Andrew Weatherall brought record producers out of the back room and lured millions on to the dance floor
When Q Magazine called Andrew Weatherall the “Phil Spector of techno”, it was meant as a compliment – both were record production pioneers who helped to shape the sound of popular music. But aside from Spector’s troubling and abusive personal life, the comparison missed the mark slightly. Where Spector’s innovative “Wall of Sound” – multiple overdubs to produce an epic, dramatic sound – was firmly within the realm of “pop”, Weatherall’s music ranged across the terrain of techno, house, dub and electronic club music, often – as with his trio Sabres of Paradise – on individual albums.
Not all revolutions “devour their children”, and nor do they necessarily trample their predecessors. A key aspect of Weatherall’s work beyond its eclecticism – although also as a part of that – was the way it simultaneously strode forward while looking back and linking past and present.
Following stints as a carpenter’s assistant, furniture mover and labourer – and having moved from Windsor to London – his musical roots were as a DJ. His large record collection and correspondingly extensive musical knowledge attracted the attention of house music pioneers, including Danny Rampling and Terry Farley, and led to slots at clubs such as Shoom that blazed the acid house trail.
As part of the Boy’s Own collective, Weatherall fostered the burgeoning scene through promoting raves, producing fanzines and then setting up his own record label in 1990. Alumni of his promotional activities included future stars like the Chemical Brothers.
But as much as his work was focused on electronically infused dance music, Weatherall’s aesthetic was always informed by, and came to influence, popular music much more broadly. His background as an aficionado of punk and post-punk music – as well as funk – formed bridges between club culture, indie and rock. He deployed his eclecticism via remixes of indie acts – early successes included Hallelujah by the Happy Mondays and New Order’s World Cup song World In Motion.
Even as a relative novice to the studio, his guiding philosophy was one of musical inclusion – informed by but, crucially, not beholden to the past. He would later sum it up thus:
If you sit in a studio all day trying to be original, you’ll never do it. If you play me something you think is original, I’ll play you something from 1958 that proves otherwise! You become original by default. If you go into a studio and do an authentic approximation of music you love, I think you end up becoming original without even trying.
A vital component of this was that his remixing and production of bands was informed by his sense of what would work on a dance floor. Consequently, a formative moment in his career, and popular music history at large, was his collaboration with Primal Scream. On his first stint in a recording studio, he took the indie-jangle of I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have and thoroughly renovated it via loops and samples into the hit Loaded, leaving only snippets of the original behind.
Synthesizing the musical worlds of indie and dance, Loaded was a keynote of the Primal Scream album “Screamadelica” – the winner of the inaugural Mercury Album Prize in 1992 – which he co-produced.
Weatherall himself eschewed the “superstar DJ” mantle and massive clubs of Ibiza, focusing instead on studio work and a vast array of solo and collaborative projects. He combined production duties for the likes of Beth Orton and One Dove and remixing acts as diverse as Björk, My Bloody Valentine, James and the Orb, with releases as the Sabres of Paradise, Two Lone Swordsmen and under his own name.
If these never saw him break through into the mainstream as a featured artist, his influence on it – as on club culture – is unarguable.
Weatherall’s signal achievement was in threading together the production, consumption and curation of music into one role. His approach to breaking down source works and rebuilding them almost from scratch cut across DJ mixes, original records and remixes of other artists. This helped to redefine the notion of a “record producer” from being a backroom, industry-facing role and dragged it towards the creative limelight – leading a wider audience, and subsequent generations of artists, to view it as an artistic practice in its own right.
His refusal to stand still – and aversion to repeating himself – made it harder to market him as a “star”, as did his own self-deprecating view of the music industries revealed in this 2016 interview with the Guardian’s Alexis Petridis:
DJs? Heroes? Are people really that desperate?… I know people want heroes, but seriously, this is ridiculous.
Weatherall’s contribution to popular culture was to demonstrate how a vanguard of new forms – such as house music – could inform and rejuvenate existing ones, indie rock, for example. By taking a curatorial approach, but not a reverential one, he expanded the parameters of what was possible for DJs. His combined sense of musical diversity, focus and history – he saw himself as the “antithesis to the throwaway, mp3 culture” – shaped the role of the record producer in the 21st century.