You Don't Have to be a Mod to Work Here, But it Helps: Acid Jazz Supremo Eddie Piller Speaks

09/03/2012 15:46 GMT | Updated 09/05/2012 10:12 BST

Veteran DJ and boss of Acid Jazz Records Eddie Piller found time in his hectic schedule to talk to Jason Holmes about music, cricket and where to enjoy a quiet Soho pint

To the rear of an antiques cum junk shop on Bethnal Green Road lie the offices, or should I say office, of Eddie Piller, the brains behind one of the UK's most successful independent record labels, Acid Jazz Records, which was responsible for nurturing the musical talent of Jamiroquai, the Brand New Heavies and Mother Earth.

'This is the smallest office we've ever had,' says Piller, handing me a tin of beer and sitting down at his desk. Buttoned up in a camo jacket and blue jeans, he exudes a bohemian air which is curiously at odds with his Mod feathercut. His weathered features belie a boyishness. I ask him his age. 'I'm more than happy to be 48 years old, but it's a shame I can't play cricket like I used to for Epping Cricket Club.'


'Yeah, that's my main love in life. Cricket's about nuances and if you're not at the top of your game, you can't play it. Your muscles go, your eyesight fails.' He sighs.

Yet Piller, musically speaking, remains at the top his game in a business in which music men have been out-muscled and outnumbered by accountants. 'When I was 20, I worked at Stiff Records as a label manager,' he says. 'Stiff taught me the anti-majors/indie way of doing things, which meant realising that the majors are fundamentally evil. Years later when the majors finally did come knocking, I turned down a better deal than Alan McGee got for Creation Records [original home to Oasis], because I couldn't square the circle of what majors do to music as a product. There's very little integrity in the industry. But I've got integrity, so Acid Jazz will never be massive, but I'm happy with that.'

Piller was born on the Essex-London border and grew up in Woodford and East Ham. With his mum running the Small Faces' fan club in the 1960s while his dad ran a betting shop, he was no stranger to popular music and a strong work ethic from an early age.

When asked how he now views the record label he has helmed for the past 25 years, starting from scratch in Soho, he's off and running: 'We're a genre, as well as a label, but the reason Acid Jazz moved to Soho - first in Denmark Street then Greek Street - was because all the record companies had moved out. We got EMI's old offices for ten bob on Denmark Street.'

Despite being based in east London, much of Piller's business remains in Soho. 'The residuals of my business are still based there, so I'm in Soho three of four times a week. The majority of the independents, like Sunday Best, are based in Soho. You can look underneath and around the corners in Soho and you'll still find plenty of independent record labels.

'I was out with the actor Martin Freeman the other day. He's a bit of a Mod, and he said "Let's go window shopping", so we walked from Bar Italia down to Marshall Street and saw so many good shops, from tailors to button shops, that we remarked on the fact that Soho has still got its heart and soul. And then there was Mark Powell walking in the street with a fucking gold watch chain and a three-piece suit which looked like it cost £5,000, which is what it might cost to someone who wasn't him. The place is still buzzing, although I have to say that, had the council successfully pushed through their late-night parking legislation, then Soho would have been fucked. It would have been a disaster. I actually wrote to my local MP about that and I live in Harlow in Essex!'

Piller is also one of a select band of British DJs commanding large appearance fees in Europe having cut his teeth in London's clubland since the early 1980s.

'Chris Sullivan gave me my first break at the Friday night residency at The Wag Club in 1983. I did that for six months. That was with Northern Soul, and after that the whole jazz thing started kicking off in the mid to late 1980s.

'I still DJ at Ronnie Scott's, which remains the finest jazz club in the world, and at Madame JoJo's which is no longer a trannie bar and is instead a vintage music nightclub. It hosts soul and R'n'B on Fridays and rock and rockabilly on Saturdays. It's proper old school clubbing and costs just a fiver to get in. The shame is that there used to be loads of places like that in Soho and there isn't anymore. It's all a little bit trendy at the moment,' he says, sucking on a roll-up.

'I get paid well for DJing, mostly in Europe, but if someone has put on a little evening in a bar in Soho, for example, and they ask me to DJ, I'll do it for £100. For the love of it. For fun.'

Then he shakes his head, the late-night parking issue still bothering him. 'I mean, if that legislation had been passed, how would I, like all the barmen or security guards, have got home? I'm not getting a night bus.'

When I ask if he enjoys the food on offer in Soho, he says with a wink 'I like a burger on Dean Street', before retrieving two more tins from the fridge and throwing himself in his chair. 'I used to drink in The Champion on Wells Street and the Adam and Eve, which used to be the Ben Crouch, but I like a pint in the Blue Posts on Berwick Street. Nice atmosphere in there,' he says, scrutinising the tin.

'The gay thing in Soho, the bars, clubs and cafes, has been good for the area because it means more people on the streets, because to be honest, about 15 years ago the area was dying. Things go in and out of fashion, and Soho's in fashion at the moment.'

I ask if he'd call himself a musical impresario. 'I've been called a lot of things in the past, but first and foremost I'm a record producer, but I don't tend to do that so much because it's hard working 16 or 17-hour days constantly listening to music just to refine and tweak the sound. I once recorded an album with Gregory Isaacs in my studio in Denmark Street, and that was the last one I did properly. That was in 1995. The old Acid Jazz studio is now called Tin Pan Alley Studios. The whole roster of artists used to record there.'

Pragmatism lay behind Acid Jazz's relocation to east London. 'We moved back east to be near the Blue Note club which I set up in Shoreditch. But the council took our licence away because of complaints about noise. It was a derelict semi-industrial area with a late night economy and the cooler residents who lived in the new warehouse flats immediately objected to the club.'

But his mood brightens. 'This year is Acid Jazz's 25th anniversary and we've got quite a lot planned for the end of the year. There'll be an art exhibition in Shoreditch to commemorate it, then we'll move it to Carnaby Street. There'll be album art and photos of all the artists who've worked on Acid Jazz from Jamiroquai through to Weller,' he says before pausing. 'You're going to have trouble transcribing this, because I've started ranting. I'll try and keep it concise.'

It's too late for that, I tell him.

'The music industry is an industry in massive decline because of downloads. Nearly 80% of all downloads are stolen from illegal sites which means that we as labels are losing out financially. It's down to government legislation to shut down service providers who run these sites.

'What helps the situation, though, is that artists come to us with finished records they have recorded themselves, which means we no longer have to foot the costs of studio time and production, which keeps us fiscally healthy.'

Is then the music business all about gambling? Piller nods. 'The creation and exploitation of copyright, which is what we do, is gambling.'

'We've just put out a fantastic new LP called Blues Ain't Nothing But A Good Woman Gone Bad by Jasmine Kara. Tony Christie is on our books, as is a fantastic Manchester scally band called the Janice Graham Band, so we've got a very healthy roster. It's out best turnover for 15 years, and at a time when the music industry is collapsing.

'Acid Jazz does quite a lot of Mod stuff, and the Mod thing is as big as I've seen it since 1979, and I'm glad, because originally I got into music to sell records, so the more people who buy my records - even if the Mod tag assists that - the happier I am.

'I'm the brains, and I'm the beauty of the label,' he says almost without smiling, 'and I think people will always turn to vintage music, be it soul, R'n'B and funk, or to Modernism or rockabilly, because they are sick of the disposable nature of contemporary British culture.'

I ask if the economic downturn worries him. 'No, we're doing well in this tough climate, perhaps because in times of recession, people turn inwards. They buy what matters. They buy music.'

But as Eddie Piller leads me back streetside through the 'antiques' shop, shaking my hand as we go, I can't help but think he'd rather be planted on a wicket's crease, a bat in hand, the wind disrupting his feathercut as he contemplates an inswinger.