Tempus Fugit: Goldie on 20 years of Timeless
Time may be an illusion, yet it remains a compass for our lives.
On September 19, Clifford Joseph Price — the producer and DJ better known as Goldie — turned 50. A week earlier, his debut album, Timeless, turned 20. The album and the man behind it remain foundational to the evolution of British dance music, fashioning the skittish rhythms and rumbling bass of jungle into a futuristic model: drum & bass.
Naming your album Timeless is a gamble, and Goldie has always been a keen player. It was a middle finger to an industry convinced that electronic dance music was, as with any youth movement, just a fad. To those who convened at the altar of jungle every week, the name was prescient. Drum & bass was the future: of course the music would be timeless.
Rumours of a live orchestral rendition of Timeless first emerged in the early 2010s, and in the summer of 2014, the Heritage Orchestra — an outfit known for its collaborations with modern artists — performed Timeless (Sine Tempore) as part of the Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre. The success of this first show led to Goldie and the orchestra expanding the performance further, in time for the album’s 20th anniversary. In June and July this year, Goldie and The Heritage Orchestra returned to the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank before taking the performance to Bristol.
The evolution of Timeless from dance album to modern-day symphony was hinted at in the ambitious and daring compositional approach Goldie took at a time when dance music was still shaping itself in our collective consciousness. It could have happened sooner, but it wouldn’t have worked as well — what was needed was a new generation of classical musicians aware of, and interested in, modern music. Already, there are plans to continue to expand the performance and take it on the road in 2016, after Goldie finishes his new solo album, the first since 2008’s Sine Tempus: The Soundtrack.
I called Goldie to discuss the performance, the anniversary, and more. As I quickly realised, you don’t so much interview Goldie as simply let the conversation flow. The British icon has never been one to shy away from strong opinions or detailed explanations, weaving together theories, experiences, and ideas like an intricate visual piece – his roots in graffiti remain visible at all times.
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and grouped under themes.
Goldie will be playing FACT’s stage at Bloc Weekend 2016 with Midland, Steffi, Bicep, Space Dimension Controller and more. Get your tickets here.
“This underground music was still very faceless, unidentifiable, and using vocalists in an unconventional way was an attempt to change that”
On making Timeless
Art for me has always been about concepts. Graffiti got me into the idea of layering: from fonts to a two-dimensional image to a three-dimensional image to a four-dimensional execution. When I came into the worlds of street and dance music it was still very two-dimensional, because of technology and because it was still based on ideas from the 1980s. I came into it all in the analogue days, but there was a great digital revolution happening that was forward thinking too. We were experimenting.
I had begun my experimentations with Reinforced Records. We had spent five years trying and testing things on the underground. Timeless wasn’t anything new, there were probably five or six tracks already conceived before the album was put together that were just revisited, like ‘This Is A Bad’, ‘Angel’, and ‘Kemistry’.
The vocal aspects in electronic/dance music were always a little bit non-existent for me. I wanted to implement vocals more as a soulful element because of the soul aspect of the 1980s. Using the voice as more of an instrument than within conventional song structures. Diane Charlemagne, god rest her soul, was someone who brought these soulful influences from the 1980s. Then there was the funk aspect, which I felt the music deserved. This underground music was still very faceless, unidentifiable, and using vocalists in an unconventional way was an attempt to change that.
When I made Timeless I was still imitating art. Something like ‘A Sense Of Rage (Sensual VIP Mix)’ was inspired by Dire Straits’ ‘Money For Nothing’. You try and find the connection, but I know it’s there, I know what it is. ‘This Is A Bad’ was about the city at night when everyone’s in bed, what happens under the radar while travelling at fast speeds. ‘Still Life’ is a panoramic look at life, imitating the movements of a painting.
There’s a story about ‘Angel’. I remember taking the dubplate down to Lindsay Wesker at Kiss FM on Holloway Road and he refused to give me an audience, and refused to play it on radio. In the end it was a shouting match and the security ejected me from the building. You listen to ‘Angel’ now and it’s a conventional popular record. This attitude towards electronic music at the time was mundane. People saying, ‘it’s never gonna happen.’ But for me it was inevitable that it would, since I first spent time in New York City in the 1980s.
Timeless wasn’t necessarily made by me, it’s an amalgamation of the times and looking at what was going on in a prismatic way. I just put all these great attributes I saw together. I left England when rave first began. I was brought up in the 1980s on hip-hop and beats, it always fascinated me. Then there was a curiosity towards technology. I came back and fell in love with this new culture – music from Joey Beltram, Leo Anibaldi, Underground Resistance. I wanted to fuse those things together. I think of electronic/dance music as like getting on a train and realising there are a lot of carriages already attached that have their rightful place on that train. What are you going to contribute to the next carriage?
On jungle and drum & bass
When jungle was born, it was built on all these different aspects – music from Detroit and elsewhere arriving to Europe and being transformed. Jungle was a new sound happening and I felt that there was a bridge to be constructed. We were taking the best elements and viewpoints of different things and fashioning them as a subculture.
I always knew that Timeless would be exactly what it said on the tin. I say this not to be arrogant, but as an artist who worked his way up and as someone who was always an observer. I observed other kids in a children’s home growing up, playing different types of music. I observed breakdancing moves, and worked out where it could go. I observed graffiti, from Subway Art to all the styles. You have to look at it from a greater point of view, not as an individual but as a conduit. The clarity I had then was driven by my experiences in the 1980s. The DNA of drum & bass at the time was things like blues, jazz, reggae, and the dance halls and sound systems I used to go to. It’s all in there but at the end of it was a new genre: drum & bass.
“In its purest form, music is never really understood. But once it’s gentrified, watered down, it becomes more palatable”
In the same way that painting replaced its central figures through the years, we were replacing the central characters of the conventional way of making music. So with vocalists, the subject matter no longer needed to be transmitted in verses. Instead it was trying to replace this vocal dialogue with the feeling of it. You can look at graffiti and you may not be able to understand it but if it’s executed well, through the balance of colours, the depth, the outlines, you’ll know there’s a lot going on. I felt that this music, drum & bass, was becoming the wildstyle of conventional music.
In its purest form, music is never really understood. But once it’s gentrified, watered down, it becomes more palatable. That’s part of what happened when the music exploded and where we’re at now. There is a certain gentrification of the music, almost like a ‘drum & pop’. It’s inevitable, it happens to all music. However, Timeless is completely on its own – it’s protected by its integrity, a testament of what can be done. I’ve seen a lot of regression in the genre, whereas something like jazz got more and more complex, it found ways of playing different scores, different notes. That’s why I want to keep pushing drum & bass on that edge. Having it turn into a five-year-old with attention deficit isn’t exactly the plan I had for it. There are also generation gaps – people pick up on different aspects of a music depending on when they discover it. A project like Timeless Live might bring them to a divine light of finding 4Hero, or digging deeper. You were supposed to go back in time to find the roots of music.
On working with an orchestra
I always knew people would go back and look at Timeless in a seminal way because it wasn’t built conventionally. I created a good blueprint, a cylindrical blueprint on a flat piece of aluminium that has now been realised into a chrome sphere with the orchestra. There is no backline tech, no digital syncopation. Just one hand conducting humans to play electronic sounds. The genre deserves more, and it’s my role to give it. People of all ages come back from the show and say, “I didn’t think it could sound any better than it did on the record.” The album has become more realised and that is a testament to the music itself. Every generation grows up, and I hope they do what I did and go back and discover music that came before them. It’s really important.
I’ve just been looking at hours of footage that my stepfather, my mentor, Gus Corral, filmed while we were on tour before Timeless blew up: in the studio working through breakbeats, playing different things, the first time we performed at Glastonbury. It’s important for me to remember we were on the right track, doing something great. Of course then other albums follow and for critics they’ll never be the same, but I stand by them. I think ‘Mother’ is still the greatest piece of music I’ve ever done. Its time hasn’t come yet. It will be an opera, the life story of someone. After my mother passed away I played it to her casket, because that’s what she requested. It’s very personal to me. You gain a taste for things as you get older. You don’t always understand them at first. The art has always been the ruler in my life.
My generation, electronic music makers, not only brought about change from analogue to digital technology but we also internalised things. We looked inwards. Orchestras are for people to create outwards, to externalise. Electronic musicians are always internalising because we’re creating magic that’s coming from a Pandora’s box, and we have to harness the creativity and learn how to navigate it. This new live show is a different kind of science. Outfits like The Heritage Orchestra are much more aware of the bigger picture of a project like this because they grew up on this electronic music. It’s an evolution.
Working in this way is a learning process. Jules Buckley, conductor of the orchestra and a composer in his own right, told me, “The strangest thing about your music is that when you’re about to make a change from one instrument to another, you tend to bend the sound, the volume, and as it descends the sound changes by a semitone. That’s very synonymous with your music.” When I start to bend that sound it’s an illusion. Which is why next year, when we tour this show, I think people will start to see the real side of the music. We’ve come to a point where we must look beyond just computer music, and go back to the human aspects of what Timeless is. We’re already looking at other compositions: ‘You And Me’, ‘Chico’, ‘Freedom’. All those tracks can now expand and gain momentum. It’s not as tricky as you think if there is a blueprint.
“We should be looking at ways to joyride technology and not be slaves to it”
On technology and growing up
So much music has come from unconventionality. But then it is marketed to a point where it becomes the norm. People today are more open-minded but they still need to give electronic music a chance, to see it as more than just button pushing. We should be looking at ways to joyride technology and not be slaves to it. It’s not just there for you to stick within the parameters. That remains important today. In a world that is so bedroom orientated, accessible, and easy, we should be searching for new ways to joyride our tools. Which, I guess, means applying more soul to the music.
More people are looking at orchestration of electronic music as a valid idea and not old hat stuff. It’s almost like we’re all growing up. We may have been raised on dance music but we know it deserves the same kind of attention as any other music that has gone through cycles of attention and attempts at reinvigoration. We have to be careful of the dangers. If the London Symphony Orchestra had picked up on Timeless 15 years ago it would have been a car crash. It would have been bland. The generation playing it didn’t understand the music. There are five or six people in The Heritage Orchestra who were introduced to Timeless by their parents. They grew up with it. That’s a big difference. That’s folding time. Things can be approached differently now.
In terms of production, Howie B and Nellee Hooper were mentors. I looked at them in the studio, what they were doing. Harry was a technical engineer and Nelly had a great ear. I always refused to learn how to push buttons. Dyslexia was a big stumbling block for one. But I also felt that my war chest was about arrangements and composition. Even though you work with different people, the sound remains the same somewhat. Listen to ‘Sometime Sad Day’ and then ‘Beachdrifta’, the ballad aspects remain the same. Or ‘Monkey Boy’ and ‘Saint Angel’, both rollers with similar attributes. I’m very clear when I work with engineers who are producers in their own rights. As someone who produces in the ‘old way’, I look at new kids and how they do everything and I am reminded of something I once told Dillinja: “Sometimes you can be too close to the canvas.” By default, graffiti writers work as a team. One person has a vision and everyone contributes. The computer screen is just one section of a canvas.
I would visit people like Alex Reece or Doc Scott and watch everyone work with building blocks inside programs like Cubase. To me they had this Lego, but instead of constructing sections and moving along they would erect walls and punch holes in them. You need scaffold to erect a building, and for me that aspect is often missing in the music. Tracks are formulaic. A track like ‘Dragonfly’, which is 15 minutes long, can’t be built by just erecting walls and punching them. You need the scaffold first to be able to see what the final building will look like.
I realised early on that this music was being created by people in bedrooms and in the back rooms of studios, in the programming suite. It never really went beyond that and into the bigger studios. When I did the Darkrider EP, I put all the samples inside the machines we had available until there was no memory left. When the engineer asked what was next, I told him we were going to arrange the music for three days. It was always about loading sounds while knowing where they go in my head. And then you arrange until there’s nothing left. That’s how I did most projects.
When I hired studios there was always a timeline. Maybe it was three days: one day for putting in sounds, one day for arranging, and one day for finishing the record. As the projects expanded, so did this way of working. Excuse the pun, but time was never really on my side. For a graffiti writer, once you’ve done the outline, you’re finished. The picture’s done. You just need to execute it. And that’s the difference. Graffiti really helped me to view music like this. You might not know how you’ll execute one part of it but you try and do it until you have no more paint. All the steps I took before Timeless – Reinforced, learning to work in studios – led to the making of the album. They were like exercises leading to this greater piece.
Goldie will be playing FACT’s stage at Bloc Weekend 2016 with Midland, Steffi, Bicep, Space Dimension Controller and more. Get your tickets here.