Trevor Jackson: In Conversation

I first heard of Trevor Jackson when I listened through the early Four Tet material he put out via his now defunct label, Output Recordings. It wasn’t until several years later that I came across him again, this time through his excellent fortnightly NTS show and the two Metal Dance compilations he put together for Strut.

Others may have discovered him through his varied career as a graphic designer working with the likes of Champion Records, Soulwax and Defected, right through to Lexus and Stone Island. Or maybe via his music, producing under his own name as well as various aliases including Underdog and Playgroup.

His wealth of cross disciplinary work has helped make him a key figure of the international underground.

Jackson’s new album, SYSTEM will act as the concluding part of his archival Pre- label, which over the past three years has seen him release over 100 of his own unheard tracks. This last release consists of eight hardware jams recorded from 2002-2010 during the same sessions as his highly ambitious FORMAT project for The Vinyl Factory.

I spoke with Trevor on the phone to discuss the new album, his new label Post- and what the future holds.

You’ve said previously one of the reasons this music wasn’t released when you produced it was that – alongside a busy career – you lost confidence in the music you where making. What happened?

I think that I got caught in a situation. When Output closed after 10 years I wasn’t really in the best head space. Up to that point I’d made loads of music and never had time to put it out because I was so busy running the label. After I closed it, I was so sick of the music industry I just stepped back and I didn’t want anything to do with it for a while – then by waiting quite a few years, I felt a little bit out of touch with what was going on.

I kind of felt like all the music I had was pretty shit…listening to what was going around, it didn’t sound relevant. It didn’t make sense to me. I was surrounding myself when I was doing my label with loads of incredibly talented people and I just kind of forgot how to make music, if I’m honest. The thing is, I’m obsessed by what’s going on now. I love the past and the roots of all the music I’m into but I always want to try and obsessively keep on top of things. When you’re listening to brand new music and the stuff you made a few years ago is sounding increasingly more dated, it kind of knocks your confidence a little bit.

Then it got to a stage where it had gone on so long – not making any music – that I felt out of touch with what was going on. I had the fragments of closing a label and all the bad ghosts from that and it just dragged me down. Then it really was a situation where I thought you know what? I want to make new music. But a part of me was like, I’ve put so much time into all this music sitting there – like hundreds of tracks – what am I going to do?

So I set myself this stupid task – which I can’t believe I’ve done – of pretty much taking all those tracks and just trying to get them finished. For me that was a stepping stone into thinking, actually can I still do this? Is it even worth me doing this anymore? Do I enjoy doing it? And so, it’s multifaceted reasons why I lost my confidence -but at the same time, going back to that music made me kind of build it up again.

So in going back to it, did you maybe rediscover why you made this work in the first place?

Nah, not really because I was making music every single day. I started off revisiting a lot of this music about three/four years ago, specifically when I did my FORMAT album with Vinyl Factory.

If I’m honest, normally I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of my music, right? I really don’t care; I make it for myself. But I had all this music there and then – I can’t remember what happened – but Shaun, one of the guys from Vinyl Factory said “I heard you’ve got this old music, can I have a listen?”

I’m like “Mate, its shit you don’t want to hear it!”

He goes “No I want to hear it” and he came over and started listening and said “No, this is great!” And for the first time in my life actually – hearing someone else complimenting something I’d done – it kind of, really helped me.

Loads of personal shit was happening in my life; I was in a really bad place. Having someone I respected hear the stuff and seeing his reaction, that really encouraged me. Like, maybe it’s worth it? The thing with doing the FORMAT project wasn’t just about music, it was a whole massive concept about much more than the music itself. Actually up to the point I released the FORMAT album, I was still convinced the music was pretty shit, I wasn’t confident about it. That’s kind of why I built this massive project around it which meant I could hide the music behind everything else and if the music wasn’t well received, I still had something there.

So the tracks on this album were made during the same sessions as the FORMAT release?

Yeah, over a period of like eight years. What happened was when I made the FORMAT album and Shaun listened to stuff, I probably brought out about thirty or forty tracks, and from that we picked the ones for FORMAT. Then I had those other ones to the side, and they were the tracks that became the SYSTEM album.

You’ve gone back and released more than 100 tracks over the past few years. What was the curation process for this like?

You know, I spend 80% of my time being creative/creatively thinking. Every now and again when it becomes overwhelming, I like to do the washing up. I like to clean the flat. I like to do things where I don’t have to think.

Actually organising the tracks was interesting because I hadn’t heard them for so long, I could listen to them like it wasn’t my own music. In a way I was detached from it, so I could almost immediately be listening to it like I was compiling a compilation, or doing a DJ mix. I just listened to it and tried to step back and think; this isn’t my music this, it’s someone else.

I mean I had probably about 400/500 things to go through, which doesn’t take that long. You skip through a few seconds – this doesn’t sound good, that sounds good – and so it started out more like a really anal organisational thing, not so creative.

Then I just started breaking them into different projects. Apart from doing Pre- I’ve been re-issuing Playgroup stuff; I’ve had two compilations of that which is about 60 tracks as well. I’d done some Pinklunch music before and also the From album I did, that was originally a vocal/instrumental hip hop album. So I had most of those tracks, but the other things were all over the place.

It was really enjoyable, the initial thing of going through them and deciding what should I use and what should I throw away. But when I actually had to say to myself, ok let me finish these tracks – that was pretty difficult. It was difficult and it was simple. It was simple in that I didn’t have any sessions for the tracks. I didn’t have any stems or separate parts, the majority of them where all just recorded to cassette as rough demos or jams. The Dark They Were and Golden Eyed album, that was me over a weekend playing with my synths, not sleeping and just fucking around. I ended up having like forty-five, two hour tracks I had to go down and edit. But all I had was stereo tracks, so all I could do was edit them or add stuff to them. I couldn’t go in and adjust the level of a drum or a hi-hat or the bass line, which was good. I didn’t have so many choices to make, that would have been dangerous.

If I’d had a folder of 200 tracks and they where all original Logic sessions, I would never have finished it, it would have been endless. I think I’d still be sitting here today working on 20 tracks. But it wasn’t like that – I had the essence of the music there, and just had to rearrange them by re-editing them, every now and again adding a synth here or a little bit of atmosphere or sound FX there. It was a huge task the more I think about it.

The amount of music I’ve finished, the amount of records I’ve released – like, eight albums in three years or something crazy. It’s really important for me because I’m getting to that point in my life – I’ve been trying to do it for the past decade – I just want to put my past behind me and move forward to do something brand new. This is a big part of doing that.

So how does it feel working on new material, now that the Pre- project is coming to an end?

Well I haven’t! Over the past decade, I’ve got myself together a really beautiful studio. I’ve got rid of loads of stuff…I’ve got every bit of gear I want. But apart from a few remixes I’ve never used any of it to make a new piece of music. I actually haven’t made a brand new piece of music for a very long time, and I’m not going to.

The idea is I get the album out at the end of September, then I’m going to take a few months off and just, think about what I want to do. Then I’ll start creating some new music. I want to try and approach it a different way; I’ve always made music the same way, I’ve always had the same approach. I’ve used the same machines and programmes to start off with and I’m very comfortable with that. But I want to try and challenge myself a little bit more and learn some new things. As you get older it’s actually quite hard to learn new things and I need the challenge, so I’m going to try to take a completely different approach to creating music now.

You released a limited run of a hundred and fifty CDs back in May, now a CD and digital release – but no vinyl. What made you want to release the album like this?

Well the album came out a few months ago in May. I did a version of it, a very limited edition run at the Independent Label Market, which was a CD only thing. I did a hundred and fifty copies and they sold out right away. I’ve had a lot of people bugging who just wanted the album so I thought you know what, I should release it properly now. The people that have the hundred and fifty copies, they’re unique. I found these orange CD’s, screen printed the case, so they’re unique editions. This version is different; the packaging is different.

I didn’t want to do vinyl because – quite simply – I do all this myself. Vinyl sales are not as high as people say they are. Physical formats are very important to me, but that can be anything you know? I did the FORMAT project with eight track cassettes.

To me – I love CD’s. I buy a lot of records, but I’ve got thousands of CD’s. Even though people shun them, I love them. They’re affordable to make, they’re easy to use, they’re convenient, portable and you can turn them around quickly.

To turn round a vinyl release now, you’re looking at two months to get a test pressing back, it can take you months to get your release. Realistically, I would have made this album and it would have cost me a lot of money to invest in packaging it properly. I would have made my money back – hopefully – but it would have taken me a long time to do that.

Financially, I just thought it wasn’t worth doing! The tracks are long, it’s nearly an eighty-minute album, it would have to be a triple/quadruple album. I might do a single or an EP of it, but at the moment I’m quite happy it just being a CD. I’m not a snob, I’m not a vinyl fetishist, as long as people can have it in some physical format that they can own, I’m happy.

So it’s important to you that people take something physical home with them?

Yeah, I mean in this day and age there’s so much music out there. I do my NTS show every fortnight and I’m buying three or four hundred tracks a month for the show – out of that I’m only playing a hundred. Some of those amazing tracks I forget about, but the ones I have on CD, or vinyl or on tape I remember. I don’t want people to buy or stream my music and just forget about it the next day. I want people to have something they can hold and remember.

I’m old – maybe younger people don’t give a shit about that – but for me it’s important. And the fact is that part of my whole career is packaging! To be able to find creative solutions for my own music – to package my music – is a challenge and I really enjoy that.

The importance of the physical object brings us to your new label, Post-. This is going to operate purely through word of mouth and traditional postal methods – no website, no phone number. Why have you decided to do this?

I don’t want to talk about it too much. The whole idea is I’m not even going to do press on it. I’m going to launch this label somehow and people will find out how to contact me, they’ll have to send a stamped addressed envelope and I will send them a catalogue of the releases. It’s not all going to be music, its going to be about objects that people will want to possess in some way. I want to do it completely off the grid; I’m sick of having to reply to emails and stare at my computer screen all the time. I’m happy to write letters to people.

I’m sure some things will be available face to face. I’ll probably still do markets, I might set up some kind of weird little shop, I don’t know. I just want to have a direct contact with people that are into what I do. It’s not going to be, you know, massive releases, it’ll probably only be a few hundred, maybe even less. Maybe some things will be fifty copies, I don’t know.

As I said, the whole idea is for me to take a break after the album’s come out and work out what to do. There won’t be a Post- release until next year. People are just going to have to try and hunt, do a little bit of digging to find out how to hear and see and get involved. Its going to be a bit of an adventure. I want it to be fun!

So the people getting involved are going to have to work for it?

I’m going to make it as difficult as possible! (laughs)

If I’m honest I only want people that are committed. I’m quite happy, I’ve been doing this for thirty years right? I’ve got a fairly strong following of people that are passionate about what I do, that understand me. I’m happy just to support them. I’ve had my opportunities to do things which will be able to translate to a much much bigger audience and if that happens for something I do that’s great! That’s an added bonus.

I DJ every now and again. I don’t do huge festivals, I’m not really into the idea of playing live. I don’t mind doing interviews, but when I first started – when I was Underdog – nobody knew who I was. I never did an interview, I just kept in the shadows and I’m happier doing that. I’m quite content with knowing that after this amount of time, I’ve still got my integrity, that’s important to me. I’ve compromised a few times, and those times have never been a great experience.

I’ve never wanted to do things in the same way everybody else wants to do stuff, that doesn’t interest me. There’s too many amazing ideas out there. It’s so easy to just do what everyone else does and follow the formulaic path. I want to do things that are special, that feel special. With this Post- project, I want people to get one of these things and just feel really good about having it. I don’t mind if it seems exclusive, if only fifty people on the planet have it. I know myself when I’ve got things like that, it’s a good buzz. It feels special, you know?

Things are so transient nowadays, things disappear so quickly. It’s very hard to create something now of any worth – that has impact – because there’s so much going on in peoples lives.

I’ve said it before: I’m not bragging, but I’ve got thousands and thousands of records. But I can tell you where I bought every single one, there’s a story. I remember that arsehole on Discogs that tried to fuck me over, or getting the train up to butt-fuck nowhere to try and find this particular record. Every single one I’ve bought; I remember where they’re from. You don’t get that with digital music. I’m not anti digital music – I buy a lot – but I think that more and more people need tangible experiences to make their lives feel more fulfilled.

For me it’s all about experiences. The music industry is more than just making records, I’m into the whole thing, every aspect of it…not just packaging. How people can discover it is a massive thing to me, it’s hugely important.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how it turns out!

So am I, I’ve absolutely no idea! But that’s why it’s quite exciting. This last one will come out, I’ll take a few months off and get in my studio, start tinkering about and I’ll think about what I want to do. Will the first release be a book? Will the first release be a CD? Will it be a vinyl? I don’t know. Maybe a T Shirt? The fact that people have to search, to hunt it out… I think that’s fun!

So will it just be your own work, or are there any collaborations on the cards?

A hundred percent! It’s not just going to be all about me, no way. I’ll start pulling in some interesting people without a doubt, but who they are – I’m not bullshitting, I haven’t even asked anyone yet!

It’ll be found out when it needs to be?

Yeah, exactly. And I don’t know how regularly – things might be monthly, they might be weekly – I’ve no idea. Let’s see what happens!

Sounds really exciting

I’m confident it will work in a way, let’s see what happens. I won’t be talking about it on social media, I won’t be doing interviews about it, I won’t be sending out anything to the press. All I can say is I’m pretty sure nothing will be happening until the new year, but people should keep their eyes out, maybe something will.

Let’s see.

SYSTEM is released on September 28th. 

Preorder it here.

Words: Justin O’Brien

Featured Images: Philippe Lévy

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