Ez! Thanks for taking the time to chat! I’d like to begin with the thing that put you on my music radar: the POLO LILLI flip on tracks from Whitney Houston, Sean Paul, Eve, Missy Elliot, Spice Girls and Jay-Z to name a few. How do you go about picking the tracks you wanna flip?
Well I never really listened to popular music growing up, but I now work (when the work is there) as a mobile DJ, so I have to be really up on my mainstream music knowledge. It’s sort of fascinating to observe how dance floors at weddings and in clubs can be a totally different ball game from the perspective of the DJ, but still hold the same fundamentals in terms of what facilitates those moments of elation that really stick out in the memory of a night out. At weddings it’s a lot to do with triggering nostalgia by bringing the right portion of the crowd together, then hitting them with a track that would have been prevalent at a key moment in their lives. The same theory can be applied in a club setting too, but outright dropping original pop anthems can easily fall flat with more discerning crowds.
So, I had the idea of structuring sets around pop music in such a way that it would have this magic effect whilst staying credible to a left field audience. You can hear me attempt this in my earlier mixes using loops and pitch to manipulate the originals live, but things started to make way more sense once I started bootlegging stuff. Generally what I’m searching for when picking tracks to rework is an element that is really recognisable and that can be repeated and cut up in fun ways. I find it’s key to keep the material taken from the original to a minimum whilst maintaining what makes it identifiable. The search keeps me sane at work because I can use those mainstream sets kind of like digging sessions!
Personally, I really like that Spices Girls flip. It gives me nostalgia of when I was a kid and that tune was massive and so were the group! You ever think of sending it to them? Haha
Really glad you like it! Regarding the original, I’ve generally got a pretty high threshold for cheesy music these days, but I’d say that particular track marks the end of my tolerance, so I thought it’d be really fun to challenge myself to make it hit hard as a left field track and I’m really pleased with the result. I’m also really grateful for the Trax Haven boys picking it up for their TRAXFREE series. I think a lot of people first heard me through that particular link up. No plans to send it to the girls for the time being and I’m always a bit cautious in case of takedowns but maybe one day!
So your actual job is a DJ too! Being involved with a lot of weddings and general parties you must see some mad stuff regular right? Weddings especially are always eventful.
I get the impression that sometimes these kind of parties might be, for some people, their only chance to fully let loose for like 6 months to a year. The crazy stuff seems to mostly happen at corporate Christmas functions for companies with a lot of emphasis on competitive sales. A party I played at once was evacuated because somebody overdosed, and at another one an employee stood and hurled abuse at me for about 40mins because I wouldn’t play “My Neck, My Back” to a crowd who otherwise wanted ‘80s stuff. She got another guest to come and have a go at me on her behalf and it got so bad that in the end I had to stop the tunes and tell them to back off or I was gonna go home. The staff at the hotel I was playing at had to smuggle me out the back because the two guests were getting so aggressive! I was actually told a few weeks after the party that the company ended up firing them over it. People just go in way too hot and end up doing really dumb shit at these things. Weddings seem to be actually pretty uneventful by comparison but then again I haven’t been doing them all that long.
Can you talk us through the sort of stuff you would play in your normal sets at a paid job gig at a party/wedding etc? You mention nostalgia so I’m guessing plenty of pop bangers?
There are staple genres that go down well in almost any setting: funk & soul, ‘70s & ‘80s disco, ‘90s & ‘00s R&B, ‘60s rock ’n’ roll, Motown, generally strictly classics. I usually start with one of those, and by tracing music’s evolution from them I can normally suss out where to go with the set. For example if a crowd is responding well to ‘80s disco I’ll throw in a couple of early 90s house classics. If they respond well I’ll carry on down that path, if it bombs I can fall back on the disco. It’s about creating a kind of blueprint for the crowd that’s in front of you. Once you’ve hit on what gives each demographic in the crowd what they want, you can start to “rotate” the guests so people have a chance to get to the bar. Then I have some tracks that more or less anybody will get down too, Queen – Don’t Stop Me Now, Fratellis – Chelsea Dagger, Corona – Rhythm Of The Night. Even if a guest isn’t really into the sound of those tracks, the urge to sing along with friends and family is far too great and everybody knows the words to at least the chorus. These ones I tend to use to bring everyone together at the end of the night. There are of course parties where the guests want something a bit more niche. Those are the ones I really enjoy because people at those are generally more open to stuff they’ve never heard before.
Have you ever dropped any of your 160 bpm refixes in the dance at a work gig? Mid-set in-between some ‘80s or ‘90s nostalgia vibes to get a reaction? Haha
I learned very quickly that the general public tend to hate stuff they aren’t intimately familiar with. This is a generalisation of course, but it’s a necessary assumption to make when it comes to mobile gigs. So unfortunately I think that would go very badly haha. Can’t say I haven’t been tempted though!
In regards to being a DJ as a job, and effectively as your hobby too outside of work, how do you go about keeping passion for both sides of your DJ life?
This is a really good question. It was something I was very aware of when I started DJ’ing for work but actually so far it hasn’t been too hard to keep things fresh. I think what I’m doing with POLO LILLI is just so different to the weddings that, although they share DJ’ing as their core element, it doesn’t feel like a busman’s holiday when I have a mix for fun. Maybe it’s because private event DJ’ing is more like an exercise in science, it’s got a formula to it. Entertaining a crowd in that capacity is very much like solving an equation. Producing and mixing as POLO LILLI is very much an artistic outlet. In fact, that was one of my main reasons for wanting to start a new alias; to keep the creative side of DJ’ing a part of what I do.
Can you give us some background into were it all began for you on the production side?
I’d say I was about 16 when I started getting really interested in manipulating sound digitally, so about 14 years ago. I’d just started college and I was really gutted about not getting on to the music course because I never learned to read sheet music. I already played a bit of guitar, and I was listening to a lot of Kieran Hebden’s stuff (Four Tet, Fridge and his stuff with Steve Reid), which at the time was being labelled “folktronica”. Lots of traditional instruments mixed with bleeps, bloops and drum machines.
So originally I was trying to emulate that by playing my guitar into audacity and time-stretching it and sampling drum loops to layer underneath. I had no clue what I was doing, especially on the theory side of things, but it felt really amazing to express myself. For a while I replaced that with DJ’ing after I met Patrick Hibberd (teleport100) who was mixing DnB on vinyl at the time, and we started putting on nights at our local club; The Jailhouse in Hereford. Skream had just released his first album and dubstep was taking off in a big way so we connected over that.
I was really inspired by the idea that Skream and Benga started producing on the Playstation. I suppose it spoke to me because it validated my own DIY approach, and it prompted me to get back into production, so I cracked a copy of Fruity Loops and got busy. I think I made about 35 tracks that year and uploaded them all to Soundcloud. I made anything from abstract experimental stuff to dubstep bangers. I didn’t know how to make what I wanted to make so I just started projects and went with wherever they took me. They’re all still online and I love going back and listening to some of the stuff I was making, some of it is really wild! I eventually slowed right down after leaving uni for work stuff and because I’d entered a relationship. I ended up only making time to produce tracks a couple of times a year. That is until recently when I quit my day job to take DJ’ing full time giving me a load of free time in the week.
To me your sound is unconventional and fairly experimental within the 160bpm perimeters. Do you envision your style and sound will continue to evolve as things move forward?
It’s interesting to hear it called experimental because that’s not really my intention, but I really like that it’s perceived that way! I suppose I just tend to seek out unusual music so that’s what my tracks end up sounding like. I’ve learned over time to not push anything too much. Trying to achieve evolution, at least in my experience, generally doesn’t result in anything authentic. Having said that I do feel that my sound has already evolved a lot since this time last year. I’m becoming much more aware of my influences the more I hear from the genres that inspire me, and that’s making my productions more nuanced. There’s a lot of my forthcoming releases in the mix that will go with this interview so I hope that comes across. Something I’ve heard said about what I make is that it’s recognisably “me”. That’s something I definitely want to hold onto. Other than that I’m just going with the flow.
Do you make much time for the studio? And how’re things with you and the creative process?
At the moment it’s all I do. The pandemic has taken my work and I’m single now so these days I’m in the studio 8-12 hours a day 5-6 days a week. I feel really fortunate that my motivation for production has remained strong through this because without it I don’t know what I’d do. It’s very much a form of therapy for me, and it stops me spending, so currently I’m managing to scrape by. It was similar pre-pandemic too in regards to studio time but I was tutoring 2 days a week and gigging every weekend on top of marketing and stuff relating to my business so I had to be a bit more structured, and at least go to bed at a reasonable hour! But I was still pushing out a track at least every couple of weeks.
I never found it difficult to finish tracks, which I think is something that really holds some producers back. From talking to other people I think there’s this “hump” when you’re writing music that happens somewhere between the laying down of the idea and the mixing phase, during the arrangement, that is less enjoyable, so people tend to just stop after the idea phase and move on to something else. I’ve always been a very persistent person when it comes to problem solving. I used to work in a school for children with SEN and you have to be persistent to do that job! I can apply that persistence to my production and it means generally I finish and release everything I start without succumbing to the hump. I’m really grateful for that and I think it’s the key to why, touch wood, i’ve been able to maintain my motivation thus far.
Can I get some background on your name?
I read somewhere once that the best DJ name is the one that’s given to you. I don’t know if you could say that about POLO LILLI but it came to me during a text conversation I was having, where my friend tried to send “lololol” and it autocorrected to Polo Lilli. I just loved the way it sounded. I actually didn’t know I wanted to start a new alias at the time, and I’d say the name informed the direction I took the project to an extent. I immediately had the idea for the logo, borrowing from the POLO mints brand, and that gave me the idea of repurposing recognisable material. So bootlegging pop classics fit really well under the name and branding.
As well as producing you do regular mixes and radio shows. Can you give the readers an insight into what they can expect to hear on them?
With my mixes I’ve always been about pushing the boundaries of what can fit together whilst maintaining coherence and flow. I listen to and love a lot of different music and I try not to limit myself in terms of what I play. I’ve learnt though that it’s unreasonable to expect your listenership to go along with you when you’re doing too much genre-wise. It can come across as self indulgent if you’re changing styles every track. Now I feel like I’ve found a nice middle ground by centering my sound around the breakbeat. It allows me to play anything from techno to DnB without anything sounding forced.
The history of the breakbeat is so interesting and it forms direct links between so many different cultures within dance music. Once I honed my library down with that in mind something really clicked in the way I structure my sets. I’ve still got a load of freedom, but it’s way more likely that a listener will identify with both an electro track and a jungle track if both incorporate a breakbeat. Naturally my sets tend to be quite fluid on the BPM spectrum, and I’m particularly interested in the way energy can be controlled with tempo, not only by speeding things up but by slowing them down at just the right moment.
From the perspective of a DJ can you let us know the sort of music you are listening to at the moment and vibing?
The majority of what I’m listening to falls within the footwork/jungle imprint. That scene is so electric at the moment; it’s growing fast but feels so close-knit. Like a lot of people I was inspired by Sherelle’s Boiler Room last February and although I was already playing a good amount of footwork and jungle I’d say that set definitely contributed to 160 bpm being central to my productions and selections. Labels I follow pushing the sound are: Trax Haven, Through These Eyes, Hooversound, Worst Behaviour Recs, Astrophonica, District160, and Forbidden Trax to name a few.
Faster genres feel really fun at the moment. I love the way ‘90s/early ‘00s rave sounds are being brought up to date and pushed through modern production standards in creative ways. I’ve got to shout out a label I have been working with called Shubzin and a related Facebook group called Hard and Nasty for this. They’re pushing up-to-date takes on electro, UK hardcore, braindance, breakcore, basically anything fast and furious goes. It’s moody and flamboyant all at the same time. Oscar (Osc Kins), who owns Shubzin picked up my track MTBK for his first compilation, which is a bootleg of Panjabi MCs “Mundian To Bach Ke”. With it I wanted to make something reminiscent of early 00’s Squarepusher and that whole braindance sound but more club ready. I didn’t realise at the time there was such a thriving movement geared towards that kind of music so when Oscar got in touch and showed me what he was doing with Shubzin I got really excited.
Some Hard and Nasty artists that stand out for me are Samurai Breaks, Yazzus, and Bastiengoat on the flamboyant end and Fiesta Soundsystem, All Trades, Volruptus, Thugwidow and Client_03 on more moody business. Labels I follow pushing those sounds are: Shubzin, Jerry Horny, SVBKVLT, Suck Puck, Off Me Nut, SZNS7N, Hypercolour, and Sub 135bpm. I’m really into Scuffed Recordings at the moment, their output is incredibly consistent but also regular and right up my street. Hard breakbeats, infectious techno and garage rhythms and glints of nostalgic indulgence whilst staying fully up to date. Other labels I follow pushing slower breaks: Club Glow, Sneaker Social Club, Naive, ec2a.
Recently you posted quite a powerful piece on social media regarding the current climate within the music industry and how it’s effected you. I see a lot of that stuff from people on my socials but from someone like you who works full time as a DJ and also has passion outside for your own vibes it really resonated as I can understand that it’s particularly devastating on multi levels. Can you tell us from your own perspective how you’ve dealt with things and how you perceive things will move forward?
I’ve always been someone that throws everything I’ve got at things, so when I started DJ’ing full time I spent all of my energy setting it up and made a lot of sacrifices to get there. When it was all taken away at the start of this year it was a real gut punch on an emotional level, and that’s before even thinking about the financial losses. I still don’t believe I’ve properly, healthily processed everything. I just got in the studio and got to work to take my mind off it, throwing everything at things again. It works very well in a way because it completely takes me out of reality. I have to remind myself to eat some days (and anyone who knows me personally will know that I really love doing that!). It feels kind of like sticking my fingers in my ear and singing, “la la la”. And as any producer will tell you, living that life has its own mental health pitfalls.
Making and releasing music is a rollercoaster of elation and self doubt. So in many ways, I’ve not dealt with things particularly responsibly, but actually given the circumstances I’m probably not doing too badly, and I do have something to show for it all at least. I’m also extremely fortunate to have a supportive group of friends and family around me, so I know I’m not in any real danger. In terms of the future of events, I’m keeping my distance from too much speculation about that for now. I don’t want to get my hopes up for legal gatherings with dancing resuming at full capacity any time soon. From the job side of things that’s hard to sit with, but as we know from history the underground will survive and maybe even thrive because of this. As for me, I’ve always loved writing, so that feels like the right avenue for me to explore for work. The thought of starting a new business from the ground up is daunting but I’m starting to feel the cogs turning again.