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An interview with Simon Emmerson of Afro Celt Sound System

Seeds of Change

In 1995, the Afro Celt Sound System burst onto the global music scene with its innovative album, Volume One: Sound Magic, an exciting and unique blend of electronica with Irish and African vocals and influences. Their two follow-up albums, Volume Two: Release and Volume Three: Further In Time, featured guest appearances by Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, and Sinéad O'Connor, and with their most recent album, Seed, they've dropped the Sound System and are now calling themselves the Afro Celts. The band features a number of notables, including James McNally, formerly a member of the Pogues; Johnny Kalsi, formerly with Transglobal Underground; highly regarded Irish singer Iarla O Lionaird; and the band's founder, Simon Emmerson, a well known UK producer. We spoke to Simon recently after the Afro Celts completed their most recent tour of the States.

TRIP: I've seen each of the shows you've played in Seattle. On your most recent show here, you'd moved from having a wall of keyboards looming over the center of the stage to having live drums and bass, and for the first time you had a chance to just play guitar the entire show. Similarly, you've gone from being a "Sound System" to just being the Afro Celts. How did that evolution take place?

SIMON EMMERSON: We started very much coming out of DJ culture. There was a club in London called the Whirl-Y-Gig. In the early '90s, they were running a regular Saturday evening event in my local town hall, which was a kind of celebration of psychedelic culture without the drugs and alcohol, really, because they had a policy of letting kids in as well as adults. They completely transformed the town hall. The DJ was playing a lot of what's now called "global fusion," but at the time, it was like Transglobal Underground and Loop Guru and African music and a lot of acid house and mixing it up. I'd been working in Africa with Baaba Maal, and that was the inspiration, really, that was the context for the Afro Celts. It was very much a DJ-based idea, bringing a sound system to festivals, and instead of the old kind of turntables, we'd have MIDI gear and stuff. The idea of calling the band an Afro Celt Sound System was to identify us as having a mobile line up with different guests. We weren't specifically a kind of focused band. Like Soul II Soul or Leftfield – Leftfield would do albums with different guests. The idea was that it was sort of a movable feast. Originally I only thought I'd produce a couple albums and then hand the baton on to another producer or another group of people. It wasn't really anchored down to any specific group.

And by the time we recorded Seed, that certainly wasn't the case. Myself, Martin Russell and James had been working together for seven years; Iarla, Johnny, and Emer Maycock had been in the band almost as long. After seven years of playing together, we felt we really needed to evolve and get a proper rhythm section, and it worked out pretty well, although it has created quite a lot of confusion. A lot of people think the Afro Celts are different from the Afro Celt Sound System. What we're probably going to do is Afro Celts is going to represent the more acoustic or organic band, and the Sound System is going to represent more the electronica. We're doing a remix album which is going to be by the Afro Celt Sound System, just to confuse the public even more.

To keep people on their toes.

Yeah. But I mean, the name change didn't work. Never underestimate the stupidity of the record-buying public. (laughs)

A Real World recording week played a role in how you initially formed, and I've always been really curious about what it's like to attend one of those recording weeks.

I'd been to one before, and I produced an album with a Moroccan Gnawa trance musician – traditional trance, not techno trance – called Hassan Hakmoun, and it was an amazing experience. They're like these wonderful kind of brainstorming sessions, the kind of place where a lot of musicians would like to go to after they die, really. You just walk around these idyllic surroundings and stroll into studios and pick up instruments and collaborate with other musicians. There's a very kind of open vibe. People aren't competing against each other. The general vibe was, "Let's get together and see if it works and try and create new music which crosses boundaries and continents and definitions." Peter Gabriel himself commands a huge amount of respect. He's a kind of enabler. He's one of these people that likes to get people together and see what happens. And I was very honored, privileged to be invited down.

It was after the first recording week that I thought it'd be good to do this in a rather more developed way. So when we went back with the Afro Celts, we kind of built a whole studio and recording environment. We were out in one of the garages. We didn't get the big studio that Daniel Lanois had at the time. And that was cool, you know, we were in the garage in the car park around the back, and we had an open door, and had the kettle on, and we had a projector up showing Jamie Reid's artwork. He was our artist at the time, doing the sort of artwork that you saw on the first three albums, and he'd come to us from doing all the punk graphics for the Sex Pistols in the '70s. We had a dozen or so backing tracks, and I invited some of Baaba Maal's band over. We had an open door policy, and that's how Volume One happened. It was seven days of joyous collaboration. It was an incredible experience.

I was very nervous at the time. I didn't think I was really qualified to do an Afro Celt album, not being African or Irish. I knew I would get the beats right, or at least make an interesting form of UK dance music, but I was quite worried. I spent enough time in Africa with Baaba Maal's band to have been accepted by them; they were part of the family, really. But the Irish musicians said if we'd made the record in Ireland with Irish producers, it would have been a very different record and probably a lot duller and a lot more conservative.

How did you hook up with Iarla to get his voice involved in what you're doing?

He just turned up at the recording week. He sent a demo to Real World independently, and when I started putting the Afro Celts together, I was asking Real World about singers. We were thinking of using Baaba Maal, and I was saying, "Are there any Irish singers?" They said, "Well, there's this guy called Iarla O Lionaird who comes from this sean-nós tradition of unaccompanied singing." I hadn't actually heard him; he just turned up. He kind of wandered in, the wandering bard. And within an hour, he'd sung "Inion," this beautiful, Celtic/Islamic call to prayer. And we sat there utterly amazed, and then he went on to do the "Lament," which is that slow, evolving, meditative piece that you get as the last track on the first album.

You've talked in the past about coming from a punk background. How did you get drawn into more of a techno sound over time?

I got into punk in my late teens, because it had the energy and passion and politics and excitement that was lacking in the music business at the time. It was a very exciting time in my life. The punks I was involved with were incredibly open-minded. We were listening to Coltrane and a lot of very avant-garde experimental music. I was in a band called Scritti Politti, who were kind of punk experimentalists. I mean, I didn't go to art school, but a lot of them all went to the same art school, and out of that year of art college, you got Scritti Politti, you got the Gang of Four, you got the Mekons. You also got Soft Cell and various other bands who were all in that kind of mold. So I was into that kind of scene.

I've always had a love of global music. When I was a punk, I started working in a jazz specialty shop, which was basically selling hard bop, be bop, and there was a section there which was kind of a "miscellaneous" where all the African stuff like early Fela Kuti records were stashed. I used to take those records home, and I kind of discovered the whole range of African music in the early '80s. Me and my mates were all trying to copy that kind of Zairean, west African guitar style, because it used to remind us of all the kind of dueling psychedelic guitars you'd have on Grateful Dead or Quicksilver Messenger Service albums, but with a lot more focus. I had a kind of love of Latin music as well. I remember discovering people like Milton Nascimento and the whole Latin pavilion scene in the early '80s. So it was always there.

I've never really liked techno. The techno guy in the band is Mass. He programs for us and he had a band called the Pygmies, and another band called Trench, and they were really really hard core acid techno with a lot of industrial rock over the top. I find a lot of his stuff unlistenable. When he strolls down memory lane and gets those old unreleased demo tapes out, we all kind of head for the door and make excuses and go down to the pub. I've always been into groove-based music and music that crosses boundaries. I produced the Acid Jazz and Other Illicit Grooves compilations and at the time, acid jazz was always very much seen as one of the more experimental areas of British dance music.

I noticed you were wearing a "Wear Hemp – Hemp Wear" T-shirt… that's the kind of thing a psychedelic editor notices immediately. What kind of role did psychedelic culture play for you specifically in terms of your musical development?

I was brought up on it. My dad used to manage a band called Screw, who were a kind of prototype Magic Band / Beefheart type band, so as a kid, the first band I ever saw was Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, and I must have seen Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention half a dozen times. The back of our garden was where Soft Machine had their offices. I used to go to all the Soft Machine gigs and was very much a child who grew up immersed in the whole Canterbury, English psychedelic scene, which was an amazingly fertile source of music actually. I've actually got Pipers At The Gates Of Dawn signed by the entire membership of the Pink Floyd, back when Syd Barrett was in the band. I'm sitting here talking to you in the very studio where they recorded Dark Side Of The Moon. So there you go.

My dad was a Buddhist. He dropped out of society when I was a kid. He went to live in Scotland and lived a completely kind of organic life. He didn't drink or smoke and I guess he was like a prototype Green anarchist. So that side of alternative culture, I kind of grew up with it, although as a punk, I turned my back on it, because I was an angry young man and it wasn't cool to like hippies. But it's kind of funny because all the punks I've known who've kept the faith are now leading figures in the Green movement or within alternative culture.

I'm sorry to say no one in the band really drinks or does drugs…

That's nothing to be sorry about.

I DJ'd at the High Times Cannabis Cup awards two years ago in Amsterdam. It was full of these American hippies going around from coffee shop to coffee shop, and they had these charts where they were sort of checking off all the various grades of cannabis to find the most pure form of skunk. The fact is, the skunk you get in Amsterdam is just so fucking strong, it's really, really unpleasant. As a DJ gig goes, that was the most boring I've ever done. By the end of the night, people just couldn't get off their asses. It didn't matter what I played. It was such hard work. It was just so laid back, it was horizontal. It's kind of interesting really, when you go to places like Holland where they've effectively decriminalized cannabis, a lot of people don't really do it or if they do, it's just very occasionally. The kids just don't do it because it's something that their parents do. Then you go to the coffee shops and it's just tourists getting stupidly numbed out.

There are lots of influences in the Afro Celts. I guess Mass still goes out and does the free festival thing. He's still happiest standing in a field with a sound system playing hard core alternative techno at 3:00 in the morning. My days of doing that are over, although I am going down to Devlin tomorrow in west England to do a big free party and it's going to be fantastic. I'll be playing with two musicians from Headmix Collective. We'll do a two hour set, kind of like the old school Afro Celt sets, and that's going to be great. Every society needs its alternative culture. I think you can judge the healthiness of a society by how healthy the alternative culture is, really.

On your first three albums, you had some key guest appearances. Did you get any pressure from anyone to try to replicate the success of "When You're Falling"?

Not really, because how many times can you do that? It was a complete fluke. We wrote a track and thought this would be great if Peter Gabriel sang it, and we were kind of expecting him to say no, and then he did it, and it sounded great. That's a once in a lifetime experience. The fact that we got Robert Plant in to do a track is more remarkable. I guess there are other people we'd like to collaborate with, but it's kind of a bit of a double-edged sword, isn't it, because talking to people in America, a lot of the radio stations didn't actually say it was the Afro Celts.

Yeah, I noticed it kept showing up as "the new Peter Gabriel single."

"That was the voice of Peter Gabriel." Having said that, it opened up a whole huge market for us. We were number one on the world music Billboard chart for two months, and sold a lot more records in the first three months than we have for Seed. I'm very proud of that record as well. Real World aren't that kind of label. They're not the kind of label that turn around and go, "Come on, guys, we need another massive crossover Celtic African fusion track." You don't get conversations like that with Real World.

Peter Gabriel is known to be a real perfectionist when he's working on his own music. What was it like collaborating with him to put that track together?

Well, he just did it. We weren't there. He did it, and we listened and went, "Wow, that's amazing," and that was it. I think it's a lot easier working on other people's stuff than it is on your own. I find that when I'm producing other people's material, I enjoy it more than when I'm doing my own stuff, because you're one or two steps removed from it.

There was a really great video for that track…

The video was about to get heavy rotation on MTV, and probably would have pushed the record into a half million sales. Then September 11 happened, and they pulled it, for completely understandable reasons because it's quite a dark video. It's a guy falling through the sky, past an airplane, past a skyscraper, through the ground, and that was that. But we're releasing a remix album early next year, a double record, and there's going to be half a dozen videos on that, including two clips from our second Seattle show, and we're going to put "Falling" on it and a remix of "Persistence of Memory" that's also got a beautiful video, a really lovely video done by a French producer who went to thirty countries in two weeks or something.

I know it's getting passe to ask musicians this, but I still find it interesting to hear how people respond. What's your take on the way the Internet is affecting ideas of copyright and distribution?

Well, I'd love to say that music should be free, but we're really, really struggling. When people say to me, "Look, hope you don't mind, I've just downloaded your album off the Internet," I say "Fine, mate, I'll come around and nick your stereo." There's something a little bit weird about the Metallicas of the world sitting on a pile of money and getting huffy about people downloading their music. But it is, at the end of the day, theft. If I wrote a book and saw somebody photocopying it and handing it out free, I'd get pissed off. You can't make a penny out of record sales in Africa because everything's bootlegged. Musicians can't survive, they can't make a decent living because everything's pirated and comes out on cassettes.

There is something positive about it in as much as you get this massive consumer vote, you get a kind of underground, unmediated consumer vote. The kids say "I want that," and they're not being told to buy it by anybody, they're finding out themselves. Apparently in Britain now, most teenagers spent more time on the Internet than watching telly. My son is massively into UK hip hop – this MC Rascal has just won the Mercury Award, and he was 17 when he made his album, he comes from the east end of London, and his music was available on pirate radio stations and via the Internet. Ted, my son, spent all his time listening to music on the Internet and talking to other producers, and that's very healthy and very positive. We haven't done a single interview in the British rock press, and we've sold a million albums now, we've had two Grammy nominations, but they just won't interview us because we're not considered mainstream enough or whatever, so we do really need alternative sources of exposure. That's where the Internet comes in. We've got a great web site, we've got a great chat room, we've got a great forum. That's the positive side of it. The negative side of it is if it gets any worse, I'll end up driving a cab. I won't be making music.

I guess what we have to do is find ways of making money out of making music that don't necessarily involve CD sales. CDs are ridiculously expensive in the UK. They're like fifteen pounds, which is $20 or $25 in America. That's just too expensive; they should be cheaper, and they should be upgraded so they have a DVD element or an interactive element. Our second release had an interactive game on it called Noodle, where you could remix the tracks. I reckon ten or twenty percent of our sales were because of Noodle, because kids were going out and buying it because it was just something very cool, you know what I mean? That's what we've got to do. Record companies have got to find a way of creating a product that is so good that people will buy it. I think the future's got to be DVD, it's got to be 5:1. If everyone has a 5:1 system, you're busting out the stereo into surround sound and you can really start experimenting with mixes. I mean, talk about psychedelic revolution, that would really take off. Afro Celt music is designed for 5:1, it's designed for surround. We can never contain the amount of information within a stereo framework; our tracks always end up sounding too small. It works live in a big ambient context, but we've done a few surround mixes here in the studio, and it just makes sense. Maybe that's a way forward.

Your music appeals to a wide range of people in psychedelic culture – the younger ravers who are heavy into electronica, and the aging hippies who were well into world music before the kids figured it out. Did you have any idea that was going to happen?

To be honest, that was what the Whirl-Y-Gig was always about in 1992. It was about breaking down barriers. The first gig that we did at the WOMAD Festival in Reading, we played to a couple thousand people in this tent in the rain, and it was exactly the audience you were describing. The most exciting moment for me was when I stopped all the programming and James went out and did his bodhran solo. It was the first time we'd done it, the first gig we'd ever done. And then he kind of started dueling with the percussion player. And the cheer we got from the audience, I just remember thinking, "This crowd is ready for this now. They're really ready to see post-DJ music, post-DJ culture." It didn't surprise me that a lot of the big name DJs when they went over to America never really made it, because there's a limit to standing there watching guys playing records, and I think the bands who survived that have been the bands who have taken one or two steps beyond DJ culture and defined their own sound, like Underworld and Leftfield. Within my scene in London now, a lot of the DJs are forming bands now and going out and playing live, and it's for that very reason that you said – the kids are wanting more than just dancing to three hours of the same kind of groove over again, and the old people are coming back into clubs because the music's becoming more interesting for them.

The Afro Celts were destined to happen. There was a lot of amazing coincidence, a lot of synchronicity involved in the first record. I'll put my hand on my heart and say that we really did have a lot of very positive forces working to make that album happen.

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