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Adrian Sherwood and On-U Sound: adventures in schizophonic sound

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  • Mark Fisher examines the legacy of the producer and label that reimagined dub reggae for the post-punk headspace.
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    4 May 2012
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    Adrian Sherwood
    Mark Stewart
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In 2006, FACT’s Mark Fisher spoke in-depth to Adrian Sherwood and Mark Stewart about the former’s peerless label, On-U Sound.

The full version of the resulting article has never appeared online before. On the eve of the release of a new Sherwood solo album, and as he prepares to play Croatia’s Stop Making Sense festival on August 2-6, we thought we’d rectify that.

Adrian Sherwood is a manipulator of sonic phantoms, a technician of disembodiment.

“There were a few ghosts,” says Adrian Sherwood.

He is talking about putting together the two Sound Crash CDs of 2006, enjoyably violent “slash and mixes” of material from his groundbreaking record label, On-U Sound. When he returned to the On-U vaults, Sherwood found himself confronted by the voices of dead friends. Three of the voices which most contributed to On-U’s sonic signature  – the authoritative, awe-inducing Old Testament boom of Prince Far I, the honey-spun golden plaint of Bim Sherman, and the Orson Welles-like rasp of MC-cum-poet Andy Fairley – belong to men who are now dead.

But dub is inherently hauntological, and Sherwood – a dub producer for more than thirty years – has always been a manipulator of sonic phantoms, a technician of disembodiment. Anyone who has heard Sherwood mix a live show will know of his ability to render occult the relationship between sounds and sources. Reverbed, panned, cut up with wraith-like pre-recorded sounds, the live instruments become unlive, and in the process, it is as if the sound gains an extra – tactile – dimension. It’s not for nothing that one of Sherwood’s earliest ventures was called 4D Rhythms, and once you’ve heard how his mixomancy can transform a live show, you’ll realise how unforgivably dull and flat most live mixes are.

Sherwood was possessed by dub at an early age. As a teenager, he sold 7” reggae pre-releases out of a van, and he retains his fanatical passion for reggae to this day (“Even if it it’s reggae with a crappy house beat, I still like it,” he confesses). When he began producing his own records, Sherwood’s inspirations were Lee Perry, King Tubby and Far I, but there was never any question of imitation. Sherwood took from his Jamaican precursors a license to be syncretic and synthetic. Perry and Tubby had not hesitated to produce sonic fictions steeped in their own (Jamaican) here-and-now, to use their studios as time and space machines in which all manner of strange cargo could be weaved into the story. Similarly, instead of pretending he was from Jamaica, Sherwood would re-situate London in the Black Atlantic, combining Jamaica’s ghost science with the alien currents of the English metropolis.

“Even if it it’s reggae with a crappy house beat, I still like it.” - Adrian Sherwood

An architect of what Kode9 calls ‘hyperdub’, Sherwood was very far from being a dub purist – a concept that is any case something of a contradiction in terms – and On-U was, from the start, a haven for post-punk refugees such as Ari Up of the The Slits and Mark Stewart of The Pop Group. When, later, Sherwood heard the cut-up funk of Keith Leblanc, Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald (who at that time were collectively known as Fats Comet, later Tack>>Head), he immediately wanted to incorporate its crunching, animatronic energy into the On-Universe too. Jamaica – New York – London…Three corners of the Black Atlantic met and re-combined in Sherwood’s studio in Wood Green.

What Sherwood learned from dub, post-punk and funk, he bequeathed to pop. His mixes for acts such as Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails brought a combination of spacey spectrality and bionic muscularity to the pop mainstream, permanently mutating it. Sherwood’s taste for film and TV samples, cut-up abstraction and spine-pounding bass make for a sonic signature as well-defined as that of any producer. This trademark sound is celebrated in the title of his own 2006 album, Becoming a Cliché. Much like Sherwood himself, the title suggests both self-deprecation and quiet pride. ‘Cliché’ is being used in a positively, meaning something that is instantly recognizable.

When we spoke in 2006, Sherwood envisaged Becoming a Cliché as both a summary of past achievements and a statement of intent. As ever, the album was a collective affair, featuring long-time allies such as Dennis Bovell and Mark Stewart alongside newer collaborators like French-Tunisian singer Samia Farah, Italian rapper Raiz, dancehall toaster Jazzwad. Varied but always bearing Sherwood’s unmistakable fingerprints, the album is never less than catchy. In On-U’s case, there has never been an opposition between the experimental and the compulsive.

Three corners of the Black Atlantic met and re-combined in Sherwood’s studio in Wood Green.

“I’m not going to put anything out myself until I’ve got the business structure in place,” said Sherwood of the dormant On-U at the time. But since celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2010, the the label has re-asserted its presence, making its catalogue available digitally, issuing new albums from New Age Steppers, African Head Charge and others. In the interim, Sherwood used other companies: Becoming a Cliché, for instance, was released on Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld label.

The first of the aforementioned Sound Crash CDs showcases the full breadth of the On-Universe, while the second is specifically devoted to Tack>>Head. The word ‘soundcrash’ is apt, not only for the mix CDs, but for Sherwood’s approach in general. It turns out that – in keeping with dub’s (anti-)methodology – the word was an accident turned to an advantage. Sherwood had been invited to put together the mix CDs to spearhead a series of sumptuous re-issues in Japan. While they waited for a better name, the Japanese record company used the old JA term ‘Soundclash’, which Sherwood always knew was too hackneyed to stick with. But when one of the written communications misspelled ‘Soundclash’ as ‘Soundcrash’, Sherwood realised that he both had the right name and a new concept.

On-U Sound Crash takes listeners on a whirlwind tour of the On-Universe. For those familiar with the label, the CD is like is a speed-rush through a mutated version of the past, in which altered versions of classic tracks are patched into a sequence that is – gratifyingly – far from seamless. New samples and vocals have been added (including eerie ethereal chants from the late Ari Up).

On-U became a cyberpunk bunker in which misfits and visionaries holed themselves up against a mad world order that was re-tooling itself as a Science Fiction monstrosity.

Like the label it celebrates, On-U Sound Crash is a study in contrasts and unexpected contiguities. The CD consummately demonstrates that, like all great producers, Sherwood is as an inventor of sonic fictions as well as an expert manipulator of sound. He conjured a series of strikingly distinctive sonic concepts from raw material laid down by what were essentially the same group of musicians. You would never mistake the lush, Science Fictional grooves of Dub Syndicate (based around drummer Style Scott) for the fantasmatic, phantom-haunted soundscapes of African Head Charge (based around percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah), even if both are instantly identifiable as Sherwood’s work.

Sherwood set up On-U in 1980, the year that Ronald Reagan became US President, and the year after the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Mrs Thatcher’s first election victory. Unemployment was reaching record levels. The post-war world was coming apart; the Cold War was about to enter its final phase. Fear of nuclear annihilation was so routinised that no one thought twice about dreaming every night of planetary destruction. Rasta dread at its most end-times apocalyptic and punk no-futurism at its most nihilistic seemed perfectly realistic. On-U became a cyberpunk bunker in which misfits and visionaries holed themselves up against a mad world order that was re-tooling itself as a Science Fiction monstrosity.

Mark Stewart’s first solo LP, Learning to Cope with Cowardice, captures the spirit of those times perfectly. Stewart’s intuition that there were connections to be drawn between dub’s dismantling of the song, William Burroughs’ cut-up techniques, and Situationist detournement plugged directly into the On-U ethos.

Mark Stewart had developed a fevered vocal style that seemed to be derived as much from the howls of Antonin Artaud as from the yelps and yaps of James Brown.

As lead screamer with The Pop Group, Stewart had developed a fevered vocal style that seemed to be derived as much from the howls of Antonin Artaud as from the yelps and yaps of James Brown. The Pop Group’s atonal, fractured funk – which, on their first LP, was simultaneously held together and dub-disassembled by producer Dennis Bovell – was what you imagined punk would sound like before you encountered the r-and-r plod of most punk records. There was no question of improv-tedium, in part because of Stewart’s bizarre facility for generating hooks, albeit of an aberrant kind.

“I was fed up with the music industry, and I was spending a lot of time working with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament,” Stewart told me, describing the period leading up to the recording of Learning to Cope with Cowardice. CND were organising a gig which The Pop Group would headline, but Stewart wanted the event to end with an “English protest song”, and chose to perform William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.

Soon after the CND show, The Pop Group finally disintegrated once and for all, and it was a logical step for Stewart to record with reggae players he had long admired, including legendary drummer Charles ‘Eskimo’ Fox, one of the founding members of Creation Rebel. Fox and African Head Charge’s Bonjo, together with bassist Evar Wellington and keyboard player Desmond ‘Fatfingers’ Coke, provided the grooves – alternately defiant and dejected – from which Learning to Cope with Cowardice was assembled. In the studio, Stewart and Sherwood denaturalised the music, mercilessly shredding it with noise, sound effects and samples: it sounded like the world was caving in.

There is no song that captures the atmosphere of early Eighties virtual nuclear winter better than ‘Liberty City’.

The chopped-up version of ‘Jerusalem’ became the centrepiece of the LP. Stewart’s ‘Jerusalem’ deranged Blake’s verse from Middle England common sense and reclaimed it for the Black Atlantic. In its very form, the track is an argument, a theoretical proposition about culture, politics and nationality, which establishes an affinity between Blake’s anglo-millenarian visions and Rasta eschatology. Something is restored to Blake’s prophecies and provocations when they are declaimed by Stewart. Suddenly, the words glow again with a delirious lucidity that familiarity and reactionary misappropriation has dulled.

Learning to Cope with Cowardice came out in 1983, the year that Thatcher was re-elected.  Its vision is deliberately confrontational, amping up the contrast between the Spectacle’s dissimulations (‘The Paranoia of Power’, ‘None Dare Call it Conspiracy’) and the forces of resistance (‘Blessed are those who Struggle’, ‘To Have the Vision’). The album’s stark divisiveness was timely: a year later, the Miners Strike would set the industrial working class and the forces of resurgent capitalism against one another in a violent struggle that would lay the groundwork for a total reconstruction of British society.

There is no song that captures the atmosphere of early Eighties virtual nuclear winter better than ‘Liberty City’, the album’s second track (released at the time as a single). The song dated back to the Pop Group days, but the difference between the wracked version on Learning to Cope and the song played live by The Pop Group is a testament both to the brilliance of Sherwood’s production and to the increasing bleakness of the times.

The bassline, which Sherwood insinuates into the centre of your brain, sounds like a motorcyle revving up on a sink estate. It’s so bitterly cold you practically have to turn up your collar as you listen. Dub detritus flits across the mix like trash in an icy wind. Stewart takes on the role of tour guide through the city of the living dead, trying to shake the defeated and the resigned out of “the comforts of slavery”. Noise fragments rear like de-tuned radios playing in long-abandoned flats. Friends are either “bitterly aggressive” or “eternally well-meaning but broken”, and consumer pleasures offer scant protection against the collapsing public sphere: “buy a car and watch / it rust”.

“I’ve never really learned how to behave properly…” – Mark Stewart

‘Liberty City’ is unusual in Stewart’s solo work in that it resembles a conventional song. Most of Stewart’s tracks are constructed out of chants and slogans that are periodically buried in noise and interference. On the face of it, the political impulse to communicate a clear message would seem to conflict with the noisenik tendency to subject everything to cut-up and distortion. “It may surprise you,” Stewart explains, “but I’m quite shy about my voice. I need a noise, to get myself going…” When I suggest to him that embarrassment is the first defence system of the social, that the very act of screaming in public is a challenge to (the ruling) order, he laughs. “Well, I’ve never really learned how to behave properly…”


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