Charlie May: The Man Behind ‘Xpander’ Who Changed Electronic Music – EP. 161

About This Episode:

Today’s guest changed the trajectory of my life forever. When I was just 11 years old, I heard the song Xpander by Sasha for the first time. That EP opened me up to the world of electronic dance music which would change my career and my life for the next sixteen years and beyond.

From that moment forward nobody ever saw me without wearing a pair of headphones, without my trusty little Sony Walkman, listening to all of these albums – Global Underground, Airdrawndagger—all of this deep house music from around the world.

I didn’t know it at the time but the creator of this and many other world-changing electronic records was Charlie May, ghost producer extraordinaire.

Over the years he’s made pivotal tracks with Sasha, Spooky, Junkie XL, and a who’s-who of top underground artists for the last several decades. You might not know his name but that’s exactly the point.

You should. His works have shaped the current electronic scene, taking us from a time when DJs were uncelebrated and underpaid weirdos in the corner of a room to this massive celebrity industry that we see today.

This week all the music in this episode is an original creation of Charlie May—I would strongly encourage you to check out Charlie’s Bandcamp for more of his work.

Full Audio:

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1:46 – “The year was 1999 and a game was released called Wipeout 3, a game that you might be familiar with. I didn’t know much about the electronic music scene. I didn’t know anything. I was playing on a friend’s PlayStation One, and this game looked like the future. And you can see that that aesthetic has still stuck with me. I didn’t put up this background just for you. That’s a vibe that I’ve always sort of lived in, this semi-dystopian, futuristic world. Some things are going to be bad, other things are going to be nice. We’re going to have flying cars, but we’re not going to have trees anymore. That’s sort of the feeling that I had. And I noticed that every time I played that game, one song would come on and it just sounded like the future to me. I just knew in an instant, this is the future. That’s what the future sounds like. I looked on the back, I tracked down the CD and of course, its Xpander, one of the most iconic tracks of all time from Sasha. That song, it became my anthem.”

3:43 – “I definitely don’t seek any sort of recognition or anything like that. It’s really, really humbling and it’s really welcome to be able to – and I’m going to use that horrible word – ‘connect.’ That’s the only time I’m going to use it tonight. But when you actually connect with somebody over, I guess, a mutually shared piece of music, because it means something to me as much as it means something to you or whoever, it’s really important, and I think that’s one of the roles, it’s fulfilled a role. Music or making records fulfills several roles. And initially it’s the creative urge you get, the impulse you get to make it in the first place. And then when that actually affects somebody else and in a positive way, has a good impact, it’s fantastic.”

6:24 – “I eagerly awaited the day that Airdrawndagger came out…I remember listening to it over and over and over again and reading it. And that was just a world that profoundly changed my life. And it led me to go and work in the music industry. And I ended up getting a job at some point at Armada Music and going to Amsterdam, where I met my wife. So a lot of these things that happened in my life have been inspired by this music.”

13:56 – “I don’t think I’m an artist or a producer, I’m still trying to be one. And that stops me from stagnating a little bit, I think. I want it to be exciting. I’m as, if not more, excited when I get up in the morning now about something I’m going to do on a track or in the studio, as I was when I was 17, 18 and getting into it. That’s just gold. I’m so fortunate to have that fresh perspective.”

14:43 – “Music is a metaphor for life and life’s not a bowl of cherries. We all know that. It has ups and downs. But it has like, I’ve always had this bit of an existential ache or I like to call it an unscratchable existential itch. I just can’t quite settle. I can. But then there’s something about it that’s familiar but strange at the same time. It is a dichotomy, really. There are lots of paradoxes in life, and good music for me, it somehow expresses that. It embodies those life facets really. They’re just feelings and they’re subtle ones and not always noticeable unless, like me, you spend a lot of time on your own listening to quiet things or in quite a meditative sort of state.”

16:42 – (Ross) “Some people love what you can do with a guitar and a bass drum and a piano and a vocalist, just a couple of basic instruments playing the same different things over and over again, or the same four chords repackaged in different ways. But immediately I thought, especially with headphones on, especially with good headphones on, I was transported to a sonic reality that was unlike anything that I’d ever heard in my entire life. I know what a guitar sounds like. I still know what pop radio sounds like and I can appreciate it. But it’s very different to be having a tiny little thing echoing out of time in one ear and another little thing morphing and bobbing around in the other ear and this undercurrent and sounds that you’ve never heard before, it really instilled in me a love of sounds that have no analogue in the real world. Things that may make you feel something but you’ve never heard before.”

18:13 – “I remember very clearly the first time I heard stereo from a Sony Walkman. It was Duncan actually, the other guy in Spooky, who had one and he said, ‘You’ve got to listen to this.’ And he put these headphones on me and he played Blondie’s Heart of Glass. And I thought, ‘Wow.’ It blew me away. It was the first time I’d heard stereo and the intimacy of it. Like they were there in front of me. Especially when it gets to that middle eight bit where it just breaks down and there’s that little drum machine bit. It was just unbelievable. I can really recall that moment. And it really affected me.”

19:07 – “Growing up I had to keep quiet. There was no place for loud music. I couldn’t have a massive stereo in my bedroom or anything like that. It was the sort of music – in fact, pop music wasn’t really kind of allowed. So it became a very personal thing and a bit of a naughty thing. It was like sneaking out at night, but I would sneak into music.”

21:09 – “I want to be able to make a record that you can play 20 years later and still hear something new in it. Or that still has some sort of nourishing effect because good music, it’s tangible. It has that spiritual nourishment.”

23:30 – “All the lessons I learn working with other people I apply to when I’m working on my own and when I’m working on my own, I make a lot more mess and I have to sort of get some structure out of that and some discipline. The discipline’s the hard thing. But that actually gets easier every time.”

26:36 – “One of my big fears and most uncomfortable sensations is realizing that I took a shortcut or I compromised or I sold myself out a bit. It can be a tiny little decision, years and years ago and I play the record now and I’m like, ‘Oh man. If only I hadn’t used that hi-hat. I’m very self-critical. But I think that can be a good thing. I don’t want to disappoint myself. And I don’t want to disappoint other people because I think there’s a real honor to do this sort of thing, to create a story in a format that a lot of people hear and it has an effect on them. I don’t want to pollute the world any more than it already is.”

30:59 – “You really get absorbed in a piece of music or it really moves you, it’s telling a story. And that’s the human condition. We exist in a time-based medium, if you like. So things happen, they develop and then they dissipate and then other things come and that’s reflected in good music. So it is storytelling. And I love good stories.”

31:28 – “I’m very fascinated by what people do and what a person is and how they all fit together or don’t fit together. And there’s a beauty in it and there’s a lot of humor in it as well. We have this emotional kind of soundtrack going along with it all. And occasionally you find a record that really parallels your own experience. And it stops you in your tracks.”

32:48­ (Ross) “One of the things that I’m also fascinated by is the idea of how the concept of a musical career has changed. And you talked about a white label vinyl, and that’s something that the younger generation, those are words that they probably don’t know at all, just the combination of those two things. But the way that it used to be is DJ would be playing, they’re spinning vinyl records, which is itself unbelievable. And the fact that a lot of those great DJ mixes came from vinyl is incredible, when if a needle skips during a transition, you’re screwed. People on CDJs and XDJs, they don’t understand that sensation or a piece of fuzz gets on the needle and slows it down 2%, screws up your whole transition. But if somebody would hand a record that had a white stamp on it because it wasn’t officially pressed, they would hand it to a DJ and say, ‘Play this.’ And with a little bit of luck they would. And as a result, you have all of these artists floating around that have probably just vanished into obscurity.”

39:21 – (Ross) “No radio in my neighborhood until many years later played any electronic music ever, for any reason, except one channel. I think it was KTCL in Denver, for one half hour they had a show, a program called E-Leven, and from 11 to 1130, when I was supposed to be in bed, I could listen on headphones to the radio. It was the first time I heard the world reflecting back some of these sounds to me. And you had this feeling like, oh, there’s magic happening in some clubs. And these CDs, these global underground CDs, what’s happening out there? Where is this thing? And it’s not here in my town. Where does this thing exist and how can I find it? And the first time that I was able to sneak into a party stealing my buddy’s driver’s license, I was just instantly blown away…It was just a bunch of weird people who clearly felt something. The DJs were different. They clearly weren’t seeking international fame. It was all about the music.”

40:49 – (Ross) “When I became a DJ later, I recognized as the industry changed everybody just wanted to hear songs that they knew. They want to make sure that every breakdown has a vocal that they know and can sing along to that. Every melody is a remix of a melody that they’ve heard before. And when I would play clubs in Amsterdam, I had to make sure that every other song was something that everybody knew or I would lose attention. And then you’re playing all those commercial records. But for me, it was always, I don’t want to hear anything that I knew before I went to see this DJ. I want every sound that hits my ear to be new and to appreciate that journey.”

42:11 – “It’s like people say, the great thing about it is that everybody can have a go and make music. And the worst thing about it is that everybody can have a go and make music.”

43:24 – “Years ago, you knew how many records were coming out every week, there were like a handful of great tunes every week from the labels you loved. Now there’s probably more new labels every week than there were tunes back then, but now it’s just a deluge, so stuff comes and because you hang out with people, and I work with people who are also on the lookout, there’s a bit of a network, a local network forms of like-minded people that can pass stuff on to each other. ‘Have you heard this? Have you heard that?’ And that’s something I try and encourage and I wish there was more of amongst producers.”

46:20 – “What you’ve just been describing about sneaking out and going to a club. And it’s all feeling, it’s all emotion and feeling. It was excitement. It’s a full human experience that involves an artistic endeavor that’s also a bit rebellious and it’s a little bit punk rock and it’s a little bit like, ‘Well, this is what I’m going to do that the previous generation didn’t do. This is what my parents don’t want me to do or the school or whatever establishment that you grow out of.”

47:06 – “There’s a lot of trouble, I think, in the language that we use. And this is also compounded now with the way we message each other in text and social media, that it’s developed a whole sort of language to go with it. That on the one hand, makes things easier and quicker, more efficient, but on the other hand it stunts certain areas of your expression. In particular emotional expression. And I’m really interested in that but coupled with the technology. I want to be in charge of my gear and my technology. I don’t want it to tell me what to do or certainly not how to live and certainly not how to think or I don’t want it to do the thinking for me, I want it to improve my thinking. I want to be able to evolve as a creator of music and as a human being. And the reason I do this is because, like I said earlier, it has a therapeutic value and it literally keeps me sane and fulfilled. Creative fulfillment is a spiritual requirement and it’s as important as air and water.”

50:05 – “I want to share this with the world because I’m proud of it. I was diligent in the way I put it together. Yeah, it might not be perfect, but I think it’s good. I’m proud of it and I think it’s worth interrupting someone’s day for. I mean, that’s quite an arrogant thing to say, but that’s kind of what you’re doing because everyone’s just like, ‘What’s next? Next? Next? Next?’ Are you going to pop up there and just be the next thing? Or are you going to stop someone scrolling? You’re going to be able to produce the thing that makes them reflect on, just checking in with themselves. ‘Where am I? This is good. I like this. This is telling me something about myself. This is revealing part of my story that I wasn’t necessarily aware of before.’”

57:31 – “When I first started making records and suddenly they were being released and put out and I piled so much pressure on myself to attain some lofty height. I projected an idea of myself onto my job and there’s no way you can live up to that and you kind of burn out a bit. Then you’ve suddenly sucked all the fun out of it. So that’s the most important thing. You’ve got to have fun. And it’s got to be based around a sense of fun and freedom. And out of that, you get good creativity.”

1:01:18 – “Being honest with yourself is one of the real gifts of doing this because you can’t bullshit your way into a good mix or a good record. You have to be really, really honest and if you’re a fantastic DJ or you’re a great producer making great records and you don’t want to have to deal with the hassle of [social media]. See, for me it’s a hassle. You don’t want to have the hassle of promoting yourself, doing it all yourself. Then you need to delegate. Just like you would have a bass player in a band, you have someone who handles that sort of stuff and he’s part of your team or you work together and you get some kind of collective vibe going where it benefits both of you.”

1:08:01 – “I’m deejaying human stories at this point. It’s like, what is the connection between a producer in the UK versus somebody who’s helping people eat in East Africa? On the paper, people say one is about entrepreneurship and one is about music. Those are two completely different sections. They have nothing to do with each other. But it’s like, but do they really? It’s really about who is contributing to this world in a different kind of way, who is operating on a different wavelength, who is exhibiting a different frequency? I seek out those types of people. That’s what drew me to you. That’s what draws me to your art. And I look at all those people in a sea of sameness, who is vibrating on a different frequency, who is doing something different than what everybody else is doing?  And that’s where I take interest. Even if they’re not the most famous, the household names, the name that will instantly make you say, ‘Oh, look at that, It’s Brad Pitt on another podcast.’ You know, that’s not what I’m trying to do. So my hope is that, like those underground DJs of yore, that somebody will go along for the ride and not care about…It’s like if you accept the ride for what it is and not care about your expectations of what’s coming, there might be some magic there.”

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