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In Session

Fifty feet high and rising


Article from The Mix, November 1994

Lion Rock’s main man and individualist deckmaster

The creation of top DJ Justin Robertson, Lionrock are at the cutting edge of the house music scene. They have also managed to square the circle of mass appeal while retaining an up-front, underground feel. Rob Green goes clubbing at the all-night 'Babelicious' promotion on Hastings pier, to meet the lion himself...

It's about 12 o'clock on a Saturday night and I am on Hastings pier. As the icy waves lash the superstructure, the atmosphere up above is humid and crowded. Hundreds of sweaty clubbers are chugging along to the trancey rhythms of Sasha, pounding out of a huge sound system. I slip into the bar for a cool beer, only to bump into the Lionrock music man himself - Justin Robertson.

Never one to confuse business and pleasure, I forget about the drink and ask instead if there's a quiet room where Justin and I can conduct a proper interview. He nods, and beckons me out into the main hall, through the dancing masses, across the stage and into a seedy little back room. In a world full of evasive smart-alecs, I find him refreshingly straightforward and agreeable. Sober, articulate and precise, yet at the same time somewhat pensive and pre-occupied.

Unusually for a DJ, Robertson is a university graduate. This, I suppose explains his thoughtful precision. He attended Manchester university where he studied Psychology and achieved a 2:1 degree. Justin regards a degree as being very important. With a living dependent on the vagaries of the dance market, it's important he has another string to his bow. His route into music was via DJing: "I used to work at Eastern Bloc, and DJ at mates' parties. I was just lucky enough to break into this scene by meeting a lot of people."

He's always been at the heart of the club scene. He likes to get his hands dirty, as it were. He also put in some legwork in club promotion. He and Greg Fenton were behind Manchester's 'Spice' club, which was launched in 1989. It was the only club in Manchester that wasn't just playing house music, and because of that it received a lot of attention. Justin has always been into doing things that are original, and slightly against the grain. His musical influences extend far beyond house, and include reggae, blues and R&B, and some of these influences can be heard in his remixes. He is certainly not a man who likes to follow the crowd.

Wearing his DJ's hat, Justin takes the crowd on an energetic, tranced journey with fine records that wind you up into a frenzy. He'll work the crowd with a teaser, something that keeps building and building, then go into an amazing tune that totally blows everyones' mind. I asked Justin about how he sees his own DJing style.

"My style depends a lot on what mood I'm in and where I'm playing. I'll play quite a lot lighter tonight than I would at say, the Orbit club. The Orbit is really full on."

So what does he think of the British club scene?

"Final Frontier in London is pretty good. Back to Basics is pretty good, this Babelicious looks pretty good, too. I enjoy Renaissance, because it's a kind of music club. A lot of places end up being almost methodised, like Pascha for example. I'm quite a lot heavier than a lot of the DJs that play at Renaissance, but I always go down well, and the people are really receptive."

When DJing he tries to maintain a good mix between tunes new to the punters and older, better known records. But Justin insists that under no circumstances would he compromise his style.

Ambient music doesn't do much for him.

"I'd sooner sit down and listen to a reggae album than a couple of whales shagging. I don't see the point in it."

Justin prefers music with a bit of 'attitude'. He believes there's a growing danger of club culture becoming really sanitised. The sort of thing your parents would want you to go to, and surely that isn't the point.

"I think the whole point of acid house when it started up was that it was like being part of a youth movement. OK, it wasn't going to change the world, but it had a whole attitude and direction to it, and it wasn't about sticking on your latest clothes and poncing around a disco. It all had a kind of positive attitude to it. I always like music that reflects that kind of thing."

Justin has built up a very impressive portfolio of re-mixes. These include The Shamen, The Grid, Talk Talk, Erasure, Stereo MCs, The Overlords and this year, IFL. I asked him about his musical plans for the near future.

"I'm going to do a Lionrock album this year, compiled totally with new tracks. I'm starting up my own label as well, doing something a bit more weird, left-field and experimental."

"I'd never play a record I didn't like. If suddenly the whole club scene turned around and was based on shit music, then I'd give up."

"Some of my stuff that's too weird for DeConstruction, I'll probably put out on this label."

Justin's label is going to be called 'Sleuth', as is his Manchester club. Basically, he'll be acting as an A&R man of sorts. The label is going to be a pretty outlandish blend of different styles from reggae to jungle. Don't think of these genres in their usual formats. Sleuth interpretations of these will be original and off-the-wall. In other words, to coin a phrase, expect the unexpected. Justin predicts that records released on the Sleuth label will only be pressed in batches of one or two thousand, and that he will not contribute much of his own music.

The Sleuth club, which opened in Manchester in October, shares this philosophy. The club offers the punter a palatable diet of modern trance in the downstairs room, while upstairs caters for those with stranger tastes in music.

"The room upstairs at my club is going to be set aside for different sorts of music. The sort of music that I would listen to at home, like reggae and blues. There's a whole world of music out there, and electronic music has got miles to develop... The whole trance thing has got ages yet to grow, but people are really tunnel-visioned about it. That's what we're trying to do with the Sleuth label and the club, broaden horizons a bit."

Robertson then went on to talk of his plans for live Lionrock gigs in the near future.

"At the end of the year or next year, I'm going to take Lionrock out live. We're going to go the whole hog and do a proper 'showband' thing with a horn section, rather than just stand on a stage with a computer."

Justin Robertson has his own individual way of working in the studio. He tries to be as loose with his production as possible, to keep the music fresh and maintain an off-the-street feel. He doesn't really look to the future that much, he takes each day as it comes.

"Lionrock's an interesting learning process for me really. I'm just building up my own confidence and knowledge as Lionrock progresses. Doing a remix is a lot easier than doing your own stuff.'

Unlike other DJs with their own music projects, Justin does a lot of the programming himself. He doesn't just dictate concepts to a really good engineer, and let him do all the work.

"I do all the arranging and the programming. You can do it without doing that, but I just find it essential that you have a hand in it. I like to actually be there programming the sequencer."

Mark Stagg is the engineer with whom Justin works, at Planet 4 studios. Justin usually throws a few basic ideas together, and then they expand on them in the studio. He plans to obtain his own studio equipment within the next year or so, and is very spontaneous about the way he writes.

"I'd sooner sit down and listen to a reggae album than a couple of whales shagging"

"I've just started working at Planet 4 studios. We've just got a lot of old analogue gear really - SH101s, ARPs, Odysseys and things like that. They've spent a lot of money on MIDIing up all the old synthesizers. There's three S1000s with a hard drive. We've got Memory Moogs and most of the old Roland synths."

As it was very late at night, and Justin had to DJ in about an hour's time, he was a little sketchy when I asked him about what equipment he was using.

"I just thrash out a few ideas for a couple of days, and try things out. I try not to be too calculating about it. I tend to just go with what happens on the day."

Like many artists and re-mixers I have spoken to recently, Robertson is not hugely impressed with the ubiquitous SSL desk, preferring less highly-specified desks to keep everything sounding sparse and raw. He detests overproduced records, and thinks that if a mix sounds right fairly instantly, you should just go with it.

"Things may distort slightly, but I think that's good, because some of the best records I've ever heard have been made in people's bedrooms. Overproduced things sound really flat to me, especially in dance music. I think it has to have that raw edge. That's why I like that 'Felix Da Housecat' record, because it's so raw. The levels are all over the place, and the samples aren't quite in time. I think that gives it a lot of character. If you get things that are too exact and panned out, they start to sound antiseptic."

The Lionrock single, 'Packet Of Peace' has been Justin's best-selling record so far. Also successful was his third musical offering 'Carnival'. This record reinforces his point about 'raw' mixes, as the mix that was chosen for the A-side (the one with the 'Realise your purpose' speech sample in the middle), was completed in about two hours.

Justin, hard at work, with a couple of steaming decks and a rack full of vinyl.

"That was almost an out-take, but they said it was the best one. There's a mix on the B-side that I really like, called 'As Dawn Approaches'. The latest single, 'Tripwire' is kind of weird because I did that before Christmas. I'm quite pleased with it, but I've lived with it for too long now."

He has a new EP coming out which has a speed of about 110 BPM and he describes as 'a kind of weird hip-hop'. As an artist he is never 100% happy with anything he does. He thinks of the whole thing as a process of learning.

"When you do a remix you are working within certain parameters. Once you are doing your own stuff you can go on forever. You can go on remixing your record forever, and it's just trying to decide the point where it's finished. I still think 'I could have done this and that' but it's good to be like that."

Justin's remixing leaves a lot of room for artistic licence. The artists send him the disks and the multitrack tapes, and he basically does what he wants to it. Justin explains his philosophy: "I always try and do something of my own discernment. I think that if they've paid you to do a remix, they want something that you like. I always see that as the role of the re-mixer."

He doesn't believe that this role necessarily means improving on the original.

"I think the original artists should have enough confidence in their own work to say 'right, that's the definitive record'. I always try and do a mix that gives a different interpretation of it. Sometimes quite a long way from the original, to give it an extra edge when it comes to the final thing."

It's past one o'clock now, and Justin is on in about half an hour. I eagerly await hearing his set, but feel a certain mental exhaustion after our intense discussion. My guest makes for the door, only to return a minute later with the finest-looking couple of beers I've seen all day...


Lionrock (August 1992) - reached no. 61 in charts
Packet Of Peace (April 1993) - reached no.32
Carnival (September 1993)
Tripwire (August 1994)

Previous Article in this issue

Waiving the rules

Next article in this issue

Oblique strategies

Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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The Mix - Nov 1994

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman

In Session

Interview by Rob Green

Previous article in this issue:

> Waiving the rules

Next article in this issue:

> Oblique strategies

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