Northern Irish DJ, producer, and label head, Cormac, is an integral figure in the queer, electronic dance scene. Throughout a career spanning two decades, the artist has built an aesthetic that pays homage to the 80s and a time where gay clubs were leading the way in the development of dance music. Sounds reminiscent with the legendary venues of Paradise Garage in New York, and Hamburg’s FRONT are instantly bought back to life whenever the artist performs. In 2020 he founded Polari records, a platform for underrepresented artists to flourish. However, Cormac’s journey to this point hasn’t been without numerous challenges, and by overcoming adversity he’s found comfort from within and is dedicated to spreading joy across Europe and beyond.
Aware of his passion for creativity, from very early on, Cormac knew he was different from the status quo. Growing up near war torn Belfast, where terrorists were fighting over a united Ireland, with the theme of religion at the epicentre, the artist found himself alienated in a place he was supposed to call home, “I did try to fit in quite a lot, but the more I tried, the more I stuck out.” He explains, “I was often called things like ‘faggot’, so I just stopped trying.” Alongside such stigma, a huge cultural void was left due to the conflict, and soon Cormac looked to find himself elsewhere.
That place of discovery was London, where the initial foundations of his musical career were lain. Spurred on by a burning passion for electronic music, he threw himself into his natural environment, as the artist states, “I always worked in clubs, I worked in the bar, the coat check, the door.” But it wasn’t until he had the realisation that he could actually be on stage, instigating the mood, that things began to really develop. “I was always hungry to do something, but I didn’t know what it was.” He states, “Then I started to think, as I was buying records, maybe I should be there DJ’ing. I was always complaining about the music, and my friend said to me once, ‘If you think you could do better, then why don’t you.’ After that it all happened quite fast. It was almost like it was waiting to happen, but I hadn’t realised.”
Now sharing his time between the English capital and Berlin, Cormac has found a creative environment in which he can really flourish, as he explains: “I need to be around things that are bubbling beneath the surface, often very queer stuff, and Berlin has a lot of that.” It’s led to his most productive period in his career, and with the founding of Polari records, the artist now has a platform to support like-minded individuals. Despite dismissing the idea of running a label for years, over lockdown the passion project allowed him to stay sane and Polari’s message has transcended since. “Not everyone on the label will define as queer, but there’s certainly an element and pretty much all would be classed as allies.”
“I’d like to fast track queer artists because we’re vastly under-represented in a scene that owes so much to us. It’s crazy to think we have such an under-represented seat at the table. Particularly when dance music essentially comes from queer, black culture. It’s not a question of ownership, but more of a case of representation, and it’s a time for balance.”
Such a message goes beyond the music itself, with the label choosing to support similar individuals to create the accompanying artwork. Cormac looked across the world for those who could encapsulate Polari visually, now the likes of Shrek, James Unsworth, Sebastian Delgado, and My Cheap Dreams have created a truly unique visual identity. Undoubtedly an incredibly well thought through project, the artist even decided to name the label after a terminology of slang, used by homosexuals throughout the UK during times where it was illegal to reveal their sexuality.
Beyond the labels message, the platform has also seen it’s founder star with two enigmatic singles. Both ‘Heartcore’ and ‘Sparks’ are nostalgic, synth led dance tracks which placed the artists vocals at the forefront. It was a style that didn’t over complicate, with a minimal approach to the song writing, with the aim being to make something catchy that still managed to portray a message – the latter of which was a dedication to oral sex. “When I first started to make music, it was surprising to me that I could play a record in a studio and there’s a whole world of people who only listen to the beats.”
“I’ve always listened to lyrics and very much been led by lyrics. As a kid they were a big fantasy to me, disappearing into the lyrics of pop music. I write a lot, especially on planes when I’m between places. Sometimes the lyric is the start of the whole track.”
If anything, both singles encompassed the free-spirited atmosphere that engulfs any dance floor Cormac graces. Sonically it saw Cormac deliver an ode to the Hi-NRG electronic sub-genre that steamrolled across Europe in the early 80s and can often be heard throughout Italo dance music to this day. “I spend a lot of time listening to that kind of music. When I play at Laboratory for example in Berlin, I mostly play Hi-NRG, with a few interspersed uplifting electronic tracks.” He describes, “There’s something about that style of music that’s inherently gay, hedonistic, and freeing. These single’s pays homage to queer history and producers I really love.”
Both singles had strong identities and showed Cormac to be a highly skilled producer, so it seemed strange that ‘Heartcore’ was his first release in two years, and prior to that his last release was 2017. But as the artist pointed out to me, during the early period when he was plying his trade at some of London’s most unique events – Trash, Bugged Out! And WetYourSelf! – it wasn’t expected for a DJ to make their own music, so without the itch to make something worthwhile, he put all his event into finessing his skills at reading the dance floor. “To go into the studio and make music because you’re trying to further your career, that’s never worked for me, I have to make music because there’s something I want to say.”
“So, I kind of got a bit fed up with it and pushed it away. When I realised, I’m more of a DJ, and got settled in that, it didn’t seem to matter that I wasn’t making music. Maybe, with that freedom, came the inspiration to make some tracks. The old-school way was the DJ sat with the producer in the studio. Not every DJ is a producer, and not every producer knows the dance floor.”
Shortly after the artist founded Polari, the music industry was hit by the worldwide pandemic, forcing the night-time industry to close. It was a time of uncertainty for many DJ’s and producers, with the overbearing thought that the world might never be the same as before lurking in many heads. Soon artists turned to the internet, delivering live-streams for fans to dance away to in their living rooms. It was a time that saw Berlin’s famous streaming station, HÖR come to foray, and Cormac was one of the artists who managed to deliver an early glimmer of joy in what was a very dark time. Just one week after lockdown kicked in, the artist appeared in the now notorious bathroom-esque booth, a stream that’s now been watched almost 200 thousand times. “I had arranged a date with them, and then the pandemic hit, and the clubs closed.” He explains, “Everyone was so stressed out and bothered, I thought I really want to uplift things. I always have an intention when I play. In a way the HÖR set is a bit weird because there’s no audience, but I think the intention was more magnified.”
Cormac undoubtedly transmits an infectious aura, full of joy and a burning passion for what he does. Above all, his creative identity is merely an extension of who he is as a person, and a celebration of being queer. Growing up his sexuality made him an outcast, but now his love for who he is, and the community that comes along with it, has become one of his main strengths. “It’s a process, some days you do and some days you don’t. Being gay or queer doesn’t mean that you’re automatically comfortable in a queer environment. It took me a while.” The artist states, “I think the support I get playing in Berlin, at Panorama Bar for example, it’s not exclusively a queer venue, but it’s owned by queer people, and I feel very unapologetic playing there, it gave me a lot of confidence. At the end of the day, it’s unavoidable, a lot of the music I like is what a lot of people might describe as more gay or camp.”
Throughout my time talking to Cormac, he reiterates that he hasn’t always been this comfortable within himself and it’s very much been a journey of self-acceptance. His experience now fuels the fire of Polari records, knowing that artists might often be fighting not only with the prejudice of others, but also demons within themselves, he’s doing what he can to support. “If you’re part of a minority, there are quite a lot of odds stacked up, where no matter how big you dream, you might be inclined to fail.” The artist proclaims, “That can manifest in many ways, through less opportunity, or more tendency to self-destruct. I’m really proud of anybody who is giving their all and thriving, well sometimes we’re thriving other times we’re just surviving.”
For many, Cormac’s journey is a relatable one. As he quite rightly points out, for creatives who reside from minority backgrounds, the journey to the top often takes far longer, and adversity is often the only ingredient to get there beyond talent itself. After many years of plying his trade, now the artist finds himself in the best place he’s been, and his creativity is thriving. 2022 looks likely to be his most prolific year to date and we can’t wait to see what’s to come. “As a career, it hasn’t come overnight, there’s been times where I’ve had to ask myself, do I really want to do this?” Cormac states at the end of our interview, “The thing that changed for me in recent years, maybe HÖR, the label and all of that is an example of it, is that I just became more comfortable in myself, more relaxed and I just accepted that this is what I do.”