Four nights of fantastic free outdoor live music with Jazz in the Park, Eastern Beats, Back to the Boogie and Proms in the Park: this is Under The Stars, the free music festival – at its 14th edition this year – offered by The Mayor of Newham; an event that gives the people of what many consider arguably one of London’s most deprived areas, an incredible moment of entertainment and fun.The first night this year presented a luxury lineup: the fathers of acid jazz, The Brand New Heavies and Incognito, on the same stage in the same night. I couldn’t miss such a mind blowing event, so I arranged an exclusive interview with Simon Bartholomew of Brand New Heavies.Here’s the transcript of our chat.
Q: The music industry has changed a lot along the years and you’ve just come out with a new album, “Forward”. How do the changes in the industry impact your way of making music?
A: What’s interesting is that it used to be that you’d tour to sell the record and you’d make money from your records, now you make a record to tour. We need a record to get people interested back in us going out. The album has been very well received and it’s been great, obviously you don’t sell so many records those days. I mean records sell 10% of what it used to be, anyone, the days of Michael Jackson selling millions and millions of records are over, unless you’re really founded, like the top of the rainforest, Bieber or Gaga, have you heard of him? New artists… very cute (smiles). Another thing is the internet of course, it’s been really nice for us, cause there’s money generated for everything and everybody around it, photographers, across the world, all the industry, it’s quite an interesting sort of hand made thing, what smaller labels do, like Stones Throw, an amazing label. It’s a quite a newer sort of role, getting in touch with the fans, a nicer role really, cause you can touch people with Facebook and actually talk to people and twitting and personal Facebook and stuff. It’s more real, like your fans are real, we survived and people come to see us and after all these years in the business – for a period it felt like we were over and not in the fashion – but now we’ve come with a new record and you can still see the Heavies and we’re still rocking and we’re still doing our thing the best we can. It’s a nice thing, it’s real, and you can speak to the people, and they can feel a part of you and you can show ’em what’s going on backstage and let people into it.
Q: What’s the idea behind the title of the new album, “Forward”?
A: You know, we’ve got a new manager, it’s a new beginning, a quicker cycle of making new albums, getting more music done, tightening up the business, realising it’s our own business and not like a record company where you would just feel you work for a manager or a record company. Now you control your own stuff, and you have to make it happen and drive yourself, and choose people, choose teams of people around you more so than ever. I think the “Forward” title, it kinda speaks for itself, it’s a new point of start and looking forward really. It’s like a new beginning and onwards, rather than just a now it’s in the now.
Q: Do you prefer recording music in the studio or playing live?
A: They’re both nice. For me music began as a sort of human… when there were less people and smaller villages and stuff like that music was a part of community and society and used for events and stuff, and everyone would join in and dance and I think I’ve always liked that about music. So I think that reality is playing music in a group. We do that in the studio, and make stuff up and play like that, which is also why I prefer to make music, you can write stuff on your own. For me the live thing is really… if it’s not working and people under-react it’s awful. Like in dance music, when dance music came out, if you’re a DJ in a club, if you play a record no one dances to, you can’t play it, you’re not gonna play it again; whereas on the radio you can play anything and it could be anything, even if it’s bad, if you get paid, and people get paid to play music in this industry you know, then you’re a player anyway. So I think that’s a weakness with playing live is probably top of the activities as a band, for me it’s what is Art, you know. Every crowd is different, you play the songs differently every time, I think it’s theatre, so that’s why the Arts have never died. You know there’s an old joke about music, that some of the great music that has been made in the past was by a bunch of people in the world and that records these days layer up on different times on computers and stuff like that. Justin Bieber won’t need a band, the track is there, he will turn up and sing on it and then might get someone playing guitar after that or before. I think the energy of a live thing is the theatre, you know, it’s spontaneous, it’s a moment. (Jan enters the room and they start joking about Jan’s iPad – laughters).
Q: How does a Brand New Heavies song come to life?
A: All different ways. Someone might write a song at home and bring it in and then we also replace parts on the guitar and the computer playing along to that part, you know. “Sunlight” was brought in as a very different tune. It was actually written by Jan as a pop-house track, but then we added that sort of Chic vibe (imitates guitar and baseline); then we did that live till the song was put together. “Addicted” was more structured by Andrew and played along. So it’s all different ways, yeah.
Q: What’s your favourite song from the latest album?
A: You know, that’s a dumb question and you know it (we both laugh). It’s very hard to choose ’cause they’re all different moods. I mean can you say your favourite Marvin Gaye song? Can you? If you think of everything he did? You know, from thirty years of music… “I heard it through the grapevine”, “What’s Going on”, lots of other stuff. It’s very hard. Favourite James Brown tune? Where’d you start?
Q: I see, but if you could just pick one?
A: The thing is I don’t list things like each song is not like 1st, 3rd, 2nd like a race or something in straight lines. It’s a different shape, it’s like a different animal, it’s like what animals do you like? Worms or tigers, or do you like dolphins? You know dolphins in the sea is a whole other world and different colours of the world. Worms live underground, without them we’d be dead, you know, and tigers live in the jungle. Each one is different. It’s more like what’s your favourite planet apart from Earth? You know they’re all up there in the cosmos and there’s the sun as well which isn’t even a planet, you know that is a ball of gas. So they’re indefinable in that way to me. It’s bits of songs that I prefer. I like the big horn wind in a song called “Lifestyle” (imitates sound) by our trumpet player, that’s one of my favourite bits on the album, but I couldn’t tell it’s the best song or that I prefer it to “Sunlight” or “The Way it goes” or “Forward” or “Itzine” or something like that. I just can’t say. That’s a question we’ve been asking always and that’s the best answer that I can give: how could you choose that? It’s very very difficult. That’s why it’s Art, because it’s subjective, someone would call football art, but this is a different thing. Like a swimming race who’s first is first, you can see it, but you can’t say that song is the winner of the race because someone else might not agree, but everyone agrees if someone won the race.
Q: What’s the greatest achievement of your career?
A: I think being here now is amazing. To have last year of 3 decades, you know, we came from the end of the record industry era really, before all the giants died, they still exist but not in the proper same way. And there’ve been a few gigs that have been amazing, everyone doing crazy stuff, you know; and I could tell that travelling around the world has been incredible. I go to Japan and I’m familiar with Japan, and that’s a lot for a guy from Ealing; it’s different from my old school friends who’ve had a so-called a normal life. I think just to be here now is unbelievable, still like the show’s on tonight, gotta work for it. It’s not like “yeah, we’ve done it, we’ve made it and they’re gonna kiss our butts anyway”, you gotta work for it. I’m very excited to meet Dawn as well, she’s the new lead singer of the band, Dawn Joseph, ’cause N’Dea moved down to other worlds that she wants to be in. It’s a new beginning, a new forward, so it’s exciting for what’s gonna happen.
Q: What’s your favourite place to play live?
A: On stage (we both laugh). That’s a cheeky answer. Actually it’s quite a similar thing, ’cause when we first started there wasn’t really funky music around. And people couldn’t really like… if you watch Top Of The Pops, people couldn’t dance, but now everywhere it’s quite similar, people respond in the same way. If you watch the film “Johnny Cash” with Joaquin Phoenix, that’s amazing, he does this gig with the folks in the prison, which is quite a famous thing that he wanted to do it, and when you see the film they’re all sort of “oohh, yeah yeah”, in the movie a bit more than they are in the real footage of the film; in the real one they would have to sit down or they would be like shot and taken away cause they’re in prison. I think people now respond amazingly and they scream and shout, I mean, I don’t really like to play sit down venues, sometimes they sit down and they go for us, like at the Ronnie Scott’s, we played there… it’s to get everyone up dancing. Rather then being watched and idolised is more like about breaking that barrier down. I don’t even like these fences and stuff and what’s that gap for? That’s too much. Is someone gonna kill us? If they really wanted they’d just go get us (smiles). If they want to break into your house, you can always have locks and things, but they could smash and hit with a hammer. You know, anyway, I love playing outdoors, it’s nice, cause it gives me a feeling of like…. a woodstocky feeling, free, you know (smiles).
Q: What’s next for Brand New Heavies?
A: We have started a new album already. We’re trying to finish it by october, we’re gonna try to get this out now. There’s a new cycle of working and more gigs, touring and… I think also dinner (laughs)!
Q: That was the last question so perfect timing (we both laugh)!
A: Excellent! Thank you.
Next thing I knew I was having dinner with the Brand New Heavies and a some members of Incognito…