Joey Negro needs no introduction, a titan of the disco scene for longer than you’ve been out of nappies, look him up on wikipedia if you don’t know.
He was kind enough to chat with us about his new album & the creative processes behind it. DJ’ing across the world, the sad passing of a collaborator, and his (now a SlothBoogie tradition) breakfast preference.
Without further ado we present an extended interview, make sure your sitting comfortably, it’s a whopper.
What made you decide to put this album together, was it simply you had a built up a body of originals or was it a deliberate project you embarked upon?
As always I had a several things going on at the same time and I’d started a few tracks for what was going to be a different album project. I kinda got a bit stuck on that, I’d done 2 or 3 tracks but didn’t think the original concept was going to work for a whole album – those songs are on this album. Then I’d been doing some other tracks which weren’t particularly for any project but I kinda just thought well why don’t I put these together as one thing. I guess once you’ve decided it’s going to be an album you’ve got look at what you’ve got and make sure there is enough variety across the songs. So often I need to make more to actually get the spread of styles I actually want on the album. .
When you work with a vocalist do you go in with an idea about what you want them to do it or do you let them lead that.
It really depends on the track, if I take a track from the album to illustrate how one particular song took shape, I’ll choose ‘Overnight Sensation’ with Diane Charlemagne. That started off being written over completely different music. I did a backing track that used a riff similar to the Whispers ‘It’s A Love Thing’ as I thought it’d be good to do something new along those lines musically. When it comes to toplines I’m quite fussy about both melodies, and lyrics and I like or dislike quite specific things. So I don’t say “oh just write what you want”. I have a list of potential song titles on my phone, which often a good starting point. If you have a decent title it tends to help the direction.
Anyway with that one I think she did most of it in one session but came back and touched up a few bits here and there, rewriting and recording little bits. Then after all that once I mixed it and lived with a while I decided I wasn’t really very happy with it. For some reason it just didn’t hold your attention when listening. So I sat on it for a year or 2 tried various changes but it wasn’t making much difference. I ended up deciding that I liked the song and vocals but needed to rework the music. To start the new version I ran off the vocals so I had them as a stereo accapella complete with all the verbs and fx, as they’d been spread over many tracks with lots of automation. Once I had them as one file it was much easier to cut the vocals up differently and I made it a little more repetitive and sampled sounding. I’d been doing some work with the super talented keys player Kaidi Tatham, he hasn’t played on the original so I approached with him it the same way as a remix of someone else’s song, completely changing the music. After I decided I preferred this version and it was album-worthy I added some guitar and live bass – I tend not to do that until I’m fairly sure its going to get used.
With other tracks it’s completely different. Say something like ’Dancing Into The Stars’, that was written in about 1992/93 for a sort of disco girl band which my ex partner Andrew Livingstone and I were toying with the idea of but never happened. Fast forward to 2015 and I had this session booked in with an American singer who was coming over, I’m not going to say who it was but I’d agreed to try a day in the studio. I didn’t want to do a cover so was trying to come up a strong new song with a friend, but we hadn’t written anything that really knocked me out. I was racking my brains thinking of how I could find a suitable new song and remembered “Dancing Into The Stars”. I only had a rough mix on cassette so had to remake the backing track from scratch. After all that when the singer came over she didn’t really cut it singing the song. However I had decided to record it by then so I contacted the ever reliable Angela Johnson to the vocals. She’s based in NYC and records them at her place. At first when she sent me the first take I didn’t like her singing it, I was considering putting it on hold but we dropped the key by a couple of semi tones and she nailed it.
With the sad news of Diane Charlenmaign passing it must have been poignant to work with her on the tracks on the album.
I knew she had cancer but it’s not always a death sentence these days, people recover from it. I wish I had recorded more with her once I found out she was ill, although we did work a few times after she told me the news. Like many people who are diagnosed with cancer initially there is no change or they seem better than normal as they have left work and are taking care of themselves. And at that point they are quite optimistic about their situation thinking ‘I can beat this’ Then after about 9 months all of a sudden she began to deteriorate quite quickly. Then it became obvious Diane was going to die. That was very upsetting. It’s a crime someone of her ability didn’t make more money out of her talent. She was working as a security guard for the last five years of her life, doing music on her days off.
With such a large discography under your belt, was this album a deliberate depart from sample/remix/edit/compilation world?
Not deliberately, there’s not much of a master plan with me. I just kinda do what I do and what feels right on a daily, monthly or yearly basis. I don’t think I’ve done that – now I need to do this. I’ve always producer a lot of my own music, even if some of it was based on samples. It’s different if I’m doing compilations where I’m just selecting music, or where I’m selecting and remixing it. It’s important to make your own music too, but it’s a much bigger.. longer task and much more involved if it’s an album.
If I’m working on a ‘Remixed With Love’ remix, some of those are really long winded but the fact is I’m starting off with somebody else’s already written and recorded master, I might get the bass replayed, reprogram the drums and drastically change the arrangement but in essence I’m just fine tuning it for my own taste. The real genius of those records is already created before I got involved. If I do a remix of Chris Chross ‘The Wind’ or Gwen McCrae ‘Keep The Fire Burning’ they are absolutely classic songs that have sold millions of copies and are established favourites with people. If I do a remix I know that first time I play it that’s going to get a big reaction, people are familiar with the record, it’s a new version of something they already know. If I’m doing a completely new song it’s quite likely not going to get a big reaction when I play it out, as no-one’s heard it before.
How do you pin yourself down? Do you start with a particular idea or feeling in mind with original productions?
The way they evolve is quite different. One track might come out of a keyboard session with Michele Chiavarini or Kaidi Tatham. Or it could be a synth sound that I’ve come up with, or bassline or a sample. On other tracks the starting point might be an idea for a specific sort of track I want to do. There’s a track on the album called ‘Distorting Space Time’ and I wanted to do a left-field Arthur Russell meets ‘Life on Mars’, slightly off kilter jazzy disco record where it’s not really a song, more like a jam. So in that case I had the concept for the track I wanted to do, I didn’t have any particular idea of chords or key, it evolved out of a few jam sessions. I don’t think it was until the second session where Kaidi put down some keyboards that ended up being used on the final finished thing. Everything from first session got scrapped, even though it was ok, it wasn’t right. It’s fine to be inspired by something, but not so closely that it’s an obvious rip-off.
Did you use any new toys for this album, software or hardware wise?
Most of this album is recorded with the Juno 106 & the Jupiter 8, with live Rhodes and live bass, guitar and live strings on some songs. There’s not many inside the box synths I use but Native Instruments can be good for clav and piano. I suppose the Jupiter is such a powerful machine, you can get so many good and drastically different sounds off it, in a way it stops you looking elsewhere. There’s not much that can match it, and especially with someone like Kaidi working the controls. He’s great at programming the Jupiter, much better than I am, but I’ve learnt watching him. I find sometimes when your doing things with soft synths that your constantly tweaking the sound and haven’t committed to deciding you’re 100% happy with it. Whereas with the Jupiter or Juno you take the time to get it right, put it in the computer as audio as you need to free up the machine for something else. I know some really good musicians so if I want bass, Julian Compton or Tony Remy for guitar, they are outstanding. players and their instruments just sound really good to start with. I might add some amp simulation but normally I don’t have to mess around with the sound too much trying to make it sit in the song.
I’m not just turning up and just playing the same 50 records as I’ve been playing for the last 30 years.
Looking at your dates you seem to have a pretty packed schedule in terms of DJ gigs, are you looking forward to what the summer has in hand?
I take it weekend by weekend, I only normally think about what I’m doing the next weekend or 2. I still enjoy DJing, the travelling bit of it that’s a bit boring sometimes, especially if you’re hanging around the airport on your own or the flights delayed. But all in all it’s a great job, I’m lucky and I don’t forget that my life could have very easily gone a different way. I could be dreaming about doing this whist I was working in a shoe shop or something like that. I think what keeps it interesting for me is I’ve always got new music to play of my own which I’m excited to hear loud and see what sort of reaction it gets. I’m not just turning up and just playing the same 50 records as I’ve been playing for the last 30 years. I suppose it’s a juggling act trying to give people what they want, some people are going to want familiarity so you’ve got to throw in a bit of that. But also try and play some new music and maybe play some old music that they haven’t heard before. Just keep it interesting for everybody including yourself
Do you prefer the longer sets or the shorter ones?
I much prefer longer, tho if it’s not a great vibe then obviously a short one’s fine! But if it’s a good crowd I prefer going on at the beginning of the night then playing for say 3 or 4 hours. That way I can set it up how I want, I can start at 90bpm of whatever and build it up and when I want to switch it into the next gear I do it when I think it’s needs to happen
Do you approach the different size parties you play differently? Or tailor your bag appropriately?
To a degree but probably 50% of what I play in most of the sets going to be the same. What can determine the direction you take can be the crowd reaction, the time you’re on, the sound system, size of the place. Of course your own mood and what’s out musically at that time release-wise. I might turn up somewhere and straight away notice the sounds not great, so I’m looking for records that work on a not particularly good sound system. Some songs need to be heard on a loud on a powerful system to make sense and for people to get into them. I guess in that situation where the sounds not great your looking for familiarity, records that have got a more happening on the hook side of things. A bassline-driven track that’s all about the groove won’t connect when you can’t appreciate it properly.
You can’t always predict what it’s going to be like. For example some of the best gigs I’ve done at festivals have been when it’s awful weather because people are in the tent and they are going to stay in the tent, unless you really bore them. They’re not going to want to go outside where it’s pissing down with rain and try and find something better. Whereas if it’s a lovely sunny day they’re sitting outside on the grass and that seems more appealing than being in a big dark tent. So there’s too many factors you can’t really anticipate until you actually get to the gig.
Talking about gigs and moving around,
how’s your little corner of the musical sphere right now.
Does it feel quite healthy?
I definitely think it’s a good time for disco at the moment. There’s lots more happening. There’s a mixture of people out there at gigs, there’s the soulful house crowd who are a bit older but have always liked disco.
Then you’ve got a whole new younger group of people. I guess with the re-edit thing has got a lot of people interested in disco again. There’s so many of these DJ friendly edits which have revived records which maybe people didn’t know before because they weren’t so easy to mix. Firstly they are easier to play and secondly it makes the song seem like it’s kind of new again. There are a few people like myself, Opolopo and Crazy P who are making it so I guess the fact that people are looking back and these new edits of old tracks is one of the things that has given disco a new impetus in terms of getting it heard a lot more in clubs.
So whats coming up in the future release wise, with yourself or with z-records?
We’ve usually got quite a lot happening, even if stuff is in progress and a long way from release. We’ve got a few remixes from the Produced with Love album from Ron Trent, Crackazat and Layfar. There’s a track which I’ve licensed from Al McKay who used to be the guitarist in Earth Wind & Fire in their glory days, he also wrote “Best of my Love” for The Emotions. We’ve signed a couple of songs from a guy who used to be involved with Parliament. They are pretty good songs musically and we’re just re working them to make them a bit more club friendly, Sean McCabe is doing first one. So we’re signing stuff like that where can, strong new original music. We’ve got a few more compilations; a second instalment of ‘Brit Funk’ legendary soul DJ Colin Curtis has put together a Jazz dance compilation for us. We’ve got another ‘Under The Influence’ which is a diggers type comp in the pipeline, and then there’s a ‘Remixed With Love Volume 3’ that will be coming out next year but we are at the mercy of the majors clearing the remixes, which can be really, really slow with some of them
Another project we’re doing is with a disco artist called D. C. LaRue who did the famous track called ‘Cathedrals’ sampled in ” 3AM”. Where we’re putting out basically ten of his originals and ten remixes of his tracks, thats right at the beginning of that project. So yeah in general the label is keeping it pretty disco-ey I suppose, but the main criteria is good music. If somebody sent me something more techy and I really really liked it and thought it was something that we could do OK with then I’d consider putting it out. We have in the past, but my experience is it’s best to have a sound that people will associate with the label. If you release 95% disco and then put out a techno track there’s a good chance it will underachieve, even if it’s pretty good. As many of the people who might like it won’t bother checking it due to their preconceptions about the music on the label. Some of the compilations we release on ZR do vary greatly musically, though a compilation is less likely to slip under the radar . For example we had a Electro comp earlier in the year, those vocoder heavy drum machine sounds are very different to some of the more soul disco focused selections. Many of them are genre retrospectives of specific styles but not everybody’s going to be into everything. Maybe the only person who likes all of them is me
Thanks Joey, we’ve just got one more question that we like to ask people, whats your favourite breakfast?
Something like poached eggs, some avocado on the side. I just quite like to eat reasonably healthy food. Maybe a turmeric and ginger shot too.
You can buy Joey Negro’s new album ‘Produced with Love’ now from all good record stores & online at the usual outlets from June 30th. As well as, from June 15th, over on the Z-Records store. It is bloody good so we highly recommend buying it rather than streaming it.
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