Features I by I 19.09.13

Smoke signals: Nightmares On Wax on his first album in seven years

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Though next year will mark 25 years since his first release, Nightmares On Wax still has something to say in 2013.

Synthesizing downbeat electronica, early rave and reggae lilt, the Leeds-born George Evelyn has cultivated a reputation as one of the most consistent artists out there. Feelin’ Good, his first album in seven years, see him in fine fettle, brimming with the kind of positive enthusiasm that you would expect more from someone just starting out than Warp’s longest serving artist. It’s the work of a man with a clear lust for life, and an album that stands sturdily next to his past achievements. With his Ibiza-based Wax Da Jam parties going from strength to strength and a world tour in the works, FACT secured some phone time with Evelyn. Speaking to us from his base on a farm in Ibiza, Evelyn gave us the skinny on his new album, Warp and the social and political role that music has played throughout his life.

You’re back in Ibiza now right? I know that you had a pretty hectic schedule whilst you were here but Ibiza must be a pretty ideal place to come back to? 

Ah yeah, it’s always a pleasure to get home. As soon as that plane touches the tarmac, there’s a big smile on my face. I live on a farm, out here in the countryside. It’s very quiet so it’s a great place to come back to after you’ve been DJ’ing all night. They say that silence is deafening and you’ll definitely experience that here.

Sounds like it offers the perfect environment to get into the right kind of headspace to make music then?

Yeah it is. Although I must admit that since I’ve lived here, it has taken time to find that headspace. The idyllic idea is to come and make music in the sunshine but that doesn’t really work for me. Music should be played and enjoyed in the sunshine, but I don’t find it to be a particularly creative environment because it’s just too hot. You just want to jump in the pool or chill out at the beach; you just want to do what everybody else is doing. It’s hard to get that deep and get that focused, but you can in the winter. I mean, I’m quite nocturnal anyway but the winter is fantastic because you basically just don’t know what day it is, you don’t even have to wash.

So Was Feelin’ Good made during the winter?

It was actually made over the last four years, on and off, and maybe some time in the spring too. It was on and off though; I mean, I have bouts of being in the studio where I am full-on at it, and then I have periods where I’m not. I always think it’s good to reflect, have a little breather and come up for air. I’m not the kind of person to just hammer tracks out and stay in my own bubble and then decide that that’s an album. I like to live with my music for a little bit, I like to get a place where it’s unquestionable for me.

“It’s been about sticking to my guns even when everything else is changing out there.”

That’s probably had a part to play in keeping the album so varied. I mean, you’re not drilling it in one mind-set, but coming back to it in different moods. Do you think that’s why the record is so rounded?

Yeah, well my influences are varied too and I have a vast taste, especially when I’m DJ’ing. Having my residency at Wax Da Jam and jamming with the musicians there and getting spontaneous ideas out of that and then taking them back into studio helped too. Or just chilling out whilst listening to old stuff or even just thinking about things on a bike ride and then coming back and trying stuff out you know. I like to get my inspiration from all kinds of experiences in my life, not just heavily based on clubs and chilling out. For me getting into an album and even getting towards finishing an album, I always feel like I’m on the verge of something else, which is kinda dangerous, because you never finish. So with this one, I actually booked all my listening appointments to go see Warp before even I thought that I had finished myself, just to make sure I’d finished. I was getting into the realm where I was on fire and I was getting loads of other different ideas and I start thinking, “Oh my God, I’m going somewhere else now”. So you have to draw the line at some point. I’m just not really a deadline man at all. It’s good to have a deadline, but it’s also good to have that creative freedom of just letting it happen.

Warp are pretty amazing for allowing their artists that too aren’t they?

Definitely. If anything, just from my experiences at Warp, I would say the thing that has stood the test of time with them is that when they’ve signed artists, they’ve allowed the artist to express themselves and allowed them to develop. I don’t think there’s a 100 labels that are like that, there’s only a few. You definitely hear stories where artists get signed for big deals and if they don’t turn it around in eighteen months they get shelved or dropped. I couldn’t even imagine working with that kind of mentality. I think the real key to Warp’s masterstroke has been first of all signing good artists, but then allowing that artist to express themselves. Because at the end of the day, it’s not what you are, it’s what you are becoming.

Going back to Feelin’ Good, there’s a lot of live instrumentation on the album. Did you have loads of musicians flying out to work with you in Ibiza, or were you meeting them?

It was a little bit of both really. With this album, a lot of the tracks were rested and then I would come back to them and the idea would have expanded. There were certain key tracks that I thought I definitely want orchestration on there, I want strings and stuff. Through working with the jazz drummer Wolfgang Haffner who lives on the island and was finishing his jazz album Heart of the Matter, we flew in a keyboardist and composer and had him in the studio for a day each. Then I went to Berlin to record some more with him. I also flew Moses out here to do some vocals, Shovell lives here too and with Katy Gray, her demo vocals ended up being THE vocals for one of the tracks. It was very organic in the way the album happened.

So do you get to take these guys along to your Wax Da Jam parties then?

Yeah, well, Wolfgang and Shovell started the party with me. Apart from when Wolfgang goes off on tour, they’ve been with me practically every week. I met Wolfgang on Formentera playing a beach bar birthday party and he basically said that he was a Nightmares On Wax fan and had heard of the Wax Da Beach party and asked if he could come at play at one. So I said, “Yeah, come over and maybe we can do some recording too.” The first time we got in the studio I think we did five tunes. Only one of them went onto the album, but the others are waiting for me in my studio.

With Wax Da Jam having such an eclectic ethos, do you feel you attract a sort of alternative Ibiza crowd at the night? 

Yes and no. I mean, most of the people who work on the island come to our night. A lot of locals come too, but because the word is definitely getting out there about our night now, we also get lots of people who are visiting the island to party. People come to Ibiza, get wasted and do all the party stuff and that, and then they come to ours and get something that’s really good for the soul. It kinda brings people back round again, but because it’s a very improvised sort of event, people actually become a part of it and the night kind of evolves as we start jamming with all the musicians. We get a lot of promoters who come down, often bringing their guest DJ’s with them to just chill out; it’s becoming a hangout spot that’s a little bit outside of the scene. The whole point of putting this event on was to offer an alternative. I just felt that Ibiza needed more alternatives. This is our fourth season doing Wax Da Jam, Wax Da Beach started five years ago and, since then, there are definitely more alternatives on the island already. I’m pretty proud of that to be honest.

So have you noticed a loyal crowd full of regulars then?

Yeah, because the angle that we came from was, “You know, let’s do a party for all the people.” And when I say that, I mean the people that live here. I always believe that a good club night has ground roots. That means you have regulars and that brings community. You have to have some sense of community spirit involved for a club night to be successful. That’s how I did clubs back in England, back in Leeds.  It was based on your crew and your community. I’ve always gone for that kind of angle anyway rather than aiming at trying to get tourists, people who come every week and go every week, because I think to have something solid you need an element of community in there. For example, all the bar staff and waitresses that work in all the restaurants and bars in that area of the Ibiza where we hold our events, come along, and other people get to know about all those bars and restaurants etc. We are just coming from a completely different angle. We don’t have the budget to do all the big billboards and all the advertising, so we do it word of mouth, which I think is one of the most powerful tools you can have.

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To talk more about community and growing up in Leeds, I wanted to ask you if, when you were getting into dancehall, soul, reggae, dub etc in Leeds, did the music resonate with you that much more because of the social and racial tensions that were going on there at the time? With things like the Chapeltown riot so fresh?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, maybe I was a little too young for some of it, but I definitely remember recognising the whole anti-Nazi league thing going on and obviously experiencing the social unrest involved with certain parts of town that you couldn’t go to because of the National Front. Whether it was reggae of whether it was ska, that was reflective of that atmosphere. I was a rude boy back in the day, I got that and I picked up on that social aspect, which was basically that there were people that don’t really like us. Then you get the other side of it where you’re getting police brutality, places that were putting on reggae dances were getting raided or getting loads of shit from the police just because there was a Caribbean community involved. Even though at that time I was only thirteen or fourteen, I was aware of it. When I went to some of these dances or nights, I would have to get the bus there and the route would go through plenty of areas that you just don’t go to so I would be worried about who’s gonna get on the bus, you know. So, I knew the tension was there, but we were still determined to go to these nights, we still took the risk because of the music. I was following the soundsystems of Saxon and Messiah, the kind of soundsystems that were around in my day and also the ones we used to get the mix tapes from. But because I was into ska as well, especially The Specials, we were getting the political edge to it as well. Another thing was all the anti-Thatcher feeling that was around. I think that for me, I would say that music came first and the awareness of the political issues came second. It brought it home that bit more. Being brought up where I was, you were definitely given the idea that just because of where you are from and what you look like, things are going to be harder for you. I don’t believe that now, but at the time I did. I definitely come from a school where you have to believe in yourself before anyone else does. That was the kind of mentality we were fed.

Was it important for you then, to carry over that sense of political awareness into your music?

Yeah – I think ’70s 80s’, for example, is really expressive of growing up in that time and what it was like. LSK, who wrote the lyrics to that, is mixed race like I am, but had to pretend he wasn’t because he had lighter skin and stuff like that – I mean, all that shit was real so we were like, yeah, we should talk about this stuff because no matter where we are today, these are the foundations that got us here. These are the things that I can still tap into. ’70s 80s’ was more just trying to give a visual documentation of all our influences, whether they were computer games, clothes we wore or the political issues that were going on. That actual track just came about us having a chat and reminiscing.

“The whole point of putting this event on was to offer an alternative. I just felt that Ibiza needed more alternatives.”

I think it’s cool that ’70s 80s’ acknowledges the pretty shitty political landscape of the time but is full of joy and positivity. It seems to sum up the attitude of young people who still wanted to have fun despite what was going on.

Yeah definitely, that is summed up by one saying that I really like: “They were hard times but they were good times.” And that’s because when it seems like there’s little going on, you seem to express yourself even greater. It’s like having the most minimal pieces of equipment to make music and you end up making the best track. You make do with what you’ve got, as my Mum would say. I think that it’s during the so-called ‘hard times’ that the best music is made, anyway. I think you can see that throughout history in music. Music is always the first port of call of what’s happening from the social point of view about how people feel and how they express themselves. Music is an amazing channel for that, so you can use music history to map out what was going on socially throughout history. That’s what really fascinates me about the late 60s and what the music was like then, because there was so much shit on top then, especially in America. But it was the same in England, when you get from the late 70s into the early 80s, going all the way through, you can see it. It was in reggae, it was in punk, it’s there and you can’t hide from it. I just think that music has always been an amazing channel to get that across, even if it’s in the most subtle way. For me, even writing tracks like “Date For Destiny” was all about that, this is a track about choices and opportunity regardless of whether you are aware of them or not. They’re always available to you and are always around you, but it’s told in a story where opportunity and fate are presented as characters. Really, the underlying message of that song is to just heighten a bit of awareness in each other without actually being a preacher about it you know. I always think that it’s nice to try and get something across without telling somebody. It’s more mentoring with music than preaching.

Back to the album. Can you tell us a bit about taking the album on tour?

We’re doing Scala in London on November 7 and then we’ll be in Leeds on November 9. The lineup for the European tour will be me, Shovel, Grant Curtshaw on drums – he was Drummer Of The Year for a couple of years running. I’ve got Moses on the tour and Micky Rankin too. We’ll be taking it to the States after that.

It’s been a while since you toured live. Are you looking forward to it?

I can’t wait. It’s really funny going into this tour and even running up to releasing this album, I think I’m the clearest I’ve ever been mentally. It feels like I’m starting again, to be honest, but with a fresher outlook and a fresher head. I’m really excited to get out there. It just feels brand new again. It’s down to a state of being and where you’re at. Me having the time out and being able to go even deeper into my music and try to find out what I am trying to say. With this album, I have just been asking personal questions to myself like, “What am I trying to say?”, and, rather than come up with an answer from a mental or logical point of view, try to experience that from my heart within being in the studio and having that self-discovery. I think that is what this album is really about. That’s why I’ve come out with the whole Feelin’ Good concept, because I recognise that all the magic moments that I believe I’ve had throughout my career and throughout my life, are the moments I feel good and I believe that this is the soundscape of feeling good. I wanted to come out with an album that was unquestionable for me and I believe that this album is that. That’s why the excitement level is where it’s at about doing the live shows, because it will be deeper than I’ve ever done with shows before, just with the ideas and concepts I’ve got.

I think it’s appropriate to end by talking a bit about longevity – you are the longest serving artist on Warp, you’ve been releasing since the 80s ……. what’s enabled you to sound so fresh for such a long time, do you think?

Well, I think it goes back a bit to what we were saying about Warp earlier, in the sense that I have always been allowed to take my time. There are so many different aspects to doing this, when you start making music and releasing records, your real success is judged in terms of just having the record played in clubs. That was it; that was the number one thing. But then when you start making albums and start doing tours, it all changes into something else. I feel like I’ve been on this journey of doing all that stuff and the aspects have changed to now coming back full circle. I’m really back into my DJ’ing and making music on a deeper level, not taking anything away from what I’ve done in the past. For me, it’s not been about banging loads of tunes out, it’s been about really living it. It’s been about sticking to my guns even when everything else is changing out there, I’ve had to really believe that the first person that I ever got into making music for was myself. I think it’s quite easy to forget that. So I think the number one key really, is about making music for yourself first and foremost.


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