James Priestley has been a staple fave of the UK music scene for as long as we can remember. The ‘moustache of wisdom’ he shares with Giles Smith has lead to over ten years of successful secretsundaze raves and the artist booking ‘The Secret Agency’ launched in 2008, hosting a roster of house dreams. Whether they’re charting the history of Detroit guys like Patrice Scott and Delano Smith, or pushing bright young talents Brawther and Wbeeza - there is a ‘house sensibility’ in everything The Secret Agency do and that’s why we can't wait to welcome James Priestley and his fellow secret agent artists, Keith Worthy and October to blow the roof off Room Three with exceptional skill next Saturday.
James will be playing the weekend before Christmas, a time in the calendar when we’re all ready to lose control so to get you in the mood, here’s a gift-wrapped mix from Priestley at Sonar this summer. We also grab a cosy chat about the last ten years, the present and the future with news of his new production alias coming in the New Year….
Hi James, you last played for us at'The Secret Agency' party a year ago. This time we welcome you back to share the bill with Keith Worthy and October. Tell us about your expectations for the night?
I’m really looking forward to it. I haven’t seen Keith or played with him for quite a while. In some ways he’s had quite a quiet year but I know he’s been in the studio quite a bit and is bound to have some new nuggets tucked up his sleeve. His production sound is very warm and deep, quite classic but with a modern twist – he has a great sensitivity particularly for strings, melodic developments and atmospherics. When he plays, he tends to push it out a bit though.
As for October, I’m really excited to play with him as a new signing to The Secret Agency. He has quite a unique take on modern house and techno which not only appeals to the house world but also one in which the bass heads seem to be reaching for too. I’m looking forward to playing again in the room 3 environment, with the darkness and enveloping sound and will be taking the opportunity to play a little more experimentally. There has been some great music coming out of late, much of which I haven’t had the chance to play yet. Plus of course like the last two parties we expect a good Agency / secretsundaze crew turn out and vibes for the room.
How did you come up with The Secret Agency?
Giles and I started / launched The Secret Agency a couple of years ago. It’s something we’d wanted to do for a while but typically with us, didn’t rush into it. Over the 10 years of secretsundaze we’ve developed a reputation for helping break new talent and that side of things has been one of the things that I’ve really enjoyed doing / being a part of. Running an artist booking agency allows you to further and deepen that process and it’s been great seeing some of the guys really develop as artists already in the short time since we’ve been operating, as well as working with some of the more established artists and everything that goes with that, in one or two cases, helping re-launch their careers. That’s been a great honour.
You share a hefty roster with the likes of Chez Damier, Delano Smith, Brawther, Patrice Scott, Ethyl, close friend Giles Smith and more…are these artists a reflection of the sounds your in to and like to see play out?
Particularly with the roster / style of roster that we launched with, we brought people on board that we in the most cases, already had an existing relationship with, either from playing their music or booking them at the parties. I’m very proud of the roster of artists we have, some of them are really serious music dudes, from the Detroit guys like Patrice, Keith and Delano through to some of the younger guys like Sammy (Brawther) and Wbeeza. So yeah, I play a lot of their music, however as a DJ, you’re always searching for that next thing, that new sound and so by no means does it stop there. In fact sometimes you have to stop yourself as you may be really into an artist from a DJ perspective and you’re like – ‘I’d love to work with this guy on the agency’ but that doesn’t always make sense for us on the agency front so you have to, I guess, kind of let go.
2011 has been a massive year for you and Giles Smith, celebrating 10 years of secretsundaze across the globe! What have been some of the highlights and how do you plan to keep such a strong year rolling into next..?
Yeh thanks, it’s been fantastic. Despite billing the whole season as ’10 years of secretsundaze’ the official birthday party with Moodymann on August bank holiday weekend has to stand out. Despite being big fans, we’ve never had Kenny play for us before so obviously that was a great honour. But more than that, the vibe was sooo rocking and felt really pure still. That was very warming to see, feel and be a part of. Other than that, the roof parties at Bussey building in Peckham – we like to do a roof party each summer but sometimes struggle with locations – so to find somewhere and be able to do 3, plus 2 of those times we were super lucky with the weather, well, that was dope.
Internationally, party wise, the boat party we did in NYC was off the hook, as was Robert Johnson – our annual jaunt on Easter Sunday. Other than that, compiling and releasing the 10 years of secretsundaze CD and being nominated for Best Compilation in the DJ Mag Best of British annual awards – that was great to do after a few years, in terms of the process of the compilation and being nominated for awards by DJ. As for next year, certainly we’ll be focusing on the label front as well as trying to keep the parties as energetic as they have been this year. But as always, we like to keep things close to our chest I’m afraid.
How do you enjoy playing solo, compared to your legendary sets with Giles Smith?
secretsundaze has become synonymous with a certain style and sound of music, which I would say, is only a part of the style and sound that I like to represent when playing. So when we do secretsundaze shows, sometimes people come with a certain expectation of what they want / expect to hear so it’s a balance of playing how you want and how people want you to. I’m sure many other DJs can relate to that too.
When I’m playing solo shows I don’t generally feel that pressure and play in more of a freestyle way, which is my background in DJing, rather than just coming from say a house background. But to be honest, over the last couple of years, I’ve turned my back on that kind of feeling in many ways. Firstly I was like ‘fuck it’, I’m really gonna play exactly how I want as I was struggling with myself a bit for not doing this, and wasn’t always happy playing. Plus actually musically I think people are becoming a bit more open-minded, certainly here in UK, not so much when traveling sometimes.
What other UK labels and party collectives do you perceive as totally authentic and doing something unrivalled?
Horse Meat Disco, Livin Proof, Lost, Deviation, Homo Electric, CDR, Sud Electronic, Durrr, Rinse / FWD, Faith, Hospital, Hessle Audio, Soul Jazz and Honest Jons.
Thank you for giving us one of your sets from the year…Can you tell us about where it was recorded and a selection of your favourite tracks on it?
It was recorded at our annual party at Sonar, which we’ve been doing for the last 7 years or so and is always a highlight of the year for me. For the last 3 or 4 years we have done the party at La Terrrazza, which is this incredible outdoor venue in Poble Espanyol, which is this bizarre outdoor architectural museum within Barcelona. Anyway, during the day, we take over this picnic area, which is very secretsundaze, with pine trees, picnic benches and the sun setting over the city in front of you. Very beautiful spot. So we do there from 5pm-midnight and then go into the club from midnight till 5am close.
This is an excerpt of my set recorded closing the picnic area coming on after Sven Weisseman. Because the Sonar parties act as a kind of showcase as well as a party, we give ourselves relatively short set times so you have to play quite immediately rather than build into things. Anyway, check it out, there’s some killer tracks on there and a fairly good cross-section of music I like to play, from Arthur Russell to Ossie to Michoacan to Maddslinky. I’ll let the music do the talking on this one.
We haven’t seen any new releases from you for a while; do you have any plans to change this? What personal projects have you got in the pipeline?
I have actually been back in the studio this year, working on a new project out in Amsterdam and the first fruits of this will be seeing the day of light early in the New Year. However, this isn’t under my name and will be under a new alias so I can’t say too much more about it at this stage.
We read you’re trained in playing piano, flute, saxophone and guitar- very impressive! Do you still get to play ever and how did this early understanding of music help shape your musical tastes? We’re interested to know how they’ve changed over the years to today in a very vibrant house scene….
Unfortunately I don’t play any more these days – I think the last time I played was at my Grandad’s funeral 11 years ago. Basically when I discovered electronic music and all the trappings in the early 90s I stopped playing in the various ensembles, bands, orchestras and stopped my practice and progress.
I was very much into jazz at this age, playing, performing and consuming – going to jazz clubs every week for a while at the ripe old age of 12 – this was a massive influence on me. From there it goes something like 60s / 70s rock / psyche, indie, hip-hop, house / garage, hardcore, jungle, soul, disco, funk, drum n bass, 2-step / UKG, nu-jazz, electronica, neo-soul, broken-beat, electro, post-punk / punk-funk, house, techno, post dubstep. Ha! Quite funny seeing it written down like that.
But actually I see the whole thing in quite a positive light. Yes, I stopped playing my instruments which is a shame as I enjoyed it and was ok at it too, particularly the saxophone. And I would still love to be able to play keys like I used to. But actually, I’m still working very closely with music, writing and producing music and unless I’d put down those instruments and got into dance music so vehemently, I don’t think I would be doing what I do now and actually lucky enough to sit in great studios with lots of kit around me writing music with talented producers. In that sense, I see it as full circle and that sits well with me.
What has been exciting you most about house music this year? A lot of the artists you’ve played out with, from George Fitzgerald to Wbeeza have their own take on the sound which must feel exhilarating to be a part of?
Yeh you’ve hit the nail on the head really. These kind of artists who know how to treat the heritage of this music but putting their own touches and influences on it. Wbeeza particularly was so immersed in his own world that in many ways he wasn’t taking his inspiration from within the scene, or more genre should I say. When artists have the space to do that, that’s when the really interesting shit starts to come through! I’m not interested in the formulaic fodder that unfortunately is too prevalent in this world. I wanna hear personality in music, not people wanting to sound like other people. Big up to all the UK guys doing their own thing right now. Whilst actually a lot of it I’m not massively keen on, especially in terms of playing, the most important thing is people are doing their thing, and that’s why London is still one of the most exciting places in the world right now musically.
What else have you got coming up next year?
Well I’ve been working hard on my other little baby my venue The City Arts & Music Project (The CAMP). Early in the New Year we’ll be doing a semi re-launch on the ground floor space bringing in a bit of a different concept. Keep your eyes, ears and more importantly noses peeled for ‘Meter’.
Finally, what are three things you just can’t live without?
Work – I’m kind of a workaholic I guess, it’s what makes me tick, I’m addicted to the buzz of seeing things happen, progress and move forward. Having said that, I’d love to take the whole of January off. Next year..
Weather underground local forecast in the morning – I hate being ill-prepared for a day’s weather – I’m a total geek like that.
News and satire – I like to try and keep up on what’s going on in the world as much as possible –it’s all too easy to live in an East London bubble, but I have to look for the humorous side of things otherwise the wrongness can get too much.