Crooked Man continues to go from strength to strength – working with dynamite divas such as Roisin Murphy and Amy Douglas to produce uncompromising leftfield dance-floor gold. Having recently released the first fruits of a fantastic fresh project, Athletes Of God, a pairing with the fabulous Lady Blackbird, I thought it was time to catch up with the person behind the bass-heavy, post-bleep brilliance, Richard Barratt, or Parrot as he prefers…
but before I do that I’m gonna a re-run an old conversation we had, back when Crooked Man was a newborn. Just for a “little bit” of background as it were…
This piece was originally posted on Test Pressing around the time of the debut Crooked Man release, Preset. It may well still be up there, but I’m sure Paul / Apiento won’t mind. It covers Parrot`s journey from ground / genre / boundary-breaking DJ at Sheffield`s scene-shaping Jive Turkey parties into the innovative studios of WARP Records, and a subsequent 3-decade spanning career of pop misses and hits…
Parrot with long-standing DJ partner, Winston Hazel. I love this photo.
Where are you based?
Is this your hometown?
Yep, born and inbred.
What`s your first musical memory?
Possibly doing the twist to Chubby Checker with my mother in the front room. Though I do also remember my eldest sister getting a transistor radio and Massachusetts by the Bee Gees being played over and over again.
What was the first record you bought?
I’d probably got some birthday money or something, and my mum took me upstairs in Boots to the record department. Embarrassingly, I bought Mud`s Tiger Feet, on single, but did redeem myself slightly by also getting a Little Richard MFP compilation called The Great Ones. I’ve still got that somewhere, but I don’t know what happened to the Mud 7″ (laughs).
What was the last record you bought?
Fucking hell… this’s really bad, but I can’t remember.
What inspired you to start DJing, and making music?
Boredom with what was happening in Sheffield at the time.
There`s a really great conversation between you and Bill Brewster, from a few years ago, over at DJHistory (Rob – sadly, I can no longer find this online), where you talk about Sheffield before your Jive Turkey parties and up to your retirement from DJing in 1992. In that interview you`re quoted as saying that you hated The Limit and The Leadmill – Sheffield`s then most popular nightclubs. Why?
The Limit and Leadmill were great clubs in different ways, but in terms of what they served up disco-wise, both venues had stopped moving forwards and just played the same records over and over and over. Being the only venues that you could get into any night of the week, wearing exactly what you wanted, they had a captive audience. I was just monumentally bored by what they served up, and wanted somewhere without race or dress restrictions that had a more forward looking musical policy.
How long have you been DJing and making music?
People wanting to know more about your DJing should check Bill`s interview, but would it be possible to get maybe top 10s for Mona Lisa`s, City Hall, and Occasions – the different venues where Jive Turkey started, took shape and evolved? It might be interesting to see how the sets, music, changed and developed.
I`m not very good with lists and charts and stuff, so doubt I can be as clean and tidy as your obsessive mind desires. I associate that Mona’s period with Master C&J, Jungle Wonz, Chip E, et al. The vibe of labels like Easy Street, Jump Street, Sleeping Bag, Def Jam. The “reduced” sounds of Electronic Soul, but also Jazz & 70’s Funk.
The City Hall, being monthly, didn’t have the same flow and growth of records. It was more of a party. For some reason, The Sound by Reese & Santonio reminds me of being in there. But also the noise of hundreds of feet stamping to If You’re Looking For Fun, and The Whispers, Barbara Mason, or Archie Bell, causing incidents of spontaneous formation dancing.
Occasions was, for a while when it was really good, a place where you could play the best of everything. All the obvious house stuff, plus revives from the previous 3 or 4 years, next to hip hop, fantastic street soul…I remember when we first started in there Hydraulic Pump being played a lot, also Rick James, and The Average White Band. Ney De Castro`s Batucada next to the best of the present / future.
So I’m not sure we ever “developed” at all. The best nights were undoubtedly Occasions… but before house swamped everything, and the spread of the music was broader. If a crowd wanting nothing but house all night is development, then put me down as undeveloped… and grumpy.
How would you describe your sound?
Someone called it “Motorik City Soul” the other day, which tickled several of my pretensions all at the same time. More realistically however, my old friend and collaborator Ross Orton often describes it as “Jerky Parrot Music”.
Which production, release, or remix are you most proud of?
Proud? Ha ha! That’s a hard question… things that caught a moment when you first did them could cause acute discomfort were they accidentally heard in the present day…
Which production, release, or remix would you most like to have done?
That question’s fucked my mind up… Too many…
How did Sweet Exorcist come about and what were you aiming for musically with the collaboration? Isn`t that a Curtis Mayfield title? Test One, while fitting the then WARP sonic aesthetic, seemed to strip it back to its bare basics.
Yes, Curtis. The name seemed to fit the times. The impetus for the song was mainly to give WARP something they could use, but there may have been an underlying motive to join a few musical dots. It is very bare and basic, you’re right. “Skeletaltronics”, an experiment in how far you can gut everything out but still have enough body to dance. It’s pronounced “Testtone” by the way… Warp didn’t like the two t’s.
What was Richard H. Kirk like to work with? Are you still in touch? Didn`t Jarvis Cocker direct the video for Testtone? How did that happen?
Kirky and Mal were brilliant, totally accepting and interested in us non-musician types. In Sheffield, they were at the hub of so much. Always inviting folks to do stuff and get involved. I owe Richard a great debt of gratitude for encouraging me and putting up with my daft ideas.
I don’t run into him much now. He moved the studio up to Kirk Towers, so doesn’t need to venture far. I still see Mal. I sat next to him at something Cocker did the other week. And speaking of Mr. C…
Rob and Steve at WARP were off the Indie scene in Sheffield, and knew Jarvis better than me. They were aware that he was doing film at St. Martin`s, and got him involved, making clips for the label. Other than fancying his sister, I have to admit to not having taken much notice of him.
I`m terrible with Indie music me. I’ve always been on good terms with Russel from Pulp, so I knew about the band, but didn’t regard them as being in our subcultural tribe. Anyway, then Jarvis turned up in Occasions one night in a very small pair of denim shorts. Other than a pair of micro-cut offs that Winston (Hazel, Richard`s DJ partner at Jive Turkey) used to wear when roller skating, probably the smallest trousers I’ve ever seen on a grown man. There he was, E’d off his tits mincing around to I’m Every Woman in these tiny hot pants. I’ve liked him ever since.
Had you worked with Richard H. Kirk prior to Sweet Exorcist?
I did do some work with Richard around `87, something which was only ever released as a promo sometime later.
That is brilliant!
There’s quite a few different versions on the Wicky 12. It started off as some basic Housey piano chords Richard had done with samples from The Warriors thrown over the top. We put three girls on it, singing quite a sweet little pop song, then smashed it all to pieces with the Dynamic Corvettes break and the Cab’s 303. I don’t think the mix on Youtube is the one I used to play, I think there was something more stripped out… but if I’m honest… can’t damn well remember…
I don`t suppose you`ve got a spare. It`s 250 Euros on Discogs!
Really??? I need to find my copy and sell it… That’ll be more than I’ve made from music in years!
You need to find an indie band to produce? Not that indie means anything any more. Swap that for guitar-based pop band / faux dubstep with unusual / weak vocals.
Hmmm… I do dabble with a bit of rock’n’roll, neither indie nor faux dubstep… which more than likely accounts for the band’s resounding lack of success.
I`ve got no idea how any one makes any money out of music any more, I was tight with the FatCat lot and saw Sigur Ros take off, through gigs translating to record sales, then vice versa, but obviously there are so many small bands touring their arses off for nothing, does anyone make money out of selling records, CDs, downloads? On the “dance” “scene” I see more producers take up DJing because the gigs pay while production doesn’t.
And as we know, what the world needs is yet more DJs doing it just for the money….I dunno if the arse end, sorry “underground”, of music will ever pay again, unless by some miracle Google and the ISPs are compelled to start respecting the creators of the content that helps drive their businesses… Which isn’t going to happen is it?
What I do know is that we’re at one of those periodic moments when pop music badly needs an enema, whether the nurse gets paid or not.
Can you tell me about the Funky Worm?
The Funky Worm thing happened through the FON (legendary Sheffield studio, set up by members of local band, Chakk)(FON stands for “Fuck off Nazis”) lot coming to our events. Dave Taylor, the FON studio and label manager, turned up at my house one day with a demo tape from Mark Gambol in Notts. That became Krush’s House Arrest, the first British house record to reach the charts. Me and my mate Carl Munson helped them out with a remix, and getting dancers for the vid, etc. That rolled into us being invited to string a load of our breaks together with Mark Brydon, co-producer of Krush alongside Robert (Gordon). Julie Stewart (now Julie Ellis) was a great dancer from the Jive Turkey who I’d roped in for Krush. She put the little top line on that fluked our track into a hit.
It all went sour very quickly. The attitude at FON then, and probably lots of other labels, was: We take your trousers down. We’re allowed to do that because we’ve been around a bit. When you’ve been around a bit like us, you’ll get your turn to take somebody else’s trousers down.
There was a very malignant character in there who fancied himself as a Malcolm McLaren type. Always playing games, he’s a big part of the reason neither Krush or The Funky Worm ever made a decent follow up. Him and rank musical ineptitude of course (laughs).
Richard, what happened with the partnership between Winston, Robert Gordon, and yourself?
You’ll have to help me out on this one because I can’t remember a specific partnership between us three… Me and Winston were DJ partners for a long time, and Robert was a partner in both WARP and FON. Winni and Robert were in The Forgemasters together, but I can’t remember owt we did as a trio.
Sorry. Are you still in contact with Winston and Robert? Are they both still making music?
Both around yes. Robert still a moody sonic scientist. Winston still Winston. They did a Boiler Room thingy together as The Forgemasters last year. Winni’s been dipping his toe in the studio again recently and has stuff coming out on a label called Shabby Doll.
You`ve said that you hated the Rave scene, but those early WARP releases were adopted as anthems and served as inspiration for the next generation of producers, so aren`t you in part responsible? Was it just a case of success / overexposure killing a good thing?
Fucking hell, are you blaming me for Rave?!
That early 90’s period was the natural down after the up for me I guess. I didn’t like the more Rave-y sounds, but equally, didn’t like the coke-y hairdresser scene that “real” house became. When we were making bleep-y sounds, it wasn’t like we were playing that music all night. They would have been juxtaposed against different things.
I totally get that when a new variant of music pops up that’s fresh and exciting, you may get carried away, and for a few months at least be very focused on playing as much of it as you can. A cleansing process: out with the old, in with the new. House was like that for a while with me, and later on Jungle. Rave didn’t feel like that. It felt like an empty bastardization of better things. Obviously though, we were just the established old farts and the new youngsters coming through wanted their own thing. Damn right too. When stuff like Dred Bass and Timestretch starting appearing I got taught a valuable lesson. Never write the youth off too early.
The handbaggy hairdresser thing with all the celeb DJ crap was in hindsight far more damaging. There lies the root of today’s static crowd facing the booth. People forgot that they were the most important part of the night, not the prick putting a few records on.
You seem to have taken a break from music for about seven years after Sweet Exorcist until The All Seeing I, which is very different in sound. Why the disappearance, why the re-emergence, and what were you aiming for sound wise?
Well I struggled with the `90s, but did put a lot of stuff out. The fact that you think I’d taken a sabbatical is a very accurate pointer as to how well most of it was received. When WARP went all intelligent, they started a “dumber” label, called Nucleus. Several of them are mine, done with Robin Taylor-Firth from Nightmares On Wax / Olive.
Me and Taylor-Firth also had a thing going with the Orb’s label WAU!Mr Modo and did a few E.P.s with them. This track’s got Julie from the Funky Worm on it:
Then I started Earth Records and put out loads of grungy Industrial Dancehall / Jungle / Tech sounding stuff. Not just by me. Stuff by Winni, Mark Brydon, Ross Orton, I Monster, etc. None of which can be found on Youtube, but you’ll probably be able to get the full set off Discogs for a fiver (laughs). I did do a couple of house-y things that were popular in Sheffield:
Plus lots of things for other labels that I can’t fucking remember.
The All Seeing I’s first outing was one of the dirty sounding releases on Earth, with a mellower mix on the other side. The Beat Goes On followed on from that. It sounds the way it does `cos that was the best way to use the vocal sample! No great plan I’m afraid. Fluke hit like the Funky Worm thing…
You`ve now transformed into The Crooked Man, making proper house music with a rough post-punk edge. What were you doing in between projects? Had you been working on The Crooked Man stuff for a while? Preset is one of best house records I have heard for a long time.
I was piddling about doing stuff. This was the last release on Earth, a track by the great unsung hero of Manchester music, Mr. Anif Akinola.
I did lots of work with this electro-chanson duo. A Jarv lyric on this one:
Another Jarv lyric here, a Disco ‘Billy moment had with Dean Honer and Richard Hawley.
I bought that Lovers 7 when it came out, do you do this one as well?
I didn’t realise it had ever come out. Presuming the versions contained are the originals. Crik Crak was one of the things I did with them and Dean. It was written around a loop from the Mellotron plug in that’d just come out and ended up getting on some advert or other.
Bizarrely, the same loop was also used on several other ads around the same time & caused an argument between the band and me & Dean. They reckoned that they didn’t realise it was a loop, and decided we didn’t deserve any publishing. Even though the commercial only used the instrumental and none of their top line….
Basque Country was another Jarvis lyric put over an instrumental I’d done with Kevin Bacon and Jon Quarmby (Sheffield big time posh pop producers). Made at the same time as La Degustation, around 10 / 11 years ago.
Basque Country is the one for me.
I liked that one. Great loop off a radio jingles record that had been made with a live players and a string section – not the usual Moog-athon. Jarvis really does capture something about Marion, the singer, as well. I guess the world wasn’t ready for a duo featuring a 60-something sleazy old troubadour and a somewhat troubled early 20s ex-Bunny Girl.
Surely people could see and hear the Gainsbourg thing?
Labels thought I was making it up I think. Damn…I’m going “He’s a 60 year old ex-smuggler and she’s a 23 year old ex-bunny girl!” and people would just stare at me like I was mad.
So I wasn’t totally asleep, maybe just avoiding reality a bit. The Crooked Man thing happened because it felt right to do something like that. Stripped-out disco music with singing on. There’d be no point me farting out instrumental house rhythms, the world’s stunk up with them already. My working partners, people like Mick Ward, Dave Lewin, Mark Brydon, Carmen Squire, Pete Hope, these people are good songwriters. We peevishly attempt to get away with radical stuff – verses, bridges, choruses… middle eights sometimes!
Luke Solomon did some remixes of The Crooked Man tracks. Is a collaboration on the cards? Do you think The Crooked Man will stick around for a while?
Luke’s The House Mother, keeping things warm in the folds of his bountiful bosom. He’s been absolutely fucking brilliant. Without his enthusiasm for what we’re doing I’d more than likely have abandoned ship. You can’t get far in a ship with no sales! (laughs) Wearing his reversible Classic / Defected A&R hat, he’s picked a couple of tracks up, Pipes, and Tooth Faeries. Hopefully, they’ll do well enough for him and we can get summat proper going.
What are your favourite places to play / hang out in?
I no longer play nor hang.
Where is your favourite place outside of a bar, club, or record shop?
Just about anywhere…
Could you be tempted back into DJing again?
Winston’s talked me into doing some kind of revival – revolval? – thing in the London Eye. It’s all a bit much. I’ll probably just sit in the corner enjoying a quiet blend of motion sickness / minor breakdown. Winni’ll hold it down.
Do you see yourself as part of any scene?
Well sometimes me and Fat Dave (Lewin) drink too many cups of coffee and it gets a bit vibey in the studio.
Who does Crooked Man`s artwork?
Is a visual identity important?
Yes, if it means I don’t have to have my photo taken.
Which visual artists would you cite as a source of inspiration / influence?
Not sure if it’s an inspiration or a warning, but these two pictures say something to me about what happens when an audience starts taking too much interest in the people playing the music…
Which artists are you currently working with?
Wardy the songwriter and Fat Dave the engineer.
Who would you most like to work with?
Singers who aren’t bored or embarrassed by the songs we give them.
Does playing and making music pay the rent?
What was the last book you read?
Wardy lent me Straight Life, Art Pepper’s biography. Not a fan of Art’s playing, but his tale is full on junkie jazzman raw.
What is your favourite book?
What was the last film you saw?
I watched Kick Ass the other night with my 11 year old daughter and we really enjoyed it. We now have superhero secret identities: Pig Daddy and Shit Girl. Her mother is Big Ass.
What`s your favourite film?
I’m not sure now, but when I was younger it was Billy Liar. The tale of a slightly crap Northern fantasist, who, had he more guts, could have been living in swingin’ London and shagging Julie Christie. Hmmm…
What`s your favourite piece of music? If that`s too difficult, what`s your current favourite piece of music?
Recently I’ve been listening to this over and over. Not sure why. It could possibly be because I don’t have a copy and that irritates the fuck out of me.
Can you name 3 records for sunset / sunrise?
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS / THE LARK ASCENDING
THE UNDISPUTED TRUTH / YOU MAKE YOUR OWN HEAVEN AND HELL HERE ON EARTH
DIGA RHYTHM BAND / SWEET SIXTEEN
Can you name 3 records to start a party?
ART BLAKEY / THE SACRIFICE
TRAVIS WAMMACK / SCRATCHY
DON GARDNER / MY BABY LIKES TO BOOGALOO
Athletes Of God`s Don’t Wanna Be Normal is out now, on Foundation Music.
“Part 2” of this interview can be found here.