UK’s The Herbaliser began life as a DJ set between two crate diggers with a love of old school funk and hip-hop. Signed to Ninja Tune in the early ’90s they were part of a golden period of electronic music, entrenched in a community of artists like DJ Food, DJ Vadim, Amon Tobin and The Cinematic Orchestra, creating forward thinking funky music that pushed the envelope without forgoing a deep groove. Inevitably the funk took hold and The Herbaliser morphed into a live band that increasingly made its presence felt on their recordings. They’re coming out to Australia in their original DJ guise playing a string of shows including Womadelaide. Bob Baker Fish took the opportunity to catch up with founding member Ollie Teeba.
So you’re coming out to Australia to DJ. I imagine you started out as a DJ?
My understanding of music pretty much comes from DJing. I learnt about counting bars and musical arrangement. When you start playing about with records and mixing them together you kind of learn where the breaks, breakdowns and all that stuff are and you get a sense of pace. That’s why so many great DJs have gone on to be great record producers in all sorts of different styles of music, because it just gives you a sense of what you want to hear in terms of pace and tempo.
Was getting into production partly thinking you know what, bugger searching for the perfect record, I’ll just make it?
With The Herbaliser that was part of it. I mean we still dig in the crates we sample still, and dig to find old stuff. But we’re quite versatile with the band, we’ve got so many guys who can record great stuff, so sometimes you could be working with an idea or sample and feel really limited with what you can do with this, so quite often you would take it to the guys in the band. If it’s just a basic guitar part or drum part we can put it together ourselves because Jake’s a basic guitarist and I program drums, but we’ve got the horn guys can reinterpret an idea. Because usually what we’ll do if we are reconstructing something is we’ll add some new parts to it as well. Sometimes that sampling is eluding you and you can create it yourself.
I’ve been fiddling around with samples recently and I’m amazed by how you can actually change a sample with filters and time stretching and stuff until it doesn’t sound anything like it was originally.
We were playing around with time stretching with vocals a few years ago, and you can completely change the character of the vocals. In fact we had so much fun with it that we did a track called Generals with Jean Grae because we had an idea that we wanted to get a rapper who could create different characters and use this program to change and alter their voices. So we did this track where Jean Grae did 5 different people on one track and they’re all her. So we made her sound like a man, we made her sound like a 12 year old girl, all sorts of shit.
Is the legality of samples still important anymore?
It’s always an issue because with the internet you get websites, which are quite useful if you’re putting a track together with a sample. I like to do a little google search to see if anyone has already been there and done that. But they’re not particularly useful for dobbing us in to the man. Recently we were talking to our publisher who was saying you really have to stop using samples or reinterpreting samples because there’s all these guys on the internet. I mean its just a point of interest for them, but a lot of people who have sampled aren’t in a position of P Diddy or someone who’ll say I’ll throw you $50,000. I mean right now we’re totally indie. We’re putting our record out ourselves. We don’t have a sample clearance budget. You do what you can. This is what we do. It’s part of the sound. It’s not about not being able to come up with your own ideas, we just love to chop up old stuff and reinterpret it and refashion it into something new and different. I think it’s great because it’s recycling. Some of the time the original composer wouldn’t recognise their own music if they heard it. So many people are putting out their music for nothing on the internet, I think probably over time there’ll be less big law firms catching them out because there’ll be no money for them to grab.
I mean none of us are making any money, we’re selling minimal amounts of records, but you can be really unlucky. I’ve known people to put out very limited releases only to find the original copyright holder come after them. We’ve been lucky.
That’s the thing, a lot of the time the artists from the 50’s 60’s and 70’s didn’t quite get their business right. So a lot of the time the little label they did the recording with owned the copyright, and then that label was bought up by a bigger label that was bought up by a mega corporation. So a lot of the time you have these big corporations and they don’t even know what they own anyway. Even if you tried to sample they’d have to check. But you may as well chance it in my opinion.
I’ve just done another project with another group that I do called Soundsci, it’s a rap group with Johnny Cuba and three MCs from the states. We’ve just done a project with Ubiquity Love and Hate records where we made an album for the, using material containing copyright material that they control. Basically I just bought a compilation from Michael J Kirkland’s old ’60s band Michael and the Sensations and thought there was so much good material on it that I put this idea to Johnny and we approached Ubiquity and they said ‘sure, lets have a crack at it,’ and we did four tracks and the label said ‘let’s do 10 tracks.’ That’s great because not only is no one going to come after us but the original artist has signed off on it and thinks its great.
It sounds like win win. I wanted to ask in terms of the problems with no one buying music why go out on your own and run a label?
We’d already set up this label in 2001 when we did an album called Session 1. There’s a 10-inch vinyl and cd that we did. When we started doing the live show The Herbaliser albums were pretty much entirely samples. But as times gone on the bands became pretty much integrated into the studio recordings. Early on the live versions of the tracks took on a life of their own and became quite different from the original arrangements. We’d do concerts and we’d be trying to sell our Ninja Tune cds and whatnot and people would be like ‘we’ve got all that. We want what you just did on stage.” We didn’t want to do a live recording at a show, because its very difficult to get a perfect recording of a show, so we decided to take the band into the studio and just record it like people did back in the day. You’d have the band in the studio playing music together. Because today most pop music is just multi tracked. So you get that spontaneity that you don’t get with multi track recordings. Ninja Tune didn’t want to put that record out at the time so we put it out and it sold out. And then some years later we parted ways for one or two reasons, no animosity, we just thought it was time to try somewhere else. And we went across to Studio K7. K7 did well with it, but with our previous label we felt very much like part of something. When we would do interviews people would ask if it was a big happy family, and it was kind’ve, there was always someone calling you up from the office to get you involved in this or that. You just had very close contact.
It really did feel like that from the outside at the time.
K7 was quite different: we didn’t feel that closeness. Certainly we signed with an A&R who was very into us and he moved on to another company and we just felt adrift a bit. So we negotiated ourselves out of the deal and decided to go out by ourselves, and its been hard. People have really liked this album I haven’t read one review, I’ve not seen one 50/50 review, people have said its fantastic, some have said its our greatest album ever, but its very difficult to make any money. We’re still quite in debt to the bank. The vinyl has sold pretty well but cds are hard. I mean personally I think they’re dying. Most of the people who were buying cds were more about the convenience of the format, it was small, easy to store. So once virtual came in it was a no brainer for them. What’s better than a small space, well no space. Where people with record collections are the exact opposite. I mean my record collection fills up a room and a half in my house.
Lucky you …
There’s all sorts of junk in there as well. Some people got into CDs. I liked them initially because some of the booklets had more information and you got extra tracks that weren’t on the vinyl. There’s a section of that market, but the vinyl market is coming back. It will never be what it once was when it was the only format, but it is coming back for people who like a physical product. I’m one of these people I don’t by digital. I’ve probably downloaded a maximum 5 songs from itunes. If I can’t by the vinyl I’ll buy it on cd. I don’t feel like I own it. And in fact you don’t own it, as Bruce Willis found it. He’s taking apple to court because he left his music collection to his children in his will, it’s all digitial. And Apple said ‘no, you have licensed this music from us and you can’t give it to anyone else.’
So some people are saying fuck that and going back to vinyl. Certainly we did really well with the vinyl we made. We made 500 of this LP and we’ve got less than 400 left. I mean a few years ago if you said to me you sold 400 LPs I’d have said that’s a bit of crap. But today to sell 400 LPs by yourself with no distribution. We didn’t distribute the vinyl, we distributed the cd. But we spent money like a record label. We decided to pay a guy to do radio plugging and we spent money for promotional stuff and certainly those people did a great job but whether it equals sales or even pays for itself is something we’re gonna have to look at in a few months when we do our accounts – to see what we should do or not do next time.
What I’d like to do is more frequent smaller releases. This album might be the last full length album we do. What is generally the case is that when we do a 15 plus track album it takes 18 months minimum, I mean by the time There Were Seven came out it was already at least 8 months since we completed it. What I’d like to do is releasing EP’s that are between 4 and 6 tracks. When you do an album even if its 12 tracks it will take longer because what you’ll do is work on 18 tracks and whittle it down. But when you do an EP you’ll probably just work on 6 tracks. That’s what I’ve found with Soundsci. I mean we’ve got an EP that we’re gonna drop this month and we’ve already got the next one ready to go. When you’re working on smaller releases you can work on several different things and split them up, because these days since broadband what you’ve got to do is constantly provide the public with content to remind them that you’re still alive.
Surely the danger is that you stop being an artist and start to become an administrator?
I’m the warehouse as well. The vinyl, because we did it ourselves selling it from our website, I’m responsible for sending it out, so it’s all sitting in my living room. Not only do we have to administrate but I have to pack the boxes too, which was quite nice it was like having a job again. A normal job where you have to do mundane boring things that are not creative, but I quite liked it, I found it quite therapeutic. We did discover that there was a stressful amount of not just work but decisions. We had to decide to borrow an amount of money from a bank and there was so much other stuff that the record label just made the decision on. We had a period of months in the lead up to the release where there was so much to do that it was unbelievable, and it nearly did us in.
So what will you be bringing out to Australia is it the early The Herbaliser show, or willing you be playing tunes from other artists as well?
AS DJs we operate as DJs do. We play all kinds of music. For me the most boring DJs are the ones that come along and play their own music. There’s so much good music out there, and as a guy who was Djing before I was making music I still buy music. That’s what we’ll be coming with good music to dance to. Basically good funk and hip hop, dancy funky jazzy bits, mash ups, all sorts, we’ll definitely play Herbaliser stuff and also Soundsci too.
Sounds great …
As long as there’s funky people there who like funky things and like dancing then we’ll be good. We do what we’ve always done which is bring the funk and the old school hip, because we’re old. I mean we’re older than Coldcut were when we signed to Ninja Tune. I mean they’re even older now. I’m 43 this year you know (laughs).
It’s funny though a few months ago I saw Lord Finesse performing in London. You know the old school US rapper from the ’80s and ’90s. He did this really great show, all the old stuff, just him and one DJ, just showing everyone what you can do with the right two guys. What was great about it was it was 2 hours long, it was part live show part lecture, and he did a lot of stopping and talking. He was like ‘man I’m so glad you’re bunch of old muthafuckas because if I was looking out at a bunch of 18 year olds I’d feel very uncomfortable.’ He just knew if he was playing to a younger audience they wouldn’t know what the fuck he was doing. But we were all just screaming our heads off with delight, everyone time he’d drop one of 90’s classics we’d be shouting the words.
That’s the thing though, isn’t that what all the old people say? It’s our job to hate the music that the kids love.
You don’t want to become that person who says all this new music is crap. But we’re not saying that. We’re just saying it’s not really for us. I know where hip hop is concerned it seems the kids today are into hip hop more now than they ever were. But they’re into this stuff and it isn’t even fucking hip hop. I kept hearing about this Nicki Minaj, this is probably 18 months ago, and now she’s very famous and on X-Factor or whatever it is, and I thought I’m going to go check out what this is. So now I’ve made a rule to myself whenever I’m reading on the internet about a hot new rapper or whatever, I made a mental rule to myself not to go on youtube to check it out because it will upset you. I checked out this thing, I was like ‘what is this?’ It’s not hip hop, it’s just this load of autotune, it’s just pop music.
Whenever you look at a pop album or a rap album today, I’m talking mainstream rap obviously, but you pick up a cd and you’re just as likely to see featuring Justin Bieber or something than featuring Redman or something. It’s like all pop music albums every track is featuring someone else. Doesn’t anyone make their own music anymore? They sort of got that from us, from hip-hop albums that would feature all these rappers from all over the place, but now that’s all there is. You look at the pop album and its all featuring this rapper and that rapper, I say rapper but I mean autotune singer really and you listen to the rap album and its got all the pop singers on it. And you listen to it and its nothing like the music that inspired you. There have been lots of different developments in hip hop music and they’ve all felt like part of the same thing but now its gone way off track, and it seems like there’s a billion kids out there who love hip hop, but the stuff they’re listening to isn’t really hip hop, they’re just listening to pop music. They wouldn’t even know who Run DMC are or DJ Jazzy Jeff or DJ Cash Money, or Public Enemy.
Well Flavor Flav has a reality TV show so they might know him.
Oh yeah Reverend Run had a reality show as well.
You get the sense that a lot of the guesting are commercial decisions, it has nothing to do with the music or the community.
Oh yeah absolutely. Basically the big record execs started looking at the rap albums and thought these are selling really good, it’s the thing with the featuring. Actually it’s the perfect crossover tool, so you can have a rap song with John Mayer. Wasn’t he on something that was semi credible? He’s actually a serious singer songwriter, so they’re thinking if we can get10% of his fans to buy this single then we’ve made a ton of money. If we can get these rap fans to buy this crappy teeny bopper pop song because its got such and such a rapper on it then we’ve just made several million dollars. It’s the perfect crossover tool, which is why all pop music if you pick up a cd 70% of the music on it will feature an artist from a completely different genre just so they can tap into that market. It’s so hideous.
Well that was a bit of a rant from both of us. It doesn’t seem right to end it like this.
Yeah we’re leaving things on a bit of a bad note. But that’s sort of what There Were Seven is about really. The hidden back-story to the album is seven warriors that have to save their world from a machine that has taken over. And that is essentially how we feel about the music business. Its been completely synthesized. All pop, rap or dance music is almost entirely electronic. You rarely hear any real instruments anymore. Alright you still got your guitar rock bands and stuff, but that’s dull as hell. I mean we come from the electronic tradition and we’re saying that its gone too far.
That means something when people like you are saying something like that.
Even the human voice has been taken away and what you have is someone like Stephen fucking Hawking singing away. I like professor Hawking, but I don’t want to hear him on my rap song.
You need to get him to guest on your next album.
(He starts imitating Stephen Hawking rapping).
The Herbaliser 2013 Australia DJ Tour
Thursday 28th February: Upstairs Beresford, Sydney
Friday 1st March: Coniston Lane, Brisbane
Saturday 2nd March: Perth International Arts Festival, Perth
Sunday 3rd March: Pourhouse Bar and Kitchen, Dunsborough
Wednesday 6th March: Mobius, Hobart
Friday 8th March: WOMAD Festival, Adelaide
Saturday 9th March: The Espy, Melbourne
Sunday 10th March: Transit, Canberra