Several international hit singles, an album that sold more than 1.5 million copies, touring the world with U2’s Zooropa extravaganza. The Stereo MC’s seemingly had it all in 1992 and 1993.
But looks can be deceiving, even for a British funk outfit that had “Connected” with fans and critics.
“I had a daughter when we were touring with ‘Connected,’ ” music orchestrator-keyboardist Nick “The Head” Hallam said recently. “She was about 1 then. I didn’t get to see her for about a year almost, and it’s kind of hard. We were so busy from 1987 pretty much until the end of ’94.
“When you’re just starting out, you’re concentrating on the music, but then some bands just burn out and don’t do anything again. With us, we knew we wanted to do something, but somehow we had to be at home for a while and kind of in a way get back to the root level of what we were doing. It’s important to keep it real for yourself and somehow touring the world and your records start doing things, it changes your outlook on life a bit. We needed to check what we were doing and get back and find something to do that wasn’t just about being successful.”
Hallam, singer-songwriter-producer Rob Birch and drummer Owen “If” Rossiter vainly tried to conjure up a follow-up album, but the muse just wasn’t there. It would have been too easy to come up with another “Connected,” “Step It Up” or “Ground Level.”
“We went straight back into the studio after we toured ‘Connected’ for two years,” Hallam said, “but we weren’t really feeling it. It wasn’t like, ‘Yeah, this is what we want to do.’ The music was probably good, but somehow for us it didn’t make us go ‘Yeah, we should put this out.’ ”
For the next eight years, while the Stereo MC’s were in dry dock, Birch and Hallam formed a publishing company, Spirit Songs, signing such acts as Finlay Quaye and Jurassic 5. They also had their hands full with their own label, Response Records.
“We carried on with music, doing other stuff, like our label, our publishing company, signing artists and putting them out,” Hallam said. “We were doing remixes, doing stuff for like Tricky, Madonna, U2, Pressure Drop, David Holmes. We did loads of stuff, built our studio and then we did the ‘DJ Kicks’ album on a German label, which we kind of did for a laugh, really.”
By Christmas 1999, Hallam and Birch – and their assortment of first-class musicians and singers – were eager again to plug in the Stereo MC’s. Within eight months, they had reconstructed their groundbreaking mixture of funk, soul, rap and blues, and on June 12, U.S. fans got reconnected with the band when its long-overdue album, “Deep Down & Dirty,” was released by Island Records.
They haven’t skipped a beat. By staying true to their urban-soul past, the Stereo MC’s sound as fresh and innovative today as they did nine years ago (which only goes to show how little pop music has progressed since then). Tracks such as “Traffic” and the title cut prove the group’s mettle.
“The passing of time made us get back to where we wanted to be musically,” Hallam said. “We wanted to make a record that sounded like us, but it has more of a different edge. We try to put an energy into our records, not by copying what else is going on at the time. It’s an energy from listening to music and living life, and then keeping our own sound, because I think that’s what makes us different is that nobody else sounds like us and we do our own thing.
“With all our records, we’ve never fit into any kind of fashion or anything else that was going on in music. With ‘Connected,’ we kind of built it to such a degree that, it hit at the right moment. With this one, we’ve been away a while, so we’re going to have to do a bit of work to reestablish ourselves. That’s good, as well, because in a way that’s more exciting than just being at this great level and just cruising along, going ‘Oh, yeah, everyone loves us.’ This makes us work harder and be more creative about it.”
Hallam has no idea how American listeners will respond to “Deep Down & Dirty,” but he’s buoyed by Europe’s shining to the album.
“Although we sold well over a period of years in Germany before, we never actually charted in countries like that,” he said. “But this album is in the Top 10 already, and it’s No. 2 in Austria. That, for me, is fantastic, because after eight years of not putting anything out, that many people are interested in it.”
He would be lying if he said he didn’t think fans could have forgotten about the Stereo MC’s.
“But we try not to worry too much about it,” he said. “We’d like to feel that things could happen on the strength of the record, not on the strength of our past records. Obviously, that’s going to have some kind of impact, but hopefully this record can be seen by us as a new group and a whole new set of people can get into it. That’s why our records aren’t easy to market, because nobody knows what the fuck we are. That makes it difficult for record companies, but on the other hand, if we put the work in and tour and people see us and hear us, that gradually has an impact as well. It grows in a real way, rather than it being about CHR airplay or sales figures.
“For Rob and me, it’s about reestablishing ourselves so we can make another record next year and build something really solid again. Then hopefully people who’ve heard us for the first time will go back and check out our older stuff and they’ll see a real body of work and they’ll understand what we’re about.”
Now that the group is performing its first shows since 1994, what of Hallam’s daughter, now age 10? Will he make the same mistake of being away so long this time around?
“I think I’ve had time to sort all that out,” he said, “and it’s still difficult being away, but we’re doing a better way of planning things so we don’t tour continuously for two years. We do like four or five months and then take time to write some new material and then do some more shows. We’re running it slightly different so that it’s geared more toward what makes us feel good rather than overpromoting things.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “I think it was a David Bowie record, either ‘Hunky Dory’ or ‘Low.’ A friend of mine was into him and I was just discovering him, so I got into him for a brief spell. I think I got pretty irritated by him afterwards. I was more into the odder stuff that he did.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “I’m pretty sure it was a punk band, possibly The Clash. They were playing with the Slits, Subway Sect and maybe even the Buzzcocks in a place called Lester. I love that shit. The Clash were brilliant. They were a real group. That’s the trouble with a lot of stuff these days, like with dance music, there’s a real lack of identity with records. There’s a group called Asian Dub Foundation that I really like right now. Live, they’re really brilliant. I’ve seen them about four times, and they’re so exciting. You can’t really pinpoint what sort of music they make.”
THE MOST OUTLANDISH RUMOR ABOUT WHY STEREO MC’S WERE GONE FOR SO LONG: “I guess it was the one that Rob was dead. Somebody actually came up to Rob at the supermarket one day a couple of years ago and said, ‘Oh, it’s good to see you. Somebody told me you were dead.’ That and people started making up those heroin stories, and really we’ve never taken any of that stuff. It’s pretty sad that people still keep making up those rumors. It’s a typical music business type of rumor, isn’t it?”
THE STEREO MC’S ON THE WEB: Get connected @ www.stereomcs.co.uk.
BWF (before we forget): The Stereo MC’s album discography – “33-45-78” (Germany – PolyGram, 1989); “Supernatural” (4th & Broadway, 1990); “Connected” (Gee Street, 1992); “DJ Kicks,” various artists (Germany – Studio K7, 2000); “Deep Down & Dirty” (Island, 2001).