Essence of Gerald

TWO YEARS AGO, A Guy Called Gerald walked away from his London-based label Juicebox and into a new life. He took his studio and his music with him and relocated to New York. And now he’s set to release Essence, his first set of long-awaited new material since 1995’s Black Secret Technology. As such the album marks something of a rebirth for an artist who has spent to long toiling in the shadows, but whose limited body of work act as a series of beacons that reflect a marked progression within the culture.

On Essence the tribal polyrhythms that power his music have gone beyond the pumping blood-rush of the heartbeat. Now, as one track on the new record, ‘The First Breathe’, indicates they’re actually living entities. Gerald furthers the Frankensteinian analogy of his technological creations by describing his tracks as “bodies”. By this he means that the interplay between rhythm and melody, which in turn is built up from layer upon layer of textured sound, has enough complexity to trick the senses with the illusion that it possesses the “essence” of life.

And it’s Gerald Simpson’s belief in the infinite possibilities of cybernetic sound that fires his ire at the artifice of commercialism dressed up as creative progress that powers British dance scenes, as they flip through genres like a colour chart made up of multiple shades of grey.

“It’s like they’re spitting out clones,” he says bluntly. “And that’s easy to do if you’ve got a computer and a skeleton beat. You just fill the flesh of the melody around it. And then you can keep the same skeleton and put another thing around it and put that out. Because they’re all the same tempo, it’s cool for the DJ but not for someone who wants a bit of variation. I’m not blaming anyone because it’s part of the progression. It’s part of what had to happen.”

But, as Gerald points out, this the the second time around for him. He helped innovate the Britain’s first chemically-enhanced mutation of American dance music, known as “acid house”. The scene that developed around it was simply an unwanted distraction. “I was just like a head making music because I liked it,” he says.” I didn’t really think of competition. People thought I was freaky because I didn’t cut plates for people.” And the situation hasn’t changed since he moved Stateside. “I get treated like an outsider everywhere,” Gerald laughs.

“I actually jumped off that whole house scene because it got all samey,” he continues. “When it started it was really stripped-down and anti-music. For me, it was something that was coming from Chicago and Detroit. It was really exciting and there was difference. If you listen to the stuff that was coming out of Detroit in ’87/’88, you’d hear a compilation and it would have Juan on it, Kevin, Derek, people like that, and all the tracks were different. If I hear a compilation now it all sounds like the same artist. They’ve not got their own personality. That says to me that they’re basically just plugging the machine in, turning it on and pressing record and leaving it at that. They’re not putting any soul in it.”

Music is a deeply personal thing to Gerald. “There’s certain things you can’t explain in words but you can with music,” he ventures. “I first tried to do that ‘I Won’t Give In’ with ‘Automanikk’. It was basically about all the shit that was going on then. I went over everyone’s heads because it wasn’t what people were into at the time anyway. But I went to Detroit recently and there were kids there who were into it and weren’t even around when it first came out. What I’m slowly learning is that you’ve got to spell things out. You can’t expect people to understand.”

The music has been a constant release for life’s pressure, pleasure and pain. A track like ‘Voodoo Ray’, which still receives rapturous welcomes on the dancefloor to this day, overwhelmingly communicates the enthusiasm for Chicago and Detroit rhythms that first entranced Gerald when he heard them at the close of the ’80s. And his long-unavailable 28 Gun Bad Boy album is like dance music’s There’s A Riot Going On. Bleak and claustrophobic. Recorded at a low ebb, the rough-edged proto-jungle lashes out with primal power. But it wasn’t until his next album, Black Secret Technology, that Gerald found a title for this force, “voodoo rage”, and contained in a sustained assault on oppressive forces.

By comparison, Essence is a retreat into an almost idyllic inner world. A virtual retreat from harsh realities and a safe haven from emotional battles where there are no winners only losers. And despite the robust rhythms, there’s a fragility and sensitivity to the music.

But it’s hard to get Gerald to talk specifics beyond the generalisation of music and time periods, good and bad, that have dominated his life. Luckily he has surrounded himself with vocal collaborators who know him well enough to speak for him, namely and two long-time friends, Louise Rhodes from Lamb and Lady Miss Kier (who scats her way through the ‘shroom-visioned ‘Hurry to Go’), and his brother, David (who exhibits both rich soul vibrato and bad boy ragga growl on ‘Could You Understand’ and ‘I Make It’).

Gerald also worked extensively with Wendy Page, a Welsh singer-songwriter better known as a composer of chart hits for girl pop sensations, Billie and Martine McCutheon. Page’s contributions are among some of the most direct statements on the record. Her voice curls in torrents of emotion on ‘Fever Or A Flame’ in which haunting memories bring the onset of a cold sweat. On ‘Multiplies’, she answers echoes of her former self and develops split personalities to rise above .

Many of the songs on Essence seem to have a therapeutic quality to them. “I had to do this record,” he says, “because I was going off the deep end with the music I was doing before.” At this point, he seems to be referring to the effects of the afore-mentioned label dispute, just one of a number of sour business decisions that has stop-started Gerald’s career.

It seems that following the initial release of Black Secret Technology, Juicebox’s general manager (who was also acting as Gerald’s manager) loved high life and notoriety a little too much, and set about building a roster of artists the fledgling label could well afford. Deals were done for Gerald’s music but advances were spent instead on the label’s upkeep. It got to the point, Gerald says, when the music stopped because equipment was broken and there were no funds to fix it. So he did the bravest thing imaginable and walked away from the label with nothing but his compositions and some cherished synths. Holed up in his new home in Brooklyn, Gerald was able to focus on fine-tuning Essence (which, before Goldie had soiled all possible astrological connotations, was called Aquarius Rising).

Despite having given away a label that had become synonymous with his output since the early ’90s, Gerald seems to feel little bitterness. And he’s horrified at the suggestion that his music would be used to express any negativity and perpetuate the vicious cycle.

“I’ve seen dead people lying in the streets in Brooklyn. They don’t look very aggressive,” he deadpans. “And there’s 17-year-old kids who’ll look right through you and kill for your shoes. They’re going to grow up like that and miss out on so much because they’ve been pushed into that side of life.”

The only tracks that bely the languid feel-good factor of Essence – the upbeat, survivalist rhetoric and jarring afro-jazz of the David Simpson-voiced ‘I Make It’ and the abrasive ‘Landed’ – are more exuberant and victorious than anything else. Furious drum patterns and snarling bass whip out an unchained melody on the latter, lashing against Wendy Page’s distorted vocal. ‘Landed’ is all about walking away unscathed from impending disaster (both mental and physical), and is a fitting close to the album.

Gerald refers to it as a “healing” record. And as such it confirms that he’s a fervent believer in music as an expression of a higher purpose. And a creator of sounds that reveal truths not only about ourselves but our place in the world around us.

© Chris CampionURB, August 2000

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