Morcheeba is a British music institution, finding success during the mid-’90s trip-hop explosion along with the likes of Massive Attack and Portishead. They have been driving an eclectic mix of original music for the past 25 years, creating a psychedelic and electronic sound that is all their own. Morcheeba released their ninth record as a duo, Blaze Away in 2018 to great fanfare. Skye Edwards and Ross Godfrey carried the torch of their eclectic sound and inspired a new generation of pioneers. The band recently collaborated with a wide array of DJs and producers in the electronic realm including Yimino, Little Mountain and Lindstrøm to release a remixed version of Blaze Away. mxdwn recently spoke with founding member, Ross Godfrey, to discuss the origins of Morcheeba, over 25 years in an ever-changing music industry and the musician’s thoughts on Brexit.
mxdwn: Morcheeba released Blaze Away last year and you had said that you walked into the record with a free approach. Is that due to previous records being more regimented or was that just something that came naturally?
Ross Godfrey: I mean, yeah, in a way some of them were. I think it’s more like how you feel at the time and on this record, I just didn’t really want to care too much about which direction it was going in. We just wanted to be a bit more free form really and see what came out, because, for us, the songs lead the way and if you write a song, it kind of tells you what to do, rather than you trying to force it into a production style or whatever it is. So, we just kind of wrote some songs and just followed them down the road and we ended up with Blaze Away. I think there’s a couple of linchpin songs. For instance, the first track, “Never Undo” was quite an early song that we did and that’s got a pretty much classic Morcheeba vibe. We felt very comfortable with that because that was like that center of gravity. And then as soon as we had that we just kind of played around a bit. We like lots of different kinds of music, from psychedelic stuff and blues and soul and country and things like that, so we just like mixing it up really.
mxdwn: You can feel how natural the songs on the record sound. Even though you said, “No pretense,” it sounds very organic. Not that your other ones don’t, but after such a long time away from Morcheeba, they did sound very organic.
Ross: Yeah, I mean one of the main things that we tried to do is keep everything very natural. We just played all the instruments and sang all the songs, I mean, there’s a bit of drum programming here and there, but it’s not really…People think of us as an electronic band somehow, but from my point of view, we’re probably one of the most traditional bands of, certainly our generation, and in comparison to modern bands now, I think we’re very traditional. We write songs on acoustic guitar and play lots of old instruments. My house is just full of like old Hammond organs and Wurlitzer pianos and EMS synthesizers and we just jam around on those things. I don’t really have much in my studio, apart from the Apple computer, that was made after 1975.
mxdwn: From what I know from you guys coming up in the ’90s, that you’ve always been associated with this trip-hop movement. The band has such a broad sound. It’s not trip-hop, it’s not electronic. You guys have all of these other things that are happening on the periphery. I always thought that was very interesting, the dynamic between this trip-hop vibe and what you were actually doing.
Ross: I mean, trip-hop was very much an umbrella term. It was a bit lazy. I mean, we didn’t really like it at the time, but I don’t mind it so much now. It’s kind of interesting because there was a lot of different bands that came out that were called trip-hop but they were quite different in style. Massive Attack were more influenced by dub and the distal reggae side of things and then Portishead was very influenced by soundtracks and composers like Lalo Schifrin and things like that. It had more kind of like a spy movie feel to it and was a little bit more angular. Just from my point of view, I just used to sit at home listening to Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix. If you could imagine them making a record with a hip-hop beat on it that was pretty stoned, that’s what I wanted to do.
mxdwn: Every time I read something about you as a musician, there’s always the term, “psychedelic guitar player” associated with it. Do you feel like that’s an appropriate label? Because I think it’s much more than psychedelic. There’s a lot of other things going on but that term keeps popping up.
Ross: Yeah but I mean, it’s really difficult to describe music. It’s quite an abstract thing, and there’s normally quite a lot of different dynamics going on within it. Say when we play live…instead of just sort of playing guitar in the band, it’s more like trying to make the guitar sound like the production of the record with lots of different sounds and old analog delays and wah-wahs and fuzz and things like that. So it is a psychedelic sound but I wouldn’t say it was just psychedelic. I think there’s something a bit deeper to it but I don’t mind that terminology. That’s fine for me, because when I was a kid I used to love listening to acid rock records, bands like Cream and Jefferson Airplane and stuff like that.
One of the things that early on with Morcheeba was we all used to kind of like DJ. Especially my brother was a DJ and we used to put compilations together, like mixtapes back in the day, and we kind of said to ourselves, “It would be great to make an album that was kind of like a mixtape, where you didn’t get bored with every track sounding the same.” So the band could actually be the mixtape, you know? We could do one dub reggae track. We could do one psychedelic folk track. We could do one country. Part of the process, we wanted to mix. We were quite into this band called Lambchop at the time and so we were kind of interested in whether we could somehow shoehorn that into a trip-hop record. It just worked, which surprised us really, because it seemed like whatever we chucked into the mixer, it just kind of sounded nice. Especially with Skye’s voice, because she kind of puts the icing on the cake.
mxdwn: I did want to talk about the Blaze Away remix record and how that whole project came together. Did you hand pick those artists to remix your album?
Ross: Yeah, we did. Honestly, there was some kind of limitations to it; who was available and who we could afford? We couldn’t play a big thing. We’re into like a lot of modern electronica but not EDM, more dancey stuff. Most of the time I prefer a bit more ambient and more thoughtful electronic music. I’ve always been a very good fan of people like Aphex Twin and stuff like that. I mean most dance music I find very moronic. I don’t really go clubbing or anything like that, but it was very interesting for us to get some upbeat mixes done of our record that we made. We were just amazed how well they all came out because we’ve had remixes done before over the years. I mean, we’ve been going for 25 years now, so we must have had hundreds of remixes done and none of them have ever really been that amazing. We just didn’t really love any of them. A lot of them were just commissioned by the record label to try and get into different playlists or into different DJ sets but this time it felt like it was more coming from us. We really collaborated on who we asked and what we asked them to remix and we were really pleasantly surprised. Everything came back really well. We just wanted to put all of it on the record because obviously we didn’t think we’d get everything back and love it all, but we did and we put it all on the record.
Particularly the Djrum remix of “Find Another Way” is superb. I think it’s better than the original record version and I kind of feel the same way about the Yimino version of “Never Undo.” Henry, who is the producer in Yimino, he’s a friend of mine, and I’ve always wanted to get him to do a remix. I was so pleased with it, he’s actually collaborating with us now to do our next record. I think he’s going to help us do some of the production and beats on that. It’s been a real ride for us. It’s taken us to new places and I think it’s going to really influence the future of Morcheeba, too. When we make a record and we try to make it like a movie where you go on a journey, it doesn’t flow like an album, necessarily like that and flow is a component part, so they really work and they work together and it’s interesting to hear the songs in very different backdrops. I feel like the guys that did the mixes for us did a really, really great job and we couldn’t be more happy with it.
mxdwn: Over the course of Morcheeba’s 25 years as a band, the music industry as a whole has changed pretty drastically. Do you find the process of putting together a full-on record daunting, now that streaming services are such a large part of the landscape?
Ross: Yeah, it is weird. It has changed a lot. I feel like it can seem like the tail is wagging the dog a bit, because certainly financially for us and all bands going at the moment, I’d say probably 85-90% of the income comes from touring and doing festivals. Records don’t really make any money and they don’t really have a huge impact on the business side of things, but creatively they’re still at the center of things. It’s weird, but you have to make a record in order to have the next chapter of the band, and albums are just the right amount of songs. I think if you just made an EP, or just put out a single and then went on tour, you would feel weird. It’s like you need to have a certain amount of material together to feel like you’ve done something and you’re moving on.
You can spend longer touring on an album. You can spend two or three years in between records and that’s fine, but we feel like every couple of years, we just want to add some material to the catalog really. We get a little bit itchy creatively and we want to do some different stuff, so it naturally feels like we should make records but I think the way that the business has changed seems to make them sometimes a bit obsolete, which is sad. I miss the old music industry where you go into Tower Records and look for records and that sort of thing and you’d go to record fairs and try and find old records. Now there’s no mystery to it. You Google something or you go on YouTube or whatever, and you can find it immediately and that takes the thrill out of the chase a bit. It also devalues music. I think having everything at your fingertips all the time makes it seem worthless in a way. I kind of feel sorry for the younger generation of never having that distance between you and music that you had to really work to get to the music that you liked and you had to research things and read the liner notes on the back of albums and all that kind of stuff. It seems a shame.
Also, there’s so much information out there about bands and, again, the lack of mystery is a bit of a shame. To give an example, I remember I really liked The Pixies when I was an early teenager and I had their first couple of records. I had no idea what they looked like. There was no pictures of them. I didn’t even know where they were from. It wasn’t until you’d see them live…I think we saw them at The Reading Festival or somewhere like that in the UK…that I even knew what they look like. It wasn’t until they actually played in your town that you’d get to see them. I miss that, and if you came out with the band and you didn’t have a Facebook page or an Instagram page and you didn’t put out any information or any photos, everybody just would think that you were dumb, which is a shame.
The attention span of people these days is so short that you can’t even have introductions on records. There was a survey done recently and they compared songs from the 1980s to moderns songs and there were songs from the ’80s that the average introduction was 30 seconds and it went up to a minute. A lot of U2 records that were huge had minute-long intros. The average introduction for a song now is like one second. There’s a sound and then the chorus comes in. That’s a shame. It’s to try and stop people from just clicking on something else on their computer. People don’t really sit down in front of their stereo and listen properly, which is a shame. I’m guilty of it, too. You’re watching a Netflix show and playing with your phone at the same time. You need multiple stimulations going on, but it’s like a lost thing really. I think that’s why there it’s nice that there’s a resurgence of people interested in marijuana, because at least with marijuana when you smoke it, you tune into music rather than tune out.
mxdwn: You talk about the lack of attention to something, but there’s a huge surge in vinyl. I always thought that was very interesting that there is an ebb and flow of things.
Ross: People are more into vinyl now and people are into listening to lots of music. Spotify, at the same time it’s killing music on one end, it’s also been really good. It saved the music industry in a lot of ways. It certainly saved record companies. They were pretty much on their knees and they’ve managed to carry on. Obviously, they don’t really have a lot of power anymore. It’s like all the power’s gone back to the bands, which is great if the bands already have a fan base and are already established and have a lot of back-catalog, but it’s harder for younger bands now because there isn’t a record company, like a benefactor, that would invest in them to help them get to where they want to be because there isn’t any money in it. You can’t really go to a bank and say that you just got stoned with your friends and made a record and you want to borrow half a million dollars to put it out and go on a tour bus around the world. Banks don’t really lend you money for that kind of thing.
mxdwn: You were talking before about how Morcheeba came up in the same era of Massive Attack and Portishead and you had all these other bands. The Stone Roses were before you and you had Happy Mondays, all these other bands. All of the music from the ’90s and late ’80s in the UK. What was the vibe like when you guys were coming up? What was the vibe around the UK at that time?
Ross: The thing was that the ’80s is so crap as far as I really didn’t like them at the time. I didn’t like that it was so plastic and fake. Especially the whole New Romantic UK thing. I didn’t like the keyboard sounds. I didn’t like the haircuts. But then the ’90 were a bit more real. Everyone was listening to old ’60s psychedelic music again and there was also a big influence from New York hip-hop. Those two things collided in a weird way. For instance, The Stone Roses, they were leap-in funky drummer and playing wah-wah guitar over the top of it. I don’t think that would’ve happened without the New York electro and hip-hop sound coming over. But because we’re British, we couldn’t really do hip-hop in the way that Americans did it. It sounded stupid with an English accent if you rap, so we would make deep, weird, heavy music that kind of sounded like Wu-Tang Clan or something, then instead of having rapping, you would find a singer that would sing over the top of it. Because singers sing melodies, you’d have to change the chords underneath and it would be more traditional, like a song with a chorus. That’s just what happened. Us and Portishead pretty much came out about the same time and we had the same kind of ideas in a slightly different stylistic way, but we were riffing on the same thing. That was interesting because then it went back across the pond and influenced American music again.
For a little while, the British music scene was pretty much the center of the world. There were really good bands coming out, guitar bands, very progressive modern music, electronic music. It was really nice. To this day, we’re always reminded of this. For instance, tomorrow I’m flying to Prague and we’re doing a show with Liam Gallagher and Primal Scream at the Metronome Festival in Prague. Just last weekend we were in Athens and we played with Johnny Marr and New Order. Wherever we go in the world, it seems that everybody really likes British bands from the late ’80s and early ’90s. It’s something that follows us around so I’m very aware of that. Also, I think there was a lack of progression after the ’90s in music. It was like everybody was waiting for the new punk revolution that never happened because nothing ever really changed after the ’90s. Hip-hop was so revolutionary and punk music was so revolutionary that it just wiped the slate clean and then nothing ever came along and did that. All that really happened was everything was homogenized and put in the same pot. I feel like we were just waiting to become irrelevant and we never did, which was kind of weird. It was like being kept on life support in some weird way. If you’re in a band, if you manage to last more than 15 years, then you’ve made it through and everyone’s like, “Oh you can stay now because you’ve been going this long.” You start cool and then you go uncool and then you eventually make it back to being cool again.
mxdwn: I was talking to another British musician. They said something that really stuck with me. Everybody in America had such a backlash against disco and he was saying that the UK really didn’t have the same backlash. So, it almost influenced the music in the same way hip-hop did in America. People still wanted to dance but they wanted to rock out too so that just perpetuated this new kind of British rock ‘n’ roll.
Ross: It was kind of weird at that time because bands like Pink Floyd and Queen doing disco numbers. It was really bizarre. If you listen to it now, it’s just like, “You’ve just basically ripped off a disco record there.” At the time it was great because it kept deep music going, but moved with the times, which is fine. I mean, I was never really a disco fan. I think my heart beats too slowly. I just make really slow music all the time and I’ve never really been one for dancing, so for me, I’m more of an armchair music guy.
mxdwn: You and Skye had made a record under the moniker Skye & Ross. It was more an acoustic-y record that you made primarily with your family members, which I thought was pretty great. What was it like working alongside your family members? Was it something that you’ve always wanted to do or was it just something like, “Hey, I need a drummer. Hey, you play the drums?”
Ross: We’re kind of lucky that they were really great musicians. It wasn’t like we were lazy. We wanted to just make a record that was really fun. We wanted it to feel very natural and I think with the last Morcheeba record before that, Head Up High, I felt that was a bit overproduced. With modern music, people edit the fuck out of things. They cut everything up into tiny little pieces and then quantize them back into time on a grid. I got sick of all of that. I just wanted to make something where you played instruments and recorded things and sang and that’s what it sounded like, so that was quite refreshing. It was like a palate cleanser. Then when we came back to make the Morcheeba record, I felt like we re-understood what our strengths were and we wanted to play to our strengths.
mxdwn: Is that part of the reason why you came back to the Morcheeba moniker? I know you released the Head Up High Morcheeba record, then your brother left the group and then you made the Skye & Ross record. Then you made a Morcheeba record with only Skye & Ross, so it’s kind of come full circle.
Ross: Well, we had to leave it for a while because, when my brother left the band, there was two or three years of disagreement of what was going to happen. In general, we knew we were going to carry on with it, but Paul was a very big part of Morcheeba and he always will be. He was a very strong producer and leader in the early days and a lot of our sound is thanks to him and so we needed to be quite respectful of that. When we finally came to an agreement with him about what we can do and what we can’t do, we needed to make a Morcheeba record that was at the same time, respectful of our past, but also representative of who we are now and we were just a duo. There’s not really any scratch-DJing or anything like that on it, which is what Paul used to do in the band as a performer. Also, Skye and I were writing songs just the two of us, and so those songs were different and more reflective of the and that we’d become. Having said that, we still wanted the beats in it to be quite hypnotic and we got Roots Manuva to rap on it, which brought a hip-hop element to it. We also wanted it to reflect…We’re very strong in Europe. My wife is French and I was asking her about getting a French singer on the record and she was always saying we should get Benjamin Biolay, who’s like the heir to Serge Gainsbourg in France, so we managed to get hold of him and he was really up for it. We went to Paris and recorded a couple of tracks of him and the song “Paris Sur Mer” is just fantastic because it sounds like Morcheeba but at the same time it’s continental and it’s cool. It’s got a weird French Noir feel to it. I’m really happy with the way we reached out to find new pallets of sound and new atmospheres.
mxdwn: I realize that this isn’t a political forum, but, being from the UK, I’m always interested to talk to people about Brexit and understand their opinions a little better. In the US we only get a small fraction of what’s going on over there. Would you be willing to speak on that a little bit?
Ross: It’s just an absolute clusterfuck. It’s just ridiculous. Instead of shooting yourself in the foot, it’s like actually blowing your foot off with a shotgun. It’s like that. It’s a completely pointless thing. It was like basically letting the Tea Party into the Republican Party and then giving them a referendum on some crazy shit. We live on an island. We’ve got our own currency. There’s no European laws that anybody can actually mention that they disagree with, so it’s a completely made up thing and anybody that voted for it is just very xenophobic and probably quite racist. I think it was stoked by the immigration coming through Europe because of the war in Syria and that made everybody a bit scared because in the provinces in England, people don’t really like outsiders.
In every city in the UK, people voted to stay because it’s a very multicultural place, but then outside of the city is a bit like in the USA where everybody votes for Trump. In the big cosmopolitan cities on the coast, everybody wanted to stay progressive but everyone else wants to go back in time. It’s a real shame that politics has become so divisive. We can’t even get a Brexit deal through. It looks like it’s just going to go on forever and eventually tear everything apart, including all of the political parties and probably the United Kingdom because Scotland wants to stay in and they can’t work out how to deal with Northern Ireland and southern Ireland. It’s just a complete mess and it’s so unnecessary as well. It was won by such a small margin that I wish we could just have a do-over, and maybe now people see the mess, they can kind of re-decide, but unfortunately, even if that happens and we manage to stay in Europe, we’d still have quite a lot of divisions because people would feel really disgruntled that they didn’t get what they wanted, which was this weird fantasy thing of going back to the British Empire, basically. They think that we’re going to be a really strong international country but we’re not. We’re just a tiny little island that nobody really gives a fuck about.
mxdwn: It’s funny how England and the US parallel themselves on that particular notion. It’s very, very interesting how Donald Trump was elected.
Ross: Yeah. It was one of the most horrible nights of my life. I stayed up here because I used to live in California for a long time, so I’m always following American politics. I read Huffington Post and CNN every day. It’s just horrible to watch. We’re doing the US tour in October. It’s not a very big one. We’re just going to do a couple of shows on the East Coast and a few shows in California. It’s the first time I’m going to be back under a Trump presidency and I’m not fearful but I’m just a bit reticent about doing it because when I left, Obama was in power, and it just seemed like everything was heading in the right direction. It’s the same thing with Brexit, where we were part of Europe, which is the most interesting cultural block of countries in the world and you’re part of something bigger and you’re going in the right direction. They’re trying to change laws on the environment and equality and everything like that to make things better and then you’ve got a load of people that want to change things back again. It feels like a tug of war. It’s a real shame, especially as a lot of it’s based on falsehoods and prejudice. I remember I had this one conversation with my friend. We here in a bar in Soho in London and I said to him, “Wow, just imagine if Brexit gets voted in and Donald Trump gets voted in. It would be like living in a parallel universe. It’s like a Philip K. Dick novel, where we’ve gone down the wrong tunnel.” It’s really quite weird. It’s like a parallel dimension, but maybe this is one that we need to be in to make things even better afterwards. If Donald Trump is the backlash to Barack Obama, then hopefully the backlash to Donald Trump will keep things progressive for the rest of our lives.
mxdwn: The band is going on a short little tour in the near future. Are you guys going back in the studio any time soon?
Ross: Yeah, I know. We did want to make it bigger but we’re trying to pace ourselves a little bit and we’ve recently changed agencies as well. They were a little bit nervous. We told them we can play Chicago and go to Texas. We’ve never been down to Florida. I always wanted to come down and play in Miami and they want us to do a short sold-out tour and it will give them some confidence to go round the promoters and get more offers for next year. After that, we go down and we toured Mexico and then South America. This summer we’re going all over Europe. This weekend we’re going to Prague and then Iceland. We’ve never played in Iceland before and we’re trying to get to a lot of places we’ve never been to. I think we’ve got about 70 gigs this year. In between those gigs we’re writing a new record, which is coming on very nicely and hopefully, we’ll have that finished next year and it will probably come out in 2021. Yeah, there’s new stuff on the way.
Another thing that’s quite important for us is to actually remember who we are and to go home sometimes, and to spend some time with our families and friends because it can be a bit of a whirlwind and you can get a bit lost in it. I think that’s why it’s very nice for Skye to have her husband in the band playing the bass and her son plays drums in the band, so when we’re on the road she’s more grounded because she’s surrounded by people that she loves.