Killer Smile (The sequel I never thought I’d write)

“The name Killer Smile just seemed to fit with our vision of the label, a multi-genre label putting out dancefloor tracks built around killer breaks and basslines, as well as more emotive tracks made to put a smile on your face…”

Killer Smile.jpg

There’s music that captures and echoes a beautiful time and place, staying with you forever. Foul Play have resonated with me from the very first moment and will always reserve a special place in my heart and record collection. On November 2013, I published “Whatever happened to … Foul Play?”, a retrospective account of their history, discography highlights and musical legacy. A later edition of the blog’s “Tracks I Wish I’d Written” series included some edits and finer details.  Fast forward to the present, jungle/drum & bass legend and Foul Play founding member John Morrow picks up the narrative where it left off: from the last chapter of Foul Play for Partisan and his cross-genre solo musical explorations as Johnny Halo and Skeleton Army, to the chain of events that rekindled his passion for drum & bass and the launch of his new boutique label Killer Smile (the 4th after Oblivion, Panik and Cellar Door). The sequel I never thought I’d write …

History notes

In late summer of 1997, five key members of the Moving Shadow management team resigned from their posts and with the support of One Little Indian Records formed Partisan Recordings. The instantly recognizable five-pointed red star logo encompassed the immediate, dramatic and political essence of the title, a nod to their share of revolution and struggle. The ethos of the new label was to champion distinguished production and artists, who were possibly overlooked for not being within the high-profile glittering circle. Sustaining the high standards established at their previous label, Partisan’s A&R opted for artist variety featuring an array of the most exciting d&b producers. A year later, John Morrow’s second incarnation of Foul Play (Foul Play Productions with Neil Shepherd and vocalist Shereen Ingram) joined Partisan. Regrettably, a financial crisis forced One Little Indian to let go of their satellite labels, effectively suspending Partisan’s activity after only 2 years. Label manager Caroline Butler eloquently outlined the aftermath: “We had been approached to re-heat and re-promote, but there is something romantic about leaving a perfect moment as it is and move on…”

Entering the new millennium drum & bass was already following a new musical direction and Foul Play Productions’ full length album ‘Field of Action’ seemed like an apt farewell to drum & bass. John reflects:

Field Of Action

Field of Action, PARTLP003, 1999

“Our ‘Field Of Action’ album on Partisan was the perfect way to end the Foul Play story. Our time on the label had been a joy, getting to work with all my old Moving Shadow mates behind the scenes and collaborating with Neil Shepherd and Shereen Ingram on the music. After Brad passed away in 1997 it was Neil, who got me back into the studio the following year and together with Shereen on vocals we spent about a year putting together the music, which would make up the three singles and the album for the label. Partisan folded at the end of 1999 due to financial problems with its parent label and with the album completed and released this seemed like the perfect time to call it a day on the project; as it turned out, with drum and bass as well.

The last few years of the nineties saw massive changes in D&B and personally I wasn’t really connecting with the kind of stuff that was dominating the scene. The darker, 2-step, distorted sound was a million miles from the breakbeat-led, anything-goes, uplifting sound that I’d fallen in love with at the birth of the scene and I kind of drifted away from it all”.

Branching out from drum & bass, John Morrow made a conscious decision to take a step back and explore new musical paths free from conventions, expectations and genre confines. The burgeoning Nu-Skool Breaks scene, championed by artists like Layo & Bushwacka, Rennie Pilgrem, Tayo, Adam Freeland, Meat Katie, Stanton Warriors, Aquasky etc. mirrored the artistic expression and defiance of the early 90s and Morrow soon immersed himself into the genre. Drawing from his rich influences and production palette, he started experimenting with a new yet familiar musical style and it was only a matter of time until one of his demos received radio airplay; Johnny Halo and his new record label Cellar Door Records were born. I vaguely recall a Rennie Pilgrem mini-interview/chart that included ‘Zoot Suit’ (the first Cellar Door release), but I would never make the connection:

“I first became aware of the Nu-skool breaks scene when I heard the first Y3K album on Distinctive at the start of 2000. It was like jumping back to the early nineties, all these artists from back in the day, Shut Up and Dance, Rennie Pilgrem, T-Power and they were making fun, futuristic breakbeat-centred music at lower tempos. I was hooked immediately and although I was still buying some drum and bass, my weekly record shopping was becoming dominated by nu-skool breaks and I started frequenting clubs that focused on the genre.

I started playing around in the studio making breaks tracks, nothing full on, just dabbling in the evenings and weekends. By then I had a full time job and a mortgage, so music had kind of taken a back seat, becoming just a hobby I dabbled with in my free time. The turning point came when I sent a CDr with a couple of my tracks on to Tayo and he played one of them on his Kiss FM show, that gave me the confidence to get a bit more serious about producing again. This in turn led to the creation of my Johnny Halo alias and starting my own label Cellar Door Recordings.

It was great fun running a label again. I didn’t know anyone from that scene so I’d go to Fabric, Spectrum and other Breaks nights, stand by the DJ box, give records to the DJ’s as they came and went and introduce myself. I did this with Annie Nightingale with the first release and was chuffed to bits when she played it the next day on Radio One.

As with Drum & Bass this scene too spiraled off into something pretty far removed from what I initially had fallen in love with, getting faster, growlier, more bassline-focused, until it just seemed to me that all the fun had been sucked from it. Of course, this is just my personal taste, but it led to me losing interest in producing again around 2005 and it ended up being 8 years before I released another track”.

After a production hiatus that lasted almost 8 years, life changes re-ignited the embers that had never gone out into a fire and Morrow re-surfaced with his new production alias Skeleton Army, which is active to this day, channeling his musical passion into bass-fueled, garage-flavoured house music. In fact, it was a random post about Skeleton Army that appeared on my facebook feed in 2013 that inspired the blog’s Foul Play feature. I was too timid, almost star-struck to contact him at first and ask for his input and blessing. At the time, the blog was still at its infancy, the revival of modern jungle was yet to take place and prior experience dictated that I should keep low expectations, as some producers from the 90s were no longer interested or had even renounced their musical past. On reflection, I am glad that I eventually did.

John comments on his production hiatus and the birth of Skeleton Army:

“During that period (2005-2013) I’d always had a studio in my house and would dabble from time to time, but as any producer will tell you, unless you’re really enthusiastic, committed and put the time and effort in you’ll never make anything of any worth, and I’d simply lost the bug.

Around 2012 due to a change of circumstances and a new relationship I found myself with more time on my hands and started spending it in the studio. Before I knew it I had the bug again and was really drawn to the mash up of House, Garage and Breaks that labels like Dirtybird, Hypercolour and Crosstown Rebels were releasing. They definitely had that fun, anything goes, melting pot kind of style, basically that ‘91 feel, which obviously I love. I sold a lot of my hardware and went for a totally in-the-box setup and eventually started getting results I was happy with.

I started sending some demo’s to labels I liked and a label called ‘Something Different’ picked up an EP’s worth of tracks. This was in 2013 and was the first release as my Skeleton Army alias which I still use to his day. (The Skeleton Army was an Anarchist group who, in Victorian times marched around the streets of London, banging drums, getting wasted and causing trouble … perfect).

The drum & bass community has been petitioning for a Foul Play comeback for years. Selected works from their back catalogue became digitally available in the recent years and after overcoming his initial reservations Morrow re-appeared where he naturally belongs, to the dj booth. Djing as Foul Play has rekindled Morrow’s interest in contemporary drum & bass and he has opened a window of hope that revisiting older classics or new d&b projects might be in the cards …

“In 2014 Randall phoned me up and asked me to do a Foul Play set at his Stepback Sessions night. Total Science had had to cancel and he needed a replacement and thought of me. I said no at first as I was just one member of Foul Play and it felt a little bit weird DJing solo under that name, but after speaking with Steve Gurley and Brad’s friends I was put at ease that everyone was really happy for me to do it and so I was persuaded. Off the back of that set I was asked to play at events for my old pals 2 Bad Mice, then Stretch asked me to play at an AKO night and I now dust off the Foul Play hat a couple of times a year, it’s a lot of fun.

DJing as Foul Play has definitely brought me back in to the Jungle / Drum & Bass fold so to speak, I’ve discovered lots of great new labels and producers and a really passionate community and it’s really rekindled my love for the music again. Whether that extends to making it, who knows, there are conversations taking place regarding our back catalogue and new projects, so we’ll have to see”.

Killer Smile

There’s nothing more disarming and appealing in life than a genuine smile and Killer Smile is a bespoke record label that lives up to the standard metaphor. I’ve had the privilege to preview a Skeleton Army demo (under a different working title at the time) before Killer Smile had even been conceived and I immediately knew that something special would be about to see the light of day. After a lot of contemplation, Morrow partnered with his long time friend and Darran Juzyk to create Killer Smile in 2018. A platform that reflects the broad canvas of their influences and eclectic musical taste, the ethos and policy is simple yet rigid: genre-defiant, evocative and exciting music. The label scope will be soon expanded with productions from like-minded artists.

John comments on the creation, the purpose and vision of the label and what the future holds for him and Killer Smile:

“Last year after lots of deliberation I decided to start a new label, I asked my old friend Darran Juzyk to join me in the venture. We’ve been friends since school, he’s a real music head and vinyl junkie with a great taste in music and was totally up for it. Two heads are better than one and we’ve had lots of conversations bouncing ideas back and forth about where we want to take the label and future releases. The name Killer Smile just seemed to fit with our vision of the label, a multi genre label putting out dancefloor tracks built around killer breaks and basslines, as well as more emotive tracks made to put a smile on your face. I don’t have any plans to feature my own music on the next few releases, I’m feeling much more excited about putting out great music from artists that I love. The music policy is simple, if we like it we’ll release it, Jungle, D&B, Rave, Broken Beat, House, Techno, our tastes are broad so that will be reflected in the labels output. The first few releases will all be hand-stamped coloured vinyl with an ‘elements’ theme for the first four releases, we’ve already done ‘earth’ and ‘water’ with ‘fire’ and ‘air’ in the pipeline”.

Catchy Schisms

Releases

The press release notes on the label’s bandcamp page are quite comprehensive and capture accurately the musical aspect, so I will attempt an arbitrary and personal interpretation of the theme, focusing on the emotions and images the music elicits.

Skeleton Army – Catchy Schisms EP (KS001, 2018)

KS001

Diverting from his previous Skeleton Army works, the first Killer Smile release pays homage to John’s musical past and the narrative is emotional and reflective: Floating, blurry Polaroids of bedrooms filled with posters, kids with embarrassing hairdos, a feeling of euphoria dissolving into choked melancholy when the sun rises, echoes of carefree and simpler times.

Skeleton Army – Catchy Schizms Remixes (KS002, 2019)

KS002

KS002 is a re-imagination of the same theme, with Coco Bryce, Etch and Army of Ghosts on remix duties. The story is the same, but takes place in a different timeline. The posters are now folded and stored in shoeboxes in the attic, the sunrise is the start and not the end of the day and those kids are now grown-ups, naivety replaced with experience, still winking playfully at a life we can’t live behind…

Further reading from the archive:

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On The Outside, Looking In Vol. 2: Justice x Dissect

“I think things are cyclical and in the advent of digital, people crave the physical”

“And I think record collectors will always be buying vinyl and building a collection of good music, then passing on that knowledge to others who might not collect yet, because it’s great and fun and a way of life!”

This is the second installment of the blog’s new series titled On The Outside, Looking In. As the title suggests, it is a retrospective sneak view into my guests’ photo albums, collections, musical diaries, hazy memories and internal monologues. The discussion timeline is non-linear, jumping back and forth in times and places, as it would probably be in a real-time conversation with friends, whose music-related work I admire and respect. The concept of interviewing my guests in pairs has been intriguing and thought-provoking, trying to find out how their paths have periodically intersected and eventually converged through music: from rented studio time in the early 90s to custom-made studios and modern production, from raves in warehouses and sweaty basements to transatlantic tours and remixing punk priestess Siouxsie (well, that’s a story for another day), from tape packs and pirate radio to record fairs, eclectic record collections, running boutique record labels in 2019 and everything in-between.

Justice & Dissect

Justice & Dissect

The head title of the series has been inspired from the first Modern Urban Jazz release by Glider-State (Blame & Justice), so it is with great joy that I present the man himself Tony ‘Justice’ Bowes alongside one of the most interesting figures of the new generation of producers Michael ‘Dissect’ Walsh.

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Tracks I Wish I’d Written (issue #13): Odyssey – Expressions

Every track presented in the series has a special place in my collection and is associated with a different period of my life, hence the time leaps. Throwback to 1997 for the 13th installment of the Tracks I Wish I’d Written; a stellar classic with one of the genre’s most recognizable and revered lead synths, written and produced by one of drum & bass’ unsung heroes that captures elegantly a nostalgic time and place.

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Odyssey – Expressions (720-002)

“… God bless the path of the musical children, walking the steps of change going forward-bound, our music’s taking you to higher ground …” – MC Conrad

History Notes:

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On The Outside, Looking In Vol. 1: Sicknote x Soul Beat Runner

Most of the blog’s features are thematically based on informal conversations with my guests. Although I often include verbatim excerpts, it’s been a long time since I posted an actual interview. This is the first installment of a new category introduced to replace one of the blog’s oldest series “Jump The Q”, which has unceremoniously completed its cycle. The “Jump The Q” questionnaire template was designed to be short and simple rather than thought-provoking; the general idea being to discover a few personal details about artists and djs (from their favourite drink to the worst live performance they’ve witnessed), whose music-related work I admire and respect.

The new category titled “On The Outside, Looking In” will encompass a broad and conceptual music-centered scope. The timeline is intentionally non-linear, jumping back and forth in times and places and the head-title is borrowed from the first Modern Urban Jazz release by Glider-State (Blame & Justice); a casual chat between friends and a retrospective sneak view into old photo albums, collections, musical diaries, hazy memories and internal monologues.

Sicknote x SBR

Sicknote x Soul Beat Runner

The new series kicks off with two guests, who share common musical taste, vision and aesthetics, dating back to the early days of drum & bass. Really intrigued to find out more about their views, perspective and insight, I am very happy to present Lewis ‘Sicknote’ and Michael ‘Soul Beat Runner’ (SBR) discussing all things music.

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Count To Ten: Drum & Bass Illustrations and Record Artwork (part 2)

What the sleeve notes never tell you

Mosaic

It’s been 16 months since the original post , which was meant to be a one-off feature; however I always felt that it’s been somehow incomplete. The constructive feedback I received, occasionally bordering on debate over a matter de facto subjective, convinced me to revisit the topic; paraphrasing Nick Hornby “a sneer at the bad choices, an understated but supportive raise of the eyebrow for the good ones”. So, instead of updating the list, I decided to compile a new one containing record artwork I had intentionally omitted for a variety of reasons, as well as couple of recent entries.

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Count To Ten: Cross-genre drum & bass remixes – part 2 (1997-99)

The second part of the blog’s mini-series covers the period 1997-99. What may have started timidly for artistic purposes or exclusive dj promotional use, by 1997 it became almost de rigueur for record labels to commission drum & bass versions for selected singles and various remix compilations. The niche underground genre infiltrated the mainstream and many d&b producers signed with major labels to curate collections or record personal albums. On reflection, it turned out to be a double-edged sword.

Mosaic.jpg

On one hand, d&b found its well-deserved place on the electronic music map. Artists were finally rewarded and vindicated for their efforts and their work was introduced from a limited connoisseur circle to a wider audience, providing them with a vital and creative space for experimentation. Commercial success and critic appreciation motivated accomplished, as well as up-and-coming producers to master their craft, pushing the musical boundaries beyond genre confines. On the other hand, the roller coaster of media exposure, politics, cloudy distribution and licensing agreements, self-indulgence and the drama that inevitably occurs when money and temporary fame enter the equation, terminated careers and friendships untimely and ingloriously. Effectively, drum & bass re-entered a phase of introversion, darkness and belligerence marking the end of the romance. An injection of fresh air was desperately needed and a new breed of producers and record labels emerged to fill in the gap created by those who helped the scene flourish, but sadly realized that they no longer fitted in the d&b reality of the new millennium.

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Savage Times: Inside Modern Urban Jazz

“… when I refer to the music now as d&b, I never really considered it much then. I know that may sound strange, but I think we always operated as outsiders; I personally always felt on the outside looking in, which is why our Glider-State track was called so…”

“… I hadn’t done anything on Modern Urban Jazz since the ‘Emotions With Intellect’ LP, so to keep the ethos going, we decided that this would be an ideal collaboration by using the Modern Urban Jazz tag on the Creative Wax label. I don’t think either of our labels had been ones to follow trends and certainly at the time we were ripe for a more experimental sound…” 

Modern Urban Jazz

Modern Urban Jazz front cover (CWLP001, 1997)

Modern Urban Jazz 01 is a seminal compilation album, curated by Tony Justice Bowes and published by Creative Wax. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the official release, this is a retrospective account of the series of events that culminated in the realization of a brilliant project, which transcends genres and time. Titled after Justice’s eponymous record label, the compilation shares similar aesthetics and musical direction. An amalgamation of sounds with allusions to musique concrete; jazz noir, hip hop, funk, techno and electro instilled into drum & bass, with all contributing artists showcasing their musical backgrounds and creative influences, free of formulas, dancefloor reaction and genre constraints. Walking down a long, nostalgic and captivating trip down memory lane, this is a colourful and emotionally charged narrative, through the protagonists’ looking glass, filled with fond and distant memories that capture vividly the atmosphere of the mid-90s drum & bass scene.

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