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DJ Haus Vs. Tom Lea

The ‘vs’ series is back with an in depth chat between two label bosses on the tricks of their trade.

Spearheaded by DJ Haus, Unknown To The Unknown has enjoyed a wildly prolific couple of years since getting up and running back in 2011. Beginning purely as a YouTube channel, an organic approach has seen a globe and genre spanning array of talent including Legowelt, Spooky, Dubbel Dutch and DJ Stingray all chalk up releases on UTTU, with DJ Haus also juggling release commitments under his solo moniker and as one half of Hot City. A fertile platform for videos, music and general goodness, Unknown To The Unknown has rapidly become an essential part of the UK’s electronic music landscape.

Responsible for a consistent slew of underground anthems in the last few years is Local Action Records head honcho Tom Lea. Dropping the likes of T.Williams and Terri Walker’s ‘Heartbeat’, Damu’s ‘Mermaid’ and DJ Q’s ‘Brandy & Coke’ has seen Lea’s label deservedly earn a reputation as a one stop shop for dancefloor heat. Another strong year in 2013 has seen Lea put out cuts from Q alongside the excellent ‘Failed Gods’ EP by Slackk and albums from Lil Jabba and Artifact. Be sure to keep a close eye on this label in 2014.

Grilling each other in advance of their two labels going head to head at Dalston’s Alibi this Saturday, Lea and DJ Haus talked about the intricacies of running a label, visual identities and finding music for Hyponik. Check it out…

DJ Haus: I wanted to find out how you see the structure of the label. What I do is put everything out there in whatever format I can, but you obviously focus on the artwork and build up to albums and stuff like that. What’s the overall goal there?

Tom Lea: I used to think about an overall goal a lot more than I do now. You’re one of the only labels I think gets away with releasing tons of music – usually when a label releases tons I think that they’re not giving the releases enough attention… even some really good labels, sometimes they put out two things in a month and it’s like they’ve not given them time to breathe. But I think with UTTU it works.

H: I guess that’s because with me, one will be a vinyl, then one will be an mp3, then one will be a video and then a CD or whatever.

T: But also you’ve always emphasised from the start that it’s not just a label – it’s a series of parties, it’s a Youtube channel, it’s become its own world.

H: Would you ever do mp3-only, or do you see them as not proper release?

T: I think I’ve come to terms with mp3 releases a lot more. When I started I was quite focused on trying to make every release really count, trying to give everything a couple of months as the lead release and thinking really hard about what remixes I’d commission. I’ve always had the thing where I don’t want to have too many artists releasing on the label at once – I don’t know if Local Action will ever seem like a crew so to speak, but I like the idea that it’s a small circle.

I don’t think Local Action’s ever had a distinct sound, but if you look at a label that did have one, like Blackest Ever Black for instance, it’s still pretty impossible to retain that once you’ve done like 10 releases. So I think I’ve started worrying about shit like that a lot less. And with DJ Q, two of the singles we’ve done have been mp3 only – they’re gonna be on his album, and I think it’s past the point where you need to release three vinyl singles only to re-release them as part of an album.

H: It can really restrain you, too. Say you had done those last two singles on vinyl, it would’ve meant that you couldn’t release them in a way that builds up to the album. You look on Facebook and stuff, and see people say ‘until it’s vinyl it’s not final’ or whatever, which is kind of a good attitude to have but as a label you can get swamped down in spending loads of time and money on vinyl – when ultimately, that’s money you could spend on PR or radio or making a video.

T: I think doing vinyl automatically creates a filter, that’s one advantage. I’m not on a P&D, so for me if I’m gonna release a record on vinyl it’s going to cost X amount of money and X amount of time. So I need to really, really know that I’m not gonna be fucking sick of the record by the time it’s out. But equally, being realistic, a lot of my favourite releases of the last few years haven’t been on vinyl anyway.

H: It’s also different markets, some stuff just doesn’t sell on vinyl – it doesn’t mean that it’s not a good record, it’s just how it is. I don’t wanna press up drum tracks or rubbish Chicago tribute stuff just because that stuff sells at the moment.

T: There’s a lot of bullshit that comes with it, as well. When you’ve worked in this industry or whatever for a while – as we have – you see the workings, like that record’s connected to that shop so of course they’re pushing it, and that DJ’s his mate so of course he’s playing it – you see how it works, and you see why tracks get big beyond just being good records on their own terms.

H: Let’s talk about the Q album. How did it get from releasing ‘Brandy & Coke’ to doing a full album?

T: Well, Q’s an exception in a way. More and more I’m enjoying the A&R side of releasing records, particularly with certain ones – like Slackk’s Raw Missions for instance, there was a lot of back and forth with how that release ended up sounding. And as you do the label for longer, you get more confident telling people if part of a track doesn’t work for you and so on. So generally, I’m more inclined to do releases with people that I know I get on with and can work with in that way – like I’d known Throwing Snow for a while before his first release, same with Slackk.

With Q, I’d never even spoke to the guy, but I’ve always loved his music. He’s always been a bit of a hero to me, ‘cause I was a big bassline house fan. And then when I heard ‘Brandy & Coke’, I was like ‘fucking hell, this could be perfect’, not just because it’s a banger, but because it was a period where there was a lot of r’n’b bootleg tracks going around which were just polite and shit and missed the point of what made all those 2-step white labels great. So I think Q’s the only person since the very start of the label that I’ve hit up out the blue and been like ‘let’s do a release’.

So after ‘Brandy & Coke’ did really well, it seemed that the obvious next step – and this is something I think your label does really well, taking an artist that releases quite a lot of music but getting something new out of them – was to be to Q like ‘look, you’re known for these club belters but you’re also able to make pop garage records pretty much better than anyone, so let’s get a regular couple of singers in and just make great pop tunes’. That’s how ‘Trust Again’ came out, and I guess the album came from there. I remember when I finally asked him about doing an album, I was like a 14 year old kid asking a girl on a date, I was checking my phone every minute.

Q’s just ridiculous, if you look at what he’s released this year – there’s the ‘Classified’ single for you which is banging Todd-style 4×4 done better than anyone since Todd’s done it, then the three singles for me are like 2-step, filter house pop and a rushing breakbeat thing, then there’s Trumpet and Badman. It’s all so good! Anyway, with UTTU, you have a lot of people releasing on the label. If you could boil it down to the key ones, who would they be? Or is that impossible?

H: I don’t really look at it like that. I’m pretty different from you, where you get involved in the A&R process. I’d like to, but because the label’s… not necessarily trashy, but fast moving, and that’s the idea behind it, it’s more like if something sounds good, pick it up and get it out quickly in a way that’s gonna suit it. I suppose with the artists, the new people like Palace and Checan are the ones that I’m not most excited about, because I’m excited about everyone, but they’re the ones that feel most naturally part of the label – I guess because they didn’t have releases before UTTU.

T: And you’ll see them evolve, whereas someone like Legowelt – he’s amazing, but he’s released so much stuff already that it’s a different situation.

H: Yeah, exactly. Apart from DJ Stingray, he’s the only one that’s doing loads of touring. You get some labels where it’s one big artist who carries the rest of the label, and I’d rather have the opposite – where it’s lots of different things that make up this whole world. Plus that way you don’t have to rely on one artist.

T: It’s interesting, because with some labels I guess the artists are bigger than the label – like DJ Q and T. Williams are probably bigger names than Local Action is. Then you get stuff like L.I.E.S. or Trilogy Tapes where the label is at the head of it, and people buy records because of the label rather then the artist.

H: See I think that’s better. You can tell when a label is only releasing tracks by an artist because they know that artist has a name. It’s like what we were talking about the other day – labels, at this point, are effectively a PR vehicle for artists. Neither of us make money off it, but if we build up a relationship that works and the artist wants to continue it then that’s great. But when you’re dealing with big acts and you don’t have that relationship, then it’s gonna be pure work – dealing with managers and that.

When I look back over 2013, I’ve put out a lot of stuff but it’s not for the sake of putting out stuff, it’s because I can’t believe I’ve been given access to this much great material. I don’t think a single release is bad – Shadow Dancer, DJ Q, Spooky, Slackk, Checan, Palace, the two Legowelt 12”s, all of it. I’ve been approached by a few bigger artists’ management recently, looking to place tracks on the label, but you know you’re not getting their best material and it’s just going to be a hassle – compared to working with someone like Kodiak, where it’s like ‘this is wicked, let’s knock it out’ and it becomes this really fun, organic thing you’ve created together.

T: This is the other thing, we’ve both got day jobs, so you don’t want it to seem like a day job. We’re not making any money out of it, so it might as well be fun.

We’ve spoken about this whole world that UTTU’s created, do you ever find it hard to convince artists to be a part of it? I’m thinking of stuff like getting Legowelt to dress up in a cape and play synthesiser on Youtube, or those Marcus Mixx videos.

H: Well those artists were like that already – it’s just what they do. The whole UTTU thing is based on it being very loose, and a bit ‘fuck you’ and whatever. It goes back to what we said about managers being involved, trying to make it serious and ‘what’s the PR plan’ – like, the PR plan is to release some good music, have a laugh and make some stupid videos, that’s about it.

T: How much of a difference do you find that videos make? I’ve only done two for Local Action but I’ve loved doing them.

H: Doing videos is the best thing about it! I still maintain that I’d rather do more videos and less stuff on Soundcloud, but Soundcloud just gets more attention. The videos contextualise the releases, this is the thing. Like Classified, ‘Say to You’, the tune’s great but it’s the video that really makes it for me.

T: Same with Slackk, ‘Blue Sleet’. For me the music, the Raw Missions sleeve and the ‘Blue Sleet’ video all work in tandem, and they contextualise each other. I think that’s why I’m so big on artwork. I saw Bok Bok say it once, about the Night Slugs artwork creating a world for the music to live in, and I try and do the same thing. It doesn’t necessarily have to be on vinyl – you can do it with a JPG – but I couldn’t be a L.I.E.S. or whatever, where it’s the same logo constantly repeated.

H: But do you think that’s one of the reasons L.I.E.S. is so popular, because they have this iconic logo that they endlessly reuse, and is on everything.

T: It works, like R&S is the best example. I don’t think I could do it though.

H: Me neither, I just feel there’s so much more you can do with it.