“An Amazing Drug Like Quietus”: Jack Dangers Of Meat Beat Manifesto Interviewed

Nix Lowrey talks to Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto about dub, disaffection and railways

Jack Dangers – AKA Meat Beat Manifesto – is considered a reclusive genius: a veritable Dr Frankenstein of cut and paste, holed up in his purpose-built studio, Tapelab, which is swaddled in modular synthesisers, patch leads and old video cassettes. Since the late 80s, MBM have existed in something of a sonic Iso Tank inspired by dub and noise, and fuelled by political ire and pop-art, raves and revolutions. His pigeonhole-eluding melange of breaks, acid, soundscapes, sampling, stream of consciousness pastiche and cavernous basslines has been credited as an instrumental force in the gestation of drum & bass, trip hop and dubstep.

That’s not to say MBM hasn’t developed in its own regenerative cycles. They began rambunctiously with Storm The Studio – an album rumoured to have been inadvertently immolated and subsequently resurrected and reshaped – which unleashed the killer cuts ‘God O.D.’ and ‘Reanimator’ wreaking havoc on an unsuspecting American public. One can imagine The Chemical Brothers sitting in their respective school yards with brows furrowed in wonder and ambition, taking the mental notes that would one day surface as Exit Planet Dust.

99% came later, sporting the heavy guitars that were such a hallmark of the US/Canadian industrial scene, while Satyricon, released in 1992, marks the first MBM turning point, with Dangers spending his nights frugging in fields with fellow bleepsters Orbital and The Orb. This album is the triumph of Britain’s recurring summers of love, ecstasy and synthetic instrumentalism over America’s rock-infused industrial and its bombastic testosterone-fuelled antics.

Satyricon was the final MBM album written in the UK. Following its release were the San Francisco years, as Dangers grabbed the interest shown by labels, radio and Trent Reznor at the head of Nothing Records to leave Bleepscape UK behind. Albums Actual Sound and Voices and RU OK shook up the expectations of Manifesto fans, with Dangers exploring far more experimental territory. In the bosom of sympathetic San Fran, Dangers was collecting classic analogue instruments and pursuing a far more remote sonic geography. And yet, in spite of turning his back on the dense breaks and agenda-funk of his earlier work, MBM continued – and continues – to viably compose and release to a US audience. Recent albums Autoimmune and now Answers Come In Dreams seem to contain a beat renaissance for Dangers, ready finally to embrace the techno, acid and deep bass which were his original trademarks.

The release of Answers Come In Dreams is excuse enough to track down the elusive Dangers. Initially withdrawn although still accommodating, he suddenly blooms to loquaciousness once the subject of politics arises. He may have minimised the political agendas within his sonic communication, but there’s righteous anger and social observations aplenty in his sudden diatribe, coupled with bitterness at the indifference of the British music industry – both in the 80s and in its current Simon Cowell-infected format. Problematic in their seeming inner contradictions, Dangers’ politics are still evidently passionate and pressing.

We begin, however, with some more polite manoeuvres around the new album…

About the making of Answers Come In Dreams – you’ve said you like to have a revolving door of guests. Who revolved in for the new album?

Jack Dangers: Mainly me. [Laughs] I was stuck in the revolving door.

Do you prefer to work alone?

JD: More or less. It’s always been the case that I’ve been the only writer on my albums, and in the studio I’ve always performed everything myself. In a live situation I work with different people and will do again for this album. When I go back out on the road, there will be four of us, but none of them appear on the new record.

Some reviewers said Autoimmune was about your battle with arthritis. Does Answers Come In Dreams have any unifying theme?

JD: The last album was about the world’s immune system – not mine, or I’d be putting lyrics about me in there. Maybe I shouldn’t have called it anything; just Tracks One To Ten and then everyone would be happy. [Laughs] Warp would put that out.

I’m in constant pain, and I think that comes across in several tracks. It’s very difficult when you’re making a record to describe what it’s like without going to lowest common denominators, but no, the whole album is not about arthritis. It’s [got] far more subtext than that. A whole album about me wouldn’t be that interesting, and I really try to make what I do interesting.

Having said that, I don’t approach an album with any theme in mind. It just comes out the way it is in my head, or else it would end up being a concept album like Tommy – A Rock Opera. I don’t do conceptual like that. On the new album, I’ve made one instrumental track called ‘Quietus’, and it’s about the drug Quietus. The rheumatoid arthritis I suffer from doesn’t make me a happy man when I wake up or if I’m hunched up over computer. But it’s so much better with an amazing drug like Quietus – I inject that once a week and I might have bruises up my legs but at least I”m able to do stuff. Otherwise I’m horizontal until the flare up goes down.

Are there any other commonalities to Answers Come In Dreams?

JD: This album’s all over the place. Every album has been ‘a bit of this or that’. I never just do, say, a dubstep record. If I tried to make a dubstep album purposely, it would end up sounding completely different. I will say that there’s a dub influence through everything I’ve ever done – that’s one constant thing. Whether I’m within the industrial camp or just doing pure techno, there’s always dub involved. Otherwise I’m all over the place; always have been.

Have you ever tried to deliberately make dubstep?

JD: Yes. But with dubstep there are certain rules you’ve got to follow, and that’s something I don’t really dig. Everything has to be 70bpm or 140bpm. I followed that rule a little bit [with the] last record, but this time I didn’t and it’s a lot slower. With Autoimmune, I wasn’t trying to follow any structure too much, but – probably because it came out on Planet Mu – it was often categorised as dubstep.

To be honest, I think dubstep is sounding a bit tired. Everyone is using the same Native Instruments sounds and it’s becoming very generic and not very interesting.

What has your sonic approach to this album been? Was it very different from Autoimmune?

JD: Yes, this album is more minimal, because I’ve been making videos for all of the tracks which I’m going to put on the internet via YouTube and Vimeo – places like that. So I definitely left a lot of space in the album – more than I ever have before – knowing that I would be inserting video clips and video samples to add to the minimal tracks. It’s the first album where I’ve done something like that; I’ve always finished a track and left nothing else to be added to it, although the approach is similar to how I normally put together a live show. The visuals were a constant thing in my mind when composing the tracks for this album.

Does that mean that listeners who don’t check your visuals will miss out on hearing the track as it’s meant to be?

JD: I made the album tracks less ‘busy’ than on previous albums because of that, but they can definitely be listened to without any visual input. But also, different versions of the tracks will appear in the next few months – new mixes to add on to what you’ve already got, and they will be free. The first video just came out today via URB magazine, actually [Penultimate Bass Test]. It’s a frequency test for your speakers and sound system. Although, that track isn’t even on the album – it’s a taster of things to come, and is a good example of how if you listen on its own the track is pretty bare but with the visuals makes sense.

I’m just finishing another one today – a bass and noise test along similar lines. And there will be different versions of these again when we play live. There is a DVD being released with the album as well – you get the tracks with the video and without – so when you buy the album you’ve got everything.

Why this new interest in making your own visuals?

JD: I’ve been collecting video footage for 20 years and now have a huge backlog, but have never been in a position to actually make clips myself and instead would work with people to get it done. Now I’ve gotten to a point where I can do them myself. It’s definitely more work, but the ideas are coming pretty easily. I end up spending a couple of weeks on each video, maybe three weeks at the most… I’ve been doing that all year, and I’m not getting paid for it at all, but I’ve got a huge backlog of ideas I want to use from all those years of not being able to do them myself.

Which has come first: the visual or the sonic ideas?

JD: I always start off writing the music first, and I’ve been making it sparse and putting breaks in it knowing that there are going to be vocal samples etc added. Then the animation is done after the sound. The process has been musically faster than usual, because I’ve known what is coming next visually.

Why make videos for non-album tracks?

JD: The main idea was to give them out for nothing via the website; that was the initial idea. Then the record label liked them so much they wanted to put them out side by side with the CD. I said [adopts dry tone] ‘OK, but at the same time I’ll put them on YouTube for the people who expect to get stuff for free’.

You’re obviously against file sharing, then?

JD: I think it’s bloody horrible. But what can you do? If I don’t put these tracks up on YouTube people will rip them anyway, or nick the audio, so I’ll put them up before anyone else does.

Are you feeling the consequences of it very much?

JD: If it carries on like this, I’ll go back to my old job sweeping up for British Rail. I left school at 16 and had no college education, so the only job I could get in Swindon was to follow my father and grandfather and get a job in the railways. I hated it and didn’t have anything to do. The whole industry had been run down by the Thatcher Government, so I’d just hang around and do what I was told to do, and then five years later I was made redundant. After 150 years of industry the work in the railways was no longer there, a lot like everything else from the ’80s. And the policies from Thatcher and Reagan are still affecting us now, 30 years later…

You have strong political opinions, which has been shown in your lyrics and sampling in the past. Is there a manifesto for you these days?

JD: I wouldn’t say I’m not very political, but I’ve never been one to stand on a pedestal and preach to the converted. I put more visible and visual cues in this album than political lyrics – I’ve done that over and over for 25 years, so now I’d like to approach it in a different way. Anyway, I’ve done reams and reams of lyrics about political issues and don’t want to keep repeating myself. Just like I’m a hardcore vegetarian but I don’t go on about it.

What do you think of other artists, such as Morrissey, who are more blatant about the politics of vegetarianism?

JD: I think it’s fine. I did it myself through the years, I just think in some things you can get a point across with a more subtle approach and that’s just as powerful as standing on a soapbox. If Morrissey wants to do that – if anyone wants to do that – it’s great, [it’s] better than not saying anything at all with the amount of animals murdered every single day.

I’m not going to force my views on other people. Like, I’m not a religion persona but I don’t care if you are, as long as you’re not going to walk over my beliefs. There’s no God, but if you don’t want to believe that it’s your decision. I’m not into organised religion at all. Even Buddhism. Although Buddhism is good about animal rights, they still want you to chant and pray.

Why are you less interested in political messages than in the past? Do you feel you weren’t effective?

JD: Industry was run down in Britain 25 years ago and things are still the same. So I have to ask myself, does anyone listen to what I’ve been saying? I’m the last person who would know. I don’t know if anyone likes my records or hates them, but either you want to hear it or you don’t. [Shrugs] You like it or you don’t – it’s up to you.

Politically, with Obama as President over here, it’s the best things have been in the last 30 years. That’s why I have said in the recent past that I’m not as interested in politics now, because politically I’m not so frightened of what’s going on as I was five years ago. I’ve got a lot of other stuff to do, like videos to put out for nothing so people can grab it for free and change their life – or not.

I might not be writing songs about these issues but I don’t have a car; I don’t drive; I’m a vegetarian; I’ve got a small house and I’m not into conspicuous consumption. I’m a fish out of water over here. I can’t wait to move back to the UK. If you don’t drive over here, it’s like there’s something wrong with you – people look at you like you’re mad. I just try to live by my beliefs. What else can I do – write about it? Write about it over and over?

You’re living in San Francisco – isn’t it a more progressive city?

JD: Even in San Fran, the hippies all drive. You need a driver’s license, anyway. Over here having a driving licence is like having a passport. You need the thing everywhere because it’s like a police state. For example, once when I was pulled over on the road by police they pulled a gun on me. Having the right to own a gun is one of the most stupid things about this country.

And freedom of speech exists better in Germany, the UK or France than here. It makes Crush videos exist… have you heard of them? Well you can look them up – they exist over here. 10 years ago I was reading a little thing in the Fortean Times about the movement where little animals are abused in these Crush films. Now the Supreme Court has passed a bill making it legal to make those videos through the Freedom of Speech laws. This country invented that barbarism, and has now made it legal to make and sell. When I read about it 20 years ago, I thought ‘In 2010 in Western civilisation, no-one will be into any of that. It’s not possible’. But I was wrong and it exists.

That’s the thing with this country. They think it’s so free and perfect and crap like that, but something like that wouldn’t be legal in Britain or many places. It makes me so fucking angry. I hate that about this country. I hate the whole First Amendment Bill Of Rights bullcrap. Look at places like Britain, where people complain that it’s socialist and you’re being controlled, but in comparison to here a little control seems a good thing. Here there just isn’t any – when police pull you over, they act aggressively, like you’ve got a gun on you and are potentially dangerous. And they have to, because you might! All your so called freedom goes out the window. It’s pathetic and annoying. If thing like this exist because of our right to freedom, then I want censorship back – or at least a bit. Over here, for talking like that you get branded a whacko socialist. Well, I was a socialist and I still am.

Having said that, San Fran is an interesting place to live and work in what I do. I use these frustrations and observations in a positive way in my music. But I’d like to move back to the UK. It looks like the government over there is the complete opposite of what it used to be. When I lived there, Thatcher was in for nearly 20 years. That’s not very democratic, is it? That wouldn’t even happen here, that’s how screwed up that it is. They even kicked Bush out after two terms. But it looks like a lot has changed since the Thatcher years were over.

You lived through the Thatcher years in Britain, and worked in the railways. You were obviously affected by Thatcher’s dismantling of British industry?

JD: I remember the strikes in the 80s particularly well. I was part of the Miners’ strike because I worked on the railways. The railways transported coal from the mines to power stations and we didn’t go out on strike on day one. Everything carried on as normal for a while when the miners were striking. Finally, the railways went on strike as well, but by then it was far too late. If Railwaymen had gone out on strike with the miners on day one, we could have done something. Half of us were ready to fight to to the bitter end. We went out on the marches for real, while art bands like Test Department were just talking about it. They took a very arty approach to it all. I remember taking the train down to a Test Department show after being on the march all day, and then went straight back to the march.

So at the time you found the US more attractive? Is that why you moved over there?

JD: There are a lot of like-minded people interested in music, here, and I’ve never had any problems getting support or airplay here. Of any country, Britain is the worst for that: they’ve done a good job of ignoring everything I’ve ever done. In 1986 and 87, while living there, I couldn’t get a label to sign me in the UK, and that’s why I ended up in a disastrous contract with Belgian label PIAS. I remember going to see Mute records in 1988 and they weren’t interested in the slightest in what I was doing. Two years they were runing all over the world to sign me for the American end of the deal because PIAS only had me signed for Europe. It’s funny how two years prior they wouldn’t even listen to my records. Meanwhile, music like mine was managing to open some doors in the eighties that paid off for bands like the Chemical Brothers years later in the UK.

You saw what you were doing as creating opportunities for other bands?

JD: What I did opened doors for some other people, and that’s great – and I never bitched about them for sampling me, either.

That’s an odd thing to say; MBM contains plenty of sampling…

JD: I have in done a lot of sampling the past for sure – that was the whole point of hip-hop, or at least the first wave of hip hop, Run Dmc etc. From the mid 80s there was a good 15 years where it was all about sampling. From an artistic perspective, I love that it falls into the pop art field; montage or collage, I liked that approach. The UK had a couple of bands – Stereo MCs and Renegade Soundwave – doing similar things, but none of that got off the ground and in charts.

Were there any UK bands that influenced you, or who you considered peers, around that time?

JD: Adrian Sherwood has always been a big hero of mine, the On-U Sound thing, but it was a roots reggae thing which is another angle again from what I was doing. Mark Stewart and the Maffia – As The Veneer of Democracy Starts To Fade was such an important album. Sherwood was in another realm at that time if you ask me, particularly his production work. He produced Ministry’s Twitch, and that really kicked off the second wave of industrial music.

Before that, there was just a little scene happening with Test Department and Neubauten, the whole grinders on stage thing. Then the late 80s in Britain and America saw something else called industrial. There were a lot of guitars in it – I never understood how that was industrial, myself. But without that American version of industrial, starting with Sherwood and Ministry, Wax Tracks would not have picked up on what we were doing in ’89 and I wouldn’t have been over here. If what I was doing had stayed in the UK, probably no one would have heard of us still.

So you don’t count your early work as part of that industrial movement?

JD: No, not really. We weren’t hip-hop and we weren’t an industrial thing either. At that particular time in Britain there wasn’t a scene for anything we were doing.

How about dance music? Some of your early mixes reference acid house…

JD: The acid house thing was pretty big around that time, but what we were doing was too noisy. Our first record in particular was very noisy. I didn’t know Merzbow was around back then, but that would have been the only thing remotely close to the sounds of our first 12′. It was a very expensive sonic experiment; we went to a big studio to make pure noise. It still stands up as a record, I think. It has an ‘expensive’ edge of noise.

You know, noise is pretty easy to do – and you can fall back on making things noisy for the hell of it just for the shock value – but the only person who does it with talent is Merzbow. He came to our Tokyo show in 2005 and he liked it; that made my day!

I did a 12" in 1988 that was acid house inspired, plus a mini album of remixes for MBM under the project name ‘Space Children’- that’s my acid alter ego.

Did you go to acid house parties or raves yourself?

JD: I was definitely there. I was living in Swindon which is West Country. That was the main party county in the whole country. There were more raves in fields there than anywhere else. Crop circles were invented there, you know, and it has the most open county of all the counties in Britain compared to the number of people who live there. And more really old prehistoric sites and formations in Wiltshere than anywhere else.

You’d get a phone call at 11 o’clock, and a bunch of people in London would drive to a field in Wiltshire to listen to acid house music. The guys from Orbital used to do that. We did a track together, actually back in the day. So, yes I was there and I did partake and indulge in the appropriate activities…

Was it a revelatory experience for you, as it was for so many people?

JD: I was 25, 26 perhaps, and maybe if I was 16 it might have been. But to me it was like a bunch of people in a field, with the sun coming up and having that uncomfortable feeling that maybe you should be in bed. [Laughs] I had that many times.

So no classic rave bonding and loving your fellow football hooligan for you?

JD: It was probably more likely to be hugging a tree than a human. I don’t mix with homosapiens too well.

Speaking of those early days, what really happened with the first MBM record? Did the tapes really get lost in a studio fire?

JD: One of our friends, Marcus, was a dancer and living in a flat in Soho while Colin Plumb and me were living in Swindon and coming down to the studio in London. So the master tapes were stored at our friend’s flat. One day someone broke in there and stole a bunch of stuff, and set the flat on fire. Maybe to cover evidence of the burglary, who knows? Marcus was going up the steps to his flat and this guy was running down the steps, Marcus got out of the way and by the time he got up to his flat it was already on fire. It put back our album a year, but to be honest, I was happy to redo the album using a better studio and better equipment.

Your last tour didn’t take in Europe. Will this one?

JD: I really don’t know about this tour. I’ve seen some other old school bands doing weird shows and festivals, but I can guarantee you we have not been asked to do any European shows. Even when our last album came out on Planet Mu, we never got asked to play any European or UK festivals. Can you imagine what would that make me feel like? I moved over here to the US and maybe that’s something to do with it: the Thomas Dolby affliction. If you move to California, you’re going to disappear. We don’t get asked by the electronic festivals either. At our last UK gig someone from Sonar was there but they never asked us to play; why would I play the games required anymore? I think your chances to see us in the UK are long gone.

You sound a bit despondent about the state of things…

JD: I’ve been wondering whether it will soon be the end of making my living as a musician, and I’ll have to get a new job. I’m still doing it for now, but I don’t know… it’s not like I haven’t done what I wanted to do. I always wanted to inspire people who are in the same position as I was: no future, no anything. I never had a car or a telephone when I was growing up. We only went on holiday once; my dad and grandad died from asbestos working on British Rail.

What saved me was the one, and only, recording studio in Swindon. That’s what got me started in music. XTC were rehearsing there, and I had gotten a tea boy/tape op job there. And meeting them, working on music there – that changed my life and gave me a more bombastic attitude that I might be able to do something in music. I wasn’t from a rich family and able to fund my aspirations that way. I worked for every penny I’ve got, and I still feel like I’m working for it. It still feels like an uphill battle. I suppose it builds character and strength. I think I will continue to want to write music, but how long people will continue to hear and buy it, I’m not sure…

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