In Depth
Erol Alkan talks three decades of London club culture

There aren’t many people who know London’s music landscape better than Erol Alkan. The Phantasy Sound founder has been entrenched in the capital’s scene since the early 90s, when he’d tirelessly head out to alternative nights through the week during a heyday for shoegaze and indie. This formative period of discovery was a key catalyst for Trash, the beloved Monday night throwdown Alkan ran and played at from 1997 to 2007. The seminal party stood out for championing alternative guitar music with a then emerging electroclash sound, disparate styles Alkan became famous for blending in his weekly sets as the night's resident. His fearless approach to DJing then helped him land an early gig in our intimate Room Three setting with the Bugged Out! crew back in 2001, and it’s something that still informs his regular club sets today. Two decades on from Trash’s first session, these days Alkan’s used to headlining bigger club rooms, both as the face of Bugged Out! and through his Phantasy Sound showcases. In the studio, too, he's no less busy: still an avid guitar fan, his latest efforts have included producing records for the seminal shoegaze group Ride. With Alkan set to return to Farringdon for this Friday’s Bugged Out! takeover, we caught up with him to talk over his three decades spent immersed in London club culture.

Can you talk about some of the places in London that had a big impact on your musical taste when you were growing up?

The Camden Palace (which is now known as KOKO), Marquee and Boston Arms were the first places I experienced club culture, but with indie music. Everything I do is still informed by that alternative spirit, the sense of community and music with such distinct character permeates in what I try to do.

Were you going to a lot of gigs aside from your own DJ sets?

From 1991 through to 2000 I was probably out every night, seeing bands or going to club nights. We were never bothered by who the DJ was as that never mattered back then – you went to regular club nights as it was about the community, not the DJ. It was the same even when bands would play, and much of the time they would be bands we knew. It was just a given that each Saturday we would be at the Boston Arms, Tuesday at the Palace, and so on…

Recently you’ve worked closely with Ride – how did you first discover the shoegaze sound?

I was a fan of Ride the first time around, as well as My Bloody Valentine, Moose, early Boo Radleys and more. Shoegaze has far more width to it then people may assume, the bands that survived that era either had good songs or a very avant-garde approach to sound design that stands up even today. I discovered great music each week by reading the NME and Melody Maker from front to back, watching Snub TV, Rapido, The Word and The Chart Show religiously. You couldn't escape it.

When you started Trash, the night’s early years were predominantly focussed on guitar music. Did you have much experience of nightclubs playing electronic music at that point?

Around 1998 I would go to The Boutique and Wall Of Sound nights at The End, they crossed over into the world I was part of via the NME and Melody Maker, plus Heavenly Records had been a big part of my life since I discovered the Chemical Brothers via Manic Street Preachers in 1994. I had loved electronic music and listened to pirate stations since 1990, mainly Fantasy FM. I didn't go to any electronic club nights until 1998 as I was so immersed in alternative culture.

Did you have to put in a lot of work to promote the nights as well as preparing for and being the DJ every week?

Yes, but I always treated it as a means to an end. It was just part and parcel of what I did and who I was. I had no ego as a “promoter” or “DJ”, they were combined to allow me to put Trash on every week. It's just what I did.

What do you think you learnt about DJing during Trash’s early years?

How to read a room. Noticing what corner of the records I had with me to focus on, if that night was to be a party or one more for the heads. Some records do cross over but it's also how you play them and structure the flow of the evening. I also learnt how to fuse these records together which were never designed to be fuse, but to stand alone.

“Everything I do is still informed by that alternative spirit”

It sounds like you played with a lot of freedom behind the decks, which was one of the things that resonated with people. Do you still feel that freedom in the same way today?

I think that “freedom” is a state of mind. It's a self-imposed challenge to make sure you do not rest on your laurels and keep questioning how you can progress. I'm a firm believer that clearing the floor is not a disaster: it's a sign of belief and if you play a record that people do not dig, then it's OK. Life isn't a string of successes, you need to be real and sometimes mess up in order to give context to your truth as a DJ.

In a post about the upcoming night with us you mentioned how playing for Bugged Out! in 2001 “opened the door for what [you] do now”. Do you think there was an obvious transition from Erol Alkan, the Trash promoter and resident DJ, to becoming Erol Alkan, the club DJ?

I think I had ambitions in DJing that I couldn't fulfil in just playing indie records, yes for sure. Being given that opportunity to play at fabric by Bugged Out! opened not just the door to transcend as a DJ, but also as a new challenge to myself to explore what I could do.

Electroclash obviously opened up a new sound for you in the 2000s, were there any other musical movements born in the club that really expanded your record bag?

There was a point in 2005 where I found that bringing together two very different sounds helped form the DJ I feel I am still today. The records coming out on both Kompakt and Ed Banger were so very different, but each touched upon a sensibility that made them easy to fuse. My residency in Room Two at The End for Bugged Out! really helped me explore this.

How did you first meet the Bugged Out! guys?

I met Johnno in the corridor at fabric, just outside the VIP balcony. He looked familiar, I may have mistaken him for Norman Cook on a previous visit to the Boutique vs Bugged Out! nights, but he was very friendly and interested in what I was doing at Trash. We struck it off after he said he set up Jockey Slut as I was an avid reader of that magazine.

Why do you think you’ve formed such a strong bond with them over the years?

I just trusted my instinct in that I felt we came from a very similar musical planet, even though Bugged Out! was primarily techno, we had so many connections that in time opened me up to so much music I grew to love. They've been my family since.

Is there anyone else who’s had a profound impact on your career in a similar way?

Other than my agent Martje who I have been with for nearly 20 years, I would say that working with The End was as important. The seven years that Trash spent there are incredibly special to me, and they took me into their family and treated me, the rest of the Trash team and our crowd so well. It's informed how I always have wanted to work.

“I’m a firm believer that clearing the floor is not a disaster”

What do you think has made the party such an enduring success over the years?

They take risks, booking exciting artists ahead of the curve, plus they can put an interesting line-up together without relying on current clichés. They have good taste.

Phantasy Sound launched just after Trash came to an end in 2007. What was it that inspired you to start a label?

I felt that somebody else needed to take the reins, and 10 years was enough for Trash. I wanted to put the same energy into something else, and a record label felt like the right vehicle, especially since I'd started producing bands. Phantasy began as a single club, helping bands get signed to larger labels. When I heard the Connan Mockasin album it felt like we need to step it up.

You’ve hosted nights with us and appeared many times otherwise. Do you see any parallel between playing a club so renowned for electronic music and DJing to 200 indie kids in between bands like Klaxons?

I'm not sure of a parallel to be honest, I prefer to DJ to a dancefloor rather than between bands purely for engagement reasons, if I cannot get the room’s attention then I suppose I get bored…

How do you think putting on a successful club night in London has changed since you threw your first party?

There aren’t as many regular weekly parties relying on resident DJs from what I can see. If feels like it's driven more by names. But I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer this as I may not see the whole picture, there may be many great weekly nights out there, and I hope there is.

Finally, what does “club culture” mean to you?

It's always been about togetherness, the feeling that you belong somewhere, no matter how long for, even just for a fleeting moment you can experience a unique moment that can only be achieved by connecting strangers with music.

Photo: Tom Medwell

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