Jay Shepheard has seen his star rise in recent times, having found a nice little niche with Munich-based imprint Compost back in 2006 (and their Black Label series in particular). His early productions, which touched on the deeper fringes of house and tech house, drew plaudits from all directions and secured him remix work for the likes of Buzzin’ Fly and Dirt Crew. In 2010 the London bred producer (and former Juno employee) returned to the English capital after spells in Berlin and Sopot (near Gdansk in Poland), and also launched his own label, Retrofit. Juno Plus editor Aaron Coultate sat down with Jay for an in-depth chatting of cheese about the concept behind Retrofit, making friends in Berlin and a DJing career that has taken him from Mexican food stands at Glastonbury to the Cayman Islands.
Let’s start with the early years – how did you get into electronic music and production?
I was probably in my mid teens when I first heard electronic music – a lot of people were listening to the Prodigy, and I remember hearing them, then Orbital. I think Orbital was the first electronic act I really got into and I bought all their albums – they were a major influence. Soon after I remember going to a few house parties and seeing people DJing. It seemed quite appealing and cool, so I started buying records. My sister was involved in the rave scene in the mid 90s and she was recording a lot of hardcore off the radio. After hardcore came jungle, and that’s when my sister’s influence stopped playing a part really, because by then me and my friends were getting old enough to go into the clubs ourselves. Then a mate got Cubase on his Atari and a Yamaha sampler, and I used to see him fucking around with loop CDs and thinking it looked pretty fun. So I got this Emu sampler – the cheapest one you could buy – and Cubase for my PC. I started programming beats, but it was ages before I made anything that sounded like a track, let alone something in the style that I was into. Actually it took me ages to even figure out how to even get any sound out of it at all (laughs). But slowly, by trial and error, I got into it.
Were you DJing at this stage too?
Yes, I remember a friend of mine used to run a Mexican food stand at Glastonbury and they had a sound system attached, quite a good after hours place. I played a gig there with them, and that was really exciting for me, I was probably 19 at this stage. The same guys invited me to play in Nottingham, which probably qualifies as my first proper gig at a club with a decent crowd and soundsystem. Around this time I also got a job as a runner for a press company called Reverb in Brixton, so at that time I started learning about the good labels, and my musical tastes moved on quite a bit. The garage sound was coming in, and I found that I was more comfortable with a 4×4 beat, so I spent most of my time in the garage rooms, and got into the Todd Edwards/US side of it. Then at Reverb we were doing press for labels like Roule, Atlantic Jaxx and Chillifunk, so that was my first real taste of house music. Also through Reverb I got hooked up with a DJ residency in the Cayman Islands. I sent this guy a cassette in the post with a mix and he got back to me and offered to fly me over for a six month stint. I was about 21 at this point…
And how did that pan out?
It was an experience (laughs). I think the guy who initially booked me had this vision that it was all going to be deep house but really the rest of the investors just wanted people in there, so I ended up playing Now 42 CDs every Wednesday. It was my only real experience of having to adjust my artistic integrity for corporate reasons (laughs). After that I came back to London and got a job in the studio. This as just before computers got fast enough to use in the studio, so I learned a lot on analogue desks. Shortly after that I bumped into an old friend of mine, Russell Davies, who’s now got his Cinnamon Chasers project amongst other things. He was all digital when it came to production, and he showed me the new style, the new way, and that was a massive leap for me, going into that. It meant I could work on numerous projects at once and easily switch between things. It wasn’t long after that some of my tracks got signed to Compost.
“In the Cayman Islands I ended up playing Now 42 CDs every Wednesday. It was my only real experience of having to adjust my artistic integrity for corporate reasons”
How did you get your start with Compost – you seem to have built a good relationship with them?
Well I hadn’t been proactive in terms of sending demos out – I was just really into it as a hobby. I had started working at Juno and I had a bunch of tracks sitting on my hard disk, and I gave them to the guy who was doing the buying from Compost, and he passed them onto (Compost label boss) Michael Reinboth. They had just started the Black Label series but I didn’t really know anything about it. I’d seen one or two of the releases and I used to be massively into the label with Jazzanova and that stuff. I got an email from Michael saying they were interested, so I put together what I thought were my best tracks and sent them over. The first EP is, for me, still quite memorable, and I think the reason for that is it contained the best tracks from loads of material I had written from late 2004 to 2007. After the first EP, I put together a second release for them. They also knocked a fair few things back, which was good because it set my quality standard from the beginning, and I got good constructive criticism on my music. You need to get used to people telling you why they like your music, and, more importantly, why they don’t like it.
Your productions seem to touch on a range of styles. Many producers confine themselves to just one niche sound or genre – is that something that you’ve ever given much consideration to?
I certainly didn’t set out thinking this is how I want to produce stuff, it really just happens, I don’t know why. These days I sit down and think I want to make something more housey, but pretty often it doesn’t work out that way (laughs). The track gets a personality and takes over. You find it may actually sound killer at 110 instead of 120, and vice versa. It’s pretty rare that I’ll say I want a track to sound like this, and that’s how it will turn out.
You lived in Berlin for a year or so. How did you enjoy your time there?
Musically, it was really good for me. Previously I had been living in Poland with my girlfriend, where we had moved from London in 2007. It was good for both of us, I was working in my studio and she was studying. I was starting to get bookings to play around Europe and it was good to get out of London for a bit and focus on doing music full time with no day job. In Poland there were one or two decent venues there and a few other mates who were into what I was into, but I was fairly isolated from what’s going on – obviously I was keeping up with things online but it’s not the same. When we moved to Berlin it was quite an eye opener. I think these days Berlin is actually pretty diverse, there are a lot of disco parties going on, there’s a dubstep scene, and of course house and techno. So I was right back in there and spoilt for choice. Also at that time, I was learning how to make my music better suited to playing out, how to get more crunch and make the sound tougher, and being out in the clubs helped me to identify where I need to push up various sounds in the mix. I made loads of connections there, and on a personal level I made some great friends too.
It sounds like you’ve had interesting experiences living and producing in three very different European cities – where have been your favourite places to play?
There’s been a couple. I quite enjoy playing all different kinds of venues. There are some big ones, like the Secretsundaze in Barcelona for Sonar this year which was really good, a big outdoor space with maybe 1,000 people there. On the flipside I played in this spot near Manor House in north London a few months ago. That was almost the complete opposite, it was very small, like 200 people basically in somebody’s house. Those gigs usually have an amazing atmosphere and great sound system. I did this outdoor event on the Hell Peninsula, tiny strip of land near Gdansk in Poland, where club promoters take over a beach bar for a couple of weeks in summer. I guess another memorable was some the Girls And Mathematics in Budapest, which happens once a year by this big lake, in a building used for visiting dignitaries during the communist era. It hasn’t been used since the 70s so it’s all overgrown. It’s small, about 300 people, they put on a BBQ and the party kicks on for 24 hours. It’s You meet loads of people at the small venues and it’s really personal.
“To do an album of mostly mid tempo music really appeals to me and, and I’d like to create something that flows nicely and you can sit at home and put it on with your friends after a night out”
And what spurred the move back to London?
As much as I loved Berlin I had been away from London for two and a half years and I thought it was time to move back. I have lots of friends here.
How have you settled back in?
I think as a person I have changed a bit in my time away. Before I moved away from London I used to be going out, caning it all the time (laughs). That’s not really the case now, although that’s probably because I’m travelling a lot on weekends and when I’m working I tend to keep a lid on it. One thing I’ve really enjoyed about being back in London is spending time with friends outside a music based context, because in Berlin that doesn’t really happen. But I love both cities a lot, and when I’ve been in Berlin for several months I think about London, and vice versa. It wouldn’t surprise me if we go and live in Berlin again, possibly next summer. At the moment it’s pretty easy to pop over once every month or two to keep up with things.
You recently launched a new record label called Retrofit, tell me about that…
It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and I planned to launch it as soon as I had a decent enough profile. I have strong ties with Juno having worked there for many years, so they are doing my distribution, and it has just kind of gone on from there. The primary reason is to have a project where I have control over the creative output and no one is asking me to amend something or saying this track is not right or whatever, which in a way is risky because, as I said, I do like getting that constructive criticism, it’s a safety net. But it also means that my output is filtered by other people’s tastes. Now I have a bit more experience I can back myself, and I also hope to do that with other people who release on Retrofit. I’ve got quite a few friends producing music who are not that well known, and I’m quite up for using what profile I have to give them a little boost. Hopefully the label can bring them to the next level, and I’d prefer that to signing a remix from the flavour of the month, which I guess is quite a standard formula for new labels.
You’ve collaborated with Glimpse in the past for a couple of tracks. Do you prefer to produce alone or can you see yourself doing more collaborations in the futures?
We’ve been talking about doing something else together for ages, but we keep missing each other. It’s quite absurd, because all the time I was in Berlin we were talking about it, and I’ve been back in London six months and we still haven’t sorted anything out (laughs). In general, to be honest, I haven’t found it that easy to work in the studio with other people. I like it when people send me something, I’ll work on it and send it back, and vice versa. I’m a little bit stuck in my ways in the studio, so I need someone exactly on the same wavelength. That’s probably not a good thing – I should be a bit more open to other people’s ideas, but I just have a direction I tend to go in.
And you’ve got a solo album coming out too is that right?
An album is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and I’m confident that my music will lend itself well to the album format, because it tends to be on the melodic side anyway, especially the mid tempo stuff. To do an album of mostly mid tempo music from 105 to 120BPM really appeals to me, and I’d like to create something that flows nicely and you can sit at home and put it on with your friends after a night out. I’ve been busy with gigs and remixing and paying the bills, plus starting my own label, so I need to get my head down and crack on with it.
Interview: Aaron Coultate