Skinned #10: Kelvin Brown [Eyes Down]
One half of legendary club night Eyes Down, Kelvin Brown is the newest esteemed guest in our Skinned mix series, dropping off a fresh batch of odd numbers for your listening pleasure. He tells us about making art and the joys of endless discovery
The Skinny: Hi Kelvin, what’s on your plate at the minute?
Kelvin Brown: Right now I’m just finishing a project that's getting exhibited in Newcastle throughout November, then it will tour to London at some point at the start of next year. It’s a multiscreen video installation that’s very loosely based on Cecil B DeMille's 1923 film The Ten Commandments (more info here). I went over to California in August to find the ruins of the set he built for the film, and which have ended up buried in the desert for the last 80 years or so. Currently, making and exhibiting art takes up most of my time.
Do you feel more at ease producing art than music?
I’ve spent most of my life collecting and playing records, which, in a strange way, has got in the way of actually making music. I found myself too close to it and years of working in a record shop left me with too acute an awareness of the subtle differences between an average record and an amazing one. Whenever I sat down in front of a sampler in the studio, all I could think was it’s not going to be as good as Pete Rock, or a Ron Trent record on Prescription or whatever else I was listening to at the time. That left me creatively frustrated for a long time, but along the way I amassed a lot of field recordings I’d taken.
I was always interested in the more conceptual side of art, but not being as intimately connected to it in the way I am with music is liberating because I can just get on and do it. I was lucky enough to study at the Royal College of Art in London, and there I learned how to take the collections of sound recordings, and my amateurish collages and make them ‘feel like art’ enough that people were willing to put them in art galleries.
Most of the work I make as an artist comes directly from my interest in music in some way; I spent a while in Johannesburg creating an archive of the stories from the music scene there under apartheid, and the thing that originally appealed to me about the Ten Commandments project I’m working on was the fact that DeMille created a fake version of ancient Egypt, which immediately made me think of Sun Ra!
My practice is very much concerned with the connections and significance people find in music, film and other cultural artefacts, and that’s a direct result of spending most of my life playing records to people. I get to work on scores and sound design, too, which goes some way towards satisfying the frustrated music producer in me.
Eyes Down means a lot to a lot of people in Manchester; how did you first meet (co-founder) Jon K?
I met Jon not long after I first moved up to Manchester and we connected as we’d both grown up in the Midlands. He was a resident at a hip-hop and jungle night called SubTub, and it was about the time that I became a resident at the Electric Chair. The idea for Eyes Down came about because of an empty Friday night slot at Dry Bar, which, at the time, was somewhere you could do something musically interesting.
The opportunity brought together a group of five people who all had vague connections to each other, including Jack Croal and Gawain Forster and Christian Wood, who is now better known as Il Bosco, the man behind Red Laser. He was the one who came up with the name, and started out as a resident along with myself and Jon, but his increasing commitment to Friends and Family (the Fat City Records club night) meant that he eventually stepped away. About the same time Jon and I took an increasingly leftfield approach to the music we played, and the rest of it sort of took its own course...
It’s also important to note that when we started the night all those years ago, it went without saying that the graphical side was important. The Manchester music scene has always had really strong visual identity, and if you went into record shops at the time you’d constantly see record sleeves and club posters designed by people like Andy Votel and Nick Fry. Those guys set the bar very high, and having a strong, individual visual identity was kind of expected.
"Most of the work I make as an artist comes directly from my interest in music in some way" – Kelvin Brown
All nights are memorable in their own right, but which Eyes Down guest stands out for you personally?
My god, there have been too many to mention, and they were all really memorable for different reasons! Obviously the first time Moodymann played was really important. He didn’t have an agent at the time, and was something of an enigma for a lot of people, especially in Manchester, a city which has always had such a strong affinity to music from Detroit. After hearing so many rumours about him, he turned out to be a really lovely guy to deal with, and he played amazing records to an equally amazing room full of people, so that was a great night.
The first time Recloose played was a pretty special night for us, as was the time Charlie Dark came and brought Ade (Abdul Forsyth), the owner and resident DJ at Plastic People in London. I remember the records he played being a real education in DJing that night. Every time Mr. Scruff played he was great as well, as was Vikter Duplaix. Also the people who I became really good friends with from having them play, like Mark Pritchard or Domu, in fact I could be here all day at this rate!
On something of a narcissistic note, the nights without guests were always really important to us, especially the period we were regularly doing Eyes Down at Plastic People, which had an incredible reputation at the time. Ade was a really important figure in shaping how we thought about what the night could be, both in terms of the depth and bravery of his selection, and how important sound, light levels and every detail of the club was in creating the atmosphere in which you could play leftfield music. So many of the more esoteric records that people associate with Eyes Down were tracks that Ade introduced me to.
As a DJ who has most bases covered, what styles are you currently digging, and what do you need to dig more into?
I need to dig more into all types of music, always! It’s the problem with having such broad taste, I always feel like a complete beginner as far as most types of music go. Just when you think you have a handle on African music, you have a conversation with someone like Miles from Soundway Records, and you realise you know nothing! Or I’ll think I’ve got a grip on Brazilian music, then Floating Points will play something I’ve never heard and I realise I have to go back to school! But, that's what’s incredible about music, that there’s an endless amount of amazing records out there waiting to be discovered.
Right now I’m digging more into minimalist/contemporary classical music, and people that sit right on the dividing line between music and sound recording like Alvin Lucier and Chris Watson. There’s a huge amount of great stuff right out on the outer limits of what music can be, and for years my knowledge of that world hasn’t extended much past Steve Reich, Terry Riley, John Cage and the like, so I’m desperately playing catchup at the moment.
Tell us a bit about the mix you've recorded for us…
Predictably it covers quite a lot of ground, but that’s the only way I know how to play records. I have something of a musical ADHD, so it’s impossible for me to stay with one type of music for long. As soon as I play a house track, I can feel the inescapable pull of jazz, or a post-punk record! It’s pretty much the records that I’ve found myself playing out on dancefloors a lot recently.
With the exception of a few new tracks, a lot of them are records I bought and played a lot many years ago. There’s something of a cycle for me, where you discover a record and it sounds really fresh regardless of whether it’s brand new or 40 years old, then you play it a few times and it doesn’t sound so fresh anymore. Again my incredibly short attention span means I can’t play anything that many times, so it goes onto a shelf at the farthest reaches of my record room for a decade or so. Then, some spark makes you go back to it all those years later, and a bit of distance reminds you how amazing it sounded the first time around. It’s the great thing about having a library of music you’re constantly adding to, there’s always stuff that’s waiting to be rediscovered, and listened to with different ears.
Listen to Kelvin Brown's mix for The Skinny, Skinned #10:
The Ten Commandments exhibition is at NewBridge Project Space, Newcastle, until 7 Nov