Andy Jones speaks to the six-time world snooker champion about his new passion for electronica DJ-ing, his long-standing passion for collecting vinyl and, eventually, even the ‘gentleman’s game’…
You don’t expect to chat with a snooker legend and not actually talk about it until the last third of the interview, yet that’s exactly what you get with Steve Davis, who retired from the sport earlier this year. It’s his unlikely but welcome new career as a festival DJ that’s holding us back from chatting too much about the green baize.
Then there’s his serious vinyl-collecting habit, which runs from prog in the 70s through soul in the 80s and 90s, to the present, which sees him playing catch-up with experimental electronica from the 90s to today. And it’s this latter genre that’s most fascinating because Steve isn’t just buying this vinyl to listen to, it’s what he’s DJing with. Thus far he’s notched up major festival appearances at the likes of BlueDot, the Bloc Weekend and Glastonbury.
As he says, in typically modest fashion, “There’s nothing wrong with the world, please don’t adjust your set”. In any case, a proper explanation is in order, and for that we need to go back in time…
“The first single was Heart Of Gold by Neil Young,” Steve recalls. “I think the LP was too much money so I had to settle for the single. I’d have been around 14. I think I might still have it somewhere…
“The first band I fell in love with was Gentle Giant. I had a Saturday job in the butchers’ department of a local supermarket and they’d have Alan Freeman on the radio and he played their album In A Glass House. I went out and bought it, went home and listened to it on headphones.
While I listened to it, I watched One Million Years BC on TV, an old sci-fi film with Raquel Welch. Now every time I play that record, it reminds me of the film, complete with black and white dinosaurs – funnily enough, the music was more believable than the film! I then became a Gentle Giant freak. Of all the prog bands of the time, I thought they were on another level, especially compared to Genesis and Yes.”
Steve found himself at the right point of music history to enjoy this wave of prog, especially as Virgin Records, fresh from the mammoth success of their first release, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, was on a roll with both popular and experimental artists…
“It was a period of time – ‘73 to ‘75, I suppose – that was plumb in the middle of when A&R men were throwing money at prog bands. I was into Henry Cow and Chris Cutler, who were making music that was very strange, and I don’t know if it was because I was living in the South-East of England but I was very much in to ‘the Canterbury sound’.
These were artists like Soft Machine, Hatfield And The North, Caravan, Robert Wyatt, National Health – all those kinds of jazz-rock bands.
“Fortunately, I had a very good friend at school who liked similar music so I had a ‘partner in crime’, otherwise I’d have been swimming against the tide during my school years – it was very much easier with two of you discovering music.
He was very much into Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, so between the two of us we had a few weird and wonderful bases covered. That was my time to be soaking up music as a young teenager. It was before punk, and people say that punk killed prog but I think it really just ran its course.”
The time when the prog scene ran out of steam coincided with Steve’s interest in music waning, but luckily something was there to replace it: snooker.
During the following decade he won six World Championships and the same number of UK Championships, helping to bring the sport to millions and becoming the world’s top player. It was during this period that his love of music returned, but this time a new genre beckoned…
“I picked music up again by listening to pirate radio stations playing a lot of soul and funk,” he says. “I still listened to jazz-rock like Soft Machine and those kinds of bands, also British bands like Nucleus and American jazz-fusion, like Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Weather Report and Chick Corea.
“People are making music digitally, but still releasing it as an LP so it shows you the power of vinyl”
“I started going to a record shop in London’s King’s Cross called Mole Jazz and the guy there put me more onto new jazz-fusion music and started to listen to a lot of vocal stuff, getting into soul music in the mid 80s.
I then became a huge soul collector, buying singles and albums. That continued throughout the 90s.”
Steve now realises that, if his love for avant-garde electronica had developed a couple of decades earlier, he could’ve brought together the worlds of electronic music and professional snooker together in the home of both: Sheffield.
“I’d be in Sheffield [at the World Championship] and I’d walk up a road called Division Street and to these second-hand record shops,” he recalls, “but because I was in the soul world back then, I’d walk right past Warp Records and not find the music coming from the shop part that appealing.
“I subsequently started to realise how clever the bands like [Warp artists] Autechre are. The amount of times I must’ve walked past that shop in the 90s – I probably could’ve got loads of rarities if I’d known about them back then!”
During the 2000s, Steve’s collection of soul records reached saturation point, so when he was asked to do a weekly radio show on Phoenix FM, he chose alternative music as his theme.
“Soul had run its course for me, in terms of collecting,” he explains. “I still enjoyed it but stopped chasing the modern-day soul artists, so I asked the station if I could do a more far-out radio show instead, playing the older stuff like Gentle Giant and Magma who were my one massive French band – a big part of my life.
But as a result of playing that music, I explored what had been going on since the 70s, in terms of alternative music, and then stumbled upon a load of artists I never knew about.”
Steve’s The Interesting Alternative Show has been airing for a decade now and in that time his guests have introduced him to yet more artists.
He’s now listening to and playing everything from techno to broken-beat electronica – the progressive theme running through all of these genres is the same thing that had attracted him to artists during the 70s.
“In a way, these old and new artists are like-minded people,” he muses. “Any artist that has progressive ideas moves with the times but they’re making modern music in different ways.
It wasn’t just new artists I was discovering, I was also finding out what the likes of Frank Zappa had been doing since 1976 and how many albums that had been made by bands similar to Magma – artists like Albert Marcœur, who I didn’t know about at the time.
I thought ‘this guy is amazing, how come I didn’t find out about him?’, so I had a big pool of years to tap into, so that was quite exciting, to stumble upon all of these artists around the world who had moved prog on, so to speak.
“My listening habits have now moved in different directions. I suppose it’s still quite edgy, as I like some of the very clever electronic music that’s being made.
There are some artists out there taking things to another level, in a different medium, making music on a laptop.
People are making music digitally but still releasing it as an LP so it shows you the power of vinyl.”
Don’t Adjust Your Set…
Steve’s life has taken many twists and turns over its 60 years – with cue in hand and musically – and another one occurred earlier this year.
After retiring from professional snooker, Steve would’ve been happy with his radio show and playing the odd exhibition match but the world of high-profile festival DJing unexpectedly beckoned…
“The radio show is a weird show,” Steve laughs. “We put it on late at night so people don’t turn it off, but then we got asked to go along to the Redchurch Brewery in Bethnal Green.
The guy who runs it is a bit of a music fan and a DJ himself. In his tap room he had a music system and invited us to come along and do a Friday show every now and again.
It didn’t have to be dancefloor stuff just whatever we wanted. So me and Kavus Torabi, who I do the radio show with, did that and the people from Bloc Weekend came along to one of the shows. By that time we’d included a bit more electronic stuff and they asked us if we wanted to play the festival, so we went down and did that, which was a big thrill.
“Subsequent to that, the BBC decided to do a mini-documentary on us and put in on iPlayer. It was called Snookerstar DJ, about the weird thing of me retiring and becoming a DJ, kind of capturing what a strange world we live in: ‘Steve Davis, techno DJ, what on Earth is going on?!’
So we had great fun and the BBC did a fantastic job of the documentary. They showed it at the World Snooker Championships and then, all of a sudden, the phone started ringing with people asking us to DJ, and one of them was Glastonbury – it was mad.”
“I needed a bit of ‘Dutch courage’ for that first Bloc Weekend and the Glastonbury one. I think our set was at 5 o’clock and we started drinking at 12, just to get brave! But we needn’t have worried because the thing about the festivals is that they’re full of music fans so once you realise that you’re among your own, it’s fine.
People probably turned up because of an element of novelty but we had 500 people in the tent and 1,500 outside of it, and they enjoyed it and stayed – or if they left someone else replaced them so it looked like it was full!
“I needed a bit of Dutch courage for Glastonbury”
“Kavus is a musician so he’s used to performing and it’s great fun, and you do get a real buzz. I never thought I’d have so much fun from standing behind record decks so I can understand why people enjoy it.”
Steve and Kavus have since DJed at more festivals, including BlueDot, Tramlines and Green Man, and they’ve more events planned.
“It’s bizarre, there was absolutely no plan,” Steve says. “It’ll be interesting next summer, to see if it was a novelty or those people who watched us will want us back! I mean, we can’t DJ weddings or a crowd that want certain beats – ours are a bit stranger than that.
We are pretty niche, but where we find people that like our music the feedback is wonderful. I guess if you can follow a Gentle Giant track then you’re the person who might appreciate complicated electronic music.
“The thrill of DJing is different from snooker, and of course I’m not making this into my profession – it’s just a bit of fun you know – but you still try and do your best job.
I suppose you could say that once you’ve achieved a bit of the excitement playing in a snooker tournament you become a bit of an adrenaline junkie, without even knowing it.
And funnily enough, the scariness of what’s going to happen by agreeing to play a festival – even though we’re just pressing a button, not even doing any mixing – is another adrenaline rush so that’s perhaps why I’m gravitating towards the fun of it.”
Green Baize Goodbyes
Lastly, we get on to Steve’s former profession, which he retired from earlier this year. Although he still remains on the BBC’s commentary team and within the main coaching set-up, he certainly doesn’t miss the game…
“It had run its course – certainly my enthusiasm for travelling the world with a cue trying to compete with another generation,” he explains. “I successfully managed to compete against a couple of generations after me but there wasn’t much left in the tank.
The standard was getting ever-better so I wasn’t getting much reward for my efforts, and when my Father passed away earlier this year, the last reason for me picking up my cue and going to practice with him evaporated so my reasons for playing finished.
“The thrill of DJ’in is different from snooker…but you still try and do your best job”
I was doing it a bit for him in the end, without knowing it. I thought, ‘do I need to practice and play in these events?’, and the answer was ‘no, not really’.
“I haven’t lost touch completely with the game, but I’m not going to make a comeback! It was wonderful and I’m thankful for snooker, and never became disillusioned with the game.
Snooker has given me so much pleasure and was a hobby that just went to ridiculous levels – not just a career but a lifelong passion. The warm feeling, the bonhomie of it all, the crowds – you know… my situation in the game, where
I’m placed like a ‘founding grandfather’, it warms my heart that people think I’m that much a part of it, and for them, when they were growing up, I was the person at the top of the game. It only leaves good feelings.
“The longer-term plan is to get a bit more planning with the radio show and what I’m doing with my musical interests. I’m not intending to get involved in the music business but it might be a bit of fun to actually mess around and make some music on a computer, that might be quite interesting.
The Steve Davies Vinyl Collection
LLV: Tell us about your collection…
I’m not sure of its size. At its peak, I probably had eight or nine thousand soul singles – I was going a bit mad on it at the time.
There are plenty more collectors out there who have more! I’ve probably got a couple of thousand soul albums.
With the prog albums, I just kept the ones I really treasured. I don’t even remember what happened to the rest – I must’ve traded them in. I’m completely vinyl now and have another two or three thousand experimental albums. I’m quite interested in some of the electronic dance stuff.
I like some techno music, even though it’s not perhaps for listening to at home, and the history of that is also quite fascinating, and I’ve just discovered a label called Basic Channel which is like a Berlin early analogu-ey, dub techno label. It’s just amazing what’s out there.
Have you any rarities?
I’ve got the odd acetate, like one of the Magma albums and a couple of rare soul singles, but to be quite honest in the soul world the rarity of something has no bearing on how good it is! In fact, within all the ‘music worlds’ I listen to, there are only a limited number of people so it’s never that rare and the values haven’t shot through the roof.
There’s an occasional prog album, like the original Comus album First Utterance and a load of the Vertigo albums, that sell for a load of money but that wasn’t exactly the kind of music I was listening to so I wasn’t chasing it.
Do you have a listening room?
I did have a big house with a dedicated room but your life changes and now the vast majority of my records are in a lock up. I haven’t got a big house – I think as you get older you downsize, you don’t want the aggro, you have to clean it and decorate it!
So I have a ‘working number’ of records, a couple of hundred LPs with me at any time. I’m happy not to have all my records within arm’s reach. The music is there to be enjoyed but I don’t really like the idea of having a dedicated room as that puts pressure on the music, I just like to listen in a ‘normal’ environment.
If someone were to look at your collection, what do you think they would conclude about its owner?
They’d probably think that this person doesn’t necessarily just tap their feet to the music, it’s more of a listening experience. They might think that this person would prefer to not like something on three or four listens and then it grows on them.
Are you a ‘sophisticated’ listener?
Ooh, no. There’s the expression ‘Intelligent Dance Music’ [IDM], which supposes that there’s some ‘unintelligent’ dance music out there.
Of course, no-one in their right mind, when they’re trying to make music, would make it unintelligent. That’s a bit like people who listen to classical music thinking that they’re better than who like Adele. It’s bollocks. It’s just the kind of music they like to listen to.
So the stuff I like isn’t that [‘intelligent’] but sometimes it’s complicated. With Frank Zappa, you might not necessarily like it the first time but as long as you’re prepared to give it a few plays, then it becomes your friend.
It’s why people preferred Genesis and Yes to Gentle Giant, because with Gentle Giant you needed to give it a few more plays and sometimes people just don’t have the patience.