We are proud to count Joey Negro (born Dave Lee) as one of the family here at Southport Weekender. He has entertained us with some very special sets over the many appearances he has made here, not least on his 2002 visit where he provided us with a splendid finale to The Powerhouse’s Saturday night.
At the point of this interview being conducted by Marc Rowlands in 2003, Dave was about to return to the weekender, having just compiled a CD for the Southport Weekender compilation series and during the completion of his second Sunburst Band LP, which joins a long list of project names such as Prospect Park, Jakatta, Doug Willis, Mistura, Raven Maize and Z Factor whose releases have helped consolidate Dave as one of the UK’s foremost house producers. An unashamed disco fanatic, one of the single most important figures in the UK house movement, a remixer and producer extroadinaire, we are always proud to welcome back Mr Joey Negro.
Do you remember the first time you heard a house music track?
Yeah. This depends on what you call house. I’d just moved to London and around that time I’d bought a lot of imports, like ‘Jack Your Body’. Before that, there were things like Colonel Abrams ‘Music is the Answer’, Chocolette, ‘It’s That East Street Beat’, that fast, New York garage sound, but I hadn’t come across any of the Chicago, proper house. There were a couple things, DJ International tracks that I was initially a bit sceptical about, cos it was quite close to high energy. I was a bit more into hip hop, things like Eric B. I was very lucky to move to London just at a time when house was happening. In a way it was almost like a changing of the guard with some of the DJs. Quite a lot of the people who used to come into the record shop where I worked- like Jonathon Moore from Cold Cut and Mark Moore, and other people like Trevor Mad Hatter (Trevor Nelson), who I remember used to work on one of the vans, selling records to us. Well, a lot of the people who’re now doing well for themselves were just making their first inroads into the industry at that time.
You moved fairly quickly into setting up your own label Republic. Can you tell me why that appealed to you?
It was a very useful thing for me. I stopped working at Rough Trade in about 1988 and they gave me the money to start up. It was their label basically. I had a few shares but I basically had my own label for 3 years and that was good cos it taught me a lot about releasing records and pressing them and other stuff I didn’t know about. But it also gave me a way of releasing my music.
You released records by Phase II, Arnold Jarvis and Blaze on Republic. You must have been on to the NY/NJ garage sound pretty early on?
When I started the label up that’s what I was into. I’d been listening to these WBNS tapes and I felt that we’d done the acid house thing, and maybe we could go back to the more soulful stuff. Everyone was putting out acid tracks and I was looking for something a bit different. There was quite a lot of tracks from people like Blaze and Kim Mazelle that had done nothing and I was surprised that these things had been completely overlooked. We did a compilation album called ‘Garage Sound of Deepest New York’ which did pretty well. But all I was thinking was ‘I like these, why don¹t we put them out’. Things like Turntable Orchestra, ‘Reachin’, they did really well for us.
With your own music, did you start off with a definite idea of where you wanted to take your productions?
No. I started working with this guy Andrew Livingstone, who I worked with for about 5/6 years. I’d just started using a new studio and I had this master mix which meant you could arrange things, and get the arrangement to be as you wanted. Working with Andrew, it felt like a new era. I’ve always tried to make the productions reasonably playable. I never wanted to make stuff you couldn’t play anywhere. I’ve always associated going out with hearing records. I’ve always liked things that you hear in a club then at home and they still sound good.
What an average working day for Dave Lee? Do you spend a hefty amount of time locked away in your studio?
I work 10am – 8pm, four days a week, every week. It’s a long day I suppose. Back in the 90s, we’d often work 12midday – 1am, five or six days a week. I would probably still do that, it’s only really Deirdra (Deirdra Robinson, Dave’s manager) that stopped me. Sometimes in the evening when the phones stopped ringing you could really zone in and get things right. But sometimes things get later and later and you end up starting at 5 oclock in the evening and working til 5/6 in the morning. It’s not really good for you.
If you’re working on the same track for hours, how do your ears not get fed up? How do you know when to stop?
Even if I’m personally sick of what I’m working on, you can still try and be objective. Who knows if you are objective? Sometimes when you get an initial idea for a track, that’s when you’re enthusiastic about it and some people like to finish up really quickly while they’re still into it – they might just spend 8 hours on the whole thing. Four days later, if you’re still working on it, you’re probably sick to death of it. But that’s when you have to trust your initial judgement. It’s like doing a maths test, where you’ve gone through the questions, answered them, but then you’ve got to go back through it again to double check your answers. Make it as good as you can.
Through signing it to Z Records and via way of the remix you did, you’re probably responsible for making Erro ‘Don’t Change For Me’ the big club hit that it became here in the U.K. Can you tell me what you saw in the track initially and why you approached it’s remix in the way you did?
That was just a record that I really liked. I thought it was a great song, and the parts are all really nice, but it was just unplayable for me as a DJ. A couple of weeks after I got it I was playing Garage City, and that¹s a pretty specialist night, and I thought I can’t even play this here, the beat was so light. And it only had eight bars intro before the vocals came in, so it was a hard record to programme. I licensed it pretty cheaply. To me, a good remix isn’t always about changing everything. Sometimes it’s just keeping what’s there and making it a little more playable. I’ve done that a few times. I did it with ‘Backfired’, with Blaze’s ‘Wishing You Were Here’.
With those remixes like ‘Backfired’ and ‘Don’t Change For Me’ you seem to be replacing the lighter, more roomy American drums with a really heavy drum sound, that really big bass kick. It’s a Dave Lee sound and a much more European ‘dance’ music drum sound than your influences may suggest. Why do you do that?
I sometimes listen to my records and think the drums are too loud, they’re too bassy in comparison to the American stuff which is a lot lighter on the drums. I suppose people like myself or Grant Nelson, or other people over here, we just give the track a bit more energy. In retrospect maybe I think sometimes I should add a bit less bass in the bass drum. You do analyse these things. But it’s just making it playable, giving it energy. I couldn’t do it any other way. I wouldn’t want to try hard to sound American. I listen to old Italian house records and what’s good about them is they sound Italian. There’s no point trying to sound like what you’re not.
A great favourite of a lot of people at Southport is your Sunburst Band album. Why did you decide you wanted to put a band project together?
It just happened really. Though it’s a band, a few of the people have never met each other – they’re not actually there at the same time. It’s a group of musicians, some who do know each other quite well. The first EP wasn’t really very live sounding at all. I sent it round to a few labels and no one was interested, so I ended up putting it out myself. Then I did another 12″ and thought well if I did another 6 tracks, I’d have an LP. It didn’t need half as much of a commitment as the new Sunburst Band LP has done. That was starting pretty much from scratch. It’s expensive to make and not that high sales potential really. It’s music for myself, the sort I’d want to buy. If I’d bought a new album, this is what I’d want it to sound like. I like things like the first Reel People album – that sort of modern jazz funk. Stuff like Spinna’s recent album on BBE.
You say the 2nd Sunburst Band album is something that you’d want to go out and buy yourself. Would you want to go out and buy the Jakatta album?
I don’t know if I’d have bought it or not. It’s not something I’d definitely have bought. Jakatta fits in with albums made by people like Groove Armada, Massive Attack. I haven’t got many of those sort of albums. For me it was an interesting album to make cos I wasn’t going to the territories I was going to with the Sunburst Band. We were working with a major dance label and trying to make a commercial album. That’s a good discipline to have. It’s easy to do the stuff you know you can do. It’s good sometimes to go do other stuff. Having said that, I wouldn’t have wanted to do another straight after. Maybe in a couple of years I’ll feel like it. When you first start up, you create a sound, but after a while people start slagging you off saying everything sounds the same, then you try not to sound like you any more. You go round in circles. I’m sure the Sunburst album sounds like me, but I’m glad the Jakatta one didn’t. But it is me.
Are you still turning up good disco records or have you got all the best ones by now?
Oh I still get the disco records. I’m still buying quite a lot from Ebay or friends in America. I still turn up some good things, but they’re mostly 7/10’s. You¹re not going to come across a ‘Stomp’ or a ‘Let Me Be Your Fantasy’ on some obscure label that someone¹s never heard of. I still like the idea of collecting records. Though quite a lot of them are available on cd and compilations now.
Would you not like to come to Southport and do a disco set?
I would do. In the Connoisseurs or the Bacardi B Bar. Sometimes at home I play older music, slow disco, mid-tempo stuff like Circle City Band, Slave and I’ve thought it¹d be great to hear this in a club. I’ve done loads of gigs playing disco, but unfortunately all people seem to want to hear for the most part is hits. There seems to be such a massively different reaction to familiar and unfamiliar tracks. It’s such a shame.
You’ve recorded under such a wide variety of pseudonyms. Why do you do that? Don’t you think that you may have diluted some of your profile as an artist by using so many?
The first few records I bought, I bought records which were basically by the same people, just under different names, people like Patrick Adams as Musique or Cloud One or Bumblebee Unlimited. I suppose I’ve always thought Dave Lee’s quite a boring name. I’ve always tried to think of names which I think, if I was in a record shop, I would think looks quite interesting. I guess when I’ve been putting things out on Z, I’ve maybe thought, well I’ve had one out recently as Z Factor, so I can’t put out another one, I’ve got to leave it for another 2 months. There were times when I was releasing a lot of stuff. I should have probably not gone with a couple of them, just stuck to maybe 5 or something. With Jakatta and ‘American Dream’, I thought, this is different to anything I’ve done before, so I thought, let’s give it a new name. Same thing with the Sunburst Band. You get to the point where maybe you release Joey Negro ‘Can’t Get High Without You’, which I thought was one of my best tracks, then you come up with something like Prospect Park, whatever the next single was, and you think, well this isn’t quite strong enough to be the next Joey Negro single. I’d love to go into the studio every time and do an absolute killer, but sometimes you don’t. You try and keep it simple for yourself, but I guess it comes across quite complicated.