Using the Green Velvet moniker to make his singularly twisted, funk-flecked house and techno hybrid, it was as Cajmere that he made his first musical mark back in the early 90’s after ditching school half way through a post-grad, chemical engineering degree at top-notch US college Berkeley.
Up until then music had been a hobby fueled by cobbling together tracks on a “sixty buck keyboard, a cheap four-track and a cheap drum machine” while still an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. This DIY method of production was never taken seriously and when childhood plans to... [read more]
become a doctor were shelved Jones was firmly committed to a career as a chemical engineer. Because his dad was an occasional DJ — and no-one wants to do what their dad did for a living, right? — a musical path was something he’d never considered as a teenager.
As a child he was into sci-fi movies and time travel TV shows like Dr. Who and would spend hours pondering over the possibilities this would open up. He played the saxophone at school and had a talent for fiddling with a keyboard but remained largely un-interested in what he saw as his father’s passion. “I did go to parties where a lot of those legendary people played,” he remembers, “but if I’m going to be real about it, I’d have to say I went just for the babes and the good music, I was never really aware who was DJing. Not until much later anyway.”
As time went on Jones discovered what was his innate love and understanding for house music, a sound that had grown throughout the mid-80s out of Chicago’s deep-rooted disco scene.
It was this cut-up, tacky, production style of the early house sound that Jones absorbed and translated into the ‘Underground Goodies EP’, his first release as Cajmere (that’s CAJ as in Curtis A. Jones) put out in 1991 on his own recently started Cajual label.
A year later he had his first massive hit as Cajmere with the brilliant house tune ‘Coffeepot (It’s Time For The Percolator)’ also out on Cajual. He then teamed up with Chicago-based vocalist Dajae for ‘Brighter Days’, a high impact, more mellow house tine that came out on Emotive. But it wasn’t long before Jones needed another outlet for his sounds.
Desperate to make some “weirder electronic shit” he set up Relief, an offshoot of Cajual, in 1993. The label gave birth to his first Green Velvet production ‘Velvet Tracks’. While Green Velvet (a name given to him by a friend’s dad) provided a more intense and wickedly creative production outlet behind studio doors, it also allowed him to unleash his deeper-seated artistic urges in public, on an unsuspecting audience.
When he emerged as the flamboyant, neon-haired Green Velvet to front mid-90’s hits like ‘Preacher Man’, ‘Answering Machine’ and ‘Flash’ the shock-waves reverberated throughout house and techno scenes world over. This elaborately garbed, lyrically wild creature scored a direct hit, putting his hometown Chicago back on house music’s production map. “I’ve always been quite shy and introverted in a way,” says Jones. “So it was weird getting up on stage and doing the Velvet thing. It’s just quite strange that I’m doing what I’m doing now.”
Meanwhile Jones had started DJing, playing house and techno under his Cajmere and Green Velvet monikers. Gigs sprang up in far-flung countries where his ultra funky sets, dotted with his own productions, would often be delivered with the synthetic flourish of a lime green Afro wig.
Back in Chicago, Relief fronted Green Velvet’s early releases but also played host to a new wave of US producers. Artists like DJ Sneak, Glenn Underground, Gene Farris, Mark Grant and Paul Johnson gained early profile through the label releasing a string of more aggressive, less vocally orientated material. But for Jones in his Velvet guise, it was the vocals that mattered. “I just have to tell my stories,” he laughs.
Between 1995 and 1997 Green Velvet made his assault on club charts with a trio of hits — ‘Flash’, ‘The Stalker’ and ‘Answering Machine’ — each with their own side-splitting tale to tell.
In ‘Flash’ Velvet is a guide escorting a group of nervous camera-weilding parents through ‘club bad’, showing them all the deviant things their kids get up to. Recorded live, it’s a story that Jones made up on the spot, in the recording studio.
‘Answering Machine’ throws up a succession of answer phone messages bearing bad tidings: a landlord’s eviction notice, his girlfriend revealing that her baby’s not his and a psychic telling him to “stay in the house, today, tomorrow and forever”. It’s a song for which he did all the voices himself, complete improvisation, while locked up alone in the studio.
“I just get really obsessive when I’m in that mode,” he admits. “I don’t eat, I don’t sleep. I don’t have to do shit. I can just do music. That’s it.”
It was ‘Flash’ that appeared as the opening track of the first domestic full-length Green Velvet album, out on US label F-111. The first album proper, ‘Constant Chaos’, out on Belgian label Music Man in 1999, unleashed Green Velvet in his full, twisted glory, with him marrying normal, everyday occurrences with bizarre phenomena. In ‘Abduction’ he sings about little green men turning up while he’s doing the washing up. “I always look at things in a different way,” he says. “I like to see a bit more than the obvious.”
By the time ‘Constant Chaos’ came out Jones had already halted activity on his labels. Still DJing as Cajmere he’d narrowed the Green Velvet persona down to live performances only, taking time out to re-group and work out what to do next.
When he gave Velvet a new hairstyle — from spiked, green foam nodules to yellow mohawk — he wrote a song about it called ‘What Happened to Your Hair’.
“I just got bored with it,” he shrugs. “I mean good God, I can’t keep doing the same shit all the time.”
It’s Jones’ runaway imagination that sits at the core of his Green Velvet productions. The analog synth squelches and jacking beats of his deranged backing tracks sit perfectly with his out-there lyrics. “I just let my imagination go wild,” he says. “I try not to analyse it. I’m not into formulating my sound. I just do what I’m feeling.”
On the new album ‘Whatever’, the Velvety one takes this techno punk ethic to the next level, with the whole DIY aspect of the 80s punk movement taking over his music once again.
“I do everything,” he says. “I don’t have a big major label budget behind me doing all this: getting a wardrobe, picking the songs, etc. I sing the songs, I write the songs. I make the music. I do all of it.”
‘La La Land’ was the first single to be released from new album ‘Whatever’. In it Velvet berates “those little pills” that “kill a million brain cells”, offering a through-the-keyhole look at modern day clubland antics that while seemingly tongue in cheek, could easily harbour a stringent anti-drugs message. But is the song just a follow up to ‘Flash?’
“A lot of people think that ‘La La Land’ is ‘Flash’ part two or something, but it’s not,” he assures. “That track just came out of nowhere.” ‘La La Land’ is meant to be funny, Jones insists, but admits to an indeterminate message. “It’s not pro drugs,” he says, “and it’s not anti, it’s just real.”
Jones finds music making easy and this album, he says, took just two months to make. If certain tracks are darker than his better-known fodder then it’s not because making heavier tunes is a new thing for him. “I just think those darker creations of mine are just not as popular, so people don’t know about them,” he reasons. “I’ve always done really black tracks and really white, humourous sort of tracks. That’s just life. You have good times and bad times.”
The more industrial, punky songs on the album came from hours spent listening to bands like Nitzer Ebb and Liaisons Dangerous, and lots of “underground American industrial stuff”.
Initially Jones, as both Cajmere and Green Velvet, received more attention in Europe than he did in America, but over the years things have been picking up for this maverick producer. When this album drops it’ll set off bombs over here and Stateside, and who knows what Green Velvet will come up with then? “I don’t want to reveal too much,” he says coyly. “I just want people to appreciate this now, for what it is.” – Excerpts from DJ Mag Issue September 2001.