Almost Cut My Hair
WORDS JIM BUTLER
PHOTOGRAPHS JONAS UNGER
We were deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Hole & Corner hero Andrew Weatherall this week. Weatherall featured on the pages of our unpublished dummy edition of Hole & Corner magazine in 2012 – it was the dedication and passion towards his producing and DJing which typified the kind of characters we planned to celebrate in Hole & Corner. Our Sound & Music issue allowed us some time with him, he invited us into his London studio for a cuppa and a chat…
Andrew Weatherall may be a messianic figure to a certain generation but, as ever, the legendary producer is moving on to pastures new, inspired by Confucius, Throbbing Gristle and ‘some shady youths hanging about at the end of the street’…
Andrew Weatherall is leaving the building. After 20 years in his bunker-like studio – the aptly monikered Bassment – in London’s Shoreditch, the creeping hand of gentrification has necessitated that he exit the scene of his most famous musical endeavours.
If he’s angry about the move as he sits in his labyrinthine studio, surrounded by packed boxes, books, music magazines and, naturally, records – lots and lots of records – it doesn’t show. In fact he’s remarkably sanguine about the turn of events. ‘I’m not that upset. Others seem more upset than I am,’ he explains. ‘I’m resigned to it I suppose. I’ve found a good new place – somewhere suitably bleak.’
He wryly notes that not only is he partly responsible for the rampant gentrification of this East London enclave over the past two decades, but, ultimately, he’s a victim of it too. ‘Some might say, “Good, you bastard”,’ he laughs. ‘But I’m not a property developer. I came here because it was cheap. Grayson Perry described artists and musicians as the shock troops of gentrification, so in a way I guess we do have to take a little bit of responsibility.’
Being at the sharp end of social developments is nothing new for Weatherall. It’s been that way since the late Eighties, when the music-loving carpenter’s mate from Berkshire found himself squarely in the centre of one of the most compelling cultural transformations the UK had experienced for years: certainly since punk, quite possibly since the Swinging Sixties.
That was when acid house changed everything. The last great British subculture – in that it precipitated a classic moral panic among the status quo (and possibly within Status Quo too) – it united a huge swathe of the nation’s style tribes, from indie kids to football hooligans; goths to hip hop heads. And there, either on the dancefloor or behind the decks, was the curly-haired, part-time chippy from Windsor. Alongside several of his Berkshire mates – who produced Boy’s Own, the fabled fanzine that served as a bible for the nascent scene – it was Weatherall’s intelligence, passion and righteous attitude that added a certain zeal to accompany the revolutionary sounds on the dancefloor.
‘I have hundreds of ideas every day, and every 20 years I follow one of them through to its bitterest conclusion’
It’s now nearly 30 years later (27 if we’re being precise, as Weatherall points out on more than one occasion) and in some respects little has changed. The flowing locks might have gone, but Weatherall remains fiercely independent – an unashamed pop cultural iconoclast. Despite his protestations of being idle (‘I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I won’t have the mansion in the countryside. But maybe I’m justifying my laziness by saying I’m going to stay in my indie ghetto, thank you’) – he’s as busy as ever. He’s just finished work on two albums and recently launched his latest label project: the subscription-only, seven-inch vinyl imprint Moine Dubh.
‘I have hundreds of ideas every day,’ he says, ‘and every 20 years I follow one of them through to its bitterest conclusion! I then remember why it’s a ginormous pain in the backside and have to stop. And then of course I get a bit restless and the whole sorry cycle starts again.’
Moine Dubh (pronounced ‘Moyn Doo’) sees Weatherall in some sort of Svengali-meets-A&R guise. The disparate group of musicians affiliated to the label all hail from in and around Crystal Palace, a southeast London hinterland with surprising artistic credentials – he notes that Emile Zola lived there when he was in exile at the time of the Dreyfus Affair; that the Impressionist painter Camille Pissaro produced several works there, and Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi conducted a number of experiments there too. ‘I’m not a cosmic cat,’ he says, self-mockingly, ‘but there is something in psycho-geography and the resonances of people that have come before. It’s why certain people move to a certain place. It’s why gentrification occurs, to a certain extent.’
‘It’s almost like a parallel universe,’ he continues. ‘I’m currently reading a Michael Moorcock book called The Whispering Swarm where he slips into a parallel London, which is a mixture of the 17th century through to the early 19th century. Maybe I’m over-romanticising it, but it seems to be this bohemian enclave – in the real sense of the word.’
Having spent time in the area recording with his sparring partner Nina Walsh, he declared the music ‘too good to be left as files in people’s computers’. Hence the decision to make the label vinyl-only. ‘I’ve never made any statement,’ he insists. But he does concede that there is something about the physical format that appeals to him. ‘I like music and I like making things. It’s also archiving something that will [physically] exist. I get that everything is on the internet, but a computer file is not going to be a totemic object.’
Conscious or not, the label’s bands also feel like part of a wider movement, including Fireflies (brooding electronic blues), Lowroad (Celtic freak folk), Alan Maclean (Johnny Cash in Adidas trainers), Barry Woolnough (powerful Southern soul) and Echowood (haunting folk rock). And, as usual, he seems to be ahead of the curve: supply has outstripped demand, with a lack of production options threatening a delay in Moine Dubh’s subscribers getting their records. ‘Every week there’s a rumour about a new pressing plant opening,’ he sighs. ‘I get people sidling up to me, whispering almost conspiratorially: “There’s one opening in Africa”. That was the last one!’
He still uses vinyl for DJing. For one thing, people like to see that he’s actually got the records and ‘not just downloaded ‘The Rough Guide to Rockabilly’ or whatever’. Fans of specialist music – especially music that has some heritage and longevity – want to know that the DJs have invested time and effort, not to mention money, in obtaining the sounds they’re dancing to. They’re after the unobtainable. They want the music and the myth. He laughs: ‘That’s why if you went to a hardcore rockabilly gig with a memory stick you’d be dragged around London behind a Cadillac or something.’
‘I f I did something quickly I thought it wasn’t worth anything because it only took six hours. But it hadn’t taken six hours; it had taken 25 years and six hours’
Weatherall has always sought to lead and not follow. For the so-called hipster generation, with their back-tobasics emphasis on doing things the right way, and in mixing urban trends with a revived interest in nature and the mystical, he has cut something of a messianic figure. And with his whiskers and his heavily tattooed arms, he proved a charismatic focal point. Not that it’s something he’s encouraged – indeed he seems uncomfortable being held up as any sort of spokesman for anyone but himself. It’s noticeable that he has recently adopted a clean-shaven look. In preparation for our photoshoot, his hair is neatly trimmed, his tattoos covered by long sleeves. He may not make statements, but it’s easy to read a lot into what is essentially just a new haircut.
For Weatherall it’s always been about making things: about the authenticism and the craft. Whether it was his involvement with Primal Scream (producing their breakthrough single ‘Loaded’ and parts of the album Screamadelica), his remixes for the likes of Saint Etienne and My Bloody Valentine or his own music with Sabres of Paradise and Two Lone Swordsman – and latterly under his own name or The Asphodells – there has always been that sense of care: that things matter. Things that exist.
‘I wish I had a philosophical rationale,’ he says, ‘because it can sound quite reductionist. I think it’s because I’ve never seen it as a career. I’ve always seen it as a job.’ When he first started DJing, it suited his cycle of working to earn enough money to enable him to take a month off so he could spend it all on clothes, records and books. ‘I thought I’d do it for a year, but here we are 27 years later! I suppose I’m a journeyman. I hate to use the word craft, because it gets my hackles up a bit. Learning your trade, let’s say. I did go through a phase a couple of years ago where if I did something really quickly I thought it wasn’t worth anything, because it only took six hours. But then it dawned on me that it hadn’t taken six hours, it had taken 25 years and six hours.’
Arriving at that realisation was helpful, he concedes. Not that he thinks there is a right way or a wrong way to make things. Just a method that works for him. ‘The engineers I’ve worked with will tell you that I’m doing it the wrong way,’ he jokes. ‘But then again, at the end of a session they’ll turn around and say that it sounds amazing!’
Life, then, continues to teach and amaze. Lessons are always being learned. Knowledge is always being accrued. ‘Oh yeah,’ he affirms. ‘It’s why I’m a voracious reader. Because at 52, I’m aware that time is running out. There’s so much music, so little time. The same with literature. But I want to immerse myself. I don’t want to flit around. I don’t want to be a dilettante.’
And although he’s reconciled himself to the fact that he won’t get to listen to every great record ever made or, likewise, read every great book or watch every great film, he is, he announces, going to give it ‘a bloody good try’. It’s his way of achieving, or at least attempting, transcendence. ‘I have a sacrament,’ he explains. ‘It’s very rhythmic music. And I usually play that music in places where there are coloured lights. There’s a Greek ritual that basically involved taking ergot, which is where LSD comes from. Ergot soup basically. Going in a room full of smoke and coloured lights. And this was about 3,000 BC. And then you have the Catholic Church and the thurible – the incense and smoke as the light shines through the brightly coloured windows. It’s all about transcendence. I suppose it’s secular transcendence. And heresy. It’s Gnosticism. Direct contact with the divine without the middle man: that’s what I’m aiming for.’
Apart from Moine Dubh, Weatherall’s latest voyages of transcendence involve two forthcoming albums. The first, out in December, is a collaboration with the aforementioned Walsh, under the name The Woodleigh Research Facility. The second album has also been made with Walsh, but this one is coming out under his own name and is titled Convenanza, after the mini-festival he puts on every year in Carcassonne, France. What’s it like? ‘It sounds like a band jamming with The Woodleigh Research Facility,’ he says, a little unhelpfully. ‘That’s still not a description of the music really is it? The second band sounds like the first band jamming with the second band. Oh thanks!’
At the age of 52, Weatherall has clearly mellowed. He’s still a rebel, just not an aimless one. For many of his fans he’s the closest there is to a Messiah. He’s not, but he’s also not the naughty boy of lore either, when he was routinely referred to as the archetypal moody DJ. ‘I’m wiser now,’ he proffers. ‘But wiser in the fact that I don’t know anything. I felt nicely vindicated by two people. Confucius… and Cosey Fanni Tutti from Throbbing Gristle! I read an interview in which she said that, as she got older she knew nothing and that she was embracing that. And Confucius said that the first step on the path to wisdom is realising you know nothing. So, it’s not purgatory exactly, but a kind of no-man’s land, feeling wiser because I know sod all. [Michel de] Montaigne, the French philosopher, his whole raison d’être was “What do I know?” When you’re young, you think you know everything. That’s a good fuel. But only up to a certain age. The second fuel – “What do I know?” – that has to kick in.’
‘It’s more about: keep the books coming, keep the music coming, keep the art coming. Keep the theatre coming, keep the exhibitions coming.’
And is there another stage to come later on? He laughs once more: ‘I guess there’s a danger you could stray into the land of ambivalence.’ He’s quick to point out though that ‘not knowing anything’ doesn’t mean he’s abdicating his responsibilities. ‘It’s more about: keep the books coming, keep the music coming, keep the art coming. Keep the theatre coming, keep the exhibitions coming, you know. Because the barriers are down. When you think you know everything, you can miss out on a lot. When you realise you don’t, the floodgates come down and you start following literary and musical links that you might not have made before. It’s a whole new parallel universe.’
It’s why he’s excited about the future, because it offers fresh possibilities. There are plans for some sort of memoir (‘I’ve got loads of Moleskine notebooks of paragraphs and oneliners that I’m going to start bashing into shape probably next year’). He’s also planning a series of retrospectives documenting his time in his Shoreditch studio. But he’s also excited about the move to a new studio in the north of the capital. ‘I’ve got three rooms in a disused factory on a rundown industrial estate somewhere in North London, with a view of a dilapidated factory with pigeons roosting in the enormous rusting extractor fan. “The glory of gloom”, as Genesis P Orridge so beautifully put it. I just feel more at home like that. I don’t know if I’m romanticising it. I love that outlook. And the fact that there are some shady youths hanging about at the end of the street.’
He suggests that’s why his music sounds like it does (‘I’m not going to make a bucolic folk album, am I?’) – because he finds the exotic in the everyday. He puts it down to LSD usage when he was younger. Instead of listening to so-called psychedelic albums when he was tripping, his imagination was stimulated by immersion heaters and static. ‘LSD has already set off your own subconscious,’ he reasons. ‘You don’t need other stimulants. “Not interested, mate. I’ll be in the airing cupboard”.’
Would he dare do it now? ‘No,’ he responds immediately. ‘Too many skeletons behind too many doors waiting to come out. The thought of it scares me. But if I was at Dignitas and they told me they were switching my machine off in five minutes, I’d say: ‘Stick me in the airing cupboard and give me some double strength LSD’.’
Ladies and gentlemen, Andrew Weatherall is still very much in the building.