Matt Anniss Interview
Matt Anniss is a freelance writer specializing in electronic music, most often putting together big, historical deep dives. His deepest dive yet is a book called Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music, out on the new imprint Velocity Press. I’ve worked with Matt on many pieces over the years, so it’s a great pleasure to get to see this book in print. I sent Matt a few questions via email earlier this month.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
Short answer: passion, obsession and a little bit of luck. From the age of 13 or 14 I knew I wanted to write about music for a living if I could, so studied journalism at university and spent a lot of my time hassling producers and musicians—or more specifically their PR people—for interviews for our student newspaper. After that I spent a couple of years working in very poorly paid staff writer jobs in the late ‘90s/early 2000s on magazines about the Internet. The final one of those was called MP3 Magazine—yes, a monthly about downloadable music, which unsurprisingly only lasted ten issues—before blagging my way onto the staff of IDJ Magazine when the reviews editor left to become the press officer at (London nightclub) fabric. Over the eight years I spent there I moved up through the ranks to become Editor, which was—to begin with at least—my dream job. It ended badly there, through no reason of my own, so in early 2009 I ended up going freelance out of necessity.
My first job came through one of IDJ’s freelancers, the great Bill Brewster, who hooked me up with a publisher who needed someone to write a short book on DJing for kids. That led to years spent writing non-fiction books for young “reluctant readers”—short, snappy text, lots of images—and, more bizarrely, magazine articles on triathlon. The pull of music journalism was too strong for me to stay away, though, so I dived back in earlier in the decade and have never looked back.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
There have been a few. The first was probably my Editor at MP3 magazine, Ben East, who encouraged me to take on more responsibility and taught me a lot about the planning and administrative aspects of creating a monthly magazine. Another was Russell Deeks, who was my Editor at IDJ for a long time before I took over from him. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye back then and I tended to rail against his obsession with getting me to write features about artists and scenes I wasn’t interested in. It was an important lesson in finding the story, though: even if you’re not personally interested in something, there may well be a great story in there—as a journalist it’s your job to find that and tell it. Russ also encouraged me to mentor younger writers, and I’m proud that several that started by doing work experience at IDJ —including Dave Jenkins and Oli Warwick—are now really successful freelancers and brilliant music writers. I have to mention Bill Brewster, too, who has been very supportive and encouraging. He’s offered plenty of sound advice over the years too.
How did you come to this subject for a book? What made bleep techno / British bass music so interesting to you?
It was something that developed over a few years. I was always fascinated with the sound of the best-known Bleep records—things like “LFO,” “Testone,” “Pressure Dub,” and so on—and particularly how insanely bass-heavy and dub-influenced they were. About a decade ago I became convinced that Bleep was the foundation of British Bass Music and therefore that it was a far more significant sound and scene than had previously been acknowledged. My idea was simple: that Bleep came before hardcore (which, if you dig into it even to a pretty shallow level is true) and that it was therefore an important movement in the development of UK dance music that hadn’t been documented properly, if at all.
So in 2014 I wrote an article on Bleep for Resident Advisor setting out this theory—and the basic story of some of the most well known acts—but that wasn’t enough to scratch the itch. I was convinced that there was a larger story to be told, connecting the roots of the scene in Yorkshire—including politics, race relations, the role of the soul all-dayer scene, jazz dancers, the changing nature of soundsystem culture during the period, etc.—with the musical movement itself, how it inspired people elsewhere and the impact it had on helping to draw up the British dance music blueprint.
I began to research it and do new interviews in batches, but it wasn’t until three graphic design students contacted me for help with their epic final piece, a book about Bleep that they had no words for, in 2016 that I really went for it. I agreed to write them a short version of the book I’d dreamt up—around 30,000 words—in three months, with the proviso that they would then help me turn it into a real book down the line. From that point on it was always going to be finished and published at some point, it was just a case of how long it took.
Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal.
I’d written quite a few books before, albeit mostly for children and young adults, but all of these had come via publishers approaching me. I didn’t have a clue how I’d go about finding a publisher for something like this. I asked around and was told I needed a literary agent. I did write to a few and send them sample text and a synopsis but got no response, so I then looked up the editors of music books I admired and emailed them direct. One of them, Tom Killingbeck at William Collins (now Editorial Director at Viking), turned down my proposal as being too niche but was kind enough to give me some good advice about ways forward. He also praised the sample text I’d submitted and encouraged me to get it finished and out there. A few months later, a speculative email from Colin Steven at the newly formed Velocity Press landed in my inbox. Initially he just wanted to know whether I’d be interested in ghostwriting DJ biographies, but once he’d read the sample text I’d sent for Join The Future he snapped it up straight away.
Was there much of a research process? What did that look like?
There was a lot of research. And I mean, a lot. When I started I had a rough idea of the story I wanted to tell, and a sizeable collection of Bleep records, but that was it. Early on I spent quite a bit of time researching the back story—things that fed into life in the North of England for music-mad teenagers in the 1980s—and in some cases in mad detail (I spent one Sunday collating youth unemployment figures for various parliamentary constituencies in Yorkshire during the 1980s, and another boning up on the collapse of the steel industry in South Yorkshire).
I also devoted a lot of time to finding people and persuading them to do interviews, including a number whose role in the story had never been acknowledged. In 2017 I made the decision to try and meet more of my interviewees in person, so visited them and the suburbs they grew up in. This was very useful as it allowed me to do things like map out where various unlicensed “blues” clubs were in Leeds and Sheffield, or find forgotten city centre club spaces. As the years passed by I got to know these people more, and through them many other people who played a small part in the story. There were also various trips to the British Library to check out coverage of the style and individual artists during the time they were active.
The whole thing ended up taking over my life—or at least any spare time I had. Of course, the deeper you get, the more you discover and the more lines of interest it opens up. It also strengthened my belief that the lazy narratives that have dominated the history of British dance music were wrong—or at the very least only told a small part of a much more complex and nuanced story. By the time Colin Steven told me I had four months to finish the book, I had four box files full to bursting with interview transcriptions and another couple with photocopies of articles, book excerpts, statistics and God knows what else.
For what it’s worth, since the book has been published a well-regarded cultural academic (himself a former music journalist) has been in touch to praise the depth of my research and the level of detail within it. The next step might be turning it into an academic thesis. We’ll see.
How did you go about writing the actual book?
I came up with a rough structure and flow first, mapping out how I could best draw in various aspects of social and cultural history while focusing on the people who shaped the sound and the scene it came out of. This changed a little bit over time, but allowed me to get a basic, stripped-down manuscript that could be used in the previously mentioned graphic designers’ graduation show. At that point I could see what was weak and where I’d need to do a lot more research. I then completely rewrote the first few chapters—essential for the sample text—and that set the tone for what would follow. I chipped away at rewriting or expanding certain chapters when I had time, but as I was spending a lot of spare time traveling around the country from my Bristol home to interview people—in some cases numerous times—I didn’t make particularly quick progress.
When Colin Steven came calling and gave me four months to finish it I went into overdrive. Initially I kept up my regular work schedule and wrote the book in evenings and at the weekend—much to the annoyance of friends who didn’t seen me in months—but eventually I had to take a financial hit and just commit to finishing it. The last few weeks were mentally exhausting and involved 12 to 14 hour days and no days off at all. Weirdly that kind of tunnel vision helped, though thinking about Bleep & Bass—not to mention how to arrange the vast amounts of information I had into a coherent, readable narrative—24 hours a day was pretty intense.
I recently spoke to another freelancer friend who wrote a music book and he admitted to having similar experiences, interestingly. I did learn a lot during the writing process, especially about sustaining a narrative and finding ways to frame material so that the wider social and cultural context rubs shoulders with personal stories from DJs, dancers, producers and label owners. I’d argue that what I’ve written isn’t just a history of Bleep, but rather an alternative history of the formative years of British dance music culture—one that comes from a certain viewpoint and challenges what we’ve previously been told. If I wrote it again there are some aspects I’d change or sections I’d expand, but at some point you have to let go.
What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the subject?
This is a tricky one, as part of the reason for writing the book in the first place was that the subject hadn’t been documented. In the book I do make some suggestions, and there’s a whole section at the back—the “Bleepography”—which lists various singles, albums and compilations to check. I’ve also been working on a compilation, which is now fully licensed and due for release in 2020. This will offer a bit of an introduction to Bleep & Bass through mostly lesser known or under-celebrated records (plus a handful of previously unreleased tracks).
One compilation that does a good job in chronicling early UK house and techno is Richard Sen’s This Ain’t Chicago on Strut, while Fabio and Grooverider’s recent 30 Years of Rage sets include a number of important tracks that form part of the story I tell. There are various documentaries held in the BFI archive, which are all available to view online via their website, which focus on different aspects of life in Yorkshire in the 1980s, including a particularly hard-hitting one filmed in Chapeltown a year after the riots of 1987. That should be essential viewing. A big shout, too, for Jeremy Deller’s Everybody In The Place, which is about the only documentary about acid house in the UK that gets close to the real story.
In terms of books, Joe Muggs’ Bass, Mids, Tops, which is being published in the next few weeks, takes a wider view of soundsystem culture and its impact on British dance music through a series of long form interviews and meticulous footnotes. It’s a very different book to mine but we’ve both come from a similar angle—i.e. that the history we’ve been told is only a very small part of the story and is misleading. I’d definitely recommend checking that, as well as Matthew Collin’s Altered State, which contains more about the North and Midlands than pretty much every other book about acid house and ecstasy culture. There are still gaps, but hopefully I’ve filled in some of those in Join The Future.
Anything you want to plug?
To promote Join The Future we’re off on tour. You can catch me talking about the book with Colin Steven—plus DJ sets from contemporary heroes and Bleep pioneers—in London (Rye Wax, 27th November), Sheffield (Hagglers Corner, 29th November) and Leeds (Outlaws Social Club, 30th November). Oh, and I’ve written an epic, 10,000 word oral history of Warp Records, which can be read now via Resident Advisor.