DJ Garth on Three Decades of Dance: "Soul, Funk, and the Unquantifiable"

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Unlike the UK, where rave culture blazed through the mainstream like a wildfire following the late-'80s acid house explosion, American rave remained a comparatively smaller, self-contained underground subculture. It's therefore possible to trace its origins to a mere handful of key players. One of them is certainly pioneering San Francisco DJ Garth Wynne-Jones.

A UK transplant (no surprise there), Garth would help kick-start the West Coast acid house craze of the early '90s as part of the legendary Wicked Sound System. And like the Bay Area's Merry Pranksters a generation earlier, the Wicked crew would take its renegade party mission on the road aboard a tour bus, planting the seeds of rave culture across the American heartland.

Three decades later, following an illustrious solo career that saw him launch numerous era-defining record labels, Garth is still doing what he does best: spinning wax and blowing minds around the globe with his singular blend of acid house, cosmic disco, and groovy esoteric rarities plucked from the far reaches of the sonic space-time continuum.

Ahead of a very rare and highly anticipated Miami booking at Do Not Sit on the Furniture on Friday, we here at New Times caught up with the legendary DJ Garth for an invaluable oral history of the early American rave scene, and his perspective on the state of electronic dance music today.

New Times: You’re British. How did U.K. electronic dance music culture influence and shape your musical sensibilities before coming to America? Were you very active in the rave and clubbing scene while growing up in England?
I went to school for a year in Atlanta, Georgia at 13, which was an eye-opener to the funk, listening to V-103 Radio. The music in England was radically different when I returned in '81. New Romantic bands like Soft Cell and Human League, Heaven 17, Visage, Japan, and Duran Duran changed everything. It was all synth-based, electronic. Huge influence on my sound. That morphed into the post-punk scene, which was exciting: The Cult, Siouxsie, The Cure, Spear of Destiny — the first bands I got to see live. Then hip-hop, rare groove, and black American dance music was the sound when I moved to London in '87. Again, very vibrant scene. There were warehouse parties as well as great clubs like Wag, Dingwalls, and Heaven, but this was pre-acid house. Everything changed in the summers of '88 and '89. I discovered Tonka Sound System, which, I can safely say, changed my life. Inspired in '90, I left on a one-way ticket to San Francisco.

San Francisco in the early '90s was a sort of ground zero for the explosion of American rave culture — certainly the bastion of West Coast house music with a psychedelic flavor unique to that local scene. In your experience, what made that particular place and time so special in terms of dance music culture?
Wicked! [Laughs] We took full advantage of the city's amazing location — beaches, parks, weather, liberal attitude (gays, acid, beatnicks, hippies) and brought UK sound system culture as our contribution. The scene blew up very quickly with the full moons Wicked threw at the heart of the movement. Suddenly, there were dozens of parties every week. The city ran at a fever pitch for many years.

For those of us who totally missed out on the Wicked Sound System's heyday, what was this project and outfit all about? What are your fondest memories of WSS?
Well, in many ways, we were an accidental off-shoot of Tonka in England, which was Harvey, Choci, Rev, and a couple of trail-blazing DJs, Thomas and Markie. I invited the boys to come stay with me once I got settled in San Francisco. Along with a bunch of other friends, Markie came with records, then Jenö, then Thomas. We formed Wicked in '91, with a party under the full moon at Baker Beach. We threw one each month for six years and, in time, saved enough money from our club nights at King Street Garage and Townsend to import a 15,000-watt Tony Andrews custom-built Turbosound rig. So by '95, we had the best sound in town, and teamed up with Berkeley friends who were renovating a 1947 Greyhound bus — this became the Wicked tour bus. We took the whole show on the road, playing 10, then in time, up to 20 cities, touring as the first DJ band, if you will. We ran riot between the gigs, in the great American outdoors, in search of hot springs and the wild experience. It's out there!

Is there still potential for future Wicked Sound System reunions, considering the reunion and tour you had most recently in 2011?
Jenö managed to talk the band back together in 2011 for the Wicked 20 Years of Disco Glory jam. It was such a huge success. I pulled a 13-city tour together that summer, ending in Japan. We have had a big annual jam in San Francisco at Mighty every year since. This year, the Wicked 24 Years of Freeform Funk party is on June 6, with special guest Doc Martin joining Jenö, Markie and myself on deck. 

It goes without saying that (even by professional DJ standards) you're an impassioned and obsessive crate digger and record collector — maybe hoarder is a more accurate term, if we may. When push comes to shove, what are you looking for in music? What turns you on the most musically? Are you looking for any essential sonic elements or ingredients when you dig for new records?

I am not a hoarder, actually. I had a huge purge a few years back, before moving down to L.A. — shed thousands of records. I am still very much a digger, however. I don't consider myself a collector. They are a different breed. My records are all for playing out. They get beat up as necessary. I am not precious about labels, original pressings and all that. But I am militant about playing only vinyl. To me, it's the soul of the whole thing. It saddens me when promoters are lazy about the DJ set up. It's not rocket science. But a picnic table right by the sub cabinets is not gonna cut it for the [Technics] 1200s. The needles pick up the vibration, making them skip and feedback. It's their job to know that. Respect the art. As for the music itself, I know right away if it'll be a Garth tune. The soul, the funk, the magic, the unquantifiable — that's what I need from a record.

As one of its pioneers, you can certainly attest to the fact that there was a U.S. rave scene and electronic dance music subculture during the '90s. However, the recent "EDM" phenomenon has seen this music break through commercially to the mainstream in a way it never did before in America. What are your thoughts on the whole EDM thing? How does it compare to the music scene and subculture you were part of back in the day?

EDM is all so watered down. I'm not into the crass commercialization of it all. There's a DJ TV game show on the way, and a dreadful new film starring Zak Effron as a 24/7-headphone-wearing DJ. Seriously honky! I'm not down. House and techno music is the root, the real deal. It was black, Latin, gay, and very alternative. The parties were $5, or free. Very inclusive. Unity was the underlying theme. Now a weekend is $400 with another $300 for VIP or $1,500 fully-catered. You kidding me? What happened?

You've launched a number of different record labels with eclectic output over the years. Could you give us a rundown?
We started Wicked Records in '96 — three singles. Then Grayhound Recordings was my solo effort, named after the bus in '98 — 54 singles, three CDs. The Golden Goose Edits with Bay Area disco dealer James Glass in 2007 — eight singles. The first two labels were a musical fusion of acid house, techno, electro and dub disco. Grayhound featured tracks from West Coast artists Wicked, Harvey, E.T.I., Perry Farrell, Doc Martin, Dano, DJ Rasoul, E.B.E., Ben Cooke, Michoacan, and lots more. For Golden Goose, we just spliced and diced lesser-known disco and rock jams. One of my favorites was our edit of The Units' "High Pressure Days." It was a very happy day when Scott Ryser, the band's leader, got in touch, thanking me for bringing attention back to the San Francisco synth-punk band. He loved our edit too. 

What else have you been up to lately, outside of DJing and music?

My attention has moved into acting and voice work, since moving to L.A. I've done 30 short films, a few features. Speed Dragon premiered at Cannes and won Best Feature at the NYC Independent Film Festival. My first animated feature doing voice-over is Bilal — big-budget, A-list actors. It's fun, challenging, terrifying.

You've been DJing for over three decades now. Can we expect three more? What does the future have in store for DJ Garth?

I love DJing, I really do. You know when you're done. When the phone stops ringing. It ain't over til it's over!

It's been quite some time since you've played in Miami, so there are definitely a lot of heads looking forward to your gig at Do Not Sit On The Furniture on Friday. What can we expect from this rare Miami appearance?
I am very excited to be on the road again, and have heard great things about the club. I know Behrouz, the owner from San Francisco. I have no idea what you should expect. I certainly don't know. A bloody good time? Yes.

DJ Garth. With Deroboten and Sean Levisman. 10 p.m. Friday, May 29, at Do Not Sit on the Furniture, 423 16th St., Miami Beach; 305-450-3809; facebook.com/DoNotSit. Tickets cost $10 to $15 plus fees via residentadvisor.net.

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