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Peer Reviewed: Dave Okumu Interviews Joan As Police Woman... And Vice Versa
The Quietus , November 15th, 2021 16:28

Following the release of their collaborative album with the late Tony Allen, Joan As Police Woman and Dave Okumu take part in an exclusive two-way interview that covers the former's love of New York, the latter's impeccable sense of style, obsessions from Grace Jones to Julian Barratt, artistic process, dream collaborations and much, much more...

Joan As Police Woman photo: Giles Clement/ Dave Okumu photo: Morgan Sinclair

Joan As Police Woman Interviews Dave Okumu

I remember you telling me that you were born in Vienna. Do you have any early memories of music you heard there? What was the music, if any, that was played in your home growing up?

My exposure to music in Vienna came mainly via my siblings. They were listening to so much great pop music from the 70s and 80s and would make me wonderful mixtapes populated by the greats of soul and funk, jazz and blues. Sometimes I would catch my parents’ hips swaying to African pop music, high life and such like. In Vienna, you couldn't move for images of Mozart but my introduction to classical music came much later in life.

Who were your musical heroes growing up? And now?

Growing up, there were so many. Grace Jones was the first artist I felt was speaking to me directly. I remember looking at the sleeve of ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ and, even before I heard the music, I heard a voice instructing me to be myself. It was utterly liberating, legitimising and transformative to encounter a being so unapologetically present and vital, with skin as dark as the night, celebrating every aspect of her complexity. the power of her message reached me aged seven or eight, as I struggled to locate a sense of self in an environment where everything outside of my family was telling me that beauty and value resided in things I could never be. Standing as a beacon to all of humanity's complexity, Grace shattered that construct for me. She was terrifying, powerful and beautiful and she did not manifest in a prescribed form. Prince had a similar impact on me. then there was James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and, a few years later, the universe of jazz music opened up to me via Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. all this music was handed down to me from my siblings before I entered my teens. in subsequent years, I was introduced to an ever broadening spectrum of amazing music by my community of musical peers and that's when I started to realise that the conversation with my heroes would be never ending. Now my heroes are formed of a tapestry of ancestors and contemporaries, from Can to Pino Palladino, Prince to Eska, Joni Mitchell to Olivia Chaney, Arthur Russell to Tom Skinner, Birgit Nilsson to Ruby Hughes (aka Wifey), Joe Henderson to Robert Stillman.... the list is endless.

What drew you to the guitar? Was it your first instrument? When did you start playing the bass?

I started playing the guitar when I was about 13. I hadn't been particularly drawn to it. I really wanted to play the trumpet because I was obsessed with Miles Davis. but my parents weren't interested in making that happen. They had more pressing concerns. One day my bro brought a guitar home. I was listening to Tracy Chapman's album on my headphones and he asked me what I was listening to. I told him and he offered to show me how to play the song. at that point, I didn't understand that was possible. I thought music was the reserve of aliens or heavenly beings. When he put that guitar in my hands and I started to make the same sounds as these beloved, lifesaving records, I never put that instrument down. Playing music became like a form of prayer or meditation, a way of accessing the divine. the instrument became an extension of my very being. the bass came later. I still consider myself a closet bass player. i became fascinated by the role of this instrument in so much of the music I loved, as well as the temperament and values of the bass players I most admired. when [D’Angelo’s] Voodoo came out, Pino's performances on that record taught me so much about what music is. This happened again watching and listening to Meshell Ndegeocello. I had a similarly epiphanic moment performing a few times with Anders Jormin and I've been so lucky to spend my years playing with Tom Herbert and Rob Mullarkey. These guys move like water, they find their way to where they are most needed. I love the way this instrument keeps sending me on that path by its very nature.

What did it feel like to be the bass player in the Tony Allen rhythm section?

This was one of the richest experiences of my life. I’ll never forget that night in Paris. I'm always hungry to learn and this felt like the ultimate masterclass. There was something about the act of descending into this deep state of exploration, play and nonverbal communication with you and Tony that was so wonderful, healing and expansive... It's hard to put it into words. I felt like a child and that everything was exactly as it should be. Tony was so adept at accessing this very special, magical, totally natural place and it was overwhelming to be invited in with him. It felt like floating in a river. It was ineffable.

What is your process in writing a piece of music? When do you know it’s done?

I'm looking for the state I describe above. or, to put it more accurately, I am trying to ensure that I surrender to it. It's already there. there's usually just distractions or obstacles in the way. So much of my energy is consumed trying to identify and/or remove these obstacles and to find the things which help me to surrender. I believe in intuition. Intuition doesn't come from a dysfunctional place. It comes from the naturally occurring state. If intuition is truly my guide, I will get wherever it is I'm meant to be going. So the question becomes about being attuned. When I'm bringing this form of attention to any process, it's always joyous, free and full of mystery. I also don't really believe in finishing. I believe in letting go. Everything is always in process but it's important to keep letting go. I find when I adopt this attitude, everything finds its place without any real sense of finality. There's just a flow. It's hard to hold onto this vision in a culture that is so product focussed and results orientated, so tediously explicit. I'm not really up for looking through that lens. I want to live and living is about process.

What does jazz mean to you?

I think jazz may just be the highest art form.

How has creating a studio of your own changed the way you work?

It's been so important. Building the studio was very much like making a record. I had a wonderful 'producer' in the form of the extraordinarily gifted thinker and architect, Julius Taminiau. he supported me to explore my needs and desires in relation to my workspace. I realised that I wasn't really concerned with many of the tropes attached to studios, these strange, artificial constructs which must serve specific functions. Don't get me wrong, that stuff is important, but what was even higher on the list of priorities to me was to create an environment where community could thrive, a space that had a specific emotional impact on me to allow me to access the states we've been discussing and to achieve this in a modest space with a modest budget! The ongoing realisation of this vision has had such a deep impact. I feel more connected to myself and to people I care about and consequently feel more empowered to make work that I believe in. It's deep.

Have you always had a fierce sense of style? When did you begin dressing like the superstar you are? Who are your style heroes? What’s your favorite item of clothing

Hahaaaaaa! Seems I've always been into threads. I remember being really specific about my outfits when I was little. it used to make my sisters giggle. I was never particularly concerned with what other people thought. It was about expressing myself, how I felt and being connected to beauty and inspiration. I believe these things are good for the soul. In my view great design, like anything else, is not about exclusivity and excess. These are weird capitalist constructs. I mean, look at the beauty in nature. I want to be part of that celebration, not disembodied from it. for the last six or seven years, I’ve been designing my own clothes. I have a wonderful tailor who works on the designs with me. It's been so healing as a big person to make clothes how I actually want them to be. one day I’d like to design a line of some kind for this reason. I’ve had big people come up to me almost in tears, yearning to be able to find clothes that celebrate their forms. It's rough on these streets, man. I'm the youngest of 8 and I always enjoyed the style of my family. They always rocked things a certain way that was unique to them. It didn't feel like anyone was trying to assimilate and I appreciated that. They were and still are my style heroes. My nephew Lex is probably the freshest cat I know and don't even get my started on my four year old.

What living artist would you most like to collaborate with?

I feel so lucky to work with so many wonderful people, it feels greedy asking for more. But my appetite for collaboration is insatiable so here goes (in no particular order)... D’Angelo, Q Tip, Sly Stone, Mono Neon, Meshell Ndegeocello, Kendrick Lamar, Inflo, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Julius Taminiau, Frank Ocean, George Clinton, Spice Adams, Portishead, Lau Noah, Raoul Peck, Ian McGilchrist... another endless list.

Dave Okumu Interviews Joan As Police Woman

Around 2007, I was stalking you. How did that feel? Was it scary?

Haha. You funny. Unsurprisingly I’ve gotten used to mild stalking. You, on the other hand, are not a stalker. If I had known you were “stalking” me, I would have joined you in a mutual stalking battle.

why are you so cool?

I think it’s common knowledge that I’m so cool because I’ve been seen stepping out of an Uber in public with you.

I am fascinated by the grace with which you perform. What is your philosophy of performance?

This interview is going pretty well! Experiencing live music has really changed the way I relate to the world. I’ve been transported to other realms of my mind that I can sometimes even access later when I badly need them. Music is amazing because it happens in real time, is intangible and then is gone. It’s breathing. I will never have that breath again. My philosophy is basically casually asking myself, ‘What will you do with this next breath?’ I try to practice getting into a place where I get ‘thinking’ reduced to the smallest particle to allow the music to breathe through me.

How would you say you cultivated your compassion towards humanity?

My parents were interesting people. They were atheists but many read them as religious because they were modest, didn’t care for material things, and were resoundingly kind. They were accepting of others different to them. They stayed away from parties and socialising (my mother never drank a sip of alcohol her entire life).

My brother and I were adopted as newborns. My parents were somewhat offended when the adoption agency asked if they had a preference for race, etc. They wanted kids, not specific kids. As expected, my brother and I have fairly diverse genealogies: basically we look nothing alike but are very close in age. They explained to us that we were adopted before we even understood so that we wouldn’t feel like we were weird or different. (I mean, later we found out we were weird and different but not in a particularly bad way...) Growing up in a family where there are no blood ties creates a certain way of experiencing the world. I feel like the world is one big family. I know that may sound like some love-cult blather but truly, we are all one family. I want to love my family which means loving everyone I meet, considering everyone a friend/ family member before I know them.

How do you feel about people who can't laugh from the stomach, and do they exclusively populate certain sections of the music industry?

Aw. Uninhibited laughter happens when shelving any care about what anyone else thinks. I feel lucky I am willing and able to be free. It seems arduous for some folks in light of their upbringing or basic makeup. I once dated a man who could not physically cry. He was trapped inside himself. He said the thing he most wanted to do was to be able to cry. I believe the releases we allow ourselves are keys to our serenity. Laughing is a natural antidepressant, as is crying. I am so grateful I am able to do a lot of both. I can’t wait to laugh continuously next time we hang out. And probably also cry.

Describe your relationship to New York City

My first memories were of taking the train into NYC in the 70s. The subway cars were completely covered in graffiti. Everything was covered in writing and it felt so grimy in such a comforting way. In the 80s I’d take the train in to see hardcore matinees at CBGBs or Siouxsie And The Banshees on the Piers. By this point, the graffiti had developed into finessed high art. It all felt like total freedom and uninhibited expression. In the 90s I moved there and have lived there ever since.

It’s still a great place to walk aimlessly. Where there are neighbourhoods, there is so much personality to be found. Sometimes visitors interpret New Yorkers to be rude but I find the city to be as friendly as you are to it. For me, the calibre of the musicians who live in NYC is immeasurable. We all call on each other to play on records, live shows, help compose TV themes, processional music, etc. It feels like living in an encyclopaedia of music and music history. There is so much music to be found in the sounds of the city as well. Recently when it was raining, there was an incredibly squeaky bus windshield wiper that was screeching out a determined three against the four of an Iranian rapper emanating from the car in front of it. I recorded it and still listen to it in awe. There are so many raindrops on the new record. I recorded all the vocals and strings at my home studio. There was no way to mute the sound of the rain on one unreachable part of my windowsill so I just gave in. The rain was part of the music. But of course it was.

Your lyrics feel so unforced, free and natural, so particular to you. Do you feel free when you write songs?

I usually loop the track, record and sing nonsense over it until it turns into something that reflects the emotion or storyline in me. It’s how I find out how I’m feeling. I take the pressure off and just start singing aimlessly and then all of a sudden there it is. The words, the phrasing, the rhythm. It just takes time it takes. If I have some idea of how long something ‘should; take to write, this idea will be quickly and assuredly readjusted. The lyrics show up when they want so I’ve learned I have to get on the slow boat and enjoy the scenery.

How is it that you love glasses as much as I do. From whence does thine appreciation of design spring forth?

I loved a unique frame before I needed glasses and then whence I became semi-blind, I embraced the fact that I could place a crazy shape on my face and be ready for anything. It was like finding the jumpsuit. One-stop shopping. Doesn’t really matter what you wear if you’ve got a good pair of frames. I assume my obsession started with Run-D.M.C. rocking the Cazals. But I also could never get enough of Miles’ insane 80s stylings, Grace Jones and Yves Saint Laurent.

Tell me how much you love Julian Barratt and why

I have not the strength nor ability to express the amount of love I have for this creature. How to express the un-expressible? It hurts to even think of it. Do I have lightning bolts at my disposal? Do I have aurora borealis? Let’s start with the fact that the sound of his voice soothes the animal in me (I was so pleased to hear him narrating his partner’s brilliant show Hunderby.) The characters he developed in The Mighty Boosh continue to inspire me (Howard Moon and The Crack Fox in particular). The music he wrote for that show is absolutely brilliant. A couple of Howard’s quotes are part of my daily vernacular: “Faster than a speeding bullet” and “Don’t kill me, I have so much to give”. I am determined to work with him someday.

Tell me about your relationship to syncopation and feel.

I will never forget listening to Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love and Bob Marley And The Wailers’ Exodus as a 10 year old. I had bought them at the goodwill for a quarter each. I knew nothing about the tradition of the blues or of reggae. There was just something about the way the rhythms fit together on these recordings that blew my mind. Later, when I began to play more contemporary classical music like Bartok and Stravinsky, I felt the same way, that rhythm was the key to the universe. I am also not afraid to say that I loved prog rock, especially as a middle-schooler. It’s the best music going for raging pre-pubescent hormones.

When I began to play the violin in bands, I just wanted to take up where John Cale left off; I wanted to make the violin into a rhythm instrument, rather than a pretty top-line melodic instrument. Pouring over the rhythms in a wide variety of musicians, to name a few: Fela, James Brown, Bach, Ellington, Art Blakey, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Oumou Sangaré, James Jamerson, James Gadson, Joni Mitchell, Meshell Ndegeocello, Ravi Shankar, Zakir Hussain, the Bayaka, the Mbuti, and the Batwa Pygmy music from the DRC, Keith Jarrett, Elvin Jones, Mulate Astatke, Kendrick Lamar, I could go on etc. changed my life. I’ll never forget having a complete mind-melt when I joined my friend, Dadi Beaubrun’s, Haitian band. I had learned a piece from him without playing with the rest of the band. It was fairly complex but I had practiced it and felt pretty good about going into rehearsal. If you know anything about Haitian drumming, you know that shit is deep. The drums started up and I couldn’t for the life of me find where I was supposed to enter. The downbeat was in a place I’ve never felt. I just had to laugh and learn the whole song again understanding that I had learned it thinking the downbeat was somewhere it was not. It was like being given directions but skipping the first few turns. It was like having vertigo. This is what rhythm can do: change my whole perspective.

When and how did music discover you?

Honestly I feel like the AM radio that was on in the mornings before we went to school is what started it. They were playing the hits of the time, which, in the ‘70s were some of the best songs ever written and performed; motown, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Earth, Wind & Fire, the BeeGees, Queen, Stevie Wonder, ELO, Chic and on and on. This was the soundtrack to my waking hours.

After I had begun playing violin, I got gotten accepted into the All-State Orchestra as freshman in high school. The conductor was a Mahler fanatic. He had us play Mahler’s second Symphony, ‘The Resurrection’. He empowered us to take the music seriously in a way I don’t think any of us had ever considered. Breathing in unison with 100 instrumentalists creating this piece of music together moved me to the place that I think many people would call ‘God’. I knew then I would make music my life.

How were you able to make my dreams come true in the form of a collaborative record with you and Tony Allen, plus casually sliding in Meshell and Damon?! What the actuals.... answer me that, would you?

You’re cute. We’ve been trying to make something together for so long... it was just that the time was right, the time is now. You know how it happens, stay alive for long enough and we’ll basically get to play with everyone who’s still with us. I remember at the start of the session Tony whispered to me “who’s that guy?” towards you. I said, “that’s Dave, you are going to love him, trust me”. By the time he and I were in the control room listening to you do guitar overdubs, he was saying “that Dave, he’s really good”. We both smiled.

Love you right back. you're so fresh it makes me mad.

The Solution Is Restless, the joint album by Dave Okumu, Joan As Police Woman and Tony Allen, is out now via [PIAS] Recordings. You can stream and purchase it here.

Dave Okumu’s debut solo album KNOPPERZ is also out now, he plays Church Of Sound in London on November 25, and releases KNOPPERZ: Live From Deptford on 3rd Dec