In Conversation: Sean Kelly
If you have visited Bristol you have almost certainly heard Sean Kelly playing records, perhaps without even realising it. Alongside his brother Dan he runs the Happy Skull label and the parties of the same name, and now his rnb related Ghost Phone imprint is nearing its third release. Ghost Phone is just his latest effort to spike Bristol’s water supply with rnb though, following his involvement in legendary local parties like So Bones, and a lifelong love of the music.
Semtek: From playing midweek slots in Plymouth to running Ghost Phone, one of the most hotly tipped labels in the country, it has been a long road to get to where you are. Can you pick out some of the highs and the lows?
Sean Kelly: Is Ghost Phone one of the most hotly tipped labels in the UK? To be honest I’m not sure what this means and it’s not something I actively aspire to. I wanted to create something that was personal, that has substance and doesn’t feed in to this whole celebrity DJ culture that is rife at the moment. I find it funny that some people think its hotly tipped but I’m flattered nonetheless.
You are correct in saying my journey has been a long one, my brother and I started DJ in Plymouth over 20 years ago now. A lot has happened since those days not just as DJs but in our personal lives too. Low points would be losing our parents at a very young age, they were huge supporters of what we did. Our dad was a raver, he bought us our first pair of decks and came to every gig we played for the first two years. This experience deepened my appreciation of music, it was a way of escaping the harshness of my reality and DJing has been more than a hobby ever since. It simultaneously keeps me grounded and at the same time allows my mind to be somewhere else. I live this shit and I always will.
There are too many high points to mention, when we first started my biggest ambition was to have a mix picked for the Mixmag ‘Mix of the month’ section. Notable moments for me are moving to Bristol, playing Fabric, getting to travel to some cool places with some cool people, working at Idle Hands and just the opportunity to express myself in this way after all these years is a blessing. I’m truly grateful.
S: Ghost Phone taps into hip hop and rnb which have been largely abandoned in today’s dance music culture. Where does your deep knowledge of those cultures come from?
SK: It’s the music of my youth and very much shaped my formative years, I used to spend hours watching MTV Base or The Lick with Trevor Nelson and when I first started going out when I was 17 it was the music we would dance to in clubs and bars.
When I moved to Bristol, my brother and I became residents for an rnb night called So Bones alongside a top of crew of local heads. Those parties were legendary and hold a very special place in my heart.
There are some genres where rnb has always been there such UKG and grime but I think in its pure form it has largely been abandoned by today’s dance music culture. I mean it was only a few years back when Kode9 caused a minor shitstorm by playing Warren G and Nate Dogg’s Regulate at the Berghain. Playing original rnb tracks in underground club spaces is risky business, its either going to go down a treat or like a lead brick. I’ve experienced both.
With the emergence of the whole selectors culture came a certain amount of snobbery and elitism. Rnb doesn’t really fit this aesthetic either mainly because it is seen as a commercial form of music but also because the records cost about two quid. I’ve always considered rnb (particularly from the 90’s) to be a continuation of disco and boogie, so why is it cool to play that in the club but not rnb? Why are rnb DJs relegated to playing clubs called Destiny’s instead of Dekmantel.
Its something I’ve thought about a lot and and I try to fuck with as much as possible, surely as soon as you play it in a club, on a system it becomes a club track. Right? I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m getting older but I love taking pingers and dancing to slow jams, it feels less solitary than dancing to techno. There is more humanity in the music, I genuinely believe that this is what the world needs at the moment. If you haven’t already, you should try it.
S: What’s happening in hip hop and rnb right now that you are following and who should we be looking out for in the next few years in those genres?
SK: It was extremely important not to make a Ghost Phone a throwback thing, so I listen to and seek a lot of inspiration from modern rnb and rap. There is a lot of shit out there but if you listen hard enough you can find real gems with real innovation in them. I love Tinashe, her vocals are sick and the production is always interesting and understated. I’ve really been enjoying Erika De Cassier on more of a lo-fi rnb / soul tip and its nice to see some solid UK artists start to emerge like Orijerme, Jorja Smith and Mehalia.
I also listen to a lot of versions and edits, I like to see how far people can push the genre whilst still retaining its vibe. My all time fave remixer of this ilk is Knxwledge, he’s a beat smith in a classic way but there is a forward thinking, wild element to what he does. If I could ever get a Ghost Phone from him I’d retire happy. Same applies to Mssingno, his stuff gets me every time.
S: Meanwhile Happy Skull continues in the background. You run the label with your twin brother Dan. What was the inspiration behind the Happy Skull sound?
SK: I’m not sure there is a Happy Skull sound as such and if there is, it’s something that is constantly shifting and evolving. I’ve tried to streamline what we do in a musical sense many times over the years, make it more focussed but that is simply not how I enjoy music and not how my brain works. So I decided many years ago to embrace this rather than fight against it, this approach of course has upsides and downsides.
People, the press etc. want to know where to put you and where you fit, it makes it easier to market yourself this way. However, there is a certain amount of creative freedom in being fluid and adaptable. I hate the idea of feeling backed in to a corner and like I can only play one type of thing. Once you start to build a back catalogue though, you do start to see the threads that run through everything. I like tracks that have a balance between light and dark, there has to be a bit of colour there. I tend not to release things that sound too charcoal. Apart from that, I’m open minded.
S: It must test your relationship to run a record label with someone from your family, do you mainly share the same taste in music or have their been creative differences at points?
SK: My brother and I came in to this world together and have been through so much together, our relationship is more solid than anything on this earth. Like most siblings we argue sometimes but there is no-one i would rather work with than Dan.
Our tastes in music have always been very similar verging on the same, we still share a record collection to this day. There would be no point in buying separate records as we would end up buying the same tunes.
S: Happy Skull’s sound lies on the fringe of what people might call techno, do you feel much kinship with the techno scene today or has the label sought to distance itself from whats going on at the centre of dance music?
SK: In all honesty, I’ve no idea what the centre of dance music is. It’s so far removed from where i am both personally and musically, that I really couldn’t care a less what’s there either. I also don’t feel any kinship with the techno scene or any other scene for that matter, I feel kinship with people and personalities, not scenes. From what I see on techno twitter too, I’m glad not to be any part of it.
S: You have held down a full time job outside of music whilst running two labels, countless parties and djing on weekends for the past ten years. Do the two worlds overlap at all or have you kept them seperate?
SK: The worlds overlap in the respect that it gets in the way of having fun sometimes and it means I’m quite often stretched pretty thin. Its a double edged sword as my day job doesn’t inspire creativity, I have to actively put myself in that creative headspace. This normally involves three zoots and some grime clashes, or what I like to call ‘the reset button’. The main advantage of working, is that I don’t have to rely on my music to pay my rent. I can be uncompromising with what I play and with what I release and that’s important to me. As soon as something becomes your work, it can change. Working also keeps me rooted in some kind of reality, as dry as it can be sometimes. I get to meet people that don’t give a shit about DJs or labels and I get to talk about other things. It reminds me that the world is a big place and I’m just a very small fish in a small pond.
S: You also run a regular live to air radio show with your brother called Twin Speaks which is a freewheeling take on current affairs and the media. How did that start?
SK: Noods radio were asking us to do something for a while but I wasn’t feeling that inspired at the time and couldn’t really be fucked to do a music show. I wanted to do something that was a challenge and I’d never felt that comfortable talking on the radio, which is funny considering we love chatting shit. So we decided to do a 100% talk radio show, no music just comedy jingles and chat. We wanted to do a current affairs show that was intentionally low brow with a focus on random and funny news. It was always intended to be audience led, we started the facebook group for friends to post articles.
It has grown a lot over the last year and to be honest, I’m not exactly sure why or how. The only explanation is that people are craving this type of thing, the actual news is a shitshow so its nice to highlight a different side to it all. There is also a distinct lack of humour, particularly in underground dance music. Being vaguely amusing is one of the only things I’m good at and you have to play to your strengths in this life. Therefore, Twin Speaks was the obvious thing to do.
S: The radio show has turned into a burgeoning online community. What goes down from day to day in the forum and have you ever had to ban anyone for going too far?
SK: Who knows what could happen in any given day, someone could post a story about Katie Price, a shit coronavirus related meme, all manner of exciting stuff could go down.
I think its important to have a variety of voices and people in the group but this can sometimes cause problems but honestly they are few and far between. The majority of people in the group get it, I’ve actually never had to ban anyone although I did have to tell my stepdad off once.
S: What’s up next on Ghost Phone and where can people catch you DJing online during the lockdown?
SK: The next Ghost Phone should be dropping at some point in the next couple of months, it’s all a bit up in the air at the moment.
I’m probably not going to do any streams to be honest, things are bad enough. This lockdown got me looking a bit grizzly, no one needs that. However, there are mixes on the horizon. I’m recording a mix for a reputable magazine which is dropping soon and there is my 100% Mariah Carey mixtape coming very soon too.
Listen to a Ghost Phone set from the Front Left Life show here
Photographs: Chris Hoare