On the occasion of their live show at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s in Soho (London) I had the chance to interview “Bluey” of Incognito in the backstage before enjoying their amazing concert.
Q: What’s the idea behind the title of your latest album, “Surreal”?
A: “The thing is when you, sometimes you wake up and you need to pinch yourself that you’re doing something. With some people it’s like, “oh I met a girl she’s so beautiful” and then it’s like, “I’d never expect to meet someone like that”, you know, and some people it’s like, “oh you know, this thing happened to me in my life, you know, and it changed my life forever”, and this is surreal. Surreal is this for me: once we’re making an album, I remember one morning waking up going to the studio and feeling, “wow this is what I dreamt about!”, when I was a kid you know. Life on a daily basis seems surreal when you’re a musician, because you get the chance to live your fantasy, because who gets the chance to live their fantasy every day? It doesn’t seem realistic because around me, my sister’s a police woman, and my brother in law he fixes cars. I say everybody has what we call jobs, and I have this escapism in life,I write about things that’s in my head, whether it’s my life and it’s real or not real, I can create, we can make music, which is a soundtrack that we can choose the mood that we set to it. You know, it’s like we’re able to kind of like make a soundtrack to our everyday lives that in itself is surreal, because we can decide to make something, a story about something and make it exciting, but by the time we get to the studio I’m talking about what happened to me this week with my wife or whatever, but the music is taking it somewhere else and becomes new things and you know some people they’re telling me “oh this is about so and so”, but it’s not what I wrote you know. It explains the way we found ourselves in this fantasy life, surreal.”
Q: What do you think of the state of today mainstream music?
A: “Mainstream music has always been mainstream music. My way of looking at it is not looking at it today or looking at it in the 90s or 80s or 70s, there was always mainstream music. I was just never a part of it.”
Q: But pardon me if I may, if I think of the 80s mainstream music I think about Michael Jackson and today I think about… I don’t know, who?
A: “If you look at Pharrell or Robin Thicke you know. Or if you look at the music that was before Michael Jackson, who would you say was the mainstream before Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley? There’s always some kind of star that’s bigger than you, some gets played on radio. At the moment we don’t have the massive shiny star, but this industry is not the same any more. One of reasons why you’ll never have another Elvis Presley or another Michael Jackson is no matter how many Beyonce’s you get, you cannot have somebody that has a presence in everybody’s house, because they don’t sell music anymore in the same way. I don’t know whether Beyonce would have had the talent to be able to do this anyway, but it’s never going to happen again because life has changed forever, because things are for free now. There’s no record that’s been released in the last 20 years since they stopped making vinyl and now you can get the vinyl and rip it into a digital, but there’s no music that you make that somebody can’t have for nothing. I’ve had people coming to me after the show asking “can you sign my cd?” and I go “this looks like it’s not the real one”, “ok but it’s you music, no”? They don’t understand, you know, and I don’t expect them to understand. So, it’s changed forever. So mainstream music has always been what it is but now it’s less mainstream than anytime than it’s ever been. It’s little chunks of like everything.”
Q: With the new album two new incredible voices joined the long list of Incognito singers. Who’s the singer you’ve enjoyed working with the most?
A: “The immediate person that comes to my mind is Maysa, because she really was a kind of… you know, I worked with many many many singers, incredible singers, but if I had to kind of say “is there someone you think in this planet should have been as big as Chaka Kan, as big as Roberta Flack, as big as Stevie, as big as Marvin Gaye, that you know that didn’t make it to that kind of fame”, I would say Maysa. One of the reasons is that all that we gave her great body of work those other people they would work with incredible songwriters, that just kind of like they would…. you know, Rod Temperton for Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye was an incredible songwriter, but Leon Ware coming into his life and writing with him, someone like Minnie Riperton who’s an incredible singer but she had Paul Rudolph and Leon Ware writing for her. They had songs of greatness, and I would say all that we tried to give Maysa as much as greatness as possible, she’s one of the best, very particular type of voice, there’s been many great singers who can sing and probably out-sing Maysa in terms of screaming or in terms of having more power, in terms of maybe having more leaks, but just the tone of her voice, the sound. I would say Maysa.”
Q: Is there any artist you would have liked to work with?
A: “Still would like to be in the studio with De Angelo, we like what he does. Sadly we’ve just lost George Duke. I have worked with him but I really wanted to go back and work with him some more, but he’s just passed away. I’ve been fortunate enough to say, to look back at my career and say, I’ve been on stage and performed with James Brown. Not just as a supporter, but WITH James Brown, in the same band. James Brown said to me, “Bluey you will play guitar for me tonight”. I’ve performed with Stevie Wonder, recorded with Stevie Wonder, with Chaka Kan. One that I really missed out, the one person that I’d say, it’s two people really, but one was behind the scene and one was in the scene: Maurice White from Earth Wind & Fire and Charles Stepney who was a songwriter and producer who worked with them and all of the great songs that they did in the early days were a combination of those two guys. So Charles Stepney who’s passed away, and Maurice White who’s not well who’s ill; but I’ve never really liked to dwell on to long about who I would like to work with, I just look for new people, the new album will probably have like 5 or 6 new people that will be coming in and again it will be like, a new direction, a new sound, but you know it’s still Incognito.”
Q: What’s the process of writing your music? Where do you take your inspiration from?
A: “Anything and everything. To give you an example of the way I write, I think to give you an example would be better. I’m an observer of people, I sometimes fantasise, “100 Degrees and Rising” was written as a documentary: wake up in the morning, go out in the street with a tape recorder, and a little dictaphone, and walk around, gorilla style, walking into shops, you know see people having an argument, staying next to them; then go to a street corner and watch a pimp, in New York city, trying to sell his stuff, you know, see a drug dealer operating, standing on the other side of the road, comment on it, you know, have a coffee and say “oh, yeah, now he’s actually approached the car, you know”, and kind of then looking at the arguments and go, “right crazy woman in the shop you know stealing food putting it in her pocket.” And then you look at the song and that was the lyrics. “I love what you do for me”, I was driving from Tokyo to the airport, big poster: “TOYOTA, I Love What You Do For Me”. I said, “Man! that’s great… I’d like to use that as the title of a song”. You know, it’s great, it’s captivating, this is how you sell something, you know, “TOYOTA, I Love What You Do For Me”, let me stand that on my wife, you know, so writing a song for my wife, cause that’s the way she makes me feel. You know, I don’t have a Toyota but I have my wife (smiles).
It’s like anything, and in terms of writing it could be also on the guitar, very often. I came into a room with Matt Cooper this week and sit with this guy at the piano, and me on guitar, writing stuff; sometimes I just take out my record collection, one of the things we did on the new album, is I write also in a hip hop kind of way. I’ll take my record collection, find a chord that I love (sings the chord), then take a BBC commercial (sings the tune) and I’ve got my music, cut it up put together, writing the lyrics on top of it. Sometimes we’re the whole band together in the room and start jamming. No set ways.
Lyrically is where the work comes in. The other stuff is just very organic. Lyrically, you take all that but if I was a rapper I’d jam out the words, but because I’m not a rapper and I’m writing for a singer you gotta find a way of making sense of a story which could be quite wordy or quite unsimplified. I’ve got to edit it into a short story, I got to make sure the story isn’t coming over like somebody’s reading a book, you know. I doesn’t need to sound like poetry, it needs to feel good when it comes out of somebody’s mouth. Then you start writing that and you start thinking to yourself, “Ok I’ve written it”, but like this week I wrote a song and then we called the singer who’s gonna sing the song on the album and she was listening to it and said, “that key is too high for me”; so we took the key down, but what I did was I left my guide vocal on the tape so suddenly my voice became like this (sings in very deep voice); so tonely it made me kind of much rethink the song for the way that she’s gonna sing it and it gave me new ideas. So messing with the equipment and what you have also is really important.”
Q: What’s your favourite song from the latest album?
A: “Favourite song? Oh, that’s like asking somebody which one is your favourite child (smiles)? I would say for various reasons there’s three songs, that belong to three different people on that record in terms of the vocals. The reason why it’s hard to pick a favourite song is because they are so unlike to each other as vocalists and also the songs were kind of written, one of them was already written, it wasn’t even one of my songs. It’s a song called “Ain’t It Time”, which I had a history with, from listening to it in the seventies, in the clubs in America, but never having a singer in the band that I felt could do it. Always wanted to do it but suddenly was Vanessa in front of me and Vanessa can really sing this song and I was like, “oh this is the song that’s been waiting for Vanessa for a long time”. So I put the song together with the singer, but with Natalie the song “Above the night”, I had a sketch of the lyric, the title, of the chord, but I didn’t have the entire song, I just had this kind of image of when you’re in a dark place in a relationship or in life. You know sometimes there’s always somebody and it’s not necessarily your partner, but somebody who’s there almost like an angel who comes to you and it could be your sister, it could your brother, but most of the times it’s somebody who you weren’t expecting to kind of come through and that’s what the song’s about, you know, like somebody who’s always there for you, but because we take this kind of people for granted, because we know they’re there all the time, so that’s what this song’s about. That song means a lot to me, “Above the night”. And working with Mo, “Goodbye to yesterday” with Mo Brandis, is a strong song, because he’s from a different generation, whereby I work and I pretend I’m writing in my head for Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, for Donny Hathaway, because that’s my hero; when he’s singing his connections with other singers are more like what’s going on with Bruno Mars and what’s going on with Justin Timberlake. So the meeting between the way he writes and the way I write ended up to be that song.”
Q: What’s the greatest feeling you get from playing live?
A: “Live music is… my first memory of being on planet earth must have been between the age of 4 or 5, I don’t really remember being 3 years old. My first memory of life on earth is music and it’s live music. I remember hearing music being played and it wasn’t in the house. So it would have been live. It was on the beach in Mauritius, we had the local musicians who played on the beach every night, where I lived. And I knew that, I made up my mind, that’s what I loved and by the time I was 4 years old it was going from just loving this thing and dancing to it – and my grandmother telling me “you’re going to do something with music”, because they could see my reaction to it – to being about 5 years old and deciding that’s what I’m gonna do for the rest of my life. We had a radio that was turned on maybe once a month, you know my family, my grandfather, they were religious people, they didn’t listen to radio all hours, and my grandfather would choose what was to be played and when we listened to it, we would sit around the radio and it would be turned on and it was only allowed to be turned on by my grandfather. Apart from that, it was just live music, but I remember being about 6 or 7 years old and Jim Reeves was on the radio, then I heard Elvis Presley, the Beatles, a few things that were completely mind-blowing; I remember hearing the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”, around 1965 or 66, I don’t know when it came out, maybe 67, but it was in the 60s and I remember that kind of like being a major change in my life; but live music is… when I step on stage I become the 4 years old that fell in love with music. So that’s what live music means to me, it’s like it’s everything. You can make many people make records, in the generation we have now people are told to make a record and they go in and they produce in a way to market the record and promote it, so every emphasis is on making the record, where with me emphasis is on playing live and making a record is something that we do just as an art form in between when we’re not playing live, when we’re not living that life. That’s when it feels like work. When we’re in the studio it feels like work, I gotta worry about people, whose parts, and so. By the time we go out live it’s already created, everybody knows their parts, you know, it doesn’t feel like work. You just turn up and play.”
Q: What’s been the most emotional moment of your career?
A: “Relating to music? There is a series of great emotions and they’re as big as each other, because what happens in music is a fantasy that you’re going to do this. Because around you is the reality, is everybody in your class who’s going to become a doctor, a teacher and a footballer. You know, the footballer is a little bit of a fantasy thing, I nearly had that too, but fell through, you know, too short and now too fat (laughs). With music I just knew that that was the path. Because it’s so strong along your life when it happens various things that are key to your achieving this fantasy life, this dream life, this world that you want so badly that very few people get being part of the music business and living from it and being able to take care of people from it and travelling around the world and making it. So, you’ve got the first step, getting your first guitar. It was like, “oh my god, I’ve got it!”. The next one is being in a band or being accepted to play with somebody. Having your own band, leading your own band, getting a record deal, your first record deal. Somebody coming in and saying, “you’ve got a record deal”. I remember being in a room, you know having the band, and then suddenly a guy came in and said, “you know what, we’re gonna get signed to Ensign Records”, and I was like, “wow, no” and everybody jumping up like scoring the winning goal in the world cup, you know, everybody high-fiving.
Then you the next stage when you think this cannot get any greater than this, this cannot even be better, but you forget some of the fantasies you have of getting… you’ve seen it. You’ve opened up album covers, you’ve seen Traffic’s “On the road”, you’ve seen Rufus, Chaka Kan live at the Savoy, you’ve seen all these records that’ve been made live and you think to yourself, and suddenly you’re told you made your record, you’re going on the road and you see the tour bus for the first time and you walk on to the tour bus and your heart can explode right there. My heart was pounding, you know, I went on it and I was standing there and still today when I see a tour bus, you know, people are jaded sometimes in the business, “oh no I don’t like this bus”, I see a tour bus and my heart is pounding you know, it’s racing. I get that when I still go to the studio, I got my own studio and I walk in there in the morning and I’ve been to Churches and I’ve never felt anything as sacred as walking into a studio, I’ve never felt that presence. I feel it’s divine, you know. So all these things: giving your first concert, having your first hit, suddenly on radio, cause it’s not something you plan for, there’s a lot of things you don’t plan for. You know, being in a room and sitting there and Jocelyn Brown coming in the studio and saying she’s gonna sing with you and then sitting there and watching someone like Jocelyn Brown singing something like that in one take. There are moments no one prepares you for, because you don’t know when you’re gonna get a hit, what song am I gonna write, is it gonna be on radio, we’re gonna be sitting there watching it rise up the charts, into position 20, 19, oh now it’s in the top 10, and now it’s top 5 and not top 3… you know I never thought something like that would happen to me, but it happened. These are great, monumental things, but sometimes is unexpected as well with music, sometimes it’s like… when the Tsunami struck in Japan we were one of the first bands, we were the first band out of the UK to get on the plane and go to Japan and the plane was almost empty. We went there and we played this concert and I will never forget, as long as I live, playing the first concert in Japan to the audience and watching their faces. I’ll never forget that, as long as I live, never.”
I’d like to thank Bluey for such an honest, heartfelt and inspirational interview; your brilliance is not be taken for granted in a moment of such shallow times. Also, special thanks go to Julie Allison, Charlise Rookwood and the whole Ronnie Scott’s amazing staff.