Ron Trent recently released his first long-player in over a decade, What Do The Stars Say To You, under the alias, WARM. It`s a record that I gave a glowing review, and which in turn gave me the chance to speak to Ron in person.
A couple of months back I found myself, watching the clock, waiting for the allotted time to make the scheduled FaceTime call. Starting out cool, but gradually getting more and more nervous as the minutes passed.
“Fucking Ron Trent!?!”
I mean he`d made a house music landmark, in the shape of the still frankly mind-blowing Altered States, when he was only something like 14 – and in the 30 odd years since then the only person I can think of who’s prolific musical output has been both as deep, and of such consistent high quality, producing classic after classic, is Larry Heard.
The new record`s brilliant. I guess you must be super busy getting ready for the release.
Yeah man, you know a lot of stuff, assets, and interviews around it – which is good. I’m trying to increase my visibility, in The States in particular. I’m running into people who haven’t heard it.
Well, it`s kind of being kept under wraps. I know a lot of people who’ve heard about it, but haven’t actually heard the music. It was only officially announced about a week ago. The PR companies seem to be keeping the music a secret.
The first single is out there, and we’re about to do the second single – with Jean-Luc Ponty – which is cool. That’s coming out in a couple of days as a matter of fact. I’m letting them handle it. I’m used to handling a lot of stuff myself, man, for so many years. I`m trying to be cool.
Are you comfortable with that? It must be difficult handing everything over to somebody else – the control of something so important over to other people.
Yeah, it`s something else, but I’m cool man. I’m along for the ride.
I think it`s gonna be big. I mean if it`s timed for the start of summer, and all of the festivals. I think that a lot of people who haven’t heard it, are waiting for it, very excited about it.
That’s great. That’s excellent feedback brother. Let’s get into it.
OK. The magazine would like us to focus on 5 or 6 things that have influenced you. I actually thought that this might be quite personal, but if you’re happy to do that, it would be great. If you’re comfortable talking about these things, let’s go for it.
Yeah, man, let’s go for it. I’ve got a list in front of me.
There are many things that have influenced me, times, situations.
That sounds perfect. That’s what they want. They don’t really want a list of 6 records.
Let’s start with a TV show. I mention this because it`s an influence, that was part of the inspiration behind the new album. It was a big part of growing up in the `80s. I might laugh, but it was really influential, man. It`s Miami Vice.
I mean, when it came out, that show, it was shot like a movie every week. I mean it had that kind of movement and content – heavily stylized. It was the first time that was ever done. It was high fashion and high art. I think it was Don Johnson who said that it was like an MTV cop show. Everything looked like a music video. The colours, the music that they used. It was very hip.
Who did the music? Was it Jan Hammer?
Jan Hammer did the actual score, but they also used a lot of the new stuff that was coming out at the time. It was a very hip, edgy, high fashion, high art show. I sometimes look at that and think about the musical content, I think about the architecture, the buildings, the water, all that, you know. It has this feeling of an urban paradise, kinda going on. A very mysterious, fast moving city, vibe going on. This new album in particular is about structures.
Didn’t you study architecture?
I wanted to be an architect when I was younger. I started studying in high school, did mechanical drawing for a while, but the music just kinda took over, you know. So I say what I do now is sonic architecture – building with sound and layering concepts.
That’s interesting, because Theo Parrish is sort of similar, he studied sculpture I think – so he’s now making sound sculptures.
Exactly. Absolutely. I was with Theo the other night. We grew up together actually. He literally grew up down the street from me, and he used to be my opening DJ when I was coming up as a teenager. Seriously.
Oh wow! I didn’t know that.
Oh yeah. I was one of the up and coming DJs of my time. I was the guy in my age group, you know. But Theo and I came up together. Theo studied art in Kansas City – building concepts, art, all that kind of stuff. It was kind of “out of the program”, you know. You wouldn’t think that an urban Chicago teenager of the time was really into stuff like that. We were really into fashion, and art, and all that. It`s like high, high, end.
You were saying that the architecture in Miami Vice fed into the new album. Sorry, I distracted you.
That’s cool man, we talking, but you know my approach to this album was highly spiritual, but also highly conceptual. Very visual. I had a vision in my mind of what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, and then I let it flow, and then it was about capturing the moments, if you will. So Miami Vice was an inspiration on a high art level. Aesthetically. I`d very much visit that. I would play some episodes, before going to sleep. It reminds me of my teenage life, reminds me of those times, a time where there was a lot of freedom in music, and art, fashion, everything. A large part of this album is highly influenced by the early `80s, when there started to be theses live meets electronic combinations of sounds – when people were really trying to experiment. I mean I’ve never left that, you know, but really coming up with something that people were ready to revisit, and that’s what I’m presenting.
I guess at that that point, in the `80s, the emerging technology had opened things up for people. For example, you had jazz musicians, like Jan Hammer, who began working with electronic instruments.
Big time, also what was happening was that there were new synthesizers, and technology in the studios, new tools for creating a new world – new music and sound. Live meets electronic, man, that`s the beauty.
You`ve got the machines, but you’ve got the musician ship and virtuosity of the people who can play alongside that.
Next, I`m gonna say a comedian. Richard Pryor. At one time, Richard, was the the tone-setter. I don’t recall a moment in my life, growing up, where Richard wasn’t present. He was highly influential in terms of how American, and especially African Americans, looked at things, and humour-ised some of our pain and experiences.
Richard Pryor was incredible because he was obviously very successful, commercial, but his his stuff was so on the edge.
To the max.
And he was brave, because he’d stand on that stage and he didn’t shy away from anything. He was very frank in his observations and social criticisms, showing how absurd it all was. It`s tragic that the majority of what he was saying is still relevant.
Oh yeah. There are people that come in and they change the way that people think, and he did that. I’m sure that he had his influences too – Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory, or Moms Mabley – but he came in and totally took the thing and flipped it upside down. A point of regress if you will. Comedy allows you to look at the world differently, and also, you know, to kind of let off steam.
He wasn’t involved in politics, but he was raising issues that were important to him through comedy, and he carried a very strong message.
Maybe comedy is an easier way to get those messages across. These days people are generally turned off by politicians – you can`t trust any of them.
Now, I’m gonna say an instrument. The conga drum. This was the first instrument that I was introduced to as a child. I grew up with the drum. It`s always been a part of my life. My father was a percussionist and he used to play in front of me. I would watch him play and we would play along to records together. I eventually started playing traps. I played percussion as well, but I wanted to be a trap drummer. The drum has always been very much part of my existence. It`s always been there. I grew up playing. I grew up studying rhythm, and rhythm is why I got involved in DJing. I liked the idea of being able to match music together. Then as I further developed my skill, it became about the music being matched, beat-wise, but also melodies, being able to tell a story. The drum is actually one of the original methods of communication. A sacred thing.
You know, you’re saying this and when I went back and listened to your music, in preparation for this interview, when I listened to Altered States again, the rhythm on that is pretty unique – obviously that`s one of the things that makes it stand out as such a classic track. You mention melody, and that`s the thing that characterised your later work – in that it`s so melodic compared to everything else that was coming out at the time.
Yes. Funnily enough my family wanted me to play keys – “You`ve got those long fingers” – but I’m using my fingers on the conga, right? Now, on this new album, now I’m playing guitar. This album is a definite development of my skill sets.
So what instruments do you play now? I didn’t realize that it was you playing guitar on the album.
I`m playing percussion, the conga drum, the bongos, the timbales, keyboards, various types of synthesizer, and then I’m playing guitar and traps as well. I’m also using Simmions electronic drums to bring out that `80s energy. The electronic drums that I`m playing, some of them triggering live drums.
You should make more of that in the promo stuff. The press releases that I’ve seen all push the collaboration angle. They don’t make a big deal about you playing everything. That`s very modest of you.
It`s cool man. I’m glad you pointed that out. I’m definitely gonna let people know. I’ve talked about it a bit in interviews. The collaborations started with me. I started the pieces and then sent them to people for them to do their stuff on top.
The drum is obviously a very spiritual thing as well.
A sacred instrument. The second oldest instrument. The first being the voice.
It`s rhythm that connects us all, roots all of us. My theory is that we all came from the same place at some point, and that we’re all linked by this universal rhythm.
That’s right. Rhythm patterns, sonics. God said “The world will be created” in Genesis or wherever, and it was so. It was said. The Word. It has a power. Not that I’m a big Bible thumper, `cos I’m not (laughs). The point is that it`s in the scriptures.
Yeah, but spirituality is an important thing.
My next influence is a concert. It was my birthday, I was in London, 2009, or 2010, and I got a chance to see my favourite band in the world, at The Jazz Cafe, which is Azymuth. It was everything. The great José Roberto Bertrami, who’s one of my greatest inspirations in terms of keyboard players, it was the first and last time, unfortunately, that I would see him live. Azymuth, for me, are like one of the pinnacle bands, man.
And the remaining members are still going strong. There’s no decline in their creativity.
No. That`s why it was such as pleasure to have them on my new album. It`s like a critical point, a dream come true. You know what I’m saying. That concert was like “Wow!”
What sort of stuff were they playing? Were they playing all the old stuff? Jazz Carnival?
Oh yeah, they were playing all the classics, Jazz Carnival, yeah, but the tune of the night was Last Summer In Rio. Those chords man, the groove.
How did you initially get into Azymuth? When did you first start listening to them?
I was into Azymuth back in `84, `85, maybe even before that. I started playing records, DJing, in 1982. I starting collecting records as a kid, in around `79, `80. My father ran a record pool, so we had access to records through that. We had stuff that other people didn’t have, but we would still go to record stores to buy stuff. I bought everything by Herb Alpert, Spirogyra…when I was a kid I was into jazz, and fusion, that`s what everybody called it back then. Azymuth fell right into that.
I like groups, musicians and producers, who can paint pictures when they play. So that when you’re listening you’re like “there”, where they were thinking of.
Those Azymuth LPs obviously take you somewhere far away. So for example, me as a teen listening in South London, bang I was suddenly at a carnival in Rio – which was much, much, nicer.
Exactly man. You’d listen to Last Summer In Rio, and you’d be like “Is that what Rio sounds like?” “Shit, I want to be there, right now!”
I mean I’ve seen a lot of folks coming up, The Jackson Five, Eddie Palmieri, Femi Kuti, but that concert was just “Yes!” for me.
Someone that you’d waited such a long time to see live?
As far as musicians go, in terms of influences, I gotta say that the two guys that I admire so much are Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. As a matter of fact I have both of their pictures in my studio. I love Dizzy not just because he represented be bop and everything, but because he was such a character, and so innovative in a lot of ways. He was really interested in reaching back for his roots….stuff like A Night In Tunisia, where he was exploring, involving Afro / Cuban rhythms. He started fusing things, and I admire him for that – bringing these things into the light….and then someone like Miles who was constantly fusing things, just constantly trying this and trying that, breaking that ceiling, challenging people. Constantly.
It seemed to be a part of the cantankerous side of Miles` nature, personality: “You like that? Well I ain`t doing that no more. Now I’m doing this!”
Man, have you seen his artwork? Shit, when I saw his paintings I was like “Yeah, now I really get it!” This guy, you think of a guy of his age, of his generation, where they didn’t have a lot of the things that we are exposed to today. Things that we take for granted. These guys obviously had to be around something, an aesthetic, or something that was in their minds, that was very “colourful”, and these colours, sounds, “palettes” that the could access, when they put them together, they had a real power. When you’re a musician and you look at the way that Dizzy and Miles approached music, you can see what palettes they were working from, and Miles, you can tell that he was reaching for the gods.
That`s an interesting point, that I’ve never really thought about before. Miles was just so constantly innovative but he wasn’t living in a time, or climate, at least initially, that was open to him being innovative. Also, in the `50s and `60s, they had nothing like the easy access to culture, from all over the world, that we have today. He would have really had to seek it out. I guess that drive was a big part of his genius, his magic. As far as music is concerned, he was a Picasso.
From there we can go right into a painter, who has highly influenced my own palette, if you will. I mean I love Jean-Michel Basquiat, but I’m gonna say Salvador Dali – his use of colour, symbolism…Surrealism.
Something that I learned is that Jose Bertrami, from Azymuth, was also into Surrealism, the art, and the approach. This was reflected on some of his solo albums. When I knew that, it explained why I was attracted to his music – because he creates these surreal pictures with his chords. There are only a few people who can do that, lay a chord bed that creates these other worlds.
Dali has that visual power. I know that later he experimented, creating on LSD and speed, but he had access to such colours, totally unique in the time that he was doing it.
Surrealism is getting people to challenge, question, the idea of reality. It`s mind expansion, but it`s not necessarily drug-related. Drugs are just a short-cut. Surrealism is saying that these are the accepted norms, but maybe you should use your imagination and try thinking differently.
Exactly. A different way of thinking.
I mean you might see a sculpture, or painting of an alien-looking elephant on stilts, but its not really about an odd looking elephant, it`s about questioning normality, a dictated reality.
Breaking boundaries. Trying new things. Fusing things. That`s where high art happens.
The last influence that I`d like to talk about is my father. My father died at a young age, but he was one of the most innovative people that I’ve known in my life, and he still influences me a lot. A lot of my early engagement with music was through and with my pops, my mother too, but my father was really passionate about music. He started playing percussion when he was younger, he ended up going to University to study, in Massachusetts. One of his professors was Max Roach. My father had a band, and I found out later that he would also play with Max Roach from time to time.
As well as being a musician, my father was also a DJ. He was in a partnership with a guy by the name of Donald St. James. Donald set up a record pool, called Nadja, and my dad became vice-president. There were two major pools in Chicago at the time – Dogs Of War was the other one. So, my pops would bring records home, and we`d listen to stuff together, and we would also play along – percussion and drums. I got a lot of ear-training out of that.
That`s such a fantastic memory.
Absolutely. We also had very deep conversations. I think back now, and I think “Damn, I was talking about that shit and I was only 7 or 8 years old.” We were really going in. I’ve always been into philosophy. As a kid I was really, really, really, big into history, and archeology. So before I wanted to be an architect, I wanted to be an archeologist. I really did. I`m serious. It`s always been an affinity of mine. I was really curious about history, in particular Kemetic history, pyramids and artifacts. I would always have my head in a book. I mean I wasn’t a strange kid. It was just really interesting to me – this big world.
Well that still impacts your music, because, as you were saying before, your music fuses elements from all around the world, and the past as well.
Absolutely. These are the threads. You’re getting a bit of it now.
The passion starts somewhere. You study, and then you start to express yourself. So you were into history, and you’ve expressed yourself through music.
Indeed, man. Is that OK? That`s seven things. I think we whipped it together.
Can I just tell you my favourite track on the new LP? I’m an old guy, I don’t really play dance-y sets any more, more the “back / alternative” room and chill-out slots, so my favourite is the ambient track, the one with the vocal, Flowers. It kind of reminded me of those Madhouse records that Prince used to make – a mix of jazz and Art Of Noise. Do you know those?
Another thing that it reminds me of is something that Seal did with Trevor Horn, this ambient ballad, called Violet.
Oh man, that`s one of my favourite Seal tracks. Trevor Horn is also one of my greatest inspirations. I mean, as a producer, he’s probably one of the baddest dudes. Him, and cats like Jon Hassell, they create these worlds. Trevor Horn is one of my favorite producers of all time, bro, and Flowers is most definitely a Trevor Horn type of track. POWAHHA.
Ron Trent Presents Warm, What Do The Stars Say To You, is out now, on Night Time Stories.