A few weeks back 1BTN’s Joel Essex caught up with the legendary DJ, promoter, and everyone’s favourite lockdown instagrammer, Luke ‘Unabomber’ Cowdrey for a good old natter. Here’s the conversation that took place.
From his early days record collecting in Manchester in the 80s, his partnership with fellow ‘Unabomber’ Justin Crawford which saw them create Electric Chair – one the most influential club nights in the UK – and later Electric Elephant, a festival in Croatia inspired by their club night, to the ever popular Homoelectric night in his adopted city, Luke continues to be a much needed and positive force for club culture. The interview covers everything from life under lockdown, the Electric Chair days and the legacy of his friend Andrew Weatherall.
Firstly, as I’m asking everyone in these strange times, how are you and how are you coping at the moment Luke?
It’s a real roller coaster. There’s days of existential worry, anxiety and sadness and then there are other days where you feel that you have been kind of re-set and you’re looking at life in a very different way. It forces you to think the world around you, your own life and mortality, your family, kids and friends. I think we can all come back better humans.
One of things that’s come out of being in lockdown and this forced imprisonment is going through my record collection and that has had quite a profound effect on me. I mean when else do you get 12 hours a day to do something like that. So, as trite as it may sound, and on a personal level, one of the more positive things to come out of this awful time has been just listening to music and resting your soul. You realise the off-piste records, the lost gems, and the records you forgot about and some have never even been played. I even found a box of records the other day most of which were still sealed.
You’d used to listen to an album by someone like Willie Hutch or John Lucien and you’d listen to the one track and put it back in the collections. What’s been great is listening to the rest of that album and discovering the other tracks are better than the one you picked. I’ve literally spent 12 hours a day listening to music and that’s been incredible and it’s really made me think about life and what we all want and the planet all jumbled up into a reset and self-assessment.
So music’s been incredible but it’s been strange because if you had told me weeks ago that we’d have to close eight businesses and close all of our events I would have screamed in disbelief and fear – and we could lose everything. But, the reality is that this kind of democracy of loss that we all experiencing changes a lot I think. It makes you realise that yes if you’re in the events business, it’s a nightmare but when you read about how the virus has penetrated refugee camps in places like Greece, there are people far worse off than us.
I think what will come out of all of this, despite the horrors for so many people, is that the genie has been let out of the bottle and people will think differently. I’m an optimist and I think there will a sense that we have to re-assess everything – why are nurses getting so much less than CEO’s who sit on their arses and don’t do a lot? But music and re-assessment have been the two things that have made it less painful.
As we’re in a time of reflection, I wanted to ask you about you career and go back to where it started for you. You’ve always been so synonymous with Manchester but you are from Sheffield originally. What prompted the move across the Pennines?
In the 80’s if you lived in Sheffield, Leeds or Liverpool, and if you were into music whether it was street soul, house music, Joy Division or culture you went to Manchester. It was a dreary ol’ town in many ways and it was grey. You had places like Hulme, and big council estates where lots of people probably didn’t pay rent and there were artists, working class communities, the Jamaican community, students, crusties, bands and DJ’s. It was incredible and a period of almost Berlin style culture. I don’t think we’ll ever see that again.
In Sheffield you had the black kids were jazz dancing to this early house music and weird white kids like me were somehow finding clubs like Jive Turkey, so Manchester was the obvious move. It was 34 miles across the Pennines, with the same sort of thing going on but lots more clubs and record shops. You had Piccadilly Records and the likes of Reno Club in South Manchester, Moss Side you had Berlin’s. Obviously you had the Hacienda but there were loads of other little clubs like Man Alive and this was all pre-acid house really. I was 18 / 19 at the time and it just changed everything for me really and hearing people like Colin Curtis, Greg Wilson, Mike Pickering and Graham Park. So Manchester was just a rough, raw old place that attracted like-minded people so inevitably, people grouped together in places like Hulme, Moss Side, Chorlton and Rusholme.
How did you end up meeting Justin Crawford and how did the partnership between you develop?
So, when I met Justin, who is from a place called Bingley near Leeds, I was really into my football and it was the mid 80s and the football casual thing with the clothes, and loads of football lads were into the Aquascutum blazers and para-boots. I had a Bingley Cricket Club blazer and Burberry scarf and Justin wanted to know why I was wearing the blazer!
But we became really good friends through music. He was in a band called the New Fads and we used argue tooth and nail over music you know the sort of thing – house music versus northern soul. Justin had this history of going to loads of nights in the north where they would play disco alongside northern soul. We were just both mad into music, so yeah that’s where our journey began.
How did you make that transition from that into DJing and putting on parties? Was there a point when that happened?
Like all of us at the time, we just collected records. We weren’t necessarily collectors – I’m still not a record collector. We just bought records, loved them and wanted to play them. There was no big vision, other than we wanted to put a night on for music we loved and hold the flag up for the music we were passionate about. Probably by about 1993/94 ‘gangsterism’, cocaine, shiny clothes, the wrong lads on the wrong drugs were beginning to rough up the nice feng shui of acid house. It wasn’t what we were about so we decided to play our record collections (badly) in a dirty old rock club in Manchester called the Roadhouse in 94/95. It had sticky carpets, the worst toilets I’d seen since early Glastonbury and we just put the needle on the record.
We were just selectors, we weren’t really beat mixing, we did everything live. I think now there is such an over obsession with perfection from day one, but we just did everything with all its warts and imperfections. There was a bit of synchronicity, a bit of luck, good timing and I guess a bit of serendipity in that when we put the night (Electric Chair) on, it just so happened that other people were feeling the same way and were having the same sense of disaffection with the scene. It had become so shiny and awful and those people started to coming to the club.
We were playing all sorts of records really; Hip-hop, disco, soul, boogie, house, techno, break beat, even UK garage and it just caught a mood and it built and built and after about four events it just kind of road blocked. We weren’t snobs about it though which is really important. We’d play really rare records that no one knew about but we also played Hot Chocolate records or records that might be potentially be seen as cheesy or obvious but we loved them because they were great records. I’d like to think there was a bit of honesty in what we did.
Eventually, we found our sound, and we went beyond being collectors and practiced more. I genuinely believe that the greatest way to find a record, those B-sides and weird gems is being sat in your boxer shorts on Tuesday at 5am with your mates and someone puts on a record and you go ‘that’s fucking amazing, where did that come from?’ I miss those days and funnily enough, these last few weeks have been a bit like that but with less people and being sat on my own.
So, by osmosis, we became DJ’s but we did it with our pants down really and we weren’t perfect in the beginning. That is really how Justin and I are really. We tend to be a bit like Eddie the Eagle in the sense that once you’ve gone down the ski jump, you can’t go back up so we can kind of had to get better. That was 26 years ago and from collecting 300 records to owning 12,000 of them it has been a journey of relentless love of weird and wonderful dance music of all styles and all tempos but not just dance music of course.
You mentioned ‘weird and wonderful’ there and I can think of a better way to describe those Electric Chair nights. I remember going for the first time and the experience was like no other club night I’d been too really. It felt like the most friendly private members club where everyone was welcome no matter what they looked like and the music reflected that.
I think sometimes people always confuse ‘underground’ with this holier than thou sense of what you are, this kind of ‘we are underground’. It’s very pompous; it’s freemasons, and boys’ club mentally. This idea that there’s a group of 20 blokes in a function room, playing records backwards on minus 8 and they all clap each other is underground. To me, that’s just a list of fucking rules. If underground isn’t a celebration or carnival of some description where people can let loose then that’s not underground, it’s just a self-conscious boys gang. It shouldn’t be about strutting or feeling somehow superior. It has to be about belonging but it also has to be inclusive. Without sounding like a little bit of a wanker, I think we probably did succeed in winning people over to that at Electric Chair.
We had lots of women at our nights and a big gay crowd. There was that Larry Levan quote, and obviously as a gay man, he said how it was the ‘women and the faggots on the dancefloor that made a great night and amazing club’ and I think it is pretty true. Let’s be honest, I love techno but the worst techno night to go to is where there are 700 men, all skin heads, all facing forward swapping Underground Resistance t-shirts. Yes, I Iove Underground Resistance, I love Detroit techno but it’s got to have funk in it, its got to have enjoyment and fun in it. I think the word underground has become this sense of intelligence or seriousness. For us our night was about music that meant something, that can transcend the bullshit of that 9 to 5 life and where you can escape for 6 hours.
I think Justin and I also just wanted to unite the clans really without any bullshit. In Manchester you had so many amazing DJ’s from so many different scenes. People like Moonboots, Balearic Mike, Hewan Clarke people from the black scene, soul scene and indie scene. The fusion of opposites is the most wonderful thing. There’s nothing better than having naan bread with bacon and cheese!
Purism is boring. It’s when things collide that the magic happens. Look at Bowie’s music where electronica met American R&B and I think Manchester had that and we came out of that fusion of opposites really where you could play house and soul or play a weird John Martyn track. Anything went as long as it was good.
I was listening back to a recording of the last Electric Chair night in 2008, which I was lucky enough to be at, and I think in the first hour you opened your set with Riverman by Nick Drake. It’s incredible looking back because you never get to hear that in a club environment and that’s the sort of thing that made the night unique.
Well, probably from 1984 till about five years ago I would wake up every day and put music on, I’d have music on most of the day and I’d finish my night listening to music. So when, you DJed from 9-30 / 10pm till 4 in the morning and then maybe an after party, it was a reflection of what you were doing all week really. You know acid house did many things but it opened the ears of people and I probably got into rock n roll more through acid house than anything else.
At the time, did you ever imagine that Electric Chair would go on to have the impact that it had and still has today?
No, definitely not. We were just putting a party on for friends. It was ‘rentamob’ but it became something and there were definitely moments when we though ‘wow’. When Francois K first played for us was one and there were others when your heroes like Arthur Baker, Carl Craig and Theo Parish played you had to pinch yourself. But, they loved Manchester too. There was a similar kind of musical bed that underpinned it all. There wasn’t this tribalism of one tempo or one sound.
Of course, I think when you’re 18 you can be into one thing. If you’re into drum n bass or house then that’s what your into. You shouldn’t be Balearic at 18 for fucksake. You should be into one thing and sod anyone else who doesn’t like it. But, hopefully as you get older your mind opens and expands and you listen to other things. I’m 53 and I’m still sat her thinking, ‘how did I miss this record?’.
So the night just grew and grew and grew. We also started making our own music and doing some re-edits. It was a really exciting time. We played some incredible gigs like Southport, and played in places like Berlin and Paris. It was kind of hard to believe that there were 500 people in a weird basement in Paris all into this music and the weirder and less obvious you went, the more they loved it and you just thought we were so lucky to be part of that.
But it (Electric Chair) just had its moment really. Justin and I always said the moment Electric Chair becomes a set of velvet handcuffs, as in being restrictive, too comfortable and not moving forward, we’d kill it, which is what we did. We started a festival called Electric Elephant in Croatia in 2009 and killed the club. We just thought we’re done with four walls and roof let’s fuck it off and have sunshine, trees, no walls no roof and that’s what we did.
You’re still very much involved in promoting and putting on parties in Manchester. Is that Electric Chair spirit still very much alive and kicking?
100%. In fact if you’d asked five or six years ago, I would have said yeah but you have to find it. But, actually in the last few years, something has happened. I genuinely believe there is the beginning of a movement. I think Donald Trump will be known for many things but one thing is for sure he is going to put the wind in the sails of a musical revolution because it is brutal out there – the world has become so aggressive and vitriolic.
I think people want to escape that and when I look at the nights we put on like Homoelectric but other night’s going on in the city like White Hotel, Hidden and Meat Free, they are getting so much love nationally and internationally. I saw Weatherall, god rest his soul, play at White Hotel just before he passed away and it was remarkable. You had 18 year-olds, 45 year-olds, 55 year-olds, you had a trans crowd, and students and no one gave a shit. It reminds me of acid house but probably with a difference in the music but exactly the same vision. I genuinely believe that something is going on; where people are tired of the bullshit and the body fascism of nights where big lads on the wrong drugs are listening to deep house backwards without any love or any soul.
There’s some love in the air again and music is the conduit and the uniting force for people to join together. I think there was a small seed, which was growing where people were loving to each in a club listening to great music. It’s exciting again and I think the virus plus Trump will blow that up into another level. Going back to what I mentioned earlier about the virus and the existential reset, people won’t be the same after this. I think when we return and we dance again, I think there will be a movement the same as acid house.
You mentioned the great Andy Weatherall and what an amazing legacy that would be in the year of his passing if that movement you mentioned does materialise after all of this?
I haven’t really talked about this in anyway, but my partner and I Amy, were at the funeral and it was a very moving moment and I genuinely still struggle with it. I feel tearful now thinking about what we’ve lost and why there is such emotion from people who knew him really well to those who didn’t even meet him but knew his music. I think it is a most natural thing. People weren’t just grieving a man, there’s a sense of a loss of a movement, of something real and authentic. I think we’ve lost something huge. I have people who are still messaging me who are still struggling with it and they didn’t know him but that doesn’t matter because of what it reflects
Andrew was a guy who would play for fuck all and around him there were DJ’s arguing about their place on a bill and getting paid 30 grand. He never played the game and people admire that and in a tsunami of beige and opportunism, here was someone who held the flag up. There is a reason while people still mourn him and they will mourn him the way people mourn Bowie. Of course he never reached the same heights and notoriety as Bowie, but the impact will be the same in terms of our movement and I think ‘Fail we may, Sail we must’ will be the kind of vision that will fuel this fucking ship through this storm, post Trump, post virus (this interview took place before the killing of George Floyd – Ed) and take us somewhere special.
There are going to be some tough times ahead and it will be dark but I’m an optimist. From the death of Andrew, listening to music and speaking to lots of friends these past few weeks, I feel there will be light and good shit will happen from all of this and music and unity will definitely be part of it.