An early obsession with sound systems and speaker boxes introduced George Evelyn to the DJ sphere in 1970s Leeds, and a subsequent spell breakdancing brought him together with fellow Nightmares on Wax founder Kevin Harper. The duo released their first single as Nightmares on Wax in 1990, and they emerged as key musicians in the development of multiple musical genres ["chill-out," "trip hop," "downtempo"] with the landmark albums Carboot Soul and Smoker’s Delight. George continues to tour and produce music as Nightmares on Wax, warming the original cross-genre sound with a roster of live musicians.

What was the overall cultural environment like in Leeds as you were growing up?

Looking back, I sort of understand the musical influences around me, but at the time it wasn’t a big thing. We had a youth club that we all used to go and hang out at, and there were reggae sound systems that used to play there. My best friend’s older brother ran one of these sound systems called Messiah, so we used to go to school and watch him build speaker boxes and chat on the microphone.

As far as raw elements that were always around, my dad was always playing records and was really into the gramophone. So we had these amazing gramophones around the house…that we weren’t allowed to touch, of course. Also, when you’re nine years old, anything that’s bigger is better. So I got used to the idea of big speakers. Big bass.

Straightaway I was into dub music, and I was totally into the artwork, which was on a lot of the albums, like from Scientist. Every album he brought out had this amazing sort of theme. Like in his Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires, it’s him on a speedboat with speakers and Dracula’s chasing after him and there’re vampires and stuff. The album has loads of mad crazy ghoulish sound effects on it, but he never sang anything about ghosts. So that was the first thing I was fanatical about, or collected, as far as being really into somebody, or a record. That was 1979. It’s only upon doing interviews and reflecting that I realized “Shit! That was the first producer I ever studied.” But I didn’t realize I was doing it at the time. So that was my first world, being a part of my community, and being part of the movement as well.

That was a lot of information, George.

Yeah, I’ve got lots.

From what you’ve just said, you seem to consider the visual element of a record to be very important, almost as important as the musical element.

What’s really different now, now that I’m making music, is that I see making music as building pictures. I’m totally into the idea of an album being a journey. I want to be taken somewhere. I don’t necessarily need the answer, and that kind of parallels with life. I’m not looking for the answers; I’m just looking for the journey because it’s the most important part of it. I make my records like that. And I wouldn’t say that that was premeditated. It’s only a game.

After making a few albums you start to recognize that in your style of music, and that’s what you want when you’re listening to a friend’s track and they’re asking for advice. Or when you’re listening to a tune and you want something to happen and then something happens and it’s like, “Yeah, you got me there.” It’s just in there somewhere, the picture. It’s like reading a book – your imagination always takes you somewhere else. You both read the same book but picture something completely different. We both get the story, but the picture would be completely different. I’m looking forward to the day when I actually make music to pictures, because that’s completely doing it the opposite way around for me.

It sounds like you want to collaborate with yourself.

Yeah, maybe. Maybe if I give myself a break, let myself have a say.

Are you still breakdancing?

Only when I’m drunk. I can only create that kind of false energy when I’ve had a few drinks. And then I get up and go, “Ooh! How did I used to do that?” Heh. I wouldn’t say it’s something I practice, but I used to live it. Going back to talking about being inspired by sound systems when I was younger, it wasn’t until 1982 that I discovered breakdancing and hip hop. That kind of blew my world, and all of a sudden it was like another booster into things to do and to be into with so many other people. It was an art form.

And that’s how you met the other half of Nightmares on Wax, Kevin Harper?

Yeah, me and Kevin and a whole bunch of other people from my neighborhood. A bunch of the crews evolved, and from that all this stuff got fused with graffiti and also the DJing and the MCing. I was partaking in that with the sound system thing; when I was 11 or 12 I was already building speaker boxes myself.

Did you give graffiti a try?

Ah, I tried. I remember one time my mom came home and I’d actually cut a square out from the wallpaper in my bedroom, found some spray cans in the garage that belonged to my dad for touching up his car, and I sprayed “Break!” on my bedroom wall.

Did you give graffiti a try?

Ah, I tried. I remember one time my mom came home and I’d actually cut a square out from the wallpaper in my bedroom, found some spray cans in the garage that belonged to my dad for touching up his car, and I sprayed “Break!” on my bedroom wall.

You tagged your own bedroom?!

Yeah, and my mum went fucking berserk. And it was really shit as well. She’s like, “What the fuck are you doing?” I’d already taped a massive square of cardboard to my bedroom floor as well, so I think she knew at that point she was losing her son.

To hip hop! [Laughs] “I’m not your son anymore, Mum, I’m a B-boy!” Yeah, that was the start of my graf writing, and it just didn’t get the response.

What about any other forms of expression?

I still write lyrics now, of course, but I got so into the science of making music, producing and knocking beats together and experimenting. I realized around age 15 that I could record a piece of a song on a cassette tape and pause it and then get another record and record a bit of that and start splicing these tracks together. We couldn’t afford the cassettes then, so we used to go to the local hi-fi shops, where they’d have demo cassettes in the hi-fis, and we used to pinch them. I’ve still got the tapes, believe it or not. And that was my first delving into sampling, and that was my art form, the fact that I could experiment with sound systems. You fucked about on the mic a little bit, you try graffiti, I was a good breakdancer, I will say that, and I’m still DJing, but making beats was my art.

As far as cover art for your albums, did you know what direction you wanted to go in?

On every album that we’ve made, I’ve always known what the album cover is before the album is finished.

Do you have a specific artist to whom you can go with your ideas?

Yeah, there’s a guy who’s done three albums of ours now, and he goes by the graf name Monkee – part of a crew called Invizible Circle. What I love about him is that when I talk to him about what I’m after, he’s one of those people who’ll turn around and go, “Oh yeah!” He totally wants to get there with you. And sometimes with painting it’s hard to get there, because you’re still trying to translate your vision through somebody else’s vision. And that’s quite a hard task to do.

You wish you could do it yourself.

Yeah, exactly, but if you’ve got somebody who’s hungry enough to want to get it right, I think that’s a talent in itself.

The artwork on your most recent album, In a Space Outta Sound, has a very different feel from your previous records.

Yeah, even on that I had Monkee doing the text, and we had to get it right for the era, because the whole album was about my upbringing in music and where I actually come from. I was trying to recapture this specific text, but it’s a challenge because you’ve got nothing to base it on in the words that you’re writing. I remember being in a crunch with Monkee and he was like, “You know, it’s great I can copy an S from that, or that letter from that, but there’re no W’s or X’s!” So you’ve gotta invent. But they’ve all gotta still fall into the fashion, the art.

It’s the same working with a guitarist. I’m trying to get him to play something that’s kind of discordant, and if you’ve got somebody that’s classically trained or been to jazz school or taught from church, trying to get them to play it wrong is a mission. I love fucking with good musicians. “Play it bad!” I’m not trained in any form; I have no boundaries, just imagination. And I think that that sometimes hinders people to a certain degree. If you learn through a certain process, you might have your feel, but there’s still certain boundaries because you’ve gotta ask the questions about what you’re meant to do and what you’re not meant to do. It’s not saying people can’t be super talented and be trained at the same time, and have been to college, but I ain’t been to college. You know, you get there in the end. That’s why I love working with a lot of raw talent, and I love working with people who are classically trained, because I know somewhere in my twisted brain I can fuck with them and make some magic.

You just sound like you’re playing and you’re going to be playing for the rest of your career.

It’s all fun. If there’s no fun involved I’m not interested.

Do you have a favorite place to spin, or a place that’s most inspiring to you?

I actually just moved to it. Ibiza is like the best-kept secret. All people hear about is the club scene and the raving, and that’s what 10 percent of this place is about. Best-kept secret, even though I’m telling everybody now I guess. Heh. It’s just that the energy is so amazing. My thoughts are totallclear. There’s no bad vibes. If there’s any bad vibe, it’s what somebody’s brought here. I’ve always tried to put sunshine in my music, and now it’s time to put my music in the sunshine.

Have you written a lot since you moved there?

I had a week off in the middle of summer while we were touring, and part of my studio isn’t here in Ibiza yet, it’s still in England, so I decided to go back to England just to make some music. I’m itching. I went in there and I made three amazing tracks just jumping about, a little start to an album already.

You’re very quick!

It’s just because I’m in that headspace, in that what I’m creating, what I’m visualizing, and what I want to make is unquestionable. I’m not making beats and thinking, “Hmm, what would I do with that? Where am I going to put that?” I’m just doing it without thinking about it. That’s how you should do music.

I’m going back on the 20th of September to pick up the rest of my studio, and I had the dilemma of thinking, “Do I really want to put my gear on a truck and expect it to turn up in Spain? I have to be with it.” And so I got to thinking that if I want to be with my gear, I could be doing something. So I thought, “Why don’t I put it on a camper van, drive from Leeds all the way through the Pyrenees, through France, through the Sierra Nevada, and at different points pick up different musicians?” I’m flying out different musicians and spending the whole 10 days of the journey recording. We’re making a DVD of it as well. I’m not planning on any of the music, I’m just going to do it from the moment. I’m going to start making the beats, and I’ll have the musicians onboard constantly, and then I’ve got vocalists and different artists flying out to meet me.

I’ve been talking about this, the journey, for the last 10 or 11 years, since Smoker’s Delight. Because after I did Smoker’s Delight, I realized that that was the journey. It’s like I’m living it now. This is the actual thing I’ve been talking about in interviews, and now I’m actually doing it physically. I’m actually going to record the journey. I’m so excited about it, and I know magic’s going to happen, and it’s going to be an experience in all dimensions, not just musically. Personally, emotionally, everything. It’s forever going to be a part of the lives of every person that’s going to be involved in it. And I know by the end of that trip I’m going to have an album, in 10 days, which I’ve never done before, but I know I’m going to have one.

Take lots of pictures!

We’ve got Monkee traveling with us, and he’s actually going to sketch the whole trip, and then he’s also going to draw a map of the whole journey. It’s all there! The whole artwork, the cover art, is all going to be part of the concept.

All this talk of journeys, I feel like I know what your answer is going to be for this, but what, in your opinion, makes a nice set?

The one that brings everyone together on the dance floor. Makes everyone feel as one. And the one that drops that gem at the end makes you say, “I just love this tune.” That one tune that can mean a million different memories to everybody on the dance floor.

George Evelyn