Features I by I 26.02.14

“Four Tet took my timpanis out!”: Neneh Cherry and Rocketnumbernine on the pros and perils of Blank Project

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Neneh Cherry and Rocketnumbernine‘s partnership may have started as a “project”, but when we talk to them in the Walthamstow studio where they’re rehearsing, they sit and talk and finish each other’s sentences like a bona fide band.

Despite Neneh having a stinking cold and liberally self-medicating with Benylin and whisky, she and brothers Ben and Tom Page (synths and drums respectively) seemed relaxed and confident, with a clearly defined dynamic between them. The intense and enthusiastic Ben, broadly Cockney and a dead ringer for DJ Harvey in a Russian fur hat, and Neneh, with her rich and hearty transatlantic tones, seem to spark off one another readily, while the quieter and slightly more reserved Tom is a perfect foil – interjecting with more analytical points and the occasional wry side-eye at the others’ philosophical flights of fancy.

They are all very clearly on the same page creatively, though. What began as a serendipitous musical hook-up thanks to multiple mutual musical connections has turned into a very serious proposition, and resulted in the strange, subdued, but deeply addictive Blank Project album. It was recorded with the Page brothers’ long-time friend and collaborator Kieran Hebden (a.k.a. Four Tet) in New York State, and they are now preparing to take it on the road.

So, what stage are you up to right now? 

Tom Page: Well we’re here at the moment in the studio in Walthamstow, rehearsing.

Neneh Cherry: We need to [laughs]. After we first met, the very first thing we did was a gig…

Ben Page: The Worldwide Awards, Gilles’s awards.

NC: So that’s the first thing we did, then we’ve been playing in dribs and drabs – but now we’re getting ready to play about ten gigs in a row.

TP: First proper tour.

NC: Starting in Southsea [smiles].

So how much preparation did you get for that first gig – was it pretty much off-the-cuff?

TP: Pretty much.

BP: Yeah pretty much, we only had to play 20 minutes so we did three tracks, and I think we had two rehearsals for that.

TP: It was in at the deep end to say the least.

NC: As usual.

And you were still doing The Thing thing at that stage, right Neneh? 

NC: The thing with that gig was The Thing had got an award – The Cherry Thing thing, I mean – and The Thing being this weird monster that they are, they were booked up two, three years in advance, I’m not quite sure how that works but there you are… So they couldn’t be there – and we [nods at the Page brothers] had just met and found we had something, or thought maybe, potentially we might have anyway. Then this gig came up and we thought maybe we could do this together as The Thing couldn’t be there, so I came down here to Walthamstow for a couple of days, we rehearsed a bit, and the next thing we were standing there at Koko…

TP: …shitting ourselves.

You must’ve felt it went OK though?

TP: It was good, yeah.

NC: It was great! It was wonderful!

BP: And it was a sign, I think, that things were going to work moving forward – with such a small amount of work and time put into it, it came together quite naturally and quickly.

Well you either succeed or fail spectacularly in those kind of circumstances right?

NC: Exactly. And there was a pretty strong connection and a feeling that we belonged together somehow. So we had those three tracks, then the next thing we did was that we went to by:Larm which is a more conference-like festival thing in Norway. Joakim [Haugland] who runs Smalltown Supersound, and who put this record and the Cherry Thing record out, he organises it every year, so we went and played there. I found that a bit more traumatising actually, than playing at Koko, because that first gig felt more primal and natural and we just got up there and did it, whereas for some reason when we got to that thing in Norway, it was a very leftfield sort of convention but it still felt sort of weirdly corporate, or at least more serious…

BP: We’ve had plenty of gnarly shows, that one included, so I’m hoping we’ve got the gnarly bits out the way and we can just crack on now…

NC: Yeah, but also we had the Manchester Festival in the summer, and that was really cool – because that whole thing is set up around the idea that everything at the festival hasn’t been seen or heard before. So people go there, they go to the gigs, with that in mind – and we made an event out of it and had amazing lights, so that was really cool as the first gig we did after recording the album and playing all the tunes out at last. It really brought home how much those songs had grown since the first Woodstock sessions, so that was cool. But I think what’s exciting about what’s going to happen now is that a fair number of the people there are going to have heard the album so it’s going to be a different vibe again.

So take us through the process – how did you get from three songs at the Koko gig to a full album’s worth? 

NC: Well, at the gig we did ‘Dream Baby Dream’.

TP: ‘Weightless’.

NC: yeah, and ‘Spit Three Times’.

BP: Oh yes, but ‘Weightless’ and ‘Spit Three Times’ were in the very very early stages of what they are now.

NC: It was interesting, because I had songs that were written and Cameron [McVey, Neneh’s husband] and I had demoed, but we only gave the vocals over to Ben and Tom without any of our demo weird music on them – to get the Rockenumbernine proper interpretation without any weird poison from our end.

BP: We’ve never heard the original backing tracks actually, I’d love to go back and hear them now the songs are recorded…

NC: No, you’re banned. But yes, we started with our demos, but we were building them as we went along. ‘Dream Baby Dream’ was from The Thing record, so they’d only had the chance to work on two original tracks to start with, but then we did another thing for Gilles Peterson, his snowboarding festival…

TP: Worldwide in the Alps…

NC: …by which time we’d got maybe five or six tracks, so we played them.

BP: Cam and Neneh introduced us to a whole different world of professionalism, another level in terms of demoing and building songs up, recording absolutely everything then tweaking it. We recorded everything on my phone in the rehearsal room as we went, so I’ve still got the initial ideas on my phone, all the way through the process so you can see the whole progression.

How would you have worked before? Just jamming?

BP: Not jamming, no – I hate that word – but a bit rough and ready. We knew when something sounded right, but it wasn’t like we were working towards a goal…

TP: We didn’t compose things. It was a process where… well, he might not like the word “jamming” but a lot of the time in essence that’s what we would be doing. Playing stuff through in the studio, seeing what ideas come to the surface and if something felt strong then we’d start to focus on that a bit more.

BP: But to have a fully-formed vocal to work around and structure things, well, I really liked that way of working.

TP: Much more disciplined.

BP: And the vocals they sent through were fantastic from the start!

So was this the vocal-first process with every track on the album?

BP: Well actually the one track, ‘Everything’, that we worked in that way first, we took into the studio and it wasn’t working as we wanted it to. So we kind of spontaneously re-wrote it, jammed it out with Neneh and it became what it is now. What else…? ‘Across the Water’?

NC: Yeah, ‘Across the Water’ – it was actually the track we did last, but it’s first on the album. That we just jammed out actually in the live room while Kieran was mixing everything else. So that was done differently to everything else, and kind of out of the black really, because it had a structure that I couldn’t really get my head round and it was a much bigger production initially but we ended up taking a lot of the stuff away and stripping it back and making it simpler.

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rocketnumbernine- interview - 2.25.2014

So Neneh, do you feel like you’re a different kind of musician now that you’re working with these streamlined processes in contrast to your years in the major label world?

NC: I think there’s an element of new, which is actually always the thing that I think I’m searching for in work. Having an innocent approach is something I feel is really important, because I don’t know everything – or maybe even anything… but I certainly have everything with me from where I’ve been. I don’t feel like I’m coming out of the black into nowhere! But there is an element of that, and that’s why Blank Project as a concept suits the thing, because we’re launching something new together. But having said that, as we’ve been going through this journey of working together, it evokes things I knew before, I feel all the time like I’m remembering stuff or coming back to feelings that I’ve grown up with, or that I’ve felt when I was playing with Rip, Rig & Panic, or whatever. Do you know what I mean? I feel like it’s very much in my backbone. I feel maybe more like myself than I have done for a very very long time, which is kind of a good feeling. So is that new or old? I dunno! [chuckles]

Was there any conscious decision that you were going to step into working with musicians who were spontaneous and improvising then?

NC: I think when I finished promoting the Man album [1996] I just had my face right up against a brick wall, and I felt like I couldn’t really continue in that kind of place where I was. I think that the last quite a few years I’ve been on a journey that’s taken me here – and making The Cherry Thing was what made this project possible. I felt like it let me out, I was released through The Cherry Thing. I’d been writing for a long time, me and Cam and Paul Simm and a few other people and I had all these songs, we’d done the CirKus records as very low key things and had something different in mind… I think we knew that there was no way that sitting in the studio making a really over-thought, over-produced record made sense, but exactly how we were going to make the record I had no idea, we had no idea, until we met Rocketnumbernine. They were just hanging in the universe like a missing piece to the puzzle, like “oh, there you are!”

BP: It did feel like that. We were in Shoreditch, looking for a place to sit down and have our first meeting, I looked up and on this rooftop there was just smoke going up. Middle of winter, December, and there was smoke coming up from this place, which we worked out was a bar. So we said to them “meet us at this bar”, we went up there, and there were these open fires on the roof, so we were sitting around like a campfire, and that’s how we met: sat around an open fire. It felt quite tribal, didn’t it? [Tom shuffles and looks away]

NC: Yes. [increasingly excited] It was like a meeting of the tribes, the Page Brothers versus the Cherry-McVeighs, next to a teepee. And the moon was full, too. It was like “OK, yep, let’s go.” That’s what happened! And there’s no doubt that… [coughs, loses thread] oh I don’t know.

TP: What was the question?

Well, you said The Cherry Thing helped you cut loose, or made you open to this meeting… I know a lot of people who’ll turn to noisy or improvised music as a “brain cleaner” because you can’t predict or second guess it, so you have to let your brain thought go somewhat.

NC: Mmmm, that’s right. There’s a thing where you can’t think to much, you just have to be in there, you have to be in it. I had felt what I needed to do for such a long time but I didn’t know how to do it, then being in that situation where it was just, OK, you’ve just got to trust this shit and the guys around you are going to hold you and you’re just going to go through it – and I feel like that with Tom and Ben too – then on a deeper level the organised chaos and energy are really powerful, but also the chemistry, when you’re working with people you trust in that way, makes you feel like you can open up and let go of all those little things in your brain that go “ooh that might be really shit, don’t do that…”

BP: It’s about suspending judgement, right? A judgement free environment.

NC: It is, it’s a very strong thing, which allows that element of innocence inside it. It was like that for us when we recorded the album with Kieran too – we wanted to just be in there and not manipulate. It’s so easy to be over-thinking and over-manipulative, and we wanted to just let go and let it happen around us, which is quite… quite powerful in a way.

“We came in the studio, and Kieran looked really weird. I said “what’s wrong”, he said “I’m really sorry but I’ve just totally taken Ben out of the track…”

So how much was Kieran involved in the process? He seems to have an ability to be quite transparent when he’s acting as a producer – as opposed to being Four Tet – to the point that it’d be very hard to say there was a “Kieran Hebden sound”.

TP: Yes, he has a way of brining out the best in people regardless of their genre, he can lend his expertise to any situation, so he was definitely not imposing in that way – which helped the process flow in a very relaxed way.

BP: The situation in Woodstock was that we’d go out into this wooden church, which had a control room set up here [waves], and the rest of it was all open. We’d run through the track, he’d be in there with the engineer, he’d set up the desk how he wanted it, we’d go in, he’d say a few things but really not much, then we’d go out and play it again and that was it really. He’d either say “that’s it, we’ve got it”, or “no that’s not it, do it again” and we’d do it again with a few small changes but nothing major, then go back in, play it back and it’d be like “wow, yes, that’s how it should sound!” It was a very, very quick process really. By the time we got to the fifth day we were well ahead – we’d pretty much finished on the fifth morning, all ten tracks. So he was seminal in the process, yes, of course he was, but the way he worked was taking things away more than anything that might complicate the process. He took my whole synth track away from ‘Across the Water’! It was brilliant because that what the track needed, but I was really “woah what are you doing?”

NC: We came in the studio, and Kieran looked really weird. I said “what’s wrong”, he said “I’m really sorry but I’ve just totally taken Ben out of the track…”

TP: He took my timpanis out too!

Oh no – your big moment of drama! 

BP: Heh, yeah, but he’s our friend and we trust him.

So did the recording session settle the songs into their forms more or less once and for all, or are you changing them again in the live rehearsals?

TP: We’re in the process of deconstructing the material. It’s been a long period of time, with just the odd show, in between recording and now, so we’ve come back into it and are trying to deconstruct everything. We’re looking at all the parts, how they work, then putting them back together. It’s still pretty representative of the album, so it’s mainly fine-tuning – but the album was put together with so little preparation before playing the tracks, it’s a necessary process to go back to it and look at it in detail. But it is very representative of the songs as recorded.

And therefore representative of the songs as they were first written? 

NC: Yeah, like Tom was just saying, we’re really building from the bottom here, so we can feel like we know what the core is, then from the core we can go out and stretch out and probably take things in different directions – but first we wanted to solidify, go into the centre of each song so we really feel like we know it.

TP: Go right inside it so you feel confident…

NC: …to give yourself more freedom…

TP: …and relax with it.

And are there going to be more remixes from this album? 

NC: Well we’ve got the Villalobos one of ‘Everything’, Joe Goddard on ‘Out of the Black’ and a friend of ours has done one of ‘422’, but there’s some other things in the pipeline too, but I’m not sure… I’m trying to manipulate a really hardcore hip hop remixers with some English rappers on it. I’ve got this really great kid Oscar, who’s from Hackney – my daughter Naima came up with these groups of travellers, and one of our friends in them, Ali, has five or six kids and one of them is a wicked MC.

TP: He’s fantastic, yeah.

NC: So I want to get that done and… oh I don’t know, blah blah blah, it’s all speculation really.

Do new versions make you reassess the tracks yourselves?

TP: I really like Joe Goddard’s mix, the way he holds off for ages, then at the end resolves it with this bass thing in it. Ricardo’s is great, very very different, and the way he uses Neneh’s voice in it.

NC: I was thinking actually, in rehearsal, about whether it would be good to introduce some of the flavours from the remixes into some of the tracks – but for now we’re focusing on what we do, us three, on that core, and not digressing too much.

TP: That was actually kind of the approach we took with ‘Dream Baby Dream’ at the Worldwide Awards: it was based more around Four Tet’s remix of the tune than the original.

BP: We’ve just been in the early stages of working out quite a crazy version of ‘Buffalo Stande’ too.

NC: [laughs heartily] Yeah baby, Rocketnumbernine does ‘Buffalo Stance’, a demented version.

BP: Mmmm… we’ll see what happens.

And are you looking forward beyond this set of gigs? 

BP: Well there’s the summer coming, and festival shows. And Tom and I had already started working on a new Rocketnumbernine album, but we’d had to put that aside to concentrate on these live shows – which is good, not a problem, because we’re proud of this album and want to showcase it, but we need to find some more time to carry on with that album. And working with a vocalist, well obviously you can’t find someone of Neneh’s stature every day, but to work with another vocalist on something at some point would be good.

TP: We’ve not really spoken about whether this partnership will continue, it’s just not something to think about at this stage – we’ll just see whether we end up killing each other on the road I guess! But from everything we’ve learned so far on the journey, all the way through the writing to now, I would really like to do a follow up, maybe take a bit more time going into it with the knowledge we’ve got now…

BP: Yeah, to go into the process of it but writing as a trio would be a great prospect, but let’s see how things go forward from here.

NC: Yeah I thought would be really cool would be to do like an EP or something after we come back from tour, written from scratch. I’m in that space now where I feel like I’m on to something, I want to not lose the vibe, so that would be my dream picture – maybe after the summer, do an EP or something.

BP: Well we’re available if you want us!

NC: Great, thanks! [laughs uproariously] Will you still want to work with me, though? [pulls monster face]

BP: Course we will, course we will…

Blank Project is out now. Neneh Cherry will be playing Field Day this Summer – for more information head here.

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