initially from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/14/arts/music/grant-hart-husker-du-drummer-dies.html?mcubz=3

Grant Hart, a drummer, vocalist and songwriter for the influential Minnesota rock band Hüsker Dü, died on Wednesday. He was 56.

The band’s publicist, Ken Weinstein, said the cause was cancer.

Hüsker Dü was formed by Mr. Hart, the guitarist and singer Bob Mould and the bassist Greg Norton in the late 1970s in St. Paul. It soon became known for high-volume blasts of heart-quickening rock that could not quite disguise the hooks buried beneath the noise.

An early member of the hardcore movement, Hüsker Dü was a prolific presence in the 1980s, releasing six albums in fewer than six years. The band’s 1984 double album, “Zen Arcade,” was lauded by Robert Palmer of The New York Times, who said it might be the best record “to have emerged from the hardcore scene.”

Challenging punk orthodoxy with experimental takes on the genre and ambitious narrative elements, “Zen Arcade” introduced the band to a wider audience and reimagined the boundaries of hardcore.

Mr. Hart and Mr. Mould met in a record store in 1978 and soon began to play together, along with Mr. Norton, whom Mr. Mould had known previously. The group bonded over their love of significant punk bands of the decade, including the Ramones and the Sex Pistols.

Though Mr. Hart was bisexual and Mr. Mould was gay, their sexual orientation was not a major part of the band’s identity.

“Really, it didn’t define much about the band,” Mr. Hart told the website The A.V. Club in 2000. “If anything, it would have been just another question mark, because we were so unlike the stereotype du jour.”

Mr. Hart and Mr. Mould, both independent-minded musicians, frequently clashed over the band’s direction — both were songwriters — and the group’s contentious breakup, late in 1987, came in the wake of substance-abuse accusations.

“I didn’t enjoy playing hardcore,” Mr. Hart said in the A.V. Club interview. “At the time, while I was drummer for Hüsker Dü even though I played other instruments, it was just such a damn boring job for a drummer.”

He said that even as he began to infuse the band’s albums with more of his ideas, Mr. Mould pushed back in what Mr. Hart characterized as a “showdown,” saying that the group would never be an even split in terms of their ideas.

Mr. Mould said in a Facebook post that Mr. Hart’s death was not unexpected, and he acknowledged their occasional differences.

“We (almost) always agreed on how to present our collective work to the world,” Mr. Mould wrote. “When we fought about the details, it was because we both cared.”

Mr. Hart’s contributions as drummer were not as visible as those of Mr. Mould, the more obvious bandleader. But Mr. Hart had plenty of devotees, as evidenced by the song the Washington band the Posies wrote and dedicated to him.

Mr. Hart wrote two songs released as singles from the band’s major-label debut album, “Candy Apple Grey” (1986) — “Sorry Somehow” and “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” — as well as two of the band’s most beloved tracks on “Zen Arcade”: “Turn on the News” and “Pink Turns to Blue.”

Ken Shipley, an owner of the reissue label the Numero Group, which is releasing a boxed set of early Hüsker Dü material in November, remembered Mr. Hart in a statement as “disarming and masterminding all at once.”

“Grant was tortured for sure, but he had a hell of a lot of fun bringing you in on the joke, even if you were part of the punch line,” he wrote.

Grantzberg Vernon Hart was born on March 18, 1961, and raised in St. Paul. He started playing music professionally at age 13 and had been in several bands before joining Hüsker Dü. After its breakup, he formed other bands and released his own music intermittently.

An accomplished visual artist who designed Hüsker Dü’s album art, Mr. Hart continued to draw and to read poetry in recent years.

He is survived by his wife, Brigid McGough, and a son, Karl.

Mr. Hart’s fourth and final solo album, “The Argument” (2013), was a much-praised testament to his ambition, drawing on William S. Burroughs’s unpublished adaptation of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

“Savage Young Dü,” the boxed set, is due to be released on Nov. 10.

“We pushed as hard as we could to get this beast into the wild, but it wasn’t hard enough,” Mr. Shipley wrote.


Paul Kelly – Life Is Fine (EMI)

Paul-Kelly-Life-Is-FineNot drowning but waving.  The cover of Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly’s new album indicates that he’s back in safer waters with a revisit his 1990s pop repetoire.   These are the waters that vividly recall his surging pop-rock fortunes of the Nineties.  

Literally, that’s true.  With long time backing vocalist Linda Bull taking own his own song Don’t Explain(from Live, 1992) with a full band behind her to add more ‘oomph’ to her powerful delivery.  Not that she needed it.  And just to show there’s no favouritism Vika Bull, Linda’s vocal partner in rhyme gets to complain her ears out with a thumping rendition of My Man’s Got a Cold, the eternal classic whinge in many a classic Aussie household concept.  But then Kelly’s always been a keen observer of the domestic, ready to sweat the small stuff

Kelly’s band on this record is a bit of a blast from the recent past, as it includes many of the crew who made 2014’s Merri Soul Sessions.  Alongside the brilliant Vika and Linda are Ashley Naylor (guitar); Bill McDonald (bass); Cameron Bruce (keyboards); and Peter Luscombe on drums.  It’s a a group of friends and familiars.   And they go way back.  That helps.

Relatable and reliable, sur, but sometimes a little restless. Kelly has taken some odd detours lately.  His last album was a collection of songs he’d been asked to perform at funerals and before that a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music.

Life Is Fine is a shameless attempt to time travel back and recapture the energy and vibe records such as Post. But this time Kelly’s collection is without a concept, rhyme or reason, nothing to confine him.  It’s just a Paul Kelly album without choirs, Shakespeare or any other themes – except, maybe ‘water’.

He’s returned to the piano, even learning to play better, which seems to have invigorated him as a songwriter, takes everything back to basics.  So ‘simplicity’ is at the core of the songs Finally Something GoodMy Man’s Got a Cold and I Smell Trouble. The latter, especially, is surely one of Kelly’s best songs in ages and reminds me just a little of his classic Sweet Guy (1989).

If you remember the wonderfully mundane romance of his tune Winter Coat (1991), then you’ll appreciate the first single Firewood and Candles which has a similar feel.   Maybe it’s his voice, maybe it’s the arrangement or perhaps the simple and clear lyrics.  Whatever the case, it feels genuine and down to earth – as if you might know the people in this scenario. It totally feels like one of his 80’s numbers.

Wanting this to be an upbeat record Kelly worked with Steve Schram (The Cat Empire), who engineered and co-produced. He likes to work really fast and get the performance of the band live in the studio, vocals and all at the same time.  You can hear this immediacy in the sound of the record.  It’s vibrant and lively.

Kelly’s enduring songwriting mojo is his continual drive to break old habits, find new ways to extend his creative powers.  But also, to link old songs with new.  Which is probably where the water theme comes from.

Early songs featured biblical references and fishing in streams, metaphors for atonement. The album’s title track has the lines “If that water hadn’t been so cold I might have sunk and died”.  Morbid but positive?  Actually, it’s not Kelly;s line  but that of American poet Langston Hughes, who died in 1967.  Still, Kelly can’t help appropriating it and mixing it with a Stevie Smith reference by “Not drowning, waving” on the cover of his album.  You get the feeling that the ‘fine’ reference is about details, like the ripples on a calm lake – individually, nothing but collectively the .sum of all nervous, unpredictable energies.  He actually says that:

Fans of Kelly can be certain – Life Is Fine is one of his  strongest and most evocative albums for years, Another reason to buy vinyl – so you can stack this treasure proudly next any of his earlier classic albums.

The Black Seeds: The 13th Floor interview


Originally published:  https://www.13thfloor.co.nz/the-black-seeds-the-13th-floor-interview/

The 13th Floor’s Tim Gruar talks to The Black Seeds’ Barnaby Weir in anticipation of the release of the band’s new album, Fabric, due out this Friday.

Having just arrived back from a 10-date US and Canadian tour, Barnaby Weir, founding member and one of the main song writing forces behind Wellington’s enigmatic reggae outfit The Black Seeds is happy to be back home.

The tour was intense and busy. “It was exhausting, but fulfilling,” Barnaby tells me, over the phone from his home in the Capital.  “12 Dates in 15 days!  But, the usual… low budget, all in the van, all out, set up, sound check, play the gig and off again.  Plenty of fan time, though.  2 days off in the entire tour!”

The band has had a strong following Stateside for a number of years and continues to nurture that with regular visits.  That works both ways.  Kiwi fans will remember a memorable local a few back here with US dub crew John Brown’s Body.  Barnaby reckons the Reggae dub scene in the US is still strong.  “Smaller than mainstream but very dedicated.”

Some fans even turned out to one of the Black Seeds gigs at a Las Vegas bowling alley.  Luckily, their played loud enough to drown out the sounds of crashing pins and strikes.  They also got to play the Victoria Ska Festival in Canada.  “This is a 5-day thing, plenty of variety with the bands.”

I asked him if America felt any different, post-election.  “You mean now Trump’s in?  No.  Not really.  That’s what I noted.  Americans just seem to get on with everything the same as before.  He might be in the news a lot but most of the people that were up with politics and that were foreigners.  The locals were too busy with their lives.  They were (resilient) enough to keep going.  Most of the people we met wanted to know about New Zealand.  They were keen to learn about us.  That hasn’t really changed”

It’s been a while since we’ve heard from The Black Seeds but that doesn’t mean that Barnaby or any of the other band members have been sitting on their hands.  The last time we talked, Barnaby reminds me, was just before Christmas, when he was knee deep in preparations for the upcoming Fly My Pretties (String Theory) shows.  At the time, he’d hinted that the Black Seeds had been recording again and something was ready to drop.  And at last, he says, “Yes, it is ready.” The new album, Fabric, due for release in early September, and will be the band’s 6th studio album.  Five years on from Dust and Dirt the band returns to a more upbeat party feel.  That’s a result of their constant touring as perennial festival favourites that have seen them funk up the stages in nearly every corner of the globe.  “We’ve learned what makes people move.”

Earlier this year they dropped the single Better Days, penned by Barnaby, to mark the Band’s return.  It’s an upbeat and positive feel good song, he says.  “We wanted to install that good vibe again.  I wanted to write a really good Rock Steady tune.  So, I sat down and got this one out then took it to the band.”

“Taking it to the band” is always a small challenge with this group.  Between world touring, festival commitments and juggling individual projects (these guys are always busy and in high demand) The Black Seeds finally found some solid time to focus their efforts.  Barnaby says that the bulk of the work went on last year and early this year at long-time collaborator (Dr) Lee Prebble’s famous Wellington studio The Surgery.  “We tend to ‘binge’ record.  We did this over four big bookings, working 24 hours a day in shifts.  Efforts are tense but good.  It’s like the project needs to start and end.  If it drags on we lose interest and momentum.”

One result of that ‘focus’ is the intense kinetic energy you get within the album and that makes it physically infectious.  “You definitely want to ‘move’ when you hear this.”  And there are definite moments times for this.  Styles change.  From the uplifting dance hall stomp of Better Days to the gorgeous nostalgic late 70s/early 80s R’n’B funk of Freakin’ and the dirty bass groove you can hear in Everybody Knows.  They continue to rethink and rework all their influences.  And there’s plenty more to discover, too.  The title track is a nod to previous more experimental efforts but with a deliberate intention to be a crowd pleaser.

Having worked long time with both a steady band and an ever-changing collaboration like Fly My Pretties I have to ask what he’s learned from this experience and what he enjoys best.  “I can be pretty intense at times about my work.  I have a distinct idea about a song.  I learned with Fly My Pretties that you have to let that go and give up the ‘baby’ sometimes.  The results are always better if you just trust in that.”

As always, Barnaby says, the song writing was shared between himself and Daniel Weetman but the product, as a whole is always a collaboration from everyone.  Over the years the makeup has changed slightly.  It’s been two years now since Mike Fabulous left to pursue his Lord Echo project.  He’s been replaced by Ned Ngatae (Guitar).  But other founding fathers like Jarney Murphy (Drums) and Nigel Patterson (Keyboard) are still firmly ensconced.  Francis Harawira looks after Bass and the all-important brass section are supported by Barrett Hocking (Trumpet) Matthew Benton and Wellington jazz ‘legend’ Lucien Johnson (Saxophone).  Johnson also lent a hand to Mike Fab recently on his latest Lord Echo album and WOMAD gig.   In actual fact, all of the band members help each other out on other assignments.  This is one reason why every Black Seeds album feels so comfortable.

The band’s collaboration goes further that just music.  Daniel Weetman, for example, is also behind Fabric’s distinctive cover design.  “Daniel cut out paper and arranged it and photographed it for the cover.  He wanted it to have an abstract look, influenced by Pacific designs. But it also looks like a shield or coat of arms, which you get with some traditional reggae designs.   So, it really feels like part of our story, I think.”

There’s no denying the band has a definite ‘Kiwi’ sound .  Barnaby reckons this wasn’t something that was intentionally nurtured but being citizens of the South Pacific it’s difficult to separate out the accent or the influences.   “I don’t think it was ever going to work – us singing in Jamaican accents.  It only works if we a genuine”

Next year marks the band’s 20-year anniversary.  The band was originally pulled for a 1999 Radio Active gig.  “We did these ‘jokey’ Kiwi covers like Dobbyn’s Love You Like I Should and that led to some regular time at (Wellington’s classic bar) Bodega.  Which is sadly gone now.  We’d charge $5 on the door to survive a night with us.”  No hints yet as to how the band will celebrate.  20 years on the survivors are looking pretty good.

Tim Gruar

The Black Seeds – Fabric is out September 8th 2017 




Ane Brun – Leave Me Breathless (Balloon Ranger Records)

Ane-BrunLeave Me Breathless is the seventh studio release from Norwegian born, Stockholm based musician Ane Brun.  Brun is usually known for dark, introspective brooding work that challenges us and changes our perception.  So what possessed her to take on a collection of covers, half of which are the some of the most appalling songs ever conceived? 

Touted as her most personal album yet, it’s a collection of 14 tracks that “deal with those overwhelming themes of love and romance”.  But so what?  I mean why choose an abomination like Foreigner’s I want to Know What Love Is?  Admittedly Brun’s version is way more intimate, slowed down on guitar with some more brooding synths in the background, as is her custom.

The treatment is very much like her earlier stuff, especially songs like Big In Japan (2008).  Delicate, every, pronounced.  Lines delivered as carefully as a child stepping across flagstones in a stream.  But nothing can turn a pig’s ear like this one into a silk purse.  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  The song is horrible and nothing can change that whining chorus.

Knocking off the blatantly gushy Elvis cover You Were Always On My Mind or the equally appalling Mariah Carey blast-fest Hero just makes you want to reach for the FFWD button pronto.  Fortunately, Brun doesn’t try the vocal gynastics, voting to go soft and subtle but both are so layered with cheese that Not even Brun’s pining, longing vocals can save them.

Worse, if that’s possible, is her version of The Righteous Brother’s Unchained Melody.  Thanks to The Big Chill every disco in the 80’s thrashed this one to death…one reason Brun chose it, no doubt.  Brun tries desperately to strip down the Spector Wall of Sound and get to the heart of the song but fails to really give us anything new or compelling.  The corny lines and annoying hooks are still there. I hated the song then and her version doesn’t really change that.

Things Finally improve with her sparse, slightly Celtic treatment of Nick Cave’s Into My Arms.  It works if you’ve never heard the original.  But Cave’s performance is so aching that it would be impossible to top it.  So instead, it comes across like one of those songs redone for a television show or pilot theme.  All very sincere but leaking the charisma of the original.

On the other hand her version of the old Shakespeare’s Sister number Stay really is more genuine.  It’s contructed around a simple keyboard/synth arrangement with tinges of Kraftwerk which makes the song less melodramatic but futuristic, more like something suitable for a sci-fi film like I Robot.  Towards the end you get the soft hum of what appears to be a distant Welsh Male Choir singing the chorus to fade out.

The highlight of the whole album is almost too late.  A truly haunting rendition of Radiohead’s How To Disappear Completely comes in like the ambient music of a Norwegian noir crime show, just after the victim is found dead and cold on a misty country road. Her song shuns the original anxiety of a full band and uses lingering atonal chords and sparse piano notes so that your mind instantly drifts to an empty glacial plain or a frozen river.  It’s frigid and slightly creepy in places.

Another forget me not is Dylan’s Girl From The North Country.  I hated the original.  Dylan mumbles through the thing like he’s embarrased or something.. But Brun slows down it’s usual chug and adds a slight country twang with some haunting hints of Ry Cooder style slide guitar to build atmosphere.  It would work well in a Townes Van Zant or Lars Trier film.

The other song of note claims it’s inspiration from the ‘Doo wop’ chorus-line of the original Joni Mitchell tune Big Yellow Taxi is redone as a choir piece.  I suspect that Brun has overdubbed her voice countless times to make a backing track of human voices as a bed over which to sing her version of the song.  Again, like many of the others on this album, she’s slowed down and takes care with every vowel and consonant, savouring each sound as she makes them.

It’s a shame that her best efforts and most creative appear at the very end of this album.  I would have liked more innovation.  After you can see great performers at your local pub do covers on a guitar or keyboard.  There’s nothing special in that.

Brun has claimed that the original idea behind this project had been to interpret love songs, romantic songs – it didn’t have to be a specifically sad or happy love – but, in the end, there are a few songs with other themes as well.  That it was a a concept of simplifying or interpreting emotional songs in my own way.  Well, sure.  She’s done that but sadly there’s little to get excited about.  And her choices, bar one or two, are simply appalling.  There’s really little else to write home about here, sorry.

Groove Book Report – Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World – Billy Bragg (Faber)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Originally appeared on http://www.groovefm.co.nz and 13thfloor.co.nz

“Skiffle is a music genre with jazz, blues, folk and American folk influences, usually using homemade or improvised instruments. Originating as a term in the United States in the first half of the 20th century, it became popular again in the UK in the 1950s, where it was associated with artists such as Lonnie Donegan, The Vipers Skiffle Group, Ken Colyer and Chas McDevitt. Skiffle played a major part in beginning the careers of later eminent jazz, pop, blues, folk and rock musicians and has been seen as a critical stepping stone to the second British folk revival, blues boom and British Invasion of the US popular music scene.”  – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skiffle

Told with joyous vigor, this book tells the story of jazz pilgrims and blues blowers, Teddy Boys and beatnik girls, coffee-bar bohemians and refugees from the McCarthy witch-hunts. Billy Bragg traces how the guitar came to the forefront of music in the UK and led directly to the British Invasion of the US charts in the 1960s.

This is quite possibly the first book to ‘properly’ explore the short-lived Skiffle phenomenon in any really depth.  On the surface, it’s a musical style that could easily be brushed aside as a post war hillbilly revival – A last gasp for Britain’s vaudeville performers whose careers have been swept aside by the tidal wave of Swing, Big Band Music and Jazz brought to UK by American troops stationed there during the war.  On the other hand, author and musician Stephen William “Billy” Bragg argues skiffle was the first and possibly the best example of British youth’s DIY ‘punk’ attitude which sparked a revolution that shaped pop music as we have come to know it.

Skiffle, as a style, if that’s the right word, emerged from the trad-jazz clubs of the early ’50s.  Initially it was another vehicle for novelty songs, skits and old time music hall – a tradition that British performers longed to revive but it’s simple style, often played on guitar, washboard, harmonica and piano meant that nearly anyone could pick up an instrument and play.  So skiffle was adopted by kids who growing up during the dreary, post-war rationing years. These were Britain’s first teenagers, looking for a music of their own in a pop culture dominated by crooners and mediated by a stuffy BBC.  With a reinvented version of a Leadbelly tune Lonnie Donegan hit the charts in 1956 with a version of Rock Island Line.  And soon sales of guitars rocketed from 5,000 to 250,000 a year.  It was that simplicity, Bragg argues, that likens the style to the punk rock that would flourish two decades later because, at the end of the day, skiffle was a do-it-yourself music.It’s no surprise that Bragg chose this topic because for nearly his entire 30-year recording career he’s been involved at the grassroots of political and social movements.  As he’s told the UK press on multiple occasions: “I don’t mind being labelled a political songwriter. The thing that troubles me is being dismissed as a political songwriter.”  And even more than before, he’s still searching for a New England.

Way back, before BREXIT, the country had another identity crisis.  As Orwellian Britain was recovering it desperately needed some kind of release from the blandness and drudgeries of a post war concrete-grey world.  Victory was not sweet.  It was harsh.  There were ration cards and shortages, laws and restrictions.  America had exported its glamour to Britain but it was all still black in white in Old Blighty.  And for the youth of the country, who’d grown up with the scars of the previous decades they were wanting to escape with nowhere to go.  As Johnny Marr wrote in his own biography, his play ground was the rubble of a bombed-out Manchester.  Not the glam of the Hollywood Hills.

As far as Bragg is concerned Donegan is the hero of British skiffle but it all starts earlier with trumpet play Ken Colyer who boarded a ship in 1952 as a galley cook and landed in New Orleans.  There he gigged with local musicians.  Eventually he was kicked out of the USA, when his visa expired and for ‘consorting’ with black musicians, he set up shop in London with his own new sextet playing New Orleans-style jazz, with Chris Barber on trombone and Donegan on banjo.  Colyer also played guitar with a subset of the band – including his brother, Bill, on washboard – performed interval sets featuring folk, blues and country songs.  Ironically Colyer and his brother were eventually sacked from their own ensemble.  Re-labelled the Chris Barber Jazz Band the group recorded their first album in the summer of 1954, including the add-on Rock Island Line by the great blues singer Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly).  The record company pretty much ignored this tune for over a year until finally released, almost by accident.  And the rest is history.The hit parade dominated by ‘Old Men’ – crooners and novelty songs.  Music was for grown -ups.  So it was refreshing when that was all disrupted not just by Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line (1954) but by the equally homespun Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O by the Vipers and the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group’s Freight Train (feat. Nancy Whiskey).  Skiffle was the natural replacement to the exotic Calypso styles.  Although it drew its roots from Blues it was ideally suited to British working class accents and certainly struck the right chords with the audiences.

Overall, Bragg acknowledges, the significance of skiffle is subject of heated debate.  For our hero, Lonnie Donegan, it probably became an albatross as much as an eagle’s wings.  It took him from obscurity to fame.  He didn’t do himself any favors, though.  Recording tunes like My Old Man’s a Dustman and Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour On The Bedpost Overnight? relegated skiffle back down to the ranks of novelty music.  Although many bands and performers chose to return to the style later on.  Paul McCartney and John Lennon returned to their roots and borrowed heavily – You can hear it on When I’m 64 and Rocky Racoon, for instance.
For players, the appeal of skiffle was immediate.  All it took to create an approximation of the sound heard on a song like, say Rock Island Line was a bass made from a tea chest and a broom handle; a zinc washboard and a set of metal thimbles; and a guitar, uke or piano.  Someone also had to sing, of course, roughly in the southern blues and country styles.  Because there was no amplification rehearsals could go ahead in front rooms of terrace houses without annoying the neighbors.  Because it was a cheap and easy music to learn and play, guitar sales soared.  On a different level this was the parlor music that was once a vital part of British social graces, but perhaps more lively.

Bragg rounds off his book with a kind of Post-skiffle chapter, bringing the connections of Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, The Who, The Bee Gees, all who owe their careers to their early interest in skiffle and it’s motivations to get them playing.  He then leaps ahead to remind us that the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and many others of the 70’s all played London’s 100 Club in 1976 with the same brazen attitude to “set out to democratize popular culture”.

Skiffle was a working-class music at best and even could be egalitarian at times, especially when the BBC got hold of it.  Many of Britain’s best rock musicians came from the streets.  You can see how Bragg makes the connection.  Not bad for a working-class kid who failed his 11-plus and missed out on a place in University.  His work, life and now this book speak volumes more than any professor, and with more color and relevance than some tedious talk in a dusty lecture.

Streamed live on Jul 21, 2017

The roots of skiffle as a musical genre and its influence on popular music is discussed in this book talk presented by singer and guitarist Billy Bragg at the Library of Congress in the Mumford Room, located on the sixth floor of the James Madison Memorial Building, 101 Independence Ave., S.E., Washington, D.C.

The Comet Is Coming – The 13th Floor Interview

This appeared last month as promotion for the upcoming Wellington Jazz Festival: http://www.13thfloor.co.nz/?p=88520


Playing the Wellington Jazz Festival this weekend are the London-based psychedelic funk-meisters The Comet is Coming. They mix sounds from the universe including snippets of Parliament, Sun Ra and Afro-funk pioneers like Fela Kuti – all channelled through a digital dashboard of synths and crazy sax.

The imagery associated with the band is based around outer space, science fiction and B-movies, as can be seen in the music videos for their wacky singles Neon Baby and Do the Milky Way. And to add to the mystery the band members go by the pseudonyms King ShabakaDanalogue the Conquerer and Betamax Killer; who are saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, synth player Dan Leavers and drummer Max Hallett respectively.

The band are currently touring the world, so getting them to sit still long enough for and interview was out of the question. Still, that didn’t stop Tim Gruar from jumping on the keyboard for an email exchange to find out more about their cosmic capers and what to expect this weekend.


TG: Where did this crazy thing you call The Comet is Coming all come from?

Betamax Killer: Me and Danalogue the Conqueror play as a psychedelic electro synths and live drums duo called Soccer96, he writes. We noticed this tall, shadowy figure hanging at some of our gigs. At one point he turned up by the side of the stage with his sax in hand and when he got up to play with us it created an explosive shockwave of energy that stunned us all. A couple of weeks later he calls me up and says that we should make a record. So, we booked three days and it all came together amazingly fast. We played and recorded with no pre-written material but by the end we had recorded hours of music.

TG: It struck me, watching your video for Neon Baby how far we’ve come with music making. Especially digitally, I notice, Yet the images you use in your vids are snippets from TV Sci Fi and B Movies (gotta love the Space 1999 and Battlestar Galactica cuts). Was that the vision of the future you had when you were growing up?

Betamax Killer: When I grew up, I was allowed to stay up late Friday night to watch Red Dwarf on TV. It was totally out of control story plots that were impossible to predict. At the same time, it was incredibly stupid humour. Later when I was at University we didn’t have a TV licence but a friend of mine had all the Red Dwarf episodes on VHS. And so, it was pretty much the only thing I could watch for a whole year. I don’t know if you had that show in New Zealand actually.

TG: Actually, we did. And its late night screening time was responsible for me sleeping in at least on 3 occasions, maybe more.

Because Betamax asks if we had red dwarf here in Nz and Im saying ‘yes’ .

TG: What guided your thinking, to model the sound and the visuals on this retro space theme vibe?

Betamax Killer: I’ve always enjoyed the creative freedom applied when imagining the future. We get to completely redesign anything we want about the world and see what happens. Old sci-fi appeals to me as it pulls you back into the past and whilst launching you ahead into the future at the same time. Everything feels strange but also familiar. I think this is also reflected in our writing and production. We record using tape machines and old mics and old instruments, but also attempt to travel into the unfamiliar.

TG: Your sound has that retro-future theme to it. Who were your early influences? I’m hearing Sun Ra Archestra, Manu Di Bango, Afrika Bambataa, Parliament, George Clinton and Funkadelic. Would I be right?

Betamax Killer: Personally I definitely had big George Clinton phase. I used to drum along with some of those albums, trying to get deep with the pocket, but also soak up the positive mushroomy vibes. He always seems to have a divine insight that feels enlightened and it’s very infectious. I always felt you are listening to a man who has done enough drugs to see through everything, and he’s letting me know that it’s basically all good if you stay funky. I think this is a very important lesson both in life and in music. To create positive intention and an honest musicality to bring all earthlings together.

TG: The band make their music in a small studio with the best name ever. Tell me about the ‘Total Refreshment Centre’ studio recordings that spawned Neon Baby? I think I can hear bottles clinking and people talking and dancing in the background – was this recorded live like a nightclub?

Danalogue the Conquerer: The Total Refreshment Centre is a very special place in Dalston, London. It is an old victorian warehouse that has been re-purposed as a live music space, along with a brilliant recording studio, co-run by Danalogue along with legendary electronic artist Capitol K.

The original sessions that spawned tracks from our Prophecy EP (2015) – including Neon Baby – and tracks from the LP Channel The Spirits (2016) were based largely on improvisation, played completely live, to tape, with the tape machine inside the room with us, engineered on the fly. Whilst the daytime sessions had yielded plenty of fruit, we had an inclination that a night session with people in the room, beers and good vibes might give an extra angle to our output, and an extra energy. Neon Baby is one of the few tracks from that session, and there are indeed bottles clinking and percussion being played off mic, which occasionally pops through. Watch the video (see below) to neon baby and you will see short exerts filmed in the moment!


TG: In fact, I have seen one of their videos of a recording session and was blown away by how ‘simple’ their set up is – yet how complex the sound is by comparison. What equipment are you using to make all that sound?, I ask.

Danalogue the Conquerer: The band is essentially comprised of a drum kit, a saxophone, and two synthesisers, both analogue, both Roland, one Mono, one Stereo. It is pretty simple, and I’d argue that you can get bands with far more members and instruments that don’t sound anywhere near as huge sounding. On record, we use a drum machine to stay in time which is sometimes added in the mix, but I guess part of why it sounds like a lot of sound is that we are often playing with a degree of intensity that fleshes it out.

TG: No band likes to talk about their writing process. How does it get started – because when I hear your music it’s like divided equally into 3 parts and I can’t tell which parts leads and the rest are following. Normally, in jazz you have melody and a downbeat that directs the tune. The soloists play over the top and grab the glory by in Comet the it feels more democratic.

Danalogue the Conquerer: I don’t think we started out to make a jazz record, so in that sense our writing process has nothing to do with jazz. Betamax And I already had a writing and recording style from playing as Soccer96, and involved improvising onto tape in a recording studio, so when Shabaka joined us we were ready to roll. We also ran Shabaka through a giant guitar amp owned by Capitol K which took the saxophone to an electric guitar kind of place, and set a new, dirtier vibe particular to our group.

In terms of composition, Herbie Hancock said once that improvisation is composition, just in a very fast form, you compose in the moment, minute to minute, make your choices in a split second, and if you all listen together, and play with synergy and cooperation, you can even form structures, dynamics and arrangements in the moment. It takes a very special group of players to pull that off, and I knew in the first minute of the first recording session that what we had as a group dynamic was going to be explosive!

TG: From what I’ve read, this group came together when King Shabaka joined in from the sidelines. I ask Wasn’t this originally a two-piece called Soccer69? Can you explain the origins of the group?

King Shabaka: I liked the music of Soccer 96 so I asked to sit in on their set a few times. We decided after a while to book a studio and record some jams. We found structures out of hours of free improvisation and built an album from it. Then started to perform at parties, then festivals.

TG: Can you tell me about your sax (and clarinet) playing. How did you develop this sound? Why not, for example play like Bird or in a more traditional way? What spirits guided you in this direction? Have you got formal training or did you learn from the street or a club? I keep reading about Sons of Kemet and your group’s associations.

King Shabaka: I trained classically at the guildhall school of music on the clarinet predominantly. I’ve developed a way of playing that incorporates aspects of many types of music that I like outside of the parameters which usually typify genre-specific playing. I’ve been through many phases of assimilating various styles so at a point in my career I was playing more orthodox jazz, at a point I was more into free improvisation. At this time, I’m into how I sound now which feels like an amalgamation of lessons learnt from these and more styles. I’ve always enjoyed jamming and performance in clubs so outside my classical training I learnt jazz by trial and error in clubs and bars, and through studying books and albums.

Currently the ‘Comet’ has just landed at a jazz festival in The Netherlands.

King Shabaka: Generally, if the gigs are marketed to people who are up for a rave and are open to joining us in the energy then it’ll be an epic show regardless of geographical placement. Sometimes we’ll turn up to a small town somewhere and there just won’t be that (type of) demographic, though, so we feed of vibe that the crowd is giving regardless and as long as it’s an honest exchange on both sides I think there is potential for a great performance. (When you come to our gigs you have to) feel free to express yourself with integrity.

In other words: Party hard!

The Comet Is Coming play the Wellington Jazz Festival Saturday 10 June.