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Trevor Jackson: machine music of the highest, sexiest and weirdest order

Posted on by Kate Hutchinson

I wrote this article originally for RBMA's book For The Record but unfortunately it got cut. Anyway, if you're a fan of Trevor's work, as I am, you might enjoy the below. Or you might throw eggs at it. Either way, here is some stuff about him, with interviews from John Burgess, Four Tet and James Lavelle.

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Trevor Jackson
By Kate Hutchinson 

“He strives to be individual, and he stands for what he believes in” – James Lavelle, UNKLE

 In the epic, smoke-saturated, disco ball-dappled biopic of dance music’s life, Trevor Jackson is one of its antiheroes. He supports “difficult music”. His career underlines what it is to be punk. He has nurtured countless music scenes, but is never the shiny star at the centre. He’ll clear a dancefloor so that he can build it again up the way he wants. He’s never wanted to be famous.

Even so, the London-based art director, designer, video artist, DJ and producer has casually helped invent dance music’s future. During his twenty-years at the clubbing coalface, he’s shaped the sound of UK hip-hop, brought NYC’s burgeoning dance-punk bands to London and defined numerous seminal albums with his distinct approach to design. You probably own something that’s encountered Trevor’s Midas touch without realising it. DJ Shadow’s 2012 greatest hits box set, featuring a glowing Tron-style model of his face? That was Trevor. The striking monochrome optical illusions for Soulwax’s 2004 album, Any Minute Now? That’s Trevor, too. Or how about the flickering psychedelic video trip for Matias Aguayo’s 2009 single Rollerskate? You’ve got one guess. 

Trevor Jackson started his first design company, Bite It!, in 1987 and began producing covers for some of the house, techno and hip-hop anthems of the time, by Todd Terry, Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Queen Latifah and De La Soul. A regular fixture on London’s vibrant nightlife scene, Jackson approached Mark Moore at The Wag Club, which is how he came to design the artwork for Moore’s club smash, Theme From S-Express. Like this sleeve, Trevor’s designs were deliberately lo-fi – “a finger-up at all the big companies that could do amazing 3D graphics” when he couldn’t afford to buy a computer.

Eventually – and typical of his plucky attitude – Jackson turned his hand to hip-hop production under an alter ego, The Underdog. He particularly liked hip-hop’s DIY aesthetic, but rather than using hooks from James Brown and Parliament records, as America was at the time, he looked to European dance music for samples. His analogue mix of ambient, krautrock, psychedelia and dub gave the genre a fresh angle, as heard on his remixes for Massive Attack, U2 and UNKLE and on his production for The Brotherhood, a collective who became hugely influential in UK hip-hop.

By 1996, Trevor had put down The Underdog and expanded his vision into a record label, which he ran for a decade. Output Recordings was a home for “the weird, odd records that no one else wanted” at a time “when the dance press was all about superclubs and DJs in Jacuzzis.” But those “weird” records just happened to be by artists who thrashed out the new sound of the dancefloor. Output’s 1997 release, Gramme’s debut 7-inch, Mine, thrusted the disco-fied dance-punk revolution’s first placard into the air, followed by anthems like LCD Soundsystem’s Losing My Edge and The Rapture’s House Of Jealous Lovers. Equally of note, Trevor released the first single by Kieran Hebden and then by Hebden’s band, Fridge. “Trevor played me more mind blowing music in the first few years I knew him than anyone else,” says Hebden. “He introduced me to records that would become the blueprint for a lot of what I do.” 

Around this time, Jackson started another trailblazing musical venture: Playgroup. He wanted to do “something colourful and sexy”, inspired by 80s disco-pop like Grace Jones and The Human League. He put himself – wraparound shades an’ all – on the cover of his records, which was, by his own admission, an uncool thing to do. Yet Trevor enjoyed the rebellion of being an unlikely popstar, like Giorgio Moroder. Instead of Donna Summer, he worked with strong female vocalists like riot grrrl linchpin Kathleen Hanna and electro provocateur Peaches. The project turned into one of the foremost acts of the early-2000s electroclash movement, alongside producers like Hell and Tiga and Soulwax and Tiefschwarz.

Output’s bold line of dance music, paired with its design focus, drew comparisons with New Order’s Factory Records. It was certainly just as passionately DIY. For one signing, a band called Icarus, Trevor made 1000 hand-customized, hand-torn sleeves. John Burgess, who started legendary club night Bugged Out and Jockey Slut magazine, also recalls “one Four Tet cover, where Trevor spent all day wrapping each individual sleeve with tape. It’s that attention to detail that sets Trevor apart.” But, like Factory Records, it too came to an end. After 10 years and 100 releases, Jackson commemorated Output’s legacy with a compilation and DVD, I HATE MUSIC, featuring many of the notable tracks from its pioneering decade. Which is just as well, seeing as he hardly kept any copies of the releases himself.

Jackson was still leading the way in design and visual art, too. His campaign for Any Minute Now won several international design awards, including the Tokyo TDC Non Members Prize, a D&AD Silver Pencil Nomination and Creative Review’s Best In Book. Since then, his work has been exhibited at New York’s Guggenheim, London’s KK Gallery, ICA and Barbican and at Newcastle’s Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art. His more recent foray into sound and light performances combine both his mediums to mind-bending effect. For visual music festival Optronica at London’s BFI IMAX cinema in 2007, Jackson created a live A/V show, RGBPM, using a custom-built visual synthesizer that took six months to make. Then there’s the time he stopped traffic on Hollywood Boulevard with his intense installation for Lexus, in which two cars glowed bright pink in response to Jackson’s shuddering subbass frequencies.

In 2013, Trevor Jackson is more current than ever. His iconic, inescapable fonts, grainy, smoked-out portraits and photography so glistening-fresh that the sweat almost drips off it can be seen on this year’s Beady Eye album, BE. He’s still an in-demand remixer – most recently for Tiga and Gossip – and he has just released the second volume of his ear-skewering Metal Dance compilation series, detailing the danceable side of 80s industrial, post-punk and EBM, for Strut Records.

For an even deeper introduction to the true Trevor, however, you need to hear one of his wide-ranging DJ sets. Whether he’s playing at Fabric or a fashion party, he expertly joins the dots between primitive hip-hop breaks and Belgian new beat, sparse industrial and early techno, and raw house and New York disco. It is machine music of the highest, sexiest and, yes, weirdest order, plugging directly into your primal urge to dance. “He was the first person that ever took me to a club, when he played at the Blue Note,” says Hebden. “I base most of my DJ style on what I’ve learned from watching him. To this day, he is one of my favourite DJs in the world.” Go and see him in a club, or spend a while rifling through the traces of his legacy left online, and he might just become one of yours, too.

 

 

Album review: Four Tet – 'Rounds' reissue

Posted on by Kate Hutchinson

I revisited the brilliant 'Rounds' by Four Tet, which was reissued this month to mark 10 years of its awesomeness. Read my appraisal of it over at Drowned in Sound or below. 

The cult of the legendary dance music producer is gathering pace. As electronic music continues to pound the mainstream with the force of Thor’s hammer, legendary DJs are infiltrating clubs at an alarming rate. They’re trotting out to the decks after 40 years and one big Chicago house hit to play ‘old-school’ sets, or they’re 21 with a number one single and playing their first club. Had over 1,000 hits on Soundcloud? You’re a legend. Ran a club night once? Guess what, mate, you’re a legend!

‘Legend’ is not to be confused with ‘cult’, though – there is loads of that about, too. Cult producers are the ones playing difficult records to half-a-dozen people at peak time, dismissing conventional gurn-curling beats and never stepping into the spotlight long enough to get a decent press photo taken. They’re too old for Radio 1’s playlists and too youthful to be considered an electronic elder, but they’re everywhere, being all cultish.

While we breezily drop these descriptors so much that they start to lose their meaning, few producers possess the rare, indefinable quality that allows them to straddle the best of both. Electronic artist Kieran Hebden, better know as Four Tet, is one of that small number. The parties he curates with Eat Your Own Ears sell out months in advance and his singles are inhaled from the shop floor in half an hour. He’s also worked with some of the most exciting leftfield names in music, including Thom Yorke and Burial, remixed pop names like Justin Timberlake and, at the other end of the spectrum, collaborated with American jazz drummer Steve Reid and Syrian electro artist Omar Souleyman. Consequently, you’re as likely to hear Jamie Cullum play his productions, as you are Joy Orbison.

Yet Four Tet doesn’t come to you, not really: you have to seek him out. You can’t listen to his back catalogue on Spotify, he rarely does interviews and the singles he puts out on his label, Text, are vinyl-only. Similarly DIY – and inspired by a Fugazi show he went to at Brixton Academy when he was younger – he keeps tickets to his coveted all-nighters under a fiver (or, more recently in New York, $5). He’s not the most underground DJ, not by some way, but he encourages his huge and rapidly expanding fanbase to help keep that dance music culture alive.

In recent years, respect for Four Tet has swelled to such epic proportions that his seminal 2003 album, Rounds, is being rereleased. Two albums came before it, Dialogue in 1999 and 2001’sPause, the latter of which was credited with inventing ‘folktronica’, Rounds is considered his masterstroke. Instead of being a love letter to folk or jazz music in the way his previous albums had been interpreted, Rounds takes Dialogue and Pause’s essential threads – angel-soft ambience and minimalist melodic slivers of unconventional sounds, like banjos, gamelan and harpsichords – and spins them into glinting soundscapes that are distinctly ‘Four Tet’. His productions feel improvisational, as if they are free-falling through the air and creating shapes instead of sounds. The patterns dart across a few dainty musical motifs, on tracks like ‘Hands’ and ‘Spirit Fingers’, with all the unpredictability of a moth fluttering around a flame. You’re never sure whether it will eventually singe its wings or flit off into the night.

Take flight it does: Rounds is determined to escape chillout’s beige-carpeted lounge and instead illuminate how sound sculptures can be groovesome and complex. A muscular breakbeat drives ‘She Moves She’, for example, cutting through its geisha-graceful melody, while the grainy, echo-y clatters of ‘My Angel Rocks Back and Forth’ recall very early dubstep. The drums sound as live as any jazz band’s, too: ‘Unspoken’s cymbals gush like breaking waves and the chunky breaks of ‘As Serious as Your Life’ are, presumably, what made hip hop producer J-Dilla want to remix the track. It’s remarkable, considering Rounds wasn’t made in a hi-tech studio but in Hebden’s London flat, using, as one interviewer put it, 'a motley selection of software, much of it lagging behind the cutting edge.' To anyone who mocks the possibilities for bedroom production, give them a hefty spin of Rounds in return.

If you haven’t already introduced Rounds to your record collection, the special anniversary version makes it even more worthwhile. It comes with a bonus disc of a live set in Copenhagen, originally a limited-edition live album released by Domino in 2004 on CD-R only, in which fragmented versions of Rounds tracks like ‘She Moves She’ and ‘Spirit Fingers’ sandwich Pause classics ‘Everything Is Alright’ and ‘Glue Of The World’. For the vinyl purists, the 12-inch edition also comes with download codes – a Four Tet first, it says here.

But, though you’ll be rewarded with rare recordings, Rounds 2.0 is also a reminder of how beautiful electronic music is timeless and tirelessly challenging. That, after all, is the hallmark of any cult and truly legendary artist. And if we all succumbed to Four Tet’s way of thinking, dance music's world would be a much lovelier place to exist in.

KATE HUTCHINSON