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Young Fathers Interview: International Bright Young Things

Sometimes a band hits a green patch where each release gets better and better; be it The Beatles in the mid-sixties, Stevie Wonder at the start of the seventies, Prince throughout the eighties, and many would argue that right now Young Fathers are enjoying a similar run of success. From their self produced ‘Tape One’ in 2012, to its current Scottish Album of the Year follow up ‘Tape Two’, and then the 2014 Mercury Music Prize winner ‘Dead’ was the darling of the music press last year. Hot on its heels is ‘White Men Are Black Men Too’, which is a change in direction, with elements of rock, pop, soul, rap, 80s electro and gospel. Simply put, this is your new favourite band bringing you the sound of now. We* caught up with them just before the album release, and as you’ll see, they didn’t disappoint.

It’s interesting that you’ve followed up your biggest success so far, and the expectation that comes with that, with something less obvious and different.

One of the good things about being this kind of group is we can do whatever the f*ck we want, as long as we make it fit with the aesthetic. In fact, that almost is the aesthetic. There are invisible lines that we don’t step over, that change all the time but are relative to our journey but to even define them means examining the process too closely. It’s like trying to catch a dust mote in your eye.

Is a ‘pure’ hip-hop record ever a possibility?

There’s a chance we could still make a clearly defined hip-hop record at some point – it’s in the DNA after all, but it would probably only work if the bigger hip-hop world moves forward a bit, especially when it comes to words. There’s a lot of dumb-ass shit rapped, full of cliche and ugly, bully words. There’s meant to be a swing, a beauty to the lyrics. Even when Wu Tang riffed on torturing people there was a self awareness there, an irony. That seems to have departed.

Stating upfront that you are addressing issues of race is a bold move. Do you hope it’ll provoke open discussions about these issues, or do you worry that liberal white arts/music writers will be too scared to approach the topic for fear of offending someone?

The title is a way for everyone in the media to be able to talk about skin colour and all the things that come from that, because it’s really all about privilege and class and skin colour is just a distraction invented by psychotic idiots who seek to control others and even if there’s a kind of unspoken, wider understanding that this is the case, because we all have different experiences of it there’s no unity in response. Scotland has hardly any black people but, for instance, if the SNP had won last September, then they proposed much more immigration. Then the idea that Scotland is somehow a more tolerant place than the rest of the UK would really have been put to the test.

Do you feel that your non-traditional UK heritage helps with the usual false modesty, and enables you to aim for worldwide success?

That’s about right. We’re proud of what we are and don’t need to be part of a local scene in that way – it doesn’t define us. It’s a small step away from that kind of pride to being proud of your country, whatever it does and being proud of being white, whatever that means and being proud when your country wins at sport and just a short step from there, at war. We have family, friends, our own country we create, that shifts around. It’s not just musical freedom – it’s the whole thing, of being in a group.

Have you considered working with anyone from beyond these shores? Someone like Nigerian afrobeat legend Tony Allen would seem like a perfect collaborator, or at the other end of the spectrum maybe an album with Rick Rubin. Do such opportunities seem like a reality for you these days?

Both those ideas would be fun. We were talking about Rick Rubin the other day, wondering if he still makes his own beats. In fact, we have been collaborating more this year, for the first time. In S Africa with several SA artists and by coincidence, with some singers and a rapper from Durban, also from SA when they visited Edinburgh earlier this year. Both tracks are waiting for a mix. We’ve also kind of collaborated with Tricky, by accident and recorded with Massive in Bristol in January. We’re getting a little more open minded about that kind of thing!

You could’ve had your pick of any choir (arguably in the world), but you’ve gone for our very own local Leith Congregational Choir, is it these little things that’ll keep you grounded?

The Leith Congregational Choir themselves help keep us grounded! Or at least, the female members who don’t take no shit from no one. We’re proud of the choir and it’s great that the world knows they exist as they were pretty hidden before.

-The album ‘White Men are Black Men Too’ is out now on Big Dada.
-Interview: Dave McGuire

*This feature was written for Leither Magazine prior to album release, hopefully to be published in next issue.

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Album Review: Africa Express Presents…Terry Riley’s in C Mali

Whilst Africa Express Presents…Terry Riley’s in C Mali was released on CD back in November, it gets its CD release at the end of January, so fans of the black plastic will point out that rather than belated, this review is actually rather timely!

The original album recording of ‘In C’ by Terry Riley and Center of Creative and Performing Arts was released in 1968 (although this marks the 50th anniversary of it being written), and consists of 53 short, numbered musical phrases, lasting from half a beat to 32 beats;  where each phrase could be repeated an arbitrary number of times, and each musician had control over the phrase they played.  Over the years there have been many recordings of In C, in all manner of styles, instrumentation, etc. but In C Mali is the first ever African interpretation of this iconic contemporary classical piece.

This new version was recorded in Mali under the conductor André de Ridder, with musicians including up and comers Adama Koita, Bijou, Cheick Diallo, alongside Africa Express stalwarts Damon Albarn, Brian Eno, Jeff Wootton and Nick Zinner.  Whilst one might imagine that contemporary classical music and traditional African instrumentation are unlikely bedfellows, this very much embodies the spirit of Africa Express.  This version stays true to the spirit of the original, rather than follow it to the letter; rote repetition is alien to Malian musicians, so this sees a combination of patterns with solos over the top.  The album works fantastically well, with the multi layered patterns, grooves and solos working well, giving it a breadth and depth that one might not associate with minimalism.

Whilst Terry Riley’s audience is predominantly white, middle aged, middle class, Western, well-educated, avant-garde, and so on, to have young rising stars of Malian music paint the picture with a whole new colour palette is very exciting. Also, to have this modernist music played by traditional instruments from an entirely different culture, brings new life to it, and may even bring it bang up to date.

I found this to be a fully immersive experience, one that merits a comfy chair, a decent hi-fi and your undivided attention, or better still a pair of headphones in a dark room.  It would probably also be great to see it performed live at a club in Bamako, or even to have it played through a killer sound-system at a great little club in the UK.  Seriously though, get a copy and lose yourself in it.

Check out the online interactive video HERE

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Extremists Lack Irony

It goes without saying that anyone with an ounce of intelligence and decency finds the cold blooded killings today at Charlie Hebdo in Paris utterly despicable, and that lives have been taken by people claiming to be doing it in the name of Islam  is wrong on so many levels.

No doubt there will be numerous people writing at this very minute about this attack on freedom and liberty, and the need to stand up against to any threat against this, of which I very much agree, so I felt compelled to write a quick piece today about the ludicrousness of extremism, especially religious extremism.  Most folks think of religion as being something to believe in, and a guide to leading your life in a caring and moralistic way.

At the moment it’s Islamic extremists grabbing the headlines with a trail of destruction left by the likes of IS/ISIS, and numerous blameless, innocent victims.  They’re just the latest in a line of extremists behaving despicably, but they’ve come from right across the spectrum and the globe, be it the Israelis and Palestinians, the Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, or even the lovely Westboro Baptist Church who prove that religious extremism can also be very white, Christian and American.

Any time I watch the news and there’s a report about an act of terrorism allegedly in the name of a god/religion, you’ll find me shouting at the telly “How can these extremists claim to be doing this in the name of (insert religion here) when what they’re doing goes against everything (insert name of previous religion here also) stands for. It’s madness. Islam preaches peace and love, so clearly killing schoolkids or shooting journalists goes very much against that.  In Myamar only a few years ago we had some Buddhist monks (synonymous with leading a virtuous life) behind extremist acts of terror.  Even those self proclaimed uber Christians in Westboro appear to have missed some of the basic tenets of their own religion, where’s the tolerance, forgiveness and understanding in picketing the funerals of fallen servicemen?  I could go on (and on, and on, and on) but you get the gist.

By definition extremists are on the fringes of their religion, and clearly don’t represent the beliefs held by most. Ironically it’s those from their own religion that sometimes suffer the most, be that from the backlash or the reinforced, inaccurate, negative stereotypes. I’d imagine that they share the anger and sadness felt by everyone else about extremists attacks, and would rather be disassociated with it.

So far the response to the Charlie Hedbo killings has been in the spirit of the magazine, with people exercising their right to freedom of speech in support. That being said, I noted that the French National Front have already spoken of their outrage; hopefully they don’t use these killings as a means to spread anti-Islamic propaganda. To think that an extreme right wing organisation criticised by the magazine might use this tragedy to gain support for their questionable ideals, shows that no matter what beliefs extremists claim to have, they’ll miss the irony of their hatred and ignorance.  The events in Paris today have rocked Western society, let’s hope people respond accordingly and these lives weren’t taken in vain.

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When The Lights Go Out On Christmas

Walking home from work on the first day back at work in January is always one of the saddest of the year, not because it’s the end of the festive break, but rather because all of the Christmas lights were taken down the day before and everywhere looks bare, it’s as if houses and shops are ‘missing something’.

Don’t get me wrong, I could happily have had an extra week off work, but I’m not being flippant when I say that I love that special festive ambience that Christmas lights bring, even the over the top ones that some people seem to be fond of covering their whole house in (OK, as long as those folks are very much in the minority I find it amusing).

It goes without saying that having a kid means that I get to enjoy a lot of the magic of Christmas through her still very much believing in it, but even before I had a kid and was a cynical (and younger/prettier) London music biz type I made a point of taking time out from my Christmas shopping to go check out the lights in Regent Street and Oxford Street, etc. When we moved back to Edinburgh in 2010 I was able to enjoy the views of the castle in a snow covered city, with the lights in Princes Street Gardens, giving that extra sparkle, which made it even more special.

Say what you will about Christmas, especially when some shops put up their decorations at the start of November (seriously, only a couple of weeks after my post-Fringe ‘summer’ holiday in the October break), but on the Sunday afternoon a few weeks before the big day, when we bought our tree, and I saw a load of folks out with their ladders and house lights, it brought a big smile to my face and made me happy it was that time of year again.

When darkness descended and the lights were turned on, it transformed any old bland and miserable street into something cool, kinda like turning a grainy, out of focus black and white film into glorious Technicolor; equally wonderful would be to see the reflective sparkle from the lights glistening on a frosted pavement.  If you add this to the other stuff; be it people simply looking forward to time off work, kids excited about Santa, families about to be reunited, folks looking forward to big nights out, and so on…..

The kids have just gone back to school, trees are out on the street waiting for the bin men, and bar  handful of die-hards, the lights are all down.  Whilst it leaves everywhere looking dull for a few weeks, at least I get to look forward to it all happening again next Christmas.

Happy New Year!

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Dance To The Beat Of My Drum

Last Saturday The Edinburgh Samba School had their autumn busk on the city’s Grassmarket; the weather was relatively nice, the crowds were decent, and the band sounded good. Sorry if you were hoping that the title was in reference to the track by Nicola Roberts (the undisputed queen of Girls Aloud – none of yer Cheryl Tweedy rubbish for me) but it’s about my return to being a musician, and joining a samba group.

I played in the school band many moons ago, and even had a brief flirtation with an accordion band when doing my O-Level on the instrument, but although I’ve messed about on instruments for years I’ve never been part of a band, and I have always hankered for some of that.  Mrs Dave did a Taiko Drumming beginners course but the follow on lessons didn’t work logistically, and my best man Al is also in a drumming group, so whenever I saw the Edinburgh Samba School playing in town I’d wonder if I’d be any good at it.

This autumn was when I decided to make some changes in my life, and getting myself a hobby was a big thing, both to have something to do in my spare time, and also to meet new people.  I googled drumming groups and found that the samba school were due to start a beginners course this autumn (and very good value for money) so I put my name down for it.

On the first lesson I picked the Surdo, which are the big bass drums that you see usually at the back of a parade as I assumed that they’d be the easiest (and they were) as I’d have been gutted if I paid my cash, went along, and was crap at it.  Most of the class had never drummed before, but the cool thing is that the school bring along someone for each drum that knows what they are doing so you have someone to watch doing it right.  Straight from the off it sounded good, and it sounded really powerful; we started with Samba Reggae (appropriate as I was a reggae buyer for Tower Records back in the day). My part was simple, but it was great fun, and I was hooked instantly.

Normally I’d be a right swat for something like this as I love discovering new music, and I am a world music fella after all, but I’ve been very busy with the new job.  I don’t remember the names of any of the tunes, and what tune has what pattern, although as soon as I hear the pattern I know what to do. This made the prospect of doing a live busk in front of real people slightly more nerve wracking, but we had a run through of everything last Tuesday and it went well, especially as I didn’t even notice that I had picked up the biggest surdo instead of the medium sized one I’d used previously, so I had to learn some new parts for the gig.

As expected, we didn’t remember all the tunes, but we were given a quick reminder when we met up.  It was an unexpectedly nice day, Grassmarket busy with rugby fans, and we pretty much all kept it together, a few rogue beats here and there, but to my ears it sounded good.  I was slightly distracted by the fact that my beaters were much thinner than previous weeks (these things make a difference), but to watch my little girl dance to the band, and members of the public get into it, was great.  I’m still not great at drumming and dancing at the same time (and only just found out that some folks wear pads underneath their trousers so that dancing doesn’t hurt when the drums bang against your legs).

My final lesson in the beginners course is tonight, but I’ve already been asking about the next lot of classes, and am looking at what drums are needed more for the main band, with a view to becoming part of that. Expect more Brazilian music posts as I learn more about it, but to have a new musical passion is very exciting for me, and in the words of Andy our teacher “drumming is awesome”.

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Album Review: Stanley Odd ‘A Thing Brand New’

This is very much the golden era of Scottish hip-hop, Hector Bizerk nominated for a Scottish Album of the Year award this year, as were Young Fathers who also recently scooped the Mercury Music Prize (as legitimate a critical nod you can get in the UK). Another SAY Award nominee (albeit last year) is back with their new album, and Stanley Odd’s ‘A Thing Brand New’ looks set to make a similar impact.

The group’s third album sees MC Solareye further emerge as a lyrical force to be reckoned with. The track ‘Marriage Counselling’ from their previous album was a Yes campaign stalwart, and for a lyricist so heavily involved in that, to be recording an album without knowing the outcome must have been a strange proposition, but album closer ‘Son, I Voted Yes’ is perhaps even more poignant with the eventual outcome may very well remain more relevant than the politicians making the policies that prompted the track in the first place.

Stanley Odd’s sound is tight and funky, managing to be both international (particularly American) but with a distinctly Scottish accent, in every sense of the word. Solareye is an MC lacking ego and pretension but confident and bold, a strut without a swagger if you will.  Where some rappers might boast about their prowess and riches, ‘To Be This Good Takes Stages’ tells of Stanley Odd’s struggle to get the recognition they feel they deserve.

A Thing Brand New is musically varied, with some lively movers like ‘Knock Knock’ and ‘Get Back in the Basement’ and brooding, moving tracks like ‘Draw Yir Own Conclusions’ but it’s the political tracks that stand out the most to me, ‘The Walking Dead’ isn’t a paean to the zombie drama, but commentary on colonialism through Thatcherism assessing where we’re at today in a way you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere on music. Solareye has a knack for nailing a subject in a way that political and academic experts fail to engage the public.

This is another cracking album from a group very much on the ascendency, allow them to make your mind dance.

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Album Review: Jonnie Common ‘Trapped In Amber’

I was looking forward to the new Jonnie Common album, i’ve seen him before and much enjoyed his distinctive brand of quirky electronic poptastic pomp, that’s both clever and funny.  Whilst all of that is reason enough to check out ‘Trapped In Amber‘ the fact is that this release sees Jonnie fully spread his wings and has produced an evolved body of work that holds together as an album rather than a collection of catchy tunes.

As someone who’s both been on and put people on numerous guest lists, I had a cheeky grin at the album opener, and my liking for it has increased with every listen over the past week.

There’s heartfelt lyrics, emotional depth, swooping flights of fancy, but also a funny answerphone message, a made up language, and some quirky, yet catchy electronica.  It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, and it’ll make you grin with a smile that’s wry.

If pop music was a box of chocolates, Trapped in Amber would be a box of Milk Tray but every so often you’d find a surprise choc filled with space dust.

For his most instantly accessible tracks, Jonnie Common’s new album is a a grower, and with each listen you’ll reap the rewards.