DJ Justin Robertson on 30 years of Manchester music and his new art exhibition

Photo: Jake Davis
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In a career spanning almost 30 years, DJ and producer Justin Robertson has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry. But he can still recall the early days when there was an element of simply winging it.

“When I first started, I didn’t know how to mix house records. I’d previously just been putting records on, so there wasn’t much mixing involved. I saved up and bought a pair of decks and practised frantically at home,” says Justin, 50, whose first professional gig was warming-up for Mike Pickering.

“I remember looking at the mixer and thinking, what the hell? I have no idea what I’m doing,” he recalls, laughing.

Justin moved to Manchester in 1986 to study philosophy, despite having never been before.

“I was obsessed by the music coming out of it – The Smiths, A Certain Ratio, New Order – and sorely disappointed to have been brought up in South Buckinghamshire. It just didn’t seem very me, to my long mac, furrowed brow teenage self,” says Justin who threw himself into the music scene he’d revered from afar.

“Then I started going to the Hacienda. Before I moved to Manchester, I was deeply into music, but it was really moving here, and I suppose acid house, that crystallised it for me.

Justin started DJing in the days “when you were just playing records, it wasn’t a career choice. I just wanted to share, or inflict, my taste on people wherever I could, so I started hiring venues and putting on parties.”

He also began working at Eastern Bloc Records as soon as he left university.

I was in there most lunch times and happened to be there when someone lost their job, and they asked if I wanted it. I worked there for years, which was the hub for that scene, so met a lot of promoters and served a lot of DJs I really admired, like Mike Pickering and Jon Dasilva.”

In his own words, “it grew by accident from there” and Justin was soon asked to play at gigs and clubs. He began his studio work in an equally inadvertent way.

“When I was at Eastern Bloc, they had a record label and a band called the Mad Jacks who wanted a dance remix done,” says Justin.

“I said I’d do it and they trusted me, for some unknown reason. I didn’t really know my way around the studio, but I did know what I wanted it to sound like, so I managed to translate my ideas and it snowballed from there.”

Photo: Liam Heeley

Within a few months he was remixing Erasure, “which was ridiculous”, followed by the likes of Sugarcubes and Bjork.

“I threw myself into the studio experience and it was enthusiasm and some strange vison of what I wanted it to sound like that got me through the first few months.”

There have been plenty of career highlights over the years but DJing at the 80th birthday of pop artist Sir Peter Blake, the man who co-created the album sleeve for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is up there.

All my teenage heroes were gathered in one room, but I was too petrified to speak to any of them,” says Justin.

“I was always a big Led Zeppelin fan, particularly Jimmy Page, and found myself stood next to him at the bar. I didn’t know what to do so just handed him a plate of olives. I thought it would be an ice-breaker, but he declined.”

Then there was the time he was on tour with the Chemical Brothers in South Africa and DJing during a storm of biblical proportions.

“There have been some brilliant gigs,” says Justin. “But that whole scene is still reverberating. It’s not become a cliché, it’s still developing, and some of the music I hear now is some of the best ever.”

Photo: Liam Heeley

In recent years, Justin’s also been busy drawing and painting, with three collections to his name.

“My computer was completely inoperative for about a month I so couldn’t record any music and found myself in enforced idleness. I thought I’d turn my attention to the paintings I’d been working on,” says Justin.

“It was the first time I thought the work sat together and when I showed them to a friend who had a gallery, he asked if he’d like to do an exhibition. Before that I’d always kept it to myself.”

His first collection was titled Everything is Turbulence, followed by The Explorer’s Chronicle, and It’s Alive!

He’s chosen select drawings and paintings from the latter, which explores connection and what it means to be human, to be displayed on the third floor of the new bar 33 Oldham Street.

Photo: Liam Heeley

It looked like the perfect place to show the art, and I’m quite keen on putting pictures up in a public space, where people who wouldn’t normally see your work can encounter it on a night out,” says Justin.

“They’re there to generate discussion, and for people to simply enjoy the patterns, or not, depending what their reaction is. Art’s so subjective. It’s like music, it’s not for everybody.”

He’s currently working on a novel (“At the moment it’s too long, I’m not lacking words”); new music (“there are a couple of EPs and I’ve done a track with Brix Smith from The Fall); and a new collection of paintings “cheerfully called Alone”.

“My father passed away at the beginning of the year and my mum passed away in my twenties, so I find myself without parents and that’s quite an odd feeling. It’s about connection I guess and hope it’s not too negative.”

Justin might’ve celebrated his half century this year, but he feels “weirdly more focused than I’ve ever felt”.

“I’m not ready to drift into my dotage. I feel alive with ideas. I think in my twenties I was flitting around, which was good as it makes for creative choices, but now I feel focused about what I want to do, and the ideas seem to be flowing.”

He struggles to relax and although he tells himself Mondays are his day off, it rarely works out that way.

“Mainly because I really love doing it,” he says. “It’s a very nice place to be, to do something you enjoy.”

Justin’s It’s Alive! exhibition pieces can be seen at 33 Oldham Street.

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