Adrian Sherwood: “It’s basically a cacophony of noise all held together with a good bassline” Interview by Jason Heller


Adrian Sherwood is about to embark on a tour of Australia and New Zealand for the first time in many moons. Since we last spoke with him in 2015, Sherwood and On-U Sound have been as prolific as ever, with reissues coming thick and fast, Sherwood releasing his second full length LP with Pinch (Man vs Sofa), new releases and live shows, On-U have managed to stay as relevant as ever in today’s short attention span music world.

In amongst a plethora of media that Sherwood is doing for his upcoming WOMADelaide show, we managed to sneak in for a very brief twenty minute chat. For a refresher on Adrian and On-U Sound I’d suggest visiting our last interview before heading in to this interview, which is a nice sequel of sorts.

Cyclic Defrost: At the end of our last chat you touched upon the uprising of UKIP in the UK, since then we have had Brexit, Trump, the rise of the Alt-Right and a general political shift towards the right. Considering this, I wanted to get your views about whether you think that music still has the same opportunity to act as an agent of change?

Adrian Sherwood: I don’t think it’s a lot different in certain respects, I mean the voice of young people is like the grime scene, young kids, black and white can relate to the rappers who I suppose in some way are speaking to them/for them whatever. I know my son and his mates and my daughter, they’re all into the current scene. I don’t think there’s as much political anger as I’d expect to be seeing at the moment, people are so zonked out by the social media and the modern world, it’s not really engaging people to go to rallys or marching and organising themselves to fight against something anymore. It’s like everything has been sanitised in a controlled way by how things are running. And I don’t see student movements. The students are saddled with debts, their parents are saddled with debts, governments are trading that debt, crippling lovely people like the Greeks. We’re in a situation where young Greeks are saddled with debts they can’t even afford, people in Greece who used to own a house are now saddled with a house tax keeping them even more downtrodden, and you can bet your bottom dollar it’s going to carry on like that. It’s like, “how can you control people?” You keep people controlled by debt because they’re scared they’re not going to be able to eat. So I think you’ve got this fear thing going all over the place where it’s not really producing the anger or focussed anger that I would like to see and every time somebody does really start making an impact they’ll gang up in them and make out they’ve done something about what people are angry about and move on. But still I’ve got faith in local politics. You can make a difference but… sorry, i’m getting all depressed…

Cyclic Defrost: Sorry..

Adrian Sherwood: I’m joking, I’m joking… I do think music makes a difference and you have to keep going trying to do something to entertain and cheer people up, sometimes I’d like more ranting, but most of the time you’rw ranting to the converted anyway.

Cyclic Defrost: On-U came out of that very right-wing Thatcher era, there was a huge upswing in political music and art. Has technology changed the way people think about community these days? On-U created a community that went beyond the local scene..

Adrian Sherwood: Well it’s gotten to be very disturbing. Everybody now, me included, is on Facebook, but on a sinister level it’s getting so focused. You know you’re being watched, it’s not a joke. So if you do try to organise group of people, people are just sitting on their bloody arses. You can get tens and hundreds of thousands of people to rally about how pissed off they are about Trump, but really he’s just the bad guy in the pantomime after the last good guy. The last good guy comes in to make people feel OK after a time of financial woe,then here comes a nasty guy to implement all the horrible things they want to do. It’s as clear as daylight to me. But I’m not a politician, i just make records.

Cyclic Defrost: You’ve been involved in politics through your music from the beginning though, your music has always been political, whether it’s had an outward political message or not, because you’ve stridently done your own thing. Before getting on the phone to you I was playing Warzone by The Missing Brazilians and….

Adrian Sherwood: (Laughs) That was ‘84 that record, so its 34-35 years old. I was really experimenting with overloading and distorting analogue and I’m proud of that record. I think it’s a good record.

Cyclic Defrost: It really is. So back to the political thing, it’s obviously you doing your own thing no matter what’s popular, just because you want to push the limits and to me that’s a political statement in itself…

Adrian Sherwood: Yeah, well the thing is if you’re making music… I’ve spent my whole life making music. I’m not making music to make money, I have to survive. I haven’t got a secret income because I’m not a hit oriented producer like Brian Eno or somebody, who I respect, who has managed to keep his integrity and do what he wants. I wish I could have done that but I didn’t (laughs) so i have to go and work and do shows and do things to survive. I do jobs to make money, i need to support my company, which is the remixes and other jobs. But I still only do the ones which I think I can add something to and contribute to and that I like. Otherwise what I’m doing is making what I want to make, also I’ve been a very very lucky person and I’ve chosen my own route.

Cyclic Defrost: You’ve been incredibly prolific, the last time we spoke you mentioned there was little point releasing music the way you were able to back in the 80s and 90s due to the way music is consumed these days. On-U is as prolific as it ever was, Creation Rebel have got back together for shows, there are reissues coming out everywhere. I was wondering how you think On-U fits into the contemporary music world.

Adrian Sherwood: Well things don’t run as a business anymore like that. You’re doing the music because you want to and in my case it’s a thing that sets a standard I suppose. I look at things other people do and think it’s fantastic and you wish you’d done that cos you like it a lot and if I’m making stuff and I’m liking it and I’m really proud of it, and other people looking on will think oh that’s really good, then that’s fantastic. Now I don’t really know anything else. I want to keep my little ship afloat cos it represents quite a few people, and it’s good and I’m proud of it. I don’t think fitting in is the word, cos of what’s going on around, I don’t really like it so I don’t really want to fit in. I just want to survive and keep going as long as possible, and try and help other people come along and bring some good tunes out. It’s more a question of surviving, you just have to keep going and find ways of getting everything out there.

Cyclic Defrost: Tell me about how the collaboration with Jahtari came about.

Adrian Sherwood: Well he’s a lovely fellow, I like Jan (Gleichmar aka Disrupt). He said he’d like to have a go at that so I gave him the parts. It wasn’t really a collaboration, he did his version of the Secret Laboratory tune. He’s a good guy, he has his own sound and I like that.

Cyclic Defrost: Tell me about the record you made with Nisennenmondai, their sound really fits in with the early 80s post punk that On-U was a part of. How did you work together with that project?

Adrian Sherwood: If I could work more with bands, like four or five players together and record, its much more fun for me. You go into the studio, make sure everyone’s in a good vibe, mic up everything properly and then get a roll going. With them, the’re a very unique band and I really like them. So it’s a question of not doing too much, it’s almost like the icing on the cake. We did that record in about four or five days. A lot of the best records are made in four days. There’s no reason with them to spend days and days doing inappropriate things with their tracks so that collaboration was great fun. The idea was that we were going to do quite a few gigs together, cos i think they are great live. We did a lovely show in Tokyo together for an On-U anniversary party, and then they all got pregnant so it didn’t happen.

Cyclic Defrost: Did you approach that in the same way you’d approach a session with Creation Rebel or Singers and Players etc?

Adrian Sherwood: No because those records are bands that I created, they weren’t real bands. They became a band maybe later, although New Age Steppers only did one gig, it was a studio project with Ari (Up – The Slits). No that’s a proper band so I’ve got to work with their material, not create it myself, however i wanted to. So with them it was more about making them sound really good.

Cyclic Defrost: As a fan on On-U’s records, I’m fascinated with the process of those sessions of the bands you’d put together. Can you give us a picture of what would happen when you were in the studio. How does a song for Dub Syndicate or African Head Charge come about?

Adrian Sherwood: The process was that each was quite clearly defined. After Creation Rebel’s demise, which was due to someone going to prison and some other weird things happening, that ended and everybody went their own way. Tony (‘Crucial’ Phillips) started Ruff Cutt and Head Charge, when Bonjo left from the Creation Rebel side he was studying African and Cuban music. I was quite interested in the idea of making African dub, properly with the heavy instruments, cos for all the chat of Africa in the Jamaican scene, they don’t really use the heavy percussion very much. So we went and did that and it was quite logical, the combinations of what things to use. Dub Syndicate was basically an evolution of Creation Rebel built around Style Scott. Basically it was our dub reggae project. Each project I saw quite clearly. I might have the same musicians on it, but each one had different sonics and different colours to make the records very clearly different to the others.

Cyclic Defrost: You versioned a lot of songs, a track will pop up on a New Age Steppers record or a Creation Rebel record or…

Adrian Sherwood: …Singers and Players… well that’s the real fascination for me, and I think with a lot of reggae fans, is what version is. Because version is unique to Jamaican music and its wonderful. And I think a fan of reggae would love to hear a hundred versions of Stalag riddim, and counting,. But what other music in the world likes that? I’m obviously a fan of version, if you make a good rhythm track, you can put two or three different people on it and when you go out and play it… You know, I’ve been making that record Dub No Frontiers for years now. I haven’t released it and I’ve got versions in Arabic, Japanese on the War Riddim, German and all different cuts of it, melodica version, horns version. When I come to Australia I’ll be bringing snippets of these and that’s what people love, they do love the version.

Cyclic Defrost: That leads us nicely to the upcoming tour, what should we expect?

Adrian Sherwood: Well what I’m doing, I haven’t been there for a long time. I’m going to do a little live dub set. I’ll have a mixing desk on stage, I’ve got all the composite parts. Part of it will be completely live mixing of every aspect of a riddim, and then i’ll be playing other tracks off other sources for samples, three reverbs, two delays a noise machine a noise pad – it’s basically a cacophony of noise all held together with a good bassline.

Cyclic Defrost: That’s all you need really. When was the last time you came out here.

Adrian Sherwood: I think the last time was when I did was when i did the thing with Lee Perry, Brian Eno and Seun Kuti at the Sydney Opera House.

Cyclic Defrost: Oh yes for Vivid, that’s right. Now you’ve mentioned Eno a couple of times. I know that African Head Charge’s My Life in a Hole in the Ground was a reaction to Brian Eno and David Byrne’s…

Adrian Sherwood: Bush of Ghosts yeah. I thought at first that what he was saying was a bit pretentious, and then I thought hang on no it’s not, it’s really interesting. So I wasn’t taking the mickey, I really liked the idea. And it’s ironic now cos we have the same management and he’s a really good bloke, Brian Eno. He chose his own path and he did very well, I chose my own path and didn’t do anything like as well! (laughs) but respect all down the line.

Adrian Sherwood will play a series of shows in March, staring at WOMADelaide 9th-12th of March, through to Sydney at The Basement, Golden Plains and finishing off with a headline show at The Curtain on 14th of March, before heading off to WOMAD in New Zealand. These will be shows not to miss, we’ll see you there.


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