The musical pedigree of Liverpool is right up there. The city has a real ear for pop, producing probably the world’s most famous bands in the Beatles, among many other very presentable 60s radio and Billboard artists. There have been a scattering of groups since (The La’s, Lightning Seeds), but nothing that can be said to be groundbreaking. Frankie Goes to Hollywood are one of the few acts to have come from Merseyside that Wire punters can take a real interest in. But, since the late 00s, John Heckle has been working to improve on that. Ironically, this techno producing hardware fanatic is making the case for a Scouse aptitude for dance music by creating a sound that is far from localised. His aesthetic merges with a post-Chicago House sound pioneered by Jamal Moss in the Windy City, and it is a sound that is received warmly by musical gear-heads in the UK. The Subterranea lads are no different. After committing themselves to putting on live acts (a rare thing on the electronic scene), Heckle appears as one of the stand-out figures of this breed. We spoke to him ahead of the event on April 8th 2017.
Which part of Merseyside are you from? What was it like growing up there? Was there much club scene?
I grew up between Aigburth in Liverpool and the Wirral, pogoing every few years. Getting to clubs was fine from the Wirral, we were only a train ride away from Voodoo/T-Funkshun/BuggedOut in Liverpool and nights like Soundslike in Chester. Quite a lot going on during that time.
Can you pinpoint the moment you wanted to start producing? How easy was it to get the gear together to start doing so?
I started making stuff on downloaded software programmes on my computer when I was in school, just for fun (making comedy hardcore remixes of pop tunes etc). In terms of getting gear, I stuck to using an all in one workstation keyboard and a few cheap drum machines until I was earning enough from gigging to pick up something more substantial.
Having released on Mathematics Recordings, you are in the company of some of the world’s most accomplished users of music-making machines. What special qualities does it take to become a producer? Did you teach yourself?
I taught myself to make music on whatever I had yeah, whatever I could get for cheap off ebay. I think if you’re ever going to make something a bit different then you’re better off starting that way, rather than doing Electronic Music 101 or whatever.
The Mathematics label is also home to some of the most abstract and conceptual music that comes under the techno umbrella, particularly the Afro-futurist work of Hieroglyphic Being. Does your writing start with a concept, or a sound? Do you write with the club in mind?
I don’t usually have an idea of what I want to make when I go into the studio. Sort of sucks the fun out of it. I’d prefer to play around for a while and see what that leads to.
How did you get involved with Jamal Moss’ label, considering that most of his roster is from the US?
I went to a gig of his in Belgium when I was about 20. I was at the height of my Mathematics/Jamal Moss fanboyism at the time, collecting everything that came out as well as the back catalogue. I sent some music to him on myspace I think shortly after the gig. Thankfully he loved it and the tracks became the ‘Life on Titan EP’.
Your track titles have covered everything from ancient civilisations (Mesopotamia) to the wild (Where The Wild Ones Go) to the apocalypse and space (Frozen Planet). Is your music an escape from the everyday? What is the thinking behind these songs?
I suppose the track titles usually draw on things I’m interested in, including what you specifically have mentioned; the forming of ancient civilisations, planets and the wild. I’m a bit of a Carl Sagan fanboy, and he draws a lot on civilisation and the cosmos in his books and programmes. I listened to good a history podcast series quite recently, I think it was called ‘The History Of The World in 1000 Objects’, which drew on objects in the Smithsonian Museum in order to tell a story of the history of modern civilisation. I’d recommend any of that to anyone likeminded.
I’d contrast your named work with your Head Front Panel alias, whose songs remain untitled. Is this project more purely about sound?
Head Front Panel was always supposed to be an anonymous series which drew on everything I had loved about techno up to that point. I think the fact that they didn’t have titles was initially just incidental, but I suppose it did put more emphasis on the music (both in terms of having no artists or track titles attached).
Which live electronic artists have been most influential for you?
Jamal Moss, Jeff Mills, Robert Hood, Underground Resistance, Neil Landstrumm, the Birmingham stuff from Regis & Surgeon, Kalamazoo stuff like D Knox/Chancellor/Jay Denham/Fanon Flowers, Austrian stuff like Central/Cheap Records, old Chicago stuff like Lil Louis/Steve Poindexter/Adonis, ambient stuff like Brian Eno & Aphex Twin…that’s off the top of my head.
Would you feel undernourished if you just did live performances and didn’t DJ? How do the two disciplines complement each other?
I like doing both, and there’s a nice 50/50 split for the most part in terms of gigs. I was a DJ first and foremost, and for the most part I wouldn’t play many of my own tracks in a DJ set. I have enough opportunity to perform my own music live, and I’m still a big collector of other people’s music.
You lived here in Leeds for a while. Do you have any strong memories from that time? What was the scene like? You are involved in KMAH Radio now, which is a new addition to the city’s musical landscape.
Yeah I lived in Leeds whilst doing my Phonetics and Linguistics degree. Interesting stuff that I wish I’d continued on after I finished University. There’s some pretty interesting forensic applications, and the use of computer waveforms when studying Phonetics is pretty familiar if you’ve ever used something like an MPC or a software programme to edit music or samples. In terms of nightlife, I used to enjoy the Detached nights at the Beaver Works warehouse. Dark and dingy place for rave. I’m enjoying doing the show on KMAH also, gives me a chance to play more weird and wonderful music than I could get away with in a club.