Charlie Bones

Charlie Bones

Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones

London: Interviewing a radio personality is surreal at first. Suddenly there’s an unfamiliar face attached to a very familiar voice. Like thousands of other people around the world, I’d first heard Charlie Bones when he was hosting the morning show of Hackney-based online station NTS. He presented The Do!!You!!! Breakfast Show for a decade before announcing his conscious uncoupling from the station in 2021.

It wasn’t just his eclectic playlists that secured Bones a firm global fan base. His frankness and lack of artificial pep made him the anti morning show host, loved for his candour and straight-shooting sense of humour—a hosting style informed by his time working at London’s pirate stations in the early ‘00s. After parting ways with NTS, Bones branched out on his own and set up Do!!You!!!Radio with business partner and fellow DJ Oscar G (known as OG).

The station has been up and running for over a year now. Bones has reprised his breakfast slot, playing his signature mix of genre-spanning deep cuts and rare grooves with a dreamy, dance-inflected edge. His shows are in constant dialogue with a frenetic message board on the radio’s home page, where listeners enthusiastically engage (and occasionally spar) with Bones during live broadcasts.

On the day we meet, he’s extended his broadcast to cover for Lebanese DJ Ernesto Chahoud, who’s running late for his show because of a Tube strike. ‘Why no recording?’, he says to listeners complaining in the chat room that they can’t find the 8-minute acid-house track he just played. ‘Because this isn’t Spotify, people. You can’t have everything in the palm of your hand’.

Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones

You just celebrated a year of Do!!You!!!Radio. Congratulations. Have you taken a break yet? 

No. I’m a Capricorn. I don’t do well with breaks. I’d be happy to live at work. It’s always been the escape.

You’re based in Kristina Records in Hackney.

Yeah, I was recording from home until my neighbour decided to go to war with me. Oscar and I are looking for our own space now. And I want there to be enough room for my sewing machines so I could be there during the day making things. We could use the space for a lot of other things, too. We’ve got a really great art lecturer on the station, Ian Wright. He said he’d be up for doing an art school with us. We also get a lot of artists listening and they send in their work. So it would be nice to host private views. But finding our own space is hard. It’s like 25 grand for some tiny shithole. It’s really frustrating that rents are at an all-time high in London right now.

Would you ever leave London?

I wouldn’t mind. But it depends on family and things like that. It would be really nice, and technically we could do it from anywhere. But then it would be asking Oscar to uproot. And I do like the community we have here on Well Street. We know everyone here. We have people just drop by and sing and do all these amazing things. Which I really love. I don’t want to disappear into some sort of fancy office block like a lot of stations. I think it’s important to mean it when you say ‘community’. So it really adds a lot to the station, being based here.

So locals make guest appearances on the station?

Yeah, the local flower shop is called A G Price and we want the florist to come on and do Gardeners’ Question Time. Basically just subverting Radio 4 or Heart FM. With more eccentrics involved. And the guy in the fish and chip shop is Turkish and he plays the flute really beautifully in the mornings. I’ve been begging him to come on for a year now.

Well Street does have a much more local feel than other parts of Hackney. Like Broadway Market.

Yeah that used to be a really nice little high street and now they’ve got rid of all the original businesses and it’s too expensive for anyone who was actually born around there. Five-pound coffees and six pounds for a loaf of bread, stuff like that. There’s a lot of hardcore East Enders on Well Street who hate us because they think we’re part of that world. But that’s really not what we’re about.

Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones

Are you a native Londoner?

I was born and raised in Reading. But I came to London as soon as I could. My parents gave me a lot of freedom so I would just get the train up to London and go out. Sometimes I’d fall asleep on the train on my way home at three in the morning and just go up and down the line.

What kind of nights were you going to when you started coming to London?

I’d go to Plastic People, Dingwalls, That’s How It Is, Notting Hill Arts Club, and Dogstar in Brixton. I moved to London around 2000, when I’d just turned 18. Dalston was wild back then. Amazing shops selling stolen hi-fi. Squat parties. It was heaven. All the stuff I love.

Can you still find that anywhere in London?

Maybe parts of Tottenham. But I guess I don’t want to say because I don’t want word to start getting out. The whole Manor House scene is too Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome for me. That’s something else. Hackney Wick used to be amazing. Now there are just plastic houses everywhere.

Have you ever lived outside Hackney in London?

I was in South London for a bit with my daughter. Even though it’s more mellow down there and the people are generally nicer, it’s just not for me. I’ve pretty much always been in Hackney. I don’t think I could survive anywhere else. There’s a lot to dislike about Hackney but there’s a lot to love too.

Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones

Can we circle back to your sewing machine? What do you use it to make?

Boxer shorts! I’m wearing some that I made right now. I only wear them because I got so bored of grey pants. I know this woman in Peckham who I buy all my fabric from. It’s just relaxing making them. I make jackets and hats too. I just need to be making things constantly. That’s the only time I’m happy.

How did you learn to sew?

I studied menswear at London College of Fashion. It was terrible. It was run by River Island and they were constantly selling your semester to high-street shops. We’d spend a semester designing trousers for Matalan that would retail at like £3. I asked the cultural studies guy, ‘When is this going to get interesting?’ And he was like, ‘Never’. You just get stuck in a world of bollocks. So I quit.

What made you sign up in the first place?

I loved the idea of coming up with something in your brain and making a 3D thing that’s wearable and usable. It’s like a functional sculpture. To me, that’s amazing. But I don’t like any of the fashion industry shit. I like hard-wearing things that last. There was only one good teacher who came in, he was a tailor. He taught us for two weeks and that was the most I learnt the whole time I was there.

Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones
Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones

When did you start DJing? 

I was always playing, even when I was at college in Reading. When I got to London I got on pirate and community stations. It’s quite funny when people get in touch saying they want to hear my story. They really don’t want to hear that I did it for 20 years without making any money. Everyone wants a six-month career arc. The truth is, you just keep doing it until you sync at the right time with the right people. Like when Femi [Adeyemi] came to me as he was starting NTS. Before that I’d been getting fired off a lot of stations for not sticking to the mandate. There are so many rules on community and pirate radio. They’re really dogmatic.

That seems kind of ironic considering how anti-establishment they supposedly are. What kind of rules do they have?

When I was on Itch, I was doing hip-hop and I wasn’t allowed to play anything else. You couldn’t play anything weird. When I was on Rare Groove Pirate I wasn’t allowed to play anything other than funky house. It’s tribal like that. It was really hard to keep pushing against the grain. I just get bored, really. I think music shines more when it’s contrasted with something else. Luckily now I have my own station, most people just get it.

Can you track where your listeners are tuning in from?

Yeah, they’re all over the world. Mostly Europe. We don’t get many in Japan, which is sad for me. I’d like to be big in Japan. I’ve got a lot of Irish and Scottish listeners, which I’m happy about. This morning someone was listening on a 50-hour ferry from Tangier to Genoa.

Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones

Were there any particular radio stations that you looked to for inspiration when you were creating your own one?

Just all the stuff I grew up with. Like John Peel. He made lots of mistakes and got angry and I love that. I like things that aren’t perfect—when they’re just interesting and difficult. And it’s not just sort of like background listening. Not something you’d have playing in a coffee shop. You have to engage. It stretches your brain and educates you. I still have loads of John Peel tapes and they’re really hard to listen to, you know. He’d just play like thrash metal into a folk tune into a really horrible happy hardcore track, then into something unbelievably amazing. And then into some noise again. He wasn’t trying to make the listener feel comfortable and I think that’s brave. He was braver than me in terms of how much he’d test a listener.

What else were you listening to when you were younger?

I would also listen to Gilles Peterson a lot, Bob Jones too. A lot of pirate DJs and a lot of African community stations, even if I couldn’t understand the language, I liked the energy. The way they’d talk all over the music. It was very conversational, like the music was almost secondary.

You’ve worked at a lot of different stations in your time. What do you want to do differently with Do!!You!!Radio?

It’s a very immature industry and you have to deal with a lot of narcissists and people behaving badly. So I’m really militant about that. I don’t care about how many followers or listeners you have. And Oscar’s background is in construction, so he won’t take a lot of the music industry bullshit. There’s also not a lot of support in the industry either. I learnt that quite early on. A lot of stations just want to grab something while it’s hot. Whereas what I’m trying to do is get people who have never done radio before and try to support them. Sinéad’s show, for example, is honestly one of the greatest shows I’ve ever listened to. And she’d never done radio before. That gives me a lot more satisfaction than just getting someone on board because they have a good Instagram account.

Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones

How did you meet Oscar?

I had a record shop for a while when I was in Peckham. He used to come in with his friends, they were all really lovely. He’s just real, you know. Just got integrity. He used to run warehouse parties. He’s got a massive sound system in storage. I’m hypersensitive to energy and I’ve been through so much nonsense in my time. For years I really wasn’t enjoying DJing. But when I was playing with them it was different. You see, the reason I got into radio is because it’s so anonymous. It’s just about the voice. But in this age it’s all about selling yourself by performing on stage. I’ve never really felt comfortable with that.

Would you like to be anonymous?

Yeah. Fame is really unhealthy.

Do you get recognised a lot? 

Yeah. Mostly people are nice. Sometimes they’ll buy you a drink, but they can also be really passive aggressive. People say things like, ‘My girlfriend loves your show but I think it’s shit’. I’m like, ‘Alright. Nice to meet you too’.

Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones
Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones

What does the future hold for the station?

The future is—what’s a word that sums up frustrating and exciting? It’s taken a long time to get there, basically. There’s still so much I want to do. We just did a chat show. It was inspired by watching David Letterman for years. We had Duval Timothy on, and my hypnotist was a guest too. The show was very long and sprawling, but it was an amazing day because everybody got on beautifully and begged me to make it happen again. Everybody loved it.

How did you feel being on camera?

I hated it. I was terrified. I didn’t sleep the night before. But then it sort of naturally unfolded.

What was it like going to a hypnotist?

My rational mind was really fighting it at first. I did three sessions and he asked me, ‘Has your life changed?’ And I was like, ‘No’. But every time I went I got such a painful chest, like a burning hole. I thought it was because I was legging it from the radio all the way to see him in Covent Garden without having lunch. One day he was like, ‘Ok, we’ll work on that sensation in your chest’. And then he just like, released it. When I left, it was the first time I felt like a whole human being, not just a shard. When I came back the next week, he asked me how I was feeling and I was like, ‘Everything just feels connected’. He does acting work, too. Once I spotted him in the background of a Mr. Bean movie.

Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones
Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones

I’m interested to know how you got into DJing in the first place. When did you get your first deck?

I was 17, I think. It was the greatest thing ever. But I felt really bad, because they’re so much money. And then I had to persuade my dad to get me another one. But they’re the same ones I still use today for the show. I’ve only had them serviced once—Technics 1210s. They’ve stopped making them now. Madness. They’re indestructible.

How did you learn to mix?

My cousin showed me. But I’d been around the DJ scene for so long I kind of knew how it all worked. And the important thing isn’t technical skills, it’s learning how to communicate an energy. To develop your personality as a DJ. We get sent so many mixes without a host angle and it’s like, no, that’s not really the point. We’re looking to support and grow hosts. The point is expressing yourself. Your individuality. Giving us something different. John Peel created a real energy in his show. He was a very human host. He would play records at the wrong speed and get grumpy, it would lend so much character to the show.  The listener bonds with a host being a relatable human. There was such an energy. That’s what I appreciate in a show. A lot of people send in stuff like, ‘I’ve got this two-hour mix, you’ve got to hear it’. But SoundCloud is filled with millions of two-hour mixes. So it doesn’t connect with people. It’s that ‘I’m going to show you how good I am and you have to bow to me’ kind of attitude. And there are things like playing the same record twice in one week, which is a massive crime to most DJs. But that’s actually just creating your own energy. Because they’re your tunes. If you’re only playing brand-new things all the time, then you’re just an aggregator. And a lot of people just buy the top 50 tunes a week. It might as well be AI. It’s mind-boggling. But then, on the flip side, there are also people on the station I really respect who are terrified of ad-libbing, being spontaneous with it. They spend like three days preparing and have to have everything written down. I keep trying to tell them, just let go. People like you for your energy. And that’s what I’m trying to drill into myself. Sometimes I freak out that I’m playing too much and it’s making everything mediocre. But I think you often don’t realise that just doing your own thing is enough. Having your own touch. There’s kind of a myth that you have to drive yourself insane to prove yourself. I’m trying to move away from that.

Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones

How much do you wing it with your shows? Or do you prep a lot in advance?

Winging it. A lot of the time. It’s like Charlie Parker said: first you learn the instrument, then you learn the music, then you forget all that shit and just play. All the times I’ve had big, genius guests like Larry Heard and have stayed up all night before going through everything, it really doesn’t allow you to be spontaneous. If the guest wants to talk, it’s great. If the guest doesn’t want to talk, it doesn’t matter how much work you’ve done. If they don’t want to be there, you’re fucked. Lately it’s just been really flowing. I went through heavy training with all the snobs around my scene who, like—you’re dead to them if you play a Madonna record. They’re like, ‘This is what’s good and this is what’s shit’. I really don’t like that. Because a lot of people bought into the scene. You know, you have some money, you buy all the expensive records from the dealers and then suddenly get a DJ career and you’re respected. And it’s basically a form of sort of ostentatious accumulation. Like, ‘Oh, I’m the guy with the 50-grand record bag’. That’s really disgusting to me. Most people just like music because it’s an identity signaller, know what I mean? Like, I’m cool because I listen to Burial. And when people say to me, ‘Charlie, I love what you’re doing on your show because there’s just a complete lack of pretension’, to me that’s the highest praise. Because I cannot stand that kind of highbrow, snooty, gatekeeping attitude. I want to turn more people on to good music. The basic definition of art is something that raises your consciousness and that can be achieved without all the negative impacts of capitalism. There’s so much dogmatic thought surrounding music. People should just be playing more closely to their honest selves, not just what they think they should be playing. That’s when it’s exciting.

Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones

Would you ever do anything else?

I’ve done everything else. All kinds of jobs. Anything part-time that wouldn’t suck me into an office. It was mostly temp work. Van driving, washing up, cleaning, things like that. I even worked at a gun shop in Mayfair at one point. It was bizarre, another world.

So now you’re happy to be your own boss.

Yeah. Because I’ve just had a lifetime of putting myself in really exhausting situations. It’s nice to come out the other side of that with more faith in my own vision. It’s extremely healing. I’ve never been able to stand authority. At school I hated being forced to jump through hoops by idiot teachers. God, I hated school. My mum had to physically pick me up and force me in the car. I didn’t feel engaged at all. Or interested in anything. I have a certificate on my wall at home that a teacher gave me at school. It says, ‘Charlie has shown exceptional talent at being bored and bleeding’. For primary school I went to a tiny school on the outskirts of Reading, where I was the only boy in the year. And then for secondary school I went to an all-boys school. It was an idiot, nouveau-riche school. My dad really wanted me to go.

You turned 40 this year. People say you spend the second 20 years of your life trying to figure out the first 20. Has that been true for you? 

Yeah, in terms of therapy and finding inner peace. Having my own station has been a big part of the healing. Being in a place where I feel valued and listened to. Self-employment was a really key step for me in terms of growth. It was terrifying but really rewarding. I also like what Naomi Campbell said: you spend the first half of your career working for your name and the second half your name works for you. Everybody now wants to book me after years of ignoring me totally. I love saying no to these fuckers.

Apartamento Magazine - Charlie Bones
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