Kath McDermott preaches pride and passion
Courtesy of gay parents, Kath McDermott has been surrounded by queer culture her whole life. And her brushes with alternative lifestyles started when she’d scarcely learn to walk, attending festivals when they were still full of hippies and society dropouts looking for a different way of living. Now in her 50s, Kath still venerates those who reject the mainstream. In acid house, she saw the same potential as those early festivals, but this time via dancefloor unity, joy, redemption – and house music. And today with more than 30 years as a DJ, with residencies at The Haçienda and, these days, at Mancunian behemoth Homoelectric under her belt, she’s still searching for the perfect beat (and dancefloor). Dancing is political, see?
Interviewed by Bill, 5.10.21, pics: Rachel Adams, Tom Quaye
Do you remember the first club that you went to?
Well, I was going to clubs quite a lot when I was very young. Both my parents were gay, so I was going to gay clubs quite early on, and I was going to festivals all the time when I was a kid. So, I was around music and communal spaces. But I think the first club that I went to was called The Third Side club which was an alternative indie club. I lived in Dorset for a few years when I was a teenager, and I started going there when I was about 14, and it was amazing. It was a very democratic club. It was really young. A lot of underage teenagers went – when it was my 16th, I had to say was my 19th)
What was your early musical passion as a teenager?
I was a big Smiths fan. So, I moved from Manchester to Dorset and took The Smiths with me when I was about 14. I was just obsessed with the Smiths. I was really into The Cure, Siouxsie, Cult, stuff like that. I was rejecting culture, really, and I wanted to be with the misfits on the edge of things, which is kind of where I liked to be generally rather than mainstream culture, which I find a bit uninspiring. So I gravitated more to that kind of music. I was really into stuff like The Cramps: punk, goth, really into music but a very happy girl having a good time. I also loved pop music as well. Previous to that, I was a big Wham!-head when they very first appeared – and also I was listening to a lot of reggae and stuff too.
What kind of festivals were you going to?
I was going to the Albion festivals, which were in East Anglia, and they were quite important actually, sort of counter-cultural hippie festivals from the ’70s to the early ’80s. That’s where the peace convoy started, and places like the Elephant Fayre in Cornwall as well. They were very hippie, less about the music really, and more about alternative lifestyles. Friends of the Earth started there. It was a great environment for me to be in as a kid. I was given 50p. in the morning and they’d say, ’We’ll see you here when it gets dark’. So, I’d go and get free dahl from the Hare Krishna temple, and then go and spend my money on Adam & The Ants badges and stuff like that. It was great. There was loads of street musicians and quite a lot of folk. But I was just off having adventures, really. To a certain extent, as long as there was music, I didn’t really mind what it was.
How did you discover dance music?
I remember getting given a box of sevens off my mum’s girlfriend in the early ’80s; that was brilliant. It was like Manchester lesbian history in a box. There was loads of Motown and soul in there, stacks of it. Then I had a cousin, Tim, who lived in Hackney, and him and his now husband Ray, they just used to feed us amazing music. They used to have Kiss when it was a pirate, and tape it for us. So, I had all these amazing tapes with streetsoul and disco on it and stuff like that. I loved it. I was always ferreting around in second-hand record shops, I’d find things like Sleeping Bag compilations. I was really into buying compilations, so I’d go down all these different rabbit holes of different scenes.
So presumably, you were a bit of a record collector?
I’ve always had records. I’ve always enjoyed handling records. So even when I was very little, I had a free 7-inch that came with some cereals, and I can remember putting it on the Dansette next to the washing machine and thinking, ’Yeah, this is me.’ Then I worked in Vinyl Exchange for 15 years, and by the end of that I was sort of done with record shops a bit, to be honest.
But when I first started DJing, I didn’t have a lot of money so I’d go in King Bee, and loads of what I was playing was out of the bargain bins there. And I think that’s an inspiring and interesting place to find stuff, really, because you’re doing the leg work. It’s not what somebody’s deemed as precious. It’s what you found that you think is an interesting track to play.
How did you start DJing?
I was going out with my girlfriend who lived in Liverpool. I was back in Manchester now, and I was 18 or 19. She was a part of the Liverpool Uni Gay Society, and they wanted to put on a World AIDS Day benefit, and they just wanted to raise money for ACT UP and stuff, but no DJ would do it for free. Me and Lynn said, ’Oh, we’ll do it.’ Because we had loads of records. So, we DJed at this party. We didn’t have a fucking clue what we were doing, but it went right off. There was tons of young, queer ravers that had nowhere to go in Liverpool that came down and loved it. So we started a monthly night off the back of that called Loose, which was really great. It was pretty mental. I was just slabbing on loads of Italo stuff, rave music and whatever. Although we didn’t know what we were doing, we were really passionate about it, which is what counts, and it got quite successful.
When Flesh started, I lived in Hulme – like everybody at that point. It was an inner city estate that was just left derelict; a failed housing project. As a result, you could live there for free and everybody did. As a result, a whole generation of people, including me, could just do whatever they wanted. There were poets, artists, musicians, DJs, whatever. That’s where Manchester’s cultural regeneration came from, really. I mean, if you think about it now in Manchester, it’s kind of like the London of the north and rents are just crazy, and every club’s been squeezed out of the city centre. But then, property was worthless, pretty much. So you could have clubs here and there right in the middle of town, because no one lived there. And now, everything interesting in Manchester is actually in Salford, because that has happened to a lesser extent there. Hulme being so close to town also meant that everybody could live there, be incredibly creative and just walk into town. And everyone had a club night. There was just tons going on.
I lived there, and there was a massive queer community there as well. Lucy Scher lived across the road from me and she started up Flesh with Paul Cons, and they were interested in grabbing all the punters they could, because the first night wasn’t that busy, and it’s a big venue, The Haç. So, they used to run buses from Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford and all over the place, to go to Flesh. They wanted to grab the Liverpool crowd, so they said, ‘Come and DJ as the Loose DJs, and bring your crowd with you,’ so we did. They liked what we did, and I ended up being a resident after that. Lucy was really key in all of this, because she was all about putting women right at the front of that club. So for every flyer that had a guy on, there’d be a flyer that had a woman on. Lesbian representation was incredibly important to her, and that allowed DJs like me and Paulette to come through, because she was really serious about it.
Yeah, I get that. Almost all of the women DJs that I knew about in the late ’80s and early ’90s, even if they were straight, played at gay clubs. Is there any reason for it?
I think, in part, going back to that same point, it is because of female club promoters. So if you’re a promoter who’s putting on a women’s night, you’re going to be a woman, generally speaking, and you’re going to want to represent. And I think that’s where it comes from. I think in straight clubs, maybe there’s more male promoters, so it’s less high up on their agenda. So I think the more female promoters that you have, the better. Because just as a woman, having that experience, it’s more likely to be a safer space. There’s more likely to be women DJs. They’re thinking about stuff. They’re thinking about the toilets. They’re thinking about accessibility. Is it safe outside?
We do at night up here called Suffragette City, which is all women DJs. We do an annual fundraiser, and we were just talking about venues for next year, and we had a meeting last night and I was like, ‘Well, we can’t do it there. It’s not safe enough. It’s a dodgy area.’ I’m thinking about that in a way that maybe male club promoters aren’t. It just means that whole experience is going to be a little bit different. But I would put it down to the promoters, primarily.
Who were the DJs that inspired you when you were first starting?
Well, I absolutely loved Frankie Knuckles. Frankie Knuckles was just really, really important to me massively. I’d heard him at The Haç, and he’s just a very special individual, and I loved his productions. He was really key. When I’d been DJing for a few years, I heard – DJed alongside, in fact – Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson. I became completely obsessed with him. I just thought he was amazing. I’d never seen anyone DJ like that. He was just one of those completely natural DJs. I had to work really hard, sort of learn how to DJ, and you kind of knew that he’d always just done what he did in a very natural way. I thought it was astonishing. He’d have a spliff hanging out of his mouth, and then he’d cue the record up. Normally, you put the record on, adjust the tempo, then cue it up and start it. He wasn’t doing that. He was absolutely stoned out of his mind and he was just putting on the track, getting it the same tempo, and then just going from there and he was doing that with really elaborate garage records with strings, pianos, vocals and really complex arrangements. He was just amazing and blew my mind.
Were there any women DJs that you knew about?
There were women DJs, but most of the ones I knew were people that had come through with me. Actually, I’ve forgotten one, the real key person for me was Tim Lennox. He was massively important to practically every gay DJ in Manchester, really.
I used to go to The Number One, so I know about Tim. I thought that was better than The Haçienda.
Tim was amazing. He was absolutely amazing. The Number One was an incredibly special experience, wasn’t it? So egalitarian, so truly mixed, and so underground. The fact that it was right next to Bootle Street Police Station, James Anderton’s nest of hate, which was literally two doors down. We were there under the ground, absolutely having it without their knowledge. It was just absolutely beautiful. What Tim did was fantastic. He played a great mix of music as well. He’d play hip-hop and disco, and loads of piano stuff as well. But he was really the key figure that I was seeing every week, thinking, ‘God, this is unbelievable’. So I’d go to The Haçienda on a Friday and loved Mike Pickering and I loved Nude. And then I’d go to The Number One on a Saturday for Tim.
What was it like playing at Flesh and at The Haçienda? It was culturally important. There are lots of people in Manchester who say, ‘Well, it wasn’t as good as this. It wasn’t as good as that’, which is probably true as well. But it must have been amazing playing there.
It was amazing because I was a punter, so I never took it for granted. I mean, I was really, really nervous. The first time we did it, we played in the Gay Traitor, which was one kind of crazy. It was just mental down there. It was just wall-to-wall chaos when it was Flesh. It was kind of different at Flesh than on a normal night at The Haç. People would just be dancing on every surface. It’d be drenched with condensation. The banquette behind me was just rammed with people dancing, and then the seat gave way and they all crashed through it, as did all my records mid-set, with a rum and Coke in there for good measure. Clubs like that, if you fuck up, they love it. Because if the music goes off, they’re just buzzed when it comes on, you know? So yeah, I’d say it was intimidating and enthralling in equal measure.
I think the thing that people forget as well about The Haç is that the lights were very good in there. It would be more like they’d do these incredible colour washes. So if you were playing something with a massive piano, or say ‘The Pressure’ by Sounds of Blackness, or something like that, a big moment, they would just drench the whole club in orange or yellow or whatever and then it would change from there. So it was quite theatrical lighting which created a drama, which worked really well.
If your first ever gig was basically DJing at a party, how did you learn to DJ? You obviously learned on the job, right?
I genuinely didn’t know what I was doing. And I used to be quite ashamed about that as well. But I think what I learned was about the music rather than any technique. So by the time I’d been playing at Flesh for a short while, I got the basics. No one’s ever recorded me in a club. I refuse to do it because I’m quite a perfectionist about it, so nothing would ever be as good as I would want it to be. But I’ve been quite lucky in that I’ve never had to promote myself. I only choose to do the parties that I want to do, and I’ve always had a day job.
Are there differences playing for straight and gay crowds that you’ve noticed over the years?
I think there’s a sort of looseness with gay crowds. I think they’re a bit more inclined to get involved a bit earlier on, whereas I think straighter crowds will be more likely to wait till their gear kicks in or they get pissed or whatever. Whereas in gay crowds, people walk into a club and start dancing. That’s kind of normal. And in fact, for women, that’s much more normal as well. When you’re DJing, it’s always get the women dancing, isn’t it? The old adage. I think generally, women are a bit more confident about getting involved in that way.
If it’s an all-women crowd, they drink a lot. That’s why Lucy actually got involved in promoting Flesh, because she promoted the Lesbian Summer of Love at The Haçienda. When The Haçienda saw the bar take that they’d had, it was about 10 times more than they’d had at any night there in about five years. They got the dykes and they absolutely drank the bar dry. So they were like, ‘Get the lesbians in. We’ll get some bar take up.’
Also, I think all-women crowds tend to like to hear the same things a lot. So when I had a residency at Paradise Factory for several years, it would be like: play the same song. And then if you played a new song, everyone would go off the dancefloor. You’ve got to really persevere and you’ve got to be really confident about clearing a floor.
What’s the most memorable club night you’ve ever done?
Possibly Suffragette City, which has just become this massive thing out of a really small idea. The Refuge was doing this exhibition with the Manchester Digital Music Archive which highlighted women in music and disrupted that narrative about Manchester music scene being all about white men. They asked me to DJ, and I was like, ‘Why don’t we just get loads of women to DJ?’ The first one that we did, it was probably four years ago or something. We had no sense of how it was going to go. And it was absolutely mental, and the quality of the DJing… Nobody gets paid a penny, all the money goes to charities for women in Manchester. It’s become a badge of honour now to play it and the crowd is fantastic, because it’s very mixed, half-gay, half-straight; probably more gay and more women, but very mixed.
The first one that we did when we had no sense of what was going to happen and just seeing absolutely amazing women DJing so well. The atmosphere just got bigger and bigger and more outrageous as the night went on, and it was just completely electric. And I think there’s a lot to be said for promoting clubs not for money, because it’s all about the passion, the joy, the integrity, and the energy was phenomenal.
Did the novelty factor of being a female DJ help you in your early years or did it not make a difference?
I don’t really think it made a difference. In Manchester, late ’80s, early ’90s, there was loads of women DJs and we’d all play different stuff. So it was like Paula and Tabs would do soul and funk, Nadine would do streetsoul, Paulette would do disco. We all did our thing, and together really in different ways, and it was very supportive. It wasn’t competitive, and it didn’t really seem that weird. Maybe that’s because a lot of us were playing in gay clubs.
At that time, and increasingly now I would say, being a woman who isn’t fitting into the heteronormative idea of what a saleable woman might look. So if you’ve got long hair and makeup and you’re wearing a bikini, that’s a commodity in a club in the ’90s, and to a certain extent now as well. If you think about the top 50 DJs in the world, how many of them aren’t pretty, sexy women? Probably The Blessed Madonna, that’s it. What’s going on there? Women’s images are being sold by the clubs. I haven’t got a problem with women doing that, because that is just who they are and what they’re doing. But it is interesting that it’s probably a lot harder if you want to cut through into that A-list. It’s probably a lot harder to do if you don’t look the part or play the game. I always wear T-shirts and jeans to DJ, and I couldn’t give a toss. But I think that might’ve worked against me, perhaps. The shit that The Blessed Madonna gets for the way that she looks. I mean, I read by accident some comments once on this short film of something that she’d done. I couldn’t believe it, the vitriol. And it’s like, Carl Cox is a chunky guy. Nobody’s saying anything about that, are they?
Obviously, what has changed massively is the amount of female DJs that are around now. There’s much more visibility, they’re playing lots of different styles of music. Did you notice that change and, if so, when did that happen?
I’ve always been surrounded by female DJs, so I never really noticed that. I was the first resident at Homoelectric. The second resident was another woman. I’ve never played in clubs that haven’t had other women DJing there, so it’s never felt particularly strange to me. But you can tell the clubs are making an effort to include women now. That’s changed. I mean, there are not enough. Nowhere near enough, but people are starting to say, ‘We really should have some women on this bill. Who are we going to have?’ There’s some amazing proper high-end DJs coming through, too, like Jayda G. Fuck, is she slick. She is just totally pro. Blew me away at the last Homobloc. I was just like, ‘Whoa, you know what you’re doing’.
Is dancing political?
Well, I think so. I think especially when rave first started, there was such a sense of this enormous subculture occurring under the radar that people didn’t really have a full sense of what was going on. So you’d come out of The Haçienda and just having had this shared experience with a thousand other people, walk out onto the street and everything was just as it was when you’d gone in. You’re in this place where normal rules don’t apply, and interactions and connections and moments are very free and open. So I think that in itself is quite a liberation thing, really. Lots have been said about all the football hooliganism and male violence and stuff like that, and how things changed for a generation there. But I totally believe that.
Certainly doing stuff after the Clause 28 March in Manchester, doing a lot of stuff around HIV and AIDS in the ’90s, I’m quite a political animal. And my politics are about connection and positivity and love against division and hatred, which is what tends to prevail a lot of the time. I know this is quite idealistic, but I think that that can prevail through a dancefloor. People having an understanding about somebody else’s life, or being able to see people as positive and open is really, really important, and I feel like I’ve benefited from that. That is a political act in itself, probably especially now more than ever really, in the current climate where hate is the first thing that people go to. I go on a lot of demos and I’ve done quite a lot of pro-trans stuff. There’s quite a lot of anti-trans stuff going on in London around Pride where it all kicked off a few years ago. So I organised a crew of a few hundred of us to lead Manchester Pride as Manchester Lesbians Stand By Your Trans. A lot of people that I got to do that with me were from clubs, so it’s probably more about bringing people via clubs rather than doing dance events that are acts of protest.
What is it about DJing that makes a lot of DJs natural rebels?
I think there’s something about wanting to party and bring people together. It’s a very primal need within us, isn’t it? And as we live increasingly complex lives, I think we need to fuck off the week even more now by dancing and generating a different sort of energy between us. And I think to lead that moment, to be at the helm of that moment is very special. I think there’s probably some cockiness in there, t. I think there’s a certain level of egotism within DJs.
Sometimes I’ve got all this vinyl slipping around on my laminate floor and I’m trying to sort out some records for a big gig and I’m like, ‘You know, I’m 51. Why the fuck am I still putting myself through this?’ And it’s because it’s the best feeling. It’s just such a fantastic feeling when you have those moments where it hits. It does still feel quite naughty to me, I’ve got to say. I don’t know about the DJ as a rebel, but I certainly feel quite naughty and quite excited about it. I feel like even though so much of clubbing is mainstream, I still feel like I’m lucky enough to operate around the edges of that, around the counterculture. When we started Loose, it was for a good reason. When we started Flesh, it was because we wanted to do this queer thing. When we started Homoelectric, we wanted to do something underground. It’s like this sort of desire to always kind of be finding the edges of something, where something counts, where it matters, where there can be a difference, where the right people are. And the right people aren’t the coolest people at all. The right people are the warmest, the most open and the best combination. That’s what’s special to me. There is a place for mainstream big money clubbing. But it does feel more exciting to be in a different place to that.
Is there a certain kind of vicarious thrill of being the person that’s controlling the fun?
Oh, definitely. It’s a complete hit. When it goes wrong, it’s a bloody nightmare, isn’t it? You know, when you’ve got no monitors or something, you know what I mean? When it’s shit, it’s shit. When it’s good, it’s absolutely fucking incredible. It’s just so exciting, and it feels as good now to me as it did 30 years ago, without a doubt. I know this sounds really idealistic and hippie, but I find it really important to communicate with people when I’m DJing. So obviously, the music is a journey, all of that. And a lot of what I play is very positive lyrically. Sometimes it might be throwaway, but generally I’m trying to say something in a moment with the records that I play.
But also, just literally spotting people getting really into it that might look at me, and then I’ll have a little dance with them from the decks and having a shared smile, and just having that connection. Because really, I’m mad about dancing. I’m mad about connecting with people by dancing. That’s my thing. I can choose the music when I do that. So to be able to dance with people whilst I’m DJing is the ultimate, really. It’s a massive thrill. And quite often when I’m DJing, I’ll still go and dance. If I’m really into a tune, I’ll run onto the dancefloor and dance with people and then jump back onto the decks before it runs out, because that’s magic for me. And yeah, it’s a massive ego hit and a huge buzz. I have a very busy day job that’s incredibly full-on. And I’m like, ‘Why am I putting myself through that?’ But I know why, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop doing it. It’s a very attractive drug.
One of the questions I was going to ask you is about victories you think we’ve won through dance or DJ culture. Do you think there’ve been any lasting wins from what happened in the late ’80s and early ’90s? Do you think it did change society?
Yeah, definitely. I think for our generation, it was like there’s so much more understanding. The kind of sort of openness, like the ’70s and early ’80s were so different in terms of people being open to other people’s experiences and inclusivity. I think that has changed, but we had such a good window of positivity. In terms of the gay scene, straight people would not want to go on the gay scene. Why would you want to do that?
But I remember it being a real moment with Flesh when loads of gay people were complaining they couldn’t get into the club, and when they did, it was full of straights because so many wanted to go to it. So then we had to put on the tickets, ‘Thank you for not being homosexual’ and there would be tests on the door where they’d get people to kiss members of the same sex to prove that they were gay to get in. It was a bit of fun, really. But what it meant was you’d have two straight guys snogging each other to get into a club. Three or four years before then, that would have been absolutely unimaginable that straight men would be so desperate to go to a gay club. And I think gay being cool made an enormous difference to what was going on the streets, because you had a lot of people that might not have been that positive towards gay culture or gay people, having experienced it firsthand and realising that obviously it’s just the same as everybody else. We just want to have a good time.
© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton