Sitting Down with Stromba
Stromba is the work of producers James Dyer and Tom Tyler, along with regular contributor, bassist / guitarist James McKechan. Dyer is the manager of J. Saul Kane's London-based label DC Recordings (for whom Tyler also records), and McKechan was previously a member of Fonn (Fat Cat). They've also pulled players from many different corners of the UK.
Their first full-length Tales From the Sitting Room is the follow-up to 1999's Pinch EP. It shows all good signs of a proper incubation period: disparate styles congeal cohesively under seriously-wrought production. Dyer and Tyler were recently in New York City†to promote the album. Dusted's Trent Wolbe caught up with them to figure out what took so long, and how the time spent away became part of the album's sound.
Trent Wolbe: Tell me who you are and the important projects youíre involved with outside of Stromba.
James Dyer: Nothing really apart from Stromba, really, musically. I do the record label [DC Recordings], but there's no music project I do without Tom and Stromba.
Tom Tyler: I just do my own solo stuff for DC Recordings, so thatís all Iím involved in as well at the moment. Just Stromba and my own stuff.
TW: How did you guys meet in the first place?
TT: I sent James a demo tape basically. Someone I knew had met James and knew he worked at a label and gave me his details. I sent James the tape and he was into it, which was good. We hooked up, I did some stuff on DC, and James was sort of doing his own stuff, had a few little ideas he was working on. So we got together at my studio and finished them off, and thatís how Stromba started.
TW: Was that in 2000?
TT: that was about Ď99, I think.
JD: Maybe before that.
TT: We first hooked up in í97 or í98. Thatís when my first releases came out on DC. I think the first Stromba release was in í99, the Pinch EP on Fat Cat.
TW: Did you guys have any experience in bands prior to this?
JD: No, Iíve always kind of messed around, as a hobby, but not something I was looking to release or whatever. That kind of happened by accident almost. Dave at Fat Cat got to hear the tracks and he sort of expressed an interest in releasing them. It wasnít a plan, it just sort of happened, really.
TW: You left off in 2000 with the Pinch EP and came back five years later. Where did the ideas from this album originate? Was it stuff you guys were working on five years ago?
JD: Some of it was, yeah. The majority of it is actually quite old. They kind of stem from different places. Some of the tracks came out of really simple ideas that we then develop at Tomís with this guy James [McKehan] who plays bass and guitar. And depending on how finished they get at that stage, we then go to another studio and add in horns and percussion and whatever else. But then some of the tracks have come from re-editing outtakes, theyíve come out of nowhere, as a result of just kind of jamming, really.
TT: So we might take one track and get the guys to play the drums on it, and think thatís not actually working for the track, and totally pull it apart. Each track actually sort of starts out quite differently. We donít have a set way we work in.
TW: It sounds like you regard Stromba as you two plus James, right?
JD: Yeah, James is playing on most tracks. Heís been fundamental for of a lot of stuff with us.
TW: And then a big cast of musicians coming in to play for you. How do things happen as far as ideas to kind of executing your ideas? Do you start off with a sample?
TT: Yeah, youíll have [a sample], a loop, which would just sort of trigger the whole process. Itís usually like the vibe of the track and it gives you the inspiration to actually work on it. And a lot of the time you might work on it and youíll have a song for it and youíll build stuff around it and at the end you can take that sample out. But it just creates the initial vibe for the whole thing.
TW: Do you have a set of musicians in before you have the final ideas down? When and how do you bring in? Are they your friends, are they just musicians you knew locally?
JD: No, most of them are friends or friends of friends.
TT: Duncan Mackay plays trumpet and melodica.
TW: From Primal Scream?
TT: Yeah, heís toured with Primal Scream quite a lot. Adrian Meehan is drums and percussion.
JD: A guy called James Nye who plays saxophone on the first track.
TT: He plays with the Bees, too.
JD: And a guy called Max Brennan who played tabla, tambora, some drums, all sorts, a lot of different stuff. Kind of quite spread out.
TW: When did they come into the recording process? Did you have parts for them written?
TT: No not really. Weíd be working and if we think, well it needs something else. Itís kind of like, What could we do to, what way could we take it? And say, OK, we could record some trumpet on it or might just send the track down to the guy Max, heíll play a lot of shit over it to see whatíll work. Then weíll take those sessions and just get an arrangement going and pick the best takes and then you sort of stitch it back together with all the other stuff in it.
TW: You recently had your first live show.
JD: Well it wasnít really live. It was kind of re-editing records and doing sound effects and the percussion and trumpet over the top.
TT: Itís kind of like semi-DJing. You spin a couple of records.
JD: More like a soundsystem. Re-edits of some old stuff.
TW: Was that successful?
TT: Yeah, it was alright.
TW: Whereíd you play?
JD: Itís called the Cross Central festival.
TT: At Kingís Cross in London, at a big old train freight depot. They took over the whole area and set tents up and stuff.
TW: What was the lineup like for that?
JD: Me and TomÖ
TT: Adrian on trumpet and percussion. It might be something we can kinda push forward a bit in the future and do that a little more you know.
TW: Letís talk about DC Recordings. Tell me about how you became involved, and where youíre at now with it.
JD: I was involved after about, it started in í95. I musta started back in í97 or Ď98 I guess. I canít actually remember. After that point it wasnít really that many releases. It was mainly Jonathan, J Saul Kaneís [AKA Depth Charge] records, and then a couple of other people. Basically he asked me to sort of come in and add more artists to this roster. Initially it was just a few people but then I also started reissuing 70ís soundtrack music, kind of early on, then sort of gradually more and more artists got involved. But recently it seems to be that weíve, the momentum of steady releases is kind of coming out where before it was really kind of sporadic with every release, thereíd be a release and nothing for three months. It was a bit shoddy. But recently itís been picking up steam.
TW: Whatís J Saul Kaneís involvement right now with the label?
JD: I do the day to day kind of running of it. He kind of oversees whatís going on. When it comes to the music we release, we both sit down and listen to stuff and decide whatís gonna be released. And Jonathan is sort of like an artistic input into the development of the music. So more in a kind of A&R side of it and what I do is kind of all the day to day kind of boring stuff.
TW: Is there some sort of scene thatís built around the Portobello Road area [where DC Recordings is based] now?
JD: Itís quite an interesting road, Portobello in particular. Quite a famous part of London. A lot of people know it from films. Itís quite a touristy place. Portobello is kind of a wild area because itís a mix of very wealthy people and poor crazy people. So itís kind of a mad clash of cultures going on. Portobello road is sort of a market street. Itís just really vibrant, a lot of stuff going on. Musically, a lot of punk stuff came from there, the Clash for example were from that neighborhood. Itís got quite a good history.
TW: Any other labels or venues based around there?
JD: Venues are really crap in West London in general. Thereís a place called Subterranean, which is kind of a big club really. But thatís the only thing in like 5 square miles youíd call a proper venue. But now in London everythingís based in East London in a area called Hopston, where there seem to be millions of clubs there. In West London, thereís no venues that support our kind of music, which is a real shame.
TW: Where do you find that your artists on DC are fitting in? Is there a certain place theyíre expected to play or a certain audience your artists play to or who do you find is listeing to it?
JD: Itís quite a broad section. Itís quite varied, the music is. We donít really have a sort of game plan as a kind of releasing this certain kind of genre of music. Whatever we find minteresting we releasase pretty much. AS to who listens to it I guess itís different pockets of people listening to different stuff. The Kelp stuff would be one type of music listener where they might not necessarily listen to Piero Petroni, which is some of the soundtrack stuff we release.
TW: Tell me more about Kelp.
JD: Kelp, yeah. Itís basically electronic music on a laptop. Very modern sounding. Donít know what youíd describe it as really. I guess itís, the expression kinda glitchy comes to mind, with hip hop sort of tempo beats. More listening music than dancefloor material really.
TW: Going back to Stromba. Did you approach it with an idea or sound in mind? It goes a lot of different places, but one of the only things that seems to connect all of the songs is a mood. A lot of itís dub inflected, and hiphop, and soundtrackÖ. But did you go into it thinking, weíre gonna do a dubby weird crossover jazzy thing?
JD: There was no real kind of game plan.
TT: Thatís just how we ended up doing things. Itís just get in the studio and drink some wine or beer or whatever and just mess around and see what happens. Things tend to come out sounding like that. Get the space echo on and make some noises in it andÖ.
TW: Tell me about the cover art.
JD: We kinda borrowed it, or liberated it from an Indian matchbox. The badger was placed on top of that as an afterthought. But yeah Dave at Fat Cat did it for us basically. Iím sure he was scarred by the process because we got him to change a lot of stuff.
TW: But youíre satisfied now?
JD: I guess, kinda. [laughs] Iíve always been kind of a weirdo when it comes to artwork. I think I pay too much attention to it, when it should be a simple process.
TW: I wanted to ask about the name. Stromba was a muscle enhancer.
JD: Yeah, steroids. Which in hindsight wasnít the greatest name.
TT: We didnít know what it actually was. A friend of James had a very short-lived band and he called it Stromba, and I donít know if he knew what it was.
JD: Iím not sureÖ but we were struggling for a name.
TT: Dave wanted to release this EP, we hadnít really thought, made a plan of hey, weíre gonna release this music, weíre this band. It all happened, and it was like, shit we need a name. Jamesí friend wasnít gonna use it, and it sounded kinda Fat Cat style. [laughs] SoÖ thatíll do, yíknow. When you run into Google a few years later you find out what it actually meansÖ.
JD: I think in hindsight itís actually quite funny.
TW: The drug was actually discontinued in 2002.
JD: Thatís a shame, I couldíve demoíd a few of them. [laughs]
TT: That would be a good tagline. We like to make music with maximal weight and minimal effort. Kind of works out. [laughs]
TW: How did you hook up with Fat Cat?
JD: I think it was a friend of ours, a mutual friend of mine and Daveís, this guy Andrew who was in a band called Fonn whoíre also on Fat Cat. I gave him a tape of some of the stuff Iíd been messing around with. Dave was around his house and he heard it through him, from what I remember. And Dave said oh, Iím kind of interested in this. We kind of then hooked up and worked on the idea, worked on the tracks a bit more. And got Ďem into finished format.
TW: About the structure of the album itselfÖbefore, you had the "Giddy Up" 12Ē, and then Pinch was in í99. Did you think a lot about the flow of the whole thing?
TT: It was kind ofÖ we realized that as we worked on a lot of tracks over the 5 years it took, thereís a lot of stuff that didnít make the album, that always happens. So it got to the point where it was sort of like, OK, we gotta get this album together, so we gave it a bit of the push at the end. I think 2 tracks in the last 2 months before it was released, which was ďGiddy UpĒ and ĒSeptic SkankĒ. ďGiddy UpĒ really stood out because it was totally kind of, the rest of the album is downtempo and thatís the kinda shit weíd been working on for years. Recently weíve been into a bit more uptempo stuff. You just sit down for quite a while on how everythingís gonna sort of sit together. Lucily I think it worked out OK. When youíve got all those different sort of styles, itís so important for an album to get in the right track order. We spent quite a lot of time trying to make it into a coherent album. Which I was kind of more worried about is it a coherent album or not, or just a collection of tracksÖ I think in the end it worked out allright.
TW: It sounds like youíre working on stuff right now.
JD: Weíve been messing around with a few ideas.
TT: Itís just kind of when we can get together. James is in London, and I live in Essex, which is about a 2 hour train ride away. Just getting together to work on it can be difficult. Iíve sort of busy, got a lot of day jobs.
TW: How often do you get together?
JD: Once every couple of months or so.
TT: Thatís another reason the album took so long. Physically getting together to work on it.
TW: I hear youíre doing something in the near future for Dennnis Young of Liquid Liquid?
JD: Yeah, it already came out on a label called Relish, from Austria.
JD: Switzerland! Something like that. [laughs] But I was a big fan of Liquid Liquid so it was quite good to hook up with him, really.
TW: Are you hoping to do more remixes in the future?
JD: Possibly. Thereís been talk of a couple of more potential releases coming through, itís not confirmed yet so I donít wanna say anything. But it was good to do a remix, because the parts he gave us were kind of usable, which made it easy. The style of music was certainly more what we were doing. It was a good thing to do.
TW: You mentioned youíve been doing more uptempo stuff lately like ďGiddy Op.Ē Any reason? Do you listen to different stuff now than you did then?
TT: What weíve listened to has changed over time. I got kind of bored with downtempo stuff all the time.
JD: Doesnít really make sense because now weíre kind of old, or older. Things should go the other way around [laughter]! Pretty funny. I guess weíre kind of regaining our youth. Thereís a lot of different kind of musical influences really. Iíve always been a big big reggae fan and itís one thing I never get bored of, where other stuff I find is kinda mood music. I sort of consistently listen to reggae all the time and never wanna turn it off. But yeah I guess itís, between the two of us, with all the other people involved, itís quite a big mixture of musical tastes.
TW: Once you had ideas in mind, and once you had them in place as far as recorded bits from the musicians and things in that direction, how much did your production process, whatever it is, sitting at home, or wherever, inform the sound of what you ended up turning out? Was it mostly informed by what the actual musicians played? Did it change as you were doing it?
TT: Yeah it did. Thatís why it was so great actually using them. Youíll have an idea and Öweíre not really musicians as such. So you kind of get an idea where you think youíd like the track to go as far as solid musical ideas. And when you throw it to someone whoís such a pro, instantly they just come up with it, and you say wow, thatís it. They can take it off in a direction with you hadnít actually thought of, which is a nice thing.
TW: Did you do a lot of post-production in the studio?
TT: Not really. We tend to work really quick, because we canít get together that often. The sort of process is kind of like we donít even mess around. We have a weekend to start a track and finish a track. We tend to do things really quick and just throw it in the computer and chop it up a little bit.
TW: So for all the Stromba material, are you always both in the same room working on it?
TT: Pretty much, yeah. I might do just a little bit of the tidying things up afterwards, just getting it to actually mix down, Iíll pay a little bit more attention to the actual engineering side of it. Which can be pretty dull if youíre gonna sit there while itís being done. But the actual creative side of it is always just the pair of us in the room. Yeah.
By Trent Wolbe