Frontman of legendary Factory Records band A Certain Ratio, Jez Kerr talks with us about recording with Jonny Marr and Bernard Sumner, the band's upcoming FAC51 Hacienda show in Manchester and the infamous Grace Jones story...
10th Oct 2019
When the name 'A Certain Ratio' is mentioned, many will remember one or all of the following things: a band of cult status who first released on Tony Wilson's Factory Records; Steve Coogan's portrayal of aforementioned Tony Wilson, introducing the band on stage at the Hacienda on the film 24 Hour Party People; the funk-ridden, minimalistic post-punk gems the band have released over the years and/or the Grace Jones vocal track that never came to be...
The highly influential, genre crossing band have enjoyed and successfully maintained an underground stance since the eighties, recently celebrating their 40th anniversary in the industry. As of late, the quartet have seen a resurgence, striking a chord with younger audiences and receiving citations from emerging acts, such as Manchester's Narcissus.
Having recently returned to touring and performing on the summer festival circuit, much to the satisfaction of the bands hardcore following, the bands largest Manchester show to date looms just around the corner, at the new 10,000 capacity Depot Mayfield venue on Saturday 12th October. We got in touch with current lead vocalist, Jez Kerr to find out what A Certain Ratio have been up to and to get some clarity on what actually happened with Grace Jones.
Hi Jez, how are you? What have you been up to?
Jez Kerr: "I'm in Manchester at the minute, we've been rehearsing over the weekend for a little stint in Europe we've got coming up in a week or so. We are also currently making plans for our Warehouse Project show with FAC51 The Hacienda this Saturday."
You’ve recently celebrated 40 years in the industry, since you released your first single ‘All Night Party’ through Factory Records back in 1979. Is there a secret to A Certain Ratios longevity in the business?
JK: "The lack of success! No but seriously, I think we've been really fortunate. Being on Factory Records was a huge help. We were left to develop on our own without having the pressures that would usually come with being signed to a major record label. We were never hounded to provide results and sell records. It wasn't really like that at Factory, Tony Wilson really believed in us, the way that Rob Gretton also really believed in Joy Division. We were just left to our own devices, to write music and develop our sound.
"We were pretty technically deficient at the start but that didn't really matter to Tony. He liked what we were doing, he liked the vibe of the band and knew that we were different. We didn't have a drummer for the first year. I think all that played a big part in keeping the band together. It's good to have someone on your side, giving you the confidence and creative freedom that you need, especially when just starting out as band.
"More than anything, I would say just the passion for doing what we do. We love making music. We're always moving forward, thinking of our next move."
To mark the bands 40th anniversary, you released a comprehensive, back catalogue box set in May via Mute Records. It features over 20 unreleased singles, b sides and alternative versions, including a cover of Talking Heads ‘Houses In Motion’. How long did it take to build and rework the old demos into the box set, and was the process a difficult one?
JK: "Well, Mute records (who A Certain Ratio are currently signed to) have been releasing bits and pieces of our back catalogue over the past 3 years. They've re-released about 11 of our albums. The boxset was something new though. It contains some new tracks as well as some old singles and b sides we never released, including pieces from Barry Adamson and Chris Massey, which have recently been released on the Dirty Boy/Shack Up EP. That was also released as a limited edition 12".
"Mute have done a great job with the artwork on the releases they've put out. The sleeves, designed by Trevor Johnson, are really the only image that people have of the band."
"We all love Grace, she's a great performer. It's a shame we never pulled it off."
You’ve also recently released the Dirty Boy/ Shack Up EP, which contains some previously unavailable mixes. One of the tracks that especially caught my eye was the remix of Shack Up by post-punk supergroup Electronic, made up of Jonny Marr of The Smiths and New Order frontman Bernard Sumner. How did that remix come about?
JK: "Johnny Marr had a house in Boden, he had a studio where we recorded shack up along with some vocals on 'Wont Stop Loving You'. I think that's where we also did the remix for the track. A&M records, who A Certain Ratio were signed with at the time, really wanted us to release a remix of Shack Up. There were a few others we recorded that have never been released up until recently."
I’ve read that tapes from a recorded session for an intended collaboration with Grace Jones were also included within the box set, but that Grace Jones never actually completed her vocal take on the track. Is there a story behind this and did you ever try to reach out to Grace again before the release of the box set?
JK: "Yes that's right. The Talking Heads - Houses in Motion cover. When we left factory they gave us all of our masters back. No money, but they did give us everything we had ever recorded. When we went through what Factory gave us we came across the Houses In Motion tapes, including the version that Grace Jones was intended to sing on. We thought it was great. It was really loose. It took us a while to overdub and edit but we kept it as close to the original recording as possible and I think we did a good job of it.
"We did try to reach out to Grace again, just recently in fact but I don't think she was up for doing it. We all love Grace, she's a great performer. It's a shame we never pulled it off."
You’ve been touring across the UK this year, performing at festivals such as Greenman Festival and at Gilles Peterson’s inaugural We Out Here Festival. You’ve also held your own mini, 2-day festival at Manchester’s live music venue - YES. How does the live scene differ nowadays from when the band first began performing live?
JK: "Greenman Festival was fantastic. We have all loved and enjoyed every show we have played this year. It was good to play some festivals again. We always give it everything. A big part of what we do is our live set.
"As far as audiences go, some of best shows we've played have been to smaller crowds. We played a show in Dublin not so long ago to around 100 people but the atmosphere was crazy. Everyone there knew all the tracks and the vocals, some of them knew the backing vocals! We've had a really great crowd at most of the shows we've played this year. It's when the audience reacts, that's what gets us all going. The the crowds energy.
"We've also had a mixed crowd wherever we played as of late which has been nice to see. We're used to seeing 50 - 60 year old, balding men in the clubs. They're the guys that have been with us since the 80's. There's no escaping those guys. A Lot of young musicians are coming out to see us. I still think we appeal to wide range of ages and tastes."
"When ecstasy arrived in the city, that's when the club really took off. The rise of bands such as the Happy Mondays and the birth of house music just took things to the next level. It really came alive."
Has there been a stand out show, for positive or negative reasons, whilst you’ve been out on tour this year?
JK: "The mini festival we put on at YES in Manchester has got to be the stand out. We did three sets over 2 days. It's a great little venue full of creative people with the same passion for music. Now Wave, the promoters who organise events at YES, are really great guys. Their events are really eclectic and showcase some fantastic acts. Music is at the forefront of everything they do.
"One of the owners of the club Daniel Crouch, he put us on 20 years ago at a club called Felt, we got talking to him about our 40th anniversary and mentioned playing a show there. He was pretty keen on the idea, he's the reason that the festival went ahead. He was definitely the driving force behind making it happen.
"The festival was excellent. We were joined on stage by some of the original members and played some tracks we haven't played in a long time, such as 'Winter Hill'."
A Certain Ratio are due to perform at Manchester’s newest large event space - The Depot, Mayfield as part of the FAC51 Hacienda takeover, alongside the likes of Soul II Soul, David Morales, Graeme Park and many more. What are your memories, if any, of the Hacienda?
JK: "I went to Hacienda when it was empty, for the first 4 years. It was like our own little club it was great. Obviously not so great for New Order who owned it, they weren't making any money at the time.
"I can remember when Tony Wilson first took us to the club when it was a Yacht showroom. He took us down to have a look one day, before it opened as the Hacienda, and there was all these fucking boats there. I remember being pretty confused at the time. But his idea was to bring the clubs of New York club to the centre of Manchester. You could that the space, once the boats were out, would be great.
"When ecstasy arrived in the city, that's when the club really took off. The rise of bands such as the Happy Mondays and the birth of house music just took things to the next level. It really came alive. Before that, no one really went. It was just musicians that went down to watch other bands."
Who do you feel was the best act you ever saw perform at the Hacienda? Did you have a preferred resident DJ or act?
Jk: "Trouble Funk, a go-go band from Washington. They were really great. I saw a lot of great bands at the Hacienda but they were definitely the best. They really stick in the mind, they played for 2 hours solid and the drummer never stopped. They were amazing.
"The Cramps were also a highlight!"
A Certain Ratio started out as a post-punk act before moving towards a more funky, ‘James Brown on acid’ type of sound. What is your take on the current resurgence of punk and post-punk in the mainstream? Are there artists in particular that you’re especially a fan of?
JK: "There's lots of new, young bands who are doing there own thing, just as the original rock n roll and punk bands did back in the 70's, creating original sounds, writing and performing with like minded people.
"Personally, I'm a big fan of The Orielles. I played a gig with them years ago, back when Henry the guitarist was 9. I've kept in touch with them. It's been nice to watch their development. I love their attitude towards music.
"As for the rest of the band, they would say Sink Ya Teeth. They're a two piece from Norwich, they've supported us on a couple of shows. They have loads of stuff thats coming through. Hopefully they'll stick at it as long as we have!"
Final question - do A Certain Ratio have any plans to write and release new material in the near future?
"We're in the recording studio as we speak. We'll more than likely finish recording in January/February next year and we're planning a release date in the autumn of 2020. Keep an eye out for more live dates coming soon."
Disclaimer: The article above has been contributed by the event promoter or somebody representing the event promoter. As such we take no responsibility for accuracy of the content and any views expressed are not necessarily those of Skiddle or our staff.