Once upon a time, Andrew Weatherall was the out-of-control speedfreak of UK club culture. Now following a long cooling off period, he's reinventing himself with Two Lone Swordsmen as a purveyor of primal underground Electronica. Interview by Rob Young. This article originally appeared in The Wire 148 (June 1996).
Wev's Gaff: not what you'd expect, perhaps. People asked me when I returned from this assignment whether I'd seen any number of bizarre decorations, posters, bits of anatomy: all I saw was comfortable sofas, nice urban-pastoral paintwork, Ikea rocking-chair, a Carry On film poster...
And the records, of course. You could say Andrew Weatherall wouldn't be where he is now without those plastic roundels. There they all are, still unsorted after a recent move, racked on specially built shelving, stashed in a hallway-full of DJ boxes, and no doubt in other locations throughout the house as well. And in the middle of them all, coping with the various intrusions of our photographer and his assistant, is Weatherall himself: abdicated Lord of the Sabres Of Paradise in self-imposed exile; now cut loose from those duties, rogue and independent, as one of the Two Lone Swordsmen.
Weatherall, it seems, is - in the common parlance - "sorting himself out". His life and career have travelled an unusual ecliptic since exploding into the pop world in 1989 with his production of Primal Scream's "Loaded" and the group's subsequent 1990 LP Screamadelica. The record was hailed, in one of those banal pop-media superlatives, as 'one of the great albums of the 90s'. More crucially, it was one of the key moments in the rapprochement of the (once mutually exclusive) worlds of indie pop and club culture - and the fallout from that collision is all around us still.
A hard act to follow, then, and although now Weatherall reckons his contribution to the sessions was a small part of a supreme collective effort ("It was just random elements coming together," he says, "and I was just one of them that came in, sort of...bumping into doors"), Primal Scream sans Weatherall significantly went on to sink in a self-created mire of faded rock 'n' roll posture, providing the sleazed-out model for the current star-struck Faustian Pact signatories of Britpop.
"I'm a classic underachiever," Weatherall says brightly, reviewing his career to date. "It's like the old Peter Cook adage: someone asked him, 'What's it like not to have fulfilled your potential?' to which he replied, 'Thank fuck for that!'"
You might wonder what a musician with such chartbound connections, and who by his own admission is "treading the line between boffindom and the grand amateur", is doing in The Wire, but it's really the underground activities which Weatherall's been involved in for the last two years or more that ought to be attracting your attention. For the first half of this decade he was clowning it for 'the inkies', living up to the mediated notion of the self-obsessed wild man in the DJ booth, running his Sabresonic club in London and ingesting vast quantities of fast drugs. Today he's "on the old homoeopathic tip": showbiz sherbet has been traded for a diet of herbal tea, caelium husks, fish oils and aloe vera. Meanwhile, with few or no grand marketing gestures, he's founded a label, Emissions, which has put out challenging, often superb electronic records by the likes of Being, Conemelt, Blue, Vermin and Bloodsugar; released the last Sabres Of Paradise album Haunted Dancehall on Warp at the beginning of 1995; and has most recently assembled the Two Lone Swordsmen double CD, released this month. He's also still in constant demand as a remixer (though he'll turn down projects which he feels he can't improve on, such as a recent request from Spoon to remix a Can track), and as a prolific DJ has avoided the trap of 'personality jockdom' which so many of his contemporaries from the late 80s Acid daze blundered into. Ironically, the name Sabres Of Paradise was lifted from the B-side of Hayzee Fantayzee's "John Wayne Is Big Leggy" single, a 'classic' slice of disposable 80s glam-pop: the speaker on the track was Jeremy Healy, the DJ who now embodies all that's airheaded about himbo-House.
What happened? "Over the last 18 months or so," Weatherall explains, "everything came to a head with the famous 'I've given up cocaine honestly and my girlfriend's left me' interview in NME. I was going through some really bad times emotionally and physically, and I did this interview. I shouldn't have done it. I read that, and I thought unless I do something about it now, I've fucked it, and I didn't want to have put all that work in just to fuck it up. I've really got to take stock. So I did, and that's what's led to me being a lot happier and doing much better work. It's been great, 'cause it's been like going back to square one." Later, he tells me his original name for Emissions was to be Year Zero, which indicates the importance he places on this new essentialist approach. Yet part of the impetus for change has been a reawakening of his diverse musical past.
"I was thinking: 'This is not you - get a grip. Get back to how
you really are.' Prior to 1988, I was going to see Throbbing
Gristle and SPK and stuff like that. I wasn't sending bodily fluids
through the post, but I used to write to Genesis P-Orridge. Then
all of a sudden it was 88, Ecstasy and Acid House, which to be
honest with you was a bit of light relief! It was all a bit bleak,
standing around at dingy gigs with long raincoats and that, and all
of a sudden it was light clothes, shitloads of drugs, and this
pumping 'up' music. And I sort of went off the rails a little bit;
I stopped listening to music that I'd loved for years, because it
was such a relief. But you can't run your whole life as an episode
of light relief. You've got to get back to what your roots are, and
what I'm doing now is more what they are: bleak music that sells
about 200 records!"
It's a slightly harsh judgement. The 18 tracks on Two Lone Swordsmen's The Fifth Mission certainly won't generate as many sales as either of the two Sabres albums, but 'bleak' is too easy a dismissal of the way Weatherall's blown the froth off the top of his latest musical offerings. Recorded over a period of four weeks, he wants the collection to be seen as the germ of a new phase of his output that will only come to fruition over more extended time.
"It's an initial sketch for something that's going to become a lot bigger," he says. "I'm not saying it was hurried or anything, it's just that if a track sounded good and it was three minutes long and there was two samples on it, then that's fair enough. That's the track done. We just thought if people like it, then we'll take it a step further and develop those tracks, work with vocalists, get a band together..."
Those tracks run the gamut from high-oscillation elektronic klingklang, vertiginous switchback rhythms, even highly emotive tunefulness such as the six-minute "Enemy Haze", as gorgeous as Aphex Twin's "Alberto Balsam". But it's certainly not the kind of music you imagine trance-kids will want to hear. At one point, Weatherall calls the kind of music he's trying to achieve "underproduced, spooky, timeless, vaguely anthemic music". I ask whether he can remember the first of such noises that inspired him. "The earliest musical memory that really inspired me was Johnny Tillotson, "Poetry In Motion", that old rock 'n' roll record? It's giving me goosepimples even now, thinking about it - I just thought it was a really spooky, weird tune, and I'd never heard anything like it before. A couple of months later I was going through a box of records in my mum's cupboard, and there was this box of sevens - Elvis Presley, The Beatles and stuff - and this record, Johnny Tillotson, "Poetry In Motion". I reckon that's where I got the bug from, for tracking down records. And the first album I can remember getting home, probably because the sleeve was so outrageous and it upset my mum, was Diamond Dogs, David Bowie, 'cause it's got him inside with the dog's knackers and that.
"I lived in a working class but would-be middle class aspirational household, where emotion and anything out of the ordinary was always suppressed. Hence all these [he indicates his tattoos]. Anyone with a tattoo was inherently evil, so I immediately thought, that must be good. And it's the same with music, because that wasn't really the thing to do in my household. I thought, that must be powerful then, if it's upsetting them that much."
Weatherall admits to being a sucker for gangs, societies and their attendant cants and mythologies; at this formative stage in the mid- to late 70s he appears to have observed as many of them as possible, without fully buying into any. "When I was young I didn't think that because I liked one thing I couldn't like another. I just thought it's music, it's an escape. Now, if you've got an escape route, you theoretically plan ten escape routes, you don't just put your mind to one. You don't narrow your horizons of escape, you try to find all the escape routes you can. So I used to like Led Zeppelin, and then punk came along, and to a certain extent I did shut my horizons down a bit then, 'cause you'd be reading 'You can't like this, you can't like that'. It was only in later years that I realised that Willie Nelson was a bigger punk rocker that Jimmy Pursey will ever be, d'you know what I mean? But then again, punk did open my eyes to a lot of music, including dub, which I am forever grateful for."
At the moment, Andrew tells me, he's getting deeper into avant garde jazz, "although I find it hard to listen to something which hasn't got a groove". To illustrate the point, he pulls out a copy of Audiopoèmes, a 1969 LP of poetry concrète by Henri Chopin, saying: "I'm a bit of a split personality: I love a really good tune, but I also love something that's completely 'Where were their heads at?'" Yet Weatherall's sensitive to the way his eclectic tastes have tripped him up on a number of occasions, which is why he's maintaining a low media profile for the new album. "You can say something flippant and offhand in an interview, like that you're quite into dub. Next thing you know, you're leading the dub revival, and you are King Tubby incarnate! I've always played music right across the board, but when music journalists need a spearhead for a new movement, they turn up at a gig where I'm playing HipHop, and all of a sudden it's "Weatherall's gone HipHop". The next day I could have been playing screaming 100 mile an hour Techno. The whole career has been a series of things that got totally out of hand."
Hence the need to beat a tactical retreat; to create a space to immerse himself in the music again, and to engineer a process where you hear the Emissions without being so conscious of who's emitting them. "I'm not comfortable with mega-success and all it brings; it does affect people's artistic output. The fact that I've been left alone for a year or two meant that I could concentrate on the music rather than the other shit that's going on, and it's meant that the stuff's got better. The minute you start worrying about people's expectations and making a record that's going to change the world, you ain't gonna do it. If you just forget all that, and retire to the studio and get on with what you're doing, then there's more chance that you'll come up with something that's going to lead to people coming up and saying, 'That record changed my life'.
"Anything that affects people, I like. On whatever level. But
it's got to inspire some emotion. Even if it's hate: when people
say, 'I could have done that'. Well why didn't you? You fucking
didn't, did you? You're not of that calibre."
He's also found time to explore other outlets - for example, his forthcoming cameo as a seedy club owner in Venture Movies' film set in London's underworld, Hardmen. "That was quite amusing," he recalls. "I'd like to do it again: a couple of cameos a year would be nice, à la Tom Waits or Joe Strummer."
The Fifth Mission, like Haunted Dancehall before it, is similarly arranged in the form of an 'invisible soundtrack' - though unlike much music that claims the same appellation, its genre is dirty, rather than magic, realism. Titles such as "Glenn Street Assault Squad", "Gang Sweep Shuffling" and "The King Mob File" place it firmly in a similar gangland context to the world depicted by Hardmen, Mona Lisa and The Krays.
"If you went and saw where we recorded the music, you look out of the window and there's no way you can call your track something like "Far Away On A Beach". And I think there's a little bit of humour in there as well."
Like the work of Richard James, Mike Paradinas, Witchman, et al, Weatherall's tracks corrode the digital sheen of post-Techno machine music.
"A lot of the stuff in the studio is ancient, hands-on, turn the knob and see what happens sort of gear. I'm always on the lookout in secondhand shops: I bought an old Moog for 100 quid. Old echo boxes. It's got to have at least an inch of dust on it before I'm even interested. No Bakelite on it, I'm not interested!
"There's actually a sound developing," he continues. "That's something that comes with more technical knowledge. Like I say, I don't want to go too far up my own arse that way, but now I know what machine does what and how to do it. When I first started, I was simply taking records into the studio and going. 'This is the general sort of vibe', and just chancing it. Two Lone Swordsmen is the first step in a sound that's in my head, and it' almost there - I need another six months, a year. But again, I'm just perverse: the minute I'm satisfied, I think: 'Well, I've done that, let's explore another avenue'."
But with the volume of material that's emerging out of Weatherall's new improved working practices - and permanent musical partnership with engineer Keith Tinniswood - there are plenty of options to be mined. "I want to do live stuff as well. Do a Swordsmen sound system, a whole night where it's three decks, samplers; starts off with the Ambient stuff, and it's a seamless progression; start of at no bpm and go up to 150. You'll be scraping people off the ceiling."
I'm walking out the door of Wev's Gaff, with its incense holders and plastic skeleton, while the Swordsman duels it out with the photographer: "I'm not good on side profiles. When God was giving out chins, I thought he said gins, and asked for a double..."