Nightmares on Wax 

Interview with James Cowdery on Release of Mind Elevation

14/12/2008
Summer In The City. No, not the Quincy Jones track and perennial Nightmares On Wax muse but a sweltering day in West London.

Inside the offices of Groovetech, DJ E.A.S.E. aka George Evelyn arrives to lay down two hours of online rare groove, funk and soul. After daring the mail order staff to dig out a copy of ‘Aftermath’, the Godfather of Clonk settles down to discuss new album ‘Mind Elevation’.

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The tracks on ‘Mind Elevation’ are much more reliant on vocalists. Did you find yourself working in a different way to previous albums?


“I think this is the most positive album we’ve made. Which is a reflection of the way I am. Sonically, the approach is a lot different as far as mixing it down and using more vocals. I think the reggae influence has shone through on this album, which wasn’t what I intentionally set out to do, but that’s what happened. You can put loads of things into a record but it’s finding that space, the dynamics.

I’ll just go into the studio, knock some beats together and think “I’ll bring the keyboard player in” or ‘I’ll bring the guitarist in” but I hear melodies and I’m not musically trained so I can have their fingers all over the place (mimes pained, mutant hand movements). With ‘Environment’, I said to Chyna B, I want to give you a hip hop track, so say something and she took the beat away and came back with ‘Environment’, which is all about being mixed race. Whatever the record is, it brings out something in each person.”


How did you hook up with vocalists Chyna B and LSK?

“Somebody gave me a demo tape to give to my manager. I heard it and was like ‘Fuck that - get her in touch with me’. It turned out she worked in my friend’s bar. Typical - you look all over the world for singers and one lives two miles away. It was her first time in a studio and I always say that the most important thing is to have fun. No pressure. If anyone apologises in the recording booth, I make them apologise for apologising. But she did a demo of ‘Long Days Like These’ and just mopped the floor with it.”

“With LSK, Lee’s somebody I’ve known for about 15 years. I’d been to New York, mastered the album, and had a schedule meeting with Warp. They were planning to put the album out in May, and I said I didn’t think the album was finished. Then I ran into Lee at a local talent night called Funky Mule, took him out to the car and played him the backing track to 70s 80s and he just started singing over the demo. It’s wasn’t until we finished it that track that we realised what we’ve written, something that appeals to everybody, no matter what you’re into.”


Who decides on the Nightmares remixes?

“People make suggestions but I’m only interested in people remixing my records who can bring something to it and that I’m fans of, otherwise what’s the point? I’m not into names for the sake of it. I love the dancehall approach will.i.am put on the ‘Know My Name’ remix and there’s a Scientist mix happening on ‘70s 80s’. He’s a legend to me. I’ve been studying him since I was 10 years old. And twenty years later to have him involved is mad.”


These days it seems the alternatives are School Disco or electroclash. Do you get the feeling that the days of trailblazing, pioneering singles are over. Like there’s never going to be another ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Voodoo Ray’ or even ‘Inner City Life’ in the Top 10.


“It seems to me that we’re in a period of reflection. People seem to be looking back at what they’ve grown up on. Not just ‘digging in the crates’ and sampling but looking into what they were into as kids. It’s a bit of soul-searching. I can talk to my nieces and nephews about certain tunes and they’ll have no idea what I’m on about, tunes from 10, 15 years ago and my nephew’s 25. Thing’s that you take for granted.”


It’s no surprise that musical heritage is such a focus given that the current generation grew up to such a diverse soundtrack.

“Exactly. Look at the 80s. People say the 80s were drab but musically when Iwas growing up I had jazz-funk coming into my house from my sister. I was a rude boy, so I had all the punk, ska, Oi! thing. Then in ‘82, hip hop, then electro, then the house thing happened, then acid house. And then even if you were into it or not there’s that Northern Romance/New Wave bollocks, the whole Human League synth-goth thing. (laughs) Don’t mention Goth to me, man. I’ve been told Leeds is the capital of Goth…er Gothism.”


Warp said you might turn up like Marilyn Manson.

“It’s far too warm.”


So, you’ve finally worked Quincy out of your system?

“Ha. Yeah. I’d always said that with the last album, doing an orchestrated version would be the pinnacle. I said there’s no way to top that but it occurs to me we could record it live in concert with an orchestra.”


Did you ever get any feedback from the man himself?


“No, but I did have to write a letter explaining why I wanted to use the record. When we tried to clear the sample the publisher asked for a letter. Apparently Quincy wanted to know why we wanted to use it. So I just did this long, long, long letter to him, because he’s obviously one of my mentors.”


What other plans are there to promote the album?


“We’re going to tour with a 12-piece live set up: a horn section, percussionist, drummer, keyboards, two guitarists, backing singers, lead vocalist and me - the ‘spiritual conductor’. I can’t wait. Also there’s a limited bonus beats CD with the album. Because I’ve got more vocal tracks on this album, I wanted to do something for the heads. Also because Nightmares On Wax has constantly developed, there’s people that don’t know our stuff of old. It gives people an insight into the journey. I’ve done sampled all the catalogue, and remixed bits, tracks together, played with the samples. There’s unreleased beats and instrumentals from future projects”


Previous albums, especially ‘Smoker’s Delight’, grew slowly from word-of-mouth support. What are your expectations for ‘Mind Elevation’?


“I think it’s dangerous to think like that. It’s hard because everybody’s talking about it but just to be able to release a record is something you shouldn’t take for granted. I’m ambitious, and if it does the same as the last one, that’s success in itself. Anything more than that’s a bonus.”


What else is inspiring you at present?


“Musically, I like what The Neptunes are doing and I’ve been picking up a lot of underground independent stuff on my travels. I got this thing by the Tough Guys which is a hip hop track with an a ice cream van on it. I love it. I’m really into Roots Manuva’s new Witness dub - acid hip hop, man – it’s just awesome. I’m also very into what Mark Rae’s doing and Mr Scruff.”

“Personally, I’m just trying to be at home as much as I can and spend time with my daughter who’s 10 months now. It’s hard because I’m going to be away a lot this year and I’ve been away so, yeah, just trying to get back. Also, I’ve just finished building a recording studio and I’ve used it once. I feel a bit guilty. Production wise, my aim is to work with more local people. Especially after how great it’s worked out with Chyna B. I know so many talented people. And now I’ve got a studio, why not? I just need to get home to use it!”


Last words. Any thing you’d like to set straight?


“Ha! That we were the Godfathers of Bleep. Or Clonk.”