It’s 6pm and outside Brixton Academy, despite the fact that it’s a good six hours before Wilkinson is due to take to the stage for what is his biggest headline show yet, one punter already has his ear pressed to one of the venue’s side doors. As our small group of journalists, led by the drum and bass star’s press officer, pass him on the way to the stage door, he’s already dancing, catching the end of the soundcheck and what will undoubtedly be the anthem of the night, his massive 2013 hit ‘Afterglow’.
It’s a small but very definite show of devotion that suggests that unlike so many names in music and in particular the rapidly tuning overworld of dance music, Wilkinson is no flash in the pan. While ‘Afterglow’, which peaked at number eight in the UK Top Ten shortly after its release, is certainly the anthem that he’s still most closely associated with, he followed it up with a succession of chart smashes like ‘Half Light’ and ‘Dirty Love’. The sound was a simple combination – bears and beats heavy enough to rock underground dancefloors, with an unashamedly vocal flavour that ultimately proves irresistible to larger audiences.
Once inside, and ushered through the backstage warren of brick tunnels and corridors, we arrive at the side of the stage just as the soundcheck finishes. Up on stage in the still empty Academy, standing on a central podium surrounded by keyboards, Mark Wilkinson seems content that everything’s in place. There’s an assembled huddle of singers and musicians gathered towards the front of the stage, almost like a football squad about to do battle, at least until a roadie asks them to clear the area. It doesn’t take long to see why. We hear a voice counting down, “3-2-1” and then suddenly a row of 20 foot high flames shoot up into the air in front of the monitors out front. Everyone is momentarily shocked as the heat hits their faces, and there’s a spontaneous round of applause. It feels like the evening has officially begun. Certainly, as icebreakers go, flamethrowers work pretty well. “Wait until you see the lasers,” laughs another member of the road crew as people file out towards the dressing rooms, “they’ll blind you!”
When he joins us shortly afterwards in a dressing room well stocked with beers and not much else, Mark Wilkinson lets it slip that this show has cost a not inconsiderable £50,000 to put on. He’s clearly not one to do things by half, and that goes not just for the production, but also the sound – he’s proud to tell us the system is one of the biggest you can fit into the venue – and the cast of musicians too, including a host of different singers and drums and a guitarist. Rather than recreating or replicating the sound of his records – he says he’s seen too many dance music acts who simply do a “playback” – he wants to add to and augment them, citing seeing Prodigy at Bestival when he was growing up as a big inspiration for what he wants to achieve as a live act.
Even when he’s not stood on his elevated podium, he’s very tall, but comes across a calm and cheery character, expressing himself eruditely in measured, well-spoken tones. You’d forgive him a bit of craziness on the verge of his biggest show, but for him, this is just the latest in a gradual journey from underground pretender to household name. His first appearance you might well have missed if you blinked, contributing to Andy C’s ‘Nightlife 5’ mix CD having joined the drum and bass legend’s Ram label in 2010. It took him a while to get noticed, for sure, but he was in no rush, appreciating he had much to learn.
“My first few years with Ram, I had to earn my stripes, I signed at the same time as a lot of people and we were all trying to get Andy’s intro tune, it was all about getting the best tunes for Andy. That was wicked and it grew and it grew. The way that label’s growing and growing and growing and the artists have got bigger and bigger and bigger is great.”
Despite moving on from Ram for his second album, last year’s ‘Hypnotic’, he remains relatively close to the fold that nurtured him.
“I still chat to Andy,” he insists, “I’m going to have dinner with him and I see him on the road in the summer a lot, but everyone sort of has their own crew now.” There’s also a soon-to-be-released collaboration with fellow one-time Ram stablemate Sub Focus, which will be emerging sooner rather than later.
On reflection, he thinks, the increasingly spectacular nature of Andy C’s shows were a definite inspiration for his own performance style today. Was there any other specific advice he passed on to the young Wilkinson?
“Andy taught me how to chase the pitch on a 1210 (Technics turntable),” he remembers, “you know, don’t touch the platter when you’re mixing, speeding it and slowing it down and not touching it, That’s something that’s stayed with me ever since.”
Given that these days he’s clocking around 100 gigs a year, alongside 20 live shows, that; advice has proved pretty invaluable. What’s in his box at the moment? “I need to have a look at what I’ve been sent because I haven’t done a DJ set for six weeks, I’ve had my head in the live show.” he says, before adding “(the producer) 1991 is really smashing it at the moment, he’s really coming through.”
He feels relatively comfortable as a producer and DJ. “For me, I’m aware that I have to just keep doing what I do and keep it consistent and give people what they want to hear.”
Which is probably why it feels that his live show is where he’s putting his emphasis at the moment, feeling that it can reach the parts, both geographically and demographically, that DJ culture may not reach. After a week off to buy furniture, pay bills and recharge his batteries, he says, he’ll be preparing for a summer of festival action across the globe. “I really love the drum and bass tempo,” he concludes, “but as a genre, it’s still so small around the world. I mean, when I play in New Zealand I’m even bigger than I am in the UK. But other places, like if I was to play in Sao Paulo in Brazil like I did a few years back, there might be 100 people there. There are so many sounds in different countries around the world, but I like that. It’s a challenge.”
Wilkinson returns to London in August to perform at South West Four Festival. Tickets are on sale now at www.ticketweb.co.uk/southwestfour