What follows is the full unedited interview I did with Jim Ottewill, writer of the book Out of Space “How UK Cities Shaped Rave Culture”. The interview was conducted via email and is part of Jim’s research for a new chapter about Birmingham in the next edition of the book. We thought it would be good to publish it here in full and it might also appear on Jim’s blog. Thanks Jim! Can’t wait for the second edition’s release in April 2024.
Could you introduce yourself and your connection to Selextorhood?
My name is Lai Power and I use she and her pronouns or they and them pronouns. I DJ as DJ Superstar DJ and I put on a party called Energy Flow. I joined Selextorhood during the COVID-19 lockdowns when I decided that DJing was what I needed to be doing. I was desperately missing social spaces based around music and I knew that (safety permitting), we were going to desperately need these spaces again to heal from the traumas of the pandemic.
I felt like with my productions, I never had a space for them to live in. They were weird electronic music and it didn’t really fit into the gig scene somehow which I always found a bit depressing. However my DJing practice seemed to have a space amongst the super supportive Selextorhood collective. There’s a bunch of really talented women and trans/non-binary folks in the group that have so many skills that I don’t have and are willing to teach and nurture talent in a super caring ecosystem. I think I’ve learned so much from them and have hopefully been able to help others with the things that I am good at. This reciprocal mutual aid is a really beautiful and powerful thing.
I started to pick up bookings for all sorts of weird and wonderful events and Selextorhood were always quite well organised for a loose collective. I think it actually completely changed my life. Before I just could not make any inroads into the brum clubbing scene. I either wasn’t confident enough or I think the guys running stuff just thought I was some esoteric weirdo tr**y freak (it’s all true!) and didn’t take me seriously. I only really felt welcome in the art before where it was a bit more open minded.
However now, I’ve represented my city musically at the 2022 Commonwealth Games and other municipal events, played at some of the best festivals in the UK (Come Bye, Basket of Light, Lockerbrook Love in, Fierce Festival, and Supernormal).
Inspired by my experiences in Selextorhood, I have now started my own collective called Energy Flow made up of me, Dee`Cleo, Dj Forgets and Sexy Roy. We put on a cosmic dance party in underground venues such as Artefact and Pan Pan. We’re influenced by the legacy of parties such as David Mancuso’s loft, Nicky Siano’s gallery and the Paradise Garage which situated the dancefloor as a space of connection, liberation and counterculture. We mostly book our friends, who happen to be a lot of DJs from Selextorhood plus people we meet on our travels through the UK dance music underground.
I’m intrigued to hear about how your adventures in promotion/clubs/electronic music began? What was your way in?
When I was growing up, I was much more into guitar music than electronic music. I came through the heady times of the 2000s rock and indie scene. I was in a couple of bands, The Last Bullets (cringe), Tie Die Terrorism (we weren’t going to get far with that name) and Boy With Wings with friends.
I started getting into electronic music via CDs I was given. Daft Punk’s Homework which I bought while on holiday in Paris and Mezzanine by Massive Attack (I think this was my dad’s CD) were early favourites and maybe you can count dub reggae . I liked all sorts of music. My all time favourite band was/is the Clash and they taught me about the importance of anti-racism in music and opened my mind to be turned on to all sorts of music from folk to hip-hop.
I started going out clubbing when I was about sixteen with a crudely modified old passport. We would go to legendary dive club Snobs (especially the so called 60’s room) and parties like Gutterskank, Zombie Prom, Hot Date, Moschino Hoe, Versace Hottie at the Rainbow. It was quite hedonistic times and we definitely went into six form some mornings after a night of clubbing and afterparty. We made a lot of friends in those times we still see.
I also witnessed the nascent grime and dubstep scenes in Birmingham with raves at the Custard Factory and the hip hop and grime party Secret Walls where there was live graffiti happening as the MCs battled.
It was always very friendly despite us being the weirdo queer punks from the suburbs. We listening to a lot of black music such as reggae, soul, rnb, hip hop, house. There was a big focus on dancing (as well as other more hedonistic pursuits) and socialising.
We also went to a lot of weird parties related to the art scene and out in the gay scene in Brum at places such as Nightingales, Missing and the Village (the music tends to be trash however). It was all very socially mixed and open minded crowds.
It wasn’t till a bit later that I got into Techno. I remember we went to Field Day festival in Hackney in 2011 (when the riots started) and it was Four Tet then James Holden playing in a big tent. James Holden cleared the casuals with a super long ambient intro until there was a super minimal deep drop that sonically blended perfectly with the rain cascading onto the tent. It totally blew my mind.
I went to a lot of house and techno parties whilst a student in Leeds 2010-2013 studying Music Production at Leeds College of Music. It wasn’t a particularly happy time for me. I was away from my friends and didn’t really meet people on the same level.
I then moved to London and got involved in the queer clubbing/drag/arts scene. We couldn’t really afford to go out to many clubs then. I got educated in disco, early Chicago house and Detroit techno in this time which still had it’s resonating echoes in the queer clubbing scene.
Then I ended back in Brum which brings us up to the present day.
I always DJ’d. I remember fucking around with weird DJ software on the Family computer after school. We were always making mixtapes and selecting tunes for each other and raiding the charity shop CD and vinyl bins. I just never took it that seriously as a practice as the musician and producers life was more my focus. I played some smashing parties.
I especially remember one in my friend Poppy’s basement down in Brighton. So many people crammed into the house and street outside that the council came (luckily not the cops) and we had to kick out everyone. Once all the randos were gone, I started up the sound system again and we really let loose. I was dancing so much I felt like I was hovering off the ground. I remember playing So Good To Me by Chris Malinchak, which is quite a cheesy one hit wonder house track but it absolutely fitted the moment perfectly. I still will occasionally bring this track out.
What have been the key spaces and clubs for you?
I love Oscillate and House of God. They’re both put on by older people from the Birmingham techno and rave scenes and are bona-fide brum institutions.
House of God is heavy and industrial techno with pounding bass, quasi-religious aesthetics (“bow down sinners”), flashing strobes and features artists such as Surgeon, Paul Damage and Sir Real. It’s always very intense and sweaty and some of the tunes are really mind blowing.
In a way, I almost prefer Oscillate, which is almost an invite only party at this point. They just have a mailing list. If I’m not mistaken, It’s put on by Bobby Bird of Higher Intelligence Agency and his partner Scylla. It’s mostly been in small comfy venues, psychedelic aesthetics. I always thought it has brilliant dynamic range, going from ambient to deep acid house and breakbeats. Again some of the tunes they play are staggeringly good. Both parties often incorporate live electronics sets into the night.
During the pandemic I became totally hooked on the podcast Love is the Message hosted by Tim Lawrence and Jeremy Gilbert. It was the perfect mix of history, black dance music, anti-authoritarian left wing politics and the storytelling. I was totally captured by the story of David Mancuso’s Loft dance parties and the psychedelic libertory philosophy. It really connected the dots between all my previous joyus experiences on the dancefloor and a growing need for a practice of healing and togetherness and of counterculture the struggle of life under and against brutal neo-liberal capitalism.
I started attending some of those parties down in London such as All our Friends, Beauty and the Beat and some of the other aligned collectives. I was so impressed with their audiophile sound system and their cosmic selections that’s it’s massively affected my sense of purpose in music. These parties opened my mind to all the staggering great music from around the world that we don’t get to hear through the hegemonic music industry. Basically I turned thirty and got into Jazz, starting digging for weird vinyl and started learning about High Fidelity audio. That’s the truth of the matter.
Apart from these more established nights, I love all the events put on by Selextorhood especially Deena’s party Global Rotations. It’s such a musically varied collective. There’s really DJs and producers playing in all sorts of genres and modes. I have always felt so welcome in their spaces which is not always a given when you’re a non-binary/transgender person. I love all of the members very dearly but my favourites sonically are Dee’Cleo, Sexy Roy, Mystic Meg, Rizmi and Island T. I love that we were all brought together by our love of music and desire to create a better world. The drive to create opportunities for folks that are often is excluded from the music industry is endless and you know what we’re winning this fight! In fact, we’re UNSTOPPABLE.
Could you talk a little about the health of Brum’s club scene? I’m interested to get your take on how it has come back following Covid – what have been the key challenges operating as a promoter in the current environment compared with pre-Covid?
I actually wasn’t really involved in Brum’s club scene before the pandemic. I was a bit burnt out after living with London and briefly had to move back in with a parent. Luckily I reconnected with folks in the cultural scene and it was all uphill from there.
In my research/book I’ve tried to look at whether there have been characteristics to scenes in particular places – does Birmingham have a distinguishing sound or shared attitude among successful nights/promoters?
I would say Birmingham’s sound is best expressed as a melting pot of it’s constituent cultures, everything from Reggae to UK Garage to Punk to Bollywood. We have and underrated musical history that still echoes through the present.
I would say that we don’t respect posturing or shallowness here. You’ll get respect and admiration if you are true to yourself and serving the people rather than your own ego. There is an overriding open mindedness here. If you dropped a Ska record in the middle of a techno set, everyone would still go nuts dancing.
So if I was to say we had a defining sound, it would be the eclectic melting pot of post industrial culture.
In other towns and cities, the relationship between promoters/venue owners and the authorities seems to be fairly fractious – how does it work in Birmingham? Do the authorities value nightlife as a cultural/economic asset?
I think that sadly after thirteen years of austerity policies from the Tories inflicted upon Birmingham City Council (BCC) has decimated so much of our municipal capacity to do anything. The arts and culture departments are basically non-existent.
This is part of a wider strategy from the Conservative to weaken the influence of Labour councils by starving them of money and inflict brutality and misery on the poor and working class people of the UK, so the rich can get richer and exert more control of the lives of those who are forced to serve them. By attacking the cultural sphere, the Tories seek to erect invisible walls confining the possibilities of imagining better worlds which I think arts and culture are a vital source of inspiration.
I would also like to critique Birmingham City Council for it’s reticence to challenge the narratives of the austerity ideology or put up any meaningful resistance to the Tory program of class war. I never really experienced any support from the council in my artistic endeavours or those of my peers.
One of the few moments of municipal joy was the cultural programme surrounding the 2022 Commonwealth games. It was programmed by a skilled team and there was no censorship that took place to my knowledge so arts practitioners were able to freely explore around the topics of the games and the city and the UK more widely. Sadly, even this scarce celebration of our city left a sour taste when it emerged that Birmingham City Council was essentially bankrupt soon after the event.
BCC has systemically ignored pleas by nightclub owners that new housing developments would threaten nightlife culture due to close proximity and is perfectly happy consistently turning the city centre into a building site every ten years and shaping the city evermore to the whims of capital rather than meeting the cultural needs of the people and building a thriving cultural eco-system that I believe is sorely needed post-pandemic.
Gentrification/noise complaints are challenges for clubs and venues across the UK – has this been something venue owners in Birmingham have had to contend with? In other places (such as Manchester/London) clubs are being forced out to the edges of cities – is this a trend you’ve seen in Birmingham too?
Yes we’ve seen this but Birmingham’s club scene for medium to large was already so devastated by the lack of support during the pandemic that there really isn’t that many venues left to close down. The latest venues at risk are the LGBT bars and clubs on Hurst street which are slowly being encircled with luxury flats.
There’s also been a spate of tragic deaths from contaminated drugs in the club scene that have led to clubs loosing their licenses or having to implement ridiculous security theatre of sniffer dogs and searches. This is in opposition to a common sense approach of widespread drugs testing, care practices and education campaigns.
Are you optimistic about the future of nightlife in the city?
I am cautiously optimistic about the underground dance music scene. It seems like there isn’t a weekend that goes by without some sort of amazing party.
I worry however about the more mainstream club ecosystem which has much higher running costs. The combination of pandemic, energy prices and cost of living crisis has devastated the livelihood of many venues.
All the while, the creeping scourge of proletariat culture, luxury flats spring us menacingly around us.