Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension
From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.
Politicians Protesters & Thieves
The Sound of Sinners
16 October 2020Other
Growing up on the east coast of Canada in the '90s, a vital part of any teenaged musical education was MuchMusic, that endearing and chilled out counterpart to America's MTV. Its late-night programming showcased thrilling independent and underground music videos that were inaccessible elsewhere and pushed boundaries of what was considered permissible on Canadian television at the time.
It was there I was first introduced to Renegade Soundwave (RSW) a favourite on MuchMusic late night programs like City Limits. The videos they regularly played off of Soundclash, RSW's 1990 debut album, were enthralling and unlike anything I'd heard before: catchy electronic rhythms, unabashed sampling and deep bass beats combined with vocals that hovered ambiguously somewhere between singing and rap. Above all, I was riveted by the attitude: a combination of angry punk energy, devil-may-care nonchalance, and intelligent social commentary made for an album that was unusual for its time in so many ways.
RSW, formed in London in 1986 by the trio of Gary Asquith, Carl Bonnie, and Danny Briottet, released a total of four albums and some additional singles and remixes before disbanding in 1995. (Bonnie left the group following their second album In Dub.) Despite only releasing four albums, RSW left an outsized imprint on the electronic music scene, a reflection of the talent and creativity which characterized its spirited, plucky members.
"When we started off with Renegade Soundwave we were really more of a punk band," reflects Asquith. "It might sound ridiculous, but we really were. We'd all play different instruments -- some of them not very well -- and we had a myriad of different ideas. We would try the technology that was available at the time -- we weren't the richest guys on the planet. Then when the sampling thing happened it sparked a different interest. All of the sudden we had access to every song on the planet basically."
Renegade Soundwave is probably the project for which Asquith is best known, but he's built a remarkably broad oeuvre over the years. Prior to RSW he was involved with a more overtly punk/post-punk outfit called Rema-Rema. 4AD Records released a double CD retrospective of the band in 2019, with the wry headline "Rema-Rema announce debut album 40 years after disbanding." He also released darker, more aggro material under the moniker Mass, together with future members of The Wolfgang Press.
He branched out in a more experimental, even folksy direction with a project called Lavender Pill Mob, together with Kevin Mooney from Adam and the Ants. While working on all these projects, he also produced myriad remixes for other musicians, and looked after a small record label. He's the sort of musician who has a number of different projects on the go simultaneously across a broad range of genres and styles.
"I like to think that I'm not doing the same thing that I was doing thirty, forty years ago," he reflects. "Variety is the spice of life, isn't it? I like to shuffle my pack a little bit."
I knew Asquith was a talented artist, but I wasn't expecting him to be that additional rarity in this day and age: an avid and witty conversationalist who happily ranges across a wide swath of topics, dropping fascinating anecdotes and commentary as he goes. In the course of our conversation we cover a great deal of unexpected ground, ranging from Henri Matisse to the solitary pleasures of walking a dog along the heath. He expresses just as much interest in his interviewer's opinions as he does in the topics at hand.
He's also one of those artists who has managed to accomplish quite a lot through the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world began to panic and don masks, he dealt with lockdown by turning his attention to a double album of Rema-Rema material (Fond Reflections) released last year. A lot of great material didn't make the cut, and so when the pandemic struck he spent time revisiting those tracks, and produced another album, Wheel in Small Doses, out of it. The work went mostly smoothly, he recalls, with one noteworthy glitch.
"I got this guy that normally does my printing for me, and I went to see [him]," he recounted. "I got my artwork out, and I sent it to him on a computer. And he said: 'Listen Gary, I'm waiting for some cardboard from China.' I went: 'What? Can't we source some local stuff? I mean, we don't really need to be dependent on China for cardboard, do we?' And he said 'Well, yeah, that's where I get my cardboard from. It's a little bit cheaper.' And I said, 'Well listen, when's this cardboard likely to show up?'
"This was in April. And he was talking about the end of June, July! So I said, 'Are you seriously telling me I'm going to sit around waiting for a bit of cardboard to show up from China?' And then the possibility that it might not even show up, because the Covid thing had just broken in China big-time at this point. So I said, 'Do you know what? Do you see that over there? That's the telephone, yeah? When I get home I'm going to get on my telephone and I'm going to get some English cardboard, and have my covers made with a bit of English cardboard.' And that's exactly what I did."
The album sold well, so Asquith made an additional limited edition vinyl with special artwork. He asked an artist in his neighbourhood to do the hand-printed sleeve.
"He did a fantastic job, this guy called Sujit [Vaghela]. It looked great! ...I was so over the moon with it, that the weekend after I got them, I sent a few out. And people, when they got back to me, they said: "Fantastic-looking cover. And really good cardboard!"
He tells the story with a wry, droll tone of voice, enjoying the telling. But it reflects something more than just his mischievous sense of humour – there's also that DIY, no-nonsense attitude which has served him well through a career in music-making.
The Rema-Rema release isn't the only thing he's been working on. On 28 August he released a full album of new material as Renegade Connection, which is Asquith in collaboration with Lee Curtis.
The album is a fitting successor to his previous body of work. The seven tracks on Renegade Connection's Politicians, Protestors and Thieves retain that irresistibly catchy groove endemic to RSW, heavily inflected with reggae and dub influences. There's a more chilled, laid-back tone to the album; a deftly upbeat nonchalance from a musician who no longer needs to prove his mettle through "confrontational noise" (as one reviewer described early RSW).
The punk bluster is replaced with more complex rhythmic constructions; more selectively sparse sampling and a heavy emphasis on deep bass beats. This is still music built to dominate a dance floor, but it's the infectious subtlety of the groove that will keep it on repeat in listeners' playlists. Above it all, Asquith's hauntingly unique vocal articulation with its hypnotic rhythmic cadence provides a perfect complement to the music.
The collaboration between Asquith and Curtis dates back to the late '90s. He got to know Curtis while re-working a version of the Renegade Soundwave track "Cocaine Sex" featured in the Hollywood film Colours (1988). They kept in touch over the years, and in 2015 put out a 7-inch (I'll Surrender) under the name Renegade Connection. More recently, they collaborated on what was meant to be a remix of a Josephine Wiggs track. It turned out to be so different they decided to turn it into an entirely new project, and it eventually became the first single from the new album: "Politicians, Protestors and Thieves".
The title came later. Its release was delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. While they waited, the Black Lives Matter protests broke out, on top of the pandemic and its politicization in countries like the UK and US. As they watched events unfold, says Asquith, "I was thinking, this is kind of like the soundtrack to the stuff that's going on in America at the moment…it just fit well with what was happening at that time."
"You've got to look inside."
We discuss the political situation in the US for some time. Like many of us, Asquith is worried by the extreme political polarization afflicting the country, and the dearth of prominent figures trying to bridge those divides. His hope for a political rapprochement is tempered with a dose of realism: "I think it might get worse before it gets better."
Present worries aside, Asquith has fond memories of time spent in the US.
"I toured America and I always found it liberating in a lot of ways," he says, recalling one particularly memorable show. "I was in Miami, and I'd made this terrible mistake -- I'd thrown a bottle into the crowd. I'd just had this mad moment, I might have been slightly inebriated.
"Anyway the gig finished, and I was having a beer, and talking to some American strangers – two girls and a guy -- sort of close to the bar. And from the corner of my eye I saw this chapter of Hells Angels -- they were the biggest, really huge, they looked like real monsters. They looked like gorillas. They looked threatening, and it felt like they were mooching towards me. I thought 'Oh shit, when I threw that bottle I hope I didn't hit a fucking Hells Angel.' And when they came up close to me, they were basically completely the opposite of what I thought they were going to be like! They were just completely charming.
"They'd driven overnight -- there was this little gang of them, maybe twelve... They said 'We've been listening to Renegade Soundwave, it's so brilliant that you've come to the States and we've been traveling overnight, we'd like to share a beer with you, find out what you think about the States.' I was like, 'Wow, yeah, I can do that.' You know I thought they might beat me up, they looked like a bunch of rowdy guys. It's strange how you settle on this opinion, you look at someone and you think 'Hmm, he looks like a nasty bit of work.' But in reality, he charmed the pants off of me!
"You've got to look inside a little bit more sometimes, to find what you're really looking for. And you can't always do that just on first impressions. I found that pretty much with America."
During another trip to the US, he stayed for a week in the apartment above the iconic Wax Trax! Records shop in Chicago (which birthed the acclaimed music label of the same name), at the invite of owners Jim Nash and Dannie Fletcher.
"There were two gay guys that used to run the shop, they were true gents. Super hospitable guys. I spent a week with them, and they took me out to see their mother. It was a truly memorable trip," he recalls.
"That shop was just absolutely phenomenal. They sourced some great stuff. And they were really committed. You could just feel the love in it. It was the best record shop I've ever been in. And that's saying something, because I've been to loads of record shops in loads of countries."
Asquith's interests extend to the visual arts, and he shares recollections of some of the many exhibitions he's visited while touring. He dabbles himself, and surprises me with the information that his musical colleague Frankie Nardiello (founder and frontman for My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult) is a truly talented painter, which I didn't know.
Asquith's avid artistic curiosity has brought him into contact with a range of fascinating figures over the years. His first album as Lavender Pill Mob features a track with vocals from Rammellzee, the pioneering MC/spoken word poet/graffiti artist who was based in New York until his death in 2010. Asquith regrets never getting to meet Rammellzee in person, but is proud of his presence on that album, and he describes the man's artistic work with a youthful, exuberant sense of excitement. He has fond memories of the art scene in New York City, and although America's going through a rough time right now, he hopes it will translate into opportunity for a new generation of creative spirits.
"I spent a lot of time in New York in the 1980s, and it was pretty rough, you know. But with that roughness you had this sort of creative energy. Then that Giuliano guy got in and he cleaned it up. But things can be a little bit too squeaky clean. When I did go back, I didn't feel [the creative energy] so much."
"What happens, when you've got affordable housing, and you get a group of young talented people -- musicians, artists, whatever field of art they might be in -- they need somewhere to stay. And you can't expect them to come up with exuberant, expensive rent. Because these guys are living off of McDonalds, basically.
"People with money can shuffle their pack and go and live wherever they want. And it seems like everyone is evacuating, all the money people. So I'm hoping with what is happening [during the pandemic] there'll be some sort of benefits from it, creatively, in the future. There's kind of a hole there. And I'm hoping that that hole gets creatively filled in with a lot of young people, and that they can flourish, with the tension there. You know, tension can be creative."
Asquith montage courtesy of Terrorbird Media
Creative tension has been a theme of sorts in Asquith's life, which has taken him in some unexpected directions. He left school when he was 15. All his friends went on to college to study art, and his school's headmistress encouraged him to do the same. But he had no desire to continue – "I was quite happy to break loose. And that's what I did." (Ironically, he notes, he turned out to be the only one of them to actually become a professional artist in the end.)
Yet although he was playing music, he had no inkling at the time that it would come to play such a central role in his life.
"For a lot of people of my generation I think it was punk rock -- you know learn a couple of chords and find yourself some cool looking guys to form a band. And that's what I did. There was so much energy going around. I used to go to gigs every night, there was always something good happening. I was full of beans basically."
At the age of 16 Asquith relocated to Paris and immersed himself in the burgeoning punk and music scene. He became a regular at Parisian punk shows featuring bands like Metal Urbain and Stinky Toys. Bernard Torrent, who ran the Gibus Club – one of the foundational punk venues in Paris – took him under his wing, and Asquith wound up meeting an array of unique personalities: Yves Saint Laurent, Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, and others.
He shares a hazy memory of the night he met Warhol, which happened en route to a party about an hour outside of Paris. It was the first time he tried heroin – the first time he'd tried any sort of a hard drug, he recalls – and after a visceral initial reaction found himself waiting for a ferry to a small island where the party was happening.
"Andy Warhol was in a stretch limo. He was just sitting in the back of this limousine. Torrent had had some dealings with him, and he introduced me. Warhol's windscreen went down – it was a tinted windscreen -- his hand came out -- this really cold, cold hand -- and he said something like: "Ge-ee-eee." I don't think he said much to anybody, even when he did say much to anybody. He had a very cold hand."
The image conjures a priceless '70s panorama, anchored by the cold, cold hand of Andy Warhol extending from a limousine. Asquith is a born storyteller, but as he reflects on the past, his tone grows thoughtful and sombre.
"It was like a fairy tale sort of evening. Then I started to like drugs a little too much, because I wanted every night to be like that. And unfortunately every night couldn't be like that."
These days, Asquith has ditched the drugs, and has acquired an international musical reputation of his own. Not all of his friends and colleagues from those early days made it, though.
"I've buried a lot of friends, from drugs," he reflects. "And that's been quite painful."
He shares memories of some of those friends, and the times they used to have together – there were always interesting people about, he recalls, sometimes showing up at the flat at four in the morning. But even the man behind the 1987 club hit "Cocaine Sex" knew there had to be a limit.
"I made a pact with myself, because I didn't think I was going to survive. That was the bottom line of it. I'm not a strong guy, I'm pretty feeble, and everyone's dying around me… I've lost great friends. You know what you're doing -- you can only take it so far and if you get through it, if you survive it, you're lucky really.
"I'm glad I don't do anything like that any more. But I don't want to be a hypocrite and say to people 'You're not smoking a joint are you?' I try not to be condemning to people. I'm in a rock band for god's sake.
"You know there's good and bad everywhere, nobody's perfect. You got to look at people and if you like them or you don't, everybody's got faults, that's just the way it is. We've all got a little history of doing things that we shouldn't have done. I don't take drugs any more but I used to take drugs and I have an understanding for people that do take drugs."
Asquith's life today is quieter, in part due to the pandemic. His days are still full of music, but rather than night-long parties he enjoys long walks with his cocker spaniel, Sparkie. But he retains a youthful enthusiasm for the world and all things in it, easily evident through his engaging and wide-ranging conversation. It's that eager, exuberant curiosity which no doubt continues to drive his music in innovative and often unexpected directions – and his conversation as well.
"Do you like gorillas?" he asks unexpectedly. I do, as it turns out.
"I've got this fascination with gorillas," he confesses. "I just think they're really majestic…They've got all these things going on, they're powerful, they're majestic looking, and family orientated. I'd like to see them in the wild, in their natural habitat. You know that's one of my things I'd like to see. While I can, basically. That's on my little list, that one. When the Covid thing disappears. If it ever disappears!"
Until then, it's long walks on the heath with Sparkie…and a steady stream of delightful music for his listeners.
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