— Dance System —

On Brighton, Daft Punk, Fine Art, L-Vis 1990, Night Slugs, embracing highs, embracing lows, ’12 Thousand Nights’, finding comfort in isolation and putting the fun back into house music.

(All photos submitted by Dance System)

It’s Thursday evening and Dance System’s blockbuster 20-track mixtape, ‘Where’s The Party At?’, has just been shared with the world in its entirety for the first time. James Connolly, formerly known as L-Vis 1990 but now better known as Dance System, is a heady mix of anxious, pensive and excited, all rolled into one; “I just hope people vibe with it”, he says earnestly. 

He’s speaking to me from his manager’s kitchen, after moving back to the UK temporarily, mainly to oversee the release of the mixtape and the launch of his new label, System Records. He’s spent much of 2020 living in Rome however, a move he decided to make in order to spend more time with his girlfriend. “I thought I might as well head out there while she was finishing her Masters degree”, Connolly explains. “We’d just got around to setting up our life in our new flat … I mean we’d literally been moved in for a week … when we got news of coronavirus and the lockdown. I had a little studio setup in the lounge, she was working away on her dissertation, both of us really focused. I’ve found myself actually thriving during it all to be honest. I mean, I come from an art school background, my time at university was spent in a bedroom just making music, making art, making visuals. It’s almost like I’ve been training my whole life for a time like this.”

“It’s almost like I’ve been training my whole life for a time like this.”

“To be honest, it probably benefited me to be away from home because everything felt new, it’s not my home town, nothing was familiar”, he continues, when I ask what life was like during lockdown in Rome. “It was kinda like an extended holiday in a way. We had a little balcony and we’d go out every day to get supplies … some decent mozzarella, some tomatoes and shit. Eating well and drinking well, pasta for lunch, wine and beer with dinner, stuff like that.”

Connolly was born a million miles away from the bustling streets of Rome in a small, sleepy village called Henfield, about 12 miles northwest of Brighton. He grew up with a tight group of friends, including fellow producers Mumdance and High Rankin, all of whom were interested in music from as far back as he can remember. They’d swap records and tape packs and DJ around the village as much as they could as teenagers, before branching out and heading into Brighton once they had passed their driving tests. “From the age of 17, we were going into Brighton together, raving and going to all the drum & bass nights”, Connolly recalls. “It wasn’t long before that inspired us to start throwing our own party, which we called Fall Out. Jack (Mumdance) couldn’t actually DJ back then, so he was the promoter, and I would play garage-y, breaks-y stuff and Will (High Rankin) would play drum & bass.”

“Dance music was everywhere growing up”, he continues, “and big dance tunes were everywhere in the charts. Being close to Brighton as well, it meant that Fat Boy Slim was obviously a massive influence. I remember on school trips, we’d all be listening to Fat Boy Slim or people would put on happy hardcore tapes … Hixxy, Pilgrim, Sly and all that lot. When we’d get back from school, we’d all just go to each other’s houses, smoke weed and listen to music. I got my first decks when I was about 14, long before I was going out raving. I was buying a lot of records … Armand Van Helden, Cassius … lots of the funky sort of shit I’m channelling now as Dance System. I got into all that through my mate’s brother, who was a DJ and had a pair of 1210s. He gave me Daft Punk’s Essential Mix … well both of them actually … I think it was the New Year’s Eve one they did and the first one that they recorded in ’97. I was hooked from then. I got a mixer for Christmas that year and all I had was my mini HIFI system with a MiniDisc player and my dad’s belt-drive Technics. I was basically playing between those two and a mixer. I saved up where I could … a cheeky hundred quid here or there … and had to do a paper round to buy records. Well, records and cigarettes.”

Connolly got the majority of his early records from Brighton, where he recalls HMV and Virgin having a decent selection of music, often pricing up records at three for £10. “When I was 15, 16, that’s all I did”, he says. “I was getting all of this good shit, I don’t think I even realised at the time. Once I got to college, I started going record shopping every Friday lunchtime … I’d get like five records for £25 or something like that. And that was me for quite a while … until I started going out and realising I could spend my money on other things, too.”

He took to Brighton’s clubbing scene like a duck to water. It felt natural, it felt good, it was, for want of a better phrase, Connolly’s happy place. “It was amazing back then, a totally buzzing music town”, he recalls. “You could go to a hip hop night, a breaks night … there were drum & bass raves, house nights. In my peak time, I’d go out probably four or five times a week … I was really into it. Tuesday night would be a funk and disco night with cheap drinks, Wednesday night would be Minimelt, which was a little drum & bass night, we’d do our Fall Out party on Thursday and then Friday and Saturday … I mean, whatever was going on, massive drum & bass parties, breaks nights, anything. I just absolutely loved going to clubs and dancing. I was never a snob about it either because people just weren’t back then. It was a really fun time, you know.”

From here, Connolly traded the blurry-eyed hedonism of England’s south coast for the quieter, more docile climes of Newport, where he studied Fine Art and Contemporary Media at the University of South Wales. “You know that Sex Education show on Netflix?”, he asks with a chuckle, “That was filmed there, that was where I studied.” Tucked away in halls of residence — “that was where I did my most of my training for this COVID lockdown” — Connolly immersed himself in his art, music and visuals. His course allowed him access to a swell of equipment from the university’s art studios too, which he soon found himself using to put on his own small-scale parties. “I’d have like five projectors on the walls and stuff like that”, he explains, “and my dad would even drive up from Brighton to come and DJ sometimes.” What was the scene in Newport like, I wondered. “Fucking shit”, Connolly replies, without hesitation. “That’s why I got my head down and ended up getting a First. Everyone else goes to university to have fun and party, but to be fair, I was all partied out by the time I got there. I think I’d hit my peak, I needed to stop. In that sense, it gave me a bit of time to chill but also focus.”

“Everyone else goes to university to have fun and party, but to be fair, I was all partied out by the time I got there. I think I’d hit my peak, I needed to stop.”

After graduating, it was music videos that Connolly saw his future in. He’d become a diligent editor and, compounded by his creative flair and love of music, was intent on making a dent in the industry somehow — but it’d take time. After moving back to Brighton, he worked in a local shop and made ends meet by playing parties and promoting, quickly falling back into the life he’d left behind just three years earlier. “It was the era of nu rave and all that electro shit”, he recalls, “…probably 2007, 2008. I started promoting a new party called So Loud once I got back and we did the first one at Concorde 2 with Kavinsky, Night Moves, Capser C and a bunch of other people. I was playing as part of a duo with a guy called Gary who promoted another party called It Came From The Sea … and we were called Savoir Faire (laughs). We were just playing electro and lots of stuff like that. After that first party, I booked Drop The Lime from New York to play the second one and we ended up hanging out a bit. At that point, it felt like everyone was doing the same parties and all of them would list the type of music they’d be playing on the flyers … CSS, Klaxons and shit like that … and I was just done with it. I ended up booking this 15K rig and sticking it in The Volks, which is a tiny, tiny venue, and we painted a banner that said ‘Nu Rave R.I.P’ in blood red … and threw the craziest party ever. I think that was a bit of a turning point for me, because it brought me back to my bass roots. Maybe it was a starting point for L-Vis 1990 as the proto Night Slugs founder too.”

“I ended up booking this 15K rig and sticking it in The Volks, which is a tiny, tiny venue, and we painted a banner that said ‘Nu Rave R.I.P’ in blood red … and threw the craziest party ever.”

Where did the name L-Vis 1990 come from, I ask. “After getting back to Brighton, I was doing a lot of record shopping, mainly for old stuff and ‘80s bits especially. I actually threw a little party called Bootfair Music Club in the upstairs back room of a pub called The Prince Albert in Brighton for a while. Basically, me and my friends used to go out and get smashed at weekends and end up at the local boot fair on a Sunday … just finding records and random stuff … and we’d always go to The Prince Albert for a pint afterwards. One day, I just thought, ‘why don’t we do a party on a Sunday afternoon, where we can just come and play the shit we found at the boot fair?’. Anyone was free to come along and play their tunes, I’d do a raffle and shit. Anyway, I was digging at this boot fair and one afternoon, I remember finding this record by a group called Sigue Sigue Sputnik. They had a track called ‘20th Century Boy’, which also featured a German Remix and in the intro to the track, there’s this like, deep movie voice that describes the ultimate band and how they’re gonna change the future by revisiting the past. That band were called L-Vis 1990.”

Armed with his new moniker, Connolly was now starting to make connections away from Brighton online. By this point, MySpace was already an influential discovery tool and blogs were at the peak of their influence. Palms Out Sounds, a blog Connolly describes as particularly influential, used to run weekly production slots called ‘Remix Sundays’ and ‘Sampled Wednesdays’, allowing users to submit tracks and samples for consideration. It was through submitting tracks to the former that he was first able to connect with fellow DJ, producer and Night Slugs founder, Bok Bok. “One of my tunes ended up making the Remix Sundays thing”, he recalls. “I think Bok Bok searched me out after hearing it and he hit me up on MySpace. The tune was called ‘Change The Game’, which actually made it to my first EP … and yeah, from there we just started chatting. I ended up booking him and Manara to come and DJ at the next So Loud party I put on in Brighton, alongside Mathhead from Trouble & Bass, and we hit it off. I actually threw my first ever party in London shortly afterwards on a Thursday night with this guy, Claws, who was from Toronto I think … I dunno where he is now. I booked Bok and Manara for the same night too and it was at this small venue on Shoreditch High Street, pretty close to Jaguar Shoes, I just can’t remember what it was called. The party itself was shit … I mean I was a kid from Brighton thinking I could just go up to London and promote a party, so it was empty, but it was a good time for me and Bok to be able to chat again. From that point on, we started sending tunes back and forth.”

It was around this time that Connolly got his first break in music video too, landing a job working as a runner for a production company based in London. Now living in the same city as Bok Bok, he found himself sharing ideas about music almost constantly. “We never thought about a label at first”, he explains. “… we just wanted to put on a party. Alex (Bok Bok) came up with the idea of doing something at The Redstar in Camberwell, so we had to come up with a name. Back then, niche and bassline were the dominant sounds playing out in London underground parties and I remember Paleface was releasing loads of tracks with ’Slugs’ in the title … tracks like ‘Screwface Slugs’ and a few others that were similar. The slug was the reference to the bassline, so I think we had a few back-and-forth conversations about different words we could stick in front of slugs and eventually we landed on Night Slugs. And then we threw that first party in Camberwell.”

With his first Night Slugs party under his belt, Connolly would then go onto release his debut record as L-Vis 1990 later that year, releasing a four-track, self-titled EP — which featured ’Change The Game’ of Palms Out Sounds fame — via Seb Chew, Ben Palmer and Sasha Nixon’s then secret label project, Trés Cool. “It was funny how it came about because I was working at this music video production company”, he explains, “and I kept going into the head of music videos like, ‘I make this music, do you wanna check it out?’. She said that she was setting up this new label called Trés Cool with Seb and Ben through Polydor, and was basically like, yeah let’s do an EP. I still ended up making music videos for them too, though. I made one for Erol Alkan and Boys Noize as Dance Area, which is probably still on YouTube somewhere. Erol gave me £200 (laughs) and it was all after effects, so I spent about two months on it solidly. He took me out to buy my first monitor speakers as well … he didn’t pay for them, I bought them myself … but he did buy me a greasy spoon breakfast afterwards. He was my hero, so I was so happy, it didn’t matter.”

“I made a music video for Erol Alkan and Boys Noize as Dance Area, which is probably still on YouTube somewhere. Erol gave me £200 (laughs) and it was all after effects, so I spent about two months on it solidly. He took me out to buy my first monitor speakers as well … he didn’t pay for them, I bought them myself … but he did buy me a greasy spoon breakfast afterwards.”

At the turn of 2009, Connolly was starting to take his production work more seriously and alongside Bok Bok, the pair were discovering the music of producers like Kingdom, Egyptrixx and Mosca — slowly but surely, the building blocks of the first Night Slugs community were falling into place. “It felt like we had a crew, but we didn’t really have a home”, he notes. “I was releasing on labels like Mad Decent and Sound Pellegrino, which were both great labels, but neither felt like my natural home at that point. The conversation me and Alex had was basically about setting up a label so we could release Egyptrixx and ’Square One’ by Mosca, because we felt we needed to put their music out. We weren’t strictly thinking about our own selves at that point, it was more about the community and giving the music a home.”

This community continued to expand via both Connolly and Bok Bok’s online forum digging. They were relentless in searching out new music and new producers, digesting and mulling over every megabyte of every file they downloaded. “There were two forums that kind of summed up our influences”, he explains. “There was the Low B forum, which was more US-based, a lot of Baltimore club, Jersey club … Diplo and all those guys were in there a lot. And then there was dubstep forum. The proto Night Slugs label model comes from us living in both of those worlds and trying to join the dots between the two. Nobody else was doing that.”

These transatlantic links would later be solidified via Night Slugs’ partnerships with Kingdom and Prince William’s Fade To Mind and MikeQ’s Qween Beat, relationships that saw UK and US sounds and aesthetics cross-pollinate in ways never conceived before, especially via the medium of dance music. Such was their impact, Night Slugs were quickly tipped off as one the UK’s most influential dance labels, even after only a handful of records. “We knew we had something special”, acknowledges Connolly, “but we didn’t realise how much of an impact we’d make.”

Club Constructions — another ingenious Night Slugs play — would follow in 2012 by way of Connolly’s ‘Club Constructions Vol.1’ EP, originally written as a standalone record to capture his own vision for a strand of saturated, hi-intensity club music. Such was its impact, other Club Constructions volumes from Slugs affiliates like Helix and Jam City soon followed, before Connolly and Bok Bok made the decision to launch the Club Constructions Community — complete with its own manifesto — in 2014. “We kinda made the new techno”, says Connolly. “I mean, it hadn’t really been done before. The music had an edge to it, but it was still like techno-y and raw. It was just our sound, our community.” The series inspired countless new school club producers, labels and DJs and helped usher in the next generation of Slugs’ affiliates and fans, including the likes of Neana, Akito and later, TSVI and Wallwork’s Nervous Horizon imprint. 

“The Club Constructions dynamic came about in response to my debut album, ‘Neon Dreams’, which came out on PMR in 2011”, Connolly clarifies. “I was a little bit burnt by the whole process if I’m honest. I put a lot of myself and my heart into that record and it didn’t connect the way I’d hoped or the way I’d been led to believe it would. I just wish there’d been some honest conversations about it at the time but I guess it led me needing to take things back and write something totally different, so it was out of that disappointment that my Club Constructions EP was born.”

That said, Connolly admits the process of writing his debut album wasn’t all bad. He was able to fly to New York to work with Nick Hook, mixed the record in Damon Albarn’s studio and shot music videos with his mates in Las Vegas. “It felt like I was living a dream at the time”, he says, “and looking back, I’m proud of that record and I achieved everything I wanted to. I think maybe in the context of time, it wasn’t the best year for it to come out. It was the era of SBTRKT and everyone was into future garage and then I came along with this shiny, pop-house record. Two years, along come Disclosure on the same label, but it’s all part of the journey. I guess until that point, my career had always been on an upward trajectory, so ‘Neon Dreams’ was my first lesson about peaks and troughs in this industry. It taught me how to learn to deal with those, you know.”

“I guess until that point, my career had always been on an upward trajectory, so ‘Neon Dreams’ was my first lesson about peaks and troughs in this industry.”

“I mean, I went into quite a bit of a depression afterwards”, Connolly continues, opening up. “Now I feel like I can deal with this shit more but just thinking about it, I was only 26, 27 when I wrote that album … I mean it’s so young, I was so young. To have all of that pressure, it was a lot. But from that, I went back into the studio and decided to write music that didn’t put any of my heart or my emotions on the line. I got super into Dance Mania at that point and also buying gear. I bought a Sequential Drumtraks drum machine, an ENSONIQ DP4 After Effects unit and a Roland Juno and just made a load of fucking crazy tools. And with that, Club Constructions was born.”

It was in the Club Constructions tracklist that Connolly also believes the first Dance System seeds were planted, too. The rough elasticity of tracks like ‘Video Drone’ and ‘Workout’ felt emphatic and shocking, but in the best possible sense. Perhaps there was something to be said for swapping out richness and emotion for raw, hi-impact, totally unapologetic tracks. Maybe the joy was in making people move all along? It’s a question that’s spurred on Connolly’s Dance System project to occupy the space it does today, breathing new life into what he perceives to be a stagnant house and techno scene. “I actually woke up one morning, looked on Discogs and thought, ‘wait, how in the history of dance music has nobody ever called themselves Dance System?’. I knew I had to differentiate between L-Vis 1990 and this other stuff I was making because I didn’t want to confuse people, especially after releases like ‘Ballads’. It felt like a natural decision.”

2014’s ‘L-Vis 1990 Presents Dance System’ EP on Clone Jack For Daze formed the first Dance System release proper, before 2015’s ‘System Preferences’ on Ultramajic saw his new moniker standalone on a record for the first time — but then came a near four-year break. How come, I wondered? “I always thought making house music was the easiest path”, concedes Connolly, “…the path of least resistance for me anyway. I almost felt like I was cheating because it felt too easy and that’s why there’s a tune on ‘System Preferences’ called ‘Safe Mode’, you know … it’s just always been my safe place. It was hard for me dropping these singular house EPs out of nowhere to build up a DJ career though. I guess it just didn’t feel right for me at the time.”

By this point, Connolly had moved to New York and was working on production for myriad artists from both sides of the Atlantic, including breakout star, Lafawndah. He worked on her debut album, ‘Ancestor Boy’, alongside ADR and Nick Weiss from Teengirl Fantasy, and was becoming an increasingly adept hand at vocal production. While it may have felt a natural step to take as a producer, particularly given Night Slugs’ well established links with Fade To Mind, Connolly’s work suddenly felt a far cry from the shockwaves of Club Constructions. It played out most viscerally on ’12 Thousand Nights’, an 11-track vocal mixtape he released as L-Vis 1990 in 2017. Featuring everyone from Flohio to Gaika to Mista Silva, it was Connolly’s NYC opus, an ode to how the city had reshaped his outlook and refined his skills. “That was all about me coming back from New York and returning to the UK with this idea of writing something”, he explains. “I wanted to do production work and I was intent on working with a whole bunch of people to put something big together, you know. I’ve always loved that whole producer thing, I love working with other artists and vocalists, just getting in the studio to try and create some magic … that’s what it’s all about. I guess that’s what ’12 Thousand Nights’ was … it was me saying, ‘I’m a producer, let’s work’. But I realised it’s hard trying to make it as a producer. Unless you’re in that gang, especially in R&B and rap worlds, it’s really difficult to breakthrough.”

It was a breakthrough Connolly admittedly never quite made with ’12 Thousand Nights’, which in itself heralded a reboot of his Dance System project — albeit almost by accident. “I was doing quite a lot of sampling around that time and also on another L-Vis project that’s yet to come out”, he concedes, “but I’d never sampled anything as Dance System before, I’d just made everything using hardware. I’d never let myself do it with house music for some reason but I quickly realised how much fun it was. From the first Dance System session where I started to use samples, I wrote ‘Please’, which ended up coming out on Edible last year. I said to myself I didn’t wanna come back into things writing house music at 125bpm, so I wrote ‘Please’ at 140, which I ended up slowing down to 132 for Edible. I was basically making all of my house at 140 and nobody was really taking it seriously, but I didn’t care.”

“I think I probably needed a year to embed Dance System properly”, Connolly continues. “The first EP on Monkeytown last year was more on a ghetto house vibe as I think people would maybe expect, where as the Edible release was a bit different, a bit more disco-y, and then the EP on Warehouse Music was different again. I guess I was trying to ease people in, where as with the mixtape, I just decided to go all out. It’s in the brackets of house and techno I guess, but I just call it dance music. It’s me showing people what I can do. I mean, there’s an 143bpm disco house tune with Heavee on there. It all just feels super exciting.”

Out now on Connolly’s freshly-minted System Records, the ’Where’s The Party At?’ tracklist reads like a who’s who of dance music. There are nods to greats past, present and future — from A-Trak and Hudson Mohawke to India Jordan — as well as the transatlantic links first brokered by Night Slugs all those years ago, with Teklife’s Heavee and New Jersey’s UNIIQU3 prominent features. But none of it feels like a reach. Instead, it feels as though Connolly’s mission as Dance System has found willing accomplices. “I don’t care about the house and techno world”, he says bluntly. “I don’t give a fuck about any of that shit. I care about the music but the contemporary house and techno world? It’s so boring. Everyone plays it so safe, everyone plays the same records, the lineups are all the same everywhere … it just feels grey to me, you know.”

“I feel like it’s my calling at the moment to shake things up a little bit”, he continues. “All the snobbery … it just does my head in. That wasn’t what dance music was like for me as a kid you know, dance music used to be for everyone. It was for Dave down the pub, it was for accountants … it was for everyone, it was universal. At the moment, it just feels segregated, only house and techno DJs can play house and techno, you know? And now you’ve got techno DJs getting plaudits for playing a disco tune or a drum and bass record in the middle of their sets? It’s just so dead, man. What I wanted to do with this mixtape was just remove that snobbery from things completely. Everyone on this record, we’re all music people from different worlds and we’re all nerdy about the stuff we love and we all care about what we stand for. I think we all share that same energy.”

“All the snobbery … it just does my head in. That wasn’t what dance music was like for me as a kid you know, dance music used to be for everyone. It was for Dave down the pub, it was for accountants … it was for everyone, it was universal.”

What’s more remarkable about ‘Where’s The Party At?’ Is that the overwhelming majority of it was written remotely, bar UNIIQU3 collaboration, ‘Get Up On It!’, which was recorded during a studio session the pair shared in London 18 months ago. It’s a testament to Connolly’s sureness of vision that it all sounds so utterly lawless but viably cohesive as one body of work at the same time, too. “I’d be crazy if I said I didn’t want people to love it”, he explains, “but if I don’t get plaudits in house and techno circles, if I don’t get booked to play Panorama Bar ever again … I don’t give a fuck. All I want to do is to reach as many people as possible with music that they can enjoy.”

“..if I don’t get plaudits in house and techno circles, if I don’t get booked to play Panorama Bar ever again … I don’t give a fuck.”

“I guess I feel like I’ve reached the stage where I can make whatever I want now because I feel comfortable as a producer”, Connolly continues. “I’m comfortable in myself and my ideas and I think, when you get to your mid 30s, you’re able to let go of a lot of shit that used to bug you. The anxieties, worrying about what people are gonna think, like it doesn’t really matter. If you can believe in yourself and be sure of your ideas and your vision, then people will follow.”

“I’m comfortable in myself and my ideas and I think, when you get to your mid 30s, you’re able to let go of a lot of shit that used to bug you. The anxieties, worrying about what people are gonna think, like it doesn’t really matter.”

And follow they will. “Did you see that Gigi D’Agostino edit I did?”, he interjects as we start to wind down. “I just did that for fun, I used to play it out my apartment window in Rome during lockdown, just to put some good energy out there. We sent it to Annie Mac on the off chance and she loved it, she started playing it on the radio straight away. I think she called it ‘medicine for the nation’ and I don’t quote that egotistically, it’s just nice that she picked up on how I’ve been trying to make people happy with dance music.”

Revitalised and now laser focused, for as long as the Dance System project rumbles on, you can rest assured that Connolly will continue to do just that.

Dance System’s ‘Where’s The Party At?’ is out now on System Records:

http://system.promo/party

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