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Exploring the gloopy, industrial side of dance music

We meet Trevor Jackson at the Clove Club, an achingly hip restaurant in Shoreditch Town Hall in east London — just behind the DJ Mag offices — where, before he arrives, we while away the time by pondering exactly why the prune ice cream on their menu doesn’t come with a whole walnut cake, but just the crumbs. The meeting place was his call — he shot down our admittedly grotty local — and as he strolls in he’s greeted with the kind of affection normally reserved for mafia dons. This is clearly a regular hangout.

Trevor doesn’t look much like the sunglasses-sporting, Giorgio Moroder-channelling disco dude from the covers of his Playgroup records. The halo of curly hair’s there, but this bearded guy in a button-down shirt and chinos, sipping his sparkling water and picking at a plate of borlotti paste with truffle and flatbreads, is hard to align with the radical record sleeve designer turned hip-hop producer who helped launch the careers of Four Tet and LCD Soundsystem. Who shut down his second record label after ten years and 100 releases because it was getting too successful. He looks more like the trendy boss of a graphic design firm, someone who spends his days synergising outside the box while listening to Morcheeba.

It’s an impression that’s at least partly true. He is, of course, the boss of his own graphic design firm, albeit one that consists solely of Trevor Jackson. And he does use the word “synergy”, once, during our conversation, although he’s talking about a transcendent moment as a child, watching Fantasia, when he realised just how powerful the right music could be when put with the right images. So we let it slide. But when we quiz him on what’s on his stereo, he rattles off the names of Vakula, DJ Sotofett and Powell, all pretty unlikely choices to soundtrack a dinner party. As we learn, you don’t make assumptions about Trevor Jackson.

It turns out that he’s the man behind the Clove Club’s branding. Which is why, when we flip the menu over, the monochrome, geometric designs bear echoes of the sleeve art on Soulwax’s 'Any Minute Now', the 'what’s that?' optical illusion that won Jackson a cluster of design industry awards. And when we visit the Clove Club’s website after our interview, trying to figure out exactly which glass of red he generously put on his tab (and where we can get more), the minimalist triangles that greet us have clearly sprung from the same pen as the logo for his now defunct label Output, which traced the socket of a TR-808 in just four black strokes.

Jackson clearly loves this place. Around the stories of records and parties, of being exposed to electro, industrial and hip-hop as a 14-year-old in Camden’s clubs, he waxes effusively about the food, the restaurant’s spare layout, the drinks. And that’s what links this place, however distant it may seem, to his pioneering hip-hop as Underdog in the early Nineties; to the glittering electro he made as Playgroup a decade later; to the austere collections of industrial and body music he’s curated for a pair of 'Metal Dance' compilations, as a tribute to groups like Cabaret Voltaire and Visage. It’s love. Everything Trevor Jackson does, he does because he loves it. Not for money, not because he thought it would advance his career, but because it seemed liked an important thing to do. “I’ve never wanted to conform to anything,” he says. “When I left college, I was an arrogant little fucker. If someone had said, ‘Do you want to do a project for Nike,’ I’d say, ‘Nah, I hate big brands’. I’m independent. I had a whole independent, DIY spirit. I’ve never wanted to be part of the machine.”

Jackson’s music career flows in ten-year arcs, from inspiration, through sublime execution, to frustration. Then he’ll disappear for a bit, before catching the bug and launching some new project. For Jackson, less a goal than a reason to stop; he says that he simply shuts things down as soon as they stop being fun. For Bite It!, the hip-hop label he launched off the back of his work as Underdog, that point came after 12 releases, when one of his artists punched a hole in the wall of his studio. Output lasted longer — the label-summing compilation that made up its final release carried the catalogue number OPR100 — although its title, 'I Hate Music', gives some idea of why the imprint came to an end.

“It wound him up after things got bigger,” explains James Murphy, the DFA label boss and erstwhile LCD Soundsystem frontman, “but without Trevor, and without Output, it’s a very different story for LCD Soundsystem, and it’s a very different story for me.” 
It was Jackson who encouraged Murphy to release his music in the UK, who distributed DFA’s records, and who made sure that a small dance punk label who’d only been handing out white labels in New York were suddenly getting noticed by journalists and DJs. “That’s all down to being on Output,” Murphy says. “I don’t know if LCD Soundsystem would have had anywhere near the success without him. We didn’t know how to navigate that, and it’s all down to his curatorial acumen.”

Just a glance at the names that had their earliest releases on Output — Luke Abbott, Black Strobe, Lopazz — gives a sense of Jackson’s ear for talent. He was attracted to artists other people wouldn’t touch, who were making weird noises that weren’t welcome elsewhere but whose creative freedom Jackson felt an affinity for. Among them was a young Kieran Hebden, who had his earliest releases on Output first as part of the band Fridge, and then as Four Tet.

“The music and ideas and art Trevor introduced me to were probably even more important to my future than his releasing of my music,” Hebden recalls. “It was an amazing creative and exciting time for us. He gave us the creative and artistic freedom to experiment with our music, and then we handed it over to him and he was able to see through his release and design ideas. He was even the first person to take me to a club and to get me to DJ, and he's the most influential DJ to me for my DJing style. I learnt loads from him, and still think about his take on things to this day. If I make a new track and Trevor tells me it's good, then that still counts for a lot.”

Those curatorial skills that made Output and Bite It! so seminal remain strong. Later this month Strut releases the follow-up to last year’s 'Metal Dance', in which Jackson mined the industrial and post-punk records he discovered in the clubs and record stores of north London as a teenager. That first volume, a mainstay of 2012’s end of year 'best of' lists, was timely. The clanking sounds of DAF and Richard Bone tapped into the recent fascination with all that’s rough and industrial, that’s seen labels like Tri Angle and Blackest Ever Black turning away from the neat edges of minimal in favour of something rawer.
“At this point in my life,” he says,

“I feel that my music taste is far more daring than most teenagers. A lot of that music is much more sonically advanced. It’s more conceptually creative than a lot of music now, so I think it’s a slightly different thing. When I was younger, the Beatles and Bob Dylan were like: ‘Fucking hippy music’. Compared to listening to Soft Cell, ELO and the Human League, you couldn’t compare it.” He’s got a point. Even today there’s still something very alien about 23 Skidoo and Front 242, whose records are only just being reconfigured for dancefloors. “It’s about putting the past in perspective,” Jackson says. “To understand what’s going on now, to appreciate it, you need to understand what’s going on in the past.”

He’s most vindicated by the response from those who weren’t there first time around. The original compilation, he says, wasn’t wilfully obscure — “I was actually worried that there were too many things that were too well known. Cabaret Voltaire, the Bubblemen, I’ve been playing those for years” — but even the most obvious selections are new to 20-somethings, whose only contact with industrial music has been its reworking by the artists on Ron Morelli’s ascendant L.I.E.S. imprint. “And that excites me,” he beams. “I get great satisfaction introducing people to new things.”

This time around, though, he’s dug a little deeper, although not entirely by choice. The vagaries of licensing agreements put paid to his hopes of featuring Depeche Mode and the Human League, as well as less celebrated acts whose back catalogues have been “lost in the quagmire” of independents hoovered up by majors. It’s made for a darker, less immediately accessible collection, and also forced Jackson — a man who refuses to put tracklists on his mixes — to reveal some of the records he’s kept close to his chest for 30 years.

“I’m super precious about some things,” he explains. “The 'Der Amboss' instrumental [by Visage]? That goes for £200 or something stupid, and not a lot of people know about it. 'Walking Backwards' [by Mile High Club] is a record that I bought in the Record & Tape Exchange in 1981. It’s the only track we put on 'Metal Dance' where we don’t know who it’s by, or anything about it. So we’ve had to put a disclaimer on it. That track’s my big secret weapon. And Godley & Crème ['Babies'], even my mates, I didn’t tell anyone who it was. Then I told someone, and they told their friends, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to put it out on the compilation before someone bootlegs it’.”

We put it to Jackson that he’s a bit like the Northern soul DJs who’d peel the labels off their records to stop people finding out what they were, but he refutes this. It’s a reaction, he says, to how disposable music’s become. That if someone hears something he plays, and then has to go out and find it — like he used to — rooting through the bins in Camden’s record stores every Sunday looking for the tracks in Eddie Richards’ weekly NME chart, then the music becomes more valuable. “Especially at this moment in time,” he believes, “it’s important to make the effort to do things.”

Since the demise of Output in 2006, the Trevor Jackson music studio’s been awfully quiet. Sure, there’s been the odd remix for Tiga, The Gossip, even a Snow Patrol rework that buffed a turd to a blinding sparkle, and inspired Clone to demand: “Mr Jackson, get your ass back into the studio NOW!” But original pickings have been slim. Which isn’t to say, as Clone will be happy to know, that that studio hasn’t been busy. Jackson has, he reveals, around ten years worth of new music backed up; productions he’s been tinkering with but hasn’t had the urge to release, sitting somewhere, tantalisingly, on a hard drive somewhere between Shoreditch and Islington.

“Since I closed Output in 2006, I’ve been going through a complete cleanse of my life,” he explains when we quiz this silence. “I haven’t had a chance to finish off a lot of the music I wanted to finish off. But now I feel I’ve got the perspective on the things I’ve done, and oddly the things that I thought sounded out of date a couple of years ago, now I think, ‘Fuck me, it kind of sounds relevant again’.” 
This is promising. Does that mean we can expect new Trevor Jackson material? Perhaps a new Playgroup album? “Hopefully. But I’m not signed anywhere, so I’m not under any pressure to do it.” He smiles. “I’m only under my own pressure.”

That pressure, it turns out, isn’t backed-up creativity needing to burst forth, but looking around and being dissatisfied with what he sees. “Truthfully, most of the music I made was because I didn’t hear anyone else doing it. When I was doing Underdog stuff back in the day, I was trying to make hip-hop no-one else was making. When I did the Playgroup album, I needed to do it, because no one else was doing it.”
So where’s the gap now? He shrugs.

“The problem is today, there’s so much music I hear that reflects what I think, but does it better than I could ever do it. The method of making music now has become so complex that I know I can’t do shit like that. I hear it and think: ‘Fuck. I could never do that’. And I want to make records as good or better as other things I’ve heard.”

He will, he hopes, release something later this year — perhaps as Playgroup, perhaps anonymously. But then he said that last time he was promoting a 'Metal Dance' compilation, so you’ll excuse us if we don’t hold our breath. For the moment he’s happy designing, with music more a hobby than a serious concern. It’s why booking Trevor Jackson is so hard. He only takes a couple of gigs a month, and prefers playing early slots at clubs where having 200 people in feels cosy. Ask him about his favourite clubs, and alongside Panorama Bar (of course) he lists Geneva’s La Graviere, where he spun an eight-hour set to a packed room with barely-existent lighting, and Asbo, in the top floor of Camden’s Lock Tavern, little more than a pub with a soundsystem.

For Ian Bogg, who co-runs Asbo alongside Alvin C, Jackson’s set stands out even among eight years of guests. “We didn’t know what he was going to play, and that’s one of the reasons you book Trevor,” Bogg says. “He came on at 11, and I’d finished on Yello or something, and he just played dub reggae, totally dropped it all down, then built it up through party pop, hip-hop, all this stuff from the late Eighties. The biggest tune of the night was Nomad featuring MC Mikee Freedom, '(I Wanna Give You). Devotion'. Proper cheese, but you know when that goes down well that it’s been a good party.”

There are many people who claim to make music without an eye on its reception, but with Jackson, you get the sense that he genuinely doesn’t care what people think. “Truthfully, I don’t want people to like me,” he says when we put this to him. “I want the people I care about to like me, maybe, but I don’t do anything to make other people happy. I just do what I want to do, and if people like it, that’s great.
“If I do things to make me happy, even if something’s a failure, or no one likes it, I don’t care. Because I’m happy with it anyway. If all you do is aim to make yourself happy, that’s the best way to be creative. And if you achieve that, you’ll never be let down. You’ll never be depressed about anything. That makes sense, doesn’t it?”
In Trevor Jackson’s world, it certainly does.