Interview: Andrew Weatherall

Longtime Weatherall compadre Jeff Barrett of London's Heavenly Records speaks to the infamous squire of Rotter's Golf Club Studio about the dregs of East London, acid, and moustache wax among other colourful topics.

Dan Wilton

Andrew Weatherall and I have known each other for over 20 years. We met during the acid house days – him on the decks, me on the dancefloor. Mates said we’d get along, and we did. Longhaired herberts in engineer’s boots loving every minute of it. He was a cool guy. Still is, of course. But he’s hip too. There’s a difference. Once he started making his own music I knew it was going to be special and I knew that he would last. As we discuss below, he hasn’t made it easy for himself along the way, but he has made it easier for others. He has been a real inspiration, cutting an individual path, forever restless and never boring. He is also a very generous man who’s always ready to share his knowledge and offer help and support when something or someone he identifies with could use a hand. On the afternoon of our meeting, Andrew turned up with two compilation CDs he had made for me. One of them was contemporary disco, the other kicked off with a new track by Philadelphian rock’n’roller Kurt Vile. This didn’t surprise me – after all, this is a guy who put folk singer Nanci Griffith on a Boy’s Own playlist – but it did make me smile. It’s constantly reassuring to know that he’s one acid house veteran who still gives a fuck. When The Daily Note asked me if I would interview Andrew, I immediately said yes, but suggested that it would be more of a chat than an interview. So they gave me a few questions to put to his way and I had a think if there was anything specific I should be asking. That lasted about a minute as my mind hit on the subject of post-punk and how influential postpunk or, to be more specific, the punk-funk element of post-punk, has been in these posthouse times. It’s a big one and I’m not sure I’m up to the task but it did give me an idea as to how to begin our chat.

JEFF BARRETT: I wanted to talk to you about the compilation, Nine O'Clock Drop (2000, Nuphonic). That record was so different to anything else that was around when it came out.

ANDREW WEATHERALL: That record was me recreating a mixtape I had for years. It was one I’d made in the mid-’80s. Every week on a Friday night, me and a couple of friends used to drop acid at 9pm, whether we were together or not. We knew we’d eventually meet up and go to the Mud Club or somewhere. The test of whether the acid was working was when we got to Heston Services. If the kids’ playground bit was beginning to take on different forms then you knew you were in for a good ride. I always used to find with acid that the grass and vegetation would always go a really vivid green. I had a brief chat with the guy who did the artwork [for Nine O’Clock Drop] and didn’t really prime him about how to make it look. When the cover came back, God knows how, it was exactly the same colour as the grass used to be when I was tripping.

JEFF: The record I loved that I’d forgotten about on there was "Coup" by 23 Skidoo. That was a big record for me when it came out. None of those tracks had been compiled before.

ANDREW: I could have chosen much more obscure tracks than I did but I really didn’t want to. The album was the soundtrack to me getting ready to go out. I don’t think it’s a natural thing for people to listen to challenging, obscure music when they’re getting ready to go out. Much as I love Throbbing Gristle, I don’t want to listen to "Hamburger Lady" whilst applying make up and putting a frock on.

JEFF: It’s interesting that records like ESG and Liquid Liquid hadn’t really been pored over at that point.

ANDREW: I used to pick up records from The Cage record shop in the market in Chelsea, halfway down the King’s Road. It was in the same place that Don Letts used to have ACME Attractions, but it was a few years after that. The shop was a big metal cage in the middle of the market – they used to sell early Belgian electronic records and post-punk stuff. Actually, maybe I’m painting a far more interesting picture of the shop than is actually true.

JEFF: How old were you?

ANDREW: Maybe I was 18 and in my last year at school. That market was the first place I ever saw a pair of Johnson’s biker boots. Back then I used to save up money to go to World’s End, the old Vivienne Westwood shop. I’d get the train from Windsor up to town and get as far as the shop’s front door and I’d bottle it. That must have happened to me four or five times before I plucked up the courage to actually walk in. I like that atmosphere from a shop. But it’s not so good if you’re trying to make any money off punters, I imagine. I’m sure there are shops like that today where kids are intimidated, stood outside really wanting to go in, but scared. I always liked that about record shops, it’s one of the biggest things people moan about, snotty shop staff. I used to find it hilarious. That record shop "attitude" never used to bother me.

JEFF: You get the same thing with clubs. There’s something magical about the ones where you have to try to work out what they’re about. You spend ages wondering whether you’re wearing the right thing, are you going to get in… there’s a strange energy you get from not knowing if you’ll get in.

ANDREW: Whether it’s a club, a bar or a shop, I’ve always believed that if you have to make an effort to get in then it must be worthwhile.

Sir Andrew Weatherall at the Academy in Madrid, 2011 Dan Wilton

JEFF: How does living and working in east London affect your music? Is there an affinity other than that your house is there?

ANDREW: Well, this is my one visit to west London this year. There’s a big difference between the areas. East London just seems to have a harder edge to it. I’ve been working there for 15 years now. I started out when it was a no-go zone, when there was just the Bass Clef and the London Apprentice. It’s very easy to mock areas that you don’t live in – if you live in the West, you think it’s horrible over East, if you live in North London you’re never going to head south of the river. There’s a dirtier, darker energy in the east and that’s to do with the history of the area. It was a kind of no-man’s land where all the scum and the dregs drifted to, it was outlaw territory. It was where the Jago was.

JEFF: I don’t know what that is.

ANDREW: It’s a bit further past Shoreditch High Street, round by Arnold Circus, that’s where the Jago used to be. It was a series of alleyways where no one would go. It wasn’t policed – they were too afraid to go there. The people living there used to rob people coming out of Liverpool Street station and then run into the Jago. Men would send women out to lure unsuspecting victims in, then they’d get bashed and robbed. At the risk of using that hideously overused term ‘psychogeography’, that’s how parts of London were and still are. They’ve got the imprint of hundreds of years of skullduggery. That’s what I love about the East End, right down to London Bridge. It’s perpetually dark and foggy. You imagine shapes coming out of the mist.

"...there seems to be something not quite right about buying moustache wax off a computer."  

JEFF: That whole murky, pre-development London Bridge area really suited Sabresonic [the club Weatherall ran in Jacks in 1994], didn’t it?

ANDREW: Yeah, it’s locked tight into a part of history that I love: that turn-of-the-century, foggy London thing. I’m talking here about the period right up to the Second World War. I think East London, its literature and social history, represents that whole time coming out of the darkness. People often say that my music is too dark, so I suppose the feel of the place has affected the music quite deeply. I always try to add a poppy melody to give a chink of light to music I make. I always think music is much scarier if there’s a crack of light shining through. That’s why I don’t like Satanic heavy metal, it’s like comic book darkness. I like to make music that has a glimmer of hope that’s cruelly snatched away at the last minute.

JEFF: Do you think you employ a scorched earth policy on your own musical past?

ANDREW: I did at one point. I was very dismissive of my past around the time I signed to Warp [1993] when I became a little bit scorched earth. I was very obsessed with the process of making electronic music. I was getting a bit snotty about the fact that as I learned more about how to make that music, the stuff I’d done previously must have been rubbish, like it wasn’t as clever as Autechre or something. And I just OD’ed on the stuff. I had this really small record room and I spent inordinate amounts of time listening to noodly electronic music – very clever, all of it – and I started thinking, “What am I getting out of this?” It was a one-way street. All I was thinking about was the process, there was absolutely no communication going on there. When I realised that I became a bit more open to my own past. It wasn’t proper electronic music but it had a soul and it had a heart. It was trying to communicate with people. If you hear my version of "Soon" by My Bloody Valentine now, it still sounds really fucking good. Nearly 20 years since I did it, you can still hear it in a club and see kids going fucking nuts to it. It’s still managing to communicate something which lots of those very worthy electronic records of that era never really managed to do. They aren’t having any kind of emotional resonance with me – probably with anyone – anymore.

JEFF: Do you ever listen to those records now?

ANDREW: I have a little dabble occasionally. I listened back to a few Two Lone Swordsmen records the other day, things like "Stay Down" and "Virus With Shoes". It’s usually the ones where I’ve discovered the art of self-editing, where I haven’t spun the same idea out over ten minutes. All my life I’ve listened to records that put the message across in three minutes but when I got in the studio I started making records that rambled on for 15-odd minutes!

JEFF: So how much was weed involved in that, back then?

ANDREW: How much do you reckon? The other thing with those records was my own lack of technical expertise led to me thinking I needed to make these crazed grand statements. I really felt the need to throw everything into tracks. I felt that if a track was ten minutes long it was somehow more worthy than something that lasted three minutes. It went against everything I’d always believed growing up. When I got turned on to 60s library music, that’s what spun my head. They would nail it in one and a half minutes. It’s always better to leave people wanting more of something than making them think, “I wish this had ended ten minutes ago.” Yeah, library music kind of taught me the art of brevity.

JEFF: As a producer, you’ve made some incredible records, but last year was the first time in nearly two decades that you produced a full album by a band in your Rotters Golf Club studio – Fuck Buttons’ second album Tarot Sport. How did that come about?

ANDREW: Well, there are only two of them and all their gear fit into my studio. I’m a bit selfish, really. If I’m going to spend three days trying to mic up a drum kit, its three days that I’ll be thinking, “I could be working on my own stuff.” If you’re a career producer, you divorce yourself from the music slightly – you have to be able to switch off and work on things you don’t necessarily love. You have to become immersed in the process and divorce yourself from the music you’re working on. And I can’t really do that.

JEFF: So Tarot Sport was your first proper album production since One Dove’s Morning Dove White in 1993.

ANDREW: I think it was the most work with one band I’d done since then, yeah. I knew working with them would be painless. I knew what I wanted to do, how it should sound. I knew it shouldn’t be a radical departure. I knew I could get more out of their simple kit than they could in a crappy cheap studio. Our studio isn’t massive or anything but I knew if they worked there I could help bring out frequencies they weren’t finding. I didn’t want to change the sound, I just wanted to help expand it a little bit. It was recorded in three days. They did three takes of the tracks in total. The first, the band were warming up, the second, they were going to be flying, and the third, they’d be getting bored and starting to do a few too many whooshes on there. So you’d use the second one as the anchor, a few shonky bits from the first one and a few twiddly bits from the last one, and bolt them all together. It needed to be a step on from the first record, which was just a live recording, mixed. I thought they were big techno fans and I kept checking records and a lot of the time they just didn’t know things I was talking about. For the first couple of weeks I kept trying to foist records on them, then I realised the best thing was for me to listen to what they were into.

JEFF: Did you enjoy it?

ANDREW: It was such an intense experience. People tell me how much they love it and about how intense it is and I’m just thinking, “I was in the studio with them for 12 hours a day for six weeks, imagine how fucking intense it was for me!” It’s the same thing I remember from when I was 18 and I worked on building sites, when you’ve done a week of physical work and on Friday night you’re still really pumped up. Recording with Fuck Buttons was the first time I’d experienced that feeling in many, many years, like I’d done a week of hard graft carrying a hod all day long. It’s physical music, that’s just how it is.

JEFF: How do you come down from that?

ANDREW: You don’t if you’ve got to go out DJing at the weekend and spend a load of time playing records in a club.

Primal Scream's seminal 'Screamadelica' album - produced by Weatherall. Paul Cannell / Creation Records, 1991

JEFF:  So, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica is 20 years old next year.

ANDREW: Yeah, I was talking to [Primal Scream guitarist Andrew] Innes and he was saying that very little of it is on multi-track, it’s all done on samplers. I can remember vague things about making that record, like what drum machines we were using. I can remember back to recording "I’m Coming Down". We were in the studio and we had those plastic tubes that you whizz round your head to make a mad noise. I can’t wait to see how they try to replicate that when they play it live in November. There were five of us sat on the floor trying to record an orchestra of them. It’s funny, you get all those classic album programmes on telly. If they were approached about it, there’s no way anyone would remember the formula. It was just a gang hanging out for a year who happened to end up making a record during that time in an expensive studio.

JEFF: It was a really experimental record for the time. People probably take that for granted. Maybe Primal Scream working with you was the point when they managed to find the sounds from inside their heads.

ANDREW: I’d been hanging out with them for a while so when I heard all the demos I thought, “I know what you’ve been listening to,” and from there I got to a point of being able to take one step away, to possibly help to take any pastiche element away. I heard the demo of "I’m Coming Down" and I kept hearing this Pharaoh Sanders-style spacey saxophone. I spoke to Bobby and told him that and he said, “No way, man. I’ve just come from the shop. I’ve got a Pharaoh Sanders record in my bag”. There were weird synchronicity moments during the making of that record.

JEFF: Even acid house, which you were involved with very early on, had rules that you were supposed to adhere to – rules that you obviously weren’t going to stick to. It must have been amazing to meet people like the Scream and find that people were willing to let you do what you wanted.

ANDREW: That was the great thing about things then. Those bands would be hanging round in clubs and you’d all be listening to the same records. They’d literally be dancing to your tunes.

Lecturing at 2011 Academy in Madrid Dan Wilton

JEFF: Which of your records do you think people have overrated?

ANDREW: Quite a bit of the early stuff. It’s good, but that’s just the way it works. When you’re the new kid on the block, you tend to be a little overrated by people and then as time goes by you tend to become more underrated. I think those early records are good but some of the reviews were slightly ridiculous. That’s just the way pop music works. When you’re new to the game you get showered with superlatives. As you get older and more experienced, people are less interested. They’ve moved on, there’s someone else to heap praise on. After a while it’s just another Andy Weatherall record, from the bloke who produced Screamadelica.

JEFF: What brand of moustache wax are you using at present?

ANDREW: No wax at the moment as I can’t find any Clubman’s. I could probably find it online but there seems to be something not quite right about buying moustache wax off a computer. You should track it down from some obscure chemist. I used to go to a chemist off Jermyn Street where they used to sell it but it closed.

JEFF: Do they still make it?

ANDREW: Yeah, they’ve been going since 1810 and they’re still going strong. The chemist used to have a neutral coloured one which was what I used. They used to have a whole selection to match every hair colour you could imagine. I’ve tried other brands but it’s just not the same. Nowadays I rely on coffee froth and food detritus to get the necessary stiffness.

[Ed. note - This interview was originally published in 2010 during the Red Bull Music Academy in London as part of the Daily Note newspaper. Andrew Weatherall gave a lecture during the 2011 Academy in Madrid.]

By Jeff Barrett on December 13, 2011

On a different note