|A Guy Thing|
13th August 2003
It’s been over a decade since ‘Voodoo Ray’ cemented its place within Manchester legend, but the A Guy Called Gerald legacy lives long and prosperous. Talking ahead of his long-awaited Tribal appearance, the Manc House pioneer takes on a enthralling journey from career past to present.
The mid afternoon sun blazes outside, scorching the neglected streets of a once industrious area just outside Manchester city centre. Inside one of two adjoining, almost aircraft hangar-sized warehouses that will host the Tribal Gathering Warehouse party, City Life is trying to get to grips with the situation. The space is so large that after seeing it, you can't help but be excited by the thought of what it will look like on 23 August, full of revved up ravers.
The unusual setting is made all the more surreal by the arrival one of the Tribal promoters. A man clearly into his 30s, he is clad from head to toe in white, save for the black Zorro-style eye mask, red cap and shiny red cape he is wearing. The cape has a large black K in the centre of it. It stands for 'Keta-man'.
A Guy Called Gerald looks totally unfazed. It's been eight years since he left Manchester. At that time the city was in the midst of a crisis dubbed 'Gunchester'. The clubs had shut, gangs, guns, theft and threats ruled the streets. By that point, Gerald had already had two top 20 hits, toured the globe several times over and had almost grown used to having loaded guns pointed in his face. It's little wonder Keta-man fails to raise one of Gerald's eyebrows.
"It was full of criminals." Gerald tells me of the Manchester he left in 1995 "I got my studio robbed from Ducie House, my house was broken into and nobody could help. I just thought, "it's time to get off."
"We'd been trying to put on parties here, but anywhere where there was a congregation of people, the police would turn up and shut it down. Even in the clubs. It was impossible," he says. "In the end, I just felt relieved that I'd left with my life."
Over the course of our conversations, A Guy Called Gerald is revealed as a humble, down-to-earth and somewhat selfless individual. He is at ease throughout the interview. The distrust he reserved for the media, the music industry and his fellow musicians, having previously been severely burned by all three, seems to have dispersed.
"That's where my mum used to live" he points out as we walk through Rusholme later, "and that was the first place I ever had a gun pointed at me," he adds as we pass another street, the tone of his voice and accompanying smile unaltered between the two remarks. It's a good job Gerald has found some peace. After the almost unbelievably harsh treatment he received on the streets of his hometown, had he not done so, the bitterness would surely have consumed him completely by now.
As a kid Gerald was exposed to music by his parents. He recalls there always being musical instruments in the family home and encouraged to experiment with them, it wasn't long before Gerald was captivated by sound.
"Me and my brother used to go down to A1 Music and play with the machines," says Gerald, his eyes lighting up as he recalls his first experiences with drum machines and synths. "There was a woman there, I think she was called Anne, who always used to have her eye on us. At first she must have thought we were going to rob the place, but gradually I think she realised we were actually into the music."
Graduating to the producers role at a very young age, Gerald began his making his first home demos whilst still in his early teens. Hooking up with various local rappers and singers, he would provide backing for them with the relatively cheap second hand equipment he'd bought. Amongst his earliest collaborators were Nicky Lockett aka MC Tunes and The Hit Squad, whose members went on to make up the earliest incarnation of 808 State.
"At first I presumed Martin (Price) was the one I'd learn from as he was the dance expert because he was from Eastern Bloc Records, where we'd met. I thought Graham (Massey) was more indie, but as it turned out I learned a lot more from Graham, as he was really into the engineering side. We'd be sparking off each other all the time. Sometimes Graham would have the keys to Spirit Studios and we'd go down there before we went out at night, knock a tune together and then take it down to the Hacienda and give it to Jon Da Silva to play and then watch everyone go nuts. It was really cool."
Witness to the dawn of house music in England and the social revolution that seemed to accompany it, the sounds of Chicago spurred the young Gerald on to create an English reaction to the rough and minimal new grooves.
"I felt akin with what was going on in Chicago because I had all the same equipment as those guys," he remembers. "The acid sound that emerged, I'd already done some stuff like that, but not recorded it because I was just experimenting, trying to find a sound. To me it sounded unfinished, it was like the punk version of electro."
Citing Robert Owens' 'Bring Down The Walls' and the equally seminal 'Downfall' by Armando as the earliest Chicago tracks to infiltrate his psyche, locked away in studios with his musical counterpart Massey or at home alone, the creative need gripped Gerald in a hold that he has failed to break free from since.
"I'd been working with one singer called Nicola Collier on some street soul stuff. We went to a proper studio to work on a track called ‘Spend Some Time’, but after we finished I went to work redoing four tracks I'd done at home, one of which was 'Voodoo Ray'," Gerald recalls.
"A guy called Lee suggested that I use some vocals on it and the studio we were in had a sampler. I'd never seen one before apart from on Tomorrow's World, but I thought let's get some vocals going through it. Nicola did a melody over the bassline, I sampled it and ran it backwards on another track. When I came to mixing it down, I was trying to equalise her vocal with the sample and it had this really weird Asian type feel to it. It was off key but it was still on as well, there was a point where the vocal clashed with the backwards sample, but it just seemed to work. I was just going nuts in there really, because it'd been the first time I'd ever had more than four tracks to work with, I mean this studio had 16 tracks!"
Overwhelmed by the intricacies and endless possibilities of a proper recording studio, it's a wonder that 'Voodoo Ray' ended up sounding so good. After Hewan Clarke had road tested it for Gerald to an empty dancefloor at Legends, Gerald felt confident enough to take the track to the Hacienda.
"There was a night where they used to spin a wheel, and whatever number the wheel stopped on, people would get free drinks. I'd been buggin' the DJ to play it and he put it on while the wheel was spinning, then took it off when it stopped. But I left it with him and said 'When you're ready, play it’. It was about three or four weeks after that and I was in there and someone said ‘Ain't that your tune?’ and I was like ‘Fuckin' hell!’, I'd hadn't even recognised it at first. By then I think quite a few people must've heard it because it started going off. I was really surprised and totally excited."
'Voodoo Ray' cemented Manchester's claim on house music, becoming a Hacienda anthem that eventually went on to smash the top ten. As did 'Pacific State', a track that was born from work Gerald and Massey had been doing for a Peel Session.
With apparent success justifying the enthusiastic youth's devotion to music, these should have been the happiest of times for Gerald. However things just didn't seem to be panning out. At the same time the Hacienda was erupting to his music, Gerald remained dependant on the wages he received from his day job at McDonalds.
Initially unconcerned by the process of retrieving financial reward from his work, Gerald had naively neglected his rights over his music. The man responsible for promoting and pressing 'Voodoo Ray' disappeared completely without Gerald receiving anything from the track. Regrettably Gerald had forced himself to leave 808 State, as again, no financial recompense seemed to be emerging from the work he'd done with them.
"The next thing I knew I was sat at home watching The Other Side Of Midnight and 808 State came on. They were playing this tune, which was supposed to be part of the Peel Session, but they had a big tape machine in the background playing my parts and Graham was playing sax over it. I couldn't believe it. I phoned Martin in Eastern Bloc the next day and asked him 'What's going on? You can't just do that. I thought I said to you that you shouldn't put any of my stuff out?' His response was to tell me that it was their track and that I'd had nothing to do with it, so we ended up in court." says Gerald; still visibly wounded by the diss' he'd received from his friends.
Considering the lengthy court wranglings Gerald went through to finally get the writing credit he deserved for 'Pacific State' and the Newbuild era 808 State material, it's surprising to find that Gerald has nothing but respect for the current members of 808 State (minus Martin Price). He remains an ardent fan, regarding some of the work they've done since as "amazing music".
However his wounds from the period are evident in his musical output since. Partially driven by an urge to progress and develop as an artist, Gerald has nevertheless steered clear of following his acid house template, equating the sound he helped pioneer with nothing but misery.
His reluctance to stay still musically has lost him major record deals with Sony and Island. They were baffled by him. Instead Gerald forged a name for himself in the drum ‘n' bass arena, with groundbreaking releases like 95's Black Secret Technology album securing him as much a forerunner in drum ’n' bass as he ever was in house music.
In 2003 A Guy Called Gerald seems to be exactly where he wants to be. His second album for K7 is due out in February, he is currently enjoying travelling the globe to DJ gigs more than ever before, particularly when he feels he can play the broad spectrum of musical styles that makes up his true tastes. He has a wealth of unreleased material that he is excited about unleashing on the world. And he his about to return to Manchester for his first hometown gig in over half a decade.
Playing only a short live set at the Warehouse party, expectation to hear the haunting 'Voodoo Ray' from the man will be high. But after all that's come to pass since the teenager produced the masterpiece, can we really expect him to relive those torturous early days?
"I realised a while ago that life ain't that long," smiles the wisened Nubian when I broach the subject with him "and if you can make somebody happy with your music, then that's what it's all about. It's no skin off my nose to do it, I'm over being sick of it. I was sick of it in '89. Now it just comes with the territory."
A Guy Called Gerald plays The Tribal Gathering Warehouse Party, Saturday 23.
[Author: Marc Rowlands, Pics: Nathan Cox]