Right now, popular music is firmly in a dance music phase. You can hear it at the supermarket, in the gym, and coming out of every passing car window. Dance acts are top of the charts, and everyone’s a DJ. But it’s not the first time; back in the nineties, house music had its first commercial golden age. At the heart of that were Groove Armada.
A duo with a polished and accessible sound that mixed big beat, electronica and trip hop into something irresistible to all, the duo of Tom Findlay and Andy Cato penned era-defining hits like ‘I See You Baby’ and the Grammy nominated ‘Superstylin.’ Their award winnings albums, too, were some of the most successful dance music has ever produced.
In the live arena, Groove Armada took dance music out of the clubs and on to main stages at festivals all over the world. Rather than chucking cake or wearing mouse heads, though, their always electric shows were defined by their very real playing chops as well as avant-garde light, laser and visual technology. More than mere button pushers, the duo play bass, piano, keys, samplers and trombones, and it was that which always stood them apart.
Of course, they have also circumnavigated the globe as DJs many times over. Especially in recent years, they have slipped back into the underground with mix CDs for the cult Fabriclive series, as well as residences at places like We Love Space in Ibiza. Over the last two decades, then, Groove Armada have proven that not only can they electrify 10,000 people in a field, but they can also get a smaller warehouse sweating. And that is what they will do on Saturday October 28th when then play the ANTS party with Paul Kalkbrenner, Andrea Oliva, Jesse Rose, Eli & Fur, wAFF, Route 94 and more.
I’m good thanks. Summer has been great—the Ants residency at Ushuaia has been a real highlight. Outside of that, playing in the abdomen of a spider at Glastonbury is always a pleasure.
How important is the visual aspect of your show?
Dance music is always criticised for being boring to watch compared to, say, rock music. For us it’s pretty key. We find ourselves on a lot of stages at festivals, and people need something to look at. Andy has massive arms so watching them go up and down is pretty special, but as well, we come from a live music background so try to use some of those tricks to bring a touch more stagecraft to the shows. So there’s some bells and whistles we throw in, but these are strict trade secrets!
These days most events are a long way from a dark room and a strobe. Is that good or bad? Are all the lasers, screens, ice cannons, confetti explosions, giant steel monsters (or whatever) welcome additions for you?
Well, it’s all about context really. Most DJs will tell you there’s nowhere better to play than a sweaty basement with one light and a strobe, it creates a special atmosphere, and maybe you go a little deeper with the music because the audience’s sensory perceptions are so locked into the music. But with dance music’s move into the big festival arena, some of that stuff you mentioned is inevitable. It can be done really well, with some wit and invention—Elrow stands out in that way, as does the way they work the main stage for Ants at Ushaia—but it can also be done with the opposite of that: pointless visuals that sort of zone people out and that looks pretty desperate most of the time. It’s about finding creative ways to bring all that production jazz together with the music.
Do you ever miss playing smaller clubs and to smaller crowds? Can you still connect with an audience when it's thousands of people deep? Do you even try?
Of course you try. There’s individuals there, so judicious pointing is the order of the day, and hands raised to the heavens, of course.
How different is the mindset when you play a DJ set? What are the different challenges, highs and lows that can arise?
You have to be aware that there’s a different kind of energy somehow—broad brush strokes is the vibe. A deep house record that rolls for eight minutes isn’t go to do a lot for you, so we do a lot of edits, keep things rolling, and we’re not afraid of a rewind.
You're playing a DJ set at WHP. How do you approach them? Do you do a strict one each b2b policy or a few tunes each? Is there any competitive element to it, do you try and outdo each other?
Strictly b2b, and has been thus forever. I’m not sure we are too competitive when it comes to Deejaying, it’s about having an idea of where you’re both going with a set, so there’s a fair bit of chat in between. And you know by the time we get to the end of the summer we know each other’s tunes pretty well. It’s fun to bust a new one out, but that’s done, I think, in a collaborative frame of mind. You’re conscious of audiences all the time, so for me most of the prep—apart from going through 5000 downloads every week—is working out a set of track which feel right for each occasion. We’ll find ourselves doing a warm-up for the Hacienda House Orchestra on Brighton racecourse one week, and then doing DC10 the next, so the expectations there are pretty wildly different. Getting that right, and knowing your tunes, are core DJ skills.
And so what makes a perfect set for you?
The perfect set is about entertainment first and foremost. I want to connect, I want to see people having a good time. If you can do that by playing some music you really love, and maybe even some music people have never heard before, then that is perfection.
How hard is it to stay abreast of musical developments and new music? How long do you spend searching for tunes to play, and where do you do so?
It’s harder now, ‘cause I’m not raving like I used to, so you know I’m not living it so much. And then the whole culture of the record store is dying a bit, and that was so key back in the day: going into a store on a Friday afternoon, having a few beers, getting a stack of vinyl together. So now, yeah, it’s a more solitary affair somehow, scrolling through the online stores. I miss that camaraderie.
What are you looking for when you do-do you still collect records for listening, or is it music for research, or just for playing out?
I still love music, so I’m always listening for pleasure first, business later. I think the approaches though are quite different. I’ll be honest and say what I play on a Saturday night is not what I play at home, so unless I can start doing yacht rock sets at WHP, there’s always going to a split there.
What do you know now you wish you had known when you first started out?
I don’t know, we’ve made loads of mistakes—spent far too long writing albums sometimes, caught up in pointless sonic experiments but that’s somehow all part of the process. It’s really boring to say but during those first 10-15 years we just worked really hard at every aspect of what we did and I’m afraid apart from outrageous god given talent, there’s no substitute for that. And I suppose I could have realised earlier, as the late great Bernie Katz told us, that nothing good ever came from staying up after 4am… well at least most of the time. Oh, and keep your feet on the ground, don’t be a dick, and don't moan about travel problems on Twitter.
Your new tune, ‘Keep Rock In’. It's an all out festival slayer. Do you head into the studio with that sort of brief in your mind?
We honestly just mess about until something makes sense to us, but we do road test a lot too. You drop a three minute chunk of a tune into a set you’re playing out, just to see how it sits. Is it connecting? Is the production on point? There’s no better way really.
Has it got easier or harder over the years?
The skills might be a bit better, though there’s probably a tonne of new production tricks that have totally passed us by in the last five years. Making music when you’re young is great, because you don't really question anything, and you feel a bit messianic about what you’re doing. Getting older, I think you roll with stuff a little more, and maybe get a little too introspective, which is probably not conducive to knocking out a banger. Check out lyrics to ‘Losing My Edge’ by LCD Soundsystem, ‘cause that says it so perfectly.
After so many years on the road, what are the key lessons you have learnt to help keep you sane, fit and healthy and not burn out?
That’s a good question and to be honest I have done it all, and I have burnt out from time to time. These days, of course, everything is in better balance. I suppose the key is even when we were doing the full live thing and living that whole experience to the nth degree, keeping the gig as the focus is absolutely the thing. I have no time for deejays or artists that let things get so out of hand that you can’t put on a show… that’s not rock n roll.
What keeps you going?
Good music and a nagging fear of failure.
Groove Armada join ANTS at WHP17 as special guests, alongside Paul Kalkbrenner, Jesse Rose, Route94 and more.