For 30 years Trevor Jackson has worked at the forefront of audio and visual culture. Whether it’s designing record sleeves, remixing some of the biggest records of the time or putting out his own music, his unique and challenging approach has won him many fans. We were invited into his home to talk about his living space and how it effects his work.
GH: So you’ve lived on this street for twenty years? It’s a bit of a clichéd question, but how has it changed?
TJ: Since maybe 98/99? That’s quite a long time! It’s changed so radically. Actually, because here I’m closer to Islington, I don’t think Islington has changed that much because it had already gentrified quite organically over a period of time. In Islington you have such a mix of different people, and yet it’s quite harmonious.
GH: I believe you got rid of all your possesions? How did that come about?
TJ: Yeah! I was in my apartment for thirteen or fourteen years, a massive space but I was kind of unhappy there. I think I had just broken up from a relationship too and I had a neighbor who was a nightmare. He was a paparazzi photographer who was coked out of his brain all the time living beneath me. It was a nightmare and I was just sick of the whole thing so I rented the flat out because I wanted to travel for a little bit. I put all my records, equipment and books into storage. It was quite a lot! When you’re shifting 50,000 records and probably that again in books it’s a lot of weight. So I just travelled around with a laptop and a suitcase.
Above left: Herbert Bayer Olivetti Print, Karlheinz Weinberger photograph, Robert Rauschenberg Talking Heads poster. Above right: Paul Rand IBM redux print & Andy Warhol printed tablecloth for the Rolling Stones' 'LoveYou Live' album launch.
GH: Is that when you came back and started working on this space?
TJ: I decided I needed a home so I found this place and it was an office and it looked horrible, and it wasn’t that expensive. People couldn’t necessarily see the vision for it. I spent probably about eight months ripping a lot of stuff out and re-designing it.
GH: What are your perceptions of space in your house?
TJ: The old apartment I was living in was too big, I actually felt lonely. At times when I wasn’t particularly happy it felt worse! That period when I was moving around a lot, my best friend passed away. It was a bad time and I actually felt more comfortable staying in a room by myself than I did in a huge flat. When I was in big spaces I actually felt a bit freaked out so I think space can have a really powerful affect on you. Here, I’ve got the right amount. It feels cosier. Everything in my house I have a connection with, I don’t have any superfluous stuff in my life. All the records here, I can pull out anything and remember exactly where I bought it. Everything I keep in my life I have some kind of connection with, even with clothes. I’m always bugging Joe in the store because I only ever wear these Neighborhood jeans, washed ones. They’re bloody expensive but I’ll wear them every day for a year and they’ll last me. The older you get, refined isn’t the word, but when there’s more and more stuff going on in your life, having less choices around you is actually quite relaxing, you know? If I went to a cupboard and had 25 pairs of trousers I would be like fuck, I’ve got other things to think about. In terms of my relationship to objects, it’s quite important.
GH: Are you a hoarder?
TJ: I’m not a hoarder because I think what I’ve got here with me now, every single thing in this place is essential. I went through everything and got rid of everything I don’t need. That was kind of my mentality. The only problem is I haven’t got rid of a lot yet because I need time! I mean my office, I’ve got so much shit to get rid of. I just haven’t had time, but I’m not holding onto it because I want to, I want rid of it! I’m not a hoarder in that way, it was quite cathartic putting stuff in storage and realizing I don’t need that stuff. I’m a collector, not a hoarder; records, books, ephemera; artifacts from the 20th century. Cultural artifacts; either artists and designers that I admire or cultural movements. I collect things I have an emotional or cultural attachment to; I don’t collect things to become a part of something.
Above: Alan Jones 'Deluxe' poster, Barbara Kruger New Order poster & John Lennon & Yoko Ono poster.
GH: Do you think the process of getting rid of stuff is influential to the way you work?
TJ: My work is my life and my life is my work. I don’t work a nine to five, I don’t have a boss and I’ve never had a proper job in my life apart from in a record shop as a teenager. My office and my studio is an extension of here, but it’s a bit more ‘me’. I live with my girlfriend now so I want her to feel as comfortable in the space as I am.
GH: In your work, how do you go about merging audio and visual elements, with Playgroup for instance? How did you end up on the front cover of the album?
TJ: I’m a control freak, so I just want to do everything. I don’t want someone else doing a video for me and I don’t want someone else doing my artwork because I know I can do it myself. It’s not some deeply symbolic relationship or an egotistical thing, it’s purely because I am capable of doing all these things and I enjoy it! People ask me which do I prefer more but it’s all the same thing to me. Creating and coming up with ideas is what my life is all about, it’s the backbone. For me, my visual work when it comes to music is enhancing or visually representing the music. That’s what I try and do. When you’re digging for records, I can see a sleeve and know whether it’s going to have a beat or a break on it. I’ve taught myself that over thirty years or something. Pre-Discogs and pre-internet you’d go places and have to take a punt because they had no listening deck, so you really had to hone your skills.
I would like to think most of the record sleeves I’ve designed, if you picked it up you would have a good idea of what the music will sound like inside. Peter Saville for instance had never heard the music before he designed Unknown Pleasures. At the time of the Playgroup album there was a lot of ‘intelligent dance music’; Warp stuff, Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, and they were all very anonymous. I just wanted to be a Giorgio Moroder-esque super producer, it was kind of ironic and it was meant to be funny. It was anarchic but that was kind of the idea.
GH: What’s that process like for you? Do you get a piece of music, switch all the lights off, close your eyes and visuals come to you?
TJ: It’s not just the music; it’s the actual personality. Normally I only work with people I like anyway, and I try and get into their head and have a rough idea of what their influences are. I try to use elements of things that they like in what I do, so that they’re going to like it! There’s no point going to an artist and giving them something that they can’t even relate to. For me it’s about listening to the music, but at the same time listening to the artist.
GH: Visuals in music died a bit with the proliferation of digital music, would you agree that now it's almost the opposite?
TJ: It’s come back more because it’s a content thing and people need content. Having still images almost doesn’t work; people want something moving. The whole live aspect, the audio-visual thing has become a huge phenomenon because who wants to just sit there and watch a DJ playing or watch a guy on a laptop.
GH: How has the advent of technology changed your working life?
TJ: I get most of my work by hooking up with people, or over the phone. I’m one of those people who would rather pick up a phone and talk to people. I hate emails. Most of the work I’ve ever got has been through someone I’ve known. The reality of the situation now is that it’s about being in the right place at the right time, and who you know. It’s sad but true, but you’ve got to have the talent to back it up. I’m a huge fan of physical technology; I grew up designing with photocopiers and using stuff called rubylith film. All the early Champion sleeves, rave and Hip-Hop stuff were all hand done. I remember the first time I had a computer and a printer; I was like oh my god! Everything before that was done in quite a complicated process, actually making photographic prints of graphics you could cut up and tippex, then reshoot and photograph. I used to have a little dark room in my studio, and that has gone now. You can’t get the fluid or anything anymore.
It’s important to me a lot of the time now when I do design work that I still print stuff out and re-scan it back in, even subtly. I want things to exist in the physical realm. Musically, when I’m doing things on the laptop I will drop it out onto tape, or put it through the desk, just so I know that at some point the process has actually existed in real life. That’s both visually and sonically for me, and something I do all the time. Digital distortion is quite interesting, but analogue distortion is beautiful. It’s beyond interesting and for me there is a real beauty in physical analogue distortion. Even though it doesn’t necessarily obviously appear in my work, a lot of my work might have that element in there somewhere.
Playground 'Previously Unreleased' album sleeve artwork.
GH: A lot of your work is monochromatic…
TJ: This is the weird thing because my early work never used to be, it was always colourful. I’m colourblind; I am red/green deficient so most of my work is either primary colours or black and white. It just happens that a lot of my work has been monochrome over the past few years because I went through a process of trying to make things as simplistic as possible. In fact a lot of my early work would be duotone because there wasn’t enough money to do four colour jobs, so I would print things just in two colours. I would try and get as much as possible out of two colours and that was pre-digital printing. It’s funny because I’ve recently finished putting prints into my office and it’s just full of colour. I’ve now realized I think that’s probably going to have an effect on my work this year and I’ll start going back to doing colour stuff. You can’t get more direct than black and white.
GH: If you’re producing a piece of music or a remix, where do you start?
TJ: In my head! The truth is I haven’t made new music in so long. I’ve just released this Playgroup album, which is like thirty tracks from 16 or 17 years ago. I’m in the process of releasing a load of old music. The idea is to get all the old stuff done and finished and then start making new music. I’ve done a load of remixes but haven’t actually been making my own stuff. It’s the same as when I’m designing, I try and get into someone’s head and work out the kind of music they’re into and flip it and do my own thing. My main thing is to make it better, or at least as good as the original, otherwise I don’t do it.
GH: What equipment do you use to produce music?
TJ: This is all gear that I’ve collected over the years. I did have more but I’ve kind of got it down to all the stuff I need. Some of it is super rare and some of it is fairly inexpensive. This one here is a LM1, which was the first drum machine to have sampled drum sounds. Roger Linn made these in his studio and every early Prince record used one. This is number 12 and I think there was only 25 or 50 that were built by him. Some people have huge studios with tons of gear but I think I’ve got one of all the stuff I need now.
Above left: Original early Kraftwerk live poster, Roland 100 Synthesiser. Above centre: Allan Ruppersberg print. Above right: Dennis Morris photograph of John Lydon & Big Youth in Jamaica.
GH: How are your records organised?
TJ: Genre and label, I pretty much know where everything is. I am slowly going through old stuff to sell on Discogs. There are probably at least 20,000 records here.
GH: Do you listen to music on any other mediums?
TJ: I listen to music on every medium really. Even though physical is important to me, 95% of my NTS show is digital because most of the new music I buy isn’t on vinyl. People experimenting that can’t afford a vinyl release. There is so much amazing music being made that’s on different formats.
GH: We found it interesting on a recent trip to Japan that a lot of shops were selling cassettes.
TJ: Cassette culture is big again, definitely. There are a lot of people that don’t want to do vinyl, as cassettes are cheaper. Doing a vinyl release is an investment. You can probably sell as many cassettes as you can a record nowadays.
GH: Coming back to your work is there anything that stands out for you as a highlight of your career so far?
TJ: I did a show at the Imax in 2007, which was probably the highlight of my career because I love cinema. To be able to do a piece of work, and to hear it on that big sound system and see it that big was pretty amazing. I was also really happy with the work for Liam Gallagher and his band Beady Eye. Everyone hates the band but I worked with Harry Peccinotti on it. I licensed an old image he shot of his wife from Nova Magazine, and aesthetically I was so happy with the image and the typography. I’m proud of that and the Soulwax ‘Any Minute Now’ album.
From left to right: Beady Eyes' 'BE' album cover featuring Harry Peccinotti photographs, Soulwax's 'Any Minute Now' album cover.
GH: I remember around 2003 the posters were everywhere in Soho.
TJ: The posters were fucking crazy, I remember that was a hard sell. When they were around Old Street I stood there for a few hours watching people walk by them! With the Soulwax thing, Dave and Stef from the band were so culturally aware. Their understanding of visual language is up there, I understood there aesthetic completely; I did about eight different concepts. My whole thing at the time was if people walk down the street and read a poster, unless they’re a fan of the band, they have no connection with that. It’s just like…more data. To create something that is graphically interactive is a really powerful thing.
GH: How did you make the artwork?
TJ: It was very simple so I don’t want to say [laughs]. It’s a very simple technique but I had to change it for every format; 7”, 12” and CD. Richard Robinson and myself probably did about thirty or fourty different variations of each format. For the CD it had to be viewed from maybe three or four feet away to work, whereas the twelve inch had to work from six or eight feet and posters from maybe twenty feet. It took a hell of a lot of experimentation to get that right! But yeah, that project is definitely up there.
As well as records and books, Trevor's collection of Undercover pieces is special.
GH: Does London influence your work, and if so, how?
TJ: I think London nightlife had a huge impact on my work early on. Massive, fundamental. I started off working in Dance music, albeit Hip Hop, House and Techno. The social aspect of that was really important, but that’s changed for me because a lot of the clubs I used to go to were in the West End. That was interesting because when you have a club in the West End you have people coming from everywhere in London, but now everything is so East London. I don’t mind, I go out in East, but you don’t necessarily get the people coming from all over London anymore.
GH: Where do you go out and about in East London?
TJ: I go out to eat more than anything, I don’t really go out ‘go out’ anymore also because I DJ so much. All the good clubs have gone, but I like Oval Space a lot. The diversity of London is hugely important. I grew up with every single race under the sun, and for me growing up my inspirations were Hip-Hop and collage; Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, artists that dealt with either visual collage or sonic collage were interesting to me. So being in a city which is a real diverse mix of everything, sound and visual things, that really was hugely inspirational. The older I get, I certainly value peace and nature, so that is hugely important, and the subcultures of London too. I’m really proud to be a part of NTS, although I’m like the oldest one on the station [laughs], but that is such a diverse mix of young people and all different types of music. I go to NTS parties and they are the closest to going to parties in London when I was younger. So, that again really feeds into my creativity, and the pure wealth of everything from food, art, dance, and music; there’s so much. We’re spoilt with culture in London, more than probably any city I know. That’s why I still live here! Probably when I’m older, I’ll leave London. Purely on a property value thing, I would love to move out of London and build my own house. Build my own house by the sea, which would probably cost me half the amount of money it would to live here! Not the outer Hebrides or anything, somewhere that is a fairly decent commute into London. Balance is pretty important.
Five Records for Home Enjoyment
Listen to Trevor's five ideal albums for listening to at home below.
From top left to bottom right: Emahoy Tsegue - Mariam Guebru, Dekruit - Debruit & Istanbul, Zazou Bikaye CY1 - Noir Et Blanc, Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here, Paddy Mcloon - I Trawl The Megahertz. Click to listen below...
You can purchase Playgroup 'Previously Unreleased' here and see more of Trevor's work here.