In recent years, Stanley has been co-curating a series of excellent themed music compilations for Ace Records, and now he’s collaborated with Wood in compiling Ace’s latest, Café Exil. Subtitled New Adventures In European Music 1972-1980, Café Exil seeks to create an imaginary soundtrack for the erstwhile Berlin hang-out of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, blending elements of library music, Krautrock, electronica, funk and jazz.
Here, Stanley and Wood discuss their friendship and the genesis of the album, which has been named as one of Rough Trade‘s Compilations of the Year.
Northern Soul: How did the two of you first meet?
Jason Wood: Well, I’ve been a huge fan of Saint Etienne since their first single, so I was always aware of Bob as a musician and as a real sage on music, popular culture and non-league football. We first hooked up when I was running Curzon cinemas in London, which would have been over 10 years ago. It started as a meeting about some potential screening ideas Bob had and a cup of coffee turned into a pint. Or two. We stayed in touch over the years and continue to share a love of many of the same interests.
Bob Stanley: We met when Jason was at Curzon, and found it easy to pass the hours talking about West Ham and the films of Franc Rodham in the nearby Maison Bertaux. Our musical tastes overlap a fair bit, but Jason knows a hell of a lot about jazz that I’m clueless on, something he’s been trying to sort out for some years now with CD-Rs in the post. Mostly jazz, occasionally Pere Ubu.
NS: What was the initial germ of this project?
JW: I was a real admirer of the Ace compilations Bob had done with Pete Wiggs. They went beyond compilations really as they were curated with such care and precision. I like to think I know a fair bit about music, but these took me to places I didn’t know. The sleeve notes were also an education, of the pleasurable variety.
I’d been a bit fearful of mentioning the idea of collaborating on something to Bob. I’m not sure why. I didn’t want to impinge on his turf, I suppose. But my recollection is that he came for lunch with his family one rainy Sunday and we spent a happy afternoon playing records. It wasn’t out of a need to impress, but when you are with someone who loves music you don’t want to play them the obvious stuff they will already know. I was going through a bit of an electronic music phase, so on that day that’s what I was playing. Almost exclusively European.
But the idea and the concept for Café Exil was Bob’s. He had a brilliant way of corralling all the records together and making sense of them. The Bowie/Iggy narrative was also his idea, and a perfect way of framing the project.
BS: My knowledge of Soft Machine didn’t go beyond Soft Machine, so hearing something great from Soft Machine SEVEN was a revelation. Annette Peacock was someone I’d read about for years but never actually heard. Mostly, Jason was digging out European things like Toni Esposito that I’d never even heard of. When I got home I made a Spotify playlist of the things I liked best, added a few bits of my own like Focus and library tracks by Piero Umiliani and Rubba, and the Berlin Bowie-ness of it became instantly apparent. But the impetus came from Jason’s record collection.
NS: Café Exil is really evocative, it genuinely has the feel of a soundtrack. Do you share an interest in soundtracks and that intersection of music and film?
JW: We do both share an interest in soundtracks and I think in music and film generally. Bob’s enthusiasm and knowledge in both areas is impressive. It’s great when people suggest things and they really land. What I think I like most about Bob’s taste is his ability to unearth nuggets. Also, there is no pretension. For him a good record is a good record, no matter who it’s by. Record obsessives can be a little elitist. There’s none of that with Bob.
We wanted it to feel like a soundtrack. The idea was that it would take the listener on a journey and place them at a particular point in history, a point that was of interest both for the sounds it produced and because it was a tipping point socially, politically and culturally.
Also, I think that the nature of the music on the compilation lends it the feel of a long journey. It’s largely instrumental and so, the idea of Bowie and Iggy shuttling through European locations on a train with these progressive sounds had immediate appeal.
NS: The album has a real coherence of tone, and though Krautrock might be a useful touchstone for some of the tracks, overall it’s something other than that – something looser, funkier, jazzier. Are there still new genres/subgenres out there hiding among the records of the past, waiting to be unearthed and identified and compiled?
JW: Yeah, I don’t think we wanted it to be just Krautrock. Soul Jazz have done some amazing Krautrock and German Electronic music compilations so we didn’t want to revisit that. It was important to reference it though, the influence of the likes of NEU! and Harmonia on Bowie and on Low in particular are well known and undoubtedly played a part in his decision to relocate to Berlin. And yes, we certainly wanted to explore some of the funk and jazz elements. We also wanted to reference some library music, Way Star by Rubba for example. Soft Machine’s Penny Hitch is, I think, the perfect prog/jazz/funk sweet spot. One of the great Music De Wolfe library LPs, Rubber Riff, is Soft Machine in all but name so that ties those two elements together.
I think that one of the endless sources of pleasure where music is concerned is the joy of new discoveries. In some ways it’s daunting, knowing that you will never reach an end point to it all but that’s what always keeps you coming back for more. I’m late to the Library Music party and it’s a dangerous wormhole to disappear down because some of the records are so rare, but some really amazing stuff awaits.
NS: What’s been the best thing about doing this project?
JW: For me it was just pure, undiluted pleasure. I honestly don’t think I have ever enjoyed myself so much, and in what has been a terrible year for humanity, knowing that the record was coming out in December really did feel like the light at the end of a long dark tunnel.
BS: I like that it emerged so naturally. Some of the ones I’ve put together with Pete Wiggs have been brewing for years – Three Day Week (anything that sounded like it was recorded in power-cut Britain between ‘73 and ’75) and State Of The Union (late-60s/early-70s American ‘squares’ confronting Vietnam and Kent State). When compilations are based around a sound, a feeling, or a historical moment, I think you have to trust that other people will get it. It’s much harder to convince people to buy a ‘best of” or even a ‘Complete Singles’ these days because of streaming and so many things being readily available. But putting something like Café Exil together, with a slightly abstract feeling, means you can be more adventurous with the track listing, sleevenotes and artwork – and you have to hope people are going to go along with you.
NS: I’m guessing it’s safe to say that you both used to pore over making compilation tapes for friends back in the day. In essence, is that still what you’re doing here?
JW: I think it’s exactly that. I used to love making compilation tapes. I’d make my own sleeves and even write up sleevenotes. There was a circle of friends that would exchange tapes and it was a great way of sharing music, communicating and connecting with people. I think that making compilation tapes is the reason I am married. I used to send Nicky, who would become my wife, a tape every week as she lived in Wales when I was in London. It’s a way of showing someone your passion for things and a way of revealing who you are and what you are about. Then again, and thinking about it, maybe she married me just to get the tapes to stop.
BS: Absolutely. Scissors and Pritt Stick. Poised over the pause button. I still like to make CDs for friends now with homemade artwork, but so many people have got rid of their CD players, I find I’m making a lot less these days. The compilations for Ace are a great way of scratching that itch, though. It really is a dream job.
By Andy Murray, Music and Film Editor
Cafe Exil: New Adventures In European Music 1972-1980 is available on CD and LP from Ace Records from December 11, 2020