Since launching his legendary, dub-centric On-U Sound label in the late '70s, Adrian Sherwood has been at the forefront of the UK's underground music scene. One of the first UK artists to become renowned as a remixer, he's worked with the likes of Depeche Mode, Primal Scream and Coldcut. His latest excursion into deep, dark bass music is Late Night Endless, a collaborative effort with Bristol-based producer Pinch.
We caught up with Adrian in his new studio in sunny Ramsgate to learn more about his hands-on approach to production, his live show, and how he stays relevant after more than 35 years in the business of dub.
For the full interview check outFuture Music 293 (July 2015), which is on sale now.
“The word ‘dubstep’ is used so much now... Everything with ‘wubwubwub’ and a big heavy bass is dubstep. Pinch is one of the originators in the scene, but he’s far more than dubstep. He likes hip-hop; he likes techno; he’s a very open-minded producer.
“He’s got a legacy of liking On-U stuff and he invited me to a Tectonic night at Fabric. We got on well and I reciprocated by inviting him to an On-U Sound night in Paris. I got him down to Ramsgate, where we decided to start making dubplates to play out.”
“Pinch is still playing off vinyl - he actually burns them onto acetate. For me I work under the premise now that if I’m cutting tunes I want to be able to play them out. I try to make them so that I can incorporate them into my set - the reason being that if I’ve got something no one else can play back at me, it makes my set special.
“And now I’m building a studio to use onstage, so I’m ordering a 32 channel Midas Venice desk. I’ll have the bass drum, the snare, the hi-hat and all the composite parts of the tracks and I can mix it live, like a live dub mix.”
“For the live show I’m using a Roland SDE-3000, which is a very good mono delay - very simple, very reliable, and good-sounding. I’m using a Space Echo pedal - they’re £150 or thereabouts, and it’s a brilliant little box.
“I love Eventide equipment; I’ve got an Eventide H9 which is the absolute nuts because I can select patches off my telephone by Bluetooth! I’ve also got an Eventide Space which I use for reverb which is wonderful. I also have a Yamaha SPX990 or 1000 on the gig, which has got one setting, a reverb flange, which I like.
“I’m making the promoters get me this big mixing desk that has to be hired. I can just do a DJ set, but you’ve got to try and stand out from the pack in my opinion - you don’t want to sound like everyone else. So you’ve got to have a few little tools and weapons that make you different.
“Some people take an MC with them. If I take an MC I’ll take Brother Culture who is a great MC, and carry on that way. Now the thing for my show is I’d rather go out on my own, just to try and develop my own sound and style for doing events; that’s how I’ve been carrying on for all these years.
“If you look at all the good DJs I like, like Congo Natty - he’s producing his own tunes, and he’s got a very distinct sound and he’s really good, he’s a legend. Mala’s got his own sound; Coki; all those people - all the good ones that survive - they become very good at their trade. I don’t see myself as a very good DJ to be quite honest, so I have to make up for that, but I’ve learned to get better at ‘DJing’. But I’m putting on a live dub show when I take the desk.
“If I haven’t got the desk I’ve got my noise pad which I plug into a delay - really good samples, and a battery of my own sounds, spoken word stuff, and my own tunes. And stuff that is either ultra-rare old reggae, or unique versions, or something that anybody who is an aficionado will go, ‘I love that tune’. Obviously I want to be playing fresh stuff as well all the time to test it out.”
“I’m an extra member of the band and the mixing desk is my tool. This desk in here is an old Soundcraft Sapphyre. It’s a bit crackly, but it’s actually a wonderful desk and I love it.
“I’m mainly familiar with SSLs, but running an SSL is quite expensive, and I don’t actually need one. This is the second Sapphyre I’ve had. When I had the On-U sound studios in Walthamstow in east London, we made a lot of the great records on a Sapphyre.
“If I had pots of money I might run an SSL room and have a load more gear, but what I’ve got in here totally functions for the sound I want to get. I’ve got spring reverbs over there - that’s a lovely old Grampian Spring Reverb. I’ve got the same reverb King Tubby used on his famous recordings - a Fisher. Then I’ve got things like the Mu-tron Bi-Phase and wah-wah, Lexicon 224, AMS reverb which is the best reverb ever made, AMS delay… These are studio tools that are irreplaceable for me.”
“You charge the record company as much money as possible! My approach to remixing was, ‘Why make it sound too much like the original?’. You had to get the essence of where the original artist was at, but then you had leeway.
“My ‘stamp’ would be a lot stronger than if I were producing. If I’m producing I don’t use FX for the sake of it; I work with the artists to get what they want. With a remix, they’ve done their thing, and I would make an Adrian Sherwood ‘version’. I would tend to be brought in to rip it to pieces, to try and make it as drastically different from the original as possible. That’s usually what the record companies were telling me to do.
“In the ’80s record companies were just putting out ten versions because the sales counted together. I was brought in to do the weirder version. They never got me in to do the A-side! But it suited me - I pumped in all the money learned from the remixes and production into the label to try and get it where I wanted to get it. I never quite achieved it, but I got respect for the label.
“I thought I could be the alternative Virgin or something. I kept thinking, instead of selling 30,000, we’d be selling 300,000 or 3 million. I couldn’t understand why my records didn’t sell more!”
“People go on about the ‘golden era of physical product’ - you’d think it was easy to sell things in those days! It was still tough because there were lots of people in the market and fewer distributors. So a distributor wouldn’t just take any old shit. I didn’t have a distributor; I used to distribute myself before Rough Trade when I was 17. I was driving all over England, distributing records to Reggae shops out of my own van. So did Daniel Miller; I used to see him all the time. He started Mute records.
“I remember Geoff Travis from Rough Trade; I went in there and played him my first ever record to see if he wanted to buy some. He said, ‘Sorry maaan’ - he was a fucking hippy - he said ‘I don’t really, like, see it man’. Anyway, two weeks later I’m sat with Prince Far I in Westbourne Grove in the car. It was ten o’clock at night and we turned the radio on for John Peel. He said, ‘Welcome to the show. I’m going to play you three tracks off the best dub album I’ve ever heard from England.’ That was my career started!
“Two days later I’ve gone by Rough Trade, and Geoff was like, ‘Adrian, that album is wonderful. I heard the album and I love it!’ It was the same album that three weeks before he wouldn’t take off me! Then the first On-U album, New Age Steppers, he took because it had The Slits, The Pop Group and members from The Raincoats and PIL, everybody playing on it.
“But the second album, he wouldn’t distribute, so I didn’t have a distribution deal for my label! Because he wouldn’t back me I had nowhere to go, so I ended up having to give six albums to Cherry Red, who basically fucking fleeced me and everybody else. We had the worst contracts ever!”
“I think I’m open to anything that sounds great that’s fed to me: if I like it I’ll nick that sound and incorporate it! I think people have got so bass obsessed now… they’re looking for this drama of the drop and super sub.
“That’s great - I’m from a background of bass and when I started tunes didn’t have that super sub. People were listening to funk and soul that was twangy and clicking and would sound great over a shag carpet. I used to go to reggae clubs and we’d love it because the bass would shake our rib cages and our bollocks. It wasn’t present in any other music.
“As the years have gone by and now even Britney Spears has got heavyweight production and super subs, suddenly everybody loves bass. That’s good, it fits into what I like, but you’ve still got to look in terms of a good song. I still like a good song, and I like the derived version that might come from that song. My daughter is 18 and she’s like, ‘Yeah I like this, it’s really heavy’ - all the young people like the big, heavy sound; they’re fascinated by the darkness and heaviness of it.
“You can rip up mid through the pianos or whatever instrument you want to get firing into the mid range, tom toms, anything… and people want you to draw it up and bring it back down to the sub again. Or, extreme treble, and a roll back down to the drama of the drop. That’s contemporary dance music now. It’s always that excitement of not having certain frequencies in there, then dropping them.
“I’m not a young producer but Pinch is. I’m wise enough to know - and that’s not ego - that I have to keep working with young people who have got fresh ideas, even if those fresh ideas sound similar to something I might have a reference on. But I’ve not been anything other than happily amazed by all the people I’ve worked with recently. They’ve got some great understanding of frequencies and I’m always picking up things by working with new people.”