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Interview

Miguel Campbell talks about his new album, musical prejudice, and sticking to his guns

By Dan Carter
Miguel-Campbell

From the chart-topping “Something Special” to a landmark album for Hot Creations, Miguel Campbell has blazed a new trail for underground house music. Having cut his teeth in the humble Leeds club circuit, and being persistent in the face of musical prejudice, Campbell’s soulful tunes and their strong vintage spin mark a triumph not only for the Yorkshire-bred producer, but also the idea that organic music can still overshadow fly-by-night industry trends.

Between frequently spinning alongside Matt Hughes (together known as Mam) and commandeering his own Outcross Records imprint, Campbell’s nostalgic solo ventures have progressed considerably throughout 2012. With his new album, Back In Flight School, soaring high for Lee Foss’ and Jamie Jones’ underground stronghold, Hot Creations, the British funk advocate traces a journey of notable turbulence with a remarkably smooth landing amid global club culture. We recently chatted with Campbell about it all.

Despite your recent ascent to the ranks of Hot Creations, you are not a new name on the British house circuit; your first project, MCB, started over six years ago. How do you feel your sound and attitude towards the music you make has developed over the years?

The sound that I began producing as MCB is still something I impose on my music today. Back in those days, we were amateurs as far as production value was concerned. I would compensate for that by adding an array of melodies and chord progressions [to the songs]. When I listen back to some of that old stuff now, I think, “Wow, that is really cool.” A lot of those tracks have remained unreleased because at the time it just didn’t sound right, but in truth they were some of the best tracks I ever made, and have largely provided the bread and butter for what Miguel Campbell now stands for. My work alongside my label partner and studio mate Matt Hughes (as Mam) was a natural venture, because we were both so inspired by the French touch on house music. Sticking to our guns was never an issue, and we timed the progressions with the new platforms perfectly. Now, with techno and minimal taking a downturn, real house music finally has room to breath again. It really comes down to patience, passion, and timing.

Your hometown and proving ground of Leeds in West Yorkshire has remained a passionate point of discussion for you. Was it an easy task trying to cut your teeth within such a humble yet notoriously cliquey community? Has your attitude towards the city changed over the years?

I will always love Leeds, but I have to admit that the scene there was not very kind to me. Around the time I began to make my mark, there was a big minimal phase making the rounds and everyone was into techno. The leading labels weren’t releasing funk or proper house music, and because of the general attitude towards that style of music, I was always dubbed as “elevator music” or “music for girls.” The general consensus was that if it wasn’t “banging,” then it wasn’t happening. Still, I just carried on doing me. The price for that was a long spree of opening sets and small bar shows, but that actually allowed me to focus on improving my technical production value. The city’s stylistic bias stopped me from playing there for a long time, but when all is said and done, it was still the parties and raves there that really kept me passionate about dance music as a whole. Now I get to go back there and actually play for people who love the style of music I play. I cannot help but wish I had access to this platform back in the old days, but the sad truth is that at the time no one cared.

What has kept you so loyal to Hot Creations, and what does the imprint mean to you as an artist?

I am a loyal character in general, but the whole aura of Hot Creations has done so much for my career, just as a brand against my name. That connection excelled my live presence very early on and before it all began, I knew that this latest album, Back In Flight School, would be a record specifically for Jamie’s and Lee’s label. I am proud to be able to contribute to such a cool and integral imprint in such a big way. In the two years it took me to write and release the record, I have grown so proud of everything the label and its artists have achieved and stood for along the way. Their ethos of giving people a chance, no matter who they know or what social circles they follow, is exactly what house music needs. There is finally an antidote to this industry reliance upon street credit. Hot Creations isn’t just a name, but a creative family that I intend to stick with ’til the end.

These days, it can feel like the full-length album format is too often used as a dumping ground for b-sides. With numerous albums already behind you, how do you approach the long-playing format in an age where trends point towards two-track EPs and sharp-shooting singles?

It may surprise a lot of people, but this is technically my fifth album. Of course, it is my debut for Hot Creations, and by far the most high-profile release for me to date, but as far as the process is concerned, I am awfully familiar with writing for the album format. There are literally hundreds of tracks that have been a part of this learning process. Some simply never saw the light of day. With each album, I have prided myself on creating cohesive journey pieces that tell an aural story from start to finish. I like to think that each record reflects my own journey in one way or another, and for me it is a success if you can take people on that journey through and throughout. The EPs serve their purpose—don’t get me wrong—but an album is such a huge effort. It needs to consistently engage the listener from start to finish.

This new LP marks the first of Hot Creations’ new album concept. Given the label’s popularity and huge global fan base, did being the first full-length contributor add any pressure to the process for you?

I was very much aware that this was a new and exciting platform to produce under, but the only real challenge was to work out the sound and style that I wanted to portray; something both the listeners and I could get into. For me, it was vital to mix up various types of house music, because what I’ve found is that they can all work together in unexpected yet coherent ways. Throughout my career, the old-school ethos of funk music has proven a huge point of inspiration and it quickly became apparent that this could be applied to all the tracks on the album. I have a lot of love for the ’80s and that organic, soulful funk sound that dominated that era of music. Peers such as Aeroplane and Flight Facilities have done a great job picking up on this and, given that we all now live in airports courtesy of our great global culture, the theme of flight worked well.

How important do you feel the concept of genre boundaries is, given the modern tendency to try and box music into specific categories?

Generally, it is hard for me to say. While the industry keeps spinning and shifting through styles and genres, I have stuck to my own guns. I listen to a lot of my peers’ music and opinions, but then again I also try and keep them as far from my own flow as possible. That being said, you will hear stuff like rap lyrics on top of a solid house tune within my album. This is due to my own hip-hop background and my belief that if it sounds good, then there shouldn’t be a second thought about uniting house music and hip-hop. It comes down to personal taste, and I remain adamant that what is in your own head and heart should always override what is being pushed in front of you by society.

It seems you have not been immune to the backlash between defining mainstream and underground dance music. Is the concept of making popular or mainstream dance music a positive or negative factor to you?

I am often told that the music I make is pop music, but when it comes down to it, what is pop music? It means it’s popular and lots of people want to listen! I read a comment recently saying I made the track “Rockin’ Beats” for the money, and purposely aimed it at all the ghetto kids to make a quick sell. The funniest bit is that several of these tracks I made for the album were initially made several years ago, that song being one I started back in 2010. It was produced at a time when no one was listening to my music except friends and family in the area. A similar story goes for “Something Special,” and the truth is that I find it absurd that people hate on those tracks given that they actually came into existence before all the hype. If it has become popular or mainstream within that time, then great. I love sharing my music with people, and to me it doesn’t matter whether 10 people or one million people like it.

Matt Hughes has proven a consistently recurring studio partner throughout your career. What do you believe has allowed the two of you to develop so rapidly alongside each other?

What Matt and I do is definitely a big factor that informs what I do by myself. It really comes down to that love for the French touch that we have stuck by since our teens. In my opinion, some of the best productions to my name have been the Mam tracks, and I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without Matt’s influence. When it came to us meeting, it turned out we had the magic answers for each other’s approach, and our union has aided the sounds we both now represent. While we have both played it straight regarding our sound—both in the studio and through Outcross Records—we have become products of our own environment in as much as our sounds have adapted to our own personal tastes without us realizing. In that sense, I think it has been a mutually beneficial and pretty organic development for us as a collective institute.

Now that your career has taken on a global presence, such as your residency in Ibiza this summer, is the UK a place you still get excited to return to and play within?

To this day, the UK is still one of my favorite places to play. The energy and togetherness of the crowds is second-to-none by my books, and while people keep saying that the club scene is dying, I am simply not seeing it within my own shows. As far as arms in the air and love is concerned, I think what we have here is one of the best scenes in the world, maybe second only to Brazil, who have a very similar ethos of togetherness. Between there and the UK, I am always at home behind the decks.

Where have you found the greatest challenges within your career, and were they difficult to overcome?

Financial problems have been a huge challenge for sure. While I was still working and trying to produce on the side, it was a case of working to pay mortgage and living two very contrasting lives. Eventually I decided to sell my property to go back to mum’s, which was a weird step back socially, but at the same time, it allowed me to invest in my own studio gear. From there it was really “all in,” and everything I worked for and saved towards was invested into my own studio. It was tough but it was a powerful moment to finally take control of my own destiny. The greatest challenge was probably going up against the prejudice towards my music. It may be proving quite popular now, but it was tough to bite your tongue while people laid into the music you had put your heart and soul into. I believed it could be great and having overcome that hurdle, I know believe, with all my heart, that house music in all shapes and forms can make positive waves everywhere.

2012 has certainly set the precedent for your career. How do you intend to extend the positive streak to 2013?

While this year has focused strongly on my solo work, 2013 will see me invest a lot more time in my Outcross Records imprint while trying to help push the various individuals and peers around me who need that helping hand that I was lucky enough to receive. It feels like it is time to start paying it forward finally. Matt Hughes and I will be putting a lot of focus upon our Mam project, and I personally believe that as a duo we can achieve more than my solo work is capable of. My main concern remains ensuring that the enjoyment I feel making this music translates to the listeners. Without that sense of enjoyment, good music simply cannot exist.