Interview: Jody Wisternoff
Jody Wisternoff is a man who's seen it all. From hanging with Massive Attack before they were Massive Attack, recording in SARM West at 16 and headlining some of the country's first official raves, he's been involved in UK Electronic music since its infancy. As one half of Way Out West, he helped pioneer the Progressive House sound, with more than 300 remixes catalogued since 1992.
Now, his debut artist album Trails We Blaze compiles his varied influences into a classic House trip, with an unmistakable musical sheen. We descended into his synth-stacked studio to get the story of the blazing trail so far.
"My dad said, 'Right, you better be making money within a year or you're going back to school.'"
What first got you excited about Electronic music and sounds?
"I remember playing an EDP WASP at a summer camp when I was about 11 and being really interested in the sounds it was making. I wasn't into music then or anything – I thought it was just a toy. That planted the very first seed of curiosity for electronic music. But I was brought up in a very alternative family – my parents were really into Can, Devo and prog and that subconsciously influenced me. The first equipment I ever owned was a Casio CZ-1000 that was given to me by my dad's friend one Christmas. Hip hop was happening when I was a kid and the SpecDrum on ZX Spectrum was my first 'beat box'. One of the kits had a 909-sounding snare and I remember thinking it was really interesting."
So it was sounds that caught you, or did you also have more 'formal' music training?
"Yeah, I had piano lessons which I resented at the time but am so thankful for now. A lot of electronic musicians don't have that background, and it's helped me out so much throughout my career."
A lot of Electronic musicians just use their ears, but would you agree that music theory isn't just about playing the right notes, but also helps you identify dissonant frequencies faster when mixing?
"Absolutely. Clashes in a mix aren't always about EQ. It all stems from the emotion of the melody too. In a lot of forms of dance music it gets put to the side but that's where the human connection stems from."
Did you start playing music with other people around then?
"Yeah, I was a DJ and my brother was a rapper. Before DMC was just a DJ thing they had this rapping championship and we got to the final, and it led to us having a record out on Three Stripes – Smith & Mighty's label. At the age of 16, when I was still at school, it was the coolest thing ever, especially at a time when making music was still fairly inaccessible to most people my age. To have a vinyl out at 16 was amazing."
And you just taught yourself scratching?
"Yeah I had one Technics deck for ages but it wasn't as much about mixing, it was more about cutting up breakbeats and learning transforming. It was all about hip hop – House didn't really appeal to me. My dad was friends with The Wild Bunch, who went on to be Massive Attack, and I remember him taking me to their place and Dom Thrupp [remixer and producer for Björk, De La Soul, Depeche Mode and more] played me this type of music in about 1985 and he said, 'This is house music, it's gonna be massive' and I just thought it was awful!" [laughs]
Do you remember the track he played?
"I don't! It was probably some really early Chicago like Mr Fingers. I just remember hearing the four-four kick and it really turned me off. Funny how things worked out, now the four-four rules my life!"
What happened with the hip hop record then? Was it successful?
"We were interviewed by Westwood and were in The Face magazine, and all these crazy things were happening. When you're a kid, you're so precocious you just kind of take it in your stride. You don't think about the future really, you just think that it'll always be like that. It definitely gave me a lot of confidence and the incentive to take a risk, so I dropped out of school. I remember at one of the first Universe raves, DJ Die and me were given slots because Easygroove dropped out and we were on at 3am. That was my first real experience with a big crowd and it was amazing. My dad said, 'Right, you better be making money within a year or you're going back to school.'"
Were you making tracks then as well as DJing?
"Yeah tons, we were bashing them out. We went through a bunch of cheap four-tracks. We didn't really have any money so we just used to beg, borrow and steal equipment. I found my 808 in a music shop for £60 and I figured out a way to sync it with the SpecDrum. We had an Alesis MIDIVerb II as well, but no sequencer, we just layered and bounced with the CZ-1000. Then my brother would get on the mic and pop out some lyrics. As Rave started to come in, it was almost like the Hip Hop beats getting faster and faster. In about 1991 I did a track with DJ Die – heavily inspired by 808 State – called Four AM, under the name Sub Love. That was produced by Smith & Mighty and we got to record it at SARM West, which was incredible."
"We had a tower of Akais with 40 outputs all going into the desk and that's where the magic was happening."
Were you beginning to get into the gear and technology then too?
"I'd started to get really interested in it and I really wanted a sampler. When I finally got an Akai S1000, it was a big day. I bought that with the publishing advance for Four AM. I also bought a Studiomaster 16 desk, an Atari with Notator and a Drawmer compressor that I didn't use for three years 'cause I didn't know how to use it! It's weird to listen back to those tracks 'cause there was no compression, no gating, nothing. I still remember the day I figured out how breaks could sound through a compressor. That's the beauty of not having conventional production training, you just kind of pick things up one by one – but you also waste a lot of time!"
But then it also means your sound is very much your own.
"Definitely, it was before the internet and YouTube, you couldn't just Google how something worked or how to sound like someone. You had to figure it out for yourself. At that point I still hadn't met Nick [Warren, Jody's partner in Way Out West] and the Rave scene had properly taken off. I remember the tempos were increasing every week. People were playing records at +8 and then others would hear tapes of the party and they'd put those tunes at +8, and then they'd pitch them up more and more. When the Electronic music scene was developing in England it was a real mish-mash. It was the era of the sampler so anything was possible.
"I remember feeling like the scene was getting a bit dark, though. I'd go to a house club and it felt like a good vibe but when I went to a rave, it started to feel a bit edgy. Around that time, my dad introduced me to Nick and he had a bit more kit than me. He had a definite vision of what he wanted to do and it felt nice to work with someone who wasn't into the same style as me."
So you started making demos together...
"Yeah and Nick had connections with people like Pete Tong, Paul Oakenfold and Sasha so we were in there very quickly. I curbed off the jungle and rave stuff and we just focused completely on Way Out West, even though it was influenced by the more hardcore stuff."
When did you start buying the synths that are in your studio today?
"Around then I bought an SCI Pro-One and an SH-101 and that was my analogue covered. I got the Juno-106 around that time too, but for years those were the only synths we had, even throughout the whole Way Out West era. We didn't feel the need to buy any of the classics like the Jupiter-8. The sampler was the big thing for a long time – it was all about how many samplers you had in the studio. We had a tower of Akais with 40 outputs all going into the desk and that's where the magic was happening."
What were your sample sources?
"So many records! Just little pieces here and there, not really loops. We were using the samplers as instruments, getting heavy on the filtering, even though the Akai filter wasn't great. The S1000 didn't even have a resonant filter. In the beginning I was just triggering and EQing – creatively treating samples with LFOs and creative filtering didn't come until later."
The Gift was probably your breakthrough track right?
"Yeah, it opened a bunch of doors for us and our remix career really took off after that. We were turning down remixes every week but – and I hate talking about money – it was considerably different to how it is nowadays. It was the golden era of the traditional Progressive House sound and it was nice to ride that wave. You do need to stick to your guns though, and if you chase something that isn't true to you it'll never be genuine and it'll only ever be part of a trend. Plus, there's a 20-year cycle so if you just stick to it, you'll be hot in 20 years again anyway!" [laughs]
And that sound has come back now for sure.
"Definitely! The Bristol house sound is one of the centres of the world for House music right now – Future Boogie is a great label, really hot right now. There's stuff that I'm really happy to play as a tracks at a lower tempo and because I write everything in Ableton but mix in Pro Tools, I couldn't drop it easily. I scrapped about four tracks, wrote four new ones and gave the album a new lease of life. I'm really happy I revisited it."
When did you start using Ableton?
"In the early days! It was still quite sluggish then but I loved the fact you could bend the audio in a way that was never as immediate before. That was around version three or four. I have that on my laptop and I use Pro Tools TDM on the studio computer, where I do all my mixing. Your mindset changes when you're mixing in Live – when I bounce the stems down and put them in Tools, I suddenly get a mixing head on and really start listening more. You stop thinking about adding more melodies, you just work with what you've got."
"I think we'll see a lot of DJs who were using laptops before because they loved having their whole collection, moving back to CDJs and USB sticks."
What plugs do you love for sound generation?
"I love Omnisphere, but things can become a little wishy-washy if you go overboard with it. Even though I've got a lot of hardware synths, I usually start my ideas in software and then recreate them on the hardware. You'd think it'd be the other way around, that you'd get more inspiration from the hardware, but I find it easier to write a bassline with a plug-in and build on it with the SH-5, or the Octave Kitten or the SH-101. In fact, tracks usually begin with a sample, and then I'll take them out and write around it. I spend hours on YouTube just clicking around listening for sounds and riffs.
"I'm still a massive fan of Reaktor too. Ever since the days of Generator, it turned me on. I don't build my own modules though, I just modify stuff on a very basic level. I've got Max/MSP but I've never had time to figure it out. I like playing with the user libraries. I know you could create a one-off, really interesting live show with things like Reaktor and Max, but for me I don't like to over-complicate things while DJing. The most important thing is just to play the right tunes in the right order."
And you're using CDJs?
"Yeah I did use Ableton for a while but I just found that I had too many options. For the style of music that I play, I didn't need to take advantage of what Live can do, I just wanted to mix two records really, with a bit of filtering here and there. Plus I like the idea of things drifting in and out of time, the physical side of DJing. I've tried Traktor and Serato too but I've never really enjoyed being overly careful about spilling a drink on my laptop. It's all about the USB dongles now – the only problem is remembering to take them home at the end of the night! Now that the 950s and even the 400s have USB, I think we'll see a lot of DJs who were using laptops before because they loved having their whole collection, moving back to CDJs and USB sticks."