The Ninja Tune bosses drop their first album in 11 years, with a little help from Dave 'Switch' Taylor and Adrian Sherwood
If ever there was a time for Coldcut to make a poignant return, it's now. We won't insult your intelligence by explaining why... but the current national and global states of divisiveness, information manipulation and pure greed aren't the sole reason for Jon More and Matt Black's return to wax. For them it's business as usual; ever since their pirate radio roots in the mid-80s through to their up-to-date hub of documentaries, literature and journalism on corruption, Coldcut have always used their position to amplify and spread conscious, informed and progressive messages. They even ran for parliament in the 2001 elections as The Guilty Party.
Even without the confounding political climate, the Ninja Tune founders were always going to mark their 30th anniversary with something special. It turns out, amid running Ninja Tune and Big Dada, touring and developing free creative apps, they've been working on material constantly since 2008 and potentially have a whole lot more to follow. This new musical onslaught began in January with a five-track EP that headed up by Only Heaven, an instant Coldcut classic in which chilling musical box textures and the stern words of long-time compadre Roots Manuva set the scene consummately for their seventh studio album Outside The Echo Chamber.
A collaborative album with On-U Sound founder and UK dub pioneer Adrian Sherwood, this new LP builds on 2006's Sound Mirrors as Jon and Matt continue to allow their original cut 'n' paste craft to be plied and tied by kindred studio spirits. Once spurred by a stringent DIY ethos, they've now found new dynamic fusions through collaborating with Sherwood and heavyweight producer Dave Taylor (AKA Switch, and formerly of Major Lazer).
With two generations of creative studio wizards alongside Coldcut's razor-sharp dot-joining, Outside The Echo Chamber lives up to its credentials: the On-U Sound influence is consistent throughout as lucid dub textures bring Jon and Matt's global mixtures together. From Bollywood to dancehall to grime, the Coldcut melting pot continues to pay in full.
Other kindred spirits stepping into their echo chamber are Lee 'Scratch Perry', Junior Reid, Toddla T, Chezidek and, of course, Roots Manuva, all of whom help to amplify Coldcut's messages of critical thinking and the need to end corruption. But, above all, the message is unity and progress. The subject matter and impetus for this album may well be darker than any of their previous work, but the sounds and messages remind us that there is hope.
Last interviewed by iDJ in 2006, Jon More brings us up to speed…
How do you step outside of your echo chamber?
"It sounds like an odd way to answer this, but I love boot fairs. I go to as many as possible and they're a great reflection of society - an incredible mix of cultures, ages, races, classes, religions. You do come across all kinds of opinions that you won't hear in your own echo chamber. I went to one the day Article 50 was triggered and the woman I always buy a cup of tea from said it was a great day because no more Syrians will be coming into the country."
"What makes me sad is that she believes this because the media machine that's in place to strip people of their ability to think critically and just fill them with rubbish has been so successful."
How did you react?
"I asked her how that works and said I didn't realise Syria was in the EU. She told me that they all come into Germany and make their way to the UK because no one controls our borders. Now whatever I say in that circumstance is not going to have an positive effect. You're up against a machine. You can explain Cambridge Analytica, you can explain they're being duped, but that's counter-productive. That riles them even more."
You then step into the role of the ‘metropolitan elite'…
"Yes. And to say anyone who opposes you is a fool is wrong. Even if you know they are incorrect and misinformed. These mechanisms are insidious and very powerful. The interests at work here are winning. There's no discussion about over population, water wars, climate change or anything that's really going to cause major problems. Right now we're scrapping over the bits of meat the lord and master is throwing from the table."
Interesting you mention the environment. In your last iDJ interview, over 10 years ago, there was a lot of talk of DJs carbon-offsetting their flights. But environment issues have moved down the agenda, haven't they?
"The Tories in particular have pushed this message. They've put various laws in place to prevent businesses from acting responsibly. There genuinely seems to be a serious move away from climate change, which is crazy. But there is positive news out there by the way - the UK recently had a day fully powered by alternative energy. Not everything is total doom and gloom!"
Indeed! But a little doom and gloom is good for music, right? Here's a quote from Matt last time we spoke: "If everything was blissful and chilled out there wouldn't be music. If you're totally content you don't need to do anything." Do you still agree with this?
"There are definitely two sides to this. Look at Picasso - art poured out of him whether he was poor or rich. But there are also examples of creative people who have become rich through their art and then dried up, because they've lost that spark that drove them. Action/reaction remains one of the most powerful creative processes."
A strong reactive spark for Coldcut is the 1%, right?
"Absolutely. The pay gap has grown exponentially just in the 30 years we've existed as Coldcut. It's funny: in the run-up the election we have these comments about Labour wanting to "take us back to the 70s," and I wouldn't mind that, to be honest. The music was good, housing was cheap, and you could still get a sausage and pineapple at Wimpys."
And it's better than being driven back to the 30s!
"I would say it's more like the 1850s. Many of us have become indentured now. A Victorian indentured slave would recognise a zero hours contract if they were dragged from the past to here. We're not quite back to being serfs but that's the direction we're heading in."
You mentioned the election... you're not running again this year?
"Not this year, no. But The Guilty Party had some great policies: cannibalise legalism, the right to arm bears, the right to spin by the inch and not by the metre. We also learnt that if you stood for election then you could have a bus with a very loud soundsystem!"
At the time it felt like critical mass. Looking back, it's like happy teddy story time…
"I'm just constantly shaking my head and sighing ‘Oh fuck' all the time now. Political exhaustion. Perhaps that's how they want me to feel? The ludicrousness of the situation is just beyond comprehension. Do we have to let things get really, REALLY bad to motivate people to fight it? The whole thing needs ripping down and replacing. It needs an energy and that's reflecting in people's reactions to the political process - it's like being flopped on by an enormous mass of gunk. We've had comments on our social media timelines telling us we're a music act and shouldn't be getting involved in the political process."
What? Dance music has always been politicised...
"Look at pirate radio stations. They were a very political act. It sounds vaguely romantic and a little crazy, but we risked our freedom to make those broadcasts. More importantly, we risked our record collections! But we've rewritten, or conveniently forgotten, that history. When you explain to younger people how it was actually illegal to play repetitive beats in public to crowds of more than four people, they find it unbelievable."
In these days of what feels like instant access to all the music ever made, the idea of fighting for something as simple as playing records and making people feel happy seems implausible...
"You said it: it feels like we have instant access but we only have access to what people want us to know. I know I'll be called paranoid but you see these algorithms in action in your feeds - what you're shown, what you're not shown. The internet has become a reflection of society. And while there are still some priceless resources of information and creative collaborations, the main behaviour of the internet is very sour.
"Which is where we're worryingly heading with artificial intelligence - the things being created are major reflections of the weaknesses in our society. Like that very racist bot they had on Twitter. This nirvana that people think will come through mechanisation and intelligent robots will only reflect the inadequacies of human beings. And that's scary. Imperfections are what makes mankind beautiful, but in this sense it's equally terrifying!"
We really should talk about the album. The first strong that really struck me - because very few UK dance albums include Bollywood love songs - was Kajra Mohobbat Wala...
"We've always done a cover version on our albums, like Autumn Leaves or Walk A Mile In My Shoes, and tried to take it into a different realm. Matt had recorded the musicians in India and the recordings have been in the can for a while. Working with Adrian Sherwood brought them back out."
He had a big influence on Coldcut, didn't he?
"On-U and Adrian had everything I was into! From the Tackhead weirdness to bands like The Slits, right through to Prince Far-I and Creation Rebel. I would go into London specifically to go to Rough Trade and buy these records. The artwork and whole creations; there was something exotic about them compared to a lot of music at the same time. Funny enough, Adrian and I were actually in college together in High Wycombe."
Do you remember each other?
"We have vague recollections of each other. It was an amazing scene in High Wycombe back then. There was a pub called the Nag's Head and I would collect glasses and work behind the bar so I could see so many good bands – The Clash, Sex Pistols, Generation X, Elvis Costello. The guy who ran The 100 Club also ran this pub and he used it to test things out before he put them on in London. There were also a lot of reggae soundsystems. At the end of my street these guys had set up a series of shacks and had illegal parties we called shebeens. I saw Prince Far-I at one and I know Adrian would have been there, too."
Your paths have crossed between then and working on Outside The Echo Chamber, haven't they?
"He did remix our Stop This Crazy Thing track with Junior Reid in 1989. It was lovely and looking back we've wondered why we haven't worked together so much. But that's the way things often are – he was busy with On-U, we were busy with Ninja. But on this project seemed right. We had a lot of material from all over the place and Adrian is incredible at bringing that together artfully and creatively. It was a lot of fun to do - just how making music should be."
I think you can hear Dave Taylor consistently through the album as well…
"You can. He is an important part of the puzzle. He worked with us on True Skool and a few other tracks from that period. He's in LA working with some of the industry's heavyweights but he's a big fan, he's lovely and fascinating to work with. He's crazily creative. It's the first time Matt and I have worked with producers in this way. We've always done everything ourselves so to work with two of the best producers in the world in this way has been really interesting and insightful."
Were all four of you in the same room?
"No, never, unfortunately. We did do a bunch of a sessions around four years ago where a lot of people came together. We decided to get serious and started going to LA where Dave is based and got a ton of stuff such as the Only Heaven EP and a lot of Roots' last album. And plenty of things that have yet to see the light of day. It was a fantastic studio and a very creative and collaborative time. Toddla T came over, Ben Westbeech, Thundercat. It was a great creative mess."
Wow... what's happening with the rest of that material?
"It's in the can, and it may come out. We do have a lot material beyond the album."
We're not going to have to wait another 11 years to hear all this, are we?
"Ha! I hope not. We never want to do anything half-arsed, though. We've got a whole other album of music we made in South Africa which we recorded live in the middle of a Soweto township. It's all in the can - it's a question of turning it into a proper record. There's that and a lot of stuff from the sessions with Dave. It's great to have things in the bag but it does take time."
Your game has been robbing me of some serious time lately...
"We've made it purposefully very tricky! It's based on those very old ball games you'd get with your Cornflakes but using the latest tech. Persist with it if you can – you get a very nice surprise if you pass the fourth level!"
This isn't the first game you've been involved in, and you've developed some really interesting and creative apps. You've hinted at the dark side of tech, but this is probably a good place to end a positive note…
"Yes it is. Tech is incredibly exciting. Now you can be in a bedroom anywhere in the world and create something beautiful - a game, a film, a song - and share it with the world within seconds. That opportunity is remarkably profound and enabling. But, I would like to see the democratisation of technology. That's not even being addressed during this election and it's a conversation we need to have as more jobs become automated."
There are trials of a citizen's income in Finland…
"Yes, and that will be an interesting experiment. There are many theories about that and it could be a very beneficial thing and contribute to creativity. I see so many incredibly talented musicians suffer and struggle because they have day jobs just to stay alive. With a standard wage for everyone, this would change. But I feel that's a long way off for now. It makes me appreciate how lucky Matt and I have been to come into this at the time we did... and how we've always tried to maintain that opportunity for others with everything we've done since."
Coldcut x On-U Sound's Outside The Echo Chamber is out now on Ahead Of Our Time. Stream or buy it here.
Tags: Coldcut, Jon More, Matt Black, Adrian Sherwood, Ninja Tune, Big Dada, Ahead Of Our Time, On-U Sound, Dave Taylor, Switch, Major Lazer, Toddla T, Thundercat, Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Junior Reid, High Wycombe, Roots Manuva