Ahead of performing his seminal album Timeless with the Heritage Orchestra on 25 July, Goldie talks to Jenny Hayes about music, art, and creating a legacy
We’re all aware that there are many sides to Goldie – the artist, the TV personality, the movie star and, of course, the musician. In recent years we’ve watched him transpose from drum and bass trailblazer to classical maestro, gaining widespread critical acclaim in the process. Now he’s applying his incredible creative ability to bring together the two genres, working with The Heritage Orchestra to bulldoze through traditional boundaries with the orchestration of his epic 1995 album Timeless. Goldie has chosen Bristol as the only city outside London in which to perform this landmark collaboration, so TBM caught up with him to find out why, and learn more about this multi-faceted man…
JH: Hi Goldie.
G: Yo! Hello.
JH: Thanks for chatting to TBM this month. We’re really looking forward to watching you perform Timeless with The Heritage Orchestra, and seeing how you’ve brought together classical music and drum and base.
G: For me, that was always the main objective of this project. Because when you look at something like Timeless or Mother, they are classicist impressionisms of things that could be.
JH: I can see that. Timeless is as complex and multi-layered as a classical symphony. But didn’t you write it before you’d had much contact with classical music?
G: That’s a misconception. Björk had introduced me to Gorécki, Dudamel and Japanese composers way before, and that stuck within me and within my music. I’ve always been familiar with Judie Tzuke’s Stay With Me ‘Till Dawn, which has an amazing string section at the back, and listened to people like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, so I already had that aspect of music. I only imitated what I’d picked up, whether it was Steel Pulse for the reggae influence, or sound systems, or B-Boy breaks from Kool G Rap and Polo. That’s what alchemy does, it takes ingredients and turns them into gold. I think that you have to go back to go forward with new music genres if they are going to stand on any kind of foundation. If you are playing from legacy, subconsciously you will create legacy. In doing that, Timeless was far ahead of its time. And it lends itself to a type of performance that can be expanded in notation far more than anything else that’s come out of drum and bass, to be honest, purely because of the amount of musicality that it has. This project is about notation. It’s about spreading the music thoroughly through the orchestra and having people understand how to play differently so that the whole becomes something that is far more powerful.
JH: And how has that process of orchestrating Timeless been for you?
G: It’s very easy to get the string section of an orchestra to play anything, and it sounds great. That’s why, nine times out of ten, when you orchestrate an electronic piece most of the orchestra will be idle. This project is about working with the whole orchestra and experimenting with what we can get it to do. JH: So it was pure experimentation that determined what each instrument could bring to Timeless? G: Well, Chris Wheeler is a bit of a boy genius in himself, so between him and Matt Calvert we kind of knew what would sound good. So I’d give them the nod and say ‘I want to make sure the brass section is really going at it in this piece of music’, or with another track say ‘I want it to be really string heavy’, or ‘I want a flautist within that’. That’s what I like about this project, the inversion and the way it’s about looking at what else we can do with the music and the orchestra.
JH: How has that transformed the original album for you?
G: The only difference is that Timeless was a 3mm piece of cylindrical steel, laid flat on a piece of paper with a blueprint on it, and now it’s a cloned sphere reflecting lots of different colours of light. That’s the analogy I have as an artist. It has a different sound to it – of course it does – but it’s just expanding, and it can keep on expanding.
JH: It must feel incredible to see it evolve in this way, and continue to grow as a piece of music?
G: Definitely, and it’s looking now like the Arts Council want to back it next year as a learning tool. We want to workshop it with young kids and say ‘Look, this is notation’. I still can’t read music, but I can see the top section of the orchestra in the high bars, the mid range in the middle, and I can see the bottom end. I can see those block patterns. It’s like stepping back from a Matisse piece – I can see the patterns and understand it more. And then I know how the patterns fit together and work. So I can create and use these blocks in my music. The detail is down to the notators – that’s engineering and I don’t need to do that.
What I need to be able to do is go ‘Right, I want to do this’, sing it to the player so they know what to do, and then say ‘Can we put that in some notes, please? Thank you’. It’s about saying ‘Let’s try this, because I think it’ll work’. Usually, it does, because I understand what the dynamic of sound travelling through the air does now. When I was working on Evolution with Roger Wright, I understood very clearly that in the places where I had six drums going at it, when they were playing in a rehearsal they were obliterating each other, but that in the Albert Hall they wouldn’t. So I know how we can make sound in a room by allowing it to hit itself in the air, and so avoid filling the space up with too much. I very quickly adapted to the scenario and learnt less is more. And when I go into a studio, I always have a sketchbook. It’s a type of dyslexia, a type of attribution that works for me. It’s important for us to understand the written word. I write my own lyrics, I write my own songs. I write my own shape on a piece of paper.
JH: Does that stem from your roots as an artist? It sounds like creating art and creating music go hand in hand for you.
G: Most definitely. They have to. I’ve been painting from a very early age so my way of expressing is very dynamic – I put paint to canvas. Both art and music are about drawing shapes, so for me the two processes go very much hand in hand. Very much. I wouldn’t make the music I make unless I’d been a painter for 30 years, I wouldn’t have been able to.
JH: In your work as both an artist and a musician, you’ve been a key figure in bringing the underground movements of graffiti and drum and bass to a more mainstream audience…
G: Isn’t it funny, one of my friends said the same thing to me yesterday, so I’m going to finish your question. People have to understand that I’ve created so many choices in my life, and – to use a phrase I saw written on a postcard – I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, I’m thinking about making a few more. I have chosen two of the most underground genres to work with, and they’ve made my life difficult. But I’ve chosen them to champion who I am. Both were misunderstood, and I had that a lot in my own life, so I attracted myself to the two forms through which I could express my life. It made my journey a lot harder because the roots that grew with these choices had to spread a lot further than others might, but if my journey had been short do you think my music would sound the way it does now? Do you think my paintings would be as acute as they are?
JH: Definitely not. And is that what you mean when you talk about yourself as an alchemist – that you draw on all these elements, all these experiences, and that’s what makes your work accessible? That there are things within it that a range of people can identify with?
G: You’ve got it in one. And that’s the difference of what’s missing in so much nowadays – the magic is missing, we’re losing that. We’ve all got out of touch. We’re connected with technology, yet we’re out of touch. We’ve lost the human element of applying ourselves. Even if you’re at a disadvantage, being able to sing about it into a microphone, being able to record it, you can make it creative. So much of electronic music nowadays is kids pushing buttons and following a formula, because that’s what they think fame is. But what you do today creates tomorrow, and what I’m saying is that we need to push the boundaries of the technology we have. The equipment is there, but you’re supposed to joyride it.
JH: That’s a sentiment that I guess applies to both your approach to music and, as a graffiti artist, your approach to art?
G: In the same way that drum and bass music has contributed to world music, so has graffiti to the art world. It’s turned it on it’s head. It’s that simple. Graffiti is a massive part of my heritage, and it is why my music is sculpted by what I see visually.
JH: Graffiti is also a big part of Bristol’s modern heritage as is, increasingly, street art. Can the two co-exist?
G: Graffiti is the application of a medium to a surface. If it looks beautiful it gets adulation, but if it’s something people don’t understand they get scared. That’s always been graffiti’s problem. At the source, it’s pure, but then it’s misunderstood. I’ll name you something else that is very similar – drum and bass music. It always has to be watered down for people to get it. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Gentrification is inevitable. It’s part of the process. The more we adapt, then the more the path cleared by it works in our favour. That’s what’s happened with Timeless – it’s now this big show at the Colston Hall, but integrally it remains as underground as you can get. But it’s evolved and that’s how it should be. I’m glad of that. And because of the way Bristolians feel, and the way Bristol has always embraced the underground scene, the tickets for the performance here have sold out before those in London. That, to be honest, is down to the waylines – Bristol’s a massive part of my culture.
JH: Is that why you chose it as the only city outside London to perform Timeless with The Heritage Orchestra?
G: Yeah. And that’s my way of saying thank you, really. Bristol was a massive learning curve in my life – the graffiti show at Arnolfini with 3D and The Wild Bunch back in 1985, the Moon Club – they’re a major part of my heritage. So this is my thank you to the city.
Tickets to see Goldie and The Heritage Orchestra have now sold out. For more information about Goldie and his work, visit: www.goldie.co.uk