With the rumours that the iconic long-running ‘Now That’s What I Call Music…’ series is to shut up shop, and with streaming services and single-track download purchases meaning that everyone can become a compiler, it’s potentially easy to argue that the compilation album is in trouble. It’s an argument which, at face value at least, has a great deal of validity, but scratch the surface and there are signs that it’s not quite up the mucky creek without a paddle just yet. Take the ‘Late Night Tales’ series, for example, which has already celebrated its 10th anniversary, and next month will be releasing its 30th edition.
To celebrate these milestones we sat down with co-author of ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’, and the series’ sleeve-note scribe Bill Brewster, to pick out his favourites and discuss the continued relevance of the compilation. Speaking of his relationship with Late Night Tales in its entirety, Brewster opines that, “there’s only really been one that I’ve thought wasn’t very good – I’m not going to name which one, but it’s the only one out of the 30 that I thought ‘hmmm, that wasn’t great.’ The others have been really good and some of them have been brilliant. Along the way I’ve come across lots of great music that I didn’t know about through other people’s tastes, which is like DJ’ing in a way and I suppose in a sense this is like home home DJ’ing. Introducing people to music is what selecting and DJ’ing is all about. Every time that someone curates something in the series there’s always two or three things which I know absolutely nothing about from artists which I’ve never heard of before. Which is great because you get to hear more music than you would do otherwise.”
As you’ve written the sleevenotes for every edition and having seen every facet of the series in a way, do you feel that the series has retained its original set of ideals or have you seen an an element of progression or development?
It has changed slightly, but only very slightly. The only change has been that in the beginning it was mainly DJs doing it. Not always, but very often, it was DJs selecting stuff, and producers actually – they had people like Howie B doing it. Nowadays they select a far more rounded sample of people to do it, and there are musicians and bands getting involved. I think that’s the only real difference though, and everyone appears to see it as a particular kind of sound and approach it with that in mind. The idea, I suppose, is to create a mix that you can put on when you get from a club or even when you get back from the cinema or something on a Friday or Saturday night. It’s something you can listen to when you’re having a cup of coffee, or a shot or whatever. Perfect comedown music, I suppose, for want of a better description. They all seem to fit into that category, though that’s not to say that some of them aren’t danceable or that some aren’t rock-y – there are a few with quite a lot of rock music on them but done in a way that works really well.
You’ve talked about your choices having a sense of cohesion or a set sound, but listening to the Metronomy edition there is a sense of it being quite a scattergun approach, but one which takes the listener on a real journey. Is this something you’d agree with and which of the two approaches do you prefer?
I think they’re both valid and both work when done well, and I agree with you about the Metronomy one. It feels very much like it’s been done in small sections, almost as though he was flicking through his record collection and picking out anything interesting as he went along. That said, I still think it fits together really well and I think that’s the important thing about selecting music and DJ’ing and putting together compilations – sequencing and programming the music really well so that it feels like the next track is coming in before the last one has ended. It’s something Metronomy did really well and I think you’re right in that it’s the polar opposite of the Turin Brakes compilation which almost feels like they conceptualised it and thought ‘OK, this is what we want it to sound like, lets look for the kind of music that’d fit into it.’ Maybe they didn’t do that at all! Maybe that’s just the kind of music that they like. I don’t know them personally at all so I don’t really know what their approach was. But yeah, both are equally valid.
Whilst picking your favourite editions you’ve chosen a mix of produces/DJs/bands. If pressed – and I know this is somewhat arbitrary – which do you think produce the ‘better’ compilations?
It’s very difficult because often it depends on the individuals involved. I would say that producers have come into it firstly by DJ’ing and I think having that kind of background helps when putting this kind of thing together. I’m not necessarily saying that it will be better but I do think they’re a an advantage because if you’ve spent years DJ’ing then you’ve learned about programming and in putting music together, how it all works together and how it makes sense to a dancefloor. This is another way of programming music so that it makes sense to the people who are listening to it. That said, there are some musicians who I think have turned out brilliant ones, for example the Metronomy one was very good. Although I haven’t selected it as one of my picks mainly because it’s so new and I haven’t had time to listen to it as much as the others.
Turning to the cover versions that have featured throughout, what do you think they’ve added to the series and are they now an intrinsic part of it?
I definitely think they’re an intrinsic part of the series. They don’t always work, but that’s the thing with cover versions – they’re often to a very personal taste, and if you know the song quite well then it’s quite hard for someone to win you over with their version of it, I think. It’s like someone remixing a track that you really like, it’s really hard to get your head around it sounding slightly different. It’s the same with the cover versions, and I haven’t loved all of them but I think pretty much all of them have been interesting – they’ve done something quite odd, or quite different or quite unique with them, and most of the songs they’ve covered are ones that I’ve known already so it does make it difficult in a way, I think. I have to say I think the last two or three have been brilliant. Metronomy covered Jean-Michel Jarre and Trentemǿller did Chris Isaak, and the Groove Armada one was really good as well.
You said you could see the Four Tet edition being played in a club – do you think that having the listener visualise a scenario or environment while listening is important, or should that be kept separate and the records be viewed on their own terms?
I don’t necessarily think it’s important. What’s great about music is that it’s strangely very visual, and when I hear song I often have images come into my head either of memories of hearing it somewhere else - sometimes I’ll hear a song and think “I was sat in a traffic jam the last time I heard this” or other times it’ll centre around an amazing night out. I don’t think it’s important for the music to be danceable at all, but I do think it’s important that it forms a great listening experience. If it’s music you can dance to then that’s an added bonus but I don’t think it’s a prerequisite.
The argument exists that the ability to purchase individual tracks has in some way denigrated the album as a cohesive concept. Do you think this has crept into compilations and if so how do you think Late Night Tales has continued to be so successful?
I think people have now started to go more towards mixes - and I’m not necessarily talking DJ mixes, but rather collections of music put together by interesting people – rather than albums, because of the culture that iTunes has created. It’s helped hasten the idea of the album as an art form which is a real shame Also, there’s just so much music out there now and because of that mixes have become important because they’re almost like filters put together by people who’ve sat through hours and hours of shit music in order to find the good little nuggets to put together for the listener. I think that’s why people buy into mixes, be it Late Night Tales or some big, daft Ibiza compilation – people can’t be bothered to sit though the hours of guff that’s released every week and so they do rely on the people who act as filters for them and they have become so important simply because there’s an overproduction of music. I think Late Night Tales has benefited from that, and in the ten years or so that it’s been going the world has changed dramatically in that time and yet what they’ve done is stay pretty true to what they started out doing. I think that’s a testament to them getting it right the first time.
Going back to your initial point about mixes being a filter, do you think that’s where the future of the compilation lies? Perhaps as a source of musical education?
I think that might be a part of it, but I always think it makes it seem dry when the word education is used, because ultimately it has to be about entertainment and the same goes for DJ’ing as well. As much as you might want to play amazing new music that you know about to people who might not know about it, the first duty as a DJ and as an entertainer is to entertain. If the compilation doesn’t take you, or move you, or inspire you in some way then it’s not fulfilling its function. If it also educates you then it’s a bonus. It’s certainly something you want to aim for but at the same time it’s definitely not the first prerequisite of putting compilations together or of DJ’ing.
Looking at the series as a whole, do you think it offers a sense of added value to the consumer – whether it’s via your sleeve notes, or the curators etc. - and how big a factor do you think in the way the series continues to be respected and revered?
I think my input to the project has actually been very small, I don’t want to try and suggest I’ve in any way been instrumental in its success, though Paul (Glancy, label boss/compiler) will sometimes ask my opinion on X person or Y person. Really the success has comes from asking people who are new enough to be interesting but also popular enough to get people to go out and buy them because it’s really hard to sell music these days and so you have to temper what you’re doing with something like this with the fact it needs to be popular enough to continue functioning. 15 years ago you could have put out a compilation like this and sold quite a few copies without having to put too much thought into it, whereas now you really have to work on picking the right people so that you’re pulling in fans of that person as well as people who are a fan of the series as a whole. That’s a very fine balancing act, and not an easy thing to do. It’s worked really well because they’ve really selected the people well…
The first one I’m going to pick is the first one in the series, when it was called ‘Another Late Night’. It’s by Fila Brazilia, who were in a way the kind of masters of that home listening kind of vibe. There were a set of pioneers of that a while back, and they’d be one of them alongside the likes of Groove Armade, a lot of the Ninja Tunes stuff, and DJ Food. It was all very down-tempo, easy listening kind of stuff and I think Fila Brazilia’s edition is a really good example of that. There stuff like Nightmares On Wax on there, there’s Brian Eno and there’s this brilliant Marvin Gaye song on there called ‘T Plays It Cool’ which is off a soundtrack album which he wrote. It’s just put together really nicely, and the ones that I like the best are the ones where it feels as though they had a sound in their head and they’re searching for music to fill that sound and in fact all of the ones I’ve selected have that sense that they’ve deliberately gone out to find the music to fit the sound they’ve got in their head and this is a really good example of that.
My second choice is Turin Brakes, which was the eleventh title in the series. What I like about this one is that the whole mix seems to be infused with blues music although there aren’t actually any out-and-out blues tracks on there. That said there is a John Hammond track on there, who’s almost a disciple of the blues. Generally it’s people some of whom were making music at the time the compilation came out, and others who were making music in the 60s, 70s and 80s and it all just fits together really, really nicely. It feels very blues-y and is very guitar oriented and generally quite soothing. I just love the blues-y feel of the whole compilation and I think it works really well together. It was one of the first in the series where it almost felt as though they’d conceptualised the idea.
My third choice is Four Tet – I’ve always loved what he’s done and have been a big fan of his music, going right back to the early stuff he did on Output. I knew he’d do something quite crazy, jazzy, interesting and off-the-wall and that’s exactly what he did. There’s a real jazzy feeling to what he selected and yet in the middle you’ve got electric-folk-rock from Fairport Convention, you’ve got Madvillain on there and then there’s straight-out jazz music like Max Roach and leftfield music like Terry Riley or Manfred Mann’s Chapter 3 who did a couple of brilliant albums. There’s all kinds of stuff on there but he’s put it together really, really well. It’s actually the kind of thing you’d really love to hear in a club.
My fourth pick is Lindstrom – again, it felt as though it had a sound running through it, and it seems to have quite a lot of fairly obscure stuff on it. There’s one well known song on it in Carly Simon’s ‘Why’ but again it fitted really well into it. People seem to describe his sound as sort of ‘prog-disco’ and it’s almost as though he’s playing up to his reputation in this compilation because it does have this kind of ‘prog-disco’ feel to it. There’s also a great cover by Lindstrom of ‘Let It Happen’ which was originally by Vangelis, and also Demis Roussos did a really good version of it as well. On the mix there’s a load of really good stuff on there that I’d never heard of , in particular a track by Farah called ‘Law Of Life’ which is really slow, almost Donna Summer-ish sounding with an American girl singing over the top that sounds a bit like Nico, and there is a lot of that vocal style on here – there’s a track by Gina X called ‘Kaddish’, and a Fearn Kinney slow disco track which has the same kind of vibe on here as well.
My final pick is Trentemǿller, which I feel was the most recent really, really outstanding mix. It sounds like dark, gothic pop music. It’s weird how he managed to select all these different tracks that are quite varied. Some sound almost rockabilly, while others are quite electronic and then you get some quite well known stuff like The Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus In Furs’. It’s just a really well put together compilation, and also not very electronic. I think it’s probably the least electronic out of all of the compilations, and yet still one of my favourites out of all of them, just because of the way that he put everything together. I really love this, and it’s one of the ones I’ve come back to.
Friendly Fires’ Late Night Tales will be released on 5th November via Late Night Tales.
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