Coldcut: “We’re nothing without the people that have gone before”

The Ninja Tune founders speak about their first album in over a decade

While the gap since Jon More and Matt Black AKA Coldcut’s last release Sound Mirrors in 2006 seems lengthy, there was no procrastinating. “We don't just squeeze them out,” says Black. “We try and make each one special, otherwise what's the point?” Coldcut’s latest project, Outside the Echo Chamber, warrants the decade-long wait as it is a collaborative album with UK dub pioneer Adrian Sherwood.

At the moment, the twatometer is on severe; I don't know how you can combat that

Described by Spin as “the first British artists to really get hip hop’s class-cutup aesthetic”, Coldcut pioneered the use of breaks and pop samples in their productions. Black and More first crossed paths in 1986 when DJing on London’s rare groove scene. They continued as Coldcut in the years following.

The duo gained popularity with their 1987 chart hit ‘People Hold On’. In the same year, Julian Palmer from Island Records contacted them, asking for a remix of Eric B. and Rakim’s ‘Paid in Full’. The remix laid the foundations for hip hop in the UK. In 1989, they released their debut album What’s That Noise? and have put out eight more since. When Black and More aren’t creating music as Coldcut, they’re running their label Ninja Tune. The label currently has 50 artists on its roster, including Roots Manuva, Lee Bannon, Jaga Jazzist, Sarathy Korwar and Bonobo among the ranks.

According to Black, in the 1980s, Sherwood’s label On-U Sound was “a unique and powerful influence” on the pair of them. Among reggae and dub artists playing at the time, Prince Far I and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – both close collaborators with Sherwood – influenced the sound that ultimately directed Coldcut and Ninja Tune to their success. Outside the Echo Chamber features artists connected to both labels, with Roots Manuva, Ce’Cile and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry appearing on the record.

In the lead up to its release, we caught up with More and Black to find out more.

You weren't approaching the album with a plan then?

Jon More: It just randomly fit together. Adrian Sherwood worked on Roots Manuva's last record. One of his skills is bringing stuff together that's far apart and making it sound like an album.

Matt Black: It's been 10 years since our last record. We weren't exactly sure what we wanted to make. But then, you don't necessarily have a plan. Jon and I really feel that dub as an aesthetic and set of techniques is still important. It's not really referenced that much. So really, it's a set of techniques that can be applied to anything. We always like the avant garde take on dub that Sherwood represented. Also, the fact that he's a nexus of influences like hip hop, reggae, punk and dub. That alternative take of his has a resonance with Ninja Tune.

10 years is a big gap. How did it feel going back into the studio again?

JM: We weren't really out of the studio. It's just about consciously trying to get a record together. When you get in and it all goes well, it's the best feeling in the world. You'll have these phases where you'll do 94% of something and that 6% to finish it can be painstakingly difficult.

MB: It's like that with a lot of endeavours I think. The first surge of the excitement carries you away. That last bit to really finish it off and take it from something good to something that's excellent is an exponential slope.

Is it harder creating a record when you're the label heads?

JM: There is pressure. If you make a shit tune, it reflects across the whole of the label. Throughout our career, we've had people say when we made 'Doctorin the House' that we should make another record like that. That in itself is enough to put you off.

MB: It's like, we're not going to make another record like that but what are we going to do. Yeah, there is pressure as the founder's of the label. There's quite some young talent on Ninja Tune and we're the grandads. To stay fresh and sharp is a challenge. But we're still sharpening our edge and still rolling around in the joy of sound.

With Sherwood, we hadn't worked closely with him before. So, it was a great surprise to find he's got a bunch of people down in Ramsgate that he works with. Including Skip McDonald from the original Tackhead posse. John and I, and Adrian, are not musically trained. We're guys who got lucky playing around with sound. To have a musician who can say, yeah that's in F-sharp, that note is wrong, can be very useful. Skip fed into that.

There was also Ivan Celloman, who plays cello and violin. We just stuck him in the kitchen, which has a stone floor, and used Adrian's one good microphone. It sounded like a million dollars. He was very good at interpreting what was going on. That was a real treasure to find.

It seems like Adrian is still keeping it sharp. Why did it take so long to do an album with him?

MB: The time we did work with him before was for the remix of 'Stop this Crazy Thing'. At that time, John and I were younger and Adrian was on a hero status. It was incredible to get him to do that mix. A lot of time has elapsed since then and I guess we've just been stumbling around.

JM: It's one of those things. You've got some stuff. Somebody goes, oh what about this. And you go, why the fuck didn't I think of that.

MB: With Adrian, it's been fascinating talking to him and hearing about his musical trip, and to keep going that long in the music business, it isn't easy, no matter who you are. It just so happened that things coalesced at this point in time.

As fans, how does it feel to collaborate with Sherwood?

MB: A stupid bastard is someone who doesn't care to know who their parents are genetically or culturally. I think we enjoy knowing what the roots are and learning about our parentage.

JM: We were told, when we signed to a label way back in 1988, about how to handle press interviews. They told us the golden rules. One of those was you should always bring the conversation back to yourself and not mention other artists. At the time, it struck me as not us. I still take great pleasure in watching actors and musicians being interviewed and pull back a question that's got nothing to do with their thing.

MB: It's cooler to be part of a posse or tribe. We're nothing without the other people that have gone before. Its like, sometimes you're hacking through the jungle with your machete and its sweaty and you get all cut up. But then you stop for 30 seconds and someone in a four-by-four drives past you. It feels like that sometimes. The least one can do is acknowledge the sources and the inspiration that's gone before. No one invents anything anyway.

How was it working with Lee 'Scratch' Perry?

JM: We got asked to work with him at his Meltdown. As part of that, Matt went over to interview him in a hotel.

MB: We had an idea that we'd do an audio visual mash-up featuring Scratch. I was messing around with these audio-visual effects. You can have visual dub synchronised to audio dub, so when you do an effect, it trips out the visual and sound.

I thought it would be great to incorporate Scratch, one of the main dub originators, into that idea. So we took a camera, a green screen, set it up and interviewed him, which I'm not very used to doing. Actually, we got on the wavelength very quickly. Like with Sherwood, and other nodes in the matrix, even before you meet people, you know them through the music.

We had all these samples and I tried to make a track out of them for a couple of years. I just couldn't get it right. In the end, I put it to bed and Jon pulled them up.

There's a lot of mentions of roots here. What lessons have you taken from this album?

JM: Make records quicker next time.

MB: I'd like to expand on the concept of dub. I still think it's underused. We were really encouraging Sherwood to freak out on the mixing desk. To see how he does that was excellent. Working on the computer is great. But it's one style of working. Working with an analogue desk, where you've got all the sources and a bunch of effects, is more like playing an instrument. There is a joy in doing that.

I think there should be a neo-dub style that takes advantage of all the new gear. It's not just about getting that exact same echo chamber that King Tubby's used. It's about using new school, granular effects. I think we should all try harder to freak out more on the sound. That's one thing I learnt from it.

One last thing, I was watching some stuff about the Guilty Party. How is your political activity at the moment?

JM: It's still very strong, still important, and still difficult. Trying to come across with a point but not hectoring, lecturing. Unfortunately, at the moment, the twatometer is on severe. I don't know how you can combat that. 

 MB: That album is called Outside the Echo Chamber. And, that was John's phrase. Filter bubbles and echo chambers are on the radar at the moment. This whole social media universe which we're inhabiting now has got it's own rules, which we're only just discovering. We're just building and complexifying it, as with a lot of other technology, we don't really know what the fuck we're doing. We don't really know how it works. Like the bankers in the city of London don't know how the financial system and all these algorithms interact. 

You get these unexpected reactions erupting out of echo chambers. They're a big part of that. The idea that, in fact, they have been influences on recent political outcomes, like Brexit and the election of Trump, which are two interesting and completely different, but actually, under the hood, quite related phenomenons, where it seems the Nazis have gained control.

The use of social media and it's manipulation by companies like Cambridge Analytica for Brexit and the Trump campaign. People have no idea what's going on. They need to fucking smart up and learn what is happening. Otherwise, we're just drifting into a situation where an elite manipulate the rest of us, without us even realising what's happening. Which is pretty scary.