Matt Black is taking a rare moment to enjoy the fruits of his efforts. All the projects that he was “just not finishing” in recent years have come together at the same time.
“As of today I’m feeling like I’ve successfully given birth after a long gestation.”
But there’s plenty of work still to be done. Now thirty years into their career, Coldcut are working on some of their most challenging music to date.
And listeners can expect a healthy dose of political cynicism among the planned releases. After all, this is the act whose track ‘Revolution’ introduced the world to the satirical cut-up technique later popularised by Cassetteboy. Speaking over the phone from his home in the Cotswolds, Black sounds hoarse as he describes the story behind a new song about freedom for West Papua that was debuted at Glastonbury this summer.
In 2002, West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda escaped prison while being tried on political charges. The Indonesian forces that had annexed the region were out to assassinate him. And without the help of Black, he may well have been among the hundreds of thousands of killings in the area under Indonesian rule. Black says that he bought the tickets for Wenda and his wife to travel safely into the UK where they later gained asylum.
“It was like …this needs to be done now – that’s what money’s for yeah?”
Set for release this year, the track features the vocals of Wenda’s wife Maria and is named after the independence campaign Papua Merdeka. “This is something I’m more directly involved in because I know these people personally and I know about the struggle,” Black explains.
The song is one of several works Coldcut are planning to put out after their 30th anniversary celebrations. The next album in the pipeline, following the release of Outside the Echo Chamber with Adrian Sherwood in May, is rooted in a recent trip to South Africa.
In February, Black and More held Ninja Jamm workshops in the townships of Soweto and Khayelitsha as part of a project organised by charity In Place of War. While there, Mushroom Hour Half Hour, an independent record label in the country, and creative space Trackside hooked them up with local musicians.
“I had a fantastic time,” says More, sipping from a huge mug of tea at the London-based Ninja Tune headquarters. “Matt and I love working with people. It’s always been the way I think. We … did a kind of show and tell with the musicians, played it, see what they do…and then it’s like, yeah that’s cool, we’ll work on that one ….”
Sitting in his studio, filled wall to wall with records, he plays me some of the early mixes from the project at speaker rattling volume. Across the snippets of tracks that I hear, studio generated beats juxtapose with acoustic string and wind instruments, creating a soaring vibrancy. The first number is particularly striking, a shrill female vocal singing over a single guitar line over what sounds like a mix of break beat and live drummed rhythms.
A week earlier, Black excitedly describes a track that is based around Toyi Toyi, a South African dance that sprang out of the activist movement in Zimbabwe.
Coldcut recorded the basis of the track with a group of about 20 people but normally the chants are sung by 50,000 people at big political rallies, says Black. “With that African energy behind it, I really was excited …and I thought yeah … we need some of that energy and aggro [in the UK] actually.”
More, who had just returned from playing Glasgow’s TRNSMT Festival when we spoke, says that they’re currently working on nine compositions plus a couple of “rap tracks” for the album.
As for the release date, he thinks that this will most likely be next year now, given the preparations underway for their 30th anniversary gigs in September and October. Coldcut want to use the concerts to celebrate their extensive back catalogue, starting with debut single ‘Say Kids What Time Is It?’, says Black. Ahead of the gigs, Coldcut have been going back through some of the pair’s seminal tracks and breaking them down so that they can be reimagined for the live show.
“You’re not creating as such – it’s more of an archaeological dig,” says More.
With one example, More says that they found all the original samples, remastered them and “chopped it all up.”
This then allows them to remix each song live on the Ninja Jamm app, Coldcut’s instrument of choice. Using their app, fans can also reassemble the original ingredients of tracks by more than 40 artists to create their own music. And when the professional version is released later this year they will be able to load their own samples into the production tool too, says Black.
Contrast that with the early days of techno, when More did everything he could to hide his workings from budding DJs at live sets – even if that meant mutilating the records he treasured. Rifling through his collection, he hands me a 7”, the details of which have been obscured by marker pen ink.
“We used to call them lurkers,” he says. “They would sort of lurk around the turntable.”
“In those days there was no internet, there was no Shazam so it was impossible unless you could see what the title was to find out what record the DJ was playing. Now I can’t be bothered with it,” he says. “You learn that actually it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it.”
That’s not all that has changed since they first met at Reckless Records. “In the beginning … I was making the records because I was the one who was the scratch DJ and I knew how to operate a four track and a mixer…and Jon was more advising me and bringing excellent samples to the table,” says Black.
Since then their roles in Coldcut have gradually reversed. “Over the years he’s really got into the computer and making music and in fact he’s probably better at it than I am now,” Black concedes.
And while they both “mix and match,” More says: “I’m about the records and the music and stuff … and Matt does a lot of the tech in terms of the computer development and the apps.”
“Jon and I have quite an odd relationship,” says Black. “We basically don’t work together that closely but we have a very good understanding, a mutual arrangement with each other just to let the other one do their thing.”
He adds: “Sometimes I’ll do something and chuck it to him and vice versa but often we get on with our things independently…it’s been a useful device to get through 30 years.”
This could be why the philosophy behind Coldcut remains as strong as ever.
“Activism will remain at the forefront, technological tinkering will remain at the forefront and hopefully good vibes and positive consciousness to feed people,” says Black.
Coldcut’s latest LP Outside the Echo Chamber is out now and can be found here