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Interview: Al Breadwinner

Interview: Al Breadwinner

Interview: Al Breadwinner

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - 3 comments

"Big Youth was playing football with my dog in the garden. He just fit right in"


By the late 1980s, analogue recording no longer dominated Jamaican music. And while the use of live instruments ultimately survived the computer revolution, today they tend to be transferred into digital audio suites like ProTools and Logic.

Yet, in a few outposts dotted around reggae-adopting nations, younger foreign producers continue to create using the vintage gear that introduced reggae to the world. They include Prince Fatty in Brighton, Roberto Sanchez in Santander, Victor Rice in Brazil and Ticklah in New York.

Manchester’s Al Redfern, AKA Al Breadwinner, is perhaps slightly less well-known, but no less respected. And his lower international profile is at least partly the result of the affable, straight-talking producer-engineer and multi-instrumentalist being a little too relaxed about getting his work out there! Next month, he finally releases the long-awaited album By The Sweat Of My Brow featuring collaborations with Big Youth, Cristiano Jahvoice, City Culture, Stevie SOTunes, Rayon Walker and Diana Bada.

Angus Taylor visited Al at his Bakery home studio as he was preparing for a live broadcast on the internet station Versionist Radio. There, over several cups of tea, Al told his story in his unfussy way….

Al Breadwinner

How did music find you?

I just heard it and thought “That’s for me” kind of thing! I was lucky enough to have a friend whose parents were of the hippie persuasion, with a massive reggae and 60s collection. They had a room called Room Seven in this big old weaver’s cottage and we were allowed to listen to vinyl all we liked. That was the inspiration in the early days.

What about actually playing music?

We started our first band in primary school called The Magic Mushrooms! We were pretty weird kids to be honest. We thought we were hippies at 9 years old. This was the late 80s. I started high school in 1990. Everyone else was wearing skinny jeans. We used to wear flares and that.

I was lucky enough to have a friend whose parents had a massive reggae and 60s collection

How did you focus on reggae?

It’s always Bob Marley for everyone isn’t it? You hear the Bob Marley Island stuff. This was through the friend whose parents had the amazing record collection. I started buying music myself which was cassettes in those days. The first two compilations I got were a Jimi Hendrix one called Cornerstones and a Bob Marley one which was about 30 of the Lee Perry productions – all the early ones, everything crammed onto one cassette. It had a picture of Bob live in about 1977 on the front. It was in this little second hand record shop that used to do tapes for about a pound each. That just captivated me – I thought “What the hell is this?”

What was the first instrument you picked up?

Bass guitar. I was lucky enough to have a big bedroom as a kid in the family home and, knowing lots of musicians who didn’t have a big bedroom, I ended up with lots of drum kits in my room and various instruments, storing them for people - so you’re going to get on the drum kit and start hitting it, aren’t you? We had quite a big culture of jamming really. Being from Rochdale there weren’t that many likeminded people so when you’d find the right people and get together, we used to just jam for hours. Psychedelic jamming all through the night taking acid and all sorts. You just kind of get a feel for it, bouncing off people and being in various bands and all that, you just pick it all up along the way.

How did you start buying all your analogue kit?

Well the analogue world started from my Tascam Teac 388 8 track built into the mini-desk. It’s a bit like the old Tascam Portastudios – the cassette ones – but a slightly more advanced version that records on a quarter inch reel tape. The first thing I started on, I think, was one of the Portastudios, just started playing around on a friend’s one. Then I bought digital kit which I really didn’t like using – I didn’t like the sound it created when I recorded the drums.

The Tascam Teac 388 was built for making film soundtracks to sync with all the 80s video editing equipment – there’s a big sync thing on the back to plug it into your video and do your soundtracks over 8 tracks for your film dialogue. I got it from a keys player called John Ellis, he’s been in a ska band that’s been around for years and he also played with the guys from Cinematic Orchestra – he’s one of the famous Manchester keyboard players. He used to use it for recording in his home studio but he wasn’t using it anymore and wanted 200 quid! (laughs)

We started our first band in primary school called The Magic Mushrooms

You also use a Studer B67 quarter inch tape machine for mixing.

That came from King Spinna, the guys who used to do Blood & Fire. That was the old machine that sat in their office playing all the old Jamaican master tapes back in the day. All those wonderful releases – a lot of them came through that machine there.

And I see you have a Mu-Tron phasor.

That was something I’d always wanted obviously being a fan of Lee Perry’s sound. If you want that spongy kind of squelchy phase that’s the only machine that does that kind of sound. I was lucky enough to get that cheap off a guy who was in Sweden and used to live in America. He bought it over in America in the 70s, moved to Sweden and couldn’t sell it there. No one would pay the postage to send it back to America so I got it really cheap. It had a big dent in it so I had to take the case off and hammer it out.

What are the other important components of the studio?

Everything becomes essential as soon as you get it! As soon as you start using it, it becomes “How did I live without this?” The most recent thing is this valve compressor. I’ve never really had valves in the studio. The mixing desk runs into that and it compresses it, runs it through valve stages to warm it and then it hits the tape. It’s kind of a way of reining it in because you’ve got wild effects going off and delays jumping out of the mix so it kind of tames it because compressors make the volume squash a bit.

Anyone who's pushing the boat out – that's the kind of stuff that appeals to me

Who’s your biggest production influence? Lee Perry?

I find it hard to do lists of anything. You see all these lists of the Top Ten albums. Give me a top thousand and I’ll think about it! Anyone who’s doing something different and experimenting and pushing the boat out – that’s the kind of stuff that appeals to me. Coming up with new sound and new vibes – some people just had a way with it. Glen Brown was a great producer. He had a vibe of his own. Niney as well. He had some crazy vibes going on. He had his own sound. It amazes me that these people didn’t have their own studio a lot of the time. They were using other people’s studios but they managed to have their own sound. If you can keep a uniform thread through your works when using someone’s facilities that is really something quite special.

A lot of it came down to the musicians they used. But also the way they used to communicate to them. In Scratch and Niney’s case often through the medium of dance! Do you ever do that?

Al Breadwinner(laughs) I’m often just on my own. I got a bit disillusioned with musicians and getting the session organised – so and so’s two hours late, so and so’s three hours late, this guy didn’t even turn up. That’s why I kind of learnt everything myself. I just learned to stockpile rhythms and have stuff ready for when singers and brass players come. Lee Perry operated in a similar way. He did ten rhythms in a day and then when a singer came he could say “I’ve got this and this and this”. If they came with a song you find the rhythm to fit the song.

Producers getting fed up with relying on musicians was one reason why digital production got big in Jamaica. Why do you prefer analogue?

It’s just purely how it appeals to the ear. Most digital sounds, they just don’t move me if you know what I mean? There’s just something about analogue warmth and the depth of the way it’s recorded. I think there have been studies into how it actually physically affects the brain. They’ve stuck people in MRI machines and played them mp3s and the brain doesn’t do anything. But then full quality vinyl and the brain is doing all this crazy activity. It actually physically affects you I think. You can hear it – can’t you? You know what appeals to you in terms of sound and when something appeals to you – it hits you. Some people even get emotional. Some people will be brought to tears by music whereas some people don’t even hear music. It’s a massive scale. You kind of know what hits you – that’s how I see it.

Most digital sounds, they just don't move me

Do you like modern reggae? Is there anyone out there that you like?

I don’t listen to much modern reggae to be honest. Obviously I hear quite a bit through doing my show on the radio and then listening to friends’ shows where a lot of modern stuff gets played. To me it just doesn’t compare to the original stuff – the vibe and the pure energy and soul that was thrown into it in the day. But it’s mainly the recording techniques. The actual physical sounds.

But you’ve talked about these great innovators from the 70s. Don’t skilled producers like yourself have a duty to innovate and push things forward? Couldn’t you integrate what’s happening now and create something that’s both old and new?

(laughs) But I don’t think I could make anything similar to what’s going on now in terms of the reggae scene. I don’t think I’ve got it in me or the capability to do it. I can’t help sounding a bit low-fi and all the music I listen to is from that era, the 60s and 70s, from all over the world – Africa, America, Cuba. It seems the equipment dictated pure inspiration around the world. If you look at the 70s where all this equipment comes from – it was being widely used around the world and people were coming up with all this amazing stuff in little pockets all over the world. It’s got to be something to do with the equipment inspiring the sounds.

I don't listen to much modern reggae to be honest

Today there are little pockets of people still using this kind of equipment to make reggae around the world. What do you think of people like Roberto Sanchez in Spain and Prince Fatty in Brighton?

It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve noticed people starting to do this. When I started putting videos up on YouTube the only person I could find who was doing a similar thing was Victor Rice. Nobody else was doing it but it seems in the last couple of years loads of people are doing it. I get messages all the time on Facebook and YouTube saying “You’ve inspired me to buy a reel to reel” and things like that. One or two a week I get from random people around the world saying “Thanks man”. It’s really nice! (laughs)

Prince Fatty went digital on his last album with Horseman and Sanchez is now saying he is moving towards the 80s and a more personal style of mixing. Do you think you’d ever move in that direction?

I’ve not got past ’83 yet. It took me a while to get into the 80s to be honest. It’s only in the last two or three years that I’ve actually got to dancehall in the 80s. I kind of reliving it a few years down the line. I’m in about 1983 now but I’m not sure I want to go beyond! (laughs)

Which artists have you enjoyed working with the most?

Big Youth was a gem. One of the nicest dudes I’ve ever come across. He was playing football with my dog in the garden. He just fit right in. He came here with his nephew. He was in London doing a gig down there and his nephew just drove him up to do a session. That was through King Spinna again. I think they had some royalties for him and said “Come up and we’ll give you the royalties and come and do a session with Breadwinner”. He was a lovely dude.

I get messages all the time on Facebook and YouTube saying "You've inspired me to buy a reel to reel"

You supported Lee Perry on tour. What was he like?

I didn’t chat with him. He kind of instantly got my back up really because we were promised a dressing room and I had a lot of expensive equipment that I had to put in the gangway going up to the stage which annoyed me a bit. I’ve heard his missus can be a little harsh and I think they wanted their own dressing room. The band had one and they wanted one to themselves which should have been ours so we ended up sharing with the band. We did four shows with him and it was the same every time.

I’m not sure if it was the last or the next to last one but he was on stage and we decided we were going to go home early and beat the rush. My stuff’s all stacked up in the gangway and he’s just come off for his encore and we would have loaded it up but we thought “He’s busy, let’s get it out before he comes off”. Then he wandered off before his encore and started wrapping up all my equipment in mic leads and cleansing it all with fire and shit. The mic he was using on stage was wrapped around my reel to reel. I just thought “Aw, I’m just trying to peacefully get out and you’re the reason we’re in the hallway and now you’re wrapping my shit up!”

Al Breadwinner

Recently he’s been working with younger producers - like the UK's Daniel Boyle - who enjoy the vintage sounds he used to make. I guess it’s unlikely you’ll do an album with him?

(laughs) I don’t know. I’m quite a mellow sort and I don’t know if we’d get on to be honest! Maybe if he was in the right frame of mind or whatever, it might be a possibility. But to be honest I love his work at Black Ark and before - and 1980 that was the last time he produced anything I really liked. When you think about it, that was 35 years ago. Vibes change in 35 years don’t they?

What are the strengths and challenges of being based in Manchester as opposed to being based in London, Kingston or anywhere else?

It’s cheap to live in Manchester! (laughs) And there are some great artists kicking around.

Prince Hammer is based here.

Yeah, I’ve done a bit of work for him. Transferring tapes for him and stuff. Bobby Melody was based here for years. And not far off you’ve got Roy Cousins in Liverpool.

What are you working on right now?

I mixed a dub poetry album this week. It’s a bit of a weird one. Its rhythms that I mixed as a gift as for Gibsy from Versionist Network as a thank you for letting me stay at his place in Corsica. I mixed him an exclusive album in one afternoon. I randomly picked a load of my own rhythm tracks and gave him a wild version of each. He then passed it on to Haji Mike in Cyprus who’s a dub poetry guy and he’s voiced the whole album and sent it back for me to mix. I’ve done it all this week. Run it through the valves, mixed it all on to tape.

I’m planning on starting my label this year and working on getting some vinyl out. It’s been a year since I put anything out. My last 12 inch was a year ago. I’m doing everything myself. I’ve taught myself Photoshop and everything to make the label! That’s the plan to try to release something completely myself. I’m sat on hundreds of tunes and can’t decide what to put out at the moment. (laughs) Because you want it to be killer don’t you? – your first release on a new label. I want to pick the strongest things I’ve got but maybe I’ve not recorded it yet!

Once you start dubbing something you can really change the whole idea of it

Why has it taken so long to put out your own album?

I’ve been busy doing remixes, building up some money to do it basically! Like Island Life Records, Sly and Robbie stuff. To be honest, Sly and Robbie haven’t really put their heart into that, maybe they’re just not into reggae anymore! Well, a few of those have been really nice. Once you start dubbing something you can really change the whole idea of it can’t you? I mixed Gentleman’s Dub Club’s album. I did a B side for them in a dub mix and I did the whole LP as the kind of straight mix which was hard to do. I just set them up and they mixed it here. I just threw them onto tape to get a bit of analogue into it. It was all very computer recorded kind of stuff. I had to set them up and step back because I can’t help fiddling with things! (laughs)

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Read comments (3)

Posted by Thomas P on 11.03.2015
Great interview with a true Maverick of the underground! Al Breadwinner has a wonderful sound that captures the golden period of reggae, truly authentic. In staying true to the format too, it's pleasing that it's a vinyl-only release, to really capture the essence of the riddims. Good luck with the release, one to look out for I'm sure.

Posted by Natty One on 11.03.2015
Enjoyed reading that, give thanks United Reggae and the man Angus! I've been checking out The Breadwinner on YouTube and boy has he got that Black Ark sound nailed! For a humble guy like him to be doing this on his own is a massive achievement - he's got the tunes he deserves the acclaim! Big Up!!!

Posted by Rut on 11.24.2015
Nice interview! If you're into the vintage vibes, check out the Flying Vipers, in the same vein using old gear, analog mixing, etc...

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