Neil, celebrating 30 years of Zion Train we can't but begin by mentioning that at the very beginning Zion was still missing from The Train.
Neil Perch: "Yeah, absolutely, the very first incarnation of what later became Zion Train was simply known as The Train, the main reason being that at that stage we were still focusing on black music in general. It was a small collective of a couple of DJ's and MC's, playing hip-hop, soul, funk and, of course, reggae. Within about a year, the more reggae oriented part of The Train, which consisted of myself and a colleague called Ben Hamilton, separated from the rest of the collective and continued as Zion Train.
I believe you were all still studying at Oxford University at that time?
Neil Perch: "Correct, we were all students at Oxford University, but we weren't really playing our gigs at university events, as we organized our own downtown. Anyone who knows a bit about Oxford will tell you it's a very divided city, with town and gown parts, the latter of course referring to the gown the academics often wear. We weren't really about class division and basically want to play our music to anyone who wanted to listen, so we started organizing events in local community centers and the now famous Roots Club and Caribbean Club in Oxford. The first period as Zion Train those were still mainly classic reggae events, not dub, because that came at a much later stage."
From a musical perspective have you always approached Zion Train like an actual train, always moving forwards, and trying to avoid looking backwards too much?
Neil Perch: "I guess that's more a reflection on life as just on the band, of course… Looking back and reflecting on the past, isn't a bad thing, but momentum and moving forward is much more positive in my opinion, so I'd say I like to reflect on my personal history and that of the band, but only in order to make better decisions moving forward. Where Zion Train's concerned it's definitely true we've always been forward thinking, investing our time and energy into new musical ideas, technology and new collaborations. We've also always been quite politicized, so I should also mention new political thought."
Which brings to mind the expression: "Forwards ever, backwards never!", often used by Rastafarians.
Neil Perch: "Yeah, and by various communist and socialist parties throughout Latin America in the 1970s. Apart from those political associations, it's also just a great phrase in terms of motivating people. I'm guessing that people born in more underprivileged circumstances as we Europeans are, need that sort of stimulus a lot more than we do, and in that respect "Forward ever, backward never!" could also become almost like a daily mantra to get through life."
In Zion Train interviews there's one name that's always mentioned, and that's of course that of Jah Shaka, who's been of great influence in your music, but who apparently also played one of very first tunes Zion Train ever released.
Neil Perch: "We started out as a sound system playing records we'd bought at specialist record stores and then moved on to having dubplates cut, but when we started making music as Zion Train, which, in all honesty, is really the quickest road to having your own exclusive music to play, my biggest ambition was to have one of my own productions played by Shaka at one of his sessions. At that time he simply was our greatest inspiration, and he was still very active as well, playing up to three or four dances a week, with us hanging around at most of these sessions! (laughs) That ambition manifested rather more quickly than we had expected, as Shaka started playing 'Power Two', which was only our second single. It was a bit of a bittersweet experience… We had taken the quite revolutionary step of cutting our singles at 33rpm, which was something we picked up from the house producers at the time, as it gets you more volume per inch of you 7inch single. It's to do with the compression of the sound waves on the vinyl; if you cut at 45rpm it simply doesn't sound as loud as it does at 33rpm. Of course, because reggae singles are usually cut at 45rpm, Shake didn't notice that during the session and played the tune at 45rpm, which he's done ever since. (laughs) I found it quite funny, but the vocalist, Molara, wasn't so amused as suddenly she sounded somewhat like Mickey Mouse! And weirdly enough people loved the tune at 45rpm! Shaka has also always played our third single, which was 'Jah Holds The Key' featuring Devon Russell, and these days whenever he spots me at one of his sessions he usually puts it on as kind of a tribute, which is great, because it means my very first sound system hero still has one of my very first vinyl productions in his record collection. I also remember that time as being quite fertile for UK produced reggae and dub, as you still had Nick Manasseh on Kiss FM, which was still a pirate radio station at the time, who played all-nighters every Saturday night. So we would go to a Shaka dance and listen to Manasseh on the way there and on the way back! Then Sunday nights you had Joey Jay, who, together with his brother Norman also ran the Good Times sound system nights, and who played our very first single, 'Power One' (1991, red.) on his Word, Sound & Power show. Of course Shaka influenced a whole generation of UK dub producers, from Alpha & Omega over Disciples and Nick Manasseh, to people like Revolutionary Dub Warriors and Conscious Sounds. If you'd go to one of Shaka's sessions during the mid-nineteen eighties in Southall, West-London, or Tottenham, North-London, or Brixton, South-London, you would always run into those same people."
Apart from Shaka, three names you always mention as huge musical influences as well are King Tubby, Ravi Shankar and Jimi Hendrix. Three musicians who, at first sight, don't seem to have all that much in common, so what connects them for you?
Neil Perch: "If I may, I'd like to add John Coltrane and Sun Ra, but what connects those people for me is that when they performed or produced they had thoughts in their minds that weren't necessarily musical in nature, but rather political and emotional, but which they were able to translate into their music in the most brilliant way. To have that ability is something very very powerful! A good example is Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock… He was angry about the war in Vietnam, walked on stage and translated that anger in his version of 'The Star-Sprangled Banner'. It's pure genius: a black man, probably high on LSD, using the American national anthem at this huge hippie gathering as a sort of radical news report on the Vietnam War! Sun Ra similarly made a film called 'Space Is The Place'. He was born in Chicago in the nineteen thirties, which was a particularly hard time and place to be born as a black man. In the first scene of this movie, Sun Ra uses his musical ability to express his political anxiety and angst, by playing this happy major key jazz pianist called Sunny Ray, who earns his living playing in a bar filled with relatively well-off white patrons. It's a great statement, because if he'd been born white in that era he probably would have been recognized and praised for his talent everywhere. These days Sun Ra is really only known by music enthusiasts; he's not really a household name so to speak, but he's a genius in the way he illustrates and emotional thoughts in the way he plays his music. That's an incredibly powerful gift to have. Shankar can do it as well, as does Coltrane. King Tubby is a bit of a different story as he deconstructed what in his day were just standard songs and turned them into these incredible, I'd say psychedelic, illustrations of his feelings. He was a guy using self-repaired bits of equipment from other people, doing his thing in very humble surroundings in Jamaica, but turning out music the world still talks about fifty years later! He was clearly a man with more talent than could be expressed during his lifetime. I think that particular element is an ongoing subtext to a lot of black and third world artists and thinkers, because we live in a world dominated by the Anglo-diaspora, mainly consisting of English speaking white men. And because our whole cultural world is shaped through that view, if, for example, you're an intellectual black writer from Peru, or even worse an intellectual black female writer from Peru (laughs), it's incredibly difficult to get your voice heard. All of these artists I've just mentioned have shown the power to break through that mold and having their voice heard on the world stage. The fact of trying to transmit your thoughts, not by process of logical reasoning, but instead musicalizing your intent, that's magic with a capital M to me; and even more so if you can achieve that with instrumental music, because at that stage music really transforms into universal communication. It's not like all these guys singing: "Jah live!", "Let's get together!" or "One love!", which are all nice sentiments, but it's all cliché bullshit we've all heard a thousand times before, and most of the people singing it don't really mean it, it's just a standard way to make a success of yourself as a reggae artist. I can't stand modern reggae music to be honest, because it's all already been done. Something I absolutely dislike in music is commercialization and that's sadly what's happened to reggae music. I met guys like Protoje and Damian Marley, and certainly have nothing against them, but I just wish they wouldn't just be using this magical and powerful music to forward their own careers! In the end they have the same type of ego as all those politicians who lie to us every day. It's perhaps not as overt and nasty, but I can't ignore the similarities. What I do listen to is the old stuff and some of the new dub experiments coming from countries like France, Poland or Japan, because they have their own uniqueness. In music there's a simple rule: if you're copying someone, you're wrong from the get-go! Copying something is not the same as being inspired by something or someone. In short: music is magic and deserves to be treated as such. I know I've got strong feelings and opinions about that, and a lot of people will probably just say: "Relax and enjoy your music!", and I also do that, but we live in a world where everything around us is strictly controlled for political gain and we're slaves to that system. I don't stand for any of that and use every opportunity to try and liberate myself and the people who are close to me from that system, and I truly believe music is or can be one of the ways out. Self-expression, art and free thought are what's missing in that system, and are exactly what the powers controlling us do not want us to have. If tomorrow we all wake up and start speaking our minds and do what we want, that whole system collapses. Also a revolution through music is much nicer, than a revolution through bloodshed. That's why it makes me so angry when I see people exploiting the magic in music, just to make shitloads of money or become famous."
You've been living in Germany for quite some time now. With the possible consequences of Brexit in mind, are you one of those Britons contemplating changing their nationality?
Neil Perch: "At the moment I've actually got a dual nationality, split between Britain and Barbados, which is the country my mother was from, but I've currently signed up to do my Sprachtest für die Einbürgerung ("language test for naturalization", red.) to get the deutsche Staatsangehörigkeit ("German citizenship", red.). If I manage to get German citizenship before March 31st (The United Kingdom is due to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 at 11 p.m. UK time, when the period for negotiating a withdrawal agreement will end unless an extension is agreed, red.), it would mean I could keep both my British citizenship and get the German one on top, because while the United Kingdom is still a member of the European Union, that's possible. Having said that, I'd rather not have to do that, but I have dual nationality children, I have a German-Brazilian wife, I travel all over the world, but mostly around Europe from Germany, so if I just stick to my British passport and Brexit is executed as scheduled, I would be greatly hindered in my daily life. It's a disgrace actually, as I made the choice to move to Germany and marry my wife there rather than having her come to England, because of political decisions that allowed me to do so!"
As a musician you travel back and forth to the UK all the time. While the UK remains in the EU it's only a train ride or short flight away, but what happens after?
Neil Perch: "I think what will probably happen is that we'll get a visa that's like a stamp on your point of entry, but it will still cost money, time; in short, it will be irritating. In my view the whole Brexit thing will make Britain come to a standstill. This whole debacle really landed on our shoulders because of a schism in the conservative party in the EU, all the rest is smoke and mirrors! None of it is true: they lied about the election, they illegally funded the campaign through Cambridge Analytica and an obscene businessman called Arron Banks. -All the UK engineers of the Brexit campaign have disappeared… You had David Cameron, who has retired (even though it's now rumored he'd want to make a comeback to politics, red.). And then there's Nigel Farrage, excuse my French, but a fucking merchant banker married to a German woman, with children with dual nationality, who plays the immigration card in a country that would economically perish without a permanent influx of immigrants, because the vast majority of working class or sub-working class white English people have been ignored by their own state for nearly fifty years and immigration is of course always the easiest card to agitate them. It's a disgrace, with lies upon lies, and intelligent people living in England being marginalized. We're now mere months away from the Brexit deadline and England hasn't decided what it's going to do, Northern-Ireland hasn't decided what it's going to do, England faces great political problems with Spain over Gibraltar… The whole thing is a shit storm and the people in charge are only interested in protecting their own careers, as they always have done. They're not interested in the future of the people or the country, or even the economic future of the country. I can't but say that I'm really glad to be among the few who have the opportunity to be British but not necessarily be subject to all of that. It might be tricky for me over the next few months, but that's better than a decade of misery. I was brought up in the Liverpool of Tatcher's Britain, which was a high unemployment spot with a lot of rightwing activity and literally abandoned by the British government, and that situation was already hard enough… I hate to imagine what it's going to be like for you British people after Brexit, because of course these youngsters, who are the future of Britain, overwhelmingly voted to remain in the European Union. Personally I'm no great fan of huge political machines, but there's no denying that union is strength, and I believe it's much better to try and popularize the bureaucracy of the European Union by people's movements throughout Europe, then by separating and isolating yourself as a nation. Britain is an island nation and has always segregated itself culturally, but also still has this sort of postcolonial arrogance… In Belgium, Holland and France you can find that as well, but to a much lesser extent, while Britain is steeped in this "we are better than the rest of the world" attitude. It's not appropriate, it never was appropriate and if you look at it closely it only ever existed because Britain robbed, stole and murdered globally to get a strong financial position. My mother's ancestors probably fought my father's ancestors, and as an individual I can rationalize all of that, but as a British citizen I can hardly take pride in that past. A lot of people in Great Britain still believe the country is called Great Britain because of some element of greatness, while in fact it's just a bad translation of the French Grand Bretagne!"
Let's just return to the music side of things for a moment. Earlier you mentioned you're quite averse to the commercialization of music, but back in the nineteen nineties Zion Train was on the verge of becoming a pop phenomenon with hits in the charts and video's on MTV.
Neil Perch: "That's an interesting story actually and I look back on that period with great pleasure to be honest, because China Records, who were an independent subsidiary of the Warner Brothers conglomerate, signed Zion Train for a seven album deal and gave us large advances, which we spent on building a studio and shooting videos. For us this was a form of political activity. The founder and CEO of China Records was a very interesting and nice guy called Derek Green, who previously signed The Sex Pistols to A&M. He offered us a lot of money, we went: "Are you sure?", to which his A&R guy replied: "Yeah, we'll just market you as a pop band!". Of course we already knew that wasn't going to happen, but we gladly signed the contract, and as we couldn't make records on our own Universal Egg label as Zion Train while we were under contract with China Records, we continued on making more radical music under various other names like Power Steppers, Tassilli Players and Trancemasters. If you look closely at the imagery we used in the videos we did at the time, they were pretty radical still. We also did a version of 'Homegrown Fantasy' (China Records, 1995, red.) including a CD-ROM, and on it we hid about 3000 pages of anarchist literature! Warner Brothers paid for that, took us all around the world, which basically established us in these countries for the next two decades. Since we stopped collaborating with the major labels, using the platform they allowed us to build, we managed to stay afloat by ourselves. The money we earned while signed to China Records also allowed us to put out music on Universal Egg by artists like Jah Free, Vibronics and Dub Terror, which otherwise we would never have been able to afford. Without us, these guys wouldn't have had record releases for at least another decade, as they were still handing us cassette tapes with their music on, recorded in their bedroom with a couple of hundred pounds worth of equipment. We were turning their music into records with Warner Brothers' money, and that's what I consider good political action: redistribution the money of a big corporation to small individuals in need of it. For the launch of 'Homegrown Fantasy' we had a campaign of A1 size posters featuring a big psychedelic marihuana leaf in the middle that went up all over Europe, even resulting in the Bishop of Białystok, a city in the far northeast of Poland, having our concert there cancelled, which wasn't good news for our Polish fans, but made for some great press! (laughs) We never used the money China Records gave us to buy new cars or clothes. I'm a great advocate of general and global drug legalization. All illegal substances should be made legal, information about them made readily available to the general public, and they should be controlled in an appropriate manner. That way we wouldn't be in that stupid mess we're in now, with people being killed all over the world, kids dying because they're taking rubbish no one knows what's in it. Take spice for example (synthetic marihuana, red.), which was legal in the UK up until a few years ago, that has become the scourge of the country with 4 out of 5 prisoners in the UK being locked up for spice related issues. That would certainly not be the case if the drugs that have been tried and tested through humanity for thousands of years were made legal in a controlled and intelligent way. In that perspective putting up posters featuring a big marihuana leaf wasn't just a rebellious act, it was a real socio-political statement and again something we could have never been able to afford ourselves. At the time we also had a sort of free pamphlet newspaper printed, with half a page dedicated to Zion Train and the rest filled with political information and world facts we thought would widen the general public's perspective on certain issues. When they finally realized we weren't going to sell enough records to earn them the profit they were hoping for, Derek Green, who was ceasing his collaboration with Warner Brothers, basically signed the contract back over to us, which he absolutely wasn't obliged to do. The only Zion Train albums I still can't reissue are the ones whilst under contract with Warner, so 'Homegrown Fantasy', 'Grow Together' and 'Single Minded & Alive', wich was a double album including a live recording made at the Winter Solstice Bass Odyssey at The Rocket, London in 1996. Even on that event we still spent about 15000 £ and we had Jah Shaka, Twinkle Brothers, The Ruts and others playing in four different rooms at The Rocket on Holloway Road, which is now the Polytechnic of North London, with a very expensive mobile recording studio outside recording the whole thing. As far as I'm concerned good subversive political activism doesn't get any better than this! (laughs) The whole experience also gave me great insight in how to run my own record label. So all in all it was a great experience!"
Apart from this stint with China Records, Zion Train has been a diy operation from the very beginning. How did you adapt to the changes in the music business, going from vinyl to cassette tapes and CDs, then MP3 downloads and now the resurgence of vinyl?
Neil Perch: "We basically just went with the flow! (laughs) The first music we released - this was still in the pre-internet era - was on subscription cassette tapes. Fans would pay us 15 £ a year, and in return would receive four cassette tapes in the mail during the course of that year. Then we switched to vinyl, because that was when CDs were only just starting to become popular, and soon after we started combining both as CDs had suddenly taken off massively and were also easier and cheaper to ship than vinyl records. When the digital online formats started made an appearance, vinyl and CD sales virtually plummeted over night! I know they're talking about the resurgence of vinyl now, but if you're doing about 3% of what you used to sell, that's not really a rebirth is it? Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the resurfacing vinyl, but in terms of business it's far from spectacular really. As I said, we've always gone with the flow, so these days I release far less releases per year then I did, and don't have the time or energy anymore to spend on third party releases as we did in the past. To prepare, promote and distribute a musical product, wither it is on vinyl, CD or Mp3, takes a huge amount of work, and I now really only have the time in my life to do that for Zion Train, so release-wise we sort of come full circle. The big difference being that we're in the age of social media now, so that's where we do most of our promotional stuff. Back in the day the first distribution of our vinyl releases was done by me with a rucksack on my back hopping on and off London buses, going from one specialist record store to another. Most of them didn't even pay though… The fabled Daddy Kool Records for example was a thief! You'd take him a said amount of records, he'd sign for them, but when you returned for the money he pretended he hadn't seen you before in his life. After one of these altercations I even went back to our studio, called the shop, acting as a customer looking for a certain Zion Train record, to which he then replied: "Sure mate, we've got 10 copies in stock!", to which I then replied: "That's strange as half an hour ago I was in your shop and you pretended you'd never heard of it!" (laughs) I'm sorry but I don't stand on ceremony, so I will come out and say Daddy Kool was a thief, as was Style Scott for example and so many others in the music business! People in our business should have far more respect for one another, especially those who consider themselves to be Rastafarians, because this music is meant to be sufferer's music. A lot of people in the reggae business have simply made a name for themselves by threading on others, and I'm not afraid to call those people out, because that simply isn't ok! In terms of the movement of the business, you sort of have to follow the current trends. I abhor commercialism in music, but at the end of the day music is my bread and butter, so I can't but take a pragmatic approach. We charge for less for a Zion Train concert then most other bands do, try to keep entry tickets as low as possible and we don't overcharge on our merchandise as we feel that if you come to one of our concerts, you've already invested in a ticket and we don't want to exploit the fact you've come to see us to extort even more money out of you. Basically we try to deal with the commercial side of things on an intelligent, social level, but we still live in a capitalist world, so we do have to deal with it wither we want or not."
Zion Train has always existed both as a live band and a sound system. In terms of the sound system scene, which has really exploded in recent years, what does that side of things represent to you?
Neil Perch: "It depends… I celebrate the expansion of the scene, but with caveats. The scene is autonomous, because it had to be, as it was the expression of black people in poor communities in the UK who weren't allowed into regular nightclubs and music venues. That's why people started building their own speaker sets and blues parties, which were basically small gathering at someone's private residence, emerged. In those early days it was a strictly black scene, and I have no problem whatsoever with that scene become more cosmopolitan, but I do have issues with people forgetting or not caring about how and why it all started. A lot of the youngsters coming up in the scene don't really get that heritage anymore… They believe being underprivileged is not having enough money to buy another 10000 euro amp! The professional equipment a lot of these guys are now using is not at all representative of what the scene was. The first amplifiers I got were still handmade and were still relatively cheap to purchase. That's no longer the case, because if you want to be a sound system like OBF, King Shiloh or Iration Steppas, you need to be willing to make a 50000 euro investment. It's become big business… People like Blackboard Jungle, the biggest French sound system, or OBF on the Swiss side, will not hesitate to charge seven or eight thousand euro to set up at Dub Camp for three or four days. That's ok, I'm not knocking that price, but the whole economic scale of the sound system business has changed. People need to recognize that evolution and also the level of cultural appropriation that's going on. Again, culture is something that no one owns, and constantly keeps evolving, so as a black Jamaican in London, you can't really reproach these youngsters for having stolen your culture, but I can understand there's some aggrievement about the lack of recognition by the new successful and mainly white European sound system crews. Today's scene only exists because poor black working class people used their hard earned wages to build the first sound systems out of necessity, but also love and dedication. These days the scene has become a bit like a bubble, a hype, and I'm convinced it won't last, at least not in the form it's taken in the last few years. The energy it brings to people, is something I will always celebrate though, because of the self-determination and DIY-attitude of building your own thing."
What about the evolution of wanting to get bigger and louder all the time?
Neil Perch: "That's rubbish! Music has got nothing to do with volume. It's stupid, arrogant, testosterone based rubbish and I've got no time for it. If someone claims a certain sound system is better because it sounds louder, I'll say: "Listen mate, I don't think we're on the same page there!". I don't necessarily credit myself with a better way, but certainly a different way of thinking. A lot of people would say I play loud music, and my personal sound system, Abassi High Power, is indeed pretty loud. For a lot of people it might even be too loud, but in comparison to the aforementioned sound systems it's still pretty damn quiet to be honest! (laughs) For me the volume they play at is just too loud, and on top of that a lot of these guys not only play at incredibly loud volume, they also play in distortion, which just ruins the work of the musicians who've spent years composing and recording their music. I often hear sound systems play, where I can't even hear the vocals or the brass section, with hordes of kids wasted out of their minds on booze or drugs going absolutely crazy about that sound. I can get that leaping and jumping around with a bunch of your friends is a great sensation, but there's little difference anymore between that and listening to deafening death metal screams or hardcore techno. To be frank about it, when you get a combination of electronic music, money, events and substance use or abuse, it's only logical the music will get increasingly harder, faster and louder until at the end people can't bear it anymore. It happened with drum & bass, it happened with house and techno, and it's now also happening in the dub scene! I don't like that evolution and avoid the people and the events where the music is played like that. These new sounds are also splashing cash on equipment they don't even really know how to use. A lot of them are using Powersoft Audio amplifiers, which are around 10000 euro each and really meant for professional PA-systems. It really takes a professional technician to set them up, so they're not exactly plug and play, they've got internal digital setups and if you want to use them well you need master that first. It even takes professional technicians about an hour to do it; great equipment, but miles away from where it all started. I remember going to the Shaka - Fatman dubclashes, but it wasn't about trying to beat each other with the volume of their sound, it was all about trying to beat your opponent with the quality of the records you had with you. You'd hear things you wouldn't be able to hear anywhere else. For example Shake would put on a personalized dubplate of Ijahman's 'Moulding', and then Fatman would respond with his dubplate of Gregory Isaacs' 'Mr Know It All'. The volume was never too loud, there was no badmouthing each other, just sheer musical quality, and that way everyone was the winner, both the audience and the clashing sounds. That's also something I never got, the competition side of sound clashes… What's that even doing in music? It should be a celebration intent on enlightening and uplifting the audience. I also celebrate the fact that with Zion Train we do not predominately play at reggae or dub events; we mainly do our own thing and only appearing at these kinds of events very occasionally. People often come up to me saying things like: "Wow, you guys sound so unique!", to which I can only reply: "Thank god for that!" (laughs) I don't aspire to sound like anyone else… I've always been a huge fan of Conscious Sounds, but I don't want to sound like them."
Any major regrets in your thirty years of Zion Train?
Neil Perch: "Of course in thirty years of life everyone has regrets, but the things that spring to mind in regards to Zion Train, I wouldn't immediately or categorically call regrets. There were a few moments in the history of Zion Train where things weren't really going according to plan, and some members of Zion Train went their own way because they felt they weren't earning enough money. I regret their decisions, but they weren't mine to make. One thing I personally regret now, is having played in Israel three times, because I now believe a cultural and political boycott of Israel is absolutely imperative, as it is a fascist state. This doesn't make me an anti-Semite, even though I've been called that for speaking out on this issue, but the facts are the facts… Israel is a state founded in 1948 and Judaism is a faith that had its roots long long before that date. Some people have even asked me how I can say such things when in fact I'm living in Germany. Germany had national-socialism for 12 years and is now a nation living in regret of that fact, whilst Britain had Winston Churchill in that same period and still lives in pride, when in my opinion Churchill was as big a fascist as Hitler was. It's not popular to say it - he's not depicted on the new 5£ notes for nothing - but it's a sad fact. If you're of Indian or Pakistani descent, then Churchill is as much of a despot than Hitler was and still is to the Jews."
From your thirty year back catalogue is there a certain tune which still holds a special meaning to you; a track you'll never tire of playing?
Neil Perch: "Yeah, but not really for the reasons other people might think. Some of our tunes are big hits that we get asked to play over and over again. I like the fact that they're popular, but the ones that are dear to me are mostly tunes we made for very specific reasons. One of the biggest reggae journalists in the UK was a guy called Penny Reel, who passed away in August of this year. He was a great personal friend and a fantastic journalist who did lots to popularize reggae and dub in the UK. His daughter passed away in 1999 after suffering from leukemia and as a tribute we wrote a song called 'Ella's Melody', which was on the 'Original Sounds Of The Zion' album, which was released back in 2002. I already liked that tune, but now he's passed away as well the song has even bigger meaning to me, as the start of his personal demise was when his daughter passed away, which is something I can totally understand. Not many people will know who Ella was when we released the song, as we never released it with that intent. I also wrote a tune for our 'Live As One' album (Universal Egg, 2007), which was an instrumental called 'Audrey And June' that isn't particularly popular or anything, but Audrey and June were the first names of my grandmother and mother, and I've since also named my daughter June. My mother passed away at a very young age, while my grandmother lived a long life and passed away while she was in her eighties. It's a very personal tune, but I'm not really in the habit of shouting that from the rooftops or putting that information in the album notes or something like that. I particularly like these tunes because they bond me with my reasons for making music in the first place and remind me of certain emotional time moments in my life. There's times, private moments, when I listen to music, sometimes my own, mostly other people's when emotion will just overcome me unexpectedly and I can literally burst into tears, but those are the moments I treasure the most because they are the proof of the power that can hide in music. Even tunes I've produced myself can still do that to me, when I've heard them a thousand times over. Other tunes I also like are the ones that remind me of great opportunities we've had with the band like mixing Dub Syndicate's 'Bedward The Flying Preacher' with Prince Far I on vocals for Adrian Sherwood. Working for the great Adrian Sherwood, combined with Prince Far I's legendary voice, Style Scott's superb drumming and the historical content of the song (Alexander Bedward was the founder of Bedwardism and one of the most successful preachers of Jamaican Revivalism. On one occasion, he told his followers that they all would fly back to Africa, however to do so they had to climb up into a breadfruit tree in August Town while wearing bed sheets for the liftoff. However, they told him to go first and it resulted in him breaking his legs where he was submitted to the university hospital of the West Indies, hence the nickname Bedward The Flying Preacher, red.) made it an extraordinary experience. Similar is the work I did with some vocals by Malcolm Owen, the lead singer of The Ruts. Both him and Prince Far I had already passed away by the time I got to work with their material and that made the experience extra powerful for me, to a level where I was convinced the spirits of both men were in the room with me when I was working with their voices. Hearing those songs back still empowers me greatly as I feel very privileged to have been given that opportunity. I've also produced an album for UB40 ('Homegrown', DEP International/Virgin, 2002, red.) which is far more well-known than the songs I've just mentioned, but it just doesn't do the same thing for me on an emotional level. I've now got about 800 published pieces of music to my name, and that's not even including remixes or production credits, so you'll understand it's hard even to remember them all, and that's why an emotional attachment to a composition or a song makes it so much stronger."
Both Shaka's son Young Warrior and Aba Shant-I's son Ashanti Selah have stepped in the footsteps of their respective fathers, as has Mad Professor's son Joe Ariwa. Is there also a Zion Train lineage in the making?
Neil Perch: "My eldest son did a little bit of MCing in the London grime scene when he was still a teenager. He was a bit spoilt for choice really, because he was quite a talented footballer, did some MCing as I just mentioned, but was also getting very good grades in school and, in my opinion, made the intelligent choice of prioritizing his studies. He now works in a pathology laboratory in a hospital in London, which is a nice stable job with good prospects."
Kind of living the life you were supposed to live…
Neil Perch: "Absolutely! He studied biochemistry as did I, even though I have to add I didn't have any input in his decision as we've always had a remote relationship, but we've always maintained a positive and regular relationship. I can only be proud that he's grown into a very able young man capable of making his own decisions. My other children are still in their baby and toddler stages, and even though they love music, I think you can understand it's far too early to tell yet. (laughs) I like the notion of family businesses in general or having a genealogy that supports a craft or skill that's been passed down through the generations, but I would never exert any pressure on my children to make any choices other than ones I would consider to be not very intelligent ones. We'll see how it goes and being honest, in many ways the music business is also a very ugly world to end up in, so I don't know if I would wish that for any of my children. You also got to be careful, because I know there will be many people out there who will say, or think, that Young Warrior, Ashanti Selah and Joe Ariwa only got where they are now because of who their fathers are. That's just how the world works, but I have to admit I don't really go for nepotism either. It's a difficult one, because on the one side I wouldn't want anyone denying any of my children opportunities because they are the children of Neil Perch, but on the other I wouldn't want them to steal the spots of more talented youths because they are either. I think as long as the young men we've just mentioned realize the advantages they were given by the positions of their fathers, and aren't blind to the talent that surrounds them, it's a positive thing, but it remains a fine line. I can only hope that if one day one of my children decides to go into music, it will be because of love for music and not because their dad was relatively well-known."
In conclusion then… We started this interview by mentioning Zion Train simply started as The Train. Knowing you're absolutely not into Rastafarianism what does the "Zion" part represent for you?
Neil Perch: "For me that has always represented a state of mind, which actually I think religion was originally based on. Not organized religion, but the spirituality that lies underneath. I think organized religion is just a substitute for kleptocracy (a government with corrupt leaders that use their power to exploit the people and natural resources of their own territory in order to extend their personal wealth and political powers, red.), where you had a state where people believed their leaders had an almost godlike status, offering them everything they had including their children if that was required. When they started realizing they weren't gods, those same leaders inserted organized religion so they could continue to rob and enslave anyway. They basically put a guy in the middle who supposedly has a direct telephone line to god, be it the Pope in Rome or the Ayatollah in Iran, but it's all just a big ploy to fool the masses. I believe in universal human consciousness, something we're all a part of, as the spiritual way forward. Zion is a state of mind where you can be at ease and happy with the existence you're leading, and be independent inside the structures society has created for us to live in, with only one or maybe two rules to guide you. The first inspired by the Dalai Lama: "Know that you are only alive to be happy!", and the second: all you need to do for the other living things around you is respect them and their right to be happy as well, wither they're a blade of grass or your next-door neighbor. When you apply those rules, you're in Zion straight away; it doesn't get any more complicated than that! You don't need a book of rules written by some guy 2000 years ago or longer, you don't a guy with a long beard telling you how to behave, you don't ways of prayer or prescriptions which clothes to wear or not to wear; that's all bullshit to separate, divide and control us. You need a positive, enthusiastic approach to your own life, whilst realizing that everyone else around you ideally is also in that position and you have no more right to anything on this planet then any of those living things surrounding you. There's also a bit of reclaiming vocabulary going on with us opting for that name, because you'll understand I often get Israeli organizations contacting me, to which I always reply: "I'm sorry, but my Zion is not yours!". When Rastafarians come up to me, telling me it's like this or that, I simply reply: "No it's not, at least not for me!". Most Rastafarians live by rules made up by a bunch of guys living on a rubbish dump in Jamaica in the nineteen thirties. They're not appropriate now, they were only appropriate then and were never appropriate for women at any stage, nor were they intended to be used in a multicultural context. So when I get young white Europeans coming up to me saying: "Rastafari!" or "Hail up!", I can't but think they're fools. I did an interview a couple of years ago where the first question happened to be how important it was that the concert date coincided with the anniversary date of Haile Selassie's coronation, to which I replied: "Listen mate, I'm just happy it's not tomorrow because then Liverpool will be playing!". The guys were really confused, but I was just trying to fuck with them, because to me Haile Selassie was a racist, autocratic emperor of a then backward nation believing his people (the Amharas, red.) were white and his other, black subjects were inferior. So him being crowned emperor doesn't symbolize anything to me. If you think that man's god, go and seek some mental help. I don't really want to offend anyone's faith, but I can't live in a world where we're frightened to offend people who think stupid things, because it affects the rest of us. Aren't white Europeans who call themselves Rastafarian really struggling with their own culture and identity, reaching out to something that seems more attractive? Do they know for example that when Haile Selassie arrived in Britain, Marcus Garvey was waiting to greet him at Victory Station, but the emperor completely ignored him? Garvey, who was a real Black Nationalist leader, who spent his whole life in jeopardy from the white power structure trying to advance the lives of black people and who had championed Haile Selassie in his Negro World newspaper! This is historical fact, not something some madman in Jamaica has made up. If you're going to base your own personal beliefs on information from uneducated individuals, then you're a bigger fool then they are. Just because I also wear my hair in dreadlocks, doesn't mean I'll like you more because you do as well. I wear my hair like this for very specific reasons and if you want to talk about it, fine, but it's got nothing to do with Haile Selassie or a bunch of Jamaican guys who can get quite racist when they want to. Dreadlocks were actually introduced in Jamaica by Indian sadhus or holy men who call them jata. My father was white and my mother was black, I was born and bred in England, even though I've got great knowledge of my Caribbean heritage, and I choose to live in Germany; that's me in a nutshell and what I'm grounded in. As a dual heritage person, growing up in the UK I was heavily abused by white racists, but by black ones as well! Maybe not to the same extent, but it did happen. The power structure of the world we live in is definitely white, but I've always seen racism as a red herring; something that's induced by the leaders of our states to keep normal people divided. The real issue is the distribution of wealth and the ability to live a free life, not being black or white. Of course racism exists, but race as a global problem is a false flag to me."