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|Artist Meredith Danluck caught up with Trevor when she visited London this summer. She has just directed a music video for Lopazz, a German dance act on Trevor's record label, Output Recordings.
MEREDITH: This summer you DJed in New York at P.S.1 as part of their Summer Warm Up program. You looked like you were having a great time.
TREVOR: When I got the offer, I jumped at the chance. I like P.S.1's agenda to encourage people to go to a contemporary art space to look at art and dance in the sunshine. I got to play alongside Peanut Butter Wolf who founded Stones Throw records, a really
forward-thinking hip-hop label out of LA.
I'm a huge fan of his. I got really nervous during his set because he was so good, and
I ended up drinking half a bottle of Pimms and lemonade before I went on. [laughs]
MEREDITH: Even though you DJ from time to time, you've always been more of a behind-the-scenes guy, producing records, writing songs, running your record labels. Your first label, Bite It!, was regarded as the best hip-hop label in the UK in the early '90s.
TREVOR: There was some great hip-hop in the UK at the time, but the few British hip-hop labels were disappointing. The sleeves were horrible, and the production was shit. At that time, I was writing my own instrumental hip-hop stuff. Everyone was sampling James Brown and Parliament. I thought, "I'm from Europe. I want to sample European music." On one of my first releases in '92, I sampled a beautiful jazz record, Love Love, released by this German avant-garde label, ECM.
MEREDITH: Why did you shut down Bite It! in 1996?
TREVOR: It was depressing working with other people in the hip-hop industry. They were all really narrow-minded back then. I was a big fan of Eastern European experimental jazz-rock, as well as pop and electronica, but everyone else in the business was like, "No, we're hip-hop." I knew I needed a change, so I just packed it in.
MEREDITH: What was the hip-hop scene like when you were growing up in Britain in the early '80s?
TREVOR: There wasn't one. I grew up in a Jewish London suburb, not in the Bronx. [laughs] There was only one hip-hop record shop in all of London, Groove Records. When I was twelve or thirteen, I used to sit in my room and listen to tapes of New York hip-hop radio stations, like Hot 97 and Kiss FM. I was totally into all those Latin freestyle guys the Latin Rascals, Chep Munez, and Omar Santana. This must have been '80 or '81. Before I could afford turntables, I would try to mix tracks together on my cassette player.
MEREDITH: While running your hip-hop label, you also become famous for remixing songs for bands ranging from U2 to underground drum-and-bass artists.
TREVOR: I did some of my best remixes in the mid-'90s. Without a doubt, I'm most proud of my remix of Massive Attack's "Protection." I also like the really trippy remix I did of a New Kingdom song, "Cheap Thrills." They were these two stoner kids from New York who made psychedelic, fucked-up, dark hip-hop. I remixed it using sitars, and they used it for the single and the video.
MEREDITH: And all along, you have also written and recorded your own material.
TREVOR: I eventually got heavily into complex beat programming every single bar would have a different structure. It was very time-consuming. I thought, "I should put vocals on this." Then along came Portishead. The first time I heard their record Dummy, I wanted to give up. It was exactly what I'd been hearing in my head. I'd really thought I'd written some of my best shit but I couldn't touch Portishead. I took a step back and thought, "Let's go back to something really simple."
MEREDITH: You definitely achieved that with Playgroup. It was the first time you fronted your own project.
TREVOR: When I started Playgroup in 1998, the '80s were deemed super-whack. Everyone was name-dropping the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but when I was growing up, those bands meant nothing to me. I loved Human League, Kraftwerk, and Soft Cell. I loved seeing photos from Danceteria of Keith Haring and Basquiat punks, hip-hop kids, and rockers all in the same place. That clash of everything is what life is all about.
MEREDITH: You created a very stylized pop star persona for yourself with Playgroup.
TREVOR: I was thirty when I made the first Playgroup album, so I wasn't going to pretend to be a teenage sex symbol. A huge part of me thinks being a pop star is a wanky thing to do, so I created this jokey super-producer persona I put on a pair of sunglasses and a leather jacket. It was a homage to the producers I'd respected when I was younger, like Martin Rushent, who produced Human League, and Giorgio Moroder.
MEREDITH: He was prolific as well as remixing and writing film scores, he wrote and mixed "Call Me" for Blondie, and Donna Summer's "I Feel Love."
TREVOR: I fucking love the cover of his album E=MC2. He's got a big handlebar
mustache and a pair of aviator sunglasses.
MEREDITH: You designed all the record sleeves for Bite It!, right?
TREVOR: Yeah, I've been doing freelance design since I was seventeen. I studied graphic design at a local college in north London. When I started out, I couldn't afford a computer, so a lot of my designs were entirely hand-made. I used a photo-mechanical transfer machine and a photocopier. I was inspired by '50s designers like Saul Bass he did the posters for Psycho.
MEREDITH: Your designs for Bite It! were very stark I remember the series of sleeves that were just black-and-white close-up photos.
TREVOR: I designed the sleeves, and my friend, Donald Christie, took the photos. I wanted to get away from the American hip-hop stereotype of a girl with her tits and ass hanging out and a gun in her hand, and portray a more realistic vision of what British hip-hop was about.
MEREDITH: Your recent design work has become much more abstract.
TREVOR: I've just finished off the artwork for Soulwax's new album. I think it could be the best design work I've ever done. It's a very simple concept inspired by kinetic art and optical illusions. All the type is hidden in black and white patterns dots, lines, squares, and circles. I've always loved Victor Vasarely and the other Op artists. I like sounds and images that communicate on an immediate, instinctive level, and don't need to be intellectualized. I've always loved the simple elements of life bright colors, stimulating noises, strong tastes.
MEREDITH: You founded your current label, Output, in 1996. The bands you've signed are very diverse. Circlesquare is two guys from Vancouver who make downbeat, minimal electronica, while Dead Combo plays pounding three-chord rock.
TREVOR: Most of the bands on Output had never really recorded anything until we worked with them. I would rather hear what comes out of a kid who's been playing the guitar for a few months than listen to a session musician. I really love it when a record feels flawed, raw, and genuine.
MEREDITH: Output was the first label to record Kieran Hebden with his band, Fridge.
TREVOR: The first time I saw Fridge, they were playing in Kieran's basement with a Casio keyboard, drums, and guitars. I've always loved the juxtaposition of synth bass with live drums, or analog drum machines with live bass.
MEREDITH: You've always just put out records that you really like.
TREVOR: Yeah. I feel good about that. I have a completely independent label that I've done on my own terms. But I've always been reactionary. In the past, when people started clicking in to what I was doing, it would sour for me and I'd move on. Hitting thirty was quite a turning point. Now I feel I don't have to prove myself to anyone anymore.
MEREDITH: Are you involved with each Output release?
TREVOR: Absolutely. I do all the boring but necessary stuff the publicity and marketing. On top of that, I help edit the songs and the artwork. But mainly I provide support and encouragement while the band actually finishes the record. That last mile is always really hard. I also have five albums of my own music in the works at the moment.
MEREDITH: Five? That's insane!
TREVOR: I'm recording them under different names for different labels. Pink Lunch is sleazy electro, while Post No Bills has a new-wave disco-rock feel. I'm also working on this very twisted, leftfield, disco record that's much more abstract than the others. That's been really fun to work on. I haven't labored over it too much it's been very instinctive and immediate. I've also written some hip-hop tracks, but I need to put some MCs over them. And there's the new Playgroup record that will come out next summer. I'm going to focus on that when I'm done with all this other stuff.