Interview: Don Letts, Big Audio Dynamite
A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
Why have Big Audio Dynamite decided to reform in 2011?
From my part, it was a toss-up: do I reform BAD with Mick Jones, or do I get a Harley-Davidson? I figured the band was a safer option. But on a more serious note, Mick had his appetite whetted by going out on tour with Gorillaz. It was very much Damon Albarn’s show, but I think Mick got the taste for running his own show again. And we re-released the first album last year, in a deluxe edition, so we had to go back and listen to our old tracks. I thought: oh God, do we have to? But I was pleasantly surprised, because they didn’t sound like yesterday, or even today. It still sounds like it could be tomorrow.
You were quite prescient in what you did in the Eighties, and ahead of the game in a lot of ways.
Now that everyone’s looking backwards, time has caught up with us. It seems like a lot of the elements that BAD were messing with back in the day have proven to be the ones that have lasted – whether it be Jamaican bass lines, or hip hop beats, or the bits of toasting, the sampled dialogue, the rock and roll guitar. They’re still the things that excite all the guys in the band today.
Whose idea was it to do the reunion?
I’m not on Facebook, but I heard there was some sort of BAD appreciation society, and there was a rumour going around that we were reforming. Coupled with Mick going back out on the road, that put the vibe in the air. Then quite recently, we went to the christening of the bass player Leo’s first son, and the band were all together. What’s interesting about BAD is that we all live in the same area, and we’re all still mates.
So there was no horrible acrimony when you all went your separate ways?
No, and that’s one of the most beautiful parts about it. We all really know each other, for better or for worse. We know exactly what we are. So we’ve gone straight back into being creative. There hasn’t been like a six week period where we have to work out who everybody is. Over the last twenty-five years, we’ve seen each other on a weekly or monthly basis. I almost took that for granted, and we just realised it the other day. That makes it special, and makes it different from other people getting together. That and the fact that nobody’s offered us a lot of money for it! But it’s more about the will of the people!
In terms of your contribution to the band, you seem to be credited with “vocals and sound effects. Does that pretty much cover it?
I’m standing in our studio at the moment. We’ve got our lyrics pinned up around the studio – because we’d forgotten them, predictably. And I’m shocked – because, yeah, I famously was not a musician and am still not a musician, but back in the day, initially I did the whole sampling thing because I had to justify my space. And then that wasn’t really enough, so I started to have a go at writing lyrics with Mick. If you look at the credits, a lot of them are Letts/Jones compositions. But BAD was like The Magnificent Seven: every man was an expert in his field. It was a sum total of the elements that made BAD have its own distinctive identity. I don’t even like talking about myself in the equation, because that starts to separate the roles.
In terms of those samples, and the way you used old movie dialogue and so on, the copyright laws hadn’t really been established in those days. Did you get clearance for them, or did you just nick them and nobody cared?
Listen, thanks for bringing that up! Back in those days, we were the first people to do all that stuff. Other people had dabbled before, like Eno and David Byrne on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. But I think we were the first people to do it commercially and have a hit commercially. And it was all so new, that no one knew what the hell was going on. Consequently, we got away with it. You couldn’t do that now, and you couldn’t do it long after we did it. Check De La Soul, for instance.
I want to be very clear about this: there’s no BAD song that is built on somebody else’s sample or dialogue. It was only ever a bit of salt and pepper to the main meal. So nobody was going to hit us up like Keith Richards and The Verve. That was never gonna happen.
It’s entirely spoken word, isn’t it? There’s nothing else beyond that.
There are sounds and odd little loops, but it’s not like Puff Daddy using a chunk of Led Zeppelin. If you take that out, there’s nothing left. With BAD, you could almost play the songs acoustically. That was our acid test. Mick’s a songsmith, and we’re all particularly honoured to work with the dude. Hey, this is the guy who did The Clash with Joe Strummer. And he can pen a song. He’s not standing here, luckily!
Your biggest singles came from the first album, but your biggest album was actually the second one, No. 10 Upping Street. That’s where Joe Strummer briefly got involved. He co-wrote some of the songs, but he never actually joined the band Was that possibility ever discussed?
Hmm, I can’t deny that outright. When we started, Joe did try and ask Mick to re-join The Clash, but Mick was too happy with what was going on in Big Audio Dynamite. Obviously, I was there when all that Upping Street stuff was going on, and it was a beautiful thing to see them creatively falling in love again. We invited Joe to come down and say hello, and the next thing we knew, he’d taken over. That’s a testament to Joe’s energy. It’s not like he wanted to do that; he just couldn’t help it. That’s what Joe was like. It was a great thing to be involved in. I don’t know about sales and things like that – because let’s be honest, we were more cred than bread.
There’s one track on that album called Ticket, which sounds like it might be a Don Letts vocal. Was that one of yours?
Yeah, thanks for mentioning that! You’re writing lyrics, and obviously some things are great and other things are not so great, and Mick gave me what I call the “Ringo song”. No disrespect to Mr Starr! I always remember saying to Mick “If it’s so bloody good, then how come you ain’t singing that one?” That’s all I remember!
By drawing on early hip hop influences, were BAD conscious at the time of trying to do something brand new? Was that part of your mission?
It was never about being brand new. It was about formulating a sound that we heard all around us. We were never trying to be futuristic, or cleverer than anyone else. We tried to create a hybrid sound from all the elements that turned us on. And we used elements of the media, because that’s what the sampling was, to make a fuller sound. That sounds very pretentious, but when you strip it down, that’s what it was about.
And then Mick already had an involvement with New York hip hop culture, stretching back to Clash days.
Mick had already started dabbling with that in the Clash, as anybody who knows their shit will know.
I’ve got particular fondness for your first single, The Bottom Line, because – by pure chance – I was there in Trafalgar Square when you shot the video. I was dancing in the audience. But I’ve gone through that video on freeze-frame off your official website, and you’ve left me on the cutting room floor.
Oh, I’m sorry about that. Oy, it must have been your dancing!
I think we were trying too hard to get noticed by the camera; there were too many hands in the air. Do you have any memories of that shoot?
It was a very embarrassing moment, because we’d gone there to do that video, and there was something going on. Some kind of bloody protest. I really didn’t pay any attention as to what it was, because you get fixated on the scene in front of you. Somebody came up and said “Do you mind not making so much noise, we’re trying to get our point across”. And I’m like: “Bugger off, we’re making a video here!” Then I look at the sign that he’s holding up, and it says “Free Nelson Mandela”. And I thought: oh my God…
There was an anti-apartheid march earlier that day; my sister had been on it. And we chuckled, because when you were trying to get us motivated for the shoot, you said “Come on everyone, we want to make it feel like something’s actually happening in London today!” And we were thinking: “Tsk, pop stars, eh? There was an anti-apartheid march here an hour earlier…”
I didn’t realise! All I saw was people getting in the way of our shoot.
When you perform the songs on the forthcoming tour, are you going to stick closely to the original arrangements, or are you going to be updating them in any way?
I think they’ll be updated by the nature of the fact that we’ve grown up now. We’re obviously not eighteen year-olds, running around on steroids or MacDonalds or whatever it was. By the nature of who we are, I hope the tunes will have matured, as we have. But if we could do what we did back then, we’d be doing really well – because they inherently still sound fresh.
Are you looking at extending BAD’s life beyond the tour, for example by recording by new material, or is this just a one-off project?
I think we’re very carefully taking one step at a time. Just dipping our little toes in the water and seeing how it goes. We wouldn’t want to be uncool and overstay our welcome.
Seeing as Mick’s in the band, are you just going to be sticking to BAD material only, or will you seize the opportunity to add a couple of Clash tunes to the set list?
Never did, never will, and never had to! And that’s out of total respect for The Clash.