Interview: Ben UFO
The rise of Hessle Audio has been a dramatic one. Set up in the midst of dubstep’s storming of the UK circuit, under the stewardship of Ben Thomson (Ben UFO), David Kennedy (Pearson Sound, formerly Ramadanman) and Kevin McAuley (Pangaea) the label has become synonymous with both the trio’s technical prowess as DJs and their shared disregard for the boundaries of contemporary dance music. The Gryphon exchanged emails with Ben UFO to find out more about the label’s journey from humble beginnings on Hessle Avenue to a position as one of Europe’s most influential clubbing institutions.
“From our perspective it’s been a gradual transformation, and there’s never been a moment where we’ve made a conscious decision to change direction.” Ben explains. “Our approach to Hessle Audio and our collective DJ sets has always been fuelled by a desire to find what unites our tastes as individuals, and that’s as true now as it was when we were sat in me and Kev’s front room seven years ago trying to think of a name for the label. It can be a struggle, as our interests are often quite divergent, but I think that’s what makes the project satisfying and gives it character when it works.”
Whilst the mid-late noughties saw dubstep take the reigns of the UK clubbing, techno imported from the continent has become a defining sound in UK cities over the last four or five years, with UK audiences developing new tastes very much in line with the musical direction that Hessle releases have demonstrated. “To me, it feels as though there’s a clear line between what we were releasing in the first few years of running the label through to the music that we’re releasing now. House and techno are now our main reference points, but that scene has always been a source of inspiration, and our records have always been played by DJs in that context too.”
Ben’s influence on the wider scene is well versed among his peers, as evidenced by the glowing reports given by the likes of Jackmaster, Joy Orbison and Gerd Janson in a recent Crack Magazine feature. “The scene around us changed, as did we, but I hope that we had a part to play in that change, and I hope that the inspiration we’ve taken from the people around us is mutual.”
Whilst on year abroad last year I was lucky enough to catch the Hessle Audio trio play a b2b2b in Shanghai, a rare reminder of the dance scene back home in a nation where clubbing culture is still in its infancy. One of the things that struck me was the sheer size of the label as a brand; not many DJs are able to do an East Asian tour and receive the kind of welcome that they received, and it is hard to imagine the distance that they’ve come since the first release in 2007.
“There are occasionally moments which feel so surreal, and so far outside of my comfort zone that I’m forced to acknowledge how much has happened to us since our time in Leeds. That trip to China was full of those moments. Like I said before, the progress we’ve made has been incremental and relatively slow, and we’ve never released a huge amount of music either – hopefully we’ll be able to continue at our own pace for the foreseeable future.”
With new audiences come new tastes and understandings, and it interests me to hear how the Hessle crew have dealt with the difference in clubbing cultures between nations. “This was something that I thought about a lot when I first started playing in Europe, particularly as so much of the dance music I’d grown up listening to was UK-centric – drum ‘n’ bass, dubstep, grime, garage… UK dance music has had a tendency to be quite self-referential, even down to the specific sounds used, and I spent a lot of time worrying that the music I was playing wouldn’t translate well when I started to travel more regularly. I’ve always enjoyed that challenge though, and one of the things I love about DJing is when you’re able to introduce unfamiliarmusic to people in a way that feels natural and unforced.” His first time playing in Berlin was a perfect example of this challenge. “The promoters told me explicitly that UK garage “didn’t work” in Germany, and that it would be brave of me to play any; I enjoyed trying to figure out the best way to test that boundary and prove them wrong! We’re starting to travel further afield more regularly now though, and I guess that our trips to SE Asia have been the first times that any of us experienced playing to audiences from such different cultural backgrounds. It’s something that’ll continue to educate and challenge us.”
A further development in the Hessle Audio story came with the announcement of Pearson Sound’s forthcoming LP, the first single-artist album that the label has put out. “People have been speculating as to when David might release an album for years now, but I’m glad we waited – it’s only now that the idea seems to make sense. We don’t tend to plan particularly far ahead so I couldn’t say for sure [if further LP releases will follow], but I’d certainly be open to it.”
Alongside the LP announcement were the dates for another extensive tour, which will see Ben, David and Kevin hit Wire in January. I ask whether the often gruelling life of a touring DJ ever catches up with him, and if he is ever tempted to follow the likes of Motor City Drum Ensemble in limiting the amount of time that he spends playing out. “It’s been great these past few years! I feel really lucky for so manyreasons, and I never imagined I’d be able to do this for a living. It does get tiring, and there are occasional moments where I feel as though I’ve taken on too much, but they tend to be fleeting.”
After starting last month at Warehouse Project, November saw Ben grace stages in Japan, Italy and Germany on top of a variety of cities during a North American tour with Joy Orbison. “It helps that my bookings are across such a broad spectrum. If I have three gigs across any given weekend, chances are that the line-ups will be completely different at each one and I’ll be forced to prepare differently for each set.” The chance to play with such a variety of talented artists ensures that there isn’t room for complacency; this time round, Joy O, Sunil Sharpe and DJ Nobu were some of the big names to share the booth. “It keeps things interesting, and as long as DJing is something I find interesting and fun then I’ll continue for as long as people want to hear me.”
If this is the rule that his career will follow, it seems inconceivable that Ben UFO will ever be allowed to retire.