Sliding into the spotlight for this instalment of Rising Stars are London-based duo Hamish Cole and Toby Nicholas. Forging a friendship in Leeds, in the years that saw a wave of today’s talent being nurtured by the city’s thriving underground club scene, the pair have now carved their own paths. With Toby as head booker for London club The Pickle Factory, and Hamish booking for Dimensions festival and running his blossoming label and club night Butter Side Up, 2020 was set to be their busiest year to date.
The lads have certainly been on their way up recently, playing Europe’s most sought after clubs and festivals, whilst working on curating forward-thinking line-ups in the capital. Each of their events further securing London’s reputation as a party destination that pushes the boundaries and gives a platform to fledgling artists. ‘We really did have the summer of dreams lined up this year,’ Toby sighs as we talk about their scuppered plans. And he’s not wrong. Thankfully, it’ll take a lot more than one turbulent year to knock the wind out of their sails.
Hamish and Toby’s charm lies in their spirited sets, filled with genre-bending tracks that they’ve dusted off from eras gone by as well as more contemporary releases. Their combined years in the industry are reflected in their discerning taste and diversity. It’s easy to recognise from their energy that they’re two old friends that have spent many hours sharing music, rummaging through their record bags and fine-tuning their skills as DJs. They are at ease, the chemistry is right and the music flows harmoniously. ‘It just feels very natural playing together these days,’ Hamish begins.
‘We met in Leeds through going to Louche and other parties over a 10 year period, along with plenty of hanging out at the afters,’ he continues. The infamous Louche parties, run by Toby’s brother Josh Tweek at Mint Club in its heyday, are where fellow DJ Bruno Schmidt also found his feet as a resident. ‘In the early days, there were so many of us all pushing each other to dig deeper and impress. Josh actually gave me my first ever Leeds gigs playing at the pre-parties at Distrikt Bar and then onto warming up at Mint. I remember the first time well, playing before Dyed Soundorom in 2010 and I was so nervous. It was a huge deal for me at the time.’
A decade later, and with Josh now based in Berlin running The Ghost, the guys have continued to support each other and have cultivated an enviable crew of some of the most compelling artists in the industry. Their Leeds-London-Berlin friendship group has snowballed over the years, absorbing new and old talent, including Gene On Earth, Youandewan, Sugar Free, Truly Madly and Huerta.
As we start to rewind a little further back, prior to the Louche days, coincidentally what sparked their interest in mixing wasn’t the house and techno records they are known for playing now – they shared a love of hip-hop. ‘I was obsessed with J Dilla and Detroit hip hop in my teens. Josh was really into DJing and I didn’t want to copy my older brother (or so I thought). My plan was to buy hip hop and write about music. That was meant to be my niche,’ Toby reminisces. And his first experience as a resident DJ wasn’t exactly what you might expect either, it was in the bar of a sailing club. ‘I was the ‘resident DJ’ and in charge of the karaoke machine. Which was less a machine, more an old TV VCR on wheels, with a huge box of tapes I had to rummage through every time someone wanted to sing Abba,’ he laughs. ‘But I learnt the ropes DJing at house parties in Manchester and Leeds.’
Hamish talks of his similar beginnings, collecting 90s hip-hop records when he was 15 years old and learning to scratch before he could mix. ‘I ran my own vinyl only hip hop night in the back room of a pub in Norwich, before I was old enough to even be in there!’ It was Hamish’s move to Leeds that submerged him into the world of electronic music. Getting a taste for drum and bass, jungle and dubstep whilst going to parties like ‘Momentum’ and ‘Ruffage’ (run by a young Ben UFO) at Wire and ‘SubDub’ at the West Indian Centre. ‘I still have permanent ringing in my ears from going to those nights!’ he laughs.
The conversation moves on from their early days to their current success, and how their friendship and working relationship has stood the test of time. ‘Tobes and I have really similar taste, as well as a mutual appreciation of a wide range of dance music tunes across the board,’ Hamish says fondly. They talk about each other in a way most old friends do – appreciating the qualities that the other brings and how they balance each other out. Reminiscing of more testing times on the road when things got dicey. ‘I can be pretty headstrong sometimes, and Hamish is a more measured soul. I often rush into things and wish I’d shown a bit more of Hamish’s thoughtfulness and restraint. He’s one of the soundest people I know,’ says Toby.
‘Yeah. Getting to travel with your best mate is a real pleasure and makes the whole experience much more enjoyable,’ Hamish adds. ‘I’m really grateful to get to share all the experiences with Tobes. I’d struggle to do it all solo to be honest…heading to the airport alone sweating out with no sleep is never fun!’ he laughs. We’re not built for the mad DJ lifestyle of touring all the time. It’s about striking a fine balance.’
With Toby as booker for The Pickle Factory and Hamish occasionally bringing his former Leeds-based party Butter Side Up to the club, they’ve had the pleasure of working with Pickle residents Jane Fitz and Truly Madly – true diggers that have rightfully earned their reputation as two of the best within the DJ community.
‘There’s three people who are true legends of the game in my eyes,’ Toby explains. ‘Jane Fitz, who’s been a resident at Pickle since day dot. No one’s realer than Jane. Steevio who runs my favourite festival (Freerotation), he’s an inspiration and a lovely person. And Truly Madly, who was buying records for 30 years just because he loves it, and is now deservedly rising to the top.
What they share is a deep, pure love for dance music and everything around it. Find me three people who are more in it for the right reasons than these. I hope I’m still doing it right like them when I reach their ripe age!’
It’s clear that Hamish is equally enamoured. ‘Yeah, Truly is one of my favourite DJs. He has one of the most impressive record collections I’ve ever seen. It’s been so great to see him finally getting the attention he deserves after so long. We’ve played together a lot over the last couple of years and have gone on to become good pals.’
Since the pandemic this year has left the UK club scene in a fog of uncertainty, with many clubs facing the possibility of closure and most festivals this year cancelled, it’s been a difficult time for the music industry. The Pickle Factory has been running seated listening parties, making the best of the options they have been left with, whilst Dimensions festival was postponed until 2021.
‘It’s been tough for everybody, but it’s hard not to feel like our industry’s getting a raw end of the deal.’ Toby explains. ‘I think most people understand the need to control the infection rate, but if you’re shutting down industries for health reasons, you have to give adequate support, or you’re just hanging businesses out to dry. The good news is, London’s nightlife regenerates. We’re lucky to live in a city with so many people with ideas, ready to build the next club, or throw the next party. But really, no one wants to see their favourite club shut down. And it’s devastating for the people who run these places. The whole thing’s a tragedy really.’
The distribution of funding from the Arts Council gave some clubs, festivals and other music venues the lifeline they needed last month. However, some still haven’t received this crucial funding and now job losses and closures are imminent. ‘It felt like there could have been a much fairer distribution of the funds, so that no one was left in the dark,’ says Hamish frustratedly.
As we continue to chat about the pandemic and the rippling effects it has had on the industry, they try to take some positives from the situation – albeit a difficult task when people’s livelihood is at stake. Hamish has high hopes that we might see smaller artists thriving, now that it’s unlikely clubs can afford huge fees.
‘It could have a positive impact on local scenes and communities involved with running local lead club nights. We might see more promoters pushing smaller artists, not having to rely on overpriced headliners to sell all the tickets. Some of my favourite parties that I’ve been to over the years work well in this way – namely Cosmic Slop in Leeds and Spaced in London. People come purely for the music and the vibe, rather than coming to see a guest DJ that’s flown over to play,’ he speculates. ‘I think reflecting on the time away from nightclubs and festivals, we’ve all realised how unsustainable the industry is, so there’s certainly lots to think about and work on before things can go back to normal again.’
The idea of listening parties has been a popular one in London, with The Lion and Lamb and Brilliant Corners also adopting this innovative solution to using their spaces safely. And other European clubs have followed suit. Although the premise may seem fairly civilised in comparison to the usual hedonism of a club dance floor, Hamish is enthusiastic about the potential. ‘We played a seated gig in Amsterdam with Truly for the Picnic guys at the start of September. We packed a downtempo bag for the gig, but realised pretty quickly that everyone still wanted to hear the bangers. There must have been around 200 people all seated, but properly having it from their chairs!’ he laughs.
It seems that many DJs have been leaning towards more of a down-tempo vibe over the past eight months with the dance floor out of action. As we discuss the records they’ve collected this year, they both agree they have been rediscovering their roots in hip-hop and dub and enjoying the pleasure of leisurely listening to records at home. ‘It’s interesting because since Covid, the time I can spare to dig has gone way up, but the money I have to spend has gone down. So I’ve spent more time looking for music, but a lot of time working on edits, and trying to restrict myself to cheap buys,’ Toby explains. ‘Yeah, same with me. The break has also felt like a good opportunity to get super prepared with a fresh bag for when things open up again.’ Hamish adds.
‘Toby and I had a couple of trips to our favourite London record shop, Palace Vinyl in Crystal Palace. Chris the owner is regularly buying collections, meaning there’s always endless piles of tunes to dig through. We usually spend the whole day there and always come out with a handful of gems!’
Butter Side Up, which Hamish started back in 2010 with Hugh Bailey, has now grown from a local Leeds club night into a successful label and podcast series. Recent releases feature upcoming artists such as Liquid Earth, Sweely and Christian Jay. This year marked BSU’s tenth anniversary and Hamish is keen to confirm that the birthday celebrations are only postponed until the boys can promise it’ll be a big one. ‘We’re really fortunate to have lots of mega talented friends making amazing music at the moment,’ says Hamish. ‘The progression of the label has felt really natural so far. For our next release we have a 4 track EP from close pal Ewie (Youandewan), which is due to hit the shops towards the end of Jan next year. All four tunes are made entirely on various grooveboxes and recorded live to cassette. We’re super excited for you all to hear it!’
The BSU release isn’t the only thing Hamish is excited for next year. This year’s postponed Dimensions is set to return in the summer, in the beautiful location of Tisno. Previously housed inside Fort Punta Christo, the festival is now on the move. ‘The plan is to run for one year at the lovely Garden site in Tisno next year and then come back with a brand-new location for 2022. We’re busy working and planning ahead on all of these plans as we speak,’ Hamish explains. He’s hopeful that with a vaccine now on the cards, next year’s festival will be able to go ahead. The first wave of artists recently announced for Dimensions include Francesco Del Garda, Margaret Dygas, Vera and Zip.
With the dust settling on this bizarre year, we wrap up the conversation with what they have planned for December. ‘I’ve given up trying to predict anything this year!’ Toby laughs. ‘We’ve still got plans to do some ‘Pickle Presents’ distanced dos next month at our other venue, Oval Space. Fingers crossed things really do re-open in December.’
‘And we’re currently working on a new podcast,’ says Hamish. ‘It should be coming out next month. We have some upcoming radio shows on Rinse too. Apart from that we’re just enjoying the downtime for now and waiting patiently for a bit of normality to return!’