Nick Warren: An Amazing Musical Experience

You can tell when Nick Warren’s on the decks. The music emanating from the DJ booth is that perfect club mix of driving percussion and soaring musicality, bursting out of the speakers, soaking everyone in melody, drenching them in sound. On the floor, where it really matters, the crowd experiences all the peaks and troughs that make Warren’s sensibility so unique. He might start with his deeper take on house, then gradually morph into harder territory; then, once Warren has the throng fully in his grip, sweating and losing themselves in the grooves, moving on instinct, he takes them to points unknown they never expected to go. That’s why Nick Warren is so respected: he knows how to truly work a a crowd, delivering again and again, yet taking them somewhere they’ve never been before. That’s what comes with vision and, just as importantly in Warren’s case, experience.

To this day, Warren remains at the forefront of club culture: he packs clubs and arenas worldwide from London to Los Angeles to Taipei, transfixing dancefloors with his distinctively forward blend of credible progressive sounds, cutting-edge techno, atmospheric breaks and any other crucial grooves Warren deems appropriate for his turntable alchemy. 2008 also finds Warren reaching other milestones. He’s releasing his eighth mix CD for the Global Underground series, GU035: Lima; he’s also completing his fourth studio album with Way Out West, Warren’s pioneering electronic/band collaboration with Jody Wisternoff. Warren also recently became head of A&R for Hope Recordings, keeping him immersed in the shifting tides of new dance-music movements. “I’m doing same thing I did when I started—just playing music I love,” he says. “It’s as inspiring as ever. In Lima, we did the party for the Global mix on the grass in front of a stadium, and the crowd was as enthusiastic and curious as any I’ve ever had. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever done.”

What makes Warren’s vision continue to resonate is that he’s honed it over the years. He was there for the dawn of today’s club culture, and the original ethos of bringing integrity and a forward, future-looking aesthetic to what he does never left him. Warren began spinning at free parties in fields during acid house’s halcyon “Summer of Love” back in ’88: then, the revelry typically ended around lunchtime two days after the rave began, and seminal electronic artists like Leftfield and Orbital were making their mark with their first tracks. The culture was so new, DJs weren’t considered the icons they are today; if you were behind the decks, you were doing it for the music above all else, not money or fame. Despite Warren’s continuing success, that original motivation has never left him. “We never wanted to be ‘superstar DJs,’” Warren says of himself and his peers that rose to fame out of the dance-music revolution. “There was no such thing. I was just lucky to be there at the beginning. In those days, we were focused on creating and playing the next thing—music no one else had ever heard.”

Warren’s DJing career began as the Balearic musical movement took root in his hometown of Bristol, heard at parties like the infamously hedonistic Venus club night. Warren immediately took to Balearic’s eclectic nature, as focused on vibe, atmosphere, and selection as it was on the dancefloor. “In Bristol everyone was playing same records at all the parties. That was always not my thing: I wanted to find what no one else was playing, which became my trademark,” Warren says, remembering sets spiked with everything from acid house from Boys Own and Andrew Weatherall to hip-hop and classics from Frank Sinatra and the Clash. “We didn’t get paid for DJing then, so it was all about your passion for finding the perfect song. But there were only six new dance tracks or so out, which wouldn’t fill a set, so I had to delve back into gems that hadn’t been heard for a while. ‘Horse With No Name’ by America was one of my biggest anthems then: it was the perfect ‘e’ record for when everyone was doing ecstasy. To see people dancing to Primal Scream into ‘Horse With No Name’ was an amazing experience.”

Warren was not alone in this musical revolution. All over England, DJs like Justin Robertson and the Chemical Bros from Manchester and the London-based contingent of Danny Rampling, Paul Oakenfold, and Carl Cox began creating and exploring exciting new club sounds. “Parties like Shoom in London were breaking the mold of rave music,” Warren says. “It became too fast and mechanical, just about nutters on drugs. We were much more into finding exceptional music—that strange record that just worked, like ‘Love Rears Its Ugly Head’ by Living Colour. It was 82 bpm, but the club would go crazy every time you put it on. Now you don’t get that eclectic track that ignites the crowd anymore. If you played a slow record at Avalon in New York today, no one would get it.” As a nationwide clubber’s circuit evolved around growing rave culture, Warren found himself getting up close and personal with his musical forefathers. “I played the Hacienda in Manchester three times,” Warren remembers. “The first time was when Tony Wilson started the conference ‘In The City.’ Tony asking me to play was amazing for a young country kid from Bristol like me: at the time, I was working on an estate, looking after deer and pheasants. I was a big punk and indie boy, too: New Order and Joy Division were my heroes—and they were there, along with the likes of Graham Park, Mike Pickering, John Da Silva, Happy Mondays, and the Stone Roses. To watch such legends dance as I played records was was pretty crazy.”

Warren’s DJ sets always were set apart by their moody atmosphere—a key element of music from his Bristol hometown. Warren ascribes that to the influence of the city’s multicultural makeup, which found punters of all races attending dub parties from the likes of Jah Shakti. “Seeing him make so many sounds with just one turntable was incredible,” Warren recalls. “It was all about moving hips, about reverb, about the space between sounds. That epic silence in the right place became the sound of Bristol.” Nowhere did the Bristol sound manifest more but the epic, ominous grooves of Massive Attack, for whom Warren became official DJ in 1994. He had become friendly with Massive Attack’s Grant Marshall—a.k.a. Daddy G—from spinning at local clubs like Vision and 98 Proof. “We started tagteaming, with him M.C.-ing and me spinning,” Warren says. “Grant was amazing; it was a real show. Tricky would get on the mic as well; it was very much a Bristol sound system.” After Massive Attack’s debut album Blue Lines blew up, they quickly asked Warren to be their tour DJ. “I had my work cut out for me—all the dubplates were cut wrong!” Warren says with a laugh. “My role was really to set the mood with the crowd: touring with Massive Attack really taught me the skill of reading the room. It was a great experience.” During this time, Warren became as known for his vibe-creating downtempo sets as his main room forays, so much so he was chosen to inaugurate the esteemed Back to Mine mix-CD series years later in 1999. Warren’s downtempo experiments also led him to the sybaritic island paradise of Ibiza for the first time: Jose Padilla heard of Warren’s ambiance-enhancing turntable skills and consequently booked him to play at the legendary Balearic haven Café Del Mar in 1995. “I’d heard about this bar where you watch the sunset and listen to amazing music,” Warren says. “I was shitting my pants because it was a such a Mecca.” Warren’s inaugural Ibiza visits also cemented his longtime bond with DJ icon Sasha, after they did morning sets together on Space’s notorious terrace. “Sasha has always been my fave DJ,” Warren explains. “I always listen to what he does. He continues to surprise me, playing stuff I’ve never heard.”

After some years as Massive Attack’s warm-up DJ, Warren felt the need to strike out on his own and bring his own original music to the forefront. To that end, he formed the duo Way Out West in 1996 with young studio avatar Jody Wisternoff, whom he’d met via Wisternoff’s father, an infamous longtime presence on the Bristol party scene. Warren had always educated punters by playing what they should be listening to; Way Out West proved a culmination of this balancing act between satisfying dancefloors and genre-bending songwriting. To this end, Warren and Wisternoff found themselves perfectly complementary musical partners. Warren brought inspiration from the indie likes of Cocteau Twins, Kraftwerk, DEVO, and New Order along with his club DJ influences; Wisternoff loved the melodies of the Beach Boys as well as the bottom-heavy boom bap of hip-hop and drum and bass. “We bonded over our love of the bassline,” Warren says. Together they fused elements from dub, progressive house, and breakbeat with classic songwriting and innovative, cinematic production; as a result, many Way Out West tracks worked as well on the main floor as they did in the chill out room. This was dance music for listening—and vice versa. “It was all about combining indie and dance influences,” Warren says. “Nothing is sacred. You can’t just make an album of club tracks—you have to stretch yourself. It’s got to have that underground feel, but when the chords come in, your heart melts. That feeling is what we aspire to create in dance music.” Way Out West released its self-titled debut album in 1997, spawning classic hits like “Ajare,” “Blue,” and “The Gift”: “Ajare” ultimately went top 40 in England, while “The Gift” soared into the U.K.’s top 15 upon release. “We were supposed to play ‘The Gift’ on ‘Top Of The Pops,’” Warren says. “They wanted me to wear a red-velvet suit, and I was like, ‘I’m not wearing that on TV!’”

According to Warren, Way Out West always strives for the complex side of dance music: “That’s always our goal. We’ve always leaned towards the unpredictable. ‘The Gift’ was basically a drum-and-bass record, but at house tempo—very pretty, but dubby as well.” The pair’s innate adventurousness found Way Out West exploring unexpected sounds ranging from world music to Cole Porter; “Blue,” meanwhile, interpolates the memorable theme from the cult film Withnail and I. Warren claims this wide-ranging impulse stems from the group’s roots in crate-digging sampling. “I would go to stores in London and trawl through obscure soundtracks and Iranian flute albums,” Warren says. “If the album cover features a guy with a beard and a synthesizer, I buy it. I still collect music daily: it’s always been about finding those weird sounds. On some tracks, we’ll have 400 samples.” This layering approach extends to Way Out West’s wildly successful remix work, which ranges from expected collaborations (Sasha, UNKLE, James Holden, X-Press 2, Roni Size, Orbital) to the surprising (A Certain Ratio, St. Etienne, Art of Noise, Echo and the Bunnymen). “The song inspires you to do special thing,” Warren explains. “We’ve been very choosy in our remixes. When the Sasha phone call comes in, of course you’re going to do it; then you get something like Echo and the Bunnymen, which is a privilege—every note you can use.”

Warren’s rise with Way Out West coincided with the dawn of the superstar DJ era in the mid-to-late ‘90s. Featuring state-of-the-art sound systems and unparalled spectacle, the new generation of “superclubs” like Liverpool’s Cream required superstar DJs, and by this time Warren fit the bill. “Cream was the best club in England,” Warren says. “Every Saturday night was incredible. Playing Cream changed me from a Bristol phenomenon to a national DJ.” Make that “international”: in 1997, Warren began his longstanding association with Global Underground. That year he released the series’ third release, Prague (he would go on to become GU’s best-selling artist, besting the likes of Sasha and Paul Oakenfold with nearly 500,000 mix CDs moved). “The concept of DJs bringing their sound to different cities around the world was new,” Warren explains. “At the time, no one but GU went to Brazil or China to play tunes. It proved a massive success, and the brand is still going strong.” Around this time, Warren was also asked to play New York’s storied Sound Factory, where Junior Vasquez presided over the birth of tribal house. “I had transvestites dancing to breaks!” he exclains. “It was crazy.” Warren was also a frequent guest at Manhattan’s famed Twilo club, renowned for having clubland’s best sound system and an epic, darkly hedonistic party vibe. “Sasha and Digweed kicked Twilo off with their residency, which became the night; then people like Danny Tenaglia came in,” Warren says. “The crowd was educated about the music we were playing, but just up for it, too. Whenever I played Twilo, it would go off the hook.”

As the superstar DJ era shifted into the 2000s, Warren shifted with the times, yet stayed true to original values—and watched his fame grow even more. Not that he needed it. “Now, new DJs wants to be famous like they’re contestants on ‘Pop Idol,’” he says. “Just wanting to be famous, that’s not the goal. We didn’t do this to be successful, or to make money—it’s our hunger. There’s no point in going out there and playing Madonna: if you just play what’s popular, you won’t last long.” This year, Warren translated that hunger into his position as head of A&R at Hope Recordings—a natural progression, he notes, from discovering new artists and tracks for his mix compilations. Warren’s skill at finding talent is proven; for example, he was an early collaborator of Imogen Heap, who co-wrote Way Out West’s hit “Mindcircus,” which made the U.K. top 40 and shot to number 6 on the Billboard dance charts. Warren, whose first record was a seven-inch of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door,” also proved an early adopter of everyone from James Holden to Gui Boratto and Ulrich Schnauss. He’s as excited about the latest Kompakt release, say, or the “cosmic disco” sound of Lindstrom, or Robert Babicz’s neo-acid techno, as anything in his box. At Hope, signings like new artists like Alex Dolby to established producer/DJs Hybrid also keep Warren sharp. “Part of my job is to search for special music from around the world,” he says. “You can make people dance and play something no one knows; that’s the magic of DJing. It’s all about that amazing record—the new tune that takes me back to when I was ten and playing seven-inches over and over again.”

As for his own music, Warren plans to finish Way Out West’s new album this November, for Spring 2009 release. “It’s our best yet,” he says. “We’ve gone back to very much a production album. We’ve invested a fortune in synthesizers: we bought an amazing thing called a Macbeth that this guy in Scotland makes by hand. It’s based on the classic Arp, with no preset sounds, no manual, just knobs and cables. It’s exciting to find new sounds on that.” As well, Warren is still dedicated to the art of DJing. “The ‘control freak’ side that every DJ has still comes out in me whenever I play music in a dark room,” he explains. “Whether it’s 600 people in a club or 10,000 at a festival, I love that I can take the crowd anywhere. It’s amazing I’m still surprised every day. When I stop searching for music, I’ll have to quit. But the moment, I’m as excited as I’ve ever been.”