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Interview: Lee Perry

Interview: Lee Perry

Interview: Lee Perry

By on - Photos by Michael Grein - 1 comment

"Don't want to talk to the devil, me want to talk to God. So you got to put the demon away, so you can understand God fully"

Sampler

You’re never sure what’ll happen when you interview Lee Perry. Since 1999, I’ve spoken with the reggae originator at least half a dozen times and every time we’ve connected has been different. The first few times we spoke, Lee rarely broke out of character – almost everything he said was outrageous, stream of consciousness, an exercise in performance art. I thought that’s all there was to the public Mr. Perry. Then, while speaking to Clinton Fearon, the former Black Ark bassist and member of the original Gladiators, shared this with me, "If you get past the joking, Scratch is a very sensitive man. A sensitive intelligent man." I think I always knew that, but had accepted that I may never meet the real Lee Perry and only ever have the chance to meet ‘Scratch.’ Like Bob Dylan, another septuagenarian genius, once said ‘I’m only Bob Dylan when I have to be’, I sensed that Mr. Perry insulated himself from the public by hiding behind his ‘Scratch’ persona. Really, after more than four decades in the music business and the inane questions most journalists ask, who could blame him? But, in recent years, something has shifted. I don’t know whether it’s tied into Perry’s decision to quit smoking pot or if his advancing years have made him more careful about communicating clearly in order to preserve his legacy, but the last few times we’ve spoken, Lee has been patient, clear and sincere – and full of gratitude that his music has survived and found a whole new generation of listeners.

Over the past half decade or so, Lee has been recording and touring with a vengeance. Collaborations with State of Emergency, Andrew WK, Adrian Sherwood as well as ‘Rise Again’, the long awaited collaboration with Bill Laswell give evidence to a late career renaissance that has few parallels in popular music. (Johnny Cash’s prolific series of albums with Rick Rubin recorded in his final years come to mind) I recently arranged to speak with Lee from his home in Switzerland. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Lee Perry

Lee, it’s good to finally get you on the phone. How are you?

I’m doing fine. I was inside the bath last time you called me. I am sorry, I didn’t hear your call. I was making holy water. But, this is a good time to talk. Which of my records do you want to talk about?

(Ha Ha) That question says a lot in itself. There aren’t many other artists who put out as many records as you do. It must be hard for you to keep track. I wanted to talk to you about ‘Rise Again’ – the new record you did with Bill Laswell.

Oh! Bill Laswell. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah…… that man. Hmmmm. Perhaps it’s better that you tell me what you think about this record. To tell you the truth, I’ve only heard it one time.

Perhaps it’s better that you tell me what you think about this record. To tell you the truth, I’ve only heard it one time

Once! I’ve been listening to it for weeks.

Then, I am listening to you now. Tell me what you think.

Well, you know Bill Laswell –

Yes, he was recommended to me –

I really like what he does. He has obviously been influenced by your music. Is that something you picked up on?

Hmmm…. Tell me more.

His delays, the incongruous sound collages remind me of some of your work with The Congos. You and Bill sound very well suited to each other – which certainly hasn’t always been the case when you’ve worked with other producers. Do you work with each producer a little differently, or does your vision take over the project and the producer is a kind of facilitator? Or, how do you approach collaboration? You spent most of your career in the producer’s seat.

Lee Perry - Rise AgainHa Ha….That’s right. I was the producer, so I work the same with every producer who comes to me.

So, let’s talk about your record with Bill Laswell. It sounds like a very successful collaboration that really mirrors the best of both of your approaches to music.

OK. Yes, this was the first time I worked with him. It was a practical decision. I would say it was an enjoyable experience because I don’t want to be considered just as one type of artist or to work with just one type of artist. I want to be an international artist. So, ‘Rise Again’ – this is like a dream come true because I wanted to do some music that would reach out past Jamaica and work with musicians who aren’t from Jamaica to reach the international community. I wanted something a little broader.

And, Bill Laswell works with a lot of musicians from Africa, India, America – probably people you wouldn’t normally have the chance to work with.

Yeah. I need international exposure and international flavor. This is a man of good taste. If this record became a hit, it would make me very happy.

It would make me happy, too. My favourite track is the collaboration with Gigi, the Ethiopian singer. I love her work and the two of you sound very comfortable singing together.

Who is Gigi?

The Ethiopian woman who sung on ‘Orthodox’

Does it sound good? You tell me for - let me tell you the truth now. What happened is that I listened to the record one time. When we were recording it, I was on tour and would stop off for a few days and do some voicing. Since then I haven’t dealt with it or listened to it. I haven’t had much time. I don’t know what to tell you. I’m interviewing you now. So you tell me what you think about it? Ha Ha.

Well, on that track I love when you sing ‘I’m an orthodox.’ Is there anything about you that is orthodox – you know in the usual sense?

I’m an orthodox! Orthodox! Hehehe….. The reality is that Ethiopian orthodox – have a huge knowledge - are the original force from Africa. Everything has been copied from Africa. Things have expanded since then. It would be too boring to see only one set of people, but now all the people can get together to form one new group of people. It is wonderful.

I’m an orthodox! Orthodox! The reality is that Ethiopian orthodox – have a huge knowledge - are the original force from Africa. Everything has been copied from Africa

It is wonderful. I find it very interesting that you’ve only listened to ‘Rise Up’ once. You must have been very busy. Are you recording again? Touring again?

I’m not thinking about the next one already. It is no problem for me to have ideas for new songs, but I want to give this one a run of time so people can listen and give me their idea about whether they like it or not, so I can think about what to record in the future. So, let me interview you about that some more – Tell me about this record some more!

What I think is that the songs sound more like classic Lee Perry than we’ve heard in a long time. A lot of seventies sounds and Congos type vibes – I think Bill did his homework before he got together with you. He has obviously listened to and understood your music. He recorded some hard hitting sounds for you to sing over.

Lee PerryYeah yeah – good. This is one of those records that comes out that I never got to know exactly what goes on as it was being made, so I got to listen to it only one time. I came in to voice it and I had only one day, then I went on tour, and then I toured a couple of weeks, got a message, got a copy of the music, got to sing it and then toured a bit again. It was so busy a time, but if you tell me that you love it, I’m so glad that you love it. You’ve listened to my music for a long time, I think -

Coming up to 35 years

Thank you very much.

You know, it is a very good piece of work. Let’s talk about lyrics. Do you walk in with them to the studio, or do you hear the lyrics and improvise around them?

Well, the sound and I made a positive connection during the creation of this record. The songs sometimes sang their melodies to me. When the songs sing their melody to me, the songs give me the words to sing. So, there was a creative force working with me that telling me the words and I went in front of the mic and the songs told me what to sing, what to say. I am overblessed actually. I am well blessed.

So, like you sing – the lyrics come from a higher level!

They come straight to the ears. I hear the voice I hear the melody. I hear a special blessing. That’s why I work. That’s how I work. I told this to Bob (Marley). Open yourself up. And after I stop smoke and drink alcohol, it all comes to me very clearly. That’s the power of the self, and if you disobey, you’ll be cut down. Your soul will be cut off. You’ll go to the demons.

In the Black Ark studio we did too much alcohol and cigarettes and Godless smoking, so then I had to make a sacrifice because the smoke and the alcohol made so I couldn’t hear the words clearly and it all was confusion

I remember you told me once that you used to think smoke and alcohol gave you the lyrics –

No probably never as far as alcohol. Alcohol never gave me no lyrics. I had to stop the alcohol by making a sacrifice. In the Black Ark studio we did too much alcohol and cigarettes and Godless smoking, so then I had to make a sacrifice because the smoke and the alcohol made so I couldn’t hear the words clearly and it all was confusion. Mixed the holy spirit into music because the holy spirit is the opposite of alcohol. The holy spirit below and the alcohol allows – you’ve got to be careful….. It’s like I had to do something or commit suicide to stop the voices. The wrong voices. Cigarette and alcohol and beer and wine – God himself is a spirit. God is pure and God is clear. So, to see God as a spirit, you have to put the alcoholic spirit away.

Amen

The spirit is negative. Don’t want to talk to the devil, me want to talk to God. So you got to put the demon away, so you can understand God fully.

You say you’ve been blessed, and in terms of creating a body of work, you have been overblessed. When you look back over your career, are you satisfied with what you’ve brought to life?

Yes, satisfied. Yep, you could be producing good songs and bad songs because you just want the money. You have to decide these things. You can produce some very bad music and make money, but you have to decide and understand that God will provide and that you don’t have to make bad music. Start to think about the prophets like Moses and the powerful ones and understand what God has given to those prophets. What you need. When you try to reach for that, if you’re open to the music, the door will open for you. You find the words you are looking for and the words will have power that will endure. You go into the lock and open the lock. I opened the lock and I don’t need the dreadlocks any more. (uncontrolled laughter)

Jah didn’t tell people that to be holy you need dreadlocks. To be alive man is what you need

I have the words. I opened the lock and trimmed the dreadlocks. I came to the understanding that dreadlocks themselves cannot rule because dreadlock have become a fashion for many people. It’s a hairstyle. All the singers in Jamaica are dreadlocks. All the musicians are dreadlocks. It’s a hairstyle! It’s a commercial.

Jah didn’t tell people that to be holy you need dreadlocks. To be alive man is what you need. I give thanks to Bill Laswell and his idea about me and his ideas about the facts of life and revelation.

Lee Perry

Something we’ve talked about before is that you’re very hard for some people to pigeon hole. By that I mean that you’re a very serious artist in a lot of ways. What you’ve contributed to our understanding of mixing, sampling has changed music, but I don’t think you’ve received the attention you deserve because you might sing about God and piss and shit in the same song. Do you think people miss the message because of your weird sense of humour?

Yes, I think that’s true, but I also think I talk about nature, too and that is serious. Nature is what we have and what we are losing. Nature is life and part of nature is that we must have to pee pee. Pee pee. You understand ‘pee pee’

Nature is what we have and what we are losing

It’s part of life, but why sing about it?

Pee pee – without it, life would be very bad or very sad. You can’t do nothing then. Jah comes to me with music everywhere – on the toilet. On my toilet I hear rhythms. I wrote ‘Duppy Conquerer’ on my toilet. I wrote the words on the toilet.

So, did you hold onto the lyrics for a while, or did you write them on toilet paper and run right to the studio to record?

First time, me have to have a book to write inspirations down, so then I had to think like a computer. I remembered the words – the first ones and wrote them on toilet paper. Kept the toilet paper….

(laugh)

It makes you laugh! Good! So as far as lyrics, we are creative computers. It is a system. The next words came after the first words. You have to think like a computer. The first word is A and the last word is Z. So, you can take A-Z-A and call it AZA. I told Bob this about songwriting. You can create your own words. I want to say that ‘A’ is the alphabet opened and ‘Z’ is the alphabet closed. I don’t tell nobody else this – it’s how a computer works. I’m explaining it to you. Think like a computer to write songs. So, you say AB and Z again and you have ABA - AZA ABA

So you can say ABBA, Jah Jah. Jah Jah – Roger – Ro Jah. Allah AJA. Allah ABA. That’s a computer. That’s a new song! So, you try –

(some interactive word play between interviewer and subject. Lines continue to blur between them)

Well, you can construct words like that. Even Bob can’t show that – you are the first one to grasp that. Ha ha. He he. We have some new songs.

Jah comes to me with music everywhere – on the toilet. On my toilet I hear rhythms. I wrote 'Duppy Conquerer' on my toilet

Just like that! The thing that impresses me so much every time we speak is how awake and alive you are to creative opportunities in each second of life. I can feel you vibrating over the phone lines.

I’m never so happy in my life before. Thank you very much for telling me what you think about the record. I want to be able to take this all to the next level. Do you like Bill’s music – in itself?

I do for the most part – depending on the project. His sound reminds me of yours with the paint stirred a little more thickly. He brings out the best in you and you bring out the best in him.

I think that is true. OK! You take care. Jah bless you.

And you!

Until the next!

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Read comments (1)


Posted by Kelly M on 12.05.2012
Great muzik from a living legend.

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