With his debut Crooked Man album out in September, we catch up with a producer whose CV stretches all the way back to the bleep era
On the face of it, Richard Barratt is a rather unlikely candidate to become part of DFA Records' family of left-of-centre dancefloor mavericks. A man in his early 50 who lives high in the hills of the Peak District, never visits clubs and claims not to listen to contemporary dance music, Barratt is far removed from the art school disco-punks more readily associated with the New York label.
"I don't know an awful lot about DFA, to be honest," Barratt admits, matter-or-factly. "I know the name, and some of the artists, but really they're just people who pop up on emails once every three months with an idea, then completely disappear again. I've got this really romantic notion that they've got this door in their office, and it leads out into late 70s/early 80s New York. They go through that door, disappear into that World of Larry Levan for three months, and then come back out again and send me an email".
Barratt first struck up a relationship with DFA 18 months ago, after Optimo Music's JD Twitch passed on some of his Crooked Man music to Beats In Space radio show host Tim Sweeney. He in turn handed it to DFA, who excitedly emailed the Sheffield-raised producer asking if they could release an album of his music.
By that point, hype around the Crooked Man project was growing. Barratt and his studio collaborators Mick Ward (once of cult Sheffield industrial funk band Clock DVA) and Dave Lewin (another Sheffield veteran) had already delivered a string of well-received, self-released 12" singles, which mixed wonky, off-kilter, bass-heavy house grooves with sharp, occasionally angry lyrics delivered by vocalists capable of imparting the songs with a healthy dose of underground soul.
"I had confidence in the tracks, but that doesn't mean that I wasn't surprised that people liked them," Barratt says. "I think what was more surprising was that the tracks were accepted by house snobs, or at least some of them – you know, people who regard themselves as purists. To my ears it sounded like house music, but being so dislocated from that scene for so long, I couldn't be sure."
Barratt, of course, has history – and lots of it. Under the DJ Parrott alias, he initially rose to prominence in Sheffield as part of the team behind the city's legendary Jive Turkey parties in the 80s, before scoring a surprise international dancefloor hit as The Funky Worm. By 1990, he was waist deep in the emerging "bleep and bass" techno scene, co-producing Sweet Exoricst's early Warp Records classic Testone with Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H Kirk. He later tasted chart success once more as part of The All Seeing I, before quitting DJing, only returning to the studio sporadically to produce tracks for his friend, Roisin Murphy.
It was during one of these sessions for the former Moloko chanteuse that the Crooked Man project was born. "We'd reached a point where we couldn't really keep going as she'd gone away to have a baby," Barratt admits. "We were sat there asking what we'd do next, as we had this time in the studio. As we'd been doing 4/4 dance music, we just thought we'd carry on doing a bit of that. It was quite fertile at first – the music was just dribbling out everywhere."
From these ‘fertile' first sessions emerged a group of tracks that fused the trio's love of wonky, hypnotic, bass-heavy house with vocals that variously took aim at greedy bankers (the brilliant Scum (Always Rises To The Top)), poverty (Fools & Fanatics), modern technology (This Machine Kills Me), and our obsession with nostalgia (Happiness, a noticeably wistful piano house cut).
"We write songs about things that are annoying us, and particularly things that irritate me," Barratt says. "Things irritate me, it's true. Somebody recently asked me if Scum was about Donald Trump. I told them it was just fortuitous timing. Trump was on about the "crooked media" the other day. I thought that was a bit of a result. Maybe that's part of DFA's PR master plan".
For the trio's eponymous debut album, which drops on DFA in early September, their original club-ready workouts – most of which clocked in at over 10 minutes – have been re-shaped and reworked. Their arch lyrics and soul-flecked vocals – provided by, among others, veteran soul man Pete Simpson and Juan MacLean collaborator Amy Douglas – take centre-stage, resulting in a decidedly different sounding album of off-kilter house songs.
"DFA did seem to like the fact that they were songs that had some kind of narrative to them," Barratt says. "To be fair, if they had been saying, 'Make them instrumental with a little bit of voice in', I don't think the relationship would have lasted that long. I can't see the point in making a lot of instrumental tracks when there's already so much of that out there at the moment."
A blast from the past
Barratt keeps returning to his opinion that the music he makes with Ward and Lewis is "old-fashioned:, despite the fact that it sounds like nothing else around. It seems this is a bit of an obsession.
"To my ears, the music that we make is not particularly modern or futuristic – It could be regarded as quite old-fashioned, I think," he muses. "I'm pretty sure many people did consider it old-fashioned, but there's been enough support from people who were heavily into house music to make me think that the tracks do stand on their feet as house records, and can be played in those clubs."
Barratt insists that he rarely listens to new music, something that makes the Crooked Man material even more remarkable. "I do know who Calvin Harris is," he remarks. "He's the highest paid person in music, yes? I was actually a guest on a radio show the other day, and the presenter played some really good music. It made mine sound rubbish. I wouldn't want to embarrass myself by saying it was new, because it might have been 20 years old for all I know. I haven't got a fucking clue, mate".
The Crooked Man is out on DFA Records on 8 September. The singles I'll Be Loving You, Happiness and This Machine Kills Me are out now