Every artist, if they really care about what they do, goes through some pretty dark times. But you never expect that from the likes of Sunshine Jones. Co-founder of Dubtribe with his wife Moonbeam, Sunshine toured the world through most of the 1990s, introducing legions to the sound of House Music through Dubtribe’s funky, soulful sound. From the outside looking in, it seemed like a fairy tale.
And then – to use an awful cliché – the music stopped. Sunshine and Moonbeam had split, and Dubtribe officially disbanded. Their record label, Imperial DUB, closed down. The musical landscape had changed and honestly, it’s probably a little hard to be so relentlessly positive when everything in the world as well as your personal life seems to be driving at full speed into oblivion.
What do you do? If you’re Sunshine Jones, you challenge yourself. You sit in a room with a few pieces of old equipment and conjure up your muse. Sunshine challenged himself to write seven new songs in seven days, with each released on the internet as they were finished. The results were collected on his 2007 album Seven Tracks in Seven Days, released on King Street (reviewed in our June 2007 issue here).
It’s not a cliché to say this album is autobiographical in a way that dance music usually isn’t. Seven Tracks is the sound of a man digging deep into his soul, trying to find an answer, a reason to go on – confronting and embracing all of the hope, fear, despair and love that we all have within us. It’s the sound of a man and an artist being reborn.
I grew up in Chicago worshipping everything that came out of San Francisco – music and politics from the Dead Kennedys, zines and art and so on. Would you consider your ethics and your aesthetic to have grown out of SF’s counterculture of the 1980s?
I was born and raised in San Francisco. Most people think that makes me an automatic hippie… I do wear sandals, and talk a lot about human potential, but the San Francisco I grew up in was a political city, a protest city. I grew up in the shadow of the Black Panthers, the SLA, and the Zodiac Killer. But by the time I was 12, the world had changed. It wasn’t army jackets and fists in the air any more… now it was feathered hair, Love Boat, and key parties. For me and my friends, by the middle 1970s it already seemed like we were doomed to be outsiders.
Punk rock made perfect sense to me. Not because of what would eventually happen to it, but in the late ’70s, punk was really a trans-gender, art school, welcoming and creatively supercharged way to discover ourselves and bail completely on the whole idea of being like everyone else. I loved the political ideals of some the characters who hung around, and wrote little magazines, or made the occasional speech, but we were leaping up and down, and having sex in the bathrooms of night clubs we were way too young to get into back then. It was social anarchy, we were objects d’art in an experiment which expressed “I don’t care” as a mission statement, a response to the hypocrites who had dragged their bell bottoms up the street ahead of us.
As the ’80s delivered a suburban monster version of punk, where the teenagers from wealthy families all bleached their hair and rode skateboards into the mosh pits, I checked out. I had a lot of personal issues to look at, and violence was something I was leaving behind me. I cut my hair and read a lot of books. I learned about Reggae and Jazz, and started to explore what the world had to offer besides youth culture. So to answer your question, no, I don’t think so. I was at the center of what was going on. I didn’t read the magazines any more once they stopped printing Search and Destroy. I knew all the people at Maximum Rock’n’Roll (I was in the first couple issues, and did a show for a few months called Real Punk) but in those days we were busy breaking things, and going places, shooting up and throwing up. We had no idea there was supposed to be a political or cultural set of ethics or values to go along with what we were doing.
There’s a great renaissance of electronic music going on right now, but it seems that it’s sometimes lacking the self-awareness of the 1990s. Do you still think it has that revolutionary potential?
I’m not sure if I agree. I think these are inspirational times for music. Every day some new track gets released on Beatport, by someone I’ve never heard of from places I never thought House would blossom. I am delighted with what’s going on in Norway, Denmark, Germany, France, and all over the world. Prins Thomas, Lindstron, Jimpster, Manuel Tur, Woolfy and people who are beautifully fearless and completely revolutionary are knocking my socks off all the time.
To me, what’s important is that dance music, electronic music, House Music is alive. Kids go see Tiesto and have that experience, and eventually a certain percentage of them will come knocking on our doors, looking for more, wanting something more visceral, more emotional, more personal. I really believe in House Music, it saved my soul so many times I stopped counting. But the main thing, especially right now, is to let go of the past, and stop wasting time with things which don’t inspire you. Just give your head, and your heart to the things which turn you on. Personally I don’t like to complain. I haven’t seen much good come from being negative.
I’ve read a lot of interviews and profiles of Dubtribe over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard about the origins of the group outside of a few bits of imagery about Moonbeam and yourself loading up a van and driving around the country.
I was always in the clubs at the end of the ’80s. I never knew who anyone was. Doc Martin was my favorite DJ, but he didn’t play House then. He played Hip-Hop. He was really amazing. No one else played those records in SF. My friends would take me to afterhours parties like at the 20/20 gallery and other loft-type speakeasies, but I was always disappointed when the music was House. I didn’t feel the soul in it.
One night I was at a party called Osmosis – it might have been 1990, I’m not sure – and something happened to me. I was dancing, half-heartedly as always, and the beat just grabbed me. I fell in between the kick drums and felt the surge of the bass. I felt what was implied in the music, and I danced until well after all my friends had gone home. I peeled myself apart like an onion that night, and I was never the same again.
Dubtribe was born as a party. We didn’t have anywhere to play, so we would set up our equipment in the front room of a flat I lived in on Bryant Street and have a party. We tried to DJ, but didn’t know how really. We ended up just making electronic music all night. Drummers came and sat in, and the idea was born out of the party.
The name came from that party. It was DJ La Paix… he didn’t really like our music, and called us too “dub-tribey” for his taste. I loved the description and took it as a compliment. So we were born, and from there it was a matter of making endless cassette tapes of our improvisations, and giving them away to people. We played the three places there were to play in San Francisco a couple times, and then literally got into a van and drove to New York, to play a gig booked by Onionz who’d gotten ahold of one of our tapes, then LA to play for someone we’d never met who had heard from someone we were great, then Seattle to play for Tom who owned a record shop and had one of our tapes. Once we were in New York we met Scott Henry and drove to Baltimore to play at Fever for him. It was completely on the fly, and based on cassette tapes, word of mouth, and a voice mail number we’d printed on cards to give out to invite people to our parties.
From there it got a lot easier. We made some records, and played shows all the time. We spent a decade doing nothing but traveling, recording, and playing live. Those were wonderful times.
Is a dancefloor a dancefloor – are they the same to you? Do you miss the more carnival-like outdoor events of the 1990s?
I do miss playing outside. Bass bins sound much better outside, and there’s nothing like dancing under the stars, on a beach, or in a renegade field somewhere. But I gotta admit, I have never liked raves. I never liked the carnival, or the festival-type events which never seemed to hold together at the center. That said I have been at some sincerely amazing events which seemed so close to being absolute chaos. I have had great experiences at those events. But there were just too many dead kids. I couldn’t stand being up on a stage in front of thousands and thousands of people, all of us with our fists in the air, cheering for revolution, claiming ownership of House Music, and then twelve of them would die before they got to the hospital from drug overdoses. That kind of crap, from city after city, event after event starts to break your heart. It broke mine. I just lost faith in the people, and didn’t want to be in that position anymore.
But by the same token, you really can’t have an orderly epiphany. There is no way that people can file in nicely and take their seats, sit at attention completely sober and lose control of the bullshit that society lays on us day in and day out. I am also not in any way opposed to drugs. I don’t take drugs, I don’t drink alcohol, but I know what hard work it was for me to open myself up to what it is to dance for eight hours straight. It doesn’t come easy, and I’m fairly open to that experience. I think that MDMA was a beautifully revolutionary drug for it’s time. A whole lot more interesting than Wellbutrin and Zoloft. I realize that many people may need those pharmaceuticals to live normal lives, and I respect that, but I never wanted to live a normal life. I am not interested in anything which might suppress me into the confines of the average and the acceptable.
Still, I think that what happens at an event, if it’s 50 people in a little bar, or 500 people in a fancy club, is all about the intention of the sound system, the DJ, the dancers. We create our own scene. We make it exactly what we want. It is always changing. I don’t think that it’s possible to go backward, so we’re never going to see what we used to have again. But who knows, maybe what’s coming next will be even more intense, more inspirational, and more wonderful. I’m open to that.
There’s an emotional description of the decline of the scene in the liner notes to Seven Tracks in Seven Days – it sounded like you hit complete burnout with not just the scene but music as a whole after ending Dubtribe.
To be entirely honest, I think what I really hit the end of was the cult of personality. My life had really become fractured into several pieces. I seemed to suffer from being pulled so hard in so many directions that I could not longer tell the true from the false. I was a new father, unhappily married, a deeply frustrated artist, some of my issues from the past were really getting the better of me. I was starving for love and connection, yet I wanted everyone to get the fuck away from me. I was a failure as a businessman, and had edited so much of myself that most of the time I was walking around like a vacant shell of a person. There was nothing happy, or positive in me. The turn of the century was a terrible time for me personally.
I undertook cognitive therapy, ended my marriage, and began to feel around in the dark for my limbs. Seven Tracks in Seven Days was, in every way, a soul searching experience for me. The process alone saved my soul, and it came after a long period of silence. I was going out to clubs and watching, listening, but not feeling anything. I would go out and see singer/songwriters, Hip-Hop “bands” and even a few punk bands… but I would just get bored and go home feeling hollow inside. I really felt that this had all come to a slow, and unhappy ending.
So I took my favorite pieces of equipment, and challenged myself to express everything that was in me.
I don’t think that the “burnout” was so much a response to cultural or economic things, though I might have expressed it that way at the time. In the end, I feel that this was serious personal work that was well over due.
You limited yourself to four pieces of equipment – a 303, 808, 909 and Juno 60. Why those?
The equipment was arbitrary, but the act of limiting myself to a few pieces of gear was intentional. When you have a studio at your disposal, sometimes I find that I am wanking around and not doing anything. I mean, if anything can happen, then very often nothing does.
I needed as many rules and restrictions as I could impose upon myself in order to give myself something to resist, something to come to the end of and work harder with. Considering the electronic and pure intentions of the album as a diary of a week, I felt very good about how lush and fully realized the work turned out in the end. I was delighted with those basic pieces of equipment.
I was surprised when I heard the album – it was so much simpler than some of the orchestrations that came out of Dubtribe. Does it strike you as revealing that when you called on your soul, a sound that echoes the early Chicago Trax and DJ International sound came out?
Interesting. I think that it’s both a shortcoming as well as a beautiful piece of how we consider “dance music” at all in America. On the one hand we trust a DJ and allow them to turn us on to tracks… we associate those tracks with the DJ, or the event, and go with it. There’s something beautifully auspicious about that kind of acceptance and letting go of art. On the other hand, as an artist working in a more or less disposable medium, there’s no reason in the world why I should expect anyone in the moment to have any familiarity with my body of work.
I was inspired originally by Mr. Fingers, Robert Owens, Adonis, and the original House tracks of the ’80s. When I finally really felt House with my soul, it was like finding long lost comrades. There was just so much music, so much experimentation, exploration and beautifully simple threads of genius on those records. Even in the early ’90s… the simplicity of a Murk dub, or the original sounds which came out of R/S, Global Communications, Gorilla Records and the all-too-brief life p of the trance-tribal era. Those were truly revolutionary times in our lifetime. We collectively changed all music forever.
So for me there’s not much of a stretch, rather it’s a return to my roots. My intention was to re-explore what I even liked about House Music in the first place. I definitely nodded to Frankie Knuckles, Larry Heard and my true heroes. And being alone, and limited to four pieces of equipment would indicate that I wasn’t going to be able to produce the sort of complexity which had become a signature for me at that time. Frankly the nudity of a bass line, and the power of a kick drum was a really vulnerable place to be. To think about how the kick sounded, and know that there weren’t going to be six other sounds on top of it to push the speakers was a deeply refreshing perspective to rediscover.
Dubtribe had a very communal spirit in terms of the audience feeling like they were part of the performance. Yet I’ve read that you prefer to work alone, and every single note on Seven Tracks was done by you. Is it difficult adjusting to working alone from working in collaboration, or vice versa?
As far as Dubtribe goes, you’re absolutely right. Few people have really expressed that so well. I think that a live performance with Dubtribe Sound System absolutely required an audience, and the bigger the better. We were fully engaged with the crowd, and it was all about reciprocity. We gave a little, felt the response, then gave a little more. It always made the sets oblong in their emotional impact… the first song was always strange, never made it on the albums, or really grabbed the audience. It wasn’t until we were really in a give and take with the room that the vibe was really present.
Working alone, performing alone is entirely different. That said, I know that when I grab the mic and start yelling into it people freak the fuck out. They love it. But that’s a voice I know I have, and am full aware of. I am not interested in extrapolating further in that area. I know what it is to deflect my own vulnerability onto a room full of people.
Your DJ sets are more than two CDJs – I understand that you’ll remix tracks right in the booth with a laptop?
Well, I’m not really happy as a DJ unless everyone is dancing, and tuned into the music. Sometimes it takes six or seven hours to get to that place. I think of it more as an expression of my limitations as a DJ than anything else. Some people can walk up to the decks and create that energy in one or two records. It takes me a few hours… I’m getting stronger, and learning a lot right now. For me, I am just not interested in bumpin’ the junk. I really believe that music, rhythm and dance are revolutionary elements in the human psychology as well as in our basic physiology. To move, to relax, to let go, to resist, to get in tune with others, to cheer, to feel, to sweat, to sway, to flow is a spiritual experience.
Now I’m not saying that I am a spiritual vehicle. I am saying that these are basic needs of society. No different than a mosh pit, or a backyard on Sunday. The collective experience with dance music is something which really touched my generation, and changed us forever. I’m not going to bail on the content or the positive experiences I’ve had just to make a buck. The idea of pitching up my records, slamming some of the classics and then getting out of there because I have another gig to go to is a complete turn off to me.
A number of your early Dubtribe recordings were released on a Chicago label called Organico. When an indie label goes under, what happens to the rights to the music?
We were young. We were idealistic and naive. We imagined a popular 12″ single in our little world might change the greater world around us. We also took everything very personally. Having run my own label, I have a deeper understanding of more than one perspective now.
We signed a contract which gave Organico the rights to those original recordings forever. We also had a five year re-record clause. When the five years were over, we re-recorded some of those songs and included them on a Dubtribe archive CD, but quickly realized that the past was the past. Much as we loved those days, they were gone.
How we handled the rights to music after Imperial DUB closed its doors was essentially to give back the rights to all the music released on IDR to the artists who released them. Some artists wanted paperwork stating that, others didn’t even communicate with us. Either way, those records stand as an experiment, in some ways a bright and wonderful success, and in others a sad and very unhappy failure. But we had a lot fun along the way, and hold no grudges toward anyone. The indie music business is a truly horrible one. Grappling with the ideals and egos of young and ambitious artists who have little or no experience is a dangerous game, a precarious place to want to put yourself. I will never go into that field again. I don’t belong there.
Who do you consider your primary influences – not just musically, but personally?
I’m emotional, and curious. So a lot of things really interest me. But personally I am a bit of an island. I have always adopted a take what you need and leave the rest attitude toward my teachers, heros and influences. I am inspired in this moment by all of my peers and contemporaries. I love that it feels like we are undergoing a deep revisualization of what dance music is, and what our culture and values are. Right now it’s really about the music. The time for talking is over. For now.