Jay Shepheard interview: While Shepheard rocks his flocks by night

Mark Dale quizzed Jay Shepheard on his background in the music industry, Berlin life and his productions ahead of his NYE gig in London.

Becca Frankland

Date published: 30th Dec 2015

Jay Shepheard is an English DJ/producer who has steadily made his way through the industry over the last 15 years. He started out working at a music promotions company just before the millennium before accepting a dream job for many a young man, a DJ residency on an island paradise.

After sunning himself and spinning several nights a week he returned to London where he held various jobs including working at a record distributors and a music studios, all the while learning and improving his abilities as a producer during his evenings and weekends off.

His breakthrough came in 2007 when a work colleague sent some of Jay's productions to Munich based Compost Records and they expressed interest. The first track of Jay's they released on Compost Black, 'Pipes N Sneakers', was lapped up by fans and industry professionals alike, and the label craved more of the same.

Jay ended up releasing several well regarded EPs for Compost as well as issuing music on Electric Minds, Buzzin Fly, Freerange and his own Retrofit label, which released his debut album Home and Garden in 2013.

Since his debut on Compost Black Jay has lived in Gdansk, Poland and back in London but alongside his wife and baby he is currently settled into his second spell as a resident of Berlin. We caught up with him for a Christmas time chat prior to his NYE Policy date at Hoxton Gallery, which will be the venue's last ever party.

You used to be a drummer, and you were quite into metal. Which metal bands were you into? Which drummers were you into? Do you think you learned something more about drum programming from being a drummer than another producer might have done if only learning from listening to other house tracks?

I was into quite hard stuff, famous bands like Supultura, Machine Head. Metallica were the main one for me, that era just before the black album. I kind of lost interest in them after that. Guns N' Roses too in the Appetite For Destruction era. I liked Lars Ulrich from Metallica, but I didn't really have specific ones I was into.

I started out playing drums quite young in school bands and it was much later that I got into metal. It probably did have an influence because I studied drum notation and music pretty early. It's virtually the same for MIDI notes and chords and stuff, I picked that up right from the beginning. Also building the structure of songs it helps to know about drumming patterns, fills and stuff.

When I listen to some American house music, Kenny Dope is a good example, the way he programs the drums he seems to try and emulate a drummer, it has a swing to it that I sometimes don't hear in a lot of European house music. Is that something you'd identify with?

Yeah, I think so. All of my early records were quantised towards 100% swing, most of the Compost stuff. Some of it might be down to some of the equipment used also, I know famously the Akai machines had a really good swing function on them. It's pretty likely that's what Masters At Work would've been using at their peak. 

A lot of your stuff sounds more like it's inspired by America than Europe, you can hear a disco influence.

Yeah, a lot of people actually thought I was American before I met them if they'd booked me for a gig. Also in a lot of the early online interviews I did people thought I was American, because of the music.

What was the music PR company you worked for? What was your role there? Has that experienced informed in any way how you operate at Retrofit?

It was called Reverb, I guess it would have been 98/99 when I worked there. That was my first job in the music industry. I started out for them pretty much being a dogsbody for them, making tea, packing promos, addressing them, carrying them to the post office. It was mainly press so I was mainly dealing with magazines and radio, not DJs.

After a while I was promoted to junior press officer, which was basically the same but with a bit more responsibility. We worked mostly with labels, so people like Compost, Chilli Funk, Roule, a lot of stuff from France actually, Bob Sinclair, Phillippe Zdar. We also worked on the launch of Fabric. 

It's definitely informed what I do at Retrofit because up until that point, I'd just been collecting records, being a bedroom DJ, maybe playing at a bar for friends, but I only saw the outside of it. After Reverb I saw how labels were working from the inside, pressing, distribution, PR and I also got exposed to a tonne of music I wouldn't have been exposed to.

That's when I really got into house music. Before that, after metal, I'd gotten into drum n' bass and some of the bigger electronic bands like The Prodigy, The Orb.

I hadn't heard a lot of proper house music until I got there and was introduced to things like Glasgow Underground and other stuff we worked with. I was only there for a year and a half but I learned a lot about the music industry from it. 

After that you went to Cayman Islands. I always associate the place as a bit dodgy, a tax haven. Did you see anything dodgy out there underneath the veneer of beach based paradise?

I don't want to talk too badly about it, it was cool. It was a good thing to do, but it's not really a musical destination. There's the tax haven thing, yeah, so there's a lot of wealth there and it's very Americanised as well. There's a lot of corruption.

It was all European employees at the place where we worked, that was their USP and it turned out that one of the investors was also on the board of immigration. None of us had visas or were supposed to be there, they'd slipped us through the net and we found this out a couple of months into being there.

We worked out at that point that we were kind of stuck, we couldn't leave because we didn't have the right stamps in our passports. There was quite a bit of stuff like that going on. 

When you returned to London one of the jobs you had was at the studios where the Atlantic Jaxx material was being produced. For me that was perhaps the most creative and the most underground period of their production careers. What memories do you have of Basement Jaxx musical output in that time? Did they have any influence on you?

I wasn't working directly with them, I was working more with Mutiny who were in the same studios. It was 100% hardware studio then, so it was pretty good for learning, being around an analog desk. I did get to hang around with them a bit and I used to go to their nights in Brixton.

That early series of 12”s from that label were really good, some of them I still play now. There's a vocal one that I can't remember the name of and 'Fly Life' and a couple of those bootlegs they did from that era.

How was living in Gdansk? How did you cope with the language barrier? Was that the first and last time you lived by the sea? Did you think that living by the sea had a different feel to living in a landlocked city like Berlin or London? Did the city have any impact on the music you made in that period?

It was cool. There wasn't that much of a language barrier. I found most of the people under 30 spoke pretty good English. Everyone had learned English in school. When the Wall came down I think all the school books suddenly changed, people stopped learning Russian and reading that Stalin was a great guy. The next year they were learning English and had a completely different history. There was a real divide between those generations. 

I liked it, but there's not much of an ex pat community there, which I did start to feel after a while, although I was travelling a lot so it wasn't like I was always there. I was kind of hibernating while I was there, writing lots of music.

Before going there I'd been in work full time, writing only in the evenings and at weekends, so that was the first time I'd gone full time with music. I was in the zone. All of the Eps I did for Compost, after the first one, were done there. I think there were 3, all with 4 tracks on each. Also the Buzzin Fly release was done there.

I'd also lived by the sea on the Cayman Islands obviously and although I grew up in London, I'm actually from Suffolk on the east coast, a tiny village called Waldringfield and there's an estuary right there so it was nice to go back to something like that. Similar climate too.

We actually lived in Sopot which is just outside Gdansk, with the beach on one side and a forest on thee other, so it was nice to go from zone 1 London to something like that.

Home & Garden is intentionally a home listening album. Why did you want to make one of those when the sound associated with Jay Shepheard was previously a clubbing soundtrack? What particular artists or albums were you trying to emulate or were influenced by in that specific project?

I'd always enjoyed writing quite a bit of downtempo stuff, a lot of the B sides to my earlier records were 105 – 155 bpm. Some of it was still dancefloor orientated but I'd always like home listening stuff too.

I just found I had a fair amount of this stuff gathering together and I thought, rather than put them on the B side of a 12”, it would be nice to make a full length album for listening at home instead. These days, the way everyone earn their money from travelling and doing gigs, not studio work, it's pretty easy to get into a routine of only making tracks that you're going to play out.

You test them at the weekends and if you make something that's 105 bpm, you're thinking "when am I ever going to play it". It was nice to try and break away from that and focus on something else, let it go naturally wherever it was going to go rather than try and push it towards club tempo.

It's difficult to say what influenced it. Probably from the disco side it would be things like Lindstrom and Prins Thomas. A lot of the albums I used to listen to, things like Orbital. I was into all their albums up to Insides. That was my main initial experience of listening to electronic music in album format. 

After Gdansk you went to live in Berlin for a year, but then you returned to London for two years. Why did you do that? What made you want to come back to London? Why did you not just stay in Berlin? What was it that you missed about Berlin (or what had changed in London) that made you ultimately make the decision that you would move back again to Berlin?

There were various reasons. By that point I'd already been living abroad for two and a half years and I guess I was missing friends, family, that kind of thing. My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, was really struggling to find work here. It wasn't a problem for me, I can work from anywhere but she got an offer to work back in London so we went there.

I don't know if I'd have gone if it had been just me, but it turned out to be a good move because I ended up meeting a lot of connections in London that I hadn't had before, like the Electric Minds guys who I subsequently ended up working with.

Moving back was something we'd been thinking about for quite a while. I'd been thinking that I'd quite like to come back and my wife got a job offer here, so we thought let's do it. London had just become a bit difficult, prices rocketing both in terms of buying somewhere and renting and it was just a bit hectic. In Berlin things are a little more chilled out, it allows you to have a bit more freedom.

Do you see your current home in Berlin as a permanent base or could you see yourself moving again and living somewhere else?

For the time being I'm happy here, we've no immediate plans to move. I spent five years moving around a fair amount. I have quite a nice set up here, a decent studio, so I'm happy to stick around.

I'm going to Lisbon for a month in February to escape the Berlin winter for a bit, I have a friend who lives out there so I'll take a mini studio out there and get a change of scenery for a while. That's another good thing about Berlin, it's that much more flexible, it allows you to go away and do something like that.

Shepherd's pie is a traditional English dish. Can you get it in Germany? Can you get any pies in Germany? What's your favourite pie? What's the food like in Berlin? Where and what do you like to eat?

Shepherd's pie, yeah, I love it. I make a pretty good one myself. In Germany I don't think you can get that. You can get similar things but not an exact Shepherd's pie. I don't even know what they do here pies-wise. I quite like steak and ale pie.

I like the square pie company in the UK, they sell pies at festivals and stuff. Chicken and tarragon, that kind of thing. German food? It's alright. There are some things I like and others I don't. I'm not really into the breakfasts they have here, a platter of cold meats, cheeses, boiled eggs, fruit and hard, brown bread. It's not quite as comforting as the standard European or English breakfast.

But schnitzels are good, I quite like Bavarian food, it's pretty hearty. It's quite similar to English, meat and mashed potatoes, gravy. There are a load of good Vietnamese places here to eat. I heard that was something to do with the old politics of communism and loads of Vietnamese coming here after the war. There are a load of good places in Kreuzberg where we like to go.

You're playing Hoxton Gallery on NYE at that venue's last party before it is repossessed by Network Rail. I know they had a similar issue with Stuttgart's train station expansion encroaching on one of the city's beloved club spaces.

In the years since the wall came down Berlin has also lost some of its club spaces due to rent increases, gentrification. How are things in the city currently? Are club spaces in Berlin protected and assured a place in the centre of the city? Do you think Berlin does that in a way London does not?

Is Hoxton Gallery the same place as the Hoxton basement? If it is I actually played there on New Year's Eve before, about five years ago.

I'm not entirely sure about things here, but it's thriving as far as I can see. There's just so much stuff on all the time and a lot of it is full all of the time. I'm constantly hearing about new venues opening up.

Gentrification is obviously happening here but I don't think it's near being at the advanced rate it is at in London, I think partly because Berlin is so less densely populated and there's a lot more space and empty space here. I've heard various stories that such and such a club will be closing in so many years, but there are loads of other ones popping up.

I think the governing bodies treat it pretty serious here in terms of it being part of the tourism industry. I don't know the exact ins and outs of the laws surrounding it here, but things do seem to be easier for nightclubs here rather than in London.

What's next for Jay Shepheard and Retrofit?

Quite a lot of new stuff. I had a kid nine months ago but I've been working hard in the studio. I want to get back to doing three or four EPs a year, catch up with my release schedule.

I've been doing a few collaborations again, which is something I did in the early days of Retrofit but haven't done for a while. There's one coming out with Pete Herbert, there are two tracks finished for that so far.

There's another one with this guy Kito Jempere from St Petersburg. He's someone I've been working with for a while at my gigs there and we've finally decided to make some tracks together. I have a solo EP coming out on Galaktika, which is a label from Barcelona which some friends of mine there are running. A few remixes, one for Tusk Wax, one for Catz N Dogz. 

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