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Escape Velocity

End Days Intensity: The Comet Is Coming Interviewed
Tristan Bath , January 19th, 2016 10:50

Groovy cosmic trio and one of the Quietus' favourite new bands The Comet Is Coming talk to Tristan Bath about recording their debut Prophecy EP, dancing as a form of worship and their crystal of cosmic power

Photograph courtesy of Fabrice Bourgelle

The Comet Is Coming live up to the promise of that name less than fifteen seconds into their debut release, last year's five-track 12" Prophecy. 'Neon Baby' leaps almost right into a heavily bassy synth-and-drum groove over which a gnarled sax blasts out a funkified melody, encumbered with enough gritty hooks and furiously electric energy to positively wipe out the dinosaurs. King Shabaka (aka Shabaka Hutchings) is without a shadow of a doubt amongst the very best sax (and clarinet) players working today, already sitting on an impeccable back catalogue with bands like Sons Of Kemet and Melt Yourself Down, not to mention a wide number of turns with the likes of The Heliocentrics and Polar Bear. Like many of Hutchings' finest efforts, The Comet Is Coming lean heavily on memorable melodies and manic energy, though his signature skronk has most definitely been getting harder and heavier than ever before, taking on an increasingly sandpaper-like tone at points.

However, The Comet Is Coming are very much a trio, and the dense bed of synths and drums come via the arms and legs of Danalogue The Conqueror (keyboardist Dan Leavers) and Betamax Killer (drummer Maxwell Hallett) who are also known as an intensely danceable cosmic duo in their own right, Soccer96. Leavers' bouncy synth basslines in particular are an intensely potent hit of sheer hooky melody – just check out his chunky phrases at the core of 'Do The Milky Way', or those pulsing arpeggios that drive 'Neon Baby' to such glorious heights in a matter of seconds. Part Jan Hammer's theme from Miami Vice, part Weather Report, part Funkadelic.

While intrinsically linked to funk via those beats, and spiritually linked to all manner of cosmic music via their imagery (and love of space-creating echo and reverb effects), The Comet Is Coming has the feel of an utterly fresh sort of project. While there have been comparisons to countless punk-jazz outfits (they've even played with Ted Milton's Blurt, while Hutchings has worked with the legendary James Chance with Melt Yourself Down), this project exists somewhat more out of time. It's completely explosive and spontaneous, overflowing with the high energy of a party in full swing – or perhaps more aptly the energy of a rocket heading straight out into deep space. When I quizzed the trio on the origins of the project in an unseasonably warm London cafe, it turns out the whole thing does indeed seem to have been something of a very happy accident...

I saw you play at Raw Power festival in London in 2014, it seemed like you'd been playing together for a while already. How and when did it get started?

Maxwell Hallett: It was a couple of years ago. Me and Dan used to be, and still are, a duo called Soccer96 and Shabaka just turned up on the side of the stage with a saxophone. He just sort of came on, got on a mic, and the energy just hit the roof. Since then, Shabaka's actually done it with a lot of bands I've seen… just turn up at the side of the stage then take their gigs to new heights! But it was so exciting that every time we had a gig we'd try and get Shabaka to come down and join in for a few numbers. Then we were just like, "Let's make an album next week."

Shabaka Hutchings: Not even let's make an album, just let's go record. Just go to a studio for three days and let the tape roll. Then from the moment we started it was just tune after tune, fully arranged tunes. 'Neon Baby' was the second thing we jammed, ten minutes in, and that's actually the recording on the release.

That's ridiculous, it's such a fully formed piece of music!

SH: It just came out like that.

Dan Leavers: The interesting thing about 'Neon Baby' is that it's been a long-running theme in mine and Max's music for a long time, about ten years. We had a similar feeling track in a band we used to be in with Gazelle Twin. It had this bit and that bit, but it never fully realised itself until we played it with Shabaka. I think a lot of the way we work together is that we have this similar ethos of intensity and energy live. So when we played that riff with Shabaka it just suddenly became the thing we'd been waiting for it to be for about ten years.

I'm actually not entirely surprised though to find out that such a tight tune like 'Neon Baby' was basically improvised. There's something about the way you guys play that locks into place very easily.

DL: We recorded that tune with lots of people in the studio. Shabaka was referencing Parliament and Funkadelic and the way they recorded, with like a party going on in the studio. Then when the moment is right you hit record on the tape, and not before. So we did that and had lots of drinks and stuff in the studio, people were dancing. If you listen really carefully on 'Neon Baby' you can hear people clinking beer bottles coming through on the microphone.

SH: It's how Fela Kuti did it as well. Just have a kind of vibe in the studio going for ages and then, he's ready. The vibe is at peak potential.

The sax sound you've got too, it feels very distinct from some of your other projects, like Sons Of Kemet. It's the way it's mic'd up or something, it adds a skronky feel to it...

DL: As soon as Shabaka came into the studio we thought we wanted to do something different for this group. So we got this quite old amp belonging to Capitol K that we found down the back of this sofa – it's a vintage Peavey amp – then we had it going through an analogue delay.

SH: We were just using it at the beginning to warm up, because it really wasn't very good, I think it technically wasn't really working. We thought it might be a bit too dodgy, but then we realised that was just the sound.

DL: I remember Shabaka saying: "Yeah, this is gonna be my bastard child."

I've heard some comparisons with the the late-'70s/early-'80s punk-jazz movement and Blurt, who you've played with, but the main thing that keeps you very separate from all that is the sheer weight and punchiness of the bass on those synth keys. So much of that old no- and new wave era punk-jazz stuff is so much lighter without any of that bassy punch.

DL: Everything's recorded live to tape as well, so maybe that warmth adds something… but I remember right at the end of the mix we did turn up the bass. Right at the last minute.

SH: I think there's also something to do with what times people are in, and what frequencies resonate with them. There are definitely eras where high frequencies are the thing people are into.

New Yorkers in the '70s seem to have been very happy with lots more of just that tinkly hi-hat sort of sound.

SH: But then say, the dub thing. They need that bass. Especially when you hear it on a real sound system, and it's like all bass. That's just the resonant frequency with those guys. They just resonate with a deep, earthly thing. A Brazilian musician told me this thing a while ago, about dancing. When people dance their motions are generally all upwards or downwards, and there's a real differentiation between the two. When the motions are generally more towards the ground he sees them as more worshipping the gods of the earth, or worshipping the gods of the sky when moving upwards. I'm not religious in that way, but I do think there's a thing in terms of high and low frequencies, where some people are aspiring to something upwards, or something lower… there's two differentiating factors.

MH: I think of lower frequencies as going inward as well, deeper into yourself. You can feel the lower frequencies in your bodies more.

What's the dancing been like at your gigs?

SH: Mental.

DL: Yeah quite dancey! We did a [seated] gig at the Barbican in London, and people were dancing even though they weren't allowed to and security were trying to actually stop people dancing. Didn't realise that was a thing at the Barbican.

SH: Most of our gigs have been at the Total Refreshment Centre so that's just a raw dancing crew. So even if we do a dry gig at the Barbican, we can just remember the good times.

DL: The Total Refreshment Centre is kind of like that loft scene in New York, where all the bands coming through there retain this element of just wanting to make people dance and party essentially. So that's affected the way everybody's writing their music.

I almost feel like for the last few years there's been a much more thoughtful and meditative approach to a lot of live music, and we're now just coming out the other side of that, and we're all a lot more hungry for fun. The Raw Power festival's a good example of that, where lots more bands just rock the fuck out.

SH: I think people need that. Again the thing with the high and low. Sometimes people need to just contemplate music, and then there's times when people need to just lose it. This is that time.

It comes across that you really focus more on the melodies. Those basslines are so potent, especially in comparison to a lot of other synth-based music right now.

DL: I definitely like treating them almost like guitars, and playing them live by hand rather than sequencing them so it's got this organic side to it, despite the fact that they're these robotic instruments.

MH: The human achievement of actually performing it creates a bit more energy than a backing track or something.

SH: There's also something from an audience perspective where you just can't deny watching musicians on stage just physically working really hard. And we just don't know how far that can go either. Every gig could be that gig where the playing just goes to that next level – and you don't get that when stuff is pre-programmed.

Photograph courtesy of Fabrice Bourgelle

Some of those sax blasts you do really seem like you're pushing your instrument to its limits, particularly live.

SH: Yeah, that's my thing! Go as hard as possible within being musical. It's something Evan Parker told me actually. I had this period once where I'd done about three or four gigs on the same bill as Evan Parker, so I went up to him at the end and said, "Look Evan, you've seen me play quite a few times in the last few weeks. What do I need to do?" So he just looked at me, and he had a little pause, and he goes, "Hmm…." - I warn you, it sounds cliched! - he goes, "Hmm, you need to play like it's the last time you're going to play ever." That means you play everything you know. Instead of thinking about saving a bit for when you need it later, you play that big bit at the beginning, and then you play so hard you think there's nothing left. And when you play like that, you'll actually find that in a corner of yourself there's some little bit left that you didn't think was there. If you go to the absolute end of what you think you can do, there's always something else you can tap into. There's this whole infinite universe of possibilities both musically and physically, beyond what you think you can do.

What's that object in the hand on the cover of the Prophecy EP?

MH: It's… the crystal! [they all giggle]

DL: Metaphorically, it's a crystal of cosmic power that showed us the prophecy of the apocalypse and gave us the power to express the intensity of the end days…

MH: It's this thing that's arrived here, and it's not from around the corner. It's come from a more spacey place, and now someone has it.

SH: The other thing about the crystal, metaphorically speaking, is the whole Sun Ra thing of creating your own myths. The thing I like that Sun Ra says a lot is the fact that societies that can create their own mythological structures are the ones that have their own agency. To the point at which you can dictate the terms of what's real and what's not real. The crystal in the hand forces you to create your own myth.

What's next? When will a full album be out?

SH: April. Yup, it's all done! Out April 1…

DL: … after midday.

Prophecy is out now on Leaf. The Comet Is Coming play London Fields Brewery in London on April 13; for full details and tickets, head here

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