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03/10/01

Interview with producer, engineer, musician and deejay Richard Blair



From Weybridge To Bogotá:
A Conversation with Sidestepper's Richard Blair

by John Child (John_Child@descarga.com)

Since its release, Sidestepper's album More Grip (Palm Pictures PalmCD 2049-2) has divided London's Latin music aficionados. They either seem to love or loathe it. Descarga.com's London contributor John Child is a member of the former camp, as is Descarga.com boss Bruce Polin, who wrote in August 2000:

This CD came as a wonderful surprise when it recently arrived from the UK, from where this young band hails. With its fresh, modern sound, Sidestepper begins with the basic elements of salsa, infuses them with high energy vocals, a party-atmosphere coro section, highlighted by retro-organ and funky electric guitar sounds - as well as other electronic sounds - to create extended dance riffs that would fill up any club dance floor near instantaneously. Highly recommended.

On a miserable rainy evening in late September, John Child met up with the mastermind behind the ground-breaking Sidestepper: producer, engineer, musician and deejay Richard Blair, in the Notting Hill offices of Palm Pictures. During the hour they spent talking, Richard unfolded the fascinating story of his musical journey from Weybridge in south-east England to Bogotá, Colombia, where he has become a celebrated producer of rock español, modern folkloric music, and now a pioneer of the drum 'n' bass clave. Along the way he has worked with luminaries such as Peter Gabriel, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Brian Eno, Sinead O'Connor, Aterciopelados, Totó La Momposina and Carlos Vives.







John I. Child (JIC): I'm interested in your musical route from being what one of the UK national newspapers called an "Australian dentist's son from Weybridge" to making one of the most refreshing and exciting Latin-oriented releases I've heard in a while?

Richard Blair (RB): That's a hard question to answer quickly. I'm not sure I'm sure why this has happened. I'm not sure I can tell you in a sentence really. It's a complex thing. I said to my dad recently: I think he's entirely to blame. I think he started it, the fact he's lived in a different continent for the last 35 years. He's always had that sort of outlook, and he's definitely instilled it in the three of us. I've got two brothers. I've got another brother who lives in Ecuador. Who's made his life out there. That's the sort of wanderlust part, and the musical part is grooves really. I've always been into grooves more than anything. And then finally coming to Latin music after years of listening to lots of different things. It's just something that suited me. There's just so much joy and melody in that music, apart from the rhythm aspect which obviously is very fiery.

JIC: In other words, you're suggesting your dad sort of instilled a feeling of being something other, of being an outsider?

RB: Yeah, I don't know whether that's a family thing or it's just me. I've felt an outsider just about everywhere I've ever been. I've talked to other people whose parents are not from here, or one parent isn't. And it seems to be this thing that despite the fact you live here, and you pay your taxes and go to the swimming pool, the library and all the local things, there's a feeling you're not really from here and could be from anywhere. It's the complete opposite of all these people I've worked with in the world music scene over the years, who are making a triumphant celebration of their own culture and where they are from. Quite often a very specific region, 50 miles down the road, it's different.

JIC: What sort of area is Weybridge?

RB: It's the zenith of the commuter belt. It is a very white, middle class, prosperous area. Very calm. Nothing ever happens there. It's deadly. (Laughter)

JIC: How did you plot your escape then?

RB: (Laughter) I think I was plotting it from the age of 12. The first bit was away to university. And obviously in Britain we do that. The university thing was because you can and you're capable, and there's a bit of finance there to help you do it. So great, get out of the way. And then after that into music really.

JIC: Where did you go to university?

RB: At East Anglia, and did history of art there. Which was a fantastic personal thing, but I've not made anything of it professionally.

JIC: So I can place you in time, when were you born?

RB: Born in '65, and did that course between '83 and '86. Then had a few years just milling around doing jobs that paid the rent.

JIC: What was your earliest musical involvement?

RB: I had piano lessons. I always did bits of music at school. I was in the school choir when I was about nine to eleven. We used to go on tour in Europe and sing in all the cathedrals there.

JIC: Did your arm have to be twisted to do music, or was it something you had a flair for?

RB: I did have a flair for it definitely. I can remember asking my mum if I could stop piano lessons when I was about six, because I was just bored of practising. She said, "Well, no." (Laughter) I'm very grateful for that. I really loved the choir thing. It was amazing even at that age, you certainly perceive how great the music is. We used to do the oratorios by Handel and Bach, and all that stuff. The experience of singing in a choir like that, for a nine or ten year old to be pitched in a four part harmony with 30 other people is quite something. It obviously instils an awful lot of musicality in you: tuning and timing, and all the rest of it. It was a great thing.

JIC: You got involved in a band at school?

RB: Several bands. At 14/15 I read the NME (New Musical Express, a rock music newspaper) like the bible every week. I went out on a paper round to get money to go to gigs every Saturday. I was just obsessed with it. I remember going to see Dr Feelgood when I was about 14. I got this image of these dirty Chelsea boots. I was eye level to the stage. Horrible old Chelsea boots, and gaffer tape and shit everywhere, and cables. I loved it. I said, "That's what I want." So yeah, we started a few bands at school. Rubbish obviously.

JIC: In the Dr Feelgood sort of R&B revival vein?

RB: It was pretty much an R&B mod thing. It was about '79, '80, '81. It was the end of punk, and post-punk really. Bands like The Beat and the Jam. Then there was a kind of mod revival: Nine Below Zero, all of those bands. Obviously the Jam were part of that thing too. That's what we were trying to do.

JIC: How did you get involved in producing and engineering in the '80s?

RB: When I was 24, an old school mate, who'd I'd been in a band with at school, had a good friend who managed this studio where Basil Gabbidon used to work. (Gabbidon formerly played guitar with the reggae band Steel Pulse, who contributed vocals to the Fania All Stars' album Social Change '81 on Fania.) It's called Sinewave in Birmingham. They wanted to train an assistant engineer, and they couldn't pay them. But it was an opening and I just leapt at it. I gave everything up, not that I had much to give up really. Went to Birmingham, got in touch with the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, and stayed there for about a year.

It was a 24 track studio and they had done some big records there, but the place was really down on its uppers. The house band was Bass Dance, that Basil Gabbidon had after Steel Pulse. They had a lot of bangra bands, but really weeks and weeks of no work at all. So I would stay there until everyone had gone home at 11:00 at night, and go into the studio and teach myself what was what. I'd been brought in to replace this Brummie (Birmingham) guy, who was a great engineer, but had a personality problem to say the least. I asked him a week in, what one of the boxes did. He gave me a scathing look and said: "Why don't you read the fooking manual!" (Laughter) So I replied: "Well all right then." So I thought: "If I'm going to learn how to do this, I've got to stay and do it myself." That's what I did, and then they started putting me on sessions when they realised what I'd been up to.

JIC: What sort of style were Bass Dance? Reggae oriented?

RB: Very reggae, that sort of mid-'80s British sound. A bit of Aswad, a bit of Steel Pulse obviously. They did eventually put a record or two out. They were good, I liked them.

JIC: How did the move from Sinewave to Peter Gabriel's Real World come about?

RB: After about a year, I had been writing a load of letters to other studios, and getting kind of desperate. Somebody said: "Write a letter to Real World. You never know." I thought, "I'll never hear anything back." They called me up. Peter Gabriel was looking for an assistant for the record he was then starting, which was Us (1992). I went down and met him and his engineer, and all the other people there. They called me up the same day, and said: "When can you start?" I could not believe it. It was like going from carts to Formula One. The difference when I went to Real World - just the vibe and atmosphere there - was quite astonishing.

JIC: From Birmingham to Bath.

RB: From Birmingham to Bath. Yeah, another big difference.

JIC: What other projects did you work on at Real World? You were there about three years weren't you?

RB: Yes I was. Primarily as Peter Gabriel's programmer/ assistant engineer. My role with Gabriel became to do a lot of the beats. He was getting interested in using programmed beats. And also as a kind of mirror really. When he's writing, he has everything recorded on a DAT. Absolutely everything. So he can be noodling away looking for an idea for three hours, and you have to record the whole thing. So by the end of that album I had sort of 2000 two hour DATs, and every ten minutes logged as to what was going on. So he'd be looking for a vocal melody or keyboard riff, or something. And then he'd come up with something, and we'd say, "That's interesting." And we'd look at each other. After a few months of that, he didn't even need to look at me. Three weeks later he'd say, "You know we were trying that keyboard riff on this tune?" I'd say: "Yeah, I know what you mean," and out comes the DAT. And there's the magic as it were.

So that was with Peter Gabriel, but he obviously didn't work full time on that. I was lucky enough to work with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997). I did a couple of albums with him. The ones produced by Michael Brook; there's a traditional one and at least one of his first crossovers. With Geoffrey Oryema. With Totó La Momposina. And then with all the passing producers and musicians. Obviously a lot more world music stuff that I haven't mentioned. The National Dance Company of Cambodia, which was a sensational experience. Basically the surviving exponents of the pre-Pol Pot tradition. The big names producer-wise were Daniel Lanois with Peter Gabriel's record; Brian Eno, quite a few times; Karl Wallinger from World Party; Sinead O'Connor. The list goes on and on.

JIC: A very impressive cv. Was it the Totó La Momposina production that sparked off the Latin music interest?

RB: Yes, there's a key moment I can remember. There were these recording weeks they did at Real World, when they invited 150 producers and musicians along. One of the years, Totó La Momposina's group were in town. They were playing there during the recording week, and I managed to nip out of the studio I was in and go down and have a listen. I was standing in the gallery in this big wooden room, and they were doing a live concert. I'd never heard anything like it. It was just the cumbia stuff with the big hand drums and the big maracas. But it was absolutely sensational. It was a bit from the islands. It definitely had a reggae vibe to it, but something darker, deeper and heavier. That was the first interest really. Then six months later I recorded an album with them (La Candela Viva '93 on Real World by Totó La Momposina y sus Tambores). I had a fantastic time, and they invited me down to Colombia just for a few months to hang. I went for a month on holiday in 1992. Then the year later, when the Gabriel record finished. That had gone on for so long...

JIC: Was that still the album Us ?

RB: Oh yes, oh yes. (Laughter) That took about two or three years, so I wanted something completely different. I didn't particularly want to go back into the studio. So the idea was to settle up in England and go to Colombia for a few months, staying at Totó's house in Bogotá.

JIC: How did it happen that you stayed longer than planned?

RB: Well, in a sense I didn't have a great deal to come back to in England. Obviously I'd been an assistant on a big record and I'd worked at Real World. But as you know, these jobs are few and far between, and there are a lot of people with equally impressive credentials. I was having a great time in Colombia, and life had become very simple. There were no bills and no responsibility, cash or no cash. I'd really started to fall in love with the way of life there and the people, culture and the music. Totó's son and his crowd were the real salseros, and they used to take me dancing and drinking. Mostly drinking. I'd just never seen anyone party like that ever! It didn't seem to make any difference what people were taking or drinking, that wasn't the point. It was the complete abandon with which they went out dancing. Sometimes there were parties in the house which went on for three days. Eventually I backed out of the drinking part, because I'm not a big drinker.

Another revelation was this one party which had been going on for days and days, and I had managed to chip out about day two. I went back into the room I had at the back of the yard, the maid's room. I had a couple of joints, and all I could hear was basslines, because of where I was. When you first start listening to a lot of salsa, it seems like a lot of metal and a lot of clatter; very brassy and very brash. Then suddenly I realised that all of that was pinned down by this rock solid, very heavy bassline culture, and the heavy piano sounds. Then I started to listen more and more and more, and pick out the parts that appealed to me most, and what track was what.

JIC: Were you able to pick out the bands you were hearing at that stage?

RB: To some extent. Bits of it were taped off the radio. Then as I talked to more people and started to buy more music, it became quite apparent not only who but where. And a lot of it was a New York thing: Eddie Palmieri and his brother Charlie, Larry Harlow, a lot of Johnny Pacheco stuff, and particularly Ismael Rivera, which is such elegant but tough music. I saw that movie Our Latin Thing (Nuestra Cosa) (1972) about the Fania All Stars, which blew my mind. Amazing film. So piano driven, hard New York salsa really, but from a certain era. It seemed to me sound-wise, and in terms of the values people were bringing to these tunes, it was pretty much early '70s. It seemed to get a bit dubbier and a bit looser in the early '70s to my mind. '75/'76 is a bit of a cut-off.

Sonically I was really getting into it, too. There's an engineer called John Fausty, who's still around today, and he did almost all the Fania records. But the sound of his records! There's a Henry Fiol record called Fe, Esperanza y Caridad (1980 on SAR), with "Oriente" on it. Absolutely devastating. There's an English engineer friend of mine who's a big big fan, he's not into salsa, but he played that record every day for a week, just for the sound of it. And they are as heavy as any Led Zeppelin record.

JIC: Interestingly, you've listed New York bands. You haven't mentioned any local bands.

RB: There is another part to this, which is that the records I was going out and buying, and specifically tracking down, and playing cassettes to people and saying, "What's this? I want a copy of it," were pretty much the people I've mentioned. But there is another side to this, and I've only just discovered that that's what I was listening to, which is the Colombian sound, which is Fruko and Joe Arroyo. Basically those two, and The Latin Brothers as well. A tune like "Las Caleñas Son Como Las Flores" (a '70s recording available on the compilation Sobre Las Olas/ The Best of The Latin Brothers '98 on Riverboat), I had been dancing to that, and only recently have I found out what it was. The same with some Joe Arroyo tunes. There is a Joe Arroyo tune called "Mary" (originally from Musa Original '86 on Fuentes; available on compilations Grandes Exitos 1 or 30 Pegaditos de Oro), from that same sort of era. Blinding. Fruko tunes as well, obviously "El Preso" (originally from El Grande '75} on Fuentes; available on the compilation Grandes Exitos de Salsa Vol 1 also on Fuentes), everybody hears that all the time. And that was part of the sound I was into too, but for whatever reason, I just didn't pick up on it at the time. I've subsequently gone back, and thought, "Oh, that's what that was." Almost ten years later.

JIC: You were obviously hearing these people at parties and so forth. Did you get much opportunity to see live Latin music?

RB: No, none. The only thing I really saw was working with Totó's band. Obviously I'd been into this sexteto thing for quite a while, branching out from just the cumbia and the hand percussion stuff. And their version of Cuban son, which is a Colombian tradition of it's own. That was really the only live Latin thing I was seeing. The live thing was mainly the rock thing.

JIC: Which leads onto the next question about what musicians did you initially work with in Colombia?

RB: I had been there about four or five months, and the money was starting to run out. I didn't really want to go home, so I thought: "Let's try and find some work here." The first bit of work I did was mixing Aterciopelados' first record, which was a very oompah-oompah punky thing. I went to see them live, and subsequently became their engineer, and we used to travel a lot. First time I saw them, it was like shivers down the spine. The vibe that both Andrea Echeverri (singer-songwriter) and Héctor Buitrago (bassist) have is really amazing. There is a tune by them on the Palm Pictures compilation Phat Global #1 (1999). They're a very good, quirky art-rock band with fantastic lyrics who have become big stars in Colombia. They sell a lot of records and she has become a national heroine. She can't walk down the street anymore. They're using a lot more programmed beats.

And La Derecha, who are like the Happy Mondays of Bogotá - in every sense! They were quite a handful. But I'm proud of that record, it was of a time, and became quite a benchmark. Because, in the early '90s, until about '94 or 5, there was this massive boom in rock español. It wasn't just musically, there was a rock culture, and they were going absolutely mad for it. You know, MTV Latino. That means you've got to have presenters; and then you've got to have record companies; and you've got to have A&R men who are into that; and then you've got to have clubs. It was massive. But they just didn't sell the records, because it's still just a minority taste. It's a kind of middle class rebel thing still. It started as an upper class thing, and then as a middle class thing. The mass - the public, as it were - want merengue, and salsa, and techno-merengue, and Latin stuff. They're not interested. It's almost as if though it was part of a modernisation thing: "If we've got a rock industry, in all its senses, then we must be modern world citizens. Until we've got that we can't be taken seriously, because the rest of the world looks down on our frilly shirts and merengue, and sneers at it." Journalists, and the kind of mafia that deal with all that, have over-represented it. Because it was being reported by middle class people for middle class people, who went to see these bands. On a mass level, Aterciopelados are the only ones who have really done it.

JIC: Did your developing interest in the '70s salsa sound impinge on your work with Aterciopelados at all?

RB: Not at all. At the time I was working with Aterciopelados, which was '93 and '94, it hadn't occurred to me that I was going to do this Sidestepper thing. It was just an interest and a passion, that I hadn't had since I was a teenager. It fired me up, and these parties fired me up in a way that hadn't happened before. But I hadn't quite made the connection of, "Right, I'm going to do this with it." And obviously when I first got to Colombia, my calling card was, "English engineer, rock, Peter Gabriel." "Right, great. Well come and work with us then." And it was only through working with Totó La Momposina, that people thought, "Oh, he can do that too." It was a funny position to be in, because people didn't really respect her there at that time. It's hard to think of a comparison, it was like a folk singer here: all woolly jumpers and finger in your ear, and nobody wanting to know. (Laughter) Even though it might be their cultural heritage, they're more interested in Bros and U2.

The musician community really loved the fact I was working with her, because it was such rootsy music, recorded in a rootsy way with no frills. Musicians were into it on a sort of intellectual level. For the kids and the hip people, it wasn't hip in the slightest. It's subsequently become so in the last two or three years. At the time it wasn't.

JIC: Meanwhile how did the Carlos Vives production La Tierra Del Olvido (1995 on Polygram Latino) happen?

RB: I think he knew I'd worked with Totó La Momposina. He knew I had worked with these rock bands, and he knew I was in Bogotá. He'd had a massive success with the previous record Clasicos De La Provincia (1993 on Polygram/ Sonolux), which is a more middle-of-the-road production. But it sold millions, and put him into Spain and North America. He was deeply stunned by the criticism that it was a bit cheesy. And obviously vallenato has an incredibly rich folkloric tradition. So he wanted to make a more folkloric record, and be taken seriously as an artist and musician in the wider community. So he got the songwriter Ivan Benavides, who I think is one of the world's best, and a guitar player called Teto Ocampo, who both appear on More Grip, as the musical director. And then he got a really, really top class band together, and then they wanted a producer. Because I was there, and because I'm English, and because of Peter Gabriel and all that, I got the call. "He wants you." "Really." I was stone broke at the time, so it was quite a nice thing to come up. I went to meet him, and ten minutes later we were on the go, we were working. I'm very proud of what we did creatively. I think it's still gathering impact. People are still rating it as a serious record, but it obviously sold a lot less.

JIC: Working on La Tierra Del Olvido must have provided you with further insights into the Colombian recording industry.

RB: Yes. Although it's improved an awful lot, and there are some key people there who are fantastic, the business there is like the '50s. Very conservative, small "c." They really can't see the point of experimentation. Or this thing we're so used to in the UK, which is that the market and the arts should drive the thing. Over there it's the accountant who drives it. They would rather do what you did last week, because that was a hit, but they want it cheaper and quicker. The same thing happened after La Tierra Del Olvido. There was a rash of bands after that trying to do a modern folkloric thing with electric guitars, and whatever. Even though it wasn't that commercially successful, it still sold over a million, but it was not as successful as his previous records.

JIC: One newspaper article even made the connection with Gloria Estefan's Abriendo Puertas (1995 on Epic). Do you believe there was a causal effect there?

RB: It would be really flattering to think so. But then again, it's possible. Because in Colombia La Tierra Del Olvido didn't sell as well as they would have hoped, but in North America making a more rootsy and authentic record at that point in his career was received as a brave thing to do. This was Vives, not me. He was the one that wanted this. A brave thing to do because his previous record was so commercial and so poppy. We pulled it off, and at last, something proper from Colombia. It did have a bit of that Real World vibe as well, and it's possible that that filtered down. In many respects the Latin scene is so self contained, and so driven by money and conservatism, that musicians and producers often feel they can't do these things because it's commercial suicide. But I think the Buena Vista Social Club has had a similar impact. That's such a tasteful record in sound and music, everything. That has sold whatever, three million copies? And now you see, almost every week, there's a new record coming out of Cuba. And in Miami, its had an effect on the sound and the way people look at it. Hopefully, that will have some knock-on effect to the accountants office. They will realise that's it's not commercial suicide to do a more rootsy record.

JIC: And you did some work in Mexico as well?

RB: I did. A soul band: Azul Violeta. Very unusual for Mexico, because they are part of this rock español thing, the boom, EMI Mexico. Though subsequently their rock department is looking a bit sad. At the time it was part of this big boom. They like their rock hard and heavy, it's all leather and Jack Daniels, and aggression. But this band are very unusual. A fantastic, fantastic singer, a white Mexican guy. Great soul singer. I did two records with them for EMI Mexico: the first at Real World with all the money. The Mexican devaluation happened while we were at Real World, so the record company really took a bath on that record. It was a first signing. Fantastic songs. Everybody loved the band. They got me involved. Great, let's go to Real World: $100,000 budget. And it didn't sell what they needed. It sold like 30-40,000 I think, and that was not enough. So we had to do the second one in Mexico. Did it in a disused cinema, and rented some gear and put it in there. That was full of adventures, but fun.

JIC: Chronologically, would it be right to think that the Sidestepper concept was growing in your mind?

RB: There were some more ingredients coming in, but no. I think the time it really came to fruition was with Azul Violeta's second record. And they were almost splitting up as a band. It wasn't the same magic between us all that we'd had first time round. For whatever reason, we were all going through things. I started to realise that I was trying to make my record using someone else's band. Not a good idea for a producer.

JIC: Yes, that sometimes happens, doesn't it?

RB: I think it's all producers ever do. They do whatever they like, don't they? I think some are better at adapting their tastes to what they're working on. But I'm not one of those people. So that's why the the first record with them was so fantastic, because we all coincided. What I was after is what they were after, and you become like the fifth member of the band then.

JIC: What year was that?

RB: The first one was at the end of '94, and the second one was at the beginning of '96 I think.

JIC: How clear were you in your mind that it was basically your concept that you were trying to impose on their second album, and how did that link into developing the Sidestepper idea?

RB: I was pretty convinced of what I was doing. There was a lot of programming on that record, and I did it all. And I was starting to put in samples and production stuff. But particularly in shaping the music. On the down side I realised I didn't have the patience, or the tolerance, to let people do what they wanted, and help them do it, if it wasn't up my alley. I started to kick the keyboard player out and play his parts. I still think I was better than him. (Laughter)

JIC: So from what you've been saying so far, certainly about your beginnings: "Programming is you." That's your forte.

RB: Yeah. There are better programmers than me, more inventive. But I'm good with grooves. What I am good at is capturing a flavour or a vibe. It's between programming, engineering and production, so that when you work in studios a lot, you become so attuned to how much sound is emotional. And it's more emotional than the notes you play. It certainly affects, in a direct way, the notes you do play. If you come up with an amazing big fat sound, you're not going to play chords with it, and you're probably not going to play it more than one note a bar. Just because there's no room for it. So for a trained keyboard player, giving it the full two hands, all you need is one finger every now and again. It's a stylist if you like. Somebody who just can get vibes, because as a programmer you can create the thing from the ground up. I think that is probably what I do better than anything else: represent atmospheres and vibes.

JIC: So back to the genesis of Sidestepper - and no Peter Gabriel pun there!

RB: Yeah. During this time I had been coming back to London every six months for two or three weeks, for a little holiday. And trying to keep my ear in as to what was going on here. In '94 I went to that drum 'n' bass club Metalheadz at The Blue Note (in Hoxton Square, north London; the same site as the defunct Bass Clef, a significant Latin venue of the 1980s), and it just blew my head off. The music was one thing, but the vibe there was just sensational. There was a real excitement there, and a real feeling of, "Wow, there's something going on here," which I hadn't felt since being a teenager. Musically, incredibly liberating, because I've never really got on with house music. And generationally, I'd kind of missed out on the beginnings of acid house, just because I wasn't a teenager then. I was 23, 24 when that was happening, and in a studio or whatever, and I hadn't quite connected with that. I was obviously aware it was going on, but I didn't get into that ecstasy thing and the four-on-the-floor thing. So hearing music that wasn't that, was so liberating. It was almost like jazz, but with a huge fat bass on it. Very powerful stuff.

When I'd gone back to Colombia in '94, there was no work, no prospects, no ticket home, and then I got the Vives record. I thought, "I can't get back from here with nothing. I've got to come back with something just to show people what I've been doing out there." After the Vives record I had a bit of money in my pocket, and decided to go back to England and buy a sampler and a very basic computer, and get on with it. And see whether these two things could be brought together: the heaviness of the drum 'n' bass thing and the essence of the salsa I'd been getting into in Colombia. Because the late '80s and '90s version of salsa was a pretty paltry imitation.

So I got into the lab almost, and started working things out with the clave and drum 'n' bass beats. That's where the real spark happened. Because I realised that musically the clave and a basic drum 'n' bass beat, when you change a couple of notes, you're not exactly playing the clave, but you're playing around it. And it can be adapted with a bit of surgery to achieve a frantic drum 'n' bass clave. It also works very well with the double time thing. In the same way that drum 'n' bass was taking reggae and doing a double time on it. I realised the same thing could be done with salsa. That's how the first tune "Maine" from Southern Star (1997 on Deep South) came about. Now it seems like the demo: a very sketchy version with a tumbao, a beat and a bassline. "Logozo" (1998 on Apartment 22) was the same thing.

I did the backing track for "Logozo" and took it to Colombia, and tentatively showed it to a few people: "What do you think of this? Do you think we can do something with this?" One of the people I showed it to was Ivan Benavides, who wrote the tunes for Carlos Vives. He was bang into it from the start, and we recorded a few vocals very cheaply. Came back to the UK and put it out.

JIC: I'm aware that Deep South is Gerry Lyseight's label. He must have played a role in this. (Gerry Lyseight: "world music" deejay, co-founder of south London's influential Mambo Inn club 1987-1996, album compiler and presenter of BBC London Live radio's Planet Mambo show since 1996.)

RB: Very much so, and an unexpected role. Because I used to go into Mr Bongo (London's premier specialist Latin record store, which also has a specialist drum 'n' bass and hip-hop section on the floor below) just to check him for Latin tunes when I was still educating myself. And he was a good guide. He used to say, "If you like this, you'll probably like this." And we just became friends, and he knew I was travelling back and forth to Colombia. I turned up one day with a cassette of Southern Star , and I knew he was a deejay, and I said, "Just listen to this." I didn't know he had a label. I just wanted to get an opinion. He called me up two weeks later and said, "I want to put it out."

JIC: Good job you didn't come into the shop on Saturday, because I used to be the Saturday boy.

RB: Really. (Laughter)

JIC: It occurred to me as you were talking that it's almost as if you're fused the first floor and ground floor of Bongo in what you've done with Sidestepper. Because the drum 'n' bass they played downstairs was often impinging on the Latin section upstairs.

RB: Yeah. They'd got bigger speakers downstairs. (Laughter)

JIC: Tell me about the Apartment 22 label.

RB: It's a small label run by Andy Morgan. His idea is a complete co-incidence with what I was trying to do - and a few other people as well obviously - which is to make dance floor music that has a direct relation with a country that's not the UK. Instead of just putting a Latin lick on top of a four-on-the-floor house tune. "Oh yeah great: Latin house." But to actually do a fundamental root-up restructuring of this music to make a kind of electronic salsa, or whatever.

JIC: Maybe it's an inappropriate parallel, but around that time, things were happening out of New York like DLG. Any views on that?

RB: I still haven't heard a whole album of theirs, and I know they've done various CDs. I heard a couple of tunes, and I saw a video or two, and I liked it. But I felt it was a bit more salsa and a bit more Latin mainstream than I wanted to do at the time of "Maine" and "Logozo." And they had a little bit - with this one tune in particular that I'm thinking of - done this thing of squaring off the grooves and making them a bit more more western, and a bit less salsa. Just taking the mean average, and ending up a bit more western. But it's good stuff, and it's well done.

JIC: And it obviously hasn't got the programming element that's essential to your work.

RB: No. Not just the drums and drum sounds, but harmony. There's precious little piano playing anywhere, or guitar playing, or anything, that hasn't had something done to it. That electronic side to the harmony is important to me.

JIC: Have you heard the late Big Pun's tune "100%," which has been popular?

RB: No.

JIC: It's been getting play on London black stations like Choice FM. He was an Hispanic rapper. Great enormous guy. He sampled a Lalo Schifrin tune for this "100%." It probably wouldn't have happened if DLG or Proyecto Uno hadn't happened.

You've already sneaked up on the next question really, which is why the link between salsa and drum 'n' bass in particular? You were telling me earlier about the revelation of going to this club night Metalheadz at The Blue Note.

RB: Yeah, that and others. That side of it is the logical progression of the beats thing. When I started in studios in '89, samplers were just beginning to happen, and Midi was just beginning to happen. Obviously we had a rash of, "Wow this is a drum machine, this is a sampler. This is a whatever." Then obviously being in Bath, there was the nearby Bristol thing. And I worked with Smith and Mighty, and Massive Attack, and that whole Bristol sound and the trip-hop thing that was just getting started. Leftfield beats really, anything that isn't house music. I've always been into that.

JIC: How did the deal to record More Grip for Palm Pictures happen?

RB: They knew of Sidestepper through Gerry Lyseight, and Jumbo Vanrennen had been watching for a while. He'd seen "Logozo." I showed Jumbo the demo, and they offered me a deal.

JIC: I was wondering why you didn't incorporate more elements in More Grip ; drum 'n' bass seems to be the main emphasis.

RB: Pretty much so. Although in More Grip , it's almost now for a musicologist to define it. Because with a tune like "Logozo" there's no doubt it's drum 'n' bass. But with a tune like "Andando," the first track on More Grip , there's a drum 'n' bass beat that's been tailored to do a Latin thing. It's there, but it's a subtle thing now. It's that I've taken the patterns and welded them into a Latin thing. Yeah, pretty much drum 'n' bass, but that whole beaty culture I'm talking about. The last tune on the record "Tremendo Vacilon", for example, sounds like Bristol to me. There's a bit of reggae in there. The fifth tune "Linda Manigua" has got a very reggae type of feel to it.

JIC: I asked a friend who is steeped in the UK black music scene to comment on More Grip , and she said "Linda Manigua" has a dub/roots feel. So she's spot-on.

RB: Yeah, that's exactly what it is.

JIC: Why in Spanish and not English?

RB: Partly because with the lyrics we were doing the same thing as we were doing musically. Just doing a retake on salsa lyrics. And if you check them all, they're only about three things really: food, sex and partying, and various double entendres in between. And More Grip is the same. If you try to sing them in English they sound ridiculous. And it's a sonority thing. There's something about salsa that just works great with Spanish. We tried a few in English, and they just sounded ridiculous.

JIC: Tell me about some of the other cuts on More Grip? For example, you went for a charanga feel on "Me Muero."

RB: Well, that one was because when I got close to having ten demos for the album, I started thinking, "What rhythms do I want on this record?" Because that's almost the Latin way to look at it. And because of the people I invited to be on it, and because it took me so long to do the record. The first two, Southern Star and "Logozo," were almost demos for More Grip . It's almost a compilation of my seven to eight years of going to Colombia: emotionally, partying, everything. There are ten tunes on there that kind of represent a night out in Bogotá. Seven years of partying condensed into a tune, a record. You'd hear a couple of mambos, you'd hear several montunos, and you'd probably hear a charanga. I'd heard lots of charanga tunes, and I'd been into Aragón a long time, the heavier montuno side of it. And it was possible, and we were in Bogotá, and there are some great players. So that was how that one came about.

"Me Muero" was the one I wanted Henry Fiol to sing on. The guy who did the vocals is Ronal Infante (César Ronald Infante Vaillant) from Asere (their CD Cuban Soul '00 on Circular Moves was highly recommended by Bruce Polin in April 2000), who's now living in London. He is a great friend since we did that recording together. But first I wanted Henry Fiol, just because he's Henry Fiol. So I sent him the finished backing track, with choruses and the flute, and everything. He liked it, but felt that he would have wanted to make certain changes, because we are playing with the structure of salsa very much. We don't follow the classic structure. He felt that there was no motivo at the start where it's very melodic, where they kinda set the scene, and then they're off. He would have liked to have done that, and so on, and so on. So in the end, we decided it would be better to go to him before we had written the track, and do something with him from the very beginning. But we had several lovely chats.

JIC: It's a shame. I can imagine him being very principled.

RB: I'd call it integrity, because he didn't want to do something that was just for him to sing a few phrases, just for it being gratuitous. I respected that. And after telling me that he didn't want this, and he didn't want this, and he wanted to do that with it, he called me back ten minutes later saying, "Look I'm really sorry, I shouldn't have said all those things, it's your record. You've done it this way."

JIC: It's a shame. The guy needs a bit more exposure.

RB: Well, maybe we'll do something with him next time round. Who knows?

JIC: Tell me about some more of the tracks on More Grip? I'm not bullshitting you when I say that I've played the CD to death since I got it.

RB: Have you?

JIC: It's one of the best things I've heard in a while. Certainly one of the high points of the year for me so far. When it arrived, I thought, "What's this?" I put it on, and I wasn't sure at first. But it very quickly struck a chord with me. I'm very impressed with it. And you probably know that Bruce Polin, who runs Descarga, is very impressed with it as well.

RB: Thanks.

JIC: The track on first listening that really hits you is "Hoy Tenemos."

RB: Yeah. Though that was one of my least favourites for a long time. But that has hit home everywhere. In Bogotá that's the one they're playing on the radio. It seems to be the one everyone has picked up on. I just wanted to do a modern boogaloo. Again it's a rhythm thing, like, "We haven't done a boogaloo yet." I particularly like the lyrics on that one. There was a headline in a newspaper Ivan was reading that said, "Hoy Tenemos, Mañana No Sabemos." "Today We've Got, Tomorrow Who Knows?," that's the vibe. The flute playing on that tune was just sensational.

JIC: "Bacalao Sala'o" has a reggae and drum 'n' bass feel.

RB: It does. There's a very drum 'n' bass bassline. To me, that tune sounds like Bristol goes Latin. It's of that ilk: beats around 80 or 90. Sightly dubby, slightly reggae.

JIC: "Tremendo Vacilon" has a jazzy feel.

RB: Yeah, it does have that. I wanted one down chill-out tune at the very least. The idea was slightly tongue-in-cheek. It's a kinda rap thing, but it's also a Latin thing, just to talk about, "How did Sidestepper come together? How did this band come together." So Ivan's spoken bit on that says: "I was there watching TV one Sunday afternoon; nothing going on; Richard came over; let's get our thing together." And the chorus goes: "Tremendo Vacilon." which is like a tremendous vibe. So the tongue-in-cheek bit, because it should be a very pumping up tune, is it's kind of melancholic and very down.

JIC: I think "Andando" is a great opener. Anything you want to say about that?

RB: Horns. I just wanted a big horn arrangement. This is one of the big things I wanted to bring back to the UK, instead of what I was bringing to Colombia or salsa. I wanted to bring some music back to England. The scene in the last few years got so minimal, so that there's no music left in dance music. There's just a beat. When you've seen how music can lift and guide a crowd. And also, as a deejay I've seen it when there's lots of disparate elements in a room - an incredibly disparate vibe. And then by just playing the right tunes, suddenly everyone becomes a group, becomes one. And it's music that's doing it.

JIC: You've probably heard of the soca artist David Rudder.

RB: Yeah.

JIC: He talks about the young generation having lost melody, and only being about rhythm. You seem to be saying something similar?

RB: And I'm becoming more and more convinced of that. Yeah, we do know all about rhythm. And in Britain, there's this whole kind of smokers soundtrack, wallpaper, that's a beat and a sample. People are almost afraid of melody because they think it's going to be cheesy, or something that isn't quite right. But then take a band like Oasis: melody. They sold records, not because they are a garage band, but because they have got great melodies. I do think we've lost it a little bit.

JIC: After that digression, back to "Andando."

RB: "Andando": horn melodies, and obviously the vocal melodies there are important too. There's just something very inspiring about a horn section in full swing, and it lifts a dance floor like nothing else.

JIC: As I say the titles on More Grip, the melodies just pop into my head. Like the next track "La Bara."

RB: Yeah, that's our anthem for weed smokers. That's about all it says: "Que buena la bara." "How great the weed is." That's why that tune sounds a bit rough and dirty.

JIC: What market are you aiming at?

RB: Interesting. We'll wait and see in a way. Because of "Logozo," we were in a very Leftfield, UK, experimental dance music type of vibe. And that's got its market in France, Japan, and all over really. But with More Grip , almost without realising what I'd done until six months later, it's a much more accessible thing, and it's not in that little ghetto anymore. If you go into HMV in Oxford Street you'll find it in the Latin section now, and not in the breakbeat and Leftfield section, where it was before. At first I was mildly upset by that, but then I'm not at all anymore, because it's reaching people it wouldn't have reached otherwise. In Colombia, for example, it's being taken as a mainstream salsa record, and they're playing it on the salsa stations. In Britain and Europe it seems to be getting to people who are just into music. And because its got a bass and beaty thing going on, people are responding to it that wouldn't go near a Latin band with a barge pole. There's something about it that makes it more accessible to those people. It seems to be quite a crossover thing, but it's a hard thing to sell because we are in a place that doesn't exist yet. It's too progressive for some Latin people. Although it has been well received in Colombia, it remains to be seen how the Latin people in the States will receive it, but it seems to be going well so far. It's not a mainstream Latin thing, it's not a mainstream dance thing, what is it? It's somewhere in the middle. I hope we'll be getting the best of all these markets.

JIC: So do I. Tell me about the players on More Grip?

RB: Roberto Cuao, the timbale player (he plays güiro on Nuestro Tiempo '99 on Caïmán by Alquimia La Sonora del XXI), Luis Pacheco (conga/ campana) and the trumpet player Copetin (Hugo Fernández, who sessions on En Blanco '98 on Fuentes by Gabino Pampini and Grupo Galé's Con El Mismo Swing '00 on Codiscos), are big time session players in Colombia. Roberto Cuao, for example, plays on everything. He's done 12 records in Colombia since he went back in July. Pacheco is less in demand these days, but for a time in the '90s he was the conga player on many records that came out of Colombia.

JIC: With bands such as?

RB: Well there I don't know. I can't tell you names of who they played with. Mick Ball is the English guy, who plays his trumpet through a Marshall, and he gives it that real English spark. He's been with Sidestepper almost from the beginning. It's a great vibe to have him there. Really fantastic. Pantera (trombonist Gustavo García) is an absolute legend. He's nearly 50 now. He played with the original Fruko band in the '70s. There's pictures of him on the album covers with a huge afro. (Albums Pantera's name appears on include El Campeón '82 by Joe Arroyo and Contento '87 by Fruko y sus Tesos, both on Fuentes.)

JIC: I've got those albums.

RB: Tico Arnedo is probably the best flute player in Colombia (his recordings include Made In Colombia '85 on Mercurio by Alfredo de la Fé and Furor Bailable '86 on Fuentes by Los Titanes). As an improviser, he's got an amazing feel for structure, like on the tune "Me Muero." It's just one take you hear on that track. It's just perfect. The guitar player, Teto Ocampo, played with Carlos Vives for a long time. He plays with Ivan's band Bloque as well. I don't know a lot about the string players, except that Joaquin Pelaez is a Cuban guy who played with some famous charanga in Europe for a long time.

The singers: Ivan, we've spoken about. His band Bloque is signed to David Byrne's Luaka Bop label. Dario Castro is a singer from Totó's band. Janio Coronado is a big salsa guy who sings in this band called Alquimia (for example, Leyenda '96 and Leyenda II '97 on Vedisco, Nuestro Tiempo '99 on Caïmán and Fiebre Santanera '00 on Balboa by Alquimia La Sonora del XXI), who are quite a big noise. Juan de Luque is an old salsero. I'm not quite sure what he does these days. Johanna Marín is younger generation. She sang choruses on Bloque's record, and had a few records out of her own. But very underground low key stuff. Paola Rojas is a session singer. Andrea Echeverri, who sang the other vocal with Johanna on "Linda Manigua." She's the lead singer of Aterciopelados. We go way back. She's a big star. In South America they've made a big deal over the fact that she's on this record, because it's not a rock thing, and it's a Latin thing. Very naive some of it, "Ah, our rock singer is appearing on a salsa record. Maybe this means her horizons are opening?" And all this sort of bullshit.

JIC: Tell me about Sidestepper the live band we saw in the UK in June and July? I saw the Jazz Café (July 6th) and Salsa 2000 (July 16th) performances, and I was very impressed. Were there people from the album in the band?

RB: Yes, there were four people who played on the record. Johanna, who is the smaller of the two girl singers with dark hair. Janio, who was the lead singer, who was playing congas for a lot of the time, but came out a little bit. Roberto Cuao was playing timbales. Mick was playing the trumpet.

JIC: From what you've already told me about programming, it's now abundantly clear to me why this is a key part of your live performances. You're obviously not about substituting live performers for these elements.

RB: It's a sound thing, and a tightness thing. We are so used to hearing beats that are that tight. There's probably only James Brown that you could put on a dance floor, that's played, and people respond to it because it sounds like a machine. Other funk stuff from the '70s, and anything that's played, just doesn't sound groovy enough to most people.

JIC: There was a wonderful moment at the Jazz Café gig, and I'm not sure if you did it at Salsa 2000 as well, and I can't remember which tune it was, when it just broke into this extended minimalist drum 'n' bass type beat.

RB: I think that was in "Logozo." There's going to be more of that. The show you saw was very much: learn the tunes, showcase the album, bing-bang, and play it as the album. This tour we're going on, and when we play the Borderline in London on October 23rd, it's going to be a lot looser, and there'll be a lot more of that.

JIC: Tell me about this forthcoming tour?

RB: We're going to Colombia tomorrow to play there two times. Then Brussels, then London, and then about ten dates in Europe: Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France and Spain.

JIC: I understand "Linda Manigua" is being remixed?

RB: It's been remixed by Smith and Mighty, and by Groucho. And I did one as well, and that's the next single.

JIC: Are there going to be more remixes to come?

RB: Who knows. I guess it depends on whether these things sell or not. There are other cuts that could come off the album. But I think generally if you put two singles out and not a lot happens, that's about it really. We are not a singles band as such, and we're not a chart band, so I think at the moment it's a great promotional thing. And the remixes obviously help. Although it's all relative. Because I took the remix of "Hoy Tenemos" down to Colombia, all proud of it. There's one that's been working in the UK, which the Boys From Brazil did, and no one would touch it with a barge pole because it was too weird and too European. But they love the original.

JIC: What's the way ahead for Sidestepper post More Grip ?

RB: Well, Ivan and I have started writing the next album. I'm pretty clear in my mind how I want it to be, but it will basically take shape over the next year, just to get into a slightly more archaic form. So if you take Totó's music for example, call and response music, from wherever in the world. It's like the basic recipe for everything. Next time I want to get even more into this area of a groove, and vocals. There's no words, there's no chorus, there's just a very cyclical, archaic structure. Very minimal backing tracks, so that the voices almost do the whole harmony. The voice and the bassline. And more than that: wait and see I think.

JIC: Well, I think that just about covers it, unless there's anything else you want to bring up?

RB: I don't think so. All the themes have come up. Incredibly thorough John, I have to say. Very, very good.

JIC: Thanks very much, it's been a pleasure.



Many thanks to Angela Phillips for her insightful help.





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