Irish veteran Jonny Mac – an industry survivor in every sense – tells all about his storied past and his new international, genre-hopping collective
With just a handful of EPs and one album to their name since making their debut in 2015, Warriors Of The Dystotheque may (or may not) be a new name to many iDJ readers. But main man Johnny Mac is certainly no newcomer, having formerly – under his own name – been a stalwart of the breaks scene in the UK and Ireland back in the 00s.
During that first phase of his career, he toured all over the world alongside the likes of Shaun & Bez from Happy Mondays, Leeroy Thornhill from The Prodigy and Phil Hartnoll from Orbital – playing festivals and holding down several Ibiza residencies, as well as running his own very successful breaks night Frequency across the Midlands for a full decade. But then, in 2011, he seemingly vanished.
As Johnny reveals in the frank interview below, the party lifestyle had started to take a heavy toll – so much so that he turned his back on music completely for several years. But then he started messing around making beats on his laptop again, and before you know it, Warriors Of The Dystotheque was born, a loose trans-Atlantic collective of musicians and producers, all working remotely but masterminded by Jonny from his home in Derry, Northern Ireland.
With new EP Lost In Your Silence out now and currently picking up mucho radio plays, Jonny kindly offered to do us a DJ mix, and we took the opportunity to find out more…
Warriors of the Dystotheque is only the latest stage of your career, isn't it? Because you did a lot of stuff just as Jonny Mac in the 2000s… can you give us a potted history, for those that might not be aware?
"I grew up in Ireland with Fergie, Robbie Nelson and Gleave who were the biggest DJs to come out of the country, especially back then. It's crazy that they're all from the same town as me, it's only got about 80,000 people! Back then it was all house, trance and some techno. I’d go to Sugar Sweet at the Arts College, which was David Holmes’ night with the likes of Andrew Weatherall and Orbital playing. Then in 95 I bought some decks and started to DJ, playing trip-hop, acid jazz, funk and all sorts of big beat and breaks.
"After a few years I moved to Dundee and started a night called Frequency. I had Derek Dahlarge and Bentley Rhythm Ace. The night BRA played, Mike and Rich Bentley convinced me to come down to Birmingham the next day, as they were playing at Nutonik. So I went to Birmingham with the BRA guys and partied for a few days, which turned out to be the best move I ever made for my music career. That night, back at Rich’s, I met Graham Crabb, the lead singer of Pop Will Eat Itself – Rich had been their bass player before he started BRA – and they all went on to become good friends.
"I was off to study music at Coventry University anyway, so I took my Frequency night with me, but then while I was at uni I was approached by The Colosseum in Coventry, so I ended up moving it there. They went on to own a cool bar over in Leicester and bought The Sanctuary in Birmingham as well, so I’d book the DJs and play two out of the three venues on the same night. I’d play the cream of big beat, hip-hop, techno and D&B over the years.
"It was around this time I booked Leeroy Thornhill from The Prodigy. He’d just left the band so it was pretty much his first DJ gig. I also booked him for The Custard Factory, and both shows were excellent and we got on really well. So I suggested how about I try and put some shows together, and I ended up booking us all across the country, playing universities and clubs, as well as shows in Ireland and Europe, and a residency in Eden, Coastline and Bar M in Ibiza.
"After three years we went our separate ways, but our last gig was in London at the old Faceparty event in Billingsgate. I'd booked most of the bands and the DJs for the event, including Phil Hartnoll from Orbital. They'd just split and again it was Phil’s first gig, and again we hung out and swapped numbers and agreed to hook up the following week in Ireland. So we did, and we hatched a plan to do what I did with Leeroy for us. So we basically did exactly what I'd done for the previous years all over again."
You toured with people like Leeroy, Phil and Shaun & Bez from the Mondays for many years, but then according to your biog, you packed it all in and went back to Ireland in 2011. Why was that?
"Around 2007 I was starting to lose interest in going on the road: it was feeling like a job, not fun. Plus the narcotic intake was getting beyond controllable, and when that's the case, you can't do shit well – and you certainly can't make flights, travel etc. So I ended up going back to promoting and DJing in Cov: along with some mates I was running secret parties and warehouse parties and I had a few residencies in the city, so I settled for that and just kept on getting on it more and more.
"But the drugs got a proper grip of a few of us, and by Xmas 2010 I’d had enough. Then in the January of 2011 my best mate and housemate, who was the same age as me, drowned in the bath, and I found him. I realised it could easily have been me, so a few days after he was buried I packed a bag of clothes, grabbed my laptop and went straight back to Ireland, leaving loads of records, decks and more behind. I've been back here for the past 10 years and never returned to Coventry. I've also been 10 years off all the gear – I have my mate Moosa (RIP) to thank for that."
So what made you decide to start up again as Warriors Of The Dystotheque in 2015?
"I'd been back home three years. I didn't get involved with anyone I knew, and I never listened to any music at all, not even the radio. I totally fell out with it and my head was a mess, TBH, but I had some serious counselling and got my head in a better place. Then in 2015 I got a new MacBook and one day I got Logic and just started messing about with some beats, trip-hop style. I added some pads and other bits, then I sent it to my mate Sean in Cov. I’d studied music with Sean back in 02, and we’d been good friends for years. He really liked it and added a few bits to it.
"At this time I came across Mike and Nick Rufolo, two twins from New York, on YouTube. They were off the scale: Nick’s multi-instrumental, and Mike plays drums and does his crazy lo-fi production, so I contacted them and sent it over. They laid down strings and bass clarinet, and Mike added crazy echo box effects and more. Then they got a cool cat from the Bronx called Tony Jarvis into the studio, he laid vocals down and Hashtag was born.
"I decided to do another straight away and we did Atom Vibe: same idea of swapping files across the globe and never being in the same studio. This time Sean enlisted Melissa Graham to sing. Meanwhile I’d written The Future is Ours, Sean added some bleeps and squeaks to it and suddenly we had an EP, which I sent to the local BBC Introducing and they snapped it up, playing all the tracks off it.
"I’d not decided if I was going to carry it on, but we just kept going and it seemed, out of nowhere, I was back doing what I loved. But this time I was in control, sat at home in my studio not out on the road, so I was cool with that.”
As WOTD you’ve done nine EPs and an album in six years, which by today's standards isn't much at all. I assume this is a deliberate “quality over quantity” approach?
“Yeah, it's a bit much to just release the same formula over and over with a few tweaks! It's boring. Plus with the band (WOTD), we’re all in different countries doing different things, so that's the first reason for there not being as much output. But TBH even the album was never meant to be. It was just a collection of EP’s that we'd done, so we thought what the hell, let's release them as an album.
“We've been dead lucky though – everything we've released has made its way to daytime national radio, and specialist evening shows at BBC 6Music, Radio 1 and loads more local BBC stations, RTE in Ireland, even one of the biggest online stations in the world KEXP in LA, have been getting in on the act. Not a bad return for something out of nothing!
“After the album I was unsure as to whether or not I wanted to carry on the project, but we released a few more EPs where we sort of genre-hopped. Then during lockdown I hooked up with Howie B, who's produced Massive Attack, Bjork, Soul II Soul, Tricky and even U2. We collaborated on a doped-out jazz track called No Borders, which we wrote as a response to the Tories, Brexit and Trump's shitty policies. I grew up in the Troubles in Ireland and know what it's like to be divided, so this is something I’m right behind, and we donated all the money to Black Minds Matter UK.”
You play DJ sets in a wide range of styles, from chill-out and trip-hop, to jazzy, broken vibes to full-on breakbeat. When it comes to getting bookings, is that more of a help or a hindrance, do you think? And do you get instances where people are expecting X, but get Y?
“Not really, the last 10 years I've not really chased too many gigs and concentrated more on the band, anyway. But saying that I've DJ’d at all of Ireland's festivals a few times, and a few secret parties and bars as well as a tour of Thailand. I played Sunflower Festival in N. Ireland twice, the first was 5pm on a Sunday so I dropped a lot disco, breaks and big beat, next time I got to play around a moat and play some wonky trip-hop and electronica. I was due to headline on the Saturday this year in the Forest where I’d have got to play some the slow acid techno vibes that I'm right into ATM – the sort of stuff that’s on this mix.
"I got to play Ireland's biggest festival a few years ago, playing to 5,000 people. It was 9pm on a Friday, but you'd have thought it was 3am because they don’t mess about in Ireland! So I played a nu school breaks set reminiscent of the stuff I used to play with Leeroy and Phil. My favourite though was the Woolly Woodland at Stendhal – it's just a clearing in the woods at the edge of the festival, with a few strobes and red lights. That was a full-on slow acid vibe.
"I think people just tend to go with what they hear – unless it’s in a bar. when I tend to just go through a lot of funk breaks, hip-hop and disco. But some guy always wants to hear some Plump DJs or Rennie’s mix of Zero Emit while the civilised drinkers sip cocktails!"
Your new EP features two different vocalists, Lydia Kaye and Abby Oliviera. How did you hook up with them?
"Lydia is my mate Lex Shellard’s girlfriend. I've known Lex from my breaks days in the 00s, he was resident for a breaks night called Biff in Bath, and he has a project with Lydia called Kalahara, so I’d heard Lydia sing and took note of her in case we proceeded with the second album. So that was an easy hook-up and man does she deliver on Lost In Your Silence! It was premiered on Huey's radio show on 6Music on 12 June and was made Huey’s Beat of the Week as well as getting loads of radio play in Ireland.
"And Abby does the spoken word on An Island Affair. The one thing I've missed for the last 10 years, and now during lockdown, was Ibiza – I was due to go back last year, I had a few sunset gigs lined up but it fell through, obviously. So in February this year I started making the trip-hop sounding An Island Affair. It was a nod to the years spent visiting Ibiza: the clubs, the people, the food, the hippies, the freedom. We added strings and double-bass and made it a summery, blissed-out track, and then I thought I’d like a spoken word vocal on it, so my mate Pepzi recommended Abby. She lives here in Derry so he made the connect, we chatted about the vibe and she totally got it, and that's our new EP finished.”
It's also on your own label, Fly Beat Music. So tell us a bit about the label…
"Sean from WOTD actually started Fly Beat back in 2010, releasing breaks and some experimental stuff. Then he got busy with work, so it sort of came to an end, but in 2015 when we done our first EP we decided to just release it on the label, as it was already set up. We're really only going to release our own material on there, though.. The whole game is saturated with music and unless you're going to put in some serious hard work, time and money you will struggle to get a label off the ground, so we’d rather focus on WOTD.”
Finally, what else is going on/coming up for you that iDJ readers need to know about?
“Well, right now we're in the middle of promoting Lost In Your Silence. The EP's produced by Howie B and like I said it's got off to a superb start with Huey premiering the title track on BBC 6Music. The AA-side An Island Affair is also getting a lot of radio love at the minute, and it comes with a rather nice Balearic remix from Ken Fan who’s resident at Cafe del Mar in Ibiza. There's also a remix of Lost In your Silence by Cartin, a young up-and-coming producer who runs a night called Acid Flex here in Derry, and also in Belfast. Last year he won the new producer competition at the AVA Festival and this year he’s just been announced to play a Boiler Room set from there.
“Back in the studio, we're working on the second EP. That's due end of September/early October and again it's being produced by Howie B. We have the awesome vocals of Lydia back for this one and for the first time ever I got involved in the lyrics, so I'm stepping out of my comfort zone, if I have one! We’re also in the middle of writing the album and have about nine tracks we’re happy with. This time it's being treated as an album – much more focused, not just putting it out after all the EPs have been released.
“Meanwhile as all this is going on I’m waiting to see about a few festival gigs for some Warriors DJ action, and possibly a few in Ibiza. And maybe others… who knows what's on the horizon, with this pandemic and in general?”
Words: Russell Deeks Pics: Gav Connolly
The Lost In Your Silence EP is out now on Fly Beat Music
Last Survivor – Waste Away
Paulor – Letter To Futura
Middle Sky Boom – Shakira [Damon Jee Remix]
Nebbiu – Big Tattoo
Gionist & Turgi – Self Addiction
Adana Twins – The Curve
Whitesquare – Carte Blanche
Jepe – Restless Soul [Johannes Albert Remix]
Whitesquare – Acid Flashes
Demian – With Love & Voodoo
Ivan De La Rouch – Acid Time
DC Salas – Le Reveil