“You know, no-one gets gigs because of their postcode!”
Spencer Parker may live in Berlin, but he’s hardly your 21st century DJ cliche. In fact he’s about as far removed as you could get from it. A spinner first and foremost, whose love for the four-four has taken him into an inevitable and fruitful production career, his method is refreshingly uncluttered, and his outlook on life similarly so. In an industry where hype is its lifeblood, he’s managed to exist somewhere at the fringes of the machine, indulging in playing, making and dancing to music, whilst steering clear of many of its traps. He may call the German capital his home, but his existence in the city was quite unplanned (more of that later), and for an artist that’s released records since the middle of the last decade, it’s a surprise to many that his debut long-player – A Gun For Hire, out last month on Saved – has taken this long to surface. But, as with much of his life, the answer is straightforward.
“I didn’t think the world was crying out for a Spencer Parker album”, he chuckles, “another generic artist album. I just didn’t give a fuck really!” For those taking print on face value, Parker often has his tongue distinctly in cheek, but it also conceals behind the brio a resolutely level head. With a track record of happily making twelves on a select list of labels – Rekids, Buzzin’ Fly, Ovum, Liebe Detail – and choosing a path that placed quality above quantity, he never saw the album as a priority when he was already content with the status quo.
“I never really wanted to do an album that much, but then a couple of people – DJs and labels – said “well I’d buy it if I had the choice”. So after that I just decided to knuckle down and do it. In total it took me about a year, year and a half, something like that.” And in a scene of sometimes wild and ambitious efforts, exploring the strangest niches, the idea for A Gun For Hire was strikingly simple: play to your strengths. “I had a pretty good concept from the beginning. I wanted to avoid every cliche you get with a house or techno album.’I’m putting a band together, I’m working with 6 different vocalists, I’ve always loved a Tribe Called Quest, I’ve always loved hip-hop, or Soul, so I’m going to do a track with a soul singer.’ I was doing this as an album that I wanted to buy. I’m a DJ first and foremost so I thought, let’s structure it like a DJ set, but to make it flow as an album.”
What you get is a selection of finely-judged cuts that bring out the best of Parker’s own character and influences, structured around a trip that condenses a few hours of his sets into eleven tracks. And while it’s never possible to ever fully evoke the ‘live’ feel of a loose narrative where each track is a product of its forerunner, it’s as close as you’ll get in eighty minutes. The method? “The first track may be 118, the following two 119, then something a bit more deep.” explains Parker. “Then Oscar’s Here is a bit more housey, Bring It is more peak time, and then close to the end something quite technoey, quite deep. Then the last record would be the ‘one more tune’ track, which I made with Dan Beaumont which has more of a disco edge. You could listen to it as a whole and it’d gain momentum, and it’d creep up on you.”
If that makes it sound like a piece of cake, then anyone that’s made an album will know the truth is never as simple as that. For someone as sure in their own process, production is still graft, however much of an easy alternative it may feel to the 9 to 5. “I’m constantly mired in creative hell!” he laughs, only half-serious. “But I manage to get out of that. If I’m making a track I know what I’m going to do. Or working on a remix, I can listen to the track once or twice, and it’s in my head.” So, for someone so in love with the four-four, what would we expect if he was playing tonight? “I don’t like anything at the moment, I’m just playing 90s house!” he quips, ever ready to disarm before backing up with opinion. “I’ve just bought the new Maurice Donovan – Call My Name, which is oviously David Kennedy or Pearson Sound under another name. Or Levon Vincent – Man or Mistress, I’ve been playing that nearly every set, that’s a phenomenal record. I always play a few records by Soundstream, he’s a pretty original producer, and one of the few people that can really turn out a really good sample-based track. The new Italo Johnson record by the Italo Johnson guys, that’s another killer.” For a question that often catches in the throat for DJs, Parker’s current loves roll off the tongue easily.
Music aside, what goes into the make-up of Spencer Parker apart from a determined and focused position at the mixing desk and DJ booth? As someone that’s known for a character that errs on the side of not taking oneself too seriously, being in a business that relies on hype may not quite square up. But just because everyone does it, doesn’t mean everyone has to. You only have to read his wonderful Resident Advisor article on a typical clubbing weekend to realise that. But however much his thoughts are laced with humour, there’s also a serious belief behind it. “Some people say I’m too self-deprecating, but for me, I would never let the record come out unless I was proud of it. For me, I put my money where my mouth is. I taught myself how to make records. So I don’t really feel the need to talk about it or big it up that much. I am incredibly happy with what I make otherwise it’d never see the light of day. People I massively respect buy my records and remixes, and that’s enough reward for me.”
You sense that while the drive is there, it’s to achieve what he wants within his own boundaries, not those possibly placed on any artist by the press, fans, or anyone else. “Of course i’d like to have one massive smash, one all-conquering hit of the summer, but at the same time I don’t want it that badly that I’m going to try and go out and make that record.” Even if no one signed his records, you almost feel that Spencer would be just as content slotting them into his sets, as his own little secret. “You know, you can over-think it or try and chase the trend, but if I make something that’s wicked and that I want to play in my DJ set, then I can’t go too far wrong. You could have these guys that spend all day in the studio and come up with these trendy records, but I don’t care because I have this little secret weapon that no one else has got. Luckily some people have signed them!”
And, unlike many of his contemporaries, there’s no grand plan beyond spinning records and enjoying its benefits, wherever that may take him. Even his arrival in Berlin was far from a pre-determined step. Just as DJs flocked to the German capital to take advantage of the cheap rent, and the army of electronic music scenesters trying to ride the wave of success the city had nurtured, Spencer’s trip was for altogether more practical reasons. Following a break-up, the city was one of many places he was considering relocating to: Barcelona, Madrid: “but I didn’t have any friends in those cities that could put me up for a few months while I looked for somehwere to live. In Berlin I did. I’ve been doing it for such a long time, that I don’t need to move somewhere or hang out with a certain bunch of people to get gigs. It’s such a laughable cliche. It’s the modern day equivalent of ‘I’m moving to Ibiza for the summer to DJ.’”
Yet settling into such a place so easily, it’s now firmly ‘home’. “I’m taking German lessons. I love it as a city; you can take every club, bar, record shop out of Berlin and I’d still want to live there.” Trying to sum up the city to a non-resident isn’t always easy, when the tourists images are hard to shake: The Wall, Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag. “When I first moved here, my friend explained it to me, comparing it to a big university campus, which I think is a pretty good comparison. You know everyone rides their bikes, the tube is open nearly all night. Nothing’s quite as hard work as it is in London.” On the flip side, to an electronic music fan it’s hard to sum up outside that context (“it’s almost impossible to meet someone that doesn’t DJ!”) but Spencer looks back to one of the last great eras of house music: “You can equate Berlin now to the New York of the 90s. I mean if you lived there then, why wouldn’t you go to the Sound Factory to see Junior Vasquez or Twilo or Vinyl or Art to see Tenaglia. I get the same feeling about this time that I imagine was the same back then. There are so many good clubs.”
Inevitably, one club seems to garner more attention than most: Berghain, the looming edifice made from an Ost Berlin power station that houses Panorama Bar on its top level. Arguably THE destination for house and techno fans, and somewhere Parker can call a regular haunt. “I play there around 3 times a year, which I’m very lucky and appreciative to do. They don’t have certain names they feel they have to tick off the list. You can see that with their residents. Dinky, Steffi, Margaret Dygas, Tama Sumo, Prosumer…. you would happily go and see them because they’re phenomenally gifted. They know that system, they know what to play and when to play it, and they guys that run the club give them freedom and trust.”
And DJing, returning to a theme, is what has always defined Spencer Parker. While his production pedigree is rich – not many are asked to be on Rekids’ roster of residents at Panorama – he’s a man from the old school, a committed vinyl junkie and devourer of music from across the house and techno spectrum. “The beautiful thing is that there’s so many DJs that don’t go record shopping. Which is a shame, but if you’re also a DJ it’s great, because they never hear those records. There’s records like the vinyl-only Stablo series, and I’ve had other DJs coming up to me going “what the fuck is this?” and I go “well, if you go record shopping then you’d have it.”” And yet at the point where it could descend into a weary vinyl v digital debate (“you know, I’m excited about new records. If it’s been out for 5 weeks on Beatport, then great, I want it. If it’s only available in Hardwax, vinyl-only, 1 per customer, then I want it”) he’s quick to point out that it’s driven more by a professional attitude to his craft than anything more ideological: “I’m not really a snob on that, but it does astound me when it’s your job. It’d be like being a fashion editor for a magazine and only going to two shops. ‘Why don’t you go to those other shops?’ ‘No, I don’t like to, it’s a bit difficult.’ ‘But they have great clothes.’ ‘Naaah, no.’ But each to their own eh?”
And while cynics may queue up to profess that not everything can be reduced to an aside, or a sharp quote, with Parker it’s often only there to disguise an adroit opinion. For an artist well-known for ubiquity on social networks, there’s no subliminal advertisement or unsubtle promo techniques, and no time to be a keyboard warrior either. It’s just a reflection of how he’d be if you bumped into him at a cafe. “I kind of use Facebook a bit more as a blog to be honest. And I don’t particularly know how many followers I’ve got, I’m not trying to up my numbers or anything like that. I try to use it in the most part to enthuse about things. I don’t really bitch about people, or gossip. It’s an open forum, and I’m sure eveyone’s said something they regret on there.. but I think they can get hung up on the attention they get on there, but it’s not real life, it’s not a big deal.” Of course, any internet debate has the ability to spiral into mudslinging – Godwin’s law is never more than a post away from invocation – you’d be more likely to see him write a trance track than get involved. “Just build a bridge and get over it! I think people do take it all a little bit too seriously sometimes! I don’t really trawl the internet asking people to follow me! I assume there may be something that they actually have some small interest in. And if not…. well, it’s not real life!”
It’s a wry humour mixed with an endearing honesty that permeates through any talk with Parker. Whether it’s on the subject of quality over quantity in music: “I don’t often even do two-track EPs if i can help it. I think one record is enough. I’d rather pore over it, spend time on it, and put just one out that has my full attention”, or originality in DJing: “I’ve got more respect for a DJ that plays a song that does something different half way through a set, like Jeanette Thomas – Body and you’re like “fuck where did THAT come from?” From the loyal fanbase he possesses to a CV of clubs and labels that would turn most artists green with envy, it’s clear that plenty of people are interested in what Spencer Parker is up to, however much his attitude centres around doing what he loves and feeling privileged to do so. And the fact that it’s a career that’s mapped out without any bowing to the relentless PR machine that seems to envelope electronic music in the new millennium, makes it all the more easy to appreciate. Spencer Parker may see himself as just A Gun For Hire, but wouldn’t we all rather have a straight shooter than another gunslinging trickster? Every day of the week.
A Gun For Hire is out now on Saved Records. Parker_Pooley’s Feel The Same is out now on Tsuba.