It's would appear that Craig Richards is in a period of transition. The UK-based artist, a fabric resident for nearly two decades, has had a busy year — one that has seen him explore beyond the London club's infamous dancefloors more frequently than in recent memory. As he said in a recent interview with Crack Magazine, the club's closure made him "go out and play at different venues in London and around the country” — which in turn made him realise it's important to be able to "transpose" his exceptional skills as a selector to "other venues big or small." One could argue that the much-loved DJ has become more of a household name than ever before.
The most celebrated example of such an exploration is Houghton, the festival he co-produced with Gottwood. Richards was not intending to be as involved as he was; rather, fabric's closure — which many believed to be perpetual — inspired him to take on a larger role, convinced it was a "calling." The festival was a success beyond all measure; you only had to look on social media or online for evidence of this — Facebook posts, reviews, and tweets. Houghton was the festival of the summer season.
Yet this is only an initial step of the transition. Richards announced in October that he will be stepping down from his weekly fabric slot, remaining a resident but just returning less frequently. He's also recently released a painting book, featuring many of the artists from Houghton—a "manifestation," he explains, of a desire to "leave a mark." Yet the reasons behind these decisions remained a little unclear; it was only by visiting his second home — a small and cozy apartment about five minutes walk from fabric's front door — that we really began to grasp Richard's motivations for these moves. Why now—at 51 years of age?
The room in which we sit is pleasant and boasting of a large window that overlooks London's Barbican. Scattered around the two-floor space are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of records, clearly placed in no particular order. Richards himself confesses that he has no idea where anything is — amusing when you consider that this represents less than 10 percent of his complete collection, the vast majority of which is kept on the South Coast, where he spends much of his time. Indeed, he suggests that the best place for him to go record digging is in the "dark corners" of his collection where there are records that "I just don’t remember," he adds. He laughs when saying it, acknowledging just how ridiculous this sounds — but it is also probably true.
Over what turns out to be a four-hour conversation, Richards touches on a vast array of interesting topics, few of which can or need to be recited here. Having cracked open several pints of lager, and after showing us the book of illustrations he completed just recently, he switched his focus to elaborate upon the motivations behind these recent transformations.
Craig Richards performed at this year’s Boiler Room x Ballantine’s True Music in Warsaw, Poland. The Boiler Room x Ballantine’s collaboration is a global platform that supports and celebrates uncompromising artists committed to doing it "their way.” You can see a video of his performance here.
Houghton Festival turned out to be a success this year. How did you try to differentiate from other festivals? Did you intend to have an unconfirmed performance schedule?
Yes, kind of. Some of this was deliberate but it was also due to a lack of organization.
One of the things that was really irritating during the preparation for the festival but brilliant for the event is that the reception is really bad there. You’re in the middle of the country so your phone just doesn’t work. This was a real blessing for the event; people were just pottering around and not always calling their friends, telling them to come over here or there. So there were no exoduses from the dancefloor. The aim was to have it so that there wasn’t such a wide spectrum with the styles so you could just bumble about; you weren’t going to be shocked by being in the wrong tent like at other festivals.
We had to keep changing the lineup and schedule for a number of reasons. Different things kept coming up — it’s the nature of the beast. As a result, we missed the printing date and so we had no schedule. In the end, it just didn’t happen. At one point, I planned on painting the lineups and schedules at the front of each tent but that never happened because I had other things on. So there was no way of working out who was playing where and when. Some people complained but some people enjoyed how random it was. It was just not supposed to be quite as extreme as it was. It kind of ended up being a happy accident, but people will probably be better informed next year.
How did you curate the lineup?
They’re all my friends that I appreciate — straight from my record box. I’m not sure of how much I actually curated it, to be honest. I think if you’re into music and you just follow your taste, and when you’re my age, then you should have some idea of what music goes with what.
I just set it up so I could do what I wanted to do. For example, Ricardo [Villalobos] and I playing for eight and a half hours until 11.30am, and then being comfortable to put Andrew Weatherall on to play a dub reggae set — that’s perfectly reasonable. Those were the moments where it felt like it had worked, in the sense that the programming didn’t have to build up and down like it does in a club. I wanted to be able to use the moments of the day to do things, like play ambient or reggae music in the morning. That was important to me.
"I think the success [of Houghton] comes from the level of restraint and simplicity. We spent money in the right areas, on the sound and the music."
How did you become involved in the festival?
Gottwood has always been at risk because of the house where it's held, and so they were looking for alternative venues. They found Houghton and they asked me if I wanted to be involved. I ended up being much more involved than I had originally intended; I actually ended up being fully involved because it felt like a "calling" for me — after fabric closed.
They actually asked me before fabric closed, and then the closure came very suddenly. I never really thought that it would open again. As much as we were trying, none of us really believed that the power of social media would be strong enough to actually overturn the police’s decision.
Nonetheless, at this point, I was about to turn 50 years old, and I was taking a big long look at my life. I was thinking about the next chunk, and while running a festival was not on my mind, Houghton felt like a "calling." The rest was just really me trying to impose 35 years of going to nightclubs onto a festival. I just called on all my experience and applied it to a rural setting.
Why do you think it was a success?
I think the success comes from the level of restraint and simplicity. We spent money in the right areas, on the sound and the music. We didn’t have anything for sale or anything too flash. I tried to keep it simple, but pure. I didn’t want sponsors or to have anything for sale. I wanted it to as simple as possible. I think that’s what a lot of people appear to have liked.
Your residency at fabric allows you to invite people to play alongside you. Do you try to choose people that challenge you as an artist?
All I do is propose people from my record bag, which is all I’ve ever done. That’s what I did with Ricardo when I started hearing his records. It’s what I still do now. I am just trying to present good music. There are some people who go with me more than others but it’s not about me.
After all those years there, and having grown confidence out of the fact that I play there every week, I have had the chance to buy different genres of records. To be frank, my residency excuses my record addiction because I know I’m going to need them. At my point, I should be able to play an amazing set before or after the likes of Jeff Mills, Richie Hawtin, Nicolas Lutz, or Ricardo — or even play with them.
"Some of the records that Nicolas [Lutz] plays have got fucking horrible endings; they’re violent ‘90s techno records, not the latest additions to the Beatport top 20."
Are you selective about you who play with?
Yes, I definitely don’t play back to back with everyone. It’s really hard work and so it’s only worth doing in the right circumstances. It’s not easy playing with these guys: they’re brilliant DJs and some of the records will not be easy to mix out of. Some of the records that Nicolas [Lutz] plays have got fucking horrible endings; they’re violent ‘90s techno records, not the latest additions to the Beatport top 20. So I only do it when there is absolutely no competition between us and I know that playing is going to add something rather than being some boring ping pong match. For a back to back to be worth doing and to be a success, it’s got to take the music in a different direction, one that you wouldn’t or couldn’t go in if you were playing alone.
It must be strange playing with Lutz, Binh, or these other diggers because there must be lots of records that they play that you don’t know. What are your thoughts on sharing IDs?
Completely. Loads. That’s the beauty of it. There is so much stuff that is only available in limited quantities and a lot of it sounds way better now than it did back then.
I’m really open with track IDs with a few people, although I think people would actually say that I am a bit of a nightmare because I’ll say I’ll send it and then I don’t. But all the people that I respect demand a certain privacy about their collections. There are only so many times you can ask people like Nicolas Lutz, Ricardo, Jeff Mills, and Andrew Weatherall for their track IDs. It’s about respect, at the end of the day. That being said, we’ll all be sharing records with each other. It’s a community. We just keep certain records to ourselves.
"It’s important that DJing is never more than my hobby; it’s important that I hold back enough time to do other things that I enjoy — like getting stoned and listening to music, painting, reading, and stuff like that."
From the outside, you appear to be selective about the gigs that you play. What determines whether you accept a booking request or not?
I do all the gigs that I want to do, and I don’t do the ones I don’t want to do. It’s important that DJing is never more than my hobby; it’s important that I hold back enough time to do other things that I enjoy — like getting stoned and listening to music, painting, reading, and stuff like that. I want to have time to do other things besides living out of a suitcase and staying up all night. I’ve been on tours where I’ve done a lot of gigs in a short space of time and I’ve struggled — tears in a pillow sort of thing. It’s just not who I am. DJing is always going to be just one of many things that I enjoy doing.
And to be honest, I don’t earn enough money for this to ever to be a problem. The ones it becomes a problem for are artists who are offered lots of money — when they’re offered £20,000 for a set and suddenly their principles are challenged. I have never been in that silly money bit so I’ve never been too challenged. It’s easier for me to say no to gigs.
The temptation must be there — to play bigger crowd sand push more commercial music
Not really, because I don’t like feeling like that. I want to feel alright about what I am doing. The music that I play doesn’t bring in these big-money offers. I’ve also never been driven by money.
Do you see it as a sacrifice, knowing that you could perhaps be even more successful playing more commercial music?
Not at all. I live the life that I want to live. I spend the money that I have on the same things that I’ve spent it on for years: records, old clothes, and going out and getting pissed. However much money I had, I would just buy more of these things. Money just doesn’t motivate me. If money does motivate you, then your career will naturally take a very different course.
"If anything, I think one of my problems is that I’ve shot at too many targets most of my life.."
Have you ever struggled with motivation as a DJ?
No. Not in any way. I feel like time is running out. I’m one of those people that’s too hungry and thirsty for too many things. I am always let down my lack of energy. I am overly motivated. If anything, I think one of my problems is that I’ve shot at too many targets most of my life — like painting, selling second-hand clothes at Portobello, photography, and wanting to be good at all of these things. Or at least as good as I can be. Sometimes I fear that I’ve spread myself a little bit too thin, and if I had spent more time focusing on one of them then maybe I would have been a little bit more successful. Who knows what I could have done if I could have handled a little bit more DJing? But that’s just who I am; I like all of these things.
You said in another interview that you “buy records that I like and play them to friends or the public.” What’s the balance between buying records you like and buying records you think the crowd will like? There must a temptation to try to please the crowd.
I only buy records that I personally enjoy. Apart from the few friends that I text with and exchange photos of good records, I have little idea of what other people are doing. I’m pretty isolated, in truth; I don’t listen to records with all my mates. It’s just me alone, and so it’s a pretty honest self-expression. Someone once told me to never play a record that I don’t like, and that’s what I do, even if it’s a big track that the crowd will go mad for. My job is to present records that I enjoy to the public, in the hope that they will enjoy them too. It’s the difference between being a waiter and a chef.
It’s a nice idea, but not one that many DJs stick to.
Yes, but I think there a lot that are. I think there are some amazing DJs, but they’re not always the biggest or most well-known ones.
It’s true. The best DJs are often the ones playing the smaller club circuit.
Yes. If you’re a real DJ, then it’s important to play to small, intimate venues. If you see DJing as a craft that you’re trying to be really good at, then it’s important that you’re constantly challenged, and the best way to push yourself is to play in small venues with informed crowds.
You play records that many people haven’t heard — a real collection of oddities. How do you dig for records? Do you have a favorite place to dig at the moment, or do you use a lot of promos?
Now, one of the best places to dig is actually in the dark corners of my own record collection where there are records that I just don’t remember. It sounds stupid, but because I don’t know what’s going on with it, it’s quite good in there. I have forgotten so many of the records that I’ve bought and some of them are really good. I’ve got more records than I know what to do with, and some of them are really rare.
I only learned the value of some of them when British Airways lost my record bag and they couldn’t find it again. I was going from New York to Berlin, where I was playing with Ricardo. It was an amazing bag of records; I packed some of my best ones. I looked into replacing what I could remember and then I saw how much they were. I had to think whether I was willing to pay £150 to replace a record that I bought when it first came out.
"I still feel as if I know fuck all about music. I’ve only ever scratched the surface. I don’t know if I’ll ever shake that feeling."
So are you still adding to your collection a lot?
Yes. I have always bought as many records as I can afford.
Often I can’t find a record that I know I have in my collection and I’ll go onto Discogs and buy it again just because I can’t fucking remember where I placed it. It’s just easier. It’s got that out of hand.
Are you on Discogs a lot?
I’ll go to all the websites — Hardwax, Juno, Discogs. I’m addicted so I am doing it all the time. If I wasn’t addicted then I wouldn’t still need to. I still feel as if I don’t know anything. I still feel as if I know fuck all about music. I’ve only ever scratched the surface. I don’t know if I’ll ever shake that feeling.
How quickly can you tell whether it’s a dance record you’re going to buy?
Really quickly. And I can remember it straight away. I think that’s just one of those things that come from experience. If I play B2 in the shop then I’ll look at the record and know it’s B2 when I am in the club. And I’ve got a shaky memory!
How many records do you think you own?
I’d think around 30,000. But who really knows? It’s completely unorganized.
Is it all in one room?
It’s in three rooms. Two rooms in Dorset, and some here in London.
When you’re playing your records, are you thinking four or five tracks ahead?
No. I think you can do it on the CDJs well but with vinyl its harder.
So how do you compose this narrative — this sense of flow?
As much as I don’t plan three or four tracks ahead, I do have a mood in my head most of the time. I will know that I’m going to go down for a bit for an hour or so, and then know that I’m going to bang it for an hour — that’s how I prepare a sense of narrative. I will have certain moods that I can envisage as I am DJing. Ben UFO is good at this, changing genres quickly and switching between genres and presenting them in the right way, coaxing the listener to enjoy these types of music when they wouldn’t normally.
Are you very conscious when you’re performing, or is it based on instinct?
It depends. Sometimes there will be nights where it feels like I can grab any record and the crowd will enjoy it, but you’re never going to be completely free. You’ve got people in front of you judging you; you’re not a painter in a closed studio. As a DJ, you have a responsibility because there is a relationship going on; but when you’re comfortable it’s a lovely feeling. That’s the ideal state to be in.
Do you ever have to really focus during a set?
Yes. Sometimes you can feel the chin-strokers looking at you. That’s not a feeling I like because it makes me really nervous. I’m also not about that. I am not there to perform — I am not Cut Master Swift. I am just a guy playing his records.
I suppose the size of the gig affects this too.
Completely. My gig at Sónar festival is an example of this: it’s the biggest gig I’ve ever done, and I was really scared. I had to have a word with myself when I was down by the records, to acknowledge what I was doing.
It’s not easy to play vinyl on such a big stage. It’s crazy because you’re mixing two records and there are two styluses at the foundation of this success, and all these people are listening. If one of the records jumps or if there is some dust it will fuck up the mix — it’s a wonderful feeling of fragility. This is a bloody big stage for this to happen on, and in times like this, I have to really think.
How much time do you spend organizing your digital files before a gig? How do you organize them?
I’ve got so many folders that say “Groovy Techno” or “Late Night.” I’ve completely lost control of it, in all honesty. With the digital files, I need to listen to them in the week. I have a bit more idea with records. I would like to be much more organized. That’s an ambition. Whenever I see a DJ who is organized, I leave feeling really down — thinking that I should be more professional. We’re approaching the point where that might never happen.
You're also an accomplished visual artist—does painting give you the same release of emotions or feeling as making music or DJing?
No, it’s very different. I need to work much more on that. It’s always been a glorified hobby. I’ve been intending to make much more of it. I actually did a book of drawings of all the DJs that played Houghton, and I am also going to try to have a show. It’s something that you have to work on, and I need to invest more in it. It’s not something you can dip in an out of; you need to get in the groove, for three days. I have a studio in my garden and I want to be there much more. Finishing things has always been hard for me.
Is that one of the reasons why you just reduced your commitment to fabric?
It is. I just don’t want to be trucking around anymore. I’m past that point. People keep on asking me to go play here and there but it’s just not what I want to be doing right now. I DJ as much as I can without getting wonky or tired. It’s a constant struggle of finding that line, for me. With the painting, if I am tired then I cannot do it.
Have you become more impassioned by painting?
Not really. I’ve always been into it. But now I realize that I haven’t got unlimited time. I’m 51 years old now.
"Time is running out and now I have turned 50 I really feel like I need to do significant things."
How does music production fit in with this?
I love it, but it’s time, again. I’ve got loads of things I haven’t finished. I am not particularly technical but I do have a good ear. I can make stuff, but it comes down to time. I can just about survive in there on my own. I’m going to try to find more time in the winter. That’s how it is. It’s dividing time. If part of the time you’re recuperating, if you get really fucked up on the weekend, then you don’t have a week to spend in the studio. Time just runs out, if you’re not careful. Time is running out and now I have turned 50 I really feel like I need to do significant things. I want to make a mark. The festival and painting are basic manifestations of this desire to leave a mark.
So you’re now looking to pursue a career as a visual artist?
Yes. I spent a lot of time at art school, and the book I did for Houghton has shown me that I could and should have a go at it. I’m extremely self-critical but I think I can do it. Everyone I’ve told this to is like, “Are you the last person to realize this?” It’s almost like I am literally the last person to realize I can do this! I went to two of the best art schools in the world, so it seems a bit silly that I’m only giving it a go now.
And what are the next steps with Houghton?
I want to begin introducing unknown artists. There are people I want to have there in year three or four that people don’t know yet. I’ve got some really mad experimental jazz stuff, things that I hope people will be blown away by. They’re all established musicians but not necessarily in the party/dance music it world. I want to present it in a different format.
I want to get to the stage where people will buy tickets without having seen the lineup. Or to buy a ticket without knowing many of the names. That’s the next stage of trust, for me. In my opinion, this is a better musical experience. Seeing a great new band that you didn’t already know is a bigger buzz than seeing Radiohead that you already knew were great. That’s really where the magic is.