Creative Living

Stephen Christian


We catch up with Warp Records' Creative Director, Stephen Christian, to talk magazine culture, the American Midwest, and London's best record shops...

GOODHOOD:  How long have you been in this house?

STEPHEN CHRISTIAN:  In this house... it'll be almost 3 years. And then before that, in a house right around the corner on Wimpole St., and then before that just by London Fields, and before that Old Street. So all very close in proximity. But before that, I lived in a weird bedsit in Camden opposite The Dublin Castle for the first few months I was in London and that was an adventure. It was a super-noisy pub so it wasn't the most relaxing spot. And since then, for 8 or 9 years, I've been East. 

GH: What’s your background – How did you end up living in London?

SC:  Originally I'm from Kansas, so right in the middle of America. I lived in New York for about 10 years and then came here. It was Warp that brought me here because I was working in the office in New York for a bunch of years and then was asked to move over.

GH:  How did you end up working for Warp?

SC:  I'd been doing a bunch of random stuff in New York all related to music, a bit of DJing and writing for magazines–Dazed and i-D, and an American magazine called Anthem–just bits and bobs, and doing some work for The Fader. At the same time, I was working for a German label called K7 who had an office there. At the time they were doing a bunch of records with a British hip-hop label called BBE and so I was working on J-Dilla records, Questlove records, and Madlib records. It was a really exciting time.

It's crazy, a friend of mine worked in a record shop around the corner from here and Pete Rock was digging in there and my friend called me and was like, "Pete Rock's in here..." and I was like "that's crazy, I worked with him." So, I went round and saw him for the first time in ages here in East London. And yeah, from that I met the guys that were running Warp in New York and the rest is history.






GH:  How did you end up exposed to the music and culture that was emerging from the UK? Kansas is a long way from London…

SC:  I grew up listening to punk and hip-hop, and I was skateboarding and doing graffiti. That was the shit that was around in Kansas in the mid to late '90s and that was really exciting, and from that, stuff started to creep in like Portishead and Massive Attack. You'd hear weird hip-hop mixes where somebody would play a Boards of Canada record...
It's a strange thing because it's Trump country, basically. It's hyper-conservative, fucked up in so many deeply ingrained ways. But there's a lot of amazing things about, it in that it's the heart of America. It's such a conflicted duality of a place. But weirdly, I think, when I grew up it seems like it took a while for stuff like Chicago and Detroit’s electronic music and stuff like that to matriculate that far into the middle, but what did make it was a lot of the rap from Memphis, Atlanta, and Houston that was happening in the '90s. You'd sort of hear bits and pieces of that on the radio.




GH:  That’s interesting - you hear that a lot of people used to discover music from the radio back then. Why do you think that’s the case?

SC:  I think the state of American radio in the mid-to-late '90s was that it wasn't totally corporate-controlled. So you'd get people who could play the stuff they wanted to, they weren't bound to playing three Katy Perry records an hour or whatever it might be now. And that was exciting. I mean the beautiful thing about growing up somewhere like Kansas was if you're a kid, and you're skateboarding and you're into music you don't really know what's cool. So you're not educated enough to know that you're not really supposed to be into punk or the Wu-Tang Clan. I remember we used to get CDs from the public library, I remember getting Cibo Matto and these weird... it was just all this beautiful mess because we didn't know any better than to just mix everything up. There was nobody 'cool' really telling us you couldn't be into stuff.
And then from that I got super-obsessed with magazines because it was such an amazing time for magazines then. So it was like everything... I used to buy imports, there was one bookshop that every month they'd have one copy of a $12 issue of The Face which, at the time, felt so luxurious. 

GH:  Where was this?

SC:  So, I grew up in a town called Wichita which is like, 300,000 people. So it's small, a small city, but in terms of getting that there was like, a Borders and a Best Buy and it was all chains. So yeah, there was this amazing American magazine called Ray Gun which as a bit like an American The Face, and then yeah there was buying copies of The Face and that was great because it just threw everything in a weird mix and that was representative of what I guess we were into. And then the way I started hearing Warp stuff, specifically, was from being a Nine Inch Nails fan. Trent Reznor released a bunch of the Warp records through his label in America, and so it came at me from that angle, so I listened to it from the age of about 16 or 17.

GH:  You could argue being transplanted from a small town in Kansas to London is a fairly big leap, right?

SC:  Well I guess it's been a bit of a gradual thing because, you know, Kansas to New York to here, so the bigger shift was probably from Kansas to New York. Moving from New York to London was much easier. I think London's a pretty magical place in the way I think New York is a pretty magical place, it's the reason they attract people from all over. It's that, sometimes it's a big illusion, but it's like that sense that anything's possible, right? Which either sort of crushes people or builds them up.

GH:  How have you found the area changing?

SC:  It's interesting because it's like, all these things, you make your own reality, don't you? And I tend to hang out around here with people who have lived here for a really long time or have a really good working knowledge about how the place has changed. I guess I only really know second-hand how it's changed over the past 25/35 years.

But I guess from living in Brooklyn, right when it was at the tipping point of gentrification, or the tangible tipping point… you know whether it's here or it's in Brooklyn, or it's in Detroit now or parts of LA, it is just a thing that's happening everywhere. It's a conflicting thing because generally people like us are this indicative element of that happening which is problematic. But an interesting thing that happens, which is a new by-product of gentrification, is that the aesthetic of everything starts to look the same. Every place starts to have a coffee shop with exposed concrete walls and every place starts to have this kind of restaurant or that kind of whatever. It's really a problem when it starts being exclusive against the people who have a rightful claim to an element of ownership of the place.

GH:  It's quite similar to the idea that, in the age of the internet, culture itself gets diluted down...

SC:  Yeah it's hard to pinpoint isn't it? Because you do want these things to cross borders, transcend localities, and be these communicative elements, whether it's a flat white or a style of music of a way of dressing. But then, I guess the trick we haven't all worked out yet is how do you keep that from being subsumed into this monoculture which is everything all at once…


GH:  What're some of your favourite record stores in London?

SC:  Cosmos, the local spot on Hackney Road, is really good. Amazing jazz records. The original is in Toronto. That's a great spot too. As usual, Sounds of the Universe and Phonica. I mean, London is so spoilt for choice when it comes to record shops. You go to Central London and it's insane, you could spend an afternoon just pissing money up a wall on great records!
There's such a weird economy around vinyl at the moment, where the amount of money people think they can charge for things, the scale is just so out of whack. And the good thing about most London record stores is that they're not exorbitant, even quite rare reggae records at Cosmos or whatever, they're expensive but they're in line with what a reasonable price should be. 

GH:  If you could pick out a few favourites I wouldn't know about, "you've got to listen to this!" what would they be?

Prince Jammy and King Tubby - His Majestys Dub

This is just an amazing record, and cover, and it's Prince Jammy and King Tubby, so it's pretty psychedelic. I mean, the best dub is, right?

Standing on the Corner - Standing on the Corner

A really young band from New York called Standing on the Corner. Kind of like a punk band if Sun Ra and Frank Ocean formed it, or something. They're incredible.

Holley & Irving - Holley & Irving

This is fucking amazing. It's a Canadian record of  minimalist compositions, sort of in the vein of Steve Reich or Terry Riley. I just don't know why anyone would know it, but it's amazing. Lead Lute is the one.

'O'Rang - Herd of Instinct

This is kinda a weird one. So this is a band from the '90s, 'O'Rang, and I think it was two of the members of Talk Talk, and they made this kind of fucked up, industrial tribal trip-hop record, I guess. I think Beth Gibbons from Portishead was on it too, but this is just a really incredible record that people don't seem to know about, but they should.

Alice Coltrane With Strings - World Galaxy

This one's just a perennial favourite, it never gets old. Her playing with strings is just this whole other level of galactic shit if you know what I mean? And that's Flying Lotus' aunt as well, and I was telling him about it and he was saying "yeah, that's the one." It's the one he always goes back to.