Lifecycles: Chris Farrell

Lifecycles: Chris Farrell

For the second of our Lifecycles features we catch up with Chris Farrell, owner of much loved Bristol record store Idle Hands. In an extended session Chris gives a lowdown on life running the store, his work as a DJ, and his love of Bristol City FC. 

My name is Chris Farrell, and I’ve run the Idle Hands record shop for nearly 11 years. I’m from Worcester, and I’ve been living in Bristol for about 20 years. I live with my girlfriend Claire, who’s very understanding and supportive of my job, which is pretty all-consuming in truth. And I live with our two cats, Scampi and Bandita.

I get up at 6:30 – I don’t want to – I wish I could sleep till 8, but I just can’t. I’d love to say I did meditation or yoga or something first thing, but it’s just staring at my phone for 20 minutes and then making some coffee. If I’m in healthy-zone I have a smoothie and muesli. As we’ve slipped over into winter it feels like you need to eat something a bit more, so I just like toast and baked beans or mushrooms or something.

So there’s a few things that I like to listen to in the morning. I’m really into podcasts – I like Novara Media’s podcast, the BBC do a Football Daily which I listen to, and a few social history ones; there’s one called Three Castles Burning which is about Dublin, and it’s excellent. I try to keep music at work, or at times when I’m relaxing. If I’m in a mode of getting ready for a gig I’d probably still get up and listen to podcasts, try and keep my ears fresh, and then go to a studio and have a mix. If I’m coming to work, quite a lot of the day is listening to sound clips. It’s great listening to music but it’s not like this conscious being-taken-to-another-world listening experience. It’s listening to see how other people might like to be taken to another world experience, and making a value judgement on that. I find it’s quite good to keep my head involved in other things that I’m interested in.

Day-to-day is just being a retail manager, really. I kind of consider running labels and DJing as hobbies that run alongside it. The main thrust of my day is all the things that go into running a shop, and it wouldn’t matter if I was selling vegetables – it’s the same thing; taking care of stock, making orders, checking on accounts, customer service, packing up orders – a lot of the nuts and bolts stuff that isn’t particularly glamorous. I’ve been working in record shops for 18 years now, so I’m a little bit institutionalised. I’m still learning, but I’m quite proficient at running one these days.

What do I wear while I’m at work? Well, it depends; I like clothes! Post-lockdown Uniqlo have done these drawstring cords, I’ve been wearing those a lot, and then a sweatshirt, and maybe a pair of wallabies. We’ve got these Idle Hands sweatshirts. You don’t have to think about it too much, you can just throw one on and it’s like a uniform. Then get your nicer garms out when you’re going to the football or something.

I haven’t had a lunch break for years and years and years. Even when I worked at other record shops we didn’t get a lunch break. You can go and get your lunch and get back to it. It’s a luxury the self-employed don’t always have. I do eat lunch; it’s a case of just grabbing something, or eating what I’ve made at home. It probably takes 10 minutes. During lockdown, I got really obsessed with eating couscous every day, and roast veg, but I might’ve had too much of that now. So some falafel or something like that.

Outside of work and music, I’m interested in social history, in leftwing history – for want of a better term – and things around Irish history as well. And then football, and… I’ve had this argument with my girlfriend like, can clothes be considered a hobby or not? I’m not sure. But they can, haha. I’ve got an interest in that as well; my parents were both that kinda mod, suedehead, soul generation. My dad was a skinhead in 1969 and stuff, so I’m kind of interested in clothing and style. Even if I don’t always dress the best I’m interested in that end of things because I think it’s fascinating. It’s like a daily piece of art putting yourself together.

Work and DJing blend in good and bad ways. I sometimes feel like if I didn’t work in the shop every day I would find more of a release in music. Some of my friends who DJ for fun, or more as a job, maybe get a little bit more time to do it or find it a release. I sometimes struggle finding the time to do it. When you work in retail it’s not like you’re doing project work – it never stops, there’s no end to it. So I have to find particular time to set aside. When I do I’m really glad because I love DJing and that’s one of the reasons why I run a record shop. The plus-side, of course, is that I have access to good music. When I’m doing the buying for the shop I note which tracks I like. Then maybe on a Sunday I’ll find time to go through and either buy the record or buy the digital, play ‘em, and just figure out where my head is at. As a DJ I’ve always been quite broad, and maybe that’s to my detriment at times. I’ve got a few different avenues of stuff that I’m interested in, with kinda more pop-y stuff, the dubbier end of things or more techno, or – I mean it all blends into one anyway, doesn’t it.

I think people get bogged down by all that sometimes. I remember years ago you’d go to Berlin and you’d be chatting to someone and they’d be like, ‘oh, what you into?’ I’d be like, ‘oh I like dub, I like this, I like that,’ and they’d be like, ‘oh you like dubtechno? I like this particular type of techno’ and you’d think, fuckin ‘ell its all just music, it’s all gonna do something for you. I’ve always drawn the links between all types of music but… it’s all just something that makes you feel. Music is the most immediate art form. 

I kind of created a job for myself where I found a way to do things which are my interests. That’s great and I really like it. For the most part, I still like the same stuff I liked as a teenager, just slightly different. I find all of it evolves a little bit. With football, that’s something I’ve got massively back into where it was something I was into as a kid. I enjoy going to Ashton Gate to see Bristol City play, but I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily relaxing. It’s quite trying at the moment to be honest.

This sounds really deep house, but I used to like going to have a steam and sauna. I haven’t done that since the pandemic. There’s a gym in town with a deal where you paid about 20 quid a month if you went between certain hours. It was me, and half the uber drivers from Bristol. I’d go and sit and chat with them, or some older people – generation above me – and chat to them. I found that quite relaxing; to step into a space where no one gives a shit that you run a record shop and you’re just someone having a chat with someone else. My life is consumed by music and this job. I probably need to get back to taking time out because it does help you to focus. In the summer my girlfriend might try and get me to go for walks, ride a bike, but I don’t really do that naturally.

Since coming out of lockdown I’ve kind of spent a few months not drinking, and it feels there’s like a little bit of a shift. Our old pub The Bell has been taken over by different people – it’s sound, but it’s a bit different. And Cosies is great, but again it’s slightly different. If I’m going anywhere these days I go to Strange Brew; find myself there a lot. I think what they’ve done is great, and is something that this city maybe needed. Yeah, still drink in The Bell, still drink in Cosies – I’m a creature of habit, to be honest with you.

When I DJ certain gigs are a little bit more off the cuff and you know what’s gonna be the vibe. If I’m playing a big room or something, it requires a little bit more attention to detail, make sure you’ve got a lot of blends that are good in place, and that you know how to deploy ‘em. Every gig is different but I do prefer to have some kind of preparation, even if that’s just to make sure I’ve practised for a few sessions of an hour or 2 each, just so that when you’re doing your thing you know you’ve got something to draw on.

I don’t really get booked outside of Bristol very often anyway, haha. When I look back over how I’ve DJed, and the various mixes I’ve put out, they’re all over the place, and I don’t really think just some bloke who runs a record shop in Bristol is necessarily that attractive a proposition as a bookable entity, which is fine. I tend to have various repeat bookings which I’m hopefully going to get back to. In the before times I used to get over to Germany couple of times a year. I was playing in Berlin or Hamburg or Cologne or something like that, so hopefully that’ll come back.

Then picking up a few gigs with friends around the country. Again, you gotta put yourself out there, that’s the truth of it. I don’t expect to get anything when I don’t commit when there are so many people who dedicate their lives to it. I’ve probably always seen my role as more of an administrator. I’d like to have thought I’ve helped people on their way to what they do now. I enjoy stocking new labels, helping give exposure to people like that, having a place in this city which is my adopted home where we can stand and talk about music, and have a physical space putting out records. I’m more of an administrator than an artist, you know?

I feel like there was a lot of pent-up energy during the lockdowns. Coming out at the other end everything’s kind of in flux at the moment. I feel there’s been a generational shift, which I think is a good thing. But these things do kind of lead to this time where there’s lots of different music vying for attention, and there’s not one particular thing that is ‘the sound.’ You could even say like last year, or the year before maybe garage was more of a thing, but it’s moved on from that. Over the last couple of years I got more interest in jungle, but I don’t think it’s in this very pure ‘oh we only listen to this’ way, and I think there’s lots of different reasons for that.

It’s quite an interesting time. Makes my job at the shop a bit harder because when there is one sound that’s dominant, it means you can confidently go and buy like 20 to 50 copies of one record and everybody wants it. In a period like this, it’s more like I gotta buy 2 copies of 50 different records to make an impact, and to have sales. A friend said it almost reminds him of about 20 years ago where dance culture had gotten so big, and then there was like the collapse of the superclubs, but then new things came from it. People are questioning the old ways, and wanting to find something new. It’s quite exciting really. One of the things I always like about dance music culture – whether it’s me dad dancing to soul records in the 60s, or acid house parties or whatever, it’s always kind of regenerating and doing something, if not new, drawing on previous references in a different way.

I’m really kind of inspired – especially here in Bristol – there’s a whole new generation of people coming through, putting on nights, DJing. And I know they’re all like practising every day, doing their thing, tryna find a way through it all. As someone who’s a bit older, I don’t wanna get lazy or complacent, or expect that I should just have a right to go play. I’d rather treat it as a craft, and treat it with respect because a lot of people who are 20 years younger than me really do. You’d be lazy not to.

Pictures by: Tom Ham

Interview by: Jodanabel Villain