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Interview: Mat Playford - Handle With Care

Martin G-H gets involved with Mat Playford ahead of his 'Portraits' release as part of a new series for We Love Recordings.

After 20 years in the game and working with the likes of Tim Deluxe, Angel Moraes, and Sandy Rivera, you might expect Ibiza stalwart and British modular head Mat Playford to be a household name. We found out how he isn't, yet, and why that's the best situation to be in.

“I must make a tune so I can DJ? That's not what music is all about. You're supposed to make a record because you want to make that piece of music and express yourself, not because some other guy's doing it.”

So says We Love resident Mat Playford, a guy who might be familiar to a few. For many though when the legendary Sunday session at Ibiza's most famous terraced club releases its first instalment of a new Artists Portrait CD series it may be the first they have heard of him.

That's despite the fact he's been making electronic music for two decades, was a honcho at one of the finest vinyl stores in northern England (Play Music, Leeds), and runs the Social Problem imprint. So, to clarify, let's start from the end. This summer he compliments said album with regular sets at Space, marking his third year with the fraternity. But don't call him en vogue, as Playford explains via the miracle of Skype, trends are not something he appreciates.

“I'm 34 years old, and I have been at this since I was 15, that's when I got my first proper synths, but I had others when I was about seven. Anyway, I did five years at Leeds College of Music, learning Cubase and stuff during the early 90s. So it's not like I just got Ableton and want to start piping out tunes by the day.

If you look at my profile over the last ten years it would look like moths, fucking moths have been at it like a woolly jumper. There are times I've worked really hard, but as the records didn't come out for one reason or another the effort just evaporates into nothing. It's like the longest overnight success you could imagine.”

And he's kind of right. Rewind back to the millennium's turn and Playford is releasing on major all rounder BMG, missing the UK charts by a close shave, and pondering over seemingly impending riches. But the private jet didn't quite land, and Britain's least music industry music type buried his head in the studio.

“It could have gone two ways really. If that blew up, with my mentality then, I would have ridden the wave of waffle and success, partied hard, earned a lot, spent a lot, but not honed my skills like I have sitting here for ten years,” he replies when asked if falling off the mainstream radar might have actually helped in any way.

“I see a lot of that going on now. It's always been who not what you know with music, but that has been intensified over the last few years. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors going on- flashy photography, pop star stylings… But few earn decent money from house music anymore, maybe 500 people worldwide, which makes that behaviour ridiculous.

“So I find a lot of the promotion side a bit crap really. It's like ‘c'mon, mate, you're ugly, you're not a popstar, and you can't write or think in chord progressions. You're a one hit wonder, now pipe down'.

“There's a lot I don't like about it, actually. It's repulsive that you need to be on a certain label to be cool, in some cases it's like the label is worth more than the artist now. That's a joke, somewhere along the way something has gone horribly wrong there. A decent piece of music should cut through all that bullshit. But often it doesn't seem to.”

Strong words, though that's understandable coming from a trained musician, unsung hero, and tireless producer. When we talk he's at home, and the proof of his passion for electronic sounds created with physical instrumentation is cast about a room crammed with boxes, wires, plugs, keyboards, and things we don't know the name of. It's the kind of sight that makes you understand what Playford means by ‘carrying my bodyweight in equipment across Europe'.

Part of this is the setup he'll be taking to We Love, including a custom built semi-modular synth (photo below) set to grace the cover of Future Music magazine. Performance wise it's a far cry from the humble Technics, but one the team behind Space's end of week throwdown now expect after realising what talent was under their noses.

“How the live stuff came about was last year, We Love asked me to help out for a Carl Craig night with a live PA. I was wiring things up, sourcing Moogs and stuff, just working on the tech. Anyway, I was playing on the grand piano and the We Love promoter says ‘I didn't know you could do that, why are you just DJing?' I said ‘because playing live is hard!' Then we talked and agreed to do something properly.”

And the story behind how Playford ever came to tinkle those ivories tells of a similarly chance occurrence. Already being acquainted with We Love's music director Mark Broadbent helped, but it was when the pair were enjoying drinks at the venue that around eight of Playford's tunes were dropped during a couple of hours. Cue the inevitable ‘send in a demo and we'll see' offer. The hardworking aficionado responded with an iPod, on which he melded no less than 12 hours worth of music.

This dedication clarifies that his obvious frustrations at the dirtier side of dance music result not from embitterment, but disappointment at how something so precious can be exploited so badly. After all, it's not like there isn't anything good anymore, more that quality is often drowned out by sheer volume. As Playford puts it, there are some great fresh faces, ‘but you're just drenched in new releases'.

“Some of the youngsters though, like Space Dimension Controller, Joy Orbison and those boys, they're mind blowing. They have the right idea, using 808s, 909s, real synths… as oppose to shit plug-ins. I don't think house music is that rich, musically, when compared to pop, or jazz, or classical. So part of the attraction was surely in the textures- the warmth of an analogue kick punching you in the chest. Take that away and once the timbre has been reduced what are you left with?”

A good question. For those staring blankly at the screen examples of how not to create something too clinical and clean can be found all over Disc One of Playford's forthcoming We Love Artists Portrait album. The first tracklist is made up entirely of his productions (under both birth name and the Weirdo Police moniker), and gives an insight into a producer who references Georgio Moroder and Jean Michel Jarre with haste when asked for a list of cutting edge maestros.

“Yeah, and Carl Craig in the last ten years, Todd Terry in the 90s… Obviously in the 90s there was this huge explosion in electronic music, so you could probably name 20 people that were good, and the same in the Noughties. And I think we'll see even more emerge over the next decade, so I can't wait to take a front row seat and see who shines.”

It's certainly something most people are eager to discover. But while the future stars of an industry increasingly built on fickle fanbases can never be predicted, Playford's own plans are already set. Whether that's a new collaborative EP with Paul Woolford (again under Ford Inc, pencilled in for pre-Christmas release), or the thing he can't tell us a lot about, which could arrive in January.

“I can't really say too much, but it's an idea I came up with that's really, really obvious, and it's basically a soundtrack for a film. I'm not just into making dubby music all the time. It sounds amazing on a dancefloor, but when it comes to sitting down and just making that style everyday…. If you want to get your music heard by people outside that niche then you need to dabble in other areas. Plus I think if you stay in house and only house you'll dry yourself up, so to progress as a musician it's important to explore other avenues.”

Ultimately that's what it's all about. Ironically this, his most elusive statement, summarises Playford's character more than any other. A talented individual with a personal benchmark set higher than many dare to climb, all the roads he has walked point to one goal- musical success with integrity. It has taken 20 years to get here, along with significant effort and patience, yet the best is surely yet to come. So you have to ask, wouldn't it make more sense if everything got handled with such care and attention? We certainly know our own answer to that.

We Love Recordings – Portraits 01/ Mat Playford is released on 1st July.

Preview and snippets here

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