Justin Robertson

We quiz the debonair elder statesman of dance music on his illustrious career and pursuit of sartorial elegance…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 12 Feb 2013
  • min read

Justin Robertson is one of clubland’s most well turned out gents. Along with fellow acid house veteran Andrew Weatherall, he injects as much effort into his attire as he does dance music.

Wardrobe aside, it’s as a producer, songwriter and DJ where he’s had most influence. Since he journeyed up to Manchester and first burnt his ears on the Hacienda’s dancefloor back in the late eighties, Justin has had a helping hand in steering the direction of British electronic music - he’s written pop hits with Lionrock, continually reinvented himself via different guises (including Revtone and the more recent Deadstocks 33) and become renowned for his devastating techno sets. If you’ve lost yourself at Manchester’s infamous Warehouse Project, it’s likely you’ll have witnessed Justin in full effect…

The Deadstock 33s is his latest musical vehicle - the project initially began life as a collaboration with the hotly tipped Daniel Avery although it’s expanded into the form of a full album now due out in March.

M caught up with Justin to ask him about his transition from dancer to DJ, the new Deadstocks record and where he sources his clobber from…

Like many people I acquired much of my musical taste from my older brother. I remember him going to university and coming back with a book of David Hockney pictures, a copy of Remain in Light by Talking Heads and the first Velvet Underground album.

From that point I became a music obsessive and ended up going to Manchester to study at University. Although perhaps more to study Factory Records and football.

Can you remember your first clubbing experience? 
I went to the Hacienda as a student. I was into early hip hop and reggae but didn’t know anything about the emerging house scene. This is before the ‘club culture’ which we have now. I remember hearing Rhythm is Rhythm at the Hacienda’s Nude night which was typical of this linear, weird trippy machine music being played. Coming from a background of rock and indie records, I was fascinated by this rhythmic, hypnotic thing and got into DJing because of it.

Rather than buying food, I bought records and used to hang out at [Manchester Record store] Eastern Bloc. One of the staff members left and I got a job there. I met people through the shop and these new clubs opening. As acid house began to break, I started my own thing up and blagged gigs here and there. When I first started playing I had no idea what I was doing - it was pure bluffology.

How did you make the transition from DJ to producer?
The production came through the shop. They had a band which was signed to the label called the Mad Jacks – this was the very early days of remix culture. The shop wanted a dance mix and I volunteered even though I’d never been in my studio in my entire life.

I wanted to translate what I was hearing out in the studio - and saw remixing as an opportunity to make some interesting music while not being proficient at making music. Not that proficiency matters as long as you’ve got a good idea.

I don’t differentiate that much between DJing and making music - I think they feed off each other. I’m still very much a fan or collector and that influences me in the kind of music I make.

How has the advent of digital changed dance music?
When I first put out records as Lionrock, they sold tens of thousands within weeks - people were buying a lot. And that kind of traditional record industry structure meant that there were funds around to invest in weirder projects. The downside was that much of the business was controlled by fairly small interest groups and dubious record industry types. So the digital age has liberated that process and enabled people to do their own things. The downside of digital? It’s much harder to making a decent living.

But there’s some really amazing music being made. And I still get excited trawling through websites, record shops and finding new sounds. I think the search is still worth it even if there’s a lot of ‘interference’ out there - but there always has been. DJs have been complaining about the quality of promos they receive for the last 20 years.

Which new producers are you currently enjoying?
It’s creatively a very healthy time - dance music at one stage was looking like the same heads were doing the interesting stuff so it’s nice to see some new producers and DJs emerging. The next generation is taking it on and doing it well.

Daniel Avery, People Get Real and The Eskimo Twins - they’re at the forefront of this new “primitive” sound.

Why now for the Deadstock 33s album?
I haven’t put an album out for 12 years although I’ve put out a lot of music in between. This record has been gestating over the past two years. I did an album as Revtone in 2001 and since then I’ve tried to challenge myself - change the way I work, move studio to my current place and work on my own. I’ve tried to find a new sound and creative spark. A couple of years ago, the Deadstocks thing formed in my head and has subsequently grown from there.

It took a little while until I felt confident enough to present this new project. It’s important to give it a new name too. My current bugbear is people asking me; ‘Why don’t you just do a Justin Robertson project?’ - but giving it a new name gives you a certain freedom to change your sound.

I’m bored of myself and my own name. I like reinventing myself and don’t like this idea of using my name as a brand. It’s a horrendous way of looking at music and yourself - I’m not cereal or a fizzy drink - and I don’t really have a marketing strategy - probably to the detriment of my bank balance.

How do you choose the artists you want to remix?
There’s a lot of skill sharing which occur with remixes so I tend to do stuff for people I admire. I approach it as a fan. I was really pleased to remix a Steve Mason song, I’m doing a track on Andrew’s new record and remixing Brighton band called Dark Horses - I contacted them because I love their album.

Do you and Andrew Weatherall exchange wardrobe tips? It almost seems like you’re trying out do each other…
Did you interview him the other day? He was asked the same question about me! When we see each other, we do spend a lot of time discussing clothes. ‘Where do you get that coat from?’

But I think Andrew is extremely well turned out. We have a shared fashion sense - but it isn’t really that - it’s more an expression. We’ve both had to endure abuse out of car windows and dare I say been chased a couple of times down the street for wearing such outlandish attire.

Read M’s feature on how dance music producers can make a living from making music and the Amplify dance music project launched by PRS for Music.