The Man from the Volumeby Ts’eliso Monaheng / 14.01.2013
Allow us to break the news to you (if you don’t already follow Mr Molekane on Twitter or Facebook). Tumi and the Volume are no more! Making space for new adventures to follow. So in light of recent developments we thought it’d be a good opportunity to revisit their somewhat incredible debut album Live at the Bassline with Tiago, the slick, sometimes moustachioed Jozambican guy on lead guitar, and also the main instigator behind the musical tapestries, Tumi has laced his lyrics over for the last 10 years, or so.
Do you remember that opening verse of Tumi’s on Live at the Bassline, particularly that line where he reveals that Yvonne “got raped this afternoon, she can’t come to the phone”? What about Pebbles’ unmistakably silky, smooth, scintillating vocals easing the weight off of apartheid’s lost generation with her affirmation that “76 was not a very good year”? It was these moments, and more, which made Live at the Bassline the classic that it has become today.
Ten years down, Tumi and the Volume managed to add two more albums to their catalogue: 2005’s self-titled offering, and 2010’s Pick a Dream. Behind both the music and the feel of the Volume’s sound is a tall, lanky, light-skinned cat from Moçambique known as Tiago Correia-Paulo. Listen to the melodic inflections in their songs, the simple-yet-complex beauty of the chord progressions providing the bedrock over which Mr. Molekane flexes his lyrical abilities. Not only that, but a cursory listen to any of the projects in which Tiago has been involved in, from his work with 340ml to handling production duties on Zaki Ibrahim’s Every Opposite album reveals a knack for haunting melodies and beautiful song arrangements.
So we called up Tiago to chat about Live at the Bassline. He spoke fondly of the Organix sessions, revealed the reasons behind the decision to release a live project as their debut album, and delved into some of the techniques they employed while working on their two other albums. This is what was said.
Mahala:There’s a rumour that you guys were Optical Illusion’s backing band before Tumi came along. How true is that?
Tiago: We used to back everyone up. At that stage, there were these really popular Sunday evenings at the Bassline. I think they started sometime in early 2002, maybe even late 2001 – Organix. [They] were put together by three Jo’burg cats. At the same time, we were starting 340ml, and we wanted to play as often as possible with different musicians – we were also looking for a sound. We started jamming with other people, not just in different studios, but we actually started doing it live. And one of best places to do that was at the Bassline. It was also a really popular night and it had a good audience; not just emcees, every instrumentalist would be dying to jump in on stage. Keyboard players, saxophone players, trumpets, bass drums, whoever. But because the sessions were deeply-rooted in hip hop, they always involved emcees. So we actually ended up jamming with everyone.
And that gave you a wide scope of artists to reach out to, in and around Joburg?
Yeah, and it also gave us credibility. So when Tumi and the Volume started, it was Tumi and ‘those’ guys. We kind of already knew everybody. Eventually when we did record the live album, we not only recorded in front of all those people, but it was recorded on the back of having the pressure from our friends and other musicians who already knew that we had managed to gain enough momentum to actually form a project. In the beginning, the project could’ve gone either way; one different turn and it would’ve been us with Skwatta Kamp, or our drummer with Optical Illusion, and me with Cashless Society. It was a big pot; a whole bunch of people getting together and making music, and I think when Tumi came along, he was the blueprint for a lot of the stuff that I personally wanted to do. I was very much into not just playing hip hop and stuff that is structured around a beat. A lot of the stuff that I wanted to do, (and that Tumi [also] wanted to do), was soundscape stuff, it had a lot to do with textures. You can hear that in songs like ‘Behind the Pain’. Obviously when you take it live, you’ve gotta add all the contextual elements that a live show needs, like a drum beat and bassline. But a lot of it starts as a texture.
How did Dave Bergman (bassist) come into the mix?
Dave was just this awesome, super-eager bass player who was hanging out with a whole bunch of other kids at the same events. But he was more linked to the jazz and funk side of things, in the same way the 340ml guys were a little bit more inclined towards reggae and dub. Dave was more inclined towards jazz and funk. The first time I saw him playing, he was playing with a swing drummer and a full-on experimental jazz keyboard player. They were also backing up an emcee; I’m not sure, but it might’ve been Proverb, maybe not. Someone who also made quite a good career for themselves.
Why did the band decide to release the live album first?
We had strong pressure from everyone to turn this jam project into an actual band. I think everytime people saw us, we were closer to something. The first time, we were just jamming with a whole bunch of emcees, then they saw us jamming with Tumi and then they saw us as Tumi’s backing band, and eventually they just saw us as a band.
A gradual progress, so to say…
I wouldn’t say progress, a gradual pull towards something official. And everything happened at the Bassline. We would have meetings at the Bassline, the people who were running it had an emotional, vested interest in the project, and it just seemed like the easiest and cheapest way for us to put something out, to actually capture what we’d been doing for the last couple of months in the most effective way. And I think, as clichéd as it sounds, we were kind of in love with what The Roots had done when they did the live album. As much as we would’ve loved to do a studio album, there were all these amazing artists that had managed to do what they do and put it in a live album, and to have that live album be as successful as the studio album; people like Erykah Badu and The Roots. So it made sense for us to do something like that as well.
Every other person that we know loves that first album to bits, but you have your reservations about it. What are they?
I’m like that about every album. When I work on albums, I get really involved with them; I sleep with them, I eat with them, I go to the toilet with them. I’m really involved. Once the album is done and I know it’s being mixed and mastered, I let go and move onto the next project. I’ve learned not to go back and to pick up a copy of the album and actually listen to it. One of the only albums I did that with was 340ml’s Moving, because we were in Cape Town. We were doing a mini-tour, and that’s the only record a friend of ours had in the car. It wasn’t a bad experience, but I try to avoid doing that sort of stuff. I always think about all the things that I could’ve done. Also, your ideas change. I think about music in a very progressive way. I decompose music, even when I listen to other people’s albums. When I’m in studio, I like to follow my instinct. This album is not about instinct at all, it’s a live album, what happened, happened. If I made a mistake, that’s it. If I’d switched on the wrong pedal, if it was supposed to be the wah pedal and I accidentally stepped on the delay pedal, that’s what people for the next fifty years are gonna listen to. I hear a lot of that stuff, like ‘ah, that’s a little bit fast, check, this is going slower than it should be.’ But I do see the special side of the album, this natural way of us performing live. Also it was a really special evening, the songs capture a certain moment and time in South African hip hop. We were one of the first full-on live hip hop bands, and I think people liked that. For a lot of people, it was their first time falling in love with hip hop being played live in front of them.
What structures were in place to promote the live album?
Well, we had the Bassline, we had a place for a week to rehearse. A couple of songs didn’t end up in the final album because we weren’t happy with the performance; we actually did it in two nights, so we were able to take the best recordings from both nights. In fact, I think we ended up using most of the stuff from the second night. The first night was kind of a soundcheck, we addressed all the problems; come back the next day, have a listen to it, and actually say the kick drum was a bit too flat, or the guitar was too loud. We had a better idea on the second night.
Any other bits that people may not know about the album?
Some people aren’t aware that there’s a cover on that album. There’s a song that we wrote for the album, and we actually stopped doing it live right after the album. This was probably one of the last times we played this song, it was something that ended up not working for our live set and our performances. We kinda wrote it just for the album. Then, I think one of the most amazing things on Live at the Bassline is actually Pebbles. People love what Pebbles did to this album; without her, it would’ve been a completely different thing. She is a little bit more than the cherry on top, she’s kind of the sugar in this album.
How did you manage to get Marcus Wyatt?
Because of the Bassline. All these musicians were hanging out. Besides the Organix jam sessions, people who were kind of in our music scene started going to Bassline, and we ended up getting addicted to just being there. I personally used to spend five days a week at the Bassline. Marcus is one of those guys that we ended up watching with a whole bunch of different musicians on-stage. All of us were pretty much obsessed with Carlo Mombelli and the Prisoners of Strange. For about ten years, that was my favourite South African act and show to watch, and Marcus was playing trumpet. He just felt like an accessible guy; we got him on the phone and said ‘Marcus, we have these two or three songs and we’d love for you to do something on them’, he heard the songs and was like ‘okay cool, I won’t even come to rehearsal, I’ll see you guys at soundcheck before the show, and you guys work me through the cues’. We also allowed him and gave him the space to do what he does best, he did his own thing and it worked out.
One of the things which impress about The Volume’s live shows is the camaraderie between everyone on stage. How did that develop?
Ten years of playing with the same people end up like… these are the people that, maybe not so much now, but at the peak of our career, these were the people that I was spending a lot more time with than my own family. I have two brothers and one sister; for the last ten years I’ve spent more time with the three other guys in Tumi and the Volume than my brothers and my sister. You learn a lot about people; you learn what to love and what to hate, what you should do, and how to deal with things when on tour. When we’re back in Joburg, everyone’s at home, we’re kind of doing our own thing even when we have shows. When you’re in Europe for three months with the same three people and our sound engineer, something happens there. If you survive that, you can probably survive anything. And we’ve done that in a lot of different places. We’ve done so much touring! From about 2005 til 2010, we toured a lot.
Was the Sakifo deal before or after the Tumi and the Volume album?
No, it came after that album, before Pick a Dream. The second album was completely funded by us with a bit of corporate help from a label. But it was our own decision; we had a certain amount of money, we picked up the timing to record the album, we picked up the studio, sound engineer, and we sat for a couple of months and made the second album. Even the distribution of that album was pretty much independent. That was the album that took us to Canada and we signed with a label over there. Even though we’d been to Belgium, Norway, and a couple of other places, that was our first real taste of touring.
Take us through that second project. It was miles ahead both musically and lyrically; what did the band aim to achieve with it?
We really gave ourselves time, the exact opposite of what we did with the live album. We had all these sketches, and when we eventually booked a studio, the first thing that we did was to write music. I’m not saying it’s a great thing to do, it’s kind of expensive, sometimes it is stupid. It’s really nice to go into studio knowing exactly what you’re gonna do, be very cost-effective and very sharp. When we made that album, we had all these sketches and little guitar riffs. We said ‘everyone’s gonna sit together for at least a week’. Sometimes I’d start playing a guitar riff, then the bass came, and the drums, or sometimes Paulo was just playing the drum beat. And Tumi would just sit around and give input, he’s really good with input. He really helps with the structure, how long to take certain things, what should be the chorus, etc. He usually has a really good ear. His playfulness in terms of time and lyrics comes from that, from not just hearing a certain bpm or a certain beat structure. He would be rapping to the way I’m picking guitar. Even if the beat is straight 4/4 but the guitar is doing some kind of afro-beat movement, he would find that interesting and he would compose his lyrics according to the pace of how I’m picking the strings. That whole process of us writing all the music together… the first album, we were the soundtrack to his words, and on the second album, it was the reverse of that. We were already a band, 80 percent of the music was composed way before the lyrics, and we already had a structure. So he had to play catch-up. One of the last songs that we recorded on that album was ‘Learning’, essentially a bossa-nova song. We kept on adding things and he kept on delaying the recording of that specific song, and that was one of the last recording sessions that we had in studio. We kept on revising the song and adding little musical elements to the song and layering it. It got to a point where Tumi had to ask us to stop adding things so he could have space. What he eventually did is that he found a way of rapping in a very Brazillian, bossa-nova style. The lyrics feed off that groove and that instinct of Brazillian music, I think.
Are there any stand-out moments that you can recall during that period?
I really loved being in studio for that album. We did whatever we wanted; I remember us thinking ‘hmm, we need an intro for this album’. And then we opened this store room where they had all the mics, we looked and we found this stereo mic. We said, ‘why don’t we take it to the roof and record a whole bunch of soundscape things’? That ended up being the intro for the album. The philosophy of the entire album was like that, we approached it very much like a nine-to-five; get there, listen to what we did the night before, open all the songs, and see what songs we could [put more] textures. One of my highlights was making ‘Signs’, because I’m completely musically illiterate, I can’t read or write music, and I play and compose everything by ear. We got a really precise and technically-developed cello player to come and do strings. She doesn’t even need to rehearse or anything, she’s going there to read music. She gets there, we pick her up from the lobby, and she’s like ‘do you have the sheet music’? We’re like ‘no, we don’t have anything, I’m actually gonna sing this stuff to you’. And we could see that she’s not liking this. So I basically sat next to her very quietly, there was a sketch of the song, and she was staring at my hands. She gave me a quick lesson on how to be a maestro, to do the hand and wrist movements of speed and change of tempo, how to go up and down. She did the whole session just looking at my hand, and I am awkwardly doing this thing with my hand, and she’s looking at it. It was funny, the guys on the other side of the booth were laughing.
You’ve done some work as a producer too, most notably on the “Pick a dream” album. Tell us about that side of your art.
On Pick a Dream, I wouldn’t say I directed the album. I kind of wrote most of the songs on the album. We did get this French team, not to direct, but I would say they were the guys who added the colour, the punch. The album was done in three different sessions: songs were written, we used some of the band stuff, but that wasn’t working out because it was a little bit too dysfunctional. We did go to a different studio months before and that stuff didn’t work at all, it wasn’t the sound that we were looking for. I think we had been touring for such a long time that we were really out of practice, being in studio, being forced to be creative, and guided towards one goal. Everybody was doing their own thing, [which is] counter-productive when you’re trying to write one song. We heard all of those recordings and said ‘you know what, there’s nothing that we can use here.’ Out of six songs that we had done, there was nothing, not even a little bit! So we got a lot of producers involved and started to write the album from scratch. I wrote a bunch of musical cues and musical pieces, and Tumi chose the ones that he wanted and started writing music to it. As we were working like that, we started sending stuff to producers, trying to get a sense of what we were trying to do, also to get a sense of what their idea was to turn those songs into. The second phase was me flying to Paris and spending about ten days with them in studio. We would workshop the songs from the sketch, sometimes we would listen to other songs. They would listen one of my songs and be like ‘what if we bring it closer to this Jay-Z song’, for example. And then we had a couple of musicians in studio with us, and we would try things. So it wasn’t really my main job on that album; I did produce some of the songs, but there are songs like ‘Asinamali’ that they picked up and turned into what the song is now. In the beginning, it was a sketch and a chorus; it had a bassline and a drumbeat, and one or two guitar licks. And they chose the philosophy, we spoke about it, played with some ideas, and then they went ahead and laid down all the textures and turned the song into what it is. I was more of a composer on the album. Some of the slower stuff that doesn’t have a lot of elements and it’s not really banging hip hop, I’m also behind that.
So your stuff is really soundscape-y type stuff?
It naturally starts like that. I’m a closet drummer, so I love adding a beat to things. To me, it’s a natural progression to start with a guitar or piano texture and eventually move into groove. I love pop music, and pop music without drums and bass is not pop music. I also don’t like writing proficient and virtuoso music. The stuff that I tend to compose and produce is pretty simple. The first song on Pick a Dream, I kind of stole a guitar loop from a very famous band, and if they ever, ever find out about it, I’m sued for life! It’s gonna be a hectic court case. I love that guitar intro on that specific song; in the beginning when I wrote that song, I used the actual guitar riff. And then I played it to someone once, and that someone picked up the guitar and said ‘oh, that’s the intro from…’ I chopped the guitar riff note-by-note, I inverted everything! I did the same kind of thing, and I re-sampled it. And then after that I started adding layers and layers of claps, and then I played a little cowbell. When the guys in France heard it, they really loved it, they were adamant. In the beginning, I don’t think Tumi was 100 percent sure about the song, he always said that song as a total intro. When the guys in France heard all the layers that I’d done, they turned all of that into an actual drumbeat. They got a drummer who played that beat, obviously substituting some of the claps for a snare, the cowbells for a tom, and turned it into an actual song.
So what are you working on currently?
Before the split, we were trying to gather enough strength to work on a new Tumi and the Volume. We had to make some tough decisions before we could commit to getting into studio. And you know how that turned out. We had some intense meetings with management and our label. It’s kind of the clash between artists and the actual people who are grounded to planet earth. Sometimes, we are a little bit clueless, a little bit too emotional about things…
Beyond that I’m trying to start a new project, we’ll see where that takes me. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff on the verge of dance music, very 4/4 type stuff. The guys from The Brother Moves On just sent separates for a remix. I’ve listened to the original song, it’s pretty out there. So I’m not sure how to deal with that… But I’ll work something out.
*Images © Andy Davis or pilfered (respectfully) from Tumi and the Volume’s Facebook.