Interviews

Art & Soul Of The Party: How Artwork Became The UK's Most Beloved DJ

A few days before his Art's House festival, we meet up in a London charity shop to speak about his story and buy some kitsch tat.

by Matthew Francey
09 August 2018, 9:36am

All photos by Matthew Francey

When I get the text from Artwork asking if I can meet him at British Heart Foundation on Old Kent Road in two hours, my immediate reaction is one of complete bafflement. Why would one of the UK’s most popular DJs want to be interviewed in a charity shop? Assessed through the prism of Artwork’s bizarre mind, though, it makes perfect sense. We’re less than a week out from Art's House: A Lovely London Festival, the biggest event that Artwork has ever thrown and, as is customary at all Art’s House events, he needs to decorate the location with charity shop tat – from desk lamps and books, to porcelain Disney characters.

Artwork has been throwing events and making music for over twenty years, but his current form – his final evolution – is the beloved voice of UK dance music on Rinse and Radio 1 and the ultimate party host at Art’s House. In a few years, he’s taken the concept from the relatively modest dancefloor of east London club The Nest to a 12-week residency at XOYO and takeovers everywhere from Glastonbury to Bugged Out Weekender. The idea is simple: create a makeshift living room in which to throw a house party. Art’s House can be anywhere in the world – at times, it has been in his fans actual houses. In either case, once you’re through the door you’re transported into the front room of Artwork’s brain.

This connection with his audience – playing in their front rooms, allowing them to take home items when he hosts club nights – sets Artwork apart from other British DJs. Sure, he is by no means the only DJ that has gained a cult following at least in part due to his personality. Seth Troxler, Jackmaster and Skream all break the mould of the stereotypical dour-faced DJ. But while you may go to a Jackmaster gig because you like the breadth of his music taste and his technical skill, or a Skream Open to Close because you feed off his unfaltering energy during marathon techno sets, the simple draw of Art’s House is that it’s a party, thrown by Artwork. But how did a man who twenty years ago was making other peoples’ records above a shop for £50 become the favourite party host of millennial clubbers?

Whilst testing out a selection of second-hand sofas, Artwork explains the unusual beginnings of Art’s House; “In 2015, Jack [Jackmaster], Oli [Skream] and I were talking about how Twitter had just become a sea of DJs saying; ‘come to my party, come to my party, come to my party.’ We thought let’s have a party where we bring the party to your house.” They put the message out on Twitter and unsurprisingly got a few takers. “We picked the winner, went to their house with a sound system, smoke machines, lasers and a bar. Me, Skream and Route 94 DJed in their kitchen. It was a full-on rave in a terrace house in the east end on a Wednesday. Absolute mayhem. At about 1am when the neighbours knocked on the door and said; ‘are you fucking serious!’.”

The event has grown in tandem with Artwork’s popularity on social media. True to the beginnings of Art’s House, he rarely uses Twitter to talk about usual DJ patter. Instead, he updates fans on his off-decks antics; be it building a bar in his house, or offering out free t-shirts with his face on them to the best dancers at Glastonbury. “I came to social media so late. Skream showed me and said you’ve got to get on this. I didn’t understand how it worked, or the rules. It baffled me that people were retweeting compliments, I just didn’t get it”. A lack of understanding didn’t hinder a natural affinity for making people laugh. From asking PC World what rides they had to using Faceswap to give himself a mustache and inventing ‘Australian Artwork’, to filming backstage drinking games with Denis Sulta. Artwork has created his own signature style when it comes to short form video. Most self-shot, some nonsensical and all featuring the instantly recognisable opening line: “hello. I’m Artwork.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Artwork is every bit the joker in real life and that he seems to be a magnet for strange situations. He produced Daniel Bedingfield’s “I Gotta Get Thru This”. After renting a room above Big Apple Records to use as a studio, he met the teenage Skream and Benga and went on to form Magnetic Man – probably the biggest dubstep crossover group. They created a critically acclaimed album and embarked on an infamous world tour – “nothing from that tour is printable. Nothing.” He made international news in 2016 when he live-tweeted getting a pizza delivered to a moving train from Glasgow to London – “it was in the UK papers, The New York Times… I was getting German Radio Stations calling me, I thought ‘I don’t want to do interviews for this, it’s fucking stupid.’” My own ‘Artwork story’ involves us both being stranded on the world’s second largest glacier with 80mph winds and a storm approaching at Iceland’s Secret Solstice Festival.

When I bring up our last meeting on that glacier two years ago he pauses for a moment before breaking into laughter. I tell him how the converted Cold War missile carrier they use to drive over the glacier had slowly filled with noxious smoke and we had to bail out, eyes streaming, into an endless sea of white and winds so strong you could lean 45 degrees backwards unsupported. When the rescue vehicle – a transit van with monster truck wheels – finally rescued my group and took us to the party, I descended 50 meters down a corridor into the glacier and emerged to find Artwork DJing in an uplit cave wearing a full face unicorn mask. One of the weirdest moments of my life. The party wasn’t to last long though; “the helicopter pilot that flew me there took off immediately after we arrived. I got through maybe 5 records? Then I had to give that announcement - ‘a storm’s coming, we have to leave now or we’re all going to die!’ I’m glad you reminded me about that, I’d forgotten about that one!” Like every other story from Artwork's life, it sounds fantastical when you or I describe it, but hearing it spoken aloud, in his unmistakable voice, it sounds like the most normal thing in the world.

As we’re taking in the products on offer at the British Heart Foundation – a Victoria Beckham autobiography, a cushion with a terrier on it – I ask Artwork about his favourite Art’s House item. “I’ve had some belters, but they’re not long in my life. You know, you find this amazing thing – maybe it’s a ceramic sculpture of Bambi with a clock in the middle. You put it on the shelf and you think ‘that is just amazing’ and then two hours later someone’s nicked it. Everything gets nicked! Everything!” What’s the biggest thing that’s ever been stolen? “A combined telly and video recorder. Fuck knows how they got it out of the club because it was a proper deep old-school TV with a video underneath it.” When I ask if he approves of the stealing he’s enthusiastic; “If you get your hands on something and you can get it out of the club then, by all means, have it. I haven’t got room for it!”

After spending a few hours learning about the history of the party, it clear that it’s this deep connection between artist and audience that has endeared Art’s House, and Artwork himself, to the public. This sharing of his own personality with the audience has had a final, unexpected benefit. Drag dance troupe Little Gay Brother are a fixture at all Art’s House events. For many of the crowd, this will be their first experience of a drag performance. “I remember at the Christmas party, there were some lads down the front and when the dancers came out you could see them nudge each other like ‘what the fuck’s this about?’ Then two hours later, the same lads are on stage with Chester and Lucy dancing. The main thing about Art’s House is that it’s just a really good party, but if people come away enjoying something they’ve never been exposed to before, then that’s a fantastic bonus. It’d be a lovely world if that happened at every party”

And I think that’s the crux of the enduring appeal of Artwork – no matter who you are, above all else, he wants you to have a lovely time.

Artwork will be joined by DJ Harvey at Art’s House: A Lovely London Festival on Saturday 11th August.

You can find Matthew on Twitter.