Charles Webster was around for the original rise of house music in the U.K. He has seen it ebb and flow, through the mania of the superstar-DJ era of Sasha & Digweed to its fade back into the underground. But Webster’s own richly melodic, subtle take on the genre has quietly endured, even as other sub-genres have grabbed the headlines, then disappeared.
His remixes have the deft power to become the definitive version of tracks (as is the case with his re-rub of Justin Martin’s “Sad Piano”) while the round, effortlessly smooth tones of his songs belie a moody edge, a melancholy funk that lives beyond trends.
Now that true deep house–not just jazzy tracks with wailing divas and rote congas–is making a comeback, Webster is busier than ever. “There definitely seems to be an upswing,” Webster says over the line from his studio in London. “I’m getting more bookings and offers for remixes, but I just ignore [the ups and downs]. I don’t see what I’m doing as any particular style–it’s just what I do. I think that’s how you can maintain a long career, by ignoring any certain scene. Basically, I’ve been making the same music for 20 years and it’s fantastic that it’s becoming more popular after all this time.”
Webster has become a mainstay of the British house scene, so it’s only fitting that main-room label Defected recently released the first proper retrospective of his work, a three-disc affair that includes one mix of his own productions, one of his favorite house tracks, and one featuring music that has inspired him throughout his career (from Black Sabbath to Kate Bush). After selecting personal favorites, Webster actively sought out fans’ favorite tracks, trawling online forums to see what people lusted after. He gleefully anticipates destroying the eBay market for particularly hard-to-find gems, such as a 2001 remix of UBQ Project’s “When I Fell in Love,” originally released in 1992. “It’s often the tracks you don’t really think are so good that are the ones that other people think are really good,” he marvels.
The UBQ track is one of several on the comp, like his 2003 re-work of the 1991 classic “Soul Magic” by YBU, that highlight Webster’s longevity. After playing in various bands around Sheffield in the 1980s, he moved to Nottingham, where he was exposed to house via locals like Graeme Park and foreign luminaries such as DJ Pierre. A gig as a recording engineer followed, after which he came into his own as a producer in the early ’90s with releases under the names Sine and Megatonk.
Following the Brit invasion of the Bay Area, Webster alighted on California in 1993, where he launched his Love From San Francisco label with essential tracks like “Want Me Like Water,” featuring a 16-year-old singer by the name of Terra Deva. Three years later, he was back in the U.K. with even more DJ gigs, plus an album deal with Pagan Records as Presence while his remix of Dr. Rockit’s “Cafe de Flore” for pal Matthew Herbert was burning up dancefloors. In 2002, he finally released a full-length under his real name; Born on the 24th of July (Peacefrog/Strata) expanded upon the less club-focused vibe of Presence���s All Systems Gone, and revealed Webster’s talent for songwriting.
Webster describes his sound as “electronic,” but this does little to encapsulate his gently funky basslines, smoothly shifting synth pads, and meticulous layers of production, all synchronized to an emotional groove at once immediate and complex. Longtime collaborator Terra Deva sees his influences in her own work. “Sophistication is something I always keep available in my bag of tricks,” she says, “but Charles always insisted on it, which kept me and house music on our toes. Charles keeps it beautiful and artful and simple-sounding, but even if you knew what expertise went into it you could not duplicate it.”
“I’ve never really made hands-in-the-air soulful house,” concurs Webster. “My stuff’s always had a moodier edge to it. I don’t think I’ve ever made a happy record, ever. It’s like Steely Dan–never wrote a love song in eight albums!” Webster does admit that last year’s “All Over the World” single, under his popular Furry Phreaks alias, is not exactly gloomy. “If Defected is releasing it as a single, they must see some sort of crossover potential beyond moody house heads,” he acknowledges. The Defected re-release didn’t feature Jazzanova’s wonderfully clanking, ominous remix–that was reserved for Webster’s own Miso label, which releases at a glacial pace: just seven carefully chosen records in the past five years.
With his “Influences” disc for the Defected compilation making unlikely bedfellows out of Plaid, D’Angelo, and Tom Waits, perhaps it’s not a surprise that Webster has another far-ranging project in the works: a big band. Together with longtime friend Pete Wraight (who worked with Matthew Herbert), Webster is presently finishing an album (at Abbey Road Studios, no less) of “pure, full-on jazz with electronic twists.” He’s also got another solo artist album in the can, which will focus more on slower tempos and other genres. “It’s a bit frustrating [that people say], ‘Oh, you do house music,’ when so much of the music I do isn’t house. But I guess it’s always the first thing that you’re known for [that] sticks. I’m working with Shara Nelson from Massive Attack; I did stuff with Tracey Thorn on her album, which was basically classical music. There’s all kinds of interesting things [happening],” Webster chuckles. “It’s just that house music, at the moment, pays the bills.”
Mr. Webster details five influential tracks from his new compilation.
The Cranberries “No Need to Argue” (Island, 1994)
“I’m not at all religious but this song makes me feel like I ought to be. It reminds me of special times.”
Kate Bush “Army Dreamers” (EMI, 1980)
“It is such a beautiful but sad song on the futility of war. Partly why I chose it was for Bush’s perfect vocal delivery.”
Deep South “Believe” (Murk, 1993)
“This track for me always should have been a big pop hit. It has a very underground vibe with a perfect pop song in there.”
Patti Smith Group “Frederick” (EMI, 1979)
“I remember this track from when I was a kid. It always makes me want to cry because it’s just full of love.”
Vashti Bunyan “Rose Hip November” (Dicristina Stair Builders, 1970)
“This one is another throwback to childhood because I grew up around folky music. This track has such an apocalyptic vibe to it, innocent yet at the same time knowing.”