It seems fitting that our 20th edition of Secret Weapons should come from Coldcut, marking their recent Label of the Year award for Ninja Tune. In an exclusive interview, The Waveform Transmitter‘s Ste Knight talks to Jonathan More about fortuitous pirate radio slots, predicting the future, and being a ‘sound gardener’.
Given our recent Ninja Tune coverage, it should come as no surprise to you that we are huge fans of the imprint. Likewise the founding fathers of the label, Matt Black and Jonathan More, who are most commonly known as Coldcut (although they have a list of aliases longer than your sleeve). The fact of the matter is, for many a discerning electronica fan, Ninja Tune and Coldcut were integral to our formative years, filling our heads with mad blunted jazz, hip-hop, house, techno and all forms of music in between.
Our editor, Ste Knight, had the chance to talk, in length, with Jonathan about the adventures Coldcut have seen over the past thirty years. Not only that, but we also have an extra-special Secret Weapons playlist from the man himself. Don’t say we never treat you to anything! We’ll start with seeing what Jon had to say for himself when he spoke to Ste, then we’ll give you the lowdown on his ten most devastating dancefloor tracks…
WF: Hi Jon. Thank you for taking time to talk with us! We’ll start with a little bit of a trip down memory lane, seeing as everyone loves a bit of nostalgia. You first met Matt at Reckless Records in London, where you worked. I believe you met Matt as a customer?
Jon: Yeah that’s right. I was DJing at various warehouse parties and that kind of thing. Originally, I was a teacher, so I was teaching 3D design. I was in a club one night, actually, and some of the kids that I taught were there and they were like “Sir, Sir…what are you doing here?” So, I thought, ‘probably time to stop doing this and get a job where I’m in the industry that I love’.
I was, or I still am – stupidly – into collecting records, so I got a job there, Matt came in one day, we got chatting and said he had a tape he’d been working on. Actually, he’d been working on it for a competition that Mike Allen, who I think was a DJ on Radio London at the time, was holding – a competition of hip-hop mixes – and we got chatting about Double D and Steinski, you know Lesson 1, 2, and 3 as we know them, but I think it was Lesson 2 that we bonded over. I was like “You know, I’d love to have a listen to this tape!”
I had said to lots of people previous to this that I wanted to do something, with somebody, and unlike a lot of people who just never showed up, or when they showed up it was pretty whack, but Matt showed up with this version of Say Kids, What Time Is It? and I remember putting it on in the shop and, you know, like anybody, I’m assuming, at the time he must have been a bit nervous of it, but I was like “Wow…wow…that’s a killer” and so I said “Yeah, let’s do this” so we got together, finished that off, pressed it, released it, created the name, and decided how we wanted to promote it.
WF: OK so, from there, what made you take the next step which was starting a now infamous imprint, Ninja Tune? Was that your second label?
Jon: Well, when we first started with Say Kids…, because it was really just a bootleg and Matt and I were pretty nervous that we were going to have the ‘copyright filth’ knocking at our door… “Come on son, we’ve got a nice prison cell here for you, you’re going to have to listen to ABBA for the rest of your life”…so we did that on a white label. But then we made some more records and we thought we should actually just make our own label.
We were influenced by punk music, by labels like Rough Trade, Stiff, and actually On-U Sound as well. So, we started Ahead of Our Time, which was our label, banged out tunes on that, and then, as a sort of result of that, we didn’t realise actually at the time – we put Beats and Pieces out, then we were asked by a record label called Big Time to do a remix of and indie band called Society. So, we went in and met the people from the label and got chatting and said “We’ve sold 3,000 copies of Beats and Pieces” – and we didn’t realise that we had sold more records out of the back of my van than than they had been selling through shops and the proper mechanisms!
So, we got some ideas and signed to the label; Doctorin’ the House, The Only Way is Up, People Hold On, there’s a whole other massive story there that I could go into, but anyway, all of a sudden we were on Top of the Pops, so we had come out of making records in Matt’s corridor and bedroom in his little flat on Seven Sisters Road, above a butchers, which is possibly something to do with where the name Coldcut comes from, to making records in 24 track, high quality studios.
It was a fantastic ride, and a very fast ride, really. To a certain extent ‘right place, right time’, but also based on the fact that we had got deeply involved in that birth of the dance music scene in the UK and understanding how that scene works helped as well. Then we came to make the classic ‘second record’ and had loads of trouble with the record company. They had, by that point, been sold to Polydor who were kind of like ‘Oh, well we want you to make another track like People Hold On, and The Only Way is Up’. Matt and I had just done Stop this Crazy Thing with Junior Reid, which was sort of a hip-hop go-go track with a reggae singer on it, which charted in the lower forties, but wasn’t the same as The Only Way is Up, which had been number one for ages and only actually got beaten by Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe and Wine – the biggest selling record that year. I’m quite happy that Cliff beat us, to be honest. Only by a few hundred records, which is actually quite funny.
I suppose it has been something that, since the beginning of our career, we find it very difficult to repeat stuff. People want us to repeat Journeys by DJ for example, but we can’t do that. These sorts of things are made in the moment and that moment is incredibly important because of the context that surrounds it, so repeating the moment is something that Matt and I find very very difficult. So, we were getting nowhere with the record company, we were getting frustrated with them, and they weren’t into the music we were making.
More importantly, Matt and I – this was particularly driven by Matt – were getting more into ‘multimedia’, I suppose is what you would call it now, for want of a better expression. They didn’t understand. We wanted to make our own videos, you know, we don’t want to pay somebody thirty, forty, fifty-thousand pounds to dress us up in fashionable clothes and make us dance around. I think the low point (laughs), it was pretty grim, in my opinion, for both of us, was a video we made for a track we did called My Telephone – that was it, after that video we were like “No, we can’t do this any longer”.
We had gone to Japan and we were touring with Beats International – Fatboy Slim – and it was just great to get out of the UK, get away from the negativity of the position we were in, away from the record label and the machinations of the majors, and be inspired by a very different culture. Matt and I got into the Ninja thing, we both thought “Fuck this, we’ll just go back to what we know best. We’ve started a record label, let’s just do the same thing” So, we came back to England and started Ninja Tune. We were still signed at this point but had been sold to Sony. Only as Coldcut, though, so they couldn’t stop us producing stuff under other names and they didn’t own Ninja Tune, so we assumed a lot of other identities at the beginning, DJ Food being the most well-known one. We literally made that record as food for DJs, it was what we did – we took a load of records that we loved, riffed on them, sampled them, tidied them up, made them more DJ and dancefloor friendly, and then started to gather likeminded artists.
We had various label managers, but then we met Peter Quick, which was a very important part of our success. Peter is still here at the label we have built over the years. It has been a journey, like any sort of thing that you love, it has ups and downs, but we a quite tenacious, Matt and I. Keep trying to get it right but we’re never quite sure!
WF: Before all that, were you both quite involved in the pirate scene, or was it one of you who was involved more than the other. How did that work?
Jon: That was more me who was involved in the pirate scene to begin with. Matt was DJing and doing parties, but I was doing The Meltdown Club and Flim Flam warehouse parties. I guested with Charlie Gillett – an amazing world music DJ – on Capital Radio, and that got my bug going. I’d been on Network 21 which was a more leftfield pirate station, that doesn’t get enough props. I actually did a pirate TV station, that got promptly shut down by the government.
I was off to DJ in the Meltdown warehouse party and I had booked a cab, and I lived in Crystal Palace at the time, which was like pirate central, really, and the guy driving the cab was Gordon Mac. I obviously knew Kiss, and it had only been on air probably about three months, and I knew this guy Nicky Holloway, who I dee-jayed with at Do in the Zoo. Great DJ, great promoter, and he was on Kiss. He had said to me a few weeks earlier “I’m going to have to leave Kiss, I’m just too busy with the promotion”, and suggested that I get in touch, and here was synchronicity. Gordon asked were I was going, I told him I was going to DJ, and the conversation went from there. I played the gig, went home and recorded a tape. Gordon only lived around the corner from me in Crystal Palace, so I dropped the cassette over to him, the next day, and I was on the radio a week later, doing a show on a Saturday afternoon.
I can’t remember if the show was before or after Norman Jay, but it was one or t’other, which was great fun. Then Coldcut started to happen. Somebody else left the station and therefore an empty space, so I suggested Matt, and he came on and did Matt Black’s Mixmaster Party. We had started to get so busy that we couldn’t do individual shows, it was a lot of work, so we just combined it and made it a Coldcut show. We spoke to Kiss, they agreed, so we did that. Then we were on Kiss together! As much as there were some brilliant pirate stations all over the UK, Kiss was an important part of the dance music scene and a cross-cultural thing, so it was very exciting, really.
WF: We happened upon an interview you gave in The Guardian in 2006, which quotes you as saying “Ninja Tune is a vehicle. I might get out and explore the lay-by every now and again, but I don’t need another vehicle” Is this an ethos you still stand by today?
Jon: Yeah! You know, Matt and I, when we first started, we made a decision to split everything 50/50. We might work together on things, sometimes we might start something separately and then we bring it together, or we swap parts about with eachother. At the end of the day, that’s what we are, when we work together, and do our thing together, that is the best result. When we DJ, we may have different takes on stuff. But I know from what people say, when they come up to us after the gig, people say they love it when we do this together, because it is a kind of journey with the two of us coming together and pulling the mix in different directions. The perfect vehicle. It doesn’t even need an MOT.
WF: That’s brilliant, and for a duo to last as long as you have that is a genuine achievement in terms of the wider music industry, in which we have bands splitting up and getting back together all the time.
Jon: Definitely, yes. Don’t get us wrong, we have ‘those’ discussions and we have issues and all the rest of it, like any business relationship, you always have agreements and disagreements, and it is part of what makes things successful. They may be difficult, irritating, and unwanted, but at the end of the day we are Coldcut, you know, we are strong.
WF: Moving onto software production. Coldcut are no strangers to music production software. I remember buying a copy of Let Us Play, I would go to a record shop in Liverpool called Probe…
Jon: Yes, I know it…
WF: …and they had a section dedicated to Ninja Tune. I would go with the money I had earned from my Saturday job and go and buy Ninja Tune records. I bought the deluxe version of Let Us Play, which came with a CD-Rom with a little sequencer on it…
Jon: That’s right, My Little Fun Kit, I think it was called…
WF: …Yes! Then in more recent years you have had Ninja Jamm on IOS and Android. Then you collaborated with Ableton in 2017 to develop Midivolve, which is a Max plug-in for Live. Can you talk us a little through the thinking behind the midivolve project?
Jon: It is something that, again, has been years in the thinking and development. It is something that Matt and I were particularly interested in. Not being classically trained musicians and being DJs, being pickpockets, essentially, you know ‘magpies of sound’ were always interested in things that are creative, that can create a sound a make you go ‘WOW’, you could give it it’s proper name which is algorithmic AI-based software.
It has always been a fascination for us to be able to remix, rework, reconextualise, and also have a software that can create for you. It is those happy accidents that are the most amazing things in the world of music. We were doing Autumn Leaves, which is appropriate for this time of year, and we loaded up the software, with all the programming etc, and at the end of the song the software randomly changed the key, somehow, but it was an amazing key change and we thought “That’s incredible, lets stick with that”, so we kept it. Actually, when we did the string arrangements for it with a proper orchestra and string arranger, he asked how we came up with the chord change, because it was really amazing and unusual, and we didn’t really come up with it, it was an accident!
It is that search, for that sort of joyful accident, like when a DJ puts two records together and you suddenly have this third ‘thing’. I suppose in Journeys by DJ, the most successful iteration of that idea, with Junior Reid One Blood over The Truper Street Beats, that makes this amazing third thing. It is a search for that, so Midivolve is a step towards that sort of thing. It can help you compose music, you can rework what you create, stop it, pause it, save it. Matt and I are big fans of Steve Reich, so there are elements of minimal composition in there too, and Steve Reich-ian ideas. It encapsulates those elements.
Ninja Jamm was similar again. The ability to play, have fun, not spend months trying to figure out how to make this fucking software do shit. That is why we love Ableton. You can go super deep with it or stay on the surface and still make music with it. Be creative. Having to get deeply into a machine can be a great thing, but simplicity of just being able to go ‘bang bang bang, that’s my ideas’. That is what we try to get into the software that we work on, visually and aurally. We’ve got this software out called Pixi, where you can load your own pictures in it and use real time synths to create version after version.
WF: Can you explain that a little more for us? Sounds interesting!
Jon: (Laughs) It is a visual synth, so it is a synth for pictures. You load your own images into it, which it uses a source material, and then it creates video from that. It is another creative tool, planting a seed – Matt and I think of ourselves as ‘gardeners of sound’ – we plant a seed and see what grows. That is what Pixi does. We released this album back in the day called Zen Brakes Vol.1, and recently we released Zen Brakes Vol. 2. As part of that, we released Pixi. It is a granular video synthesis software. It is Matt’s project, and this guy called Paul Miller, who is this amazing head. It can be difficult to describe these things, better just to download the app and play with it!
WF: You mentioned 70 Minutes of Madness there. That became one of the Journeys by DJ series, and arguably the most popular of the series, if not the most popular mix in underground circles. How does it feel, for you, to have so much influence on the scene you inhabit?
WF: It is wonderful to have those sorts of accolades, but it can also be slightly uncomfortable, as I alluded to earlier, when people are saying “When are you going to make Journeys by DJ 2?”, because that was in its own moment. We weren’t trying to influence people, we were just trying to showcase music we enjoyed at the time. We were working there with two guys who helped us out with the DJ Food project, so Strictly Kev and PC [Patrick Carpenter], and we had been dee-jaying Stealth which was the Ninja club, so that album was a culmination of the most successful mixes that all four of us had come up with over the course of those dee-jaying times.
Also, there was a load of house music at that time, and I love house, Matt and I were into it as evident with People Hold On illustrates, but by that point it had become a bit of a ubiquitous thing that felt like a bit of a collar around the neck, as a DJ. We wanted to break out of that and show that you can mix other shit together. At that time nobody – and I could be wrong, as you can always be wrong when you say “Nobody has done that before” – but, at that point in time, I think we nailed, accidentally or through sheer stubbornness, a way of doing a mix that wasn’t just four on the floor orientated.
Some of those mixes came from the happy accidents I mentioned earlier. The classic one is where we use Beats and Pieces at 45 then turn it down to 33 so that we can change direction and it still feels OK. That came out of a gig that Strictly Kev and I did in Cornwall. We were invited to do this gig and when we got there it was the heaviest, bangingest night, with super-fast tracks. We were like “Fuck…what do we do now. We’ve got loads of downtempo shit! We’re fucked, we’re gonna get lynched!” So, we thought “no, we’ll be alright”, and I remember Kev putting on Windowlicker, at least I think it was Windowlicker, it was definitely an Aphex tune, and then mixing Beats and Pieces at 45 underneath it. We just played everything that we had either with the pitch right up as fast as we could get it, or at 45, and we managed to get away with it. In fact, we had a really good gig!
An iteration of that idea ended up in that mix, then we started to do the same thing with jungle music, we would start that off at 33, when it was a 45 pressing, so the tempo would be about 120 bpm, mix it out of the house DJ that had been on before us, then – especially if it was a record with a really good ambient breakdown – we could whack it up to 45, so we are now at 160 bpm. So, we could go from full-on jungle to half-tempo hip-hop. It is funny how these things come to fruition.
WF: You said there that this was kind of rallying against the four-to-the-floor house mixes that were so prevalent at the time. In the inlay card to Let Us Play, it said “Fuck Dance, Let’s Art”. Was that indicative of the sort of direction you saw the dance industry going in, then?
Jon: Yeah, that’s right, it did say that. We came out of a scene where we were DJs, and we would play these massive warehouses, and be tucked away in the corner somewhere, because actually, it was about the crowd, the people having a good time, not about this whole ‘All hail the DJ’. Then, it went from that to superstar-ism, and all the different shapes of dance music, ultimately reaching EDM as we would come to know it.
This is why we made the visuals and had massive fuck-off screens, because then we could hide behind the screens, to a certain extent, but that is how we feel. If we wanted to go down that route we would have got ourselves guitars, padded out our crotches, slapped some make-up on, and put our foot down on the monitor speakers. And we didn’t. Mind you, we might still give it a go at some point (laughs). That would freak a few people out!! If we come out like Kiss. I’m not having a massive whinge, it just isn’t for us. I like a nice strong cup of tea with a dairy milk alternative in it, other people like a strong cup of tea with four sugars and cow juice, so everybody can have their own thing. I’m no Steve Aoki or Benji Candelabra or whatever he is called. Not my cup of tea.
At one point, in the journey of dance music, it became sort of a stranglehold. We went from playing in big rooms to three or four-thousand people, to playing for four rats in a toilet (laughs)
WF: That said, then, in 2017 you completed your thirty-year tour which included your audiovisual show. How was the reception to that, from your following?
Jon: Really good! Great! Part of the way we decided to do it was dipping our toe in the water, in a sense. We hadn’t toured for at least ten years, possibly longer than that, so we wanted to test it. We were using Ninja Jamm or Jamm Pro as we call it, which is a pro version that will eventually be released fully, to do the show. It is the best way to test it.
Obviously, it was stressful as shit kept crashing etc, certain things didn’t work, but all-in-all it was a great reception. We have taken lessons away from the gigs, and we are now re-writing the Ninja Jamm software from the bottom up. We have taken a bit of a break and also we’ve got material from the beginning of 2017 that we’d like to finish off and have out this year. We’d like to play out again as well.
WF: We hope to see you up here in Liverpool, then! The last time you played here was at Chibuku, which was about ten years ago…
Jon: God, yeah! Was that ten years ago? That was a full-on gig as I remember rightly. We would love to be getting out and doing more like that. It is a difficult thing performing as an electronic artist. You know, you can pre-record the whole thing, press play, and dance around, shaking your booty and it would sound like our records…or….you can get a band in a try to reproduce it in that sort of way…or…you can try and do what we have tried to do, and what Aphex and other people like to do, which is play it electronically, play it live.
Back in the day, when you didn’t have Twitter and the like, you could go and do a gig in some obscure place, and fuck up, and it wouldn’t be shown all over the place…you got a chance to learn and develop. The only way to learn how to do a show, regardless of how good a band you are, is to go out and do it, over and over again. It is a sort of ancient ‘mother’s tale’, but those bands who went out and toured day in day out ended up killing it, because they knew how to do it – they know how the audience want it. It is trying to do that in a world where absolutely everything is judged from the moment you stick your head above the parapet.
It is interesting, though, because if we crashed using the software, we had to announce it, “We’ve just crashed, normal service will be resumed shortly” (laughs). We have ways that we can support each other, and we have MCs who can explain what has happened to the audience while we sort it out. That can happen in a live domain, and people are OK with that. But when it is repeated endlessly on t’internet or wherever, it can get a bit annoying, with people making stupid judgements who have not actually been in the moment. Life, eh?!
WF: There was a list of tracks selected, for your twentieth anniversary, which was published in Music Radar. In your track selection, you chose [DJ] Vadim’s Your Revolution, Amon Tobin’s Four Tonne Mantis, and Cinematic Orchestra’s Channel One Suite. What tracks would you add to that list, a decade on?
Jon: Thundercat…anything from his canon. Bicep’s Glue, Helena Hauff, Young Fathers. I’d definitely put those in. It is interesting that you mention those tracks. I think, at the time, they were fairly new, and I think they have stood the test of time, which is an amazing accolade for those artists. How pure electronic songs have lasted when a lot of material from those eras have faded onto obscurity.
That Your Revolution track, I’m delighted to say, still fucks people off to this day. That song was banned in America! Absolutely on the nail in terms of the world of ‘Pressminster’ that we have got now! Hopefully the new Ninja records we are putting out now will hold the same sort of ground and level of attention. We’re really excited at the moment, about the label. There is all sorts of exciting things happening.
There’s this thing in dance music that you’re only as good as your last record. It is really brutal, but it is actually beautiful as well. That, combined with the fact that it doesn’t really matter if a tune is five minutes old or fifty years old, if you can drop it in a club, and play a really old tune and a really new tune, mix the two together, and people are happy. It is great to be able to do that.
WF: It is! OK, so we are down to our last question. Now that we’ve cast our minds back, I’m going to ask you to cast your mind forward, if that is at all possible as Matt has stated in the past that one of his skills is predicting the future, so I’m going to ask you to channel Matt’s special abilities and predict what the future holds for Coldcut, in the immediate sense and in another ten years’ time when Coldcut hits forty years old.
Jon: (Laughs) We want to get more music out, obviously, and some collaborations. Our Outside the Echo Chamber project with Adrian Sherwood was great fun to do, and we were in South Africa in 2017, in Soweto, and we recorded music with South African musicians, with the help of a charity called In Place of War. We’d love to get that project finished. The goal at the moment is to do lots more collaborations.
We are working on an effects pedal, which will hopefully come out soon. We are also working on another bit of software related to a game we helped develop for the Atari or the Amiga. Anyway, it had a tiny bit of sampling memory, and we worked with a developer creating software that would play the theme music to the game randomly every time. That is something that Ninja Jamm features, so Matt has been working on more software, more news on that as it comes out.
In ten years’ time… well I’ll be seventy, so I’ll probably be thinking about downloading my consciousness into a computer or, if the worst comes to the worst, I’d probably want to come back as a record, so I’m going to be pressed into some kind of vinyl. I just found out you can have your ashes made into a record. I quite fancy that. Hopefully by then they’ll have sorted shit out and I can just download my consciousness into an app and carry on (laughs). I think we’ll still be trying to dance, even if it is just ‘do the zimmerframe’!!
WF: Well I certainly hope so and I’m sure the rest of your fans do to!
Jon: It’s funny, I never thought we’d survive this long! That is a feeling that never goes away and is an important sort of driving force for us, really.
WF: I suppose in a way that keeps you grounded and keeps you fairly humble, in that sense.
Jon: Yes, it does and that is a really good point, actually. I’m always just surprised by it too, like “Oh fuck, we’re still doing this!” It is also a mixture of short attention span, stupidity, and a desire to make interesting music!
Whew! That was a hell of an interview! Huge props to Jonathan for taking time out to talk to us. But what of his Secret Weapons? Well, here they are in all their glory. Ten carefully curated tracks that you might spot in the mix when Coldcut hit the decks (or iPads, depending on what they’re up to).
KOKOKO! – Tokoliana
Tokoliana – Meaning “We are devouring each other” Fantastic electronic African banger…This band from Kinshasa with Débruit on production duties does damage to any club floor….
Rhythm Dr – Mister
Early mash up version of Gregory Isaacs – Mr Know It All. An all-time favourite party starter…useful as it starts with a classic reggae phrase – easy to get out of a DJ nightmare, no mixing involved!
Bodysnatch – Euphony (Just 4 U London) – Original Mix
Summer of 1993. As the sound of hardcore was morphing into jungle, with a looped bell intro, sparse ‘Just 4 U London’ sample & riding a stripped back rhythm totally ahead of its time… Still killer & always gets the Shazamers out in force….
Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers – Berro E Sombaro
Go Go! So many top tunes! This a warehouse party starter…the godfather of the DC go-go scene bringing the funk/latin action… So catchy…
Joni Adams – Vegas
Funk classic an underrated rare groove with a brass arrangement to kill for – lets rip on all barrels
Benjamin & The Right Direction – Light Of My Life
The new old – a top example of how to be retro but get it right. Modern Northern, call it what you will, it’s one for the more discerning ear…
Paul Nicholas – Run Shaker Life
Better known as an actor & pop singer. Paul Nicholas, with this killer version of Richie Havens’ take on Issachar Bates’ shaker song…..
Amadou Et Mariam – Bara (Joaquin’s Sacred Rhythm Dance)
Joe Claussell provides such a cracking mix on this tune….Pure Mali goodness meets deep house… good for that late night bubbler selection…
Roland Lewis – Percussion Rhythm
Obscure tropical killer that just keeps building & building & building! So obscure I could not find it on t’internet… so I’ve posted it to Soundcloud…
Nora Dean – Peace Begins Within
Originally by rock gospel singer Mylon LeFevre. This reggae version by Nora Dean is fire on the floor & runs things as they say – just been covered by Zara McFarlane – also a cracking version!