Louder Than War Interview: Chris Liberator from Stay Up Forever Records
2012 was a strange year, stultified by sport, civic occasions, and pageantry of all kinds. Viewed from the autumn of 2013 it looks like an exercise in denial, an attempt by the ruling classes to paper over the cracks with as much bullshit as they could muster. While much of the country was going mad in a brief orgy of feel-good distraction an alternative celebration was going on. Techno DJ / producer Chris Liberator and his brothers-in-acid, Aaron and Julian, spent the year celebrating two milestones: twenty years of DJing together as the Liberator crew, and the one-hundredth release from their record label, the deeply underground and fiercely single-minded Stay Up Forever Records. SUF emerged in 1994 and since then has supplied a regular dose of dancefloor-destroying acid techno, spreading the gospel of “fat 303s, fat rigs, fast drugs, fuck you” across the world.
Our man spoke to him about surviving outside the mainstream for twenty years.
Louder Than War: 2012 must have been a busy year for you Chris, so how do you feel now as we’re staggering through 2013? How did you feel about the weird jingoistic haze that descended over the country last year? How have you been marking the 100th release from Stay Up Forever?
Chris Liberator: 2013 has been good so far. As we’ve not had a lot of money and not any particular rush to hurry the 100th release celebrations we’ve definitely been drawing things out a bit! Parts 4 and 5 of SUF 100 came out in the summer, and the box set/CD/download version of the whole thing which will probably arrive towards the end of the year now. Plus we still have plans to do an exhibition and more parties this year including a huge LONDON UNDERGROUND UNITED party on 23rd November in North London. As for the very nationalistic tendencies displayed in 2012 with the Olympics and Jubilee etc., this thankfully seems to have been replaced with the public’s realisation that things are not bright and rosy at present. With Thatcher dying (weirdly enough on my birthday) the forces of Britain’s non- mainstream political and cultural underground seem finally to be galvanised. Hopefully we’ll see some creative subversion, ha ha!
Going back to the beginning, how did you Aaron and Julian meet? Did you have music out through other labels first? What caused the birth of Stay Up Forever? How did you deal with the practicalities of getting started?
We met in 1990, linking up through friends of friends around the North London/Stoke Newington squat scene. We were all into techno and raving but felt a bit out of place going out to commercial raves when we were all from a much more squat/punk background. We didn’t feel at home around the white jeans, white gloves and glow-stick culture in commercial raves and clubs so began using our ever-expanding record collections to play music on our own scene.
Our first event, in Julian’s squat in October 1990, had a techno rave (courtesy of us) on the first floor, and a hole cut in the floor with a fireman’s pole leading to a basement with punk bands playing, and a big fire in the garden serving as a chill out! From these humble roots we began putting on more parties, a mixture of warehouse raves and punk squat eviction parties, before meeting up with like minded crews like Conspiracy and Bedlam and playing with them at bigger warehouse squat parties in London, and festivals like Lechlade and Castlemorton on the burgeoning illegal festival/rave link up.
We decided after a while to start a label to represent the sound we’d been playing, (hard European, US and British acid, rave and techno) which strangely enough didn’t fit with the many systems we played alongside who at the time either favoured Gabba (Spirals, etc.), or House (DIY, etc.), or purer Detroit techno (Zero Gravity, etc.) Apart from a few like-minded souls like Dave DDR from Full On, and Beamish from Shrape, we were largely out on a limb so the idea to put out some of our own music took shape. Around this time we met Choci from Choci’s Chewns who was one of the few people championing a similar sound to us and we began making tunes for his label shortly after starting our own STAY UP FOREVER imprint. More tunes and offers for other labels followed as our music began to spread but it certainly wasn’t an instant thing , we were at it for a long while before things really began to click. We’d actually ran out of money for the label by the fifth record and were saved from oblivion by the Truelove Collective who offered us a pressing and distribution deal. With the help of a few friends who had access to some better studios we managed to keep the music coming, financed from small amounts of money we made from DJing at club gigs like Megadog that we played at, inbetween the squat/free party stuff.
I listened through some of the early 12”s while writing out these interview questions, and they are raw, but you can see a SUF sound is there very early on. The Hardcore Disco E.P. and Chugg’A’Fukka, for example, sound very different but share an attitude. What do you think of those tunes now you look back on them? What’s the oldest SUF tune you think you still pull out regularly? What about your personal favourite, the one you look back on and think – ‘yeah, we nailed that’?
The early releases definitely displayed the attitude we were trying to reflect, but more than anything they are a product of what the three of us (Julian, Aaron and myself ) were into playing as DJ’s. We were really into acid but didn’t have a 303, but we did have some gear left from a band I’d been in including an Atari computer and an Akai 950 sampler, and a studio engineer called Paul Harding, also from my old band, who worked at Southern Studios, (home of Crass and Adrian Sherwood at the time amongst others). Paul helped us create the first E.P. and was involved with the label when it started. Our influences were a hybrid of all the stuff around at the time from the raw acid of Underground Resistance, through UK rave like Rising High Records, to the European acid trance which was just emerging (Hardfloor/Important Records/Hyper Hype Records, etc.) – the first couple of E.P.’s took a long while to complete and we wanted them to reflect all these influences. We’d also begun to meet other artists on the squat scene with similar vibes like DDR and the guys from Shrape (who were responsible for the 3rd E.P.) but they also had their own sound which differed to ours.
At the start we got some positive feedback but not much success with SUF and soon ran out of cash, but after the Truelove Collective took us on board we rallied and were able to persevere with trying to record the sound we really wanted the label to have. We nailed it over the next few releases, with SUF5 (DOM’s classic ‘Acid War’) and SUF9 (Cosmic Trigger ‘Ghost of Acid’) both doing particularly well, and perhaps displaying the blueprint sound most effectively of all the early records.
When I was finishing number SUF11 (I’d produced one side but needed another track) I met Henry Cullen who worked as an engineer for the nascent Bag Records. I’d been asked to make a record for them, on the condition I used Henry’s studio. The session went really well and he agreed to engineer one side of SUF11 (which ended up being the A-side ‘Nothing Can Save Us, London’). His studio had a digital recording facility called Soundscape so we could finally layer the 303s to our hearts content, write harmonic 303 lines (a technique pioneered by DDR), and achieve the rich sound only hinted at on the earlier releases. Henry of course was D.A.V.E. the Drummer and SUF began a new era from this point on. Shortly after we met Lawrie Immersion and Guy Geezer, who joined the growing team of acid heads, including us Liberators, DDR, and Gizelle. The music and creativity blossomed alongside the weekly squat raves, which focused on this heavy new London sound as they got bigger and louder! My favourite early tune was probably SUF17 ‘Cosmic Trigger’, though the classic at the time was SUF14, A&E Dept’s ‘The Rabbit’s Name Was….” definitely nailed it with those two!
Going even further back, did you have any musical heroes when you were growing up? What kind of music was there around you when you were a kid?
Absolutely! I lived and breathed music from an early age, a massive fan of Slade and Sweet when I was only 7 or 8, then my tastes quickly matured into Queen and Pink Floyd, but of course these were all thrown aside when Punk came along in 1977. I was only 12 but the energy and anger connected with me immediately, and for me it changed everything forever. The mundane and shitty closed society that surrounded me as I went through my teenage years growing up on the edge of London in Hornchurch, Essex, was suddenly and irrevocably challenged. It completely and utterly blew my mind. I remember seeing Mark Perry (from Sniffing’ Glue fanzine and the band ATV who I later met, a definite hero of mine) on TV slagging off all the prog rock bands and in the same week discovering the Stranglers, followed by the Adverts, Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Slits, and all those other bands from the original punk era. I was hooked and I stayed hooked, following punk avidly as it progressed through the coming years into all it’s digressions (with massive amounts of help from John Peel) including early electronica like Cabaret Voltaire/ Normal, etc., and all the Rough Trade stuff (Kleenex/ Thee Raincoats and suchlike). I was in a band called Hagar the Womb at this time and I got involved in the anarcho punk scene (Crass/ Mob/ Poison Girls and similar bands) playing at punk squats and anarcho activist centres, and loved the DIY culture it inspired.
All this stuff from 77 to 84 is the glue which cemented everything that followed. The DIY approach to making music, and the attitude and anti-authoritarianism of punk came through in all the music I made, and was the blueprint and inspiration for the SUF labels, the SUF collective, and all the music we went on to create between us all. Julian and Aaron were both squatters when I met them and were friends of Hackney punks, who themselves were descendants of this same scene, just a generation on, and likewise one of the first squat parties with techno that I went too was part organised by old punk mates (Dan, from the Apostles and later Look Mummy Clowns, and Danny Blank). Lawrie, Henry and Guy were all in bands prior to their involvement in techno, and hail from this same scene, though a generation on . Way before I knew Henry and Guy we were at the same parties: while the Liberators were playing Techno on the Bedlam stage at the legendary Castlemorton Festival in 1992, they were playing on another stage in their then band, Back To the Planet. We were all there, fruit from the same seed.
Was it a political upbringing? SUF, and other UK techno labels like Prolekult and later Routemaster, were often overtly political, what drove this?
As I said, all of the punk stuff acted not as just as an energy kick, but as a political education. However, when the techno came along it was a massively hedonistic time, and you didn’t want to preach to people when you were all buzzing on a new vibe, feeling the rush and energy of the Ecstasy revolution. Punk rock was far from my mind during this period, and for a lot of the others probably of no consequence. But we did came from an alternative culture and the reason we didn’t want to go clubbing with the Mixmag crowd was because we were outsiders, all aware and ‘turned on’ if you like. By doing illegal raves you were challenging the status quo, but also making parties the way we felt they should be made, with a dirtier, edgier feel. They were political by their very nature, and the ‘Fuck You’ attitude was always there. Lawrie’s Immersion rig was out every week, and he lived on a bus, parked up in a succession of squats.
Most of the parties and music sessions were done on the fly. It felt like we could do anything, and even though there were several run-ins with police and council officers, it did feel like London was ours for the taking. There were overtly political things happening alongside the scene, like Reclaim The Streets, and the M11 protests too. As for the labels, Lawrie’s label Routemaster definitely flew the flag for the squat scene, and Prolekult had Red Jerry behind it, who wasn’t really part of our scene but was another who wore his politics on his sleeve and shared the same attitude and musical taste. We were all pretty much on the same page. London/ UK techno was more than just music, it actually meant something, representing a way of life and way of thinking. Unsurprisingly, it seemed to connect to the same kind of people, the outsiders who had a similar view of the world to us.
I think that the decision of thousands of young and not so young people to go and dance in fields and warehouses with thousands of other people was a subconsciously political act, a decision to step away from straight society (as well as the pure fun of loud music and bright lights), but didn’t really want anything to do with mainstream party politics until the Tories started their assault after the Castlemorton Festival. As their response hardened into legislation that specifically and directly attacked music comprised of repetitive beats (as well as hunt sabs, protesters, and all the other inter-locking bits of alternative life) were you involved in the Freedom Party movement, and the anti-CJA demos, etc? Personally the anti-CJA stuff felt dispiriting and euphoric all at the some time – I remember being completely resigned to the passing of the law but still enthused by the passion of the resistance. How was it from your perspective?
I think being politicised via punk, especially anarcho-punk, where the Stop the City, anti war, anti vivisection marches and suchlike had already given us a taste of street protest meant that when the anti-CJA and Reclaim the Streets protests happened we just got involved as we’d always done. Fighting abhorrent legislation by showing your anger on the streets was an everyday thing, especially in the eighties where millions took to the streets against the Poll Tax and nuclear weapons. Whatever we have, they will always try and take it away from us, I think most of us knew it would inevitably happen. Most encouragingly of all the squat parties continued on unabated in London. Most of the rigs just thought , fuck it, we ain’t stopping, we’ll just have to become more under the radar.
After the blatant approach of Spiral Tribe’s highly publicised events, a new breed of sound systems had learned that it was easier to just do your thing without too much fanfare, which is why Bedlam parties rarely got busted and Spiral Tribe parties often did, because Spirals were pretty full on and wanted to make as much publicity for the free party cause as possible, but this of course had it’s negative consequences. It was a learning curve but eventually squat parties survived because of it. Jiba threw a party the week the Criminal Justice Bill came in and didn’t get stopped. It was a green light for the London scene, which flourished.
Lots of crews disappeared across the channel to Europe and a perceived easier life travelling and putting on parties over there away from the hassle in the UK. I was always grateful in a way to the ones, like you lot and DiY and others, that stayed put and fought on here. What made you stay in the UK, and did the CJA have a big impact on you post-1995? We’ve obviously seen that state aggression continue, with last years completely pointless legislation making squatting in a residential property a criminal offence: do you think dance music and alternative culture will carry on being attacked by governments?
We just carried on, but with a little bit more care. Outside London, free festivals and bigger gatherings kind of dried up, same as they did after The Battle of the Beanfield and Stonehenge Free Festival a decade earlier when the authorities first clamped down on the travellers. Spiral Tribe went to France and we attended the first Teknival there in Milau, and had originally planned to leave too with Conspiracy and Bedlam (who we’d linked up with at Lechlade and Castlemorton), but key members of Conspiracy had been charged by the police after Castlemorton and decided it wasn’t worth it after fighting to stay out of jail. We enjoyed the Teknival/ traveller spirit but with the music taking off in UK and the London scene really starting to ‘ave it we decided it was better for us to stay, and I’m glad we did.
As for Spirals, they achieved a massive amount in Europe bringing the Teknival idea to fruition on a larger scale than could ever be imagined, but with the advent of Immersion and Virus sound systems, and after them Underground Sound, Manik and a tonne of others, the London squat scene became huge. The Spirals might have taken the Teknival concept to Europe, but we on the other hand had managed to draw the wayward youth of Europe’s underground to London with hordes of Italians, Spanish and French coming to the UK capital to enjoy the weekly huge Acid Techno warehouse squat parties, where thousands of revellers would reclaim the unused and empty buildings of the city to use for 48-hour mega-raves that were seriously off the hook.
There was still the odd rave or Teknival outside London, and big free party crews operating in places like Bristol, Wales, and the Midlands, but these parties often attracted the attention of the police who freely used the CJB legislation to confiscate equipment. In the capital it was the Noise Abatement laws that were used to the same effect, and caused numerous confiscations and problems, but in industrial areas it was rarely seen as more than a nuisance by the Met or the local force who often came to check things out but didn’t necessarily feel that wasting precious Saturday night man power on busting parties was worth the effort, especially when more serious breaches of the peace were taking place outside pubs and nightclubs. Nowadays crews like E1S, Stinky Pink, KSS, Malfaiteurs, and many others still fly the flag, with regular parties. The squatting laws have changed again however and the new legislation will affect the use of commercial buildings, so it will be interesting to see what happens now.
Of course, any alternative culture will be regarded with suspicion by the powers that be, so is likely to be attacked by any government that feels that it poses a threat to the status-quo. However, alternative culture often becomes accepted by mainstream culture in the long run, and often is absorbed by it, as we’ve seen with both punk rock and dance culture. Even underground heroes like Mutoid Waste, who have lived outside mainstream society for generations, were involved in the Olympic opening ceremony last year, and have seen their art celebrated in the media in recent times. Good or bad? Well, good for the most part, they’ve changed perceptions and moved people’s ideas and preconceptions of art and reality on, and as long as there is always someone else out there kicking against the pricks (and there always will be for sure!) it’s good to see acceptance of some radical ideas as people slowly begin to wise up.
Having survived the ‘death of dance music’ (copyright: the music press every three years or so, on a loop for the last twenty years) several times over, and the descent of techno into glitchy fiddly minimal tedium, it must have been nice over the last few years to see dance music, and acid techno in particular, make a big comeback (especially in light of your ‘Bored’ tune). Does it seem to you like the acid sound has burst out again? Has the slow death of the mainstream music industry affected you?
Yes, acid techno definitely seems to be on the rise again . A glut of wicked new producers like A.P., Tassid and Tik Tok, and labels like Corrosive and Brain Gravy has really helped develop a new digital sound, and a new generation is beginning to get into it via exposure to it at events like Boomtown Fair last year, where they finally had techno represented in the bigger areas like Arcadia amongst the dubstep, rave, and drum ‘n’ bass. Free party crews in places like Lincolnshire and Norfolk have adopted the sound, and in Europe it has began to impact on the free-party scene where it has always played second-fiddle to Hard-Tek and the traditional European Teknival sound. In countries like Australia (Techno Mulisha), Colombia (Acid Resistance) and Spain (Acid Corps) newer crews are beginning to build a scene alongside older more established outfits, and in traditional strongholds like Japan (Mass), Venezuela, Brazil, and Poland there are still crews continuing with the sound and making parties happen.It’s not the biggest musical genre but due to the fanaticism of its following and the very underground, uncompromising nature of it, I don’t think it’s ever going to disappear.
As for the mainstream music biz meltdown, yes it has impacted on us a bit, but now the internet has established itself, and the vinyl has proved it can survive alongside mp3 and digital formats it’s beginning to settle. There’s very little money for artists but since we set up 909london.com, dedicated to harder acid and techno, it’s given the artists a platform to release stuff, and DJs and acid heads looking for acid techno and related stuff can now go directly there to find this specific musical genre and can support the scene’s musicians directly. We’re still producing vinyl of course, but it’s difficult and expensive so it’s more limited than before but we ain’t gonna stop unless we’re forced to!
SUF100 must have been quite a milestone for an underground label – especially when, once you count in all the remix EP’s and releases from other SUF-related labels, the actual releases must number in the thousands. How did it feel once you realised it was on the horizon? How did the celebratory year go, and more importantly what is next for you and SUF?
Well, most of all it’s just great to still be around after all this time. I think the thing we’re most proud of is the fact that we’ve never compromised our sound or our ethical stance, even when it’s been obvious that we’re so out of sync with the rest of the techno world which seems to be dominated by a constant urge to follow what’s in fashion. Of course there are exceptions to this and I’m happy to think that we are hopefully one of those, and have perhaps garnered some respect for that at least. Stayupforever.com is still selling vinyl, and as mentioned earlier, 909london.com is a dedicated acid techno site for mp3 downloads, and the Stay Up Forever Facebook page is where you can get most of the news on the parties we’re doing and general news.
We’ve got a limited edition box set of the whole SUF 100 release coming soon, and lots of parties including another big L.U.U. event and something in collaboration with Spiral Tribe next year, so plenty going on alongside all the DJ stuff and occasional appearances at free parties too. We are still planning an exhibition documenting SUF and The Global Acid Techno party scene. Not sure when, but hopefully soon!
In these irony-soaked, ‘seen-it-all-before’ times it is rare to see a set of people who are politically sincere and culturally consistent when it comes to making music. Stay Up Forever inhabit a parallel dimension, a million light-years away from plastic EDM and moody minimalism. Holding your nerve and living up to your political ethics isn’t easy in our debased culture, so fair play to them for making music for the best of reasons – to move the minds and bodies of freaks across the globe. We can only hope that there are another 20 years of full-on, face-ripping, foot-stomping, warehouse-shaking, acid techno coming our way, as more and more people re-discover the joys of fat 303s, fat rigs, fast drugs… and a fuck you attitude!
Thanks to Chris for answering our questions, and thanks to all the SUF crew for the tunes and parties over the years. As far from the mainstream as you can get, this is UK dance music at its best – heartfelt, hectic, and independent.
Interview by Ben Sansum, author of ‘Spannered’, a book about UK free-parties. You can find more of his Louder Than War writing here, the Spannered Books website here, orfollow him on Twitter and Facebook.