Nubiyan Twist - Freedom Fables (Interview)
Leeds-born and London-based collective Nubiyan Twist are set to release their third album Freedom Fables on 12 March via Strut Records, their second one with the label. Woven around soul searching, cautionary tales and parables for modern life, guitarist and bandleader Tom Excell explains the record's "freedom of expression underpins our belief that music is the ultimate narrative for unity".
The five singles released in the lead up to this album again reinstates their fascination for collaboration with artists both on the rise and already established, with Ego Ella May, Cherise, Soweto Kinch, and K.O.G featuring. It's the afrobeat-highlife hybrid tune with Pat Thomas 'Ma Wonka' that stands out for me as the Ghanian vocalist adds soft vocal textures that sway to the breezy rhythm led by the keys pattern. The chillin' jazz hip hop of 'Morning Light' as well really compliments the vocal style of Ria Moran as the song has a sensual touch to it.
The vast reaches of the group's musical influences spread out over the whole record, with broken beat, hip hop, soul and jazz styles coming through. Nubiyan Twist are certainly one of the best bands to keep the fusion between genres feeling fresh and that's owed to the artists they collaborate with and how they work to integrate their sound with theirs. 'Buckle Up' has a soulful tone to it as Kinch features superbly on alto sax with Nick Richards on vocals, whilst '24-7' has an in the pocket groove with electronic tinges as May's vocals blend it into a neo-soul soother.
One of the standout tracks that will translate best live is the afrobeat stomper 'If I Know' with K.O.G as the group's rhythms swirl around and drive into punchy stabs that will definitely be one of the sweatier tracks to dance to. 'Keeper' and 'Tittle Tattle' follow in the same vein that both features Cherise on vocals as the power of a big band is really felt here with searing horns solos and high energy riding through.
After having their tour for the record cancelled and rescheduled numerous times over the last year, Ben caught up with Tom, Nick and Jonny to chat about their approach to collaboration, working with a big label, their life without touring, struggles in lockdown and their fondest memories of Leeds.
Every song on the new record is a collaboration. Why was it important for the people you're collaborating with to have their own narrative within your record?
Nick - I feel like in the last kind of five years, or maybe the whole kind of life of the band, we slowly kind of found our approach to making music and it's now I feel like we get the most out of collaborating with people and we're getting deeper into that approach. We're working with a wider range of people but also working more within the band also. I sing in the band and Pilo sings also. This album is about really trying to go into each person's narrative in a bit more depth.
And I certainly felt like lyrically writing on this album, it was a bit more explorative and musically, we're writing in a way that really supports that flow and there's been a kind of a collective trust through the relationships that we have with each other. I feel more open in the way that I've expressed myself in the band, and I'm sure people like K.O.G perhaps feels the same way.
We've just really tried to accommodate each person that we're working with. So it doesn't only affect our sound, and the way that we're writing, it really tries to tap into what people communicate in their lyrics.
Jonny - I'd say also beyond that, I definitely feel much more confident, comfortable and excited writing within this project now than ever. I think that the reality is that we've really worked out how, as Nick said, it best works and how tunes can come together and then go through Tom to be developed. And it's been working really, really efficiently.
I know that personally, I found this album to be the thing that sort of motivated me a lot. I've actually taken more solos on this record than I would usually, and I feel much more comfortable doing so. We all just sound so much better than we did five years ago. That's it!
We've all spent a lot of time shredding, a lot of time touring, a lot of time getting to know each other very intimately. What excites a lot of people about the project is the fact that there is a narrative. We are a family, we did come together while we were all young, and we're still going because we love each other.
I think that's a really important part of what a real band narrative needs to be. Otherwise, it's all just a bunch of session players who don't know each other, who might play it extraordinarily well together, but they might not stay together unless they have a particular reason. I think that moves into working towards with all these artists is that we create that nest for them to lay their beautiful eggs in.
Nick - There's a maturity, not only in years but I felt there was a maturity in the core of the group and in the relationships, and that enabled us to really be flexible and accommodate other artists, and we've become really interested in working with different people. I think that only comes from us developing our own skills and our own sound as a core group.
Tom - I think we've been known for our live shows, doing studio work can bring back to the sense of community that Jonny was talking about with how it's a family. I think with collaborating, it's a way of documenting where we're at as musicians and where our scene is at. I feel like we're part of this lineage of music that we're given and collaborating in the studio is a bit of a celebration of that.
Bringing together the wider community spurred the concept of Freedom Fables, and as we were working with more people we kind of developed this idea of celebrating individuals, celebrating unique personalities, and cultural identities and respecting each other's stories. That started to inform the way we finished the album was the concept was kind of born from working with lots of different people.
As a band, we've always been described as bigger than the sum of our parts. I think that's kind of a nice metaphor in a way for our music and for life outside of that together, we can be stronger. There's a lot of divisive natures within technology and media, and we just see music as an ultimate thing to bring people together which is all kind of wrapped up in this idea of storytelling and fables.
Pat Thomas on this album, Mulatu Astatke on the previous album - it seems you like to work with a lot of legendary artists as well as plenty of new artists who are influencing you a lot. What experiences have you cherished with those artists?
Jonny - It's been an absolute unbelievable honour really to play with the absolute godfathers of these musical traditions that have inspired us down many different routes. I don't think that I could have ever dreamt when I listened to the first Mulatu Astatke record that I ever bought at Piccadilly Records when I was studying in Manchester, that I would end up being in the studio with him and him performing on one of our tunes.
It's kind of overwhelming to think back on it now that we're here and where we are. And then obviously the Pat Thomas opportunity as well, I think absolute credit to our record label Strut for sorting out these opportunities for us. I would personally love to do as many tracks as we could with both of those artists!
Tom - Tony Allen was also on our last album and in thinking about working with amazing musicians and valuing that and wanting to be able to carry on their tradition, I think ultimately he is one of my biggest heroes ever. It's nice to pay respects to him as he passed away last year, and he's been such a huge influence.
He's part of our journey from way before the band even started, and having these artists who, quite frankly, aren't going to be around much longer, and them being the originators of these styles, it's going to be something that we'll look back on for the rest of our lives in having them as part of the journey.
Nick - I think having people like Cherise, Ria Moran and Ego Ella May as well, working with singers who are currently in the scene, and having those two kinds of different worlds of people. We're working with our heroes, and then people who are very creative and making music of their own now is amazing!
We did a session not long ago for BBC 6, and we had to get all the tracks done very, very quickly. I think we had Cherise, Ria, K.O.G and Ego one after the other in the studio and it was just an amazing experience. It felt like the band was just really accommodating each singer and I could just feel the band really tapping into each person's vibe and that was amazing.
I think it's an honour to work with your heroes and for them to be interested in your music, but at the same time it's as much of an honour working with people who who are working now and younger, and trust you to kind of help communicate their message.
Tom - The older musicians have got exactly the same attitude as any of the younger musicians too. They've all been so humble and modest, and you just can't even sense age or authority and you're just welcomed into this loving space where we just kind of create as musicians and it's so nice to see that community feeling between the generations.
You've come from funding your first album on Kickstarter to now having the privileges of releasing your second album with a big label - has the move to working with Strut helped you guys produce the music you want to?
Jonny - It's a huge privilege to be part of Strut where every single record that they have put out, I want to be in my collection. I don't know a record label that I have as much sort of trust in the output as I do with Strut.
I think that as a band develops through time, certain things need to change and we were definitely a completely grassroots made band for the first 10 years of our existence. That works to a point but job delegation, reliability and other financial pressures change over periods of time. It's not realistic to necessarily keep up with some things, and there were big teething issues over the first 10 years of our existence, but I think we've kind of met a compromise now where everyone's interests are being met and it's moving away from just everyone doing everything.
Nick - I think it definitely turned some heads. I think on Jungle Run when it was on Strut, it definitely felt like it was going further. And a lot more people were kind of taking interest in doing a lot more kind of interviews and playing further afield. So definitely, I felt like the experience changed the band. And it becomes harder to focus on the music sometimes when you need to start kind of delegating things.
I think having a good label behind you helps to kind of think about how it's going to be marketed and start thinking about your publishing. Quite often what we talk about in the band is just wanting to focus on the music again, like when we were at Leeds! Just wanting to like jam and write music because it just seems like there's so much to do. So having a bit of help along the way is definitely useful.
Tom - I think it's a miracle that we survived 10 years of self-managing and keeping most of the members together! It feels amazing to have a team of people for such a big project because we've driven ourselves quite mad trying to organise touring and getting people from A to B. Joe and Denis have done a ton of that and if the touring isn't hard enough anyway, managing it really is. S
o yes, Strut are amazing. It's nice to get to a stage where we can focus a bit more on just being musicians. And we've definitely had to focus on being musicians in our bedrooms for the last 12 months. Hopefully, by the time we're out of this, we're going to be so ready to just enjoy ourselves and the first few gigs are going to be absolutely off the chain.
Jonny - Joe and I were saying yesterday, it's gonna kind of feel like the first and last gigs of our lives. We've got to give this everything and at the same time, we're like "this is like the first time again".
A significant shout out to Andre who has helped us, he did put out our first record as well and he basically made a record label purely to put our music out on because he was doing bookings for us and he knew that we had material and he really believed in us and wanted to push us forwards. He was going to make more money if he got us more gigs, but the reality is that he believed in our brand and music and everything. He believed in it enough to invest in it.
We'd done like three, four years of gigging almost every weekend off of just two music videos and two singles. Getting to that next point was quite definitive for the band and without Andre's help, I do wonder where we would be at this point.
How's it been not doing any touring? And how do you see the future happening with tours especially now Brexit has happened?
Jonny - I think that realistically you have to play this game day by day, and we've lost our tour three, four times in a row. The other day we got an email through from Joe who does the tour management and is in direct communication with booking agent Andre. We have 30 dates, and there are 15 others potentially to add to the tour too. Knowing that that's there is something to be optimistic about.
Because without being able to play music like that, I descended into depths of depression, because music is our life. It's our affirmation, it's our expression, it's our love, it's our community, it's everything to us. And to not have the opportunity to express ourselves in a group and with each other, or with our loved ones is heartbreaking.
I see that in the distance, and I see it moving towards me rather than moving away. So that's something to look forward to, but with the Brexit situation, I'd say we're in a very lucky position that we already established. New artists are who I fear so badly for, as it's going to be very hard to get abroad now. Whereas before it was those the gigs that make it financially viable.
UK gigs are rubbish, they treat you terribly so I don't know, maybe that's what needs to change. Maybe if this Brexit thing is all about treating ourselves with respect, then that's what needs to change and start treating our own musicians with respect. Because at the moment, we're all so keen to leave to go and work because we're treated like that. So maybe that's the thing that needs to change a little bit as well. Nurturing proper arts funding and hospitality.
Tom - If the funding doesn't come from the government then it's kind of screwed. I've been so anxious that I just have to trust that whatever happens, I will carry on making music and that will definitely happen and the bond that we have as a band after 10 years is strong enough that it will still happen in some way. And that's about as far as I've got, personally.
Nick - I'm worried about how it will affect the scene not just in the UK, but in Europe. I think we were very lucky in starting the band when we did back in like 2010 and doing it in Leeds where it is such a vibrant scene. I just think there are just so many more hurdles now because of Brexit. There already were hurdles, but I think just doing a career as a musician is just not viable.
There's just so much against you all the time. And it's been difficult for us, affects the money that you have and your mental health. We're waiting to see what the financial and the practical implications are of Brexit really but we're very lucky that we've got an album and we're still writing music and got a tour in the book. Will there be other big bands like a 10 piece band coming out now?
Is there anything you've missed during lockdown that you might have taken for granted being in a big band?
Tom - Not specifically from lockdown as such but I mean, the sound and friendship are the things that are exciting about a 10-piece band. It's such a powerful sound and it's a really unique thing, compared to maybe having a three-piece band that can sort of jam a bit. With a 10 piece band, we've ended up constructing these details where everything is like a small cog in a big machine.
And growing up with inspirations like Fela Kuti and big band jazz, and all of these big sounds with loads of musicians is so powerful. And I was lucky enough to go to WOMAD as a kid and see all these massive bands. I challenge anyone to go and see those gigs and not come away saying it was one of the best things they've ever seen. That's always been my buzz of having a big band is when it all comes together, and you're working as a unit, it's just unstoppable.
Jonny - I completely agree. I'd say that one of the really big bonuses of being in a big band, when you tour as viciously as we have done sometimes is that you can kind of pick who your friends are that day! When you've had a bit too much of one person, there are loads of other people for you to go see! Whereas if you're in a four-piece, and you're all pissed off at each other and you've got to spend five hours in a car, and you don't really want to be around any of them, that doesn't sound like fun to me, to be honest.
I grew up in a big family, these two both didn't and for me, it's a big part of my comfort zone in being around lots of people. I definitely naturally occupy that space and enjoy it, and I think that it's something that I have always kind of been looking for a little bit as well as a result of growing up in having a big community of people around which is something that I really enjoy.
So there's no part of this isolation that is really that good for me. I've been in an anxious mess for months, unable to communicate and jam with people and broken down so many times just through being without that part of me. I feel like I've kind of forgotten who I am a bit over the last year, and I can't wait to try and find out who that is again.
Nick - Yeah it's so important for our functioning and who we are as humans. I need to see these people. I need to play with them. And I can't describe what that feeling is really. You need that connection to kind of lift your spirits and feel alive.
I think being in the massive band it sometimes feels like when we're composing something, and we're thinking about how we're going to arrange it we can accommodate a lot of different things. There's so much we can do just in a horns section. It's almost like having an orchestra, and the trick is being able to arrange properly for it. There's a lot of depth to a project like that but there's also a lot of discipline, and I think it's taken us quite a long time to learn how to play as a big band.
Jonny - I think there's so much more to learn as well. That's the thing that's most inspiring to me is the fact that I hear sounds and I can't wait for us to do that. Me and Tom quite routinely will call each other about something that we're both really excited about doing within the band, and be like "oh yeah, for the live show, we've got to do this".
I just can't wait to make all of those things a reality someday. Sometimes that's represented on the record, and sometimes it's lost because we can't do some crazy shit on the record because it's not a live record. Some things are not palatable on the record in the same way I think.
Tom - This is like the opposite problem a lot of bands have, where they can't recreate something live that they can on the record because they don't have all the members. We have stuff live that's too mental to be on a record! Hopefully, we'll have the chance on 30th March with our planned album launch to rebirth all of our bodies back on stage.
Finally, you all met studying in Leeds so what are your best memories of the city, music or non-music related?
Jonny - House parties in basements! I remember our mate used to have a dub sound system in his basement and he made it himself. We just used to go around there and have parties, and it was the best thing ever.
Tom - Subdub! The West Indian Centre has to be mentioned as a place with very fond memories with Sub Dub nights there - it was quitw formative stuff for us all I think.
Nick - When we were at Leeds College of Music where we're all just kind of creating music, and then you could just go to The Wardrobe and gig it that night or Sela Bar or any of the many venues and just compose something that day and then playing it that evening. That was amazing. That's why I moved back to Leeds because I loved it so much!
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