Grace Sands: “As I’ve become more queer, so has the music I play”
Rachel Imms speaks to Grace Sands about rave culture, identity and upcoming projects – including 'Taste the Grains', a mixtape tribute to her long-time friend and DJ partner Pete Woosh
DJ Grace Sands is a bonafide underground house aficionada, with decades of experience behind the decks and regular gigs and residencies across the world. Now identifying as female, Grace was formerly known as ‘Digs’ of the celebrated duo Digs & Woosh – co-founders of DiY Soundsystem, a Nottingham-based free party collective formed in 1989.
It’s well known that the open-minded pioneers of the soundsystem scene were fundamental in building the dance music community that we enjoy today. They made space for everyone – welcoming people who were often marginalised by society into the fold (or random field). The diverse DiY crew – including Digs & Woosh, Harry, Jack, Simon DK and Emma, as well as sound engineers and more – was no exception.
The atmosphere of inclusivity and freedom that DiY was built on is something that Grace credits when talking about her transition to identifying as female, as well as the joy she feels when performing to diverse audiences – for example, as part of her residency at Adonis, the unpretentious and inclusive standard-bearer for the London’s queer underground clubbing scene, and notoriously one of the best parties in London (see the Lab LDN takeover below for a taster).
A free party pioneer, Adonis icon, world-renowned underground house DJ and prolific producer, Grace Sands is written into the history of UK dance music and a true hero of the queer underground. We spoke to her about how her identity influences her music, Nottingham's party scene and forthcoming gigs and projects.
So Grace, what have you been up to lately?
I’m just coming down – haha – from the high of playing the latest Adonis party. The Cause has a new venue at 60 Dock Road – you can see the river, cable cars and O2 Arena from there. It’s a lush spot, the sun shone, and the crew ROCKED! I took over from Seb Odyssey, my fellow resident, playing his costly Discogs-sourced deep crates. I brought it up from Kevin Yost’s classic 'Dreams of You' (i! records), through to the new ’91-sounding tracks I’ve been digging lately – on labels such as Kalahari Oyster Cult and Slump Recordings. I made an edit of Mark Stewart’s (RIP) fucked-up take on Donna Summer’s 'I Feel Love' (Grace’s Fatally Attractive edit) which turned it out!
You were assigned male at birth. We’d love to know more about how you came to be Grace Sands. When did you begin to feel that you were drawn to her, and how long did it take to introduce Grace to the world?
Although this was something I was already aware of for some time, my journey took about 10 years. I was once told that a long, slow transition is the way to do it. That may be right, maybe not – I didn’t get to share Grace with my Dad as he passed, bless him, exactly when I was going to open up to him and my mum. I then had to wait to tell Mum – but when she finally came to visit Grace, it was just the perfect day. I’d inadvertently booked a table at the restaurant where Jon from Super Drama Records worked – he gave us free fizz – and there was a trans/non-binary server looking after us. Then, the cis girl I bought tickets from for the Thames boat ride paid me an affirmative compliment, and a trans girl was in the pub when we sat down. The universe blessed us that day.
When you began to identify as Grace, who was it easiest to open up to? Was there anyone from who you felt you had to hide the real you? Did you have a big ‘coming out’ moment, or was it more gradual than that?
I had a friend from Nottingham who was down here in London, and she used to come round to see me at home. We’d dance about to my hip hop tracks, and she’d give me feedback on outfits. She definitely helped Grace enter the world – I think having someone like that is very valuable. For me, some of the trickiest scenarios can be with ex-colleagues. You may or may not know that I was a physics teacher for eight years after ‘graduating’ from teaching DJing and production – London is an expensive city, after all. I shared the fact that I also presented as female with some of my teaching colleagues, but not the majority – so if any of them turn up now, it’s a situation that needs managing. It’s been fine so far – well, it usually is, after about an hour!
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As a well-known figure on the queer party scene and acclaimed Adonis resident, do people often ask you to comment on the wider topic of trans liberation/visibility/identity, particularly in the music industry?
As I’m not yet that confident in my voice, and knowing that videos will be posted all over the internet, I don’t really rush to do live Q&As. I did one for my pal and DiY co-founder Harry Harrison about the publication of his book, Dreaming in Yellow: The story of DiY Soundsystem (Velocity Press, 2022). Anyone who wants to know about the creation of the free party scene should check it out. In terms of publicly commenting on important LGBTQ+ issues, I have relented somewhat in recent months, and will be on the panel at Gut Level on May 19. This is a queer-led collective and music-focused space in Sheffield, where I’ll be talking about Emma Warren’s new book Dance Your Way Home – before heading down to Nottingham to headline a cool multi-genre event there [on May 19].
Your roots as a DJ began in Nottingham in the 1990s – you now play all over the world. Do you get back to the city much? Does it still hold a special place for you?
Yes, it does. Nottingham has changed in lots of ways since I moved there as a student and founded DiY – but not so much in others. It still has a compact centre that’s easy to get around and an up-for-it party crew with good taste that knows how to have funnnnn. My pal and fellow DJ/producer Lee Eden, AKA Animist, is part of Kinky Movement – one of the key deep house crews to come through since DiY. He curates regular nights around the city that showcase longstanding and new talent on the underground scene, and often invites me back. I’ll be playing Deep Invasion for him on May 19, alongside superstar Andy Riley, one half of Inland Knights. Established names like Wigflex, Soul Buggin’ and Gallery Sounds also help to keep Nottingham on the map for music – as well as pop-up discos and queer one-offs that are worth seeking out.
Read this next: Wigflex grew a world class party outside the UK's major cities
How did your Adonis residency come about?
I was playing at the NYC Downlow, Glastonbury’s queer mecca, in 2016 and Shay [Malt, ADONIS founder] apparently said I was the best DJ he heard all weekend. He offered me a residency there and then. A few weeks later, I cornered him in the smoking area at The Glory, a great drag bar in East London, plied him with a fat one and sealed the deal!
Do you find you attract a wider/different audience as Grace than you did as Digs? Do the two merge easily?
As I’ve become queerer so has the music I play – I’ll mix in Tronco Traxx’s 'Walk For Me' or RuPaul’s 'Category Is' – it’s been an evolution, but the roots remain the same. Having broadened my horizons, I’ve broadened my audience too.
Can you tell us a little about your upcoming 'Taste the Grains' mixtape, and your own London parties, Sands of Time?
;Taste the Grains; is a mixtape I’m dedicating to my long-standing friend and DJ partner Pete Woosh, who left us in October 2020. It’s taken a minute to write. The project reflects some of the styles of music we used to play, some new stuff I’m playing and, well, something to make you think “what’s this?”. Pete was always a champion of creativity and innovation, so he’ll hopefully catch a drift of it, wherever his soul rests. The tracks are all written by me and are out soon, given away first as part of the Crowdfunder for Matt Smith’s Exist to Resist 2.0 – a photography book dedicated to the era of parties and protest in the '90s. It’ll then be available on my Bandcamp. I wrote the tracks with three basic guidelines:
a) BPM 109-119, or thereabouts.
b) Try and limit the number of tracks in your DAW, sequencer to 12-14.
c) Stay away from the 4s (4-on-the-floor), unless they give you a wave!
Sands of Time is a party I’m running with my pal Toby at The Lion & Lamb in East London – a rave pub with a wicked system. I pick the guests from my history, current DJ friends, and people I respect. It might move about in the future, so keep an eye out. The label of the same name will be releasing this year – watch out!
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If you could go back and give your 19-year-old self some words of advice, what would they be?
Hang on tight baby love, it’s gonna be a wild ride! And remember – you do you, dearest – no one’s gonna roll out a red carpet for you and say “it’s this way.”
What’s the greatest quality a person can have, for you?
What’s your least favourite quality?
Anything that makes me say “babes, if you were a drag queen, your name would be Bellende Karlisle…”
What’s your idea of a great night?
I’m still a party girl at heart, so I guess my partner G Man comes round, we chill for a minute, have a couple of pre-drinks with pals, then go cut a rug and turn it out!
Taste the Grains mixtape is out soon via Bandcamp.
See Grace Sands at Deep Invasion, Tunnel Nightclub, Nottingham on May 19. Tickets here.
Rachel Imms is a copywriter and journalist, follow her on Twitter