Muddlin Through the Decades With Jamie Lidell
Jamie Lidell is best known as a singer-songwriter, with five albums of soul-funk influenced songcraft under his belt. He’s supported Elton John, duetted with Beck, had a long term collaborative relationship with the team of Canadian musicians around Feist and Chilly Gonzalez, and guested on records by dance producers like Simian Mobile Disco, Machinedrum, Jimmy Edgar and Marquis Hawkes.
But Lidell is also a producer of some renown. His Hanging Out With Audiophiles podcast, now on its 76th episode, is a deep dive into studio techniques with composers, producers and engineers. His records and live performances have always featured innovative use of sampling – notably building loops of his own voice and human beatbox sounds. And in fact, he was a producer first: making some still-extraordinary techno records with the Subhead collective in the late nineties, and collaborating with the Chilean-British techno legend Cristian Vogel as Super_Collider for two albums.
Perhaps most radical of all was Lidell’s first album under his own name: 2000’s Muddlin Gear. It was released jointly by WARP Records and the Brighton label Spymania, which was also the original home of jazz bassist, radical electronic experimenter and Aphex Twin collaborator, Squarepusher. Lidell, Vogel and the Spymania crew were part of a Bohemian experimental electronic music scene in Brighton along with the likes of the confrontational Trash Records and the graffiti / video artist / filmmaker Pablo Fiasco – who became a vital part of Lidell’s shows, making costumes and generating crazed live video on the fly with low-tech setups.
Muddlin Gear – with its eye-boggling Pablo Fiasco artwork – has now been given a digital release, as part of a rebooting of Spymania to celebrate the label’s 25th anniversary. Lidell’s voice barely features, and where it does it’s mostly processed beyond recognition: rather, what features is some of the most radical soundmaking ever committed to record. Decades of jazz, noise, techno and academic experimentalism – plus a small helping of doo-wop – are crammed together and blended into forms that still sound fresh 20 years on.
It’s a truly incredible record, and with profits to the FareShare campaign to end child food poverty, a fairly essential purchase. We caught up with Lidell at home in Nashville, where he’s lived for the past decade or so, to reminisce about its genesis – it’s quite the story, which as well as his electronic compadres takes in encounters with some shoegaze and rave legends along the way....
What were the first things that turned you on to electronic sound?
Well I grew up mostly listening to [the BBC’s pop station] Radio 1 and my sister’s LPs ‘cause I couldn’t afford my own. Eighties pop was packed with electronics of course. I do recall that heady sampler sound really turning my ear more than all the synths, though. I guess like a lot of eighties kids it was sounds like Herbie [Hancock]’s “Rockit” that blew my mind. Chaka [Khan]’s “I Feel for You” – the stutter vocal, the pop shimmer with the weird future sprinkles. That was irresistible.
After that it was all Prince for a while, then on to the goodness of John Peel when my music tastes started getting more spaced out – later on, he played a few things I made which still trips me out! I got heavily into Can thanks to Simon Scott of Slowdive. We were in a school band, which was random and ace. He was the coolest kid by miles, and told me I needed [Can album] Tago Mago, so I used to listen to that in the dark on headphones and freak myself out.
Then it was Aphex Twin's “Didgeridoo” which I remember through a Marshall 4x12 [guitar amplifier] that I had. I was mostly into guitar at that time but quickly became more into the effects pedals. Then I got a sampler, word got out that I had it, and this guy who was an event organizer and raver gave me a breaks record and I made a couple of tracks with my really crappy set up – and ended up, aged 16, randomly opening for The Prodigy at Peterborough ice rink! Then sitting in with Alan Moulder when he mixed Curve at the Church studios in London. That really blew my mind and I thought “I need this knowledge” – it was pure voodoo. Ben Moulder, a relation of his, was a kid at my school.... wild lucky shit!
Tell us a bit about the techno world of the mid 90s that you entered with Subhead / Growth... What drew you to that scene?
It was all about the people first. I had the skills to make the music but I wasn’t aware of Detroit techno really. I’d heard the influences in other electronic music I knew but Jason and Phil from Subhead really had the tunes. I was fully immersed and living that music for a minute. It clicked. We had a 909 [the legendary Roland TR-909 drum machine] in Strongroom Studios where we made that Subhead stuff and that blew my mind. I grew into a new room, and the guys had so many ideas and produced me really. We produced each other. Total time for growth.
What about Trash and Spymania? Where some people went from techno into quite elegant and detailed “intelligent dance music”, this was anything but, right? It was pretty deranged and confrontational...
It’s true. There’s that anger that won’t go away: techno tapped it for a bit but then the shock of that music turned to a formula to an extent. Of course the greats were always great but innovation slowed I think. After looking across the pond for inspiration it was good to feed on something from the English wave. Punk and jungle that took a lot of forms. I was always too jazzy to really blaze but I enjoyed the range that scene spawned. It was a bunch of clever kids really just needing to be heard, or at least to get wasted and forget.
And in the midst of all this was Super_Collider... what did the partnership with Cristian do to your ideas about production?
Cris made some of my favourite techno ever. When I met Subhead and experienced techno, his sound stood out. He never quite fit in and that made it so fresh. When I got to know him we had that ego battle thing pretty early on that fuelled a lot of the work. I brought in the vocal world, but also some other ways of writing and arranging that Cris was not into at that time. He had the funk with the machines, though. A drum machine whisperer beyond compare, and he taught me how to use synths. I would watch him and he’d be on such a crazy level – but I was hungry and I soaked it up. I’m really thankful that I got to share the Metway studio with him [the Metway was a studio and office complex set up in Brighton by hippie folk-rockers The Levellers]. I really didn’t have much cash, I only had a little bit of gear and his setup was formidable by comparison. At least I had another room to really grow into. That competition is actually something I miss in a way. A game with someone you respect ultimately.
Your partnership with Pablo Fiasco was also important at this point - performance and visuals seemed pretty inseparable – how much was deliberate and how much happenstance?
So much of the playful craziness that made it into my work, and the live shows with Super_Collider, from the late nineties on, came from Geoff. He swam in a pretty exciting world of living, exploding art. Super smart, and versed in the history of art and waves of culture that were completely off my radar most of the time. We were room mates and space cadets, tripping on Sun Ra, noise and the interstellar low-ways.
He made the costumes, the tape suits and the stretchy body gloves. When I opened for James Brown [in Stuttgart in 2006], Geoff was on stage eating a banana. We had fun. He made the whole thing feel free and open... The showman – the man with the kitchen filled with 16mm film and spray cans. He was on stage with me and performing with the video gear in plain sight. That was something I’d not seen. It felt like an amazing way to elevate the looping shit I was doing. We were both cooking some moon stew.
Which brings us to Muddlin Gear itself. How did these different threads come together in this album?
That life with Geoff, with a constant soundtrack of Can, Sun Ra, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Herbie’s Sextant, Squarepusher, Aphex, WARP and noise. I was immersed in it. The album was really just a chance for me to explore my edges at that time. I was still a massive prince fan of course so there’s a touch of airy Vox on there but I was also making this record as a kind of mix tape to Hardy at the label coz I just respected his taste so much. I wanted to impress him I think. I wanted to try my hand at a huge range of sound. Fast cuts and epic drones.. Clicks and cuts…
It’s really all over the place, and that was pretty much a reflection of my world then. It’s cool to hear it now. I know I couldn’t make it again. Partly ‘cause it was a lot of very painstaking work. Crude tech at the time, thinking back ,and I was definitely adding a lot... and a lot... and yeah. … it’s a lot! I think this is best enjoyed in small doses. The tracks are so wildly different that they almost stand as mini record clusters. It’s sonic Marmite. Love-hate-spread!
Obviously your work has moved heavily towards groove and songcraft in the subsequent years - but do you ever have a yen to make a completely abstracted electronic record?
Oh I make plenty now that I’m pretty much surrounded by modular synths! ha. Yeah it’s a shocker to my more “modern” fans that I make such a racket sometimes but it’s all part of being a lifer. There’s a lot of noise In me left!
Cover Image: jamielidellmusic.com
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs