Heading back to these shores next weekend R$N caught up with DJ Garth, legendary pioneer of the House scene and largely credited with defining the sound of San Fransico House music in the 1990s. As a producer he is recognised on club anthems such as "Twenty Minutes of Disco Glory". He co-founded the Wicked Soundsystem and established a series of legendary underground parties which were important in putting San Francisco on the music map.
When, where and how did it all start for you in terms of DJing and music?
Like most kids I started buying records around age 13… experienced my 'teenage wasteland' as a bit of a Goth but happily shed the darkness when black American dance music blew up in London. Late 80's warehouse parties were an eye opener. Rare Groove & Hip Hop was the soundtrack until I got dragged kicking & screaming to Solaris, a Sunday night Acid House club that started at 7pm. Booom! Saw the light, followed Tonka Sound System faithfully where I became friends with Harvey and many interesting people from '89-'90. At that point I upped and cut for San Francisco where I was quickly joined by friends from Tonka including some of their great DJs. We got stuck right in and threw a mind-blowing full moon party. Nobody wanted to go home and Wicked was born! The dance scene exploded out here and I found myself playing 5 nights a week at some pretty great residencies. Come Unity was a favorite mid-week club night that lasted 10 years. I played wherever they wanted me - bars, clubs, beaches and the best of the big raves.
How did you come to be in San Francicso?
I'd spent a few summers back-packing round the big American cities and really fell in love with San Francisco in '88 and '89. Once I'd got my degree in London I packed a single bag, mostly full of mix tapes and took off in search of high times. It's a beautiful, historic city. Very unique. Victorian architecture, rolling hills, sits on the ocean. Very welcoming music scene and non judgmental. Wild West vaudeville, gold digger roots peppered with a long line of rebel movements like the Beatnik writers, Jazz and Acid Rock, Gay Disco. Heaven really to this 20 year old!
Tell us about Wicked Soundsystem – how did it get started and what was it all about?
It all started with that full moon party on Baker Beach in March '91. We came up with a name, threw a party in the sex district the following week, then kept the ball rolling with monthly free outdoor full moon parties, basement jams, warehouse break-ins. As the parties got bigger we moved into club Townsend and the King Street Garage with our own custom designed Turbosound system and camo netting. We found ourselves at the centre of the movement here. There were 4 DJs - Garth, Jeno, Markie, Thomas (Bullock) and a crew of helping hands and dancing feet. Egos were kept to a minimum. We all balanced each other out musically and personality-wise. Wicked was greater than the sum of its parts if you know what I mean. We started our own label Wicked Records which launched my first record Twenty Minutes of Disco Glory. Then I started Grayhound Recordings to put out the crew's records.
We had a period when the parties were making money so we took advantage of that by inviting some of House music's early heroes to play. First we flew in DJ Pierre, then Chez Damier, Louis Vega, Tony Humphries, Francois K, Joe Claussel, Stacey Pullen, K Alexi & Robert Owens. I brought Harvey out to play for Wicked's 5 year anniversary in '96. It was his first gig in the States and after a couple more invitations to play records for us, he decided to make the move out West as well. But the real spirit of Wicked spread out across America when the 4 of us took the show on the road in a
'47 Greyhound bus with annual tours of the States. People had never seen House music presented like a band before. We were a self-contained unit with 15k of sound, our own visuals and a big posse. America was taken by storm!
Wicked got back together last year right? How was that? Have you permanently reformed or was it just a one-off?
It was pretty amazing. Having gone our separate ways in 2004 we initially thought we would just get the band back together for one night in SF. But we'd under-estimated people's enthusiasm for a 20 year reunion. We sold out a 1000 person venue in a few days of pre-sales which mushroomed into a 13 city tour of the U.S. and a couple dates in Japan. We all had a great time playing records together after the break. Jeno and I never stopped working as a unit but Thomas has been busy with Rub n Tug, Map of Africa etc and Markie now has a teaching career as Head of Science. We are having another go this year.
You’ve played a lot at Burning Man over the years. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen there?
The first year ('95) when Wicked was the first and only major sound system on the playa. We battled the elements for 3 days and nights without a break. Thunder, lightning, electrical storms. At the peak of the night, one naked guy deck dived and threw the turntables on top of me while a couple thousand people almost tore him apart. Times!
Where is your European tour taking you this time?
Disco Deviant Brighton May 4th, Disco Bloodbath London May 5th, Lux Lisbon May 10th, Cargo London May 11th & Loftco Asturias Spain May 12th… Can't wait!
You are playing in Brighton with Adam Freeland, someone we wouldn't have associated with you. What's the story there? Is he playing a 'cosmic' set?
I've been friends with Adam for a long time. We have shared billing at various raves and festivals over the years. He is very open minded and intelligent and really just a top fella. At one festival on Mount Shasta a few years back I played after him as the sun was coming up. I seem to remember starting with Vangelis and dragging everybody down a decidedly slow & twisted morning set for a few hours which struck a chord with Adam. Given the chance I believe he'd like to rock the deeper Cosmic sound full-time but he has a fan base who might not agree with such a move. I did a remix of his 'Silent Speaking' which came out on vinyl last year with a Prins Thomas Diskomix on the flip. So now it's official I guess.
What is the one record that never leaves your record bag?
Soft Cell - Memorabilia. I picked up the album in '81 and started DJing with it in '94. I've burned through 4 copies so far!
If you were showing someone who’d never been to San Francisco around the city where would you take them?
Haight Street as it leads into Golden Gate Park which takes you to the ocean. Hippies abound.
What does the future hold for Garth?
I just moved to LA. It's full of promise. I'm throwing a new party called Spank! Just wrapping up my first feature film so might be doing some more acting. I will be heading back to Japan for my annual tour (10th year). Just living day to day without worrying too much about the future. Seems to take care of itself just fine.
DJ Garth Live @ Metamorphosis, St Louis - 1994