Updated: Jul 5, 2021
So I was going to begin this interview with something along the lines of ‘Charlie May – a man who needs little introduction’, however the more I delved into the abyss of his astonishing talents and dizzying accolades the more I realised that going down that route was going to be virtually impossible.
Over the past THIRTY years [You heard that right folks... THIRTY YEARS!] Charlie May has played a pivotal role behind many of the catalytic genre shifts in dance music having written some of the most revered and innovative records of our time. Whether it be through his own solo productions, or as one half of the duo, Spooky or as Sasha’s producer and engineer, this guy certainly knows how to rock a dance floor.
It was in 1992 that Charlie May and production partner Duncan Forbes joined forced to become [the now infamous] ‘Spooky’ duo. This union proved hugely successful as their first release ‘Don’t Panic’ on Guerilla Records was a kind of ‘prototype’ of sorts between the fusion of Detroit techno and acid which made way for a new and exciting sound... that being PROGRESSIVE HOUSE!
With the release of their following LP ‘Gargantuan’ and [arguably] their most celebrated album ‘Found Sound’ some three years later, Spooky firmly cementing their place as groundbreaking leaders within the progressive house scene.
It was the aforementioned album ‘Found Sound’ that undoubtedly hypnotised a whole generation of music producers into trying to emulate May’s trailblazing signature sound and it wasn’t long after this release that his influence and musical wizardry in the studio was in high demand.
After taking a brief hiatus from ‘Spooky’ May went onto forging another exceedingly flourishing partnership with none other than superstar DJ Sasha.
It was through this amalgamation of creative minds that gave birth to one of the most important releases of the progressive/trance era ‘Xpander’ which in turn saw May behind the soundboards for the acclaimed ‘Airdrawndagger’ in 2002 as well as the following Global Underground mix album ‘Involver’.
Over the next few years May worked on solo projects on Junior Boys Own London label, Spooky’s third album, ‘Open’  in addition to working with Sasha once again on ‘Seal Clubbing’, ‘Coma’, ‘Who Killed Sparky’ and the second installation of ‘Involv2er’.
In 2020, May hooked up with Dennis White and Dave Gardner of [more recently] ‘Sentre’ fame to produce the gorgeous ambient debut album ‘Quiet Places’ which haunts yet delights simultaneously with the use of its layered synth pads and snippets of vocals.
It's fair to say that Charlie May has well and truly established himself as a highly successful and in demand DJ/producer in his own right these days with solo releases and remixes for over 70 records labels including Bedrock, Audio Therapy, Global Underground, Anjunadeep and Microcastle as well as being a regular on the international club circuit playing anywhere from Pacha, Buenos Aires to Warung in Brazil.
Phew! So without further to do….
I introduce you all to the incredible Mr. Charlie May :)
Hi Charlie! Firstly can I just say what an incredible honour it is to be chatting with you today
Where are you in the world right now and how are you feeling?
Hi Bean! I am at home in Somerset, England where it has finally stopped raining so feeling very good. Thanks!
So let’s start at the beginning…. What was the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself and what music did you listen to growing up? Do you think these sounds influence your music production today?
Among the first records I bought were albums by Roxy Music, Depeche Mode, Yazoo, a lot of early 80’s synth pop mixed with a little punk and Bowie. Back then it was all about recording tracks off the radio onto cassette which began the whole editing and sampling process. Using one machine to capture sound from another to produce a third result. Home taping had the effect of making music instantly personal.
Who introduced you to Electronic Music? Do you remember your first rave? Tell us about your first real ‘moment’ that got you hooked on the scene.
I grew up with electronic music that was just starting to take hold of the Top 40. I didn’t categorise it as such but became interested in synthesisers since I was a piano player and also interested in recording.
I remember going to some early club nights in London but that wasn’t until later on. I was a country lad so things took longer to filter through to us. Raves never appealed to me .. too big and loud ..! I was more interested in my 4 track Portastudio and effects pedals.
I remember going to some early Glastonbury festivals that were like visiting another dimension. I never really got hooked on the scene although in its' nascent form it was a real buzz. A feeling of breaking both boundaries and rules for a good cause. I got into clubbing purely because I could make the records at home with minimal equipment and then hear them in clubs on a big system. It was a very free and creative time. A lot of fun.
So it is well known that you and Duncan Forbes collectively work under the moniker ‘Spooky’. Can you tell us how this partnership began and why/who came up with the name?
Duncan and I grew up together in the same town in the West Country. Right from the off we were into music and that’s pretty much all we talked about and enthused about apart from riding around on bikes, smoking ciggies and creating mischief like normal kids do.
We came up with the name at the last minute in the Guerrilla Records office just as ‘Don’t Panic’ went to press. There wasn’t any time to deliberate!
When did you start becoming interested in music production – and who were your greatest influences? Were you self-taught or did you have mentors around you to guide you?
I was always taking music that I heard apart in my head and wondering how certain sounds were made. I remember watching Elvis on the television and being mesmerised with the slap back echo on his voice. Going to choir practice at school in churches I would listen to the reverb in the building more than the source sound. I always think I make inside-out records where the effects are louder than the sounds. A kind of musical autopsy.
What was your first home set-up as a producer like? How different is your set up nowadays and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you and why? Are you still mostly using analogue equipment as opposed to digital programmes?
I started with some very basic gear. Casio keyboards and a 4-track cassette machine. The first Spooky records were made with an Akai s950 which had just over 2Mb of memory, a Roland Juno 60 and an Atari 1040 running early Cubase. We relied on our record collections for samples and of course it was all MIDI. I still try to have strict limitations on equipment today. It’s much more fun and avoids the ‘head-fudge’ of too many options.
Speaking of producing…. What is your process when starting a new track? Do you start with a melody? The bassline? Tell us a little about how the wizardry happens?
I don’t have any rules .. except that in order to produce a good record you have to turn up everyday and throw mud at the wall. Just keep writing and writing without getting attached to any of it. Soon you have so many ideas that you forget what you have got. That way you have retained objectivity and can go back and work on something you like. The worst thing you can do is listen to something over and over again expecting it to change. Leave it, do something else.
You have worked with a tonne of big name producers over the years… Is there an artist you want to work with that you have not yet had the opportunity to work with?
I am quite wary of working with people I am a fan of. You can easily kill the thing you love. That’s why I like remixing .. you get to collaborate without having to leave the house or find out that your musical hero lives in squalor or just doesn't come up to your impossibly lofty expectations as a human being.
Ok so on the topic of producing... how much input does one need to contribute to a track to be considered a ‘co-producer’ as such? Do you think both parties need to be technically proficient with the digital programs/plug ins etc or is it ‘acceptable’ to just be an amalgamation of ideas where whoever is involved contributes in their own way?
I simply ask the question ‘Would this record have turned out the same without both or all parties that worked on it?’ if the answer is ‘No’ then it doesn’t matter who did what, ‘acid house’ splits it is. It took me years to learn that.
Speaking of big name producers or co-producers…. I couldn’t do this interview without asking about your collaborations with Sasha. Arguably [his] most highly acclaimed record is ‘Xpander’ which you co-wrote along with Andy Page and Gaetan Schurrer. Having listened to a lot of your discography in the past I couldn’t help but notice how similar ‘Xpander’ is when compared to Spooky’s ‘Little Bullet’…. This might be somewhat cheeky to ask but what exactly was Sasha’s contribution to this seminal record?
I am always clearing this one up! Firstly, Andy and Gaetan are both great producers in their own right, co-producing ‘Rabbitweed’ and ‘Baja’ on the Xpander EP. Sasha and I did ‘Xpander’ and ‘Belfunk’ with some programming help from Flipper Dalton. Paul ‘Cheeky’ Morris also did some post production edits, most notably the 7” single edit which for me is the best version.
Also, ‘Xpander’ started out as a Spooky track but we could never get it to stick. We used to play it live for a while at Megadog shows. We just couldn’t get it to work in the studio. Fast forward about 5 years and all that was left was some parts on a DAT tape. Sasha heard that tape and knew what to do with it. Together we knocked out the final version. Then we had trouble with the mixdown.... Again, we just couldn’t get it to work. Several people had a go at it but in the end I mixed it at his studio in West London on what was then prototype Soundcraft 328’s .. early digital desks. It was a bit of a fiddle but in the end it got there.
You (along with Dave Gardner and Dennis White) were an integral part of Sasha’s Refracted Live Shows. Can you tell us a little about this and how it influenced the production and release of ‘Quiet Places’ last year? Do you see yourself going down a more ‘ambient’ route in future?
Those shows were amazing. Hard work but immensely satisfying. It was like putting a rocket into space building it from the ground up like that with no laptops on stage, just hardware instruments .. sonically that paid off in the end. There was an amazing group of talented people involved, many of whom I have known and worked with for years so we worked extremely well together.
As the Refracted shows were such a precise and micro managed event the Quiet Places project arose simply out of the desire to do something by way of an antidote to all that precision and planning. No grid, no drums .. just laptop jams with samples recorded into a master session. A very free and satisfying way to work. We have nearly completed volume 2. It’s a great side project that hopefully will keep going for years. Once you take 'drums’ out of the equation and (even better) don’t work to any grid there is a feeling of creative freedom that I truely relish. Also I suddenly realised how much of my life is just ‘drums’!
Photo Credit: Dan Reid Photography
Photo Credit: Dan Reid Photography
Photo Credit: Dan Reid Photography
Photo Credit: Mark Burton
Photo Credit: Dan Reid Photography
Your discography is C.R.A.A.A.A.Z.Y!!! Do you have a favourite Charlie May track? Mine will always be the original mix of Spooky’s ‘Belong’ [THAT PIANO AND VOX] ….. Such a beautiful record :)
I am still trying to make that favourite record. Hopefully I will always fail and then have another go. Never underestimate the power of dissatisfaction ..!
Which do you prefer: DJ’ing or producing and why?
I think you need both studio and live to stay balanced as an act, however, producing is a lot more peaceful, more cerebral and less travel/hotels and general world dealings obviously. One of the best things about DJ’ing is not having to eat my own cooking.
Tell us some of the proudest moments of your career to date?
After all this time, I am simply grateful to have had such a fortunate string of great musical experiences in my life. It’s never been solely about me as there are always so many others involved and that’s what makes it all so enjoyable. My favourite moments have always been the stupid, funny, uncontrived things that happen with your mates in the studio or on the road where everyone is just pissing their pants with laughter. It’s not so much about big worldly successes as having a giggle. That’s why I can never make music I don’t want to make. It just kills it for me, it’s no fun and I don’t want to get out of bed for it.
What kind of music do you listen to when you’re at home?
Quite a wide range of stuff .. so much music floats past these days so I grab what appeals. I rarely listen to club records as it reminds me too much of work and I have the studio for that. I want to hear something that appeals purely aesthetically otherwise I tend to dissect it in my head and miss the point.
What track do you wish you wrote?
I don’t think like that. Otherwise what you are telling yourself is ‘I’m not good enough to come up with something equally as great as this'. Many people fall into the trap of worshipping certain tracks to the detriment of their own albeit nascent abilities, rather than enjoying them as part of a rich creative scene that also includes you.
What is some advice you would give to someone hoping to make a career in music production?
Play to your strengths, work hard and never give up.
So in closing up today Charlie, can you tell us what plans you have for 2021? Any upcoming collaborations/releases/events we should know about? What are you most excited about?
I am mostly concentrating on building up my Bandcamp catalogue this year. I love the whole DIY punk ethic behind it. Total artistic control and a direct link to the folks who like the music. I enjoy making the artwork and little videos as well. The whole process has integrity. I have nearly completed a new ambient album plus there is another Quiet Places record in the oven along with some new Spooky recordings. I am also currently working on a remix for a band called ‘Three Head’ with Duncan. Clearly, remixing is something I really enjoy ;)
Thanks so much Charlie for taking time out of your busy schedule and having a chat with us all today. We are all really looking forward to listening to your future projects.
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