‘ I played Berlin at 7am on Sudafed and coffee’- the middle-aged DJs still keeping pace

Thirty years on from the second summer of love, a cohort of fiftysomething DJs are refusing to hang up their headphones, fuelled by nothing stronger than caffeine

In 1988, Luke Cowdrey was undergoing his acid-house epiphany in Manchester.” For me, it changed the world ,” says the Sheffield-born DJ, better known as Luke Unabomber.” It wasn’t just music, medications and hedonism. It was the people you met and the sense that life was, suddenly, so much better .” He smiles:” My brother always says the men in my family didn’t start hugging until acid home .”

In Manchester you are never far from such a testimony. The city is full of grizzly rave veterans banging on about the Hacienda. The change with Cowdrey is that, aged 51, he is still raving, and not on the nostalgia circuit (” Celebrating the past is such a defeat “) but at clubbing’s cutting-edge- along with a generation of middle-aged DJs who have refused, or are unable, to hang up the headphones.

Cowdrey is the promoter of long-running queer night Homoelectric-” a genuine alternative to the commercial stranglehold”, as he ensure it.” People take the piss but I still believe in the evangelism of it all, that, politically and culturally, the world is so toxic that people still want to escape together .”

Tonight, we are heading to the club Hidden for the first Homoelectric of 2018. A three-storey warehouse space near Strangeways prison, it could not be further from the glossy polish of the Refuge, the hotel bar and restaurant where Cowdrey is also de facto creative director. He shrugs off the apparent contradiction and rattlings on about the Meat Free collective or DJ Jon K– references that would fox most 21 -year-old Mancs.

Luke Unabomber at Homoelectric. Photograph: Lauren Jo Kelly

By midnight, Homoelectric, an evening of gently dislocated chaos for several generations of” homos, lesbos, heteros, don’t-knows”, is packed and Cowdrey is ricochetting in the DJ booth. He was up at 6am to expend the day with their own families, and will be at Homoelectric until 5am, powered only by a few brews.” At 51, you definitely feel it ,” he acknowledges, but if you want to hear club music in its natural environment, you need to hang out in nightclubs. Even if in middle age, you do it drug-free.” I’ve played Salon zur Wilden Renate in Berlin at 7am on Sudafed, Red Bull and coffee. I discovered a new buzz doing that. I go to full-on druggy places 100% straight and feel comfortable. I find that energy arousing .”

Cowdrey is not alone. In 1988 it would have sounded ludicrous but, as we approach the 30 th anniversary of the so-called second summertime of love, a significant minority of acid home veterans are eluding the passageway of hour: Kompakt’s Wolfgang Voigt, AKA GAS is 57, Andrew Weatherall is 54; techno starrings Dave Clarke and Luke Slater both turn 50 this year. Rather than creaking rave relics, they are still creatively potent forces in underground electronic music.

Colin McBean was originally half of 90s techno duo the Advent. Now 56, he is enjoying a second life as Mr G, taking his bass-heavy, hardware-driven live defined around Europe’s best clubs.” I’m an old soundboy, a battler, so my point of view is,’ Can I still enter the arena and box ?’ I can stand toe-to-toe with most. I do yoga. I maintain fit. As long as I feel tight on stage and my dance moves are on point, we’re good. People ask how old you are-‘ You’re joking, you’re older than my father !’- but they’re never derogatory. They’re perplexed you have that stamina. When the moment takes me I get down, scream and shout. The children respond to somebody playing music they love. The energy I get is ridiculous .”

Keith McIvor, AKA JD Twitch from Glaswegian DJ duo Optimo, turns 50 this year, and confesses to some awkward moments:” We play gigs where the age scope is so wide it never intersects my intellect, but if it’s a young audience in their early 20 s, I can feel self-conscious that they’re thinking:’ Who the hell is this old fucker ?’ Occasionally, person asks if they can procure certain substances from me, too, as if the only reason I’d perhaps be in a club is because I’m a drug dealer .”

” If people view clubs as pick-up areas, I can see why[ older clubbers] might be construed as weird, but if it’s candidly about the music, it’s OK- as it is at a concert ,” reasons Clarke. He has never thought of quitting.” I’m good at what I do and it brings people a lot of exhilaration .”

For Clarke, the pace of technological change in DJing- the creative possibilities of digital file manipulation- has been inspirational:” We’re constantly kept on our toes .” But as agricultural producers, Voigt scorns the hypothesi that, unlike in rock music, challenging technology has extended his creative lifespan.” For me, this doesn’t matter, because my job is not about genres or instruments. I’m 100% artist. That’s my fate ,” he says.” When I go to clubs, I leave around 3am. This is not a question of age. It’s always been like that .”

Mary Anne Hobbs. Photograph: Laura Lewis/ BBC

As the host of BBC 6 Music’s weekend breakfast depict, Mary Anne Hobbs has fewer 3am finishes these days. Her depict, however, is testament to the 53 -year-old’s obsessive interest in exploring new music, an obsession shared by everyone I speak to. Like Cowdrey, Hobbs was transformed by the Hacienda (” I remember tangibly the sense of a whole new world unfolding before me “) and finds inexplicable the idea that you would ever grow out of electronic music, or let your tastes ossify. Sitting in Altrincham Market’s food hall, she explains that music is” inextricably woven” into her DNA.” In a deeply troubling world, it is perhaps the only place you find real peace .”

That zeal resulted Hobbs to venture out on her own to early dubstep clubs such as DMZ and FWD-” sub-bass frequencies that would root you inside a present moment difficult to experience elsewhere “. At 41, she learned to mix and became a global envoy for dubstep, touring for years. It was extraordinary and exhausting.” At that age, you have to live like a monk- 100% sober. Especially the American tours, where you’re flight out of different time zones every day .”

Interestingly, that discipline came easy to Hobbs, as it does to most DJs thriving in middle age. Even at the Hacienda, Hobbs clubbed straight .” I was the geek ,” she says. Clarke has taken ecstasy once:” The fact that I don’t need drugs to stay awake has probably saved me .”

McIvor likes a drink when DJing, but says:” We’re not kicking the arse out of it. You couldn’t sustain this if you were. In the early 90 s, doing Pure in Edinburgh, 99% of people in that club were on ecstasy. I didn’t take it. I didn’t need to. I’m not saying I’ve led a puritanical lifestyle, but I’ve never been a mad caner .”

Anja Schneider. Photograph: Patrice Brylla

For Berlin DJ and producer Anja Schneider, it is a myth that DJs are party animals. Most are dedicated to their craft, an approach that, as a mom in her late 40 s, enables her busy schedule.” I don’t see a reason to stop because I’m a mum. I cannot deny my first love, music. But hour is limited. Priorities shifting. I now prefer to spend Sunday with my son instead of going to Panorama Bar .”

McIvor is sick of airports (” that’s the gruelling bit “), but he still played 120 gigs last year. Soon after this interview, Hobbs was DJing in Estonia.” Where else do you want me to go ?” she asks, rhetorically.” Yeah, I’m 53. But look at Attenborough, crawling around in the South Pacific at 90. At that age, I want to be looking for my equivalent of the green turtle, and I hope people will welcome me .” So, whether a DJ or clubber, you can now rave to the grave without embarrassment- as long as your knees hold out.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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