MOSES BOYD: THE AFROPUNK INTERVIEW
By Piotr Orlov
February 20, 2020
When Moses Boyd first appeared on AFROPUNK’s radar, he was a young drummer taking the world by storm from many different directions, before the London improvisation scene he originally called home had yet reached a global audience. A jazz kid in love with all the music of the African diaspora he was living amidst in London, Moses had already made a name for himself as a live drummer for Sampha, and was in charge of the backbeat for the trio version of Sons of Kemet (alongside saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and tuba player Theon Cross) that played AFROPUNK Brooklyn 2017. All the while, he’d been making incredible, dance-floor jazz records his horn-heavy group Moses Boyd Exodus, trying his hand at producing for the likes of Little Simz, Zara McFarlane, Klein, and others. More recently, Boyd started collaborating with SA gqom master DJ Lag, a relationship that resulted in a beat for Beyonce’s phenomenal “My Power.” It was expected that sooner or later, Boyd’s prodigious output would reach a boil.
Dark Matter, the new album billed as his proper debut, is that explosion — and it is well worth the wait. An LP that screams “This is Black London NOW!” both musical and thematically, it is filled with the locally translated rhythms of West Africa and Caribbean that are the city’s musical backbone, but with the perspective of a musical omnivore, and a supporting cast that is an all-star team. Is it futurist R&B or Blacktronica? Afro-pop or afrobeats? Jazz-grime instrumentals? The answer is yes, all of these — presented in service of a story about what it feels like being Black in contemporary England. This is what AFROPUNK talked to Moses Boyd about a few weeks before the album’s release.
People keep calling Dark Matter your debut album even though you did Displaced Diaspora and the Absolute Zero EP. Talk a little bit about how this is more of a proper debut and different from previous records. What is your sense why this is “the first thing”?
So, I would say this is the first album. Absolute Zero, Time and Space were all four-track EPs. That was just an idea, not a long body of work. Displaced Diaspora was a collection of tunes that I had written from something like 17 years old to 24, when I’d recorded “Rye Lane Shuffle.” It was music I had that I wanted to capture and what was going on around me, but I didn’t necessarily think it was a representation of where I was at the time. If you look at the album, Nubya Garcia is on it, Theon Cross is on it, Binker Golding, a lot of the people that are doing amazing things now played on that record — they were easily accessible back then, now they’re all busy and traveling the world. We recorded that session in 2015, “Rye Lane Shuffle” and “Drum Dance” came out in 2016 and then the rest of that session didn’t come out till 2018. So it was an odd one. I didn’t see it as an album. But I also felt it needed to be out there so people could enjoy it. But there was no big tour, there wasn’t even press. So it’s tough because we’re in this world where, what is an album nowadays? It just has more than six tracks. And I don’t know either. But I can say it wasn’t in terms of a campaign, in terms of energy and in terms of being representative of where I was exactly as it came out, it wasn’t any of that. But I’m still really proud of it.
So in which way do you think that Dark Matter works to be representative, besides the fact that you conceived of it as a whole? Musically speaking, how does Dark Matter represent who you are right now as an artist? And where you are as an artist? represent? It’s not really a jazz album or an electronic album — it’s a groove album. How do you Dark Matter representing who you are, piecemeal or as a whole.
It’s definitely a lot more accurate representation of where I am now. I guess I’m a bit more nuanced now. I don’t necessarily see myself as just the drummer. I’m a producer, I’m a writer, I’m a composer. I’m into jazz, I’m into electronic music, I’m into modular synthesizers. I’m into moody music. Also, Dark Matter more so than anything else I’ve done, soundtracks what was going on around the time I was making it. It was a lot more reactive than my past projects. I started making it sort of towards the end of 2018, so contextually, what was going on in England, there was Brexit, there was the Windrush Scandal, there was Grenfell, there was just a lot going on, and that can’t be in your face 24-7 without having an effect. So I was very conscious of how…
Basically, with Dark Matter, I was really trying to make music to make people feel a certain way. It was less about what chords and who’s on it, and more like I needed you to hear this one note and feel something, and what I was feeling around the time when I made it, which was a lot of hostility, a lot of anger, a lot of division in the world around me. I didn’t want to say anything else on it that wasn’t honest. It is more like a statement piece: this is me, at this time, here and now and you’re getting it actually while we’re still in it. Whereas everything previously has been kind of an archive, come out later. As I’m talking about it now, it’s still very real. Do you know what I mean? It represents more of me than anything else I’ve done — how I’m producing, how I’m working in different worlds. This is music I made for myself, but it is a real statement piece that I’m trying to get out there.
There are musicians — singer-songwriters, MCs in grime and hip-hop — who are very comfortable focusing on those ideas, stating, “My music is my politics and my political beliefs.” While others pull back and say, “I’m a musician first. And yes, of course the stuff that happens in the world around me is reflected in my music, but it’s secondary.” How important is it for you that the social context of the time and space the music is made in, is reflected in the music?
I think it’s important for the listener to put into context. But I feel I’m more the latter, actually. I feel like I am a musician first. I am interested in politics and in social justice for sure, but I didn’t go into making Dark Matter to be a political statement or anything. I was merely a victim of feeling the results of…whether it’s austerity, or Brexit. I was just keen on responding to what governments are deciding to do with each other. And as a result, that’s why the music of that period of time sounds the way it does. I’m a sponge. I can’t make you songs that sounded like palm trees on a beach, because that’s not what I’m living. So it’s not to say I’m not political, but I don’t think that comes first to me. I think I’m just more responsive to what I see as a musician. So I’d say I was the latter, but I still think it’s important to have some sort of message and reasoning behind why your art is the way it is.
So in the context of that, how does a song like “Dancing in the Dark” [a highly political collaboration with the singer Steven Umoh aka Obongjayar] come together? Are you saying, “Hey, I’m thinking about getting vocals on the record. Here’s the theme.” How does the theme of what you’re working on together come into being?
So, me and Steven have worked together before. I produced a couple of tracks on his Bassey EP. We’re good friends, so it was quite interesting — almost telepathic, or magic or maybe just telling of the environment we were both in. I had the skeleton of that song and I wanted to get him on it. I gave him a call and he was really open to it. But what was interesting is I did not explain any of the themes or any of the ideas to do with the album, because it was quite unformed at that point. I was just playing him music, to see what he would come up with. And he came up with “Dancing in the Dark” and those lyrics. I had the title Dark Matter already. And he was just talking about… you know, it feels like you could be in Ferguson, feels like you could be in South London, feels like you could be in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo. So I thought that was really telling. There you go, art imitates life. I didn’t explain anything to him, he was just drawing from what was around him and gave me this and finished it two or four hours, you know. And it was one of the first songs to be completed on the album. With the track I did with Poppy [Ajudah, “Shades of You], I gave her a bit of a brief, “This is what I’m going for, this is what I’m exploring with Steve.” And I just played her [“Dancing in the Dark”]. And she got it. So, you know, there’s something beyond even me, I can’t take credit for how sensitive art is to respond to what’s going on in the air. And he did.
Tell me about how you made Dark Matter. One of the things that really kind of stood me on my head when you and I spoke a few years ago, was when you described the thing you are going for, in terms of your musicianship, is this equation of Max Roach meets Aphex Twin. Which is interesting because Max is, of course, a bandleader from behind the drums; whereas Richard [James, aka UK techno artist Aphex Twin] is often in a bunker making music by himself. So from an outsider’s perspective: on the one hand there’s a lot of open musicianship going on here, as though it’s a session. On the other, it feels like you solo, cutting this together. Can you talk a little bit about the creative process, between those two environments?
It was exactly that, a mix of both. Quite open at the beginning, in the sense that I had some ideas on a hard drive and maybe I’d make some little beats, and I take them to… For example, say Joe [Armon-Jones, keyboardist of Ezra Collective] on “Too Far Gone,” I had recorded a drum loop in my loft on one microphone, just as, like, a demo. I’m just exploring, having fun experimenting with sounds. And then before I know it, the drum loop became like a bit of a baseline. So what I would do throughout the recording of this record is I would take the session from my laptop, and then go meet somebody at their place. So Joe has got a small setup at his house, and I would tell him specific things, but after. It was still quite open. I’d be like, “I really want some moody keys over this progression,” or “Can you give me a solo for about this long?” Not necessarily knowing where it’s going to go. And then I take it back to my bunker, as you put it, and edit it, have fun with it and stretch it, chop it, do as much as I could until it made me happy, and made me feel a certain way. Then I’d take that, and move to another place. There was a collection of people, studios and spaces that I was fortunate enough to have a rapport with, where I could experiment, or call people in for the day.
I remember doing horn sessions where I said, “Oh this here’s a very loose melody.” They had no idea where it’s gonna fit, and they’d record it in isolation. It’s funny, now a lot of the musicians on the record don’t remember it, cause the process was so sporadic. I’d call them one day and then they’d have two free months, and I’d call them again to add something else to an idea. They didn’t even realize it had been developed over three months. So it was definitely me embracing my wider community of musicians, cause there’s musicians throughout the whole album, but it’s not in the stereotypical way where we’re all necessarily in one room. The only track like that is “BTB.” Everything else was about me exploring what I can do with the sounds I’ve captured in different spaces. If I’ve got stems left over for the session I did in South Africa, or I’ve captured in Joe’s living room with his one microphone and his upright piano, or I’ve recorded something on my iPhone and just, you know, use it as sound. It was very much like, “There are no rules,” and I was really enjoying the process of cutting things and piecing them together to make me feel a certain way. That’s what it goes back to: If it didn’t make me feel as that away, I didn’t pursue it and only the stuff that did, made the cut.
As you’re talking about this, what’s interesting is thinking about the evolution of “jazz” nowadays and how it takes on the process you’re describing. Because, on the one hand, this is not really all that different to how Teo Macero and Miles Davis cut together music in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. On the other hand, so much about the “authenticity” of music has been ingrained into people approach the “jazz” headspaces, and thinking “hold on, that not right.” How do you approach those arguments? I mean, when you are booked to play, it is still as “Moses Boyd, the jazz drummer, of the UK jazz scene,” right? And there’s definitely a lot of jazz elements on Dark Matter, but this music isn’t what it was before — so, what is it?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I don’t try and define it ultimately. It’s tough because I’ve been so influenced and inspired by the jazz greats. Like yeah, I love when people reference it, cause I’m a huge Max Roach and Wayne Shorter fan, and that’s definitely in there. But there’s also the other side there, where I’m into Wiley and grime and soca and afrobeats — that’s in there too. And I’m not really concerned with what it is. If you hear it, and you feel it, whatever it feels to you, I’m cool. You know what I mean? I’m not trying to box it in for anyone, if there’s enough in there for people to enjoy. And if that means one day I’m playing a jazz festival and it fits, great. If another day, I play a club with an amazing PA sound system and light laser show? Cool, I’m into that too. It’s tough, because I haven’t really answered it either. It’s just a culmination of everything, and I don’t try and spend time wondering what it is because I can make it. [Laughs]
Last question, the so-called “London jazz” improvisation scene is globally recognized now. How do you see the people around you, your friends, your community evolving and, and where do you see yourself going? I don’t want you to get into like a crystal ball scenario, but give me a sense of what it looks like from the inside, a few years after it stopped being a strictly local, insular thing.
What’s been incredible is, I wouldn’t say overnight, but in a short space of time, how a community has birthed its own economy, created its own festivals, created its own venues and spaces, and writers are DJs. I think in its own right it is quite cool. So, on the one hand I’m like, as long as people are striving and doing their thing, hopefully that will sustain and I think it will. There’s enough legs. There’s those who do an international tour, and there’s those that are sort of maybe in the middle level and are still local, and then those, those are trying to learn and get involved. What I’m seeing just from musicians and people around me in that community is great. It’s very positive and hopefully, it will just become a [permanent] thing.
I guess with me, it’s tough because… I guess I’m in the heart of it, but equally, I’m just me. I’m always going to pursue what’s interesting and thrilling and exciting and challenging. But even if that means that one day I step out and it might be weird for everybody, I don’t mean to step out like I disappear. I mean if I give you a next album, and people might not get it. I’m only gonna pursue the things that make me grow as an artist. So I guess where I’m going is wherever that is, wherever that challenge is intellectually, or make me look at something a different way. For me, it’s always been about exploration through this love of music I have — through the drums, through production, through songwriting, through piano. I’m always trying to discover new things, new sounds, new angles, new ways to look at a song and new ways to write. So wherever it is, it’s going to be where I’ve challenged myself, finding intrigue and excitement through the creative process. What that sounds like. I don’t know,