Interview with Radio1, September 2000
UK garage's convenient poster boy or the two-step scene's first real star? Both are tags that have been attached to Matt Coleman aka MJ Cole - songwriter, musician, DJ, producer, remixer - whose Mercury-nominated debut album 'Sincere' was released earlier this summer. We met up with the 26 year old musically-obsessed, extremely accident-prone man to make our own minds up... and to find out how he got all those scars...
How did you get the scar on your forehead?
When I was eight in a school swimming lesson. One of the kids from a couple of years above me pushed me in when I wasn't ready for it, and I just smacked my head on the bottom. It was kind of like Jaws in the pool - everyone was still stood on the side and there was all blood in the water! It was on my eighth birthday.
I was very accident-prone when I was younger. I've fractured my skull, broken my ankle, had hernia operations, I've got metal in my wrist from a motorbike crash a couple of years ago on holiday. I've got drunken scars from smashing my face on tables. I was a bit of a nutter when I was younger. I was a bit of a daredevil, but I'm not now, especially since I did that to my wrist. I'm supposed to have the metal taken out, but I need to have a month where I can't use my hand, but I can't really do that at the moment, because I'm DJing and playing.
When are you going to get some time off?
I'm going to be on holiday in January. That's when I'm going to have some free time, hopefully. The music industry is just dead then, and I imagine I'm going to be working pretty hard up till New Year's Eve so I definitely deserve a holiday.
Have you managed to find time for all your different activities?
At the moment, it's a balancing act between all the different things. Because I'm doing loads of different things, it's impossible to do loads of any one of them really. I think my priority is studio. That is my creative centre. I'm at my happiest when I'm being creative, but in the same way, I love going DJing, I love doing the live stuff as well.
I like what I'm doing now because it's so varied and I'm doing my own engineering in the studio, I'm playing keyboards, I can do string arrangements, I'm doing remixes, live stuff, acoustic stuff, a bit of film music, a bit of production, a bit of radio. It's pretty fun, it keeps me on my toes. I've got a thirst for anything to do with music. Any of my friends will tell you that I'm a bit of a music sicko. I'm one of these people who'll be silent all night in the corner and then as soon as someone starts talking about music, it's like, "Kerching! He's in there straight away!" You'd have to shut me up in the end, put me in a straight jacket of put a bit of gaffer tape over my mouth.
Do you ever worry that this kind of musical versatility will close you off from other people's input?
No, I think being a musician is a cyclic thing. You don't want to ever shut off your senses or say, "I'm not taking any more input", because you take input and from that you get output. You're a big sponge and absorb everything around you, and from that comes this kind of music. So I never go in the studio and say, "This is how you make a record." I'm constantly trying to do things in different ways and keep myself on my toes really. I like going into loads of different kinds of musics. I think my ears are open all the time, and I do get my inspiration from my environment, so I never want to close the doors with any influence or creative input. I might be very uninspired in the studio, I might go into Sainsburys and hear a tune playing, and that might inspire me. The world is quite an inspiring place, so I want to get as much of it as I can.
Is music constantly on your mind?
Yeah, I think my brain is half-music now! I don't know anything about what's going on in the world. People will be like, "Have you heard about this thing...", and I'll be, "No". I've just been in the studio and I haven't read a newspaper, but then again I'll know inside out the remix I've been doing, and where the vocal pops are, and which word got joined together there, so I'm very specialised in music, but then it's probably necessary, in order to try and do well in your particular field.
What remixes are you doing at the moment?
I'm doing a remix for Jill Scott. She's coming in on Saturday to sing. I'm doing a remix for Sean Escoffery, a tune called 'Spacerider', an excellent new tune to watch out for. There's a new thing on Epic by Filo and Ed Case. I've got a stack of thirty remixes being offered, but unfortunately I can only do a few of them. I love doing remixes, that's a real studio thing, because you just get the parts in and late at night you just burn the candle at both ends. I was there till half past five this morning. The studio is like my cave.
Why did you choose to do Jill Scott?
I love her album. I like that kind of super-slick R&B stuff from the States. It's an unbelievable album, the kind of grooves on there are really amazing. I think she's something really fresh as well, because not only is she a singer, but she's a poet as well, and it's mixing the two together. She seems to be able to do so many different things. She's got the most divine speaking voice as well. I'm really looking forward to meeting her.
There's a really extensive list of credits and thank you's on the album. Was it important for you to give credit to the people who have supported you so far?
Because this is my first album, I wanted to say "Thank You" to everyone who has helped me along the way. I haven't just got here by my own merits really. Hopefully I'm good at what I do, but it's never as easy as that. A lot of people have helped me. There are people on the list who are my mum and dad's friends from when I was a kid, who inspired me then. Someone called Peter Tilbury's on there - he used to buy me loads of gadgets and really got me into technology and stuff like that.
I just felt that because it was my first album, it really was all my youth and influences and everyone who's helped me all put together on one thing. Once I'd started, I wanted to do everyone really. There are still people on there who I missed out. Because the Japanese album came out first, we had to rush one for that, so we looked back through it and there were people we missed out, so we got it right for the UK one.
How come the album took so long to come out over here, because we seemed to be waiting for it for ages?
It's kind of a record company thing. They needed to have an album finished six months before it came out, so I finished it at the end of last year. It was a timing thing as well. I'm glad it came out when it did. It could have come out six months ago and I don't think the climate would have been as good for it really. I did about 33, 34 tunes for it, so there's a whole other album there already - not that I'm going to actually put that together - but there were loads of different tunes. There were more tunes left over that are actually on the album.
Since it's come out, I've just done a couple of remixes, and been around the world. The live thing takes a lot of time. There's eight of us in the band, so I have to get everyone together for rehearsals, go back into the studio, get all right bits from the tunes, do all the arrangements, get the tour managers together, go off on tour buses, so it's quite a big thing. No one else in garage has done anything near the live thing that we've done. It's a lot of effort but it's really worth it.
You played on Jo Whiley recently, and you've been doing lots of PA's, but presumably the actual live performance is more rewarding for you.
It's strange for me now, because I'm doing lots of different kinds of live things. One on hand there's the DJing thing, when I go out with my MC, Danny V, and play at Glastonbury or something like that, and then there's the full live show, like we did at V2000 and at Montreux. We're supporting Roni Size on the Muzik tour in October, so there's that, and then there's things like the other day with Jo Whiley, because that was even further acoustic - me on Fender Rhodes, three string players, a percussionist, and Elisabeth singing, so that was really great to do. It's good for me as a musician to do stuff like that as well, because I really want people to know that we can play, and it is real music, we don't need to have big drums behind us. It's really rewarding as a musician to do these kind of things.
Do you like doing live radio?
I love radio actually, because I'm more into sounds and ears and voices than looks. I think radio suits me quite well. I listen to a lot of radio at home, because I think I'm an ears person. I don't want to suck up or anything, but I listen to quite a lot of Radio 1, usually it's Jo Whiley's show that I hear when I wake up. I said that to her the other day and she was like, "Ooh, you get up late, don't you?" But yeah, I'm a bit of a night owl, I stay in the studio until pretty late. I like live stuff. I'm not one of these people who likes to hide away in a castle somewhere and just send DATs down to the record company. I like to be out there performing music live. We did the Radio 1 stage at Carnival, I've just been to Japan DJing over there. It's a real buzz when you spend a lot of time in the studio on your own, underground, and then suddenly there's this big period of going out, DJing and just meeting loads of people and hearing load of noise, chatting and doing radio. I'm pretty down with it.
Your family were pretty musical, right?
Yeah, my dad's a singer and an actor, a theatre bod. He was in 'Phantom Of The Opera' when that came out, different things like that. We've got a grand piano at home. He plays the piano and my mum plays the piano as well. My dad's parents were always big singers. They were Welsh and they'd come round and have a little sing on the piano. I'd always have to play the piano for everyone as Christmas, and I hated it!
That must have given you a lot of self-confidence in your own abilities, and in performing now though?
Yeah, I did a lot of piano playing and performing when I was younger. I did my first competition when I was about six and won it. It was just a local competition, but from there I thought, "I'm into this, I can do this", and I was often the only boy as well. There were a lot of girls playing the piano, so my mates would all take the mickey out of me, but I was winning all this stuff and doing it really well, so I kind of got a buzz for it from when I was younger.
I did 'Young Pianist Of The Year' in Guildford Civic Hall three years running - there's 1500 people all sitting down and you're doing a piano recital in your shiny shoes and tie. I did a lot of performance and I played the oboe as well, so I did a lot of performance in orchestras, I did piano duos, baroque harpsichord. So doing something like the Jo Whiley show was great, because it's like I'm playing with string players again, doing something acoustic. It's really nice turning the full circle and coming round to performing again. That's what music's about, it's communication.
Who else do you listen to on the radio? Are there any particular shows that you always tune into?
I'm a terrible regular listener of anything. I don't do anything regularly. I go to bed at different times, I'm in different places... But I like Mark and Lard in the afternoons. I listen to Gilles' show. I think his show is great. The Dreem Teem's show is a good one, on Sundays. Always making scrambled eggs and beans on toast at that time. Mikee makes me laugh, his Mystic Meg or whatever it's called! And I listen to loads of the other stations. At the weekend, I'm driving around in my car, and I'm a garage bod, so I listen to the garage stations basically. It's where it's all coming from, the streets. I often get to hear stuff that I haven't got, so I have to nip down the record shop going, "What is this that they're playing on this station?"
What can expect from the forthcoming tour?
The live thing sounds completely different. A lot of the arrangements are fairly similar to what's on the record, but we do a lot of different things within them. The tune 'Rough Out Here' we do completely live except for the strings coming out of somewhere, but it's all live drums, live bass, stuff like that. There's a few people out there who tend to run DATs when they do their live thing, and jump around a lot, but I'm not really into that. What you see is what you hear, that's my philosophy when it comes to the live thing, but yeah, there are some little extra surprises in there. We're doing the Muzik tour in October, so I've sorted out some rehearsals for that, I've got a few plans. At the moment we've got about a forty minute set and I want to make it a bit longer, I'm gonna put in a few new things, so watch out!
All the songs on the album seem to be talking about love in one way or another...
Yeah, I think a lot of it is about urban love topics.
Are you a romantic?
I'm quite into humans and relationships. It's quite easy to forget the most basic things in life sometimes, in this modern world. But yeah, a lot of the tunes are centred around love.
How much involvement do you have with the lyrics on the record?
Mostly we collaborate on the lyrics. It depends who I'm working with really. Generally I'm the music specialist. Say the Guy S'mone tunes, he's more involved with the music, playing guitar and some of the basslines, and I get involved with the lyrics as well. It depends really on the tune. I tend to write less of the lyrics and more of the music, that's generally the way it goes. But when it comes to choruses and things, I get quite involved in them. I think I've got a lot of lovesick singers, very troubled individuals!
Can you sing?
I can sing, yeah, but my voice leaves something to be desired. I can sing in tune. I think for the next album I might write some tunes myself and sing them, and then get someone to copy the vocal.
Are there any particular vocalists you'd like to work with?
Hopefully I'm going to do something with Shola soon, I want to do something with her. But I've got a whole stack of vocalists who are really good. They're pretty much unknowns, but they're excellent talents. Those are the people I like working with. I don't think on the next album I'm going to get all the celebs in. I like working with people who've got something new, who aren't recognised and have got a thirst there. With this album it was good, because none of the singers I used had done garage stuff before, so there's this feeling of freshness about it that I'm really into. I'll try and do that again on the next record, but I probably won't start it until next year.
Presumably a lot of people now want you to produce their records - would you want to just do that for a bit?
Production is something I'm doing more and more of for other people now. I'm pretty happy producing, that's kind of my specialist area really, so I imagine as my career goes on and on, I'll be doing more and more production. But the artist thing's great as well; to do my own music is fantastic. I just like doing all these different things, it really makes it quite fruity, but yeah, there's bits of production I'm going to be doing.
Elisabeth Troy has signed to Talkin' Loud now as a solo artist, so I'm going to be producing stuff for her, which will be great because then we're swapping round. I can just be the person in the studio with my computer and she can go out and get the cars and go to the parties. That's going to be a great laugh, doing that with her. I'm just going to do a portion of the album, so it's up to her how she wants the other bits to sound, but I'm probably would like to do some advanced garage stuff, pushing the boundaries a little bit, but not changing tack completely. We did a slow tune like 'I See' on the album, that was totally un-garage and seemed to go down pretty well, so we might do something like that. We don't think very much when we work, it's a vibes thing really, and the songs just kind of come. We're not these intellectual people who hang around by the coffee table, we just like, "Right, tomorrow get in the studio at 2 o'clock, and let's have it".
Can you explain the artwork on the album?
It's based around luxury goods, and luxury goods packaging, so there's a bag, a champagne bottle, a glasses case and a watch. It's playing on the "quality goods" of garage idea - there's a twist in each one of them, so that bag's a luxury goods item but it's on fire. The champagne says MJ Cole, but there's oil coming out of it, and we put the watch in the furnace for five hours, so it's all bubbled up and burnt. It's a bit tongue in cheek, but at the same time it looks excellent. We got advertising guys to do all the photographs. There's no big message in there, it's just meant to look good and have something to think about as well.
Are you heavily involved in the visual side as well?
Myself and my manager had the idea to start with. We were looking at labels in shirts, but were thinking you could have the shirt folded with the label out, but instead of saying whichever designer label, it says MJ Cole. We were in my studio and the piano was there with the Kemble logo, and we thought, 'mmm... you could have a piano..." We kind of thought of the idea, and then this designer, Michael at Intro, who's an amazing person and did all of Roni's stuff as well, he developped the idea. They present things to us and we're like, "yeah like that, but don't really like that". We haven't really got time to be doing the whole lot ourselves, but I like to definitely oversee what goes on as much as I can. I don't just hide away and go shopping while everyone does everything. I like to be as involved as I can be.
Does Talkin' Loud give you the control to be able to do that?
Talkin' Loud are cool, yeah. We liaise on a lot of things, so they don't run away and get on with things. We get consulted on most things. "Approval" is the legal word!
You're just about to relaunch your site - are you into the web?
Yeah, I'm totally into the web. I've got a little iMac at home. I do all my banking on the internet, I'm a big e-mail person. It really suits me well because I can get in at three in the morning and deal with all my e-mails then, rather than being the studio in a flow and then get phone calls. I do shopping on the web and I'm pretty into my computers. I've got a little webcam and a DV camera that I load in and edit my movies on. I even send tunes to Zed Bias. We send tunes to each other in mp3 when we've done something.
So you're going to be heavily involved in your site?
Yeah, pretty much. Hopefully there are going to be some old tunes that I did when I was fifteen on there, some of the first tunes I ever did, and some of my video camera footage on there as well. We're going to have a virtual studio, so you can click on say my sampler, hear eight sounds in my sampler, and then go to the mixing desk and move the faders up and down, stuff like that. So yeah, I'm into the website, I really believe it's a very important part of the modern world.
You can also really keep in touch with your fans through it too...
Yeah, it's so instant and it means that people can find out any information about where you're DJing. It's a message board for the world, and we're going to have a chat room - if I did have any fans, they could go there! I'm sure there's at least three of four somewhere...
MJ Cole's next single will be 'Hold On To Me', due in October. You can catch him on tour in the same month, supporting Roni Size and Reprazent:
Sat 7th - Manchester Academy
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