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U.K. musical muckraker Trevor Jackson, the DJ-producer behind Playgroup and the much-missed Output label, is back on the scene with a new compilation of underground ’80s club music, Metal Dance—Industrial, Post Punk, EBM: Classics & Rarities ’80–’88 (Strut). As the name implies, it’s a sprawling affair: The two-disc set brims with the kind of beautiful, occasionally grim but always fascinating music—from groups and artists ranging from 23 Skidoo and Jah Wobble to Cabaret Voltaire and Einstürzende Neubauten—that formed the basis for much of today’s electronically-oriented aurals.
Until this album came out, it seemed at though you had been a bit quiet on the musical front for a while.
A bit quiet! I haven’t released an original piece of music for ten years now. I’ve done loads of remixes and some production work, but for a long time I was running the Output and didn’t have time. And then when the label closed down, I really didn’t want to do music, so I decided to concentrate on my design career. That’s how I earn a living. I’ve really been concentrating on the visual side of things. Having said that, I’ve finished ten years’ worth of music in the past few months, which will be coming out later this year.
I have to thank you for naming the compilation after a song from one of my all-time favorite groups, SPK. I can remember dancing to “Metal Dance” at Danceteria here in New York in the mid-’80s.
Certainly, my pleasure. And you’re a lucky man; I only got the chance to read about Danceteria but never had the chance to go. When I was going out and hearing these songs in London, I looked to New York for everything. Of course, people always talk about the Paradise Garage and the Loft. But that wasn’t it for me. I just wanted to go to Danceteria; I wanted to go to the Funhouse; I wanted to go to Harrah. Those were the spots that I was hearing about, and that’s where I wanted to be.
But most of the compilation’s music was produced in the U.K. and Europe. Were there many clubs over there playing this kind of music back then?
In London, as I’m sure it was in New York at the time, there were three or four big clubs and a few more little ones; there wouldn’t have been enough going on to fill up your section in Time Out. But among those few clubs, there certainly were some amazing ones, and the first clubs that I went to as a teenager were the clubs that were playing this kind of music. This wasn’t music I heard on the radio; I was hearing it in clubs.
Did I read that 23 Skidoo played at the album’s release party in London? How did that come about?
Oh yeah, that was amazing. A couple of people from Skidoo have been friends of mind for a long time. We had licensed one of their tracks for the compilation. I was trying to think of bands that were on the album that had members who were still alive, and spoke to them. They said, “Well, maybe, but loads of people have asked us and we’ve never wanted to do it.” But then they gave me a call back, saying, “We’ve thought about it, and we’d actually love to do it.” I purposely didn’t go to any of their rehearsals because I thought it would be a bit of a downer if they weren’t as strong as I remember them. But it was great. They came on and did “The Gospel Comes to New Guinea,” which I didn’t even think was possible to do live, and it was just incredible.
That must have made for an exciting party.
We did it in this great venue called Electrowerkz, where they do a club called Slimelight, a goth-industrial night that’s been going for 25 years or something. The party was really good. It’s very rare in London, just like anywhere else, to get a real cross-section of people—but we had people in their 50s, maybe even 60s, right on down to teenagers. It was kind of like when I first started going to nightclubs, you know? Everything is usually so polarized now, but this was a really good mix of everybody. And I got to spin three hours of my favorite records after the band was done!
I was going to ask you if young people were responding to the compilation, but it sounds as if they are. Were the kids actually dancing to these tunes at the party?
Yeah! Loads of these records are ones that I’ve been playing in my sets anyway; for me, they’re not really records that ever went away. The D.A.F. record [“Brothers”], the Nitzer Ebb record [“Control, I’m Here”], the Portion Control record [“The Great Divide”]…these are things that I’ll slip into my sets regardless of what I’m playing, whether it’s disco, house or whatever. So, for me, they’ve always worked in a dance-floor context.
Unlike a few recent compilations which have mined a similar musical vein, you’ve included a number of songs—like Yello’s “You Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess”—that could almost be considered this scene’s hits.
When I was putting this together, there was a slight consideration that I was being a bit too obvious. You have people like Veronica Vasicka from Minimal Wave putting out these collections of fantastically obscure songs, and I was almost thinking that Metal Dance might get a bit dissed. But really there are a lot of people, including people who have interviewed me about this album, who haven’t heard of any of these tracks. And they thought it was amazing!
Do you feel that this music has a timeless quality to it?
They don’t sound dated at all to me. I think, in many ways, they’re sonically more exciting than a lot of what’s going on now. I do think, particularly with the advent of witch house and that whole Salem-esque thing, that there are people who are beginning to bring industrial sounds into a more song-based flow. And in the techno world, there are people like Regis and Sandwell District who are kind of doing something related as well.
You’ve chosen from a fairly wide range of styles on the compilation, from industrial-edged tracks to somewhat more organic dub-funk cuts. Is there any succinct way to sum up the compilation’s ethos?
Fundamentally, I suppose it’s “alternative dance,” or at least that’s what we used to call it back in the day. It was actually really hard to even come up with a title for it. But for me, these tracks are all echoes of my past. They’re my foundation. For me, they just work together.
You do kind of sum it up in the compilation’s full title.
Yeah, but it’s a quite clumsy title, isn’t it?