As the UK’s club scene finally looks to emerge from its pandemic enforced slumber, many artists have been reflecting on their relationship with the industry. Mark Knight has been a titan of the UK house music scene for over 20 years, and in that time has held down residencies at some of its most renowned clubs, seen Toolroom grow into one of its leading labels and released some incredible music.
We were given the chance to speak with Mark about his new album, post-pandemic performance plans and what he’s been up to during this enforced break. It was back in March 2020 that Mark first spoke of his desire to create an album that would serve as a love letter to the music he grew up listening to. I asked him what his latest record meant to him, and how it came to fruition.
"I thought, well, if you’re gonna talk the talk you gotta be able to walk the walk. I had the idea a little while ago, and always had a pretty firm idea of what I wanted to achieve. I really wanted to push the boundaries. I wanted to take myself outside of my comfort zone and stop re-inventing the wheel, which I felt like I had been doing for a while. This has been the first time in about twenty years that I’ve had the chance to do that. I absolutely loved the lockdown, it was brilliant."
It’s not just his productions that have benefitted from a clubbing hiatus. We also discussed the wider unseen benefits, and how this could affect the industry in the future.
"There are huge issues with mental health in our industry, it’s absolutely relentless. Can you imagine if you were in a band, and playing four nights a week with no breaks whatsoever? There’s a really prevalent idea that if you aren’t being booked three nights a week you aren’t popular, but hopefully this is a chance to re-evaluate what popular means.
"Even the logistics are crazy. You spend your time flying from one country to another and there’s barely any time to be creative. I really hope people have the time and the energy to make better music. The lockdown has given me the headspace and clarity to do the things that I loved prior to this madness starting. There have been loads of benefits.
"I think social media has changed the industry a lot. You’re not allowed to tour as a DJ and come off the road. You get all the great music when people have time, the quality of music has dropped and dropped. I’m going back to just playing one weekend a week, it means I can do everything in moderation. If you do things too much it just becomes laborious. People are having to make tunes on the train on the way to a gig.
"Classic tracks like 'Promised Lands' or those by Robin S and the like weren’t made that way. They were made by musicians and songwriters, in the old school process of making music. We’ve lost sight of that, and that’s what I wanted to achieve with this album. Where you get a bunch of great musicians in a room, you give them some direction and you make magic."
I asked how this renewed perspective had affected the production process behind Untold Business. The album draws on the classic funk, house, soul and disco records from the 1970s and 80s that Mark first fell in love with. A variety of collaborations, spanning across the album’s 13 tracks, have helped to bring Mark’s vision to life.
"The process for this album was very different to what I’d usually do. As a producer you come up with the concept, and then need to be able to spot the right people and talent to get you to that place. That’s the art of being a producer, knowing which musicians can bring that to life. It’s another part of the industry that’s changed, nowadays you’re the producer, the sound engineer, the mixer and the promoter. They all used to be separate jobs whereby people would bring their own talents. If you’re a producer and you have a vision for the right people to make that record, then that’s true production.
"This wasn’t one of those occasions where I made 40 tracks and had to whittle it down. I knew the 13 tracks I wanted to make and had a specific vision to make each of them happen. There’s not a single track that means more or less than any other. I was in a room with a bunch of people who were mega talented, it was this collective, creative process.
"I wanted the album to be a window into the influences of my own musical history, from the late seventies through to know. I wanted to re-imagine those influences through the prism of house music. I knew the right people to do that job. As an individual you can be good, but as a collective you can be incredible. I managed to pool some real talent and put it in the right places.
"There was also an element of being realistic, as some of the collaborations were made difficult by Covid. I wanted to avoid sending off backing tracks and just receiving a vocal back. I wanted to get in the room with people. There were perhaps some international features we could have done, but we ended up staying more local.
"I’ve been a fan of Beverley Knight for ages, and saw some work she’d done with the House Gospel Choir which was amazing. I knew she’d be perfect, she’s so incredibly talented. We sketched out a backing track with her in mind initially and she loved it. She was really chilled too, more so than some of the artists I’ve worked with who were perhaps at a lower level. She’s established so she didn’t really have anything to prove."
The project has leant heavily into the music that influenced Mark during his formative years.
"Growing up in the 80s and 90s was the most influential period of my life. You had great musicians coming out of the 70s and the sort of new sounds popularised by house music. And the two worlds collided. It was utter magic. That’s where I got the inspiration for tracks like '10,000' and 'Bit By Bit' which are both on the album. 'You Saw Me' is an ode to UK garage, but not the two-steppy kind. It’s an ode to the classic garage scene. There are tracks influenced by the sounds of the early 2000s.
"The album is out on Toolroom, but they’re not club records. They aren’t made for that. It’s an album in the true sense, something you put on in your own time and enjoy right the way through. It’s not meant to be the main event, or club bangers."
Although the album isn’t one for the dancefloor, Mark will be making his return to the DJ booth soon enough. We discussed his plans for when the UK unlocks, and what we can expect from the wider Toolroom Family.
"There’s so much uncertainty. It was easier when we were all working towards a date, but now we’re not sure what’s going to happen. But at the moment I enjoy life and enjoy my weekends. I’ve made a lot of time for football coaching and spending time with my son. It’s probably a bigger part of my life than the music now. I used to fly in from playing a gig on a Friday night, coach on Saturday morning and then head back to the airport for my gig on Saturday night. It’s hard as you get older to maintain that level of commitment. What I’d like to get back to is a nice balance of having enough dedicated family time, and not missing performing too much.
"I can’t wait to get back to Ministry of Sound, I’ve been going to it since the early 90s. It’s had such an influence on me, we used to go each Saturday night. Its one of the most influential club nights the country has ever had. You don’t notice when you live through it, but it’s right up there with Studio 54 and Paradise Garage. It was just something else. Everyone would go every week, it was such an incredible community. My dream was always to play there and then I had a residency there for nearly ten years. Then Toolroom became such a huge part of it too, it has such character as a club.
"I really miss playing in the States. I usually play a show in New York once a month, I miss the Exchange in LA. I miss Bulgaria, Argentina and so many other places. But America is really incredible, they’re mad passionate about it. It’s not new, but it’s definitely re-emerged. They’re crazy about it, and it’s a great place to go and perform. They’re so engaged, and really open minded. They’ll go and see Armin Van Buuren one night and Luciano the next. It’s not underground as such, every major city has a club playing this sort of music. Thursday night in America is as busy as a Saturday night."
Mark also reflected on the effect the pandemic has had on the younger generation of clubbers, and why livestreamed DJ sets can never capture the magic of a bustling dancefloor.
"It’s not been fair on the kids missing the chance to go out and have the time of their lives, it’s not really been fair on them. I hope we move toward community clubbing again, it felt inclusive, like you were part of something. I still can’t get my head round buying a ticket for a nightclub. You’d just go and pay on the door, it felt a bit more organic and less pre-meditated. That was the beauty of the revolution of electronic music. It was the antithesis of that, it was people coming together. It was less contrived.
"We tried to do something similar with Toolroom Family, as we’re a family business. It’s a nice idea to run through the DNA of what you’re doing. You’d build a community and you’d get to know people. There are loads of great singles coming out on Toolroom, as there always are. It’s a huge part of us giving back and building a community of producers. Maxine is incredible, amazing at writing and producing her own music and she has an album of her own coming out soon. She’s brilliant, if I was a betting man I’d be putting my money there.
"We haven’t strategised with events too much yet, it’s been a bit too hard to so far. I found the virtual gigs a bit weird. It’s the interactions with a crowd that makes it all worthwhile. Otherwise you’re just sticking records on, you’re just a jukebox."
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