Stereo MCs

The Streets Dizzee Rascal, Kano, Sway - just a few of the artists that probably wouldn't have existed were it not for the initial breakthrough of the Stereo MC's in the early 90s. In order for younger readers to understand you have to put the band in their context, back then it was all guitar bands with the likes of James "Sit Down" and The Inspiral Carpets the major names on the scene and along comes the Stereo MC's with "Connected" and Credit To The Nation with "Enough Is Enough" bringing an urban flavour to the proceedings. Designer Magazine caught up with the Stereo MC's Rob Birch and Cath Coffey to find out why they can still play at intimate hip-hop gigs and large arena gigs alongside the Happy Mondays

Q: How does it feel to get out there and do the arena nostalgia shows like this as opposed to say 1000 capacity venues like you do on the headline tour
Rob: We've done all kinds of different shows. We're used to adapting to whatever comes our way. We do a lot of festivals and we do clubs and then we do things like this. I guess the commercial idea behind it is that this is a nostalgia tour, but we're playing a new set with new material so it doesn't really matter what sort of show it is because what we're doing is a progression from where we've already been. We just saw it as an opportunity to play to a lot of people.

Q: "Paradise", the new album. Tell the readers about that?
Rob: We made it down in Brixton in our studio Frontline. It's the usual. Me and Nick put our tracks together in our own place and we're trying to make a record that feels where it's coming from where it comes from. That's why the LP sleeve is a picture of Atlantic Road which is 10 minutes walk from where we work and where we live. The sort of idea being it is Paradise is about living right now and not worrying about what's just happened or what's about to happen. Realizing the essence of what you're in right now and not waiting for the 65 year old pot of gold. That's why we wanted to make it about where we live because a lot of people have a picture of Brixton as harsh and unfriendly and I think really it's a pretty nice place to live. It's got a lot of energy. I think a lot of places in the world are branded like that, there's places you shouldn't go to etc. There are a lot of places like that. A lot of areas of towns that are branded and I think it's good to break those stereotypes.

Q: How has it been doing it independent on this album?
Rob: We just weren't really getting on with the major record company machinery since Island used to really be like an independent when Chris Ratwell ran it. When it got sold to Universal it became much more Pop Idol kinda territory. We weren't really getting much feedback from them were we

Cath: You could feel the difference in the office. It used to have more of a family vibe in there and very relaxed at first and then it became very corporate.

Rob: It was like going into a car showroom. I guess cos of people downloading stuff and becoming much more easily available to people over the internet record companies are becoming a bit redundant. I think they're feeling it and they're trying to grab as much as they can from it. With things like Pop Idol they can kinda control the whole thing - what it is, who is going to be in the band, what the song is going to be - and they can also give it airtime on the TV. They're just looking for different ways to make money and really that whole idea is more like a sitcom. The people that are on it, a lot of them you probably never hear of them again.

Cath: It's yesterday's music. It doesn't seem to last and they don't seem interested in making it last. It's the same each over every year isn't it.

Rob: The trouble with those Pop Idol things is you listen to it and think why are they doing that. It's such a ridiculous sort of music to be playing in this day and age. It's redundant music and as soon as they get off the television show no-one's really gonna know about it. It's a bit like that with the record business. People are finding different ways to get hold of music and get hold of far more interesting music that you're not seeing on MTV every 3 minutes and you're not having jammed down your throat. The internet probably is a new lease of life for interesting music and the industry's gonna have to go back to the music at the end of the day.

Q: Do you think it's strange that the label didn't give you backing given the rise of Kano and The Streets and such artists?
Rob: I'm always hearing music that changes your outlook on music. If you keep hearing records that are making you feel something, you start to think I want to do something like that and it doesn't really matter what the outside world is trying to say to you.

Cath: The people that like the Pop Idol stuff is really young kids and mums and dads. There's loads of kids that are going and forming their own bands. and playing in little pubs and venues all over the place. They might not be making loads of money, but they're doing it.

Q: I guess you guys having the mainstream success has allowed you to set up the studio so you can work at your own pace on new material?
Rob: That's how we started. In the beginning we made our tracks in our living room, but once you've got families it's kinda difficult to have two families around while you're trying to make music. You've got to find your own space where you can do that still. We built the studio so we could make music and hang out the same way that we always do.

Q: Are you producing other bands or doing solo material at the moment?
Cath: Not really. I'm just writing some stuff at home. When anything inspires me or i've got a spare moment. There's no plans, it's just to do it and have fun with it.

Rob: Because we all just live close we can give Cath a bell and if she's not busy she can just come down and do some stuff in the studio. It's a good situation for us really because we all live close together. And the studio still feels like a front room. A lot of big studios they've got all kinds of people running around.  and it's £500-1000 a day and you write a song it's crazy.

Q: You missed the last headline tour because of a knee injury, but we were thinking the last time we saw you that you 3 girls would make a great girl group
Cath: It feels like that sometimes. It's a nice mix of voices and it's nice singing the harmonies.

Rob: We're glad to take any concept if it seems fruitful. I think we try to just do things as they come to mind. Like any bands you go through a whole series of evolution's and different frames of mind and if you manage to all be together at the end of the cycle and the beginning of the new cycle it shows a pretty serious strength and determination. I think this is what has brought us through so far, that we all want the same thing. It's just something that we want to do and now having Cath for that tour was different. but we had to just go on and tour without her. We hadn't done a tour without Cath since she started doing stuff with us which was back in 1991 I think, so it was pretty weird. Live when you're used to playing with people you get used to a feeling from a person and I think that's important to the spirit of the group.

Cath: It's like a musical family because everyone's got a different flavour to add to the recipe

Rob: It doesn't seem like a long time to me. People say it's been 10 or 15 years and you think it's a bit disturbing. When I listen to what's going on around me I just think yeah, lets do a new track and make it feel fresh.

Cath: It feels fresh every time. If we were getting bored with it and it wasn't grooving anymore and we weren't grooving on it then we'd actually stop, but that hasn't happened.

Q: Are you producing other artists in the studio at the moment?
Rob: Not really at the moment. I've toyed with the idea a few times, but I don't think we've really entertained the idea too strongly. I think it's because we've always been focused so strongly on what we've been doing, that we've really only done a few remixes and stuff like that. The thing with producing is it's down to the people you're producing and whether they're a bit half-hearted when it comes to being down in the studio. You just end up thinking I don't think this is going to go anywhere because if they haven't got it I can't give it to them. It's quite rare to find a group that single-mindedness to dedicate themselves to it.

Q: What are you listening to at the moment - contemporary stuff or old skool
Cath: I'm listening to Felacuti at the moment - just stuff like that really

Rob: It's great when you go back and listen to old tracks. When you hear a beat come on and if you're not looking at the DVD that's playing you're thinking god that beat just sounds really good man. And because so much of today's music has actually been drafted lots of old feels, even drum and bass you can hear that they've got lots of their ideas from Brazilian Funk Flavours. I think it's important to keep your feet rooted in that history of brilliant, while at the same time checking out what people are doing now because there's so much good things going on. Like this guy called Cage who's doing some nice stuff and there's some pretty vital sounding music in that, it's just that it's not very commercial. Because we DJ a lot as well it's good to keep in touch with all the different sort of music and the different sounds that people are making because it makes you want to make a new record that sounds different.

Q: The thing with the Stereo MC's is whatever influences you take in, it still sounds like the Stereo MC's
Rob: Well everybody says that and it doesn't matter how hard we try to do things differently. When we do a track that we think sounds totally different people still think it sounds like the Stereo MCs. I think one day i'll be going i'm glad we didn't lose that essence of what we are, because we have changed what we were doing quite a lot. The way we work and the methods we work with and the way we write. We've changed everything, but I guess it's a feel and because we started off in a very basic manner where we didn't have Akai's or didn't have time code and we used to start the beat off with our fingers and loop beats off turntables and spend 12 hours a night to make a rhythm track it gives you a feel that you try to humanize with your grooves. Maybe you just don't lose it.

It's a bit like a guitarist has a style and it doesn't matter what new guitar he plugs in he'll still have that style. And the same with a singer. And also I guess because we've got a vocalist who's always been in the band, always done the lyrics and always been the main vocalist you can't really get away from the fact that we were the Stereo MC's

Q: I guess it is good though that you've kept that sound rather than doing a Dr Dre or Neptunes sounding record to keep up with the times
Rob: We have experimented and listened to other people's beats thinking how do they do that. So you try and do it and it just doesn't work. I think it's when you unconsciously start ravelling things for yourself, not trying to hard and really just get going and do loads and loads of stuff. That's what I like about those guys stuff. You listen to Dre's beats and they're just effortless grooves.

Cath: That's what you can say about your stuff though. Each record has different flavours. This record is a lot different than the last, but it's still got your stamp on it. It's a groove that you can dance to and I don't think that many people, in this country at least, have a groove.

Rob: I think that sometimes we can feel a little isolated, but because we've got new management they really do encourage us to go out there looking for people to collaborate with. Their philosophy is to go out there and do anything different to what you've already done. That's what we intend to do on the next bunch of tracks really - work with as many different people as we can just to open our horizons a bit more. We don't want to stay in one place. I actually think there's loads of people doing good beats. I think it's just a matter of a chemistry really and feeling a vibe for a song. I think people are a little too worried about their reputations in England, they're all should I work with them or not. Like we did some work with Shaun (Ryder) you know and he came down the studio and we work with people on that sort of level where's it's just let's try something.

Q: What's the plans for the rest of the year?
Rob: We're touring and going in the studio. We're trying to keep both things going simultaneously. We're just getting our heads around getting started on the next album and we want to give ourselves a kick up the arse to get going. Touring can take a lot of time so we want to get ourselves set up so we can keep going even if we're on the road too.

"Paradise" is out now
The band are currently touring Europe throughout the Summer
For more info on the Stereo MCs

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