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Escape Velocity

Everybody Gets Wings: King Champion Sounds Interviewed
Ben Graham , November 11th, 2014 13:09

Ajay Saggar, leader of King Champion Sounds, tells Ben Graham how the collective went from one-off Mike Watt support act to fully fledged, brass-touting genre melders ahead of their UK tour, starting this week

"My father was a doctor in Kenya and he used to prescribe this to expectant mothers," says Ajay Saggar, fearless leader of King Champion Sounds as we embark on yet another round of milk stouts in Brighton's tiny Hand In Hand hostelry. It's a health drink, you see; fortifying, nourishing, and a sound accompaniment to our in-depth interview. It's unfortunate, and nothing at all to do with our staunch devotion to the health-giving stout, that I fail to notice that my recording device has reached the memory-full point only minutes into our frank and robust exchange of views, and alas, much of Ajay's wisdom is now lost to memory. Only fragments remain; and while I'm pretty sure it was his father he mentioned, it might have been his uncle. Or his grandfather. I do remember that Ajay gave me absolute permission to make all of this up if necessary, anyway.

We've met before, myself and Ajay: 24 years ago, when our man was bassist in Preston's legendary Dandelion Adventure - a Peel session-producing powerhouse of a band that collided the Fall, the Membranes and Sonic Youth just to see what would happen - and I was helping my 16-year-old sister put them on at a gig at Halifax's Yorkshire Rider club. I think we found the band's address in a fanzine and sent them a handwritten letter asking them to play, then were too nervous to talk to them when they turned up. Since then though Ajay has gone from strength to strength, relocating from Preston to Amsterdam (where he works as production manager at the legendary Paradiso club), and forming first Donkey and then the Bent Moustache. It was as the Bent Moustache was winding down in February last year that King Champion Sounds sprang into being, born fully-formed from the loins of necessity and inspiration. Ajay was asked to open for Mike Watt at Amsterdam's OCCII and wrote a half-hour set specifically for that one show, then recruited the players to perform it. Those players included Jos Kleij - aka G.W. Sok - former singer with legendary Dutch post-punks The Ex, who left that band in 2008 specifically to seek out other new and interesting collaborations. With Sok in place on vocals and lyric-writing duties, Ajay rounded up bassist and keyboard player Oli Heffernan, guitarist Danielle Eden Johnson and teenage drummer Mees Siderius, plus a horn section of Ditmer Weertman and Chris Moerland. The set they performed that night was then translated into last year's brilliant debut album, Different Drummer.

The horns are crucial to the King Champion Sounds, er, sound; steering their churning, scuzzy yet melodic Kraut-punk towards Northern Soul rave-ups one minute and experimental jazz flare-outs the next, attracting traces of West African highlife and Jamaican ska along the way, and always with a heavy side order of dub, helped along by thick heavy bass and Ajay's generous use of the melodica. Dub is one of the guitarist's many favourite things, a love he's nurtured ever since tuning into Steve Barker's seminal On The Wire show on Radio Lancashire as a teenager, which so fired him with enthusiasm he travelled down to the studios to volunteer on the show, as happy making the tea as helping out on live sessions.

Enthusiasm is the key word when discussing Ajay; this is a man who has never lost his wide-eyed passion for music, who has never become in the least bit jaded or decided that he's heard enough. Always open to new sounds, always on the lookout for new avenues to explore, he's as excited by cutting edge jazz as lo-fi DIY pop, as up for unstructured improvised noise jams as tuneful and tightly wound indie anthems. The only quality that a band has to have for him to like it, he says, is vision; a reason for being, and a passion to take that vision as far as it can go. For Ajay, you take it to the limit, and then move on, hence the dissolution of the Bent Moustache and the inauguration of King Champion Sounds. One long-running band he's unstinting in his admiration for, however, is The Fall; indeed, part of the reason he's flown into the UK is to catch a run of dates on the current tour by "Das Gruppe" still seeing them as the ideal of what can be achieved by a rock band, the perfect chimeric fusion of chaos and discipline, freedom and strong leadership, sweat and genius, fresh blood and the gang mentality.

King Champion Sounds' second album, Songs For The Golden Hour, is released on John Robb's Louder Than War label, a natural arrangement, as Ajay goes way back with the Blackpool-born Membranes and Goldblade frontman. It's out on 10" vinyl with a free CD that includes two bonus tracks, and may be one of the finest indie-rock albums you'll hear this year. Opener 'Ghetto Of Eden' rolls like the Teardrop Explodes might've if they'd let Bill Drummond handle vocals instead of Julian Cope; 'SM Revelation' celebrates whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning while sounding like King Tubby producing The Nightingales. 'The Year 500' finds NEU! hijacking the last train to soulsville, while gorgeous dream-pop instrumental 'Mootoripyörä Matka' marries John Cameron-like pastoral folk soundtracks to minimal dub techno glitches. And just as his years living and working in the Netherlands haven't eroded Ajay's Lancastrian accent, so this Dutch group still contain an essence of rainswept Manchester post-punk; not just the aforementioned Fall, but early Happy Mondays and second division greats like Dub Sex, King Of The Slums and New Fast Automatic Daffodils. But to return to those fragments…

One of the most distinctive features of both the King Champion Sounds albums is the brass section. You've said that was a part of your original idea, when you were putting the band together for that one show, but why particularly was that? Where did that come from? You said that originally you wanted to have strings as well.

Ajay Saggar: Yeah, a lot of that was just wild, adventurous thinking in your own total plan. You want to do a Brian Wilson-esque, full-on production, you want to capture a huge sound, you want to make a statement. You don't want to make a standard sound that everybody knows and has heard. I think also, laying those parameters of it being a one-off show, you just thought, you know, pull out all the stops; I'm just going to do whatever I want! I think that just gave me the freedom to look hard at people and express myself in the writing and the music and how we were going to capture it. And yeah, brass: come on! Who doesn't get turned on by brass? Whether it's Ethiopian music or whether it's The J.B.'s, or whether it was like the old Jamaican brass section in King Tubby's studio, seriously, you know… mayhem. They stretch your heavy rock parameters. You add some brass to it, they take it somewhere else. They can make it funky. They can dub it out; they can make it really melodramatic. The point being that you have more bows to your strings, you have more options, you have more variations. And strings, of course that was a wild dream, but I did it! I did it on the new record. There are two songs with huge strings, brilliant, I love it, I absolutely love it. So that worked out.

But the brass thing - it was also good just to bring something different to the whole, to go outside of the confines of the whole defined rock structure that we all know and are all so used to. And bring something more interesting to it, from a different kind of music. Those guys are jazzers; they're from that free jazz, improv world. So I was actually bringing in rookies who were like, they didn't know The Fall. Seriously, they didn't know Can, they didn't know Kraftwerk, they didn't know King Tubby; they didn't know! They were like, Albert Ayler, Coltrane, they were from that whole other world. I was like, "Lads, this is what we're going to do. This is the idea of the music, this is what I want you to play." I literally worked out the melodies with them, and then gave them the room and freedom within that structure to say at this point, let go, do your thing, and they were like, happy as pie, happy as Larry. They love it. Absolutely love it. They're old dudes. They've been confronted with standing in rock venues, on rock stages, playing this noise, and they're doing their own thing and they love it, smiles on their faces. They're like family guys but they absolutely love it.

What impresses me is how organic and natural it sounds, and not tacked on. Sometimes you hear rock records with brass and it sounds like someone's said, oh, let's get a mariachi feel or a cod-soul thing, but it sounds very much a part of the music you're playing, a part of the whole band. It's not just a jazz interlude.

AS: I really think that's just because everybody is such an experienced player that they would never allow that to happen. If they even smelled a whiff of fake, if they even thought someone was trying to stitch stuff together or 'produce' a record, in the old sense of that term, they would just be "get out of here!" They're not from that world. Jos is not from that world, the jazzers aren't from that world; Oli and Danielle are pure DIY. I'm not from that world. It just wouldn't work. And it's not something that sits within us, to be able to do that! To produce something! You could say coming together for that one gig was a production, and in a way it was produced, but in another way it wasn't. The people who took part in it, they would never have done it if they weren't into the music that was offered to them. And then they have to be the ones to do it, to bring their own energy and ideas into it, which they did. It wasn't super-structured, like you've got to play this, but they got it and played it, and then they brought their own thing into it, into the whole, which made them feel comfortable, but also raised the whole bar.

When you originally got together for that one gig supporting Mike Watt, did you think it was just going to be that one show originally?

AS: Yeah, absolutely. I got asked by the promoter at the OCCII - fantastic, underground venue in Amsterdam - and he knew me and Watt go back a long way, so he was like, oh, do you want to open with the Bent Moustache? And I said I really want to open for it but I definitely don't want to do a Bent Moustache thing anymore.

Is that because the Bent Moustache were more or less over by that point, or was it particularly that show you didn't want to do with them?

AS: Yeah, it was a combination of both things. It was a combination of, like, I'd seen and done it with the Bent Moustache, put out a whole bunch of records, done a whole bunch of touring and I'd seen the back of it. I thought no, I can't really take this any further. And I don't even want to. There's no point in doing your art if you can't take it to the limit, and really express it, and I thought I can't do that, so pfft! So I said to him look, I'll do it, but I'll do a one-off thing, it'll be something really very special for that show. It's Watt, it's the OCCII; everything was in place, the stars were aligned for it, in a way. And he was like, alright, great. And then I was like, oh god!

How much time did you have to get it together?

AS: I had a month. But I was really focussed. I kind of knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to do a 30-minute piece, which sounds a bit arty-farty, but I literally wanted to do a 30-minute piece.

So you made the first album, which was kind of based on that initial live show where you first got together, and then you decided to keep going with the band. Was it very different writing the second album?

AS: No, no. I'd pretty much started writing the second one after the first one came out. That whole process between doing that gig and putting that record out was like six months or something, and by that time I'd started writing a whole bunch of stuff anyway, and I'd recorded a bunch of stuff in the studio. So I already had ideas for it, which again I forwarded to everybody and said look, here's the next batch, start thinking about it. And I got everybody in the studio again, in February for the first round, so in a way we already had songs going, we were already doing songs in the set from the second album while we were still playing the first album. And then I got everybody in the studio for the second one in February; we started in February and from then on it was doing everybody at different times. I got all the rhythm section down, that's the most important one for me, if I get them then the world's my oyster thereafter. I got them down in February, and then I started getting the brass section in, and I did all my guitar parts, I did all the other overdubs and electronica and whatever else there was, and then finally got Jos in when everything was down. He knew the basis, he knew what he was working on, and I had the package, and then he came in and he just went boom, literally it was two takes max for him. He knew it inside out. And that was it. The process was really fast, yeah.

With Jos, I guess the music is recorded, it's fixed, and he kind of knows how the songs go, and he's written according to it, but there's not any kind of leeway is there, where he can say, "Can we have another four bars of the verse there because I've written more words…?"

AS: No. Interesting you say that though. I did a lot in the editing thereafter, because he actually did a whole bunch of stuff, he did some stuff that wasn't totally in sync or fitted with what was recorded. And I did stuff with the editing to make it work. So we actually got around it; things were pretty open in that matter. But I'm already working on the next record, and I've already told the guys I want to do it in a more organic way. I'm going to come in with ideas anyway, I'm going to send them ideas, but also we're going to go into the studio in February, without Jos; drums, bass, me, and maybe the horn section as well, and I'd really like to spend three, four, five days. We're just going to play and play and play, and I'm just going to record everything. Old school - record everything and then edit it afterwards. And I think that allows everybody - because now everybody knows roughly what the flow is of the whole thing - to have an input into the music and doing stuff, especially live. People do express themselves, when we play live it's never as rigid as the records. There's room for everyone to move and express themselves. Fantastic. Everybody gets wings and flies, it's great. And now we're definitely going to bring that into the next record and make it more organic.

Yeah, because we were talking earlier about the whole improvised music scene and that being a big inspiration to you. But the contradiction is that King Champion Sounds seems like it's been quite strictly scripted so far.

AS: In a way, being scripted is no bad thing. I think if somebody has a vision that other people around that person believe in, and can bring it out then I don't really have a problem with that. It just happens to be my vision!

Yeah, sure; it's just interesting that you talked about being into improvised music and even being immersed in it, and yet this is an old school format.

AS: Yeah, but also on the records there have been compositions that are purely freeform. On the first album even there are free jazz pieces that are purely recorded improvised in the studio - it was like 45 minutes of blast, and we captured the best moments of the whole thing.

So there is freedom.

AS: Yeah, absolutely. And on the last record, people were free to come in and out and say, I'm gonna play this, and then we worked stuff out; not everyone, but there's a couple of members where we allowed that to happen. It's fine when everybody finds their feet within the structure of the whole thing, and realises, look, we are a group, and within the group there are individuals, who get the room to express themselves and say we could try this or that. And I'm open to it, and I will listen to it. But the editing at the end of it is my decision as well. I have got pretty good ears for stuff, and if it works, fine. If it doesn't, then I'll say so.

And the edit is based on the material that you've got to work with, which might surprise you - like you say, Jos coming in with more lyrics.

AS: Of course. Yeah, totally. But that is the whole point of making art, expressing yourself. If you can't push the whole thing to the limit, then don't do it. If you make music and you constantly hear new things in things you've made or recorded, then you're on the right path. If you can put your new record on and hear some new things within that, within what you've made, then goddamn, that's damn good!

Songs For The Golden Hour is out now via Louder Than War. King Champion Sounds touch down in the UK for a week-long tour starting on Thursday, at The Cluny in Newcastle, followed by the Old Hairdressers in Glasgow, November 14, Hebden Bridge Trades Club (supporting Clinic), 15, The Mad Ferret in Preston, 16, The Bell Inn in Bath, 17, and the Guided Missile Club at London's Buffalo Bar (with the Arndales), 18