An interview with Hidden Spheres

With a plethora of releases on a stack of notable labels, it was a surprise to me how little coverage there was on Tom Harris; The Manchester-based DJ and producer – Hidden Spheres.

Rhythm Section, Moods & Grooves, Lobster Theremin and sister-label, Distant Hawaii have all released Harris’ productions. He also hosts a monthly show, ‘Fruit Merchant’ on the well-loved Dalston radio station, NTS, a move that led him to birth his own imprint of the same name. His most recent EP, ‘Wonders of the Rainforest’, is the first of many for his new label.

With such a strong catalogue of productions behind him, and with more planned for the not-so-distant future, it only felt natural to catch up with the man behind such sumptuous sounds…

Hello Tom, how are you?

Yeh, I’m good, I’m just moving studio today. I’m going from the living room to the spare room.

It sounds very intimate! So how do you go about making music in your studio? Do you use much hardware?

A bit of everything really. I’ve got some synthesizers as a permanent loan from the guy I had a studio with. Since we’ve moved out of there I’ve kind of commandeered half of the gear. I’ve got a couple of hardware synths but I do a lot when I’m sat on the sofa, or on the train travelling. I tend to write a lot within the laptop and then when I get to the studio I’ll rewrite them on the actual synthesizers.

I don’t really have much of a process, it’ll start with any idea, be that a drum loop or a keyboard melody, everything seems to start in its own way. I can be very productive or I can procrastinate quite a lot. I’ve got an EP coming out and I think I wrote those four songs all within about two weeks, but I’ve had some stuff that I’ve been working on for a couple of years; it’s all got a life of its own, I suppose.

There is a certain amount of discipline you’ve got to have, especially doing this thing full time now, because it’s very easy to put things off. It’s good to have a little bit of structure I suppose, but when you try and force it, nothing tends to happen.

You say you’re a full-time musician now, but do you still do any work as a Sound Engineer at all?

I’m just music full-time now. Up until last year, I used to teach at University one day per week, teaching live sound. Before then I was doing the odd bit of work here and there, but now it’s just music full-time; which is good!

How did you get into music then? What made you realise that you wanted to pursue it more seriously?

There are loads of little reasons why I got into music. From being in a punk band when I was a teenager and generally, just being into music from an early age. One of my friends at school, his dad had an attic studio. This was when we were 15 or 16, we used to go there after school and muck around, make silly rap and hip-hop songs. It was probably a combination of being in my own band and my friend’s dad having this recording studio that got me into music pretty seriously.

The guy who had the studio, he ended up starting a band called ‘Late of the Pier’, who went on to be a pretty big success; he makes music as ‘La Priest’ now. He started me off, he gave me a couple of records and got me into electronic music more. He gave me stuff from Lamb and Daft Punk which really opened my eyes to electronic music, whereas before I was listening to hip-hop and heavy metal. Punk bands and stuff.

So they were your early experiences of music, but how and when did you decide you were going to start DJing?

When I moved to Manchester to study. I had always collected records but then I started DJing with a friend who I met when I was studying Sound Engineering. That was the job I did before music. I was obviously always into music but I used to be a live sound and studio engineer. But yeah, me and my friend Matt started DJing around the local bars together, so I started buying music more specifically to play there. I had always been making music and sending a few demos off here and there. Once I started to get some interest back, that’s when I started to take it more seriously.

Just out of curiosity, Why did you call yourself ‘Hidden Spheres?

I was trying to think of something to call myself and at the time, I was listening to and sampling a lot of instrumental hip-hop and free jazz. When you go down that route, you inevitably come across Sun-Ra and it’s the name of a Sun-Ra track. I made quite a lot of tunes sampling him and surrounding myself with that kind of music, it was quite a heavy inspiration at the time – and still is.

So I wanted to know about your NTS show. Obviously, NTS is well loved throughout the world and has a great variety of shows, how did you land yourself a slot on there? How has it influenced your music career?

The guys who run NTS, I met in Manchester. I loosely knew Seb, he used to run some nights in Manchester and worked at one of the local bars, where I used to hang out quite a lot. They were just looking for people very early on. I think it was from the first month or so when NTS started, myself and Tom Contours, began working with them. I could be wrong about that but it was in its infancy either way. For the best part of a year we were doing a monthly show together; which was great. It’s always fun playing with someone else, it’s a bit more relaxing I think, especially when you know the person and you know their music style already, you can really work with them.

I started my own show pretty much when I started having the idea of doing the label; to give it another platform and its own identity. The show before was just Hidden Spheres and Contours, but once I had thoughts of starting the label, I thought it would be a good idea to do a separate thing. Unfortunately, I did have to stop doing the show with Tom because air time is quite a commodity at NTS, people really want it so I couldn’t take up three hours per month.

Why did you decide to call the label ‘Fruit Merchant’?

There is a building in Manchester that my friend’s family owns, it used to be a fruit merchant building that would provide fruit to the local markets. That’s where I initially had my studio with a friend of mine called Colin. We had our studio in the basement and it became a bit of a hub, so Fruit Merchant seemed as good a name as any to call it. It made sense.

What motivated the idea to start the label? Is there an overarching concept for it?

The idea for the label was brought to me by Jimmy Asquith, who runs Lobster Theremin. He suggested it because I had done ex-amount of releases with them and other people. He said, ‘it’s a nice idea to start your own thing and your own identity’. I hadn’t honestly thought about it before he mentioned it, he put the idea into my head, so thanks to Jimmy for that.

Obviously, it’s partly for myself to release my own music, but then there’s no real concept other than to just release music that I like. The next one coming out is a reissue by The Earth Boys, which is a Roy Davis Jnr and Jay Juniel collaboration. It’s a bit odd for the second release to be a reissue but it’s quite a special record for me. It was the first record of that style that got me into house music; the original house music. It means quite a lot to put it out and it was quite a long process but I’m really happy with how it turned out.

After that, it’s just people that I like and more music from myself. Anything I discover and like the sound of, I’ll endeavor to put it out. Regardless of genre as well, if it’s good, it’s good – I’ll try and make it work.

You recently released your own EP, Wonders of the Rainforest on Fruit Merchant. A lot of the tracks contain samples from a 1970s documentary of the same name. What motivated you to make this EP? It seems there might be a social message behind it?

To be honest it was all quite unconsciously done, I’ve not really written anything with a specific goal in mind, I just started to get a couple of tracks together and I thought they worked. I’d written this one song, it was the main structure to the A1 from the record and at the time, I was watching a load of documentaries. There seemed to be a big boom in environmental consciousness and awareness.

I just went down this rabbit-hole, watching all of these nature videos and then I stumbled across one called ‘Wonders of the Rainforest’. I really liked it, it was really of that time and the narration guy had a really interesting voice, it was more like a story rather than a factual documentary. It almost sounded like a children’s storybook the way the guy was narrating it, I really liked it. I was listening to it as I was making the track and had the idea of incorporating it into some of the songs. Pretty much all of the songs on that record have some element of that documentary. It’s mainly just the foley noise, the whole ambience of rainforest noise, animal noises, and a little bit of the narrator’s voice here and there. Then once I had completed the record it kind of made sense to call it that name, naming it after the documentary.

My friend at Piccadilly Records, Matt aka ‘Kickin’ Pigeon’, did a really nice job of the press release and the sleeve notes for it. He was pretty much able to put into words what I thought when making the record. That is something I’m not very good at doing, so thanks to Matt for that because he did a great job.

Having lived in Manchester for a long time now, you’re obviously quite close with people in the scene. It’s a notorious city for producing musicians, do you think the city has had a notable impact on your own music?

I’ve lived here for 10 years now. I grew up in a little village called Kegworth, in the midlands between Derby and Nottingham, right in the middle of the country. But yeh, definitely! It’s just the amount of people that are into music here, like really into music. Everyone here seems to play records or has a record collection, every bar or club that you go to, there will be someone playing records. It’s just a nice atmosphere to be around musically, there is always nights on, interesting nights in interesting places, full of really good DJs playing really interesting music. It’s been great in terms of opening me up to lots of different things.

When you DJ, how do you go about preparing for gigs?

I suppose the first thing I’ll do is, if it’s somewhere I haven’t played before, I tend to do a little bit of research about where it is, what type of club it is, how big the space is and who else is on the lineup. I never change the style I play to suit someone, but at the same time I love to play all different types of music, so I’ll have a think about the party itself and that will help determine which records I pack for that night. Also, if I’m doing a warm up that’s going to change what I pack. All of those different things have an influence.

Do you only play records or do you use CDJs as well?

Obviously, I prefer to play my record collection. I play predominantly records but even now, you’ll go to some places and its clearly such an after-thought, the turntables. Often I have to resort to playing on CDJs if the turntables haven’t been set up correctly. It can be frustrating, you can spend quite a bit of time choosing records and then when you turn up with a bag full of records you can’t play, it can be a bit disheartening.

I do play more records than I play CDJs, but I’ve got loads of my own unreleased music that I like to play too. I get sent a lot of great music, friends’ music, all sorts of stuff that won’t be available on record. It’s a digital world I suppose. There was an article on RA about this not long ago, it was very well done, it was from the perspective of DJs and club nights. There are some people who just play records, I can imagine that would be so stressful, if that’s literally the only thing that you’ve bought and it sounds rubbish, if it’s a night that’s not been thought about properly.

When you shop for records is there anything in particular that you look for? Obviously you play a lot of different genres…

When I’m in a shop I’m just looking for stuff that I’ve not seen before. I’ll just go off the label or the artwork, when it was released, who produced it. There’s loads of little things. If I recognise a particular producer or label, I’ll give it a listen, but I’m more interested in the things that I’ve never seen before, that’s always the first thing I’d want to listen to.

Probably the biggest thing that turns me on to good music, is the people who work in the record shops themselves. Obviously, they know what’s there and there’s local shops that I go to quite a lot. If I go to Piccadilly Records, Matt and Patch who work there, before I even say hello, they’ll pick out half a dozen records that they think I might like and let me have a listen to them. It’s great because they’ll steer me in different directions with their suggestions.

So yeah, that’s probably the first thing I do when I go into a shop, just say hello and speak to who works there. If I’m looking for something particular that day, I’ll ask them what sort of stuff they’ve got. I also shop with places in mind, so I know that if one place specialises in boogie and disco, and another house and techno for example, that’s what I’m going to look for there. It changes from day to day, it’s just whatever I’m in the mood for.

DJing throws up the opportunity to travel places you otherwise would not have visited. Has there been a particularly obscure or interesting place that you’ve played?

I got the chance to go to Georgia last year, to play a club called Khidi in the capital, Tbilisi, which was really interesting. The mix of culture and people in that country is amazing and the club itself is incredible, such a unique country to play. I was told by the people who booked me, electronic music there is quite new. All of these people are discovering all of this house and techno fairly recently, so everyone is super excited about it and everyone dances like I’ve never seen before. You can play a lot of clubs and there’s a lot of fist pumping and head nodding, but there everyone was just like a toddler dancing for the first time – it was a super inspiring place to play.

From that gig, I ended up being invited to play Batumi, which is also in Georgia. It is the other side of the country on the coast, and that was for New Years Eve. That was just as much, if not more fun. It was in a super small club called The Door Gallery (I can’t remember what the Georgian way of saying it was). It was a small place, all night from about midnight until 9am, I think I played for about eight or nine hours it was insane. It was just full all night with such a high energy of people dancing, it was so much fun.

I’m really looking forward to going back there again because that’s somewhere that was never even on my radar of places to go. My agent said ‘you’ve been offered this’ and I didn’t even know they had a music scene there. It’s so great, there’s no pretension in anything, everyone’s just enjoying themselves.

Georgia has certainly been making waves over the last few years when it comes to electronic music. Is there a specific place that you still haven’t been and would love to play?

I don’t know to be honest, it’s hard because there’s places I haven’t been and I’ve got ideas of what they would be like, but it can also be so different; your expectation to what it actually is like. Some of the best parties I’ve played, are in places that aren’t super cool or on everyone’s ‘DJ hit-list’ to play. It’s often more about the people, if you’ve got a room of 200 people that are all there to dance and have a good time, they’re the most fun and they’re the ones I want to play.

It’s great playing a huge place but the most fun nights are in a sweaty room somewhere, when you’re on the same level as everyone else. When it’s all night with a couple of hundred people, you can go across the board in terms of genre and everyone’s with you.

Obviously, there are definitely some clubs I haven’t played that I would love to experience, but there are so many. It’s always more about the party than the club. If the people who are putting it on are doing it for the right reasons and they’ve got a good idea of what they’re doing, that’s always the most appealing thing to me.

Who are the artists that you find yourself listening to a lot at the moment?

That’s really hard to narrow down. I listen to so much music all of the time, I get sent a lot of stuff as well so it’s very hard to keep up with. I’m super bad at remembering artists names and stuff, especially when I play a lot of records because I just go off the pictures on them (hahaha).

There is a local shop that has just started now that Ruf Dug and Randy Brunson run, in Manchester, it’s above a night club and it’s called Hi-Tackle. They’ve opened me up to a lot of different types of music, just mainly because of what they stock in their shop; a lot of street soul and boogie, that kind of thing.

I had a few bits and pieces in my collection already, but with their knowledge and the stuff they get in, I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff like that at the moment. It’s great there, shout out to those guys, It’s really worth popping in; play some video games and listen to some street soul.

If you had the chance to collaborate with anyone, who or what would your dream collaboration be?

Ooo, I don’t know. I’ve been working on a couple of things with people already which I’m really happy to get out fairly soon. I don’t think I can say much about it yet but there’s a London, Jazz singer-songwriter I’ve done a track with, that should be coming out in the summer. There’s also a Canadian artist that I’ve started writing a couple of songs with. Dream collaborations, that’s a hard question because I’m open to anything really.

Thanks, Tom.

Thank you, take care!