Mangled and twisted: An interview with A Certain Ratio

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A Certain Ratio interview

Manchester’s A Certain Ratio put the funk in post-punk. From the release of their ominous first single “All Night Party,” the group seemed to always be in pursuit of a deeper groove, a more freewheeling sound. The band’s early records such as To Each… and Sextet dropped the Factory Records sound directly in the pocket, loosening up their arrangements while tightening their rhythms, with occasional forays into jazz, samba, dub and industrial.

The group even kept up a consistent pursuit of new releases up into the mid-’90s, eventually slowing down their output after 1996’s Change the Station, and eventually cycling the project into a part-time project in the ’00s, still playing gigs but with the band’s members mostly maintaining full-time work outside of music. That changed with the band’s recent spate of reissues and the 2018 acr: set box set, released via Mute, which saw Jez Kerr, Martin Moscrop and Donald Johnson once again on a busy tour schedule and ultimately back in the studio to create their first studio album in over a decade, ACR Loco. The band sounds as focused and funky as ever, employing modern techniques and technologies without losing that rubbery groove that makes them A Certain Ratio. Unfortunately, since live music is on hold due to Covid, the band won’t be touring behind it for a while, but the dates are still on the horizon. They’re ready when we are. In fact, they’ll be performing the album live in a ticketed live stream on Friday, September 25 at 7 p.m. BST, along with a conversation with the band, and a rebroadcast of a 2019 live set.

Ahead of ACR Loco, we spoke to guitarist Martin Moscrop via Zoom about the new music, changing careers and the arrogance of youth.

Treble: What have the last six months been like for you?

Martin Moscrop: We went to Japan in January and left Tokyo on quite a high after doing our 40th anniversary, and went straight into the studio to finish ACR Loco in February, so it started off great. But then the Covid thing happened. So the tour we had planned for October is obviously not happening as planned. We had loads of festivals that we were doing. So yeah, it’s been a really good year because we’ve got a new album out, and I suppose even in the lockdown as well, we haven’t stopped working. We’ve been doing reworks for people. We’ve even started writing the next album.

Treble: In going through the box set and reissues two years ago, have you found that your perspective on the early material has changed?

MM: You do have a different perspective on it. It’s very difficult, as you can imagine, to remember things that happened 40 years ago. Trying to remember things that happened 40 days ago is difficult. It does bring back memories and makes you think about how you came up with those ideas, why we were coming up with songs like these at the time. In a way we’re in a similar position now as we were 38, 39, 40 years ago. It’s our first album in 12 years, we’re producing really strong original music. It feels fresh and new. It feels like we’re a new band. But we’ve got history. So rather than harping back to the past all the time, all those old albums, which are really good—and realized which ones were the favorites and why they were the favorites, which we had never really thought about before—it made us want to make an album that was better than all those. So I suppose it did give us a bit of inspiration but it also gave us encouragement to make something better. What we’ve basically done is, if we analyze it ourselves, is we took 40 years of our DNA, mangled and twisted it up and sent it into the future.

Treble: Do you tend to begin a new album from a similar method or approach each time?

MM: There’s different ways of approaching it. So the songs on the album that we probably like the best are the ones that we started totally with a blank slate. They start with a jam or an idea to do a tune. To give you an example, “Friends Around Us” started with—I’ve got two berimbaus and we wanted to start a song with a berimbau leading it. We captured a bit with us really playing together and we built a song around that. “Taxi Guy” was taken…the original idea was something we saw in 1981 in New York, I think it was at Mudd Club, this jazz artist called Dave Valentin. They started the gig like this, at least I think they started the gig like this. They came out of the dressing room into the audience with cerdos, gogo bells, tambourines, playing this Brazilian rhythm and they snaked into the audience and then onto the stage and started the gig. So from that idea from all those years ago in 1981, when we were doing our 40th anniversary tour, we came out into the audience. We finished the set, and then we came out into the audience playing percussion, a big samba jam. So we took that samba jam we played live and built the song on top of that.

Treble: What was everyone up to during the 12 years between albums?

MM: As you know, it’s very difficult to make money as a musician nowadays. It was a part-time hobby. When we signed with Mute, the deal with Mute was for reissues basically, and as that machinery got going with the reissues, we started doing more and more gigs and getting more of a profile, so I was full-time in education, I was head of campus at Manchester College. Donald was in full-time work. The only one that wasn’t in full-time work that was doing some music was Jez. So we’d taken a backseat musically, and were just doing gigs for ACR, but when we signed to Mute, we also got in touch with an agent so we started getting more and more gigs, getting a bigger profile. So I retired from my job, and that’s how we got to finish the album. So now it is a full-time gig again. But before we weren’t doing anything other than playing ACR’s hits, really.

Treble: You mentioned that you’ve already started work on the next album. Is A Certain Ratio the kind of band that’s always looking toward the next idea, the next project?

MM: A journalist told us a funny story a few months ago. He said the very first gig he ever came to of ACR’s was 1982, and it was a tour promoting Sextet. And he said we didn’t play any of Sextet. We played some new tunes they’d never heard before, which turned out to be the next album. So at the time we were promoting an album but we weren’t even playing it. That’s how arrogant we were at the time. We weren’t even trying to please the fans. Whereas now, we’ve matured a bit and we do try to please the fans. So when we finished the album in February, we wanted to get together in March with the full band, all six of us that play live, and just go in the studio for two days and jam. We just started five ideas and never went more than two takes on it, and we’ve got five really good tunes there from five jams, which will hopefully be out by next year.

Treble: What’s been the biggest change that you’ve observed or undergone since the band started 40 years ago?

MM: Technology plays a big part in that. Going into the studio wasn’t what it was in 1980 or even 1984. The fact that you’re not recording to multi-track tape. You’ve got a timeline, and when you put something in that timeline, you can’t take it out of that timeline. You can, but it would be very time consuming.  Whereas nowadays with computers, it’s very easy to put ideas down and have a certain arrangement in your tune, and think, “no let’s put that bit over there, and that bit over there” and move things around very easily. So you can end up with quite complex arrangements, or you can change songs totally after you put down the initial bed of the tune and the initial idea. It doesn’t have to stay in that direction, whereas way back then, once you’ve started the journey, it sort of had to almost stay in that trajectory. 

Treble: With everything coming to a halt this year, are you eager to get back to playing?

MM: We rearranged our 2020 tour for 2021, so we’ve got a set of dates for 2021. I mean, gigs might not even happen in 2021, we don’t know, do we. If we carry on with leaders like Trump and Johnson, we’ve got no chance. 

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