Remixing Adrian Sherwood:
Breaking It Down and Going Solo
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2007, Volume 14, #7
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
"The problem with reggae is that it’s entered an era of nostalgia, and the thing about nostalgia is that it can change the music and cause it to get very precious," said Adrian Sherwood. Precious, however, is not a word that leaps to mind when one is thinking about Sherwood’s aggressive no-holds-barred journeys into the dark heart of dub music. Light years away from tropical, Montego Bay sunsets, Sherwood’s music perches somewhere between the psychedelia of Lee "Scratch" Perry at his wildest and the metallic screech of a jungle-ist rave as heard from space. When listening to Sherwood as he frets about staying relevant and not falling prey to sentimentality or wistfulness, it is apparent that it is this restless attitude that has kept his music on the cutting-edge for more than 25 years.
Whether producing and re-mixing world-class artists like Nine Inch Nails and Primal Scream or working on experimental dub music with African Headcharge and Dub Syndicate, Sherwood’s musical treatments have been consistently challenging, aggressive, and years ahead of their time. Born and raised in England, Sherwood began his career in music as a distributor of hard-to-find Jamaican albums, which he sold out of his car. He quickly evolved into making his own material, and he began producing dub tracks for artists like the pioneering DJ Prince Far I and Dub Syndicate.
The political and cultural climates in England in the late ’70s and early ’80s were literally on fire. Caught up in the heady atmosphere, Sherwood began his influential On U record label, where he helped to fuel the musical renaissance of the day. Cross-cultural collaborations between British punks and Jamaican musicians who had immigrated to the UK were becoming more and more common, and Sherwood’s productions often led the way into new areas of sonic exploration. Sherwood firmly believes that good music defies categorization, and he also maintains that it has the ability to speak for itself. He often has blurred the divisions between rock, funk, rap, disco, techno, and reggae in order to obtain his desired effect for a track. "I’ve never looked for anything prissy or pretty in a melody," he explained on the phone from the London subway. "I’ve always been drawn to the darker stuff. Our music is less tropical and more industrial, which comes from the British kind of punk attitude that was around while my style was gelling."
Indeed, Sherwood’s art sometimes assumes an angry, sculptural quality as grating industrial sounds wind their way through the skeleton of a composition. At other times, the melodies are childlike, ethereal, and thoroughly captivating, while still hovering around an aggressive, fat, and booming bottom end. Then, to demonstrate that he’s not in danger of veering too far off into intellectual territory, Sherwood will nail a rhythm and unleash a roots-y dance number for which King Tubby or Sly and Robbie would kill.
Sherwood’s musical palette explores a full gamut of emotions, and his pioneering work has proven that the dub form is open-ended, that it is only limited by the artist’s imagination. "Dub is the domain of engineers where the structure of a song is stripped down to the drums and the bass, and you build it up again by emphasizing certain things or effects, such as echo and phasing. You are painting a sonic picture. It’s up to you how far you want to take it," he stated.
Sherwood’s ambition and reach are clearly huge. At its best, his work is truly breathtaking, and his recordings rank among the most adventurous concoctions that ever have been captured on tape. At least a decade ahead of those by artists like Moby, Sherwood’s collaborations with groups as diverse as the New Age Steppas, Cabaret Voltaire, and Gary Clail pushed traditional musical sounds into ambient and technological territory that only recently have begun to be understood and appreciated.
Perhaps the most exciting of Sherwood’s many collaborations has been the series of albums he created with eccentric genius Lee "Scratch" Perry. During the 1980s, the two mavericks released some of the most densely innovative sampled dance music ever recorded. Two of their creations —From the Secret Laboratory and Time Boom — were many years ahead of themselves. They still sound utterly contemporary. Sherwood and Perry had a well-publicized falling out over a decade ago, but they recently reunited to produce their first album together in quite some time. In Sherwood’s words, "We had a really good conversation and put our past differences behind us. It’s in the nature of things between creative people. It’s history now, really. Funnily enough, I’m flying to Denmark to meet Lee and do a show for 10,000 people. He and I have made a new album. It’s the best album he’s made since the Black Ark days. We’re very proud of that, and we’ve been taking our time with it. I was doing the sound, and he was singing over top, making up lyrics on the spot."
Perry and Sherwood initially got together and did some live work in Japan to see if their creative juices could be rekindled and to determine if they still could make meaningful music together. "In Japan, we did a very different kind of thing. We did some multi-tracking, and he did the mixing himself. I’ll be bringing some of the tracks with me to Vancouver, where I’ll be premiering some of the rhythms we devised."
It is, perhaps, curious that — having spent more than 20 years producing literally hundreds of songs for other artists — Sherwood waited until 2003 to release a record under his own name. Although his first solo album Never Trust a Hippy and its newly released follow-up Becoming a Cliché rely heavily on dub effects, and although his collaborators include the usual gang of suspects — Perry, Sly and Robbie, and Bim Sherman, among others — the music is clearly a reflection of the directions he now is interested in pursuing.
"Historically, I’ve been working in the same area, which is dub music, Sherwood explained. "So, I wanted to move away from that a little and try a different kind of trip. I wanted to do some of my own writing and make something that was challenging for me. In the case of producing, the singer or player is the artist, and it’s my job to advance their songs and bring their vision to reality. As a producer, it’s my job to satisfy the artist foremost. I wanted to make something that was a little more aggressive and modern. I wanted to paint a picture that was contemporary, one that specifically showed where my brain was at. I’ve got to the point in my life where it’s time for me to call all of the shots."
To support his solo albums, Sherwood will play two live dates this summer — one at the infamous Roskilde Festival in Denmark with Perry and a pair of shows in Vancouver to coincide with the city’s annual folk festival. Though no longer a prolific live performer, he clearly loves to connect with an audience. "I’ll be playing a live dub set in Vancouver," he stated. "It’s just going to be me, though I sometimes tour with a percussionist and a violinist. Recently, I’ve been going around the world on my own. I try and play a mix of cutting-edge industrial dub as well as more roots-oriented music. This time, I’m hoping to blow some people away with the rhythms from Lee Perry’s new album, the one we recorded together."
Though hardly a household name in popular music’s mainstream, Sherwood, who now is a family man with children, is clearly happy with his life and his work. "I mean, making dub music is a passion," he said. "I have put so much effort into it, and it’s never going to make you rich. Every pop artist I’ve worked with has made me much more money than my more experimental work, but that’s the way life goes. I’ve got a house, lots of good friends. I’m very thankful."
When he was asked about the legacy he has created with his body of work, Sherwood confidently replied, "I think if you look at the ratio — and I’m very proud of the work I’ve done — I think the proof’s in the pudding. If you look back on it, I think that at least 75% of the albums I’ve worked on still sound modern and viable. I get a lot of satisfaction, and I think that they stand up."
As Sherwood makes this statement, the phone line cuts in and out as the London subway train enters a tunnel. His parting words resonate before his voice is swallowed and dies off: "Heavy bass, and a good sound system that can shake the hall — what more is there? Life is good. Cheers!"
Becoming a Cliché is available from
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Copyright © 2007 The Music Box