A late winter snowstorm has passed over New York City on its way up the coast, and now the sidewalks are deep in the kind of wet, heavy blanket that’s all too familiar to the city’s pedestrians. It makes for a slushy post-midnight stroll from the G-train to Sugarhill Disco, a ramshackle, slightly down-at-heel repurposed restaurant on a decidedly non-gentrified corner in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood. The crowd of several hundred, gathered for a night hosted by NYCs Sublimate crew, is nearly as sloppy as the weather outside – a result, perhaps, of the late hour, a run on the bar (it was drained of pretty much everything but whisky hours earlier) and most of all, a fiercely vibratory set from Cologne clubland whiz Lena Willikens.
But as the party slips into after-hours mode, there’s a shift in tone. The timbres sharpen; the rhythms crystallise; the revellers, lost in an intensely buzzing haze, snap to attention. Through the smoke machine emanations, illuminated by little more than a scatter of neon tubes, you can see what’s responsible for that transformation: Ben UFO has taken the reins.
The DJ, real name Ben Thomson, doesn’t announce himself with any fanfare. Instead, the Londoner, considered by many to be one of the best pure DJs around, subtly transforms the room’s vibe by leading off his set with a series of relatively muted, vaguely otherworldly tunes that include Nozinja’s lilting Shangaan electro number ‘Xihukwani’ and the gently jacking CLI remix of Chmmr’s ‘User’. Clad in a loose-fitting black shirt, bobbing behind the CDJs in a way that suggests both deep concentration and nonchalant enjoyment, he spends the next three hours cycling through sounds, beats and moods as varied as the whirring melancholy of Area’s ‘Rigl’, the rubbery jitter of Metamatics’ remix of People’s ‘Do It’, the breakbeat gospel-soul of Andrés’ ‘The Essence’ and even a bit of mid-80s freestyle sparkle via Clio’s ‘Eyes’. Elements of bass, electro and garage weave through the set; deep beats veer into angular ones, 303 bleeps melt into sensuous pads and murk nestles against lightness. The set closes with revved-up breakbeats – though, as he later describes it, “it was really the softest 155bpm music imaginable.” By the time the lights come on at well after 8am the crowd’s exhausted, and Thomson looks woozily satisfied.
Two days later, Mixmag is in Manhattan’s West Chelsea to meet up with Thomson after an arduous, afternoon-long photoshoot. “These things don’t come especially naturally to me,” he admits as we trudge through the streets in search of a place to chat, his voice implying that the shoot was more of endurance test than he’s willing to let on. But Thomson – who at 32 remains as youthful-looking as in 2007 when he, Pearson Sound (aka David Kennedy) and Kevin McAuley (aka Pangaea) founded Hessle Audio while students at Leeds – is still fired up from the party, despite its humble setting. “I loved that place,” he says after we settle into our booth at a 60s-era diner, one of the few remaining vestiges of old New York in this hyper-gentrified neighborhood. “Everyone seemed on the same page, from the door staff to the sound crew to the dancers. I really like the feeling of informality you get at that kind of party.”
Actually, ‘fired up’ might be too strong a term to describe Thomson’s mood. He’s certainly enthusiastic, but he’s soft-spoken and nearly drowned out by the clattering cups and dishes of the diner. Though he exudes a charmingly understated friendliness, he’s not the most outgoing guy in conversation, choosing his words carefully. But he’s in fine spirits – not only because of the Sublimate gig but also due to the fact that he’s been on a bit of a mini-holiday in the city, using it as a home base for a series of North American dates. The previous night he’d hit The Loft, the iconic Gotham affair originally led by David Mancuso and now helmed by his devoted minions, which was celebrating its 48th anniversary.
“It was the first time I’ve ever been to The Loft, and it was really enjoyable,” he says. “One of the best things about it was that no-one was facing the DJ, and people were dancing with each other. I barely even looked at who was playing. What the DJs were doing didn’t feel performative. That’s something I strive for myself.”
Standing in the spotlight behind the decks, it’s hard to avoid being the centre of attention, but Ben’s restrained mixing style probably helps him in that regard. At the Sublimate party, he wasn’t exactly passive – when he wasn’t searching for the next track on the CDJs, he’d actively work the mixer – but he tends to let his selections play out, allowing them plenty of room to breathe.
“When I was younger I was really into that UK style of aggressive, hands-on mixing, with lots of tricks and cuts and double-ups” he admits. “But I got my fill of that. I was injecting myself into the proceedings in a way that felt a little bit forced. I realised I’d rather find ways to make things interesting without being so domineering about it.” He’s even loathe to do much pre-editing. “I might edit an extra eight bars onto the beginning, or if there’s bizarrely arranged intro I might add a cue point, but that’s the extent of it, and even that’s quite rare. I don’t set loop points or anything like that. I feel like the track is the track.”
But you don’t get to be Ben UFO – the one DJ you make sure you see at a festival, the DJ consistently cited as the best around by so many of his peers, perhaps the best-loved in the underground right now despite never having released a track of his own – simply by letting songs play out as nature intended. Neither does that alone inspire the sort of fandom that led to an article earlier this year in The Independent entitled ‘How Ben UFO became the most loved meme in electronic music’. (“I didn’t love that article,” he admits, of a piece that tossed around descriptors as disparate as ‘mythical’, ‘loveable’ and ‘cartoonish.’ “That’s not really the kind of attention I’m looking for.”)
The NYC gig marked the third time Thomson’s played the Sublimate party – but even so, founder and co-resident Matthew Sagotsky has a hard time pinning down what it is that makes him so compelling as a DJ. “My hunch is that he seems so into the magic that can happen when an artist and crowd are in a truly symbiotic relationship,” Sagotsky says. “His art is in creating those ineffable moments we’re all looking for.”
Glasgow’s Optimo duo, Jonnie Wilkes and Keith McIvor, are Ben UFO superfans; he was one of a select few who they asked to spin at the pair’s 20th anniversary bash last year. McIvor believes that one key to Thomson’s appeal is his ability to recontextualise a track in a way that makes you experience it anew. “He’ll put on a track I might have dismissed,” McIvor says, “but he can bring it back to life. I’m not sure quite how he does it – but I can say that his mixing is exceptional. It might be that Ben’s just got the skill to pull together different things that a lesser DJ wouldn’t, or couldn’t.”
That gets a bit closer to his formula, but if anyone can unlock it, it’s David Kennedy – after all, the DJ-producer otherwise known as Pearson Sound has known Thomson since he and Kevin McAuley were feeling the bass at dubstep incubator FWD>> at Plastic People, before Hessle Audio was even a gleam in their eyes. For Kennedy, the answer is simple: Thomson just has an ear for a good track. “What Ben’s especially good at is being able to find tunes that actually do things,” he says. “That’s a crude way of putting it, but a lot of his records are ones that he can let go for six or seven minutes without anyone getting bored. There’s a real structure to the tracks. And that allows him to put sets together in a very patient way.”
Over a beer at the diner, Thomson himself is at a loss to spell out the key to his appeal: “If there’s one thing, it’s nothing that I’m conscious of.” That response is probably partially down to his natural distaste for self-promotion; he has no PR team, his first Instagram post wasn’t until January, and rather than a club invite it featured him standing outside the Derwent Pencil Museum in the Lake District. But after a few seconds of pondering, he attempts to come up with an answer.
“Even though I’m drawn towards sharp contrasts and left turns when I play, I like to mix with the groove,” he says. “I try to keep everything flowing in an easy, natural way. But at the same time, I’m a control freak. I like to feel I’m leading the proceedings to a degree. Even when there are huge peaks, even when there are waves of excitement and things feel like they’re on the brink of chaos, I want to feel like I’m in control of that. If I’m in control, I’ll know the reasons why I’ve done what I’ve done, and I’ll know why everything’s fallen into place the way it has. That’s what makes me feel happy. I feel like I play at my best when I’m focusing on listening as much as I am on playing.”
Thomson grew up in the London suburb of Ealing with his parents and younger sister. His mother worked in the civil service and his father in the classical music world, “but he’s a big jazz fan, so I grew up with a lot of that,” he says. “There were tons of Blue Note CDs in the house. I can definitely see how something like [Miles Davis album] ‘In A Silent Way’ might have had some kind of influence.” He played cello and drums, but slid easily into DJing. “It wasn’t hard to get serviceably good at vinyl beat-matching, which might have freed me up to think more about things like flow, about why certain grooves complement each other, why things clash – and when to abide by those rules.”
His career path was sealed in early 2007, when Thomson, Kennedy and McAuley founded Hessle Audio. They did it in part to serve as a vehicle for the latter two’s music, as well as an outlet for the bevy of demos they were reaping through the Sub FM internet radio show they hosted (Hessle Audio soon migrated to Rinse FM, where it’s been transmitting for the better part of a decade). Over the years it’s been deemed a dubstep label, a bass music label, a house or techno label, and more – but in reality, Ben says it’s “part of a diverse continuum of UK dance music rooted in soundsystem culture,” taking in all the strands that description implies to create something new, and in the process pushing the evolution of club music ever further.
“Well, I would never phrase it quite that way,” Thomson says, “but it’s something we actually talk about a lot. We don’t want to put out records that sound familiar to us. We’re interested in putting out music that surprises us, inspires us, and perhaps doesn’t fit in anywhere else. Sometimes it works, and a record will become its own tangent; other times it doesn’t work, and that’s fine, too. But enough of our records have had the sort of impact we wanted them to that I feel quite proud of what we’ve done.”
That impact, and that of his own DJ sets, led him to what might have been the biggest gig of his career: the Saturday-night headlining set at last August’s Dekmantel. “They said, ‘You may not think that you’re the guy to do this, but we’d like you to try’,” he recalls. “And it did feel like a big moment, but perhaps not in the way that people might expect. The real reason it felt the way it did was simply that I was surrounded by friends, by people I really look up to and whose music has been vital to me. That I could share the moment with those people was the special part.”
And that might be the key to what makes Ben UFO tick: he’d prefer to be part of something bigger, whether a messy afterparty or a huge festival, rather than its leader. He realises that he’s the one in control, yet he doesn’t want to be the centre of attention. “I understand why people might be curious about what I’m doing and how I’m doing it,” he says, “but in an ideal world, what I’m doing would be an entirely separate concern from what’s happening on the other side of the booth. That’s bigger than any one person.” He keeps his private life private. “I don’t like to talk much about that. I don’t have any hobbies. I think I need one,” he adds, with a chuckle. “I basically just spend time with friends, but work gets in the way, as it does for everyone.”
Right now, that work is dominated by an upcoming residency at XOYO, where Thomson and his guests – Optimo and Willikens among them, along with Four Tet, Joy Orbison, d’n’b deity Storm, Shackleton and others from the Hessle Audio family and beyond – will be holding it down for 13 consecutive Fridays. “It’s definitely the most extensive thing I’ve ever been involved in putting together,” he says.
And maybe it’ll also include dipping his toe into studio work. “I do think a lot about why certain records sound the way they do and others sound a different way, and why I’m drawn to some records and not others,” he says, “so I think it could be an interesting thing to do. It could be an exercise in thinking carefully about what kind of aesthetic I find exciting, and how to go about producing that. Also, making music seems to be something people really seem to enjoy, right?”
It’s that kind of mindset – exploratory, coolly analytical, while still leaving room for fun – that gets to Thomson’s secret of just why he’s one of the most revered members of the clubbing community. It’s in his selections, the way he puts them together and the effect they have. His sets can lead you to think about a track, and about DJing itself, even while you’re dancing like a loon. And if he never does start producing, well, he’s already left a stronger mark on dance music than a hit record ever could.