Coldcut reflect past with 'Sound Mirrors'
Andrez Bergen / Special to The Daily Yomiuri
"The president of the United States actually is a bozo." So waxes a flippant Matt Black of Britain's Coldcut.
"Dead eyes," intones Black's long-time collaborator Jonathan More in deadpan manner. "That's what I see when
I look at George Bush."
Such proffered words of withering wit and other catchy sound bites come easily to Black and More, who have called the
name Coldcut home for well nigh 18 years.
Shying away from things political, it seems, would be anathema to these gentlemen, whose latest release, Sound Mirrors,
hit store shelves in Japan on Wednesday, licensed from Coldcut's widely respected breakbeats-meets-electronica label Ninja
Tune. Through videos, live performances, art installations, Internet manifestoes and CD liner-notes--as well as interviews--Coldcut
have held a blowtorch to issues like globalization, logging, genetically modified food, and music copyright, not to mention
the benefits of anarchy.
They also like to dis Bush occasionally.
But while they may be politically motivated, outspoken and enlightened artists, they also speak sense on a more personal
"It's tough and there'll be some really difficult moments, but just hang in there."
So says Black in a few well-chosen words of advice that carry far more weight than the ribbing about George W. But he's
not talking about another two years of the Bush presidency, instead he's offering some sage advice to this writer--whose 6-week-old
daughter seems to really dig the new release Sound Mirrors.
Black has two toddlers and More is coping with a 16-year-old daughter, so they're more than qualified to give parental
"She's full of the teenage stuff," More muses. "She goes out quite a bit listening to music, and doing
all the things I used to do. It's kind of funny, but it's cool. She's got really good taste actually, very broad; everything
from Nina Simone to heavy, hard-core hip-hop. She thinks it [the new Coldcut album] is a bit weird!" he says with a laugh.
"She likes 'This Island Earth' and 'Walk A Mile,' those are her favorite tunes from the album--but she thinks some of
the other ones are a bit strange."
"My boy likes the record," Black pipes up. "He's particularly into Roots Manuva."
Which is interesting for me, because it's the track Roots Manuva contributes vocals on--"True Skool," a combination
of bubblegum funk with dancehall and an attitude--that my little girl seems to like the most, if her miniscule reactions (think
a restive gurgle or canny arched eyebrow) are anything to take into account. I have to say she's got taste.
Coldcut's personal history has shaped the audio picture this diverse album takes. Starting from 1987, when they slapped
together the first successful sample-built record per se--Say Kids, What Time Is It?, which owes as much to Cabaret Voltaire
as it does Grandmaster Flash--to their last full-length album Let Us Play (1997).
Along with their critically hailed label Ninja Tune, the boys are also responsible for one of the most exalted mix CDs
of the past decade--1995's 70 Minutes of Madness in the "Journeys By DJ" series--during which they fling together
innovative tracks by Richie Hawtin, Photek, Air Liquide, Luke Slater, Bedouin Ascent, Harold Budd, among others, with desperately
assured and devastating aplomb. The mix still stands the test of time 10 years on.
The new album Sound Mirrors moves away from the more extreme cut-up Coldcut back catalog typified on Timber or the mixing
work on 70 Minutes of Madness. If anything, it's the fact that it's more, well, musical. For a more tangible insight into
the origins of this opus you may have to wind the clock back to their work with vocalists Yazz, Lisa Stansfield and Mark E.
Smith in the latter half of the '80s.
The track "This Island Earth"--which boasts Mpho Skeef on sultry jazz-house vocals--symbolizes this further
"It was an experiment in some respects to go back and do some stuff Coldcut had done in the past, like 'People Hold
On'" says More, referencing their 1988 commercial club hit with Yazz.
Black concurs, with his own twist.
"I think a lot of artists are afraid of revisiting templates like that, for fear of people saying they're selling
out. Eighteen years down the line there was a little germ of an idea that it would be quite interesting to go back. I love
soulful deep house music--[but] a lot of the soul has been ironed out over the last 20 years. It's exercise music now, so
far as I'm concerned."
The name of the album is another matter.
"Sound does mirror things," More suggests. "I'm sure when you hear a record on a radio station it'll remind
you of your first kiss, or the time that you were at a party and got completely blasted and woke up with your trousers down
around your knees--so [music] is a mirror of your life, and a very good memory trigger as well"
"A sort of audio-epiphany," Black quips with a wry smile.
"Sound Mirrors" is out now on Beat Records. Coldcut will play with Hexstatic, DJ Kentaro, Skalpel and more at
Ninja Tune presents Zen TV II on April 7 at Ageha/Studio Coast in Shin Kiba, Tokyo, (03) 5534-2525.
(Jan. 26, 2006)
|a sound mirror - the real mccoy from wwii
COLDCUT INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
Tokyo, November 28, 2005
By Andrez Bergen
Andrez: First up, I'm sorry but I have to admit that I didn't go to Electraglide on Friday night - I have a three-week-old
baby, so I have to stay home these days...
Matt & Jonathan (in unison): Congratulations!
Matt: A boy or girl?
Andrez: A girl. She's really cool and beautiful - but I'm exhausted! (understanding laughter all round) So... do you guys
Matt: I have a five-and-a-half-year-old boy.
Jonathan: Mine's 16. She's good - she's full of the teenage stuff (he muses) She goes out quite a bit, listening to music,
and doing all the things I used to do.
Andrez: Must be like the shoe on the other foot, huh?
Jonathan: Yeah. It's kind'a funny, but it's cool.
Andrez: What kind of music is she into?
Jonathan: Um, she's got really good taste actually, very broad; everything from Nina Simone to heavy, hardcore hip hop.
Andrez: Wow. So what does she think of your new album?
Jonathan: She thinks it's a bit weird...! (we all laugh) She likes 'This Island Earth' and 'Walk A Mile'; those are her
favourite tunes - but she thinks some of the other ones are a bit weird. But then that's fair enough.
Matt: My boy likes the record. He's particularly into Roots Manuva. (who did vocals on the track 'True Skool')
Andrez: My three-week-old loves 'True Skool' too.
Matt: That's cool.
Andrez: It definitely stops her from crying - so thank you very much!
Jonathan: That's a good sign.
Matt: My son was born to the sounds of Mixmaster Morris. He's quite good with kids, actually.
Jonathan: Morris is great with kids!
Matt: Uncle Morris...
ON ELECTRAGLIDE (Fri. 25 November, 2005)
Andrez: So how was Friday night? (in Tokyo)
Jonathan: Crazy out of the fucker!!
Matt: Friday night was by the seat of our pants and the skin of our teeth - stress!
Jonathan: Good stress! Obviously we channel stress, you know, but it was the first time we did this new show, anywhere,
in one run-through. And there were about 18,000 people there watching, and they were rocking! So it was a little nerve-wracking,
what with the complex show that we're trying to do!
Matt: You're not supposed to do it like that.
Jonathan: (laughs) But it was good! And it came off, and that gave everybody the confidence. The Osaka night (on Saturday
26 November) was much calmer and it was like... yeah - we're on it. And it was tight.
Matt: It was calmer in that we addressed a number of problems that came up the previous night, and we didn't make those
mistakes again. We made a couple of other mistakes, but we felt a lot more confident and we really enjoyed it! Like raaaa
- we're a band!
Jonathan: Which takes a while to learn that we are a band...
Matt: But I think we are vaguely getting there now.
Andrez: 18 years later...
Jonathan: Well... no, actually, we didn't really start until "Let Us Play", did we?
Matt: No, but we can take that apart if you want - I mean, what is a band? It is a very interesting question in electronic
music. Some people more or less play a tape, which is very well produced, and mime on stage - and the audience absolutely
love it. But that's not for us. We like that energy of the risk of being able to fuck-up, of crashing-and-burning; that is
a rush of energy in itself.
Matt: This is the first time we've had someone like Jon Spencer rocking out there (on stage) on guitar beside the beats
- and that was only on one track! We flew him over to do one track on each night (in Tokyo & Osaka), and it was totally
worth it, an absolutely excellent end to the show.
Jonathan: It was the finale and we had this lad out the front rocking it, and us providing everything else...
Matt: It's rock & roll. All this, like, "dance is dead" - well fuck all that, they're still dancing. But
I think there's a lot we can learn from the rock energy side of things.
Jonathan: Yeah, there was a lot of energy in the Japanese audience.
Matt: We're rocking up in our old age... love it...
Andrez: That's funny - so why rock now?
Jonathan: Well, it's always been there in Coldcut; it kind of floats to the surface from time to time. I mean Mark E.
Smith (from UK band The Fall, who contributed vocals to "(I'm) In Deep" to the album "What's That Noise",
1989, and Coldcut reciprocated by producing "Telephone Thing" on the The Fall's "Extricate" album, 1990)
for example, then Jello Biafra (the American former Dead Kennedys front man was sampled on Coldcut's "70 Minutes Of Madness"
deejay mix compilation, 1995, and provided a trademark rant on the track "Every Home A Prison" from the album "Let
Us Play", 1997). And "Beats & Pieces" is shot through with rock samples - the whole thing's based on Led
Matt: And Nugent.
Jonathan: ...and Grand Funk Railroad; a bit of Aerosmith in parts. So it's always been there. You can see why the whole
"dance music is dead, rock music's living" UK press story is. It's good. They want that whole argument - you know,
Matt: There's a good side to it. But there's also a healthy slab of "oh, fucking hell, it's a good thing we can give
that black music a kicking, put it away in the cupboard, and get back to some nice white music again" - which is not
really where we're coming from, even if we are white. But being deejays, and being music lovers, Jon and I went through this
funk-rock thing and that was very influential on us. So that's one of the advantages of being "old": having the
time to see musical transitions go on, and yet still love music, and absorb good things from all of them. So as mixers - which
is what we are - we have the opportunity to mix and cook quite a big cupboard full of ingredients.
Andrez: So do you think of Coldcut as a kind of absorbing machine that takes the best parts from all these things...
Matt: "Syncretic" is one word - Mark Sinker used it. Ever heard of Mark Sinker? Used to be editor of The Wire
magazine, and famously got sacked from the NME for writing a review of U2 that said it was crap. He used to be my guitarist
when I had a band in Oxford (punk-funk outfit The Jazz Insects, when Black was known as Matthew Cohn). He talked about the
syncretic attitude of bebop, and I didn't know what it meant, so I had to look it up. It meant taking things...
Matt: ...and we're like that.
Jonathan: We are like that, yeah.
ON THE NEW ALBUM 'SOUND MIRRORS'
Matt: The inevitable question on your list must be - why eight years...? (since their last album 'Let Us Play', 1997)
Matt: Jon put it well in our last interview that 'Sound Mirrors' is a record of our lives over the past eight years, and
that seemed a reasonable length of time to absorb from and tabulate at this stage.
Jonathan: We needed to make another record, anyway! Make some money...
Matt: We do absorb, reprocess, excrete! (he laughs).
Andrez: Eight years' worth of information.
Matt: I think so.
Jonathan: Yeah, and many things went on - as we were talking about with the live show. In '97, when we put 'Let Us Play'
out, we went out on the road for three years pretty much, learning how to do it, making it up as we went along, and figuring
out... and beginning to really enjoy it as well. Then there was the remix thing ('Let Us Replay'), and going to New York to
work with Grandmaster Flash, which was an incredible thing to do - he's one of our original heroes. And we've done art projects
Matt: There's shit-loads of stuff, and it all feeds in. There comes a point where you have to put your hand on the table
and say "yeah, it's time to let it go".
Jonathan: You could just keep fiddling forever, to be honest, and I don't think any artist is totally happy with the shit
that they do.
Andrez: 'Tis true... So, why the title 'Sound Mirrors', anyway?
Jonathan: Well, there're lots of different reasons for it, actually - like with all our titles it's got loads of different
little strings attached. We did this play (called 'Sound Mirrors', in 2004) for BBC Radio 3, which was a collaboration with
a writer called Hari Kunzru, who wrote a book called 'The Impressionist', which won a couple of awards in the UK (it also
received one of the largest advances in publishing history - around £1.25 million); famously he turned down an award from
the Daily Mail.
The whole tip for the Daily Mail is "asylum-seekers are murdering our children, abusing our babies, and stealing
our wives", etc, etc. So anyway, he wrote this play that was called 'Sound Mirrors' - sound mirrors are in fact military
installations on the south coast of England; giant concrete ears (built between 1916 and the 1930s) that were precursors to
They were featuring in this play, so we researched them, and it was fascinating. They were meant to hear the planes comes
from across the water, but a lot of the operators actually reported hearing really strange noises - ghosts in the machines
and stuff; and the idea that you could build giant concrete ears to listen to stuff is quite mad, isn't it, really?
Matt: They thought they'd get early warning of planes, but what they got was early shagging in the sand-dunes! (laughter
Jonathan: Weird shit. So the theme for the play was the track 'Sound Mirrors'.
Andrez: Which is the title track on the album?
Jonathan: Yeah - which was heavily developed after that play; that's the instance of stuff feeding in. And then, you know,
we thought that, well, sound does mirror things. I'm sure when you hear a record on a radio station it'll remind you of your
first kiss, or the time that you were at a party and got completely blasted and woke up with your trousers down around your
knees! (laughter all round).
Andrez: Been there...
Jonathan: So it's a mirror of your life, and a very good memory trigger as well.
Matt: Yes - a sort of audio-epiphany.
Andrez: You guys give good sound-bytes, thank you very much.
Matt: I think we're very interested in the relationship between sound and everything else; people have been trying to
find links between sound and image for a long time, going back to the sixteenth century, and even before then with light organs,
and the synaesthesia stuff of people like (Expressionist artist) Kandinski, with visual representations of sound.
With today's tools, like what we've been working on, you can take a sound and represent it as a waveform, so you're working
with blocks of visual information on the screen. So when you take your scissors tool to cut a nice pattern on the screen,
the waveforms are quite beautiful in themselves.
Andrez: The last time I saw you guys was last year, for the Ninja Tune tour of Japan with Kid Koala and Hexstatic. That
was awesome. That was the last time you were in Tokyo?
Matt: Yeah. Though we might do some dates with Kentaro - the latest shit-hot deejay in the Ninja Tune tribe.
Andrez: Yeah, he's good - where do you find these guys, anyway?
Matt: They find us, with their Ninja noses. Somehow. We must be putting out the right pheromones.
Andrez: Well, with especially 'Sound Mirrors' - it's my favorite track on the album - I have a question: is that a koto
you sampled on there?
Matt: Umm... it could be!
Jonathan: It's a Japanese record of natural instruments, put through electronic processes which was then time-stretched
beyond any sensible limits, snipped into loads of little bits, and put back together. So I think back in there somewhere is
a koto instrument...
Matt: (does quirky vocal mime of a Japanese koto).
Jonathan: We were approached by B&W (Bowers & Wilkins) Speakers. They're doing this 6.1 surround system...
Matt: The whole set costs about £45,000.
Jonathan: Just one afternoon's work for a (professional) footballer, isn't it?
Matt: Not known for their brilliant views, though, are they?
Jonathan: Nonetheless - they (B&W, not the footballers) asked us if we would make a mix for a promo-DVD they were
doing to promote this thing. They offered to pay for us to go into Abbey Road for three days, in the biggest studio they've
got there, with a 36-piece orchestra, and Michael Price, one of the top string-arrangers of film music - he did 'Lord Of The
Rings', and 'Bridget Jones' Diary', and shit-loads of stuff. So, yeah, we said we thought we could do that! We took the bones
of the track in there...
Matt: Return to Abbey Road!
Jonathan: ...yeah, return to Abbey Road, and recorded this piece. It was amazing working with strings; working with quite
old-skool technicians and old-skool techniques. I don't think any of the microphones at Abbey Road are younger than me, and
I'm 48. (laughs) And we had our own acoustic engineer who was a lovely man and knowledgeable about everything.
Matt: An Abbey Road scientist of sound.
Jonathan: Yeah, he was brilliant. I was chatting to him, right, about strings that I liked, and I said I really loved
Barry White's strings on his records - and he said "oh yes, I think I recorded Barry in 1974 and if I remember rightly...",
and that was it - he moved the boom mikes around, a few bits and bobs, some stuff on the desk, a bit of EQ, and we had it!
Matt: Very often it starts with a loop.
Andrez: What was the first loop?
Matt: What, in the history of creation, you mean? (laughter) Probably god saying "I am".
Andrez: What was the first loop you actually worked on?
Matt: (On) 'Beats & Pieces' (1987): Led Zeppelin's 'When The Levy Breaks'. In those days we didn't have a sampler,
so our engineer - who worked on the soundtrack of 'Blade Runner' with Vangelis, which rather put us in awe of her - showed
us how to take a piece of reel-to-reel tape and splice it, then put six feet of it around a broom handle to make a tape loop.
Andrez: Wow. Very Cabaret Voltaire style.
Jonathan: Yeah. Old skool.
Matt: That was the backing track to 'Beats & Pieces'.
Andrez: Sampling's come a long way since then, hasn't it?
Jonathan: Yeah, it's crazy! What took, like, a week back then takes 10 minutes - or even less - now.
Matt: As Jon says, (sampling and looping) can now be done in seconds with an automated program like Ableton Live, which
is our favorite software these days - it really is designed to help loop-heads and beat-heads like us put things together.
Andrez: I have to say this - my first impression upon listening to 'Man In A Garage', and you're probably going to hate
me for saying this...
Jonathan: Go on!
Andrez: Um... Red Hot Chili Peppers...
Jonathan: Well, that's interesting - I'd never have thought of that, to be honest.
Matt: You know that track 'Porcelain' by them? I don't know much about their music, but I heard it on a compilation and
I thought that was a lovely track, amazing. So I mean they have different moods and quite an original sound, so we don't take
that as a diss, I don't think. Sell a lot of records, as well, so it's all good!
Jonathan: No, I like them.
Jonathan: Yeah! I thought they're a good band. And that's one of my daughter Lilly's favorite bands, come to think of
it... possibly it's permeated into me, because it's always on iTunes when she's doing her homework. And John Matthias had
a couple of albums out on (Matthew) Herbert's Accidental label. Quite lo-fi, but I thought they were good. So I think that's
a great song, I really do.
Andrez: On another note, the track 'This Island Earth': is the title taken from the '50s sci-fi movie?
Matt: No! ...I found a copy of that on the street, not a month ago, and I didn't even know there was a movie called that!
Jonathan: It was just a good title. The song was a co-write with Mpho (Skeef) and a chap from L.A. called Dom Freeman,
who's a wonderfully over-the-top character and a fantastic keyboard player as well! It was an experiment in some respects
to go back and do some stuff that Coldcut had done in the past like 'People Hold On' (1988).
Andrez: Yeah - it reminded me of the stuff you did with Yazz and Lisa Stansfield...
Jonathan: I think sometimes a lot of artists are afraid of revisiting templates like that, for fear of people saying they're
selling out. It's funny, because when Matt and I first made those tracks, the record company (Big Life) just wanted us to
make loads more like that - which we didn't want to do.
But now, 18 years down the line, there was a little germ of an idea that it would be quite interesting to go back. I love
that genre. I love soulful deep house music - a lot of the soul and the deepness and the humanity of house music has been
ironed out over the last 20 years. It's exercise music now, so far as I'm concerned.
ON COLDCUT'S MUZAK-AL INTENT
Matt: We like to think we're more of a cottage-industry, organic foods restaurant rather than a McDonalds.
Jonathan: So... sometimes you might find a bit of a shell! (laughter)
Andrez: Which you've gotta spit out! Man, another shell!
Matt: But it may be a pearl!
Jonathan: Yeah, it might be a pearl in there!
ON GEORGE W. BUSH
Jonathan: Our favorite whipping boy!
Matt: He's simply playing the role for which he's been prepared by his handlers, as Noam Chomsky said. You know, all the
world's a stage, and there's a sort of game going on, a play - in Hindu it's "lila". It means that the play isn't
real. And I rather think that the guys who write the script and do the direction are not on stage, don't you?
Andrez: Puppet masters.
Jonathan: Dead eyes! ...that's what I see when I look at George Bush.
Matt: The president of the United States, and the most powerful man in the world, actually is a bozo.