A Certain Ratio have long held a special place in our hearts. As one of the most consistently funky post punk bands to emerge from the crucible of Factory Record's near perfect late 70s output, they have become a touch stone for forward thinking dance music, tethering the joyous pulse of disco and soul to industrial noise and scathing social commentary, and creating something uniquely British in the process.
After 2008's strong 'Mind Made Up' album, the band have been on hiatus, emerging to play occasional, rapturously received gigs - and they've got one coming up this weekend, taking to the stage at Blackpool's Alfresco Festival, alongside DJ sets Weatherall's A Love From Outer Space and performances from fellow Factory veterans Section 25.
We caught up with ACR bass player and vocalist Jez Kerr to chat about what fans can expect from a 2014 ACR performance, and how the music industry has shifted since the band's early days.
Hey Jez, I’m interviewing you for this in advance of the Alfresco Festival that you’re playing at, do you have any idea of the set you’ll be playing in advance?
Yeah, roughly. There’s some old stuff, most of it’s old stuff but still there’s some new stuff from the album we released in 2008 ‘Mind Made Up’. Lots of stuff really, we’re playing for about an hour or so.
When you revisit the older tracks, do you rework them or are you fairly faithful to the originals?
Well we actually did a bit of rehearsals for this gig so we might be doing some ‘new’ old tracks, ones we haven’t done for a long time. We only play maybe 4-6 gigs a year so we’re just delighted to play. We don’t get bored that much because we don’t play that often.
Do you normally not rehearse then?
We have one rehearsal usually but we’ve had two this time! But as I said we’ll be doing a few tracks we haven’t done for a while.
Such as what? Do you want to give it away?
I’ve not spoken to the guys yet but we’ll find out on Saturday... the ones we have been doing at the last few gigs have been ‘Do The Du’, ‘Flight’, stuff from the early days and then mid-period - and we do ‘Shack Up’ of course - and try get things like ‘Be What You Wanna Be’, ‘Won’t Stop Loving You’ into the set. A variety really.
How do you feel that the new material goes across in there? Are people responsive to it?
Yeah because it doesn’t sound that much different from the old material! The track we play from ‘Mind Made Up’ is the title track and it just sounds like one of our earlier tunes.
I find that with you guys it seems there’s a cycle of once every 7-8 years suddenly you’re back in fashion and music has come around to where you were again...
Yeah, well fashion’s a funny thing isn’t it? It’s difficult these days. When we started out there wasn’t the internet and it’s completely different now, especially for bands starting out - I’m working with a young band in Halifax and it’s a different thing altogether. Obviously bands are still playing music but everything else has changed, it’s the way their presented is very different and I think it’s quite difficult for bands to try and get some impetus going.
Do you think that if you were starting with A Certain Ratio now you’d have the success that you had?
Probably not, no. But we were very lucky, we started off when all those independent records started off like Stiff Records and all that. There was quite a lot of focus because there were really only 4 newspapers; NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, Record Mirror. There were only a few shows like John Peel so everyone was looking at the same thing. You got more attention really because today it seems quite fragmented and there are so many places to gig in a town. Back then there was probably 3-4 gigs other than The Apollo in Manchester or somewhere else big, there were only 3-4 smaller gigs so you knew people at each gig whereas now in each town there’s like 30 gigs a night with less people at each gig.
So when people had fewer options it focused things a bit better?
I think so yeah, you got more attention.
Do you think that you were also part of a generation of bands that were determined to make something that sounded different?
I think so, I think it was a reaction to punk which encourage people to think ‘well I can do this’. Prior to that it was prog-rock bands and real musicians, what punk did was make it not so much about that and it was about fashion, anyone could get up and do it. That vibe made it available for a lot of people who wouldn’t have been musicians, who were on the dole doing nothing to say ‘if you got a band together we could put a record out and see how it goes’. Not to make a living, just to actually do something. It was a very energetic time for people doing stuff on their own like that whereas I think it is different now. That still happens occasionally, bands who have their own little scene and just take it upon themselves, which is similar to what we were doing.
It’s funny you mention that part of it was sitting around on the dole - that’s not really an option now is it for kids? Because if you’re on the JSA...
That’s what I’m saying, it’s a completely different scene now.
It’s curious because it seems to me that whilst people that came up through your period were quite overtly political, now there’s probably more reason for kids to be political than ever before but there seems like somewhat of an absence.
Yeah, I don’t know why that is. I think punk-rock was a lot to do with that. Punk was just saying ‘F-off’ to everybody, it was just like ‘negative this, negative that’ and then it was developed because people started fighting causes and saying that ‘you don’t accept what you’re given’ whereas I think corporate people have got such control over things through the internet that kids don’t question it as much as they did, they try and just fall in line. I don’t know, I might be totally wrong but it seems that everyone questioning things was trying to do their own little thing, like you said, and musically it was quite new then to be, like The Human League - taking reel to reel tapes on stage, it was sort of very new- whereas it seems now that everything has been tried. But there’s still a chance for people who write good songs and interesting grooves to be around, it’s just a lot more difficult to get a focus for them so they end up building up their own scene - which is possible with the internet, you get your own following and you can get quite big gigs if you organise it yourselves. That’s the way forward, you get a lot of bands together and you get a lot of people together to watch them - it’s quite an event. This Al Fresco thing we’re playing has quite a lot of artists and it’ll have a decent audience in front of you.
Do you think as well that maybe there was, with A Certain Ratio, an arty-ness about you that people weren’t so self-conscious about being seen as arty perhaps?
Yeah, I didn’t really think about that - I think that’s more Factory you know.
You feel like the arty-ness has nothing to do with you?
Well it wasn’t nothing to do with us, we couldn’t really play when we started and we didn’t have a drummer, it was 4 of us for a year without a drummer and we did the first single without a drummer. It was a bit like Velvet Underground or Brian Eno and it wasn’t punk like Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned... We couldn’t really play much, so the songs were really simple, quite noisy. It was sort of that way inclined, ‘industrial’ people called it, the tunes consisted of only a few notes. The vocals, the lyrics were what it was about.
We wore Oxfam clothes, because we were skint we bought all our clothes from Oxfam which were old guys clothes so we didn’t look like punks. It was a bit of the wall and there were a lot of people like that. It just looked a bit weird in comparison to the punks with their spiky hair and leather jackets. I think that’s why people thought it was so new, it wasn’t designed like that though but people made more of it with the sleeves and the arty ways in which they presented it to the public.
It’s interesting that you started without a drummer because you’re one of the post-punk bands that I think are particularly dancey, me and a number of my friends have always DJ’d your tunes...
Yeah, we’d all grown up on soul music, whether Northern Soul or American Soul, bands like The Moonlights. So we wanted a drummer, and we wanted a funky drummer, and we found Donald. I remember the first rehearsal we had with him, we just carried on playing what we were doing and he just played his drums over the top and it felt to me like ‘wow, this is working’ so we carried on.
You knew in your mind you needed that strong dance beat to make it work?
Yeah, yeah. A lot of people were saying at the time ‘don’t get a drummer, it’s great the way you are’ but we wanted a drummer because we were listening to lots of stuff that had lots of rhythms in. I think that’s what did it for us. It made us quite popular, that mix of funky drums with our noise on top
Do you think maybe that danciness has led to your longevity as an act?
I think it allowed us a lot more scope later on. We really got into some more funky stuff. People say that we sort of mellowed out and went a bit too dancy really, and we lost a lot of our audience when we started playing the more Brazilian music. We never looked at that, we just looked at what we were doing.
How do you all get on which each other this far down the line?
Well it’s good actually now because we talk to each other! We don’t see each other outside seeing the band as all the lads are working, they’ve all got careers and what have you, and they’ve all got families so we don’t see each other as much. When we get together it’s fun and it’s so much better like that because everyone respects that. Because we don’t play that often, every time we play it’s special. We’re not playing every week, it’s better now than it’s ever been really! It’s not like back in the 90s when we were trying to make it, it was a good experience working with these top producers and stuff but then your money dries up, and you don’t have the money to pay the rent so you need a break from that. There was so much time to reissue our stuff and now we’re back together again, so that’s great. The places we’re playing want us, we’ve not seen each other for a while so we’re not getting on each others nerves.
And finally, are there any plans to record any new material?
There’s no plans but I’m sure we will at some point. I think we should get a new album done somewhere…