‘...I’m from an old school that believed that music and musicians could change things - maybe not radically and maybe not quickly, but that the seeds for change could definitely be sown with songs and videos and shows and interviews.’
Niall O’Conghaile, aka The Niallist, is talking about the music that inspired him to become a musician, a producer, a DJ, a one-man-disco-industry, and a Performer Extraordinaire.
Niall makes music that moves you “physically, mentally and emotionally. Dance music, for want of a better term!” But it’s always been about more than that.
Let’s turn to the history book…
When Brian Eno was working with David Bowie in Germany, he heard Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” in a record shop. Eno bought the single and ran, holding it aloft, back to Bowie in the studio, where he announced, like a pop John-the-Baptist, ‘I have heard the future.’
Niall is part of that future and his musical output is quite phenomenal and brilliant.
But it’s not just music that Niall has made his own, you’ll know him as a star blogger on Dangerous Minds, and perhaps through his work on the blogs Shallow Rave, Weaponizer, Menergy and his site, Niallism.
Niall also DJs / organizes club nights with Menergy and Tranarchy, and is the keyboard player with Joyce D’Ivision. All of which, for my money, makes The Niallist one of the most exciting, talented and outrageous DJ/producers currently working in the UK. Not bad for a boy who started out spinning discs on one turntable at school.
Now, it’s strange how you can spend much of your working day with someone and yet never really know that much about them. Wanting to know more about the extraordinary Niallist, I decided to interview him for (who else?) Dangerous Minds, and this is what he said.
DM: Tell me about how you started in music? Was this something to moved towards in childhood?
The Niallist: ‘Yeah, music is something I remember affecting me deeply as a kid. My sister, who is older than me, was a huge Prince fan and naturally that teenage, female, pop-music enthusiasm rubbed off on me. I would read all her old copies of Smash Hits and create my own scrap books from the magazines, even though the bands were, by then, either non-existent or pretty naff.
‘My brother was into more serious, “boy” music, which I didn’t like as a child, but which I really appreciated when I hit puberty. He had a big box of tapes that was crucial to me, even though he didn’t like me borrow them, but he had pretty much all Led Zep’s albums in there, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Bowie, The Stone Roses, and I particularly remember him getting a copy of Nevermind when it had just come out, which was a key discovery. That box smelt of Dettol and musty cassettes, and to this day the smell of Dettol still takes me back!’
What were your early tastes in music? What were those key moments when a song a record made you realise this was what you wanted to do?
The Niallist: ‘Well, Nevermind was definitely one. I think that record started a lot of people on a musical journey. But also, I really identified with Kurt Cobain, as he was an outsider in the pop music landscape who spoke up for gay and women’s rights, which really struck a chord with me. He was a man, but he also wasn’t scared of being seen as feminine. He was a pop star, he looked scruffy and spoke with intelligence and passion. He was different. As someone else who was different, and a natural outsider, I guess I saw music as maybe a place where I could fit in and still fully express myself.
‘Call me hopelessly naive if you will, but I’m from an old school that believed that music and musicians could change things - maybe not radically and maybe not quickly, but that the seeds for change could definitely be sown with songs and videos and shows and interviews. Looking back on the early 90s now, it seems like an incredibly politically-charged time for music and pop culture. Public Enemy, NWA, Ice Cube, Huggy Bear, Bikini Kill, The Prodigy with “Fuck ‘Em And Their Law”, Pearl Jam telling Ticketmaster to fuck off, Spiral Tribe, massive illegal raves, Back To The Planet, Senser, Rage Against The Machine, the fact that RuPaul was a pop star, even Madonna’s Sex book and Erotica album for God’s sake! If you weren’t politically active or at least aware back then, you were terribly uncool. That spirit seems to have disappeared from music altogether now, which is sad.’
The Niallist introduces his Top 5 key tracks that changed his life
The Niallist: ‘One of my first ever memories is watching the video for “Kids In America” with my sister on Sunday morning TV. It had a huge impact on me, I found it other worldly and exciting, and Kim Wilde’s face hidden in the shadows was dark and strangely alluring. The broody synths and propulsive arrangement of the song have definitely stayed with me ever since.
The Niallist: ‘S’Express “Theme From S’Express” I used to hide under my duvet as a child, with an illicit walkman and headphones, hoping my parents wouldn’t catch me so that I could listen to the top 40 run down. For some reason this track struck a nerve with me, and I became obsessed with it, tuning in every week to see where it was and hope to hear it. It’s a pretty far-out record to reach number one, but the diversity of the pop charts is one of the best things about the UK.’
Daft Punk “Da Funk”
Loose Joints “Is It All Over My Face (Female Vocal Mix)
The Niallist: ‘Daft Punk “Da Funk” and Loose Joints “Is It All Over My Face (Female Vocal Mix)”. I still remember where I was when I first heard both of these records. Strangely enough both times I was looking out a window, but now what was going on inside the window rather than outside seems much more important. Both of these records blew my mind and cemented dance and groove-based music as the thing I wanted to make, because it showed that dance music, rather than being a disposable, shallow, perma-now culture, had both a history and a future, and both of them were very different to what people expected.’
(Unable to find “Metro Area” here 2 other tracks by Metro Area.)
The Niallist: ‘Metro Area “Metro Area” I have a pretty scattered approach to the kind of music I like, I find the idea of fusing different genres exciting and worth exploring, but I will always come back to disco. Metro Area are one of the few modern acts who create disco-esque music that is as good as the top artists from the original golden age. I spent years and years listening to, and trying to replicate their sound. It as both familiar and fresh, and while you could definitely dance to it, there was a sadness and melancholia there that moved me.’
What was growing up like?
The Niallist: ‘Boring and normal. Nothing unusual to report there. My life started to change more after I moved away from home, and started interacting with my true peers, going to clubs, having sex, taking drugs, you know, all those things that adults do. But to be honest, I don’t think a human ever stops growing until the day they die.’
When did you start DJing?
The Niallist: ‘I first started DJing on my school’s radio station as a teenager, which was an obvious thing for me to do really, as I was one of the few total music nerds in my school. Then in the mid 90s, I got heavily into dance music, a format that was most readily available on twelve inch vinyl. Having to buy your tunes on record meant that beginning to mix with decks was a very natural progression, especially as those tunes were designed to be mixed together. Even when I only had one deck I was still thinking about how great it would be to mix the different records I had together.
‘I moved to Glasgow in 1997, and quickly fell in with a group of like-minded wannabe DJs and clubbers. We formed a collective called RPM, which basically gave 4 or 5 of us our first shots at DJing to an audience, and it was surprisingly successful. I’ve never really stopped since then, though up until a few years ago, the amount I did depended on how much work I was putting into creating music instead of collecting and playing it. Then, in 2008 I finally got a copy of Ableton Live, and my life was changed. Again, it was another case of starting from scratch and having to learn a whole new program, but Ableton is simple and easy to use, and it has allowed me to integrate my djing and my music production more fully.’
When did you start producing?
The Niallist: ‘In 1999. invested it in a 4 track, a Roland Groovebox MC-303 and a small Akai sampler, a very basic set-up which I stuck with for a very long time, mostly because I couldn’t afford anything else. I switched over to a PC and Cubase in around 2005, but then it was like starting all over again in terms of learning how things worked. But at least it gave me access to a whole world of soft synths so that I could greatly expand me sound. Now I am using Ableton primarily, which is even better, as it is fast and direct, and coupled with the soft synths, it is awesome for sampling. Sampling was a serious pain in the arse, back in the day, using a rack mounted Akai or EMU it could take hours and hours to trim a wave down to exactly the right size to be looped, and then you’d have to trim and expand everything else to make it fit if the original musicians weren’t tight as a nut. Which was often the case!’
How difficult was it to break into the music scene? Was there rivalry?
The Niallist: ‘I don’t consider myself to have broken into any scene yet! I think of it more like a slow scratching or chipping away at a huge cliff face. To me, music is a mountain, that I simply have to climb. That’s also hard to answer as I am an artist who has worked in a few different musical genres and thus had access to different scenes, so I couldn’t pick any specific “breakthrough” moment. But primarily, as I said above, I always feel like an outsider in all scenes, so I find it much easier and better to try and create a scene around me and my friends, rather than try and fit into anyone else’s.
‘As for rivalry, I think there is always an element of rivalry in music and the arts. As long as it’s kept positive and used for inspiration, as opposed to used negatively and for jealousy, then that’s healthy. The rivalry between the Beatles and The Beach Boys spurred both acts on to make better music, whereas the rivalry between Kanye West and 50 Cent has done nothing but inspire stupidity. But then, I don’t have beef with anyone. Yet.’
How would you describe the music you create?
The Niallist: ‘That’s tough. As I work in different genres, but if I had to define it in certain terms I would say it’s mostly electronic, and it’s generally something with a strong groove. Music that moves I guess, physically, mentally and emotionally. “Dance” music, for want of a better term!’
Tell me about club nights - how they started, what are key moments, what was the worst / best you had?
The Niallist: ‘I’m involved in two nights at the moment, both of which are also more like collectives, and are very heavily drag based. The first is Menergy in Glasgow, and the second is Tranarchy in Manchester. Menergy was started by Lady Munter and Kid Zipper in Glasgow a few years ago, and after I did a guest gig for them they asked me to be resident, which I jumped at.
‘I moved to Manchester in 2010, and met up with another promoter called Joe Spencer who wanted to host a vogue ball in the city, which hadn’t been done before. Menergy had just held our first vogue ball, which was a big success, so we teamed up to do Vogue Brawl. It was a huge hit, and we realised that there was a big niche for doing more, similar, events. Thus Tranarchy was born!
‘At this point I should give a big shout out to SF’s drag matriarch Peaches Christ, who came to Manchester in the middle of 2010, to perform and screen her feature film All About Evil. She was looking for performers to help her, and me and Joe got involved. It was very inspirational to be involved, and was a definite catalyst to getting Vogue Brawl and Tranarchy off the ground.
‘It’s kinda hard to pick the best nights we’ve had as they’ve honestly all been such fun, but I would say the vogue balls are the highlights.
‘As for worst, that’s easy! One of the first Menergy parties when I just joined was an Italo Horror special, and so many things went wrong. We hired a big TV to show Suspiria, but it ended up being in black and white. Some drunk punter fell into a speaker stack which cut out and collapsed. Some dickheads were going around the venue stealing punters’ hand bags, and when the security wouldn’t intervene the whole thing broke out into a massive brawl that spilled out onto the street and eventually had to be settled by around 10 cops. Yet, despite all the shit that happened, we STILL had people coming up to us to tell us they loved it, so we knew at that moment we were onto a good thing.
What’s your over-view of music today?
The Niallist: ‘I think the creation of music is the same as it ever has been, to be honest, some is good and some is bad, some people are doing it for the right reasons, some people aren’t. The distribution of music, however, is another matter!
‘There was this cultural myth that built up around MySpace that simply putting your tunes up there and sharing them with an audience would lead you to success. Well, 6 years later it should be pretty evident to see that that is bullshit. Who are the biggest artists in the world? Who are the acts that generate the most press coverage? They are all still based on major labels, or pseudo-indies that are funded by majors. People complain about music getting worse and worse, and it’s understandable, as what gets played on the radio is getting narrower and narrower. But that’s happening because the playing field is getting smaller and smaller, not because it is some grand Iluminati-type behind-the-scenes plan by the (*evil strings*) music industry. The field is getting smaller because people have stopped paying for music. There IS a direct correlation there, even though many, many people who acquire their music for free deny that. A lot of music consumers tell artists that their music is simply loss leader for their tours or their merchandise. That’s an insulting thing to say about the music itself, and yet most of these same people can’t see the correlation between “loss leader” music and getting swamped with shit.
‘The only recent act I can think of to have succeeded purely through the internet is Tyler The Creator. But to get to a mass market, to get on TV and magazines, to get the chance to sell his product to as many people as possible, he had to sign to a major label.’
Tell me about your albums / downloads, and the connections with other artists.
The Niallist: ‘Well in 2008 I put out three albums for free through Last FM, of noise-electro and lo-fi, stuff I had made over the previous 8 or 9 years on my four track and with limited equipment. They are a trilogy, reflected in the names “From Out Of Nowhere”, “The Next Big Thing”, and “Lo-Fi Gold”. They vary between harsh and abrasive, like Peaches mixed with Jesus And Mary Chain, to more droney, groovy, song-based stuff, which would be roughly somewhere between Stereolab and Royksopp.
‘My latest release is called AKA and is another departure. It’s dance music, but this time more based on the hip-hop I loved in the 90s, and the early 80s electrofunk I got heavily into in the last ten years. Each track is a collaboration with someone, and many of the guests are gay and from underground homo-hop, vogue or drag scenes. It’s a chance for me to inject some queerness into hip-hop I guess, because as a genre it’s pretty hetero-normative and pushes some very backwards sexual politics. But also it’s a chance to show some gay and queer artists off who are really good and come at the whole “queer” thing from a different angle. I guess I’m just trying to make “gay” cool again, the way gay culture was seen as cool and influential in the early 90s.’
What next for you?
The Niallist: ‘More music, as that will never stop (I work under a lot of different aliases) but also more videos, which is something we’ve started to do with Tranarchy, and it’s something I really enjoy.’
For more info about The Niallist check here.
With thanks to The Niallist