A Guy Called Gerald Talks Us Through the Evolution of Dance Music
Talking to a dance music pioneer about nostalgia, experimentation and cheeseburgers.
Usually when a writer starts an article about an artist by saying that the performer in question needs no introduction what they're actually doing is admitting that they're too lazy to hop over to Wiki and slightly alter the first two sentences of the producer or DJ's entry because it's 2016 and who has the time to do research or actual writing any more? In this case we mean it: A Guy Called Gerald really doesn't need any kind of grandstanding introduction because, put bluntly, if you're unaware of his importance to UK club culture—and dance music on a more global scale, too—then you've sort of dropped the ball a bit and we're probably not going to jump over a fence to get it back from your nasty next door neighbour.
Oh, alright, we'll knock on his door then. Just the once. Manchester born Gerald Simpson discovered acid house back in the late 80s and decided to make it for himself. "Voodoo Ray", his seminal 1988 debut single, is still an almost shockingly sublime slab of DIY dance music that sounds as fresh today as it did way back when your dad was necking dodgy pills with Shaun Ryder at the Hacienda. A restless—and relentless—innovator, Gerald soon moved onto working on what later became known as drum and bass and jungle. Since then, he's spent prolonged periods of time in both New York and Berlin, and is currently devoted to pushing the limits of both sound quality and musical originality in a club environment. The bloke from next door says you can have your ball back, by the way, but you've got to listen to Black Secret Technology first.
Next month Gerald will be taking the stage at Moondance in London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for a super special evolution of dance music set. The acid originator will be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Joey Beltram, Todd Terry, Slipmatt, Billy Daniel Bunter, Dillinja, and literally hundreds of your other favorite hardcore/D&B/house/techno/grime DJs, for what the promoters are describing as an event that, celebrates "rave culture from it's roots to the innovators of today."
Ahead of that performance, we gave Gerald a call to chat about the past, present, and future of dance music and club culture. And McDonalds cheeseburgers, too. Obviously.
THUMP: Why is that 89-93 period so pored over and memorialized?
A Guy Called Gerald: If you didn't want to dance to Kylie Minogue, you had to create something rawer, so back then if you wanted something to dance too, you made it yourself. That energy was funneled into dance music, and a load of things came together at the same time. We were growing up and changing things. I left my home and moved to a squat because that meant I could build a studio. I realized that everything was available for me but I couldn't quite do it at home. I'd been trying to but it was doing my mum's head in. I needed somewhere I could knock a wall out and put speakers in. So I moved to Hulme and was surrounded by progressives. We got together and exchanged ideas. There were other people with studios, so that idea of exchange was in the air.
This isn't to denigrate anyone or their work, but nostalgia seems like such a cloying, potent thing in club culture...
With all that, from the vinyl revival, to cassettes coming back, to dressing up in your grandad's clothes, what happened was that back in the day you had to go somewhere to cut your records. You used to have to go to a production house and they'd help you with your idea and it'd be produced that way. You weren't just downloading software and cutting and pasting tracks that've already been mastered, and then wondering why your track doesn't sound the same or as good.
It's like, you go to McDonalds and buy a burger. That burger won't be the same quality as if you'd gone to the butchers, bought the ingredients, and made it yourself. People want to go back in time now, and it's easy to think that that's because of the "analogue sounds better" thing, but actually it's because things were properly built back then and people had the time to make them. Now everyone wants a readymade that sounds like the old days. But it won't. Because while the software can replicate the old sounds, you still need the right ear to make them sound right.
Why, then, does my generation fixate so much on this idea of the readymade? What sense of authenticity are we pining for?
It is about convenience and time. You could look at something that was intricately carved and you'd appreciate it because you knew it took time, and then a replica of the same made in China or Taiwan and see the mould marks and think it was a load of old rubbish. Basically, we've been pushed for time more and more and we're running out of it. I don't often speak to people of your generation because I don't have the language to speak to them—it's too fast. That's why things made in the past will have value attached to them—they took time. Time was spent on it.
Do you feel that people my age are content to rework the past as opposed to seeking out the dangerously, furiously, scarily new?
Kind of. That's happened in culture before, but we have a different set of technological tools to do that with now. This is probably a transitional period we're living in. Older stuff is the anchor, and basically we've been thrown into a new technological world, and we're at a pivotal point with it. People don't know where to go so, understandably, they return to the anchor. We can't continue to regurgitate everything, though. We have to go somewhere.
The technology we have now is mindblowing. I remember having an SN50 sampler which was the height of my sophistication gear-wise—the rest was held together with gaffer tape—and I didn't just sample the latest James Brown tune. I could grab tiny bits of anything and learn how to use the sampler to the fullest. That was because I had the time to do that. I scrimped and saved to buy it so I wanted to know every single thing about it.
We're living in an age of social crisis, and I'm wondering if it's moments like this when what club culture offers us becomes more important than ever?
I think so. I equate it to being in the studio. Even though I'm beaten up and ragged I've got this place that's familiar. It's like going to your local. It gets you through the day because you know it's going to be there.
Is that why clubs are still important? Do we need these sites of intense personal significance?
I can see that there's a lot of war against clubs. I went to Berlin for three months and stayed for 10 years and wouldn't have been there was it not for the club system. The scariest part of living in Berlin came when you had to leave a club and get the train home: reality hit! There's a freedom there in Berlin. You can, to a certain extent, do what you want there. It's slowly changing as the years go on, but it is a very open place. If you wanted to be an artist you could do that there. There weren't many restraints. In the UK you've got to fit that into your schedule. I learned a lot about what it was I wanted to do musically when I lived there. There's a lot of opportunity there for collaboration, too.
Let's argue that dance music is based round a geographical triangle that takes in Chicago, Detroit, and Berlin. How do you turn that into a square of significance? What city slots in there?
New York for me. I went there for the first time in 1989 just as the Garage was closing down, but it left so many clubs in its wake like The Whirl, The Tunnel, Red Zone, loads of these underground clubs and it was always part of my system growing up—I was in Manchester but from '82, '83, I was a B-boy, so I looked towards New York. I lived there for five years and felt that it was fading away a little bit, culturally. Younger people there didn't really have the time to appreciate the past. Then Mayor Giuliani brought in the cabaret law which meant that you couldn't dance in a bar unless it had that license. It was like a mafia move: if you were a club, you had to pay up. But it's still a focal point for dance music as we see it today.
I often think dance music is a form of music where extreme experimentation becomes almost universally accepted as a way of making people move.
I still find it pretty abstract. I was into electrofunk and early hip hop and I was DJing at the time and I stopped DJing when I'd got hold of my first drum machine and started to produce. I stayed in this little world of production and listening to avant-garde music. I loved stuff like Chick Corea and always went to the edges of music. I was never really into what was popular. So when I found acid house it would have been on a show on Piccadilly Radio in Manchester, a guy called Stu Allen would play some acid between the funk and soul. I came to realise that the machines they were using to make this music were the same ones that I'd acquired. On the show, one of the things he'd did was a demo section. So I sent in an acid demo and it got played. That's how I did "Voodoo Ray" in the end.
I was into this really quirky, off-to-the-left kind of music. That was what I was into. It seemed like the people making the most out there music weren't concerned with hits, they didn't want to play it safe. So that's what acid was for me. That's still at the core of me. Even when I was in the charts I had nothing to do with it. I was moving towards making jungle. I was always trying to find the latest thing to dance to. I was always looking for the dance.
A Guy Called Gerald appears at Moondance Festival, London, on the 18th of September. Head here for information and tickets.