Interview: Ben UFO

Ben UFO is simply one of the most exciting DJs around. In 2007, he launched the Hessle Audio label with fellow DJs Pearson Sound and Pangaea, breaking down the boundaries between UK bass music while exposing it to new influences from the house and techno world. Over the course of countless Rinse FM radio shows, club gigs and two high-profile mix CDs – the latest coming for London super-club Fabric – his brand of genre-defying DJing has become the gold standard for forward-thinking clubgoers. (Last year, he notched the #21 slot in Resident Advisor’s DJ poll.) So what’s next for Ben UFO? In our recent conversation, we found him trying to not to worry so much about exactly that sort of question.

What do you most wish you had known about running a record label before you began? Why?

We’ve been very lucky in the time that we’ve been running Hessle Audio. We had the idea to start releasing records when we were very young, and had almost no conception of how the process worked. ST Holdings, our distributor, were hugely supportive and helpful, and were willing to talk us through it and help us develop our ideas.

I don’t have any regrets in terms of how we’ve chosen to run the label, and our ideas about what we want from it and what we want it to become have stayed fairly constant throughout the five years that we’ve been releasing records. We’ve always wanted the music to be the primary focus, we’ve always wanted to give a platform to new producers with interesting ideas and we’ve never planned to release a huge amount of music or tied ourselves to a long schedule.

I guess the main thing that I’ve come to realise over the past couple of years, which I wasn't necessarily prepared for, is that the identity of the record label you run is constructed as much by other peoples’ perceptions of the label as it is by your own ideas, or by the music itself. It’s made me realise that I’m a bit of a control freak, and I’m surprised at how hard I’ve found it coming to terms with the fact that I’m not at all in control of how people interpret my DJing and what we do as a label.

After hearing that, I’m immediately reminded of you talking on your Rinse FM show about a review of a Pearson Sound single that seemed to claim it was too experimental to work on a dancefloor. Is that the type of conception that you’re talking about?

Yes, exactly, although I was more specifically referring to YouTube and forum comments... people trying to judge a record’s dancefloor effectiveness from their bedrooms. Playing out the music we’re considering putting out for a while before confirming any release plans is still important to me partly for this reason.

That record in particular was really satisfying to release. People’s responses to it have changed so much in the few months subsequent to its release – I’ve not stopped playing those tracks, and they’ve become these kind of unlikely anthems. It’s nice to watch a record take on a life of its own in that way.

Do you, Kevin (Pangaea) and David (Pearson Sound) almost always play out the music for a fair bit before confirming a release? I see that there are obvious benefits, but also drawbacks to that approach.

Always, and I don’t see any obvious drawbacks at all from my perspective, other than perhaps the fact that it requires a certain amount of time. As long as the producers we work with are happy to wait for us to make decisions at our own pace, then it’s fine. Producers have a huge amount of labels to send their music to these days, and some are better placed to make quick decisions than others, but I don’t feel as though we’ve missed out on any huge opportunities as a result. When we play new music on the radio or in clubs, it’s not about drawing as much attention to the track as possible, and we won’t often announce track titles or the artist responsible; it’s about hearing the music in different environments and seeing people react to it.

Pearson Sound, Pangaea, Ben UFO Pearson Sound, Pangaea, Ben UFO

Much has been made of the fact that you don’t produce music. Why do you think that is?

I’ve always found it funny that people talk so much about what it is that I’ve chosen not to do, as opposed to the thing which I've actually chosen to specialise in. I think the simple answer is that it’s unusual, and it’s an angle. It’s something to talk about. I sympathise with writers in that DJing as an act is a tough thing to write about – it’s not totally immediate and it’s not traditionally performative. It’s much easier to write about DJs in relation to their work as producers, but when people talk about people like me or Oneman or Jackmaster, that possibility is removed from them and they need to find something else to anchor their thoughts...

Is there a way of writing or talking about what DJs do and how they do it that has been successful in your opinion?

I guess the common thread in the best pieces of writing I’ve read about DJing would be a focus on how DJing is experienced by the people collectively, rather than anything specific about the act of DJing itself.

A couple of years ago I read Turn the Beat Around by Peter Shapiro, a broad history of disco, and loved it. There is technical information (explaining, for example, how the 12-inch single format transformed the way people were able to experience music through the extended duration and increased volume of club mixes), but the emphasis is on examining the impact that disco music, DJs and clubs had on New York socially and culturally, and in doing so the author manages to communicate so much more about what made the specific DJs involved in the club scene at the time special than someone who might have thought to approach the subject from a purely descriptive or technical standpoint.

What do you think of the hardcore continuum?

It’s an amazing idea that helps makes sense of the music that’s come out of the UK in the past 25 years; it offers an insight into why it developed as it did and in the process suggests where it might go in the future. [Simon] Reynolds’ writing surrounding the idea is the kind of writing on music that I try to seek out – not only does it offer context and explain the music that constitutes its focus, but it actually enhances rather than detracts from the experience of listening to that music.

A lot of the problems that have been identified with the theory – that it’s irrelevant in the internet age, that it can’t account for the last few years of UK dance music’s development – I think have arisen not necessarily as a result of the theory itself, but as a result of people who have chosen to interpret it as dogma. [They don’t see it] as one of many possible theories, but as the only worthwhile theory of its kind, to the extent that where music doesn’t fit comfortably around the theory then it’s not worthy of their attention.

It’s a theory which relies on generalisations about music made in a lot of disparate areas, by different groups of people and across long periods of time, and as a result I think maybe there are some subtleties which it glosses over in the name of the preservation of its overarching ideas.

You mentioned that the hardcore continuum doesn’t seem to account for the last few years of UK dance music’s development. Where are we at the moment in your mind?

Things have settled down a little bit, both in terms of the music being made in the UK and technologically. The internet’s role seems fairly well-defined, and its impact on the creation and promotion of new music is totally taken for granted as a fundamental part of the process.

At the moment I’m just enjoying focusing on my own DJing and on maintaining relationships with the people I enjoy working with. I’m trying to maintain a relaxed attitude towards the discussion online, as when I get too involved I find it stifling. To answer your question more directly – I’m trying to stop thinking about it so much.

I’d be curious to hear how you think your DJing has changed in the past two or three years.

From my perspective it’s changed quite a lot... Sonic Router recently republished one of the first interviews I gave before our first label night at Fabric, alongside a mix I recorded to promote the event. The interview and the mix were both essentially about disintegrating genre boundaries, and the way I speak about that makes it sound like something I was invested in for its own sake. I was really making a point of emphasising that kind of open approach to dance music, which felt exciting at the time. I was enjoying figuring out how different sounds could fit together coherently and that was what was driving me to explore music in as much detail as possible.

That point has been made so many times now by so many people, and talked about so relentlessly in the press, that it’s not something I feel as strongly about these days. I still play a really broad range of music, but I don’t see that as an issue or as being particularly interesting in and of itself. Hopefully it’s led to my DJing becoming less predictable and more flexible – I’m as free as ever to draw from a wide range of music but, equally, if I’m enjoying a gig and I decide I want to go off on one particular tangent for hours, exploring one kind of sound in a lot of detail, then I will.

Photo credits: Header and Hessle Audio crew - Will Bankhead

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