When reading through DJ’s biographies, it’s striking how many include formative experiences spent working at a record shop, where the music they are exposed to leads to enviously broad and deep record collections. It logically follows that any time you’re browsing through a shop, whoever is behind the counter may be a pretty tasty selector themselves.
This is definitely the case at London’s Phonica Records, which Meda Fury boss Nick Williams has been working at for some years. His chops as a DJ certainly stand up alongside his peers, leading him to be invited by the Mister Saturday Night crew to open their Farr Festival stage with a three-hour set. For his Diggers Directory mix, he has provided us with a arresting tapestry of downtempo pieces, accompanied by an extensive interview about his life as a record collector.
Nick Williams plays Farr Festival on 13th July, alongside Mister Saturday Night and Avalong Emerson.
DJs and producers often mention their musical education came through their family’s record collection. Was this the case for you? Can you pick out any pivotal records from your upbringing that informed your musical journey?
I think my first exposure was through films and TV, both soundtracks and music programs like TOTP. Seeing some of those huge John Williams soundtracked films like Superman, Star Wars, E.T at the cinema when you’re really young just blows your mind. They’re still powerful now. Then seeing older repeat films on TV with scores by John Barry, Lalo Schrifrin, Ennio Morricone left a big impression too, so I’ve managed to cop a few of these on LP now too, like Walkabout and Kelly’s Heroes.
And of course TOTP in the 80s – connecting the music you heard on the radio to a person or persons was what made that show have some seriously massive ratings. The Chart Show was quite educational too, not only showing videos but running down through more specialist charts like Indie and Dance. That opened whole worlds to me in the late 80s.
Going back a lot further I also remember looking through my parents vinyl collection when I was tiny, pulling out Boney M, Issac Hayes and Beatles LP’s , the sleeve artwork back then was pretty wild! Me and my sisters had a portable record player upstairs too, a Dansette maybe. I remember them always playing Abba and the Jungle Book soundtrack. I think music and the visual side drew me in, whether it was seeing the group on tv miming or their single video or the LP cover.
People buy records for a multiple of reasons. What first drew you to collecting records and what motivates you to continue digging after all these years?
I was always buying albums on tape in my school years, mainly because I had a Walkman. I had one with record function and radio, so I would stay up late recording the John Peel show, listening back for research on my walk to school I would realise how many releases were only on vinyl, so that was a key moment. Also some of my mates were buying 12″ – sometimes imports – of indie, hip hop, rave, experimental. Some of these genres were mainly on vinyl and nearly always preceded the album so that forced me to that format too. Once you’ve started down that path it’s amazing what can turn up. It’s both very rewarding and turn addictive.
Where do you store your records and how do you file them?
Pretty much all of my vinyl is at my flat, but its a bit of an issue as I live with my girlfriend and her collection is there too. Hers is even bigger than mine, and I have a lot! I finally had units specially built last year, unfortunately I’ve not had time to sort them by genre so they’re in the there completely randomly. I need a whole day to sort it, and I’ve not had one spare yet! It does make me go through the whole thing to get something specific out, which is good because you discover other titles but bad if you’re short on time!
What are your favourite spots to go digging and why?
Phonica and the other shops I’ve worked in have been a real education. I love digging abroad for obvious reasons, and also in more rural areas of the UK, it’s constantly surprising. In London there are a few charity shops I hit up, not as regularly as I’d like but…
Digging isn’t just about the records you find, but the people who help you find them. Who are some of the colourful characters you’ve met on your travels in record stores round the world? Any unsung heroes you’d like to shout out?
I’ve met so many over the years, and I’ve forgotten some of the names, especially the ones in the US. Here’s a few shout outs that I have to mention, some of them have left their shops now.
Euan Maclean and Jon Benacci (ex-Virgin)
Colin Read and Costas Kontos (ex-Fopp)
Jason Spinks at Kristina (ex-MVE)
Chris Foster (ex-Phonica ex-Honest Jons)
Yozu Kumitake of E.A.D and Shotaro Matsumoto of Coconuts Disk.
Marvin and Valentino from Public Possession.
Alan of Alan’s Records
Nicole and Neil (ex-Sounds Of The Universe) and Jonny
John Reynolds (ex-Fatcat ex-Reckless)
They’ve all got so many stories to tell! If you meet any of them make sure you get a one
Is there a record (or records), that has continued to be illusive over the years?
Well yeah, I’m working on that all the time. I find that it’s half the fun that you’ll never get everything on your wants list, and that list always gets bigger everyday compared to what you might finally buy. So it’s never ending. Hoping a nice new copy of Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden remaster might appear in front of me 2nd hand, missed out when it was at work in recent years. A good copy of Stan Tracey’s original Under Milk Wood is something I’m always looking for, without the poetry reading over the top.
Really the ones that are elusive are issues or reissues that haven’t been out yet, there’s a piece on this mix from a soundtrack that’s never been officially released, not completely anyway. Not gonna go into it, it’s a long story.
Do you prefer record shopping as a solitary process or with friends to nerd out with and search for strange sounds together? If the latter, who do you like to go digging with?
I generally go on my own, quite like it that way. Concentration is easier. Or with my girl, that’s always fun. Probably quite rare to have a partner who enjoys it as much as me.
Walking into a record shop can be quite a daunting experience. Do you have a digging process that helps you hone in on what you’re after?
I’ve never find it daunting to be honest, it’s more exciting than anything else. For me the process develops differently in each store, as you discover their own unique systems – deliberate or organic. At the end of the day if I have enough time I’ll go through the whole lot, but that is rare pleasure.
How big a role does album artwork play in your digging?
It can be everything and nothing. For sure amazing artwork can get your interest, but can also be misleading. I took a punt on something with great artwork last year that turned out to be the worst aor/easy listening ever! By the same token how many white labels with pen scribble and paper sleeves have I breezed past that could have been absolute gold?? I hate to think. I generally find that a combination of some/any technical text and a good gut feeling from previous purchases serves me well.
Could you tell us a bit about the mix you’ve done for us?
In recent years it’s become very rare for me to put a mix together. My spare time has shrunk massively. If someone records your set when you’re playing out that’s great, but if I’m on radio I’ll think about it quite a bit beforehand and play something completely different to how I play out in the club, and something like this I’ll think far too much about in an OCD kinda way. So with that in mind I’ve always kept ideas of mixes on me. When I was a teenager I’d keep bits of paper with mixtape ideas and now you have your smartphone.
This one has been a while in the works, but new stuff gets added along the way, some quite recently. All the tracks mean a lot to me personally and they span many many years in terms of discovery, some recent finds, things I’ve picked up on trips to Rome, Tokyo and other places. Some are from my childhood and teenage years and films, tracks that have soundtracked holidays and many more situations. As with any mix like this I try to match the mood and flow of each piece like a puzzle.
This mix is nothing like what I play out. When you get the chance to put something like this together it will probably be digested the same way a mixtape, compilation or radio show will be: on headphones, at home on your system, or travelling. So to just replicate a club set doesn’t seem logical to me and, like a lot of people, I’m into a wide range of music. I did the mix at home with two 1210s, two CDJs and a mixer.
We asked you to keep the tracklist secret, but could can you disclose any standouts in the mix?
Reading through the tracklist I’ve noticed most of the artists are really famous! Some are household names, but the tracks I’ve chosen by them range from fairly obscure to very. As I said they’re all very special to me so they’re all standouts. So in a way the three tracks by fairly new artists that I’ve been directly involved with for a while now (two from my label Meda Fury and one from Phonica), are the most important standouts: Ryota OPP, Sad City and Niñosindigo.
I’m constantly in awe of them and their unique approach to creating electronic music. They’re very different from each other in terms of sound. Their personality and even their geographical location comes through in the music.
You’ve been working at Phonica for nearly a decade now. Have you made any tweaks or personal touches to the way things are run to make it a placed you’d enjoy buying records?
The systems that have been in place there since before I joined are still in use, and do work well. I suppose the tweaks are me being fairly militant with stock movements/travel behind the counter, from bulk or new arrivals to the wall, to the boxes below and finally to filing. And merchandising the wall in certain ways, pretty standard stuff but essential in such a busy shop.
A key thing is to avoid being narrow minded and objective when it comes to genres and sub-genres, deliberately putting something in the disco box or electro box when it’s not strictly that genre, but you have the foresight that it may appeal to certain types of customers is a good thing to do. It can be rewarding for all concerned: extra sales for the shop, a surprise purchase for someone, and for me a reevaluation of what certain genres can be.
What’s been the standout record in the shop this year that’s not got as much love as you thought it?
There are always so many, and we’re only halfway through the year so seems a little early to single just one out. One that does spring to mind is the System Olympia EP on Slow Motion. It’s more like a mini album really, lots of slow vintage Italo keys and quite soundtracky.
What record has been a surprise success in the shop this year?
The Albinos album finally getting a vinyl edition has done very well recently, gone in a few days and we got decent amount. It’s already preordering for the repress. I love myself, bought the tape last year, but didn’t quite realise how many others felt that way.
Your label Meda Fury is approaching its 20th release. What are some of your proudest achievements with the label?
Doing the first two long players last year was a moment for me. And doing interesting things like collaborations/split releases with other labels I respect feels really good (Emotional Response and Lobster Theremin) Putting an artist’s first ever release out is a really amazing feeling: Rimbaudian/Ryota/Alleged Witches.
What new is coming up on the label?
We have the final vinyl only DJ 12″ coming early September, also hopefully the first double pack 12″. More albums too but they do take a lot of time.
Anything else upcoming for the year you’re excited about?
More of all this good stuff I hope, release wise. I’ve got some gigs at festivals I’m excited about, Farr Festival this week, Locus Festival in Italy, Dimensions again, and hopefully returning to gigs in Berlin, Sheffield, London. Something special at Notting Hill carnival too!