A Certain Ratio release their thirteenth studio album, ‘It All Comes Down to This’, their third in the space of just four years amongst other releases the band have put out in that time. Founding members Jez Kerr, Martin Moscrop and Donald Johnson are working closer together now than ever before in their 45-year recording history, creating their most coherent album yet. Discussing the new album, the band’s guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, Martin, talks about ACR’s current relationship, working with producer Dan Carey, Jez’s morphine induced lyric writing and moving on with younger musicians since the late Denise Johnson.


The new record, ‘It All Comes Down to This’, comes almost 45 years since your debut album. The band now sound better than ever. How do you describe your creativity and working relationship with the other members now as opposed to looking back? I think you’re at your most productive, so I’m wondering why that’s happening now?

With this album, ‘It All Comes Down to This’, there are three of us: when there’s only three of you the communication element is very, very easy. Whereas if you think about ACR back in 1979/80, there were five of us and we were really young then, so we didn’t really communicate with each other. We just did what we did. Whereas now, there’s probably a little bit more thought that goes into it; a bit more planning. It’s a lot easier with just the three of us. It’s like a marriage: when people say what makes a good marriage, [they] say understanding each other’s faults; understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses. In the last few years, we’ve learned to tolerate each other a lot more and we’ve also realised how creative each of us is. I think we appreciate each other’s creativity a lot more than we used to.

I’d say it probably started around the time that ‘ACR Loco’ came out – there was an explosion of something that was a different energy. I just felt like it was a different phase of the band. Were you feeling that yourselves?

Yeah, as musicians your newest material is also your favourite. We’ve made a trio of albums since ‘Loco’, but in between ‘Loco’ and ‘1982’, we had three EPs out and they were all amazing tracks that would have made an amazing album as well. We are lucky in the way we can appeal to a wide range of people, but saying that, that’s part of our downfall: people can’t really keep up with the fact that we change all the time. It doesn’t help commercially or it doesn’t help market the band – we’re a marketing department’s nightmare.

Did your last albums sell well?

For us success is having that record in your hand at the end of that process of writing it, recording it, having it manufactured and then putting it out. Holding that record in your hand and knowing that it’s gone from there to there, to me that’s success. Success isn’t how many records it sells: it’s the fact that you’ve actually produced and made that record. A lot of musicians would give their right arms to put records out.

I like that you still sound so fresh after 45 years instead of being a “karaoke machine”, as you put it.

© Simon Green

We’re probably enjoying it now more than we did when we were younger, because when we were younger, we took things for granted…we were really arrogant and we didn’t care what the audience thought or what the press thought. We just didn’t give a shit about that. But now we do. It’s not the be-all-and-end-all but we like people to like the music. We work hard at making the band’s profile amplified whereas when we were younger we didn’t even bother about whether people were gonna listen to us or not. That was up to them. But now we work at it and we try hard to expand our audience. We like playing festivals because we surprise a lot of people: at festivals you get people who haven’t got a clue who you are. They just stumble on you and they’ve never heard you before. For me the most satisfying thing is when somebody comes up to you and says it’s the first-ever ACR gig they’ve been to: ‘I heard you at such-and-such a festival’; ‘I heard you on BBC 6 Music and I’ve only just got into you and it’s blown me away.’ To me that’s the best feeling.

I first saw you in 2017….

You get the early Factory heads, then you get the ones that have been around since 1986 and they have got into us because of the album ‘Force’. And the ones that get into us because of the album ‘acr:mcr’ and then the people who’ve only recently got into us. So it’s like four or five different generations of people who got into us through different periods in our career, then they’ve been through that discovery thing where they’ve discovered all our music. To me, the thing that I love about music is when you find someone that you like and then you start looking at their back catalogue, discovering them and seeing the development of that artist…to me, that’s my favourite thing with music. First and foremost, the best music you usually find by accident. And secondly, the next best thing about music is the discovery stage: discovering what that artist has done that you found by accident. For me, walking around a festival and not going to the main stages… going into the little tents and thinking, ‘What’s this?’ – that’s where you find the best stuff. Those young up-and-coming bands or the bands that aren’t popular.

It’s like a marriage…understanding each other’s faults; understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We have learned to tolerate each other a lot more and also realised how creative each of us is. We appreciate each other’s creativity a lot more than we used to.

Did you meet Dan Carey at a festival?

Yeah, it was at Wide Awake festival. I was already in London on the Friday of the festival before; I arranged to go to Dan’s studio to meet him and I spoke to him about doing an album with him. He then went to the festival and that’s where he met Donald and Jez. So I had already had a meeting with him before he came to the festival on the same day. Dan did a remix on our album, ‘Remezclada’, called ‘Down & Dirty’. I asked him to write about what it was like working on the remix and he explained that he’s a massive fan of ACR: when he was 18, he went to university in Manchester; his first day walking around town he saw this poster and it said “‘Shack Up’ remix, A Certain Ratio by Norman Cook” and he thought, ‘What is that?’ So he went to Piccadilly records, bought it, took it home and it blew his mind…then he really got into ACR and started getting into making music…[he] bought his first sampler. So it’s gone full circle.

When I met him I was enquiring about the possibility of him being our
producer…I was finding out how long it would take; trying to plan it all. He explained to me how he worked and what ideas he had. The next stage was to talk to his managers, which was about money – that’s the difficult bit.

I wanted to talk a bit about his working process. The album’s very varied in terms of genres: you keep the funk element in there, but there’s a lot of electronics.

Dan is really, really into hip-hop – that’s his big love. It’s funny: that’s not the type of music he produces when he produces other artists. So if you listen to tunes like ‘Surfer Ticket’, we played the tune as it is and he’s then sampled us playing the song, cut it up into little pieces and re-triggered it. He butchered the tune in his MPC: if you listen to it it’s got a rap/hip-hop vibe to it. He did that on two tunes. We already put keyboards on some of the tracks because me, Donald and Jez were playing really simple keyboard stuff. But then he replaced that with other keyboard sounds from his synth. lots of keyboards and great sounds on songs some stuff.. I made noises on my guitar and he put it through his modular synths to make it sound really evil.

Were you playing around with his instruments?

He’s got a studio full of effects units and instruments. He said you don’t need to bring anything with you. So Donald used his drum kit; I used his guitar amps. I did use my guitar but I also used some of his guitars and I used all these effects pedals. I’d say “Have you got a Coloursound Wah Wah?” and he’d go, “There you go!”

Is this equipment that you’ve now brought into your own recording?

Yeah, well, the stuff he’s got is really vintage and very expensive. The thing is with some of the digital effects that you get now, you can manipulate it to emulate all the gears.

Did you have fun with the process?

Yeah the process with the actual recording, 10 songs took 12 hours and then for the next 3 and a half days, that’s when the fun started: that’s when we started experimenting with stuff and Dan made the tune go sideways. So the demo would have been quite straight ahead. The final version we would have a twist on that and be a lot darker.

Did you talk in the studio about what you were gonna be doing or was it spontaneous?

Dan spoke to us about the way he likes to work. We had in our head how we were gonna carry out the process, but it’s never the same on paper as it is in reality.

How did you do all that in such a short time? It’s very rich instrumentally. It only took you 12 hours?

Once all microphones and everything are set up, Dan likes to do songs in threes: he’d pick which three tunes, so you think of it in three little sections. He was just recording us playing exactly how we played it on the demo. All the manipulation went on after that. It records it onto 2-inch 16-track, which is better quality than 2-inch 24-track. Once he’s recorded it, he puts it into Logic as digital files and then works on the rest of the album. So for all the basic backing tracks, you don’t need more than 16 tracks. You’ve got to make a decision whether you keep that take: if you’re not happy with the take, you have to go over the version that you have just done. So it puts you under pressure and that pressure makes you work, really focused and quite fast. Little things that we thought like, ‘I’ve messed up the guitar on that bit’, Dan would go, “No, that’s fine,” because he likes mistakes in tunes and he doesn’t like things being perfect. It’s that imperfection that gives it a really organic feel.

There’s a darker side to the album – a political side and in the sound of it.

Musically it’s quite political, in the way that it is not conformist, quite left-field; both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time because we’re pissed off with how the world’s turned out. Being baby boomers it’s not the world that we wanted. When we stopped writing the album, [Boris] Johnson was the Prime Minister; they had just got rid of [Donald] Trump in America. As far as it goes lyrically, Jez had been in quite a dark place because he’d had his accident and spent quite a few months in hospital. [For] part of the treatment he was getting, they were pumping him full of morphine. When you take morphine you have lots of dreams and nightmares and he was waking up in sweats and writing down everything that he’d just been dreaming there.

Was this when he was in hospital?

Yeah and afterwards because, when he came out of hospital, he was still on morphine. He’d be sending me texts saying [he’d] just had this dream and [he’d] written these lyrics and sent me the lyrics. He was just on fire. We’d already recorded six tunes in my studio when Jez went into hospital and me and Don carried on coming up with ideas while Jez was in hospital, but we had 10 tunes without any vocals on. So the next bit was trying to help Jez get well enough to do vocals. To get him out of the house, I was picking him up and bringing him to my studio. He have his book full of words. We’d only do three hours at a time in the studio, and the first two three-hour sessions, he’d recorded the bulk of 8 out of the 10 tunes – just made them up and recorded them in six hours. So the whole process of writing was very, very quick.

Musically it’s quite political…both optimistic and pessimistic because we’re pissed off with how the world’s turned out. Jez had been in quite a dark place because he’d spent quite a few months in hospital. They were pumping him full of morphine…he was waking up in sweats and writing down everything that he’d just been dreaming.

There’s a lot of negativity but I found quite a lot of positivity in there too, which is really uplifting.

And it’s quite comical as well. Like ‘Bitten by a Lizard’ and ‘Surfer Ticket’.

Were the lyrics in those tracks about technology and AI? AI sounds quite frightening. It also reminded me of ‘The Graveyard and The Ballroom’.

That’s Simon [Topping] singing on [that]. Pete [Terrell] used to write a lot of the lyrics back then as well; [his] lyrics are quite twisted. I think there’s a lot to be said about lyrics that are slightly twisted that don’t really mean anything, but have got a lot of meaning when people take what they want from [them], without being a song about specifically one thing. Jez is like a writing machine lyrically and then Donald’s ‘Estate Kings’ – that’s about his childhood. The chorus for ‘Keep it Real’ – that’s my lyrics with Jez writing the verses. There’s two people that have written the lyrics on that [track] so they’re probably not connected that much.

Why do you have your musical references mentioned in ‘Keep it Real’?

Because Jez was in hospital and I was worried that we weren’t getting any vocals done on the tunes that we had recorded. I have a vocoder in the studio because I can’t sing: I’ll always write words and play on the vocoder. I wanted to take references from famous dance tunes: ‘Can you Feel it’ – Mr. Fingers; ‘Big Fun’ – Inner City; ‘Release The Pressure’ – James Brown; ‘On The One’ – Bootsy Collins. So the chorus and a bit of verse were written on that tune and then Jez
changed the verses – it married up quite well really.

What musical influences are there on the album?

The main ones were Brian Eno, The Velvet Underground, Wire, a bit of Marc Bolan and Herbie Hancock, amongst many others.

Was there a bit of Vini Reilly too?

‘There’s a guitar riff on ‘God Knows’ – Jez said he thought it sounded like Vini Reilly. That wasn’t my intention, it’s just if you played an echoed melody on guitar, it will all sound like Vini Riley because he’s very melodic. But yeah, I like to think he’s inspired that.

I wanted to go back to ‘1982’ and the bridge between that album and this one. What did you see the purpose of that album as being? It was quite instrumental – I don’t know whether that was just a thinking period?

The difference between ‘1982’ and ‘It All Comes Down to This’ is the latter is coherent and was recorded in one period with a producer, which glued together this coherence. Whereas ‘1982’ is 10 songs all recorded at different times and then put together as an album. So yeah, it hasn’t got an album concept; it’s a bit like the EPs. Also very important with ‘1982’ is all about collaboration. So collaborating with Ellen [Beth Abdi] and getting [her] on stuff. And funnily enough, it was the breakthrough for us for 6 Music because two of the songs, ‘Afro Dizzy’ and ‘Samo’, both got playlisted. We’ve been trying to get playlisted on 6 Music for a number of years, so that’s the album that broke that.

Going back to Ellen, and also Denise passing away, I just wanted to know whether you saw that sad event as an opportunity to maybe develop a little bit? I don’t mean any disrespect but it was a new phase and then bringing Ellen for younger talent too – securing ACR in the future.

Yeah it was definitely a good thing. In ‘1982’, what we wanted to do was introduce some younger blood into the band with Ellen, Chunky and Viv on bass and we involved people more in the recording. Tony [Quigley], who’s been in the band for many years, was quite involved in that album so there were more heads going into the creation of [it], which can make things a little confusing and a bit more messy, which is where you lose that coherence. Whereas with the three of us, a producer and tied down to a set time-period of recording produces something that is more coherent. Denise knew Ellen very well and was almost mentoring her; when Denise passed away, we didn’t want a like-for-like replacement, so Ellen was the ideal person for us and she was great to create with in the studio because she’s a brilliant lyric writer and a fantastic musician. She might be young, but musically, she’s very, very mature. It really helped us in the same way that Miles Davis used to work with lots of younger musicians: when Herbie Hancock was younger he worked with [him] and all these young musicians helped Miles Davis develop new music all the time. That was the idea that we had in our head for ‘1982 – let’s try something that brings some youth into the band.

There’s still so many bands that are tied to their older fanbase.

Well our compromise on this tour is what we’re doing in the first part of the set: we’re playing the whole album in the same order from beginning to end and then after that we’re playing fan favourites. For us, the main bit is the new album – 10 of the new album and 10 old tracks.

I can see ACR going on beyond you guys departing this planet. I don’t know if anyone would take over from you guys after this, but I think potentially they could do that.

Yeah, it would be great for the name to carry on forever if [they] worked with the spirit of ACR; we’ve still got more stuff to do ourselves. Three albums in succession and not stopping since 2019…I think we just need a little break before the next album comes out; more than a year. Just spend a little bit more time than we normally do writing it, because we work very, very quickly. But it may also be nice to take more time and make it really good. I think we’ve saturated the market a little bit too much; a remix album would be one step too far at this point. So because we’ve got all the back catalogue as well, we need a very clean start: releasing the back catalogue bit-by-bit again. While Mute is doing that, we can develop what we’re doing next.

I really liked ‘ACR:BOX’ – there were things on there that weren’t finished as well.

Any artist that I love, I love hearing things that aren’t quite the proper thing because it’s warts-and-all and, to me, music’s not about getting everything perfect – it’s got to have imperfections. The good thing about ‘ACR:BOX’, if you listen to it from beginning to end, is you can hear the progression of the band and going through different stages.

With your live performances, I see a lot of improvisation and that’s also great…when every show is different in some way. The tracks just blow me away and the next time you played, it was different.

Matt [Steele] never plays the same thing twice – they always say jazz musicians never play the same thing twice. So yeah, Matt does add that element to the band but it’s quite strange doing it as a four-piece because we’ve got a bit more space in the music. So the new album sounds just like the new album, but what we’ve had to do with the older tunes is revisit and rework them a bit to suit the four-piece band so there’s a lot more space in the music. It’s different: we don’t want it to be the same as the gigs we’ve been doing for the last few years – it’s got to have a different approach to it. I think we managed that with all of the rehearsals that we’ve been doing for this tour.

A Certain Ratio’s new studio album, ‘It All Comes Down To This’, is out now.

Photos (unless where otherwise stated) © E. Gabriel Edvy/Blackswitch Labs.

© Ayisha Khan.