Interview / Adrian Sherwood / ON-U Sound
If you`re a fan, as I am (understatement), then the situation is a little surreal. Skip McDonald is in the kitchen, Doug Wimbish has just arrived (as he does) and Mark Stewart is on the other line. I`m talking to Adrian Sherwood and it`s a bit like finding myself in an ON-U version of the “Sgt. Pepper” cover, or better a New Age Steppers collage. In preparation I`d sent nine pages of questions, and while relieved that they hadn`t dismissed me as a nut, looking over them I was worried that the interview might turn into wave after wave of “How did you meet X?” “How did you meet Y?” One of the interesting things about ON-U are the connections that it`s made. What makes the label and Adrian`s discography fascinating is how so many creative figures, usually from the margins, and perhaps on the surface musically un-related, were subjected to more reverb and more delay. It has been a meeting place of poets, seers, activists, singers and players. A testament to Punk`s spark, Post-Punk`s melting pot and a belief that music should be pushed forward. From Prince Far I and the Sex Pistols to Rough Trade, through Industrial and New York Hip Hop, to Acid House and Bristol`s Bass culture, a long list of friends and accomplices would actually go some way towards telling the ON-U story (we need one of Pete Frame`s Rock Family Trees), and Adrian himself will touch on this at the end.
Are you doing stuff with Skip and Doug at the moment?
Skip lives near me here. Doug`s come over for a twelve day visit. We`re doing some recording this week. Doug`s guested on the Roots Manuva thing, Mark`s helping write a tune for Living Color, and Mark`s gonna help Skip with a couple of tunes for his next Little Axe album and then we`ll probably have a small unannounced impromptu gig somewhere. This was supposed to happened an hour and half ago. We lost you. Where are you?
I`m in the mountains, about 250 km from Tokyo.
I tell you I like the countryside. Fukui-Ken (one of Japan`s least populated prefectures). I`ve been all over Japan.
You`re over again in a couple of weeks. How long are you out for?
Next Sunday I`m coming over. It`s gonna be just for a week really. I`m doing some recording for two days, then three gigs. It`s gonna be a busy one.
The only gig I know about is the one at Tokyo`s Unit.
We`re doing Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo.
Who are you recording with?
Nisenenmondai. It should be fun. We`re planning on doing a couple of days recording then mix it back in England. Have some fun with it.
I sent through an enormous list of questions. I don`t know if you got those or not?
Yeah I did but I just glanced over them and thought, “Wow this is gonna be a long interview”.
What I did with the list of questions that I put together, I tried to base them around the compilation that’s coming out so they kind of run historically from Punk and onwards so the first ones are Punk related. I hope that`s OK. John Lydon has a production credit on Vivien Goldman`s “Launderette” E.P. which includes the essential ON-U of “Private Armies Dub”. Did you spend any time with Lydon & The Pistols?
With Lydon yes, because he was and is married to Ari Up`s mum. I first met him at Gunter grove, which is where he had a house. Viv Goldman took me round there. I then met him again independently with Ari.
How did you meet Vivien?
Well Vivien knew everybody. She was in Ladbroke Grove and being a journalist people would go and hang out at her place. She was friends with Mark Stewart, Youth from Killing Joke….
So did you meet Keith Levene and Jah Wobble through Vivien?
No. John Lydon introduced me to Keith Levene, he said, “Why don`t you get Keith to do some recording for you?”
What about the other John, what about Wobble?
Well Wobble by that time had kind of fallen out of favour with the Public Image situation.
So this was post-“Metal Box”?
Yes I met Wobble after.
A lot of the loops on “Metal Box” are really Wobble, Mark Lusardi and Dennis Bovell, so I was wondering if you might have met Wobble through them?
No I didn`t. I knew Dennis and Mark before I knew anybody. Dennis mixed my first ever record and Mark was the other engineer at Gooseberry studio on Gerrard Street in Chinatown. He changed his name to Mark Angelo because his sister was a page 3 girl.
I think that you and Dennis can be credited for bringing Dub dynamics to Punk and subsequently he is the only other producer I can think of who took / takes Dub to such an eclectic range of music. The Slits obviously worked closely with Dennis and to be honest I thought their cover of John Holt`s “Man Next Door” was also his work.
When it came out I think it might have had his name on it, but it wasn`t him. It was mine. I did that in about four hours one night. In the middle of the night at Freerange in London.
Did you meet The Slits through Dennis?
No, The Slits used to come to our gigs. I used to do gigs with Prince Far I, Prince Hammer and Creation Rebel. The Slits, members of The Clash, Generation X, everybody was always in the audience, venues like the Fulham Greyhound, Dingwalls, where ever we were playing. The Slits were into Reggae, through Don Letts. Everyone was into everything that was going on but Don was going out with one of The Slits, so they were all very tight and close friends. They came to our gigs, and then when they made “Cut” we got invited to tour the album. Us, them and Don Cherry. It was a very eclectic bill. The Slits were getting into what was coming out of New York, they were into Reggae, they were into Jazz. They were very very open-minded. If you listen to “Cut” I think it and the first P.I.L. album were really quite seminal moves from one movement (Punk) to another (Post-Punk), both very influenced by Dub, or Reggae, whatever you want to call it.
There`s the Reggae bass-lines in there but as you say with Don Cherry, there`s also the Free-Jazz in there.
A little bit later Rip Rig and Panic took all of these influences on.
Did you know Don Letts well?
I knew Don Letts right from the beginning yeah.
Did you ever go to The Roxy?
I did yeah. I went to The Roxy, The Vortex, The 100 Club. I didn`t go there particularly to hang out. I used to go there to do gigs with Jah Woosh and Creation Rebel. We did the Music Machine together in Camden as well. That was another kind of punky Reggae party venue where things mixed on the same stage.
The collective Singers & Players included Ari Up, Bim Sherman, Mikey Dread, Prince Far I, and Bruce Smith…..
Bruce wasn’t in Singers & Players, he was more Playgroup and a couple of other things. Bruce played on New Age Steppers and a few other recordings we did.
How did you meet Bruce?
I met Bruce because when I met Ari Up they had the same management and Bruce was the drummer for both the Pop Group and The Slits. Then I met John Waddington. I had John Waddington playing on some stuff. He was the guitarist in the Pop Group. I met lots of other people at the same time, like The Raincoats, David Toop and Steve Beresford. I met David Toop through Steve Beresford. Beresford was playing with The Slits as well. So I got them in when we were doing “Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 3”. I got them playing on that and some other ON-U productions.
How did you meet Bim Sherman?
I first heard Bim Sherman`s voice when I was about 17 and I was a real fan of his instantly. When I met Prince Far I, I said “Can you record Bim Sherman for me, you know like I`m a really big fan”. What Far I recorded to be honest weren’t his greatest songs, but then I got introduced to Bim on the phone and I invited him to do a tour with us in `79, just before The Slits tour.
Were Far I and Bim Sherman based in the UK at this point?
No they were both still in Jamaica. I used to have to get the air tickets and send them over. Bim stayed at my mother`s house the first night he came to England, and then he ended up staying here for the rest of his life.
What was your involvement with the “Cry Tuff Dub Encounter” LPs? Because the musician line-up and sound make them seem like yours.
Me and my mates mixed all of them. I never put my name on them because at that time it wasn’t so hip for things to be coming from England, it was better if they seemed to come from Jamaica. So what happened on the first album, a lot of the rhythms Far I had already cut in Jamaica but they needed a little bit of tarting up to be honest. So Dr Pablo put melodica on a couple of tracks, we had Sucker from Osibisa put some percussion on, Crucial Tony and Bigga put some synths and things on it, and the other tracks, like “The Message, and “Foggy Road” we recorded at Gooseberry in London with Fish Clarke and Flabba Holt. We just put together mad Dub versions and pretended that they came from Jamaica. So we were overdubbing Far I`s quarter-inch tapes, for some of them we just had two track rhythms, and making them a bit more unusual. And then for the second, third and fourth albums I had the multi-track tapes. With the second album, Jumbo (Vanrenen) at Virgin said, “Look Far I`s delivered this record can you do some work on it?” So again we went in the studio and overdubbed tracks on that. “Chapter 1” and “Chapter 3” are really good. “Chapter 4”`s not very good because we did the whole album in four hours.
“Chapter 3” is brilliant, it`s one of the most out there Dub Reggae records I own.
“Chapter 3” is the one I had the multi-tracks for and put Beresford and everybody on. We mixed that at Berry street.
It`s a classic record. Another one that I can think of is Creation Rebel`s “Starship Africa”, can you talk a little bit about how you went about making that?
That was one of the first records we made and I had Tony Henry who was the bass player in Misty In Roots, before Misty In Roots had even made a record, I got introduced to him because he was a family friend of Crucial Tony`s, and we went into the studio and I hummed him the bass-lines. And we just put things around the bass-lines and recorded the rhythms. The rhythms all sounded good but then we met Style Scott, so on half the rhythms we kept Charlie Fox and Eskimo drumming, but on the other half I took them off and recorded the whole drum kit again on top with Style, trying to get the rhythms to sound a bit more exciting. Style was just so original with the foot-drum marching with the bass-lines, so I got him to overdub them. But when we played them back they sounded slightly out of sync, not out of sync always, but not quite as tight as if it had been played naturally so we thought we`d turn the multi-track tape over and mix them backwards and see how it sounded. So I mixed half the album backwards and half forwards. The reverbs were sucking on the snares and the delays and everything.
It`s an amazing record. Have you ever used that technique again?
We`ve been using again recently. I`d like to make a couple more albums like that, `cos it is definitely very trippy.
Prince Far I & yourself also worked with Suns Of Arqa. How did those collaborations come about?
Well what happened on that was that Mikey Ward, when he made the first album, I gave him a few rhythms, like “Acid Tabla”. I actually mixed them. If you look on the record its got “mixed by Adram Rhythms” but it`s black on black on the sleeve, so you wouldn’t have even known they were my tracks. Four or five tracks on that first Suns Of Arqa album, “Revenge Of The Mozabites”, the names fit with the “Cry Tuff Dub Encounter” track names. The names are quite similar. Anyway he got me to mix that record and I was a bit pissed off with him really because I hadn`t been credited on it and he`d used my tracks. He met Far I through us. Then Mikey went to Jamaica and he got Far I to do a couple of tunes for him, that was all and I think they did one gig together. Mikey was in Jamaica when Far I was murdered. He phoned me and told me what had happened. That was very dark, but that’s another whole thing.
(Prince Far I was murdered by gunmen on September 15, 1983 in his home in Kingston. No one was ever charged. There are at least two stories out there if you choose to look).
How did you meet Mark Stewart?
I first met Mark Stewart in a record shop in Bristol. I was distributing my own records. Mark was still at school. I used to see him in the record shop and he used to stand out because he was so big. The next thing I knew he`d started a band, and then after the Pop Group split, he and I started doing recordings together and made the “Learning To Cope With Cowardice” album. So I`ve known Mark probably since `77. `76 even.
Was Mark the hook up to other Bristolians, like Gary Clail, and Andy Fairley?
Yes, well Mark knew Clail. He used to bring him along to the gigs and we`d let him kind of DJ a little bit or play some tunes before the gigs. Then we recorded him and we had a fluke hit. So it was creating a monster really, cos you`re making a hit record with somebody whose not a proper artist. But Clail was Mark Stewart`s friend. And through Mark I met all the non-Reggae crew from Bristol.
Did you meet Smith & Mighty through Mark?
And the Wild Bunch?
Yeah again. Before they were called the Wild Bunch. I`ve got their first ever record, they were called “Mouth” back then.
How much did Mark`s politics influence your own and those of ON-U?
Greatly. Mark was very politicized. Very world-conscious, way ahead of his time. He`s a very intelligent bloke. He was aware of proton lasers being put into space. The veneer of democracy starts to fade. If you check all of Mark`s lyrics now, going back, they are all exactly what`s happened. They`re almost prophetic.
I have to admit that Mark seems vaguely terrifying: huge, very intense, and fiercely intelligent. Whenever I`ve seen him interviewed he always seems one breath / one wrong question away from sticking one on the interviewer.
He`s a very dear friend of ours and he`s got a brilliant mad sense of humour. Larger than life, really bright. Very important influence on me. Totally.
“Pay It All Back” has been an ON-U slogan from the start. Tracks like Gary Clail`s “Privatise The Air” and “Two Theives & A Liar” seem sadly even more relevant now than they were in 1989.
We took that from William Burroughs. 7% of the population and 84% of the wealth that was the statistic then, it`s much more disproportionate now. Thirty years ago that was the statistic then. That 7% now has got down to something like 3%. That 7% of the population with 90, it`s now 95% of the wealth. It`s gone up to that. Its ridiculous. We are seeing disaster capitalism everywhere now. There is so much World Bank money swilling around, petro-dollars and everything, you`re not talking billions, you`re talking trillions, and what they`re doing all over the world is buying up the centres. Mexico City was being bought up by Israelis. The centre of London is being bought up by Israeli, Chinese, Russian money and a lot of them are saying, “I want to buy this property. You want 400 million. We`ll give you 800 million”, they don`t care, they just realise assets of land and property. Even ghetto parts of Kingston are being bought up. So you`ve got a situation where the people living there are saying, “How come the property all around us is so expensive? This is ghetto”. Fact is with all this unreal money everywhere now you can`t live in London. It’s a 1000 pound a week for a one-room flat. No one can breath. And it’s a disaster. It`s an absolute disaster.
Part of the reason I moved away was to retreat. I do live in a very secluded part of the world.
I don`t blame you. As long as you can support yourself. My girlfriend would desperately like to go and live in the middle of nowhere, but unless you have some of this money yourself we all need to be part of the same thread that holds everything together.
I think you`re right. Ultimately it`s going to catch up with you wherever you are.
Yeah, you`re going to be, “Oh my god I need medical care, or the kids need medical care”, and then the doctor says “Give me your money”. If you haven`t got any then like in America, well fuck off and die.
It is something that you never really seem to talk about, but ON-U and Tackhead are obviously very politically charged. No one ever seems to ask you any direct questions about it.
Well Keith Le Blanc described Tackhead as “news on the beat”. He did make that Malcolm X record. Keith was conscious. Mark Stewart was very politicized. I got more and more so. I had to relearn. You`re born and you learn by being influenced by the people around you. Keith was influenced by Malcolm X. Mark was influenced by the book, “None Dare Call It Conspiracy”. A lot of people were influenced by that book. You know the thing is that you`re meeting people and everyone`s starting to realise just what is going on and how out of control things are and just how much you know the “Big Brother” thing is with us now. There`s the possibility now that if they so wished they could be watching and listening to everything we are saying through our cameras, on this lap-top. So the idea that you can become some revolutionary, and cause, change things, they`ve actually got us by our testicles. As Mark said, “I remember the saying, “This could never happen here”.” But hey the fence is up the camera`s on. We need more Mark Stewarts around.
All I do to be honest with you, I am reflecting Mark if I am working with him. I try and make sure that we are dealing with intelligent lyrics, conscious lyrics, truths and rights, Roots lyrics, ones that relate to people and try and inspire people or inspire some hope and information. So it’s a difficult one. I don’t really want to be recording mundane pointless lyrics.
Andy Fairley was a regular ON-U contributor, his “Precinct Of Sound” is revisited on yours and Pinch`s “Late Night Endless”. What was he like to work with? Again he seems to have been quite a character.
Andy Fairley was a lovely fella, I think he came from a very strange family. Andy was into Russian literature. He was an expert on Russian literature. A very bright bloke. Socially he had a few issues, his parents were very odd. He was an only child and I think he was brought up under very unusual conditions. I think he had mental issues of his own. Very sensitive, beautiful person, he would sit and draw, he was a great artist. My memories of him are that he would sit down, give hours of his time to the kids, do drawings with them, everybody to a one loved him. He was a very good man. One second I just have to give my girlfriend a kiss.
There`s a The Fall production on the compilation dating from 1981. I didn`t think that you worked with the band until much later.
On that record (the “Slates E.P.”) I didn’t do very much at all. What happened on that was I knew Mark Smith through Steve Jameson (Rough Trade) and some other friends. I actually went with The Fall on their first ever gig in Berlin. So I knew Mark Smith but Geoff Travis said, “Look come to the studio. I`d like you to work with the band” and I spent all this time mic`ing up the corridor and mic`ing up the toilet and playing things ambiently through the speakers right, and the band loved it but to his credit Mark didn`t like it particularly, but I think he was quite fascinated by what I was trying to do. The band will probably have quite interesting anecdotes from that first session when they met me. I ended up helping Grant Showbiz because he was the producer. Mark was not using any reverb, any delay, any production techniques, because he wanted to sound a certain way. So literately with that tune all I did was help balance it. It was part of my history because I was there when “Slates” was being cut and I was there at the recording. But that’s Grant Showbiz`s tune. What I learnt from Mark Smith and why that record is so important, is like “anti-production” techniques. So I got a lot off him about completely dry, no reverb. On my productions you`ll notice that they get very wet, very delayed, very reverb-y, then extremely, totally dry. I get that movement by understanding the tension that you can get in a track by not having any effects whatsoever and then opening them up, warping the effect and then bringing it back to dry. Kind of anti-production, nothing there but the actual naked raw recording. I got that from hanging out with Mark.
I wondered whether you got The Fall job through Steve Barker?
No. I knew Mark Smith from Rough Trade. I used to be in the shop and then in the back they had the distribution. I was delivering my own records. I`d collect them from the press and Richard Scott would buy them off me. In there I met Daniel miller when he first started. You`d see Morrisey and The Smiths who were with Mike Hinc upstairs. There`d be Pere Ubu. I met all of them in there. You name `em. Rough Trade was very very important. The record label was not the main thing. It was a record shop and distributer. They wouldn`t phone anybody to look for an order, they would wait for people to phone them. It was one desk at the back of a shop, with three people round the desk, and then upstairs was the accounts department and the shop downstairs.
How did you meet Steve Barker?
Steve had a radio show and he contacted me because he started hearing the records and he liked them. We`ve been firm friends ever since.
It was Steve that introduced you to Lee Perry, is that right?
Kind of. I`d actually seen Lee Perry when I was about 13 at Palmer record shop in Harlesdon, but Lee had come over and Steve said, “Look you guys have got to get together”(for more information on Adrian`s time with Palmer Records and starting out with Joe Farquharson check the excellent interview with Bill Brewster over at DJHistory / http://www.djhistory.com/interviews/adrian-sherwood). Steve was in Lancashire but we agreed to meet at Southern Studios. Lee turned up with Rudy, who is married to Max Romeo`s sister, Rudy was driving him around, and he turned up with some multi-tracks and said “Put these on”. So I put them on and they were him doing cover versions of Bob Marley songs. I think he had a real beef with Bob Marley at that point. I said, “Hang on a minute check some of these rhythms”. Style had recorded some rhythms in Jamaica that I`d been overdubbing and processing in London, I also had some other rhythms that I`d recorded with Style and the crew in London. So I played them to Lee. Lee loved them and said, “Get the mike”, and that was the starting of “Time Boom” which we spent a year making.
Did you ever get to visit the Black Ark?
I drove past it but I didn’t visit it no. I`ve been on the road and drove past the building. He`d destroyed it by then.
You said that you met Mute`s Daniel Miller at the counter of Rough Trade. Is that how you got to do the Depeche Mode remix? Was that your first remix?
It was one of my first. I don’t think it was my first, but it was one of the first. Daniel and me always got on I always said hello although we didn’t have a lot in common. He said maybe we should do an electronic Dub album, he suggested that way back, which I`m really sad that we never got to do, but that was when he`d just done Silicon Teens and he was selling records out of the back of his car, and through the back of Rough Trade, same as me, and living at his mum`s. It`s funny I don’t see him very often but if we do see each other we always have a hug and how are you and lovely to see you and that. It`s because of my relationship with Daniel that Mark Stewart ended up on the label, Mute.
Was there ever any chance of you becoming an “in-house” producer / remixer for Rough Trade?
To be honest I respect Geoff Travis, he likes what he likes, and he offered me a number of things, and I don’t think I`d have been appropriate for everything. I did a few. Like you said The Woodentops. I did one for James Blood Ulmer, which was a bit of a mad one.
I like that record a lot.
Thanks, I don`t think people particularly liked it at the time. We did the miners record, with the Arthur Scargill samples, which Keith Le Blanc and me did, “Strike” by The Enemy Within and Geoff released the second Fats Comet one, “Stormy Weather”, that went through Rough Trade. So I had an OK time, but they were doing their thing and I wasn’t really gonna be anybody`s in-house whatever. I was doing my own thing.
You`ve talked in other interviews about taking on a lot of production work and remix work outside of ON-U in the `80s to pay off debts and to keep ON-U running. Were you sought out by artists?
Of course, for example Ministry. Ministry had heard African Head Charge, which had become quite a cult record in their shop, Wax Trax in Chicago. I got approached by their management, Seymour Stein, who said, “Would you like to produce this band Ministry?”, who I hadn’t actually heard. When I heard Ministry they`d just made like a Disco record, “Halloween”. I think Seymour thought I was going to make a Depeche Mode / “Halloween” type record with Al (Jourgensen), which I wanted to do. I thought, “OK, we`ll make a commercial record and have some success”, but Al wanted to sound more like Mark Stewart and Wobble and make a kind of anarchic mad noise.
Twitch is a hugely influential record, all the US Industrial guys, like Nine Inch Nails, name check it.
Well that was Al Jourgensen hearing Mark Stewart and getting influenced by Mark and myself. Al was getting into Front 242, and other things that were around at the time, the German stuff, so we ended up finishing some of that record off at Hansa Tonstudios in Germany with Gareth (Jones, engineer, producer for John Foxx, Depeche Mode, Fad Gadget), `cos he was a fan of that stuff as well. So it was quite a pivotal record.
What was Al like to work with?
He`s a lovely fella. What happened was that he and I had both just had a child at the same time. They`d had a daughter and they called her Adrienne, and I`d had my daughter Denise. We started in Chicago and then he came over to London and we worked at Southern studios finishing the record off.
I was going to ask if you were aware of the Industrial scene before working with Ministry, but by the sounds of it Ministry weren’t Industrial at that point.
Well, Al wanted to be. I think Seymour Stein hates me because he thought he was going to get a Depeche Mode. “Halloween” had been a pretty big underground hit and he thought Al was going to stay in that area, but Al was having none of that. He wanted to be his own man.
Were you aware of the Industrial scene?
Through Mark Stewart yes, because Mark was into Test Department, Einstürzende Neubauten, so Mark was getting more and more influenced, playing me stuff saying, “Check this frequency, check this noise”. A lot of things I got introduced to by Mark, and similarly by Ari Up who was getting into what was coming out of New York, and then I got invited to New York. There I ended up meeting Keith who introduced me to Doug and Skip.
Was that invitation and introduction through Tommy Boy?
Yes. I went for a week on my own to mix “Watch Yourself” by Akabu with a New York engineer at Unique Studios.
How did you get to work with DJ Cheese?
I didn`t personally work with him, but the boys knew Cheese who was the first world champion scratcher. Doug or Keith met Cheese, I think through Duke Bootee, Fletcher, and got him to scratch a few Tackhead tunes.
Did you meet Little Annie in New York?
No little Annie was living in London. She was amongst Crass. Annie Anxiety. I made a couple of records with her. She`s still touring all over the place. She`s currently touring with The Swans.
Did you meet Judy Nylon in New York?
I met her at John Lydon`s house in London.
Judy collaborated with Brian Eno, and famously helped him create “Ambient”. Was there ever any chance you might work with Eno?
It`s funny, because I know Brian, but not that well. We were going to work together after he did “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts” and I`d done “My Life In A Hole In The Ground” (African Head Charge`s first record). We were supposed to do some kind of African project but it never happened.
I`ve read somewhere that “My Life In a Hole In The Ground” was a reaction to “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts”. What did you make of their record?
What happened was, I was recording with Bonjo anyway, trying some experiments in the studio, just enjoying myself. I had such a big studio bill that I was just making records to try and keep things at bay and trying to get my stuff noticed. I`d read an article, I must admit that I thought it was really pretentious, I must be honest, where Brian was going “I have this vision of a psychedelic Africa”. I thought “Who the fuck do you think you are?” and then I heard “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts” which was good, and I thought about it and actually thought, “No, fuck me you`re right. I can hear exactly what you mean”. And to this day I don’t think there`s been a true proper psychedelic African record made. I think the potential there`s immense. With all the really heavy percussion, guitars, you could make something fucking brilliant. I kind of touched on it with African Head Charge but I think I could do it better. It would be getting the great players and a bit of time. I`d love to. I`d like to keep going in that area. It`s down to getting the personnel and the budget to do it.
You often use spoken word samples from William Burroughs and Timothy Leary. Would these people have been influences on your thinking?
(Big laugh) I just liked what they were saying, and I liked their voices.
Where do the spoken word samples you use come from? I have visions of you staying up all night videotaping documentaries.
Well people give them to me, and I record things myself. I`ve recorded quite a lot myself. For example when I went to Jamaica I recorded lots of stuff off the radio and TV there, I went to Chicago and recorded lots of stuff when I was out there. After that I had a friend called Richard Davis who recorded lots of stuff for me. Steve Barker, lots of other friends just gave me stuff, “Ah Adrian I`ve got this for you”, and I`ve accumulated tons and tons of sample material. Hundreds of hours of stuff.
Why use spoken word samples? It wasn`t commonly done when you first started out.
To be honest with you I didn`t want to be recording lots of singers. I didn`t want the responsibility of their career in my hands. Particularly a lot of the Jamaican ones who were a pain in the arse to be honest, which isn`t disrespectful to them. I just didn`t want responsibility for their careers and having people like “What you doing? What you doing?” all the time on my case, you know. So I made a conscious effort, having experienced that when I was putting people`s music out. I was very careful who I recorded and that`s why there`s not more vocalists on the label. The idea of cutting rhythms is cool, but then you might need a face on the rhythm so the use of certain spoken words just amused me to be quite honest with you. I started hearing other people doing it, and I thought I`ll do that myself, but I`ll do it in a more corrupted way.
As far as samples are concerned, I know you used to rig up things like motorbikes revving and rainforest field recordings to be triggered with drum sounds, to keep your productions unique. Do you still do this kind of thing?
Sometimes, it depends what colours you`re looking for. If you want to make something more exciting it`s good to have things keying off drums.
How did you meet Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, the other mainstay in African Head Charge?
He was introduced to me because he was such a great percussionist by Desmond Coke who was the keyboard player in Creation Rebel. Desmond and Charlie Fox, who was drumming on the live gigs, also drummed in another band called Freedom Fighters and Bonjo played in Freedom Fighters. He also had another band called Davrocks. The boys said, “He`s really good, let`s get him in the band”, so he ended up playing on the Creation Rebel live gigs. Then after that all went a bit wrong I just continued working with him.
You worked at studios like Freerange, Berry, Gooseberry and Southern at what point did ON-U become a studio itself?
Probably 1990 I got a proper studio. Prior to that I had a little four-track set up in my house from `85 but I didn`t build my own studio until 1990. I`ve had various ones since then.
I can remember seeing the ON-U sound system a few times at the Town & Country Club in Kentish town. Was that a residency?
We`d never do a residency anywhere. I think what happened at the Town & Country was I used to take the P.A. out of there. Lee Perry apparently threatened, with a hammer, the idiot who had the P.A. in there, who was a dickhead, so I used to take the P.A. out and put a bigger one in, so every time we played the T&C everyone thought we had the best sound ever in there.
Who put the ON-U P.A. together?
I hired it off “Deaf Pete” (Peter Howard), who had a company called Skan. He died Pete. He was a lovely fella.
Also around `89 / `90 you were doing regular gigs with Andrew Weatherall. With Weatherall on the bill do you think people were expecting to hear Acid House?
I didn’t really care. Weatherall can play everything from Rockabilly to whatever. Weatherall could have been the biggest DJ in the world. He`s the best DJ I`ve ever seen. I first met him in the mid-eighties. I`ve seen him DJ House sets, Dub sets, Rockabilly sets, and I`ve seen him do sets where he`s mixed all of them together. If Weatherall had just stayed in the so-called “House” arena he`d have been as big as any DJ on the planet Earth if he wanted to be. He`s got pride and he`s talented and he`s a good bloke with good taste. Weatherall doesn’t give a toss either.
The last time I saw / heard you play was in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on The Southbank. It was a showcase put together by the magazine, The Wire. They had you working a huge desk doing live Dub mixes. It was incredible. Memory obviously changes things but I am sure at one point a tune was playing, that sounded like heavy Roots, and you gradually removed the effects from it and reverted it to an old Robert Johnson-like Blues. Have I remembered that correctly? Did that really happen?
Sounds like a Little Axe experiment.
That was amazing, it blew my mind.
Thank you Robert.
You`ve always set out to obtain your own sound, but were there other producers that influenced you? Within the Reggae / Dub area, or outside of it?
Well obviously I got influenced by Lee Perry, Keith Hudson, Errol T. I liked all the records with the mad intros, gimmicky things. Outside it, the great production houses for people like for Booker T, Muscle Shoals, to Link Wray, to Phil Spector. You learn from everything.
I`ve seen you talk elsewhere about checking out stuff like Link Wray for odd production techniques. Were the old Sun records also an influence? Can you think of anything else that would have provided ideas or inspiration when you were starting out?
I used to hear them when Geoff Travis and the crew used to play them in the Rough Trade warehouse. I used to think, “That`s weird. I like the balance on that”. I was influenced by lots of things. I like things that are out of balance and just odd. Things that you pick up from.
What about contemporaries like Martin Hannett?
Martin was alright. Martin just used the Space Echo, and splashed it all over everything. I wouldn’t say he influenced me. I would say he was influenced by the Space Echo more than anything. He was a good producer. He recorded everything well and added bits of Space Echo, which is great. What a good way to make records.
I`ve seen you praise the music of Dirty Beaches. Are there any other artists / producers who are doing interesting things at the moment?
Pinch. There are lots of people around. I like Burial, I like Mala, I like Congo Natty.
Are the Dubstep guys doing the most interesting stuff at the moment?
They were doing. I mean I think things are moving on really quickly. Nothing lasts forever. I`m not really studying what anyone`s doing, but I love hearing things that I wish I`d done, and then trying to take ideas from there. That`s why it`s really important to keep working with good young people, and I`ve been fortunate that I`ve been working with a lot of good young producers and engineers recently.
How did you hook up with Pinch?
He invited me on a night of his at Fabric in London, and I then invited him on a night of mine in Paris. We became firm friends and embarked on the first part of our venture.
I love “Wild Birds Sing” from the new LP.
Any chance of an Adrian Sherwood or ON-U biography / book to accompany the forthcoming re-issue program?
Not enough time to write it yet. I can`t even think about that really. There`s barely enough time to breathe at the moment.
You wouldn`t need to write a lot. A coffee table book that just focused on record sleeve art with an accompanying story about the recording would be enough. That would be great in fact.
I did start writing one to be honest. I had this idea about other people, not about me. My observations.
Sherwood At The Controls Volume 1: 1979 – 1984 is in the shops now, and if you are in Japan, Adrian will be at Osaka`s Conpass on the 16th, Nagoya`s Club Mago on the 17th, and Tokyo`s Unit on the 18th (with Nisenenmondai live).
Thank you to Duncan at 9PR for setting this up. A big thank you to Josh for persevering and making it work, and a big big thank you to Adrian for giving me more of his time than he really had to give. As the man himself is fond of saying “Bless up”.