Lee Softley is a name that has long been associated with quality and frankly needs no real introduction. His Blue Amazon production moniker has produced some defining tracks and remixes over the years, he’s DJed all over the world and he’s currently busy working on his new Resonate Together project. Madonna, Skunk Anansie, New Order and Sasha have all been given the BA remix treatment alongside Blue Amazon productions including Star of David, No Other Love, Never Forget and the all time classic long player The Javelin.
PHC got to sit down with Lee and talk all things music..
So firstly, if we can talk about some early days and how your interest in music developed.
What are your earliest memories of music growing up?
I guess it came from my parents playing music around the house. There was always music being played - The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and heaps of Motown Records. Two of my cousins whilst growing up were also into bands and there were always drums and guitars around.
I was always listening to music on the radio and a bit obsessed to be honest, to the point where most children would need a bedtime story just to get to sleep! Later in the eighties there was early electro music most of which I was hearing on the radio and the whole music video thing on TV. It all really got me more hooked.
At what point did you decide that you might be interested in doing something within music? It first came around from DJing rather than creating music. I came home from school one day and watched a short documentary about DJs scratching records. It was Jazzy Jeff that stood out and that was that, I knew what I wanted to do - I was infatuated by it. I used to hook up my parents Hi-Fi midi system with one that belonged to my sister and wired the speakers together – my makeshift DJ set up. Consequently, there were no-slip mats and I ended wrecking a good proportion of their 7-inch Records!
Further down the line, I managed to get hold of some cheap single hi-fi decks and a Realistic DJ mixer. It progressed from there, buying and listening to the very first acid house records. I started playing music on a Pirate radio station whilst at school and saw a few basic home studio setups. The DJ group - Unique 3 – introduced me to a lot of things, from the DJ side right through to their production sets ups which included a 909-drum machine, sequencers and synths.
After leaving school and college I started working investing in a basic mixing desk, a Roland sampler and a Yamaha keyboard that included some sequencing features. I then started playing around.
I'm a big fan of lots of early piano tracks, one particular favourite that changes hands for big money is the Love Juice EP. You were a member of Smaller Than Zero the guys behind the EP. Discogs states this was self-released, and it changes hands for a steady £150. What can you tell us about this project and how does it feel knowing somebody is happy to pay that sort of money? This is an interesting one and a topic that has surfaced a few times. I have no idea about that track and its recording. For some reason on Discogs etc, I’m credited as being one of the producers but it's nothing to do with me – I have no idea why. Head scratch lol!!
At what point did you then hook up with James Reid?
It was the early 90’s, a friend told me about a studio in Huddersfield that was hosting an introduction to sound recording week and was subsidised. I took time off work and paid to attend. It was like an overview of a studio, how it was used and some techy stuff like Cubase sequencing. James was working there as a trainee sound engineer. He told me that the studio also had a small programming room with Cubase and few other bits of equipment. It could be hired cheaply, So I would book the odd Saturday afternoon in that room and try to work on ideas, James would help, he became integral and that’s how the Blue Amazon project started between us. When we initially played around it wasn’t house music, it was a real miss mash of influences from hip hop samples to bits of bleep techno. We had a chemistry developing and that lead to us working together more and more.
There's a 1992 'Open Your Heart' remix for the track ‘Asmo – Jam The Dance’ which is credited to 'Reid & Softley'. How did this one come about and was this the first commercial project you guys took on as a partnership?
Funny story how this came about – I started DJing as a guest at a venue in Peterborough alongside Mark Goodliff.
The venue was an additional room in a bigger club complex, it was originally a cinema room
and they converted it into a rave venue. The guy who owned the venue – Kelly Kanyag (I think that’s correct), was involved in some music business activities including being the first to import Karaoke into the UK. He had some involvement in the label that released Asmo and asked James and me to go into a studio and remix it. I think that was the first commercially released project we had together and also the first time a label invested in us working on a studio project – obviously wasn’t labelled as Blue Amazon as we’d yet to create the moniker.
The first release for yourself and James Reid was the 1993 release 'Cathedral Mountain' under the artist name 'Monschau'. Listening back to that track there's a real early nineties prog vibe in there but it has that developing BA sound, was this your first actual production with James and how did Global Beat pick this up?
I guess this was our first attempt at the developing progressive house sound. We had been playing around with other tracks at the time but none were released at that point. We were trying to
emulate some of our influences like – Underworld with a bit of a trippy outset. It was the foundation track for what became Blue Amazon.
As for the release Global Beat was a record shop in Bradford, I used to buy records from there and got to know the owners who offered to release the track as a self-press release type thing. The track was received quite well and bought by many, maybe didn’t hit the clubs in quite such a big way as it was a bit more of a listening experience as opposed to a full dance floor track. It was the follow-on release ‘Hyper Sleep’ that set the tone and was the first release for Blue Amazon.
As things developed you guys started using the artist name Blue Amazon and you bought in a vocalist Vicky Webb. Where did the BA name come from and how did Vicky with her very distinct voice and style come to your attention?
The Blue Amazon name doesn’t have a special story behind it – we were in the studio pitching for a name. I mentioned I’d like to have the word blue in there and at the time James was watching some TV thing called Space Night that happened to be showing ariel views of the amazon in brazil. It was a simple word combo.
Vicky was a friend of James and his partner; she had often passed by the studio when we were working on tracks. James mentioned she could sing and we talked her into the idea of it. It was just an experiment at first but the track ‘Four Seasons’ was the result. Four Seasons contained various vocal takes and samples played forwards / backwards creating a kind of chanting effect. She became quite integral to a number of other tracks and became the voice of Blue Amazon.
Your second release as BA was also the first release for what could arguably be one of the greatest prog labels of all time. How did they pick you up and what was it like being part of Seven Webster’s ‘Jackpot’ imprint?
We were sending demos out to a heap of labels with the track titles - Four Seasons & The Runner, we received little interest apart from comments like – it's good but.. 7pm management at the time had started managing the vocal house act ‘Shiva’ who were friends. They passed on our demos to 7pm who did come back with positive feedback. Initially, it was along the lines of - we can try to help get it to some labels. As it worked out they did and Perfecto Records were interested in signing the tracks, but 7pm said they also were planning on starting a label and we could be the first release. It just sounded exciting to be a part of something new and fresh, so we jumped at it. They were great to work with, Seven has a very unique creative mind, he’s clever about what he does. He got what we were about and was incredibly supportive. They helped us develop quite quickly and pushed us along. There was never a dull moment whilst being involved with 7pm / Jackpot – it was melting pot creativity, breaking the rules and pushing boundaries. It was an exciting time and felt like nothing could stop you doing what you wanted to do.
Across your time with BA you've made some pretty defining pieces of music, the early Jackpot stuff really did set the scene for a whole new take on Prog House. You were producing tracks that were in excess of ten minutes long and were all structured with fabulous soundscape introductions. How did you guys come up with the concept of making records in this way and were you surprised in the way it was embraced by clubbers and DJs?
I think we just had a different mindset about making tracks and wasn’t always thinking about the dance floor. Our influences were quite wide and vast, this influenced what we did in the studio. At the time, we were more of a cross breed of club orientated production with album tendencies. We listened to a lot of Orbital albums and similar that were abstract in arrangement.
The length of the tracks sometimes came with a warm welcome but often criticism as it wasn’t purely club intended. My view on it was, the music is there to be played and enjoyed however people choose. It’s up to the DJs if they want to play it in clubs or not, many did and yes I guess we were surprised at how well received they were in that environment.
You took Blue Amazon out as a live experience on several occasions even playing on the BBC Essential Mix at the Phoenix Festival supporting Tong and Digweed. The 'No Other Love' live edit on that is phenomenal, that helicopter sample!! Did you enjoy taking BA out on the road? It was an amazing experience and great to be gradually developing into a live act as well as studio producers. It was a massive learning curve because we had never done anything like that before, we were thrown straight in at the deep end. Our first live shows were in Orlando and Atlanta, quickly followed by our UK debut gig at Tribal Gathering. We never really knew what to expect but the live shows just took off with great reception. Crowds screaming and cheering.. maybe something that would be very hard to replicate again. After a few shows we really started to develop it further with more live elements like guitars, live drummer and often a number of singers on stage – becoming more of a band in the end.
Through the nineties I was working as buyer for a UK record chain and I'd had a lot of dealings with Amato at the time who were distributing the Jackpot label, after a number of BA releases on the label things seemed to go a little quiet for a while and it was rumoured you'd been picked up by a major, this then turned out to be Sony and there was talk of a new single and an album. Now I bugged my Sony rep every week about what was going on for what seemed like eternity until one week she bought in a cassette which featured the album 'The Javelin'. Was the album completed before you guys signed to Sony and how was the experience of being with a major compared to that of being with an indie like Jackpot? Personally, for the most part I enjoyed it. It was like another learning curve of how things worked at a different level. I’ve been quite obsessed with the music industry for many years, so I saw this as an experience that would be hard to come by. That type of thing is very limited now.
Jackpot were still involved and it became like a cross merge of activity between Sony / Jackpot. It was a bit laborious at times and slower paced, but it’s not something I would look back on and change. Major labels are a different animal, there’s lots of other considerations, coordinating and kind of red tape to go through. Sometimes it’s like there’s a meeting about the last meeting and so on – but it’s a bigger network involved.
The Javelin album is structured like a classic LP, it seems to have a start, middle and finish was that something that you set out to do with it or was it just the way it came together? When finalising it as an album yes, we already had a number tracks recorded and it was a matter of how do we make this into an album from what we have. Recording new tracks, the missing parts and making it all connect. It was like a jigsaw puzzle, you had to make the missing parts to build the full picture. We used sound libraries to help the tracks connect and amongst others that’s were the helicopter sample came in.
We always saw the album as almost being like a DJ mix concept album but artist based, referencing the Orbital influence and even – Jeff Wayne’s – War of the Worlds! lol
Along with the producing there was a sustained period when BA were the remix team of choice, lots of support from all the big names, commissions from the likes of DMC, Mute, Sony, Universal and Virgin all helped BA dominate dancefloors and record boxes. Now the BA sound was very distinct, how did you go about approaching remix projects with your sound and are there any that you are particularly happy with? The sound of the remixes came naturally and a continuous development from one to another. We developed some source sounds as the go to we approaching a project. A lot of what we did was written from scratch, unique sounds for each track or remix. Each remix would have a similar starting point – load the vocals in first, jam some ideas around and see if we could come up with anything interesting. We would look to do something a bit different with source sounds and take the original out of context. I think over time we had our take on vocal production and vocal tease by chopping up sections and easing key sections in. The remix we did of Skunk Anansie had an interesting start point as the remix parts didn’t arrive till later on in the process so we started remixing by playing the original version on vinyl and playing ideas around it. Most of those parts we played with around the vinyl, stayed in the final mix.
Sometimes the remixes would drive us up the wall, we were often re-tweaking the sound and forcing ourselves to re-address it live in the process. It was like we had to realise it’s impossible to be 100% happy and you have to come to a point where it’s time to let go – in the main we got the result, some maybe not quite as much, but that’s music production for you.
Can you give us some idea of the Blue Amazon studio set up back in the nineties and were there any defining pieces of kit that helped shape your sound? In terms of our kit , we had the standard stuff you had to have like an Akai sampler, it was really important especially back then when we didn’t have audio DAWs.
On the sound creating side, we were really into programming our own patches using the Roland JD800 which was a little bit forgotten at the time. The Roland Alpha Juno 1 was another that we used a lot whilst writing our patches, total pain to program but worth it. We used to do some odd things as well like use a Roland Octo pad which was designed for electronic drums with drum sticks. We would use it to play basslines by sending triggers from the pads to a synth and playing it with sticks.
Later down the line we had an electronic expert build some compressors for us, they were modelled on some classic equipment. We were always experimenting with ways to challenge sound.
What did you think of the term ‘Epic House’ which seemed to get bandied around to describe the music and sound of bands like BA? To a point the label was quite fitting for the sound, but like any hype tag it soon becomes old and then you get associated / pigeonholed. The progressive house tag as had a lot more longevity. The magazines back then were always looking for a new tag or story to keep articles interesting but they soon started bashing it as well. They used to say, the brit media are here to help you up but then to knock you down.. they did that a bit with the EPIC tag.
Ask most people what their favourite BA production is, and the consensus seems to be 'No Other Love' which is possibly one of the most beautiful pieces of dance music ever written. Are you able to pick a favourite production from the back catalogue? Yes – from the older catalogue – Star of David or Never Forget. Newer material – err id have to think about it.. Remix wise – I still enjoy listening to the remix we did of Sasha/Sam Mollison – Magic.
After the album and single release on Sony you set up ‘Convert’ in 2000. Did you feel that was the next logical step in the development of your productions and did you feel that gave you a lot more freedom creatively at the time? Convert started as we were surrounded by lots of other artists who had music without an outlet. It was also a way to experiment with sound and releases in other areas. The label had some
successes including music on TV ads, Radio 1 features and compilation album features. It was also the period / start of the branded label sound developing – that wasn’t my thing and Convert remained a bit more diverse. On reflection it might have confused people at times but it was about being creative and trying something different.
In the last few years, we’ve seen you take on Blue Amazon as a solo project, releases have come on Pro B Tech and Se-Lek-Music, there have been more remixes, you’ve given away BA sample packs and released much of the BA back cat via Bandcamp. Your Resonate Together project seems to be gathering real momentum. For anybody not aware of it can you explain what the project is all about and what we can expect from it over the next year?
The Resonate Together website was introduced last September as a reaction to the lockdowns and the limitations of stream options. A lot of changes happened quickly and forced DJs to reconsider which platforms they used to output their DJ sets.
The web site started to include Mixcloud players from various DJs, all catalogued in one place which helped you search genres and find your favourite DJs including many that were unknown. Quite quickly DI FM offered Resonate a radio show to reflect the diversity of the web portal and the shows being included. We now host three guest DJs on DI FM every Saturday from 8pm to 11pm. The whole flavour of Resonate Together is a bit more diverse in that it allows DJs the freedom to produce DJ sets without any genre restriction and promotes creative mixing etc. It’s something I felt had been missing (to a degree) from where we came from in the 90’s to where we are now, everything is quite strictly sound specific. We have since developed into a label that follows these principles with the releases and creative output. We have regular releases that cover a spectrum of sound – Techno, progressive, electro, melodic and more as its continued. Artists such as Enrico Ponti, Miki Mad, Hall North, Mal Black, Damien Spencer, Med in Mars, Steve Goldsmith & Audioglider have produced some great
material for the label. There are also a few pieces from myself and more to come shortly along with Enrico Ponti, we are close to releasing a different sounding EP between us. Further projects are coming up including something from Lee Coombs, there’s lots more to come. One of the key focuses of the label is that it supports artists and returns 100% royalties to them. It’s a different model and outlook, one that I’m proud of. There’s a lot in
development with the project and we will continue to create and surprise.
And finally, with an industry that has seen little, or no financial support compared to other sectors of the UK economy how do you feel clubland will recover? would you for instance say that live video streaming that has become so popular during the pandemic will still have a part to play post pandemic now that the likes of Mixcloud Live are established with their royalty paying platform? Don’t think that anyone would completely swap being in a club with human interaction for live streaming. However, I think it will continue to be popular as it provides entertainment to many be it in their home or in their garden with mates. It’s something that can be done at minimal cost.
The issue with clubs is how many will survive what has been a very detrimental period? will smaller venues reopen with reduced costs and smaller DJ line-ups? It’s difficult to say but I don’t think it will all bounce back so quickly, its going to take time.
I think even the higher-level DJs will have less gigs perhaps having to streamline to the bigger events and there may even be less of them, and then for the artist that needs some gig income between producing, what happens there? unfortunately technology has almost wiped out an income from music downloads, it’s now minimal funds from music streams. It’s uncertain but we all have to be positive and do the best we can moving forward. I think as we move forward more opportunities and options will develop for positive value – keep on trucking.
Many thanks for taking the time to talk to us Lee, we wish you every success with the Resonate Together project and look forward to some great new releases.
The new Blue Amazon & Enrico Ponti release - Shazz/Flux is available now over on Bandcamp - www.resonatetogether.bandcamp.com/music including a killer Steve Goldsmith remix.
All other platforms
Beatport - 5th July
Streaming Services - 5th July
All other Stores - 19th July
Blue Amazon on Spotify
The Essential Links
Blue Amazon – Facebook: www.facebook.com/blueamzon
Resonate Together Web: www.resonate2gether.com
Resonate chat group : https://www.facebook.com/groups/resonate2getherchat
BANDCAMP : www.resonatetogether.bandcamp.com/
Jay Dobie / Wasim Afzal / Marcus Harriman