The Many Lives of Dave Ralph
Depending on the decade you were first introduced to Dave Ralph, you might know the Liverpool, England native as a wedding DJ, a comic/DJ, a DJ on the mainstream club circuit in the UK, or as two halves of a whole, the other half being Paul Oakenfold. Or you might know him as the producer of early rave hits such as Bassheads’ “Is There Anybody Out There?” and the selector behind the popular mix compilation, Transport 2.
Later acquaintances might know him as the mastermind behind such East Coast venues as Avalon, Roxy, and Royale in Boston and Webster Hall in New York City. West Coast music industry people were reintroduced to him as a key figure in talent buying and launching of the Insomniac brand worldwide. And ff you’ve just been introduced to him since the pandemic, you know Ralph as the global head of electronic music at the newest of the buzzy tech companies, Pollen.
The extremely hard-working and humble Ralph shares his four-decade journey in music with Festival Insider.
How early did your DJ career begin?
I went through many iterations of being a DJ, from a mobile DJ doing weddings to being a club DJ. I got a chance at a gig through my dad, who met this guy who had a nightclub. This guy comes and watches me at a wedding and says, “You should come and work at my club.” That set me on that path.
A club opened on the Dock Road in Liverpool called Bonkers. At that time in the ‘80s, that was as nasty as it gets. This place was tiny. It held 100 people if that. There was a line three blocks long, and I couldn't get in. The next week I went back a bit earlier and almost got in but didn't. Third week I went back and was there super early, and I got in. That was a life-changing moment for me. I was like, “I want to work here.” I badgered them until they gave me a gig.
I was basically a comedian with a microphone that played records. Bonkers expanded. It went from a Dock Road to Wallasey, which is the other side of Liverpool, and into Macclesfield outside of Manchester. I was on the circuit, playing every night.
Where did you go from there?
I was working seven nights a week as a DJ and doing my daytime job. That led to club owners of the big clubs noticing me and realizing, “This guy could probably do really well for us.” Before long before the all-nighters started in Quadrant Park [a seminal Liverpool club] and I went to work there.
I did a Monday night rave at Quadrant Park. This is a couple of years before raving came out, and I'm not claiming that I invented rave at all. It was nothing to do with rave music, far from it. I had lots of friends in the record business. The A&R guys would say, “Can we put a PA on?” I would bring acts like Soul II Soul as a PA when they were just starting off. This was a 14- to 17-year-old kids’ disco that went from 7 PM to 10 PM. Quadrant Park held 3,000 to 4,000 people. That's a lot of kids.
I ended up being a resident at Dome in Birmingham, Mr. Smith's in Warrington. That was probably eight to 10 years of my career.
What was your first exposure to “underground” dance music?
There's a guy in Manchester called Stu Allan. He does not get any plaudits for the absolute tastemaker and influencer that he was at that time. Around 1986, maybe ‘87, I used to listen to his show regularly. He would play soul and funk, and he would also have this guest mix every week. I was driving in the car one Sunday, listening, and he had a guest mix from Master Jam MDs. They were turntablists, scratching over stuff, very Disco Mix Club vibe. The background track was what I got really interested in, which was Larry Heard’s “Can You Feel It?” without the vocals. I called Stu Allen and asked what the track was. And he goes, “I've no idea, but I think it's on Trax Records.”
At that time, you had to go to London to go record shopping. I lived in Liverpool, so it's a 250-mile trek. I went to Groove Records in London, which was the house music center. There was this 70-year-old woman who was the record seller in Groove Records, and she was a real character, the house music aficionado, the authority in the UK. She gives me a copy of the record. It was the only copy. In those days, that copy meant that I had that record exclusively for months until they got the next shipment.
Record stores were the gatekeepers to the underground, weren’t they?
They used to be the nexus for everything. I worked at 3 Beat Records in Liverpool for a couple of years. You were literally steering the scene. Everyone would buy their records from us, and we would curate their packages every week. You would send out packages to Pete Tong and Sasha & Digweed. Then you get the kids coming in asking for those records.
What years was this?
3 Beat time was mid-‘90s. I was a broke DJ. I used to earn good money when I was in the ‘80s club scene. As soon as I started becoming a rave DJ, I was literally starving for my art. It was really hard, and it was dodgy too. I remember driving up to Newcastle, playing the show, and then going to get paid, and the guy was like, “Oh, I sent the money to so-and-so.” Never got it.
I decided I needed to get some other income. And I was really friendly with Pete Waterman at that time. He decided to roll up all these independent record stores and give them a corporate environment to succeed in. But also, it was the best A&R source that he could ever imagine. He had all these experts in the stores feeding him for his record label, very smart move. In the process, he bought Bluebird Records, which opened in Liverpool, and I got a job as assistant manager. I got fired after about six or seven months and immediately got a phone call from 3 Beat.
What was your first experience with “underground” dance music on the dancefloor?
A few months after, that friend of mine, who I ended up making records with, called Desa, said we should go to Heaven in London on a Monday night. That's when I first sampled the dancefloor. It was super male gay, which back then was a big deal. Those things just didn't exist.
My first real epiphany with it was a few years later. A friend of mine said to me, “There’s this club in Stoke called Shelley's. You should really go check it out, it’s incredible.”
I walked in there, and it wasn't a big club, and it wasn't a nice club. I think the legal capacity was 800, and there were 1700 people. The first thing that hit me was the heat. The next thing that hit me was everyone sounded like a drone. It would go up and down in tone, and this voice was going, “Dance to the music.” Everyone had their hands in the air. Everyone's just E-ed up to hell, smiling, hugging, a lot of love in the room. I weaseled my way through to the DJ booth, and Sasha was DJing. This is late ‘88 going into ’89.
That night I stayed until the end, and I was that annoying guy saying, “Hey, can I play here?” It took me about six weeks, but I got to play and ended up being a resident with Sasha, Dave Seaman, and Pig C. Sasha and I became super tight. I revered him so much, still do now.
When did you start making your own music?
My friend Desa I mentioned before, does not get enough recognition for what he did. He had this night in Liverpool called Defhouse, which was an incredible night, and it preceded all the other house nights that happened in Liverpool.
One day he called me, and he played me The Osmonds “Crazy Horses,” that riff, down the phone. He said, “I want to do something with this. I've got this guy, Shaun Imre, about 100 miles away, and he's got a studio. I'm going to go up there and do this track.” I was like, ”Can I come?” And he said yeah. The three of us made this record called “Is There Anybody Out There” by Bassheads.
At this moment, I had no idea about studios. I didn't know how they worked. Shaun was doing all this stuff on this little teeny computer, and this keyboard’s going, and Desa is dropping in acapellas, and I'm making suggestions. It was this six-hour session of wonder and beauty. I was like, “This is what I want to do.”
We came away from there with a cassette. Desa, bless him, was, probably still is, very careful about giving out information. He doesn’t trust anyone. He doesn't want anyone to hear anything. In his head, he had this plan for this track to go to the right person at the right label and play it to them and make it super exclusive. I couldn't contain myself. I went to Shelley's that Friday, and I played it off tape. Sasha was walking into the DJ booth just as the record was starting. It was an anthem. Sasha was like, “Fucking hell Ralphy, what’s this?” I said, “I did it last week in the studio with these two guys.” He goes, “This is fucking massive. I need this.”
That was where I started, with that record. Even though I'm only credited as mixing that record, I was writing it. I was just stupid at the time. That became a top-five record in the UK. I let it go, and I don't care anymore. Then I was on this quest of, “How does it all work? How do I do this? How do I do it on my own? How do I figure it all out?” It was so difficult. God almighty. It really was. It's so easy now.
When and how did you hook up with Paul Oakenfold?
One of the guys that came into Bluebird all the time was this guy called Warren. We were very aligned on music. He lived in Jersey, which is a little island off the UK, and he had this all-nighter. I went and played, loved it. He was like, “Can you help me with bookings because I'm trying to get people to play here?” The first booking I did for him was Oakey.
I got to know this other guy called Mark Mitchell in Jersey. He had the studio, and we hatched this plan to make records. I took a week off work at Bluebird. One of the guys that was working at Bluebird said he wanted to go to Jersey to play and hounded me to do it. I was like, “Alright, you can play the same night as me.” That was the only time I saw him, and I figured he got home the next day. He didn't go home for five days, and no one knew where he was. Bluebird blamed that on me.
In that week, we made a record. When I got back, I got fired. I was broke. I spent my last £60 driving up to Up Yer Ronson in Leeds without getting sleep and made Sasha play it, even though he never heard it, that night. Spencer Baldwin, who was head of A&R for East/West, was there, and he was like, “What is this? This is fucking amazing.” Next thing I get a phone call from Paul Oakenfold. He goes, “We want to sign your record.”
Then Paul invited me to open for him at Cream one night. I went on before him and killed it. That night he was like, “I've been looking for someone to tour with me. I’ve just signed you. What's better than that? I've got to go to Yugoslavia in a month. Will you come and play with me?”
We became great friends. We clicked on many levels. I understood him and what he was about. He really liked me. That was the start of eight years of touring with Paul. We did so much stuff together. We were pretty much inseparable for the most part.
Why did you move to the US in 1999?
Opportunity, number one. I really loved it here. The first time I came and toured here was with BT. We did a 15-day tour together. I was support for him. I went back to England, and I called Paul and said, “Mate, it's going off in America. It's really going off.” We used to get $500 and pay for our own hotel rooms, our own air transportation, and he would give me money. He lost money on that tour, but he made sure I got sorted out.
Fast forward, I'd started to tour on my own here a little bit. I was very focused on this particular territory. I really wanted to move to Vancouver, Canada.
I was playing at Home every week with Paul in London, and I didn't really like it. I didn't vibe with it. It was very corporate. I love Paul. I would do anything for him. He's been a huge influence on me. I wouldn't be where I am today without him, so I didn't want to let him down. I tried it for six, seven weeks, and then I made the decision to move to America. I'd met a girl. I had an agent, Paul Morris. I packed a bag. I had £500 in my pocket, no credit cards, and I came here.
The girl was in Miami, and my best American friend, Dade Sokoloff, who owned Shadow Lounge, was there. Dade said, “Come and live with me.” I moved to Miami and started building my career, basically. That's what I loved about America at that time: hard work pays off, and I worked my ass off.
You started releasing music on US labels once you were here?
Steve Lau from Kinetic Records signed my record contract in the back of a frickin’ car on the way from JFK into New York. He signed me strategically for a five-album deal. Transport 2 was the first one, and that was quite the journey. Making that was the first time I've made something very serious, and I put a lot of thought into it. I was really nervous about the longevity of it. I don't think I've ever been so anxious in my life about doing anything. Kinetic Records were like family. They really introduced me to the New York scene and championed me in many ways, and for that, I'm forever grateful.
They signed Max Graham, Sandra Collins, Sasha, Digweed. It's a small label, so the attention goes to other people. I really felt that, and it became difficult with Kinetic. I was very naive when I signed that contract, and I was really trapped.
Right after Kinetic, I went to System Records with Eric Silver, which wasn't a great move. At that time, other things were happening that didn't do anyone who was playing my sound any favors.
All this was playing into me thinking, “Time to stop playing.” Asia was still cracking, really popping. That's where everyone who was in my lane went to. I had never been, so I didn't have any fallback position. I had focused so much on the US. I couldn't go back to the UK. I couldn't really go back into Europe.
Is that when you went over to “the other side,” as it were, and started working for Avalon in Boston?
There was a pivotal moment when we moved from Miami to Plymouth, Massachusetts. We bought our first house, got married, child was on the way. And it was after 9/11. When 9/11 happened, live music ceased to exist for quite some time. It was this perfect, horrible storm of bad news. 9/11 had been terrible. No gigs, terrible. We bought our house, so there was a financial commitment that was terrible. One day my wife was like, “Hey, probably got about another two, three months of mortgage money in the bank. You might want to do something about that.”
Avalon was right there. I called the Avalon guys and was like, “I need a job. I can do anything.” They said John Debo needed help with the talent team. I came in, talked, and walked out with a job.
With that job came the expectation that I had to shift my career. My album had got shelved because it was supposed to come out on 9/11. The tour that was going all over was supposed to start on 9/14. There was this transition period of gigs booked throughout the year, so I made those commitments. But I knew I had to put my heart and soul into something else, like a “real job,” but I couldn't be away from music. It was a good choice at that time. I had a real good run, DJing for 30 years.
Not a lot of DJs could make that kind of switch successfully.
Everything in me stems from what my dad was like. He was a Bevin Boy in the war. He didn't go to war. He went down the mines. They did a lottery. If you lost the lottery, you go down the mines. When he came out of that, he had nothing to do, and he developed his entire business himself. I worked with my dad straight out of school. I hated it, but he really taught me this work ethic of don't stop, just don't stop.
You did a lot to elevate the venues you were involved with, like Avalon, Webster Hall, and Roxy.
Avalon was great. I was promoted there because of the circumstances. We opened an Avalon in New York, and people moved out. I was able to move up without getting into that kind of competitive landscape. Things just happened very holistically. Being part of that and seeing what you can do in a club got me excited.
Webster Hall’s business, at that time, was unique. It was a bridge-and-tunnel crowd that was mixed across a lot of cultures and races. They couldn’t get the big DJs. Trying to put some systems in place at Webster Hall that I knew would work was really difficult at first because they're lovely people, just batshit crazy. But we were able to do it. We were able to make some real changes and make Webster Hall noticeable to the DJ community that really counted at that time, which was a massive achievement.
What was different at Royale?
It was that point in time when everything I'd learned for the last ten years of running clubs and putting systems in place really came to fruition. I hired this guy called Brig Dauber, who was the GM there, and we were inseparable. We came up with these concepts. I wanted to build a nightclub that wasn't based on talent. Nightclub Friday, and Saturday, a live event space to fill in the gaps, and a corporate event space. It's like an airplane. It makes money when it’s in the air.
I hired this guy called Jamison Laguadia, who was a corporate event booker. I did a 10-year deal with Bowery Presents to provide live music, giving me 104 shows a year, and I never booked any DJs. I opened the nightclub on Friday and Saturday. Friday was just promoters with their DJs, and Saturday, we put in resident DJs and gave the club an identity.
The identity was all based around this bear called the Royale Bear. God knows why it was such a great idea, but it really was. We figured out real quick the girls loved the bear. We built this entire marketing campaign around him, and we made up all these stories about him. The club became successful on that business model. After about six, seven months, I booked Tiesto Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and everyone just went spastic. Now everyone wanted to play there. It was really something else.
I got bored after about three or four years. This other club opened on the South Shore. They paid 50K to get Skrillex. They changed the market. As soon as agents knew that they had an option in Boston that would pay them a lot of money to go play in the daytime on a Sunday, that paradigm changed very quickly. It's the natural course of business.
How did you end up at Insomniac?
It was toward the end of the 2000s. I went to New York to see Paul Morris at AM Only, still to this day, one of my best friends in the world. He picks up the phone, calls Pasquale [Rotella], and goes, “I found your guy.” He told me, “Talk to Pasquale. You've got a great gig if you’re prepared to move.”
I called Pasquale. We’d never met. We hit it off. He was like, “Look, I need help. We just sold 51% to Live Nation. We're growing a business.”
To understand why the move was important, my son had dreadful, debilitating allergies. We lived in the middle of the woods in New Hampshire, and it was just awful. Sometimes he’d get up in the morning, and he’d just be streaming and streaming. We had all sorts of tests done on him, and we couldn't figure it out. I was really conscious about getting them out of that environment, but I just didn't know where. LA could really work out.
Pasquale calls me and asks me to come for a meeting. The first person I see walking in is James Barton. James and I go back to Quadrant Park. I sat down with Pasquale, Simon Lamb, John Boyle, [and] James, and we talked. Offer came. It was a great offer. And we moved.
You accomplished a great deal during your time there.
I felt like we broke ground on a lot of systems and opportunities within the Live Nation network that were extremely exciting, not only as promoters but also for artists. Bundling everything up and pushing it to them, there you go, there’s your Lollapalooza offer, your EDC China offer, your EDC offer, and everything else looks amazing. Groundbreaking stuff. No one had ever done anything like that.
The team got bigger. I was managing 22 people, but I was unhappy because I don't like managing people. I'm quite a creative person. If I'm not being creative, it starts to wear on me if I can't have spontaneous ideas that bothers me in many ways.
Then COVID came. I got furloughed. It was probably one of the best things that could have ever happened to me, to be honest, because I took a year and reconnected with my wife, reconnected with my children, did a shit ton of stuff around the house, and made music. Making records again was so joyful. There's no pressure. I wasn't doing it because I had to. Oakey signed a record and put it out. In that year, I was really having a great time.
How did you end up at Pollen?
Finances were looming. That Damocles was hanging over my head. I'd had lots of conversations with lots of people about lots of different opportunities, and nothing seemed that interesting to me. Then Ben Turner called me and said, “The Pollen guys really want to talk to you, but they don't want any repercussions from Insomniac.”
I went to meet with Liam [Negus-Fancey], who is under 30 and probably one of the most dynamic people I've ever met in my life. We talked for an hour and a bit. And he was like, “I think you'd be a great fit.”
I spoke to his brother Callum, who is a real savant in business. Again, super young. Quite extraordinary to me that people that young could have this vision could build this business the way that they've built it, almost a billion-dollar company, 400 people working there.
We had this philosophical talk about talent buys. I said, “I'm the specialist, that's my role. I don't want to be a promoter. I don't want to worry about P&L. I can bring a lot of systems and processes to your talent buying team and make that a global thing because that's what I've had great success at. Everyone has to be a specialist. Talent buying is a relationship game. When I need to call in a favor, I need to have done a favor as well.” Callum got it immediately. And he changed the whole chart of this company.
Now instead of trying to sell 170,000 tickets a show, I'm focused on shows that are trips that are curated around talent—which I love—for 2,000 or 3,000 people. It's a very different dynamic, a very different kind of pressure. It's really enjoyable. The way that they have their company set up is the way every company should be set up. It's freedom of thought, ownership, and mastery.
What does Pollen do exactly?
They've been in business about eight or nine years. They started by doing college parties in England. They would leverage existing parties, get a bunch of tickets to sell, and drive people to those parties.
We're building communities. Kygo, for example, we're going to put Kygo on in a really intimate environment. This is where our center of operations is going to be. We're going to build all the support line-up around you. Then we're going to make an offering to people to say, “You love Kygo. Would you like to go to Cabo San Lucas to see Kygo?” While you're there, if you want to spend a little bit more money, you could go golfing with Kygo. It becomes this intimate experience for the people who are real fans of that particular artist.
What is the average capacity and cost to attend an event?
The sweet spot for us is between 2,000 and 5,000 people. For the artist, connecting with their core fans on that intimate level is an experience. They get to curate. Our job is to make sure that the support adds value to the entire trip to entice people and really push the boundaries musically.
Cost-wise, it all depends on the property. It can be anything from $400 to $3000. If a room can have an occupancy of two to four people, that room will have that number next to it. If you decide that you don't want to share, that room is that number. If there's two in that room, it's half the number. If there's four in the room, it's a quarter of the number. So that's what makes it really affordable for college kids.
It’s definitely a brand-new concept, something that wasn’t available to the public before.
It's a really interesting concept. When we partner with Kygo, there's a five-year deal in place, and we're going to take Palm Tree Crew, his brand, all over the world. We're doing the same with Justin Bieber. We’re doing the same with J Balvin. It's not just electronic music. It's every single genre, sports, and cooking. My focus is purely on electronic music and getting that in order. We're doing things that are really quite disruptive.
There's a lot of challenges, an incredible amount, but we're a robust company. Everyone in leadership is young and very smart, and very driven. It kind of makes me feel very old, to be honest, but I like it.