Interview: ORIGINALS…. A Guy Called Gerald

Gerald Simpson, aka A Guy Called Gerald, has been at the forefront of numerous musical genres over his 30-plus year career – having forged a path for acid house with Voodoo Ray and his work with 808 State, he followed that up in the 90s with arguably the best jungle album of all time, Black Secret Technology.

As well as his own output, over the years Gerald has worked with artists such as Frankie Knuckles, Goldie and Derrick May, and remixed everyone from David Bowie to The Stone Roses.

Still rocking dancefloors around the world, Gerald’s current project is what he describes as a “musical autobiography”, tracking the evolution of his productions, from his bedroom experiments of the mid 80s to more recent releases on labels such as Studio !K7 and Laboratory Instinct.

909originals caught up with the Manchester native.

Q. Hi Gerald, thanks for talking to us. What was your musical upbringing like? Did you grow up in a musical household?

Yes, it was a very musical household. I was really raised on church music, thanks to my mum, but there was lots of other things going on at the time, in the early 70s; soul and funk and reggae. We grew up on an estate, and people would communicate with music – it was everywhere, apart from at school.

In Manchester, it was all about soul and funk – in my late teens I was old enough to go to the all-day parties, so I ended up in that scene. I was trying to be a jazz funk head. There was also this crossover period, where you had the electrofunk thing starting, and that was really interesting.

Q. What was the club scene like back then, in the mid 1980s?

Manchester is a student town, so while there were lots of places you couldn’t get in to at the weekend, on weekdays you had nights on in places like Legends, which were absolutely packed.

Everybody in there was 100% focused on dancing – you would go there to learn the new moves and new grooves. Of course the DJ was important, but the objective was to go in and dance.

Legends was amazing. It had mirrors, strobes, smoke machines – it wasn’t like a youth club, it was a full-on professional set up. The sound system was something similar to surround sound now; I don’t know how they did it, but you could hear the music being thrown around the dancefloor.

At the same time they had neon lights that were running at the same time as the music, and the strobes doing this really crazy dance. It was completely another world.

I remember at one point in Manchester there was somewhere to go seven days a week, it was a like a full-time pastime. Legends was probably the best, but you also had Sandpipers, The British Legion, The Reno… there were so many options. It was constant.

Legends in Manchester – “It was completely another world”

Q. We interviewed Greg Wilson recently, and he talked about how when electrofunk hit, a lot of the soul and funk heads weren’t too happy about it. Did you notice that at all?

I was really young so I was very accepting of it, but in retrospect, it was probably like the whole digital vs vinyl debate.

I remember in some places the standard music was funk and soul and then you would have a jazz break in the middle – but then they started to do an electro break and these guys would show up and start body popping and breakdancing in the middle of the floor.

Q. With a lot of the artists we interview, they tended to get into DJing first, and then production. With you, it was the other way around, right?

Production came first, definitely. At church, every Sunday, there was a full live band playing – a drummer, a bass player, a keyboard player – and that made me really interested in getting some instruments. That, and watching Top of the Pops of course.

My mum was really encouraging – she got us a piano, a guitar and some bongo drums.

At the same time, I got really interested in how things worked, and started pulling the television apart, and anything else I could get my hands on [laughs] .

It was curiosity, really. I was really curious about how things are put together. It think that might have started when I was really young, and someone came around to fix the TV. When the back was unscrewed, I was fascinated with how much stuff there was.

Q. Listening to the jazz and funk records of the time also piqued your interest when it came to production, didn’t it?

Yes. I used to go the local library, and they had lots of records of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock and people like that. Sometimes, on the back of the records they would have all the names of the musicians that played on them, and the instruments that they played.

I remember noting that on a Chick Corea record, it listed instruments like the Micro Moog and the Odyssey – I wanted to try to find out more about them.

The opening track from Chick Corea’s The Mad Hatter… Micro Moog and Odyssey in full effect

Q. Where could you get instruments like that at the time in Manchester?

There was a local music shop called A1, which had guitars and things upstairs, but downstairs you would find drum machines and synthesisers.

My brother and I would go down there and spend an entire Saturday testing out the equipment. The people that owned the shop were really patient with us – we were just two little kids – and we were playing away on the Moog trying to emulate Chick Corea, using doppler effects to make it sound like a car was driving past.

I remember that no-one in A1 really knew what this stuff was – I remember seeing a TB-303 for sale, brand new, in the box.

The people that went there were typically dressed in old army jackets with ‘Yes’ written on the back, and smelled of patchouli oil. They weren’t interested in the sort of gear that was down in the basement.

Q. Was there one piece of equipment that you coveted above all others?

One day, someone brought in a second-hand TR-808, and I was old enough to know ‘I HAVE to get a hold of this machine’. So I would beg, borrow and steal, and I put a deposit down on it.

Once I had it, I was dreaming about the tracks that I would be able to put together. So I got hold of a Tascam 4-track, and a Boss Dr Beat drum machine, and got to work.

From there, I started thinking ‘if I also had THIS piece of equipment, I could start to do THAT’ – so I started to build a whole set up in my head, and try to make quick fixes with the equipment that I had.

The Roland TR-808 – “I was old enough to know ‘I HAVE to get a hold of this machine’,” says Gerald

Q. What was your recording setup like at the time?

I had an Amstrad stack system, and would record stuff onto tape, plug the drum machine into where the microphone should go, and then layer something else on top of that. This was around the time you had double tape decks, so you could bounce from tape to tape again and again.

There was a shop called Shadoos on Wilmslow Road, where I would buy stacks and stacks of tapes, and one chrome tape – once I had bounced from tape to tape, I would eventually bounce onto the chrome tape, which would become my ‘master’.

I would cruise around the record shops looking for records I could cut and scratch, like spoken word records, comedy records, presidents’ speeches, Martin Luther King – things like that. I had one turntable at this point, and I had the drum machine going and would layer this stuff on top of it.

Later on, I picked up this ‘disco system’ sort of set up – I can’t remember who I bought it from – which had two belt drive decks, and a mixer, and a place to plug my drum machine in. That was a real leap forward, and I started getting really inventive – I remember at one point I got a dimmer switch to control the motor on the belt drive.

My bedroom at that time had all these wires lying about, and old speakers. If I saw any old TVs or stereos lying around I would strip them down and take out the wires and the speakers, and then build a soundsystem sort of thing from them.

It got really crazy – I had three or four ‘main’ speakers and then ten or so of these little speakers, I was all the time trying to create more power for the amplifier. I got more and more into that – I was more into that than making music at one stage.

DJ Jazzy Jeff live in 1987 – “I remember hearing the Transformer Scratch and wanted to work out how I could make something similar,” says Gerald

Q. You also got quite creative with the sounds you were trying to make?

I would try to recreate the sounds I heard on records of the time. I remember hearing the Transformer Scratch [reportedly invented by DJ Jazzy Jeff] , and wanted to work out how I could make something similar.

I would cue the audio and connect the headphone socket to the mic socket, so it was going from one into the other, and then by pulling back and forth on the record very slowly I would create this rhythmical sort of sound, like the Transformer Scratch.

I used to send the tracks I made into Piccadilly Radio. There was a guy called Stu Allan that played new music on the radio at the time, and I would drop tapes into him.

Q. Some of these tapes re-emerged quite recently, didn’t they?

Actually, the other day I ran into a guy called Russ Mould, and he told me he had some tapes of mine from back then; the ones I used to drop into Piccadilly.

Over the last three or four months I’ve been archiving stuff; I’ve been trying to do biography of sorts, like an audio biography. These tapes are a great place to start – I have a lot of pre-Voodoo Ray stuff, instrumental things from the mid to late 80s. I haven’t heard them for years.

I remember giving Graham from 808 State some tapes, and somehow they ended up with Richard D James [aka Aphex Twin] . He put them out on Rephlex, as an album calledPrebuild.

I asked Russ were the tapes the same as had been on Prebuild, and he said it wasn’t. It’s almost like a missing piece of the story that I have forgotten about.

As soon as I hear it, I’ll know where I was and what I was doing at that time.

Q. You first got into production in the mid-80s. Who were your influences at the time?

I was influenced by a lot of different things back then – new wave, electro, what New Order were doing. I remember getting a hold of the Arthur Baker mix of Confusion, and that was off the hook for me at the time. There was so much in it.

I would try to emulate it, using foot pedals to cue the different parts of the drum machine, but as I would listen to it, I realised he had all the parts separated, and was able to use different effects on different parts of the track. That was a learning curve for me.

Q. Did that help you when you first set foot in a professional studio?

It was almost like I had the instruction already. I would tell the engineer to mix down tracks onto one track, like I was still working with a four track recorder, bouncing and overdubbing and all that. But with a 16-track mixer, it was endless what you could do.

I probably acted like a caveman at the time. I never had enough plug sockets at home, so when I went into the studio, I would tie all these wires together and try to get them to plug into one socket. It must have freaked out the engineer, but for me it was just a normal thing.

The first studio I think I set foot in was in Hulme. It was called The Kitchen, which was run by a guy called Jamie – it was really interesting to watch how he used the sampler. Computers were rare in those days, and the sampler was the brand new thing.

Q. On the subject of samples, a lot has been spoken in the past about the vocal sample used in Voodoo Ray – that it was taken from a Derek & Clive comedy record by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. What was the story behind that?

I had an old case of records that I would do some routine scratching on, and I was always trying to find a ‘theme’ for my tracks – I would build an instrumental, and try to develop a theme around it.

The Derek & Clive sample came from that approach. It was a recording of two people taking the piss, but there was a small part of it that I thought I could turn into a sort of ‘chant’.

The drums on Voodoo Ray sounded like they were set in the jungle, so I thought it would be really cool if I could work this ‘voodoo’ theme into it.

The samples on Voodoo Ray were taken from a Derek and Clive record

Q. Voodoo Ray was quite influenced by Chicago and Detroit, wasn’t it?

I was listening to a lot of Chicago and Detroit stuff back then, and I wanted to create a similar vibe; something like The Sound by Kevin Saunderson.

In my mind I thought that there were millions of people out there in Chicago and Detroit making music and trying new things – I had never been there, so I thought the scene there was much bigger than it was.

At the same time, I was coming at it from the angle of a dancer; harnessing the energy that was in the clubs in Manchester.

There is a whole mixture of influences in Voodoo Ray, but at the same time I wanted to create something that was unique. With the jazz thing, everyone had their own style, and you could borrow from what people had done before, but you had to create your own unique style.

In hip hop culture, if you took someone else’s thing, you were a ‘biter’; it would indicate a lack of imagination, and it’s something I wanted to avoid.. I would never use the presets on a synthesiser, for example.

Q. Within a year of Voodoo Ray you had released your debut album, Hot Lemonade, you had recorded a Peel Session, you had co-produced Pacific State alongside 808 State. It was a busy period for you?

There were lots of things happening at the same time, and I found the studio was more like a home to me. I remember going to Spirit Studios with Graham Massey of 808 State, and we would spend something like three days in there, experimenting with things.

I had no other commitments at the time, other than my part time job in McDonald’s.

Kevin Saunderson’s The Sound was an influence on Gerald’s early recordings

Q. After the release of your second album, Automanikk, in 1990, you launched the Juice Box label, giving you better control over the medium through which you could release your music. Why did you decide to do things your own way?

I was working Sony Records, and I realised that it was a case of having to ‘dance to the piper’s tune‘. I would never have the chance to be myself. I was starting to experiment with breakbeats, and it was impossible to do that working for a major label.

Dubplates were also starting to happen at the time – I loved the idea of going into a place with a DAT tape and getting it cut straight onto the disc, and then handing it to the DJs waiting in the reception area. You could get the stuff out there straight away. It was like the MP3 of the time.

I tried to show that to the people at Sony and they took offence. One of the things that was in my contract was that I was ‘not able to distribute the master copy of my works’ to anyone else, so I came to realise that they were just a big machine, which had no place for dance music.

They didn’t understand how the system worked; they were too big, and they had too many rules and regulations. I had no choice but to do my own thing, which led to the formation of Juice Box.

Q. That gave you the opportunity to start experimenting with the emerging jungle/drum ‘n’ bass sound?

It did. I remember I put together a breakbeat track, and Goldie listened to it, and told me to chat to the guys at Reinforced Records, who were doing something similar.

I realised that there were lots of people out there with the same way of thinking; we were discovering the same sounds at the same time, and wondering what we could do with them. We weren’t sitting in the studio, away from the world, we were down on the street.

Things were moving fast – it was a real embryonic period. While the big labels like Sony were moving really slowly, new styles would come along on an almost week-to-week basis.

Q. It must be really interesting for you to listen back to the tracks you made around that time; that you can trace the moment when drum ‘n’ bass started to emerge?

When I listen back, it’s like a diary of technology. At one point, we are creating certain sounds, and you can tell the moment that we move onto something else. There’s a change in the production methods.

Black Secret Technology was an example of that – trying to push something forward that was melodic and rhythmic, and deeply embedded in the technology of the period.

Energy, from Gerald’s Black Secret Technology

Q. Why do you think so many people are fascinated by how dance music was created back then – there was a rawness to the production methods that is difficult to emulate?

For a lot of people, if they were around at the time, they didn’t have the equipment. Now, because you have more technology, things are more inclined to be over-produced.

So many of effects now are ultra-clean and can be ultra-worked out, so when producers listen to the early tracks, they wonder how the hell they made it sound so raw. Back then, we were using distortion pedals, all sorts of things.

With something like jungle, a lot of the early stuff wasn’t quantised, so it was really difficult for DJs. Everything was recorded with live drums, so you had to ‘ride’ the track, set the tempo and hope to stay in sync. With the later tracks, things are very much locked into place.

Q. We’re seeing a rise in ‘cloned’ analogue equipment, and Roland recently re-issued a new edition of the TB-303, TR-909 et al. Why do you think this is?

Younger people were basically born into a computer, and everything they know comes from that. After a while, they start breaking away from that, and want a mixing console and an old-school analogue set up.

Whereas for us, we always were travelling forward, embracing the latest technology as it came available.

Thanks again to Gerald for the interview. To keep up to date with his latest events and tour dates, check out his official website and Facebook page.

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