Out of the Murkby Roger Young / 30.09.2011
The BLK JKS are gearing up to record a new album. Roger Young sat down with Mpumi Mcata and Tshepang Ramoba to discuss the process of finding a recording studio, a producer, a country, a time frame and some songs.
Mahala: So, when do you leave for Mali?
Mpumi: Late. We just did some demos and we sent the demos to the label. A formality for them to release the budget. That’s the stage we’re at. We also want to be ready to go into the studio and do something proper, so upon listening to the demos we just thought ‘man, we’d really like to tweak this and tweak that’. So now what we’re doing is rehearsing and holding the label back so we do it right. I know that they want the album out latest beginning of next year.
And why did you choose to record in Mali?
It’s all still fluid. It’s still water. We could change at the drop of a hat and not go to Mali, but the sense is that there’s interesting things happening there, musically.
So you still haven’t recorded a full album in Joburg?
Not yet, no.
Is that like..
I was trying to say is that like because you aren’t ready for Joburg? For the energy? Or do you feel like you’ve got that in you already?
The first thing that happened is that we would go wherever the work was, no real big plans. There was never a plan to be signed or a plan to promote ourselves or a plan to get on radio or a plan to get on TV, you know? We never really cared for anything except for playing the shows, so recording is also like the lowest on our list. The first recording we ever did was in Joburg and it was because somebody said: “Look man, I’ve been telling people about this band at The Bo and I need proof.” Oh, well what’s that proof going to be? We need to record something. And then somebody paid for the first recording, so we just followed the flow and then The Mystery EP was recorded in New York at Electric Lady and After Robots was at Indiana because Secretly Canadian was in Indiana and we went to meet them and record. The Mystery EP happened because a guy in Japan thought it would be interesting for us to cover some poems by a Panamanian saxophonist. Yeah, things just kind of roll along. There’s no plan to stay away from Joburg or go to New York. But that’s changing now, that’s definitely changing. We always went with the flow. Now we have the feeling that we want to take more control of the music, of how we go about doing things.
So you feel like the energy of Mali is what’s attracting you?
It’s interesting that you say that you’ve just gone with the flow because a lot of your sets seem like they just go with the flow.
Yeah, no setlists. Quite often.
And the set last night seemed like it was really well constructed.
There was no setlist. There was just a, “what do you think we should do now?” kind of thing.
There was a moment where you were on stage and you were all looking at each other…
That’s cause we were trying to figure out what we were going to play next.
Even though there wasn’t a setlist it felt really tight and it felt constructed.
Yeah, I mean we did play three gigs in two days, well 4 gigs. So you know, it helps. And we’ve been checking on new stuff, we started with the new song. The second song is also new so we were trying to challenge ourselves. It’s almost like confronting what we’ve been and what we’ve done instead of avoiding it because you can only be modest or humble to a point before you’re an asshole. It’s like, “dude, you’re on the stage. Say something!” It’s like, “nah, I didn’t want to be here, I was just playing my guitar”. That’s got to go out the window at some point.
At a certain point you’ve got to realize you’ve got somewhere because you’re doing something.
And it’s a platform. I mean… what are your issues? You know what I mean?
That’s the thing I’m feeling the most, personally. I sense that everyone in the band is feeling it but I can’t speak for them. That maybe you should accept your responsibility.
As an artist?
You like think you don’t have it, but I think there is one. And I’m not talking about social causes and shit, but musically. How about instead of winging it this time we actually talk about the lyrics in the song? Is that OK? Is that gay?
Well there’s over and there’s under.
Well, like we’re kind of like, “let’s just discuss what we want to achieve with this” because usually what we do is we walk into the rehearsal room, blinkers on and everybody does their own thing. Nobody is ever like, “hey, I think we should do this or I think that baseline should go this way”. There’s always been like very little direction.
I saw that show at Rainbow Room in Durban and it was kind of a weird show because until the last song, each of you were in your own complete space.
That was probably because there was a setlist. So if you have a setlist each man for himself.
But that was a last minute show?
Yeah, yeah, because we went down to see Busi Mhlongo. We had been planning to see her and she had been trying to see us for like five, six years so this was like, had to be done. So the drive down was basically just for that. And then we went there and Neil Comfort kind of contacted us and was like Rainbow and she was like ‘yeah’ and she was trying to get out the hospital to see that but I think they had an eye on her. It was cool though, she called Thandiswa and did a loudspeaker thing like, “I’m here with your brothers”. We had never spoken to Thandiswa before, we’d seen her around town but we’d never spoken to her. There was this conversation and then a couple weeks later we started working on a cover version of a Busi song.
Have you done that yet?
No, not live but we recorded it. We’re kind of waiting for the moment because Thandiswa’s in London now, living there.
In terms of the material, the songs you’re working on now, is there any different direction?
There’s a pattern here. We’re simplifying and it’s working. Let’s keep doing that. And I think the first record, I was pretty critical. I think I called it an exorcism many times. That’s all it was for me. I felt like one or two songs really happened emotionally. There’s like three songs on After Robots that we managed to get to the heart of. In the recording process and studio and listening back. But other than that I thought it was just a “hello”, like an academic introduction to the BLK JKS. Like these are our ideas, this is what we do. I didn’t find it moving enough or enough of an experience. So I think with this record for me personally, and we’ve had this conversation with the guys, they may be on the same page, they may not, but the next one, I just want to let it be able to sit in the room with everybody.
With After Robots, I found that it was all of a flat murky level and the occasional poke up above that and if you wanted to access it you had to listen hard.
But, I love “Tselane”. That song was the last thing that was recorded and everybody kind of left the studio, or was on a small break and myself and Tshepang had spoken about the whole Tselane folk tale thing in Joburg and then in New York the first time, there was a week we spent in New York just eating rice the whole week. We were broke. And we were playing “Tselane”, on different things. We were playing xylophone and telephone recorder and a guitar but no amp. And Molefi came in so it was just the three of us and it was recorded on the room mic so there was no plugging in because the room mic was running the whole time so then when we were checking the rushes, we were like, one take.
And that’s the album take?
Yeah, because you couldn’t separate it and fix anything. Either you’re putting it on the album or you’re not. If you’re uncomfortable then it goes off. So I thought that was more the vibe that I’d like to continue with. Same thing with “Cursor”.
When you say you want to simplify, you improvise a lot on stage. Is it easier to work from like a base idea?
Yeah, you want to kind of make your statement succinct and then around that can be whatever. You can play a forty minute show and just improve the whole forty minutes and then right at the end just go boom! You’ve just got to have a lot of those in your pocket I think. The STR CRD thing was really great in terms of testing new material and stuff. I felt the crowd was reacting in the right places. We were like, “this is where we would be imagining that things would be happening and yes, things are happening”. OK, that’s good. We’re not crazy or wrong or whatever. So I enjoyed that show.
And when you were speaking with Liam Lynch earlier you said you wish you’d recorded this. Does that happen a lot?
Yes, I have a strange relationship with our live set. I’ll just be like, it can be better. And it’s not in that typical way, like if everybody plays everything perfectly then that would be the best. No, you know? I want us to mess up, I want it to be crazy, I want guitars to not work. We played a show at The Fillmore in New York with Femi Kuti, so it was BLK JKS and Femi Kuti. Like whoa! We were just like, fuck, this is going to be huge! The Felabration in New York, so they did a week long celebration of Fela in different clubs. Really big gigs, really awesome and then this was the finale. So there were we, we walk on stage. You know they’ve got mini TVs there so people up stairs can watch on mini TVs.
– phone rings –
Tshepang: You there in Mpumi’s room?
Yeah, we started.
Tshepang: Are there beers?
I got red wine.
Tshepang: See you now.
So you were saying, mini TVs?
Mpumi: Yeah, it’s kind of like a boxing match. Like the room was like buzzing, full of people talking. You know like this kind of anticipation. And Femi Kuti right afterwards, we’re thinking people are here to see Femi. So we go on stage knowing this. And then Linda’s amps started fucking out or his guitar and the speakers were going weird, on and off and then there was a point where he couldn’t get any sound at all so he threw the guitar and stormed off stage. And the crowd was just like “wow” and when they did that reaction we were kind of like, “oh, they’re with us.” So we just kept going for the rest of the song. And I remember looking over and just seeing Knox talking to Linda and I asked him after the show what he said to him and he said, “you’re the vocalist. It’s not necessarily just about the guitar so go out there and be the vocalist”. So we played the last three songs without Linda’s guitar, just him singing. And looping the vocals on a delayed pedal, just like figuring it out. It was one of the best shows we’ve had. So that’s the kind of thing, I didn’t even wonder like I wish we had recorded it, like it was fucked up, but I knew, you know what I mean? When I think about yesterdays show like, that’s weird because I didn’t feel it was awesome but people said it was. You almost feel weird as the musician like I wish I could know what just happened.
– knocking. Tshepang arrives –
Mpumi: There’s beer in the fridge
So where were we? Improvisation.
Mpumi: Tshepang, what can you tell us about improvisation?
Tshepang: In general?
And recording and playing live and Mali and mistakes?
Tshepang: OK, I’ll talk about improvisation and mistakes. With me, personally, I always improvise. Whatever I do is improvisation. I don’t play the same thing all the time. It’s hard for me to do. You know musicians say that if you can’t play what you’ve played you’re not good but, uh yeah, I can’t do that.
So how do you quantify that? Like your audience expects the same thing again. How do you feel about that?
Tshepang: I mean with grooves, I can play the grooves but I always get some improv in there because I get tired of playing the same thing. And then I mean, mistakes, if I’m improvising how can I make mistakes?
So let’s say on the album you’re about to record, you’ve rehearsed, you’ve done the demos, you’ve recorded the whole album and it ends up a certain way and then by the time you’ve toured it for a year? The songs aren’t the same anymore.
Mpumi: Pretty much. I mean the best example of that is “It’s In Everything”. It’s on the Zol EP. The first song. It’s also on the Mystery EP, but it’s more of a guitar thing with like basically no drums. And on the Zol EP it’s like Tshepang driven which is like drums and this straight beat. And then when we play it live, we don’t play it with that beat, we play it with a different beat. There’s this continuous movement of our compositions.
Tshepang: It’s like “Lakeside”. We’ve released Lakeside three times. It’s always something different.
But now, how important is it to keep documenting the changes?
Mpumi: Very important. It’s the one thing that’s been unique to BLK JKS in my opinion, when I look at our peers or other people that we feel are doing good shit. It’s almost like recording something old again, kind of gives you the real picture of where you are.
OK, I just want to go back to this maybe Mali thing. If the songs are ready by the time you leave, what does Mali bring to the equation?
Mpumi: You’re more flexible when you know your story. You know we definitely have these ten songs that we definitely want to attend to. It’s almost easier to be like, “let’s do this. Let’s spend this day recording with these guys,” or listening to ambient sounds and throwing them into the pool.
And you’ve been to Mali?
So you just feel the energy?
Mpumi: Going to Mali is like going to Mars. It’s like a different language. If you’ve seen Star Wars, talk about location. It looks like R2-D2 is going to roll out in a little shack. It’s the spirit, you know. People always want to go to New York or go to London, you know what I mean. Guys that came before us, the legendary Bra Hugh was forced into that situation, going to Ghana, but brilliant things came from that. It doesn’t always have to come from a point of exile. You can make that decision. We can be, just mentally free yourself up to just go, “I want to go record”.
OK, so last question is like, who’s producing the album?
Mpumi: There’s some names.
Tshepang: Butch Vig.
Mpumi: No, there’s a guy called John Congleton and he’s worked with everybody from the Erykah Badu, Massive Attack, Explosions In the Sky, R. Kelly. If the producer has worked with Kelis then that’s where we want to be. So yeah, Secretly have put him forward. He’s done work with bands on the label so he seems like a cool dude. For now that’s what’s being thrown around. I mean it could be anybody, but we think his CV is quite stellar.
Because there are rumours you know about some other big names.
Tshepang: What rumours?
Let’s stop the recording right there, we don’t want people speaking
Tshepang: What names?!
– Recording Stops –