The Herbaliser returns with Bring Out the Sound on BBE
by Mark Rowlands
Today’s world is a rather immediate one. Simplified, easily digestible information and entertainment are available at the flick of finger on a phone screen. Yet, as the saying goes, patience is a virtue. And who would begrudge the virtuous their rewards?
With an ever-increasing time occurring between album releases, fans of U.K. hip-hop innovators and perennial festival favorites the Herbaliser are used to waiting. But, half a decade after their last album, that wait is once again over. Early 2018 sees the release of Bring Out the Sound, the Herbaliser’s debut release for BBE Records.
“The past few years things have been working against us, even though the quality of our records has been getting better,” reckons Ollie Teeba, hinting that the band’s pervading studio perfectionism is not the sole reason for the delays in delivery (band members have experienced life affecting personal tragedy and serious, recurring health issues over recent years).
Thin, with sharp features and high cheekbones that still lend him a rather boyish charm, Teeba is one half of the duo that founded the Herbaliser in the mid 1990s. He is tirelessly chatty and prone to veer off on tangents. In comparison, his musical partner Jake Wherry is much more round of face. Initially Wherry can look quite stern, affording him an air that lies somewhere between music mogul and nightclub security. But as a familiarity creeps in, his face softens and he proves to be friendly, relaxed and affable. He is perhaps the more straightforward talker of the pair.
“I don’t think we’ve got shit,” says Wherry. “It’s just that the periods between our albums have got longer and longer.”
The Herbaliser’s new album Bring Out the Sound is much more than a classic addition to the Herbaliser canon, it redefines it. Bereft of any samples or interpolations and with their strongest concentration on hip-hop yet, it is different to anything they’ve made before. Chopped up hip-hop beats add a weight to the production that, after 25 years, is now at a masterful peak. But none of these beats are recycled; each drum sound utilised is solely their own. There are still widescreen cinematic pieces, imaginary soundtracks for dusty spaghetti westerns or stylish 1970s spy thrillers, but this time they quote no one but themselves. Their expansive funk machinery is also joined, for the first time, by a psychedelic sound lead by the debut inclusions of Wherry’s fuzzed out guitar.
The album also features a sea change in the Herbaliser’s approach to vocal inclusions. Bring Out The Sound offers their strongest reliance on hip-hop vocals to date, many of them helmed by original U.K. don Rodney P, whose many previous collaborations with the band have only happened in the live arena. It also showcases the Herbaliser’s first attempt at an acoustic guitar-backed pop song in “Seize the Day,” sung by Just Jack. An instant classic, the format slips so comfortably into the Herbaliser’s sound you’re left wondering why it has taken until now to appear. But the Herbaliser has always had an uphill struggle in procuring just the right vocal accompaniment to their sound.
“We wanted to make a hip-hop album but we didn’t know any rappers,” says Wherry of their debut album Remedies, issued by Ninja Tune in 1995, “so we kind of developed an instrumental style. As kids growing up in the 1970s the music on TV was so good. All the library music in the background, which diggers and producers have been sampling ever since, that was our soundtrack. Remedies was a mix of our love of soundtracks and TV music with hip-hop.”
“Ollie hates it,” chuckles Wherry when remembering Remedies. But the album, which featured frequent future collaborators Kaidi Tatham and Malachi, placed the Herbaliser at the forefront of an exploding U.K. hip-hop movement. Spearheaded by Ninja Tune and Mo Wax, with its distinct sound, this U.K. movement would capture global attention from both existing hip-hop fans and the new entrants it generated.
“It wasn’t an album so much as it was everything we’d done up until that point,” says Wherry, somewhat dismissively, of an album that nevertheless sold very respectably and is counted as a classic of the era.
“To me, some instrumental hip-hop sounds like a beats tape that you’d write a rap to,” says Teeba in a similar vein. “We thought, if we’re going to make some of these as instrumentals, let’s make the arrangements more interesting. So we drew heavy inspiration from movie soundtracks. Hip-hop instrumentals of movie soundtracks. That’s kind of how we came to develop the Herbaliser sound. Because we didn’t know any rappers we thought, let’s just put something out. We were hoping to gain traction in other territories so that maybe opportunities to work with rappers overseas would then present themselves. And that’s what happened. We put Remedies out and ended up working with What What from Natural Resource [now known as Jean Grae] on the next album.”
Wherry nods in agreement. “It didn’t really start to gel until that next album, Blow your Headphones.”
Although Remedies remains an unsatisfactory memory in the minds of the Herbaliser it was so well received that it prompted a response from the band that would become one of the most important decisions they would make. “It really just blew up so quickly around the time we signed,” remembers Wherry of the period. “Our first album came out September 1995 and within months all of the artists on Ninja Tune were out on tour in Europe, America and Canada.
It was really exciting.” Until the release of the Herbaliser’s debut, Ninja Tune had not been seen as an artist lead label. They were more regarded as issuing ‘food’ for DJs: breaks albums, DJ tools, and compilations. But Ninja Tune and Mo Wax both held incredible visual identities and a sound unlike that of American hip-hop. The public demanded more and the labels responded. Each label began to host their own club nights, showcasing some of the identities behind these sounds. On Ninja Tune, ‘DJ Food’ morphed into an actual artist rather than a description. In the Herbaliser though, audience demands were met by an altogether different approach, one that, in the live arena, would become one of the jewels in the crown of the new movement.
“We started doing the band six or seven months into doing Remedies,” says Teeba of the development, which would change both their sound and their lives. “We specifically didn’t want to sound like Acid Jazz, which was the sound that had preceded the scene Ninja Tune and Mo Wax were leading. We wanted to use sampled beats, produced in the studio, with live instruments. It’s very common now, but in 1995/1996 nobody was doing that. We wanted it to feel like hip-hop, to have that weight that a hip-hop record has.”
“I’d been playing in bands since I was 14, doing gigs in horrible places where you’d only get paid a burger and chips,” says Wherry who brought not only his guitar and bass playing skills to the project but also musicians from his last funk band project, the Propheteers.
“Our first gig as the Herbaliser was at a pub in Brixton (the place just went bananas) and our third was at the Phoenix festival, so we didn’t have to go that route.”
“June 1996 was the first gig and the next year we were doing the Jazz stage at Glastonbury” recalls Teeba. “It sped along quite quickly as people’s awareness of Ninja Tune gained momentum and we gained a good reputation.” Though that reputation might have been earned quite quickly, it is one the Herbaliser have bolstered through continuous touring ever since. High caliber musicians such as the aforementioned Aide Tatham and U.K. alto saxophonist and composer Chris Bowden have since done stints in the band (the latter returning to the fold by way of string arrangements on Bring Out the Sound). An integral element of this live set up is also the Herbaliser’s punchy horn section—Ralph Lamb, Andy Ross, and James Morton—a crowd pleasing element that would go on to become as important to the band’s studio output as it was their endeavours onstage.
Together, this tight knit band of musicians, which has kept its same core since their mid-’90s convening, have gone on to tour the world including repeat trips to the USA and Canada, mainland Europe, Israel, and Australia and to some of the biggest events on the festival circuit. From sophomore effort Blow Your Headphones (1997) it would be this band around which the Herbaliser would build their studio sound and, as a result, with each release their reliance on samples diminished. Over five albums in total for Ninja Tune, including the landmark Something Wicked This Way Comes (2002), plus two albums released since they left the label (including 2012’s unjustly overlooked, self-released There Were Seven), these musicians would be joined by guest vocalists such as Jean Grae, Blade, Bahamadia, Roots Manuva, Seaming To, MF Doom, and Phi-Life Cypher, each adding individual contributions to the hip-hop sound that had long been the Herbaliser’s desired aim. But though hip-hop was where Wherry and Teeba wished to dwell, circumstances necessitated they assume a sound all of their own. “We’ve never really been welcomed into the U.K. hip-hop fold,” says Wherry with a tinge of regret. “We worked with Roots Manuva on a couple of albums, but working with Rodney P, who’s fantastic and one of the pioneers, we now think it holds that element.”
“That’s where we come from,” agrees Teeba. “In ’94/’95 when we met up with Ninja Tune there was zero U.K. hip-hop market. There’d been London Posse and people like that, but the press was never that interested in U.K. rap and so when the rave thing took over, the labels lost interest.” Though they’ve collaborated on stage many times before, Bring Out the Sound is the first album by the Herbaliser to feature the vocals of legendary U.K. rapper Rodney P (Rodney’s entrance on the U.K. music scene predates even that of the Herbaliser, London Posse having debuted on vinyl in 1987.) “When London Posse came out they were the first to rap in their own accents, their reggae hip-hop thing was a pure U.K. vibe,” reckons Teeba, who was willing to approach this album as a purely instrumental project before securing the services of the esteemed rapper. “Rodney P is a legend.” Rodney P’s inclusions on the album “Like Shaft” and “Some Things” (also featuring Tiece) show the veteran rapper in fine form and are bonafide highlights of Bring Out the Sound, offering a classic juxtaposition to the Herbaliser’s cinematic instrumentals. “Seize the Day” with Just Jack and the aforementioned psychedelic input add new dimensions that mark a ceaseless evolution in the journey of this time honoured, much loved band. The album stands as a testament to the Herbaliser reassessing themselves, it also demands the same of the audience.
“Bring Out the Sound really shows a different side of us,” states Wherry. “But it still sounds like the Herbaliser.”
Bring Out the Sound will be released in March on BBE Records.
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