Inside the Secret Facility: A conversation with Andrew Weatherall and Nina Walsh
Andrew Weatherall should need no introduction (if you require a refresher, here’s why he is the greatest remixer of all time).
His long-term collaborator Nina Walsh may not be as high-profile, but her own musical achievements are impressive by any standards. Walsh co-ran the Sabres Of Paradise and Sabrettes record labels with Weatherall in the mid-90s, when he and she were an item, and went on to make two albums of fearsome electro as Slab (with The Drum Club’s Lol Hammond) and work with everyone from The Orb to Alec Empire. She is also a formidable singer-songwriter with a strong catalogue of tracks from the 2000s released on Malicious Damage and her own C-Pij label.
Clearly still on good terms, they have recently entered into a busy working relationship. The first public fruits of this was the start of the Moine Dubh 7” label for acoustic folk, blues, poetry and other experiments; more recently their studio partnership has created both Weatherall’s new album, Convenanza, and a stunning record of instrumental electronic sketches as Woodleigh Research Facility.
I met them in Walsh’s south London kitchen, where chain-smoking and constant uproarious laughter seemed to be the order of the day. Any conversation involving either Weatherall or Walsh, let alone both, is guaranteed to take several sharp left turns; this one began with a meander through psychobilly (including a rowdy chorus of ‘Destination Zululand’ from both of them), war re-enactment, and the book on Hitler and the occult which Weatherall is currently reading – which is where we’d got to when the tape started rolling.
Andrew Weatherall: Can you imagine? Adolf Hitler on mescaline! I mean, according to this, he took peyote in his twenties with his spiritual advisor in a wood somewhere. I mean, crikey! [Reaches for the book]
Nina Walsh: Leave it alone! [Laughs]
AW: [Mock serious] No, but there’s this other bit right – wait, this interview is for the BNP newsletter isn’t it? [He looks around warily] Maybe this isn’t quite the image to be projecting. So, ahem, right then!
Yes, let’s be clear about this. We’re here in south London, with absolutely no Nazis.
NW: As far as you know… [Both laugh]
Right. We’re in south London and there appear to be no Nazis. You’ve got your gear set up here – is this the Woodleigh Research Facility?
AW: No, it’s one of many Facilities.
NW: I suppose it’s Research Lab Number Two.
AW: It’s currently the holding pen for one of our finely-tuned electronic receiving devices, with which we pluck the music from the ether and from the walls, in a Lethbridgian manner of tapping into any emotional activity that’s taken place in the building in the past hundred years [referring to 20th century explorer and parapsychologist Thomas Lethbridge]. And it’s currently in Nina’s bedroom.
NW: Living room actually.
AW: There you go – that’s how secret the Facility is, even I don’t know which room it’s in. It’s apparently in the front room.
Is location important to how the music turns out? Andrew, you’ve spoken a fair bit about leaving Shoreditch, where you had your studio for years.
AW: Yes, that’s how psychogeography works isn’t it? People are unconsciously drawn to particular places to do a particular thing, over and over again.
NW: Like eat kebabs. You were spotted in Kebabalicious when we were at Facility One.
AW: [Laughs] There you go, you can’t get much more psychogeographical than that, can you? But I dunno. Maybe coming here is just because when I first left Berkshire, to make that perilous trip up the M4, it was to south London.
NW: To Battersea.
AW: Yep. So it’s not really like a big plan, like, “where’s the vibe” or anything, it’s just being drawn naturally to a place. I just like the atmosphere round here. You’re in an area that had the first experiments in electronic radio waves, Émile Zola came here in exile, Pisarro painted here. Now, I’m not a cosmic cat by any stretch of the imagination, but I think artists and monumental events – getting back to Lethbridge – they do leave their mark somehow, whether that’s actually physically recording emotions into the brickwork, as Lethbridge seems to believe happens, or just a certain psyche that’s passed down generations. I’m sure plenty of people before me have gone, “fuck, Zola lived and wrote here,” and that’s affected what they create in turn.
If you’re a Lethbridgian it’s literal echoes, but if you’re not so cosmic it’s more metaphorical echoes – just people coming to an area, reading about the history, getting interested in it, then creating something that influences the next generation.
Alan Moore calls it “the free-associating stone subconscious”.
AW: Yeah, that. What Alan said. [Laughs] And that right there is why Alan Moore is a better writer than I’ll ever be, because he can say in a couple of words what I sputteringly just about managed to say in 10 minutes. I’m going to write that down for the next interview. [Raises one eyebrow in learned fashion] “As Alan Moore once said…”
“I’m the king of procrastination. Deadlines are an anathema, sir”Andrew Weatherall
And Nina, you’ve always been based down here right?
NW: Yeah, I’ve never left south London since I came to Battersea when I was 16, going back and forth to Reigate where I was studying. And this place I’ve lived in for over 20 years, which is pretty good going for London. It’s easy access for the direction I like going, which is down towards the West Country.
AW: Are you on a ley line?
NW: Apparently, yes. In fact Youth [aka producer Martin Glover] invited me on a ley line trip all around this area a while back. I believe the Wandle river runs just underneath here, and the ley lines follow it to where it comes up on Streatham Common at the Rookery, where the well is. I didn’t make that walk though. I think it was raining that day.
Has this been your main place for music-making for 20 years, Nina?
NW: It certainly was for the whole C-pij thing. For about 10 years my whole front room was just full of strange boxes and a huge mixing desk, but I decided it wasn’t that productive so I rented some studio space which became Facility One. Down near Kebabalicious. I shared that with Alex Paterson for a while.
AW: And that’s where we started. The first thing was the Pete Molinari album, wasn’t it? And there were various contractual and technical issues that had to be dealt with, which left us quite a lot of time, so we thought while we’re waiting for this and they’re paying for it, let’s just do some music together!
And that was the start of a regular working relationship?
NW: Warpaint was the first thing we did together in the studio.
AW: They wanted us to mix it, they’d recorded already. That one was a textbook example of why you should never have musicians in the studio with you when you’re producing a record. “Turn me up!” “No, turn me up!”
Obviously you were an item back in the ‘90s – had you been in touch and on good terms since then?
AW: Yeah, pretty much, on and off – or if not in touch, then in touch with mutual friends who could transfer messages of fondant regards and so on.
AW: Cakey love.
How did you both end up working on the Warpaint album?
AW: I’d been working a lot with Tim Fairplay, great engineer, love working with him, but I just thought Nina had a better knowledge of live recordings than Tim did. It was totally mercenary. I mean it was lovely to see her and all, but no, it was just that she was better at recording guitars.
NW: And vocals, I love working with female vocals as well. Probably because I’ve spent so long working on my own vocals, but it’s something I enjoy doing.
AW: It was fun, but at times quite challenging. Musicians are frightful. They want the record the way they want it to sound… and that’ll never do! If Joy Division had made the record they wanted to make, Unknown Pleasures would’ve sounded like Raw Power, no drum machines or anything. They just wanted to be noisy young men, if they’d produced it themselves there would’ve been no recordings of ancient lift shafts, that’s for sure. It’d be the sound of feedback and rackety guitars and it wouldn’t be the album it is. I’m not for a minute saying I’m up there with Martin Hannett, I’m just throwing that in as an example of what happens if you get musicians the fuck out of the studio.
It’s fair to say that Screamadelica wouldn’t have been the way it was if it weren’t for you and Alex Paterson, right?
AW: Well, and Hugo Nicholson. Me, Primal Scream and Alex Paterson were the random molecules bouncing off one another, we were making great explosions but it wasn’t that controlled. What Hugo did was to come in and rearrange those molecules a little better – still wonky, but somehow crystallised our ideas. He’s the one who took the sound that was in our heads and made it a reality.
On to what you’re actually doing now, there’s a sort of loose agglomeration of stuff: the new album Convenanza, the Woodleigh Research Facility, the Moine Dubh label. Is there some core thing holding it all together?
AW: We just like making things don’t we?
AW: I really, really like making things. I’m shit at selling them, but luckily I have people who are pretty good at selling the stuff. We were continually making tracks, and as usual you only really start making an album when you’re three-quarters of the way through making the album. We almost always start the same way, with drum machine and bass, and things build up naturally.
It might just be down to circumstance – Franck [Alba, guitarist for Piano Magic among others and now part of the rotating Moine Dubh collective] might be here, and we’ll go, “hear that bassline? Can you play that on an actual bass please?” Or Chris Cornetto [aka Chris Silvey of the Unmen and Native Hipsters] could’ve dropped by for coffee with his trumpet, and we’ll get him to play over something. And then there’s a funny thing where the more analogue instruments you have on there, the more you start thinking it should have vocals and should be more song structured.
NW: You know when that happens because the little black book comes out. [Mimes furious scribbling]
AW: Some tracks went from being Woodleigh Research Facility tracks to Convenanza ones. As Nina says, I get the notebook out, which has got lots of purloined lines and overheard tidbits in it, and I’ll just start singing a melody based on one line and try and extrapolate a song from there.
I did once try doing it properly. When me and Tim started as The Asphodells, I got into my head that it was going to be song-based, which meant verse-chorus-middle-eight, and I think I drove him up the fucking wall. We spent months trying to do this, he was being very patient. I knew he was about to blow a gasket any minute but we ploughed on regardless. Then one day he turned round and went, “Andrew, shall we just make some tracks?” And I was like [sheepish expression] “yeah, go on then.” So I learned from that that doing it properly is not the way for me.
You’ve done more than a little writing over the years, though. Do you see songs and lyrics as a craft that you can learn in the same way you do your studio technique?
NW: They’re just different ways of doing it. What you’ve achieved at the end is a really well-formed song.
AW: This is why I don’t count myself as a professional: because I don’t care how I get there, as long as I’m happy with the end result. It could be in a big fuck-off studio, or it could be in the bedroom. It’s all very slapdash, that’s why I always call myself an amateur.
I’ve definitely realised over the years that originality is overrated as a starting point. It’s not gonna happen. What English people have done right since the birth of rock’n’roll is a shonky approximation of music from other countries, particularly America. We did it with rock’n’roll, with rhythm & blues, we’ve been giving it to techno in our own wonky way for god knows how many years. So if you do a wonky approximation of something you love, if you’re not talented enough to properly play that music, and you just plough away at that furrow, you become original by default. Basically, I don’t like to get bogged down in the complexities of process.
Are you a perfectionist Nina? As an engineer there are techniques that work and ones that don’t, right?
NW: I think when you work so closely to something you can’t help yourself sometimes, because you hear things that nobody else can hear. I think that’s why it works well with Andrew, because he’ll be like, “that, that, that, there we go, done.” I will spend too long on a tiny little glitch that nobody else can hear.
In general though, I don’t think I’m a perfectionist. I like a well-crafted song, I need a melody to keep me hooked in for a certain amount of time, otherwise I get a bit bored. It’s interesting deconstructing the Convenanza songs, which is what Franck and I are doing at the moment so we can play it live. We’re just playing them acoustically, and it’s just like playing any other song – you’ve definitely achieved actual songs.
“Franck was asking me how my day had been. ‘Oh, I cooked an aubergine parmigiana for the Jesus & Mary Chain'”Nina Walsh
And the label, Moine D– um, how do you actually pronounce it?
Both: Moine Doo.
NW: Actually I think it depends which part of Ireland you’re from.
On the label, Nina, there’s your Fireflies stuff, and you’ve had quite a few musical identities over the years. Are you someone who likes to have lots of different projects on the go too?
NW: I don’t really enjoy putting it out there that much, certainly not performing solo. I like making things and I like solitude, so the studio is great. But on your own on stage with an acoustic guitar, all it takes is one bum note and it’s all wrong, so it’s a lot of pressure. I’d much rather be with a band where you can cover each other and it’s fun. Fireflies is much more improvised, which is a lot of fun – we’re working with poets, all sorts of stuff, there’s a bit of structure, but it’s enjoyable chaos.
Is the social aspect important?
AW: Oh yeah. That is great in that it adds to the unpredictability of it all, because you never know who’s going to be around. A track could become a totally different piece of art depending on whether Chris Cornetto picks up his phone or Franck happens to be in the next room. Oh look, Jah Wobble is in Youth’s kitchen, let’s get a bassline! That’s what I like about it.
NW: The randomness makes it. It’s not forced at all.
AW: It’s all down to the fickle hand of chance very often, how the art’s going to come out. But then is that not what makes good art good art? A certain uncontrived-ness. It means it’s not too knowing.
So there’s a direct line from the days in Battersea when you lived in the same building as Youth and Alex Paterson?
AW: Yes. We’d not long lived in Battersea when we came out the front door, this cab pulled up, Youth got out, and I went, “You know what, I think that’s Youth off of Killing Joke!” But I didn’t want to start shouting in case it wasn’t, so I went [covers mouth and coughs the word loudly] “YOUTH!” Thinking I was going to have to say, “oh nothing mate, just got a bit of phlegm, you know,” but luckily it was Mr Glover himself. [Puts on nasal rock ‘n’ roller voice] “Alright man, come in, this is my flatmate Alex Paterson.” Because that’s how Youth talks. And the rest is history.
Twenty-eight years later we’re the fairies at the bottom of his garden in his potting shed. I’ll get home, the missus will say, “What happened today?” And I’ll go, “We were just in Youth’s back garden, and Youth popped in and laid down a bassline,” and I can’t stop myself, I just have to go–
NW: “Which was nice.” [Laughs] I had one of those at Youth’s too the other day. Franck was asking me how my day had been. “Oh, I cooked an aubergine parmigiana for the Jesus & Mary Chain…”
Both: “Which was nice!”
People who don’t play the stardom game as such, but are more creatively profligate, tend to create a longer and possibly more satisfying narrative in the end.
AW: Yes. Rock ‘n’ roll in the sense most people think of it is about the moment, impact in the moment, which means everyone’s constantly in a hurry. But if you’re in the artistic margins, you haven’t got the deadlines – admittedly you haven’t got the huge budget either – so you can let your story unfold over a much longer length of time. If they’ve just been on tour for a year, that band might have a story to tell, but musically there’s not much chance for any kind of prolonged development.
So commercial pressure can lead to a shorter narrative, yes. Not that there’s anything wrong with a short narrative, I like a short story as much as a novel. But it’s just not in my nature. I’m the king of procrastination according to Lee Brackstone [his friend, publisher and collaborator at Faber books, name-checked in the WRF track “Brackstone Abroad”]. Deadlines are an anathema, sir. But people have cottoned on to that, so they know that if they give me a deadline about a month before the actual deadline, they’ll get it before the deadline.
NW: I quite like a deadline!
Duke Ellington said, “I don’t need inspiration, I need deadlines.”
AW: I need both! I need a lengthy time for events of inspiration of many sorts, then a short deadline.
Where are the working relationship and the various projects heading next?
AW: Three-quarters of the way through another Woodleigh Research Facility album!
AW: We’ve written some tracks for Youth and Jah Wobble, we’ve done some backing tracks for an album, we gave them very basic bassline, synth part, some drums in various styles, they took it into Youth’s, got Hollie Cook to do some vocals, then they’re sending them back to us. That probably won’t be a Woodleigh Research Facility album, it’ll be produced by, or them featuring us, or something. And we just keep writing. That’s the thing, we’ve got so much stuff on file that we’ve not done anything with that we might come back to.
NW: A whole lot of dance stuff, too.
AW: What I’ve learned is if a track sounds really good but it’s not going anywhere, just put it in the file and come back to it much later – nine times out of 10 you’ll start playing it and it’s pretty mind-blowing.
NW: I did that for 10 years! I’ve got hard drives full of that.
Where do clubs and club music fit in with all this process?
NW: It’s ingrained in us.
AW: I’m still on the coalface and still enjoying it, and it influences what you do. If you have two good gigs at the weekend, on Monday you can’t wait to get in the studio. Even if you don’t do a dance-based track, you’re just incentivised, you’re in love with music, and you want to create. With me, inspiration is a strange thing: if I’m not very inspired to make music, all I have to do is go to a gallery and look at the texture of oil paint on canvas and I’m inspired. Not to paint, just to make something. I have no idea how this process works with me, but it does.
Are you happy with your audiences when you play out?
AW: Very much so, yes. I’m getting from 18 to almost as old as me, and generally it’s a gradation in the crowd: young down the front then getting older as you go back. I’m getting the same feeling as I did when I first started DJing. I’m a much better DJ and the music’s better, but I’m still playing the same weird range that I first picked up on the first time I went to Amnesia. For me, it was the Finitribe, the Residents, the slightly dirty, scuzzy, new beat, trance-y, disco-y end of Balearic that I liked, and I think that’s why people enjoy stuff like [his clubnight] A Love From Outer Space, and even when I play techno sets, because it gives them exactly that.
The older crowd like it because they’re hearing something that reminds of them of the past, but they’re not standing there going, “Shit, I’m reliving 25 years ago listening to ‘insert name of cliched techno track here’.” Then the younger element like it because every now and again I’ll throw in a D.A.F. track or something and they’ll run up and say, “Oh, is this new?” “Well, at the risk of sounding patronising it’s from before you were even born.” So again, it’s not just nostalgia, it works in the moment.
This weekend just gone I did two seven-hour sets! I mean, it’s hard work. Saturday I played in Zurich ’til seven in the morning, got back to London five o’clock, train to Liverpool at six o’clock, into Liverpool at half eight, on the decks at nine until four in the morning, and it is hard work. But I’ve always liked that. Like when I first had a job on a building site, it killed me but a part of me felt really satisfied at having done a day of work that’s affected me physically. That’s how I felt when I was producing Fuck Buttons, funnily enough. [Nina bursts out laughing] When that came out everyone was saying, “that’s a heavy album,” and I’d be like, “yeah, it is – imagine listening to it every day for a month for eight hours!” It took me right back to being 18 and having spent a day humping furniture or lugging bricks up a ladder. I think part of me perversely likes that – maybe that’s the working-class part of my upbringing, my grandparents’ genes I think.
Nina, do you go out much? Do you DJ?
NW: No. I play records on occasion. But I don’t DJ. And I only go out if it’s guaranteed to not annoy me.
AW: [TV presenter voice] Oh, that’s very interesting, and this guarantee of quality, Nina – what clubs would that include?
NW: That would be A Love From Outer Space, Andrew!
AW: There you go, your guarantee of quality, and another satisfied punter.
NW: That’s my once or twice a year outing these days. It was such a huge part of my life for so long, I’ve done my time, and I genuinely want something guaranteed to be good. It’s a committed night out isn’t it? You’re not just going out for a couple of hours.
With all that experience and commitment, do you still think of your own identity as bound up with club culture? Are you a techno person?
NW: God, no. What’s a techno person?
Shaved head and living on ketamine in a Berlin cellar?
NW: I dunno. I still listen to techno sometimes. Sometimes we start getting on a right dancefloor one in the studio too. The next thing, in fact…
AW: Yeah, it’s 25 years of Soma and they wanted to do a track, so that’ll be reasonably lively – a little more so than A Love From Outer Space tempo. Might even stray into the 909 kick world.
NW: Oh, I don’t mind a 909 kick. I suppose that makes me a techno person then!
AW: It always starts like that though, then by the fifth spliff it’s all a bit, “Hey, shall we turn the tempo down? Can everyone just calm down!”