The Gospel According to Jesus Jones
The use of samples is often frowned upon by rock audiences, but Jesus Jones have made them the basis of some of the most aggressive and innovative rock music around. Nigel Lord talks to Jesus.
Where screaming guitars and thundering drums meet samples; where the original pop music ethic comes face to face with the technological revolution, you'll find a band called Jesus Jones.
EVER SINCE THE DAY WHEN A BASS-PLAYING GEORDIE schoolteacher called Gordon something-or-other decided to throw in his lot with a couple of chancers by the name of Summers and Copeland and produce the almost perfect synthesis of pop- punk/reggae, we have been confronted with a continuous stream of mix 'n' match hybrids drawing us away from the purer pop styles of previous years. Sadly, not all of this eclecticism can be said to amount to anything more than the sum of its parts; in many cases it lacks that elusive "X" factor, which, irrespective of the strength of the underlying concept, can only be injected by the band itself. All too often the seams remain visible and the music sounds contrived: seldom does it take much effort to uncover the thought processes involved at its creation.
When confronted with the concept of Jesus Jones, I have to say my natural cynicism initially gained the upper hand... "Where pop meets hysteria, froths at the mouth and frays at the edges but never breaks into a sweat. Imagine a Cuban heel stamping on a fuzzbox pedal, forever..." - not for the first time, the more sensational language of the weekly music press did little to arouse my curiosity about a new band. And with Mike Edwards (Jesus H Jones by any other name) the band's singer/guitarist and spokesman seemingly given carte blanche to express opinions on everything from U2 to God (or is that God to U2?) - my suspicions definitely began to get the better of me.
Then Jesus spoke to me. No wait, he sang to me first. I spent a not unpleasant weekend with Liquidizer, the band's first album, set to continuous play on my turntable and soon found myself being drawn in by a series of wickedly barbed hooks. Clearly, this particular alloy has considerable strength and durability. It bristles with rough edges, but none (thankfully) come from the careful melding of thrash guitar, cement mixer vocals (set against some altogether inspired harmony lines) and well-developed sampling suss. Brash punk enthusiasm tempered by '60s pop sensibilities and late-'80s techno know-how. How easily it could have failed.
That it didn't can only be ascribed to Edwards himself whose knowledge of pop - both musically and technically - and whose obvious frontmanship have served the band well. In addition to his familiarity with the work of such dead-and-gonners as the Beatles, the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix et al, he seems acutely aware of the industry of which he is now a part. It's the kind of awareness that stems from a lifetime spent on the outside looking in, always believing that your 15 minutes would come. Of course, at his age, he can't have had his nose pressed up against the toy shop window for long, but I'm sure it seems that way to him.
None of which would be of serious interest to readers of MT were it not for the fact that rather than simply an addition to each song, the use of samples is quite integral to the band's overall sound. Indeed, as Edwards explained in our conversation, most of the songs began life as a handful of samples to which were added rhythm tracks, melody lines and guitar parts as they progressed. Perhaps that's why the synthesis is so successful.
"Very much so, yes", he comments. "But it has to do with the way music is made these days. If it's going to have a contemporary feel it has to start with just the beat and associated samples. And actually, if you took all the guitars off our records you'd be left with extremely good dance music".
The marriage of the two, far from being made in heaven (no pun intended), came about during a summer break in one of the less ostentatious Spanish holiday resorts. Edwards, along with guitarist Jerry de Borg and drummer Gen, having struggled for two years (no less) in bands with no real hope of success, did a few calculations and decided they could put together the pieces in a slightly different way...
"Actually, it was anything but calculated. The only thing we knew we wanted to do was to get a good band together. It was just that at that time my interests lay in hip hop; I'd always listened to classic pop and was also very interested in a lot of the American guitar bands who were around at the time. So we thought about combining all those things. We'd already been writing guitar songs and I'd just got this sampler and thought it might be a good idea if I could start using it with the guitars. It really wasn't calculated at all - it seemed very natural to me."
Certainly, it made the right impression on the Great British record-buying public who hoisted the band's first single 'Info-Freako' into the lower reaches of the Top 40. But with two such well-defined elements at large in the music - the guitars and the sampling - is there no temptation to determine which might be more responsible for the success of the band and to diminish the role of the other?
"Actually, if you took all the guitars off our records you'd be left with extremely good dance music."
"I can't really see us doing without either - although it has to be said it is easy to sample guitars. In fact, there is always a point when I write a song when I think... Right, I'm going to do the guitars now, and sometimes it's quite an effort to fit them into the mix.
"But really, I wouldn't like to do without either. If you look at the present music scene you'll find that people like Happy Mondays and AR Kane and all sorts of bands are mixing house with different kinds of music. I think people are now starting to accept that you can combine things rather than simply saying it's this sort of music or that sort of music. And I'm very pleased about that; I'm pleased that we share common ground with people like that and in some ways are representative of this new attitude. At the moment we've only just begun to investigate what we can do with sampling. I think that the very basic idea of mixing more traditional aspects of music with samples can go a lot further - and so can sampling itself, there's so much more room for development.
AT A TIME WHEN SAMPLING IS OFTEN SEEN AS THE sole territory of house and hip hop artists, it's also refreshing to hear this particular branch of technology being dragged into communion with other contemporary styles - especially when the merger has been so successful.
Much of that success stems from the band's use of samples as sound sources rather than simply pre-recorded snatches of music or vocals. Jesus Jones may "borrow" from other peoples' records (and the credit listing on the inner sleeve of the album will give you some idea as to the sources), but by the time he's finished with the samples, it would be a brave soul who would point with any certainty to their origin. All in all, a more organic use of sampling technology than we have come to expect.
"That's very important. I made a conscious decision about that. I don't find it very entertaining to use samples which are extremely obvious. It's a bit of a cheap joke in a way - you listen to a record and think... Oh God yes, here's that sample from such and such a track, and after that it's really not interesting any more. With an instrument that you can do almost anything with, it seems amazing that people still just use it to get little bits of other people's records and leave it at that.
"I'm quite happy to sample from records anyone who releases a record is fair game as far as I'm concerned - and I'd use absolutely anything. But I tend to go after an interesting sound rather than a specific piece from say a James Brown record from the '70s. If I found a particularly strange bit of vocal at the beginning of a Buddy Holly record, for example, I'd nick that.
"A lot of sounds can be very complementary: like, on 'Bring It On Down' off the album we had a chain saw playing a harmony and the sound of it really seems to fit with the abrasiveness of the song. I tend to use specific sounds for specific things - in the way you'd use guitar arrangements for example. But that's the way things are going in house music now: with bands like 808 State, sampling is getting a great deal more organic, as you put it."
"I don't find it very entertaining to use samples which are extremely obvious - it's a bit of a cheap joke."
Given this obvious fascination with the manipulation of sound, it is, perhaps, strange that nowhere on the album are there any conventional (or unconventional, for that matter) keyboard sounds. In fact, the synthesiser seems to have no place in Jesus Jones' scheme of things.
"No, I don't find those very interesting at all", comes the explanation. "In fact I really dislike most conventional keyboard sounds - that early '80s synth sound has no appeal whatsoever."
In view of the kind of advances made in synth technology over the past couple of years, it seems rather odd to be talking about "conventional keyboard sounds" as if there was little to choose between any of them, but anyway.
As an indefatigable live act, how easily does the work JJ do in the studio translate to stage?
"Using the kind of instrumentation we do the samplers and sequencers - there is practically nothing that we couldn't do live. That's why I'm so glad to be making music in this day and age. I remember reading something about John Lennon saying that his original idea for 'Tomorrow Never Knows' on Revolver was to have a thousand monks chanting in the background. And he said 'but obviously I couldn't do that, so instead...', whereas we could do that. No problem at all. Modern technology gives you the opportunity to do absolutely anything you want. And though I don't like the idea of reproducing a record perfectly on stage, what is on the album is nevertheless very representative of what we sound like on stage - that's really where our big advantage lies.
Of course, given a large enough budget, no-one would question the viability of reproducing on stage everything that occurs on record. But for most bands working within limited resources, that's very much the rub.
"Our record company advance wasn't that great, so we don't have a vast amount of equipment, and I use all the gear at home that we use on stage. As far as sampling's concerned, there's an Akai S900 for the sequencer sounds - that is, all the shorter samples that are rhythmical or have to be triggered repeatedly by the sequencer: percussive sounds and sampled basslines, things like that. Then we have the S950 which is used for all the keyboard triggered parts, which are the most prominent samples on the record. And that's it really, but I'm very happy with what we've got - the samplers in particular have been brilliant. Everything's so easy on them, even the S950. They have some brilliant functions, and it's all, basically, pretty obvious. They seem to work in the same way that people's minds work.
"I'd got this sampler and thought it might be good to use it with the guitars - it seemed natural to me.."
" Having said that, when I first got them, I did get stuck on a couple of the most basic things. For example, at no point does the instruction manual explain that what I'd call a sample was in fact a Key Group. It took me about a week to work that out. And the other thing was about loading a disk; the manual doesn't actually tell you how to load a disk properly. You follow it to the letter and nothing happens. I ended up phoning the shop and having to take it back and they said, 'Actually what you have to do is this...' There's one extra step that they've left out of the manual. But that aside, I'd thoroughly recommend the Akais. They've been through the sort of conditions you expect Marshall amps to be put through."
So there have been no problems with equipment reliability?
"Well, on the last tour we had the sequencer go down on two dates because of the incredible humidity, and obviously that affected the sound. But it didn't mean we couldn't go on without it - there had to be a certain amount of on-the-spot improvisation, but that makes it fun. In a way it was almost a pity when the sequencer worked the next night. But suppose we're the sort of band where it's not going to matter if one part is missing - we'd simply try to do something more in another department to make up for it."
LIKE MOST OF THE BEST POP MUSIC, THIS vaguely anarchic approach is maintained very much as a part of the band's modus operandi. Sampling, for example, far from an exercise in precise digital manipulation of sound, has a slight element of the chaotic about it.
"I did it all on my music centre at home, which is pretty crappy, so I suppose it's very lo-fi sampling. I don't sample off CD or anything like that - in fact I don't even own a CD. The drums on the first single 'Info-Freako', for example, I recorded off the radio onto tape, copied the tape and then sampled that copy tape - so it was quite a few generations down by the time it reached the album. But the point is there's so much happening on each record, we simply don't need to have perfect samples or anything like that. And anyway, I don't really like the idea of having such high quality sounds. If you think about all the sampling that's done from '70s records where the sound is so crap in the first place it doesn't make sense. I know some people like Front 242 have this approach where everything has to be perfect, but I don't see it at all."
So how do the samples find their way from the music centre onto vinyl?
"Because we've got a sequencer now, I tend to work everything out on that a long time before I record anything. So if there are, say, three ideas I want to use in a song, I'll get three basic sequences together, each a couple of bars long - perhaps starting with a bass drum... It depends on what kind of beat I want; these days I tend to use more house beats than anything else, so if I start with a bass drum that will have to have a particular sound - something that works well on its own.
"Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Bros - they matter an incredible amount. There is a great art to pop music."
"Then I'll probably try to manufacture some sort of hi-hat sound from somewhere. I tend to build up the drums first of all and then I'll go for a bassline next, and maybe some acid squiggles or something like that just to get the feel of the track. I find that once I've got the basic feel of the track I can start putting some more interesting samples in."
So there's no use of a conventional beatbox?
'No. We used to use a LinnDrum, but now I can do everything on the sequencer. And these days I do like to get very specific drum and percussion sounds because that can really dictate the whole feel of the track."
With such an open-ended way of working - building things up piece by piece - is there not a danger of going too far, of not knowing when to stop, particularly if you're working in isolation?
"Yes, I think there is, and I have done that I'm sure. But I don't tend to work on a track for very long. I try to get things completed quite quickly, so that what I've just described to you might take about an hour: getting some more interesting samples in may take another hour. And at that point I'll think, 'OK, I've got a good idea here with the basic things, I'll record a 20-second part of it and add the guitars and stuff' - just playing whatever feels right. Then I leave it alone for a couple of days and when I come back to it, I can say well that sample sounds crap, and maybe decide that what it really needs is the sound of a whale or something.
"After it's finished and it's been recorded on the Portastudio (an elderly Tascam 144), I give the rest of the band cassettes of each song, and obviously, as they learn their parts they'll add little extra bits here and there and just reinterpret it slightly - which is really why we sound like we do."
There's no question of throwing it open for someone else's opinion before a track is finished? You have complete trust in your own instincts?
"Yes. Having said that, I try to keep my objectivity by having a number of source influences. Like, I'll know I want the house feel from a Technotronics record or something, so I'll put that on and think, 'OK, I've got the right feel, now how's this guitar doing compared to Sonic Youth? Well, yes, it's nearly there...' But because I use a number of different sources as influences I find I can keep my objectivity about what we do.
"I suppose this way of working arose from years playing in other bands. Sitting in rehearsal rooms with four or five other people just playing anything because they're bored; and the singer is looking at the ceiling or making funny noises into the microphone... it was the hours of wasted time that really annoyed me. Whenever I've been in a situation like that, all I want to do is say right, shut up, this is what we do. Let's make a decision, let's do something. It's always been an aspect of my character: I can't stand just sitting around and letting nothing happen - that irritates me extremely. So I suppose I've always led, and when you lead, other people start letting you lead. And of course, the more you do, the more people let you do. I think very few democratic bands exist, actually despite what they tell you in the press."
Speaking of the press, it seems we're again entering a phase where it's been decided that pop has purged itself sufficiently and is once again important. Is that how you see it? Does pop matter?
"Very much so, yes. It's extremely important. Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Bros - they matter an incredible amount. . . I think the fun side of it is important. There is a great art to pop music - the actual writing of good singles. But there's an element of trashiness about it too, and we try to reflect that. I think it's to do with refusing to become pompous about it. It's not that I don't take it seriously, but rock music has a definite capacity for pomposity which I loathe.
"I suppose my aim is to actually move music forward by making it commercial. We do want to sell masses of records, but at the same time we want to do it in ways that are interesting or exciting. When I was working on a couple of the songs on the album, I began to think, this is a little bit tame, this is just playing safe. And I just reached a point where I wanted everything to go absolutely mad - sort of exorcising the demons and releasing the frustration of playing it straight until then. If you deliberately stick to the strict discipline of a song, you don't get much opportunity for a release of any emotion. Unless you've written something that's absolutely amazing, there often is no surge, no release. An element of chaos is very enjoyable."
Interview by Nigel Lord
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