Drum ‘n’ bass has had more than its fair share studio talent over the last 30 years or so, but few have done more for the sound and the image of this once underground music as Goldie, aka Clifford Price. Or Clifford Price, MBE, as he’s known these days!
Yes, there are DnB fans who will question his appearances on Strictly Come Dancing, Celebrity Big Brother and Come Dine With Me, but there's little doubt that his pioneering early work with the Metalheadz label, and 1995’s debut album, Timeless, helped shape the music we hear in 2017. Even the often-mocked 1998 album, Saturnz Return - with its hour-long electro-classical opus, Mother - had its redeeming qualities, forging an experimental path that’s proved useful for many that followed.
Alongside Strictly et al, Goldie’s celebrity status presented acting opportunities with Guy Ritchie, David Bowie and even a Bond movie – we can leave out the EastEnders appearance as bad boy Angel Hudson. Then there were art exhibitions - he was a graffiti artist before he was a musician - marriage, divorce and another marriage. Music seemed to slip into the background, with only occasional releases to remind us of what he was capable of.
All that changed in 2015. Newly resident in Thailand, Goldie built a brand-new studio and quickly realised that music was the old lover that he couldn’t quite forget. An idea led to a song, that led to his recently released album, The Journeyman.
We managed to grab a couple of hours with him when he was in London in the summer and, in typical, understated Goldie style, he told us that The Journeyman was the “best fucking thing I’ve ever done in my whole fucking life”.
Did the idea of making a new album come as a surprise?
“Definitely! After I moved out to Thailand, I assumed I was gonna spend the rest of my days painting, thinking about life and going to yoga classes. Even though I decided to have the studio built, I had no intention of doing anything serious.
“But music was always there, hanging around at the back of my mind. When I described it as an ‘old lover’, I really meant that - I just couldn’t shake it. Then you start talking to yourself: ‘You made Timeless. Maybe that was the statement you needed to make. Can you really surpass that? It’s a fucking great album’.
“But no one wants to live in the past. I went back to Timeless, listened to it and couldn’t help but feel that it was an album made by a young adult. Yes, it’s a brilliant blueprint for what I was trying to say, but it’s an adolescent album. What would the grown-up big brother of Timeless sound like? What if the big brother came along and carried its young sibling off into the sunset?”
What was this big brother going to sound like? Would it be a ‘drum ’n’ bass’ album?
“C’mon… that’s a massive question. Was Timeless a drum ’n’ bass album? Let me ask you this: have you listened to the album?”
“Have you listened to it as a single entity; in its entirety?”
“The chances are that a lot of people are going to hear this album and, in their mind, they’re going to try and work it out by referencing a bloke who started making music a long time ago. A bloke who was very big in the '90s.
“Like I said before, Timeless was a blueprint, a fucking good blueprint. There were ten years of my life in that album. But The Journeyman surpasses that era and that sound. It was driven by 35 years of music and life and inspiration. To me, it feels like a very Proustian album, full of the images and smells and emotions that are scattered throughout those 35 years.
“I know what people will say about this album. It’s like a boxer who comes back for one more fight. He knows he’s going to lose, but he wants to pick up a final paycheck. I ain’t coming back for the purse and I am not going to lose any fight.
“Listen to it. Really listen to it from cover to cover. Ignore all the media bollocks and the social media bollocks. Ignore the fact that our brains have been fried by technology. Engage with it. Turn your fucking phone off for two hours. Take your shoes off and feel the ground beneath your feet. Breathe… concentrate. Remember that real music has heart and soul.
“If you want disposable musical heroes, go and fucking look somewhere else.”
Presumably, the advances in technology made this an ‘easier’ album than Timeless. No timestretching on the Akai sampler, hoping that the loop will match up with the music…
“Let me put it like this: I arrived in London the other day and, as I came out of the tube station, I was surrounded by all these mad, weirdly beautiful buildings. Buildings that weren’t there 20 years ago. It’s the same in any city. If you look back 20 years, there were probably architects who had begun to dream about the buildings we have today, but technology was lagging behind those dreams.
“Up until I made this album, making music had always ended up with some sort of compromise. I would pursue and push engineers with my own dreams, but there was a point where it wasn’t possible to get the idea from my head and into the computer.
“Now, anything is possible. Let’s start with percussion only, running in 3/4. After one minute, let’s introduce strings in 4/4. At some point, those two rhythms are going to mesh and they will make sense. At that point, I want to bring in the kick and snare, run for another 37 bars and then switch the strings to 3/4. Then, when it feels right - and only when it feels right - the whole song will switch to 7/8.
“This moment we’re living through is like some sort of fantastic accident for electronic music. We can test music to its very limits. My job as a director - not as a producer, a technician or an engineer - is to photograph it really well.”
Do you take any interest in the technical side… the difference between that DAW and this DAW?
“Of course, but to me, technology is a velvet claw. I hate it, but I have to use it. Technology is not my master; when I use technology, I take it for a joyride. I fuck it up and make it do things it was never designed to do.
“I have been working in studios for a huge chunk of my life. I was looking over the shoulders of engineers when the screen was in black and white. I’ve worked with engineers who know everything about everything in the studio. But those engineers will often have folders and folders of unfinished songs sitting on their computers. They never find closure. I need closure!
“That was one of the most wonderful things about working with James Davidson [one half of the Metalheadz-signed duo, Ulterior Motive, and engineer/producer on The Journeyman]. He knew what I wanted. In the past, I always felt like I was squinting my eyes whenever I started making an album, but this time I had my eyes wide open, and James understood the images that I had in my head. I have to say, he is probably the best fucking engineer I have ever worked with. And that includes the work I did with Rob Playford.
“There has always been this myth that Timeless was my idea, but it was an album ‘made’ by Rob. Bless him, Rob is a fantastic engineer, but that was my album.”
So, how does songwriting actually work for you?
“There is an image and a story. That’s what fucks me off about so much of the music I hear today. As a songwriter, you’re a raconteur; but where are all the fucking stories? Is this your story? I’m angry. I’m fucking angry. I’m angry and I’ve gotta get out of here. Here’s the chorus and I’m still angry. Angrier than I’ve ever been. Second verse. Guess what? I’m angry.
“Yeah, but why are you angry? What went wrong? Where is the rest of your story? I want details. I want that heart and soul. All you’re doing is shouting at me.
“When I start a song, I have an image and a story. In many ways, it’s more like painting than making music. I open my book and I mark bar zero. Then, I mark the end of the song. Some people might start thinking in mathematical terms… 8 bars, 16 bars. Music is not a fucking mathematical exercise! That’s why I tell every engineer I work with, ‘Do not look at the fucking screen’. Don’t count how many bars there are. Listen! Let the song evolve when it feels right.
“I never start a song at the beginning; I always start in the middle, working with the original concept. That might be a loop or a vocal hook. A weird noise or a string sample. Once that’s at the heart of the song, I work concertina-fashion, expanding the song forwards to the end and backwards to the beginning.
“Music is far more than numbers to me - it’s where I find peace. Even as a little kid, when I was living in the children’s home.”
What music do you remember from your childhood?
“Way before I started listening to hip-hop, it was James Brown, 10cc, Supertramp… a brilliant song by Judie Tzuke called Stay With Me Till Dawn. I can remember an incident in the snooker room at the children’s home. There was this other mixed-race kid who was a bit older than me. He looked more black than me and he had this big Afro… I really looked up to him.
“He wanted to go home at weekends, but they wouldn’t let him; they gave him a really hard time. This kid didn’t take any shit and he jumped up on the snooker table, swinging the cue around his head and throwing the balls everywhere. Of course, all the other kids started playing up and there was complete mayhem. Have you seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest? That scene where everybody’s going crazy? That’s what it was like.
“All I could do was put my hands over my ears and scream, trying to block out all this madness. When I used to think back to that, I imagined that Judie Tzuke playing in my head, calming me down. It was only when I started putting together the timeline of my life that I realised Stay With Me Till Dawn hadn’t actually been released then.
“What I was actually doing was looking back to the traumatic incidents in my past and lining them up with music that made me feel better. Finding safety and comfort in a song.
“In many ways, that story sums up how I still feel about music. That’s how important it is to me. That’s how important this album is to me.”
Does it matter to you what other people think of The Journeyman?
“Most of the people that criticise my music haven’t actually done anything great with their lives. And, ultimately, I don’t really give a fuck what they think. What does matter to me is that my daughter will grow up and say, ‘That song is about you and Mummy being in love’. That matters to me.
“At the end of the day, you can say whatever the fuck you want to say about me. You can love me or you can hate me. But the one thing you can’t deny is that I believed in my music. I made truthful music that came straight from the heart.”