Sheffield has come on a long way over the past 20 years. England’s one-time “City of Steel” was, in the dying days of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s era, a pretty grim place to be, its factories shuttered and its high streets desolate. Today, it presents a cleaner, more affluent — and, some might say, less interesting — face to the world.
When Warp Records held their 20th anniversary party there in September this year, the venue was an old steelworks on the outskirts of town. A screening of work produced by sister company Warp Films was held at Park Hill Flats, the Brutalist apartment blocks that city residents uncharitably liken to a row of sardine tins. The settings served as a reminder of the environment in which the label first developed, run out of a record shop on the now-fashionable Division Street.
“When we first started, [Sheffield] was very run-down and industrial,” says Warp cofounder Steve Beckett, speaking over the phone from the label’s London office (Warp’s other founder, Rob Mitchell, passed away from cancer in 2001). “It’s definitely got a different feel to it now.”
Warp moved to the capital over a decade ago, and he admits that he had some trepidation about taking the party back to his home city. “It can be a bit hit and miss in your own town,” he says. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
The birthday celebrations — which have also been held in Paris and New York, and this month arrive in Tokyo — have provided a timely opportunity to take stock of the development of one of the U.K.’s most influential independent record labels. A lavish box set was released in September, titled “Warp20,” containing a complete catalog of the label’s artwork and a range of music, including two records of eternally repeating loops and a double-album of its artists covering each other’s songs. The obligatory best-of compilation came with one disc of songs chosen by fans, the others picked by Beckett.
“It’s really hard,” he says of the curatorial process. “It’s like trying to choose between your children.”
The albums also serve as a reminder of how far the label has come. Starting with Forgemasters’ “Track With No Name,” Warp became known as a bastion for machine music. Its earliest releases — housed in distinctive purple sleeves adorned with the label’s retro-futurist logo — peddled a strain of leftfield techno that was dubbed “bleep.” From there, they moved toward a less danceable, more cerebral form of electronica, as represented by artists including Aphex Twin, Autechre and Boards of Canada.
To many record buyers, this is still the “Warp sound.” Yet the label has moved on: its most successful album this year looks set to be not some computer- sculpted masterpiece, but the guitar-based baroque pop of Grizzly Bear’s “Veckatimest.” Its roster now also includes bands such as Battles, !!! and Maximo Park.
Beckett is clearly a bit fed up at being asked about this drift from the electronic heartland. “We’ve always been involved with conventional bands as well, so I didn’t ever see it as that different,” he says, mentioning 1990s shoegaze act Seefeel as an example. “I think it dates back to the shop, where it was half dance and half indie music. You used to see people come in and they’d buy the best dance records, but also they’d buy the best independent records, and there wasn’t really this divide that a lot of people think there is.”
He admits that he began to grow disillusioned with electronica earlier in the decade. “I did lose a bit of faith in it about five or six years ago,” he recalls; “thinking, ‘Oh, is anybody going to come up with anything new?’ But now there’s this whole new wave of acts that we’ve been signing — and acts on other labels — that I think are really exciting, like Hudson Mohawke and Flying Lotus. . . . It’s feeling really vibrant at the moment, the electronic scene.”
Japanese fans can look forward to getting a taste of both sides of the label’s output when the Warp20 show arrives later this month — to be held not at a steelworks, but the marginally more welcoming surroundings of Makuhari Messe in Chiba. The event is being produced by Warp’s Japan-based distributor, Beatink, which is using the occasion as an opportunity to revive its dormant Electraglide banner. Once Japan’s leading electronic music event, the annual all-night party was put on ice four years ago after a string of shows headlined by the likes of Underworld, Kraftwerk and The Prodigy.
“It was becoming more and more obvious that any of the acts that I had headlining were acts that were 10 or 15 years old,” says Beatink President Ray Hearn. “After the 2005 Electraglide, we made a conscious decision not to run it again until 2010. And each day I went to the temple and prayed that maybe some new artists would break and come along, which, sadly, hasn’t really happened.”
While conceding that he would have preferred to have waited until next year, he says that creating an Electraglide event based around the Warp20 lineup was better than “having to rely upon headliners which aren’t there.”
It’s quite a lineup, too, ranging from veterans like LFO to newcomer Hudson Mohawke, while also finding time for live bands Battles and !!!. The bill is rounded out by a selection of Japanese acts, including O.N.O. — better known as part of hip-hop unit Tha Blue Herb — and minimal techno doyen Fumiya Tanaka.
“Getting Japanese acts, I think the criteria from my own point of view is that they fit the night, that there’s some sympathy between their aesthetic and Warp’s, but quite frankly, also that they’re people that we like,” says Hearn. “I think the saddest indictment of this country was that last year the two biggest DJs were DJ Kaori and DJ Ozma. That was the state of Japanese dance music last year. The numbers bear me out.”
However, he seems optimistic about attendance at the event, and excited by the prospect of convincing Beckett to take the final DJ slot of the night.
“That would be a really great ending for me,” he says. “He knows his tunes a lot better than he’ll ever admit to.”
Warp20 will be held Nov. 21 at Makuhari Messe, Chiba (9 p.m., advance tickets cost ¥8,500). For more information, visit www.electraglide.info
Battles: A “supergroup” comprising members of bands who weren’t exactly household names to start with, Battles make fantastically complicated music feel almost like pop.
Chris Cunningham: The director of iconic — and disturbing — promo videos for Aphex Twin, Portishead and Bjork, now touring an audio-visual extravaganza of his own.
!!!: Dance-funk outfit originally from Sacramento, California, famed for the sweaty intensity of their live shows and a moniker that’s impossible to Google.
LFO: One of Warp’s earliest signings, now whittled down to one man: frequent Bjork collaborator Mark Bell.
Flying Lotus: L.A.-based purveyor of dense, woozy instrumental hip-hop, possessed of a truly infectious stage presence.
Clark: The most promising electronica artist to emerge during Warp’s second decade, now pushing a harsh take on techno.
Hudson Mohawke: A recent addition to the Warp roster, the fresh-faced Glasgow producer immerses hip-hop in a soup of video-game blips, queasy synthesizers and warped humor.
Andrew Weatherall: Producer, remixer and Warp alumnus, formerly of The Sabres of Paradise and Two Lone Swordsmen. As a DJ, he’s liable to play everything from club bangers to vintage rockabilly.
Steve Beckett: The cofounder and owner of Warp Records is also a dab hand behind the record decks — if you can cajole him into it.
Warp Films: Warp’s cinematic wing, which produced films including Shane Meadows’ “This is England,” will be screening its documentary “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”