With new tracks from a who’s who of composers, a few family favourites thrown in for good measure and a continuous Mixmaster Morris set, Coldcut’s ambient ‘@0’ collection is a balm for our times

The original cut-and-paste rhythm kings of funky British electronica, Coldcut have remixed themselves countless times during their 30-plus years together. 

After making their name as club DJs, radio pirates, sampling pioneers and chart-topping pop stars in the late 1980s, Matt Black and Jonathan More have since blossomed into highly regarded label bosses, studio innovators, multimedia artists and serial collaborators, with a starry guest list including Yazz, Lisa Stansfield, Grandmaster Flash, The Fall, Jello Biafra, Steve Reich, Adrian Sherwood, Soweto Kinch, novelist Hari Kunzru and the British Antarctic Survey. Through their Ninja Tune label, founded in 1990 and still a beacon of independent creative energy, the duo have helped launch the careers of Kelis, Roots Manuva, The Bug, Bicep and more.

Now these veteran beat masters have given themselves a truly radical remix, by releasing an album featuring no beats at all. The archly titled ‘@0’ is a lavish compilation of new ambient tracks alongside a handful of rebooted classics. Curated by Coldcut, this sumptuous sonic banquet stretches the definition of the genre in all directions, from the crystalline piano minimalism of Ryuichi Sakamoto and the eerie tone poems from Mira Calix, via the melting icescapes of Sigur Rós and the fragrant electronic chamber-jazz of Double Cushion, to the devotional choral swells of Julianna Barwick and the luminous post-rock glitch-soul of Daniel Pemberton & FSOL (The Future Sound Of London).

One key definition Coldcut used when requesting album contributions was “no sharp edges”. But Black challenges the dated, one-dimensional stereotype that ambient music is essentially tastefully bland sonic wallpaper.

“The idea that it has to be fluffy and nice is incomplete,” he frowns. “My mate Dr Walker describes noise music as ‘heavy metal ambient’, which is an interesting insight. In his view, ambient music should be played fucking loud through some Marshall stacks. Music is software to help you interface with the environment, and comes in many different forms. In this environment we’ve been experiencing with the lockdown, it seemed appropriate to choose music which was lush and calculated to soothe rather than provoke.”

Coldcut’s 50 per cent profit share from ‘@0’ is going to the mental health charities CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), Mind and Black Minds Matter, confirming this timely collection as both an artistic and financial response to the cumulative trauma of pandemic lockdown. Among younger listeners especially, Black has noticed that ambient music is enjoying a resurgence as a healing sonic balm in an era of worsening economic, emotional and environmental stress.

“I met a young guy called Alex,” Black says. “He’s a music head and he told me ambient music had been very helpful for dealing with his panic attacks. That was one of the main motivations for us doing this. It’s not just us old guys who like a bit of chilling-out – younger people can appreciate it as well. There’s a lot of stress on them. It sometimes feels like the boomer generation have had this big party and had a great time, but now young people are paying for it.”

For More, the album’s mental-health angle has a more personal aspect. In the depths of lockdown, he suffered a post-Covid physical breakdown which left him drained and disengaged.

“I suffered from some weirdness, a sort of mental fatigue,” he explains. “I actually woke up on the floor of my bedroom in the middle of the night and wasn’t able to move. It took me what seemed like a long time to get myself up and moving. I was on my own so it could have been no time at all. I lost a lot of strength down one side.”

More is on the mend now, but he remains unsure what struck him down. Doctors have mooted “long Covid” as one possibility, but more tests are required. One thing that helped him heal was immersion in gentle music.

“Making ambient mixes for the radio, and just to listen to at home, was what got me on the right path again,” he says.

Another timely aspect of the ‘@0’ compilation is how it highlights the rich history of female artists working within the broad church of ambient music, sometimes under the radar. The contributors include Helena Hauff, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Nailah Hunter and veteran analogue synth legend Suzanne Ciani. 

“Having Suzanne Ciani on the album is a complete honour,” More says. “To have some of these women who fought against an incredibly difficult situation with record companies, and then to do it within experimental music – that is a significant element of this project.”

“Suzanne is one of the first people who responded when we wrote asking for tracks,” Black nods. “So that was a huge boost. It was only subsequently that the documentary ‘Sisters With Transistors’ came out, which she is heavily featured in. She’s had an amazing 40-year career in electronic music and I’d never heard of her.”

photo: dan wilton

Not everybody Coldcut approached was quite as receptive as Ciani. One feted musician with ambient leanings, who Black declines to name, shot down their offer with a blistering reply: “I refuse to contribute to the redundant and philosophically nil void of ‘ambient’ meaninglessness in the discourse.” Ouch. They sound lovely.

“It’s great to have a position on things,” Black laughs. “But as I say, ambient is merely a tag. One can have more than one tag at the same time.”

The most glaring omission from ‘@0’ is the godfather of ambient himself, Brian Eno. Coldcut admit that they did approach Eno but received no response.

“I know Brian, I’ve worked with him, we’ve jammed together, and I fully respect him,” Black shrugs. “He’s a bit of a role model as somebody who started off within pop, then negotiated himself into a more thinking, cultural leader type of role. And of course, he’s heavily associated with the birth of ambient music. But I also thought it’s quite cool not to have Brian on there because it would be a bit obvious.”

Coldcut themselves also appear on the album as remixers and composers, most notably on a reworking of their chill-out classic ‘Autumn Leaves’, first remixed in 1994 by Ninja Tune’s veteran ambient maestro Mixmaster Morris.

“It’s a fresh treatment,” Black confirms. “Morris’ classic mix is much loved, but I think we improved it sonically in some ways.”

The duo were able to remix the remix because they have long been far-sighted pioneers in digital archiving, saving pretty much every note they have recorded since the mid-90s.

“It means we can take all these stems and have a funky, super Meccano set that we can play with indefinitely,” Black says.

Morris has also been closely involved with Coldcut on the whole album, collaborating with Black on a condensed version that blends the 30 tracks into one seamless 76-minute megamix.

After their long journey from underground club DJs to unlikely pop stars to label bosses, these days Coldcut could afford to kick back and rest on their laurels. But even as they enter their 60s, the pair remain curious crate diggers and restless sonic explorers – More especially so.

“My morning breakfast usually consists of me looking at all the latest Bandcamp emails and playing them while I’m cooking my eggs,” he laughs. “Listening to somebody’s ambient or rare groove chart.”

Juggling multiple projects, Black confesses he has less time to seek out new music nowadays, but he does remain deeply involved in developing Ninja’s studio software and hardware side.

“I’m more into the experimentation, the research and development, and also the joy of just playing with sound,” he says. “So we sort of complement each other there. But Jon’s still got the fire and interest to do that, which is a good thing.”

Among Coldcut’s technological innovations over the last 25 years are the Ninja Jamm beat app, the VJamm real-time “video sampler”, and the MidiVolve – an arpeggiator and “riff generator” developed with Ableton. Black is currently enthused by the Zen Delay, a hybrid analogue-digital effects box created in partnership with Latvian electronic instrument company Erica.

“It’s actually been extremely successful and got us lots of love,” Black gushes. “Adrian Sherwood says it is by far the best hands-on delay unit he’s ever used. That is high praise indeed from the dub-meister there.”

The Coldcut duo remain founding directors and partners at Ninja Tune, the independent electronic label they created as a haven from major-label pressures in 1990, although day-to-day operations are now handled by Peter Quicke and Adrian Kemp. With a track record that includes Roots Manuva, DJ Food, Amon Tobin, Kae Tempest, Flying Lotus, and Young Fathers, Ninja have consistently good ears. In 2021 alone they released some of the most acclaimed albums of the year from, among others, The Bug, Bicep and Black Country, New Road.

Several of Ninja’s current star signings also seem to be following the Coldcut career manual, graduating from club DJs to producers and pop stars.

“Absolutely,” More nods. “Bicep in particular, I think. You can hear the way they’ve been influenced by the era Matt and I came up in. Not just by us – you can hear Orbital and other 90s rave things in there, too.”

Ninja Tune may have grown into a multinational mini-empire over the decades, but Black insists they remain an independent, artist-led company grounded in 50/50 profit-share deals.

“We’ve not sold out to any majors,” he says. “The original founders still own the company, and we still do the same kind of mutually cooperative deals with our artists. But we’re a lot bigger than when it was just Jon and me and a phone in one room – we have more than 70 people worldwide now. We play the game of business as well as we can but, hopefully, in a Ninja way. A fair way.”

In recent years, the duo have taken a more active role in the company, reactivating their pre-Ninja label Ahead Of Our Time for more experimental electronic releases, including the ‘@0’ compilation and an upcoming album from Mixmaster Morris under his vintage alias The Irresistible Force.

“Jon and I would like Ahead Of Our Time to become a sort of Ninja within Ninja,” Black explains. “It’s good for there to be a place for the alternative and the minority and the extreme.”

Only sporadically active as a live act nowadays, Coldcut have not played out together since their 30th anniversary tour in 2017. Both Matt Black and Jonathan More are occupied with other projects but they don’t rule out further live shows. Despite their fascination with technology, they were left somewhat lukewarm by the lockdown live-stream boom.

“We started live streaming in 1999 with the Pirate TV project,” Black shrugs. “We had Radiohead on and they were quite keen on the idea that they might not have to do gigs anymore. But there’s no substitute for the real thing. I like playing live. It can be quite a gritty experience but that’s life. I’m not finished with it yet, I hope.”

Even today, after almost 35 years of hits and misses, highs and lows, Coldcut remain future-facing optimists at heart. They want to believe that the kind of world-shaking youthquake movements that changed both their lives in the 70s and 80s could bubble up again.

“I still miss pirate radio,” More sighs. “People of my generation were very lucky. I’m 64 now, so I experienced both punk and rave. Which was amazing. Two incredible movements and everything in between. I still hope there’ll be another thing like it at some point. I can’t see it at the moment but really I shouldn’t know about it happening, ha!”

Black too has faith that more counterculture tribes will emerge, citing as an example the network of Climate Emergency Centres springing up in vacant warehouse sites as community hubs and performance spaces.

“You’ll still get some kid in their bedroom messing around on an old PlayStation who’ll come up with stuff we haven’t thought of yet,” he says. “It’s more difficult to do something authentically original, but a lot of idea space still hasn’t been explored.”

“There are people who just can’t do anything else,” More agrees. “They haven’t studied it as a career, they haven’t been to college, they haven’t done a university degree in rare groove. But they sweat fucking awesome fantastic weirdness. And there are always gonna be those bods.”

That’s the Coldcut philosophy in a nutshell: sample the past, remix the present and accidentally invent the future. Awesome weirdness is just around the corner. The only way is up.

‘@0’ is out on Ahead Of Our Time

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