Greg Wilson Interview
WRITTEN BY JOSH RAY – SEPTEMBER 2014
Every once and a while, two minds come together and counterbalance each other so perfectly that they emanate a genius neither could have conjured up alone. When Greg Wilson first met Kermit Leveridge over three decades ago he immediately saw the potential for such a relationship.
After joining forces with a host of like-minded innovators in the 1980s and early 90s, cementing the foundations of the UK’s burgeoning electro and hip hop scenes, the pair are working together again – this time with Bristol born bass producer EVM-128, the soulful London based songstress BB. James, Seacombe’s vocal force of nature The Reynolds and Leeds keyboardist Rev Chunky – in Kermit’s new project BLIND ARCADE.
Having established the multi-media SUPER WEIRD SUBSTANCE label around Blind Arcade, Greg Wilson set about blending together a coherent mixtape out of the fresh, raw sound of Kermit’s return, which then spread organically over the summer, paving the way for an autumn tour.
Ahead of the twelve hour “Super Weird Happening” at CONSTELLATIONS // THE OBSERVATORY on 18th October, we ventured into the morphogenetic field with Greg Wilson to get to the bottom of Super Weird Substance…
DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME YOU MET KERMIT?
I was a DJ at a club in Manchester called Legend, it was a specialist black music night on Wednesdays, it was quite a famous night of its era and he was one of the kids that used to come there. He was a jazz-fusion dancer in those days. He was instrumental in the foundation of Broken Glass, who were an early break-dancing crew – now legendary. So in b-boy circles if you ask anybody now about the classic crews, their name would come up. He was there at the very onset of hip-hop and he was a face on the scene even then, he was a known person even as a teenager.
Then I did an album called UK Electro in collaboration with a couple of Manchester musicians (Martin Jackson, formerly of Magazine, and Andy Connell, then in A Certain Ratio) – this is in 1984 and was credited to a variety of artists, although, with the exception of one track, we did it all. There was a track on there by Broken Glass called Style of the Street. That was the first recording Kermit ever did, so that goes right back. Then a few years later down the line he formed the Ruthless Rap Assassins with two other lads and I ended up producing and managing them and they did 2 albums on EMI one in 1990 and one in 91. That was a great period – they got huge acclaim especially their first album, which was called Killer Album. That was right across the spectrum of the music press with massive acclaim but it never translated to radio, we never got the radio plays we needed so we never got the sales we needed so they’ve always remained like a kind of major cult band.
After the Rap Assassins ended – Kermit at that point had become a heroin addict – that’s when he got really friendly with Shaun Ryder who was coming out at the end of the Happy Mondays and the two of them formed Black Grape. It was basically two junkies sat on a couch writing eyeball to eyeball but they managed to come out with this magic – the first album they did got to number one with a run of hits so he tasted that stardom for a period of time.
It was during that that he poisoned his blood system injecting with a dirty needle and contracted septicaemia and was basically at death’s door for a period. He came through that but with health problems that were going to mount and he knew that this infection had basically connected to different organs and had been ripping the way off and it pulled a heart valve with it.
So he had that hanging over his head – that he had to have this serious heart operation but he couldn’t have it immediately, he had to be in the right place health-wise or he had to look after himself and take time to get off the gear. And that took him a long time, I think he retreated to Monmouth for seven or eight years. He eventually had this operation, it was successful and I think it gave him this new lease of life, it just reinvigorated him and he just threw himself into song writing also doing poetry.
I’ve always been in touch with him – we’ve always been friends – he approached me about twelve months ago about Blind Arcade and getting involved on a production level. And I was like, I can’t really I’m just too busy with the deejaying but when I heard the music it was everything I want to do, it’s what I’m about. I want to work with really great, uplifting, invigorating music that’s both accessible but also edgy. So I wouldn’t be true to myself if I said no I’ll leave that.
It’s come with such a positive statement, it’s almost like one of those classical somewhat mythological tales of redemption, it’s something that crops up throughout history but it always needs to be put in a contemporary context. And his story is that, he’s come back from the brink, but not come back with any negativity or anger but just with beautiful positivity, it’s such a life affirming statement.
Underneath it, when you start to pull the layers off, it has a real depth; he talks about these life issues of faith, redemption, family, these kind of things, they’re all within there. Apart from anything else, it’s an important tale to be told. I think the real trick of it and what makes it special, is that it’s being told in such an uplifting form, it’s not something that you have to get into a deeper, darker place to consume. In fact, the way it should first be listened to is just for fun, to enjoy because it’s such a colourful thing but once you start getting into it you start to reveal those layers and you see the central themes that are working through it.
DO YOU THINK HE NEEDED TO RELEASE THE POEM, BECAUSE IT WAS QUITE HEAVY AND DARK IN ITSELF, AS A KIND OF CATHARSIS TO THEN MOVE ON?
The idea of doing a poem as a 7” single was stupid really, it was like commercial suicide, it was like throwing money away on one level, but we didn’t do it for that reason, we did it more for the reason that you said. It was a symbolic thing to draw a line behind the past, the poem is about his heroin addiction, it’s read by Howard Marks who obviously is a major countercultural figure and a friend of Kermit’s and with that kind of deep Welsh voice gives it the gravitas.
DID YOU FORM SUPER WEIRD SUBSTANCE AROUND BLIND ARCADE OR HAD YOU ALREADY ENVISIONED A LABEL?
I’d been tinkering with the idea of coming back into production for a few years – cause that’s what I did when I wasn’t deejaying – I was always involved in making music but I hadn’t really – since the mid-90s when it had gone all kind of pear shaped – I’d come further away from production and then eventually I started deejaying again and doing re-edits and remixes but not finding my way back; not finding the time. It was a time thing more than anything. It was almost like this unfinished business in that direction cause in the mid-90s when I came away from it; after the Rap Assassins had split up I had another act signed to Polydor that had fallen down as well and it had got to a bleak period where I really felt like I’d lost my muse. I’d just lost my feeling for music, the music business had ground me down; I felt like a punch drunk boxer – it can be a hard industry – it’s really cut throat. You hope you’re in there for the right reasons – it’s about the music – but you realise it’s not it’s about the business.
So you know, that’s where I was when I came out of it. I’m at a different place in my life; I have the security of my deejay work so I can take a few chances. It just felt like the right time. I was gearing towards that, I was doing a few things. I started a project called Schooled in the Classics where I was starting to produce again but it was still tentative. But once Blind Arcade came into view, it was like okay, now we’ve got to get serious with this, we’ve got to build a structure around it that can maintain it and provide its foundations and nourish it and everything.
That’s where the idea of Super Weird Substance came from. It’s working on two levels primarily – because again the music business is so different from the one that I used to be involved in – that nowadays, your source of income really – certainly at the initial stages, unless you get really big – is live performances. Whereas back then, a record company would pay to get you on a tour to sell the records so the tour was helping the record. Now it’s the opposite, the records help the tour, the record’s the calling card to bring people in through the doors when you’re doing gigs and that’s where you sustain yourself in the initial phase.
WE’VE NOTICED THE NAME ALAN MOORE POPPING UP A FEW TIMES AROUND THIS PROJECT.
There’s a big connection there – Kermit was a huge comic books fan – going back to the Rap Assassins days – there’d always be comics in the studio and often he’d be passing me something to have a look at. Right back then, he had the original comics of Watchmen as it was coming out, one at a time. He was always trying to get me to read the comics – I wasn’t really a comics person I was a book reading person so I might have a little look and stuff – but Watchmen made an impression on me because I remember on the opening frame; it was a smiley face badge and as you pulled back with the blood on it and you come back and eventually you see and I loved the way that they did that but I never went further within that but I knew it was special.
This is where the name Super Weird Substance comes from. He did an interview about ten years ago where he was talking about this theory of information doubling. That information was increasing at such a rate that if you look at history you’d say in the first 15000 years of civilisation there was X amount of information – they can work that out by the inventions during that time – then for that to double itself it took maybe another 1000 years and then to double again it took 300 and then it goes down.
So between the sixties and the seventies information doubled within those two decades and he was saying in this documentary, which as I say was done in about 2003, that by 2015, which is only next year information will be doubling every thousandth of a second! The term Super Weird Substance is a quantum physics term – Super Weird Substance is information. So that’s where it comes from and it just fit perfectly with the identity of what I wanted to put across. That had a bit of a sixties vibe about it that referenced back to then but at the same time is about the future. I’m very much about having a foot in the past and a foot in the future trying to balance those.
Once I’d seen the start of the Watchmen film, then I went for the comic and then I just became obsessive about Alan Moore and I’ve read a lot of his work at this point in time. So that kind of enthuses a lot of what we’re doing and also gives me the same language as Kermit – he’s speaking a comic book language because it’s second nature he’s grown up with that and it gives me that in. When I’d just nearly done the mixtape, I was just listening through it only a couple of weeks ago and I remembered a conversation I had with Kermit right at the end of the Rap Assassins – it might have even been the last session they ever did in the studio before they broke up. It was a bleak time, Manchester was no longer Madchester it was Gunchester. Times were getting harder, people were getting a bit more scowly on their faces. It was the time when everyone was saying “it’s lovely going out in Liverpool it’s dead safe, Manchester… You’ve got to be careful.” It was like a complete flip opposite from that kind of 1990-91 period; the way it all changed. He was also sinking into a heroin addiction. I knew that but he wasn’t admitting it. So it was a bit of an unreal situation.
But in this moment there was a real clarity and we were talking about the future and we were talking about this comic book album. About him doing an album that was very comic book based and we were just talking on these levels. And then I realised, yeah this is it; I was thinking that because he variates. In some tracks he can sound like this wise old soul who’s seen it all and in another he’s like this love-struck little teenager. All these little characters – some of them just a word here and there – there’s all these little things. It’s like this cast of characters. I mean, he hasn’t gone “this is what I’m gonna do” but this is the way it’s come out. So it’s come out kind of organically in this way and I saw it in this context. And I realised I couldn’t have done that back in 1991 – I didn’t have the language – but now it’s a second nature for me; I can bring these things into play. It was one of those kind of karma things where I thought “wow, by default we’ve actually done what we’ve spoke about all that time ago”, it’s funny how things work out.
When we put the single out, we put it out as a Fool’s Leap. That’s what I was saying about Alan Moore as well. There was a quote of his about making a fool’s leap and how anything in life of any importance – whether it be a work of art or a relationship – has to begin with that leap of faith. And when I made the decision and when I finally went “okay I’m gonna get on board,” it felt like a fool’s leap but it was for the right motives. It wasn’t motivated by any kind of selfish money grabbing aspects. It was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do. The fact that the poem was calledLies and Other Fools wasn’t lost on me. So that almost became the fool’s leap kind of statement. We’re in there now, we’re doing this, and we’re moving on it.
JOHN HIGGS WILL BE JOINING, YOU, BERNIE CONNOR AND KERMIT IN THE TALKS AT THE OBSERVATORY ON 18TH OCTOBER. HOW BIG AN INFLUENCE WAS HI BOOK THE KLF: CHAOS, MAGIC & THE BAND WHO BURNED A MILLION POUNDS ON THE MIXTAPE?
I read it during the period I was making the mixtape and immediately identified with the obsessive nature of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty and the mission they undertook with The KLF. Their music is, of course, rich with symbolism – although on the surface it’s just great Pop. I think this parallels with aspects of what we’ve been doing with Blind Arcade, although those guys took it right to the limit, culminating in their grand prankster statement of burning a million quid, and not being able to explain why! As with Alan Moore, who refuses to take his cut of the film money for adaptations of his comics, these are people with a higher purpose. As is said, you can’t take the money with you when you’re dead and gone, but you can save your soul, which is far more valuable. I reference the book in the mixtape via the Donnie Darko samples at the beginning of Swamp Thang (which, by pure coincidence, is a twist on the Alan Moore comic series Swamp Thing – these coincidences just turn up all on their own). You’d need to read the book, which I seriously recommend, to make the full Donnie Darko connection – suffice to say that when Drummond lived in Liverpool and heard the newspaper sellers on the street shout ‘Echo’, he wasn’t necessarily thinking about what may be in the news.
THERE’S A LOT OF DIFFERENT SAMPLES IN THE MIXTAPE FROM ARTISTS LIKE BILLY PAUL AND FRANKIE VALLI, DID YOU BRING THOSE ELEMENTS IN?
No, that was them… I plugged into that and brought other aspects into it via all the transition parts and some of the tracks in there that were added – just things I’ve edited together. It’s their direction – they were set with that direction – I’ve just been able to make the individual items into a whole – to knit it all together in a sense. That’s what blew me away about them, where they were coming from with these samples they were taking. I was like “wow! I would never have thought of that. There’s one, it’s a Gilbert O’Sullivan track and not just a Gilbert O’Sullivan track but a Gilbert O’Sullivan track called Matrimony. And if somebody would have said that’s gonna end up on there, you’d be the like “no!” but it sounds amazing and that’s them, that’s their thing but that excites me so I can work with that, get involved in that, I can play with that. Throw something else in there, “check this out”, you know and they’re receptive.
It’s been the same as the Rap Assassins on the level of… They accommodate my side into it; there’s not a preciousness about things. That was why it worked so well with the Rap Assassins, because they wanted that. I just worked with their cue really. I’m not moulding them; I’m working with them and plugging in to what they’re doing. This is what they are. I mean you can’t do that… If I had to do that with a band they wouldn’t be worthwhile. They’ve got to know what they want to do or where they’re coming from – you can’t just pick someone and say, “well I wanted to do this and you’ll use these samples” and so forth. Again – that would be diluted – it wouldn’t be real.
WHERE DOES THE LABEL’S AESTHETIC COME FROM?
It’s a 67 psychedelic poster basically, that we co-opted and kind of worked into. I was thinking about this today actually – I was asked a question in another interview about the psychedelic aspect of it – which is definitely there. I’m a total Beatles obsessive and as a result of that – you know the whole sixties and that psychedelic era – I just read and read continually for the past thirty years about that kind of stuff. I’m very interested in what that era represented, the counter-culture of that era, how music changed, how ideas changed, how people experimented – all that aspect of it, I love. That sixties thing was a huge, huge cultural moment – that in a historical perspective they’ll look back on what happened then like people in our generation looked back to the Renaissance and stuff like that, they’ll talk in those terms – but there’s also the kind of late eighties period as well.
Both of them have summer of loves – so you’ve got the original 67 summer of love and you’ve also got the acid house, which was actually two summer of loves, 88-89. So I think where that’s connected with Blind Arcade is obviously the Manchester connections with Kermit and everything but this summer idea as well – hearing the tracks on the mixtape – it felt summer. People were saying get this out for the summer – the summer kept coming up. So wanting to get the mixtape ready for the summer – we wanted to get it out and about for then. So I suppose it’s obvious in a sense that the connections back to previous summers that were important for music wouldn’t be lost in terms of our reference points and what we want to evoke in a sense – that kind of feeling. So it’s like the summer of love – be it the sixties or eighties summer of love – it’s certainly been a reference point for the approach to what we’ve done with this.
KERMIT IS WORKING ON SOMETHING AS WELL ISN’T HE? A PROJECT CALLED THE FOOTPRINT.
That would be like an EP, we’d probably move for that pretty soon because the initial tracks are recorded but again they’re a little bit darker a little bit dubby kind of, a bit more weighty. Again it’s one of those, it’s not for everyone but a lot of people will really appreciate it and it’s different from Blind Arcade. Although having said that within the Blind Arcade project there’s a few tracks there that have a slightly different vibe about them and are necessary for that – there’s a track called Poison on there – but it’s part of it but the overriding aspect of Blind Arcade is very uplifting, very positive. Whereas say, the overriding aspect of The Footprint is slightly darker and deeper but that becomes another project in itself, maybe that’s something for the colder setting.
BLIND ARCADE HAVE JUST STARTED THE AUTUMN TOUR, WHAT’S THE RESPONSE BEEN LIKE SO FAR?
We’ve just started – the Manchester event was a real homecoming for Kermit, a moment in time. The love in the room was tangible, it was Manchester vibes all the way and the event was a massive love-in and a big success. The gig ended with the stage packed full of people, there was no longer a band and an audience, just us!
The audience won’t be quite as partisan in Glasgow and Bristol, but I expect a fair amount of people who saw them in Manchester to head to Liverpool for the gig there on October 18th. We then finish off in London on November 1st, so it’s quite an adventure for us all.
WHAT’S ON THE HORIZON AFTER THE TOUR?
From the band side it’s all about songwriting – using these new impressions to make a fresh batch of tracks. For the label it’s a case of building on the live aspect by gearing towards Super Weird Happenings in some of the festivals next year, as well as placing one-off events along the way and perhaps putting together a stand-alone Blind Arcade tour. We’ll also be looking to record and release their first album, as well as issuing material by The Reynolds, who are part of our Super Weird Crew and have already appeared on a couple of tracks that have been big for me this year, as well as recording new stuff with them. One thing’s for sure, there’ll be no rest for the wicked.