After a phenomenal debut year in 2016, The Downs festival returns to Clifton Downs this September, bringing a lineup that is essentially all headline acts, including Elbow, Soul II Soul, De La Soul, Roni Size, David Rodigan and enduring dance music legends Groove Armada.

Groove Armada this year celebrate 20 years since the release of their debut album Northern Star. The album includes what is still one of their best-known tracks, At The River, which samples Patti Page’s balmy Old Cape Cod.

They’re not the only act on the bill celebrating a milestone, with 2017 also marking 20 years of Roni Size’s New Forms; and fellow late 80s/ 90s icons Soul II Soul and De La Soul nearing 30 years in the game.

Groove Armada this year celebrate 20 years since the release of their debut album Northern Star

However, the word nostalgia is far from anyone’s lips and the presence of these acts on the lineup is a simple testament to a great era of dance music that still permeates tastes today. And that’s, of course, aside from some major successes for these acts – particularly Groove Armada – in the decades since.

Nitelife had the pleasure of speaking to Groove Armada’s Tom Findley about their incredible career, breaking the underground and their performance at The Downs.

‘All those sort of acts – Soul II Soul, Roni Size and ourselves – the roots of what we do is mining something that’s rooted in southern soul, funk, roots and dub. I think if you did a Venn diagram of the three of us, that’s probably where we’d be crossing over. That never really seems to loose its sense of time or place, and I think that kind of music really gets to the core of dance music.’

All those sort of acts – Soul II Soul, Roni Size and ourselves – the roots of what we do is mining something that’s rooted in southern soul, funk, roots and dub

Interestingly, Groove Armada began as a club night run by Tom and Andy Cato (the other half of the electronic duo). Now known for their spectacularly produced, super entertaining shows, we wondered whether coming from the world of promotions, as opposed to being bedroom-born producers, had something to do with this…

‘It’s why we started producing,’ Tom explains. ‘We started producing initially to promote the nights, so our music writing partnership was born out of necessity.

We started producing initially to promote the nights, so our music writing partnership was born out of necessity

‘The thing that has probably had the greatest impact on us as producers and DJs was pulling the live band together. And I think club promotion does the same thing, you put the crowd desires in front of your own.

‘I always find it hard getting on conceptually with self-indulgent DJs. The role of the DJ is to entertain, first and foremost, rather than educate. Our live performances really brought that home, and being promoters – if particularly awful promoters, which we were – has definitely played a part in that feeling, yeah.’

I always find it hard getting on conceptually with self-indulgent DJs. The role of the DJ is to entertain, first and foremost, rather than educate

In their 20 years making and DJing music, Groove Armada have been able continually reinvent their sound, proving to be versatile and capable producers across every conceivable offshoot of house, as well as funk, techno and even touching on some rockier electronic sounds.

Their latest release, the Tune 101 EP released on Snatch! Records is a tech house masterpiece with a deeply underground sound, which is where they’ve been focusing their efforts for the past few years. Consequently, they were invited to do a Fabriclive compilation last year. Tom explains why this was important for the duo:

‘It was great, because of the commitment that we felt we had made to that underground dance scene over the last four or five years. We’d made a decision that that’s where our hearts were, and it actually took a while to persuade people that that’s what we were doing. But we stuck at it quite belligerently, so it meant a lot when we were asked to do the mix.

Their latest release, the Tune 101 EP released on Snatch! Records is a tech house masterpiece with a deeply underground sound, which is where they’ve been focusing their efforts for the past few years

‘We’ve been playing there for years. We played the opening weekend of Fabric in 1999, so we have had a long history with the venue and they’re good people. We’ve been really lucky in that sense, all the things we wanted to do – Back to Mine, Late Night Tales and now Fabriclive – all those compilation series that I’ve always loved, luckily we’ve had a go at all of them.

‘What’s also really nice is that all our old albums are getting reissued on vinyl, which is great – because I don’t have half of them. I lost most of my GA vinyls somehow. They’re putting out Vertigo, Goodbye Country, Lovebox and Soundboy Rock over the next year. So to do the Fabriclive mix and at the same time have all these old records be reissued on vinyl is great, because it’s two ends of the same process.’

To do the Fabriclive mix and at the same time have all these old records be reissued on vinyl is great, because it’s two ends of the same process

However, in terms of what we’re likely to hear from their Downs performance, Tom returns to that idea of the DJ as entertainer, suggesting that we’re going to get a more lighthearted, festival-appropriate show.

‘For us, our day job now is playing in Ibiza, playing in clubs and playing festivals, so we’re in house music mode most of the time. Lucky for us, house music has been pretty good now for a while. It has found a route to return to something a bit more rooted in that Chicago, proper house sound. At The Downs festival we’re going to trying to find something that puts that sound first, but has enough sparkle to work on a bigger stage.

The Downs festival is going to be a groovy house thing

‘That’s where our experience as live musicians comes to the fore really. One of our skills as DJs is stepping it up to play bigger stages. We’ve got a way of working with the equipment and experience of working with a crowd.

‘The Downs festival is going to be a groovy house thing. And we bring our own lighting rigs, so we’re in control of the lights as well while we’re mixing. It’s quite a full on show once we get going!’

While the duo continue to put out EPs, singles and remixes, Tom explains why another Groove Armada album is unlikely, as well as which tracks would make it onto a new Best Of album, now that it’s 10 years since their Greatest Hits.

I don’t think there will ever be another album

‘I don’t think there will ever be another album. We’re both on different paths of life now and Andy is a very committed farmer and bread maker – he’s done an Alex James, but in a more wholesome way.

‘It’s hard to find the time to commit to a project of that length, but we have got new music coming out. We’ve just done a remix of Paul Simon and a remix of London Grammar. We’ve probably got an EP coming out with what you would think of as a more classic Groove Armada sound, and we’re making house records all the time.

We’ve probably got an EP coming out with what you would think of as a more classic Groove Armada sound, and we’re making house records all the time

‘In a way, that’s where we’re at – that’s the sort of music we’re motivated to make. I would never ever say never, but the way our lives are at the moment, an album is unlikely, sadly!

‘Anyone who knows the process of making an album, it shouldn’t be that complicated to make 12 songs, but it usually becomes a most involving project and it has to be the centre of your world, and there isn’t quite the room for that now.

‘We’ve been around for 20 odd years now, so there probably will be another greatest hits of some sort. It’s hard to go back to albums like Vertigo, which we made so long ago – I can’t quite wrap my head around it – but it would draw quite broadly across all the records.

I think we feel that as a piece of work in itself, our last album Black Lights was the strongest sounding album we ever did

‘I think we feel that as a piece of work in itself, our last album Black Lights was the strongest sounding album we ever did. So like our live shows, it would draw quite heavily on that. But there’s lots of other stuff – collaborations with Nenah Cherry and Richie Havens – that would definitely feature from earlier records.

‘I’m getting to a point now in my venerated career, where I can go back and listen to those things and I can enjoy them for what they were – even At The River. I think At The River would have to stay – I’d be in trouble if not.’

GROOVE ARMADA (DJ SET): 2 September – The Downs Festival, Clifton Downs
thedownsbristol.com // tickets

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