Dave Clarke on White Noise 500 and the politics of EDM

Never short of a controversial opinion, Dave Clarke has influenced everyone from Daft Punk to post-punk torchbearers The Soft Moon. We journey out to Dublin for the 500th episode celebration of White Noise, his legendary, agenda-setting radio show

Feature by Tom Short | 01 Sep 2015

When The Skinny arrives in Dublin, seemingly half of the population is descending upon Croke Park to see a certain stadium-filling ginger songwriter. Along with a more modestly sized, sensibly minded crowd, we make our way southwards towards the Academy, which is playing host to local legend Sunil Sharpe, long-time Berghain resident Marcel Fengler and the man we're here to see, the ‘baron of techno’ himself, Dave Clarke. It's a fearsome line-up and should make for a special night by anyone’s standards, but there are still niggling doubts; thanks to archaic licensing laws and its comparatively small size, clubbing in Dublin can sometimes be a frustrating affair.

"Are there 10,000 people out there yet?" Clarke jokingly asks the promoter. As Sharpe warms up a small and scattered crowd with some rugged, off-kilter floor pounders, the baron is aware that this event might not reach the same giddy heights as one of his sellout ADE parties. Yet the outspoken DJ has repeatedly chosen to grace the city over the years, and given that White Noise is broadcast over RTE’s 2FM, it seems appropriate for its 500th edition to be celebrated here. As we speak to Clarke, his choice of Dublin over say London or Glasgow begins to make sense – it's as deliberately contrary as everything he does in music. He may reside in Amsterdam – favoured by many DJs for its liberal atmosphere and close proximity to the rest of the Continent – but Clarke is the antithesis of your faceless, big-room tech house merchant, equally happy to discuss the vagaries of the Labour leadership contest as his studio set up.

Still informed by his first musical passion, punk, Clarke is surely one of the few artists left who can truly get away with using the anarchy sign. There’s a certain DIY ethos to everything he does, from his hip-hop-influenced mixing technique, to the serious legwork that goes into producing each weekly edition of White Noise. "There's a 95% chance that each week has different music," he tells us. It's a more impressive figure when you consider that so few hype tracks make it past Clarke’s meticulous bullshit detector. "If it comes with a press attachment saying 'this is killing it in Ibiza right now,' I’ll listen out of politeness but…" Much of the show’s content comes from young artists sending Clarke tracks via email or through a Dropbox on his website. He may not be the only DJ to promote complete newcomers, citing Laurent Garnier as another key example, but all this research is a serious commitment, with an average of two gigabytes of music arriving in his inbox every two weeks. "Divide that by MP3 quality and that's a lot of music!"

"The whole vibe in Ibiza is basically Margaret Thatcher" – Dave Clarke

Does this relentless pursuit of novelty come at a cost? A true veteran of the scene, Clarke is far better placed to comment on this issue than the current crop of DJs who grew up with broadband. White Noise began as a show called Technology in the late 90s, which Clarke eventually had to abandon due to his demanding production commitments and the sheer time involved in using vinyl. A subsequent explosion of creativity and sharing may have allowed him to start White Noise and keep it relevant, but the baron has reservations about dance music’s attention deficit. "The scene is moving so quickly that there isn't that big tune anymore. That six-to-nine-month waiting period with vinyl – where everybody would be chasing it – doesn’t happen. Now it's so vast and so quick that only my end-of-year shows feature tracks that I played earlier in the year."

White Noise may be the source of new sounds for many, but it also stays defiantly outside current trends, championing electro as much as the bruising techno for which Clarke is most widely known. After the post-millennial electroclash blip, the former has remained very much off the radar for the average listener. Ever the technological determinist, Clarke is pragmatic about why this happened. "To hear electro in the club, you need to have an amazing soundsystem. A lot of people use sidechaining in this tech house shite, instead of proper programming and EQing, whereas electro requires large amounts of bass." He's pleased to note that the genre still has a firm foothold over the channel, where his name is held with special reverence. "A lot of good electro is coming out of France, weirdly. I saw the Hacker recently and he said, 'You’re one of the few DJs who still plays electro and gives us all hope.'" And in the UK? "You have Andy Bass Agenda doing an amazing job with his electro releases. There’s another guy called Mazzula. Listen to White Noise, that’s my get-out clause!"

Just as electro’s fortunes have been forced back underground, it has been difficult to miss the upsurge of interest in techno in recent years, with a new wave of young producers filling out clubs and reaching mainstream festival crowds. For many this might be something to celebrate, but Clarke goes reassuringly off-message. "The crowd in the UK has become less powerful because of the way certain promoters are in certain cities. They’ll put one techno person on, and then someone who has nothing to do with it. It has kind of destroyed techno in some ways."

Inevitably, conversation turns to that favourite musical whipping boy of our times, EDM, whose pernicious influence undoubtedly contributes to the UK's and US's increasingly familiar festival line-ups. Rather than simply slamming our less informed American cousins, which is the knee-jerk response of most DJs, Clarke gets right to the heart of the issue. "What most upsets me about EDM is that they’ve completely forgotten the roots," he suggests. "People like Hawtin, people like Guetta, in a way they are kind of like Isis in Palmyra, destroying everything that came before to suit their own needs. That’s probably an ironic statement coming from someone like me who’s a punk, which is always about destroying. But that’s about destroying the establishment, things that don't make society fair and correct."

Clarke’s way with a provocative soundbite is legendary ("the whole vibe in Ibiza is basically Margaret Thatcher" is another gem from this particular conversation), but sadly the headlines have often neglected the reasonable arguments behind his fiery invective. He is surprisingly moderate about Ten Walls, whose homophobic comments led to uproar and condemnation from all corners of the internet. "I think he’s his own person, he’s grown up in his own environment, he’s surrounded by people that are of a different time and culture to the rest of Europe, and his views which I haven’t read, are obviously wrong. But perhaps people should judge him a little bit less harshly. These people that are coming down really hard on him, they’re still going to Russia. I don’t go to Russia, because of Sochi, because they are anti-gay, because of human rights abuses." There’s undoubtedly something unsettling about the way in which blanket social media shaming can disguise the bigotry that goes on unnoticed all the time, especially in corporate dance culture, The Skinny suggests. Clarke nods. "It's almost to show that they're correct but if you scratch beneath the surface, they’re the same, just a little bit more au fait with Twitter etiquette."

Besides his pleasingly unfiltered contributions to political debate, the baron is well known for his forays into other genres, recently producing a gleefully twisted version of The Soft Moon’s Wrong, along with stellar remixes for A Place To Bury Strangers and the now defunct Amazing Snakeheads, to name only his most recent beneficiaries. "I love all types of music, I follow it as much as I can. The Soft Moon I got recommended to me by a guy in a record shop. I saw them and enjoyed it, and went out for a whisky with them afterwards, and it turned out they're fans." Clarke constantly name checks a variety of artists: "I like Scout Niblett, obviously PJ Harvey, Tindersticks, the new Beck album I was blown away by," and he recently recorded a show discussing his impressive classical influences (Janacek, Smetana, Vaughan Williams) on the Belgian radio station Klara. His time spent working in a classical music shop was instructive, though ironically it also introduced him to early house tracks. "We’d get all these 12 inches in and I’d take them as my wages, Evil Eddie, Jolly Roger…"

If there’s a common thread between all this paradoxically difficult but dynamic music it's Clarke’s quest for perfectionism, which has prevented him from producing for six years. "It took me so long to get my studio to the point where I was happy with it. Personal circumstance dictated a change of my life. It took six or seven years to rebuild a new studio to the point where I was happy with it. And technology changed. I had to become a systems administrator, knocking my Mac into shape!" Now doling out high-quality remixes at an impressive rate, with a number of original tracks on the horizon from Unsubscribe, his project with Mr Jones, the baron once more seems unstoppable. As the finally packed-out venue laps up his set of machine-tooled bangers, it's gratifying to see his tireless enthusiasm rewarded.

Dave Clarke Presents - A White Noise Retrospective is out now http://www.daveclarke.com