The Slacker is back on track

Shem McCauley decided to jack in the London scene two years ago in favour of eastern culture and warm weather so he moved to Thailand where he found sufficient creative energy to complete an album 10 years in the making. The progressive house DJ and producer, also known as Slacker, was in need of some alternative inspiration, and while living in Bangkok Shem has trained as a yoga teacher and this week released his first Thai-inspired album Start A New Life.

He’s been in Buenos Aires over the past few days for the South American Music Conference (SAMC), and talked to the Herald prior to the electronic music festival about how the expatriate lifestyle has helped him focus on making music again and how he started off in pirate radio.

Now aged 42, one of Shem’s first musical ventures was while he was studying at university in Brighton. He says: “I was 18, which, was, well I don’t even want to think when that was, but it was at a pirate radio called Faze FM. There was an underground dance scene which was kind of linked to the university as well. Carl Cox and Norman Cook (Fatboy Slim) were also doing shows on this station — this was back in 1989 or 1990. I got gigs on pirate radio because I was a club DJ who used to do warehouse parties and I was known on the scene.”

Back in the day Radio Luxembourg was the most famous pirate station, and it was an outlet for clandestine creativity. But now in 2009 any old wannabe can set up shop on the internet and make themselves heard. Is there any point to pirate radio in this day and age? Talking about the UK, Shem says: “In London I know of a crazy pirate station in the East End which plays grime, a mixture of drum ‘n bass and house music. I suspect with the internet it’s not so necessary but when you’re driving about in your car you can’t pick up internet radio. I think it still exists but clearly it’s not as popular as it used to be. Pirate radio is like vinyl: it’s been edged out by technology.”

Shem doesn’t give off the aura of your average DJ who plays as hard as they work. Although he’s mates with some of SAMC’s other international artists such as Lee Burridge, he enjoys maintaining a low profile. “I just arrived in Buenos Aires and am here for a few days but prefer to keep myself to myself. Sometimes I like to keep quiet then be surprised by everything and not do too much research beforehand. Unless someone drags me off to the Pyramids, I’m not a very good tourist. I like keeping myself to myself. It sounds a bit boring, doesn’t it!”

The softly spoken Londoner left his home town two years ago for pastures new because he felt like he was drying up, professionally speaking. “I wasn’t happy in London or inspired to write music and was thinking that I might not write any more so I moved to Thailand. As soon as I arrived, I had a brand new life, and it’s a bit of a cliché really but started doing yoga, and just hanging out again, going out to clubs and bars and being with friends. I then got the inspiration to finish an album which I’d been trying to finish for 10 years. It’s all slower stuff, chillout coffee table stuff I call it, and it’s a departure for me but it’s more mature and it’s about my experience of moving to a different country. That’s what I’ve been working on for the past year and a half and I finished it four months ago.”

He adds that the music scene has changed so dramatically and that this new album has given him a chance to clear his head. “Making club tracks now is not the same as it was ages ago and I think my inspirational values have shifted. It’s a new era. It’s new music, it’s a bit more grown-up and I want to see where it takes me. I still play big club tracks in clubs — but making them, well unless the inspiration comes back, I’m not sure I will again.”

He hasn’t set up home on one of the tourist trap Thai islands such as Koh Samui but instead chose capital city Bangkok. “I like busy places and for me it’s so much more chilled than in London. I cleared my possessions and arrived there with two suitcases. I’ve got a very simple life,” he says. “In London everyone’s running on a treadmill to get somewhere, to earn a crust or to succeed, but the nature of the West is that you’re conditioned to keep doing stuff and getting stuff to be happy, but actually it’s rubbish. The more stuff I got and did, the less happy I was.”

This whole lifestyle change makes Shem sound a bit like the anti-DJ. “DJing, when it’s done properly, is all about good music and good fun. Over the past few years in London, I wasn’t listening to music for leisure that much. Making and playing music became a job and all that passion and joy was vanishing. As soon as I got to Bangkok I found I was chasing music again and started listening to pop and Thai music. If a DJ is loving music and wants to play it to people to communicate then it’s fine, but being in the business to get recognised and be successful, well that’s a problem.”

He adds: “All I’ve done is clear out the clutter and uselessness and then I had time to work on life. It’s simple; good health, doing yoga and being with good people, eating good food and enjoying a cheap lifestyle. It’s all about sanity. It takes a very strong person to be creative and be their own boss and I found it difficult to do all that. It’s a really good balance and I think you take stock at some point and unless you’re Sasha or John Digweed who have got millions in the bank, then why would you change?”

Back to this side of the world. This isn’t the first time Shem’s played here and he speaks fondly of Buenos Aires. “This is one of the best cities for clubs and gigs I’ve ever been to. I remember playing Pacha a few years ago and it was electrifying. I love it. I’ve played Argentina eight or nine times, and the guy who normally books me works for Pacha so I’ve played there several times. I’ve never had a bad gig here.”

Where & When: If you missed Slacker at last weekend’s SAMC, get a taste of his new material ‘Start A New Life’, which is now available on iTunes.

The SAMC verdict
Slacker: “SAMC was a real blast for me, I had a wicked time.The place was huge, and the crowd was really up for it. Even early on when I played the atmosphere was electric: it needed to be, it was bloody cold out there! Thanks to everyone who turned up and danced the night away.”
Ronan Portela (Unlock Recordings): “The event satisfied the expectations of plenty of electronic music fans because there was a wide variety of artists. And despite the cold and previous days’ storms people were entertained regardless. What personally emoted me was when I went into the tent where Alex Under had just started playing, he was putting on Beat Up, a track from my recent EP which was released just a few weeks ago.

First published in the Buenos Aires Herald in September 2009

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