Saturday Mass: an interview series that tips its hat to Larry Levan and explores the art of the resident with some of the best in the business. For more in the series, browse through the archive.
From humble beginnings hosting Sunday afternoon sessions in an east London loft, Giles Smith and James Priestley’s Secretsundaze have carved out a reputation as one of London’s premier clubbing institutions. A party with many homes, from early days in 93 Feet East to their current residency at The Pickle Factory, their ever recognisable yellow artwork have become a fixture not only in London but regularly play some of Europe’s most revered venues, including Robert Johnson, Panorama Bar and Brooklyn’s Output and The Block in Tel Aviv. At the controls since the very start, Priestley and Smith have the enviable position of both residents and programmers, playing all night sessions or simply providing warm up duties to countless house and techno titans. In the year of their 15th birthday celebrations, we asked Giles as many questions as we could about just how they do it.
What are some of the qualities you think makes a good residency?
Assuming all the other key elements like venue, sound, lighting are in place – a regular crowd who are musically open-minded. Plus a promoter that is able to coherently programme a night well so that the music flows from one artist to another. That’s something that seems to evade many promoters these days.
And, as an extension, what do you think makes a good resident?
Definitely someone that has a deep record collection and is a serious digger who prides him/herself on going the extra mile searching out new music. Ideally they would attract people to the party early to hear them and are able to get the party going without resorting to playing big tracks early in the night. It’s super important to hold back from playing obvious tracks too early on before the night peaks. If not there is nowhere to go musically. For us there is nothing more satisfying than building a night slowly and patiently with subtle music that isn’t necessarily known by those on the floor but strikes a chord with them.
There’s also a special bond created with the crowd at a residency which is quite a subconscious / intangible thing but it’s good to be aware of those regulars and those that come early and to make a connection with them. Actually looking up and smiling at people in the crowd helps with this! Its clear that a good resident will help shape the tastes of the crowd so there is a symbiotic relationship between them. Many resident DJs pride themselves on versatility and their ability to warm up before different styles of headliner but I would say, on the whole, at Secretsundaze we have a definite style of warming up for our guests which is focused on playing fairly deep, atmospheric and soulful music early doors. As residents we always close the party too after the guest and take this as seriously as warming up.
Who have been some of your favourite resident DJs over the years?
I guess the club that I went to most regularly was Back to Basics while at university in Leeds in the mid to late 90s. Ralph Lawson was, at that time, definitely one of my favourite DJs and his tastes at that time very much mirrored mine playing lots of primarily US, UK and European house and techno on labels such a Prescription, KDJ, moods n Grooves, Large, Strictly Rhythm, Classic, Nuphonic, Paper Recordings, Junior Boys Own, etc. He always played very respectfully before headliners bringing the energy levels up slowly and just before they came on peaking it.
I haven’t really got any current favourites. It’s hard when you are touring a lot, you rarely go to clubs or parties on your days off so it’s probably mainly hearing other DJs before or after I play. Of course names like Craig Richards spring to mind and of course the guys at Panorama Bar and Berghain who are all excellent residents and fully understand the responsibility and importance to selecting and playing the right records at the right time.
How do you think the role and importance of the resident has changed since you first started?
The role of a resident DJ should have the same importance across time – it’s not some fad but a vital cog in the wheel of a good night out. However the importance of resident DJs do seem to have fluctuated over time. There seemed to be more importance played on residents in the early 90s with great residencies at the MOS like Harvey at Open, Ralph Lawson, Huggy and later Tristan Da Cuhna and Paul Woolford at Back to Basics, Miles Holloway and Elliot Eastwick at Robodisco, Harri and Domenic at Sub Club and The Unabombers at Electric Chair. These are great residents that often regularly blew the big name guests away by the dedication to the cause and ability to make anthems out of relatively unknown records.
Although they were far more established I did really like John Digweed and Sasha at Renaissance in the early days before their sound went wayward. They had such a unique sound that was truly deep and atmospheric and very patient. In the late 90s and early 2000s the super club era definitely felt like it was all about the big name, guest DJs and headliners. There seems to have been a bit of a return to a focus on residents but I still feel as though not enough emphasis is placed on residents despite articles like this.
Before becoming the reign holders at Secretsundaze, did you have any other residencies? If so, did the experience teach you any dos and don’ts that you took with you?
I was a semi-resident for Faith in around 2001 and a year or so before we started Secretsundaze. I played pretty much every party they did for 18 months. These definitely gave me a great start and I was thrown in the deep end playing next to many of my heroes from Doc Martin to Dubtribe to Maurice Fulton to Timmy Regisford. I like to think, from listening to so many DJs before starting to DJ myself, I had a good idea of how a warm-up should sound. Although, at times, I was nervous in the first sets I played I think I pulled off some good sets due to listening to so many DJs and mixtapes before.
One funny experience I had was when I was guesting at Soulsonic one time and was warming up the main room in a club in Soho whose name evades me. The needle was constantly bobbling and skipping on every record for well over half an hour and I remember, at one point, having Ashley Beedle, Terry Farley and Leo Elstob in the booth trying to work out what was going on. In the end someone eventually released that the tone arm lever wasn’t properly down! I definitely got the pissed ripped out of me that day!
Can you remember what you first set Secretsundaze set was like? Were you nervous?
I can remember fragments of it but not too much. I had been playing out in clubs for a few years before so I’d lived out my nervous days already so was fairly confident by then. I can tell you the first record I played was ‘Sometimes I Feel Like’ by Ron Trent and Chez Damier. I was also playing records like Los Hermanos ‘Birth 3000’ regularly. In the early years of Secretsundaze I always played the last set and we rarely had guests. James used to always play the opening set with lots of disco, soul, hip hop and broken beat that he was more into at the time and we had a third resident back then called Will B who played the middle set.
Space is all-important for a good party. Secretsundaze has had many homes – what do you look for in a space and what have been some of your favourites over the years?
Back in the day it was all about looking for somewhere with an outside space – The Poet would be the epitome of this, 93 Feet East Loft with its terrace, and later places like The Light Bar and of course the amazing huge terrace at Canvass in around 96.
We also look for venues where the space feels right and has that right balance. Its hard to say what this is but its the feeling you get while playing and the view point you have as a DJ that helps create an atmosphere. We always try to keep the DJ booth low and connected to the crowd – we can’t stand DJ booths that are highly elevated where you just don’t have that connection. This is one of the reasons we are so happy with our new residency at the Pickle Factory. It’s intimate and cosy and the crowd could touch the records or mixer if they wanted to. I think we are actually the only promoter that doesn’t utilise their handmade DJ booth which is beautiful but quite high and blocks the view of the DJ at work from the crowd. We prefer to a use a very basic, lower fronted booth so that everyone can see what’s going on.
Part of the magic of Secretsundaze is of course the timing of the parties. What drew you to putting on parties on a Sunday?
Well this has been well documented in many other interviews but the timing of doing the party on Sunday and during the daytime was on the main part by default. When searching for our first venue, we fell in love with the loft room and terrace at 93 Feet East (which hasn’t existed for many years now). We looked at venues all over London but just couldn’t find anything that came close to how we felt when we saw that room, which was the perfect size and of course had the terrace attached. We were planning on doing a Friday or Saturday party initially but the thing was 93 Feet East had three rooms and they wanted promoters to take all three to do a party there on those main weekend days. At that time we were fairly inexperienced and also had a vision of doing a one room party to keep the vibe pure and focused. The only other option we thought “what about Sunday?” They had nothing on a Sunday and were happy to try something out then on a day where they normally had no trade. Once this was suggested and accepted we of course warmed to and embraced the idea and focused on making it stand out.
How do you approach playing to a crowd on a Sunday early evening? Do you let the early finish time, or the fact that quite a few people in the crowd may be back at their desk in an office the next day, ever get in the way?
The summer time parties start early afternoon at 2pm. The style we have adopted of warming up doesn’t really alter that much in the summer to what we play at the beginning at say the Pickle Factory in October. I guess maybe a few more vocals might raise their heads but it’s not so different.
After all these years of Secretsundaze, there must be some nights where you feel like you knew nearly everyone in there. Does playing in a room with people who are essentially your friends affect the way you perform?
The party has developed and changed as anything does and as we have got older less of our immediate friends and peer group come out on a regular basis as they are married or have kids etc. Of course there are times where you look up and see lots of regular faces. This definitely has an effect on the way you play and I think mainly a positive one. I think some of my friends and peers are the ones that have seen me play many times and have high expectations and that does push you. At the same time connecting with new faces and dancers is always a treat too.
Finally, what’s coming up on the horizon for you guys in 2016 that we should keep an eye out for?
Well the summer has been super kind to us so far with gigs in Tokyo, Sardinia, Lyon, Croatia, Barcelona (for our two amazing parties during Sonar week), our Glastonbury debut last week weekend (which was so much fun), Gottwood, FOUND, Hideout (playing an extra set on the main stage tonight replacing John Talbot and before Jamie XX), then Finland at Visio Festival.
Next weekend we are Electric Elephant again in Croatia on Friday and then on Sunday 10th July we have our huge free party on the Riverside Terrace at The Southbank Centre as the opening party for the Festival of Love. This means a great deal to James and I and playing the records we love to our home crowd in such an iconic setting is something we never dreamed of doing. We can’t really think of a more special place in London to have the opportunity to play, as London has been our home for nearly half our lives now. We’ll play the whole seven hours from 2-9pm and hopefully cover all sorts of bases, musically. We also really encourage everyone to come down including those with kids with the early finish.
Some other up coming highlights include our 15th Birthday party on August 28th at Oval Space which will be a day and night affair and feature three hour sets from Prosumer, Nick Höppner, Jane Fitz and of course ourselves with a special back to back at the end planned and a second Panorama bar date in 2016 at the end of the year.
Our monthly residency at The Pickle Factory is something very close to our heart and is selling out every month with a fantastic crowd. James and I are taking the controls all night playing eight hours with no guest DJs and it’s really inspiring us right now. Definitely feels like going back to our roots.
Label wise – having been so busy with gigs this year we are a bit behind with that but look our for a new 12″ by Endian in the next months. We have also received some great music from other artists that we respect and need to wade though that and will hopefully have a busy winter release schedule.
One last thing – be nice to each other guys and keep the faith! Some crazy stuff has been going on the last months and we were deeply saddened by the UK’s vote to leave Europe. We are at our best when working alongside our neighbours and this is something that should be noted on the micro and macro level. Peace!