Three years ago, Dan and Jon Kahuna made the decision that would decide their future - they closed the doors on the Big Kahuna Burger, the club that made their name but lost its way, and opened them on new night Headstart. The result was a new sense of direction, one that has now given birth to "Machine Says Yes," their debut album as FC Kahuna
. "Machine Says Yes" is an electrifying fusion of futurist acid house and silicon soul, driven by the sense of adventure and distaste for the mainstream that have always been the pair's stock in trade. "We've been looking back at where we're from to find out where we should go," says Dan. "Headstart pointed us in the right direction. We know what we're about now, there's much more of a gut feeling about what we do."
Dan (fair hair, breathless monologues) and Jon (dark hair, wry asides) go back a long way, to a street called Woodcross Fold in Leeds, UK. Daniel Ormondroyd was seven years old and lived at Number 46. Jon Nowell was nine and lived at Number 65. They bonded fast, playing soccer half the time and records the other half. They would record songs onto a little tape machine and talk over them. The passion for joining together disparate tunes stayed with them into their adult years. Talking over them, thankfully, did not.
The two drifted apart after school, but soon met up again on clubbing excursions to the Leeds Warehouse in 1988, where the play list pointed the way to future endeavors: "loads of bleeps all night except for The Charlatans in the middle." When Dan went to college in London, Jon would regularly come and stay and they would talk over their disappointment with the bland, mainstream club scene of the early/mid '90s.
In May 1995 they decided to do something about it. Inspired by the success of the Heavenly Social and a name from the favored fast-food outlet of Samuel L Jackson's hapless victims in Pulp Fiction, they founded the Big Kahuna Burger. What started as a fun night out at assorted venues across London rapidly escalated into a phenomenon. One pivotal visit from a certain Norman Cook was instrumental in his decision to branch out from house music as Fatboy Slim
, while guest DJs included the Chemical Brothers
, Jon Carter
and the Charlatans' Tim Burgess.
Dan and Jon had to do their growing up in public. As one thing led to another, they started attracting remix offers (18 Wheeler, Dubstar) and set up the Kahuna Cuts label, on which they released the first FC Kahuna
single, "You Know It Makes Sense." "We were just dreaming up what we'd ideally want off the back of doing the club," says Dan. "We didn't really know what we were doing." They also DJed for the Charlatans on three consecutive tours, including a memorable American jaunt. Jon: "It's a boyhood fantasy, isn't it? Touring with a rock band."
Dan and Jon had a high old time of it, but after three years the appeal of the Big Kahuna Burger was wearing thin. Jon: "It was like a long weekend, really. Getting twatted all the time and not having much quality control." Dan: "Kahuna was very decadent, out of its mind, like a lunatic asylum. But we got bored so we withdrew to find out what we wanted to do. Just as we did when we started the club."
In contrast to the messy pub basements that housed the Big Kahuna Burger, Headstart had the advantage of the powerful sound system at Turnmills, the London venue that also hosts The Gallery. Dan and Jon began to seek out records that would suit the environment, and that meant techno, electro, acid house and off-kilter electronic dance floor oddities.
Dan: "I can't overstate how important Headstart has been. It's an environment where we can experiment and hone our sound, and as a group of people we all feed on similar things. We get a chance to play alongside the people who we've always considered to be the key worldwide purveyors of cutting edge electronic music, like the Aphex Twin
and Andrew Weatherall
. It's just totally focused us."
Capturing that sound in a series of remixes (Luke Slater
, Morel, Felix Da Housecat
), the Kahunas' next step was to translate it into their own music. On one memorable night in 2000, they gave the powerhouse electro-stomp of "Mindset To Cycle" its debut airing and a stunned Andrew Weatherall
stood beside them in the DJ box with his head in his hands exclaiming, "What the fuck is this?!" It went on to become one of his favorite records of the year. Dan: "When that happens, you know you're doing something right."
After releasing "Mindset To Cycle" on Kahuna Cuts (the track reappears on "Machine Says Yes") the Kahunas closed the label in order to concentrate on their own music, settling into a studio at the Depot in King's Cross. After a few years of having to rattle off remixes in just a couple of days, they had the time to master the studio technology and refine their ideas. Those ideas are encapsulated by the title of "Machine Says Yes."
Dan: "We were going through a phase of wanting to find records that updated the classic sense of an acid house record. You listen to those early Warp records now, like LFO, and they still sound amazing. We wanted that idea of when we went to clubs in the first place and there was this alien sound that made sense when you were locked into the groove. We used to sample lots of guitars and stuff. On this one we decided we wanted to use the basic technology aspect of it - something that was machine-based."
Gradually, they enlisted like-minded collaborators. Hafdis Huld, formerly with Iceland's Gus Gus, sings on the icy swagger of the title track and the sensual, slo-mo Hayling. Eileen Rhodes, an American singer-songwriter on Rough Trade, graces the chilly "North Pole Transmission," and Si Jones, Verve alumnus and erstwhile neighbor of Jon's, lends his bass skills to a few tracks. Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys, meanwhile, contributes "a paranoid mantra about the state of air-conditioning" on the remarkable "Meltdown."
"He's amazing," raves Dan. "He came down and did this totally insane sea shanty about fishermen and a woman who eats her own fingers. But we kept going back and changing it until the vibe was totally different and we couldn't make it fit. Then he came down again and completely reworked the vocal around the vibe. He's fantastic to work with."
With the album nearing completion, Dan and Jon signed to City Rockers, the fledgling label founded by Phil Howells, former head of A&R at London records, and whose roster also includes Felix Da Housecat
. The stage is set for a record that harks back to those early acid house days while setting its sights firmly on the future. It's a coming of age.
Importantly, it's also a bold rejection of conventional dance music and bloated mainstream clubbing, exactly the same motives that fuelled them in the first place. "Too many people are being paid too much money," Dan fumes. "Nothing seems like its got much integrity. It's the most un-acid house climate you can conceive. We want to do something that's an alternative to the mainstream. The whole artwork concept is big advertising campaigns blanked out. Information is forced down your throat but you don't have to take it on board as being the only information there is. There's always something else that's there for you."