For almost 20 years The Herbaliser has gifted the world their own special brand of hip-hop inspired funkitude. The impending release of a stonking new remixes album, of their acclaimed LP ‘There Were Seven’, gave us the chance to catch up with Jake Wherry, who candidly covered all topics including collaborations with former Whitesnake members, his traumatic recent years, and remixing etiquette.
How did you choose the remixers?
Ollie and I used to be really bad when touring, we never made any effort to network. Some people we know are the most amazing networkers, so we figured it was time to not rush back to the tour bus to smoke spliffs, but to stay behind and talk to the promoters and talk to fans. So quite a few of the remixes are from people we met backstage. Then there’s people we toured with - back in the Ninja Tune days we did a DJ tour of North America with T Power, drum n bass pioneer. He had a project called Chocolate Weasel - I first met him when he was stuck into a 200-lap race on Gran Turismo. I wanted to play Fifa - I was really pissed off!
Also I set us up a Twitter account and very soon we were interacting with various people and quite a few people offered to do remixes for us. Like the guy G Bonson - a French guy who really blew us away. He took things in a really different direction - lovely chill-out Ibiza, summery vibe. He ended up doing three tracks. And we met this guy Hugo Kant - kind of instrumental hip-hoppy electronic musician - in France and he’s about to get quite big out there. He plays flutes. He did a mix for us. My partner Ollie is involved in his hip hop project sound-sci - they did a mix for us.
Matt Colman was our trombone player when we had a four-piece horn section, about four years ago and his brother’s a trumpet player, so they’ve got this kind of latin jazz dance project on, on Wah Wah 45s - we did a remix for them and they did one for us in a kind of swap way.
Was there one person you were particularly excited to hear what they would come back with?
Everybody. With T Power, given that he’s a drum ‘n’ bass producer and more uptempo, he really surprised us because it’s really really downtempo his remix. The track ‘Take ‘em On’ is a really fast funk track in our album - he flipped it and did something really different. And obviously, the people we didn’t know that had offered their remixes, we didn’t know what to expect!
How did you decide who remixed which track?
We let them choose initially. But we have got more remixes of the ‘March of the Dead Things’ track - the rap track with Teenburger. And obviously ‘The Lost Boy’ is the only song with singing on it - that was a favourable one. I think people preferred to remix something with vocals.
Is there a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between you and the remixer? Do you discuss things you’d like to change?
No - if you ask someone to do a remix because you like what they do, you have to have implicit trust that they’re going to do something that you like.
I’m a firm believer in...just as Ninja Tune never offered us guidance or said “try and do a record like this” - they just let us do what we wanted to do - I think that’s really important for an artist to have complete freedom. So yeah, all the people that we approached we let them do what they wanted.
What’s it like having other people mess with your creations? Do you sometimes get a bit precious about it?
No - not in that sense, because it’s a collaboration with the fellow artist. I get more pissed-off when I spend ages designing a record sleeve and then it gets issued in Japan or something and they get the colours wrong. That’s more someone fucking with your art. Because they’re not sympathetic. Whereas we approach artists we like and respect and trust to do something that we like.
Do you ever worry that the remix will eclipse the original? Like the Timo Maas ‘Dooms Night’ remix?
No. That happened with that Normal Cook Cornershop thing too didn’t it. You know it’s sometimes going to happen. But if you’re the artist and you’re getting the publicity, it’s still a good thing even if it’s someone else’s remix. As long as there’s an element of what you did in the remix I don’t see there’s any harm.
So you like to be able to hear something from the original track?
Yeah. We had a remix done - one of the vocal tracks - ‘Same As It Never Was’ - by a psychedelic band from the UK and I don’t think they used anything. They may well have just given us an instrumental track that didn’t make it onto their album. I couldn’t see anything from our record. It should be recognisable or have elements that are recognisable.
How do you come up with ideas for your music?
Until more recently everything would start with a sample - not necessarily a loop, but a sound or a stab or something that would come off a piece of vinyl. And then we’d start adding to it.
I’ve always been the bass player but I never really took it that seriously - I was more into sampling. Most bass players are into Jaco Pastorius and playing really fast and really busy and I was just into the really simple grooves, people that hold it down like ‘Duck’ Dunn from Booker T and the MGs and the guy that originally played bass for James Brown - I forget his name. I love Bootsy Collins too but the first guy wasn’t trying to be flashy - just holding down a groove and that’s the playing I started off with. But then I had cancer in 2009, Hodgkinson’s disease, and whilst I was getting over my chemotherapy I decided I was going to make a real effort to become a better bass player.
So I put hours and hours in going through Youtube videos and picking a load of my favourite songs and working out the basslines - I’d definitely improved. So by the time we did ‘There Were Seven’ I was flying and had loads of ideas. So there’s two or three tracks I just recorded a bassline down to a click-track and we built it up from there -so yeah its’ kind of evolved from sampling but we’re coming up with our own stuff too.
Do you feel your sound has changed since you began?
When I listen to 'Blow Your Headphones' and 'Remedies' there this kind of young men really stoned attitude - we were 25 and didn’t give a shit about what we sampled. We sampled anything and chopped it up...but that’s nearly 20 years ago. You move on. But I think the spirit and influences have stayed the same. I can honestly say that’s there’s nothing really that’s come out that’s a new genre in the last 20 years that’s changed the way we go about things.
I’m not saying no good hip-hop or funk has come out in the last 20 years, but nothing that’s radically different to when we first started. So the influences have always been about that underground old-school hip-hop with funk, jazz, bit of psyche rock, soundtrack music - just as influential now as when we started.
Did your career turn out the way you thought it would?
No! We made a deal with Ninja to do one 12” single, and that worked out so they said do another, then a one album deal.
Ninja Tune was very much a case of being in the right place in the right time because it was a tiny underground label that wasn’t really known for having artists. It was putting out breakbeat records under DJ food, but DJ food wasn’t an artist back then more of a concept. And then we signed and Vadim signed a few years later, then amon tobin and it suddenly became a label with artists. It was very much in demand.
Suddenly we were getting to travel all around the world and it was very exciting but we never had a fixed vocalist so we were always surprised when we found ourselves playing at Glastonbury or Montreal jazz festival - we were just like: “Wow! People are really diggin’ this and we don’t have a singer.” Most people need to hear vocals to get music, and obviously we went on to feature various rappers over the years. But yeah, we were always surprised that we got where we did.
In the days when people weren’t downloading music, we weren’t selling loads of CDs but it was enough to keep going. So if you used to sell two million copies and now you’re selling, I dunno, 500,000 - you’re still going to be doing OK. But we used to sell 30,000 copies and we now sell about 1000.
But we haven’t been particularly prolific you know, we usually spend three or four years making a record but I’ve had a lot of issues - before I had cancer my first wife was killed in an accident in 2004. I had two young kids - four and two year-old boys and obviously I was devastated and it took me a long time to recover and get back in the studio.
Once I was starting to get over that - got a girlfriend and was moving on - I found out I had cancer and had to have six months of chemotherapy and a load of time to recover and the cancer came back. So there’s been a lot of reasons why we haven’t been working away in the studio and really you need to be putting a record out every two years if you want people to remember you and, for us, it’s been every four or five years.
So I think all these things combined mean we’re not in the position we were - but we’re not giving up.
Glad to hear it. What’s in the future for The Herbaliser?
Ollie and I are producing an album for Teenburger who were rappers on the last album - these Canadian guys that are pretty good.
And then I’ve been doing a thing with our drummer’s dad - one of the founder members of Whitesnake. He’s in his 60s but he’s an amazing slide blues guitar player. So it’s this project with hip-hop beats and slide guitar and also this harmonica player that plays with Pete Townshend who lives locally - he’s a friend of Ollie’s mum and dad.
Also we’ve decided - with the whole downloading thing - because it takes us two or three years to make a whole album, then people just download [for free] - it doesn’t seem so worthwhile. So what I think we’re looking at doing is releasing EPs in the future.
I think Ollie and I are both aware that, while we haven’t exactly made the same record over and over again, artists that have real longevity somehow reinvent themselves and don’t keep doing the same thing. So I think we’re gonna look at, without radically changing our sound, trying to make things a bit different. The next thing is an EP just aimed at b-boys - just for the breakers. Four tracks of just hardcore breakdance-tastic, loads of percussions breaks - so that’s the next thing.
The Herbaliser's 'There Were Seven - Remixes' is released on 30th June