Reggae fan Daniel Boyle painstakingly researched the equipment Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry used in his groundbreaking Black Ark studio — then made an album with the dub legend himself.
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is a legend of reggae music, and has been one of the pioneers of dub mixing techniques from the late ’60s on. He is also a man of wild eccentricities, typically viewed either as genius or a madman.
The former opinion is generally held by those who are enthralled by his innovative, kaleidoscopic productions for the likes of Bob Marley, Junior Murvin and Max Romeo, while the latter is a product of his notoriously unhinged behaviour, particularly in his Black Ark studio in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1970s. Mind-boggling tales from the time include Perry blowing marijuana smoke into the master tapes or spraying them with blood and urine to achieve a certain inexplicable ‘effect’, not to mention recording the thump of a palm tree (with microphones buried around it) to create a bass drum sound.
In 1979, crazed by the pressures, studio rivalries and gangster involvement in the Jamaican scene, where his music was widely bootlegged, Perry burned Black Ark to the ground. “I was trying to make something to go into the future and something different,” he says today. “They started stealing, so me get mad and burn the studio because me couldn’t take it any more.”
Nevertheless, Perry admits he misses Black Ark — where, equipped with a TEAC four-track tape machine and Soundcraft desk, he created some of the most enduring records in reggae history. “Yeah I miss it,” he says, “but it was people in Jamaica who cause the trouble. Greed, something like that.” At the time, he had no idea that people would still be listening to the music he made 40 years later. “I didn’t think there was going to be a big legacy. There was nothing much coming from it because everywhere you go there’s a Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry [bootleg] tape.”
In the aftermath of the destruction of Black Ark, Perry moved to London and began working mainly as an artist, putting himself in the hands of producers such as Mad Professor and On-U Sound’s Adrian Sherwood. Since then, particularly in latter years, he has been far busier as a performer than producer, a state of affairs he puts down to dwindling incomes in the recording industry. “See, the money from the royalties are not coming in,” he says. “There’s nothing much coming from the record company, so it gives you less feeling to doing it. I mean, I put a lot of energy in the music business. But I discover my part I have to play is to help the people who believe in my type of music.”
Perry’s latest, Grammy-nominated album, Back On The Controls, is a remarkable return to form which harks back to his 1970s heyday and sees him once again involved in production. It’s also firm proof of his claim to want to support those with a passion for his murky, hallucinatory dub style, since it was mainly recorded in Rolling Lion, the home studio of producer/engineer and long-time Perry fan, Daniel Boyle, in Crouch End, London.
Remarkably, Boyle managed to reassemble much of the original studio equipment that had been used in Black Ark. “That was the idea that I had for the album,” he explains, “and it happened before I linked with Lee officially. I’d spoken to him about a couple of pieces of kit and I had an idea of building some pieces of music using that sound. Not completely recreating Black Ark, but I suppose referencing it. What would happen if you plugged the Black Ark equipment into a modern day studio? What would that sound like?”
“He was the one who come up with the idea,” Perry says of Boyle. “So I join him to help him manifest his request.”
Daniel Boyle cut his teeth as an engineer and producer working at Purple Studios, a residential facility in Norfolk where he oversaw recordings ranging from punk to funk. But he had always harboured a particular passion for reggae. “Not the commercial super-clean reggae,” he points out. “But the roots reggae from Jamaica, the really ‘conscious’ music as they call it. It was King Tubby’s and Lee Perry’s productions that fascinated me. I remember collecting old vinyl records when I was attempting to teach myself how to produce and record music, and just scratching my head at how they made the sound.
“I used to listen to this music and be fascinated by the sonic qualities of it — the depth, the space, and the obvious creativity that those engineers used in their productions. I knew it was being done live on a mixing desk, so I began to experiment myself, and that’s kind of what really created the bug. It’s music that engineers listen to because they’re like, OK, this is really creative stuff.”
By studying photographs and rare film of Perry’s sessions at Black Ark, Boyle began to list the key pieces of equipment he wanted to get his hands on. His first acquisition was a Grampian spring reverb from the ’60s. “Most people when you read about it refer to Pete Townshend from the Who, ’cause he used it as a fuzzbox for his guitar,” he says. “He turned the reverb off and turned the input up and whacked a guitar through it it’s got a very unique sound.
“Lee used to do that with some of the chords on his songs to create that very distorted feel before he’d run it through loads of other kit. But Lee’s primary use for it was on the drum bus. Feeding the drums through it and then rolling off some of the bottom end and blending it back in, almost parallel-compression style, creates that real interesting metallic-y drum sound that Scratch has on the early-to-mid-’70s-era Black Ark music. It took me ages to work that out!”
Other important effects used by Perry back in the ’70s included the Mu-tron Bi-phase and, of course, the Roland Space Echo. “I ran my [RE201] Space Echo into the ground and I haven’t had it repaired,” Boyle says. “Halfway through the album I switched to the [RE501] Chorus Echo. The chorus is actually pretty awesome and I blend that into things now and again. And also turning everything off and just keeping the spring reverb on is great.
“I got the Bi-phase from an auction online in America. It’s a really clean one, nice quality. For me, it’s just the Lee Perry sound. When you mix the signal chain between a tape echo, a Grampian or a different spring reverb and the Bi-phase, it’s absolutely fantastic. Typically I’ll send guitar and piano subgroups to the Bi-phase that’ll come back up on a separate channel on the desk, which will then get sent to various reverbs and delays and then back into itself for feedback loops.”
Another significant vintage dub effects unit that Boyle uses is a Fisher SpaceXpander valve spring reverb, originally built in 1962. “Tubby used them for a little while for the big snare splashes that he has in his music,” he says.
Ask Perry himself about the records he created using these effects, and he turns ethereal. “Most of them I was looking in the stars,” he says. “Looking in the stars and looking at the fishes. Fishes is another thing that turns me on. I like to see fishes swimming and animals. I love animals very much. My inspiration is coming from fishes, animals, trees, plants and the Earth itself.”
Before Daniel Boyle hooked up with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, he created four or five tracks in the Black Ark style using the equipment he’d assembled. Drums were recorded at Konk Studios, with a variety of players including the late Style Scott (Prince Far I, Dub Syndicate) and Horseman (Max Romeo, Little Roy).
“Scratch used to use the [AKG] D12 on the kick,” he says. “But alongside that I had the giant Neumann [U47] FET because I wanted the choice. I replicated, as best I could, the original drum setup, but I had other microphones in there for choice, so that I could blend these things together. I mean, the D12 is a really nice kick drum mic but it’s not so deep. I don’t know how Scratch got that low end because that’s the only mic he used. Then I think he used to take it out of the bass drum and use it for the vocals as well.”
Boyle returned with the Konk drum tracks to his Rolling Lion studio, which is centred around a Toft Audio ATB24 desk. “The EQ’s nice,” he says. “Very similar, obviously, to the Trident EQs they modelled them on. I use it in different capacities depending on what sort of music I’m doing. With the Perry stuff, every track went out onto the desk as much as it could. The number of auxiliary sends were what really sold it to me. All six of them are in use.”
Aside from sending certain parts out to his Revox two-track for tape compression, Boyle recorded digitally, using Cubase. “Say, like, the entire bass track would go through the Revox and we’d slam it really hard and then straight back into the computer. Also, we bounced some stuff through a couple of different tape echoes, without the echo on, just to mess things up and distort them. I know Cubase like the back of my hand and I use it as a tape machine with automation and plug-ins and little bits of editing.”
The collaboration began when Boyle sent Perry an email, explaining what he was doing and saying he’d like them to work together. However, the producer heard nothing back for nearly three years. “And then it was just at the right point my iPhone pinged with an email from him,” says Boyle. “This is typically Lee, the guy must be psychic. But everything was ready, the equipment was working well together. I’d kind of nailed most of the sound and started building these tracks.
“He said, ‘I’m in London at the weekend, can we meet?’ So I went to his hotel and Lee went, ‘Ah, let’s go to the studio.’ So we hung out for a day, did a load of crazy stuff, some percussion, a bunch of vocals. I mean, it was a phenomenal scenario to hang out with somebody like that.”
If Boyle makes this initial session sound relatively uncomplicated, he does admit that it took him some time to get used to Perry’s more idiosyncratic ways. “The first session was quite difficult,” he says. “It took three or four sessions for me to really get to understand how he works. And also for Lee to begin to let his guard down and really come out of his shell and be more comfortable about getting involved in my idea — which was him using the equipment and being a bit more hands on than just flying in for the vocals and flying out again.”
From Perry’s perspective, the initial sessions went smoothly, although he claims he originally wanted to make a purely dub album. “Everything was nice and all,” he says. “It was my plan to make it like a dub and then his plan was to put horns in it and guitar and things. So it was different. No problem, it was OK — experiment.”
When it came to other instrumentation on Back On The Controls, bass parts were provided by Boyle and Hughie Izacharr (Dub Syndicate). “Sometimes we’d DI it and then just reamp it with this Ampeg valve amp,” says Boyle. “Sometimes we’d use my Line 6 [Bass Pod]. I’ve developed quite a nice reggae bouncy bass sound on that.”
Trombone parts were added by Nemanja ‘Hornsman Coyote’ Kojic. “He’s really awesome,” Boyle enthuses. “He’s played with Burning Spear and Lee and loads of other people. You give him a little bit of direction, then he just rolls.”
From here, the sessions for Back On The Controls progressed in fits and starts, whenever Perry — who now lives in Switzerland — was back in London. “It was as haphazard as I imagine it would have been back in Black Ark,” says Boyle. “We pulled together different people, we added different elements into the songs. We stripped songs down and rebuilt them with different tracks. We banged percussion in, and Lee was hammering effects units and turning buttons. We built and mashed these songs together through the vibe and the atmosphere that we had in each session.”
Meanwhile, Boyle bore witness to some of Perry’s odder practices in the studio, particularly on the day he turned around and the singer had disappeared, only to return with a tree from the garden. He proceeded to nail it to the wall, urging his co-producer to record it. “I had to put a large poster over the wall before my wife came home,” Boyle laughs.
Trying to talk to Perry about the incident prompts an oblique response. By nailing the tree to Boyle’s wall, was the singer conducting what he calls his “voodoo magic”? “Yeah, magic,” he says. “Actually, like, the trees themselves, they’re not strictly human beings, but they are the doctor of the human being. So if you can capture their sensibility and their spiritual energy, you can think like them and talk like them and do what they do. They can tell you what to do. If you are cold, they can tell you’re cold. They’re a doctor, like bush doctor. So I actually like to link with them.”
Boyle encouraged Perry as much as possible to employ the dub mixing techniques he is famed for, hence the title Back On The Controls. “I guess maybe he hadn’t been in a studio that had those pieces of equipment on the desk in the same positioning they were back in the Black Ark,” he says. “But Lee, at the age of 78, doesn’t have the dexterity to do that kind of dub work on a mixing desk — controlling 12 or 15 faders and six auxiliary sends live, and remembering where all the different parts of the songs are so that when you’re pulling faders down you can bring them back up and create the mix.
“So I had it set up very simply where the Bi-phase was on a little stand, the Space Echo was behind it and I’d given him a couple of the aux sends that had some of the signal chain routed through them. So we’d run the whole track and Lee would sit with his Bi-phase and he’d just be mashing it up, pressing the buttons. I’d have routed several tracks into it and the output of the Bi-phase I’d print back into the mix on its own channel. Just so that when it came to finally mixing and doing the dub, most of those effects were on their own separate tracks printed into the multitrack.”
For the album, alongside the new material, Perry decided to remake his classic track ‘Blackboard Jungle’, released as a full album of dubs under the name Blackboard Jungle Dub in 1973. He says he felt the original versions weren’t fully realised and so, on Back On The Controls, this eerie reggae track appears as ‘Blackboard Re-Vision’.
“Well, there are many parts of ‘Blackboard Jungle’,” Perry says. “‘Blackboard Jungle’ was a creation of many tracks happening because my whole life is like a jungle. What I did was write a jungle with animals, fishes and insects. We have ideas, but there’s not enough to put all the ideas we have. So everything that we put out get stifled.”
“Creating some of those sounds was really hard,” Boyle admits. “That’s when I worked out that the distorted crunchy guitar skanks that Lee has on some of his songs — I mean this took me weeks to work out — were actually really simply done by using the Grampian almost as a Pete Townshend-style fuzzbox. Sending the guitar chops into the Grampian, crunching it up and then sending it straight into the Bi-phase and then through the Space Echo without the echo on and then back into the desk. A lot of stuff, Lee doesn’t remember how he did it.”
Elsewhere, Perry was inspired by some field recordings Boyle had made on holiday to create the atmospheric track ‘Sound Of Jamaica’. “When I was in Jamaica,” says Boyle, “I had a handheld recorder. At night-time all the crickets and frogs were going absolutely crazy and so I held it up in the middle of a forest and recorded them and then used that sample in the song. And that’s where Lee’s vocal came from, ‘cause I said, ‘Oh this is the sound of Jamaica,’ and then he wrote the song.”
‘Sound Of Jamaica’ would prove tricky to mix, however. “‘Cause it has this really crazy bass line played by Hughie [Izacharr],” says Boyle. “It drops down a whole register and then comes back up. And because Lee didn’t want us using too much stuff on it, it was quite difficult to control all the frequencies. When Lee was there and I was doing a mix, I was cutting some frequencies out on the desk and he was like, ‘Nah, turn that knob back to where it was.’ But I was fully in the groove with him by then and it was like, ‘Yeah this is how it’s gonna work.’ It’s Lee’s production in the end and I’m just there to kind of facilitate it happening.”
In this sense, Back On The Controls is unique in that it went from being essentially a fan project to the most authentic-sounding Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry album since the 1970s. “I couldn’t be more pleased,” says Boyle. “He’s over the moon about it. And the response we’ve had has been phenomenal. I’m not trying to replicate the Black Ark. It was the musicians, it was the skill, it was the atmosphere, that’s what made that happen. What we wanted to do was create an environment where Lee could have that type of vibe and fun that he used to and reference it in a modern day setting. Hence the choice of the desk and some of the pieces of equipment. But ultimately keeping it as raw as we could.”
All in all, the project was quite an eye-opening experience for Daniel Boyle. “I learned so much,” he says. “Lee’s all about creativity and shouting and screaming into a microphone. He was banging one of my keyboards with a shaker as I’m miking it up. It was great, great fun and an absolute honour, to be honest.”
Ultimately, even at the age of 78, there seems to be no slowing down Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. “For the people that love me, I’m their doctor, so I have to continue,” he says. “I’m responsible for them. And I’m glad that they chose me to be their doctor and I will forever be their doctor. In all forms that they want me to be their doctor. If they want me to be their witch doctor, I’ll be their witch doctor. But I think I might end up being their rich doctor [laughs].
“It’s because of the people who believe in my music why I’m still in it,” he concludes. “I can’t let them down just because there’s not big money coming from it. I’m not that type. So I have to support those people who believe in my music, until the time come when we fly away to another planet”
As Daniel Boyle was to discover, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry riffs his vocals live on the microphone, in this case a Blue Bottle. “I love it,” Boyle says. “It’s got quite a healthy upper mid-range and it lends quite well to his voice. We tried to keep it as live as possible. So the basis of the main vocal is done usually in one or one-and-a-half takes. Then he’ll run three or four or five more tracks on top of it, with ad libs and different bits and pieces and we just punch them in and out on the desk.”
Inspiration tends to strike Perry suddenly, as Boyle found one day when he picked him up from his hotel and the reggae star began reading reports about the financial crisis in a newspaper lying around in his car. This provoked him to record the vocal on the album’s opening track, ‘Rastafari On Wall Street’. “I played Lee some of the rhythms for that track,” Boyle remembers, “and he jumped on the mic and busted out almost the full take because of what he’d been reading. He uses a lot of visual elements and things he’s seen, things he’s read, and they come out in his performance. He’s a performance artist. He has a pad and a pen and a laptop with a very strange font he uses that he’s constantly writing stuff into. So we have the laptop on a stand, a music stand with the pad of paper on it, and the microphone in the middle. He’ll flip between the two, taking inspiration from bits and pieces he’s written.
“But he works very quickly, almost in real time. Then he’ll hit a bit and be like, ‘That’s the chorus, let’s drop that bit in here, here, here.’ Or he’ll just steamroller all the way through from beginning to end. It’s very much about layering with Lee. His productions in Black Ark were about layering lots of bounces on top of each other, obviously to free up tracks, but ultimately that’s what resulted in his sound. He takes the same approach with his vocal.”
“Even when I’m sleeping, I’m having visions,” says Perry. “Sometimes when I’m sleeping, I think I am writing. So the words are around all the time and they come to me in different spirit and different form. If I’m not sleeping, I have to be writing on the computer all the time. The voice is talking to me so I cannot ignore it. It’s just a gift. I’m surrounded by angels.”
Daniel Boyle says he was surprised by how raw Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry wanted to leave their recordings. “Really I had to hold back on that,” he says, “because Lee wanted all the imperfections left in, he wanted mistakes left in. There’s a bit of one of the songs where he’s trying to bang a fader up with a delay on it to create a sound with the guitar. His ring hit the bass fader and moved that and he nudged it back down, and that stayed in the mix. I was chatting to Lee, saying, ‘It’s a really brave thing that we’re gonna put this album out not for you because it’s exactly what you want to do. But the whole ethos of the album is we’re not having any production quality ‘cause we’re just doing what you feel.’ It has that level of inconsistencies, compared to modern music.”
Perry has a simple explanation as to why he likes to keep his productions raw. “Because I believe it should sound live,” he states. “If you hear two people talking on the radio station, one man be talking so important and there can be another man who is talking rough and he’s sounding more interesting than the one who’s talking fine.”
Does he feel that modern reggae is too polished? “Yep. So some time you don’t have to make it too polished, ’cause people can’t copy it. They make it too perfect and them can’t copy it. So it’s a problem for them, you know what I mean?”