Ahead of a sell-out show at London’s Roundhouse, THGO co-creator Alex Mercier AKA Shy Cookie talks nostalgia, innovation and taking garage back to its roots
Hearing MC Neat’s rapid garage vocals over a live orchestral arrangement of A Little Bit of Luck is a two-fold treat. The DNA of UKG holds true, captured in the rhythmic MCing and undulating strings. The delivery, by contrast, is modern and acoustic. It’s a sound that nods lovingly to garage’s heyday and forges a new path all at once.
This is the work of The House & Garage Orchestra, a project launched by Alex Mercier AKA Shy Cookie and long-term friend and co-producer Ishmael Hamilton back in 2015. Taking the biggest garage hits of the late 90s and early 00s, THGO reimagine each track using live musicians and instruments. Depending on the scale of the performance, the orchestra can range from 20 to 100 people.
Fill me in
Since their first show at Queen of Hoxton in 2015, THGO has gone on to fill venues like the Albert Hall Manchester. Along the way, they’ve collaborated with garage’s glitterati, including Sweet Female Attitude (Flowers), Shola Ama (Imagine) and Kele LeRoc (Romeo). Their album, Garage Classics, featuring acoustic re-workings of iconic tracks like Kayla Amor’s Movin’ Too Fast, dropped in 2018.
On 15 February, THGO will play London’s Roundhouse. Featuring an extended band with a horn and strings section, plus special guest performances from stars like Show Me Love singer Robin S., it will be their biggest show to date.
“Rest assured, you can expect loads of big names,” Mercier tells me. “Every performance is different, partly because we build every set from the ground up and also because we actually play live so an element of improvisation usually comes into play, which we encourage with our musicians.”
Both Mercier and Hamilton are garage pioneers and were immersed in the genre during its glory years of 2-step, club-branded champagne and Gucci loafers. Mercier began producing garage hits under his alias Shy Cookie in 1998 and is best known for his work with MOBO-scooping artists DJ Luck, MC Neat and Jay Jay. Shortly before setting up THGO, Mercier and Hamilton established their music label, AI (a play on their names) and began releasing new records.
It was when Mercier began teaching music to students at university that the concept for THGO was born. Hamilton came to see a showcase and the pair discussed collaborating on a live project.
“The thought was to build something post-modern, a platform which could simultaneously celebrate the genre that we have been a part of from the beginning, as well as showcase our own new music,” explains Mercier.
Sweet like chocolate
Eventually, the duo bit the bullet, built a studio, and settled on a name. Being completely self-funded, the project is “a labour of love and determination” and has come up against its “fair share of doubters” over the years. Mercier shrugs off any negativity as “the usual politics”. It’s clear, though, that hitting the sweet spot between nostalgia and innovation is important to him.
“The balance is simple, this is a post-modern look at the house and garage genres,” he says. “The original sound of both genres was pretty much born from blues, like most modern genres. We simply took the music right back to its roots by adding additional orchestration and instrumentation.”
A little bit of luck
Beyond THGO, cult music hits reworked in a neoclassical style are having a moment. Whether you want to see Kate Simko and the London Electronic Orchestra combine dance floor derived beats with orchestration, or sample one of Re:imagine’s events, which turn iconic recordings into high production live renditions, we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to orchestral remixes. Just like gardeners growing hybrid plants, this type of composition can produce exciting, versatile and enduring results.
Meanwhile, in UKG land, the genre has had a major renaissance over the last five years, including artist comebacks (hello, Craig David), the rise of BAFTA-winning sitcom People Just Do Nothing and even garage-themed brunches. THGO sits in a wide canon of tributes to garage culture which, for Mercier, signals a genre that was cut short of reaching its full potential.
We done, fuss and fight
“The music never reached the heights it should have before being corrupted by negativity,” says THGO’s co-founder, referring to the violence-focused headlines that troubled the genre. “I don’t think that it ever really went away. It was so big at one point that it needed a reset like many other genres from the underground.”
When they take to the stage at Roundhouse, THGO will perform to a crowd in which retired clubbers who witnessed garage’s ascent rub shoulders with those discovering the music for the first time. Mercier is reluctant to tease highlights, preferring to keep surprises under wraps. The joy for him is seeing the components come together.
Lovin’ it like this
“As a producer of the performance side of things, I see the entire event as one, rather than a series of performances,” says the producer. “I’m just as excited as I’m sure everyone is to see Robin S. join us.”
For Mercier, the crucial point is building on the legacy of a genre he loves by going back to its origins. “What’s important,” he says, simply, “Is that the music now has a proper chance to be heard in its pure form.”