Ben UFO touches down at Igloofest

British DJ Ben UFO eschews touring on the back of studio productions in favour of spinning, running a record label and co-hosting a radio show on London’s Rinse FM. Ahead of his set at Igloofest tonight, he told Cult MTL about how he processes music, builds sets and digs crates.

Ben UFO. Photo by the Gentleman Amateur, feature photo by Anze Kokalj
Unlike many DJs who regularly gig across the globe, Ben UFO doesn’t tour on the backs of his own studio productions — a fact that makes him a bit of an anomaly in 2013. DJs usually take on the double duty of being both a recording artist and a performer, with studio-based output acting as a calling card to book shows. UFO (née Thomson) has eschewed this convention in favour of focusing solely on DJing, running a record label, Hessle Audio, and co-hosting a radio show on London-based Rinse FM. In the process of doing so, he has been hailed as a thoughtful selector with a deep knowledge of dance music and respected for taking an open-minded approach to DJing.

Since 2007, through his label work, radio show and countless gigs, UFO has also garnered a reputation for bridging the gaps between genres in electronic music. The U.K. bass music UFO and his cohorts grew up on continues to inform their tastes, but in recent years, drum & bass’s skittering snares and dubstep’s wobble have given way to influences from the world of house and techno.

This is most evident in UFO’s recent contribution to the esteemed FabricLive DJ mix CD series, which features a sharp selection of straightforward 4/4 beats, bridged by more experimental cuts from Hessle Audio artists (and label co-owners) Pearson Sound and Pangaea.

This week, we exchanged emails about how he puts his sets together, his predilection for record shopping and more.

Michael Sallot: Over the last few years, it seems as though there’s been an intersection between bass music coming from the U.K. — originating in grime, dubstep and drum and bass — and house and techno. Do you think that’s accurate? Where do you see things going?
Ben UFO: All those styles of music that you mention still exist as scenes in their own right, so I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. What has happened, I think, is that people are more willing than they have been in the past to make music that’s relevant to more than one area, and to DJ different styles of music to different crowds. Hopefully we can retain that kind of flexibility and open-minded approach to making music and organizing events.

MS: As a label owner, radio host and DJ, what is your process for listening to and evaluating new music?
BU: I’ve given up trying to listen to everything I get sent. There’s so much of it that, by attempting to skim through everything, I wasn’t doing the music justice, and it was affecting my ability to listen to music for pleasure in my spare time.

These days I tend to prioritize checking music that gets released on vinyl, and demos from people who send me their music directly, as opposed to music that comes to me through PR agencies or emails that I’ve been cc-ed into along with thousands of other people. If someone takes the time to contact me specifically, the least I can do is listen to their music.

MS: I have read elsewhere that most of what gets released on Hessle Audio gets played out at gigs a fair bit before it gets pressed. What can people expect from your Igloofest set tonight and what can people expect from the label, in general, this year?
BU: We do tend to test out the music we release in advance, but don’t plan very far ahead. We’re about to release our next 12-inch — Raw Code / Junked by Peverelist and Kowton — and I’ll certainly play at least one side of that record tonight. Aside from that, our schedule is clear. We’ve never enjoyed committing ourselves to anything too far in advance. Things seem to move quickly, and I like being able to react to new music as it’s being made.

MS: When you’re getting ready to DJ somewhere you haven’t played before, how do you prepare? Have you gotten better at predicting what a crowd wants to hear or anticipating how they’ll react, or is it still a challenge?
BU: I’m lucky in that I’ve never felt the pressure to play to the crowd particularly. I’m in a privileged position in that I think people now expect me to play music they haven’t heard before, and so far that’s been true of the audiences that have come to see me play all over the world. I played in Montreal last year and enjoyed it enormously. Hopefully it’ll be just as good this time around.

MS: Have you played many outdoor gigs before? Does the experience of playing an open-air gig, or a festival, change what you do, in terms of giving people an experience that is different from that of a dark and sweaty club?
BU: I’ve played at a lot of outdoor festivals over the past two years in particular, and the experience of playing in so many different environments at so many different times of day just reinforces to me how important context is as a DJ.

I’m often surprised by what feels appropriate at different times and in different places. I guess the assumption tends to be that that darker music works best at night and vice versa, but the crowds I play to surprise me regularly.

MS: Have you played in the cold before?
BU: Never. I must have been fairly obviously unprepared for this, as when I stepped off the plane I was immediately given a warm coat by the festival organizers. I even managed to forget my gloves.

MS: I enjoyed watching the record shopping segment you did recently, for FACT TV. What has been your greatest crate-digging discovery?
BU: There’s been a lot! One of the nice things about digging for records in places like the storage container I took FACT to is that you end up discovering unbelievably obscure records which also happen to be really cheap. The Internet facilitates digging to an extent, but one of the things I’ve found is that it makes it easy to find records that are already established, and already sought after by collectors. If you’re going through a shelf full of physical vinyl, you’re going by instinct as opposed to by price or by how many people have a record in their wish list or whatever. ■

Ben UFO plays Igloofest with Taal Mala and Joe Goddard of Hot Chip at Jacques-Cartier Pier in the Old Port tonight, Thursday, Feb. 7, 6:30p.m., $16/$20

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