Exclusive Interview: Matt Tolfrey
As head of the mighty Leftroom label Matt Tolfrey has been involved with house and techno for a long while now and shows no signs of slowing down. His work ethic is consistently high, he makes music, plays music all over the world and remains entrenched in the scene – keeping UK house and techno very much on the map, making links with both old hands, and the younger generation. Matt is behind the latest fabric compilation mix and it’s absolutely brilliant. With so much history, so much going on nowadays and his excellent mix, we thought it was about time we pinned him down for a chat…
Firstly, tell us a bit about your connection with fabric? Can you remember the first time you went there? Who was playing etc…?
The first time I ever went to fabric was March 17th 2001. We got the train down from Nottingham and then got the first train back in the morning. The trip back wasn’t pretty! I remember the night so well as Sasha was involved in a car crash and had to cancel his gig there. Adam Freeland also was a no show, so Lee Burridge filled in for him in Room Two. Lee played the best breaks set I’ve ever heard, so it more than made up for the DJs who were missing. I couldn’t get over the sound, and how professionally the club was run.
Tell us about one of your most memorable nights at fabric as a punter…
I played the warm up set in room once on a Minus night, and Magda was supposed to be making her debut. I’d heard a lot of Magda’s mixes, so was really looking forward to hearing her. All the flights from Glasgow got cancelled, so she ended up getting a driver all the way to London. Towards the end of Hawtin’s set, while losing it on the dance floor, I got a tap on the shoulder and was told to get a coffee as I was opening the after party in room three. I got myself together and played for about an hour before Magda strolled in and asked if she could play back-to-back with me. Two hours later we were still going strong, and soon after Craig took over from me… It was a bit surreal to say the least.
When did you get the opportunity to play there for the first time? Tell us about that night…
I played before Craig at the Bomb in Nottingham one night, he was a little late so I got to play a few more records and up the tempo a bit. He obviously liked what he had heard as, about two weeks later, he called me one morning and asked me if I’d like to come and play at Tyrant at fabric with him and Lee. I thought it was a wind up actually. This calm voice said, “Hello Matt, it’s Craig.” To which I replied, “Craig who?!”. I think I knew exactly who it was, I just wanted to check. The date was May 8th 2004, I played from 10pm till 1am in room one, Rework played live after me, then Craig and Lee closed out. The booth in Room One is easily the best booth in the world to play in, so even though I was super nervous, I felt really comfortable. Sanj, the sound engineer, told me to keep it out of the reds, and he would turn me up slowly. He did just that and, by midnight, the place was rocking.
Besides the sound system and the ‘underground’ feel to its interior, what do you think it is that makes fabric such a special place?
Fabric has a real family feel to it. It’s no coincidence that every DJ who’s interviewed about playing there says the same thing. The more comfortable you feel, the better you play. Their attention to detail is second to none, so when you play there, you prepare more, and you want to give that commitment back. Judy, the booker, is like my second Mum, and I even know most of all the doormen’s names. My wife actually worked on the door at Fabric for about four years, so they all like her a lot more than me. She’s the one with all the drinks tickets normally!
When did you get the call up to record fabric 81?
Judy rang me when I was in LA in the middle of a US tour at the beginning of December. We had talked about it before over lunch and such, but nothing concrete. I spoke to my wife, and my agent, then it was all systems go!
How did you feel when you found out you’d be contributing to such a legendary mix series? Any fear at all?
I’ve been recording mixes for so long, that I don’t really find them a challenge in a negative way. The ‘In The Eyes Of’ Mix I did for Classic and the Don’t Be Leftout mix I did with Ryan Crosson on Leftroom were a different animal as I could only use tracks that were signed to those labels, but when you have anything at your disposal, then you have an open book. Without sounding too cocky, I have actually had a ‘Fabric CD’ folder on my desktop for a few years now. I created it to put tracks in that I thought would be good enough for a Fabric CD. Anything that stood out, or tracks that had stood the test of time. So when I got the call, I was fortunate enough to have a head start on myself.
How long did it take you to put the mix together and what was your ‘theme’ or source of inspiration for it?
We started licensing tracks straight away at the beginning of December, and the mix was mastered the second week of February. I tried to put eleven years of me playing at Fabric into 76minutes and 30seconds. I think I just about made it. There are tracks on there that were in my record bag the first time I played, and there are tracks on there I can’t wait to play again at Fabric!
Which other mixes, from the fabric series or otherwise, do you rate as timeless classics? And did any of these feed into your creative process with the fabric mix?
Craig’s first Fabric mix, to me, is still the best one to date. So raw, and captures him playing at 5am in Room One so perfectly. I’ll be listening to that for a very long time. Michael Mayer’s is great also, I love how slow and sleazy it is. I have a huge respect for the Pure Science, Omar S, Villalobos and Gerber’s CDs also as they contain fully original material. They are basically full artist albums constructed with Fabric in mind.
Leftroom is 10 years old! How did that happen?!
You tell me… The key, for me, is to build a family of artists, I never wanted to just hop around the artists who are hot at the time. Leftroom’s motto from day one has been ‘The Extended Family’ and we’ve stayed true to that right up to this day.
How have you managed to keep the label going for a decade?
Lots and lots of hard work, passion and constantly being inspired by new music. We have a great team at Leftroom now, everyone from label manager, to head of social media, so it leaves me with as much time to A&R as possible. I still overlook everything and any big decisions with artwork or literature has to be given the go ahead by me.
What are some of the key lessons you’ve learned over the past 10 years of running a label?
Don’t try and stick to any sort of rules, take advice from people who you respect and look up to, but try and do it your way. From very early on when I first released with Crosstown Rebels at the beginning of 2005 I knew I wanted to run my own label. By October that year Leftroom had started. I love working with other people, but when it is someone else’s label, it is your work within their guidelines and vision. When you run your own label you have full creative control and therefore, as I mentioned earlier, there are no rules. The best bit of advice I was given was don’t run a label to make money. This is why I have always signed music that I would play, or music that I really believe in, not just music that will sell. Some labels are guilty of this, and that’s why the market is so saturated at the moment, especially in the digital world.
How do you stay motivated to keep DJing, making music and running a label in our increasingly competitive industry?
I don’t really see them as separate things anymore. To really feel part of the industry and its culture, you have to be involved in as much of it as possible, this is how I stayed focused and it’s what gets me out of bed. DJing, running a label, putting on your own parties, producing, collaborating, merchandising, it’s all part of it… You can tell I did a business degree, can’t you! I’m not saying you can’t succeed by just being good at one of the things mentioned, but it’s a natural progression. Mine was DJing, then the label, then parties, then collaborating in the studio, then solo work and, more recently, merchandising.
Have you ever hit a low and felt like jacking it in to do something else? If music had never worked out for you, what do you think you would have ended up doing?
When your life is go go go all the time your always going to hit some walls and the slowing down often feels like a low. For example, now when I have a weekend off, I make the most of it seeing family or going out to support other artists, rather than dwelling at home wondering why I haven’t got any gigs. The only time I nearly stopped the label was when our first distributor Intergroove went bust. It was fully out of my hands, not a choice made by me which I wasn’t used to. We had been working with them for nearly two years and we’d had some really big releases. Our vinyl started selling in the region of 2,000 to 3,000 copies a release, and we finally got our big pay cheque from them. We had a P and D with them, so when the label started I was always in the red with them, they supported me a lot, and it was Intergroove who initially came up with the idea of starting Leftroom Ltd as I had so much good, original material. While the cheque was in the bank they went bust so I wasn’t sure if the cheque had cleared or not. If it hadn’t, I would have had to stop the label as we would have run out of money…. Luckily it cleared, and we went from strength to strength.
If i wasn’t a DJ or label owner, I think I would have ended up being a teacher. Or I’d of started another business. I definitely would not have ended up behind a desk working in a job that didn’t inspire me.
What would you say has been your proudest moment, career-wise, so far?
Getting asked to mix Fabric 81!
How are you celebrating the label’s anniversary?
We are doing a year-long world tour, which started at BPM in Mexico. We’ll be hosting parties primarily at all the venues that have supported me and the label from day one, and the clubs where I hold residencies. But we’ll also be taking in some new spots that I’ve been wanting to play and explore for some time. Then towards the end of the year we are putting out a compilation of five remixes of stand out Leftroom records by some big names who always play our records and who have never appeared on the label. Accompanying these will be five collaborations between some of my favourite producers and myself. To say I am excited is an understatement! We’ll be making a full announcement about it fairly soon, watch this space…
Outside of the label and fabric 81 what else is happening with you?
I’m gonna be a father for the first time this May!! It doesn’t get a lot bigger than that really, does it? Super excited and really looking forward to the emotional roller coaster! Music-wise I am working solidly with jozif on our Kerb Staller project. We’re actually playing our debut live show at my CD launch at Fabric on Sat 25th April. I’m just back from Miami, and this time I’ve put aside to put the finishing touches to a lot of solo material I’ve been working on over the last six months.
Tell us about the EP on Skream’s label, how did that come about?
Ollie and I have known each other for a long time, he actually did some dubstep remixes on Leftroom back in 2007 and we’ve stayed in touch since then. We played back2back at the Leftroom party at Off Sonar last year, and he was really into some of my new material that I was testing out. Since then I always send stuff over to him, and once he’d decided on starting his new label, he signed some tracks off me straight away. We’ve already put the wheels in motion for another release at the end of the year…
Who’s the better dancer, you or Ollie?!
Ollie doesn’t dance, he just stomps around and fist pumps. Now when it comes to me, I can dance!
So, your label is celebrating 10 years, you’ve recorded a mix for fabric’s infamous series, you travel the globe DJing/basically living the dream and you got married not too long ago – what else is left for you to achieve?!
To be a role model for my family. We won’t be stopping at one!
Tell us something about yourself that not many people know…
I got my blackbelt in karate when I was 13 years old.
What’s your number one rule for a successful after-party?
Always ensure you a member of your group that is a ninja at throwing dodgy people out or, even better, not letting them in in the first place. Nothing worse than sketchy randomers ruining a good afters!
Finish the sentence, ‘without house and techno I would….’
Not be taking part in this interview.
Fabric 81, mixed by Matt Tolfrey, is out now – pick it up here.