In Conversation: Wheelman
Wheelman is a name you might not be familiar with if you aren’t based in or around Glasgow, the city at the centre of Scotland’s burgeoning techno scene. From clubs like La Cheetah and the Sub Club to the Rubadub shop and distribution warehouse, Glasgow sports one of the UK’s finest infrastructures for underground music. A product of this culture, Wheelman has become something of a local hero, known for his Stereotone parties, his swinging, bittersweet house sets which hark back to the glory days of Chicago and New York as well as to the roots of Glasgow’s own sound. We caught up with him to find out more about his musical background and his deep links with the city he calls home.
Semtek: You’re a well-known figure up in Glasgow on the techno scene, what were some of your first experiences of going out there?
Wheelman: The first time I remember was a really big night for me was my 18th birthday, when I tried to get into Sub Club. But I didn’t have a passport or anything for ID, so I didn’t get in. Fortunately, Levon Vincent was playing that night at a club called Stereo, which is still going (in fact I played there recently). So I went to see him instead. I remember it was a good one. He played that Hell’s Interface remix of Midas Touch as his last tune, and it was the first time I ever heard that. And that was my first memory of a great night out in Glasgow that had an out of town booking. There was another club called Chambre 69, which has closed now, but I went there all the time when I was first going out. I saw Jackmaster, Oneman and Ben UFO all going back-to-back for what I think was the ninth birthday party for Numbers. And there was so much excitement in the room. Going out was still new to me, and it was still all really exciting.
I think that night was the first time that I ended up going to an after-hours in Glasgow, which was also new and exciting, I think the police came a few times and I’d never seen that before. I started going to La Cheetah shortly after that as well, and there was a night there called Offbeat as well, run by three guys, Joe McGhee, Jordan Coleman and Chris McFarlane aka Big Miz. They booked lots of people including Sotofett, MGUN, but my favourite parties they did were their residents parties. They had a really loyal community of people that would go to every single night. And that was maybe the first time I’d experienced that kind of club atmosphere, residents nights with loads of people. I remember them playing a lot of different stuff: classics, ghettotech, faster records, lots of acid, but it was always such a fun and friendly party environment. So that was my favourite at the time, but apart from those three main ones, I would go to Sub Club now and again and Make Do, which was a sort of makeshift club that opened after Chambre 69 closed down. I remember I saw Axel Boman there, he played Kelis, Millionaire, slowed down to house tempo near the end of his set, and when you’re a wee guy, not going out that long and you hear something like that, it leaves an impression on you.
S: How do the restrictions inherent to the licensing laws work in Glasgow?
W: Essentially it means a club will end at 3AM, or maybe 2AM as well, if you’re not in the main, central area. It can be annoying but I think it helps create a specific vibe at clubs in Scotland. If you know the clubs are shutting at 3AM, you know you’re going to go out and make the most of that time in the night that you have. So from my point of view anyway the crowds seem to want to hear something a bit more energetic. There’s not much of a minimal scene for example, or anything more relaxed and easygoing in terms of dance music. It seems to me people tend to want faster music, energetic music, party music. I think that licensing has a lot to do with that. People don’t have time to pace themselves. They’re in the club for four hours if they turn up at eleven, which they probably don’t. They get there at half twelve or one, and then they have two hours to really go for it. That contributes to a specific energy so DJs tend to reach for certain kinds of music that will work with that energy in the room. So that can be a blessing and a curse. There’s certain stuff that you’d like to be able to play here but it doesn’t really work, at least for me. You can’t get it here like you would somewhere like Berlin, or London, even, where they have got later licensing hours. That being said, it creates this high-energy when you are in the club, which is something people talk about. And that goes for the whole of Scotland I think.
S: Has that contributed to a Glasgow sound?
W: In General a lot of the Glasgow dance music taste seems to me to come from the Detroit and Chicago sounds. They were big reference points for a lot of the older guys in Glasgow who were running clubs in the nineties and before. And I think a lot of that has trickled down to younger people and evolved. I think there’s a lot of similarities between that American, Midwestern sound and what’s happening in Glasgow. If you look at Dixon Avenue Basement Jams, which I’d say is one of the most popular factions in dance music here at the moment, they seem to owe a lot of its roots to those house and techno sounds. But that licensing issue of 3AM helps enforce that. That more American house and techno style works for the energy a 3AM close brings, whereas, a lot of the more relaxed European sounds coming out of Germany, for example, don’t work as well.
S: In terms of the producers, labels and DJs from the city, who are you favourites, both past and present?
W: I think that in terms of labels, there was a lot of cool stuff happening in the nineties. Soma is an obvious example, but I still really enjoy a lot of that music. In terms of when I started going out, Numbers seemed to be on top, and they’re still operating and have a heavy influence. 12th Isle are a newer label that are killing it with interesting records and I played the same night as them recently, and they’re really great DJs, I think they’re really doing something different which is great. Domestic Exile who just released an amazing record by Cucina Povera. There’s a good range of labels for different styles at the moment.
In terms of producers, I think Lanark Artefax is doing some amazing stuff. The Burrell Connection as well, who’s a good friend of mine, I like the music he’s been making and is someone I would put a lot of money on doing very well. He’s smashing it and has some good momentum behind him. Some of my favourite DJs in the world are from Glasgow. Mark Maxwell, Mother, is really incredible. Sofay and Bake are both amazing DJs. And I think those three obviously have a reputation outside of the city, but there are other people who nobody outside of Glasgow knows who know their shit basically. So, Chester for example, me and him did a mix for Rinse for DBA, he’s someone I’ve DJed with the most for the longest amount of time. He’s really reached a level. He’s fucking sick, basically. And my friend Adler, Adam Low, he runs a party called Partial with another friend. He’s an amazing DJ. I played with him at Stereo, B2B all night. That was the most fun I’ve had DJing in ages, and he’s definitely someone to look out for. I’ve definitely missed a load out though, so, sorry if I forgot you!
Also, and this is a bit of an aside, but I think there are a load of DJs in Edinburgh at the moment doing some nice stuff, like Telfort for example. He’s killing it and all his productions are great. Super nice guy and an amazing DJ. One of the first non-Glaswegian DJs I booked. And Hi and Saberhägen as well, who just put out an amazing record on Midland’s new label. They are both together and individually, great DJs and producers.
S: What was you first party called?
W: Stereotone, which was at La Cheethah on a Thursday night, and now we’re at the Art School. I tried to think about my resources at the time, and also what kind of party I wanted to put on. I think a lot of promoters, new promoters too, go down the route of booking big artists off the bat, or booking the biggest artists they can afford to anyway and then make a name that way. But I felt like I wanted to make it more about the community that was coming down, and more about the party than whoever was playing. And I didn’t have much money at the time, which is another good reason why I wasn’t booking some massive DJ. So it made more sense to book local Glasgow DJs and my friends, and not even that, just to come and have fun. It was predominantly the same crowd every month for a couple of years. Everyone knew each other and it was all sort of local DJs. Lots of people DJed for the first time there, in front of all of their friends, pushing them on. And that’s kind of what the party was in the beginning. Local people, good fun and a community vibe. And those early parties are still the most fun I’ve had Djing, definitely the first year of Stereotone was such a nice atmosphere.
S: What was the thinking behind starting the label?
W: I’d been making music since I was much younger, but I was always really cautious to send it to anyone. Just because I knew how many other people were sending music to labels. Why should they listen to my music over someone else’s? So I was just making music for people coming to the club or whatever or local DJs to play. I didn’t want to rely on anyone else to be pushing me, I wanted to build my own kind-of foundation for myself and let people come to me. But the record came about because I’d had this track I’d made and had been playing and people were enjoying. Zander, The Burrel Connection, he already had one record out already on West End Communications but we’d been friends for a few years before then so I asked him for a track. Miz was doing really well, he’d had a few records out on DABJ, and Bleaker on UTTU. None of us were particularly huge names, me least of all, but the three of them had a following individually. So the thought was to put the three of them on one record and combine those different artists’ followings, and maybe sell some of these records. It was something I wanted to do and the music was there.
S: In terms of the infrastructure in Glasgow, it must have been helpful having Rubadub in your city?
W: I went in there and spoke to Ryan Martin about the possibility of setting up a small label, just getting advice and how to go about that. And he basically said the best bet was to press the records up and see what happens from there. So then I started speaking to Mark Maxwell, who works in distribution and Richard who runs Numbers and works at Rubabdub. They didn’t know me well or anything, but we’d seen each other about Glasgow for a few years by that point. I’m very grateful for them taking that chance on me. I knew that just by having them on board, I had a chance. I still have no idea what I’m doing now so I definitely had no idea what I was doing then! So I’m grateful to Rubadub for helping me out.
S: Aside from the release on your label, you’ve also recorded on a couple of other imprints, such as Belters. How did that come about?
W: The Stereotone record happened first, and then a few months down the line, I got a message from Kornél Kovács, who is one of the three guys that run Studio Barnhus. He basically just said that he had bought the Stereotone record and that he liked my track from it, and he played it on an RA podcast. So he sent me this message and asked me for the digital files. I also sent him over another track that I had just finished a day or two earlier, and said, “Have a listen to this, and see what you think of it.” And pretty quickly after that, he asked if it was cool to sign it to Barnhus. That record then came out about a year after that happening. We took a while to decide what it was going to be. But before it came out, Andrew who runs Huntleys, had heard from them about me. So it went from Glasgow to Sweden and then back again. They have done compilations of music from local artists in Glasgow called Clyde Built. Andrew then hit me up to do a track from that. But I wanted to give him more options, so I gave him five or six tracks. And he said, “Well, if you’ve got all this music, let’s do a record.” It all just spiralled from that first Stereotone record. I think I just got really lucky, because I like that record but it’s not like it sold out really quickly or anything or got a lot of attention, I think I just got lucky that it fell into Kornel’s hands.
S: Finally, aside from the people you already mentioned, is there anyone else in the Glasgow scene you want to big up who is making things happen?
W: There’s a lot of people who get shouted out a lot who deserve it. Rubadub, for example, and the whole team at La Cheetah, who have been doing amazing things and have been for a while now. The people at the Art School as well. I like their open-mindedness for different kinds of nights, different kinds of music, rather than looking for something that fits their brand, they just give you the space. And that’s really valuable in Glasgow. But, apart from that, for me personally, if it wasn’t for the group of friends I met randomly going out… it was those people at the party every month for the first year. Just having that level of support was for me was massively important. And I just want to shout out to those people in Glasgow supporting local music and supporting me. As well as that there’s a handful of us now who DJ together, not even out, just as friends, and we’ve been making music together for a while as well, so we’ve amassed a wee collection of music and we’re getting excited about what to do with it. I’ve got a good feeling at the moment about that collective.
Wheelman – Signal is out this week on DBA Dubs.
Photographs: Jackie Dewe-Mathews