Interview: Adrian Sherwood

Andrew Perry

By Andrew Perry

on 08.24.12 in Lists

For the past 35 years, Adrian Maxwell Sherwood has been one of British music’s most indefatigable underground producers. Under his On-U Sound label banner, he has doled out a relentless torrent of albums, initially in the field of reggae and dub, but later in genres as diverse as jazz, blues, early-’90s dance (his chart hits with MC Gary Clail), folk, electro-funk and industrial noise. Across literally hundreds of releases, his production credit stands as a uniquely reliable stamp of quality.

Now in his early 50s, Sherwood maintains an exhausting work ethic. When eMusic tracked him down in his recently deployed hometown of Ramsgate, on the North Kent coast, he was on the hoof between sessions, one of which is for a debut album by his daughter, Denise. “She sang on a Gary Clail album when she was five years of age,” he notes, “she’s got a wicked voice.”

As per the title of his latest solo album, Survival & Resistance, Sherwood has upheld a spirit of defiant musical independence. He proudly recalls how he has kept his On-U ship afloat, against the tide of such adverse musical epochs as the MTV-crazed mid ’80s, and the Britpop-addled mid ’90s. In between those lean years, he has been hailed as a seminal influence, the implications of his pioneering exploration of electronic frequencies felt everywhere from The Orb to contemporary dubstep. His vast catalogue is riper than ever for discovery…

After three undefeated decades of On-U Sound, how come you’re releasing your latest solo record through Warp?

I’ve known the Warp boys for years. As far as I’m concerned, they’re probably the best independent label around, so it’s the perfect match for me. Ray, my manager, said, “Look, this is what you should do now.” Fingers crossed we can keep working with them, because it’s perfect runnings.

If a man of your experience in the independent sector says Warp are bossing it, they must be doing something right…

Yeah, I’ve been running a cottage industry all my life. I kept thinking On-U would become 10 times bigger than it ever did. I kept doing jobs and ploughing money into the label, because I believed that instead of selling 20-odd, I’d sell 200, and all that. But I never really did the right moves, like making videos or promoting properly. I’m not, to be honest, the best businessman on earth, but I was determined to stay running a label, because at least I can go “Bollocks!” to anybody, and do whatever I want.

The title of the album is Survival & Resistance – has that been the name of the game for On-U?

Yeah, it’s been my lot in life. A lot of people did sell out their labels, and their dreams. I’m pretty pleased that I stuck to my guns as much as possible. A lot of good things have sprung out of On-U, and the people who work there. I’m proud of that legacy. It’s not some corny speech – I really am. I certainly know how not to run a label.

Your first years in the game, from 1978-82 – the post-punk years – are now looked back upon as an incredibly fertile and frenetic time for British music. Is that how you remember it?

In 1978 I started a distribution company, and used to drive round to a network of shops, selling my imports myself, because no-one would touch you with a bargepole, selling reggae. Then I got involved with Rough Trade. You’d go in there, and it would be like, OK, if people want to buy tunes, they’ve got to phone us up to buy them. Like, we’re the vendors of good taste! But that period, it wasn’t easy putting tunes out, because there were lots of people doing it, and the big companies just weren’t interested in the underbelly. If you couldn’t sell 300,000, they weren’t interested.

But musically, that made for a wonderful diversity. Everything had been blown wide open by punk…

It was uncharted. There was an innocence that’s gone. People thought they could change the world with a record in those days.

You were a key figure in the merging of styles that we now refer to as “post-punk.” At that time, you were exploring the boundaries of dub and roots reggae, but soon touched on other ethnic music…

You’d had the North American soul and R&B stuff coming in [to Britain] all throughout the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, but suddenly you had stuff coming in from Jamaica, and from other parts of the former British Empire, like India and Africa. Then people started getting into bass, then after a while, along came acid house, which kind of took people away from the football violence and stuff. They started taking E and psychedelics and getting into dancing. That was great!

How did you get involved with Jamaican musicians in the late ’70s?

I was just a fan who’d got his hands on the mixing desk, as one journalist once described me. I took that as a compliment! I was living in High Wycombe, and Prince Far-I, Bim Sherman and everybody used to stay at my Mum’s house when they came over. She was a very open-minded lady, my mother. Far-I used to call her Mummy.

One time, I turned up with him to a gig and stood next to this fat white sound man, who obviously wasn’t used to reggae, and I was like, “Turn the hi-hat up, turn the rimshot up – more bass!” until eventually he goes, “OK, you do it.” So I got thrown in the deep end. From there, I started running studio sessions. I wasn’t a musician, so I’d just hum the bassline to get what I wanted.

You never went for a purist sound. Did you set out to use reggae as a launchpad to do your own thing?

I wasn’t trying to emulate Jamaican music. You’ve got to walk an original path, if you can. Because if you get stuck copying everyone else, your time’s gonna be limited, because someone’ll supercede you.

I learned that really early on from the reggae producers. They all prided themselves on having an identifiable sound. That’s still something you should aspire to. You hear the good producers now – someone like Burial – he’s got a sonic, that fella. You listen to Digital Mystikz, or Pinch, you can hear something that identifies them from the bunch. It means you have a longer shelf-life.

In the mid ’80s, you seemed to turn your back on reggae, and get into a much heavier, proto-industrial groove. Why was that?

I’d got my credibility from working with Far-I, and he was murdered in Jamaica, so I got pissed off and disillusioned with all the violence over there. That coincided with me working with Mark Stewart, and then meeting the Tackhead lads the year after. So between ’84 and ’90 I didn’t do that many reggae records. I bounced into funk and industrial, and did loads of remixes. I was really doing all that to prop up the label. That was the plan.

Some of those Tackhead records were brutal!

I just wanted that stuff to leap out of the speakers. We weren’t into making pretty-pretty stuff, it was basically full-on, in-your-face. With Mark Stewart, I was experimenting with distortion overloading, and really vicious EQs, and I just applied that to a lot of my productions, because I was really into it. Even the reggae and dub stuff I did around then was much darker in flavor.

Among your occasional reggae stuff, you cut Time Boom De Devil Dead with Lee “Scratch” Perry’ in ’87, which many people regard as his best album after he left Jamaica. What’s he like?

He’s a great person to work with. He has a really naughty sense of humor. He’s also got really maverick ideas, always. I’ve worked with him now for over 25 years, and I think I’ve got his trust. He knows I’ll keep pushing with whatever little bit of money we’ve got to make it good. Also we’ve done good shows together, and I’ve put out some good compilations via the Pressure Sounds label – all really healthy activities. I learnt so much from him, like try and make everyone in the studio believe you’re doing something magic.

After house music hit in ’88, you were taken to the bosom of the emerging electronic scene, and had unlikely hit records with Tackhead’s MC, Gary Clail. After that, what went wrong?

Well, Tackhead imploded. We made a horrible, cocaine-induced, shit album, I’m ashamed to say. We lost the plot. It’s a horrible thing to admit, but it’s the truth. Also, my marriage ended, and after that, you had to regroup and get on with your life, so I did the first Little Axe album, and Bim Sherman’s Miracle, and a few other good albums, but ended up having to give them to other labels because of the economics.

How did you build up On-U again?

Sheer determination. [long silence] And the movement going on around me [dubstep] kind of suits me at the moment. It’s very bass-heavy, bass-friendly. With that lot, we put out the Nu Sound & Version album of Lee Perry tracks. It was a bit more than a remix album, because I oversaw it. I was trying to get Lee in with a more contemporary crowd. I think the people we got on board were really good: Moody Boyz, Kode 9. I’m doing a proper collaborative album with Pinch – I’m really pleased with how that’s going.

With a title like Survival & Resistance, your own solo record sounds like it could be a crazy, noisy, militant affair. It’s actually very classy!

Yeah, [laughs] it’s quite musical. The record will stand the test of time, I think. Me and my engineer Matt Smyth were experimenting drastically with tuning. All the things on there that sound like synthesizers are made out of massively down-tuned, twisted and edited bits of Turkish and Brazilian rapid percussion, and then were fine-tuned to sound like b-lines and pianos and stuff. Musicians won’t be able to figure out what on earth any of the sounds come from, because they’re not from any known synthesized source.

Having said that, there’s synth on a couple of tracks with Adamski, who’s my mate, who’s done a couple of cool old-school things on there. I see it as a modern dub record, but it’s not copping anything off a new producer or anything. What I had in my head to start with was to make a record you get zonked out and meditate to, late at night.

Do you always think about how your music will be utilized by the listener?

You’ve got to. All the dub albums are very easy – you get stoned and listen to them. Or, get stoned and dance to them. Or, don’t get stoned, but imagine you are. That was the thing with those Dub Syndicate and African Headcharge albums. I could imagine the people who would buy them and how they’d be listening to them, because it was probably how I’d be listening to them. Not that I’m a big stoner. You almost feel high listening to the moving sonic.

But then, the first solo record I made for RealWorld [2003's Never Trust A Hippy], I made that like a sound system album, so I could play it out. This one – “chill-out” is the wrong word, but it’s more meditative, intense dub.

You mentioned earlier that you wanted to establish your own sound, but you’ve made records all over the map – reggae, industrial, African, jazz, folk, blues, funk. Aren’t you actually one of modern production’s great unsung polymaths?

But I apply the same technique to everything I do. I like uncluttered productions. I’ve got to hear the space and movement in sound. What I took from Jamaican music was space – that tonality, particularly when they started shaping the sound with reverbs, delays and everything else.

You learn to apply that to your own production. It might all be very wet with fazers one minute, then suddenly you make it completely dry and empty, and bang into a reverb. I love that, creating a healthy tension. [Pause] I sound like a complete wanker talking about this. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?

Six Essential Adrian Sherwood Albums

Starship Africa

Creation Rebel

This was one of the first records I ever made [in 1978], and it still sounds good. I hadn't met Style Scott [Jamaican drummer from the legendary Roots Radics band] when we recorded this, but I overdubbed him on top of some of the drum tracks a year after recording it, in '79. Then, because some of it was slightly out of sync, we experimented by mixing the whole album backwards, and then putting in reverbs and delay, and bringing them in and out of the mix, so it was all sucking backwards on itself. I really liked it, but some people like David Rodigan [UK reggae radio luminary] said, "What do you think you're doing to reggae music?" Which I should've taken a compliment, but it wasn't meant as one.

Off the Beaten Track

African Head Charge

This was my attempt at an African dub album. Bonjo [Iyahbinghi Noah, chief collaborator] was born in a rasta camp in the hills in Jamaica, but he loves all kinds of rhythms, like Cuban and African. He was recommended to us, so we got him involved doing percussion with Creation Rebel. African Headcharge was inspired by this Eno interview I read, where he was going on about having a vision of a psychedelic Africa – just to mash the fuck out of African music.


Lee "Scratch" Perry

This was Lee Perry and myself, a dub version of The Mighty Upsetter. He's magic, Lee, a great person to work with, because he knows if you're making an effort, or if you're dicking around, or if you're being tired or lazy. He won't let people who are sleepy into the studio, they have to leave.

Learning to Cope With Cowardice - Director\'s Cut

Mark Stewart & The Maffia

Mark's been a massive influence on my life. He's original, inspired, and he's the genuine article. Even though he might look amusing, he's a serious boy. I've got the utmost respect for him. He has a fierce energy. He's proper.

Love Forever

New Age Steppers

This is the last work of Ari Up [former singer with punk band The Slits, who passed away in 2010]. I think it's a really good album, and people don't know it. I knew she had cancer. Some of it was done just before she got ill, then some of it in Jamaica [where she lived] after she got ill. She was a fearless woman, she led her own life and made her own decisions. She wasn't led by nobody, she was led by herself – one of the most fearless people I've ever met.

This is a folk album I did that nobody knows about – although, it was Album of the Year in Roots magazine. I used the same production approach as I did on Bim Sherman's Miracle. I like to keep things so everything's got its own space, and something that might be in the back of the mix, you suddenly bring forward right in your face, and then let it disappear. That way you create a little picture. You can do that to anything!