ATHIS is getting surreal. It's after midnight, and we're in a leafy avenue somewhere in Didsbury, Manchester. Dressed immaculately in a houndstooth check two-piece, like he's just stepped out of a 60s blues club, Justin Robertson emerges from the darkness. Pretty soon, a hastily-issued set of instructions breaks the night-time silence: Justin sprints back down the street, illuminated only by the soft strobing of the photographer's flash. It looks mad, the two of them running up and down in the dark, shouting a lot and, occasionally, laughing. And then reality spins back in again. Suddenly two police panda cars and a transit van wheel into view. Questions are asked, sheepish explanations are offered. We've only been out here a few minutes, but the neighbours, no doubt alarmed by the sight of one of Britain's most respected DJs careering up and down their street, have called the cops. Back in the safety of his flat, Justin flops down onto the sofa. "What a bizarre night..." he says, to no one in particular.
JUSTIN Robertson has had his fair share of bizarre nights. The night he went drinking with death metal band Slayer ("I didn't know what they did, so we just got on with having a good time"). Or the time he DJed in Uruguay: "ten times better than Ibiza," he reckons. "I went to this club called the Café Del Mar which they've obviously named after the Spanish version. The thing is, I don't think they've ever been there. When I saw the Café Del Mar for the first time, I was so disappointed - it's like a little pub where they play music. But the one in Uruguay is just out of this world. It's this fantastic place which is almost exactly what you'd imagine the Café Del Mar should be like if you'd only heard about it and never ever been there." And there were those impossibly strange nights at clubs like Spice and Most Excellent, where Justin helped the UK club scene's march towards eclecticism. The Chemical Brothers were regulars at Spice, maybe even taking notes. "It was like a social club with a bit of dancing thrown in," Robertson once said. "I wanted it to be musically challenging, different."
He could have applied the same description to Lionrock. Their early singles - the eponymous debut, 'Packet Of Peace' and 'Carnival' - wove huge corrosive beats through ragga chat and dynamics ripped from under the skin of house and techno. As you'd expect from a band who played everything from Desmond Dekker to Captain Beefheart on their tour bus, their debut album 'An Instinct For Detection' was an ambitious, unpredictable record. Tracks like 'Straight At Yer Head' took genre-busting to its limit, mainlining on ska, Motown, hip hop, Northern soul and acid house all at once. Others, like 'Death Valley Clapperboard', were all surging techno and booming bass. By the album's release in March 1996, Robertson was on the crest of a wave. His reputation as a DJ, capable of crafting inspirational sets from a handful of Balearic, techno or deep house records, made him one of the biggest draws in the UK. The word was that Robertson was ready for promotion to the major league. As the first copies of 'An Instinct For Detection' landed in the shops, he told Mixmag, "I want this LP to be nominated for the Mercury Prize."
TWO years on, it's a quieter, more introspective Justin Robertson who admits, "I don't think I would say something like that again." He looks thinner, healthier and perhaps a little more vulnerable than back then. When he laughs, which he does a lot in a self-deprecating way, it's hard not to be reminded of Ade Edmondson. Like his music, there's much about the '98 model of Robertson that's unexpected. "I've become a lot more realistic about things," he confides, at one point. Partly, this has to do with the fact that, though 'Instinct...' breached the Top 40, it didn't exactly get nominated for the Mercury Prize. Nowhere near. Partly, it has to do with some of the reactions to Lionrock's early live shows.
"Maybe people weren't ready for the sight of an acid house DJ strapping on a guitar and jumping about onstage," he muses. "The whole thrust of it was that the music was gonna be between cutting-edge electronic and classic song-writing. I sometimes regret the baggage of using that guitar. It feels like a heavy load, y'know? I never thought about it in that way at the time, it seemed completely natural. I got sucked into that whole rock n' roll myth." And just as the first Lionrock album tumbled out into the world, his mother died. "Even now, everything else seems really insignificant after that," he explains. "I went through a stage of feeling really disillusioned." It took a long time before he could even face going back into the studio with long-time Lionrock partners Roger Lyons contributing the studio trickery and MC Buzz B delivering his lyrics when required - evolved into an album, originally scheduled for release last Summer. But by then the US had picked up on 'Instinct...' and the new album, now called 'City Delirious' thanks to its thematic focus on Robertson's adopted hometown, was put on indefinite hold. By the time a new release date was scheduled, Robertson had other ideas. He reworked the album, added new tracks and scrapped others. "My head was all over the place when we did it the first time around," he confesses. But the new, trackier, more club-oriented cuts have made 'City Delirious' a more expansive album, that should put Lionrock alongside Underworld, the Chemicals and the rest of UK clubland's big-sellers. Tracks like 'Rude Boy Rock' or 'Rock Steady Romance' are still full of quirky references to 60s soul, ska and dancehall but there's others too, like the psychedelic big beat of 'Electric Hairdo' or the blunted 'Amazing New Product' that suggest Lionrock are stronger than ever. And if you can resist the sweetly-blissed acid house perfection of 'It's Panoramic' then something's clearly gone wrong with your stereo. "This album is like 90s modernist music," explains Justin. "It's about clubbing and acid house and the people who are part of all that. It's a soundtrack for urban living. After finishing the live shows, I got heavily back into DJing. When I started doing it again, it was almost like, 'Welcome home!' and I rediscovered all the great things about acid house. And that fed back into the album too, alongside the 60s beat music and the reggae and the soul. I love the rawness and the grit of that stuff - musically it's possibly my biggest influence." That rawness is part of the appeal, of course. Because Justin's version of 90s modernism is all about switching through time zones and snatching the best bits - from 60s bluebeat to acid house and back again - mixing it all up to create something that's big and visionary and uniquely vital too. And for all kinds of reasons, 'City Delirious' is the perfect mesh between Justin Robertson the guitar-playing producer of maverick urban hymns and Justin Robertson the mad-for-it DJ who's still in love with acid house. If you checked his Essential Mix last November, you'd have heard him mixing up Primal Scream with Ryuichi Sakamoto, or the Jimmy Castor Bunch with Global Communication in a way that said a whole lot about why Lionrock are special. "A lot of people wouldn't consider what we do to be maverick," he says, finally. "But I reckon we're off our heads. I think what we do is really strange. It doesn't sound like anyone else. It's just a weird collection of influences really..."
The single 'Rude Boy Rock' is out March 2nd while the album is out on March 16th, both on Concrete
JUSTIN ROBERTSON FLOOR FILLERS
1. Plastic Avengers 'Nova 17' (NRK)
2. Scott Grooves 'Expansions' (Soma)
3. Kevin Kennedy 'Feedback' (Frictional)
4. Steve Poindexter 'Demolition Man' (DJax)
5. Soul Ascendants 'Tribute' (Nuphonic)
6. Kevin Yost 'Sticks & Stones' EP (i)
7. Rare 'Seems Like' (Lionrock Mix) (Artic)
8. G-Flame & Mr G 'Do It Right' (Metalbox)
9. Maas 'Another Saturday Night' (Soma)
10. Boards Of Canada 'Nlogax' (Skam)
MEANWHILE BACK AT LIONROCK HQ...
1. Dionne Warwick 'I'm Just Being Myself'
2. The Eternals 'Stars'
3. The Beatles 'You've Got To Hide Your Love Away'
4. Chocolate Weasel 'Music For Body Lockers'
5. The Flying Burrito Brothers 'Wild Horses'
6. Anne Sexton 'You've Been Gone Too Long'
7. Black Jazz Chronicles 'Future Juju'
8. Laurel Aitken 'Everybody Suffering'
9. Johnny Harris'Footprints On The Moon'
10. Beth Orton 'Touch Me With Your Love'