JAN KIN­CAID

We talk groove with the Brand New Heav­ies and now MF Ro­bots funk drum­ming star, Jan Kin­caid

Rhythm - - CONTENTS - Words: chris burke pho­tos: press

With Brand New Heav­ies, key­boardist, drum­mer and per­cus­sion­ist Jan Kin­caid took his love for ’70s funk grooves and com­bined them with the smooth sounds of clas­sic soul and so­phis­ti­ca­tion of acid jazz. Hot­housed by Lon­don’s rare groove scene, the Heav­ies were orig­i­nally in­stru­men­tal­ists in­spired by James Brown and the Me­ters. In an era of sam­pled hip-hop beats, Jan got au­di­ences on both sides of the At­lantic groov­ing, his tight pocket play­ing repli­cat­ing, live, the feel of those ’70s grooves that were be­ing sam­pled read­ily enough, but which few peo­ple at the time were see­ing played on a real drum kit.

Chart suc­cess in the early-’90s with hits like Dream‘ Come True’, ‘Mid­night At The Oa­sis’, ‘Spend Some Time’ and ‘Never Stop’ es­tab­lished The Brand New Heav­ies as fine pur­vey­ors of con­tem­po­rary funky soul, and no less than Ray Charles was so im­pressed with Jan and the band that he in­vited them to play at a party cel­e­brat­ing his 50th an­niver­sary in the mu­sic biz, an event at which Jan found him­self rub­bing shoul­ders with his heroes Ste­vie Won­der and Quincy Jones.

Per­haps the band’s most ground-break­ing work was 1992’s HeavyRhymeEx­pe­ri­ence, which fea­tured The Phar­cyde, Gang Starr and Kool G, and by which time Jan was forg­ing a rep­u­ta­tion not only as a for­mi­da­ble drum­mer but as a writer, ar­ranger and pro­ducer.

Jan’s lat­est band, MF Ro­bots, presents a sim­i­larly funky slice of real soul, fronted by vo­cal­ist Dawn Joseph, who had been singing for the Heav­ies since 2013.

With au­then­tic soul feel and 60s’ and ‘70s R&B to the fore, the iron­i­cally ti­tled MF Ro­bots (that’s ‘Mu­sic For Ro­bots’, which it is any­thing but) is a tri­umphant al­bum from a man who has been one of theUK’s finest, funki­est drum­mers for four decades. So, for Rhythm’s funk-in­spired is­sue, we asked Jan about the na­ture of groove, his main in­flu­ences, changes in the mu­sic in­dus­try and the key to great funk drum­ming.

Why did you de­cide now was the right time for a project like MF Ro­bots?

“I was look­ing for a fresh chal­lenge mu­si­cally from what I’d been do­ing up un­til I started this project. Be­ing as­so­ci­ated with a band for many years is great on one level, but on an­other it can be­come a bit of a Ground­hog Day with mem­bers want­ing dif­fer­ent things and some happy to just stay the same way. I needed a new en­ergy to re­flect my evolv­ing mu­si­cal in­ter­ests and some­where I could stretch out cre­atively with no bound­aries… I think my part­ner in this, Dawn Joseph, felt the same way, so it just clicked and made sense.”

What is it about Dawn’s voice and per­for­mance that first drew you to her?

“Dawn’s a fan­tas­tic multi-faceted tal­ent… she’s so cre­atively fear­less in her song­writ­ing and per­for­mance and vo­cally very di­verse in terms of the knowl­edge she has to draw on. We both have a lot of knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence in how to put songs to­gether and can work al­most tele­path­i­cally with a free flow­ing ex­change of ideas which makes for po­ten­tially ex­cit­ing mu­sic. Live she al­ways gives 100 per­cent and has very high stan­dards. Au­di­ences warm to her very quickly and she can com­mand an au­di­ence of all sizes. She’s a for­mi­da­ble force as a lead vo­cal­ist and al­ways de­liv­ers it with a smile!”

The name ‘Mu­sic For Ro­bots’ is pre­sum­ably ironic, as it’s any­thing but and feels very or­ganic.

“Yes in­deed, it is of course ironic! It’s a bit of a dig at a com­mer­cial mu­sic in­dus­try that’s be­come very safe and generic – lack­ing in edge or any real risk-tak­ing that has re­sulted in a lot of pretty bland, un­chal­leng­ing mu­sic. All we’re try­ing to do is make vi­brant mu­sic with a great en­ergy, songs which you might re­mem­ber be­yond next week and with great mu­si­cian­ship, with per­son­al­ity and which makes you feel good. Mu­sic you want to come back to again and again.”

How has the mu­sic in­dus­try and mu­sic-mak­ing process changed since you started Brand New Heav­ies back in the day?

“There’s less money around for a start so record com­pa­nies, if you want to go the tra­di­tional route, have less time to de­velop artists or for them to grow or­gan­i­cally like say in the ’70s, which means it’s gonna be harder for say a David Bowie or Led Zep­pelin to sud­denly ap­pear. So many artists be­came who they did af­ter a few al­bums. Now you’ll be lucky if you get one shot. The busi­ness is in­creas­ingly run by ac­coun­tants which is kind of anti-cre­ative. There are pluses though: its far eas­ier and cheaper to make and get your mu­sic out there thanks to mu­sic pro­duc­tion soft­ware and the in­ter­net. I was lucky enough to be around at the start of this change so have a good per­spec­tive on it. Nowa­days if you want to suc­ceed, you have to be more than just a mu­si­cian, you have to be able to mar­ket your­self, be me­dia-savvy and im­mersed in so­cial me­dia.All of that gives you a bet­ter shot at suc­cess but of course you still need a good sell­able prod­uct and some luck!”

MF Ro­bots’ mu­sic is very up­beat, is it an an­ti­dote to the in­tro­spec­tive singer-song­writer thing at the mo­ment? The state of world pol­i­tics maybe?

“Funny, but we were hav­ing ex­actly that con­ver­sa­tion the other day. I think the record is very up­beat and I guess that’s how our mu­sic ends up. We’re both ba­si­cally pos­i­tive peo­ple who love what we’re do­ing. There is an aw­ful lot of generic singer song­writer-type artists around, a lot of in­tro­spec­tion and angst. I blame the times, the pro­duc­tion-line men­tal­ity of la­bels and lack of cre­ative A&R. It’s like, ‘OK, Adele and Ed Sheeran have been suc­cess­ful – let’s make an­other 100 of those.’ That’s the ‘in­dus­try’ part of it, it’s for­ever at odds with evolv­ing cre­ativ­ity. We think peo­ple also need to es­cape how crap ev­ery­thing is in the news or pol­i­tics, it feels great to let your hair down, dance, go crazy… get your­selves to a MF Ro­bots show! We’ll shake you up, down and side­ways with the funk – it’s okay to be alive, peo­ple!”

You’ve taken a lot of in­flu­ence from clas­sic soul and funk, who are your drum­ming in­flu­ences from that era?

“Oh wow, so many! I have a very large record col­lec­tion – my favourites are not lim­ited to funk drum­mers though. In no par­tic­u­lar or­der: James Gadson, Zigaboo Modeliste, Har­vey Ma­son, Clyde Stubblefield, Ndugu, Jabo Starks, Steve Gadd, Elvin Jones,Philly Joe Jones, John Bon­ham, Port­inho, Airto Mor­eira… You can learn from all of them and many more!”

You’ve been lucky enough to have met some of your heroes like Ste­vie Won­der, Quincy Jones and Ray Charles – what were they like when you met them?

“Ste­vie Won­der was a mind-blower for me as a song­writer… we were at a Ray Charles all-star gala con­cert with lit­er­ally so many of my heroes. And at the af­ter-party I was in­tro­duced to Ste­vie, who knew [Brand New Heav­ies’ 1990 hit] ‘Never Stop’, my song which was a hit at the time… and he sang it back to me as I stood gob­s­macked!

“The Heav­ies sup­ported James Brown at Wem­b­ley Arena once, I was so ex­cited to be there that dur­ing sound­check I turned up the funk to 11 on the kit; he came out of his dress­ing room with his man­ager and when I fin­ished play­ing I turned around and he was stand­ing be­hind me, 20 feet back lis­ten­ing. I went over to say hello and he said, “Man, you can play funky!” That’s all I will ever need to know [laughs]!”

What ex­actly goes into mak­ing R&B sound mod­ern and rel­e­vant, as you clearly have?

“I think you have to take the very best from the past and try and trans­late it into a mod­ern con­text, whether it be son­i­cally or ap­ply­ing a fresh way of mix­ing up your in­flu­ences with what’s around and fresh. I don’t think there’s any­thing com­pletely new out there but what’s in­ter­est­ing is the cross-in­flu­enc­ing of so many mu­si­cal styles. We throw our per­son­al­ity into the mix­ture, give it all a good stir and try and make it sound like what we’d want to hear if we were just the au­di­ence… I think hav­ing a cer­tain raw edge to even so­phis­ti­cated mu­sic, whether it be in a rhythm or a bassline also helps to keep it rel­e­vant. Put on a James Brown record, that raw­ness and econ­omy in the mu­sic makes it sound as fresh to­day as it ever has.”

You did some of the al­bum at your home stu­dio and tracked some with a live feel – which ap­proach do you pre­fer?

“Both ac­tu­ally – I ab­so­lutely love the free­dom of play­ing live but when record­ing or mak­ing a record there’s so much I can do in my stu­dio, lots of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion… ideas that only some­times come at 2am. So hav­ing all of that to play with is great. Work­ing with a com­puter in the record­ing chain means record­ing can be­come like a paint­ing, grow­ing or­gan­i­cally. A bit of colour here, some shade there. When you have enough I’ll go back into the live stu­dio and smash the rhythm over the top to pull it all to­gether. Most of the drum tracks on the record are one take, played in this way.”

What is the key to great funk drum­ming?

“Feel­ing, with­out lis­ten­ing too much! Use the Force [laughs]. Feel is paramount, and econ­omy. Funk is not about jumping through hoops, hav­ing three bass drums or 10 cym­bals. It’s about screw­ing that stinky, nasty groove to the floor and hold­ing it there. If you could dance and play at the same time you would! If you’re not feel­ing that, it’s not funky! It should make you pull a face, it’s so badass! The re­la­tion­ship with the bass player is very im­por­tant too, as you need to be al­most like one limb, one mus­cle. Don’t let any­one tell you other­wise.”

Which of the tracks on the al­bum are you most proud of, drum­ming-wise?

“I’m pretty proud of them all, re­ally. I think they do ex­actly what’s needed. I had a pro­grammed beat on ‘Sweet Har­mony’ which I re­placed with one take with a beat I made up on the spot. I’d been work­ing on it for so long I just knew what I wanted to hear. That was very sat­is­fy­ing. ‘Whatcha Sayin” was a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence. On ‘Woo’ I wanted to do some­thing I’d never re­ally done be­fore – a re­ally hard-edged ’60s-style funky R&B rhythm that just won’t quit. On ‘Give It Up’ I went for dirty and added a James Brown B sec­tion. And I swear he was stand­ing be­hind me whenI did it!”

What gear did you end up us­ing in the record­ing of the al­bum?

“Oh man, we went to town in the stu­dio. Par­tic­u­larly on the drums. Mike Pe­lan­coni, AKA Prince Fatty, is a master at get­ting my sound. I want grav­i­tas… he’s got it in spades. He’s got a lovely vin­tage Neve desk and a shed-load of old and some ob­scure mics – vin­tage Neu­manns, AKGs, Tele­funken, some very rare Sony mics, that he’s col­lected over the years. I used my two vin­tage Sonor Kits, a De­signer, Hi-Lite and a va­ri­ety of Sonor snares, and of course my lovely Sabian cym­bals. We used a clap­trap as well on the more disco vibes. He has a lot of out­board gear to put stuff through to ma­nip­u­late the sig­nal and get the most out of themI. used Logic at home, and as well as sev­eral vin­tage synths, I played a Wurl­itzer and a Rhodes. What fun!”

Jan on play­ing funk: “Feel­ing is paramount, and econ­omy”

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