Interview / Ali Friend & Richard Thair / Number

Bassist / guitarist Ali Friend and drummer / percussionist Richard Thair have been making music together for some 30 years. They`re probably best know as the tough rhythmic backbone behind Red Snapper, but amongst a wide range of collaborations they’ve done stints with The Aloof, Beth Orton, and the Sabres Of Paradise. Now, as Number, they have a new album, Binary, out on Sunday Best. I had a ton of questions I wanted to ask them, about half of which are here. 

Richard Thair Ali Friend

Where are you from?

Rich: I was born and grew up in Harpenden, Herts – but lived in London between 1983 and 2000…Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush. 

Ali: I was born in Bishops Stortford, Herts, but have lived in London – mostly Hackney – since 1989.

Where are you currently based?

Rich: Pontardawe, South Wales.

Ali: Dalston, Hackney, London.

What’s your musical background? Were you formally trained? What kind of music were you into as a kid? What made you pick up and instrument? Were you in any bands before Red Snapper?

Rich: I had piano lessons at an early age, started playing drums at 11, school Jazz band, County Orchestra / Brass band between 13 and 17. I was always in bands at school….football and music..what else was there to do?..rock, new wave. I grew up listening to punk, new wave, rock, reggae, disco, and jazz. When I was 20 I set up a record Label called Rhythm and Business, had a band called Jellyfoot with Nina Miranda singing, met people like Giles Peterson, Patrick Forge, Andrew Weatherall, Justin Robertson, Dean Thatcher, mainly bowling around London’s many record shops selling vinyl sale or return. I also played with The London School of Samba at that time.

Ali: I had guitar lessons as a kid – not very successfully – I once ran away from home to avoid a lesson. I was picked to play double bass at school because I was tall and had some musical experience. I played classically for a few years including a scary spell in the East Herts Youth Orchestra. I think there was often music played at home and my older brothers music taste seemed to trickle down to me early on. I loved new wave and punk – Stranglers, The Members, Undertones…and ELO. I was in Velvets and Doors-like bands at Uni – listening to much more of Bowie and The Clash. I finally settled on P-Funk as the way forward with my band The Freakin Habit Forms – playing such amazing venues as the Whitstable Labour Club. 

Rhythm and Business ART

How did you meet?

Rich: I met Ali through a friend of a friend, played percussion in his funk band Freakin Habit Forms and then we started jamming rough ideas aimed at making a hip hop DJ tools album using my 4-track in a community centre in Hammersmith.

Ali: That’s all true. He didn’t like me at first…..

Your music seems informed by 50s rock and roll and jazz. Is this true? If so what artists or records in particular might have influenced your playing and your sound? Do you have a favourite bassist or bass-line, drummer or drum solo?

Rich: Definitely, I loved a lot of 50’s instrumental surf music, Link Wray, Dick Dale, Sandy Nelson, The Champs and also listened to Miles, Coltrane, Louis Belson, Fela Kuti, The Meters. Tony Allen has always been an influence but so was Topper Headon, Keith Moon and Bonham!

Ali: I think that’s all true; the surf stuff like Dick Dale definitely influenced the sound of Snapper as a whole, but it was probably more the jazz side that drove me. I love the be-bop and hard bop lineage, and wonky blues. Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Theolonius Monk, Miles and Coltrane but the leader for me was always Mingus. A genius player and soul who created what he wanted as he wanted it – though it wasn’t always technically brilliant – that was what made it important. There’s an elegant anger and beauty to his playing. Bootsy Collins and Bruce Thomas were also massive for me. Melodic stuff. 

Beth Orton sang on Red Snapper`s first single. How did the collaboration come about and do you still work with Beth?

Rich: I played percussion with The Sandals and met Beth though them, she was just starting to work with Jeff Barrett at Heavenly Records and we got on really well. We had just started using Orinoco Studios in Bermondsey and there was a bit of a family there..Dust / Chemical Brothers, Andrew Weatherall, Jagz and Gary, David Holmes.

Ali: Beth was so young when we first worked with her and she had a raw edge to her voice. Though she fitted in as a collaborator with us and the Chemicals etc, she always had her own songs she needed to put out. She has turned into a brilliant and inspirational songwriter; I love her lyric and melody. I`ve written and performed with Beth ever since. I like her ever-changing approaches to sound and musical priority. We recorded together last year – on her new songs at Rockfield Studios – which was nice. 

How much of an impact did acid house make on your music? Did you go to clubs like Shoom, Spectrum and Future?

Rich: I was actually traveling around Europe in a camper van around 87 / 88 so missed a lot of those clubs. Before that I used to go to The Wag, Dirt Box, Whirly Gig, Special Branch. I still loved Acid House, though. My brother is four years older and introduced me to a lot of disco and that lead to listening to Chicago House, etc.

Ali: I was at Uni in Canterbury and didn’t make it up to London much so missed those clubs, though we heard about them. I think acid house has left an imprint on all of us… a good way.

Dean Thatcher produced your second single, and Richard you were later in The Aloof with Dean, Gary Burns, Jagz Kooner, and Ricky Barrow. I`m guessing that The Aloof is whole other interview, but what was the initial connection there? Did you go to the Flying parties, or does it go back further than that?

Rich: I used to go to nights like Yellow Book and Flying. I knew The Stewart Brothers who worked in Bluebird Records in Soho, played percussion on some of their house records, and Dean got in touch with me about The Aloof. I played on On a Mission and Ricky and I would do live shows around the country – live shows at club nights. They asked me to become a member and we put Cover The Crime out on Flaw Recordings – the label that Dean and I ran before we signed to East West Records – thanks to our manager Simon Bentley who ran Skunk Records.

Ali: The Aloof were a great band made up of top fellers who have gone on to support and inspire me. Dean, Ricky, Jagz and Gary have all played their part in moving Snapper on. I was lucky enough to be part of their live set up for a while. 

Richard I`m also pretty sure I saw you drum with the Sabres Of Paradise live band – with Andrew mixing stuff like Plastikman`s Spastik out of your playing. Could you both be found hanging out at Sabresonic or Bloodsugar?

Rich: Yes I drummed live with The Sabres as I was doing bits and pieces of session work for Jagz and Gary eg David Holmes. I was a regular at both Sabresonic and Bloodsugar..Amazing times.

Bocca Juniors` Anna Haigh contributed to your first LP, Prince Blimey – so was there a further Boys Own connection?

Rich: I knew Anna through The Sandals and The Sabres and the scene at the time. My earliest connection with Boys Own was sending them records to review around 1990. I used to send 12s to Andrew and Terry to review and I’m fairly sure Justin Robertson did the odd review for them aswell – when he was at Eastern Bloc in Manchester.

Ali: Anna Haigh. A beautiful soul who also left her mark on us.

Were these all connections made at Full Circle (legendary Sunday party held in a pub near Colnbrook)?

Rich: Well..they were made stronger at Full Circle. Ricky and I would end up there after driving around the country doing Aloof PAs – in my ex-Redbridge Council Cleansing Division van – with flashing light. It was a very close knit family and I never felt particularly part of it but those Sunday afternoons were amazing and it was where I really got to know Dean, Jagz, Gary and Ricky much better. It was also at Full Circle that I first got to know Ashley Beedle who was one of the first people to put Red Snapper on live – at his Black Sunshine night in Kensington High Street.

Ali: I remember the Black Sunshine nights in Kensington – one of Snappers first ever shows. I remember feeling it was totally out of control and everyone loving it.

How did you hook up with your other vocalists, Alison David and MC Det?

Rich: Snapper were lucky enough to be managed by Chris Butler who ran White Noise Promotions – out of the same building in Hounslow where Jagz and Gary had their studio. He was doing promo for Alison’s band and Det’s releases. We remixed Inner Shade by Alison ‘s band Life’s Addiction and we loved her voice. Det was a legend and it was a no brainer.

Ali: We were lucky with both. Alison’s voice was mesmeric, like taking a bath in a vat of coral red rose petals. Det was and still is a Hackney boy. We wanted to work with an MC with a London flavour who might give us a focal point on the tunes – and in a live scenario. We found him and his chat and energy were always ridiculously on it.

Drum and bass seemed to inform some of what you were doing around the time of Making Bones? Did you go to parties like Metalheadz and Forward?

Rich: I`d known Shut Up and Dance perviously so had always been into the breaks and early Jungle scene. Metalheadz was great and the nights at The Astoria. I really wanted to play live drums at that pace and with that feel which lead to some of the tracks on Prince Blimey. Of course CAN had done it years before (smiles). 

Ali: Metalheadz yes. There was a lot of stuff happening in and around Hoxton at the time. We had a studio under Spitalfields, where the hoards of monk graves were discovered. Double bass seemed to dance brilliantly around jungle and drum and bass grooves and I loved the darkness it brought.

When and why did Red Snapper split?

Rich: I think we were just exhausted after writing, recording and mixing 4 albums for WARP – rehearsing, touring and promo constantly. They were amazing times but it took it’s toll. My Mother died suddenly and I think everything came on top a bit, it affected my judgement. We shouldn’t have split, we should have just taken a year off.

Ali: It was around 2001. I think we`d come to a point where we were expected to launch ourselves several steps forward in terms of success. But without a large financial gamble by WARP that was looking unlikely. There were some dodgy things said and done at that time, after a few years of high unexpected achievement. I’m pleased we broke up because in the end it allowed other things to come through and flourish in our musical worlds and gave credence to a hugely successful and triumphant reunion years later.

What did you do immediately after?

Rich: I released music with Jake Williams as Toob. Jake had been playing keys with Snapper live, and we released a couple of albums and some 12s. One with Lo Recordings. I moved to Bristol and was traveling a lot as a DJ.

Ali: I was approached by Beth Orton to work with her again. I wrote, recorded and toured with her for a few years. I also started a new band with a long term friend and collaborator Ted Barnes and singer Gavin Clark from Sunhouse. We released four albums as Clayhill.

The press release for Binary states that you’ve worked with The Prodigy, Bjork and Massive Attack. Can you tell me more about these collaborations?

Rich: Red Snapper were very lucky. From 1996 to 2000 we had a great live agent. We supported Bjork in Israel – in an Ampitheatre overlooking the Med. We supported Massive Attack in Germany, and were lucky enough to support The Prodigy on their UK tour for Fat Of The Land. We actually had Maxim in the studio but nothing came of it. I still have the DATS somewhere! We were also lucky enough to do shows with The Fugees and De La Soul.

Ali: We were lucky with who approached us to work with them; they all seemed to think we had something to us – something British and a bit dirty.  The Prodigy were hilarious and great to us, as were Massive Attack. Keith was a sweet man. David Byrne also wanted us as his band. Chris Butler, our manager at the time, was looking after X -Press 2 who worked on the song Lazy with David. So there was this connection between Chris and David – who heard Red Snapper and I guess he liked it. I think he was looking at the idea of getting a dirtier jazzier / electronic sound.

Ali can you tell me more about The Imagined Village. How does the music differ from that of Red Snapper and Number? Are The Imagined Village still active? 

Ali: The Imagined Village were put together to re-vitalize, re-imagine and reinvent traditional English folk tunes, and ideas, in a contemporary setting. Simon Emmerson put together a ‘supergroup’ of players with the aim of embracing a multi-culturalism, bringing together elements of electronic, jazz and dance music and traditional English folk songs – with people like Martin Carthy, Billy Bragg, Eliza Carthy and The Young Copper family. We were all allowed to bring our own perspective to it. I learnt a lot from it – writing and working with very different musicians, with more of a specific goal in place. Great people. We were sponsored by LUSH who believed in the project – I even had a man’s anti -perspirant made after a track I wrote called the Guvna. Not sure how well it sold….  But TIV sounded nothing like Snapper or Number. The band are in a state of semi-permanent hibernation now – but never say never. 

Richard, can you tell me more about Petwo Evans? Is the project still active? This might be a stupid question, but there’s a Rich Thair who’s done some remixing for the On The Corner label, is this you?

Rich: Petwo Evans is very much active.We released 12s on Huntleys and Palmers and now have our own label Petrax. We`ll soon elease Petrax 04 – which  is a result of loads of live recordings made with Jake in my studio this January. That is indeed me remixing for OCR as did Petwo Evans.

Can you tell me how the Seekersinternational rework of Prince Blimey came about? Were you familiar with the radical dubs of the Canadian collective?

Rich: I was a fan of what they were doing. We were out touring Prince Blimey for the 20th Anniversary – something we said we’d never do! – and WARP actually suggested that Seekers rip the album apart as a kind of reissue – and what a job they did! They didn’t have separates just the stereo tracks!?!

Ali: I love that.

How long had Number and Binary been brewing?

Rich: Blimey, I’ve just looked on my drive and the first writing sessions we did were in 2015! Originally it was new material that Ali and I were writing for Red Snapper. It soon became clear that we had something different. I think it took so long because we were both busy with other projects, and touring with Red Snapper.

Ali: I also think we were trying an experimental approach, and it took a while before we settled on a pattern to that. But the first get-togethers where we consciously approached the music-creation in a very different way to Snapper had been really inspiring.

Can you tell me more about the vocalists on the new album?

Rich: I was a big fan of Dan Carney from his Astronauts releases on Lo Recordings. I love his voice and lyric writing and just knew it would work. Ali introduced me to Landshapes, Ader is a track I love. Heloise and Luisa have unique voices and create beautiful harmonies.

Ali: Luisa and Heloise happened to be my neighbours at the time and I heard them singing around their house and garden before checking Landshapes – which I loved. They harmonize and dovetail so effortlessly with each other; but their voices together in particular seem to me much greater than the sum of the parts. They are great spirits as well. They also sang with Snapper at the Village Underground show in Hoxton. I was surprised to be singing on the album but I`ve reached a point now where it seems pointless worrying about how crap and limited our assets are. My mum always said I should be a singer…….wise lady.

To my ears the music on Binary isn’t so different to that on Prince Blimey. Both are this gritty mix of dub, electro, funk, jazz and rock n roll. A Kind of 21st Century take on stuff like Dick Dale’s Misirlou. A bit sleep deprived and a bit sleazy. Do you think this is a fair description? For me it`s very evocative – when I listen I’m taken back to a time of bruised excess – of a little ducking and diving – definitely overdoing it – and I can hear the musical ghosts of London’s underground musical heritage.

Rich: Nice words. Binary just developed from our musical heritage, everything that we grew up with, be it electronic, new wave, dub or African music. It also represents the unforgettable times that Ali and I have had together over the last 25 years – lightness and darkness. Working with Ali is a unique experience. He is so creative and luckily we grew up listening to much of the same music.

Ali: I like what you’re saying here too….I think the music we create is unashamedly the product of our pasts; the moments that have impacted on us – for reasons good or bad – that carry a musical message with them and leave their mark. Dub and jazz and funk and folk and West African music have all played a part in Binary. 

Rich: We`ve both been influenced by West African music, particularly Afrobeat. Some of the ideas developed from the work we did as Red Snapper on the Touki Bouki film soundtrack that then became the Hyena album. I love the way Ali plays the guitar. He’s always very critical of his own playing…for no reason. Bass players seem to play the guitar differently. It`s partly a rhythm and space thing.

Ali: I love a lot of the West African guitar playing I hear and there is also some Angolan stuff from the late 60’s and 70’s whose guitar sound bears the mark of both Africa and Brazil – which I love. The melody and harmony seem to come from a different part of the playing. I think it`s most definitely my limitations that give it character though. I`m very lucky in that Rich sees worth in my playing of whatever instrument – and my singing. It`s a total game changer for me. It’s brilliant to find that freedom to try something – as best you can – even if you have very little experience of it, knowing that it might be great…..or shit.  Thanks Rich!

Some of the new album reminds me of Gramme. Do you know Gramme? Have your paths ever crossed?

Rich: I love Gramme. I knew them through Trevor Jackson’s label Output. I’m friends with Tim Love Lee who did their later releases. I grew up on A Certain Ratio, Rip Rig and Panic, and their influence on LCD Soundsystem is clear. A great band. Check Blood Sport and Sault also.

Ali: I love Gramme as well. Shabbily brilliant like A Certain Ratio and a lot of the new wave / post-punk stuff of the 80s. Bits of Joy Division as well. They were an influence on Hot Chip as well, who Number have been compared to. Shuta Shinoda who mixed the album with us also works with Hot Chip.

Are there any plans to play live – once we’re all out of this current crisis?

Rich: Hopefully, possibly!!

Ali: Playing live would bring an extra layer to it all I think. Let’s hope. 

Number`s Binary is available now, care of Sunday Best.


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