Interview: Pretty Ugly Turns 10
Lis Ferla catches up with DJ duo Pretty Ugly ahead of their 10th birthday party this weekend.
It has already been a whirlwind week of interviews for Lynne Johnston, one half of DJ duo Pretty Ugly, by the time we catch up over pizza and veggie burgers at Glasgow’s King Tut’s. The interest, it’s fair to say, has taken them by surprise – but in a city with no shortage of club nights, not many hang around long enough to celebrate their 10th anniversary.
“We’ve never really shouted about what we do, until this past week,” she says, laughing, when I ask what Pretty Ugly’s secret is. “We never do big poster campaigns, or have mega huge guest DJs. We like to be a well-kept secret that people can just tell their friends about – about this great night that they’ve been to without us going oh yeah, we’re brilliant. And I suppose just because we still enjoy doing it, really.”
If it’s a surprising approach to promotion for two PR professionals to adopt – Aarti Joshi, the other half of Pretty Ugly, actually misses our lunch because she’s delivering lemons to every music writer in Glasgow to promote Stone Roses’ just-announced headline slot at T in the Park – it hasn’t exactly done them any harm. The duo now have two nights to their name after joining forces with London’s Fascination to bring their We Love Pop night to Glasgow, and will be launching their “hangover friendly” night Pretty Early in the new year after a successful trial run at the Rum Shack earlier this month.
Pretty Ugly began almost by accident in 2005 when the original trio – Aarti, plus colleagues Pam Scobie and Lee Beattie – were asked to DJ at the Born to be Wide music industry conference. What they lacked in technical ability they made up for in both enthusiasm and an excellent selection of party tunes – which, as the invites kept coming, turned into a regular night at Sloan’s in Glasgow city centre.
At the same time Lynne was living in what she describes as a “parallel universe”, regularly DJing with a couple of pals in girl band the Microsluts (“I was 23, and I couldn’t sing,” she says) at the Arches’ (RIP) legendary Death Disco (RIP) nights. When one of the trio moved to London, and another had a baby – mirroring lineup changes down the street at Pretty Ugly – it seemed like fate that she and Aarti would get together.
Pretty Ugly moved into The Admiral on Waterloo Street – coincidentally about to celebrate its own 10th anniversary – about eight years ago. You can find them there on the second Saturday of every month, playing a mix of indie-pop and retro electro with the odd Bruce Springsteen cameo. They’ve had regular theme nights (one wedding-themed night, with Pretty Ugly “house band” Band of Gold as a wedding covers band, even resulted in a real-life proposal from one of the regulars) and invite guest DJs three or four times a year to mix it up a little. You may also have caught the duo DJing at T in the Park, the Scottish Music Awards… Oh, and the odd TYCI night of course.
“My favourite was the night that Emmy-Kate and Marie from Kenickie DJed, because they were my favourite band of all time,” says Lynne. “They were just brilliant. I was gonna love them anyway, but they played all my favourite songs and a really nice crowd were in. Halfway through the night, they were playing and we looked up and there was a group of kilted Frenchmen Cossack-dancing to ‘He’s the Greatest Dancer’. It was the greatest thing we had ever seen.”
“I mean, that sums up Pretty Ugly right there. French men in kilts.”
Asking Lynne to sum up the music selection at Pretty Ugly though is a much more difficult task. Guest DJs are invited on the basis of them being “people we like, with good taste in music” – as in, what they’d choose when given a pound for the jukebox. In the end she shrugs and puts it down to the fact that the duo have worked in the Scottish music industry for years.
“I think we kind of like a bit of everything, although I hate people that say that – how can you like a bit of everything?” she says.
“We like stuff that sounds good loud, which is why I think we manage to keep our crowds happy. We’ll get guys coming along just wanting to hear hip-hop all night, which we won’t do, but we’ll do a wee half-hour, and they’ll love it. And then, later on, you’ll see them dancing to Taylor Swift.”
One thing the duo never get tired of is inspiring other women to DJ – or just being approachable to those who might otherwise have seen it as a bit of a boy’s club. Lynne has lost count of the number of times young women have approached the DJ booth – usually at 2am, after a few Jägerbombs – to tell her that they wished they could do the same.
“I always find myself suddenly going into Taylor Swift inspirational speech mode: you can do this, you can! Send me an email, I can teach you!” she says. “And then I never hear from them again, until they show up at the next night.”
“No-one ever taught me how to DJ. No-one’s ever shown me. I did once buy a book called ‘How to DJ Properly’, read it and went, yeah, I still don’t know what I’m doing. But it’s so easy, these days, with laptops and everything: you can literally just download Virtual DJ for free and play about with it.”
For their 10th birthday party at the Admiral on Saturday, expect more of the same – particularly with four women on the decks this time. Along with a Band of Gold 80s covers set (“They do Jump by Van Halen – you never see something like that in a nightclub, but you should, so that’s why we do it”) there will be a special DJ set by The Underskirts – aka original Pretty Ugly members Pam and Lee.
“Lee hasn’t DJed for four years I think, and Pam hasn’t really been a full-time DJ for about a year now,” says Lynne. “So yeah, they’ll be coming back.”
“They still really enjoy it, but life just takes over – work and kids and all these things happen. I suppose Aarti and I are still just drunk and going out all the time, so Pretty Ugly fits into our lives – I suppose it’ll get to a point one day when we will eventually grow up and maybe things will change. But I’d like to think we’ll still make it fit into our lives in some way.”
New venture Pretty Early might be one way of doing that, but I suspect it’s more of a concession to their clientele than to their own lifestyles. Inspired, according to Facebook, by “an ill-fated attempt to go clubbing in the afternoon in Madrid (the guide book didn’t state that it was an unders’ club)”, Pretty Early promises to ease you in to payday weekend and still have you home in time to make the most of your Saturday.
“It’ll still be a banging nightclub downstairs – dark, loud music, smoke machines – but then you’ll leave and you’ll be like, oh, I can get the last train home,” she says. “You’ll be at home, eating chips and cheese, watching Graham Norton – life is good.”
But this weekend Lynne and Aarti will be out way past the traditional 10-year-old’s bedtime, dropping sneaky Springsteen or Candi Staton’s You’ve Got The Love. Pass me some cake.
Pretty Ugly Turns 10 on Saturday, 14th November at The Admiral: doors 11:30pm. For more information, see the Facebook event.