Published Oct 31, 2012While those jewel-encrusted major label thugs are out there chasing down the next Auto-Tune gimmick, London, UK's infamous Herbaliser take it back to where it all began. There Were Seven remembers a time when samples were dug from crates, not factory libraries, when beats went boom-bap and when MCs made their name on ability and substance, rather than mere style and controversy. This album is no frozen time capsule though. Taking four years to follow up their last studio release, Same As It Never Was, an album that pushed the Herbaliser sound into a breezier funk direction, care of the Easy Access Orchestra and singer Jessica Darling, There Were Seven is a ballsy return to the heavy, heady Herbaliser heard throughout their first five albums. =There Were Seven may not be much of an evolution, but it still feels like revolution.
There's a Canadian connection on the new album: Teenburger is on a track.
Jake Wherry: And Twin Peaks as well. The link is Ghettosocks [Darren Pyper], who's involved in Teenburger, with Timbuktu, and Twin Peaks, with Muneshine. Ollie [Teeba] was DJing in Halifax, maybe five years ago, and Ghettosocks was one of the support acts. Ollie thought he was a fantastic MC, played me his stuff. A lot of the rappers we've worked with have gone on to be really famous, but generally, when we worked with them, they were coming up. He's just a great MC: sick flow, great lyrics, all around good guy. Darren's been out to England and done a few shows with us here, and stayed with Ollie. He's actually coming out at some point in October and he's going to come out on the road with us on our tour of Europe in early December, play our big London show at the end of October and we'll probably do some writing in November. He's as good as all the others, for sure.
Definitely on his way up.
We shot a video in Halifax at the end of June for the Teenburger track, "March of the Dead Things." That video is brilliant, shot by a director called Caley MacLennan, who's on the up. We've always had a lot of love in Canada. There are a lot of people who are fans, so we were able to pull in a few favours. People worked on the video for free, so we ended up with, like, a $30,000 video, which we didn't have to pay anywhere near that much. Hopefully we'll be able to get that out before Halloween, 'cause it's kind of got this zombie theme.
Could you expand on the evolution of "March of the Dead Things"?
You know how these companies buy each other up? When this guy approached us four years ago, he was looking after a music library catalogue of Warner/Chappell. He said, "Look, I've got all this fantastic music that was recorded in the '70s; it's lying there, dormant. Would you like access to it?" He kind of gave us free rein to do what we liked with this library of music, so we sampled bits of it and composed shit on top of it. It wasn't commercially released; it was only for library music, so you can't buy it. I've got it up on our SoundCloud; it's called Nuggets 03. There was this track — I can't remember what it was called — that was the instrumental of "March of the Dead Things." It's a good instrumental, but we always knew it'd be a good rap song, so Teenburger put some lyrics on it and it's going to be our third single.
So there's no Jessica Darling on this album. What happened there?
We'd always wanted to work with a singer — for years we put feelers out. It all derived after about a year or two of being on Ninja Tune. The guy that ran it, a guy called Peter, called in all the artists and said, "We've been putting out singles that are instrumental, but our radio people have said if you're going to get a chance of getting stuff played on the radio, it has to have vocals." So people like us, DJ Vadim and various other artists started looking to collaborate with rappers and singers. We've worked with a whole array of really good rappers, but to do some stuff with a singer, we didn't just want to work with an R&B singer and do the obvious. So on our Something Wicked This Way Comes album, we found Seaming To, who's a Chinese opera singer. Her whole operatic vocal thing was quite different and unexpected. And then, I've had a lot of personal issues in the last eight years and, at various times, I haven't been able to tour. One of the guys who stood in for me was this session musician who played in a wedding covers band and Jessica was the singer. She was 22/23 years old, a white girl from North London, with a voice like some mama, sounded like Tina Turner or Etta James. When we toured North America with the Same As It Never Was album, people who met her were bowled over that she was some young white girl and not an older African-American lady. We always wanted to do it and we did those tracks. Ollie and I aren't into writing lyrics, so we let the horn players in our band get involved. It was good at the time, but we realized after a couple of years that the content of the lyrics wasn't saying much. There was no depth, nothing substantial being said, whereas our music is heavy and carries a lot of weight and emotion. We felt it was a little bit throwaway what we'd done, so we decided one album was enough. Some of the songs, like "Clap Your Hands" and "Can't Help This Feeling" — we'd done it. We didn't feel there was another album's worth of stuff to do in that direction. We wanted to do something dark and moody, so that's what we did. This new album [There Were Seven], we feel it's a return to that darker, edgier, harder Herbaliser sound.
For sure, starting with the opening track, "Return of the Seven." That sounds like a statement; it's "the return."
Being away, I lost my wife in 2004. That was devastating. She was killed in an accident and I had two young boys to bring up. It changed my life, certainly. And then just as I got over that and I remarried and had a couple more kids, I found out in 2009 that I had Hodgkin's Disease, which is a blood cancer, very treatable but still a terrible surprise, and I had to go for chemotherapy. It came back last year, so we haven't had a record out for over four years. Since leaving Ninja Tune, Canada has died for us. We were perennial jazz festival favourites, doing the Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Calgary jazz shows, but without a record company based in Montreal, like Ninja Tune was, our profile's taken a beating in Canada, and the same thing in the UK. We're still pretty popular on the continent of Europe, but with a four-and-a-half-year gap, you need to release a record every couple of years if people are going to remember you. We're still trying to claw back the profile that we had. The intro track, "Return of the Seven," there's a vibe to it that we'd kind of forgotten about, where you go through thousands and thousands of hip-hop records and pull out little words from different records and scratch them all together. It's really powerful and dynamic. We did a lot of digging and [Ollie] came up with vocals. If you listen to the intros to Very Mercenary and Blow Your Headphones, there's a similar thing. We've always liked to have intro tracks that say, "We're fucking here!"
You put a great deal of yourself on the line for There Were Seven. You're self-releasing it. How do you feel about that?
Scared; we've borrowed a lot of money from the bank. We felt that if we were going to do this, we should do this like a proper record company and pay for promotion, pluggers, radio people. There are a couple of PR companies in Europe that we've paid that we feel have just taken our money and done fuck all, in terms of promotion for us, having promised to do loads of things, and we've had a couple of blogs mentioned. We're concerned. We put the vinyl, which we are distributing ourselves via our website, up for sale last week. We're doing two editions: one limited pack and one super-limited pack, only 50 numbered copies with hand-sprayed inner sleeves, signed posters and a T-shirt, and that sold out in 48 hours, which is encouraging. We're not looking to make a profit on this, really. As long as we make back the money we've spent, then we'll continue. If people download it and we don't sell some CDs, like a lot of bands, it could herald the end. We wouldn't have done it if we didn't think we'd made a really good record. We're convinced it's a strong record that music lovers will want to own. I'm pretty outspoken about the whole downloading thing. If you're into music, it's unsustainable to think you can steal from people and expect there to be good music being made forever, 'cause there won't be.
Certainly, for me, the best way to own something is on vinyl. That's when I feel you actually own something.
Vinyl is still going from strength to strength. You have something tangible that you can put on your wall. When I was a teenager, I used to put my vinyl album sleeves on the wall, and that's saying, "This is me. This is what I like." You lost that with CDs. Things have changed so much. God, when I was growing up in the '80s, music was one of the top three things that people would spend pocket money on. Now, they buy videogames or ring tones or God knows. Music has lost that value, I think equally because of the whole MP3 quality and being poor, and people listening to it on their mobile phones just doesn't sound as good listening to it through vinyl, through a nice amp and a set of speakers. When you listen to that analog sound and the waves hit your body, there's a physical reaction. It's more scientific than I can explain, but when you're listening to digital approximations via MP3 players, you're not getting those vibrations.
You said you don't write the lyrics, but do you inform where you would like them to go?
There is a loose concept behind this album, with us as these renegades returning from the wilderness to our home that's been taken over by the Lost Boy. There was a world where everything made a beautiful sound, and the Lost Boy invented a machine where he wanted to make everything perfect. This machine went out of control. This is all implied; it's not something we're trying to touch upon too much, but I'll give you a brief outline. The world that we've returned to, the machine has taken over and has started giving everything its idea of what a perfect sound is. That's an analogy for Auto-Tune — this clear, perfect pop. We have a track called "Inside the Machine" where these renegade banditos break the machine and give the world its sound back. We're not trying to say it's a concept album, 'cause it's not. It's a tool that we use to write the tracks, give them names and make them all make sense together.