Low Sparks

Spring Heel Jack's DJs, John Coxon and Ashley Wales, walk the digital walk.

The electricity failed British duo Spring Heel Jack late last October. The setting was a massive rave in a barren Home Base outlet in Oakland, California. Barren, that is, aside from the several thousand teenagers and assorted non-minors who had come to absorb high-decibel house, jungle, techno and drum’n’bass played at volumes that contracted throats and compressed chest cavities. Dispersed throughout four warehouses, in which drill bits and sheet rock once sold at a bulk rate, DJs plied their information-age craft. Home Base had become Home Bass.

Lacking a suitable transformer, Spring Heel Jack’s John Coxon and Ashley Wales were unable to wire enough equipment to perform live their cinematic brand of drum’n’bass, the highly conceptual arrangement of sampled sonic data, computer-honed bass lines and abstract breakbeats. They resorted to DJ’ing, to spinning other people’s records. “Frustrating,” reports Coxon, “since we had carried all of our gear over the Atlantic.”

Frustrating, yet fitting. Whereas back home the band’s eliptically titled album, 68 Million Shades ….., has been a hit since August 1996, Spring Heel Jack is best known in America not for its own music but for its production work on “Walking Wounded,” the single that metamorphosed Everything but the Girl from curious survivor of 1980s new wave to avatar of 1990s pop music. Despite which success, Coxon remains fairly suspicious of the adoption of these experimental techniques by established musicians. “Drum’n’bass is essentially instrumental,” he says, “and when it is combined with a vocal artist, the instrumental aspect becomes secondary and it becomes something different — a pop record I suppose.”

Spring Heel Jack may downplay “Walking Wounded,” but one would be mistaken to underestimate the role the ubiquitous song has had in preparing American audiences for unadulterated drum’n’bass. For listeners enchanted by its distinctive instrumental setting, its bristling rhythms and downbeat ambience, the breadth of 68 Million Shades is nothing short of a revelation; it’s as if one’s favorite riff had been granted a solo album.

Finally, some two thirds of a year after it was released in England, 68 Million Shades arrives in American stores this month courtesy of Quango Records, the boutique subsidiary of Island Records. Quango is executing a strong campaign for electronic music in the U.S., steadily licensing albums by such European DJs as Kruder & Dorfmeister and Alex Reece and issuing a relentless series of various-artists compilations.

Though many tracks off 68 Million Shades would segue nicely into a mixed intro-electronic compilation — especially “60 Minutes,” which wraps itself around a sax motif, and the Morricone-tinged “Midwest,” with its air of big-sky nostalgia — this is the rare electronic album that is best heard straight through. Whereas many DJs take the percussive play inherent in drum’n’bass and jungle as a mandate for sonic assault and nested loops of psychedlic intricacy, Spring Heel Jack delights in delicacy and light. 68 Million Shades is the jungle of Henri Rousseau, not Joseph Conrad.

“We are not trying to make clever associations of disparate things,” says Coxon. “It’s just that the broader your palette, the more flexibly you can apply the sampler to your ideas.” Nursing a penchant for lush strings and noirish horns, Coxon and Wales temper the experimental tendencies of today’s electronic pop with nothing short of romantic radiance.

The above profile was originally published, in slightly different form, in Pulse! magazine, February 1997. The below Q&A was conducted via fax; in most cases, Wales and Coxon replied separately to each question.

Marc Weidenbaum: Which of you (or are both?) are replying to this questionnaire? It would be great if you could reply separately, and I could compare the answers with each other. And why do you prefer this format to a phone conversation?

Ashley Wales: Both of us and we’re doing it separately. This is a better format as we only have one phone and it gets a bit awkward as to who is going to speak when and say what.

John Coxon: Both of us separately. We prefer this to a phone conversation because we have had bad experiences in the past with phone interviews being extremely inaccurate.

Weidenbaum: I saw you, Ashley, spin at the Funky Techno Tribe rave in Oakland, California, in late October [1996]. I was one of the many lurking perilously close to your turntables. Were you originally scheduled to DJ, or were you to perform Spring Heel Jack’s music live? Someone said that there wasn’t the proper electricity available for you to hook up your equipment.

Wales: We were originally meant to play live at the Funky Techno Tribe bash. But we left it too late in the day to hire a transformer for our equipment. So we DJd for an hour each, which was great fun and very enjoyable. Also, the Quango room had a great atmosphere and wasn’t too big for the P.A.

Coxon: We were scheduled to play live, but we left it too late to sort out a step-up transformer for our equipment — frustrating since we had carried all of our gear over the Atlantic, etc. We are sorry for any disappointment caused by this.

Weidenbaum: Many prominent electronic musicians are DJs as well — yourselves, Luke Vibert, Richard D. James, Howie B., etc. Increasingly, though, there are younger musicians who have no facility with the turntable, and no experience there. How do you think this bodes for the electronic music scene?

Wales: Most young people I know with an interest in making music are usually pretty shit hot as DJs as well. We both DJ because we enjoy it and it is an integral part of our music making. I also don’t think you have to be a DJ to make music and vice versa. It’s up to the individual as to what future steps they take.

Coxon: We really enjoy DJing and it’s an integral part of the kind of music we make, but as far as other individuals are concerned, it’s up to them. I suppose it would be true to say that playing live is much more important to us ultimately since it is how we represent our own music. You may have noticed when we DJ we never play our own tracks. The other thing about playing live is that you have complete control over the separate elements of each track; it’s much more creative in that sense than DJing.

Weidenbaum: “60 Seconds” is by far my favorite track on the album. I hear that first horn-like riff in my head all the time — well, short of it becoming an impediment to thought. So, is that a horn? It reminds me of the kind of quasi-international music of people like John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards. Your various horn and lush string sounds go a long way to establishing the Spring Heel Jack sound. What can you say is going on in your mind in relation to this marriage of relatively familiar and variously abstract sounds?

Wales: Yeah, on “60 Seconds” that’s a tenor sax (or horn as you put it!). It’s from a ’60s jazz album on [London], Phase 4. I personally don’t think of John Lurie or the Lounge Lizards as quasi-international. To me they are the quintessential New York avant garde ’40s/’50s jazz bohos, all sleazy saxes and slicked-back hair. Which is why you’ve mentioned them in the context of that track. For me it seems quite a natural choice to use horns and lush strings. They are sounds I know as well (if not more) than breakbeats and 808 bass lines. As for what is going on in my mind when we are constructing a track, it’s usually about the music — will this sound OK, what happens if we do that choice of instrumentation, structure etc?

Coxon: As we have said elsewhere, the collision of extremely diverse elements across space and time is a major part of using the sampler (our main instrument). We are not trying to make clever associations of disparate things; it’s just that the broader your palette, the more flexibly you can apply the sampler to your ideas.

Weidenbaum: In his recently published diary, Brian Eno works with Howie B. on a U2 recording and is blown away by how much Howie produces — he says that to rock musicians, albums are like novels whereas to electronic musicians they’re more like magazines.

Wales: I’ve never really though of rock albums as novels and electronic ones as magazines. It depends on what albums Mr. Eno is talking about. I like a lot of Brian Eno’s own music, but would not consider [his production work on] Unforgettable Fire by U2 as a novel and Brian Eno’s Music for Airports as a magazine.

Coxon: A lot of electronic music has a different function to today’s rock music, i.e. it’s made to dance to. Originally rock music (rock & roll) was the same, but it grew and mutated into a sort of monster with such momentum that to divert it with individual tracks or albums became very difficult. The turnover in electronic music, especially drum and bass, is extremely fast, and that is a good thing because it means that it progresses rapidly and flexibly. Rock music has long been a kind of museum culture which only rarely makes new statements. The magazine analogy suggests “use it and throw it away,” which I object to.

Weidenbaum: A lot of German and American electronic musicians have developed highly theoretical apparatuses to explain or inform their work. Are you also keen on cultural theory?

Wales: So has everybody else who makes music. I’m interested in culture, but have no particular theories aligned to our work. I also like to be able to change my mind. Sometimes you can be wrong about something or not [be] receptive to certain ideas. Sometimes things take time to filter down to you.

Coxon: I think that making music is an expression of freedom and that it is important to avoid all forms of coercion in this respect (fashion, record companies, business interests, etc. …). This includes coercion by your own cultural theories.

Weidenbaum: There’s always been a taste of dub, of reggae, in your work. What I appreciate most about your current work is that you seem to revel in insinuating dub rather than simply stating it. Instead of potting up the reverb, you lightly trace its outlines. I say all this, having heard your “Lee Perry” EP and the Versions remixes. Can you talk about the role of reggae in your listening habits, and its effect on your music?

Wales: I love good dub and reggae. I was quite a fan in the late ’70s. I listened to a lot of shows on pirate radio and David Rodigan and John Peel on national radio. I also bought a lot of 7″ and 12″ records from this period. Classics like the Chantells’ “Waiting in the Park” and “Truly” by Jayer and Rawking Trevor. I loved the combination of beautiful tunes and singing with the ruffer toasting of U Roy and I Roy. Also, the crazy dub experiments of King Tubby and Lee Perry. I don’t get the chance to listen to as much as I would like now, but I could say that about most musics. You’ve only got two ears and 24 hours in the day. Unfortunately. “

Coxon: We both listen to a fair amount of Jamaican music and obviously the great producers — King Tubby, Lee Perry, Coxsone Dodd, etc. are an influence (and also more recent producers such as Gussie Clark, Steelie and Cleevie, etc.). It should be said though that there is no point in trying to emulate a previous era or set of ideas — apart from that fact that it is impossible. The use of the mixing desk in popular music as opposed to a vessel for recording arguably originates in Jamaica.

Weidenbaum: It’s fairly conventional wisdom that British music, from the Rolling Stones through, well, through Spring Heel Jack, has absorbed and transformed the music of England’s Jamaican population: dub, and reggae. This is especially true of today’s electronic music. Americans and other non-English have a different relation to dub, more distanced. Do you hear something different in their electronic music, too?

Wales: The Rolling Stones and many other British groups form the ’60s and ’70s borrowed whole sale from U.S. r&b artists. The same as Jamaican artists. They just add their own flavor to it. And things evolve from there. I’ve grown with all sorts of music around me. So I’m always going to be influenced by one thing or another. Dub is very important to our music but no more of an influence than any other style of music. I don’t think it matters what country you come from to make electronic or any other kind of music. It does matter what you add to something though. I certainly prefer the dub experiments of a lot of modern electronica, be it from [the] U.S.A., Japan, Europe or India, to the Police’s use of dub as an influence.

Coxon: Originally, ska, rock steady and early reggae drew heavily on American r&b and subsequently developed its own momentum. Similarly, jungle and drum and bass was originally a kind of hybrid between Jamaican dance-hall reggae and British hardcore, and has now developed a completely separate momentum. The overwhelming influence/source in America popular music is African American, as opposed to specific Jamaican, whereas in England the majority of Black Britons have been of West Indian origin and this would explain the relative importance of West Indian music in British music since the ’50s.

Weidenbaum: Even before your production of Everything but the Girl’s “Walking Wounded,” Big Audio Dynamite had a jungle track (on the album F-Punk) and now David Bowie has a full-length drum’n’bass-pop album planned. Have you heard any of Bowie’s record? What do you think about the adoption of the drum’n’bass instrumental sound by established musicians?

Wales: Major Recording Artists will always come round to adapting new musics for their own ends. Look how rap, hip-hop and punk were integrated into the mainstream — need I say more!

Coxon: No — we haven’t heard the Bowie thing. Drum and bass is essentially instrumental, as you say, and when it is combined with a vocal artist, the instrumental aspect becomes secondary and it becomes something different — a pop record I suppose — this is true of “Walking Wounded” single also.

Weidenbaum: Has the overwhelmingly positive response to your work on “Walking Wounded” affected your workload, or your work habits?

Wales: We were offered a considerable amount of remix work after our collaboration with Everything but the Girl. But none of it was very suitable or appealing to us as remixes. It hasn’t really affected our workload or work habits.

Coxon: [No answer.]

Weidenbaum: I regularly ask electronic musicians if they work in their bedrooms? Do you, or have you? And what equipment do you use?

Wales: No, we don’t work in our bedroom. Our studio is in fact the size of an average bedroom though. I used to work in the back bedroom of my flat with a couple of friends and solo for years with very minimal equipment and great fun it was too if a little frustrating at times. A bedroom is a good place to have a studio; it would also be handy to have a toilet, bar and kitchen as well.

Coxon: We have our own studio in Shorwitch, East London, which is the size of a small bedroom.

Weidenbaum: Whereas pop fans have a fairly good grasp on the nature of producing music on drums, bass, guitar and vocals, the process of electronic music remains a mystery to many. Do you feel that this veil frees you in any way?

Wales: I think if you’re a fan or music you usually find out how it is made in the end. There is no mystery as to how we make our sounds and it’s certainly not a screen to hide behind.

Coxon: No, not at all. The sampler is simply a digital recording machine enabling you to manipulate in detail the sounds you record into it — there is no mystery to this.

Weidenbaum: Speaking of process, I would like to focus on one track and ask you to talk about how you developed it. I think your Tortoise remix is one of the best in the Thrill Jockey series. You seemed an excellent match, given your mutual interest in cinematic spaces, but I was taken by how well your own percussion and dub flavored their material. How did you choose the material you would rework, what did you set out to accomplish, and why did you call it “Galapagos”?

Wales: See John’s answer

Coxon: Galapagos means tortoises in Spanish. We decided to use the John Barry-esque theme in our remix and this required time-stretching it in bits in the sampler so that it could be played at the tempo we wanted the remix at. We did this first. Then we organized a breakbeat into its various parts and developed the rhythm along with an 808 bass through a distortion pedal (Electroharmonix by Muff). The original has a fantastic live percussion track, which we took various parts of and arranged them through the track. We then played our sequencers through the mixing deck to incorporate a performance into the final version (reverbs, delays, eq sweeps, etc.) There are several other elements (electric piano, slide guitar) which we sampled from their original.

Weidenbaum: Pardon my ignorance, but what is the origin of your group’s name? Why do you think electronic musicians are so fond of pseudonyms?

Wales: The origin of our name comes from a Victorian pennydreadful about a ghost which supposedly had a spring in his head allowing him to leap over buildings and surprise unsuspecting persons. There are many different stories and origins of this character in British folklore history. Our name is not a pseudonym, just a name me and John use to make music together. As for other electronic musicians, they probably have the same reasons for choosing a name as any other musicians do.

Coxon: See Ashley’s answer.

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