THEO PANAYIDES interviews DJ Ed Davenport
‘Colony 361’, an alternative festival organised by Afro Banana Republic a couple of Saturdays ago, wasn’t just a dance-music concert. An entire abandoned army barracks was commandeered in the wilds of Athalassa Forest, just outside Nicosia. Bulldozers were brought in to move earth around and make the place presentable. Not only were two stages built at opposite ends of the camp, but all the buildings in between – which had once done duty as soldiers’ sleeping quarters and company mess – were used for sidebar events and installations. The overall effect was like walking into a small community, a parallel world, a village or kibbutz dedicated to all things alternative. And there on the decks, specially flown in from Berlin, playing the prime slot (for dance-music fans) of 3 to 4.30am, was Ed Davenport.
We meet for a beer a few days earlier, sitting in a bar near the offices of Super FM where he’s just done a radio interview. Ed is 28 and extremely tall, with a trim ginger beard and short hair. He fidgets as he talks, rubbing his leg, pinching his ear, running a hand through his hair. He looks a bit like the guy from Coldplay – more in terms of his body shape and open, slightly birdlike expression than his features per se – though he probably won’t thank you for saying so, since he’s not very enamoured of mainstream music. Pressed for a favourite track that ordinary people might know, he cites Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ but draws a blank when it comes to today’s hits (though he does like Bjork, and also mentions a Berlin artist named Touchy Mob).
So he’s not the type of DJ who’ll listen to Rihanna in his downtime, then?
“I think Rihanna is a tragedy,” he replies with feeling. “Not the woman, of course,” he adds quickly, “but the music, and the brand that she stands for. All of these wailing, screaming-in-your-face pop stars, it’s gone beyond ugly. It’s painful. It’s not well-recorded music – it’s actually painful to listen to.”
That’s probably the only strong opinion he voices in the whole one-hour interview; it’s certainly the only thing he tells me which might be interpreted – however unwittingly – as unkind or judgmental. Ed comes across as a lovely guy, who’d rather bite his tongue than use it to offend or belittle. ‘How would you describe yourself as a person?’ I ask at one point. “I think I’m a sensitive person,” he replies after a few moments of fidgeting, “and I think I don’t like to feel that I’ve made anyone uncomfortable, or put anyone in any kind of difficult situation. I feel I’m quite considerate, and I’m very aware of what’s going on around me. I don’t respond well to aggressive people, or people who are stepping into someone else’s comfort zone.”
All this matters more than you’d think, because dance music – meaning of course electronic music, encompassing trance, house, techno, four-to-the-floor and many other sub-genres – isn’t just entertainment, it’s a social force, imbued with a neo-hippy, often drug-fuelled philosophy that recalls Keanu Reeves (as Ted) in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: “Be excellent to one another!”. Or, to quote Ed: “There’s a shared attitude of people who go to these more underground events, where there’s a lot of tolerance and altruism. People love each other, you know? People are genuinely there to be peaceful, and show they’re good-natured human beings … I think most people who go out and take pleasure from going to clubs and dancing to loud music are really learning about themselves. They’re learning more about their attitudes, and the kind of friends they like to make.”
People make friends through dance music. The communal feel of ‘Colony 361’ is no accident, neither is the fact that the UK – where dance and electronica have been wildly popular in the past two decades – has become unrecognisable since the 90s, and has also become much more tolerant (gay rights being the most obvious example). Clearly, one can’t credit music with all of that; multiculturalism and general prosperity played a part too. Still, even if the music didn’t create this society, it’s the kind of music encouraged – not to say required – by this society.
Ed has always been the peaceful type. He grew up in Salisbury with his mum (his dad is in the Army; his parents divorced when he was little), and went to a good but traditional all-boys school where every pupil had to play rugby. Being tall, he made the school team, and played for four years before breaking his collar-bone and being allowed to opt out – but he never really enjoyed it. “I’m just not so competitive,” he explains, “and I didn’t enjoy all the competitive – you know, typical teenage boy, sort of high testosterone…” He tails off, his point made: “I’m not into that kind of aggressive behaviour”.
He was already into music in his mid-teens, fuelled not by the internet (it was slightly too soon for that) but cassettes made by friends, mixtapes of DJ sets by the likes of Sasha and John Digweed, and the inexhaustible eclecticism of John Peel on Radio 1. At 16, he stood in front of people for the first time – albeit just the kids at school parties organised by himself and his mates – and played the music he liked, that being fundamentally what DJs do. Ed was a shy, awkward teen who “wasn’t so socially – literate, if that’s the right word”, but playing music gave him confidence. Slightly surprisingly, he became Deputy Head Boy in his final year at school, called on to give public speeches and mentor younger boys. The stereotype of musician as teenage misfit doesn’t really fit here.
Even now, there’s some Head Boy in his makeup: he likes looking after his friends, he says, “I like to cook dinner for my friends and sit down and talk about stuff. I like to see how their lives are going, and if I can help them in any way I’ll try”. Ed comes across as the responsible type, the kind of person friends go to for advice when they’re nursing a broken heart or worried about career choices (“I don’t come from such a big close family,” he explains, “so I guess my friends are my family”). He doesn’t smoke (at least not tobacco), drinks in moderation, has no obvious vices. And of course he’s responsible in another way too, in caring about social issues. Berlin, he enthuses, is “one of the most tolerant cities I can think of”, and he’s very concerned about gay rights and the plight of ethnic minorities. “I think what’s happening in Russia is … ridiculous,” he sputters, edging close to another strong opinion.
All very fine; but you have to wonder if dance-music culture really lends itself to political activism. Doesn’t the music itself work against active engagement – even against active thought? Its hypnotic beats seem designed to put listeners in a trance, as opposed to getting them angry in the way rock music can. Much electronic music doesn’t even have lyrics; you can’t write a Joan Baez-like protest song with just beats and samples, however cool. Even the much-vaunted tolerance it promotes tends to lack nuance, ‘Equal rights for all’ being about on a par with ‘All you need is love’ when it comes to meaningful slogans. Isn’t it more about sweet oblivion, escaping from the world, than thinking about how to change it?
“I just think that electronic music can be very powerful if you’re interested in something new and different,” offers Ed, a little lamely – but he does have a point when he says DJ culture is “non-commercial”, which itself is a kind of counter-culture. If rock’n roll bred protesters, dance breeds anti-capitalists. Many of the musicians involved are “just doing it because they love it”, totally indifferent to making money, and the music they produce often “goes against the norm, it goes against predetermined ideas of what music should be. If I play my records to my grandparents they say ‘Oh, that’s not music…’”
His grandparents probably think he does the whole thing in a couple of hours then goes back to bed, but in fact his life in Berlin (he moved there in 2008) is quite work-oriented. He and a friend built a studio where he spends six to eight hours every day, four days a week (he’s also launched his own label, Counterchange) – then he usually plays at least one gig on the weekend, which can also mean six hours (or more) of standing behind the decks. Once in a while he’ll play abroad, most recently in Korea. He likes to work with “machine music”, i.e. drum machines and synthesisers, but also uses samples which involves trawling for music old and new, trying to find things nobody’s heard before – though in fact he does that anyway: “It’s 24/7 really, thinking about music and being involved in it”.
Ed Davenport seems to be a gentle soul. It’s hard to imagine him getting angry, though he does get upset when “I feel that people have been intolerant, or disrespectful of others, or doing something anti-social”. He’s unfailingly polite, and modest about his skills – indeed, he claims, he’s modest to a fault, finding it hard to hustle and sell himself which you have to do in the music business (more and more, clubs are booking DJs based on the number of ‘likes’ on their Facebook page). He’s well-known in Berlin, but remains resolutely alternative – and that’s how he likes it. “I want to be genuine, and I want to be, um – I guess, like, trustworthy. That really matters to me a lot. I guess it’s about integrity,” he shrugs with a tinge of embarrassment. “Yeah, because I want to remain … honest, basically.”
Honesty as opposed to hypocrisy, inclusiveness as opposed to discrimination; if you’re doing a thesis on British 20-somethings – and the ways in which they differ from older generations – Ed could be your Exhibit A. We talk about drugs (always a part of the dance-music scene) and he fumes briefly at the hypocrisy of railing against drugs while accepting – and taxing – all those thousands of alcoholics. “I think people can do whatever they want to do. They can try whatever they want to try,” he concludes (though he’d never DJ while stoned; that would be unprofessional).
Yet he’s not, in the end, so outrageous – and in fact there’s something peculiarly British in his diffidence and decency, his slight reserve and love of simple pleasures. What makes him happy are “just pure honest human moments,” he says earnestly, just “enjoying being alive and being thankful for being alive. You know, we’re so lucky to be living how we live. I know it’s a real cliché to say that, but…” He chuckles awkwardly, and gets to fidgeting again. “I think I live quite a simple, straightforward life. It may not be a nine-to-five, kind of…” he tails off, trying not to offend anyone: “It’s maybe an alternative lifestyle, but I’m trying to live in a healthy and respectful way.”
Above all, there’s music. Maybe not forever (he moonlights as a graphic designer), and maybe not always electronic music; he’s inspired by his 63-year-old mum – a retired schoolteacher – who sings in a choir, likes traditional Cornish folk music and plays drums in a samba band. But for now, at least, Ed Davenport is doing what he loves, and doing it for the music – not fame or fortune, but love of music. “I’m not in this to be some big, superstar DJ. That will never happen. Honestly”. Then he gets onstage at ‘Colony 361’, and he’s even bigger than the guy from Coldplay.