Image BBC/Amy Heycock

Interview with Sean Johnston, DJ and label owner

                                                                                      Image BBC/AmyHeycock


During lockdown, Chris - like many of us - purloined the best stations, mixes and Soundcloud accounts online to get his regular musical fix. Unsurprisingly, Sean Johnston's Emergency Broadcast was essential listening over those months of confinement.

So, there was genuine surprise and excitement when Sean contacted the shop to arrange his first haircut after lockdown. Needless to say, his hair was long. Whilst cutting back his shoulder-length locks to his more familiar style, we were privileged to spend time with such a humble and talented gentleman, who told us, amongst other things, of his passion for mountain climbing in the Lake District.

Sean Johnston's Convenanza Festival takes place on 23 and 24 Sept. Set in the stunning surroundings of the ancient walled city of Carcassone in the south of France, this is a truly unique and special festival. Tickets are now officially sold out, but their Facebook page has information about exchanges from guests who can no longer attend.

We have two tickets up for grabs to A Love From Outer Space on Sat 15 October, at Phonox in Brixton. For a chance of winning, simply follow, like and share our Instagram post here 

Interview with Sean Johnston, DJ and label owner
Hardway Brothers / A Love From Outer Space

How did it all start?

From an early age, I was an ardent music collector. I grew up on a farm in a tiny village in Yorkshire. The real entry point for me was listening to John Peel on the radio. While my mates went off to watch Hull City, I'd go to the record shop in town, Sydney Scarborough.

What sort of music were you listening to then?

It was the early 80s, so a lot of electronic music like Human League and Depeche Mode. And through John Peel, I got onto things like Tackhead, Fat Comet and early Def Jam records.

What about dance music?

Around '85, a friend of mine, Kirsty, went to Leeds to study nursing. When she came back, she asked if I knew about this thing called house music. That was the first time I'd even heard about it. After that, I started taking the train to places like Manchester to buy these new records - stuff on record labels like Trax and DJ International.

When did you start DJing?

The DJing started in a roundabout way, to be honest. I was the social secretary of Hull University union, so I was putting on gigs there. In fact, I secured the first ever DJ International tour with the likes of Steve' Silk' Hurley and Darryl Pandy. Because I had an extensive record collection, I got roped into warming up at these events. The first club night I did was at the Wellington Club in Hull. Roland Gift's sister, Ragna, ran a night there called Sugar Shack. Basically, I pestered her to let me play my house records in the room upstairs.

So how did it develop from there?

Through my role at the uni, I was in contact with booking agents. One of them was a guy called Ben Winchester, who went on to be Oasis's agent. By now, I knew that I wanted to be involved in the industry, so Ben suggested I move to London and get a job as a booking agent. By incredible coincidence, I was on the escalator at Tottenham Court Road tube and bumped into an agent I knew called Rob Challis, who worked at Allied. So, I asked him about a job. He said he'd just quit, so I might be able to have his job. Which I did. There, I started looking after a bunch of people, including Gary Clail, the Shamen and Inspiral Carpets.

And still DJing?

Yeah, I started doing warm-up sets at a club called Promised Land, run by Steve Proctor. This was 1988. Ground zero for acid house.

Obviously, you are well known for working closely with Andrew Weatherall. When did your paths first cross?

At a house party in Clapham in 1989. He was DJing there. What he was playing was completely different to anyone else at the time was playing. I was drawn to him immediately because his musical aesthetic chimed with my own. Later on, he released some of my early stuff on his label, Sabres of Paradise.

How did A Love From Outer Space come about?

I was living in Shoreditch at the time, and his girlfriend was my flatmate. He came round and mentioned he needed a lift to Brighton for a gig. On the journey, he asked what I had to listen to. All I had were some mix CDs I'd created for my own amusement while driving. He really liked what I had made. And that's how it started, really; he suggested we do some work together. The night started in a very small space under a pub in Stoke Newington. It definitely wasn't something big.

And how did it develop from there?

We started it in 2010. What we wanted to do was encompass a wide range of music with a much slower tempo. At that time, Andrew was been booked to play all these megaclubs around Europe, and being forced to play what he called umpty-bumpty techno. So, he relished the chance to play a bunch of different stuff. The only rule we set was that everything had to be under 122 BPM.

What have you been up to more recently?

In lockdown, I decided to take the opportunity to get my head down and make a lot of music. Both with my own project Hardway Brothers and lots of collaborations. I also created this project called Summerisle Six. That really took on a life of its own. Initially inspired by 'Willow's Song' from the movie The Wicker Man, I started thinking about the more folky music in my record collection. I listened to The Waterboys a lot; particularly This Is the Sea and A Pagan Place. Then I thought about how to make an updated version of that. In the end, some great people got involved - Andy Bell from Ride and Oasis fame, and Kev Sharkey, to name a few. When it was ready, I couldn't really see what category it sat in, so I thought I'd better start my own label, which is how Outre-Mer started. I probably made around 60 or 70 tracks in lockdown. Far too many to mention here, but one project is Unknown Genre, which is me with Andy Meecham from the Emperor Machine.

I also started the A Love From Outer Space Emergency Broadcast during lockdown, which was a monthly stream. I picked up loads of listeners from all around the world, so I'm trying to keep that up as well when I can.

Tell us about Convenanza Festival. It's soon, isn't it?

Yeah, that actually came about in a funny way. I'm pals with a great Parisian DJ called Vidal Benjamin. His collection is insane. I never know any track he plays. He scours the flea markets, finding brilliant, obscure records. He said I should meet this guy, Bernie Fabre, who was the booker at a venue called Bar A Vins down in Carcassonne. It's a great little venue in a lovely location, and they put you up in a nice hotel, so a really nice gig. Anyway, it transpired that Andrew also knew him. I have no idea how. Bernie suggested we do a Love From Outer Space night down there. Then, he comes back to tell us he'd secured a licence to do a little festival within the walls of the castle. So, that's how it started. We're on about the seventh edition now - this year's festival includes Glok (Andy Bell), Utopia Strong, which is the collective world snooker champion Steve Davis is in, and David Holmes. Plus lots of other great stuff.

Finally, why do you get your haircut at Huckle The Barber?

The barbers are great. Everyone who works there is really cool, committed and skilful. They made the space really nice, with great music on the sound system. And beer if you want it. What more could you ask for?

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