Unlike many of his peers during Britain’s rave revolution, Andrew Meecham wasn’t particularly interested in partying. His passion was, and remains, electronic music production.
Meecham started playing around with synthesizers and samplers in his bedroom as a teenager. When he and friend Chris Peat managed to talk themselves into a job at Blue Chip Studios in Stafford in the mid 1980s, it brought them into contact with local DJs and aspiring producers Dean Meredith and Mark Archer. Between them, the quartet was responsible for producing a number of early acid house and UK techno releases, before Meecham and Meredith joined forces as Bizarre Inc, and Archer and Peat formed Altern-8. Both outfits went on to produce some of the most successful and memorable dancefloor anthems of the rave era.
After a bad experience with a major label, Bizarre Inc called it a day in 1996. Meecham began recording solo under the Sir Drew alias, before joining forces with Meredith once more as Chicken Lips. Under the alias, the duo earned a reputation for producing stripped-back, dubbed-out disco influenced by the musical melting pot that was New York in the early 1980s. They scored a number of dancefloor hits, including runaway success story “He Not In.”
Since 2003, the main focus of Meecham’s solo work has been The Emperor Machine, a project born out of his love for vintage sequencers, early modular electronica and obscure library music. To date, there have been four Emperor Machine albums, as well as countless singles on D.C. Recordings, Internasjonal and Southern Fried Records.
In 2013, Meecham sat down with DJ History’s Bill Brewster to talk through his career to date, focusing in particular on the rise and fall of Bizarre Inc, Chicken Lips’ unexpected success and his life-long love of synthesizers.
What is your earliest musical memory?
The Troggs “Wild Thing.” My mum and dad bought the album because apparently I kept singing it. I think they’re in a cave on the front cover. That was the first thing that really got me.
What was your pop music history? What were you into?
Mostly things my sister was into. She’s five years older. It would’ve been a lot of glam rock, Bowie and Gary Numan that got my attention straight away. She’d play it really loud in her room. Motown and that kind of stuff from my parents I suppose. Ike and Tina Turner. A bit of a mixed bag really. When I started buying my own records, I think one of the first things I bought was “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty. I went to the corner shop and they were selling old jukebox records with no middles.
What was it that stoked your musical passions?
I think it was The Tube, when they played the “Planet Rock” video. I recorded it. That was it. More from an electronic music than a dance music perspective, that’s the thing that got me hooked.
What appealed to you about electronic music?
Electronics and the fact that it is futuristic sounding. I loved the Kraftwerk riff on “Planet Rock,” that was the thing I loved most of all. Being into Doctor Who and things like that. The drum machines. The way it was programmed up.
So were you a fan of Star Wars as well?
Yes, anything that was sci-fi. UFO programmes. Star Trek. Stuff that was in the future and wasn’t reality. With my dad and his brother being hi-fi nuts, there was a lot of speaker swapping when I was younger. They were bringing round music, but mainly sound effects, explaining stereo to me. They’d play a jet plane flying from one speaker to the other. There was one where someone went to the toilet, flushed it and you heard their footsteps moving from one speaker to the other. My dad was like, “Listen to this Andrew!”
It’s buried in your DNA then?
It is really. With my parents, the music was always loud. They had a Tandberg system. When I speak to people now and you talk about growing up, there weren’t a lot of people who had this sort of sound in their living room. You could hear things properly. He’d explain to me about hi-hats. It was great really.
What did he think when you started pursuing your music?
He was really happy I think. He bought me my first turntables. Dual 505 or 606 it was – some Sony turntables anyway. He was really behind me. I wasn’t academic at school. He wanted me to do it as well. When I was getting into sampling, he’d go off to the car boot sale and come back with a load of records and say, “See if you can get something from these.” Oh, cheers Dad! He was just really behind it. He still is. He still gets excited and tells me I should do another “Playing With Knives.”
What was he like when you started getting some success?
Really proud. He was telling everybody to the point of embarrassment. “Playing With Knives” I did at his house, so he’d tell everyone, “He made it at our house,” and that I’d come and test the track out on their Tandberg system. He’s quite proud that it was done upstairs and checked on his system.
What was your first encounter with house music?
Probably when I worked as a lighting technician at a Ritzy type club in Stafford. It was called the Colosseum. I worked there from about 1986 to ’89. The DJs that were there were bringing stuff in but the manager said they weren’t allowed to play it. He was like, “You can’t play any of this house rubbish”. Yazz was in the charts [with “The Only Way Is Up”] and one of the DJs got told off for playing it because it was house music.
What happened in the gap between hearing “Planet Rock” and working in the club? Were you delving into electronic music?
I’d got this old mixer with a delay on it and I was making weird music with that and a Sinclair Spectrum, which had this drum machine programme that plugs into the back of it. I was trying to be creative with no money. I think I bought a Casio sampler. It just slowly developed. My dad helped me. He bought me my first synth, an SH-101 that I got from the son of a doctor. He lent me the money. I just played with that. The day I got that synthesizer was the day I just stayed in my room and made music. 1983 maybe. I think I was at school. I used to make mixtapes, but I used to do an intro with a synth at the beginning.
At that time there really weren’t many British electronic producers to inspire young kids. The only one I can think of is Paul Hardcastle. What inspired you?
It goes back to my dad and his brother. When I’d go back to his house, he had a Vox piano, guitars on stands and loads of instruments around. It was always there. What’s that drum machine? How did they make that sound? Simon Harris made a drum machine album and that helped me to get things down.
At what point did you go from faffing about in the bedroom to playing stuff to outside people?
Well the electronics was my thing but I also joined a band called Silent Scream. In this band was me, the singer, the guy on the keyboards was Chris Peat from Altern-8, we had a rock guitarist and my cousin played bass. We didn’t really do any gigs but we played in front of mates. From then my introduction to music was when I got a job at Blue Chip Studios, which was at the same time as I worked at the Colosseum. Me and Chris got jobs as engineers and that’s where I met Dean Meredith and Mark Archer.
Presumably you’d taught yourself engineering, so I’m assuming you were technically qualified. Was it a bit of a blag?
God, it was huge blag! Luckily, Chris had the gift of the gab. We bullshitted them. We got in there, took the manuals for the desk home with us and we learnt it. That was the way in. I was engineering and playing keyboards, learning and bullshitting at the same time.
What were you engineering?
I did an EP called “Ubadj” with Chris, Mark and Dean as Beat Squad. I was also doing keyboards for Mark and Dean when they were doing their Acid Trance album in 1988. Chris did more of the engineering I suppose and I was more of a programmer. The guy who owned it at the time, Kev Roberts, had all sorts of things on the go. “We’re going to cover this, can you programme it?” It was on an Atari ST and I didn’t like doing it. It was stressful doing it for other people and I wasn’t quick enough for the demands of an artist who’d say, “Can we do this again? Can you drop me in on 4 minutes 20 seconds?” You left when it all went wrong.
This is not the same Kev Roberts as the Northern Soul Kev is it?
Absolutely! He was the guy that gave me my first ever record contract. Think it was two per cent on one piece of paper. That was for the “Ubadj” EP. It was also a contract for a percentage on productions I did. I was really proud of that; when it went wrong I was really sad. When I look back at the contract now, it’s laughable, but he gave us a chance. I’ll always be thankful for that. He gave Altern-8 and Bizarre Inc the chance to play with technology. He’d go to America and come back with loads of rare records and he’d say, “Here you go lads, see if you can sample some of this.” It was a great time. This guy from the Climax Blues Band, Derek, would come and do stuff for TV. In the end, though, he ended up buying the studio. We’d still go down and record stuff there. We did a Bizarre Inc album there that didn’t get released. When we signed to Warner Bros, they still have it.
Tell me about the beginnings of Bizarre Inc. Didn’t you swap with Altern-8?
Yes that’s exactly right. It's cloudy now. There was a fall out in the studio. I left. Then everybody left. Then me and Dean decided to get a deal. He came to mine and we got some demos together. While this was happening there was a DJ at the Colosseum called Carl Turner and he was the DJ who was bringing lots of the house imports into the club. I said to Dean, “Shall we bring Carl in because he’s got lots of interesting records?” Chris had teamed up with Mark and started doing Altern-8. They went to Neil Rushton’s Network label, we went to Vinyl Solution. We sent some demos. It was Jonathan [AKA J. Saul Kane] that picked up on them. He invited us down. We went to this grotty hole in Portobello. It was not what we thought a record company would be like. They were really up for it. They could see the idea we had. We developed it with Jonathan and Alain.
J. Saul Kane also set up D.C. Recordings. Was that the connection when you hooked up with them later?
Yes. I got to know a guy called James Dyer when he was running the label. Jonathan and Alain set up the label. It’s all quite mysterious. I don’t know who owns it. It was through James really, though. I sent them the Sir Drew demos, which he liked but there were too many samples on them.
Anyway back to Bizarre Inc. Was acid house kicking off in Stafford? Were you aware?
Dean was. He was on the pulse of it. I was when it came to synths. They’d go clubbing more than me. I was working Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Colosseum, whereas Dean was going to the Haçienda and Quadrant Park and bringing back ideas. That was how it worked. That was the team.
Tell me about “Playing With Knives.”
It was me and Dean that got the idea, upstairs in my bedroom. Once we had that idea together we played the demo to Alain. He booked us into a studio called Out Of The Blue for two days and that’s when Carl joined us. We spent two days recording “Playing With Knives.”
What was the first big track you had? Was it “Such A Feeling”?
I can’t remember. I think it was “Playing With Knives.”
It was just… Ubiquitous. It was the last of that era where DJs were all dipping from the same pool of records. By the end of ’91 it had changed.
At the time we were making it, we were listening to N-Joi “Anthem.” We went to see them at Shelley’s playing live and they were amazing. We were trying to get the same vibe. It was the same with Emperor Machine. I watched Zombie Zombie and thought, “Yeah brilliant!” Dean took “Playing With Knives” to Quadrant Park and gave it to Graeme Park to play. Unfortunately, for some reason I couldn’t go. I think he went with Pezz from 3 Beat. He phoned me the next day and said, “Oh mate you should have been there, everybody’s hands went in the air!” It was amazing. From then on, we were on a roll. It was the right time and right place.
When was the first time you saw it played?
Probably in the Colosseum, funnily enough. After that it was when we were gigging it. Think it was in Scotland. It was just amazing. I’ve got videos and I was watching them the other day. A lot of it was down to the engineer Adam Lesser. We wanted to go to this studio because 808 State recorded there. He should take a lot of credit for “Playing With Knives.” He spent hours on the bass drum, and we’d be really bored. Eight hours later and he’s still listening to the bass drum. It was good.
Did that teach you something about good engineering?
At the time no, but now I do understand. A lot of the problems were in time-stretching the samples to fit. There were two things he spent ages on, the bass drum and the samples. He deserves a lot of credit.
You started working with vocalists next, was that the natural progression?
I think it was the record company too saying, “I think you should try some.” Angie Brown was not the first choice. We wanted someone who sounded like Jocelyn Brown, which is why we chose her. We did choose another girl called Yvonne Yanney but for some reason she didn’t do it. We approached Jocelyn and she didn’t want to do it. Since that time she’s constantly gone around gigging as Bizarre Inc. Bit annoying really. No it’s on the Tesco ad, they’re using “I’m Gonna Get You” to advertise Easter eggs!
So the major labels came calling…
We signed to Warner Bros. We delivered an album. They said, “It’s not “I’m Gonna Get You” is it?” So we got dropped. From there we went to Mercury. This was all with our manager Stevo Pearce.
Not the Some Bizzare Stevo?
Yes. He came to a gig and basically poached us. He talked us into getting rid of our manager, Carl. “Come with me, I’ll make you loads more money. Here’s a guy called Cameron, he should be your MC.” He just took us from label to label and got loads of money. I can remember writing a cheque to our solicitors for £32,000. It was a crazy time. Everything went at warp speed, everything was happening so fast. It all went wrong. “Keep The Music Strong” got A-listed. I remember waking every morning to Chris Evans playing it on the Breakfast Show. Then Mercury dropped us because it didn’t go high enough in the charts. So me and Dean decided to take a break and disappeared. That’s when the Sir Drew and Psychedeliasmith things came in. Dean did his stuff with Norman Cook’s label Southern Fried.
So presumably you carried on producing but just went back to basics?
Yeah. Chicken Lips started in the fall out with Bizarre Inc. We went to another studio in Manchester. It wasn’t Out Of The Blue. At the time Carl wasn’t interested in staying late in the studio, whereas me and Dean were. So when he went we came up with these Chicken Lips ideas. So it was brewing a while before Bizarre Inc ended. So the idea of Chicken Lips was to get back to the dancefloor and take off from where we left with “Playing With Knives” after being abused by major labels.
So what was the idea behind the new direction? It sounded to me like you’d been listening to mid-’80s Prelude Records releases.
Well, that’s exactly right mate. Nail on the head. If you were into that sound we got into that again. There was also the big beat thing and the use of Envelope Followers. Putting breaks through Envelope Followers and breathing life back into the MPC.
For the non-technical numbskulls, can you explain what an "Envelope Follower" is? Presumably it’s not related to the Post Office.
It’s basically a box which if you feed music into, it’s like a filter that works on the sound of the music. So it will follow the envelope. It shuts and opens volumes. If you put a break through a pedal called a Meatball, the envelope would make the music change in time. It’s like someone filtering resonance or frequency.
So name a track that you’ve done it on.
I think it was on “Shoe Beast” that we first got into doing it. “Let’s revisit the MPC, let’s get some envelope following!” There was a track Norman Cook did at the time where he used this Meatball and it really inspired us, just like we were inspired watching N-Joi and then later on in Chicken Lips it was the Idjut Boys. It’s not like we were stealing other people’s ideas – we just get inspired. You hear it and think, “Oh I must do something like that!” So that was the start of the Chicken Lips thing.
And you did some stuff for Athletico. Who was that?
It was a guy from Stafford called Alex Sparrow and his then girlfriend Kirsty McCarra. Think I did a Sir Drew track on the label. They passed on some of the stuff, because it was full of samples, which is what Kingsize picked up on. They didn’t care about the samples.
How did you get together with them? They were based in Staines or somewhere, weren’t they?
Yeah. We just sent them a demo. Being in Bizarre Inc was a bit of a calling card for us. I got Sir Drew a deal first. Julian and Richard were really into it at the time, this is Julian who now runs Dispersion PR. So they said, “Great, come down!” So they sent me a car to get me from Stafford to Staines – a Mercedes limo with this Greek guy driving. The meeting went really well. So I said, “Listen, we’ve also got this thing that I do with Dean, Chicken Lips,” and I played him some demos. So they signed Chicken Lips as well.
Yeah, I remember including one of those early Lips tracks on a compilation I did about 11 years ago. Maybe “He Not In.”
That was interesting the way that came about. That literally did take four hours to do. It honestly was an album filler track. It was a shocker when it did what it did. “What? Really? You’re kidding?” You spend all this time working on other pieces of music and you think they’re the best. But sometimes it’s a bit overkill. And that was so simple it just worked.
What’s your best memory of those early rave years?
Headlining at everything. We had this saying: “We’ll win again.” We always do. And at the time we were riding the rave wave. It was fresh, it was exciting and we were out every weekend. I was coming home and putting hundreds of pounds in the top drawer in my bedroom. I was actually loaded. I could buy more keyboards. It was inspiring. I wasn’t really doing drugs so I could go on [in the studio] really late at night and then in the morning when everyone would be gurning, I’d be buzzing off this natural high. So I’d be like, “Come on, let’s do this,” and they’d be a mess, but I was up for it. It was really, really exciting.
What was the biggest gig you did?
World Party maybe? There was one where there were 11,000 people. That was just mad. It’s all hazy now. It would’ve been a rave, outdoor.
What was the worst moment being in Bizarre Inc?
We played somewhere and they wanted more of a PA, so “I’m Gonna Get You” was on DAT and Angie Brown was singing. We recorded the backing track onto one of this PA company’s DAT tapes, so when the track ended, this hardcore rock song came on. Another time on Top Of The Pops, my keyboard stand fell down and they carried on recording.
Is Chicken Lips still an ongoing project?
Thanks to Southern Fried Records, yeah. It’s weird – we’ve gone full circle. We’re back to Southern Fried. We’ve got a new single coming out. Among other things, I’m doing Emperor Machine and Dean’s doing his Rhythm Odyssey stuff so getting together as Chicken Lips can be quite difficult so that’s where file sharing can be quite handy. So Chicken Lips is active and we’ve done two singles already.
So how come you’re file sharing when you both live in Stafford?
It’s all to do with children and their bedtimes. It’s the school run. It’s everything. It eats the day. At the moment Dean’s got a young child. When she starts school later in the year, I would’ve thought we’ll be working together more and also I’ve been busy with Emperor Machine. I’d much rather be working with somebody in the studio than file sharing.
The ideas that bounce off each other happen where you’re sat next to each other, don’t they?
Exactly. With Chicken Lips me and Dean were good at that. Like with Bizarre Inc, he would always have the record box full of new stuff, whereas I’d say, “Check this new synth.” We’d never step on each other’s toes. He would never play keyboards with Bizarre Inc – though he does now on his own things – and I never really bought a lot of music. That all came from Dean which suited me to be honest.
How did Emperor Machine come into being?
Emperor Machine was by keeping in contact with James at D.C. Recordings. The whole reason it started was there was this guy – I don’t know who he was – who was saying the Roland SH-3a was rubbish. I had one of those synths. And I thought, “What a load of crap, you obviously don’t know how to use it!” So I went away and recorded this track just on that synth. I sent it to James and he loved it. He said, “Can you do another one?” So I did another on just the one synth. Jonathan came up with the name Emperor Machine.
What’s the difference between Chicken Lips and the Emperor Machine?
There’s no Dean [laughs]. It’s all me. I’m buying the records this time and playing on synths. It’s back to me on my own in my bedroom like it was years ago.
The thing I noticed with your solo stuff is that it’s almost not dance music. What I mean by this is you can dance to it, but it doesn’t seem to me to be your primary motivation. The remixes are slightly different, but the original productions are almost like the stuff that came out on Bruton and KPM in the early ’80s, like modern library music.
Actually I got quite into library music through James who was a huge collector of it. When I think about it now, he turned into Dean. It would be Dean that fed me the other music and then James that fed me the music. He’d say, “Listen to this KPM track,” and I’d listen to it and think, “God that’s inspiring.” So with my collection of synths and James’s collection of library records, that was the whole vibe of Emperor Machine.
So that sort of explains the Vertical Tones and Horizontal Noise series then?
Basically, yeah. There were some tracks on those that were dancefloor, but the music had to make me shudder. So I’d work on something until it made me shudder, that tingling feeling. It was more of a drug thing really. I had to get that out of the music and I can’t get that from full on 909, four-to-the-floor dance music. But when it’s more musical and interesting, I know I’ve spent time trying to get that feeling.
I do use the Emperor Machine stuff a lot in my DJ sets, but I’ve often tended to edit them to make the arrangements work better on a dancefloor. They’re amazing but they don’t always work in an orthodox dancefloor setting.
No it’s true! Good for you that you do that, it shows you like them. That’s really good. Arrangements are a really personal thing. That Locussolus remix I did for DJ Harvey was 20 minutes long. I don’t know how “play-out-able” it is because of the BPM, but that was great to do and the fact they kept the full version of it was fantastic. My arrangements can be a bit particular. I used to get that with the Sir Drew stuff as well. People would say, “It changes too much.”
You’ve obviously got a fascination for analog gear. Do you ever use stuff like soft plug-ins or is it all hardware?
I use plug-ins if it does the job I want it to. I’m lucky that I started collecting stuff when I was younger, so it’s my hobby as well as my job, if it is a job. I’m not that passionate really. I’ve used soft plug-ins before. I’ve used synths on my iPhone before in tracks.
They just sounded great. I will process them or do something with them first so they’re not too clean sounding. However, I do like the fact you can sit with it and work on it and not use a mouse. I do prefer that.
If you had to take one synth with you on a desert island, which would it be?
What original production are you most proud of and why?
The Emperor Machine track “Kananana." I really love that. The riffs I played from the Polymoog and I started signing, “Kananana” to get a rough vocal idea and it worked. The video is great, too.
I’m really quite proud of “He Not In,” because it didn’t take long to do. From a remix point of view, the Harvey remix is my favourite. I was just buzzing. Each time I came back into the studio I’d add another bit. It was getting longer and longer and the reaction I got from Harvey and Heidi was great. They were just like, “This is the best.” I’m really proud of that. But I’m proud of everything I do, mate.
This interview took place in March 2013. © DJ History