Music Interviews
5:08 pm
Wed September 19, 2012

Adrian Sherwood: Dub Without Borders

Originally published on Wed September 19, 2012 8:09 pm

Adrian Sherwood was born in London in 1958. As a kid he fell in love with Jamaican music.

"If you were listening outside a reggae club the optics were shaking off the wall and you thought the building was being demolished," Sherwood says. "This was 1970, 1971. I was 12 or something."

The music that knocked him over is called dub, a mostly instrumental form of reggae that came out of Jamaica in the 1960s. It's a bassy, muted, pared-down version of its ancestor, often recorded on low-fidelity equipment. Sherwood says that dub's production techniques shaped the way he approaches his own work.

"It wasn't particularly just the dub but the techniques of it and the fact that the production was so exciting and uncluttered," he says. "So whatever I've applied my production to, whether it be funk, industrial, anything ... I've made sure they have the same space as in those great Jamaican productions."

Over a career that spans 30 years, Sherwood has fused the sounds of post-industrial music from the U.K. with Jamaican bass and rhythms. He built his name working with his idols, reggae artists like Lee "Scratch" Perry, Bim Sherman and Prince Far I. He's also produced for the industrial band Nine Inch Nails and the rock group Living Colour and remixed the electropop act Depeche Mode.

But Sherwood has put out only three albums of his own. The latest, out this year on his own label On-U Sound, is called Survival and Resistance.

Since Sherwood started On-U Sound in 1979 the label has released over 100 albums and singles, and it's where the producer brought together a family of artists that includes Dub Syndicate, New Age Steppers and African Head Charge.

"I find myself become like a brother to him," says Bonjo Iyabinghe Noah, leader of the group African Head Charge. On-U Sound put out African Head Charge's first album, My Life in a Hole in the Ground, in 1981. Noah says its not just Sherwood's skills on a mixing board that make him a favorite with musicians.

"The good thing about Adrian is that he was able to socialize especially with Jamaican people. Somehow they just like him," he says.

Noah has worked with Sherwood for most of his career. Together they've influenced another generation of British dub makers that includes Kevin Martin, who records as The Bug. Martin says he first heard a record from On-U Sound at a friend's house.

"He put on African Head Charge, who I'd never heard of before, but he also asked me to participate in a very large bong," he recalls. "I remember hearing chain saws, jet planes, voodoo chants, the most insane percussion sounds and mad dub effects. Literally, I had to run out of the guy's flat because it all seemed so out of control."

Martin returned to the album a month later to make sure he hadn't hallucinated the sounds. He hadn't.

"It's the chaos and madness that he navigated that was really interesting to me," says Martin. "His combination of taking very London-based post-punk sounds and mixing them with the heaviest dub definitely had a huge impact on me."

On the new album, Survival and Resistance, high-pitched electronic swells scatter across rumbling piles of low end. Delicately keyed piano melodies drift atop echoed dub effects. It's a little dub, a little industrial, some bossa and some blues roots. A whole lot of Sherwood. His sound is something he could pursue because owning his own label gave him complete control, and responsibility.

"You create your own destiny. You rise and fall on your own decisions," Sherwood says. "I'm very proud, although my label probably cost me a fortune over the years, it is my calling card, and that's what I'm very proud of."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Adrian Sherwood has a new record out. It's just his third in three decades. That's because he spent most of his career boosting the careers of others. Sherwood is one of the most respected producers in music today. He has worked with the industrial band, Nine Inch Nails, the rock group Living Colour and remixed the electro pop act Depeche Mode. With Adrian Sherwood taking his rare turn in the spotlight, we have this profile from NPR's Sami Yenigun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: Ask Adrian Sherwood what it takes to produce a great record, he might say this.

ADRIAN SHERWOOD: The key thing is to make everyone believe that magic can go on - something really special can happen.

YENIGUN: Sherwood's made music for over 30 years. His latest album is called "Survival and Resistance."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YENIGUN: Out now on the producer's own label, the album's a classic Sherwood mix of British and Jamaican influences. He was born in London in 1958 and fell in love with Jamaican music as a kid.

SHERWOOD: If you were listening outside a reggae club, the optics were shaking off the wall and you thought the building was being demolished. It was like (makes noise), you know, this massive sound. And this was 1970, you know, 1971 when I was 12 or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YENIGUN: The music that knocked him over is called dub, a mostly instrumental form of reggae that came out of Jamaica in the 1960s. Sherwood says that dub's production techniques shaped the way he approaches his own work.

SHERWOOD: The production was so sonically exciting and uncluttered. That's what fascinated me. So whatever I've applied my own production techniques to, be it industrial music, funk, anything - I've made sure the production settings are using similar space and frequencies as in those great Jamaican productions.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS MUSIC PRODUCED BY ADRIAN SHERWOOD)

YENIGUN: In addition to producing for Nine Inch Nails, Tackhead and Prince Far I, Adrian Sherwood started On-U Sound in 1979. The label's released over a hundred albums and singles. It's where Sherwood developed a family of artists that includes Dub Syndicate, New Age Steppers and African Head Charge.

BONJO IYABINGE NOAH: I find myself become like a brother to him.

YENIGUN: That's Bonjo Iyabinge Noah, who leads the group African Head Charge. It put out its first album, "My Life in a Hole in the Ground" on Sherwood's label in 1981. Noah says it's not just Sherwood's skills on a mixing board that make him a favorite with musicians.

NOAH: The good part of Adrian is that he was able to socialize. Socialize especially with Jamaican people. You know, somehow they just like him.

YENIGUN: The music that Noah and Sherwood made together has influenced another generation of dub makers, including Kevin Martin, who records as The Bug. Martin says he first heard a record from On-U Sound at a friend's house.

KEVIN MARTIN: And he put on African Head Charge, who I'd never heard of before. But he also asked me to participate in a very large bong just before listening to it. And I just remember listening to this music and hearing like chainsaws and jet planes and African voodoo chants and just the most insane percussion sounds and mad dub effects.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And literally, I had to run out the guy's flat because it all seemed so out of control.

YENIGUN: Martin checked back a month later to make sure he hadn't hallucinated the sounds. He hadn't.

MARTIN: It was just the chaos and madness that he navigated and applied that was really interesting to me. His combination of taking sort of very London-based post-punk sounds and mixing them up with the heaviest dub definitely had a huge impact on me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YENIGUN: This mix became Sherwood's signature style, something he could pursue because owning his own label gave him complete control and responsibility.

SHERWOOD: You create your own destiny. You know, you rise or fall on your own decisions. And I'm very proud, although my label probably cost me a fortune over the years. I've put a lot more into than I ever made out of it. It's my calling card and that's what I'm very proud of.

YENIGUN: But the path is not what Adrian Sherwood spends his time thinking about. He recalls an interview he heard years ago with one of reggae's biggest stars, Bob Marley.

SHERWOOD: The interviewer, Steve Bernard, asked him, so Bob, tell me where you're coming from. And Bob swore and got taken off the air. And he said, don't ask me where I'm coming from. Where I'm coming from is not a good place. You got to ask me where I'm going. And I think you've got to aim, to firmly, firmly believe that where you're going now is a good place, and you're heading somewhere. And I would like to think I am.

YENIGUN: Sami Yenigun, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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