Music By Cavelight

By Demented Toddler

Last Monday saw Ninja Tune's timely release of Tony 'Blockhead' Simon's LP, Music By Cavelight, a downtempo soundscape of diverse samples and a connoisseur's drums. It's been finished for a while now, though. 'This album's been done since 2001. It's been done for a long time.' He started work on it at the request of Mush Records, who he'd made a breakbeat album with: 'They wanted to sign me, but they told me to make an album... and I was, like, alright, cool, and I made it. I guess they were going through troubles at the time, they weren't returning my calls: they flaked out on me basically.' So, Simon and his manager Gabe looked around for other means of getting it out, and sent a tape to Warp records, who passed it to Ninja. 'I think it's rare when a demo works. A lot of the time you send out a demo and it doesn't really... You often have to know someone or have some sort of edge, really.' His modesty is entirely genuine. 'It worked out. It's the best match I could have asked for really.' He was unaware of how well his sound would suit the Ninja Tune stable, 'It was fate'.

Only now is Blockhead beginning to sample the delights of being part of that family. 'I like Bonobo a lot, I'd say so far he's my favourite. Amon Tobin is really interesting, I'd like to hear more of his stuff. His beats change like every two bars, it's intense. It's a whole big world I've been exposed to – I haven't really had a chance to just sit down and absorb it all yet.' Surprisingly for a hip hop producer, he's new to DJing too – he doesn't tour with his friend Aesop Rock. Omega One, who performed the scratches on Music By Cavelight, has been teaching him the ones and twos. His first DJ gig was at the Manchester show with Kid Koala (of whose turntable talents he is in some awe, 'People didn't turn up until halfway through, but it was cool.' He found hiding behind the decks a lot less pressured than rapping – in the mid-nineties he was in a crew called The Overground'. 'I did used to rap, I was in a four-person group from ’93... We were really focused on the group in ’94 and we started making demos and we sucked – we were the worst, but at the time you're kind of blind to that, you're like 'oh, you know...' We made a track with a Doctor Rhythm drum kit, and real instruments ’cause some of the guys played instruments. we were like a white Pharcyde, souls of mischief type group, kind of battle rappy and kind of silly at the same time.'

Tony is reticent, to say the least, about his rhymes, 'I was a punchline rapper, Lord Finesse style, with payoff rhymes', and even more about his voice: 'It's the 'wimpy nerd voice' many have. You've got to control the mic – if you have a little voice, you can't control the mic.' There weren't really any white rappers at the time 'the overground' were about – Vanilla Ice had ruined things for almost everyone – and Eminem wasn't on the scene yet. 'There was no El-P then, no Aesop Rock or Cage.' Although he concedes that he would be happy to ghostwrite for other MCs, he doesn't want to rap himself. 'I'm twenty seven now, I'm not that 19-year-old kid with a backpack.' Although eventually persuaded to show off some of his not-unimpressive lyrics, he judiciously waits until the interview tape has run out, and they are lost to history...

The former member of The Overground doesn't have much time for the underground – 'I hate underground rap.' He sees the scene as overpopulated and snobbish, as guilty of formula as the formulaic pop it frequently slights. 'It's blatantly unoriginal under the guise that it is original. I'd rather listen to Clipse, TI and Twister than some crappy underground artist.' He likes Jay-Z, but is adamant that Nelly will never be any good. 'Rappers tend to guide the song along, I've always thought – I come from a time in the late 80s early 90s when rap songs did have more than one sample. And they were like, when it wasn't just a loop and drums or a break – the chorus would have like a horn or something like that. That's engraved in my mind as something that kind of moves songs along well. Obviously there's people who do that now, but it tends to be more underground hip hop and avant garde hip hop, I don't understand why... Kanye West does that – he's a guy that has changes and has layers and I'm glad cos really its been missing for like eight years, even Premier doesn't do that any more. There's good minimalism, y'know, there's guys like El-P and the Neptunes, but then you've got every person who tries to copy that style who doesn't make good minimal production. I don't know, I like this idea of actually putting a beat together. anyone can put drums to a loop. Anyone with a good ear can be a really good producer – but there's more to making beats than just that.'

Blockhead himself had no musical training, apart from a couple of weeks of clarinet in third grade. 'It's really more a matter of matching... I think I got good pitch. I play a lot of my own basslines. I played every bassline on my album except for Triptych Part 3. You sit back and hear it and you have to figure it out. The best compliment I could ever get is when musician friends, people who played on the album, really good guitarists and drummers say 'I like that bassline you did'. From a musician that's a valued compliment. They're like – "Where'd you sample that from", I'm like – "nowhere!"'

A man who claims never to have spent more than five dollars on a record, and still makes his tunes on the same old ASR-10, Simon is decidedly unromantic about his process. 'I don't think producers need to sit in a room with all the candles lit be like – ommmm'. He just sits with his sampler and cheap bargain-bin records, experimenting until something promising takes shape. Having progressed some way from the material on this album, his current source material of choice is world music, particularly Israeli. He's moved on in terms of tone as well. I'm definitely not doing melancholy – this album's a little melancholy but I don't think I could ever do another Better Place. I'm not a depressed or sad person at all – actually pretty upbeat and more goofy person than anything.' His comedy work with the 'party fun action committee' is testament to this, but as he indicates in his sleeve notes, it's a world away from Music By Cavelight. 'For some reason when I make music it just turns out to be kind of sad... The music that I like a lot that isn't hip hop is a lot of like, soul – Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and that stuff has a lot of emotion to it. I like emotional music, I'm just not really an emotional person. It's a funny comparison – me and the music I make are very different.'

Having moved on so far from the tracks, one might be tempted to remix them, but it turns out they're already refinements of his early experiments. 'A lot of them were remixes, 'cause a lot of the skeletons of the original beats were made so long ago.' Triptych Part One was the first beat he ever saved to disk on his sampler. The three parts are all from old beats he made, and he originally planned that they would make up one long song. 'It's almost set up to tell a story, like three stages of a relationship.' A New Day, from the ep, was originally going to open the album, but it was replaced by the title track due to sample clearance issues. Carnivores Unite is so named because tony was worried it sounded like a Moby song. on the back of the LP are pictures of his sampler disks – it's the one labelled Moby Off the Chain. like some other hip-hoppers, he's not a huge fan. 'Moby's a little bitch.' Living near the techno vegan, he would sometimes hurl abuse at him at the local deli. 'I hate when artists have opinions about stuff they should have nothing to do with. If you're a political artist then you have more leeway, but if you're in BB Mak or the Backstreet Boys... People like that are influential and there's a lot of stupid people in the world: 'Ooh I'm not going to eat chicken because Moby told me not to!' You'll never hear me talk about politics. I'm more of a critic than a political artist.'

As for future plans, he would like to record a 'Blockhead presents', even as a collaboration between Ninja Tune and Def Jux, he hopefully suggests. He knows enough rappers, but it's hard to get them to be responsible about guesting. 'Aesop is really good for that. He'll sit down and write to the beat where others will just turn up with a rhyme that doesn't match at all, or they turn up without a rhyme.' He's still got lingering symptoms of the rapping bug himself, despite his lack of confidence in that area. 'I'd love to make an EP, and it would be really ignorant and really funny. I wouldn't release it.' Meantime, he has more important things to worry about. As the interview concludes, like all good Ninja Artists, he has to pop to the laundrette.

Photo by Maya Hayuk
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