Trevor Jack­son

For al­most 30 years, Trevor Jack­son has been a con­stant pres­ence in dance mu­sic through his own pro­duc­tions and graphic de­sign work. Af­ter a pe­riod of in­tro­spec­tion, Danny Turner finds him clear­ing the decks for new ma­te­rial

Future Music - - CONTENTS -

De­signer and pro­ducer Trevor Jack­son be­gan his ca­reer in the mu­sic in­dus­try man­ag­ing a record store and de­sign­ing record sleeves. In 1987, he formed the de­sign com­pany Bite It, work­ing for large cor­po­rate clients and la­bels alike un­til his love of elec­tronic mu­sic and hip-hop ig­nited a pas­sion for pro­duc­tion. As the Un­der­dog, Jack­son worked on nu­mer­ous self-penned re­leases and remixes for the likes of Mas­sive At­tack, U2 and Un­kle, lead­ing to wide­spread in­dus­try ac­claim.

By the mid-’90s, Jack­son had cre­ated the post-punk dance act, Play­group, with col­lab­o­ra­tors in­clud­ing Ed­wyn Collins, Scritti Politti and dub master, Den­nis Bovell. He then formed Out­put Record­ings, launch­ing the ca­reers of Four Tet and LCD Soundsys­tem. How­ever, side­lined by his la­bel work, Jack­son be­gan to feel ir­rel­e­vant as a pro­ducer. Thank­fully, the process be­hind Sys­tem, the fi­nal re­lease on his archive la­bel Pre-, has Jack­son fizzing with ideas again and ready to pro­duce new mu­sic.

You have a huge vinyl col­lec­tion. Are you still us­ing your records for sam­pling?

“At the be­gin­ning, every­thing was sam­ple-based, so I did buy a lot of the mu­sic for sam­pling, but I’ve learned so much about mu­sic by dig­ging for things. I was a mas­sive Adrian Sher­wood, Trevor Horn and Arthur Baker fan and bought ev­ery sin­gle record those guys made. To this day, I’m not re­ally a mu­si­cian, but over a 30-year pe­riod I’ve taught my­self how to form mu­sic with­out us­ing sam­ples.”

It’s in­ter­est­ing you bought mu­sic by pro­duc­ers…

“It wasn’t just pro­duc­ers; I’d pull a record out and look to see if there was a drum­mer or synth player I liked. I worked in Lop­py­lugs Records in Edg­ware, and you’ve got to be a bit of a nerd to work in a record shop, but it’s not like I was into cat­a­logue num­bers and stuff. I had a de­sign ca­reer, so I got into look­ing at the cred­its more from look­ing at the sleeve de­signs first. The ’80s was a highly pro­duc­tive time for mu­sic, mainly due to the tech­nol­ogy that was emerg­ing, and I slowly grav­i­tated to­wards the peo­ple pro­duc­ing the tracks.”

Do you miss the de­sign as­pect now that vinyl is not the dom­i­nant for­mat it used to be?

“Although I like the past, I em­brace the present. There are less record sleeves, but there are more web­sites and videos. The visual rep­re­sen­ta­tion def­i­nitely adds to mu­sic, but it doesn’t have to be on a 12” piece of card. I’m a big fan of CDs ac­tu­ally and lis­ten to al­bums more on that for­mat.”

With a pas­sion for de­sign and your own de­sign com­pany, how did mu­sic be­come your ca­reer path?

“I was al­ways mak­ing mu­sic in my bed­room. I had a lit­tle four-track recorder and a Com­modore 64 sam­ple mod­ule and put some tracks to­gether. I en­tered a Mor­gan Khan Street Sounds com­pe­ti­tion – a UK hip-hop thing, which con­sisted of very sim­ple beats mixed with spo­ken word TV sam­ples. Then I got a Roland W-30 sam­pling se­quencer.”

We were aware peo­ple used the Atari con­sole to make mu­sic but not the Com­modore 64…

“I did use an Akai 950 with the Atari ST – as a se­quencer/com­puter combo it was rock solid, but with the Com­modore 64 you could click in this SFX Sound Sam­pler. It had 1.4 sec­onds of sam­ple time, so I could sam­ple a kick, snare, hi-hat and clap, and every­thing I did sounded like the Art of Noise track

Beat Box. Then I used a Roland W-30 sam­pling work­sta­tion be­fore mov­ing on to the Akai sam­plers.”

So you were de­sign­ing sleeves and pro­duc­ing?

“I was de­sign­ing record sleeves from the mid-’80s and mak­ing mu­sic in the back­ground. By 1993, I was do­ing four or five sleeves a week and work­ing for Pul­sate, but wasn’t re­ally en­joy­ing the records I was de­sign­ing. At that point, work­ing in the record shop with me was Richard Rus­sell from XL Record­ings. He was my Sun­day boy; I’d tell him to put the grills up and sweep up, but when he started work­ing at XL he asked me to do a remix for the Amer­i­can hip-hop group, House of Pain. I did this remix and the ver­sion went top 10 and got a gold disc, so my mu­sic ca­reer took off from there.”

Did you ditch de­sign­ing sleeves at that point?

“I was de­sign­ing sleeves for Gee Street Records, artists like Stereo MCs, PM Dawn, Jun­gle Brothers, De La Soul and Queen Lat­i­fah, but when Jon Baker, who ran the la­bel, re­alised I’d started mak­ing mu­sic, he asked me to do remixes for Gravediggaz and a few other peo­ple. I still did a few de­sign things but I re­ally em­braced pro­duc­tion and remix­ing and be­came this char­ac­ter called Un­der­dog.”

What stu­dio were you us­ing back then?

“When I first started mak­ing mu­sic I worked at Mon­roe Stu­dios in Bar­net be­fore it moved to Hol­loway Road. That was the epi­cen­tre of Lon­don hip-hop and drum & bass. Lucky Spin Records was next door and there were two en­gi­neers there, Pete Par­sons and Roger Benu, who worked on so many of those amaz­ing early records. They had a shitty Sound­tracs desk and every­thing went through that and some LA Au­dio com­pres­sors.”

Did you work along­side mu­si­cians in those days?

“I worked with Ed­wyn Collins, who had an in­cred­i­ble col­lec­tion of vin­tage gear, and loads of other mu­si­cians, but even then I’d just sam­ple them and put every­thing through an Akai S950 sam­pler. There was just some­thing about the way it sounded. I’d do the se­quenc­ing on an old Mac, but it couldn’t record any au­dio. Then I started get­ting bass play­ers in and bought an Ober­heim OB-Xa syn­the­siser, which I’ve still got. I also had a Jen SX-1000 monosynth and started buy­ing drum ma­chines. I’d use the S950 for the main body of the track and en­hance things with sam­plers and drum ma­chines.”

The S950 was an im­por­tant piece of gear for you…

“Nearly all the mu­sic I’ve put out was done on two Akai S950 sam­plers. I’d put the drums and the bass through the mix out­put so I could com­press them in a cer­tain way and used the eight out­puts on the other one to record sep­a­rate el­e­ments. I even­tu­ally got an Akai S3000. The mono out would go through the com­pres­sor, which made every­thing pump.”

When sam­pling mu­si­cians, how did you avoid break­ing up the feel of the per­for­mance?

“I was never record­ing vir­tu­osos. The sam­pler could only sam­ple for 30 sec­onds, so I’d just take loops and phrases. I’d get a bass player in, but my brain was al­ways think­ing in terms of breaks. Around that time, I did an al­bum for a band called Em­per­ors New Clothes on Acid Jazz, which never came out. There were four mu­si­cians, but I took ev­ery track – the kicks, snares and hi-hats – chopped them up and re­con­structed them through the S950. It wasn’t easy, but that’s what I felt com­fort­able do­ing.”

Then you moved to home record­ing?

“When I re­alised I could make mu­sic at home, I got an Akai MG1212, which is an in­cred­i­ble 12-track desk. It had para­met­ric EQs and a Be­ta­max-type tape ma­chine that you could record onto. I think DJ Shadow used one and Pete Rock & CL Smooth used a cas­sette ver­sion of it. I adore that ma­chine.”

Is that when you started to build up your stu­dio?

“Yes, but some bad shit hap­pened and I had to live in a lot of dif­fer­ent places for a while, so I was car­ry­ing gear around with me to record and make mu­sic with. I only moved to this stu­dio about five years ago, but the MG1212 desk broke and I wanted to get my­self a good ana­logue desk. I spoke with John Oram who de­signed Tri­dent EQs and that con­vinced me to get an Oram T-Se­ries desk.”

Is us­ing a desk su­pe­rior to work­ing solely in the box?

“I love the sound that you get from a demo record­ing, but as you progress in your ca­reer you can eas­ily lose that naivety and I never wanted to be­come so pol­ished that I lost the vibe of things. I need things to be pro­cessed through real EQs – I just think there’s a magic to that. Even if I work on a lap­top I’ll record stuff through the Oram, edit it in the lap­top and bring it out to tape or back through the desk just so it ex­ists in the phys­i­cal realm. I still bounce stuff down to metal tape all the time be­cause I used to love how records sounded on the ra­dio. There’s some­thing about that se­cond or third gen­er­a­tion sound; it’s not about warmth, it’s more about char­ac­ter and per­son­al­ity. The joke is, most of the gear I’ve got in here I haven’t used that much. I set up this stu­dio, but I didn’t want to use it prop­erly un­til I fin­ished re­leas­ing all the old mu­sic I’d made.”

Hence your lat­est al­bum Sys­tem; what’s the story be­hind re­leas­ing old ma­te­rial?

“I stopped re­leas­ing mu­sic af­ter my la­bel Out­put closed in 2006. Var­i­ous things in my life hap­pened and I wasn’t in the right headspace to re­lease mu­sic even though I was still mak­ing it. In 2015 some­one from the Vinyl Fac­tory came to see me and asked if I was in­ter­ested in do­ing a pro­ject with them. I’d lost con­fi­dence hav­ing been out of the game for so long, but they loved the stuff. I wasn’t sure about it as it didn’t meet my stan­dards. I had about 200 un­re­leased tracks, and that’s when I came up with this con­cept of ev­ery track hav­ing a dif­fer­ent for­mat and us­ing them for in­stal­la­tions and ex­hi­bi­tions. That went re­ally well and trig­gered me into think­ing this stuff was ac­tu­ally quite good, so I’ve been go­ing through my whole archive over the past three years and re­leas­ing it. Sys­tem is the sixth and fi­nal re­lease.”

Has work­ing in iso­la­tion con­trib­uted to your lack of con­fi­dence dur­ing cer­tain pe­ri­ods in your ca­reer?

“A few things hap­pened to me to change my opin­ion about my place in the world of mu­sic. I was al­ways very for­tu­nate that my work was recog­nised when I started and it sold. Sales weren’t nec­es­sar­ily mas­sive, but I had re­spect from my peers and peo­ple I wouldn’t have ex­pected. Dur­ing the time I ran Out­put, I was work­ing with guys like Kieran Heb­den and James Mur­phy of LCD Soundsys­tem – pro­duc­ers whose work I thought was in­cred­i­ble. I made a con­scious de­ci­sion to step back and didn’t have time to make mu­sic, but they also had an im­pact on me be­cause I started think­ing, shit, these peo­ple are much bet­ter than I am. I lit­er­ally thought my mu­sic was shit and didn’t make sense any­more.”

How did you get through that?

“When a close friend of mine died, it re­ally shook my life up and mu­sic ac­tu­ally got me through it. Some of the tracks I’ve re­cently put out have evolved over 15 years, start­ing out as rough de­mos. I didn’t have the ses­sions any­more; I only had the stereo files, so I edited them and added stuff on top, which was quite a cathar­tic process. It took Sean from Vinyl Fac­tory to come in and a few other peo­ple to make me think there was some worth in it.”

With the new mu­sic you’re about to pro­duce, are dig­i­tal tools com­ing more into the fold?

“I’ve got more into edit­ing, but I’m still run­ning Logic 9 on an old tower, which has never crashed. I use it mostly as a se­quencer and I’ve got Logic 10 on the lap­top run­ning as an ed­i­tor be­cause the au­dio ca­pa­bil­i­ties are bet­ter. For me though, the Emagic ver­sion of Logic is bet­ter for se­quenc­ing; it’s so tight.”

How do you plan to make mu­sic go­ing for­ward?

“The for­ward plan is not to use a com­puter for se­quenc­ing at all, but use my SP1200 as a master and try to run all my gear live. I’m also try­ing to get hold of a Fairlight CMI Se­ries II and make some crazy mu­sic with that. To me, it’s prob­a­bly the most iconic mu­si­cal in­stru­ment of my gen­er­a­tion and the se­quencer is beau­ti­ful. I just adore sam­pling sound. I’m happy to use a com­puter for edit­ing, but not se­quenc­ing. It’s ridicu­lous to say, but up to now the mu­sic-mak­ing process has been re­ally hard be­cause I’ve as­so­ci­ated the strug­gle with get­ting a good re­sult. I’d like to change my ways and just en­joy it more; I want to keep that essence of naivety.”

You’ve not got into mod­u­lar?

“I’ve got this mod­u­lar video syn­the­sis sys­tem, but didn’t want to get into the au­dio side be­cause it’s just a black hole. Hav­ing said that, I’ve got a Roland Sys­tem-100 – it used to be­long to Ge­n­e­sis be­cause it

has their tour sticker on the back. I didn’t buy the unit in one piece; I found the speak­ers in LA and had to search for the sep­a­rates. I’ve added a mixer with a spring re­verb, a se­quencer and an ex­pander. This, along with the MiniKorg 700s is what The Hu­man League used to make Be­ing Boiled and Daniel Miller on Warm Leatherette.”

You’ve re­tained a cu­rios­ity sur­round­ing how those records were made, and want to use the same gear?

“To me, they’re icons of the 20th cen­tury. I’ve got a Roland Jupiter-6 be­cause Larry Heard used it on Mr Fingers and Fingers Inc., the Roland TR-808 of course and the Elka Syn­thex as it’s got the laser harp that Jean-Michel Jarre used. This Linn LM-1 drum ma­chine was hand­made by Roger Linn; the sound of it’s in­cred­i­ble be­cause he sam­pled a live drum­mer and put in onto the chips. A lot of my favourite records dur­ing that pe­riod were made on it. But I’ve stripped things down. I’ve got two polysynths and a cou­ple of monosynths and I do like early dig­i­tal stuff too. I’ve got the Sim­mons SDS6 and SDS7 – in­cred­i­ble se­quencers that use cards with chips on them. You pro­gramme them via dot ma­trix.”

Is there any room for soft synths and VSTs?

“I’ve got the UVI Vin­tage Vault synth col­lec­tion, which is fan­tas­tic. It has copies of ev­ery synth and drum ma­chine ever, even Fairlights and Syn­claviers. It’s prob­a­bly the best-sound­ing vin­tage soft­ware I’ve heard. Re­cently, I had to do a remix re­ally quickly while I was trav­el­ling, so I did the ba­sics on that then com­bined soft­ware with hard­ware.”

Where’s the in­no­va­tion com­ing from these days?

“Be­ing the age I am, I’ve gone through a con­vo­luted thought process on this sub­ject mat­ter. When I was younger, to make the mu­sic you had to have an ex­treme pas­sion to find out what gear you needed, save up to buy it and learn how to use it. There was no YouTube and just a few mag­a­zines. You had to speak to peo­ple, so to hunt down that gear was a huge part of the process. That means the only peo­ple mak­ing mu­sic were those who were re­ally pas­sion­ate about it. They weren’t mak­ing wall­pa­per mu­sic; ev­ery piece of mu­sic that came out was for the right rea­sons. Now, the democrati­sa­tion of the whole thing means any­one can make mu­sic.”

You’re against the democrati­sa­tion of mu­sic?

“What’s most im­por­tant for me is the rea­son some­one makes a record. Part of me thinks some of them don’t de­serve to make mu­sic and shouldn’t be mak­ing it just for the hell of it be­cause they didn’t have to go through what I did. I’m a man that’s never used a sam­ple CD in my life or a fuck­ing li­brary. Ev­ery track I’ve ever made came from drum ma­chines I bought and sam­pled. It sounds lu­natic now, but if it wanted a 909, I bought it, sam­pled it and sold it. That whole men­tal­ity that you can get a CD with 20,000 sounds on it is sac­ri­le­gious to me, but on the other side I’ve also learned that mu­sic is about ex­pres­sion, and it’s great that any­one can pick up some­thing and ex­press them­selves. Maybe mu­sic has a slightly dif­fer­ent pur­pose now, but I think it’s good that a ten-year-old can learn GarageBand and make a track. I guess the new me is com­ing round to the idea that every­thing is valid, whereas be­fore I thought the process was more im­por­tant.”

Would you also say it’s less im­por­tant how peo­ple ap­proach mu­sic-mak­ing tech­ni­cally?

“The whole grime scene came about be­cause peo­ple were us­ing Fruity Loops or that PlaySta­tion pro­gram. I’ve in­ter­viewed Trevor Horn, Arthur Baker and Adrian Sher­wood and they told me a lot of the tracks they made that I love the most were things they were just fuck­ing around with. When Todd Terry was mak­ing some of those amaz­ing tracks, he was dick­ing about and did them in half an hour. It makes me won­der if I think too much. Some of the best things are made when you switch off your thought pro­cesses and just do it, and most of the best things I’ve done came from mis­takes.”

What new tech­nolo­gies have been trans­for­ma­tive?

“I think right now Able­ton Live has un­doubt­edly trans­formed mu­sic-mak­ing be­cause it’s so fast to use and you can get your ideas down quickly. I al­ways thought that if things aren’t a strug­gle, some­thing’s gone wrong. Some of the tracks on Sys­tem were re-edited or mixed 100 times, but I want to change all that. I’m quite in­ter­ested in the new Teenage En­gi­neer­ing sam­pler, but every­one’s buy­ing them so a lot of mu­sic will start sound­ing the same. That’s part of the rea­son I haven’t been us­ing Able­ton – I can hear when some­one’s made some­thing us­ing it.”

We un­der­stand your new la­bel will be com­pletely phys­i­cal – no so­cial me­dia or even an email con­tact?

“For me, there’s too much noise out there and I want to dis­con­nect from that for a bit. So­cial me­dia is my biggest fear. It’s about be­ing in a room with thou­sands of other peo­ple who ei­ther hate or love what I do, but every­one’s com­pletely coked out of their mind and talk­ing about them­selves. That’s how I feel in the bub­ble of so­cial me­dia. I’ve strug­gled with that on a so­cial level too – I didn’t want to share pri­vate things with other peo­ple, but when it comes to putting records out I felt I had to use it. The ma­jor­ity of peo­ple don’t even know about most of the records I love, so the idea is to cre­ate a la­bel that doesn’t ex­ist on­line and you can’t con­tact me with­out send­ing an SAE. I’ll send a list of records com­ing out and peo­ple can send me a cheque or cash to buy them, which will prob­a­bly be hard work but I just want to give it a shot.”

Do you feel so­cial me­dia is cyn­i­cal and artists are just tap­ping into peo­ple’s emo­tions to sell prod­uct?

“It’s about cre­at­ing the il­lu­sion of a re­la­tion­ship and keep­ing your­self in the pub­lic eye. I see artists I love and re­spect talk­ing about tak­ing the cat out or mak­ing a cup of tea; it’s fuck­ing ba­nal. For me, it should be purely about mu­sic and, I was go­ing to say mar­ket­ing. The mys­tery’s gone. I want to hold the peo­ple I re­spect on pedestals; not even think about them as hu­man [ laughs].”

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