It’s 1987 and Acid House is everywhere, suddenly a new sound emerges spearheaded by a small independent label from London, Acid Jazz. Their own particular revolution is propelled by funky drums, jazzy bass licks and the odd Hammond organ all fused into a warm groove. The driving force behind it is a dyed-in-the-wool Mod, Eddie Piller. Fast-forward 25 years and the Acid Jazz label is still looking sharp. State talks to Mr. Piller about how Acid Jazz made it and whether the internet has changed the playing field for indies.
At that point in history, the Acid Jazz sound was positively retrospective, going back to the Soul and Jazz of the 1960s. Acts like the James Taylor Quartet or Galliano brought an exotic vintage feel to a world caught up in drum machine grooves and synthesisers. “We didn’t set out to be vintage,” laughs Acid Jazz founder Piller. “Soul and Jazz was what we were into. So that’s what we did.” Luckily for Piller, Acid Jazz launched just as people started to drift away from the Acid House thing, looking for something new. “Acid House was so huge, it lacked the personal touch,” remembers Piller. “There was a backlash and we fitted right into the gap. When we set up, there were no bands anymore. We brought that back.”
Fashion comes and goes in cycles, but some scenes simply go underground until their style catches the imagination of a larger audience again. No scene has been more resilient than the Mods, launched by kids infatuated with sharp US and Italian style in an England emerging out of rationing cards post-World War II. Mod never went away. The scene served as the launch pad for Acid Jazz, providing many of its first stars and its main channel of communications with a wider audience.
Piller published the mod fanzine Extraordinary Sensations from 1980 to 1985, before launching Acid Jazz. “The people who embraced Acid Jazz first were the Mods, in England as well as Ireland, Germany, Italy and Sweden. Mods had an underground network, they had a scene.” All fashions are cyclical, and both Mod and Acid Jazz went underground in the late 1990s. After a string of chart hits with signings like Brand New Heavies, D:Influence, Corduroy and Jamiroquai in the mid-90s the buzz around the label went quiet.
Things are picking up again these days, and Piller thinks the Mod scene has not been as big in the UK since the 1980’s. Despite the resurgence of Acid Jazz’ core fan base, Piller sees some warning lights that signal trouble ahead. Social media and a proliferation of self-published blogs have increased the background noise indies like Acid Jazz need to shout over to reach an audience. “Today you have social media, in the 80’s we had fanzines,” observes Piller. “The fanzines had more effect.” At the same time, people stream more music and the concept that you ‘own’ music on vinyl, CD or MP3 is going out of fashion fast.
There is a widening gap between the generation that buys music and the generation that is happy to stream, thinks Piller. This gap runs right through his own family. “My son is 20, he discovers his music on the web and then goes and buys it. My daughter is 17, she doesn’t get why you have to buy music. A playlist is equivalent to owning a CD, yet streaming pays next to nought,” he says. Worse yet, internet piracy gives Piller a real headache. With the market for medium size live acts declining at the same time, the label’s bands cannot offset the loss in music sales by touring.
Meanwhile, Acid Jazz sees DJ bookings going strong and Piller still believes in breaking new music. Acid Jazz signs two development acts a year. Hotly tipped Manchester foursome Janice Graham Band are one of the label’s most recent additions. Up and coming Irish bands pay attention, the route to Piller’s ear goes through taste makers whose judgement he trusts, like BBC DJ Craig Charles or former Acid Jazz colleague Gilles Peterson. “Try and get your music on Craig’s programme,” suggests Piller (Craig Charles’ weekly soul show on BBC Radio 6 Music).
As for Piller’s golden moment in this silver year? “Convincing Terry Callier to come back out of retirement and record new music was definitely one of my personal highlights of the past 25 years,” he says without hesitation. Disillusioned with the industry, US Soul singer Callier had turned his back on music and re-trained in computers. Meanwhile, an overlooked 12” release of his from 1982 called ‘I Don’t Want To See Myself (Without You)’ became an underground club hit in 1988. Piller spent three weeks tracking Callier down, phoning every US phone company directory. He got lucky in the end. It’s a testament to the label’s good reputation that Callier – reluctant at first – joined Acid Jazz and became a modern Soul icon before his death a few days ago. Perhaps no other outfit would have given such an artist a second chance, further proof that – in an era when such companies are supposedly pointless – people like Eddie Piller matter more than ever.
Acid Jazz brings its 25th anniversary celebrations to Dublin’s Sugar Club on 16th November, with Pillner, Dublin Afrobeat Ensemble and Soul Riot.