pic courtesy of Toddla T
Rob Gordon is the man who made Britain’s arse shake. He is the man who put the bass into bleep’n’bass – the Yorkshire sound circa 1989-1991 which was in turn the direct precursor of hardcore, jungle and so much of the most vital British music that has come since. Several people at that time, as Rob himself says in this interview, were finding the connections between US house, techno and electro and, British/Caribbean soundsystem culture – but it was Rob’s own uniquely powerful studio engineering techniques on the very first WARP records by Sweet Exorcist, LFO, Nightmares On Wax and his own Forgemasters project with DJ Parrot (which had the honour of being the first WARP release) that defined and cemented the sound of UK bass, and thus grounded every sound that came after, and which can still be heard clearly reverberating to one degree or another through almost everything in British dance music. It was THE first music that showed Britain could create an electronic club sound totally its own.
Those bleep records were unspeakably thrilling to me in my mid-teens, as indeed were Pop Will Eat Itself’s records between Box Frenzy and Cure For Sanity, which Rob also produced – among many other things – in his role as in-house mixer at FON studios in Sheffield, where he was one of the most sought-after producers and remixers in the country for a few years. And the records he made himself as XON, in collaboration with Richard H Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire / Sweet Exorcist remain among my favourite techno tunes ever made: expensive-sounding but with that warehouse rawness, robotic but with the sweaty funk of sex too, they are everything a dance record should be. But following a brief period around 1996 when he released some excellent further excursions into techno, downtempo electronica and, on one track, drum and bass, he essentially vanished from the music world’s radar entirely.
However, he remains in touch with WARP records, despite the relationship with the label he was involved in founding collapsing very early on, so they gave me his phone number – and when I went to Sheffield to interview young sensation Toddla T, it turned out that not only was Toddla’s family home was literally up the road from the terrace where Rob has lived almost his entire life, but that he knew Rob well (“he’s a badman producer!” he told me), so he took me round to visit him. His house was exactly as one would want a reclusive genius’s to be: stacked to the rafters with soundsystem equipment, much of which was dismantled in the middle of his living room, where I found him sitting with his friend DJ Mink (whose ‘Hey Hey Can U Relate’ was one of WARP’s brilliant early releases, but who also has been off the national musical radar since), smoking and tinkering with the insides of an amplifier.
Rob is hilarious company. A lot of what you will read is the sort of thing that could come over as embittered, paranoid even, and it is certainly clear that part of the reason for his absence from the music industry is because he has no interest whatsoever in going out of his way to make himself easy to work with. But to hear him speak, in his soft, quite high, Yorkshire tones not a million miles from Alan Bennett (albeit with an occasional Caribbean lilt), it all feels very reasonable. When he says modern sound technology is rubbish, I hear the warmth of the speakers through which there is a constant soundtrack of 1970s dub, and I think back to the stunning craftsmanship of his own mixes, and I realise he may very well be right. When he talks about the conspiracies of the dance industry of the 1990s, I know that certain parts of what he is saying are absolutely true because I have witnessed them for myself.
If it seems a little unfair that he talks of having started WARP records himself, never mentioning by name the co-founders of the label Steve Beckett and the late Rob Mitchell who took it to international success after he fell out with them and left in 1991, I don’t take him up on this as he certainly doesn’t seem to harbour much rancour about it. When he mentions, favourably, that other great industry outsider Mark E Smith, something clicks in my mind: this is who he reminds me of, that great awkward fucker of post-punk, one of the most contrary people you could meet, but someone who makes absolute sense in his own terms, whose internal logic is consistent. Rob isn’t anything like as hard work as Smith, mind you – he’s charming, lucid (completely without ums and ers) and loves to chat, especially if it is about amplifiers. And most interestingly, never do I get the sense, despite his complaints about the music industry, that he is anything but content now having little to do with it and being in the house in Sheffield where he’s always lived, building killer amps for parties and studios and listening to music on soundsystems so good that, as he puts it, they play “beautiful music like you’re in heaven.”
This is entirely verbatim, bar a couple of names I’ve removed for fear of legal repercussions.
Are you making any music at the moment Rob?
Oh I always have one or two things going on to keep my hand in, just to keep practising. Not anything imminent for release or anything: what’ll usually happen is a part of my studio’ll change and I have to do some music to see what’s going on, and hey presto there’s another track there – so I’ve got quite a number of tracks over the years that have just appeared like that.
And what was the last thing you put out?
[seems genuinely taken aback] Ooh! Of my music? [to DJ Mink] Hmm, what have I put out? That would be quite a long time ago… It might be that… er… German album.
The one with Move D? [1995 project View To View and 1996’s Rob Gordon Projects compilation]
Yeah it might be that. Hmm, yes, as an artist it would be that.
That’s well over a decade ago…
[nonchalant] Yeah, I suppose it might be, yeah it is I guess. But the problem was very basic, or it seems very basic anyway, which was that if I did a piece of music I’m not really a copier or what I call a follower [“follerer”], so I’m always trying to do the next thing which I’ve never heard. But the trouble with that is, you send it off to a company, then traditionally I’ve not really had any response until someone comes knocking round my door, or somebody rings my phone and says “have you heard that new track by such-and-such?” and that’s the story.
What, saying “can you do something more like this”?
No – saying “I’ve just heard someone’s track and they’ve ripped you off”. I’ve put my name to projects – when I was doing WARP and FON, it saw it happen quite a few times – I’d put out white labels, put time and money into putting out white labels then I remember being in a club and hearing a track come on and thinking it was one of my white labels, then the vocal come in and it was [top rated northern DJ’s musical project]’s first record, and I was like “wooooah”. [thoughtful pause, then quieter] “Woah”. You try and fix the problem by putting out a white label, and someone’s doing that to the white label. It’s an industry, and I can’t be part of that as an originator. I’ve got to actually trust that somebody is going to give me some money to make a record and they’re just going to simply put it out. Simply – without then going to their highest artists who they manage or their highest artists who they’ve given an advance and saying “listen to this, this is what came in the post, listen to this and do this”. It kills originators. Why say “listen to this” like that? Why not put it out and make money off it?
It’s certainly common that people who are known for starting sounds, as you did, hear their stuff used widely throughout culture.
Well, I don’t think I’m the first person to complain of that, no. Like I say, I’ve put my money into local artists and I’ve seen it happen to them, with no credit on the label, no credit to them. It is people nicking – and how do you get round that? Take everyone to court? I’d be in court ten times over, all the time, if I took everyone to court.
What about working with other artists, then?
I don’t do a lot of musical work directly right now, but I am assisting a lot of the young bassline [the post-speed garage sound particularly popular in various forms across the Midlands and north of England]artists in Sheffield. And I’m just assisting them as a producer, where I’ll just produce their vocals on top of what they’ve brought or sometimes I’ll mix a beat for one of the younger artists or something like that. Generally speaking I do mixes, mastering and that’s the end of what I’m doing, mixing and mastering – more mastering than mixing.
And do you share your techniques with these youngsters as you do this?
Yeah, if I like what people are doing, I don’t mind telling anybody anything. I’ve just been recently doing this thing with Dean from I Monster, helping him understand the sound of different electronic components. And he’s interested, so I don’t mind teaching – if people are into it properly, I don’t mind it. And I think the better and more forward the music someone’s doing is, the better it is for me – I’m only really interested in making music go forwards. But I do mind spending a lot of time to do a track only to get ripped off [chuckles fulsomely] - I do mind that! So basically I don’t bother until somebody like David [Moufang, aka Move D] turns up. When he turned up it was the same problem all the time, but I got the feeling from him that he was going to give me some money, then take the tracks and put them on a record, simple as that. And because I got that feeling, I let him do it, and he did it! Most people who approach me, I don’t get that feeling.
How do you feel musically about the bassline scene and the current generation of producer then?
On the one hand I like it, it’s better than nothing, I’ll say that – and in a lot of ways it’s healthy. But what I’ll say is that in a lot of ways it isn’t healthy, because there’s a lot of people from my generation rubbing their hands and getting these kids into a lot of bad contracts. It doesn’t seem like the understanding of the industry is fully there. Especially with the MySpace and Youtube thing, ripping off is so easy and normal now, you’re there in London, have a listen to this on MySpace, rip it off, done – I don’t know how many times that's happened. So the artists are having to go through all this now.
So that is something you try and explain to young kids who come to you?
Yeah, I try and help them understand where what money comes from and how it arrives and what you need to do to protect yourself – it’s not just a cassette in the post now…
But the bassline scene – I just spoke to Toddla T, and he describes it as being well-rooted in Sheffield now, it doesn’t seem like it’s going away. In fact he even went as far as to say “it’s our hip hop”.
No, it’ll never go away. It’s not going to go away. To be frank, since the WARP days, the basslines have never really gone away, to be frank it did originate from there and it’s gone through various guises. The biggest one was speed garage, which never really got the recognition it deserved, but basically that is bassline – this bassline is the same, but with a bit more freedom and not so tied to the 4/4. But then there is 4/4 bassline too, which a lot of people like because it feels a bit older than the current bassline which overlaps hip hop more. But that’s why it’s good, it can overlap hip hop, house, techno, whatever.
And could you say what it is about this city and its music history and community that sets it apart?
I think I might be right when I say it goes back to a place called DJs, which Mink here will remember. Basically, back then, I’m a school leaver, I’ve been to a local school round here [gestures out the back window], and as I’m starting to go clubbing I’m finding that basically I can go to one club to see all my white friends or to another club to see my black friends. And the basic WARP story was just very simply, do a kind of music that both groups can listen to. So that’s why we made house music where reggae [always pronounced Yorkshire-style: “reggeh”] fans can say “wow, I like that” - basically a duality kind of music, but totally culturally mixed. I don’t think most of the people who are on WARP now would even understand that to be honest.
And this was when acid house was happening, right?
Mmm, acid house was there, but like I was saying it was just white. There was a joke where, in the late 80s, there was a kind of reggae called steppers – and steppers was on a 4/4, so it were just funny to play it with house. And around then I came across Unique 3, and LFO and Nightmares On Wax, who had the same thing, and that’s why I put together what became WARP – because I had the same thing, independently. But they weren’t doing it because of me – I’d already heard what they were doing, their white labels, and I were like “yeah that’s right, that”, and then they heard mine and could tell we were on the same thing but not copying. It were a bit like that. So I suppose I’d be the pioneer, because I was the one who thought of having a label for this sound. People were doing the music but nobody would take a chance and take money out of the bank and press up records seriously, but I made that move.
And what about involvement in the studio? Did that come before or after you got into the club scene?
Well, as a child, at my last school, aged about 14 or something like that, I got involved actively in electronics for the local reggae soundsystems and local musicians. So then I used to build pre-amps for soundsystems – now you’d call it a disco mixer, but then it was the pre-amp, where you’d plug all the different stuff into it and it has all the controls and you plug that into your amp. So I’d say to so-and-so guy, “draw me a picture of the front, name all the knobs, name all the switches, draw me a picture of the back, name all the sockets and wires” and I used to build these things and all the “wooowooo” effects boxes and whatever and whatever and whatever. So, as you can probably tell looking around here [waves at the collections of components] I’ve gone back to that now. I did give it up, because I got a job in the studios, because something happened, which is that the local community centre bought a portastudio and I was headhunted to operate it because I was the only person around in the area who could properly operate this portastudio. I mean, I’ve always been interested in music, in making music, that’s my culture, I’ve always been around soundsystems – but it was my knowledge of electronics that got me into the studio. Then it was the success of one of the portastudio’s [dub]plates that got me a job in a 24-track studio – because they thought I was getting a better job on the portastudio than they were in their 24-track [giggles] – but then I started getting frustrated in the studio… I mean, I was doing a lot of good work, I was doing stuff for Pop Will Eat Itself, a lot of remixes for EMI, and that sort of work, but I never really felt I was getting the opportunity to do any black music. So WARP was my opportunity to say, right, “I know what I like, this is what I like, but half my white friends like it too”. And I had the money in the bank from a couple of years working in the studio and I was able to do it – and I didn’t do it within the industry either, it was all from home. So I was working at FON studios, but the Forgemasters was my project from my living room – I did it right here with all the equipment on the floor.
But it wasn’t just reggae and house that was influencing things at the time, right? Techno was music that had a big effect and had black roots too.
Oh of course, of course, and I was discovering people like Derrick May just then. But I needed a Caribbean tinge to it, and that’s why the British techno will generally have that bassline element to it, because they’re second generation Jamaicans themselves, and they’ve grown up around reggae but they’ve modernised the reggae they used to like, stuck the beats of house or whatever is around at the time and come up with their own thing just like I was doing. So yeah I’m listening to Derrick May, Underground Resistance, Suburban Knight, Fade II Black and all that stuff was what I really liked, techno from Detroit. To tell the truth I didn’t like house. I did not like house. Jack-jack-jack your body, all that, I thought it sounded like… [sigh] …look, I’m a producer in a 24-track studio, I know how to operate all this, I’m pioneering sampling, I could probably produce [ponders] say, a Frankie Goes To Hollywood record and that wouldn’t have been a sweat. Technologically I’m up there at that time. House sounded like what my 12-year-old kid had been messing about with when he’s just strung two or three bits of equipment together – it felt like there was no skill in it, it was just vibe by itself, and I thought “woah, you can put skill in it as well, surely?” And then I heard techno, as opposed to house – I remember being in this place and saying to DJ Parrot “what’s this? What’s this music??” I said “we’ve been here all night, listening to all this crap house, and as you know I hate house, but this records… who’s made this??”. And he said “Derrick May.” And I said “what’s it called?” And he said “Nude Photo.” And I says “I like this, I don’t know what it is, but it’s different to all that other stuff, I can dig this.” And he says “ahhhh – I get it!” He says “you like techno!” I says “what’s techno?” [chuckles at the naivete of the memory] But I did like it, and I ended up buying a lot of it, and ended up DJing up and down the country with it, forming a band, even though I took it into a totally different sort of music – but then I had to, because you have to represent what you are about and what you know about deeply. I mean, I’m sure I could write a classical piece of music, but seeing as I’ve not been brought up in the culture of it, those who are in the culture of it are who define what that is today.
And what was the feeling of the time like? Ecstasy was everywhere, the crowds were quite wild…
Well, there was an optimism to the time, certainly, and there was a future – which seemed to abruptly come to an end as far as I noticed. Abruptly. And it wasn’t just in Sheffield it was abruptly, it was abruptly in London as well. I don’t know, maybe it was something to do with the class system, maybe it was something to do with racism, but something sorted out the music [clicks fingers repeatedly] along the lines of the different ways people wanted to go. That’s how I feel. When I noticed Ministry of Sound and Sasha and things, I’d have expected it to be… I don’t know… everybody who was there before, including the Coldcuts and the Beatmasters and all that, they were taken over by this wave of new guys, people who dominate to this day.
Some of the techno producers I know talk about “Oaky’s Boys” [referring to the wave of impresarios and DJs led by Paul Oakenfold]…
Weelll… It was a bit heavy-handed the way it happened. Very, veeery heavy-handed. I had stuff happen like I did a remix for [Liverpudlian singer] for [British label] – [track name] – and I’d not had a job in a while or something, so I did it in a posh studio, a grand a day studio in Liverpool and I spent two days on it, two grand in studio time which they were paying me for… and I killed it. I killed it to a certain extent. And the report was back from the band [breathless, over-excitable voice] “your track is so massive on promo that it’s [top DJ]’s biggest record, his big tune, he plays it at the end of his set every night, it’s his number one tune!” So I went [calm] “oh that’s good.” And I went to the shop and they’re like “oh Rob, your record’s come out!” and I look at it, and it’s a-side [top DJ]’s mix, b-side original band’s mix, and my mix isn’t even on there. So yes, it’s a bit heavy handed. It’s so blatantly “oh you’re just stepping stones, we’re the big boys, we’ll step all over ya, you didn’t see this coming did ya?”. But all the time they’re saying to you “oh we’ll do this, we’ll hook up on that, you’ll get paid off the other” and of course it’s all just hot air.
So at that time there was a fragmentation – this was when jungle and drum’n’bass began to be formed…
Yes. And shall I tell you what that was? That was the reaction to what was going on at that time. That was “oh I’m stuck at home now with all these samplers and whatnot, I’ve spent thousands and I can’t get a job, what am I going to do? Well, I’m going to do what I want to do and not worry about selling it…” Because at the end of the day, jungle is actually black music. Sorry to be overly colour-conscious in a musical conversation, but jungle is black music for black people. Not to say white people can’t feel it or make it, but the truth of where it came from is that it was black music for black people. It’s when they gave up, they had to give up because they were unemployed by the music business that had welcomed them two years before. And it’s one of those things where you had to have the skill to be able to make jungle, to be able to get away with it, and you had to have had the knowledge of good music to be able to programme those kinds of beats and make it entertaining. So jungle producers – black or white – they are the experts in this business, but they’re not the ones that get the best jobs. They are the best engineers though: you can take an engineer from any other kind of music, any other scene and they won’t be able to do jungle. It’s serious programming, serious production. Drum’n’bass is something different: lots of people can do drum’n’bass, but it’s only a select few that have got jungle in their blood, in their DNA, it’s a different thing. It’s a talking drum. So if you don’t know how to talk with a drum then you don’t know how to programme and you don’t know how to do jungle [laughs lightly, as if at the absurdity of anyone thinking they could do it].
You could say the same about techno, that only a very few are ever able to make synths sing, to give voice.
Mm, mm, yeah, yeah. You have to be above your art. Not everyone can do techno, not everyone can. You have to be able to make the machines fly, because if you don’t… everyone can do boof-boof-boof-boof, but you have to make it into music. But for me the music has to be… it has to be unconventional musically, not just in the sound but in the melody, so you have to think about that a good deal if you’re going to make good techno, which is the only sort I’m interested in.
With jungle – with techno too to a certain extent, but particularly with jungle – you have to have a certain degree of understanding and immersion in it just to listen and really enjoy it, let alone to make it.
Yeah… you’re right about techno being like that – they’re one and the same, essentially, one and the same – they’re music that can tell you something without words, which very very little pop music could ever do. Classical music can do it, and jazz music can – you’re talking music as an art. It is an art.
And soundsystem music, that is something that literally surrounds you, that fills the room around you – so there’s a physical art to it too…
Yes, and that goes on to technology. If you’re old enough you’ll have heard a good soundsystem. Now I’m 43, but I started young, so I experienced a few of the late 70s sounds – because I built a lot of them they let me in the back door to listen to what I’d built – I experienced a good number of the classic challenges or clashes in Sheffield and wherever. And the technology has changed so much [since then] that basically a good sound is hard to obtain these days. I’d like to hear a good soundsystem these days – there’s a lot of loud ones, but we have a few problems. The first problem was that Mosfet amps came in, they came in in the late 70s, and they were really loud and really cheap and whatever, but they had no warmth in the bass. Then the next stop was the disco mixer. The disco mixer had a crossfader on it but it was never going to sound as good as that custom pre-amp that you used to use, but everyone had to have one because it was the fashion. Then the next thing was the CD, that killed it. Each step you’re getting less emotion, and when you turn it up loud it sounds like a noise instead of beautiful music like you’re in heaven. It sounds like… earplugs! You see people in clubs now with earplugs! Back then you’d see people hugging the box – it’s different sounds!
A few places seem to know the difference. Plastic People, where they do a lot of dubstep, is one place where the soundsystem can be loud but you can talk right in the middle of the dancefloor.
OK, Plastic People? I’ll look that up, see what they’ve got. It’s possible to build one, it’s possible to get one but you’ve got to spend… not loads necessarily, but you’ve got to spend where you don’t think you’ve got to spend. The main thing is that if you’ve got a crap sound to start with, there’s nothing you can put on top to make it good. So get a right good needle, get a right good deck, get a really good pre-amp. The Technics deck, that’s good enough to give you a good enough sound, but the disco mixer, that’s the killer. It’s a killer. I think the best one I’ve heard is by a company called Rane, and I’ve seen them in one club. The American DJs, they use a Orban mixer, a 70s mixer. When those big Americans played in Sheffield they’d even bring their own ones over, or one club in Sheffield actually had their own one that they’d bring out when someone requested it – but all the English guys were like “oh gimme one wi’ a crossfader”, cause the Orban didn’t have a crossfader, it were just like an old pre-amp but the Americans knew it didn’t matter, you just go like this [mimes moving fader up], turn this one up, and you get a better mix because it sounds like this. And the British are treating their dance tracks like [snorts] like it’s hip hop!
And these are the mixers they used in the Loft, the Paradise Garage, the places where dance mixing was actually born, right?
Yep, yep, but tell the kids that and they don’t want to know. “Gimme that Vestax,” that’s it!
So the other thing happening as techno was coming into this country in the late 80s was the industrial music that was already there and already well rooted, especially in Sheffield… Now you worked with Richard H Kirk [of Cabaret Voltaire]…
Yeah, yeah and also I was working in FON studios, which was owned by a group called Chakk. At that time I was into electronics as you know, and I was always fascinated by synthesizers Even though I was in the reggae soundsystem thing and I was in a reggae band as a drummer and I’ve got a studio in my mum’s cellar and this that and the other, I’ve always been fascinated by synthesizers, and I’d be like “hmmm yeah, you know, if I had enough money I’d build myself an analogue sequencer… and I’d connect it to me drum machine, and I’d be able to write a bassline, and I’d sequence it… and then I might be able to sequence up some reggae – nobody will’ve heard anything like that!” So when Depeche Mode and whatever come along I’m watching all that and I’d get the equipment.
What, you’d see them on Top Of The Pops and say “I’m going to get a keyboard like that”?
Yeah! And I’d save up and I’d buy a keyboard like that. I’d always been into analogue synthesis, so I knew about analogue before MIDI came in – you know, you can give me that massive thing down the Human League’s studios with all the wires [referring to a modular synth] and that’s my game, I could build you any number of modules for that, that’s really my game. The rest of it, it became easier, it became easier. I did really like Depeche Mode, they really got me interested when they started sequencing samples on one of their albums, that really got to me – [awestruck, but puzzling it out] “so they’ve sampled that industrial sound… and put it on a keyboard… interesting…” And I tried to build my own sampler, which didn’t work, and cost me a lot of money back then – but then the document I’d built it off, they admitted they’d printed one of the chips the wrong way round! I thought they were real arseholes, I mean, I’d spent a lot of money, blew up two computers, and I was like 18 or something… It was ridiculous!
Which Depeche Mode record was it, in particular?
'People Are People'. I heard it on The Tube or something like that.
And were you aware of Cabaret Voltaire back then, as your local electronic experimenters?
Yeah, although funnily enough I was more a Human League person. I was aware of Cabaret Voltaire, I used to listen to John Peel regularly, I’d hear bits of electronic music, Cabaret Voltaire, this that and t’other. But the Human League, I know it’s pop, but they impressed me most of all funnily enough.
I think a lot of the Detroit techno guys might say the same…
There you go… Well the great thing with Human League is they were the first to admit it, to put it up front that they were electronic, on Top Of The Pops with one of their things, might have been ‘Sound Of The Crowd’ [he’s right] and the “band” at the back is just a reel-to-reel tape recorder going round and round. So on Top Of The Pops their performance was put the tape recorder down and that backing track IS the band, the cameras would zoom in to t’reel-to-reel, zoomed back out again to the crowd. I like the Human League. Proper.
Anything else of that period stand out for you? Soft Cell had some great synth sounds…
Yeah yeah yeah, ‘Bedsitter’ was good, ‘Non Stop Cabaret’, that was good. But there was other stuff, I was listening to Adrian Sherwood back then, Scientist was getting good too. Back then, Channel One studios in Jamaica were putting out a lot of records on Greensleeves, and those twelve inch singles like Eek-A-Mouse and Clint Eastwood and General Saint, those sort of records, they were setting the standards in sound quality. I was listening out, listening out for the sound, and the only things that came close in quality were things like Trevor Horn and Kate Bush and Pink Floyd – those were the only things, ‘cause I’m into hi-fi, where you could put them on and go “that’s a good sound”; a lot of stuff just didn’t sound good. Human League, they had a good sound, but a lot of stuff – well, the Jamaicans were way ahead at that time, and I was really studying the sound quality hard.
You haven’t mentioned any American producers or sounds… was there anything in American music that grabbed you before techno?
Hmmm… There was a lot of electro around. It was big round here, but… hmmm… I’m trying to work out why I didn’t like electro. I mean I did like it mostly, but I didn’t connect with it, I didn’t really feel it. Maybe I felt it was just too simple in the programming, maybe if they’d have connected up their drum machines, connected it with two or three wires to another drum machine, so there’s two kinds of drums in sync, I’d have found it interesting. I’m always listening to technology, but it was so obviously “right, programme up a beat on that, that’ll do, now rap or scratch on it”, know what I mean? And I’m not hearing that much high science in it – there were bits I suppose. Julia & Co, that was good, “breaking down… breaking down…”, although that wasn’t exactly electro was it? But it had a dub mix on the other side that was really good. So good things came out but I wasn’t finding much there.
What about something like Newcleus? They were pretty musical.
Hmm, yeah but it was still just a drum machine beat and a vocoder, not a lot to it. What I wish, what I really wish, is that I’d heard more Kraftwerk then. I didn’t really hear them until later in life. To me they were the kings of it all “she’s a model”, “yeah yeah yeah”, but for whatever reason I didn’t cotton onto it until later, I didn’t have no friends who were into it or could tell me about it at the time.
And there was no internet then and no specialist electronic music press of any kind…
No, so I just wish somebody had said “oh Robert, have you heard Kraftwerk, listen to this…” but no-one ever did.
What amazed me, seeing Kraftwerk live not so long ago, was how powerful the emotion in the songs is when it’s delivered as a collective experience.
Oh yeah, it’s beautiful. They’re a beautiful, beautiful band.
So, once you started doing your own tunes, how did the hook-up with Richard Kirk come to do the XON tunes?
Ah, hmmm… Ah, well me and Mark Brydon produced a Cabaret Voltaire album a while before that, and then XON was just me helping Richard Kirk to do some techno that he wouldn’t have to present to EMI. Music for ourselves – it’s that again! So it was just a side project but it was from the heart. The album for EMI was… um… Groovy, Laidback and Nasty – that had some good bits on it actually…
They got Derrick May remixes for one of those tracks didn’t they?
Yeah… there was an Oakenfold remix too [stares, deadpan], which I thought could have been better [chuckles], I thought could have been a lot better. In fact Phil Harding from Pete Waterman Limited [PWL] mixed my productions, and it’s his mixes mainly that they used, not the FON mixes. Some of the FON mixes were a bit wacky but they should’ve been brave enough to issue those, man.
Are those still kicking about somewhere? Something for the deluxe reissue one day?
Oh the tapes of the FON mixes are kicking around yeah, I’m sure they’re about… There was one track that they couldn’t remix, they couldn’t do ‘Hypnotize’, it was impossible, because half the track is the mixing so the couldn’t go “ooh Pete Waterman can you straighten this one out a bit please?” But they didn’t like our sound quality, they wanted it all given that SSL sound [refers to Solid State Logic digital mixing desks] that was all the rage back then.
So that was the kind of frustration that drove you away from production and back to soundsystems? When did you stop with the production?
The last thing I remember producing was The Fall, a Fall album called Shift Work.
And, erm, how were they? Mark E Smith is not renowned for being the easiest person to work with…
[giggles] I really enjoyed it. It was a change. I got warned off but I enjoyed it.
Mark E Smith is someone with a very different vision of production to most, though.
Oh yeah, but he’s right. He’s right. It’s just you’ve got to be good enough in production to understand what he’s on about. I’ve just been through this with Ross Orton, you know, he’s a Sheffield producer?
Yes, he works with Toddla T, MIA, people like that?
Yeah, yeah, that’s Ross. He’s doing a Fall album, and I’ve spoken to him since he’s started, and I’ve had to warn him – but he sees it, he knows, he says “he’s sharp as a razor”. But that’s what it is, people who don’t understand him [Smith] are way far behind, so far behind they ought not to be there. [giggles again]
I did a long interview with Smith once and found him fine company!
Yep, fiiiine company. I’ve heard all the criticisms, but I’ve seen it. If you go and try and sell him some bullshit you’ll probably get punched, but that’s just how it is.
Heh, well, he kissed me. But he talks a lot in terms of soundsystems too, he just wanted to talk about soundsystem music, not rock’n’roll bands.
Well he’s old enough to remember what a good sound sounds like. I mean I’ve missed half of it, I’m 43 and I missed half of it. I remember saying to some old guy in a guitar shop – I were trying to rip him off or something by going “oh can you get me some valves?” “Oh, what like?” “Mullards?” - which are like posh hi-fi valves and you have to get old ones, so I was trying to sniff out this guitar shop – but he was like [suddenly slightly shrill and camp] “ooh have you seen the price of them on the net?” [loud chuckle] and I was like “oh damn.” He was like “oh yeah, hi-fi guys like them don’t they, oh do you like hi-fi stuff too?” And then he launches into what he’s got as a hi-fi system and telling me I should be soldering the wires into my mains plug and this other stuff, and then I said what system I’ve got, and in my studio I’ve got what they call Yamaha NS-1000s which in hi-fi terms are regarded as a bit of a holy grail. So he goes “oh, I remember those!” - I mean he had a much more expensive system than me, but he stopped when I went “Yamaha NS-1000s”, he went [excitable] “oh, I remember those!” and I’m feeling a bit better, and he says “yeah I remember when they used to have them in the clubs!” I went “WHAT?”, he went “in the clubs! Yeah, they’d have banks of Yamaha… three-ways… big black box… yeah… they’d have loads of those hanging from the roofs in the nightclubs!” [drifts into a reverie for a second]
That were the second time that happened to me. The first it happened there was this Amcron amp, this particular DC300 or something that I use for Kabal parties [underground club nights and raves were old-timers from the early Sheffield rave days like Winston and Parrot play alongside newcomer Toddla T], you get those amps and they’re [mimes] big, and they’re only 300 watts but the sound, so I got this amp – and then it came out [from the vendor] “oh yeah, Peter Stringfellows [sic], he had ninety-something of those, in the early ’70s…” [gobsmacked look] So yeah, I’ve missed the sound, most of that era of sound, and 99.9% of what people get now is garbage – but Mark E Smith, he’ll remember sounds. But I understand what’s going on a bit more now, I understand a little more. There’s a lot of people making a lot of money selling junk.
So it’s fair to say you don’t believe every innovation is a good innovation?
Look – the worst thing in studios today, the worst speakers in studios today are Genelecs. Genelec speakers. But they’re the most popular speakers! I wouldn’t have a pair if they were free, I wouldn’t put them on my hi-fi to listen to, because they’re painful to listen to. Garbage. But so many studios have got them, probably EMI, Abbey Road – but they’re the worst thing. And I know why they’re so bad – one day I asked this studio engineer, I said “let me screw the back off, let me have a look what’s inside there”, and inside, it was the same amplifier chip [he grabs a bit of circuit board from a table and points to a microchip on it]… It’s not a real amplifier, it’s garbage, the whole of this amplifier is in that block there [squeezes his fingers together round the chip] but nowadays it’s a smaller version of that, about a quarter the size of that even, and they use them in televisions, car stereos and Genelec speakers. And [utterly withering] midi hi-fis. [he looks speechless with disgust]
The next worst thing is [studio sound editing software] Pro Tools. If you don’t believe me, play your CD player, take the CD out, put it in your Pro Tools machine, connect your Pro Tools up to your hi-fi, play the same CD and tell me if that sounds right. But that is the biggest selling system. It’s marketing. Marketing wins.
But people will produce on Pro Tools then mix it down to tape to try and add “authenticity” to the sound…
Yep. Yep. Yeah, you’ve heard about it. It’s. A. Joke. And then they’ll buy a big valve thing and put the final mix through that. Bloody rubbish. Ross, he’s doing that Fall album, and he says to me “ooh, the engineers doing it on Pro Tools.” I just rolled my eyes, didn’t even bother saying anything cause I’d told him. And sure enough he goes “it’s shit isn’t it?” He doesn’t even use it in his studio because I’ve told him it’s shit, but this engineer sets it up so he thinks “oh I’ll have a go”. And what happens? “It’s shit,” he reports back.
Is there anything around now that sounds good to you, then? I mean Pro Tools is ubiquitous…
The last thing I heard that sounded any good was the White Stripes.
All made on old gear…
Yeah, yeah it is, but I liked it before I knew that. So they’re obviously doing it right as well as just getting the gear right. I did like [Sheffield indie band] Bromhead’s Jacket – I actually went on a tour with them as sound engineer, but I liked them even before I knew they were from Sheffield [chuckles]. I did their last tour and mastered their album, too.
So you detected their Sheffield vibe, did you?
I must’ve done, must’ve done. They played at the Plug when I was engineer there, I started talking to them about getting a copy of their record and they couldn’t understand me, or understand why this old black guy wants their record, then they’d not brought a copy with them, and it was weird – I felt like they were ever so big and important but they were just this local group… [laughs]
And what about new electronic music, do you hear any grime, dubstep, any of that?
I think dubstep’s healthy, but I’ve not found anything good enough to buy yet unfortunately. The trouble with dubstep is that I think I’m maybe earning a lot of enemies by not making none – I think I did that with jungle too. I contributed to a little bit, on Mink’s brother’s label, what’s that called? [Mink: “Rogue”] Yeah, Rogue.
Was there a reason you didn’t?
Well you’ve got to have an honest outlet. That’s what I wanted to do with WARP, I wanted to make a label that would take your tape, have a listen, go “yeah” and give you some money. But nobody does that, so if I’m going to put out a record it means I need to have enough money to put it out myself. Because that’s what everybody else does with their labels.
So what was different with David – Move D – that made you trust him? Did you know his music or him personally?
No, no, he just kind of turned up. Sent me some records or gave me some and I listened to them, and I thought “yeah, I can fit in there”. But I’ve been invited by a couple of labels to do things, and I’ve had a listen and it’s either too bland or too leftfield or whatever and I’ve just not felt I’d fit in with their catalogue.
So you’re not interested in stuff that defines itself as leftfield or experimental for the sake of it?
Well first up for me, you’ve got to be able to dance to it, and that’s been the case with all my stuff. Maybe bits of the XON stuff are strange..
I was messing about with some XON not long ago, though, and I was mixing it over Blaze and New Jersey garage tunes like that, and I was amazed how much it was the same rhythms, almost disco…
[looks askance then laughs uproariously] Errr, yeah. But like I say you’ve got to be able to dance with it – but trying to sell something like that these days… I don’t know. There’s so much out there. It just seems if you want to put out a record you’ve got to put it out yourself, because everyone’s making music.
Do you have anything I can hear that’s recent?
Ooh. [really is taken aback now] Er. I’m not sure. [calls to friend in kitchen] Tom! Have I got anything I’ve done? On a CD or something? Yeah, something recent.
[there is a lot of rummaging, debate, laughter; eventually Rob produces a CD of a steppers reggae track, actually someone else’s music which he co-produced and engineered, which appears to be called ‘Only The Strong Survive’, recorded in 1998 but is, he says, about to come out. It’s a very straightforward digital reggae track, although the vocals are great, the quality of the mix on it is fantastic if not innovative, and the bass is indeed very warm.]
[the next 10 minutes of the tape are partially obscured by the reggae – the vocal followed by the dub – playing very loudly, but we generally discuss DJ technique: Rob says he can and does still DJ with any records “without hearing them before, I can just go through a box, check on headphones, go ‘oh I like that one’ and go like that, do a proper set like that” and that he can happily mix properly without headphones too. Love is shown for Smith & Mighty, and he is very interested to hear that Rob Smith of S&M now makes dubstep. The story is told of how the reggae track we’re listening to was recorded in a local community centre, and the various wranglings thereafter to get the tapes and get a release. There is discussion of the reggae market, which Rob says is extremely healthy, both in the UK and in France and Germany. He laughs about Basic Channel’s re-working of Wackies’ 70s reggae releases - “when I was a child Wackies was one of the worst, most hated labels, the quality was shocking: I could get a better quality sound in my mum’s cellar and did do at the time” But of Basic Channel: “oh they’ve got a good sound, they’ve got a good sound. I reckon if I’d have spent any more time in Germany I’d have gone and given ‘em a hand, because it’s just their musicianship isn’t that good. They can do all the rest of it, really good sound, the sound is amazing, the way they approach technology is amazing, I understand sound and I know exactly how they get the sound they do, and it’s great. But they can’t make reggae riddims, and they need somebody with them who can.” He lists a series of technological approaches which he and Basic Channel have in common, and complements Dubplates & Mastering in Berlin, saying there is a similar cutting plant in Detroit which is why Detroit techno vinyl has such a particular feel and set of dynamics.]
Have you got any ambitions Rob? You said if someone comes to you with the right deal you could put more tracks out…
Yeah yeah yeah, I mean, I could see things being different if I lived in London, it would certainly be easier to talk to people I’m sure. [ponders] I mean, ideally, I could certainly imagine putting together a good double album for someone like… Soul Jazz, maybe. If the money’s right, I’ve got the tracks. I’ve got a suitcase full of DATs here, I’m not exaggerating. And I’ve got a lot of stuff tht I did for big people that were never really used, people like Erasure and Neneh Cherry, stuff what was just a bit too hardcore for them, really. They paid me for about three or four with Erasure, said they were brilliant and paid me well, then never used them! I did one in a reggae style, Erasure as reggae, that was good.
[Hopefully] That I would like to hear.
[giggles; then stony faced] OK what are my ambitions? Right, I would love to do a production job with someone who felt that they can appreciate what I’ve got to offer. Something that paid, for someone who could hear and understand what I was able to do and employs me to do that. Ummm… I would like to remix a piece of audio equipment for an electronics manufacturer – so you might have the so-and-so compressor, then you’d get the Rob Gordon model so-and-so compressor. And I’d like to campaign, I’d like to raise people’s awareness of what shit is in studios now, what absolute shit equipment is used, because you’re at the point where people have better hi-fi than what is in studios. It’s been like that for a while, and it’s not right. The people who buy music to play on their hi-fis don’t realise that studio people are taking them for a walk in the park. [grim laugh] So, I’d like to use some of my knowledge, put some of that knowledge into the music-making chain – let’s get some good records made, even if I don’t make them. So I’m helping I Monster, I’m helping Dean, I help Toddla T, I’m in there soldering inside their equipment and that is making some better music. That’s enough for me to know that, you know…