Steve Bird aka Mr Bird aka the guy who put Lisbon on my map.
What’s your story? I’m assuming that you started out listening to hip hop?
I’m forty this year. My first big thing in the early eighties was being into electro and hip hop that was coming out of New York. Breakdancing, Beat Street, Wild Style, … When I was about ten, eleven, I was really into that. Then I got into playing guitar and was into a lot of bands. I played in three or four bands but it was all kind of very guitar based. We were kind of like Sonic Youth – this kind of crazy noise bands. Then I got a Tascam four track, got a portastudio, and started recording the band and really got into the recording side of it. Off the back of that I got into college and studied music technology. Then it was the Manchester Scene, the rave scene,
Stone Roses and all those bands?
Yeah. Exactly. Lots of parties. Free parties, Warehouse parties, house parties… I kept getting into more of electronic stuff. Then I was into drum&bass for quite a while… But I’ve always been into funk & soul. My dad is a musician. He was always playing rock’n roll, lot’s of classic stuff. I always listened to lots of Bob Marley when I was a kid. James Brown and souls.
That’s a good education.
Yeah, it was a good upbringing in lots of different music.
It’s about the breaks. To me it’s the old school digging, that’s what I’ve been doing for twenty years now, digging for breaks. Finding those breaks that hopefully nobody has used before. I think that’s still really important. Obviously so much has changed now with Discogs and eBay and all that. I think you can pretty much find what you want now whereas for a long time digging was a lot harder. I have a thing where when I go to a new city, I can kind of smell vinyl. You go to a new city and you kind of know this shop will have some vinyl. It’s a dusty book shop, you go in and there’s no vinyl. But then you ask them and they’re like “Yeah, we got a basement.” Still doing that, still digging.
How did you end up in Portugal?
Love! I met my girlfriend about six years ago in Newcastle. She’s Portugese. After three years of traveling between Newcastle and Lisbon I decided that that was it, I was gonna go. It’ll be three years in June that I’ve been here. A new start.
What’s Portugal like?
It’s nice. I didn’t know it at all to be honest. I’d never been here before we met. The country is obviously going through some difficult times but I think that’s the same all over Europe, really. But here the weather is good, food’s good, we have beautiful beaches, beautiful country, …
…even if the economy is bad, life’s still better?
It’s very different. I’d lived my whole life in Newcastle. Up until three years ago. My family is there, I studied there. I think I kind of resigned myself to always being there. I certainly wouldn’t have moved abroad by myself. It took a long time to make the decision as well because I had work in Newcastle. But at the same time I had work but I wasn’t really doing much music. So that’s been one of the biggest changes – having time to do music which is what I always wanted to do.
Are you doing music full time?
Pretty much. I dj a little bit, just in Lisbon, really. I don’t have a manager or an agent, anybody like that. So it’s mainly a few little gigs in bars here. Making a living is kinda like a moot point.
It’s a different landscape compared to when I started doing music about fifteen years ago professionally. I started studying music technology and production. The landscape was very different then. It was pre-Myspace, pre-Facebook, pre-Soundcloud. You released things on vinyl or cd. Everything has changed literally in the time I have been doing music. Some for the better, some for the worse.
It seems to be getting more and more difficult to make a living out of music.
It is. It’s really difficult. I’m doing stuff for about fifteen labels which is just crazy. I don’t even want to think about how much I actually made out of music in the last year. You have a release and a year down the line you get twenty or thirty euros or a couple of copies of something on vinyl… I think when you’re at a certain level, you can get by. But there’s also so many people. That’s the other side of the internet, Soundcloud, music software, … There’s now so many people doing it that it gets harder to get noticed because there’s so much out there. I just continue doing my thing and hope that people catch up to it and like it. Just keep doing it… I think that’s the answer.
I never had… There are a lot of friends who are producers and either they have a full time day job and they fit in little bits of music when they can or they do it full time and they have no money. It’s the eternal balance of being an artist, being a creative person. But I don’t do anything else. I teach a bit. I used to teach music production and djing but I haven’t been able to find much work in that area here yet.
In the last three years, basically since I got here, I’ve been music full time. Having the time has made a huge difference to the amount of stuff I’m doing.
So that’s how you find time for projects like 52 Beats. Looking at your Soundcloud shows that you’re quite productive.
I actually loose track at the moment. So many projects. I’ve done more in three years here than I have probably done in the last eight years in England. It’s a good life. I just need that elusive (?) track to break through. It’s hard. You have to believe. And I’m not the best self promoter. I try to focus on the music. Soundcloud is the one thing I tend to focus on now. That’s the outlet for most of my stuff. I get a lot of good feedback from there. I like the system.
Lot’s of good records to be found in Portugal?
Yeah but it’s kind of different to the UK. In the UK, there’s so many charity shops, on every high street of every town you have like ten charity shops with people’s record collections. You don’t tend to see that this much over here. There’s lots of good record shops in Lisbon though. But more sort of established shops rather than second hand shops. But it’s getting tricky to… The other problem with vinyl in relation to digital is… If I buy a track for 80 cents digitally, if I want want it on vinyl, I’m paying 8,9,10, 12 euros. It’s tough to keep that collecting thing going. We still try and press vinyl when we can but it’s getting harder. You’re pressing smaller and smaller runs.
Are we talking about 500 copies?
It’s getting less. A lot of people seem to be pressing around 300. I had a 12” out last year on one of my labels, Heavy Duty Booty, and they pressed 300 and I think they only sold like 200. That’s with great feedback and everything else… But I don’t think it will die. I think cds will die long before vinyl. I think you will always have a market for vinyl. You have Smoove. He’s a one man vinyl support industry in himself.
He definitely is and he’s probably the only person I know who’s flying out to gigs still carrying a bag full of 12”.
The problem with guys of our age group is that we’ve all got bad backs. I live in an apartment in an old building on the sixth floor and there is no lift. Carrying two bags of vinyl up six flights of stairs after a gig is getting harder…
And then there’s the marks on your shoulders on the next day…
I can’t dj with cds for lots of reasons. It’s just weird. It’s not that I don’t like cds in themselves. I just don’t have any connection with them. If I have a wallet of cds, it’s strange. I don’t know what I’ve played, I don’t know where they are, I can’t structure the things.
I do have Traktor but I don’t use it for gigs. Here in Portugal it’s a little tricky sometimes. They have inspections in bars and clubs and if you are using a computer, you have to be able to produce receipts for all the music you’re playing.
Absolutely. My problem is that my digital collection is like 15 years of collecting. My own production, promos, stuff from cds, stuff I’ve recorded from vinyl… Two or three thousand tracks. I have receipts for what I bought but that’s just a tiny percentage. They can confiscate your computer and you can get fined.
You could have nicked all your vinyl too…
Exactly. But if you play vinyl, you can’t get problems. But I do have Traktor. I bought it a couple of years ago and I’m slowly getting into it. I like it, actually. To be honest, if I did a lot of gigs abroad, I’d be using Traktor. The last time I played abroad I had two bags of vinyl and running with two bags through Schiphol (Amsterdam airport) trying to catch a plane…
My other worry is – and it has happened to two good friends of mine – is that it only takes one person with a pint of beer to destroy a very expensive machine. And then, what do you do?
That kind of scares me.
I’ve played with people in clubs here and they’ve tried to set up Serato…
I just like a bag of vinyl. I can only carry about 150, 200 records to a gig and then it’s all about the selection before you leave the house. It’s a different approach.
If I listen to somebody playing mp3s in a club, what I don’t like about it is there is no dynamics to the music. Everything is on auto-gain. When I’m playing, I’m playing a 7”, then a 12”, then something off an album… There’s dynamics due to the pressing, due to the mastering, due to lots of different things… And I like that! It’s alive! I was playing a gig just the other week and the record scratched just in the middle of it and the crowd was all going “whoop, whoop!” and I was like “it’s vinyl, it happens.”
I still think the thing with vinyl is, it’s quality control. If somebody has gone to the effort, the expense of creating a physical product. I have two digital labels myself. I do this… But it takes me ten minutes to upload a digital release. Done. It’s good because it means everything is available and anybody can buy it anywhere. Anybody with an internet connection can upload tracks and that’s where I think labels are still important:
If you’re gonna make the investment to create a (physical) product, you have to believe in that thing. It’s great that Smoove with both his labels, Wack and Wass, is still putting out vinyl. I think it’s really good, it’s really important.
There’s nothing nicer than a room full of records.
Yeah. This is my studio. When I moved to Lisbon, that was my plan, when I take my vinyl, at least I can dj. There might not be much money in it but it‘s always a way I had of earning money. When the guys arrived that shipped the stuff over about three or four days after I did in the summer they were like “you live on the 6th floor, do you have a lift?” There were 62 boxes and 52 of them were vinyl. I have a separate room, I’ve got my studio.
In three years my stuff has changed a lot. I think partly because I’m in a new surrounding, a new environment as well. The thing I love about Lisbon is this kind of a musical melting pot. With the big ties with the ex colonies in Africa and Brazil there’s loads of great African music, loads of great Brazilian music. Lot’s of traditional Portuguese stuff, guys producing hip hop, house, … It’s a good melting pot of sounds. It’s a very creative city to be in.
The hours here are very different to the UK. If I’m playing in a bar here, I usually start at half ten and I’m playing until three or four. If it’s a club, ‘till six or seven in the morning. Even after three years I haven’t quite adjusted to Lisbon nightlife. There’s not many clubs here. There’s two sort of main clubs, there’s hundreds of bars but they all very small bars. There’s a very vibrant nightlife. People eat late, they go out late. I was playing in a club last year and people don’t start getting there ‘till about four. I was playing after a band and the band was playing from about twelve ‘till half two and I would start at half two, three, the club starts filling up at about four, you’re there ‘till about seven. But then there’s a club next door that stays open ‘till lunch time.
What’s the nightlife in Lisbon like?
I was teaching djing and music production to young guys in Newcastle. I would chat to them about their work and what they wanted to do and we would lots of discussions about music. I had a class of twenty-five students and I asked them how many of them bought music. There were two guys out of twenty-five who put their hands up. And these are music production students… One of them was like “I’ve never paid for music in my life!”. I asked him if he was proud of that and he replied “well, actually, I am! I’ve got four-thousand tracks and I didn’t pay for them.” They were all like six-teen to twenty, it’s just normal for them that they don’t pay because that’s the culture there is now. My argument to these guys was they were all learning to be music producers and in two or three years when they finish the course, who’s gonna buy their music? They don’t buy music. So why should anybody else buy their music? They are actually setting themselves up into an unsustainable position. They’re all like “we’re gonna write these beats and everybody is gonna buy it” but you don’t even buy music… Why is anybody gonna buy your music?
They are the one’s who should be most enthusiastic about supporting music.
Apart from teaching and working in a bar for a long time – my main thing is music and I think I’d be miserable if I didn’t do it. There’s that kind of drive to keep doing it.
One of the things I’m most proud of is doing a session for John Peel which was kind of weird. From when I was a kid and playing in bands, that was always the big thing. You would always listen to who was doing a Peel Session that week. The dream was always that the band would do a Peel Session and it never happened with the band. Then my first album was out back in 2001 on a label in Brighton and John Peel was playing a few tracks off the album on his show. So my friends were going “you should try and do a session!” I thought that would be silly, that was not gonna happen… But my friends kept bugging me to ask and only to shut them up, I sent his producer an email just to say thanks to John for playing my tracks and adding “I know it’s a little bit cheeky but is there any chance I could come and do a session?”
Three days later I got a call from his producer. “I’ve had a word with John and he’d like you to come down to London to the Maida Vale studios to record a session.” Wow! I just had to ask!
This guy was a one man cultural institution of the English music scene who’s broken more bands than most people ever hear of.
I think there are plans to put his collection online. http://thespace.org/
And the sessions as well, apparently, at some point. I still remember that as a very good lesson that sometimes you have to ask. That’s it. You just ask and be Cheeky. You have nothing to lose. If you do it in the right way, it can be pretty effective.
It was a huge loss to musicians and bands because the guy listened to every single demo he was ever sent and he personally replied to everybody. I don’t think there’s the same kind of outlet that he had provided. If he liked it, he would play it. You’d listen to his show and you’d normally not like half, at least half of it. It would be some obscure techno followed by…
… some dreadful metal.
Exactly! Followed by some hip hop followed by… But it was amazing. I’ve still got hundreds of tapes. You’d be going “what’s this, it’s awful!” but then the next time you’d be going “this is amazing!” For me it’s probably the thing I’m most proud of as far as being involved in music. But hopefully there’s more to come.
I had the same last year. Craig Charles was playing quite a few tracks on his show.
Dedy Dread who is a Portuguese architect, music producer and surfer who I actually met through Smoove. When I moved to Portugal, Smoove told me to hook up with this guy who had released stuff on his label. It’s funny, because Smoove and him have never met.
That’s the internet for you.
It is. I’m working with about three or four singers at the moment. And again, I grumble on about Facebook but it’s amazing in that respect. The people I’ve met and worked and collaborated with through Facebook… I’m working with a singer called Greg Blackman at the moment. He posted a video of himself singing and playing keyboards at three in the morning in his living room and I was like “wow!” His voice is like Curtis meets Otis meets Stevie. He’s just got this amazing soul voice. I sent him some tracks which at first he wasn’t into. But I kind of persisted and one of the tracks I sent him, he really liked. I sent him an instrumental and the next day he sent me back the acapella that he had recorded that night. But it was an acapella with three part harmonies, ad-libs, it was amazing! And this was over night! So I sent him an email: “Wow, this is amazing, here’s two more tracks.” The next day he sent me back two more acapellas! Who is this guy? This is crazy! The next day I emailed him again: “Look, you’re not gonna beat me!” So I sent him four instrumentals – and this is like the third day we’ve been working together – and the next day I had four acapellas.
That’s an album in less than a week?
Well, it was about four days. We wrote seven tracks in four days. But now it’s taken us to this point where we just sent off a demo. He’s been working on a lot of projects with lots of producers, he’s just done an album with DJ Vadim, he’s done vocals on the new Featurecast album, he’s working on vocals with Nightmares on Wax, he’s working with a lot of good people. And he’s got his own projects – he’s got a soul band, he’s got a hip hop project and he’s got a family and two kids as well. It’s amazing!
Some people just don’t sleep…
That’s the good thing about Facebook. The way it enables you to meet people. But apart from that it gets on my nerves most of the time.
For me to sit down and listen to music is almost a luxury. I also like to be in my bubble a lot of the time as far as production goes. If I’m listening to lots of stuff, I think unconsciously it’s always kind of there. You have a little melody from something you heard… So if I’m working on a project of my own, I tend to listen to just my own stuff. Just trying to keep my head in that space of my own.
I’m also starting two new live projects as it seems to be easier to sell a live project over here.
Will that be you playing guitar?
I’m doing a mix. It will be mostly the production side but also hopefully playing some guitar. I’m also just in the process of starting a project with a very interesting American guy who’s living here in Lisbon. A guy called Jerry the Cat who is from Detroit. He’s a percussion player who used to play with people like Parliament Funkadelic. Then he became a dj and a producer as well. He knows all the Detroit kind of guys on that scene. And then there’s a French guy I’ve just started a project with that we’re hopefully develop into a live set. A lot is going on. Juggling, juggling… I’m setting up a new label as well. That’s my other thing at the moment.
Keeping yourself pretty busy. Let’s get to that “bubble” of yours which you need for production. How does that relate to using samples?
I kind of go through phases. The thing with Greg, I’ve played everything apart from the drums. The drums are sampled. I played all the guitar and keys and strings. What I’m trying to do for certain projects is trying to move away from samples whereas for my mash-ups I’m still throwing huge bits of acapellas and beats and samples together. I think it’s much easier to sell something for licensing or to record labels if it doesn’t contain a lot of samples that they then have to clear. I think it’s two extremes. I’m either doing completely original stuff or it’s just completely samples.
I’ve actually been writing a lot of house and disco. For my other label, ? Recordings which I have set up with another friend of mine. It’s kind of funny, here in Portugal people know me for mash-ups while there is all my original stuff, there’s also my electronic stuff, there’s the ambient stuff, hip hop, funk, … That was one of the ways I learned, I set myself tasks – I’m gonna write a dub track, I’m gonna write a pop track, a drum&bass track, I’m gonna write a funk track. For me that was an important part of learning to produce. You learn things from the different styles. You might learn something from drum&bass and put that in a hip hop track or a house track. You can kind of mix the techniques from different genres and I think that’s where you get some good sounds and crossover ideas.
That reminds me of Featurecast. My friend Albert who’s promoting the Trust in Wax nights had booked him to dj and when we picked him up from the airport, I told him that he was supposed to play Trance all night just to test his reaction. He replied that he could do that and told us that he used to produce Trance. Apparently he just likes writing music.
It’s a good and a bad thing for me. People like an easy life. People like to put you in a little box and you’re not allowed to come out of that box. For a long time I was an instrumental hip hop producer while I was still doing all the other stuff. My first two albums were predominantly instrumental hip hop. So people were like “that’s what you do.” Some people get it and some don’t. I tend not to worry about it.
A lot of people are fairly limited in what they listen to. You might be doing hip hop and disco but most people who listen to hip hop wouldn’t even get close to anything disco.
There’s so much music. Even if you don’t want to pay for software, you can download Ableton or Reason or whatever and be writing tracks in no time.
I went to college, did three years of studying music production, then I went back a few years later and did a master’s degree at Newcastle University in creative music technology which was interesting as well, just looking at it from a different perspective again. Hopefully that all feeds into my work. I used to write a lot of stuff for adverts as well. You have 30 seconds and you have to write a track with a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s quite a good exercise in focusing as you have no time.
I’ve been looking through all the stuff I’ve been doing in the last three years since I moved to Lisbon.
If you were in a second hand record shop, what would you be looking at?
The worst easy listening records I could find. The ones with the really good covers.
Why is that?
It’s just digging for breaks. You often find the best breaks in the strangest of places. I got one on a Demis Roussos album. The album is so bad but buried deep halfway through the last track of the album there is an amazing drum break that I’ve never heard anybody else sample. Sometimes it’s that thing on instinct. When I used to buy more stuff in charity shops, if I was spending 50p on a record, I’d buy it. You sometimes just have to trust your instincts.
If it’s just 50p, you’re not really taking a chance anyway.
I used to do it a lot and I often used to go back to the shop the next day and give them back half of the albums. I like the idea of recycling. I take the record, I sample the bits I want and then I give them back to the charity shops and hopefully somebody else finds it somewhere down the line and samples it.
For some of the tracks of the 52 Beats project I’m making my own breaks and I’m putting in a four bar or an eight bar drum loop…
For people to sample?
Exactly! If I made a new break out of eight breaks that I found in charity shops and then somebody samples the break that I’ve done and it all kind of continues. It’s very eco friendly.
I brought a lot of my records but I still actually have boxes and boxes of records in my dad’s loft. Every time I go back it’s like “Wow, I forgot I had all these records here!” So I grab a pile and bring it back to Lisbon with me. At some point I might have all my records here. Who knows…
My girlfriend got a massive book collection so she understands that thing and is very cool with my record collection. As long as I keep them in the studio it’s good. I keep trying to get a deck in the front room though.
Today I got a little Vestax Handy Trax, the little portable record player. It’s for a new project that me and Dedy Dread are gonna be starting on. We have two now, one each. So it’s about finding places where the two of us can go and put on a little gig. One is playing beats, one is playing some acapellas, stuff like that.
I want to go busking with it. I could go busking and sing and play guitar but then people would be giving me money to stop. I stay away from vocals. I’m leaving that to the people with good voices. Everybody would be like “he’s a great producer but he sounds like a frog!”
Kermit made a living out of that.
He did. Yes. But the he had to put up with Miss Piggy…
You wouldn’t want to do that?
No, I’d probably be in the box with Waldorf and Statler – rumbling and shouting and throwing things.
What was your worst djing experience?
I got asked to play a private party here in Lisbon, this was before I had moved. At this point I was still traveling and there were no direct flights from Newcastle to Lisbon. It was always two flights, either via Schiphol or Charles de Gaulle. I had told them that I only play vinyl and I’d asked them if they were gonna get decks and a mixer and they were like “Yeah, yeah, all of that!” So it was all arranged and organized and I brought the vinyl with me as well as my normal luggage. I carried an enormous bag of vinyl with me only to play at this party, nowhere else! When I got to the party, in a corner of the room there was a little system with one turntable on the top. One of those where you have to press the button and the arm comes up and starts the record. That was it! I had to play one record, wait two minutes for the arm to come back and then put the next record on. I managed to do a four-hour set like that. It wasn’t exactly the highlight of my djing career.
Some reggae sound systems still only use one turntable…
You can do it but on this turntable… No!
Probably the most efforts for the least prepared party I’ve ever played.