There are superstars of the dance music scene and there is Robert Ferguson or as most know him – Fergie a Northern Irish DJ and electronic music artist from Larne, County Antrim. If there is anybody who could tell you a good story it’s this man. And there are a few good ones to read here so grab a drink and get comfy. Fergie played his first set at the age of 14 years and was later to be evicted from the premises by police for being under age. A year later Fergie met his soon to be mentor and close friend Tony De Vit which was the beginning of great things to come including his opportunity to become resident for the legendary Trade in London to GodsKitchen in Birmingham and 6 years at BBC Radio 1 to currently holding down three residencies in Las Vegas. We’ll fill in the gaps as we go on but I’m delighted to hear Fergie is back in the UK at the end of July for ‘Legends In The Park’ in Birmingham where he’ll be treating us all to not one but two sets on the main stage and the Sundissential v Polysexual tent. Now, those names bring back memories.
Fergie kindly agreed to chat with me ahead of the event on Sunday 28th July. “I really can’t wait for Legends in the Park, yeah as you say there’s a lifetime of memories to be unleashed, not just for me but for everyone who will be there. Fire extinguishers at the ready” he said. For his fans in N. Ireland who cannot make it over to Birmingham… not to worry. He always tries to get back home when he is in the UK even if it is only for one or two days and will be hooking up with one of the DJs who inspired him back then, Robbie Nelson (Agnelli & Nelson) and his brother Ken. They will be doing an OLD SKOOL gig at a local club in Larne, The Fleet – “the craic will be mighty then in the morning I will be heading over for Legends” he said.
Fergie began to learn his trade at Trade in London where he held his first residency. He spoke to me about how much of an institution it was to the UK clubbing scene –
“A Club like Trade only happens once. It’s true what they say about it… Often Copied – Never Equalled”
“The music was different from what you would hear anywhere else, the Trade DJs were something special and of course Tony set the bar high with his relentless sets. The after-hours club was where clubbers earned their stripes and especially at Trade. Perhaps the biggest thing about Trade was its inclusivity, the crossover of sexual orientation and cultures it encouraged. People from all walks of life came. It was f.ckin crazy but there was also a sort of feeling you belonged to a ‘family’. I was a ‘Trade Baby’. If you were fortunate enough to have gone to Trade, one thing is certain – you would never forget it.”
It was the dearly missed Tony De Vit who introduced Fergie to Trade and regularly took him along to his residency. Fergie recalled how the scenario played out which lead him to his own residency. “Yes, Tony took me with him and for a wee lad from a country town it was like WTF! It was like being in a science fiction movie. When I played Trade in London for the first time I was 16. Tony had got me the gig and I didn’t want to disappoint him. It was pretty special – absolutely nerve wrecking but at the same time so awesome. At Trade they had the same line up of DJs every week doing the same slot so no one ever got the chance to step in. If one of the other DJs was on tour then one of the residents would do an extended set. Tony eventually got me into the back room of Turnmills where Trade was held. They called the back room the Test Lounge where they gave other DJs a chance. When it was my turn to play I put my first record on and the needle started jumping through the whole record. As I was very nervous I didn’t know what to do plus Tony and all the owners of the club were in watching me, then a big transvestite came over, took some gum out of his mouth and stuck it to the top of the needle cartridge in order to put some weight on it. This stopped it jumping so everything after that went well and I had such a great time. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I got a call and was asked if I could play the main room. I couldn’t believe it……. it was a major step for me and one I will never forget.”
Tony played a huge role in the progression of his early career, Fergie spoke to me briefly about their friendship and impact he had on his life at the time. “Most people will know the story of how I met Tony De Vit, who was a great inspiration to me. Tony was playing at Kilwaughter House in Larne on one of the nights that I was warming up and he heard me play, invited me over to England and introduced me to the club scene. I initially went for 2 weeks and never came back! Tony took me under his wing and I really appreciated his guidance and advice. I was lucky Tony helped me a lot but I was also very focused and knew that I wanted to be a DJ. I think about Tony a lot and I know that he would be pleased about how things have turned out for me. I still miss him and the scene misses him both character wise and musically.”
At this point I had to ask about a rumour regarding one of Tony’s tutoring methods involving Fergie’s mix tapes and car windows. “Ha ha – yes that is actually true. I remember when I first came over to Tony’s he asked me to do a mix for our journey in the car. I did the mix and if one of the records would jump out of time, I would use my finger to touch the record deck platter to push it back into time and if Tony heard this he would just open the window of the car and sling the tape straight out! This kept happening until I got used to just using the pitch control, this was a very good lesson and one I have kept with me” he said.
Following Trade came residencies at the likes of GodsKitchen, Sundissential, Polysexual, PaSSion & Storm which were among the hotbeds for Midlands trance and hard house clubbing. Renowned for banging out the closing sets along with the likes of Lisa Lashes and Anne Savage he recalled “What I remember is the excitement of it all – it was like a permanent 21st birthday party! Booze, fags, drugs and banging music.” It was around the time of his GodsKitchen residency in 2000 at The Sanctuary and later CODE his music style first began to change. I asked what made him begin to dissociate his sound away from Hard House which was where his early successes were commonly associated.
“I was pigeon-holed for such a long time with the whole hard house label, which was ok as that’s where I made my name and loved playing it for a long time, but I felt that hard house changed quite a lot so it was time for me to move on.”
“Changing my music was one of the biggest challenges I have faced, as it was such a drastic change it took a long time to re-establish myself – the best part of 10 years. It was a tough journey with lots of ups and downs but it gave me a great sense of fulfilment as I was leaving everything I had built up to try something new, and I feel I helped open the door for other DJs to make the move. As a DJ, I have played quite a mix of music from house to the harder end of that genre and lots of weird bits in-between. I have never been afraid to try out different styles of music some good choices and some not so good but I have had a great time along the way finding out what I liked. I would say over the past 7 years that I have never felt more passionate about music whether that’s been playing it in clubs or making it in the studio and I still like to kick the arse of it but that’s all part of the journey” he explained.
Residencies have been indispensable to Fergie’s development as a DJ. “Residencies are always important for a DJ” he said. “They bring with them a certain credibility, help build your confidence that clubs are prepared to commit to you. I have Tony to thank for opening the door to Trade and after he died, I continued to receive a lot of support from Laurence Malice and particularly Andi Buckley, who became my manager and helped me move my career forward. My first real residency was at the Trade Parties in Ibiza where I played weekly at El Divino nightclub, Saturday mornings at SPACE and also Bora Bora. As a result of my close association with Trade I made my debut release ”People Are Still Having Sex / Ooh Sir” on Trade Records plus collab on Trade Hotmix ’99 CD for M8 Magazine, so yeah, Trade was great for me.
With a residency there is also that feeling of ‘family’ they look after you, particularly when you get wasted and thrown in jail for 3 days for a drunken escapade, like stealing a car registration because it had DJ on it, as happened to me on tour with Trade in Philadelphia. They looked after me, sorted it all out, smuggled me out when I jumped bail and didn’t even blink when the FBI / Secret Service got involved – you couldn’t f..kin make it up!
I also held a number of residencies including the likes of Sundissential, PaSSion, Red Box Dublin and The Met Armagh. The associations I made then have continued over the years when I have been back to DJ at the likes of Trade – The Last Dance, The Met Reunion, and of course Sundissential at Legends in The Park. Then there’s my 6 years residency at BBC Radio One – what an amazing time that was.
If I could do a ‘fly on the wall’ at the BBC and as a Clubbing DJ… Memories of my time at Radio 1 and a DJ on the international circuit – if uncensored it would make for quite a story! What do you think? ha ha.
So to answer your question, how important are residencies? In 2000 I became resident at GodsKitchen at The Sanctuary / CODE / Amnesia Ibiza. Neil Moffitt took me under his wing and almost 20 years later that relationship is still as strong today and is what brought me to my three residencies in Las Vegas when Neil took over Wet Republic / Hakkasan and Omnia, where I have been a resident for the past 7 years. That’s how important residencies are. You never know where they can lead!”
He then went on to talk me through his musical palette away from electronic music saying “to be honest, lately I haven’t been listening to any electronic music apart from what I do for my sets. Strangely, I have become submerged in psychedelic rock listening to the likes of Pink Floyd, Hendrix and I am loving the sounds of RnB artists like Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and Buddy Guy as well as learning how to play the f.c.k.n F chord on guitar. So who knows what my sound will emerge as…I certainly don’t… I’m just rollin’ with the music wherever it takes me”
Excentric Muzik was Fergie’s techno focused record label which primarily was an outlet for his own releases which also showcased the sounds from the likes of Christian Smith, Spektre, Sinisa Tamamovic. With the huge techno boom of late I asked would there be any plans for a revival of the label? He replied to my delight – “Excentric Muzik was originally conceived around the same time I joined Radio 1, when I was starting to do something a little bit different musically. The line-ups and clubs I was playing did not really fit with this sound and Excentric Muzik was my way of showing people how I saw myself, how I perceived my own style and musical journey, and where I wanted to be at that point. Not forgetting Mr Henry Von (aka Henry Lewys) who was A&R and who made such a success of our two sub labels Rekluse/Tribal Rage. Of course, over the past year I have been spending a lot of time in the studio and have a number of things in the pipeline so the answer is YES there is a distinct possibility that Excentric Muzik will be revived sooner rather than later.”
When I later asked if there are any parallels in his career at present which run alongside his earlier career and trajectory he explained to me “I think we all draw on stuff from the experiences we have had. For example, when I got my first residency at Hakkasan I wanted to make my Arcadia parties as random as possible. I wanted to try to recreate the crazy, mad vibe that I experienced at infamous places like Sundissential where people would turn up to the gig dressed as a suitcase! In the first year of Arcadia we had the little people dancing on the decks, fire grinders, stilt walkers interacting with the crowd, making the crowd part of the show and it was great. What hasn’t changed is that when I play, wherever I play, it’s always a party vibe.”
And the Fergie style party vibe in Vegas has been going strong since 2012. He explained to me how he’s had to adapt his style as a DJ and talk about what is expected from the thousands who walk through the doors of Las Vegas clubs week in week out . “When I returned to Vegas to take up my residencies, I knew that I would have to make a dramatic change in the music I had previously been playing. Back in the day people would come specifically to see me because they knew the music I was making in the hard house and techno world, so they knew what to expect, and I knew what music I was going to play. But in Vegas people didn’t know me as much within this scene. As well as that, the crowd changes every night so whatever I decided, it would have to work for the thousands who came every week, Tuesday through to Sunday, looking to have ‘the time of their lives’. For me this was an exciting challenge. When you have been DJing for over 25 years it’s important to be willing and able to adapt and take on new ideas and concepts.
For example, I have had to relearn the importance of ‘crowd psychology’ to be able to read the crowd, as Tony used to say ‘ One foot in the DJ Booth and one foot on the dance floor’ not only on the dance floor but the tables around the club as well.
Previously I would keep the best part of my set for the last 30 minutes and I would build a groove up to that but over here they want the madness and the badness from your first track. They don’t want to hang around for the build up and that was very different for me to get used to so I had come on with all guns blazing…..f…ck the journey…the crowd wanted to get there NOW!
However, the scene is both growing and changing at the same time. Musically people are moving forward quicker and wanting different things, not just the current hits. I feel at my residencies I have a perfect balance and the freedom to play to the crowd as I see fit… I play music the crowd will know and sing along to which I enjoy but I also incorporate Techno as part of my set and maybe drop in a bit of Hip-hop or rock whatever I feel like as long as it makes me want to dance. All music has a great way of getting to you emotionally, but I believe that dance music has that little extra excitement attached to it, that extra little naughty part that makes you want to lose yourself and stay out partying into the wee small hours…. at least it still does that for me” he laughed.
So, next we spoke about his current residencies at Hakkasan, Omnia and Wet Republic. “Well as I said earlier, I have known Neil Moffitt and James Algate for the best part of 20 years and we have worked together on many different projects beginning with my residency at GodsKitchen/Gobal Gathering. It was actually with the GodsKitchen brand that I first came with Neil on tour to the USA in 1998. Back then Neil saw something in the USA that no one else saw, he saw the massive potential of dance/electronic music, he decided to stay and promote dance music in Vegas and later opened up his club Ice there. I continued to come over from time to time to play in Vegas but it soon became apparent that the music I was playing at the time was not suited to that market, so Vegas was put on hold for a while. We still kept in contact and after a visit in 2010 I was offered a residency at Wet Republic which has been an iconic must-go-to Pool Party for years and is still the best in Vegas. That was it, I was hooked. So, when he asked me if I wanted to be involved with the Hakkasan Group Project it was a no brainer!
With Hakkasan I was actually there through part of the pre-construction stage so I feel like in a way I got to see the very soul of the building and watched it grow. Walking through the building as it was developing, seeing the layout of the DJ booth taking shape…. I was like a kid waiting for Christmas. I just couldn’t wait to get in there. I knew it was going to be an amazing place.
I was lucky to play on the opening night, so I have seen how the vibe has changed along the way. Hakkasan is different to many clubs because many of the people come for the whole ‘Hakkasan experience’ and dare I say this, not just for the DJs. People have taken the brand to their hearts and they are excited to be involved in being a part of such an exciting new concept. Hakkasan has without a doubt got the best DJ roster in Vegas, so whatever the reason people come for they will know that Hakkasan is all about quality at every level. Then the icing on the cake, OMNIA a very classy venue very different from Hakkasan. Sometimes when I see a picture of me in the DJ booth at Omnia and the ‘Light Show’ is coming down I think…’How the f… did I get here!”
The party lifestyle over the years can only be left to the imagination. I was recently told “everybody has a shake your head in disbelief story involving Fergie” and he rightfully agreed “Yeah it was good at the time, I hear that I got into quite a few states along the way and they are not talking United States of America. Not sure I believe that bit though” he laughed.
“You have to work hard in Vegas though, the crowds are out every night not just at the weekend and they expect the best party of their lives so you have to be on the ball 100% – not much time for partying these days. So you can imagine how much madness I have been storing up for Legends In The Park….. I’m coming to get ya…ha ha ha.”
So Fergie may have calmed slightly (we’ll see) but along with the work comes the lifestyle. He told me what he likes most about living in Vegas and on the flip if there is anything he misses about home.
“The weather – every day a blue sky. Whatever you want you can get it somewhere in Vegas. The variety of food, diverse cultures all living side by side. Being out walking in the desert with my wife Ellie and the dogs, Ziggy and Zion. I absolutely love having my own studio – it has been my dream for many years to have a studio. I had it built separate from our house. If I could, I would stay in there all day every day. I live just ten minutes from the clubs, I get to play great music every week in three amazing venues, with top of the range sound systems and a great crowd. Every night I wake up in my own house in my own bed, not another hotel room in another town – what’s not to like!
What do I miss… well coming from Larne I miss the sea which is literally just at the bottom of our street – great area for kids growing up. I miss the craic with friends who know me from when I was ‘wee Fergie’. I miss proper fish and chips from The Square Chippy and of course I miss my family and seeing my nephew Kaelan and niece Eva Rose growing up BUT I’m not planning on moving back any time soon.”
It seems he’s also a bit of a tour guide. If you are planning a trip to Vegas soon here is his list of must see places. “If you were to do a mini tour of Las Vegas the main things to do would be to come and see me at Omnia on Tuesday night, at Hakkasan Thursday night, at Omnia Friday night, at Wet Rep Saturday afternoon and at Hakkasan Saturday night – sorted! ha ha ha”
There were a few things I was curious to ask when I first heard about this interview opportunity. Which has been the most successful track Fergie has produced to date? I had it in my head this could be surprising and his answer was exactly that… “The most successful track I have produced to date is a track called, ‘Spuds at Sea’ that I recently made here in my studio. It has not been released but the reason it is my most successful track is because I made it from beginning to end myself, 100% pure Fergie. It is the first time that I have been able to get some of the mad music out of my head and lay it down without an engineer, so I am very proud of it.”
And secondly, out of all the mix compilations under his belt, which is his favourite and why? Before he answered I gave my choice – Headliners 03 from 2001 on MoS. He replied –
“My favourite would be MoS Headliners just because I think it was way ahead of its time musically and for me personally, it was different music to what everyone expected from me. I used MoS as it was the biggest outlet for compilations and DJ mixes to showcase the big pair of balls that I had…ha ha. At the time it didn’t go down well with everyone, but I think when people had time to reflect on it they could see that I was always more of a pioneer than a ‘bandwagon jumper’ or a follower.”
I loved it then and I still love it now. Before we start to wrap things up I let him in on a bit of info I found about a Reality TV show he turned down. “Ha ha…. they offered me £100K to go on Big Brother but I didn’t want to go on the show. At the time I had just left Radio 1 and I thought that it might look like… Oh that’s the end of Fergie he’s gone on Big Brother and that I would appear really desperate, but I had a lot more belief in myself and had a clear vision of what I wanted my future to look like. With that in mind I planned to take a Music Production course which I did at SAE Glasgow and also to make some headway into the Techno arena. I feel I achieved some measure of success with my Excentric Muzik imprint (named best label of the year 2010 by Carl Cox) and my debut album ‘Dynamite & Laserbeams’. I am proud of every track on there, receiving IDA Album of the Year Award in 2011.”
I thoroughly enjoyed our catch up. I hope everyone enjoyed a quick glance over the journey of a dance music legend but to sign out I’ll leave you with a Fergie story of my own. Back in 2001/2002 (the exact year is a bit hazy) he was playing the closing set at Gatecrasher Summer Sound System, it was daylight by this point and Fergie was playing Fatboy Slim ‘Star 69’ scratching hell out of it. I was in the crowd at the time pretty much in the centre about quarter of the way back as he launched the vinyl from the stage. It was one of those slo-mo moments watching it skim towards me assessing whether it will fly over or???? Bounce off my shoulder! It was the latter and to my annoyance the people behind me caught it. They left with the souvenir and I left with a black line across my t-shirt haha. I never thought I’d get the opportunity to tell him that. “Ha ha – sorry about that. I’m surprised that no one ever got killed at one of my gigs with flying objects whether that be records, headphones, fire extinguishers or mini bars.” You’re a legend and I’m looking forward to catching your sets next month. See you then.