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Sherwood & Pinch: Dub-Wise

It’s not hard to see Adrian Sherwood and Rob Ellis as kindred spirits. Sherwood has been one of the defining figures in the UK Dub scene as a producer, artist and head of On-U Sound Records for over 30 years. Ellis runs his own influential label in Tectonic Recordings and, as Pinch, has conquered dancefloors with his brand of Reggae, Dancehall and esoteric World Music-referencing Dubstep. ‘Late Night Endless’, the LP which follows their 12”s ‘Bring Me Weed’ and ‘Music Killer’, bears witness to that common ground, but also to their status as masterful production talents who marry speaker-shaking bass with an ear for melody.

Neither is a stranger to collaboration. Pinch recorded Temi Oyedele’s vocal for album cut ‘Stand Strong’ while he was in Lagos contributing to the transcontinental ‘Ten Cities’ compilation and has previously released a full-length with fellow bass innovator Shackleton, a thrilling mix CD with Mumdance and a 12” with Drum ‘n’ Bass kingpin Photek (who, in a nice piece of symmetry, joins Sherwood in having remixed Nine Inch Nails). Sherwood has an endless list of production credits, working with the legendary Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and junglist figurehead Congo Natty, and remains deeply influenced by his work with the Voice of Thunder, Prince Far I. He was an ever-present in the Post-Punk era, and notes that “a lot of people know me for non-Reggae stuff, some of the very earliest remixes in the early Eighties”.

Given their obvious common ground and penchant for collaboration then, why did the LP take over two years to finish? The principal reason seems to have been a perfectionism borne of the idea of this standing as an ‘Album’, a theme both returned to unprompted. “These are ten cohesive tracks that make for a listening experience,” states Pinch. “A lot of people have a record where every track is a hundred-and-whatever BPM and it kind of merges as a seamless, generic kind of groove that you drop any time,” Sherwood says, before cracking a smile: ‘”this is, I’d like to think, a little more intellectual.”

In particular, Pinch’s desire to make an LP at all seems curious, given how well his B2B mix CD with Mumdance worked as an expression of his own work. He said during publicity for that mix that it was “a document of the moment. I believe that in dance music you can only really present a proper document of the moment in a mix format.” With Late Night Endless, however, he makes clear that he and Sherwood were making neither a dance record nor one squarely focused on the here and now: “While we enjoy the heavy sonic that works on a soundsystem – the raging bass and cracking snares and things like that – it’s also important to create something that’s sonically interesting in a home listening environment, in your headphones, in your car”. Sherwood concurs, pointing out that they didn’t put their 12”s on the record (although a classically Sherwood-ian dub version of ‘Music Killer’ does appear) and contrasting it with ‘greatest hits’ collections. He presents it as “an album that you put on from beginning to end”.

“I think we tried to avoid anything that was too sonically of-the-moment,” adds Pinch. “If we tried to make a Trap album it would’ve been out of fashion by the time we’d have finished. You’re always taking influence from the things that are going on around you and things that you’re interested in but I think it’s a record that could have been made 5 years ago, it could have been made 10 years from now”. Accordingly the sound is classic but not classicist: opener ‘Shadowrun’ ticks and stutters like pre-saturation Swamp 81 (for whom Pinch supplied one of the key tracks in the label’s brilliant early run) and the menacing, chanted vocal of ‘Different Eyes’ is sandwiched between plucked guitars and basement Dub heft. The exactingly messy ‘Gimme Some More (Tight Like That)’ is vintage Sherwood as if edited for a Pinch club set. If it harks back to anything in particular though, it might not be the era you expect. Instead, the legacy of the album-driven ‘90s (before it devolved into a series of ‘chill’ compilations) is recalled in the pacing, as the record shifts from its opening salvo into a knotty middle section and eventually reaches its closing statement, ‘Run Them Away’.

Sherwood’s contention that if “anyone from my past came to a Sherwood and Pinch gig or anyone from Rob’s, I don’t think they’d being going away saying “Oh that doesn’t sound like what I was expecting or what I was hoping”’ seems fair. He describes the record as “not completely On-U, it’s not completely Tectonic, we’ve found our own little sound and dynamic”. Pinch calls it “a mutation of our joint interests rather than a collage of our sounds”. That live show is perhaps best demonstrative of the nature of their collaboration; after all, as Sherwood puts it, they are “building a studio on stage”. Pinch operates through Ableton live, with each element of a track separated so that he can throw it in too any other, with Sherwood manning a 32-channel analogue Midas desk. Each is equipped with drum pads loaded with samples. This mirrors somewhat the process of putting the record together, when Pinch would start working on beats in Bristol before heading to Sherwood’s studio in Ramsgate where they’d arrange the tracks, Sherwood calling in musicians and adding samples. After their work together was done there, says Pinch, “it was over to Adrian to lick it up dub-wise”.

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They’re clearly thrilled with the rapturous response they’ve received live. “I think effectively we’re attacking the DJ set. We’re doing basically a set for people to rock to, but creating a live echo chamber like we’d have if we were mixing, if we were in the Black Ark or somewhere back in the day” says Sherwood. The reference to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s legendary studio is apt, with their live show reflecting Dub’s tradition of version: “the history of what I like is maybe ten versions of one rhythm if the rhythm’s good enough. Say you love a rhythm, I like to hear another cut of the rhythm… We do a live gig and it’s different every night.” “It’s different every ten minutes!” Pinch interjects. Despite taking on such an obvious Jamaican influence, I posit that the music they’re producing is perhaps often thought of as a ‘UK sound’, beloved of British audiences. Has it had the same effect abroad? “The first major gig we did was at Sonar Tokyo and that was a very emotional connection with the audience, we got a standing ovation,” responds Pinch, perhaps with a hint of indignation. “Barcelona, they loved it there and Turin…” adds Sherwood.

Sherwood is thankful for the opportunity to even play those gigs. “I’ve been releasing records all my adult life and I’ve witnessed the changes… before the internet it was hard to get noticed and it was very hard then to get a gig – you didn’t go and do a gig in Portugal, Spain, Mexico, Croatia. To get a gig in those places was a dream.” He continues: “People are so desperate for you to buy their physical thing, their record, t-shirt or whatever now I’ve got to say in certain ways it’s never been better for you if you play or if you’re a good entertainer, coz you will, as the Jamaicans say, “eat food”. You’ll go and play.” Although Sherwood bemoans the demise of widespread physical ownership of records (“It’s sad to me that now people don’t look at music so much as a thing to purchase a physical copy of, because I actually love vinyl,” he says, holding up a copy of ‘Late Night Endless’ on wax), the duo’s focus on producing a physical album document and thought-over live show is not explicit support for doing things the ‘traditional’ way. Along with welcoming the opportunity to get out and play worldwide, they insist the ‘Music Killer’ single’s title and artwork was a shot at Spotify’s monopolistic nature rather than streaming services in general. ‘I like the idea of micro-payments and all that’ says Pinch. ‘But,’ interjects Sherwood, ‘it’s a dream.’ Pinch has done his research, and clearly doesn’t see a future for Tectonic on Spotify as currently configured: “the reality of it is that 51% of the company is owned by major labels,’ he says, wearily bemoaning ‘fat cat corporations”.

Is that to say then that Late Night Endless is a political album? ‘Run Them Away’, the lyrics to which were written with the late Bim Sherman “donkey’s years ago” says Sherwood, refer to “warmongering governments” and are “actually more relevant” today. That’s where any explicit message ends, however. “I think it’s probably more important for the listener to make up their own mind what they take from the experience,” says Pinch. “A lot of my favourite music invites you to think around a subject without dictating an opinion on it. I definitely think there are a lot of aspects of the record that invite you to consider while you’re listening but don’t project a fixed point of view.”

Theirs is an album that could not be fairly accused of being ‘fixed’, with the samples from Sherwood’s past featured on ‘Run Them Away’, ‘Precinct of Sound’ and ‘Gimme Some More (Tight Like That)’ rubbing up with original vocals on ‘Different Eyes’ and ‘Stand Strong’. That balance between songcraft and sound design is one Sherwood thinks they got right. “You haven’t got too much vocal song, but enough,” he says, something he feels is in line with the traditions of Dub. “I’m a fan of the song. I mean Dub historically – people are going “Dub Dub Dub” now – but the best Dub records ever made were minor chord ones that were originally a song, from my background. Nowadays it’s more about creating that mood from the offset, and tagging it as a Dub or whatever.” You can sense some of that new school approach in Pinch’s summation that ‘Late Night Endless’, “sets a mood and everything exists within the context of that mood”, but ultimately he’s viewing the record in the album tradition they’ve both made clear was their goal: “I think that’s one of the nice things about shaping an album is that you do that, you find tracks that fit together in a complementary way and carry a mood, a bit of a journey or a bit of a story.”

Even if that story was originally intended to be heard on your home or car stereo, they don’t plan for it to stay there. Part of seeking out timelessness was ensuring that the tracks could be used by other people in different contexts. “It’s a very DJ-friendly record,” says Sherwood. “You could play any of the tracks on there out.” In attempting so consciously to craft a work that you can sit with, something that will last due to both its versatility and lack of restriction to a specific period in time, have they attempted to do too much? Certainly, individual tracks can get a little busy at times and the transition from the Dubstep-referencing early tracks to the mellower middle section is jarring on first listen. Its strengths as an album, though, fittingly reveal themselves after repeat listens – the highlights are runs rather than individual tracks in isolation – and there are several cuts here strong enough to find their way into DJs’ record bags.

Sherwood muses that, “it seems like we were in the studio every single day”, and the effect of that is clear; the two have an ease, talking about hardware and grimacing over Nigel Farage (“UK Farage”, as Pinch would have it), who is standing for Parliament in Sherwood’s constituency. They also clearly share a sense of pride in the work they’ve done. Pinch offers “the short answer”: “we put a lot of time and effort into making it and we think it’s good because we spent a lot of time trying to get it sound like that.” Sherwood is happy to paint himself as an “old fogey” and Pinch draws a clear line between this and his work in the dance sphere (Sherwood praises Mumdance for “a really contemporary thing that’s seamless”), but ‘Late Night Endless’ is no pure throwback. Instead, it’s a document of a specific, more recent past: when two British production treasures came together to play with the sounds they loved.

‘Late Night Endless’ is out now via Tectonic and On-U Recordings. Buy it here.

Gabriel Everington