Subculture: Eighteen Years Underground
Words: Colin Chapman
Easily one of longest running house nights in the UK, last May saw Subculture celebrate the incredible milestone of its eighteenth birthday; making this achievement all the more impressive is the fact that its resident DJs, Harri and Domenic Capello have remained at the helm, all these years.
Every Saturday, Glasgow’s legendary Sub Club plays host to a club night that has become a place to hear a superb selection of expertly programmed house and techno, played by two of the city’s most influential DJs.
Subculture’s dancefloor is regularly packed with a crowd whose passion, enthusiasm and friendliness often seems boundless; a place where I have met friends, girlfriends and shared some truly amazing times.
I chatted to Harri and Domenic recently about how the night began and the factors that have contributed to its success and longevity.
For those who don’t know about the night can you please explain how Subculture originally came about?
Harri: I’d been doing a Saturday night at the Sub Club, alongside Slam’s Stuart McMillan and Orde Meikle called Atlantis, since 1990. In 1992 they started doing a Friday night at The Arches as well and began going in more of a techno direction, playing stuff that was around 130 – 140 BPM both there and also in the Sub on Saturday nights. The owners of the club at that time, Tony and Kenny McCrimmon didn’t really like this sound and asked Slam to leave in 1994 but wanted me to stay and take over things. That’s how Subculture originated and initially I was both the promoter and resident DJ.
Dom: Oscar Fullone and I used to do warm-up DJ slots at Atlantis, as Stuart and Orde were doing a lot of travelling at that time and were coming back quite late on a Saturday. When Kenny and Tony brought Atlantis to an end, Harri asked us both to join him as residents at the new Saturday night and that’s how we both came on board at Subculture. Oscar actually ended up leaving a couple of years later to concentrate on his Mish Mash club and band.
Was there a noticeable change in music policy once Atlantis changed to Subculture? In the early days what kind artists and labels were you playing as DJs?
Dom: When Harri, Oscar and I started doing Subculture we played a lot more U.S. house stuff; Oscar was into garage and vocals while I would play tracks by Carl Craig, Derrick May and records on KMS, Transmat and DJAX; the kind of stuff that would probably be described as techno today but we just considered house music at the time.
Harri: I remember playing a lot of David Morales’ Red Zone dubs, Murk and releases on Strictly Rhythm, Prescription, Nugroove, and Cajual as well as early Danny Tenaglia and Tribal America stuff. Musically, I was probably somewhere in between Oscar and Domenic.
When the Saturday night changed from Atlantis to Subculture did it affect the numbers and type of crowd that came down to the Sub Club?
Harri: To be honest, I was shit-scared when Stuart and Orde left because they were quite big names. Although I was an equal partner in Atlantis and the night was very successful, Slam were definitely the bigger deal and I seemed to fly under the radar a bit; the numbers on Saturdays began to drop off once they started doing The Arches so I thought that when I took it over myself it could be complete fucking disaster. Fortunately, right from the start, we were really busy; there those who came back to the club who weren’t into the harder techno stuff and there were definitely more girls that came down too.
What were the key musical elements that emerged in the early years of Subculture and how do you think the night’s sound has evolved?
Harri: In terms of style, I actually think that what Dominic and I play now isn’t too dissimilar to what we played when it started.
Dom: We’ve always played house, even when drum and bass became massive in Glasgow for about three months and lots of house DJs in the city sold their records, started buying it and would ask us when we were going to play it, we stuck to our guns.
There’s definitely been times over the past eighteen years when certain sounds or producers have had peaks and we’ve played them at the club; the mid-nineties was a great period for techno, stuff by Stefan Robbers, Basic Channel, then there was Derrick Carter’s Sound Patrol material as well as tracks by Ron Trent and Chez Damier, later it was German stuff, then releases from Japan.
However, times do change and the records you’ll hear at the night will change with them; things need to stay fresh if you’re going to keep a club like Subculture going weekly. I’m always looking for new sounds; variations on house or techno that are exciting which I want to mix with older, timeless stuff.
When did you start to have guest DJs play Subculture and how did you decide who to book?
Dom: It was people we wanted to hear, that’s how we chose who to book. Our first guests were Kenny Larkin and Stacey Pullen around 1995, who were then better known as producers rather than DJs at the time, perhaps naively we just presumed that because they’d made some great music they’d also be good DJs as we weren’t used to booking guests. We soon learned that some people are better at producing than as DJs.
Harri: Initially we had a lot of American guests; Alton Miller, Gene Farris, Joshua, Ron Trent and Chez Damier, people who were pushing the right buttons for us at that time, musically and also those recommended to us as being good DJs. We also got British guys like Kenny Hawkes, Luke Solomon, Ralph Lawson and Chris Duckenfield to play too.
Over the years, which DJs have been the best? What do you think makes the ‘ideal’ Subculture guest?
Domenic: It’s hard choosing highlights over the years, I don’t want miss anyone out but at a push, the first time Lil Louis played was particularly good. He asked Paul Crawford, one of the owners of the club, if his set was being recorded; Paul said ‘no’, so he pulled out and played a bag of unreleased acetates which was pretty magical.
The night Dajae sang live was also amazing, as was Moodymann’s first visit to Subculture and the Prescription label night with Chez and Ron. The first times Dixon and Kristian from Âme played were pretty special, as was when Derrick Carter played, his skills as a DJ were ridiculously good.
Harri: Andrew Weatherall’s always been amazing too; we’ve actually had very few bad guests over the years, though Kenny Larkin and Carl Craig were both pretty poor when they played the first time but obviously they’re much better now.
Dom: In terms of what makes the ideal Subculture guest, I think it’s pretty hard to say, we’ve had such a wide range over the years because of the night being weekly. We once had Darshran Jesrani from Metro Area play Hogmanay a few years back, which is normally a real party night but he played deep house and disco and it was such a nice groove, another time we had Roy Davis Junior do a set and he started singing over the tracks; both nights had different vibes. You can be a great techno, disco or deep house DJ and play Subculture, as long you can get a good groove and you know what you’re doing, the Sub Club crowd will go with you; don’t get me wrong, they can be tough at times, but if you’re doing a good job, they’ll definitely let you know.
Harri: I think that nowadays I think the Sub’s crowd is a bit more like it was in the early nineties in that they don’t need to hear one style of music all night or every week; they’re more open to the idea of checking out Greg Wilson one night and Carl Craig or Kevin Saunderson the next. We’re lucky in that we can take that mixed approach.
The Sub Club closed in 1999 due to a fire damaging the building next door and the ensuing demolition job pulling away some of the club’s gable end – what was that period like for Subculture? It ended up moving to alternative venues, firstly Planet Peach and then MAS – what was that like? Did you have any doubts that it would return to the Sub Club?
Dom: For me, the three years that the club was closed were really hard work, it was a really soul destroying time; we just wanted to get back into the Sub as soon as we could. When the fire hit in November 1999, Subculture had hit a real peak, we were packed when it was just Harri and I playing, never mind the nights we had guests. It was the run up to the millennium and we had 4am licenses every week, which meant we could play deeper, for longer, but when we moved to Planet Peach we were only on till 3am and it totally changed the dynamic of the night.
However, we made the best of a bad situation; Paul and Mike Grieve, one of the other promoters of Subculture and owner of the club, both worked hard to try and create something by improving the sound and the venue in general. The place did get really busy, then we moved to MAS, which had good sound but a poor lay-out.
Originally we were told that we would be back in the club six to eight weeks after the fire happened; then it became a year, then two, then it was three. To be honest, I began thinking that we’d never get back into the Sub Club.
However, the good thing that came out of the whole situation was the importance given to the quality of the new sound system during the refit. The guys behind Fabric’s sound put it in, building a cage of speakers rather than just having them spread around the club like we’d had in the past. When it was finished, it was definitely a crowning thing for the rebuilt club to have.
What was it like when night eventually returned to the Sub in 2002 after nearly three years absence? Did you feel there was a resurgence of interest in Subculture? Did it reinvigorate things for you both at all?
Dom: We had new gear to play with as DJs and a new sound system too which was great but there was there was a lot of pressure on us, which was kind of scary. We felt that Subculture had to be better than it was before; the myth surrounding the Sub Club had got bigger while it was closed, so we really needed to make it a success. Thankfully, because of all the enthusiasm and hard work put in by people behind the scenes, we hit the ground running and we were packed from the start.
Having the new sound system was particularly special; I could play records that I’d not been able use at other clubs because they’d sounded shit. Playing every week at the club, you start taking it for granted, but when I play other places I quickly realise how lucky I am to be able to DJ regularly on one that’s so good. Our sound guy, Sean is bang on it, he keeps everything running just so, every other week he’s cleaning the booth up and making sure the needles and monitors are perfect and that nothing ever bounces.
There’s now five Subculture residents – both of you and Telford, Junior and Esa – can you explain how they became involved?
Dom: When I was coming back from Barcelona to DJ, there was a guy that worked behind the bar who would come up and ask me about particular tracks; usually when it was really deep house or techno I was playing, quite obscure stuff. I was surprised as it wasn’t the kind of tracks that younger guys usually liked; it was pretty raw, underground stuff. Anyway, one night after the club, I went out to the car and was about to drive home when he came over and gave me a mix CD that he’d done and asked me to have a listen. I put it in the CD player and was really impressed; the next day I phoned Paul and told him that Telford had to play Subculture and things just went from there for him.
Junior is one of the residents at Sensu, a night that runs at the club on Fridays and he used to come down to Subculture regularly on Saturdays so that’s how we got to know him; he started to step in to do bits of DJing now and again before becoming a resident.
Esa was playing at other nights in Glasgow; Paul Crawford had heard him and really liked his DJing and got him in to stuff at Subculture. At first they didn’t play that regularly, maybe once every fourth or fifth weekend when Harri or I were away or if there was a guest on we’d maybe have one of them play beforehand. It’s only been in that six months or so that they’ve played more regularly.
How would you say they fit within Subculture, in terms of their particular styles as DJs?
Harri: They can play banging or deep or play a few vocals too, I wouldn’t say that they focus on one style of house music and that’s the same way Domenic or I will play. To me it’s all about capturing the moment, whether that means playing a techno record or something by Rufus & Chaka Khan, it’s about trying to pick the right record at the right time because it can be a breath of fresh air in juxtaposition to the one played before. People can over-emphasise the mixing thing but I think the programming is actually more important.
How important have the owners of the Sub Club and promoters of Subculture, Mike Grieve, Paul Crawford and more recently, Barry Price been in contributing to the success of the night?
Dom: They’ve been extremely supportive. Other than Back to Basics, I can’t think of many weekly house nights in the UK that are resident-based like ours; there’s been times when the club has been quieter, when people have fallen out of love of house music which I suppose is a cyclical thing, but over the years Mike, Paul and Barry have always stuck by Harri and I as DJs. They could have followed a particular musical fad and the club might’ve been busy for five or six months but it would’ve probably died on its arse soon after. They’ve not been short-sighted like that and instead played the long game, hoping that what they like, others will like too; I guess that at the end of the day if a night is good, people will get it, if it’s shit, they won’t come back.
What about the role of other Sub Club staff? Have they had played a significant part in making Subculture what it is?
Harri: I think we’ve always had good staff working at the Sub Club, they’ve been easy-going and I think it’s paramount that they like their working environment as it creates a nice atmosphere in the work place. Loads of them are great DJs or are into music in a big way, it’s better to have people like that working here than those who are just coming for the money and are disinterested in their surroundings.
Dom: They’ve been crucial; from the PR guys to the bar staff even the door men too; they’ve all contributed to Subculture’s success. There’s a bit of a family atmosphere at the Sub and it’s always been that way, nobody’s regarded as being different, we all work here and there’s no airs or graces; it’s a bit like we’re a big football team, it’s that kind of camaraderie; everyone working together has helped its success.
What about Glasgow itself, how important has its impact been on Subculture?
Dom: The Glaswegian crowd makes it what it is. They like to go nuts, they’ve got that raw energy and they’re really vociferous in the way they like to show their emotions. Subculture’s such a short night that all the energy is crammed into three or four hours and that’s its whole dynamic.
However, we’ve always known things could go tits up, particularly in Glasgow where underground club crowds aren’t so easily impressed. I think what’s kept us going for eighteen years, we’ve never ever thought, ‘this is it, we’ve made it’; we just can’t get into that mindset. You’re only as good as your last night, or in Glasgow, you’re actually only as good as your last mix, you have to be consistent in a city like this; that’s what we always strive for, we don’t want to just rest on our laurels.
I still get butterflies in my stomach when I come down to the club; I used to get a bit sick feeling until I played my first track and then I’d be fine, eighteen years on, I still get that. If that stops, then maybe it’ll be time for me to quit Subculture.
Harri: The punters are amazing; sometimes you’ll maybe get people who’ve not been down in while who’ll complain about the music not being what it used to be or that there’s ‘too many young people’ but clubs are about young people.
There’s very few weekly resident club nights left anywhere, so I don’t take anything for granted, I’m really appreciative of what we’ve got. I do sometimes worry; what if a new club opens up around the corner from the Sub and everyone starts going to it instead but we’ve been lucky in that all the owners of the club have believed in the night and kept it going and our numbers haven’t dropped radically over the years. A couple of hundred through the door would be a quiet night for Subculture but for others it would mean a full club.