As a musician, producer, graphic designer and DJ, Trevor Jackson has succeeded on the fringes of alternative and electronic music culture for over thirty years, periodically gravitating towards it's centre with his unique vision and attitude, the seeds of which were sown as hip-hop indebted teen in suburban London. There are almost too many unexpected turns and oft-forgotten interesting projects in his back catalogue, so for those unfamiliar, let's play the hits. He's designed iconic covers for the likes of Soulwax, Stereo MCs and Clams Casino, ran the feted Output label, releasing early material from the likes of LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture, and formed the disco/electro supergroup, Playgroup. Currently, Jackson's focus is squarely on two new labels, ‘Pre' and 'Post'. The former sees Jackson raiding his archives for gems, including Playgroup gems and other aliases, before it's closure in the near-future, giving way to the latter as a mail-order, vinyl only service.
But Jackson is no digital snob, and playing the hits is not something he could be accused of throughout his fortnightly NTS London show, a two-hour pilgrimage into new music spanning a mind-boggling variety of tempos, tones, genres and backgrounds. In conversation with John Thorp, Jackson discusses his new creative approach, integrity, nostalgia (or lack there of), the banality of social media and the importance of those who should not be known as 'curators', injecting each topic with his typical combination of refreshing candour and confidence.
A few years ago, on a memorable Resident Advisor podcast, you were asked what you would do differently with your old label, Output, if you could start it again. You answered that you wouldn't have started it at all, and also discussed losing your creative confidence. Two years later, and you're promoting two new labels. What's changed?
At the time I did that interview, I’d since regained my confidence when I did the 'Format' album and started getting my music out again. But even now I've started a new label, it's just for my music. I don't want to work with anyone else. When you're running a label and you're working with other artists and egos, personalities and management, it's just a stress. And for me now, it's a completely different headspace, releasing my own music. It's fun.
So you feel like you're on a decent upward trajectory right now, personally and creatively?
I was having a shit time when Output closed, but that was ten years ago. Then I went through lots of personal situations that weren't good, and changed my life. But when I started releasing the Metal Dance compilations, I got a taste of the music industry again, but on my own terms. Closing Output was a hugely dramatic change in my life. It was not only disappointing but it was stressful and debilitating in many ways. My label was my life, and it wasn't a business, but a life-encompassing creative project. And then, coming out of that, I needed a break, to step back, and figure out what was going on. Because things were changing so fast in terms of physical music and the way the digital world has transformed how we buy music. So I thought, instead of being involved in it, just be a voyeur and step back into it at a time I felt comfortable.
You're releasing a lot of this through Bandcamp, which gives much more control to an artist than might have been possible when labels had all the power. Has this been pretty satisfying for you?
Yeah, that's part of it. I don't make a lot of money or sell a lot of records through Bandcamp, but, when you get the odd 7.99 in every other hour or so, and you see someone buying their music directly from you... I don't want to repeat myself, but as for the monetary value of music, I grew up in a time when you could make money from making music. And not hugely successful music. You could make a living just making incredible music. So maybe, myself and my generation, we were spoilt? But I like to say thank you, so I do my NTS show and over 90% of the music I play is the music I buy. And I like going online and buying music or going to the record shop. Because to me, that's like saying, “Hey, you made this music, so thank you.”
And being my age and of my generation, that's a huge part of my moral values of making music. It's intrinsic to me. And I'm sure, to younger generations, it's a completely different thing. And it might just be 99 pence here and there, but it's nice to know that people like it. I get much more satisfaction from getting 1.99 on Bandcamp than 50000 Spotify plays.
A lot of this music is from a huge backlog, being revisited by you and heard by an audience for the first time. What was the criteria to ensure that music was still worth releasing and still worth hearing? Or did it just simply need to be done?
I had hundreds of tracks, and I know which ones were shit and that I got rid of. Stepping back from something for a long period of time helped so much. It transformed my attitude toward some of these tracks. I stepped back and thought, “Why did I have such an issue with this at the time?”, as it's actually really good. I just needed the space. I was making tracks every day for decades. I remember there was a period that I was single for ages, and I just sat in my bedroom making music, eight hours a day, for years. I was thinking only yesterday, that it's mad that everything I ever create, I create it as if I might drop dead tomorrow.
Was that the same in your formative years as a musician? In your teens, even?
No, it was different back then, it was very cathartic. Whenever I had issues in my life, I got lost in music. And now, with certain things in my life, I put a million percent into it. And it's not an age thing. I could get hit by a bus. I was about four feet away from getting hit by lightning about seven years ago, which was mental. But it's just important for me to give everything. And so all those tracks I listened to, I put my heart and soul into them, and they're like my little kids. It's weird, dealing with this stuff from the past, because for the past five or six years, I've been desperately trying to push myself into the present. I've just been stuck in the past in so many ways, and the light's at the end of the tunnel. And when I finally get the last remnants of this music out, it'll be a revelation to me.
When you say you were “stuck in the past”, do you mean on a personal level in terms of your music, or how you were viewed as an artist?
On a personal level, in that, here I am; doing a radio show that's all about brand new music. Djing, playing 75 or 80% brand new music. All the music that's in my life, on my own, is all old, because I left it so long. A part of me regrets not putting it out, but it wasn't right to put out then. And some of this music I'm putting out sounds more relevant now than when I made it. But when you get older, as I said, I want to feel like I'm making the most of every moment in my life, but for me, being progressive is hugely important to me. But I have felt held back by my past, and have done for some time. And that's more my perception of myself, rather than what other people perceive of me.
Moving onto the radio show, it feels like you really dig deep for new music. How does it come together every fortnight?
I take two days out a fortnight where I go to record shops and visit all the digital stores. And honestly, I do listen to pretty much everything that comes out. Not in full, and across leftfield music, house and techno and reggae. So I live in my genres, but I pretty much check through everything. It's getting to point now, sadly, where there's so much new music that if the artwork's really shit... Well, no, not if it's really shit, then I sometimes listen to it. But if it's pretty average, I don't. But I do this before I go through my DJ email promos, which isn't the best idea, as sometimes I end up buying stuff I've been sent anyway. The whole culture of having to leave DJ feedback without having listened to something properly means I'd rather just buy a record and live with it for a few weeks. The truth is, when I do my two hour radio show, I go in with 150 tracks I've bought, and do it on the fly; it's probably the first time I've heard them in full, or heard them properly.
So sometimes you have to wiggle out of a record that's changed shape in a way you haven't expected into something completely different?
Absolutely. And I don't think I could do it every week. As I say, I probably fit in 40 or 50 tracks, and that leaves about 100 I haven't played. But it's a really, highly pleasurable experience preparing for the show, and in terms of Djing it lets me keep on top of everything for new stuff to play.
You've been collecting music for decades, and there's probably an alternate universe Trevor Jackson that fits into the crate-digging 'selectors' culture. Has it always come easy to you to move forward and avoid nostalgia?
The thing is, age, is a fucker. And the most important thing is; I don't want to be the oldest person on NTS, playing old man's music. I want to be the oldest person on NTS, playing the most exciting and most innovative music on the station. I want to spend the rest of my life exploring new things. The roots, compilations I've done, be it Metal Dance or Science Fiction Dancehall Classics, the foundations and the history is fundamental, but I don't want to focus on that. There's so much new music that I can find 150 new tracks a fortnight – new, young people putting out their new single, maybe for the first time – and as much as I like having a chat to people, the show is not about me. It's hugely important to me to find new music and push it out there. Because at this moment in time, there's so much stuff, and editors – and I don't want to say 'curators', because it's such a wanky word – but editors are important people. Finding someone you can trust who can select things you can like in your life which is hectic anyway, and spending two hours reading or listening to them, those kind of people are important.
As a designer, you've always been happy to work with corporations and brands, from BMW to Nike, and from a musical perspective, you were recently an ardent defender of Boiler Room's controversial Notting Hill Carnival coverage. Presuming we're in a time in which corporate money in the form of branding and sponsorship is part and parcel of alternative music culture, when it comes to working with those brands, how do you smell the rats and decide who to go forward with that will stay authentic to the music?
I mean, it's a tough one. Once you meet these clients, and you sound them out, I'm not always the easiest person to work with. I'm not difficult to work with. I'd like to think in some of the areas I'm the best person to work with, for that particular thing. But, you know, I'm honest. I don't bullshit, I'm straight forward, to the point. And, if they can deal with that and they want to work with me, then I'll do it. I'm not going to slag off any corporation that wants to get involved with underground culture. I played at one of the first Red Bull events in Germany, and met all these people, and they're music heads like you wouldn't believe. With the Academy, I truthfully feel that they're putting something back, so in terms of Red Bull, their heart's in the right place and they put so much into the community. As for Boiler Room; Alright, so one of the founders has got a lot of money, but in terms of the staff that work there, they couldn't have more integrity. And as for Notting Hill Carnival, and those sound systems, they're not idiots. If you speak to Channel One or Jah Shaka, or any of those people that were playing there, then they're not going to be abused by a corporation. They thought it was helping them, and got their music out there to millions of people who have never heard it before. And I think that's a good thing, so in that sense, I'm just a realist.
You made your name designing, producing and remixing in the early days of UK hip-hop, where authenticity was perhaps valued above all else, so I was keen to hear your thoughts.
This is just reality now. Back in the day, I could probably sell three or four thousand copies of a single. But that world is dead, and you don't make money from selling singles anymore, unless you're a huge artist. So you have to find another way of doing that, and if that way is working with a brand, then so be it. It's just reality. If I was a teenager, maybe it would be slightly different. But I live in London and I have a mortgage to pay. I'd like to think that, without a doubt, I have morals and integrity, and I wouldn't work with a brand I morally disagreed with. But I've worked with Coca Cola, BMW, Lexus... And I've had the chance to do some amazing projects with these people, and they've let me do my thing. They've asked me to work with them because they respect what I do.
Earlier, you identified yourself as a 'no-nonsense' character. I saw you indulge in a rare bit of nostalgia recently, sharing a tweet from Fabio, reminiscing about the time when dance music was just about making people dance. Like Fabio, I've always seen you as someone unafraid to speak their mind and perhaps be provocative. Did that manifest itself differently prior to social media?
For me, social media is a necessity. At the moment, because I have music and releases coming out, I need people to be aware of it. I get someone to do my press, but the fact of the matter is, if I don't do social media, I can't let my, in inverted commas, 'fanbase', know what I'm doing.
I despise social media. Most people's opinions, within the dance music community, I don't give a fuck about. Most of everything I see on social media is fucking banal, and I hate the fact I have to contribute to it, but I do. When I do these occasional sincere tweets, it's kind of taking the piss now, because if you're a DJ, you have to be a complete dick and be provocative or be so humble that it's manipulative, just for fucking likes. It's ridiculous. So I like to call people out, be a bit ironic or take the piss. I've never got where I am today by licking anyone's arse, or doing anything anybody told me to. If anything, I've gone against what I should have done, and not taken the formulaic route. I want to make things as difficult as possible for myself, as I enjoy a challenge. I've never wanted to be part of some scene, or hanging out with the people who do the same thing as me. I don't have a disdain for music as a whole, and I don't have a disdain for DJs, but I'd rather hear DJs playing music than talking about their opinions. I just care about how good the music is.
I could talk about this for hours, and (unfortunately for my mates), sometimes I do. That little hit of dopamine for a like, or a share, it's worryingly addictive. I think you need to reach for some level of satisfaction beyond that, but I also understand that it's just so easy...
Oh yeah, totally. And it's totally against my values, because I haven't done things in life to necessarily be liked. It can make you depressed, because the fact of the matter is, I've been doing this for three decades, and I've got, what, a couple of thousand followers on social media? Some new guy comes along, half my age, gets 75000 likes in the space of a few months or something. But does it make him better than me? But once you've realised in your head that popularity doesn't equate to talent or ability, then it makes things a lot easier. Because we're at a situation right now in which people think that if you're popular, then you're good. And that's what my show is all about. I play stuff by people that is not popular, but it shits on most of the bigger records that are out there. As you say, you get someone liking your tweet or your Facebook post, and it feels good. But unless it's all about feeding your ego, popularity is overrated. You should never rely on other people to tell you how good you are.
Thirty years ago, the creative industries were very different to now. At what point did you attain that confidence and self-belief instilled in you?
If you think you're doing something for the right reasons, the intention of what you do is the most important thing. Results are important, but the intentions of why you do something are important. I'm not overly confident about what I do, because when I listen to most the music I play on my show, it's so good, and I don't know how to make music like that. Most of the music I'm releasing was made on an S950 Mono Sampler, that had about 18 seconds memory in it. I had very limited outboard gear. I can use Logic, but I can't use Ableton Live. I don't know how to do this shit, and it makes me question my ability. I've always tried to tap into areas that other people weren't doing. It meant it was exciting as I was doing something new, and maybe part of that was that at the same time, subconsciously, is that you don't have much competition.
You've said previously that you tend to disappear and reappear, rejuvenated, every decade. Will that happen again, or is there too much going on?
Well, I'm about to do that again. I've got this new label, Pre, with maybe four or five releases to come. I’m desperate to get all this old music out, and then lock myself in the studio and start to make the kind of music I've never made before. Maybe I'll get off social media. That's the whole reason my next label Post will be just postal orders and letters. . But I'll definitely get off the grid somehow. I've been doing this thirty years, and I still think I have some integrity and something to offer. And I'd rather be doing this long-term and have respect from people that I care about than be huge for a few years and then people fucking forget about me. And I think every few years, you need to step back, and change what you do and move on. My style has always changed, and that's kind of problematic, because people can't tie you down. When I DJ, people wonder if I'm going to play a metal dance set or a hip-hop set mixed up with house or whatever. People find it hard to pigeonhole me, and I'm fine with that.
Finally, according to Resident Advisor's calculations, you've been listed as playing alongside our own Erol Alkan more than any other DJ. Any particularly fond memories from over the years?
Really? It's flattering! But I do think it's incorrect, as much as I love what Erol does. The most memorable gig was probably me, Erol and Tiga at The End, when Erol actually fell asleep under the decks in the DJ booth. And I have photographic evidence...
John Thorp, January 2018.