Perfect Sound Forever


Interview by Jason Gross (May 1997)

The music that's blanketed as 'electronica' today is filled with snake-oil vendors and hucksters (just as with any other music) as well as visionary, inspired artists. In the latter category are a British duo, often called pioneers of 'drum and bass' music, of John Coxon and Ashley Wales, known as Spring Heel Jack. What makes their music really striking is that it's all created by samplers yet it's anything but mechanical. Instead, Coxon and Wales craft imaginative sound-scapes with their raw materials and shape it into a new music. Flourishes, rushes, swooshes of sounds and beats collide and interact, hide and disappear and reappear. After this, most of what you'd call 'new age' or 'techno' seems like kid's games.

If the conversation seems a little choppy that's because they were both talking but John wrote it all down (or so they told me).

PSF: Could you talk about the influences of Brian Eno and dub on your work?

We both listen to a fair amount of 70's dub and Ashley likes some Brian Eno records. The former has probably more of an influence on our music than the latter although dissecting individual influences is a difficult matter. Music evolves in a way which is quite difficult to rationalize. Brian Eno has been a big influence on many people making music without them being particularly conscious of it. John has listened to plenty of Eno, but doesn't own one of his records.

PSF: Do you also find that certain German groups from the '70s were influential on your work? I'm thinking of Cluster, Kraftwerk, Can, Neu!

Both of us have always liked Can a lot - one of the great bands. Jackie Liebezeit and Holger Czukay influence our drums and our bass considerably (eg : "Pan"). The way that every Can track has a different soundscape and experimental instrumentation relates well to the way the sampler is used in our music. Ashley likes Neu! and both of us like certain Kraftwerk tracks, but a lot of Kraftwerk stuff is a bit over- rated despite their massive influence on everyone from Afrika Bambaata to Carl Craig and LFO, etc, etc.

PSF: John worked with Spiritualized before- does that have any bearing on Spring Heel Jack?

Not very much, musically. Perhaps the experience of playing in a band with someone as open-minded as Jason (Pierce) has had it's effect but as in question 1, unconsciously.

PSF: Do you visualize your music, trying to create a certain atmosphere?

Visualising sounds is more of a tool for discussing music as we are making it, rather than a precursor to particular tracks - we both talk about music visuals to each other all the time.

PSF: Do you find that some people have problems relating to music without lyrics or having a 'frontman' spewing them out in live shows that you do? I've heard stories of people MESMERIZED as they watched you though.

We have never had any particular problem but if people do have a problem that's their perogative - they can go and do something else if they like. If you can't relate to music without lyrics then you are certainly missing out, perhaps on half of all music. We are interested in instrumental music because it implies meaning rather than explaining everything. Also, we're not poets.

PSF: What do you think of other DJ performers? DJ Shadow, DJ Spooky, Moby, Chemical Brothers...

Out of those, Spooky is the most interesting, performance-wise - the experimenting with sounds which aren't just from one area of music. He's probably the only other DJ we know who would play an Iannis Xenakis record.

PSF: Would you consider working with additional musicians or singers in Spring Heel Jack? I've heard that you prefer sampling to conventional instruments.

Possibly, but we are quite self-contained. The sampler is the most versatile instrument we can find so that's why we use it.

PSF: How do you compose/get inspiration?

We make it up as we go along.

PSF: It seems like the public is more accepting of Drum 'n Bass now.

Drum 'n Bass is a UK music evolved from Ragga and Soul-influenced hardcore. We have never called our music Drum 'n' Bass, for that matter.

PSF: How do see your music as its received by listeners? Dance music, music to think/explore/chill out, both, neither?

It's perceived differently by different people.

PSF: How do you envision sounds, beats, textures that you'll use? You mix light/lush textures with fast beats and sound effects. How do you try to balance and mix this together into a satisfying whole?

Same way you make mashed potatoes. You don't put 4 pints of milk with one pound of baked potatoes although you could thicken them with salt and pepper. You have to balance your ingredients.

PSF: Could you talk about Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers as an influence on SHJ?

John mentioned Art Blakey in an interview once and it was published and then copied. I think he's a great drummer and band-leader - the live version of "Night In Tunisia" is brilliant, but direct influence? No.

PSF: Ashley was (is?) a 20th century classical composer- does that have any bearing on SHJ?

Ashley especially listens to a lot of 20th Century music from Vaughan Williams to Harrison Birtwhistle, from Aaron Copeland to Morton Subotnik. Ashley's interest in composition has influenced some tracks.

PSF: Why do you use samplers but not drum machines for SHJ?

There's more freedom with a sampler and anyway, our basic percussive make-up is breakbeats.

PSF: Do you think of your work as recontextualizing music with the samples that you use?

Yes and no.

PSF: What kind of future plans do you have for SHJ or other projects?

To continue recording new albums and we are very interested in film soundtracks and breeding minature, ornamental pugs.