Thursday, 28 April 2011

“Music is the key to freedom” - a conversation with Jez Kerr.

Jez Kerr is the bass guitarist and vocalist of A Certain Ratio, the band he formed in Manchester in 1977 with three friends - Simon Topping, Peter Terel and Martin Moscrop - who bonded over a shared love of Northern soul, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno, taking their name from a line in the Eno song A True Wheel. Their 1979 debut single All Night Party was one of the Factory label's earliest releases (FAC5, for the trainspotters), and they continued to put out records on the label for another ten years. Yet recent retellings of the Factory myth on screen and in print have seen ACR's place in it somewhat overshadowed (understandably perhaps) by the ill-fated and fractious tales of Joy Division or Happy Mondays. This isn't entirely fair, since in some respects they managed to embody the wilful, maverick spirit of the infamous Manchester indie just as well as either of those bands, perhaps even more so.

Originally without a drummer simply because they didn't know one, a chance meeting with Donald Johnson, a veteran of several local jazz-funk outfits, saw ACR move swiftly beyond their abrasive post-punk beginnings, the newly expanded configuration arguably inventing what became known as “punk-funk” with their celebrated cover of Banbarra's Shack Up. Their first American tour was marked by an epiphany involving latin percussion ensembles and the samba schools of New York City's Brazilian community, and the subsequent live shows upon their return to the UK were characterised by extended and often thrilling batucada-style percussion workouts, something less than warmly received by those who'd have preferred to see them stick to a rigid diet of cliched post-punk gloom. Their fourth album, I'd Like To See You Again, took even more of a creative hard-left from its predecessors, with the band exploring their Brazilian/latin jazz leanings further still, at times sounding closer to the likes of Azymuth than any of their Factory peers. Indeed, any of their peers at all.

In the face of widespread commercial and critical indifference, ACR doggedly continued in this direction until the late 80s when, as acid house swept the nation, they began to experiment with samplers, drum machines and sequencers. The collapse of Factory saw them briefly decamp to A&M, where they came perilously close to a bonafide hit single in 1990 with Won't Stop Loving You, featuring Kerr on lead vocal. A decade on Factory meant they were never entirely at ease with major labels and eventually both parties cut their losses, with ACR returning home to Manchester and the more familiar territory of Rob's Records, the label founded by the late Rob Gretton, manager of New Order and Joy Division. At the turn of the 21st century, the pendulum of fashion briefly swung back in the direction of their Factory-era material, with newer acts such as LCD Soundsystem citing it as a key influence, and the band licensed their back catalogue to respected London indie Soul Jazz in 2002 for a series of reissues.

Having settled some time ago around a core line-up of Kerr, Moscrop, Johnson, instrumentalists Tony Quigley and Liam Mullen, and ex-Primal Scream singer Denise Johnson (no relation), ACR are still active, albeit infrequently. However, Kerr is the only member who remains a full-time musician and now, somewhat unintentionally, finds himself embarking upon a solo career. A digital-only single, Play Something Fast, was released by Chester-based indie Higuera earlier this year, and another, Rip You Right Back, is out at the end of May, with his debut solo album (still untitled) due later this summer. The singles sound distinctly Mancunian; Kerr's vocals are gentle verging on tentative, the rhythmic drive of the songs is almost a throwback to early Joy Division, the guitars grind and mesh in a way that echoes the very earliest ACR records, yet everything manages to sound much brighter and more upbeat than the sum of its parts might suggest. In fact, “upbeat” is the ideal word to describe Kerr's mood when we meet at The Social on Little Portland Street one evening in late March. He's about to perform his first ever London solo show with a band that features ex-Fall drummer Simon Wolstonecroft, former Hacienda DJ Tintin on keyboards, and Keo Martin on guitar, and is sat outside the venue enjoying a smoke. After a quick round of introductions, we chat briefly about the predicament of the modern musician, specifically whether or not it's still possible to actually make any money from music. “You can't,” he responds with a wry smile. “In any case, money shouldn't be what drives you. Even though I've got a family to take care of nowadays, I still think making music should be about having fun”.

G&P: Your solo album sort of happened by accident, didn't it?

JK: Well, not by accident, no. I mean, I've had lots of tunes knocking around for a long time, not just ACR tunes, but other tunes.

But you didn't set out to make a solo album?

No, but I'd left my job at the Post Office and I had kids to provide for, and I can't do anything else. I'm a songwriter, and I thought the best way of getting my songs heard was to get a band together, because I like playing live. I'm really enjoying the stuff that the band's doing as well.

Didn't it partly come about as a result of a sound engineering course or something?

Yeah, I went back to college in 2002 to do a music technology course. I got a degree in music technology, and then I tried teaching. Didn't like that.

What was the problem there? Stroppy kids?

No, I just wasn't very good at it. There's a bit of an art to teaching, and I wasn't very patient. I was pretty stressed at the time as well, working part-time at the Post Office. I got out of it when I started doing music for adverts with a company called Gate Films in Manchester. I did an Alliance and Leicester ad that made me some money, and a few other things, but that started to dry up when advertising money got tight and agencies went back to using library music. Or not using me, anyway. So I decided to get another band together. Not that I wanted to leave ACR or anything, because we only played about five gigs last year anyway. We don't play that much. If someone asks us, and it's a nice venue and the money's decent, or it's abroad, then that makes it more enjoyable, and it keeps things fresh for us. We did a great gig in Italy last year. Beautiful venue.

You just play when you all feel like it?

Kind of. The other guys are all working, so it depends when we can all fit it in. But I'm not working, apart from writing songs, which is why I've got this together.

You've played with more or less the same group of musicians for as long as you've been a musician, haven't you?

Yeah, Martin Moscrop, Donald Johnson, Tony Quigley, Liam Mullen on keyboards and Denise Johnson. We've been together with this line-up for a long time now. I think some people must think we only get together because we can make a bit of money, but that's not true. We get together because we're a really good band, and it's as good now as it's ever been.

The music has held up in ways that a lot of similar stuff from that period hasn't, perhaps because you never really chased trends or anything.

Well, we were just concentrating on the music. We were very insular to begin with, which can be a bad thing, especially if you want to be entertaining as well. We probably took it maybe a bit too seriously but because we weren't technically brilliant, it gave us a unique sort of sound. If you do music with the right spirit, and you're trying your best, I think that shows through, no matter what you do or what kind of music you're making. It's more to do with the attitude you have towards making the music rather than what particular style of music it is. I think people recognise honesty and sincerity, and we always had that. We were never cynical about it. Some people might have thought we were, but we weren't.

I was always curious about how you ended up getting drawn towards the whole jazz thing that was going on in Manchester in the early 80s at clubs like Berlin, which is kind of one of the untold stories of Manchester clubland.

Well, we were listening to that kind of music anyway. In the early days we were reacting to punk, listening to Wire or Brian Eno. Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy was a big album for us, things like Kraftwerk, that sort of stuff. But we came from a Northern soul background as well. We all liked soul and funk, George Clinton, stuff like that. So we got a drummer who could play like that, and we went after things that inspired us. The jazz thing came about when we saw lots of samba bands in New York the first time we went over there. We saw all these drummers on stage, and we thought, yeah, that's for us. We liked Miles Davis too, which is where the trumpets came from. But when people hear the word “jazz”, they might think of Dave Brubeck or something, and if you're a musician, you can admire the skill in that, but we never really tried to make that kind of music. We were just trying things out a lot of the time.

It seemed to me that you were attempting to capture the atmosphere of it, rather than to get it spot-on.

We weren't copying Coltrane or Miles. We were just using those sounds in our own way. We were a bunch of Mancunians trying to play like Miles Davis, which in our case wouldn't normally work, but it actually can work if you play it with the right spirit.

What I thought a lot of people missed about ACR was that everything you did, no matter what it sounded like, was rooted in the punk ethos in some way.

Exactly, do it yourself. Try and be as good as Miles Davis, and even if you've no chance of being that good, you can still get through to people. When we started trying too hard, and we got a bit better, we actually started to think we were total shite. When you think you know what you're doing, maybe that's the time to give up. To me, it's about always being ready to learn something, and having a bit of humility as well, especially where music's concerned. Music's about communicating with people, and we used to find that a bit difficult. We were always getting called miserable. Being from the North-West, you don't always talk to people, you keep yourself to yourself a bit. But music's not about that, and it took us a long time to realise that, well, actually, people just want to enjoy themselves.

I never really understood the preoccupation with this “dour, serious Northerners” stereotype that a lot of people used to attach to the music Factory put out.

Well, we did take it seriously. We looked serious, we looked hard-faced.

But I think, as Northerners, you and I probably recognise that these things aren't always how they appear. The perception that the wider public had of that scene was largely dictated by the music press. It didn't have much to do with the reality of it.

Yeah, but it's totally different now. There's much more opinion out there, whereas back then there were three or four weekly music papers, and that was it. Same with the radio. You had John Peel and nothing else, so everyone focused on those things. They had a lot of influence, so whatever they said went, and people took that at face value a lot of the time. The way it should be is that you go and find out for yourself, but most people haven't got time to do that, which is why they pick up on other people's opinions. Unless you see or hear something for yourself, you end up relying on what someone else thinks of it. Direct experience can't be beaten.

Going back to that first US visit, would it be true to say that in many ways you came back to Britain a different band?

Well, because we'd seen all these percussion ensembles, we thought, let's go and buy loads of percussion instruments and incorporate it into what we're doing, so that's what we did. We had a few percussion bits anyway, but when we went out there, we had a flight case nicked. We thought it was nicked in New York, but it turned out it was nicked in Manchester, and it had all our percussion bits in it, as well as a load of effects pedals and stuff. So we ended up having to buy loads of equipment out there, just so we could do the tour. We went to New Jersey to a place called Latin Percussion, and spent $3000 of Tony Wilson's money on stuff we'd seen all these samba bands using. And when we came back here and started using it at our gigs, the people who were into the more industrial side of what we did just didn't understand it. They'd just walk out of the gigs, which was fine, y'know. When you're the age we were at the time – 18, 19, whatever – you're totally arrogant and convinced that the way you're going is the only way to go. Sometimes it takes a manager to make a band successful, and the thing about Tony was that he didn't give a shit about those things any more than we did. Nobody was taking care of business, really, but in the long run that wasn't such a bad thing. Sometimes if you make a bit of money, there's a tendency to start chasing after it, and you become restricted by the need to be making money all the time. We had no restrictions as far as the music was concerned, so I don't really regret anything like that.

There's been a few times when I've heard people talking about Factory who, through no fault of their own, won't have been around at the time, and they've described ACR as a “second-tier” Factory band, but I never saw it like that.

Well, that's because none of the bands were second-tier, that was what made Factory special. It comes back to what I said about direct experience. People who came to see us would have more of an idea of what we were about than the people who'd only read about us, partly because there was a lot of crap written about us.

But did you ever have any moments when you thought; “We made the wrong choice by sticking with Factory for so long”?

Yeah, when I can't feed my kids. When I can't put food on the table, that's when I feel like that. But that's just sour grapes, really. You can't change the way things are. You should try to be positive. Having a sour grapes attitude is the worst thing you can do in that situation, because you won't make good music if you're bitter.

How do you look back on your time with A&M?

We learnt a lot from it, and a lot of it was positive. It was an experience recording at places like Sarm West, and we met a lot of interesting people and saw how that side of the industry worked. It just didn't suit us. We also realised that you can end up spending a load of money without ever getting the results you want. That's just how it goes. There's no point crying about not “making it”. In any case, the things that end up appealing the most to people are the things you least expect to. It's totally arbitrary, especially in the music industry. If you get wound up about it, you'll end up being unhappy all your life. We probably spent about five years being unhappy, thinking we were great but not getting anywhere. But it's a very fickle industry, so you've got to decide what are the reasons why you're doing it.

And you've always been quite clear about what those reasons are?

Well, look, it's nice to make a bit of money and to make a living out of something you love. But it's very difficult to achieve that, and if you do achieve it, and you do make a bit of money, that's when the problems start. When you don't have the money, you don't find yourself in the position of having to make horrible decisions you don't want to make. It can turn you into a nastier person.

You start fighting over publishing splits and things like that.

Yeah, yeah. And we've gone through that, but we've been together so long now that, no matter what else happens, we've figured out that what we really enjoy most is just getting together and playing some top music. We lost our way at one point, when we started using Akais and whatever, so we've learnt that whether it makes money or not isn't so important. I think we've gone beyond the point of worrying about it too much.

Many bands who sign to majors quickly find themselves under pressure to get a hit single, and get forced into doing a cover. But the cover you did was Stevie Wonder's Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing, which was based on the Carmen McRae version they used to play at the Hacienda of a Saturday night...

Well, I wouldn't know that, but Donald would.

You've never heard that version? Not at all? I'm surprised.

No, I haven't. Who's it by, Carmen McRae? I'll check it out on YouTube. I never liked doing it, to tell you the truth. I was always into the heavier stuff. But because I love the band, I did it. That's the great thing about ACR; we've all got different attitudes, and we're always having arguments, but we're still together. We're not the Grateful Dead or anything, we never lived in the same house. We're not actually that close, but we still love each other. Me and Pete [Terel, former guitarist] were close. We shared a place for a bit, Martin and Tony shared a place for a while as well, but generally we don't see each other socially unless we're getting together to play, which I think is pretty unique as far as bands go. We walk into the room and, because we've been doing it for so long, we know that whatever we play's going to be good, and that is a beautiful thing to have, and it takes time to develop. You don't build it over just a few years.

Which brings us back to jazz in a way; how you don't start out being a great musician. It's through the process of continually working at it and refining it that you become one.

To me, being a jazz musician is about expressing yourself through your instrument, and about your playing reflecting your personality. And if you can do that as a collective, fantastic. It's the key to freedom. Because once you start playing, all the shit in your life goes out the window. All that shit with your job or your missus or your kids or your mates, everything – when you're playing that music, it's gone. I mean, when you're 18 you're just doing what you're doing. You probably don't even know why you're doing it – to get girls or something. But we were always interested in sound. Martin Hannett taught us about that - the love of sound, trying to find a sound nobody had heard before, or even just turning an amp right up and making a noise. Just the love of music generally. A bit like that film School Of Rock. I love that movie.

Speaking of films, I wanted to talk about David Lynch for a minute, because there's a bit of dialogue from Inland Empire on the album. Any particular reason for that?

I just think it's a fantastic movie, one of my favourites. Not necessarily to go and see at the cinema, although I did see it at the cinema – all three hours of it. A bit too long. But on DVD, it's fantastic. Eraserhead was a big film for ACR. I remember when we started out, it was on at the Arden, this great old cinema in Hulme, and we went to see it about four or five times. It had a really big influence on us – the soundtrack, the visuals, everything. We connected with it totally.

To end on a completely different note, something that most people won't know about you is that you used to play football for Manchester United.

I did, yeah. I was recently in the Man United magazine, the February 2011 edition with Ryan Giggs on the cover. There's an article about me on the inside back page. My uncle was Eddie Thomas, who used to play for Everton in the 50s and 60s, and went on to play for Derby County under Brian Clough. He was a good footballer, an inside forward. I played for United from the age of 11. I signed schoolboy forms at 15 in Matt Busby's office, then went back to school to do my A-Levels, but when I was 17 I broke my ankle. I broke it three times in two years, and that was that. I was a ball-boy at United for a while, and there's a famous goal that George Best scored against Sheffield United in 1971. It's one of those they always show on TV, and I'm stood behind the goal when it goes in. It's on YouTube. I posted it on my Facebook page a while ago.

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