“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom… You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.” The 18th century words of William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” may be an unexpected reference point for a 21st century DJ’s autobiography, but no less than legendary tastemaker Andrew Weatherall was compelled to evoke the great British mystic and poet when referring to the staggeringly debauched autobiography by The Secret DJ. “When hedonism turned to decadence, I made my excuses and left,” explained Weatherall. “The Secret DJ stayed at the party and now sends an insightful, scabrous and darkly beautiful written report that lends weight to Mr Blake’s aphorism.”
The Secret DJ is an hilarious, and at times brutally honest, autobiography full of hazy anecdotes and hard-won life lessons from the music business. The eponymous author is a lifelong DJ who has worked hard and played unfathomably harder. BBC Radio One DJ Annie Nightingale magnificently described the book as “Withnail And I take Fear and Loathing to Ibiza and shadow John Niven’s Kill Your Friends,” while multiple Grammy, BAFTA and Ivor Novello award-winning composer Marius de Vries commented that the book is “as rip-roaring and authentic a window into this sleepless hedonistic world as you could ever hope to find, at the same time rooted in palpable love and passion for the music, and navigated with impeccable taste.”
The Secret DJ reads like a labor of love, written by a survivor with a big heart and a deft eye for observing the more vainglorious aspects of his industry. Whether the fall guys are the biggest stars in the world of dance music, or more often than not, the narrator himself, it is at times a miracle that anyone gets out alive. This merciless glimpse behind the glossy facade of clubland is an endlessly compelling one.
The book includes a cast of colorful characters who accompany The Secret DJ on his misadventures, such as his aristocratic and sublimely dysfunctional Tour Manager. “Base amphetamine is a hell of a drug, and after so many years of use the amount Tour Manager needed to get an effect was prodigious. A single one of his hourly doses would have killed me – indeed, it nearly did once. The effects meant he could never stay in one place for more than a few moments or participate in a conversation. He tended to disappear and return constantly, like a really shit falcon.”
I spoke to The Secret DJ in his adopted home of Ibiza about the success of his book, which reached the number one spot in the Amazon Dance Music books chart at Christmas. He reveals that it was the culmination of many years of hard work. “It’s still pretty niche. I guess a ‘cult’ success is the best term. I was utterly over the moon of course, as so many things come out over the festive period it was a real vindication. It’s actually taken two years to get there. It was a really slow slog of word of mouth and a little nudge from the live shows maybe. Also social media was key. Being a promoter for a long time really helped. I didn’t ram it down people’s throats, but when something good happened I would pay for online ads myself and spread it around. So much of the creative industries are floundering due to not understanding the internet. Like fishing with dynamite. They just chuck 100 things out a year and hopefully one will take, and pay for the rest. It’s not very efficient. It’s not all the creative industry’s fault. It’s not them that wants to put out a ‘chavalanche’ of daft celebrity-led nonsense. The issues are consumer-driven too.”
The Secret DJ’s approach to DJing has evolved in parallel with the secrecy of his identity as an author, and he runs a series of audiophile sound system “Dark Room” events in which cellphones are banned, the DJ’s are unlisted, and the music is the only star. The approach harks back to a different era of clubland, as he witheringly observed in the book. “A decade ago at Fabric I saw one of clubland’s most revered figures getting caught red-handed by the owner, leaping, gurning and fist-pumping like a chimp while frantically twisting at the mixer like he was delivering a difficult robot baby with two jelly spanners. Unfortunately, the actual channels being throttled were not, in fact, in use – a mix CD was merrily working away. Is there any excuse at all for cheaters? Are we talking about the spectacle overtaking the craft? Certainly, more than ever, people describe going to see a DJ. They have seen their spinner of choice, not heard.”
He explains that the Dark Room nights are the antithesis of the modern Instagram-friendly approach to clubbing, that of going to “see” a DJ and to be seen. “There’s no gender in the pitch black. The dark doesn’t care what you look like or how young or old you are. There’s nothing for format hipsters to bitch about when the sound is audiophile level. There’s no bangers and glitter. No names or egos. It’s the opposite of EDM. It seems very simple to me. It’s what a club should be. Just music.” The 2020 series of Dark Room events will be kicking off at the Ace Hotel in London’s Shoreditch later this month, and then touring “smaller, cooler spots around the UK” until April.
The Secret DJ reveals that he is working on a follow up to the chart-topping autobiography, in part via his regular contributions to the totemic dance music publication Mixmag. “It’s been three years since it was written, and four years since its inception. In that time it’s been built into, for want of a less hideous word, a ‘brand’. I think that brand demands another book now. How that is done, I’m not sure about yet. It’s pretty much all there. Every issue of Mixmag for the past two years has had a snippet of it. There is a second book; I just can’t say when or how.”
He observes how the creative industries have become more challenging to work in as they have morphed into the digital age. “Absolutely no one, and by that I mean a figure of zero, gets in touch to work with you anymore. Everyone is sat at the their monitor on a swivel chair with an imaginary cat expecting the world to come to them. I’ve had big selling records, decades of articles and now a bestselling book and you still have to hustle like crazy, nothing comes to you. Which is fine. It’s how it is.”
Having said that, the lack of opportunities for those from less privileged backgrounds troubles him. “(The middle class) are sat in a very comfy network that can be prosperous for them. But I think it has a lot to do with how dry everything is creatively now. Celeb-only books, remakes of films, no ugly people or regional accents. A real dearth of imagination. There may even be an analogy with the current political crisis. The middle class are really fluffing things!” As usual, he is never far from self-deprecation. “I’m not against them; I’m probably middle class myself by now. I live in Ibiza and collect vintage cars for Christ’s sake! Maybe it’s tired, but ‘Establishment’ might be a better word.”
He continues on the theme of diversity in the modern dance music industry; a subject he is genuinely passionate about. “It’s clear that things aren’t working and a large change needs to happen. The middle-management needs shaking up. I’d like to see change come quicker. For example, I think diversity needs to be further addressed across lines of class, age, disability and perceived physical beauty, as well as perfectly solid things like race and gender. It’s not gone far enough. We can do them all if we try. In the digital age, there’s room for every voice. House and Techno were always ALWAYS about inclusivity and tolerance, and today this is needed more than ever. I have great hope for the future.”
The Secret DJ brings The Dark Room to the Ace Hotel in London on February 28.
Update: In less than 24 hours after this piece went live we learned of the sad passing of music legend Andrew Weatherall. We wish his friends and family well at this difficult time.
Originally published in Forbes.
Did you enjoy this piece about the Secret DJ? Click here for more articles.