Matt Tolfrey: Leftroom's Burning Man

Words by: Stephen Flynn
Posted: 3/10/12 7:55

Matt Tolfrey: Leftroom's Burning ManMatt Tolfrey is rightly considered one of the UK’s most influential contemporary DJ/producers. His journey to this point though, owes as much to a childhood spent in Bahrain, (where his brother would bring him ‘magic’ Sasha tapes) as it does to his late teens and early twenties, which were mostly spent either on the dance floor or behind the decks of some of Britain’s most prominent clubs. Tolfrey’s rise then, while meteoric, is also in no small part attributable to the success of the label he helms, Leftroom, with the latter now similarly considered a byword for highbrow house fare.

Having just returned from his maiden trip to Nevada’s Burning Man festival and with his debut LP, Word of Mouth about to drop soon on his own imprint, we caught up with the man himself by Skype to talk production, collaborations and the Burning Man experience…

Where are you now?
I’m in San Francisco as part of my US tour. A good friend of mine Kevin Knapp, who’s the main vocalist on my album, is putting me up for the time being. I usually just come over here for a Friday or Saturday, but this time around I’m taking some time out to enjoy the city before the next leg of the tour…

I gather you were at Burning Man then. How was it?
Yeah, I went for the first time. It’s one of those things that really is hard to explain to somebody who hasn’t been before. Before I went, I thought it looked a bit OTT and I wasn’t actually sure if it was for me. But I went with my fiancé and found some time to explore parts of the festival that weren’t musically inclined, such as all the crazy art etc.

Did it leave any sort of lasting impression on you?
Yeah, because it’s so different to anything I’ve ever been at before, and is the first festival I’ve ever been to where the musical aspect is almost secondary to what’s going on elsewher. I didn’t even know who was DJing some of the time, which is a big change for me; I’m usually the guy who knows everything that’s going on. But I was having such a good time and was meeting new people and enjoying the views and kind of got refreshingly side-tracked. But it was great to leave my emails and phone alone for a week. I’m making up for it now though…

So you’re not going to be arriving back in the UK as a sort of “sand hippy” then?!
[Laughs] No! Listen, I understand the ethos of the festival, but other parts of it confused me. I mean, the ticketing system and the prices are now both pretty damn expensive. I guess the promoters have finally learned to embrace capitalism…

I’ve been running Leftroom for 7 years now, so it’s kind of my baby. I could leave for example, the artwork to other people, but I just can’t, I guess I’m kind of obsessive about it…You’ve ticked the box by going I guess though?
Yeah, and don’t get me wrong, it was amazing, totally next level shit. But it’s also a big commitment in many ways, plus I’m getting married next August so it’s unlikely I’ll be returning next year. As much as I loved it, it’s not the sort of place I’d like to spend my honeymoon! I ticked the Glastonbury box some time back too, and while that was also incredible in its own right, Burning Man was just really sensational…

So how long more are you staying in the States?
Well I’m doing this sort of mini-American tour right now, so after Burning Man I did Spy Bar in Chicago, then The Standard in LA, then Miami. So I’m in San Fran now and have Denver and Atlanta coming up too. After that I embark on a four-gig weekend that starts in Cielo in New York on a Thursday. Then I’m in Seattle, then Montreal and then back to Ibiza

Does being away for so long at a time affect your work with Leftroom?
That’s the main problem I’m having actually, and the time difference isn’t helping. I’m actually seriously considering flying home for a rest in the middle of the next tour like this! I have a guy, Leon, who helps me out with the physical aspect of the label, but I’m very hands-on with it. I’ve been running Leftroom for 7 years now, so it’s kind of my baby. I could leave for example, the artwork to other people, but I just can’t, I guess I’m kind of obsessive about it…

Do you mind being away from home for so long?
Well I only ever do this kind of tour a few times a year, so it’s not too bad and I definitely can’t complain. I do miss the missus and the family when I’m away for a prolonged period though. I have the opportunity to be one, but I’m not the sort of DJ who tours excessively. If I have a gig in say, Spain on Friday and Berlin on Saturday, I always try to get home to London by Sunday. I’m not the type to hang around for a week after.

Mind you, if I was in a position where I really had to tour, I probably would if I really thought it was all worth it. As I was saying earlier though, I’m getting married in August of next year, so myself and my girlfriend have had to put a lot of our time and energy in to that too…

Have you hit the after parties on the head for a while so?
Well I’m 31 now so I’ve had to slow down a bit, yeah. If I’m playing on a Friday and Saturday these days, I’ll try not to drink on one of the nights. If I’d have followed a marketing job or a job after university, I’d still be going out on the weekends, but I couldn’t be drinking on both nights. So I try and take that into account to stay a bit healthier and fresher and to make sure I can last the pace. I still feel young, but I’m not a huge partier compared to other people. I mean I’m not in to going out on Friday night, and gigging and not sleeping and then flying home the next day anymore. I used to sleep all day Monday after a weekend of gigs, but I’ve knocked that on the head too as it didn’t help me in terms of getting shit done.

I wanted to ask about your time spent in Nottingham. How influential a time was that for you?
Well I grew up in Bahrain until I was 16, and it wasn’t until I was 19 that I went to university in Nottingham. My career has been sort of organic though. I met the right people at the right time and I was confident enough to put myself out there by dishing out mix CDs etc. I started out DJing at this club called The Bomb that is still my favourite club ever. One summer while there, I got a few gigs, and when all the students had come back to Nottingham I was a resident.

There was also this monthly club-night called Tyrant, which was once a month on a Friday. That had Adam Freeland in Room 2 and Sasha and Craig Richards in Room 1. So Craig would often go play fabric straight after, and one day James Bailey, the promoter of The Bomb called me and asked me if I could fill in for Lee Burridge at Tyrant as he was sick. I didn’t see it as a big break then, but that gig really helped shape my career. Soon after that, Craig asked me if I wanted to play at fabric, which was obviously an amazing moment. I’ve been playing there four times a year now for about 9 years, and I was immediately taken more seriously as a DJ after that.

I mean there are no rules to an album, it’s not like you have to stick to one formula. I didn’t want the album to be an excuse to write loads of obscure music. I still wanted it to be what I was about and what the label is about, but at the same time I didn’t want it to be 12 singles...You left your degree in Nottingham to pursue the label though, right?
Yeah, after I got back to my placement after second year, I thought I’d be going straight into my final year. But it then emerged that I had failed a module in my second year that they’d forgot to let me know about. So I had to re-sit my one whole module for an entire year, meaning I’d have 2 hours of lectures a week. So I did that for a year but just wasn’t feeling it. So I was at a crossroads: I was either going to go into a music course up there, or I was going to start up the label. Obviously I went with the label, mainly because I was getting sent so much good music that I wanted to release and help promote. And seven years later, here we are.

How easy did you find it to set up a label back then?
Well I was gigging a lot at the time, and Nottingham isn’t too expensive, so financially I was ok. I was also doing a business degree and had always wanted to run a business, so again, that helped too. Matt Styles, who was running Crosstown Rebels at the time, was really friendly and he helped me with any questions I had. I guess you just need to keep your shit in order, stay positive and trust your taste in music. But it was easier then. I mean nowadays, its so much harder to make an impression as there’s far more competition. We’d some big records that helped us at the start too, like Audiojack’s “Robot” and Ito and Star’s “Sudoku Kid” and they both shifted about 3000 vinyl copies, which helped financially too…

What’s been your proudest achievement with the label?
Apart from starting it, just getting to 5 years and still releasing all our music on vinyl is quite an achievement in my eyes. I get asked this question a lot, and more recently, the release of my own album on the label fills me with great pride. I wanted to release the album on Leftroom because I want to start putting out other people’s albums on the label too, so it just made sense from that point of view.

Matt TolfreyYou’re a DJ first and foremost though, yeah?
Yes. 100%. I use engineers in the studio most of the time. I can produce on my own but it just takes me a lot longer, and I haven’t really got that much time on my hands. I do lots of edits, but when it comes to remixes etc., I have a handful of engineers who I trust and work with.

Does that partly explain the many collaborations on the album?
It’s funny, because all the collaborations are purely vocal, none of those people listed actually helped me produce the tracks. So, that’s why, from Marshall Jefferson to Kevin Knapp to James Teej, they’re all purely vocal…

How did you hook up with Marshall Jefferson?
Well a friend of mine set up an interview by Skype with him, and I asked him these random questions, unsure exactly of what to expect back. I then cut up the vocals from the interview and turned it into a track. The hook up kind of came out of nowhere though, simply because I knew a guy who knew a guy from his management company. Originally, when I came up with the idea of the album, I’d written a dream list of people I’d like to work with, and he was always up there. But I guess if you don’t ask you don’t get. I obviously never envisaged a situation where I was working with him, but when he started talking about the groove and calling out all these old-school producers on Skype, I knew his voice was a perfect match for the record…

Last year you told us that you wanted the album to be a “head turner, and not just ten tracks you’d hear in my DJ set”. Do you reckon you’ve achieved that?
Yeah, I do. But I mean there are no rules to an album, it’s not like you have to stick to one formula. I didn’t want the album to be an excuse to write loads of obscure music. I still wanted it to be what I was about and what the label is about, but at the same time I didn’t want it to be 12 singles. I’m really confident with it and the reviews have been good, and people who understand my music will understand what I was trying to do. Others are slightly bemused by the hip-hop record at the end, but that’s just me and my approach I gues..

Do you find the dance music album can be a bit clichéd sometimes?
Well when I get a new album, as a DJ, I’m instinctively listening out for what I can play in the club. It’s not that often I’ll get sent something and listen to it from start to finish, mainly because of time constraints. But I do still buy albums and listen to them like that. Others feel the pressure to conform to a certain way of producing an album, but in my eyes it can be whatever you want it to be…

I also wanted to ask you about one of my favourite tracks on the album, “The Dark Side of the Disco Ball”. What is the dark side to what you do?
[Laughs] I’ve always actually found it hard to play dark music, so that’s actually what the title is referring to. I’m just not really that kind of guy, I’m pretty happy-go-lucky. I sometimes find it difficult to find that sort of music, and weirdly, I can feel like I’m not being myself when I do. Derrick Carter once told me to “play for the butterfly and the bogey man”, meaning you have to play for the two different types on the dance floor. You can play dark music and still be funky at the same time. The disco ball definitely has two sides, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to convey…

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