afropunk exclusive: the brand new heavies talk to us about their new album & live show dynamics #soundcheck
By Sound Check
May 10, 2013
The Brand New Heavies came up in UK’s Acid Jazz scene in the mid-80s. After adding lead singer N’Dea Davenport, they had a string of unimpeachable hits like “Never Stop,” and “Dream on Dreamer.” Their latest record Forward (due out May 21) is their first in 6 years and features N’Dea sharing lead vocals with new singer Dawn Joseph. I spoke with Jan and Simon about the new record and the legacy of the Acid Jazz scene.
Interview by Nathan Leigh
Talk to me about your new album “Forward”. This is the first record where everyone sings lead, right? What was behind that?
It was just an accident really. Just sort of how it came about. Thought it was a good time and we just gave it a go, you know? We had N’Dea [Davenport] on this record and we met Dawn [Joseph]–Dawn came along. She was just really exciting to work with, so we thought it was a good opportunity to start something with her too. So we did that. And I’ve always sung a few tracks on the records, so it was the norm for me to do that. And Simon sang some tracks too, and they sound great. So it wasn’t really a planned thing, just sort of how it turned out, you know?
With Dawn, we’ve done some gigs with her and she’s working out really nicely too, so it gives us this
opportunity to work out last minute gigs. She’s based in the UK and N’Dea’s in America, so we can
quite easily get together and do a gig. It’s great.
How did you guys record with N’Dea? Did you just send tracks back and forth or were you working together in the studio?
She came over to the UK and we recorded with her. We sent a couple things to her as well. We worked in just about every manner there is. Thank goodness for the internet.
What are some things that influenced this record?
Disco’s something we’ve always been influenced by, among other things. It is quite an upbeat record. It’s just one of many influences, really. We’re heavily influenced by soul music in general. Disco was an era where the dance kind of side of it came into it. It’s definitely something we’ve been influenced by, but I wouldn’t say it was the only influence on the record either. There’s a lot of diversity, there’s some more instrumental jazzier things. We’ve always had a kind of diverse base that we pull our influences from. We listen to all kinds of stuff and we always have. It’s definitely an upbeat album, and the message as well. Live we have that kind of energy with our show, so it goes well with the disco thing.
How are you playing out the songs live? Do you bring out a whole horn section?
Oh yeah. It gets expensive taking a lot of guys on the road, but we always have at least 2 horns. That’s the minimum we can have. We used to go out with like 2 backing vocalists and 3 horns; and some shows if it’s a big show and London based and we know all the guys we do a bigger thing. A lot of our stuff is written with a funk orchestra, which is like drums, bass, keyboards, guitar, percussion and horns. And that’s just sort of the orchestra we write for.
Some tracks like “Sunlight” for example and some other tracks have a lot of strings on there too. Obviously in an ideal world we’d love to be able to do the Barry White thing and take the full orchestra on the road but that’s just not feasible. So we find ways around it. It’s actually fun reinventing the tunes a little bit cause it gives them a different kind of feel and it’s exciting. We’ve always done that. We’ve never completely represented what we’ve done on record in terms of the exact makeup of instrumentation. But like Simon said, we’re kind of drawing from a common pool of things, so we generally always have horns. That’s for sure.
We just did a couple of gigs that demanded that we didn’t use drums, just percussion and stuff. And you really reinterpret the music for that. And it kind of always works. That’s how it goes with everything, experimenting here and there.
So then how much do you guys sort of jam stuff out in a show, and how much is it “this is what we rehearsed note-for-note?”
In a show? Quite a lot in a show. We rehearse up to a point, but we’ve never been one of these bands that rehearse it until everyone’s dying of boredom you know? We basically run the songs and we get them tight, and then leave it at that. The rest just happens organically on the road. We tend to use the same musicians all the time so we know each other very well. If we had to put a different band together every tour that’d be a real headache. But we’re working with people we’ve been working with for years for that reason. It’s almost telepathic, you know?
I would say that every single show is different depending on the crowd and how they’re feeling and we’re feeling. There’s a lot of stuff, like in between the songs Andy might just start another bass line and we’ll join in, or we’ll give him a real weird look. We either join in or give him a weird look, and say “what the heck are you doing?”But usually we join in and you get some really funky thing. We’ve recorded a few, and we’re thinking about doing a really funky album.
The other thing happens when we play live is when we’re in the sound check we get a lot of ideas which we record and go back to later on. A lot of jamming happens in the sound check basically.
So you’re constantly writing new material on the road?
I wouldn’t say necessarily writing. We just sort of collect riffs and grooves and then later on we’ll go back to them, you know? Sometimes the songwriting is kind of intense, and in a sound check you wont have time to say “that’s great, let’s do this and go into a chorus over here”you realy just have time to jam. And what you want to do is record it. You might heer it later on and say “that.s really good. Let’s do something with that.” And then we’ll mess around with it and polish it up later on.
We’ve got stacks of snippets of funk like that. You have it on your iPod like little 30 second snippets of a groove and they just sort of resonate with you and you might be sitting on the subway or something, and something might come to your mind. Then you take it to the studio and get everyone to funk it up and so forth.
You used crowdfunding to make this record with Pledgemusic. What was behind that?
It was just a really good way to make a record and interact with the fans. We needed a certain amount of money to make the record and maintain control, which is important for a band that’s been going as long as we have. I think control is important. It’s also a great way for the fans to feel a part of the project.
In a way it’s kind of just part of the way the internet and bands work with people who like them—fans, I don’t like the word “fans.” We’re much more in touch with our audience now. Keeping them up to date with pictures from the tour and stuff. It’s brilliant. We’re really embracing the modern world.
You guys have been a band since before the internet was really a thing. I mean, I guess it
technically existed, but wasn’t as widespread as it is now. Has that changed how you interact with
Oh absolutely. You can talk to your fans every day. You can know who they are. We only used to see them at shows before. Now they can ask us questions. We can interact with them. Do stuff like the Pledge thing. It’s weird because on the one hand you’ve lost a bit of community in music. We came from a real scene which doesn’t exist anymore. But there’s a new community; a digital community when you can keep in touch with your fans all over the world.
The international aspect of it is just sort of mind-blowing, isn’t it?
The acid jazz scene that you guys came out of—you guys are one of the last bands from that scene that’s still as active as you ever were. Is there still a scene, a community?
Not really, it was kind of very much of it’s time. There is funny enough still a scene in different countries. We go into eastern Europe and stuff and there will be a club that bills itself as playing acid jazz and funk or whatever. It’s more of a scene elsewhere, really. Here there’s still an Acid Jazz label.
I will say because of the acid jazz scene it’s sort of lasted without having a label. Originally it was the rare groove scene, and you’d hear really rare records. And there was like one or two clubs in the UK even. And now you can hear funky music in the mall and everything. In a way it’s not acid jazz anymore, but it’s still going on. The love of old music and the mixing of new funky soul music and that’s sort of what Acid Jazz the label was doing. It seems like the spirit is still alive, but that specific sound isn’t really around that much anymore.
Not really. I mean, there’s Jamiroquai and James Taylor Quartet still out there.
Now you’ve got people going back further like the Bamboos and other sort of super funk bands. There’s actually a lot more bands like that in some ways. There’s a lot more radio stations on the internet playing soul and funk music. It’s just shifted it’s axis, really.
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