With fresh sounds and an ever insatiable desire to keep moving beyond the trends of dance music, Matt Tolfrey is proving to be one of the more unique DJs in the industry. His recognition as an innovative artist has followed him since his early days at Fabric in London. Never settling with just one style, he free flows throughout House, Techno and deep genres with a fluidity that begs to be praised. 2015 marked the 10th anniversary of his acclaimed label, Leftroom, and he celebrated by releasing the 10 Years of Leftroom Compilation. The standout release features a combination of Leftroom classics and unreleased material from artists like Guti, Chez Damier, Kate Simko, Route 94 and more.
Tolfrey DJs all around the world, but also has made it out to a local nightclub, Bijou in sleepy Boston thanks to promoters, Dusk Till Done. This is where he comes to school the new heads in the art of being a class act DJ. Aside from astounding the patrons while behind the decks, he is also as humble and friendly as they come. Instead of hiding behind the DJ booth or green room during the opener, Tolfrey hung out with everyone on the dancefloor and interacted throughout the night until his turn in the booth. He even joined us for an after hours, where I got the chance to spend some time talking with him.
When did you get started DJing and producing dance music? Are you still the youngest DJ to ever play in Fabric on a Saturday.
"I was at one point, but not anymore.
"I grew up in the Middle East, in Bahrain, then I moved back to Worcester when I was 16 to do my GSCE’s. After my GSCE’s I moved to Nottingham to go to University, mainly because there’s a club there called the Bomb which is basically the best club. It looks like Luke Skywalker’s house, a big white bubble. I was playing there one time and luckily Craig Richards heard me, and he asked me to play at Fabric and then my career started.
"Before that, when I was living in the Middle East, every summer we’d come back to England to see my family. My cousin was a big DJ and record collector, and he’d let me on his decks when I was 9 or 10 and I would have a go. I didn’t start DJ’ing properly until I got a residency at a bar where I’d play records on Sunday’s. It wasn’t a job until much later on, more of a hobby at the start. It’s a push forward and not up to you if the hobby becomes a job - it’s up to everyone else."
At what moment, did the hobby become a career?
"I suppose the turning point was that one night at the Bomb. One night I got a call from the promoter James Bailey, who was like my idol. He asked me what I was doing that night, and of course I was coming to see Craig and Lee. He then told me, 'Burridge isn’t coming, he’s sick, do you want to warm up for Craig?' And I was like, 'What? Yeah okay, cool.' He said I should make sure I was there on time and I was at lunch with my girlfriend, so I quickly ran home to get my records sorted out.
"Craig used to come up from London, he'd come to Nottingham then play at Fabric afterwards. I got to do 10 pm until 12 pm, Craig did 12:15 pm, he let me play a few extra records (i guess checking me out), he played until 2 am, and then I closed the club. Then two or three weeks later, I was laying in bed with my then, girlfriend and got a call from a random London number, and picked it up and he was like, 'Hey it’s Craig' and I said, 'Craig who?' and he said, 'Craig Richards.' So I said, 'What?' He said, 'What are you doing this May (2004) gig wise?' I said, 'Not a lot' and he said, 'Do you want to come and play at Fabric?' and I said, 'Yeah, okay cool.' It was that classic story of I gave a promoter a CD and got a gig out of it, and it lead to a break which i took... I don’t think that happens anymore."
How do you feel about this recent comeback of the vinyl medium?
"It’s not a return, for me, it’s completely different. If you look at Juno, the biggest vinyl seller in the world, if you look at their top 10 house chart and look at Beatport's top ten house chart - it’s completely different. To me they’re like two different things. I think it’s one of those things where if you’re a new DJ then you should buy some decks and get into it. Not that you’ll never be a DJ if you haven’t done that. I don’t think it’s a revival, I think everyone talks about that because there is more being sold now, it’s a trend. The DJ’s playing vinyl have always played vinyl, like Sven and Ricardo. When I play at Fabric, I play vinyl, because at most other clubs the turntables don’t work, they’re basically beer mats or the needles are ruined."
Where do you see your music going in the future?
"I hope, since I’ve run a record label for so long, I don’t move with trends. I think a lot of labels move with trends: like go from Disco to House to Tech-House. I want to only sign records that I play. I play what I like and hope people like it. The problem today is that people have one big track and they think that they're a DJ, but producers need to learn how to DJ. There’s only a few good DJ’s left who don’t just play 1.5 hours of the biggest tracks. I’d prefer to play as long as possible because then I play as much music as possible. First, I’m a DJ, then I’m still learning how to produce to a level i am happy with.
"It’s the second thing. People think they go hand in hand, but DJ'ing and making tracks are completely different. When I’m in the studio, I’ll make music that sometimes isn’t, what I play. It takes me a while to make music that I would play. When I started, you could just be a DJ, not you have to be a DJ, producer, record label owner, and a party thrower - it's every angle. Do everything. It’s more competitive now. It’s like every art that gets popular. It’s oversaturated. The people who are producers, who want to DJ, they should play live. Because that’s your thing, do a live set. Have the balls to do it live, rather than trying to DJ... If I was an out and out producer, I’d play live rather than DJ."
What characteristics or attributes helped you keep the longevity of your career?
"I don’t know, staying true to my roots...being told I’m unique in a way. Playing records other people wouldn't play and keeping crowds interested in what I’m doing. Some people just do the same thing. Some people just do techno from start to end, but I can play a jacking Jimmy Edgar record then play something deep, then go that way and that way.
"Sometimes DJs can play the same thing for an hour and they can be great at it. DJ Sprinkles is a legend (he remixed my last album), it’s mad, most people use a lot of noise and he just uses a kick drum to get the crowd going. That’s his thing and everyone loves it.
How did you feel when you were given a slot Fabric?
"It was huge for me. I used to go to Fabric as a clubber, so that was my break. I still remember it. I played 10 until 1. I remember sorting out my records. It probably still is the biggest thing in my career. Since then I’ve played every room there at lots of different times, and at their birthdays and new years eve parties."
What do you think makes your style special?
"Craig Richards told me that I have a groove, so i guess I have a groove... I play from my heart. I play as if I’m on the dance floor. Dave Congreve, a resident, one of my idols as well, from the Bomb told me that Derrick Carter once told him to, 'keep one foot on the dancefloor and one in the DJ booth.' Don't just play for yourself."
You started your own label Leftroom over 10 years ago. What were some of the challenges you faced?
"I released something on Crosstown Rebels before I started the label and gotten involved with Damian Lazarus. We moved to a club called Stealth, Damian heard me play on Sunday and asked if I made music. I got involved in other people’s labels, it’s cool working with someone else's vision, but I wanted to do my own thing. I was hearing so much good music from friends and peers that weren't getting signed, so I thought I’d create my own label.
"At the time it was easier, if a young DJ said now “What do I do?” I wouldn’t tell them to start a label, it’s too competitive. If you’ve been in the industry as long as I have it’s easier. At university, I was studying towards a business degree, so I knew what running a company was about. It worked. The first EP we put out was the Extended Family, and it’s our motto still to this day. I built my own little family and that’s what I think we’ve done: Laura Jones, Kate Simko, these people that have stayed with us the whole time."
What’s in store for the future of Leftroom?
"The thing for me is I don’t plan these things to far ahead. The future of Leftroom happens when I get sent music, I don’t like to plan too much. I’ll probably do another album at some point. I get sent so much music and there are really talented people out there who need a break, and I’m excited that i could be the person who can give them a break - like people have done for me."
Is there a style or genre you focus on releasing?
"I think the scary thing is, people say 'I made this for Leftroom' and I think 'Don’t make it for us, make it for yourself. Don’t tailor it for anyone.' The maddest thing for me recently was playing with Sasha who’s another one of my idols, back to back on New Year’s Eve, it was fucking crazy. I’m playing the last set with him out of nowhere. It’s just bonkers. I’m 35 and can still feel like a little kid."
What advice for success, would you give young DJs/Producers?
"Just stay true to what you’re doing and work hard. I’ve hustled and worked hard. People say you look tired, and I say, 'No, I've hustled'."
Talking with Matt Tolfrey is an experience worth having, again and again. Not to mention his DJ sets are a marvel to witness. He made waves at Bijou and the afters was equally as proper. Everyone had a wonderful time and the dancing went on until the wee hours of the morning. Be sure to stay connected with Tolfrey and his label Leftroom, lots coming our way in 2016.