Jake Wherry on the making of 'Bring Out The Sound', and the difficult circumstances in which it was birthed
22 years have passed since Jake Wherry and Ollie Teeba catapulted themselves into the beat game as The Herbaliser. Now, some eight albums (13 if you count a remix album, compilations and DJ mixes), countless singles, several label changes, the development of a clam-tight eight-piece live troupe and a recent five-year break later, they return with Bring Out The Sound, their most vital document since 2005’s Take London.
The difference was clear from the first single, Seize The Day, earlier this year. A dreamy cosmic ballad with a full string section and the emotional, dulcet tones of London singer/songwriter Just Jack, the message was clear: The Herbaliser are back, but not as we know them.
Well... maybe a bit as we know them. The vibrant cinematic thrust, big funk theatrics and killer MC guest spots (this time from the likes of London Posse don Rodney P) are still present, correct and heavy-hitting. But behind the behind the swing there’s been a radical shift in creative technique, as Jake and Ollie (who battered the 90s to pieces with MPCs glued to their firsts) have taken to writing, playing and recording everything live. For the first time ever, The Herbaliser are entirely sample-free. And when you know this fact, you listen to the album in an entirely different light.
There’s more. Go even deeper behind the scenes and there are other factors that'll make you listen to all the music Jake and Ollie have made since 2005 in a new light. To put it simply, we’ve been lucky to hear anything from them in the last 13 years at all! We spoke to Jake and found out why...
Bring Out The Sound... of a refreshed Herbaliser?
"I hope so. We wanted to do something a bit different. Not that we take criticism to heart, but the things we did pick up on from the last album was that we were maybe doing a similar thing over and over."
Do you think you were?
"No, but there are arguably moments where we’ve been very comfortable. We’ve stayed very true to the sounds and influences we love: soul, jazz, funk and hip-hop. But I have always admired artists who always remain relevant and innovate with have different sounds."
On the flip, many bands have a sound but then explore their own signature in great detail. For example, I can tell instantly that Bring Out The Sound is a Herbaliser record, and that’s a good thing.
"I’m glad you said that. It does sound like us but there are elements that are pretty radically different. My first instrument was a guitar but when I got into hip-hop I got a sampler and then played the bass. But for this record I got my guitar out, got some nice effects and a 60s fuzz pedal and went for more of a psychedelic sound. To that end, these are the most real and true sounds coming from Ollie and I than ever before. No sampling or copying, it’s all completely original."
For the first time?
"Yes. Everything else has always been very sample-based. We’ve been heading in this direction for a while, though, largely though working with Ralph Lamb and Andy Ross for years. They’re also known as the Easy Access Orchestra and have played horns in the live band since Blow Your Headphones came out. But more and more they’ve contributed to the albums and now their horn section is a big part of the sound of the album. Ollie, who isn’t musically trained in that sense, has come up with ideas and gets around the keyboard a lot."
So this is a whole shift in technique...
"Yes, and it’s more satisfying. It’s more of a challenge, and I’m sure we’ll still use samples in the future, but not for this album. You know we’ve never actually cleared a sample?"
"Yeah, we’ve always slipped under the radar and never sold enough records commercially. And if we tried to clear the sample, we’d be put to the back of the queue because it’s not big business!"
I guess. So let’s backtrack... when were the first seeds of this album sown?
"The first track was EMT, maybe two years ago. I recorded a bassline really late one night, sent it to Ollie and he put the drums and the ambulance siren on and it developed from there. That was the first song from the album.
"But for more context, I’ve been really ill since 2009 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They call it the ‘good cancer’ because it very rarely comes back after chemo, but I’ve had it three times! First in 2009, it came back in 2011 and, after almost five years of good health, I had a random scan and they found it again. For treatment I had a new type of experimental chemo and radiotherapy and, to be honest, it left me a fucking wreck. I spent a lot of time in bed."
Oh wow. This is all very recent, too…
"Yes. But I don’t want this to sound like I’m whingeing - it’s just how things have been. Anyway I finished the treatment in May 2016 and we got to work and wrote the album."
Seize The Day seems even more significant now understanding your illness. Did you write the lyrics?
"No, no... we’ve written lyrics for one song in the past, but generally we let the rappers or singers we work with get on with it themselves.
"But Seize The Day has an interesting story anyway. We originally sent it to Mark Keds, an old mate of ours who was in a post-punk band, Senseless Things. We thought it would be a nice contrast to have his gravelly voice on it. He came back with lyrics which actually became another tune on the album called Twenty Years. At the same time Ralph and Andy were doing some things with Just Jack, and they played it to him and he really liked it, so he wrote the lyrics for that one."
It’s great to hear Rodney P on the album as well...
"It was a total vibe working with him. Especially as it was live in the studio and not over the internet. He came to my studio, which is now at my house. I’ve moved out of the old one I had above an oil refinery."
A decommissioned oil refinery?
"No, a working one! There’s a theory that working above it and breathing the fumes may have been a cause of my illness, but when I was 20 I was very blasé about this and preferred the cheap rent. But it did have nasty fumes.
"So yeah, I’ve since built a studio at home and both times Rodney came along he brought some amazingly talented people with him - 28Luchi and Tiece. Both times they really vibed together and we caught something very natural."
What other musical techniques developed naturally during the album?
"I know I’ve mentioned me picking up the guitar again but Seize The Day was the first time I’d played a six-string acoustic on a track. I feel it sounds something in-between Space Oddity and the James Bond Theme."
It’s a powerful song!
"Yeah, it was the first single because we thought that, too! It got picked up around Europe but, as far as comeback singles go, it flopped completely. It didn’t get radio play. It’s a shame. Our first ever single came out on the same day in January - on my birthday - and I felt this was an omen. We’d made a career out of that first single so what could possibly go wrong this time? Both ourselves and the label were a little surprised."
Yeah, about BBE. Such a natural fit, surprised it hasn’t happened before!
"We’re really happy with BBE too. Our mate DJ Vadim recommended them because we wanted more of a structured label to work with. We kinda felt in the wilderness with the last album, which we released ourselves."
Why did you choose to self-release that album? You must have been quite ill during points of the last album?
"Well, we were with !K7 for the album prior to that and the guy who linked us with the label left and we didn’t feel we had the connection at the label any more. So we self-released our next one and while we did everything right and we borrowed money to pay for videos and pluggers, we were let down by a few PR companies in key territories and it condemned us to our quietest period ever. In the last year we did one gig."
Wow. How do you fund yourself, then?
"Debts! It's been really tough and has been since 2005, when my first wife was electrocuted. I’ve been looking after my children ever since and I’ve stuck to the mindset that, 'This must go on, I must be strong,' but after my last treatment I just snapped and was like, 'Fuck this... I can’t be strong.'
"I’d get up, take the kids to school and go back to bed. Absolute depression. I am very lucky that my wife has stood beside me and really worked hard to support me during this time.
I had no idea about this. I don’t think many fans will, either.
"Some do - it’s not something I’ve ever held back. It's just the way it is. I’m lucky to have had the support to get through it, and I have to admit the band has suffered ever since 2005. We were at our pinnacle then, and suddenly I had to take time out to look after my kids. I was doing the business side of things and that slipped, and we’ve never had the same level of exposure since. All we want to do is hit the road and play this music live."
You’re about to go on tour… what’s the live set-up like?
"We’ve played lived since our second album and it’s stayed pretty tight since then, even if we don’t play regularly. We have the horn section and a combination of programmed beats as well as a live drummer. For the new tracks, Ollie will be triggering my guitar parts off pads. We thought about a guitarist but we’re already an eight-piece.... if we took it up to a nine-piece we’d have to get a coach and it just wouldn’t be sustainable.
"But yes, we are touring and we can’t wait to get out there and play again. Hope you can make it out to see us!"
Words: Dave Jenkins