Blue Amazon are the epitome of what I remember ‘Progressive House’ to be. The genre name was coined back in 1992 to describe what Dom Philips writing in Mixmag called a “…new breed of hard but tuneful, banging but thoughtful, uplifting and trancey British house…” We caught up with Lee Softly to discuss remixing Madonna, his label Convert Recordings and DJ Culture.
Hi Lee, lets start at the beginning. Its the early 90s, you and James decide to start making music together. You met at Beaumont St Recording studios, but what was the back story?
I attended a short course at Beaumont St studio called “Introduction To Music Technology” James was working there at the time as a trainee recording engineer. I was fascinated by what I saw with sample technology and music / midi sequencers at the studio at the time. Basically James encouraged me to book some studio time and work on some ideas with him. Initially there wasn’t a project name for what we were doing rather just me bringing ideas to try work on. The funny thing was that James at that point wasn’t even into club music. The various influences and ideas brought into the sessions is what eventually made the BA sound.
For those too young to remember, tell us about dance music back then. Underworld, Sasha, Charlie Mays group Spooky the list goes on… it was an exciting time. The British scene was really vibrant.
The early 90’s and throughout the whole 90’s was a really creative and exciting time for British club music. We had passed the rave scene and were taking fewer influences from US house music. This new outlook to British music saw the likes of Just Robertson, Sasha, Underworld, Dave Seaman, John Digweed emerging, spreading influences in their music & DJing. We had a lot ethnic vocal type samples mixed with driving edge bass lines, dynamic builds / drops in the arrangements. More and more clubs were getting on-board with the sound and essentially this new music movement. Clubs like Renaissance evolved boasting their own DJs like Ian Ossia as well as the name guests. DJing was very creative with the name DJs forging their identity with unique mixes or mashups as called now. DJ mix CDs were starting to get released rather tapes sold in shops. It was growing rapidly without anyone knowing what the outcome would be and from different sources of influence the same thing was happening in Europe. People who followed the scene would chase to find out all the titles of the tracks the DJs played and would be cueing up in record shops to buy them.
Around 1991 house music or Rave began to be played commercially. As a DJ back then, how hard was it to get people into your vibe? Did you have to make sacrifices to keep the crowd happy?
Around that time I was quite young and more of a bedroom DJ who got to play out here and there whilst learning studio recording. I actually used to play a bit of the old school break beat stuff myself, like 2 Bad Mice, Cleptomaniacs, Positive Feedback etc. A little bit further down the line and after releasing music as Blue Amazon it was kind of expected that I would play similar music to what I was recording, so not so much of an issue.
And now? Are the crowds more receptive to where you want to take the music, or is there still some trepidation?
I find younger crowds or avid followers of the current prog, techno or tech house scene don’t seem to mind what you play too much. Sometimes I find the followers of the 90’s prog scene think that current music is a bit too hard or minimal. It’s all changed so much so you have to keep moving forward but occasionally I will play an old school set.
You eventually were signed to 7pm Management, who Sasha and his uber engineer at the time, Tom Fredricks were signed to. The track which sparked their interest was the amazing ‘Four Seasons’. You must have felt great when DJs started supporting it, but what was it like in the beginning sending demos and getting knock backs?
Initially we were sending out tracks to Warp Records who did always come back to us with good feedback but ultimately around 93 they decided that they wanted to move more towards Techno and Ambient releases, unfortunately we didn’t fit into that.
We actually sent our first release “Four season / The Runner” to Stress Records as well but we didn’t get much back from them.
You obviously wonder if your music is good enough or you will get a chance but being at a young age without much responsibility you don’t let it stop you. We were friends with vocal house act called “Shiva” who had just signed a management deal with 7pm and passed on our tracks to them. 7pm came back to us said they were thinking of starting their own label – Jackpot and we could be the first release. In the process of this Paul Oakenfold / Perfecto also showed an interest in releasing Four Seasons / The Runner but we decided it was more exciting to be part of something new with 7pm / Jackpot. Regarding the support the first release received it was all UNexpected for us…we had no idea or expectations as to what might happen.
That of course was the catalyst and your careers went stratospheric from then on. You got signed to Sony and released one of my personal favourite tracks, the excellent ‘And then the Rain Falls’. The original version is some 17 minutes long and for me really demonstrates what progressive house means. How do you go about writing a track that long?
I think we took too much LSD and thought we were recreating Jeff Wayne’s War Of the Worlds!! (joke). I think some of the music we recorded back then and in particular that title, we thinking it’s more of a listening experience.
We were trying to make music starting with a build to some kind of energy, a drift in the middle and an outro almost like a story..
I used to think of recording music back then as almost like each track was a mini DJ set with intro /builds and outros. This obviously left us open to a few pokes and jibes about our tracks being as long as a DJ sets…..which I always thought was funny.
Your studio back then must have been a hardware enthusiast’s wet dream. Do you have any favourite pieces you’ve kept and has your studio changed much?
The studio used to look like “Vince Clarke’s” studio bunker with wires and cables all over the place. I have various bits / pieces of hardware from back in the day and still really love the Clavia Nord Lead 1 and the Juno Alpha 1 Keyboards. The studio now is basically Protools based with lots of software synths, FX etc with little bits of outboard hardware used on occasions. Although it’s all moved on I do still prefer the results of the old school hardware over digital/software.
Probably your most well known track ‘No Other Love’ is another favourite of mine and introduced me to a sub genre of Progressive house; the short lived ‘Epic House’. Can you describe for our readers what Epic House was like.
Epic house was the idea that you could record a track that would almost be a journey through different elements and emotions. Starting with an intro building to something groove based and layering new music elements which would take the track to another idea moving on from what you had just heard. It was almost like you made a track based on four or five main elements. Moody intro, driving club section, emotive build, break down building back grooves and tail out euphoric outro. Like 3 tracks in 1.
In your time you and James have remixed some pretty big stars. Madonna, Seal, New Order, Inner City, Blackgrape & Placebo. How do you approach a remix? Do you go into the studio with a definite idea of what you want the record to sound like?
Most of the time we would just get the vocals from the original track synced up a tempo we wanted to work with and then start playing around with bass line ideas under the vocal. We never really started with any pre-defined direction. A lot of the direction would depend on the vibe we got from the vocal and playing with ideas around it.
I remember when we remixed “Skunk Anansie Twisted” we were waiting for the vocals / parts to arrive from the record company and they were arriving days late. So we just started playing the original version of song from vinyl and trying to work out what might fit with it. It was kind of a mad approach of putting ideas down for the remix whilst you still had full on rock drums pumping away etc but it worked out well.
In the 90s there were a few artists whose records were instantly recognisable; Tony De Vit was one, as was Sasha, BT and yourselves. How do you keep that consistency? Did you ever feel tempted to start side projects for different sounds?
We just started to develop our own style / sound gradually and keep developing it with influences we picked up on the way. It was a building process of adding some ideas and removing some you wanted to move away from. I was always looking for new improvements or additional elements etc. Above all you have to set your own standards and compete with yourself to maintain it…it can be hard work. I’ve always been influenced by other music like guitar based / pop etc. If you listen to the original version of tracks we recorded like Breathe, Coming Home & Long Way Home, these are just essentially indie pop records. There is also other diversions of club music I’ve recoded like the darker break beat sounding The Lights Go Out on Convert.
You got to play some pretty big festivals and clubs back then, but I caught you playing in Newquay of all places! Which gigs do you prefer to play? intimate or stadium?
Both are great but I think for the live shows the bigger events seem to suite that kind band type feel. It’s like your show casing the bigger upfront parts of your music in a condensed time frame, so it’s fitting. DJing is different in that intimate gigs give you chance to play a bit deeper and less full on, it can be more experimental. I love gigs so either or I’m there.
After 7PM, you changed management to Guy Ornadel, a DJ in his own rights. Did that make a difference having a DJ look after you?
Errm, to be honest not really, 7pm and Guy had very different management styles. I suppose the availability between the two might have varied slightly. 7pm were defiantly more influential on the creative side.
You started Convert Recordings with James back in the late 90s. At the time it was one of my go to labels because of its consistency. How does the A&Rs job differ in these times of instant hits and free downloads? Do you think the filters for quality over quantity need tweaking?
The label I suppose is less formal that it was in the early days. We don’t try running it in a corporate A&R manner as such. Back then it was organised very much like a lot of music labels. I used to run around finding or convincing artist to sign up or remix tracks for us. Run through the entire contacting etc. I used to license a far bit of music from labels overseas especially MFS in Berlin and try exploit the music in the UK / US etc .Now its becoming more like a family affair run between artists/friends who all share a love for music. We give each other a helping hand, remix each other music and help each other as we can. It’s not just about signing the next great track it’s about working with the right people and us all playing for the Convert banner.
Filter wise the digital music market is saturated and yes I guess that the traditional record company A&R stopped this to a degree but probably also stopped some great things coming through. It’s defiantly harder to get music noticed and less would defiantly be more.
The label offers a wide range of styles in its output. Do you think that was the secret to its success after 13 plus years. Diversity?
Maybe in the early days this was an advantage but I feel more and more the labels that specialise and gain a following in one area might do better. We just try to include lots of additional remixes on a releases to broaden its output but also if we like something we try run with it and don’t over discredit because it style. We can always get a remix in a different style.
DJ Sneak has been at it again recently, publicly arguing with Joris Voorn about laptop DJ etiquette. Is there anything about DJ culture now which annoys you?
Not really I try not get into discussions about that stuff because it’s changed and we have accept it. I use a laptop when DJing with a controller but it gives me an opportunity do things I couldn’t have done with a pair of Technics turntables. Most DJs don’t need to prove they mix in the traditional Turntable format, the evidence is already there. It will only be matters of years were new DJs coming through won’t even know what a technics deck is or was.
Theres been a lot of interest in the American press about the EDM explosion. Having been a part of the industry for so long, do you see parallels between it and the burgeoning rave scene in the UK post ’88?
Maybe but it’s more commercially exploited and more mass marketed than the rave scene which was purely built from music popularity. It’s less of a youth culture development.
You’re still gigging after all these years. Has your style changed much in that time?
Yes but probably more in line with the music that has also changed. I don’t get wrapped up too much in being a smooth seamless DJ with lots of tracks sounding similar. There’s less vocals more groove and faster mixing between tracks, I suppose more techno influenced.
Any favourite gigs you can recall?
There have been loads but one that is always fixed in my mind was playing in a disused steel mill in Monterrey Mexico. Full of old machinery painted and also lots of the crowd with painted faces, special.
What about embarrassing or funny incidents at gigs?
Well I might be the only DJ to play on a cream tour and get kicked out by the bouncers for jokily setting a fire extinguisher off on the dance floor. The bouncers told me that they pay DJs for playing music not trying to be part of the fire brigade haha
Finally, any new in the pipeline you can tell us about?
Going back to convert over the years we have hosted various Convert nights and this is something we will be doing a lot more of in the future. Our last event for this year will be hosted on Nov 23rd at the Music Aquarium, Leeds with myself, Renaissance legend Ian Ossia, Matt Appleton and two new additions to the convert set up Robert Knight & Jamie Richardson playing.
It’s a smaller intimate venue and it will be a great variation of House, Progressive , Tech-house and Techno.
I’m really looking forward to playing at Bedrock in London 5th October for Room2move. It’s been a while since I’ve played at a Bedrock associated event.
On the music front there’s a new Blue Amazon single on Convert which we will start promoting within the next month titled Don’t Be Afraid Of Love. The original is more of a housey affair then usual from BA but also includes some techy mixes and remixes from new convert artist In Progress, Benny Dawson, Carlito Brigante and more to be announced.
Blue Amazon No Other Love is due to be re-released on Kasey Taylor’s Vapour Recordings With mixes from Kasey himself, Hernan Cattaneo, Mal Black, Silinder and others.
So all go!
I should say so! Thanks for finding time to come speak to us Lee. All the best with the label, its still one of my personal favourites.