‘Round About Midnight: A Conversation With Adrian Sherwood

Around midnight I began to blast Horace Andy’s new album, Midnight Scorchers. My neighbor, Keith Vignola, in turn began to blast his other new album, Midnight Rocker. He grilled barbecue chicken and his dog howled. I turned up the bass and he turned up the bass and pretty soon the police showed up and arrested us all. I asked the officers, “what for? Disturbing the peace?” “No,” they replied. “Those tunes were pretty great. You’re just a jackass.” Indeed.

I think if we would have put on any other artist, the police would have used their clubs. When I spoke with the record label and producer, legendary Adrian Sherwood, I was just getting released from jail. I noticed my body still shook from the deep, rhythmic, solar music that played the night before. Both albums, released 6 months apart, are complete. Midnight Rocker is the pitch, and Midnight Scorchers smacks it out of the park. Maybe a better way to put this is, Midnight Rocker is the spliff, and Midnight Scorchers is Jah. When I first played them, it took me twenty minutes to realize I was lying in front of my speakers. Something truly remarkable was happening, and it was then I decided to reach out to Adrian, and find out what that was. As producer of both albums, he helped to create something that my neighbor, Keith, describes as holy and whole. I walked past Keith’s cell window when our Zoom started. The sun was covered with clouds. | n matsas

Adrian sits on a couch at his home in England. There is a fish tank behind him.

Aquarium Drunkard: Um, do you, do you still, uh…(I pretend to smoke a spliff with my hands).

Adrian Sherwood: No. No, I haven’t smoked weed since… I stopped smoking everything… it’d be 30 years. I haven’t smoked anything.

AD: All right. Can I see your fish tank?

Adrian Sherwood: Yeah. They’re getting, they’re getting a bit, uh… These are the big one’s over there.

AD: What have you got in there?

Adrian Sherwood: Well, I never had fish in my life. But, I’ve got several now. Big catfish and clown loach. When I bought this house, I bought this fish tank. So I’ve just built it up over the years now and, uh, I’m stuck with them all.

AD: The tank lights come on at 5:00?

Adrian Sherwood: I think they came on at some weird time. They came on about a quarter past, but they go off about midnight. Yeah, but the grandkids like it as well. And I like it. It’s quite relaxing. You happy? (laughs) You got, you got..

AD: I’m happy. I just needed to see the fish.

Adrian Sherwood: How are you finding LA?

AD: I like it. I’m originally from Chicago, which is funny now that I think about it. I know you hung around with John Lydon and PiL at Gunther Grove, and one day I was listening to Flowers of Romance and I looked up and saw Martin Atkins. He lives in Chicago.

Adrian Sherwood: Really? I went there once to produce a record for Ministry. Twitch.

AD: That’s a great record.

Adrian Sherwood: I got a copy upstairs. That was 80-84. We started above Wax Trax in Chicago.

AD: Sorry if my hand (the video) is a bit shaky. The bass off the new Horace Andy records is still vibrating within me.

Adrian Sherwood: HA! That’s George Oban. Aswad.

AD: I love that Aswad Peel session where they play Back to Africa. That bass.

Adrian Sherwood: George was one of my greatest friends. He died this year. Been in ill health. But he plays bass on nearly all my tunes, all my reggae tunes. The last thing George Oban played on were these new Horace Andy records. Midnight Scorchers and Midnight Rocker. Just amazing. Absolutely amazing records. So that—that’s all George. And rest in peace. George started the band Aswad, left early on ’cause it, um, you know, they had different—different places they wanted to go.

But George was just a mighty bass player. That was, he was my favorite. He and Doug Wimbish, yeah. So that’s why this album, the Horace album is so important. You’ve got, you know, it’s the last recordings of—of Doug, of George Oban, and Style Scott’s on it as well. Well, we’ve used a lot of his beats and incorporated that. And you’ve got the great Doug Wimbish. So it’s a very special record…Horace Andy is absolutely great on it as well (laughs).

AD: What do you think when you listen to both of those albums?

Adrian Sherwood: Well, I’m just very, very proud of it. We didn’t rush it. We spent two years making it. We started it before lockdown. And we kept improving it, and then so I was sending Horace back and forth to Jamaica. Let’s do this better. Let’s do this again. And then we put on F-Daddy Freddy and Lone Ranger for the Midnight Scorchers record. The three tracks are on Midnight Scorchers. The arm on the other, if you listen to them, they don’t really fit with Midnight Rocker.

Midnight Rocker‘s kind of more roots-y. It’s like a complete piece of work. And I’m really glad we did it as two albums, ’cause they sound like two different pieces of work. I don’t know what you think, but…

AD: They do! But they compliment each other…

Adrian Sherwood: He deserves a Grammy. I mean, you tell me what reggae record in the last number of years is as good as that?

AD: Only Midnight Rocker and Midnight Scorchers.

Adrian Sherwood: They’re just really, really great. So when I look back on it, I’m very proud. Did the album Rainford and Heavy Rain with Lee “Scratch” Perry. And I’m so glad I did them with him. I don’t know if you’re familiar with those two albums.

AD: I am not.

Adrian Sherwood: The last of Lee Perry. And they did very well. They’re beautiful pieces of work, and I modeled these Horace records on the idea there was Rainford, the main album, and Heavy Rain, the dub album, which if you haven’t heard, I recommend Heavy Rain.

I knew with Horace, we’d do two records. And if you hold the sleeves up, they’re looking at each other. Have you got the vinyl of them?

AD: No, no. I was just sent a link.

Adrian Sherwood: Okay. ‘Cause the vinyl looks, it looks so beautiful. The two covers look at each other. Tell the record company to send them to you.

AD: I hope I get a copy of each. I’ll shake them down. I’ll be like, “Hey, Adrian said for you guys to send me some vinyl.”

Adrian Sherwood: Yeah. “Adrian said I should get it for the pictures to put in.”

AD: How was working with Lee Perry.

Adrian Sherwood: I am blessed to have been able to call Lee a close friend. We did Heavy Rain and it’s some of my best work. We made some good records together. He was brilliant. I’m so glad we made those records. Heavy Rain led the way to doing these two with Horace, and I’m just… Looking back on it, I couldn’t be happier, ’cause it—it’s… There’s no weak part of either of them. They’re perfect. In my humble opinion.

AD: Working with Lee, did anything funny ever happen?

Adrian Sherwood: A lot of funny things happened (laughs). A lot of funny stories. He was always trying to create magic, and people thought he was faking things, which he was not.  I’ve got a mate who played keyboard on a record with him who lives in LA actually, David Harrow. And we were working in a studio called Matrix doing an album called Secret Laboratory. And you’ve got a studio like here. Then there’s a communal area where all the musicians from different studios were. And there was another studio over there. And he goes, “Ad, Ad, quick, look, look.” And I said, “What is it?” And Lee was two studios away. No one was watching. We couldn’t see that anyone was watching him. And he had his hand on a low light bulb in a low studio ceiling and his other hand, he had in one of these things that sent electric shock through your arm. He was electrocuting/shocking himself and holding a burning lightbulb.

AD: (laughs)

Adrian Sherwood: He was probably getting energy (laughs). He was… That’s just one little story. Lee just believed going into the studio…He would spend the first 15 minutes sticking things around the room, lighting candles, blowing smoke into the mixing desk. Just to make everything to make a spell, to make some magic happen. ‘Cause he thought, what—what are you doing if you’re not…Yeah, that’s how he thought…You had to do that. Make magic.

AD: Do you do anything like that?

Adrian Sherwood: Well, I’ve got rooms inspired by him. There’s things, all our personal stuff, it’s like all over the walls. Every wall is covered. And it—it’s like a little, uh, like a—a very comfy vibe in there. People come in there and hopefully they love the energy in there, ’cause it’s—it’s great. That’s inspired by Lee.

AD: When was the first time you heard Horace Andy?

Adrian Sherwood: Probably when I was about, um, 14. Something like that. Early ’70s.

AD: Did you ever think you’d work with him?

Adrian Sherwood: Well, we nearly worked together in the ’80s. When he first got with Massive Attack. He said, “Well, would you like to do a reggae record with me?” And it just didn’t happen at the time. We’ve got a lot of mutual friends. His ex-wife went to school with me. And other friends, other musician friends who were all, like, you know, in our circle. We’ve got friends we’ve had for a long time. So we were meant to work together, but he and I both said, “It’s really good that we did it now, ’cause the time is now. The time is right now.” And it’s good. We could’ve worked together seriously though,maybe 30 years ago, 35 years plus years ago.

AD: Everything happens for a reason.

Adrian Sherwood: You know, I wasn’t in the right space to do it then. I think now, it was really the right time. And to be honest with you, it was a total blessing, lockdown, for a lot of things. I did a lot of great work, which is coming out. These Horace records being the first part of it, that is just so good. It let us breathe. We were kind of slowed down instead of all the zip, zip, zipping everywhere.

AD: Have you ever done something, in the studio, you felt was wrong?

Adrian Sherwood: No.

AD: And then were surprised by it?

Adrian Sherwood: I’ve done things that were out of my comfort zone. And then I got to really appreciate them. I was introduced to elements of jazz or folk music which I hadn’t done before and I was like, okay, I need to give it some time. And then later I got to absolutely love…I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong, no. I’ve never done anything that I really didn’t like. I was always working with people that I liked and I was learning. And I’ve gone into the studio where my perception of how things should be done was changed. Working with Mark E. Smith and The Fall. Where I’m used to using loads of effects, and with that band, they didn’t want any reverb, any delay, or anything. Just had to use acute equalization to get, like, a really healthy tension. So relearning that a bit is a very good thing. And I’ve applied that, when you have something very, very dry… get control and then have it suddenly explode with the use of reverbs and delays, and then draw it back to the very dry, like, almost bare bone type tension.

AD: I love the John Peel quote about The Fall. “Always different…Always the same.”

Adrian Sherwood: Steve Hanely and the other guys, some of them were like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, we love dub. Dub it up, dub it up.” And then Brix, in fairness to her, was like, “No, no, no, I don’t like that.” So I had to satisfy everybody, and then that pushed me there. And then with Mark Smith, I learned again. I learned quite a lot from working things where I thought, can’t we go this way? And I was pulled the other way, and then I was proved wrong. And then, and I learned from that, going into elements of other things. It’s good trying to get out of your safety zone, ’cause it’s very easy for me to stay in my safety zone and keep doing good things, but also been good for me getting out of it.

AD: How would you define Dub?

Adrian Sherwood: A stripped down, a deconstructed interpretation of the rhythm. You’re not playing as a full rhythm. You know, we take the drums out and just have one section playing, and then you wait and then bang, back with the rhythm section, the drums and bass, then take out the chops and things. That processing you can apply to anything, and from its start in the dance halls and studios of Jamaica, its influence is so great that you look on every computer, everything now, everyone uses the word dub this, dub that. And they’re using effects, reverbs, phases, flanges, distortions, you know? EQ sweeps that are present on every computer now. And the application of those things, you know, they’re using as a technique now on the most, on the biggest pop tunes and that wasn’t the case when—when it started coming out of Jamaica. It was like, what is this noise, you know? (laughs)

Now it’s spreading. From hip hop to, you know, pop tunes. Everyone’s using the influence of the dub techniques. I hope that answered the question.

AD: Didn’t a lot of it have to do with not being able to play it live with a band?

Adrian Sherwood: No. A lot of the bands learned to play it live and a lot of our bands and lots of others. You know, Aswad, I don’t know why I didn’t mention this earlier, but the drummer from Aswad died today. It’s very sad news. Someone just phoned me and just told me. Which is very sad.

Drummie. Drummie Zeb. But he—he would do… Drummie would do incredible things. They’d just be, they’d look at each other and then they’d just drop down to hi hat and chops, and then they would play dub. But dub originally was a part of what you call a “version,” because the great rhythms, the crowd demanded more and more versions. And a stripped down dub, they started putting on the B side of seven inches around 1970. They would have a version written on the B side. And initially it was just an instrumental. So on the A side you have the song.

AD: Are there any youngsters exciting you these days?

Adrian Sherwood: To be honest…No. I’m crying out, I wanna hear something that makes me jealous, that makes me think, wow, that’s brilliant. I wish I’d done that or been involved in that. And I want more things like that to happen. Damian Marley is making some good music.

AD: Do you remember the first song you heard?

Adrian Sherwood: “Walking to New Orleans” by Fats Domino.

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