|Green Velvet: Preacher man
Chicago's most unconventional house hero is back with an apocalypse-themed album, a mission to bring the dance floor out of darkness and some ominous prophecies about Hilary Clinton. RA's Lee Smith reckons he's too late to be saved...
The first time I met Green Velvet, AKA Chicago native Curtis Jones, was after a set at The End, around the time he released "The Stalker." He'd been swigging from a bottle of spirits with wild abandon throughout his performance, and while he was courteous enough, his mind was clearly elsewhere, his eyes glaring straight through me. In fact, if memory serves, he was looking for the afterparty.
We briefly crossed paths a few times in the following years, but it wasn't until nearly a decade later in 2006 that we exchanged anything more than cursory greetings. Over the period of a long night and an even longer car journey the next day, Curtis explained—at length—what had happened to him in the intervening years. The eccentric, hilarious and occasionally disturbing artist behind some of the most inspired lyrics ever to be intoned over a four-four kick had been born again as a full-on Christian, and he certainly wanted to talk about it. No more drinking, no more drugs, no more curse words and in their place, a relentless flow of praise to the Lord, which at points swung beyond the passionately evangelical and into the realms of unsettlingly obsessive.
Velvet in stereo
Three years, and countless unanswered interview requests later, I've finally managed to track down the elusive Jones, catching him as he comes off stage at the UK's Bloc Weekend. Warmly greeting me—a notable contrast to our early encounters—we decamp to his chalet room, where sure enough, a well-thumbed Bible lays open on the coffee table.
"I been readin' the good book," Curtis confirms, before bursting into his distinctive cackle of laughter. Keen not to dive headlong into religion just yet, I ask him how he finds playing the UK festival scene these days.
"It's pretty different in the last few years," he ponders. "The house scene went through a transition. The garage style kinda disappeared, the electro thing became huge. But you know, everything has its cycle."
Curtis has certainly been around long enough to see a few of house music's cycles perform their turns, as his informative Wikipedia page details. Of course, most casual clubbers know him as the neon-haired techno-punk who warned us of the dangers of out-of-control teenage parties ("Flash"), taking too many pills ("La La Land") and choosing a bad day to check your voicemail ("Answer Machine"). But his contribution to dance music goes much deeper than a few comically off-kilter rants. As Cajmere, he re-wrote the house music rulebook with "Brighter Days" and "U Got Me Up," while his labels Cajual and Relief were arguably the most prominent and prolific outposts for new wave Chicago beats throughout the 1990s.
"I had no desire to start a label," he recalls. "I did it because my friends at the time had started to do this really popular stuff, and they stopped attending to their labels, so I had to go and start my own. I didn't know what I was doing—just like everybody else. [laughs] I did it because there was nobody else to do it."
On the surface, it worked—both Cajual and its harder, trackier sister label Relief went on to score countless successes, introducing the world to local talents like DJ Sneak, Gemini, Mark Grant, Boo Williams and Glenn Underground along the way. But, as so often seems to be the case when it comes to seminal Chicago labels, problems eventually became apparent, especially with Relief.
"[Running the labels] had its challenges," Curtis reflects. "It helped me, because without it I would never have had my eyes opened to the way people are. I was brought up in the suburbs, and in my experiences, people were nice. They didn't have agendas, so I didn't know the dark side of people. I was naïve. But then when I got onto the music industry—Lord have mercy, I saw it all. People lie on you, oh my God, I went through so much. Some of the most terrible things for a person to go through, I went through. There was a period where I started to change—when you're in a shady business with shady people, you think you have to change in order to relate to them. I was getting irritated. So then I just stopped Relief, and gave everyone their stuff. It wasn't working for me."
By 2002, other changes had occurred as well. "La La Land," a track originally intended as a wake up call for "a friend who I wanted to stop taking drugs," was ringing out across what seemed like every dance floor in the known universe, and remains Green Velvet's biggest-selling track by some distance. Ironically but not unexpectedly, it was widely received as something of a drug-taking anthem by hordes of ravers, many of whom saw the chorus as an open invitation to imbibe even more intoxicants. Does Curtis feel that his plan for that song maybe backfired?
"I think that for the most part, people know," he cryptically asserts. "They should know. When I first wrote the song, all my friends knew what I was trying to do, and they stopped taking pills. Then they started doing other drugs!" More cackling. "But they got it in the end. My hope is that someone would hear the song, and they would see it in someone else other than themselves, and it would stop them doing it."
Is it, I wonder, a little incongruous to preach a pro-sobriety, pro-Christianity message while enjoying a pretty successful career built on playing to secular, hedonistic crowds of sinners every weekend?
"The best way to answer your question is this: Now I do stuff in a way of trying to say what I believe in, as far as being a Christian. I still believe the kids need to have fun. But I try to make sure my message is clear—it's fun, but coming from the right place. In the past, sometimes I wasn't coming from the right place."
Accordingly, Green Velvet sets are now stripped of some of their former ungodly elements—notably "Answering Machine," which Curtis no longer plays on account of its prominent use of a four-letter word.
"I look at it how I look at myself," Curtis explains of his self-censorship. "There was a time when I was in so called darkness. I was out there, doing everything. As I say in 'La La Land,' I've been the one to party, but not any more. But my thing is, when I see kids doing something a little excessively, I hope that eventually they'll go and find out what I'm about, and they'll get to the place where I am. They'll be like, 'let me try it, let me see'. I believe God could use me to help 'em. The dance scene can be incredible place, but it's not without its problems."
Velvet in the hedonistic days of yore
For Curtis, the dance floor isn't the only place that could use God's help right now. When we last spoke, he told me that he believed George Bush's administration was the physical embodiment of the book of Revelations—and that western civilisation's greed, hedonism and disavowal of God would soon bring about the final Holy War. Now that Bush and Cheney are fully dispatched, how does he feel about the global political landscape we live in?
"You know, I've always been sceptical when it comes to the system. I have never seen it be an establishment that has the poor at heart. To me that's injustice, and that's one of the main reasons I'm sceptical about the system. When it comes to Barack, I think it's great and incredible—but I would be a fool to think everything's fine now. The system is still so messed up that I don't know how it's gonna get fixed."
Are we still approaching the end of days, Biblically-speaking? Yet another high-pitched cackle.
"I had a dream a while ago, before the election started, and in the dream, it was Hilary Clinton. And she was talking, telling us all on TV how we'd been warned, talking about Revelations, and the end of time. So I thought, from that point, that Hillary would be president. I thought the dream was foreseeing, like, the last war.
"But then, Obama beat her, and I was relieved. I was like, 'oh, there was nothing in that dream at all.' But all of a sudden, she became secretary of state – and I was like, 'oh no, this is not good.' Because she was there, in that dream, talking about revelations and the final war."
5 alter egos that took over
Foremost Poets AKA Johnny Dangerous
New Jersey's Johnny Dangerous stirred up controversy with his 1991 Nite Grooves cut "Beat That Bitch," before going on to intermittently produce and release a variety of house-orientated projects. But it was as Foremost Poets that he scored his biggest hits to date, most notably in the form of "Moonraker," a Green Velvet-style tale of mock-sci-fi nonsense.
Rex The Dog
There was a time a couple of years back when the mysterious identity of Kompakt's "well-known British producer" was the talk of techno town. Was it Daniel Miller? Peter Ford? Richard D. James? Um, no, it was JX, who briefly flirted with pop stardom thanks to his eternally irritating 90s hit "Son of a Gun."
As one half of The Advent, Colin McBean tore apart clubs and festivals alike with a turbo-charged, searing take on '90s techno. Along with cohort Cisco Ferrera, he dabbled in housier flavours as G Flame and Mr G from 1997 onwards, before quitting The Advent to focus solely on the groovy stuff.
Toronto native Jake Fairley was a key talent in the rock-tinged minimal techno scene of the early noughties, his buzzing releases on labels like Sender and Dumb-Unit earning him a cult following. Fairmont was originally the home for his more delicate moods, but after "Gazebo" blew up on Border Community in 2005, he retired his birth name and focused fully on shiny, indie-trance bombast.
Obvious, maybe, but it's easy to forget that the Warp darlings were once two-thirds of peerless techno outfit The Black Dog. While Plaid's commercial success went on to eclipse that of their former project, their lack of activity since 2006's "Greedy Baby" has proved frustrating for fans. Meanwhile, The Black Dog continue to flourish at their own pace, with recent well-received releases for Soma keeping the fires burning nicely.
So Hilary Clinton symbolises the final war in Revelations?
"No! There's no symbolism to it. It was a clear-cut dream, she was up there telling us about the war we are getting into. For me, that goes to my belief that as the Bible says, the last war will be the West and the East. I believe it will be fulfilled—I believe that the east is gonna be China and Russia. Things have positioned themselves so that China is a major power. With them and the Russians joining together, there's a lot of stuff that's very weird right now… because of climate change, there will be a natural disaster, an earthquake or something, which will further cause the economy to collapse. The Russians and Chinese will see that as weakness. But the thing is, there's still a chance of being saved for those who believe. That's what the signs are for."
With the sun rising and the birds starting to chirp outside the window, I realise that I've only scraped the surface of Curtis Jones and his unconventional, deeply-held beliefs, despite talking for a good few hours. I want to challenge some of his wilder assumptions, but he seems to bristling slightly, closing his more radical ideas off to me and my dictaphone. Perhaps this is why he avoids interviews these days. Maybe on some level, he realises how open to question, or indeed ridicule, his more apocalyptic statements are. So I change tack, and wrap up by asking him what we can expect to hear soon.
"I'm working on the new album. It's gonna be on Cajual, I expect. It's gonna be talking about the last days, and trying to put the pieces together. It's a major work. I think I'm gonna help some people, so… it's definitely time."
As he says this, he turns to fix me with those eyes, which unlike all those years ago, now seem to be looking straight inside me. Time for what, I ask.
"It's time," he repeats, his warm smile gone and his body language defiantly closed. I snap off the recorder, exchange goodbyes and leave Curtis and his Bible in peace. As I depart, I wander if he meant it's time for a new release, time to stop the interview or time to face the four horsemen as civilisation crumbles around us. Like all the other sinners, I guess I won't know until it's too late.