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Trevor Jackson

Mr Playgroup goes back to the future

2016 Dec 09     
2 Bit Thugs

As an album of unreleased Playgroup material drops, we catch up with the electro Renaissance man

Trevor Jackson has a reputation for being one of electronic music's most outspoken figures. He certainly doesn't mince his words.

"Publish anything you like, I don't care," he says firmly, before turning his aim on the music industry he's been part of for the best part of 30 years. "There are two types of people in this business: the people who get on and do shit, and the people who just want to have their face everywhere."

Jackson himself has always been one of the "get on and do shit" types. A reticent frontman - "I've never wanted to be flavour of the month. I'd rather have longevity", he asserts - the Londoner has enjoyed an impressively diverse career since talking himself into a job designing record sleeves for Champion Records in the late 1980s.

Unimpressed by the way the house scene was developing at the turn of the 90s, he decided to try his hand at making hip-hop. For the first half of the decade, he found success as The Underdog, delivering moody and trippy revisions of tracks by everyone from Massive Attack and Sabres Of Paradise to Gary Numan and Run DMC.

"I wanted to be the best hip-hop producer and beatmaker in the UK," he says. "I think to a certain point, I was top of the game for a period. When I was younger, I had so much confidence. Later on, I realised there were so many people around me - the likes of Maurice Fulton, Kieran Hebden and James Murphy - whose music was blowing me away. I thought the way I made music was quite antiquated compared to those guys, and I lost a lot of confidence."

During this period, in the late 1990s, Jackson was riding high on the success of his genre-straddling Output label, which was lauded at the time as the natural successor to Factory Records. Yet as a producer, he was floundering around trying to find a new focus.

"House music was dead to me at that time - I wouldn't have even stepped foot in a house club," he says. "I wanted to make fun, sexy dance music, with a live element, that was rooted in the music that I grew up with in the 1980s. At that time in the late 90s, it felt like that period had been completely forgotten. I just felt that the whole super-white, laddish house culture had alienated me completely".

So, in 1997, he set to work on what would become arguably his most celebrated project: Playgroup. The resulting album, the eponymous Playgroup (2001), still sounds deliciously ahead of its time. Back then, few others were referencing dub disco, punk-funk, hip-house, Chicago acid, electrofunk or sassy New York disco-pop. Jackson effortlessly blended all these things, delivering a set of tracks that still bristles with confidence 15 years on.

"I tried to bring something back with Playgroup, that for me was missing: personality, character, dirty fun - not cheesy fun - and a live element," he says. "I've said this before, but at that time the only person I could think of who was making great live dance music was Jamiroquai. I thought some of his records sounded amazing. People can slate me if they want, but I think if someone goes to the effort of recording a whole band and making uptempo dance records, respect to him for that."

Earlier this year, Jackson revisited his archive of Playgroup-era demos and overlooked tracks. Liking what he heard, he decided to release them as a series of nine 12-inch singles. Last week, those singles were gathered together on a double CD and digital download album entitled Previously Unreleased.

Unheard pleasures
"This is not some Trevor Jackson marketing bullshit – the tracks are actually old," he asserts. "I've had a lot of flack from people saying, 'Nah, these aren't from 1997', but they genuinely are. The thing is, when I approached making the Playgroup album, I was trying to make a pop record, but my kind of pop record. The things on Previously Unreleased are proto-Playgroup tracks."

It's true that the 23 tracks showcased on the album explore similarly sonic territory to the original Playgroup full-length, but they're notably rawer and rough round the edges. There are killer Chicago-style jacking tracks, crackling punk-funk workouts, blazed dub explorations, throbbing NYC disco jams, moody electro cuts, and even a dubbed-out ambient cut featuring the talents of Four Tet's Kieran Hebden (then making his name as part of Ouput outfit Fridge).

"To put together this album, I went back over 100 demos and finished tracks, whittled them down to about 40 or 50, and then tried to edit them myself," Jackson says. "Most of these tracks were run live from my S-950 sampler to tape. I didn't have any session files, so I couldn't do any remixing. My friend Sasha from In Flagranti tweaked some of them a bit. Essentially, they're just mastered versions - they haven't been radically altered at all".

Jackson previously used later archive material for last year's FORMAT, an album released under his own name that was initially put out as an ultra-limited box set with 12 tracks stretched across as many different physical formats. Now, having enjoyed the process of putting together Previously Unreleased, he plans on presenting more gems from his production archive in the first half of 2017.

"What's next is the music from the period that eventually resulted in the FORMAT album," he says cheerily. "There's a lot from that period, after Playgroup, which is more techno-based. There's also a weird ambient thing I never released. It's frustrating that I didn't get this music out at the time - I should have done, but I think that emotionally and mentally I wasn't in the right headspace to do that."

iDJ suggests that this burst of archive activity suggests a desire to clear the decks and move forwards. "That's the idea," he confirms. "I want to try and cleanse myself of all this baggage. I've made music in pretty much the same way since the 90s. I want to try and find a new way of making music. I haven't made a new track in so long."

Words: Matt Anniss

Playgroup's Previously Unreleased is out now on Yes Wave Records

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Tags: Trevor Jackson, Playgroup, The Underdog, Yes Wave Records, Output Records