It’s not an unfamiliar story: a talented UK producer finds himself immersed in the Berlin music scene to the point where it’s impossible to leave, and their exploits in house, techno, disco etc suddenly take on an all new energy. Blessed with such talents and now based in ‘The Hollywood of Techno’, Jay Shepheard has been a regular name in the dancefloor game for over a decade, working busily as a selector, producer and label head with a tireless devotion to exquisite music.
Returning to London next month for a debut show at Egg for the club’s birthday weekend, Jay took the time to answer some questions as we quizzed him on the return of his label, pirate radio and what it is that makes vinyl such an alluring medium for music lovers. Join us as we go back In Conversation.
Hi Jay! You’re one of the lucky few to be named on the lineup for Egg London’s birthday weekend, playing alongside Green Velvet and Enrico Sangiuliano among others on Saturday 6th May. How excited are you for that one?
Hi there! I'm really looking forward - it’s actually gonna be my Egg debut, which is funny given I've been playing out in London for many years. The line up is killer and I heard a lot of good things about the club - so yeah, bring it.
You’ve been in the game for some time now, with your first releases coming courtesy of Compost Black Label a full decade ago in 2007. How has your sound evolved from the early days?
Well, I actually had a few bootlegs and releases under other aliases from 2003 onwards but I like to think over the Jay Shep project I have a certain style that runs through all of my productions and hasn't really changed that much since the early days. I think it’s good for an artist to have a strong defining sound that sets them apart from others. However, I think I've got quite a bit better at mixing down and tech stuff. I mix all my own releases and sometimes master them too. I don't like my sound to be 'too perfect' or over produced, but I'm also not really down with all the forced 'lo-fi' stuff that's about - so somewhere in between is where I'm at these days.
Is there a noticeable difference in the quality of the dance music scene now to that of 2007?
I think the main difference is the sheer volume of stuff that's coming out. Quality wise there is lots of great music and lots of terrible music so I don't think that's really changed that much - there's just a lot more of it on both sides.
Tell us a little bit about your label Retrofit. Is there a distinctive sound that you try to achieve with it?
Yes, there is. The term Retrofit means to add something new to something old - ie a new engine in a classic car. The plan when I set the label up was to do classic genres (acid house, disco, retro techno etc) but with a modern edge and production feel. At the time that felt fairly unique but the retro tinged thing has become fairly ubiquitous in the years that have followed. Nonetheless, it’s the driving theme of the label and still a concept I'm passionate about. As they say, fashions come and go but classics never go out of style.
Retrofit had a really busy release schedule in the first four years of running, but there hasn’t been a new record since your double EP Seeing Sound in 2014. Are there plans to revive the label and put out some new material anytime soon?
Indeed - I had a son in early 2015 which, as any parent will know, took up a huge amount of time and mental energy over the first 18 months or so. As it’s pretty much a bespoke one-man operation during that period the output was slow. I was juggling fatherhood with touring and my own Jay Shepheard stuff. Lately I've been producing a lot of new music and have quite a few 12"s line up for other labels due for release starting this summer. Looking back after the break I felt that I had been too tied in to mostly releasing on Retrofit and wanted to break out again releasing for a wider range of labels. But yes it’s definitely on the agenda to start running it back at a 3 releases per year or so capacity going forward.
Last month you recorded a great little disco mix for Rinse FM. How important are radio stations like Rinse in promoting dance music and its culture?
I think they've always been important. I used to listen to the D&B and Garage pirate FM stations all the time when I was growing up as a teenager in London in the 90s. It was in fact pretty much the main way to find out about new tunes, although the track titles were rarely disclosed which led to embarrassing yourself trying to sing/describe them to the guys down Pure Groove in Archway! I guess nowadays the podcast has taken over and online radio and blogs have dominated for some time, serving much the same purpose. Maybe they'll be an analogue revolution back to FM broadcast as in the way there has been for vinyl and hardware analogue synths. Let’s see.
Like many UK house and techno artists, you couldn’t resist the temptation of relocating to Berlin. What is it about the city that makes it so good for electronic artists?
I remember once years ago shortly after moving here seeing a fellow DJ’s location on his myspace page as 'The Hollywood Of Techno' and knowing instantly where he meant. It’s kind of like that. So many of the best labels, clubs, artists etc are based here and you constantly feel right in the thick of it. It can be a bit much at times too for that exact reason too. Music aside it’s actually a really nice city to live in, and it’s great for kids...apart from the winters, which can be fairly bleak. It helps if you speak a little German too.
I read that you spent seven years working at Juno Records. How did working in the vinyl business affect your appreciation of the format? Are you a vinyl purist or a fan of digital music as well?
Well, I'm no format snob however it must be said that there is a lot more good music released on vinyl than digital. I was a hobby DJ in London for quite a while before I worked at Juno and then vinyl was the only option, so I sort of grew up with it just being normal. Between about 2002 and 2007 there was a crew of really good friends working at the shop, all really into music and often out in the clubs together at the weekends, it was a great time in my life. These days I usually travel with about 40 or so 12"s, a USB with a large back cat and some new releases/promos and another USB with new music I've been working on myself or new releases of mine yet to come out. So a bit of both really. But all in all, if the decks are working well and the needles are fine then it’s blatantly more fun to mix vinyl.
Staying on the record shop theme, where are your favourite digging spots?
I like Space Hall, The Record Loft etc in Berlin. Phonica in London and there is a great little second hand place downstairs from my flat called Galactic Supermarket. However I must confess I actually get the majority of my vinyl either from decks.de or Discogs.
And finally, if you were able to pick up one record that has thus far managed to evade your grasp, what would you choose?
I've actually never wanted a record that I haven't got probably because I'm not afraid for a good ol' repress or reissue!
Jay plays alongside Green Velvet and Enrico Sangiuliano on Saturday 6th May, as part of Egg London’s suitably huge weekend of birthday celebrations.
Photo courtesy of Jay Shepheard