THE HERBAL ESSENCE
Since they first emerged in the mid-‘90s on the seminal Ninja Tune label, London-based duo Jake Wherry and Ollie Teeba (aka THE HERBALISER) have cast a distinctive presence amongst the UK's leftfield hip hop and downbeat scenes, outliving many of their early peers in the process. With a brand new album out on their own label (the aptly titled There Were Seven) and an imminent Australian DJing tour, Canberra fans will soon have the chance to get Herbalised all over again when the duo hit the intimate surroundings of Transit Bar. When I catch up with one half of the duo, Jake Wherry, he's cooking breakfast in his kitchen (with the clearly audible sounds of eggs frying).
Were there any particular reasons for waiting until now to go independent with the release of There Were Seven on their own Department H label? ‘I was into the idea quite a long time ago, but Ollie took a bit of persuasion,’ replies Jake. ‘We'd come to the end of our contract with Ninja Tune when we finished Take London and they were interested in the Same As It Never Was album, but it was quite a bit of a change in direction for us and we found that Ninja Tune was equally changing in a different direction and getting a lot more electronic, so we thought we'd try a different option.
‘We didn't want people to go, “Oh, here's the fifth Herbaliser album, same thing as it always was” because it was actually very different – we were working with a vocalist. So we spoke to some labels and !K7 were very enthusiastic. But once we'd done it and toured it with the singers and, you know, dealt with singers’ egos we thought “Fuck that”, really. “Let's move on and do something different”. We had it in mind that we wanted to make a darker record, something moody. In retrospect, looking back at Same As It Never Was, it was a bit too poppy.’
While many artists have acrimonious splits with labels, as Jake explains, in this instance it was more a case of Ninja Tune and one of its former flagship acts slowly growing apart.
‘When we signed to Ninja, there was the guy from 9Lazy9 (who became Funki Porcini) but it was otherwise all abstract instrumental hip hop,’ he explains. ‘DJ Vadim came in soon afterwards, but the general vibe was that it was this jazzy instrumental hip hop thing. Afterwards, we looked at it and felt that it had all gone a bit too electronic for our tastes. We didn't think that Ninja Tune really represented where our sound was at.
‘And there was this dirty word that was being used, which was “trip hop”,’ Jake continues. ‘I think it was a valid term for certain sorts of music, but I don't think we ever really fitted into it because our music was basically very layered hip hop-inspired music that didn't have any rapping on it originally. Sure enough, by the time we did our second album we'd hooked up with Jean Grae, who was known back then as What What, and I think a lot of those other “trip hop” things just stayed instrumental and didn't really get beyond being just blunted beats.’
I suggest at this point that one of the things that always marks out Herbaliser albums seems to be a constant search for new vocal collaborators, something Jake concurs with. ‘Jean Grae is a star now, but at the time she was unknown. And likewise Roots Manuva. The most famous person we worked with at the time was Bahamadia, who you don't hear a lot from anymore, but at the time she was quite high-profile. We never really felt like we wanted to have a vocalist on our records who was going to overshadow us. We always wanted the person to buy the record as a Herbaliser album regardless of who the featured vocalist is.
‘We just look for good rappers. I mean the guy on the new album is a guy called Ghettosocks from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and he's involved with two projects, Team Burger and Twin Peaks, both of which feature on the album. He's an absolutely amazing rapper, so he'll go on to do bigger and better things. The important thing is to find talented rappers that aren't going to overshadow you as an artist, but a lot of them go on to be incredibly famous,’ he laughs. ‘I think it's easier for people to recognise vocal talent rather than what me and Ollie do, which is basically a backroom thing, production and, y'know, we're pretty faceless when it comes to being pop stars. We've also never really been “mainstream” hip hop, we've always been more underground.’
Lastly, I ask Jake what to expect from the Canberra date of the Herbaliser's upcoming DJ tour, confessing that I've always secretly wished he and Ollie would drag their full band down to these parts. ‘Funnily enough, when we DJ we actually play very little of the Herbaliser music,’ he replies. ‘We play more party hip hop, breaks, stuff that's influenced us. The reason is, well, we've got a band to play the Herbaliser material. You know, a lot of electronic artists that don't have a nine-piece band, they tend to play a lot of their own material when they DJ. I'm actually going to try to put together a little Herbaliser section for this tour though. We've played at the Montreal Jazz Festival six times [with the full band] and we're going back for more this year. We'd love to bring the whole band out to Australia, but at this stage we don't have the record sales there to justify it.’
The Herbaliser duo will hit Transit Bar on Sunday March 10 at 6pm. Tickets are $15 + bf through Moshtix and Landspeed Records. Supported by Too Terrorble Tablists (Buick & Paypercutts), DJ Soup, Goldfinger, Crooked Sound System, DFP, Timber, Tone Def, Faux Real and Degg.