MEET: Donald Johnson and Martin Moscrop of A Certain Ratio, on the release of ‘ACR Loco’

A Certain Ratio, photographed by Paul Husband

A CERTAIN RATIO, overlords of multifaceted Mancunian funk, have been with us now an incredible 43 years: hard to believe, isn’t it?

They were the first artists to release a single for Factory, the wiry post-punk of “All Night Party”, back in 1979; but it was the skeletal, angular, hook-laden funk of second single “Shack Up” that really set them on their course.

They were Factory mainstays up to 1987, before moving on to A&M and, eventually, Rob Gretton’s Rob’s Records, releasing a fat catalogue of albums that always looked for more, always took risks, and which were always powered by an insistence on polyrhythm and its power.

It was 1986 single “Mickey Way (The Candy Bar)” that first dropped ACR into my world as a floppy fringed teenager: the tight funk bass, all precision and tone; the cinematic scope of the jazz brass, the samples, it spoke of whole new worlds to me, new atmospheres, other horizons.

As an indie kid out far in the rural sticks, it was a definite rite of passage in my coming of age. There was another world out there, one that looked in so many directions for its influences. I wanted to see this world. Five years later, I would be regularly rolling down Whitworth Street West to the Hacienda; picking up vinyl in Eastern Bloc; eventually even working in one of Manchester’s record shop institutions.

2020 dawns and there’d been no new long player for more than a decade, although two retrospectives for Mute, acr: set and ACR: BOX, refreshed our memories of nigh on four decades of work of exploratory groove, fusing future funk, reprised in 2018 and 2019 respectively; a series of reworks for fellow travellers such as Maps, The Charlatans and Barry Adamson opened the door for the brilliant new album, ACR Loco, released this month.

We said that it’s “… a really complex comeback. They’ve always been a band absolutely brimming with rhythmic and textural ideas and by god, they’ve lost not a jot of their edge. This is no lazy retread of a band blissed in middle age. It’s anxious, it’s urgent, it’s powerful.” (Read our review, here.)

We were both honoured and delighted to catch up with ACR’s Donald Johnson and Martin Moscrop as ACR Loco dropped and began to ripple its taut funk out across the collective consciousness to talk the music; the sad, sudden loss of Denise Johnson; Manchester, and more. Read on.

BACKSEAT MAFIA: Welcome back, gents. Twelve years away, and we learn that remixing work for other artists led you to the studio for yourselves. Was this a gradual process? Was there a point at which you just knew the groove was going, the muse was with you, as it were?

DONALD JOHNSON: “We had been playing lots gig everywhere while also collating our back catalogue for re-release with Mute and collaborating with lots of artist on rework/remix projects.

“All of that creative energy was finding its way into our new songs, so after consultation with Mute we decided very early on that we were going to write a new 10-track album. That number turned out to be the perfect balance to ensure that each song on the album had something special.”

And how do you approach remixing? It must be a tricky balance, the fusion of the two artists at work. There’s that famous, if possibly apocryphal story of the Aphex Twin just taking a DAT off the shelves when the courier arrived for a due mix …

MARTIN MOSCROP: “We don’t call them remixes, we call them reworks. The difference is that we play on the tracks we are reworking. We will decide what we want to keep and then get a good drum, bass and guitar groove to the song we are working on.

“We quite often use ACR reference points like maybe pinch a bassline from ‘Do The Du’, the drum pattern from ‘Shack Up’ and guitar from ‘Saturn’ and put them together in a new context where they may be unrecognisable. We will add to the vocal and possibly write a new vocal part as well and add other things like vocoder, keys, 303, percussion and anything to send it ‘out there.’”

And the new album. It’s breathtakingly tight. Did you reach back into old tapes and notebooks for ideas you had never felt the time was right for, or was it entirely the result of a rejuvenation, time spent together, new fire?

DJ: “ACR Loco has a warm, old-school, valve feel to it which was a conscious decision. Some of our favourite artists such as Airto [Moreira] and Azymuth have that timeless quality to their great records that we hopefully captured on this record and, inspired by them, we’ve introduce some new Brazilian acoustic instruments to this record: berimbau, surdo and caixa, which is a direction that we intend to explore more of in the future.”

MM: “It was a bit of both really, taking ACR’s DNA from the last 40-odd years, mangling it up and sending it into the future; but more so just starting new ideas.

“Me and Jez [Kerr, ACR bassist] both DJ together as ACR Soundsystem. We were listening to a lot of new music at the time and when we find something good, new and fresh we share it with each other, which helps the creative process.”

You recorded your new album at your studio in Ancoats. How are places such as Ancoats and Salford, Manchester’s overlooked sister city, faring with the massive architectural rebirth?

MM: “It wasn’t our own studio, it’s a studio called Oxygene, which is Christophe Bride’s studio – a friend for many years. It’s just off Blackfriars in Salford.

“I also recorded bits of my guitar, trumpet, percussion and vocoder in my own studio at home, and so did Donald and Jez in theirs. It’s a new way of working for us. Oxygene is now our second home and Christophe is part of the Ratio family.

“Manchester is Manchester to us whether it be Salford, Ancoats, Wythenshawe, Stockport … We are all part of the Republic of Mancunia.”

And how do you find the new Manchester? The dizzying towers, the complete overhaul of some areas? Do you feel Manchester has lot a little of that surreal edge of the ‘Fiery Jack’ of The Fall; the Dickensian characters and areas?

MM: “Manchester is like any other large city: there is good and bad. You can’t stand in the way of development and change.

“I’m more worried about our nation as a whole and how it has become so polarised and right wing. Young people are starting to stand up and use their voice and hopefully they will do this even more and make change happen in the future. We need more love and empathy in this world right now.”

You’ve said that the Mute retrospectives have almost set the seal on the past. Is this, in some ways, an unshackling?

MM.“We are very proud of our back catalogue but even more proud of ACR Loco. Nothing we have ever done has been shackling.”

How has lockdown treated you? I know it’s still an ongoing thing to a degree in Lancashire …

MM: “I’ve been in my studio seven days a week, so it’s been good. We have done some reworks for AK/DK, Baba Ali and Number during lockdown and starting ideas for the next album. We have missed doing gigs, though; our last gigs were in Tokyo back in January this year.”

What were your musical discoveries of lockdown; and indeed, rediscoveries?

MM: “Discoveries: Sault’s last album, Shabaka Hutchings; rediscoveries: Earth Jones, by Elvin Jones, and Milton, by Milton Nascimento.”

There’s a cast of the Mancunian great and the good involved on the new one: Denise Johnson, Mike Joyce … was it good to revisit old working relationships, find new paths, collaborate with people you’ve always meant to?

DJ: “Denise has recorded with ACR since 1990 so having D involved on our records was always second nature to us. On this record we ask some friends to collaborate with us whose outlooks were similar to ours, so we extended invites to Mike Joyce, of The Smiths; Gabe Gurnsey, of Factory Floor; Eric Random; and Maria Uzor and Gemma Cullingford, of Sink Ya Teeth.”

MM: “As well as our friends that Donald’s mentioned, we have a really strong band at the moment with Tony (who has been with us since 1985), who writes amazing melodies and brass lines; and Matt, who joined us a couple of years ago and it’s like having Herbie Hancock meets Bernie Worrell in the band. But he totally gets ACR and the ethereal element as well, which is something not everyone can grasp.”

And of course, we can’t but pause an observe such a sad and unexpected loss in Denise’s death in July …

MM: “We miss Denise so much and we are blessed to have recorded with her since 1990 and on our latest album. She is irreplaceable.”

“Yo Yo Gi” [from ACR Loco] was named for a suburb of Shibuya where you spent some time. I understand it’s a pretty happening area. How was that? Was it surreal?

MM: “We included some dialogue from the announcements on the trains and from the stations in Tokyo. We went through Yoyogi on the train and thought it would make a good title for the song which was first called ‘Cowbell’, and then ‘Dirty Voltage’. and then ‘Yo Yo Gi’. We finished the song as soon as we returned from Japan in January this year; we were on a high from that visit.”

I see nods to the great tradition of Mancunian music in the album, just here and there; a real Whitworth St West texture in ‘Yo Yo Gi’, the effortless and graceful pop of ‘Berlin’ … and of course, Whitworth St West is such a loss to a certain cultural club wave. At least until the all-of-this, where’s Manchester’s musical heart these days?

MM: “We’ll always have nods to Manchester in our music because that is where we are from. Mancunians tend to spend too much time and energy celebrating the past. There is a lot of good music coming out of London with the new young jazz scene there. Manchester needs to start innovating again, otherwise we will be left behind.

“Happening clubs in Manchester are The White Hotel and Hidden; and the best all-round venue with live bands, club nights and DJs is Yes. Freight Island is a new outdoor events space, which has some great DJs coming up.”

‘Taxi Guy’ has this real cinematic sweep and a story blurring in its weave. To me, it’s very Moss Side Story [Barry Adamson’s 1989 imaginary soundtrack]…

MM. “More ‘Jazz band from Wythenshawe Story!’. Joking aside it’s one of my favourite tunes on the album and we wrote and recorded the majority of that in a day. It’s based on an idea that we did on our 40th anniversary tour last year, where we came out into the audience at the end of our set playing percussion. That was based on an idea where we saw Dave Valentine do it in New York in 1981.”

More years than I currently care to add in music, coming up alongside punk in that creative explosion – how so you feel about the way the industry has morphed?

MM: “Things change, we have seen a lot of changes in our 40-plus years in the industry. Good music will always stand out, but it is increasingly difficult for artists to make it pay: as in make it a career.”

The funk: the funk is so tough, so absolutely under-your-skin irresistible and also leftfield on this one. Do you find it a musical heartland with more to give?

DJ: “ACR’s (C Funk) has always had an industrial edge, which is a fusion of all our different personalities and our vast combined record collections. There are many templates to choose from, but one of our favourites is George Clinton P-Funk which is weird, wonderful and on the one; it definitely helped us to develop our own C Funk.”

Where are the next challenges?

MM: “We have two EPs coming out early next year; we will be starting the next album in November, and touring the UK in November 2021.”

Donald, Martin; thank you for your time.

A Certain Ratio’s ACR Loco is available now on CD, cassette and limited edition coloured vinyl, the colour of which will be a randomly packed white, blue, red and turquoise disc, each colour of varying pressing numbers. Order yours via Mute, here, or visit your favourite local record store.

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