Mary Anne Hobbs interview: Carrier of John Peel's music legacy

The 6 Music DJ and judge at the iSessions battle of the bands explains how her former Radio 1 mentor influences her today

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The Independent Online

Mary Anne Hobbs arrives at the Soup Kitchen in Manchester's Northern Quarter clutching a white Piccadilly Records bag. She carefully takes out a Nick Drake compilation album - Family Tree - which she has bought for a colleague's birthday, as she knows he will love it. It's a simple gesture that illustrates her enduring passion.

It is this passion and the desire to share music with others that has kept the BBC Radio 6 Music DJ at the top of her profession for nearly two decades. When we meet she is preparing for the digital station's second festival, in Newcastle and Gateshead, this weekend. Hosting last year's inaugural festival in Manchester was "very special", she says, as the artists and presenters connected with so many people.

The digital-first nature of Radio 6 and the Twitter dialogue she has with her two million listeners, means she feels she can truly engage with her audience. "It feels very much that they are part of what we do. They are a crucial component and they almost feel like family - I don't have my own family, but they've very much taken on that role in my life," she says.

Judging the finals of the iSessions student music awards, as she will next Thursday, fulfills a similar need to discover and share emerging musical talent.

After leaving Radio 1 five years ago, Hobbs worked for a year mentoring 700 students at Sheffield university. During that year she remembers attending her unof-ficial mentor John Peel's funeral and standing inside the cathedral "making a silent promise to myself " that she would share some of his encouragement and wisdom.

The university role gave her an opportunity to keep to the promise. The students produced 75 original radio programmes each week and worked on a digital TV channel. "It was really exciting, like being stripped to the bone every day by a school of starving piranhas," is how she remembers it.

Hobbs' career path did not include university; leaving school at 15, she worked in an egg-packing factory for £39 a week. "I can still remember the horrendous stench of that place," she says.

Three years later, still living in the Lancashire village of Garstang, she spotted an opportunity to escape. She saw a band - Heretic - advertised on a Liberal Club chalk board and "seized the opportunity after seeing the chink of light through a doorway".

After the gig, she persuaded the band to let her work with them, first by making a stage backdrop, out of blackout curtains.

It was difficult to obtain decent music living in the village as a teenager, she recalls. "It had a toy shop called Meres and if you wanted to buy a record, you had to lay down your money on the counter and then wait for about nine weeks for it to arrive," she said.

In any event, she lived in a house where music was banned and her father had smashed her punk singles. Unbeknown to him, she kept a tiny transistor radio "the size of a can of sardines" on which she would, under her bedcovers, listen to John Peel's show. It was "a gateway to an alternative universe for me," she says.

An avid reader of Sounds magazine, she thought she would impress the editor by working for a band. "It never occurred to me to do anything simple such as sending in a review," she laughs.

Taking a train to London, she found the band living on a singledecker bus in Hayes. "They all had rubbish day jobs - a couple worked as gravediggers, one stuck stickers on dog dishes in a factory and one repackaged Maltesers," she says. "We'd be paid for gigs in drinks, so there would be five of us with straws and half-a-lager."

"When you are of no-fixed-abode you really feel the separation between yourself and the rest of society," she says. "I remember looking into buildings, whether offices or houses, and thinking I'd never be part of that world again."

But then one morning, a Heretic fan called Fizz, who lived nearby and occasionally let the band have a bath or a hot meal at his house, knocked on the bus and handed over an envelope emblazoned with a Sounds logo and addressed to Hobbs. It was the job offer that she'd been hoping for.

Two years later, Hobbs moved to Los Angeles with Sounds and lived in a shed in someone's back garden in West Hollywood. She had just $600 in her pocket when she arrived. "I had sold everything I owned - which wasn't very much - to get to America."

Back then, Metallica and Mötley Crüe were emerging on the LA scene."It was the most exciting time for rock music," she says.

"The thrash scene was just emerging in the Bay area with Megadeth, Guns N' Roses and Jane's Addiction. It was a brilliant time."

Hobbs moved back to London and began to work for NME with James Brown, whom she had befriended in LA. In 1994, they both help found Loaded.

Three decades on from witnessing the birth of thrash, Hobbs is now watching the emergence of a new classical music scene. She's hugely impressed by Nils Frahm, whom she describes as a "Berlin scholar of Tchaikovsky" who brings a mix of electronic/ techno and classical music. She's also credited for discovering - and popularising - dubstep in the past decade and remains a great evangelist for the genre, pointing to artists like Burial, James Blake, Mala, Kode9 and Digital Mystikz.

The global tipping point for dubstep was at the Sonar Electronic, a festival in Barcelona in June 2007, when she DJ-ed in front of 8,500 people with Skream, Oris Jay and Kode9, which she describes as "one of the greatest nights of my life".

She also worked on the soundtrack for the club and bar scenes for Darren Aronofsky's Oscarwinning Black Swan.

When judging the iSessions finals, she says she will rely on her gut instinct built up over decades of experience sourcing new music. "It is entirely subjective," she admitted. "But it's not rocket science. It's very exciting as I might go into the room and the next new thing could literally walk in."

And as "a child of John Peel" she believes judging these student bands is carrying on his legacy. Mary Anne Hobbs presents her show on BBC Radio 6 Music, Saturdays and Sundays, 7-10am. She will be broadcasting from 6 Music Festival on Tyneside from 20-22 February. See performances at and highlights on BBC Red Button.

She is a judge at the iSessions final in Manchester next Thursday.