Cover Story: Cormac
Cover Story: CormacJune 20, 2022
For June’s Pride Cover Story, we meet Cormac, one of the queer underground’s most important artists.
Cormac McAdam was born in Banbridge, Ireland, 20 miles outside of Belfast, during the violent 30-year conflict known as The Troubles, which would last until 1998, a year after he moved to London at age 20.
He was a young gay man escaping conservatism, homophobia and war in his homeland, and in London he soon found the safe and freeing space and sound of dance clubs. When he began DJing (as Cormac), that role not only became a way to deepen his connection to his community, but also a powerful place to unlearn the harmful views laid on him from a young age and find confidence in himself.
It’s now been 20 years since he started DJing, and he’s made a name for himself in the queer and underground dance music communities in London, Berlin and beyond. He’s a regular at Panorama Bar during their infamous, endless Sunday parties, and he holds the storied club close to his heart. It’s the place where his music has not only supported young queer ravers in the way that was so essential to him as a young man, but also allowed him to grow and thrive as a DJ.
“Playing there has been a great privilege because it has given me license to fully play and expand my record collection in a way I didn’t in other clubs. It’s essentially a queer club that comes from queer people. It’s allowed me to relax and grow and that’s been a massive contribution to me really finding out what I’m able to do as a DJ,” the “Heartcore” producer explains.
He’s calling from Berlin, where he’s sitting on a couch with his French bulldog peacefully snoring next to him. In a lengthy, free-flowing conversation, we discuss his latest music inspired by the early queer dance music of Hi-NRG, his Polari Records label, what pride means to him, and much more.
Cormac has been channeling the ecstatic sound of Hi-NRG lately, showcased on his two most recent tracks, “Sparks” and “Heartcore,” both released on his Polari imprint. He points to Patrick Cowley—who worked with queer disco legends like Sylvester and made porn soundtracks—and Bobby O as the go-to guys behind Hi-NRG, which took hold in the wake of the disco backlash. It is a bit like a higher BPM, more energetic, more synthesized disco. “Bobby O has been a big influence on the music I make at the moment. He was behind Divine and a lot of stuff on Megatone Records, stuff that was emulating more synthesized disco sounds and so, in a way, I’ve always had a feeling for that music.”
Cormac has always been drawn to the queer, jubilant sounds of disco and Italo disco, so it was a matter of time before he went “full disco” and nodded to Hi-NRG in his productions and DJ sets. “It’s been a journey of really exploring music and playing lots of different styles, and then I ended up on something that seemed way too simple for me at the start. [Before] I was like, ‘I have to dive in, I have to explore this, I have to get into more techno.’ And I’ve kind of gone around the circle and ended up in something that just felt very natural. It seems to be a good fit for me. I feel authentic there at the moment.”
He also sees the energetic rhythms of Hi-NRG as a perfect backdrop to tell queer love stories, just as it soundtracked many a dance floor romance in its heyday.
“A lot of our love stories happened in clubs, on dance floors, in these exclusively gay spaces, because that’s where we felt safe. Maybe it wasn’t safe to approach someone on the street or the supermarket, unless you lived in San Francisco or something. So a lot of these very powerful human experiences have happened for gay people in clubs. You can have so many different emotions in one night, and I think Hi-NRG music often captures that and doesn’t get too deep about it, strips it down to quite punchy lyrics,” he explains.
This framework and context allowed Cormac to use his voice on “Sparks” without feeling too personal about it, a first for him. “Sometimes when you make music and write lyrics, if they’re very personal, it’s kind of harrowing to release or perform that music; it can be quite intense. It can be a bit like standing up naked and reading your diary. I’m able to be a bit more universal when I write in the Hi-NRG feeling because I’m writing my experience, but also the experiences of my community and clubs throughout the years. So it seems easier for me,” he reflects.
“Sparks” is about celebrating the “exciting moments in dark rooms” of clubs, something anyone whose found love or lust on the dance floor can relate to. The celebratory part is crucial, because, as Cormac explains, it’s a reclaiming of spaces and experiences often looked down upon. “It’s very easy within heteronormative society to maybe feel kind of like that’s less of an experience or a shameful experience, and as a recovering Catholic, I’d like to challenge that. It is about magic moments in dark rooms, and it can also be a loving and valid experience, even if just for that moment.”
As for “Heartcore,” his first stab at Hi-NRG, released in September 2021, things are a bit more personal for him, yet listeners still connected deeply with the rollercoaster of love he portrayed in such a fun and upbeat way. “‘Heartcore’ was maybe a little bit more personal. The lyrics are about the spectrum of feelings you can have with someone, and the intensity and the temporariness of things as well. I guess I didn’t think so much about ‘Heartcore,’ it just came out. Sometimes I don’t think so much about what comes out. But people seem to connect to those lyrics, they liked them.”
“Heartcore” opens with passionate requests to one’s lover: “Kiss me like you love me. / Fuck me like you hate me. / Hold me when I cry. / Tonight we might die.” “This Heartcore is what we’re made for / This heartcore for when we fly,” he echoes during the chorus while sparkling pew pew synths fly out like lasers into the crowd. A perfect dance floor heater to get things hot.
In March 2021, Cormac made his BBC Radio1 Essential Mix debut, in which he debuted “Heartcore” and other queer dance sounds from the present and past. “I wanted to create a snapshot of what I’m doing DJ-wise, which is a nod to the past, but also looking forward. It’s kind of an acknowledgment of the history of music that has brought me as a queer man to this time and space. But also, looking forward to the future.”
“There’s quite a few tracks in it that are from the Hi-NRG era, there’s some Patrick Cowley and some synthy disco stuff,” he continues. “There’s even some acapella of RuPaul’s ‘Supermodel,’ which is ’90s; these little landmarks of queer dance floor history. And there’s quite a few tracks on it from my label — stuff that inspires me at the moment that I think are perhaps classics of the future. And I wanted to create a snapshot of what I do for people who maybe haven’t heard what I do. It’s also the summary of 20 years of collecting records,” Cormac explains.
“Heartcore” was also his first track he dropped on his own Polari Records, which he launched in 2020 as a home to celebrate queer dance music and art. This year there are monthly releases on Polari, with upcoming ones from Neurotiker, Emmet Read, Boys Shorts, and his frequent collaborator Volta, who’ll be dropping an EP. Queer, London-based producer Kiwi recently released their second EP on Polari, Hedonistic Tendencies, with cute and sexy cover art designed by Spanish illustrator Sebastián Delgado. The eye-catching label art also plays an important role in showcasing queer visual artists.
“Records and vinyl covers have provided great fantasy and escapism for me as a kid so it’s been important for me to have beautiful artwork on Polari. My geekiness lies in audio and music so I wanted to collaborate with visual artists. I’ve worked with many queer visual artists, such as my Scottish friend, performance artist Shrek 666, James Unsworth who is based in the UK and is creating body positive images of queer men, which I think is much needed, Sebastián Delgado in Madrid makes very romantic, beautiful, queer art; and MyCheapDreams in Los Angeles has created some collage pop art .”
Cormac, who’s an Aquarius, the sign of the water bearer, finds movement, like biking or walking around a city, creatively inspiring, and a way that lyrics tend to come to him. Because of this, he is writing lyrics and ideas down regularly, but his tendency to feel personal about them leaves many tucked away in his notebook and away from our ears.
Collaboration has been a way for him to escape the impasse of overthinking. His friend Volta, a Berlin-based producer, is in the studio much more than Cormac, and their brotherly relationship has helped enhance his productivity by helping him take things less personally. Typically when they work together, they’re producing in Ableton, and then they replace MIDI synth sounds with hardware for a “more authentic arpeggiator sound, which has a bit more Italo energy.”
While he likes to work with analog synths to bring out the funk, to him, it’s really about finding the right method to convey moods and feelings. “When I started to make music, Miss Kittin told me, ‘You know, good music’s in there. [Points to heart.] It’s not in the studio. If it’s in there, then you only need a few things to get most of it out. And then you can embellish on it, but having all the equipment in the world won’t give you a good idea.'”
Cormac has been releasing music for over a decade now; his first was the Merlin EP on Memo in 2010. There’s been more tracks sprinkled over the years, including “Perfect Time” in 2019 on Correspondent, when he feels like he was finally getting into his groove with his sound. It’s also took him some time to settle into his confidence as a DJ, which was directly intertwined with coming home to himself as a gay man raised in an oppressive environment.
“The definition of masculinity [in Ireland] was so narrow. Growing up there as a gay kid was like being a flamingo in a yard of chickens. It was too tricky, so I was planning my escape for a long time,” he reflects. He left home at 18, and left his homeland of Ireland by 20 for London, where he heard you could walk in the streets naked. The rumor wasn’t true, but he did find community there, as well as himself.
“Music and dance floors have been important to me since I first entered a club. I feel deeply connected to clubs. Clubs are a family for me and a church of sorts. At first, I studied and explored dance, but ‘studying’ dance kinda killed my passion. It’s a brave, courageous move to follow your dreams because there’s a risk that you might end up feeling differently about it. That said, when I started to mix music something clicked and my place in the club made more sense, I was able to contribute something back to the place I love and am grateful to still do that today,” he reflects.
When I ask if he feels he’s underrated or a hidden gem, he responds that he never thinks about himself and his DJ career in that way. “I feel confident in what I’m doing, but it didn’t happen overnight. I feel like a big part of my story has been unraveling the stress of growing up gay in a pretty homophobic environment… I noticed that when I started to really have confidence in what I’m doing and I started to really enjoy it, people really started to notice it.”
This personal and career journey has been a rather cathartic one for him. “I think how you feel when you’re playing is really important. If you’re playing something really happy, but you’re really stressed about an argument you had at 6 p.m. that day, I think people feel that. It’s been a great meditation for me to get in the booth and enjoy the record that I’m playing. It’s been a great timeout and a great medicine for me.”
Dance music and nightclub culture as we know it today took root in the days of disco, which was a safe space created by and for queer people and people of color to celebrate and share joy. Cormac believes those thriving at the top of the scene should be a more diverse group that better reflects those radical beginnings.
“There’s no getting away from the history of dance music. I’m not even the most intersectional person to speak about it, it comes from queer Black culture… The industry around dance music has become a bit more heteronormative—you could say that capitalism on a bigger level is more heteronormative, so when it became more of an industry [that shift happened]. There needs to be more space at the table for queer people succeeding at dance music,” Cormac states. He sees Berghain as a space that is doing things right.
“The leading club in the world is a queer club, essentially. And it’s a time again when, thanks to clubs like that, we can look again to queer culture and recognize its influence and its input on the scene at large. It’s great that some of the leading clubs in the world are platforming and showcasing LGBTQI+ DJs, that it’s much needed. And on a bigger level, when you look at festivals and leading DJs on the planet, there’s still not enough queer people, not enough women, not enough people of color; of all the industries of the world.”
This isn’t about diversity for diversity’s sake —it’s about creating real inclusion and equality, and creating and fostering spaces that allow everyone to be free, safe, and seen.
“It’s really important that we find that balance because this is an industry, a scene, a place where people can mix and integrate and celebrate together, and that’s what always been…It’s where you meet other queer people… We make a lot of our love stories and a lot of our mistakes and a lot of our growth on dance floors in clubs, and it’s something very real and authentic for us. It’s not just a night out, it’s a cathartic process.”
It is in these open and inclusive spaces and communities that we can learn from, support and encourage each other. This is where creativity comes from; not from a solo genius, but from a group of people working together.
“The people that have been very inspiring to me from the very start have been women.” He was taught to DJ by his friend, a trans woman named Alex Silverfish. Miss Kittin is a mentor that has given him great advice over the years. “Honey Dijon is a trailblazer, she’s someone that knows her authentic sound. What she is doing is so overdue. I love seeing a black trans woman at the top of her game and at the top of the league. She’s smashing the story for generations to come. What she’s doing is quite amazing. “
He’s also inspired by queer artists throwing queer parties, like LezzerQuest, a femme duo that host Shoot Your Shot in Glasgow; and Kiwi, who runs a sex positive party in London called Crossbreed. “Often when you think of queer stuff, you think of a very male-dominated space. Crossbreed is a very gender transparent place and it’s smashing even the perimeters of what we thought of as queer, especially what gay people have thought of as queer, and that’s wonderful. I’m surrounded by a lot of very inspiring people doing great things.”
As for what’s next for Cormac, he’s back on a busy tour schedule around Europe, with monthly Sunday marathons at Berghain, including on June 26. He’s stoked to be back on the road and in the clubs, apart from missing his dog and her cute little snores. If you can’t catch him IRL, you can catch his Rinse FM show, which recently got moved to the weekends, the first Saturday of every month. Later this year, we’ll be able to hear the podcast he’s been working on.
When I ask what Pride means to him, he pauses for just a brief moment before tapping into the essence of what we’ve been discussing this whole time. “I think Pride is standing up against shame and letting go of a shame and prejudice that is not ours. I think Pride is an antidote to generations of being told non-heteronormativity is wrong.”
And even though much progress has been made since the Stonewall uprising in 1969, the work is far from done. Pride isn’t just about celebration. “I think it’s essential at the moment. There are over 40 countries where homosexuality is illegal. We live in a time that’s very privileged but there’s also a great focus on less liberties for people. For those of us who live in privilege and go out and dance in clubs and celebrate and be hedonistic, it’s not enough. It’s understandable, but we have to take action for those queer people that don’t have that same freedom and liberty.”
For those interested in way to take action for the global queer community, he mentions All Out, which is doing vital work around the world, like helping queer people escape Russia and supporting Ukrainian refuges, for example. They also have LGBTQI+ ambassadors in South America speaking to communities there to reeducate them on what it means to be queer.
“I think Pride is about remembering others and realizing there’s more work to do,” he concludes.
Ana Monroy Yglesias is a Staff Writer for GRAMMY.com and a freelance music journalist based out of Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter.