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Behind The Scenes at Point Blank: Graham Silbiger (Savajazz, Soul II Soul)

You’re probably aware that all of our expert instructors here at Point Blank have a wealth of experience in their fields, often with a concurrently running music career alongside their teaching and a vast bank of experiences to draw on when engaging with students. What you may not know is that much of the backroom staff are successful musicians, DJs and engineers too, which we think is a key reason for the fantastic services we offer. The last subject of one of these ‘behind the scenes’ features, for instance, was studio assistant Ricky Vianello who, when he’s not helping students set up equipment or offering advice, is one half of the pulverising techno duo Tapefeed. This time, we collared our Creative Content Developer Graham Silbiger to share some of his experience and wisdom with us. Graham has over 30 years experience as a working musician, is a highly respected bassist and DJs at gigs and on radio too, time permitting. Read on for one of our favourite editions of this series full of anecdotes and choice advice.

Hi Graham, can you start by telling me what your role is at Point Blank?

Yes, I am content developer in the development team. Meaning I create content for the Virtual Learning Environment both for the online courses and for the London school. That could be anything from creating a Logic project, writing about Gibson and Fender guitars or describing or explaining how modes work. Anything we put in the degree I create content for.

What would you say that you like about working here?

I really like working in the office, I think there are some great people here and they are fun to be around. The actual work is great because I have a lot of autonomy to put in what I want to put in, and I get to use all my experience and years in the business and offload a lot of it.

Obviously, you’ve been a music person for a really long time – could you tell me what your first experience in music is?

Going back to the beginning, I really wanted a guitar when I was 10. My folks weren’t going to buy me one, so I would sit with a cassette player and a Simon and Garfunkel cassette and sit with my tennis racket pretending to play ‘The Boxer’. In the end, I did get one, but my first real music experiences were I guess with my band Small Change when I was about 13. We were a rock n roll band and shortly after in 1977 became a punk band. The older brother of the guitarist got himself expelled from school for having pink hair and we thought he was a hero so naturally we followed him. We did things like hospital radio when there was such a thing, we did gigs as well at that age.

So you were playing guitar?

Initially, I wanted to be the guitarist but the band wanted me to play bass, so for the first year, I had to use my Gibson Columbus copy and play the basslines… Eventually, I got an SG copy bass, and I started playing bass properly.

So the bass has been your instrument since?

Yeah, I’m a bass player. I’m also a guitarist, I play drums, collect percussion instruments and I can produce a bit using Keyboards. But bass mainly. I’ve played lots of different styles but I’m not really into soloing, I’m more of a groove merchant.

I also know that you DJ quite frequently you’ve mentioned it to me before but would you say that reggae was your intro into not just DJing but soundsystem culture as well?

It was. Back in the 70s London subculture was essentially driven by reggae music, until punk came along. punk came along with the same kind of ideological agenda as reggae, and it resonated with a whole new audience. I started going to soundsystems in 1983/84, to [Jah] Shaka down in Deptford. There weren’t a lot of North London white boys, there was maybe five of us who were regulars. But that was my introduction.

I’ve always thought punk and reggae form quite a symbiotic relationship in a way. And a lot of the most interesting music, particularly dance music, comes from those twin pillars of dub and punk.

Yeah well, the punk attitude, and then this whole idea of producing music to enjoy in a given environment. When reggae was produced, when King Tubby or Lee Scratch Perry or any of the other greats were making music, they were doing it with the soundsystem in mind, they knew what they were trying to do. It’s hard to describe really but when I used to go to Shaka it was as close to a true religious experience as I’ve had in music.

So I know you had some success with a band called Savajazz. Can you tell me a little bit about them?

So my oldest friend, Gav, who was in Small Change with me when we were 13 – it was his older brother that was expelled from school – and I kind of discovered funk music. At the time, there were a bunch of bands like A Certain Ratio that were punk bands but had songs that sounded like a funk riff. So there was this idea that you could be playing quite angry sounding music but it could be quite groovy.

Savajazz was an attempt to do something that inspired us from the American music of the late 70s and early 80s. We were a bit like Chaka Khan mixed with Earth Wind & Fire mixed with Funkadelic and Cameo. We wanted to be articulate and funky but we just wanted to do something a little bit different. In fact, what we’d done was invented ourselves as a rare groove band before that really happened a few years later.

You’ve also done a fair bit of session work. I saw that you had worked with Soul II Soul…

I was on Soul II Soul’s ‘Club Classics Volume 1’. I played bass on the track ‘Feel Free’. I got that gig because I was going to Soul II Soul at the Africa Centre at the time so we knew about them. I was in Camden with my bass one day and I saw Jazzy B and HB sitting at this empty stall in what was then called the traders market, opposite the electric ballroom, with a  box of 7″ records in front of them. I went up to them and said: “are you cutting any dubplates for the sound?” And they said, “no, but we are recording because we want to release some singles, so why don’t you come to the shop?” And that’s when I started working on that.

I saw George Michael on there as well.

Yeah, I got a recommendation from my very good friend Toby Pittman who’s a fantastic guitarist, engineer, producer who works out of Air Studios. He’d been working on tracks on George’s album because the other two producers were also housed at Air. He recommended me, I went to Air and recorded three tracks for that records, and one made it onto the album. [laughs] So I’ve got an album credit on George Michael’s ‘Patience’ album as well.

Brilliant. Was he there?

He wasn’t there, but he signed the cheque anyway…

More recently you’ve been gigging with Vibration Black Finger…

Well the sad news there is that the particular gig coming up on the 5th of June just got pulled because they’ve cut it to one date rather than two, but we will get another date out of the Jazz Cafe. Working with that project has been fantastic because its creator and core member is Lascelles Gordon, who is for me as much a pillar of the music establishment as Giles Peterson. He’s a very unsung hero. He was the founder of the Cat in the Hat Club along with Barry Sharp. He was also a founding member of The Brand New Heavies, and probably the music inspiration too. He then went on and did several other things that I’ve worked with him over the years on, but he’s just one of those guys who is a really influential music person and never compromised in what he wanted to do.

What other projects are you involved in at the moment?

I’ve started working with a DJ and producer who goes by the name Dear Earth, he’s on Balamii Radio now and again, and he’s started working with Ed Badon Powell’s sons, Mali and Wazoo. Mali runs the label for Rhythm Section and Waz is the drummer, a fantastic drummer. What’s great for me is that I’m getting to work with younger people and I’m really enjoying that.

What would you say you are most proud of over all of those years.

Sticking to my guns. I’ve been in lots of projects as a career musician, and I’ve not gone chasing around trying to work with pop stars. I’ve tried to work in bands writing my own material with other people, which is what I’ve always believed in doing. Also, I’ve learned a great deal and gone beyond being a bass player.

If you were going to ask me what single thing I’m most pleased to have played on, that’s a little more difficult, but there are things that make me smile. Doing a track for Big Youth on the Tuff Scout label was great because used to listen to him when I was about 13. There’s lots of stuff you haven’t mentioned – lots of one-off singles with bands I’ve been in. Those are the things that don’t have the most profile but are the most satisfying.

That might play into this last question. What would one piece of advice would you give to any aspiring musicians?

Given that you always meet the same people on the way down, as you do on the way up… don’t be a dick…

Thanks so much for your time Graham!

Graham plays a key role in the development of the courses here at Point Blank, especially with the new degree programmes in Music Production & DJ Practice and Music Industry Management. He also produced a great deal of content for the online degree in Music Production and Sound Engineering. Find out more about how to enrol, or book yourself a studio tour, by speaking with a course advisor.

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** Editors note: Things have moved on significantly since this article was published 🙂 Please head to our blog homepage for the very latest updates from Point Blank.

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