3rd January 1997
Although he has been responsible for some of the most innovative drum 'n' bass music to date, A Guy Called Gerald is as anonymous as the technology he uses. And he likes it that way. Interview by Ben Thompson
There are few more beguiling qualities in pop music than mystery, and Gerald Simpson, aka enigmatic 29-year-old drum 'n' bass eminence A Guy Called Gerald, has it in clubs. There is nothing secretive or closed off about the burly, track-suited figure who bowls down the staircase from his bed to his Hammersmith studio at the crack of a winter weekday lunchtime. But having listened to Gerald's music for not far short of a decade - from 1989's hypnotic one-off hit "Voodoo Ray" to his superb, too rarely heard, soon to be reissued 1995 album Black Secret Technology - the sound of his speaking voice (genial, bluff, and very Mancunian) still comes as a surprise.
Where Goldie (who features on the exhilarating "Energy", one of Black Secret Technology's standout numbers) cannot go to the cornershop without setting the flashbulbs clicking, Gerald maintains a much lower profile; a four-album back catalogue, regular Radio 1 DJ slots and a major role in the imminent junglification of David Bowie notwithstanding, does he mind being the private counterpart to Goldie's public drum 'n' bass face? "Not at all, no. I think it's good that someone's out there to give the music an identity - it makes it easier to explain when cab drivers ask me what I do - but I'm glad it's not me."
While other more recent junglish landmarks (Alex Reece's So Far springs uncharitably to mind) seem to have lost their lustre with alarming swiftness, Black Secret Technology still sounds like the music of tomorrow almost two years on. Eerie and uplifting, alarming and emollient in equal measure, this record richly deserves the wider audience it is now finally going to get.
Gerald got the title from watching a strange woman spout conspiracy theories on a late night TV show. In the darkened sitting room next to his studio, with a video copy of David Lynch's Dune resting on top of the huge TV, it is easy to see how paranoia might take hold. As with Sun Ra, Lee Perry and George Clinton - the black science fiction Holy Trinity at the heart of the sacred tradition to which Gerald's strange and compelling music might fairly be said to belong - it is hard to tell where humour ends and deadly seriousness begins.
"The other day Fergie was on TV," Gerald observes gravely. "She was rambling on, as she does, and she started to say how she was being watched by a higher power. The woman who was interviewing her said `What, by the royal family?'. Fergie said `no' and I saw her face change, as if she was going to let something slip... If she'd said anything else, I think the next thing we'd have heard, there would've been a skiing accident on the news..."
There are two sides to the secret technology thing, though, aren't there - the scary, controlling side, and the positive side, which is the music? "Yeah, absolutely. And also because technology makes the world smaller, the powers that be can't get away with as much as they used to. The secret side of it comes from people being scared to grasp hold of technology, which I find really strange. If you look at, say, the first drum machine and then the latest Apple Q-Base Audio whatever, the principle is exactly the same - it's moved on, but it's not changed that much, and I don't think it ever will - it's like that bottle (he points to a handy Tango receptacle) and then that bottle again but covered in flashing lights."
Has the language of technology always come easily to him? "I remember a teacher in primary school used to tell us `If you find something, look at it', and that was the attitude I grew up with. My mum used to buy me toys, I'd give them a week and then I'd hack them apart: if they had a speaker in them, I'd rip them out and use the magnet for something else. Plastic toys just got wasted - I'd heat a knife and cut them up. After a while she kind of decided, `I'm not buying him any more if that's what he's going to do with them...' She was into it though: there was a bit of wasteland near where we lived where people used to dump stuff, and I'd find old radios and bits and pieces and make what I wanted out of them."
This inquisitive DIY approach fed organically into Gerald's early ventures into music-making. He started out by taping short sections of early electronic dance records like Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" off his record-player and playing them back repeatedly to make a new track, then got hold of a drum machine which he would programme to echo the beat on a record then play the two simultaneously and twist the sounds together. With twin turntables and years of studying the work of studio pioneers like Arthur Baker behind him, Gerald was ready to do his own thing. In the classic tradition of great British borrowings - the Beatles from Arthur Alexander, the Sex Pistols from the New York Dolls - his "Voodoo Ray" got the new dance sounds of Chicago and Detroit right by getting them wrong, and in the process became the most enduring of all Acid House anthems.
Outside the studio, things went rather less smoothly. From a painful legal dispute with his early partners 808 State over who had written their hit single "Pacific State", to having his second album for Sony rejected on the grounds that it was "too avant-garde", to falling out with his old independent management company in a cash-related custody battle, A Guy Called Gerald's relationship with the music business seems to have been an intensely problematic one. He doesn't seem to have let it get him down though. "If I was doing this for financial gain," Gerald insists good-humouredly, "I would have given up in 1988... I knew exactly what I was going into with Sony, though. I remember being in this studio with my A&R man - who was also Bros' A&R man - the day he phoned them to say `Sorry lads, it ain't happening.' I was thinking `Shit, I've got that coming, but at least I know I didn't go out and buy a lot of flash cars and crash them.' "
It wasn't just in the small print that hazards lurked. The late Eighties were not the safest of times to have a hit single in Manchester. "There were certain clubs I just couldn't go to," Gerald recalls grimly. "People would see you in the press and think `There's the guy who's done "Voodoo Ray" - he must be loaded' and it just got really dangerous. I remember one day my mum came to see me, I drove her back to my old estate in Rusholme and this guy came riding towards me on a mountain bike. I looked at him as I turned the car round the corner and he was standing there with a Beretta pointed at me. I got out of the car and he got in it. He tried to reverse and smashed into the car behind him and then the one in front. By now there were people coming out of the shops so I thought `I'll go and stand with them in case he gets pissed off and tries to shoot me', then he drove over to look at me and said `Oh, wrong person', got out of the car and rode off."
If the last record A Guy Called Gerald made in Manchester - the tautly martial 28 Gun Bad Boy - reflected the risky environment it was made in, the sense of yearning communicated in such Black Secret Technology highlights as "Finley's Rainbow" and "So Many Dreams" might be said to be a response to the anonymity of life in the capital. The hyperactive shuffling beats and sumptuous overlaying swathes somehow manage to be frenetic and restful at the same time. It's almost as if the music is carving out a peaceful space above the maelstrom of city life.
Gerald nods: "It's kind of on three levels. The first is the earth, which is explaining what's actually going on, then there's the air, which is like me travelling, then there's the spiritual level - which is where where I want my head to be." So to enjoy it properly you have to be willing to be pulled in several opposing directions at once? "The music is basically about being in three different dimensions at the same time and trying to join them together.
"I try and visualise it as a body," he continues, still in transcendental mode, "the breakbeat - which could be a bit of another record or just anything that's been really distorted - is like the bones, then there are certain parts of the break that branch out, like the skeleton. You start off with the big bones, then the little bones, then you've got to build the nervous system, then put the flesh on and finally there's the skin on top."
And what about after it's finished and goes out into the world? "That's nothing to do with me," Gerald grins. "Any form of art should be about self-expression; it shouldn't be about worrying whether people like it or not." n
`Black Secret Technology' (Juke Box CD/LP/Tape) is out on Mon 13 Jan
[Author: Ben Thompson]