Interview: Dave Lee aka Joey Negro

We were lucky enough to catch up with one of dance music’s longest serving producers and DJs just before Christmas… We then went off to eat and drink for 2 weeks. But the transcript of our chat is now beautifully typed up and relayed in full below. The hat loving Londoner, and moniker aficionado has a lot to say!

KMG – What’s your ideal breakfast?

DL – Serious answer? I love a soft boiled egg with soldiers and avocado…then a coffee.

KMG – Originally from the Isle of Wight, How was the music scene on the isle growing up?

DL – Though born there, I moved by the age of two so I didn’t get to experience much of it. I actually grew up in Essex after my dad got a job at the university and we were living in a village called Thorpe-le-soken near Clacton on Sea. I stayed there till the age of 18/19 before moving to London. In the early 80s there were still a couple of decent clubs nearby that were playing interesting music. However, the main source of music at the time for me, was Radio. Iit was the disco era and every local radio show had soul/disco type shows on weekend evenings. I tended to hear more records I liked through radio as opposed to clubs; it was after hearing the records on the radio that made me want to find them, and learn more about the acts.

KMG – Would you say that your principal musical influence growing up was the radio then?

DL – Yeah I guess, and TV as well. I can remember hearing music I really liked and then have no real way of being able to track it down afterwards, it was frustrating. I’d watch Top of the Pops every week without fail. You’d hear a song on there once, but if the record didn’t keep going up the chart then that was usually it, you’d never hear it again. Sometimes you’d not be sure of the act name and there was no shazam or internet to search on. I remember once there was a cartoon Chivers Jelly advert that had a song I really liked, which I worked out was always in the ad break before the ITN news so I used to make sure I switched over to ITV just to hear the ad. I also love lots of TV themes – Weekend World, Starsky & Hutch. Man alive, the Fleetwood Mac track used on formula 1 (which I only found out years later was them). So effectively you’d hear scraps here and there with no real way to track it down. I started buying singles by the age of 10 though, and the first music I can remember getting properly excited about was glam rock!

KMG – You mentioned Top of the Pops, which of course you would later go on to appear on a
number of times. What was that experience like?

DL – Having watched it so many times I did feel like I had achieved something when I appeared.
Obviously with so many of these types of things, the experience is completely different than how you would imagine it. You have to run through the song a few times whilst they get the camera angles they want, so there’s not quite the same sense of fun as when you’re viewing it on TV, as it’s filmed over a whole day. Then for large portions of it you’re just waiting back stage. You might bump into the act on before, or after you, but you don’t generally all hang around together. Most of all I wasn’t wearing a blue satin jump suit or holding a silver star shaped guitar as I always thought I would be :-)

KMG – It must be slightly strange to play dance music on a format as orchestrated as a TV show, when principally the context it’s designed for is a sweaty club, …

DL – A lot of disco music and the like was made for use in clubs, and it enjoyed good success on the TV, and of course then crossed over into the mainstream. So once that crossover has happened it’ll end up in a lot of places it perhaps wasn’t originally intended. I think some of the best cross over dance records, say for example Voodoo Ray, were made to be nothing more than an underground club record, yet you end up hearing it at the local service station.

KMG – Jakatta could be perceived as your most successful alias, commercially speaking. When you
set about making those records was it a conscious decision to try and cross over? Or was it just a
happy accident?

DL – For the first record, American Dream, I loved the film American Beauty and I bought Thomas Newman’s original score because I enjoyed the atmospheric music. I listened to it a lot at home and I thought the marimba riff in one of the songs would be good to sample, and that it might sound interesting over a house beat. So in the some studio downtime I did it and I put it out as a sort of white label type release as “American Beauty”. The initial track without the Indian vocal was quite easy to make as it was pretty basic and it did ok without going crazy. Over the course of the following months DJ friends were telling me that they were playing it every week, and that the barman always asked what it was, or the security guy kept bugging him to play it. So it became apparent that it had some sort of appeal beyond that of a normal club record. After a while I thought “why don’t I try and do a mix of it and make it a little bit more accessible?”…So I recorded the Swati Natekar vocals and spent a bit more time on the drums. Paul Byrne from JBO was managing me at the time so I sent it to him, as he had Pete Tong’s ear, and I thought it might be something of interest to Pete. He really liked it and played it on his Radio One show. Almost immediately lots of labels were interested in signing it. I’ve been involved in a few tracks that got signed onto majors, and often they have a big club buzz but that doesn’t sustain or transfer over to the pop audience. American Dream was one of the few that didn’t plateau and kept building until the final release. Once I’d had the hit then there was some pressure to have more hits, but it was cool. The A&R at Ministry (who signed it) Ric Salmon was really hands on and helped me enormously making the album ‘Visions’.

KMG – You’ve collaborated with a whole host of people over the years… who has been the most
inspiring to work alongside?

DL – One of the people I really enjoyed working with was Thelma Houston. She was one of the first
really amazing diva type singers I had in my studio and it was just like wow! This is somebody whose records I bought! She had this most incredible voice, and it was exciting to hear her when she went into the booth and let rip with the ad-libs – almost everyone was a winner. It was a pleasure to work with someone a talented as that, it made my bit so easy. Another vocalist who made working together a dream was Diane Charlemagne. I loved her song “Inspired” on Satoshie Tomie’s album. We ‘ve written quite a lot together for Sunburst and other projects, and it’s an unmatchable feeling when you’re working on the creative aspect of making music, and you know something has that magic you need for a great record. However, I can’t leave out Taka Boom Seal, Pete Simpson the Chic girls, Debbie French….there’s been too many!

KMG – I find it interesting that you mention a pair of vocalists. From the production side of things it’s more straightforward to produce a drum/sample led track, particularly if you spend time and care on it.
To use a vocal artist is a different kettle of fish however, how do you go about making that work?

DL – It’s entirely dependent on the vocalist, and if you’re working with good people it’s not actually difficult at all and can be a very natural thing. Though it’s never an exact science and sometimes it doesn’t come together as you’d like, no matter how hard you try. I’ve come to accept that is just part of the creative process. Thankfully over the years I’ve been fortunate to work with a host of talented people, and if I need a brass section, or a good bass player, I can call on the right person. However, it doesn’t matter how good your musicians are if the song they are playing isn’t any good to begin with. When you go into the studio it’s also important to keep an open mind, especially when working with musicians, as they may elaborate on your idea and improve it…or come up with something completely different which is better. And above all else, it’s important to be critical of your own work. If you don’t love something, it’s probable no one else will either…

KMG – Over the years you’ve produced programmed tracks, and also with live musicians as The Sunburst Band. Do you have a preference for working one way or the other?

DL – Whatever I’ve just been doing, I tend to want to move onto something different, particularly if I’ve just done a whole album. For example, if I’ve just done a Sunburst album I’ll look to do
something electronic thereafter. It’s also important to break your own rules, and try and do things you wouldn’t normally do, as it helps stimulate new ideas.

KMG – Which boundaries are you looking to break down at the moment?

DL – For the last six months I’ve been doing remixes of these old disco and soul records I’ve managed to get the parts for. A few years ago I decided it would be really good fun if I could remix some of my old favourites from the 70/80’s but from the multitracks – not just sampling them. A friend at Warner Brothers helped me get hold of some and last year I released the first volume of REMIXED WITH LOVE. I had to pay out my own pocket to get the 2 inch tapes transferred, and some were incredibly hard to track down… one even being under the original producers bed! That’s the thing with this project, acquiring the multi tracks, and getting the artists to agree to let you remix their song is often the hardest part. A lot of the time you’re dealing with major labels and they’re just not used to letting their multi-tracks leave the tape library with an independent label releasing remixes. Then you’ve actually got to do the remix which can be a lot of pressure if you’re dealing with a classic song that’s never been touched before. After that it’s back to the label to get approval on the new version. Which can take forever sometimes! So it’s more a labour of love than a big money spinner, but it’s a great way to spend your time, and I love the buzz of hearing the 24 track on a favourite tune for the first time.

KMG – If these are some of your favourite records do you feel the need to raise your game further as a result?

DL – Or course, but it’s a double edge sword… on the one hand you have dynamite material, live strings, brilliant performances, so you don’t want to do a perfunctory remix. But on the other hand, the original version was pretty good to start with, so on occasion it’s hard to manipulate it for the better. Ok you can make it more dj friendly, but that’s not enough. Also, some multi’s can be quite messy with lots of bleed from other instruments. You might have ideas about strings being used on their own or starting the song with just the piano, then you get it and find there’s no way you can do that. There can be lots of headphone spill on the strings, bleed from other instruments all over the drums. The nicest surprised is to play a new multi-track and there are lots of extra parts which weren’t used – like the end of Kleeer “I love to dance” from volume 1. Normally once I start playing around with something I can come up with some ideas, but it’s a slow honing process. I can get a track to the point where it’s ready to play out, and I do so, and of course I’ll
realise there’s a few aspects which aren’t sounding quite right. So I’m constantly revisiting them until they sound as good as I think I’ll ever get them…. The best thing about it though, is that it gives me the opportunity to keep these brilliant songs alive.

KMG – When will you be in a position to release these tracks you think?

DL – Probably June 2015 depending on how long they take to clear.

KMG – We’ve seen studio technology advance considerably during the last 20 years. Is there anything you think we’re losing during the production process? And conversely, is there anything you think we’re gaining?

DL – back in the 90s when I was making tracks, unless you mixed something and it was tragically wrong, that was it… it often went off to get pressed almost immediately. Today I can play something out, and the bass is slightly quiet. I’ll then revisit it in the studio and sort the bass. You now have the ability to tweak and tweak and tweak things forever… Personally I think that’s for the better, but in other ways you lose a bit of the spontaneity. It can be the same for any era though… we’re hearing music that’s limited and compressed in the computer into this solid block of sound, and I don’t know if years from now people are going to say, “oh that sounds so squashed” or they might just say “well, that sounds of that era”… I do think that the shift we’ve seen recently away from the computer, back to real synths and reverbs in the studio is for the better though. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you use… if you’ve got a good track, you’ve got a good track…. And it doesn’t matter how much gear you have, if you’re tracks not happening… it won’t become great because you mixed on an analogue desk!

Dave’s latest compilation offering, Defected presents House Masters Joey Negro‏, is out next week

If you want even more chat with Dave then checkout the little video he did recently with the Defected crew below: