This Midlands-based house producer's been in the game over 20 years, but right now his star's shining brighter than ever before
Hailing originally from Solihull in the UK's West Midlands, but now based in Milton Keynes, Steve Kelley is one of those DJs and producers who's been around a bit longer than you might actually realise.
Releases on the likes of Nurvous, Yoruba Groove, Moiss Music and Platform 7even may have propelled him further into the house spotlight over the past two or three years, but his career goes back much further than that… all the way to a late 90s residency at Godskitchen, in fact, while his own Celestial Recordings label will be celebrating its 10th birthday this year. He's also a successful promoter, having for many years run one of the Midlands most infamous house parties, Tantalise presents Palava.
Yet he's never appeared in iDJ before (unless you count our recent review, that is). So with his current single In My House/Bruneck just released on Steve Bug's Sublease Music label and riding high in the download charts, now seemed like a good time to find out more…
First of all… how's lockdown treating you? Are you and your friends/family all safe and well?
"It’s okay, thanks. Friends and family are all well, thank you. Hope you and yours are safe and well too!"
Okay cool, so let's rewind to the very beginning… I gather you started out as a resident for Godskitchen. That's a pretty impressive way to kick off a career… were you playing trance back then, or in the second room playing house?
"Well, I first started DJing in my local snooker and pool club at Suzy Q’s in Solihull. My cousin was the manager there and started a student night on a Tuesday night. Six months later my brother was reading the local newspaper about a new club opening in Birmingham and said I should send a mixtape in, which I did.
"I received a phone call the following week which was amazing, as they loved my mix and wanted me to play the opening night at the Sanctuary in Birmingham. Yes, I was playing in the second room – playing mainly house with a dash of trance."
After that, I know you moved on to promote/DJ at Tantalise presents Palava. So tell us a little bit about that… and are you still involved?
"It all started around 11 years ago. I originally had a night called Palava along with a good friend Ash Sheehan (AKA Grandmaster Ash). We threw a handful of parties but then another good friend, Jon Whelan, had started an event called Tantalise in our local town Solihull at the Coach House Pub. We caught up over a beer as you do and talked about what we were both doing. Tantalise was more about the venue, however, Palava was about the entertainment, so we thought we’d combine forces and put on an event together and bring something different to just a standard pub in Solihull.
"We believed that by having something visual with entertainment, we can then subconsciously educate the crowd by playing house music in the background. It was amazing and something really special. Sounds cliche but I felt we had brought the Ibiza vibe to Solihull. We really changed the vibe of the venue, from using and transforming the outdoor terrace, to playing upfront house music along with fire eaters, drummers, snake charmers, dwarfs, drag queens, you name it.
"The night sadly finished five years ago as the pub was knocked down and turned into a Morrisons. I still keep in touch with Ash and Jon from time to time and we talk of a reunion, but we know how important a venue is when putting a night on, and it’s finding one!"
You also run Celestial Recordings with Jim 'Shaft' Ryan… yet you don't seem to have released many of your own tunes on the label until quite recently. Why's that?
"Jim really helped me understand how to run a label. He was more behind the scenes on a legal front. Ten years ago all my energy was about getting the label off the ground and focusing on signing good music. Within the first year we had a license deal with Roger Sanchez and his famous Release Yourself 2011 compilation, ZYX Recordings and Ministry of Sound radio/TV.
"In those initial years I was releasing music every week and compilations every quarter, giving new artists all over the world help to release music. So a lot of time was spent doing this. I kinda neglected myself as an artist releasing music and wanted to help new aspiring producers."
It's Celestial's 10th birthday this year… do you have any plans to mark the anniversary (that haven't been scuppered by CV-19)?
"It’s been a whirlwind kind of year so far as I've been more focused on myself. But yes, I may release a special compilation with some of the early artists I stay in touch with that have helped me build what Celestial is today."
When I look you up on Discogs, it tells me that I mustn't confuse you with rock drummer Steve Kelley, or country/folk musician Steve Kelley… has that ever happened?
"No, never. However one thing that does happen lots is my surname being spelt incorrectly and spelt Kelly. It’s all good though!"
We're really speaking today because In My House has just come out on Sublease. So how did you come to hook up with them, and are you pleased with the reactions the track's had so far?
"It all started over the past 12 months with Steve Bug supporting a lot of my releases. I noticed them in Faze magazine and iDJ too, so I thought I’d reach out to him and send some tracks as he liked my style. Steve signed the tracks back in early December 2019 and we can’t believe how apt the release date and track names are – In My House is pretty apt fo being isolated so I guess it was meant to be!"
The single shows two different sides of your musical personality, with one side deep house and one more on the prog/melodic tip. Deep down, though, which is more ‘you'?
"Starting as a DJ my influences were from the likes of Peace Division, H-Foundation, Joeski & Onionz and Yousef. My style is very much deep, dubby, chunky house but has to have a feeling. It’s got to have a feeling and maybe at times I drift into a melodic and proggy tip, but it's got to be chunky!"
Bruneck is named, we're told, after a town in Italy where you have a club residency. That's quite a long way from Solihull… how did that come about and how often do you play there?
"Back in October 2003, I played at the Junior Boys Own Vs Kidology night at Ministry of Sound in London. There was a chap standing next to me during the whole of my set who never left my side. When I did eventually finish my set, he came straight over and really gave some great feedback and kind words, along with giving me his contact details to play in Northern Italy. He was a resident at a club there called Pukanaka.
"I took it with a pinch of salt, thinking that something like this would never come off – many people talk the talk and nothing materialises, however this did! I met with the club owner, Ajax, the following month in November as he was in London. We met for a coffee, I gave him my CD and CV – I’d never given anyone a DJ CV before – and from the moment we met we hit it off. It was like we'd met before. He flew me out there three months later which was February 2004, and I've been out there ever since, every year.
"I have met and know many people from within the town. They are more like my best friends now. I am so lucky to have met them; it's special and I want to thank DJ Martinez (Martin Werth) for coming over to me that night in MOS and giving me his contact details."
And how much longer are such residencies going to be viable, do you think, in light of the need to reduce carbon emissions by flying less?
"Good question, who knows! I think going forward our lives will change how we do things in the world for sure but there’s always new tech and ways of doing things, so exciting times!"
Looking back over your career, you seem to have made the right moves in terms of putting on your own events and setting up a label, as ways of gaining a foothold/carving out a career in the industry. Would you be where you are today if you hadn't done that, and been "just" a DJ? Is it a route you'd recommend for young aspiring DJs who are just starting out?
"I believe the best route is about having the passion, desire and hunger. Yes, all these things also do help but you have to be thick-skinned and really, really, really want it. If you really want something in life and have the passion, go get it!"
In fact – with 20+ years' experience as a DJ, producer, promoter and label owner – what advice would you give youngsters starting out now, generally?
"Surround yourself with like-minded people. When collecting music, go to what turns you on and who inspires you, try not to get hung up on making mistakes, learn to develop an ear for beat structure and timings, make as many mixes as you can and ask for feedback. Don't be shy to ask for help, network with people and just overall be a decent person, work hard, remain to your true style, be nice to everyone you meet and be positive."
Finally, what else is going on in SteveKelleyWorld right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"Well, I had a few gigs that were coming up in London and Italy. I’ve started to learn the piano and continue to learn more within music production. Apart from that and being locked up, I’m enjoying some downtime also during these unprecedented times."
Words: Russell Deeks
In My House/Brubeck is out now on Sublease Music – click here to order your copy.