Ask the average snooker player about what music they’re currently listening to and you probably wouldn’t expect underground electronic artists such as Holly Herndon, Tim Hecker and Oneohtrixpoint Never to trip off their lips.
In the popular imagination the game is more commonly associated with jaunty singalongs from the 1980s by Chas and Dave and Captain Sensible.
So a few eyebrows were raised when it was revealed in April that six times snooker world champion Steve Davis was swapping the green baize for a pair of DJ mixing decks when he formally retired from the game.
To even greater surprise, he’ll be DJ-ing at a festival – Tramlines, in Sheffield, scene of many of his greatest snooker triumphs – next month.
But talk to Davis about his love of music and record collecting and it’s quickly apparent it runs deep – back, in fact, to his school days the 1970s “and ever since I had a Saturday job with enough money in my pocket to buy and album”.
Initially progressive rock bands caught his ear, then in the 80s and 90s his tastes progressed to jazz-rock, jazz-funk and soul. He began broadcasting on his local radio station, Phoenix FM, 20 years ago and for the past ten he’s focused “new music made by forward-thinking people including electronic artists”. He’ll be playing some of his latest favourites at Tramlines.
The 58-year-old doesn’t see his conversion to a festival DJ as a new career opening. “I’m only doing it for the fun of it, as a hobby,” he says self-effacingly. “I’m not taking it up, so to speak, it’s just happened as result of doing the radio show.
“We got invited to do a few live things and it’s currently quite fun to do it. It’ll probably stop as soon as it started.”
The live set promises to be an extension of the “very strange music style radio show, a bit similar perhaps to what Stuart Maconie does on 6 Music” that Davis presents with the musician Kavus Torabi. That show led to an invitation to play at Bloc Weekend at Butlins Minehead in March.
“Bloc Weekend has affiliations with techno but it’s not just techno, it’s all types of electronic music, and they picked up on the fact that the least likely person to be involved in that type of thing would be somebody from the snooker world,” Davis says. “It got quite a lot of publicity so on the strength of that we went down there and did it and had a great laugh and people said nice things about our DJ-ing.”
Further invites followed, including Tramlines. Davis is particularly looking forward to returning to Sheffield, describing the city as his “second home”. He remembers walking past Warp Records’ former shop on Division Street on vinyl-buying trips. “I wasn’t into that type of music at the time but I wish I had been,” he says. “Warp Records is now a Costa Coffee shop but it would have been nice to have know what was going on there back in the day. Unfortunately I didn’t but retrospectively I’ve caught up to running speed with all the best bit of product from all of the types of labels.
“Obviously the [electronic dance music] scene was massive in Sheffield back in the day but I would have been oblivious to that when I was playing snooker, I don’t know where it was played and what was going on but it’s certainly interesting to think you can be in the same area as a scene you start to like later on and you were oblivious to what was going on.”
Davis says he was turned on to electronic music by Frank Zappa. “He was making electronic music back in the 80s when the first synthesisers were commercially available and he was the first person I think to programme a synclavier and get notes out of it for making music for the masses,” he says.
Musician guests on his radio show further broadened his tastes. “One bunch of people played quite a lot of electronic stuff and I thought there’s some really clever music there, it’s not just boof-boof-boof stuff, there’s some modern-thinking composers making music on laptops and synthesisers that perhaps in the 70s would’ve been in bands.”
As for his retirement from snooker, a sport he once dominated, winning six world championships at the Crucible between 1981 and 1989, it seems it had been on the cards for a while. “It wasn’t difficult in the end because I think it had more or less runs its course in how effective I was in the game,” he says. “My father [Bill] passing away was the end of an era in that we were a team. My final reason for playing was because it kept my father interested a bit and that went so I thought, ‘Well, I’m not really worried so much’, I lost the driving force, the desire to compete, I was only doing it by habit, really, it was tying up a lot of time that I had to commit to the events regardless of whether I was going to win or not and I thought perhaps it’s the right time now. It was probably long overdue, to be quite honest, but on the odd occasion even though I was towards the end of my career I still had a couple of good wins so I wouldn’t have had those otherwise.
“You could retire at the top, which Stephen Hendry did, but perhaps Stephen Hendry would have had a couple more good wins in him, you never know what they might have been.”
Giving up competing has allowed Davis more time to help inspire a new generation of snooker players via his work with the Paul Hunter Foundation, the charity set up in memory of the Leeds-born three times Masters champion who tragically died of stomach cancer aged 27. “The Paul Hunter Foundation has been fantastic for the kids that get involved, and the fact that it’s continued the memory of Paul Hunter longer and better than perhaps even it would have been otherwise,” he says. “That’s down to Paul’s wishes to use the money that was raised to try to find a cure for him. Finally when it was found that there wasn’t a cure and it looked like the writing was on the wall Paul’s wishes were that that money be used to give kids free snooker and getting them off the streets and it’s proven to be absolutely fantastic as an idea that Paul thought of and it’s done so much good for kids that perhaps have had no direction and no hobby so from that perpective it’s been a very rewarding thing.
“We bump into a lot of kids who’ve never been aware of snooker because it’s not what their background is or their parents don’t watch it so they haven’t really tapped into it. Bringing the snooker tables into that environment and inviting kids along has been only good because it’s perhaps made a few new fans of snooker.”
Steve Davis will be DJ-ing at the Hybrid Vigour event in Millennium Gallery during Tramlines Festival on July 23. For full festival details visit http://www.tramlines.org.uk/