Local Heroes: Man Power

By Simon


Fraser and Simon went to meet Man Power aka Geoff Kirkwood, the DJ/Producer born and bred in Battle Hill, Wallsend, who now rocks sound systems worldwide (even playing Glastonbury this year) for a chat and a few too many drinks before Geoff went off to open for Ape-X’s show with Mind Against, as one of their residents. Geoff stood out for us as the best act that night, and we’re also huge fans of the other Ape-X resident, No Moon, who hopefully will be featuring in his own Local Heroes cut sometime soon. This is a fairly candid, explicit article, but we wanted to leave it (almost) verbatim. Coincidentally, Geoff’s response upon reading the interview after included: ‘I swear that much? Wow!’ Yes you do Geoff, and we’ve got it in writing. 

With Geoff having eventually moved on from Newcastle to Berlin, then onto Mexico, he has had as varied a musical experience as an adult as he had as a child. Yet whatever the age or situation, Geoff Kirkwood has always made noise, and a lot of it. This article focuses on why that noise has rocketed him, as Man Power, into the spotlight, where he seems determined to stay, and stay through a continued depth and quality of output, not just shallow maintenance. He now runs MeMeMe, a label that continues to impress release after release, with the most recent being from Elliot Adamson, another of Newcastle’s rising stars, and, regardless of taste, a truly phenomenal producer. The furore surrounding Man Power’s identity was one that also interested quite a lot of us, and it’s nice to hear Geoff’s own opinion on it all, which left us with the impression that the best way to think of him is Geoff Kirkwood from Newcastle; Man Power from wherever you, the listener, decide. We hope you enjoy this interview, and make sure you’re around in Newcastle on August 27th for MeMeMe and Ape-x’s All Day Special at the Boiler Shop with Hercules and Love Affair, Horse Meat Disco and Man Power b2b Elliot Adamson, which is sure to be class.

Simon: What time are you playing tonight?

Man Power: Until 1, then closing as well.

S: You’re finishing as well? How do you find doing that kind of set?

MP: A set’s a set.

S: It must be weird playing the start, then the end though?

MP: I mean, I’ll be playing Paris tomorrow, peak, and peak in Paris is different to, say, Tel Aviv. And then you go to Berlin and there’s no such thing as a peak. So, you know, you play your crowd and your scenario, be it to a filling up club, or closing out.

S: For me personally, I like to get loose when I finish a set, do you stay sober in between or hit a few drinks, get more in the spirit and hop back on?

MP: I’m old and I come from a background of playing all night, 8hours to 10hours, so this curve of starting off on a warmup and building up to peak is normal for me – it just means I get an extended piss-break in the middle.

Simon bores Geoff and Fraser with uni talk, and it turns out Geoff only did the degree for year as it all came around the same time as he hit success musically. He arrived at his first year exams just as he had his first tour of North and Central America, and thought he’d do all his prep on the way there and back. Returning, he thought, actually, I’m not up for that. 

S: So what was going to uni about?

MP: I did it as a personal crucible/crusade really. I’d never been to university, and started work at 16, and wanted to prove I was capable of it. Part of it was because I was thinking of becoming a school teacher, but then all of a sudden I’m getting offers to play fuckin’ NY…

S: Easy choice.

MP: Well, Teaching’s still gonna be there in 10 years, so I thought let’s take a gamble, and uni didn’t really live up to my expectations anyway.

S: It doesn’t really seem meet anyone’s expectations these days unless they’re getting off their faces at least half the time.

MP: It comes part and parcel with a certain type lifestyle, and by this point I owned my own fucking house, d’you know what I mean? This whole thing of going out and getting wrecked all the time –

S: You’d done it all before I guess?

MP: Well, if I was going out at that age it’s just be creepy, and I’d done it for however many years so it was kind of like: I was looking at the kids on there and they’re all coming in buzzing off whatever night they’ve been to, and I’m sitting there thinking, I used to run that club, why aren’t you thinking I’m dead cool, you know? And the moment, the crossing point, when I realised I didn’t belong there, was when a tutor hadn’t turned up to a seminar, and a kid came into the class apologising to me for being late… For fuck’s sake. But at least I can say I went.

S: I found that after studying English Literature I actually just didn’t really want to read anymore, but that I found I’d rather look for depth in music instead.

MP: Yeah fucking hell man, my reading’s fucking died since then. That’s one thing I found kind of polarising – I was being forced into a more critical thinking role than I had been in a long time, and I’d started to look more critically at why I was doing things and what I was doing things for, and just this whole thought of, you know, music being a form of mass communication, was in some ways more satisfying to me because it was more impressionist, and how you could subvert and play with context. But I kind of fucked that game as soon as I revealed who I was.

S: Must have been strange not even being able to tell your close mates that it was you?

MP: I had Emotional Response asking me to do a remix, and at the same time I’d been out with Chuggy, who runs the label, because he knows me from Last Waltz, and I’m typing in broken english to him as Man Power. The best one was Sean Johnston, from A Love From Outer Space, put up something saying does anybody know who this Man Power is, and it got a response saying, oh he’s Romanian, my wife’s best friends with him. Fair enough, I’ll be Romanian from now on then, that’s perfect.

S: Seems a fun way to do it, let people just decide who you are?

MP: Yeah. And that was great because – and I’m not name checking them, but some fairly high brow blokes were asking me for content and pushing everything I did. And they were totally into it when they thought I was somebody from the arse-end of the Balkan Sea, then as soon as they found out I was this daft Geordie, who’s got a bit of a loud mouth… Well, it just recontextualised the music, and they didn’t wanna do it anymore.

S: Do you think it’s because you were from Newcastle specifically?

MP: I think it’s because I’m an arsehole really. But no, I take the whole serious element of it with a pinch of salt, and what’s important to me isn’t necessarily important to the music industry, or the music scene as a whole. And I think sometimes that doesn’t key in with a lot of people. Loads are just in it for an elevated sense of self-importance, even just associated elements, like promoters.

S: Ego does seem to be absolutely everywhere within music.

MP: And as soon as you go in without an ego you challenge the status quo, and you have to be like: it’s a fucking joke mate, don’t worry. And it usurps their level of self-importance.

Fraser: Do you think it’s the fault of liberalism?

MP: Definitely, definitely. Though it’s not just liberalism. As a kid I used to play at Wallsend rugby club, and the guys there could be third in command during the week, but then club captain at the weekend, and the fucking inflation it gave their self-worth and their self-importance was crazy. You take that and times it by a million in the music industry.

S: I guess power of whatever kind will always corrupt. How do you get around that then?

MP: You’re making it harder for yourself, I guess, but you just put yourself in a position where they can’t ignore you – with the quality of and consistency of what you put out. And you get to a point where they just have to take you as you are, and they can’t reappropriate you or adjust your narrative, as you aren’t going anywhere.

You know, there were certain DJs who I was like 10 rungs below, and all the way up they had a foot on my head and were sneering at me, and now I’m getting remix requests off them and this that and the other.

F: If someone didn’t know you, or your story, how would you describe yourself, or tell your story?

MP: It’s hard not to Romanticise yourself when you’re asked a question like that, but I’ll just try and be honest.

[pause whilst Geoff collects his thoughts.]

I’ve always been into music, but I’ve been DJing in Newcastle for 13 or 14 years, about 2007/78 we started doing a party called Dada, which we were really proud of. And we started to take that underground, and we started DJing and producing under the name Last Waltz. We started getting a bit of respect and getting to gig around a bit, and started releasing a bit of music that was being well-received, and then we hit the point where, well.. Warts and all: I’d broken up with a girl I’d been with for 7 years, walked out of a job I’d been in – second time in my life I’ve done that – which was in a call centre to support the relationship with this girl, and then I decided to go to university, which coincided with a massive bout of depression and splitting up with this girl. So I had time on my hands, and, you know, the musical output I had, on my own, as opposed to working with two other people, was much faster and I gave this solo output a joke name. Basically it was loads of heavy, arpeggiated basslines, which really reminded me of Man Parrish. So I thought I’d do this joke identity that’s super camp, and then it just turned into the name for all of the stuff I was doing on my own. And then I set up a bunch of, fucking, stupid youtube videos, and all of a sudden people were going crazy over them and this whole guessing game started. And I looked at this, say 20 tracks I’d made that I was really proud of, and thought fuck it I’ll have a go it this. So Mark Piñol, of Hivern Discs, asked have you got any music you’re looking to release, and I was like yeah there’s 8gb of it mate.

S: In broken English?

MP: Not with him, but actually maybe a little bit, but definitely didn’t tell him who I was. And then I sent some stuff to some other labels, who sent it back. I won’t say who they are, as they later came back wanting to release it, and by the time they had come back I’d already sent it to Correspondent saying that I had an album’s worth of material that I knew was good, and I’d only let them have it if they gave me the full album. Cardini got back and said yeah we’ll do it. And then this hype machine just built and built, especially with the guessing game. But what really stood me in good stead was the fact that there’s a lot to be said for anything in life where you have a second attempt at it. So, this was my second attempt at breaking a musical act – did it with Last Waltz, and sort of just felt my way around – but because it was the second time around, with no context or history, nobody had an impression (only the music could be judged). So I went in, confident, with everything finished, didn’t ask for approval, just said there it is – aimed for the absolute highest point I could. And people ask me for advice on it a lot, and I always ask, well what’s your favourite label, and just work with that – like if they won’t sign your music, why is that? Go and make music your favourite label would sign, stuff like that.

S: Do you ever think your own success was luck?

MP: Massively. It’s all luck, but also positioning yourself correctly –

Barmaid: We’re gonna close the terrace in about 10 minutes.

MP: Keep that in. It’s all luck at  certain point, but you have to have ticked as many boxes as possible before that moment to give yourself the best possible chance of success.

S: Sorry for asking a question you’ve been asked a lot before, but where did the music begin for you?

MP: Well, sort of… I’ll give you the answer you’ve probably seen in other interviews: Me parents got divorced when I was 1 and I went to live with my grandparents and spent some time with one set of grandparents, some time with another set of grandparents, some time with my mother, some time with my father, and they were all into very very separate and disparate things. So, my mother, who was only 20 when she had me, was into Acid House, my father fucking had a great musical knowledge but very esoteric, and one set of grandparents had a really nice bearing in jazz, and the other set of grandparents loved their kind of Frank Sinatra kind of vibe. And what it meant was, from a very young age, it was normal for me to know there was no right or wrong answer musically, which is now quite normal for your average kid, what with the internet – you’re your own gatekeeper now. But I had the benefit of having that judgement, and being my own gatekeeper, from very early on. You know, it wasn’t weird for me to be listening to fucking… The best of Cream, then fucking… Debussy the next minute, and then jazz the next, you know what I mean?

S: When it comes to your production then, do you work in the box or out?

MP: No solid answer to that, but mainly in at the minute as I haven’t got a studio per se.

Pav walks in and joins us.

MP: Doing an interview.

Pav: Doing an interview?

MP: Aye, you can laugh if you want.

S: What plugins can you recommend?

MP: I lost my MacBook recently, which doesn’t help. But, at the moment, the last EP I’ve just done, for Optimo Trax, I set myself the limit of zero plugins used at all, it’s all native Ableton stuff. And I’ve got access at the minute to whatever hardware I want: Danny Maloso lives on the same street and my mate Patto has this studio with everything from an Arp 300, Odyssey, Juno, 4 different Moog’s… But I find that becomes the enemy of creativity to a degree.

S; I think Levon Vincent said for him it was the setting of limits and boundaries, and the process of playing with and cleverly overcoming those limits, that makes for great music.

MP: Exactly. And this is the best EP I think I’ve made to date, and it’s all done on a basic Ableton setup. At the end of the day, this phenomenon with the bedroom producer being so easy puts people in a position where they become method-centric, rather than output-centric. The best advice I ever got was that the software is there to be abused, all it is, is about what the output is sonically. And for me, I’m not particularly technical, I’m more into editing sounds or pulling in something from somewhere else. For me it’s just making a lot of fucking noise until I get something I like.

S: Purely for plagiarism, how did you get the bass sound for Tachyon?

MP: It’s not a bass sound, it’s toms. It’s 3 layered detuned toms put through an arpeggiator, with different levels of ‘verb on them and different ratios, so it makes it sound like a warm analogue thing. That sounds like I know what I’m talking about, but that’s backwards engineering – I had no clue until I got there and worked back.

S: No specific drum machines then or anything?

MP: Every different track is a different thing. Though, one thing I do have, James Hadfield, whose just released on the label, about 5 years ago he gave me a whole set of funk samplers, and I’ve cut them to shreds ,and I’ll layer 5 or 6 different kicks, different snare sounds on them, and just work with phasing on those type of things. Real experimentation on it, you know.

F: Do you have a library of sounds you use then?

MP: I have, but do you know the big thing I’m really into? And I don’t feel bad admitting it now because I’ve recently heard that KiNK does it as well, and that is sampling off youtube. Really bad quality samples off youtube, and then I just fuck with them and do what I want.

F: There’s so much texture in it.

MP: Exactly. I mean they’re horrible on their own, but, once you’ve tweaked it and played with it, they don’t resemble what they were, and you get something out of it.

F: You can’t think of that initially, you have to graft for it.

MP: There’s nothing more scary than a blank piece of paper for anybody who’s creative, you know what I mean? And that’s why remixes are so easy – you get the stems, and they give you the direction. So the second you start with something like youtube, then there’s something tangible there.

F: I had a teacher at uni who once said if you wanna be sick on the page then be sick on the page, and it was all about just having something on the page to work with.

P: I find the opposite. Once I have something down it’s super hard to know where to take it.

MP: See, arrangement comes super easy to me. And do you know the key to arrangement? Raving for 20 years, then dancing when you make a track. And then you sit there and think, what do I want now? Do I deserve that yet? Do I wanna play with my expectations?

S: Do you feel that, especially having lived in different places – Newcastle, Berlin, Mexico – that these different places inspire different types of music?

MP: They used to.

S: For you, personally? Or for everyone?

MP: For everyone. It touches on what we touched on before, the availability of music. Newcastle used to only churn out people making house music: Lexicon Avenue, The fucking Fabulous Byker Boys, I could name all these kids who had some success, because Shindig was the gatekeeper for music here, and that came about because northern cities really adopted acid house and techno. But now, you know, there’s fucking Bass music nights, and that’s a London phenomenon that sprung from Jamaican soundsytem culture. Which didn’t exist in Newcastle, but now it’s a big thing.

S: We found when we first started Backdrop, that there weren’t many other nights around wanting to bring people like Jane Fitz, Helena Hauff, or Ethyl & Flori to Newcastle.

MP: Newcastle’s much better than it was say 5 or 6 years ago. We were the only ones representing the opposites. But I’ll tell you why it’s changed, and that’s because the students have gotten better.

S: Really loved your Tourist Todd Terje night also, that was a wild one – synth problems, kicked in toilet and all.

MP: That was the second time we booked him actually, we booked him in 2005 as well. And yeah we had to get the synth sent over from Glasgow, and yeah someone kicked in a toilet. And I had a really big problem with some girl going ‘I don’t like the sound, it’s all at the front’ – it’s a fucking warehouse man, where do you expect it to be? And she’s screaming this at me whilst people are pissing on the walls at the back and this kid’s screaming ‘it’s me dad’s office man’… Fuck off. I tell you though, ten years before that we paid him £300 and then I paid him £14k on that night, but to be fair we made a lot more money off him that night for 14k than we did back then for 300.

P: And he didn’t take his shoes off that time.

MP: No he didn’t. The first time he played he took his shoes off, which made me feel sick.

S: When it comes to your mixing style do you think much about aiming to achieve certain things within the set – heads down moments, hands in the air, tension-release etc?

MP: I’m gonna sound like a dickhead here, but the one thing I’m phenomenal at is mixing.

S: You don’t sound like a dickhead. And you see yourself as a DJ anyway, right?

MP: Much more of a DJ than a producer. But the reason I’m so good at mixing is I started off mixing liquid liquid tunes into Beastie Boys, into the Rapture and whatever else, you know what I mean? It was also because of the gigs I played. I played a lot of indie nights, and now, mixing techno is just the easiest thing in the world.

S: If you can’t mix house and techno, you’ve got problems.

MP: Yeah exactly. Especially now you can see the fucking waveform and the BPM.

S: You don’t play records anymore?

MP: Not anymore. Moved to Mexico, and trying to play in the US without a visa, turning up with a record bag looks fairly suspicious. Easy way to get deported. I moved to Berlin a while ago, ended up with about 1000 records there and had to move back to the UK. So if I set up a record collection in Mexico, then I’d have to move it all over as we do want to come back here.

S: You’re coming back?

MP: Planning to once some things are sorted out. I’m kind of useless in Mexico: I don’t speak very good Spanish at all, I’m reluctant to drive over there, and I don’t have any contacts there other than people in clubs, so I’m firing on 10% of my capability over there. If I move back to Newcastle, I can actually be a useful husband to my wife and stepdaughter.

S: Do you feel your production style mirrors your mixing style? You also said you had quite a mixed musical start – does your production style take from all these forms?

MP: Production style is a weird one, as I say I don’t think I have a style, I just go out and make noise. I think that does kind of mirror my mixing style in that I don’t really try and adhere to any rules, it’s just about response to sound. I think there’s something a lot more exciting about a sexy cut on a record, as opposed to a deep mix. Too many people are too focused on the technical achievement of the deep mix that they miss the statement. And, again, what you need is artistic achievements not technical achievements. And that’s what colours what I do with music. The artistic, or the reactionary experience, rather than the technical. That’s why if you get a recorded mix from me it can be a little different – you can service a crowd so much that the recording of it sounds awful, but what they miss out on is seeing the dancers. Getting too metaphysical about it, what I really think you’re doing when you’re DJing is controlling energy – the mass energy of the crowd, and the direction their energy is going. And it should take curves, it should transform, you know? By keeping it on a level, or whatever else, but also by transferring it and curve-balling it – all dependent on what the crowd energy needs.

S: The DJ knows best, hey.

MP: That’s what we’re paid for. To anticipate. There’s this weird blend between satisfying and educating, because if we all wanted to satisfy we’d be slamming out top ten hits all night, and if we all wanted to go out and educate, we’d all be playing Plaid all night, you know what I mean? So there’s gotta be some middle ground between. You’ve gotta play with people.

S: You’ve done that every time I’ve seen you. Your set at Vamos before Rebolledo was great, despite the dodgy soundsystem.

MP: Nice, thanks! Yeah I’ve had a couple of really satisfying Newcastle gigs recently. Before Bicep at Digital was fantastic, really enjoyed that.

S: Do you find people book you here or are you naturally drawn back?

MP: Neither. I’m just good mates with Gabe, and we work a lot together, so whenever I wanna come visit me mother I give Gabe a shout – thanks Gabe! But I am Ape-X’s resident so I’ve had to turn other offers down.

S: Ape-x have done a pretty amazing job over what’s coming up to being the last ten years.  Favourite Ape-x party/parties as resident?

MP: I’ve always enjoyed the extended warm up’s there. The first Bicep one at cosmic Ballroom really stood out I think. They tend to bring a really open minded crowd, and they also tend to come early, so you get to really tease it out and hold some tension. Actually the Bicep warm up at Digital was great too. Thinking back, playing Digital as a headliner before Kolsch was great too. Mainly because he was over an hour late getting in, so I got an almost double length main set and managed to pull out some pretty huge sounding techno, which I think may have surprised a few people.

S: the MeMeMe all dayer sounds pretty incredible, such a shame we can’t all be there! What brought the idea about – for the boiler shop as a venue, the lineup, and your b2b with Elliot?

MP: It’s just one of those things that grew out of a really healthy combination of factors really.
The label is doing amazing things, so the next logical step was to start throwing parties as we’re getting a growing list of amazing contributors who are all class-act DJs or live performers too. It also happens that a really big junk of the label family are from the North East. On top of that I wanted to put something special on for my first hometown gig. And then on top of that i’ve been ITCHING to do something at the Boiler Shop since Richard moved back from London and took over the running of the place. He’s really brought an amazing team with him who are doing something special in the city, and I couldn’t help but want to be a part of that. They’ve booked Einsturzende Neubaten, The Fall and Sparks already. At one point I never thought I’d see a venue with such a keen musical integrity open in my hometown.

With regards to the Headliners, I bumped in to Andy from the band at Glastonbury and we’d been talking since then about getting him to play whenever we could make it work, then it turned out that the new album was due to be released almost on the exact date that the venue had given us for our event. With Elliott, his record was due to come out on Me Me Me the exact month before the gig, so it made obvious sense to have him on board. We’ve both had ridiculously busy summers, so the b2b is just a way for us to keep it interesting for ourselves, while offering something new to Newcastle where we’ve both admittedly played A LOT. And Horse Meat… well I admit that was a late addition, but it made so much sense: Who wouldn’t want to see them play during a sunny day at a busy party?

S: Thanks for chatting to us Geoff. Just to let you know, as I thought you’d be honoured, this feature is called Local Heroes.

MP: Ah class, that’s one of my favourite fucking Dire Straits songs!