As one of the earliest dance music brands from the UK, Renaissance is a sparkling jewel in the party crown of the world. One name that stands far above the rest. Its stratospheric rise from the time of its inception by founder Geoff Oakes has left an indelible and undisputed impression of awe and exalt in millions of minds that have experienced its magical music and club exploits. Moreover, Renaissance has been ground zero for the essential genre of Progressive House for more years than one can remember, and plays a vital role in leading the way to artists and styles that reflect a moving ahead with the times; machinations of the aforementioned brilliant mind.
From the first-ever great U.K events to world domination, Renaissance has done it all. The music is key, of course, but so are the electric lineups, the abandon, the vibe, and the thrill that comes with, say, partying in churches and castles. Throw in some of the world’s most up-for-it crowds and you’ve got an atmosphere so raucously fun it’s no wonder people return religiously year-on-year. The stories are endless, the ones that I can live vicariously through the mystique of Geoff’s fond remembrances.
“Acid House was new, exciting, and gave us all a sense of escapism that was much needed in the late 80s and early 90s“
With greetings out of the way I settle in for the long haul chatting with the evergreen Renaissance boss who tells all and I go to the very beginning, the journey from one of the UK’s prolific hot spot’s, The Hacienda, onward and up to the White Isle as we kick start the amazing brain behind the brand – Geoff Oakes, goading him to share with the readers maybe a story or two of what he was doing back in the U.K before the concept unfolding, which went on to shape him into becoming one of the most prolific ambassador’s of the dance music scene, he backtracks into the past quietly – “Going way back to the late 70s, I was 16 years old when I started going to a club called Wigan Casino in the North of England. It was an underground movement in the real sense and people travelled from all over the UK for amphetamine-fuelled all-nighters dancing to obscure U.S 60’s Soul records, a genre that became known as ‘Northern Soul’, being played by DJs who were the stars of the scene.”
“Thousands on the dance floor, all there purely for the DJ line-up and music (sound familiar?). Fast-forward a decade and Wigan Casino had long-since closed and I was in clubbing limbo, occasionally going out with a group of mates to mainstream nightclubs where the emphasis was on drinking and pulling girls. Then one night a few friends who I hadn’t seen for a while asked me if I wanted to go to this club in Manchester called The Hacienda. When I walked into that club my jaw hit the floor, I knew I’d found my calling immediately. It was like Wigan Casino all over again but with better music and much better drugs”
“Acid House was new, exciting, and gave us all a sense of escapism that was much needed in the late 80s and early 90s. Illegal raves started to pop up and the first one I went to in the North of England was called Live The Dream, in a remote location on the moors outside Blackburn. I went there with Jon Da Silva and I think that’s where I met Sasha properly for the first time. Obligatory convoy driving around the Lancashire hills on a foggy night, the excitement when we found the location and the pure euphoria of everyone in that tent was very, very special. I remember climbing high up the center pole of the tent to the cheers of the whole crowd seemed like a good idea at the time!”
“One of my first and most memorable London clubbing experiences was a rave called ‘Ibiza’ in a disused warehouse in Kings Cross. Mr Fingers ‘Can You Feel It’ (Martin Luther King Jr Mix) was the soundtrack and the place was filled with Ecstasy-induced togetherness and that sense of belonging was just something else. I never could have envisioned that a decade later Renaissance, shaped by those early experiences, would have one of London’s longest-running monthly residencies at The Cross, less than 100 metres from that warehouse”.
“I think my interest in promoting was a natural extension of my experiences at Wigan Casino and later The Hacienda, those early years in Ibiza. It’s not something I planned or set out to do“
He adds to his musings of the great big nights he has lived through – “Another pivotal moment for me was the launch of Shelley’s in my home town of Stoke-On-Trent, with Sasha as resident DJ. Before Sasha’s residency, the venue had been a typical commercial nightclub and I remember going away to Tokyo for a couple of months thinking “that will never work!”. When I came back to the U.K it was the hottest club in the country, with queues around the block and an atmosphere to rival the very best of The Hacienda.”
“I think my first trip to Ibiza was probably 1988/89. I stayed for a couple of months, doing whatever I needed to do to earn enough money to stay there. Amnesia was an open-air venue and we used to climb over the wall to get in for free. I vividly remember my first time standing in Ku and watching this incredible performance, fireworks shooting up into the sky with the open roof, the mix of gay, straight, rich Europeans and English ravers in a breath-taking hedonistic setting was mesmerising”.
“I quickly got to know the island’s main characters, hanging out at The Rock Bar in its original location in the back streets of Ibiza Town. The island became a second home to me and has remained so, to this day, so much so that I moved the family out there to live permanently in 2013. We lived there for 4 years and it was the most idyllic existence for the kids, particularly in the winter months. Moving back to the UK was one hell of a culture shock for us all!”
I wonder if he was the kind of man who knew that someday he was going to become a major mover and shaker as far as music events go, about where the interest in it came from, also considering there was probably less competition in those days, as to whether he is happy with the way things turned out in the here and now and Geoff doesn’t disappoint – “I think my interest in promoting was a natural extension of my experiences at Wigan Casino and later The Hacienda, those early years in Ibiza. It’s not something I planned or set out to do. At Wigan Casino, I got to know a few of the DJs really well and would stand on the stage with them while they DJ’d sometimes, looking out at the sea of people on the dancefloor, really taking in the energy and atmosphere created by the DJs, the reaction to certain tracks they played etc.”
“At that time I was an avid record collector too, regularly paying hundreds of pounds for some obscure 60’s soul demo on 7” vinyl. Thinking back, I guess the foundations were there to become a promoter and run a label, even though I didn’t know it at the time”
I kinda leap forward to specify the subject of a venue that got a fair bit of noise about the thuggish overture it brought to the table when things started moving in the early days, was it a conscious and deliberate decision to move the initial parties to Mansfield’s Venue 44 and he is quick to say that when he finally decided to start Renaissance, how Venue 44 ticked a number of boxes for him. He mulls about and gives me the lowdown of the impact from inner-city gang warfare had on The Hacienda
“I figured that a small mining town in the north of England, such as Mansfield, would be immune to those problems. Venue 44 had an all-night licence too, a rarity in the early 90s, plus I knew that, because the location was so off the beaten track, everyone who came would have to travel to get there and would be coming purely for the right reasons. It was a period when people would travel the length and breadth of the country to go to a night and I tapped into that culture.”
“I remember a group of about 12 lads from South Wales who made the 8 hour round trip every single weekend and when clubs like Back 2 Basics and Venus closed at 2 am we always had this influx of people from those clubs around 3.30 am that gave an incredible boost to the atmosphere for the last few hours”. It’s always of great interest for someone trying to look inside from the outside about the flavor and vibe of those early gatherings in Mansfield, all suited and booted with the customised Renaissance feel, and he quips – “Mansfield was a beer-drinkers town and I was keen to keep that element out of the club, so I initiated a strict door policy to ensure only real clubbers entered the venue. This led to clubbers really dressing up to get in and created a sense of belonging for those who made it inside, much to the annoyance of the locals.”
“Furthermore, festivals totally dominate the interim months, during the summer, and with a high ticket price, they take a lot of the potential customers’ disposable income away from regular clubs, who simply can’t compete with the line-ups on offer at festivals“
“The main room was a huge, church-like environment with large cherubs sitting on clouds hanging from the ceiling and projections of manipulated Renaissance images, like huge stained glass windows, projected around the sides of the room. It was a unique environment that felt like a secret world and it rapidly became the most talked about night in the U.K. The fact that Sasha was a resident played a big part in the attraction too, of course. It was a place, as he’s been quoted as saying, where he could really shape his own sound, with his own crowd.”
“I remember so many nights where Sasha would finish his set at the end of the night and would try to leave but the crowd wouldn’t move and he ended up playing on for another hour or more. The crowd even carried him back to the booth from the back office on one occasion. Those extra hours he played were incredibly special because the die-hard fans stayed and he could play whatever he wanted and they just went with him.”
It paints a pretty vivid picture of how things must have been in my quest to taste that bygone thunder. It crosses my mind to ask this integral man of the U.K club scene about the many definitive changes he has seen from then to now, and if he could describe the rabbit hole, the ups and down for better or for worse and his words are an eye-opener.
“In the early 90s there were just a few key, destination venues dotted around the U.K and large crowds travelled between those venues. But by the late 90s, there were one or two clubs in pretty much every town and city across the country, so it became a battle of the line-up in order to fill your night, and inevitably reached saturation point. Over the past decade, larger event organisations, such as Broadwick Live (Printworks) and The Warehouse Project, have gravitated towards running a ‘season’ of events, typically between late September and May to capture the student population.”
He further elaborates on how nightclubs also focus most of their investment in line-ups around this period but find it hard to compete with the major players. “Furthermore, festivals totally dominate the interim months, during the summer, and with a high ticket price, they take a lot of the potential customers’ disposable income away from regular clubs, who simply can’t compete with the line-ups on offer at festivals. Small to medium-capacity clubs have really struggled with this stiff competition and A-list and even B-list DJs are tied up in exclusive deals with the bigger organizations and festivals.”
“If one good thing comes out of the pandemic, it will hopefully be a return to local clubbing without the reliance on investment in major headliners to sell tickets. Unfortunately, I don’t see booking agents, or DJs, lowering their fees to support the small to medium-sized clubs through this difficult time. This is short-sighted because it’s these clubs that form the foundations for creativity and development of up-and-coming talent, and they’ve had it incredibly tough, with many on the brink of extinction. If ever there was a time for the whole industry to come together to make it work, now’s that time”, he concludes passionately.
The flood gates open up like a kid in a candy store, curiosity gets the better of me to know how Geoff’s friendship with the legendary Sasha happened, and if he could clearly recall the time where they decided to join forces, to create the now legendary Renaissance; the early ideas that went on to make it one of the most revered dance/event brands and Geoff reacts “I got to know Sasha during those early years at The Hacienda but our relationship was cemented when he took the Shelley’s residency in my home town. I had a small, 2-bedroom terraced house in Stoke-On Trent and there’d be a convoy of about 40 people back to mine after Shelley’s every week and we’d party for 3 or 4 days every weekend. Sasha would DJ in my spare bedroom, which became known as The Tunes Room, often for 24- hour marathons or more. This went on for over a year, every weekend, even after Sasha had left Shelley’s.”
“Sasha used to spend the week in the studio and then play tracks for the first time at Renaissance that he’d just finished. Hysterix ‘Talk To Me’ is one I particularly remember hearing for the first time, hot from the studio.”
“We called the gatherings ‘The Broken Table’ after a dodgy breakfast bar I had in my kitchen that collapsed every time someone leaned on it, famously demonstrated by Dan Prince, then editor at Mixmag, when he attended one of those sessions. Immortalised by Sasha’s ‘Broken Table Remix’ of Together’s ‘Storming Heaven’ around that time. It was probably a Tuesday morning at mine after we’d been hitting it heavy one weekend, and we were chatting. Sasha said he’d love to start another residency and we decided there and then that we’d do something together.”
“We did an all-dayer at a venue in Mansfield and the owners of the venue said they had another place with an all-night licence that they wanted to show us. We stumbled into this dark space and they turned the lights on to reveal a cavernous, church-like room, the main room at Venue 44. It felt like the planets had aligned for me, and I agreed right then, that I’d start a weekly Saturday night with Sasha as a resident, with the plan to launch in March 1992.” He goes on reminiscing…
“I had the venue and the resident DJ, now we needed a name for the night and Sasha had a piece of computer-generated art that Chris Howe, the then Art Director at Mixmag had given to him. It was just loads of blotchy colours merged together. He suggested we use this art for the flyer, then we were thinking of a name for the night that was art-related. I came up with Renaissance and called Sasha and Chris to suggest it. At first, they weren’t feeling it but when we spoke the next day Sasha had slept on it and agreed we should use it. This then evolved into using Renaissance imagery and playing around with and distorting that imagery and that’s really how the brand was born. I wanted to marry art, décor, and music in a coherent message.”
“The inside of the club was as important to me as the music and the artwork. So the decor and visuals were all aligned with the Renaissance theme we’d used for the artwork. Venue 44’s main room had high ceilings, so lent itself to being able to create a compelling visual impact. Renaissance had a huge amount of press coverage from the beginning and the reputation of the night sky-rocketed as we all know.”
“there was so much synergy back then that you simply don’t get today. All those conversations took place directly with the artists and it will never happen today because agents and managers are in the middle of it all and tend to complicate things to justify their existence“
Even then, he elaborates on how he did not have any ambition other than making those nights the best they could possibly be for the clubbers who came week in week out. “M-People performed live at the 1st Birthday Party at Venue 44 and afterward wrote a track called ‘Renaissance’ as an homage to the club. John remixed it and it reached No.5 in the UK singles chart at the time of the Renaissance 2nd Birthday at the Que Club in Birmingham, where they also performed the track live. In 2019 they released an 11-disc box set of all their music and called the box set ‘Renaissance’. Sasha used to spend the week in the studio and then play tracks for the first time at Renaissance that he’d just finished. Hysterix ‘Talk To Me’ is one I particularly remember hearing for the first time, hot from the studio.”
“One week at the club John told me he’d written an amazing track but needed a vocalist. Carol Leeming was a vocalist who was a regular at Venue 44, so I introduced her to John. She became the vocalist on ‘For What You Dream Of’. The main mix was titled ‘The Full On Renaissance Mix’ and John asked me if Stress Records could use the R logo as the label on the A-side, which I agreed to”. One can only imagine how organic the rapport between everyone was at that time and he echoes my thoughts – “there was so much synergy back then that you simply don’t get today. All those conversations took place directly with the artists and it will never happen today because agents and managers are in the middle of it all and tend to complicate things to justify their existence. I hope we can recapture some of that synergy for the 30th Anniversary in 2022”.
Approaching the works and persona of John Digweed can be daunting, I squeakily talk about the epical start of this undisputable duo of dance which includes Sasha as the other half, way back in Mansfield which according to not just me were defining moments in the history of the club scene and he tells me the entire back story “Finding John was fate I think. Dan Prince was the editor of Mixmag at the time Renaissance first started, and he told John he should send me a mixtape. Unbelievably, it was a mix he’d sent to numerous promoters with no response. I received a cassette tape in the post, by ‘DJ JD’, with a phone number on it. I was completely blown away by the music and the way he put tracks together. It was totally unique. After one particular night at Venue 44 myself, Sasha and an afters- entourage made the weekly pilgrimage back to my house for the obligatory 3-day session and I told Sasha I’d found this kid from Hastings who I thought was incredible. I played him the tape and he was equally blown away. I called John and told him I loved the mix but ‘DJ JD’ sounded like a rave DJ, so we would need to use his real name.”
“I booked him to play at Renaissance and spent the next month or so telling all the regulars at the club that I’d found this amazing DJ and told them the date he would be playing. I remember John drove all the way from Hastings to the club, a 6-hour round trip, a couple of weeks before he was due to play, to check out the vibe of the club. It’s an attention to detail that’s been a big part of his success. When his debut eventually came around you could feel the anticipation on the dance floor. He smashed it, of course, and the rest is history”
Geoff cuts through my thoughts by adding “Although I do remember his car got stolen from outside the club that night and he was forced to come back to my house and experience the craziness of our afterparties. Quite an introduction to Renaissance!.” There would be a million nods about how John Digweed was destined for major success, greatness, and Geoff is effusive in his praise, how privileged he was to come across him at such an early stage of his career and to have played a part in his journey. Renaissance was influential in both his and Sasha’s careers and they collectively and as individuals went on to have a huge impact on the club scene globally.
“But nothing can replace the memories of those nights at Venue 44. It was clearly their club and they and the crowd responded to that in a very special way”, he recalls fondly. This reminds us of the 3-year, protracted licensing battle, when Renaissance finally got their own U.K venue again with Media in Nottingham in 1999. I wonder aloud what it was like when Renaissance eventually opened its doors “We’d been doing a monthly residency at The Tunnel in Glasgow, which was owned by Ron Mc Culloch’s Big Beat Group. Ron was also an architect/designer and I’d always been impressed with the Glasgow venue and how they operated. I came across a Grade 2 listed theatre in Nottingham that had been empty for 20 years. It was a stunning venue with beautiful period features, including cherubs molded into the ceiling, which I took as a good omen. Ron McCulloch came on board to design, build, and operate the venue and we started the process of getting the licence to operate. Every club owner in Nottingham opposed the licence application and we had it refused twice before finally being successful in 1999.”
“The venue design was incredible and included a beautiful restaurant and a multimedia room, pretty much a first at that time. We had the first Steve Dash sound system in the U.K and launched with a huge weekly program of headliners over the first few months, including mini-residencies from Carl Cox, Deep Dish, etc as well as the Renaissance regulars such as John Digweed, Dave Seaman, and Danny Howells. The other club owners in Nottingham had their worst fears come true. Media was a massive success with queues around the building, week after week. It was a great feeling to have a place to call our own and I was really proud of the venue. Ron McCulloch then launched Home in London the following year but, sadly, the failure of that venue dragged down his whole empire, and Media was sold to another operator after less than 2 years of our opening”. So it was back to life on the road he recalls without any regret.
In electronic music terms it’s hard to think of many other labels that have survived so long amongst several other big labels back then already established in terms of fan following and product placement., I poke around the subject of starting the Renaissance label and thereafter the compilation CDs, the logical progression, so to speak, and if he could explain the idea of hosting Renaissance parties all at around the same time and Geoff’s crisp reply clears up all the clouds in my mind
“We sold 100k albums in the first 6 weeks and that first album went on to sell over 200k, becoming the UK’s first-ever gold-selling mix compilation. It was mind-blowing and arguably the catalyst for igniting the whole mix compilation market”
“The parties came first. I was pretty much a solo promoter at the beginning and was too busy just putting on parties that I’d love to go to and wasn’t even thinking about a label in those early days. It was only when I got one of my mates, Mark, and my then-girlfriend, now wife, Jo, to work with me and we set up an office that we started to think a little more expansively about what we could do with Renaissance. Neil Rushton, MD of Network Records, had been to Venue 44 a few times (I think the first time was when The Reese Project, who were signed to his label, performed live) and he called me one day to suggest we do a Renaissance mix compilation”
And I don’t stop him when he adds “I told Neil that if we did a compilation it had to be a reflection of the brand in every way. The artwork and bespoke packaging were an extension of that. Networks were totally on board with this, despite the cost, and it paid off. You have to remember there were not really any legal mix CD’s around at the time other than Journeys By DJ and Ministry of Sound, both of which were selling between 5k and 10k units for each release. They were 1 or 2-disc CDs, done in the basic, clear plastic CD cases and it was important to set the Renaissance album apart, so 3xCDs and the packaging were the points of difference we decided on.”
“Sasha and John had so much music to choose from because the music had a much longer shelf life back then and no-one had compiled that music on a CD before to that scale, hence the quality of the tracklist. We had a lot of fun going back and forth with track suggestions. That compilation was also inspired by the recording I had of Sasha’s set from the Renaissance 1st birthday at Venue 44. I had it on a DAT tape which, tragically, has been lost somewhere along the way. There are some online snippets of part of that set but the original full set is gone forever.”
“We sold 100k albums in the first 6 weeks and that first album went on to sell over 200k, becoming the UK’s first-ever gold-selling mix compilation. It was mind-blowing and arguably the catalyst for igniting the whole mix compilation market”. He recalls having a conversation with the then head of Ministry of Sound label and how she told him “she walked into a label meeting on the day that album was released, threw it onto the table, and said “THAT’S what we should be doing!”. He continues – “Lo-and-behold, by the time we came to release the 2nd Mix Collection compilation the following year there were numerous competitors out there. Here we are, more than 26 years later, and Renaissance has released over 80 mix compilations and hundreds of singles… that definitely wasn’t part of some grand plan back then!”, and I can feel the quiet pride in his voice, and genius one at that.
The parties and the brand’s reputation were skyrocketing and reaching a substantial aftereffect, how was it that the touring with the brand idea took shape, any highlights or fun stories Geoff could regale us with, something that may stick out in his memory as a favorite?, he has much to say on this as there were a couple of catalysts for Renaissance’s progression into touring worldwide.
After the release of the first compilation, he started getting calls from clubs and promoters around the world, asking him to do Renaissance parties. So his team put together a series of dates in Asia and Australia, starting with what he still regards as one of the best clubs in the world, namely Zouk in Singapore. “We were the first UK club brand to ever stage a night there and same also with Womb in Tokyo. We finished the tour with 3 or 4 dates in Australia and a week’s break at Hayman Island in the Whitsunday Islands. I think that the first tour was with Dave Seaman, Ian Ossia, and Anthony Pappa. As well as exporting the Renaissance sound we also took a full decor installation on the road, including huge fluffy clouds, cherubs the whole works.”
“I had to rush back to the hotel to ‘clean’ his room up before the police got there and just about made it out with a carrier bag full of skunk as they came walking down the corridor, a close one!. He spent a night in jail, paid a fine the next morning and the tour continued”
“We would fly into each country, go more or less straight to the club to put up the decor, do the event, then take down the decor the next morning and package it to be freighted to the next location, and fly out to the next country. It was pretty hard work but we had some incredible times along the way. I remember in Australia we’d been to the U2 concert in Melbourne and had a Renaissance party the same night. Around 5 am I’m in the middle of the dance floor and thought I was seeing things when I spotted Bono, The Edge, and Helena Christensen partying hard right next to me. I gave them their space and didn’t introduce myself or speak to them, which I kind of regretted afterwards.”
“Also, on that same tour, we were staying at the same hotel as the cast of The Matrix when they were filming in Sydney. I walked into the lobby around 7 am with a whole bunch of friends, in afterparty mode from our Renaissance party at The Metro Theatre, very worse for wear. I instantly recognised a famous black actor standing in the reception and decided this time I wasn’t going to pass up the chance, I confidently strode over, held out my hand, and said ‘Hey Samuel, how’re you doing?’ ‘It’s Laurence actually’ he replied, much to the amusement of him and everyone I was with. About 15 years later I saw Samuel L Jackson on a talk show wearing a T-shirt that had printed on it – ‘I am not Laurence Fishburne’.”
“Not sure if it was that tour or the following year but we were standing in the club in Brisbane during our event, wondering where one of our DJs had disappeared to, as he was due on for his set (naming no names). Then we see him being marched into the club, through the crowd, and up to the DJ booth by two police officers. Without going into too much detail he’d been outside in a car with a few others and the police had pulled them over and found something in the car and our DJ took the blame for it even though it wasn’t his. I had to rush back to the hotel to ‘clean’ his room up before the police got there and just about made it out with a carrier bag full of skunk as they came walking down the corridor, a close one!. He spent a night in jail, paid a fine the next morning and the tour continued”
I can’t help but smile here as Geoff isn’t someone who gets ruffled clearly. With the ice-breaking, he tells me that the tour cemented Renaissance’s reputation globally and gave him the travel bug. It’s a tour Renaissance repeated year-after-year, with the added benefit of escaping the UK winter for 5 or 6 weeks. Moreover – “The other contributing factor to expanding our global touring was the fact that we no longer had a UK home in the mid-90’s other than the monthly residency at The Cross, in London. The Cross, as anyone who ever went there, will tell you, was another jewel in the Renaissance crown. For over a decade it was consistently packed and had an unbelievable vibe. As good on the very last night as it was on the first. So touring became the focus from the mid-90’s onward. Cream, Gatecrasher, and Ministry of Sound were all focused on the UK at that time, so we gained a foothold in international touring in many countries and, at the peak, we were doing over 100 shows per year in more than 30 countries”, he finishes with a flourish.
In the time when things were transforming I recall getting pretty excited with A-listers joining the Renaissance roster and path-breaking DJs making the lights of the brand legacy. The music label went on to include Hernan Cattaneo, James Zabiela, Dave Seaman, Nick Warren into its fold, to me it felt like a changing game plan but Geoff doesn’t think of it that way at all and he surprises me with
“Those DJs were all a logical step for us. We couldn’t just keep repeating the Sasha and John formula, so we gravitated towards DJs who were synonymous with the Renaissance sound. Fathers Of Sound are another one to add to that list of early collaborators. We kind of fell into a business model of releasing compilations and then putting together an international tour with the DJ who had mixed the album. So the albums promoted the tours and vice versa. This worked extremely well for a number of years but became incredibly competitive once the other UK club brands latched onto the same model and caught up”.
“The first year at Knebworth we had Underworld, Sasha & John again and a diverse line-up across 3 arenas. It was officially the wettest summer on record and ticket sales weren’t what we’d have wanted but, again, an incredible moment in the main tent when Underworld dropped Born Slippy“
I’m quick to enquire if his role included being the mastermind in the line-ups, if he was a hands-on kinda guy and here he is emphatic – “Yes, of course. I’m still extremely hands-on. It’s really important for a brand to have an identity and direction and that has to come from those at the top. There’s a lot of internal discussions but I always book the line-up for our events and that’s something I don’t foresee changing. Of course, we have a team and everyone has their input but essentially it’s me who does the bookings”. I push the boss to talk about the parties, what niggles me are the clear and immersive experiences brought to the Renaissance audience, the scales include festival formats, club nights, and then taking it a notch higher with mind-blowing locations, getting it outdoors and even to damn castles as backdrop and scenery. It would surely need a great work of production and a well thought out machinery. With all of this time and energy involved does he feel it’s been rewarding and whether at the end of the day he tells himself job well done and he puts the focus on how they have put together amazing events over the years?
“I was recently looking back at some footage from The Que Club in Birmingham from 1994, The Renaissance 2nd Birthday, and the production was truly off-the-scale for those times. That’s probably still my favourite ever Renaissance party. Huge 8-10 metre fluffy clouds hung over the dancefloor with flashing, lightning effects running through them like a huge storm erupting over the dancefloor, a giant 6 metre sculpture of the Virgin Mary sitting on a cloud above the DJ, dancers dressed as goddesses. I still remember the look on people’s faces as they walked into the main room and saw it all.”
“We spent so much on the production for that show that we completely sold out the event yet still lost money. But it was a great investment because it was one of the iconic events that put the brand on the map. The stately homes and castles were very special events also, but a huge risk because they were so expensive to put together, and if the weather was bad, not only did it affect ticket sales, it gave you a whole other set of logistical problems.”
“A prime example was when we staged the ‘Wild In The Country’ Festivals. The first one, at Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, was on a foggy night and Scissor Sisters were due to make their first-ever UK festival appearance with us. They were coming by helicopter from London but were delayed by about 3 hours because of the fog and finally got on stage an hour before the event ended. On the plus side, Sasha and John were back together at Renaissance for the first time in a decade, an incredible occasion. We then moved Wild In The Country to Knebworth House, a legendary music venue that’s staged some of the UK’s most famous concerts including Pink Floyd, Robbie Williams, and Oasis.”
“The first year at Knebworth we had Underworld, Sasha & John again and a diverse line-up across 3 arenas. It was officially the wettest summer on record and ticket sales weren’t what we’d have wanted but, again, an incredible moment in the main tent when Underworld dropped Born Slippy. Those are the moments that stay with you forever. The following year for Knebworth we brought in a very successful festival promoter as a partner and pushed the line up to new levels, with Bjork headlining and a huge supporting cast. Again, ticket sales weren’t great but we pushed on with it and in the final week things eventually picked up. So we built the site, ready to go, and then our partner just pulled out at the last minute and wouldn’t put in his share of the cash required to get the production spend over the line. So we had no choice but to cancel just a few days before the event.”
“That turned out to be a bit of a disaster and a slow death for the business that resulted in Renaissance going into administration a few years later. I pretty much lost everything, including the brand, which was purchased by Ministry of Sound in a backdoor swoop with the administrator”. It sends pangs of pain into my heart as I get to know that It took another 3 years to finally get Renaissance back, with the help of a small team of great investors. He couldn’t wish for better partners than he has now, incredibly passionate about music and very supportive, even though the harsh realities of the last 12 months and the impact of Covid on our industry are all in his mind and stride. When I ask him about the man behind the label responsibilities he points out
“Marcus James is running the label again now for us, as he did during the late 90s and beyond. There’s a hell of a lot involved, especially now that social media plays such a big role in promotion but he’s doing a fantastic job and we have an exciting and diverse release schedule this year.. Thinking back over our history we’ve released more than 80 compilations and 100 singles. But during that time we’ve seen the transition from CDs to digital downloads and more recently to streaming. All of those transitions have had to be managed and it’s been a learning curve each time. The label is a fantastic advert for the brand and we’ve had some big successes along the way but nowadays it’s important to keep an extremely tight rein on costs and we have to choose projects extremely carefully. We kind of select each signing by a committee and we all need to agree before signing anything”, which puts him as well in the driver’s seat as much as when he puts a keen eye on the other aspects of running the brand on a day to day basis.
As a keen observatory follower and raver from back in the day, a question always hung over me as to the music formula, is as much to say I recall dancing to the first Renaissance 3 CD The Mix Collection compilation by Sasha and John that was released back in 1994 followed by Sasha leading the way out, for the 2nd edition mixed by Digweed alone on the record label, surely an unforgettable compilation and also placed in the hallowed halls of one of the Best Dance albums of all time, safe to say that this took both the gents to superstardom, a remark or two would be nice and Geoff is quite forthcoming.
“I think everything that can be said about this album has already been said. It catapulted Sasha and John, and Renaissance, to global recognition and, looking back, played an important part in the emergence of dance music globally. It pushed what was essentially a British export in terms of the sound and became the standard-bearer for the Progressive House wave that followed”. I also ask where the creative thought processes of this undertaking take shape from, and the method is explained patiently when he continues in the same vein.
“After the first album by Sasha and John was released, compilations became a real focus for the business. John doing his own compilation as a follow-up seemed like the right thing to do at the time as he was coming into his own as a global star. From there, we selected DJs we felt were most relevant to the brand and it seemed a very natural, organic process. After the success of that first album, everyone wanted to be on the label, so it wasn’t that hard to be so prolific with our release schedule. I’m very proud looking back at our discography and the packaging and artwork on some of those compilations was really next level. More recently, one of my favourite Renaissance compilations, probably in my all-time top 3, is the Tale Of Us Mix Collection album from 2013. They were just on their way up and I was really surprised when I asked them and they said yes and that the first Renaissance album had a massive influence on them. They did an incredible job on that album and I still play it today”.
“Progressive House, Tech House, Trance they’ve all been the flavour of the month, and then people turned their backs on them when they are no longer deemed cool”
I know my next query is a hard one, but out of all the compilations any one favorite that he holds dear, or is super special. One that he has an emotional attachment to and he cheerily replies – “Obviously you always remember your first, haha, so there’s no getting away from that being my favourite. I can still remember getting the final mixes couriered to me as I was leaving for the airport to go away to Bali with Joanna. I had the CDs in my suitcase and didn’t listen to them until I got to Bali. We sat on the beach in Bali, at night, with a portable CD player, under the influence, listening to that album for the very first time, an experience I’ll never forget that kind of seems appropriate looking back”.
Hitting upon the immersive tapes from the early influencers such as Ian Ossia to Anthony Pappa, Hernan Cattaneo to Nick Warren, and of course, Sasha & John who were playing a much loved and widely accepted Progressive House sounds, I push him to the million-dollar question as to whether he feels that there are too many breakups in styles nowadays that have led to audiences splitting in different directions and he is of the mindset that , although it’s a well-worn icliché, there are only 2 types of music for him, good and bad.
“Yes, Progressive House was a massive movement but it’s not very healthy for electronic music to be compartmentalised because today’s flavour becomes tomorrow’s bad taste very quickly” he states matter of factly. “Progressive House, Tech House, Trance they’ve all been the flavour of the month, and then people turned their backs on them when they are no longer deemed cool”
He asks me to take a look at the number of genres on Beatport now and it is a bit ridiculous but those genres are created purely so they can structure music for the purpose of the consumer being able to find what they are looking for easily, in reality, most DJs don’t just play one sound though”. He trails off – “Sasha’s a good example, with the LuzoScura set’s he’s been playing in recent streams, including the one he did for Renaissance Engage, filled with melodic breaks. As a label, we’ve recently charted in Melodic House & Techno, Breaks, Techno, etc on Beatport, which I think demonstrates our approach to music isn’t so defined”.
It would be safe to say that by the 2000s major electronic music festivals were going on every weekend, and, ironically, the US became the largest market for the super-sized, pyrotechnics-driven shows called “EDM festivals.” At the same time, the art and craft of “concert visuals” have gained broader recognition, as this merging of club culture and festival culture into “spectacle culture” made electronic music performance as much visual as it is sonic. Could it be one of the reasons that around 2010 Geoff needed to shut in and take stock of all the reasons for changing of the guard, put the label on the back burner, it is of utmost importance to get a brief insight into what was Geoff’s state of mind those days and then the reacquiring bit the following year?
“When Ministry snatched the brand it was a real low point for me. I spent the next 8-12 months unemployed, we had lost everything and almost lost our house in the process.“
The fresh tones and frequencies of restarting the brand and label again, a low down perhaps on the hiatus and the ethos of the fresh package, and then there’s the matter of fashioning the label are all serious responsibilities he had to take on. Geoff is honest in tackling these multiple queries.
“When Ministry snatched the brand it was a real low point for me. I spent the next 8-12 months unemployed, we had lost everything and almost lost our house in the process. Eventually, I think Ministry realised they couldn’t do much with the brand without me but were adamant they wouldn’t sell it back to me. So for about 18 months I leased the brand back from them and did a few shows and a few record releases but my heart wasn’t really in it because ultimately I was building the brand for them. So I took a step back in 2013, which coincided with me moving with the family to Ibiza permanently and taking on a full-time job with another electronic music company. It was around 2017 I started to speak to Ministry again and finally, they came round to the idea of selling back the brand to me, so I brought in a couple of investors and we bought the rights back to the brand. I’d already decided I was going to move back to the UK and wanted to reestablish the brand and label after a couple of years of it being dormant.”
“That year was the 25th Anniversary of Renaissance, so I had the idea to select a series of classic Renaissance anthems from the halcyon days and get them remixed by current DJ/producers to create a limited edition series called The ReMix Collection, as a nod to the original Mix Collection compilations. It was a struggle to get anyone to agree to a remix until Solomun agreed to do Age Of Love. We had a Beatport overall No.1 and it stayed there for about 6 weeks and was the big record of that summer in Ibiza. Of course, after that, everyone wanted to be a part of the series, but I have Solomun to thank you for taking that leap of faith. He did an incredible job of the remix.”
“Some of the biggest artists we’d been chasing quickly came on board for the series and it really put the label back on the map again and created a platform for us to start pushing new talent. The high Beatport chart positions meant we were getting hundreds of demos and were able to cherry-pick who we wanted to work with to build our stable of artists. With Blancah and Fur Coat, for example, we’ve released artist albums with both, brought in really credible remixers as part of those projects and they’ve been really exciting and rewarding projects to work on. You see much more of an artist’s scope when they put together an album and it gives the opportunity for a diverse array of styles and creates a bigger platform for an emerging artist”.
What also comes to mind is Venue 44’s subsequent demolishing in 2010, did he have any heartaches there and Geoff says dryly – “Not really. Although it was a very important part of our history it was long gone in my mind. It’s not like we could ever have gone back there and recreated what we had because that was all about the right place/right time and once it’s gone, it’s gone”.
With big dreams that became reality 30 years ago and counting, the landmark year can be a time when one looks back and takes stock. I ask if he feels they have done spectacularly, and that there’s no stopping now? “It will be 30 years in March 2022. Whilst having that legacy is something you can occasionally tap into, it’s important to keep moving forward, otherwise, you just end up doing classics nights and becoming like a tribute band. The one time we will perhaps look back is for the 30th Anniversary in 2022. We are already starting to plan for that and it will definitely be a celebration of that legacy but in a current way”.
With a reputation as one of the good guys in clubland, underneath he’s got a tough and determined side to him as well which shows he is a thinking man, one who clearly rethought the entire spectrum of its music roster to include performers and musicians such as Maceo Plex, Tale Of Us, Solomun to name some, is it that the label and party aesthetics have changed to include diversity, it evokes how far removed they are from the names of yore?. I ask him to elaborate on this topic about the varied sound approach being established, apart from being a flag bearer of the most iconic Progressive House music is he seeing Renaissance move on with the times showcasing other styles as much in their music releases as with the events lineups?
“Yeah, as I said, we have to keep moving forward. The era of ‘Progressive House’ in its original form has long passed and most of the fans from that era are either too old to go out now or go out a few times a year at best. Clearly, that’s not sustainable as a fan base, so it’s important to grow a new audience, which is exactly what we’ve done with the releases and the events. Our shows in Birmingham pre-lockdown, for example, featured Solomun, Dixon, Tale Of Us, and Amelie Lens as well as Sasha. Although, it’s not like the DJs typically associated with Renaissance have stood still musically either.”
“There’s not much difference in what they are playing to what some of the names mentioned above are playing. It’s more about people’s perceptions. We’ll continue to work with many of these DJs but it’s equally important for us to tap into the current zeitgeist of artists that are perceived as hot both in terms of music production and event ticket-selling capability”.
Moreover, these aforementioned artists reworked chosen classics that made up for the original Renaissance vibe with Age Of Love, Cafe Del Mar, Vangelis for the 25th-anniversary outing, tracks all standing the test of time. I ask if there are any favs not in this list, ones that give him the good feels?
“There are so many but I’d say Patti Day ‘Right Before My Eyes’ is one that seems to keep resurfacing in my thoughts. Kym Mazelle ‘Was That All It Was’, DFA ‘Dark Days’, and Power Circle’s ‘Garden Of Peace’ are all in there too. We will be releasing more in The Remix Collection series in 2021, so keep an eye out for those.” he says with excitement present in his tone.”.
“If a club can sell up to 750k to 1million euros worth of tables in a night then the DJ, rightly, expects a bigger fee and the venue will automatically be offering them bigger fees.“
Warming up to the topic of Ibiza, I wanted to know about the changes he’s witnessed over the years on the White Isle and whether it’s still got that party touch in terms of people coming solely for the music, clearly the island has become overpriced and also reliant on the big names.
“When we first held our residency at Pacha on Wednesday nights in the mid-90’s it was very much about the club brands being the centre of attention. Now, of course, most DJs have their own label/brand and do their nights in Ibiza. With that, it naturally becomes all about that headline DJ but equally, I also think a bit of the creativity and variety that promoters tend to inject has been lost. However, the biggest changes are highlighted by what’s happened in Playa D’en Bossa in recent years. The emergence of Ushuaia started the transformation of the island to a more American-style daytime pool party/VIP vibe, which was a masterstroke by Yann and his team.”
“Obviously, Pacha, Amnesia, etc have always had VIP areas but Ushuaia seemed to usher in the younger European VIP clubbers and take it to another level. Hï is another example of this. When you look at what Space represented as a club and the massive shift in focus to VIP that HÏ has adopted, that contrast sums it up perfectly. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing but the other effect it has is that it distorts the market in terms of DJ fees. If a club can sell up to 750k to 1million euros worth of tables in a night then the DJ, rightly, expects a bigger fee and the venue will automatically be offering them bigger fees. This then filters down to the venues and promoters that aren’t generating that kind of VIP table revenue, and makes it much more difficult for those clubs to compete on DJ fees”. He continues – “drinks and admission prices have always been pretty steep in Ibiza but seem to have gone off-the-scale in the past few years. For the average working teenager or student, it’s pretty much impossible to go to Ibiza and have more than 1 or 2 big nights out during a 2-week stay. So, even if the number of visitors to the island remains the same, the clubs are probably competing over a smaller overall market now. You’d hope that a whole season without any business, due to Covid-19, might make the hotels and venues rethink their pricing structures to bring more people through the doors and make the island more financially accessible, not holding my breath on that one”.
Our conversation reaches present-day where Renaissance highlights the Live music concept, recently developed Engage; which features DJs such as Patrice Baumel, Yotto, and others, whether he will look into this continuing even in future, even in a post-pandemic time to put it simply – “When Lockdown first started, there were a few DJ streams I saw that were effectively peak-time dance floor sets. I immediately felt a disconnect with the format because people were listening in a completely different environment, from their homes, and it just didn’t seem appropriate to me.”
“The concept of Engage was the antithesis of that approach. We asked each DJ to avoid peak-time dancefloor vibes and the result has been a diverse and unique look into the musical make-up of DJs who you only normally experience from the dance floor. From Hernan Cattaneo’s ‘musical influences’ set that took in everything from The Doors and Pink Floyd to Depeche Mode, Bjork, The Orb and Kraftwerk, to Sasha’s beautiful melodic breaks set from his garden in Ibiza and Danny Tenaglia’s ‘exclusive edits’ masterclass, there have been some truly special moments. Tenaglia’s mash-up of Better Days with Stevie Wonders ‘I Wish’ was the stand-out for me, it seemed to perfectly capture the mood at the peak of the first Covid wave, genius work from Danny. For the first few Engage broadcasts, which were pre-recorded, we also did a live Zoom meeting, where the DJ was on Zoom so the fans could engage with them directly both in Zoom and the live chat during the broadcast hence the ‘Engage’ title”.
“The immediate future is as bleak for the industry as the last 11 months have been. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel now as the various vaccines are being rolled out and that’s going to be the game-changer“
He elaborates further – “this worked really well during the strict confinement of the first lockdown when people were craving interaction. Streaming of DJ sets has become a big part of our content strategy and our focus for that is our Mixcloud Select subscription service. Through Mixcloud, all of the artists and writers get paid for the use of their music, which is a welcome development. We have a hugely varied and constant flow of content for our subscribers, including archived, on-demand audio from our Engage and other DJ streams, all of our releases on the label, and the gradual addition of remastered versions of all of our back-catalogue of compilations. We go to great lengths to provide value for money to our subscribers in what is rapidly becoming a highly competitive market, and the feedback has been really positive”.
And where’s the think tank, the man behind all this magic working from, if there’s a corner he chooses to brandish his musical stories from “Since lockdown we’ve all been working from home and, to be honest, it’s not that appealing to ever move back to an office environment again. We embraced Zoom for regular team ‘meetings’ and have adapted and worked perfectly well remotely. That being said, obviously, the day-to-day interaction is something that I miss, so never say never”.
Seeing Renaissance taking center stage once again in Ibiza or hosting parties across the UK, does he see a way forward amidst this global crisis? How do you plan to kick-start projects and events when things start to open up once again?
“The immediate future is as bleak for the industry as the last 12 months have been. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel now as the various vaccines are being rolled out and that’s going to be the game-changer. Whether it will mean needing proof of vaccination in the short term to attend events, I’m not sure, but it feels like by the middle of 2021 things will be approaching back to normal. Ibiza’s not particularly on our radar in 2021. It’s a massively overcrowded market to step into, plus I think there will still be some disruption as things slowly get back to normal worldwide. Our last event before the lockdown was at Zamna in Tulum in January 2020.”
“We upped our game and it was a massive production, done by the Tomorrowland production team in conjunction with Zamna’s excellent team. Ironically, our first events since then will be at Zamna in April 2021. Although Mexico in general is by no means in a good place with Coronavirus, the region around Tulum has a very low number of cases, so it looks like everything will go ahead. We have 2 events: The first on 3rd April , ‘Renaissance Techno’ has a Tulum debut from Sven Väth alongside Ben Klock, Dubfire and more. The second, on 17th April features Artbat, Luciano, Eelke Kleijn, Sébastien Léger, Nico Stojan and a rare B2B from Sasha & Hernan Cattaneo. The venue is set in the jungle and is run by an incredible team that has put together an extensive set of Covid protocols to make the events as safe as they can possibly be. It’s a fantastic and positive horizon to look towards and will hopefully be the launchpad for 2021 and beyond. Assuming all goes ahead as planned! In the U.K our focus is on the autumn of 2021 and, of course, those 30th Anniversary celebrations in March 2022″.
So not all doom and gloom for Renaissance fans and followers and when all of us have music to look forward to that messes with your perception, is ungraspable, and still, it rocks the dance floor, then that’s as close to my holy grail as I can think of at the moment and it’s also my cue to say goodbye and godspeed to the main man Geoff Oakes.