iDJ (finally) meets a Merseyside native who's been at the forefront of the UK deep house scene for over a decade now
The late 00s/early 2010s were a particularly fertile period for deep house. In the wake of the minimal explosion, a new deep house sound began to emerge that was more stripped-back and tech-tinged – taken to its obvious conclusion, this sound would later get a new name, deep tech – while there was also a general downward shift in BPM even among those ploughing a more "traditional" (funky/soulful/garage-y) deep house furrow.
And along with this shift in the musical zeitgeist came a raft of new producers. Ten years down the line, some of those new producers – Huxley, for instance, or Audiojack – have gone on to become household names. Others have shifted over to the business side of the industry, some have fallen by the wayside and gone back to real, everyday life. And others still are still out there resolutely plugging away in the underground.
Liverpool's James Silk falls somewhere between the first and last categories in that list. With a long string of releases on some of the most respected house, deep house and tech-house labels in the game stretching back over a decade, branding him as just ANOther underground "striver" would definitely be harsh. All the same, he's perhaps not yet quite as well known as, say, the aforementioned Gruuv bosses – or as he deserves to be! Perhaps partly because he's not a producer who's constantly out there on the social media grind and clamouring for media attention – he's one of those artists that really does prefer to "let the music do the talking".
So much so, that a couple of previous attempts to organise interviews through various PR companies and record labels have come to nought (though to be fair to James, he insists he was never even made aware of the requests). But if there's one name that's bound to make this writer's ears prick up when it appears in the old promos inbox, it's that of James Silk. What with his mastery of a range of house styles, clearly evident understanding of musical history and unerring ear for what will move a dancefloor, n' that.
So when he very kindly sent through a bumper bundle of recent releases personally, a few weeks back, we took the opportunity to kidnap him, drive him to Spain and tie him to a tree in the middle of the desert until he answered our questions.
Well, no, we didn't really do that, obviously. I just sent the lad an email. But the other version's more fun. Anyway, here's what he had to say for himself…
As you haven't featured in iDJ before, can you start by telling us a bit about your background and how you got into listening to/playing/making house music in the first place?
“It’s a cliché but I grew up around music. Whether it was listening to my Dad’s disco tapes in his car or just having the hi-fi on in the house, music was a big part of growing up. At the age of 12 I asked my Mum for some Technics 1200’s for Christmas, and thankfully she obliged!
“From there the love of record shopping began, and soon followed me DJing at school discos and such. Once I hit my 20s I knew that just playing music out wasn’t enough for me, I wanted to learn the creative process of making music."
Growing up in Liverpool – home of Cream – was there much of an underground/deep house scene around you as you were coming up?
“Yes! Back in the day you couldn’t move for house nights in Liverpool. I remember going to the likes of Mumu, Circus, Cream, Freeze, K’Fuffle plus many many more. It’s a great city for music generally, of course.”
There's a very “classic” feel to a lot of your output but you must have been VERY young back in the 90s… were there perhaps older siblings helping to shape your musical tastes?
“I’ve always been influenced by disco music from my Dad. On a daily basis I tend not to listen to house music – the majority of my playlists are filled with Kool & The Gang, Stevie Wonder, Shalamar, Chic etc.”
That said, your work has covered quite a lot of ground, ranging from techier cuts to more garage-y things to more discofied tracks… is that a deliberate ploy or strategy on your part, keeping it varied like that, or is that just what comes out?
“This may actually be a downfall of mine, because I wouldn’t necessarily say my tracks have a distinct sound to them. But unfortunately I just love all kinds of different house music, so sticking to ‘I only make tech house records’ just doesn’t work for me! One day I may want to make an old Chicago vibe, the next day a big vocal number….it’s just what I’m wanting on any given day!”
So when you sit down to make a tune, do you consciously think 'Okay, today I'm gonna make something tuff n' techy' (or whatever), or do things just take their course naturally?
“Ha ha, as previous question! I honestly just sit down and see what sort of hook I want to come up with. I never really set out to make a certain sound, I just let it take its course.”
Talk us through what's in your studio: are you a hardware nut, an all-in-the-box kinda guy or somewhere in-between?
“I’ve used Ableton for the last 12 years or so, after having started on Cubase. Hardware-wise it’s pretty limited for me. I have a MicroKorg that I like to use now and again. But generally I use the Arturia VST’s (which are based on old classic synths) and an MPK sampler to get my disco cuts in!”
You're really quite prolific – Beatport lists 38 releases from you so far this year alone, and it's only August! What's the secret to being so productive in the studio?
“Well, it's no secret…. lockdown! Lockdown made me realise what I love to do more than anything is make music. Hence why it may seem that I have a lot out this year. Truth is a lot of the music coming out was made during our lockdown days!”
Your music has appeared on some very well-known and well-respected labels – the likes of Defected, King Street, Toolroom, Glasgow Underground, OFF Recordings – and literally dozens of little underground ones. Was there any one signing that was a particular dream come true for you, though?
“I’ve just signed my second EP to Chicago’s Large Music. That one was special for me. Sometimes when you sign a track to a label, that’s all it is – one release! But when you get to go back and release again with a label, it really cements the relationship and makes it that bit more special.”
And are there any labels you'd like to sign tracks to but haven't yet?
“Hundreds! On a daily basis I find labels that are putting out quality music, and to work with new people is great.”
What would you be doing if you weren't making music for a living?
“I do actually work alongside my music. The pandemic obviously affected the industry for so many producers/DJs/labels/venues, so fingers crossed we can get back to normal very soon!”
As we emerge from lockdown, where do you stand on the whole post-pandemic raving thing – are you dying to get back out there or more on the side of caution?
“There’s always reason to be cautious of course, the pandemic is a serious thing. But yeah, if we can get back to raving safely and responsibly; I say bring it on!”
Finally, what haven't we discussed that iDJ readers need to know about?
“I have numerous EP’s due out the back end of 2021 on labels such as Plastik People, SAFE MUSIC, Spacedisco, Deepalma, Large Music, Motive and Hot Sunday. I’ll also be playing for the Connected 15th Birthday on Saturday 9 October @ Basinghouse, London.”
Words: Russell Deeks
James Silk latest EP Anybody is out now on Plastik People. Like U Do follows on Spacedisco on 17 September.