Interview with Rob B of Stereo MC's
By Bob Gourley | Published on March 21, 2015
Bringing together elements of hip hop, rock, and a variety of electronic styles, Britain’s Stereo MC’s had a huge hit in 1992 with ‘Connected.’ Featuring the single of the same name and several other hits, the album proved to be a tough one to follow up. It would be nine years before they returned, with the grittier sounding “Deep Down & Dirty” (2001). Since then, Stereo MC’s have remained active touring and releasing new music. Their most recent album was the excellent “Emperor’s Nightingale” in 2011, and last year they put out “Collected,” a complete collection of their music to date. Currently, they are focused on creating tracks aimed at the dance floor and are putting together an EP. In an email interview, Rob B discussed the past and current work of Stereo MC’s.
“Supernatural” was my introduction to the band, but many people were first made aware of you with “Connected.” Besides obviously making you more well known, what effects did the success of that have on Stereo MC’s? For example, did you feel increased pressure when following it up?
Well… “Connected” was our third lp but even so the effect of its success was still a shock in some ways. We were away from home so long that (personally speaking) the fabric of my personal life disintegrated to a degree and psychologically I was not prepared for a. having reached a lifetime goal and being able to see one to follow and b. being rich and famous (for a short while) for some reason didn’t agree with my persona. In the age of oncoming celebrityism and networking we were totally reclusive.
I remember in press clips journalists saying we would struggle to repeat “Connected”‘s success as time went on and the fact is you can’t make the same record twice and remain original — and if we ever had a motto, originality was its basis.
So…. a lot of smoked out days and nights weeks and months that turned into years of self-imprisoned studio time that was very costly and bore little fruit save the tune “Sweetest Truth” that we did for the “Warchild” lp.
We bought a derelict building in Brixton and went underground avoiding contact with the music industry and built our studio on the frontline in the late nineties and things started to change.
We started remixing again (Tricky, Madonna, I Roy, Lyrics Born, Terranova) and we made a DJ Kicks compilation for Studio K7 in 2000. In 2001 we finished “Deep Down and Dirty” and restarted touring as a live band and releasing records as we still do now.
I noticed that “Emperor’s Nightingale” and some other albums of yours are only partially available on Spotify. Is this intentional, to give a taste but then require people to actually purchase if they want the whole thing? Was it a decision by you or the label?
Not sure whose decision it was but I feel music has been de-valued by organisations like this and if you hold certain values for music you have start by valuing your own. Music is not wallpaper. I like a tune cause of what it is, I found it, I bought it and downloaded it and use it and check the artist for further release. He/she has to pay rent also and if I want to continue hearing them create I should support so they don’t become plumbers.
Are there any particular ways that the evolution of musical technology over the years has affected the way you work, both in the studio and live?
Technologically yes—music is now computer based especially electronic music or dance music–I can now make tunes at 30000 feet flying, in my hotel room, in the toilet, at my mums. I can see music on a grid but I have to remind myself to close my eyes and just feel.The way we put it together and mix has changed but the raw creative process comes FROM WITHIN!
A small idea can be a mighty thing.
We still use a lot of old outboard gear.
Live we use computers instead of turntables and we have live and electronic drums. I process my own vocals live. I love the tech and I love the old shit…in fact the old shit sounds even better against a new shiny beat.
What is the current line-up? Has it changed at all over the years?
The basic format–Nick Hallam, Rob(me)Birch, Owen IF drums, Cath Coffey energy vocals is still the blueprint. Aina Roxx has also recently joined for our European tour last year and is on vocals with us as a new member. Groups are like chemistry — now and then shake the test tube.
The music industry is very different from when Stereo MC’s first started. What changes do you think have directly affected you most?
I guess its all evolution and you embrace change or remain stone age. I’m a bit of both.You have to find what gives you a buzz and that thing moves as music changes…you have to keep moving and challenging yourself to stand on the edge….or find an edge to stand on…the changes in the industry may affect the way you make music ,and make a livelihood and even how you think but remember at the peak of youth you are changing fast without realising so as you get older the innocence and naive parts must remain refreshed with new excitement. Change and LIVE! People made music before there was an industry anyway so I don’t feel the industry affects me creatively, maybe we have to be more ready to seek opportunities to make a living within our sphere but there are people out there who want to see a band play cause they live it not just as a step to becoming a tv presenter.
As your sound combines elements of hip hop, electronic music, rock, and other styles, has it ever been a challenge figuring out how to best promote and market your music? If so, has it become easier or more difficult over the years?
In America it was difficult as they had no category to put us in .One minute we were called techno, hiphop, hip house, acid jazz(horror), indie……..Nick just told em to service everyone.
Over time, we managed to continue touring, recording without overselling ourselves.To a point the media just ignored our existence and eventually we decided to do the things we wanted and take the reins in our own hands and build on the work already done regardless of the industry.
Last year you put out “Collected,” a complete collection of your music. What was the motivation for doing that now?
A label in Germany wanted to do a ‘best of’ and we thought it would be of more creative interest to do a record that was interesting rather than cheap thrills. Universal were up for making a box set, an encyclopaedia of all our material up to date including rare tunes/remixes ,demos unreleased tracks and some new material—in a well put together manner that we spent a lot of energy on to make it quality. We knew it wasn’t a big release but more something for the fans that was of a certain standard. I like it and love playing some tunes live we haven’t touched for 20 years.
For “Collected,” was the process like compiling the rare/unreleased material and remixes? To what degree was it a case of having stuff you knew you wanted to get out there versus seeking out/sorting through things for undiscovered gems?
Yeah we went through old hard drives re-discovering stuff we didn’t quite polish or tunes that were left as ruff sketches but never released. Quite refreshing Also re-connecting with old lyrics and trains of thought and vibes was inspiring.
It also gave us the chance to put out a few new tunes and re-print some classic remixes we had done like the Leftfield mix of “Step It Up,” Andy Weatheralls mix of “Everything” and the 45 King’s mix of “On 33,” to name a few.
Are you currently performing any older songs live that you think have particularly taken on new life from when you originally recorded them? (Whether through intentional re-interpretation, or simply a more organic result of where you are today musically)
Yes we perform a diverse selection all interpreted with live electronic and acoustic percussion mixed with original grooves and samples and I control an echo unit on my mike so we can dub out when we feel. We perform tunes made 5 months ago and tunes made over 25 years ago…its deep. Old tunes sound pretty fresh too and ruff.
Having been around a while now, do you find it challenging balancing fan expectations with keeping things interesting for yourselves musically? For example, do you ever question whether something might fit into the Stereo MC’s ‘sound,’ or do you not worry and just do what you want?
New sounds bring new fans I believe…perhaps fans from 2o years ago will always prefer the tunes they grew up with but I also believe the nature of someone who digs our music has an open mind and they come to feel the energy we give out and although sounds change energy must be present. Crowd pleasers seem to lack sincerity don’t you think?
There’s a lyric I like from a tune we did called “Sketch” : “… speak from the heart it’ll uplift you…..”
Are you working on a new album? If so, when can we expect it?
We are working on a new ep and the idea of releasing more 12’s on a dance floor level going back to our roots as an underground electronic dance outfit who make songs to make people dance. We’re off the lp conveyor belt for the time being and are delighted to be collaborating with new people such as Terranova (Kompakt ) and Adam Port(Keinemusik), both from Berlin. New ep early summer.
Stereo MC’s have done quite a bit of production and remixing work over the years. Are you currently working on anything with that?
No .If we get asked, ok, but the remix game is down to who’s the flavour right now and I’m cool to be doing gigs, djing, being on the mike and making tunes. I don’t feel it’s our purpose right now to be remixers.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Yeah …I’m very grateful for this life in music.
For more info on Stereo MC’s, visit their official website at stereomcs.com.