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Interview:
Steve Barker
By Oct 19, 2010 Nightlife


For over 30 years, Steve Barker has been one of the most influential voices in the UK in underground and new music, curating the influential "On The Wire" radio show for BBC Radio Lancashire. Although he's most closely associated with the genres of dub and reggae, his career as a music journalist has seen him interview and interact with a slew of seminal acts from the last three decades, including Adrian Sherwood, Lee Perry, Jimi Hendrix, The Clash, Ian Curtis, Mark E. Smith, REM, and more.

Currently, Barker is based in Beijing where he continues to record the radio show in China, as well as contribute to the UK-based bible of avant garde music, The Wire.

In addition to that, Barker also plays out in the clubs sometimes, which he is doing this Saturday at The Shelter as part of Uprooted Sunshine's weekend-long five-year anniversary.

SmartShanghai talked to Steve Barker about music in China, interviewing famous people, and classic old stuff.

***

SmSh: What have you been up to lately since we saw you in Shanghai last?

Barker: Basically doing the same old stuff -- that's recording radio shows and also writing my monthly dub column for the Wire.

SmSh: What has you experience been of Shanghai's music scene in general over the course of your visits?

Barker: I first started visiting Shanghai to gig with my mate James aka Daddy Vegas -- a funk king! -- though he's now back in the UK running a reggae sound system in Bristol.

But I have always enjoyed playing in Shanghai because of the open crowd who are accepting of new and different forms of music -- as well as the old classic stuff!

SmSh: And how would you characterize the music in Beijing? What do you say when people ask you about music in Beijing?

Barker: People in Beijing seem to take a long time to get over one phase and into another. Cui Jian is still referred to like the Beatles are talked about in the UK. Beijing now has no clubs playing new music, just the same old hip hop, house, and techno.

Even two of the clubs playing techno have just closed down -- it's a bit depressing actually.

On the live side, it's taking a while to get over the "No Beijing" post punk scene. Not much of what might be called "maverick" musics, except in the experimental scene which is now fairly international.

SmSh: In China in general is there anything or anybody coming out of this country that gets you excited?

Barker: I have always liked Sulumi because he's willing to experiment and has a sense of humour. Huan Qing, who produced some of my favourite music out of China in the past ten years seems to have retired...

SmSh: In your own career as a journalist, you interviewed Yoko Ono and Jimi Hendrix in the same week. Which was the better interviewee?

Barker: Well, I met Yoko Ono at Indica Gallery where she was showing her latest art work. She was alone in the gallery and we had a chat. I interviewed her later whilst at University. It was around the time of her "Bottoms" movie so it was a bit tedious.

Jimi Hendrix was a really nice guy who I interviewed twice and he remembered me from one interview to the next. The first time he was relatively unknown and the second was when he had achieved "rock god" status in super quick time.

The interview is available in the "Time Out Book of Interviews", which they published without my permission.

We may put it on our website soon.

SmSh: From Adrian Sherwood to Depeche Mode to REM, do you have any interactions with musicians that stand out over the years? Any good anecdotes? Anyone particularly nutty? What are some of the interviews you've done that you're most proud of?

Barker: Back in the day I did interviews every week -- seen more sound checks than most! Perhaps one of the most famous we did was with Ian Curtis of Joy Division just three months before he committed suicide.

Also we arranged a meeting between the Clash and local punk heroes (from NW England) the Not Sensibles, which ended up in a fight.

Most memorable though, were the two live shows we did with Lee "Scratch" Perry in the mid Eighties, some of which were captured on the Pressure Sounds CD Divine Madness... Definitely.

SmSh: An oft-discussed topic in regards to music journalism is the decline in quality of writing and criticism as a result of the internet -- everyone has a blog and an opinion. As a music journalist with over 30 years experience, where do you stand on that debate?

Barker: Well, the writers/ rock critics who I most respected are all dead. I can still read Lester Bangs reviews for a good laugh and some education. Most these days just seem to regurgitate promotional copy.

As far as the blogosphere is concerned, there is more interesting writing out there but there's just too damn much of it -- you need a personal guide, like a Blog-jay!

SmSh: In general, how do you feel about the internet's impact on radio?

Barker: On the positive side we can get free access to the great freeform station wfmu.org and listen to the best gospel show on the air -- Kevin Nutt's "Sinners' Crossroads" -- or check Dave the Spazz's show. On the negative side, everybody can be a DJ. Yawn!!!

SmSh: A similar argument has been made with respect to DJing / music production in that with the rapid increase in usability and availability of software and internet file sharing, a wholesale decline in the quality of electronic music has occurred. Would you agree with that? Democratization or decline?

Barker: Those two words are not necessarily contrary, there has been a democratization of the means of production, certainly, but you just need check out the regular releases via an outlet like boomkat.com to discover worlds of wonderful music.

So, there's just more stuff -- good and bad.

SmSh: Tell us about the early days of "Spinoff"? Can you introduce what you were doing in the early '80s and how did it evolve into "On the Wire"? And what sorts of stuff were you playing on Spinoff and the early days of On The Wire?

Barker: Spinoff started in 1980, I was playing lots of post punk stuff and always reggae and dub. Around about the time Spinoff became On the Wire we had started playing what was called 'electro' from the West Coast of the US and hip hop from the East, then house and techno from Chicago and Detroit.

There were only a handful, maybe two or three shows doing this. As usual in the South/London they were more interested in rare groove. In the North West we usually went for the newer, more edgy stuff coming out of the States.

SmSh: When did you get into playing in clubs?

Barker: I have never really been a 'club DJ' as such -- just played out on invite over the years so I’m enjoying it rather than seeing it as 'work'.

Started in the '80s playing in clubs around North-West, festivals. Once did a great gig supporting the Manic Street Preachers and I was playing beats to Phillip Glass material, and surging ethno-beat.

SmSh: Tell us about your DJ sets. How often do you play out? What sorts of stuff do you play?

Barker: Rare these days. I play free-style dubs and dancehall, roots reggae and new UK music when I get the chance.

SmSh: Do you approach your sets as an opportunity to bring unheard stuff to the clubs? Or are you looking to satisfy what people want? Do you have any signature tracks that you always play?

Barker: I always like to have a few new tunes whether it's old revival dub or some strange new music that's only distantly related to what others call house or techno.

Two or three, like Lord Tanamo's "I'm in the Mood for Love" or the Abyssinians, "This Land is for Everyone". If I was invited to DJ an acid house gig it would always be Terry "Housemaster" and Baldwin's "Delta House" and Dancer's "Am a Dog"...

***

Steve Barker is on the decks this Saturday at The Shelter. And here's On the Wire on the internet: BBC page is here and main homepage here (VPN needed).

Photo by Benoit Florencen.
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