‘I didn’t make it because I wanted it to be in the charts, or a big DJ’: An Interview with Ben Pearce

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Ben Pearce is a Manchester raised DJ and producer, best known for his breakthrough deep house record, ‘What I Might Do.’ Ben also runs his own record label Purp & Soul. Late last year Ben announced a series of small club appearances, titled ‘the Sextape Series’ tying in with a free downloadable mix, exploring his love of funk, soul and disco. This coming Saturday (28/02/15), Ben will be bringing his tour to Junk, arguable Southampton’s most prestigious club, having won the accolade of DJ Mag’s Best Small Club in 2013. I managed to catch up with Ben to discuss the concept behind the tour and his reflections upon commercial success.

Ben, you’ve released a disco mix online to give a flavor of the Sextape Series. My opinion, at its simplest, was that it was just really fun. What instigated the idea of the Sextape Series and what do the sounds of funk, soul, and disco evoke for you?

The idea was basically a series of podcasts I did that were online. It was over a couple of years and I didn’t do that many, there was like one a year. It started out with a mix for a friend’s night that was based on slow music, ‘Below 115bpm’ I think the night was called. So it grew from there and they got really popular and then when we were talking about ideas for doing something a bit different, that came up in a meeting and it kind of worked, funk, soul and disco. If I were playing my dream set I’d meander into disco for an hour or so. If I’m playing for a while I’ll always have a rummage around, I’ve got a lot of disco records at home. If I’m playing outdoors at a festival it’ll pretty much all be disco most of the time, so it seems like a natural thing to do and fits in very easily. There was always a kind of idea and branding behind it already.

So with those existent mixes you’ve got already, people could actually delve back into your past and chart your evolution.

Yeah pretty much, they’re all online on my soundcloud. They definitely evolved. The first one was a pretty simplistic mix of slower tracks that were 110 to 115bpm and then the next one was more of a mashup for Valentines day and it had a cut and paste style to it. Then I did a minimix for Annie Mac’s show which was really cut and paste, it was like 30 tracks in five minutes. That’s the kind of natural progression, and it’s been interesting so far to see how it has grown.

To an extent Sextape Series can be seen as a move to emphasize that there’s more to your repertoire than just deep house. What do think about artists being labelled as constituents of a specific genre?

I think it’s just natural, it’s happened throughout history, and either the artist defines the genre or the genre defines the artist. But you need some way to describe it to your friends, so if you say I really like this artist, what’s he like, you need a term, then you can be filed in a category for record shops. I think record shops are pretty much the only reason why genres exist, so they just get put into this box, or a particular page online. You need to quantify it and have a point of reference in finding other artists. It is kind of bad because not everyone wants to be pigeon-holed as a certain genre, but anyone who sees me DJ will see I don’t really play a certain genre, I play everything.

That’s a nice realist attitude to take, not totally hostile to the idea, just embracing how it is.

Yeah, it is what it is. There’s no point bitching about it.

You’ve already played three clubs in the Sextape Series, in your hometown of Manchester, as well as Bristol and Bournemouth. What kind of response have you been receiving so far?

It’s been really good, the one in Manchester was interesting because it was free. It was a really small venue, my mate’s bar infact, and that was really fun. It was kind of an older crowd, I had a lot of friends there, there was the party atmosphere, same with Bristol as well. Sometimes people don’t really read the event description, they just see the name. You were talking about artists being labelled as constituents of a genre; some people say ‘oh I know him’ and they just go in thinking it’s going to be deep house. There’s always going to be a bit of that, but it’s mostly been people who are really having fun. It’s really hard not to have fun when you’re listening to disco, it’s a fun evoking genre.

It’s quite interesting that some people will be drawn in by the big names yet sometimes that can be a chance to educate them with music outside of their comfort zone. So there’s a kind of silver lining of broadening people’s musical horizons.

Completely. I grew up with bands and I only got into DJs and electronic music when I was 18. I wouldn’t enjoy going and seeing a DJ if they weren’t educating me at all. If I go see a DJ I want to be blown away. I want to watch them and go ‘I’ve never heard this kind of music before, I’ve never heard this track before.’ Obviously I’m a lot more involved in it now, but that’s the draw of it for some people, to go and hear something a bit different. The thing is with disco, a lot of people associate it with weddings. ‘Relight My Fire’ is a classic example. I played that at Hideout festival and people kind of have a weird thing with it. You’re either drunk enough that it’s really good and you have a lot of fun, or you just go ‘this isn’t cool, this is what my mum listens to’. You have to make sure the timing’s right in a normal set.

You’ve mentioned before that you prefer to read the crowd as opposed to meticulously preparing sets. However, you’ve got quite a clear intention in mind for your sets in the Sextape Series. Have you found it difficult adopting a different approach whilst readying yourself for this set of gigs?

Yeah. To an extent it’s the same kind of preparation I do for normal sets, just different music, but I have a folder or record box, all my records in my bag. I know what I want to play, but when I get to the club I pretty much never play the records I want to play and I just see what’s working into the next one. It’s never quite worked out exactly how I thought it was going to go. It’s funny with these parties it’s a bit more about having fun, it’s a little looser. What’s also interesting about doing this is that you see residents that you probably usually just get playing deep house, tech house, and house, week in week out, go out and play disco. It’s interesting to see what they play because it is something that you don’t hear and it’s a bit of a shame. Obviously there are still parties where disco is still the thing, but, especially with the younger crowd today that I’m more involved in, it’s a genre that’s a bit more hit and miss at most parties unfortunately. It should definitely make a comeback into the popular circle.

The disco theme throughout Bestival last year went down very well.

Of course. At festivals like Bestival and Secret Garden Party, I play disco pretty much exclusively all weekend. Festivals it works, clubs you don’t hear it as much as other genres. It’s kind of interesting how you keep the tension all night by playing disco music and not anything that really goes off. It’s really a different kind of dynamic to the whole evening.

It’s encouraging to hear about the creative freedom the shows grant to resident DJs to get involved. Incidentally, you’ll be playing your Southampton set at Junk, which is widely known for winning DJ Mag’s Best Small Club award at DJ Mag’s Best of British awards in 2013. Do you notice a different dynamic playing in a smaller club when you compare it to performing at larger venues and festivals?

Yeah, there are different dynamics. It is a completely different thing. You always get that age of old question, whether you like playing at small clubs or big clubs and you can’t answer it because it’s completely different. I love Junk, it’s similar to a lot of small clubs where you’re surrounded by people and you can see their expressions at all times. It’s good for this kind of party where you want everyone having fun, and you really get involved in it. Also for the crowd when you’re in a small club you’re right next to the DJ and everybody’s together. It’s not like they’re up on a stage and you can’t see them or what they’re doing. That’s why we’re going small venues for this as I thought it would just work a lot better, and it has been working a lot better being immersed.

Junk weren’t the only ones coming away from DJ Mag’s Best of British with an award in 2013, as you were awarded Breakthrough Producer. Now a couple of years on, have you experienced a notable influence on your career from such an accolade?

Not noticeable, I guess. It’s one of those things that helps you quantify what you’re doing. It’s kind of a notch to reign you back in because my mind sways so often toward ‘Am I doing the right thing? Is it all going wrong?’ I always have a kind of paranoia, and you’re worried about it all the time like ‘Oh no, I really need to get this sorted out’. Those kind of things nail you back and say look you’re on the right path and this is going ok. It’s one of those things I guess. Amazing to win. It’s the same for a club, you’re obviously doing something right if you’re even nominated. It sets you back on course to be positive about your situation.

Leading on from which, you’ve spoken in the past about the juggling act of working on productions whilst keeping up with a busy schedule of gigs. How demanding is your current day-to-day routine?

I had a bout of writers block over the past six months, like the biggest writers block I’ve had. I really just couldn’t finish anything, get anything done. I’m slowly getting out of that now, I’ve got music piling up that I’ve finished and remixes that I like. It is hard, it’s difficult to get back in the mindset sometimes and there are a lot of stresses involved. When you’ve got a lot of things riding on it plays on your mind a bit, but the day to day is fine. I’m making a move down to London soon in the next couple of weeks so packing and everything is taking over my day to day at the moment. It’s quite nice having the weekends, but this weekend I’m down in Lonodon, in the studio.It’s really hard to say, it’s not a set routine, it’s constantly different. It took a while to get used to, not knowing where you’re going to be week to week or day to day. Suddenly you’d get a call like ‘can you come down to London Tuesday’. Its good spending two days in London in the middle of the week when you’ve not got any set time at home, and when you do, you work in the studio. It’s all over the place and kind of busy, but it’s definitely worth it.

Talking of hard work paying off, following a phenomenal initial reception, sales of ‘What I Might Do’ sky-rocketed a second time after sound-tracking a Tesco advert (of all things). With the level of attention and commercial success that the track gained have you ever felt that its legacy has distracted people from other aspects of your career as an artist and DJ?

I think you’ve kind of answered your own question by the fact that you’ve asked about it, but not in a bad way at all. It’s something that defines you something that big, no matter who you are. You think of actors and their biggest film, Daniel Radcliff is always going to be Harry Potter. I’ve kind of accepted that, it was hard at the beginning because I worked through a phase of hating it and ‘I don’t really want to play it anymore, I’ve got other music you know!’ But then you’ve just got to accept it, that’s the only reason I’m doing what I do now, otherwise I’d probably still be working in an office somewhere. It’s just part of it and I don’t think it’s necessarily that it distracts people, that’s what loops people in and then hopefully, this is what I hope, people look at other things and they go listen to the mixes I put online, radio shows, come and see me live, and then it’s your kind of entry into the whole product I guess. Not just that one thing.

I noticed in other interviews that some people would just talk AT you, telling you how good they thought the record was rather than listening to what you had to say about it.

Yeah, I still get it now from people and you just have to smile and nod. But it’s nice, it’s nice to still think that it’s got an impact on people after so many years. I can’t understand why people are on board with it, but if people aren’t it’s fine.

I don’t think you need to worry about those few.

Yeah, I’ll stop playing it when people are bored of it. When it stops getting a reaction I’ll stop.

 I think it’s the fact that some songs become emblematic of a specific time, recently ‘Walking with Elepants’  was an example, the record just becomes a vestige of that summer or that time and it just sticks with people in their memory. Like six months after it’s been played everyone’s like ‘oh yeah I’ve heard that’, but after a while it sees a resurgence.

It’s definitely that, It’s a kind of throwback. After smell, the strongest memory sense is if you smell something you instantly get transported back to the last time you smelt it. I think sound, after that, is so important, you can always remember the first time that you heard a song, or the time that you saw that song live and it brings back all those memories for you and I think that is a staple of our generation, everyone is plugged in and listening to things. It’s quite nice actually because it’s a calendar, almost, of your life, in music. So you can listen to things and remember certain moments, or not remember them.

The record itself was released on Chase & Status’ label MTA, who have recently been celebrating the fifth Birthday of the label. Whilst promoting the celebratory compilation that coincides with the milestone, Will Kennard [aka Status]stated that the success of ‘What I Might Do’ was crucial in instigating the resurgent popularity of deep house that we have seen in recent years. What do you make of being attributed with such a grand influence?

It’s honorable really. It was quite nice to be part of that, it’s a bit surreal, I don’t think of it that way, I just try and crack on with what I’m doing. It wasn’t intended to be in the charts. You see a lot of music made for the charts, and they’re even starting to put that on PR releases, which is depressing because I made that song in my bedroom with a pair of headphones and my laptop, really basic stuff. That was made for passion. I think that’s why I’m so proud of it becoming what it was. I didn’t make it because I wanted it to be in the charts, or I wanted to be a big DJ, I just made it because I liked the sound of it at the time. I think that’s the key between things. Those defining tracks are always made by the artists that just loved the music and you can tell when somebody makes a track just to get it in the chart and there’s a lot of that sort of stuff right now from major labels getting involved. Everybody wants big records, but the best music always comes from the heart. Just raw passion.

Picking up on that passion, you’ve always stressed that you have far wider musical interests beyond house, from hip hop to metal and that lyrics are the unifying quality that imbues them all with meaning, regardless of genre or classification. You’ve largely reflected that belief in your own productions. With that in mind, do you seek out lyricist that you want to collaborate with, or have lyrics in mind beforehand, or is it altogether more of an organic process?

It’s kind of everything. I write a lot of lyrics, but that’s just personally, I have songs just running through my head. I’ve always wrote songs, going back to when I was sixteen, and an emo kid, about getting things off your chest when you have a bad time in your life. It’s a nice way of getting your thoughts out, it’s a kind of therapy. I still do it now, if I’m a bit bored I might write down a poem or piece of writing and I’ll probably delete it later. I’m constantly doing that.

I’m currently working with a Dutch vocalist and we co-wrote a disco song that’s coming out, hopefully this year. I really love getting involved in the writing process, but there are some singers that don’t agree with it and have their own ideas. So it’s always important testing the water to see what will happen, it’s about finding the right people to work with. I think a thing I want to go into is songwriting, even doing my own vocals at some point, I’ll try and get to that stage.

So it’s really about keeping people comfortable in their creative spaces and respecting that.

That’s what it’s all about. Everybody’s different, even when you work with other producers. You can’t be too forceful. I think it’s all about finding that balance that works between the both of you. I’ve been lucky to have just been working with a vocalist who’s great, we’ve had really great banter and things. It’s really easy to get along with people like that, but I know that as you progress and work with people you have to be mindful. When it comes to  to artistry and singing, DJing, producing, playing guitar, whatever, it’s always you at the center, you’re not representing a brand. Everything you put out is affiliated to you so you have such control of it and obviously you can get quite protective of that. It’s quite interesting to navigate through that. No one ever makes good music out of bad relationships. (I suppose some people probably do, but I don’t know about it.)

The Sextape Series will take place in Southampton on Saturday 28th February at Junk are available via Fatsoma.

You can also hear Ben representing MTA at last week’s 1xtra’s Soundclash, on demand on the BBC Radio 1xtra website.

 

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Film and English student also into music and travelling.

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