Interview: ORIGINALS… Rob Birch, Stereo MCs, part two
Following on from part one of our exclusive interview with Stereo MCs frontman Rob Birch, here’s part two, in which he discusses the evolution of the group’s live performance, the aftermath of 1992’s epic album Connected, and the foundation of a new techno and afro-house focused record label.
Q. It’s been said that your tour with the Happy Mondays in the late 80s helped elevate you to the ‘next level’ as a live act. Was that the case?
We toured with the Mondays quite a lot before they started to become well known. It was a good experience, they were nice people.
To be honest, by the time we got to play with the Happy Mondays we were already hardened performers. We played with hardcore hip hop groups to audiences that wouldn’t accept us, so we knew what it was like to be given a hard time. We played with a heavy rock group, Living Colour, and their audience really knew how to give us a hard time.
We played with EMF, A Certain Ratio, De la Soul… all kinds of groups, because we wanted to get out there and get a reaction, no matter what sort of a reaction it was.
But yeah, the Happy Mondays crowd were good for us, because they were open minded and knowledgeable about the rave scene, the hip hop scene, the music scene in general. They were well up for it.
Q. At the moment, there are so many different genres out there, but when Stereo MCs started, you were undefinable – you were a bit hip hop, you were a bit dance, you were a sort of mish mash?
I don’t think we even thought about that. It was about energy. We were riding on a wave of energy and the fact that nobody could define us worked for us more than against us.
We were original, and the whole vibe at the time was that if you’re not original, you’re not really saying anything. When we started there was one dance chart for every type of dance music, but now there’s a myriad of charts covering every specific genre.
Q. After [1992 album] Connected went stratospheric, the band took a longer than expected hiatus – it took nine years for the follow up to come out. Was there too much pressure on the band at the time?
It’s very simple. We rode this wave of energy that a lot of people were riding, and eventually, that has to come to an end. Music changes. You have to say to yourself, ‘wow, I’ve realised my dreams, I’ve achieved my goals, but what am I going to do now?’. That takes a little while to figure out.
You put your whole life experience into making a record, and then it comes out, and they you have to say ‘what’s next’? Sometimes the answer is simple, you just have to learn more about yourself.
Q. So Deep Down & Dirty [released in 2001] was sort of like a chance to press the reset button?
It was something like that, although totally unintentional. The title track came together by accident, we were working on another track, and then I started freestyling on the mic, and it all came together in an afternoon.
There must have been something deep inside me wanting to get out. Sort of like, ‘I’m not f**king going down like that’.
Q. How did the Connected label come about?
We started it in 2016 – we were experimenting with music at the time, and questioning things, like ‘does everything have to be four minutes long?’. So then we thought, let’s get back to where we started, which was underground electronic music.
What we’re feeling on the label right now is afro-house and techno, and whatever falls between that. We have a lot of artists, and we’re also putting out some of our own, more experimental music.
We’re collaborating too, we’ve done stuff with Keinemusik, we’ve done stuff with Anja Schneider and a few others. We’re working with people that we respect a lot, and we’re gradually making a different path for ourselves.
It brings you back to that point when you start questioning things. How did they make that music? You listen to some of the tracks, and it’s not like the artists is getting it out of a box, that’s for sure. The artists we work with are quite open minded; it’s not like tech house, where every track has to be a banger. We want to go deep.
Q. Are you still as passionate about playing live?
When you play live, unless you still feel that spark, that excitement, it’s very difficult to perform and feel honest about what you do. I can’t do a gig and feel dishonest about it. If it’s not feeling right, I have to come straight to the point with the crowd, and say ‘look, I’m not feeling it – let’s try and get it on’. But I still get the same buzz out of it.
You can’t really describe that feeling – it’s like a surge through your body.
Overall, I still feel the same way about music as I did 20 or 30 years ago. I’m still excited about getting up in the morning and getting in to the studio and running the sound.
Q. Some groups are better at feeding off the energy of the crowd than others. I would argue that Stereo MCs are one of those groups.
From my own point of view, what’s most important to me is that we’re on point, that we’re focused. When I hit the stage, and I’m in the mood, I’m not thinking about anything else.
I don’t want to get hoity-toity about it, but it’s like an art. There’s an art to everything – there’s an art to gardening there’s an art to cleaning, there’s an art to making tables, and there’s an art to making music and performing. when I’m on stage, I’m a sculptor. I want to get right down to the source – the essence – of it as I possibly can.
When you stand back, and the track stops, and it’s you and the crowd, it’s like a case of ‘let’s get it together’. We’re all human beings here and it’s as much about you as it is about us. If you want to make this thing fire, then come through.
Everybody in the band works to their utmost ability, and it we can get the crowd to feel that energy as well, you know the show is just going to be wild.
We have to be disciplined as well, and continue to try to put on a good show. Some shows will be better than others, and that’s just life – some days you will be shagged out, and others you will be full of energy.
But you keep going back to the source. Why you wrote the music, why you wrote particular lyrics.
I love that about music; sometimes you question why that melody came to you, or why you wrote things down on that day that turned into lyrics. It’s a beautiful thing.
[Thanks again to Rob for the interview. More information about Stereo MCs and the Connected record label can be found at connected.co.com]