Right, here’s the next of our pretty irregular Test Pressing interviews – this time with Trevor Jackson of Underdog/Output fame. Trevor has long been known for his music but is also a hugely respected graphic designer so we decided to use the sleeves discussed to illustrate the interview. It’s good to interview someone whose not scared of being forthright and having strong opinions.
I was first made aware of Trevor through his work as the Underdog – firstly with The Brotherhood and then in turn with mixes for Massive Attack amongst others. From there it was a short step (through tough times by the sound of it) to starting East-London based Output recordings with releases from LCD Soundsystem and Kieran Hebden’s Four Tet.
Right let’s kick off with the basics. Where are you from originally?
I’m from Edgeware, North West London.
What was it like? What was the first scene you got into?
When I was 12, or 13, Edgware was mainly a Jewish area, there was a whole scene almost like the Jewish version of casuals called Becks, all these kids that would wear Fiorucci and Kickers and hang out at Edgware station. It was a big thing at the time, hanging out there or at Golders Green, or Hampstead, a place called the Coffee Cup. It’s still there. There’d be 200 kids on the street, standing around posing. That was kind of what most of the kids did but I wasn’t really interested in that. These were people whose older brothers were all estate agents and jewellers, typical Jewish suburbia things. I fortunately managed to meet more alternative, interesting people and was able to broaden my social scene. One of my favourites place was Patsy’s Parlour and I used to hang out there all the time. It was a small video arcade and ice-cream parlour full of all different sorts of people.
Growing up my older brother used to listen to Stevie Wonder and jazz-funk, his mate used to manage Light Of The World, my sister was into Joy Division and Ultravox. I was obsessed with taping any music program on TV. Top of The Pops, The Tube, I’d sit there every day recording and force my mother to tape things when I was out. I’ve still got hundreds of VHS tapes somewhere. I’d also listen religiously to Westwood on LWR and also Mastermind on Invicta. I also started to read The Face, Blitz and i-D and become more interested in club and music sub-cultures.
I was fortunate to meet a guy slightly older than me called Simon Cass whom I became really friendly with. He was really into New Order, Hi-NRG and industrial music and from the age of about 13or 14 I started going to gigs and the Camden Palace all the time. I used to go nearly every night. The first proper club I remember going to was The Embassy though.
Was that early hip-hop and electro at that time?
Well it sounds like a cliché but my first single that I bought was Giorgio Moroder ‘The Chase’ on 7”. I was really into science fiction at the time so I suppose the logical thing at the time was to listen to electronic music as it shared a similar aesthetic.
Yeah it was kind of the future. I’ve talked about it many times but the first gig I went to was the Human League for the Dare tour and it a huge effect on me. Adrian Wright was doing the visuals and they had Doctor Who, Captain Scarlet, Fellini movies on multiple screens and it blew my mind, so from a very early age I had a strong interest in visuals. The Dare album had such a strong cover and the band were really into 2000 AD and Judge Dredd which I also loved, so I was kind of linking all this audio visual stuff together. I was stuck in this suburban place dreaming of other more exciting places, New York to me was my mecca. I’d listen to Colin Favor on Kiss playing NYC Kiss FM mastermixes by Red Alert and the Latin Rascals, I’d hear about all these amazing clubs and I started to hear a relationship between the European electronic music I was into and a new American version that was even more exciting.
Where were you going out back then?
I’m trying to think back to where we were going. My older friends all used to go to White Trash and places like that, but I used to go to the Camden Palace, Batcave, Xenon, and Busbys on a Sunday which was more of a north London Jewish social thing where they played disco and jazz funk… London club culture was very small then. I used to go out every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday that I could.
Was that where the early interest in graphics came from?
I was really into this magazine called Escape. There was a group called The Battle Of The Eyes. It was Savage Pencil, Chris Long, and Ian Wright and Andy (Dog) Johnson – all anarchic British comic book artists, Ian Wright and Chris Long used to draw for the NME. Andy Johnson did covers for his brother Matt Johnson’s band The The. Chris Long’s stuff was really incredible, very graphic and unique. All his characters were club kids, the sort of people I’d meet when I was out. I was really into that. It was more kind of comic book but it was well designed. I started to become very interested in the visual representation of music and the relationship between the two, covers, videos, every aspect. It’s funny. I was in my storage last week and I found this bag and I’d found I’d cut out hundreds of music ads from magazines. I can really see where some of my influences had come from. I mean there were obvious things like all the ZTT adverts, which really were amazing, but also loads of stuff random I just cut out. So there was Escape, this small little comic book, and probably Neville Brody’s amazing work on The Face that got me into wanting to either be a comic book artist or a graphic designer.
What else were you up to at that time?
I was also working in a record shop at that time from the age of 13 or 14 for five or six years. I ended up being manager on a Sunday. Richard Russell (now Managing Director of XL Recordings) used to work for me and I used to take great pleasure in telling him to go and put the grills up on the windows at the end of the day.
What was it called?
Loppylugs. It was pretty famous for the area – in Edgware – two minutes from my house.
Did you study graphic design at college?
Yeah I eventually knew I wanted to work in music and design record sleeves, so I studied at Barnet College and I ended up there for four years. I got a diploma in general art and design, then a higher diploma in graphic design. And through it all I was still going out all the time.
Where did you first agency Bite It! come from?
I left college and started working for a company called the Kunst Art Company based in Clerkenwell. They used to do a bit of music work as well as film posters and it was really exciting. this was all pre-computers, working with photo-mechanical transfer machines, photocopiers, Tipex and rotring pens. I started to meet loads of interesting and influential people going out in the evenings. I was confident and slightly precocious, living at home with my parents so I didn’t need any money and could afford to do commissions for little or no money. Whilst I was working for Martin Huxford, doing posters for things like Belly Of An Architect by Peter Greenaway and some other cool things, I started to get my own work in. I’d hear on the grapevine that people were putting records out and when I heard Mark Moore (S’Express) was putting out a record I simply spoke to him at the WAG where I used to go regularly and said ‘I hear you’re doing a record. I want to do the cover’. He told me to bring my portfolio in the next night to show him, I went along with my portfolio, sat down in the corner and showed him my college work and he was like ‘yeah great’ and that was one of the first commissioned jobs I did.
So where does Champion come into it?
After I did S’Express, I was also doing stuff I wasn’t so into; Steve Walsh the Gypsy Kings and some really dodgy things, as I started getting more of my own work in. Martin from Kunst was like ‘Trevor you might as well get on with doing your own stuff’ so I ended up sharing the studio with him paying rent, mainly doing my own work but also helping him out when he needed it. I think it was through working at the record shop that I notice Champion were putting out all these great records. They were connected to these importers in the premises next door, called Record Importers or something, they could cherry-pick the best records as soon as they entered the country and license them. I noticed none of the record had picture sleeves, they were all in that Champion green house bag, so I went to see Mel Medalie, who was a proper character, a crazy South African guy, and I said ‘I’ll do sleeves for you for free and if you like them give me more work’ and one of the first things I did was a cover version of ‘Set It Off’ by the Bunker Crew and he liked it. So he was putting out four or five records a week and I was doing the sleeves cheap but he was giving me shit loads of work so that kept me going for ages. I was doing ‘Break 4 Love’, Todd Terry, Frankie Bones, Pal Joey records… brilliant records.
All those Todd Terry sleeves are quite distinctive with that ‘bit’ design…
You know at the time, for record sleeve designers, there were only a few big people. You had Peter Saville, Vaughn Oliver , Neville Brody and Malcom Garrett at Assorted Images whom I all really respected but you also had Stylo Rouge and all these boring mainstream companies, and for a record sleeves, alot of the time they’d just take a photo, lay some type on it and get paid a fortune. I was like ‘fuck that, that’s just lazy’ and wanted to do something different. Also, computers had just started being integrated into bigger studios, so you had Paintbox and these programs that cost thousands of pounds, and I couldn’t afford that so those early sleeves were a reaction to those big companies. I used to love playing video games on the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 and to me it suited the music. It was like 8-bit music. You know, Todd Terry is making these records on pretty low-res samplers so it seemed an obvious thing to do. That was like late ’80s early ’90s. I still had that comic book mentality. The sleeves had a mini-story to them, almost like a two panel comic strip related to things that were going on at the time in rave culture.
What do you think when you see those sleeves now?
They’re innocent. There’s a naivety and I’m proud, you know…
So house was really kicking off in the late 80s, were you still into hip-hop then?
Sure, there was still lots of great hip hop around as well as mutations of it like hip house, the scenes were still connected and as hip hop got faster the two scenes became connected. Clubs like Delirium started to play house as a reaction against the more violent side of hip hop but I still loved both genres. I related to it work-wise as I started working for Gee Street Records. I was going to fashion clubs and parties that still mainly played funk, hip hop and electro stuff as well as all the amazing early London warehouse parties, but I also started going to acid house clubs, Clink Street etc. There were certain points when they crossed over. My favourite london club was a place called Astral Flight at The Embassy. A guy called DJ Wolf played there and he was mind-blowing. Him, Colin Favor and Eddie Richards were the DJs doing it for me then. People talk about Paradise Garage and that was my Paradise Garage. Hearing New Order’s Your Silent Face over that soundsystem… They had this huge rectangular lighting rig that would descend over the dancefloor and this big inflatable couple swinging from the roof fucking. I’d listen to Colin Favor and Eddie Richards on Kiss, then I’d hear them play at the club, and the next day go to the Record And Tape Exchange in Camden and find all the records I’d heard. In the NME they used to do a little chart and I’d be able to discover all the records I didn’t know.
Who was DJ Wolf and why was he so good?
The club from what I remember, was a posh Mayfair venue full of a weird mix of rich socialites, cute girls and art students but he used to look like a goth, with high spiky blonde hair playing from a booth high up overlooking the floor. He used to go from like Bauhaus to Kraftwerk, then to ACR. He was the first British DJ I heard doing that really well. He was really really on point – and he’d play funk as well. It’d be interesting to see a playlist from him. I was too young to go the Blitz and stuff like that so that for me was a really seminal club. It was a really fucking good time.
Did you do the Jungle Brothers sleeve for Gee Street?
I did Royal House ‘Can You Party’ and then I did Jungle Brothers ‘I’ll House You’, basically the same record with a rap on it. I did the sleeve for that and ‘Black Is Black’. I was lucky you know. I was doing that and also working for Network Records. All those bio rhythm sleeves. Neil Macey was working for Network and I remember when that classic Virgin Ten Techno compilation came out and I seem to remember meeting Neil Rushton (the head of Network) at a London launch party or something.
So when was Bite It! as a label born? That was your first venture into music right?
Yeah. I was doing Bite It! as a design thing only. There was a Street Sounds remix competition and I hadn’t really made any music before but I’d bought a four-track and had a little sampling device for the Commodore 64 computer where you could sample for a few seconds with a very basic sequencer, and I made a remix on that. I was making beat-based music only. ‘Beatbox’ by Art Of Noise had a huge influence on me. I was obsessed by Arthur Baker, Trevor Horn and Adrian Sherwood. On-U Sound was a big inspiration. The first On-U dub stuff I wasn’t so into, but when Adrian Sherwood started working with Doug Wimbish, Skip McDonald and Keith Le Blanc (the ex-Sugarhill Gang Band) as well as DJ Cheese I became hooked, hearing that Fats Comet track “DJ’s Dream’’. It was fucking crazy. You know I most probably heard it at Astral Flight with DJ Wolf playing it. So, my initial records were not melodic at all just rhythm and noise.
Then I met this rap crew who lived round the corner from me called the brotherhood and I started working with them. I started Bite It! purely to put out this track ‘Descendants Of The Holocaust’ which was a reaction against stereotypical Jewish suburban life as well as needing to voice a subject we felt that was important to be heard. We’d experienced our own forms of racism and were just as angry as we were excited by the platform of hip hop.
Was that when you first went into the studio properly?
Yes, we went to this small studio called Monroe Studios in Barnet. I used to work with this guy called Roger Benou, he ended up engineering most of my Underdog mixes. We did the first Brotherhood stuff there on an Akai 950 sampler and an Atari ST. It was interesting because that studio became a real haven for loads of underground British music when it moved to Holloway Road. A lot of important Drum ‘n’ Bass producers started out there. Lucky Spin records was next door. DJ Crystal who was the original Brotherhood DJ, Ed Rush, Adam F, DJ Trace all those guys, I used to hear Amen being cut up in a million different ways 24/7 through the walls, everyone at the time worked there. It was a really important creative hub. When I was working as Underdog I was doing all my remixes down there.
The sleeves for The Brotherhood seemed to kick against what was going on in UK hip-hop at that time…
What had happened was, I had this parallel life. With the design I’d gone from Gee Street, Network and Champion then I started working for Pulse-8 doing terrible Euro pop music sleeves. I was making a lot of money but I was hating it. It was soul-destroying especially after designing records that had such integrity. At that point I made a conscious decision to stop designing and start my own label. That’s why I started Bite It! and it had a very strong visual aesthetic.
The reason I wanted to do something graphically strong was that you had Music Of Life and Cold Sweat (UK hip-hop labels) but they appeared second-rate compared to American product. I wanted to make records that sounded as good as American records and looked as good. If not better. Hip-hop visually had already started to be a cliché with the girls, guns and cars and stuff so I wanted to go against that. I was also really conscious to sample from very different kind of records. Not only did they have to sound and look right, the sources had to be different. European jazz-rock, Soft Machine, ECM, it was all about different sample sounds to what was going on at the time. That was part of the ethos of the label.
I remember buying a 12” with a sample saying ‘I might smoke a spliff but I won’t sniff’ that I’d heard on the radio. What are you proud of from that time?
A record called ‘100% Proof’ I sampled this tune by Julian Priester called “Love Love’ on ECM that was originally in 3/4…and I flipped it into 4/4 and I did this tripped-out bonus beat with flutes and tripped out shit, they sold it in Honest Jon’s where James Lavelle had started working before he set up Mo Wax. And he was like ‘What is this???’. He loved it and we started a good friendship.
Did you know the Bristol lot as well?
I was good friends with Mushroom (Massive Attack). When the Brotherhood EP came out it started to get played a lot and Richard Russell who was working at XL, asked me to do an underdog remix for House Of Pain’s ‘Top Of The Morning To Ya’. It went Top Ten on the back of my mix and my remix career as Underdog started to take off along with having the label. Mark Picken, who was managing Massive Attack liked the mixes and eventually started looking after me. I went on a European tour with Massive Attack and DJed at after parties along with Mushroom and G.
Massive Attack kind of changed when Mushroom dropped out…
For sure. I have a hell of a lot of respect for 3D and G but it’s now a very different band. ‘Blue Lines’ in still one of my favourite records of all time. I mean Mushroom wasn’t an easy character, He was always the younger one during the Wild Bunch days, so I suppose he always got treated like a kid in the band but he was hugely talented, made all the best beats as far as I’m concerned and contributed loads of great ideas. I went to Mushroom’s studio and he was like a proper audio freak had amazing gear. I don’t know what’s happened to him, I liked him a lot. I’ve been trying to get in touch with him again for years.
So where else did your influences come from?
Mainly clubs. The whole warehouse thing was massively influential on me. Shake N Fingerpop, Family Funktion, those parties. Norman Jay, Judge Jules. You know he actually used to be a good DJ. Then you had Soul II Soul and all those guys and the Mutoid Waste parties as well. It was an amazing time. That whole period of club culture hasn’t really been documented enough but it was hugely influential to a lot of people. I also used to throw parties with Tony Nwatchuku (from Attica Blues) in Oxford at a place called the Caribbean club back in ’87 ’88. We’d play hip hop, Smith & Mighty, early Todd Terry things, that really was the start of everything for me career wise.
So you had all that going on and then the Soho set with The Wag and stuff…
Yeah you had all that and then Dodo’s, Dial 9, Delirium, there was so much going on, The RAW club in the basement of the YMCA in Tottenham Court Rd was perhaps the best club in London for me after the Embassy, Saturday night with Dave Dorrel and CJ Mackintosh was incredible. But I really remember going to some amazing parties along the Thames. I remember vividly the first time I heard house music at a Shake N Fingerpop/Family Funktion party, one of the DJs was cutting up, a mix I stole for years afterwards, ‘Peter Piper’ Run DMC with Fun Boy Three ‘Faith And Hope And Charity’. I went upstairs and there was a Mike Tyson fight being shown on a big video screen and they were playing Farley Jackmaster Funk ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ and I was like ‘what the fuck is this record?’ There were things like Cultural Vibe ‘Ma Foom Bey’ always being played but that was a proper house record I think I heard.
What made it a proper house record?
It sounded different. I was used to uptempo HI-NRG but that record… It was probably about Darryl Pandy’s vocal, I didn’t go down so well. The floor was empty but I was enchanted, the atmosphere was great. To this day I’m most comfortable in a dark, dirty basement. I’m not into Funktion One soundsytem clarity and air con. I like reggae sound systems smoke and sweat.
Going back to the label – who signed The Brotherhood at Virgin?
We got signed by Simon Gavin and Steve Brown, who went on to form Science, and then we spent a long time making The Brotherhood album. There was no-one in British hip-hop at the time making quality cross-over music with a strong concept, we had one. The band was mixed-race. It was a black guy, a Jewish guy and a mixed-race guy and musically I was sampling 90% English and European jazz rock and we got the English artist Dave McKean who’d done artwork for BATMAN at DC Comics to design the sleeve. I was really happy with the thing as a whole. It joined the dots in many ways. The cover looked very different from anything else at the time, the whole project ended up being very well received.
How do you get from Bite It! to starting Output?
There was quite a gap between the two. I was being managed by Marts Andrups he also looked after Roger Sanchez and Kenny Dope. Marts tragically suddenly passed away, he was a very close friend as well as work collegue and that had a very big effect on me. I was young. I was in my late 20’s and it totally threw me. Up to that point I felt indestructible and I’d never had anything like that happen to me.
Marts was a real character. I’d met him in Honest Jons with James Lavelle and when I met him I thought he was a stuck-up wanker. He was opinionated, totally full of himself and never agreed with me about anything but he had the coolest shit, everything you wanted, sneakers, art, records, he was completely on-point, and when I got to meet him properly we got on like a house on fire, we became great friends and he started to manage me. But then he passed away. I ended up falling out with The Brotherhood and things went sour. They pushed me out of the band and off of the label, after what had happened to Marts I just thought ‘fuck this, I don’t want to do this anymore’ and I got out of it. I don’t really know what I did for a year. I needed to find some new inspiration and I started going back to my records and I realised I was deeply into just weird weird records. I used to go to Soul Jazz and Mr Bongo and buy strange European jazz records, travel the world buying crazy things to sample and play. And It made me realise I wanted to get well away from hip hop and the way it was becoming so narrow-minded, and release music I over regardless of genre and most importantly who else would like it.
Was Mo Wax influential in the move from Bite It! to Output? You look at it as a label and they are releasing tracks by Carl Craig, Richie Hawtin, stuff like that…
James (Lavelle) is a genius, but a victim of his own success. He was on it. People don’t give him enough respect. I grew up with eclecticism, and he took that aesthetic which was missing at the time and brought it to a new label and an amazing mix of stuff. Then they had the club at The Blue Note, Dusted, and I remember DJing with me, Weatherall, Carl Craig, going to see the craziest mix of people, it was a brilliant time. He did a lot of stuff. Maybe the downfall of the label and with regards to Output, I saw that James ended up becoming bigger than most the artists. He was the label and I think that possibly created resentment and it put to much of the spotlight on him, the minute I started Output I didn’t want it to be mainly about me. I was happy for people to know it was my label but I wanted the focus on the artists. They were the most important things. The label was just a conduit for the artists.
What were the first releases on Output?
They were just some bits that I had kicking about. Remixes that got rejected and stuff. The early stuff was very beat-based. I don’t really remember what the first release was but I released three ten inches which were beat excursions…
Now I remember what I did in my time in between Bite It! and Output. I ended up hooking up with this band the Emperors New Clothes who were on Acid Jazz records. They were fucking great. They were like Sun Ra meets ESG meets King Tubby. They were amazing. I got deeply into them and hung out with them all the time and got friendly with Luke Hannam the bass player, then Acid Jazz asked me to produce their album after doing some remixes for the band. We spent perhaps a year making the record, I’d gone from working with only samples to learning how to record live instruments and working with real musicians, it was a crazy time of experimentation and pushing boundaries, it was about as un-acid jazz as it could possibly be, totally out there music, perhaps one of the best things I’d ever done. but we finished the record Eddie Pillar (Acid Jazz owner) refused to pay me. Eddie was notoriously hardcore as was his partner at the time Dave Robinson who used to run Stiff rRcords, I may have been a dick about it but I refused to be fucked over. I told him to go fuck himself and unfortunately I think it’s one of the best things I’ve done. So I ended up putting out an Emperor’s New Clothes record on Output, maybe third or fourth release, and then the band broke up and Luke started to form Gramme with Leo (Taylor) the drummer.
I didn’t realize Luke and Leo were in Emperors New Clothes…
I remember the turning point. We were doing this track that was like the precursor to Playgroup’s ‘Make It Happen’ Leo was playing the drums in a free jazz style, Luke was rolling with a brilliant uptempo wobble style baseline. and it just didn’t sound right, I was trying to explain to leo to play simpler in a more primal almost moronic style and he didn’t understand, I pulled out Metal Box and said ‘listen to this. He totally got it and I think that was the moment Gramme was initially formed. This new direction caused a split in the band and they eventually broke up Gramme formed perhaps a year later? I kept in contact with Luke, he played on many of my later Underdog remixes and also introduced me to Kieran Hebden whom he met at Rough Trade one day. I’d never have signed Four Tet had it not been for Luke.
Was it Fridge (early group featuring Kieran Hebden) at that point?
Yeah Fridge. Fridge was him, Sam and Adem. They recorded in their bedroom. And I listened to their records and went to see them play together at home and they sounded like Can or Faust or something. They sounded amazing.
Was that when the label found it’s identity?
I was really fortunate as I’d signed a P&D deal with RTM Distribution. And I could spend some money on packaging. I could do what I wanted. I was sick of doing all these crap sleeves. All my influences started to make sense. All the experimental music I loved, the fusion of things, genreless sounds, I finally had my outlet I’d always wanted. And there weren’t any labels in the UK doing what I was dong. I felt like all my artists were rejects. We were outcasts and I enjoyed that. I’d always felt like an outcast myself.
Was the label in East London at that point? There wasn’t much going on in Shoreditch at that time…
All you had was The Blue Note. And that was it. For me it felt like a second home as I’d worked in Clerkenwell for so long. I was lucky. To dispel any myth, I don’t have rich parents, I was earning money as a teenager when I first started working living with my mum, so I was saving money, and I could fortunately afford to buy a flat when I was quite young. This was the only place I could buy a nice space in East London. Best financial decision I made and I was fucking lucky and the area blew up.
I suppose there was you and Nuphonic over here…
There was also Tummy Touch. It was them, Nuphonic and myself. Tummy Touch were here before me.
What records were you buying at the time?
I was really into post rock, Tortoise and things like that. I used to have a great relationship with Darryl at the Rough Trade shop in Covent Garden and I’d buy fantastic records from him. I loved that place, and also Atlas Records with Pete Herbert and Mark Kirby behind the counter, They got me into Basic Channel and stuff like that. You know I’d done the early techno with Network but when those Basic Channel records came out they made sense to me. Hip-hop had got a bit boring and I was playing more experimental music – Kompact, Thomas Brinkmann, stuff like that was coming out, restored my faith in club music, that I thought had become incredibly boring.
So back to the label, you had a pretty good track record for discovering bands…
It was more being involved with things. I didn’t discover them. Perhaps I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time.
Do you wish you’d locked down some of the deals with the likes of Four Tet and LCD Soundsystem?
I have never been a good businessman. I’ve never done things for money. Money doesn’t interest me. I never ran the label as a business, I just loved this music and I wanted it to be heard. Also, at the same time I was conscious of my limited capabilities as a label so I felt i didn’t have the right to sign a band to the label and lock then down to anything, it would have been dishonest to do that. Also, I heard stories about how Daniel Miller had never actually signed Depeche Mode so I was like ‘fuck it, why should I sign anyone’ and I also worked with the bands as friends which perhaps was very naive but that’s how I did it. Thing was, it also protected me in a way because the bands expectations of me couldn’t be unreasonable. I didn’t have anything in the contract I had to achieve. All I promised the bands were that I would get there records in the shops, radio and club play and press, the rest who knows? You know I had been running the label by myself, apart from a false start at with a deal with Virgin through Source Records that didn’t work out, and Rob (Sandercombe, label manager at Output) had come in and he was a life saver. He was magic. Just what I needed. Well organised and knew how to work with people so he came along at the right time.
So what happened then?
You know, when people started to really like the records was when it fucked up. No-one taught me how to run a record label and I can hand on my heart say I never drew a wage as I was doing other things, DJing, remixing and designing. I never ran the label as a business and in turn many of the bands didn’t make money, though i’d like to think most of them did well out of it in other ways. I don’t regret it at all. Unfortunately by the time a well organised structure of the label needed to be in place it was too late and we couldn’t go back. It was started in a totally relaxed casual way but the success totally took me by surprise and i was too busy trying to run the day to day business to be able to stop things and make anytime to set it up properly, that messed up everything.
It sounds like most of the bands just turned up?
It wasn’t really that, i listened to many hundreds of demos but most of the artists I released had been ignored or rejected, people just weren’t interested in them, and for me I have a strong attraction to things that other people don’t like, as well as naivety in recording. I love early demos – the initial essence of an artist.
When did Playgroup come into the picture?
Playgroup came along in about 1999. 99% of the things I do are reactionary I create things because I get fucked off with what I see or hear around me, or I think somethings missing and someone needs to do something about it. Playgroup started because I was bored of what I was hearing in dance music. I was listening to all these records through working with Gramme and I was realising that no one was making live dance music anymore that wasn’t dumb or super commercial. All the production on records at that time were super complicated; Aphex, Squarepusher, Timbaland, Rodney Jerkins… I wanted to make a simple record. I’d been doing loads of dark complex stuff and I wanted to make a credible, fun and sexy record.
My main drive was, I was 30 years old, I was sick and tired of the ’80s not getting the respect it deserved. People always used to take the piss out of it, which has obviously changed now, and I strongly felt there was massive influence in the music I was hearing around me, but it seemed people were in denial and and that whole period of time needed to be showcased in the right way. Edwyn Collins, Dennis Bovell, Paul Haig, Shinehead, Scritti Politti, I wanted to get all my influences in there and mix it up with new people. I wanted to make an album that sounded like your best friend’s house party not a commercial super club. At the end of the day, I just wanted that ’80s era to be respected. I was fortunate to work with some really great people on that record.
The ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ – it’s a good one. How did that come about?
At the end of the night I always used to play ‘Mama Used To Say’ or ‘Billie Jean’ by Shinehead as well as Paul Simon’s original, I remember I was DJing at the Massive Attack end of tour party in Paris in the tiny backroom of this club and I played the original of ’50 Ways…’ as the last record and the guys from Air came up to ask what it was. I was shocked they didn’t know it, that moment stuck in my head, it all kind of linked together and it made sense to cover that record.
Is there a new Playgroup album coming at some point?
I’ve probably made about four albums since that one came out but I’ve never felt like releasing them. The longer it takes the more cautious I am about putting stuff out. The reason I want to release music is questionable now. If I’m frank about it there are so many people making great music now. I only want to make records with a purpose and records that don’t sound like other people. I’ve always made music inspired by other people and I don’t want to do that anymore. I can’t make a space disco record better than Lindstrom so why bother. There’s no point. I still have that hip-hop competitiveness at the end of the day.
So closing off that whole Output era – what would you have done differently?
I would have had a good accountant that didn’t rip me off, I wouldn’t have employed a ‘so-called’ business advisor who would end up making things even worse and I probably would have had a business partner or someone that had some experience from day one. But I don’t know if anyone would have seen the potential in it anyway, my initial plan was quite reactionary and destructive, not having a business objective apart from breaking even. Who really would have known that Four Tet would be as popular as he is now? I initially didn’t expect any of the artists I worked with to sell more than 1,000 records, to be honest I would have been quite happy with 200. I’m suppose a snob. A subversive snob. I like the idea of keeping things limited, unique, selective and special.
You’ve always designed record sleeves – what do you make of sleeve design at the moment?
I think it’s interesting now that the whole digital thing has almost gone back on itself. People are slowly reacting against it, Look at Stones Throw, they are releasing limited beautiful screen-printed records using Hennessey in the ink for Madlib, Will bankheads cassette label, people are doing really interesting stuff. So I’m still inspired by things I see around me, whatever format they might be.
Would you buy a record just for it’s sleeve?
I have done, and made many mistakes doing so, especially on crate digging excursions without a soundburger or record deck to hand! But my life has changed over the last two years. I’ve cut down on consuming and purchasing things I don’t need as I had too much of everything. I don’t want to be cynical but having lived through so many things it is rare to see or hear new things that truly excite me anymore, and right now I only want to experience powerful new things I haven’t felt before, or live with essential things that are timeless.
So looking at your design – if you had to pick a favourite sleeve what would it be?
I find it really hard musically and visually to have an opinion on my own work. Maybe the Soulwax sleeve and some of the Bite It! sleeves. I still like them.
You seem to DJ a lot in Berlin – what’s so good about it?
In Berlin you can play in most clubs the people will look really normal, but you play the weird records and they go off. You play them in London and they leave the dancefloor. And there is something about that essence of Berlin that is still super exciting to me, people seem open minded and free in many ways. Maybe that’s what is missing in London at the moment. I made a real conscious decision to stop playing big gigs at the moment. I’ve seen many of my contemporaries play bad music simply for money. There are to many people that will compromise their beliefs to earn a living and I don’t want that. If I’m honest I don’t like being in the limelight, never have, I don’t want to play anthems and do things that people want me or expect me to do. The Playgroup thing mucked up so many aspects of my life as it put me in the spotlight, made me feel uncomfortable, messed up relationships and even my health. When you put out a record and start playing the promotional game you get pushed into a world that changes everything. I don’t want that attention nor care about what anyone thinks about who I am or what I do, as long as I’m proud of what I do I’m content. Now I’m much happier playing for 2-300 people where I know I am going to have a good time than a big gig which might pay me well but I leave the booth feeling like I should of stayed at home and question why I bothered in the first place. big gigs can be great with the right promoter, line up and crowd but it’s almost impossible to play records that have any detail, sensitivity or depth, which is what I appreciate most. Berlin to me is good but it’s not necessarily the epicenter. One of my favourite gigs has been this small town Asturias in northern Spain, I played a little club for 200 crazy people for 7 hours. Fucking amazing.
So rounding up – you’ve been quoted as saying you share ‘an equal love of low brow and high brow culture’. How does that manifest itself?
It manifests itself as I am often full of contradictions, but I like what I like, not what people tell me I should, And I am opinionated in the process. People seem scared of strong opinions these days. I respect people that are passionate and have genuine reasons behind why they do things even if I don’t agree with them. For instance with movies I love Enter The Void and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Cannes winner 2010) as much as I appreciate Hollywood blockbusters like Armageddon and Bad Boys 2. I don’t have any preconceived ideas of what I should and shouldn’t like and how I need to fit in in anyway. I’ve never wanted to be part of anything.
I respect individuality and innovation in all forms and refuse to be pressurised to think or conform in anyway that I don’t feel totally comfortable. People have been too lackadaisical recently, this country has been putting up with so much shit recently, we’ve been continually lied to and deceived, people say nothing and accept that’s the way things are or simply ignore what’s happening. I think now what’s going on with the student riots is really exciting. I got hairs on the back of my neck when I saw students revolting. That’s what this country needs. That can only be a good thing for culture as a whole
Finally, if you could go back to any club in time where would you go?
I would go to the Funhouse as shown in that New Order video. That’s the weirdest thing for me. Arthur Baker is a friend now but I considered that guy a god at one point. Everything he was involved in. Him, John Robie, Latin Rascals, you know… he was amazing. What I would do to go back to the Funhouse where JellyBean Benitez puts on that Reel to Reel tape of ‘Confusion’ and the lights go, and the B-Boys and girls start dancing, that’s where I’d want to be. I know the Paradise Garage was the one for a lot of people, but for me it’s definitely the Funhouse.