“If I Hit You, You'd Feel It”: Leslie Winer, Trip Hop's Forgotten Pioneer
, October 29th, 2012 12:56
Some say that Leslie Winer aka © invented trip hop in 1990 with her album, Witch. Now she’s back with a retrospective compilation and Wyndham Wallace meets the reclusive former supermodel. Main picture by Sébastien Chou
It is, as we’ll no doubt be frequently reminded by its forthcoming deluxe reissue, 21 years since Massive Attack released Blue Lines, giving birth – history insists – to the genre now known as trip hop. Its slackened beats, stoned delivery and dependence upon dub, hip hop, soul and electronic music, were – to most people – revelatory, while its “shift toward a more interior, meditational sound”, as Simon Reynolds described it, helped establish one of the defining musical styles of the first half of the 1990s.
But the arguable truth is that Massive Attack weren’t the original architects of the sound. Smith & Mighty, for instance, had fashioned a blueprint with many of the tropes that would soon be associated with trip hop, and, for the few that stumbled across her, it’s customary to claim that radical-minded intellectual, poet and former supermodel Leslie Winer aka © was its originator with her, until now, only commercially released album, Witch. Even NME was once moved to describe her, perhaps less than flatteringly, as “the grandmother of trip hop”. It’s a claim of which Winer herself debates the authenticity.
“I'm not sure I even know what trip hop is even now,” she insists during one of the first interviews she’s done in many years. “As far as I know that term didn't arise until later, one of those things that critics make up in order to better organise their record collections. As we were making Witch, a lot of cassettes with different mixes were circulating around London. It's possible they heard some of these. I probably heard Massive in 1990 when Witch was already recorded. Of course, it's always possible that I was influenced by them, but at the time I was more likely to be listening to Dancehall and Scientist, or singers like Vera Hall, Iris DeMent and The Carter Family, or Bakoya Pygmy music. And I haven't been accused of being influenced by June Carter or the Pygmies yet.”
Musical movements often develop accidentally, and there’s no evidence to suggest that the two acts – or indeed any of those considered to be at the heart of the trip hop scene – had been anything more than coincidentally influenced by a convergence of styles that was soon to become commercially popular. To those, however, who have heard Witch – originally released as a white label in early 1990 (though exact dates remain vague, even to those involved) – there’s little doubt, in retrospect, that she had inadvertently stumbled upon a musical style that was not only prescient and innovative, but also unusually articulate and powerful. In their minds, she was a fearsome, fearless prophet before her time whose beats were blunt, whose aesthetics were ingenious and whose lyrics were both provocative and cerebral.
It was Winer’s words – for the most part spoken – that were perhaps most striking. Witch was full of startling images and brave statements, and tracks like ‘N1 Ear’, where Winer precisely dissected sexual politics over little more than a primal, cut-up beat in a frank, uncompromising fashion, were especially powerful. There, she confronted traditional visions of womanhood – “My sweetheart has a rosy mouth/ and whoever kisses it'll be healed/ and it's a sweet red splendid kissing mouth” – with numbly delivered statements that reflected (and, arguably, still continue to reflect) prevailing conservative attitudes towards women. So laid back was her vocal style, and so effective her musical production – its rhythms particularly irresistible – that it took a while for her intent to sink in. But, when it did, the song packed a punch that none of the so-called pioneers of trip hop would ever dare land:
“If I get raped it must be my fault and if get bashed I must've provoked it/ And if I raise my voice I'm a nagging bitch and if I like fucking I'm a whore/ And if I don't want to I never want to (‘you never want to, you never want to’)/ And if I love a woman it's because I can't get a real man or it's for his enjoyment/ And if I ask my doctor too many questions I'm neurotic and need pills/ Because I still can't get a safe birth control while some fucker's roaming the moon”
Caught up in record company wrangling, Witch took another two years to receive a widespread release in 1993, when it disappeared without trace, a victim of small budgets and difficult circumstances. Until it was found in the late John Peel’s record collection at the front of the ‘C’ section – catalogued as “the definition of a hidden gem” – references to it were hard to find anywhere. Making things even more mysterious, Winer’s further attempts to make music were thwarted by label ineptitude, and before long it was as though she’d never existed: Witch was out of print, no new recordings were forthcoming, and Winer, to all intents and purposes, had vanished.
Now, in another one of those unintentional flukes of timing, Witch is at last available digitally to discover once more, remastered with a handful of rare remixes. Equally exciting is &c, a compilation that draws upon not only that album but material that she has recorded in the years since, up to and including the low-key release of an EP, Alright Already, in late 2011, under the name Purity Supreme. Those who appreciate the subtler ironies of life will be amused that it hits the racks three weeks before the Blue Lines reissue, but what’s far more important is that it’s an inspiring, challenging and vital collection, and not just for those already familiar with her work. Leslie Winer may not currently merit much more than a footnote in the popular chronicling of late 20th Century music, but &c is a record that is arguably as relevant and cutting edge as any contemporary release.
For Winer, the existence of any interest in her work is something of a mystery. Holed up in a ramshackle, woodstove-heated farmhouse in the French countryside an hour outside Paris, she curtly dismisses the idea that it ever made much of an impact on anyone.
“Really, there was absolutely no coverage around the original release of Witch,” she says. “It went almost completely unnoticed. Just a few people listened to it, as far as I know. My name wasn't even on the original release” – it was simply credited to © – “and even on the first official release it was one name amongst a long list of people who contributed. It's only the Virgin France release that put that horrendous Halloween-y cover on it and my name. Praise for my music has always been totally fucking slim to totally fucking... nothing. Nobody is interested.”
Strictly speaking, this isn’t true. Though she may not have enjoyed the rewards of commercial success in the manner of Portishead or Massive Attack, there were a number of people impressed enough by what she did to want to work with her – though plenty failed – in the years after Witch’s release, including Björk, Grace Jones, Bill Laswell, Mekon and Bomb The Bass’ Tim Simenon. Virgin France, meanwhile, licensed the album in 1999, though this left such a bad taste that it’s clear she’d rather not think about it.
“They licensed it from me for a ridiculously paltry sum,” she says. “I got fucked on the deal. I don't mind saying: I Never Saw A Penny From Virgin France. Not A Penny.”
Furthermore, the only reason &c is coming out at all is due to overwhelming enthusiasm for what she achieved, this time courtesy of Philip Marshall. A print and digital media designer for the likes of ZTT and Comme Des Garçons, he works closely with multimedia organisation Touch and founded the cassette-only imprint The Tapeworm.
“He asked if he could put out some of my unreleased tracks that I had been putting up online,” Winer explains. “I was amazed that anyone had even bothered to listen to them. He picked the tracks, made the running order and put the tape out. Did his thing: quick and dirty. I liked the fact that I had to do exactly nothing and this object magically appeared. A tiny little cassette called & That Dead Horse. I've still not listened to it. It's on display. My life's work shelf.”
Winer subsequently agreed to the release of both Witch and &c on Marshall’s new label, The Wormhole, and the publication of a book of poetry, 10 Pomes Fin (Irish Wristwatch), by Marshall’s associated The Bookworm. Despite this sudden burst of activity, she remains scornful of the likelihood of anyone actually noticing.
“Who the fuck reads poetry?” she says in a typically self-deprecating fashion. “A bunch of other poets, that’s who. Picture me humming as I lovingly rearrange my life’s work shelf. Feather duster. Oooh! Irish Wristwatch written by me! Looking good!”
Admittedly, these forthcoming releases may be only a little higher profile than anything Winer’s undertaken since the early 1990s. Taken together, however, they provide a long overdue opportunity to shine a light on an exceptionally, eloquently creative woman while exploring the background behind material that, until recently, was gathering dust on that mantelpiece. Things, naturally, start in a suitably dramatic fashion.
“I was born in Western Massachusetts on a Christmas Eve to a 16 year old girl,” Winer reveals. “The on-call obstetrician was a distant cousin with a lady from Boston who became my grandmother. Not a wealthy family, but well-off enough to pay the family of the girl 'for her troubles' and have me handed over in the snowy parking lot of the hospital.”
Growing up on the Eastern Seaboard, she began playing piano as a young girl, and soon found herself moving amongst key players in Boston’s jazz scene and beyond.
“Gamal Blakey, Art's son, was in a band with my neighbour, and I'd go over there and watch them rehearse,” she recalls. “On the folk tip, Livingston Taylor also lived down the road and all those folksy people would come and go. It was the 70s. Ha! Everybody played music. Computer guy Alan Kay would have parties and Ray Charles'd be there playing. Middle of the night, and there's Ray Charles in the neighbour's yard. Unbelievable to think of it now. Later, when I went to art school, I got to see and hear Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Cage, Laurie Anderson and the like come around and give lectures and play. It was the late 70s and the circuit was small.”
Around this time she was introduced to William Burroughs, whom she asked to speak at her literature class. Though he was over forty years older than her, they became friends, no doubt bonding over a mutual love of rebellion. She began spending hours in his Bowery loft, known as The Bunker, as well as hanging out with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Soon afterwards, she was picked up by the Elite Agency and started modelling, mainly for Italian Vogue, though she graced the cover of The Face and worked with, amongst others, Pierre & Gilles, Helmut Newton and Irving Penn. She also played a vital role in the success of what became Jean-Paul Gaultier’s trademark, Breton striped outfits.
“Leslie Winer was the model,” Gaultier told Out magazine earlier this year. “So beautiful. The first androgynous model. Fabulous. She was moving like a guy. I gave her an umbrella, and, without even telling her, she carried it like James Dean in East of Eden down the catwalk. That attitude was so fantastic.”
Winer was less impressed by the experience. “At the time it was just a job,” she says calmly, ”the path of least resistance. It happened, I went with it, met some interesting people and travelled around.” Her attitude to the profession must have become apparent early on: though she soon became one of the world’s first supermodels, she also developed a reputation as being difficult, and as early as 1983 seemed more interested in music than fashion.
“Leslie had all the technology: a Texas Instruments computer, which was shit by today's standards, but a revelation back then,” her now ex-husband and, for a short time, Adam And The Ants’ bassist, Kevin Mooney told 3AM magazine in 2004. She’d started working with Mooney, providing vocals for his short-lived band Wide Boy Awake, and soon they joined forces more formally on his next project, Max. In 1987 she appeared uncredited on ’Little Ghost’, a Max single, and the same year they collaborated on ‘Just Call Me Joe’, the final track of Sinead O’Connor’s debut album, where she contributed a moody spoken word performance. Her work with Max, however, really set things in motion by allowing Winer the chance to watch Trevor Horn at work.
“I was sort of a backseat ‘Opinionator’,” she remembers, “which I'm sure annoyed the hell out of everyone, but, when I first saw Trevor mixing, I got the feeling that I could do that. I could make music with ‘The Machines’. Up until then I had thought that mixing was something done 100% aurally and I wasn't too sure that my ears were like how ears were supposed to be. But when I realised that Trevor seemed to mix visually, then I knew I could do that in my own small way, a 'Can you make this part come in the left, jump out and then fade straight back?' kind of thing. Placement. Spacement. Order. It made sense to me.”
She began working with Renegade Soundwave’s Karl Bonnie towards the end of the 80s, around the same time as she finally tired of modelling. They worked together in Paris on a track called ‘Kind Of Easy’ (included on this year’s Witch reissue) which caught the ear of former Spandau Ballet stylist Jon Baker, who invited them to record a couple of tracks for his Gee Street Records in London. Unfortunately, Winer states, “He absolutely hated them. Said that my vocals reminded him of Timothy Leary. Whatever that meant. He wouldn't let us have the tapes. Karl broke in, stole them back and gave them to me.”
Instead she signed to Transglobal, an imprint of Rhythm King, itself a subsidiary of Mute Records – the label to which Renegade Soundwave were signed – run by Martin Heath, whose signings included Bomb The Bass, Betty Boo and S-Express, and who would later help launch The Killers’ career. Recordings were informal, even unconventional, with the two of them calling upon the services of “people who were just around”, including various Adam & The Ants associates – Marco Pirroni, Matthew Ashman, John Reynolds, Mooney and Mooney’s childhood friend (and Wide Boy Awake colleague) John Keogh – as well as Jah Wobble and Helen Terry (who calls the album “one of my favourite bits of work”). Most of Winer’s labour, however, was undertaken with just Bonnie alongside engineer Matthew Faddy and Keogh.
“The sampler became an instrument,” Winer explains of the working process. “The desk became an instrument. All the die-hard studio musicians and A&R types were fearfully dismissive and thought that anyone could use a sampler. The truth is: yes, anybody can play a sample in, but not so many people can do it well. I mean, shit, anyone can pick up a guitar too. That don't make it right. A lot of the drums were live, then sampled, then played back in on the desk. No one can play drums on the desk like Karl Bonnie. He is an absolute master. Matthew had a shit-load of tablas because he had just been recording a BBC special on drums in India or something. [There were] obviously a lot of samples taken from vinyl: just bring a whole pile of records in and see what sounded good, and that would be a starting point for a track. Then maybe the sample would disappear or become inessential and forgotten.”
The result was a largely sparse stew of sounds that leaned heavily on a variety of sampled musical ingredients, underpinned by dub bass, minimalist rhythms and breakbeats. It was, quite literally, incomparable: whatever had been stolen was almost impossible to identify, though Neil Young’s ‘Ohio’ is surprisingly discernible on ‘5’. One instantly defining characteristic, however, was the attitude Winer projected. Alternatively seductive, sneering, detached and even enraged, there was an alluring looseness to her style that gave the record an unflinching intensity. Much of this came down to the manner in which tracks were constructed.
“You’d get a rhythm track down,” she elaborates, “then do a vocal whenever the mood struck. Maybe take one piece of that vocal and put it on the desk and play it in by hand or trigger it off a hi-hat. Whatever. Didn't matter. Just going with the vibe of the thing. There was no pressure. No one cared. There was nowhere to get to. Nobody was watching. It was a small window of time where people were able to make music that other people liked to listen to and throw it out there very quickly without any interference from A&R guys. It was happening so fast that there was no time for the usual bullshit to happen. No one was saying, ‘Yeah, but could you make this part a little more so and so?’”
Winer’s fluency with language was fresh and distinctive. ‘Dream 1’, one of Witch’s standout tracks, finds her drifting through a hypnagogic landscape, whispering as she recalls the details of her dream before interrupting herself with an almost Caribbean chant: “Hey, roughneck dangerous, ragamuffin son of a gun.” Hidden within is the kind of striking imagery that lingers even longer in the mind, an exhibition of the kind of talent of which her mentor Burroughs must have been proud: “My God, the clouds, the clouds/ They're like dirty cotton/ Armies of them/ Carbon monoxide and bees of the invisible”.
“Some people like words and some people like drama or fashion,” she says of her fascination for expression. “I'm not sure that I think people should focus on the words. I only know that I focus on words. The languish of language. I like words. They tell a story but tell it slant. We name things and then call that reality. How weird. Language is a technology. Imagine that. It's an add-on. We used to point and make mouth noises. Terence McKenna said that language gave us our first chance to lie. Before language, lying was almost impossible to get away with. They took one look at you and just knew.”
Winer attributes her vocal style to the jazz she listened to as a teenager, when she would mime playing upright bass while admiring the “endlessly comforting nursery rhyme phrasing” that she found in her Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler recordings.
“A lot of my favorite singers have weird phrasing that is most like that. Gregory Isaacs for one. Al Green. Even Dylan does this. Seen live, he sounds most like a saxophone at this point. Brilliant. Can't understand a word.”
Witch was always distinguished by the unmistakable passion at the heart of what Winer had to say. Hidden amidst her surreal cut and paste poetry were digs at, amongst other things, corporations and advertising as well as an in-your-face militant feminism. Confronted by the suggestion that some people may have found this intimidating, she’s suitably offended.
“Not sure what I can say to that. Seems like if you're female, and you do something as simple as not smile, it’s taken as 'being intimidating' or 'being a bitch'. It's like 'acting uppity' or 'rising above one's station'. All time-tested ways of keeping people in line in this ‘Dominator Fear War Death Culture’ in which we still find ourselves. Everyone does their part in perpetuating this crap. Even people who give every indication of maybe knowing better. 'Never too far in any direction', as Burroughs used to say re: The Control Machine. ‘How can I be more agreeable for you? Show me how to please you! Does my ass look too fat in this Rape Culture?’ I was reading an interview some time ago with a poet and the interviewer said something like, 'What's it like to be the most celebrated black poet in the universe?' or some shit pretty close, and the poet says, 'I'm just waiting for the day when you can walk into this room and see a poet.'”
The fire burning in her belly was due to an exasperation borne of the fact that such things needed to be said. Many of them, sadly, still need to be voiced, which is another reason Winer’s music so demands this re-release.
“I spent a lot of years angry. I spent a lot of years looking around at ‘How I Don't Want To Be’. There's no shortage of shit to get angry about if you've got the hankering to be angry. I'm still a little angry, but I like to fool myself and think I'm angry about the right things probably.”
If there’s something about which she ought to remain angry, it’s the fate that befell Witch. Despite finding a home amongst a small group of devoted fans – said to include Sean Penn, who allegedly played it religiously at his barbecues – it was largely ignored upon its release. Part of the problem was no doubt the fact that between the final completion of the album in 1990 and its official release in 1993 – with certain tracks newly edited and sequenced by Russell Haswell from a vast collection of DAT tapes that Winer used to deliver in plastic bags – Rhythm King left the Mute stable, having been bought by Sony in 1991. Still, if it made little impact upon the general public, its failure seems to have made even less mark on Winer, who’d already moved on and remains unconcerned by the circumstances that led to its commercial failure.
“I'm not sure what happened. It was already out on white label when I left London in late 1990. I have no idea about the business machinations of Martin Heath. I think by this time a DJ named Chris Douridas was playing the white labels on KCRW in LA. I moved to Miami and started hanging around South Beach Studios and doing some remix work. Then I started writing some tracks for Grace Jones with Joe Galdo at the behest of (Island Records’ founder, Chris) Blackwell. Karl Bonnie came over for a little while and we worked together on some other stuff as well. The real release of Witch happened somewhere around this time.”
Six of the tracks that make up &c are taken from Witch, but there are still another thirteen included, most of which will be heard for the very first time. Some were recorded for what would have been its follow up, and it seems that it was the experiences surrounding their recording that drove Winer away from the music business almost altogether.
“Majors got interested and came down to Miami to give me their spiel,” she remembers. “Then I went out to LA and met up with four different labels. ‘You remind me of Laurie Anderson.’ ‘Are you sporty?’ ‘When you say "Most of the crew got cancer", what do you mean?’ ‘Do you like sushi?’ and so on. I ended up signing with Geffen, who bought me out of my Rhythm King deal and all the masters reverted to me. They bought me some equipment and I started recording. Then my A&R guy left and they didn't pick up their option.”
She bristles at the recollection of being told that her recordings were “'80% of the way there'. Wherever the fuck 'There' was or is I could never figure out. The A&R guy once said to me, 'You like your bass like a black man.' This one comment freaked me out on every level. From every fucking angle. Unbelievable. I thought about this for years. I'm still thinking about it here. Ha! How you gonna talk to someone like this? Where would you begin?”
Winer’s Geffen album, 3 Bags Full, remained in the vaults. A third album, Spider, “was released in a very small way by Helmut Lang,” she says. And that, as far as almost everyone knew, was that. She popped up occasionally – as the featured vocalist on Mekon’s 2000 single, ‘Calm Gunshot’; performing at her New York friend Vincent Gallo’s All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2005 – but Leslie Winer as solo artist seemed to be a thing of the past.
Video by SÉBASTIAN CHOU
In fact, at the start of the 2000s she’d moved to France, where she still remains, to bring up her “more than a few daughters. I spend a lot of time in the woods. I'm married to a French man. I go to Paris occasionally.” Half-baked rumours circulated in her absence, the best of which, she says, “was in the comment section of a UK football magazine. Something like, ‘I heard she did some hard time for killing a man.’ I've also seen ‘The Dub Lesbian’. Good for when I meet someone new and they ask me what I do. 'Oh. You make music?' Sneering, patronising disinterest. 'Uhm, anything I might of heard of?' 'Well actually, ahem, they call me The Dub Lesbian.' Examine fingernails, toss hair. Especially good in French.”
Quietly, though, the move to France seems to have invigorated her: two tracks on &c were recorded in the early 2000s with film composer and Goldfrapp collaborator Stefan Girardet, as well as a further four since – including two that started out as remixes of Vincent Gallo tracks – with Christophe Van Huffel, her partner in Purity Supreme. They reveal an older, huskier but no less articulate and inventive artist at work, with extra credit going to the ferociously menacing ‘When I Was Walt Whitman’ from 2003. Purity Supreme’s ‘Dunderhead’ also astonishes, its lines – including “I’ve got a couple of drops of Indian blood, mostly on my hands” and “I got a tiny little phial of ‘come to me’ and a gallon of ‘get the fuck out'” – slurred and growled as the song lumbers towards a strangely Morricone-esque climax of piano arpeggios, drum rolls and chiming bells.
More music might be on the way, too. She talks of a couple of projects, as well as “my usual one-take crap computer songs”, one of which, 'This Fat Pitch', is included on &c. Then there’s her work with Swedish composer and conceptual artist, CM von Hausswolff: “I send him the vocal and he makes the track. I cheat, though, and do the vocal to bass heavy, dirty dancehall versions, and then act like I've just done the vocal straight out. It gives it a weird feel.”
It’s a strange but thrilling time to be a Leslie Winer fan. After years of apparent silence, the signs are that she may be back at last. For those who’ve not heard her work, too, there’s much to be excited about: Witch sounds almost timeless, and the work revealed on &c suggests the floodgates might at least be opening.
“I make things when I feel the need to make things,” she replies. “It's not so much a ‘Willing’ but more of a ‘Letting Happen’. I just try and get out of my own way. Let the chattering mind step aside kind of thing. I feel slightly awkward about releasing anything 'into the public realm' occasionally. Then sometimes not. Variable.”
The Witch might just be back from the dead.
Video by SÉBASTIAN CHOU