An early-morning conversation with DJ, promoter, and restaurateur (amongst other things) Luke Unabomber that ranges from lockdown, therapy, a Scouse wrestler, Sheffield United, casual culture, Manchester in the 80s, Instagram, and his ceaseless, passionate and unwavering love of music.
Luke Cowdrey is a hard man to pin down. As the DJ, Luke Unabomber, he is one half of legendary Manchester house duo The Unabombers alongside Justin Crawford. As the promoter of the now infamous Electric Chair, Homoelectric and Homobloc nights amongst others, he has been a beating heart of the city’s underground music scene for decades. And when he’s not showing off his 12,000+ record collection to the world, he’s busy being the mind behind a number of restaurants and bars he runs in the Manchester area - Volta in West Didsbury, Electrik in Chorlton, and both The Refuge and The Principal Hotel in the city itself.
He’s also a hard man to pin down for an interview. We first spoke in May, in the depths of the first lockdown, about having a chat with STILES. Eight months later, we finally got ourselves into the same virtual room.
“We got there in the end, didn’t we!” he says cheerily as he greets me on Zoom very early on a January morning, with a dog in his lap and a smile plastered on his face. “I’m a very early riser. First thing I do when I wake up is put some headphones on and listen to some music. It gets the day started.”
It sets the tone well. Growing up in Sheffield as a Sheffield United fan, he’s since become synonymous with Manchester on the other side of the Pennines. And specifically the city’s blossoming music scene in the late 80s and 90s. I wanted to know more not only about his life in music and deep football fandom, but the story behind his Instagram account which has become a lasting artefact in itself. His daily musings and characterful ramblings will have got many people through dark days of lockdown in the past year. With minimal effort, he is now the owner of the funniest account the platform has ever seen.
STILES: So how have you found the last 10 months? Are you the sort of person that always needs to keep busy or were you more than happy taking a few months to put your feet up and watch The Sopranos?
Luke: Actually, if I remove and ring fence the armageddon and the tragedy of it all - the loss of life and the shit that’s going on to our businesses - it’s probably been quite good for my mind. I’ve had to force myself to be really organised. With all my various businesses, we’ve had to keep going and even when we’ve been shut there’s been loads of stuff to do. My days have been very busy so I’ve had to force myself to have a routine.
When I'm on form that normally means getting up dead early, and trying to spin a lot of plates between my family, partner, music, creativity, work, and trying to shed the two stone that I put on by daily drinking and about four meals a day. So my day to day’s been full but lots of good things happened to me during Covid - I got that routine, I worked very hard, I started a radio show, I’m starting to work on some podcasts, doing some edits of old afro disco tracks.
Also, like most of the world - unless you’re sociopathic - I’ve been forced to think about life and my role in it, because I’m sat there thinking ‘how the fuck did we get to this?’. And I think most people are having some version of an existential reset. You’d be pretty unusual not to at least think about those things.
I think it’s actually been more common than we realise, people who, at least at first, enjoyed the ‘reset’ as you say, even if there’s an element of guilt to it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my demons. I suffer from ADHD - well, I wouldn’t say suffer. My overactive mind is a positive and a negative, and the negative is that sometimes I wake up with lots of thoughts in my mind and it can be torture. I wouldn't wish it on anyone at its worst. And with Covid at times, especially during the peaks of lockdown, I definitely got the demons, and it was quite difficult to deal with.
About two years ago, for work related reasons, I went to see a CBT therapist, but it didn’t feel like therapy. He was a 5 foot 5 Scouser and an ex-wrestler - actually about 5 foot 8, I'm being unkind. I'm small anyway. I went because I just struggled prioritising and honestly, in all seriousness, it was one of the best things I ever did. I’d never properly seen a therapist. This guy taught me to retrain my mind, almost like rewiring it, like tuning the engine. He was very fact based, there was nothing necessarily meditative or mindful in the approach. It wasn’t a wellbeing sort of thing.
I had to work with audio every day for 4 months. I nearly threw my computer out of the window on numerous occasions because it was so frustrating. I had to put these headphones on and it’s just a voice telling you to listen to all these noises. There’s insects, running water, cars, engines, church bells, and you just listen to it every day for about four months. It only lasts 15 minutes, and it’s about listening to 20 noises and focusing on one of them, or two or three or four. Or none of them. And I fucking hated it but something started to happen and I realised it was beginning to work when Covid hit, because that was really the bad viagra in terms of mental thought. It just encouraged loads of it to come out, my mind was on +11 with fear and worry.
So yeah it’s been incredibly difficult, but my CBT training with this Scouse wrestler was so good that it actually trained me for it. I loved it, it's exactly what I needed. I don't think I needed someone sitting down and listening to me talk about my mum or whatever else, he wasn’t interested necessarily in that, he was about: ‘I'm going to teach you for when you have your 0898 numbers in your head, cold calling you at 7am, to not answer any of them and I'll teach you to listen to one thought’. And I was like, ‘alright nice speech... scouser’, but in the end he was actually right.
And I think, aside from my personal story, my sort of objective analysis of it is, surely we’ve gotta come back as better humans? I mean we have to surely. The world will be different. Very, very different. And there will be positives out of that. I’m not saying Covid doesn't matter, “oh there was loads of death but there’s gonna be some nice books” - I don't mean it like that.
Do you think it might make people live in the moment a bit more?
Definitely. There’s this old Marxist philosopher called Gramsci who said, and I'll call it a catchphrase, it sounds better: ‘optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect’. And I love it because you have the optimism of the will that you wanna get up and go for it; even in times of adversity, even when you're outnumbered or things are against you, when you’re standing against the stream. But pessimism of the intellect is saying well yeah that’s great but we’re not going to be partying together in March are we. It’s the reality, it’s knowing that the optimism is great, but the fusion of those two things is what you need to move forward. Without sounding too Channel 4 after dark, I think that’s a brilliant way of looking at it.
Dispatches with Luke Unabomber… when I was preparing for this interview I didn’t really know where to start. You’re most famous for your music and DJing, but there’s also your club nights and your bars and restaurants. Have you always been a sort of jack of all trades?
Always, yeah. I used to drink in gay pubs, and then also go to football. I had a bizarre mixture of different friends. My dad was a very similar kind of character. He was a really egalitarian, open kind of person, he always saw the good in people so he found himself in a variety of different worlds all at the same time. I also think just ADHD has made me a fucking Duracell boy. I’m always doing stuff, I can't stop thinking, it just sends shoots into the outer cosmos all the time.
And actually my most productive and prolific time has been the last 10 years. I’ve been a recreational drug taker since I was 14 or 15 - I’ve gotta be quiet because my kids are upstairs... But in my late 40s things started to recalibrate in my life, and I started to want different things. In the end, there’s only so many things you can do at an after hours party with people half your age, sat there at nine in the morning wanting to make another phone call, and I was kind of done with that. Coming out of that, I met my Mrs, and it went crazy for me. When you live by yourself and you’re smoking weed at five in the morning in your boxer shorts watching MTV, not a lot happens. Serendipity only happens when you’re out there, it rarely happens when you’re stuck in your flat. It’s when you’re out of your comfort zone walking down the wrong street.
So when you moved to Manchester in the 80s it must have been such an exciting time to be in the city. That scene, ‘your scene’ I suppose, what was it actually like?
I was born in New Delhi but then we moved to Essex, believe it or not. I keep that bit quiet. But we moved up to Sheffield when I was quite young and that's where I kind of cut my teeth, and then I moved to Manchester to go to college. But Manchester then, in the 80s, was a brutal city. The culture there was incredibly esoteric and idiosyncratic. There were no tourists in Manchester, you know? Tourists went to Scotland and London and that was it. Manchester was just a dirty old town really, but amazing for that. It felt kind of lost in time in a sense. It was a bit of shit hole, it wasn't an international city, it didn't feel European even. It felt like a big northern town that was… holding on. And things were tough but I loved it, and because of that the music, art, politics and culture was just incredible.
So it was just the obvious choice for me because the music was huge. I lived in Hulme, which was a big council estate with around 40 to 50,000 people living there, it was gigantic. It was like Berlin, it had its own ecosystem. Every cliche about Manchester was rooted in Hulme because there was cheap rent, like-minded people, no police, lots of drugs, and lots of music. I’m told you're not allowed to use the word melting pot but I'm going to use it because I think it's a wonderful word - but it was a melting pot. An amazing melting pot of cultures.
It was incredibly off-piste and out of it some quite magical stuff happened. I remember in about 1993, maybe later, when they essentially levelled it, there was a big celebration of Hulme and I'll never forget that night. It was like something out of Mad Max. There were cars coming off roofs, massive fires being started, sound systems everywhere. There were crusties, travellers, students, local kids, everything; bands, DJs, everyone who had ever lived there were all out saying goodbye to Hulme.
That would never happen now. In Manctopia, as they call it, it’s all become much more gentrified and sanitised and there are positives with that. It was an underground city, and people used to go on about Amsterdam and Berlin, and we went there and we thought: god, this is really fucking boring. Manchester was much more wild, and when acid house happened it just exploded. But like everything it was a moment, an amazing moment in a great city and I loved it and I've never left.
Do you think that side to the city is still there?
Oh it's still there, but you have to seek it out. The seeds will always be there just like in London. What I think has been happening in Manchester in the last 5 years is the growth of what i call the ‘twilight clubs’, which are these small underground clubs in old industrial areas, and they’re full of amazing nights. The seeds are always there, the DNA is always floating about and it’ll always happen. No matter how big and shiny and clean the city gets, something will happen in reaction against it. So there’s been a real growth in underground clubs again, the art scene is amazing, and the young people coming through are very exciting.
Shall we talk about football for a bit then? You’re a big Sheffield United fan, I’m assuming that came from growing up in the city as you mentioned?
I grew up about a mile and a half from Bramall Lane. Sheffield is pretty divided according to where you live and who you support, and we were in a Sheffield United zone I guess. I was once with my best mates Raith and Martin, we were only about 12, I’d just arrived in Sheffield, and we almost got jumped on by these lads asking us who we affiliate to club-wise.
But we’ve always taken the piss out of Wednesday for living on the outside of the city walls, thus ‘South Barnsley’. I think the truth is there’s always been a rivalry about who comes from where and all that, but we’ve always said the city itself is much more Sheffield United and Wednesday are a bit more uber Yorkshire, big lumps from Stocksbridge. There you go, sectarianism goes on.
I think nationally United were always seen as the cooler club, with the cooler lads, who better dressed, and it had more history. Fickle as that sounds, I always really loved that.
As a young man, what was it about Sheffield United and football in general that attracted you?
Well, football I loved. I played it a lot. If I'm being honest, and it's a side to me which people are surprised by, I did like the tribalism. I was never a hooligan, but I loved it. It was during the growth of what became the casual movement, and the first game I went to was a friendly against Leeds. There was a bit of fighting and stuff like that outside the ground - but it wasn’t that, it was just the noise and energy of it all that I loved. Not living in Sheffield for the last 34 years has probably meant my tribalism isn't as fundamentalist as it used to be.
Is the club something that still connects you to the city, then?
Oh completely. And I still go back [for games] when I can. Don’t get me wrong I love the football itself too, it’s beautiful. Going back to Cruyff or Maradona, I love the game in its objectivity but it’s the tribalism of following your club for me. It’s everything around it, the culture that surrounds it.
To the uninitiated football fan, or even a fan who might not follow a team, it might seem very alien what you’re saying here.
People think it’s a bad thing but the reality is that’s just nonsense. Obviously there’s bound to be some people who have nothing but bad intent, but for most people it’s not. I still have it. Going to the match pre-COVID last season, going to both the Man United and City games, I couldn’t stop myself. I actually went with my step son to the Man City game, I got some amazing tickets in hospitality. Louis is a mad City fan, he loves them, and he said ‘don’t embarrass me, don’t start shouting’. We lost that day but I could not stop myself, it’s just in me to scream and shout.
What are your greatest memories following United over the years?
It’s probably away games in mad northern towns like Tranmere or Hartlepool. Rough places. In the early 80s we’d just been relegated to the Fourth Division as it was then. It was amazing because we’d take like 8000 to away matches and take over the town. The comradeship with my best friends, that’s where most of the magic happened. I loved the fourth division. I’m very busy now, and I'm not a season ticket holder anymore, so I have to pick and choose my games. Being back in the Premier League now, it’s amazing to be able to go and watch that level of football. Our fans are loud and we’ve always been a gutsy side which is why we’re probably suffering so much without the support because we probably haven't got the technical ability, so we need that. You can say that about any side it’s daft I know, but United definitely need that atmosphere. The last few years have been among the best.
You mentioned casual culture earlier, and I think for a lot of people reading this, they’ll have a mental image of what football was like in the 80s - in the ‘dark days’ leading up to Hillsborough. What was that scene like as a fan back then?
Where I was in Sheffield, there was a little gang of lads and I just noticed the way they dressed was different. This was 1981 and it was sort of their version of the perry boy, or the scally in Liverpool. In Sheffield they called them ‘trendies’, weirdly. They were wearing all the usual kinds of stuff, Pringle and Farah, but this is really early on. At this point Manchester, Liverpool and London were probably leading the movement of aesthetic fashion choices. But quickly that changed because everyone just got into it and as I was getting older when I was 14 or 15, I was at the match and there was this group of lads just walking down John Street. They were like a throng of hair, this one guy had a walkman on, sunglasses, weird bright coloured pastel clothing, baggy jeans with beads on. Just mad.
I looked at them and that’s this weird peacock tribal thing in me as a young man loving this whole identity, I just thought ‘what the fuck, who are this lot?’. It’s what at that point was the Blades Business Crew.
It was a counterculture, they looked weird but great. At that point in the North, 1 in 3 men, even children, had moustaches. It wasn’t the best looking race. And there was this group of guys who looked almost Italian with this weird pastel colour clothing. It’s always been a very British thing to have a tribal identity with your clothes. Football was just a part of it, it wasn’t central necessarily although it could become so. I've since met a lot of the guys from that scene and they’re still around and people still talk about them in a whispered tone. When I went to Manchester, the first thing I did when I got my grant money was buy bits of clothing, and it sounds fickle I guess but I’m a peacock, I’m vain. I shouldn’t be, looking like early Phil Mitchell after the crack addiction. But I am and I've always loved showing off.
What’s the connection between football and music been like in your life, and in Britain in general?
I think passion. The release of endorphins. However egalitarian we are, we love to belong, we love like minded people. It’s about getting up and doing something on a Saturday. Lots of the football lads were really into music. I think it was also a sort of collusion between two very different forms of counterculture, because supporting a football team in a certain way and looking a certain way means you tended to mix in pubs that were a bit alternative. In the 80s where I worked, there’d be Pulp in there, lots of Sheffield band members, and then there’d be your trendies, the football lads, and it was generally all pretty well behaved. They gravitate towards clubs which were just naturally more underground; you felt part of something going to the Hacienda or the Thunderdome or Conspiracy, it wasn't a secret handshake as such but it was the unity of the counterculture clans.
It’s really clear chatting to you that music has been at the heart of everything you do, and still is. When you first started putting on club nights, was there any sort of plan with it?
Never, ever. Never has been. Back to my ADHD I mentioned earlier and my constant need to be doing things, I’ve got little to-do lists, it tends to be like: clean your fridge, buy a book, get fitter, stop eating kebabs at 3 in the morning. But with this there wasn’t a gameplan in that sense. We were just a reaction to the dominant mainstream. The Manchester revolution had happened in the mid 80s and it was incredible. The counter revolution was the gangsters, cocaine and shiny people fucking it up. So we were just a reaction against that, and went to a small dirty rock club with sticky carpets and bad toilets beneath the pavement that held 300 people. No marketing plan or thought out vision at all.
Are you surprised with the longevity and impact it’s had, that you’re still doing it to this day?
Yeah definitely. I was in Croatia the year before last. And the track ‘Getting Away With It All My Life’ by Electronic came on and it seemed quite fitting. There I am at 53, playing the music I love to loads of amazing people all over the world, and I'm like ‘wow, this is mental’. Sat there in the sunshine thinking I should be digging a hole somewhere, but there you go. So it's amazing to still be doing it. I’m 54 now and people say ‘grow up’. Well, it’s a bit fucking late, I’ll probably be dead in 20 years. What’s the point? I'm quite happy doing what I'm doing. And I love it, the music side I love more than ever, football in the last year less so just because of Covid and not being able to go to the match.
Just before you go, I wanted to ask about your Instagram account. It’s been an absolute revelation of a discovery, and I’m sure many people like me found little moments of joy over the past year in your little catchphrases and gags. What’s the story behind it all?
Well I wasn’t one of the early adopters of Instagram. I was on Facebook for a while and I came off because I was arguing with someone at 4 in the morning about Madeleine Mccann. And I came off Twitter this year too, but Instagram I love. It feels less toxic, more natural, more real, more community focussed, more connected. How I got into it I have no idea. I genuinely don't. I’m a show off, I’m an attention seeker that’s always been part of my personality since I was young. My mum used to have coffee mornings on the estate we lived on and 20 women used to come round and have coffee - I mean it’s fucking bizarre when you think about it really. I used to love being surrounded by all these women, me sitting on my mum’s knee - I was 18… No I wasn’t, I was 7.
It would be disingenuous to say I don't enjoy the affirmation on Instagram, but I also feel I’m quite honest on it. ‘Day One’ was actually about tragedy in a way. I make a joke of it because I think you should make a joke of it. It was about losing my dad and my best mate, it was about getting involved in drugs and drinking to get rid of the pain and trying to come out of it. I would have 3 weeks of being on it and then collapse back into it. I guess you have the whole influencer culture where you try to cut and paste a filter life into this perfect thing, and I definitely didn't do that. I just wanted to put all the bullshit and nonsense on there. I quite enjoy putting it all on show.
That definitely comes across, using humour in the face of adversity and making a joke about tragedies. It’s the knowing that this is a way to deal with it that a lot of people really resonate with, I think.
I can’t pronounce the word hyperbole, but a lot of it is exaggeration and fun. And I also take the piss out of things I love. Like when I go on about veganism, that's because there is a genuine warmth there. I create characters, my recent one is the ‘namaste death cult’ and actually it's only because in me there's an interest and a leaning towards it. But humour is so important, self deprecation and taking the piss out of each other, literally within an inch of its life, is so important.
The idea of retreating away from the world and not having people say things, that creates more rumination, it creates more overthinking and more anxiety. The way to get out of anxiety is to go out there and slay the fucking thing. Look at Keith Haring and his artwork, he went out there as a queer man in the 1970s and painted in the ghetto in New York and got respect from all the local kids. Okay it's a wonderful story, not everyone can do that. But my point is the more we remove ourselves and be offended by everything the more it will create more anxiety. There needs to be a bit of risk taking in humour but the intention is important, and mine is always good, so when I take the piss out of the namaste death cult, it’s only because that's about people I love and care about and it's just playing with it.
If you do one thing after reading this, listen to Luke's monthly radio show over at Worldwide FM, where he goes through his musical archive of blood, sweat and tears for the late night disenfranchised with slow motion techno, spiritual jazz, Brazilian cosmic to funk dancing in the outerspace to high-tech Detroit futurism.
On Friday 5th of March, he presents a special 5 hours 40 minutes long show for We Out Here Digital Festival on Worldwide FM. Don’t miss it! The link for that is here.
And of course, if you haven't already, his Instagram profile is here. Enjoy.