Q&A: 5 minutes with Mark Knight
Two decades ago, Mark Knight established the Toolroom label. In the years since, Toolroom has become synonymous with championing innovation in electronic dance music, with the label becoming an essential point of reference for quality and cutting-edge tech-house, house, and techno. The establishment of The Toolroom Academy would set the label apart and distinguish it as a space passionate about developing and nurturing new talent, giving rise to contemporary pioneers and tastemakers such as WEISS and Illyus & Barrientos. Central to this has always been Knight, whose own career as DJ and producer has grown alongside his label. Having released his debut album Untold Business last year, Knight has returned from lockdown with a renewed sense of vigour and urgency. To celebrate twenty years of Toolroom, Knight and the label are hosting the Toolroom Weekend at London’s Ministry of Sound and Brighton’s Concorde 2. The two event celebration looks to reflect on the history of the label while offering a glimpse of its future, with Knight headlining the shows alongside some of Toolroom’s new talent such as ESSEL, Carly Wilford, Danny Rhys and Ryan Spicer. We caught up with Knight to discuss how Toolroom has developed over the years and continues to evolve, and what we can expect from their twentieth anniversary celebrations this weekend.
Hi Mark! It’s great to chat with you. Firstly, congratulations on nearing 20 years of Toolroom. Have you got anything special planned to mark this milestone?
We have a whole heap of stuff currently being planned, however nothing we can announce yet. Once the anniversary actually arrives next year though there will be plenty to talk about.
Over the years, Toolroom has grown in scope from a label to a sort of incubator for new talent. Was this always the vision when you set out on this journey all those years ago, or did it organically find its way here?
A bit of both. The mantra has always been to grow organically and not try to force anything too much. We rely on our A&R ability – we did back when we started Toolroom and that’s still the case today. We’ve never had the financial support of a major, and can’t sign huge cheques where we can just go off and look to get the biggest artists in the world on our books, so nurturing talent and identifying records we believe in is one of Toolroom’s key strengths. I still get a buzz out of hearing a record or finding an artist that really excites you. Developing artists is absolutely key to longevity, and that’s what we strive for.
Finding new talent has always set the brand apart, I think. People like WEISS and more recently Maxinne come to mind. What do you look out for in emerging artists, and how do you develop this factor once they’re a part of the Toolroom family?
It’s hard to completely quantify. Sometimes you just know – you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is, but often it’s to do with an individual expression of creativity, something you just haven’t heard before. And the first time you hear an artist or their work, it might not be the finished product: in most cases it’s not. But you can see and hear the potential, and developing that potential is one of the most rewarding parts of the job. Individuality is key though for sure: if it sounds like everything else, we’re not interested.
Your own career has grown alongside the label in many ways. Has your own experience of building your career as a DJ/producer informed how you approach building those of your artists?
Yes massively. When I started out there wasn’t anything approaching a handbook on how to forge a career as a DJ, like a lot of artists at that time I had to make my own path. So when I’m working with new artists I can use all that experience in helping them avoid the things I did wrong, and maybe learning something from the things I did right. We invented this industry, so it’s only right that young artists coming up now want to learn from people like us.
Are you very hands-on in your approach to training and developing new talent?
100%. Anything music and A&R related I’m involved in from start to finish. We’re only as good as the last record we put out, that’s our legacy which is what we live and die by, so I couldn’t not be involved. Consistency and that personal touch is so important, you have to treat every single release and artist that comes through with care and attention.
While Toolroom is a label and brand that focuses on tech-house, I think there’s always been something about what the label puts out that’s stayed true to classic styles of house music and its origins. How important is this history for you, and how does it inform what you create or release?
When people refer to “classic” I think what they’re referring to are records with a high level of production, maybe a timeless melody and a sense that they could be played for years to come. So if that’s a link, then yes we do adhere to that. But we’re also looking to push boundaries. I can’t think of anything more boring than just churning out the same kind of record. We’re always looking to the future.
This weekend you’re taking over venues in London and Brighton on the same night – how much are you looking forward to this and what have you got planned?
It’s a tall order pulling off two shows in the same night but, it’s good to challenge ourselves. I ‘m really happy with the line up on both shows, it’s a great balance of legacy Toolroom artists and the future of the label as well. I’m really looking forward to it.
Some of Toolroom’s recent graduates are joining you on stage. That’s incredibly exciting! What do you think artists learn from performing live that you can’t really learn anywhere else?
That’s one of the great USPs that we have as producers and performers: we get to continually test and hone the music we’re making. It’s massively important. The body language and reaction you get from an audience when you drop a new record doesn’t lie, so it’s the ultimate litmus test for a record. I wouldn’t even think about putting out a record before I’ve tested it many times in a club.
Are there any new artists on your radar right now, who we should know about?
Fletcher Kerr – he’s been a stand out from the academy graduates. Loads of character and personality to back up a huge amount of talent, I expect you’ll be hearing a lot about him over the coming years.
Aside from being a skilled producer, you also have a knack for great remixes. ‘You’ve Got The Love’ is a great example. Considering your process, how does remixing a track differ from creating something original and from which direction do you usually approach it from?
Well when you’re remixing something you’re already working on something that exists, you’re thinking “how can I bring my own flavour, where can I take it?” I wouldn’t take it on unless I could bring something new to the table, or take it in a different direction, essentially justifying its own existence, otherwise a remix is pointless. Creating something from scratch is completely different. I have to have an idea, I like to visualise the entire process, from inception to creation to marketing and impact. I like to think the whole process through rather than just switch the computer on and see what happens.
Can we expect any new music from you this year? Are you allowed to share the news?
I’ve just finished the last of four new records with Armand Van Helden, so I’m excited to get those out, though dates are still TBC. Aside from that I have so much music, I just need to figure out what the schedule’s going to be!
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