Iconic British DJ, journalist, and radio broadcaster Mary Anne Hobbs treats every day like a new crusade. A heroine of and for the underground, she’s arguably been more instrumental in cluing in musical thrill seekers to vital, groundbreaking talents than any one entity since John Peel. She fondly compares her mission to that of a religious vocation, calling herself an “evangelist” for “future sound.” For 14 years, her pulpit was a popular late night BBC Radio 1 show called Breezeblock; within any program, listeners might experience a careening mix of electronica, metal, and left-field hip-hop. If it was new, assertive, and felt thrillingly unfamiliar, Hobbs was its populist champion, translating the work of underdog visionaries into a palatable context.
As her clout as the vanguard of the avant-garde only grows, Hobbs’ quest broadens. She now also tours as a DJ, and just completed her vastly successful “Road Warriors” US Tour, where she won over thousands at Coachella and marveled at Americans’ (belated but enthusiastic) awakening to the genre she most famously helped nurture: dubstep. Saturday, she presents a stage at Poland’s Tauron Nowa Muzyk festival. As evidence of her mounting influence beyond radio and live experience, she helped composer Clint Mansell curate the riveting score for last year’s Black Swan. Most significantly, she announced yesterday that she’ll be stepping up her role(s) at UK alternative station XFM, balancing her current role as their outré ambassador with a Monday through Thursday slot as a primetime broadcaster for Music:Response.
Today, Hobbs talks exclusively to Rolling Stone about her exciting new endeavors, her hopes for unifying a new generation of creators, and how she accidentally became a style icon for the electronic elite.
Congratulations, you’re about to become the busiest woman on radio. You’re going to be playing two integral roles to XFM — to those unfamiliar, can you explain what makes it such a unique station?
In the days before the Internet existed, it was the first alternative station in the UK, other than the pirate stations. I worked there for 5 years for free when it was first born, before it even had a license. We really believed we could change the way that people listened to the music they loved. I still feel that way about XFM now. Over the years, they’ve signed presenters like Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand. Now Mixmaster Mike! They’re risk takers – they believe in the power of strong characters, people with real belief in what they’re doing.
Even more than BBC, they’ve given you the freedom to fill primetime terrain with artists that wouldn’t usually receive radio play. Can you maintain that liberalism with your new weekly slot?
It’s going to be a major challenge for me. This is a chance to paint much broader brush strokes. I’ve never had an opportunity to present a show like this before! The nightly show, Music: Response, will be made up of XFM Playlist tracks, classic tracks, and also Open Play tracks. The remit is multi-genre; there will be guitar music alongside MC-driven music, hip-hop and grime and electronic music. I was weaned on rock and metal. Once a rock chick, always a rock chick! So, it will give me a chance to explore that on radio. You can work dual platforms; there’s nothing to stop you being involved at both levels. If anything, that can be doubly effective.
So, you’ll be still be subtly subverting the mainstream?
Well, I’ll also be keeping my [more exploratory] Saturday show in place. Saturdays are pure blue. The idea is that the two shows can have a relationship. I can feed artists that I feel have real crossover appeal from Saturdays into the weekday shows, which is pivotal. I want to connect with people, but also show them something they don’t know yet. The main reason people switch off, or stop reading, is because they are bored. I don’t believe in dumbing down, but I believe in presenting creative frameworks that can work on different levels. It’s going to be an evolutionary process, a two-year mission. I’m so determined to make it burn!
Your shows feature music from everywhere from London to New York to Tokyo. When you DJ in the US, you fill the club. Are you surprised at your sudden upsurgence in global appeal?
The global reaction has been astounding. The Saturday show on XFM has been such a wild ride. I feel like we’ve really raised the game in the past two months. We have the XFM Mix Archive live now; the Blawan mix has 9,000 streams already from all over the world. I am trying to elevate the platform based on creative significance, and I feel so lucky, as people are listening everywhere from Antarctica to Istanbul. People say to me, “I’ve never really heard anything like this before, but I’m down. I’m now listening every week.” It’s such a victory!
Do you see an appreciation for electronica making a comeback in the US?
Yes, definitely at Coachella, where I DJed. They had Sam XL for Pure Filth in LA curate 3 days at The Dome stage; he brought in every conceivable form of electronic music, from Odd Future to Kode9. That stage was absolutely mobbed! Thousands turned up. The year before it was only a little party.
What do you say to people who want to keep underground music “underground?”
Listen, if the artists wanted to keep the work a secret, they wouldn’t be putting it out there. It’s up to them to decide upon their own destiny. I think it’s every artist’s dream to be in a position where they can give up a soul-destroying day job and earn enough money to survive spending the hours they have in this life doing what they truly love. I think truly, very few people make music that they want nobody to hear. I always like to believe that the human race is hungry; they want inspirational aspirational content in their media. I represent the artists I play carefully – I frame it properly, with attention to detail.
You’ve mentioned being inspired by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s work; how they transcended fashion and generated new dialogue among other creators of all varieties. Do you see any other fashion or design figures doing something similarly unifying now?
I would like to see much more communion between creative forces and kindred spirits. I am a total Mac junkie, but I am aware that I work in isolation for the greater part of my life. I know that energy and ideas are exchanged on a totally different level when you bring people together in the same physical space. My friend Raz Mezinai (a.k.a. Badawi) has recently brought together a cast of characters, musicians, actors, writers and narrators to work on a graphic novel, with an App in development, that will also hopefully become a film calledHeretic Of Ether. It’s been an incredible experience watching this project take shape and meeting his cast of contributors out in the ether.
People have come to identify you with a strong visual style, which really comes through with your photos. When you enter a shoot, how do you define the look you’re going for?
We do put a lot of thought into the location and the costume. But for me it’s very much about the narrative, and the message I want to project with an image. Photographer Shaun Bloodworth’s colors are extraordinary. There’s a “Bloodworth Blue” hue he uses that really is profoundly beautiful.
Do you draw inspiration from fashion editorials or other types of visual/art installations?
Mad Max 2. There’s a Vogue shoot I kept from a couple of years ago, too. But I was born a biker and I’ll die a biker!
Can you talk about your collaboration with L.A. designer Adam Saaks? I read he custom-made some of your Road Warrior looks.
Adam created all the shirts I wore in the Road Warrior tour. He stands you up on a podium in the center of his shop on Melrose in Hollywood, in a plain t-shirt, and then begins to slash and twist and knot, working completely freeform, creating amazingly complex patterns that flow with the shape of your body. It’s such a unique experience being “cut” by Adam.
Have you collaborated with other designers on looks?
Evan Sugerman gave me a leather jacket in 2009, and I treasure it. I love his whole aesthetic: astoundingly beautiful neo-gothic road warrior.
Do you have certain linchpin wardrobe items you always bring with you on your DJ tours?
My All Saints boots have been coast-to-coat across America with me. I’ll wear them until I wear holes in the soles. Essentially, you need a tin of Vaseline lip balm and industrial black eyeliner. That’s it!