Alley Cat interview: “We really do need to work harder to embrace female artists in music”

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As a DJ, producer, label manager, mentor and agency worker, Alley Cat is probably one of the most seriously committed persons to music and drum&bass – for a lifetime. The recently resurrected Kokeshi label’s owner has been living and breathing our favorite genre for about 25 years already, that’s why in the interview below, there are plenty of thoughts about the past, in addition to discussing recent events in depth, such as the current situation of womxn in drum&bass and the impact of 2020 on the scene.

We need to talk about several current, important topics, but before we jump into them, tell us a little about your roots in music and your first few steps in the world of drum&bass! As far as I know, you started out in San Francisco…

DJ wise I started in San Francisco. I did study music and played Clarinet and Saxophone as a kid. I was really good, I was 1st chair in both instruments and for a few years I loved it. Stupidly I gave it up, and it’s something I regret not keeping going. In High School I dabbled in guitar but I didn’t take it super seriously but my class was really fun. It was a mix of me and my goofy guy friends and a bunch of rocker / heavy metal guys. A few years back I tried to reacquaint myself with music theory and took piano lessons. I’m not the best but I have some basic knowledge. It’s so much harder to learn when you are older.

Fast forward to San Francisco. I went to my first rave in 1992 or 1993. It was in a parking lot in an industrial part of the city, and they had a skate park set up so you could rave inside or skate outside. I was blown away. I was really into all sorts of music my whole life and I did spend my teen years going dancing to what I guess was New Wave although it was the tail end so we called it Progressive – for example New Order, Depeche Mode, Ministry, Afrika Bambaata, Kraftwerk, Malcom McClaren, The Cure. Book of Love, Soft Cell – so it was a mix of 80s synth music and what I’d call early electro. I also went to a lot of punk and ska shows, indy, you name it. Music was my everything.

Once I settled in San Francisco going out to either raves or club nights was a regular part of life, everyone got to know each other after a while – regardless if it was a hip-hop night, acid jazz, drum’n’bass or anything electronic. Drum’n’bass came onto my radar in the mid ’90s. Some events were full on jungle raves and some were more eclectic with mixed genres. Finally, in 1997 I got the nerve up to admit to myself I wanted to DJ – I was buying a lot of records and spending more money than I had. I would go to the local shops the day the new promos and records came out and not talk to anyone and buy up new tunes. I was able to afford one Technics and bought some other equipment that my friend had sold to a pawn shop. I kept it quiet for about 6 months until I felt like I could mix decent enough. By the end of that year I was already throwing my own events and getting booked. It was a really exciting time. A couple years later I ended up in London.

I suspect after you arrived in London, things spun up quickly because of your work around the Skunkrock label and ESP agency for example. How did it feel to settle in the capital of your favorite music genre?

When I arrived in London it felt natural, I was ready to be there. I was a bit shy but that’s to be expected. I also felt pressure to succeed because I left everything to move to the UK. I didn’t start working for ESP Agency until 5 years after I arrived. The first 5 years I was just DJing full time and doing label work for Skunkrock and later for some other labels on the side. Our house in South East London became the stopover house so a lot of people came to visit us, a lot of American DJs and other DJs from Europe if they needed a place to stay. I was really lucky because I had a decent amount of interest in Europe in terms of getting regular gigs so I was able to make a living and travel every weekend to DJ. Looking back, I think it took a lot of balls to do what I did. I am not always the most confident person but in this instance I felt like I was something I had to do and just went for it (and I’m still here!).

Back in those days you had gigs in Hungary (Budapest and Debrecen) several times as well. Besides that, you were responsible for our site’s 9th Birthday Mix too – so we can say, you have a strong connection to our country. What are your most fond memories of our country?

Yes, I feel a very strong connection with Hungary. Funnily enough, the other day a memory came up on my Facebook page of a photo, taken in Budapest – I was in a Top DJs list. lldiko from Bladerunnaz took this photo and she also did some older press shots of me as well before this. I used those photos for years so I’m forever grateful to her for doing such great pics and telling me how to pose!

One memory that stands out is when I played in Debrecen and it was the middle of winter. I flew over with my daughter who was probably 2 or 3 years old at the time. There was a snow storm and we were driving but had to abandon the car because the roads were so icy and we all ran to get a train with my daughter and her car seat and all of the stuff. We got there in time for the gig and it all worked out.

Another great memory was the 2 Feline shows we did at Events Hall. They were both super busy and we had the best time. I remember on one of the shows I flew in from a gig in Moscow the night before. I had all these news dubs from Soul:r from Marcus Intalex, Mist:i:cal and Lynx. It was a super exciting time for music and I still remember feeling so connected that night. Both shows were amazing. Another great memory was the open air set I did at Mokka Cuka summer 2005. The mix is online here.

I have to say I’ve done a lot of gigs but many of my highlights were in Hungary. I’m super grateful to have had so many opportunities – thank you to everyone involved as there are many of you. It is very much appreciated.

I’m pretty sure those parties are also fond memories of many local drum & bass fans as well, especially the two Feline events. Back then, parties focusing on female DJs, or in general, chances given to women, transgender women, non-binary people, and other marginalized artists, were very little in the scene; it seems this unsettling state is changing slowly. How do you see how we’ve progressed in this area since the time of Feline parties?

The Feline parties in London were originally mixed gender and it was just a fun night that evolved into more events that were all womxn. I had so much fun on those shows. We did regular nights at Herbal (RIP) and some really cool shows in Europe. I never laughed so much on gigs in my career. I had moments where I had mixed feelings about it being all female because I wasn’t sure what message that was giving. We just want to be booked more often but not necessarily seen as a novelty thing. I’m not sure if it was seen as a novelty and I was overthinking it. I think on the events everyone had so much fun. That’s what I see now when I look back. Somehow, 10 years passed and not a lot had changed until a couple years ago. When Mantra did her spread sheet about festival lineups she really caused a massive change – it was a wake-up call to everyone. There was no way to argue around it. We could see the data and how bad it was. It’s slow going but I think EQ50 are making small steady changes and loads of other organizations are out there (in DNB and in the wider music industry) so things are progressing now. I think with Covid, it is giving everyone more time to think and reflect – we need to figure out how to do better once events get going again for all under-represented groups.

Besides Mantra, DJ Flight, Sweetpea, MC Chickaboo and Jenna G you are also taking an active role in EQ50 – what are your responsibilities in the organization? What do you think have been the biggest milestones of the movement so far?

Mantra and DJ Flight are the primary operational force behind EQ50 and are leading the charge so I want to give them credit as it is very much due. As a team we recently launched our mentorship program which will place one artist with a label for one year. We will oversee that and look after our mentees. We hope to do so much more and include more over time. It will take some time to build. I think this is a huge milestone. Looking back, I also really loved our 2nd event we did. It was at Fabric and we had a much higher turnout compared to the first event. I saw a lot of familiar faces but also met new people and I felt super inspired by the talks on the night and it just felt really open and lovely. Hopefully after Covid we can do more panels and events again and help a wider selection of folks.

Covid has indeed turned everything upside down in recent months, and I think you’ve been affected by the madness of it even more, through running ESP Agency. What’s happening behind the scenes lately at an agency that is responsible for the bookings of DJ Storm, Marky, Ed Rush and many other dnb talents?

Covid has been a huge shock to our lives and our business. Normally in Summer time I have my busiest time of the year and it’s really crazy. It’s fun with all the festivals but also crazy busy. I have just had the quietest summer. It reminds me of the days before I got involved with ESP, 15 years ago. The UK Government is not doing enough to help the Music and Events Industries. We are now 9 months in, we just had our second big lock-down, they are offering a little help but not enough. It depends on what kind of business you run, if it is a company or you are self-employed. For so many it has not been enough and the government has really let us down. I see other countries like Germany doing a lot more for their creatives.

ESP is still operating – we are moving a lot of bookings into 2021. Over the summer we had the occasional booking in the UK only at outdoor events with social distancing, and some gigs in Europe in Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria mostly. It’s very scary because we don’t know when it will be OK to do events again. I’m trying to spend my time being productive and creative but it’s not always easy with these big issues going on in the world. As of now, November 2020, they have just announced a new vaccine will be rolled out so I am just hoping in a few months we will know when everyone will get it and events can happen again. Unfortunately, a lot of damage has been done to our scene and we will all need time to rebuild and heal from this scary time in history.

Photo: Lucy Roberts

In this situation it’s damn hard to activate your creative energies – when you manage to do that, what projects are you focusing on these days?

I just released some new music by a duo called Konessi, on Kokeshi. I think it caught a lot of people by surprise, but I really love the music and I think they are excellent producers and we’ll do more in the future. The tunes remind me of the early 2010’s dubstep from Martyn, TRG and 2562 – they have a great groove to them. I also have been updating the Kokeshi Bandcamp page so the back catalogue is available on there now. I am working on my music, some new stuff and finishing some old tunes too. I am also starting a Pilates business. I’m a qualified teacher already for two years and have been practicing over 10 years so it’s been slowly in the works before Covid happened.

Great to hear all about these projects, especially that you started working on your record label again! Kokeshi hasn’t been very active in recent years, so newer faces may not be familiar with it – what should they know about your label, launched back in 2009? After the Konessi release, what are your future plans with it?

Kokeshi was a label I started soon after I had a tune signed on Offshore Recordings called Sweet Spot. I felt like my production was moving forward but at the same time I was listening to all this cool music on Myspace. I discovered Lung on Myspace and Irrelevant. Their music became the backbone of the label and this whole new sound and aesthetic was born. I also started doing the Kokeshi ((pod)) Kasts which showcased the label’s music alongside a lot of the Autonomic type sound that was coming up at the time (eg, ASC, dBridge, Instra:mental, Blu Mar ten, Vaccine, Croms, Bulb, etc) alongside dubstep which was very deep at the time, plus other BPMs. I wanted to showcase my eclectic inspirations and the label and podcast received a lot of props at the time. Lung’s Afterlife and remix was licensed to a couple huge Dubstep CD compilations and won various awards. I started doing events and was given the chance to do quarterly shows at Fabric in Room 3 which was the perfect spot for the sound, along with various events in Europe. Things slowed down for a few reasons – that might be a whole other paragraph but happy to share if you think it’s interesting.

I do plan on releasing more music on the label both from myself and others. I’d like to do a Kompilation part 2 and I’ve got another sub label – I already have the name but I will hold off on announcing it just yet. It starts with a ‘K’ of course :)

What caused the slowdown around the label after so many successful moments?

Around the height of the label’s success I was dealing with a lot of pressure. A lot of it had to do with the pressure I was putting on myself to achieve more – keep it going on this upward trajectory. I was also working full time at ESP, DJing on the weekends and being a mum. There wasn’t just one thing, it was a series of events – some work related, some personal. My Dad became very ill about 8 years ago. He was ill this whole time and only passed away a year ago. I was overloaded. ST Holdings, my distributor dropped the label in the middle of some very big projects I was trying to do. They did go out of business later on but I was dropped before that. In the end I had to pick it up myself and deal with pressing plants and all the production myself and trying to get it distributed. It was a lot of work and a lot of money I had to front and I didn’t know what would happen. I always worry about managing expectations of the artists too and my own as well and that is difficult. There will always be some level of disappointment and I don’t want to let the artists down.

I was having serious burnout and I had to try to eliminate things from my life and try to heal because for a few months I couldn’t sleep, I had no appetite and I felt really off. I also had very bad tinnitus at the time, both low frequencies like a jet engine and very high-pitched frequencies. My daughter is and was my number one priority so that would always be number one. I couldn’t stop my ESP work as that was my main source of income. What I could eliminate was Kokeshi and DJing for a while and try and reset a bit. I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to prove my relevance be it as a DJ or with the label. And I had to learn to just be me, Alicia, and not this DJ or music person for a while. In the long run it was the best thing for me to let that go for a while. I’ll always see myself as a DJ whether I’m doing shows or not.☺

In one way doing all these projects, like Kompilation, helped get me through the dark times when my Dad first became unwell… and I look back and think how did I manage to do this and all the other things I was doing at the time? But I think I did it all because music heals me, and it felt really good to create that project with the music from all of these amazing artists. I love all the tracks to this day. It kept me going and motivated me. I was probably taking on too much but at the time it felt really good to create that. I look at the CDs now and I feel so proud of that and in 10 years I’ll feel proud of it too.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the experiences and thoughts you just shared got me thinking that female members of the drum&bass scene are probably facing the same high level of difficulty on a regular basis, and the double amount of pressure on them, if they want to move forward. What should be achieved in the future to avoid other female artists finding themselves in such a crisis?

I see some male artists struggling with this too because part of being an artist is about being liked or being popular or we don’t have work / income so there is that pressure there for all artists in a way. But I think as a female from very early on I was very aware of being judged and worried about it and not wanting to make mistakes on a gig or in a mix. I was worried about everything. I knew I was being observed and judged because it would be discussed on message boards and the old email chains. It wasn’t just me it was all the other female DJs too (although there were not many of us). So it put me in a state of high alert and approval seeking – you just can’t sustain that kind of thinking full-on for 23 years. It’s not healthy. Of course there were a lot of positive times too and I did get support from some great people. I think one takeaway from this – is that even though I felt worried or nervous I still did all of this really cool stuff anyway. I did feel I had something to offer. I always say to my daughter be scared and do it anyway. Eventually you do get used to it. My advice to any female artist is to do your best to not listen to any negativity – care less about what people think. Find your own way and your style and own it and you’ll be fine. It takes a while, be patient and keep working on your craft. Focus on the people that support you, not the ones who do not.

We really do need to work harder to embrace female artists in music, not just drum’n’bass but all kinds of music. If you look closely there are so many womxn’s organizations in all types of music so we can support each other and speak freely and ask for advice. I’m in a female producers group that’s private and I am getting so much out of it. I like the F-list also which are doing some great things. She Said So is great. And EQ50 is slowly building strength too. It takes time to make big change. It’s easy to see what’s right in front of you, what’s easy – and for the most part that’s going to be a male DJ or producer – so when promoters go to book a lineup they look for what is easy and what they know. We need to be aware that there’s more than what is just in front of us. I have seen a shift in the last year and people are trying and there is an awareness – so in time, I think there will be a shift. There’s some great producers out there too, I know because we had some amazing submissions for our EQ50 mentorship programme.

I suspect the slow but sure rise of female producers has also inspired you to go in the studio and create. What kind of moods, genres of music are you working on lately?

There is so much good music around lately which is one positive thing to come out of 2020. I’m working on a few tracks – some are quite mid-90s sounding drum’n’bass – inspired by artists like Wax Doctor or Dkay and DJ Lee. I’m working on a more trip-hoppy, breaks type tune that’s kind of Massive Attack-ish. I also have a lot of tunes I did over the years that need to be finished and tidied up. I guess for me it’s about breakbeats and bass and atmospheres… be it at 170 or 160bpm or slower tempos :)

Photo: Lilie Bauer

Which artists’ music or DJ mixes have been on a heavy rotation on your speakers lately?

I listen to everything new and old. When I go for walks I just put my library on shuffle and see what happens: it could be 90s / Grunge stuff or techno or pop. Electronic wise am feeling Lorn & Dolor, Blocks & Escher, Zero T, anything on the Samurai label, Workforce, Kiat, Sinistarr, E.M.M.A, Ikonika, Biome, Commodo, Irrelevant, Soft Boi, Wardown, and Konessi. I listen to a lot of pop / rnb / alternative stuff too – I love Halsey, Banks (I am obsessed with her last album III), FKA Twigs, Cigarettes After Sex, Dominic Fike, Janelle Monet, Bat for Lashes.

Let’s move away from music a bit… what other arts or activities are you interested or passionate about these days?

I’ve always done a lot of Ebaying, mostly clothes selling as I love fashion. I’m doing more of that lately. Also I do Pilates for fitness and just started yoga. Other than that I just like going for walks with my family, riding my bike, coffee, and hanging out with my cat Tabitha. I’m always making music or playlists or just listening to music for fun too.

Finally, what do you expect from 2021? Unfortunately, Covid seems to be staying with us for a while…

As of now, the UK is just coming out of a month long 2nd lock-down. Things will be open but still with restrictions of course but now with the reassurance a vaccine is coming soon, for health workers they might get it before Christmas even. So I feel hope but I’ll be honest the last few weeks have been tough, with the US election, the shorter days and the general stress of this still happening, But at the same time I feel hope that things are starting to move in the right direction. I hope for Hungary you also have some good news coming soon and I’d love to come visit in 2021. :)

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