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Interview: Neil Perch from Zion Train

Interview: Neil Perch from Zion Train

Interview: Neil Perch from Zion Train

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"The turning point for me was when I first saw the Jah Shaka sound play"


Maintaining a high-impact and grueling touring schedule, the Zion Train pulled into Ireland recently to deposit their wonderful reggae dub set in a dance frenzied acid house stylee. Now comprised of Dubdadda (vocals), David Fullwood (trumpet) and Lucas Petter (trombone), with long-time stalwart Neil Perch fuelling the Train’s engine, the band succeeded where many others are failing. To pull ‘full houses’ on successive nights at ‘financially challenged’ venues is no mean feat - except that is, if you have the track record, pedigree and loyal following that this band enjoy.

Prior to taking the stage, Perch threatened to light up the dressing room with a series of incendiary and insightful observations – ably assisted by his front man Dubdadda.  

Neil Perch

To start, is there anything you want to get off your chest?

Well it’s pissing rain here in Dublin and I don’t like getting wet. But apart from that it’s wonderful to be in Ireland! … there you go, that’s off me chest!

When did it first dawn on you that ‘music’ was going to play a big part in your life?

The turning point for me was when I first saw the Jah Shaka sound play. Like others, I was a music fan before that, collecting records and listening to music. But the level of energy in the experience seeing Shaka sound for the first time (for me) made it something special, something that was worth a dedication rather than an interest. It was elevating. That was actually a Shaka dance in a four way sound clash, with Jah Shaka, Saxon Sound, Sir Zima (the Ethiopian World Federation Sound representatives) and Supertone (another South London outfit). I’d never been to such an event before. I didn’t like the other three sounds, as their whole vibe was a bit weird for me. One was overly confrontational and the others were dancehall sounds and I wasn’t really into that. But Shaka was only playing about 30 seconds when it hit – and the energy in that (first) 30 seconds was magnificent. He played on into the early hours, until he was eventually made to stop by the promoter!

It's powerful and magical when music is used to pull emotions and images through people's heads without actually speaking to them

In music, who has had the greatest influence on you?

It’s hard to pin that down to one thing really. Putting it in context, King Tubby - for music. For playing music, it would have to be Shaka again. But I’m inspired by lots of musicians who have nothing to do with dub music or reggae – Ravi Shankar and Jimi Hendrix are great inspirations. Anyone from any genre who uses the power of music to actually transform emotions is an influence – even those who tap unpopular emotions or are atonal or ‘dark blue’ and are physically disturbing are good in a sharp contrast context – as they tap into or display the whole gamut of things It’s powerful and magical when music is used to pull emotions and images through people’s heads without actually speaking to them. Anyone who can do that magic is a musical inspiration for me.

How did Zion Train start?

It started from a split in a sound system called ‘The Train’. It was a black urban music sound system in Oxford run by myself and two others. We did some reggae roots and dub rather than hip hop – so Zion Train emerged as a sound system (with Ben Hamilton) from that. Zion Train started as a recording entity in 1990 with myself and Colin Cod.

Are you working on any notable projects at present?

Well, maintaining my sobriety is project No. 1! (Dubdadda: It’s his lifelong task!). Seriously though, I’ve been making lots of new music, which is interesting as I’m still thinking about how I’m going to present it. As far as I’m concerned ‘the album’ is dead and the digital format rules – and it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an album in the same way as a CD or vinyl did. But I’m involved in a range of musical projects and I’m streaming then onto the internet as soon as they’re in finished version format. I’ve just done a mix of Horace Andy’s ‘Just Say Who’ with an Italian link, and there’s a session scheduled shortly in London for some new Zion Train rhythms with brass overdubs and Dubdadda voicing – but we don’t know what format that will be released in just yet. And we’ve got some inputs there from YT, Ireland’s Cian Finn and an Indian MC (Danny) amongst others –so we’re trying to spread things around. And I’ve got two composition projects going, one on electronic rhythms and the other with acoustic rhythms.

'The album' is dead and the digital format rules

To date, what has given you the greatest satisfaction in music?

It’s still having my first tune played by my favourite sound system – Shaka’s - which is a long time ago. When I started making tunes, my one sole drive was to have my tune played in the context in which I first had dub music turn me on – played by Shaka! To have it played by other sounds would be nice, but my thing was that Shaka is my sound. I wanted him to play my tune. Shaka played my first vinyl tune (released in 1991) with Baby Mother\Karen Dubarry - the mother of my son  - on vocals and it was a wonderful feeling. Around the same time there was the popular late night KISS FM roots show called Joey Jay’s and Shaka played (my) tune on it – and that was me, I was done, ambition sorted. It’s liberating to feel you’ve reached the ceiling of something.

To date, what has been your greatest disappointment in music?

(Dubdadda: Meeting some of my roots music heroes – I won’t mention them by name – and realising that they’re complete egotistical wankers! That was really upsetting for me personally.) He’s right, it’s true – when you engage with music from the heart, that really hurts. My greatest disappointment is similar to that, but more global – it’s to do with ego and cash ruling the world of music. It’s constant. When I see what runs the music business in contrast with the power I know music can elicit, I’m really really tragically disappointed with humanity’s use of music.    

Greatest disappointment is to do with ego and cash ruling the world of music

You’ve worked with many artists. Best memories?

That’s a difficult question to answer with Dubdadda sitting there (Dubdadda: Meeting me!). What’s very nice is when you get to work with people who are big and are very well known and have a big financial pull and they’re very normal and down to earth. They’re the sort of people I’d choose to work with – the talented and humble ones. And they’re unusual in the reggae business. As an example, I recall working on an album with UB40. Two years later I went backstage after one of their shows and was impressed by Astro’s (of UB40) generous greeting. He was the only one who knew who I was in respect of their music career. Notably it was Ali Campbell who encouraged my participation (in their thirteenth album), but he had left by then. But the other seven guys, professional musicians, didn’t know me, though I’d mixed their second last album. I’m not being negative about them, it’s just that it’s sad to see the music turn into that sort of business. As I said before, I love the magic of the music or doing a gig, as a reward for the rigours of touring.

You’ve performed in many countries. Best memories?

Neil PerchSitting with Dubdadda half way up a mountain in Kyoto, in an open air Japanese bath, surrounded by lovely pine forested mountains was special – even if there was a naked Mancunian man (n.b. Dubdadda is from Manchester) in the tub!

Any comment on the music business?

Some things have got quite good - with the loss of revenue from physical music sales. It means that a lot of things have been equalised in terms of the music creators and the platforms they can build themselves to be listened to. And the motivation for being in music has changed for a lot of people. There isn’t the scope to make a pile of cash from doing 2 CDs on your laptop. But you can make 2 CDs on your laptop and express yourself and have it heard, without a financial incentive. It does mean that some terrible electronic music is being made – but it’s not for me to censor people’s output, but overall I think that’s progressive. It’s nice that everyone can do it.

Favourite politician?

At the moment it’s (the late) Hugo Chavez. The West viewed Chavez as their enemy, but also as a dictator who did many bad things. Now I’m a great believer that anyone who has got to a position of power has had to ‘dance with the devil’ and do some naughty things. But the day when his remains were paraded through his own capital city 200,000 (of those he supposedly oppressed) came on to the streets, weeping and shouting ‘We’re all Chavez’, and I thought how many are going to turn out in London at Margaret Thatcher’s passing. I’m no great fan of politicians generally – I don’t trust any of them really. People are motivated by ego too often. Chavez was less like that, but those people loved him because he changed their lives.

Least favourite politician?

It’s hard to choose from a long list. My heart would say (currently) David Cameron, but then you have Cyril Smith (former British Member of Parliament) the twenty-five stone man who repeatedly raped young boys – he’s not too pleasant a character. Then there’s  Leon Brittain (former Vice President of the European Commission and British Home Secretary) who still denies having a whole dossier on paedophile Tory MPs. I once saw Brittain at Paddington Tube Station (London) when he was in office and I still regret not punching him in the face. I know it’s a horrible feeling to have about any human being, but I can honestly say that to this day that I still regret not punching him in the face, because I knew who he was and that was how he made me feel.

Anyone who has got to a position of power has had to 'dance with the devil' and do some naughty things

Greatest achievement?

Being able to do what I love, most days of my life.

Biggest disappointment?

If I’m completely honest, it would be the death of people close to me.

Interests outside music?

Too many that I wouldn’t dare to mention, but I do have a wonderful wife and a lovely dog!

Greatest life influence?

The sunlight!

Remaining ambitions?

I’d like to continue in the position I’m now in, to be able to pass my days doing one of the things I most enjoy in life and being able to dictate (more or less) my own timetable. I think that’s a real gift in the modern world – and that’s as ambitious as I get, as it’s a blessing and the world is full of people with many less blessings.

Will you live out your life in Cologne?

I don’t know. I doubt it. I don’t think I’ll live out my life in a city. I don’t think it’s healthy to live in a city over a long period of time. I’ve lived in cities and the country. Cologne is a nice small-sized city for me and I enjoy it, but I think I’d like to be amongst less people. Somewhere warm would suit – Spain or the Caribbean! You know the cold dark weather does affect your spirit over time. There’s a reason the Caribbean people have the temperament they do and why Northern people have the temperament they do. It’s not just culture, it’s also brought about by the environment\heat. But it’s a privilege also to be able to choose where to live life – most live where they can. To be choosy would be a happy position to be in.

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