If you ask Adrian Sherwood what he thinks of EDM he'll say, "Maybe if I was on a lot of drugs. But I'm too old for drugs.” If anyone is entitled to be snarky about music trends, it's Sherwood, who is often described as "legendary" by people described as legendary themselves. Thirty years as a serial label founder and producer will earn you such accolades. Speaking on the phone from his studio in Kent, England, he sounds more amused than anything by the EDM question, as well as the hype surrounding his seniority, and the fanfare that has accompanied his latest album, Survival & Resistance, which takes its name from a revolutionary manifesto and reflects his attitude toward the music industry. Sherwood, who has worked with some of the biggest names in electronic, industrial, dub, punk, and experimental music, does not consider himself a pioneer or part of any particular movement. Rather, the founder of revered dub label On-U Sound records, who has worked with Primal Scream, the Cure, Depeche Mode, Ministry, Blur, Skinny Puppy, Cabaret Voltaire, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sinead O'Connor and Nine Inch Nails, sees himself as a devoted music geek who's good with the knobs.
If Im working with an artist, and Im acting more as producer, I work on the sonic to make it sound like one piece of work. I make sure it sounds like the band.
A certain degree of his skill is due to natural talent, but it's also the result of hard work and experience. Sherwood's been DJing since he was 13, launching labels since he was 15 (including Carib Gems and Hitrun records), and racking up one of the most impressive list of credits in music since he was in his early 20s. Interestingly, he didn't start releasing albums as an artist until 2003's Never Trust A Hippy. Prior to that, he had released 1986's Time Boom X De Devil Dead with Lee “Scratch” Perry, reviving the Jamaican icon's career. In addition to his solo career, Sherwood was part of hip-hop noise collective Tackhead, which featured members of the Sugarhill Records' house band who played on "The Message" and "White Lines." So when word got out that the stalwart iconoclast was working on a new album, a smattering of superlatives was to be expected. When we rang him up, he was characteristically low-key about his status, and much more eager to talk about creative integrity, politics, healthcare and what’s really important in life.
I was talking to Alex Paterson of The Orb the other day. He said you two were neighbors, and people often confuse him for you.
True, but impossible. I’m too handsome; you could never confuse him with me.
Moving on, then… You've worked with so many people, in so many styles. How do you manage all these ideas?
I plan things generally. I don't often wake up in the middle of the night with ideas. I usually think about things quite meticulously. It sounds kind of boring, but it's true. I have to put it in a notebook. I might start off doing something or two or three things, and you never know where they will end up. I also work off the premise, which is unique to Jamaican music, of versions. So if I cut something really good, I cut it three times until it's a finished thing, and then I can play all those versions during my live shows.
That makes it sound like there’s a treasure trove of notebooks and dub plates waiting to be discovered.
I've got lots of rough ideas of things recorded. Mostly ideas are sketched, then cut apart, and I come back to them and take one thing from one and put into it another. If I'm working with an artist, and I'm acting more as producer, I work on the sonic to make it sound like one piece of work. I make sure it sounds like the band.
There are some contemporary/dubstep-friendly elements on Survival and Resistance, but there are also some refreshing instruments like tambourines and acoustic guitars.
The underground of today is so often the overground of tomorrow...Unfortunately, a lot of it turns into wallpaper music.
It's not a dubstep album, but it's a contemporary, unique dub album and that's how I wanted it to be viewed. It's something you could put on at night in the background or turn it up and it's got some very interesting sonics. Once you've heard it two or three times, you will absorb it. It's a contemporary dub album that doesn't sound like “anyone else's shit,” as you Americans put it.
Well, it's refreshing because some recent "comeback" albums sounded like they were trying too hard. You can kind of feel a connection to the "wobble" but the live instruments punch it up.
I feel that you've got to have some live performance to give it a spring of life, or a swing factor. I like sexier rhythms. If it's all "boof, boof, boof," it does my head in and wears me out after an hour.
I grew up listening to a lot of great black music, and Jamaican stuff, and they grew up listening to a lot of American radio. It’s interesting how music goes around, when a sonic comes up and reaches people and seeps into their subconscious.
Who's the female singer on “We Flick the Switch”? She's amazing.
Her name is Lilli. She's fantastic. She's doing something on the West End at the moment. I found her through a friend of a friend. She came down and we did that song together. We got on really well. I'm going to do more things with her. I don't have too many vocals on this album. It's just her and Ghetto Priest on the album.
How did he end up on this album?
We did an album called Vulture Culture. He was in Asian Dub Foundation as well. He was originally in African Head Charge. He was the percussionist on African Head Charge, but he's got a lovely voice.
What are Asian Dub Foundation up to?
They're doing a live soundtrack, confrontational cinema thing for [Mathieu Kassovitz’s film] La Haine. I only ever produced the one album with them, but they're pals of mine. They're a pretty big festival band; they're always working.
What’s up with you and Nine Inch Nails lately? Trent’s winning Oscars now.
The funny thing is when I was doing Tackhead and Mark Stewart, Trent used to come on gigs, and he would ask me, would I mix this or mix that. At the time I was trying not to do any work. After I said I couldn't do it, he approached Keith LeBlanc and he programmed the drums on "Down On It" and I mixed it in two or three hours at Roundhouse. And still, all these years, people keep going on about me and Nine Inch Nails! I love the sonic, he does some good work. I think it sold about a million, and Keith paid me about 400 quid for mixing it. But that’s it.
Isn't it kind of funny to see, for example, with Trent and recently the Danny Boyle Olympics extravaganza, how these underground acts have crossed over into the mainstream?
The underground of today is so often the overground of tomorrow. It's like hip-hop. Unfortunately, a lot of it turns into wallpaper music. I like what Danny did, though, especially pointing out our national health service. The right wing in our country is trying to destroy our national health service. It's one of the most important things this country's got. People come from all over when they're ill, and our health system helps them. I've got friends in the states who are quite successful, they've got cancer and yet they have to have fundraisers and things. It costs you trillions of dollars to be treated like shit. The greedy people who control the economy, the private companies that put the money there—including the drug companies, have hijacked it. So what Boyle was saying is “We've got to protect our national service from the predators at all costs.” I thought that was quite good, I love that he did that. That, and all the Masonic shit he put in there.
I could not bear to be locked in a room hearing four on the floor foot drums for more than an hour. Even if I was on drugs. Maybe if I was on a lot of drugs. But I’m too old for drugs. That kind of stuff has a place, but it’s not on my turntable.
It was interesting to see how much British music has influenced pop culture over the years.
Well, a lot of it was inspired by American music. Good stuff grows. There's a Jamaican saying "Each one, teach one." I grew up listening to a lot of great black music, and Jamaican stuff, and they grew up listening to a lot of American radio. It's interesting how music goes around, when a sonic comes up and reaches people and seeps into their subconscious.
Had you been invited to participate, would you have done it?
A few people turned it down, like Kate Bush…
She's a very private person, of a certain age, and she's got a lot more dignity than Annie Lennox. What the fuck was she doing on that pirate ship at the end? Kate's not someone you see out very often. If she wants to do something, she does it. That makes her quite an interesting artist.
What do you think about EDM and the subsequent backlash and in fighting?
The bottom line is the lowest common denominator will always be popular. Whatever you wanna call it, we call it "butt music"—butt, butt, butt. That's the universal sound, from Argentina to Germany to New York. So the Swedish House Mafia, Paul Oakenfeld, whatever—that's still massive. Those DJs make a fortune, playing other people's music mostly. They're like little gods in Ibiza, and that's what people want. It's of absolutely no interest whatsoever to me. My friend Adamski [who plays synths on a couple of tracks on Survival & Resistance] he was doing that stuff. He's doing very interesting electronic Waltz music at the moment. He hasn't put it out yet but he's doing interesting stuff. At the end of the day, he and people who make that stuff, they really love it. But I could not bear to be locked in a room hearing four on the floor foot drums for more than an hour. Even if I was on drugs. Maybe if I was on a lot of drugs. But I'm too old for drugs. That kind of stuff has a place, but it's not on my turntable.
You started out as a DJ rather young.
I stared DJing at 13, at school on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. By the time I was 15, I was doing evenings and weddings. By the time I was 17 I had a distribution and my first record label. By the time I was 19 I had gone bankrupt and into massive debt, living in my mother's house. On-U Sound was my fourth label by the time I was 22 years of age.
You just gotta keep trying, eh?
I've said this repeatedly, all you can do is do as much as you can while you're inspired and don't doubt yourself. Don't doodle around trying to make things perfect. Personally, I like things where you can hear where they're aiming or going, that makes for an interesting record, flaws, charm.
If you’re going to spend weeks and weeks of your life doing something, the motivation has to be more than a few dollars. What’s important to me is not necessarily some legacy bullshit, but I want the records I make to sound good in ten, twenty years. That’s what really satisfies me.
Do you think you would have an easier time starting out now?
No, not at all. It's brutal for young people. You've got to be focusing on doing a lot of live performances, creating a scene. You're not going to get someone to notice you unless you've got really good chops. People are being bombarded with downloads, but no one's interested unless it's something really good that blows you away. You've got to think about your own sonic and make people gravitate towards you. (God, I sound like a fucking idiot.)
How do you see your music fitting into the overall narrative?
To be honest, I don't really care. I've got a few thousand fans around the world. I'd like to have a few hundred thousand fans, obviously. All you can do is do what you think is appropriate to you. I don't want to be a session monkey at all. It's not my thing. I'd like people to check out what I do more, and hopefully like it, or at least investigate it, because I'm very proud of what I've done.
In the last few years you seem happy to be doing your own thing.
I am quite happy doing my own thing. This year, I did a couple of remixes, which is something I don't do too often anymore. To be quite honest, how things are now with the industry where…physical sales aren't what they were, it's hard to finance proper productions. It's tough getting it done economically—paying for the cost of the engineer, the studio. I'd rather spend the time doing my own work. It's not that I'm not interested in working with other people, but more, "How many hours do you have in the day," really. It would have to be more than just a job. It's not that I'm rich or anything because I'm certainly not. If you're going to spend weeks and weeks of your life doing something, the motivation has to be more than a few dollars. What's important to me is not necessarily some “legacy” bullshit, but I want the records I make to sound good in ten, twenty years. That's what really satisfies me.
Time flies, too. Did you think this is where you'd be 30 years ago?
I never thought about it, honestly. My only plan was survival. My only ambition was to work with the heroes that I've worked with. For me, that’s worth more than silver and gold. I know lots of musicians who are doing well out there, but they're not happy with what they're doing. I'm very satisfied with where I am at the moment. I never thought I'd be alive now, to be honest. The fact that I'm still here, and surrounded by good friends and family and a good creative environment, I love it. I count myself a lucky human being, really. Follow Adrian Sherwood on Facebook | Twitter