It is hard to believe that the original Factory night at the Russell club in Manchester, and the bands that came up through it, started over 30 years ago. The reason it is so difficult to comprehend is that so much of the music from that particular corner of the globe still sounds fresh today, and their influence can still be heard in many bands.
A Certain Ratio were one of the original Factory bands, and, while their story is often overshadowed by Joy Division’s far more dramatic tale, they are responsible for some of the most innovative and forward-thinking albums of the 70s, 80s and 90s, often pioneering sounds and styles years before the rest of the world caught on. Though this attitude to their music meant that mainstream success has eluded them over the course of their career, they have influenced many bands as the years have gone on, from dance acts to, most recently, New York indie-dance bands LCD Soundsystem, the Rapture and Radio 4.
After a long hiatus in the late nineties and early noughties, the band reformed to play the odd gig in support of a recent compilation of their early songs. They re-established the sense of fun that they had lost in the previous decade, playing as a band part time for the sheer enjoyment of it. In 2006, the band started work on a new album. Called ‘Mind Made Up’, it is being released on LTM this June, after getting a limited release in 2008. The album seems to sum up the sounds of the past 30 years of Manchester music, mixing the punk funk of the late seventies, atmospheric, electronic-tinged numbers, Happy Mondays-style indie funk (which ACR were doing earlier), world music and jazz influences.
The band, which consists of Jez Kerr, Donald Johnson, Martin Moscrop, Tony Quigley, Liam Mullan and Denise Johnson, are playing several shows across the year in support of the album, but the band is not the only opportunity to hear ACR songs in a live setting. Jez Kerr has reunited with original band members Simon Topping and Peter Terrell to form Sum Ratios, who are currently playing a set of old ACR songs, with a couple of new competitions thrown in. It means that, in some form or another, all original members are playing with A Certain Ratio again.
Kerr spoke to Pennyblackmusic about the new album and his other plans for the band(s).
PB: ‘Mind Made Up’ has been promoted as both a new album and a reissue. Which is it?
JK: It’s a new album to us really, because we don’t get together that often. We did record it two years ago, but we’ve only done about 12 gigs since then, so, as far as anyone in this country’s concerned, it is new. There are quite a few songs that we haven’t played off it yet. A lot of the gigs we’ve been doing have been mainly the old stuff, mixed in with, say, four tracks on the new album. But now that it’s coming out on LTM…it is a reissue, but hardly anyone could get hold of it on the French label, so a lot of people didn’t know it was out. We’ve had a bit of press on this one, so it’s like a new release.
PB: Will the album dominate your set from now on?
JK: We’ve started to put some more into the set now. It always seems that we put out an album, and five years later, everyone seems to get into it. It’s always been that way for us. In the early days of Factory, we’d go and do an album and go out and tour it, and by the time people actually wanted to hear it, we were doing something else.
PB: The album is quite varied sounding, spanning from fairly atmospheric songs to funky, dancier tracks. Was it all recorded in one session, or was it a gradual process?
JK: It was fairly intensive, really, not over a long period. It was fairly quick as well, the recording; when we came to record it, there wasn’t that much preparation beforehand. I think Martin said in quite a few interviews; the best way to record it is when you don’t really know the tune. If you’ve toured it for like, 15 dates, it gets a bit tired. When you’ve just written a tune, it has a freshness to it; you’re not quite sure where it’s going. That’s the best time to record it, I think, because, although it will change once you’ve played it live a few times, it will develop slightly, and sometimes not in a good way. So if you capture that original vibe of the tune, it’s just the best way to do it.
PB: It’s quite a long period of time between this record and the last one.
JK: Yeah, it was on Rob (Gretton)’s records, I think. Was it ‘Change the Station’? Yeah, it was ‘Change the Station’ , which came out in 1997. We did a few things in between; we did a track with Fila Brasilia, which was called ‘Starlight’, and a couple of other tracks, but that was between albums.
PB: So after such a long period of time, what made you decide to start touring again?
JK: We didn’t really decide. We did ‘Change the Station’ and then Rob died. His label folded and we decided…not to pack it in, but to take a break for a bit. I think it was about seven years, or something. We were all working and getting on with life. But we never got rid of the gear and everything. Then we decided to get back together. There was a lot of interest in the late 70’s and 80’s stuff – not that it was the impetus to get together or anything. We just decided to do it.
We had a rehearsal together, me, Donald and Martin, and we thought “that was pretty good. Maybe we should do a gig.” That was about five years ago, and we got a few gigs, and we did some things with Soul Jazz. I think that was the biggest impetus, really, for us to get together. Soul Jazz did a compilation and stuff. We got our set together, and we played a gig at the Electrowerkz – that was the first show that we did after reforming. So we promoted that album, and it went from there.
As I say, we don’t tour, we play the odd gig. We’ve got a gig in Italy coming up, one in Marseilles, and a gig at Platt Fields. It was worth doing it again, and it’s a lot better now; sort of fresher. Up until ‘Change The Station’, we were trying to make a living out of it and failing miserably. It sort of took the fun out of it. Now we’re back together, that pressure’s not there. It’s a lot better if you’re having fun when you’re making music. It’s a lot better music.
PB: Do you think that absence of pressure has freed you up creatively?
JK: Well that’s what we did originally. When we first started out, we weren’t arsed about that either. We were just doing what we do. Also, we realised that, because we were playing some of the old tunes for the Soul Jazz compilation, we thought it was pretty good, so those new tunes, they might be new, but they’ve got that vibe that we originally had, which was simplicity, you know. Not years in the studio. We never really did that anyway. We always recorded quick, because we’d always have the tunes when we went in there. There were only ever a couple of things that we’d develop in the studio.
On this album, ‘You’re a Very Busy Man’ was done in the studio, and ‘Which is Reality’ was partially done there; we had the groove, but not much else, so we constructed that a little bit in the studio. But the others were mainly done. We hadn’t played them live or anything when we recorded them, so it’ll be interesting to put a few more into our set. We’re rehearsing before this Platt Fields gig to get them integrated into the set, It shouldn’t be too difficult; we played a couple at rehearsal the other day and they sounded good.
PB: I want to ask you about the song ‘Terry’; it lists Simon Topping and Peter Terrell as co-writers with the rest of you. Was this a brief reunion of the original A Certain Ratio line-up?
JK: Ah, there’s a story behind that one. I’ve got a cassette of my very first rehearsal with A Certain Ratio, which is in my mum’s house in my bedroom. The next night I played my first gig with them. It was me, Pete and Simon, we had one amp, a Bird amp, a big brown amp, it was. We had everything going through it – guitar, me on bass, and Simon was singing and playing noise generator. It’s got ‘All Night Party’ on [the tape], it’s got ‘The Thin Boys’, and it’s got ‘Intro/talking’, which used to open the set for the first two years I played with the band, and the very first tune I learnt with ACR. That’s ‘Terry, basically. Simon and Pete had no recollection of the tune whatsoever – I don’t know if they’ve had their minds erased or whatever – but they don’t remember it, but I always liked it. It has a really mental riff (hums the tune). On the original recording, it was our intro song; the first thing I played with ACR at every show. And we never properly recorded it, because we thought it was shit, I think.
I sort of resurrected it. I did an earlier version, which I have on one of my websites. It’s a demo version, but it’s a different version again. It’s the same tune, but it’s my first rendering of it. There were no lyrics to it, we’d just play the tune and Simon would mumble over the top of it – I had no idea what he was saying. It took me two days to decipher what he was saying, I think I’ve got it right now. As I say, he doesn’t remember it at all, and neither has Pete.
I added a chorus to it, the line “say what you mean and not what you feel”, that was from another early song called ‘Genotype/Phenotype’. It’s on ‘Graveyard and the Ballroom,’ that track. The lyric is in that song, but the melody and the chorus isn’t – I constructed the chorus using that lyric, and added some more lyrics as well. So it’s essentially a very early ACR tune, that track – it might even be the first tune. The piano and stuff was added to it and it’s developed again.
My demo’s got this guitar on it, we used to use Copycat, it’s like an echo box that used tape loops. I had one that was dying; it kept slowing down and speeding up. I played guitar through it and recorded it, then I sampled that and put it in the demo version. It’s rough, but it’s the first version I did of the ‘Intro/Talking’ track, and when I took it to the band, it changed again, with the piano, and Donald adding a different beat to it. It’s an interesting tune that. The original version may resurface at some point if the tape hasn’t oxidised. There’s another tune on there that we never recorded. That’s an interesting one as well.
PB: So they weren’t involved directly?
JK: I credited them because originally it was their tune; I just added a bass line to it. Simon originally played bass in the band. It’s a real ACR tune as well, one that we couldn’t play. That’s the good thing about it, you know; you’d never think of that riff if you could play.
PB: That’s interesting, because you are actually playing with Simon and Peter in a new band, aren’t you?
JK: Sum Ratios, yeah. We did a gig the other night; me, Pete and Simon and Vinny from Section 25. And we did ‘Terry’(laughs). It’s a new version – well, a new version in the fact that it’s got violin on it, and Pete’s on it and Simon was playing bass on it.
PB: How did Sum Ratios form, then?
JK: Basically through me. I wanted to get Pete to play a gig, because he wasn’t doing anything really, and he can’t do anything except what he does in the band, same as me (Laughs). We supported Hooky’s band at that Ian Curtis thing and originally I was trying to get a gig together that was just for us, with a lot of other young, Manchester musicians, in conjunction with the Noise festival. It was at Factory, but they got their dates mixed up, so we ended up supporting Hooky, but I just wanted to play a gig really.
We have a couple of demo songs on the Sum Ratios MySpace page, but at the moment, we really just do the old ACR stuff. We did ‘Do the Du’, ‘Crystal’, ‘All Night Party’, ‘Oceans’, we did – there’s a new version of that on the MySpace. That’s my demo version of that, but we’ve been working on it and it’s really good. We also did ‘Venus in Furs’ by the Velvet Underground, which was quite funny, because our violin player forgot to bring a proper jack lead for the pickup for his Violin, so he had to play it into the mice. It was totally chaotic. Pete got going after the third number. He had a broken left wrist, and a trapped nerve in his right. And a walking stick. We were crap, but we were great actually, much to the bemusement of the crowd. The ones who knew us were like; (ecstatically)‘Come on!’
PB: So are Sum Ratios a proper band then? Will you continue to gig? Even write new songs?
JK: I hope so. Everyone else is working at the moment except me. That’s why I’m putting it together. When Pete’s hand’s gets a bit better we’ll play more. He hasn’t lost his uniqueness on the guitar. He can’t play anything; he tunes his guitar to a chord, but if you listen to the early albums, a lot of the best sounds are coming out of his guitar. Basically he makes a noise, a drone of some kind, then changes key at some point, using a bit of delay and fuzz wah. That’s his sound, and that’s all I want him to do. He managed it a few times at the gig, but as I say, his hand needs to get a bit better.
Asking Vinny to drum was a really good move. We rehearsed without a drummer initially, because Simon was supposed to be playing loads of percussion, but he knackered his hand as well, so he ended up playing bass and singing. We have a violin player who’s quite versatile; he plays keys and guitar. But we had like three rehearsals. Somebody said in a tweet that it sounded like we’d written the tunes an hour before the gig. It was right in the spirit of ACR, that’s how we started out; crap. But also good (laughs).
PB: So, essentially, you’re playing with two versions of A Certain Ratio now.
JK: Well, the rest of the guys in A Certain Ratio work full time, which is why we can’t do many gigs. But I’ve given up work to concentrate on writing; I’m trying to make a living out of it, but it’s hard work. I don’t see why the two bands can’t complement each other. The songs are the same. Our catalogue’s not on iTunes at the moment, but I think it’s going up there when the record comes out. Hopefully it will all be available online soon, and people can seek it out.
PB: You said last time we spoke that you hated most of your old lyrics, but that you like your recent ones. What’s changed?
JK: I just practiced; worked out how to do it. It’s different to playing the bass, where you know what you’ve got to do, and you just play. It’s more of a head thing; it’s about frame of mind and what you want to say. It’s also a skill, you know, it’s choosing the right thing to say, and making sure it feels right. So you can sing it 30 times and it still sounds fresh the 30th time.
PB: You’ve also done some kind of book. Is this connected with A Certain Ratio?
JK: It’s the lyrics to ‘Mind Made Up’, and my step-daughter’s done the illustrations, so there are illustrations for about eight tunes, I think. You’ll be able to get that online. I’ve only got one copy of it at the moment, but it’s excellent, though. The sort of thing that’ll make you money, like a T-Shirt (laughs). Seriously, it is really good, the illustrations and the lyrics together. You can see some of it, actually, if you go to jezkerr.posterous.com, there’s a page up there. Hopefully it will generate some interest and some cash, though that wasn’t the impetus. My step-daughter’s pictures are really good, and I wanted somewhere where she could put her pictures, and, you know, I like the lyrics, so I decided to put them in a book. We’ll just see what happens with it.
PB: Thank you.