The revolution will be remixed
Like an old-fashioned romance, Jamie xx corresponded with Gil Scott-Heron by snail mail in order to put vibrant new shape on the latter’s comeback album I’m New Here. And when they actually met? The older artist was ‘charismatic and intimidating’, Jamie tells JIM CARROLL
BRIGHT IDEAS come in many different shapes and sizes. When XL Records boss Richard Russell heard Jamie Smith from The xx’s remix of Florence The Machine’s You’ve Got the Love, a light bulb went on in his head.
Last year Russell released Gil Scott- Heron’s tremendous comeback album, I’m New Here, an album he also produced. Russell had also worked closely with The xx and released their stunning debut album in 2009. Both acts were signed to XL – so why not put the two together by getting Smith in to a studio to remix the album?
The result of Russell’s brainwave is We’re New Here, an album where the London youngster takes the veteran’s rugged, unmistakable drawl on the kind of bass odyssey it’s never experienced before. In Smith’s hands the grooves duck and dive from ghostly, minimal urban blues to more powerful, almost euphoric electro wig-outs, with Scott-Heron’s voice riding shotgun throughout. The revolution may not be televised, but it will be remixed.
When he was approached about the idea, the quietly-spoken, unshowy Smith was a little daunted. He certainly knew who Scott-Heron was – “my dad used to play his records when I was younger” – but the scale of the project gave him cause to pause.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever done a record on my own without the back-up of the band,” he says. “But I was really just enthusiastic and up for it, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
What he wanted to do was immerse Scott-Heron in his world. “I wanted it to sound like everything I had been listening to in London. I wanted it to sound like something you’d hear on pirate radio. You hear so many different genres, and it’s all so convoluted and mixed-up, but it makes sense when you turn on the station. That’s what I wanted the album to sound like.”
Smith decided to treat the vocals as samples. “His voice is so memorable that it works very well as a sample, no matter what you put around it. When I was doing the album I definitely used his voice more as if I was sampling than remixing. I also used some samples of his voice from older records just to show how different he was then to now.”
There was no interference from XL. “I had total free reign. The label didn’t give me any instructions. They’re very good like that – they trust the artist totally.”
There was no direction or input from Scott-Heron either. The pair met briefly at some shows (“he’s very charismatic and a little intimidating”), but Smith communicated with Scott-Heron about the project by letter.
“I had to write letters to him about the concepts I wanted to do and he had to listen to it to approve it. There were proper letters, not e-mails. There were a few things he wasn’t sure about, like the tracks where I used older vocals, which I had to explain, but he liked it enough for me to put it out.”
There have been remix albums of this ilk before (see panel, below), but Smith approached this project blind. “I hadn’t really heard any album that had done that before, so I didn’t have a point of reference when I started on this. After I did it one of my mates sent me the Massive Attack album which had been remixed in full, which was amazing.”
Smith has no plans to do an album of this ilk again. “I see it very much as a one-off thing. I like to keep doing new things and it was a really good experience to try to make a full album around one artist.”
It’s not as if he doesn’t have enough going on right now. There are tentative talks about working with rapper Drake, and more concrete plans to release a few solo tracks.
“I’ve done a remix for Adele and I did the Far Nearer single for Numbers as well. I’ll be doing more one-off singles this year too.”
Since the interview ws done Smith has also remixed the BBC Newsnight theme tune. He can be seen in a video on the BBC website explaining how to do a remix to a slightly bemused Jeremy Paxman.
The real focus for 2011, though, is the second xx album. It’s going to be an interesting project for the band. When they recorded their debut album, the only people who knew about them were the staff at XL Records, who would see them coming in to the label’s in-house studio at night and leaving the following morning. This time around, after the spectacular reaction to the debut album, all eyes are on them.
“I think we’ll probably ignore any expectations and try to do things on our own terms, like we did with the first album.
“I think the overall sound will remain sparse, but all our influences have changed a lot on tour. The whole progression in music in London of late is definitely going to creep in to this record. I’m feeling more productive than I’ve ever been since I got back from tour. I’ve never had such a long time away from the studio before, so it’s great to be back and have the time to be completely creative on our own like we did with the first album.”
We’re New Hereis out now on XL
Magimixes Classic makeover albums
We’re New Hereis not the first album where an entire record gets a fresh coat of paint and a new set of furniture from one individual remixer. It’s an approach that certainly makes for a more cohesive listen than an album where some AR dude throws together all the trance, techno, house, r’n’b and dubstep remixes he has commissioned in an attempt to get a hit for the act.
There are precedents for what Jamie Smith has done with Gil Scott-Heron in how Adrian Sherwood reimagined Primal Scream’s Vanishing Pointalbum as the deep, eerie and experimental Echo Dek back in 1997.
There’s also 1995’s No Protection, where sonic scientist Mad Professor took Massive Attack’s Protectionalbum for a walk on the dub side. He produced an album that was even more hypnotic than the Bristol crew left to their own devices (and – bonus points – the Professor managed to get the album finished a lot more quickly than Massive Attack would have managed).
“I really wanted to make the whole album sound like one piece of music,” says Smith. “That was also the plan with the xx album when we did that. I knew how it would sound, so I always had that aim in mind. I wanted it to sound like the mixtapes I used to make before The xx, but with all my own productions.”