Hifi Sean (Sean Dickson) is a UK producer, DJ and songwriter who has already fitted several careers worth of music industry experience into his life. From ’90s success with UK indie-guitar outfit the Soup Dragons, critical acclaim with his electronic band The High Fidelity, his production and songwriting work as Hifi Sean, to carving himself out a successful DJ career, Dickson has been a continuing distinctive musical presence.
In house music circles, he’s probably best known for “Testify,” his northern soul-meets-house single with Crystal Waters and his superb collaboration album Ft. Dickson is now a familiar face on the global DJ treadmill, appearing regularly at Glitterbox and releasing on Defected, whilst steadily churning out a burgeoning catalog of pristine disco and house. His current club productions range from the crossover soul stomp of “Testify” to quality underground dub disco and balearica, through to more sequenced, electroesque-euro-house and beyond, but always with plenty of melodic content, and often built around a strong song.
We caught up with Dickson whilst he was on a brief vacation enjoying the unseasonably snowy weather on the UK south coast, to quiz him about his DJing and production resurgence.
photo by Jason Arber
A Rock and Roll Background
Dickson’s current production success is another step on his long musical journey, a journey that has seen him write, produce and record in many different genres and styles. It’s perhaps this eclecticism, along with some serious production chops, that define the Hifi Sean sound.
“I come from a rock n roll background,” he says, “and I think of grooves in a very soulful and blues driven way. I like to feel the drama of the funk. Bootsy Collins once sent me an email and all it said on it was ‘SEAN YOU GOT THE FUNK’… I ain’t arguing with that one.”
His productions of the last couple of years have frequently demonstrated a perfect balance of disco and dub and often feature a distinctive blend of organic instrumentation and spacey psychedelic FX. His recent re-rub of Terry Farley’s SATE project “Only When I’m Dancing” or his take on IPG v Hot Toddy’s “Motion Cowboy” both epitomize this particular approach to production. His album Ft. was also similarly sonically experimental in places, and Sean’s approach to songwriting and production is the result of the collective experience of his long career.
Dickson’s productions are adventurous and eventful. Things happen in Hifi Sean tunes, FX go into overdrive, songs take unexpected twists and turns and there’s often a hint of psychedelia to the whole endeavor.
“I sometimes program like I would program a live band,” he says. “I still think of when writing a song presenting it like a live band too. Maybe I have that deep in my soul and that is what drives the organic side of my production. But I also love and collect lots of old analogue electronic equipment too and have certain processes and tricks I have learnt over the years that have served me well. I stick by these and they have become part of the sound I make.
“I seem quite eclectic to others but not so much to myself as I hate sitting one place too long with ideas. But I also tend to think I have my own sound which is basically an extension of myself and my personality and the things I love, and that is what I look for in making productions and writing songs. Suppose that only happens through time though as you got to go around the block a few times to realize what is actually really yourself.”
Dickson’s productions are adventurous and eventful – things happen in Hifi Sean tunes, FX go into overdrive, songs take unexpected twists and turns and there’s often a hint of psychedelia to the whole endeavor.
“The music I have made over the years and the music I play as a DJ always had a big lean towards the more spacey stuff and stuff that sounds like it was made on a different planet with cool sounds appearing,” he says. “I’m a big Joe Meek fan and big King Tubby fan so I merge all that in somehow with loving certain styles of dance production and you may come up with the kind of fun and nonsense that goes on in my head when making stuff. Sound is such a great canvas to have fun with.”
It’s telling that Dickson’s main influences are producers rather than artists, and it’s the auteurs that he’s really keen on, those driven, maverick heroes of production folklore, who controlled every element of what went on in their studios and who managed to broaden our sonic landscape in the process.
“From Norman Whitfield and his disco funk sleaze to [UK ’80s pop producer] Martin Rushent and pre-Prince LinnDrum genius programming beats and 12″ dubs to Phil Spector’s complete disregard for sonic sculptures to Joe Meek DIY front room space rock masterpieces. Danny Tenaglia and his psychedelic house platters to Murk and their electro dub funks and In Flagranti and their euro-disco highs and Bohannon’s muscle-bound percussive workouts and on and on and on… From an early age I noticed on record labels that there was this other person who put sound together and that is where my obsession began.”
The Ft. album was a logical step for an artist who wants to be that other person, putting the sound together, and so Dickson gathered a stellar set of collaborators including Alan Vega from pioneering post-punk duo Suicide, UK house chanteuse Billie Ray Martin, Yoko Ono, Bootsy Collins & Paris Grey.
“Some we worked in the same room, some we worked via Skype and so on,” he says. “Some I traveled to their city and went in the studio and some we passed files back and forth. It was an incredibly artistically fulfilling experience making that album and I learned so much from some of my heroes, how they approach the whole process which also taught me things about their tracks that I loved and how they went about putting them together too. Everyone has their own personal situation when writing and producing.
“I wanted to show a cross-section of my record collection and through that hopefully my personality. I think of it as myself sonically curating my own little art show on a record. I approached it as if it were the last album I would ever make. How would I make it? This is your dream job so you better go for this and do it right.”
A memorable dance music artist album is always a hard trick to pull off, but Dickson managed it with Ft. and a large part of the success can be attributed to the quality of the collaborators, and Dickson’s studio confidence.
“With Alan Vega from Suicide, we recorded the track totally as an electronic piece but I told him we would replace the second half completely with an orchestral arrangement. He loved this concept and was blown away by the finished article but sadly never got to enjoy the reaction it got as he passed away a few weeks before the album was released. ‘A Kiss Before Dying’ was Alan’s last work he was involved in.”
As long as you’re playing some great music played and presented in a nice way with a lot of love behind it, then I do not care if it came from a USB butt plug covered in glitter from your ass.
An Ever Expanding Groove
Sean spends a substantial amount of time behind the decks these days, but his DJ career was more of a happy accident than a conscious choice.
“I never wanted or planned to be a DJ,” he says. “I have a big record collection and a good knowledge of music so my friend who ran a party once asked me to DJ. Before I knew it I had my own weekly night I co-ran with a friend [Hush from Glasgow] called ‘Record Playerz’ which ran for about six years.”
Dickson’s DJ sets take in the very best in mid-tempo balearic, plenty of disco, nu and old, through to house and techno (“hechno” he calls it). “I never play the same set twice as my brain capacity does not allow for that level of picture perfection memory. (Supposedly USBs do though.)
“I like to make people dance and to think at the same time what their dancing to, if that makes sense. I like an ever-expanding groove and creating different grooves by layering things… It is all about the moment for me in that room with those people. [Which is] why I am really uncomfortable being recorded, not because of the mistakes and believe me there are always mistakes. I kinda make it up as I go along and make the decisions there and then. I always read the crowd and feel like ‘yes this one next’ or just think ‘damn I am going to throw this in now’ and sometimes it can kill the set. But when you do it and it doesn’t it’s a moment and I alway strive for that dance floor moment and memory.
“As long as you’re playing some great music played and presented in a nice way with a lot of love behind it, then I do not care if it came from a USB butt plug covered in glitter from your ass.”
The Art of the Fade Out
The biggest tune on the album was “Testify” which was quickly picked up by Defected and led to Dickson playing the Glitterbox parties. A clutch of decent remixes have given the tune some serious shelf-life but it was always a strong song from the start. The marrying of that distinctive soul piano and Crystal Waters’ hooky vocal created an unexpectedly distinctive and accessible house tune.
“I knew it was great from the moment I came up with the idea and rough song put together,” Dickson says. “But when I heard Crystal’s vocals over it, it just went to another level and was like this is everything I love about gospel, soul, and acid house all rolled into one little stomp laden three minute rush. And that was always the agenda, to make a three minute, 7″ style track including a fade – why does no-one do fades anymore? I am going to herald that we do more fades in music, there is a total art to the fade out.”
And that characteristic piano sound, how did that come about?
“From de-tuning a piano to sound out of tune. It all came from the stomp beat as that is what I started with and it’s me recording my feet stomping on my living room floor and I tracked it about 30 times, same with the claps – that my day by dogs thought I was insane. See this goes back to the Joe Meek ethics of home recording in the ’60s, using your bathroom for reverbs and using the stairs to record stomps. Sadly I do not have stairs so I mic’d up the wooden floor in the living room and placed the mic in different places… I think you can hear my dogs join in at one point.”
And while he may reveal the esoteric recording secrets of history’s greatest producers, Dickson has no illusions about pandering. I ask who he’s making this music for and he answers straight away. “Firstly for myself, there is no other answer to this. Seriously if you’re not making the music that you love first and foremost please give it up and become a bank clerk or accountant or something.”
And perhaps this is the key to what really makes Dickson tick, and to why he’s continued to put out high-quality product over the course of his long and varied career: music that is produced genuinely from the heart, that is a true expression of the artist, music that doesn’t pander to fashion or trends, is always going to rise to the top. Underneath it all, there’s a constant striving in Dickson’s work, towards ever better quality, to prettier melodies, fresh production techniques.
“I honestly do and always will believe that the next record I hear may be the best record I have ever heard. Wouldn’t it be even cooler if I one day was to make that record?”
Hifi Sean feat. Celeda’s “The Music” is out on Defected.