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Members include JohnCoxon, DJ, producer, composer; AshleyWales, DJ, producer, composer. Addresses: Record company--Thirsty Ear Recordings, 274 Madison Ave., Ste. 804, New York City, NY 10016; Management--Geoff Travis, Rough Trade Management, London, England.; Booking agent--Sam Kirby, Evolution Talent, New York City, NY; Chris Hearn, MPI, London, England. Phone: (212) 889-9595 Fax: (212) 889-3641.
The British duo Spring Heel Jack took the world of drum 'n' bass and jungle to new, sophisticated levels. Their music begins with the standard drum and bass formula--frenetic rhythms, arching synth notes, throbbing bass tones, skittering break beats, and samples--but transcends the ordinary by making forays into free jazz, dub, and modern classical music. "Spring Heel Jack is a dance act that writes classical compositions," explained Julie Taraska in Billboard, and "reconciles polarities, balancing delicacy and ultra-aggression, improvisation and structure, sensuality and cerebration--often within the space of a single track." Thus, while the duo's creations do feel danceable, they indeed contain much more than simple grooves.
Since co-writing and producing the hit title track from the 1995 platinum album Walking Wounded by the crossover group Everything But the Girl, then releasing their own acclaimed 68 Million Shades, Spring Heel Jack have remained one of the most influential forces in the drum 'n' bass movement. On all their subsequent LPs, including 1999's Treader and 2000's Disappeared, Spring Heel Jack persevered in challenging the boundaries of electronic dance music. Active DJs in addition to composing and recording their own music, Coxon and Wales were often tapped to remix tracks for other artists, among them post-rockers Tortoise, trumpeter Ben Neill, influential avant-gardists Sonic Youth, and even Beat writer William S. Burroughs.
Comprised of John Coxon and Ashley Wales, Spring Heel Jack seemed destined to infuse the often confining dance music genre with extraordinary life. Coxon, who picked up guitar as a youngster in his native Edinburgh, Scotland, studied biochemistry and taught school for a brief time in London before forging a career in music by working as a DJ and occasional producer. His first jobs included producing for pop singer Betty Boo and rock icon Marc Almond, and he continues to serve as a guitarist and frequent collaborator for the psychedelic group Spiritualized. Wales is a classical musician, composer, and jazz aficionado with a wealth of knowledge about all forms of modern music. At the time he met Coxon, Wales was employed as a landscaper and had begun working in London's East End as a soul DJ. "I've never met anyone with as broad experience in music that he has. He's got photographic memory; he remembers everything," said Coxon of his partner, as quoted by Brett Miller in an interview for Highwire Daze. "He's my biggest influence."
In 1990, not long after the two began composing music together, Coxon and Wales produced a hit single for Betty Boo entitled "Doin' the Do." However, they also wanted to create something of interest to themselves. "When you're making music, you have to make it for yourself, really. What you're trying to do is make music that represents you and if people enjoy it it's a bonus," Coxon told Miller. "As soon as you try to make something for somebody or for a person, you're becoming involved in commerce and as soon as you're involved in commerce your music becomes something else. Personally, I want as many people to hear our music but you can't bear that in mind while making the music because then you're making music they want to hear. Music is about freedom and expressing yourself, saying meaningful things about yourself. It does have elements of egotism in it but we try to avoid that as well. As soon as you stop being honest with yourself, that's the end of the road. You should stop making music."
Entranced with the jungle movement, as well as Wales' other affections, Spring Heel Jack adjusted their focus from the pop to the electronic medium. Sharing duties in all areas of programming and structuring, Coxon and Wales arrived with a listenable, yet thought-provoking form of dance music that didn't compromise their own need for self-expression. "We are not trying to make clever association of disparate things," insisted Coxon, as quoted in Pulse! Magazine. "It's just that the broader your palette, the more flexibly you can apply the sampler to your ideas." In 1995, after signing with the Island Records subsidiary Trade 2, Spring Heel Jack debuted with the album There Are Strings, relying heavily on big string harmonies and pushing soundscapes and drums into the background. Later that same year, the duo released Versions, a six-track remix album featuring dubs from their debut. With this effort, Spring Heel Jack in effect turned the songs of There Are Strings upside down by moving bass and cascading sound effects to the forefront.
In the meantime, several other artists influenced by the drum 'n' bass movement expressed admiration for the work of Spring Heel Jack, including Ben Watt of Everything But the Girl. This prompted Coxon and Wales to pen "Walking Wounded" specifically for Watt and his partner Tracey Thorn. After Thorn added vocals to the composition, Everything But the Girl released "Walking Around" as a single in April of 1996 and included the song as the title track of their new album. Climbing to number six on the British charts, the song successfully updated Everything But the Girl's 1980s new wave sound for the 1990s.
Several months later, Spring Heel Jack returned with a third album, 68 Million Shades, featuring a trippy cover designed by computer graphics artist Yuki Mikayi, who also created the cover art for the duo's first LP. Immediately hailed as a revelation by both the British press and the dance underground for its jazz and fusion touches, trumpet and piano phrases over percolating rhythms, and hard funk beats juxtaposed by delicate strings, 68 Million Shades prompted an invitation from Orbital to join them on an ambitious tour of the United States in late 1996. Reining in fans abroad with their live shows and the American release of the LP in January of 1997, as well as a citing by Spin magazine naming 68 Million Shades one of the best albums of the year, Spring Heel Jack assumed an unexpected position as one of the leading acts in the drum 'n' bass movement.
Later in 1997, the duo released Busy Curious Thirsty, an album that further strengthened Spring Heel Jack's reputation. With this LP, Coxon and Wales married aggressive rhythms with disturbing, tranquil instrumentation that recalled the soundtrack compositions of Elmer Bernstein, Bernard Hermann, Carl Starling, and John Barry. According to Rolling Stone reviewer Kurt B. Reighley, "the staggering Busy Curious Thirsty suggests that the spectrum at Spring Heel Jack's disposal is much wider still."
In early 1999 after signing a new deal with Tugboat Records, Spring Heel Jack revisited the world of musicals with a radical reconstruction of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics for the duo's Sound of Music EP, and in May returned with the album Treader, "a thrilling and genuinely fascinating journey," wrote Piers Martin for the New Musical Express website. Exploring new territory again, the set included the beatless opener "Isaac" and the droning, ambient ending track "1st Piece for La Monte Young," an homage to the American composer, in addition to furious jungle tracks. Treader was released the following year in the United States through Thirsty Ear Recordings, with additional tracks from the Sound of Music EP. Also in 2000, Spring Heel Jack released Disappeared, a dark but funky album that included bossa nova and free-jazz sounds amid dance beats, or as Jason Ferguson for a Sonicnet review concluded, "a magnificent creation that's light-years beyond 'standard' drum & bass reductionism."
by Laura Hightower
Spring Heel Jack's Career
Began composing and producing, 1990; signed with Island subsidiary Trade 2 Records, released debut album There Are Strings followed by Versions, 1995; co-wrote and produced "Walking Wounded" for Everything But the Girl, released acclaimed 68 Million Shades, toured U.S. with Orbital, 1996; released Busy Curious Thirsty, 1997; released Treader, containing a tribute to the American composer La Monte Young, 1999; released Disappeared, 2000.
- Selected discography
- There Are Strings , Trade 2/Island, 1995.
- Versions , Trade 2/Island, 1995.
- 68 Million Shades , Trade 2/Island, 1996.
- Busy Curious Thirsty , Trade 2/Island, 1997.
- Treader , Tugboat, 1999.
- Sound of Music (EP), Tugboat, 2000.
- Disappeared , Tugboat, 2000.
- Billboard, February 8, 1997; February 19, 2000.
- Melody Maker, October 4, 1997; June 5, 1999.
- Pulse!, February 1997.
- Rolling Stone, February 6, 1997; October 30, 1997.
- Village Voice, October 22, 1996; November 4, 1997.
- All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 9, 2000).
- Highwire Daze Interview with Spring Heel Jack, http://www.members.tripod.com/~bretthehitman/springheel.html (September 9, 2000).
- New Musical Express, http://www.nme.com (September 9, 2000).
- Sonicnet, http://www.sonicnet.com (September 9, 2000).
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