You know when you go to the fairground there are those machines where you put a penny in the top and theres loads of things to divert it and at the bottom you might get a packet of cigarettes if youre lucky. Usually you get some stale chocolate bar or something. The record industry a bit like that; if youre lucky, you get a pack of fags and it kills you, if youre unlucky you get a cheap bar of chocolate that rots your teeth. Jon Moore, January 2006.
When major label record Arista dropped Coldcut in 1994 after a string of pop hits, the picture looked bleak for the pioneering samplists, certainly according to 1995s Guinness Whos Who of Rap, Dance & Techno.
Once innovative but now largely discarded by the dance cognoscenti, the Encylopedias Coldcut entry starkly began, adding and nowadays the group partly sustain themselves via the process of dubbing rave videos, having already produced video games.
And chatting down the line today from his London base, Coldcuts Jonathan More chuckles as he looks back to when Coldcut enjoyed a brief though highly successful period as bona fide pop stars. Making their name initially as pioneer samplists via remixes and productions including Eric B & Rakims Paid In Full and Yazzs Doctorin The House they even helped launch Lisa Stansfield, before the chill realities of major label kicked in to tarnish the dream.
I went from being a teacher, to going on Top Of The Pops, then getting some reasonably good royalty checks, then realizing that a lot of money had been taken from us in various different ways, he recalls, It was quite a roller coaster ride in a way.
Once we started to realize what the industry can do to acts, I started to realize why bands that Id used to love, whod released some really good records, would suddenly go horrible, theyd be coerced into not, not just by record companies but by the industry as a whole, he muses.
A lot of acts ended up looking like a nice antique with a new lick of varnish, basically and there was so much pressure on us to do that, he says.
Financially less than flush when Arista said goodbye, the duo buckled down and used their money wisely.
I bought a washing machine/dishwasher for my mum and dad, and a nice colour telly (TV) and I had a nice holiday in Greece and we set Ninja Tune up, says John.
We started it off with five hundred quid and a computer; a computer because it gave us the ability to pretend to be like a major company, because we could print loads of headed notepaper and stuff like that, and do things with the telephone so it sounded like people were being put through to the other departments and all that kind of shit, he explains.
And though Coldcut failed to earn a lump sum from their major label years, they did manage to hang on to their all-important royalties, an unexpected income source that continues to this day.
Theres nothing nicer than getting money through the post when you dont know its going to come, for something that you did, in this case, possibly eighteen years age, Jon laughs, People Hold On is still keeping us holding on.
And 12 years after Guinness virtually wrote Coldcut off, theyve been elder statesman and virtual figureheads of Britain independent music scene, turning Ninja Tune into one of the worlds most successful and respected record labels, via acts including Mr Scruff, Cinematic Orchestra, Herbaliser, Kid Koala and Roots Manuva. And individually theyve continued ploughing their own unique furrow as VJs, DJs and multi-media artists and last but not least, as Coldcut, purveyors of leftfield experimental electronic dance music, with the emphasisas much on experimental as on dance. And for new album Sound Mirrors theyve continued the same eclectic vein, recruiting guests from Jon Spencer and Saul Williams to Robert Owens and Roots Manuva for whats the fifth album, but first for six years.
About three years ago, we seriously sat down and focused and thought Yeah lets go and make an album, says Jon.
Then during that period we produced lots of different tracks, inspired by lots of different ideas; theres plenty of other stuff that didnt make it onto the album. Its really more a question of making as many things until we had as good a tracks as we felt we could possibly have, and also something that was vaguely cohesive and sounded like Coldcut.
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): Coldcut have always been very much on the cutting edge of technology, given the rise of Ipods and downloading how much is the concept of album becoming redundant?
Coldcut: It kind of is, and it isnt; almost. For example, take Pink Floyd, I cant imagine Dark Side Of The Moon, which was conceived to be listened to as one piece, or any similar concept albums, working well on a modern random downloading track platform. I think theres always a place for an album as one piece of music but its up to the individual to take what they wish from it. I dont see anything wrong with that. I personally gut the tracks that I like and ignore the ones that I dont.
Skrufff: Do you have an I- Pod yourself?
Coldcut: No I dont, because you cant transfer it onto loads of different formats, so I just gut my CDs onto massive hard disc.
Skrufff: Youve picked a wide range of collaborators, such as Robert Owens on Walk A Mile, where did he come in?
Coldcut: Thats a typical story for this album. Its a cover version of a tune Ive loved for years which was originally recorded by Joe South and actually covered by Elvis Presley and also by Bryan Ferry. I always thought it was a great soul tune, masquerading as a country rock tune. So I got a singer not Robert Owens, but another bod (bloke), to demo it out and for a long time it sat around on the shelf. It was originally recorded at 90bpm then I decided to turn it into a house tune, sped it up, changed the key and fucked around with it. I thought it was interesting, but I still thought it was a bit cheesy to be honest, so I put it on the shelf again for quite a while.
Then one day I was fucking about with it and Matt came to the studio and said: Oh whats this? So Ross Allen, who was helping us out with A & Ring at the time said This is pretty interesting. I was like Well, I think its a bit cheesy, the vocals doesnt work. We were talking about it and Roberts name came up and we thought he was going to be in Chicago or whatever, but in fact he lived in London and is a friend of a friend of a friend, so it was one of those few degrees of removal things. We got in touch with him and within a week he was in the studio, he did the vocal and we did some more programming on the track and that was it. It almost didnt make it because it sat around for ages. I think I originally started that track about three years ago.
Skrufff: How do you see the state of dance/ electronic music at the moment?
Coldcut: Its wobbly, I think. Possibly. I went to Selfridges recently, as you do around Christmas-time, to gawp at the temple of capitalism and consumerism, and there used to be a DJ store with all the kit in the basement and it wasnt there any more. Little pointers like that are interesting. There arent as many good records I dont think at the moment, either, its all got too easy really.
Skrufff: Making musics got too easy?
Coldcut: Yeah, the democratization of the equipment has made it so easy that actually it makes it more difficult.
Skrufff: When you started making music back in the eighties, when did it start becoming serious, as in you could make a living out of it?
Coldcut: I dont know if its ever become serious, actually: it has in one way but not in another, its just a matter of survival. I went from being a teacher, to going on Top Of The Pops, then getting some reasonably good royalty cheques, then realizing that a lot of money had been taken from us in various different ways. It was quite a roller coaster ride in a way.
Skrufff: You had some massive pop hits in Coldcuts early days, did all that success bring any life changing royalty cheques??
Coldcut: I bought a washing machine/dishwasher for my mum and dad, and a nice colour telly and I had a nice holiday in Greece and we set Ninja Tune up, basically. Theres nothing nicer than getting money through the post when you dont know its going to come, for something that you did, in this case, possibly eighteen years age. People Hold On is still keeping us holding on.
Skrufff: You still get cheques every six months or so?
Skrufff: Is that from radio play, predominantly?
Coldcut: All the different sources, theres many. Radio play, MCPS, PRS, PPL, VPL, blah, blah.
Skrufff: Going into the eighties, the biog was talking about you being on the rare groove scene, pre-acid house days, did you cross paths much with the likes of Judge Jules?
Coldcut: Oh yeah. There was a crew basically of bods (guys), we each did our individual scenes but there was Norman (Jay) and Kiss and Judge Jules and Shake and Fingerpop. Family Function and all of that.
Skrufff: Were you all one big happy family at the time?
Coldcut: No. No. The usual, though actually I guess we were like a family. The crew had all its faults, everything from whingeing to egotism to backbiting to martyrdom, everything. It would have made a wicked soap opera, actually.
Skrufff: Youre doing a massive tour over the next few months, what kind of people come to your shows these days?
Coldcut: Ive no idea, really, sometimes. It is a surprisingly young audience more often than not. Its a very broad audience.
Skrufff: Where are you biggest these days?
Coldcut: In my head. Its really weird. Weve played in Japan at the Electrovibe festival to eighteen thousand people and eight thousand people in Osaka. Regularly when we go as us, without the whole festival thing, we do gigs to three thousand people. Fifteen hundred to two thousand people in San Francisco, but then two hundred in Baltimore or Boston. Our audiences are good in France and Belgium, but not so good in Holland.
Skrufff: .The cliché of every band touring is that they go completely off the rails. Is that a temptation?
Coldcut: To go off the rails? I like traveling by train actually, because Id like to do the whole thing in an Orient Express style, but I dont think thats possible, like an old circus that used to come to town on a railway. Were pretty boring, really, to be honest. We tend to come back here to Ninja Tune with a massive stash of alcohol, of our undrunk rider which gets distributed to all the staff. Often we leave it behind or give it away, its mad.
Skrufff: I didnt know youd done stuff with punk icon, political genius Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys What was he like to work with?
Coldcut: He was great actually. Very energetic. We did it by telephone and file correspondence, this was before the days of email before eventually meeting him. Hes a paradox, really, like a lot of these people. He arrived with a big, fat American lawyer who was shabby and unkempt in appearance, quite unusual for an American lawyer, I was expecting to see the flash suit and shit, but he was well overweight and sweating, but still quite a hard core lawyer. Jellos great fun to work with and full of ideas and energy.
Skrufff: You guys have still quite a political edge on a lot of things you are doing, how important is activism?
Coldcut: Its something that we try and support and its a very difficult thing to do sometimes, because obviously people often expect more of you. A good example is that we havent done an advert up until now and we got asked to do one, recently, weirdly enough, for Ford Cars. So theres four people involved in that decision; myself, Matt, Stuart and Robin from Hexstatic that created it. So there was a discussion between us all as to what we should do - and it was a very difficult question because theres a bunch of people here at Ninja Tune now, theres twelve or thirteen staff who have worked on that record and worked very hard. So heres the potential for them to earn income and we as employers have responsibility for that. On the other hand theres an activist issue, in as much as Ford Cars arent a good company. So transport and cars in general are a great idea, its just the modus operandi at the moment is a bit fucked and needs to be sorted out. So what do you do? Do you just say No thanks, goodbye?
If I was employed and my employer decided to give some of the money from a project that Id worked on to some cause that I didnt believe in, I think Id be a bit fucked off. So theres that issue and these days I think youve got to engage, its no good just sitting at home in your chair going Eeeeeh, you should do this or that and taking the bottles down the bottle bank. So what we did was donate 50% of the money to Greenpeace, to their Educate Ford Campaign.
Skrufff: How did that decision go down with your fans?
Coldcut: Weve had a whipping for that from our forum, some people thought it was an interesting thing to do, others thought it was appalling, but for the first time in my life Ive actually been able to give a substantial amount of income to a cause that I believe in, which I probably wouldnt be able to do in any other way or format, so I think sometimes you have to take things on board and deal with them. It is difficult, but I just see us as being a node or a link, were not setting an example or lecturing people. Its just information and if you want to take it on board, please feel free. These are reflections really hence the title of the album Sound Mirrors.
Skrufff: Explain Sound Mirrors?
Coldcut: Well, sound mirrors everything that you do. From the hippy point of view, we are actually vibrations. So we all make sound, one way or another and sound mirrors that. For an example, you can hear something on the radio and it can bring back a memory that you might not have thought of for twenty five years. So it has that power, or if you are feeling pissed off you can put a record on and it can make you feel better or worse. Its a sort of encoded form of emotion, really. A mirror of what you do.
Skrufff: What goes through your mind when you hear old Lisa Stansfield tracks?
Coldcut: Some of them I can cope with, some of them I just cringe when I listen to them, but then a lot of records from that era sound so crude and old fashioned now, in a cute way. I reckon it will take another ten year for me to be ready again.
Skrufff: Are you still in touch with Lisa Stansfield or Yazz?
Coldcut: Im still in touch with Yazz. From time to time we email each other. She lives in Spain now, shes in a gospel band and is very happily married to a Spanish keyboard player, having a lovely time.
Skrufff: Youre not in touch with Lisa anymore?
Coldcut: No, I havent spoken to her for a long time.
Skrufff: What do you make of this whole audition culture/Pop Idol?
Coldcut: Its interesting. It just makes it all seem so easy. Its no different to Opportunity Knocks. I used to love those programs when I was a kid. What I loved was seeing people humiliated. Well, we all love that really. Its wonderful stuff, but it gives totally the wrong idea to a lot of people. Its all part of the instant I-want-it-now culture.
Skrufff: Are you optimistic about the future of the world?
Coldcut: Not today, no, but post-Christmas is not always good. Dark weather, missing sunshine, but tomorrow is another day and that is the best way of dealing with it.
Coldcut, Sound Mirrors is out on January 30 on Ninja Tunes.
Jonty Skrufff (JontySkrufff.com)