We catch up with the Toolroom regular after a busy summer on the White Isle
Many DJs and producers, sad to say, never make it out of their bedrooms. Some plug away at their craft and manage forge themselves a lasting, if not always particularly lucrative career – sometimes for a few years, sometimes for a few decades. A lucky few catch something of a wave and ride the zeitgeist to success and stardom. But not many get to do that twice!
One man who has, though, is Friend Within, AKA Lee Mortimer. He first emerged into the public eye under his own name in the mid-00s, surfing the electrohouse wave and racking up a string of club hits on labels such as Carioca, Cr2 and his own Wearhouse Music. But in 2013, as the electrohouse fad died away, he managed to reinvent himself as Friend Within – and catch a second wave.
The housier sounds he was peddling under the Friend Within moniker soon found a home on Dirtybird and Hypercolour, while an ubiquitous reworking of Wildchild classic Renegade Master and DJ support from the likes of Monki, B.Traits and Skream helped to cement his position at the forefront of a new wave of UK house producers that also included the likes of Disclosure, Eats Everything, Jackmaster and Shadow Child – AKA Dave Spoon, another electrohouse defector and a good friend of Lee's.
That was half a decade ago, but a string of singles on Toolroom have helped keep him firmly on the map in the years since. And right now he's just finished a summer season playing for them at Eden in Ibiza, so with latest single Set You Free still climbing the Beatport charts, now seemed like a good time to grab him for a chat…
Tell us a bit about how you got into DJing/making music in the first place?
"I've been into dance music my whole life. Even when I was a kid my favourite tracks were the house and rave tracks that crossed over into the charts. I certainly wasn't aware of any underground scene but there were always cool tracks that made it into the Top 40. Watching acts like SL2 and Black Box mime on Top Of The Pops was the highlight of my week!
"I've been DJing for half my life now and started messing around with basic music software on a Commodore Amiga when I was about 12, with a cousin of mine in Liverpool. It wasn't until 2005 that I got a half-decent computer running Reason and got more into production. It's 14 years now since my first record came out, which feels very weird."
Prior to 2013 you were known as an electrohouse producer… what prompted the change in direction?
"I wasn't interested in the way electrohouse was going. EDM was coming through and I just wasn't into that at all. If I'm honest, the music I was known for was going out of favour, too. Dancefloors were filled with dubstep which had taken a lot of the electrohouse crowd.
"Thankfully there were a few saving graces in 2013 – mainly the emergence of Disclosure, Eats Everything and Shadow Child. I loved what they were doing. It took me back to the first tracks I was releasing in 2005. Friend Within was born and that was that. But I'm still known as Lee Mortimer to my Mum and Dad, funnily enough!"
As Friend Within, your music has featured on several big labels including DFTD, Dirtybird, Hypercolour and Rinse. But you seem to have found something of a 'home' at Toolroom… what is it you like about working with them, particularly?
"I guess in the simplest of terms, Toolroom just ‘get' me as a producer and believe in my music. I think all of the producers they regularly have on the label are unique and bring something fresh. The Toolroom guys and girls are all really nice folk who are in it for the right reasons. They have a great A&R team that don't just say ‘yes' or ‘no' to a track. They'll take an underground house track and get it onto daytime radio too!"
A lot of your tracks are characterised by quite poppy vocals, which implies crossover appeal is the goal… I take it you're not someone who believes in keeping things resolutely underground?
"That's an interesting question, because I never set out to make a ‘radio song'. Dancefloors are my main priority, and when I'm making a track I'm thinking about how it will fit into one of my sets or which DJs would be into it. If you look at one of my biggest tracks of late, The Truth, it only has 12 words in it. I really never made that with the intention of getting on the Radio 1 playlist but it very kindly did!
"This will sound massively hypocritical but I'm actually not a massive fan of big vocal tunes. The only tracks I usually play in a DJ set with many vocals will be my own. I know that makes absolutely no sense, but there you go!"
You've been playing regularly at Eden, Ibiza this summer. How was that?
"Yes, this has been for Toolroom's weekly residency on Sundays. It's been so good to be out in Ibiza eight times this summer – the most I've ever done. Eden is a boss club and the crowds have been great all summer. I just love Ibiza so much!"
Do you see yourself as first and foremost a DJ or a producer – and has that changed over the years?
"I've been DJing longer that I have producing, but I don't think I can really separate the two. The music I make is aimed at DJs and dancefloors, so I feel like I can't be one without the other.
"Having said that, I have been doing some additional production with other acts recently. Like the collaboration I did with Friendly Fires on their new album. Hopefully there will be some more stuff with them in the future."
Finally, what else is going on for you right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"Apart from Set You Free which is out now, I've had two tracks come out on Sonny Fodera's Solotoko label, plus there are a few remixes of very interesting artists to come. And I'm mega-proud of the Friendly Fires collab Offline, too. Their whole new album is great and I'm so happy to be a part of it."
Words: Russell Deeks
Set You Free is out now on Toolroom