Interview: Charles Webster
A new compilation celebrates the veteran house-music innovator Charles Webster.
Tue Aug 27 2013
Photograph: courtesy Defected Records
Whether he’s producing under his own name or under one of his many aliases—Presence, Furry Phreaks and Love from San Francisco being just a few of his notable monikers—the U.K.’s Charles Webster has long been one of house music’s most respected figures, releasing tunes with a depth and sophistication rarely found in the genre. Despite the veteran’s aural refinement (or perhaps because of it), he’s never been the trendiest of music makers—which is not to say he doesn’t have a rabid fan base. Among Webster’s admirers is the crew at one of house’s biggest labels, Defected, which has tapped him to helm the latest edition of its ongoing retrospective series, House Masters. A collection of re-edits and remixes of classic Webster tracks, served with a side of unreleased tracks, it would make a fine album to play for your house-hating pals who think the genre is all kick drums and vocal samples.
Time Out New York: You’ve been making and playing house music for well over two decades now. How does it feel to finally be a “house master”?
Charles Webster: Well, you know, I think I’ve always been one. [Laughs] But it’s nice that it’s now official. To be honest, I was quite shocked when Defected asked me to do this, as my sound is perhaps less commercial and more left-field than what Defected often focuses on.
Time Out New York: But you’ve had material come out on Defected before, so the people behind the label obviously have an affinity for your sound.
Charles Webster: Yeah, that’s true; I have a really good relationship with the label. Simon [Dunmore], who runs Defected, has a really good understanding of all sides of house music. It was simply a case of me getting an e-mail asking if I would like to do the next episode of House Masters for them. It was quite nice. I also have a new album coming out soon, called No Lucky Days, by the Webster Wraight Ensemble. It’s a big-band, jazz-with-vocals project.
Time Out New York: Wow!
Charles Webster: Yeah, it’s pretty exciting. And definitely something a bit different.
Time Out New York: You’ve never been a flavor-of-the-month artist, and have pretty much been absent from magazine covers and whatnot throughout your career. Yet here you are, still making great music that people care about. How did you manage that trick?
Charles Webster: Just by not being boring, I think! [Laughs] It’s a matter of change. I try not to repeat myself and to be constantly evolving. I make it a point to work hard and always come up with new things. The goal is to keep getting new listeners without confusing the old ones, touch wood. If I throw a real curve ball—if I made a heavy-metal record or something—then that might be a little bit out of character, but I think if you evolve in a natural way, you can keep going for a long time.
Time Out New York: The Webster Wraight Ensemble sounds like a giant step in that evolution.
Charles Webster: Definitely. But when you hear it, you’ll be able to draw parallels with what I normally do; you’ll still be able to tell that it’s me. It’s just a matter of using different instrumentation.
Time Out New York: That’s one thing about your music: Even though there is a lot of variation, there are certain consistencies that run through it. It’s deep and mature, there’s a lot of great sound design, you have a way with melody, and there’s often a lot of interesting rhythmic interplay.
Charles Webster: I think it’s very important to have a unique sound, but don’t consciously go out and try to have any certain sound; I just go out and do my own thing. My music is just what comes out.
Time Out New York: An interview that you did years ago quoted you as describing your music as “warm and pillowy.”
Charles Webster: It is quite pillowy, isn’t it? [Laughs] We’ll put that quote on my tombstone. I like music to be inviting. I do like listening to noisy music, or music that’s a little bit edgy—but I guess I do make music that you can snuggle up to.
Time Out New York: The House Masters compilation features a lot of re-edits and remixes of older tracks, along with some previously unreleased tunes. Why go that route, rather than offer a straight-up retrospective?
Charles Webster: The main reason was to give a bit of value for money, for want of a better phrase, rather than put out the same mixes that people have already got. I also just wanted to make the album more of an indication of what I’m doing now; it’s my current take on my older things. And I tried to program it like an album as well, with some kind of flow between the clubby stuff and the more introspective music. I think if I had just used a club mix with a bunch of my 12-inch singles, I wouldn’t have been able to get that feeling.
Time Out New York: I’ve been playing the compilation’s “Kinda Kickin’” track, credited to DJ Boom, for years—but until this release, I never realized that DJ Boom is actually you and Matthew Herbert.
Charles Webster: Yeah, I don’t think very many people do realize it! It sounds a little bit different from his stuff, and I guess it sounds a little be different from my stuff as well. That was just a track that we did in one day, quite a while ago.
Time Out New York: Sometimes those one-day jobs are the best ones.
Charles Webster: Absolutely. I was listening to the original mix of “Soothe” by Furry Phreaks recently; that whole thing was done in less than half an hour.
Time Out New York: And that’s one of your signature songs!
Charles Webster: Yeah, but the writing of it and recording of it and finishing up of it went really quickly.
Time Out New York: Do you always work that fast? A lot of your material seems quite intricate.
Charles Webster: Some of it takes quite a while. There can be a lot of layers and details to worry about. But with something like “Soothe,” it was just a matter of a couple of chords, a drumbeat and a really nice vocal; it’s very direct. Some tracks don’t really need much. Others take a long time to chip away at. That might be another thing that makes my music last—it’s not all the wham! bam! thank you, ma’am kind of house. You can listen repeated times and discover different things about it.
Time Out New York: It’s funny you say that, because I was just listening to the Love from San Francisco remix of Hot Lizard’s “Big Air.” I hadn’t heard it for a while, and I was hearing all sorts of details within the mix that I didn’t really remember.
Charles Webster: I think that’s what happens if you try to make sure your music has at least a bit of subtlety to it, and if you construct your songs carefully.
Time Out New York: You’re in your late forties, and the average dance-music producer nowadays is probably a quarter-century your junior. Do you plan on working within the club-music realm forever, or do you think you’ll feel a need to move on?
Charles Webster: Well, as long as I can still do it, I’ll keep doing it. I do enjoy it. I really don’t think there’s any time limit on it. At least I hope not!
House Masters: Charles Webster (Defected) is out now; Webster Wraight Ensemble’s No Lucky Days (Heavenly Sweetness) comes out September 2.
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