Over the course of The Herbaliser’s 18-year history countless musical trends and fads have come and gone. Through many musical highs and a few personal lows (Wherry’s wife was tragically died in a household accident in 2004 and he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s in 2009), core members Jake Wherry and Ollie Teeba have stayed true to the jazz/rap/soul sound that’s embedded in their collective psyche.
After releasing 2008’s acclaimed Same As It Never Was, Wherry and Teeba took a little extra time to craft their latest opus, There Were Seven, which they released on their own Department H label. Though the beats and deep grooves sound familiar, there’s a curious darkness at the core of the album. We talked to Jake Wherry to find out the story behind Seven.
Jake, There Were Seven arrives after several tumultuous years for you. How are you feeling these days?
Jake Wherry: I’m great, thanks! It’s been a fair bit of work getting the label set up but we’ve done all the hard work now and we’re really happy how well the record has been received. Health-wise I feel great too, though I still have to see my oncologist every few months for check-ups.
What has your relationship been like with music over these difficult times? Did you ever reach a point where you felt as if you didn’t want to or couldn’t carry on with The Herbaliser?
Whilst I was having chemotherapy I took my laptop in and worked out how to use Ableton Live so that I could do a few mashups (which are on our MySpace page) I had to stop touring whilst being treated due to my compromised immune system, but all the way through music was still very inspirational!
“We’ve always had 100% creative freedom and whilst new music genres have been born since we started making music, we’re still about making our blend of hip-hop, funk, soul and jazz.”
Let’s get into the new album. When did it begin to take shape? How did the creative and production process compare to previous albums?
We wrote it over a period of 18 months and it was made from a combination of tracks that Ollie had started with samples and other tracks that I had started from bass lines. I met guy called Pino Palladino a few years back. He lives around the corner from me and is pretty much the number one session bass player in the world, from doing The Who to playing on D’Angelo’s records via Gary Numan and Paul Young in the 1980s. Though I couldn’t get to be as good as he is, he is really inspiring and so I put a lot of work into my bass playing over the past few years and found myself coming up with a lot of ideas. On the last album (Same As It Never Was), we worked a lot more with Andy Ross and Ralph Lamb (The Herbaliser Horns) on the vocal tracks with Jess [Darling], with this new album it was more about Ollie and I doing the bulk of the work. We wanted to return to a darker sound.
When we caught up with Ollie in 2008 here in NYC after Same As it Never Was came out, it seemed as if Jessica Darling would be a member for the long haul. Why isn’t she on the new album?
We’d always wanted to work with a singer and so we finally did that with Same As It Never Was, but we felt that for There Were Seven we could move on and make a different record.
You’ve released There Were Seven on your own label that was used to release Session One back in 2000. Was that by design, or were you both simply no longer interested in recording for other labels?
We have a fanbase and also my studio is fully equipped so with the power of Facebook, Twitter, etc. we felt we could take a risk and do it ourselves. We had to borrow money to setup the label and pay for PR/marketing, but as long as we cover our costs and can do another record, it will be worthwhile and we now know what needs to be done, which should set us up for the future. Running a label can be challenging. What’s the learning curve been like? Do you plan on signing other acts?
There is a fair bit of donkey work to be done — filling out forms, etc. But once we got our people in place it all happened very smoothly. Going back to the last answer, as long as we get our money back then we should be in a position to keep the label going and possibly work with other artists too.
There Were Seven is available on vinyl designed by DJ Food and limited edition vinyl featuring artwork by Snub23, which I’ve read is sold-out. Was pressing the album on wax just something that had to be done?
Absolutely! The vinyl market, whilst small, is still very healthy. Music just sounds better off vinyl played through a decent amp/speakers. I’m sure that’s part of the problem of why music sales are declining — CDs don’t sound anywhere near as good as vinyl and when people are listening to lo bit rate music through tinny speakers on their phones, the music is has less value.
The new release has a much darker sound than the last one. “A Sad State of Affairs” is perhaps a good example of how the edge in between the grooves on this new collection of songs. What inspired the song’s biting lyrical commentary?
We leave the lyrics to the vocalists. But there is an theme running throughout the album, which we briefly mentioned to each vocalist so that they could draw from it and consider it when writing their lyrics. George is essentially talking about his frustration at being put lower on the bill than less talented people at shows and about how manufactured and “fake” so much mainstream music is these days.
Likewise, “Crimes and Misdemenours” is a head nodder in the same vein. Are you performing that song live?
Ghettosocks is out in Europe with us for our forthcoming European tour in December, but as that track features Muneshine as well, we’ll leave it to when we’re in North America for playing live.
You’re currently on tour. How have the recent shows been? Any interesting stories or hijinx to report?
What goes on tour stays on tour!
While listening to the new album it dawned on me how after so many years of recording and touring you’ve stuck to your creative guns, never watering down The Herbaliser’s sound to cater to fleeting trends. How difficult has it been to dig your heels in for so many years?
Not hard really! We’ve always made the music we want to make and have never had an A&R man breathing down our necks telling us to change our sound. We’ve always had 100% creative freedom and whilst new music genres have been born since we started making music, we’re still about making our blend of hip-hop, funk, soul and jazz.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if there were any plans to tour North America.
The album is currently #3 in the CMJ hip-hop chart, so hopefully we’ll get some shows next year. It’s never cheap to bring a big band of seven musicians across the Atlantic so we’ll only be able to do it if we don’t lose money doing the tour.
Given everything that’s happened to you, what’s one bit of insight you’d like to share with Big Shot’s readers?
Keep your chin up and be good to your friends and family — one day you might need them!