Charles Webster is one of the few real mould-breakers in an increasingly stale and predictable dance music world. He can make music at any tempo, swerving through genres effortlessly. He’s taken on various guises, run a multitude of labels – always challenging and thrilling his audience in equal measure. His music has taken him around the world and into the hearts and record boxes of a generation of house music lovers.
And while his style might be constantly shifting, one thing you can always be guaranteed from a Charles Webster record, remix or DJ set is a journey into the depths of sound – music tinted with his inimitable warmth, soul and richness. Heather Mennell caught up with him during his recent South African tour to chat about his current projects, multiple monikers and the days before house was house.
You have a special connection to South Africa – when did this relationship begin to blossom?
Since the first time I came here, really – which was ten years ago. So I suppose it blossomed before that otherwise they wouldn’t have invited me in the first place. People just seemed to like my music here and I’ve been coming ever since.
Yeah, it’s nice warm music – it’s not really dance music. More listening music – I think that’s really important.
Presence, Furry Phreaks, The Boy, City Of Angels, Colourful Karma, DJ Profile, Good Together, Jorge Felucca, Megatonk, Mendocino, Natural, Positive, Sine, Starpeace,… Charles Webster… so many different guises.
We were counting them last night actually. I think there’s 27! (laughs) I had no idea it was that many! – They just keep going. I had to fill in a visa form for America the other day – my new work permit, and they asked about my aliases for some reason – I suppose they want to know that you’re a valid artist; that you exist in the marketplace. So I went through them all and it was quite shocking.
Now the constant moniker shifting – is this because you straddle so many genres or because you feel that you’re constantly evolving?
Well, both. It’s nice to hear that you understand that, because a lot of people don’t really see that. It’s nice to hide behind a pseudonym, you can be someone else. You can put your headspace into a different… “I can be this person now”. In house music people aren’t very flexible sometimes – if you wanted to do a downtempo track, they wouldn’t allow you to – they say “well you do house music, don’t you?” Well no, I just do music! So that’s the easy way of doing it: just make up a new name! It doesn’t really matter – I’m not obsessed with having my name on everything – it’s the music that matters. I didn’t do a record under my own name for more than ten years. Because I don’t think it’s important – if people put it on and say ‘I like it or I don’t like it.’ If it had my name on it, would you like it any more or would you like it any less? I don’t know…
So you’re always challenging your audience…
Yes, I do challenge the audience. And sometimes people really don’t allow you to do it. They’ll say “I can’t believe you did this”. As an artist I’m allowed to change and progress, and the thing is, if I didn’t – if I just kept making one record that sounded exactly the same I wouldn’t go anywhere. I’d have given up 15 years ago. If you don’t diversify you paint yourself into a corner. Times change, styles change. Embrace change – that’s what life’s all about… growing and learning – not just being stuck.
Completely. Sometimes I think, ‘does this sound too off the wall?’ But I speak to my wife, because she works in the office and hears everything and she just says – “No, it just sounds like you”. So I think that everything I do does sound like me. So even if I made a drum ‘n bass track – I’m not going to (laughs), but it would sound like me because I made it. It’s inseparable, isn’t it? But I can’t stand drum ‘n bass so that’s not going to happen! (laughs) I did a few remixes just before I came here and I was really excited. A couple of them sounded quite radical. A few days later I listened again and I just thought, they don’t sound radical – it just sounds like me. So I think that’s the binding thing – it’s made by one person.
So let’s move along chronologically … I’ve read that you did some early work in Nottingham with hip hop act The Rock City Crew and then some in-studio work with Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson… In those early days did you find it as easy to move between genres?
Well back then it was all kind of the same really. Techno and house and hip hop and house weren’t fully formed… back then it was all called electro – and electro split into those three different forms. So nothing was conscious, it just happened. It all developed out of nothing.
So you were taking this sound and moulding it to fit the needs of the artists you were working with…
Yeah, the Rock City Crew were a hip hop crew and they obviously needed some music to dance to. So someone did the rapping and I did the music – the backing tapes. I used drum machines and pretty much the same equipment that I’m still using today.
House music was so new in those days. No one knew that it would become a global phenomenon. How did it all unfold for you?
No, it could’ve been a fad that lasted six months! Actually at the time that’s how the newspapers reported it – it was a fad that the kids were into and it was going to go. But in actual fact, it’s one of the longest lasting genres in music – and one of the most diverse and creative. If you look at movements like Elvis Presley era rock and roll, then into the Beatles era rock or 70’s progressive rock – all those eras were quite short. All those scenes only lasted ten years at the very most. House music has out-lasted everything! Because it’s a human kind of music – it’s interactive and it’s a human kind of tempo to dance to. But yeah, I don’t think anyone understood what was happening at the time.
Very diverse now, obviously I’m still making house music but I have made a new album which is full-on jazz- orchestral, British-style jazz, big band jazz – which is very exciting! I have a couple of vocal projects – one being a leftfield – Massive Attack meets Tori Amos; very singer-songwriter, electronic and organic. Lots of different projects. Even some music for TV. But I have always done diverse things like that – if you look at Born on the Fourth of July, half of that is not house music. I have always done different stuff – it’s just that most people don’t notice.
They got in touch and asked me to do this tour and I said “Let’s make it more than a boring old DJ tour, let’s put something together that’s more long term and more solid, more interesting. So I suggested that we do an album, a compilation album – ten tracks all exclusive, all done specifically for this. So it was quite a lot of work. So there are new versions of older tracks of mine, done specifically for here, some of them are brand new. There’s a single on the album with a local vocalist – so rather than coming here as a foreigner and hitting everyone with my music I wanted to do something more. Thus I’ve found this vocalist and she’s really fantastic – and the radio stations really like it. So yeah, lots of different projects with different singers, the jazz project, my new album and tons of stuff coming out on my label Miso. We don’t normally release so much – only tracks that we’re really happy with, so we’re on a roll at the moment.