DEBONAIR, arguably one of the UK’s more naturally, deservedly ascendent DJs, has a timeless feel to her craft. As a DJ, she blends post-punk, coldwave, EBM, techno, italo-disco and classic house in a divergent and commanding fashion that can only truly be nurtured through passion, experience and the passage of time. Although DEBONAIR (always in capitals), otherwise known as Debi Ghose, is only in her early thirties and slowly but surely intercepting festival and club lineups across the world, she has much form as one of the longest serving creative contributors to London’s hugely influential online, alternative radio station, NTS. As well as the fortnightly radio show she still helms, Ghose also served as one of the station’s early managers, helping to establish it’s hugely influential template and style.
Although the DEBONAIR blend of old and new, traversing tempo, eras and genre with ease offers a gnarlier perspective on 'selector' culture, and while Ghose is a vocal figure social change and increased awareness of marginalised artists and experiences, there’s something reassuringly vintage about her attitude. A self-confessed radio conniseur since an early age, each DEBONAIR show has the warm, comfortable feel of a broadcast from alternative hero John Peel, in which, aside from a series of velvety shoutouts and the necessary track IDs, the music itself does the talking.
Accordingly, and despite her increasing profile, DEBONAIR hasn’t undertaken a huge number of interviews. This could well change as more clubbers and listeners tune in to her wide ranging and wonderfully precise taste, but in the meantime, as the latest guest in Phantasy’s Forum series, John Thorp had the typical pleasure of catching up with DEBONAIR to talk the DJ as artist, the inherent intimacy of radio and the importance of trusting your instincts.
You’ve been with NTS since it’s very early days, and I understand that you were Programme Director for a period during which the station was really beginning to take off. It must be very fulfilling to be a part of a platform like NTS since its inception, and to see it evolve. What templates did you set back then with your own show and how has it evolved?
Strangely, I think the template I set with my own show has probably either fallen by the wayside or assimilated so much into my overall presentation technique that I'm barely conscious of it now. As I was a pretty obsessive radio nut and had previously worked in production for the BBC, I was very conscious of traditional broadcast formats to start with and crammed so many features into my previous series on Resonance FM - such as themed shows / edited interviews / live gig recordings etc. However, I realised that NTS was my opportunity to really bare my tastes and show who I was as a selector, while still trying to ensure that the presentation helped to keep the transmission intimate, allowing for lots of audience interaction and sporadic ramblings.
I still get a little nervous before my show, with plenty excitement thrown in too - it's really important to me and I demand a lot from myself - but I've also relaxed a little as well and allow myself to enjoy the mishaps too. John Peel (RIP) is of course the radio don I grew up listening to and his fluffs and muddles were so charming that I know this is all part of the live element. I've built up a really loyal listenership over time so I do feel supported while I'm on air, which is the nicest thing.
You grew up in Leamington Spa, which is Middle England to the extent of being literally almost in the middle of England. At Warwick University, I understand you basically cultivated a small alternative scene around your own radio show. What sort of stuff were you playing, and did you always have the faith and confidence in your taste as you do now?
Ha, that's somewhat overstated - there was barely a discernible music scene at all at Warwick University, though I was immersed in a pretty good one growing up in and around Leamington Spa and Stratford-upon-Avon hence why I was really pushed into starting my own radio show at university - just as an outlet for my passion. I did have confidence in my taste though - I had already been a music obsessive; making mixtapes, working in a record shop and building my music collection for many years by then, so I knew that I had a lot of excellent music to share.
Last year, I saw you DJ in the vast Turbine Hall at The Tate in London, which is one of the biggest performance spaces I can think of. The rest of the acts - including Wolfgang bloody Tillmans - were playing live in some respects, but there you were, repping yourself and NTS, just spinning the music of others. Hearing you in that context, in The Tate, it struck me that while we’ve long had access to ‘Art of DJing’ resources, DJing is increasingly now seen as art in a more literal sense. If so, this is arguably good news for ‘Just DJs’ like ourselves, but with that in mind, do you see yourself as an artist?
I'm almost reluctant to answer this question as I really don't like getting caught up in terms like artist / selector etc etc - I don't find any offensive but they all seem to carry their own connotation that irk some and please others. I guess I do see myself as an artist because I create with intent - yes, you could extrapolate that definition to any process, and that's fine by me.
That gig at the Tate Turbine Hall was one of the most magical of my career and being given the opportunity to be really dextrous with music and work out how to fill that gargantuan space was the most wonderful experience - I'm certainly keen for more shows like that. Selecting, regardless of BPM, but completely down to atmosphere can be quite daunting if you're used to playing in clubs but it's super rewarding to trust your ability to utilise music and carry a mood.
I recently spoke to your NTS cohort, Trevor Jackson, who argued that we have so much music and culture to consume, that DJs and radio are more important than ever. Do you agree with Mr. Jackson, and if so, what level of responsibility do you feel to the listener?
Especially considering the days of listening I go through to create an hour long show, I certainly do agree with Trevor that, at the very least, we serve to separate the sonic wheat from the chaff. I don't expect to keep a listener if I'm not keeping the quality really high on my show. Why would they come back to me when there are so many other ones out there? But I also feel like the relationship between DJ and listener can't be forced or faked - all I can offer them is my taste, to the best of my ability, and if that is of interest to them then hopefully they'll keep locking in - the responsibility comes in giving the same energy and dedication to my show today that I did 5 years ago. You can't get lazy and assume that because some have been listening for a long time that they will continue to. You've got to stay hungry and remember why you got into this in the first place, and also remind yourself how far you've come on those eggier days - that's a new thing I'm trying.
Would you say there’s a spirit of competition at NTS? I know much of the consciously positive focus of music these days is on community, on sharing music, but with so many DJs on-air and the proliferation of ‘digging’ culture, do you ever detect this, even if simply to avoid it?
I'm not sure I do detect competition to be honest, I'm friends with many of the hosts and we all hone our tastes to the point where we offer something so distinct that I don't know how we could compete. I think it would also equal an instant burnout if we did. Admittedly, I don't listen to many similar shows to mine regularly, but that's mainly because I like to draw inspiration from different places.
Having interned for BBC Radio 4 and 6 Music before you even ended up at NTS, and having suffered Graham Torrington’s ‘Late Night Love’ as a teenager, it’s fair to say you’re a real wave rider (a term for radio nerd that I literally just invented for this interview.) To your mind, and to your ears, what’s the enduring appeal of such a passive format?
Yep! Total wave rider over here! I think the appeal is that, the levels of interaction really differ and that is often down to the listener's personal preference. Radio can be passive - have it on in the background while something else takes most of your focus, but from call-ins to tweets, the level of interaction can be so much more also. I still get such a buzz when someone gives me a shout-out so I try cram in as many of those as I can. It’s a sick feeling, right? I think that radio can also act as company; it's quite an intimate act letting another person's voice and tastes into your space, I certainly feel pretty close to some of the listeners I've had with me for some time.
You also work as a voice-over artist, which isn’t a particularly typical career. When did you realise you had such suitably pleasant, reassuring tones, and does this work allow you to spend more time listening to music than you might have done had you not been blessed with your voice?
It was actually during my first internship at BBC 6 Music that various producers "spotted me" and suggested that I got a voice reel recorded. Admittedly this process needed a small amount of capital which I didn't have back then, but it kept getting suggested to me at the various production companies I worked at so in the end I took the plunge and now feature on a couple instructional videos, translation websites, and women's wear and spa adverts!
I understand that as well as your time working in Fopp (a kind of Hipster HMV, littered with discounted Nick Cave albums and Fellini box sets), you were also a teenage slave to classic rock and indie - The Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins are some of the more credible names you’ve given away. I can still hear that energy in the music you play. Do you think rock music gets a bad rap in dance culture? You never hear of any Dopplereffekt devotees getting into Belle and Sebastian…
I think that especially with DJs that play body music and industrial, many grew up on guitar bands similar to me and many noise bands bridge that gap between guitar and industrial, I also think that the "alt" prefix before rock is very important! A discerning music fan will be able to differentiate The Pumpkins and The Pixies from generic stadium rock bands.
Your show has cultivated a space in which you can push people a bit on a dancefloor. You have the best of both worlds; increasingly packed dancefloors, and an audience who trust you. What’s a fantastically odd record that keeps working for you? Something that already feels like a ‘DEBONAIR’ record...
A difficult question to answer because nothing that's too odd works every time, but opening a set up with Bauhaus's Bela Lugosi's Dead and having it well received after the crowd have been jamming to something much more upfront with the previous DJ's set lets me know that I've got a fine evening ahead of me, that's for sure.
John Thorp, April 2018.