Interview: Nubiyan Twist (July 2016)

One of the most exciting names on the UK music scene is also one of its most indefinable and difficult to pigeonhole. That’s because the musical ‘dirty’ dozen Nubiyan Twist (in honour of its front woman) dislikes definitions, labels or borders. The band, originally from Leeds, London, Oxford and Dublin (as you can see, even the origin is quite confusing), simply loves to play together today, as in 2011, when they first met between desks at Leeds College of Music.

A few days ago (and a few days after their overseas gig in Germany) we sat together with a “quarter” of Nubiyan Twist: Nubiya, Denis (tenor sax) and Luke (bassist), chatting about the group’s past, present and future.

Our interview began in Leeds College of Music because, as Nubiya said: “The majority of us went to Leeds College of Music. We were attending completely different courses but we were all part of the same social group. We were quite together but separate at the same time. The project eventually started when I met Tom [Excell, guitar] in 2011. He missed the first two weeks of Uni, so everybody called him Mysterious Tom. When we met, we really got along well. We were talking about music all the time, so it was natural to form a band.

The initial nucleus of Nubiyan Twist comprised myself, Tom and Joe [Henwood, sax baritone]. We really had no direction at that time. We recorded our first little song in our bedroom, but had no idea what kind of music we’d like to play. For example, I was more into writing lyrics and poetry than music. I had no ideas about arranging a song or working on music with a laptop. I’d also never been in a studio until that point. So I did the best of my ability over Tom’s beats. Then Joe included a lot of solos and then that rehearsal that accidentally happened, accidentally turned into a project too.”

So what was the glue which stuck the band together and has cemented it?

I think it was the fact that we were close. We had a strong bond with each other and that’s one of the facts that keeps us going. We have this general appreciation of each other. We aren’t only members of the same band, but also friends”.

We then asked Denis how the project developed during these years and why they took four years to release a debut album.  “Yes, we released our first album only last year, but all the material comes from a long way back. There are some songs which we wrote for university courses or even college projects. I think the first album for every band is an accumulation of works written and performed over years and years. Then, when you record the one after that, you have to put that much time into a one-year spell rather than three or more years”.

So why does their latest EP (published by Wormfood) sound different from their debut work?

According to Nubiya: “A few things happened during the process of making the album. But for me it was mainly because Oliver [Cadman], who’s our keyboard player, changed the dynamic of how we record live stuff. He brought a nice soulful vibe. He also brought some jazz to it, which we’re all familiar with. Then, since we are a little older, our tastes have changed and we’re becoming more focused on what we like and don’t like to play. Everybody plays as an individual and you’re always influenced by the things you listen to around you. So similar things change the dynamics of a band.

Denis added, “Everybody in the band has grown up. As we said, we wrote some of our first album tracks when we were freshers at university. Now many of the band members are trying to make a living from music. Everyone has grown up as a musician too: we have evolved and the sound of the band has evolved consequently. I’m sure that you’ll have the same questions for our next release, because it will inevitably sound different. There are too many brains in the band to sound constant.

In fact, one fact that always amazed us about Nubiyan Twist is their formation: twelve musicians playing together, who get along well. That’s why we felt the need to ask them to explain how their balance works.

Nubiya answered naturally: “It’s only complicated when the song finished and then, if we are rehashing, or we got the song right or everybody is coming out saying they got a slightly different idea about how it should unfold. That’s the only time when it’s complicated. But we usually appreciate other ideas and other people’s solutions. To be honest, I don’t have an idea how it’s worked all this time: it’s a kind of miracle.

Luke instinctively agreed: “Definitely, all the ideas flow together and we trust each others tastes.” Denis added: “We respect each other as musicians and trust what we bring to the table. Even if in the beginning it can sound a little weird, we trust everyone else’s judgement. Because even if you’re not present at a session, you know that everything will work.

Their recent German performance at Fusion Festival in Germany was Nubiyan Twist’s first gig abroad. It was unavoidable to ask the musicians what they felt playing there and Denis affirmed: “We haven’t quite started touring Europe, that’s our next step: to become more European and spread our music outside the UK. We know that our music will be well received in Europe, we just have to go there and play. So our next step is to tour and find dates in Spain, France, Germany…

As a matter of fact, over the years, Nubiyan Twist have extensively travelled and performed in the UK, building quite a following in every city they’ve played. We wondered if there was a favourite stage where they played and what was the most memorable concert they had…

Luke took no time to answer: “Probably Leeds

Something Nubiya agreed with. “Yes definitely, I like Leeds. We had some really good gigs there. We always played at the right place at the right time. London is like a girlfriend you have to impress. When she’s in a good mood on a good day everything is cool, but if she’s in a bad mood you’re in the doghouse.”

Surprisingly, in my opinion, the best gig we had was supporting the Brand New Heavies in Scarborough, which is one of those places where your mum takes you to stick a rock and you look out there and think: ‘is this all there is?’ That’s what growing up as a northern child is like. We went there to play in this huge, really old venue [The Spa], which I love. It’s like a 1950’s ballroom and we played such a good set… despite the fact no one usually wants to watch the support act – especially if there are big groups – everybody was like ‘you guys were amazing!’ That was lovely, because it was kind of an older generation of people and maybe some of them had lost the idea that there are bands out there which are alternative but still stick to the old school.

Alternative, but still, stick to the old school was the nth definition we listened to and read about Nubiyan Twist. Since we couldn’t and still can’t find a solution to that enigma, we decided to settle things once and for all and asked the group how they’d describe the project…

Denis tried to answer first: “You know, it happens to us a lot that our PRs ask us to write down a short synopsis about the band, like when we have to play in a new venue. We have come out with a few of them. Because you start to write and you end up naming every genre. All I can say is that it changes, because we change. In the first album, for example, we were more afrobeat, while in this EP, we are more neo-soul but also ska. We normally say dub, afrobeat, hip-hop and jazz. But it also depends on the track.

Nubiya added: “It’s been quite funny, because we got a couple of messages from people asking why we call ourselves Nubiyan Twist even if we’re white guys from Leeds or we don’t play Nubiyan music. That’s simply hilarious, because sometimes we find a crazy way to answer these messages. Denis once said: ‘the Beatles weren’t actually insects’. So no, we don’t play south Sudanese music. We’re called Nubiyan because my name is Nubiya.

Denis, diplomatically, concluded: “Maybe we should have spent more time thinking about the name…

Hoping to understand which way the band would go, we asked what they were listening to, which only clouded the issue:

I’m really into Tigran [Hamasyan] at the moment,” said Luke. “He’s a great piano player from Armenia who plays a kind of jazz mixed with Armenian folk music. I saw him playing with an oud player called Dhafer Youssef from Tunisia. Tigran kind of stole the show because he was amazing.

Does this mean Nubiyan Twist are changing their direction again, looking towards Caucasian music for the next record? Joking aside, we wanted to close our interview asking about Nubiyan Twist’s future and Denis revealed…

We’ve already prepared some new tunes. Actually, I can say that there’s a new album ready to go. We also have a live video coming out soon which was recorded during our gig at the Jazz Café in London. We are looking forward to it because we haven’t got any live footage and we want to fill that gap. Hopefully, there’s also a video clip of a song coming out in the next two months, but we still don’t know if it’ll be from our latest EP or a new single. What I can say about it is that it’s going to sound different from the songs we have published. There’s even some garage in it. Finally, as I said before, we want to become more international, because if I think about the UK, we’ve played more or less every venue on my list.

We here at Rhythm Passport will be looking to support them in every country they play (starting from their upcoming gig at Battersea Arts Centre part of Borderless on the 24th of August), even if we still fail to find a concise way to describe them. With all its musical ability, tastes and influences, the band are one of the embodiments of the current UK scene.


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