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Music & clubs

Cormac on techno, starting a podcast and loving queer Berlin

The Northern Irish DJ is officiating a marriage of music and the queer experience in his new podcast 'Cormac’s Queerly Beloved'.

Photo: Mario Heller

On the first episode of Cormac’s Queerly Beloved, the host asks British musician Romy – otherwise known as Romy Madley Croft of indie band The xx – to tell listeners who she is, how she identifies and what she does. Romy, who has been giving interviews since roughly 2005, hesitates. “That’s actually such a straightforward question that I don’t know – who am I?”

Two episodes later, Cormac puts the same question to Berlin mega icon and beloved chaos agent Peaches. “I am Peaches, and I identify as a fruit,” she jokes. This is the kind of candour listeners can expect from Cormac’s Queerly Beloved, which officially launched in January of this year. The show offers a space for artists, friends and LGBTQ+ allies to talk openly about queerness, identity and music.

For Cormac, who is a sort of triple threat in the music world – DJ, music producer and record label owner – it’s a project with a starkly simple mission: “The impetus came from a lot of my friends in my community struggling around having their identity recognised, having their stories recognised. You know, it’s very easy to say, ‘Oh well, everyone’s just equal’, but that’s very easy to say when your identity has been acknowledged,” he says.

Photo: Mario Heller

People come to me and say, you know. ‘Your music got me through the pandemic’, or ‘I always put your music on at the orgy!’

The series, which already has a second season in the pipeline, broke into the top 10 music podcasts in the UK almost immediately upon its launch. This is at least partially down to Cormac’s genius for booking big-name guests, then treating listeners to an utterly sincere discussion, with no emotional stone left unturned.

“It’s been so funny, because when it went out, I was kind of numb. The conversations we have are quite honest, and I was thinking, ‘Oh God, everyone’s going to hear that’,” Cormac says of the show’s launch.

With easy charm and and a soothing Northern Irish lilt, Cormac excavates his guests’ stories, digging gently into trauma, anxiety and identity, carving out space for some of the most well-known working artists to tell us what people don’t know about them. The thing is: Cormac is himself a well-known DJ. He’s queer. He’s got his own grief, trauma, anxiety, identity. The listener has to wonder: what story would he tell, if he appeared on his own show?

Troubled Times

If “dearly beloved” is what you say to open a wedding, Cormac’s Queerly Beloved represents a marriage of its own, between the world of music and the world of queer coming-of-age. Its host, naturally, is from both worlds.

Cormac, known professionally by his first name, established himself as a DJ in the London club scene before making a name for himself in Berlin, becoming a regular at Berghain’s Panorama Bar and SNAX Club and amassing nearly 20 years of experience in music curation. He’s also had an equally longtime interest in advocating for queer mental and physical health. The root of both these preoccupations is his childhood in Northern Ireland.

“Where we grew up wasn’t in the middle of The Troubles. There were much more intense areas to live, like in certain areas of Belfast, for example. But there was a vigilance. There was a constant vigilance, because my dad owned a business, he had a pub and often business owners might have been targets,” he says of growing up in the late 1980s in Banbridge, during the violent sectarian period of conflict between Protestant Loyalists and Catholic Nationalists. “I remember very clearly every time we’d go to school, before we could get in the car my mum would check underneath it for bombs.”

Photo: Mario Heller

Navigating this tumultuous era as a teenager coming to terms with his sexuality affected Cormac in ways that he’s still picking at. “The Troubles are based mostly on identity and religiosity. Being queer wasn’t welcome in either religion, and it was quite a lonely experience,” he recalls. “My parents wouldn’t have been excited about me being gay because of religion, but then there was also this AIDS thing of like, you’re going to die. It was terrifying, the fear of upsetting or being rejected by your family. And then it was terrifying like, am I going to die?”

Music was a salve, both for Cormac and his family: “There was a tension in our house, which I think came from hypervigilance, and I could see that that dissolved a bit when music [played].” Diving into his older brothers’ record collections, listening to a mixture of punk, classic rock and early 80s electronica, he spent a lot of time in their bedrooms putting records on when they weren’t there, he says.

“I was learning how to put a record on correctly at a very young age without them finding out that I touched the records.” Madonna and Marc Almond left the biggest impressions. “I remember Marc Almond was on the TV, and I hid behind the sofa because I loved it and I feared it, because he looked really kind of perverse. He looked very S&M and very feminine, and it wasn’t fluffy – it looked offensive, it was sexual.” He worried often that his family might connect those dots.

Before I could love or like myself, I loved and liked music

By the time Cormac came out to his family, he was a psychology student at university in Derry. Across Northern Ireland, things were becoming lighter; in 1994, there was an initial ceasefire, and the cultural scene began to boom. Illegal raves, ecstasy and the burgeoning music scene were formative for him, as was a concert from legendary DJ Carl Cox.

“One of the great casualties of The Troubles was the lack of cultural input, because that’s quite far down the line when people are being shot or blown up. No one’s coming to visit, and there’s no real cultural investment, and so things did feel very stagnant,” Cormac explains. But while things began blooming around him, it was a darker time personally: his mother wasn’t initially receptive to his sexuality, and he became effectively homeless, bouncing between friends in London and university in Derry.

After graduating, Cormac moved to London permanently, taking whatever odd jobs he could find and sleeping on people’s floors. “I wanted to be around more clubs, more fashion and wider thinking. I wanted to be around people who weren’t concerned with religion. I wanted to find a tribe, and I was pretty fearless.”

London Calling

In early noughties London, a new era was also dawning. Electroclash, punk, techno and pop blurred together in sweaty basement venues like Nag Nag Nag, Boombox and Trash. It wasn’t uncommon to see the likes of Björk, Kylie or Boy George on the dance floor or behind the decks. People swarmed to embrace this new sound for the new millennium, and Cormac gravitated to the centre of it, doing every job from mopping toilets to bartending to flyer-hawking to, eventually, the coveted job of door whore at Nag Nag Nag.

Charged with hand-picking guests from the queue based on outfit, style and first  impression, the door whore is usually playfully dressed themselves, acting as a door selector and curating the club’s vibe for the night.

Photo: Mario Heller

If you spend enough time in clubs, paying enough attention to the music, eventually you know what you want to hear. “I just decided to be a DJ,” Cormac says. “I’d been at a club with my friend complaining about the music, and they were fed up with me complaining, and they said, ‘Well, why don’t you do better?’ And I thought, you know what, I’m going to try that.”

An avid record buyer since his teens, he’d built up quite the collection, and spent hours learning how to mix, practising with DJ friends on off hours. “I learned quite fast because I embarrassed myself a lot. And I didn’t like that. I didn’t like to do something badly. I was quite a perfectionist,” he recalls. Eventually he landed his first DJ gig at The Cock, a weekly queer night held at a small club in the backstreets of London’s Tottenham Court Road, called The Ghetto. It went well, and he was given more slots around the city.

In 2007, Cormac began running his own club night, dubbed Wet Yourself. Originally hosted in a venue boasting – ironically – a swimming pool, Wet Yourself later moved to the highly established electronic music club Fabric, which cemented Cormac’s new career. “I did that weekly for many years,” he says. “It was suddenly this great oasis, because after various years of trying to be a DJ, trying to pay my bills, I finally had stability. I suddenly had a regular income.”

His technique also calcified. “I got to really fine-tune what I do on one of the best sound systems in the world. And also, as a resident DJ, you learn some crafts that you don’t learn as a touring DJ. As a touring DJ, you usually would play the main slot, but as a resident DJ you also play the opening slot, the closing slot, the middle slot. You also fill in for people at the last minute when you’re not prepared. There’s a lot of skills that come with that, which I’m so grateful for now because it’s massively contributed to how I DJ.”

Berlin Bloom

While his musical career was thriving, on a personal level Cormac was still searching for a sense of belonging. After the peak of the AIDS epidemic, there was a shift within the gay community; a hyper-masculine presentation of health and gym-fit bodies became the beauty standard, eschewing anything that looked like illness or weakness. “I just didn’t fit that,” Cormac says. “I was this skinny white Irish guy with blue hair and green eyebrows, and that didn’t fit me either. And I always navigated somehow towards the more peripheries of queer culture.”

Photo: Mario Heller

This was how he’d first ended up at Stunners, a club known for fostering space for transsexual women, transvestites and the queer community as a whole. “I always felt very comfortable there. Maybe also because I felt safe with trans women, more than with gay men actually,” he explains. “I was always navigating around women or femininity.”

I wanted to find a tribe, and I was pretty fearless.

Berlin had been on Cormac’s radar for several years, mainly as a place to spend his time off – it’s no secret that Berlin has a reputation for hedonism and facilitating a nocturnal lifestyle for those that seek it. “It was a party destination,” says Cormac. “I would work very hard in London but then I would come to Berlin, and that would kind of be my let-loose place. I was also nearing the end of my drug-using years, which were quite messy. I think I felt more safe to do that in Berlin, maybe.”

The German capital was also becoming queerer than London, which by the early 2010s was getting rapidly more expensive. “I feel like a lot of queer spaces disappeared around that time,” he says. “With gentrification, you know, all of that was enclosed within music, and all of that music was enclosed within art. Art fuels things and it also attracts things. A horrible side effect now of artistic magnetism is gentrification.”

Photo: Mario Heller

Berlin, certainly, is no stranger to this process – but in 2012, to Cormac, it was a beacon of hope creatively and mentally. “Berlin was very healing in many ways because there was more space. That increased physical space helped me because there was more mental space. Things are slower here than they are in London. And I needed that at that point,” he explains.

When he came to Berlin, he was still feeling self-conscious about his music choices, the hypervigilance of his childhood still present in his self-perception and his comfort with his sexuality. “I still had judgements around my music. When I would play Panorama Bar, I’d think, ‘I’d like to play that record, but it’s too pop or it’s too gay’.” His success in Berlin slowly chipped away at that feeling. “[At some point] I thought, okay, it’s time to get really honest and play Kim Wilde,” he says, laughing.

Cormac’s sets are now crowd-pullers that sometimes run up to eleven hours in length, often closing Berghain. “I have a lot of support everywhere I play,” he admits. “People come to me and say, you know, ‘Your music got me through the pandemic’, or ‘I always put your music on at the orgy!’”

If London was where he developed his craft, Berlin was where it resonated. “It was like starting again,” he says. “It was like stripping away everything. I was finally getting to explore the kind of DJ that I wanted to be, because I could be really honest, unapologetic and unafraid.”

Music as Medicine

Being unapologetic and unafraid often comes with maintenance. Cormac leans on a variety of daily tools to keep himself in check, ranging from meditation, chanting, exercise and contemplation. “I take time to self-care. I spend time contemplating the size of the universe versus the size of me, and that’s extremely liberating,” he explains.

Photo: Mario Heller

He’s focused not only on his own mental health, but his community’s. “I use this statistic a lot, but it hasn’t changed. LGBTQ+ people are [at least] three times more likely to suffer from depression, suicidal thoughts and addiction. It’s not by chance. Until we start sharing our commonalities and our struggles around that and our solutions, it’s not going to get better.” Cormac has his own experience with addiction; he’s been sober for some years now. The key to recovery, he says, is community.

I thought when I got sober, it would be the end of everything.

“You get feedback on what you’re doing. You get an outside perspective. You’re not trying to solve your broken spirit with your broken mind. That’s been amazing, because one of the biggest elements of my addiction was isolatiofn. And that’s not surprising because I shut down as a kid, I shut down as a teenager, and I had to isolate myself. I was on my own. That’s how I survived,” he reflects. “I’m not a victim of my circumstances anymore. I thought when I got sober, it would be the end of everything. I thought it would be the end of my sex life, the end of my love life, the end of my DJ career. And it was the start of all of them.”

The throughline to all this – to his ease with himself, to his sobriety, to his reconciliation with his childhood – is still music. “I realised somewhere in that journey from London, you know, from sleeping on floors, that I was an artist, that I was making sense of the world through creativity. Music and my interpretation of music, putting music together and contributing it to the community, putting it out into a space, has been a huge part of my healing, and continues to be,” he says.

“Before I could love or like myself, I loved and liked music. And before I could love and like myself, I loved communities and spaces. And then, you know, when all of that combines and I learn to practise love for myself, all of those things really blossom.”

Photo: Mario Heller

Embracing new Labels

On an early episode of Cormac’s Queerly Beloved, Cormac interviews American DJ and composer Andy Butler of dance music project Hercules & Love Affair, who says something that echoes Cormac’s own story: “My journey in life, really, has been centred around music, and that musical journey started as a young kid writing music on the piano as a way to sort of escape the chaos that was happening in my household.”

I’m not really a victim of my circumstances anymore.

These kinds of personal parallels are perhaps what makes Cormac a good host of the programme. “I notice there’s a language that comes up between people who are obsessed with music, it’s almost like music has its own lingo. I thought, that’s a great way for us to find common feelings that we’re all passionate about. And maybe we can find some commonality,” Cormac explains. “Maybe it’s a bit naive, but it’s my way of trying to use my life experience and my love of music to try and contribute a little bit.”

This philosophy also birthed another of Cormac’s creative pursuits: his record label Polari Records, founded in 2021. The label promotes artists Cormac loves playing during his sets – Jordan Nocturne, Zillas On Acid, CYRK – and has also released Cormac’s own tracks, though his focus, characteristically, is on the community.

“I have contact and access to a lot of queer artists that send me music. If I can give them a platform and encouragement to more queer artists based on the fact that we need more queer representation, then great,” he says.

No Tears In The Backroom VA. VOL1 by Polari Records. Artwork by mycheapdreams

The label also uses art from local queer artists, something Cormac prioritises as a lover of iconic album covers. “The thing that fascinated me about music growing up was also the artwork and the credits. I love great album sleeves,” he says. “The artwork so far has been from queer artists like James Unsworth, My Cheap Dreams and Shrek 666. I guess in that way it’s a little bit multidisciplinary, and I want to also give other queer artists a place to showcase their work.”

The label is set to have its own night at Panorama Bar in March, which Cormac calls “a huge honour”. The lineup will feature some of the artists on the roster, plus an unannounced special guest. “For sure we have Jordan Nocturne, LEZZER QUEST, and Josh Caffé is going to come and do their live act, which is very exciting,” he teases.

Fundamentally, what Cormac understands is that music does something unique with pain. It transfers our raw emotion, our tragic lyrics, all our angst into something joyful and valuable for others. Cormac’s Queerly Beloved does the same. “The thing I really love about podcasts is that you can kind of curate your own media. I like the idea that you can pick and choose a bit,” Cormac says. “It does still feel a wee bit punk sometimes to listen to a podcast.”

Photoshoot styling by @justacoupleoftshirts, car courtesy of Andi Bauer.