Witness The Change: Trevor Jackson Interviewed
, March 23rd, 2012 12:37
He’s an elusive artist fuelled by his passion for progressive music and outsider sounds. But Trevor Jackson's new compilation dedicated to the EBM, post-punk and industrial dance acts of the ’80s unveils a fondness for the past. We spoke to him to find out more
Trevor Jackson is not one for trends. The London producer, DJ and designer has dedicated the last 20 years to unearthing the oddest pockets of dance music and signing the bands that “no one else would sign” to his labels Playgroup and Output, even though they just so happen to spawn movements like electroclash and luminaries like Four Tet and James Murphy.
So perhaps it’s strange that his latest compilation is a round up of ‘hits’, of sorts. Metal Dance came out last month on Strut Records, home to the brilliant Disco Discharge series and Horse Meat Disco volumes, and mines the sound of London clubland classics from ’80 to ’88. The selection was inspired by his formative years on the dancefloor at places like the Camden Palace, where the speaker juice consisted of extended mixes and dubs of new wave pop chart toppers.
But it’s a thread that has woven through all of his DJ sets and compilation output, from the dub of The Human League’s ‘Do or Die’ on his DJ Kicks mix in 2002 to 2007’s Kings Of Electro compilation, which started with a track from Throbbing Gristle’s Chris & Cosey. And on Metal Dance, he adds a personal touch with exclusive re-edits and extended mixes of his own.
Throbbing Gristle, who birthed the industrial genre, haven’t made it onto the Metal Dance tracklisting. But, then again, Jackson isn’t one to so obviously repeat himself. Instead, he covers a wealth of other politically-charged industrial, EBM and post-punk dance acts, from British acts Nitzer Ebb and Cabaret Voltaire to German new wavers like D.A.F. and Graeme Revell’s SPK, whose hallmark track is the name of Jackson’s comp and evocatively connects these varying strands of machine music. The “exotic, decadent disco mix” of Jah Wobble’s dub-punk ‘Invaders of the Heart’ and 23 Skidoo’s ‘Coup (In the Palace)’ are evidence of Jackson’s love of genre fusions – and the latter band, purveyors of primal tribal-funk, are reforming for the compilation’s album launch in London this weekend.
Though their production may sound dated to today’s finely tuned ears, these bands spearheaded genres that are increasingly creeping onto London dancefloors once more (especially, of course, along that narrow stretch from Shoreditch to Dalston). Club nights like Cosey and Endurance play these pulsing forms and numerous, disparate productions by contemporary electronic musicians like German youngling Gesaffelstein and Buenos Aires-based innovator Matias Aguayo are breathing life back into these harsh, aggressive beats. Then there's Metal Dance’s spiritual compilation cousins, Veronica Vasicka’s Minimal Wave series and the recently announced Fame: Jon Savage’s Secret History Of Post-Punk (1978-81), both of which underline the sonic parallels between then and now.
The Quietus caught up with Jackson to speak about the new compilation, living the role of the underdog and what it means to be truly alternative.
When was the first time you heard ‘metal dance’ music in a club?
Trevor Jackson: I started going to a night called Astral Flights in the early ’80s at The Embassy in the West End. Back in the day, Mick Jagger and Grace Jones would go there. There was this guy called DJ Wolf and he would play Alien Sex Fiend and then electro records and dub. I grew up listening to all different types of music, from new romantic electronic music, the more obvious things like The Human League, Soft Cell and Depeche Mode, to electro and hip hop. When I discovered hip hop, that was it.
Why did now feel like a good time to release Metal Dance?
TJ: I did my DJ Kicks compilation ten years ago and it probably wouldn’t have fitted in there, and it probably wouldn’t have been right, but now there’s a whole area of people making music inspired by it all. People seem to like new industrial bands like Factory Floor and if you think about what’s been going on with all that kind of Salem-esque ‘witch house’ stuff recently, it’s very dark, extreme, melodic, slow music. I think that kind of darkness has probably got people more interested in, or has introduced people to, the more upbeat EBM, gothy industrial sound. I thought it seemed only seemed right to bring some of this music out again, so that people who know the stuff can hear it again and people who have never heard it before could get excited by it for the first time.
What other new industrial-influenced artists are you into?
TJ: There’s lots of people making really raw interesting electronic music at the moment. The sound encompasses a lot of stuff, really. I love people like Jamal Moss (Hieroglyphic Being), who is an incredible music maker from Chicago. He just makes machine music. Then there’s Tevo Howard [another Chicago-based house producer] and Ital. And there’s a great techno producer, John Heckle, from Liverpool, who makes some crazy music that takes the essence of the kinds of artists I have on my compilation but brings it up to the present day. The difference is that a lot of the bands on my compilation made song-based music and there’s not so many people doing that in this style anymore.
It feels as if this style of machine music is an area of music that hasn’t been properly excavated until now…
TJ: No, not at all. There are many people doing a fantastic job at putting out really great reissues [like the recent Throbbing Gristle reissues] and there has been a lot of stuff like what Veronica Vasicka does with her Minimal Wave compilations stuff, which is really exciting. But she focuses upon the more obscure and the more limited demo tapes and it’s more to me than that. I wanted to focus on the more mainstream acts. A lot of these bands on ‘Metal Dance’ were on major labels; in popular terms, Yello were a band probably as big as Kraftwerk; Nitzer Ebb were pretty big in America and supported Depeche Mode and others on huge tours. The records they made were like club anthems of the ’80s – they weren’t top ten records but they certainly weren’t underground and unheard of. It’s more of a dance-based compilation than just an extreme listening experience.
It’s certainly not easy listening, though, is it?
TJ: Some of the more extreme tracks on there didn’t actually end up in the final compilation. It was purely a licensing issue. But, yeah, it’s not easy listening and I’m not interested in just making people happy, that’s not what I’m involved in music for. There’s a time and a place for that.
Does that approach translate to your DJ sets too?
TJ: As anyone that’s seen me play will know, I like to think that I’ll happily come on after someone, clear a dancefloor and get rid of all the people that really aren’t into the music properly and then build up my own new audience that genuinely love it. There is nothing worse than having a DJ before you who doesn’t play the music that you like and that has no connection to what you’re going to be playing. There nothing more interesting than building a club up: I’ve played four, five, six-hour sets and it feels as if you are communicating with people on a far more honest level than if you only have an hour. I’d never play a record I don’t like and I’d never play a record that I feel like I have to like, whereas a lot of people feel like they need to play what’s cool and what people want to hear. I don’t really ever want to play what people want to hear! And some of the best gigs I have been to were extreme or were where people really didn’t care what people thought and did their own thing. That’s truly exciting.
Are there any parallels between then and the dark times we live in now?
TJ: Not in terms of how the music reflects the social and political circumstances. So few bands these days talk about politics, apart from Radiohead, who have a political standpoint but don’t shove it down your throat. At a time like this, when there is so much bad shit going on, you’d think that people would but they don’t. I find it unbelievable the amount of shit that goes on in this country that goes on in the world, and people are happy as long as they’ve got their latest sneakers or they’ve got their Xbox. Club culture isn’t a culture anymore. There hasn’t been a true youth movement since rave and, to me, what hip hop has given the world in terms of music, art, dance, culture, style and attitude. People are transient – they jump on one thing and then move to the next. I think it’s quite sad.
Is the music on ‘Metal Dance’ is still relevant then?
TJ: It’s relevant because there are new artists making music which is equally as exciting. And there seems to be a new generation of musicians that don’t care about a genre and that’s exciting. I’m not some old man sitting here saying the old times were better musically. The links between techno and contemporary techno – or I don’t even know what you’d call it nowadays but many of the new strains of techno music happening – can see the links between that and these early records. Most of the founders of techno, your Juan Atkins', your Derrick Mays and your Carl Craigs, were listening to European records and bands like Skinny Puppy, D.A.F and Yellow Magic Orchestra. Jamie Principle’s ‘Your Love’, one of the biggest house anthems of all time, is based on an Italo disco and EBM style. That’s what this compilation is all about: not forgetting the history.
Except that now these records are far easier to make…
TJ: That’s a whole other conversation! What made a lot of these early records unique is that they were made with analogue equipment. If you buy a synthesiser or a keyboard now it has loads of presets in it so you can switch something on and you can get that funky drum & bass/dubstep bassline. Bur back then, you had to create the sounds yourself from nothing and therefore create something that is completely unique. It was about capturing a moment. I’m not saying that all new music made on virtual equipment is bad, but I just think that analogue production makes music more precious. It gives it more worth. The other problem is that everyone wants everything as cheaply and as conveniently as possible, but it doesn’t make things better. I’m a strong believer in the more difficult things are to achieve the more you value them.
How do you approach that “problem” as a designer?
TJ: That’s a different thing because as a designer I am about ideas and ideas can be physical or they can be virtual. An idea can be a conversation or anything so I am not so romantic about the whole thing to do with record sleeve design. Obviously I prefer to design something bigger, something that is 12" in size rather than something that is an inch-big, though. I’m working on a beautiful deluxe box set at the moment, which is something record companies wouldn’t have done a couple of years ago. But now they understand that it’s good to have something more tangible and something more physical for fans to possess. It worries me that there is a new generation of people that don’t actually want to possess anything and don’t care about possessing anything. I’m not talking about material things but – take photos, for example: the most important photos they will have in their lives don’t exist in any physical form whatsoever. If you think about it, it just exists as a piece of data on your computer and you don’t actually own it.
It can be cathartic and more practical to declutter your life like that, though.
TJ: Yeah, it is, and I’ve tried it both ways. I used to say how great it was to work with my computer and that everything was on my computer but then it broke and I had stop my life for a month. And then I realised that I have to do all these horrible shit things on my computer, I have to pay bills and do emails, so why do I want to be creative on the same machine? I wanted to disconnect from that so now I’ve gone back to how I used to work and my studio is ninety five percent analogue. All the music that I make is with physical objects that look beautiful and sound fantastic and I touch them and I play with them and they’re real.
Is there anything else we’re doing wrongly?
TJ: I don’t know why young, creative people now aspire to be so corporate. It seems like when everyone gets out of college they want to do a big job for Adidas or someone. When I was younger, people we were like: ‘Fuck corporations’. We were underground, we were independent and we wouldn’t have anything to do with these big suit companies. Have you heard of this band called Mmoths? I was in Rough Trade yesterday, playing this record, and it was a really wonderful record on some small indie label, as far as I could see. I’d never heard it before. I was really excited by it, came home, went on YouTube and found a video that looks like a fucking Natwest or KFC commercial. It was all these kids round a bonfire with hipster bikes, where everyone feels good and walks around parks, and it was so horrible. But it’s indicative of what’s going on at the moment.
Buying into commercial hipsterism, you mean?
TJ: They’re just buying into corporate culture. Everything looks super-indie now but it’s corporate. I‘ve always been drawn to the underground and the alternative – that’s what has inspired me throughout life. I’ve said it many times: I never wanted to be part of anything at all, I just wanted to do my own thing.
There’s a brilliant quote from you where you say that you were “a white middle class Jewish kid from north London making hip hop” and that was why, in the early days, your production alias was The Underdog [under which he made dark psychedelic hip hop]. Has that role come to define the rest of career too?
TJ: Without a doubt. You know what it’s like at school, where all the popular boys play football and everyone loves the cute-looking girls. You seem them now and they’re the complete failures. I grew up being a nerdy geek with Star Wars and comic books and not kissing my first girlfriend until I was 15 or something. I suppose that geek thing and being different has stayed with me my whole life. I have a record collection of around forty, fifty thousand records, and apart from those Human League records, I don’t have any of the big records that people have. If someone asked me to pull out a Neil Young record or a Bob Dylan record or a Miles Davis record, I don’t have any of them.
You must have one big record in your collection?
TJ: I’ve probably got Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’; I thought that it was a great record when it came out. But, what I’m trying to explain is that I’m more about an attitude. I’m not one of these kids that lives in Dalston but that could afford to live somewhere else and I want to live here because I want to rough it. I hate all that bullshit. I live it, it’s always been my life, I’ve been part of it, since I was a kid when I was designing record sleeves and doing remixes for these alternative artists. I was part of this culture; it wasn’t like something that I looked at from the outside.
How did you manage to get 23 Skidoo to reform for the launch party for your compilation?
TJ: I’ve known Alex for a long time and I threw the idea at him expecting him to say no and he said that it might be fun. I said to him that he played at it then would be to the right crowd. It’s pretty much the original line up bar one member, and they are going to play all the original material. I never saw them live myself but all I’ve heard from people who have is that they were phenomenal live. I like people that try and fuse things together, and they were mixing electronics with tribal African music with industrial music, and it was crazy.
Metal Dance compiled by Trevor Jackson is out now on Strut. The launch party for Metal Dance is at Electrowerkz, London on Saturday 24th March.