Dog owners, so the joke goes, tend to resemble their pets. The same goes for Ninja Tune – a label forged in the image of its makers.
Throughout the eighties, Coldcut were making kaleidoscopic pop music that slung hip-hop, broken beat and Plunderphonics into an (audiovisual) blender. Since its inception in 1990, Ninja Tune has been a similarly freewheeling force for good. Its discography – sometimes arch, often kooky, invariably off-piste – remains one of the most diverse around. Artists like The Cinematic Orchestra, Mr Scruff and Bonobo have broken through into the public consciousness, but there’s always been plenty of room for oddities like Kid Koala and Daedelus. Factor in the various artists on sister labels Big Dada and Brainfeeder, and you’ve got one of the knottiest family trees around. It’s less a stable than a menagerie.
Ninja Tune have already knocked out some top releases this year: Slugabed’s Time Team, Plug’s long-lost Back In Time and a great remix set of Bonobo’s Black Sands are among the spoils. Their latest venture is their upcoming Tiger x Hidden Depths event at Fabric on May 16, which sees Tiger Beer and Black Atlantic join forces with FACT to toast the label’s output – check the Facebook page here. Thundercat will be performing his second ever UK live show, and squiggly synth-manipulator Slugabed will be performing live. The inimitable Floating Points and Big Dada’s Offshore will also be stopping by. FACT will be streaming footage from the night.
Amid torrential April showers, FACT’s Joseph Morpurgo sat down with Coldcut’s Jon More and Ninja Tune MD Peter Quicke at (the newly revamped) Ninja Tune HQ in Kennington, South London. On the agenda? Acid house, Mercury winners and the polishing of pebbles.
“We were minstrels in a way, travelling from town to town entertaining people with our skills. But at the end of the day, it was really just about a sparkly jacket and smoke and mirrors.”
Jon More: “Well, back in the mists of time, around the turn of the 1990s, we went off to Japan, Matt and I. We were having a fairly gruesome time as a lot of artists do with their major label – we were actually signed to an independent, although they acted as if they were a major label, and we were fed up with the whole thing. We went over there, got very inspired by the Japanese culture, the change of scenery. We were there for three weeks. We did thirteen gigs in three weeks, it was pretty full on.
“And both Matt and I just really got into ninjas. I saw this old television programme in the hotel room with the sound down. And when you turn the sound down on the TV programme, it takes on a different meaning in some respects. You can see the cracks, and it was just interesting how much the sound can contribute towards you not actually seeing the cardboard cut-out, homemade nature of a lot of productions. In this programme, The Ninjas, it was all smoke and mirrors, and intrigue, and popping here and popping there…and it just reminded me of Matt and I, and what we were doing. Which was that we wanted to have all these different characters. We were minstrels in a way, travelling from town to town entertaining people with our skills. But at the end of the day, it was really just about a sparkly jacket and smoke and mirrors [laughs].
“We described Ninja Tune as our ‘multicolour escape pod’. It was a vehicle for us to just really go back and experiment.”
“Matt found this cut-out-and-keep ninja in a book that we were given, and really liked that as well. So, we just got talking about it, came back here, back to our studio, and decided to form Ninja Tune. Matt did the very, very first design for it which was pretty much a stickman. It looked like The Saint.”
Peter Quicke: “It was on a white label. It was just drawn onto the first white labels.”
JM: “We made the first two albums, I think. Zen Breaks and DJ Food Vol 1.”
PQ: “They had to be under different names because Coldcut were still contracted to Big Life. I think it was Big Life/Polydor by then.”
JM: “It was, yeah. That’s when the trouble started. It was a vehicle. We described it as our ‘multicolour escape pod’. It was a vehicle for us to just really go back and experiment. Because prior to that, Coldcut had started in Matt’s bedroom above a butcher’s in Finsbury Park making records using a cassette machine. And within a ridiculously short period of time we were on Top Of The Pops, we were front page of the NME. ‘You’ve got to make an album.’ ‘Gaagh? What’s an album?’ We were DJs, we loved 12”s.
“It was a crazy period and there wasn’t really a lot of time to reflect in some ways, which was a good thing. But we came to the second album, didn’t do so well, the record company had changed. The spirit had become much more commercially orientated; they wanted us to make more things like ‘People Hold On’ and ‘The Only Way Is Up’, and less things like ‘Stop This Crazy Thing’. So we thought: we’ll go back to what we know we can do, which is to make odd music [laughs]. And started Ninja, and various different people helped us out until we met Pete. Which was, what, ’92?”
PQ: “’92, yeah. September ’92.”
JM: “It started to develop. Other artists, we started to accumulate other like-minded people in some respects, and Pete was very good at developing that. And it’s been a scenic road since, really.”
It’s interesting what you say about those difficulties you had as a group in those few years. I remember reading an interview with you, Pete, where you said that there was a sense that Ninja Tune were trying to do something very different to club culture at the time. Club culture was house-oriented, the Ecstasy rush…whereas Ninja Tune were trying to do something more eclectic and diverse.
PQ: “Exactly. There were the house tunes early on, but we thought, we don’t really want to do that. Although of course we had put out the odd thing like that.”
“We thought we were going to be an alternative group, and then, ‘Gaargh!’ Panic panic panic.”
JM: “In retrospect, it’s a very handy device, and looking back perhaps we were just a little bit too petulant about out distaste for house music. But we were just being beaten to death with it by a massive great big club, as it were. Superstar DJs and la la la la. We’d get booked into major rooms in some massive cavernous space in the North of England somewhere, and the promoter would say ‘Are you going to do ‘People Hold On’?’. Well, no, actually: we’re going to play loads of ambient and slow music. We thought we were going to be an alternative group, and then, ‘Gaargh!’ Panic panic panic. We had a love/hate relationship with it.”
PQ: “That was partly because only a few years before that the scene was genuinely eclectic. You would have soundsystems playing different sorts of music in the same club or warehouse. And that all changed, so in a way it was a reaction to that change from things being eclectic to them being quite homogenous.”
JM: “Other DJs, which is totally fair enough, went from playing perhaps rare groove…that would be the thing that most DJs would play if they were on the club scene, of one type or another, which was such an elastic genre. And then they started to play house music. And the irony is that I had to wrestle the turntables with the security guards at a Caister Weekend in about 1985 when I dared to play house music in the alternative room, when ‘I Found Lovin’’ by The Fatback Band was still the major coup in the main hall. And then two years later, Matt and I and Yazz were on stage there doing ‘The Only Way Is Up’ in the main room, with bubbles and balloons, stuff like that. I was standing there thinking, ‘This is just so weird. Two years ago, I could have been severely impaired by some brutish oaf who decided that he didn’t like the house music that I was playing.’ That was the alternative room, so at that point it was alternative.
“When I did this club called Meltdown, I would do the same thing. I would play lots of stuff from Chicago and Trax music, and some pretty bonkers stuff. But there was this beautiful moment, I suppose. There was this beautiful moment, I suppose it lasted two or three years, then it just became quite genre specific. As Pete said, I think Ninja was a reaction to that, and a decision. Massive Attack were similar, they got slapped with the superclub thing. They took a different route, and they came out with that. Out of that weirdness came a lot of really good things.
“It’s not a question of shoving all the pebbles into the same big tumbler and giving them all the same polish.”
“We wanted an alternative, and we kept being told by our record label when were signed to Big Life/Polydor, ‘You’ve got to be relevant, you’re going to have to change your name, dur-dur-dur-dur…’. So on the one hand they were saying ‘Yes’, and on the other hand they were saying ‘You need to keep making music like this’. And there’s just this constant sway. I saw it a bit like – when I was a kid, I used to have this hobby, which was polishing stones from the seaside. And I’d go and find all these stones, and they’d be amazing unpolished. Then I’d put them in this polishing machine, and one out of ten would come out looking better, and the rest would come out looking worse. A lot of people liked the ones that were polished; my opinion was that they were worse. The record industry sort of does that to quite a lot of things.
“Those people that are determined, belligerent, or arrogant, or whatever – it’s enough to remain oblivious to that and not allow it to touch you. There are a few of those who are successful – but most get polished, and some come out of it far worse than others. With Ninja, anyway, to use that slightly weird analogy, it’s not a question of shoving them all into the same big tumbler and giving them all the same polish. One hopes that you treat each one in a way to bring out the best bits of them, but leaving those wonderful rough edges and bits that make it so attractive, give it friction.”