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The Freelance Hellraiser - Who is he?

The Freelance Hellraiser, aka Roy Kerr

Feature by Jack Foley

SOMETIMES it takes just one brilliant idea to change your life. In October 2001, Roy Kerr, aka The Freelance Hellraiser, spliced Hard To Explain by the Strokes with Christina Aguilera’s Genie In A Bottle and christened it A Stroke Of Genius. Available as just 500 7” singles but countless downloads, it helped start a revolution in music.

Along with fellow mashup pioneers 2 Many DJs, Richard X and Trash’s Erol Alkan, Roy brought songs back to the heart of dance music, and a playful glitterball strut back to rock.

A Stroke Of Genius proved that glossy R&B and choppy New York punk weren’t that far apart: it was all just pop music. The reverberations spread out in all directions: to Danger Mouse’s celebrated Beatles/Jay-Z bootleg The Gray Album, to Sugababes’ number one smash Freak Like Me, to the club-savvy disco-punk of Franz Ferdinand, to the pop of Rachel Stevens and Girls Aloud, and to countless bedroom enthusiasts trying mashups for themselves.

The song attracted admiring coverage everywhere from Mixmag and Muzik to the New York Times and Time magazine to books by Paul Morley and Nick Hornby, plus a cease-and-desist order from Christina Aguilera’s publishers, which Roy proudly pinned to his wall. Recently, Blender magazine in the US voted it #78 in their list of the best records of the last 25 years: one place ahead of REM’s Losing My Religion.

But with his debut album finally completed, Roy feels it’s time to shake off the label of Mr Mashup. “Until three weeks ago even my old man didn’t realise that I was doing and album that I’d written,” he says with a grin. “He thought it was remixes. I want to show people that I’m not just about putting two songs together to make another one – that all along there was a desire to make a proper album.”

It’s not as if he’s been resting on his laurels. In the past four years, he’s produced a string of remixes (Christina Aguilera, Placebo, Editors) and played memorable DJ sets at the Big Beat Boutique, Death Disko, Def Jam’s MTV Awards party and the Glastonbury festival. In 2004 he became Sir Paul McCartney’s official tour DJ: the first person ever given the chance to remix Macca’s back catalogue.

Waiting For Clearance is the sum of all these experiences: an album steeped in dance, rock, pop and soul, and intoxicated by all the different, dazzling ways in which they intersect. Vocals are supplied by Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody (a mate since university) plus former Snow Patrol guitarist Iain Archer and Roy’s wife, Lalula. Helping out on production, meanwhile, are U2 producer Jacknife Lee (another old friend), synth elder statesman Jan Hammer, and Hugo Nicolson, the man who co-produced Primal Scream’s legendary Screamadelica.

“At the back of mind Screamadelica was my template,” Roy admits. “It’s got the dubby stuff, the house stuff, the rock’n’roll stuff… I always wanted my album to have a coherent flow. I wanted it to have the feel of a band.”

It has, admittedly, been a long time coming. Roy started work six years ago on a collaboration with Gary Lightbody. Then Snow Patrol got a major record deal and Roy put out A Stroke of Genius and that was the end of that. Since then, Roy’s gone from being a postman who made music in his spare time to touring the globe with the most famous man in rock, and that journey from the mundane to the miraculous is what the album is all about.

Roy was born in Billericay, Essex 32 years ago and swears that his earliest musical memory is learning to play Kraftwerk’s Autobahn on the piano. At school he was a synth-pop kid. At university in Dundee he discovered hip-hop, soul and funk and began hosting club nights.

After university, he got a job at the Royal Mail, just to tide him over. By the end of the ‘90s he was still there. “My other mates were all living exciting lives in music and the media and I was a postman. I was standing there dreaming the whole time – what the fuck am I doing?”

Tired of meeting people who reacted to his job with blank expressions, and inspired by Oliver Reed putting “Hellraiser” in the occupation section of his passport, he pretended to a girl in a bar one night that he was a freelance hellraiser, hired by the tabloids to start fights with celebs. He invited her to watch him “twat Hucknall outside the Met Bar”. She politely declined.

With his new alias came new focus. His first piece of music was a remix of Snow Patrol’s intriguingly titled Get Balsamic Vinegar… Quick You Fool in 2000. Then came A Stroke Of Genius and the career he always wanted.

After three years of DJing and remixing (as well as his debut single, the original version of Want You To Know), he produced an audition mix for Paul McCartney and got the job. He DJed on McCartney’s 2004 European tour, which climaxed with an unforgettable headlining set at Glastonbury, and again on 2005’s US odyssey: a surreal experience.

“Audiences have been good to me. I’m up there playing this odd club music and in middle America you know they’re just being polite.”

The tour spawned the Twin Freaks album, on which Roy played thrilling havoc with a dozen of McCartney’s songs. “I’d been working up to saying we should do an album but I didn’t know the right way to approach it. Then I DJed at his birthday party in Russia, got absolutely hammered on vodka, got him in a bearhug and said ‘We’ve got to do a fucking album! It’ll be wicked!’”

In between Macca duties, Roy’s been working on Waiting For Clearance in his attic studio in north London. It’s not your typical producer’s album: heavy on technical know-how but light on lyrical substance. Inspired by the years it took Roy to get to this point, it’s about taking risks, escaping the humdrum and making life more colourful.

“The lyrics are all about taking that leap,” Roy explains. “There were a lot of people saying this isn’t going to work out – take the safe option. And it’s all about breaking free from that and doing what you want to do rather than what you feel you should be doing.”

Read our verdict on the album