Name: Ishmael Ensemble
Members: Pete Cunningham, Jake Spurgeon, Rory O'Gorman, Stephen Mullins, Holysseus Fly
Interviewee: Pete Cunningham
Occupation: Composer, improviser, producer, saxophonist
Current release: Ishmael Ensemble's new single "The Rebuke" is out via Seven Songs.
[Read our Holysseus Fly interview]
If you enjoyed this interview with Ishmael Ensemble and would like to know more about the band's music, visit their official website. They are also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
For many artists, a solitary phase of creative development precedes collaborative work. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your first collaborations?
I’ve been making music on a computer since my early teen years, so it’s been a long slow progression - lots of trial & error, YouTube tutorials and knowledge sharing between peers. I’ve been playing in bands for the same amount of time, but it wasn’t until forming Ishmael Ensemble that I felt ready to combine these two worlds.
I guess it’s a confidence thing, I felt I had to really learn how to produce before I felt comfortable inviting other artists into the fold.
Tell me a bit about your current instruments and tools, please. In which way do they support creative exchange and collaborations with others? Are there any obstacles and what are potential solutions towards making collaborations easier?
My music making process is very sample based, the difference being the samples I use are recordings of various members of the band.
Our guitarist Mullins will send me a stack of ambient pieces he’s made in his garage that I’ll then chop and loop to create new sounds out of. The same goes for Jake’s synth parts - he’ll record some random modular noises which then get mangled into new arrangements.
I’ll then perhaps add some sax parts or melody ideas before recording final drum and vocal takes with Rory and Holly.
What were some of your earliest collaborations? How do you look back on them with hindsight?
Before Ishmael Ensemble, myself, Mullins and Jake played in a dub band called The Raydiators. I guess this was around 2007. We used to jam for hours in the basement of Paulton Methodist Church, getting lost in the groove and finding our feet as musicians.
Various vocalists would come in and out of the fold over the years, which in hindsight probably triggered something in me as a young producer. A band doesn’t have to be a fixed line up or a specific “sound” - it can ebb and flow with your own tastes and moods or whoever’s around & up for it at any given time.
The other two core members of The Raydiators were the drummer Shane Brimble and bassist Johnny Rench. They were legends in the local music scene. Shane was 10 years my senior, Johnny was 20 years my senior.
To be accepted as an equal by musicians I regarded so highly gave me a huge boost of confidence in my own abilities and where music could take me.
Besides the early collaborations, can you talk about one collaboration that was important for you? Why did it feel special to you?
Meeting the MC Rider Shafique has been an amazing experience.
We’ve been working on stuff in the studio for about a year now. I’ve been a fan of his work for years and was the first time I felt nervous in that situation, it was a new experience working with a vocalist that wasn’t a singer. It was a collaboration that could go one of two ways. I think it was similar for him as he’d mainly worked with more electronic producers as opposed to the “live band” sound.
However we quickly hit it off and are both really happy with what we’ve done so far. The first of these sessions to be released is his take on our song “Empty Hands” from the Versions Of Light album.
What are some of the things you learned from working with other artists throughout your career?
That everyone has a completely different process to making music.
As a producer, you have to be both patient and pragmatic - you have to know when something's working and when to leave it. It’s also absolutely normal and fine for an idea to not work. You can waste hours trying to shoehorn something that makes sense in your head but in reality doesn’t come to anything.
Also - RECORD EVERYTHING! First takes are usually the best - and there’s nothing worse than instantly forgetting that great hook you’ve just thought of.
There are many potential models for collaboration, from live performances and jamming via producing in the same room together up to file sharing. Which of these do you prefer and why?
We’ve yet to do much - “in the room jamming” - unless it’s preparing for live shows. But that’s really a time thing. We’re all busy - some of us are parents - and we live in different places. I’d love to just rent a studio for a month and camp out and make music, but I guess that’s a luxury not often available these days.
I’m also very much aware that the Ishmael Ensemble “sound” is just as much my production style as it is a band in the traditional sense. Often ideas come in the middle of the night or from messing around with loops and recordings on my own.
Is there typically a planning phase for your collaborations? If so, what happens in this phase and how does it contribute to the results?
I usually have a vocalist in mind if I’m working on something. Usually, that idea is informed by the general mood of where the tracks going. Or if there’s a vocalist I’ve seen perform that’s caught my attention, I’ll start working on something that could lend itself to their voice.
The real challenge is making it all sit in the same Ishmael Ensemble “sound world”. There’s been a few collaborations that haven’t quite fitted with the overall sound but that’s not to say they were a waste of time.
In fact it’s often been a way of making me realise what that “sound” is.
In a live situation, decisions between creatives often work without words. How does this process work – and how does it change your performance compared to a solo performance?
I guess that comes with time. Some of the best parts of the live show have come out of the rehearsal room. Someone will play something slightly different or something cuts out - a happy accident - that then becomes part of the fabric of the tune.
It’s also much more fun sharing the stage with others. If it’s an amazing gig, you can share that feeling. If it’s a bad one - you can laugh it off together.