Adrian Sherwood: ‘At The Controls’ Interview by Jason Heller


Adrian Sherwood is either a name you are incredibly familiar with, or one you’ve never heard of. If you fall into the latter category, chances are he’s worked on things you love. He often has a habit of sitting in the background, or behind the mixing desk to be more precise and letting his plethora of pseudonyms speak for him. Having been producing records since his teens, Sherwood has produced, remixed or played on albums with and for the likes of Lee “Scratch” Perry, Roots Manuva, Tackhead, Coldcut, Nine Inch Nails. In 1979 Sherwood started the On-U Sound record label and began releasing his productions, based around the fringes UK/Bristol dub scene.

True to form, Sherwood has been a busy man of late. With On-U Sound re-releasing it’s entire archive online, as well as reissuing a selection of that archive as physical media, the new curatorial collaboration with Trevor Jackson (Science Fiction Dancehall Classics) has just hit the shelves, as well as the ‘Sherwood At The Controls’ compilation and a new collaborative release with UK producer Pinch (‘Late Night Endless’). Somehow Sherwood found the time to sit down with Cyclic Defrost for a Skype chat across continents.

After a few false starts across technology and time-zones, we finally managed to connect and got straight to business, Sherwood referencing Mark Stewart lyrics in relation to emerging technology got me about 10 questions into my far-too-long-to-likely-ever-get-through list, so we began with discussing the 1983 release ‘Learning To Cope With Cowardice’.

Cyclic Defrost: ‘Learning to Cope With Cowardice’ sounds like it will be recorded in 20 years time, it is still so contemporary sounding.

Adrian Sherwood: We are very proud of that record. It’s hard to believe it but it’s 32, 33 years old.

Cyclic Defrost: How did you guys do it, its a remarkable record, it sounds like nothing else and it will still sound like nothing else for…

Adrian Sherwood: Ever! Mark had come from the Pop Group’s demise I was coming from the reggae area, and we had met each other and Mark really wanted to do something really edgy, really overloaded, distorted and all these things he was hearing. I was really into experimenting with the studio so we spent about a year making that record. A bit here, a bit there, an evening here an night there and whatever like that and it just captured the great Eskimo (Charles ‘Eskimo’ Fox), all those great reggae musicians, Mark with all his maverick ideas and me trying to get the sound together with the mixing and to get what Mark wanted, and to get that real leaping out of the speaker thing at you.

Cyclic Defrost: It does that as a record, considering the chopped up nature of it. It’s really there, it feels like Mark is in the room basically growling at you while chaos comes in and out and falls around you which is…

Adrian Sherwood: … That’s what we wanted (laughs).

So after diving in head first I tried to get back to the beginning of where I had intended to go with the interview, you know, general set the scene – how did you get into dub etc… was it through school friends etc? If you are unaware of the history of Adrian Sherwood, he started with reggae music at a very young age. We discussed the culture in which he grew up and how it shaped his musical tastes.

Adrian Sherwood: Well in Australia you’ve got, it was and it’s changing a bit now, it was, after the genocide of all the aboriginals it was very, very white there, very one race and they excluded black people from being allowed to come there, I’m not having a go at Australians, it’s just the history of it..

Cyclic Defrost: Its still happening today…

Adrian Sherwood: Where we lived we had, you know, it was encouraged that the black people that had been exploited through slavery and the colonies and everything, were encouraged to come and be cheap labour in England, so you had lots of people arriving in England of former colonies of the damned British Empire. At my school I had friends from Pakistan, India, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Jamaica, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Trinidad – these are all in my class, that’s just how it was. And at that time there was a lot of great music coming from Jamaica in the late ’60s and bit by bit, I started out liking everything – Tamla Motown and all the pop tunes and whatever, but then the reggae, I became obsessed with it, and as the kind of black awareness thing got going, obviously the movements in the United States, Garveyism (the political and social movement based on the works of influential Jamaican politician and thinker Marcus Garvey), was particularly interesting and all these powerful records about black history and everything else. Even though I’m white it kind of resonated and struck a chord, because you could see the pride and empowerment it was giving to a lot of my black friends and it’s still clearly needed because a lot of black people around the world are still desperately coming to terms with the horrific legacy of that past. I think the reggae, not only did it strike a chord for them and empower them, it also got a lot of young white kids, particularly as it got into the 70s, it got to be about ‘fight this Babylon system’ which was also always oppressing white people because of the social history of England, you know. They were sticking five year olds up chimneys after they weren’t allowed to enslave black people with colonialism. In the 1830s when they made slavery illegal, they were still basically treating the rich, the elite in England, Britain, were still treating their own with terrible exploitation for children and people, that continues arguably to this day.

Anyway, I’ve started on a happy note. I got totally obsessed with the politics of it, as I got older I got more and more into particularly Garveysim and it was fascinating when the whole Rastafarianism aspect came in and the dreads. Then for a couple of decades, from the 70s, 80s and 90s, reggae was just absolutely mind blowing. The quality of what was coming out. There are still good tunes, but that time was, “oh my that’s another amazing record”.

Cyclic Defrost: Yeah it has changed a bit, it seems it more a UK/European based thing with roots these days.

Adrian Sherwood: I think it will come again, the island is very creative, and it was the sufferer’s music and there is still a lot of suffering going on there and lots of madness and it usually does produce exciting music. But I think globally things are so different now, because everybody can hear any embryonic idea, and everybody’s online, and things don’t have a chance to naturally find it’s way, you know?

Cyclic Defrost: Yeah you’re right, things do take time. On-U Sound took time to develop, so how did that all come about, Price Far-I was in town and you started to collaborate or…

Adrian Sherwood: No, well I was lucky. When I was very young I was working with an older Jamaican friend who was like a father really, cos I didn’t have a father properly, and he took me under his wings a bit and I used to DJ at his club when I was 13-14. He worked in the record business in the 60s with Pama, which became Jetstar and that’s how I ended up getting a part time job when I was in college at the record shop. And after that we started our own little distribution company and eventually a label. It was just one thing led to another, I just bluffed my way along really.

Cyclic Defrost: With what might be called the classic era of On-U Sound, New Age Steppers, African Head Charge, Creation Rebel, Singers & Players, all those acts seemed to merge in and out of one another almost seamlessly.

Adrian Sherwood: Yeah I would have been working on a lot of them, all at the same time. But the problem is nowadays, that I can’t just release them like I used to, because you end up releasing something and its like peeing on your own leg, you know, wasted time, because if you can’t promote it and you can’t let somebody know it’s released there’s no point. So not only am I trying to finish things that are very dear to me, I want to start on a new Sherwood & Pinch album, I’ve got a lot of things that I want to do but you can’t just release it and make the economics work any more.

I also think of it this way now, that when I am cutting tunes, at least 50% of them are tunes I could play out with my live shows, because I’m doing a live dub set, and I’ve got to make sure I’ve got lots of tunes to play that no-one else can play. So a lot of the things I am working on right now, I think if I don’t release it right now, just mature it, so I can play it live.

Cyclic Defrost: The On-U Sound website has just been updates with the entire back catalogue being re-issued digitally. There is so much stuff on there, and plenty of things I have never heard. It’s very exciting. Can you tell me about how that has come about?

Adrian Sherwood: I started working with Warp Records, which is a great label here and they’re doing it all for me. I’m doing it in partnership with Warp.

Cyclic Defrost: Singers and Players ‘War of Words’ has just been reissued on vinyl. I think Bim Sherman is very underrated when it comes to Jamaican singers. Don’t you think he should be a little more renowned than he is?

Adrian Sherwood: Well I think the problem was, I brought Bim over here when I was 21 in ’79, and we did a tour and he never went back to Jamaica. So maybe if he’d stayed in Jamaica and continued cutting tunes in Jamaica his legacy would have been a different one.

Cyclic Defrost: So how did you hook up with him in the first place?

Adrian Sherwood: I was a fan of his, he was quite underground, but I just loved his voice. I heard the original ‘Love Forever’ album by Bim which had been released by Coxsone on Tribesman in England. I had a lot of the seven inches and I was just playing it all the time. I loved it. And I said to Far-I can you cut a tune with Bim Sherman, he said I knew him and then we planned a tour in ’79 with Prince Far-I, Prince Hammer, Bim Sherman and Creation Rebel. The Slits used to come, Johnny Lydon and all that lot used to come and watch our gigs, and The Clash as well. That year I got invited to support The Slits on their tour with Creation Rebel and Prince Hammer and in January of 1980 we toured with The Clash as well, and as a result of that Bim came and he decided to stay.

Cyclic Defrost: So were those shows promoted as Adrian Sherwood, or Creation Rebel or…?

Adrian Sherwood: No, no, that had nothing to do with me. To be honest, I was just a person who at that time ran a record label which was Hit Run. On Hit Run I’d released loads of other peoples productions. I helped on the production of all the Cry Tuff records, and I produced my first ever productions which was 1978, I released in March ’78, I made it in ’77 when I was 19. That was ‘Dub From Creation’ by Creation Rebel, and then ‘Rebel Vibrations’ by Creation Rebel and I put them out with other takes I’d licensed from Prince Far-I and other producers.

Cyclic Defrost: So you got Creation Rebel in the studio, and you were dubbing it?

Adrian Sherwood: Well Creation Rebel wasn’t a band, it was a name of a Burning Spear song. With the On-U stuff there wasn’t a real band. I regarded everybody as whatever they were doing. I took members from different bands and put them together and gave them a name. So it was like a second interest to them, but it was my main interest. New Age Steppers, African Head Charge, Dub Syndicate, Singers & Players, they were my projects. I instigated all of those. Head Charge, Dub Syndicate they developed into bands. I eventually let Bonjo (Iyabinghi Noah) have African Head Charge and run with it, and the same with Style Scott. But Style Scott had been in Roots Radics, Bonjo’s main project was Noah House of Dread, and that was his baby. So the umbrella of On-U was a creative one where people could do their own thing. They came to me with a project, and I’d encourage them to do it or even help them start a label of their own. I wasn’t trying to handcuff anybody or contract anybody.

Cyclic Defrost: I think that comes through with the organic nature of the musicians and the music as well. It seems like a rare thing, it’s a very underground, community based ideal and I wonder if that is even a thing these days. Everything is online as soon as it’s recorded and…

Adrian Sherwood: I think in this day and age, it’s a changed time from 1980-81. That period was very exciting because all the records that you liked, they were all played, as opposed to programmed. I love going into the studio with a good drummer, bass player, musicians and recording it, overdubbing it and mixing it, and actually it is a much quicker way of recording. For other records you are going around for week after week after week studying the minutiae of every aspect of the sound, and I’m like mate, can’t we get back to how it used to be. That’s what a lot of people are doing now, which is cool, but I try to marry the two. Harping back to those old records you’ve been mentioning, we did spend a lot of time with albums like ‘Time Boom X De Devil Dead’ and Mark Stewart’s ‘Learning to Cope With Cowardice’, those albums were made over a one year period. Each one.

Cyclic Defrost: Let’s talk more about the production of those two records, and ‘Learning to Cope With Cowardice’ in particular, which is obviously many takes all spliced together. Would you cut everything up and then dub it, or was it just different takes all spliced together raw?

Adrian Sherwood: That one was both multi-tracks splicing and quarter inch splicing but it was mainly quarter inch splicing and tape manipulation. So for example Jerusalem was one rhythm track, it wasn’t cut up, but then we were flying bits of stuff like the orchestra being sped up over the top of it and then the whole thing through drastic EQs and played down corridors and stuff like that with an amplifier and a microphone, to get a really kind of stony sound and things like that.

Cyclic Defrost: Now you might know the answer to this, why didn’t the Maffia version of High Ideals and Crazy Dreams from that session not end up on the album?

Adrian Sherwood: I think that was… oh you’re right it didn’t, did it? That was because that was a different rhythm section completely. I think it was Sean Oliver (Rip Rig + Panic) on bass maybe, and Danny Sheals from London Underground. We were looking at having a 12″ with a bonus track so I don’t think we really cared about it at the time.

Cyclic Defrost: As you’ve discussed elsewhere, African Head Charge evolved in the studio as your response of sorts to David Byrne and Brian Eno’s ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, and it’s kind of imagined exoticism. Your works always seem to be imbued with authenticity, rather than an imposed ideal of the “other”. Do you consider this as an aspect of your practice at all?

Adrian Sherwood: Yeah I get where you are coming from with that. I’m not wanting to judge, and I can understand why people are fascinated by the exotic. For me I wasn’t exoticising anything. I was amongst a lot of reggae people, had been from very early on from ‘72 from the age of 14, hearing all these tunes like Little Roy coming in, and the development of Garveyism and the back to Africa movement and hearing all that stuff. I was quite fascinated by it musically, but then I got more politically aware of things later and at the time of doing all that I was very interested. I had met Bonjo who was from a Rasta camp in Jamaica, he’d been brought up in the same parish as Lee Perry. He was fascinated by African drums, so he’d studied African drumming and Rasta drumming and everything and it seemed to me that there was a big lack of African heartbeat, African really heavy drums in reggae. And to this day there still isn’t, to this day if you listen to the reggae you’ve got the odd tune, there’s lots of “vwoop vwoop” Niyabinghi stuff, but there’s not a lot of the big heavy drums coming through the rhythm so I consciously decided to make a record using that. I hadn’t heard Brian Eno’s record, I just read a comment in the paper. I hadn’t even named the band at the time. I just read Brian Eno saying “I have a vision of a psychedelic Africa” or something like that, and I thought you pretentious so-and-so. But then I thought about it and, no actually what a really good idea, and I thought you know what, I’m going to call it African Head Charge. And in response to his ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, we were working in a studio called Berry Street, which was under the ground in the EC1 in London, and I called it ‘My Life in a Hole in the Ground’. It was my little project. I built it around Bonjo’s drumming. So it wasn’t like I was reverential towards Eno, when I did hear ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ I did think it was a really good album, but I was more obsessed with the reggae and trying to make a proper African dub album. That was my kind of handle on it for that first album. And I still think somebody now could cut a lot of reggae rhythms, it’s difficult I think with putting in a lot of big djembe’s and not have it clash up with the bottom in the bass, but I’m still fascinated in making more rootical dubby African stuff than I even have done.

Cyclic Defrost: Was it a conscious decision, or it seems it was probably more your general working practice to be more inclusive. Was the place you were living in typically more inclusive or was it…?

Adrian Sherwood: No, not at all. I mean if you went to a football match in the 70s, and there was a black player on the pitch they were having bananas thrown at them, racial abuse hurled at them. The fact is it has taken years and years and years to get things a bit better. Our society is very mixed, mixed marriages, black women with white men, black men with white women, black gays, white gays, the whole country is trying to get to be more respectful of their fellow human beings. There are still things like UKIP coming up, there is the underbelly coming out, the whole “I’m not racist, but” thing. People are just trying to build a better world. I must say I was fascinated with the legacy, and very much still am, the disgusting treatment of black people, of indigenous people the world over, I think it’s unbelievable. The whole things needs to addressing and redressing and sorting out, to help everybody.

Missing Brazilians ‘Warzone’, ‘Trevor Jackson Presents Science Fiction Dancehall Classics’, Singers & Players ‘War of Words’, ‘Sherwood At The Controls: Volume 1 1979 – 1984’ and a whole plethora of On-U related sounds are now available at


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