Q&A: Sean Rowley on six years of Guilty Pleasures

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From humble beginnings as a five-minute slot on Sean Rowley's Radio London show, Guilty Pleasures has evolved into a fully-fledged, all-singing, all-dancing pop music phenomenon. Featuring DJs, dancers and performers united in a love of pop records once considered too naff to admit liking, this is truly a club night like no other. We caught up with Sean Rowley, the man who made it all happen...

Esquire: First of all, congratulations on reaching the sixth anniversary of Guilty Pleasures.

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Sean Rowley: Thanks, I tell you what I look good on it.

Esquire: The empire has certainly spread and grown in that time. Could you ever have envisaged this happening after revealing your first ‘Guilty Pleasure’, "Oh Lori" by the Alessi Brothers, on your Radio London show six years ago?

Sean Rowley: Short answer? No. Not in a million years. Long answer: after a little while the momentum started gathering. It was getting to a point where I was thinking this is getting quiet big, its definitely got legs. It all started was on my Friday night show. It was a show that I like to think had an element of credibility. The slot appeared and it was just one of those things where you went, ‘This is really working, because everyone wants to ring me up and talk about this whenever you put it out on air’. And that was the first moment of ‘Oh, I’ve got something here'.

Esquire: Do you think it was almost a reaction to generations of po-faced music snobbery?

Sean Rowley: Yes, definitely. It felt like whenever people used to come on the phone and confess to their guilty pleasures there was always quiet a lot of pressure, like ‘I really love this record’. It was almost like it was pent-up frustration and they just wanted an outlet for it.

Esquire: After the music snobbery, do you find yourself now battling against the tag of being ‘post ironic’?

Sean Rowley: When it first started people were coming up to me and going, ‘What are you doing all this ironic stuff for?’ and I was like ‘I’m really, really not being ironic’. And that was really important for me in the beginning when we were setting out the stall, so to speak. It was basically saying ‘We do actually really love this’. If we were being ironic I would have gone slightly insane

Esquire: But the records really work, don’t they. Take the Yacht Rock top-10 you compiled for the Esquire blog - if you strip away some bad, bad haircuts, the terrible clothes and the slightly dodgy videos the music still stands up and speaks for itself...

Sean Rowley: It’s really interesting that you picked up on that because when we started one of the things I realized was all these bands look shit. They do look shit, and the videos for the tracks look shit or certainly look dated. They all work in a kitsch and slightly ironic way, but I’ve never gone down the route of putting these sort of bands on when we do Guilty Pleasures nights. We do feature live music and we’ve had everyone from The Feeling to Magic Numbers; bands that really love this type of music and would go along with the concept of doing cover versions. What I wouldn’t do, certainly early on, was to put the original artist on stage now because they look terrible.

Esquire: You did a recent residency at the Edinburgh Festival. What were the highlights for you?

Sean Rowley: Guilty Pleasures flew the flag for the whole month of the Edinburgh Festival. We basically hosted the Spiegeltent on the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. We were a raging success. It was one of the most talked about events as far as the festival went. They’ve never done anything like that up there before

Esquire: What are your your favourite memories from the last six years – you’ve opened for George Michael and Take That and had some amazing celebrities come to support your nights…

Sean Rowley: I might have to dwell on that one a little and email you a list. Every time we do a gig like Koko the atmosphere is fucking magical. I’ve got mates involved in running clubs and their mouths literally hang open, they’re gasping. They go, ‘God, this is just nuts what’s going on here’. And it really does reach a level of euphoria. It’s like being back in the day when people were on very, very good drugs.

Esquire: What are your killer tracks that you can rely on in an emergency?

Sean Rowley: They come and go in cycles. Lionel Ritchie, yeah Lionel is always going to be in there; it’s just got that moment. When we’re DJing, and I include my partner Anna Greenwood (above with Sean), there will be the moment we call ‘The Huey Lewis Moment’. It’s basically Huey Lewis and the News, “The Power Of Love”. It’s one of the best records, with that amazing intro and that driving beat. When you’ve got 1600 people in front of you hanging on your every record, it’s the greatest record in the world.

Esquire: Are you running out of new Guilty Pleasures or is the canon still growing?

Sean Rowley: It is, actually. It has to because it’s quite a generational thing and quite often you’ll find yourself doing a gig for a younger crowd and you realize you are shifting into another generation. When it started it was always firmly based in the 70s. You know, punk was a great barometer. Punk said this music is all shit and you shouldn’t listen to it. So, as the generation has moved, it’s moved into an 80s and 90s type of thing.

Esquire: In terms of celebrities, what have been your  most memorable ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe that person is dancing in front of the DJ box’ moments?

Sean Rowley: It was very odd to see Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman dancing on the balcony at Koko to Dolly Parton’s “Nine To Five”. That was weird.

Esquire: So what can we expect from the 6th birthday party at Koko on September 25th?

Sean Rowley: There will be lots of cake, lots of fizzy pop and lots of excitement. We’ve also got people jumping out of birthday cakes. The theme is ‘Lost in Space’ so there will be plenty of strange looking aliens in the house, too.

The Guilty Pleasures 6th Birthday Party takes place at Koko in Camden, London on 25 September. For more, see www.guiltypleasures.com

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