We Are Chester’s Dai Owen talks to Jim Al of the Chester Nexus collective about techno, the Chester scene and their positive vibe. Illustrations: Dai Owen.
Dai: What is techno? How would you define your style of music?
Jim: I think there’s a broad range of definitions for this and what techno’s about, which we’ll probably touch on later – but we’d probably define it, or at least the type we play, as machine funk. We definitely play at the harder end of the spectrum, but always try and keep a bit of swing and interest to it. Techno’s probably one of the more (or has been, historically) niche and less accessible forms of dance music, at least compared with house and trance – lighter on the vocal hooks and top end instrumentation and mainly reliant on a 4/4 beat to keep things moving.
Dai: How long has it been around?
Jim: Since at least the early to mid-80s. The initial spark was in Detroit – a proper blend of black music and European electronica. Some of that early stuff has mad funk. But 30 years of evolution has meant that it’s splintered into a fair few different directions: some is really ravey with synth lines all over the place, you get some really crunchy industrial stuff, then there’s the really heavy, fast tunes and then really light floaty stuff – so it’s hard to pin down. If you think of dance music as a really broad type of music, just like rock music, and maybe techno as a particular aspect of that (like punk for example), there’s probably as many different types (corporate, underground, heavy, poppy, etc.) of techno as there are of punk.
Dai: What is it about the music that catches people?
Jim: Probably, weirdly in light of the previous answer, the simplicity of it – even though it can be complicated as any type of music to make. A 4/4 beat is pretty accessible – even if it’s overlaid with all kind of oddness, and it can get a bit primal. I think because it’s so immediate, if played well, then dancers can access it in a number of ways whether that’s trancing out in a corner on your own, ecstatic community and sharing of experience, or heavy-metal style hammering. You can bring whatever you need to it and work it out – which maybe you can’t do with some other forms of dance music.
Dai: You are the DJs, you create the music, you master the machines in a world of electronica. Is that part of the buzz?
Jim: It’s an honour and a privilege to play music and make people dance – but I think people can get a bit precious about it. We work damn hard finding tunes, prepping the nights, getting the word out there – but dance music was never a potential career option when we were younger: people put parties on for the love of the party, or the music, or because they wanted to create a space where people could cut loose, and that’s definitely where we’re coming from.
Certainly for me, the DJ was only part of the whole experience, it was as much the crowd and the feeling of a night that was important, or maybe the resident DJs rather than the big booking that’d make it a good night to head to.
A lot of nights we used to go to you could hardly see the DJ in that they were properly tucked away. A lot of the time now the DJ is on a massive stage above the crowd and everyone dances at them like they’re some rock star. It’s kind of hilarious. At our nights the DJs or live act are at the same level as the dancers. Little things create an ethos.
There’s definitely an aspect of alchemy though, finding tunes that other people don’t play, or creating a flow that takes people along – but, at the end of the day, it’s only dancing in a room with sound people to good tunes – it’s funny when people think they’re more important than the dancers because they play some tunes.
We’re definitely punk techno rather than stadium techno – come and say hi if you come down or give us a shout via some online format.
Dai: I understand you’ve been developing the techno scene in Chester, can you tell me briefly how it’s developed?
Jim: I don’t think we can take all the credit for that. What we’ve noticed is a big upsurge in people putting nights on: whether that’s existing night putting on smaller nights, or people coming up with awesome breaks, d+b, live electronica nights etc, etc.
I think it’s less to do with us than a bit of a critical mass of people seeing other people doing it and giving it a go. It’s a really nice scene as it’s really driven from the bottom up – and I don’t see much evidence of people scalping the dancers with extortionate prices – most people do it for the love of whatever they’re playing. And that extends to band nights, poetry nights and more – there’s a really cool DIY scene in Chester for the size of the place, I reckon it really punches above its weight.
What’s also been really nice is there are a couple of nights that were on hiatus when we started ours (we moved to Chester a couple of years ago) and from coming to ours they’ve started up again. We’ve played at theirs and they’re playing at Nexus and have been on the radio show already, so we’re all up for helping each other out. We’ve lent speakers to other nights too – 90 per cent of other Chester promoters are really sound and supportive of each other.
Rather than try to throw a massive party (and then probably having problems with small crowds, feeling like we’d failed, and ending up not doing anything else!) we’ve taken the opposite approach – start small, build it up, make connections, support local artists, and see where it takes us.
We are at the stage now where we can book national and international DJs we love, but we always make sure to have a local up-and-comer on the bill, along with maybe a bigger local name too. And we can use the radio show to do the same too (three hours every month gives us loads of time to give people a platform).
Dai: I’m glad you mention the radio show – that’s an interesting development, and pushing the boundaries! How does it work?
Jim: Richie Q, from North Wales Techno, who played at our very first event, has been a massive support. He gave us a guest slot on his show on Techno.fm. The station controller liked what she heard and offered us a test show, the first one went well and here we are a year or so later, three hours a month on the first Friday of each month. Using the magic of the internet we can do it from home too, so apart from the dog occasionally interrupting during chat bits, it’s pretty low-impact for us.
It’s awesome as it gives us another platform to showcase DJs and live acts we love from the local area, nationally and internationally too. What’s nice as well is a lot of web radio is pre-recorded but the boss is really keen that we broadcast live, which means we can have a really sociable event on the broadcast night and invite people round and have a catch-up, feed people and hang out, and we get a more interaction than a pre-recorded show would provide. Obviously if we’ve got guests from Berlin or elsewhere for example we can get them to fire a mix over to us for broadcast. 🙂
Dai: You have a record of running techno nights of quality with free or affordable entry, that implies you have an attitude, a set of ideas, is that right?
Jim: Massively. We get asked about influences all the time, and whilst there are huge influences from the dance music world – I’d say my main influences in our approach are two US punk bands. Firstly, Fugazi – who always had accessible ticket prices, even when they could have charged a fortune, and secondly The Minutemen – who had a phrase/ethos I love: ‘We Jam Econo’, meaning they’d lug their own speakers, sell their own merch, keep stuff in house to cut costs but yet be super professional. Applied to us, the more we do ourselves the more we can direct ticket income to booking people to play and printing posters.
Any extra we make we’ll buy some more speakers or some lighting to improve the raving experience. We only ever break even or make a tiny bit – because some of our favourite people don’t have lots of cash, and we’d rather run an accessible party than make this a career.
Dai: You also believe that people should have a good time, and respect other people at the same time – could you explain?
Jim: Yep, for sure – and I think this might be a long answer!
So from the start, we had a blank slate with the question “what would our perfect night look like”, based on raving for the last couple of decades all around the world.
And it was a small, intimate warehousey space with no attitude, an inclusive approach and a few other bits like a no photos on the dancefloor policy. We’re really clear that we won’t tolerate any discrimination: the idea of a safe space annoys some people, but it only tends to annoy people who’ve never needed one.
Anyone should and can come to a Nexus night and party hard – independent of what your age, gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, disability or anything might be. The fact we’re really overt about that keeps people away who might have an issue with it and gives us a brilliant, mixed crowd of lovely people.
We certainly could run a bigger night if we watered down what we’re about and there’s been the occasional moan about our stance, about the fact that apparently music and dancefloors shouldn’t be political, but interesting music has always been political, and people have always taken a stand, and we’re more than happy to nail our colours to that mast.
There’s too many people in dance music – dancers and nights – that refuse to acknowledge the debt that electronic music owes to black, female, LGBTQ+ and other minority artists, DJs and spaces. And you can hear it – there’s loads of soulless techno and dance music about now that removed every trace of the gay, the black, the feminine and the weird and it’s the worse for it. There’s space for all of that and more in the music we like, and on our dancefloor, and behind the decks too. We’re really careful to book people that fit with our ethos, and we aim to make our line–ups as diverse as possible.
I think building a good crowd that welcomes people is really important and a central thing of what we’re doing. We chose the name Nexus really carefully – as we wanted it to be somewhere and something where people could meet and do other interesting things outside the night itself – as a creative hub.
And to our surprise it has panned out like that. We’ve seen people come to our nights that don’t know anyone become really good friends with us and other dancers, people have met there and gone away and collaborated on music, we met you! And you’ve very kindly done pretty much every illustration we’ve used on any of our flyers and promo stuff. So it was an idea that it could be a collective of people who were tightly or loosely affiliated with us that’d take some ownership of the direction.
Dai: You’ve found a base, a home that provides the atmosphere you want and need at the Saddle? Can you say how it fits things and how it may develop?
Jim: The Saddle’s great. We had some good nights at other venues, and moved around a bit for various reasons until we found the Saddle. We always liked it for a beer but knew they didn’t have a function room, but we dropped in for a chat with Leigh, the landlord, about six months ago and he mentioned they were getting an events space up and running. We did our first gig in there in November and it went really well, then we sold out our Feb date and we’re running there every two months from now.
I think what we like is that our music fits the rock/live performance feel of the Saddle – it just felt like home from the first night and we’re really happy to throw parties there. The space is brilliant, the staff are great, and it gets a really nice crowd in.
Dai: Any other plans for the future for yourselves…. and of course, techno in Chester and the wider region?
Jim: Well, we’ve done a couple of Nexus parties in Manchester (one of our own and a fundraiser for Partisan Collective), and we’re starting to pick up DJ bookings here and there (a festival gig or two over summer, recent gig in Stockholm, some upcoming in Paris, Manchester and North Wales, and some other cool stuff in the pipeline). We’ll only play nights that fit with our ethos and look fun and have a good inclusive approach. We’ve turned down a few for various reasons too, probably more than we say yes to. Everyone’s got jobs so we fit it around the day stuff.
So really – we want to keep throwing good parties in Chester and keep showcasing awesome talent from nearby and further afield. Then maybe throw some parties elsewhere and maybe travel to fun places and meet new people and make them dance.
Dai: How do we find out what’s happening if we want to come along?
Jim: We’re at www.nexustechno.co.uk. If folks go there then all our Facebook and Instagram stuff is on there, as well as recordings of our radio shows, guest mixes we’ve done for other people’s shows and some recording of live sets we’ve done too. Fire us a message and say hi!
Dai: Finally, is there anything you’d like to add?
Jim: Empowerment and community building is totally key in these times we’re in now.
When we moved to Chester there wasn’t a techno night. There were two options then. 1) Do nothing. 2) Put one on.
You can apply that to anything you’re into: art, coding, cooking, whatever. Effect positive change in your space and focus on things that bring joy to you and the people around you. People often spend too much time focussing on things that annoy them. Don’t bother with that: do more of the things you love.
Dai: What thought will you leave us with?
Jim: It’s only dancing. But dancing is fun.