Neil Anderson Interview
You are heavily involved in music being a musician and music teacher. Who was it in your life that first inspired you to get into music, why did music strike such a chord (excuse the pun) with you, and what was the first instrument you learnt to play?
Some of my early memories are of a musical nature. I can clearly recall being given a toy drum in a music session in nursery. I recall the teacher giving us directions from her place at the piano about the song we were going to play; “Now children, when I raise my hand, you all stop playing and I will finish the song”. I quite clearly remember thinking “but the drummer always ends the song”. I’ve no clue where I got this idea from, but it was very firmly set in my head as the correct thing to do and as a consequence, I got in trouble for not stopping at the right time. This wasn’t the only trouble I got into at nursery school. There was also the mystery of the pile of biscuit crumbs that the teachers would find under a table every day, but that’s a story for another day!
My interest in drums was piqued further when I was about 4 or 5 years old. I saw a young drummer being featured on the TV program “Nationwide”. I remember thinking “I can do that” and from that time onward, I was captivated by the drum kit. I spent the next few years playing along to records on my very first drum kit – a collection of empty ice cream tubs, one with some felt-tip pens in it (so it rattled like a snare drum). My first pair of drum sticks were a pair of toy snooker cues stolen from one of my older brother’s Ray Reardon Pot Black toy set – they were a bit on the long side, but they did the job. Once I had raided the same brother’s record collection and started playing along to The Specials, I added an empty Quality Street tin, so I could get that “clangy’ sound of a Reggae/Ska Rimshot.
I count myself very lucky to be exposed to great music very early on and this is, again, thanks to the same brother who lost his snooker cues. His collection included records by The Jam, The Specials and The Beat as they came out. He would let me tape the records and I would set up my “drum kit” on my bed and play along to the tapes.
By the time I was 11 years old, my eldest brother started teaching marching drums for The Boy’s Brigade in the local Methodist Church Hall. This was wonderful, because I finally got to play a real drum and it was a great schooling in the rudiments of drumming. Around this time he also got his old drum kit set up in his house and on a family visit, I was allowed to play it. I found that it just made sense to me, I can’t really explain it better than that, but he would show me something and I would just play it back to him. At that point, he persuaded my parents that I had ability and for my 12th birthday, my mum took me to Supreme Drums in Walthamstow to purchase my first real drum kit!”
In addition you own a record studio. Can you tell us about some of the equipment you use there and how you have found running a studio during the pandemic?
With regard to equipment, I would say that the majority of the Original Gravity sound comes from the sound of the right instruments (played well!) hitting the tape. But, I think that a large factor in getting a vintage sound is getting the drum sound right.
I have several drum kits, but I find myself consistently using either my Gretsch Brooklyn kit, or more likely the Gretsch Catalina drum kit that I picked up second hand for £450 about 8 years ago.
The Catalina is Gretsch’s cheapest kit (or was at the time) and the set up that I have could be called a “Be-Bop” set up – a relatively small kick drum (18”) with 12” and 14” tom toms. Despite being cheap (or maybe because it was cheap), it just sounds right and I have used it on around 90% of the Original Gravity productions to date.
I also had a massive result when I bought it as the guy threw in a Premier snare drum that cuts like hell! This snare drum can be heard on virtually all of the Reggae and Rocksteady recordings that I have made, along with quite a few other tracks. I had been mainly using a Ludwig 402 snare drum, which I had paid around £500 for in the late 90s. I found that I was hardly using it because the Premier snare drum sounded so good, so I sold it on to one the drum tutors at my music school (The Musiclab).
Cymbals almost always need to have a “dark” sound, but I often chop and change from one recording to the next. I’ve got some vintage 60s Zildjians that work well, some TRX dark crashes, which are good, along with a Zildjian Beautiful Baby sizzle ride and a more recent acquisition – a 20” Zildjian K dark crash which is really good on Ska & Reggae.
With regard to mic’ing up the kit for recording, it’s usually either a single mic set up with a Shure SH55 (an “Elvis” mic) or that paired with a vintage ribbon mic above my head (which allows me to dial in a “darker” sound if needed.
All my guitars are cheap. I’ve got a short-scale Squier Jaguar Bass with flat wound strings and I don’t recall using another bass on any recording I’ve made in the last 5 years. I have a Fender Stratocaster, which is nice, but I’m more likely to use my Fender Telecaster copy. Being around a studio I have access to all sorts of amps, but my favourite three would be my Fender Excelsior (which has an awesome built-in tremolo), Fender Blues Junior or a Marshall JCM9000 (perhaps surprisingly for it’s clean sound and not the full on overdrive channel that I hardly ever use).
Running the studio (Farm Factory Studios in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire) during the pandemic was strange. Most of our business is built around rehearsals (we have 6 rooms), but this has been a non-starter. We did have some recording happening, but the bookings were minimal. We have had support from The Arts Council and this has been instrumental in ensuring that we are able to remain open. Usually, the studio is a hub for local musicians, so it was very strange to be there when it was so quiet. All of our lessons moved to an online format. I had been gradually phasing myself out of teaching during the back end of 2019 and once the
lessons moved online, I passed my final few classes over to our other tutors (as they had lost all their income from live gigs). The upside of this was that I was able to leave my recording stuff set up for months on end and with very few other distractions, I managed to get a shed load of recording done and made far more progress with the Original Gravity label than I would have been able to do otherwise. At the start of the lockdowns back in April 20, I made a definite conscious decision to really focus on production and releases for the Original Gravity label and in the period April 20 to date I produced 20 separate releases, around half of them EPs, so a total of around 60 tracks and that’s not counting the “rejects”.
On top of all of this you also produce music and run the absolutely superb Original Gravity label. When and why did you start the label and what does it promote?
The first release was in 2017 with Floyd James & The GTs – The Switchback / Green Onions, but I’d been recording (and not releasing) music way before then (at least 10 years). Since 2002 I have been a keen mountain biker. A few of my old mates have been riding the local woods for years and when I returned from travelling (2000 to 2002), I wanted to do an outdoor fitness activity. This seemed perfect to me and so I bought my first mountain bike and started to go out riding on a regular basis. This actually was the beginning of Original Gravity.
Our group continued to progress with our riding skills, pushing each other along to go faster, jump further, push the boundaries. In 2008 I bought my first Downhill rig and we took a trip to Morzine in the French Alps. More trips to Scotland, France, Sweden, Norway and Italy followed. Interspersed with regular trips to probably my favourite track – Cwmcarn in South Wales. Dowhilling became a massive passion and adrenaline buzz and like music I was constantly looking to push my limits and improve.
In 2010, my biking friends bought for my birthday a GoPro camera. I would mount this on a chest harness or on my crash helmet and I would film us going (as rapidly as possible) down the mountain. After getting to grips with the camera and to the point where I was posting the videos on YouTube, I decided to start adding my own music to some of the videos (partially to avoid copyright issues form using other people’s music) and this is where Original Gravity started. “Gravity” as in using gravity to go fast down a mountain and “Original” as in using my own original music.
One of the first of these that really used what I would call the beginnings of “the Original Gravity sound” was this one, filmed at Cwmcarn, Wales in September 2014 and featuring a Funk tune I had written called “The Chosen One”
I had recorded this tune pre-Farm Factory days and although pretty close to what I wanted to do sonically, not quite there. I kept trying.
Around 2016, we’d built a mini-downhill run in our local woods. It earned the name “The Backscratcher” (one of our mates had scratched his back up on a low hanging tree branch that you had to duck under half-way down the course). One Sunday, we shot a video of the new course and just out of interest, I googled “backscratcher”. What came up was “My Backscratcher” by Frank Frost. Although I have a pretty big blues collection, I had never heard this fantastic tune. The tune worked great with the bike video and the groove really stuck in my head.
July 2016, we took a trip to Verbier in the Swiss Alps. Verbier has a reputation of having some of the steepest, most technical trails in Europe and I’d have to agree. We did some backcountry guided riding and one particular trail stood out – full of super- tight switchback turns that you could just about get your bike around (sometimes not!).
After the trip, I was going through the video footage and the idea of making a tune based around the “My Backsratcher” groove came to mind. The result of this was “The Switchback” – intended to sound like one of those 60s dance tunes where the vocalist gives the instructions to each move, I wrote the lyrics totally geared around trying to hang on to my bike on that ridiculously tight and steep trail in Verbier:
“Turn to the left, now turn to the right, lean back, hold on tight” etc.
You can hear an early mix of the tune HERE (caveat: on camera, it never looks as steep as it actually is!)
Once I’d finished the video, the engineer at Farm Factory Studios, David Doll, said to me “that’s a good tune, you should do something with that”.
I sent it off to several labels (along with some other material) and although a couple of labels came back saying that they liked the material, it didn’t progress any further. After a while, I just thought I would “back myself” with the material and worked out that as long as I could sell 100 copies of a single, I’d make my money back. So, really it was all about taking a gamble on the first release and seeing if I could sell any! It was slow to get going as the only marketing tool that I really had available was Facebook and Andy Hill!
I’d met Andy at a Mod event that my covers band Homegrown had been booked to play. Andy is a highly respected Mod DJ and I really admired his passion for music and realised that even though I thought I had a really good knowledge of Blues, Funk, Soul R & B, Ska etc. Andy is a real walking encyclopaedia on the subject! Not only did he already know about pretty much everything that I knew, he was mentioning a lot of stuff that I had never heard of.
One night at a Homegrown gig, I thought I’ll “have Andy on a bit”. With the Switchback in mind, I told him “I’ve got a 60s R&B tune that you definitely haven’t heard”. “What is it? What is it?” he replied. The next day, I sent him an MP3 of The Switchback, along with a version of Green Onions that I had started recording in about 2008 and had recently finished. Andy came back to me really excited about it and the first Original Gravity release was born!
Since then we have continued to release limited edition 45s in different styles. Basically my goal is to make new music – some self-penned, some carefully chosen covers, that will fit seamlessly with the old. So that a club DJ could drop an Original Gravity tune into his set and the dance floor won’t miss a beat. It’s like, that old music is so good – I just want to make more of it!”
One of the unique things about your label is the EP releases which comprise 4 versions of a particular song in different styles. I have regularly been playing on my live streams 30 60 90 and Peter Gunn. Can you tell us about how this format came about and the artists involved?
Andy Hill was also involved with sparking the idea for the first of these EPs. Andy is local to me (close enough that I can ride my bike over there) and he has a full DJ rig set up in his kitchen and (when lockdown restrictions have allowed), I’ll often have a few beers over at Andy’s and listen to some tunes.
One night Andy pulled out the Jack Hawkins version of 30-60-90 (from the Get Carter film) and I thought it was really cool – a fantastic version with a great energy. He suggested that I do a cover of it at some point. I think I had just finished the Latin Fever vol.1 EP at the time, so, I think the idea was to put together a latin version. But Andy asked me what I thought of the track and my first thoughts were that the layout and arrangement of the track would lend itself to different styles and that the main melodic elements could be orchestrated in different ways depending on the genre, so after thinking about it for a few seconds, I said “I won’t just cover it, I’ll do and EP of different versions”. There really wasn’t much more thought given to it than that. Basically, I just thought it would be interesting to see what I could do with it as a piece (or several pieces) of music. I didn’t necessarily see it as a “commercial device”, but more of an interesting way to see how the same tune can work in different styles whilst challenging myself musically.
I started on the Reggae version first (Brentford Rd Soul Rebels) and then worked from there. I actually laid down basic tracks for five versions (I discarded a “Hooker Boogie” style Blues version). I think that the idea that the DJ has a choice of versions to play depending on the situation is a good thing and as you say, kind of unique. It seems to have proved popular with people as the first issue sold out quite quickly and it’s now on its second issue on white vinyl.
With regard to the “artists” involved, that’s quite a quick answer…
Prince Alphonso & The Fever is my Ska alter-ego, so I played everything on that except for the horns and I have some excellent horn players that I use on a session basis, in particular Jason Kendall in Pittsburgh, USA and Michele Fortunato who is based close to Rome in Italy.
Brentford Rd Soul Rebels is my “heavier Reggae” alter ego, so on that version, that’s just me with Dennis Alcapone guesting on vocals.
Néstor Álvarez is my latin alter-go (same initials – coincidence?) so again, that track I play everything except the horns (Jason, Michele & Diego)
Curtis Baker & The Bravehearts is me in my R&B guise. Jason Kendall is on the sax on that track and I played everything else. Whenever there’s vocals required for Curtis Baker’s tracks (the Lookin’ For My Baby EP), that’s me too, as the style is one that I think my voice can work on.
What advice do you have for people wanting to start their own record label?
I would say “just do it!”.
I didn’t start Original Gravity with the idea of having a label as the main thing, it was all about getting music that I had made “out there”. I don’t have any plans to release music that I have not produced, so I am not looking at it from the perspective of signing bands or artists and releasing their music and I wouldn’t have any interest in licensing an old track and re-releasing it, just to make money.
I do have a couple of releases coming up quite soon for other artists – real, actual people (and not figments of my imagination). But I have been heavily involved in the production of the music and in all cases have played some or all of the instruments on their tracks. I have been approached quite a few times by bands and artists asking if Original Gravity will release their work, but I am not interested in this aspect, I am solely focused on the label as a creative outlet for myself.
However, I have advised a few people to start their own label and self-release and I would say that to do so, you need….
- Some decent tracks
- A few hundred quid spare to press some vinyl
- Some self-belief
- Time and energy to market your vinyl
- Patience and tenacity if it doesn’t take off straight away.