Living in Leeds, a city that has distinguished itself for its abundance of quality resident DJs and community focussed clubbing collectives, Michael Upson has still managed to stand out, being revered as one of the finest selectors in the city.
Michael is behind the LGBTQ+ party Love Muscle, that operates under the tagline “a pumping gay dance party”. Its only been going a couple years, but is now consistently selling out days after tickets are released. His expertly focussed crowd reading and broad musical taste has helped foster the liberatingly hedonistic space that Love Muscle has become.
As part of a series profiling the 2018 recruits for Dimensions Festival’s DJ Directory, we speak to Michael about what’s moving and motivating him, alongside a first listen to an unashamed party mix. For more info on last year’s Directory DJ’s check our Frequently Asked Questions feature.
What’s been your musical upbringing, self-taught, schooled or otherwise?
The basis of my taste would probably stem from listening to CDs in my Dad’s car. George Michael, Luther Vandros, Michael McDonald, Alanis Morrisette and a heavy dose of Sade all spring instantly to mind. My love of electronic music came in my early teens more as a rejection of the people I was hanging out with at school that weren’t that nice to me. I listened a lot to the Radio in the early 00’s, staying up late and listening to essential mixes and really got into DJing through that. Growing up in Birmingham around that time as well was quite exciting – DC10 inspired Below was a Sunday party with secret locations utilizing abandoned spaces in the city for parties. However, I really got a proper education in house music at Leeds’ Back to Basics when I came here for Uni.
Can you think back to a key moment that made you want to take music seriously?
I’ve always taken music really seriously. It meant a lot to me growing up as this confused gay kid and got me through some shitty times. I’d say I’ve understood for a long time its ability to heal and affirm self-worth, especially through the aspect of community. Everything I do is based around that understanding. If there ever does come a point where I’m able to do this full time (I still have a job in the week) then I see it as a convenient change in circumstances rather than a shift-change in how seriously I take what I do.
I’ve noticed when you DJ that a lot of the music you play has a vocal element. Is this something you particularly look for when choosing music, and is there a reason behind why you are drawn to tracks like these?
I’m generally drawn towards records that stimulate some type of personal emotional response in me. Whether it’s a “fuck you” record, a love song or something a little bit more political it usually bookmarks a feeling I’ve had about someone or something. I like to be able to convey messages through what I play; make you feel something. That’s not to say that all I play is vocals by any means, I just like a bit of emotional content.
Aside from focusing on specific genres, are there any key principles or philosophies that drives you as a DJ?
Be consistent to you, try and disconnect yourself from what other people say is good or bad. If you listen to something and you don’t like it then don’t buy it. But also be really critical of what you buy – I listen to something for at least a week before I buy it. That way you don’t end up with tons of records that you never listen to or play.
Your party, Love Muscle, has become an institution for LGBTQ+ partying in northern England. Are there any particular clubs or nights that influenced this party and its ethos?
Glastonbury’s NYC Downlow in block 9 certainly gave me the drive to do something about Leeds’ gay nightlife. It really was an eye-opener that other queer people liked the music I did and understood that historical connection to disco and early house music. Manchester’s Homoelectric has also been an inspiration and more recently Chapter 10 in London. And obviously a few trips to Berghain.
One of the my favourite things about the community that has grown around Love Muscle it its anthems: songs that have been played at the party again and again, to the point that the night has become the main association that many people have with those songs. Is this something you set out to do or something that happened organically?
Definitely set out to do but I think it also happens naturally when you have good regular resident DJs. When you break a record like that and everyone can sing along to the words or anticipate a big drop you get this wonderful shared experience. Basics taught me the importance of breaking a record and that was a weekly party so it’s a little easier to do.
Have there been any people or collectives who have empowered you or helped you find your feet as a DJ?
Gideon from Block 9 has always been really supportive and came and DJ’d practically for free in the early days of Love Muscle. This really helped us boost our profile at a time where we were losing money on the party. Jacob Meehan from Buttons in Berlin invited us to play out there and gave us an international stage, which was very exciting. Also I have Simon Scott from Dimensions and Alex T to thank for getting me on the DJ Directory.
We also wouldn’t be able to do what we do without Wharf Chambers. They are a fundamentally socialist organization that gave us a chance. Even at the beginning when they probably weren’t making any money from us being there.
Following from this, now that Love Muscle has really established itself, a number of new, DJ-focused LGBTQ+ club nights have started in Leeds. There appears to be a strong community surrounding these parties: do you offer any particular support and advice to the collectives that are starting these up?
If you can get yourself into a place where you’re not losing money and it’s sustainable just keep going. Even if sometimes there is only 40 people at your party the impact it can have on the happiness of even just one person is immeasurable.
What’s the biggest challenge you face as a DJ?
Living by the standards we set out as an organization. I’d say we get it right 90% of the time but somehow that doesn’t feel enough because the impact this can have on just one person can be severe. Operating a safer spaces policy requires you to constantly educate yourself and listen to the voices of marginalized groups. It’s constantly evolving and we’re always looking to improve the experience of everybody that attends our party. It’s something I’m really proud we do and is testament to everybody that’s involved.
And what’s your biggest source of optimism or inner strength?
The people that attend our party give me life. Their joy brings me joy, their smiles make me smile.
You have played a number of great stages, such as Gideon’s Block 9 party at Glastonbury and about:blank’s Buttons weekender. How does the party or venue you are invited to play at shape your approach to planning the set?
It all comes down to stimulating that emotional response. I play records that match the environment. If we’re in a dark basement I tend to play slightly harder, darker music – if it’s outdoor daytime then something more uplifting.
What’s your greatest musical achievement to date?
Getting Frankie Knuckles – ‘Rain Falls’ on as the last record during our outdoor Pride event in 2016 just as the rain started to come down.
What goals have you set yourself this year?
Play at a major overseas festival (tick)
Get more regular gigs in other cities.
And get booked back in Berlin as that was really special.
What’s your favourite party to dance at?
KCC Soundsystem, Notting Hill Carnival
NYC Downlow, Gastonbury
Cosmic Slop, Leeds
What’s your perfect party to play at?
Hyde Park house party 5am onwards (and Love Muscle)
Where do you get your inspiration from outside of music?
I love poets, speakers and philosophers – especially Maya Angelou she is all three. She really sees and understands the good in the world. She is the person talking at the beginning of the mix I put together for Dimensions. She holds the basic principle that although we should celebrate our differences, we are more alike than unalike. The late MP Jo Cox also held this belief.
What’s coming up this year for you that you’re excited about?
Dimensions! And we have some really exciting bookings lined up for Love Muscle the rest of this year.
And finally, turning back the clock, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t worry so much.