Understanding Terrifying Science Through Humour... A great interview with the nice chaps from Subhead Records. republished here with kind permission from UK based Overload Magazine.
11 Aug 2000
SUBHEAD - From Overload Magazine Version 3
WORDS - SZA
I didn't set out to find information on nano-technology and atom bomb physics, but when I entered the word 'subhead' into an Internet search engine, the initial result made total sense; 'Understanding Terrifying Science Through Humour'. I didn't stick around long enough to find out how this related to the A-Bomb, but it certainly summed up Subhead's music in a sentence.
It seemed to strike a chord with Jason Leach, one half of the label and studio / live act / DJ partnership known as Subhead. He also wrote it down. I was sitting in the company of both Jason and Phil Subhead, the two remaining members of the team behind London's infamous 'Growth' gatherings, a squad that once included Jamie Liddell, now known for being one half of Brighton-based freakbeat combo Super_Collider. The room was strewn with post-party rubble of bottles and cans from the previous night's gathering at their ad-hoc studio in a huge multi-purpose North London industrial unit. The subject of 'an interview' came up. Reeling unstably in the aftermath of a allnighter is perhaps not the best setting in which to make such arrangements, but then trying to co-ordinate a meet between two people who run their labels and musical partnership on a London-Tokyo axis is a bugger of a task in itself.
Today, for once, they were both in the same room, although any chance of 'an interview' was clearly doomed. These aren't individuals who make a habit of explaining themselves or their music, and besides, far too many intoxicants had been consumed to make my journalistic probing prize-winning. Time for another beer then...
In an age where self promotion is considered an integral part of selling vinyl, and most record labels aspire to afford the services of a PR company to pimp their records for them wrongly believing that, in the words of cult techno-futurist publication Mondo 2000 author R.U Sirius "if you don't exist in the media you don't exist" many producers with only a few records in their portfolio desperate chase interviews and reviews as confirmation of their own existence. Subhead have never gone down that road. They wouldn't even know where to find it even if they had a map. Yet whilst they've remained relatively unknown in the UK and even in London, the homebase for Growth where squat parties and London acid city rule, Subhead have acquired a thriving cult underground following from all corners of the world. There's even 'Subheadless' nights that take place randomly around the globe, where the DJs play nothing but Subhead. Very little is known about the folk behind this mysterious moniker. They don't play the media game at all. I can confidently say I've only ever seen a handful of their records reviewed in the press. Even obsessed Subhead heads - of which there are many - know very little about the individuals behind the sound. Isn't one of them Japanese? Wasn't one of them the drummer in GWAR? The only tangible aspect my moles could all agree on was the fact that they are male, apparently. Time to expand...
Phil was in the madcap fast punk outfit King Kurt before they turned rockabilly. For Jason, the story of being in different bands was pretty similar, heavily influenced by the raw, funk-fuelled sounds of Red Hot Chili Peppers and the like. They both went along to London's Lost parties when they first started in Brixton, although Phil quickly adds that 'if we'd seen Neil Landstrumm instead, techno still would have KO'd us." Subhead had, up until a couple of years ago, been based in Shoreditch, as the inscription on many early Subhead discs will testify. A period when they were not only releasing records, but throwing their legendary Growth parties, held in venues like basements, cinemas and warehouses, plus a few slightly more curious locations. "Claude Young and Si Begg played when it was held in a Russian nuclear submarine on the Thames Barrier" recounts Jason down the phone to me a week or so after our North London meeting. "It was for the launch of Subhead 2 - Claude Young on the decks and beers in the Torpedo chutes. The sub was normally only used for business lunches. To blag it, we told them it was a record signing for future electronic jazz music - and that it had something to do with EMI. We said there would be some music, but not much. The bloke phoned up and said "What are all these speakers? I can't get in my submarine...""
Starting in 1995, Growth's guest policy usually revolved around who was in town and who had a burning desire to play there. Gary Cobain from Future Sound Of London performed a live set at the first one. Surgeon and Regis did a live interactive set in a crypt. Cristian Vogel, Robert Armani, The Advent and Neil Landstrumm all played Growth - and even an eager James Ruskin brought his tunes along on the off chance of getting a play. Often, the guests didn't even realize that they ran a label. "It grew out of what we were doing at weekends" explains Jason, "all around Shoreditch in warehouses at a time when people people didn't wander around with Timeout under their arm - when Shoreditch had tumbleweed blowing through it."
So, how can I attempt to describe the multifaceted Subhead sound? Just how far off the mark is 'Future Electronic Jazz' anyway? Well, in many respects not much. Subhead stretch the techno structure in every direction, releasing frightening freeform head-banging noise, quirky twisted jazz-o-matics, jacking distorted rhythms, thick organic bass, dark 'n dirty low-down electro and rockin' robotic anarchic house. Fresh, funky and a little bit sick in the head - much like the original impetus of acid house: unpredictable, strange, deranged and fun. They certainly have no difficulty jumping from the minimal looped trend that has straightjacketed movement on the modern techno dancefloor. Their series of anonymous record labels is the message they send out. Their records regularly surface with little information except distinctive label imagery and a number. Often their name would not even feature. 2CB, Fix, Dot.com, Xtras, are all Subhead offshoot labels. Phil's Tokyo-based Dot.com imprint is shortly to be joined by another label project featuring Japanese artists only and called '813' (named after the dialing code for Tokyo). "I've been sent some really scary demos for this" warns Phil. In addition to their own label ventures, they've released records on Sativae, Drought, Armani's Cloned imprint, and Tokyo's Subvoice, and now the imminent album on Berlin's mighty Tresor imprint looks set to take the Subhead sound to a wider audience.
Their DJing has become something of a talking point too, fusing the most unmixable tunes into savage sonic storyboards. When Jason and Phil took to the decks at Birmingham's House of God in their time honoured back-to-back style, overlooking the stage where Crass had played years earlier, the sheer scale and ferocity of the opening metallic breakbeat blew the uninitiated pastel shirts into corridors and toilet, disorientated and cowering for cover. Promoter Chris Wishart was laughing his head off at the intensity of the onslaught, especially as quite a few 'HOG virgins' had come through the door that night. When they DJ-ed at Tokyo's world famous Liquid Room, they wore plastic nose-and-tash masks. "We hate DJs that look bored" moans Jason, "we wouldn't want to get like that. You may as well get someone who can't mix, but who loves it standing up there. What we used to enjoy with Growth was hearing our mates savaloying all over the shop. We were totally into it!" Their bookings in the UK however are few and far between. Their unique style and dedication to diversity are often seen as hazardous to promoters who choose the tried and tested path of the funky loop. While other UK producers are playing straight-up techno line ups all around the world, Subhead recently played with a lot of proper punk bands in Japan. They were the only electronic / DJ act on. "It's pretty scary after following a really good band. It's good that people who listen to bands buy our stuff. People need to hear different things." Their freaked out funk sound is at home in Japan. So much so that Phil relocated to Tokyo.
A week or two later, I receive email correspondence from Phil, now back in Japan, full of tales from the East. After stopping off in Osaka ("should have been called Saki - got nutted!") to play a gig under his DJ Sueme guise for his friend Yuki, then spinning at a night called 'Fun Poison' in Wellington, New Zealand, he's now back in Tokyo preparing for the arrival of the 'Shoreditch Leach' as he so affectionately puts it, joining him in August to play 'dangerously live' at his girlfriend's party at the foot of Mount Fuji. Jason however, is busy planning the first of a new phase of Growth's in London on August 11th. Much tomfoolery is assuredly assured, as Jason puts it; "Growth is based around having a laugh. We got into it through partying, not bedcause we're computer boffins or frustrated musicians. You can hear it all, nothing's shocking anymore. Growth is a way of us trying to do something fresh - to just do something new again. It's probably impossible but we're trying, and we'll have a laugh in the process."
Subhead and related projects, out now; "Arucknophobia" EP on Tresor, Subhead