Amp Fiddler: European vacation

Detroit native Amp Fiddler signed up to an independent label to give himself the freedom to experiment - and in the process he became a star of the UK underground. Matilda Egere-Cooper catches up with him
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The Independent Culture

On a chilly night, around 5,000 clubbers are seeking sanctuary in Pontins, normally the spot for cheap and cheesy thrills but now transformed into a musical mecca for soul boys and girls across the nation. Twice a year, the seaside town of Southport plays host to a three-day weekender described as the "world's friendliest party", for music lovers with an affinity to the meditative bass-lines of funky house, dance and soul, and who count luminaries such as Tony Humphries, Joey Negro and Osunlade as disc-spinning deities. But never mind the DJs - it's the variety of live acts that make the weekender unlike any other, and of all the acts that shine, it'd seem Joseph "Amp" Fiddler is the one artist everyone's anxious to see.

As the 6ft 2in, 40-year-old Detroit native takes to the stage a little after 11pm, he looks the very edifice of a 21st century, super-fly hippie with the aura of Jimi Hendrix, his hair styled into what he's dubbed a "fro-hawk", wearing a vintage T emblazed with a large afro that plays on the title of his new album, Afro Strut. As the opening bars of the rhythmic "I'm Doing Fine" are played by his equally groovy band, Amp wiggles his waist, claps and swings his hands to the rapturous melodies, and the crowd roars in delight.

If there's one thing this singer knows, it's how to please his fans in the UK and the rest of Europe. After all, Amp is like many American artists who've become unlikely stars on European underground, aiming to establish themselves on these shores first where their own industries back home just don't get them. He's signed to the Genuine Records, an imprint of PIAS Recordings, based in Belgium and home to a number of artists akin to the type of experimentation that'd give any right-thinking A&R a good fright. Amp Fiddler's music isn't alarming as such, but with its mish-mash of genres and its clear funk agenda, a pop label boss might consider it a hot mess. "I've been fortunate to have as good a reception that I get in Europe," says Amp in his smooth baritone voice, a few hours before that lively show. "I think that it would be hard for me to do what I do in America with an American label because there's so much of a box with artists, and so many genres that they put us in to, that keep you away from having the freedom to do things like a soul record mixed with different types of influences like I like to do."

He adds: "But what's different about the States and Europe is that it takes a different marketing strategy because things are so different in the way that they market music, than the way that it is in Europe. I need the same amount of money and that same kind of effort here too. It takes an effort to make a record here too, but it's just a different way you have to approach it in the States."

With musical references from George Clinton's P-Funk All-Stars, a group he used to play for, to Thelonious Monk and Public Enemy, it doesn't take a wise guy to realise the American market may not be exactly conducive for what he does, given the preferential treatment of pop, hip-hop, country music and rock in the US. Anything else might as well not be in the good tradition of American music. "Like at one instance, I can have a house beat and the next have an African influence and a dancehall influence, and to sing in a different way, and do tracks differently that maybe bump a little different than the norm, tempos that are different, I think it kind of scares them. I always thought it would be easier for me, with what I want to do, to find some way of being accepted in Europe as opposed to fighting to do what I wanted to do in America. And I had always taken chances and approached music in a way that I wanted to be innovative," he says.

Likewise, his erratic dress sense, which manages to complement his music, would go down better on London's Portobello Road rather than in the streets of his hometown. "Some people stare if I'm dressed crazy," he acknowledges with a slight frown. "Sometimes I'm just regular, and sometimes it's different and I get a look, and it's cool. And sometimes I get a laugh, and that's good too. I was with my son in the mall and some kids walked by and started laughing, because in Detroit they are so backwards about fashion. They don't see a brother with a fro-hawk. To some hip-hop kids, they probably saw me as someone weird, because they're just so stuck on stupid. Everything is about their world... but there's a bunch of us in Detroit that are really on some next shit."

Amp's career has seen a slow build. He managed to sell 100,000 copies of his 2003 debut album Waltz of a Ghetto Fly, and so far the follow-up Afro Strut has sold around 30,000 and counting. But it's been a constant push partly because attempting to sell anything associated with soul music nowadays is back-breaking business whether it's in the UK or US. Also, being a "newcomer" in your forties with a teenage son may not be the clincher for a generation of 20-somethings who can just about pick out Bootsy Collins in a line-up. Although he started out in a doo-wop group named Enchantment back in the day, he was signed to a major label deal with Elektra Records back in the 1989. Yet in such a stratospheric period for music, the singer's album, Mr Fiddler, was quickly shelved. "I was being left-field and I was making real left-field records," he explains. "It was too far left, and they didn't know how to market it. So I was frustrated - I went back on the road and started working again."

Being from a city notable for its techno scene as much as it's Motown foundations, Amp soon found himself involved in dance music, which by contrast to everything else, doesn't discriminate - providing there's a beat of around 140 bpm running right through the music. While doing background sessions for other artists, he was acquainted with underground producers such as Moodymann, Underground Resistance and Carl Craig, enabling him to become known to communities of techno loyalists. "I think me being involved with a lot of producers that made dance music as a keyboard player got me more involved in it," he says. "Besides the fact that I was going to the clubs and listening, I wasn't paying much attention to it, thinking about doing it until my label asked me about Moodymann, and I had been recording with him for years as a keyboard player." Their collaborative single, "I'm Doing Fine", is still a club favourite to this date, and it's that continuous hybrid of dance, funk and soul that has proven to be his x-factor.

Amp's management has adopted an aggressive strategy to promote him, with an operation based primarily in the UK. There is the regular touring around the country and he often gets profiled in the urban press and mainstream radio such as BBC 1Xtra and BBC London. He's sought to collaborate with British artists, having recently hooked up with R&B singer Nate James and Corinne Bailey Rae. Even the merchandise, made up of snazzy shirts, tracksuit jackets, and novelty badges plays a major part, and the singer also wants to create a line clothes called Ghetto Fly clothing with the potential to hit the high street. "He's been patient enough to let the buzz build up the way it has," says his manager, Tinku Bhattacharyya. "And for us, the rewards are coming in now even from the last album. He's humble and he's sacrificed everything to do this. He hasn't had a big major deal in America and all that support, and he's had to do his own music and do it the hard way, going on the road, and going to play the gigs. But he's turned it around."

Amp adds: "Things are independent; so it makes it harder for us because we have to work harder and struggle, and sometimes ask favours or sometimes put up money - we're taking a chance on doing things," he says. "But they work hard at making the project work as much as they can, and I'm doing as best as I can live. PIAS Recordings is doing a really good job here with publicity and other aspects of pushing my profile."

He hopes he can develop his career to a level where his outings won't be just limited to frosty weekends in Pontins. "My vision is to be more exposed and to create more music, get better as an artist, be exposed to more people so I can sell more records, and create the merchandise that I want to sell to create the possibility to help people," he says. "I think that's more important than me stroking my ego. There has to be a bigger picture. And that way I can kill two birds with one stone. It'd be great if I can become big and successful and at the same time help people who really need help with my success, so all the money that I make, is not just my money."

However, he says his growing success in Europe will never hinder his loyalties to Detroit and the US, where, thanks to the euro-connections, he also has a flock of followers. "I always feel like I have to represent Detroit as a soul singer. And we're the underdogs. That's what we are. It's a black city, it's an urban city. We're always getting the low-end of things because we have a black mayor, and for whatever reasons, it's difficult for the city to build up to be what the other cities are, and it's just moving towards that now. So I think that with all of that we've had to deal with it makes us hungry and strive for perfection and for success, because we're the underdogs," He smiles. "For now."

The AA single Ridin/Faith is released on 19 February through PIAS/Wall of Sound. The album 'Afro Strut' is out now. Amp Fiddler plays at the inaugural AIM Independent Session at the Cobden Club in London on 19 February.