From his collaborations with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee to his hook-ups with bass legend Jah Wobble and Jahtari Records ‘computer riddim’ pioneer Tapes, he’s carved a niche for himself as one of the most important innovators on the scene.
Also involved with the lauded Pressure Sounds label, where he releases his music, co-curates albums and provides sleeve notes, it seems there’s no slowing down for this dub maven now he’s hit his stride.
We recently caught up with the London native to find out more about his sonic adventures and his enduring love affair with Jamaican dub and reggae…
What was your first introduction to music-making?
I played in rock bands for years, since I was about 18. Mainly garage rock and indie rock bands – without any huge degree of success, but I had a lot of fun and travelled the world.
You’ve been playing flute on a lot of Jamaican records lately – how did that come about?
It was quite strange! I’ve always had Jamaican friends and have been a huge fan of Jamaican music. I had a little home studio set-up for rock projects that I was doing. Some Jamaican friends were round and said, ‘Hey, let’s start making records here,’ even though it was a fairly basic set-up. Pretty soon I was doing stuff with famous producers like Bunny Lee. I did a lot with him. Then, one night at about 3am we were looking to put some horns on something – but we couldn’t find a horn player at that time! Instead, I dug out my old flute from under the bed. I hadn’t played it since I and 16. I played it on the track we were making, and it became very popular on the sound systems. Suddenly everyone wanted flute on stuff!
I’m a white Londoner and had never really set out to be playing reggae music – although I’m a huge fan. I never wouldn’t have done if it wasn’t for all the Jamaican producers who asked me! I went on to play for a whole bunch of Jamaican producers and we put out a lot of singles. Astonishingly, they’ve all been quite popular!
More recently I’ve started working with Pressure Sounds and Jah Wobble, but it’s primarily been the encouragement of the Jamaican producers that got me into playing the flute.
How did you develop the style you have now?
I’m a big fan of the music. A huge influence on my flute-playing has been Tommy McCook from The Skatalites, who also played on a huge number of recordings during the seventies. Although he was mainly a sax player he used to play the flute as well. He had a haunting Far East style, also associated with Augustus Pablo.
I’m not a virtuoso musician, for me it’s more about creating an atmosphere and a mood. I like to compose a melody, rather than just play notes. Although I improvise as well.
Is there one bit of kit you’re absolutely hooked on that you won’t work without?
Erm… yes, actually! I use a very old Roland guitar pedal for a lot of my flute playing. I think it’s called the Roland Phase II. If I double-track my flute, playing two in harmony, then put it through the pedal, there’s a weird distortion that is pleasing to the ear! That’s my flute sound.
We first heard you on a Tapes release a little while back – how did that come about?
Tapes and I did a couple of things, including the split seven-inch Pipe Cleaner for Meeuw Muzak. Josh from the label put us together. It was an internet age collaboration! We made a few things together before we even met. He was living in Berlin but then moved to London so we finally met up and did another collaboration for Honest Jon’s, which was nice. It was interesting to work with someone that has a very different background to me and the people I usually work with.
How do you think reggae is changing with the times? Is there a bit of a renaissance happening at the moment, do you think?
You hear dancehall influences on lots of pop hits in America, sometimes featuring the original dancehall artists themselves. It’s fine but it doesn’t strike me as particularly interesting.
There’s still brilliant, interesting music being made in Jamaica right now but it’s harder for artists to break out because the record industry has died over there.
On some level, I’m such a fan of Jamaican music I’m always a little suspicious of reggae music being brought into the mainstream or being played by other nationalities – including myself! Obviously there are lots of people doing it – and being quite successful – and some of the crossovers are really interesting.
You can hear the influence of reggae and dub in just about all the music being made at the moment and it will be interesting to see the new Jamaican artists like Chronixx can sustain something and break through. I hope so.
It’s interesting to think about King Tubby’s studio – it was basically the first home studio, something everyone now has in their bedroom. It was very unusual at that time.
One of the changes we’re seeing now is that everyone has the same equipment, whether you’re in Japan or Jamaica. Unlike the seventies and eighties, where you can tell where something was recorded by the sound of the studio, it’s a lot harder to pinpoint now because it’s less individual.
The internet is brilliant at bringing people together to collaborate remotely. It’s fantastic to work internationally, but at the same time the music loses some of its local flavour and impact.
Everybody is using the same technology so things don’t sound as different from each other.
How did your relationship with Pressure Sounds come about?
I’d been close to Bunny Lee for a long time and made a documentary about him, I Am The Gorgon. Pressure Sounds were putting together a compilation of his tracks. Pete who runs the label got in touch and asked me if I wanted to help compile it, and things just went from there.
He’s a huge music fan and he was keen to start recording some new stuff. I’ve worked with Lee Perry and other artists that he did releases with anyway, so it felt like a natural fit, hence some releases with them.
I’m still working with Pete to compile albums and write sleeve notes, and to me it’s a dream job! It’s very satisfying.
You got to work on some of The Upsetter riddims – what was it like to collaborate with Lee Perry?
Lee Perry is obviously a legendary character and I got on pretty well with him. I like him a lot, he’s very funny. He came over and met my kids. Lee gets on well with children and they hung out and watched King Fu Panda together. He conducted them through various backing vocals as well! We had a good time (laughs).
I played over some of his older riddims, which was a great honour. It’s one of those times where you’re worried about messing things up. With great old stuff like that, people don’t necessarily want to hear others playing new bits over the top. I’m always wary of being disrespectful.
You recently released some music with Jah Wobble, is there more in the works?
I don’t know really. Pressure Sounds put us together. I’m a big fan of his playing – I think he’s an absolutely brilliant musician. You can instantly recognise his playing, so for me, I was thrilled to do it.
I don’t know if there will be much more as he’s very busy. He’s got his own busy band and the reality of a working musician now is that they spend a lot of their time touring. His most recent album is very different from the stuff I’ve just done with him, so I’m not sure. There are a couple of tracks we started which aren’t finished yet, so we’ll have to wait and see…
What’s keeping you busy?
I’m doing stuff with a variety of Jamaican producers and still doing some strange, slightly avant garde stuff for other people. There should hopefully be a solo record too – so I’m still keeping very busy!