Owen Howells: From the UK to Australia and back again (and again!)
After starting as a warm-up DJ at warehouse parties around east London, he has found himself growing in stature, and now runs a label called Shades, as well as picking up DJ gigs in London and around the world. With a US tour imminent, I caught up with Owen recently to talk about his story so far and his plans for the future.
Whereabouts in Australia are you from?
It’s a funny one because I’m actually British; I was born in the Midlands. My family moved to Australia when I was a kid and eventually I got an Australian passport, making me a bit of a token Aussie. We lived in Perth briefly but spent most of the time in Adelaide, a lovely city with lots of festivals and churches on Australia’s southern coast. They call it ‘The Great Australian Bite’, because it literally looks like a shark has bitten a chunk out of the country.
Can you remember what it was like moving over there?
I was pretty young but yeah, I remember it well. Coming from the UK, I really noticed that people were outdoors a lot more and living a more active lifestyle. I was the only English person (though a lot of them must have been second or third generation European) in my school so I had a pretty noticeable accent at first, but at that age it’s real easy to adapt so it was all good. Overall I just feel lucky to have had the chance to live somewhere different.
Did you feel a ‘calling’ to come back to the UK?
Well, the first time I was here I was just really young and running amok, so it wasn’t til the second time I really even considered that. I’d suddenly become aware of how quick time passes and that I needed to make a move to turn it into what I’d always wanted and hoped for. I’m not sure it was a ‘calling’ so much as a chance to turn a new page, study hard and get myself where I want to be.
Who were the first artists you were into and what kind of style of house/electronic music was you first love?
The first underground electronic music I paid attention to was probably jungle and sample-heavy ‘big beat’ sort of stuff. It goes back to visiting my sister in Brighton; she lived with a bunch of producers and DJs who ran a pirate radio station from inside the house, and they were really into all that. But I didn’t fall for it straight away; I guess because I wasn’t experiencing it in a club it didn’t have the same impact.
So I’d say my first loves in electronic music were probably at the more commercial end of house and electro, from when I first started going out. It was like Green Velvet, Armand Van Helden etc. But it was bigger than the music; I got hooked on the whole thing really, the atmosphere, the sound, the relationship between the DJ/performer and the audience. It feels as though that’s my first point of contact really with electronic music, in the immersive club environment.
Later on I moved to London when I was about 19 and that’s where I discovered fabric and especially The End. It’s just been non stop from there really, at first just going to experience it but that slowly sort of transpired into being more interested in what the DJ was doing at the back. That introduction to good quality house and techno in the right environment, with a great sound system, DJ and an up for it crowd, you just get hooked on it. Especially in a city like London, the diversity of the crowd and the energy, I’m getting goosebumps talking about it!
More recently, a proper first love has been Underground Quality. I’m still working towards owning every release. But yeah I’ve definitely got a ‘first love’ like obsession with UQ. It’s that rough around the edges house sound that I love. Early releases like Fly Away are right up my street with the strange vocal too. After reading lots of interviews with some of these guys, I feel as though I can hear New York in the music, but I could just be going mad.
Was there much of a scene in your locality? If so, where was good to go and who were the local DJs who played the music/you respected the most?
Adelaide has a small but great scene, but funnily enough it’s something I’ve learnt more about since being here in London as I’ve been away a while now. There’s a fantastic record shop called Transitions where I got some wicked records when I last visited. And Cuckoo and Sugar bring unbelievable domestic and international artists to the city week in week out.
I recently read a great article about it on the Tea and Techno blog. The stuff about the city’s techno heyday in the nineties is fascinating; they had the guys from Detroit coming over weekly! There’s loads I didn’t know, and lots of people who’ve been on it for years getting a nicely put, and well-deserved, mention.
When did you decide to start DJing?
Well the first piece of wax I bought was Mos Def, Nate Dogg & Pharaohe Monch – Oh No. That’s around 1999 I think, the same time I had my first pirate radio experience at my sister’s housing co-op. So yeah probably about 14 years ago! But I’ve only really got serious about it the last five years or so, so I’ve still got plenty to learn.
Why did you decide to leave Australia and head to the UK?
The first time around me and my partner in crime Sian just wanted to go backpacking really, I had a UK passport so it made sense to give Europe a go and then head to Asia etc. We came back over about four years ago to study, and by then, I wanted to focus all of my time on music. In a way, as well as getting a degree, studying bought me a lot of time to learn as many lessons of a different kind within music. It’s been great and I always recommend the course I did to people.
How did you find it here when you first arrived?
Good, different in many ways to Oz but similar in many, too. For the type of music I like, London never ceases to amaze me with its line-ups, week in, week out. As well as the bigger venues there’s so many micro-collectives of people, throwing parties, putting out records and contributing to a truly vibrant scene. It’s a great place to find something you love and immerse yourself in it.
Do you think being here has pushed you further along as an artist?
Yeah probably, just because London’s a big, crazy old city. There’s no shortage of inspiration here and I’m sure that’s crept into my music and record collecting. Plus getting the chance to play places like Kater Holzig [in Berlin] and fabric, at this stage, might be hard to do from Oz!
How did you go about getting to meet people and so on? Did you know many people before you got here?
Mostly through trying to get the gigs really, and when the Italian warehouse party guys let me warm up. I’m sure they weren’t even open sometimes and I’d be playing to nobody at 9/10pm, but it was a great learning experience! Generally I think it comes down to just turning up and playing stuff you believe in; you never know who you could meet at any gig.
How did Shades come about?
Shades came about through a mutual love of music I think. Duct and Fybe: One got chatting about a setting up a platform to release their music and other stuff they found exciting. They brought myself, George Higham (Herse) and Dan Lawrence (Saul Knight) in on the plan and we just got in with it. We set up a series of basement parties in Brixton and then started putting out records, with Fybe’s wicked Harp EP as our inaugural release.
Were you already producing before you got to the UK? How did you pick it up? Is it all self-taught?
No I wasn’t really, just a big fan. I started producing music about five years ago when I arrived in the UK. I picked up the basics from studying music technology here in London. I think it’s great to learn the rules of ‘proper’ music production so you can experiment and break them all knowingly later. Once I caught the bug there was no going back; ask my family or girlfriend and they’ll tell you I’ve had my head down and focused on music more or less full-time for the last five years. It’s completely consumed my life, but I still feel I’m only a small fraction of the way there, and I’m loving the journey.
You’re doing quite well at the moment and just about to embark on a US tour, how does it feel?
Yeah, I feel fortunate it’s taken off a bit this past year or so; it’s exciting to have reached so many more people. With the tour I’m just delighted at the chance to visit a new place and meet new people, but that’s not to say I’m not really nervous too!
What do your friends and family back in Oz think of what you’re doing?
My family have been completely supportive from the beginning. I was actually reading an interview you did with Silky, and he summed it up well, they bought me my first turntables, and have supported me in my decision to come back to the UK, and start studying from scratch for which I’m really thankful.
You have a new release on Celestial Recordings, can you tell me a bit about that? It’s pretty dark!
Yeah it’s a four-track EP, the two originals are Common People and Riding. Then it includes a remix of Riding by a good friend Thierry, a really nice, percussive rolling sort of minimal techno track. And the fourth track is an edit of Common People, which I’d been mucking around with and playing out a bit. More of a tool more than anything. It’s funny you calling it dark, it’s definitely the darkest thing I’ve put out to date and it’s actually more similar to my first EP, Chips, Beans & Cheese on Wunderkammer a couple of years ago.
What’s the next step for you?
I’ve got quite a few gigs coming up over the summer so I’m looking forward to those. Especially looking forward to playing at Kater Holzig, fabric, Bestival, the US tour and Ireland/Northern Ireland tour. It’s going to be a busy but fun summer. And then, in September, I’m going to head back to Australia and set up camp in Sydney. I’m hoping to put these last few years of studying and being involved in all aspects of music to start my own multi-faceted project called Carousel, whose principles will be to ‘discover’ and ’share’ music and culture.
At the centre of this, I’m planning to open a boutique record store where I can push the stuff that I love, engage and interact with music lovers, and hopefully build some solid foundations. There’ll be events, and maybe in future I’ll release some of my own stuff through it, but I’m going to take it all very slowly and step-by-step. I’ll start with launching the online store in late 2013, and the physical store soon after, hopefully! Basically I want to do whatever I can to keep this great culture that I’ve fallen in love with alive, and put something back. Nothing is certain, but I’m going to give it my best shot anyway, eh?
I won’t be a stranger though; with my family, friends and Shades crew here there’ll be plenty of reasons to visit London all the time once I’m on my feet.
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