On-U Sound Radio Show Adrian Sherwood
This month Carhartt WIP Radio is bringing you a show by Adrian Sherwood and his legendary label On-U Sound. During a career of more than 30 years, Sherwood produced and remixed artists such as Lee "Scratch" Perry, Bim Sherman, Prince Far I, Primal Scream, Depeche Mode and Einstürzende Neubauten amongst others. His label On-U Sound, formed in 1980, is known worldwide for extremely diverse and cutting edge releases that are rooted somewhere between dub, experimental, Reggae, Post-punk and electronica. Furthermore many On-U Sound releases greatly influenced the sounds of today like ambient and techno, as well as encouraging the fusion of dub, Indie rock and Post-punk. Recently On-U Sound albums of artists and collectives like African Head Charge, Singers & Players, Bim Sherman or The Mothmen got re-released and Sherwood himself has produced, dubbed and released contemporary bands like the Japanese trio Nisennenmondai. In the near future he is planning to release a new Sherwood At The Controls Vol. 2 compilation and to bring out more stuff from the On-U Sound archives and into today’s global music universe. For Carhartt WIP Radio Adrian Sherwood has tuned in a mix that grooves between the past, present and future of On-U Sound. To gain a deeper insight, we had a little chat with the charming producer and record label manager about his life, his labels and more.
Hey Adrian, can you still remember what was your musical intake when you were younger?
Adrian Sherwood: Sure. By the time I was twelve I had already discovered Jamaican music. I still liked things like Tamla and Motown. Soul music that was coming from the USA. And certain British bands like T.Rex or Mungo Jerry and lot of pop tunes. One tune here, one tune there. Like it is when you are twelve years old. But then it was Jamaican music and soul music. Stepping good rhythms, you know.
Can you also remember when you DJ the first time.
Adrian Sherwood: I was 13 when I started to DJ in school at lunch times. Friends and me started little things to raise money for the old peoples Christmas party. We made more money than anybody else. Then I started DJ at Saturday and Sunday afternoons at a local club. At that time I was playing popular tunes from that time. Anything from Slade to Gary Glitter. Obviously we also played Ska tunes from Prince Buster and lots of Soul.
And you never wanted to be a professional DJ?
Adrian Sherwood: No. I never saw myself as a professional DJ. And to be honest: I still don’t think I am. I did it as a kid and I stopped when I was 16. I did not DJ for 20 years after that. In my mind I play more like a sound system operator. I am playing lots of music that lots of people can’t play. Or rare cuts that nobody has. It is not like I am playing a populist DJ set. I always try to have unique things to play out. It is a bit more creative. I've got my own samples, pads and effects and I do a dub mash-up set like a sound system operator. This gives me more freedom.
I literally stumbled in to being a producer. I never planned anything.
And what was an initial moment that turned into a producer?
Adrian Sherwood: I have always been the person mixing the band in front of the crowd. I love mixing bands. But this is not good for your ears and I never liked touring, because it takes you away from home. I liked more to be a studio person and doing the gigs for fun. When I was offered by the label Real World to do some remixes for them, on everything I asked they said: you can’t do this because of religious things or an artist does not want it. So I said: what about that I make an album for you with my own name, because I've never done that before. I was always the person on the back of the sleeve as a producer. Real World said that would be amazing and they gave me a few things to sample and I produced an album in my own name for the first time in 2003 called Never Trust A Hippy. It was logical that as I was suddenly in front of the record instead of the back, it propelled me as an artist and suddenly I did DJ gigs again. So I started to be on the stage instead of being behind it.
Adrian Sherwood: I had a record label since I was 17. I have been involved in licensing tapes from Jamaica as a junior partner at the label Carib Gems and later for Hitrun. With Hitrun I met Prince Far I and lots of other musicians. We were just sitting at home, smoking a bit weed and listening to dub and Reggae records. During this I decided to make a record for fun. So I talked to my friend Pete Stroud whom we called Doctor Pablo, hired some musicians to whom I hummed the basslines, booked a studio with Dennis Bovell and we made a record for fun. I did not expect anything but for John Peel it was the best dub record ever made in the UK. He played three tracks from it and suddenly somebody was phoning me up and tried to buy copies of it. I literally stumbled in to being a producer. I never planned anything. At that time I was 20 years of age. By the time I was 23 I had already done hundreds and hundreds of hours in the studio. Then I met Kishi Yamamoto, who became my wife. She was a really good keyboard player and she and I stay in the studio all night, her playing keyboards with other musicians and me playing and experimenting with the sounds. And a lot of it happened because we got access to cheap studios late at night. And then I slowly become a producer.
You worked till today with people Like Lee Scratch Perry, Cabaret Voltaire, Skinny Puppy, The Fall and now you mixed the Japanese trio Nissennenmondai recently. What do you still find challenging in the work you do?
Adrian Sherwood: Well I still use the same production techniques. For instance Nisennenmondai: we recorded most of the music in Tokyo and mixed it up in my studio. I used the same approach to mic’ing and tuning and recording the drums to make them sound good, as I would do a Reggae record. I use the same approach. I like the fact that I do something that might be linked to industrial or noise or even folk music or whatever, but I find myself doing it in a form that is rooted in what I know and like: bass music from the Jamaican sound systems. I use the same formal and equalization techniques that I know. I love doing all this with different styles. It is a challenge for me. I do not love only Reggae. I love Jazz and Rap and try to incorporate them into roots or dub or whatever. When I work with the UK producer and DJ Pinch, we use for instance ideas from each school – his and mine.
So all your works from The Missing Brazilians to African Head Charge start out as studio projects?
Adrian Sherwood: Yes. All started out as studio projects. African Head Charge became a band, but in the beginning they were a studio project. The Missing Brazilians was something that my wife Kishi and I did for fun. And that is really hers and my record. We never did a second The Missing Brazilians record. I think that record still sounds really good, even if it is more than 30 years old. That was a studio record in the time of tape manipulation in the school of Brion Gysin or William S. Burroughs. Also using distortion techniques that I have been picking up with my work with Mark Stewart. Or watching The Fall recording anti-production techniques. Or listening to things like Link Wray, where certain things are twice as loud as they should be or disproportionately leaping out of the speakers like Blackboard Jungle by Lee Perry.
In the last year many old On-U Sound records got re-released. What are the future plans for the label?
Adrian Sherwood: At the moment I am rejigging On-U Sound. I don’t have so many new productions that are coming out. I am just looking for something that I found exciting. Like Nisennenmondai. They are a very disciplined band, that sounds experimental. I found that interesting. If I found a band like that I am interested in working with. But also I have to have time. At the moment I am just completing the second album with Pinch. I am pacing myself properly. I am going to release a whole series of 7inches on On-U Sound. After that, we’re thinking about releasing a Pay All Back Volumne 7. We have not released a Pay It All Back record since 15 years either. We are going to re-launch that. Then I have a series of new releases, which will be a surprise to people.
On-U Sound inspired people who were successful, rather than being successful by itself. Many took the spirit from On-U Sound.
And what was the biggest On-U Sound hit ever?
Adrian Sherwood: Sadly (laughs) a hit was never a word. On-U Sound slaps.
What was then the biggest slap?
Adrian Sherwood: I mean things like Stoned Immaculate by Dub Syndicate or obviously Gary Clail & On-U Sound System's End Of The Century Party. Then a lot of things I produced went to other labels like Miracle by Bim Sherman, which was a pretty successful record. On-U Sound inspired people who were successful, rather than being successful by itself. Many took the spirit from On-U Sound. For me it is ok. A lot of successful artists come to me and tell me that I inspired them to be an artist or producer. Or they say we got a lot of ideas from listening to your records. That to me makes me feel much more better then having huge hits and lots of money, but nobody is interested in me anymore. I count myself a very lucky person. To have these kind words said to me means that I have a lot of hits and that I hit the right people. It is like Bob Marley said: the people will get the message. I’ve come to the conclusion that we had a very creative past with On-U Sound and I like to rejig that now with a lot of young people around and the help of Warp, who are wonderful.
In 1997 you also co-founded the label Green Tea. How did adventures like that came up?
Adrian Sherwood: Yeah, back then I was working with a gentleman called Pete Holdsworth, with whom I had been in the band London Underground wgere he was the singer. Then I started the Pressure Sound label and then I made Pete a partner. It was his idea then to do a sub label and that is how Green Tea was born. That was short lived but we had some good records with a Japanese band called Dry & Heavy. But all these records were not my productions. I did just A&R and stuff like that. Pete is still running Pressure Sounds now. I am no longer involved but he did a very good job. It is the leading Reggae re-release label at the moment, I would say.
If you think on your On-U Sound productions: which of them are you the most proud of?
Adrian Sherwood: Not easy to answer this question, because I am proud of a lot of them for different reasons to be honest. I could not single out any record. But I think if you look back albums like Learning To Cope With Cowardice by Mark Stewart And The Maffia or My Life In A Hole In The Ground by African Head Charge or Time Boom X De Devil Dead by Lee Scratch Perry and Dub Syndicate: they still stand out and I can go on and on. Records like Harry Beckett's album The Modern Sound Of Harry Beckett that not many people know are all wonderful records. I am going to say (laughs): every time I do a record, I think it is a great record! That is why I am so happy with the new Sherwood & Pinch record. It is really great. It is even better than the last one!
It seems like you like to keep your work fresh due to work with younger musicians.
Adrian Sherwood: Well in some way. But you have to keep your work fresh. But I still keep on working with the “grown ups” too (laughs). My engineer is a fantastic guy to work with. He is like my son. He is 30 and has been with me for six years now. He is like family and he is so good. He is dyslexic – he can’t spell cat! But he is the quickest Pro Tool Audio engineer you have ever seen. We are very well tuned in. His name is Dave McEwen. He is amazing. So it is good to have young people around.
And do you give them a lot of advices?
Adrian Sherwood: Sometimes. But sometimes I just sit and listen to get a fresh angle on things. I might say what I feel is appropriate you know.
Is it hard to bring your knowledge to younger people? You used different technique then the young people of today use.
Adrian Sherwood: This does not matter. You have to be good in whatever you use. When people ask me what to buy for producing, my first thing is always: buy a good microphone. Buy a good pre-amp and a decent compressor. To make sure you can record your voices well or your drums. These are just a few analogue things. Then you have to set some multi effects if you want to go real analogue. I can give people advice all day long, but it depends on what you do and what you use. I know people who work only with a W-30 sampler and they do amazing stuff with it. Or like Keith Leblanc, who can play the DMX drum machine like no other. People like him make their machines almost bleed! They make it sound like nothing else. So you have to be good on whichever tool you have got. Working in the boxes they say. At the end of the day the key is still having a good song or a good riff. If you swamp something with delays and reverbs you can be still behind it if there is no hook or melody. Try to walk on an original path and try to get some ingredients that you put in your productions and build something out of that.
And if you work all the time: how is music part of your everyday life? Do you listen to music in private situations too?
Adrian Sherwood: To be honest: yesterday I did 15 hours in the studio and today I’m going to do some exercise and relax. So I don't want to play any music and just clear my head. But maybe later I will check out a few things. It all depends. Sometime I check new stuff, sometime what I am just working on. I don’t play music everyday like many people around me do. I need to clear my head from time to time.
Do have some albums that you never get tired of listening?
Adrian Sherwood: Lots of old Reggae records I really like. I like Joe Higgs, old Bim Sherman records or some Jazz-like instrumental stuff from Ethiopiques that I love. Or just yesterday I was playing Chico Hamilton. It depends. Now I might sit down and go to some old vinyl’s as I finally got a record player again.
And do you have some contemporary artists that you like very much?
Adrian Sherwood: I always keep my ear open for fresh stuff but I do not want to start mentioning stuff and then not mentioning the other. Let's say Nissennenmondai, they are good.
Honestly: I never had big ambitions.
And what was you dream job as a child?
Adrian Sherwood: Honestly: I never had big ambitions. When I started in the music business I dreamed of working with people like Lee Scratch Perry and Prince Far I. I ended up working with all the people I was a fan of. So I was a very lucky person. But I never had a dream job. Maybe to become a footballer. But in music I fulfilled all my dreams. I count myself as a very lucky person.
If you could do a night in a pub with one of those people you worked with, with whom you would like to have a drink again?
Adrian Sherwood: Of my old friends? Well I miss all the ones that are no more here. Prince Far I, Style Scott, Bim Sherman, Lizard – I can’t think on that really. We are all here for a short time so I kind of enjoy the time with those who are still here.
Many records you did had a social and political tone. Is there a special ethos you live by?
Adrian Sherwood: Well: social living is the best! And when I have lyrics in songs I try to have sensible ones that are pro human. Mark Stewart is always very good with stuff like that. We always tried to make lyrics for provocation or information or news on the beat. We are all fans of a lot of the great messages that came from Jamaica. Marcus Garvey and stuff like that. The improvement of human beings and the uniting of people to fight the bullshit Babylon system that is lying to them.
Finally: whom would you want to play in a film about your life?
Adrian Sherwood: Leonardo Dicaprio (laughs). No I would not want anyone to do a film about my life. I think it will not be so exciting.