Interview: Q&A with Soothsayers – 21st century London Traditional Sound (July 2018)

Since the birth of Rhythm Passport, Soothsayers have been a constant for us and our speakers, as much as they’ve been a constant of the London music scene of the last two decades.

We have enjoyed, spread the word about and covered their gigs; reveled in and reviewed their releases; loved and featured their singles and videos. So it was pretty straightforward for us to put together a Q&A interview to introduce their new album Tradition and celebrate their 20th anniversary.

Tradition is your seventh album, and also celebrates your 20th birthday. In times when bands hardly get as far as the second LP, how do you feel to have reached such an accomplishment and what’s the secret of Soothsayers’ longevity?

It’s not easy running a band and keeping it together for so many years, but the love of the music we play and of the people we play it with keeps us going. Also, the consistent feedback from audiences who turn out regularly to support us has kept reminding us that what we do is valued and needed. Although it is sometimes difficult finding the energy to battle the capitalist forces that make it hard to be a creative person in the modern world, the music sustains and nourishes us spiritually, and we always find a reason and a need to continue with our musical journey. We have constantly challenged ourselves over the years and we are still pushing ourselves to find new ways of expressing what we need to express, and as long as we continue to learn and develop, we will continue to be creative.

If you are making music in a way that feels relevant and an honest reflection of how you feel, then it makes it easier to progress and continue. Most of our records have been released independently but we have been really lucky to work with Wah Wah 45s on Tradition, as they have allowed us to continue and have supported that independent spirit.

There are surely too many things that have happened and changed in your music career since your debut, but if you had to mention the most significant one or two, what would you choose?

The internet has changed everything. The bottom fell out of the record business when it became possible to listen to music free on the internet, and this unfortunately roughly coincided with our entry into the record business. But we have survived by focussing our energy on touring and keeping a busy gigging schedule, as well as putting out releases on our own label, as well as partnering with independent labels (Strut and Wah Wah 45s) that care about the integrity of the music. The positive result of this is that it has allowed us much more artistic control than we otherwise would have had if we’d been signed to a big label at the beginning of our career, and I think it’s another reason why we are still together.

The renewed interest in vinyl has also been significant. It’s more satisfying to produce vinyl as the product feels like a better statement than digital music, and it’s something to take into consideration during the recording and production process.

How has your sound changed since Lost City? Has your music growth followed a path or it has always been about intuitions and eureka moments?

Lost City was s largely instrumental album and influenced as much by South African township jazz as reggae and afrobeat. Since then we have experimented with a wide range of styles, recording and production techniques and instrumentation, and our focus has been moving towards songwriting and creating the three-part vocal style which has become a defining feature of our sound. Writing lyrics that express some of how we feel about our world has become increasingly important to us and I think that we have matured considerably as songwriters in the intervening years.

We appreciate and listen to a wide range of music but the initial inspiration that gave rise to Lost City is still strong and present in Tradition, it’s just channelled in a different way. Being both horn players (Idris and Robin) there is a unique perspective and approach to writing music and that has always had an influence over the vocal style and sonics etc.

Let’s talk about your latest release. First of all, I’m curious about why you chose such a strong word as ‘tradition’ as its title and how the album reflects it?

We had been asking ourselves why people grip onto certain habits or customs that, taken in another context, could seem quite strange. The title track on the album is really about how people who feel under threat or pressurized in society grip onto certain things that maybe they’d let go of in other circumstances.

For us, Tradition is not about national identity or specific customs, but about being innovative and creating new music. The musicians that have evidently influenced our sound embodied a tradition of innovation, and that’s something we uphold and strive for ourselves. So, we are always trying to make music that reflects who we are as well as respecting the creative pathways that came before us. Some of the tracks on the album sway more towards a recognized generic root, while others are harder to pigeonhole, not because we specifically tried to get away from any genre, but more because they worked in a musical way that we liked.

Listening to the album, one can say that your sound is becoming even more rarefied and atmospheric. Is it just an impression or something you’re looking for?

There is a certain dreaminess to this album I guess, but I don’t think it’s a conscious decision. We just try to create the music and sound world that we’d like to hear. I think the current album inhabits one of the most coherent sound worlds that we have yet created, but it’s inextricably linked to the particular songs, and the next album may well use very different textures and production techniques.

One of the tracks on the album is a tribute to Rico Rodriguez. In your words, can you explain why he was a significant musician and how did he influence you and your music?

Rico was a unique musician; he embraced the traditions of jazz and African and Jamaican culture and channeled it through his music in a unique and touching way. Rico had a beautiful spirit and a great melodic sensibility in his playing. When we played with Rico it felt like he was in touch and connected us with a spirit and history. Rico was an example of what ingredients were required to make music that really resonates with people and has cultural significance and therefore longevity.

Social and even political themes are always at the core of your songwriting. Do you feel that music has still a conscious grip on people?

Music is still something that can evoke a powerful, emotional response in an audience and although record companies and mainstream media outlets have become increasingly wary of giving music with a political message a platform, music can still play a very big part in social and political change. We feel it is, more than ever, important to comment on some of the injustices in this world, and we have found that our audiences can be united and moved to sing along with us about subjects that are important to us. There has always been music that challenges the status quo with or without mainstream support, and we are very happy to be part of this continuing tradition.

As much as you defy style labels and classifications, you’re an integral part of the London music scene. Since you have experienced first-hand its development during the last two decades, what’s your opinion about it? What do you love and what would you change?

The London music scene is wide and diverse, and the beauty of living and working in London as a musician is that you can play with and learn from so many incredible musicians who want to exchange ideas and connect. At the moment, a lot of attention is focussed on the young jazz scene and I love the fact that young audiences are turning out in large numbers to see bands play jazz-influenced music. There’s a lot of fresh energy out there for appreciating live music and there’s a healthy resurgence of interest in all forms of jazz-related music. Since we started, a whole swathe of mid-sized venues in London closed down, but there seems to be a demand for these sorts of venues to return and I’m happy to say that they are again on the increase.

Among the hundreds of musicians, you’ve met in your music journey, is there anyone who has particularly impressed you? And is there anyone, in particular, you would like to suggest to us to listen to?

So many… It’s been such a pleasure working with the diverse range of singers and musicians we’ve been lucky enough to work with. Most of the regular members of Soothsayers also have their own projects that are definitely worth checking out – Kodjovi Kush’s Afrospot, Kishon Khan’s Lokkhi Terra, and Julia Biel have all released albums in the last year. We had a great time working with Little Roy earlier this year and it’s nice to be working with Johnny Clarke again at the moment after many years. But everyone we’ve worked with has brought something different and special to our music.

What are you listening to at the moment? Is there any particular artist/band who has influences Tradition?                                                                                 

No there is not a particular band or album that influences Tradition. The Resonators album (also on Wah Wah 45s) is great and some of the more experimental jazz acts that are coming out of London at the moment – recently we asked Where Pathways Meet to support is at our album launch and they were great. Also, Wu-Lu, another recent collaborator, is putting out some beautiful tunes and smashing it with various live setups.

Twenty years of Soothsayers have just passed by, so what are your plans for the next twenty?

More of the same… We’re going to Brazil in January to record an album with producer Victor Rice. We will be continuing to write/record/tour, and also develop our Youthsayers project; a Brixton based youth ensemble we set up and coach regularly. Also, there are more collaborations on the cards but we can’t say more than that yet.

We have a canonical closing question, which is. how would you introduce Soothsayers to someone who has never listened to your music?

It’s a dance band that delivers a serious message. Think Fela [Kuti] meets King Tubby, plus vocal harmonies and touches of 21st Century jazz. If you can’t imagine it, come