arabella-weir_1940329bThough looking completely unfazed by the youths knocking back cans of lager on the corner outside her house, even nodding an ‘Alright?’ to them as she passed, Arabella Weir looked a little uncertain about the tall, sweaty bloke on her pathway on the hottest day of the year so far.  Then a lightbulb went off.  ‘Oh fuck!  I forgot, I forgot…come in.’ she said to me, opening her front door.  Weir swears freely and often in a rather glorious way.   Apologies and explanations followed.  The kids had to be picked up, could I amuse myself for an hour?  It was the end of a long week and I was gagging for a pint.  She dropped me off at a pub where I listened to labourers arranging their weekend drugs and then paid an old Irish alky 50p to stop telling me jokes.  Example: ‘Why is sex so good when you’re camping?’  Because it’s fucking in tents’.

Arabella Weir started her comedy career securing the gladioli for Dame Edna Everage before working with Alexei Sayle on his ‘Stuff’ show in 1988 (‘I wrote a load of sketches about two lesbians who ran a bike shop called ‘The Menstrual Cycle’’).  ‘The Fast Show’ is what made her though.  Her and her bum.   ‘Does My Bum Look Big in This?’ was not only one of the most famous catchphrases to come out of the show, but also the title of a chick lit book that she wrote that sold shedloads back when enough book sales could make you some serious dosh.  It’s the reason that she lives in a lovely big house in a nice part of town, with sofas as colourful as her character (hot pink, in case you’re wondering).  Houses were cheaper then too, she reminds me.

the_fast_showThough she doesn’t remember exactly when she met Charlie Higson, he was at University with people Weir knew and she’d been at school with his wife, so she thinks that she’d always sort of known who he was.  She’d got to know Charlie better when Harry Enfield asked her to work on one of his shows.  Charlie and Paul Whitehouse were writing for Harry at the time.  One night they were all in the BBC bar together, which Weir remembers as distinctly unglamorous, despite being full of the celebrities of the day.  ‘Jimmy Savile was over there, Alan Titchmarsh, Percy Thrower.  Those were still the days when Jim Davidson was top of the tree and everybody was murmuring ‘bit of a wanker…’ behind his back.  Paul and Charlie were a bit uncomfortable around women, a bit autistic.  They walked over and said ‘We’re doing a sketch show now, without Harry.  You’re funny, do you want to do a bit?’ I was like ‘Yeah, alright’.

Weir reckons she was born a performer after entering the world as the youngest child with two older brothers, meaning that she was always having to compete for attention.  Her mother later told her that her brothers had never played with her.  By the time she was at school ‘I was so locked into being the centre of attention I couldn’t ever give ground.  I remember going into battle with a teacher when I was 12 years old and actually thinking ‘I don’t even hate you, get me off this.  I wouldn’t mind learning about geography’.  But at the same time there was this sea of laughter and all the girls were thinking of me as a ringleader.  I thought ‘I’m bullying her, I wish I wasn’t but everyone likes me.’  It bought me two weeks worth of respect.’  When asked what kind of job she wanted to do, she figured being an actor was the perfect fit for a show off.

Eight years of auditions followed while she was in her twenties.  She tells me the worst part was never getting feedback.  Did she ever think about giving up and getting a regular job?  ‘You’re always battling against the little voice saying ‘Come on, look at the graph, you’re not going to crack it’.  I was a PA to a local Labour councillor and it was a job I really enjoyed but the only reason I didn’t give up is because I knew I’d never love something as much as this.  You have to remember you are at a roulette table and when Robson Greene wins something you’re thinking, ‘What the fuck?  Where’s the meritocracy? Caroline Quentin?  Hello?  I didn’t hang around for 30 years to see her doing well!‘   The Fast Show gig turned up when she was 30 years old and the only secret to success, she says, is determination.

The book that she wrote with her catchphrase as the title sees our heroine, Jackie, worrying through life about any number of subjects but you can probably guess the big one: her size.  At one point in the book she decides she can write a self help book and describes the most flattering positions in which to have sex.  How much was Jackie actually Arabella, I wondered?  ‘All of it, every single word’.  So how often were you worrying when you were, er…? ‘Every minute of every sexual encounter and I’ve had loads of fantastic sex with tons of men and I’ve really gone for it, but there was always a bit of me that was thinking ‘Oh shit, the tits! Oh no, the stomach, oh god my bum’ and then I’ve just thought ‘Fuck it, we’re here now.’  If you’re skiing down a hill and you’re wearing a helmet, it doesn’t stop you enjoying it, you’re just taking precautions.  That concern about how I look, has been…present.’  It is a testament to what great company she is that I could have this kind of conversation with Arabella having met her only half an hour earlier.

The PA job that she had as a struggling actress triggered a lifetime of political engagement .  She describes herself as a socialist and is an ardent supporter of the Labour party.  We discuss politics in passing and she is hilarious about ‘oily estate agent man’ Cameron, remaining aghast that he was elected.  ‘He’s got gazillions in the bank and if things get a bit rough, he can go private.‘ which I take to mean that she thinks he will never really know how tough life can be for the majority of people.  When I ask her if she thinks Ed Miliband can win she fudges the answer, choosing her words carefully to describe him as ‘extremely impressive and engaging’.  Politicians are judged by their appearances as much as anything else these days and we both know, I think, that there is an elephant in the room when it comes to Ed.  She hopes that because Cameron is so overly polished, Ed will gain an advantage when the electorate eventually wants someone more genuine.

And then it’s time to go to Waitrose.  Weir’s daughter needs dropping off at a party and her son needs feeding.  ‘You’re coming with us.’ she says.  So I do.  The kids are a delight, her daughter doing that teenage thing of rolling her eyes in a ‘Duh!’ kind of way at her Mum’s conversation and her son telling me that he’d like to be a surgeon one day because he’s done a few dissections at school that he was really interested by.  Weir credits her kids as one of the reasons why she’s so fulfilled.  ‘My parents were fantastically interesting, amazingly intelligent, vibrant people but really awful parents.  So I feel incredibly fulfilled because I’ve had children, very late, and I’m everything my parents weren’t while also being a great role model as a woman.’  Constant jibes from her parents, particularly her Dad, were to blame for her insecurity about her size, the worrying about and constant analysis of which has made her career in a way.  She’s 55 now and we’re nearly 20 years on from ‘Insecure Woman’ (the character who gave birth to the catchphrase in ‘The Fast Show’) yet during the course of our conversation it’s apparent that her size is still somewhat of an issue for her.  When’s that going to go away, I ask her? ‘Never. Maybe when I’ve got cancer I wont be worrying about that too much. That’s my go to place.’

She’s tried therapy and found it useful for ‘the opportunity to acknowledge that I was not well brought up and I was very heavily judged for the way I looked but then that is who they were and that is what it was.  I’m not going to let all that get in the way of doing things that I want to do.’  So she’s learned acceptance? ‘Growing up is about managing expectations, realising that life isn’t perfect but life can be fucking good if you do fulfill your potential.  Someone asked me what I want for my kids.  If they end up working in Tesco in Nuneaton I won’t care as long as they feel they are maximising their potential.  I cannot bear people going, I’d really like to write a novel but I cant because blah blah.  Don’t do that!   I’m very lucky in that I have an enormous amount of energy but life is so short, so do the best you can possibly do with everything that you’ve got.’

David Arnold passed me on to Charlie Higson.   I met him one morning at a cafe in North London,  me drinking a latte and him drinking dandelion and burdock.charliehigson

Charlie Higson has the same problem that everyone else is having these days, namely distraction.  After a successful career in television in the 1990s, he’s now an author, writing  at home during office hours.  But when I ask him how much time he actually spends working, he reckons it’s about two hours a day. ‘But as long as I get that two hours done, then there’s Twitter and emails and Call of Duty online which I spend a huge amount of my time on…years of my life.  It does get frustrating.  I do sometimes think if I hadn’t played so much Call of Duty I could have written a film script or another TV series.’    Still, his output is pretty respectable.  He’s written hundreds of sketches of the Fast Show, produced comedies like Vic and Bob’s ‘Randall and Hopkirk Deceased’ and is the author of 15 books.  ‘Yeah.  And I’m pretty good at Call of Duty’ he says, deadpan.

‘The Fast Show’, which Higson produced and wrote with Paul Whitehouse, was inescapable in the 90s.  Even if you weren’t watching it, you probably had someone telling you that all sorts of things were ‘BRILLIANT’ in an ironically positive way, that they had been ‘Very…very drunk’ when telling you about their weekend or responding with a chin stroke and the word ‘Nice.’  when you were boring the arse off them.  Once you’d discovered the source of the catchphrases, it’s likely you were beguiled by the ‘will they, wont they’ awkwardness of Ted and Ralph.  Higson had known he wanted to continue to perform after the demise of his band The Higsons.  They’d given it a go for six years, getting signed to 2 Tone records (Madness were label mates) and having their first record for the label produced by Jerry Dammers of The Specials.  ‘If you wanted to go on stage and arse about and entertain your mates, you formed a band and that’s what I wanted to do…be on stage.  Entertaining people, I loved that.’

Of the traditional rewards that are supposed to come from being in a band, it seems that rock n roll was the only one that came his way.  He’s loathe to discuss drugs now that he writes for kids and says there was a distinct lack of groupies as ‘if you went off with anyone, you had to be prepared to have the piss ripped out of you for the rest of the tour by the rest of the band, non stop. So it wasn’t worth it.‘  When temptation did come his way one night, it was resisted due to practical reasons.    There was, he says ‘a very, very beautiful girl in Hull who came up to me in a club after the gig and she said to me that she’d found the concert…’very exciting’, shall we say. I thought if I go off with her, how am I ever going to find the band and find my way back to the hotel in the morning?’

Having worked as a decorator in between gigs to make some cash, when the band broke up he figured if he did that full time he could actually make quite a lot of money ‘because London is full of houses.’  Paul Whitehouse, whom Charlie had met at University was also doing up homes, working as a plasterer.  They started writing comedy together and the spark that lit the fire was the creation of ‘Loadsamoney’ for Harry Enfield, after which they were taken seriously as comedy writers. rowley birkin

Higson talks very fondly of Whitehouse, whom he has known since 1977 and who he describes as ‘a brilliant performer’.  After Ralph, he tells me that the ‘very, very drunk’ Rowley Birkin, the bumbling, retired Q.C. who delights in disconnected remembrances, was his favourite Fast Show character.  Higson would sit opposite Whitehouse with an idiot board containing key words and phrases as he performed Rowley.  ‘Those stories could occasionally be very moving – thats quite an acting job, to speak gibberish and have people in tears.   As a range of characters, impersonating those people and making them come alive and keeping them different, he’s on a par with anyone like Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers or any of those people that have been praised for doing different characters.’  Whitehouse is apparently taking a break currently but Higson says they’ll definitely work together again.

‘The Fast Show’ made an internet only comeback in 2011.  Beer brand Fosters offered a budget, the opportunity to get the gang back together and the chance to see if entertainment could work successfully in a new medium.  With hindsight, you can’t help thinking that if transmission had been delayed by even 18 months, they might have attracted a bigger audience now used to watching television via different on demand services with tablet computers via turbo broadband.   Perhaps surprisingly for an avid online gamer with 80,000 followers on Twitter, Higson came away from the experience convinced that TV still rules.  ‘Somebody put it into perspective for me when they told me they’d posted a video on Youtube and said ‘Look it’s only been up there for two weeks and it’s had a million hits.  It’s extraordinary that you can get this access to people‘.  But ‘Cash in the Attic’ gets four million viewers every day in the afternoon.  Four million a day!  If you counted them as hits…‘   And as he points out, though his kids watch ‘a huge amount of stuff’ online, it is still television programmes that they’re watching.  51P9XA+L+8L

I’d read a lot of interviews with Higson before I got to meet him and in most of them he comes across as very content in a breezy kind of way.  You can hardly blame him.  He clearly loves writing, both the act of it and the freedom it allows him.  Not only has he already accumulated a very respectable CV writing, producing and directing  for television, he has, as he puts it, ‘had a second flush of success with the kids books where I was offered a new career completely out of the blue’.  Having published four adult novels, his Editor Kate Jones was charged with revitalising the James Bond brand several years later.  Knowing that Charlie was a big fan and would meet his deadlines, he got the gig.  Five ‘Young Bonds’ followed and since 2009 he’s been writing a zombie horror series, the fifth instalment of which will be published this year.  A lot to be happy about then.  Does he ever worry about anything?

‘I think everybody worries about something.  Certainly as you get older you are reminded more and more of mortality.  Your parents generation are all getting ill in different ways and dying.  As you get older your body deteriorates in different ways.  You get ailments and things fall off and things go wrong.  You can’t really worry about that because its inevitable. So on a work front, do I worry about stuff?  I’d like to do more TV comedy.  People send me sketches, they come to events or they email me asking ‘I’ve got a great comedy idea, how do I get it on TV?’ and I say ‘I’ve got tons of comedy ideas and I cant get my ideas on TV!  How can I tell you how to get your ideas on TV?’

When I express surprise at this, he answers that although his name will open a few doors and he’s acquainted with comedy controllers at both the BBC and Sky, ‘I’m 54, I’m not Jack Whitehall.  I’m not the person on TV that everybody wants.‘   The last television show he was involved in, ‘Bellamy’s People’,  was not commissioned for a second run by the BBC.  How did that feel?  ‘The only major rejection we’ve had was that one and I suppose like everyone else you just think ‘Well, they’re a bunch of idiots.’ rather than ‘I’ve made something that was shit.’ he says, laughing.  He definitely thinks the glass is half full then? ‘I think I maintain an even keel, I’m kind of in the middle. More and more as I get older it’s the small things in life that give you the most pleasure and are the most precious. Having a nice meal with my kids is brilliant. That’s a lot more fun and rewarding than going to the comedy awards.’

Matt Berry passed me on to David Arnold.  You’ll notice the format has changed this time around.  Initially I liked the idea of a Q&A as a clean, unedited version of a conversation with no bias but now I’ve changed my mind.  A new year, a new format.  Hope you like.The Duchess Of Cambridge Attends The UK's Creative Industries Reception At The Royal Academy Of Arts

Gosh but Air Studios are beautiful to behold.  Crowning Belsize Park triumphantly like a red brick ark, the former church is now a temple to sound, founded by Sir George Martin.  As elegant as the Natural History Museum (and designed by the same man, Alfred Waterhouse), it has given birth to some of the world’s most famous music scores, a lot of them created by the composer David Arnold.  This year he was responsible for the music at the Olympic and Paralympic closing ceremonies.  As we sit in a soundproof room inside the studios he tells me, in his softly spoken voice, of the profound change in attitude he noticed at the time.

‘There felt like a national optimism and a sense of ‘We can do things like this’.  The tone changed from ‘This is going to be a disaster and everything is going to be terrible and London’s going to shut down and public transport is going to collapse and the security thing is going to be a disaster and we’re going to be bombed’…all the awful, awful things that people were predicting.  People were leaving London on the understanding of the predicted chaos that was going to ensue.  To then see the thing become about the greatest thing that you could imagine and the enthusiasm and the effervescence and the kindliness of all the people that volunteered.  I remember tweeting at the time ‘It feels like London has changed and I prefer it like this.’

There have been some big years in the life of the 50 year old composer David Arnold.  1993 perhaps, when Bjork sang ‘Play Dead’ against the backdrop of the swooning strings he’d composed, bringing him to the attention of the public.  Or 1997 when John Barry recommended him to Barbara Broccoli to score the next Bond film (he ended up doing five).  Neither of those will have been a match for 2012 though, when, as musical director for the closing ceremonies of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, his music reached a huge global audience.  ‘One thing that any artist would say to you is that nothing really beats people watching your work.  That it’s getting to people, the idea that it’s communicating.  The thing that comes from your hand or your mind goes out into the world and I’m sitting there on this little plastic chair in the ceremony realising that there’s a billion people experiencing this at the same time as I am.’

It had been three and a half years since David had taken a phone call from Martin Green, the producer of all ceremonies.  ‘He just floated the idea past me…I’m sure that they were asking a lot of people.’  Arnold had produced Shirley Bassey’s album ‘The Performance’ in 2009 and asked Green down to the Roundhouse to see her perform in October.  The following month he was invited to the unfinished stadium to meet with Kim Gavin, the creative director.  The two had previously worked on a Children in Need show at the Royal Albert Hall together and after hearing his ideas, David finally got a phone call seven months later to say he’d got the gig. Good job too, as he’d cancelled all of his commitments for the following two years.  ‘I thought, if there’s even the narrowest chance of me being able to do it then it would be worthwhile not doing anything else.’

Olympics-closing

Starting in January 2010, the ceremonies were designed by the Spring of 2011, though the music was being worked on up to and including 2012.  Was he able to enjoy the ceremonies from his little plastic chair? ‘I did because I submitted to the idea that I’d done all the work and all the recordings were done, the arrangements were done, everything was finished.  There was nothing at that point that I could do to change anything. I was debating whether to be in the control room where they were directing it, but that would have been like watching the whole thing through a video camera.   I wanted to be there rather than watch the thing technically.   I’d rather just be out there with everyone.  Bit like when you make a film.  It’s nice to be with an audience and feel how its being received.’

Ah yes, films.  Apart from Bond, he’s scored soundtracks for several genres of movie, from blockbusters ‘Independence Day’ and ‘Godzilla’, to comedies ‘Zoolander’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’ and the fantasy ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’.  Does he like to switch around? ‘It’s like: I wouldn’t eat the same thing every day. Some of them haven’t done that well, sometimes they are silly throwaway things and sometimes they’re not.  The main thing is, do I understand what’s going on and can I feel like I can be a part of it?  Does it make me hear things? There is one genre he hasn’t covered yet though.  ‘I’d love to do a proper really disturbing horror film.’

Arnold describes creating music for a set of moving images as like reading a book.  ‘You start imagining what things might look like depending on the description of it and you could probably do a drawing of it based on your understanding of it.‘  Having produced so many big successful scores for blockbusters, I imagined his reputation made him bulletproof when it came to criticism of his work, although he says otherwise.  ‘Sometimes they’re saying ‘I don’t really like it, it’s not working.  You have to trust your Director to know what’s best for the direction of the film.  That’s what directing is.  There are a million ways that music can change your perception of a picture and it needs to be the right one for the film that he’s making.’

Of all the films he’s scored, he tells me his favourite was the biopic ‘Amazing Grace’.  Little seen but well received by critics, it starred Ioan Gruffyd as William Wilberforce fighting for the end of slavery.  The subject matter proved inspirational. ‘There’s a different sense of responsibility to things which are factual rather than fiction based.  With such a thing as slavery, something which has constant repercussions in the world, you have a responsibility to tell an absolute truth.‘   His criteria for choosing films is simple: he just has to like the idea and the script.  It is the film, he says, rather than the Director that influences his choices.  ‘Would I rather work with the Steven Spielberg that made ‘1941’ or the one that made ‘Schindler’s List?’  Despite this, he will admit to being a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work.  ‘His films invite great creativity.  The canvas they offer you…it’s experimental, it’s bold.  The Master is just incredible and Jonny Greenwood has done amazing stuff with him.’

Apart from movies, he has strong links with comedy, most famously the stirring patriotic theme for Little Britain.  It all started with an acting role in 1996, when he was playing the role of the producer of a band whose lead singer was Paul Kaye.  The bass player was David Walliams, who had just started working with Matt Lucas and the three of them became firm friends.  Arnold knows a lot of comedians these days, but it is Lucas, he says, who has probably made him laugh the hardest. ‘I went to a Chinese restaurant with him down the road.  It was before Little Britain but after Shooting Stars. Matt walked in and there was this guy who was drunk and he got up from the other side of the room and pointed at Matt and goes ‘Oh look, it’s that fat bloke off the telly!’ and Matt turned round and pointed at him and went ‘Oh look, its that c*** from the restaurant!’d01_1700_matt_445

Arnold has just produced the music for ‘Mr Stink’, a 3D version of one of Walliams childrens books that appeared on the BBC over Christmas, starring Hugh Bonneville, Sheridan Smith and Johnny Vegas.  He’s also working on a musical version of ‘Made in Dagenham’, which denied him the chance to work on Lucas’s forthcoming TV show.  Then there is something that is rather intriguing, ‘a kind of post Olympic music art thing that I wanted to do at the Olympics.  We ended up not doing it for lots of reasons – it’s a big logistical thing but it’s a way of delivering music to the country that they haven’t really had before.’   Though he’s not keen to elaborate on exactly what the project is for the time being, he describes it as a way of recapturing the positivity that resulted from putting on a very happy and successful Games.  It’s clear that he was very moved by the whole experience.

‘I don’t even know if I can do it because it’s going to be very expensive to do but doing the Olympics changed the way I want to do things.  There were moments of great national pride but also moments of great, creative, artistic beauty.  The sheer optimism that you felt and the relief as well that everything went ok.  As your head sadly and grindingly gets turned to things like the BBC Newsnight thing and…Jimmy Savile, the tedious inevitability of awfulness that keeps turning up…just to remind people that this national talent that we have, this optimism, is all still here.  It’s made me think that is inherently in a lot of people whereas I wasn’t sure before.  It was a catalyst that lifted people from absolute cynicism to an optimistic view of being alive in this country.  There’s that old adage ‘If it comes from the heart, it goes to the heart’.   It’s trying to make those connections and keep those things going.  Over the Olympics it felt like people were connected to each other in a very real way.  I think it’s the best thing that happened to the city, ever.’

Eddie Piller passed me on to Matt Berry, having first furnished me with a copy of Matt’s album Witchazel.  The album is a trip, alternately beautiful and odd, with lyrics that are sometimes profound and other times surreal (‘Your penguin’s in the bath, it was put there by your Mum’ on ‘Song for Rosie’).  Musically, there is a broad spectrum of influences; psychedelic, folky, some of it sounds like it could soundtrack cult 60s and 70s film or TV.  There is funk and there is the lovely, sweeping ‘Take My Hand’ which also boasts a strangely moving video  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rdqu-HObUbo).  Here’s an amazing thing about Witchazel: Matt gave it away as a free download before Acid Jazz picked it up.  If you listen to it, you’ll be amazed that he gave all that creativity away for nish once upon a time.

And I have to admit, apart from that I didn’t know anything about him.  Which goes a long way to proving that I always miss all the good stuff on telly.  I didn’t know about Matt playing Douglas Reynholm in the IT Crowd, nor him being in Garth Merenghi’s Dark Place or Snuff Box on BBC3.  I didn’t know about ‘Sugar Tits’, I didn’t know about him being in a few episodes of the Mighty Boosh, about him being Vangelis on Shooting Stars, any of that. Even though I’d seen those last two.  He was even in the film ‘Moon’ which was class. It’s like I’ve been living in a televisual black hole for the last eight years, only using the goggle box for the weather (have you seen it?  It’s AMAZING), football matches, Family Guy and any number of movies on Film 4 that I’d either seen before or got sucked into thinking they’d be good before finding out that they weren’t.  Good job I did my research before I talked to him.  All Matt’s stuff is worth checking out on Youtube or 4OD or wherever you can find it by the way as pretty much all of it is really funny.  Hell, buy some of it even, then Matt can get some money for all this stuff he’s done.  Matt Berry’s work ethic will put you (and me come to that) to SHAME.  And it all stemmed from being told off for eating a Double Decker when he worked in a call centre.  Read on to find out why.

PMO – So how do you know Eddie Piller?

MB – Eddie released an album I did called Witchazel last March.  I met him through a mutual friend and I thought he might take a single but then he said he wanted to do the whole album, which was great.

PMO – I ask everyone to state their name, age and what they do for a living.

MB – My name is Matt Berry, I’m 37 and I don’t know…I get away with it.

PMO –  People will know you are are a writer, actor and a musician.  Of those things do you consider you’re one more than the other?

MB – I don’t.  I try not to consider myself at all.  Once you start doing that you’re in a bit of trouble.  I’m just kind of lucky to be able to do all of those things.

PMO – I saw an interview with you where  you said you’d had a job in a call centre and hated it.  You got sacked and that was kind of a pivotal moment for you, you decided that you didn’t want to do anything like that again.  What happened next?

MB – I was eating a double decker at my workspace and then was told to stand up in front of everyone.  I was told there was no eating at your workspace so I just got up and left.  Like you say, I was fired and then decided I wouldn’t do anything like that again and I would try and make sure that I didn’t ever have to do anything like that again.  I went from there to to the London Dungeon, which I loved.  From there I did a thing called Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace on Channel 4.

PMO – How does someone go from one moment working in a call centre to suddenly being on Channel 4?

MB – I was playing rude songs in town before The Mighty Boosh were doing their gigs.  I knew Noel Fielding and was doing stuff with him.  Matt Holness and Richard Ayoade were doing stuff at that same time and they wanted me to play one of the characters in the televised version of their Edinburgh show.  I wasn’t doing anything, I was in the Dungeon so that was it.

PMO – And has it been a springboard from then on?

MB – Pretty much.

PMO – Were you writing comedy before that?

MB – I was writing music and wasting time with bits of shit but never thinking that it would be taken seriously or that I would end up doing it for a living.

PMO – How did you know Noel Fielding and Richard Ayoade?

MB – This was the year 2000.  There was no interest in the Boosh then. It was because Noel and I shared an interest in art, we were very art school.  We had mutual friends who were at our art schools.  That was the only reason why I was playing songs before their show.

PMO – Do you think it’s true what people say then, that it’s who you know rather than what you know?

MB – Well if you’re shit then you go nowhere so there’s got to be something there.

PMO – Working in the arts can be notoriously difficult, did you ever consider doing anything else because you were completely skint?

MB – I’ve made sure that I haven’t stopped doing things.  Whether that’s doing music, voiceovers, TV comedy or making films.  I’m always working on something or about to work on something.  I think you’ve got to find your own thing.  The biggest truism I’ve found is no one is going to do anything for you. No one is going to write anything for you, you can’t sit back and wait for someone to write something around you so you have to do it yourself.

PMO – It sounds like you’re also saying that you need a few strings to your bow, that you can’t rely on one.

MB – Possibly. I was lucky with the voiceover stuff.

PMO – You’ve used that word a couple of times now.  Do you consider yourself lucky?

MB – Totally, yeah.  I think with things like voiceovers…there’s not much skill in that.  I just happen to speak like this and that’s done me a favour. That is luck.

PMO – How ambitious are you, would you want to end up where Russell Brand is now for example?

MB – I’m not sure because once you’re everyones property its very difficult to do stuff.  I’m more of a private person.  I don’t need to be in newspapers or spoken about.  I don’t really care about any of that, its just about doing decent work.

PMO – Do you think your work ethic has come from a fear of never wanting to be back in that call centre?

MB – I don’t think so.  I love the stuff that I do and I don’t think of it as being work.  Every album that I’ve made or show that I’ve been involved with…I’ve loved every minute of.  That’s why you spend all day and all night doing it, because it doesn’t feel like work.

PMO – I told a few people I know that I was going to be talking to you and one of their questions was have you ever used any of the phrases that you’re famous for, such as ‘Fuck You’ from Snuff Box or ‘Sugar Tits’ from the IT Crowd in real life?

MB – No.

Matt as Douglas Reynholm

PMO – Can you conceive of a situation where you might get away with that?

MB – I don’t think so.  The thing is, once I’ve said them in the show I totally forget about them because its a work thing.  When people come up to me and say those things I don’t know if its me that’s said them or another character.  It kind of disappoints them because a lot of the time I don’t know what they mean.

PMO – So do you get people coming up to you and saying your catchphrases to you?

MB – People do, yeah.  Thats all part of it.  I don’t mind it, it’s my fault, I did it.  You can’t get too shitty about it.

PMO – You’re working on something called Toast.

MB – Toast of London is a pilot for Channel 4 that goes out in August.  It’s written by myself and Arthur Matthews who co-wrote Father Ted.  I’ve worked with him on quite a few things before – he was the script editor on Snuff Box.  It’s a sitcom about an actor who is on his way to the theatre each night and it’s about the things that happen to him on the way there.

PMO – So you’re doing the pilot – what happens after that?  The suits look at that and decide if they’re going to commission you for six episodes?

MB – That’s basically it.  They might make a decision before.  There’s no firm offer from Channel 4.  They can say yes or no at any time.

PMO – Have you had stuff turned down before that you’ve pitched?

MB – No I haven’t.

PMO – So you’ve never known disappointment?

MB – There’s been things like Snuff Box not being recommissioned.

PMO – So how do you deal with that?

MB – I didn’t really mind so much because we didn’t have any more ideas for that situation.  I think we’d said all we had to say. At the time I wasn’t too pissed off.  It was a bit too mean.  I liked it, but I wouldn’t make a show like that now.

PMO – A lot of the stuff you produce seems to have a bit of a sentimental nod to the 70s.  I’m thinking of some of the deliberately wooden acting in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Douglas Reynholm being a bit of a throwback boss, misogynistic, bit vague, never seems to do any real work.  Even things like the piano intro to ‘Take My Hand’ smack of 70’s Abba or Elton John.  Do you have a particular love for that decade?

MB – Yeah.  With Darkplace that was more of an 80s horror pastiche.  I’m not sure if Reynholm is 70s.  My personal thing is stuff that makes me feel warm and it’s all analogue whether it’s audio production or visual effects.  I much prefer that.

PMO – I’ve listened to Witchazel quite a lot since I met Eddie and I think its quite a psychedelic album.  Is it an album to take drugs to?

MB – It wasn’t done with that in mind.  It was made without expecting anyone else to hear it.  I didn’t expect it to get picked up.

PMO – But it sounds like it was made with love, it doesn’t sound like it was just thrown together…

MB – It was absolutely made with a lot of love.  But it was made with love because no one had asked for it.  It was done just for me.  I didn’t expect anyone like yourself to have heard it.   It’s just the kind of album I would want to listen to.

PMO – If you spend all that time writing songs, getting the musicians together, the studio time…

MB – There wasn’t any studio time, I recorded it all myself.  Apart from the drums I played all the instruments.

PMO – You would have been happy for that to stay as a kind of a gift to people as a free download?

MB – Yep.

PMO – There’s a lyric on the track ‘So Low’ on the album that goes ‘Got to get me to the top, but it’s a million to one shot.  I guess I should be happy with my life, but I guess that I am not.’  You’re known for being a funny man so should we take that as a comment about yourself or is it ironic?

MB – It wasn’t about myself, it was about another comic I know who is so ambitious that it makes him unhappy and I’ve never understood that.  It’s not about me, I’m more than happy with my lot.

PMO – I wondered how you would feel if you hadn’t had the success that you’ve had and you were still writing and performing, playing music and it wasn’t going anywhere.

MB – Something would have happened.

PMO – You sound confident…

MB – If you give a shit and you look at the detail and you spend time and you deliver pretty good quality, someone down the line is going to appreciate it at some point.

PMO – That comic that you’re talking about in ‘So Low’, do you feel like he’s going to get some success?

MB – It’s never enough.  He’s not alone, there’s a whole bunch of actors like that.  They’ll get to a certain point…they’ll be the biggest thing in England and then they’ll get to be the biggest thing in the States and then they’re not the biggest thing anymore and that gets them down.  That constant striving…it never ends.  And he’s really good.  I do want to move on and do other things but at the same time I don’t want to be constantly pissed off that I haven’t achieved this or that.

PMO –  You seem to have a bit of a fascination for, the only term I can come up with is, country vermin.  You’ve got a song on your album about badgers and you’ve posted a couple of Twitter pictures of foxes.

MB – These are just woodland creatures.

PMO – True but those two do get a bit of a bad rap…you haven’t chosen something cute like a deer.

MB – I’ve always just been very fond of woodland creatures.  They would appear in whatever I did.

PMO – Of all the things you’ve done, is there one that you’re most proud of?

MB – I’m most proud of Witchazel.  That wasn’t with anyone else, it was exactly what was in my head.

PMO – You seem very calm and relaxed about the thing that you do and life in general.  We’ve also spoken about the person that ‘So Low’ is about.  If someone was a bit lost or frustrated about their life what advice would you offer them?

MB – I’d try and help anyone but I’m not very good at giving advice because I can’t really take it.  I don’t know the right answers.  I’ve got here through a mixture of hard work and luck. There is no right or specific kind of path to take or if there is, I don’t know about it.

Eddie Piller

Posted: April 19, 2012 in DJ
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Norman Jay passed me onto Eddie Piller, the boss of Acid Jazz records.  He runs the label from the back of an antiques shop in the East End, in a room that is plastered with a million things to tantalise your eyes. On the walls are vintage gig posters, pictures of mods old and new, snapshots of Eddie out DJing, often pictured with famous faces who’ve come to see what gems he’s going to educate their ears with.  Talking to him, I got a sense that he’s kind of an Encyclopedia Pilleria about a certain kind of music, as he says ‘black or black influenced music from America up until 1985’ but it was also clear his tastes are very broad.  Metalheadz ran Sunday nights at his club the Blue Note and if you have a listen to his latest signing The Janice Graham Band, who he is wildly enthusiastic about – they seem a long way on the musical spectrum from Jamiroquai, who he discovered.  I promised him I wouldn’t but I almost wanted to post this as an audio interview as he’s a great teller of stories in a wonderful East End gravelly tone.  In any case you can hear him (and expose yourself to some musical treasures) on his Modcast.

PMO – So how do you know Norman Jay?

EP – Before I set up the Acid Jazz label with Gilles Peterson, Norman Jay was one of the pioneering UK warehouse party DJs. He mixed soul and funk and jazz in a way that directly led to the rare groove explosion (he even coined the term) – I was initially a fan, then a friend and eventually a contemporary.

PMO – Introduce yourself.

EP – I’m 48 yrs old and I’m a broadcaster, writer and record producer.

PMO – What are you first and foremost?

EP – It goes in waves.  I was a record producer until the mid 90s and I found that life was very hard, 18 hour days, then I discovered a slight talent for broadcasting.  Since then I’ve broadcasted on stations like 6Music, Q Radio, Jazz FM and currently I do a podcast which is a chat show.  I also DJ all over the world.

PMO – Is there one of those things that you prefer over the others?

EP- No I like writing; I’ve written an eight part series on youth culture for ITV.  I suppose what I enjoy most is broadcasting, working as a presenter.

PMO – Have you got a family?

EP – Yep, I’m married with two children.

PMO – So, how do you fit it all in?

EP – It’s very difficult.  I’ve got an understanding partner.  I’ve always done this for a job, since I was 16 years old, my wife is more than used to that fact.   She’s heard me DJ before so she doesn’t particularly want to come every time! Occasionally she comes.  This is what I do for a job and it’s what I’ve always done and she knows that.  Is that a bad thing?

PMO – Not at all.  I think if you meet someone and they’ve got a passion for something, that can be quite attractive.  Do you have to spend a lot of time away?  You mentioned travelling with the DJing.

EP – I’m winding it down now.  For the last 15 years, I DJ’ed all over Europe most weekends but I’ve found the travelling hard.

PMO – Do you end up doing a six day week then, what with running the label during the week?

EP – It depends.  When I get bookings I want to do, for example, I did Pele’s birthday party in February, I’m not going to turn that down!  On the other hand I don’t want to DJ in North Germany on a Friday night, I can’t be arsed.

PMO – To rewind a bit, you were born into, as you describe it, an East End mod family.  Your Mum ran the Small Faces fan club.  Given that, do you think you would ever have done anything else but work in the music business?

EP – No, although I don’t know how much it had to do with my Mum and her job. I grew up in a family that liked music but just like everyone else’s parents, my parents gave up on youth culture early and got a proper job.  So I didn’t necessarily develop my love of music from that.  I think I got it from John Peel, from listening to the radio as a kid, and then getting into punk as a 15 year old. Then moving from punk into Mod, 1978, 1979, The Jam, all that kind of stuff.

PMO – How does that connect up?  What I know of punk is it’s all quite fast, angry music and you could argue the black soul the Mods were into is almost all about love in a way.

EP – Yeah but Mod has been going since 1958.  My path into Mod was the Mod revival, bands like The Jam, The Chords, Secret Affair.  That way of life, going to see bands all the time.  Gradually the mod scene developed, R&B, Jazz, Soul music.  DJs on the radio like Peter Young, who was on Capital, he made us listen to different kinds of music and you grow and you evolve and you realise that the best music that’s ever been made is from black America or black influenced music from 1959 to about 1985.

PMO – It’s interesting that you came full circle then from your Mum being with a mod band, you heading away from that into punk and then coming back to Mod.

EP – But what were the Faces doing?  They were doing Marvin Gaye covers. The whole Mod thing is a constant…it’s a part of British culture, it’s been through five or six generations, from when the Mods were into jazz, people like Tubby Hayes in 1958 at the Flamingo (a Soho club 1950s/1960s) or The Jam in 1979 or Oasis in 1994.   It’s constantly evolving.

PMO – So can you define it then?  What is Mod?

EP – There’s a much better person than me who gave the answer.  Peter Meaden, who was the first manager of The Who, he was pretty much the only person to distill the Mod ethos – expressionism as art as commercialism as youth culture as money.  Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever was rumoured to be based on Peter Meaden because Nik Cohn’s story (which became SNF) drew on memories of going out in Shepherd’s Bush, where Meaden was a ‘face’.  Jimmy in Quadrophenia is also supposed to be him.   So, two of the most important films about youth culture featured Peter Meaden as the hero.  Meaden said, when interviewed by the NME, that ‘Mod living is an aphorism for clean living under difficult circumstances’.  Now that means nothing on one level, but it’s also the totality of Mod.  You can’t define it, but you what it is if you know what it is.

The Who do Mod.

PMO – How did you make your first wage?

EP – I started a fanzine in 1980 when I was still at school and by 1982, issue 10, we were selling 10000 copies at 30p each.  I’d negotiated with a friend of my Dad’s for an office in Dagenham on an industrial estate and I used to drive there every day on my Lambretta with a bloke called Terry Rawlings who became an author.  We ran the fanzine together for a few years until I got spotted by Stiff Records.  Stiff wanted me for my ideas and they were the holy grail of indie labels at the time.  (Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and Madness were some of the artists on Stiff back then).

PMO – Have you never been in the position where you’ve had to consider a regular 9 to 5?

EP- My first 9 to 5 was for a record label in the West End for a year and a half in 1980. I was a motorcycle messenger and finished as head of promotions and that taught me everything I needed to know about music.  That was the only real job I’ve ever had. I’ve consulted for labels; I did work for MCA for a month but I didn’t like the ‘major’ structure so I left straight away.  They gave me my own label at Stiff and I worked for them until they closed.

PMO – Acid Jazz had it’s zenith in the mid 90s. From that are you now financially secure?  Do you have to work?

EP – I made money, but I didn’t make  a lot of money.  A lot of other people made a lot more money than me!  But I live in a nice house and everything’s fine.

PMO – You want to keep working or you need to keep working?

EP – I need to keep working.  It’s very difficult for an independent record label to make any money in a time when 75% of music is stolen from the internet.  I have a label thats been going 25 years with a catalogue of 6000 songs which is a fantastic UK indie label but it’s very difficult to make money.  I will work as a DJ or a consultant or whatever because it promotes the brand and the label that is Acid Jazz.  We’ve had our best year for 15 years!  I don’t know why…there’s a focus on British things at the moment in retail and in quality terms and we are one of the few British indies thats never done a deal with a major.   Maybe people are realising that they value things that are genuine and I feel that we  do that, whether  people get the music off the internet for nothing or not.

PMO – How do you feel about people stealing your stuff from the net?

EP – What can you feel?  There’s nothing I can do about it. All I can do if offer quality product – heavyweight vinyl, nice packaging, 16 page booklets and hope that people will want the real thing.  I can’t stop someone in Russia selling my product for 10 cents.  I don’t earn that way, the band don’t earn and 75% of the industry doesn’t earn that way.  In three years time if this continues there might not be an industry…if there is it’ll be a cottage industry. The sad thing is that EMI, the last great British record label is just about to be bought by a French company so we will have no British majors anymore.  The Beatles record label!

PMO – Why do you think they’ve all been sold?

EP – Everyone wants to cash in!  You’ve got shares, you’ve got ownership, you want to sell it, get your money, get out.

PMO – Do you think record labels were too slow to get with download culture?

EP – Yeah!  Not the indies, the corporates.  They could have done a deal with Napster which could have saved the industry at the time but instead they prosecuted and stopped it.  You’ll have to check this but I think that Napster were  prepared to work with this business model but the industry turned their backs on it  and the next thing we know is if you can’t buy it online from EMI, you’re going to get it from Russia and then everyone’s doing it!  It’s a generational thing.  My son is 19.  He listens to music on Youtube and then buys it.  My daughter is 16.  She listens to music and sees no reason why she shouldn’t just download it for free.  She doesn’t see why she has to pay for it even with the job I do.

PMO – She must have met people that depend on that money.

EP – Yes but she doesn’t see it.  Click here, get that is what she sees.  My son is like, ‘I’ll look at that, I like that, I’ll buy it’.  It must have happened in that gap between 19 and 16.   When was that?  Eight years ago?  I don’t know.   It’s tough.  Anyway, I’m ranting now…

PMO – Acid Jazz was most on my radar during the mid 90s.  Are those bands still with you now?

EP – We still have the catalogue of some of them but with all bands you have a window.  That window can be one record or it can be five records; five records takes six or seven years. The period you’re talking about is 20 years ago so we have  a constant turnover of bands.  We have a fantastic band at the moment called The Janice Graham Band, they’re like The Specials meets The Happy Mondays, the biggest thing I’ve signed since Jamiroquai, they’re going to be enormous.  I love it, all their songs are about murder, growing up on a council estate, going to prison.  They’re all 18 years old and there’s no one called Janice Graham in the name , it’s an anti fame name.

PMO – What I was going to ask you about the older bands is, when they’ve had their moment in the sun, is that a kick in the teeth for them?  How do they cope when their fame dwindles, when their record sales dwindle?

EP – We’re in the ego business.  I’ve had to put up with ten years of the most insane unfashionability but we like what we do and when you become massive worldwide, which Acid Jazz was, there’s a period when you’re untouchable.  Over the last ten years I’ve seen things build up again as people are becoming bored of (A) manufactured pop, which is dominating the charts at the moment and (B) the inaccessible nature of British urban music which to the fan base of kids who like Acid Jazz, black and white kids who are into funk and soul, they’re finding it difficult to get into. So gradually the pendulum has swung back in favour of what we do, which is a mixture of jazz, funk, soul and mod stuff.   It’s been a long time for us, but it’s the same for bands.  The Brand New Heavies – they’re still going, they still get X amount of money for a gig.  It’s terrible when everyone goes ‘You’re shit’ but that’s life!

PMO – A lot of people would have given up.  What kept you going?

EP –  Why would I give up?  I had a successful business.  I’m in the business of selling copyright, exploiting copyright in any way possible which means adverts, it means music on the radio, it means selling records…whatever.   We’ve had a very steady business to our core market.  Every several years there is an increase in the core market when it becomes fashionable.    The core market has never fallen to the point where it’s a waste of time.  We cater to those people who are into us and five years later we do something that’s really big and everyone goes ‘Fuck me! I forgot about them.’

PMO – To change tack, it could be said that when you opened your club The Blue Note in 1993, you changed a part of London.  At that time in Hoxton you could have got a one bedroom flat for £50K…

EP – No you could have got it for £30K!  My parents are from Bethnal Green Road.  When I phoned my Dad in 1992 and said, ‘I’m going to buy a club in Hoxton’ he told me not to do it.  He thought it the most dangerous area of London.  He said ‘It’s bomb sites, it’s fucked, do not go there’.

PMO – Because people were getting mugged?

EP – It was a horrible nasty racist area. The last white working class ghetto like (mentions another part of London).  We bought the club, spent a million pounds on it and it brought in black, white and Asian all together for the first time, it was very successful.  There was no trouble, but there was trouble with the residents.  Almost immediately the council wanted us to close because they preferred emptiness, nothing, whereas we’d bought this art thing in and then people started to move into the area and then gradually the whole square got gentrified.  The council were terrified about people coming in at night.  We had the first 5am licence in London, were massively successful, playing non house music to people who wanted to go out.  It was a ground breaking thing that won ‘Best Club of the Millennium’ in the Time Out Awards.  It was the best thing I ever did, but the council didn’t like it.  As the area got more gentrified, the new gentry started to complain about the people queueing up.  Now look!  They got rid of us. They took us to court and lost but changed the by-law in the square which put the Blue Note in a residential area.  The 333 survived because it was outside the square.

PMO – I asked Norman Jay this question: do you ever want a day off from listening to music?

EP – Yeah, I have many.  I don’t listen to music in my spare time.  I listen to Talk Radio…

PMO – But you’re still listening to something.  You don’t ever have a day off where you don’t want to hear anything?

EP – I read a lot, about two books a week.  I have a bit of a fetish with a particular type of book.  I read historical military fiction…not necessarily military but y’know, Flashman was my big introduction to reading and I try and read things in the style of George MacDonald Fraser or C S Forester (who wrote ‘The African Queen’).  It’s massive escapism from my life.  The floating world of the captain who is the dictator on his ship, I find it fascinating.  And archaeology.  

PMO – Doing that yourself?

EP – I have tried to be an archaeologist.  I haven’t got ‘A’ levels and the foundation course I did wasn’t sufficient enough for me to be able to do archaeology so I didn’t do it.  But I’m fascinated by ancient history and comparative religion.

PMO – Would you say you’re happier now, running Acid Jazz at the level it is now, or when it was at it’s zenith?

EP – Fucking now! Yeah, come on…

PMO – Because?

EP – My life was insane back then.  I was producing five or six days a week for 16 hours a day which was next to my office.  I had 60 staff, four premises, a nightclub, two studios, a magazine…it was insane.  We were turning over six or seven million pounds a year but I had no time for myself and it probably made me ill towards the end.  I got to the stage in 1998 when The Blue Note closed when I said ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. I stopped it all, continued with the label in a much smaller way, got focused and started doing other things like consulting for other people, doing radio.  I did 6Music for three years, which was really enjoyable.   I enjoyed presenting, did a bit for TV.

PMO – What kind of illness did you get?

EP – I had a type of pneumonia called mycoplasma pneumonia which is infectious.  I caught it because I moved to a very old house and I was doing renovations and a load of bird shit fell onto me and I nearly died through that but it was alright in the end.

PMO – Were you scared?

EP – I never thought for one moment I was going to die!  You always woke up thinking ‘Oh I’ll be alright….ooh,hang on, it’s hard breathing.’

PMO – This brings me nicely to my last question – what would you want written on your gravestone?

EP – I have a Latin motto.  Recently I have decided that I am East End aristocracy…no, not really.  I wanted a latin motto I could stick on the top of headed paper.  The one I’ve chosen is In Adversis Puritas, which  means purity through adversity.  A friend of mine from school is now a professor of Latin and I wrote to him asking him to translate ‘clean living under difficult circumstances’.

Norman Jay MBE

Posted: October 17, 2011 in DJ

Jazzie B passed me onto Norman Jay. If you’ve ever been to an event where he’s been DJing, I’d put money on you having had a wicked time. He plays music from all kinds of genres but the common theme is that it’s happy, good time music. Some music that you know and love and some stuff that you want to know the name of so you can get it for yourself. My own particular Norman ‘moment’ came a few years back at Notting Hill Carnival when he put on Paul Simon’s ‘Late in the Evening’. Paul Simon at Carnival? Shouldn’t work. But when you heard it loud, all irresistible funky bassline and joyous horns, it just felt like a party.  Everyone around me went mental.

It seems he’s been present at every notable club moment in history, from disco to hip hop to house music and his dedication to getting peoples feet moving resulted in him getting a gong from the Queen a couple of years back. Which makes him the first recipient of an MBE that I’ve interviewed.

PMO – So you know Jazzie B pretty well? Do you remember how you first met him?

NJ – We did a house party together close to Finsbury Park tube. I cant remember the exact year, ’84 or ’85. His sound system was on one floor and my fledgling Good Times sound system was on another floor. I’m sure it was a Sunday night or something and nobody turned up!

We had 10 or 20 people, if that, and about a decade later, when Soul II Soul were conquering the world, I met Jazzie in New York when Keep On Movin’ was number 1 in America. Fantastic achievement from a British band. We went up to the penthouse suite where the record company had put him and we were laughing and reminiscing about that moment. At that time Soul II Soul were conquering the world and my DJ career was at its pinnacle, I was playing at all the biggest spots in New York. Bit of a back slapping thing going on really but it was fantastic – we looked back and laughed. Who would have imagined 10 years on that we would both be living large in New York given our backgrounds and where we’d come from?

PMO – When you started DJing did you see a future in it?

NJ – Nah! It was always a hobby. Most of the time I did it for free and a lot of the time spent a lot of my own money. It was something I loved. Loved clubbing, loved dancing, loved music. Buying records was my drug because I don’t drink alcohol, don’t smoke and I don’t do drugs. Buying tunes was my poison.

PMO – If I’m right you’re 53 now. Do you still have that drive when you were younger about music?

NJ – Yeah absolutely. Still gigging several times a week, still playing everywhere around the world. I’m loving it as much as I ever did.

PMO – How do you still have the energy? Im nearly 40 now and I don’t want to go out so much anymore.

NJ – Don’t do the alcohol, don’t do the rock n roll, don’t do the drugs. Healthy eating, a happy home life, contentment, that’s what gives you the energy.

PMO – I saw something on Twitter about a ‘disco nap’

NJ – Yeah! That’s my euphemism for having a siesta. That prepares you.

PMO – We can say that Norman Jay recommends an afternoon nap then yeah?

NJ – Yeah absolutely. Even if your employers are not up for it. Sneak off! Go and have an hour in the park.

PMO – Did you never think about making your own music?

NJ – I did consider it but just because you’re a duck, it doesn’t mean you like water. I realised from a very early age that I was born to make people dance by playing tunes and I never learned an instrument, although I do have regrets about that. I wish I had.

PMO – Do you ever have a day when you don’t want to listen to music?

NJ – Yeah, most days! Most days I don’t listen to music at all. That’s the secret. I work in it, I don’t really want to do a busman’s holiday. Whenever I come back to it I’m always fresh. I have other interests outside of music which helps my head and helps keep me focused. I go to the football when I can, I’m into classic cars, I’m into classic bikes.

PMO – I saw on Twitter that you were looking for a ticket to the Arsenal Tottenham derby. Did you find one? I presumed you were so well connected that someone would sort you out.

NJ – People might presume that but that’s not actually the case. I don’t go out of my way to court footballers or people from that world.

PMO – I read that you did Thierry Henry’s wedding.

NJ – I played at his wedding and I also played at one of Obama’s inauguration parties which is far more interesting that doing a footballers wedding.

PMO – With the Obama gig, did you get to meet the man?

NJ – It was the only licensed club event in Washington that week, all the others were official black tie balls. I was in New York at the time and got a call from a friend who knew I was in the States asking me to come down. I think I only got immediate security clearance because of my MBE.

PMO – It must have been pretty amazing to be in Washington at the time.

NJ – Oh absolutely. It was a monumental time in history. I’ve done a few things like that. I did a closing party at the World Economics Forum in Dallas believe it or not.

PMO – What does that entail? Is that a room full of politicians?

NJ – It’s a mixture of politicians, ambassadors, captains of industry, blue collars, maybe one or two presidents.

PMO – Is that a hard crowd to get moving?

NJ – No, that’s the wonder of drink and I suspect other things as well. Once the networking gets done…networking comes before anything.

PMO – If you play all these all diverse kind of crowds, what’s your preferred crowd?

NJ – The street kids, or everyday people are my favourites. People who are like me and I’m like them.

PMO – Which brings me nicely onto Carnival. I saw the official statement on your website but I think people didn’t really understand why Good Times wasn’t there this year. Was it a crowd safety thing or…?

NJ – It was a a lot of factors.

PMO – It wasn’t one thing?

NJ – It’s never just one thing. I’ve been doing it too long to be affected by one issue. The overriding issue was that I wanted a break. After 30 years I’m entitled to take a holiday, have a gap year.

PMO – I read you comparing it to Glastonbury taking a break. I think you were sorely missed, you and Rampage both, two big holes either end of Carnival.

NJ – Of course…but it was timing as well. Because of the timing, with the police and the authority in that kind of mood, post London riots…I didn’t need it. I was actually glad that I wasn’t around performing in that kind of climate.

PMO – Just to clarify, do you mean that you were uneasy about playing at that time?

NJ – No I made my announcement two months before. We’re living in very harsh austere financial times. People are so used to getting everything for nothing but people have to realise we don’t get sponsorship from Carnival. We have to fund it ourselves.

PMO – It’s not supported by people selling drinks or anything?

NJ – No.

PMO – So that’s a kind of gift from you every year then?

NJ – Yes.

PMO – I think people would have understood your absence more if they realised that.

PMO – You were brought up in Notting Hill.

NJ – Born there, but brought up in Acton. All my immediate family for many years were there in Ladbroke Grove.

PMO – It’s obviously changed a lot over the years, what do you make of it now?

NJ – I still love it, I will always have an affinity for the place. Its almost like an umbilical cord. It’s the area that gave me a platform for my success.

PMO – I get the feeling that there is a lot of money here now and people are sorry it’s lost some of the character it used to have. How do you feel about that?

NJ – One could level that accusation but with Carnival, it’s the only event that people can come to and its free. Whereas Glastonbury, you’re paying a couple of hundred quid or the Big Chill – you’ll pay it. You’ve a right to expect a certain level of staging. At Carnival, every year we somehow muddle our way through to put a show on with no aid, no Boris, no Arts Council grants, nothing.

PMO – How do you see the future of Carnival? Do you think the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea should fund it, do you think Boris should fund it?

NJ – Well they should do because Carnival generates £94m at the last costings. They should redistribute the money it generates – we don’t see a penny of that. It’s almost like they’re putting it on for the benefit of the police! The people who are selling food and drink have to pay a phenomenal amount of money for the licences and 95% of the time they don’t even make enough money to cover the cost of doing what they do. Everybody runs at an operating loss.

PMO – Where does the profit made from Carnival go?

NJ – No idea. It’s Kensington & Chelsea making the money in licensing, it’s the insurance companies who charge sky high premiums for anything to do with Notting Hill. The people who contribute nothing are profiting the most.

PMO – Do you think the future for Carnival might be to somehow charge people?

NJ – Some way, yeah. In the 21st century they have to look at that. We need some new kind of financing. The current model is unsustainable.

PMO – Do you have a favourite DJ? Do you still listen to other DJs?

NJ – I never did. I came before that whole DJ culture. I’m a fan of music. With the greatest respect to my peers, you’re only as good as the records that you play. I’m a fan of the people that make the music, you know, the artists, the singers, the producers. I never really swallowed the whole superstar DJ thing. Maybe its because of my age. I’m the first generation of ‘celebrity DJs’.

PMO – Do you feel like a celebrity?

NJ – No I don’t. I don’t do the whole rock n roll thing, the whole socialite thing. I’m not out seven nights a week. I still love parties and festivals, I still love being with crowds of people who are celebrating music and enjoyment. I love all of that, I live for that.

PMO – You don’t get stopped in Tescos?

NJ – I really couldn’t deal with that. As my immediate family and my lovely partner Jane says to me, I’m fundamentally shy. I’m very quiet, keep myself to myself.

PMO – Presumably you’ve got to meet some of the people whose music you play over the years?

NJ – Absolutely. I’ve had the pleasure of working with just about everyone who has contributed to UK club culture over the past 20 or 30 years, people that I’ve been in awe of.

PMO – Are there still any musical heroes that you’d like to meet?

NJ – Well, they’ve all passed away now! I would have loved to have met Miles Davis, Bob Marley. I’ve met Stevie Wonder. I was really privileged to have been the last DJ to have toured with James Brown.

PMO – Talking to you, you come across as being very content.

NJ – I am, I’m very lucky.  I’ve got friends who have had their homes repossessed, a friend who is dying of cancer.  I’m very content – I get paid for doing something I love.

Jazzie B

Posted: July 9, 2011 in DJ

So: Mark Bright passed me on to Jazzie B. A proper hero to me as Club Classics Vol 1 pretty much sound-tracked the start of my adult years. I turned 17 that year, learnt to drive and because my mates all got their driving licences too, we started heading down to Brighton clubbing, eager to find some thrills out of the safe little commuter town we’d grown up in. We hammered the tape through the summer and heard it booming out of other cars, shops, houses and flats everywhere. Listen to the fabulously snappy, clean beat that is the first five seconds of ‘Keep On Movin’ – it smacks of an era while still sounding the absolute nuts. Dance music was in the ascendance then and the album just seemed like another brilliant variant to get hooked into. And then the Stone Roses came out that same year. Glorious times.

Got to admit I cheated on this one a bit. You will note, near the end, that this didn’t remain a strict Q&A and became something like a conversation. People say ‘Don’t meet your heroes’ so I didn’t. Jazzie was on his bluetooth headset driving home when we spoke.

-So how do you know Mark Bright?

-Everyone knows him! We work at the same radio station, Radio London, so that helps. He likes a bit of music so I try and encourage him, give him a few pointers.

-Do you know how much of a Twitter freak he is?

-Yep – that’s why I don’t go near it.

-I tweeted ‘Has anyone got a question for Jazzie B?’ and he was the first one back. He asked if you’ve got any recommendations of new music to check out?

-Loads of it. He needs to get himself down to If Music off Great Portland St.

-I was going to ask you where you get new music for your show. Is that where you find it?

-I’m not affiliated with any one person anymore but having been a record store owner and being someone that collects a lot of music, I’m a bit anal about music. I travel all over the place and wherever I go, if I’m there for a day I’ll ask the promoter where the best record shop is locally. I still go through me mates records trying to nick ’em, still go to car boot sales and second hand shops. I’m finding a lot more vinyl. I think it’s due to houses getting smaller and people not having the space. For the last few weeks I’ve been having a field day. I still love me records, still go out and I’m still an avid collector.

-Before you started making money out of music, did you ever have a ‘normal’ job?

-I did. I’m a sound engineer by trade. I worked at Nova studios, that’s where my whole professional music career began, I did that for two years. In between that I worked for the Royal National Institute for the Blind on Goswell Road, I was a sound technician for them. After leaving school I wanted a career in the music industry but my careers advisor advised me to become a milkman or work in the GPO, which wasn’t really part of my make up. I spent half of my time trying to find a job – the RNIB job came up so I could still be around electronic equipment. I was always into electronics. I was 21 or 22 when I took my final pay-check.

-So when did you start running sound-systems?

-From birth! I was born into it. All my brothers own sound-systems. I did all sorts of bits and pieces for them…carrying the valves. I’m from the days of the valve! I was always around sounds and equipment. That was my first real love. I liked the smell of everything. We were always in the back of the van or back at the lock up. The smell of timber and the valves, the heat coming off everything, if you combine that with dust…it sounds really gooey but its a really interesting smell. Also the smell of the acetate, the dub plate, everything combined. When I found a way into the recording world I was very lucky because I was one of the first black people who actually worked in the early 80s in a professional recording studio world, at Nova studios and Pye studios, which was on the corner of Marble Arch. They had cutting rooms there. I also spent a lot of time in Reuben’s, the Jewish sandwich shop. I was the tape op so apart from cleaning out the phlegm of all the brass instruments, I was always sent out to the shop. So I’m a dab hand at making a cup of tea and I know my way around a Jewish menu.

-I read this interview with you on Djhistory.com that you were able to do warehouse parties because you knew this Jewish guy who basically gave you the keys.

-That’s right. We used to go to the estate agent because we knew this guy in there and he would give us the key like we were viewing. All you had to do was do your best at clearing up and give him the key on the Monday and Bob’s your uncle. That was before that become popular and the wide boys started doing it. We pretty much got away with it.

-The Soul II Soul motto is peaceful but I wondered if you have ever had to deal with any violence in your life, either when you were the young up start running sound-systems or when you started doing warehouse parties. Did you ever have to deal with any unsavoury characters?

-That’s an occupational hazard bro! I come from a big family and we had a certain reputation so…

Anyone in the sound-system world knows there was a lot of pantomime. Djing is always about ego, whatever anyone says. Whenever there’s that much testosterone around, things can get misconstrued.

There were lots of situations when shit went on, lots of fights. With that warehouse thing you had to stand your ground as other guys were trying to take liberties. Sound-systems are all about that kind of camaraderie, call it a posse or even a collective, we had the full circumference when it came down to battling and it wasn’t just in the music, there’s also that bit about protecting your own. There were always things going off, someone trying to break the speakers or slashing your tyres.

We were up in Manchester one time and ended up spending the latter half of the night at the Hacienda – we came out to find the minibus had been bricked up (some one had taken the wheels) and they’d smashed up the windows. There had to be a bit of retaliation there. Whether it was the right person we got involved with who took a hiding, I don’t know. That’s just part and parcel of growing up as a teenager. In those days you could live to fight another day. It wasn’t as serious as it is now because most of it was fisticuffs. I never put out anything to suggest that I was a peacemaker like Kofi Annan. I was just a North London geezer who probably fancied himself a little bit.

-What was it like for you when Club Classics Vol One blew up in 1989?

-My life more changed in the 90s because the whole of the 80s was about being the biggest sound-system in the world. I think I drew the right straw in terms of the release of that record because it definitely set the cat amongst the pigeons, in America as much as it did in Europe. It was groundbreaking and the best thing about that was I got a residency in New York. The sound-system of Soul II Soul was very prolific at that time. We were doing what they called cultural exchanges with Japan and we were quite established there. We were playing nightclubs in places like Roppongi anyway. We were really fortunate because we were travelling the world. They knew about the warehouse parties and the Africa centre and they wanted a piece of that.

-Do you miss the old days?

-I do miss knowing when my sound was playing out on the Friday, the setting up the day before, buying more equipment, wiping down the cables, testing the sound. I miss falling asleep in the lock-up…they were just brilliant times.
-When you start clubbing it’s almost inevitable that you’ll come across drugs. Now that you’ve got kids of your own, how do you feel about them going through that stage?

-There’s only so much you can do as a parent and worrying is probably the most fundamental one! My son is a footballer and is at the gateway to all of this hedonism. My son came to me recently and said ‘Dad I want to taste beer to see what it’s like. Can we have a drink together?’ After I’d scraped myself off up the floor, it was one of me proudest moments of being a father, having my son ask me that. You know what though? A lot of these kids are smarter than we give them credit for. At 14 or 15 I knew about basic drugs like weed and speed because of what I was involved with. Now with more stuff out in the open those subjects are not as taboo as they once were. With my age group, we’re going to be open with the idea of drugs and the effects of taking them. In a reasonable household, kids are probably a little bit more open on that level. With parents like ourselves we live in Camden and we see a lot of shit and they know the effects. Whether its a cousin or an uncle or an aunt or whatever who’ve got themselves a bit fucked up, those questions are not hidden like it would have been with our parents who were trying to hide stuff. We live in a community where you do see people who are less fortunate than ourselves and people who have made the wrong choices in their lives. Kids are a lot more savvy. As my Grandmother used to say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’d be shitting myself if I thought about that all the time given the amount of nonsense I got involved with!

-What do you make of shows like X Factor?

-Brilliant, love it. I think it’s great. I’m probably one of Simon Cowell’s biggest fans. I like the way he does his business. I’ve come up in the business since I was a teenager and there are a lot of bullshitters out there. I love the way that he’s the got the equilibrium between the bullshit and ripping the arse out of you with no lubrication. When I grow up I want to be like Simon Cowell. There’s a level of sincerity, I’m not going to call it honesty. When you’re shit he tells you that you’re shit and that’s not an easy thing to do. He is doing so much for us on that sort of level so it’s all good.

-‘A happy face, a thumping bass, for a loving race’ sounds like a motto. Are you a religious person?

-I was forced into religion like most kids of my age by our parents who were made afraid of it all. With my scenario it was trying to get a combination of living in the melting pot, trying to get a little bit of all the different religions if that’s the thing that’s going to bind us together. I suppose I took the piss a little bit because the Africa Centre parties happened on a Sunday and it did become one of those religious experiences.. I found out a lot later from some of the people that used to rave with us how much it meant to them. It was a real eye-opener. It was like us being in school and having a gang. If you belonged to the gang you had that ‘happy face, thumping bass for a loving race’ motto and if you went to the Africa Centre it would have made so much sense.

There was a full circumference of music played and there were loads of individuals who all moved together. You know if you go to a club and everyone’s wearing Fred Perry or Nike and everyone sort of looks the same? Back in the day there were a lot more flamboyant individuals. You could almost call it camp. What was interesting was you had people of both genders across the cultural span and the most significant part of it was, at the time I was involved with it, the Africa Centre was a black run organisation that was set up by the church as a refugee centre. When you talk about religion…I want to sort of say more ‘spiritual’, its probably not an accident what went on. Everything just felt right. Here we are coming up to 25, nearly 30 years later with the same motto and its as fresh as Club Classics Vol 1 is. Even though I say so myself those records…it happens every so often in a muso’s life I think, not that I put myself down with the greats, sometimes you get a ‘moment’ and it means that much.

-That album came at the right time?

-That was a lot to do with it as well. So much of this game is about luck and timing and 10% of that is the hard work. That’s very evident today. Especially when you pump up a lot of people as we tend to do in Britain. We drive these guys until the wheels fall off, which is a little bit about commercialism. I can happily say that the innings has been fantastic and today I still play that record much the same like a punter. I’m very proud to be a part of that.

-I was 17 when that record came out and it was such a massively influential thing for the people that I was around. As well as the record we started to read about you and what you were doing at the Africa Centre and it made us go out and explore and see if we could find different sounds. That record touched a lot of peoples lives.

-I’m beginning to see that more and more as I’ve got older. I’ve gone to territories now in Eastern Europe and they tell me stories about what they went through in the 80s and how affecting listening to a cassette of this music was and I’ll be like ‘Did you understand the words?’ and they say ‘It wasn’t about that’. It was a bit of egg on my face because music is something that you sort of..feel. It becomes part of your daily make up…it’s unbelievable.

-I think that’s when music is at it’s best when it is something that you feel. You can listen to things and they don’t really touch you but if you truly feel something then that’s when its really working.

-Absolutely and it’s like some of the records that I’ve got. It’s why Curtis Mayfield is so important to me. I still listen to his music today and find his lyrics profound. Also people like Donny Hathaway…

At this point Jazzie yells hello to his neighbour so I guess he’s home. Which seemed like the right place to stop.