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Próximo: The Backstory

A lot has changed within my mind in the week since I conducted my interview with Luke Handsfree. Luke is the DJ and Promoter behind Techno night Plex, and the open-ended event series (plotting the sonic course between Techno and Jungle) Próximo in the years since. He really gets dance music; of the scene-legends with experience throwing acclaimed parties in London, Luke has been most closely involved in the cutting edge in recent years, and this came through in the interview; even though it had been 11 locked-down months since he last raved, his head and heart were still full of it, his enthusiasm still at peak levels. 

Transcribing interviews is rarely the fun part of the process; I already know what was said and just need to get the words down, but writing this piece up the day after it was announced that nightclubs should be opening in time for summer, it was wicked fun. I split the interview into two parts; the part linked here focuses on a recent radio takeover he organized, epitomizing the attitudes of Próximo, whilst the chat recorded below takes us through the experiences and feelings that led to those attitudes. Enjoy.

W: I looked at the image promoting the takeover, and it had the tagline ‘no trainspotters, no hats, no hoods, just proper ruffness.’ Could you tell me more about that?

Luke Handsfree: I’ve been involved in clubs as a promoter for 15 years, something like that, before I was a promoter I was a punter at the seminal London clubnight Lost, at SE1, the Lighthouse, it didn’t have a set home but it was run by Steve Bicknell and Sheree. It was my baptism into Techno, having come from Jungle and Drum’n’Bass culture, with The End, Ram Records, Tru Playaz and all those big rude raves.

I started going out to those nights when I was 16, in 96/97, sneaking in to see Andy C and Krust, all those DJs who are massive Drum’n’Bass stars now. However, when things started getting really one-note, and quite dark and… It had become so big and influential that the people coming out were going to the club to listen to Drum’n’Bass, going to the afterparty to listen to Drum’n’Bass, waking up the next day and listening to Drum’n’Bass… so the cool thing about electronic music in general is that it’s a template, a framework through which you can experience loads of different types of music, but what happened in Drum’n’Bass (and latterly in Techno), was people who had been listening to all sorts of music and then making Jungle/D’n’B, feeding those influences through a nascent style, but then in about 2000, when Wormhole by Ed Rush and Optical came out, a lot of the music being made, it’d had the light had been crushed out of it, it was Jungle/D’n’B that was influenced by Jungle/D’n’B, it was chasing its own tail and becoming a compressed version of itself.

W: Like Dubstep in 2009/10

L: Exactly, these things happen frequently. A lot of the syncopation had gone, a lot of the rhythmic funk and sort of, roughness-

W: As opposed to ‘ruffness’? Which I think of as like punchy, rough’n’ready.

L: That’s exactly what I meant in that statement, whereas when I say ‘roughness’ I mean like, that kind of shonkiness, that slap-dashness of Jungle, where the loops weren’t perfect, the basslines and melody lines might be out of key with each other. It started losing that roughness and, to my mind, started losing its ruffness.     

W: It’s like being ruff, or rough’n’ready, to have ruffness in a positive way, requires some of that shonky roughness, or at least benefits from it. It’s like a double layered roughness.

L: Haha yes, exactly. So at that point I fell away from the Drum’n’Bass scene, I started picking and choosing them rather than going to as many of them as I could. I got together with some new-ish friends, and started going to this Techno night called Lost, getting smashed and listening to Jeff Mills, Richie Hawtin, Basic Channel, Juan Atkins and all those kinds of people, playing their own fresh unreleased stuff. 

W: What was life outside of the club like?

L: My personal life was, well I didn’t go to university, I started working, so I had more money than my pals, but I was living a university lifestyle, going out Thursday and coming back home on Sunday night.

W: You mean that literally, you’d stay up for a couple of nights in a row? How did you pull that off?

L: Through dogged persistence, thank god I have a strong enough constitution to match my appetite. 

W: I guess that also the longer the session goes on, the less each passing hour takes out of you.

L: You get into a bit of a training routine, if you’ve been able to do it for 3 weeks on the trot, your fourth week is a lot easier to deal with. But yeah from my late teens to my late 20s, I was out a lot! I’m not quite so capable these days of doing things on the bounce. But yeah in terms of the no trainspotters thing, one thing that always used to bug me at clubs, particularly Lost and Ram Records at The End, was people hanging around the DJ Booth trying to get a look at what’s being played, collectors etc. I’m very much someone who wants to know what that track was, but I also don’t want to have that get in the way of my experience of the evening. I feel like these things, that track name will fall through the cosmos to me, at some point. 

W: It’s also quite individualistic isn’t it, I want that track for myself so I can go and listen to it, or maybe go and play it at my own night and then I’ll be that DJ, it’s the opposite of what you want, you want people getting excited because this is great right now, not because they see an opportunity to do something cool later.

L: Exactly, the club environment is the archetypal broadchurch, you can be at the Corsica Studios bar simultaneously standing between a city banker and a relatively recent arrival from somewhere with less than ideal social circumstances, and everyone’s in there with a conjoined experience, and it’s so loud and involving that you can’t pick and choose your social neighbor, you have to be accepting, it’s quite amazing. Obviously there’s an occasional uplift from external stimulants in there, but it’s also an ideal environment for a sympathetic understanding of your fellow human. Which leads onto the ‘no hats no hoods’ bit; I remember at some time in the D’n’B scene, some of the raves were quite hairy, and it’s really more about, well it’s actually a lift from a label called ‘no hats no hoods’, but it’s really saying: you come here for the conjoined experience of music and integration, you don’t come here to be the big man with your crew. They used to put this thing on at Jungle raves called NASA; nice and safe attitude, check your attitude at the door. It’s a shorthand, though I’m not sure if it’s entirely what I would put these days.

W: I think it’s clear that it means something deeper than a dress code, it’s a rave. But yeah I was intrigued.

L: If I was to reframe it these days, would I use the phrase no hats no hoods, I dunno, it’s a shorthand that could be interpreted in a non-inclusive manner. 

W: It’s a tricky one! So going back to your story, you ran a clubnight called Plex that was very successful, and then you decided to move on and setup Próximo, why was that?

L: One of the great things about Plex, was it delivered that sort of bassy, screwface, syncopation stuff alongside the more sleek, straight-up Techno 4×4 stuff, and one thing that I felt we didn’t quite do enough was embracing the accidental slapdashery stuff, it was all quite sleek and put together. My inclination towards that kind of broken, bassy roughness increased, but the idea of focusing on that didn’t quite sit with the established style and presence of Plex. We could have attempted to pivot the way that Plex sounded, but it didn’t feel like the right thing to do.

W: I’m glad you didn’t, frankly I find it really annoying when a DJ or a night has developed a really clear, distinct identity, and then you go to it and they’ve got excited and veered off in a different direction. It might sound a bit sad to say that, of course I appreciate a spontaneous DJ set and good music in all forms, I wouldn’t leave and complain about it; like I went to see a favourite DJ collective of mine a couple of years ago, they played balls-to-the-wall Techno all night and it was fun, but at the end they played some euphoric Drum’n’Bass and I was like ‘oh yeah, that’s why I bought the ticket, it would have been cool to hear some more colourful stuff.’ I’m glad you were thoughtful about your identity, and the name Plex, it has a sleekness to it doesn’t it.

L: The actual name comes from the suffix meaning ‘floor’, as in ‘duplex apartments’; apartments with two floors, but it’s also a reference to the legendary techno label Metroplex, and was also inspired by the Polish techno producer Echoplex, who was gonna be our very first booking. Trying to come up with a club night name makes you feel like such a weirdo, you’re just cringing all the time, but yeah it was about the floor, the dancefloor, about having a fucking rave. 

W: Yeah, and the floor is something that’s smooth, firm and reliable, and also hard, unless you’re on a trampoline, it fits with 4×4 Techno. So when did you transition away from that?

L: I stepped away from Plex in November 2016, I went travelling, and whilst away I didn’t have the hankering to run another clubnight, that was a chapter in my life that was done with, but when I got back to the UK, I was really enjoying the stuff that Tessela was putting together, Randomer, Skee Mask, that breakbeat Techno stuff, Djrum, and I was like cool!

W: Skee Mask is definitive for that stuff we talked about, he’s had actual complaints from people who went to see him DJing expecting him to play sleek Techno, and then he played Hip Hop. He would have been a risky booking for Plex.

L: Oh yeah no way. In terms of that bassy, syncopated Techno stuff, there was nowhere I could go and hear that, like nowhere I could hear it on a soundsystem, specifically. There were places you’d hear Jungle in one room, and Techno in the other, or you could hear some Techno with some breaks in it but it would never go that fast or get bass-driven, there was a lot of separation in terms of those intense styles. So I made the night that I wanted.

W: You didn’t just want a night where you could hear both Techno and Jungle, you wanted a night where it made sense for DJs to go on a journey which might touch on any of these points, and involves this inspiring production sound, create their own little sphere.

L: Yeah, and it’s really important to me that these things go on in a single room, you can’t pick and choose whether you want to hear x, y and z. You may not like this particularly, but it’s important for you to listen to the stuff that you dislike, as well as what you do like. In five minutes you’re not gonna be listening to a different track, you can deal with it for a bit.

W: Yeah as the friend who suggests which room/stage the group we go to now, sometimes you go to one room and they say ‘it’s a bit dark in here’, and you go to another room and they say ‘it’s a bit slow in here’, and you think ok, well if we just stay here and relax, let yourself sink into it, you will find it working for you. When I was younger I absolutely loved the multi-room thing, and in lockdown I hanker for it, but if you want a fulfilling club experience, there’s a purity to one room nights. So what about the thought behind putting together a radio takeover, what are your thoughts behind that?

L: I was quite up for doing this archive session with all of it coming out together, I felt like doing 8 hours of continuous programming was a way of saying, ‘you might not enjoy what we’re playing right now, but you can continuously have it on in the background, and you might enjoy what comes up in a minute’, it just fit with the open-minded ethos of Próximo, people being able to flip in and out of it. 

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