Hearing how passionately Matt Tolfrey talks about fabric, one could be forgiven for thinking he’d been born there, and in a way he was. Since first playing the world famous London club back in 2004, Tolfrey has gone on to become an internationally renowned DJ, producer and head of the Leftroom Records family, which boasts releases from the likes of Gavin Herlihy, Kate Simko and most recently, Route 94. Now, a decade on from his first appearance and on the eve of fabric’s 15th anniversary, Data Transmission catches up with Tolfrey to find out how both he and the club have evolved, and why he’s so in love with the with place that put Farringdon on the map.
Tolfrey’s journey to fabric began in Nottingham; a student at the time, he struck lucky, when he was asked to fill in for Lee Burridge at a Tyrant event at The Bomb. It was that night he impressed Craig Richards, resident DJ and musical director at fabric. “He was stood behind me, obviously making me a little bit nervous, I was thinking bloody hell my mentor is like 2 foot away from me,” says Tolfrey. “It got to midnight and he was like ‘Carry on play a few more.’ Not too long afterwards I remember lying in bed with my then girlfriend, on a Saturday or Sunday morning, I had a phone call from a random number, picked it up, and he was like ‘Hi Matt it’s Craig Richards, really liked what you were playing the other weekend, do you fancy coming and playing at fabric?’ It was just like the right place at the right time and I always say thank you to Lee Burridge for not turning up!”
His following appearance at fabric secured Tolfrey the title of youngest DJ to play a Saturday night at the time. As the hype started to build around him, Tolfrey decided to drop out of university and asked his dad for a loan to start Leftroom. “I think he always wanted to be a racing driver and he knew that these opportunities don’t come around very often,” he explains. Tolfrey appreciates the luck and kindnesses dealt to him; not taking any of it for granted, he has worked hard for his right to stand amongst the world’s electronic music elite. “Theres so many different ways to be successful,” he says, “there’s luck, there’s talent, so many different ways! I can’t sit here and say I’m fucking amazing, it’s a big formula and everything has to work for it to work. You can’t just do well being a good personality or by being a good DJ anymore. You have to be a producer, you have to run a record label… The art of DJing, people aren’t even that bothered about that anymore. If someone has a big record and everyone knows it’s completely secondary, their name gets people in the club.”
The pressure out upon modern DJs is something Tolfrey feels very strongly about. “With football, if you’re fast and skilful you can be a footballer, it doesn’t matter if you’re a dickhead,” he muses. “But with DJing, because that kind of art is so much more social, you need to be good at social media, you need to be this, you need to be that. A lot has changed because of the internet; I think starting a record label and getting onto that DJ circuit and playing every weekend is a lot harder now. You can’t have a day job and you’ve gotta work your balls off! I work seven days a week and I’ve got a wife; if I’m not in the studio I’m sorting out Leftroom, and if I’m not playing I’m travelling, and on a Sunday I’m recovering, which is sort of like work really. Then Monday morning I’m up again and if I do get a night off on a weekend then, if I’m in London, I’m normally going to fabric anyway.” This high-pace lifestyle doesn’t grind him down however, “I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m not moaning, it’s just people still think DJs work on Friday and Saturday and that’s it… I wish it was two days a week, I’d get all sorts done,” he jokes.
With the explosion of interest in dance music and its easily accessible production methods, it is generally agreed that the talent pool has become diluted somewhat, but Tolfrey sees the positive side: “You’ve gotta look at it in different ways; there’s more parties, so there’s more opportunities to work, but everyone’s a DJ. I think as anything gets more popular it becomes more competitive, that’s the way of the world.” So how does one survive? “You’ve gotta stay current,” he explains, “you can’t just say I’m a great DJ and leave it at that anymore. There’s a couple that do it; Ben UFO doesn’t put music out, but he runs an amazing record label, he’s got a really good radio show on Rinse and he’s a mighty good DJ. But he’s still younger than me and he will find as time goes on that things change. I think some people now actually feel forced to do it.”
Having moved into production himself now, Tolfrey promises he waited until he felt ready for the studio, rather than succumbing to the call of industry. The Four Fingers EP – his recent work as Kerbstaller, a duo formed with long term friend Jozif – gave Leftroom its 50th release. The two original tracks on the EP see the pair explore acid (‘Safety Instructions’) and harness the vocals of another of Tolfrey’s pals, Duncan Edward Jones, of the Manchester band Silverclub. “Were actually writing an album now,” Tolfrey tells us. “When it’s finished it wont be coming out on Leftroom, we’re gonna look to move it elsewhere, probably into a different realm. And we’re gonna play it live; It’s gonna start off with me and Jozif, and if it gets momentum, then we’ll form a band with Duncan and he’ll perform with us.” Exciting stuff, but what of Leftroom? With its 10th birthday approaching in 2015, how does Tolfrey intend to celebrate, if not with an album of his own? Well nothing is set in stone yet, however he is planning “an album of remixes and collaborations.” Continuing, he admits “Jozif and I were gonna do 10 live shows at 10 clubs that have supported us, but I think we’d just like to get the music right first.”
If this potential tour does go ahead (and we hope it does), it is clear which club will be first on the list for Tolfrey. His beloved fabric, now in its 15th year, shows no signs of slowing down. With a weekly programme that sits at the forefront of electronic music, a highly successful mix CD series, and thousands upon thousands of loyal artists and customers, the club is an integral part of not just the London scene, but the global dance culture. “It is like the epicentre of everything, all roads to lead back to fabric,” Tolfrey tell us. “I’m not saying other clubs compare themselves to fabric, but I don’t think there’s any other club in the world that has what fabric has on such a scale. From the talent that they support and the DJs that play for them exclusively, to the CDs that they put out, to the birthdays that they do, that start on Saturday and finish on a Monday! Other clubs just don’t have that. In New York you couldn’t open a club for 3 days, they just wouldn’t let you do it. They’ve got a 24-hour dancing licence, so by law they could literally stay open forever!”
Although just as comfortable on the dance floor as in the booth, it’s not just the opportunity for a constant boogie that has Tolfrey so worked up about the place. “It is like a big family,” he says. “From the moment you get there, someone is with you, you’re made to feel welcome. If you make DJs feel comfortable, they’re going to play better. When I first started going there, there was some talk about how your experience at a club starts when you first walk up to the door; like if the bouncer’s rude to you, you’re gonna have a bad night; if you have to queue for the toilets for too long, if there’s broken glass on the floor, you’re gonna have a bad night. All those big Ricardo [Villalobos] nights that go on until 10 in the morning, the bar staff will be coming out with free bottles of water for you! Clubs don’t have to do that, but fabric chooses too because they really respect their customers.”
The sound system in Room One is just something else,” he continues. “When you’re in there and the place is going off, there’s just nothing else like it! Even if you hadn’t had a beer you’d still be dancing your arse off because there’s just so much energy going on. The guy who does the sound talks to the speakers like they’re his kids, and the lights guy is an old raver, because if the lights are spot on, you’re gotta have a better time. Little things like that make it more of an experience – you definitely don’t go to fabric and have a normal night out.”
According to Tolfrey, the key to fabric’s success is in the way the work with their surroundings. From building strong relationships with the council and police, to the building itself (“it’s an old slaughterhouse”) and the acts they raise within it. “fabric supports these people because they believe in them, and they expect the loyalty back and in most cases that’s what happens. It’s not stupid that Ricardo’s been playing there for like 11 years or something, and he doesn’t play anywhere else in London. You get that from supporting people and giving them the opportunity to grow as an artist within an amazing club.”
“When I play at fabric I definitely prepare my music for longer, I definitely go record shopping for longer, I definitely don’t normally have a gig the night before because I want to be fresh,” says Tolfrey. “By playing there the expectations are a bit higher, most DJs say they play their best sets of the year there. Not many clubs have the ability to make a DJ play better.” Summing up the magic of fabric perfectly, Tolfrey drops one final piece of wisdom on us: “I wish there were more fabrics in the world, but then if it did open somewhere else, it wouldn’t be fabric… It definitely has an aura about it or something, it must do because people have been going there for so long and they keep coming back!”
You can catch Tolfrey at fabric’s 15th birthday celebrations this weekend, when he will play alongside an all star cast, including Craig Richards, Terry Francis, Ben Klock, Seth Troxler, Marcel Dettmann, Ricardo Villalobos and Ben UFO. Tickets are available from the fabric website.
Words: Ben Hindle