Two decades on from his landmark 'Is This Real' album, iDJ finds industry uber-veteran Ceri Evans still feeling as inspired as he ever has
Few artists’ careers in dance music have been as consistent and far-reaching as that of Ceri Evans. With a professional history that dates back to 1981, he’s played a role in dance music's development from its earliest roots, from Factory Records’ jazz-funk fusionists Swamp Children (who he joined at the tender age of 16) to his years in acid jazz titans Brand New Heavies. But it’s probably his last 27 years as garage don Sunship for which he’s best known.
A prominent presence in UKG since the mid-90s, his MOBO-winning 1997 debut album Sunship was a pivotal moment that accelerated him to the position of remixer of choice for pretty much every big UKG crossover hit during UKG’s golden era: Craig David, Sweet Female Attitude, Mis-Teeq, the list goes on. He also released a second album around this time, 1998’s Is This Real.
20 years old to the very month, Is This Real has matured incredibly well, and captures both UKG’s heady late 90s explosion and Ceri’s innate groove ability. Where Sunship joined musical dots, Is This Real zoomed in on those dots and coloured them in with sassy, sweet and occasionally savage and vibrant hues. From the powerful bounce of his cover of Jhelisa’s Friendly Pressure to the much more rugged Zinc-like breakage of Cheque One Two, it represents a very specific time for for UK dance music and for Ceri himself.
Having remained active and passionate about UKG throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, Ceri took a three-year hiatus in 2013 and focused on composing and teaching piano. Returning in 2016 with his third album Missing In (East) Acton, he’s since collaborated with Warrior Queen, released gully-galvanised steppers such as Acid Flex and Bassix and, as of this March, worked with his daughter Xanthe, producing and releasing her first single Silence.
Few artists’ careers in dance music have been as consistent and far-reaching as that of Ceri Evans. Even fewer artists have such a great tale to tell. Currently more inspired than he’s been in decades, we caught up with the London producer to reflect over some of his accomplishments so far.
Let’s get a little taste of life before Sunship. You’d been active for years before with the Brand New Heavies, right?
"And years before that, too! My first band was Swamp Children in the early 80s. I was really into Factory Records, and Colin Faver ran these nights called Final Solution, where they’d put on a lot of the Factory bands like Joy Division and A Certain Ratio. I was too young to get into the gigs but I somehow got to know some of the bands and ACR would sneak me through the window for some of their gigs!"
"Yeah, it was a really exciting time. They had another band called the Swamp Children, a really jazzy group. They invited me along to play some percussion at a gig, and as soon as I left school I did an album with them. We were up in Manchester when The Haçienda opened and it really was a great time, with a lot of inspiring musical fusion happening around us: a lot P-funk, a lot of early dance stuff like D Train.
"Then I got back to London, got back into my jazz and joined the Brand New Heavies. We toured the world, had an incredible time and that’s where I felt I really learned grooves and the art of funk. Cut a long story short: the funk and jazz-funk set the parameters to my appreciation of dance music, especially garage."
How did garage come into your life?
"Well, Brand New Heavies got really into production around the early 90s and I started to explore that aspect myself. Plus I just love breakbeats and funky drums, so when I first heard early UKG I instantly loved it. It was funky. It had the energy.
"Most importantly, it wasn’t cliquey and up its arse like all these ultra-cool scenes I’d been part of in London. The garage scene didn’t seem to have anything aloof about it - it had everything in there. A bit of reggae and dub, funk, soul, house, jungle... it was a real mish-mash. The sounds were very experimental and people were into it for the right reasons. London back then was just terrible - it had all these little scenes and it was all up its own arse. It was more about looking the part and all the outward show. I’ve always just been into the music."
Plus you'd have been a bit older than most folks on the scene, so I guess you had no time for all that?
"Agreed! I’d been in bands and recording and performing for 15 years before I even started producing garage. So I was slightly older than a lot of the guys on the garage scene, I wasn’t a DJ and was very much a musician, and I think that gave me a bit of an edge.
"Coming from the jazz background I had the balance of the toughness of the beats but very musical chords. I was also getting deep into sampling, using so many samples and sounds from the records I loved, from Factory releases to classical music to dub to everything. There are so many different samples I’ve used. Nothing anyone could pull me up on - just little sounds, like flavours."
Your debut album really captures that. It was a huge melting pot of all types of styles – jungle, trip-hop, breaks, garage, soul...
"There was so much exciting music around at the time and I was reflecting that. I was lucky I was paid to put that out and people were really interested in experimental music, which it was at the time. I think it’s a lot harder to do that now. To make such an album and for it be recognised like that was when it won the MOBO... it’s not impossible but it's a lot harder now. "
There’s a really strong DIY culture again now. People making more experimental music have day jobs, but that means there's no pressure to make it commercially successful
"Yeah I respect that. To do it for the love is the best thing ever. I’ve reached that point again myself now."
What inspired that?
"I’ve totally stopped doing remixes now. I won’t do any more at all. I was doing them for far too many years and it was to my detriment. If I could go back in time and change one thing it would be the amount of remixes I did - I gave away all of my production credits for one-off cheques. Every remix I ever did, I rewrote all the music. It wasn’t just ‘stick in a beat’, I would totally rework every musical element, but as a composer I got zero publishing credit because I signed it away!"
But you had to take them on, right? What would have done if you could do things differently?
"I’d have found singers and vocalists and made Sunship records! It was a bit like not having the balls to give up your day job. The only person I can blame is myself - people were paying lots for remixes and it was really hard to turn them down."
Can I ask how much?
"When I first started in the early 90s it was probably around £500-£1,000, then it went up towards £1,500-£2,000 around the late 90s but at the peak of garage I was getting around £10,000-£15,000 a mix."
Those type of numbers are pretty hard to say no to!
"Not just that but it also felt very fresh and exciting. The releases were turned around very quickly and the energy of it suited the music. Very wham, bam, it’s out there. And of course when a remix goes off and is everywhere, like it did with Flowers for example, then the phone doesn’t stop ringing for a bit. So there were lots of benefits but ultimately I don’t think I made the right choice."
Let’s go back to Is This Real. What’s your relationship with that album?
"It’s a strange one to be honest. Dance music to me is kinda one. I don’t differentiate between the genres particularly, and I think the best guys who do that are the drum & bass guys. They’re the kings of borrowing everything from all the styles. You’d have house elements, break elements, hip-hop, dub, techno. So it was all pretty much one.
"I felt I’d captured that on the first album but for Is This Real I got a taste for UKG and really homed in on that sound. As a result the whole album is fully garage and as an album I don’t think that works. It also meant I got pigeonholed a little, which was a shame."
But for me, that album captured where garage and breakbeats were at during that time. It had the soulful side, the darker side, the dancefloor side... it tells a very distinct musical tale which has aged well. But you don’t look back on it that way?
"It’s nice to hear that but no, I’m a very harsh self-critic. Sonically I don’t think it sounds that good, either. But I tried to make the best of the low budget set-up. If it was done on an SSL mixing desk it would have a much better, warmer sound. But I appreciate that would have taken away the rawness of that era of Sunship stuff."
So even though you’d won the MOBO the year before, you were still on a pretty basic set-up?
"Oh yeah. We were all doing it in smaller studios back then - studios were very expensive! Plus when a sound takes off and the record companies are biting at you, they want to hear your records on the things you already had. It wasn’t in their interest to invest a lot of money and get you on an SSL or a Neve desk.
"So yeah I am very critical of my own stuff. And I think quite rightly so. You have to be as a musician. I’ve just been asked to do a mixtape of my old productions and I’m amazed at how distorted they sound. But that was part of what it is at the time. It makes it what it is."
You mentioned the original jungle guys earlier. They were famous for using kit in ways it wasn’t meant to be used, and distortion was part of that.
"So many inspiring producers were doing that! Not just in drum & bass. Everyone was doing really exciting experimental things with the kit they had. Todd Edwards was so inspiring with his vocal work. Tuff Jam had a really special vibe to their music. In fact, pick any of those big tracks from that era - Closer Than Close, It’s A London Thing - they are masterpieces and even though they were made on pretty basic set-ups, they still sound great today."
Let’s talk about the UKG fall-out. The attention was explosive during the late 90s but things didn’t stay that way, right?
"That’s an understatement! It peaked, then the sexier, soulful side got over-shadowed by MCs and the beginnings of grime. It got a bit violent, clubs got closed down, it was a fucking nightmare to be honest."
Did you see any of violence personally?
"Not really. I didn’t go out that much, and I didn’t DJ that much so I was hidden away from it in the studio. I was glued to the pirates and buying the records and making it. I wasn’t ‘out there’ so to speak. Then in 2001 it all came to a head and it seemed like no one wanted to know about it any more. Almost overnight and it carried on like that for a very long time."
You kept on making it though….
"Yeah, I did, but I was branching out a lot into funky and soulful house which was received really well. I had to move into other areas to make money but I still made garage even though it was a dirty word. No one wanted to know for about a decade. Then three or four years ago it started to come back."
When did you notice the change?
"When I started to get another round of remix requests! But by then I got a bit burnt out from it and became very jaded. It became music by numbers. Labels just wanted another Mis-Teeq or Flowers. The money had gone down and I wasn’t feeling it. Plus the whole Instagram ‘hey look at me, aren’t I fucking brilliant?’ attitude came in which really isn’t me . So I took a break three years ago. I stopped making any electronic music."
What brought you back into the game?
"My daughter! She inspired me again and we’ve just put out a record - Silence, by Xanthe."
Writing music with your own daughter must be pretty awesome?
"Yeah, it’s lovely actually. I was teaching piano for the last three years and put her through four piano exams, so we developed our musical bond through that. But even back 10 years ago her passion for music has always been there. She wanted an iPod with Flashings Lights by Kanye West on it, which, in fairness, is a great song.
"She’s into all the new soul stuff and introduced me to acts like NAO and Alyss, who have really moved me musically. She also listens to a lot of jazz and it’s a great feeling to be able to relate to someone musically as deep as this. The fact she’s my daughter is an added bonus in a way. When you find someone to enjoy music with on that level you forget yourself. I don’t even feel like her dad."
Beautiful. So what happens next?
"Hopefully, keep on doing my thing. I’ve got my label Sunship Recordings, I’ve got some piano albums I’d like to release and hopefully more eclectic music following them. I just want to bring all my influences and passions together and make music that makes me really happy because I’m being true to myself. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this inspired.
Words: Dave Jenkins
Tags: Sunship, Brand News Heavies, Swamp Children, Factory Records, The Hacienda, Colin Faver, A Certain Ratio, Joy Division, jazz-funk, funk, acid jazz, UK garage, UKG, two-step, Tood Edwards, Tuff Jam, Craig David, Sweet Female Attitude, Mis-Teeq