YOUSEF is a name synonymous with Liverpool’s thriving clubbing scene; a deep-rooted association which stems from his loyalty to his hometown city despite his global success as a DJ and producer. It’s almost certainly a fond reputation which wouldn’t be quite the same without his endeavours into putting on his own Circus parties, something which he considers a beloved hobby above anything else. Now, an impressive 15 years since it began, the brand is still at the heart of everything he does, from its label offshoot to the regular club nights.
“The reason Circus was born was because I started to feel musically constrained,” says Yousef Zaher, shuffling to get comfortable before continuing his story. We are sat down at The Merchant bar in the city centre: the warmth that has earned him city-wide respect is infectious as he catches up with bar staff and passes us a drink, before we then pick up on the beginnings of Circus which is fast approaching such a pivotal milestone. “I had my residency at Cream, but I was more interested in underground house and techno. We came up with the solution that I would do my own night and take over the whole club [Nation] – I was really excited about it all.”
Not long after that, and with just a matter of weeks until the scheduled party, Cream sadly closed and its weekly parties stopped for good. “I thought ‘Shit, what am I going to do here? I really want to carry on playing in Liverpool.’ So, my business partner, or just my mate then, Richard McGinnis, said ‘You’ve got a good concept and a good following in Liverpool, so why not do it somewhere else?’”
With McGinnis’ promotional background and Yousef’s drive to create a platform for him to share the music he believed in with a fresh audience, the pair managed to pull together a party which took place at Barfly (formerly the Masque and now the Arts Club) in September 2002. It was just Yousef and MYNC Project billed to play, and despite expectations of a measly couple of hundred coming through the door, more than 500 made it in. “It was a great party,” recalls Yousef. “It was really raw and honest. After that we were like: ‘OK, let’s go.’”
And go they did. Within a year they had hosted an Essential Mix for Radio 1 and picked up the accolade of BBC’s Club Of The Year, and Circus’ first ever birthday party was a complete sell out. “I managed to book my hero, Derrick Carter,” says Yousef. “I’d been touring for five or six years by that point, so I was able to bring in favours. I got Derrick on board, and we had Jon Carter and Lottie – who were huge names at the time – and it was in a small club. I remember thinking, ‘We’ve started something here.’”
While Circus went from strength to strength, Yousef’s personal achievements as a DJ were blossoming, with more gigs being secured and more productions being snapped up by labels. “I had to make more egotistical sacrifices,” he recalls. “I was doing my thing as an artist, but then I had to get on the phone and start booking my mates and negotiating with their agents. Richard [McGinnis] did that too, but it grated on me a little bit to be honest, because I’m naturally creative.” Despite his initial lack of interest in the office-based work, Yousef still spends a good chunk of his time doing it to this day. “I’m not one to ever sit on my arse,” he adds.
His drive and ambition is no doubt something which has led to him to mastering the balance between DJ life and personal life, something which many an artist can struggle to grasp when life moves at 100mph on the road. You only have to take a look on Yousef’s Instagram to see how prized he considers quality time with family and friends to be. Between videos of gigs across the globe and artwork from new releases on the Circus Recordings label, proudly sit captured moments of home comforts along with photographs of his three-year-old son.
“I like the balance of sleeping in my own bed, seeing my son grow up, spending time with my wife,” explains Yousef with a smile, “but I have the opportunity to go out and play at some amazing gigs over the weekend.”
For most top-tier DJs, the crossroads faced at a certain age can be testing. Do you carry on with 20 gigs a month and the highs that come with it? Do you start to think about meeting someone and starting a family? “I think the whole psychological analysis of DJing and everything that goes with it, it could be its own study,” says Yousef. “I’m reading a lot about DJs having depression and anxiety. I understand that: I’ve been on the brink of anxiety in the past. If you’re getting off your head two or three times a week, you’re drinking a lot, and you’re with acquaintances rather than family and friends, that’s not good for anybody. The DJing is the easy part, it’s the fun part; it’s the other bits that go with it… they’re your choices.”
If you haven’t already noticed, despite the whirlwind lifestyle, staying grounded is something Yousef has always been pretty good at. “I’ve got the same map on my wall that my first girlfriend got me as a present when I’d just started DJing,” he tells us. “It came with these black dots and she said, ‘Go on then, start filling it up.’ Until I was 20 I’d never been on a plane, but it’s covered now. Without getting heavy, for someone who grew up with a pretty difficult upbringing – with unbelievable turbulence – to have that on my wall as a kind of benchmark for what I’ve achieved, that’s welcomed.”
With this wealth of experience as a travelling DJ and with one foot always in the door of his hometown, Yousef has seen Liverpool’s clubbing landscape shift and change over the years, but one thing stays the same according to him. “Pound for pound there are not many cities which have as many quality nights as Liverpool, it’s amazing. If you look at what is a relatively small place, the amount of major name artists who are coming here week in, week out is truly impressive.”
Back when Circus began, there were just a few underground house and techno nights in the city, with only the likes of Bugged Out and Voodoo boasting a similar music policy. Now, it’s one of the most common genres pushed by promoters – but Yousef is quick to explain that’s not always a negative thing. “The benefit of underground being the mainstream sound in Liverpool is that a lot of the young, new ravers are going straight into it; I mean, they’re into the big Italian techno names,” he explains. “They’re skipping the typical beginners dance music.”
But why is Liverpool so good at putting on and hosting parties? “It’s a good question,” replies Yousef. “I think, obviously, the energy and the necessity to party is really high in Liverpool because we’re not cynical as a city and we’re open-minded musically. I wouldn’t even say we’re cliquey as a city: we go to each other’s nights and all that. I think it’s always been like that, there’s a good community overall.”
As with all long-standing projects, and with more and more new club nights starting up, the questions surrounding Circus’ future is something Yousef considers regularly. “It is literally a hobby, so does that mean I finish it or I carry it on?” he ponders. “I do think it’s etched in the history of Liverpool now, it’s as important as any club night. I mean, obviously Cream is head and shoulders above the rest historically speaking, but Circus has definitely done its thing. Do I want to stop? I think about it every day, but then every other day I want to carry on.”
That’s Yousef for you; a man with a level head but also a man so emotionally invested in his projects. “Everyone thought I was going to stop at five years, because I was, but when the fifth birthday came it was so good and I couldn’t stop it. I think it would be nice to pass Circus over to someone else to carry it on at some point but then again, so many DJs these days are playing into their 40s, 50s and beyond. Why would you want to stop doing something you enjoy? I’m not quite there yet.”
Yousef presents Circus’ 15th Birthday on 30th September at Camp and Furnace, headlined by Carl Cox. Life Is Too Short is out now via Knee Deep In Sound.