Taking a lead from the title of his latest album, Nightmares On Wax’s George Evelyn sees a more positive world if we aim to ‘Shape The Future’. How so? Living in Ibiza for 10 years sure helps
In the sand-specked sunshine of Ibiza, you’d think there would be little to complain about. A few untidy tourists, not enough absinthe in your sangria, sand in your underpants, perhaps. Other than that, everyone who lives in the world’s carefree clubbing capital is on cloud nine, right?
Actually, it does seem like it. As I catch up with Nightmares On Wax’s George Evelyn, a Leeds emigrant to the Balearic islands, his disposition is all blue skies and beautiful horizons. I could tell him “Nightmares On Wax” is an anagram of “Waxier man’s thong” and he’d remain completely zen.
That’s because his eighth album, ‘Shape The Future’, is not only complete, but it sounds great. With its release imminent, he’s shooting little bubbles of philosophy into the air with Electronic Sound. You join us as he’s proposing a thought experiment involving a gaggle of kids locked away from the outside world.
“If you were to get a bunch of children in a room who have not been affected by religion or politics,” says George, “and you asked them how they see the future, I pretty much guarantee that 99.9 per cent of them would have a positive outlook. The media wants to feed us this idea that everything is bad. But instead of that, how about visualising our future and the kind of world we actually want to live in? That’s better than complaining about how shit things are. I’m talking about a revolution in consciousness that starts with yourself, then your family, then your neighbourhood.”
With nuclear buttons getting bandied around on Twitter as politicians lurch from one plot of ‘The Thick Of It’ to the next, George’s vision is truly enlightening. He talks like a guru, and in one sense, his life seems heavenly. Here’s a guy who played a foundational role in modern UK techno, who then widened his sound to find longevity. When he became a father, he quit Leeds and moved to the sunny climes of Ibiza to run DJ residencies and beach parties. It feels like he’s found nirvana.
His new album is very much fixed on that horizon: tracks like ‘Tell My Vision’ fire confetti cannons at the future with phrases like “Come on world, what are you waiting for?”. But we can’t talk about the future without looking at the past.
George Evelyn, otherwise known as DJ E.A.S.E., is Warp Records’ longest-serving artist. The label’s early reputation reverberated to the renegade acid of 1989’s ‘Dextrous’ and the steely soul of ‘Aftermath’. Back then, young Mr Evelyn was a dancer in Leeds whose vision was slightly less enlightened: he wanted nothing more than to get his tunes played in the local clubs – and to win a dance-off.
“I was with [Warp founder] Steve Beckett at Christmas, and we were remembering testing tunes in the clubs,” recalls George. “Those days were also about representing your breakdance crew and beating other crews. Winston ‘Forgemasters’ Hazel and A Guy Called Gerald, we were all body-poppers, all bachelors, all from the same ilk. We were there to drop those tunes.”
I wonder out loud if George can still breakdance now.
“Only when I’m drunk, when the tequila comes out,” he laughs. “Even then, I get out of breath and someone needs to bring me a brown paper bag so I can get my breath back.”
Since then, his career has taken him as far as South Africa, Beirut and China, “finding the most peaceful and nicest people in the world – it really opens up your perception”. He remains proud of his Yorkshire roots, revealing a new-found fondness for the stubbornness of his younger, more naive self.
“It’s fascinating looking back,” he says. “There was never an unwavering thought. I see an 18-year-old George that never had any doubt. If I had those attributes now, I’d be fucking awesome.”
In the 1990s, George’s move away from colder techno into the warmer textures of orchestral trip hop brought us ‘Smokers Delight’ and ‘Carboot Soul’. I tell him my record boxes were plastered with the band’s stickers in those days. The descending strings of ‘Les Nuits’ sounded like an artist reaching for something more enduring than just floor-filling techno. ‘Shape The Future’ carries on this search, with soul, hip hop and dub influences. And yet it is still a defiantly electronic Warp album, with George especially keen on the big fat bass notes of his Moog Minitaur.
“I set myself a personal mission quite a few years ago to make the perfect marriage between analogue and digital,” he muses. “I was brought up listening to loads of analogue shit, but when I started making music, it was all digital shit, so I had a common relationship with both elements. With string players or a drummer in the room, it brings another energy. When I was mixing the album, I wanted it to sound fat and warm and round and all those beautiful things, but I still wanted it to be contemporary and electronic as well.
His relationship with Ibiza is a long one, beginning with a visit accompanying a clubbing friend in 1988. George could barely afford the trip and, having lived off chips and San Miguel, he ran out of money after three days. A decade ago, bolstered by an extended holiday with his hypnotherapist wife, he finally packed up his Leeds life for Ibiza.
“When we left England,” he says, “my daughter was four years old and our choices were Wacky Warehouse or McDonald’s. I felt this non-acceptance for family, but Spain really embraces family life.”
Once they’d set up home on the White Isle, he was inspired by reggae sound systems to create Wax Da Jam, a colourful club night at the historic flea market, Las Dalias, in the north of the island. The venue is a nightclub as well as a market, and it’s a far cry from the glittery EDM stages of the modern mega club. Think cafe culture cool with psychedelic decor, a log fire and excellent desserts. There’s even a roof-top “sky bar” for those wanting to attain a higher state of consciousness.
“It’s a labour of love,” says George. “We started Wax Da Jam in the back of a restaurant – totally illegal. Now we’re in the oldest nightclub in Ibiza. It’s not a tourist area, so it takes a certain kind of person to find us. It’s like being inside an old social club in England, which is crazy because that was what I was brought up with.”
When you see the cheerful hippie vibes of the Las Dalias market, with its hemp handbags and bead-filled stalls declaring “namaste” on hand-painted signs, the golden textures of ‘Shape The Future’ make sense. The expansive single ‘Citizen Kane’ is underpinned by a wonderfully Balearic shuffle, while Faithless collaborator LSK’s musings on ‘Tomorrow’ seem ideally suited to a blanket-strewn sofa in the corner of a bar.
More than his previous works, the album is packed with vocalists who each brought something unique – even if George didn’t quite have a hand in absolutely everything, such as when new Ninja Tune signing Jordan Rakei paid him a visit.
“Jordan played a closing party here in Ibiza. I invited him to a barbecue at my house, and we ended up playing some beats in my studio. He picked out the track ‘Typical’, and laid the vocals down while I ran around putting the barbecue together!”
The most notable vocal comes posthumously, from ragga MC Tenor Fly. For me, he’s best remembered for his “Mr Baaadman” cry on the Freestylers’ big beat stormer, ‘B-Boy Stance’. Fly died in 2016, and his inclusion on ‘Shape The Future’ on a track simply called ‘Tenor Fly’ infuses the middle of the album with a paranoid smoky haze. Amid deep reverb, the MC declares, “Sometimes I close my eyes and I just lose myself… I need to find some inner peace”.
I wonder if this tender, yet dark moment offers a key to the spiritual side of George.
“It’s in everything”, he says.
Although in all truth, for him it’s about something much more important: better music production.
“There’s a grandeur that I want to achieve in music,” he explains. “I want it to be regarded as timeless. When I listen to amazing producers like Quincy Jones, Gamble And Huff, and people like Frank Sinatra, there’s a classic sound that will never die just because of its high grade. That’s an ultimate goal for me: to bring that in a contemporary way, with sampling, hip hop and reggae roots in a melting pot, but for it to be something at such a high level.”
So that’s the final vision for Guru George. Better production. For all his talk of energies and finding peace, his true nirvana is the groove. He describes himself as a music fan first, then a DJ and producer: he took special pleasure digitising his own vinyl collection to feed into his Serato DJ software, because it forced him to be a listener again.
“I’ve spent so many years acquiring music, but not enough years just living with the music I already had,” he says.
When Nightmares On Wax sets off on tour this month, George will take his old Leeds mate LSK along with Sadie Walker, who sings a blistering version of Little Ann’s ‘Deep Shadows’ on the album. George carries his gospel with him – balance, positivity, his revolution in consciousness. Not that everything is easy, he’s hoping to learn from his own message as he goes.
“The moment I decided the album was called ‘Shape The Future’, I had nothing but tests and challenges,” he says. “Every now and again, I had to remind myself, ‘You’ve got to shape the future, G, you’ve got to shape the future’. In a world where things seem so bad, this is probably the best time for us to affect our future. I don’t think that includes a leader, or aliens coming down to save us. Nobody’s coming down to sort your shit out for you, you’re gonna have to do it yourself.”
I think about the imaginary kids in his thought experiment, each one raving about a wonderful life ahead. Some of them might grow up and find themselves at a Nightmares On Wax gig. Some of them may even join a breakdancing crew and start plugging tunes to DJs. George Evelyn is on a higher plane in so many ways – what advice does he have for those starting their journey on ground level?
“Are you in it for the long haul? Do you need it to happen as soon as possible?” he says. “If you need it to happen as soon as possible, then you should think about whether you want to do it. If you’re in it for the long haul, then take the time to discover what you’re into and stay with it. Some people are going to tell you the total opposite, but the long road is the best road.”
‘Shape The Future’ is out on Warp.