Trevor Jackson: “I can’t make anything new until the past is out of my life”

The DJ, producer and designer is digging up his archive in an attempt to clear his head

In seems bizarre now that, the last time Trevor Jackson released an album of original music, the industry was in rude enough health to pay for him to record it in a £10,000-a-day studio. Released in 2001, the one and only Playgroup album tacked against the prevailing waves of prog house and IDM. It was a record rooted instead in early house and disco, to the extent that Jackson even made the Moroder-like move of putting his face on the cover.

A decade-and-a-half on, electronic music is made on laptops in bedrooms and then given away to drive DJ bookings. And Trevor Jackson still hasn’t made anything new. He has put out two Metal Dance LPS; compilations of other people's industrial and electronic body music. Last year he released, Format; 12 tracks from his archive, each on a different medium. There was the usual 12-inch, the less usual cassette tape, the wilfully unusual MiniDisc. It was old, albeit unheard music, on old and, since most homes don't have DAT players, mostly unheard formats.

This year, he raided his hard drive again, for 30-odd tracks that never made the Playgroup album. Jackson has long since lost the stems so they remain almost exactly as they were recorded at the turn of the millennium, the thoughts of a younger Trevor Jackson preserved in amber. Either he was forward-thinking or electronic music is less so than it thinks, because each track still sounds like it was made last week. We sat down with Jackson in his Shoreditch studio to discuss his clairvoyance and whether we might, one day, hear something new.

The last couple of projects you’ve done – the Format release and this – they’re collections of archive tracks. Is there a reason you’re working through things that have been sitting on your hard drive?
I had hundreds of track that for various reasons I didn’t release. I want to make new music but emotionally and psychologically and creatively, I can’t make anything new until the past is out of my life. I consciously want to be making brand new music. I want my thought process to be different and to do such a radical change in the way I go about creating, I don’t want to have fragments of the past still in my head and ears and studio. I’ve got probably another two albums of stuff to release before I can start making new stuff.

Can you not just select all, delete?
Part of the reason I put Format out the way I did, I made it impossible for people to hear all at once because I was a bit embarrassed about it. I wasn’t sure how the music would be received. Through getting criticism or support on stuff, it made me realise that this music’s not just for me, other people enjoy it. So if I’ve got other stuff out there that ‘s quite good, maybe people should hear it.

I went back through this stuff and thought, ‘Oh, this is good, that’s good’. But in terms of finishing the music off, I worked with a friend of mine, Sasha from In Flagranti. On nearly half the tracks that came out on the EPs, they were worked on with him. To him they were new. I trust not many people’s opinion and I trust him implicitly. He was like, ‘This one’s no good, this one’s good’. I let him do his thing with it. So that kind of helped the process as well.

It doesn’t sound like it’s been sitting on hard drives since 1998. It has a modern edge. How much have you done on them?
I didn’t have the original stems for most of these tracks. They were just stereo files. All these tracks were written in that period of time, but some I had tweaked in the past few years a little bit. I couldn't go into the tracks and actually change anything. So in terms of the sounds of them, that’s the sound they were. The equipment I used back then was just an S950 sampler and an old Akai desk. So it was all mono samples and a really old analogue desk and the desk had a Betamax-style cassette I could record onto. The sound of it is mainly through the equipment I could use.

We didn’t modernise them. We just edited them, sped up or slowed down a little bit. Every now and again we might add a hi-hat or something. But most of the tracks are at least 90% of what they were originally. It’s just little flourishes. And numerous tracks were exactly as they were when I finished them. Some of the tracks were tracks that were originally meant to go on the Playgroup album but they just didn’t fit on. It wa a single CD and there wasn’t any iTunes or digital or YouTube then so I couldn’t include the extra tracks. It wasn’t until I started digging, I realised I had tracks I’d totally forgotten about.

There’s a lot of music now that relies on sounds from the late-80s and -90s. When you look at the idea of making new music, or the new music you listen to, do you recognise that?
You have generations of people that constantly rediscover stuff. My particular fascination has always been whatever you want to call ‘proto-house’. That period of time, between listening to Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and Human League, turning into house music, in various ways was fascinating. Purely from a point of view that I was a teenager going to a hip-hop club one night, new romantic another night, a rock club another night.

I’ve always been turned on to the idea of white people playing jazz or black guys playing rock. People creating something that isn’t ‘their’ music. I’ve always found that quite fascinating. That period of time to me was really exciting. Going to those clubs around that period, when clubs were very different, things were far more raw, noisy, sweaty, smoky, dangerous.

That essence has never left my creative process. That raw edge, which undoubtedly is somewhat analogue and even in my design work, where a lot of the time I’ll feed stuff out digitally and put it back into a photocopier, a fax machine. I’m very interested in anything that I create to exist in the physical realm.

Even those Playgroup tracks, everything had gone through a machine. I had numerous different studios during that period, some of those tracks might have actually picked up artefacts, physical artefacts from where the journey of the sound went. That degeneration of things fascinates me. I used to record on cassette all the time. I used to love listening to things on the radio, radio compression, I always tried to make my things sound like they sound like on the radio.

So music that grows and develops, isn’t slavish.
I try not to romanticise about the past because I think nostalgia is very dangerous. Tthese tracks, that time when I was making the Playgroup album, I did have a specific concept in mind. I was making an album which was inspired by the roots of electronic dance music. I was listening to Baldelli Cosmic tapes and Ron Hardy stuff in the late-90s early 00s. At the time, no one gave a shit about those people. Dance music was really fucking boring. I wanted to do something more exciting.

What is it about black guys making white music and vice-versa that’s interesting?
It’s people being out of their comfort zone. I want to point out that music doesn’t belong to anyone, I’m talking in really simplistic terms. But for me, I suppose in a weird way i’m a purist but at the same time I’m into things that are slightly off-kilter. The demo always sounds better than the finished record. That’s because it’s far more naive. It’s more raw.

Things that sound a little bit odd, I’ve always been attracted to. I’ve got 40, 50,000 records and yet you speak to me about Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon I’ve never listened to it. People take the piss out of me, I’ve never listened to Screamadelica. I just didn’t bother because I was too busy digging. Trying to listen to some strange Czechoslovakian jazz-rock record. For me, that’s where I come from. I love elements of the mainstream but that interests me more – oddities and strange things.

Are you turned off by the fact that it’s mainstream?
No, I was turned off by the fact it was popular. When I was growing up, I didn't want to be listening to the same things as everyone else. The Playgroup album in my own way was trying to be subversive. Because you had either progressive house which was boring or you had the Aphexes and the Squarepushers making ultra complex, very extreme music. And i just thought my subversive way was trying to make a weird pop record. No one was putting their face on the cover so I put my face on the cover like Giorgio Moroder.

The cover imagery is world’s apart between that and this. What’s the thinking behind the new design?
This album isn’t the new Playgroup album. It’s prerelease and unreleased tracks, it’s a compilation. So I didn’t want to do a real ultra colourful album. It wouldn’t have worked. To me, that didn’t suit this music. And the image is by this guy, Bill Bernstein, who was a New York nightlife photographer. At the time, people didn’t have mobile phones, so in clubs there aren’t many images from Studio 54.

He went around with his camera from loads of different nightclubs in New York in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s and so I found an image of his that I really liked. I mean it’s a guy with his hand on a girl’s arse. But for me, as an image, it personifies and is really representative of a time and an age of an essence. Women taking the pill for the first time, the sexual freedom, that created a totally different atmosphere. You’re talking about clubs where people having sex in toilets, doing drugs openly, it was a completely different period of time. I’m not a big fan of pornography at all, I like sensuality. I think that image has a sense of sensuality to it, which is devoid now, when we’re in such a hypersexualised society.

I think it suits my music. My frame of mind was if you were to walk into one of those clubs, you walk into the music. You walk into the Music Box, you walk into the Paradise Garage, you walk into the Fun House and you wanted to make tracks you’d hear. At the the same time, I’m not so naive to think I can put a picture of a woman’s arse with a hand on it, so I broke it up into a jigsaw. The EPs came out in a different order, so people weren’t sure of what the image was and when people bought the EPs, they made the image.

I did a Beady Eye cover with a Harri Peccinotti on the cover of it and I got loads of shit from so many people talking about the nipple on the cover. And it’s an innocent photo, a beautiful photo of his wife on the beach. I went to the meeting, walking past posters of Liam Neeson holding guns, and I was like, ‘Hold on, you’re telling me it’s OK to have images of violence everywhere?’ Which is really, genuinely harmful.

You walk down the street and there are busses with people holding guns at you. To me that’s highly irresponsible, but an image of a woman's nipple, what the fuck is that going to do to people? I try to use these images responsibly and it does have a genuine meaning to them. I find it really sad that young people’s first introduction to sexuality is through porn, whereas for me it was actually doing it.

Music and design have both been digitised. Do you think young practitioners have missed something in never having to work with physical things?
What worries me is that there’s a generation of people that don’t want to pay for anything. You see people chatting on Facebook and someone says, ‘Does anyone have a copy of so and so?’ Mate you’re a musician, what the fuck are you doing? You want to download a movie that you can go to see in the cinema, yet you’re going to moan because you’re not making enough money, because you’re selling music? I don’t bootleg stuff. If you can buy it, I’ll buy it.

I saw it with design, when it first started happening with fonts. That was the first thing, people didn’t pay for fonts. I used to have a studio in Clerkenwell Road, I used to go to a type setter that paid for someone to lay all my fonts out, pre-digital. It cost a fortune. The number of people that don’t pay designers for their fonts and it just started with that. It’s ingrained now, a culture of thinking that you don’t have to pay for something.

Do you think it has an impact on creativity?
I’m all for making it easier for people to create and design. For me, I come from a hip-hop point of view, where you go digging for breaks. I used to spend ages trying to hunt for something, literally, going into basements, digging for things that nobody knew about. That process makes you want to work even harder to find something.

Now, that fact you can discover everything in seconds, I don’t know whether it would make someone less passionate about something. You’re bombarded with things. I don’t know if it makes people better or worse, creatively. Maybe I’m just jealous. If I was a teenager now, I think the music would still excite me, but I don’t know how much impact it will have. There was a time when you’d make an album or single, it could have an impact for months. Now, it’s around for a week then something else great comes up. Everyone’s fighting for attention.

You’ve said before that you don’t like putting tracklists on mixes, as there’s a sense of ownership of things you’ve found. Pouring that much of your time into finding this stuff. How does that sit with the radio show?
The radio show is new music. The fundamental thought process behind the radio show is like having a record label. I use the label as a platform to present new music to people. Without the other shit you have to deal with – investors, money. Every now and again, I’ll keep something unknown. When it’s old music, there’s just some things I just don’t tell people about. I just used to find it fun. If I hear something now and go, ‘What the fuck is that?’, I find that enjoyable. I don’t need to know immediately.

You’ve also said that if you could go back and change anything about the label, you wouldn’t have started it at all. Is that still true?
For this release, I kind of started a record label, but nothing else is coming out on it. I’m not signing any artists. Running a label now doesn’t interest me at all. Most labels are run by people who aren’t creative enough themselves. I devoted more than 10 years of my life to other people more than myself. It’s time to be selfish now.

How does that work with the stuff you’re doing now?
I’ve been in the game for 30 years and I know how things should be done. It’s even harder now because there’s so many records coming out. The best thing is doing it yourself. Bandcamp is brilliant. For the first time in a long time, you sell it for a tenner and that tenner goes directly to you. It’s not about the money, it’s about the principle. Having people say thank you takes away from a lot of the bullshit that goes with making and distributing music. I’m thinking of releasing my next album on Bandcamp only.

What excites you in a creative project?
A lot of the things I’ve done are related to sound and vision. I’ve done a few restaurant things, that are music related. If it’s music it’s going to be music I like. If someone came to me and said can you do One Direction, I would say, unless you’re paying me a lot of money, I probably wouldn’t do it. People don’t get the best out of me unless I do something I enjoy. I enjoy going out and looking for work and meeting people and hustling for work. But I’m lucky, I live in East London and it’s still pretty active.

How do you see London at the moment? Dark things are happening around nightlife, what’s your view?
Since Brexit, it’s the first time I’ve lived in London and felt uncomfortable, really. I think there’s so much doom and gloom in the world at the moment and I’m trying to surround myself with positive, happy things. Life is cyclical. We’ve gone through this Obama stage of things feeling quite positive and, for me, I think we just have to have enough faith in the fact that when things hit rock bottom, things feed off that and positivity feeds off that.

I think London is the most diverse harmonious place where people get on. It’s what I love about it and it’s what I’ve grown up around my entire life and it gets people comfortable. I like the diversity. I suppose it's the rest of the UK. London is a great city. We’ll see what happens. At least we don’t have Boris Johnson. This year has been a tough year for everyone. Bowie, Prince going, people like that. Brexit, Trump. It’s been a fucking crazy year.

You talk about being 18 again, and there would be anger and protest and stuff. But there doesn’t seem to be that kind of political music that there was in the ’70s and ’80s.
I don’t think you need the music. I was never into political music besides Public Enemy. Sadly, there’s not enough political music. The fact of the matter is, even if you don’t have much money, you have internet, you can watch TV. Unless it’s really extreme, people have been dumbed into a sense of security.

We’re so terrified about terrorist attacks, it makes you feel like are the governments looking after us, when they’re not. It’s difficult. Complicated times. But I go to these NTS events and parties, that’s how it used to be when I went out. They have a very positive effect of youth culture. Youth culture now is very very fractured. It’s such a weird culture. I think we’re going through a transition phase and I think there’s some interesting things happening at the moment in music, art and fashion and they’re all trying to find their way. But it won’t be like back in the way when you had goths, skinheads. You’ll have a thousand different things.

Lots of scenes of one person doing something that's different.
Musically, what’s happened is you used to have finances. Now people don’t have money. Now they’ll say, ‘Fuck it, I’ll do what I want’. You had so many people compromising to make money. Now there’s no money, you have people making whatever they want. People put up crazy shit. It doesn’t cost money to put something onto Soundcloud.