Colin McDowell is an impeccable authority on all aspects of…
Billie Ray Martin’s haunting, soulful voice soothed many a chill out party in the early ‘90s when she fronted the seminal ambient band Electribe 101. As a solo artist, she enjoyed an international hit with ‘Your Loving Arms’ and then went to Memphis where she recorded the critically acclaimed ’18 Carat Garbage’.
She’s written a music column for QX, performed an avant-garde project at the ICA and forged a career in DJing. She’s one of the most intelligent, unique and principled artists to have graced the charts….
This if the first public PA you’ve done for a while, where have you been?
No, I do them all over the world…constantly. The first three months of this year alone has taken me from South America to New York, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and many other countries. The rest of the year sees me in Japan, Berlin etc. etc. So, no, me dear, not the first public PA. I’m not Greta Garbo. I live slow and die old and will annoy everyone throughout the process as much as possible.
What inspired you to start DJing?
Not hearing the records I wanted to hear- the electronic music that might be dancefloor-banging-as-can-be, but also has soul and something to say. So I started my own club night and it all took off from there. Luckily, I DJ all round the world now. I’m thrilled.
What’s been your most nightmarish DJing experience?
Ohhh…a ‘commercial’ club in the city centre of Liverpool, filled with page 3 look-a-likes with handbags. The conversation with the club owners went like this:
Them: so your agency tells us you play funky vocal house
Me: Erm, no.
Them: What do you play then?
Them: Oh, shit
Me: Oh, dear
Them: Oh well go on anyway and let’s see how it goes.
I go on – room clears in minutes.
They paid. I went back to London.
Is it strange being so accessible to clubbers in a way that as a performer you are not?
No, it’s everything I’ve wanted. Not to have to dress up like a clown, but to just go on as you are (I mean, if I feel fab, I still dress to the max…. but I don’t have to). Then I get to enjoy a room full of smiling people. Bob’s your uncle.
Do you take requests?
Do you have a rider as either a DJ or a performer?
Sure you have the technical rider, ensuring that you are physically able to play. But both as performer and DJ, I don’t have a glamour rider. I will have one when I’m world-famous though. Then I’ll rival Grace Jones.
As an artist, do you feel threatened by illegal downloading?
Difficult question. First I would say no, ’cause I’m rock ‘n’ roll, me . But now with Spotify everyone will get ripped off and nobody will get paid ever again. Everyone can grab the world’s catalogue for free from there, so it’s fucked everything up for everyone.
Now it’s progressed to a stage where I don’t even know which outlet to choose for my tracks to prevent the worst. So, I’m sitting on some finished album and single projects at the moment and I’m not sure what to do.
When was the last time you cried?
Saturday morning, when I turned the computer on and found an e-mail from an action alert group, telling the story of a single baby seal out of 25,000 that had survived the previous 3 days massacres. It had hid in a cave. I went nuts and cried for hours. Oh, and listening to the new Pet Shop Boys album. It’s too good for words.
Do you remember the first gay club you went to and what it was like?
Yes, I was a teeny German girl of 13 or so in Hamburg and I felt proud that they’d let me into this men-only club. I felt ‘part of the scene’. Inside were all these gorgeous David Bowie look-a-like gay boys and I fancied them. I don’t think I realised that I had no chance and what it was all about…the gay thing.
Berlin has some pretty outrageous gay clubs- have you ever been shocked while performing/DJing/partying?
Actually, I’ve not DJd much in Berlin, so I can’t really say. I’m due to play in a few weeks though a few times. I’ve taken on a residency at the new Dice club which is going to be so amazing. Otherwise, I mean, I’ve been to Berghain*, where they all take drugs and the rest of it but it hasn’t shocked me. Just the usual stuff.
You have a reputation as a strong and opinionated artist, have the years mellowed you?
On the contrary. I used to be unsure of how to react to the world’s challenges, so I was a bit off-ish, as they say, a lot of times. Now, I feel I know who I am and it’s made me secure in voicing my opinions and my needs, with no apology needed.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
I’m a twitter addict.
What makes you angry?
A lot of things. Canadians killing 25000 baby seals in 3 days. What fuckers! Also the Chinese continue skinning alive of millions of cats and dogs for ‘our’ tacky fur trimmed anoraks and coats. I see the beautiful faces of the dogs and cats in my mind on people’s hoods and collars all over the world and I can’t believe that the buyer doesn’t know or care what happened to that animal. And for THIS? It’s so appalling. And yes, it makes me angry. There’s a major petition going on as we speak. Google and you’ll find it. And please, please buy no fur trimmings or any other kind of fur. Oh, and fuck the Chinese.
Is it true you grew up in a quite a sleazy part of town, how do you think that influenced you?
The Reeperbahn, i.e. the red light district of Hamburg. Not sleazy, glamour, darling. At least in those days. Now it’s junkies and blowjobs for 3 quid. Back then it was a world city with money and high life to offer.
When was the last time you got drunk?
Some months ago, actually. I rarely get drunk anymore. It’s not worth the suffering the next day. However when I do go for it, I go for it.
They say it’s disappointing to meet your heroes- how was it working with Ann Peebles?
A spiritual thing almost, she is such a sweetheart. She walked in with some lavender, which she had brought in a tissue for me, as she knew I had some kind of ailment (I can’t remember what it was). To then see her get in the vocal booth and sing the first notes and ask me if it was ok, I felt like a worm. Like I should say: you’re asking me???
If you could work with anybody in the world- who would it be?
I’ve worked with Stephen Malliner from Cabaret Voltaire, which was one of my other dreams come true, actually. We’re sing together on the song ‘The Crackdown’. (It’s called: Billie Ray Martin: The Crackdown Project- feat. Maertini Broes and Stephen Mallinder).
It was unreal to hear our voices together as I used to stalk him as a toddler. But my one dream is to work with the Pet Shop Boys.
In a HMV ad campaign, you bigged up the Pet Shop Boys. Chris Lowe then celebrated ‘Put Your Loving Arms Around Me’. Surely that’s a good sign?
I wish. I don’t think they’re into the idea. They do like me a lot and I’m proud to say that sometimes I’m in touch with them but………
What’s your opinion on musical award ceremonies like The BRITS/Grammys etc?
They are as obsolete and false as major record labels. They shouldn’t really exist anymore, but the ‘industry’ (the one that’s actually vanished but pretends to thrive) needs tools to convince the world that they’re happening and thriving and selling millions etc. It makes me sick and I couldn’t ever watch a minute of any of it.
As a DJ you’re probably spending more time in nightclubs than before, what’s the key to surviving life under the mirror ball?
I guess it’s keeping your health in check. Never drink alcohol while spinning. You think you’re great whilst making stupid mistakes, like taking the wrong CD out of the player and wondering why there’s silence.
Junior Vasquez did a number of BRM mixes, why was he your favourite?
His sound worked for the time. He really had a skill. I think the good thing about the American DJs is that they can handle a vocal. They love vocals and they don’t mess about. I’ve also worked with Morales and Knuckles. I feel now’s the right time to bring some updated old school back.
Did you and Junior ever hang out together…and is he a bigger diva than you?
We met a couple of times. He was very nice.
What’s you best memory of living in London?
As a young ‘un in the mid ‘80s, when first leaving home, meeting people like the Sex Pistols and the Psychedelic Furs on Oxford Street. I though I had arrived. And wherever that was, it was the right place. Who do we have the pleasure to meet now, Girls Aloud?
What is the most important lesson that life has taught you?
I’m not sure at this point. Keep hoping that humanity will change? Not sure…………….
What can we expect next from Billie Ray Martin?
The Cabaret Voltaire project I mentioned. Then there’s The Opiates album which is done, but I’m still looking for a perfect label for it. So that should hopefully come out soon as well. So hang in there. Oh, and my new BRM single is almost done too. So all in the pipeline really.
*Berghain is arguably the most hardcore club in the world. Housed in an old power plant in Friedrichshain, behind the Berlin Ostbahnhof railway station, it opens around 4:30am and plays industrial techno to a predominantly gay crowd of amphetamine fuelled muscle monsters. It throws 30 hour parties, has no guest list and there are no mirrors…anywhere. While it has an enormous darkroom, people tend to just fuck on the dancefloor. It makes London’s after hours clubs look like picnics for pansies.
First Published QX Magazine