Nick Howard, DJ and member of Sound Control night Lowdown and Dirty, which ended with an incendiary Dave Clarke party in 2015, has launched a new techno night, Rhodan, in the more intimate confines of the Whiskey Jar. We met up to discuss downsizing, the headache involved with choosing the right name, the benefits of residents only DJing and the dangers of C02 cannons.
How did the night come about?
(NH) Me, Mark, Sean and Dan decided when Lowdown finished that we wanted to carry on doing some form of event. Lowdown had taken it out of us a bit, to be honest. Steve and Craig (Lowdown founder members) both decided to hang up their boots, having been in the game for some time and eager to pursue other things. Myself and Mark decided we had a bit more appetite for trying something new in Manchester.
Why did you decide to finish Lowdown and Dirty?
(NH) The night was taking up lots of energy and things were getting tougher. It was getting more difficult to book artists and there were other pressures too. We’d had a good run (6 years at Sound Control) and wanted to finish on a high, rather than slowly fade out..
Have you found artist’s fees have gone up?
(NH) Yeah definitely. They are commanding bigger fees but at the same time, we wanted to explore different avenues and sounds but because of Lowdown’s strong identity and association with it’s own history and scene, this was increasingly an issue for artists who weren’t familiar with us.
So there are a few artists out there that you find yourself constantly booking?
(NH) Sure, we had a few ‘regulars’ The likes of Plump DJs, Stanton Warriors, Adam Freeland, Krafty Kutz, A Skillz – these were all names we were famous for and who knew us well. They pulled in big crowds but weren’t giving us the innovation and ‘new blood’ we were striving for.
There was quite a loyal crowd but they were getting older and there wasn’t any new blood coming through, so it was starting to stagnate. As DJs we always had newer things on our mind. Lowdown started at a time when there was this thing called tech-funk, the fusion of breakbeat and techno. DJs like Elite Force and Meat Katie helped define the Lowdown ethos, but the sub-genre of music they were making got swallowed by other things.
There were exceptions. We put on artists like Woz (Black Butter Records) and Gorgon City, when they were still small, underground names. Dave Clarke was a point in hand- he was an artist that we all liked but not associated with the ‘breaks’ scene. That was incredibly difficult to pull off. Many other artists either weren’t interested or were relatively unknown in Manchester.
So Why Techno?
(NH) We all like Techno in some form or another but we tried not to ‘define’ it too much to begin with. We sat around together and put on records we all liked and tried to define the style through that. Dan and Sean (the visual side) are also musically enthused, with their own taste and that feeds into it a bit. If we weren’t together listening to music, we’d post stuff to each other online.
I was thinking a couple of years back there didn’t seem to be a lot of techno nights in Manchester considering it is kind of a musical lingua franca in other UK and European cities- Faktion and Me and You were irregular, Micron and Sequence had packed up. There was lots of boogie, house and Balearic with a techno shaped gap.
(NH) The Warehouse Project has sewn things up to an extent. But we discussed what we wanted to create. Mark played a houseier style of techno at Lowdown and I played lots of different things. A lot of our inspiration was drawn from gigs, nights and live shows we’d been to together. We talked in terms of artists and labels: Micro trauma, Kompakt, Max Cooper, Throwing Snow, techno-oriented, rooted in techno but more electronica, and these artists all do stuff with the music and lighting so that was a common factor that came up, so it seemed natural to want to do things with a prominent visual side – more of a nexus between the sound and visual element.
We wanted to create an immersive experience around sight and sound that fills the whole room. In a lot of club nights you get people looking forward to the DJ booth and we wanted to create an environment where the whole room was a space to immerse yourself in.
So how does the visual element work?
(NH) Sean and Dan are the visuals guys. They did the visuals at Lowdown, and they have known each other since university. Dan’s more of a 3D visual artist. Sean did film production in university- cameras, stage and production. They work together as Meat Cassette and they’ve done music videos, really slick productions. But their bread and butter has always been VJing for nights- Pangaea, WHP, festivals. Sean recently did Hideout in Croatia.
The way that the set-up works is that images are projected onto some kind of structure that Sean has built- flat board in different shapes suspended from the front of the booth. They consist of LEDs and all different kinds of lighting. We had talked about filming parts of the night and using a camera feed from the mixing desk. That’s one of the ideas we’re toying with. Mark and I wanted to carry on DJing and they wanted to continue with some sort of an outlet for what they were doing and part of what arose when we were discussing the project and aesthetic of the overall thing was that we decided we should give music and visuals equal weight.
I can imagine that being quite powerful in a small venue like the Whiskey Jar. Is that why you chose that particular venue?
(NH) Yeah, definitely. We decided to keep it small for a number of reasons. We don’t have the budget that we had with Lowdown where the margins were tight- thousands of quid overheads when considering promotion, artist’s fees, booking hotels for DJs. We were aware of pitfalls too: Sound Control is quite a big venue so if it’s only half full, even though a lot of people will have come, the place doesn’t seem full and have the same energy.
There’s that pressure of filling a big space. What we wanted to do in terms of aesthetic was geared around a small venue, not look at booking artists but do it ourselves and invite people we know. We looked at different venues but the Whiskey Jar had a license until 4am. We wanted to be in the Northern Quarter too because we needed somewhere central where people would come in as they were passing. We don’t have the budget or the artists so we want to have a go at growing organically. Just residents. We want to ground it in the concept. Part of the culture these days is to go to a night where they spot people who they know playing. What we don’t want to do is charge too much in so it’s a fiver, more or less the price of a pint.
Mark and I want to keep it to us two DJing (occasionally inviting friends) because we can take it on a bit of a journey. With Headliners we have to work around them but this way we can start with more interesting stuff that I like and that I wouldn’t get to play normally, then build form there. There’s an art to the warm up. I like to start with synth-based, slightly psychedelic slo-mo stuff and build to more energetic stuff from there.
Going to see Weatherall is one of the things that has inspired my approach to it- those ALFOS sets- they’re proper journeys. What I want to try and create is something more like that only not be afraid to play peak time bangers- there’s no rule that we keep it below 110 bpm.
So where does the name come from? What is a Rhodan?
(NH)I’d like to say there was an interesting story behind that! But truth is we’d talked exhaustively through a lot of ideas. It was going on for ages and I think realistically, like many bands, we were all getting too precious and close to it that we needed to step back . Sometimes people just get so fed up that they’ll just pick the first thing that they see and go “that’ll do”. Modeselektor, one of my favourite artists, just chose one of the settings on their drum machine!
In the end I asked a friend of mine to help us. He lives in Chorlton and writes creatively for a living. I knew he could probably come up with some interesting ideas and quickly, as he wasn’t so invested. So, that’s where Rhodan came from. Thanks Martin!
It’s the name of a character from an obscure German Sci-fi comic. We’re all sort of sci-fi geeks and science fiction is, if anything, a key prevailing aesthetic of the night. The music is futuristic and we wanted a classic sci-fi look. So the name works really well with this.
Also we wanted a separate theme for each night and the first night was a portal opening. Sean set up a structure around the booth- suspended polygon geometric shapes. We printed notice on the wristbands for people to try to be on the floor for 1 am. We kept the visuals and music low key until then, and then shifted it up a gear and set off a CO2 cannon.
Sounds a bit dangerous?
(NH) Well yeah, it probably is a bit. They’re generally used in bigger rooms- you have to pull the trigger to fire it and when we were firing it off in pretty quick bursts but it would reach the other side of the room. It was cool though. Apart from when we couldn’t stop it firing. It was all brought under control though.
Are you going to fire it off at the next one?