Greg Wilson Interview – Part 2

HG: I’ve been trying to pin down the criteria for the music you play, and I’m tentatively suggesting that a good song/strong vocal is important. Even if the voice might not appear in the version that you play, the legacy of strong songs seems to inform a lot of what you play.

GW: Well, yeah, but I play a lot of instrumental stuff too, I don’t think of it in those terms, but I think if it’s a great song it can take things to another level. There’s nothing like the human voice as an instrument. It’s so wide in what it can do. I grew up with a love of songs, and I’ve been thinking about this more now, that idea that when you’re younger, before you pick out the lyrics, you’re just hearing the overall sound of where the voice is and where it’s bedded in. The other day I was listening to the Stone Roses album again, and the tonal quality of his voice, and how it just sits in to that overall soundscape. Even if you don’t even listen to the lyrics, the sound is so right. That’s a wonderful thing, songs can do special spiritual things, they can change how you feel. The human voice is like a direct contact.

HG: You’ve got the famous trademark of the Revox reel-to-reel machine that you use in your sets, which is a great way of embellishing the music and a great visual prop. What I love about it is the fact it gives a genuinely vintage sound that you couldn’t get from a digital sampler. Your productions have a vintage warmth to them, so do you ever turn to it in the studio?

GW: Yeah, now and again. I originally used it in the studio. The way I use it now isn’t linked to when I was previously a DJ, it’s linked to when I wasn’t a DJ. I’d bought the Revox to edit mixes for the radio, and that’s when I learnt to edit. I’d record the mix and then cut it up. When I stopped deejaying and was working on recording projects, I loved the whole random thing of taking tapes of sounds and running them over a track and seeing what happened. Now and then I’d hear a one-shot sound that might sound really nice in there, and I’d never even thought of putting it there. Because I’d happened to press play at that particular time it had fallen at that point. I always was after, and I still am, that random aspect to what I do. All I do is listen to what’s playing, and when it sounds right, I put it in there. I like that you might hear familiar samples, but you’re hearing them in different places. If I end up wanting them in a specific place, I’ll do a version of the track that’ll have them there. Again, it’s all about having that connection back to the past, because I’m always looking for that balance between now and then. Technology from the past with technology from the present, new versions of classic tracks alongside newer tracks.

It excites me hearing how younger people interpret the tracks too, people like yourself. I like hearing how you reinterpret this music. A lot of these tracks I played first time round and I’m very intimate with these tracks. But, I’m not precious about music, I”m not someone who thinks “you can’t touch it, it’s sacrosanct”. Everything’s open season for me! We can always go back to the source, and often these things can bring people back to the source. Somebody might hear your Diana Ross/Sharon Brown mashup and think “what do the originals sound like?” and go back and discover them. We’re reconnecting people to this wealth of the past which is their cultural birthright to draw from and experiment with. For me, an exciting thing is how the younger generation interpret the past. Someone like Todd Terje, I had a conversation with him once, and I realised the distance between our ages because he didn’t’ really know anything about The Beatles. I kind of assumed he would because of his musicality, but a lot of the time he’s just going off instinct, and he’s brave enough to do that. He doesn’t think about “is it cool or not to play this track?”. I’ve seen some guys have almost panic attacks trying to work out if they can play something or not…if you want to play it, play it. He just does his thing, and as a result he’s come out with some of the defining edits, for me, of this whole movement. Music shouldn’t be stuck in the past, it’s an ever-evolving thing. We know that ourselves because we hear different tunes throughout our lives that mean something in the context of the moment when we hear them. It might not be something contemporary, it might be something from years and years ago that suddenly has a resonance, and that’s the magic of music. Things need packaging in a different way for a different generation of people. What I’m always trying to do with the blog, and the edits, is give people enough information to make the past real and interesting, and from there they can find their own way into it.

I was writing a piece for electrofunkroots, trying to define the term “Electro”, and I realised that with the passage of time, people thought it meant different things. To one person in meant Heaven 17 and The Human League, to another person it meant more the contemporary dance sound. To another it meant what I know it as, which is the New York Electro of the early eighties. You have to clear that confusion up and say “this is what we’re talking about”. I was concerned about which viewpoint to take when I was writing it, should I write it as a passive observer, or, bearing in mind I was directly involved, do I write about my own experiences? I was wary of writing about myself, and at the same time, I was going to be saying that the history of dance music that’s been recorded is lacking. We’re missing out what I consider to be the most important and fundamental aspect of it which is the black scene. We’ve been touching on it, but we’re not stopping and saying that something like Jazz-Funk was a really serious era for dance music. So much went on, and so much music was played, yet it’s brushed over completely almost as an irrelevance. With that in mind, to write from an objective viewpoint would be completely impossible for me, and it would be disingenuous of me to do that. My writing’s always been from personal experience, but the factual information is in there, and I’m very keen to make sure it’s as correct as it can be. Like you say, with crediting people etc, I’m keen to get to the source, I want you to find your way to it.

So, as well as that, my personal experience is in there, and I’ve found that that gives it the meat which people enjoy. It’s not just facts and figures and dates. Maybe by feeding in a few of these personal anecdotes people can get a feeling for what it was like at that time. You’re always fighting the battle that you cannot compare it to now: the different social conditions, the way that people looked at club culture – so you’re always trying to give people that taste of what it was like.

HG: Can you be tempted to share your weapons of choice in the studio?

GW: (snorts with laughter) Really, people would be shocked if they saw they way I work. They’d go, “you’re just so basic”. I’m am so basic, but I’ve found my own way of doing it and it works for me. Maybe if I had more time, I’d bring in other aspects, but I don’t, so I’m stuck in my ways at the minute. I use a program called Acid. I’ve got this friend who’s my “technical advisor” (DJ and old schoolmate Derek Kaye) and I’ve finally decided to get a Mac so he’s just helping me sort that out. He basically shows me how to do something, and once I know the basics I can find my way around. He’s one of these people who reads manuals, I’ve never read a manual in my life. He was the one who introduced Acid to me, and he didn’t say “I’ve found a programme that you’ll like”, he said “I’ve got this programme that is you”. And he was correct, because I’m completely loops-based. I’m an editor, I’m not a musician. I work with loops and I see things in those ways, and Acid gave me that. It provided me with a loops-based editing system that I can work with. So I either work in Acid, or I work in Cool Edit Pro. It’s the same with the equipment I use for deejaying, there’s probably a better way of doing it but it works for me. The deejaying set-up I use now is probably antiquated in that it’s more than five years old, but it suits me and I can work off it. Maybe if I get a little bit of time I’ll look into something else. But, it’s all a time thing with me at the moment. I haven’t got the time to learn something new because there are other things I need to do. There are only three programs I use to make music on; I cut up my stuff in SoundForge, then if it’s a straight edit I’ll use Cool Edit Pro, then if I use Acid I can add in all my own sounds. It depends which approach I’m going to use. That’s pretty much me, technically. I just make it up as I go along (laughs).

I always remember hearing about Norman Cook when he made his big Fatboy Slim album. He did it on an old Atari system, and everybody thought he must be mad. Obviously he’d got to know that system so well that it suited him to the ground, which is fair enough. It’s like any instrument, it’s about getting the best out of it. Why use something new if you’re not going to get the same result. When I started off producing, and I saw things like SSL come into play in studios, automated desks and stuff, and the possibilities suddenly became more and more, I saw how it could stifle creativity. If you go back to The Beatles again, and the fact that Sergeant Pepper’s… was recorded on four tracks, it’s off its head; the creativity they used to make it sound like that. But that’s why they were creative, because of the limitations that they had. But, because of that creativity, people invent machines to do those things, and then the digital age comes where you’ve got unlimited possibilities for what you can do, it stifles you. You’ve got too many possibilities, you got to find a way to limit those things. In life in general too, the internet provides us with so much information, you’ve got to find a way of regulating what’s important to you and what you’re prepared to spend your time on. If you’re not careful, all your time is gonna be spent on a million and one things.

I love those mixes from the early eighties, stuff from people like Tee Scott, Larry Levan, Francois Kervorkian, Shep Pettibone and Jellybean Benitez. I had the realisation from working in studios myself, that most of those remixes were done on downtime sessions, which means maybe a band works in the studio during the day and you get the studio at night. They maybe had from midnight till eight in the morning, and that’s all the time they had to do the mix. So they’d get in there and just go for it, just do it, and whatever comes out is the mix. Those are the ones I really love. So for me it’s about creating something with a spontaneity to it, something that has a life, a soul, a feel. When I approach a mix I want to get two thirds of it done in one session. I want to just go “bang” and then it’s nearly ready. I don’t like taking days and days when you keep amending it, then you start questioning it, and going back and trying it another way – it just ends up very sterile and having no heart in it.

When I’ve transferred some of these great mixes across digitally, you can sometimes hear moments when they’ve done tape edits and there’s a bit of a stretch, and at times I’ve corrected little touches. You can hear drop-outs because they were doing things like desk runs and dropping things in and out live, and you can hear little tiny clips. For me though, these little imperfections, I can live with them. They’re what make the track what it is and if you take them all out it would lose some of the feel. The reason that they’re there is that they had to get the job done, and that’s one of the things I think is important. Try and find a way to get a little bit of spontaneity into what you’re doing. Otherwise, it just sounds a little bit too sterile, and I hear a lot of tracks like that. That’s not what the great dance music of the past was like, when you had bands, and human aspects to it. I’m not talking about major mistakes, I’m just talking about tiny little touches here and there. That what makes it a lot of the time, that’s what gives it its heart.

HG: I think that’s as close as we’ve got to defining your sound, it has to have that heart and soul in it…

GW: Do you think I have a sound?

HG: I think you do, aside from the obvious genre connotations. it’s like every track has a certain character, or a certain strength to it. There’s a thread of quality running through the set, there’s no filler.

GW: It’s funny, here’s something I’ve noticed. I saw a DJ play who was a very big respected character. Hearing what they were playing, I was just really disappointed because it was someone I’d had a lot of respect for from what they’d done previously. I thought, “it’s OK, this music, but it’s nothing special”. But then, something would come in that was really special, maybe a old classic, and the crowd would go mad, and then it would all go ordinary again. I actually wondered at the time, “is that a strategy? Is that what some of them are doing?” For me, there’s so much good music, why should there be any filler? Especially with where I’m coming from, I’m taking from such a wide palette in the past. It seemed like the filler, in this context, was part of the overall experience: they had to keep them at a certain level so that they could explode them. Sometimes you see people playing a 4/4 kind of vibe, and they’ve still got an hour to go, but they’ve just gone mental with it. Where do you go from mental?! They’ve hit their peak too early. But there’s another kind of vibe, a special, groove thing, a deeper thing. It’s not about hanging onto a hard beat, it’s about being inside the track and getting taken in a different way. That leaves something with you, you walk out of that venue with a different feeling. Having said that, I do play my big tracks, but quality tracks, like you say. Quality is a very important thing to me, and it’s a very subjective thing, so it’s nice that you say that. It’s just what connects with me, what I like, and fundamentally what this is all about is just me saying “listen to this” or “read this” because I’ve heard it and I’m excited, and I think you might like it. That’s what being a DJ is, you know? And it’s almost like your personality through your music, that’s what you’re projecting. When people say what is great music and what isn’t, I take exception to that, because I can only say what I’m into, but I would never tell someone into something different that they didn’t know what they were talking about. We’re always discovering and we’re always learning, it’s ongoing, so the moment you stop doing that, you just kind of drift along, a leaf in the breeze.

HG: Finally, you and I are both natives of the Wirral, was it always part of the plan to move back there, and what does that part of the world mean to you?

GW: It’s funny, because I came from New Brighton, being this old, run down seaside town, it felt like a different place to the rest of the Wirral. The rest always felt a bit more…leafy…(laughs)

HG: Hah, fair enough.

GW: I used to play rugby and football for school, and we’d go to other places, and we used to think they were ever-so polite…I thought once you went down the Meols stretch and got into Hoylake and West Kirby, you were in a different world. Where we were, you had Birkenhead on one side which is obviously like Liverpool to many degrees. It’s a dock town, and it’s gritty. That transferred a bit through Seacombe, Egremont, then you get to New Brighton, which has got this completely different vibe because of its past. It’s like a seaside ghost town, almost. But you’re not Scousers, you’re Plazzy Scousers, ’cause you’re still from the other side!

Growing up in New Brighton, we still used to have loads of people coming over on ferries (from Liverpool) for day trips, and the place would be rammed. You’d be dodging mad Scousers, because there’d be gangs of, like, Fagin’s lads, who’d have your money as soon as look at you. I had a friend from Blackpool, he spoke about how it worked there, which was even more intense because they had all these week long holidaymakers from Glasgow chasing you all over town. You had to be on your toes and you had to see what was going on, but it was fascinating. The subcultures I saw coming in. It’s hard for people now to even consider what went on here. There used to be a tower here, and underneath where the tower was there was a huge amazing gothic building, which is where the Tower Ballroom was, where The Beatles played many times. It was a huge place, Little RIchard played there, the Stones played there. This was going on when I was a little kid. Then, getting older, walking through New Brighton and seeing a sea of skinheads, all dressed the same – walking past you, the sinister side of it…going into the Palace, there was an undercover fairground and there’d be a waltzer and seeing them all packed around the waltzer. The Palace lads would be spinning the girls as hard as they could, there’d be all these skinheads watching…and the music playing, you might hear Liquidator, or a Tamla Motown track…

New Brighton’s obviously a special place because it’s where I’m from, but I caught something there, the end of something that was quite special, that isn’t there now. It’s a sleepy place. It’s not quite a Southport, where people go to retire and chill out, but I think a lot of people wanted it to be like that. Now, they’ve reinvested, and they’ve put some new buildings in there, We’ll see how it works out. It had to do something, it was a place that was lost in time. But the memories are great, and working in the clubs here, what we achieved over a period of time musically, by working at bringing a solid black music scene into a little backwater town, is a nice thing to remember. It’s your own little piece of the rock really, isn’t it? I didn’t make a conscious plan to move back here, it just happened that way. It’s the right move though, and it’s a nice place to live.

 

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