out: Mixmag Live, Global Underground, Journeys By DJ, United DJs of America. The records are going to sound better in their mix than on your turntable. There’s absolutely no point in buying those records. You‘re much better off buying a snapshot of their sound at a certain time.

Do you think that’s better than buying a Masters At Work original album, because it reflects who they are better?
With the albums they’ve released so far, definitely! No, I do. Some of my favourite pieces of music are mixes and I play them again and again.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton