An Interview With John Rocca
Freeez & Pink Rhythm
With the reissue of Pink Rhythm's 'Melodies Of Love' soon coming on Be With Records we thought it'd be time to sit and chat with producer, singer, musician John Rocca to discuss his time in Freeez, Pink Rhythm and more...
Hey John. Firstly, thanks for the time. Tell me about the first time you went into a studio? Did you have a sense of amazement when you went in as to what it was capable of or did you go in from a band perspective (i.e functional recording with engineer etc)?
When I first had the idea to record what would become the first Freeez record, "Keep in Touch", I was working for a Soul, R&B and Jazz Funk Record importer called Disc Empire in the Kings Road. At that same time I was sort of playing in a vague band or just group of people and there was this one particular jam that I really loved and it had a groove that I thought I could sell it if it was on my boss's van. I put the idea of recording it to a select few (of the overly large group of would be musicians) who were unanimous in suggesting I was nuts and would lose all my money so weren’t that interested! Still, not one to be easily deterred, I pulled all my savings together, borrowed some extra cash from my nan and somehow figured out how it is you make a record... I booked a back street West End studio at the cheap over night rate for just one night. It was a mad rush to record everyone's part when I had no experience of producing a record, never mind mix an A and B side of the whole thing and, get my dad's car back home in the morning before he had to go to work. I was nuts.
Jean Paul 'Bluey' Mauniqe (on guitar), Peter Maas (bass), Paul Morgan (drums), Jason Wright (keyboards), and me on percussion, hammered away until it was light and I loved everything about it! The music, the pressure, directing things, taking the decisions and the creativity of it all. Sometime early on a sunny London morning I emerged with a tape box that said "Freeez", "Keep in Touch". I treated that little box like gold when I took it to be mastered but everything else was on the cheap. My Brother Danny designed the record label (Pink Rythm) and I bought the cheapest plain white 12" record sleeves I could find. Then - leaning them up against the skirting boards all over my mum's house - we simply spray painted the word FREEEZ using a home made stencil on a thousand of them. The only upmarket touch was to get them shrink wrapped like all the US imports I was selling. The shiny clear plastic adding something special to, and slightly concealing, our DIY job.
We're here because of the Pink Rhythm reissue on Be With but Pink Rhythm was originally a label you set up to release your bands music as Freeze. That's pretty ahead of the curve (setting up your own label for yourself etc). Why did you do it that way?
I was not someone who believed in “being discovered” and so just got on with things myself.
Freeze obviously went on to be massive with 'I.O.U'. Last look on Discogs says there are 72 versions released. Were you surprised at how big that record got?
Yes I was surprised. Despite writing most of the IOU lyrics for Arthur I was not a fan on the song part of the track, though I loved us pushing the boundaries of electro and being the first (or among the first) to use digital sampling.
How did the aftermath of having such a massive hit affect you and the band?
There is normally some level of fire in any good band and the reason why most never last. They burn bright with ideas then explode, internally combusting. Peter Maas and I had that sort of energy. It was good for creativity but not for longevity. Technology was changing too. By 'I.O.U' the Jazz Funk band had been lost along the way, behind digital sampling, the timeless 808 drum machine and the legendary Moog Bass. Reduced to Pete and I, unsurprisingly what was left of Freeez split for ever ;-) .... This time I never looked back though. Sequencers, synths and drum machines gave me the tools to create music all by myself.
Did you go to the States and play live at that time or was it a pure P.A and play the bongos routine? What clubs did you play at? Was it mind bending being out there with the hottest record around?
Yes we did playback promotion at all the biggest New York Clubs for 'I.O.U' but it was 'I Want It To Be Real' that holds the fondest memories of the time that I remember. When I toured the top New York clubs May 1984 in my stretch limo meeting DJs, 'I Want It To Be Real' by John Rocca was number 1 in the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Chart and was on every single radio station I tuned into, played over and over and over. Best of all, the sequenced Pro One Bass line I made up at home in a Caledonian Road council flat sounded absolutely MASSIVE on the Paradise Garage speakers! I was blown away. That track was much more of me than 'I.O.U' (despite of course having Andy Stennet’s help).
You look pretty refreshed in the still from the show above. Did the rock n roll lifestyle find a home?
I avoided drugs and never liked alcohol or cigarettes …… perhaps I’ve just never needed external help to have a good time, I'm already crazy enough. And I don’t think I ever believed in the hype. Too many of the people I met were not real, sometimes not even talented, but too often full of shit ;-)... (Did you notice a young Bobby Brown behind us in the video still?)
When did Pink Rhythm as an artist come into play? Was it something you'd had going alongside Freeez as an idea?
I never lost my love for Jazz Funk, and its still in me today. At the time Freeez died I had ideas that Andy and I decided to explore. It was a side project but one I didn’t take seriously enough or I’d have done a lot more and perhaps gone more retro and funky. Who knows, perhaps I felt I’d already been there and so it didn’t feature high enough on my list but I’ve still got that vibe, even today.
Where were those records made? What was the set up at the time?
Ah well, that’s the Rock 'n Roll part. I heard of a studio in the South of France that George Michael had used for the Careless Whispers album (I think…). Can’t remember the name of it but is was in the centre of a vineyard in the Provence countryside and it seemed to me I could spend some really chill out and groovy weeks there messing around musically and then…… go skiing!!! Hahaha... Yup, on the way home via The Alps. So I picked up Andy in my new Ford Escort XR3i loaded with synths, percussion and keyboards (skis on top) and drove there. That was probably the most expensive ski holiday I could have chosen :-0. Ridiculous. We had a great time though, lots of laughs, finishing off the tracks back in London some time later.
Who got into that music at that time? Did you hear it out at the time?
I’m not sure, maybe it's time had passed. At least for a while. Funny enough I think our biggest Pink Rhythm fan at the time was Tony Blackburn who played our stuff on Radio London.
The production on your music is always super impressive from a sonics level. How did you get into this side of things?
I’ve always loved technology but also sound, so one of the key reasons to get into music was to get my hands on the recording studio consoles and make some noise. I tried for some time to get a job as "tape op” in various studios but never managed. In the end, I had to pay to hire the place as a musician.
When it came to the demos did you engineer yourself initially and then take it to the studio?
I was not a big one for demos. Still aren’t. As above I just got one with things myself and didn’t expect anyone to do stuff for me. I did try hocking the Southern Freeez Album tracks about before they were finished but ALL the London labels turned them down. But… Each track was the real thing, no demos, and so I just completed them and released them myself on my own label. It was funny having everyone call me back, begging on their knees once we hit number one in Blues and Soul (with only 1,000 copies pressed). That was sweet revenge. I turned down the big labels and sold it to a real independent, Beggars Banquet.
You must have worked with some pretty great engineers. Who was your favourite to watch in the studio?
I have certainly learnt from people and I am no great engineer but most of the time where possible I’ve engineered myself. I love it, the buttons, switches, flashing lights, sounds and smells of electronics. Especially when I'm driving things myself, really early stuff and 'I.O.U' was out of my engineering hands.
Not many people can claim to bridge the gap the way you do between UK Funk & Soul and then into the UK House bit with Vinyl Solution and Midi Rain. How did you manage to stay interested?
Midi Rain was a great vehicle for me to express myself with as little external influence/interference as possible. By the time I was ready to leave the music industry, computers helped me produce, engineer, write and play everything myself. No more band, just me and a thousand instruments in a sort of a box. I think I met J Saul Kane when I had engineered some stuff for Bomb the Bass or when I went on the Bomb the Bass European tour (or something else). He was the connection to the Vinyl Solution record label and so did some Midi Rain re-mixes, but that was along with quite a number of other DJs. Check out the difference between DJ Pierre’s re-mixed 12” House version of “Midi Rain, Shine” and my original from the album. The industry had changed immensely by then and would shortly almost dissolve. Luckily and perhaps completely coincidentally "Shine" by Midi Rain hit number one on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Charts August 1993. So, couldn't have planned my exit better ;-)
Finally what are you up to now? Still making music? When's the last time you turned the machines on and got really into it.
I didn’t make any music for around tens years after "Shine”, but today I tinker and doodle with music at home on my computer from time to time, its one of my drugs of choice. Hooked.
Nice one. Thanks John.
The Pink Rhythm reissue 'Melodies Of Love' is out 16th March via Be With Records. Shout to Rob Butler.