Adrian Sherwood Talks
There's sonic obsessives and there's sonic obsessives… Adrian Sherwood is sonically obsessed.
For more than three decades, he's been one of the world’s finest and most consistently groundbreaking producers, artists and remixers with his deep and dubbed infused hand touching the likes of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, The Cure, Blur and Primal Scream as well as coining countless mind-melting new sounds with legendary acts such as Tackhead and Mark Stewart and the likes of African Headcharge and his legendary label On-U-Sound, whose influence is ongoing and, to this day, omnipresent
We caught up with Mr Sherwood over an as ever poor Skype link for an unexpectedly techincal interview…
"I've really spent hours and hours studying aspects of sound and production" Can you talk us through a day in the production life of Adrian Sherwood?
Well that was more when I was younger. Previously everyone was working with tape – you'd have a big fat two inch tape – and we were doing more live recordings and you'd spend hours and hours trying to make the drums sound good, approaching things using effects and EQs, playing things down telephones and miccing up the other end or playing things down tubes and all sorts of stuff like that. And from doing things like that I learnt a whole approach to sound to be honest. Where nowadays I still do things like; I record something and then take it and play it through an amplifier and re-mic it. I've got reference points where perhaps if you hadn't put the hours in and done it you wouldn't have. If for example, your drums or your bass aren't sounding quite how you want them and you want to just make it sound other-worldly, you could consider overloading the whole thing through an amplifier and re-miccing it 20ft away in a big room and then compressing it up and you've got something sounding amazing off something that previously wasn't sound so great. That's kind of an insight into what I would've been thinking if I was struggling to get the tonality right.
Do you use those techniques now everything's gone digital?
Well it works if you want to overload things. I've got a really good bass amp and we would take that and play things through that and drive it to give it a bit of grittiness. Because the digital stuff tends to be quite clean. Although people think it's got that 'wuh wuh wuh wuh' dubsteppy sound that really is at the end of your fingertips. If you take that sound and start overdriving it you add an edge to it. I still do that a lot using the amplifiers and EQing and overdriving through pre-amps. Over-driving gives it that warmer feel…
I do everything in a machine and then take it out and mix it in an analogue desk whch means I'm mixing it with my fingers.
Is this a technical interview? Because I like them… (laughs)
Well kind of, I'm just interested in the digital debate and keen to get someone like yourself's opinion on it…
Well I know people that take stuff that's digitallly recorded, take it off and run it into a radar system or onto a 2 inch and then run it back just to give it a bit of breath and graininess. But the fact is most people who are on the consuming end are not listening to what we're listening to. They're just listening to the finished product. A lot of the stuff that you've got digitally is so good and sounds so fat and wide and already there that a lot of people…. I don't know if it's just through laziness that they won't spend the hours studying the finite things of it that I like.
How do you feel know a lot of people now listen to things on laptop speakers… how can we reverse this trend?!
Well they use super compression or double compression even. Because what they're aiming for is to have the finished CD when it's mastered to get it as loud as possible.
I look at sound like a picture. I look at it and go it's a bit bulbous in the mid range and the bottom and very shiny on the top. Not just this huge attack that's right in your face. That's OK but after a while to me it might lose a bit of its subtlety… whereas if it's a bit fragile… but you do lose out on the levels a bit. That's where the compression does help if you're listening to your tunes on the telephone or something. Those American producers they're actual (laughs) masters of compression (laughs again) mental and music compression….
How were your dub session at Village Underground?
Great night… it was Friday 13th and it was raining and we weren't sure what was going to happen but it ended up being packed out. Was a really good night.
Are you involved in the RBMA Culture Clash thing?
They haven't invited me!! (smiles sardonicly)
What else you up to this year?
I'm doing the after-party thing at Notting Hill Carnival with the Ninja Tune lot which should be fun and I'm doing the Red Bull one in new York, affiliated 6 hour dub sessions with Peaking Lights – they've put together – for an experimental dub night which I think Lee Perry's going to be one the bill with me as well which sounds an interesting night.
I'm also working on an album with Pinch which is sounding absolutely stunningly good. We're hoping to do a few events around that.
Let's talk about the album… you only started making solo albums about 10 years ago, am I right?
Yeah I think it was in 2002. That was simply because I was doing more and more live shows… where I had my name on posters. And a lot of fans would know my name and they'd know Dub Syndicate, (African) Headcharge or Lee Perry and anything else I'd been doing but not me because my name was on the back of the sleeve! When I hooked up with Real World it was a logical thing. They said can you do some mixes for us and my friend Bobby and I were like why don't we just do a kind of Adrian meets the Real World because they had this amazing catalogue. And then we were like hang why don't we do an album in my name. So that happened and it basically projected me to being… I've said this before but I see myself a bit like Joe Meek, I see all the records I make as being mine (laughs). But the difference is when your name's on the front you've got all the shots and I definitely made the first two albums so that I could play them out for doing the live shows. Almost like a soundsystem operator where I can play unique things that no one else can play back at me, that no one else has got. Which I continue to do. But with this new album it's more like me than any of the others. I did most of the stuff myself. Not being a musician in the orthodox sense of the word. I made it using lots of very fast and frantic percussions, drastically downtuning them and strecthing them and making lots of things that sound like synthesisers which are in fact bits of stretched noise. I set this one out to be an album that you can sit at home and drift off to. I think it's a very contemporary dub record… it wobbles all over the stereo like most of my records!
You said "As a producer, it's my job to satisfy the artist foremost. I wanted to make something that was a little more aggressive and modern."
I loved your remix of Peaking Lights. They're one of the really interesting new bands that have pricked up my ears. Is there anyone of late you've heard who are doing it for you sonically?
I don't want to start bigging up one person over another but I did the Django Django track too which I was pleased with and they're a good band. I'm interested in the sonic of people and I always think that if you hear where somebody's aiming to go it excites you more rather than where they got. It excites you more than someone who's alreday (laughs) shot their load kind of thing… I like the fragility to it.
I had no idea you'd supported Blur back in 2006. Must have been an interesting gig? How receptive were the crowd?
Damon Albarn was very nice to me. I did a few mixes for them too which weren't in all honesty brilliant but they were OK but um, he invited me on that tour and I did a few of the Africa Express things too.
I was on that tour and with Ghetto Priest singing with me and joining me so it wasn't just me on my own stage and we were playing a lot of the dub and jungly flavoured stuff. And the Blur crowd clearly do not like the monkeys, the Gorillaz. They don't like them. And I don't think the Gorillaz crowd particularly like Blur. So it's interesting he's got two different markets. So we were playing places like Wolverhampton and they were pretty hostile. It was almost sort of redneck-y hostile. The Blur fans really don't like the reggae. To his credit he's got two different things going on. When he saw it was getting really hostile he would come onstage and was playing melodica stood at the side of the desk sort of half hidden just to give us a bit of moral support… he was a really decent bloke to be honest.
Sounds like you should've been programmed on the Gorillaz tour?!
I really enjoyed the experience and they were really nice to us… so that was good!
I love dub music…love it… but I'm approaching it more from more of a naive level in the sense that it's amazing to always discover things you've never never heard each day.
I'm still discovering stuff from other types of music; jazz, african stuff, reggae as well that I've never heard. Really brilliant tracks and that's what I miss more about the demise of the record shop than anything. Going in there, having a relationship with the owner and them going 'look, check this out, check that out' or meeting other punters and them going oh 'how you doing, have you heard this, you'll be into that'. Now we're just bombarded by every Tom, Dick & Harryy, yknow a lot of whom are really good, telling us that what they're doing is as good as whatever, 'the next coming'… but I loved it when people would turn people onto things. You saying you're discovering things is great and I'm not any different. I'm always looking for something that makes me go 'I wish I'd done that myself!'
It's difficult when you don't have that filter of the record shop because there's so much noise…
It had a little bit of mystique about it and now it's just bang, bang there I've heard it and goodbye… close the soundcloud!
And there we left it… what humility from a man who has produced such amazing sonic excursions.
Mr Sherwood's new album Survival & Resistance’ is out now. Get it here.
Optimo's Twitch conducted an amazingly insightful interview with Mr Sherwood a few months back in two parts on the excellent Racket Racket magazine. An obsessive interviewing an obsessive. Thoroughly recommended reading, both parts here and here
Twitch also put together two amazing Adrian Sherwood dedicated mix at the same time too.