An Eternal Education: An Interview With The Heliocentrics

Jake Ferguson and Malcolm Catto of The Heliocentrics tell John Freeman how the band's second album and one of the Quietus favourites of the year so far, 13 Degrees Of Reality, was inspired by two legendary pioneers of jazz

Back in 2007, The Heliocentrics released their extraordinary debut album Out There. In it, the London collective successfully wove a kaleidoscopic tapestry of proto-funk, psychedelic jazz, simmering hip hop vibes and just a hint of krautrock. Six years on and its album follow-up, 13 Degrees Of Reality, adds further magic to the mix. It positively bubbles with life, adding Latin swing, Afro beats and Oriental shimmer to their hallucinatory jams. It’s a record borne out of a constant desire to explore, honed via a set of recent collaborations that would prove pivotal in the development of The Heliocentrics.

It’s the impact of these collaborations that form the initial topic of conversation when the Quietus speaks with bassist Jake Ferguson and drummer Malcolm Catto over a rickety Skype video link. The two friends are the constants in The Heliocentrics’ ever-changing ensemble, and are currently silhouetted against an East London skyline on my computer screen.

The pair talk fondly of the array of projects that have filled their time since 2007. The Heliocentrics worked with legendary Ethiopian jazz musician Mulatu Astatke on his 2009 (and first in 40 years) album, Inspiration Information, and have also recorded with Oriental jazz pioneer, Lloyd Miller. Both men are in their 70s, proof that The Heliocentrics aren’t simply concerned with associating themselves with hip young dudes.

In fact, more than anything The Heliocentrics seem hell-bent on pushing themselves as musicians (Malcolm describes their first practice session with Miller as "mind-blowing"). 13 Degrees Of Reality is a triumphant testament to an ongoing desire to absorb a myriad of influences and morph their sound into fascinating back alleys. [It’s also just found its way into the Quietus’ favourite albums of 2013 to dateEd] Amid the white noise of a thousand busy buzz bands, The Heliocentrics old-school commitment to their art is as precious as their music is magnificent.

Heliocentrics – Collateral Damage from Now-Again on Vimeo.

I’d like to start by asking about the key collaborations you’ve undertaken in the last few years. You worked with Mulatu Astatke on Inspiration Information and subsequently toured with him. How was the experience?

Jake Ferguson: As a band we realised it was a big opportunity. We knew the stuff that he’d done, but you only really get to know someone’s music when you play with them. The way that he was able to communicate what his sound was all about and then for him to mix that with people who were coming from a totally different culture was amazing. You’ve heard the result – the album is a really interesting blend. The good thing about it was that it was a true collaboration. It wasn’t him dictating. We learned a lot from it and hopefully he learned something from us.

What did you learn from him?

JF: For me, it was about the rhythm of Ethiopian music; you have to feel it, you almost have to dance it while you are playing it.

Did you ever play a show with him in Ethiopia?

JF: No, we never had the opportunity to play in Ethiopia, but if someone can make that happen, we are only a Skype call away.

I believe your collaboration with Lloyd Miller had an even bigger impact on 13 Degrees Of Reality. How did you come to work with him?

Malcolm Catto: We met through Jazzman Gerald, who wanted us to back Lloyd Miller on a 12″ for his label. We aren’t jazz players but we can have a go at freestyle. We went into the session with Lloyd and he said ‘I want this to be [like] Miles Davis in 1960. I want a drum solo in five and then go to seven’. It was mind-blowing. We were flummoxed, as it was way beyond what we could do. He’s in his late 70s and he’s as sharp as you like. That session was like a jazz boot camp for us, but Jake and I cottoned on pretty quickly that the guy was a musical genius.

JF: Lloyd, for me, is probably one of the top ten most interesting people I have met. You realise you can only learn a tiny fragment of music and there are some people, depending on how their brain works, who can learn 10,000 times quicker than you can. The great thing about Lloyd is that he can play over a hundred instruments – and not just a chord, he can play them to classical standard. He is unbelievable. Lloyd was Mr. First Take – he would come into the room, listen to something we had done and then turn the track as if it was his own and he’d written it. He was so eloquent in all forms of musical expression. It’s amazing he is not better known and more respected – as a musical person he is incredible.

MC: He had that true virtuoso musician thing, where he can draw you into his world. Mulatu had that too; they have music in their blood.

Is there a sense that musicians like Lloyd and Mulatu never stop wanting to learn?

JF: Completely. Mulatu was interesting because he wanted to represent Ethiopian culture but was also totally amazed by American jazz. He wanted to be a jazz musician and still does. That’s what makes great musicians; they never stop learning. Lloyd is also someone who teaches but also wants to learn.

So, if Lloyd inspired you to be more ‘in the moment’, how did this influence the recording of your new album?

JF: Our best stuff comes – and I hate to say it – when everyone is in the zone and is respecting every other fellow band member’s musicality and also giving themselves up to the common core. That common core can throw up new ideas. On the album, there are whole tracks where one of us will slightly change the key or change the rhythm pattern and we will follow it without even thinking. Those moments are gold dust. It didn’t mean we jammed endlessly for hours and hours but, as a form of writing, it was hard to sit down and try and plan.

The album is wonderful and pays no heed to traditional song structure. How much do you think about commercial appeal versus your obvious desire to experiment?

JF: We’ve had this conversation with ourselves many times. We come back to the central core of the band, in that we want to make a song as good as we can get it, regardless of the listener, and that it would be something we would buy ourselves. That’s not to say we don’t appreciate commerciality and the need to create products that can be sold, but it is never the money that drives us. With this album, we are trying to weave a story together from a range of different musical pieces. Some of those are quite heavy and rhythmic and there are others that are quite gentle and poetic even. We wanted to do something that was challenging us as musicians to create different atmospheres that we were really happy with. The album is a challenging listen for people – we won’t pretend it is an easy ride – but if you listen to it from start to finish, then you will appreciate it more.

MC: We are always listening out for new inspiration, so, in some ways, we are both the listeners and the music-makers. We are making music we want to hear, which comes from our influences. The music would make perfect sense to people who have heard what we have heard. It’s experimental but, personally, I’d like to think it is interesting.

I believe you may have another release later in the year – an electronic album with actor/director Melvin Van Peebles. What can you tell me about it?

JF: It’s probably our most exciting piece of music yet, where the music and Melvin’s voice come together. Melvin is such a character; he’s had such an interesting life and it shows in what he is saying. Melvin created a really good story – we won’t say too much about it – and put it to some music we had done. It’s more electronic and quite experimental. It’s almost a piece of musical theatre and will make for an interesting album.

Going back to 13 Degrees Of Reality, the album begins with a piece of music incorporating spoken word samples from George Bush and Malcolm X. What was your thinking behind such a powerful opening statement?

JF: With this album we wanted to give people a little taste of where we are coming from. We live in a world we don’t control. There are people out there, unfortunately, who do control us – the American government is pretty good at that. There are certain voices that are synonymous with that and George Bush is one of them.

MC: We are predominantly an instrumental group and in the absence of a vocalist we needed something to put across how we were feeling and represented what was going on around us. The album does, for us, reflect the mood of the moment. Luckily, we have got a platform to say something. We have always wanted to have a singer or a poet, someone who would tackle those issues. We haven’t as yet found that person, so we are restricted.

Are you open to suggestions? I’m thinking Mark E. Smith. Now that would be another epic collaboration.

JF: We’d love to work with Mark E. Smith. Our record collection is full of The Fall. So, if you know someone who knows him…

The Heliocentrics’ 13 Degrees Of Reality is out now via Now-Again Records

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