Peckham Paradise: An Interview with Sam Astbury from X-Kalay
(and an ode to Rye Wax)
Have you ever been smitten by a place by the mere look of it? Profet´s Chief Ideologue Filip Lindström was hooked on Peckham, the second he stepped in to obscure bar/record store Rye Wax to meet up Sam Astbury, founder and care-taker of lo-fi house label X-Kalay.
I exit Peckham Rye Station after an immensely long train ride from Farringdon, where I got to by a never-ending walk from Russell Square. London strikes you as huge when you’re used to a smaller city like Stockholm, a place that you can walk through in a couple of hours. I’m struck by the difference between South East and Central London, since Peckham feels more Mediterranean and lively with its open fresh markets where merchants intensely wave their arms and yell in attempt to convince customers of the superiority of their products. At first, there seems to be no way to find Rye Wax, the place where I’m supposed to meet Sam Astbury, a resident of the area as well as the initiator of small scale house record label X-Kalay. Only when I’ve passed countless headless geese (or perhaps other unidentifiable formerly feathered creatures) in the market street, I manage to locate the dark entrance to a slim ally-way decorated with hand written signs directing me inwards, from where I also hear the sound of loud music. I tell myself that these omens can not lead me wrong, as I wander further away from the loud salesmen of beheaded birds. As always, my premonitions do not fail me.
Leading up to this trip to London, I listed five objectives, highly important things that I felt had to be investigated. Bluntly translated from Swedish, the goals for the project called Profet In London were:
1. To find a sustainable nickname for London (since I’ve never heard anyone call it neither »The Smoke« or »The Old Smoke«)
2. To map the Cradle of Cool, the Highpoint of Hip, the Babylon of Bad (since the always so dorky Nordic countries never have stopped looking at London for inspiration. For example, my Scandinavian lameness and my need to get it sorted is clearly illustrated by my use of the words »cool«, »hip« and »bad«.)
3. To find London’s best Gin and Tonic (since they aren’t always very good where I’m from)
4. To empty London’s supplies of outdated musical formats (since I am obsessed with Compact Discs and London is one of the cities in the world that actually still have good stores that sell them)
5. To localize London’s very hardest techno (since I, at the moment, am treading knee deep in the genre)
Objective 2 came with a couple of questions that needed to be answered: Is London still as hip as we think, looking at it from a Swedish perspective? What is it that is so very hip? Must one go there to be able to do something hip instead of starting something equally hip where one is already based? All of them were answered when I walked into the Peckham paradise that is Rye Wax, a combined record store and hipster bar, where every single visitor has a thought-out style and an obvious interest in music. Earlier, I had called Camden the epicenter of London’s coolness, because I didn’t know better at the time. I hadn’t yet seen the glory of Rye Wax, and therefore thought that the glimmering sport jackets and home cut bangs of the Camden hipsters were even remotely impressing and trend setting. I can only say that I was a fool spreading such lies to the public, but my excuse was simply that I saw Camden before I saw Peckham.
Sam and I agree when meeting at the fantastic venue Rye Wax, that it is way to noisy and crowded for us to record an interview in. Against the will of every cell in my body, we leave Rye Wax and roam down the streets where the merchants are ceasing their bird sales for the day. The second best bar in the area, where we decide to drop in, is not too bad but nowhere near Rye Wax (at this point I’ll try to stop nagging you about Rye Wax but I’m telling you, it’s really worth nagging about). The place is selling the very locally produced Peckham Pale Ale, which me and Sam start sipping on when we commence the interview.
- So, you said the only people knowing about X-Kalay are the ones in your own scene? I ask, getting back to a conversation we had on our way to this second bar.
- Yeah, I would say, Sam replies. General people who are into dance music and clubbing probably haven’t heard of it, but people who buy records and are into underground stuff might have.
- It’s something that you have to find, like Rye Wax, I say without even trying to stop myself from mentioning my new favorite place on Earth, then jumping back to the subject: When did you start the label?
- Almost exactly two years ago. This didn’t come out of the blue, before I lived in London I used to live in Sheffield and since I was 18, I’ve always peripherally been involved in dance music. I used to put on parties in Sheffield and I used to DJ quite a lot, and there were a few other smaller label projects before, which I won’t tell you the names of. When I moved down here, I wanted to start something new. I used to have a car, which I sold to fund the first record. That was the Kask release, by an Estonian guy, and that was how it started really.
- All thanks to the car?
- Basically, all thanks to the car, which was a piece of shit honestly.
»Rye Wax on a saturday night«, painted by Filip Lindström
The motor vehicle that Sam Astbury didn’t need any more after his move to the dense capitol, the X-Kalay Mobile, financed the making of Estonian Andreas Kask’s first release on the label, distributed by Sam’s mates from Lobster Theremin. A side note about Andreas Kask is that he is a friend of Estonian national treasure TOMMY CASH, whom Sam actually encountered during a visit to the East Bloc gem. Amusingly enough, Sam didn't recognise TOMMY CASH due to his 5 am inebriated state and the fact it was snowing quite hard outside and was surprised when Andreas congratulated the international rap superstar on a recent performance in front of 30 000 people. End of the Estonian side note, and back again to the records released by X-Kalay: The very first one was made possible by Sam getting rid of an unsatisfactory automobile, and since then every release has gathered enough dineros to enable the next one. He says that, if he’s lucky, a record comes out once every six weeks, which in my book is fairly frequently for a small independent label.
- Two years ago, I ask Sam, what contribution did you want to make?
- I started to see other things happening around me, this scene that was developing, and I realized that I could do what I was trying to do better, if I started again. I had this music from Andreas, but it wasn’t right for the labels I was working on. The timing felt right, basically, to start something new. Things started to come together and it just felt right to start up something fresh.
- That actually sounds a lot like when I started Profet, I tell Sam. I had been working for other magazines and blogs, and I felt like I couldn’t do exactly what I wanted to do. I thought I could do it a lot better, if I could get the chance. It’s very liberating to find that you actually can do it, when you finally do.
- Totally, Sam agrees. You project your plans and ideas onto this thing that you create. It wouldn’t have been right to try and pack the old thing into this new thing that I wanted to do. So, I just wanted to start again, and it was the right thing to do I think.
»I don’t know how much you’ve read about the recent controversies of lo-fi dance music?«
»None at all.«
Highly exciting conversation, to be found further down in the interview
For some, the convenience of following another person’s ideas is enough to get by. It’s even preferable in some cases, not having to really put anything at stake. But, for others, that life style is not desirable at all. These others feel confined by having to do things someone else’s way, and crave the liberty to act out visions and plans by themselves. This step outside of a comfort zone is ensured to involve taking risks and sometimes losing more than you’ll ever earn, but the satisfaction of seeing a realized dream is worth the loss of all possible possessions. I feel this way about starting Profet, not caring about the cost of my creative freedom, and I can assume that Sam Astbury’s thoughts concerning X-Kalay are similar. I ask him whether his vision of what music he wanted to release on the label was clear, when he finally took the leap and started his own venture.
- I’d like to say yes, but it wasn’t really. I have quite a broad musical taste. It’s not just related to music, I’m quite a generalist. I dabble in and out of a lot of different things; the stuff I read, the music I listen to, the films that I watch. I find it challenging to keep a direct line on stuff sometimes.
- Have you ever been a part of any specific subculture?
- Not especially, unless you include a stoner subculture. Dance music in the UK is definitely a subculture.
Dance music can definitely be a subculture, at least if you talk about a specific kind of dance music and the life that comes with it. Sure, Sam says that there is a certain subculture surrounding the genre in the UK, but my mind wanders to the deadly, but glamorous, Club Kids of New York, and the ravers that pillaged all of Europe for a while.
In Sweden, on one hand there is the Avicii and Swedish House Mafia type of intellectually challenged dance music, that has created a culture (not a subculture) where young men are allowed, and encouraged, to wear checkered shirts and baseball hats on backwards without legal consequences. That is a disgraceful and depressing fact, but it is momentarily brightened by the real subcultures that exist around narrower and less crowd-pleasing branches of dance music. The followers are fewer but a thousand times more knowledgeable about their music and the way they dress. I’ve spotted one or two of these individuals on the streets of Stockholm and found that I could die happy if I could only be permitted to exist in their near vicinity. I guess that’s why I felt so happy in Rye Wax, because the place was packed with these subcultural beings.
»The X-Kalay Mobile«, painted by Filip Lindström
Neither Sam nor any of X-Kalay’s recording artists make a full time living off of their music, and Sam doesn’t have a problem with that. There is no underlying, deliberate choice behind this, it has rather got to do with the DIY-spirit of the lo-fi dance scene. Before meeting Sam Astbury and hearing X-Kalay’s releases, I had never encountered the term »lo-fi dance music« before, which surprises Sam when he hears it.
- I don’t know how much you’ve read about the recent controversies of lo-fi dance music? he asks me.
- None at all, I say truthfully.
- FACT Magazine wrote a massive article last year, possibly just a click-bait article but one of their most read pieces recently, questioning the validity of lots of these new artists. So, you’ve heard of people like DJ Seinfeld and DJ Boring? Sam wonders, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
- I haven’t actually, I reply.
- Well, that’s kind of good, Sam says almost to himself and starts to introduce me to the Disc Jockeys and their claim to fame: There are all these artists with unconventional names like DJ Seinfeld, and this scene has blown up around this under produced sounding, lo-fi-esque house music. Music that might sound like it’s been made without very much skill or care. Advocates of this style will say that it harks back to the roots of dance music in Chicago and Detroit where people just made music with whatever shitty piece of equipment they could get their hands on. I guess X-Kalay has been labelled a »lo-fi« record label a few times, which is fine, it can be labelled whatever people want to label it.
Sam doesn’t mind X-Kalay being seen as a lo-fi house label, nor is he bothered with established music journalists writing the newly popularized genre off as unserious. Apparently, the debate has been raging along with the growth of the music, and of course artists that are insulted by recognized media are bound to blow up among the kids. It’s a law of nature. But, to be honest, the FACT article starts off with questioning how serious lo-fi dance music is, and later it goes into quite interesting thoughts on diversity and equality.
A re-enactment of one of the many high points of the interview
What Seinfeld and Boring are forerunners of has also been called meme house, a derogatory term meant to belittle the music due to its closeness to the internet. The meme culture has always been seen as a simple and almost stupid form of humor, and most fans of lo-fi house has probably grown up with that type of entertainment. Lo-fi house is also one of very few genres (if not the only one) that embraces internet humor and takes it to the dance floor. Dance music is too often extremely serious, and I think lo-fi house benefits from taking a bit of a piss. Also, the internet is an irreplaceable factor in everyone’s life today, making it strange that we haven’t heard any meme indie rock or meme trap yet. Music should spark recognition in its listeners, and what could do that trick better than songs about things we experience every single day?
As mentioned, Sam was surprised by hearing that I had no prior knowledge of the fiery lo-fi house debate. In fact, he suspected I only wanted to interview him to get a piece of the click action that FACT whipped up, but I tell him that I simply had heard X-Kalay’s releases and was intrigued by the sound. Before we met at Rye Wax, he must have pictured me as a despicable, no good gold digger (which I, of course, am in all cases but this one) but it appears like he is pleased to see that my interest in his label is genuine. Certainly, I am glad to have encountered this underground movement through Sam, even though I am happier that he opened the gateway to the Peckham Paradise for me. If I would have left London thinking that Camden was the hippest place in town, if I wouldn’t have gotten to see Rye Wax, my life would have been greyer and I would have lived on in unblissful ignorance.