Neil Perch, Zion Train, April 24, 2008
I spoke with Neil Perch, founder, live dub mixer, and producer for UK dub unit Zion Train at the very beginning of his tour of Japan with Japanese dub DJ 1945 aka Kuranaka (Zettai-mu). This first show was an all-night concert at Club Noon in Osaka, where Neil mixed live selections from Zion Train's latest album, Live As One, which won the Kingston Reggae Grammy for Best Dub Album of 2007. With the modest, polite grace and affability of an English gentleman, he provided some thoughtful commentary on the global Jamaican music scene, including Japan.
NM. So I understand this is your third trip to Japan. According to your website, you were here 2005, 2006...
Neil Perch (NP). Yes, it's our third trip. We have been making it here every 1-1/2 years. We came here the beginning of 2005, the ending of 2006, the beginning of 2008. Perhaps we'll be here next 2010.
NM. You travel a tremendous amount-- to Europe and Brazil fairly recently. And obviously, reggae/dub/Jamaican music is a very global phenomenon. How do you see the various scenes?
NP. Every place has its own flavor, which is really good, it's really cool. Because local culture is very important. But then it's quite interesting for me because I can see parallel people to most every place I go to. So, I know guys like Kuranaka, for example, in Rio de Janeiro, in Prague, or all the other places I go to regularly, who have the same outlook on the music, who do the same sorts of work. It's very interesting. But then, in Japan, what I find particularly interesting is, apart from the Japanese flavor to what is Jamaican music really, the Japanese people seem to study the overseas influence very, very precisely. For example, I did an interview in Japan the last time I was here, and the fellow asked me, "When and where were you born?" I've done perhaps 1,000 interviews in my life, and no one has ever asked me that.
NM. What is the answer, actually?
NP. I was born in Oxford, England, in July, 1968. So I'm 40 this year, which is nice.
For example, when you see the guys who build their own sound systems in Japan, they do it very precisely. They see the designs of the guys who have already done it in Jamaica and in England. All the small electronic devices that are used for dub music are replicated here really, really well. I carry this small machine which I call a siren. It's a very simple oscillator, like a very simple home-made synthesizer. Mine is from a guy from Nagoya. Guys make them all over the world, but the best one I've found is the guy from Nagoya.
NM: What do you think people in Japan don't get about Jamaican music?
NP: Well, it's sometimes difficult for me to guess that because of the language situation. Some of the concepts behind the music are very deep to discuss. My Japanese isn't....doesn't exist. But for example, reggae music is post-slavery music. It's a very specific cultural thing. In the modern day, it's been taken as a music for oppressed people to use as their voice. But there are some specific cultural things that are from that particular struggle, so black people from the West Indies, from Africa, then also coming to England - that doesn't really translate. I think it's one of those things you have to live through. Likewise, I couldn't go to Okinawa and expect to understand what people there went through after the war; it's a very specific cultural experience. I can only sympathize.
I think that's some of the cultural specifics; the specific politics don't translate. I don't think they translate anywhere except where there is a similar population, an ex-slave population. So it translates in Brazil, because Afro-Brazil is very big. It translates in England in particular and France, which has a big colonial history, but not really Germany. But then other elements like the cultural stuff about reggae become more strong, for example in Poland, where people were heavily suppressed by the government, the message of liberty and self-expression is very, very powerful there, more than in England or more than in Jamaica. They took this element of reggae music and made it their own because their struggle is more recent historically. It's interesting how some elements increase in some countries and decrease or don't translate in others.
NM: What about the sound of dub? Do you find it to be very different between here and Brazil and England and Jamaica?
NP: Not very different, but noticeably different. I think culturally we are all brought up with a musical sensibility. So the noises we hear around us, the music people play, just in general, get integrated into Brazil, Japan, wherever. For example, there is some riddim in Brazilian dub that is obviously from Latin American music. In Japan, what I notice is that some of the more extreme elements of the noises in dub, they use a lot more of in Japan. Like the noise in musique concrète - those elements of dub are very big in Japan. In France, instrumentalists are very big, because they have a big tradition of having highly respected players of instruments. So yeah...Similarities are the way that there always being drum and bass. And the riddim is always similar. But then with these slight differences in international flavors.
NM: Kuranaka-san was saying that Japanese rhythms can tend to be a bit too precise.
NP: They could be. But I think that's not just a question of Japan but one of the music technology that people use. So a lot of the Jamaican stuff is done by a real drummer and bass player. It's precise, but it's not precise to a digital clock. It's precise between two human beings. It moves a bit. When everything is locked to a computer, like a drum machine or a laptop, then it's deadly precise, atomic-clock precise. It's different. I think more music in Japan is electronically made, more dub music, rather than by bands playing. So maybe this is where that comes from.
I think also sometimes some of the musicians in Japan, they don't free themselves so much from the original sound. They'll hear a musical riddim from London, for example, and they'll replicate that sound almost exactly. For me, it's great to be inspired by other musicians; it's essential to be inspired. But what you must not do is copy the musicians, because that defeats the purpose of music. Music is self-expression; it's great to pay homage to another musician by copying their style. But that's to start with. After that, you need your own voice. And maybe a lot of this very specific style-copying is from some of the younger musicians.
NM: And maybe the older Japanese musicians might not do that quite so much.
NM: Is there a specific Japanese Jamaican-style musician that you particular admire?
NP: I don't know if they're still playing, but I really like a band from Tokyo called the Cultivators. They were really great, because they had 12 musicians onstage, like the original style Jamaican music was played, with three horn players, like a big band, and they're really good. But I don't know if they still perform.
What I like and I find to be particularly Japanese is this band Killa Sistah, also from Tokyo. It's three quite young Japanese women. Already that's unusual, because three women playing reggae music, alone, without men, in a band, is very unusual. It's a very male dominated thing, really, which is sad. This Killa Sistah group is particularly Japanese, I think, because they have the sort of look, the cosmetic look, of one of these Japanese pop bands. Three young girls who do play instruments. But their musical inspiration is English style dub tracks, which is really cool.
Yeah, there are very few women in reggae, really, considering that in Jamaica, there are more women than men, maybe due to migration. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, it was the Jamaican men who went to England, Canada, USA. Normally when you see families like my own, which is half Caribbean and half European, it's usually the man who is Caribbean, which is not the case in my family. But then Jamaica, like a lot of Third World places, it's a very machismo, very macho, very male-dominated society. So it must be difficult for women to even get inside the recording studio in Jamaica because there is already big competition for anyone to get inside a studio.
NM: That also happens in hip-hop.
NP: Definitely. And a lot of the culture, especially in dancehall reggae, less in our style, a lot of the culture is about big men, a bit too male, it's a real shame. I think particularly with singing, with our style of music, a woman's voice normally fits much, much better than a man's, that's my personal opinion. I view voices like musical instruments. The good thing about dub is that the focus is taken away from the singer and the words. There's less personality-based stuff and more sonic-based stuff. In the context of that, I find women's voices to have a nicer melodic quality for the sound. You have all this heavy, heavy beat bass, aggressive drums....it fills a nicer space in the frequency range. It depends on the individual, but in general, I prefer women's voices. But then, it's quite difficult for me to find female singers to work with, because they're pushed out of the reggae business.
NM: Even in England?
NP: Yes, even in England. Less than in Jamaica, but even in England, the reggae scene started through the Jamaicans, so it's not so different to begin with. Then through the mid-80s and the 90s, it became more English, which meant more culturally mixed and also more women involved. I remember the months and weeks where I'll see a sound system like Jah Shaka, say, and it'll be right in the heart of the ghetto, in an illegal venue, and 90% black men, 5% black women, and 5% different people, maybe one Pakistani, one Japanese visitor, two English guys...three months later, there were dub clubs in central London, and the student areas of London.
NM: You're talking about the 1980s, I guess?
NP: Yes, between 1988 and 1992 generally, but around 1990 you could notice from week to week, the change. Suddenly you'll go and there'll be many more people, because the places were bigger, and it would be much more like an English scene, so mainly English people, also a lot of Caribbeans, a lot of visitors because London is such an international city. And I think at that point also, more women felt more comfortable to be in the events, because it was just a more relaxed atmosphere. Once the women were at the events, they get the musical inspiration that makes them want to be part of the music. You have to hear something and experience it to actually feel so inspired that you want to do it also. I think it took this time. Now there's quite a lot of women in the English scene. But still many more men.
NM: Can you tell me a little bit about your own musical background and how you got into dub?
NP: My only sort of musical background before Zion Train was just playing musical instruments at school. I played clarinet, oboe, and bassoon, but never very proficiently nor for very long. I played each for about two years, and I played in school orchestra, which normally in England is a terrible noise. It's all these youngsters who want to play their instruments but can't quite play them. When I left school, I went to university. And when I arrived at university, I almost immediately started a sound system with some other guys at my university. At that stage, I actually started the sound system as an MC. But I wasn't a very good MC, so I didn't last very long. And then I started as a DJ again with the same sound system. That sound system was called the Train, so that's where Zion Train started. It was a sound system that played a lot of mixed styles of music, mainly dub, but also a bit of hip-hop, a bit of funk. Black music, really. When it separated and split into just a reggae and dub sound system and the other guys, we took the name Zion Train, because it was more appropriate for our sound. After doing this for about three years, myself and the guy I was running the sound system with decided that as well as just buying records and finding the music to play like this, we wanted to make some music just to play on the sound system. That was our first ambition. So that's where the studio work started, the music technology, the music production. That was probably 1990 that I started physically making dub music.
I've been very lucky though because of the projects I get involved in and the traveling I do. I get to work with lots of different musicians from different musical worlds and also from different backgrounds. So I see lots of techniques that other people use. I see many, many bands when I play music. I talk to many, many musicians. It's like an accelerated learning process. I think it's very important to know that you can always learn something from anyone in any walk of life. Especially in soemthing like music, you don't have to be speaking to an expert to learn something. Because everyone has their own perspective and every perspective has some value; even if you don't agree, it still has value.
I do a lot of talking when I travel. Whenever I can be understood, I do a lot of talking. I can be understood in most places, because although I don't speak any Japanese, I speak French, Spanish, English, German, and Italian. I live in Germany, so I have to speak German. I live in Cologne. I learned German when I moved there 6 years ago. Cologne is a really, really nice place. Berlin's cool, but Cologne is well behaved, it has a lot of cultural exchange as well. Berlin is cool, but Berlin has more squatting culture from the people from the East. But Cologne is only one million people, which I like better after having lived eight years in London.
NM: Please describe your creative process.
NP: I have two main projects, Zion Train and Abassi Allstars, where Abassi is a creation god in a part of West Africa which is currently Nigeria. For Live as One (latest album, 2007), I first thought of a sentiment I wanted to project, and what kind of sounds that allows for. I then listened to a lot of other music to see if it would fit into the concept and made it into a riddim.
I then worked with other musicians to get more texture. I called in Paolo Polcari, a funky keyboard player from Naples, Italy, showed him the concept, and recorded everything he did. Next, I called in a guitar player, where I told him more specifically what to play - e.g., play like this track from Pink Floyd here, etc. Then I worked with the brass isntruments to work out a part based on the basic rhythm which would complement the vocal, working out an uplifting introduction.
I then wrote lyrics and melody for the titles with singing. Then I choose which singers should sing the songs. I sing them a guide vocal; for the women's parts, my wife sings the guide vocal. At this point, we add the brass.
By the time the singer comes in, they feel that the track is ready, and they sing on top of the track. I then mix the track using a live mixing technique on a deck, and edit back in the computer.
NM: How is your live mixing technique different from other people's?
NP: For most studios, often most things are digitally mised and edited, which allows for a precise mix. For dub, the biggest instrument is that mixing deck; the biggest energy comes from that deck. So I prefer to improvise. I get everything ready, and improvise with the mix and effects. I do a lot of material and edit it again.
NM: Obviously things will work out differently live than in the studio. Do you often test things out live first and then go into the studio?
NP: Normally, I take the music live before going into a recording studio. Live performances are good energetic environments. My shows are always improvised.
NM: How much of a live gig is pre-recorded?
NP: I take a compressed version of a live dub mixing studio, where everything is pre-recorded. For example, tonight we have no brass or singer, so those parts are pre-recorded. I have 8 channels for instruments and 4 channels for effects in varying loops. In performance, I play with the levels and timing of these various sounds depending on the energy levels of the other performers and the audience. Each performance is going to be different. Peformers like Ravi Shankar, Sun Ra, Jimi Hendrix, and John Coltrane could channel energy from themselves and communicate to the audience through their instruments; I feel I can do that through my mixing board. Some dub mixers will say, now I want people to dance, and turn up the bass or drum track; I like to feel that the audience and I interact more organically in performance.
NM: How does the type of track you make affect how the singer responds?
NP: The singer has to be sensitive to the way the track is built and respond accordingly. It's a bit like driving - you drive one way when driving over a smooth road, another way when you are driving on a rocky one. A live singer has to improvise well. I've worked with 35 singers but have preferred about five of them.
It's a different dynamic from dancehall, where the guy with the mike has the attention and the music is happening or not happening. Anyone can DJ dancehall. But not everyone can sing well to dub.
About this time, Neil was called away for a sound check. I came back later to dance the night away.