Trevor Jackson: New Collection
“I’ve never tried to do things just because I think I should,” Trevor Jackson tells me as we’re on the topic of being perennially underground. “If anything, most of my career I’ve been quite self-destructive.”
In spite of these destructive urges, Trevor Jackson has cut a singular figure in music culture. He’s had a striking impact on both music and graphic design since 1988, when he designed his first record sleeve, for Theme From S’Express. As a designer, he went on to create seminal covers for the likes of Soulwax and Stereo MCs. And as the head of Output Records, he released era-defining records from Four Tet and LCD Soundsystem, helping to launch their careers in the process.
That’s without even mentioning his own compositions. Right now, Jackson is promoting his new album, a second batch of unreleased material as Playgroup, his most well-known moniker. More records will then come out via Pre-, a new label for Jackson’s unreleased music which is destined to cease next year. After its final release, Pre- will be replaced by Post-, an avenue for new music and other artistic collaborations.
The splurge of releases is the end-game of a process that’s driven Jackson for a decade, dating back to when Output ceased releasing. The label ended with a compilation titled I Hate Music in 2006, a statement that was quite literal at the time. For Jackson, it is only by de-burdening himself of his back-catalogue that he can begin to create new things in a new way.
“I desperately want to start making new music,” Jackson explains, leaning back in his chair and sighing. “But I don’t want to start releasing new music having that old music there. I’ve put so much work into it.”
In 2012, Jackson’s celebrated Metal Dance compilation sowed the seeds of his return to releasing music. “I was sick of the industry, but this wasn’t my own music,” Jackson says of the release. “It was something I was so passionate about that it was a pleasure to do.” On it, Jackson curated tracks which straddled the lines between classic EBM and industrial and deeper cuts from the heterogeneous musical swamp that was the 80s. It is both succinct and sprawling in its distillation of the cross-pollination that was so rife at that time, and that genre-bending eclecticism has guided pretty much everything Jackson’s done both musically and graphically.
It’s visible in his sleeve design for Champion Records, when he would slurp up his favoured cultural reference points, mashing together the day-glo vibrancy of rave with the jagged 8-bit innocence of early video games. It’s there in the hip-hop remixes his alter-ego Underdog became known for, or the scuzzy, dubby electro he made as Playgroup. You can hear it too in his lauded DJ sets, where boundaries of genre and expectation are firmly ignored.
Jackson was releasing music with that ethos at a time when a lot of electronic music had settled into its various streamlined lanes. Both the label and Jackson remained fiercely individual. “I’ve never really wanted to be a part of anything. Output got lumped into electroclash and all sorts but I was just doing my own thing.” Doing his own thing meant doing literally everything himself: A&R, design, marketing, manufacturing and sales. The result was a label with a strong sense of identity that left a mark, both visually and musically, on the cultural landscape.
It’s fitting, then, that two new labels represent the crossing from Jackson’s history to his future. Each Pre- release sounds as distinct as the sleeves he has designed for them. “Pinklunch is perverted electro dancefloor stuff,” he offers by way of example. “So for that I’m licensing an image by Tommy Ungerer from a book called Fornicon, which is loads of people having sex with machines. Then the From album is about heartbreak. I made it going through different breakups and all the track names are flowers that will kill you basically. The image for that is a microscopic image of the reproductive organs of the flower.”
With Post-, the idea is that people must send Jackson a letter to find out the catalogue, to which Jackson will reply himself, and all correspondence will continue through the mail. The idea is motivated by his frustration with the modern insistence with immediacy. “I don’t like doing things the easy way. All these things you can see here…” He gestures to the shelves of design books and posters; the broken, illuminating Daft Punk coffee table and the classic arcade game Tempest that adorn his studio. “I had to make an effort to get them, it was a journey to get something that I want physically, and because of that I appreciate them so much more. Hopefully people enjoy the experience of having to make the effort.”
“Design is seen as quite cool but you should design because it drives your life, it’s in your blood. I've been passionately driven to the point of obsession”
Jackson talks a lot about effort, and it’s very wrapped up in his sense of integrity. On the attitudes of many people in the music industry, he is scathing: “I have a huge problem with lifestyle. I’m talking about when your main reason is the aesthetic, and not the foundations and the thoughts behind it. Design is seen as quite cool but you should design because it drives your life, it’s in your blood. I’ve been passionately driven to the point of obsession to do the things I’ve done. With stuff like Instagram it’s about sharing things ’cause they look good. It’s banality. It undermines things that are truly beautiful and important.
”That’s not to paint a picture of Jackson as some elder statesman complaining about the modern world. Besides Metal Dance, much of Jackson’s increased popularity in recent years has been down to his NTS Radio show, on which he plays a huge array of new music. He is animated when discussing the station, leaning forward to wax lyrical about the joy of hosting his show.I wonder if he sees parallels between the station’s fierce eclecticism and the myriad styles threaded through the music of the 80s championed on Metal Dance.
“There’s a truth in that. There’s a scene around NTS which I find really inspiring. You’ve got people on there playing reggae, punk, grime, everything. In the early 80s, with On-U Sound and all that Metal Dance stuff, it was the same thing. I remember a 7” by 400 Blows with one of the band’s top ten records on there. It was like: Throbbing Gristle, Fela Kuti, Abba… fucking all over the place. That to me is what it’s like on NTS. There’s fantastic music makers there and everyone’s affecting each other.”
It’s been clear from the moment I walked into his studio, with Jackson affectionately swearing at the DJ live on the station for playing tracks that would fit on his show, that he’s enamoured with NTS. “It’s a genuine cultural movement,” he enthuses. “They’ve created their own little world. To be part of a community in East London, where I’ve worked for over 25 years, that’s really important for me.” Perhaps he’s warming to being a part of something after all.
Photography: Harry Mitchell
Previously Unreleased 2 by Playgroup is out now via Yes Wave Records. The first four Pre- singles will be released between 17 November – 15 December.