Skip to content

ninja tune xx : coldcut interview july 2010

NinjaTunexxBoxsetcover_squareversionforpress

being completely honest, this is an interview that is hidden away on the ninja tune website, so it’s not an exclusive, nor is it anything but a cheap and easy cut-n-paste job, but hey thems the breaks.

however, the site does advise it’s free for use, so, in case you haven’t seen it (or heard it, as i think it was originally a podcast somewhere), i have decided it’s well worth a permanent place on the wire.

clearly with 20 years to cover its a bit of a monster, so put on the kettle, drop a solid steel mix on the stereo, and let the love flow.

Dexter Batson (Presenter) – I’ve read that you founded Ninja Tune as a rejection for the demands of the music industry being led in a certain direction and to be free as artists, was it an easy move to make for you?

Jon More (Coldcut) – It wasn’t really a question of it being easy or not it was a question of doing it, as it was the only way Matt and I could see out of the morass of looking at the mud and not the sunrise, which was the state we’d found ourselves in. Not through any fault of our own necessarily, but that was the way of the world at that time and our relationship to the major label industry and so, we’ve described it before, but the forming of ninja tune was our multi coloured escape pod.

D – Had you already decided that it was going to be music full time and that would be a career?

Matt Black (Coldcut) – It was 1990 and we were on our first tour of Japan with Norman Cook. We’d already been doing music full time for a couple of years, we’d actually started a label called Ahead of Our Time to release our own tracks, whilst being signed to other labels, and as Jon said we started Ninja Tune as a pod to blast ourselves out of the swamp that was the music industry for us at the time. So, we’d already shown that we could make our own records and sell them, with Say Kids What Time is it?

D – Where did the name Ninja Tune come from. Was it linked to the idea of breaking free of the constraints?

Jon – It was actually whilst on that tour of Japan where we both independently of each other came across various ninja items as you would expect in Japan. I had come across this black and white ninja film that I presumed was quite old and didn’t understand the language, but I turned the volume down in the hotel room that I was staying in. When you turn the volume down on a television, whether it’s a film or TV, you realise how much that sound provides, and you start to see the gaps in the picture. I started to think it was all about trap doors, smoke and mirrors and these Ninjas roaming from town to town, entertaining people with this slightly circus, magician like way. Then Matt found a magazine with a cut out and keep ninja. I think that’s correct?

Matt – Yeah there was a magazine with an article about “how to be ninja” with these little cut outs that you could take and set up. The two of us being collectors were very attracted to it, and the idea of the ninja being an identity that we could take on and camouflage ourselves with and produce new identities to slip in and out of the gaps in the machine was what prompted Ninja Tune.

D – You say that your collectors, would you say that nature of collection is important to the kind of music you make?

Jon – Certainly samples are the fundamentals of what makes Coldcut, although they may become the ghosts in the machine eventually on quite a few tunes. They are the inspiration and vinyl for me, as Im still well into it DJ’ing is still a big part of things. There are various boxes of 7” around me right now. Though Im not a vinyl bod, I still believe in using digital data.

D – How did you make the leap again to releasing other artists material?

Matt – When Ninja Tune started and we created alter egos like DJ Food and Bogus Order, we discovered quite quickly that we were attracting other like-minded artists. I think that was for two reasons, the first being that we converged on this style that became known as Trip Hop, which came from a love of Hip Hop; but not having any decent rappers around we decided to just make do with samples and take hip hop in a more abstract direction. Other people were having the same idea so Ninja Tune quite quickly became a kind of focal point for that. There was a kind of freewheeling, alternative philosophy that we stood for, and I think people really knew that Coldcut were holding up the flag, and saying fuck off to the music business and that we were gonna do it ourselves. Of course this an idea that came from Punk, but we were the first to do it with this new emerging electronic music of the time, which I think attracted other people with a kind of rebellious spirit.

D – You had a certain hands off approach to artists you signed. Do you feel this attracted artists to you or did they come to you?

Peter Quicke (Managing Director) – It’s a label that Coldcut started and was intended to be a label that artists would want to be on and enjoy being on. We try to see things from the artists point of view

Matt – I think that came out of the feeling that Coldcut had been somewhat shafted by the music business, so we wanted to set something up where the artists made the decisions and had a lot more freedom and that’s been an important part of the ninja tune aesthetic. For instance if there is an opportunity to have a track licensed for use in an advert, we will let the artist make that decision. Occasionally that’s a decision that *Jon and I wont agree with, but we feel the artist should be allowed to make their own judgements and make their own mistakes if necessary.

D – When you were starting out was there any thought that you would still be going 20 years later and releasing such a wide range of music?

Peter – I didn’t have any idea at all that we’d be here in 20 years, but then I don’t really have an idea about what’s gonna happen next year, other than that we’ve got lots of artists delivering new material.

Matt- Saying “did you think you’d be around in 20 years time” is like saying do you think you’ll be alive in 20 years time. You hope you will be, but can never be sure how the landscapes gonna pan out or whether an anvil will drop on your head. That’s what makes it exciting.

D – Given that you give a home to what some would call the outsiders of the music business, do you see yourselves as outsiders?

Jon – Its funny, on one hand I didn’t really think of Coldcut as being an outsider. In reality I wanted to be an insider with Coldcut. I think we are and most of the artists on Ninja have that state as well.

Matt – I sometimes feel as an outsider; in a way. we’ve gathered a collection of oddballs together who have created cut and paste identities from the scrap-book of pop culture. So I think that we do have a tribal feel ; it’s a contradiction that something that binds us together is that we are all outsiders- but then everyone’s an outsider in some ways.

Peter- We’ve always tried to put out music that’s a bit different. W|hen Trip Hop became on the inside we didn’t want to be a part of it because it became sickeningly smooth and un-adventurous. The same with big Beat, the same with Drum & Bass etc.. We’ve never wanted to do Dubstep straight down the line. But so many amazing things have come out of Dubstep, so many offshoots that are really exciting and for us its been about seeing the fringes of those genres and the developments outside of them. In that sense we’re on the outside too I think.

D – Do you look for the new thing or do you let it come to you? What’s you’re a&R process?

Matt – Id say there’s a certain restlessness that’s part of that outsider thing, but there’s a drive to find out whats going to be next! Once something has become too established and comfortable, we are restless to find out where its going to go. As something bubbles up from the underground, comes up to the overground and then fossilises , theres always something recycling back in the underground ready to bubble up in a different place. I guess we have a good nose for sensing where that’s going to be and tracking it. For Coldcut as well, that’s been quite a strong drive.

D – I suppose that’s how you keep it interesting for yourselves as well, by keeping something always round the corner.

Jon – It’s a question of not getting bored

D – You wouldn’t be doing it for 20 years if you were getting bored I guess?

Peter – The other thing is that a lot of the time we’re actually following our artists, so from an a&r point of view its what our artists want to do. And artists that we’re excited by, who aren’t necessarily at the cutting edge of the underground, like the Grasscut album that’s just come out isn’t really cutting edge, but its completely original.

D – Would you say there’s a ninja sound or a ninja approach to making music?

Jon – I think there is a sound there and a spirit with the artists. Each artist has a strong individuality, but there is this commonness which is very difficult to put your finger on, so in a way its easier to identify Ninja Tune as something we’re not rather than what we are.

D – So what aren’t you?

*Jon – Well the lists too long to mention. But we’re not crap! That would be at the top of the list.

Peter – When Matt & Jon started I think the idea was they wanted to put out any music they liked. The music they were making at that time ranged from Hip Hop to Disco to rave to House to Funky Rock Music and all sorts of things. They were very inspired by the cut up records by Steinski. When Ninja Tune really started steaming along we did focus on instrumental, abstract Hip Hop, Jazz breaks, Instrumental beats and so that was the Ninja Tune sound in 1995. It was Soul, Jazz, Hip Hop in a kind of instrumental, slightly abstract form. Since then it has evolved in so many different ways that’s its quite difficult to see that at the heart of it, as its become a lot broader.

Matt – One of the key marketing decisions we made was to have our own section in record shops, because we were making all kinds of different music and if it got split up it would have been lost. So we actually made our own dividers with Ninja Tune at the top and put them in shops, which was a good way to focus peoples attention on it. I think in the last 20 years there have been cycles of people narrowing and broadening their tastes, and now I think we’re in quite a broad head space. Many peoples musical taste today is quite broad and I think thats due to the huge availability of music at the moment, which I think is really positive. Ninja Tune has been able to keep up with that by being able to put out all kinds of music. So there’s probably a less obvious sound compared to 1995 when it was pretty much focused on this thing that people call Trip Hop. But now its more about what makes a ninja: some kind of character that is manifested in the music, an artist who’s had some experiences and can express them in their music so you can feel something of the soul of that artist, which is really what art and music is about, when people relate to creators of music and art. So if you think of any of the artists on Ninja Tune, they’re all quite unique and they all have quite a strong character that you can feel in their music, so that really encapsulates, more than a sound, what is ninja.

D – That certainly echoes what you were saying about the underground sound breaking through and becoming sanitised, and that’s when you put your head up and look for something new.

Matt – We’re human beings. We’re not about being sanitised and generic, we’re about being unique.

D – How important was your Stealth night for letting people know about what you were doing?

Peter – We’d done lots of nights before that had always appeared really esoteric and almost no-body would turn up or very few at least. We then threw a launch party for the DJ Food album that Matt, Jon, PC & Strictly Kev produced, A Recipe for Disaster in Oct 1995 at the Blue Note, and it was a riot. There were cues round the block and it was like Ninja Tunes time had come I guess. So we started Stealth properly in December 1995 and did it monthly for about 9 months and it was great fun.

D – There always has to be a real alchemy to make something like Stealth really work and for everyone to enjoy as much as you do. Do you feel like you really hit on something golden?

Jon – I think with Stealth we got the assault right, as it were. When I say assault I mean it, because it was everything, the visual assault, the audio assault, the people that were with us. Shane was an important part of it, Susie was an important part of it. There was a certain fullonness to it. It think its possibly that we so excited about having a crowd, where in the past as Peter said it had been slightly esoteric and the ratio of boys to girls was always wrong, but when stealth hit it was a great across the board group of people. It was full on because some weeks you’d get Squarepusher playing bass along to tracks, other weeks you’d get someone else turn up and do something, sometimes we didn’t know what was happening..

Peter – At the centre of it was this 4 deck thing, which at the time was quite unusual. DJ’ing had just become kind of, fashionable, everyone was using 2 decks, where we decided to use 4. People had done 4 decks before, but that was definitely a hot point of the night.

Matt – You get a magic moment when what you’re doing just mixes really well with what people are ready for. We’d done stuff in the past that was really cool and had all the right ingredients, but like they say, nothing can stop an idea whose time has come, conversely nothing can start an idea who’s idea has NOT come! The reason that Stealth blew up was because the time was right , and that comes down to a whole mix of factors; enough people had become aware that there was a new London scene happening and we were in the right place at the right time, having helped create it, but also being lucky enough to take that position and take it forward. People can recognise that when the moment is right then it just snowballs because it gets hyped and it attracts more and more people. We did have a lot of thing converging, like the *Light Surgeons for instance, were a bunch of guys who had written to us a few months before asking if they could come and do something. Their letter was just stuck up on a filling cabinet in Ninja Tune and one day *I said, hey! lets invite these guys down, and they became a big part off the assault of the night. It provided a very appropriate & powerful visual aspect to the fucked up, cut up, processed scratching sounds and it really matched it. A lot of it was very analogue with slide projectors and so on. It was a full on assault and people were ready for something like that. Id also relate it back to mine and John’s roots in the London warehouse scene in the 80’s, which were also very eclectic, hip parties, where people knew there was a scene and people would go down to the Flim Flam on Fridays, which was Jons club . That was also a moment where London realised there was something amazing and new happening here that came from all of us mixing together. Stealth kind of re-visited that, recycled it and created a peak moment.

D – Would there be a tune that really encapsulated that time for you?

Jon – Squarepusher remix of DJ Food – Scratch Your Head, with a wonderful toothbrush sample in it.

D – Have you always tried to maintain a real Ninja Tune aesthetic?

Matt – The initial Ninja Tune graphic style was put together by a very good friend of mine, called Mark Porter. He was really into super heavy type and big bold logo’s and a friend of his Michael Bartillos who put together the first Ninja Tune logo. So I think Jon and I always thought that a strong graphic identity was a really important part of a record label. Adrian Sherwood’s label On -U Sound was real inspiration for Ninja Tune from when I was a student I remember these 10” singles in black and white sleeves, which had a very strong look, so it was definitely an influence and we knew it was important to get that right. It was really when Strictly Kev came on board and took over from Mark that we took the graphics to another level. Kev and his mates who were all students at Camberwell were doing these underground squat parties called Telepathic Fish, which were pretty legendary as well with Mixmaster Morris, Aphex Twin all playing there. One of the guys; Chantelle, later became Mira Calix on Warp Records. So they were a pretty influential bunch of young bloods who came up at that time, and Kev was really the one who came on board with ninja, and over the years has really been the power house that has created our graphic identity and kept it evolving, strong and interesting. He’s a favourite son of ninja because he’s a great musician and Dj, but also has the graphic and visual skills as well. I think we recognised pretty early on that Kev was a major talent and it was very good to have him on side.

Peter – Kev would always turn things in and you would always think, Wow! That’s amazing, perfect. Big up Kev.

Matt – We always had a good way with phrases and slogans. You talk about Ninja Tune sound, but just making up words like Funkjazztical Tricknology just fitted. It was a new word that described something new and just had enough references to what had gone before to make sense. Kev was very adapt at taking phrases, slogans and words like that and manifesting them in an interesting graphical form.

D – Is there a single defining signing that really changed the game for any of you?

Peter – Coldcut!! I think Coldcut defined the way the label is and their at the centre of it. There have been many other people around, but there hasn’t been one in particular. Amon Tobin’s a genius, Kid Koala’s a genius of turntables and the Cinematic Orchestra have proved themselves to be incredible. There are so many people; Mr Scruff’s in his own area, he’s at the pinnacle of his own part of music and there are so many other people. We’ve just signed Emika, who’s making dubstep like no-ones made it before. We’ve just signed Eskmo who’s making beats music better than anyones ever made it and Toddla T’s gonna be the genius of 2011.

Matt – Cinematic Orchestra a fascinating outfit, because the main guy Jason Swinscoe was working in the Ninja Tune office as a music lover who came to the label because he wanted to work for a label. He put a track together by pasting up a load of Jazz samples and it was unlike anything else. We put it out and it just went on from there. Now he’s one of the biggest acts on the label and pretty much a household name with hip people round the world. In a way Cinematic was a key signing for Ninja Tune as it was something that we helped grow ourselves.

Peter – Yeah, Cinematic Orchestra took us outside of instrumental Hip Hop and took us into something completely different. It explored the Jazz side side of the label in a way that no-one else had done before, inside or outside of Ninja Tune. Roots Manuva of course is a complete legend who kind of defined the Big Dada label in lots of ways

D – There’s often a lot of dishonesty and bullshit when you scratch the surface of the industry. Do you ever encounter any of this at Ninja Tune?

Jon – Industry dishonesty and bullshit to one person is sage advice and useful information to another, so its always difficult to determine. I think if you scratch the surface of Ninja you just get a ninja.

D – Did you ever set out to be businessmen when you set out to build Ninja Tune? Do you consider yourselves that now or are you music men to the core?

Matt – Peter came up with the phrase “careful with the cash, crazy with the music”. I think the reason we’ve survived is because we do actually have a certain pragmatic understanding of the music business whereas a lot of the other more hippy labels don’t. We’ve been asked by other small labels how we keep it going when their actually losing money on every release. We’ve managed to avoid that by putting some sound business practice in. In some ways we were children of the 80’s and we realised that business could work and combining business with art and music is a tricky balance, but we’ve somehow managed to do it and that’s why we’re still here.

Peter – We’re like a cottage industry in that it may be a new thing, but its also been going on forever

D – Would you say the ethos “careful with the cash, crazy with the music” was as important as ever or is increasingly becoming more important?

Peter – I’d say it was as important as ever, even if it is a slightly naff turn of phrase.

D – What should we be getting excited about in the immediate future from Ninja Tune? What records have you got on the horizon that your really salivating for?

Peter – Toddla T is getting a lot of radio play at the moment and 10 man roll from Jammer on Big Dada is going really well. The Jammer album is out now and Toddla T is coming out next year. We’ve got an Eskmo album coming out in October. But most of all we’ve got this amazing and horrendous box set coming out. I say horrendous because we have more than 80 new pieces of music on there from our artists and remixers that have been put together over the last few months. Bringing all that together has been a brilliant process through all the amazing new music that’s come in, so really looking forward to that.

D – Where do you see yourselves in 20 years?

John – Well Im hoping technology will have evolved so that I can make it up the spiral staircase in the office and be sat here trying to remember things that Ive done over the last 20 years and talking about the 40th anniversary box set.

Matt – Hopefully we’ll be celebrating the 40th anniversary off planet somewhere.

Peter – I should just mention a few things that are happening as well. The Bug’s in the studio at the moment with Adrian Sherwood creating a dub album. Coldcut have been working with Switch in London and L.A. making their next record, which is sounding very heavy and good. Mr Scruff is making new tunes, Cinematic are going in the studio next week. Amon Tobin’s making a new sort of electronic-acoustic music that’s very exciting. DELS has got a incredible new record out at the moment called Shapeshifter on Big Dada. Emika’s finishing her new album. The 3rd part of the DJ Food trilogy is coming soon. Eskmo album out in October.

Matt – I think with the 20th box set, we wanted to look forward not look back. It would have been very easy to do a retrospective, but as Peter said it’s very much a concentration on looking forward. We’ve got a great selection of up and coming talents that are associated to Ninja Tune. People like Dorian Concept and Floating Points, who has just been in Abbey Road recording some new material for us. We are fully facing forward and things feel really exciting in electronic music, with the emergence of Dubstep, Flying Lotus, things are looking up. Its all really interesting. There’s this kind of dance between electronic and rock where one will take over from the other in popularity, but we’re feeling really strong and up for it, so keep supporting us and we’ll try to keep rocking you!

D – What are some of your favourite Ninja tracks from recent years?

Matt – Dark Lady – DJ Food

Peter – There’s a great 808 state mix of that track on the box set. Jaga Jazzist– Toccata is one of the best ninja tunes of the year. Eyesdown by Bonobo is an amazing tune.

Matt – I really Like Lorn, and im pretty turned on by the whole Brainfeeder hook up as well. I think Ninja Tune can keep on helping and getting into bed with other labels.

Peter – Cinematic Orchestra – All That you Give

Matt – Who could forget, Mr Scruff – Get a Move On

Peter – Fink should get a mention as well. When he started singing on his tracks it was a real left turn for us.

Peter – Amon Tobin – Blood Stone

Matt – Sarah Jones and DJ Vadim – Your Revolution. Classic!

Matt – The Heavy are another act who have been doing really well for us. Especially in States. I think they’re great.

Peter – How You Like Me Now was our biggest selling track of last year.

Matt – Kid Koala is also another favourite son of Ninja Tune. Basin Street Blues is a favourite of mine.

Peter – Diplo’s done an amazing new mix of his own tune Summers Gonna Hurt You.

Matt – Daedelus – Make It So

Jon – Spank Rock – Rick Rubin. Cracking track, cracking person. Matt and I are very excited about having an Orb remix of Timber for the box set

Peter – Amon Tobin’s written an stunning new rhythm called Fools, under the name Two Fingers. Dorian Concepts remixing a Clifford Gilberto track called Deliver the Weird and delivered us an amazing track called Her Tears Taste Like Pears.

more detail : here