“What I love about music is how you embark on a journey that you’re never going to finish, no matter how long you live…” A chat with Andrew Weatherall from 2009
The passing of Andrew Weatherall earlier this year left a vacuum in the musical firmament, with the legendary DJ and producer having inspired a generation of artists with his passion, creativity, and undying love for music.
In the months that have followed, a myriad of interviews, mixes and documentary pieces – many of which were thought lost – have emerged, reinforcing the Windsor-born artist’s maverick status.
909originals was lucky to stumble upon one suck relic – an interview carried out by Cork-based DJ and self-confessed ‘culture vulture’ Niamh Ní Shúilleabháin, on the fringes of the Sea Sessions festival in Bundoran, Co. Donegal, back in 2009.
It was a time, lest we forget, that the world was facing a pandemic of a different kind – an economic meltdown – and over the course of around half an hour, Weatherall discusses the challenges this will likely place on the music industry, as well as a variety of other topics: the evolution of the human ear, how to create ‘electronic’ music using kitchen appliances, maintaining a good work ethic, and the theme tune from Rugrats.
Thanks to Niamh for sharing this with us – note that the original interview has been edited slightly.
Enjoy this lost conversation with one of music’s most idiosyncratic icons.
Niamh Ní Shúilleabháin: Andy, thanks a million for taking the time to talk to us. People will definitely know you as the producer of Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, your work as Two Lone Swordsmen with Keith Tenniswood, and a lot more. Do you still work with Keith?
Andrew Weatherall: No, we don’t – we haven’t worked together for a number of years. I’m a solo artist these days; I released my first solo album last year sometime, I think in September – A Pox On The Pioneers – and I’ve just finished another one, which will hopefully be available from October, if there’s still a music industry by then.
It’s all changed from back in the day. I was talking to the Fun Lovin Criminals earlier, and they’ve obviously been around a long time as well; you’ve been around as long as each other.
We’ve been around so long – we were around when there wasn’t even an internet! Can you imagine that, in a time before the internet, we were there, actually ‘selling’ our records, and not downloading them for 79 pence a time.
I remember during my final year in college, I studied advertising and the Internet, and it was all about Marshall McLuhan and the whole thing about ‘the medium is the message’. Now, looking at the internet and mass media, it’s where the music industry and print media has gone.
Everybody thinks there’s been this great revolution in human consciousness, but there hasn’t. Yes, there’s been a revolution, but it’s been a technological revolution. Basically, human beings are glorified chimpanzees – we’ve we’ve just got shiny new toys to play with.
People think I’m a bit of a luddite and I hate computers. I don’t. But I don’t fall for the fallacy that there are the saviour of the human race. They’re an excellent way of communicating with people, they’re an excellent tool, but it’s not a social revolution, because we will always be chimps impressed with shiny new toys, which is what we are at the moment to a certain extent.
When you look at something like Facebook, it’s very addictive at the beginning, and then suddenly you pull yourself back, and say ‘I want to have a real life conversation for a while’.
I never really got that addiction to start with, because I’ve spent most of my life without a computer, so no, it’s not second nature to me. I find it strange that privacy and secrecy seems to have gone out the window.
When I was a kid, you wrote your diary and you didn’t let anybody see it. You put it in a sock drawer under lock and key and you kept your secrets to yourself.
But now it seems to be that teenagers write their diary and let the whole world know, which I find very strange. I don’t have enough time to spend with my three-dimensional friends, let alone the ones that are floating around in the ether somewhere.
As for Twitter, how self-obsessed do you have to be doing that? Ok, if you’ve got a band or something it can be good for business, but as a social tool it’s not for me.
Obviously you use technology in your productions, though. On A Pox On The Pioneers, did you do the vocals yourself?
I do the vocals. I sung in bands when I was a teenager and my early twenties. I didn’t do it for a long time, and then I started writing songs again.
There’s too much ‘guest celebrity’ stuff happening in the last five to ten years – I think the more guests you have on your record the less it becomes your record, you’ve just done a backing track. People are in the studio, and they record a track, and they say “oh, this sounds a bit like ‘insert name of person here’,” and someone else says “get them on the phone”, and before long you end up doing a pastiche of someone else’s music.
I didn’t want to do that. I could have sold ten times as many records if I got some of my friends on board, but the songs are very personal, so I didn’t feel right handing them to someone else to sing. Also, I was feeling a bit comfortable, and a little bit jaded, and I wanted to do something that gave people the opportunity to slag me off and to throw fruit at me.
So I thought I’d become a singer again, and get up on stage and ‘do it’. It was quite cathartic. There was artistic and personal reasons for doing it and it’s worked out for the best in both cases, I think.
You kind of remind me of fashion photographer David LaChapelle, who turned his back on fashion photography, once he had made enough money, to do the personal projects that he wanted to do. You can pursue the commercial projects, and then there’s the opportunity to go off and do these personal projects, whatever the rest of the world might think.
I didn’t quite do that – I certainly haven’t amassed a great big pot of money! It was a little bit more of a struggle than that. But to be honest with you, I’ve always taken quite a personal line; obviously I’ve done commercial things but that wasn’t the reason to do them.
Screamadelica turned out to be a commercial success, and other things have turned out to be a commercial success, but the original reason doing them wasn’t the amount of euros on the cheque; it was for artistic purposes.
From a very early stage in my career, all my heroes were people that kind of shunned the commercial world. So, when I first started, when I was a lot younger, I wanted to be one of those people. I think I wanted to be a ‘starving artist in a garage’ somewhere. But luckily, by adopting that attitude, I managed to gain some sort of respect, and kind of have the best of both worlds, where I retained a modicum of artistic credibility and a modicum of bank balance.
You’ve been able to kind of thread that fine line in terms of credibility. Who are your musical heroes?
Production wise, Martin Hannett, Adrian Sherwood, Phil Spector – they’re probably the main ones. Musically, it’s a common tale of a teenager in suburbia, when I saw David Bowie, I was ‘oh my god! Look at that, he’s wearing a dress! Look at his hair!’
I had a nice upbringing but it was in the suburbs and it was quite grey. Rock and roll, first with glam rock and then punk rock, was this beautifully-coloured parallel universe. So anybody that was in that parallel universe, from Marc Bolan to John Lydon to David Bowie to Elvis Presley, all those kind of strange alien creatures, they are my musical heroes.
I’m reading lots of books about musical movements at the moment – I’m re-reading Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up And Start Again…
That’s a great book, and it kind of resonates for me because I was living through that period. I count myself really lucky, because I got to see glam rock, punk rock post-punk and then acid house. That’s four great eras of music that I’m lucky enough to have lived through.
That Simon Reynolds book is great – it brought back some great memories. The sign of a good music book is that it makes you want to go out and listen to those records. After I read it, I spent many an hour ago poring through the dusty shelves of the music library.
There’s a young dubstep producer I know, he’s only 18 and he’s doing his Leaving Cert at the moment, which would be A-Levels in the UK. I saw on his Facebook page that he had the ‘Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!’ reference, so we had a chat about it, and I was talking about how Devo worked with Neil Young, and then his buddy comes in with the fact that Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh worked on the soundtrack for a cartoon…
Rugrats! Yes, he did the theme tune for Rugrats. That’s the great thing that I love about music, when you get into it, it’s about chasing those links.
When you’re young, and you hear a record, you haven’t heard anything like it before and you think it’s in isolation. That’s the original appeal, it’s this strange object. But then you read an interview with someone, or you hear another record that sounds like it and you realise that it’s all connected.
What I love about music is how you embark on a journey that you’re never going to finish, no matter how long you live.
I’m still finding connections, and I’m still finding weird little avenues, and that’s what drives me on. I’ve got trunk loads of rhythm and blues and dub and rockabilly, but I’m quite willing to follow any of the tributaries because they usually come back to that main line again.
Everything comes back to rhythm and blues – without that, you wouldn’t have ska, without ska you wouldn’t have reggae, without reggae you wouldn’t have dub, without dub you wouldn’t have remixes… and yadda yadda yadda.
One of my favourite books is Last Night a DJ Saved My Life…
I actually haven’t read that – is it good?
It is. Both of those books were very impressionable for me, as intense labours of love in terms of documenting things. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life was all about the origins of dance music, so that includes the blues and soul movement, the big Jamaican sound systems, block parties in New York, disco, you name it.
You want to know the maddest thing? Who was the first person to put two record players together and ‘DJ’? Jimmy Savile, back in 1947. At his first gig, he only had one deck and he had to take the records off and change them every time. So he got someone to build him a prototype mixer.
It’s amazing, considering how credible DJing is these days, that you can trace it all the way back to Jimmy Saville in 1947.
People talk about Larry Levan, Kool Herc and things like that…
But it all started with Jimmy Savile.
What you going to play tonight? What can can the crowd expect?
Sometimes, in a big tent at a festival, with only an hour and a half to play, subtlety is not the keyword. I’ll probably play slightly faster. I played in Dublin last night and I didn’t get above 110 to 115 BPM; it was a small club, and that sort of suited it well. You have to adapt to suit the venue – playing a festival, at the end of the night, is different.
Also, I got here at five, and there were people strolling down the street with three-quarter empty bottles of Buckfast, so that kind of tells me that subtlety is out the window. I would imagine it will be reasonably uptempo and techno-orientated.
I do sometimes, like to lower people into a certain sense of security, and then hit them with something unexpected, so I’ve got a few things I might throw in there. There are some older tracks, and some 80s and some post punk, but I would imagine with an hour and a half to play, it will be a full frontal attack.
I’m very conscious that with every gig I play I find out who’s on before me and who’s on after me, and what time I’m on, because I don’t want to be a DJ that just turns up and says ‘this is what I do’, regardless of the event. You are part of a night, and there should be some kind of structure. You shouldn’t be arrogant enough to just show up and say ‘take it or leave it’.
I do kind of plan things quite extensively. It’s difficult sometimes, because over a weekend I could be playing to several different audiences. A few weeks ago in London, I was playing house, and then the next night in Germany I was playing rockabilly, and then the next day, it was early 80s disco music. So it does involve a lot of work, but to be honest, that’s part of the enjoyment. I’ve always had quite a good work ethic.
From my own point of view, I have to admit I have vinyl decks and I have CD decks, and I haven’t managed to quite gravitate towards using the laptop setup yet. But I know for someone like yourself, it’s probably much easier.
I don’t use computers, mainly because I don’t like MP3s. I don’t like the sound of them. Vinyl will always be better – people expect me to play vinyl when I play in a club. They’ll come up to the decks, and if there’s a vinyl on the deck they’ll look at it, and then look at you, as if to say ‘Well done, you haven’t let us down’.
And then other people would come up and say ‘No computer? Get with the programme, grandad!’
Computers are quite good when you use the record control system – it’s quite tactile. But sometimes with things like Ableton, I think people are more involved in the process than with the end result.
Also, the sound of MP3s is ok if you’re playing minimal techno, but the more frequencies you have, the more it gets squashed together, and it kind of takes the guts out of the sound. I can walk into a club and know immediately if someone is playing MP3s.
But I think there’s a whole generation now – I don’t know if the human ear has evolved – but there’s a whole generation of kids now that have only heard digitally compressed music, and they don’t miss the frequencies, because they’ve never had them. To them, that’s what music sounds like – they are perfectly happy with that slightly harsh, shallow kind of sound.
When the first 100-piece orchestra happened, there was a big awakening for the way people related to music, but I think that’s what’s happening now, but in reverse. We’re kind of devolving and accepting fewer frequencies in our music.
It’s amazing how everything that follows a social change kind of ties in together. For the newer generation, sound patterns are changing, and they will maybe not appreciate a different kind of sound, because it will be alien to them.
I really think that’s happening. As the years go by, we will lose more of those frequencies, as they get more and more digital. But having said that, there’s still billions of pieces of vinyl out there.
Sometimes when I play rockabilly gigs there will be people playing 10-inch shellac records. There are even a couple of guys that play with wind-up gramophones. So in 20 to 25 years, when I’m still playing my Technics, it will be the equivalent of having a wind-up gramophone.
I was brought up going to reggae sound systems, and I think I would like to grab a hold of a load of ‘digital’ kids and push them into a hardcore dub sound system, and ask them ‘what do you think of those frequencies?’
At Vantastival recently, there was a thing called the Gramophone Disco and you would have loved it – there was no music past the1950s, all night long.
That’s great. Whenever I played rockabilly, rhythm and blues or swing, it’s guaranteed to get ladies on the dancefloor. And once the ladies are on the dance floor the men shall follow, because it’s got that swing. It’s the sexiest music in the world – rockabilly and rock and roll swings the way a woman walks.
It was brilliant to see guys dancing – they were jiving along with the women. It didn’t matter whether you were good or not.
Yeah I know – proper dancing! It was a lot more social in the 30s 40s and 50s – that was the closest you were get to a woman, except maybe holding their hands. It was all about social interaction, which obviously got lost during the 60s and 70s, I think, right up to the present day.
You’re going to do a new album in the very near future. What else do you have planned?
At the moment I’m working on mixing an album for an all-girl band called Warpaint. Also, I’m very excited because Ive been asked to do a Nick Cave remix. Grinderman, his band, have a new album out, and I’m going to be doing a new mix for them.
Touch wood, I’m taking bookings right up to November, and probably 60% or 70% of them are in Europe, but I’m keeping an eye on that. It’s a weird one, because when times are going to be tough people don’t have the money to go out, even though they want to.
I think that promoters are going to have to watch their prices, and maybe do free events. I did an event in London recently, which was about a tenner in, and usually would have been £15. A lot of promoters are going to have to realise that they will still be able to make a living by not charging the amounts they were charging in the past.
Hopefully it will level out and there’ll still be good parties, but people are going to have to tighten their belts a little bit.
But I remember 1978 and 79, when things were very bad, it was a very fertile period. Sometimes the best things come from strife.
I saw a documentary recently called Downtown Calling, which was about that period in New York.
I actually DJed at the party for that, in London. The producer of the movie gave a little talk and I DJed afterwards. What struck me was while it was a great film, I had seen a lot of the footage before. But then I realised, yeah, of course I have because there weren’t camera phones around then. If you wanted to make a film, you had to lug something around on your shoulder.
They say the past is another country; it’s a different planet. That’s what I love – when you see a Super 8 film, it’s got this fairly otherworldly quality to it, that you don’t get with HD. The footage used in that film is very limited, but it’s rare, and it’s got that graininess to it, that makes it all the more appealing to me. It looks like its come from another planet.
It has that griminess about it that the captures the time. Everyone talks about Studio 54 and Bianca Jagger and all that, but there was this whole parallel going on at the time with the poverty and the demolition of New York. It showed what people can do if they literally have nothing.
If your choice of technology or your means of expression are limited, I think you work better. Personally, I’ve been in studios where you have rows and rows of synthesisers and equipment – it’s a tyranny of choice. You don’t know where to start, and you probably end up making less music.
I saw an interview with one of the women that used to work in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and she was talking about how they used to make really futuristic sounds, such as the Newsround theme, by doing things like twanging rulers.
She felt it was a ‘terrible shame’ when synthesisers came in, because it stopped people using their imagination; before you literally had to use kitchen implements to come up with different sounds.
I’ve always thought that with a limited palette, it’s a lot more exciting, and a lot more ‘punk rock’, really.
Listen to the full interview below:
[RIP Andrew Weatherall, 6 April 1963 – 17 February 2020. Thanks again to Niamh for sharing the interview with us. You can find some of Niamh’s past shows by clicking here]