Interview / A Certain Ratio

My introduction to A Certain Ratio was the Flight / Blown Away 12. Though I didn’t buy a copy at the time of its release. I picked one up much later, second-hand. In 1980 my record habit was limited to a handful of 45s on Two-Tone and Go-Feet. I got into punk and post-punk retrospectively. Tunes in part ID`d through a South Bank Show special on Factory Records, and its outspoken founder, Anthony H. Wilson. I mean, I had New Order records – who didn’t? – and my girlfriend at the time was a big Joy Division fan (while she laughed, goodness knows what she really thought about me and my best mate, Dave, jumping around, miming to Wham!`s Wake Me Up Before Up You Go-Go). But I wasn’t slavishly tracking down the Manchunian label`s catalogue. That came a little later, when in an interview Andrew Weatherall `fessed up to his own Factory obsession, and then included ACR`s Waterline on his seminal Nine O`Clock Drop compilation. 

It was another interview, one with Tony Wilson, that hipped me to Flight. He was quoted as saying that the release was a landmark for Factory – perhaps the best thing they ever put out. So obviously it went straight on the list of vinyl that I needed to find. And find a copy I did. Either in Reckless on Berwick Street, or Notting Hill`s Record & Tape Exchange. To be honest I can’t remember which. But I do remember that upstairs in the Record & Tape Exchange there was a corner of post-punk treasure where I also found the Do The Du E.P., the remixed Guess Who? (on Factory Benelux` Greatest Hits), the 12 of Knife Slits Water (though most folks prefer the 7” mix), and ACR`s dub experiments as Sir Horatio. 

Flight did blow me away. I hadn’t heard anything like it. I’m not sure I’ve heard anything quite like it since. Its long, dark funk. It was / is the sound of an 80s New York nightclub brought back to a northern industrial town. Much more than any other release on Factory. Like Joy Division remixed by François Kevorkian. Imploding in an obsidian tunnel rather than going bang at a ballon-filled Loft. The record`s flip was a Brazilian batucada performed by sheet-metal shamen lost in the Amazon. 

Over the course of the records I bought the Martin Hannett-produced angular guitar scratch and abandoned warehouse ambience of Shack Up, gave way to Sextet`s jazz of slapped basses and ethereal sirens, the piano-led latin of Brazilia. ACR`s trance-dance continuing through acid and house. Rising in 303 bubbles on Good Together (Is that Shaun Ryder on backing vocals?). 

Recently signed to Mute, A Certain Ratio are back on the road and this weekend they play two gigs at Tokyo`s Marz. Following Saturday’s concert Martin Moscrop and Jez  Kerr from the band will be joining us behind the decks at Bonobo in Harajuku, for the first Lone Star party of the new decade. To say we are excited is an understatement, and offered the chance of a promo interview I naturally leapt at it. Below is a session with Martin and drummer Donald Johnson. Pity the pair, `cos this is only about half of the questions I hit them with….

a certain ratio marz poster

Were you one of the people who saw the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall?

Martin: No, None of us were there. Just slightly too young.

How did ACR hook up with Factory? 

Martin: Rob Gretton, Joy Divisions manager, saw us at Band on The Wall when we shared the same bill as Joy Division – playing at The Manchester Musicians Collective – and he told Tony Wilson about us. Tony put us on at The Factory so he could see us and he offered to manage us straight away. He thought we were Manchester’s answer to The Velvet Underground.

Did you go to the Factory parties at The Russell Club in Hulme?

Martin: All the time and we saw some amazing bands there. Suicide, Cabaret Voltaire, Manicured Noise, The Fall, The Tiller Boys, The Human League, Pere Ubu, Joy Division, Iggy Pop, PIL, Magazine, ….

ACR Russell club

What was your musical background? 

Martin: I played Trumpet in the brass band at school for a couple of years and bought my first guitar at 15 just before punk exploded. I formed a punk band at school, which lasted one rehearsal and split up because the drummer only liked The Beatles and then I joined a glam punk band called Alien Tint just before joining ACR. 

Don: I’m self-taught, but later went for lessons to learn how to read music. 

What artists, records, gigs, and clubs would have fed into the music of ACR?

Martin: When we first started we were listening to the Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Wire and then we started listening to James Brown, Parliament, Funkadelic. Then we got into jazz-funk, Brazilian music like Hermeto, Airto, Flora Purim.

Don: Records = Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Stanley Clarke, Herbie Hancock.

You were also a member of Swamp Children and their later incarnation, Kalima. What was the jazz scene like in Manchester? Did you got to Rafters and Berlin? 

Martin: The jazz scene in Manchester was pretty good in the early 80s and there was Kalima, The jazz Defectors, Yargo and a few others. We were also popular on the London scene playing places like The Wag Club, Bass Clef, Ronnie Scotts. We used to go to places like Berlin, The Gallery, Legends, Rafters, and even The Hacienda played a bit of Jazz when it first opened – mainly through (DJ) Hewan Clarke.  The first place we went to was a place called Rufus where Hewan was DJing – playing latin, jazz-funk and soul – and that`s where we met him and The Jazz Defektors. We then started going to Legends where Colin Curtis and Greg Wilson were DJing. Greg played Electro and Colin played latin and jazz-funk. Berlin and The Gallery came after that. Hewan became a good friend and we used to take him on tour with ACR as our DJ rather than having a support band. That was quite ground breaking at the time but loads of people do it now. 

acr hewan clarke poster

Was there a strong camaraderie between the Factory bands? Was there an exchange of ideas? Did you often play on each others records?

Don: We would often gig with Joy Division, Section 25, and Blurt, and share equipment and transport.

Martin: We shared a rehearsal room with Joy Division and we all toured the UK and Europe as a Factory package. We must have seen each other so many times that we were bound to be influenced by each other. Ian Curtis said in an interview that his favourite Factory band was ACR.

Was it the band’s decision to work with Martin Hannett? What was it like working with him? Why did you decide to stop working with him?

Martin:  Tony Wilson’s idea was to have an in house producer – like the big American labels. His vision was that Factory Records would have a distinctive sound, which is where Martin came in and he certainly did this in the early days. The problem with Martin was that he was difficult to work with, so bands tended to only work with him for a short while. The other issue was that he had such a unique production technique and sound that he would end up changing the sound of the bands quite a bit which wasn’t to everyone’s taste. After he produced To Each… we said to Tony that we wanted to produce our next album ourselves – which was Sextet, and one of our most popular albums. We did some great work with Martin with the pinnacle being Flight.

Flight and Winter Hill are amazing tracks. Can you tell me anything about the process of writing and recording them? Winter Hill is an amazing piece of drumming.

Martin: Winter Hill was just a studio Jam – which is me on the drum kit, everyone on percussion, Pete playing the two massive notes on his guitar.  Simon`s vocal was put into an Eventide Harmonizer and Marshall Time Modulator which produced that ethereal choir like voice. I think at the time we were listening to The Rhythm Devils album The Apocalypse Now Sessions which was a percussion-based project led by The Grateful Dead’s drummers, which was quite scary – especially when listening to it on acid or mushrooms. Winter Hill was our version of that and it turned out just as scary. It was named after Winter Hill near Manchester which we went to visit around that time and was always a favourite spot of Jez’s.

With Flight we had already recorded it for The Graveyard And The Ballroom and for a John Peel session as well – having played it live quite a lot.  So when we went into the studio to record the track it was quite simple. Martin just had to get a good take and then he gave it the atmosphere with his mixing / production technique. He was really good at making a simple recording sound atmospheric.  It is an amazing song though and part of the producers job is already done when they have such a unique song to work with.

Can you tell me about your first trip to New York? When and why did you go? Where did you hang out? What impact did it have on your music? Were you never tempted to get your tracks remixed by the likes of Arthur Baker and Mark Kamins? Did you hook up with any of the sonically related New York groups such as Liquid Liquid and Konk?

Martin: Our first trip was in 1980 and the main reason we went was to record To Each… there – which was our first real full studio album. It was Tony`s idea. He thought recording in NYC would influence us, and it did.  We also did some gigs there – playing at Tier 3, Hurrahs, The Ritz. Tony rented a loft in Tribeca and we stayed there for just over a month in 1980, then again in 1981 and 1982. We hooked up with ESG the first time we went and they supported us at one of the gigs. We finished recording our album 3 or 4 days early so they used the remaining studio time to record the UFO E.P.  The Beastie Boys were at our first gig at Tier 3 before they became the Beastie Boys. Madonna also did her first gig supporting us at The Danceteria. Liquid Liquid came after our first visit to NYC and they they were definitely influenced by us.

Back home did you have any interaction with the industrial groups such as Throbbing Gristle and 23 Skidoo?

Don: Yes we would often play with TG – who became friends.

Martin: We also did quite a few gigs with Cabaret Voltaire. 23 Skidoo came a bit later.

Was there any interaction between ACR and Quando Quango? 

Don: My Brother Barry, who was also in Sweet Sensation, was in Quando Quango. So was I for a short while.

Can you tell me how the Sir Horatio record came about?

Martin: We were really getting into dub music, especially stuff like Scientist. When we were recording Sextet we recorded 3 dub tunes and decided to put two of them out on a 12” on a label called Rock Steady – under a different name. You`ll see more stuff by Sir Horatio in 2020.

Good Together from the Four For The Floor E.P. sounds like your acid house record. When did you first become aware of acid house? Were you going to Hot and Nude at the Hacienda? The lock-ins at Stuffed Olives? What kind of impact did house have on the music you were making? By the way I love Tribeca from this E.P. I`m sure I saw you perform it on Snub TV. 

Martin: Acid house happened naturally in Manchester and The Hacienda. The odd acid house tune was played next to an electro tune and it just fitted in so well.  As more acid house started coming through, and Ecstasy became more available, the whole thing just blew up.  I remember being one of only 4 people in The Hacienda on Ecstasy one night, and the flowing week it was 8, then 16, then 32…When I first heard a Roland TB 303 on a record, I wanted one. I went to a music shop called Sounds Great in Manchester and they had one brand new that they`d been trying to get rid of for years and it cost me £90. I bought a second hand Roland 808 for £100 and that’s where the rhythm for Good Together came from. House music had a massive impact on the whole of Manchester. We had our own studio at the time, Soundstation Productions, and that`s where we recorded 4 For The Floor, ACR:MCR, the Good Together 12”, Up In Downsville and Change The Station.

Were you friends with the Happy Mondays? 

Don: We still are. I was talking to Gaz Whelan (Drummer) earlier today and Martin lives up the road from Shaun Ryder.

How did you end up signing with A&M and what was it like being signed to a major? 

Don: It was extremely hard work. Our only ally was our A&R, Jeff Young, who totally believed in us. It was a up hill battle for him to get the company behind us.

How did the remix album on Creation come about? 

Martin: We just asked a load of people we knew if they wanted to mix an ACR tune and they could pick which tune they wanted to remix. It worked really well and provided an extra outlet for our deal with Creation.

What happened between 1996`s Change The Station and 2008`s Mind Made Up

Martin: When Rob Gretton passed away we lost our mentor and record label. We all had kids who we needed to bring up and I suppose we`d had enough of recording, touring, promoting…having done it for 17, 18 years.  It was when Andrew Weatherall included Waterline on his, Nine O’ Clock Drop compilation in 2000 that people started getting interested in us again. Soul Jazz started releasing our stuff from 2002 onwards, and asked us to play a gig at Electrowerks in London. We hadn’t played for 6 or 7 years when we started rehearsing for this gig but we really enjoyed it. We`ve been gigging since then but only doing a few select concerts each year, until we signed to Mute and now things have got back to how they were in 1980. 

How has it been playing together again and touring? Have there been any particularly memorable gigs? 

Don: The 2019 tour has been the best playing experience of our career for me. All the guys are just totally on it and comfortable with the set – plus their ability to reproduce it in different guises each night. There are a lot of big smiles on stage.

Martin: Greenman Festival was fantastic this year.  Our on 40th Anniversary 2-day festival at Yes in Manchester was also a high point – as were our gigs in Berlin, Birmingham and Dublin.

You have two gigs coming up at Marz in Tokyo this weekend. Will this be your first time in Japan?

Don: No we played Japan back on n the mid-80s, at a venue called Club King. We did 3 sell-out nights there.

Martin: We are really looking forward to playing Marz.

A Certain Ratio play Tokyo`s Marz on Saturday and Sunday, January 11 and 12. Martin  and Jez join us at Bonobo on the 12th. 

LSJan20ACRKengoFinalV2 copy 2

There are a few personal A Certain Ratio Favourites here….

Track-list

Somadub

Waterline

Shack Up

Flight

Knife Slits Water (7″ Mix)

Winter Hill

Guess Who

Good Together

The Fox

Brazilia

Tribeca

2 thoughts on “Interview / A Certain Ratio

  1. What a great band, so glad they’re getting their dues now. Some amazing stuff over the years but for me ‘Back to the start’, ‘The Fox’, Tribeca, ‘Forced Laugh’, ‘Faceless’, ‘Manik’, ‘Repurcussions’ and the entirety of ‘Sextet’ all stand out. Big shout out to Simon Topping’s noise box on ‘Crippled Child’ too.

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  2. Good interview, fella, and you got a bit of a scoop eliciting that nugget about Sir Horatio in 2020. One small thing; Martin Hannett didn’t produce Shack Up- that was none other than Tony Wilson, the label head himself. He also produced Without Mercy by Durutti Column.

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