Mighty like a mother

Portishead? Massive? Tricky? No. Smith and Mighty. By Phil Johnson
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The Independent Online
You can tell show-time is fast approaching from the way the cumulus clouds of smoke issuing from the artistes' area at the back of the stage seem suddenly to increase in volume, threatening to engulf us all. When, eventually, the odd assortment of musicians take up their positions, you can see it's a home-town gig because the two girl vocalists keep waving to friends and family in the audience. As the music rumbles fitfully into action and the opening notes spell out the juddery intro to "Walk On By", you notice the two uncomfortable-looking men at the keyboards. A legend of sorts begins to unravel.

In 1988, Smith and Mighty's single of "Walk On By", released on their own label, announced the arrival of a new, slow and sexy, dubbed up sound. Its follow-up, "Anyone (Who Had a Heart)", yet another Bacharach and David tune (following the release ofthe Wild Bunch's "The Look of Love" some months earlier), attracted lots of interest. When the same team made the charts the next year with "Wishing On a Star" for the Fresh Four, they were officially hot. London Records signed them up for a large sum of money (after they turned down Virgin, who offered even more, because their punk roots forbade them to like Richard Branson) and the scene was set for a hit-making machine along the lines of Soul II Soul, who themselves featured Bristol Wild Bunch member Nellee Hooper as the non-dread at the controls.

Instead, nothing happened - not even a record. The much-awaited album, Bass is Maternal, was pulled by London at the last minute and after five years under the mast, S&M were dropped. Meanwhile, all things Bristol - slow, sexy and dubbed up - had, courtesy of Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky, made Smith and Mighty the disinherited elder sons of a veritable dynasty (the onset of jungle makes them seem even more ahead of their time). Not to be outdone, they have, after a period of retrenchment, formed their own label and put out a quite brilliant album, entitled once again Bass is Maternal, composed of entirely new material apart from two reworked tracks. To promote it, they're even playing live, hence their appearance last Friday at Bristol's Thekla, one of a handful of dates culminating in last night's performance at Subterania.

To track this strange state of affairs, and to talk to the men who know, I arrive at Smith and Mighty's Bristol studio. Rob Smith isn't there yet, so I talk mostly to Ray Mighty, the quiet, dread-locked one, as he nervously paces the floor and avoids eye contact. Live performance, he admits, isn't exactly in his blood. "I like the travelling, the free food and drink and the getting in to the club free," he says, "but I'm not that mad about actually being up on stage." Ten years ago, he and Smith were in a proper, "apocalyptic funk" band called Sweat. "I hated every minute of it," he says of their gigs. "It's the most unnatural thing in the world - you get all these people staring at you."

Mighty had travelled with reggae sound systems after receiving an infusion of bass as a child. "My parents used to run this blues dance in our basement and I would lie in bed listening to the music, vibrating to the sound of the bass, which was the only frequency strong enough to reach the top floor where my room was." Linking up with Smith, who had played in the reggae band Restriction, Mighty experimented with home-recorded demos until the Wild Bunch's "The Look of Love" clarified their purpose. "I thought 'this is what I want to do - tough loud beats, the odd little sample and a vocal going on in an odd, stripped-back mix'."

Ironically, this was what attracted London to S&M and then repelled them.

"Basically, they thought our stuff wasn't strong enough for singles and that technically it might not be right, especially for America," Mighty says. "They wanted everything sounding well-engineered and mixed instead of hard-sounding drums and waffly bass." Their album was all set to go a year ago, when London, one week before the release date, pulled the plug. "The single didn't get a high enough listing on the Radio 1 playlist," Mighty says. "We got a D and they wanted a B or a C; it didn't happen and I think that was the final straw." While disappointed, Smith and Mighty were also relieved. "We'd pass them things and they'd pass them back," Mighty says. "It was like going for a job interview every time. Once they even played a track to someone at Radio 1 and he thought the bass-line didn't come in early enough so they asked us to start again. After a couple of years, you don't know whether anything you do is any good; your self-confidence goes if someone keeps knocking you back."

When they were hot, the bidding war with Virgin assumed the air of an Ealing comedy, the amateur independents rejecting the big bad major because they didn't like the political cut of the boss's jib. "We never met Branson," Mighty says, "but we didn't like his role as the ideal businessman. They even got him to ring us up to try to close the deal and he said: 'No, you've got me all wrong. I've got nothing to do with the Conservative Party,' and he had someone bike his autobiography over to try to change our minds."

Mighty is sanguine about the outcome. "It wasn't money that got us into this in the first place. It was just something other than hanging around the streets getting into trouble; you can't break the law forever." Trouble with the law has already taken two of the album's vocalists out of circulation and the live show has had to find suitable substitutes.

At last, Rob Smith arrives, just in time for the last word. "It's a mates thing, really," he says. "We tend to agree eventually. Even if we don't we trust each other's judgement, one always allows the other to go a bit further." The future, he says, is wide open. "We've been holding this album for five years and now we'll be free to do something different if we want. But if we want to do the same, we'll do the same." Whatever, the consoling arms of a motherly bass beat looks likely to stay.

n 'Bass Is Maternal' is on More Rockers records