Louder Than War’s Carl Stanley recently caught up with Rob Birch of Stereo MCs. The result was a fascinating and wide-ranging interview which covered both Rob’s and the Stereo MCs past, present and future. Over to Carl to introduce the piece …
Rob Birch of Stereo MCs is still going strong. Both he and they continue to blow ’em away with performances which manage to transcend the years and generations and prove they’re one of the greatest live indie / dance shows on the circuit today. With songs like Get It On, Creation, Ground Level and the immortal groove of Connected, backed up by a catalogue of music which stretches over ten album releases (including Deep Down & Dirty and Double Bubble) they carry on rocking out shows and festivals right across Europe.
I caught up with the band’s singer and producer Rob Birch as he took time out from the MCs tour schedule to talk about a range of subjects ranging from the group’s history and his personal stand out moments to the group’s latest material and releases. He also fills us in on his thoughts about live music and the festival scene today, as well as the special re-release of Connected (vinyl only) and much more … carry on reading after the break to find out what Rob Birch had to say to Louder Than War.
HI Rob, how’s things? The Stereo MCs are pretty busy touring and playing festivals right across Europe right now, such as last month’s LInzfest in Germany for instance, do you enjoy playing the Euro shows and for you, what’s the biggest difference between the crowds on the continent and in the UK?
Rob Birch – Hi Carl, I’m good thanks. We’re busy with some live and DJ gigs at the moment, that and some studio time. And I’m balancing it with being a dad!
We love doing shows in Europe especially to Bulgaria , Austria and eastern Europe where audiences are very enthusiastic – that’s probably the main difference from the UK which has an excess of high profile shows and audiences aren’t as hungry for music.
Connected has just been reissued hasn’t it, on several formats … it’s an album which still gets an amazing reaction today, especially at the big shows. What are the big tunes live and do you include the newer tracks in the set, like from albums Emperor’s Nightingale and Double Bubble?
Yeah Connected has just been re-released but vinyl only – in a few months Universal are releasing a CD box set of all our albums to date with remixes and previously un-released tunes and a few new ones. We still play Connected, Ground level and Creation and some tunes from On 33 and Supernatural, as well as more recent stuff like The Here and Now and new material.
We re-interpret some older tunes but not too drastically and we perform remixes of others like the left-field mix of Step It Up. Somehow the new and old all bond together and install life into each other and with new tracks you enjoy the challenge, whilst the older tunes allow you to settle into a groove.
This September 14th The Stereo MCs are back sharing a stage with The Happy Mondays at Heartlands Fest, Cornwall. Do you feel the two groups kinda came from the same place whether it be in attitude, approach or with the music?
I reckon we came from different places, but our paths met at one point cause we both were / are influenced by the phenomenon of dance music and culture and shared the attitude that came with it -slave to the groove – there is a degree of respect held because of our musical values that disregards where we come from.
The Stereo MCs in fact caught rave reviews from those Happy Mondays tour shows where you also supported them in the US, reportedly blowing them off the stage and going down as the best act on the night … but what was it like when the Mondays and The Stereo MCs came together, on and off stage?
It was very cool playing with the Mondays – most main acts restrict your soundcheck / give you limited use of the PA / things like no toilet in dressing room or no food, but the Mondays (like U2) were totally cool and saw the gig as a whole and wanted us to sound and feel good and let us have everything we required. People may say stuff about those gigs, but that was only towards the end when the Mondays hit their sticky patch and Connected was taking on a life of its own.
To me they were always the Mondays gigs and I am grateful for all of them as they were great shows and I think a good combination.
Off-stage there was never any time to kill, we were all just cool with each other, got some rest and on to the next town – people don’t realise how taxing it is to tour but, honest, if I partied after every show I couldn’t have coped with the schedule and it’s the biz that matters !
It was also outside of the band where you and Nick built up your names as producers, putting remixes together for the likes of U2, PM Dawn, Madonna, Jungle Brother and Queen Latifah. You also picked up a Brit award and took the honour of being the first British group to break the USs R&B chart with a UK hip hop tune (Elevate My Mind) … but looking back on your time with the band, what do you consider to be your proudest moments or your biggest achievements?
One of the most thrilling moments was waiting backstage at Barrowlands in Glasgow ready to perform and hearing the packed audience stamping their feet on the old wooden dance floor singing the into to Connected, it was a feeling I can’t express, the biggest high I ever had, electricity making my arm hairs prickle and my whole body feel light and charged – pure warrior charge bizniz! As a musician I tend to not look back at what we’ve done, I concentrate on the present works and how I feel about them. I guess at the time I was pretty dismissive about the awards and stuff but now I kinda think it’s quite cool that we did something that a lot of people were into and what was most moving was when someone approached you in person and say how your music helped through troubled times, or even in the conception of their first child!
Anyhow, my kids kinda dig it and maybe it gives them some motivation. Sometimes I hear a tune I haven’t heard for ages and it surprises me and sounds far better than I remember it.
These days, we finish a DJ set or a gig and you just know when it’s been good and you get a deep sense of job satisfaction and fulfilled potential, which after 20 odd years, I feel kinda good about whether it’s for 2 or 20,000 people.
What are your thoughts on recent comments about Glastonbury questioning whether it’s still an inspirational music festival, important for live British music, or whether it’s just another event taken over by commercialism? Also, remembering that Stereo MCs 93 performance which went down as a Glasto classic, what are your thoughts as a whole on Glastonbury, “the festival industry” and live music generally in the UK right now?
I dunno bout all of that, to me a gig’s a gig and a crowd is either hype or ‘Deadstock’. In the early days of Woodstock and Hendrix it was a revolution in music which has inevitably, through success, become part of the establishment because anything that turns coin will. Personally I find some of the smaller fringe festivals particularly vibrant because of the love that’s put into them and the attitude is more independent rather than that of a huge machine. I think we should maintain all the old live music venues that we have left cause they have proper vibes in them and have more venues where young bands, DJs, producers and rappers etc. can grow their talents live. Performing is a great thing and it keeps you fit and healthy.
The changes since the 90s are phenomenal in terms of the net, club culture, selling music, the music industry itself and so on. You and Nick Hallam started up Gee Street Records on a shoestring and for some time managed to just get by making and releasing your music. So how do you feel when you look around at young artists coming up today Rob, you think you would have been able to still do it under today’s circumstances?
It’s love of music, motivation, desire, commitment and ability that pulls you through, so you make the best out of your situation whatever that maybe – if I’d been born in the 90s why should I behave any differently, except that the general veneer of the landscape has changed? The fundamental truths remain – make a good tune, get out there and work it.
Actually, checking back on Stereo MCs 2008 album Double Bubble, with tracks like Joy, it sounds a little bit like something that could of inspired what Kasabian are doing now with tunes like Eze, or am I way out with that?
Dunno man … dunno what those guys listen to … every tune has a predecessor and ain’t nothing new just reassembled … if anyone got a charge from my own efforts I’m humbled.
The last Stereo MCs album though was Emperor’s Nightingale, love that electro sound to it, there are some really good tracks on there like Levitation, Bring It On and Manner. What are the sounds which are inspiring you today, in and out of the studio?
We got an old MPC 2000 and are getting off on its groove right now, trying to make earthy house music … we’ve been DJing a lot and want to absorb the more underground dance scene and become less song based.
How about groups and artists about today, what are you diggin’ at the moment, do you get chance to check many new acts out while you’re on the road playing the Fests?
It’s a mixed bag going from way back tunes and unreleased mixes of stuff like the temptations to Moody Man, Kink, Daphni, Terranova & Me, Eats Everything, radio slave and Theo Parrish and on… festival schedules are pretty tight so not often.
So what’s happening right now regarding new material, I bet you’re always in the studio whether it be for Stereo MCs or other artists / bands and projects?
We just released a limited edition 12″ of a tune called good feeling – remixes by Terranova (stream above) and Mr G that you can check on Soundcloud and of course buy on beatport! We’re also working on new sounds and opening our minds…
Lastly Rob, what you lookin forward to the most in the remaining year, any particular shows or events?
A tour in the winter for the live band and some good parties to DJ at – our next gig is a festival in Vienna and I’m looking forward to hooking up with the Happy Mondays again soon.
The band’s website is here: stereomcs.com.
All words by Carl Stanley. You can find more writing by Carl on Louder Than War at his author’s archive.