INTERVIEW Andrew Thomson

It’s difficult to neglect or skip what’s going on “outside”. Outside our apartments, our houses. Outside where now the festival or the summer season would be rang in. Outside where most of our social life takes place. Outside, visiting music venues, cafés or whatever one desires to do or where to be. It’s all changed and still no one knows what the new “normal“ will be like. Torture the Artist spoke to the Glasgow-based creative Andrew Thomson, the strong man behind labels like Huntleys + Palmers, Belters or Highlife about the current impact of COVID-19 on him personally as well as on his labels and the electronic music scene – getting the inside insights. Furthermore, Andrew goes deep and draws attention to grievances regarding the scene as well as society and ventilates them, also – and quite characteristic for the artist – he sees the positive in the deep crisis the still-standing world faces at the moment. Unlike many and probably because he’s seen it all or most, Andrew emphasizes on strengthening the local scene in his hometown of Glasgow – as a well-traveled artist and renowned label-head, promoter and newly radio show host, he gives something back to the scene that has become lost or has been hiding: soul, love and a safe haven.

This situation has exposed just how fragile our entire system really.

Torture the Artist: Hello Andrew, how are you in these strange times and how have your daily routines changed?

Andrew Thomson: Hey guys! Over the past few years, my life in general usually goes between two extremes of intensive travelling followed by a period of readjusting / downtime / catching up and I’ve just got back from a tour of Australia and New Zealand, so I’m currently in the part I’d expected to be in. I’m trying to stick to as much of a regular schedule as I once did, exercising in the morning before emails and the rest during the day.

That being said, my time at home would also be punctuated by trips to cafes, restaurants, bars, cinema, seeing friends and family and I’m beginning to feel the absence of these. I’m currently trying to take a step back from compulsively checking the news as it doesn’t seem to make the days go by any faster.

Torture the Artist: What’s a song that should accompany the people out there reading this interview, and why?

Andrew Thomson: This was introduced to me at the weekend and I’m pretty obsessed:

By a very talented Glasgow based artist called Murray Collier who records under a number of aliases like Grim Lusk and Dip Friso. This release slipped under my radar until now but I’m pleased to have made its acquaintance now. <smiles>

The entire world seems to have completely stood to a halt in our lifetime.

Torture the Artist: What is something you do now (regularly) that you did not before Covid-19?

Andrew Thomson: I’ve been trying to look for the positives as much as possible, it’s obviously a very unusual, uncertain and quite scary time. It’s also the first time the entire world seems to have completely stood to a halt in our lifetime and I’m using the opportunity to check in with friends from around the world and reconnect for no other reason than us all going through this thing together. I’m quite good at keeping in touch with people, but there’s usually only so much time and with being on the move and others living busy lives, you can usually only deal with what’s in front of you, so this pause has been quite nice to reach out and see how people are coping in their part of the world.

Torture the Artist: A couple of weeks ago you were touring Australia, even provided us with your top10 tracks from these times. What’s left the strongest impression on you when playing Down Under?

Andrew Thomson: Going to Australia, New Zealand and Asia was a big deal for me as I’ve been working my way around the world over the past few years – playing in most conceivable places with a scene – this trip would complete some kind of orbit, so it was a bit of a milestone from that point of view. I try to keep places I’ve yet to visit a bit of a mystery and not read too much about them in advance so I experience them with as little preconceptions as possible. I’ve been aware of there being an audience out there through interest in radio / mixes and releases and was excited to see it for myself at last. I have to say each place didn’t disappoint and I wish I had more time to spend out there. I was due to continue to play in Asia on my way back, but that began to fall apart for obvious reasons and now I’m home and enjoying the memories – it already feels like another lifetime ago.

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Torture the Artist: Back to the present. You do run three extremely renowned labels, Huntleys + Palmers, Belters and Highlife, how are you affected as a label-owner by the pandemic, and how are you going to proceed with the releases on the labels?

Andrew Thomson: Things have definitely been affected and it’s too early to say just how much at this point. If record shops haven’t closed yet, they are more than likely for some period of time and I’ve been advised not to press any records until further notice.

In the meantime, I’ve spoken to the various artists who were due to release this year and we’ve agreed to release a label compilation / sampler – called BLTRSX – through digital platforms and once things look like they’ll be back on track with vinyl, we’ll go from there.

This plan has changed a few times already in the past few weeks, so who knows if things change again more dramatically, but I’m quite excited about this compilation now and it’s pretty cool to hear all these artists sit together nicely on one release and not just occupy a place in my head.

Torture the Artist: What has been a milestone release on one of your labels, not necessarily in units being sold, but rather having an impact on the scene?

Andrew Thomson: Sophie’s Nothing More To Say/ EEEHHH is the obvious one in terms of culture at large, and has been pretty well documented already… but I think the Mehmet Aslan releases certainly had an impact in introducing those Eastern and Turkish sounds at the time.

There’s been many artists who’ve embraced this music in the years since, but Mehmet was certainly one of the first 5 years ago. He’s been exploring a lot of other parts of the world recently for his radio show – including Scotland and Wales – and I’m pretty excited to hear what results that might lead to.

I’ve not been happy with the direction we’ve been heading for a number of years now and already had plans to work on building a more localised scene in Glasgow.

Torture the Artist: A lot of people want to go back to “normal“, while this basically means to follow certain routines and enjoying personal freedom, which is accomplished by material gains, money etc. Personally, what does going back to normal mean to you and to what extent do “we“ as affected people and societies maybe have to give up on certain things that determined our lives?

Andrew Thomson: I understand the desire to return to normal as soon as possible and feel it in certain ways myself, but I’ve also been harbouring a frustration for a while about the direction things have been going in and perhaps this is an opportunity for a societal reset and maybe consider what we value. Seeing sponsored adverts on my timeline to buy clothes and trainers, just feels very pointless when you can’t leave the house. People are now checking in on each other, their friends, families, having phone calls, taking up hobbies they’d always put off, etc.

From a music ‘scene’ point of view, I’ve not been happy with the direction we’ve been heading for a number of years now and already had plans to work on building a more localised scene in Glasgow – with less reliance on guest DJs from out of town and celebrating the amazing local artists and DJs who only ever get to play the warm up at best.

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I think this situation has exposed just how fragile our entire system really is – I’m currently listening to masters for the comp, but at the moment the idea of getting tracks mastered to send to DJs who will hopefully play them in front of an audience – has been exposed by an invisible virus. There’s obviously environmental issues too, and I’d like to think that this is a chance for us to think about what a new direction might look like and one that is more sustainable.

Torture the Artist: Are you more the type of person who sees the positive or negative in such an episode of life?

Andrew Thomson: Positive, always! Can’t you tell? <smiles>

Torture the Artist: Do you still dig music at the moment, which you could possibly play at a club or does your musical selection change towards music that’s designed for home-listening?

Andrew Thomson: Yes, good question! I’ve been grabbing music as usual, but definitely not as proactively in the past few weeks since gigs have been cancelled. We’ll see how long things are looking likely to continue, but I do have a few mix requests and radio shows, so will start working on them soon. As for home listening, I tend to shy away from 4/4 kick drums when I’m at home – for most of the week anyway.

Torture the Artist: Interesting, what’s bumping through your speakers at home these days? Torture the Artist: What have been the last three tracks you checked on SoundCloud?

Andrew Thomson: It varies, but here is a list of recent mixes / radio shows – 

Torture the Artist: What platform has become your go-to-source when it comes to discover new music?

Andrew Thomson: I wouldn’t say there’s any particular ‘go-to’ for my discovery habits. They’ve developed over time. I’ve been quite comfortable with the approach of always being curious and letting music find me – my ears are always open and things get introduced to me through all different kinds of ways – mixes, radio, talking to a friend, films, algorhythms, record shops, gifts, folder swaps, Bandcamp comps, a passing car, Shazam. I’m sure there’s more effective ways of listening these days, but this seems to work for me. Incidentally, I looked into setting up a big Spotify playlist over this break, but gave up as a bunch of the music I was looking to share wasn’t available on there.

I can tell someone who’s been working on a track for weeks – ‘this is ready, let’s release’.

Torture the Artist: You are rather known as a DJ – amongst other things – than as a producer, can the world expect Andrew Thomson to turn to an exceptional producer while the electronic music world takes a little break?

Andrew Thomson: Haha! No chance. This is a pretty frequently asked question and I understand it, but have no intentions to learn how to make music. There’s a few parts to my answer. The main one being is that I’m concerned that if I start to learn the process, it will remove the magic of listening to music in the first place. Just now I don’t know or care how a track is made, but if it grabs my attention in some way, then it’s done its job. I also think there’s too much music being made and I’m content with not adding to that.

Combining both of these, I’ve realised over time that this is where my real value lies. Because I can’t make music and I have no technical knowledge, I can’t tell a producer ‘can you please remove that synth line’ or ‘this needs more sidechain’, I really know what either of these mean. But I can tell someone who’s been working on a track for weeks – ‘this is ready, let’s release’. I suppose serving as an editor has its own value. Most musicians / producers work in isolation and can lose sight of what is a good idea and not, what is worth leaving and worth finishing. I’m really confident in my own selection and taste and know what I do / don’t like almost immediately.

When someone sends me demos that interests me, I like to ask them to send over all the tracks they’ve been making, including the ones they aren’t sure about and every now and again they get really surprised when the track they didn’t think much of, is the one I like most.

This (the current situation) will force us to reconsider what and who we put value in.

Torture the Artist: So you will basically remain the selector and DJ you’ve always been. But coming back to what you said earlier and that the scene should be more sustainable. Do you think COVID-19 will lead to producers finally being paid (more) rather than taking on DJ-gigs in order to make a living?

Andrew Thomson: I’d like to think this situation will allow us to reset and I’m optimistic that this will force us to reconsider what and who we put value in. The music writer Shawn Reynaldo has been pretty outspoken about much of this change on his First Floor newsletter and I’d encourage others to give it your time – https://firstfloor.substack.com/

Torture the Artist: You have recently opened a radio station, Clyde Built Radio, can you tell us about that?

Andrew Thomson: Very happy to! This is – Clyde Built Radio – something that I’ve been very excited about for over a year of working on behind the scenes and the results are even more satisfying than I’d hoped.

I’m proud to come from Glasgow and although I’ve lived in London and Berlin over the years, it always pulls me back. There’s a very healthy scene here compared to other cities, with hundreds of music projects and DJ’s all doing really cool stuff – a very impressive number when you consider the city only has a population of 500, 000. Over the years I’ve visited cities far bigger with far less going on in terms of musical creativity and I’ve tried different ways of showcasing that, mostly through these ‘Clyde Built’ compilations which you can grab for free on the H+P Bandcamp.

Over time these compilations felt a bit limited in scope and community radio has been a growing interest of mine having hosted shows on various stations around the world and it was becoming a bit of a frustration that the city didn’t have an equivalent. After visiting The Lot radio in NYC, I became more motivated to creating a similar space in Glasgow which would encourage interaction between different members of the community and we’re getting there!

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Now things are up and running, it’s been very exciting to see this interaction start happening and different parts of the scene become exposed to each other and start to support and encourage one another. It’s still a learning process in terms of getting everything to run smoothly behind the scenes – being in Australia didn’t help matters – but I’m really happy with how things are going overall and excited to see where things lead to from here. You can listen back to all the shows so far – clydebuiltradio.com

If anything I think this situation has shown us what we are really missing and is important. Being together in a room with other like minded individuals.

Torture the Artist: As aforementioned, you are not only a DJ and label-head but also used to host events. It’s probably too early to speak about the future of events, still we see a lot of live-streams at the moment to make up for canceled events and also to draw some attention to certain clubs in order to generate an income through donation. Do you think that aside from real events virtual reality experiences will at least be part if not even take over as a kind of approach to still keep clubs and events running in the future, but also to generate an alternative income?

Andrew Thomson: I hope not! If anything I think this situation has shown us what we are really missing and is important. Being together in a room with other like minded individuals. Online community has of course been shaping that for many years now, but real life interaction is irreplaceable.

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Torture the Artist: How much would you be interested in running virtual reality events alongside real life events, and is this something you could imagine doing?

Andrew Thomson: From a DJ point of view, I’m not so interested in this kind of thing, but from a radio / community point of view, I’ll keep an open mind and keep an eye on developments. I do think it’s good to see a shift towards people checking out their friends DJ and maybe less so big names.

Torture the Artist: What’s a method you’ve developed or a way to successfully distract yourself?

Andrew Thomson: I’ve been enjoying getting back into running outside again. I’ve been using a treadmill at the gym during the winter and it’s been good to get outside for my daily exercise and go somewhere, try to do it faster next time and that kind of thing.

Torture the Artist: Do you have more releases on your labels or toilet paper in stock?

Andrew Thomson: Many more! Keep an eye for BLTRSX dropping on Friday – it includes some of your new favourite artists alongside a free mix by me. <smiles>

Torture the Artist: What’s the first thing you’ll be doing once the government ends curfews?

Andrew Thomson: Getting a haircut! Having dinner with pals, hopefully lots more depending on the guidelines.

Interview by Holger Breuer