Bristol D&B outfit Dr Meaker's 2016 album 'Dirt & Soul' has just had a radical makeover. We got on the phone to Clive Meaker to find out how it was done
One grey, drizzly afternoon around 10 years ago, a car pulled up outside the old iDJ office on Park Row in Bristol. A young lad jumped out of the passenger seat, and came running over to where myself and Dave Jenkins were huddled in the doorway having a fag break.
"Are you guys from iDJ?" he said. When we confirmed that he were, he said, "Great! I'm a Bristol producer, here's my CD, hope you like it," and he thrust a copy of a CD called A Lesson From The Speaker into each of our hands, before getting back in the car - driven by a woman who looked suspiciously like his Mum - and driving off. Well, after he'd gone to all the trouble of hand-delivering the album, the least we could do was listen to it, so as soon as we got back upstairs we did - and it was great, a trip-hop, D&B and soul stew that had "Bristol" running through it like a stick of rock.
That was the first time I spoke to Clive Meaker - and, until the conversation you can read below, the last. But as you're no doubt already aware, in the intervening decade or so Clive and his Dr Meaker project have gone on to become one of the premiere live acts in drum & bass, with a long string of singles and EPs for respected labels like V Recordings and Circus Records to their name, as well as two more albums: 2009's Acoustic Sessions version of their above-mentioned 2008 debut, and 2016's Dirt & Soul.
And now Dirt & Soul, too, has been revisited. Out on Friday (30 March), Dirt & Soul: Collaborated is a remix album with a twist. Rather than simply sending stems off to other producers for them to work their remix magic, Clive took the novel approach of actually getting in the studio and remixing the album's tracks with them.
We've racked our brains, and we can't actually think of another remix album that's been done this way. So naturally - while such a hands-on approach probably shouldn't surprise us from the young producer who once brought us his album in person rather than just sticking it in the post! - we wanted to find out more...
Let's cut straight to the chase and talk about Dirt & Soul: Collaborated. It's a very different approach to doing a remix album, isn't it?
"Yeah, it was. In the past, I've always made music without compromising on the art side of it. I've made all the arrangements and compositions in the way that I wanted to hear them, and then someone else would remix the tracks and those were the ones that would get the support in the clubs. I've always wanted to make sure I nailed that club mix as well, but I never really get around to it.
"So for this, I decided I'd make the first album Dirt & Soul as I wanted to make it, without any compromise, and then remix the whole album with some of my favourite producers, so that I could make sure I made those banging remixes. I didn't want to just give them to the other remixers to do and take all the glory, I wanted to get in the studio with them - partly because I'm kind of sick of sitting in a room in Bristol on my own, making music. I wanted to open my mind and learn from others, get out of my own studio, share some of the stuff that I know and learn some of the stuff that other people know."
So it was partly a cheeky way of learning, for yourself?
"Yeah, kind of. A lot of the producers that I've gone and worked with... I'm sort of known as the guy that can do soul vocals over drum & bass. And so a lot of them wanted to learn from me about what equipment I use, what techniques I use, for those kind of vocals. So it's been a real exchange of information. I've learned a lot about how to get those mixes loud for clubs, how to get things punching a lot more - stuff that I wanted to learn, so yeah, it's been a mutual thing.
"And friendships have grown out of it, and now we're taking it out on the road and touring the album as well. I'm playing about 10 dates around the UK and Europe, and for each date one of the remixers from the album is going to join me as a special guest. I'm sort of hosting the tour with other promoters around the country, so it's a whole project that all spins off the original album.
"Also, with the original album, I'd put so much time into getting all that music together - y'know, we recorded a live string orchestra and live choirs and things - that it might not seem in the club spirit had we not made those remixes. So it was kind of wanting to make sure that the music we recorded for the original album saw as many dancefloors as possible."
What was the inspiration for all this? Was it anything anyone else had done?
"No, I think I just wanted the music to be heard by as many people as possible. I did the same with my first album: I created the album electronically in my bedroom, and then I did an acoustic version. So again, it presented the album in a whole new light, to a whole different audience. A lot of people actually prefer that acoustic album to the original.
"I was going to do an acoustic version of this album as well, but I tried to do a few tracks and I just wasn't buzzing with it at all. So then I thought, 'Let's get some remixes done', and then I just wanted to do something that wasn't just me doing all the creating, sat in a room on my own, because I'd just done that for three years making the original album! I just wanted a break and to get out and to get inspired."
How did you go about selecting remixers for the project?
"Well, a lot of these guys have been coming up through the drum & bass scene with myself over the past 5-10 years, so it was really just a group of my peers, I guess. The people around me, the producers that I've been building my career with, exchanging music and stuff.
"But of course a lot of them have really blown up in the past couple of years. Like Serum and Voltage... Break has really risen a lot, Aries has just won Best Jungle DJ, Macky Gee is with SASASAS who've absolutely blown up massively. So it was really just like-minded people: people that I respect and whose music I like. We've all been exchanging tips and and doing bits and pieces for each other for years anyway, so I brought all those guys on first of all.
"And then I also asked DJ Marky, just on the off-chance, because we were chatting on Twitter or somewhere. And he said he'd be really up for doing it, which was amazing because Marky's a legend, and it just seemed like everyone I asked wanted to come onboard, which was a real pleasure."
Did you physically go into the studio with all these people, or were you working remotely?
"Yeah, all of them except for DJ Marky. Most people's I did away, but I did two here: I did the Voltage one here, or actually half here and half at his, and also the Ted Jasper one. Oh and Serum's was done here as well, but the rest were all done at the other producers' studios.
"DJ Marky was the only one that we didn't actually sit in a room together. He did his in Brazil, he sent his initial ideas across to me, I took that and recorded some more guitars and some Minimoog tracks to go on top, and some piano, and then I sent those files to him and he continued to mix it and finish it off at his place.
"It was a really cool way of doing it, because I've never really worked with someone like that before. I've sent stems to people for remixes, and people have sent them to me, but the back-and-forth and building a remix like that, that's not something I've ever done before. Well, a bit, maybe, but certainly not with someone I've never met who's all the way over in Brazil!"
Was there anyone you'd have liked to work with on the album that you couldn't, for whatever reason?
"There's a couple of idols out there that I'd have loved to have on the album, but to be honest I didn't even ask them. Inspirations would be people like Liam Howlett, Nellee Hooper... nostalgia people for me, people that when I was growing up I just loved their music. That would have been cool!
"I did do a couple of remixes with other producers that fell through for one reason or another... in fact, that was why I ended up getting in touch with Marky, to see if he'd do it instead! But everything felt pretty right, to me. There's a few local guys on there that I'm supporting and I thought could do with getting some exposure - people like Terrahawk and Ted Jasper. Ted's only 19 and just starting out in his career but he's really talented. And also there's a guy called Umpire, who again is still in his teens I think, but he's signed to Circus Records and I heard his stuff through them, so I went over to Vienna and spent a couple of days in his studio there. That was great fun."
When you say "here," that's still Bristol?
"Yep, still in Bristol, still in the same place in Easton I've been for the past... ooh, 12 years now."
No desire to move to Berlin or somewhere?
"No, I mean I know a lot of people do - a few of my friends have moved out there, and I do a bit of mastering on the side for a company out there. I went there a couple of years ago and I really enjoyed it for a visit, but this is my home.
"See, I'm originally from near Glastonbury in Somerset. I moved to Bath first of all, then Bristol, and then the plan was, I was going to go to London next, then New York, then reverse it all and end up back in Somerset as an old man! But I never got out of Bristol. I've been here 15 years now, and I've never really wanted to move on."
Is it a good place to be as a musician, do you think?
"Yeah, it's a really... I don't want to say a 'vibrant city' but everyone seems to want to be here, there's lots of artists and musicians and talented creators. I think it's the perfect city, because 20 minutes in any direction and you're in the countryside. You've still got that city feel, but it's not too overwhelming.
"In terms of the actual music industry, Tricky said something recently about there isn't a music industry here... there certainly is a music industry in the fact that lots of creators are here, but yes he's right, the business side of things tends to happen elsewhere. I think that's changing though, because you've got a lot of independent labels here, and of course everything being on the internet now changes everything as well - you can work on stuff here and send it to London in a split second.
"So yeah, it's a good place to work, and it's a good place to be. It's relaxed enough that you don't have that feeling of being in a rat race… which I think allows for more creativity. And it's not as expensive to live here as it is to live in London, either, which means you're not stressing so much in terms of just trying to get by."
You've got a tour going on at the moment as well, I gather... tell us about that?
"Yeah, the tour started a couple of weeks ago, we've played Newport and London so far and next we're off to Switzerland. That runs through till mid-June, but that's just the DJ tour... we've got our live dates as well, in and between that, with the full live band. We're a nine-piece live D&B act and we've got lots of festivals booked, and later this week we're playing Soul Train in Peckham.
"Soul Train have been great supporters for us, actually, because it can actually be quite hard getting into a lot of D&B clubs. They're not set up for live bands, they're just set up for DJs. There's only a few people who do that on a big scale, so we end up playing more traditional live venues - not raves so much, because they're not set up for it.
"So something like Soul Train is a lifeline for us. Mickey and Monie there have been awesome, they've supported us since they met us. They book us three times a year and they keep having us back, which has helped to build us with a younger crowd in a very lively part of London. There's not many of those sort of promoters left, who are really enthusiastic about mixing drum & bass and soul, or soul and electronic music generally.
"In that sense I see us as a future act, in that we're playing our instruments live, we do have a heavy backing track as well and we mix all that together, just like bands that have gone before us like Basement Jaxx or Groove Armada or The Prodigy. We still want to be playing live but we just need more venues. So Europe is where we're looking now, because there seems to be a real hunger in Europe for bands like ours."
So there's nine of you in the live band but in the studio it's just you, is that right?
"Well, the others do get involved in the studio, but several of them have got their own production outfits going on as well - one of which is Paragon, who are starting to do good things. They're with PIAS and they're a house duo, but they're also our drummer and sax player. They're doing really well in Australia, actually. Laurent John, the male singer in the band, he's doing some solo stuff now, and the ladies sing with lots of different people and are in other bands and stuff as well.
"So it's a real collaboration vibe, but then we all come together for Dr Meaker, they come and perform live with me, and occasionally I've co-written some of the songs with other band members. Or sometimes I've written with third-party collaborators. It all just depends, y'know, it's all quite open."
Lots of live work coming up then, but when's it time to start thinking about the next album?
"That's a good point - I was thinking that myself! This album's coming out on 30 March so now it's like, okay, what's next? I am working on new material - I've been working with Celestine who's the lead female vocalist in the band, we've got a couple of tracks together so I'm just thinking about direction. Do I actually want to go more down the dancefloor route for this next album, or will it be more like Dirt & Soul, where musical integrity trumps dancefloor formulas? I still haven't decided, so I'm just working on new music and seeing where it goes, really.
"On the whiteboard in front of me it actually says 'New Dr Meaker album, one year, summer 2018 completion'. That was written about six months ago, and I think finishing an album by this summer might now be a bit of a tall order, if I'm honest! But if I can finish one by the end of the year, that'd be great. I set my standard high with Dirt & Soul, though, and having recorded string orchestras and stuff, I really need to take it up another level now. Or at least create some kind of diversion, to create something that sounds fresh to me."
Finally, anything else going on with you right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"Yes, actually, I've been working on a leftfield project. It's called Bullets, and I've been collaborating with Tricky as well as some other, less well-known Bristol artists. It's a very open, creative project so there are no rules or boundaries, but it's definitely paying homage to the Bristol trip-hop scene. We're about three-quarters of the way ready with that one. And then there's another side project in the pipeline as well... but it's a bit too soon to talk about that right now. So watch this space!"
Words: Russell Deeks