This is a pretty long interview so I won’t bore you with a long preamble (sighs of relief are heard over vast distances). I remember interviewing Charles while he was in Nottingham — he had lived in San Francisco for a few years, but was now back in the UK. It was conducted at the XL8R office on Divisadero very early in the morning on a Wednesday or Thursday. After it was over, and was committed to my trusty cassette dictaphone, I ran off to work as I did between ’95 and ’97.
I went back into the office a couple of mornings later to transcribe it into a word doc and once again it was very early — The Gap Band would have been proud. I was getting along great, writing the piece and was almost finished when I knocked the plug of the computer out of the power strip. Being the airhead that I am I hadn’t saved it, so I had to start off from scratch. I’ve always felt that the original article was better than this one below, but what can you do? “Save your word documents as you go, Einstein,” says the same little voice in my head that uttered “f#$k, b@#(%$!, c#$% ahhhhhh” when I knocked the plug out on that morning all those years ago.
Ten Year Vintage
UK house producer, Charles Webster has paid all his dues. Now it’s his turn. Defining quality house music is his style. Chris Orr found out how he does it.
1997 was a busy year for Charles Webster, in fact you could say that every year since 1987 was a busy year for him. You see, Webster’s one of those people whose tunes have made you think ‘Fucking Excellent’ while you’ve been lost in the subterranean darkness of some club or warehouse, but who never has his mug sprawled over every dance music mag in the world. Quite often Charles Webster hasn’t had his name on some of the records that he was instrumental in producing or engineering, but that’s not his loss, only the loss of the tossers who refuse to recognize, or are threatened by, talent.
1997 was a phenomenal year for British house. The genre really reached maturity and pulled away from the increasingly stagnant and cliched house formula that has entertained brain-dead club kids for years at the expense of those who really love the music. Charles Webster is pretty much at the forefront of this new wave of refreshingly intelligent and exceptionally groovy house, music that is soulful and abstract. It has been called deep house, tech house or houseno (thank Terry Francis for that tongue in cheek reference), but let’s just call it house. Charles Webster’s music sounds like house. Furthermore Charles Webster himself, sounds like a true house producer, reluctant to talk about his own achievements, but deeply involved it the music.
He talked to me recently on the phone from Nottingham, England and he told me of tunes past, present and those yet to come, “At the moment, the main thing for me is doing the Presence album for Pagan. There’ll be another single promoed some time after Christmas and then the album will be out in the Spring. Pagan are trying to set up a tour of America, ending at the Winter Music Conference in Miami. That should be fun. It will feature me, House of 909 and Ralph Lawson. I’m also doing Symetrics stuff too, still running the Remote label and the Love From San Francisco label is being relaunched. A double pack of remixes has been cut and it should be available pretty soon. Guidance Recordings are manufacturing and distributing it. I’ve been doing various one-off things, working with Satoshie Tomie in New York, I did a track for Stephan Mandrax’s label. There are other projects that I can’t even think of.”
Charles Webster has always spread himself thin, but the basslines, beats and strings have always been thick. How can this be? Charles answers in a suitably restrained fashion, “It seems like a lot, but it isn’t really. The Presence single got amazing press in England, it’s a good song and songs are pretty important. Each of the projects carries a different style, the Symetrics stuff is a one vocalist affair, it’s the same vocalist who has done all the tracks and it’s more on the downtempo tip. The Presence stuff is pure house and will feature different vocalists. The guy who sang on “Better Day” will obviously do more tracks. His name is Steve Edwards, he’s from Sheffield and used to sing with a band on Acid Jazz called Cloud Nine. I have other vocalists lined up, but I can’t really discuss who. I hate to sound pretentious, but it’s all down to contractual shit.”
In ten years of production Charles Webster is only now becoming the prolific British deep house producer that he has always been. Prolific indeed, but not so in a way that means that his face is plastered on the pages of every dance music mag on the globe. That honor is only bestowed on those who have put out a fraction of the music this man has. You never read Webster’s name in 1987 when NME, The Face and every other British mag was gushing uncontrollably about acid house. Heady times, but where are those people now? In 1987 Webster began his numerous house projects with T-Cut-F, who had a couple of singles on the British label, Kool Kat. Webster was also an engineer for Kool Kat (which became Network) and worked on early releases by Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson.
In the early ‘9os he recorded tracks for the Brainiak label under the name Sine, a moniker he also used several times for the Time imprint in Nottingham. His move to San Francisco, a little later in the ’90s heralded the birth of the Love From San Francisco label and classic releases from Furry Phreaks, Presence and lush, vocal tunes with local songstress Terra Deva. This brings us up to date with his move back to Britain, the new Remote label, work for Pagan and his other vocal project, Symetrics. With so many musical directions wheeling around him, is it still all about the dance floor?, “With the vocal stuff it’s all about the song, trying to transcend the limitations of the dance format. Even with Sine a few years ago that was more subtle and well produced. It’s both. Pagan want good songs for the radio but also club tracks that can work a dancefloor. The Furry Phreaks’ track “Soothe” did really well with licensing, basically because it’s such a nice song.”
Just a year or two ago Charles’ music was falling under the looming shadow of the Nu Brit house tag, a journalist-generated sub-genre that championed the wave of quality house that was, and still is, flooding out of the UK. At the time it seemed like the music press was heralding British house as much more interesting than the US gear. I asked Charles how he felt about this near-miss situation with transient trendiness and about his US house counterparts, “I hate it, not the music, the tag. I really try to stay away from things like that because once that scene’s gone, you go with it. It’s hateful to be connected to scenes, but you do whether you decide to or not. I don’t really connect with that because I write songs. As far as American house goes, when I was in New York, a lot of the producers were looking towards England and Europe for ideas. I think the British and European stuff is much more progressive, if that’s the right word. A lot of the harder, tribal stuff that’s coming out of New York is so dull, it’s horrible. The producers who make this stuff obviously grew up with the more soulful sound, but they do this heavy stuff for money because they think that’s what people want. I don’t think I could make music that I didn’t believe in. However, I really love, and have always loved what Ron Trent does, he’s taken a real step forward recently with his Clairaudience stuff, it’s amazing isn’t it? Wamdue Kids, they’re very progressive, I think they’re brilliant. Melodic and slammin’ too.”
House music has become somewhat marginalized in the dance music market, pushed aside by a clueless mainstream music press, hellbent on discovering what’s hip with the kids and ramming it down the rest of our throats. Drum ‘n’ bass is wicked music, but suffering from overkill from journalists who don’t understand it, who don’t see it as part of a continuum. They just discovered dance music last Tuesday, but will push it for every nickel they can extract from it. How does this affect Charles Webster and the music he believes in?, “The future for house lies in writing quality songs, getting it on the radio, getting people to play it at home and not relying solely on the club to represent it. You can only really do that with songs and good, varied albums that aren’t just mixed CDs. Most house albums are great to listen before you go out, but they get really boring after a while. Most of the house you get in England, that’s on Pete Tong, is crap. But there are still clubs playing deep music and there will always be people who are into it. I honestly think that people are actually getting more and more into deep, atmospheric house because they’re tired of all the other stuff, a lot of which is really faceless and horrible.”
Another question that I couldn’t resist asking Charles was whether he saw himself as the unsung hero of UK house because he is just now getting the credit he obviously deserves, “I don’t see myself in that way, though people write that about me. I never actually say those things about myself. I’m quite glad in some ways that it’s taken me this long to get where I am now, flash in the pan people are always a bit suspect. You’ve got to build up a career slowly. I’m not ungrateful about how long it’s taken me. Nobody deserves anything, I don’t feel that I’ve been hard done by.”
So here we are in ’98, Charles Webster is involved in so many labels, styles and projects. You can tell a Presence or a Furry Phreaks record or a Charles Webster remix a mile off, because they have quality and soul all over them. This is probably going to be his busiest year and his most successful. He DJs occasionally, basically when he wants to and when he can play what he wants; deep, deep house. He might move back to the Bay Area, but not San Francisco because the fog drives him mad. By the time you read this article his tunes will have rotated on your decks or deck, several times. Why ? Because it’s bloody good music, that’s why. With a ten year vintage stamped on it.