Twenty-three years after kickstarting his career, Paul Morrell is now one of the Midlands’ most renowned DJs, with residencies at both XXL in Birmingham and London and at Ministry of Sound. Here, he talks about his career, DJing on the gay scene, his remixes and more...
When did you first begin DJing, Paul?
I started in 1995 as a mobile DJ, working mainly at parties for friends. However, my interest in dance music and DJing started way before that. I’ve always had a keen interest in house music - it was the cool alternative to the Brit Pop/Spice Girls stuff that was in the charts at the time - and from a very young age, I’d collected house music records. The first records I bought were Pump Up The Jam by Technotronic and Ride On Time by Black Box in 1989. They really set out the style of music that I’d end up playing, as they’re two of the first major house records to cross over into the mainstream top-40. Initially, I didn't earn very much money at all as a DJ. I was simply playing at house parties for the love of DJing and to gain experience. The very early parties I did, I may have been paid £50, which was much better than the salary I was earning at my Saturday job, as I was still at school. This led me to believe that DJing was a viable career path, so I started pursuing it seriously after leaving school. I do think those early gigs were invaluable, however, as they gave me the opportunity to learn how to work a crowd, mix under pressure and test out new tracks. Looking back, some of my first gigs were a huge learning curve, with lots of things going wrong, or not perfectly. I think every good DJ needs to have experienced this, in order to improve and hone their craft.
What are your earliest memories of being a DJ?
When I first started, it was totally different to today, predominantly due to the fact that I had to lug around three huge boxes of weighty vinyl, which also cost an absolute fortune. DJs in 2018 simply hear a new tune on the radio or in a club that they like, Shazam it, download it and turn up with a USB full of new music and a pair of headphones. In 1995, it was very different, and DJs would often spend hours on a Saturday in a record shop compiling sets from the latest vinyl releases for a set that evening. Ten vinyl would cost anything up to £100, whereas 10mp3s cost £7. Music has become far more accessible to DJs in that sense. Also, you would often have to wait for weeks for a track to be pressed on vinyl before you could play it out, unless you were lucky enough to have been mailed it by the record company. A great example of this was Music Sounds Better With You by Stardust, which Pete Tong had been championing on Radio One for weeks - but nobody could get a copy. This would never happen now, as people would just illegally rip the record from the internet and incorporate it within their sets.
What type of music do you predominantly play?
I play a variety of different genres of electronic music, and don't particularly pigeonhole myself into one specific style. That said, I’ve always leaned more towards tougher-sounding music, as I feel it has a great energy in clubs, and my personal preference is EDM. When I initially began DJing, my sets consisted of a variety of genres, and most DJs played all types of music. A great example of this is Jeremy Healy, who is one of the DJs I truly admire. Jeremy often drops random tracks into his sets, which makes a crowd stop and go, ‘What the hell?!’ I’ve heard him play Twist & Shout by The Beatles in the middle of an electro house set. It's only in more recent years that DJs have been under pressure to pledge their allegiance to one specific genre - which is kinda sad, really, as it limits creativity. I have a love for all music, so if I have a trance record that I love from the 1990s or a disco record from the 1970s and it's appropriate to the crowd I’m playing to, I’ll find a way of including it.
What was your first ‘big’ gig?
My first major gig outside of my home town was supporting Paul Oakenfold at London's Ministry of Sound in 2008. This was also the very first time I’d played at Ministry of Sound. It was an extremely special experience - at the time, Oakenfold was one of the biggest DJs in the world. I’ve since gone on to support him several times, and have also released music on his Perfecto label. I just remember thinking that I’d really achieved something, as Oakenfold and Ministry are two major players in international house music culture. It was the DJing equivalent of playing at Wembley as a footballer.
Who’s the biggest DJ you’ve been on a line-up with?
It's really subjective, as a DJ who’s ‘big’ at the moment can be completely forgotten a year or so later. A DJ that I always love supporting is Boy George. He’s an international fashion & music icon and such a lovely guy to work with. He also provided the vocals on my track, Tall & Handsome, last year, which was a huge honour for me. I would say he’s probably the most internationally famous celebrity I’ve worked with frequently. I’ve also worked with huge trance and EDM artists such as Martin Garrix, Tiesto, Paul Van Dyk, Armin Van Buuren, Hardwell etc. I suppose to the average 18-year-old reader of this magazine, Martin Garrix is far more famous than Boy George. However, I wasn't really star-struck by any of those guys when I first met them; not in the same way I was with George.
Do any other DJs give you inspiration for your sets?
As I already mentioned, I was hugely inspired by some of the legendary British house music DJs of the 1990s, such as Danny Rampling and Jeremy Healy, but I constantly gain inspiration from new people. A more contemporary artist I really admire is Kryder. I absolutely love his recent production with Erick Morillo entitled Waves. It’s been a firm favourite in my sets for several months now. I also love Martin Solveig as a producer and a DJ, as his sets are always fun and quirky. He’s had a great career, and his productions are always really amazing floor-fillers. There’s also a new breed of young DJs, such as Craig Knight, James Bluck and Nathan C, who’re producing some great music, too. Avicii was also a more recent inspiration, and it was a huge loss to the EDM community when he passed away earlier this year.
Who would you like to DJ alongside?
To be perfectly honest, I’ve worked with almost every DJ that I’ve ever wanted to, so there aren’t that many left. I suppose the obvious one who would be most suited to my genre of music, and who I still haven’t met, is Calvin Harris. He’s had an astonishing career and completely revolutionised commercial dance music, opening it up to a new generation. I know that some people don't like his music, but I believe what he’s done for the EDM scene and youth culture as a whole is phenomenal.
What’s been your favourite gig to DJ at?
So far, one of the biggest gigs I’ve performed at is the Weekend Festival in Helsinki, Finland. The line-up basically consisted of a who’s-who of EDM. I was on the same line-up as Swedish House Maffia, Steve Aoki, Garrix, Tiesto, Marshmallow, Don Diablo etc. The festival is attended by approximately 30,000 people, and is one of the biggest in that area of Europe. That said, I’ve also had an amazing time performing for Birmingham Pride over the past few years. The atmosphere is always fantastic, both whilst playing and backstage. My early gigs in Coventry at my own Classique events were also extremely memorable, and I had a great time playing in the tiny venues there back in the early 2000s.
Where would you most like to DJ?
I intend to do a lot more overseas performances over the next few years, and am very much looking forward to performing at Matinee's Circuit festival in Barcelona later this month. I’m also absolutely thrilled to have been added to Gatecrasher’s line-up for their event in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. Obviously, being my home city, this venue being hugely iconic, and with Coventry having been selected as 2021 UK City of Culture, it’s fantastic to be back playing in my home town once again. Gatecrasher have pulled out all the stops with a huge line-up of UK DJ talent, including Judge Jules and Seb Fontaine, and I’ll be performing alongside an orchestra and live vocalists at the event.
You DJ at XXL in both London and Birmingham. What makes XXL so special?
XXL is unlike any other club in the UK. It’s one of the most important gay clubbing events for men, and hugely inclusive of every type of guy on the scene. Until I joined XXL, I’d predominantly only DJed on the straight scene, so initially found it to be a real eye-opener. The London event in particular is full to capacity virtually every week, and the clubbers themselves are a loyal group of guys who come to the event for an attitude-free night and to enjoy the music. I think one of the main things that makes XXL so special is the fact that the team itself is like a big family. Everyone works together to promote a great brand and provide a brilliant experience for people to enjoy. It really is a hugely unique clubbing event. I would encourage any guys who haven’t been to XXL before to come along and see for themselves.
There’s a special 30 Years of Club Classics event coming to Birmingham’s XXL. Are you excited about it?
Yes, extremely. The fact that XXL is such a mixed and diverse club age-wise means that the event should literally have something for everyone. There’s an abundance of great records within all of the genres of dance music over the last 30 years, and this event will really give me the opportunity to dig out some lost gems and take everyone on a real nostalgia trip. I’ll be going right back to the beginnings of UK house music and selecting tracks from 1989 onwards, slowly bringing the night up to date with more-recent classics.
We will also be asking the XXL clubbers to select their own club classics via the XXL Birmingham Facebook page, suggesting the tracks they’d like to hear me play. We’re doing a similar event at the start of August in London, where I’ll be joined on the decks by legendary producer/remixer KKlass and the other resident DJ, Alex Logan.
You also DJ regularly at Ministry of Sound. How does the straight scene differ from the gay one?
They’re completely different. Ministry of Sound is a lot younger; the crowd is predominately 18 to 24. XXL is a much more mature and far more discerning crowd. The other obvious difference between the two is that XXL is a men-only club; therefore the dynamic of the two is extremely different, as 50% of the clubbers in MoS are women.
You’ve worked with a lot of artists on remixes and original tracks. Who’s been your favourite?
They’re all great for different reasons, and all bring something unique and special to the table. I loved working with Mutya Buena, as she’s such an immense talent with a fantastic voice and great image. We’ve actually been in contact recently about doing another collaboration, which we’ve already written. It’s just a case of pinning her down to a date in the studio now, as she’s always so busy. That said, it’s also been great working with new artists such as Indigo Marshall and Vicky Jackson, both of whom are extremely talented and have amazing vocals. As I previously mentioned, it was also a huge honour that Boy George agreed to provide a vocal for me on my track, Tall & Handsome, last year.
You’ve recently been working on a lot of projects and remixes. Tell us a little about them...
The main forthcoming remix is of Troye Sivan's single, Bloom, which I’m hoping will be released late summer. I also have two new singles completed, one with Laura White entitled No Ordinary Love, and one featuring Amanda Wilson called Up In Flames. These are both big vocal piano house records and will hopefully achieve some success. The Laura White track in particular is extremely exciting, and I absolutely love her vocals on it. Finally, I have a forthcoming remix for a new artist called Ava Max, which will be released at the end of the summer.
What have you got coming up in the pipeline?
I’m absolutely thrilled to be returning on Bank Holiday Sunday, August the 26th, to one of the venues where I started my career. The Yard in Coventry (formerly The Glasshouse) is an extremely intimate 200-capacity venue that I first began promoting in somewhere around 15 years ago. This will be the first club gig I’ve played in Coventry for a number of years. The venue is extremely important to me, as it’s the place where I first worked with artists including Tall Paul, Sonique, Dave Pearce etc. It will always have a special place in my heart. Although it’s far smaller than the venues I now play in, I’m hoping that it will give some of the people who used to come along when I played regularly in Coventry the opportunity to do so again.
Locally, you can catch Paul Morrell at XXL at The Core in Birmingham every last Friday of the month.
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