Smoove & Turrell interview: We're all just lads off the street
DJ and Producer Smoove spoke to Ben Smith in length ahead of the launch of the band's fourth record Crown Posada.
Last updated: 10th Oct 2016
Image: Smoove & Turrell
A bunch of sharply dressed Geordie lads stirring northern funk music under an album title inspired by Newcastle's second oldest real ale pub, what's not to like eh?
Smoove and Turrell trade in Northern Coal Music, communicated entirely from working man's level. Founding member Smoove tells us it's perhaps the closest you'll get to northern soul movement. Though at the same time, when listening to their new record Crown Posada, it's far from a modern evolution of the sixties sub-culture.
Smoove and Turrell's fourth record is forward-thinking - soul music pushed beyond its usual parameters and bound into one hell of a listen.
John Turrell is the second originator of the band, the man who was inspired to the record title whilst "having a pint as he always is", in the city centre pub.
Whatever John's having, were having. His booming bluesy vocal is truly one of a kind, and very much the spectacle that pins the wheels on the machine.
Before heading out on tour with Soul II Soul in November, there's the small matter of an album launch at Wylam Brewery in Newcastle and a second showcase at Brixton Jamm in the capital.
Ahead of this, Ben Smith sat down with Smoove to speak in depth about the bands roots, the making of Crown Posada, Steven's background in hip hop and plenty more.
Yeah it was good, still trying to recover. It was the full band and I was DJin as well with Craig Charles, it was a good laugh. We spent a few hours in Amsterdam then you come back and do it all again.
Looking ahead to the album release, is this the one you're most looking forward to because it's the most experimental?
It’s the fourth album so it’s a lot of work. We generally take about two years from start to finish, but really the body of it takes about a year. You know, life get’s in the way but you’ve just got to really focus.
Because it’s our fourth album we have a formula that we kind of play by. You don’t want to play it safe and you don’t want to jump too far away from what it is that your fan base like. You obviously want to push boundaries, so it's just about getting a happy medium.
At the end of the day, you can only do what you do and you can only do your best. The reactions been incredible so far. John gets quite apprehensive just before the album gets released. Personally I’m quite relaxed about and I just say well “what’s done is done and it’s in the hands of whoever now.”
When you start getting really good feedback, which we have been recently… obviously we’ve got playlist on Radio 2 and on the morning that we went out on the DFDS cruise, Chris Evans played it on the breakfast show and really give it a big up.
It was like wow, what’s going on here? It’s on the C-list at the minute, but anything could happen from here. or nothing could happen you know that’s the weird thing.
Craig's been playing your records for years on Saturday nights hasn't he?
He’s a good friend of ours. He leaned over to me when I saw him and said, “yeah, i’m not going to be playing that single anymore.” Which is only right because basically he’s played it for like seven or eight weeks now, every single week, and in his live shows as well. People have been texting me saying “Craig's playing your tune!.”
He likes the credit of discovering us, so he’ll now go onto a another track from the album and start playing that. It's cool on all levels you know.
You mention breaking boundaries, how have you done that with this record?
Writing with the band. When we initially started we weren't working with musicians, we were a duo really. That’s how it kind of started, because we were predominantly using samples and things developed further from there, with the musicians we were working with for the the live band to showcase the album. Then we realised the live band was a whole different beast in itself.
I guess all of these years of working with amazing musicians, we decided we should let these guys write music. It was an experiment recording the live drums and a lot of electronica. Mike Porter’s got a load of vintage keyboards, you know the new guitar player has got loads of weird effects on a pedal board so we really experimented with stuff like that.
There's songs like ’50 Days of Winter’ which is all written around a bass line that Andy wrote. It's basically a slap back delay and instantly it sounded something like Depeche Mode would do. As a producer I sort of heard what he was doing when he was writing and said "that would sound great quite stripped back and synthy". That’s us pushing the boat out actually.
When you put it all together you’ve got your northern funk stuff, upbeat stuff and your mellow stuff. When you put it all together and put Johns voice over it, you don’t really notice how different some of the songs are musically. The thing I like with Smoove and Turrell is we can really get away with that, we can really jump styles of music or genres. We claim our own sound because Johns voice masks all of that.
So John’s voice gives you more creative freedom as a producer?
Yes and the label Jalapeño are really good with us, they give us total freedom with what we want to do. Even when it comes down to singles. Generally we just meet in the middle. Obviously we listen to the radio pluggers because we pay a radio plugger to go into the radio station and they have to believe in it as well.
They listen to it throughly and they’ll go, "we think these are the singles and this is what you should do". A few years ago we would have fought them and went "aww fuck that", but then you realise it’s not gonna get you anywhere.
You do have to listen to other people and take advice. Not musically, just more about the market and the business and the industry. It’s a team now, when the whole Smoove and Turrel thing started and it was just me and Turrell, we were messing about and I got us a record deal with Jalapeño .
It’s much more than me and him now, we’ve got seven different agents around the world and the label. You need that to move forward. It’s only when you step back from it and you look at what you’ve got that you realise: this is why the engines work and we’re actually getting somewhere.
It's weird because you can easily feel frustrated one day and go “why’s this not happening, why did we not get that gig or why are we not playing that festival?’. But then you look back three years and you’re miles away from what you’re doing, the goal posts keep moving and it's about keeping yourself grounded. Fundamentally it's our job to write music, but without a team it wouldn’t get out there.
Being from the North East, 'Northern Coal Music' runs deeper than a play on words. Where did it come from?
It's kind of a play on words, but we do identify with it now because although it was a bit of a piss take, if someone asks us we usually say we play soul music. But it's not to say suits, twirls trumpets, we're just lads off the street and that's the way we want to do it. That's where we coined 'Northern Funk' and 'Northern Coal' so now it applies quite well actually.
We're lucky that we do have a healthy following of northern soul fans as it were and they would come up and say you're the nearest thing we've got to northern soul in this day and age. That's a great compliment really.
I know a lot of northern soul heads, a few years ago, went off into funky soulful house music and started taking loads of drugs. I was quite blown away when I found out. They hadn't stopped going out they were just going in different clubs. Now they seem to be coming to our gigs and saying it's so refreshing - it's great.
How did you make the jump from your background in hip hop to 'Northern Funk'?
I didn't make a jump as it were, I was signed to acid jazz. My background before that was hip hop. I used to rap myself and I was a scratch DJ. The whole defied elements of hip hop which is graffiti, scratching, rapping and DJin. There's so much more to it. I lived that life when I was 12 before it came to the UK and I loved it.
I just watched that Rodney P documentary on BBC and it's brilliant because Rodney P is crying when he is explaining how Public Enemy affected him, not in a sad way, but in a joyful way and I was blown away because it was exactly how I felt.
There's a lot of hip hop documentaries being made and they're always shit, but this really gets under your skin. He's a rapper from London Posse you know, so what better person to talk about than someone who's actually fucking lived it themselves?
My background in hip hop was really strong and it was that meets cut and paste music because I was into editing. Pause mixing, as it were, and tape slicing. I got into that when I was really young. Acts like Mars, Coldcut, Steinski... people like that made a massive influence on me and I developed into sampling and hearing music from all different genres.
I was already working with guest vocalists and different singers. Sometimes I'd sample an a ccapella or Bette Midler singing and I'd chop up her vocal which would always make the songs more interesting or it would just sound like hip hop.
So that's were that background started turning soulful, but I was always obsessed drums which is were my hip hop head comes from really.
Meeting John Turrell...
Then one of the guest vocalists that came along was John Turrell and the thing that was different about John was that he could write really quick. I'd play him a loop, or a beat or a section and he'd just start writing straight away. You'd see his hand going and he'd sing it back a minute later and it'd be like right let's lay that down.
Then I'd spend three months on it and I'd have him down. Whereas all the other singers would take so long mincing over words, but John had natural skill. He was quite naive with words, he didn't know terms like harmonies, it was the basics.
And that's what I like because this kid was just going to lay it down and he didn't give a shit. That's why we started writing so much music, because he was singing over all the material I had left on my computer and that's were half of the first album came from.
On Keyboardist Mike Porter...
Some of the musicians who are in the band were also chipping in playing bass or playing keyboards, especially Mike Porter. He's been there from the very beginning, I can't get rid of him you know [laughs]. He's became a mascot for the band with his bowl cut and his crazy stage antics - playing the keyboard with his feet and stuff - is all integral to what we do because it's showmanship.
He's very vintage, he loves old things like analogue, Inspiral Carpets, the whole Manchester rave scene and everything that went with that like the clobber and the fashion. He's very passionate like all of us are, I guess Mikes passion for keyboard is like mine for vinyl.
Do you agree that contrary to the perception there's a lot more going on creatively in the North East than people think?
There's loads of good bands up here, amazing, some making music in their bedrooms and they'll never be discovered. Unfortunately the whole of England has that. The Rolling Stones took blues and their first album was exactly the same, it was just the blues. They took it and twisted it and turned it into their own sound, which become what I guess is rock n roll.
It's not that they single handedly did that, but they definitely had their own sound. It's important and somehow England always has that way with music. They take things and twist them beautifully and make it sound like the UK.
Going back to John's writing, which is largely based on the bands roots and life in the area, what stories and thoughts did you put into this album?
John writes the lyrics and I sometimes chip in on the chorus if I need to simplify things. Generally he writes all the lyrics and instead of saying "We're Geordies!" it's kind of something every working man can relate to it from every walk of life.
There's this line about struggling and generally everyone has a struggle, not everyday, you might be having a stressful day and feel like everything's going against you. He'll write that in his own way and he wants other people to hear it and think he knows exactly how I'm feeling today that's whats touching about his lyrics.
So many bands have throwaway lyrics, it's cheap, it's horrible, it's sickening to hear. You hear songs and think, 'Did he really just make those two words rhyme?' With John it really comes natural, he's a poet you know, it's being clever with words and not just to fit the melody. The words come first, the melody is almost secondary in our music.
I think people who hear the music for the first time don't hear the words and that's the great thing about it. After your fifth listen to the album or whatever, you're like 'have you heard what he's singing?'.
They're usually the longer ones. I spent seven moths on 'Broken Toys', which was a track from the last album. Basically it's like what Fatboy Slim said: the songs you spend longer recording and milling around on are the ones no one cares about. It's the ones that you slap together in a few hours that are your hits what everyone loves. You've got to try and get that balance right.
Prior to this album you went down the route of crowdfunding when you were selected to play at the Canadian Music Festival. How did that turn out?
We got accepted for a place in Toronto for the Canadian Music Festival and we were like 'wow we've been picked for this out of 8000 bands in the UK, or maybe the world...' then we looked at the small print and we had to fund it all ourselves [laughs]. That means taking eight people, flying them out, hotels, food, transport for a full week and we had to hire all the equipment.
We applied for PRS and they turned us down and actually our manager Ema was determined to get us there. I said it's not going to happen. I'm a realist not a pessimist. She asked me if I'd heard of crowdfunding and I told her to give it whirl.
Anyway, after two days we had half of the money and that's when we realised for the first time that we had a real fan base. Since then we've realised we need to give the fans what they want so they can feel like they almost belong to the band. Alot of our fans have discovered us by themselves, or through word of mouth or on the radio. I know what it's like myself to discover a band and it almost feels like a secret, but we can't survive being a secret!
Tell us about your new music video for 'You Could've Been A Lady'?
This time we've went for chin heads. John remembered the advert and suggested chin heads. He said remember the McEwans advert from the egihtes and I was like "Fucking hell aye!".
Basically the camera is upside down and you only see the chin. We've done that and it;s all of the characters in the band. It's canny fucking funny actually. It was filmed quite well, on a proper shoestring budget. I managed to beg and borrow off a bunch of friends. We wanted to keep it simple. We wanted it to look like a good, shit version, you know what I mean? Paddington Bear style!
Crown Posada is released Friday 14th October via Jalapeno records.