December 8, 2015
Our Crate Diggers series profiles record collectors around the world. Following Paradise Bangkok boss and South Asian music specialist Chris Menist, it’s the turn of UK bass music lynchpin Andrea Parker.
She runs a record label (Touchin’ Bass), is an electronic music producer (releasing most notably on Mo’Wax), DJs around the world (and claims to have cleared more dance floors than anyone), has summited Ecuador’s five highest volcanoes (without injury), but has suffered two collapsed lungs (once while driving Autechre to Suffolk) and played three vinyl sets with one only arm (something about ironing boards?), once rescued dozens of seminal library records from a skip, has worked with Stockhausen, Reich and Sakamoto, and will occasionally binge on Now That’s What I Call Music compilations.
We spent an entertaining morning with the maverick DJ, producer and label boss at her south London home to find out if there really is nobody darker than Andrea Parker.
Interview: Anton Spice / Photography: Michael Wilkin
Let’s begin at the beginning. What are your earliest experiences of records?
My parents are not really what I’d call ‘into music’. I’ve got an Irish mum and a Scottish dad and that sort of sums it up really, but they always had music on in the house and, like a lot of people, I listened to the Top 40 on a Sunday. I used to do the classic thing of recording the tracks.
But for me, some of the first records I bought were The Flying Lizards’ ‘Money’, and Human League ‘Being Boiled’.
Did you have a local record shop?
I lived in literally in the middle of nowhere so there was only Our Price and Woolworths at the time. The thing that I find amazing is that there were so few sections of music, you had like five categories possibly, whereas now you have like 700.
What kind of age are we talking here when you identified with record buying?
I went through a really dark phase, which I’m still going through now, of Coil and Throbbing Gristle and This Mortal Coil. When I started going to shops where I grew up in Kent you couldn’t get that sort of stuff, so it wasn’t actually until I was at an age where I could go to London on my own and go to Soho to buy records that I couldn’t get.
Was there a particularly formative record that played a big role for you early on?
I’ve got so many different stages of buying records it’s really difficult for me. I think the biggest moment for me, when I started becoming and total mental geek, was when a friend of mine asked me to work for a video company in Soho for a couple of days on reception and they had loads and loads of vinyl that they were literally about to throw in the skip.
And I was like ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Honestly it was horrific. I think I was like seventeen at the time and I just went back there and basically grabbed a load and filled up a couple of crates and drove off in my friend’s car. And going through them, there was a David Vorhaus one and Delia Derbyshire and I was like ‘wow’. They were actually going to melt them down.
It’s thinking about record collecting before becoming a DJ that’s interesting. I used to love all the artwork and I used to have a rule that every time I went to one of the shops in Soho I would buy at least five records just because I liked the artwork. That’s how I got into Yello’s Solid Pleasure at the time.
They become more like objects than records too.
I really like Bridget Riley and when I saw this Faust record, I must be honest, I bought it for the artwork. And then year’s later I DJed for them and then they signed it, but I really got into Faust after buying that because I was so into the art.
With things like my library collection, I’ve bought loads and loads of those all over the world just because of the artwork and the titles, and some of them were so so bad. But it’s the descriptions, they’ve used a Moog and Arp 2600 and it says ‘dark’, ‘atmospheric’ and then you get it home and you think, ‘wow, how could this have gone so wrong?!’ That was the challenge. That’s the art of collection, you’ve got to sift through the shit.
So that’s what I’ve got, I’ve almost got the best of the bunch. Whereas you get some people who are just into techno, I’ve got small sections of lots of different things but they’re all the decent stuff.
That’s the way to do it.
Actually when I collected loads of the sound effects records, I didn’t really want to be a DJ in clubs, I actually started where I was just working in the record shop at the time. And I would get an old Moog record on one turntable, strings on another and something else on the other one, and make one track on three decks.
Which record shop was this?
Fat Cat. I used to do a bit of part time there. I just started dong loads of cassettes and someone from Fat Cat played one in someone else’s car and then suddenly I would start getting booked. And I thought ‘What the fuck? Why are people booking me to do this?’ There wasn’t much of an audience for it.
So doing three-deck sound effects loops was your way in to DJing?
How did your collecting change when you started DJing more?
I’ve always been someone that collects for myself. I’m more of a John Peel type person, I don’t care if I clear the dance floor at all. And for me if I clear the dance floor, I can’t bring them back. Lots of DJs, they see that they’re loosing a crowd, they can turn it around. Whereas I’m fucked! Once I get on that train, I can’t change my set. But I don’t care, it actually takes a lot more balls.
I think I’ve cleared more dance floors that anyone, but I’d much rather try and educate people and give them something they’ve not heard, and even if it’s just two people who absolutely love it, it’s better than the usual shit.
What record do you think you’ve played that has cleared the most dance floors?
Oh god, there’s just too many. I’m really into noise and drone and industrial and I think some of that stuff really does it. I think people can’t really deal with that level of noise.
When you first started DJing, it was quite an exciting time for UK dance music. Were you also raving as a punter?
Oh massively, I spent my life driving round the M25 going to illegal warehouse parties and going up to Manchester and I was literally going to every illegal rave that I could fit in. And that was before I was DJing.
There must have been a big white label culture around that?
I used to be resident at Megatripolis at Heaven and at Lost – they were the two clubs that I first started working at. And the great thing there was collecting white labels. I also used to cut loads of acetates, which is always fun, because I always used to have to queue at the Holloway Road with the all the drum and bass guys and me cutting loads of really weird music onto acetate. And they’d be like ‘who’s this fucking weirdo?!’
What was the place on Holloway Road?
Music House I think it was called. I would always get dubplates made before sets. It was getting in with the right people to definitely get white labels and you would deliberately not write what it was on it. And even as a producer, that’s what I’d do. I’d play my own white label acetates out and see what people thought. And people would come up and ask ‘what’s this?’ and I’d just make up random names, even though it was always me.
It’s so rare for people to cut an acetate for a specific night nowadays.
It literally is unheard of. I still would. I also think it was so nice to be able to be unique, and if there was a really big party I was playing at, to make tracks yourself and start playing with them and get mates to give you acetates from all the big DJs like Jeff Mills and Alex Patteson, That’s how, without internet, we would do it.
And the whole thing about getting ready to play out would be a whole month of preparation. I also think now, with things like Traktor and Serato, it’s great, but people tend to just play the same type of stuff for two hours because they’re just beat-matching.
Are you still strictly vinyl?
Yeah, I’ve never done a set without vinyl. If there’s one thing as well that just does my head in it’s people DJing with CDs. I’ve seen people do it and they’ve done amazing sets, I’m not being negative about it I just think how the fuck do you know when you’re queuing shit? I can tell types of music quite often just looking at the grooves, so you know where things are dropping out. How do you do that on a CD? And also they just look shit. When you see grown men playing on CD-Js, there’s something a bit sick about that for me!
And what about all the traveling involved?
I used to do loads of ice climbing, like proper hardcore ice climbing, I’ve done some huge summits in my time. I did the five highest volcanoes in Ecuador and summited all five and nearly died at the end of it. So when it comes to carrying 100 acetates on my back, I don’t give a shit!
I do like to travel but I don’t like to look like a DJ, so I don’t have one of those big shiny bags with the stickers on it. If I get on the plane and someone asks me what I do, I just say I work in the Sock Shop.
Ice climbing? That sounds pretty dangerous… and a far cry from the Sock Shop.
In all my years climbing mountains and volcanoes I’ve never had an accident, but DJing I’ve had quite a lot. I had a year off after I fell off the stage in Budapest. I did do a star jump and I had drunk quite a lot of rum. This bass line came on and it was one of those stupid drunk spur-of-the-moment things. Anyway, I fell off the stage and broke five ribs, dislocated my shoulder and my lung collapsed. With that one it took months, literally.
It’s the second time my lung’s collapsed. The first time was actually when I was driving to Suffolk to do a Meat Beat Manifesto remix and I didn’t feel right at all. And I was with Autechre and Mira Calix at the time, and Sean went to me, ‘your lips have gone really blue!’ So they called the NHS helpline and they were like, ‘call an ambulance’! So I was rushed in then. That was a spontaneous one.
Also, at ATP, I’d just seen The Fall – I love The Fall – and I had my records on because I was playing somewhere else and I managed to knock myself out completely and fracture my jaw. So then I had to DJ with a broken jaw and one arm.
How do you play an all vinyl set with one arm?
I’ve done it about three times. It was hilarious, some friends of mine, I just said to them, ‘look can you just set up two ironing boards behind me and start ironing so that no-one looks at me?’ And that was my way around it. It seemed like a good idea at the time because everyone was just like, ‘why have you got two guys in the background ironing?’ They won’t notice that I’m in bits and have broken my jaw and my shoulder.
Utterly insane! Let’s get back to the records. As a producer do you use your records in a different way to being a DJ?
I used to get a lot of ideas from playing sound effects over strings and that sort of stuff, just random ideas, and I’m really into drum machines and old synthesizers but it can be really annoying because you can’t quite get that sound and they were doing it all that time ago.
We’ve all sampled from all of those records, I’ve been really self-conscious about it. I would never sample from people like Delia Derbyshire or Daphne Oram, but if it’s some twat from wherever…
That kind of respect is pretty rare these days. More generally speaking, do you identity as a record collector?
Yeah, definitely. I’ve spent so much time trawling through boot fairs and record shops all over the world. I would not go to Berlin if I didn’t got to certain shops there. And even though sometimes you don’t know what which certain things you are collecting, I’ve always been on the look out. It’s a collection of…
A collection of…? What does it mean to you?
It’s like a time-machine. That’s been the really nice thing going through loads of vinyl in the last couple of days, I’ve found this really small section of Now That’s What I Call Music! The amazing thing is that, you would find it very hard pushed to have things like Chas & Dave, Blondie and Depeche Mode on the same album! Where else do you get that?!
I kept going and played so many, but what I thought was ‘wow, this reminds me of my Dad cleaning his old Jensen on a Sunday’. It’s like a time-machine. Every single part of my life from the age of about seven is mapped out in that collection, whether it be children’s parties, raving, getting off my tits, you know, just all different times.
How about the age old reissues vs. original pressings debate. How do you feel about that?
I don’t do reissues. I would buy someone like Johnny Trunk’s label, just because it’s nice to have clean copies. But I’m renowned for not treating my records really well. People are disgusted. If there’s one thing I hate it’s people who collect things but don’t take them out of the box. As a collector, for me, it feels like it’s for show.
I’m renowned when I DJ for having records all over the place and then I come home and there’s teeth marks, foot marks… but that’s what they’re there for, they’re quite hardy.
They look pretty organized here. How do you sort you records?
All along the bottom are the sound effects records, the KPMs and the Chappells, and then going along there there’s techno, hip hop, Mo’ Wax, electro, old school electro, Miami bass, all the electronic pioneers, the really rare collection. Then there’s the film scores, Warp, and then from my R&S days, Detroit, Chicago, drone, industrial all of that. Then under that will be Throbbing Gristle, Coil… And then like everyone I have one section that they don’t know where it goes. It just ends up being a cube of randomness.
The amount of times I’ve got it wrong and packed a really experimental bag of records and then walked in the club and it’s banging techno, and I’m like ‘oh no…’
If there was one record from your collection you would save from a fire, which would it be?
It would be The Andromeda Strain. I think a lot of people will go for this one because it’s hexagonal but it’s the black and white artwork that I love.
Would you sit down to listen to this at home?
Yeah, but people find it hard to believe that I do. I have loads of really random tune sessions on my own.
What makes a good sound effects record as opposed to a rubbish sound effects record?
I think for me, I’m really into sci-fi and space sounds and I really like really, really dark shit. I don’t like the happy ones. It’s my personal preference really. [Bernard] Parmegiani and all the early pioneers. I’ve worked with [Karlheinz] Stockhausen and Steve Reich and [Ryuichi] Sakamoto and I know it’s a a sad thing to do, but with Steve Reich I was like, ‘can you sign my record please?’ It’s not a money thing, it’s just a part of my life that reminds me of working with him.
How about any other oddities you’d like to show us?
My most entertaining record that I have is The Professional Approach to Disco Dance Instruction. It’s this American guy just saying ‘step left and right and round…’ and he’s teaching you all the moves while you read the book. Things like this just crack me up.
Or this, Early Morning Secrets for a Beautiful New You. It’s basically the same thing, it’s a record where they’re telling you fashion tips. I like sometimes taking the voices and manipulating them. It’s about the way that they’re recorded.
You’ve also got a lot of children’s records…
There’s no-one darker than Andrea Parker. Are you sure? Spin a Magic Tune. I could certainly do a children’s party.