And the untouchable feeling of sitting in the passenger seat on the way to your night out
Gabe Gurnsey is a night time guy. He has been since before he formed Factory Floor in 2005 and started playing post-industrial techno at 3am.
He grew up in West Yorkshire and Wales, where his older brother introduced him not just to club music but – importantly – to driving to the club. Whether it’s going to Fabric to see Four Tet or driving to your local Liquid to hear chart hits on shuffle, the journey to a club is a unique and unmistakable part of a night out. Sometimes it’s the best part. It’s not just clubbing, of course – driving through dark, deserted streets with music on is a sensory experience whatever you’re listening to and wherever you’re going. It’s what made the Drive soundtrack such a hit, and how everything on Magic FM can suddenly seem so wise and beautiful. It’s probably something to do with the solitude and blackness and freedom of an empty street. We’d all like to live in a film sometimes, and listening to music as you drive around at night is a pretty good shortcut to that feeling. It sounds corny but it’s true.
For Gabe and his brother it was always a club, and when he talks about feeling “untouchable” in the passenger seat of a car on his way to a night out, it’s a feeling that many of us can relate to. When you’re driving to a club, it’s not solitary and contemplative – it’s communal and exciting and dangerous. It’s this feeling that Gabe explores on his debut solo album, ‘Physical’, released this month via Erol Alkan’s Phantasy Sound label.
‘Physical’ is decidedly warmer sounding than Factory Floor, exploring the celebratory corners of dance music, from Chicago house to Balearic pop. It’s fitting that parts of it sound like music from the Hacienda, considering Gabe now lives in Manchester following time spent in Los Angeles. He’s reluctant to call ‘Physical’ a concept record but in a way it is, sequenced to recreate a night out, from getting ready to arriving at the club, getting on it, finding your way home and navigating the early morning the following day. There’s even one track (‘Version’) that simulates the moment you pause for a fag on the smoker’s terrace.
Key to this “record about clubbing, even more than it is a record to be played in clubs,” is the driving. And so I thought it would make the most sense to talk to Gabe about ‘Physical’ as we drove around town at midnight. Serendipitously, our photoshoot took place next to where Factory Floor’s studio once was, before the building was marked for demolition in 2014. It was finally pulled down just a couple of weeks ago, and is where our drive began, in Seven Sisters, North London, heading south through the centre of town.
Gabe: So our studio was right here. There used to be an arch just there. That’s where we did the first Factory Floor record. I managed to get hold of Dave Stewart’s original mixing desk on eBay from this guy in Portsmouth. I remember hiking it up the stairs in that studio. It was insane – it took us half a day. I sold it back on eBay. I think Stewart has actually done ‘Sweet Dreams’ on it… Now I’m talking about it I’m really regretting selling it. I miss this area though – it’s got an edge to it.
Stuart: When was it that you moved to Manchester?
G: I moved up there two years ago, via L.A. I went to Manchester first, then to L.A. for a bit and I quickly came back to Manchester. It was quite a contrast. I love both places, but I really missed the drive and music of here.
S: Are they low on drive in L.A., then?
G: I think it’s because it’s so… wide. You can’t just jump on a tube and be at your mate’s studio or rehearsal room. Everything’s so far away.
I was living in Long Beach, which is a good 45 minutes out of Hollywood. I was there for half a year. Does that even count as living there, or is that a long holiday? Let’s say it was an extended holiday.
Factory Floor had been playing shows out there, so I met some people then and stayed with them. But I just wanted that drive of the UK. L.A. wasn’t pushing me enough in terms of ideas and inspiration.
S: Because it’s too nice?
G: Yeah, it was, definitely. I totally fucking love it there, but it was too nice to be working. I missed the grittiness of here, and I miss London when I’m back here. But I was thinking if I want to leave Manchester, because I seem to be moving further and further out into the countryside, but I’d miss the sound of cars. I need that white noise of the motorway.
S: Do you think that affects your music? Because when people talk about Factory Floor they always talk about the industrial.
G: Yeah, I think it’s just in me. I like the uncertainty of cities. You can be quite elusive in a city. Even now, we haven’t got a fucking clue where we’re going – we’re just driving around, and I like that. You can always discover new things… Maybe I’m just scared of silence.
S: Do you drive, yourself?
G: I don’t, no. I’ve always had my brother for that. He’s a big influence on the record, especially the later tracks – ‘Night Track’ and ‘The Last Channel’; I wanted to write tracks that remind me of those times of him driving me around at night. Wherever we were living at the time, he’d always decide to go to some club at one in the morning. There’s never been anything pre-planned about it. I always liked that impulsive thing about him. He still does it now – driving about with tunes on the stereo. It was always such an exciting feeling – that anticipation of heading out.
S: Do you remember the first time you went into a club and what that club was?
G: It was probably a really shit club in Wales. There were some in France that we went to when we were on holiday, as well. The Purple Parakeet. And there was one called La Dolce Vita – it was big hut where everyone in that rural town went on a Friday and Saturday, where they wanted to punch you in the face.
S: For me, it was a club called Adlib, in Southend.
G: Is it still there?
S: It’s changed its name to Chameleon now.
G: That’s fitting.
S: It was shit, but I’ll never forget that feeling of getting in for the first time. At that point, it really is irrelevant what’s being played.
G: I’d quite happily try any club. Obviously it’s good to have a really good DJ, but I like those regional club vibes. They’re really quite odd, but everyone is there for complete escapism. Or a fight… I’ve been to a couple in Macclesfield recently. There’s one called Fever Boutique – it’s fucking insane. But I love it. If you want a sense of a town, in some way, you go to their club on a Saturday.
S: It all ties into that thing you’ve said about feeling untouchable in the passenger seat of a car as you drive to a club.
G: And I still get that feeling. There’s that anticipation and a bit of anxiety about not quite knowing what’s going to happen. It’s really exciting.
< We drive down Regent’s Street to Piccadilly Circus, around Trafalgar Square and up The Mall to Buckingham Palace >
S: When you sat down to make ‘Physical’ was it driving that you put at the heart of the record?
G: There were two paths of it going on. It’s the arc of a night out, from start to finish. The intensity builds around that, and there are some interim tracks where I was imagining stepping out of the club for a cigarette. That cemented later on, but originally I wanted this idea of a drug state and a virtual reality state running side by side. I’ve tried to explain this to somebody before and they’ve been like… ‘Yeah, alright.’ But what I mean is this escapism. I was imagining the tracks being different rooms within a virtual reality building. So it’s almost a virtual reality club with different room that you’d step through… this could go off on a really fucking ridiculous tangent. Weirdly, I think the album ended up sounding like reality. It’s ended up sounding like a night out to a regional club.
S: Are you interested in VR, generally?
G: I am, yeah. I need to properly look into it but I am interested in what it can be used for. Are you?
S: I’ve still got a massive problem with Alexa and the Amazon Echo. It’s the fact that you have to call it ‘Alexa’ and that we’re being encouraged to become friends with a speaker that I can’t stand. I can’t fucking stand it. Anyway… I think the key to the record is that it’s relatable and that it’s not VR or futuristic.
G: Yeah, I do. Which is in something like the new single ‘Eyes Over’, which is the idea of going to a club to pull.
S: How have you found working alone?
G: I’ve really enjoyed it. There were a lot of ideas I had floating around at the beginning of development, and it was nice being able to try whatever the fuck I want. It might end up shit, and you delete it, but at least you’re trying it. In Factory Floor there is an element of freedom, of course, but to have it my vision and progression, I had a lot of fun with it.
S: And you were comfortable with your own judgment of your work?
G: For me, that was Erol’s role. Towards the end of writing 30 tracks, or whatever, I had Erol around to help me develop them. He was that person and I completely trusted him because he totally got what I was trying to do with it.
S: Did you know him before?
G: I didn’t know him then, but I went to Trash quite a bit. My brother was around quite a lot then. We used to come up into the West End every single night and go to whatever club was on. Trash was obviously the best one, because Erol was pushing something different. But we used to get the bus from Fulham, where I was living above a butcher’s shop. I had a single room and my brother came to stay and he ended up staying for years. We’d get on this old Routemaster bus and come up to town with a bottle of vodka. It was great – such a buzz.
But I first properly met Erol when I was doing a remix for Dan [Avery]. He invited me down to his studio and we got chatting, and I began thinking that I’d really like to do a record with Phantasy. It made a lot of sense to me.
S: Did you try to explain the VR thing to him?
G: [Laughs] I did, yeah.
S: I imagine if there’s one guy who’s ok on VR metaphors it’s Erol Alkan.
G: Yeah, I think you’re right. But his mixing is what took the record to another level.
< We work our way out of Chelsea, hit the river and cross Albert Bridge to loop back north via Battersea, Vauxhall and Waterloo. Even at 1am we see a black cab driver shouting at a cyclist and then chasing them down, pulling over and running after them on foot >
S: Have you ever been a South London guy?
G: No, I haven’t. It’s definitely a different vibe down here. The really nice thing about this side of the river is the architecture – Battersea Power Station and the Tate Modern. But for me that’s the edge of going out of town – that’s as far as I go.
S: Do you envisage that people will listen to ‘Physical’ in their cars?
G: Yeah, I think I do. They are tunes that suit being in a car. But I’m also working on extended version of the tracks, which are more club orientated, because for the record I wanted them to be shorter and more instantaneous. In many ways I wanted to condense it down because I wouldn’t have done that in the past. So I think it works on headphones at home as well. Or on a train journey. I mean, I don’t know – how the fuck do people listen to music nowadays? Alexa! It’s a good record for Alexa.
S: “Alexa, play ‘Physical’ by Gabe Gurnsey.” “Did you say, ‘Play ‘Let’s Get Physical’ by Olivia Newton-John’?” “Fuck you, Alexa!” Have you thought about playing it out yet and how you might do that?
G: Definitely. I’m going to get someone else in to do the electronic and I think I’m going to get back onto the drums. I think I better start fucking working out because I haven’t drummed for ages.
S: Nice. Is it live drums on the album, then?
G: Yeah, there’s a lot of live drums on there. There’s a lot of electronics too, because that’s what I love doing.
Talking of AI, actually, and Alexa, all the female vocals on there, I had this way of presenting it via another person on stage, but there isn’t another person on stage. So basically, if you imagine Alexa with a face…
S: Are you winding me up?
G: No. I’m working on it now.