Mark Hawkins Talks About ‘The New Normal’ on Houndstooth, 90’s Raves, Berlin, Clubbing in Glasgow, Acid House & More
Photo by Vaiva Hawkins
An interview with the insider for Le Visiteur
The things you may or may not know about Mark Hawkins. From living in the back of a Leyland truck in Wales, trance raves in Goa and running around to just about every field rave there was in the 90s, to tying French plaits, to a career so impressive its hard to write it all down. There is no doubt in my mind that this thoughtful, talented, articulate, understated individual from Barking has got a big heart. Mark Hawkins is undoubtedly, one of the music industry’s diamonds. He is about to drop his new album ‘The New Normal’ on Houndstooth Records, our industry insider asked him a few questions.
Grab the album via: https://hth.lnk.to/normal
Mark also recorded this cracker of a mix for us, please give it a share over on Soundcloud and help us spread the love. You can check out more on the mix, including the full tracklist HERE.
Thanks for talking to us today. I really appreciate your time as I know that in the past you haven’t been a huge fan of press stuff. Do you feel a little different about it now days?
I guess I’ve always just felt a bit self-conscious, and personally was always more interested in participating in music whether that be listening to, presenting, in the sense of a DJ presenting music, or producing it than talking or writing about it. Also, early on, I wasn’t so sure that I had done anything worthy of note, I supposed I kind of felt I needed to pay my dues and have a history worth talking about before opening up about it in the press. I’m old school, I was brought up in a scene where people didn’t necessarily shout about what they were doing, in fact in the 90s it was downright frowned upon. The paradox is however, back then when I was younger, I probably was more open to shooting my mouth off, which would have actually served me better in more recent times. Over the years I learned to be more reserved, I guess I matured to an extent, but it doesn’t actually serve you so well in this day and age to be that reserved as an artist, as it’s kind of expected that you’re gonna go on social media and share your entire life there, which is something I’m not really into to be honest. I quit social media about 2 years ago, and I’m a much happier person for it.
A lot of people might think you started when you first released on Dixon Avenue Basement Jams as they will be most aware of your Marquis Hawkes tag. But you’d been ‘at it’ for a lot longer than that. What was your first release and when was it?
My first full solo release was this one, on the legendary Djax-Up-Beats label from the Netherlands:
Djax were responsible for releasing many of the original Chicago artists for the first time on a European label. Relief, Trax, and Dance Mania imports weren’t easy to come by in the UK back then, especially when we had no internet, so Djax was often the only way we had heard of people like Paul Johnson, Robert Armani, and Steve Poindexter back in the 90s.
I know you are originally from Barking, but it seems like you have moved around a lot in your life. Why do you think you’ve moved about so much?
Well, we moved as a family to Suffolk when I was 12, but by the time I was 16 the rave scene was kicking off and I was seeing Spiral Tribe on the evening news, and I wanted a piece of that, so that probably started the ball rolling with moving about. I was often keen on a clean start which a move would give you although with time I came to realise that I was often only running away from myself, so this alongside the need to have a working studio slowed down the moves until I landed in Berlin & started a family here, so that’s a pretty grounding influence these days.
I read somewhere that your dad gave you ‘Planet Rock.’ He must have been a bit of a dude then when you were growing up.
Killer record collection, and many interesting opinions for sure. Dad is great I have to say, massive influence on me, especially with his own musical obsessions. Hello Dad if you are reading!!
As a teen in the late 80s, who were you into? Were you a big Public Enemy head?
Well, here’s the other thing, I remember hearing Public Enemy “Rebel Without A Pause” late one night in the back of my dad’s car when John Peel played it on the radio, I guess around 1988. And this was also where he first heard “Planet Rock” some years before, also on John Peel. He went out and bought it, but then on listening to his purchase was like “what did I buy this for?” thus giving me the hand me down. He wasn’t really a hip-hop head or anything like that back then, but just had an open ear, I guess. And as I say, we had John Peel back then which was amazing, cus he’d play dub reggae one minute, then death metal the next, and just about everything in-between.
Were you out about as a teen or was radio the source?
As I say, John peel was the man back then, but also Jeff Young and his big beat on Radio 1 introduced house music to me around 87-88. Bear in mind I’m only 11-12 at this point, but I had already been getting off on Herbie Hancock “Rockit” and hearing the road safety advert version of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five “The Message” a few years earlier, so I was trying to find that kind of mid 80s electro sound, but I found it a bit difficult when I didn’t know the names of the artists, or any record stores that might have music like that.
I guess I had to settle on Howard Jones and Nik Kershaw to a degree, but synthesiser was just king back then, I was just into anything with a synthesiser. My dad had I think a John Foxx album alongside other weird synthesiser records, and I’d started digging Gary Numan, but I don’t think my dad really realised the impression synth sounds had made on me at the time, naturally being the 80s, it was everywhere.
What trends were you into? Did you touch on punk or were you a soul boy?
I can’t say I was ever really aligned with trends until I discovered firstly kind of alternative rock/indie/punk, and then getting more and more into electronic music. More soulful things, aside from hearing things like Earth Wind and Fire or the Isley Brothers when I was REALLY young, didn’t really come until later, and I kind of got more into that whilst looking more and more into the roots of house and wanting to delve deeper into the source material. Anarcho punk though I really really got into around the time I was leaving school, Crass, Subhumans, Conflict, Oi Polloi, that type of thing. That dovetailed nicely into the illegal rave/new age traveller thing. That’s why I think I found techno from around 92-93, especially when the distorted 909 bass drum took prominence, so striking, as it was truly the electronic punk music I’d been looking for. When you felt alienated from the world of the normal people, you would be naturally on the lookout for a sonic middle finger, and I think the very raw kind of bass drum heavy techno that outfits like Spiral Tribe and Virus were playing back in those days fitted that bill exactly.
What did you play your music on then at home do you recall?
Argos bought midi system, what else in the 80s? (Laughs)
My first Acid House experience was going to Rage at Heaven. Trevor Fung was playing, and I remember thinking “fuck me this is amazing!” When was your acid house awakening?
You’re lucky you were in the right place in the right time. I wasn’t old enough to experience it first hand at that time. For me it was Jeff Young playing Armando “Downfall” on Radio 1 back in ’88. That’s the best acid track of that particular era in my opinion, way more evil sounding than Phuture “Acid Trax.” I actually thought that I had imagined “Downfall” for years until the reissues came years later, and I finally found out what the hell it was.
You were more of field raver I see…
For a long time, I was of the belief that this music didn’t belong inside clubs cus the confined space just always caused too much reverb, and that it sounds waaaay better on a big system in the open air. I still hold that belief to a degree.
What record sticks in your mind from that time?
Referencing particularly the alien hard acid sounds purveyed by the Spirals & Virus, this track, which I also thought I had imagined for years due to being far too under the influence when I heard it!!
Is it right you used to live in a rave bus in Wales?
I’ve lived in the back of a Leyland FG Truck, in a 1963 Bedford SB5 coach, and a variety of caravans and Bender Tents, alongside various sofas on traveller friends’ vehicles, over a period of about 5 years. In Wales, but all over England as well, alongside a summer European teknival tour in 1999 – shout out to the Boy Les Cafe crew!
How did you go from raver to player? What was the first field rave you played at?
We had a traveller’s site in a place called Brechfa in west Wales, just across the valley from Tipi Valley, and I actually made my DJ debut at a party the kids from Tipi valley were doing. I’d befriended the owners of a record store in Camarthen which was the nearest town, and I’d taught myself how to mix there the week prior to the party. I had been to a party the year before that Virus were doing in Evesham (West Midlands) where I heard that 100% Acidiferous record alongside many things like it, sandwiched between 2 weekends at Goa trance events in Wales, and it was the point I realised that the Trance stuff really wasn’t cutting it for me, and I needed something with a bit more attitude. But also, I discovered Smokescreen and DiY crews in early 1995 which had introduced me to the US house stuff, alongside the point where house meets techno, so things like Winx “Don’t Laugh” and Digital Express “The Club” were being played, and it all went into my musical melting pot. So, the end result of it all, I was in Wales, living up a mountain, hearing too many DJs there playing Goa trance or happy hardcore, and I guess I just wanted the music I was really into to be represented.
What sort of stuff were you playing at that time?
Robotman “Do Da Doo (Plastikman’s Acid House remix)”
Digifx “4 Tha Music (Huddersfield Mix)”
Slam “Positive Education (Morganistic Mix 2)”
Scotti Deep “Brooklyn Beats”
Dave Clarke “Thunder”
And Phuture “Acid Trax” at 45 rpm +8 trying to replicate the hard acid sounds I was hearing at Virus parties! (Laughs)
Do you remember when you went from playing music to making it? What made you decide it was time to do that?
Sat drinking a coffee in a friend’s caravan at Brechfa in 1995, and he said to me “you know what? You don’t want to be just playing the music, you need to be making the music,” which I immediately felt was bang on the money. But it took til 1997 for me to really start producing, and even then, it was on borrowed gear and blagged studio time, as you couldn’t make music on a computer alone at the time as processing power and software just wasn’t up to it. Laptops were almost like a rumour.
Can you highlight one or two of your early releases?
I’m still really proud that I managed to release on Cristian Vogel’s Mosquito label before it folded, and I think the music stands up and has a relevance to what I do these days.
And I think the first Uglyfunk record was quite a milestone, particularly given that it was pretty much exclusively written on an Akai S2000 sampler which was no mean feat.
Sounds like you went in hard in the 90s! When and where were you hanging out with the DIY boys Digs and Whoosh? So sad to hear that he passed last year.
That was generally in the pub in Nottingham aside from a few outdoor parties throughout 1998 as I had moved back into a house and was hanging out there as I’d met a lot of people from Notts at Smokescreen & DiY parties during the previous years, and also a few traveller types I knew had moved to Nottingham for a more settled existence. Very sad to hear of Pete’s passing last year. But to be honest, I was much tighter with the Smokescreen crew, especially Little Steve from the Littlemen, and was paying a lot of attention to what Lawrence & Andy (Riley) AKA Inland Knights were doing as they set up Drop music, as the whole concept of putting a label together was pretty interesting to me, as back then almost nobody around me was doing it.
How did you end up in Berlin?
I had most of my bookings around the early 2000s on the east side of Germany & also in Poland, mainly playing live but some DJ gigs also, and I had been playing a lot with Bill Youngman, who eventually became The Headless Horseman, and he had said to me “why don’t you just stay?”, so I stopped with him for a few weeks til I got my own place. But I only stayed a couple of years, I actually ended up taking over his old apartment 6 months or so later, but then I met a girl in Poland and ended up moving to Gdansk in 2006 for a year, before then coming back to the UK to spend more time with my eldest daughter, and kind of try out “getting a proper job” for the first time in my life (Laughs). But as I say, I moved back with my wife in 2011 as we had more friends here than anywhere else in the world.
What did you do when you got there? Were you taking a break from music at this time initially?
Not at all, I was playing shows, touring, hanging out in squat bars, making music, getting to know people on the scene, hanging out at the old Tresor on Leipziger Strasse and becoming firm friends with the residents there at the time.
You are good pals with Dixon Avenue lads. Did you spend time living in Glasgow too?
No, never lived there, but Dan Monox had been booking me to play for him since about 2002, and I’d made a techno record for his Monox label before, so when they were starting DABJ, him & Kenny were hitting me up for music. Despite the geographical distance, we had all moved amongst the same circles for some years.
I read something you once wrote about Glasgow, that there is no snobbery in music there, or culture for that matter. I couldn’t agree with you more. Why do you think the city is so stand up? It clearly is…
It’s just that Scottish thing of calling a spade a spade and not being taken in by pretension, but Glasgow in particular is a really no-bullshit kind of a place, people, at least the people I met on the music scene, are honest about how they feel about things, and more than happy to discuss why they feel the way they do about those things. I respect their honesty.
‘The New Normal’ on Houndstooth is about to drop in a few weeks. People talk of concept albums. Is there a story around the album/ a theme? Is the title directly related to the past two years of the pandemic?
The name is related to many changes happening in my life, none more so than this pandemic which has changed our world and perception beyond recognition. Before the pandemic happened, I was already questioning how I fitted in to the whole music world, I had become very dissatisfied with performing, and had come to a point where I was starting to feel like I was just going through the motions, and that was something I never wanted to do. I was disillusioned with the disconnect between true talent and representation in the club scene, and was, and still am to an extent, trying to work out how it’s possible to survive as an artist without becoming social media’s bitch and without having to jump through hoops which I really wasn’t comfortable jumping through.
Some people thrive on being a walking PR machine, but I find it pretty sickening how that’s rewarded over musicianship. But I accept that it’s always been that way in many regards, just in the past, electronic music was more underground, and it was pretty frowned upon back then if people talked up their shit – the music was supposed to do the talking for you. But as this scene has moved to a wider audience it’s not just about the music heads anymore, I guess, there’s a lot of people just looking for a night out. And all considered, there’s a lot more revenue flying around than in the past, particularly with streaming and digital downloads, so it’s not all bad. But regarding performing, I think it’s tougher than ever, and I think there are many inequalities which are getting worse since the pandemic kicked in, particularly given the fact that there’s less places and opportunities to play, so basically now, it’s only like either the festival headliners, or no-name people getting booked. The middle of the DJ market which was already under attack has basically been decimated. It’s not a problem for me right now as I still feel pretty jumpy about the idea of being in an enclosed space with a few hundred people, despite being vaccinated, especially with the thought of breakthrough infections and long Covid, but I think it’s a bit boring generally to have the same 20 people booked over and over, and not to have a place for those lesser known but quite often more musically interesting acts to play. I digress, but all these factors, alongside many others have forced me to adjust to my own “new normal,” and I think both the name and feel of the album reflects that.
The album covers a surprising number of styles. Would you say you have evolved again? Is this a new theme/ genre for you. Or is this a result of all of your experiences now coming together…
The great thing about writing albums, is you kind of get to set a theme or tone for the whole thing at the beginning and you kind of work around that, at least, that’s how I’ve been doing it the past few years, so every album has been a development on the last. Obviously between the last album and this album I’ve undergone a rebrand and gone back to my birth name and with that I felt there was an opportunity to broaden things out a bit. But also, whilst writing the bulk of this album during the initial Covid 19 lockdown, I felt that there weren’t many dance floors operating anymore, and as a result kind of felt like, if I was going to write a banger, it should be a radio banger, as in something that might play well on the radio, whilst also going even more out there on a track like “Let It Slide” which is purely the feeling I had looking at the infection rates rising every day and watching this crazy, crazy thing go around the world, the shops getting ransacked for loo roll, and just that general paranoia every time you went outside. But yeah, I guess since dot I always wanted to move way beyond just writing choons to get bookings. Gigs in the past were the means to the end for me being able to have the time to write more music, rather than production being the means to the end of getting more gigs.
As such an experienced producer, what do you think are the elements that make a great record?
It’s all about having an amazing musical idea which will stick in peoples’ heads, supported by production values that make the absolute best out of that idea.
Is there a track made by someone else which you think is close to perfection?
Jamie Lidell “When I come back around”
You strike me as a person who does not follow trends. Do you keep your ears on what’s going on with new releases? Are there artists/ producers that you are into that you follow?
I try to, but to be honest, at least in regard to house and techno, there’s just too much filler out there at the moment. Too many records being made where people just wanted to get booked. And That turns me off, it makes it too much of a chore to find really good dance music. Or at least dance music I like. But I tend to find this, every other decade, I’m just not really into what’s hip at the time, so a lot of it passes me by. I think I prefer making house and techno to listening to it.
Occasionally I might find a cool DJ set podcast which shows me something new or something I don’t know, but in the past 2 or 3 years it hasn’t been so often. 2012-2015 was just belting when it came to banging house tunes, but right now I’m not really into Italo, not really into EBM, and not particularly into tech house so I don’t feel there is much out there for me currently. And given that I’m not really trying to find music to DJ with, the motivation to find that kind of stuff isn’t really there. My ears are always open though; I have to say Thundercat was a real treasure to find last year. I listen to a lot of music outside of the house/techno sphere.
When you’re not listening to house and techno, is there an album that you love which is none of the above?
I’m rarely listening to house or techno, only sometimes in the car, but my album for last year was “It Is What It Is” by Thundercat which was pretty much on repeat on my car stereo for most of last year. He won a Grammy for it, very well deserved in my opinion and the video for “Dragonball Durag” is AMAZING. Top cat!
A track on your album ‘Second Born’ samples your little one. How has becoming a father for the second time changed you as a person?
It made me learn that you have to just roll with the punches, and you can’t let yourself get bummed out about every little thing, cus otherwise you’re gonna have a miserable life. I’d like to say also that I can do French Plaits now, but I’d be lying, I can’t. (Laughs)
When you’re not making music, what do you like to do Mark?
I’ve actually just been at a lake just out of town the past 2 days swimming and enjoying the last of the summer sun, but what to do outside of music generally has been the big question in recent times. I wrote so much material last year that I’m still going to be releasing it probably a year or two from now, so it kind of left me with a bit of a hole in my life. The last year or so I actually was learning how to drive big trucks, in German, which was pretty intense, I passed my rigid at the end of March, and my artic at the beginning of June. I had the thought that I could always earn money doing that if all else fails, but it turns out the hours and pay for the job are pretty shitty. So, I’m probably going to use my new licence if I buy a truck in a few years to live in for half the year, drive down to the south of Europe every winter once the youngest is done with school, kind of back to the old ways but updated, fully legal, and maintaining a home base here in Berlin. But I’ll probably always keep my eye open for a cushy number jobwise if I see one. Always good to have more strings to your bow.
Now that the world is beginning to open, do you have any gigs in the planned or is it the studio for you these days?
I don’t feel ready to get back out there just yet, I want to see numbers go down considerably and the dust to settle. Rather not be a guinea pig in this whole thing, plus getting sick sucks. Hopefully in some months my production hiatus will be over, and I’ll get back into writing again, but I think I just need to get back to having an empty hard drive again, or at the very least have signed and handed over the masters of the stuff I’m sat on. Just when you are sat on so much material, it can be hard to get motivated to write more.
If you hadn’t spent so much of your life making music, what do you think you would have done?
Music has been so much a part of my life that I have absolutely no idea what I would have done. Perhaps I would have stayed in the itinerant lifestyle more and been living on the road in the back of a truck still.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on getting back to being inspired to write, and just getting generally into a good place mentally. I’ve also been considering getting into mastering, but that’s very dependent on certain opportunities which might come into play. But in regard to new music, the inspiration will come when it’s time, I’ll be patient in the meantime. But there will be many many more releases between now and then, they are racked up and ready to go!
I really appreciate your time, Mark. Wishing you all the best with this brilliant album.
Mark Hawkins releases ‘The New Normal’ on Houndstooth Records 24th September.
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