Ben Clifford has been immersed in music for as long as he can remember. As a schoolboy he soon found himself saving for his first set of turntables and digging in the crates of record shops in Manchester, playing at house parties whenever he got the chance. Skip forward a few years and he started to see the rewards of his hard work – holding down long-running residencies at clubs across the country where he developed and refined his craft.
In the last few years Ben has played at London’s legendary institution fabric, spun at DJ Mag’s HQ and joined the roster at Inside Out Records – where his debut release is set to be released in late 2016. Decoded caught up with Ben to find out more.
Hi Ben, thanks for finding the time to chat. How was your weekend?
Hi – my pleasure! Very lucky timing that I happened to be in Amsterdam over the weekend – thanks for finding time to meet for a few beers with me! Great to meet you guys and hopefully catch up with you again at ADE later this month.
Tell us a little about your musical training as a teenager. Which instruments did you learn?
I experimented mainly with various brass instruments while in primary school, and also spent time learning piano. Then when I got to secondary school I started to get much more into jazz, and decided to focus on playing trumpet after being inspired by recordings of amazing players from back in the day – my particular favourites were Clifford Brown and Chet Baker.
I was fortunate to go to a very musical school (and it’s actually the same one that Ian Curtis from Joy Division went to) so there were lots of opportunities to get involved in playing very different styles from classical symphonies, to big band jazz and acid jazz, to musical theatre as part of the pit orchestra. I practiced hard and finished all the music grade exams, and as I grew in experience I got to play lots of really fun gigs too.
Eventually I was scouted by a well known jazz orchestra and toured with them for a while, playing at jazz festivals around the country at the weekends. These days I don’t actively play an instrument like I used to, but I do of course have a keyboard in my studio and I like to incorporate piano sounds into my production work.
Growing up in one of the most musically iconic cities in the country isn’t without its perks, talk us through your musical awakenings and what lead you to saving for your first set of decks.
I grew up in a little town on the outskirts of Greater Manchester called Marple (the random coincidences with Factory Records continue: Marple is where Tony Wilson grew up too) and I was first introduced to house music via my sister’s boyfriend at the time, Al Bradley – now the owner of 3am Recordings. I was only 9, but they were older and were already going to the Hacienda regularly (something I’m very envious of, as it closed before I was old enough to visit) and Al had decks and collected records – so I’d pester him to make me mix tapes.
They’d be full of amazing music and I remember being totally fascinated by them, although I was too young to properly understand what club culture actually meant at that point. When I was 15, Al brought his decks to a party at our house and showed me how to cue up and mix records. I was instantly hooked. I saved up some money, bought a pair of cheap belt-drive decks, borrowed some records from Al and started practising how to mix – and loved every minute. Once I got a bit older, my first experience of a proper club in Manchester was at Sankeys Soap (as it was called back then) around 2001.
I remember having a feeling again of such fascination the first time I went there, and being totally blown away by the incredible music that I heard, the atmosphere of the club and the massively enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowd. It was tucked away down a fairly shady-looking alleyway away from the centre of town, so it felt like a kind of secret, underground society. I mainly used to go to The Redlight party on Saturdays, and you’d get a real musical education each week from a very diverse set of world class international DJs within the house music spectrum – as well as from Krysko, who was a spectacularly good resident DJ there, always tailoring his sound perfectly to whoever he happened to be warming up for that week.
It was also the era I went to the first Tribal Gathering Warehouse party in Manchester – the precursor to what later evolved into the Warehouse Project – where I got to experience live acid house sets from greats like LFO and A Guy Called Gerald for the first time. The Sankeys brand has expanded and its music policy has changed a lot since those days, but it played a huge part in educating me and shaping my taste in club music back then. And fair play to David Vincent, who always said that he had big plans to put Sankeys on the world map. He’s definitely achieved that.
No doubt you spent a lot of time trawling the various record shops of the North. Where were your favourite places to find new wax?
My favourites up in Manchester were Piccadilly Records and Eastern Bloc. I still love to pop in whenever I’m visiting these days. In Eastern Bloc, I really liked how you could gradually get to know the guys behind the counter and have that personal touch of them helping to pick out new releases for you that they thought you’d like. It was also, of course, before iPhones and Shazam came along so it would be much harder to track down music that you heard in a club or on the radio, and it really helped to be able to chat to the guys in the shop.
I’d listen to a local radio station called Galaxy 102 most Friday nights, where Graeme Park had a really cool show, and also David Morales would broadcast live via the station from New York later in the night, usually playing amazing deep music which he didn’t necessarily introduce the track details for. I’d hurry into the record shops the next day hoping to discover new releases that they might have been playing. Online record shopping was only just coming into existence – I remember trying HMV but their stock listings were totally unreliable. Hard To Find Records was probably one of the better sites around and Juno was still just a plain text website called ‘The Dance Music Resource Pages’ I think – anyone remember that?!
It’s said a lot of the crate digging experience shapes the kind of DJ you become. Would you say the modern laptop/digital DJ has missed out on a big chunk of DJ culture?
I think there are a couple of different angles to that, I do definitely think there’s a special romance around the process of digging for records in actual shops, or in the crates at second-hand record stalls and the feeling you get when you stumble across something you’ve been hoping to find on vinyl forever. Culturally, yes, I think that’s a big part of the heritage of DJing and it’s a shame not to experience that part of it. But in terms of the actual music selection, I think the key is in the digging itself.
It doesn’t matter whether that digging is done in a record shop, or in the vast universe of music available to buy online. It’s actually pretty inconvenient to look for records in shops – having to make educated guesses on what’s worth picking out of the racks to take to the counter to play – and sometimes being limited by the shop on how many you can listen to in one go. Being able to listen to 100 clips of tracks on Juno in quick succession, and then finding 1 or 2 tracks that you really love from that (regardless of whether you buy it on vinyl or digital), is pretty cool and I wouldn’t want to do without that capability these days. Personally I buy and play a mix of vinyl and digital releases these day. I like to have the flexibility to play from either format. I really enjoy playing records I love, but I also enjoy the convenience of carrying a USB stick rather than a heavy bag! And I definitely don’t miss burning CDs!
You’ve DJed a great deal around the North West and Midlands. Recently you’ve made waves in the capital too, can you tell us about some of the parties you’ve played for?
One of the first residencies I had was for a house night called Kick The Habit, up in Leeds in around 2005. The parties were always on Sundays and the flyers used to have empty baggies attached to them, referencing the Leeds club scene’s notoriously hard partying I think. Around that time I’d also discovered a bar called Moo in Leamington Spa (where I was living as a student at Warwick uni) which I loved and really wanted to play at but they had a really strict policy of not playing any house/dance music.
So that’s when I started to explore lots of other styles of music that I hadn’t really bought much of until then – rare groove, soul, reggae, funk, indie etc – and gradually diversified my record collection a lot more. With some persistence I was eventually given a regular slot there, and I look back really fondly on that era. When I moved to London after uni, I had trouble figuring out how to break into the DJ scene, and I don’t think I had any gigs for at least the first couple of years. So eventually, I decided to take the reins and start my own night called Stereo Sleaze together with an old friend from the Marple school days called David Gregory.
The nu-disco revival period was at its peak at that point, and for our first few parties we moved around various intimate, tucked-away basement spaces in East London where we’d install red lights and a glitter ball, and do our best to create an original disco era type of debauched party atmosphere for people. Oh and we invited my old friend Al Bradley to be a resident too – which was an ace full circle moment. A little after we started that party, I came across an advert for a DJ competition, being run by the Ketoloco promoters as part of the launch of their new disco off-shoot night (Ketoloco being an infamous techno after-hours party that started in Leeds and later moved to London) – so I entered, and ended up winning a residency. Later on I also became a resident for Ketoloco itself – where I got put to the test playing on much bigger systems and alongside much bigger headliners. It was really fun to be given the opportunity to play on a bigger platform like that and I learnt a lot from it as a DJ.
While in London you’ve been fortunate enough to play fabric amongst other venues. What are your thoughts on the whole closure story?
It’s a massive injustice and completely illogical. I really hope that sense prevails when their appeal takes place in November, and I’m so pleased that they’ve been given such an enormous amount of support from the global music community so far. The management at fabric, as the entire music industry has testified, is absolutely world class on a number of levels, and they fully deserve to be celebrated, not victimised. I’ve actually written at greater length on the topic here, including some suggestions for things we can all do to help engage with the wider social issues.
Your sound has been described as warm, deep and eclectic. Who would you say are your influences and why?
Apart from the various past influences I’ve talked about already, I’d say my current influences and inspirations tend to come from some favourite artists and DJs like Leif, Christopher Rau, tINI, Magda, Prosumer, David August and Leafar Legov. I also love Tim Sweeney’s very eclectic Beats In Space radio show, and the Lazpod series that Damian Lazarus does from time to time, where he explores all sorts of weird and wonderful world music. Hopefully he’ll do another episode soon, it’s been quite a while!
Basically I like music to have depth and heart, a cool groove, and be imaginative – not just a series of dramatic but predictable builds and drops. I also particularly love the Resident Advisor podcast, they cover such an enormous variety of styles and some of my lifetime favourite mixes have come from that series. In particular, the Leafar Legov mix from earlier this year absolute blew my mind and has been a big influence on the music I’ve been working on in the studio lately.
I also produce a monthly podcast called Small Hours with my friend Tom Ratcliffe, where we play and talk about a really wide variety of new and alternative music that we hunt down each month – mainly non-dancefloor stuff. Tom finds lots of great music from bands and artists that I would tend not to discover myself so that’s been quite a big influence on me too. The podcast is available on iTunes and SoundCloud and you can find out more about it on our website.
Tell us about Inside Out Records. You’re now the label manager there, how’s it all going? You have a release yourself soon don’t you?
The label was started back in 2013 by Stevie R and Alex Zed, and they created it as a platform to release a rich selection of imaginative, intriguing electronic music. I actually met the guys through Al Bradley – he was playing for one of my parties in London and had just done a remix for the label, so they came down to say hi – and we soon became great friends. I’ve been playing regularly at the label parties in London over the last couple of years, and it just ended up being a sort of natural progression for me to become the manager of the label earlier this year.
I’m really enjoying the role, and there are some very talented artists involved with the label that I’m excited to continue working with. Our next release is coming up on October 17th, from a new signing to Inside Out (but he’s previously released on Kompakt amongst others), Elijah Simmons – the EP’s called Delphi. We love it, and the first track on my mix for Decoded is ‘Dream Sequence’ from the EP. We’ve got a really exciting release coming up after that in November which I’ll keep under wraps for now – and then my own debut EP will be after that – look out for it! It’s along the lines of a Nicolas Jaar / Leafar Legov type of sound.
Well Ben, it’s been brief but emotional! Congrats again on winning this month’s Mix of the Month comp, we wish you the best of luck for the future. For my last question could you talk us through your vision for the winning mix? We were blown away by the thought, care and time you put into it.
I really enjoy the musical freedom of recording a mix and the opportunity it gives you to share a few tracks that you love, but wouldn’t necessarily be right for the the dance floor. I generally envision mine being listened to really late at night, and I wanted to go extra deep and a little dubby with this one. I recorded it just after Burning Man had finished this year – I went there for the first time last year and had the most incredible experience.
Although I couldn’t make it this year, I definitely had it on my mind when I was recording this, and Elijah’s opening track on the mix really conjures up visions of being back there, for me. I also wanted to include some soulful elements to it and who better to provide that than Sade. Finally, I do love a dreamy, emotional closing track and I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to use the Van Bellen track, this felt like the perfect time. Thank you so much for choosing me as the winner, I’m very honoured and I hope everyone enjoys the music!
Best of luck to the October entrants.
01// Elijah Simmons – Dream Sequence
02// Julian Perez – Korolev’s OKB-1
03// Noha – Cables
04// The End Game is Now – Bulgarian Acid
05// Roger Gerressen – Liberal
06// Ben Buitendijk – Near Mint
07// Roger Gerressen – Rendang Dub
08// Rhythm & Sound – King In My Empire (Burial Mix)
09// Locked Groove – Keep Through (Iron Galaxy Remix)
10// Ytre Rymden Dansskola – Afterski (Magnus International Remix)
11// Sade – Pearls (Ooft! Rework)
12// Asferico – Serie 1
13// Van Bellen – Let Me Take You (Fantasy Voyager Rework)