When the name Friend Within first appeared in dance music circles just over six years ago, there was a certain amount of mystery concerning who exactly it was.
But before long, the world came to learn that it was, in fact, Liverpudlian DJ and producer Lee Mortimer, who for a few years had been making something of a name for himself in the world of fidget/electro house during the first decade of this millennium (he even collaborated with Laidback Luke, before his move to the EDM big leagues).
With the new name came a new style, a simpler brand of house music that saw him – along with the likes of Shadow Child, Gorgon City, Eats Everything and Disclosure – become hugely popular in both the underground and parts of the mainstream.
A few years on and Friend Within is seemingly here to stay releasing a full-length project earlier this year, another busy summer of shows just behind him, and some hugely popular recent releases on Toolroom Records.
So I took the opportunity to chat with Lee about how it's all going, and how he got to where he is today. Word of warning, I didn't mention the moustache (even though it is admittedly pretty glorious).
Hi Lee, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. What you up to?
That's alright, I'm just in my studio at the moment, at home just starting something new so we'll see how it goes.
What's the reaction been like from your end to your new track 'The Truth'? It's all seemed very positive...
It's been great yeah, I've been well chuffed. Getting number one on the Radio 1 Dance Chart, loads of radio support and things so I couldn't ask for more really. I'm really pleased.
I'll come back to 'The Truth' in a second, but first I saw you describe your Love Defined project from earlier in the year as you exploring your love of house music – where did that love begin and how has it developed across your lifetime?
I mean I've always been into dance music, as long as I can remember, even from really young. I was into the very early sort of rave stuff, and even the kind of commercial side of stuff that was on the radio. But I always gravitated towards it.
I guess before that my love of music sort of comes from my dad really, there was always music playing in the house and he was into funk and soul and things like that. So as long as I remember I've always been into dance music. I used to listen to Kiss FM back when it was a pirate station.
So it just kind of went on from there. It's funny, obviously, I did the track 'The Renegade' and the first time I head that [original] was on Kiss FM back in the day. That was when they didn't really say what the name the track was, and I remember trying to hunt it down. So yeah I feel like I've always been into dance music really.
And what was the thinking behind the first full-length project that you've done being a 'playlist' as opposed to a traditional album?
I guess it is sort of an album really, I was going to add more to it like a proper playlist, and I did have some other tunes that were gonna go on there. But then a few things sort of changed. Like Toolroom signed a track, and you kind of start going in another direction. Plus there were loads of tracks on there already.
It did feel a bit weird calling it a playlist to people when it is essentially an album, but then I guess with an album you're meant to listen to it from track one all the way to the end. Whereas with this it was just a bunch of club tracks so you could hit shuffle like you would on a normal playlist.
Drake did something similar with 'More Life', he called that a playlist and I think that was in response to that sort of thing...
Yeah, I'm sure artists probably hate that shuffle button on Spotify, you've made an album and people just shuffle through it.
Broadly speaking, do you think the traditional album format – beginning to end – is suited to dance music? Can it work, does it work?
I think it still can work. There are still people doing album projects, but maybe they're a bit different to what they would normally put out. Like, Yousef seems to be working on a project which is maybe outside of what he is normally known for. So maybe people are using it to explore different musical avenues for themselves. Whereas my one was just, you know, a bunch house tracks I've made. But I think there probably is still a place for it yeah.
Before Friend Within you were making a different kind of sound; the sort of electro, fidgety stuff under your own name. What was the reason behind the change in style, was it just changing tastes?
Yeah essentially, it was just the sound I was into. EDM was just coming in and things were getting like a lot noisier and louder. And I guess I probably could have gone down that route if things had gone differently. But people like Disclosure were coming along, and Eats Everything, Shadow Child was just starting out, and they were big influences.
That was around the time that Foamo was shifting the focus more towards Gorgon City as well I guess
Yeah yeah, there's been a few people who've changed name and style, and they're still great producers. But yeah things were getting a bit too noisy for me, and electro was going a bit crazy.
But the very early stuff I put out was sort of straight-up house, Chicago, jacking stuff. So I kind of went more toward that again.
Was there ever a point where you ever had to sort of manage expectations or keep yourself in check at that time, when you saw people like Disclosure becoming such a huge name worldwide?
You just go with it really, I mean, it was happening so so quick. When I started Friend Within things took off with such pace. But it was great, you know all these gigs come in and people are playing your tracks all over the place. You just want more and more of it really, but there was never any thought of like 'Oh my God it's going too quick I can't keep up', it was just exciting.
Before Friend Within I'd had a bit of success, not as big as it is now, but I guess I was kinda used to it a little bit. I was quite confident in what I was doing and it was really exciting, still is.
To still be doing it I think six years or so as Friend Within, still getting the support on radio and things like I am, big labels still interested in the music, it's great.
Obviously, in that time you've had quite a few tracks that became fairly huge, but probably none more so than 'The Renegade'. That's one of those if you think about alongside stuff like 'Bax' by Mosca or 'Au Seve' by Julio Bashmore as a song that was kind of everywhere for a while. What's your relationship like with that song now?
I still love it! I still play it every now and again, and it just gets such a good reaction and, you know, there will still be people who come to see me play that song.
If I'm playing somewhere for the first time maybe, like different country I've not been to even just a part of the UK I've not played for a while, I might think there are people who maybe never heard me play it so I might be more likely to do it then.
But I still love the track, I'm fully aware of what it's done for me and my career. And I certainly don't dislike it, or never want to hear it again, or don't like speaking about it because I realise about how big it was for me and how much people still like it.
It's nice to hear that because you hear about some people who kind of fall out of love with a certain track that became popular. But generally, I see it the way you do, that it's only a small part of what you've done but it was a hugely popular part nonetheless.
I guess also I still make that kind of music in a way, and maybe some people have had success with a track that's not exactly what they want to play, or what they're really known for. Going back to your example of 'Bax' by Mosca, I can't imagine he plays it because it doesn't really fit in with the sort of stuff he does now.
Yeah even when I saw him around that sort of time, maybe a few months after it got huge, he wasn't playing it. But like you say it kind of makes sense in that instance.
You said there about the stuff you make still being similar, but listening to your latest singles 'The Truth' and 'Lonely', there's definitely a difference in tone and sound from stuff like 'The Square' and 'The Label' from a few years ago. Is this a reflection of the way you see you sound going?
Yeah, I guess it is a bit different, comparing it to those tracks you mentioned. But really I just kind of wake up, and I might have heard another track somewhere and think 'I like that I might go down that avenue'. I guess they're different from the Love Defined playlist as well.
But I wouldn't say that that that's definitely the way I'm going now - the thing I'm making today might sound totally different. But then maybe the stuff that I actually release in the end might be more like 'The Truth' or 'Lonely'. Sometimes I feel like I have to make a load of other tracks to get one that sounds the most like Friend Within, so I guess there is a sound associated to it.
And if you felt compelled to push your music in a new direction – like with the move from Lee Mortimer to Friend Within – would you ever consider a name change or a different alias?
I think I would consider another name. I probably wouldn't do the whole not announcing who it was, because that was a big part of it, the mystery behind the Friend Within name to start with.
Especially when I was sending tracks to the labels they'd be like 'well this is clearly somebody who kind of knows what they're doing, it doesn't sound like someone who's just got a copy of Ableton and made some tracks. You're a bit more accomplished than that'.
If made a different style I would consider a different name, but I wouldn't keep a secret of who I was. It would hopefully all feed back in for me as an artist still, and I think Friend Within would still be the main focus. You never know; if something else took off massively I'd just go with it.
What are your plans for the rest of the year and beyond that, with making new music releasing new music?
Obviously, I've had a couple of things on Tool Room, so focusing on that side of things. I've got a few remixes coming – I think a couple of them have just surfaced, and there's a few more to come out.
There's not really another big project, you know like the playlist or anything at the moment. So yeah, just continuing to sit in my studio trying to try to make tracks. Doing my day to day thing really.
How does it differ with remixes and creating a Friend Within track from scratch? Obviously, it's gonna sound like you because it's you producing it, but do you try to put your mark on your remix in any way, make you sound like you?
Yeah, I don't really worry about that too much, I just think if I'm I'm doing the remix it's gonna sound like me. But I do really enjoy doing remixes, you've got so many amazing parts to work from. And I don't tend to remix too many dance tracks because I find I don't enjoy doing them as much.
I'm trying to think of examples I've done in the past… but when you've got a really good part, or a really good vocal and I find it kind of flows quite easily, what I want to do. So I'll go through all the parts and hear something and I'll think 'right yeah that's what I'm using' and then you know, it just sounds like Friend Within in the end.
I'm fairly ignorant to the process – is it a case you reaching out to people when you've heard a track you like, or does it normally happen the other way round?
They'll usually get in contact, yeah, and I'll see if I want to do it or not really. There's not much that I've heard and I thought 'I don't know what I could do with that' – there's usually something in there. And even when you get all the parts you might find something that isn't really that prominent in the main track, but then I might really like it.
I think I did one recently where there was just like, an amazing bassline, which was a tiny part of the original track but I think I built my whole remix around it. You'd never really have heard that bit in the original. Just a little bit of inspiration can come really quickly.
Does stuff like that ever lead to you then creating something entirely from scratch – say if you hear a sound you like and it gives you inspiration for your own stuff?
I don't think that's happened yet actually. Because they're usually not house tracks, to begin with, they're usually [songs] with quite a prominent vocal or something. I've never actually worked with a vocalist, it's always been sampled vocals that I've chopped. So no, I don't think it's ever happened in that way.
Is there anyone you'd particularly like to collaborate with at the moment?
I've not really thought about that you know. Obviously, there are producers I really appreciate but I've not really thought to reach out and say 'let's do a track together'. It's not always that easy collaborating with people, with so many schedules in the way and then just sort of getting together. I've tried a few times like sending bits back and forth and doing it that way.
In terms of people you're into, is there anyone we might not have heard that we should check out?
I'm really bad at these kinds of questions… umm… no is the short answer. [laughs] Not that there aren't great artists out there…
I probably focus on my own music too much and don't really listen out for other stuff. But sometimes I think I'm just going down my own path then, just doing what it is that I want to do.
This is quite an unusual comparison to make, but apparently, David Lynch doesn't watch films or TV despite being an incredible director because he just wants to focus on making the things he wants to do.
His stuff's absolutely mental though isn't it, my stuff's not that crazy [laughs].
Yeah, fair point [laughs].
Finally, I know you're a big Liverpool fan – what do you make of their chances this year?
If you'd asked me about two weeks ago I would have said we're good, but we've not won in a few games now. And the Napoli game was probably the worst I've seen us play in ages. But the squad is great, and I feel like we could win a trophy this year. I'd love to say the Premier League but… we'll see. Ask me again in another week and see how I feel.