We talk to Simon and Robin Lee about the making of their 'Under The Influence Vol 6' compilation for Z Records
Ever since Red Greg compiled the first volume back in 2011, Z Records' Under The Influence compilations have been a must-check for those in search of rare and obscure disco, funk, soul and boogie gems. Since then, Z boss Dave Lee has hit up some of the most renowned vinyl collectors in the world for further installments, including Nick The Record, Paul Phillips, James Glass and Sean P. Not necessarily in that order.
The latest selectors to take the Under The Influence plunge are brothers Simon and Robin Lee, better known to most as Faze Action, who've been wowing dancefloors and record-buyers worldwide with their distinctive fusions of deep house and disco since the mid-90s. Back then it was another Dave with a four-letter surname, Dave Hill, who signed their Full Motion EP and set in, er, motion a career that now spans some 23 years.
So with Under The Influence Vol 6 landing in stores later this month, now seemed like a good to time to have a catch-up with Simon and Robin and find out more about how they put the compilation together.
Tell us about how the album came into being…
Robin: "I've been friends with Dave for a while, but mainly through Simon - they've been friends for years. So Dave asked us to do volume six, and we hadn't done a compilation for a while - I think the last one we did was Abstract Funk Theory in about 2001."
Simon: "We don't tend to do many comps, we like to spend most of our time making new music.
Robin: "So we decided to go ahead with it because 2001 is, like, a generation ago - people who were born in 2001 might be buying this one!"
Hang on, according to Discogs there was a Later compilation for Seamless in 2006...
Robin: "Oh, that's it, yeah. 2006. [laughs] Well, we might have some 12-year-olds buying the album, who knows?"
Previous compilers have all been people that are known as collectors, as much as selectors. Does that put extra pressure on you, when you're compiling an album like this, that you've really got to bring your A-game in terms of digging out the obscurities and rarities?
Simon: "A little bit, yeah! I used to buy records off Nick The Record quite a lot, for instance. But at the end of the day you've just got to do your thing - pick records that are special to you. Under The Influence does have that obscurist vibe to it but really it's all about what influences you."
Robin: "I think it depends. Me and Simon are very different. I'm the musician and Simon's the record collector, so I'm in a lucky position in that I don't have to do the digging - Simon does it all for me!
"Either that, or I do a remastering service as well, so labels come to me with old records they've found that they want cleaning up for reissue. Usually all the original tapes are long gone, and all that's left is the crackly old vinyl. So what I do is I clean it all up and give it a bit of a remaster, so I get to discover a lot of really awesome music that way as well."
How did you go about selecting the tracklist - did you pick 10 tracks each or what?
Robin: "It was quite a long process - we took our time over it. I just threw things at Simon and he said yes or no, and also Dave suggested a few thing and obviously Simon had things he wanted on there, so it was really just me and Simon chucking ideas at each other. But the crux of it came from Simon really, with me adding in a few bits."
Simon: "A lot of these tracks have been in our DJ sets for 10 years or more, like the Bébé Manga track, Disco Circus Dig It was a big record for us, Mikki Dance Lover... I posted that one on a Faceook page about a year ago, and I thought everyone knew that record but that got a lot of interest. Then I noticed it hadn't really been comp'd before, so I thought that would be a good one."
Was that a factor in compiling the tracklist, then - picking tracks that hadn't been on other compilations?
Simon: "Yes, because that's actually quite hard these days! There are so many compilations and reissues out there, it's hard to find stuff that hasn't been used before. But we eventually managed to get a tracklist together of stuff that hadn't been comp'd anywhere else."
There are several Faze Action edits on there... were those done for the album or things you already had in your bag for your DJ sets?
Robin: "A bit of both. Mostly they were things we'd done for ourselves - like the Space Mixed Up one, we did that about 10 years ago. But there are a couple of new ones on there - the Midway and Mikki edits, they're both new."
What about promoting the album - will their be a DJ tour to go with it or anything?
Robin: "That'd be great, but let's see what happens. There are no plans at the moment."
So what else is keeping you busy at the moment, then?
Robin: "Production mainly - we're just in the middle of a little spate of releases. Earlier in the year we released the Andromeda Orchestra's Get Up And Dance EP, which we were really pleased with - the vinyl sold out really quickly and it got to the top of the disco chart on Juno. We've just released Midnight Safari by one of my side projects, Rudy's Midnight Machine, and then at the end of May we've got a digital EP called Groundwork from another one of our pseudonyms, Shogun Deep.
"And then there's all the remixes, like I've just done an Andromeda Orchestra remix for Situation feat Andre Espeut, and then I've been doing some work with Oli from Reel People as well. He's remaking a load of his favourite old soul and funk records so I've been transcribing all the string and horn parts for him."
SIMON & ROBIN'S DIRTY HALF-DOZEN
Robin Lee's Under The Influence Top 3
Space - Mixed Up [Faze Action Edit]
"Everyone knows Magic Fly and Carry On Turn Me On, which were massive records for me and Simon for years, but one day I was just listening to one of Space's albums and I was like, 'Why haven't I noticed this track before?'. It just blew me away. We had several goes at this re-edit to get it right, because I think it deserves to be more widely loved."
Delight - Is It Too Late?
"I didn't know this one till Simon dug it out for this compilation. It's from about 1983, but in 1983 it probably sounded a bit dated: it's got a lot of the Earth Wind & Fire mainstays on it, like Tom Tom 84 (Tom Washington) doing the string arrangements."
Bébé Manga - Lokognolo
"Simon's had this one for years, but his copy wasn't great so he had to go and find a cleaner one. This is Bebe Manga, who was a huge makossa star from the Ivory Coast, right at the start of her career."
Simon Lee's Under The Influence Top 3
Mikki feat Starz - Dance Lover [Faze Action Edit]
"That's one we used to play a lot back in the 90s. But it's always a bit tricky to play out, because you can't really mix it very easily, so we did a slightly more mix-able edit of the Dub so that DJs can mix in and out of it."
Leston Paul - All Nite Tonight
"I only found this about a year ago. I was already a bit of a fan of Leston Paul, who was a Caribbean artist from the 80s. I've got a couple of his LPs, and I came across a vocal mix of this track, like a ragga thing. I thought, 'I wonder if there's an instrumental of it?' and I went on Discogs and found the CD version which had two mixes. So I bought that, hoping one of them would turn out to be an instrumental - and it did. So that's quite a nice thing to be putting on vinyl for the first time."
Disco Circus - Dig It
"A friend of mine introduced me to this record, Johnny Hiller, and I've been playing it to death ever since. People used to ask about it all the time, and it's a great Sunday night record because it starts off with the line 'Sunday night, everyone keep on dancing' so if you're playing an afterhours disco party on a Sunday that's always useful!"
23 IS A MAGIC NUMBER
You're celebrating your 23rd anniversary as Faze Action this year....
Robin: "Oh dear! Yeah, since May 1995 - that's when we took out first tracks to Nuphonic. 23 years... God, how disappointing!"
Did you ever think, back then, that you'd still be doing this now?
Robin: "Well ironically, Faze Action only started because we weren't going to be going this! I'd just spent three years doing a music degree, I was in about 10 bands - just working bands playing weddings and functions - and I was literally music'd out. I'd been doing classical cello and studying music history, I'd done ethnomusicology, and I was going in the studio and making electronic music as well. Andthere's only so much you can cram in your head before you're like stop, let me off, it's all a bit much!
"So I decided to stop doing music for a bit, and go and teach English in Japan. And then Simon and me decided that as a sort of going away present to each other we'd go in the studio and make a track together, and that became Original Disco Motion. David Hill liked it and signed it when I was already in Japan, and then a couple of months later that had sold out and they wanted another one. So I wrote out the cello part for In The Trees on manuscript paper - I think you can actually see it on the MN2S website - and that did really well. And that was the start of it all, really."
So that 'going away' track saved you from a lifetime teaching English?
Robin: "Well, I actually loved teaching English in Japan, it was a great time. But it's true what people say: you can't really leave music behind. I tried, but I was an English teacher properly for about six months before one day I walked in a record shop and they had a copy of In The Trees on shelf. So I asked the guy how it had been selling and he told me that was the last copy in Japan.
"That guy was Yoku Kowakami, who we ended up setting up the A Hundred Birds disco orchestra with. So I tried to not do music, but music has a way of finding you, grabbing you by the throat and saying 'I've got you now, you little fucker!' Whether audiences like what we do or not is almost immaterial - you just have to do it, you have to make the music. Look at all the millions of bands that have tried to split up and they always end up getting back together and doing music, because it's just impossible - you can't escape it."
Simon: "It's just kind of addictive, really: you make something you like, then if that connects with people you make more, and it kind of becomes an addiction really. That's what we've done, really: we've never stopped to think about how long we've been doing it, we just get on and do it."
So if Faze Action saved Robin from 22 years of TEFL, what did it save you from 22 years of?
Simon: "Some sort of desk job... in hotel management, probably. That's what I was originally trained to do - I went to university to study hotel management in the late 80s, but when it was fresher's week, there was this sign up, asking for DJs for the fresher's ball. If you put that sign up now there'd be queues around the block, but I went along and I was literally the only person that put themselves forward for it. So they gave me the warm-up and that's how I got started, really."
Had you not DJ'd before that night, then?
Simon: "Erm, at home maybe, but not in front of people! 1989, that would have been."
And here we are 29 years later. So presumably another 29 years takes you up to retirement age - or do you have any plans to quit and open a restaurant or something?
Simon: "I don't really see the need. I think we're in that area now where all my favourite DJs are in their 50s. It's really the first generation where... in 1989, the thought of being a DJ when you were 60 would have been laughable, but now it's... well, not normal but almost normal."
Well... jazz musicians carry on till they drop, and so do rock stars. So given that DJ culture isn't (or at least, traditionally wasn't) really about being young and beautiful, and doesn't involve a lot of running around on stage, surely there should be no upper age limit on it?
Simon: "Well, yeah, absolutely, I agree. Or at least, that's what I'm hoping!"
Words: Russell Deeks
Under The Influence Vol 6, compiled by Faze Action, is out on Z Records on 25 May - pre-order it here
Tags: Faze Action, Robin Lee, Simon Lee, Z Records, Dave Lee, David Hill, Nuphonic, A Hundred Birds, Andromeda Orchestra, Space, Situation, Red Greg, Nick The Record, Paul Phillips, James Glass, Sean P