INTERVIEW: Adrian Sherwood

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The respected English record producer (On-U Sound, Pressure Sounds) and member of Tackhead talks at length to Francisco Scaramanga about his musical life, and his work with artists such as The Fall, Lee Perry, the Woodentops and his relationship with folk music. Contains embedded clips from the Fall, Tackhead, the Woodentops and Ian King.

The first time you worked with The Fall was the Slates album. How did you first hook up with The Fall?

It was through the Rough Trade offices. They distributed all the independent records in Britain at the time. I met Daniel Miller there prior to his founding Mute. The Fall were doing stuff for Geoff Travis (Rough Trade label boss) at the time. They'd done stuff for Miles Copeland (brother of Stewart from The Police) on Step Forward previously. I was only 22 or 23 years old at the time -learning my trade so to speak. Geoff Travis said that I could help with additional production. I mainly contributed in the recording of the song 'Middlemass'.

Middlemass was apparently written about the soon to be fired from the band Marc 'Lard' Riley. "The boy is like a tape loop".

I didn't know that. Myself and Mark became friends later. My wife at the time Kishi became friends with Kay Carroll - Mark's girlfriend and The Fall's manager at the time. I think the song 'An Older Lover' is about her. Myself and Kishi went to see The Fall in Berlin and that cemented the friendship.

I asked Paul Hanley and Grant Showbiz if they had any recollections of the recording of Slates.

Grant Showbiz: Does he remember setting up a speaker in the toilets at Berwick St studio during recording of Slates and why? (it was for a snare sound).
Paul Hanley: When we recorded with Adrian he got the reverb he wanted on the bass drum by playing it through a speaker at the top of the stairs and then re-recording it at the bottom. Does he still do stuff like that or would he just press a button now?

What was almost unique about The Fall is that they never used any studio effects. It was almost antiproduction. I didn't do that much on the record. The one thing I can claim is the idea to record through the toilet. It was in the boiler room so we had to switch the boiler off. Mark wanted it to sound crunching. He wanted it to sound like something on Sun records or a Link Wray record. I did it by using an off-mike recording of a speaker in the bathroom. He didn't want any reverbs or effects. He wanted it to sound 'dry'. I learnt a lot from him. I learnt less really is more.

The Fall - Middle Mass

The toilet recording sounds a bit like something Joe Meek would have done.

Not quite. He'd have put the drummer in the bath tub.

Tackhead covered The Fall's 'Repetition' as the B-side of Dangerous Sex. Dave Haslam (music journalist) maintains this is the Fall's most important song. Were you happy with the result?
Yeah that was my idea. I wasn't completely happy with the result but I'm glad we did it.

Repetition (Dub)(1990)(AUDIO ONLY) - Tackhead

You've worked with three of my heroes - Lee Perry, Mark E Smith and Shane McGowan. All three individuals are beloved by music journalists because there are so many stories about much you could write. Is Mark E Smith more like Shane McGowan or Lee Perry?

And yes there are some boring sods who sell lots of records. Well if I had to choose...I'd say Mark E Smith and Shane McGowan because they both like a drink. All three are alike in that they're incredibly creative and they DON'T suffer fools gladly. Shane McGowan has his Behan thing. Mark E Smith has his northern working class thing. Lee Perry is different in that it's not just the recorded output. He believes that every movement or emotion that he experiences is part of one huge work of art. He's like Salvador Dali or something. McGowan is obviously a poet and when you look at something like 'Deerpark' you realise what a wordsmith Mark is. All three are tied together by a sense of humour - they're mischievous madmen.

I recently heard the famous Tommy Vance Capitol Radio interview where John Lydon played his favourite records. Mark E Smith wouldn't credit it but surely he's got to have taken some influences from Lydon. Not many people back then or now like dub reggae, Can and the Velvets.

Oh you mean the show where he played Dr Alimentado. I think what everyone took from reggae was the lyrics, whether they were talking about 'babylon', 'bomb the church' or even 'don't eat pork'. It was completely revolutionary to British people's ears. If you were living in London or Manchester at the time you heard it. Whether you liked it or not - and a lot of people didn't like it. Even if you didn't like the "chickey chickey" reggae rhythm you absorbed it. Mark was a big fan of Big Youth and I would later turn him on to some other stuff. Whether he liked it or not he respected your enthusiasm.

Mark E Smith has recently taken to describing himself as a producer. Is this an accurate description?

Mark is the real deal. Something that I've always thought and you can quote me on it is this...Mark knows the album he's going to end up with note for note before he even steps into the studio. He's a one off in Britain that way. You're wondering whether Mark is correct in describing himself as a producer. He's a producer alright. In that respect Grant Showbiz was like a co-producer. I was just an assistant. He knows EXACTLY what he wants the guitars and the drums to sound like. In those early 1980s records he wanted a tension.

He apparently would stay longer in the pub to piss the musicians off and make them tense when they played.

Well he might have done that, but I think he wanted to create a healthy tension and you can hear it on those records.

You also worked on the Fall's Extricate album. Did you work on 'Telephone Thing' (with Coldcut) or 'Popcorn Double Feature'?

No. I did stuff like 'British People in Hot Weather' and 'Extricate' (the title track). They tried a lot of new things on that record. I didn't really know Coldcut but they went to the same college as me. Sometimes producing is just about creating an ambience for other people to work in. I mean if I'm producing a dub record I might aim for the 'Black Ark' (Lee Perry's legendary studio) sound but that certainly wasn't what was required with The Fall. A producer should add his two bob when required...when things grind to a halt. But they never asked for my 'signature' sound and it wouldn't have worked with The Fall.

The Fall - Extricate

Is Lee Perry the greatest musical artist to ever come out of Jamaica?

Well he's the greatest producer definitely. He's not a natural singer. He's like a conductor or magician. I keep going back to comparisons with Dali really. His influence is immense.

The Fall - Kimble - Peel Session (Lee Perry cover)

Simon Reynolds wrote an article in The Wire later republished in the book 'Bring The Noise' postulating that as the years have passed Bob Marley's reputation has diminished and Lee Perry's has increased.

Are you crazy? Bob Marley is as big as Elvis. You travel anywhere and you'll hear Bob Marley. Lee Perry doesn't sell that many records...certainly not in comparison with Bob Marley.

I'm not disputing that Bob Marley was the first 'third world' superstar. I'm thinking of when someone like The Beastie Boys devoted their magazine 'Grand Royal' entirely to Lee Perry. Some people have already entitled the noughties the decade of the producer. Also the cult of the 'mad producer' it Phil Spector, Joe Meek, Brian Wilson or Lee Perry is a relatively recent phenomenon. People didn't think about music in these terms in 1980 but most the music we're talking about had been released by then. Music journalism nowadays isn't really about new music rather constant reappraisal of the past in magazines like Mojo or Uncut.

Well actually I think it's a matter of continuity. People get interested when they discover that lots of records in their collections are by the same producer. With Lee it's continuity to the present day. I think the fascination only really extends as far as Lee Perry and King Tubby. They were soundmasters as well as producers. Augustus Pablo to a lesser extent but he was a musician/producer. I think Lee Perry just got tired of sitting in a bloody studio working on other people's records and that's why he mainly works as a vocalist now.
“In the old days, writing about reggae focused largely on the singer/songwriter/frontmen - figures like Marley, Toots and so forth. There was acknowledgement of the importance of a producer like Lee Perry...but little in the way of analysis of what they did. Today, a near-complete reversal has occurred, with producers and engineers usurping the status of auteurs. In the last decade, thousands of words have been spilled on the wizardry of Perry of Tubby, but surprisingly little on reggae vocalists or the role of drummers, bassists, rhythm guitarists ,keyboardists in building grooves.
The totem and touchstone for this form-not-content version of reggae is Lee 'Scratch' Perry. As the new consensus about dub has solidified over the last decade, he has been elevated to become the auteur-producer par excellence, at the expense of some of his less flamboyant yet more consistent peers (King Tubby, Keith Hudson, Jack Ruby, Augustus Pablo, Tommy Cowan, Joe Gibbs, Harry Mudie, et al.). Perry is often contrasted with Bob Marley by critics of the Afro-Futurist persuasion: the two are almost a binary pair, conceptual twins with Perry always bigged up as 'mad scientist' producer-genius and Marley always denigrated as dull 'n' worthy statesman.

Quote from a Simon Reynolds piece published in The Wire (addressing arguments at the time to do with reggae going on in highbrow music culture) (1999) and republished in the book Bring The Noise-with kind permission.
Take an act like the Orb for instance. They come from a similar punk background and they make electronic dub. Did you ever get jealous of their success?

No...not at all. Alex (Patterson) is a good friend. If sometimes I haven't had as much commercial success as another artist that's all down to me. It really doesn't bother me. I'm proud of my output if my business savvy ever let me be it.

Were you aware that Orbital recently did a mix on Radio 6 entirely made up of On-U Sound material?

No I wasn't. That's great though isn't it. That's real respect.

Dub Syndicate – The Show Is Coming
Mark Stewart And The Mafia – Learning to Cope With Cowardice
Tackhead – What’s My Mission Now?
Gary Clail – Half Cut For Confidence
Keith Le Blanc – I’ll Come Up With Something
Tackhead – Mind At The Tether
Keith Le Blanc – Get This
Mark Stewart & The Mafia – As The Veneers Of Democracy Starts To Fade

You really do have a lot of connections in a lot of different scenes don't you?

Well I try to do a good job when I'm working with people. And if you don't act like a dickhead a friendship can develop on down the line. If I was in Manchester I might give Mark a call. If I was in Sheffield I might give Rich from Cabaret Voltaire a call. Primal Scream are all good friends. I see Andrew Innes every couple of weeks.
I'm in my early fifties and I know this business used to be better. The record shops are nearly all closed. People used to meet each other in the record shops...they were like a cafe. The music industry has lost all its innocence. You make a new track with something innovative on it nowadays, then someone else posts it online before it's even released. Next thing you know someone's stolen it and released a sanitized and watered down version of the same thing. I'm quite aware that I sound like an old fart but it's a terrible problem. I mean why would anyone bother in the first place.
You can ask Youtube to take stuff down but it quickly finds its way back up. Why is Youtube worth 400 million? I also really dislike the way the stuff that ends up on Youtube can be totally unrepresentative of your body of work. I have to confess I do use Youtube to watch comedy and stuff but I think all the innocence has been lost.

You produced the Woodentops records that subsequently got played by the Balearic DJs. All the Boys Own / Shoom DJs (Weatherall, Farley and Rampling) went on to enormous success. Why didn't you latch on to that scene?

Well anything that I did that was house-y did make money. Gary Clail (signed to On U Sound) was successful at that time. I just couldn't hack the 4/4 beat all night. We used to call it "Butt Butt Butt" music. It would have driven me mad in the long run. I just couldn't stick it. You've got to be true to yourself.

The Woodentops - Why (Extended Mix) 1986

Are you a fan of Irish music?

Well I've worked with Shane McGowan, Sinead O'Connor and Sharon Shannon. I like the flute and accordion. I like rebel songs. My grandfather was an adopted Irish opera singer?!? I can't really sing myself. One of the reasons I work with folk artists is because I don't like to be pigeon holed. The last album that I recorded was 'Ian King-Panic Grass and Feverfew' and it's doing really well commercially and critically. Shirley Collins...have you heard of her...she's a friend.

Ian King - Air in D with Old Irish Melody

Well English folk is definitely in the ascendency at the moment.
How did an English bloke get so well entrenched in the reggae scene? I saw you doing the sound for the Congos, Max Romeo and Lee Scratch Perry in Dublin recently. Possibly the biggest cheer of the night was when Lee Perry bigged up on the stage. Were you never intimidated by the reggae scene? Reggae as a genre sometimes seems so huge and impenetrable.

I've been DJing since I was thirteen. I've been releasing Jamaican records on my own label since I was seventeen. People can be initially suspicious but when you don't shoot your mouth off...when they see your genuine enthusiasm they don't fuck with you.

“I knew John Lydon well, and it was through John that I got to know Keith Levene and Jah Wobble. I got to know John better after Sid had died. Ari Upp, Neneh Cherry, Junior and I, we all lived in a squat down Battersea way, and John Lydon was living with Nora [his future wife and Ari Upp's mum] round the corner. John Lydon used to visit us, and we all hung out together. John was just so hip you know, a lot of people really looked up to him at that time. John really knew his reggae, he loved his reggae. I can tell you that John Lydon really helped the progress of roots and culture in Britain at that time.”
Excerpt from an interview with Adrian Sherwood Gregory Mario Whitfield.

You used to hang around in the same scene as John Lydon. Have you seen the reformed Public Image Limited?

Public Image Limited haven't reformed. PIL are Jah Wobble and Keith Levene.
(He's quite forceful about this).

Are Tackhead reforming?

Yeah Tackhead are doing a festival in Poland in September. Tackhead back in the day were an amazing live outfit but I don't want to do a load of dates performing to blokes in their forties and fifties.

Have you any albums coming out soon?

Well there's the IAN KING "PANIC GRASS AND FEVER FEW" album. It's an On-U Production released on the Fledg'ling record label. "DUBSETTER" by LEE "SCRATCH" PERRY and ADRIAN SHERWOOD is a new Dub album from The Upsetter and myself and it's on vinyl and cd.
Just completed and mastered is an album by singer/songwriter/artist JEB LOY NICHOLS "LONG TIME TRAVELLER". This is truly wonderful and features live rhythms recorded during last summer and classic re modelled ONU/Radics/Dub Syndicate rhythms.
"THE ROYAL VARIETY SHOW" (the best of..) DUB SYNDICATE a double cd of pure gems.
Also due for release is "DUB ... NO FRONTIERS" this is a true epic. It is a fresh and original 16 track double vinyl/cd release of all women vocalists from around the world, all singing in non English. it is a labor of love and is becoming one of my proudest productions it features vocals in Chinese, German, Arabic, Eritrean, Italian, Polish, Samoan, French, Japanese, Russian and more in progress.
"Suck on this planet of noise" Currently in production and well underway is "LET THE ROBOTS MELT" - ONUSOUNDSYSTEM featuring Primal Scream w.Lee Perry, Dennis Bovel, Pempi, John McClure, Carl Barat, Mark Stewart, Deeder Zaman, New Age Steppers and more, a truly wonderful sheet of noise "Listen up real close now"
Also currently in production for a 2010 release is a new NEW AGE STEPPERS album (the first for 25 years !) Recordings were done in Jamaica last year and hopefully it will be finished soon
There is also "CRISPY HORNS MEET ROOTS RADICS AND DUB SYNDICATE" a classic new dub/horns album, and work is well underway on GHETTO PRIEST "SACRED GROUND" this is the On-U follow up to "Vulture Culture" the debut Priest album from a few seasons back. Plus DEEDER ZAMAN brand new album from the original Asian Dub Foundation front man.
There are lots more. SKIP "Little Axe" McDONALD has a brand new authentic collision of Blues meets Dub live rhythms with Style Scott and the crew with Skip on Dobro in true Blues National style this is well underway and sounding "proper"

Also in our studio (and their own) LSK is working on new tracks. BROTHER CULTURE has voiced new tracks and also my daughter DENISE SHERWOOD is producing herself {and sometimes with dad and other "family"} check her on her myspace.

DECEMBER 2010 MARKS 30 YEARS SINCE THE RELEASE OF the 7" single "FADE AWAY" by NEW AGE STEPPERS cw "Learn a Language" by LONDON UNDERGROUND - However early 1981 saw On-U SOUND's first album releases, so we are planning to put on events all round the world throughout 2011 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the label. we will also issue a box set with music dvds, a book and many other goodies so hopefully after such a long wait, for those interested there will be lots of things to buy (or copy) and lots of live shows to catch.

Also (finally) a new Adrian Sherwood album will be released in 2011.

Finally, having seen Lee Perry in the last month. I was amazed at how sprightly he was. Do you have any inside information that might act as diet or exercise tips for us mere mortals.

Well, you know his mother is still alive! He comes from the countryside and I think his mother still lives in the countryside. His posture is incredible. The only time he ever sits down during the day is to eat. He's always on his feet. Obviously he did drink and smoke in the past but he's cut all that right out. He's a total vegetarian and he dances a lot. I think it helps that he's not a big man. Oh and he never moans, complains or whinges. I've never heard him say..."I'm tired".

Interview by Francisco Scaramanga


  1. nice interview odz

  2. Interesting stuff. Was the Junior referred to Junior Murvin or Junior Giscombe?

    Sad to read of Ari Upp's death. I was roadie in punk period and remember alunchtime bash at apub near Kingston Bridge with Tessa who told us about this band she was in who were going to be called the Castrators and at their first gig they were intending (!) to ritually castrate their new Pakistani roadie on stage to announce themselves to the world. After the lager and the sulphate expired this idea was probably reconsidered in the interests of public decency. Saw them with the Clash one night and it was the best exhibition of learning to play in public I've ever seen. It was cacophanous but you couldn't help loving them for their spirit.

    One night we (The Rats) were playing at the Roxy and before the Adverts went on stage, Gaye asked our bass player to tune her guitar, adding that the rest of the band shouldn't know about it. Playing all those gigs was hard for bands like ours who'd beenessentially rock bands before punk hit but it wasn't without its' amusing aspects. One myth, though is how the whole scene became punk. So many books misrepresent this fact.
    There was still a lot of good music being played by older people and also many people in punk bands ahd really wide taste, way beyond what their managers would allow them to say in public, but what it did do was allow people to open up their influences again in areas like rockabilly and blues.