Friday, 17 September 2010

20 Years Of 2 Kings: Blood Red Sounds meets Henry & Louis Uptown

Extended version of a feature I wrote for a recent issue of Venue, celebrating the 20th anniversary of 2 Kings Records. I caught up with Andy Scholes - half of Henry & Louis - to talk Jamaica, dubstep, and the enduring appeal of roots reggae.

Reggae's influence on British music runs deep, especially in Bristol. Few people know this better than production aces Henry & Louis, otherwise known as Jack Lundie and Andy Scholes. They’ve been associated with drum & bass, trip hop and dubstep, without ever straying far from their roots.

Jack and Andy started making music together in 1988, forming 2 Kings Records two years later.
Both were steeped in the sound system culture of St Pauls. “Bristol's always had a big roots following”, Andy remembers. “If you went to St Pauls in the early 80s you could go to Sam’s Blues, Green Street - those shebeen blues things were massive in Bristol. Going back further you had The Bamboo Club. The Wailers played here”.

Inspired by dub pioneers Scientist and King Tubby, the fledgling producers used their heroes’ analogue techniques as a starting point. Their first single was ‘Too Late’, with Jamaican singer Prince Green. “It was hard to sell reggae back then”, says Andy. “There were only a few shops, and we had to go to London to press records at Jah Tubby’s. Distribution was practically non-existent”.

2 Kings struggled on, but when they finished an album Henry & Louis decided to turn elsewhere. ‘Rudiments’ - a collection of sure-stepping dub versions - came out on More Rockers, the imprint of Bristol Sound pioneers Smith & Mighty.

“Rob Smith was a mentor from day one. He’s a very humble guy”, Andy recalls. “He wouldn’t say ‘that’s wrong’, even when it was definitely wrong. It was always ‘have you thought about trying this?’ ” Jack and Andy also spent time at Smith & Mighty’s studio, 40 Ashley Road, contributing to their low end classic Bass Is Maternal. The sessions also led to some timeless jungle-dub collaborations, like ‘Rwanda’ and ‘How Can A Man’, which ended up on 1994’s ‘More Rockers Dubplate Selection 1’.

Bristol’s first great drum & bass album - arguably its best -, it was a health and safety nightmare. “Rain was pouring down the wall”, says Andy, “and Rob’s got electrical equipment everywhere. He’d say, ‘don’t worry, it’ll be ok…just don’t lean on the wall’.” He remembers Ashley Road as “a legendary studio” though: “the people who passed through there - Roni Size, Krust, Die. Rob had every analogue machine you can imagine.”

Next stop, Jamaica. Andy spent a year on the island, hunting down the best reggae vocals he could find. Packing ten dubs he’d made with Jack and another nine of Rob’s, he moved to Duhaney Park in downtown Kingston. “I went to see Sugar Minott”, says Andy, “who set me up with Johnny Clarke, Willie Williams, Tony Tuff” The vocals were recorded at UB40’s studio in Port Maria - previously owned by Bob Marley.

If I’d mixed it in England it would never have sounded like that”, Andy believes. “In Jamaica you live and breathe reggae. It’s in the food you’re eating, the smoke you’re smoking”. The singers were respectful that he’d gone to live downtown, “because it’s rough place, but I’d never have got vocals like that anywhere else. I recorded twenty-six, and used nineteen. There are still vocals I’ve done nothing with. There’s more to come.

The resulting album, ‘Time Will Tell’ is a contemporary roots classic, combining the U.K sound system styles of the 90s with timeless reggae vocals. Dub legend Augustus Pablo liked it so much that when Andy returned to Jamaica in ‘98, he was invited to stay at Pablo’s house. “There I was, on Tangerine Hill, looking at him with that thing in his mouth…” His melodica? “No, the big smoking chalice”. Sadly, Pablo passed away six months later: “he had cancer, but like Bob Marley, he wouldn’t take the treatment”,

Andy remembers. “He couldn’t eat. He just sat there drinking this thing called bitters, and smoking. When I left, he gave me these boxes with ‘Rockers 1’ written on them, - ninety 7” singles, all his own productions. They’re probably worth thousands.”

‘Time Will Tell’ was finally released in 2001, on the American label B.S.I. Meanwhile, 2 Kings continued to grow, as cuts such as ‘Love Like A Diamond’ benefited from a new explosion of roots awareness in dubstep’s wake. “It was already building for us”, Andy says, “but without dubstep, it wouldn’t be selling as well today. Kids want to know where their music comes from, and that turns them on to roots and dub”.

2 Kings released treatments of ‘Answer’ and ‘Rise Up’ by Bristol dubstep mainman Pinch, and RSD (their old sparring partner, Rob Smith). “Pinch has something special about him”, thinks Andy. “Every time he drops something it’s like, ‘Oh my God’. He’s a humble guy as well - he reminds me of Rob Smith 20 years ago.” Radio 1 DJ Mary Anne Hobbs called her two-hour showcase of the local scene ‘Bristol Rise Up’, using a sample from Henry & Louis' track throughout the show. "Yeah, where's our money? Where's our royalty for that?", jokes Andy, adding, "It's flippin' hard to get on the radio. We've been lucky with Mary Anne Hobbs."

A third Henry & Louis album - ‘Increments’ - followed in 2008, and this time Jack and Andy released it themselves. A production masterclass, it pits contemporary roots rockers like ‘Lion’s Den’ against seismic steppers such as ‘Revelation Dub’. At twenty years old, 2 Kings is still in the vanguard of the UK Roots movement, with releases planned for Prince Jamo and the late, great Mikey Dread. A ‘20 Years of 2 Kings’ retrospective is due for release this autumn, packed with previously unreleased tracks from the label's archive.

Their next move is 2KD - a sister label with dubstep producer KDub. “We started putting dubstep out on 2Kings", Andy explains, "and people were getting confused, because we're a roots label. We're starting 2KD to prove you can have a roots-conscious thing on dubstep tunes”. The new label’s first release will be Pinch and RSD's remixes of ‘Love Like A Diamond’.

They're not just playing it safe, though. A big part of the 2KD plan is to work with Bristol’s next generation. Aware that good reggae vocals are hard to come by, they've handed theirs out to young producers like Rogue, Superisk and Widelows. If the results are as good as they expect, 2KD will release them next year.

Their priority is 2 Kings, though. “We’re not going to stop putting out roots”, says Andy Scholes, putting reggae’s long-lasting appeal down to “the message. It’s the experience of life - the reality of life”. Having seen sound system music mutate through dub, trip hop, jungle and dubstep, they’re more aware than ever of the value of the music that started it all. As Andy puts it: "We’re giving the dubstep thing a go, and we hope it will work - but this - roots reggae - we know this works.”

Prince Jamo - ‘Dance’ and ‘Lord’s Prayer’ are out now on 2 Kings Records.
‘20 Years Of 2 Kings’ is due for release this autumn.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Skjølbrot - Maersk

Skjølbrot is Daniel Bennett, sometime guitarist of the inflammatory rock band Hunting Lodge. His debut solo album Maersk is a more contemplative affair, evoking a horror far removed from the slapstick violence of Energy Czar.

The opening track, Rue Victor Masse to Gare d'Austerlitz, brings to mind a valedictory stroll through the streets of a dying city. Its mournful piano chords toll amid a gathering storm of demented church bells and melting machinery. Migrated is an exercise in pure tension, as massed bird calls ring out over ominous drones and rumbles of bass. Both pieces suggest that it's time to get out fast.

The most conventionally beautiful two minutes are provided by I Am Better Now - a sanctuary of soft, wordless vocals and meditative ambience. It's a teasing intake of breath before the jumpy, Sci-Fi terror of Shipbreaking and morbidly wasted Idle Fleet. The album's highlight is the 8-minute Ballad of Windfarming, a rousing din of Velvets-style cacophony and mutant folksong. It might be a tribute to the techno-pastoral future, or the soundtrack to a Maoist propaganda reel, or possibly both.

Such uncertainty is immediately laid waste by the segue into Emma, a sort of purification by burning. It's the catastrophe that's been hinted at throughout, and when it comes it's a relief. Here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. Return to track 1.

No doubt Skjølbrot's music will please Wire-reading aficionados of that sort of thing, but it's also humane enough for lovers of thoughtful electronica - sharing ground with Global Communication, Burial, and Ben Frost. You won't hear another record like this in 2010, but it's not an exercise in clammy-pawed experimentation. Maersk is recognisably a product of the urban environment, circa now.

Blood Red Sounds rating 9/10

Monday, 6 September 2010

Various Artists: Avon Calling 2 (Bristol Archive Records)

This raid on Heartbeat Records’ vault captures no-budget Bristol in the fertile years 1978 – 1980.

Heartbeat was the city's first proper indie label, releasing the original Avon Calling compilation in 1979. It was described by John Peel as "the compilation all others should be judged by”, (possibly the reason it's taken thirty-one years to release a sequel). Hats off to Bristol Archive Records for unearthing this loot before it was lost forever.

It's a diverse affair. Social Security's Self Confession is a minor snot classic celebrating the rock 'n' dole lifestyle. It's so debauched that it doesn't even bother to rhyme.

Sneak Preview’s offerings are out there in a truly Bristolian way. Mr Magoo meets the ghost of Andre Breton in an afterlife of freak-out organs. I Can’t Get Out confronts a predatory tranvestite before escaping into a fog of dub. Both are surprisingly catchy.

Equally fine are the two Apartment tracks - the slasher atmospherics of Broken Glass, and hurtling panic of Retrospect. Apartment share DNA with The Only Ones and early Joy Division: they're the post-punk heroes you’ve (probably) never heard of.

A smattering of generic power-pop aside, the music collected here is playful, individual and proudly uncommercial. Songs begin with tape-phase effects, and end with reverb explosions. Essential Bop’s woozily portentous Audition Room sounds like a Doors album track played at 45 RPM. Not all of it stands up today, but it's surprising how much of it does.

Avon Calling 2 is alternative history, from which the mysterious Sean Ryan emerges as the Gary Numan that never was. It comes highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the early years of the UK underground.

Blood Red Sounds rating 7/10

A shorter version of this review appeared in Venue.

For further information on Bristol's punk / indie history please visit this website. No really, do. It's a goldmine.