Talking techno, DJing and Sheffield record shops with Steve Davis
Steve Davis has on six occasions stood inside Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre and been presented with snooker’s most prestigious prize, the World Championship trophy, making him one of the most successful players in the sport’s history. Just a few hundred yards round the corner from the famous venue is the Millennium Gallery, which in July will play host to one of the most intriguing entries on this year’s Tramlines festival bill: a Steve Davis DJ set.
While that sentence might draw a few baffled eye-rubs from those more accustomed to watching Davis mastering a snooker cue than cueing up records, those in the know will be well aware that his eclectic musical knowledge runs deeper than many other, non-former-snooker-world-champion disc spinners. Each week he hosts The Interesting Alternative Show on a local community radio station in Brentwood, Phoenix FM, and was earlier this year booked to play at the electronic music mecca that is the Bloc Weekend. He will appear at the Millennium Gallery as part of a Hybrid Vigour showcase at Tramlines, alongside Bafta-nominated composer Mica Levi and local ‘aggro-beat’ trio Blood Sport. We spoke to him ahead of his festival appearance to see how he feels about taking to a different Sheffield stage…
First of all, you announced your retirement from snooker earlier this year whilst you were in Sheffield for the World Championships. How tough was the decision to finally leave the sport?
It was all-good. I was effectively retired anyway; I'd stopped playing in competitions, so it was more a case of just doing it officially, to draw a line under things really. I could've decided to enter the World Championship every year just for the fun of it, or play a couple of events, but I decided it's perhaps easier to just draw a line under it. Effectively, announcing it meant that I couldn't change my mind. I mean, I could, but I don't want to.
And now you’ll be back in the city in July, to DJ at Tramlines…
Yeah, I'm quite pleased to have done it really, because I've spent so much of my life in Sheffield - I reckon I've probably spent about a year and a half of my life in Sheffield, so it'll be quite nice to come to the festival.
You'll have quite a few eyes on you for a different reason on this occasion at the Millennium Gallery, and probably quite a different crowd to that at the Crucible.
Yeah, I mean I don't know exactly what the set-up is, but I spent two weeks recently in the Winter Garden (adjoined to the Millennium Gallery) in the studio, so it'll be like going to work in the Winter Garden, alongside John Parrot!
During the World Championships you're sat there with me and the rest of the general public standing around gawping at you, aren't you…
Ha, yeah, it'll be similar to that - I think when I play some of the tunes I'm going to play they'll also start gawping! They won't be dancing, they'll just be standing around going, "what the fuck's that?"
But I guess you won't have John Parrot next to you on this occasion - unless he makes a surprise appearance.
Yeah, no moral support from John.
In fact, for Tramlines you’ll be performing without your usual DJing partner (and co-host on Phoenix FM), Kavus Torabi.
Yeah, sadly he's playing in a band on the Saturday so he can't bloody make it, which is a shame because we have a laugh together doing it. That's half the fun of it to be honest, but I decided because it was Sheffield that I'd do it anyway. A lot of other festivals or nights, I would've gone, "no, I won't bother", but I just thought it would be good fun to go back to Sheffield.
Obviously being on your own you feel more responsibility, but I've done two or three now and the style of music that we play, people won't have heard much of the music anyway. It's leftfield but it's got a beat, it's not stuff that's out-there and avant-garde, so it works. At the very least it's foot-tapping stuff, but you might get carried away with one of the tracks and you'll find yourself dancing before you know it.
What styles of music do you usually find work best in your sets?
I tend to gravitate towards the more complex electronic stuff, rather than the basic technoey stuff. There are lots of artists who've done quite clever dance music that's not even electronic, that people who like electronic music would probably like if they knew it existed. And that's half the problem, knowing things exist.
The most technoey I get is a Surgeon track, but either way you have to go with the flow of the evening, that's what I'm learning - what might work one night doesn't work another night, so that's sort of like a learning curve, as to what type of people are in the crowd.
Surgeon played at Tramlines last year actually, do you keep up / chat with him much?
Oh, did he? Oh great. Well, he came on our radio show on Phoenix FM – out of the blue, we just thought wouldn't it be good to invite somebody from a different genre to the style of music we generally play, and he agreed and came down and it was great fun. Then we put the show up on Mixcloud, and to date it's had about 7,000 streams - it's absolutely blitzed any other show we've ever had!
Then we bumped into each other down at the Bloc Weekend, so we had a little chat and I did an interview with him down there for Radio 1. He's a lovely guy, and we keep in touch every now and then. I think he's going to come on the radio show again and show us how he makes music, with his modular synthesisers and everything, so it'll be like a little workshop.
I imagine he's got some pretty hefty kit that he uses to produce.
Yeah, actually I'm sitting in front of one now trying to learn how to use it - something that a company called London Modular lent me. You put the wires in, sometimes the music comes out, sometimes it doesn't. I've got to have a lesson, I think.
Have you ever had a go at music production yourself?
Not really. I've tried to go down the road of getting one of the DAW sort of things to try and create something, but I suppose it's a time thing isn't it, you've got to invest a load of time and sometimes I haven't had it. Perhaps now that I've retired, it's time to see if I can make some music on a computer, like some of the clever people out there.
Might as well! If you were to make tracks, what sort of style do you think you'd go for?
I would try to create something repetitively complicated. Something that’s not just four beats to a bar all the time. Although obviously probably to start with, it might be an idea to do that, to get a feel for it. But eventually I'd like to make something that was quite intricate, although whether I could or not is another matter.
If you were to release music, would you do it under your own name or have you got an alias in the back of your mind?
(Laughs) Surgeon was the person who jokingly named me 'DJ Thunder Muscle', which was hilarious. I had a cameo role in a comedy series called The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, and the premise of the whole series was that an American guy (played by David Cross) was charged with selling this health drink into the UK. But it was a North Korean product and it was a way that they were getting rid of their plutonium, and it sent anyone who drunk it crazy.
The American guy was convinced that I should be the person to do an advert to try and sell this thing to the public. So, I had a part in the programme where I had to drink the drink and say, "Drink Thunder Muscle", but slowly went crazy and started smashing this American guy over the head with a cue. Surgeon liked the programme, and asked on Twitter once if I had a DJ name, and I replied, "no, I don't think so". So then Surgeon went, "well, how about DJ Thunder Muscle?" - and it sort of stuck.
I think that's got a great ring to it.
It's quite hilarious that I got given my name by one of the great techno DJs, who's sort of anointed me with the name ‘DJ Thunder Muscle’ - you couldn't make it up.
I suppose you're not short of claims to fame anyway, but at least in the music world that's pretty big. You said you caught up with Surgeon at Bloc, did you meet any other artists while you were there?
Yeah, BBC iPlayer did a little feature on it, and we did an interview with Holly Herndon because she was down there as well. She was fantastic, it was good talking to her. We saw Appleblim and Second Storey, they were fantastic in one of the smaller rooms. I saw a bit of Floating Points, they're probably more of a jazzy band but there's a good eclectic mix of things down at Bloc. Also, it was an absolute pleasure to bump into Rob Brown from Autechre - he was just down there incognito, he was just having a chill-out and we accidentally bumped into him and had a lovely chat with him. He's a lovely guy, and it was like bumping into royalty to be quite honest, Autechre are just legends.
Of course, my sadness is that over all the years of walking up Division Street, for a variety of reasons, probably seeking out a couple of second-hand record shops - one of which would've been Record Collector in Broomhill, and also Rare & Racy right at the top of Division Street – and of course during the '90s I would've walked past Warp Records on a regular basis. At the time I wasn't really into electronic music, I was more into soul music – and to think now a lot of the music I've gravitated towards, the back catalogue stuff would've been sold in that place. It's amazing to think I probably could've had a lot of rarities if I'd gone into the shop, instead of going further afield.
On the subject of Sheffield, what are some of your strongest memories of the city?
I remember, I think I was world champion at the time, and I was charged with being a representative from the snooker world to sign the remembrance book in the Town Hall for the Hillsborough tragedy. Just to think that, after all this time, everything's finally seen the light of day. There was a big shadow over that year's event; it was obviously horrific. I think I won the tournament that year, but that always springs to mind, every time I walk past the Town Hall.
I remember going to see Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats play back in the day – I remember I was invited backstage, that was quite good. And I was quite chuffed, about five or six years ago we ran the Sheffield Half Marathon, a load of us snooker lads, in aid of the Paul Hunter Foundation. That was quite an experience, running round the streets of Sheffield. Fortunately the year we ran there was water! Which was handy.
It helps when you're running a half marathon doesn't it, a bit of water. How was your time?
Yeah, a little bit! Oh, awful. I think people were walking past me at the end. But I did get round, I didn't stop, but I was a bit slow.
How’s the radio show going? Are you still doing it weekly?
Yeah I try to, obviously sometimes if I'm on the road I can't but we mix and match so Kavus will take over the helm, and other times we've got another guy called Max Tundra - he's an artist, he's sometimes down helping us out as well. It's a pretty relaxed show, but it keeps me off the streets on a Monday evening. But the DJing thing's great fun, on the strength of doing the BBC iPlayer thing and the Bloc Weekend we got about 10 bookings in the summer!
Yeah, because I think the Bloc announcement was probably the first time the wider world found out about your DJing and eclectic tastes in music.
Yeah, you sort of assume that everybody knows what you're up to but of course that's never the case, everybody's got their own lives to lead. So when something goes a bit more high profile, people with that type of interest get to know about it and tell their mates, and then somebody who's specifically a techno fan would all of a sudden go, "are you absolutely sure that somebody who's a snooker play has admitted liking a bit of techno?"
Do you know what kind of music some of the other snooker players are in to?
(Laughs) I have no idea; I think they're perhaps a little more middle of the road and a bit more sort of obvious. But of course it doesn't really matter what people's tastes in music are, because as long as it makes them happy, that's what it's all about. It's whatever floats your own boat. I think I've probably got a more unusually shaped boat than most, but that doesn't mean to say it's any better a boat - I mean, as long as it does float it doesn't matter.
That's a very poetic way of saying it!
I think the fact that Shaun Murphy came out and said that he quite likes listening to Celine Dion, I didn't think any less of him because of that. If he's happy with Celine Dion, so be it.
You'll need a full weekend ticket or a night-time ticket to catch Steve's set. Pick one up via Party For The People.
Words: Jack Scourfield
17 May 2016