The Forum: Gatto Fritto

The Forum: Gatto Fritto

In line with his DJ moniker, which translates to ‘Fried Cat’ in Italian, Gatto Fritto is not a man who takes himself too seriously. As a DJ, he doesn’t even take the music he’s collected for most of his life too seriously, either. That’s not to say he’s not serious
about it. It’s more so that the lifelong compulsion to find, buy and play great records is simply what Fritto, less memorably known as Ben Williams, does. It’s filled his waking hours since he shifted from Southern England’s suburbs into London at the height of acid house. But Williams’ life, one he considers to have been spent somewhat “out of step”, is much more than that same old story.

As well as the occasional recording project, such as his debut LP on International Feel back in 2011, Williams is best known and highly-regarded as one of London’s most open-minded record store stalwarts, both when browsing on the shop floor and behind the counter, a position he has also occupied in Berlin, bringing his broad knowledge and exquisite taste to a rather more segregated scene.

A very small portion of the expansive Gatto Fritto collection appears across two slabs on his remarkable new compilation to launch the label of Love International, the expertly, acutely programmed Croatian festival where he serves as a resident. Each track shares two characteristics in common. Firstly, they were all played by Williams during two sets at the festival’s highly-regarded Barbarellas venue, and secondly, whether house, disco, dub or reggae flavoured, they each possess that distinctive, woozy Fritto feel. The kind of records where the end result is, in his own words, “a happy accident.”

As the latest guest on The Forum, Gatto Fritto talked to John Thorp about the process of curating a less than accidental collection of said happy accidents, the compilations that continue to influence him, his own unusual journey and whether music can possibly explain the world as it perhaps once did.

All these tracks have been played by you at Love International. What do you think has made Croatia such an appealing destination for music enthusiasts over the last ten years?

Well, you can get an Easyjet flight there, that’s number one and the weather’s guaranteed to be good! The locals, as far as they can be, have been very accommodating. Certainly, as far as Love International goes, there have been no clashes or anything like that, it’s all been pretty well integrated.

Which is kind of the opposite of Ibiza at the time of writing. Have you ever been involved in anything over there?

No, nobody has ever asked me to go and play there. I’m 40, and when it was in full swing when I was younger, I was on the wrong drugs. I never wanted to go, but in the past few years, I like the thought, although not so much for the music.

These tracks are taken from just two sets that you played at Barberellas. Can you contextualise that particular club for us, as well as these sets?

Yeah, the club is amazing. I don’t know much about the history of it but the feeling, I guess for me, I imagine it’s what Ibiza was like in the late seventies or early eighties. It’s a big outdoor dance floor with bars around in a sort of horseshoe shape. The sound last year, was absolutely incredible. It’s really nice, dancing when the sun comes up there.

I’ve just played twice. One year I played first and another I played last. The compilation is made up of records I played in those sets. So the club starts at midnight, and it’s about five kilometers from the festival, which shuts down at one or two, so people are trickling in. And for the first few hours, I just took the opportunity to play records that I knew would sound good on this really beautiful soundsystem. I’d put on a long track, and then go and dance myself. Things that had wide, stereo feel, panning around… Soundsystem records, basically. The Joe Ariwa record from the compilation sounds amazing. And the Derrick Harriot record. It’s very sparse, but lovely bass. Records with lots of detail, basically, are my idea of soundsystem records.

You’re not known as someone reaching for the obvious summer bangers in rotation, so I presume you have an open-minded audience in that environment?

Yeah, but I don’t know how many of them are there to see me! The time I played last, they had Bicep as well, but they switched the sets round. So I had a very enthusiastic crowd taking photos. There was these two huge Croatian guy who asked me for a selfie at the end, and I saw them tag me on Instagram as Bicep. (Laughs.)

You have a strong relationship with Berlin, too. The last time you did a round of interviews was five or six years ago, when you were considering getting out of London to live there. From a musical perspective, what’s keeping you hooked there? Or is it the musical perspective alone that keeps you there?

Oh mate, I did move there. I moved back to London!

Let me rephrase: After pursuing what you perceived as the ‘freedom’ of Berlin, how come you ended up back in London?

Well, my girlfriend got a job here. Put it this way, I was happy in Berlin, and now I’m just as happy in London. There’s great things about Berlin, there’s great things about London. Contrary to some of the obituaries that have been going around, I think there’s some pretty good stuff going on here. I played at a party on Friday night up in Bermondsey, which went until six… I there’s a good soundsystem, a decent venue and an atmosphere that’s not overbearing, not kind of overpoliced to within an inch of your life, then a good night with a good crowd in London is incomparable.

Thinking back to when I was a kid, 94, 95, we used to go out every night. But now, there’s not much weekday stuff happening, because you can’t not have a job. And in Berlin, you can’t do that anymore either either. I mean, I’d be going out there for ten years before I moved, and at first, if you lost your flat you could find another one the same day. Nowadays, if there are over a hundred people viewing a flat in Berlin, there’s no way it would be me, as a part-time jobbing DJ, getting it. But I love the city.

Last time you had an album out, you did a series of interviews that caught you in a bit of a morose mood, however amusing. Your Dad had died, a long-term relationship had just ended, and you had stopped taking ecstasy. It’s nice to hear your love life has moved on, and I assume you haven’t started gubbing loads of pills again?

No, I haven’t taken ecstasy since… 1995? I was always out of step with clubs. When I was in my early teens, and all my mates were smoking weed and doing acid, I was doing ecstasy in clubs. So I always felt a bit out of sorts. I love clubs, and when I’m DJing, I always have half an eye on, “What would I want to hear if I was 17 and on an E in a club?”

The term ‘energy’ is a bit corny, but you can really hold on to that initial energy, especially in a club like Barbarellas…

Yes, absolutely. And I don’t really think you can overstate it, E totally changed the country, and society. Maybe not so much institutions and stuff, and yes, it is a bit of a corny thing to talk about the acid house revolution. But I was in a small town in the suburbs, and upon arrival, the change it had on people, who a couple of years before were battering each other in pubs, was phenomenal. I mean, it didn’t really get going where I was until 1991, and it was glorious for a little bit. People who you used to avoid suddenly became your mates. And the only reason I ever travelled, was rave. I mean, apart from music, I’m just not a bloke with no GCSEs who can just about get a job on a building site. I still think it’s a magical thing, and now that clubs are open 24/7, you can get away with anything. But they are different now.

I don’t know what going out now is like for a teenager, or somebody getting into dance music. I think going out, getting on it on a Sunday is probably still alternative, but just in a different way, now that people spend less time at the pub and more time at the gym, or streaming Netflix…

I’m a bit reluctant to talk about dance music in terms of politics, because I think it only became counter-cultural. Going out, taking drugs and dancing to crazy fucking music wasn’t overtly political in the way that punk or something had been, and I think that really changed people’s perspective. It broke down social barriers.

My life experience has been a bit of a strange journey, and I don’t see things as simple. In the years that most people are at university, I was in mental hospitals, rehab, homeless shelters, all that sort of stuff… Things are changing, I mean, we’re on the dawn of another industrial revolution, which, depending on who you talk to, could have the ability to either liberate everyone or enslave everyone. And as far as I can see, politics in the UK has gone back to the 20th century on a new medium. It’s fighting the same battles, only on the internet. And I don’t know if anyone has the answer. It’s weird, lots of people have got a point, but nobody has any answers. Anyway, I don’t want the interview to go this way!

It’s definitely a weird landscape, culturally, politically… Anyway, let’s get back to the compilation. It’s very well curated. You have spent years consuming and collecting music, above all else, I guess. As a DJ, and someone who enjoys searching for music, do compilations still appeal to you, and which ones have inspired you over the years?

Oh yeah, I love a good compilation. I don’t have a purist approach. Dance music wise, there’s a compilation from when I was younger called Electro It, which came out in 1995, and had new and old stuff on it. It had Plastikman, Sword Tooth but then stuff like ‘Bostich’, by Yello and ‘Be Thankful For What You Got’ by Craig Peyton. I couldn’t believe ‘Bostich’ came out in 1985 when I first heard it, and I still play those records today. And ‘Relics’, the Transmat compilation.

There’s so much music to consume, it’s nice to get your bearings via somebody else’s taste, assuming you can trust it, especially if you’re out to explore a particular corner or a scene.

Yeah, and the thing is, the more you know, the less you know. You’re never going to get the end of whatever road you’re going down.

Buying records, new or old, is getting more expensive. For someone like you, with broad taste but not DJing every single weekend, how do you get your hands on the music?

I don’t get sent much, but I go get given bits and bobs by friends. It’s like anything in life, I go through phases, but I worked in record shops for nearly twenty years.

Do you miss working in record shops?

No. I miss the records but I can’t hack it anymore. But I still go out and listen to records and try and buy stuff for cheap. And I might exchange some, or if I like something I’ll keep it, or I’ll try and sell it. I go to the Exchange, I go to car boot sales, charity shops, or go looking for records if I’m in foreign cities. I don’t have any stance on DJing digitally, but I don’t really do it, mainly as I’m not very good at whittling down what I’m going to take with me. And choice fucking paralyses me. So, it’s two bags of records, and if I’ve judged it totally wrong, I’ve judged it totally wrong. Playing records is more of a useful filter to me than anything else. I don’t think that records are imbued with some sort of…

Mystical quality?

No, not at all. I’m just a creature of habit. And now, if I wanted to record all these records to digital, it would take forever. I’ve maybe got thirty, forty years left. And I don’t want to spend five of them recording.

A lot of people as immersed in music as you are sometimes talk about sometimes having a difficult relationship with music. From your perspective, what are some of the downsides of being as immersed in music as you are? If any?

I suppose, when you actually think about it, what are the downsides? Well, there’s no job security. So, ‘joining society’, buying a house and all that, you can forget all that. It’s the same with anything really. So a small percentage of people put records out, but only a small percentage of people make money from it, but then only a smaller percentage of them make a really good living from it. So, I’m lucky in that people ask me to go places to DJ, but you can’t guarantee the pace of it, from a financial perspective. But, on the other hand, I couldn’t live without it. So it’s more of a compulsion than a choice.

I’m glad you used the word ‘compulsion’ there. I feel like it’s a bit of a war of virtue with DJs sometimes, a sort of race to see who’s passionate, who loves music the most. But really, I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it like that. It’s just something that I do, for whatever reason.

I’ve got all sorts of theories about it, but I’ve done my head in with half of them. I don’t actually understand it in that much of a meaningful way. It’s just what I like doing, and I can’t seem to stop.

The compilation is out via Test Pressing, who are at least loosely associated with the term ‘balearic’, and you’ve previously released on International Feel. How do you feel about that word?

I don’t really feel one way or the other about the term, really. That’s for journalists.

Stop giving level-headed answers, it’s a nightmare for me!

(Laughs.) I used to window clean when I was younger. I used to clean with this guy called Polo, he was the percussionist at the acid house club, Shoom. And he had kind of a breakdown, or a breakthrough, and he became a Jehovah’s Witness, basically. And he’d play balearic tapes in the car. And when I was younger, I used to think of it just as a codeword for ‘shit’. I couldn’t understand it in a dance music context at all, as I was obsessed with techno. But as far as what it means nowadays, I’ve taken it to mean a broad taste in music. In relation to this compilation, and Croatia, I suppose that ‘Adriatic’ is the correct term.

The tracks on the record are from Sheffield, Jamaica, London and further afield, often full of lovely dub FX. The music on there is so diverse, it sounds more like a quick trip through your collection than anything specific, right?

That would be about right. It’s more a reflection of visiting and working in record shops in London, and absorbing the sound of the city. London is very good for music, and there’s a lot of stuff out there. Really for a bit of music, and new sounds, it can be a bit overwhelming. Maybe it has some sort of balearic element, but I’m not old enough to tell you if it’s authentic or not.

Having grown up in the eighties, you’ve talked in the past about how even pop music at the time seemed to be “trying to find the answer to something?” Do you think dance music is trying to do the same?

I don’t want to say no, as that’s a big generalisation. It’s weird, there are counter-narratives, aren’t there? One is that everything is a rehash of the past. Which I don’t think is true, as you can listen to a tonne of new records, and there’s no way they could have been made any time other than now. But because of the overwhelming history of music available, it’s difficult to stay informed. And people listen to way, way more music than they used to. You needed to be a real maniac to get into the weird bowels of history, whereas now, you have Spotify.

I don’t know is music will be the artform people will find explains the world now, to reflect it, or represent it or challenge it. Maybe it will be something else. Maybe all the heroes are working in tech? Or maybe I’m too old! There’s always stuff going on that you don’t know about.

You were an accomplished DJ when you were barely out of your teens, and in a pretty glorious era of rave culture, too. Do you look back at that and feel a bit surprised with that youthful confidence?

I used to do parties with my mate from back home. He was the organisational one, and I had more records. We used to get hundreds of people at our parties. I ended up playing with Derrick May, Robert Hood, Luke Slater, all these people. It’s weird, it was just one of those things I fell into. It was happenstance that we managed to get these artists who didn’t play in London. But I remember we did an Analog City, with Juan Atkins and Derrick May playing live to 3000 people. It was in a massive warehouse, and there was a big garage night on next door. It was 1997, so I was deep into heroin at the time. And you could see the queue for the party we were playing at, which was eighty-percent, whereas the queue for next door had loads of men and women, everyone mixed up and dressed-up.

It was really dark and heads down, and at about four in the morning, we had a powercut. And you could hear the party going on next door, and loads of whistling and screaming. And I thought, “Fucking hell, we’re in the wrong party here!” Some of the music was amazing, but garage seemed a lot more fun.

Did you start to explore other sounds at that stage?

No, I just sold from my records to keep up with my heroin habit. (Laughs.) But yeah, from that point on, my taste was broadened. Before that, I was a teenager, so I was a convert. And as they say, there’s nobody more puritanical than a recent convert.

You’ve been booked recently to play by DJs such as Call Super, Ben UFO and Palms Trax, for nights and parties they have curated. This arguably makes you one of these ‘best kept secret’ people, even a ‘DJ’s DJ’ if you will… How do you feel about that term? Do you like the freedom and expectation you have to challenge people? Or do you fancy trading it for a go for an hour on the terrace at DC10 sometime?

I’d sell out in a second, if anyone’s offering! Nobody’s ever offered. It’s sweet of those guys to put me on. Joe, Call Super, he’s a mate and he’s sort of always had my back.  But of course, man! Set yourself up with a couple of years of that? But nah, nobody’s going to ask. As for DJ’s DJ? It just means your old.

John Thorp, June 2018.

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