Interview: Chris Farrell

Chris Farrell has been a major player on the Bristol scene for some time now. He set up the Idle Hands label with a release from Peverelist in 2009, and followed that up with releases from local boys and girls like Kowton, Shanti Celeste, Lily and Bass Clef, as well as from artists based further afield like AnD, Strategy and Kevin McPhee. Three years ago he set up a record store under the same name as his record label, where he sells a small but vibrant selection of, in the website’s words, “the best house, techno, reggae and bass music on vinyl.” We caught up with Chris before his DJ set at this year’s Electric Picnic, taking in the past and future of the label, new developments in the store and his opinion on Dire Straits represses.

Hi Chris! For those who don’t know you, can you sum up your musical path to this point? “Like a lot of people, my family’s quite musical, not necessarily in a playing music sense, but my dad’s a soul DJ, my mum’s a big fan of music and we always had music playing in the house. I was taken to a lot of record fairs and stuff when I was a kid and continued to be big into music as a teenager, getting into raving, dance music etc. Then when I moved to Bristol for uni in my second year I got a job at Imperial records. I’ve just been knee deep in music since then in terms of selling music and putting stuff out and what have you. I went from Imperial to another shop called Replay, to one called Rooted, the famous dubstep one, and when that closed down we opened this place [Idle Hands]. That’s about it then.” By that stage you had already set up the label, is that right? “I set up Idle Hands in 2009 when I was at Rooted Records.” That was the sort of semi-famous story about Tom Ford (Peverelist, red.), who was then your boss, calling you in. “Yeah. Tom called me in: ‘What you doing, you gonna start a label then? All right, then.’”

So how did Idle Hands the label become the shop? “I’d been running a label for about 18 months, and it became apparent that Rooted was going to have to close down, because our overheads were too high, and it kind of ran its course. By the time it closed it was just me and Joe Cowton working there. Pev had left a few months beforehand, and it was really Joe who encouraged me: ‘Man, why not just start your own shop?’ I’d always thought it was a bit of a stupid idea and I’d always said you’d be mad to open your own store, but Joe and a few other people were saying ‘you should do it’. We opened this shop two months afterwards, and a happy coincidence was that people in Bristol were more interested in house and techno than they had been in a long time. I’ve always been known as the guy in the record shop selling that stuff, so when people’s ears were turned to that, that was around the time we opened. I think within a month we’d done a feature for RA, a video about Bristol, so even that, with the camera’s glare on us, kind of solidified what we did and what we wanted to do with this place – nothing much more than wanting to have a record shop that serves good underground music to the small amount of people in Bristol who want it.”

You mentioned Joe — how did you fall in with people like him and Shanti Celeste? “Bristol’s a small place. I first met Shanti when she used to do a poster run for one of the big house nights, and she used to come into the shop and we’d just chat about house music, and then her really good friend Kim Oakley, we set up agency together. I was out one night with a friend (we’d gone to see Floating Points), and he’s a really good mate of mine, but he’s very much [the type to] stand in the corner, dissecting what the DJ’s doing, and I was just a bit bored really. I saw Kim and Shanti dancing at the front and I thought ‘fuck it I know these people’, and I went over and started getting down with them. Those two have been quite a big inspiration for me in terms of just enjoying dance music, what it’s meant to be — dancing and having fun and spending time with your friends.

“This was the year before we opened Idle Hands, and also Kim and Shanti knew Joe Cowton, who by that point was a good friend of mine because we were working together. A lot of my friends, a lot of the people I know I’ve met through record shops. Joe and I met when he first moved to Bristol and was coming into the shop, and I was selling him techno records, like ‘mate you’ve got to hear this,’ building up a rapport with him. It’s very important for us at Idle Hands that it is about a community thing, that we’re welcoming of people who are coming in. Especially at the moment in Bristol, a lot of people are moving here from other parts of the country, more so than I’ve ever noticed. It’s crazy. Loads of people moving here from London — that never really used to be a thing.”

Do you reckon that’s because renting and finding somewhere to live is very difficult nowadays? “A little bit. But Bristol has quite a good rep these days. I think a lot of people will always know people who’ve lived in Bristol because there are two big universities here, and most people who come here have something good to say about it — life moves at its own pace. It’s great. I think society works better when we’re all talking to each other, face to face.”

Getting back to the shop — could you sum up what your ethos is in terms of what you sell and what you stock and so on? “To start with, we always listen to what our customers want; I’ve been doing this for a long time so I’ve a good feel for what people are going to want to buy. Generally though, the main ethos is just good, underground dance music, stuff you’re not going to find elsewhere as well, like rare white labels or little grime 12s that only three shops have. That can sometimes be our bread and butter.” Did you get that Stitch-Up record? “I don’t think I know that?” It’s this anonymous record by The Stitch-Up called ‘The Stitch-Up’, one sided, it’s just got one track, and it’s got a stamp that says The Stitch-Up and a little sewing needle on it. “No, I’ve not seen that! There’s always something you don’t know! One of the big things is just trying to keep on top of everything. House and techno is really re-energised and revitalised, much more so than it was a few years ago, With the reggae stuff and the bass stuff that we do it’s a bit easier, it’s more precision, certain labels are always going do well, but the main thing is we try and represent something about Bristol you know, plus records that I like [laughs] and think other people should like.

Absolutely, that’s key. You’ve just had a new addition to the shop, can you talk about that? “Myself and Marco Bernardi had been chatting for a long time about doing something together, and just last week he’s opened up an equipment shop in the back of Idle Hands called Elevator Sound selling synths, entry-level controllers, wires, all that kind of stuff — the idea being you can buy the stuff to make the records in the back, and if it’s good enough you can get it pressed and we’ll have it in the shop.” Nice. I read a short interview with him and he said that it’s not this off-putting thing where you’re going to be scared to ask what equipment to use. “Marco’s a real personable guy. The last few months have been quite stressful getting everything together, but this first week of being open has been really nice, there’s been a nice through-fare of people. He’s got a few people helping him out as well who are all super keen, one of them’s October, he’s also an old friend of mine.” He did a mix for us last year. “Jules is a top, top boy. It’s been nice; it’s been a bit of a kick up the arse for me you know! Sometimes I’ve been just sat in the shop, being like ‘ugh, whatever’, but to have more people about, again the community thing, just building on that, that’s been nice. There’s a lot of people who make music and don’t buy music, so it’s nice to see them coming in.

“We’re doing this thing once a month from September called Escher Music — it’s a bit like CDR in London I guess — people bring in their CDs to the shop, and we have a few beers and just play them over the system and people can have a chat. We’re trying to encourage people like Pev or Pinch to come down, people who actually put this shit out. Again it’s better when people talk to each other.” That’s really cool, it’s a really good idea. “We’ve only done one so far but it was really nice. Like I said, you don’t necessarily see these people all the time because they’re not buying vinyl, these newer producers. There’s some really interesting music being made, and it was interesting to see how coherent it all was with each other, in six months to a year what will be coming out of Bristol on labels.” The Bristol sound? “[Sighs] Yeah, the Bristol sound…!”

Speaking of Bristol sounds, you’ve said the label is very much about pushing the subtle differences that arise in dance music. How you manage to keep that ethos going? “I sometimes look back on the label and think maybe if I’d pursued one of the sounds we’d done we’d be a bigger label, but then I think no, that’s not right. The label’s a reflection, obviously of where my head is at, but also a reflection of things we think we can get behind. I’ve been sent tracks that I’ve thought were fantastic before and haven’t signed them because they wouldn’t quite be right — I try and keep it moving a little bit and not be too fixed on one thing. I know what I want with Idle Hands, sometimes artists try and second-guess what I want, and just make something for me, and generally it’s always wrong [laughs]. So it’s quite often the tunes I get sent, there’ll be the last tune in the bottom of the folder, where they’re not really sure about it, I’ll be like, ‘oh, that one’. Maybe when people aren’t thinking too consciously it just comes out. I think now we’re like 25, 26 releases deep, hopefully people can see the coherence on the label — ‘oh you’ve put out a lot of dark techno’, uh we don’t really. Or ‘oh you just put out shiny house’, we don’t! Or ‘oh you’re a dubstep label’, well, we’re not really any of those things! We’re a dance music label. Dance music for me has always been the whole spectrum. We’re not going to put out a jungle record or a gabba record any time soon, but we’re very comfortable doing what I consider a bit of a wide range of stuff.” So the tracks might be different genre wise, but there’s an overarching theme or approach. “I’d like to think so. A lot of sustained minor chords.”

You were saying about things people send you — do you get a lot of demos? Or does it come out of conversation, chatting with friends or whoever, and suggesting ‘oh you should send me something, see what we can do’ — how does it work? “I get sent a lot of demos but these days I think producers buy emails off people. So I get a lot of Italian trance records and stuff like that. I’ve had EDM producers from America sending me things and being like ‘I love your label’ and I listen to it — and most of the time I just let it go obviously, but one time I asked ‘mate have you even listened to the label?’ and this guy said: ‘If I was you I’d put out more banging shit!’ I said ‘I’ll decide what I put out, thank you very much’. Generally, there’s quite a bit of a culture here, we all listen to each other’s music that everyone’s making and sometimes it’s like, ‘um, can I have that one?’ Apart from that, with the people from further afield it’s always been quite natural — friends of friends. I’ve never signed something just off someone sending me a demo. It wouldn’t really feel right. One of the things I like about putting out Bristol music is the fact that — with producers in Manchester or the States or something I’m constantly emailing them and we have these big long chats and obviously everything’s fine, but sometimes it’s just easy to go and have a pint together and be like: ‘Right, let’s do it like this. We’re gonna press 300 copies and blah blah blah, we’ll get it out.’ It’s just easier.”

Can you tell us what’s coming soon? “Yeah sure! This year’s been a bit of a funny one, because we moved distributor at the start of this year and that took a couple months to sort out, and then Record Store Day kind of fucked every small independent label by delaying things. We haven’t had a particularly active year, but we’ve got a bunch of stuff lined up. The next thing, coming out next month, is an album by Strategy, who we did a 12 with last year. This LP is an ambient dub thing that I really like, for adventurous DJs. Going back to the label thing, one thing I always said was that I could imagine all the records on the label being played in a set together, even if it was quite a wide-ranging set, it still would make sense together. Then after that we’ve got a 12 from… actually I’m not going to say about that one. Then we’ve got a 12 from Leif coming. Recently I’ve been looking a bit further afield outside of Bristol, just for a bit of difference – like with Leif, we’ve been chatting for about three years about doing something. I love his tunes, his production’s fantastic, but he’s another one who sent me tunes and I just haven’t been able to put them out because it wouldn’t have made sense on the label. We’ve got to a point now where we’ve got two tunes that are just perfect and I’m really looking forward to putting that out because he’s one of my favourite UK producers. Then next year we’ve got a bunch of other stuff coming. I’ll leave it there, because I don’t want to give too much away.”

Can you talk about BRSTL? I don’t know how you pronounce it – the label you run with Shanti and Rhythmic Theory. “B-R-S-T-L. Or Borstal as Sam Binga calls it! The name was Rhythmic Theory’s idea – obviously it references the city we live in but it’s also a nod to one of our favourite jungle producers DJ Crystl, and everything that genre has meant to us. We’re really pleased with how that’s gone recently, we’ve got a really good response to some of the things we’ve done. And again that’s very much centred on what we do here in Bristol. The next thing coming up is a 12 from Outboxx, which is a really deep techno thing. After that Shanti’s got another 12 and then we might do something with October or with Jay L, or Samuel. ” So there’s a lot? “There’s quite a lot yeah, but this year everything’s just taking a little bit longer to get out now that vinyl’s cool again. Three years ago, some of the first 12s we did with Kowton – the tunes were made, took it in to master and we had it out within two months, which in an ideal world is what would happen with all releases. Time… Time and everything else just gets in the way. I’m actually thinking about starting another label.” Is this an exclusive? “Yeah! I won’t say too much about that, but it’ll be something completely different from all that as well. Let’s just say I’ve been watching a lot of grime videos recently. Since what you said about vinyl being cool, that was my next question. You’ve expressed a very passionate fervour and favour for vinyl over digital, what’s your take on vinyl in its present state? I’m not going to use the word resurgence, but…

“I mean it’s good. Like everything when there’s something new people rush towards it. So we saw that with the whole computer thing and then people come back from it a little bit and kind of question (it), ‘well hang on, for all we’ve gained what have we lost?’ So I think we’re at that point with vinyl. It’s nice to see people in their early 20s or late teens coming in, really keen about vinyl but even coming up asking ‘I don’t know how to use a record player, how do I put the needle on?’ I don’t have anything against digital music and I think at times vinyl can be fetishised into something it isn’t, but for me it’s a good format to listen to music on and I think sound-system music, music for playing out loud, sounds really good on a good, well cut 12”. Maybe I think too much about this but when you walk in a club, you can hear if someone’s playing vinyl. If someone’s been playing a digital set, and sometimes people don’t take that much care about that, they’re playing these really shitty mp3s, and the next person steps up and plays vinyl, it just sounds great. I mean they might play a shit set! But the sound’s all right. I don’t know if it’s a bit unfair, but I would say a lot of the time with older collectors playing on vinyl, they’ve a different approach to playing music. It’s about finding those rarer bits that people haven’t got. With digital, it’s about playing new upfront stuff. There’s the vinyl culture that goes around it too – there was a record earlier in the year and me, Jay L and my friend Andy Payback, we were all trying to hunt it down, it was a bit of a competition between us all, and I found it! And the week I found it they announced that they were going to do a reissue of it. It was one of these records from the 80s, quite hard to track down. And they reissued it.”

Reissues are a funny one, one of the Record Store Day releases was the Coldcut remix of “Paid In Full”, and you can find it in Tower in Dublin and it’s €20 for a 7″. Not only that, it’s not a true reissue, because it’s not what was on the original release, it’s just two tracks. “Some of these things don’t need reissuing! Definitely some of the Record Store Day things you just wonder why it’s pressed up! Or like you see these guys who are buying 180g Dire Straits records, and you’re like, just go to the fucking charity shop, they’ve got one for 25p.” That’s exactly what Ben Morris said when I tweeted about getting “Paid In Full”, he said you’ll get that for a pound in the charity shop – don’t buy it. “And actually some of these things sound better as well. One of my things is I don’t really like the sound of some of those remasters, they just make them sound like CDs. I think, especially, rock music doesn’t serve being remastered that well, but some of the old 80s dance tracks, when they’re remastered that’s quite a good thing because it means you can play them against modern stuff and they’ve got the punch to really work. But I think rock and jazz loses a bit with all the remastering and shiny packaging and everything.”

Can you tell me a bit about how you DJ? What’s your approach and how do you like to play? “I don’t know, every gig’s different. I love DJing, it is one thing I’ve spent a lot of time on and for years I used to prang myself out about it and think ‘Oh I don’t know if I’m very good’. And then about two three years ago I went: ‘Hang on, I’m actually all right! I’m being booked, I’m playing.” Generally what I do, it’s like the label as well – the thought of playing a two-hour techno set would drive me mad, so I try and incorporate elements of different things and try and get a bit of emotion in there. I quite like playing some vocal tracks as well to create an atmosphere. Sometimes I just like playing records in the pub.”

Bobject 1.1 Chris Farrell & Andy Payback (Live at The Bell) Pt.1 by Boundary_Object on Mixcloud

Does this lead to you playing more ‘warmup’ sets? “I don’t know really! I’m as happy playing warmup sets as I am playing closing sets, and every set is different. I’ve been DJing a long time now so you get a sense of what people might want, but you don’t want to make it too easy for them. Sometimes you go out and you get a crowd and it’s not really working, and there’ll be records in my bag that I’m like, if I play that, it’ll go off. But they don’t deserve it! I could play that but they’re not going to get that. They’re going to have to work a little bit to get that. It’s a cliché, but it is the interaction between yourself and the crowd. Actually sometimes the warmup’s a hard thing to do because if there’s no one there it’s quite hard to get that vibe, because it is about the interplay between you and the audience. I sometimes see these DJs and they turn up and it wouldn’t matter where they were playing, they’d turn up and play that set. I don’t really do that, I try and tailor everything. Me and Joe used to DJ back to back all the time but we don’t really do it so much now, but me and Shanti play together quite a lot. We all come from the same mindset with music.”

To wrap things up, what is your drink of choice? “It changes all the time! I never stick on one thing. But I would say my favourite drug is coffee. That cup of coffee, black, Americano in the morning, is amazing. In terms of alcoholic drinks, I generally drink ale, but I’ve never met an alcoholic drink I don’t like!” And when was the last time you danced? “Last Saturday, when we put on Pender Street Steppers. I’m very into this idea – I like dance music because I like dancing. I’m not ashamed. I’ve got friends who don’t dance at all and I think it’s bizarre. It’s great fun! I love dancing. Not as much as I’d like – this year has been terrible for parties in Bristol so I haven’t danced as much as I’d like to, but the last time I had a bit of a boogie was to Pender Street Steppers last week.”

Aidan Hanratty

Dublin ...