Meet Alan Raw: DJ, Drummer, Photographer, Broadcaster and New Talent Renaissance Man
Depending what time or day you meet Alan Raw he could be wearing any number of hats. He could be curating a photography exhibition of his own or other talented artists. He could be drumming in bands such as Celtarabia or Endoflevelbaddie. He could be hosting his local talent championing BBC Introducing shows on BBC Radio Leeds and BBC Radio Humberside. He could be directing a festival, hosting a festival stage or taking live pictures at said festival. He even has time to tinker with and modify his machines, creating his own unique instruments and sounds… Or he could be commanding these controls while DJing at his multi genre, new talent championing events #360Raw in Leeds.
What we’re trying to say here is Alan is a remarkably dedicated man and an ambitious and innovative creative spirit. And that list barely scratches the surface. A youth worker by (one of his many) trade(s), he’s entrenched in the Humberside community as a director of the Creative & Cultural Studios providing the next generation resources, coaching and opportunities, helping them develop the same type of creative life he’s enjoyed, and perhaps even try and amass the same sized collection of hats. The particular time we met him he was curating a new exhibition and was about to organise a workshop for Hull’s Hip Hop Jam. But for an hour in between these two different roles, he wore his interviewee’s hat. This is just a slice of Alan’s inspiring life in music…
Hear The Drummer Get Wicked
So it began with the drums…
It did! My whole family are musicians, my dad had an Irish ceilidh band and me, my brother and sisters all played in it. It was the family income. I’ve been drumming since I was five and earning money drumming since 12.
Did you tour?
Yeah we played all over the country and Ireland. At least three nights a week. I basically grew up in a life of festivals and I’ve gone on to work at them ever since. And work with drums too. But very early on in my drumming career something happened…
The drum machine happened. This was a great threat to my livelihood! I said to my dad I was worried no one would want a drummer in the future. He said ‘get one, work out what it can do, then do it better!’ So I got a Roland Rhythm Composer, learnt what it did and practiced. My dad would turn the volume down and cut it back to see if my beats were still in time.
And this marks the start of your electronic interests…
At first I saw the machines as my arch nemesis but eventually we became friends. I couldn’t help fiddling with them. I was a teenager with a penknife and I wanted to see how they worked. I had a look at what was inside and played around with things like the length of wire and things like that. Then I took the pads out and put them under my drum skins and accidentally made my own electronic drumkit. From there I started to find out about synthesiser modules which you can trigger and make lots of crazy sounds. So I’d take them apart too. I played Glastonbury on a homemade trigger kit. I had so much fun with that. I’ve still got that kit now.
The stuff that was influencing me was what the DJs were doing, not the drummers
Amazing. So fast forward a few decades and all kinds of projects and roles… When or how did DJing come into your life?
Bottom line, I was buying a lot of records and I felt I wasn’t getting the best use out of them. To be honest, I was spending too much on them and I wanted to carry on doing that… So I started DJing! It made sense really. The stuff that was influencing me was what the DJs were doing, not the drummers. I think I’ve benefited from that a lot; my dad would say to focus on the drumming but my head wasn’t there. I was much more interested in DJs and what producers were doing. I also became obsessed with the [Roland] 808. That machine changed my life. I loved the sounds it could make which I couldn’t with my drum kit. I was trying to emulate those sounds and beats and I was fascinated by records like Cybotron’s ‘Clear’ or ‘Planet Rock’. I didn’t want the machine to make the sound, that would be lazy, I wanted to do it myself.
With a hip hop background, did you ever dive into the world of turntablism?
No I’m not turntablist at all. The most success I’ve had as a DJ has been when I’ve mixed what I’m DJing with other things in the booth. Like using the drum machine, delay pedals and the decks. Making a beat on the drum machine or a beat pad and transforming the tunes I’m playing.
That taps into your tinkering again!
I guess it does. I was lucky enough to meet one of my heroes, John Peel, in 1999. He was doing a show called Sounds Of The Suburbs and he came to meet me and the band I was with called Back To Base. He had a look at my crazy drum kit and he was really interested in that.
You can feel John Peel’s influence in your work as a broadcaster and your consistent championing of local unsigned talent. You were involved in the conceptualisation of BBC Introducing, right?
Yeah I had a show called BBC Raw Talent which was based in BBC Humberside and then branched out into cities like Leeds, York and Sheffield. I got involved in an event called The BBC Electric Proms which went well and the BBC said they wanted to do more. We did some consulting and when BBC Introducing was developed we changed the name of my radio shows to the new brand.
Isn’t world music all music?
You must have loads of success stories? Give us one!
There are loads and it’s always beautiful to see any band or act we’ve helped become a success. Alt-J spring to mind. They’ve become a huge success and we’ve remained in touch. In fact Gus from the band came and stood in for me at #360RAW in Leeds recently, so I could chair a panel for Independent Venue Week.
Amazing. So run us through a typical #360RAW night…
There’ll probably be an alt-rock band on, a few solo artists, an electronic act, maybe a new synthpop band. Any real talent Richard and I spot in the area, we’ll put it on. And that gives me licence to play what I want and surprise people. I’ve found the people who enjoy what I play are the same people who have the same mindset as me. I want to hear something different. I want to hear something unexpected.
You’re certainly not confined to any one genre!
Absolutely. I have a problem with genres and pigeonholes. They’re all too narrow. I like mixing things up and putting different things together. The bands I play in are Celtarabia and Endoflevelbaddie. These are two completely different bands from each other but one thing they do have in common is that they don’t fit in any genre, they have lots of different things in the melting pot. It was the same with Back To Base. It wasn’t dub, it wasn’t jungle it was something else. Even the genre of world music is narrow. It isn’t really what it says. Isn’t world music all music? People have these perceived ideas of what a genre should be and I just won’t conform. When I do my BBC introducing shows, I play regionally specific music. I love that. But when I’m DJing I want to play what the hell I like, it’s like I’ve been let off the leash and I’ll do what I want.
You must have an epic record collection!
I haven’t got enough room to move around in my house! I need some type of temperature controlled storage facility miracle. I’ve got some lovely collectors pieces. But I’m a crap collector though because I play the records and don’t put them in a frame.
You use them the way they were intended…
That’s it. And I know I’m of a certain age that I appreciate vinyl because I was brought up with it. But there’s a new generation who appreciate it now who didn’t and that’s great. It’s certainly enough justification for me to keep it all. I like an artefact; It’s got a cover, sleeve notes, it’s a 3D artefact. For me it’s something to mess with and have fun with.
Give me a live or performance nightmare…
If a night is hosted well, you can get over any nightmare. There’s been many a time where I’ve got on the mic because we’ve had a technical failure. I remember one time at Leeds festival there was a fabulous band called Vessels. They were doing some amazing things. But after one song the power cut out. I had to get on a megaphone and get the people to bear with us. It turned out an ice cream van had tapped into the power for the stage! And when the band came back on it was ten times better because the crowd had stuck with them and were supporting them. There’s been a few times like that. But it happens when you’re working with electricity. There’s a lot of it flying around, I got a shock once at a festival in Belgium a few years back. Something wasn’t earthed properly; it was raining sideways onto the stage and there was a cymbal with no rubber feet and you know where you catch a cymbal to stop it ringing? I did that and got the shock of my life. That wasn’t good.
It was a bit of a shock! But these things happen. Especially with kit that you make yourself. You have to embrace the unexpected. Computers are the worst thing because when they say no, there’s not a lot you can do. I love analogue, though. You know where you are with it. I love analogue synths and playing around with things and putting voltage through something to see what happens. And it’s all a bit of a risk. You can’t expect everything to go fine all the time, it wouldn’t be exciting then would it?
Ha! No. So what’s your set up in your booth?
I’m really happy with my Denon DJ stuff. When you spend so long taking things apart, you appreciate how well things are put together. I’ve got an MC7000 (Ed’s note: running Serato DJ and Virtual DJ for differing gigs) which is solid as a rock. I love the pads and how you can assign them and map the unit. I can plug what I want in the stand-alone channels and it’s got the mixer so it gives me space in the booth to include a vinyl deck, a drum machine, a computer and have all that plugged into the MC7000.
You sound a bit like a kid in a toy shop!
I totally am. I love the look of the Akai Force as well. That looks amazing and there’s enough space in the booth for one too. This is the thing; it’s a constant case of ‘what else can I fit in this booth?’
Ha! Do you feel limited when you’re booked to play on a more conventional set up? Or do you bring kit with you?
I’ll always try to take along some kit, something portable. The Akai Force looks good for that. It does everything and won’t take up much room. I do like to take the MC7000 with me if there’s a chance I’ll play. It’s not that big. Once I got asked to play a set at 4am in Leeds festival. I was in my camper van, got a knock on the window and thought ‘uh oh, what have I done wrong?’ And these guys were like ‘you’re DJing’. I said ‘what are you on about? I’m going to bed!’ But they told me I had to play and I thought ‘ah, I’m here why not?’ I had a few tunes, so I was able to get on with it.
This all sounds very impromptu. Were you working there anyway?
Yeah I’d been hosting the BBC Introducing stage which are quite full on days. I’d introduce the band, then take pictures of them playing live, then interview them backstage for extra content… And then run back on stage and introduce the next one.
Blimey. That’s taking multitasking to a whole new level. You must have been pooped by 4am?
I was pretty tired yeah. But it sounded like fun and you gotta do these things. And it turned out to be a beautiful thing. It was a nice chill out set. Everyone was done in so I played a nice downtempo hip hop set and, by the end, went quite ambient and experimental which is my perfect type of set. And then the sun came up and it’s another one of those wow moments…