Interview: ORIGINALS… Jamie Anderson

Last year marked the 21st anniversary of Artform Records, founded by musical pioneer Jamie Anderson.

Having grown up in a musical household in west London, Anderson cut his teeth in Bristol during the mid-90s – an exciting place and time for music – developing a reputation for a unique blend of house and techno that came to be known as tech house.

As well as Artform, he made regular appearances on labels such as NRK – on which he released the sublime Blue Music in 2001 – as well as Dave Angel’s Rotation, as well as putting in a stint for the likes of Cocoon, Bedrock, Fossil Archive and International Deejay Gigolos in what is now a 25-plus year career.

Now based in Berlin, 909originals caught up with him to discuss the people, places, and most importantly, the sounds that shaped his career.

Jamie Anderson in the mix [Source: Discogs]

Q. Jamie, thanks for talking to us. First question – how did you first get into music?

I grew up in London in the 70s, and my aunt used to run a festival in Switzerland called the Neon Folk Festival. It was similar to the Montreaux Jazz Festival, but for folk music. We used to go over there every year, and she was friends with Van Morrison and all these people, so I would be around lots of really big name musicians back when I was just a toddler.

So when I was growing up, it was normal to have musicians in the house, and they would teach me things – I was really inquisitive. When I went to school, I learned piano and cello, and took part in the school orchestra. When we moved to Bristol in 1986, my mum pushed me towards carrying on with my music.

She found me a teacher, Dave Buxton who was a jazz improvisation piano player. I studied with him twice a week for about eight years and he taught me everything from classical to jazz to music theory… everything I wanted to know, really.

It’s funny, my dad was a computer engineer and my mum was a theatre performer – she was actually in Star Wars, and a few other films – so you had both the technical and the theatrical influence when I was growing up. When I look back at that, it makes complete sense what I’m doing now. Actually, if you see my studio, it’s like a big mainframe computer – which is a nod to what my dad was doing, and when I’m going out on stage, that’s a nod to what my mum was doing.

Q. You left school just as the acid house movement was kicking off. What influence did that have on your musical career?

For the first time, it seemed like my generation had something to say with music. When I discovered it, I loved it.

When I had music lessons with Dave, I would bring in jazz records, and he would explain what was being played, how the chord structure worked, and what the musician was trying to do. As he would put it, there are set rules to music, and there are some rules that need to be broken.

One day, I brought in an acid house record, with a 303 line in it – I handed it to him, and said ‘explain that!’ It didn’t make any sense to me: it’s the same bassline, but it’s changing; rising and falling. He explained that the same notes were being played by the synthesiser, but the filters and resonance were changing the sound. It was the craziest sound I had ever heard, it didn’t make any sense… but it was amazing.

The acid-soaked Trippin, from Jamie Anderson’s Blue Music

Q. The late 80s into the early 90s was an exciting time to be in Bristol, with the emergence of what would come to be known as trip hop. What was it like living through that?

In the late 80s in Bristol you had a lot of hip-hop nights – I guess it was the early trip hop stuff – and it was mixed with acid house. As acid house got bigger, you had the hip hop being pushed more and more to the back room, and for a lot of people they were split – ‘do I join the rave scene, or stick to my hip hop roots?

At one point the hip-hop was being made by early Detroit artists like Juan Atkins – that electro-style sound – so I think there’s a real link between hip hop and what came after it. Even with hardcore, they were using the same breakbeats that you had in hip hop, but speeded up.

It was a very inspirational time to be in Bristol. When I was leaving school, the Blue Lines album (Massive Attack’s debut) came out, and it was like ‘these are guys that I know from around town’.

I used to say hello to Tricky all the time, and all of a sudden he’s got an album out. To see them make it meant there was a possibility that you could do music for a living. A lot of people in Bristol were like, ‘we can do this’.

Safe From Harm, from Massive Attack’s Blue Lines

Q. Is there, or was there something about the city that gave rise to so many notable artists: Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead et al?

When I arrived in the mid-80s, you could tell it was a really vibrant city. There were people skateboarding on the streets and music everywhere, and because it was a lot smaller than London, you had a real community spirit – all the artists were learning from each other.

I think this is part of the reason why you don’t see as many new genres these days. Now, if someone comes up with a new sound, it’s out there on Souncloud in hours, and people can hear it and come up with their own interpretation of it, immediately.

Back then, in Bristol, the people at the centre of the scene were able to develop their sound before the rest of the world heard it.

I remember when Massive Attack and Tricky got big, you suddenly had all these A&R guys coming up from London, signing anybody that made something that sounded like trip hop. The Bristol thing caught a lot of them off guard; they didn’t realise it had been going on for years.

Q. You were still quite young when you founded the Artform label. How did that come about?

I was just 21 or 22 when I started up the label. It was like there was an unwritten slate at the time – you could sample what you wanted, and create the sound you wanted, and it probably hadn’t been done before.

With Artform, I suppose the context was about taking everything I learned from jazz improvisation, and putting it into what I knew from the rave scene – it would give it a whole new context. I might be influenced by a Latin Jazz record, and put a 303 on top of it, and create an amazing piece of music that had never been heard before.

Q. Before Artform started, you were creating a tougher, rave-style sound, under the name Random Access?

When I left school, I joined this jazz-punk band – punk vocals over a jazz keyboard. It was a mish mash of people living in my area.

I had just bought an Atari ST and Cubase and one of the guys, Andy Wescott, helped me set up my ‘studio’. I was in my late teens or early 20s, and he was in his 30s, so he knew a hell of a lot more than I did about making music. I ended up doing the Random Access stuff with Andy.

Random Access’ Android, released in 1995

It didn’t really have much of a direction, we were just having fun. I think if we had a set kind of view about what we wanted to do, we might have made something of it, but it was more of a spontaneous thing.

In terms of DJing, I think I got my first pair of decks when I was 17 – Technics decks, that is; before then, a friend might bring round his belt drive decks and we would try our hand at that.

Q. Which did you prefer, playing the decks or producing?

Producing. DJing is fun, but now it’s something that so many people do, it’s become sort of ingrained.

Before you had to go out and buy records, and get to know record labels and seek out promos. Today, there’s not that much to it. It’s not a difficult task to be a good DJ now.

Q. When did you start developing the ‘Artform’ sound, which would later become known as tech house?

From about 1992 or 93. There wasn’t really a market for it at the time, it wasn’t established. I think Dave Angel paved the way in the UK for that sort of sound; plus you had Jeff Mills and some of the Detroit artists trying something different.

When I started making music, I was working in a record shop in Bristol, and every Wednesday, you would get a new delivery of records – lots of Detroit stuff, imports. I used to feel sorry for the people that went into the shop, because if there an amazing record came in, it wouldn’t go on the shelves at all, I would buy it myself!

They’re quite expensive as well, so for that reason I never really made any money while working in the shop. Anything I made went straight on records.

Q. Where did the Artform name come from?

I was making quite a bit of music, and I couldn’t find anyone to sign it, so I decided to create my own label.

I was working in the shop one day, scribbling down some names, and then in walks Daddy G from Massive Attack. I told him what I was planning on doing, and that I was trying to think of a name. He picked up my list, looked at it, and said “Artform. Call it that. That’s the one.”

I responded by telling him the background behind some of the other names I had chosen, but he was clear – “No, it has to be Artform”. So he sort of blessed it, in a way.

Q. When the label got established, it seemed like you had the concept all planned out. You even had the Mondrian-style art on the record labels themselves?

I really liked modern art at the time; I was really into the simplicity of it. I saw the way that music was developing as well – specifically house and techno – that it was becoming more of an art form. So that made the label more meaningful to me.

When you are experimenting with music, you are creating a piece of art. So the whole concept was that with each release, the vinyl, the artwork, the music would be a self-contained piece of art.

Now, when I look back, I see it as sort of learning in public. Maybe, thinking back, I shouldn’t have released everything, and only released the really good stuff. But I really enjoyed putting new records out. Nowadays, you can put a track online and get feedback in minutes. But back then, you were out on your own.

Jamie Anderson’s Rio Grande, from the Abstract Latinism EP on Artform

Q. Do you think that back then, you had more freedom to be different – nowadays, you might be pigeonholed into one particular genre?

Somebody has to push the boundaries, yes. When Artform started, there was this trance sound developing in dance music that was very formulaic, it was very refined and wasn’t as experimental any more.

The same thing happened with house music – you had this US garage house sound with Masters At Work and all that, which became really refined and perfected. As a new producer trying to come in, you can’t really compete with that in a way, so it’s about trying to carve your own sound.

Take a little bit of this, and mix it with that, and be a bit of a nuisance.

Q. How did your ‘tech house’ sound evolve?

At the start, the only way you could do tech house was if you took a house record and pitched it way up, and then took a techno record and pitched it way down.

I used to go record shopping in Outland Records in Bristol, and there was a guy working there, Jerome Kwan, who knew Steve Rachmad, and was into that whole Dutch tech house scene, which was similar to the music coming out of Detroit at the time.

I think there was a real connection between that sort of organic sound and what was happening in Bristol. There was a London scene as well, but it was different.

I was DJing a lot with Jesse Rose [founder of Play It Down and Made To Play Records] at the time, and we made up flyers that said that we played ‘techouse’, combining techno and house into one word. We laughed when we saw it spelled out as two words. “Tetch house? What the hell is tetch house?”

Q. You’ve known Jesse for a long time, haven’t you?

I used to know him when I was growing up in London, then I moved to Bristol and we completely lost touch. Then, one day, I ran into him in the local park – I didn’t realise he had moved to Bristol too. We were neighbours again.

He was about four years younger than me, so I remember when I used to go off raving, I would call his mum to see if he was able to come along. Sometimes I would DJ and he would be my MC! After a couple of years, he started really getting into it, and I showed him how to make his own tracks.

He had the same ethos; he wanted to try to create something new, rather than just copy what other people had done.

The genre-blending Can’t Stop, one of Anderson’s biggest tracks

Q. You kept Artform going for a few years, and then took a break, and then started it up again, and then took a break. Why?

There have been several ‘waves’ of Artform. The first was the experimental, learning-as-you-go-along phase, and from there, I got signed to NRK and started putting stuff out for them, such as the Blue Music album.

During that time, Artform got a bit neglected, so I came back to the label and relaunched it, signing artists such as Roberto, who gave the label a new lease of life with his sound. Then, it sort of ran its course again, and I moved to Berlin.

The thing with Artform, is that I’m not really running it as a label; it’s more the case that if I have something to say, I use the label to say it. Or, other artists might have something new to say, so they are brought into the conversation. But a time comes when the energy runs out, and you don’t want to push it.

Q. How did you end up moving to Berlin?

Before that, I had a house in the country, in South Wales because I fancied a bit of peace and quiet. When you are touring all the time, you think to yourself, “ok, it’s time to get away from it all, and have a nice studio in the country”. But then I started to miss the city.

So I looked at different places I could go – Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Berlin – and Berlin struck me as the most interesting. I had DJed here a lot, and I felt like it was a blank slate for me. It was a place with a lot more musicians; like when I was in Bristol. It seemed like everyone in Berlin was ‘doing it’ and it felt more and more like less people in the UK were.

Plus, I needed to be around other people that were on the same skill level or better, when it came to production. I wanted to be around people that were working on music full time, rather than it being something you do on the side of your day job. If I stayed in the UK, I felt it would become a side project more and more. I wanted to put some energy back into what I was doing.

Within a couple of months of moving here, things started to happen. I met Florian Mendl, and he invited me to share a studio with him. I also met up with Daniel Haaksmann, who I had been co-producing for.

Where I’m located, Richie Hawtin has a studio opposite, and within five minutes walk, you have half the world’s techno community.

Jamie in his Berlin-based studio

Q. Berlin has a reputation for being a ‘techno’ city. Has that influenced your sound?

It’s not just techno. You have people from all over the world working here, brining influences from different countries.

When you think about it, making music is quite an abstract job. “What do you do for a living?” someone might ask you. “I produce dance music.” That’s a career path that’s completely alien to most people, so it’s important that you keep that feeling alive, that this is what you do, and it’s really important. In Berlin, people are living it and breathing it in the same way you do.

If I keep doing the same thing year after year, just to get DJ bookings, I would be completely bored. I would have given up a long time ago. There are people that focus on perfecting that one sound, and that’s what they do, and they love it. But I need to keep pushing myself forward.

I work with Robert Owens quite a lot, and we both have the same kind of thinking. We started out in music so that we could push the boundaries, and do something that hadn’t been done before. But then you have people that want him to do stuff like I’ll Be Your Friend, from, like, 30 years ago. It’s very difficult for someone like that to go from having a future mindset to a retro mindset.

A live DJ performance from 2015

Q. Can artists still ‘push the boundaries’ in the same way they used to many years ago?

There isn’t much reward for pushing the boundaries any more, which makes it quite difficult. If you’re putting a lot of effort into something and you don’t get anything back, you tend not to do it as regularly. Or, if you do something really different, someone might take it and tweak it, and then get all the credit for it.

For a lot of producers starting out, there isn’t much incentive to do something really new. For a lot of them, maybe they’re better off doing something simple, that fits in with an established form, rather than try to be the next Aphex Twin.

Q. What current projects are you working on?

Lots of different things at the moment. I’m making lots of new tracks and deciding what to do with them. I did a collaboration with Owain K recently, from Bristol, that was more of a deep house, Detroit sounding project.

I’m also working with Robert Owens for his album and with Roberto for Fossil Archive, doing collaborations with Dave Angel for Rotation plus releases on Alleanza and Florian Miendl’s Flash Recordings.

I DJ a couple of times a month in Berlin, and am doing a few gigs in the UK – there’s one in Bristol in April, and a festival in Derbyshire in June. These gigs come and go, I don’t actively look for gigs unless I have an album or a new record to tour. I don’t need to rely on them as much these days.

Q. What artists, or genres, do you think are really trying something new these days, do you think?

That’s something we probably won’t know until it’s gone, when we look back and think ‘such and such producer was really on point back then’. It will be exciting to find out..!

[Thanks to Jamie for the interview. You can find out more information about upcoming releases via his Facebook page]

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