"After all these years, I still see people completely lose their inhibitions. I watch them leave all of life's problems, life's anxieties at the door. They step inside and the ritual begins again."
James Priestley, DJ, producer, and one half of secretsundaze, is sipping on a mint tea in an airy cafe-cum-art space in Hackney on a perfectly fresh winter morning. For nearly fifteen years, Priestley and his partner Giles Smith have been throwing the kind of parties that attract the brightest and best in cutting edge house and techno. Their weekend-ending bashes, initially housed in the upstairs room of Brick Lane's 93 Feet East, a venue chosen after painstakingly trawling through London listing magazine Time Out, are synonymous with the best that UK clubbing has to offer: inclusive sessions that prioritize musical experience over the kind of brand synergy and selfie-taking bullshit that's currently tearing the scene apart. We'll come to that later.
Smith and Priestley had the perfect venue, one with the kind of high ceilings, wooden floors and skylights that, to them at least, brought legendary pleasure palaces like David Mancuso's Loft to mind. There was one catch: it was only available on Sundays. The pair went for it, secretsundaze was born. The combination of location and timing meant it existed outside of the weekend warrior continuum. "We started in 2002, way back before social media existed, so it was initially a friends of friends of friends affair. That led to us having a really mixed crowd." It was, as Priestley puts it, "a very cosmopolitan crowd. Italians, Brazilians, Spanish, French. It was quite gay. Gayer than it is now, though we still have a hardcore gay contingent. After the first year or two we noticed a rudeboy element. We even had city boys turning up after a while." That was the secretsundaze experience: a social space that encouraged dancefloor transcendence through integration.
DJs like Ewan Pearson, Ivan Smagghe and Ralph Lawson were early icons, vital components of an event that always saw itself as more than a club night or afternoon. Secretsundaze was, and is, a party. "That was really important for us starting out. We wanted them to be celebrations, spectacles, rather than the result of what happens when blokes book DJs. I think that sense of occasion is why such a range of people came together initially, and still do."
As they get ready for their first official Friday party, Priestley is eager to explain the rationale behind the decision. The new night, which sees them joined by Panorama Bar resident Ryan Elliott and Chile born, Bristol based DJ Shanti Celeste, is a pivotal one for the duo. The original Sunday selection was the result of necessity and the desire to keep clear of the mainstream. That was thirteen years ago. Has the mainstream changed hugely since? "In a way, yeah," he begins, "clubbing's no longer so dictated by when and where it is. So it didn't feel like a huge change to do this Friday gig. Giles and I tour most weekends as secretsundaze, so we're playing a lot of Friday and Saturday night parties. It's different to the Sunday stuff. So we see it as a chance to play different kinds of records. It's going to be in Hackney Wick, which means people going there are specifically going there for our party. I think we're staying true to what we do." When asked if this was the start of a potential permanent switch up, Priestley smiles. "We used to be weekly, then fortnightly, then monthly. We're looking to step away from Sundays in midsummer. Sunday clubbing has run out of a little bit of steam. The younger generation aren't as hedonistic as mine. People who've been out on Thursday or Friday or Saturday don't want to do Sunday." Curb Your Enthusiasm binges over club queues: we've all been there.
While Priestley admits that this idea that London clubbing has suddenly gone to shit is more of a narrative device than an actual lived reality, he's willing to concede that the idea of a golden age is somewhat misguided. "Back when we were starting out there was hardly anything in East London on any night doing the kind of party we were envisioning."
And now, when we're told all the time that we're living through a fallow period, an epoch of dancefloor depression and regression, how are things? Are we too hung up on talk of gentrification? Too fixated on closure and cessation? "I've been in East London for 15 years now. I know that nightlife is an incubator for gentrification - we all know that. I think we need to be a little bit careful about making big proclamations about the future of the city's nightlife. From what I understand, Plastic People wasn't shut down by any authorities. They had licensing issues which they dealt with. I believe it was still a viable business and club and it was down to the owner calling it a day. It's sad that it's happened."
"The fabric thing is very difficult, given that they've always worked very closely with the authorities. Keith, the owner, has done everything he can to keep that place as legitimate as possible while still being a great club. These new licensing conditions will be very hard to deal with if they come into force. Fabric is still an essential part of the city."
"We've also got to think about the obvious financial points here. Property everywhere is so expensive and the risk of putting cash into founding and funding a new nightclub is so high that it isn't seen as viable. Then there's issue of neighbours and residents nearby and how you get around that. We've also got a lack of space. We're not helped by promoters using off-locations to run their parties and clubnights. If you look at how many warehouse spaces that have been used over the years and you took one of them and made it a great club you'd solve a lot of the issues. Promoters have become nomadic: we're the same. That's part of club culture: different places, different spaces."
One final question: what can we do as participants in a culture we're told is dying around us do to breathe life into something we love? "It ties into that need for specific sites. In the last few years we've decided to move back into more legitimate venues. Promoters can help by supporting existing clubs and venues. DJs can play those kind of places more. Clubbers need to keep going out. This idea that London's a dead place isn't true. Look at how many parties there are every weekend, how many club nights are on, how many world class DJs are here every single weekend. The culture's still there. It's always going to be."
To buy tickets to the Friday event, head to secretsundaze.net