Zion Train: Setting the record straight

It’s the coldest winter in years, and snow is falling thickly as the Zion Train rolls into the yard at Yaam in Berlin. They are more than halfway through a fifty-date tour across Europe, and there’s no time to hang about. We’re all quickly inside, drinking tea to warm up, as the crew pace about, stretching their legs.

Neil Perch, the founder of Zion Train, is on stage, unpacking his gear. The traffic was heavy on the way from Cologne, he explains, and now time is tight.

“If you don’t mind, we can talk while I rig everything up,” says Perch, who speaks softly, with a trace of a Liverpool accent. “You’ve seen Zion Train before, yeah?”

IRIE UP has seen Zion Train before –eleven years earlier, in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland.

“Galway? That was Hallowe’en 1998, right?” says Perch. “That was a legendary gig! Everyone was on mushrooms, I think. Well, not us. All you lot!” One thousand people in crazy costumes had packed out the Oslo ballroom on a Hallowe’en night, many of them English ‘types’ who were living in vans in the countryside around Galway – along with most of the French, Spanish, German and Italian ravers, hippies, students and heads living in the town.

Then again, Zion Train always drew a different crowd. From the start, they worked with an independent, do-it-yourself spirit that powered the punk and reggae movement in the UK. Their first releases were on their own Universal Egg label, and the Zion Train operation now includes the live show, the Abassi Hi Power Soundsystem and the Universal Egg and Deep Root lablels – among other things.   They’re often described as pioneers in digital dub but their roots are firmly in soundsystem culture.

Neil, tell us how you got into reggae and soundsystem?

I grew up in Merseyside and Liverpool only had blues parties, not really soundsystems. The black population was very small there. When I went south to London, when I was in my late teens, I started going to soundsystem, to Shaka, when it was really energetic. That was about 1986.

I remember seeing Shaka and three other sounds in Brixton Town Hall, it was fantastic. It really opened my ears and eyes to dub. That first time, the promoter had already told Shaka off for playing over the other sounds. They had the four sounds set up, and the crews were only dancing to their own sound, although most of the music was great. Then Shaka played about 30 seconds of a dubplate – I couldn’t tell you what it was – but all these guys started hopping up and down, like Zulu warriors. That’s the only way I could describe it. It was already a revelation right there. The change in atmosphere then was electric. It was like a certain freedom in Brixton. Before that I’d never seen freedom in Brixton before, and I’d been in Brixton a lot. It was a nasty place, full of drug pushers and oppressed people and policemen. So to see that there suddenly explode was quite heavy. It was deeper than listening to a record. So that’s the first time I got really hooked on the dub sound, as we understand it in the UK.

I was listening to Jamaican roots as well, but more likely Yabby You than Tubby’s dubs. Then when you get introduced to UK dub, if you didn’t know it already, you do go and get into the Jamaican dub sounds, where those guys got it from. Those sounds were crazy. When I-Jahman Levi had ‘Moulding’ at number one  in the charts in the UK, and every Jamaican family was going out to buy a copy, Shaka was playing ten dubplates versions that same weekend! Same song, but completely psychedlic. It made it a much hotter scene than the trainspotter situation we have now.

So how did you start making music?

I started out making dubs that I hoped Shaka would play. Actually, on that point, it’s good to remember that, because I get my tunes played out all over the world now, and people come up to me and say ‘That was great!’ So it’s very good to remember the days when I was making a little demo tape, hoping desperately that my hero, musically speaking, would play it. That was my peak ambition when I was nineteen or twenty.

Was there much reggae on the radio at that time?

Joey Jay had a show on the Manasseh show (KISS FM), on the Sunday nights. Mostly it was jungle on the radio, jungle of course was massive then. Then one week we had Shaka play one of our tunes, and Joey Jay played it on the Mannaseh show, that was wonderful.

How did you learn about production?

I guess I’m self-taught with the help of many friends. Sitting in friend’s studios, asking too many questions, being a pain in the arse. Then just learning a small set up, hardware sequencers. We started with an Alesis MMT8 and we used that with an Alesis SR16 drum machine. All a big pain in the arse to use, but really very straightforward. Once the midi is rigged up, it’s like playing an electronic game.

So we made a couple of dubs for ourselves, to play at the time. The Zion Train sound was changing. It had been me and a guy called Glen Hamilton out of Oxford, then it changed to be me, Colin Cod and (David) Tench, right at the time we started working with sequencers. Then we made a couple of dubs, pretty rudimentary. Then we just carried on. Obsessive use of the machines is what teaches a lot of people. And asking lots of questions.

Then we started gettting into re-mixes pretty early on. We were re-mixing Maxi Priest and Danni Minogue, two grand (thousand) a job, in a big studio in London, desperate to know what all these machines do. We were looking, wondering, “what does that big button do…?”

Then we did what we always wanted to do. I’ll tell you a story. In the space of three days I went to Shaka one night, then to African Head Charge mixed by Adrian Sherwood when it was a red hot combination, and then to one of the late night free techno parties I used to go to. And actually I didn’t see much difference, musically and energetically. When you take a step back, there wasn’t much different, but I didn’t see many faces at the techno party that were at the other dances. So I thought, well there’s a clear similarity and energy here, so what is it about the music that creates that energy? Let’s have a go at putting it together. So I made a tune, that was called ‘Follow like wolves’.

I pressed up 500 copies. The distribution was me, on the bus, with a backpack. All the reggae shops I went to said, ‘Sorry, we don’t sell house music’ and the house music shops said, ‘Sorry, we don’t sell reggae here.’ So I ended up with this huge pile of vinyl, thinking I will have to make them into ashtrays. Then a couple of dead hip dance DJs – who I had never heard of before – started playing it, and then the phone started ringing off the hook. Ridiculous really. It was the same record, but then two guys liked it, two trendsetters or whatever, then everyone wants the record, and four re-presses later, they’re calling us pioneers.

However, you were were first to do a lot of reggae works, with touring, web work and so on.

Well, the message of Zion Train is self-determination. We proved that it is possible. Okay, maybe we had a bit of luck! We got our first website in 1994, we were one of the first bands on there. You couldn’t burn a CD when we started, even in a studio. We were always working experimentally, musically, socially and in other ways.

Then we started playing a lot around England. The first time we played abroad was Belgium in 1993. We got really into the travelling then, it’s the best way to spread the music. And we meet a lot of people. Actually the first time we played in Cork (in Ireland), in a place called Nancy Spain’s, there were only four people there, so we met them all!

I can’t take credit for being first into Eastern Europe. Twinkle Brothers and Misty in Roots would have to take the credit, they played eight or nine years before we played in Poland.

The live brass section has always been a feature of Zion Train.

Sure. Dave Fullwood is the longest running member – apart from myself – he’s been with us for 15 years. The brass section is a big part, it’s one of the best parts of reggae for me. Possibly the peak of Jamaican reggae for me would be Tubby’s studio with Tubby mixing, Yabby You on executive production and Tommy McCook on brass arrange. Can’t really get better than that. For me, that’s the most amazing thing. This little island is producing these really deep, psychedelic, world-moving, world-changing sounds and actually, it’s three blokes in a fucking garden shed in the middle of the Third World. Two of them are out of their minds on the local weed, and one of them would prefer to be fixing his neighbour’s toaster. Yeah. The story goes that Tubby was actually happier with a soldering iron, fixing toasters, but the sound men would pressurize him into mixing off dub all day long, because it was worth their while.

In a way, we started in the same way. We are people who just like sound, and want to make music. Our first studio that was a building and not just a room in our houses was in south Tottenham, near Seven Sisters in north London. It was a pretty grim place, and it was the start of the crack cocaine era in London, so a pretty depressed area to be around and be in.  But the amount of good vocalists was ridiculous. Loads of good energy, loads of good vibes. Actually, I was talking to one of those guys the other day, and most definitely, it the desperation and hunger of the ghetto with the combination of humanity’s spirit is what yields the best art, time and time again. Give a rich man all the equipment in the world and all the time in the world, and … well, he might do something good, but probably not. But give a chance to a poor bloke with half an ounce of talent, and he will sweat day and night.

That’s what happened in Jamaica, isn’t it? People were queueing up outside the studios, so of course there were some great hits.

You work in Europe and abroad a lot, what’s your impression of the world right now as you travel, do you find freedoms increasing or decreasing?

I don’t really like England. I’m English, most of my family and friends live there. But they treat you like a c**t in England, I’m sorry, but they do. The state, even the supermarkets! You are so manipulated and kept in.

Well, freedom is a big word. It’s not free in Italy, right now, or in the south of this country. You see a lot of nasty things going on in Hungary, with the nazis. There’s fighting with fascists every day in the Czech Republic. I travel to these places every 12 to 18 months, and talk to people who walk the walk there every day, and it’s a great window into what’s going on in the world, literally from Kyoto to Mexico city to back home.

And actually I think here’s fewer and fewer free places all the time. I think the big evil, the big fascism now is the IMF (International Monetary Fund), not many people know how much it has got its teeth into the world, especially now with the Lisbon Treaty. It’s got its teeth into Europe in a new, invigorated way.

What developments catch your attention in reggae music?

The place really hot for dub at the moment is Mexico. They only heard it four years ago. From nought to 60 in four years! We played nine shows there this year. Our first show was in Chiapas. Two girls kept running  up to us and give us tabs of acid, and running away. There was a big pile of LSD building up on the gear. In Mexico City, we worked with a crew called Rootikal Sessions.

Now, there are all sorts of people from the UK going over to play there, which is remarkable for a poor country, they are having to pay €600 for flights just to get people over there before paying them for the gig.

The Brazilian guys Digital Dubs are mixing influences from Baile Funk  – which I hate, it’s the Brazilian version of dancehall at 200 decibels, no thanks – but rhythmically it’s dead interesting, and they are taking that and mixing it up.

France is really interesting from a dub side. They did get a little of the UK and Jamaican style, but they have their own influences.

Other places like Italy, Croatia, Poland, they are really carbon copies of UK styles. Even Japanese dub is 80% derivative, with some interesting things. But I think the big thing that is re-opening the door for dub is dubstep and the intelligent dubstep artists who are naming their influences as Jamaican reggae and UK dub. We have been noticing recently a new generation coming to the dances. We are getting 18 to 22 year-olds coming along with their forty-something parents.

We played in Geneva two weeks ago and actually, the only people in there older than 22 were working, and the place held 600 people. They came through the dubstep scene. It gives the whole dub scene a breath of fresh air. That’s really good and keeps the scene alive.

……..

With that, Perch plugs in the final cable, switches on the power, and a range of lights, meters, mixers, effects and pedals blink to life. He flips a switch and the Zion Train groove rolls across the dancefloor. Everthing appears to be working. He smiles. “You might have noticed, I’m a stickler for detail.”

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