Having spent almost three decades in and around the music industry, designer, artistic director, some-time label owner and producer Trevor Jackson has built up a deeply individual body of work – a labour of love that encapsulates much of what is great about the UK’s continued creative reign in electronic club music. Creating and issuing music that afforded him full creative control seems to be a theme that has shadowed the London-based Jackson from the off, with the quiet building of the now defunct Output label across ten years and almost one hundred releases, his compiling of the much-heralded Metal Dance collections, his work as Playgroup, or his recent ‘FORMAT’ album (released across a number of physical and digital editions via The Vinyl Factory), all representing a meticulous attitude towards uncompromising music, and how best to present it.
2015 has seen Jackson continue his fortnightly NTS Radio show, capitalizing on last year’s successful Palindrone event with the ever enterprising East London station, polishing off new music that he hopes to see released in the near future, and crucially for this feature, compiling a three disc anthology of classics, rarities and unreleased material from Adrian Sherwood’s zeitgeist-defining On-U Sound label. Digging deep in the vaults, the collection has been imaginatively titled ‘Science Fiction Dancehall Classics’, a more than fitting title for an assortment of twisted Dub, reverberating sonics and resolutely alternative attitudes, and represents a labour of love for it’s compiler, himself a long time fan of Sherwood’s groundbreaking musical vision. Passionate, charming, contradictory and above all talkative, here we talk to Jackson about his passion for the On-U Sound ethos, his personal investment in pursuing music that wholly moves him, and in broader strokes, politics, London and his youth.
The tracklisting is fairly extensive across both plates, can you talk us through how you went about the selection process for the compilation?
The thing is it’s always been a dream of mine to do this compilation. I’d always wanted to do Trevor Horn, Arthur Baker, Adrian Sherwood collections of their productions. I’m not even sure how it came about but when the label contacted me, it was “oh my God – I’ve gotta do this”. I thought this had to be my version, because On-U Sound fans are militant. They’re really quite headstrong, so I knew from the beginning I might get some flack from doing my interpretation of On-U songs, but it’s literally the only catalogue that interests me most – this period that I’ve picked I really find fascinating, the period when Adrian was starting to move away from Dub and starting to mess around with other things you know? I picked tracks that I felt would have some kind of resonance with younger people today – for me it’s about having a fine balance between satisfying the older On-U Sound fans and also introducing a whole new audience, because so much of what I’m about is pulling things from the past, and making people realise how relevant it is and how influential it was, because for me all the tracks picked sound as contemporary as they did when they were made. I also had to have a balance of not going too obscure, so I put Tackhead and the better known things in and mixed it up with weirder stuff – it took quite a long time to get together.
Is there a certain individual joy you take from the compiling, the research and the putting together of a compilation that is distinct from say, a DJ set – as obviously something like this a far longer project – or is there perhaps a shared approach?
I don’t DJ so much now – once a month – I’m getting a little tired of DJing as my music taste changes. I’ve been involved in so many different aspects of club music for quite some time, and as the scene has grown, and the people have grown with it, their musical tastes have changed and perhaps become slightly more accessible. For me what I’ve tried to do is actually go backwards. I’ve had a chance to kind of push forward, y’know with the James Murphy’s and the 2 Many DJs – I mean I put on the first LCD Soundsystem gig, ever. So I’ve made a conscious decision to push against that and tried to become… [trails off] When I started Output in the mid-90s I was trying to play weird-ass records, I didn’t care about making people dance or the dance floor, and I started to get locked into that. So now I’ve tried to push away from that, and this compilation represents slightly more attitude and a more alternative sound. In terms of compiling it, everything has a beginning, middle and end to it. So whenever I play, it sounds wanky, but it’s about a [grimaces] journey, be it tempo-wise or mood-wise, so I go about them all the same way – I go about this album the same way as a DJ set, I do an NTS show every two weeks and it’s the same thing – creating some kind of story.
Taking it further back still, when did you first come into contact with Adrian or the label?
Through Hip-Hop really, probably through someone like Tim Westwood, as he played ‘Fats Comet’ by DJ Dream, and at the time I was really into DJ Cheese, with this record called ‘Word of Mouth’, an Electro/Hip-Hop record, and DJ Cheese was doing the scratching on the DJ Dream track. I bought it from Groove Records on Greek Street, and through that I started to discover On-U Sound, as DJ Cheese started cutting on a few of the records, Tackhead started having scratching in it and that was kind of my introduction, through Hip-Hop. On-U probably introduced me to more obscure, deeper Dub, whereas before that I probably only listened to Black Uhuru and a few more obvious Island artists.
And when did you first actually meet?
Adrian? I only met Adrian two years ago. I’m a complete record nerd right? I don’t wanna meet my heroes. I had to call Adrian a couple of weeks ago about this event and I shat myself – I didn’t wanna call him. In fact I waited two weeks to call him if I’m honest with you. It’s a weird one, if you grow up loving someone’s music and then you have to meet them and speak to them. I interviewed Adrian on a Strongroom Radio show I was doing a couple of years ago, and that was a fascinating thing, it was a pleasure to meet him – and at that point I realised that a lot of the music that I like from that period, I don’t think Adrian thought was very good. So I’ve been conscious of that all along, and also Adrian now isn’t like some old dude who doesn’t do anything, he’s still making music. I mean it’s hard for me, when people want to talk about Playgroup records from fifteen years ago, and for fucks sake I’m doing stuff now, I don’t want to talk about fifteen years ago, so God knows what it’s like talking about something from thirty years ago!
So how did On-U influence you in terms of perhaps Output’s catalogue, or issuing your own music?
In terms of my own music, I think it’s more an attitude. On-U Sound had an attitude, an ethos of very much “fuck you”, very alternative, and that time you’ve got to remember was very different, politically. What was going on with Thatcher, this country was really fucked up, and young people wanted to say something about it, and do something about it. It’s very different now – people are really complacent, people are far more concerned with making sure they’ve got their iPhone working and a pair of trainers, and it’s a completely dumbed-down society – then it was totally different. The parties, the events, the music being made – everything had an agenda, and that agenda was about really being as nonconformist as possible. Not conforming, being different, and that was a really exciting time. So as a general ethos, that inspired me, as I’ve never wanted to be part of something, I’ve always wanted to do my own thing.
You’ve touched on something I was going to bring up, in that politically it’s an interesting time to be alive right now – do you have a particular point of view on this country’s current political affairs? Gentrification is obviously a hot topic around here, or globally within many inner city areas, and has an effect on both the live music and club music spheres…
The thing is generally, underground culture now is an industry, it didn’t used to be. Underground culture was just a culture that people did it for the love of it, with very little hope of making any money, but they still travelled the world and they still did it, they spread the word, they hunted things out – now it’s totally different. Everything’s branded. There are so little things that are subversive and underground anymore. Youth culture has been pretty much dumbed-down. Now things have become really homogenised. I travel around the world and people look exactly the fucking same wherever you go – it never used to be like that. Cities and town have specific tribes – [though] in a good way I suppose there’s an international tribe now, but for me that’s maybe not as interesting and not as diverse. What fascinates me is all aspects of culture, so when I’m into the music, the fashion, the art, everything about that is what fascinates me, so something needs to be really all-encompassing, and authentic to really capture me. But politically… I mean I’m different now. I’m middle-aged, I’ve got a mortgage. There are things I have to do, to compromise, to live. But if I was young now – I wouldn’t live in London. Okay yeah it’s a dream to live in London but you can’t fucking afford it. I’d live outside London, you don’t need to be in London to create an interesting scene. I think it’s really sad that young people now come out of college and they just want to work for a brand. People are interested in attention, and being cool, and the whole culture of the internet, for me, is like being stuck in a room full of people coked out of their minds, just shouting about themselves and talking shit, which is my worst nightmare. I grew up in a generation and a culture that wasn’t about shouting about yourself you know? If you went about saying “I’m doing this and I’m doing that” – people would think you’re a cunt. Now everyone does it.
I’ve always thought it’s interesting being at an age that straddles the before and after, or during if you like, of a time when the internet wasn’t such an overbearing influence…
The whole thing now is about lifestyle, it’s about buying into something, and I think, going back to the political side of it, because people feel scared, they walk around thinking they’re going to get fucking bombed or blown up, or ISIS are going to come along and chop their heads off, they need to feel comfortable, and their way of feeling comfortable is to feel part of something. If anything, with all the things I’ve done, whenever I’ve felt like I’ve started to become part of something, I’ve thought “I’m getting out the back door” and I’ve become disinterested – to my detriment, financially! But at least I still have my integrity, in that everything I do, I do for the right reason.
So steering us back to the music – following the ‘FORMAT’ release, do you have plans for further new material?
I’ve got loads of music, tonnes of material I’m finishing at the moment.
I read that when picking the tracks for the ‘FORMAT’ album you had to work your way through over 100 tracks.
Yeah. If I had twelve tracks on ‘FORMAT’, each track came from ten tracks. So I had almost ten or twelve albums worth of material, which now I’ve cut down to about half of that. I’m working with a few different people now, I’ve got a bit tired working by myself so I’ve been collaborating, and this is old music to me, some of which I started working on about fifteen years ago, so it’s hard to get enthusiastic about it. For me what excites me most about finishing this music and getting it out somehow, is making some brand new music.
Do you think there’s too much nostalgia in music at the minute?
I think history’s really important. I wasn’t necessarily into history when I was at school. When I got into college, when I started doing design I started actually getting into the history of design, and was certainly inspired by people from the fifties and sixties at the time, as they were people interested in thinking. I do think nostalgia becomes a cliche, like the whole nineties House thing, or like various things. [Pauses for thought] No generally I don’t think nostalgia is a bad thing, it’s just about balancing it out. Going back to my NTS show, I could easily dig in the crates and play old shit, but I just want to concentrate on playing brand new music, because there’s so much new music, I struggle to play all the music that comes out that I think is really outstanding.
You touched on collaborating, and you relatively recently had the Palindrone event alongside the NTS Radio team – is collaborating something you’ve always enjoyed, or do you prefer to kind of lock yourself away and do your own creative thing?
NTS is one of the first times I’ve collaborated or become part of something that I actually feel at home with, because for me it’s like a bunch of outcasts. There’s an understanding that everyone’s trying to push things, and it’s inspiring to be around younger people, like people half my age, who are discovering new music, and NTS feels like a genuine, completely authentic thing. Also I’ve been working around East London for almost thirty years, so it’s a real community thing, which is incredibly important to me. Being part of a tribe or a lifestyle is one thing, but being part of a community, especially now, when communities are getting completely dissipated, is really important. I go to their events and for me it’s the only thing I feel like when I used to go out and there’d be every single race, gender, you’d have a banker, a bricklayer, a fashion designer, an artist, and that doesn’t happen anymore. Or I don’t feel it’s quite as diverse as it used to be.
Is that something the branding of youth culture itself may be partly responsible for…?
Yeah, I mean when I used to go clubbing, there’d be probably no more than three of four decent clubs a month, now there’s like ten decent things a night – it’s insane. There’s too much of everything right now.
Amen to that. Finally, are there a couple of artists or tracks in particular that you’re pleased about being included on the compilation?
I mean really, every one. The Neneh Cherry & The Circuit track… The Circuit stuff is some of my favourite stuff on On-U Sound, and there’s not much of it at all. So there’s ‘Loudspeaker’, there’s the Shara Nelson track ‘Aimed At Your Heart’ that I’ve always loved, and that’s the proper releases from them. I think now they’ve compiled enough stuff together that there could be an album at some point. All of it – I can’t pick two tracks as every one is a killer.
Words: Louis Cook
‘Trevor Jackson Presents: Science Fiction Dancehall Classics’ is released via On-U Sound on 2nd October.