Interview: Richard Blair – Sidestepper (March 2016)

Back in 2009 there was a big music conference like Womex in Bogotà. There I met a guy called Bernard Batzen, who was also Mano Negra and Manu Chao’s manager – an experienced statesman in the world music sphere. He had travelled to Bogotà, participated in the conference, and then came round for lunch. I asked him, “how long do you think this Western European interest in Colombian music is going to last?”  I asked this because in those years people were starting to come to Colombia looking for local music, but I was slightly cynical about the permanence of the political change in Columbia. “What do you mean how long is it gonna last?” He responded. “That’s it. Colombia is on the map now!” And he was right. Seven years on and people are still coming to Colombia for its music.

Those were the words of Richard Blair, British-born Colombian-based founder of Sidestepper. If Colombia is truly on the musical map then some of the credit is due to him. The musician, producer, sound engineer and DJ is one of the most important movers and shakers in the Latin music scene of the last twenty years. He contributed to changing the sound and perspective of dozens of musicians, helping them rediscover their roots and bring them into the 21st century. We caught up with Richard via phone in Bogotà for an interview about Colombian music, Sidestepper and his future projects.

We began by asking him what had happened during the last eight years while Sidestepper took some time off.

“We got dropped by Palm Pictures in 2008 and wondered if we were going to continue or not. We weren’t really happy with the last studio album [titled Continental]. I can see now that there were good things on it, but it wasn’t well executed. So we spent a period thinking how to carry on and publish a new album. We figured out that if we wanted to do it we must take a leap forward. In the beginning it didn’t work out too well because we were only meeting every two weeks. I would do some editing, then when that didn’t work I would ask the musicians to come back again. A whole month would pass and we’d still be talking about one guitar track on one tune. If you look at all the things we did, all the drum tracks, beats, writing, lyrics, vocal takes, mixing, etc. it took a long, long time. Finally we finished it about one and a half years ago. But when we went to Real World they had very tight schedules, like every record company, so it wasn’t easy for us to fit into that. The album came out in January, but actually it had been ready since last year”.

Since its release Supernatural Love enjoyed a great reception from European and American audiences and critics (Rhythm Passport also applauded the album few weeks ago). But we wondered if that was the same in Colombia, the homeland of the characteristic Sidestepper sound and original inspiration.

“That’s right, the album is going really well. Western trade and mainstream press reacted really well to it: lovely reviews as we had here in Colombia. Here it is slowly catching fire, because when we were ready to publish it we did some interviews and the press started talking about us. We were sort of preparing the territory, because Supernatural Love has a new sound compared to what we were doing in the past and made us successful.

The real test came few days ago, when we played at a big Festival in Bogotà called Stereo Picnic. That’s a big Western festival with Snoop Dogg, Florence and the Machine, The Flaming Lips as headliners. The organisers also put on some local bands and we played at 7 in the evening on the second stage. It was sort of a new public for us, because they’re all kids, 25 and under, but it went really well. The press and media said that we proved ourselves again because we didn’t just play the hits, which was they were expecting to hear, but we played new songs too. So I think it’s going to be fine, but it’ll take a little while. For a lot of people it’s a very new and radical sound, but it’s also a new development. We are trying to do our things within the context and size we are still, but just trying to offer a different sound”.

Instead of projecting themselves towards the future, Sidestepper made a revolutionary choice and looked at the past, looking for inspiration to the roots of Colombian sound and its most unadulterated expressions.

“We wanted to reconnect ourselves with the origins of Colombian music, to musicians like Toto la Moposina or Petrona Martinez or the very ancient call-and-response vocal music with drums from all over the world, from La Reunion, India or whenever. It’s is weird for me because I was that kind of white middle class London boy who thought that I’d never have access to that. But then we just got to a point that was close enough to try. So I started to write, and it came the first song, which was ‘Fuego Que Te Llama’. Not all of the writing on the record is of that kind, but we realised that yes, we could do this!”

So we asked Richard if there was a particular revelation that had pushed him and Sidestepper to change direction.

I think I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years, but I didn’t know how. I remember when I locked myself in a room at Real World in 1992 with some hand drum loops that I’d recorded with Toto La Momposina’s band. Trying to make… Well, actually I don’t know what I was trying to make. I had no idea what I was doing! That’s why it has taken this long.

There’s a moment on the record, the first part of ‘La Flo Y La Voz’, which is just vocals and drums. There was a whole arrangement there with a bass line and guitar part, but in the final mix I turned it all off and listened to just the voice and drum – and there it was! It’s almost what we did throughout all the work because we realised that none of that was necessary and that the melody and the beat were enough. I suppose it was a sort of maturity to be able to do that. We have a friend here, who’s a trombone player and played with all the great salsa people in the 1970s and he’s in his sixties. He says that everything a musician does before his 40s is just practice. That is kind of the opposite of our pop culture, but I feel that we’re making better music now than we ever have done.

Even though not all Sidestepper musicians are yet in their 40s, everyone in the band welcomed and supported the new sound.

“I think this was a chance for everybody, especially the younger members of the band. I was able to produce them and get something from them that they perhaps wouldn’t have done in their own projects or with other bands. In the process I learnt a great deal from Teto [Ernesto “Teto” Ocampo, player Sidestepper’s guitarist], and he kind of produced me. I’m talking about modal music and how to play it. You have to understand it. I also understood that being a musician doesn’t start when you pick up the instrument, but long before that – what you eat, what you think even. Érika [Muñoz, Sidestepper’s singer] was a fantastic source of poetry, and the production was also about the wonderful sound she makes, because she’s a fantastic singer. She also inspired me to sing. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think there would be any of my vocals on the record.

We all kind of helped each other. We had to do each thing many times. Every drum and guitar part, each vocal and lyric, was repeated until we got it right, until we reached a spiritual place where everybody could feel comfortable. I think the younger people especially are proud of being in the band. They are proud of the sound and being pioneers, even if it feels sometimes that we are going against the flow”.

Going against the flow has helped Sidestepper become one of the most inspiring Colombian ensembles. But how much has the flow has changed since Sidestepper first changed the steps?

“The Colombian music scene has changed massively, but I can see a thread. When I first got here I didn’t know too much about it. I came here with Toto la Momposina’s record [Candela Viva which was produced by Richard] under my arm and it was so unfashionable. You could get arrested playing that kind of music in Colombia! It was a bit like folk music in England 25 years ago: all woolly jumpers and cider… oh dear. I quickly became aware that I was sort of playing the gringo card and everything that a gringo turned up with must be good. So I confused a lot of people. They were asking themselves: ‘Why does it have to be this folk?’ and ‘What’s so good about that?’ But other people got it immediately and it sort of kick-started what we are now.

There was a time, maybe eight or ten years ago when traditional music was the dominant thing here. Every group had to have a hand drum, maraca and gaita. But today is different, because the bands that came after us tracked it down. Bands like Bomba Estero and Systema Solar took the sound somewhere else. This was one of the things that a journalist said about our show at Stereo Picnic. It wasn’t just a nostalgia thing about the group that kick-started the movement, but we were taking it to a new place with the same old vitality. To go back to the question, yes the scene has changed massively. The very fact that there’s a festival like Stereo Picninc is an enormous change. No-one came here at all 15 years ago. There were no gigs. But in the last few years we have had everybody from Paul McCartney to The Rolling Stones, Madonna  – and the list goes on”.

The music scene isn’t the only thing that has changed for the better in Colombia.

“Things have finally evolved in Colombia. If we think about war for example, it has finally calmed down a great deal. Colombia has become a lot safer and there’s more travelling here. These things are like a snowball effect: they feed of each other. As a matter of fact, today I go out of my house here in La Candelaria and every single block has a hostel full of tourists. When I came here 20 years ago I felt like the only one. There were no hostels, nobody came here, there were no tourists. The end of the war created a lot of confidence, relations and contacts. Having internet is one thing, but having people here is something different”.

Richard is really optimistic about Colombia and its music scene and his confidence in the future leaks out through his words.

“These are really healthy times, and we are just seeing the beginning of what is going to happen next. The next generation of Colombian musicians is the one we need to watch. They are the rebellious, creative and hippy-minded, especially young artists from El Chocó, the Pacific coast and La Costa Atlántica. Bogotá is still a megacity, where everybody comes to share ideas. That is something that has never happened before. So the music here is really a melting pot. But when the new sounds start coming directly from the Caribbean and El Chocó, that’s when things will start getting interesting. Some of these new acts such as Herencia de Tembiquí are already touring. They are from the El Chocó region and play drum, bass and guitar. That’s one of the most interesting tendencies. There are bands still playing folkloric instruments but also bringing bass, drums and funky guitars. Another example is Triu Baru which play a sort of champeta”.

Richard’s positive approach is also reflected in the way he describes his plans for the future.

We have already started making the next Sidestepper album. Hopefully, it won’t take us another five years! Actually, I’m listening to a lot of old vinyl from Guinea and Congo. Mostly I’ve been listening to the thing that is taking up most of my time apart of Sidestepper. There’s a guy called Elkin Robinson from Providencia, a tiny Columbian island off the coast of Nicaragua where people speak a kind of English creole. I was there over Christmas writing songs with him and we developed such a close partnership. I feel the songs we wrote together deeply. Some of those songs are also going to be part of Sidestepper’s next album.

Then we are doing a lot of work on the Sidestepper’s shows, making new beats and new arrangements for all the tunes. Sidestepper is becoming closer to becoming a full time thing. We will start our European tour in France at a Festival in Vitry [Vitry-sur-Seine] on the 10th of June. Then there’s Glastonbury on the 24th, after that Tropical Pressure in Cornwall, Larmer Tree and one or two more, but they still have to be confirmed”.

In few words…plenty of chances to go to see Sidestepper playing.