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Swine Interview Dave Piccioni

by Phil Thornton

If you're old enough to remember the dark ages before house music paved the way for today's multi-national corporate dance music industry, there were only a handful of decent venues in the entire country. One of my favourites was the tiny underground cellar, McMillans in Liverpool and it was there that I had one of the best nights of my life' dancing to everything from Hendrix to Led Zep, Curtis Mayfield to early house releases. This was about 1986 and the likes of the Hacienda (which I'd gone to since it opened and had always found both physically and emotionally cold) and Liverpool's The State were finally embracing MODERN black American dance music. As a somewhat narrow minded soulie myself I'd dismissed anything that contained guitars since Hip Hop and electro got a hold of me in 1981. To paraphrase Morrissey,'that night in McMillans has opened my eyes..and my ears.'

The term 'balearic' hadn't yet been coined but in the next few years the combination of Ibizan attitudes towards diverse musical selection, the dawning of acid house and the flurry of dance inspired rock groups from the north west, created one of, if the not the biggest youth movements of the century. The effects of this cultural earthquake are still around us today and one label that has consistently managed to breach the chasm between the underground and mainstream, the purist house scene and the balearic 'anything goes' ethos is Azuli.

Azuli's head honcho, Dave Piccioni used to DJ at McMillans before leavign for New York to bring house grooves to New York alongside legends such as Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, , David Morales and Maurice watson with residencies at The World and The Red Zone. In doing so, he was one of the first British DJs to take coal to Newcastle, so to speak. The knowledge and contacts that Dave picked up Stateside resulted in him moving back to Blighty in the late 80s where he took over the infamous Black Market records and set up his own house imprint, Azuli.

During the next fifteen years, Azuli gave just about every big name in the game the opportunity to spread their vibe with compilations by Joey Negro, tony Humphries, Jeff Mills, Danny Howells,Louie Vega, Kenny Dope, Derrick Carter, Francois K, Xpress 2, Faith, John Digweed, Danny Tenaglia and Frankie Knuckles. That's one hell of a guest list in anyone's book. Added to this they've also fiercly supported both the Miami and Ibizan bedrock scenes with numerous Space, Formentera and Miami compliations.

Like Defected and Subliminal, their name has now become a benchmark for quality house music and whether you like this approach or not, the fact is that in today's brand conscious economy, most people don't want to take risks with their wedge, they want a seal of approval, an established logo and a product they can trust to deliver. Azuli has secured its place in this world and is opening a new Club Azuli night at The Cross In London to co-incide with its Club Azuli - The Sound Of The Underground LP, with further Miami 2006 and Space Ibiza compliations also due out this month (April). 

Yet, unlike other labels in their position, Azuli haven't forgotten about their roots and have put their faith into compilation series that take risks with musical programming and defy easy marketing pigeonholes; The short lived Another Fine Mess series began with FC Kahuna and ended with Fila Brazilia compilations - they were both great and the Fila one is still one of my 'holiday' must-haves. However, it's with the 'Another Late Night' strand, that Azuli have really hit a critical if not always commercial peak. Admittedly there are now far too many of these' Back To Mine' type afterhours compilations where various DJs, musicians and other luminaries get to show off just how clever and eclectic they are. For fuck's sake, Jarvis Cocker even 'curates' his latest tracklisting for 'The Trip'. Get over it, Jarv, it's only a few tunes not a fucking museum exhibition. Maybe he's being ironic.

But back to Late Night. Take Belle & Sebastian's recent Late Night for example, which is far and away one of the most diverse and interesting compilations of the year. Infact, other than Peel's brilliant Fabric compilation, this is perhaps one of the best selection of records you'll ever hear, covering blues, northern soul, reggae, hip hop, jazz, latin, rock and most points inbetween. Late Night Tales has been a consistently great series counter-balancing established 'leftfield' acts such as Four Tet, Flaming Lips and Turin Brakes with relative obscuros such as Casaco Marron, Castles Made Of Sand and Seven Nation Army as well as pop acts like Jamiroquai, Sly & Robbie, Groove Armada and Zero 7 and clubland heroes like Rae & Christian, Nightmares On Wax, Kid Loco and Tommy Guerrero.

With so much going on, we thought it was about time Swine caught up with exiled Yorkie-honourary scouser and Azuli main man, Dave Piccioni.



Swine - Dave, you were DJing in Liverpool in the mid-80s which wasn't a great time for dance music in the city, what are your memories of this time and what got you into into DJing in the first place?

DP – It was all a bit a of an accident really. Me and a friend Sven Harding were keen music lovers, but were a bit bored by the post new wave scene in Liverpool at the time. We had done the whole moody self  centred thing for so long, but we were gradually getting introduced to dance stuff through indie bands like A Certain Ratio and 23 Skidoo. We went over to New York for a while and really got into the pre hip hop and electro scene, and once we got back we wanted to tell everyone about it. We rented McMillans on a Wednesday - the shittest night of the week - and invited all our friends down for free. For those without invites they paid a pound at the door, and 400 people showed up. The payers covered the club rental, but we had no money for djs or flyers or anything, so we just played our own records, and used word of mouth to get people in. We actually played some cassettes too as imports were really expensive at the time! Liverpool was in a mess at the time, money was tight and few of our friends had jobs, but the benefit was that people did things they though were interesting or cool, and money wasn’t the prime objective in doing stuff.

Swine - You soon left Liverpool for NYC and quickly established yourself within the notoriously difficult club scene there - how did you manage to do this?

DP - Again an accident through enthusiasm. I met a guy called Rene Gelston through playing football in NYC for an Engligh/Irish team. He was running a club in London and wanted to start a night in New York. I was a regular at the Paradise Garage at the time and told him all about it. There was only two house clubs at the time and it was a completely gay scene, so we started a night in an old theatre which was thre first place in Manhattan to play house all night to a mixed straight gay black/latino crowd. It went from there really. 
Swine - What was New York like at this time? Were the clubs predominantly based around hip hop or was the MAW approach to hip hop/house fusion beginning to open the floors to underground dance music?


DP - The main clubs didn’t play hip hop much, it was just emerging from the neighbourhoods but was very much a ‘black’thing. It sounds odd in UK to use these expressons and divisions, but NY at the time was quite segregated in the clubs – black/white/latino/straight/gay didn’t really mix uop much. The biggest clubs were Limelight/Palladium/Area/Roxy/Danceteria/1018, and the ones not playing commercial dance were playing Latin Freestyle (Roxy) – in fact Louie Vega was THE big latin freestyle dj at the time, and only started playing house at about 91/92. Latin freestyle was a kind of Miami bass/electro sound that was massive at the time. Some djs were mixing up house with commercial dance – Mark Kamins at Danceteria who went on to produce Madonnas first single ‘Holiday’ and Justin Strauss at Area. The main underground Djs (Larry Levan/David Mancuso/David Depino) were playing strictly at Better Days/Paradise Garage/Loft but they were 95% black gay and that was a very different scene, but for me completely inspiring. 

Swine - Whilst in New  York you worked alongside some of the most notorious DJs in clubland history, Levan, Knuckles etc - how did you find them as people and have you got any juicy stories you can tell us about them?

DP – Being a fairly well known dj then was not the same as being a dj is now. Being a ‘superstar’ and a dj just didn’t exist, there was no star treatment, fisrt class flights and fancy hotels. You got a lot of respect from your peers but that was it, so Larry and Frankie were just guys doing making a living doing what they loved and that was it. I have to say that those guys and most people from the Garage were incredible in their nature towards me. I was a straight white guy from England involved in a scene which I had no cultural roots to, but they were very accepting and that shows great character.

Swine - When you returned to the UK did you always have the intention of launching your own label or was it just a matter of being in the right place at the right time during the dawning of the superclub/superstar DJ era?


DP - For once this was not an accident. I had spent a lot of time going out and, well, having a good time, but I figured at 28 I needed to get my shit together and wanted to do something in the business of music, apart from DJing. The scene was still small in New York, but London was happening with all the raves and acid house thing, so I came back to England with the intention of doing something in the dance business. I was lucky that the timing was right, it was much easier to start a label then as there were few individuals doing it. 

Swine - Azuli established itself as one of the top homegrown house labels during the 90s and became synonimous with the glitzy, high-flying decadent world of intercontinental clubbing (not that I was envious) an image that other labels - Hed Kandi et al - have copied and marketed to a mainstream audience. How did you manage to retain your 'indie' edge duirng this time? 

DP - Probably by not being very good at it. Seriously, though, ive never been one for mass market consumerism and I hate corporate culture, so it comes naturally to me to skirt round the edges of popular culture. Running an indie label is what im about.
Swine - You're new Club Azuli LP is called Future Sound Of The Underground - do you still regard Azuli as an underground label as opposed to the likes of Defected, Subliminal and other 'deep/soulful house' labels? If so how do you differ from them?

Dave – I thing there are many more underground than us, but then I think we differ from those more ‘deep soulful’ labels in that we have a cutting edge that maybe they once had but have lost.

Swine - You've been associated with Miami and Ibiza for years now. How do you feel both Miami and Ibiza have shaped dance music over the past decade and has this been a good or bad thing?

DP - I think Ibiza still shapes dance music in that it dance music people come from all over the world and take a bit of whats happening back to their own countries. I don’t think Ibiza is a particularly creative place musically, but it serves almost like an information exchange, You can see that now with the rise of the minimal electronic scene – people over the last 2/3 years have been going to cocoon in Ibiza and hearing this stuff and now its everywhere, although its been happening in Germany for years with little attention. Miami is just a knees up for the music biz! 

Swine - There seems to be a return to smallscale underground clubs and an underground ethos of being a bit more adventurous in your programming - is this a reaction against the corporate takeover of clubland. Was it a deliberate decision to branch out into more leftfield territory with the Late Night Tales series and how do you decide who to ask?


DP - I gor into this whole thing because I love music, and found dealing with only dance stuff a bit limited. So we started the Late night Tales series really for people like us at Azuli, who love dance but don’t exclude ourselves from listening to other stuff. We try to ask people who create their own interesting music and who clearly have a music knowledge and taste that we can learn from. 
Swine - The latest Late Night Tales by Belle & Sebastian hasn't been off my CD since I bought it and the series as a whole manages to showcase the musical tastes of a diverse cross-section of musicians and DJs without being up in its arse (so to speak) and pretentious. Is it a difficult to balance Azuli's house and techno based product from the more leftfield releases?


DP- It is difficult, and normally we keep them separate as people get confused. In fact this is one of the few interviews where ive actually talked about both projects! We keep azuli branding to a minimum on the late night tales series 


Swine - Have you ever thought of returning to Liverpool as it's on its arse at the moment.


Dave -  Yes I should come up – its pretty shameful that I go back so little.

Swine - Anyway Dave thanks for your time and good luck with Club Azuli and the rest of your projects.


DP - You too!


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