20 Years of Phat – An interview with Sounds From The Ground
by Mike G, April 22nd 2014
Nick Woolfson and Elliot Morgan Jones are UK ambient dub act Sounds From The Ground. Formed in 1994 and enduring well beyond ambient dance music's first big wave, they talk to Ambient Music Guide about their 20 years together spent deep in the groove.
Sounds From The Ground - now there's a band name that actually means something. Nick Woolfson and Elliot Morgan Jones make some of the richest, most dynamic and bass-heavy downtempo on the planet. They are pioneers of an exotic style of chillout that some call ambient dub - first championed by defunct UK label Beyond Records in the mid 1990's and continued to this day by Beyond's sister label Waveform Records in the USA.
Although dub in its original form is the tripped-out instrumental flipside of reggae, there is quite often no overtly Jamaican flavour in Sounds From The Ground's music. The dub element is often more in the recording techniques - slow motion loops, echoing reverb and phat, lovingly-rendered bass that rumbles, slides and snakes its away around the room with enormous presence. The duo's tuneful widescreen panoramas are wound together with muscular rhythms and big, crisp drum loops that sometimes have a tribal or ethnic edge.
2014 is the duo's 20th year together and finds them quite amazed to be getting as much pleasure from music-making now as they ever have. They spoke with AMG about the journey.
AMG: How did the two of you meet? Were you both looking at the time for a musical partner to spark off?
NW: We met in 1994 through another musical partner I was working with at the time called Mark Shimmon [dance music aficionados note: Shimmon & Woolfson were responsible for blow-the-roof-off hardtrance anthem "A Way Of Life"]. Elliot dropped in to say hello to Mark and we got chatting about our various musical projects. Elliot mentioned that he had an idea for a downtempo track and wondered if I would be interested in helping him with it.
EJ: Nick and I had the same background in composing, label management and putting on parties and club nights. My field was more the psychedelic, electro and dub scene. After a couple of releases I had a demo of the track "Triangle" and we set about working together. We found we clicked in the studio and Sounds From The Ground was born.
NW: Musically, we seemed to be on a complimentary wavelength. It seemed natural to mix Elliot’s dub and downtempo leanings with my production skills and musicality.
AMG: The first wave of ambient music to come out of the electronic dance scene was at its peak back then. Lots of labels producing quality chillout: Beyond, Emit, Rising High, Fax, Silent Records, Instinct Ambient. What are your memories that time?
NW: I came from a studio background and at first was totally immersed in the house scene. I was in the early stages of running my own label Jamm Records and developing my studio and sound. So I wasn't really involved in the dub and chillout scene. That was more Elliot’s domain. But once I got going...
EJ: I'd been involved in the electronic scene and chillout rooms and there was a lot of great music being released around that time. Lots of places to hear it, too - clubs like Megatripolis, Quirky in Brixton and Clubdog to name a few.
NW: I loved the depth and lack of musical restrictions of the genre. There was a feeling of anything was possible back then and there were no boundaries. The technology, freshness and drugs made for a heady concoction and labels like Beyond and Rising High surfed that wave. We were all like kids in the sweet shop. It was definitely an amazing creative period, especially for us as we were particularly skint then, clubbing a lot and living on our wits. I guess that heady burning of the candle at both ends just couldn't last and sadly some labels fell by the wayside as that time passed.
Signing to Waveform Records
AMG: Can you tell us about your relationship with Waveform Records over the last 20 years?
NW: We released "Triangle" as a single in 1994 followed by our first album Kin in 1995 on Ziontrain’s label Universal Egg. It was through that release that we met Mike Barnett of Beyond who signed "Triangle" for his Ambient Dub volume 4 compilation and then to Waveform for their A.D. compilation series. We thought it would be good to speak to Waveform and see if they would be interested in releasing Kin for the USA. That was the start of our relationship with label founder Forest. He had a huge radio connection in the States and we went over to San Francisco to promote the album which did really well for us.
We had a bit of a break for a few years to concentrate on our other projects and finally got together to write our second album Mosaic and we again asked Forest if he would like to release it in the US, which he did and in the process added a couple of different tracks and renamed the album Terra Firma. Although we decided to go with the Nettwerk label for the 3rd album Natural Selection, it wasn't the right place for us. We did pick up a lot of TV and film syncs but we didn't feel comfortable there and were more than happy to return to Waveform.
AMG: It's interesting how all the labels I mentioned earlier were gone by the late 90's. What do you think brought on the demise of Beyond Records?
EJ: We've seen a lot of people come and go over the years. artists, labels and distribution companies. I can't recall how Beyond came to be no more, so it would be wrong to speculate.
NW: I guess the fire went out somehow. I'm grateful to them for introducing us to Forest at Waveform Records, as that gave us a foothold in the USA which has been our main fanbase ever since.
AMG: Why do you think the relationship between yourselves and Waveform has endured?
EJ: It works because we both bring something to the table and we've developed a good understanding between us. We're free to produce the music we want.
NW: Forest is cool about giving us artistic control and we seem to have a good understanding of the boundaries, which works well for us all. We've also been able to release albums on our own imprint Upstream Records in tandem with Waveform.
AMG: Just how important has America been in sustaining the band?
NW: America's been very important. We've always had a huge amount of radio support there which has been great for us and that has really helped build up our fan base. These days there are no boundaries as the internet, Youtube, streaming and downloading transcends borders. We seem to pick up sales from every continent. I love the fact that we sit in our studio in a North London garden writing music which then goes all over the planet and finds itself in some of the most obscure corners of the world. That's very satisfying.
On dub and divas
AMG: Elliot, you were into dub music early on. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to the the style and its techniques?
EJ: From about the age of 9 I started to discover the old 7" singles owned by my uncle and aunts, upbeat ska tunes like "Phoenix City" by the Skatalites and other classics on Blue Beat and Trojan Records. It was one of the first styles I picked up on and the rhythm and vibe left a lasting impression. A year or so later the 2 Tone movement started in England and brought a new energy. Then I came across heavier dubs by Lee Perry, Scientist, Mikey Dread and stuff out of King Tubby's studio in Jamaica, which you could say cemented my musical foundations. The whole meaning of Sounds From The Ground was to have big bass to hold the tunes and Nick and I writing together to give it a modern twist.
AMG: A lot of dub acts - past and present - seem content to either stick with reggae-flavoured baselines and melodies or strip it right back and stay very minimal, more purist. To my ears, you guys have gone much further. What is dub music to you?
EJ: I don't think we ever set out to be a strictly dub act. We have so many musical styles to draw from - chillout, hip hop, funk. Dub to us gives us the platform to strip a track back and treat various elements. Tracks like "Restless Dub" show how you can create a different feel to an existing tune.
NW: Dub is just one of the many genres that have been the soundtrack to my life and musical career. I've spent so much time since my teens in studios writing music or out gigging that actually listening to music was something that happened haphazardly. So I wouldn't class myself as a collector or avid listener. I guess the reason we go further musically is because we are not traditionalist. My influences are far broader than just dub which is reflected in my share of the input in SFTG.
AMG: SFTG experimented with using guest vocals occasionally, on the Luminal album for example. Can you talk about that side of your work?
NW: We seem to have let that side go a bit in recent years and I'm not really sure why that has happened. Maybe we're more self-contained these days. Personally, I love playing with vocals and they definitely bring an extra dimension to some tracks.
EJ: Having a decent vocal can be a great addition. It doesn't always work and will end up getting shelved, but when it fits, a vocal can transform a piece of music. We're always interested from hearing from vocalists worldwide.
NW: We've been lucky to have worked with some fantastic singers and samples and I love taking what we are given and playing with the vocals creatively. Sometimes that has meant chopping up and/or adding numerous effects to create a sense of emotion or space. I particularly enjoyed working with Colein on "Lean On Me" as she had such a fabulous sounding voice but she only gave us very few lines to play with which she actually sang over a different backing track. We dropped that backing track and wrote "Lean On Me" instead and the challenge was to create the song out of the little we had to work with. Another vocalist we worked with was Taz Alexander who did "Beautiful Feeling" and "Move On" for us. Both tracks worked really well and her voice and lyrics totally complimented our musical style.
AMG: What SFTG album are each of you most proud of, and why?
EJ: It's hard to pick out one in particular as all the titles represent a time in our lives. Kin will always be up there, as it was our debut. Brightwhitelight is another standout release, but all of our albums have some favourite tracks in them.
NW: My personal favourite is Brightwhitelight. It was written during a period of intense personal and emotional difficulties for us along with some horrendous technical difficulties. For some reason the tracks have a really strong sense of poignancy for me. I remember flying to California with my family after we finished recording and listening to the finished album on my iPod and hearing that emotion clearly. I am very proud of Brightwhitelight. Of course it goes without saying I like them all, but that one just sits a bit higher for me.
20 years on
AMG: What excites you about ambient/chillout/downtempo music right now? Any faves?
EJ: I don't follow the other artists in our genre too closely. I was a lot more in touch with the 'scene' when I was DJ'ing at festivals regularly. I enjoyed the Warp Technique album when it came out and I like Pitch Black from New Zealand.
NW: I'm listening to Aybee at the moment which is a modern take on slower tempo experimental electronic music. I like to hear what other styles are popping up musically. I also do other music projects and like to incorporate and cross pollinate between my more club-based projects and SFTG. Always learning I hope!
AMG: Finally, can you tell us what's in store for SFTG's 20th year?
EJ: We're currently in the studio recording new material for a vinyl-only release. We'd like to get into composing soundtracks for short films, too. Who knows, we might even do a live show.
NW: We may release the album as a download album later but haven’t made our minds up. We know there's not a huge vinyl market but we wanted to do something different this time, make a statement, and we see the album as a collectors item. 20 minutes a side on 180 gram vinyl with a cool sleeve. We don’t have any plans to manufacture CD’s. We've have used a lot out our old synths and machines that we used 20 years ago on Kin as well as new technology and have created a really warm analog-sounding album. Some really great tracks are emerging. Forest at Waveform also wants to put out a best of SFTG compilation this year as well. We haven't had a compilation out since 2000 with Footprints, so we're well overdue.
SFTG music & reviews
- All Sounds From The Ground releases are available from the band's website.
- Read AMG's overview of the band's best album's here.
- Read AMG's overview of Waveform Records here.
Introducing Sounds From The Ground: essentials for newbies.
Kin (1996) - The debut album immediately marks the pair as artists with exceptional melodic gifts. Listen to "Triangle" as just one example of their ability to build and layer multiple lines with the kind of finesse summoned by Berlin's old-school ambient pioneers.
Mosaic/Terra Firma (1999) - The duo expand their horizons and succeeds in everything they try their hand at. "Marshmello" is a piece of 21st century jetset lounge that wouldn't sound out of place in a James Bond film, while the creeping grooves of "Bodega Bay", "Drugstore" and "Rye" explore a kind of brooding emotional twilight that's neither happy nor sad and yet utterly compelling.
Luminal (2004) - A finely judged, wide-ranging blend of darkish instrumentals and guest vocal tracks. "Move On" with its vocal by guest Taz Alexander is grungy trip hop par excellence, while the closing instrumental "London Fields" is the unfolding, euphoric magic of sunrise after a night spent on the dark side.
Widerworld (2012) - Neither of its time nor out of it, this is SFTG doing what they do best: crafting groovy, beautiful, trippy grooves and panoramas with original twists.The folksy guitar figure on "Fields Of Green And Yellow" is stunningly pretty, while the huge, dark, lumbering ethno-dub of "Darswana" is positively terrifying.