We’re standing in a room with beige walls on Rodney Street, at the summit of a terraced office block bearing likeness to a tertiary branch of a David Brent-managed accountancy firm. Downstairs is a reception area resembling that of a dentist’s waiting room; upstairs is the de facto headquarters of the Circus/Chibuku duopoly, the room in which dance music mogul YOUSEF helms his Liverpool-via-the-world house music empire. You’d be forgiven, however, for thinking you’ve been summoned to an ironic Alan Sugar boardroom meeting to shoot the shit about obscure Theo Parrish B-sides and exchange patchy Ibiza-related anecdotes.
A large corporate desk occupies most of the room, at which Circus’ promotional workforce sit, talk shop and jokingly compare a senior member of the Circus administration to Darth Vader. Amid the laughter, a mild-mannered Yousef slouches in his swivel chair following an ebullient handshake and points towards one of the few posters affixed to the wall adjacent with gusto.
“That’s our slogan,” says Yousef Zaher in his softly-spoken drawl, before reading aloud “entertainment in enlightenment – that’s our aim”. The slogan to which he’s referring to is of course that of his beloved Circus club night – of which he is the co-founder – which, at the time of writing, is on the eve of celebrating its 11th year at the apex of Liverpool’s underground house music scene. It’s an aspirational mantra, which is symptomatic of a man whose patriarchal role as self-professed house music gatekeeper – coupled with a distinguished career in music production and DJing spanning over 15 years – straddles generational and geographical barriers.
A merchant of the in vogue 4×4 zeitgeist, Yousef is a bone fide vestige of the sub-cultural rave phenomenon, circa the late 1990s – a period we avoid discussing for want of treading a tired and well-worn path. Growing up in Liverpool, an early dalliance with the city’s flagship house and techno monolith Cream led to an inextricable relationship with the genres, positioning him as the natural successor to the brand upon its eventual demise. Thus, from the ashes of Cream arose Circus: a next-gen party hub in thrall to the tropes of the past, but with a yearning obsession for forward propulsion. Taking cues from the elitist circle of celebrity status exponents of the genres whom he seeks to emulate (Sven Vath, Carl Cox, Damian Lazarus et al.), the accolades he’s garnered throughout his career read like the ballpark bucket list of an aspirational bedroom DJ. Equally gifted as beat matcher as he is beat maker, the myriad of imprints to which he affiliates his name is reflective of his reputation as a savvy tastemaker of styles right across the board. Releases overseen by Sven Vath’s Cocoon and Carl Cox’s Intec being the nucleus of an oeuvre that consists of two self-penned artist albums (2009’s A Collection Of Scars And Situations and 2012’s A Product Of Your Environment) and a helluvah lot of hip-swaying singles and remixes too abundant to mention. In short, attempting to surmise Yousef’s career in just a few short paragraphs is essentially a futile exercise in smoke blowing.
Much to the satisfaction of his loyal devotees, in just eight days’ time (“I’ve got to go back [to Ibiza] to play the closing party with Coxy [Carl Cox] first”), Yousef will be flexing aforesaid taste-making muscles in the familiar beer-swilling surroundings of the East Village Arts Club. For now, though, he can only ruminate on his fortunes in sunnier climes, a place over 900 miles away from the gravity of his pallid Circus batcave.
“At the moment I’d say, ‘I wouldn’t do a Circus event in Ibiza ever again’,” he says in trepidation, with a wry smile and eyes full of regret. We’re now sitting in an empty meeting room, reflecting on Circus’ inaugural residency at Ibizian super-club, Booom. “It was too stressful, so in the end I just said to myself, ‘I don’t need this anymore’.” Now comfortably in his thirties, this is a man who’s contributed enormously to the overall quality and visibility of the club scene in Liverpool, a scene of which he is still the most visible proponent. He also curates a secondary Circus event at London venue Egg, which is now firmly established as a staple in an already saturated scene. Ibiza, it seems, was the next obvious avenue. Did an unstoppable force meet an immovable object? As Yousef tells it: “Internally, the complications for us were too much for us to bear. We had some great gigs there but, ultimately, I was dealt a very awkward hand of cards and it started to consume my life.” Surprisingly, it’s with no hint of flippancy or bitterness that Yousef admits the fallacies of Circus at Booom and, moreover, his infatuation with the White Isle remains intact, emboldened by the dewy-eyed hedonism of his halcyon days as resident selector at Carl Cox’s Revolution parties at Space – a residency slot he eulogises with a heavy heart. “I left my residency at Space to go and do my own thing with Circus,” he says, convincingly. “I learnt a lot and I’ve managed to implement some of those ideas in Liverpool, but I can honestly say I cannot wait to be back behind those decks.”
Having played in countries poles apart, in places as far afield as Brazil, North Korea and Syria, it’s as a selector where Yousef’s true passions lie. Aside from his Circus Recordings imprint – to which burgeoning artists such as David Glass (“he’s a regular at Circus”), Acid Mondays (“he’s my best mate”) and Heratio (“ a fresh and exciting artist”) are currently signed – it’s playing out records to the masses after just 90 minutes’ sleep from the night before that Yousef declares to be most gratifying. “It’s what I’ve been doing best for the past twenty years: I DJ. Circus is just a hobby.”
Fast-forward eight days, and we’re stood on the vacant dancefloor in the hollow theatre of the East Village Arts Club, discussing the dietary benefits of egg on toast. Still pumped from Ibiza, Yousef describes the closing party at Space as “probably the best gig I’ve ever done”, before nonchalantly adding, “I played through till nine at night [the next day] at an after party; egg on toast and 90 minutes’ kip was the formula that kept me awake.”
Back on terra firma: in four hours, the doors will open and the first record will be spun, resulting in a glorious pandemonium only the influx of around 900 wanton house music aficionados can permit. Essentially, this is the calm before the storm and Yousef is easily the most relaxed man in camp Circus. His stoic, cool-as-a-cucumber presence is enough to abate any pre-show jitters as the crux of his planning is executed with laser-sight precision. His production team are in the process of erecting a 10ft by 10ft banner bearing the Circus logo superimposed atop an abstract image of a hand-sketched face. “The image was designed by a Liverpool artist called Doc,” he tells us, whilst suggesting, beneath bated breath, that the banner should be positioned slightly to the left of where it is currently draped. His innate perfectionism is the cornerstone for the rest of his party. Now tonight’s special guest vocalist the Angel (“a regular at Circus for years, she’s a young mum from Runcorn”) has arrived, soundcheck and rehearsal can begin. Things have quickly escalated since the Angel lent her sultry vocals to Warner Brothers-signed incendiary single Float Away, a demo track initially recorded on her iPhone, subsequently re-rendered by Yousef and soon to be thundering around clubs across the globe. It’s the Angel’s first performance, ever, so, basically, the gist is this: they rehearse the same track (Float Away) repeatedly until Yousef is satisfied. “It reminds me of when I played my first gig at Cream,” he says, revelling in nostalgia. “I was the ultimate rave monkey at Cream; so today I told her, ‘tonight, you’re the Angel, so it’s strictly business from here on in’.”
The next time we see the Angel, it’s 2am, and the theatre is a cathartic soup of bodies; the air thick with tightly wound percussive grooves and suspenseful vocal loops that cause mini-manias at every twist and turn. Her performance is well received, but Yousef is still the protagonist of the business of enlightenment, while upstairs, Scuba commands the loft. “Circus is sick man, it never disappoints,” one tan-tastic mini hulk tells Bido Lito! in the smoking area, while, back in the scrum, everybody’s going batshit crazy, with the dancefloor on which we stood nine hours’ previously warped by the weight of 900 bug-eyed fist pumpers.
This is the culmination of Yousef’s 11-year labour of love: the evolution of a club night into a dance music institution. Post-set, Bido Lito! head backstage to find a relaxed Yousef chatting to fans and Scuba posing for a picture with two midgets. No biggie then. “I can’t even remember why I do this anymore,” says Yousef, imbued with an after-hours pathos, before adding “but believe me, this is one of the best places to play in the world.” Note: Circus isn’t your average hobby.