In the wake of their (fairly!) recent 'From The Vault' EP, Steve Mac and Josh Butler get to know each other a little better
Cast your minds back, if you will, to the dim and distant past… to a time when the world was very different from how it is today. A time when the modern world as we know it, in fact, was just beginning to take shape.
We're talking, of course, about the end of May. That's when two giants of the UK house scene, Josh Butler and Steve Mac, joined forces on an EP for Origins Rcrds entitled From The Vault. You may remember it, if your memory stretches back that far – a month being, of course, a bloody long time in dance music.
You see, what happened was… when the single came out we were offered the opportunity of a head-to-head interview with the pair, which we of course jumped at. Only then we struggled to get pictures. And then the iDJ website went down for nearly two whole weeks. And then… well, life, and the pandemic, and life during the pandemic, generally got in the way a bit. As can happen sometimes, even aboard such a disciplined, organised and ruthlessly efficient ship as this one (ahem).
But they say good things are worth waiting for! So today in the blue corner we have Steve Mac – one-half of Rhythm Masters, boss of Variation Recordings, remixer to the pop A-list and creator of one of house music's all-time great No 1 singles in Lovin' You More (That Big Track). Steve, whose full name is Steve McGuinness, must not be confused with the 'other' Steve Mac, the one who used to make rave records before launching a career as a songwriter and producer in the pop arena (that's Steve McCutcheon).
And in the red corner? That'll be Josh Butler, whose production career is yet to enter double digits (he made his debut in 2012) but who's already racked up releases on such esteemed labels as Poker Flat, Madtech, Cajual, Defected, Strictly Rhythm and Lost Records. Josh hails, like all the best people, from the West Yorkshire conurbation and must not be confused with Philly techno wizard Josh Wink, LA house veteran Josh One (of Contemplation fame) or Stan Butler, the eternal target of Blakey's wrath from On The Buses.
And here, at last, is what they had to say to each other…
JB: How old were you when you made your first record?
SM: "I started making records when I was 15. I started messing around with turntables when I was 11, and got into the whole scratch mixing thing. So I entered a couple of DMC DJ competitions when I was 14, and became obsessed with turntables until I tried a sampler for the first time. It was like having 10 pairs of hands! You could take bits of lots of records and throw them all together.
"I didn’t actually put a record out until I was 20 years old, but I suppose it was my time learning and not being able to get to play on the gear as much as I wanted to. The thing is, back then the equipment was very expensive. Nobody had a spare couple of grand for a sampler, especially as a teenager, so I just learnt at every opportunity I had – for example, going to other studios etc. You had to hustle it!"
JB: What equipment did you use to make your first record?
SM: "I used a Roland W30 workstation, a shitty old desk that I blagged off a mate which had a DAT machine with no door on it. Yeah, times were tough, but we made do with what we had. The Roland W30 actually had a great sound to it – a lo-fi sampler which was used by Liam Howlett to make the early Prodigy records. We also did all the sequencing in the workstation, which was amazing to be honest. It had that swing that just worked with house music.
"The first record was R.M. Project's Rock To The Beat, which came out in ’94. It’s funny, Octo Octa has just asked to license it to use on her fabric compilation."
JB: There's a recent track you did under the name These Machines called Martina ft Rafael Berrio. It's a very unique-sounding record… is there a story behind how it came together?
SM: "Yes, there is a bit of a story behind that one! One evening I'd arranged to meet my friend and music lawyer Dean Marsh for a drink at my local pub, the Paris House in Hove. We walked into the pub, this Colombian band called Pollito Boogaloo were on and I’m not joking, it was a Thursday night and it was like walking into the Wild West! People were going crazy, girls dancing on the bar and tables, and everyone losing their shit.
"All I could hear was this beautiful voice which was Raf singing in Colombian. I was so blown away that I had to introduce myself to the band. They took a break halfway through and went out back to have a joint, so I went out and started chatting, saying how brilliant they were, that I had a studio in town and if they would be up for coming in for a session? They were really cool guys and said, 'Yeah, let’s meet up,' so I took their numbers and called them a week later.
"We met in a pub near my studio, and when I took them into the studio they were like 'Fucking hell!'… well, I do own quite a lot of synths. One of the guys said, 'We thought you were just some pissed up bloke in the pub!', and I said 'You're bang on, I was… but I also do this'. So anyway, I started playing them some stuff, Raf got up and just started singing and we just started recording for a couple of hours over different tracks I had lying around. We had a lot of fun, and I said to them “Let's try and get together and do something properly soon”.
"The following week my friend Aaron called me up on the Monday, and he wasn’t in a very good way. His dad – Keith Emerson from Emerson, Lake & Palmer – had taken his own life a few weeks previously and he needed a friend to talk to. My father also took his own life some years ago, so I knew exactly what he was going through. So we went to the pub to chew the fat, got quite pissed, a couple of mates turned up, and we all decided to go back to the studio and mess around.
"I did this drum beat on an MPC and Aaron just played these chords on a Juno 106, which are the chords in Martina. I was like, 'Wow, that sounds really cool over this beat', then I thought, 'Hold on a minute… I recorded those vocals the other evening with the Columbian guy, that might fit'. So I started doing some editing and before you knew it I’d managed to arrange the vocal over the simple chords and beat.
"Aaron then played some piano on top of that, and my other mate Iain Rive was there so I got him to come up with a 303 line. So then we synced it all up, recorded it, and from start to finish the record was done, in about four hours! We were all looking at each other and thinking ‘This is mad… how a day so shit can turn into something so special?’.
"I did actually do a couple more sessions on the track, and got the percussionists from the band to play some congas on it alongside Derrick McKenzie, who's the drummer from Jamiroquai and a good mate. And that’s how that record happened."
JB: I know we both love a pub… if we were there now what would you order?
SM: "Believe it or not, a non-alcoholic beer – I’m on the wagon at the moment. I haven’t had a drink for five months… I’m not a recovering alcoholic or anything like that, I just felt I needed a break from it. I've been so productive this year and finished off two albums projects which I needed to get done, and I needed full concentration to make this happen."
JB: You’ve done a lot of remixes in the past, for some very big names. Is there a particular artist or couple of artists you still have to pinch yourself that you worked with?
SM: "I’ve worked with so many people over the years but I think the maddest one was Elton John, when he personally asked me to remix Rocket Man. That was quite mental, but to be honest I was never happy with what I did and never played it to him. A few of my mates heard it and thought it was great, and told me I was mental for not playing it to him… so I’m not sure about ‘pinching myself’, maybe kicking myself?! I definitely should have at least played it to him!"
SM: What age were you when you first got into house music, and did you have any idea that you would end up making a career out of it?
JB: "I first heard house music in my early teens, or even slightly before. My mum is into electronic music and she would buy things like Cafe Del Mar or Pacha compilations, so I was quite lucky to be introduced to house music and the ‘Balearic sound’ in particular. It’s only later on that I discovered US house and the roots of the music. At that time I had no idea it would become a career, but by my late teens I was already very committed to being part of the music industry one way or another."
SM: What was the first record you made and what label did it come out on?
JB: "Well, the first track I made that I was proud of and thought had something to it sampled the beginning melody from Tubular Bells (the part from The Bxorcist) and the vocals from Soul || Soul Back To Life. It was only heard by me and my immediate family, ha ha! But the first record that got released was called Back To The Island. I made three tracks influenced by what I was heard during my first trip to Ibiza, and they were all released as an EP – on a label called Encore, if I remember rightly."
SM: You have travelled around the world extensively, but is there anywhere you haven't played yet that you would love to go?
JB: "Yes, to Japan! I’ve heard so many great reviews about Japan, from the nightlife scene to the culture and the cities. Someone once said to me 'It’s as close as you can get to going to another planet' so I’m very intrigued!"
SM: I know your ultimate collaboration goal was obviously to work with me, ha ha ha… but is there anyone else you would really like to make a record with?
JB: "Nile Rodgers is right up there! I had the pleasure of touring with him a few years ago as I played warm-up DJ sets for Nile and Chic on their UK tour. I really got to understand the level of talent that man has, and he was such a kind-hearted man to be around. I would love to see how he works in a studio environment and see how we could mix our musical tastes together to create something new."
SM: How have you been doing during lockdown? Are you keeping creative or finding it difficult being grounded?
JB: "The first few weeks/month were tricky to say the least. Obviously my schedule stopped dead and I spent the first week chasing airlines and hotels for refunds/vouchers, or anything I could get back to ensure I wasn’t going to lose out on things I’d already paid for. I also had to move my studio out of the unit I rent in town into the spare bedroom, to ensure that I could access it throughout. But to be honest, I had lots to keep me busy with at the beginning and I made a fair bit of music as I was enjoying my new studio room – my old one didn’t have a window, so now having natural light in the new room is a nice touch.
"Following my little productivity burst, though, I started to feel a little down about the uncertainty of things: my career, our industry as a whole and the future of everything in our lives. I live alone right now, too, so that presented a few challenging times. But on the days I wasn’t feeling musical I started studying Spanish and psychology to keep my mind active and focused, and now that things are slowly easing, there is more positive news coming through such as talks of events by the end of the year… so there's light at the end of the tunnel and I’m definitely feeling very positive again."
SM: Where is the first place you are going to travel to once this is all over?
JB: "I’d be quite happy travelling to Cornwall or something and doing some surf lessons! But on the music side of things, apparently one of my Ibiza bookings is still going ahead towards the end of summer, so potentially there. And failing that it will be Amsterdam I think! I’ve heard ADE being mentioned a fair bit so with any luck I’ll be seeing you over there for a Becks Blue."
Words: Russell Deeks
The From The Vault EP is out now on Origins Rcrds