Adrian Sherwood: “You have to work hard to stand out from the pack”

We spoke to the On-U Sound label boss ahead of his new album with dubstep artist Pinch

In the mid-1970s, a teenage Adrian Sherwood often travelled to Birmingham from London, distributing records under the name J and A Records. Among Sherwood’s catalogue was Psalms and I, the first record by Jamaican reggae artist Prince Far I.

It’s more than just two guys making a record

On one of his trips, he received a message mid-way saying that Far I, also a former club bouncer, wanted to kill him and was waiting for him in Birmingham. When he finally met the man looking for him, it turned out it was just a malicious rumour spun and spread around the record stores of Birmingham. All the artist wanted was to meet the man distributing his records. When they did, the pair got on like a house on fire. Eventually working together to form the Jamaican record label Hit Run, Prince Far I is one of the many artists Sherwood has signed and worked with over a number of his associated labels.

Following the establishment of his flagship label On-U Sound in 1980, the broad and experimental genre of post-punk was influencing musicians around Britain, and Sherwood was introducing his industrial dub sounds into the mix. Bands from the scene, such as New Age Steppers and Mark Stewart of the Pop Group signed to On-U Sound, joining the likes of reggae and dub artists Bim Sherman, Creation Rebel and African Head Charge. But Sherwood’s experimentations with genres continued. Later in the decade, he worked with the industrial hip hop group Tackhead and, in 1992, the blues guitarist Little Axe.

Most recently, he has worked with the Bristol-based dubstep artist Pinch. Following the release of their 2015 debut Late Night Endless, Sherwood and Pinch (Rob Ellis) have released their second collaborative album Man Vs. Sofa. For the past five years, the duo have been working together after initially meeting at Fabric, when Sherwood (one of Pinch’s heroes) was invited by the dubstep DJ to play at one of his club nights.

In between promoting a new album, perfecting a series of live performances and finishing off an all female dub project nine years in the making, the British dub veteran is as busy as ever. We caught up with him to hear more.

Tell me about the collaborators on Man Vs. Sofa.

I tried really hard to make this album sound fresh and use collaborators that I thought were appropriate. We used [Martin] Duffy who is a great keyboard player, known for playing with Primal Scream. He actually understands things like jazz and Ethiopian music. Obviously Skip [McDonald of Sugarhill Gang] who’s a wonderful musician and it was great having his ears.

Did you mentor Pinch?

Well, what we both have in common is we’re both producers and we’re both label bosses. It’s more than just two guys making a record and saying one person does this and the other does that. What works well is that we get along and our sense of humour is fairly similar. I mean there’s only two ages, alive or dead, as Miles Davis said.

In those days, you were putting on shows to promote the records and now you’re putting out records to get shows

I’m still very enthusiastic and to me, it’s very important working with someone that is as good as him, so I don’t think it’s really about mentoring, we’re both bringing a lot to the table and after this period of time working together, I think we both have a good understanding.

Do you seek out younger artists?

I’m not consciously looking to work with someone because they’re young. It’s because they’re good. If I’m confident in working with the same old people all the time, it’s a bit crap isn’t it? I love my crew and I will look to bring them in when I can, but working with Rob is brilliant. We get along very well. It’s nice doing records with artists you haven’t worked with before.

What is your approach to releasing music and running a label in the digital age?

We’ve manufactured Man Vs. Sofa as a double-CD and a vinyl. I like holding a photo of my kids and family and sticking it in a book. Same thing applies if you go to all the effort of making a piece of music. There’s a lot of people releasing music now and it never has a physical release, so no one even knows if it came out. You’ve got to promote yourself otherwise nothing happens at all.

There’s something quite unique about the tangibility of physical copies of music.

And the thing is no one knows how long they’re [vinyl] going to be around for. In music, your aim should be to reach people, or touch people’s spirit. Nothing makes me happier than when someone says that record really influenced me or changed my life some way. When you hear that, it makes your ego go, 'whoa that’s fucking great!' If you’re going to put stuff out there, it can just get lost in this digital world. Everything else is so disposable and so quick. You have to really work hard to make yourself stand out from the pack.

Could you talk about your relationship with Bim Sherman and Prince Far I?

I met Prince Far I when I was 17 or 18. I released his first ever record, it was an album called Psalms For I. I was driving up to Birmingham selling records to reggae shops and I got a message on my way saying he wanted to kill me. But, by the time we had met, we got on like a house on fire and became friends. I was looking after some of his production and when I had started my Hit Run label with Dr Pablo, I was already a big fan of Bim Sherman.

I mentioned to Prince Far I that I really like this singer and I asked, do you know him and when he said yes, I ended up buying an air ticket and flying Bim Sherman to England for the first time, as I did for Prince Hammer and Leroy Horsemouth Wallis. In those days, you were putting on shows to promote the records and now you’re putting out records to get shows.

Bim Sherman died 17 years ago now and I was with his daughter at my daughter's birthday party last month. We were friends and it was very sad. I miss Bim. When you work with people, even if you haven’t anything in common to begin with, you form bonds and friendships. We weren’t tied together by business.

So is it necessary to approach production by being personable?

Being a producer means a number of different things. If I’m producing an act for a label, I sit down with them for a meeting and ask, what do you want to sound like and what are you trying to achieve. Then you make sure the ambience is good and let them do their thing. You can make comments when you think it’s appropriate.

Because my mixing style is quite unique, I keep going along the way to make sure the ingredients are right before putting the finishing touches on the cake. Different producers work different ways but I’m not a proper musician like say Quincey Jones. I’ve got my way of doing things. I always like the ones that have their own sound, be it Phil Spector, Lee Perry, or Booker T.

Are you still politically inclined?

Politics means people, I don’t want huggy, kissy lyrics on the things I record. I want to make sure there are sensible, optimistic and thought-provoking. Or I won’t bother and just keep it as instrumental grooves. You have Sleaford Mods and Mark Stewart still doing good work but you would think there would be a lot more political music around now. A lot more very angry, pissed off people.

You look around London, it’s turned into a fucking wasteland for the rich. Unless you’ve got loads of money, you can’t afford to live there. It’s like you’re paying £1200 for a room in a little one bed flat. You know now that you can’t drop out.

The 1960s held so much hope for people after the grim times of the 40s and 50s because suddenly young people had disposable income that they could spend on records. They could live cheaply in Notting Hill or Ladbroke Grove. There was the art movement in Chelsea. Look at it now, no one can breath.