UK House Legend Charles Webster Talks Three Decades of EDM and His Latest Projects

Charles Webster's story reads like the history of transatlantic dance music itself. He was born and bred in the early-'80s electronic music boomtown of Sheffield, England, cradle to such seminal acts as the Human League and Cabaret Voltaire. He shared time in the studio with Detroit techno pioneers Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson when they were just beginning to define the sound of a new era.

And later, Webster made a prescient move to San Francisco to help foster the burgeoning '90s West Coast house music scene with releases on the esteemed Defected label and his own Love From San Francisco imprint. Yes, Charles Webster has pretty much done it all.

Fast-forward to the new millennium and the legendary DJ-producer is as relevant and prolific as ever, with extensive tours around the globe, numerous collaborations, and releases on top labels like Buzzin' Fly, Freerange, and his own Miso Records. And despite having sold over 100,000 records, he's managed to elude the trappings of commercialism and retained that pioneering spirit unique to his groundbreaking generation.

We caught up with Charles Webster in advance of his Friday night gig at the Electric Pickle to survey a career spanning three decades and his take of house music's past, present, and future. 

New Times: You started out playing in electronic music bands in Sheffield, a city with some major electronic music history. What can you tell us about the scene back then and how it shaped your musical development?

Charles Webster: Yes, I was playing in bands from when I was 13 years old in the early '80s. Everything was very fresh and exciting back then. Synth music was quite a novelty, it was sometimes tricky to be taken seriously. Eventually, I won a local band contest with 100% electronic music, so people were taking it more seriously and not treating it as just a novelty thing. I think making music at the time and place certainly shaped my music journey.

What prompted you to move to San Francisco and how did the electronic dance music scene there differ from the one in the UK?

I moved to San Francisco with a few friends to start a record label. We were getting bogged down in the UK scene, so we decided to relocate to a city with no discernible music style, so we could create with no expectations or boundaries. It was a really fun time in S.F. back in the early to mid-'90s -- great clubs and DJs.

You spent some time working with legendary Detroit techno producers Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson. What can you tell us about these collaborations and what did they impart to you?

They were all releasing music on the Kool Kat and Network labels at the time and they always used the same studio. It just happened that I worked in that studio as one of the resident engineers. I really learned a lot watching these guys create music. They were very inspired just to hook up lots of drum machines and synths and just go with the flow -- pretty much doing the tracks 'live,' straight to tape. I certainly learned to just believe in what you are doing and just go with it.

How did you first hook up with the Defected label and what impact do you think it's had on your career?

My manager at the time knew the boss and was having a conversation with him about our ideas for a compilation and they just said, "Well, we would like to release that." It was as simple as that, really, and the rest of the remixes and tracks I did for them just followed naturally. I guess it has brought my sound to a new audience, slightly more mainstream.

What is the status of your own labels these days? Any forthcoming projects or releases?

My label Miso is running well at the moment. We just had a successful digital release, Soothe as Furry Phreaks featuring Terra Deva, and we are just about to release a new Version record, my project I do with Atjazz and Emilie Chick. The track is called "Nothing". We are also planning a compilation, Miso Moments Vol. 1 for release in early 2011. Lots to do!

You've DJed for audiences all over the world. What do you consider a successful DJ set?

A good DJ set really depends on many things. The most important is reading the crowd energy. It is to easy just to play all the hits. I believe a good set is 66% entertainment and 33% education -- it is vital to take people to places they probably haven't been to before, that way you never become stale. As for feelings on the dancefloor, it is important to have light and shade and to use lots of dynamics in the set.

As a European expatriate, why do you think electronic dance music has always been less of a mainstream phenomenon in the US than in Europe? What can we do to make it big again over here?

I think it comes down to economics. As dance music has never really been chart-topping stuff in the USA, I think it pushes producers into more commercially viable styles. But on the other hand some of the best underground producers ever hail from the USA. These guys are just doing their thing regardless of commercial expectations. As for making it big again, it will happen eventually and in a natural way.

What do you think is the secret to staying fresh and relevant after three decades?

Just follow your heart as a producer. Don't get attached to scenes and you become unique. I always work hard on my music and never just load up some old track and re-hash it. Always trying to find new ideas is the key, and never becoming complacent with your status and success.

Where do you see the house music form going in the next decade? Is house becoming exhausted? Or is there still room for innovation?

There is always room for innovation! For me, it is always a great song that changes things and steps it up to a new level. People love a great song.

After all these years, your record collection must be titanic. Any all-time favorites?

Wow! So many to list after 25 years of house music. There are plenty of great new producers and still some older guys making great tracks. The list is endless!

What have you been up to in 2010?

Mainly working on new music. The main project is a jazz album I am working on with a friend and a few vocalists -- very traditional jazz with a slight modern electronic twist and some lovely vocals. I am nearly finished with this and will hope to be releasing it in mid-2011. Also, I have been working with a vocalist from L.A. We have a project called January Tuesday and we are going to release an EP fairly soon. Also, I have been working on songs with Shana Halligan, ex-vocalist of Bitter Sweet.

What can Miami expect during your performance at Electric Pickle on October 15?

Some really good house music!

Charles Webster. With Will Renuart, Tomas of Aquabooty. 10 p.m. Friday, Ocotober 15. Electric Pickle, 2826 N. Miami Ave., Miami. $10 at Ages 21 and up. 305-456-5613;

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