5 Steps With Kissy Sell Out
After 11 years in the music game, Kissy Sell Out continues to be one of the most unique players in the British dance music scene. Having made his name by mixing records for Gwen Stefani, Calvin Harris, Mark Ronson, Sugababes, Groove Armada, Human League and Chromeo when he was only 21 years old and still studying his first degree, his name exploded across the global festival circuit with his frantic and electrifying DJ style, leading him onto hosting one of the most popular specialist shows in BBC Radio 1 history, the “Kissy Klub”.
Away from the decks Kissy is a part-time astrophysicist and regularly stages his own subatomic particle physics experiments from month-to-month, testing the theories of quantum mechanics and submitting assignment papers in his spare time as he approaches the completion of his second degree, a BSc in Natural Sciences!!
In addition to his formal studies, he is a patron for multiple charities, has flown to Japan to help Pioneer develop their Nexus 2 decks, he has appeared on all the front covers of dance music magazines and has debated the relevance of classical music against Stephen Fry at Cambridge University & on BBC Radio 4 after releasing an album almost entirely recorded on classical instruments!
As of 2017, Kissy heads up the new house and bassline garage label Stepper Man. The launch of the label exceeded all expectations early on when the second release received over 3 million plays on Facebook after Kissy uploaded his self-made promo video utilising his pre-music background as a graphic designer. With this label, Kissy continues to release music under his own name, as well as using the moniker KSO to write more experimental techno tracks.
Ahead of the launch of the new label Stepper Man, we asked him to pick the 5 pivotal points of his remarkable career so far in our 5 Steps feature…
2006 – San City High Records University Project
After 11 years in the music game, I still get asked how I came up with the name “Kissy Sell Out”. Sure, it gets a little tiresome explaining it sometimes, but it’s actually a lovely story. In fact, it was all a bit of an accident!
Back in mid-2005, I was just starting my third year studying a bachelor’s degree in graphic design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Things were finally starting to go well for me back then. Having struggled with the onset of fairly severe ADHD during my later school years, I had managed to find some focus, get my foot in the door at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, and finally found something I was passionate about.
Don’t get me wrong – I was practicing DJing and producing in my bedroom literally every night – but when no one around me shared my interest in making music. My hobby was something I rarely talked about. I was incredibly shy when I was younger, and there was nothing I was shyer about than playing people my own music. Because of this, I realised that the next best thing to making my own music professionally would be designing album covers for other people’s tracks.
First Kissy Sell Out press shot
After spotting an advert on the Juno Records website saying that record labels needed to “sign up now for digital online releases”, I had an idea. If I started up my own record label which had online distribution, it would cost me nothing to sell other people’s music digitally, and then I could submit the album cover designs as a “real world” practical graphic design project.
I knew exactly what I wanted the logo to be straight away – teen wolf! I also knew exactly what name I wanted too – San Dimas High, the school from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (my favourite film). To avoid copyright issues, I re-drew the teen wolf poster, replacing Michael J. Fox with myself, and changing the name to San City High.
The next thing I needed to do was find some musicians I could sign to my DIY record label. I put posters around the staircase of every floor in my university building, but absolutely nobody was interested! CSM is an incredibly competitive university atmosphere. The solution should’ve been obvious but, since I felt so shy about my own music, the last thing I wanted to do was release “Tommy Bisdee” music – my own name. Gathering together a pile of demos that I had created over the last 2 years, I divided them into 4 pseudonyms – 3 of which were “Crystal Takes Manhattan”, “Edward Prom Queen” and “Tommy Bisdee”.
The fourth name was for the best music I had made. I had a dream once that I was in a horror film called “Kissy”. The word didn’t mean anything and upon googling it I found that it also wasn’t a commonly used slang term either. I then turned it into “Kissy Sell Out” because I couldn’t have been less of a sell-out, but I was so nervous about people mocking my new music that I wanted to be the first person to make a joke about it.
By mid-2006 the university project had taken on a life of its own. I pressed the Kissy Sell Out tracks on a white label vinyl and it became Rough Trade’s “record of the week”. Suddenly thousands of DJs were playing my tune and it changed my life forever.
2007 – All Saints Remix
The third university year is quite a frightening time in your life when you’re an art student. The thing is, you’ve probably learnt a lot and hopefully built up a strong portfolio of work, but finding a job after education is a daunting prospect. I was all too aware of this, and it meant that I rarely had a moment free for anything other than work back in those days.
By the time my final dissertation came round for uni, I was already working full-time as a design assistant in the Emap building for POP Magazine. Having no idea what was about to happen in my life, I was trying to cling onto a “normal” job to keep myself grounded while this seemingly brief bit of music success passed me by.
Now here’s a funny story. Back then I was earning £-16.00 a week. This was because I was commuting to Shaftesbury Avenue every day from my mum’s house in Essex via train, and I had to drive my car and park it at the station too. So all-in-all, the train ticket and parking cost me £116.00 per week. The thing was though, the art directors I was working for didn’t believe that it cost me so much just on travel, so they paid me £100. This meant that I couldn’t even afford lunch each day, but it was a great place to have an opportunity to gain some experience, so I just kept my head down and worked hard regardless.
POP Magazine design work
One day, a lady came into the POP Magazine office from Grazia asking to speak to a graphic designer. By that time – my fourth issue – I was in charge of managing the FOB (front-of-book) section. This involved handling incoming photoshoots, requesting re-touching and designing layouts for the opening features which were surrounded by pages of glossy fashion adverts. She said she had a question about the advert placements in the FOB – this was my job.
However, as the woman walked over to me, it caught the attention of a senior designer, who said “Oh sorry, Tommy is actually just here on work experience, you’ll need to talk to a proper designer”.
Now, it turns out, that morning I had been asked to remix All Saints for £1500. To put that in perspective, my student loan was only double that per year, and I was so excited to be doing an official remix for a famous act that I had the remix finished the next day!
Anyway, that was the moment I decided to pack in the design jobs and become a full-time musician. Word spread quickly about my All Saints remix, BBC Radio 1 started playing my tunes, and instead of going to my university graduation I did a photo shoot for Dazed & Confused.
From left: Dazed & Confused feature, Kissy Sell Out All Saints vinyl, remix artwork for Mark Ronson
The next week I was offered to remix Gwen Stefani. The week after that I was offered to do the new Mark Ronson single. Management, record label offers, and a DJ agent followed. I was still living with my mum, but suddenly I was getting paid more than she was!? I kept my head in check and treated every single day like my last…
2010 – First North America Tour
The first thing you need when you get booked for a DJ gig is an itinerary. This is usually just a single sheet of paper which details relevant contact numbers, venue address, set time, other acts playing before and after – you get the idea. Anyway, back in 2010, I had been all over the place. I’d toured Australia several times, played festivals all over Europe, was a regular name in Ibiza, and I was popping over to New York every now and again too.
I had just turned 26, it was September, and I was still buzzing from a great time back stage at Notting Hill Carnival with Major Lazer (Switch and Diplo), Fake Blood and Drop The Lime.
Notting Hill Carnival back-stage photos
The morning came where I had to rush over to Heathrow airport to embark on my first official north America tour and my assistant Matt came to meet me before I left with a printed copy of my itinerary for the trip… and that was when it hit me. You see, instead of a single sheet of paper, Matt handed me a book. A BOOK! I suddenly had this incredibly overwhelming rush of emotion and I fell to the floor in floods of tears. Poor old Matt couldn’t think of anything to say!
Until then, the hardest I thought a DJ trip could get was being stuck in a traffic jam on the way to Stansted, where a rotten RyanAir flight awaited me. This was an entirely different story. I was about to go to America for the first time by myself. I had 16 gigs booked, and 22 planes to catch, plus I wouldn’t return home again for over a month. I was terrified!
To say the majority of the trip was eventful would be an understatement. First I missed my connecting flight as soon as I arrived in the USA. This meant I had to find a hotel in Chicago at 9pm, in the pouring rain, the homesickness still dissolving me as the seconds passed. A few gigs in, my first appearance in Los Angeles, playing Control at Avalon, was fantastic. This gave my spirits a serious bit of heavy-lifting, there’s a rocking photo from the gig below…
2010 Kissy Sell Out tour poster and DJ photo from Avalon, Los Angeles
I went on to the first of 5 Canadian gigs, playing alongside Afrojack at Government in Toronto. At the time I had just signed two amazingly talented young dubstep producers to San City High records – Zeds Dead. The boys took me around the city and I got absolutely trolleyed on various things after the gig as a result. We even ended up in a tense stand-off with a guy wielding a metal pole and threatening one of the ZD boys in the back room of a sneakers store. The next morning I not only left all my underwear in the hotel room, but also had the great shame of asking my limousine driver to pull over on the freeway before we reached the airport so I could be sick!
Miami was a miserable experience. I played at that awful LIV club – the one where Joaquin Phoenix jumped into the crowd for a punch-up in that film “I’m Still Here” – and they only let me play for about 45 minutes too, which was odd. Afterwards, I had an incredible night-out in Atlanta for Sloppy Seconds. That gig was tremendous, and during the after party antics we accidentally landed in some kind of sex club where they were inviting people to prod a man and a woman with electrified dildos!?
Anyway, the maddest moment of the trip was yet to happen. Of the five gigs I had in Canada, only four of them had requested a work visa for me. This meant that, upon arriving in Vancouver, I was swiftly put into a holding area for asylum seekers to await deportation. I remember sitting next to a guy who had a criminal conviction for killing someone – but he said it wasn’t his fault! After 2 extremely stressful hours, I suddenly remembered that my mum actually used to live in Canada before I was born. So, after 7 missed calls using the immigration officer’s landline, my mother finally answered. She confirmed that she had actually got me a citizenship card when I was just a baby. I had a vague memory of being told this when I was much younger, but I assumed it either wasn’t for real, or surely it must’ve expired. On the third attempt at faxing it through, it turned out that it hadn’t. They immediately discharged me because they couldn’t hold a Canadian citizen in custody.
I had left the UK as a British boy and I returned as a Canadian man!
From left: Canadian citizenship certificate, Zeds Dead in Toronto, after party friends in Atlanta, my bag after 22 planes, DJ photo in Brooklyn.
2011 – Chris Moyles’ Longest Radio Show Ever
After nearly 5 years working at BBC Radio 1, I had actually started to get comfortable with my random and often ridiculous life. When my show came to an end, one of my last appearances was contributing to Chris Moyles’ charity challenge of staying on air for over 50 hours in one go.
Now it’s worth mentioning here that I was actually obligated to do this. The reason I point this out is because – despite having never met him before – Chris Moyles had always resisted working with me in the past. Whenever I submitted special remixes to feature on his breakfast show – as part of what the BBC call “cross-pollination” – he would either not play them, or make a snarky joke about how silly my name sounded. He even intentionally named me as “dj flipsy do-dah” during the official announcement of me joining the station.
Making the most of every last moment of my time at the BBC was hugely important and deeply meaningful to me. The “Kissy Klub” had become the highest-rated show for its time slot, and the uniquely hyper-idiosyncratic music style I passionately maintained throughout my tenure had amassed a very loyal crew of fans from around the globe. After 5 years at Radio 1, it felt natural to be moving on, but the last thing I wanted was to have a super famous celebrity come on my show and belittle me for 2 hours!
I wasn’t the only person who was nervous. The whole Radio 1 team were very pessimistic about the outcome of Chris coming on my show. I was even told bluntly by a high-ranking BBC exec that it was more than likely that Chris would actually give up the charity stunt before my show began. This meant that I even had to prepare 2 separate versions of the music – one version with bespoke Kissy Klub style jingles and a 20 mix specially made for Chris Moyles, and one without.
As the show started, absolutely everyone exited the studio hosting the charity attempt. As I walked in I remember James Corden passing me without saying a word, and even my old pal Nick Grimshaw said nothing to me. Moyles looked very tired and sleep-deprived by then. Comedy Dave had even picked the first hour of my show as his opportunity to get the 1 hour of sleep that they were required to take for safety reasons.
What happened over the next 20 minutes was the start of something very special indeed. Unlike the other co-hosts he had been on air with, I specifically asked him to politely relax and be as quiet as possible during the intro. I had written a special skit using computer generated voices over an exclusive electro remix of some classical music. The minutes passed by very tensely but, I’m pleased to say, a twinkle started to appear in Moyles’ eyes as he realised that I wasn’t the stuck-up trendy hipster he’d assumed I was. I was just a painfully shy but very passionate and caring young man. I was overjoyed to see his reaction as the penny dropped that my show was actually quite special after all.
20 minutes in, I saw a guy dancing outside the studio, in the waiting area, who kept pointing enthusiastically at me through the window. It was Patrick Kielty. He ran into the studio as a surprise for Moyles and the two then started expressing their amazement at how weird and wonderful my DJ style was. Since he’d come direct from some awards ceremony, he also brought a guest with him – Thandie Newton. I was utterly star-struck and totally speechless as she stood next to me and chatted with us on air.
Next Katy Perry turned up. She not only arrived with a glowing smile on her face, but also announced that she already knew who I was (from my major label remix work), but had never heard of Chris Moyles before!? Richard Curtis, film-maker and head of Comic Relief, then arrived to personally congratulate us for the show. You can actually watch my stunned reaction through all of this on the Youtube videos of the show.
Thandie Newton and Patrick Kielty at Radio 1
Katy Perry joins Chris Moyles and Comedy Dave
The show was being filmed for the BBC’s red button service, so it turned out that around 6 million people were actually still awake and watching us on their televisions at home. The whole experience was extraordinary. By the end of the show, the controller of Radio 1 was waiting outside to thank me as well. I walked to the front exit, checked my phone and saw dozens of messages from my family and friends. My cousin Harriet (whom I named my first KSO record after) text saying she was so proud of me. I was standing on the pavement outside, totally overwhelmed, sobbing with tears of happiness.
The show had gone out to the biggest audience I’ve ever encountered, and the difference in my day-to-day life was quite significant. Suddenly people began asking for my photo on the tube, or stopping me as I was walking down the street. Even my extended family suddenly expressed how proud of me they were for the first time since my career had started. It really had a big impact on my life and career in the end.
2012 – London Olympics Ceremonies
Isn’t it funny how life turns out? If you’d told me back in 2006 that 6 years later I’d be standing outside Buckingham Palace as a V.I.P. guest, waiting for my music composition to be played at the Athlete’s Parade down the Mall in Central London for the 2012 Olympics, there’s no way I could’ve ever believed it.
I guess the thing I am most proud about in my career, is simply that I followed my heart and did the best job I could at every turn. This is something I repeatedly encourage the young producers and DJs I meet to do for themselves, through my San City High and Stepper Man record labels. Not to be anything like me, of course – some of the hairstyles I’ve sported over the years shouldn’t ever be done again – but to find the motivation to achieve great things for themselves, by making the most of every moment.
Artwork for “Wild Romance”
I’m sure a lot of people in the industry thought I was bonkers when I made my second album, “Wild Romance”, almost entirely using classical instruments – in the spirit of my signature radio show and DJ set intro remixes. My faithful supporters over at Mixmag didn’t even review it! That album opened a lot of doors for me, however. It was the reason that I was asked to debate against Stephen Fry at Cambridge University – something about which the very idea still sends a shiver down my spine!
DJing at Cambridge University with Stephen Fry
Next came some commissions as a composer for a few television shows and films, and then the people at the Olympics gave me a call. I ended up composing music and performing live for the “One year to go…” ceremony in Trafalgar Square which was televised on BBC 1 and then composing music for some of the later ceremonies during the Olympics themselves a year later.
Me and MC Cobra performing our single “Turn It On” live in Trafalgar Square
There are two funny things about this. The first is that you’d be forgiven for not hearing the longest piece of music I composed at the Trafalgar Square gig. After creating the walk-on music for the prime-minister and preparing the live DJ set elements, I composed a 3 minute long piece to be used as a countdown for the “One year to go…” clock to be switched on. Problem was, however, that dear old Boris Johnson’s speech went on way too long at the end! As a consequence, the sound production guys had to quickly edit my composition down to about 20 seconds so that we didn’t run over the time slot on the television feed. “Nevermind”, I thought. That only took me 2 weeks to make – you can’t win ‘em all!
The second funny thing is a way more ridiculous. Back when I was 19 years old, studying for my art foundation qualification needed to get into art school, I used to crack-open a beer most afternoons with my mate Kyle and watch Newsround followed by Neighbours – students eh! Anyway, me and my mate thought that Ellie, the presenter on Newsround, was the most beautiful woman we’d ever seen. So much so in fact, that we had a silly bet about who could marry her first!
Then, all those years later, fuck my life if it didn’t turn out that Ellie was the main presenter for the Trafalgar Square Olympics event!? Thing is though, that as the main composer of the official music that day, I was involved in every stage of the event planning. This meant that I was quite senior behind the scenes, and had my clipboard with the timings of every section of the 2 hour televised event noted down in intricate detail. It also meant that I actually had my own tour bus back stage too!
So there’s a knock at the door of the tour bus and in walks none other than Ellie from Newsround. Bless her for being so polite, she sheepishly walked up onto the bus and said “oh sorry to disturb you guys, my name is Ellie, I’m presenting the main stage but just wondered if I could get a glass of water?”. Having the ability to laugh at yourself sometimes is something I’ve managed to hone to perfection by now, and never have I laughed at my own ridiculous life more than at that moment.
I completely froze. Sure, I had supported The Prodigy and LCD Soundsystem on tour, shared a villa in Ibiza with Fatboy Slim, hob-nobbed at parties with Mark Ronson and Faithless in Russia, declared my undying love for Felix Da Housecat to his face in Australia, been mobbed whilst in a car with Judge Jules going down the main strip in Magaluf, even had an after party in my Cornwall hotel room with Goldie – but this was Ellie from fuckin’ Newsround!? I looked around and quickly thrust 3 bottles of water into her hands, trying not to be sick at the same time. There was an awkward silence while I stood looking like a total idiot, then she turned and quietly walked off again.
They say you shouldn’t meet your idols, maybe they’re right!
Thanks for having me on Data Transmission folks!
I’ve got a new record out next month, so hopefully see you all soon!
Kissy x x x