In The Middle with Nightmares on Wax

George Evelyn is full of ideas. You’d expect nothing less from a man that gave the title of Shape the Future to his latest album under the Nightmare on Wax moniker for which he is best known. Combining his signature hip-hop-infused electronica with a notably uplifting, spiritual edge, the record is a welcome antidote to today’s overwhelmingly negative discourses. But whilst Shape the Future’s expansive sounds wouldn’t exist without the extensive touring of the globe that accompanies a successful DJ career, the artist’s background can actually be traced much, much closer to home.

Growing up in Burley, just a short distance from the University of Leeds, Evelyn cut his teeth as a DJ at student parties in the shadow of the university campus: “When we really couldn’t get in to clubs, we used to wander around Hyde Park and Burley looking for student parties. I’ve got memories of going in, and on the table there’d be big bowls of mushrooms and hash cakes”.

The Leeds student stereotype hasn’t changed much then, it seems. And these students even played a part in Evelyn’s fledgling career: “On Chestnut Avenue, there was a party in the basement of a house – I was only fifteen or sixteen at the time, and I asked if I could play. So I went home and got my records, and rocked the party. Unbeknownst to me, the guy who let me play ran a student night in town called Downbeat, and that’s how I got my first proper club set, all from a student party. That student influence has played a big part… there’s definitely a big connection and lineage there”. 

“it’s all about showing the young people that there’s more out there, more than just the music that’s regularly promoted to them”

Evelyn’s popularity has endured throughout generations of students. His homecoming show on the Shape the Future album tour at the Belgrave sold out in less than 24 hours. And whilst playing in Leeds gives Evelyn a chance to see some familiar faces, the amount of younger fans present is something of a pleasant surprise: “It’s amazing – coming back to play at Wire about four years ago, I remember thinking it would be only old faces there. But I literally only knew ten people – it was all new faces. It’s great – it’s all about showing the young people that there’s more out there, more than just the music that’s regularly promoted to them”. 

The enthusiasm he shows for a homecoming gig shows that Leeds is still clearly close to George’s heart. But these days calls Ibiza home. At least some of his recent career can be attributed to this change of scenery: “Ibiza cleared the space for me to rediscover myself, my music, and my record collection”. The idea of a DJ moving to Ibiza is nothing new, but the island’s status as a clubbing mecca was almost irrelevant: “I didn’t move there for the parties, I moved for family reasons, a new lifestyle. I stopped buying records for a bit, and revisited my old records with Serato. I remoulded my approach to DJing, and opened this whole new world up to me that made me want to try new things. Ibiza gave me that space to reconnect”.

The sounds of Shape the Future, Nightmares on Wax’s latest release, can no doubt be at least partially attributed to this spiritual change in Evelyn’s life. The record still has the warm intimacy of older works, but his hazy sonic aesthetic is now joined by lyricism that preaches togetherness and positivity, and calls for us to embrace spirituality. It is tempting to put this down to today’s political climate. After all, we are living in divided times, and newspapers are brimming with negativity.

But whilst Evelyn is for sure dissatisfied with the state of the world, the album is not in response to any political demagogue in particular – instead, it takes aim at the immobilising pessimism disseminated by the media: “The general spirit of the album has come from me travelling around the world. Having that space, and not filling my head with nonsense, has given me the point of view that deep down we all want the same thing, wherever we are. So that got me thinking – why are the narratives always so negative? Why do we learn to judge? Why do we spread all this information that makes people feel helpless?” He doesn’t mince his words: “The news is not informative. If it was really informative, it would help us do something about things. It’s not information to help us do things, it’s information to help us fear”.

He went on: “It’s about realising that we can change our own lives. Switch off the news. Forget all the media, and the platforms that try to tell you what the world is like. Focus on the reality that you actually live in. I used to be one of those people that sat around and complained about the world. But what I now realise is that I was a part of the problem by just complaining about it.” The true intent of the album is now becoming clear – rather than firing shots at the establishment, and calling for the future to be shaped via political means, Evelyn is hoping to stir change at an individual level. Armed with a new perspective, we might just be better equipped to cause wholesale change.

“When people ask me if I want a revolution, I tell them yeah – I want a revolution in consciousness”.

“Realistically, why not start talking about how we’d like to see the world? If we start talking about that, then we can start to think about the future on a wave of optimism. If I can start a conversation about how we visualise the future, then that would be a shift in the right direction. We have a great, great opportunity to shape the future, and that’s ultimately what influenced this record. I don’t believe it’s about a leader, I believe it’s up to us as individuals.” Perhaps his key aim is best put like this, in Evelyn’s own words: “When people ask me if I want a revolution, I tell them yeah – I want a revolution in consciousness”.

As a music journalist, you inevitably carry out interviews with artists that come across as little more than PR. A band is promoting an album, and they donate ten minutes of their time so that you can help them sell a few more copies. I am not naïve enough to think that George Evelyn is above this. But I was taken aback by both the passion with which he put his points across, and by the sheer optimism that he carries. 

DJs are rarely credited for the emotive or political messages of their work. But here it’s hard not to recognise that, for an artist whose most famous work is entitled Smokers Delight, Nightmares on Wax is trying to do more than provide music to kick back to. He is trying to inspire. As a parting message, he offered some advice to the Leeds student body that helped start his career: “Stick to what’s really in your heart. In some shape or form, you’ve managed to get this far, so trust yourself. If you do, you can find what you want, and if you stick to your guns on that then you can move forward. It might be a long road, but stick to your guns”. 

Dan King