Crate diggers extraordinaire Dan Tyler and Conrad McDonnell sit down for a chat with RA’s Dave Stenton.
Pastrami Man, Head Arse Fusion Band and the half-dozen or so other aliases they occasionally employ provide proof, if it were needed, that Dan Tyler (a Londoner) and Conrad McDonnell (who was born in Sunderland), AKA The Idjut Boys, don’t take themselves all that seriously. But the reputation the pair have established for themselves is by no means a joke.
As DJs they tour continuously and boast a diary packed with dates at the globe’s hottest underground party spots. They also have a production style that’s entirely their own. As a result, second-hand copies of their earliest releases command small fortunes amongst vinyl obsessives and major label A&R execs have requested that they sprinkle their deep, dubby disco magic on chart-topping artists including Dido and The Scissor Sisters.
From their HQ in east London, Dan and Conrad have also overseen four record labels—U-Star, Noid, Discfunction and, most recently, Cottage—that, alongside their own productions, have released the studio output of DJ Harvey, Prins Thomas (under his Major Swellings alias) and Maurice Fulton, amongst many others.
The Idjuts’ latest release, Desire Lines, an album recorded under yet another alias, Meanderthals, was co-produced with Norwegian DJ/producer, Rune Lindbæk. In order to discover how that came about, and to explore the duo’s musical influences and inspirations, RA gathered a bunch of their favourite records together and headed to their Hackney studio.
Luna Party / Frog Scene, 1997
I thought this was an appropriate place to start as apparently you met at one of DJ Harvey’s Tonka parties? People still talk about those parties: what was so special about them?
DT: We used to go to a lot of those parties together with mutual friends, but we met earlier. [The Tonka parties were] just acid house, proper energy; all the obvious things that were going on then, I guess.
CM: It was new. And they were throwing parties that were better than other people’s. It kinda felt free. I mean the things at the Zap [a club in Brighton] and that were great but the stuff they did in odd spots…were kinda crazy; pretty much anything goes. And when you’re having a party: that’s good. Nightclubs are run by people with licenses so they have to toe the line…
DT: …and make money…
But these parties were different?
CM: It was just a load of like-minded people who wanted to go out and have a good time. And that hasn’t really translated all that well to now: Saturday night, you go out [you play records] and you’re just a soundtrack to people’s drug taking….I mean: you get people that go to nightclubs and just stand around: what the fuck are they there for? Or they’ll come up [to you] and want to hear records that they’ve got: “Can you play that one, ‘cos I know it?” And it’s just like, “Why are you even here?”
Are there exceptions to the rule?
Japan’s always the first answer when you ask that question! What is it about playing there that’s so special?
DT: For us, it’s amazing. We’re really fortunate to be able to go and play there. We have a really great friend, Hagi, who’s taken us all round Japan: from Yellow [in Tokyo] to the tiniest spots and it’s all almost universally good: good sound, good people. If you’re in the room where the music is, if you’re in that part of the club, it’s all about the sound and the dance. There’s no standing around: people participate. And if you’re playing there’s this “call and response” thing going on, which is really nice.
So it’s the original disco formula: amazing sound systems and everyone dancing?
CM: Yeah, but it’s not based on drugs. It’s based on music. And that’s unique.
DT: There’s attention to detail at every turn, which has so many benefits: people don’t go home deaf; you can hear things properly; it’s comfortable for people to DJ. I mean, take the lighting guys: [If you're playing] in a club in Japan the lighting guy will be in tune—he won’t be off powdering his nose [laughs]—he’ll be listening to what’s coming out of the speakers and reacting [to it]. Little things like that make such a big difference; it accentuates the highs and lows of what’s randomly happening.
The Black Cock records were changing hands for huge sums before the recent re-issues. The same is true for some of the early releases on Noid and U-Star; any plans to re-release those?
DT: No. The idea with those was make one [and put it out], get some money back to finance making another one and when they’re gone, they’re gone; we haven’t even got quite a few of them anymore. We’d rather concentrate on new music, really…
CM: …you’re as good as your next release rather than your last one.
DT: It’s cool if people are mad enough to buy them [laughs] but I’d rather spend my money on other records than them! It’s comical to us, really.
Is that because, when you listen back now: you can hear all the “mistakes”?
DT: Not really, it’s just that, back then, you would make the record but neither of us would play it [when we were DJing]. Not because we didn’t like the record…
CM: …it’s just because by the time the record’s been cut we’ve heard it more than anyone’s ever going to hear it, you know?
Is that still the case these days: you don’t play much of your own music in your sets?
CM: There are a few tracks of ours [over the years] that we’ve played. But I can’t remember the last track of ours that we played [in DJ sets]. I’m turned on more by other people’s music than mine. I keep hearing records and going, “Shit, I wish I’d made that.”
“Song for Annie”
Two Songs for Annie, 1999
This was on the first volume of your Saturday Nite Live mix series.
DT: We put it out [as well].
Really? I wasn’t sure whether Discfunction was your label. Let’s talk a little bit about Erot who, sadly, is no longer with us.
DT: What can you say? If you hear this song—or the song that’s on the other side, which is a Curtis Mayfield loop on the wrong speed with him just doing his thing—it just does you. Every time. I can’t hear this record—and this is one record that got played a lot [by us]—without it having some quite emotional [effect on me]. It’s weird. Erot was really good mates with Bjørn Torske and we met him a few times because we were going there a lot.
DT: Yeah. And Oslo. Erot was really into it. He was starting to do a lot of stuff, and collecting lots of records. I remember when we had to give him some money for this record he just said, “Can you get me a load of records [instead]?”
So we bought him a load of disco records! [laughs] That was probably one of the last times we saw him: to give him 40 12-inches: “Here you go mate, here’s a bag of records.” And he was like, “Yes!” He was made-up. If you listen to any of his records they are properly out there, dub music. Rules are out the window.
Where do you think that approach came from, because he was only 23 when he died?
DT: God knows. And God knows what he would have done [had he lived], bless him.
Do you think he paved the way for the Norwegian scene that’s developed since his death?
DT: Yeah, both Erot and Rune Lindbæk.
CM: And Paul Strangefruit as well.
DT: Paul records as Mungolian Jetset and their records are starting to get recognition. But he’s been there since the start. He’s a great DJ.
What do you think it is about Norway that’s led to a modern disco scene developing there?
CM: No idea, really. It’s funny: there are twice as many people who live in London than the whole of Norway. And I can’t even count how many times we’ve been there to play records. We used to do a Thursday in Oslo twice a month at one point, and it was heaving and absolutely bonkers. But I can’t really answer that question.
DT: You always leave Norway with a rattling headache. There are loads of people there doing good music. Loads of good DJs. And they are open musically. The nice thing about all those guys is that, for example, when we first met Paul he would say, “Check Thomas’s track out, or check Rune’s track out, or listen to Bjørn’s new track.” There’s no competitive [thing going on]. They are all mutually [helping one another]. It’s a nice little melting pot; some of them share their studios and so forth.
Do you think that’s because it’s a much smaller scene than, say, London?
DT: It’s a bit hard to say really without living there.
CM: I guess so, because it was bit like that here in the mid-’90s actually. There was us, Faze Action, Rob and Zaki…
DT: …Crispin, Dom, A Man Called Adam, Harvey…
CM: And we all used to hang out and were fairly supportive of each other. I think when something’s small, you try and look after it. And then people get interested in making money and then it gets screwed. [laughs]
DT: Fuck, yeah. Pre-acid house, pre-techno. Fuck knows. What a mad record.We used this on a compilation and Sav at Tirk wanted us to re-edit it. And we were like, “Er, there is no point: what is there to re-edit?” [laughs] So our concession to that was to put a slightly mixable intro and an explosion on the end so that it didn’t just fade out. [laughs] That would have been our edit. And then it never came out, ‘cos why bother?!
CM: Music like this, to me, it doesn’t have an age. You couldn’t listen to this and pinpoint when it’s from. Although it was probably fashionable at the time, it isn’t fashion music. With ’80s stuff generally you just instantly know when it’s from: it has that sound, whereas this is just music.
And it’s music that’s undergoing a real resurgence.
CM: Shit is shit, right? I mean you might be into it for a year or two. But eventually most people just work out that it’s crap. And if you just try to make good music that isn’t particularly fashion-led then it stands a chance of lasting; of being as relevant in five years as it is today. I think that has something to do with it. But also, just about every bloody musical style has been regurgitated. There’s nothing more to do. Everything has been done. Every connotation of every style has been rinsed out of sight. The amount of re-issues, bootlegs, re-edits and all these people spending their energy on that whereas, back in the day, people would be making new music; not just harking back.
DT: You would listen to the old stuff to be inspired but that was it.
Do you feel that you are part of a modern disco scene?
I don’t know if there is a “scene,” as such. I think the internet propagates the notion [that there is]. I guess you could go online and find a worldwide community, for almost anything, of people that are into a particular scene.
So the internet has a magnifying effect?
DT: Yeah, exactly. You will go somewhere [and when you come back] and someone will say, “What’s the scene like in [wherever]?” and you could say we had a loft party and Herbie Hancock came and played and, if I put that on the Internet, and you don’t disprove it, then it becomes gospel. And that concept can be taken to any great city in the world and rinsed for all it’s worth. [laughs] I guess that there’s definitely an [increased] interest in disco, Balearic, etc. but it’s just box-ticking.
But why do you think London has had a proliferation of disco parties in recent years?
DT: I think it’s really good. And it’s part of a slightly different aesthetic, you know, “Let’s get a space, let’s throw a party and we’ve got a bunch of people who are gonna come down.” That’s sort of going back to the era when we first encountered [this music]. And it has a bit more energy [as a scene] than it just being another guest DJ on a Saturday night, in a nightclub that you pay “x” amount of money to get into that’s the same every time.
CM: But [it's like I just said], eventually people work it out, you know? People put on parties and the criteria for putting on parties is: Can they hire the nightclub? Can they get in touch with the agent of the DJ? And that’s it. They think now they’re a promoter. And they don’t do jack-all other than that. And we’ve just had too many years of that. It’s just rubbish….
When it was really popular people saw that they could make a few quid so on they went, without actually caring about what they were doing, or really knowing what they were doing. The amount of times we’ve been booked to play parties and they’ve been totally shocked by the music we play and it’s like, “You’re the promoter [you booked us], what the fuck?”
They’ve just saw your name somewhere and thought: “Let’s get them”?
DT: It’s just ticking a box.
Are you more careful now about the bookings you take as a result?
CM: Yeah, [more] questions are asked, and stuff like that. But people know more about what we are like now….Back in the day when Mixmag, DJ, Muzik and all those magazines were about, and because we were in them, we would be booked all the time to play these stupid things and people would be like, “You’re not playing banging, rubbish music.” And we’d be like, “That’s right mate, we’re not. And we never have.” [laughs]
“Steal My Sunshine (Version Idjut)”
Steal My Sunshine, 1999
You might recognize this one.
DT: [As the intro plays] That was the only bit of their [original] track [that we used]…It was a big record though [the original], wasn’t it?
Yeah. But it’s hard to recognize any of it in your remix.
DT: There’s nothing! We were surprised they accepted it. [laughs]
CM: It was a good situation: they offered us enough money to pretty much write them a track; so that’s what we did.
The obvious start point is that bassline: where the hell did that come from?
CM: It’s Andy Hopkins. He played it. And then we were playing with the Tremolo effect and we were like, ‘Oh my God, that’s it, that’s it!’ [laughs]
Dub’s obviously a huge influence on what you do. Are there specific dub artists/albums that were particularly influential?
CM: Francois Kevorkian.
DT: Him, obviously. But that sort of goes without saying. That era generally: Prelude Records, and all the kinda obvious usual suspects from that era. They were often working with orchestrated music but then synthesized things, and added drum machines and so on.
What about Jamaican dub?
DT: We like reggae and buy a bit of it. But it’s more from hearing those [dub-influenced disco] records, how they are constructed, hearing the space that’s put into them using effects, by people like Francois, Paul Simpson…
CM: …and Larry [Levan], and Shep Pettibone…
DT: …yeah, and Walter Gibbons, Tee Scott and so on. And also hearing those records when you’re actually on a dance floor. For example, I can remember the first time I heard “Powerline” by Double Journey. It felt like the drums were falling out of the speaker towards you. That’s like, ‘Huh?!’ I don’t think I was high. It’s just the space: it just jumped out at you because someone’s doing that [mimics twisting knobs]. Things just sound better, to us at least, opened out.
“A Place Called Tarot (Idjut Boys Re-Edit)”
A Place Called Tarot / Hungry, 2004
This is an edit of yours rather than a remix. What did you do with Tantra’s original?
DT: I think there’s a little guitar break that we took out. And, from memory, the record’s about 15 or 16 minutes long.
CM: Doesn’t it drop off and go all ambient?
DT: Yeah, it has a full mood switch. So we reined that in a bit. It’s just a bit more concise.
Record stores are full of re-edits these days. What’s your take on that?
CM: The first music we did was on that tape machine over there: just edits of things. The marketplace decides: if nobody was buying those records, the shops wouldn’t have them; they wouldn’t be being made. I think it’s easy for somebody to be involved in making a record [now]. You can go and find a brilliant, old piece of music and create this new thing with it a lot easier than you can make a record from scratch. And also, it’s the fashion of the dance floor as well. The edits that I like are stuff I don’t know. And, if I do know: what have they done? Have they made it easier to play? Or have they made it so you can play the original with it: does it set-up the original? One of the things that we were trying to do was to edit records that you couldn’t play [as DJs].
Which was the original reason for DJ edits in the first place.
DT: But certain things you just don’t need to go near.
CM: The thing I find a bit funny is people editing records that don’t need editing. They are absolutely brilliant [in the first place], so why have you put an extra four bars of stiff drums at the front? You’ve just made it worse. You know, they’ve put it through Ableton and you can hear the way the machine compresses it to make it fit the time code and it’s like, “You’ve just destroyed a great record; use your ears.”
DT: It’ll be something else soon because it’s reaching epic proportions. But there’s a demand for it right now. And there’s a hunger for digging out records [to edit]. It’s quite amusing how things change, people trying to make all these obscure records [more] danceable.
You went for the polar opposite and re-edited Phil Collins’ “I’m Not Moving” last year.
DT: That was a random edit for DJing that got put on a blog. It wasn’t meant to come out.
My broader point was that you don’t take yourselves too seriously.
CM: Christ, we’re DJs, man. We play other people’s music: how seriously can you take that? You’re there to have a party. I mean, all these earnest fuckers, they make me laugh.
Is there a danger though, with finding ever more obscure records to edit, that it goes down the northern soul route where records are prized for their rarity before the musical content?
DT: That’s just trainspotting at its worst: nerd culture. It moves away from the concept of “we’re at a dance.” It’s just stamp collecting. And it takes a bit of the energy, well a lot of the energy, away. You need a nice mix at a party: you need a healthy balance of both sexes [laughs], freaks, you know, you need all of that for it to be a happening thing.
There’s nothing wrong with being passionate and wanting to research things and find out more. But our schooling—if you like—in collecting music was going to parties, hearing music, going and digging crates; randomly finding stuff. And that’s probably the most pleasurable stuff you will find. You follow your nose a bit. That concept has slightly changed with the Internet: people can access, research, and, if you’ve got a credit card, you can buy all that shit. That’s cool. But it sort of dilutes it. It’s just a different thing and we’re from a different era. But who’s to say? If you were 20 now [you would probably have a different take].
“Andromeda (Prelude to the Future)”
Desire Lines, 2009
Let’s talk about your new album then, which is where this track’s taken from. It’s a collaboration between you and Rune Lindbæk: How did that come about?
DT: We’ve known him for years. And he’s always been a source of good music…
CM: …and amusement. [laughs]
And you made regular trips to Oslo to record the album?
CM: We missed a flight home, right.
DT: And we called him up…
CM: …yeah, that’s right, and said, “Rune we’ve missed the fucking plane.” And he said, “Cool, let’s hang out.” So we’re in his studio, and we had some records, and the guy [from the studio] next door was there, so we said, “Come and play some bass.” And the track that’s playing, that was the first one that we did together.
Rune knew Joakim from Smalltown and played it to him and Joakim was interested in getting some more stuff [and that's how the album came about].
At first we went over to Oslo and, in the building where Rune’s studio is, there’s a couple of really nice guys, Lenny and Jo: Lenny’s a percussionist and also plays drums; Jo plays guitar and bass. So we did a couple of days with them and got some stuff recorded. Then there was another trip to Oslo after that. And then we came here, edited it all up and put it together. Then we got some London people’s input [as well].
So how long did it take to record?
CM: It was pretty quick…a couple of months…
DT: …once we had all the [rough] tracks we put them together pretty quickly.
CM: Rune had to go back and we mixed them all down again: because we mix live on here. [points at mixing desk] We might do a dub version of it, of the entire album. Joakim seems to be quite keen for us to do that so we might get round to that. But we’re doing an Idjut Boys album for him now so that’s kinda the priority.
Both the artist name and album title derive from theories. Where does the interest in theories stem from: you guys or Rune?
CM: It came from me listening to the radio. [laughs] The Meanderthals thing: I just like the name Meanderthals. It’s a bit earnest for us, to be honest, to call an album Desire Lines. I just thought it was an interesting thing: if you look at a park and see the trail that people create, that’s called a “desire line.” And I just thought, “Oh right, that’s a funny thing” and I just mentioned it. But I think if it was just down to Dan and I then it wouldn’t have been called that.
DT: We’d have maybe stuck with Meanderthals.
CM: Yeah, Meanderthals is quite apt really. But the rest of it, you know, we’re big believers in getting in first to take the piss out of ourselves before someone else does. That’s definitely a big part of our ethos. You can’t take it too seriously or take yourselves too seriously.
As some of your previous track titles attest.
DT: Humour—or the hidden meaning—often bypasses people. But as long as it amuses two or three people—two of them being us—then that’s it.
CM: That’s absolutely it. The tag line on the album is a piece of genius from…
DT: …Harvey Keitel…
CM: …yeah, Dan saw this movie with Harvey Keitel in it and it’s got this line, “Breathe, just keep breathing,” [laughs] and no one’s gonna get [the reference] unless they’ve seen the movie.
And it’s not one of his finer cinematic moments?
DT: It’s during a moment of someone’s extreme vulnerability. He’s counseling someone, giving someone psychotherapy. So he’s counseling this woman and, as she’s exposing herself in the most vulnerable fashion, imploring him to help her, you know, he suggests that it would be best if she got to her knees and smoked him. [laughs] And she’s trying to talk to him whilst engaged in that act and he’s just like, “Keep breathing: just keep breathing.” [laughs] You’ve gotta see it.
There are just seven tracks, which is pretty short for an album. Was that a deliberate decision?
CM: Yeah. In the time we had, that’s what got made. The record is just what the three of us came up with in that moment of time. There’s no great thesis going on, it’s just a session.
Lady Angie, 1982
A friend recently put me onto this and it’s my favourite musical discovery this year. I thought it would be good to end with.
DT: Is it a new record?
No, it’s from 1982.
CM: I know it. Or I know the chord progression anyway.
DT: [humming along] It’s like a record we play?
CM: It’s a Steve Winwood lick, isn’t it?
DT: Yeah, something like that. It’s definitely something we play. Isn’t it from “Night Train”? You know “Night Train” by Steve Winwood? I’m sure the chords are the same as that. It’s really nice: kinda camp electronica [in feel]. Those chords man, where are they from?!
CM: It’s definitely Steve Winwood.
DT: Either he’s been inspired by this. Or they’ve been inspired by listening to his track. But is it Steve Winwood?! It’s definitely something one of us plays. Those chords are doing my nut in. It’s not “Night Train.” I know it. It’ll come. It might not come right now, but it’ll come.
CM: I love records like this that have big ideas, you know?
DT: So, anyway, if you could send us a poor quality mp3 next week we’ll have it bootlegged and edited and spliced with phat kick-drums and no production values whatsoever and we’ll make sure you get absolutely no credit for it!