Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I have a solid morning routine. I always start with 5 rounds of Wim Hoff breathing technique, followed by meditation, exercise and a cold shower. Like most people I don’t always have the ideal psychological state to face this thing called life, and this routine I have found the most robust way to gain control over myself and be ready for anything. I drink lemon water and eat fruits to clean through my body. Then I eat a big brunch and drink coffee which usually powers me through most of the day.
When I’m not on tour and i’m in London, I head to my recording studio in Brick Lane. There I am writing and recording music, producing and mixing for my groups Soccer96 and The Comet is Coming, as well as making remixes and making records with other artists. I typically spend 8-12 hours there in a day. I still have a very strict work ethic from years working day jobs, and see music making as exactly the same, it is my job. It’s just the best job! I am lucky and privileged to now be able to work on it every day, and count my blessings daily.
When I am on tour, life is very regimented, hotels, planes, gig venues and shows. It’s actually more relaxing being on tour in some ways than being at home, as there is a very definite structure to the day that cannot be altered.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
It probably has to be making the first Comet album Channel The Spirits. At the time Betamax and I had been tracking in the very early, formative Total Refreshment Centre studio, and had finally worked out our own method of track production, making a Soccer96 EP called ‘Jupiter Masterdrive’. We had thrown caution to the wind and started building tracks very quickly on tape without any second guessing, and then we would crank the tracks into hyperdrive with production, edits and mixing.
This meant that when Shabaka came into the Total Refreshment Centre for the first time, we had a distinctive method, and even a sound set up on the mixing board. So we launched straight into a 3 day session, where we tried absolutely everything direct to tape, sometimes jamming with people in the studio dancing with us or filming spontaneously, it was an extremely vibrant time and flowed very fast and naturally - just how I like it. We had a lot of mutual respect, and we all pushed each other to play better. We realised immediately we had a great synergy. And I was confident that whatever we tracked I could cut together and fix it ‘in the mix’!
For this record we just decided to do exactly what we wanted, never over-thinking it or trying too hard. I remember dropping a bunch of good tracks on the cutting room floor to make sure we had the boldest statements. I collected a bunch of samples from planets and satellites and integrated them into the tracks.
Max and I mixed it and added overdubs mainly in my bedroom on spare days in between other work. We had no idea it was going to pop off the way it did. But we did really enjoy the process, it felt very unique, and we tried some fairly insane techniques like gradually speeding up the track on ‘Cosmic Dust’ and infinite feedback repeating a track for the outro of ‘Slam Dunk in a Black Hole’.
I guess it was a breakthrough in the sense that the legendary Leaf Label put it out, and then it was nominated for the Mercury Prize. It was pretty special, and really kicked things off for us in a big way.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
For me to enter the flow state my attitude initially is to get on and ‘DO IT!’
The moment of starting is often the hardest, I am prone to procrastination even now when my vocation is to do the thing I love most in the world.
I find that once I start, just making anything at all, even if the first sketch I make is terrible, at the very least it gets me going into a flow, a workmanship that I find incredibly hypnotic and addictive. Before long it is actually hard to stop even when my mind is tired.
Again, I find the Wim Hoff breathing method excellent for clearing the mind and encouraging focus.
Having a ‘fuck it’ mentally really helps me. I think you can get tied up in your ego, trying to make the best piece of music ever made, instead of just making the sound of where you are at in that particular moment. Trying to remember what I love about music by putting on a track that I absolutely love is another sure fire way to get into the creative spirit.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
You know what, when we transitioned to playing on huge stages, with speaker systems that look like they could knock down castles, I started to be more aware about the insane power under my fingertips, especially as my playing style involves making a lot of very deep sub and pulsing high pitched sounds on my SH-09. Over years I developed all these little tricks and moves as ‘fills’ in my bass synth playing, and some were sweeps and modulations right through the frequency range. One night in Portugal I remember feeling just how epic that was coming through the sound system and wondering if I can destroy someone's ears if I got it wrong one night. That made me feel a bit more responsible for how I played, being very deliberate with all my movements, compared to when I was playing through guitar amps in sweaty little venues in the early days.
We consciously construct different moments of trance and elevation into our live sets, its a journey that keeps on building and transitioning, with very little pause between tracks, so its like a shared sonic experience that we are all going on together, in the band and in the audience. Sometimes it gets pretty psychedelic up there and I really let off a lot of steam and go into deep trance. It’s something everybody should be able to go through at least once a day.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
To be honest, I’ve always steered well clear of borrowing too much from other music. There’s so much music that sounds like a pastiche of other stuff or regurgitating tropes from specific genres. Because of playing so openly and freely without pre-meditation, we might end up straying into territories that sound like other music, but I feel confident that with The Comet is Coming there aren’t a lot of acts you could say we sound like. I think we’ve made our own sonic landscape.
In terms of cultural appropriation, I think we are living through a brilliant, evolutionary time in terms of learning culturally about the whole planet, through the internet. It something we now take for granted, but would have blown our ancestors' minds. With that comes a responsibility to respect music and art from where it’s being made, be inspired for sure but make your own sound. Making your own culture is the point. Finding your own voice, your own perspective and expressing it. Not just grabbing what you can and repackaging it.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
This is a good question. Memory and how it works in the brain is still a huge mystery, with all the advances we have its still tricky to pin down what is happening when you suddenly remember a particular moment. Music has the power to bring you back so effortlessly and completely to an earlier time in your life, in a similar way to smell. Both these senses can open up portals to feelings and atmospheres even, present in a different time and place.
I am not sure what that tells us about senses other than there might be more going on than we have worked out yet! And all of the sense data is simply happening in our conscious awareness, as much as we feel in control of our bodies and minds, there are actually millions of processes going on automatically inside of us.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
First of all, just to make art is a political statement. In a capitalist world where profit is king, and the structure of society is based around material wealth, making art which doesn’t have money making as its primary goal is a political stance. Even if it doesn’t overtly contain a socio-political message, when you have chosen to massage people with sound waves, and to dance, or jump up and down for no reason other than its fun to do so, this is political. Because no one is telling you that these are important facets of human existence on the 10 o’clock news.
So that’s the foundation. I feel like I want to go a step further than that with the music I make, in that I want there to be a message encoded into the sound that promotes courage, strength, and hope. I know that sounds corny, but that’s how I see it. I called that Comet track ‘Summon The Fire’ because that’s what I think it sounds like, a call to action, unleashing the beast, because for so many reason we need that right now, just to keep fighting another day on this crazy planet. Sometimes you can feel helpless against the backdrop of global politics and the environment and racism. It is literally endless. But to make a small improvement or small difference everyday is possible, and I just want to make music that sounds like change is possible.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
When we try to construct a sentence, it is in a linear progression. You have to start in one place, and travel along a sentence to get to the point at the end. This is fundamentally how we experience the world most of the time, if we allow ourselves to be lost in thought most of the day.
Our experience of reality works in a different way to language, where everything happens all at once. At any one time outside you have tremendous amounts of sense data coming from a 360 degree radius of ‘happening’ around you, sounds, smells, sights, feelings, breathing, temperature, light, weather, vibes from people, the sensation of your body. It all happens at once in a way that is indescribable, as to explain in linear linguistics would be inaccurate.
Music has potential to greater reflect what the experience of life is like. When you listen to music you have the opportunity to be bathed by the sound, and listen to the overall picture, absorbing everything at once. The combination of all the elements of a track form a sensory experience.
As a producer and mixer, I have to remind myself of that constantly. As my mind becomes more and more analytical, I find myself zooming in on tiny details, focussing on a particular drum sound and guessing how they made it sound like that, wondering about the mix of sub bass on a track, or the panning of a reverb. All of which is useful, for educating yourself on how to make tracks, but its important to switch off that part of the brain now and then and just get lost in a piece of music, to feel it, to be moved by it. It would be akin to being a gardener perhaps, being so concerned with fertiliser and watering and cutting stems that it is important to remind yourself every now and then just to gaze at a flower and enjoy it for what it is.