IT’S BEEN FIVE YEARS since 5 Magazine last caught up with Soulful House maestro, Duffnote boss and one half of Spiritchaser, Richard Earnshaw. Since that last conversation he’s released his debut solo album, In Time, racked up a #1 selling record in South Africa with Spiritchaser, had a baby and is now embarking on a series of club events and a radio show known as “iCulture.”
A series of chance meetings at various events (followed up by a pre-release copy of the frankly astounding compilation Spiritchaser – The Remixes 2000-2015) prompted me to ask him to sit down for a chat. I got a little bit more than I bargained for that day, as the two full hours of animated conversation on my digital recorder can attest.
A business savvy artist, Richard has carved out an impressive space within the industry, attending to every single detail himself whilst constantly going the extra mile to assist others. His passion for music is clearly undimmed by years in the industry, and he seems genuinely excited about each new challenge he sets for himself. What follows is a transcript from the all-too-short part of the afternoon during which I remembered I was supposed to be an interviewer and asked some actual questions…
When we last spoke, your debut album was just about to drop and you were rehearsing your live band for the launch. How did it go?
We launched In Time live at the Jazz Cafe in London to a great reception, but after that we struggled a bit due to the size of the band. In the early 2000s there was a huge vibrancy with the live music scene here in the UK, regardless of genre. This soon gave way to a “bar attitude.” Eventually through venue closures it just wasn’t practical to take a ten piece band on the road any more; it had become too limited in terms of places which could (or would) accommodate us.
I was never hell-bent on creating a touring band, but there really is no feeling in the world like being up on stage as a musician amongst other musicians. [To feel] that freedom to re-interpret or repeat a section with just a nod… As a DJ you are restricted in that way. I like to play live keys when I DJ to introduce that performance element, but even with that you’re limited in terms of what you can do.
It’s a little disheartening that I get more money for DJing for an hour or two than my whole band would get for a live performance: to really entertain and bring something electric. It’s just very odd.
It would be easy to become a slightly older grumpy person, mad at the fact that 18 year olds are earning millions playing at festivals like Coachella.
Do you think the big festivals and EDM had a part to play in this shift?
These big festivals go hand in hand, stylistically, with the rise of EDM and the evolution of Progressive House and Trance. You can’t help but make reference to Paul Oakenfold, who supported U2 on tour in outdoor arenas and stadiums before the term “Superstar DJ” had even been coined. More recently you have acts like Swedish House Mafia, who’ve made some decent records, but nothing groundbreaking in my opinion, and are now selling out stadiums the world over. All carefully orchestrated and driven by their label. People love to slate major labels, but they are very, very clever.
It would be easy to become a slightly older grumpy person, mad at the fact that 18 year olds are earning millions playing at festivals like Coachella. But they are just joining the party. The party is based on so many factors. Don’t moan about it. Calvin Harris is getting $40 odd million a year now, but there’s not a part of me that thinks “What an asshole!” I think, “Good on you. You’ve landed on your feet, you’ve got a great team around you, and you’re having a wonderful life now doing this thing. Well done.” Doing what we are doing, we can easily co-exist with these global superstars, because it isn’t the same thing.
South Africa seems to be the latest global hot spot for House Music, and you’ve had some success there. Tell us about that.
“These Tears” came out of nowhere and made us a one hit wonder in South Africa. The message behind the lyrics obviously struck a chard. It got to DJ Fresh on 5FM South Africa, before we knew it we had Tim who runs House Afrika emailing us saying, “Guys, do you realize what’s happening down here? ‘These Tears’, the needle is off. It’s completely off the scale.” Next minute we had Sony knocking on the door, and it went on from there. Suddenly we had a mad rush to shoot a video and within a few weeks it was all over MTV. We didn’t anticipate the level of success at all, so it was a nice surprise and a huge learning experience at the same time. We ended up playing a huge soccer stadium with Black Coffee in Durban, just a sea of people. As soon as we dropped the intro, the place just went bananas. Emily might as well have not bothered singing.
Early on in a genre’s popularity, there is always a catalyst. If we go back to the late ’80s, the Americans were coming to the UK and the UK ran with it. It’s important to remember that South Africa was in such a state of shit back then. So this really is the first wave, their first opportunity to get excited about this music. Black Coffee has risen out of this scene and become the figurehead, the glue between the South African market and the rest of the world. You have to have someone to look up to. For whatever reason and however it came about, he became that person and fuelled the interest in the music. I would guess that they don’t give two shits about Calvin Harris down there, or David Guetta, whereas we’ve been spoon-fed these artists for breakfast, lunch and dinner. iTunes has only just gone online down there, so the major labels had no platform. Charts are based on airplay instead of sales, so for us to remain at #1 for ten weeks meant we were basically Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do.” I’m pretty sure everyone must have been sick to death of our record after ten weeks!
The recent album Spiritchaser – Remixes 2000-2015 reminded me just how many incredible releases you guys have had a hand in. How did you go about compiling it?
It’s an anthology of some (not all) of the remixes we’ve done from 2000 to 2015, not in chronological order. The tracks were chosen for various reasons: their success in some respects, their rarity in some respects, and also remixes which remind us of certain points in our development as a production partnership. Lastly, as a collection of music, as an album, it has to work. If you listen to it from track one, through all the remixes, it’s a listening experience. When I put any album together I want people to press play at track one, spend an hour or two of their time to get to the end, then if it’s on cycle, go back to track one without it feeling disjointed.
So you’re in charge of a few labels now, tell us about how they came into being?
Yeah there are four labels now. Duffnote was the original Soulful/Vocal House label. The second to come online was One51 Recordings which is more jazzy and blues-influenced. Then in 2005 we launched Guess Records as a platform for Spiritchaser, so it has a Deep House policy. KMG was something we put together for everything from Hip Hop to Chillout – essentially anything which doesn’t fit on the other three.
What’s next for the labels? Do you plan to release albums in the future?
We will do albums, definitely. I think because it’s a whole different level of work, effort and expense that we need to make sure that the albums are worked properly. Often you’ll sign a project or a track, hopefully give the artist a springboard, but then you might never hear from them again. But now we want to encourage those that we feel have got something to bring to the table, artists who can genuinely contribute something creative and positive to the industry as a whole. So we can say, “We’ll pay you an advance and let’s work toward an album,” and hopefully that will encourage the artist to make something more than just a “functional” record, thrown out there to get a chart placement and more gigs. A good album I know will do very well in time. I know it will get played on the radio all the time. I know from my own experience that a good album will always have a place.
Artists need to be encouraged to realize that they too can have that kind of impact on the industry, rather than a track that gets you a load of gigs, but everyone forgets about you after a few months. And then what do you do? Probably get your resume up to date and go get a job somewhere. That’s a sweeping generalization, but it’s a very real danger for a lot of the young guys who are trying to break into the scene now. There aren’t many labels now that encourage longevity. It’s a long term investment to put an album out for people to enjoy, genuinely enjoy listening to, for however long it lasts. We’re more than prepared to go in with the right artist on an album project.
So looking to the future, you’re looking for a more traditional approach than you’ve had in the past? For want of a better analogy: You’re looking for a marriage rather than an affair?
Exactly! Someone to grow old with! But we are fighting a battle against independent labels who have established events, so this new generation will go to those labels because the gigs are there and there’s a guaranteed income from that. This is partly why I’m working on iCulture, to be more than just a radio show and start to do events. But we can offer so much more in other ways. You go and do a gig, and once you’ve spent the money on a pair of Nikes and whatever else you spend your money on – that’s it. That gig isn’t going to pay you repeat fees, whereas a good record has a long term income from publishing, performance as well as sales. But still we’re battling against the new generation of “I want it now, I’m not prepared to wait ten years to make a shitload of money.” So it’s easy come, easy go, and it’s just us old farts who care about standing the test of time. But I believe that shelf life is important.
Do you find the new generation difficult to relate to at times?
There’s a lot of people out there who need to understand where they are in the grand scheme of things. There are a lot of people who tell me “I’d love to get to your level” and that’s generally very flattering. However there’s no reason why they can’t have the same opportunities as me. Unfortunately what lets a lot of people down is the fact that they’re just a fucking wanker. And I’m afraid that if you’re a wanker, there’s not a lot of hope for you in the long run. I genuinely believe that at least some of my success has been down to the fact that I’m very accommodating and polite, I was raised that way. And that gets you gigs. If you turn up thinking you’re the bee’s knees, that the world owes you something because you’ve put “DJ” in front of your name, then really you can sod off, quite frankly.
So clearly you weren’t busy enough as an artist, DJ, producer, band member and family man, tell me more about iCulture, your latest venture.
iCulture started life as the name of a track I made in 2011, which was very well received. The following year a friend asked me to host a party at ADE (Amsterdam Dance Event). It got to that 11th hour for their listings and I still didn’t have a name, so I thought, “Balls, let’s just call it ‘iCulture.'” I worried that it was a track and now an event, but whatever…
Next, an Apple lawsuit?
You know what, if it gets to that stage, then that’s brilliant! People started telling me it was a great name, because it doesn’t just represent one thing. It seemed fitting to make it the name for my radio show, because the show is a broad look at the dance music landscape. There’s so much great music out there, and everyone’s blinkered in the way that they listen to music. People have told me that they’d never in a million years have listened to one track or another if it wasn’t for the fact that they heard it on my show, next to a track that they like. As a vehicle, I don’t want iCulture to be the John Peel of dance music, but I do want to subtly break down some barriers, to encourage people to simply listen to music that they like.
And does that policy extend to the iCulture club nights you’re now running?
Yes it does, however with a club night you have to be a little more specific, otherwise it’s a lot harder to engage the clubber. Listening at home is very different experience to being there and clubbing. So as well as having an eclectic selection of guest DJs, within the events there will be a little more musical consistency. I don’t want to part of that saturation of being “just another House Music event.” I’m establishing iCulture as a brand through the radio, so I’ve got something to work with for the events, and I’m starting very small. Just a couple of hundred people to start with, to get it brewing.
There’s a lot of discussion about unity (or lack of it) in the music scene now, how do you think we can help bring it about?
After a period of years where sales were weird, events were weird, everything became very conservative. But there seems to be a willingness to try stuff appearing again. What people want now is a little bit different. It seems people are becoming less hypnotised by mass media. I think there’s a lot of hope in where things are going now. I think we needed those few years of instability, just to regain focus.
It’s been mentioned so many times, but there’s been a lack of community for a long time. At the moment you’ve got people setting up these bloody festivals everywhere. There’s a festival every weekend somewhere and a lot of them are all put on by the same guys. They’re just fucking people over for their money. I guarantee that the days of the big festival are numbered, because the underground club scene is starting to fire itself up again. This is great for up and coming DJs, because hopefully it allows them to express themselves and develop as a performing artist in the way that they want to, which is no bad thing.
So there’s hope! Let’s finish on the hope.
Yes, let’s finish on the hope. Nice one!