“I may be established but I’ll never be establishment.” Dave Clarke, March 2005
Dave Clarke is holding forth as he drives back to his West Sussex home from a photo-shoot in London, interrupted occasionally by the bland feminine robot tones of the Satellite Navigation system offering traffic tips. The make-up still visible round his eyes makes him look a little like his post-punk musical heroes, while the futuristic route-finder reminds of his ceaseless passion for new technology.
“I bought my first Damned album because I thought they sounded like they’d be really evil,” he declares, “and even now their album ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’ is one I keep coming back to. I like the attitude, the free reign of it, and on an artistic level I see my music as in the alternative genre rather than dance music. Techno and electro is an alternative that happens to be on the peripheries of dance music.”
Clarke has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best techno and electro DJs in the world but he’s always been an outsider, from his stormy childhood in the 1980s to his tempestuous relationship with the media today.
“The school I was at was all about grooming you to be an accountant or a lawyer or in the army,” he explains. “I just saw that as breaking the human spirit and constantly rebelled against it. I instinctively felt it was wrong and pointless for me. I’ve always been very, very bad at respecting authority.”
Clarke was born and raised in Brighton but was expelled from school a number of times from an early age. The school always took him back but he fully admits to being a thoroughly disruptive boy with a short attention span. What started him on the road to where he his today was his hijacking and combining his parents’ hobbies.
“I started playing with my mother’s records and my father’s technology,” he says, “My mother had lots of old disco records by the likes of Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith and the Crusaders, and my dad was really into technology. He had disco lights in the front room, record decks, reel-to-reels, reverb units, he even did a thing on BBC Radio about quadrophonics. It’s pretty obvious where I get it all from really.”
Clarke, his relationship with his family in teenage disarray, borrowed some his father’s equipment, including the disco lights and retreated to the attic where he covered everything in aluminum foil and made a sci-fi retreat for himself. Here he’d make tapes for his friends and dismantle electronic equipment to see how it worked. He subsisted on a musical diet of Visage, early hip hop, Pigbag and punk.
Clarke was advised by his school careers office to become a software engineer but his parents had split and family life was unbearable so, at 16, he ran away from home. He’d done it before but this time was determined not to return. He ended up sleeping rough in car-parks before a friend offered him temporary floorspace. Taking a temp job in a shoe-shop, he rented himself a bedsit. The only thing that kept him going was his love of music. From soul to the Psychedelic Furs, from Devo to the nascent Chicago house sound, Clarke devoured it all voraciously and blagged himself a DJ slot at a club called Toppers in Brighton. The night he played became so successful that it worried a young John Digweed (then known as DJ JD) whose club-night it was up against. Soon such gigs provided Clarke with a meager living, one where he was left with a fiver a day to live on after buying records.
“I regard that time as an apprenticeship,” he says now.
From there, however, his gradual rise began. In 1988 he played his first foreign gig at the now-defunct Richters in Amsterdam, kickstarting a global reputation that now runs from Brazil to Singapore, from Reykjavik to Auckland, New Zealand. These days his DJ diary is booked solid six months in advance and he often headlines on the summer’s international festival circuit.
Clarke’s reputation was sealed at the start of the 1990s when he produced a series of EPs with the collective name ‘Red’. Signed to de-Construction he received rave reviews for his 1996 debut album ‘Archive 1’ which dabbled in breakbeat and electronica, a novelty for the puritanical techno scene of the time. Clarke, then as now, has no time for techno purism.
“The so-called intelligensia of the scene have done nothing but hold it back,” he snorts dismissively, “The trainspotters who don’t actually dance to it have created a misleading impression of techno for the public. It’s like when you used to go into techno record shops and they’d look at you like a piece of shit if you didn’t know about it. All those shops are closed now”
By the millennium many first generation techno DJs had fallen by the wayside, drifting off up blind allies and sub-genres, but Clarke’s sets, his extraordinary mixing skills mashing up techno, electro, ghetto-tek, hip hop and even 1980s new wave numbers, remained in constant demand. He put out a number of mix CDs including 2001’s first ‘World Service’ set which showcased his dual love for electro and techno. He also signed to Skint Records, celebrating the event at Hove Dog Track by presenting the prize for a race entitled ‘The Dave Clarke Inaugural Techno Dash’. This union resulted in ’Devil’s Advocate’ in 2004, an album that reeked of dark gothic energy laced with hip hop’s surly funk, and featured Chicks On Speed, DJ Rush and the MC Mr Lif. Clarke toured the world performing live to promote the album, as well as doing a session for his only DJ hero, John Peel.
“Some pretty heavy shit shook me up badly at the beginning of this year,” Dave Clarke concludes, “but music helped me through. Music has always brought me through, even in times when I’ve had nothing. Music has given me everything and I feel I have to give everything back. I don’t know what I’d do without it, it’s in my blood and bones, the only constant throughout the whole of my life.”
From Tones On Tail to Die Warzau, from Anthony Rother to the Sisters of Mercy, from Terence Fixmer’s crunching techno to the filthy ‘booty’ sound of Detroit, Clarke is still as enthused as a kid about it all. Back in his Merc we’re nearing his home and he slams a series of CDs into the car-stereo by everyone from fresh-faced guitar heroes Louis IV to ’80s New York punk funkers Silicone Soul.
“I have an unbridled passion for this,” he enthuses boyishly, “Yes, I suppose I’ve never grown up. I hope so.”
Long may it be so.
Thomas H Green