Oxford's longest running party, Simple, celebrates its 20th birthday this year. Its appeal among students and locals alike stems in part from the vastness of their bookings, having welcomed to The Bullingdon the likes of DJ Stingray, Objekt, Mall Grab, Anastasia Kristensen, Saoirse, Helena Hauff, and many more. Perhaps just as enticing is the strong, dependable reputation the Simple team have spent years crafting, and the reliability of their residents to set the tone with skillful yet steady dynamism.
At the centre of this Simple identity is Em Williams, the Bristol via Oxford-based DJ whose sets are always as much of a treat as seeing the headliner. Her most notable characteristic is her patient approach to the dancefloor, and her dextrous ability to weave weighty yet restrained selections. Able to support the range of artists that Simple book, Em's malleable style ensures she somehow manages to maintain consistency while still keeping each set fresh.
As well as her monthly residency at Simple, Em has made her mark on the Bristol house and techno scene. She hosts a monthly show, 'Playing Patterns', on Noods Radio with her partner and fellow Simple resident Stav, and regularly plays at Motion, The Love Inn and The Island. Along with all this, Em is a part of 'Mix Nights', a mentoring series that teaches women in Bristol to develop DJ skills in an encouraging and welcoming environment.
We couldn't resist the opportunity to chat to Em and hear more about her experience as a DJ, and her thoughts on dance music scenes she has navigated in both Oxford and Bristol:
Tell me a bit about your background - where did you grow up, and what made you get into dance music and DJing? How did your relationship with Simple start?
I first had a go at DJing when I was 17. My sister's boyfriend at the time had some turntables and a good record collection. We had a house party at my parents house when they were away and I watched him mix house and garage for hours. He taught me how to beat match and mix records. I was hooked, so I saved up the money to buy my first set of decks and a mixer. I grew up in a really small village on the outskirts of Oxfordshire, it was really boring, so hunting out parties and places to listen to and dance to this new music I had been exposed to was the focus. A combination of illegal raves, my first visit to Ibiza in 2001, late-night convoys to Fabric, Turnmills and The End in London and with Oxford being the closest city, Simple (then residing at the Cellar) were all on rotation, and all became weekly fixtures and influenced me to start DJing. I remember recording my first mix to cd and giving it to Nick (Simple boss) in 2004, and the rest is history.
You seem to have a strong presence not only in Oxford but also on the Bristol circuit. How is playing at Motion or Love Inn different to playing in Oxford? Do you find that crowds are more receptive to different types of music?
I think the difference with Oxford is that a lot of party people move on, it’s really fluid in Oxford with the university students making up a large percentage of the dance floor, whereas with Bristol, students return to the city or never leave, so it really feels like crowds are less transitional in Bristol. We’re loosing decent venues rapidly in Oxford but what that does mean is that everyone is really up for the party. Space is limited and time is limited, it seems, so people go all out in Oxford.
In bigger cities like London, support for a headliner usually comes from DJs who may be making a guest appearance for that promoter, whereas you play consistently at Simple nights. How does it feel to have established yourself as a key part of the Simple identity? How important is it for a community to have residents that they know they'll see at each event?
Simple has been and is a great platform for me, I love playing and I’m really grateful to have been given the opportunity to play each month. I think the longer that you hold a residency for, you start to have your own crowd that put their trust in you. Over the years this has enabled me to explore music and push boundaries and really provide an individual soundtrack for each party. I never play the same set twice and try to make it as fun and inspiring as I possibly can during every set.
Given how varied the Simple bookings are, I'm interested in how you prepare for sets - do you go through a very focused digging period beforehand? How do you organise your playlists?
I pack both my vinyl bag and create a folder of digital tracks in the same way, I sift through records and pull out all the tracks I think I want to play and do the same with the digital music. Then I have genre folders and energy/ time of night folders, folders of music for specific moments etc and move between each of these during a set, depending on the vibe and time.
What sort of vibe do you aim for when you play extended or all-night sets (e.g. at Love Inn)?
I recently played an all night long 6 hour set at the Love Inn and I got to play all of the music I’ve collected and played when supporting all of the DJ’s at Simple, plus all those ‘peak time’ nuggets and some lovely ambient stuff too, it was a dream to do!
Tell me a bit more about Mix Nights. It sounds like a really great cause - how has your involvement drawn from your own experience of getting into DJing?
Mix Nights is a beginners' DJ course for women and female identifying people, we have been running the courses for three years now. It started off very informally but over time it has evolved. We mentor 8 women every 6 weeks and it is a really enjoyable challenge. I’ve DJed for so long it’s great to now be working with such an inspiring group of people, teaching, sharing knowledge and learning new skills myself. I’ve never taught, but being able teach and to watch someone learn a new skill and then have the confidence to get up in a club 6 weeks later and perform is really inspiring. The response has been incredible and I am so proud to be part of it.
Mix Nights team L-R: Em Williams, Jenny Wade (Black Acre, Sprung), Lizzy Ellis (Red Light Management, Tectonic), Daisy Moon (Housework, BRSTL), Laura Lewis-Paul (Saffron), Danielle (NTS, Phonica)
This year we're celebrating 20 years of Simple - how do you think Oxford clubbing culture has evolved?
I read somewhere that Discos are becoming Tescos, this thought makes me sad. The nighttime is changing shape, artists move in to locations, then investors move in, so artists are forced out and it has to start all over again. But despite the mass closures of much-loved venues, over the last decade, not only in Oxford but across the UK too, I feel like something interesting has to happen, like it's part of the process. People are responding creatively to the closures and feel the UK music scene is better than it’s ever been, pushing people to do their own thing more. For me clubbing has been an integral backdrop to many of the most memorable moments in my life. All the fuzzy memories of wonderful nights DJing and dancing to music I love and with (now) best pals and faces I will never forget.
And now to a few questions featured on our mix series, Texture Tapes:
What has been your favourite release of the past few months?
Bambounou's latest release on Whities is ace!
What set/performance would you love to go back in time to experience again?
Objekt at Freerotation, 2017. We sadly had to leave like 3 tunes into his set. Devastated not to be there in person from start to finish. The atmosphere as we left was other-worldly.
A track you've always wanted to play out but never had the chance?
Underground Resistance - 'Transition'
Texture Magazine DJs play Goodness x Save the Cellar at the Isis Farmhouse, 23.11.18
What's your dancefloor saver?
Frak - 'Synthfrilla'
What's your favourite club?
Fabric, I didn't go nearly enough but it was one of my first clubbing experiences and I have fond memories from those early days.
What would be the soundtrack to your funeral?
Underworld - 'Two Months Off'
What song will you still be listening to in 50 years?
Oh my, tooooo many to mention!
Words by Tom Graham
Photos courtesy of Simple