I remember the first time I heard the Dub Syndicate album, Tunesfrom the Missing Channel, in 1984. I was used to reggae being somethingearthy and warm, but here was a record that sizzled and popped with weirdsounds, synths, cut up spoken parts, and musical juxtapositions. I was hooked. I hold Adrian Sherwood and his On-U Sound Records label (founded in 1980) in high esteem, and I've always wanted to talk to him about his studio life. Sherwood's work with Tackhead, Dub Syndicate, African Head Charge, Creation Rebel, Mark Stewart, and so many others has changed the face of music. When he reunited with Lee "Scratch" Perry [see interview this issue] to produce the Rainford album, and its dub version, Heavy Rain, I finally got my chance to chat with him long distance.
Photo: Lee & Adrian in a still from the video for "Lies" by Sherwood & Pinch, ft. Lee "Scratch" Perry direction, edit, and effects by Sally Sibbet
I want to talk a little bit about your history. I got the impression that your early work was actually doing live sound system gigs inspired by the Jamaican style, right?
Sound systems? No. To be honest with you, I was a chancer.* I was a massive fan of reggae, James Brown, a lot of the black American funk and dance, Tamla [Berry Gordy's Motown], and everything as a kid. But then I became quite obsessed with reggae. I was lucky enough to get involved in the business through a Jamaican friend who worked for Pama Records in the '60s. I didn't really have a father; he was the person most like a dad to me, ever. He took me under his wing. Eventually I met musicians, cobbled together some releases, and started a little label. We went to do some shows; the first show was at the 100 Club, a famous club on Oxford Street in England.
We had put together a band, all really last-minute, with Prince Far I, a legendary Jamaican DJ, chanting over the top. We were paying [for] a PA, and I was only maybe 19. I was leaning over to him and going, "More hi-hat! More bass! Turn up the vocal!" And he said, "Look, you do it! You do it!" He wasn't rude to me; he was like a chummy rock 'n' roll PA man. But we had a spring reverb, a [Roland] Space Echo or something, and he showed me, "There's the hi-hat, and there's that." I balanced it up, and put a little tiny effect on the snare and on the lead vocal. After the gig, people said, "Wow, that sounded amazing!" I think people had listened to it sound so badly [before]. I didn't know what I was doing! That was it.
You'd done releases? Had On-U Sound started before that?
No. I was involved as a junior partner in the Carib Gems label. Then I started the Hitrun label. After that came 4D Rhythms, and then On-U Sound at the end of 1980.
What were your first recording studio experiences?
My first studio one was through meeting artists. People always wanted me to run a session, and try and make some money however they could. I saved up. One of the people I was working for was called [Anthony] "Chips" Richards, who's a famous Jamaican character. He arranged for me to go into the studio with Dennis Bovell, who did The Slits, The Pop Group, and other records as well. I paid the musicians, and I hummed the bass lines to a bass player. I made an album called Dub from Creation [by Creation Rebel]. That was my first venture. I did it thinking, "Well, if I lose the 200 pounds I'm spending, it's not the end of the world. I'll have some fun!"
You're not a traditional musician, as far as playing an instrument, correct?
No, I'm not.
I love the idea of humming bass lines.
Traditionally with dub, one takes a song and deconstructs it; stretch it out, add effects, and drop instruments out. But you've always made new creations built to be dub tracks.
Pretty much, yes. I was involved in the whole dub scene, in one way or another, from very early on. We used to license tapes from Jamaica in the mid-'70s, when I was in my teens. A lot of the dub was created by record labels in London – they saw that there was a market for it. I was involved with that. Someone would come over, like [Henry] "Junjo" Lawes or one of the producers, and would have loads of dub versions left over from their songs. Those albums, Scientist Meets... whoever or whatever, they weren't real albums. People don't actually know it. Chris [Cracknell] at Greensleeves [Records] put them together and gave them the names. He basically took a load of dubs that had been mixed by Scientist [see interview this issue]. These people would evoke your imagination: King Tubby, Keith Hudson, Augustus Pablo, Scientist, and King Jammy. What Chris did, he put together these albums and said, "Oh, Scientist Meets... whatever," with funny sleeves, and people think they were actually conceived as a work! But they were put together out of dub versions by the record producer. People were sitting around, smoking a spliff, and listening to this. Interestingly, the first wave of reggae fans were the skinheads. They weren't racist; they were quite the opposite, working-class people who loved reggae. They liked the happy and funny and gimmicky records. But as soon as it became quite black – as black awareness happened in Jamaica and America; blaxploitation, the Black Panthers, Garveyism, and the Rasta movement – the crowds moved away from reggae, because it was too "black" for them. When dub came along, along came a "Smokey Bear," student-y hippie lot. It wasn't about having a lot of lyrics rammed down their throats, and a lot of them could get off on the instrumentals; the dubs. I made it for me as a fan. I was a fan of Keith Hudson's brand, a fan of Augustus Pablo's records, and obviously a big fan of the early King Tubby Meets The Upsetter – At The Grass Roots of Dub. I'd suddenly met these great musicians, like [Eric] "Fish" Clarke, and later [Lincoln] "Style" Scott, Errol "Flabba" Holt, Clifton Morrison, and Crucial Tony [Phillips] in London. I just started having some fun, as a fan. That's how it went.
Were you still having to hum bass lines and guide it?
Yeah, I was humming the bass! Or someone else came up with the bass line, or I'd come up with some lyrics. Some people are brilliant, brilliant songwriters. I'm a "part-songwriter."
What were some of the first records where you felt like you got your style going, as far as putting these dub records together?
Probably by the time we got to Mark Stewart's Learning to Cope with Cowardice album, and Staggering Heights by Singers & Players. The early African Head Charge was trying ideas. By then, I was definitely in good control of it.
What studios were you working out of then? How did you pick them and the engineers?
I'd work anywhere I could get a studio with an okay bit of equipment in it. We were responsible for popularizing Berry Street Studio. Gooseberry Sound Studios was established; I had gone to Gooseberry, and then, when that was very busy, I found Berry Street. A lot of people followed me down the same matrix. And with Southern Studios, that was where Crass and Björk, [when she was] in Kukl, did all their first records. I basically popularized that as a control room for doing Lee Perry, and sessions like that, in there. I'd work anywhere with decent monitors. Once I had a good engineer and knew what I was doing, I could work anywhere.
You mentioned decent monitors. With the dub you're working on, you need to hear the low end, right? Is that something you'd check out in a studio before booking it?
Yeah. You know as well as I, certain monitors sound great when you listen to them, but you can take them into another room and they're too bass-heavy. A room that you can trust and monitors you can trust are essential.
Right. I feel like with reggae and dub, you're dealing with so much information on the bottom end.
Yeah. It's a way of making the foot drum and the bass almost interlock; like two fingers interlocking.
What led other people seeking you out and asking you to produce them?
What happened for me was I knew Daniel Miller [Mute Records, Tape Op #110] from when he was living at his mum's house and put his first ever record out [as The Normal]. He said, "Oh, I wish we did an electronic dub album together," and we didn't. Then I was working with Mark Stewart, who he was a big fan of. He asked me to do one of his first remixes, which was "People Are People" by Depeche Mode. Then, after I did that, people started saying, "Oh, let's get Adrian in to do the weird remix!" They never got me to do the A-side! [laughter] In those days, they were all sniffed up idiots on cocaine; just fucking lunatics everywhere. What they would do is put out ten versions of a tune with a different picture sleeve, colored vinyl, and anything just to try and get a chart position. For me, I was always brought in to do the wacky remix to help bolster up somebody's chart position. That's how my career went. I didn't care, because I was just taking the company's money to bolster up my company!
That's an interesting parallel track, too. You were running a record label, which is something you learned beforehand through the distributors?
I'd been taught to try and build a catalog. If you want anyone to take you seriously, you have to have a catalog. That's how I was brought up.
Then you have a way to get those records heard and released.
"If I could make a record this week, I could probably have it out in a couple of weeks." I wish I could
do that now!
What kinds of projects have you worked on in the last five or ten years?
I am trying to reorganize myself with the label. In the last five years, I built up a relationship with Warp Records to reissue all my old stuff. They've been doing a really good job. There are loads and loads of records available. If anyone wants to check it, they can go online and have a look and see what's been made available. On the new release I did, I did a collaboration with Pinch [Rob Ellis], a producer from Bristol who's a good friend of mine. We did two Sherwood & Pinch albums [Man Vs. Sofa, Late Night Endless]. And I did an album with Coldcut at On-U Sound, Outside the Echo Chamber.
I did and album [#N/A] with Nisennenmondai, the Japanese band. I've been trying to strategically reposition myself in the market so that people even know that I've released anything. I don't know if you saw the album Pay It All Back Vol. 7 that we released, but that's highly recommended, if you can get ahold of it. It's a double vinyl, and it's all unreleased and forthcoming stuff from projects I'm about to do. It's also got a booklet with my complete catalog in it, listing all the productions. It's a beautiful little package.
That sounds perfect. I know you worked with Lee "Scratch" Perry in the mid-'80s, as well as on the recent Rainford album. He's a very mercurial, one might say. How do you go about keeping him focused on a record?
Well, on this one, I had a bit more access to him, so I spent a week with him at home with his wife in Jamaica. We mapped everything out in his kitchen late at night, working on headphones at the kitchen table. Then we brought it back here and did some more microscoping, hooks, and made it more song-like.
You did the rough versions of what he wanted, initially?
No; lots of it was masters, recorded on a low-quality mic. I also did some on a really high-quality mic, like a Neumann U 87. I've got this mixture of really intimate, raw vocals, straight in your face, mixed with other better-quality sounding songs. I also took some of his hooks and augmented them with backing vocals. That's how we created the record.
Were you playing him a rhythm in his headphones to toast over to start?
Yes, yes. Some of the rhythms we did from the beginning. Actually "Let it Rain" was done from beginning to end, that day. That was with the cello man, Ivan "Cello" Hussey, Skip "Little Axe" McDonald, and my daughters [Denise Sherwood Devenish, Emily Sherwood Hyman] doing the vocals. It was a very nice record.
Yeah, it's really cool. I love "Cricket on the Moon" and some of those tracks. They're just so playful, the way his mind works, obviously.
Look, I'll say this; it feels like my ego... but I think it's the best vocal album he's ever made. If you look at it, I'm very proud of Time Boom [from 1987], but in this album he reveals a lot of himself. It's song-oriented, and it's got loads of fun and seriousness all mixed together. I'm very happy with it.
Do you sometimes do sessions and bring people in, do some tracking, and see if these parts land on different projects?
I do, yeah. People have asked me that before. Well, not always. Very often I just start it thinking it's for something, and then sometimes I'm not quite happy with it. I might leave it for a couple of years and then revisit it, and if it's still got something I really like about it, then I'll reinvent it a bit. That kind of thing happens.
I really dug you solo album, Never Trust a Hippy, when it came out. It feels like a compilation record, in a way.
I can see why you'd think that. It is, a little bit. I did make the sonics sound complemented to each other. I used a lot of disparate parts. The whole thing was basically that you can rock to it. I can play it out, because I'd suddenly put myself [his name] on the front cover for the first time ever. I was doing gigs in my name. I had to put something out with my name on it, because being a producer without any record with your name on it is a bit difficult, except for the people who actually read the back of a sleeve.
Right. And your second solo record, Becoming a Cliche, was that a similar process?
That one I got a little bit more song-oriented, using my friends like Dennis Bovell and other collaborators like LSK [Lee "LSK" Kenny] and other people I really liked. I thought I'd make a pop song-y version of the record. I think that second album's maybe not as good as the first, but it has a lot of great tracks on it. The third one, Survival & Resistance, I think people don't realize how that was made. It's all made out of tuning. There're no synthesizers or anything on it. It's all made by mad tuning, and pitching, and bending.
No way! I've got to check that one out.
That's from about seven years ago. It's a great album.
How hands-on are you with work like that? Are you collaborating with an engineer, or mucking around on a computer?
Well, I tell people what to do. I'm like a little conductor, but I do use my fingers to shape everything, because I do it all analog. With the solo records I'm obviously like a little Hitler. I tell everybody what to do, 100 percent, and that's exactly what we do.
With analog, you're talking about the mixing process?
Yeah. But in the recording process I'm using the analog desk as an instrument, recording that, and then plunking it into another mix and playing things backwards and forwards. Just trying to make it breathe, really.
And utilizing effects?
Do you have a ton of your own tape-based effects and spring reverbs that are very distinctive?
What are some of your favorite spring reverbs that you use for drums?
Today I'm using a Grampian. [Probably a Reverberation Unit Type 636.] I got that for next to nothing, and they're quite expensive now. I've also got an old Orban from America that cost about $300. I use that for snare. It's a very tight, small reverb. People don't appreciate how good Orban is, but I love Orban stuff. [Probably a Model 111B.]
It's one of those light-blue ones?
Yeah. It's cheap and affordable still. I use the Fisher [Dynamic Spacexpander reverb], the same one that used to be in cars, that King Tubby used. They're quite useful to get that crap quality, but really good... I don't literally mean crap, but rather non-cultured or refined, like an AMS or something. It's a nasty lovely little edge. The color it brings: it's only got one sound, but if you put strings through it, it sounds like an Indian Bollywood distorted thing. Or you put it on a bass, or a guitar, or whatever, and that will cut your head off. It's wonderful.
That's one of the amazing things, if you look at the lineage from Jamaica. It's a lot of not top-of-the-line gear. Instead it's creative usage of that gear.
It's like a lot of those wonderful things, like Cinema Engineering [equalizers], Langevin [equalizers], and all that. They were all, in their day, made for the common man; like your first Ford car. Everyone could afford them. They weren't really, really expensive exclusive stuff. You can still get them, and they last the course of time.
Computer plug-ins are quite interesting, but it's not a piece of hardware that's going to follow you around for 30 years.
No. If you look at my studio now, the computer keeps breaking down much more than the vintage gear!
Do you have your own private place set up nowadays?
Yeah. I'm down by the seaside in a place called Ramsgate [in England]. It's a very interesting setup. The houses are about 200 years old. They're joined by gardens. We kicked the wall down, and you go in one house and go out another on a different road, which is very confusing for visitors. It's very funky, and really nice. I've actually got my friend from America, David Asher [THE PROCESS, David Asher Band]. He's visiting here, at the moment. He's sitting in the studio near the house as we speak. Skip McDonald, the great guitarist, is here as well.
Are there any projects in the future coming up that you are excited about?
I highly recommend that people look for Pay It All Back Vol. 7, because that finally gives a guideline to what's coming next. I've got an album done with Horace Andy that's absolutely stunning. I've got an album with my daughter Denise [Sherwood Devenish], which is wonderful. There's a taster for that on Pay It All Back Vol. 7. I've been recording African Head Charge, and I've got a few other things up my sleeve. I'm going to do another solo album myself. And 2020 is the 40th anniversary of the label.
Thinking back to the teenage kid who was you as a music fan, are you blown away at 40 years and all the releases you've worked on?
I'm just glad to be here still!